Saturday, July 12, 2008

Taking the Theism out of Christianity

I recently came across an excellent debate between Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath (an Oxford theologian). While watching the (almost risibly cordial) exchange, it occurred to me—not for the first time—that atheists ought to make more of an effort in such disputations to distinguish between (i) theism (the belief in God or many gods), and (ii) theism’s particular manifestations (Christianity, Hinduism, etc.). The reason is this:

If one takes the ontological question of God’s existence as an empirical matter, then neither the theist nor atheist can prove, with absolute certitude, that God either does or does not exist; rather, the answer must be probabilistic. Ultimately, as Dawkins puts it, the universe is exactly as one would expect it to be if there was no God. Thus, while atheists cannot flat-out "falsify" the theistic hypothesis (there's nothing in the universe, no datum or set of data, one can point at to prove that God doesn't exist, only things to
suggest he doesn't), there is nevertheless a very strong argument against it.

But there is a far stronger argument against theism's particular religious manifestations, such as Christianity. Indeed, add to the initial implausibility attending theism a massive boat load of additional implausibilities that the Christian religion introduces. Not only do Christians claim that God exists, but they also believe that:

- God is three-in-one (the insoluble modalism vs. tritheism debate)
- Jesus was both fully human and fully divine (see post below, “Could Jesus have been an atheist?”)
- Jesus will return “someday soon” to rapture up the believers (apocalypticism in the Bible)
- Etc.

These are even more problematic than theism, and I think it would help atheists to be more explicit about them. Dawkins, for example, frequently attacks (in the video) McGrath’s Christian faith through general statements about, e.g., the lack of evidence for a God (where these arguments are applicable without modification to other religions as well), rather than through Christianity-specific critiques, such as those put forth by, e.g., Bart Ehrman in Misquoting Jesus. The point, of course, is to compound the theological difficulties of Christianity by saying: “Not only is the belief in God—any God—an uncogent position, but the specific claims made by your religion, Christianity, are highly implausible and untenable.”

I am still waiting for a book that ascends from the level of Christian specifics—the myriad problems (internal coherence, historical accuracy, etc.) of lower/higher textual criticism—all the way to the higher level of theological generalities—the ontological problem of God’s existence, theodicy, and so on.

What is the Number of the Beast? Is it 666?
According to the earliest copy of Revelations available,
P115, the number is not 666, but 616. Oops.

1 comment:

xtransoc said...


You probably won’t find “a” book that deals with all those issues combined into a synthesized whole (at least not until Christian textual criticism has had about 50 years to advance).

Also, Dr. Ehrman recently was shown to be weak in his textual criticism positions ( Ehrman and Wallace have worked together in the past and are friends.

Lastly, there is a copyist error in Revelation concerning the number of the Beast. The earliest manuscript with that portion of Scripture does say 616. However, 666 to 616 will only result in a good laugh of about 5 tons of Christian pop culture books being sent to the flames. It won’t rock anyone’s world all that much. But, the declaration that Second Peter should not have been canonized will (only time will tell on this issue).

You are 26 and smart. But your tone still comes off like you are really conceited. Pepper your opinion writings with a little self-deprivation, it helps others swallow what you are saying.