Wednesday, November 30, 2011

David Marshall: "Have Christians Lost Their Minds?"

I read the Introduction and Chapter 1 of David Marshall’s The Truth Behind the New Atheism. Chapter 1 is entitled “Have Christians Lost Their Minds?”, and Marshall in that chapter is responding to the new atheist charge that Christians believe in something without proof or evidence. Marshall takes on this charge in at least two ways. First, he argues that Christianity does not believe in accepting claims without any evidence at all. Marshall appeals to a variety of things, such as the proofs that the risen Jesus showed to his disciples that he was alive, Origen’s reference to evidence for Christian claims in his response to Celsus, and Blaise Pascal’s use of reason to support Christianity (which dismantles the view that Pascal’s Wager was a call for blind faith). Second, Marshall contends that even scientists (and the new atheists) accept certain things without proof, such as the reliability of their senses and their brains, as well as the scientific findings of their peers.

Regarding Marshall’s first argument, I think that Marshall does well to highlight that there are many Christians—-both academic and lay—-who have justifications for their beliefs, meaning that they do not glorify believing without proof. But I do not agree with Marshall that the new atheists are attacking a strawman, for I have heard plenty of Christians who do glorify believing without proof, and these Christians range from conservative to liberal. An evangelical colleague of mine said on a few occasions that God does not make his existence more obvious because God wants for us to have faith, and part of faith is believing without proof. A Catholic I know told me that the Intelligent Design movement is flawed because it assumes that the existence of God can be proven, and, if it can be proven, then there is no room for faith. I’ve heard and read these sorts of statements from Christians enough times that I doubt that they represent the fringes of Christianity. And, although Marshall is correct that the risen Jesus in the Gospel of John shows his disciples proofs that he is alive and that John 20:31 appeals to Jesus’ signs as evidence that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus in John 20:24-28 does bless those who believe without seeing.

What kind of evidence does Marshall believe that there is for the claims of Christianity? I can only speak about what I have read so far, and I realize that Marshall tackles this question more in this book and his other works. Consequently, my critiques may be flawed, but please bear with me: I’m just interacting with what I’m reading, and I’m not claiming that what I’m saying is the end-all-be-all. Marshall acknowledges that some of the evidence is “a broader and more social evidence than the scientific method in the strict sense allows” (page 18). It can include experience, or insight that people gain once they commit to the Christian faith (and, contra Richard Dawkins, Marshall states that this does not just mean believing in a creed, but it includes a way of life). Marshall states on page 31, in reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, that “If religion is about any more than shadows in our minds, difficulty and mystery are inevitable”, which could imply that the complexity of Christianity indicates its supernatural origin (though, on the other hand, Marshall may not be discussing the evidential foundation for Christianity in that statement, but rather is just pointing out Richard Dawkins’ inconsistency in saying that Christianity is too simplistic to be from God, and yet is too obscure to be true). There are the miracles that Jesus does in the Gospels, which even secular historians acknowledge. Against those who say that we can’t trust the testimony in the Bible, Marshall contends that “most of our knowledge is based on ‘implied faith’ in other people”, and “Almost everything we know—-not just about first-century Palestine, but about dwarf stars, neutrinos, state capitals, vitamins, and sports scores—-we believe because we find the person telling us the information is credible” (page 18).

The logical next question, though, should be why we should consider the Bible to be credible. I doubt that Marshall accepts everything that he reads and hears from people. He criticizes relying solely on the Internet for information a couple of times in this chapter! Moreover, even if Jesus was reported to do miracles, so were a bunch of other people in the ancient world, both Christians and non-Christians. The same occurs today. So why should we assume that miracles attest to the truth of Christianity, when there are claims (even eyewitness ones) that non-Christians have done them, too? Regarding the complexity of Christianity, I seriously doubt that Christianity is the only religion or belief system with paradox or mystery. Plus, how do we differentiate between a mystery and simple inconsistency and irrationality? I wonder how Marshall addresses these sorts of questions.

Regarding Marshall’s second argument—-that scientists believe some things without proof—-that depends on where Marshall is taking that claim. If his point is that science is merely a speculative enterprise that has no evidence backing it up, then I would disagree with him. But I doubt that he believes that, whatever his argument is, for he states that he switched to a belief in an old earth from young-earth creationism, and I’m sure that he did that on the basis of some evidence. Marshall does do well, in my opinion, to ask what the epistemological basis for science is. On what basis can we trust our senses, our rationality, or our peers? People for centuries have wrestled with these issues, as Marshall (a well-read man) knows, for there have been many skeptical movements throughout history.

Regarding our senses and our rationality, I cannot absolutely prove that they are trustworthy, but they do seem to work a lot of the time. When I recognize the validity of certain scientific laws that scientists have observed and conceptualized, things go well for me: I don’t jump off of a high cliff, for example, for I am aware of a rule called gravity, which I have seen over and over again. I think that scientists have the same sort of attitude towards their senses and their rationality: sure, maybe they can’t provide a solid epistemological foundation that legitimizes them, but their senses and rationality happen to work on a fairly consistent basis, so why not go with them? Regarding peers, my impression is that there is more going on than scientists just accepting what other scientists say. Peer review sifts out the wheat from the chaff according to criteria of what is plausible and implausible. Granted, scientists may not have the time to verify everything another scientist tells them, and so they accept it, but hopefully there is enough evidence for what that other scientist is telling them that they could verify it if they wanted to do so.

I’ll close with something that Marshall says on page 11. In response to new atheists’ question of “Who designed the designer?”, Marshall states that “Better philosophers than Dawkins or I, including Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, have answered these questions.” I prefer to say that they addressed these questions, rather than answered them. “Answer” implies that they have closed the book on the subject, when actually their “answer” may not be satisfying to everybody. But, then again, I have my biases, for, when it comes to evolution vs. creationism, I have often said that evolutionists have “answered” the objections of creationists!


  1. Could you share a bit more on his views on Pascal? I agree with him, but I want to know what he says.

  2. His main argument is that Pascal wasn't promoting blind faith, but that Pascal's Wager was addressed to those who don't think that the evidence points conclusively towards Christianity, or they're trying to determine where the preponderance of evidence points. For Pascal, there is enough light for those who want to pursue Christianity, but enough darkness for those who don't. Pascal still believed that apologetics had a place, though. Another consideration that Marshall brings up is that Pascal saw faith as more than belief, for it encompasses a moral life. This is probably in response to Dawkins, who asks why Pascal's Wager is based on believing in God rather than, saying, being kind.


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