Talking with Christians (and religious people in general) is a mixed bag. Sometimes you get awesome intelligent people along with a really great discussion (even if you end up disagreeing). Most of the time, however, the discussion ends up in frustration. Having quite a bit of experience, I have put together a list of some of the most commonly used discussion killing “trump cards” played by many Christians. I’d like to address each one in a separate post. In analyzing each, I hope this will be useful to both skeptics and believers to promote more fruitful dialogue. But before I get to the list, I’d like to give an explanation as to the root of these “trump cards”.
While there is no doubt that humans are rational beings, there is also no doubt that humans are emotional beings. Unfortunately, at the conscious level, we are much more influenced by the latter than the former. Emotions and other psychological effects are so powerful, that humans have to work quite hard to be rational in the midst of them. This is not completely bad, since our drive, hope, and motivation are essential aspects our success. The problem is striking a correct balance, which is obviously fairly difficult.
Here lies one of the difficulties with Christianity. Not only is Christianity a system of belief, it is a system of belief saturated in emotion. It is a system designed to address the core of human longings: purpose, meaning, forgiveness, justice, belonging, love, hope, peace, etc. It provides a complete mental framework from which to operate. This, of course, is not a bad thing, but the practical effects of adopting it can make it rather difficult to maintain objectivity. One is easily blinded to the cold matters of truth when it just feels right.
This is an example of something I call a controlling assumption.
Definition [Controlling Assumption]: A controlling assumption is an assumption that once adopted sets a mental framework that interprets all data to be consistent with the assumption, even data contrary to the assumption itself.
One might describe a controlling assumption as a self-preserving assumption. It is intimately related to the idea of confirmation bias. For example, consider the famous psychological experiment where several researchers checked themselves into a mental hospital. Once admitted, they acted completely normal. One would hope that the doctors of the hospital would be able to recognize that these “impostors” were completely sane and free of mental illness. In other words, the healthy should be distinguishable from the sick. The problem, however, is that the doctors were under the influence of a controlling assumption, namely People who enter the hospital as patients have a mental illness. Because of this, the doctors interpreted the researcher’s normal behavior as symptomatic of their supposed “neuroses/psychoses”. Even as the researchers documented these things with meticulous notes, the doctors recorded in their charts that “Patients engage in note taking behavior” as if it was pathological. Ironically, those who were actually mentally ill caught on to the researchers almost immediately.
Although not always the case, the Christian belief structure can operate much like a controlling assumption, and part of the self-preserving nature of the belief structure manifests itself in various “trump cards” when being challenged. I address the first of these below.
“Trump Card” 1 -[You just have to have faith]
Generally, the very first response to any rational challenge is an appeal to faith. How “faith” is being used, however, is not generally very clear. When pressed for a definition, most respond by quoting Hebrew 11:1, which says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (NAS) Using this as a definition, what the Christian is saying is that one just needs to have assurance. My initial thought is, “Oh, is that all I need?”. Of course, even if Christianity is something I hope for, the problem is that I don’t have assurance. This is what I am seeking, but not finding. It strikes me a bit like saying to an addict who is asking how to stop, “Well, you just need to stop.” That won’t be received well, because that is the very problem that needs addressing.
The go to response from here is generally to deny that faith has anything to do with the intellect, but is a matter of the heart. Again, it isn’t at all clear what this is supposed to mean, nor is it clear where such an idea is expressed in the Bible. In fact, the Greek word for “heart” in the New Testament is καρδια or kardia, which was taken to include the whole self, including the faculty and seat of the intelligence. Thus, to say that faith is a matter of the heart and not the mind is an artificial and incorrect distinction even measured against the Bible.
Finally, telling someone that faith is required only pushes the problem back a step. Why is faith required? How does one know this? And what guides where I place my faith? After all, many religions appeal to the very same requirement. So, which does one choose? I think the issue clearly reveals that faith is not an epistemological tool that yields knowledge. This can be more rigorously demonstrated as follows.
(1) Suppose that faith provides a means of knowing something.
(2) The Christian has faith and so knows Christianity to be true.
(3) Therefore, from the definition of “know” it follows that Christianity is true.
(4) The Mormon has the same sort of faith and so knows Mormonism to be true.
(5) Therefore, Mormonism is true.
(6) Christianity and Mormonism are incompatible systems of belief.
(7) Therefore, either Christianity or Mormonism (or both) is false.
(8) If Christianity is false, then we get a contradiction with (3).
(9) Thus, Christianity must be true and Mormonism false.
(10) If Mormonism is false, then we get a contradiction with (5).
(11) Thus, Mormonism is also true, which contradicts (7).
(12) Therefore, since our initial assumption leads to a contradiction, it must be the case that (1) is false.
Of course, one could deny that Christians and Mormons have the same faith, but then one would have to wonder how we could possibly distinguish between “real” faith and “fake” faith. One would then have to appeal to something other than faith anyway.