Here's some more of my online discussion with my Christian friend, affectionately made anonymous via the name "Chris Chin" (FYI, this isn't our complete discussion, just pieces of it. If it feels a bit disjointed, that's why):
Me: I'm interested in exploring the "Christianity explains things best" idea of yours. Seems like begging the question to me.
Chris Chin: You mentioned that my referring to the explanatory value of the Christian faith sounds like assuming the conclusion without a supporting argument. I suppose that's fair in a sense; I stated it without supporting the claim.
The problem here is that it is a very large topic to discuss. My working premise would be that the Christian faith is coherent and explains reality in a way that consistently lines up with human experience.
As you said, to provide evidence for every facet of this claim would be a massive undertaking. I feel that the best way for us to proceed in this discussion would be for you to provide an area in which you object or disagree either that the faith is coherent, or that it doesn't adequately or accurately explain reality.
Me: My observation about your claim that Christianity best explains reality (or however you put it) is that it seemed to be (and is often used as) an argument in itself. "Why do I think Christianity is true? Because it best explains reality." Saying it "best explains reality" is basically a restatement of "Christianity is true" or at least "true-ish" (philosophers use the word "verisimilitude" here). That is clearly "begging the question" in the correct sense of the phrase ("petitio principii" to be exact).
Now you're shifting the burden of proof - admittedly most likely just for the sake of discussion and not because you're employing a debate tactic common among Christians - by asking me to give you an example of how Christianity *doesn't* line up with reality. But since we're just chatting all friendly-like, let's go with it for now.
The problem of evil and suffering is a common point, so common in fact that it doesn't add anything to the discussion given that we pretty much know the standard arguments and point/counterpoint back and forth on this issue. What it does add though is the complexity of the issue. The problem of evil simply isn't clearly resolved. Even if you agree with the apologetics here, it's not an open-and-shut case. The PoE is a constant reminder that we can't really say with honesty that Christianity lines up with reality, at least not until we find a way to resolve the PoE in favor of the Christian view.
Occam's Razor is another consideration. God doesn't really add anything to the explanation of how life, the universe, and everything got here. "God did it" has been supplanted by real knowledge (or real-ish, if you will) for centuries now. The God of the Gaps is getting smaller as the gaps in our knowledge get smaller. Then we apply the Razor by asking whether we even need to evoke a god hypothesis. What reason is there other than "well we've always believed in it"? "The universe needs a reason for its existence." Why? This sentence usually precedes "Therefore God did it," but God doesn't have a cause, and that's okay for some reason.
Chris Chin: I am curious as to why you think people who have not been after an answer to the question 'how did all of this get here' still have come to the Christian faith? Certainly it is undeniable that a great many of them were clear and critical thinkers, why Christianity for them?
Me: Your question - if it were actually based on logic - could be used to defend other faiths as well. Some of the greatest scholars in history were Muslims (which is why the stars have Arabic names). If you're arguing that tenacity is a sign of accuracy, then Hinduism beats Christianity hands down, because it's been around a lot longer. And you can't tell me there are no intelligent Hindus. Our colleges are filled with them.
Your question sounds like you got it from an antiquated Christian apologetics book (redundant, I know, but still). The question is a bit insulting. "How's come smart people become Christians?" Well, for one, people are not machines who just compute data. They have cultural, social, and familial context that influences their emotional sides. Isaac Newton, arguably the greatest human mind ever, believed in alchemy. Based on your reasoning, we should at least take another look at that discipline.
Chris Chin: When you say 'based on your reasoning' it sounds as though you think my question was actually a point. It wasn't. I'm not sure of what you mean by 'if it were actually based on logic'. Again, my question was a question, not a defense.
Your response reminds me of Loftus' outsiders test of faith, which ironically seems to me to be at least as valid and problematic a test for western post-enlightenment atheists as Christians.
I'm not sure why you specified 'their emotional sides'. Was that intended to exclude the effect of context on reason?
I'm comfortable in this question to include other faiths in the theism/atheism discussion. The question of why one theistic system may be superior to another seems to be, at least in part, separated from the theism/atheism question.
I think that one of the consistent answers that would be given by 'smart people who become Christians' across cultures, continents and centuries would be the sense that a human being is more than the sum of his parts; that real and ontological change happens to a person when they encounter Christ evidenced by observation and experience. I think this is the reason that the greatest Christian minds have always been dual authorities on theology and spirituality.
Me: I reread your question. If I may indulge in just a bit of hyperbole, you are likely the first person to ever ask that question non-rhetorically. I assumed you had an implicit point behind the question simply because such a question almost always has one.
I mentioned the emotional side not to exclude the effect of context on reason, but because many of humanity's disagreements are due to emotional factors, which context and culture influence greatly. My point is that, as I said, we're not merely machines that process data and run logical calculations. This is one reason why very intelligent people disagree with each other about big (and little) issues.
Chris Chin: Loftus' 'Outsiders test for religious faith' I have taken to be as applicable to worldviews as it is to religions.
Me: Of course it is.
Chris Chin: A real outsider for the Christian faith cannot be a 21st century westerner, or else the test is loaded by the shared contexts of the two individuals. It would have to be a person outside of our own context (culture, continent and century).
Me: Seems like you're going overboard on the definition of "outsider." All Loftus is saying is that one should approach one's faith with disinterested skepticism, as an outsider would who didn't care about the outcome of scrutiny. I'm not sure, but it seems like you might be arguing against objective analysis of one's beliefs.
Chris Chin: Your statement 'people are not machines who just compute data. They have cultural, social, and familial context that influences their emotional sides. Isaac Newton, arguably the greatest human mind ever, believed in alchemy.'
This could be almost directly applied to Loftus' reasoning for the Outsider's test. Our cultural, social and familial contexts influence us, which (in simplified terms) is a major reason he believes (and I agree) that people in our culture become Christians. It's also, I believe, a major reason why people in our culture become atheists. Loftus posits (or at least I think he should posit) that stepping outside of our own context to ask ourselves why we believe the way we believe and think the way we think is a good test of the validity of our beliefs. This is one reason why historical theology is so appealing to me; it studies across contexts.
Me: So, now you sound like you agree with the Outsiders Test.
Chris Chin: I think that one of the consistent answers to the question 'why did you become a Christian?' that would be given by 'smart people who become Christians' across cultures, continents and centuries as (which heavily reduces the effect of any specific cultural context on the emotions/reason of the individual) would be a sense that a human being is more than the sum of his parts, that there is a 'soul' and/or 'spirit' which they perceive, observe and experience. I think they would say that they have perceived, observed and experienced real and ontological change in that 'soul' or 'spirit' in those who have become Christians (including, but not limited to, themselves). This observation/experience of the 'soul' or 'spirit' is one of the reasons why the greatest Christian minds across cultures, continents and centuries have tended to be philosophers as well as spiritual men; they are as likely to write a Summa Theologica as they are to become a Friar (referring specifically to Thomas Aquinas); they hold philosophy and spirituality to be mutually necessary and beneficial.
Me: People can't even give a concise definition of "soul" much less observe changes it might undergo. At best you've provided anecdotal evidence and appeals to emotion. Personal experience can only take you so far. I can tell you stories of people who found peace, liberation, and a sense of wholeness because they abandoned religious faith and stopped finding joy in the shadows on the wall of Plato's Cave. But what do those accounts of personal emotion and experience prove or give evidence to? Not much. You haven't given me anything more in terms of evidence than representatives of any other faith or weltanschauung have provided over the centuries.
Chris Chin: While it is not directly related to this conversation, this change is something that I have experienced (though not to near the extent that Aquinas did!) and a major reason why I am as confident in my faith as I am. Christian spirituality is a companion to reason and enriches the examined life.
Me: Yes, you had an experience. Something changed. Something. People experience that all the time. Your personal experience validates your faith, but the experiences of everyone of a different faith doesn't count? Let me be blunt: that is arrogance. You're saying that you are so certain that you have interpreted and understood your experience so flawlessly that your confidence in your faith has grown. This isn't faith in God: it's faith in the infallibility of your ability to decode your experiences; furthermore, it's positioning you above and beyond everyone else who has a "spiritual experience" who disagrees with your faith. I'm an atheist because I'm an agnostic. I'm an agnostic because I am not convinced I have the godlike perception most Christians act like they have.
Christian faith doesn't enrich the examined life. It inhibits it. Christian faith runs contrary to the examined life. You're not supposed to examine it - at least not in a way that would cause you to question your faith enough to risk discarding it. The examined life - the *real* examined life - means there are no sacred cows. Every tree in the forest of ideas and beliefs is subject to the axe of radical scrutiny.
Chris Chin: Interestingly (and I'm sorry to digress yet further from our conversation) it is the lack of this spirituality in atheism that is, in my opinion (and speaking broadly), one of its greatest flaws. The idea of progress, so central to most atheists, is divorced from a sense of progress in virtue (again, speaking broadly) in the individual that I find it, honestly, a bit frightening. Granted, most evangelical Christians wouldn't know what 'virtue' meant if it came up and bit them. But the system itself is full of it. And most religions are full of it, or at least are full of its negative expression; meaning that they at least focus on removing or overcoming vice.
Me: I'm no longer convinced that you really understand what atheism is, either etymologically or culturally. Atheism simply means "without God." That's it. It's not a system. It's a label representing a negation. Culturally, people who call themselves atheists are also (usually) pro-science, pro-humanity, pro-peace, pro-freedom, and very much pro-virtue.
There are atheistic belief systems that are very spiritual (Traditional Buddhism) and views that don't consider the "soul" or the "spirit." Even among the skeptic community, there are atheists who value a form of spirituality.
Chris Chin: I would trust a stranger a great deal more who believed that his eternity was affected by his progress in universally (or nearly universally) agreed upon virtue than a person who did not hold such a belief. The latter person has a lot less to lose by being bad and a lot less to gain by being good.
Me: Statistically and historically, your trust would be misplaced. Religion and the belief in an afterlife hasn't done much to deter people from doing bad things. You said yourself that most evangelical Christians are clueless when it comes to virtue. Part of the problem is that, when people believe that they are the "righteous" or the " chosen" or the "saved," elitism creeps in, and the "righteous" end up doing horrific things and making justifications for those bad things.
Morality is a very important topic for many, many atheists. Again, your comment sounds like it came from a poorly-written apologetics book. Your words come across as demeaning to atheists. It's that kind of attitude that fuels prejudice and keeps atheists a mistrusted minority in our society.
What frightens me is this idea that you need the threat of hell to be a good person. Why can't Christians just be good people for their own sake and for the sake of their fellow humans?
And keep in mind that reality isn't contingent upon what you desire. You may think a worldview that includes belief in the soul and the afterlife is better for humanity, but that has no bearing on whether it's actually true.