The problem with C. S. Lewis’s moral argument – Part 2

This is the second part of my two-part account of what I made of C.S. Lewis’s moral argument for the existence of God when I encountered it in my early twenties, and why it didn’t convince me to become a believer.

Quick summary of material covered in Part 1 (statements below are summaries of positions, not direct quotes):

C.S. Lewis: We all share certain moral values which are universally agreed upon (don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t cheat, etc.). The universality of these moral values is beyond what can be explained by instinct or social teaching, and hence must indicate the existence of some kind of divine being who instilled these into humans.

Me: Hang on. Surely all these shared moral values are just as well explained by our ability to understand the feelings of others and accept them as objectively important in the same way as our own feelings are? Therefore meaning that these shared moral values don’t, in fact, necessarily indicate the existence of a divine being? All very interesting; need to think about this further.

 

So, I thought about it further. There were questions about my hypothesis that still needed asking:

1. Did it work? Rather an obvious point to consider. Did this basic principle – our understanding that the feelings of other people are also important – actually work to explain all of the moral codes that humans shared?

I did manage to think of one exception; the universal prohibition on incest. Of course, part of this is because in nearly all cases incest is abusive, and it hardly takes much thought (snark about Duggars deleted here because I don’t want to get too far sidetracked) to see how a principle like ‘Avoid hurting other people’ prohibits both sexual abuse and the hideous betrayal of family bonds. However, it’s also true that sexual relationships with close relatives are generally viewed as wrong even in those few cases where they quite genuinely are consensual. So there it was; one example of a universal moral code that didn’t seem to derive from consideration of the feelings of others.

However, this taboo didn’t seem to require me to hypothesise a morals-dispensing god to explain it; it seemed easily explicable in evolutionary terms. Having sex with a close relative would increase a person’s chances of having a child with health problems or a severe disability, and hence (because the small subsistence-level groups that humans had lived in for most of our history weren’t really in a position to support the disabled or those in poor health into adulthood) reduced their ability to pass on their genes successfully. People who didn’t want sex with their close relatives would therefore have an evolutionary advantage over those who did. Over time, we’d evolved a powerful and near-universal revulsion at the thought of sex with close relatives that had no more to do with morality than our opposable thumbs did; it was a genetic-level survival strategy.

That was the only exception I could think of; all the other universally shared moral codes I could think of were traceable back to a basic ‘do as you would be done by’ principle. Of those moral codes that seemed widespread enough to describe as universal, I couldn’t think of any that were so inexplicable as to require me to hypothesise a divine being to explain them.

2. Was I just not going back far enough? Our shared moral codes could be easily explained by our ability to appreciate that the feelings of others mattered – but what explained that ability? Was that something that could only be explained by the existence of a god who had endowed us with this skill?

No, I didn’t think so. Evolution had, over the millennia, shaped the human brain into a tool capable of amazing feats of intelligence and discernment. I didn’t see any reason why this complexity couldn’t also have produced the ability to understand the feelings of others. In fact – although I can’t remember whether or not I recognised this at the time – such an ability would in itself be an evolutionary advantage, since humans that lived together in co-operative groups where the members looked out for one another would have a better overall chance of survival than humans that tried to live and hunt on their own.

Two quick points here, in hopes of pre-empting objections:

Firstly, I do recognise that some people reading this may find this a sticking point; many theists believe that the complexities of the human brain and its abilities exceed anything that evolution can account for, and a small minority reject beliefs in evolution altogether. If so, then that’s outside the scope of this post to discuss, but it is worth noting that at that point you’re out of Moral Argument territory and back into Design Argument territory, which is something I previously commented on here.

Secondly, someone might well misunderstand this argument and think that I’m trying to claim that evolution can explain morality by itself and start explaining to me why it can’t. If so, you’re going to be attacking a strawman, since that’s not what I’m trying to say. What I believe is that the abilities from which we obtain this moral code – our ability to empathise with others and understand their feelings as important, our ability to think about what effect our actions may have on the feelings of others – can all be explained by evolutionary processes. We’ve then used those abilities to go far above and beyond the original evolutionary benefits they gave us, just as we’ve created great works of art with the manual dexterity that originally evolved to make us better at making the flint tools that would help keep our tribes alive; just as the Mona Lisa makes no difference to anyone’s survival, thus the moral code we now have involves far more than ‘what will best propagate our genes’. But I do believe that the original abilities that have enabled us to develop this moral code are explicable in terms of evolution and the ways in which it has shaped the brain. In other words, there is no need to look at them and see them as a mystery that only a god could have produced.

 

It seemed I had a solid, non-god-related explanation of why humans share a moral code. Which left me with one further important question to ask:

3. Which theory – mine or Lewis’s – was more likely to be right?

There was a simple way to assess this; I pictured the results we’d expect if Lewis’s theory were the correct one, and the results we’d expect if mine were.

If Lewis was right – if our shared moral code were a message from an interested deity wishing to let us know what behaviour was expected of us – then the first conclusion that seemed reasonable was that we’d expect to get a complete moral code. After all, it’s hard to see why a deity who’s interested enough to give us such a code in the first place would give us such a bare outline of it. Sure, we might not get every single detail spelled out; but we wouldn’t expect to have massive disputes over issues as fundamental as what did or didn’t constitute murder. If Lewis’s theory was the correct one, then we wouldn’t disagree over whether abortion or euthanasia or gay sex were OK. Our innate shared knowledge would cover all the significant issues, and that would be that.

(That, at least, was my reasoning at the time, which is what this post is meant to be about. However, an interesting logical alternative has occurred to me in writing this; we can, with just as much logic as Lewis used, hypothesise that our moral code was instilled in us by a being who didn’t include guidance on those issues because it genuinely doesn’t care about them. Which would mean that any moral beliefs not universally shared among human beings must be issues that God wasn’t bothere about either way. In other words, if Lewis’s Moral Argument theory was actually correct, then one logical conclusion would be that God isn’t actually bothered by such issues as gay marriage or abortion. I’m gonna bet today’s salary that you didn’t think of that one, Lewis.)

The other thing I’d expect if Lewis were correct would be that this shared moral code would include an innate understanding of the need to apply it equally to everyone everywhere. After all, why should this god care more about our behaviour towards people we knew or who we considered part of our in-group than it cared about our behaviour towards foreigners or other groups with which we couldn’t easily identify? Especially given that a key point of Lewis’s argument is that this code is universal among humans and that this is meant to indicate that this god cares about the behaviour of humans collectively and not just a subgroup thereof? So, if our moral code did indeed come from a god who cares deeply for all of humanity, we’d expect this code to include the same automatic care for all of humanity.

If, however, I was right about our shared moral code coming from our ability to understand and consider the feelings of others, then we’d expect to see quite a different picture. We’d expect there to be large disagreements between both individuals and societies on what constitutes moral behaviour – after all, just because we’re starting from the same basic principle of considering the feelings of others doesn’t mean we’re all going to have the same beliefs as to how this principle is best put into practice. We’d also expect that consideration for distant strangers would come with much more difficulty than consideration for people whom we perceive as being in our in-group, partly because we identify with the latter more easily and partly because, as I mentioned above, this ability probably evolved precisely because of the advantages of concentrating our energies on helping those in our in-group.

In other words… not only did my hypothesis explain perfectly well how and why humans share a near-universal moral code, it did so better than Lewis’s hypothesis. The facts of the world that I could observe all around me fitted better with my explanation than with his.

It was a shame; I’d really felt that Lewis was onto something new and interesting here. But his explanation didn’t hold up, so that was that.

And that’s why Lewis’s moral argument didn’t make me a believer.

The problem with C. S. Lewis’s moral argument – Part 1

When I was in my early twenties, a few years after becoming agnostic, I read C. S. Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’ for the first time. More accurately, I read part of it; I got bogged down somewhere in Book 2 and never finished it. However, the part I read contained Lewis’s famous moral argument for God, which, as far as I could remember, I’d never previously come across. I have no idea why that was the case – it’s a very famous argument and I’d spent the past several years reading everything I could find in several major libraries on the ‘Why you should/shouldn’t believe in God’ question, so it seems unlikely that I’d managed to miss it completely. Maybe I’d read a poorly-written summary and forgotten it. In any case, there I was, several years into my search for answers on the God question, finally looking at a completely new approach to the subject.

What’s more, it seemed to be the best argument I’d seen so far. With hindsight I think this was not so much a tribute to the power of the argument as an indictment of every other argument I’d ever read on the subject; for the first time that I could remember, my reaction to a pro-theism argument wasn’t “Hold on, surely [obvious objection]?” but “Wow. There’s something to this. I need to think about it.” So I did. I really wanted to know whether Lewis did indeed have something there; whether this actually was the elusive proof of God’s existence for which I’d been searching for so long.

Since I’m here on an atheist blogging platform today, it will probably not be too much of a spoiler if I tell you that it wasn’t. As it’s an important apologetic argument, it seems worth writing about why it wasn’t; as it’s going to be raised in the next chapter of CCCFK, I thought it would be worth doing that now. This (in two parts, because it ended up being longer than I’d anticipated) is my response to Lewis’s moral argument.

First, a quick summary of the argument itself, for anyone who hasn’t heard it. While Lewis put it better than I will, it boils down to this:

  1. We all share and agree on, to at least some extent, a moral code (i.e., a sense of certain actions being right or wrong) and a tacit understanding that other people with whom we interact in normal life are going to share that code with us. (Hence, statements like “You can’t do that, it’s not fair” are appeals to that code; we anticipate that the person we talk to will understand what we mean by ‘fairness’ even if they disagree with our assessment of their action according to that ‘fairness’ standard).
  2. This innate shared understanding is over and above what societal customs could account for (while some of it does vary with society, it’s normally accepted that rules like not killing people or taking their stuff are an actual moral code and not just some kind of weird societal convention).
  3. The only way that humans could have this kind of innate universal understanding would be if it came from some kind of external being who cares about our behaviour and designed us with this innate moral code.

I was impressed. Not only was this an intriguing new line of argument that was challenging me and making me think, but it also made a really nice change for an apologist to be arguing from the premise that unbelievers such as myself did know right from wrong, rather than the erroneous belief that we didn’t. Hah! Take that, all you apologists who’ve tried to tell me I can’t possibly have any idea about morality.

So, food for thought there. Was Lewis right in his belief that only a deity of some kind could have given us this universally shared moral code?

There was, I realised, a big problem with that hypothesis; our shared moral code isn’t arbitrary. It isn’t a list of weird incomprehensible rules with no explanation. Our moral code (at least, the parts of it that we could fairly describe as universal) is, in fact, based on something very obvious; the understanding that other people feel pain and pleasure just as we ourselves do, and that these feelings are important to other people just as they are to us.

We know what it’s like to want to avoid pain, to want to be treated fairly, to want to have the option of pursuing those things that give us happiness and satisfaction in life. We extrapolate from these desires plus our ability to understand that others share these feelings. From this, we grasp that it’s good to avoid inflicting pain on others, to treat all people fairly, to make sure that other people have the option of pursuing happiness and satisfaction in their lives. We understand that it’s wrong to kill or steal or harm people or judge people unjustly, because we get that these things hurt other people just as they would hurt us.

(Having realised this, I also realised that one of the huge flaws in this underlying ability was our tendency to apply this understanding only to those we considered to be part of our in-group. Tribe, country, race, religion, gender, sexuality… throughout history, the natural human tendency has been to divide others mentally into Us and Them, and to apply this do-as-you-would-be-done-by principle only to the Us group. The history of improvements in morality, I realised, effectively consisted of pushes for increasing broadening of the group of people included in the Us group, and increasing realisation that that really ought to include all humans everywhere. I’d never thought of it in quite this way before; I was quite intrigued by the concept.)

This all seemed like an excellent working hypothesis to explain the universal moral code that Lewis believed could only be explained by the existence of some kind of deity. I’m pretty sure I didn’t use the term ‘working hypothesis’ at the time, but I did understand that my idea was something I needed to examine carefully for flaws before reaching any final conclusion as to whether Lewis or I was right about this one.

To be continued…

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Two, Part Four

My nine-year-old daughter* and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review children’s apologetics book Cold Case Christianity For Kids, by J. Warner Wallace. The introduction to the series is here; posts in the series are being linked up there as I go along.

 

*She is in fact now 10. She was 9 when we sat down to review this chapter. One of these days I’ll catch up with myself, although I hope I manage it before she turns 11.

 

(This is a longer post; we were getting close to the end of the chapter and finishing it all in one lot seemed simpler at this point than breaking the narrative yet again.)

At somewhere around this point in the narrative, according to my notes, Katie and I seem to have diverged into a brief aside about what Jesus’s death is meant to be about in Christian narrative; the belief that we’re all sinners who can’t get into Heaven and thus Jesus had to die in payment for our sins. I can’t remember how we got onto this, but remember being interested to see what she’d make of it, as it’s a theology I’ve always found quite horrifying. Katie, as it happened, focused on another detail entirely; she didn’t see why death was necessary according to this theory.

“But wouldn’t it be really, really painful?” she asked me, referring to Jesus’s death. “And wouldn’t the pain be the payment? I mean, supposing you got shot in the face for everyone’s sins – even if you survived it, wouldn’t it be really painful being shot in the face? Wouldn’t that be the payment?”

Good point. I can’t remember how I answered it. Anyway, we got back to the story.

To recap, Jeffries had been steering the cadets through the line of apologetic argument that consists of listing possible explanations for why the disciples went round preaching the resurrection to everyone, finding objections to every explanation other than ‘Jesus really did rise from the dead’, and then declaring that, since that’s the only explanation that we haven’t refuted, it must be the correct one. Katie had neatly spotted the key flaw in this; that miraculous resurrection is unlikely enough that, even if reasons make all the other explanations highly unlikely, we are still not going to be left with a situation where miraculous resurrection becomes the most likely. The cadets/Jeffries had the following list:

  1. Jesus didn’t really die – He fainted, woke up, and walked away.
  2. The disciples were so upset about Jesus dying that they imagined they saw Him alive.
  3. The disciples stole the body of Jesus and lied about the resurrection.
  4. The story of the resurrection was added on many years later as the story of Jesus became a legendary fairy tale.
  5. Jesus rose from the dead.

…and had got as far as refuting point 1, though not to Katie’s satisfaction. On with the story; since only three cadets ever seem to get to say anything in this class, it’s Hannah’s turn to refuting the next point.

Hannah wants to mark off one more: “I don’t think they imagined it either. We read that five hundred people all saw Jesus at the same time and in the same way. They could not all imagine the exact same thing.”

So, hang on; did she and Daniel also read 1 Corinthians? That’s an odd thing for children tasked with researching the resurrection to decide to read; the gospels, yes, but there would be no reason for them to realise that this particular letter had any information in it. Of course, what’s more plausible here is that she and Daniel just read an apologist’s work on the subject. If so, that would also explain both why Daniel’s knowledge of the resurrection evidence seemed to be helpfully structured in the form of a minimal facts list rather than referring to specific gospel references, and also why Hannah erroneously thinks that the report of the appearance to the five hundred has them all seeing Jesus ‘at the same time and in the same way’, which in fact isn’t stated in the appearance report at all.

Jeffries, having apparently not heard of the Fátima miracle, agrees that there is “no such thing as a ‘group dream’ or ‘group hallucination'”. No, but there’s such a thing as religious fervour stirring large groups up into a state of mass hysteria.

Jason speaks up now: “But couldn’t the disciples have lied about it? Or maybe somebody else lied about it years later and added the story of the resurrection to the legend of Jesus?”

“Aha!” declares Jeffries. “That’s where the fourth piece of evidence comes in. The disciples were willing to die for what they claimed about the resurrection. Awfully hard to understand unless they were telling the truth. Who would die for something they know is a lie?”

I initially thought Jason’s question was a response to Hannah’s point about the report of five hundred people seeing Jesus; that he was trying to point out that we don’t know whether five hundred people actually did see Jesus, or whether rumour and exaggeration added this particular claim on to an already-existing resurrection belief some years later. As such, it’s a perfectly valid point, and one that someone should have made, but on rereading it I realised this bit was actually meant to refer to points 3 and 4 on the original list; it seems no-one is going to take any issue with taking the one-off report of five hundred people seeing the risen Jesus at face value. Jeffries also tells us that points 3 and 4 have other problems which they’ll have to talk about later as they’re almost out of time, so I guess we’ll hear more about them in subsequent chapters.

Katie, meanwhile, was busy thinking of other possible explanations the cadets might have missed; Theft And Fraud By Persons Unknown was apparently next on her list, closely followed by Alternative Supernatural. “What if the guy who stole him decided to pretend to be him? To put his clothes on and make wounds in his hands to look like him? For the praise? Because he saw all the praise Jesus was getting and wanted some? Let’s say your best friend dies and you see someone who looks like him. You see some slight differences, but do you think you care? You’d be like ‘You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive!’ And if this reincarnation stuff is true, how do you know ghosts aren’t? He floats up to heaven, he gets absorbed into God – he’s a ghost! Oh, my god, I’m coming up with twenty different explanations!”

I asked her if she wanted to hear my thoughts on what they were saying, and she agreed she did. I explained about the Bible not, in fact, saying that all the five hundred people who were supposed to have seen Jesus saw him ‘in the same way’ – we don’t have any details at all on what they thought they saw. I also explained that I’d read one historian saying that grave robberies were common in those days.

“Well, that makes sense,” Katie said. This is, I pointed out to her, a disturbing thing to hear from your child in response to information about people stealing bodies from graves; to my relief, it turned out that this was because she’d learned about grave robbing when studying Ancient Egypt last year. She agreed that this could account for a missing body. (It wouldn’t on its own account for the claims of resurrection appearances – I still think the most likely explanation is that these started as grief hallucinations and went on to some kind of religious fervour-induced mass hysteria experience – but that’s a bit complicated for a child and, as it was late and Katie wasn’t seeming desperately interested in getting more details, I don’t think I went into that at that point.)

Back to the book; Jason admits that the empty tomb is harder to explain away than he thought, but when Jeffries asks him “Explanation #5, that Jesus rose from the dead, seems to be the simplest explanation, doesn’t it?” Jason replies “Maybe, but I’m still not sure.” Good answer, Jason; this side of the story sounds convincing when it’s all you’ve heard, but it’s a great idea to find out more about the other side of a story before you make your mind up. (Yes, I know my headcanon is that Jason is secretly an evangelical Christian plant placed in the group to steer the conversation to religious issues. If he is a skeptic, though, good on him for not falling for the first superficially convincing argument he hears.) Chapter ends.

Katie, two chapters in, declared herself unimpressed with the arguments so far. “I’ve been able to disarm every single thing they throw at me,” she said, “so, unless they’re stepping up their game… I’m thinking that they’re probably not going to be able to convince me.”

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Two, Part Two

My nine-year-old daughter* and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review children’s apologetics book Cold Case Christianity For Kids, by J. Warner Wallace. The introduction to the series is here; posts in the series are being linked up there as I go along.

 

*She is in fact now 10. She was 9 when we sat down to review this chapter. One of these days I’ll catch up with myself, although I hope I manage it before she turns 11.

 

 

 

Chapter Two: Learn How to Infer: Learn How Detectives Find the Truth

Aaaaaaaand time for Bible class again, cadets and readers!

Jeffries asks who investigated Jesus ‘and the claim that He died and then returned to life’ (so at least now he’s referring to it as a claim, which is an improvement – at the end of the last chapter, he was referring to the resurrection without any acknowledgement of the possibility that it might not have actually happened). Hannah and Daniel say that they did. Hannah says that they ‘read that part in our Bibles’ and found out that there are four books in the Bible called Gospels that describe what Jesus did.

Jeffries replies that the Gospels were written by ‘men who knew Jesus, or were friends of those who did’ and thus contain eyewitness testimony, which is a very important form of evidence. Jason promptly asks how we know that these are ‘real eyewitness testimonies instead of legends or myths or something?’ Yay, Jason! Exactly the question to be asking here! To which Jeffries’ answer is:

“Great question as usual. We’ll take a whole session to talk about that – but not today. We’re going to start with the evidence we have and see if it holds up on its own. If it does, then we will check and see if we can trust the testimonies.”

So, hang on… what? Surely the evidence they’re looking at is the testimonies. How the hell can they see if those hold up as evidence before knowing whether they can be trusted in the first place? Surely that’s backwards?

(I do note that Jeffries now doesn’t even seem to be pretending that this supposed police cadet class has been organised as anything other than an evangelical Bible class. ‘We’ll take a whole session to talk about that’, but no sign of him having planned any actual police-related activities for the sessions?)

So, Daniel is asked to make out the list of evidence he found out about the resurrection of Jesus. To which the normal response, I’d have thought – bearing in mind this is a child who’s supposedly read the resurrection accounts for the first time – would at best be a slightly confused list of semi-remembered appearance reports (“Well, Matthew said this, and then Mark said this… wait, was it the other way round?”) Since Wallace’s main aim is apologetics rather than realism, we instead get what seems to be a simplified version of Habermas’ minimal facts approach:

  1. Jesus died on a cross and was buried.
  2. Jesus’s tomb was found empty. His body could not be found.
  3. Jesus’s disciples said they saw Jesus – alive (resurrected).

Anyway, Jeffries adds one item:

4. Jesus’s disciples were so committed to their testimony that they were willing to die for it. They never changed their story.

No queries this time from Jason as to how we know this; maybe he’s got the message that questions like that are just going to be brushed aside with a ‘great question, but we’ll put it on a ‘Deal With At Unspecified Later Time’ mental list and just proceed as though we can assume this point is true’.

But… that said, I am actually going to give Jeffries at least the first part of this point. While the actual martyrdom stories of the disciples are based on pretty shaky evidence, the fact does remain that, in Rome at that time, being a Messianic claimant or a follower of a Messianic claimant could be seen as insurrection against Rome. After all, the Messiah was meant to be a Jewish king who would rule over an emancipated Jewish people whose enemies had been roundly defeated and kicked out – fighting talk, as far as the Romans were concerned. Going round publicly preaching that you followed a Messianic claimant who had already been tried and executed for sedition against the Romans? In that time and place, that was a pretty good way to get yourself into nasty trouble with the law and, yes, potentially executed. The fact that the disciples were willing to do this meant that, whether or not they actually did end up dying for their testimony, they were clearly willing to – either that, or they had so much faith in the rightness of their cause that they believed God would protect them. Either way, one point I do agree with was that the disciples themselves weren’t lying; whatever had convinced them, they genuinely believed that Jesus either had risen or would rise.

Back to the list. Time for the cadets to make a list of possible explanations for the evidence, which is written by Jason in consultation with the others. I missed an opportunity at this point, and regret it; I wish I’d asked Katie for her thoughts on possible explanations before giving her the ones the cadets came up with, as it would have been interesting to see what, if anything, she thought of. Anyway, the cadets came up with – surprise, surprise – pretty much the list that Christian apologists usually come up with at this point so that they can debunk it, although it’s been appropriately simplified for the target age group:

  1. Jesus didn’t really die – He fainted, woke up, and walked away.
  2. The disciples were so upset about Jesus dying that they imagined they saw Him alive.
  3. The disciples stole the body of Jesus and lied about the resurrection.
  4. The story of the resurrection was added on many years later as the story of Jesus became a legendary fairy tale.

“With a capital H for some not-good reason,” Katie commented, indicating the ‘He’ and ‘Him’.

Good catch, daughter mine. Why would a skeptic non-Christian character be capitalising Jesus’s pronouns?

Well, yes, obviously the answer is that Wallace forgot this list was being written by a skeptic non-Christian character and wrote the pronouns the way he himself normally would. But I amused myself by coming up with an in-story reason; namely, that Jason is a plant. He’s secretly an evangelical Christian from Jeffries’ church and Jeffries has asked him to attend the course and pretend to be a skeptic so that he can steer the whole course into becoming an evangelising group. Think about it; although this supposed police academy course has in actual fact effectively been an evangelising Christian course from the minute Jeffries had an opening to steer it onto that track, it was Jason (by bringing up the subject of his churchgoing neighbours) who gave him that opening in the first place. If Jason hadn’t happened to ask that question, what on earth would Jeffries have actually taught them for the course, since he seems to have no actual police-related experiences prepared for them at all? If Jason’s a plant, then that wouldn’t be a concern; Jeffries would have been able to plan all this. I’m onto you, Jeffries and Jason.

Anyway, that’s the list Jason comes up with. Whereupon Jeffries adds ‘5. Jesus rose from the dead.’ because they ‘need to be fair and include every possible explanation’. Hoooooold on a second. Just a few pages back, Jeffries was telling us:

“…We’re trying to separate what’s most reasonable from all the stuff that’s just possible….Remember, many explanations may be possible, but not every explanation is reasonable. For example, it’s possible that little ‘tool-shed gremlins’ crafted the board to make it look old, but that’s not reasonable.”

So what happened to all that “it’s possible but it’s not reasonable” stuff, Jeffries? His/Wallace’s Christian faith happened, is what happened. Sorry, Jeffries/Wallace, but if you get to be skeptical about theoretical tool-shed gremlins, why don’t non-believers get to be skeptical about people rising from the dead?

(To be fair, I suppose one could reasonably argue that nobody is seriously putting forward the existence of skateboard-aging toolshed gremlins as a claim or as an explanation for anything, whereas there were at least many of Jesus’s followers who genuinely believed him to have risen from the dead. Trouble is, that isn’t actually much of a criterion for moving something from the ‘not reasonable’ to the ‘reasonable’ category of explanation. Many people genuinely believe in ghosts and other paranormal phenomena; do we have to include those as possible explanations for unexplained occurrences in order to be fair?)

This seems to be plenty for one post, and it’s about time I posted this instalment anyway. Discussion of the cadets’, Katie’s, and my reaction to the list will therefore be left to a subsequent post. <chirpy Stampycat tone> Byeeeee!

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Two, Part One

My nine-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review children’s apologetics book Cold Case Christianity For Kids, by J. Warner Wallace. The introduction to the series is here; posts in the series are being linked up there as I go along.

I originally planned to review one chapter per post, but that’s leading to impossibly long and unwieldy posts that are taking forever to write and that are probably a lot longer than anyone wants to read, so it makes more sense to split them into parts. This post will cover the first part of Chapter Two, in which we learn more about the skateboard.

 

Chapter Two: Learn How to Infer: Learn How Detectives Find the Truth

At the beginning of Chapter Two, the children examine the skateboard to see what they can learn from it. Jeffries shows them how detectives wear gloves to examine things in detail without contaminating them, and how to make lists of ‘evidence’ and ‘explanations’, which is all pretty cool – at least they’re learning something about police procedure. From the evidence gleaned, it looks as though the skateboard has been in there for at least nine years (dated from a sticker on it that has the old name of their school). They conclude that it’s an old skateboard, and Jeffries makes this statement of note:

“Remember, many explanations may be possible, but not every explanation is reasonable. For example, it’s possible that little ‘toolshed gremlins’ crafted the board to make it look old, but that’s not reasonable.”

Well said, Jeffries/Wallace! I hope Wallace makes this point forcibly to Young-Earth Creationists whenever he gets the opportunity. (Um… nope. Looks like he’s all conciliatory and ‘well, there’s probably some truth to every viewpoint’ about it.)

Two side points that struck me regarding the skateboard description:

  1. We learn that Daniel found this skateboard ‘hidden in a dark corner of the shed’. This, remember, is the shed at school, which seems to be where the custodian keeps stuff; it was described in the previous chapter as having rusty tools in it. Why on earth was a child allowed to go poking about in dark corners of this shed? That doesn’t sound safe to me at all. That custodian should be on the carpet for irresponsible behaviour. (Wait – maybe that’s why Daniel was allowed to take the skateboard! Maybe the custodian left the shed unlocked when it was supposed to be locked, and let Daniel take the skateboard in return for staying quiet about it!)
  2. The skateboard has a sticker on with the school name, but (I think this is one place where it’s reasonable to assume from silence) no sticker with the owner’s name. As a parent, I can tell you that this sounds odd; you are not going to go to the trouble of labelling your child’s stuff just to narrow it down to the school rather than the child, and you are not going to buy stickers that have your child’s school on them but not the name. I’d immediately take this as evidence that the skateboard was some sort of school equipment and that they should be talking to the school office to see whether there’s a record of such a thing. Maybe that’s going to get covered later.

Anyway, in the midst of all this we also have another of those CSI Assignment insert boxes, this one telling us to look up 1 Corinthians 2:14 – 16 and asking us what we think Paul is talking about when he describes the ‘natural man’. Since the first few translations I checked didn’t even use the term ‘natural man’ and Katie was getting pretty bored with me going through checking translations, this one was a total non-starter.

(I have finally sorted out which translation Wallace was using; I took the fill-in-the-blank quote he gave us in Chapter 1, stuck the bit we had into Google, and got it from BibleHub. He’s using the NIV. Hooray! But what on earth was the deal with not telling us this? Have I missed something obvious in the book where it tells us which translation it is? I simply cannot see it. )

Somewhere in all this, according to my notes, Katie and I got into a discussion about miracles. Can’t for the life of me work out how this fitted into the text of this chapter; we’d probably started talking about the last chapter. In any case, here it is:

(Me): How do you know miracles can’t happen?

(Katie): I’ve never seen one.

(Me): Well, there are lots of things you’ve never seen, like Australia, that are still real.

(Katie): No. But… have you ever seen one? Has Granny Constance ever seen one? Has anyone you know ever seen one? So, most people probably haven’t seen one, and some people definitely haven’t… if it’s that rare, it doesn’t seem like it could ever happen. Unless that lamp starts flying around, I think it’s pretty unlikely.

 

This seems like a good place to break, as it finishes the section about the skateboard. In the next part, we’ll be back to Jeffries evangelising. Although, fortunately, the smirking seems to have stopped.

 

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter 1

My nine-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review children’s apologetics book Cold Case Christianity For Kids, by J. Warner Wallace. The introduction to the series is here; posts in the series will also be linked up there as I go along.

I’m going to do these reviews by reading each chapter to Katie and making notes of what she says as I go along, then using these to reconstruct our discussion as best I can in the blogpost. The usual demands of a busy life mean that it’s now a few weeks since I made the initial notes on this chapter, so goodness knows how this will come out; I did type up Katie’s main comments as close to verbatim as I could manage, so the quotes from her should be fairly accurate, but I didn’t type up my part of the conversation, so this reconstruction does involve a certain degree of poetic licence.

 

Chapter One: Don’t Be a “Know-It-All”: Start Every Investigation Like a Detective!

At the start of this chapter, Daniel has found a skateboard in the school shed, which the school custodian (I guess that’s what we would call the caretaker?) tells him he can have. (We find out in the next chapter it’s been there for some years, so this isn’t as cavalier as it sounds.) Daniel assumes it belongs to a friend of his who likes skateboards, which is Jeffries’ cue to jump in and tell them* that lesson one is ‘don’t be a know-it-all’ and that they shouldn’t assume things – they need to gather the evidence first. ‘To be a good cold-case detective, you can’t start with your mind already made up’, he tells them.

*The book is still written in second person, so technically this should be ‘tell you… that you shouldn’t assume things’, etc. But writing that way is just too weird, so I’ll stick to third person for this review.

Also, Jeffries has his ‘signature smirk forming on his face’ when he starts this conversation. What is it with Jeffries and smirking?  Why is Wallace writing him this way? This is supposed to be a tribute to Wallace’s much-respected former mentor; these mentions of smirking just make Jeffries sound so unpleasant. Does Wallace not know what the word ‘smirk’ actually means? Anyway, I shall start referring to him as ‘Smirking Jeffries’.

So, Smirking Jeffries asks for another example of starting with your mind already made up, aaaaand here we go… a boy called Jason gives the example of his next-door neighbours (neighbors, I guess, but sod it, I’m British and I’m doing British spelling) who invited his family to church and who think that Jesus did miracles/came back from the dead, which Jason just doesn’t believe, so aren’t they being ‘know-it-alls’ by ‘assuming all that stuff about Jesus is true’?

Ohhhh, Jason. Oh, sweetie. What have you started there, you?

So, surprise, surprise… Smirking Jeffries is straight onto that one. He tells him that he ‘might have it backwards’. The story continues:

“How do you know they’re assuming it’s true? What if they’ve decided it’s true because of the facts?” Then Jeffries points out, “Aren’t you being a ‘know-it-all’ by assuming all that stuff about Jesus isn’t true?”

“Now they’re jumping to conclusions,” my daughter declared of Jeffries/Wallace, homing straight in on the inconsistency like an inconsistency-seeking missile.

I agreed that this might be true, but mentioned in fairness that a lot of Christians (like Wallace himself) do reach their conclusion because they genuinely feel it’s what the evidence supports. “They’re probably over-exaggerating,” Katie declared. “People usually do over-exaggerate. My side… their side.” She flipped each of her hands outwards in turn to indicate. “So I might say ‘Well, this is probably true but I don’t think this is’, but a Christian might say that it’s all really likely.”

“But remember there can be bias on both sides,” I felt obliged to warn her. We restarted:

So, Jason asks whether ‘this Jesus stuff’ couldn’t just be made up, and Smirking Jeffries tells him:

“We need more information before we make any judgements on the subject. Wouldn’t you agree? We don’t want to start with our minds made up,” adds Jeffries.

And, to underline the importance of not starting with your mind made up, very nearly the next thing we get is another of those little grey ‘CSI Assignment’ insert boxes saying this:

God has given us more than enough evidence to know He exists. Read Romans 1:18-20. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been _________, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”

Now read Romans 1:21-23. So why do you think some people still refuse see the evidence?

Nothing teaches children to look at all the evidence like giving them flat statements to accept with no prompt to consider whether they’re actually true or not. Right?

Anyway, I went back to the BibleGateway site and had another fruitless attempt to figure out what translation Wallace was using, which somewhat put the kibosh on the fill-in-the-blank question. I ended up using the International Children’s Bible, so that at least it would be reasonably straightforward for Katie to understand. The verses Wallace was sending us to, it turned out, are a doozy of a passage about how God is angry with people for all being evil and for not believing in him. Yup, exactly the message I want to be drumming into my children, so thank you for that one, Wallace. Really, the passage declares, it’s so obvious that God exists that it’s totally unreasonable that people aren’t believing in and giving thanks to him.

“This is all a bit weird,” Katie told me. “People say that people don’t thank God – but what proof do we have that a god even exists? And also I think it’s a bit sexist – they always talk about God, but Christianity never says things were made by a goddess. Why couldn’t they be a married couple, a god and a goddess, sharing everything? That would be fair. How do you know God has made everything? That just drives me round the bend. People saying this stuff with no proof whatsoever. The assignments are kind of boring, I must say.”

The last part of the passage claims that people who don’t believe in God are fools. I asked Katie how she felt about that.

“I don’t believe in God, and I’m one of the cleverest people in my class,” Katie retorted. “So take that, computer-written script of some sort that started off as a book that I’ve never read because it’s boring!”

I pushed a little harder, curious as to how she’d react to apologist arguments. What about the claim that we could see God’s actions in the world and therefore it was silly not to believe in him?

“Hey,” she declared, “it’s silly not to believe there are flying pink elephants, because look at all the destruction they’ve caused! But that doesn’t make them real!”

I did feel I had to raise the obvious objection to that one: “But we can see there aren’t any pink elephants flying through the sky. Let’s face it, they’d be pretty noticeable.”

“So? They might be very shy pink elephants, and,” she leaned in towards me for emphasis, “I never stated the size.”

I went back to the question at the end of the insert box; ‘So why do you think some people still refuse see the evidence?’ [sic]. It’s rather an odd question for Wallace to have put in at this point in the book; he hasn’t yet given us any evidence, but he’s talking as though he has. From the cite of the Romans passage, it looks as though the evidence he’s referring to is meant to be the existence of the universe. I asked Katie why she thinks some people don’t see this as evidence for believing in God.

“Well, I think it’s because we’ve got no proof it was made by God.”

“So how do you think the universe came into existence?” I asked her, curious to see what she’d say. She pulled the computer towards her and typed in ‘SIENCE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’

We went back to the story (well, I told her how to spell ‘science’ and then we went back to the story). Smirking Jeffries tells Jason it’s a great question and he’s glad Jason brought it up (yeah, I bet he is):

“As a matter of fact, it’s a lot like a cold case. It’s a mystery we can investigate, just like the Case of Jesus – or the Case of the Mysterious Skateboard. Why do some people think the Jesus stories aren’t true?”

Nitpick alert – surely this is the Case of Jesus, if you’re going to call it the Case of Something? I’m puzzled as to how it’s ‘just like’ the Case of Jesus. Think that was a mistake. Anyway, Jason answers Smirking Jeffries’ question by saying that Jesus does miracles ‘and that’s impossible’. SJ asks him if he’s sure about that, and then goes on to talk about the origin of the universe:

“I mean every ‘natural’ thing – all space, time, and matter – came from nothing. That means whatever caused our ‘natural’ universe was something other than natural.”

[… a bit more about the skateboard] “But we know skateboards can’t create themselves, and space, time, and matter can’t create themselves either. So whatever creates the universe must be something other than space, time, or matter.[…]”

So, SJ tells the students that something or someone must have created the universe. And, of course, he’s steering them towards this being someone. A creator.

“You are talking about God, right?” Daniel offers.

“Sure,” says Jeffries. “But for today, let’s just agree to keep an open mind and be ready to listen and learn.[…]”

Good advice, Jeffries, so let’s start by remaining open to the possibility that the universe might have been created by a natural process we don’t as yet know about, or possibly even some type of creator that wouldn’t at all match the mental image it’s now fairly obvious SJ has of a god.

Anyway, the point SJ is trying to make here is about miracles; his argument is that if a being exists who can create the universe from nothing, then surely that being should be able to suspend the natural laws of said universe from time to time; i.e., do miracles. I asked Katie what she thought of that idea.

“I suppose so,” she said thoughtfully. “But… well, I’m really good at imagination. That’s what I’m good at. But I’m not so good at other things. So maybe he created the universe, because creating things out of nothing is what he’s good at, but he’s not so good at, say, sports. Or doing other miracles.”

Very interesting point, I thought. Even if we did someday prove that the universe was deliberately created, that would still not mean that we could assume anything else about the abilities (or motives, for that matter) of the creator. It’s a point I wrote about on my previous atheist blog, here.

Anyway, to summarise Wallace’s line of argument here:

  1. If someone/something could create the universe, then that being could (probably) also do miracles.
  2. Therefore, we shouldn’t let the miracle stories put us off the Jesus story.

Interestingly, this is exactly how I used to feel on the subject; when I was investigating Christianity myself, I never saw the miracle accounts as a reason to discount the stories in the Bible. (There were, as I discovered, plenty of other reasons, but that’s another blog series for another day.) However, what I didn’t really realise or take into account back then was the extent to which human beings throughout history have been willing to believe unquestioningly in miracle claims. There were plenty of non-Christian examples of this in the time and area where Christianity first originated, and most of us would be perfectly OK with dismissing those miracle stories as rumours and legends.

So… sure, it’s theoretically possible that any given miracle story we might come across, including the ones in Christianity, might turn out to be the exception that is actually genuine. It’s just that any given miracle story is colossally, overwhelmingly more likely to have a natural explanation. That’s why I now think the appropriate response to any miracle story is skepticism rather than open-mindedness.

Anyway, this seems to be the end of the session for this week. SJ tells the children to ‘keep an open mind and be ready to listen and learn… don’t assume the story about Jesus is impossible’ and sets them the assignment of seeing what they can learn both about the skateboard and about Jesus. ‘Start with the biggest miracle of all: His resurrection’ he advises them, his openmindedness apparently not extending to phrasing such as ‘claims about the resurrection’ or ‘his alleged resurrection’. We also get another grey insert box, this one about open-mindedness: ‘Don’t allow your doubt to stand in the way of the truth, and don’t start an investigation assuming you already know the answer. Be open to following the evidence wherever it might lead.’ This is great advice, but it is also so at odds with the statements we’re given in other insert boxes. All this reads as though Wallace wants the readers to believe they’re making a genuinely open-minded examination… while all the time he’s steering us towards the conclusion he’s already drawn.

 

Katie’s thoughts

Katie was enjoying the read and review so far: “It’s quite entrancing,” she told me. “Is that the right word?” We talked it over and agreed that ‘gripping’ would probably work better. However, she was a bit fatalistic about the possibility of drawing any final conclusions from debates like these. “I don’t know why, but I feel like there is no true answer, because people are born and they just end up thinking their way, because they just do. Their DNA says that, and that seems to be pretty much it. So they’re going to over-exaggerate evidence on their side and… under-exaggerate? Is that a word? Anyway, they’re going to over-exaggerate evidence even if they’re not trying to.”

 

My thoughts

Before reading this book, I’d vaguely assumed it would take the same sort of format as what I’d seen of Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity; illustrative anecdotes interspersed with his arguments. In fact, of course, he’s done something different; written it as a fictional story about children investigating Christianity as part of their police academy cadet classes. Under the guidance of a police officer who’s clearly trying to steer them towards Christianity. With no indication that any other activities have been planned for said classes. (I mean, there’s been nothing in the way of “This week I was going to show you how we fingerprint suspects, but what would you think of giving that a miss and talking about this instead?”)

The result of this in practice is that Wallace has actually written a story about a police department running a Christian evangelising group and falsely advertising it to the children as a police academy class.

In addition to all the ethical questions this raises (including the uniform! The children supposedly have new cadet uniforms for this course! Who paid for these? Their parents? Did they know their money was actually going on outfitting their children for a Christian evangelising group operating under false pretenses?) I’m wondering, here, about Alan Jeffries. The real Alan Jeffries, that is; Wallace’s former colleague on which Smirking Jeffries is explicitly based. While Wallace clearly meant this as a tribute to a mentor he greatly admired, it does mean that the fictionalised version of Jeffries he has written is portrayed as

a) following a particular belief system which not everyone follows and to which some people do have vehement objections, and

b) using sneaky, unethical, and I suspect actually illegal tactics in an attempt to convert others to this belief system.

And, since it seems a fair bet that Wallace doesn’t see any problem at all with any of this part of the storyline…. I’m just hoping that Wallace did actually think to check all this with the real Jeffries in advance and make sure Jeffries was OK with it. Because if anyone tried this on me, then, while I would appreciate the thought and the knowledge that I’d made this much of a long-term impact on them, I also wouldn’t be too happy about being portrayed that way. Maybe Jeffries is fine with it – I don’t want to make assumptions – but I hope that’s the case and I hope Wallace did check.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids Review, with actual kid. Introduction.

For a long time now, I’ve been meaning to do a chapter-by-chapter book review and discussion, following in the footsteps of such illustrious bloggers as Libby Ann, Ana Mardoll, Jenny Trout, and many others. I had a couple of possible books in mind, and indeed still have them in mind, but then… I saw that J. Warner Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity For Kids was available pretty cheaply on Kindle, and had a sudden brainwave. Since I happen to have a non-Christian child with an interest in the whole idea of doing reviews of stuff, why not go through it and write a review together with her?

I wasn’t sure how Katie would feel about the idea, but in fact she jumped at it and decided we should do this as her bedtime story each night. (Which may commit me to a rather faster schedule of typing up posts than I actually have a hope of managing. Oh, well. Bridge, cross, when, etc.) “It’ll probably make me change my mind about some things,” she told me, “but probably not about the main thing.”

I decided that I’d make my notes on a file on my laptop word processor as we went through. This has the advantage of speed (my typing’s a lot faster than my writing) but the drawback that Katie leans in and types whatever random things take her fancy, so my notes on her thoughts are somewhat interspersed with random interjections such as ‘Mooo! Sorry, unexpected cow interruption’ or ‘Wednesdays are explosive’. (My daughter has a somewhat surrealist turn of mind.)

“This review,” I told her, “is going to end up sounding like that time we were at your Auntie Ruth’s wedding and the rabbi was starting to say “So, here is the explanation of why it’s a Jewish custom for the groom to smash a glass with his heel…” and you randomly shouted out “Rory the racing car!”

She giggled at that one. “What was wrong with me?”

“Well, you were two and a half at the time. So fair enough. But maybe we could aim for something a bit more serious here…”

So, I’m planning to filter out those interjections before writing up the blog posts, but, you never know, if the primary subject matter gets boring…

Anyway, since not much happens in the book’s introduction, I’ll start out by using this post to fill in some background.

 

Dramatis Personae (OK, that is actually meant to refer to a book’s characters so I’m totally misusing it here. Dramatis Personae for this blog series, I mean.)

J. Warner Wallace

J. Warner Wallace, the author of this book, is a detective who became famous for applying investigative principles to Christianity, deciding it was all true and he should convert, and writing several books about it why he thinks this. These are called the ‘Cold Case Christianity’ series, since he aimed to crack the what-happened-to-Jesus mystery in the same way he cracks cold cases at work. He also has a blog, in case you want to read more.

Katie

My daughter is nearly ten, an intense, imaginative live wire of a child who loves art, computer games, maths, and science, and has recently adopted a bunch of teasels and stuck eyes on them to turn them into pets.

I’ve never tried to dictate the religious beliefs of either of my children, believing that it’s something they need to decide for themselves; I tell them my beliefs when the subject comes up, but also tell them that other people have different beliefs. Katie in fact told me shortly before she turned six that she didn’t believe in God. In more recent years, she moved on to a rather interesting and complex belief system that involved God being an evil god from an alternate universe who had taken this universe over; all this praying people did, she believed, was only encouraging him and really ought to be stopped. It was an intriguing and quite well worked-out belief system, but, when I asked for an update prior to starting this review, I found out she’d moved back to atheism again.

“Just stuff,” she told me, when I inquired as to what had changed her mind. “Sometimes I might want an Oreo for pudding and then change my mind and want something else. Sometimes I just change my mind about stuff.”

I asked her again the following day, and got a more substantive response: “Science explains things better,” she told me (though without being able to specify any examples). “And God doesn’t seem very nice. For one thing, he’s anti-gay. If Christians are wrong about him being so amazing, there’s more chance they’re wrong about the rest of that malarkey. I don’t know what malarkey means, actually – what does it mean? Meh. Whatever.”

Me

Longstanding atheist/general skeptic. I do actually have one thing in common with J. Warner Wallace in that I also spent a lot of time investigating Christianity’s claims; from the fact that I’m here on this site, you can probably deduce that I came to a different conclusion from him. And, yes, I totally want to write a series of posts on that investigation at some point. Someday I will have time. Someday…

At some point I’m sure I’ll get round to figuring out how to put up my sidebar bio, but since I haven’t done that yet I’ll add here that I’m also a British GP, mother of two, and bookworm.

 

OK, that’s us. On to the book’s introduction, which is in two parts: ‘A Quick Hello’, and ‘Wanted: A Few Good Detectives’. All that’s happening at this point is the setting up of the story, so nothing too unmissably thrilling. If Katie did make comments on these bits, I didn’t write them down and can’t remember them, so for this bit it’s just the summary and my thoughts.

A Quick Hello

J. Warner Wallace introduces himself as a police detective specialising in ‘cold cases’, which he defines for the reader. We also learn the following pieces of information about his background:

  • As a boy, wanting to become a policeman like his dad, he learned a lot from attending the Police Explorer Academy (which he doesn’t describe, but it seems fair to assume it’s some sort of programme for children interested in learning more about police work).
  • As a newly-qualified police officer, he was mentored by a senior officer called Alan Jeffries, whom he came to admire and respect greatly.
  • Later on, he used his detective skills to investigate the story of Jesus, and concluded that ‘the evidence was overwhelming’ and that the Biblical accounts were true.

His aim here, apparently, is to combine all three of the above for this book; the readers will ‘enter the Detective Cadet Academy’, be trained by Alan Jeffries, and, as well as learning how to be good detectives, will learn ‘how to investigate the case for Jesus’. Also, the reader’s family can get involved and do this with them (so Katie and I are obviously on the right track here). Also, there’s a webpage.

Wanted – A Few Good Detectives

This is the introductory part of the story proper, which is told in second person present tense, like those ‘choose your own adventure’ books (though without all the ‘if you choose to fight the dragon, go to page 75’ bits).

We’re told that the local police department is starting a new detective training academy for student cadets (i.e. schoolchildren) which ‘you’ and ‘your friends, Daniel and Hannah’ jump at the chance of attending. At the first session, you get introduced to Alan Jeffries, who is going to be running the sessions, which apparently consist of these three and ‘some students from other schools in the area’. Jeffries gets impatient when you want to look at the exciting stuff actually going on in the police station, because apparently you’re all meant to spend the time sitting in the briefing room hearing about police work rather than getting to see any, or something. Which… I have to say doesn’t sound like a wildly successful and well-planned police academy cadet course to me, but what do I know.

So, Jeffries shows you through to the briefing room and asks what part of investigation interests the cadets most, and Daniel eagerly replies that he’s interested in gadgets/high-tech stuff he’s seen in movies, and asks if Jeffries can show them some of that stuff. Jeffries smirks at Daniel… wait, what the hell? Smirks? That is just such an unpleasant way to treat someone. Is this a ‘I do not think that word means what you think it means’ moment on Wallace’s part, or did he seriously mean to portray Jeffries as acting like a git?

Anyway, Jeffries tells Daniel that actually they solve most cases by ‘learning how to think’, because ‘[t]he brain is more reliable’ than gadgets/computers. Wait, what? Brains are actually not that reliable. Of course, they do have the huge advantage of being able to put facts together into patterns in a way that computers and gadgets can’t, but surely the data that the police get from the high-tech stuff is of crucial importance in giving their brains as many facts as possible to work on? I get that this is all a set-up for the whole ‘you’re going to use your brain to investigate Christianity’, but is it actually accurate as a description of what works for solving crimes?

Anyway, it seems the answer to Daniel’s excited request to be allowed to see high-tech police stuff is, in effect, a ‘no’. Poor Daniel. I’m not too impressed with this police cadet course so far, but nonetheless we are assured that ‘[y]ou can hardly wait for the next session!’ Maybe because almost nothing seems to have happened in this one and you feel it can only get better?

The one other thing to mention about this section is that we get an insert titled ‘CSI Assignment’, apparently the first of several such repeated through the book, in which the reader has to fill in blanks in Bible verses. Unfortunately Wallace doesn’t, as far as I can see, tell us anywhere which translation he’s using, which can be kind of a problem when you’re filling in blanks. Anyway, this assignment says:

God also wants you to use your brain to investigate the truth. Read Matthew 22:37-38. God tells us to love Him with all our heart, our soul, and our _______.

Read 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21. God tells us to examine everything _________.

So, as long as you assure children that they’re supposed to investigate the truth, it’s fine to declare the things you’re supposed to be proving as though they’re proved facts. Something tells me that Wallace didn’t spot the irony in that one.

Anyway, determined to do the thing properly, I found the BibleGateway site and looked up those verses for Katie to do the fill-in-the-blank thing (for those verses, the default translations are close enough to the one Wallace was using that it was easily doable). And that’s it for the introduction. I’ll link further chapter reviews back here as I do them.

Chapter reviews – links

Chapter One: Don’t Be a “Know-It-All”: Start Every Investigation Like a Detective!

Chapter Two: Learn How To Infer: Learn How Detectives Find The Truth! Part 1

Chapter Two: Part 2

Chapter Two: Part 3

From agnosticism to atheism

In my last post, I wrote of how – as the culmination of much reading and thought on the issue – I became an agnostic. I’m now going to jump forward twelve years from that decision and explain how I eventually moved on to atheism.

I was somewhere around seventeen (I can’t remember exactly) when I became an agnostic. It was a decision I was happy with, but never something I regarded as a ‘that’s it, case closed’ moment in life – I retained my keen interest in the whole topic and continued to read and think a lot about it, open to new arguments I hadn’t come across before. While I did in fact find one – C.S. Lewis’s moral argument – and found it quite intriguing, that one didn’t stand up under examination either (another topic I need to post about!) and I remained agnostic.

That was fine by me, but I’d also have been happy to find a convincing reason to believe in God (as long as it wasn’t the tyrant version of God that supposedly sent people of the wrong beliefs to eternal torture). I didn’t, however, think seriously about becoming an atheist, because that always seemed fairly silly to me. Sure, we couldn’t prove that God existed, but how could anyone prove that he didn’t? Surely agnosticism was a far more sensible option?

Fast-forward….

I was twenty-nine, and I was chatting to the boyfriend with whom I’d recently got together. (Who would, in fact, go on to become my husband, but that’s also a different story.) He was (and still is, for that matter) an atheist. Curious, I asked him why. How could he be an atheist when he couldn’t be sure that God didn’t exist?

And he asked me “Well, do you believe in fairies?”

Lightbulb moment. As silly as it sounds now, this way of looking at things had honestly, at the time, never occurred to me. No, of course I didn’t believe in fairies. Or ghosts, or vampires, or werewolves, or…. well, name your mythological being, really. And for none of those things did I feel the need to hedge my disbelief with disclaimers about how of course they might exist, since we couldn’t really know for sure that they didn’t and surely it was important to keep an open mind… No-one would expect me to. There was no good evidence for the existence of fairies, so my response to that was not to believe in them. Simple as, end of.

When I clung to my agnosticism about God, when I tried to tell myself I was right to be open-minded about the matter… I was actually cutting the notion of a deity a level of slack that I wouldn’t have cut for any other theoretical creature.

I rapidly realised two things:

  1. Logically, I really should be an atheist.
  2. While my commitment to open-mindedness and fairness was quite genuine… it hadn’t actually been my only reason for wanting to remain an agnostic, rather than an atheist.

Being an agnostic, you see, also allowed me to continue with the hope that maybe – just maybe – there was a God of the non-horrible type out there. (The kind of God traditionally believed in by Christians was a rather different matter, but that is yet another whole other issue for yet another of the increasing number of blog posts I totally mean to get round to writing sometime.) I liked the idea that, at the end of the day, the universe might be in charge of someone wise and kind and powerful who would a) make sure that nothing went too disastrously wrong for humanity and b) give us some kind of afterlife in which some kind of justice was done.

(That, I can see, may be misinterpreted. There seems to be a widespread belief among Christians – and among other religions too, for all I know, but Christianity is where I’ve encountered it – that we unbelievers all lead meaningless lives without God and just don’t want to admit it. My life has never felt meaningless in the slightest; I’ve been very happy and fulfilled in the here-and-now without belief. My discomfort came from the feeling of being without a safety net if things went wrong.)

However, the facts remained. Despite years of searching, I had been able to find absolutely no good reason to believe such a being existed. And I’d always striven to be as honest as I could about where my exploration of the issue led me. So… it wasn’t the kind of rapid shift that my shift to agnosticism had been, and took some months of gradually coming round to the idea, but I did eventually identify as an atheist. And, eighteen years on, I still do.

How I became an agnostic

This is – very belatedly and with apologies for the long gap – the fifth in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer (first an agnostic, ultimately an atheist).

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading, and my thoughts on the matter.

I wasn’t originally going to include either this or a post about how I moved from agnosticism to atheism, since I did write both those posts on my old blog, but then I decided that it would be good to have the whole story together in one place.

For those who haven’t read the previous posts, here’s the story so far: I’d spent a lot of time reading about why I should/shouldn’t believe in God, trying to make up my mind, but the arguments I read ranged from ‘inconclusive’ to ‘absolute rubbish’ and I was left feeling unable to reach any kind of sensible conclusion. This didn’t, as some believers would have it, mean that I was desperately searching to fill a God-shaped hole; I would have liked to be able to conclude that God existed (apart from any other considerations, it would have meant I could join a religion, which seemed to my lonely introverted teenage self to be a great way of finding instant community and the sense of belonging I craved), but I certainly didn’t feel my life would be meaningless without reaching that conclusion. I just felt it was something I ought to decide one way or the other. But none of the arguments I read were helping me do so.

And that’s where I was in my life when, browsing the shelves of the local library, I came across Yvonne Stevenson’s ‘The Hot-House Plant‘.

As I recall, it was in the biography section, not the religious section; I can’t remember why I looked at it. I guess the title must have caught my eye. The description, however, certainly did; Yvonne Stevenson was a vicar’s daughter who had written about her experience of converting from Christianity to atheism. That intrigued me, all right. Something had obviously led her to that decision; would her reasons be any help to me in my own?

No, as it turned out. But this book would still be the turning point in my search; my definitive ‘How I became an unbeliever’ moment.

Before I get to that, I’m going to switch genres for a moment into Book Review Mode, because, regardless of how it was to end up impacting my beliefs, this book was a joy to read. Yvonne Stevenson was a lively, irrepressible, strong-minded woman who threw herself into life and into her search for answers with engaging enthusiasm. It was quite an old book even then – Stevenson had been born in 1915, and was describing events in the first twenty-one years of her life, leading up to and following her conversion – but it was one of those delightful books that are timeless.

If Stevenson had lived a century later, she’d have become one of many bloggers telling similar deconversion stories. She grew up in a loving but strict Christian (Church of England) family, with a controlling father who encouraged her to think about her faith… as long as she was reaching the same conclusions as him. While she was happy with this situation for a long time, she came increasingly to question it as she grew older – and her questions weren’t getting satisfactory answers. Lost and seeking, she arrived at university and was initially shocked to meet an atheist for the first time. However, she was increasingly won over to her new friend’s worldview (which included Marxism as well as atheism) in a series of late evening discussion sessions. Eventually – to the fury of her family and her own great relief – she converted to those beliefs herself.

I loved the book (years later, I ordered a second-hand copy online just to have one for myself) but I also took its subject matter seriously and read it with the same careful analysis that I’d tried to bring to all the arguments I’d read – both pro and con – on the subject of belief. The questions Stevenson raised, the points her friend made – did they stand up? Or were there valid alternative ways to look at the issues?

In each case, unfortunately, the answers were ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ respectively. The pro-atheism arguments were interesting to read, but ultimately just as unconvincing to me as everything else I’d read. For one thing, a lot of them weren’t even directly about theism or Christianity as such -they were about the very rigid and classist form of Christianity with which she’d grown up, and, even as a teenager, I understood that I shouldn’t judge a whole religion by some of its participants and that her points, while very valid in their way, had nothing to do with the overall truth of Christianity. Even where the book did deal directly with the question of God’s existence, though, I didn’t feel any of her arguments were conclusive; I had little difficulty in thinking of counter-arguments. As much as I loved the book, I finished it feeling I had no more hard evidence for or against God’s existence than I’d had before I started it.

So, the book didn’t give me the Final Conclusive Argument on the matter for which I’d hoped. What it did, however, was to deal a knockout blow to the one teetering prop that had so far propped up my shaky such-as-it-was theism.

A key part of the book, you see, was Stevenson’s account of her actual conversion experience. As conversion accounts go, it was a good one. It was vivid, it was dramatic, it involved actual visions – including one of being born again – and it left her with a new, glorious sense of purpose and a life so joyously changed that she actually described her experience as seeing the world in colour and in three dimensions for the first time in her life. It was a conversion account so marvellously convincing that it would have done any apologetics book proud. Except, of course, for one little detail… this was her conversion to atheism. Her vision of being reborn (which she herself fully understood to be hallucinatory) was of being reborn as a child of nature and evolution, not of God; her joy and purpose were those of a person who has finally resolved a stressful dilemma and found a meaning that makes sense for their own life.

On top of that, there was her atheist friend’s excited comment on hearing the news: “It’s the most marvellous feeling, isn’t it, when you shake off Christianity? Everything comes alive! It’s indescribable. Like springing free from a great, heavy, black cloak that’s weighed you down.” (pp 157 – 8) Different vivid simile; same sentiment. Another person whose life had been left vastly happier and more positive by conversion… to atheism.

Under the circumstances, I felt it seemed quite fair to say that neither of these experiences could have been the work of God… which answered a key question for me. To recap something I wrote in the previous post in this series:

[T]here was still one category of evidence that… well, that still wasn’t conclusive, but that did seem to have more to it than the various ineffective arguments I was reading. This was the fact that so many people reported personal experiences of psychologically encountering God, often in compelling and life-changing ways.

As I said, I didn’t find this conclusive. There seemed to be other plausible explanations; after all, if someone really believed God was speaking to them or that God loved them, surely that could lead to the kinds of experiences of bliss and comfort and changed lives that I was reading about. Still, could this be enough to account for the experiences I was reading about? (This wasn’t a rhetorical question; I genuinely wanted to know the answer.)

And there, at last, was the answer: Yes, it could. This book had just given me clearcut, categorical evidence that it was perfectly possible to have a dramatic and utterly life-changing conversion experience for purely innate psychosocial reasons, without a deity being involved in it at all. I still couldn’t prove that God didn’t exist; but I’d just been left without any convincing remaining evidence that He did.

So I took the obvious route and started seriously considering atheism.

I rapidly realised something. During all the time I’d been considering the matter, while my conscious mind had been unable to decide, another and unrecognised level of my mind had always taken belief in God for granted. This had nothing to do with any genuine feeling of my own; it was the result of having grown up in a society where the prevailing message was that there was some sort of God out there, and of having internalised this and taken it for granted. While the logical part of my mind was analysing the matter, the part that went along unthinkingly with what I was told had accepted God as unquestioningly as it had accepted other beliefs. I found myself unable to look at the world around me without taking it for granted that there was a God behind it, like a presence behind a painted image. Trying to see the world another way felt not so much like an emotional wrench as like looking at an optical illusion and trying to make the mental shift from seeing it as two faces to seeing it as a candlestick.

So, I started focusing on trying to make that shift. Throughout my day, I practiced looking at the world and replacing my mental picture of a God behind it all with a mental picture of an absence behind it all; in what subtle ways would the world look and feel different if I believed there was nobody out there? It didn’t take very long; within a few days I felt I’d made the mental shift to seeing the world as one without a god behind it. The only thing was, this didn’t give me any more of a sense of ‘Aha! This way of looking at things is correct! I have found the right answer!’ than the background assumption that God was there.

Was there a god or wasn’t there? I thought over all the reading I’d been doing. All the inconclusive arguments, each one of which seemed to have its possible counter-argument. (The world must have been created by God – but what if it was actually created by some natural process that we didn’t yet know about? There was no sign of any Supreme Being directing human lives – but what if there was a Supreme Being who just didn’t direct human lives, for whatever reason? Round and round, on and on and on.) How long had these arguments been going on between humans? Centuries? Surely, if there actually was conclusive evidence on either side, the whole question would long since have been settled by now?

Finally I faced facts: If there was such a thing as conclusive proof that God did or didn’t exist, by this time I would have found it. We didn’t have such proof. I certainly didn’t rule out the possibility of it showing up at some unspecified time in the future, but what we had right then was what we had right then. Right then, we simply couldn’t prove the matter either way. There was, in short, only one sensible recourse; to become an agnostic.

And thus, with a sense of considerable relief at having resolved this, I became an agnostic. I would keep on actively searching for new arguments or evidence – but, in the absence of same, agnosticism seemed by far the most fair and sensible conclusion to draw on the matter. I was an agnostic, I was happy with that, and, although I didn’t know it at the time, I would continue to define myself as an agnostic for the next twelve years.

To be continued…

Why I’m not a believer – what about prayers and personal experience?

This is the fourth in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

I don’t know whether anyone’s been following this mini-series of posts (probably not, given how long it’s taken me to write it), but anyone who has read through the post series to date may well be wondering why there was even a question in my mind at this point about becoming a non-believer. So far, I’ve written three posts about different arguments for the existence of a god that I came across in my reading, and the overarching theme of all three seems to have been me looking blankly at the argument wondering why on earth this was meant to be even remotely convincing. Why did it take me so long to get to the point of officially declaring myself an atheist, or at least an agnostic?
Well, part of it was the difficulty of proving a negative; I couldn’t prove God didn’t exist, and hadn’t yet realised that that wasn’t in itself an automatic reason for having to take the possibility of his existence seriously without positive evidence for same. And a lot of it was an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ effect; so many people seemed so convinced that God existed that I didn’t feel able to dismiss the possibility just like that. Surely, if I kept reading and looking, I would find a more convincing argument one way or the other? Around the next corner? In the next book on the shelf on the religious section in one of the local libraries? But on top of that, there was still one category of evidence that… well, that still wasn’t conclusive, but that did seem to have more to it than the various ineffective arguments I was reading. This was the fact that so many people reported personal experiences of psychologically encountering God, often in compelling and life-changing ways.
As I said, I didn’t find this conclusive. There seemed to be other plausible explanations; after all, if someone really believed God was speaking to them or that God loved them, surely that could lead to the kinds of experiences of bliss and comfort and changed lives that I was reading about. Still, could this be enough to account for the experiences I was reading about? (This wasn’t a rhetorical question; I genuinely wanted to know the answer.)
I tried praying myself, since it seemed the obvious thing to try; if God did exist, this would give him the best chance to let me know directly. Not frenzied wordy prayers, just time in which I did my best to focus my mind on God and open myself to whatever He might be trying to tell me. And, when I did, I certainly noticed something – an inner sense of mental quiet, an awareness of my obligations. I figured that could indeed be God taking the first steps to commune with me. The trouble was, it also seemed the kind of effect that might plausibly be caused by me calming my mind and thinking I was communing with the divine. So which was it? And did the fact that I was even thinking that mean that I was overanalysing it and talking myself out of a genuine relationship with God like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle? Or did it just mean that I was exercising appropriate caution? After all, surely there was a risk that if I was too ready to believe I might talk myself into believing I was communing with God when I wasn’t, in much the same way as I’d managed to convince myself at the age of twelve that our house was probably haunted because I thought I could feel a presence there when I thought about it.
I simply didn’t know. This was such an important subject; surely it was incumbent on me to work out what the answer was! But I only found myself getting more confused. One thing was for sure; it all seemed a lot less clear-cut than the authors I was reading on the subject seemed to think.

And so my teenage years went on…