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Many atheist friends of mine (I’m thinking of Dan Fincke in particular, but I’m sure I’ve heard the point other places as well) describe “faith” as being more sure of something than is warranted by the available evidence. It’s not a complement. The thought, as I understand it, is that we should only believe things we have good reason to think are true, and that there’s no good reason to believe God exists. So people who do believe God exists are either making a factual mistake (they think there’s evidence but there isn’t), or otherwise they’re wrong to think we don’t need that evidence. Either way, all theists are being irrational.



Obviously I don’t agree with this in every situation or I wouldn’t be a theist. I believe there are some things it is impossible for us to know from our position in history. We are in some situations like the denizen of Flatland who cannot see a sphere as a sphere because of the limits on his point of view. If you asked such a person whether this sphere was simply a two-dimensional shape like others he’d seen before, or whether it had height in addition to its length and width, there's no way he could answer you. I'm willing to make room for theology by treating some claims made by religion in a similar way, with the caveat that they're not "known" in the way we know math truths or what our senses tell us. But that's a long story to tell, and really requires a dissertation and more to make a decent start on it (with any luck: my dissertation…).

But even I would agree there's many things religions claim that can be verified, and should be. There was a British clergyman (I can't remember the name offhand) who added up the genealogies of the Bible and determined the world was only 6,000 years old. But this is a scientific claim, the kind of fact that our best experimentation and sense-data should be able to give us some evidence whether it's true or not. And, in point of fact, the best geology tells us it's not true. Similarly, there's been a kerfuffle in recent years over the "historical Adam," looking both at genetic variation and at the diversity of languages. What little I have seen of the evidence there (and I'm not a scientist or an expert on this question in particular) seems basically convincing. But even if it's not, this is precisely the kind of thing where a scientific answer exists. Just because I would like for the facts to turn out differently, that doesn't mean they actually will. Nor does it give me license to just disregard them. Reality can be a cruel taskmaster, but I firmly believe it's part of being a good human, that we look at it plainly and face the truth whenever it is possible to do so. My "making room for theology" isn't an attempt to shirk that duty. I was talking about situations where evidence can't help us, where there is no truth to know. In situations like I'm talking about there are facts to consider, and that makes all the difference.

This month's SynchroBlog poses a similar question to participants about the Easter story. Suppose that around 33 A.D. the son of a Jewish carpenter wasn't crucified for claiming he was the Son of God? What would change? I'm enough of a Wesleyan to think I'd take it in stride. I hope so, anyway. Historical facts, like scientific ones, are the kind of things evidence can bear on, which means that to my mind it's at least possible that the historical resurrection never took place. But I hope that I'd approach the situation much like I do the current controversy in evangelical circles about whether all humans are descended from a historical Adam and Eve. That means accepting the fact that the best science (or in this case, history) doesn't bear out the standard interpretation of the historical text, which would mean – assuming the science is accurate – that the standard interpretation is wrong. I'd then begin the hard work of searching for a new interpretation that doesmake sense of the facts. Just because a certain interpretation is the obvious one, or the one that people have held to historically, that doesn't mean it's correct.

And yes, if there wasn't such an interpretation, I'm pretty sure I'd stop counting myself a Christian. Because the Resurrection - and for that matter a single Adam so that "through Adam's fall we sinned all - is bedrock to my religion's theology. God is Truth, and I honestly don't think any God who would have my continued "belief" (out of what? Fear?) is worthy of any worship I could offer. So I'd like to think I could find a way to interpret the Bible, make sense of my religion's theology, even if it turns out the historic event never happened.

We're not there yet. And if someone ever proves to me the Passion Story is all a lie, I do hope I'd be up to the challenge of making sense of that development. In fact, I'd relish the opportunity. In many ways it's precisely the kind of work I'm already doing.

***********************

If you'll allow me to completely switch tracks here, I want to say a bit about a different topic. Thinking about this month's SynchroBlog, I know, it's a bit of a non-sequitur, but stay with me. Even if there was no Easter story, even if humanity was still completely "unjustified" (to use the Christianese term), the idea of heaven and hell as a place where we're justly punished or rewarded for our sins still wouldn't make the first bit of sense. This really deserves it's own post, and I may write more if I find the time later, but for now let me try to explain my thoughts briefly.

Say that every time you do something good we slap a number on it – five for not holding open the door for someone, fifty for using a racial slur in front of an ethnic minority, several thousand off for seeing someone drowning and refusing to help, even when you have the time and can swim perfectly well. The worse your action the higher the number. And then suppose we also tally up the way you were punished for those things at all. We add up all the pain you've caused, and subtract out the punishment you've already suffered. This is what you might call a "justice deficit" – an amount of pain you've caused but haven't been paid back for. This number may be small or it may be large; it may even be infinite, if you've suffered more than you've caused suffering. But it will always be less than infinity.

A lot of people like the idea of heaven and hell because it doesn't let people "get away with" being bad. It eats them up (and me, too) to think of Hitler killing himself at the end of the war before he could be captured. Or of the atrocious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele escaping capture completely, dying a free man in the 1980s. But even people like this would still have incredibly high (but still not infinite) justice deficits. That's because there's only time to do so much damage in a mortal life. Punishing them through an eternity in hell can't help but be overkill, because it will last forever. Anyone sent to hell will have to suffer more than justice requires. Ditto for heaven – no matter how much evil was done to you, no matter how good you were, an eternity in heaven can never be a just response.

If this is the case for the Mengeles of the world, how much more so for the basically decent people who inherited a sinful nature because "in Adam's Fall We Sinned All"? There is literally nothing that I or Mengele or anyone else could do, so they deserved an eternity of torture. We can perhaps make sense of hell in other ways, by thinking about it as the natural consequence of our actions which God can't avoid without doing away with free will. Or by being in heaven but no hell. Or by redefining what "justice" means for God. (My own preferred option.) But if you believe God is locking people away and throwing away the key, and that this is a completely reasonable response to things they did – well, that's just a truly screwed up kind of justice.

Other Synchroblog Posts:

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
marta_bee
Apr. 2nd, 2012 03:05 pm (UTC)
Philosophers have concepts they call primitive beliefs - primitive in the sense of "came first," not in the sense of being barbaric. These are things we all just accept as true without proof (because you have to start somewhere...).

I do think there's a difference between these beliefs and religious beliefs. These are assumptions we're kind of hard-wired to accept, like cause and effect or the idea of past-vs-future. They are the best explanation for phenomena we encounter, and so aren't quite on the level of religious beliefs (which we accept because of revelation but couldn't come up with on our own). Still, I do think many scientists - and particular the ones who think if something ain't science it's nonsense - would do well to acknowledge that there are some things we can't know, and maybe try to work out how we can best approach those things.

Thanks for your thought, btw!
Leah Sophia
Apr. 10th, 2012 08:54 pm (UTC)
resurrection synchroblog...
mild apologies... this was my first time on livejournal in a long time, and I didn't intend to post the previous comment anonymously, so I'm logging in with FB to explain myself. Peace!
Liz Dyer
Apr. 11th, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
interpretation
Marta - you said "Just because a certain interpretation is the obvious one, or the one that people have held to historically, that doesn't mean it's correct." I've noticed that it is very difficult for most people to seriously entertain an interpretation that is different from one they have held for a long time and that most people seek out information to validate what they already believe. It's amazing that we are ever able to recognize when we have gotten it wrong.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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