Christian Agnosticism & Touching Earth

English: Arabic Question mark 한국어: 아랍어에서 사용하는 물음표

I have recognized a repeating pattern from my past conversations, both in person and online, which I believe lies at the very bedrock of believer’s objections to investigative discussions regarding belief, Christianity, and the Bible. Once evidential discussions have run their course, and once a retreat is beaten from that battlefield, believers will very often default to the inner keep of last resorts:

You cannot evaluate the truth of Christianity with analysis or reason or rational argument: you must either believe it on faith or not at all. It is about belief. It requires faith.

I have come to call this a “retreat to grey”, the falling back to a proposition that faith knowledge is different by category from other knowledge – as different as living organisms and dead stones. Things of the spirit cannot be interrogated by the same means as other truth claims. At bottom is an agnostic claim: we simply cannot “know” things in this realm, nor prove them, and certainly not disprove them, by any path of critical thinking or evidence.

But why do we think this? Because we’ve heard it repeated often enough; not because we’ve ever really considered whether it made sense. And because the text facing scrutiny is the same one that seems to imply that perhaps it is above evaluation. A rather amazing self-exemption, when considered.

The practical trickle-down of this assumption is that Christians invoke skepticism with regard to whether the Bible can be evaluated objectively at all. And its more comfortable to keep things sort of squishy… by faith alone. In the end, this enterprise winds up being dishonestly invoked in many cases. Evidence in support of the Bible is always welcome. The Bible, it seems, can certainly be confirmed: just never disconfirmed. Selective agnosticism about what can be known is handy at ascending out of evidential corners.

I insist only upon symmetry.

The problem is with regard to positive and negative support. Kierkegaard’s leap of faith may be necessary to believe in a set of doctrines. But the only legitimate invocation of such a leap ought to be in a sense of completing the arc… Evidence will not get you all the way: it takes you the last distance. The leap is presumably beyond the evidence, beyond what can be strictly proven, and faith is required for the last step. Yet do we propose to leap against the evidence? That is quite another thing.

What I have hoped, but seemingly failed, to impress on my conversation partners is simply this: the texts of Christianity are indeed falsifiable at many levels. They touch earth in many places on a range of questions. They make historical claims about people and events. They make claims about reality with regard to the cosmos, time, and the earth. They present a variety of viewpoints that can be checked against one another for consistency and coherence. And yes, they also make claims about a spiritual realm.

I concede happily that we cannot evaluate with physical evidence the claims about the spiritual realm. Perhaps the posture of agnosticism is warranted here. These claims are not falsifiable or verifiable by any direct inquiry we could make.

But I must insist that on questions of history and science and coherence, the Bible and the Christian faith are immanently falsifiable. Any claim about the material world and the events within it can be checked with suitable data. Such claims can be either falsified or verified.

Why? Because they “touch earth.”

The problem: the spiritual claims of Christianity are found in a text that includes earth-touching claims. If disconfirmed where it touches earth, then overall credibility diminishes. The question of Christianity and believing on faith does not occur from a neutral point of flat ground. We cannot simply “believe it or not” from a viewpoint of a different-in-kind faith. The ground is sloped, and it is by no means level. We have a context of credibility to include. We do not speak our faith claims into a vacuum. We can check a great deal.

To be blunt:

  • We do not get to believe that Jesus really lived as a historical figure without accepting that claims about him can be evaluated with rigorous historical inquiry.
  • We do not get to believe that God actually created the world without accepting that those claims can be evaluated with rigorous historical and scientific inquiry.
  • We do not get to accept the historical claims of the Jewish writers without being subject to historical critical analysis.

We claim normative knowledge in the Bible. It is subject to normative evaluation, and that means that such claims are indeed verifiable… and falsifiable… by normative means, objectively and with all evidence on the table.

The abdicating response of Christian agnosticism simply will not do. Those that think we cannot evaluate the truth or falsehood of Christianity objectively succeed only in fulfilling their own prophecy. Its amazing what happens if you exert an unflinching effort to try.

I find that people often really do not want to know. Serious inquiry of adversarial sources is rarely undertaken. The deck of apologetic material tends to be well stacked. We turn to the resources on our church book tables to answer. We have ready-to-hand conspiracy explanations for the really tight corners. And we invoke our skepticism toward science and history that are backed with reams of data, in order to claim high confidence in texts backed by little or none.

After all, we have an afterlife to defend.

The human mind is a very queer, very amazing, very tragic thing.

Comments

  1. “Its amazing what happens if you exert an unflinching effort to try. I find that people often really do not want to know. Serious inquiry of adversarial sources is rarely undertaken.

    Hi Matt, we’ve touched on this briefly in another post. Belief in a God or gods doesn’t appear a problem unless it becomes toxic to humanity. The problem is, it has. In particular, mainstream religion. Many if not most people in Christianity are not aware that the Great Commission is an embellishment, so they feel a sense of duty to follow Jesus commandment to proselytize. Faith is not genuine faith when people require others to believe like they do. But people of faith don’t seem to realize this.

    Like breaking a habit, atrophying neural pathways and networks that have been reinforced, often since birth, is not an easy task. You and I both know that well. They are reinforced through acknowledgement and reward. Many people simply don’t want to know that the Bible is falsifiable, and that Christianity is yet another myth. When one dies, another is birthed. Belief is a tool people use to cope. It’s like a drug, and can be as addictive as a drug because it releases the same neurotransmitter as drugs, sex, and fatty, sugary foods — dopamine. Neuropharmacological studies show dopaminergic activation as the leading neurochemical feature associated with religious activity. The evolution of religion is that it rewards believers (dopamine).

    In her book,A Mind of it’s Own: How Your Mind Distorts and Deceives, Psychologist Cordelia writes that magical thinking is a necessary delusion. To face an otherwise difficult and cruel life is just too real for most to face. Social psychologist,Tom Pyszczynski, states that to realize “we humans are merely transient animals groping to survive in a meaningless universe, destined only to decay and die,” is far too negative for most. Therefore, he says, the mesolimbic/striatal dopamine pathways evolved a solution. To be rewarded through a delusion of grandeur is beneficial for the individual (a coping tool), and that their heightened acknowledgment capacity provides that ability for it to happen. Children do this all the time, delude themselves through fantasy. Another thing to keep in mind is this:

    “Hyperreligiousity is a major feature of mania, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, temporal-lobe epilepsy and related disorders, in which the ventromedial dopaminergic systems are highly activated..]”

    So, IMO, we unbelievers can try to convince the hyperreligious that god doesn’t exist or that the Bible is falsifiable, but I think the odds of being successful are stack against us. Hyperreligiosity appears to be a medical disorder. I speak from experience. There is no way I could have convinced my late husband that God didn’t exist after he was stricken with temporal lobe epilepsy. To him, his religious experiences were real. Culture played a major role in what god he chose to believe in. A good neurological article to Google is Neither Gods nor Demons But Misfiring Brains by Robert J. Gumnit

    My apologies for the length of this post. There’s so much to say on this subject, but I think that the reason we are not making much headway in this area is because many people do not appear to be able to face their mortality. Death anxiety. And the religious hierarchy, have historically, taken advantage of this aspect of the human condition. That doesn’t mean that we should stop educating, and I think you are doing a great job presenting the data.

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    • Such good content – thanks so much for posting. That gives me something to think about for certain.

      I find it really hard, if I’m honest… I do not struggle with the death fear as many seem to. My very legitimate fear was of damnation – and that was certainly real from the time I was a child. But the realization that such punitive afterlife destinations was contrived terminated most of my anxiety.

      Obviously, I’m saddened by the notion of permanent mortality, and I am not a detached monk. But I do not myself understand the need for the coping mechanism at the same level of intensity that some people seem to (apparently) feel.

      Anyway, your post is excellent food for thought – thanks!

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      • ” I do not struggle with the death fear as many seem to.

        Matt, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I can remember the nightmares I had when I was a child that instilled fear in me about death. I wasn’t afraid of death, per se, I was afraid of hell. Why? Because from the time i can remember, I was indoctrinated (wired) to believe that if people were not ‘good’, they’d burn for eternity in agonizing torment. That’s what the Roman Catholic Church taught and continues to teach children. We were read Noah’s Ark children’s stories in Sunday school, which, in a nut shell, is introducing children to terrorism and genocide on a grand scale. As a child, I didn’t know those terms, but I understood the horror it produced when thinking of mass killings from a ‘loving’ father god.

        Even though the RCC started the lies to control the masses; the protestant denominations followed in its footsteps. In all the years I was a Christian, I never attended a denomination that didn’t teach about heaven and hell. Then you have horrid stories being taught to children like this from a mainstream denomination. Legal child abuse that’s rewarded with tax exempt status.

        This type of teaching reinforces the fear of death because suffering is emphasized. So I share that because I think it is part of the problem. I read comments in religious forums and blogs a lot. A common theme is how nonbelievers promote life as meaningless because they see death as a final destination. Clearly, there is fear in these believers. They think this is a dress rehearsal for the next life, just like many Eastern religions and New Agers believe and teach with regard to reincarnation. Death anxiety is a global phenomena.

        The thought that someday we will see our loved ones who died is comforting, certainly. The problem with this belief is that it comes with negative side-effects, as is obvious. Some people will do just about anything to protect their delusions of grandeur, especially if an anticipation of a reward is involved. Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, compared dopamine levels in monkeys and humans. He discovered that unlike monkeys, humans keep dopamine levels up for decades waiting for the reward.

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        • Our ability to project forward in time seems, to me, to form some of the basis for our higher morality as well. Stealing may work for today, but we know how it will turn out in the end. Consequence deferral makes sense to us in a way that it does not to more limited creatures. Sensing mortality is the same – but I found it interesting what you said about monkey/human dopamine levels. Very cool.

          I also resonated with this quote: “We were read Noah’s Ark children’s stories in Sunday school, which, in a nut shell, is introducing children to terrorism and genocide on a grand scale.”

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  2. What I have hoped, but seemingly failed, to impress on my conversation partners is simply this: the texts of Christianity are indeed falsifiable at many levels.

    I’m having the same issues trying to explain to a friend. I can’t seem to get her to consider that maybe it’s (the bible) just not true.

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    • Seems like we find the bottom of such issues to be undergirded by a conflation… “This is the Word of the Lord” is an assertion, a claim about the text. It short circuits the recognition of the human authors, and it makes it very hard for people to consider that perhaps some of them were not legitimate spokesmen for God.

      “You’re taking man’s word over God’s Word.”

      It is difficult to contend with this until they recognize that the question at hand is whether or not the identity statement is true. All we have is man’s word… its just that we claim some of those men spoke for God, and that is the claim in question.

      Hard to somehow shed light on the presupposition. Those presuppositions… so invisible. 🙂

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  3. I was surprised a few weeks ago to have a theist (a rather vocal theist at that) concede there was no evidence for his god, it was all myth, but that he believed in it because it comforted him. I was impressed with his honesty, but it was a conversation killer.

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    • Well, that kind of does kill it. But the concession is pretty sweeping. Not much more to ask at that point.

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      • Takes all the wind out of the sails. You’re left with just, “Oh, ok….Thanks for being so honest.”

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        • That kind of self-honesty is a real good start. I’m sort of impressed by their candor.

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          • It was a little sad, truth be told. Here was a grown adult admitting he’s consciously deluding himself, knowingly ignoring reality for no other reason than the illusion of “meaning” was more comforting to him than reality. I think this touches on Humanism’s greatest (and most difficult) task this century: helping people like this bloke find comfort in reality.

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            • That’s a point I’d really like to explore more myself. Recently talked with someone that went through a loss, and its clear how much comfort is found in faith. Acceptance seems harder, but I’m not so sure. There is a sort of denial that may postpone healing, perhaps.

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  4. Well said. I find a tendency on both the belief and non-belief side to either underestimate or overestimate what can be determined by empirical investigation. The fact is, a lot of the historical information in the Bible can be looked at empirically, and much of it is found wanting. Believers often don’t want to hear that. Of course, my fellow non-believers often don’t want to hear about the non-testability of a deistic god or of an afterlife, so our house isn’t completely clean either.

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    • I agree about your last two points of non-test ability. We can call such things conjectural; they certainly can’t be disproven in any formal sense.

      I’m reminded of Hitchens and his term “splitting the Deistic difference.” At the end of the day, I suggest that it doesn’t make a lot of practical daily-life difference… Deistic god or no god at all.

      Thoughts?

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      • I agree. I was a deist for a long time, until I recognized that I was holding on to that last part of belief for largely emotional reasons. But a deistic god just hangs there without any positive reason to suspect it’s actually there, at least no incontrovertible one. This is philosophy though, not science. All science can say about it is it’s unknown. And philosophical logic is only as good as its premises, which history shows we don’t always understand as well as we often think we do.

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        • I like your thinking here. I don’t claim a definitive label for myself. As I tell my friends, I’ve spent the bulk of my time evaluating whether the ancient Biblical writers actually knew what they were talking about or not. I concluded (and not without a struggle) that they did not. But on the subject of labeling – either self-labeling or from others – it seems to me only to matter greatly if one is invested in a sort of in-group/out-group paradigm or who is saved/damned. And it seems to me that this paradigm can happily be laid aside if the proposition never had any legitimacy. So I’m enjoying a “label vacation” of sorts. 🙂

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          • I sympathize with your struggles. I was somewhat lucky in my transition in that it happened in stages across decades, but it was still a shock to let the last vestiges of it go.

            I can’t blame you for wanting the “label vacation”. There’s a lot of label tribalism that goes on. Neal deGrasse Tyson commented on his desire to avoid any label other than ‘scientist’ because every ‘ism’ carried baggage he didn’t want.

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  5. Hey Matt,

    Came across your blog. Being someone who’s followed an almost complete reverse path over the past half-decade – grew up a skeptic, card-carrying atheist as a philosophy major at UT (Dawkins, Hitchins, books, t-shirts and all), then accepting Christ at Harvard (where I was totally shocked to find out Christians even existed, btw) – I’m naturally intrigued.

    While I’m obviously not happy to hear about the direction your faith has taken, the amount of thought you’ve put into it and the following you seem to have developed here is certainly an accomplishment. Definitely too much info to take in at once or to even attempt to respond, but who knows, maybe I’ll be able to contribute a thing or two to the discussion. I was more into apologetic-ish reading when I first converted, but I’ve been looking for an excuse to keep the reading up.

    Cheers,
    Jose

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    • Jose! Hey, great to hear from you, been too long. I’m sure we could have an interesting conversation or two on such things – I really would be interested to hear about your experiences and to hear your thoughts. Maybe coffee sometime?

      BTW, I believe a dubious distinction falls to you at this point… I *think* you’re the first person that I know from before that has commented on my blog anywhere. I’ll have to conjure an appropriate prize, LOL.

      Cheers

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  6. Those who doubt that Jesus existed, do they not believe that Euripedes, Nero, Napoleon and Hitler existed? There is less written about those historical figures. It is because lots of Christians want to have Jesus being God that this Jewish Nazarene got so much controversy. According to the Holy Scriptures, the Bible, Jesus is the son of God and not god the son. So that book does not contradict the civil books about the political figure which has become known by many as the Messiah.

    All human scriptures can be questioned. So saying “We do not get to accept the historical claims of the Jewish writers without being subject to historical critical analysis.” this counts for any other religion as well.

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    • Hi Marcus,

      I believe we agree regarding Jesus’ existence; I remain unconvinced by the Christ mythers. And yes, less was written about other historical figures, or what was written came after a longer interval. Socrates comes to mind here (not so sure about Napoleon and Hitler though).

      The son of God issue – I would say that you were quite correct in general, as the synoptic gospels do not claim divinity. But the gospel of John is different I think, as divinity is actually put forward as a serious claim. That said, the Trinity did not develop as a robust concept till much later.

      And YES! All human scriptures can be questioned.

      I stopped by your Marcus’ Space blog, and it mentioned other religious blogs. Can you send the URLs for those? Would love to check them out. Thanks!

      Like

Trackbacks

  1. […] A blog post by Jericho Brisance, “Christian Agnosticism and Touching Earth,” was drawn to my attention. It emphasizes that it is unacceptable to use history and science in an attempt to justify the Bible without being open to the disconfirmation of the Bible through the use of those same methods. Here is a taste: […]

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  2. […] means. For an excellent critique of how this applies to Christianity, I encourage you to review “Christian Agnosticism & Touching Earth” at […]

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  3. […] Christian Agnosticism & Touching Earth (jerichobrisance.com) Things of the spirit cannot be interrogated by the same means as other truth claims. At bottom is an agnostic claim: we simply cannot “know” things in this realm, nor prove them, and certainly not disprove them, by any path of critical thinking or evidence. […]

    Like

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