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.*
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.