Sunday, February 12, 2012

My Story: Part 10

My Story: Index
Continued from part 9...

As I intensified my examination of the Bible, I would often watch debates on Youtube.  One of the things I often heard the non-believers say was that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."  In particular, I remember having heard this from Christopher Hitchens, and that he credited that maxim to the ideas of David Hume and Thomas Paine.  Hitchens spoke very highly of those men, and of Thomas Jefferson, too.  I was really interested in Jefferson at the time, so I became very interested in reading what Hitchens, Hume, Paine, and Jefferson had written on the topic of religion.

Other than the eloquence and wit with which Hitchens wrote, I wasn't much impressed by him.  However, I did glean several important things from him.  First of all, his propensity to quote other religious thinkers (most of whom I hadn't previously heard of) led me to discover the writings of those individuals, most noteworthy being On Miracles by David Hume and The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine.  Secondly, Hitchens taught me that if a Christian was able to prove that there was a God (hypothetically speaking, of course), they would still have all their work ahead of them to prove that that God was the Christian God (or Jewish, or Muslim, etc., in the case of a Jew or Muslim), and that the Bible was inspired by Him.

This latter idea was a significant one for me to realize because previously I had thought that my belief in God somehow lent credence to the literal truth of the Bible; that God's very existence was a reason to believe in the Bible. I learned, however, that this was not the case, for, as I learned Jefferson, Paine, and Hume believed, perhaps there is a God, yet He didn't inspire the Bible (or, not all of it, at least).  Basically, I learned that the existence of God doesn't mean the Bible is true. That's a rather simple idea, but one that I hadn't given much thought to.

This exercise in logic led me to study quite a bit more on the topic of logic.  I listened to many podcasts and an Oxford University course on the topic.  I learned just how important logic was to the pursuit of truth, and, unfortunately, how little prior knowledge I had on the subject.  I grew to really love logic and the practice of identifying logical fallacies.

One logical fallacy I learned about in particular was that of "shifting the burden of proof."  Interestingly enough, this fallacy was at the heart of why I believed in certain stories of the Bible, e.g. the Exodus.  I believed in the Exodus, in large part, because I didn't know how to disprove it.  In effect, I was essentially shifting the burden of proof away from myself, and placing it on the person who didn't believe the Exodus, attempting to force them to give me the reasons not to believe it.  However, according to the fallacy of "shifting the burden of proof," this was incorrect reasoning.  Instead, I, as a believer in the Exodus, should have had to give the reasons to believe it, not the other way around.  In short, one should only believe something because of the evidence for that thing, not because of not knowing any evidence against that thing  (for another example, see Russell's Teapot).

This and similar realizations brought to light the importance of evidence in determining truth.  I learned that evidence, and the proper interpretation of it, is really one of the main ways (if not the only way) to know the truth about anything whatsoever, let alone the truth about the Bible.  This idea is known within the field of epistemology as evidentialism.  I learned that evidentialism forms, in large part, the basis of science, history, and really all fields of scholarship relevant to my questions.

Inherent in the philosophy of evidentialism is that, when analyzing any given claim, agnosticism is the proper starting point.  In other words, one should start by saying "I don't know whether x is true," and then proceed to analyze the evidence, and follow wherever it leads.  As I applied these ideas to my belief in the Bible, I found myself often saying I didn't know what parts of it were true anymore.

This was mainly the case for the parts of the Bible that were miraculous.  The reason for this was because of the aforementioned maxim "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." (which, later on I learned was mathematically grounded in the laws of probability, viz. Bayes Theorem).  In a nut shell, this idea says that (unlike the evidence we need for natural events) we need lots of extremely good evidence to believe that in the ancient past a Supernatural Entity intervened in the physical world and performed deeds that went contrary to the known laws of nature.  Without such evidence, the miracle stories shouldn't be believed.  Natural, more common stories, on the other hand, can be justified by only a little evidence.  Therefore, of all the stories in the Bible, the miracle stories need the most evidence in order to justify believing in them.

As time went on, and my belief in the Bible started to dwindle, I began to indentify myself as a Deist.  I soon realized that my belief in God was even more foundational to my faith than what my belief in the Bible had used to be (that seems so obvious now, but at the time it was a somewhat new idea for me).  So, in order to be consistent, I started critically examining my belief in God, too.

I can remember listening to hours upon hours of mp3s of debates and audio books during my night-shift job at the shop.  The nature of my work allowed me to physically go on auto-pilot so that I could almost fully mentally engage in whatever information I was listening to.  I would really try to put myself in the shoes of both the believer and the non-believer.  It was both emotionally draining and yet deeply satisfying, and I just knew, deep down, that I had to do it.  It felt right to seek for truth in a challenging way.  It was a struggle, though, and many times I didn't know who to side with.

I became fairly familiar with the popular Christian apologists (William Lane Craig, Mike Licona, Gary Habermas, Dinesh D'Souza, Alvin Plantinga, Alister McGrath, etc.) and their arguments (Kalam Cosmological, Fine-Tuning, Ontological, Intelligent Design, Argument from Objective Morality, Minimal Facts Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus, etc. By the way- other than various reformulations of the Kuzari principle, I didn't encounter many rigorous, Jewish arguments.  I wrote about one such formulation of the Kuzari here).  I also became familiar with the popular Atheist/Agnostic debaters (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Bart Ehrman, Robert Price, Dan Barker, Richard Carrier, John Loftus, etc).

All in all, I began to see faith differently.  Years ago I used to think faith was just knowledge that was spiritual in nature.  Now, however, I've learned to see faith as the belief in something despite the lack of evidence for it.

Some people, I also learned, are OK with having this type of faith- perhaps because it makes them happy, or gives their lives meaning.  I, on the other hand, try to believe in that which there's evidence for.  So, while my journey has led me to agnosticism, I continue to search for evidence, wondering if one day I'll find enough of it to justify having faith again.

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