Hicks and wiseguys

Ophelia Benson and others are having fun with a survey in _Christianity Today_ asking what are “the most compelling arguments for Christianity”. The choices are

# The exquisiteness of the physical world (6%)
# The reliability of the Scriptures (21%)
# The life and character of Jesus (44%)
# Christianity’s positive influence on culture and individuals (5%)
# The experiences of individuals (10%)
# Something else (13%)

and of course the Pharyngular atheists point out that none of these are arguments for the truth of Christianity. But _of course_ they’re not. Even most Evangelical Christians (79% if we can trust this survey) are smarter than to suppose they are arguments for the _truth_ of Christianity. They are arguments for calling yourself a Christian, for trying to act as you believe a Christian should and all the other things entailed by actually being a Christian, rather than supposing that “Christianity” — whatever that may be — is “literally true” — whatever that might mean. They are all versions of the argument given me by a wicked priest, who said that at an early age “Jesus got me by the bollocks”. That’s not an argument for the truth of his beliefs. It’s a justification for his actions, and one which is both sufficient and entirely comprehensible. _Am Anfang ist der Tat._ For all but a tiny minority of philosophically trained intellectuals, theology is just decoration — primroses round the power station — an attempt to rationalise the principles they try to act on. So the Pharungular strategy of pissing on the primroses, or even digging up the flower beds, isn’t going to affect the actual generating mechanisms at all.

You’d have thought that people who pride themselves on being smart as much as the pharyngular atheists do might be worried by the discovery that nearly 80% of even American Evangelicals know something they don’t. And they might, if they were prepared to notice that this was true. But they are so convinced that all Christians must be ignorant bigoted yahoos that they never will.

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15 Responses to Hicks and wiseguys

  1. Andrew says:

    It’s a wonky survey, though. Assuming you’re a Christian, option 1 is evidence for God the Creator. option 2 is evidence for God’s omniscience, option 3 is I suppose saying either “Jesus was a good man so you ought to follow him” or “Jesus’s life as reported in the bible is evidence that he was the Son of God”, option 4 is saying “things will go better if you follow Jesus”, and option 5 might be saying much the same thing as 4, or might be some sort of appeal to personal revelation as evidence.

    So some of the “arguments for Christianity” are philosophical/theological arguments for the literal truth of Christianity and existence of God, and some are asking the William James question “forget the literal truth, what are the effects of belief?” which sidesteps the question of proofs of existence. Different shades of the word “argument”, as either logical proof or advocacy – it’s a little like asking about arguments for the House of Lords, and coming up with some which prove it exists, and some which prove it is useful.

  2. Robert Nowell says:

    I am reminded of Bradley’s definition of metaphysics as “the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct”. And I am wondering who the wicked priest is…

  3. Mark Vernon says:

    But have you seen today’s survey in “Atheism Now”:http://www.justjoking.com asking what are the most compelling reasons for being an atheist?

    1. The humanising exquisiteness of Bayesian stochastic theory. (5%)
    2. The reliability of Richard Dawkins’ arguments. (35%)
    3. The life and character of Christopher Hitchens. (3%)
    4. Atheism’s positive influence on 20th century political ideologies. (20%)
    5. Because I’m so mature, yeah, so shut up. (43%)
  4. Rupert says:


    These are more than post-hoc primulas designed to make the fast breeder cultic reprocessing plant look nice. They’re what you get thrust down your gullet if you ain’t at all sure about this Christianity business and someone’s trying to persuade you. That’s what annoys the tribe of the Pharyngulites more than anything: in general, they don’t much care what people believe as long as they don’t convert the horses.

    This is horse conversion at work.

    In other news: L and I checked out the Stone of Nigg, a rather fine Pictish rock containing if not the, then one of the first European depictions of the Mass, which is stuck in a hole in a frighteningly remote Presby kirk somewhere north of Inverness. And the Church of Scotland is looking for someone to advise them on science and technology – £35k, Edinburgh based. That would be fun.


  5. jim says:

    But if these aren’t arguments for the truth of Christianity, what are? Christianity makes a bunch of truth claims: the existence of a single god, creator of heaven and earth, who had a son, Jesus Christ (begotten not made), who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried and on the third day rose again, who will come again to judge both the quick and the dead, etc. Christians recite this every Sunday. It’s hard to claim that it’s merely ornamental. Particularly as non-Christians seem to act as well (or as badly) as Christians — so actions really don’t distinguish between them.

  6. H. E. Baber says:

    Well, Pascal’s Wager for example is an argument for the rationality of religious belief rather than an argument for the truth of religious claims. See “Pragmatic Arguments for Belief in God” in SEP at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pragmatic-belief-god/.

    I can tell you why I’m a Christian–to the extent that I am. I just plain enjoy cult and myth as such. I got into religion in my teens because I was interested in mysticism–looking for what I thought of as “metaphysical thrills.” Religion doesn’t make any difference to my life otherwise though. I don’t buy the ethics: ethics is a purely secular enterprise. The theology interests me–the Trinity puzzle is one of my professional specialties on which I publish. But I don’t think anything hangs on whether we get the theology right or not–any more than anything hangs on whether we get it right about the Problem of Universals.

    I just plain enjoy religion. Why is that so odd?

  7. Pete Carlton says:

    The thing is, what I and most of “my tribe” mean by “Christianity” is precisely that, the status of its truth claims. What you are saying is that the sophisticates know it’s not true, but are asking us not to spoil things by pointing this out, or asking why they can’t admit that they know it’s not true. So when we hear non-content like “God is the ground of all being”, we are to play along and thank the theologian for their effort.

    p. But you missed the other prong of the objection of the pharyngular atheists, which is that they are not really arguments for anything at all.

    I think you would have to agree these are slogans rather than arguments. They are utterances affirmed by people who are asked “Why are you a Christian?”. (Though I doubt the numbers would come up significantly the same if you asked the question in open-ended terms). These affirmations play the role of an encouraging pat on the head. Well, I do get what your interlocutor was saying about his bollocks. I would certainly respect that as a motivation, if it were literally true. But it’s not literally true.

  8. acb says:

    %(sane)Pete,% are you looking at me? if so. I would respond that there are lots of things that sophisticates know to be true or untrue that unsophisticates can’t understand and maybe never will. That’s what sophistication means. There is no point in worrying about it. I’m about to scan in a whole lot of Midgley which makes this point more elegantly. But the short version is that if the notion of Christian Truth is incoherent — as I believe — then that doesn’t mean it can simply be replaced by a notion of Christian Untruth. That may turn out to be just as incoherent and in fact often does.

    %(sane)Jim:% None of the arguments put forward by the CT people — except, perhaps, the reliabilityof Scripture — have any bearing on the truth of the propositions you put forward as the truth claims of Christianity. Erm, unless you take the life and character of Jesus to include his resurrection, I suppose, but I don’t think many people do that in this context: they are thinking of his life and character as displayed before death.

    %(sane)Rupert% Maybe I just hang out with Anglicans too much, but I have a hard time imagining that the fury of the pharyngular is motivated by Christian aggression in all cases. Certainly, if you look at the dreary headbangers on CiF they are not menaced by the Church of England. I find it very hard to suppose that people who -read- take seriously the _God Delusion_ don’t care what other people believe providing that no attempt is made to convert them.

  9. acb says:

    balls. Clearly something has broken the textililation of comments. Anyway. in re Pete’s point about the balls on the curate — how can you say you would respect this if he were speaking the literal truth., but, since he is talking metaphorically, you can’t take it seriously? If I tell you my heart is broken, I don’t mean I have arterial plaques. If I say that I left my heart in San Francisco, I don’t mean that I had a transplant there.

    You will doubtless object that the girl who broke my heart was real, and so is San Francisco. But as Dr Freud (no god-lover) pointed out, the object of desire may very well not exist. Doesn’t mean that it is meaningless or wrong to be in love. And then there are purely metaphysical entities. I love my country so much I am prepared to be shot for its liberty … the answer to that is not better geography lessons, as the last century of Irish history has made clear.

  10. acb says:

    Robert — the priest was not Spurr, but does occasionally comment here.

  11. quinn says:

    there was an old robert anton wilson quote, (i think it was him) that i’m failing to find now. it was along the lines of when i meet someone new i let it drop that i used to be on welfare. if they are taken aback, i know they are someone i don’t have to think about too much. increasingly, surrounded by scientists and skeptics and atheists and san francisco progressives, i am thinking i will let it drop early that i used to be a christian, that it was a valuable time for me, and that i learned many of the things that still form some of the best bits of my character. if they are taken aback, i will then know i don’t have to think about them too much.

  12. quinn says:

    i should probably add to the last comment that the scientists and skeptics and atheists and san francisco progressives generally consider me a fellow traveller; otherwise it looks more sour grapes than it is.

  13. 1- B. Premanand, who founded the Indian Skeptics, holds that religions sell themselves on the basis of their miracles. This is his reason for performing, debunking, and explaining the miracles Indian holy men go around showing off. So it interests me that Ophelia’s list doesn’t include the miracles Christianity claims.

    2- I think you should talk to Ophelia about making your argument in the pages of The Philosopher’s Magazine, which she helps Julian Baggini edit.


  14. Pete Carlton says:

    Hi, yes, Andrew, I was directing it at your original post…

    I can take these attitudes seriously, of course, whether the balls are metaphorical or not. If I had a coworker who was in love with Princess Leia from Star Wars, I would certainly take that seriously. But respect is another matter. And, I would put up with it and look the other way in day-to-day work, but if we were to have it out in the New York Review of Books, I would probably let my true feelings show.

    I think the conversation gets skewed at times by not distinguishing these two levels. For me, being an atheist does not mean that if I notice a person is wearing a cross around their neck, I’ll gleefully challenge them in public. Of course I acknowledge the courtesies and white lies that make daily life possible. But applying, or appealing to, that attitude in serious discussion is really saying that serious discussion is a sham.

    Is that what you’re saying, that in parallel to the noble lie that theologians hold over their flock, that atheists should tell a noble lie – in the form of a nonagression pact – to the theologians? (The lie says: since your religion is important to you as a cultural and social anchor, then it doesn’t matter at all whether you are being consistent.)

    Quinn, for the record I am in the intersection of the Venn diagram you describe. Rather than being taken aback, I kind of agree with your sentiment; I don’t think I was done particularly wrong at the hands of the Jesuits. But I’ll speculate that some of the vehemence of the pharyngulites, admittedly even in my own case, comes from unconscious thoughts along the lines of “it was a tough slog but I made it out; why couldn’t you?”.

  15. acb says:

    Pete — I think that a philosophically literate atheist has more in common with a jesuit than with some fourteen year old who has just discovered Bertrand Russell and worked out that Christianity is based on a lie. So I suppose the most provocative answer to your question about the Noble Lie is that there is no way some people will ever understand the truth. Much better to be blurrily right in such a case than distinctly wrong.

    I don’t want to come over like Steve Fuller here, but I have real difficulties with the concept of religious truth. So I don’t see “atheists” as a monolithic bloc opposed to “believers”; I moderate my behaviour according to the sort of believer I am dealing with and I suppose I recommend the same policy to everyone else. Actually, it is with theologians that one should be most clearly atheist, since they are the only people who can take the serious points at issue. But even then, I find politeness is a help, if only because trying sympathetically to understand their argument is the best way to see how deep its weak spots really go.

    There is something to be said for telling Ian Paisley he is talking nonsense about evolution, and honour obliges one to tell him it even if it is entirely unproductive in terms of changing his mind. But most believers aren’t Ian Paisley. Most Christians, of course, aren’t even creationists. But if I have to deal with unsophisticated fundamentalists, I try to talk to their strengths, not their weaknesses.

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