American Campus Diary: Un-Apologetic

Charles Mackay is a British academic with a visiting fellowship at an elite American university. They are strange places, but through America’s soft power, they tend to spread their strangeness abroad, with English-speaking countries most susceptible. But forewarned is forearmed, so here are your warnings. His previous entries are here, here, herehere and here.


It occurs to me that some of my readers might not have been aware that it’s Easter this weekend. My eromene’s lecturer wished them a restful ‘bank holiday’, telling them that they ‘needed it’. It’s strictly true, of course: everyone needs the Resurrection, and there are bank holidays on Good Friday and Easter Monday. But the implication is that someone credentialed as ‘educated’ by our society was unaware of the occurrence this weekend of the most important feast of her nation’s established religion.

It then occurred to me that some of my readers might not even believe Christianity is correct!

As I celebrated the Triduum, I wondered why this might be, and decided to consider what the strongest argument against the truth of Christianity might be.

Christianity presumes theism, and, given its reliance on Christ’s resurrection, the possibility of miracles. Some people are atheists, and some people believe that extraordinary events don’t occur. Finally, some people don’t believe the central claims of Christianity because they are filed under the box of ‘religious’ claims, and there’s a lot of conflict between claims in the ‘religious’ box, casting general doubt on all its contents. Let’s look at these three weak arguments first, and then I’ll give the strong one.

What’s atheism? It’s a loose disjunction of claims about the origin and purpose of everything there is. Unfortunately it requires one to either refuse to consider certain metaphysical questions, or adopt crazy views as alternatives to any version of theism. Here’s an example: why do physical objects behave with such incredible regularity, all across the universe and throughout time? The ‘laws of physics’ is not an answer: taken literally, it implies theism; but if it’s only a metaphor, it has to be a metaphor for some other answer. The three most plausible atheist answers are that (1) there exist an infinite number of eternal, immaterial objects called ‘universals’ which somehow make those physical objects behave that way; (2) they don’t, it’s all in our heads, and (3) it’s just a fantastic coincidence. I won’t consider why atheism has become so popular in some parts of the world over the last century; I suspect it has to do with a failures on the part of the Church to catechise people properly, and a widespread tendency for people to confuse metaphysical reasoning with institutional resentment.

The belief that resurrections and other ‘miracles’ could never happen is a weird one, too. There’s a famous argument owed to David Hume that reports of ‘violations of the laws of nature’ should never be trusted, because the laws of nature come to be known through many hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence; so we should assign them very high probability; so, the probability that they have been ‘violated’ is much, much lower than the probability that the reporter is mistaken or dishonest; so we should presume the latter.

The most straightforward problem with this argument is that an extraordinary event which ‘violates’ a law of nature does not entail the falsehood of that law. So it could be true that “this extraordinary event occurred” and “the law of nature holds” together: evidence for the truth of either is not evidence for the falsehood of the other.

Another way of putting the argument is to be vague about how our knowledge of the laws of nature makes miracles improbable, and just stipulate that miracles are, by definition, events which have a very, very low prior probability. Then the probability that a reporter is lying will outweigh the probability they are telling the truth about the miracle. But why would a theist accept that miracles have such a low generic probability? (Remember Hume’s argument is being deployed against the Resurrection, not against miracles being used as evidence for theism; we’ve granted theism. So the theist can appeal to God’s existence as a reason for thinking miracles are not extremely improbable.)

Given that we don’t have a good general ‘anti-miracle’ argument against the occurrence of any extraordinary events, we’re going to have to assess whether or not the Resurrection occurred on the basis of the specific historical evidence. Unfortunately, Christians are in a pretty good position here. The short story is that there are a whole bunch of eyewitness accounts, written down pretty soon after the event, in a culture in which the claim was both extraordinary and politically sensitive, so people were motivated to check the evidence at the time. On the other hand, if the Resurrection didn’t happen, we only have fanciful speculation as to the motivations of the early Christians in carrying on the pretense.


LIKE A BOSS. (Piero Della Francesca)

Having disabused ourselves of prejudice against miracles in general, the best route for arguing that the Resurrection did not happen (or that Christianity is false even if it did) will be commitment to some alternative, non-Christian theology.

This raises our third popular argument. If Christianity is true, why are there so many other religions making other claims? Why is there so much disagreement about God, and why is it so intractable?

The short answer is that this situation is exactly what we would expect if Christianity were true. According to Christianity, God is perfecting humans, and human history, in a way which makes humanity part of the solution to its own problems. The Incarnation – a human saves humanity – is the paradigm case of it. But this general strategy means God relies on humans telling and teaching each other about historical events and their significance. As humans make mistakes, the message gets delayed or lost in translation, or is too quiet or unpersuasive, in comparison to some error which has all the volume of a war-horn behind it. God doesn’t simply dump the correct theology in everyone’s head when they reach adulthood, because He wants us actively involved in the process of our getting to know about Him.

Finally, then, the strong argument. We’ve set aside atheism, and the blanket denial of extraordinary events like resurrections. There’s some pretty good evidence that the Resurrection happened. But here’s the thing: Christianity doesn’t just claim that Jesus came back from the dead. It also claims that He’s God’s “Word” made human. The Resurrection, inter alia, is just part of the evidence for this claim. I’ve no space to look at the other sources of evidence here in any depth, but basically they have to do with a consideration of Old Testament prophesies and what it meant for someone to fulfil them.

Instead of lazy scepticism about this other evidence, let’s look for a positive argument against the claim that Jesus is the Incarnate Word: one which could outweigh the evidence for it. Fortunately, some of the early Christians made such an argument themselves: they denied that God had a Word. Theism, they argued, meant that the best Jesus could be was a sort of super-angel, just holy enough to save humans, but no holier. This is called “Arianism”, after its most successful advocate, a songwriter from Alexandria called Arius. Arianism has some critics: it’s hard to prove that God couldn’t have a Word, and hard to prove that God’s Word couldn’t take on a human nature.

It occurs to me now how strange it is that there are so many sceptics about Christianity, but so few Arians. The weak arguments must be persuading a lot of people!


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