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Old People Believe, Therefore It Must Be True: Religion and a Particularly Bad Argument from Popularity

Of all the bad apologetics and mind-bogglingly terrible pieces of so-called “evidence” for God’s existence that I’ve seen, this one is the latest.*

Praying hands “People who have been Christians their entire lives tend to remain Christians and not change their mind in their old age. Therefore, God exists.”

No, really. I’m serious. From Friendly Atheist comes the story of Pastor David Hoffman of the Foothills Christian Church, who has made this challenge to atheists: Find anyone who was a Christian for a significant amount of time and only in their old age decided to lose their faith. In correspondence, Pastor Hoffman has since clarified the details of this challenge:

Find someone who has lived for Jesus Christ for a significant amount of time (40-50 yrs) and is older (70+).

That person would say that as they look back on their life they regretted their decision to trust Jesus.

That person would tell young people to not trust Jesus because he doesn’t come through.

Pastor Hoffman adds:

…this is going to be a challenge because Jesus is faithful to those who put their trust in him.

Sheesh. Where do I start?

Dan barker Well, first, we start with the many comments on Friendly Atheist, from atheists who do, in fact, fit the parameters of this challenge, or who know other atheists that do. Yes, Virginia, there are people who let go of their Christian faith and become outspoken atheists in their old age. If “nobody loses their belief in Christ when they’re old” is your foundation for religious faith… it’s time to start shopping around for a good foundation repair place.

But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that it’s true.

How on earth would that be an argument for the existence of God?

Mistakes_were_made For one thing, if you know anything about psychology, you know that the more deeply committed people are to a belief, the more likely we are to hang on to it — even in the face of powerful evidence against it. We rationalize our beliefs to enable us to make decisions and move forward without being crippled by guilt or doubt… and the process is self-perpetuating. The deeper we get into a rationalization, the more likely we are to hang on to it. People’s degree of attachment to a belief is a truly crummy indicator of how likely that belief is to be true.

And I’m hard pressed to think of an example of “deeply entrenched belief” than someone who’s held the same religious faith for their entire life. Especially since that belief is constantly being reinforced by others in their religious community. Frankly, the fact that anyone at all is willing to question and abandon their religious faith at age 70 or above is freaking phenomenal.

What’s more, old people who have been in a religious community for their entire lives are a lot less likely to publicly declare that they don’t believe — even if they don’t. There are extremely powerful social pressures to hang on to your religious belief… and to shut up about it if you’ve let it go. Publicly declaring yourself to be a non-believer can mean alienating your friends, your family, your entire social support network. And that’s going to be even more difficult and painful for someone in their 70s than for someone in their 20s or 40s. Again, I am stunned that anyone at all is willing to not only let go of their faith at age 70 or older… but is willing to say so in public.

But finally, and maybe most importantly:

Pastor Hoffman is arguing that people who have been Christian for a long time tend to remain Christian… and that this therefore proves that Christ is really Lord, and is faithful to those who put their trust in him.

800px-Ali_Gomaa So what does he say about old people who, throughout their long and challenging lives, have consistently kept their faith in Allah?

In Buddha?

In Vishnu?

In the Torah?

In the Goddess?

How is it that the faith of old Christians is such a wonderful piece of evidence for the reality of Christ and his love for the faithful… but the faith of old Muslims and Hindus and whatnot somehow doesn’t count as evidence for the reality of Allah or Vishnu or whoever?

Does Pastor Hoffman really not know about old Muslims, old Buddhists, old Hindus, old Jews, old Wiccans, old Jainists and Satanists and Santerians and Zoroastrians and every other religious belief you can think of under the sun?

Religious symbols If not, if he really doesn’t know about these other religions or hasn’t thought about them, then that is a shameful degree of ignorance in a religious leader. And if he does know about these other religions — and he knows that their adherents are every bit as faithful to their beliefs as Christians are, well into their old age and until the day they die — then I have absolutely no idea how he reconciles that knowledge with his “old people believe in Christ, therefore Christ is real” argument.

This isn’t anything more than a specialized version of the argument from popularity. “Other people believe it, therefore it must be true.” And it doesn’t hold water… any more than the argument from popularity ever does.

*Thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from which I shamelessly pilfered and adapted this line.

Comments

  1. says

    but the faith of old Muslims and Hindus and whatnot somehow doesn’t count as evidence for the reality of Allah or Vishnu or whoever?
    And don’t forget elderly life-long atheists – by Hoffman’s reasoning, that should count as evidence for the reality of, well . . . reality, right?

  2. says

    Even if you find just the right candidate for this guy, won’t he just move the goal posts? He’ll say that the person was not a true Christian because they were of the wrong denomination or never had a sufficiently dazzling born again experience, etc. I’m not quite 60 years of age, so I’m a bit under age for this, but until this year, I was a devout liberal progressive Episcopalian. No, I don’t really know what took me so long to give it up. I’m certainly happier and more at peace with myself as an atheist. The social isolation is a problem. (I’m still doing some volunteer activities at a progressive church.) Other than the two people I’ve come out to, no one else has even noticed the difference. Since progressives don’t do much god talk anyway, I’ve begun to wonder how many others are there for reasons other than believing the god stuff, too. Quite a few, I think.
    And many of those who might say they believe have never really thought about it. Lots of believers have a faith that’s a yard wide but shallow enough to walk through without getting your feet wet.

  3. says

    “And don’t forget elderly life-long atheists – by Hoffman’s reasoning, that should count as evidence for the reality of, well . . . reality, right?
    Ah, but those people convert to Christianity on their deathbeds, just like Darwin did. –sarcasm–

  4. Valhar2000 says

    Ah, but those people convert to Christianity on their deathbeds, just like Darwin did.
    And they are lost souls, too, so their opinions can be safely ignored, because if you pay any attention to them you will go to Hell.

  5. says

    “Pastor Hoffman is arguing that people who have been Christian for a long time tend to remain Christian… and that this therefore proves that Christ is really Lord, and is faithful to those who put their trust in him.”
    Which means that Hoffman has already built in a defense against any example of a person who lost their faith after 70: clearly, they didn’t put enough trust in Jesus. I wonder if he did that on purpose.

  6. vel says

    Hmmm, my father, who is now *71* is much less a Christian than ever before and much more a deist. I think he would become agnostic or atheist if he didn’t fear death, in that little bit he does.
    Golly, another liar for Christ in Pastor Hoffman. Seems rather than an argument from popularity, this could be called an argument from habit…

  7. ckitching says

    Maybe I’m being cynical, but I wonder if he chose 70 because it’s near to the average life expectancy. Feeling your own mortality creeping up on you and watching friends or family starting to pass away might make you less inclined to give up comfortable beliefs about death even if you have doubts about them.
    Of course, if I’m right, that means the good pastor is being a cynic, too.

  8. John the Drunkard says

    The argument could be extended to anything:
    “People who have been [White Supremacists]their entire lives tend to remain [White Supremacists]and not change their mind in their old age. Therefore, [White Supremacy] exists[is correct]”
    Feel free to insert:
    [stalinists]
    [Ayn Rand nuts]
    [‘free market’ anarchists]
    [investors in pyramid schemes]
    [alt-med true believers]
    [pedophiles]
    ad infinitum.

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