We’ve been looking at the criteria we should use when surveying faith systems and deciding which to adhere to or evaluating the system we already claim. I’ve laid out seven principles that, I think, can help keep us on track to truth and not get bogged down in the inconsequential. To recap:
I don’t think that any of these principles are unreasonable. In fact, I think they are somewhat intuitive and uncontroversial – at least when we’re detached or disciplined enough to remain objective about the process. If you ask the average person who deconverted from any particular religion, you’re going to find that their reasons for doing so, correctly or incorrectly, have to do with one of these principles.
Evaluating your own faith and opening yourself to the possibility that you may be wrong is, in a word, frightening. In many religions, the adherence to the faith system is the glue that holds families and communities together and can often be deeply intertwined with ethnic or national identity. In such situations, leaving the faith system is to intentionally ostracize yourself from your friends, family and the only life you’ve ever known. In some cases, the penalty for apostasy is death. If nothing else, even in a society such as our own where people change faith systems like underwear without consequence, it is unpleasant at best and terrifying at worst to consider the fact that you may have built your life and worldview upon a lie. However, though it may be difficult, if we are to be honest seekers of truth we must follow the evidence where it leads regardless of the consequences. We must do this because truth matters, because eternity matters, and because choosing incorrectly can have devastating consequences.
Much has been made recently of Oxford Dictionary’s announcement of “Post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year, and the implication paired with it that we are living in a “post-truth culture”; that is, a culture that is more concerned with subjective experiences and feelings than facts or truth. How accurate this label really is can be debated. Personally, I think that, while people give lip service to concepts like postmodernism and a post-truth culture, when the rubber hits the road we find that people are very, very concerned with facts and truth. People don’t actually believe these concepts, they simply revert to them when it’s convenient.
However, I do think it’s clear that subjective feelings and emotional responses are being given more credence than are warranted when discussing sensitive issues, both inside and outside of the church. This comes in two forms.
I recently had a discussion with someone in the YouTube comments section. Despite being one of the worst possible places to hold a conversation about controversial topics like religion – not only because of the format but also because of the constant badgering and interruptions from trolls – I felt like the outcome was generally quite positive.
The person I was speaking to introduced himself as an atheist who was considering converting to either Islam or Christianity but was having trouble deciding between them. I tried to help as best I could, but the interesting part was that he seemed unusually preoccupied with miracles. His first example was a section of the Quran where Muhammad supposedly predicted the coming of airplanes and air travel (Surah 51:7), but when I explained that this was just an oath and to take it as a prophecy was a stretch, he wanted to know about Christianity's miracles. The conversation went on for some time until I offered him my email address to continue in a better format. He accepted – though I never actually heard from him again – by telling me that he would love for me to tell him all about Christian miracles.
In hindsight, the conversation makes sense though I found it unusual at the time. As an atheist, it would seem reasonable to him that the religion which can actually provide proof of supernatural activity is the one that must be true, but I hesitate to go along with that line of thought. Not only do I have very little "solid evidence" for the sort of contemporary miracles that this man was looking for (it's out there, but since this has never been an area of real study for me, all I have is hearsay and stories which aren't all that convincing if you're not predisposed to believe them at face value), but I do not believe that this is a good reason to accept or reject any particular faith. We simply cannot evaluate the truth value of a religion based on its claims to miracles or other sorts of religious or spiritual experiences. This may seem an odd thing to say as a Christian, but I believe I have good reasons for doing so.
In philosophy, there is a tactic to undermining your opponent’s argument that relies on accepting the premises and the conclusion, and then taking the point and running with it. It’s called argumentum ad absurdum or sometimes reductio ad absurdum. The idea is to show that a person’s position, if taken to its logical conclusion, results in situations or concepts that are absurd or, in some cases, just plain silly.
Here’s an example. In the video below, Christian apologist Sam Shamoun performs this maneuver on Muslim apologist Zakir Naik. Dr. Naik is making the claim that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, is mentioned by name in the Song of Solomon, thus showing that he is a true prophet of God:
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.