In the comment thread of my last post, some of us mentioned that it’s hard for us to understand the point of view of Christians who believe the Bible can be inspired by God, without holding to the doctrine of inerrancy. unkleE left the following comment:
How is it that in everything else in life – whether it be ethics, or politics, relationships, science, history, law, even disbelief – we are willing to make decisions based on non-inerrant evidence and reasoning, but when it is belief in God we require inerrant evidence? I reckon your first thought might be that the stakes are so much higher. But that logic applies to disbelief as well. If we applied that logic, no-one would be an atheist because they didn’t have inerrant knowledge for that conclusion. You would not have any belief either way until you gained inerrant knowledge.
He then suggested that I might want to do a post on this topic (you’re reading it!), but there were also a couple of other comments that I think are worth including here. nonsupernaturalist said this:
My answer would be that ethics, politics, relationships, science, history, and law do not involve supernatural claims. When someone makes a supernatural claim, the standard of evidence required by most educated people in the western world to believe that claim is much, much higher than a claim involving natural evidence.
Let’s look at “history”. If someone tells me that most historians believe that Caesar crossed the Rubicon or that Alexander the Great sacked the city of Tyre, I accept those claims without demanding a great deal of evidence. However, if someone claims that the Buddha caused a water buffalo to speak in a human language for over one half hour or that Mohammad rode on a winged horse to heaven, I am going to demand MASSIVE quantities of evidence to believe these claims.
I think that most Christians would agree with my thinking, here, until I make the same assertion regarding the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. Then Christians will shake their heads in disgust and accuse me of being biased and unreasonable.
No. I am not being biased and unreasonable. I am being consistent. It is the Christian who is being inconsistent: demanding more evidence to believe the supernatural claims of other religions than he or she demands of his own.
And it isn’t just supernatural claims. Most educated people in the western world would demand much more evidence for very rare natural claims than we would for non-rare natural claims.
Imagine if someone at work tells you that his sister just gave birth to twins. How much evidence would you demand to believe this claim? Probably not much. You would probably take the guy’s word for it. Now imagine if the same coworker tells you that, yesterday, in the local hospital, his sister gave birth to twelve babies! Would you take the guy’s word for it? I doubt it.
So it isn’t that we skeptics are biased against Christianity or even that we are biased against the supernatural. We are simply applying the same reason, logic, and skepticism to YOUR very extra-ordinary religious claim that we apply to ALL very rare, extra-ordinary claims, including very rare, extraordinary natural claims.
And Arkenaten said this:
I cannot fathom how you can disregard something like Noah’s Ark as nonsense and yet accept that a narrative construct called Jesus of Nazareth could come back from the dead.
Personally, I feel very much the same way that nonsupernaturalist does. The first part of unkleE’s question that I’d like to address is his statement about nonbelief:
If we applied that logic, no-one would be an atheist because they didn’t have inerrant knowledge for that conclusion.
I think this depends on what one means by “atheism.” I’m not really interested in trying to determine what the official definition of the term is; rather, I’d like to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing within the confines of this discussion. When I refer to myself as an atheist, I simply mean that I don’t believe any of the proposed god claims that I’ve encountered. I’m not necessarily saying that I think no gods exist, period. And if I were to say that, I’d give the caveat that I could easily be wrong about such a belief. This notion of atheism, the position that one hasn’t been convinced of any god claims, is often referred to as “weak atheism” or “soft atheism.” Personally, I think that should be everyone’s default position. No one should be a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Christian until he or she has been convinced that the god(s) of that particular religion exist(s). If we didn’t operate in this way, then we’d all immediately accept the proposition of every religion we encountered, until its claims could be disproven. This would make most of us Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, pagans, and atheists all at the same time. Obviously, that’s ridiculous. So on those grounds, I don’t agree with unkleE’s assertion that we would need inerrant information to not believe something.
Furthermore, when it comes to the claims of Christianity, I can accept or reject them completely independently of what I think about the existence of god(s). Many times, discussions about the evidence for and against Christianity slide into discussions about whether or not a god exists. People bring up the cosmological and teleological arguments. While those discussions can be important, I think they are really just distractions when we’re talking about a specific religion. I’m okay conceding that a god might exist, so I’d rather focus on the pros and cons of Christianity to see if it could possibly be true. After all, it could be the case that God is real, but Christianity is false.
unkleE’s comment started like this:
How is it that in everything else in life – whether it be ethics, or politics, relationships, science, history, law, even disbelief – we are willing to make decisions based on non-inerrant evidence and reasoning, but when it is belief in God we require inerrant evidence?
To piggy-back off the comments I just made, I don’t necessarily require inerrant evidence to believe in God. I think the necessity for inerrancy comes from the kind of god being argued for. The Abrahamic religions teach that there is one God who is supreme. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, completely just, etc. I know there are sometimes caveats placed on those labels. For instance, can God create a rock so large that he can’t lift it? Arguments like that illustrate that being all-powerful doesn’t mean he’s outside the laws of logic. And the same goes for all-knowing. It’s sometimes argued that he knows all that can be known… perhaps there are some things that can’t be known? The waters can get muddy pretty quickly, so I think it’s best to refer back to the religion’s source material (the Bible, in this case) to learn more about the characteristics of this god.
In the Bible, God seems to be big on proofs. When God wanted Noah to build an ark, he spoke to him directly. Noah didn’t have to decide between a handful of prophets each telling him different things — God made sure that Noah knew exactly what was required of him. The same was done for Abraham when God wanted him to move into the land of Canaan, and when God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac. When God called Moses to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, he also spoke directly to Moses. And on top of that, he even offered additional proofs by performing signs for Moses. And when Moses appeared before Pharaoh, God again used signs to show Pharaoh that Moses did indeed speak on God’s behalf. Miraculous signs were used throughout the period of time that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. And we can fast forward to the time of Gideon and see that God used signs as evidence then as well. Throughout the Old Testament, signs were given to people to show God’s involvement and desires. There are even examples where God punished those who listened to false prophets who hadn’t shown such signs, such as the man of God who listened to the instruction of an old prophet who was actually lying to him. God sent a lion to kill the man (I Kings 13:11-32).
The New Testament is no different. Jesus and his apostles perform all kinds of miracles as evidence of Jesus’s power. When the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan, he pointed out how nonsensical that would be, showing that such miracles were intended as a display of God’s approval (Matt 12:24-28). And the Gospel of John also argues that these miracles were intended as evidence:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
— John 20:30-31
Not only did Jesus and his disciples use miracles to make their case, they also appealed to Scripture. Throughout the New Testament, you find references to the Old: “as it is written,” “as spoken by the prophet,” etc. That in itself doesn’t necessarily make the case for inerrancy, but it at least shows that they expected the scriptures to be accurate.
If God cared so much during the time periods talked about in the Bible, why wouldn’t he care just as much today? How can Jesus say that “not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away” if God’s not really all that concerned about how accurate the “jots” and “tittles” are? And yes, like unkleE said in his comment, I do think the fact that the stakes are tremendously high on this question makes it that much more necessary to have good evidence. While the Bible gives us countless examples of those who received direct communication from God or one of his representatives, we find ourselves living in a time when we’re surrounded by competing claims about which god is true, and which doctrines are the right ones. I used to believe that the one tool we had to cut through all that noise was the Bible. It was the one source we could go to to find what God wanted from us. And we could trust that it was his word because of the amazing prophecy fulfillments that it contained and that despite its length and antiquity, it was completely without error. In other words, I thought it was a final miracle to last throughout the ages. And because of its existence and availability, we no longer needed individuals who went around performing miracles and spreading the gospel.
That’s how I saw the world. Of course, since then, I’ve discovered that the Bible doesn’t live up to that high standard. I have many other posts that deal with its various problems, so I won’t try to detail them now. But I simply don’t see how the God portrayed in the Bible, a god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, etc, would inspire individuals to write down his incredibly important message to all of mankind, yet not make sure they relay it completely accurately. It doesn’t always agree with itself, it contains historical and scientific mistakes, and sometimes it advocates things that are outright immoral. It’s understandable why a number of people would fail to be convinced by such a book; therefore, it would be impossible for an all-loving and completely just God to punish people when they’re merely trying to avoid the same fate as the man of God who trusted the old (false) prophet.