I see so many discussions on theism boil down to personal opinion.
“I think this is a contradiction.”
“I think it is not.”
“There are no absolute morals.”
“There are absolute morals.”
We go back and forth making affirmations with supreme confidence; yet the conversation never seems to progress. Because each person is personally convinced of their own statements, and believe that the other should be equally convinced.
Can we agree on a few things, first?
We are all convinced differently
I know—that seems obvious. But perhaps it is good for all of us (especially me) to remember that. For some of us, what our friends believe is persuasive to us, for others it might be the credentials of a person making an opinion. For others it might be hard facts and figures.
Think about buying a car. To some people, if their friend recommended a Ford—heck, that’s good enough for them! Ford it is. Others will do long research, both on-line and in trade magazines, comparing and contrasting engine size, fuel economy, trunk space, etc. They will take six months to come up with what car they desire to purchase. Even others will simply go out test-driving in the morning and have bought the car they liked by mid-day.
For the researcher, a friend’s recommendation will be politely listened to, taken into consideration, and most likely ignored. The impetuous car-buyer does not care about the researcher’s findings on the wheel-base of other brands of cars.
Sometimes we (cough, cough “I”) forget that what is persuasive to me, and what I hold in high regard, may not be compelling to other people.
Honestly, personal testimonies of “Jesus changed my life” are not very compelling to me as to the reality of Jesus, even though others (such as the person relating them) find them to be highly convincing that Jesus must be real. I have heard these testimonies for decades. I have watched people who claimed to be changed, get active in the church, be “on fire for Jesus” and then slowly assimilate into the same, mundane, go-on-Sunday, back-to-reality Monday, nominal believers.
But just because they are not forceful to me—does not mean I can just discount them. I am in no position to disregard their existence since it does not “qualify” as good evidence to me.
We are all wrong
That may be a bit of a shock to you, so I hope you are sitting down. Comfortable? O.K., I’ll try it again, now that you are prepared—you are wrong.
There is something that you believe right now; something you are firmly convinced of that does not conform to reality. Oh, it may be as simple as the firm conviction that you are going out for dinner tonight, but unbeknownst to you; your significant other has plans which will wreck your evening.
Or it may be that you have a belief about theism that you will some day discover (perhaps in the afterlife) that you didn’t have quite right. Turns out there isn’t a hell! (Or worse—God is a Female!)
This should not come as too big of a surprise. Each of us, looking back on our lives, can find numerous, numerous things that we thought were true, but later discovered through experience or knowledge—most certainly were not. Both within our theistic belief, and in other aspects of our lives.
It is not too crazy to think that perhaps…just maybe…in the future we will discover we are wrong about something we believe right now.
Our opinions can blind us
I was raised in a home where we were required to make our beds everyday. To me—a person should make their bed everyday. In our home, children did chores. To me—children should do age appropriate chores.
As we look at our upbringing, with our locale, culture, education, experiences and socializations, we develop certain ideas about what is right and wrong. Often, when we marry, we are stunned to discover that our spouses were raised in an environment that was totally foreign to our own, and we are secretly amazed they managed to survive in such conditions.
We then have children and discover what was patently obvious and essential to us, is NOT so obvious and mandatory to our spouse. I am sure my readers never actually fought over such petty differences like my wife and I did—due to the maturity level of those who peruse my blog. I am not quite so mature.
In theism, we all have certain pre-conceived ideas. At one time, I was firmly convinced there was a god. To think otherwise…well…the person would have to be an unreasonable fool. I supposed a God in all I did. Now, I have a pre-conceived idea there is not. I never look for a God—there isn’t one.
It is not necessarily bad to have pre-conceptions—we all do—it is part of being human. I hope we all agree, though, that sometimes these presuppositions can blind us to reality.
Again, it seems such a simple notion. Yet sometimes I view debates (perhaps “fights” is a better word!) in which two combatants are simply astounded that the other side actually disagrees with them. This is by no means limited to theism.
I have watched litigants, including lawyers, repeat the same thing over and over again, unable to grasp the fact that it did not knock the other off their feet the first time.
“Yes, I understand your position. You have made it quite clear. Please understand that my client has a different view of the events that happen—“
“But that letter was sent on Tuesday!”
“Yes I know. You have said that five times now. I actually heard you the first time. My client never received that lett—“
“My client says it was mailed on Tuesday!”
“Right. Again, I heard that the first (and now the sixth) time. Again, if you had something to show that my client received it—“
“It was mailed on Tuesday!”
There have been many times I have had to say to other lawyers, “Look. You weren’t there when you client mailed it. I wasn’t there. All we have is what our respective clients say. That is what makes horse races. That is why we have litigation. Let’s battle it out and see what the judge says.”
I want to remind all of us that there are people with theistic convictions, that are just as solidly in place as our own, that are just as firmly held, and just as dear to them, yet are diametrically opposed to our own. We disagree.
Now with we agree to those simple statements…
Why a methodology?
Because without it, arguments become a chaotic cacophony of opinions. We may as well boil it down to:
While that may be fun and even enlightening, at times we hope to progress further than that. A methodology provides us with a means by which we can arrive at a solution. A way in which we can remove some of those subjective opinions, and pre-conceptions, and be as objective as we humanly can. (Which is not always that objective.)
Imagine you and I were to argue over the best way to travel to Chicago. I may insist a plane is best. You may insist a car. Another may insist a boat or train or bus. Until we establish a methodology, though, we will get nowhere.
What if the methodology was “The shortest amount of time.” Then arguing about using a boat from New York City would lose. But what if it was “Carrying 10,000 tons of coal.” Then the plane would lose to the boat.
Yes, we may take the argument one step deeper as to what methodology to use. A person may argue that a plane ticket that cost $10,000, but delivers us to Chicago in one hour is too step a price for the time gained, compared to a car ride of five hours, but only $50 worth of gas.
Admittedly, I have only extremely rarely (as in never in my recall) argued over methodology. Most don’t want to discuss methodology. Most want to jump right in about the genealogy of Luke being that of Mary, without ever bothering to determine what method we will use to figure out genealogies.
The limits of methodology
Yes, I know that theism is a faith-based belief. That at some point, one believes, with a lack of evidence, and arguing over methodology of lack of evidence seems a bit like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Before we get to faith, there are some basic factual claims that provide a foundation for that faith. It is those factual claims—claims that “this is what actually happened” in which we can bring our methodology to bear.
For example, many Christians claim that the Ten Plagues, Exodus and Joshua’s Genocide actually happened. However, there is no archeological proof for these events happening as recorded in the Tanakh.
At which point I am often informed “Absence of Evidence is not evidence of Absence.” Fair enough—we have established a methodology. If a religion makes a claim, even though there is no archeological proof—it still could actually happen.
I then point out that the Mormons have claimed an advanced society existed in Mesoamerica, but equally there is no archeological proof for these events. Is the Christian willing to use the same methodology used to bolster their claim, to agree that the Mormon claim is equally possible?
See, before we get to faith—both Literalist Christians and Mormons make factual claims of what happened, and even provide a methodology by which we are to determine those events actually happened.
Or another example I recently encountered where I was informed that miracles happen, and we know this by testimonial evidence. Fair enough—our methodology is in place: “Testimonial evidence is enough to support a Miracle.” Will Protestants stay consistent with their own methodology and admit that Mary appeared in a Grilled Cheese Sandwich? Will Christians stay consistent and admit testimonies of Hindu Miracles mean these events must be miracles? Will Christians admit that God made Mohammed’s face appear in a tomato due to the testimony it happened?
All the time we see validation of certain events, and then a later change in methods when another, competing theistic belief says the same thing about their god.
Before we get worried about faith—let’s work on the basics. What happened. What conforms to reality. Let’s put in place a method to determine that.
Which methodology to use?
One thing to keep a keen eye out for is a methodology that is designed to achieve the results it desires.
What if we are to debate who is the most talented actress? And I propose a methodology that it is the actress who has received the most Oscars. Seems a reasonable enough method. However, it turns out that I always thought that Katherine Hepburn was the greatest actress. A quick review of the Oscars…and…bingo! Turns out it was Katherine Hepburn.
Why is the most Oscars won a “correct” methodology? Why not the most nominated? (Meryl Streep) Or in the most films? Or highest paid? Or longest career?
One of the things to be careful about is to not create a methodology that pops out the answer we desire, as well as question why a particular methodology is the one to use.
We have all seen the claims for the uniqueness of the Bible. You know “written over 1500 years, by 100 authors from different walks of life…” The one that always makes me chuckle is the inclusion of “…on 3 continents…” Why does “3 continents” make the Bible unique? The Book of Mormon can claim 4—is it MORE unique? The Tanakh only 2—it must not be inspired. That is a method designed for an outcome!
Why I am attached to my Methodology
Trick question. I am not. It happens to be a method I am most familiar with, but if you have a better one, by all means—propose it! I would be happy to abandon my own for a better method. The only problem is—I don’t see too many people proposing any method. Let alone one that would provide more accurate results.
(Part of the reason that I respect John W. Loftus is that he, at least, proposes a methodology with his “Outsider Test” that is designed to solve the same concerns my own does. I don’t use his, only because I am more familiar with my own. I think his is just as effective. In two sentences, “Treat your own claims as you would treat another. In other words, treat your claims as if you were an ‘Outsider’ and not prone to believing it.”)
If you propose a method, I would ask that you take into consideration the items I listed above. Does it remove any pre-conceived notions? Does it deal with competing claims? Does it convince a variety of people? But the key is this: does employing your method leave open the possibility that you are wrong?
Can you devise a method that you are willing, by its application, to say, “Nope. That is not what I believe. I am willing to accept that, by virtue of my own method, I am wrong”? You may find that not so easy.
I have had a number of people tell me my method is wrong. Inadequate. Even “full of fallacies.” O.K.—then give me an alternative. Give me a method that takes into account humanity’s ability to deceive itself. Give me a method that together we can employ, and can together say, “Yep. I was wrong. I am willing to abide by that method, even though it goes against what I believe.”
My method says that one’s claims should be so strong, they could convince a person who has no stake in the outcome. A neutral party. I am unclear why so many Christians that I propose that method to, fail to believe they can meet such a challenge.