Debating 101: Justifying Claims

One of the primary motivations for creating this blog was my observation of the tendency of many people, even famous intellectual atheists, to get caught up in the details of their opposition’s beliefs without ever examining or establishing the fundamental assumptions held by either party. As a result, they miss the opportunity to constructively exchange and engage with each other’s ideas. My first few blog posts will attempt to take a more prudent and structured approach to this complex debate.

To do this, we need to delve into some simple epistemology, which is the philosophical inquiry into how we know things. This kind of philosophizing may seem tedious and obvious at first, but if we clearly establish rules about how we should go about the conversation before we start, it will pay off in big ways once we get to discussing the actual content of our beliefs.

Let’s start with the following basic assertion: Every claim we make about reality must somehow be justified in order for us to accept it as true. It doesn’t matter what claim we make—whether we claim that smoking is unhealthy, that aliens exist, or that Elvis Presley is still alive—we must always do so with the understanding that in order to convince others that our claim is true, we must properly justify it.

But what does it mean to “justify” a claim? One might say it means demonstrating that it is reasonable. But if our goal is to actually convince our opposition that our claims are true and theirs are false then this will not suffice, for claims that can be shown to be reasonable are not necessarily always convincing. This we can deduce from the simple fact that one could judge several incompatible claims to be “reasonable,” yet since they are incompatible they cannot all be true.

For example, “life exists outside the solar system,” and “life does not exist outside the solar system,” might both be shown to be reasonable, yet we know only one of them can be true. In this example, most of us admit that we just don’t know which claim is true (yet), which is to say we are “agnostic” on the question of whether life exists outside the solar system. But for the kinds of mutually exclusive claims with which this blog will be concerned, like “God exists,” and “God does not exist,” I will proceed with the assumption that those who argue for either claim are not agnostic in the same way. In other words, we believe that our claims are actually convincing and ought to be believed, and are not just reasonable.

So justifying claims, for the purpose of this blog, will be synonymous with making them convincing. As we’ve shown, convincing someone entails more than demonstrating the claim to be one of several reasonable possibilities. Instead, to convince someone that a claim is true, one must demonstrate it to be the most reasonable among the possible alternatives.

But how does one go about justifying a claim (i.e. demonstrating that it is the most reasonable among alternatives)? We can agree that there are certain legitimate methods to justify claims: empirical and historical evidence, reason, logic, and personal testimony, to name a few. But how such methods should be applied in particular circumstances differ widely from person to person and claim to claim. There are also some methods of justification, such as “faith,” that both sides may not agree are legitimate. Because the methods we use to justify claims fundamentally shape our arguments, we must always critically examine what they are and whether or not we are using them legitimately.

Of course, what justifies a claim for one person will not always justify it to another. That’s ok. The point here is not to determine what precisely ought to convince someone that a claim is true in any situation; the complex nature of belief seems to me to render this question difficult if not impossible to answer definitively. Despite this limitation, there is one essential acknowledgement that I think we should all make: that the more extraordinary a claim is, the stronger the argument that should be required to justify it—“extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” the saying goes. For example, I could easily convince you that I went to the Grand Canyon by showing you a realistic photograph of myself at the Grand Canyon, but to convince you that I took a rocket to the moon would require far more than a photograph of me on the moon, no matter how realistic it looks.

We can begin to see how these epistemological ideas about justifying claims map onto the debate between theism and atheism. Theists and atheists make specific claims about reality that must be justified. But if we want to convince each other that our claims are true, we can’t just state our reasons for why we believe what we do and expect that to be enough. Rather, we must demonstrate why it is more reasonable to believe in our claims than any claims that disagree with our own. To do this we can use a variety of methods (empirical evidence, reason, logic, etc.), and which methods we deem legitimate and how we apply them are a fundamentally necessary component of the argument—for example, whether or not faith is a legitimate means of justifying belief in God and why is an essential question that we must address. Though we can’t definitively determine when a person “ought to be convinced” that the other side is right, we can acknowledge that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that we ought to justify them appropriately.

Do you think these are legitimate principles that should guide the rest of the conversation? Did I get something wrong? Did I leave something out?

It is essential to a productive and meaningful debate that we settle such questions now, or we will inevitably fall victim to the same kind of bickering that this blog was created to rise above. Let me know your thoughts.

22 comments

  1. I agree with most of what you said. The main clarifications I would want to make are:

    (1) Not every claim can be “justified” in the sense of being positively demonstrated. For instance, there is no way in which one can demonstrate the principle of non-contradiction, or that 2 + 2 = 4, except inasmuch as one can show that the denial of these create irreconcilable contradictions.

    (2) The scare quotes around “faith” indicate to me that the meaning of “faith” should be clarified. If faith is taken to mean something like, “I believe because I want to, and nothing you say will change my mind,” then obviously no person of faith is worth talking to. On the other hand, if faith is something like “trust in the testimony of a witness” (Augustine’s definition), then no person who lacks faith is worth talking to, since it’s impossible to have discussions without common ground. I am not agnostic about general relativity, evolution, the existence of Alexander the Great, or my own heritage, though I probably couldn’t prove a single one of these.
    Nor is it sufficient to say that I could, “in principle,” prove these things, given enough time and explanation. I probably lack the natural abilities in mathematics to be able to discover and prove general relativity, and I doubt that even a lifetime of explanation would change this. But even if this weren’t so in my own case, there are other people who clearly, given their natural abilities, simply aren’t able to discover or prove the deepest mysteries of the cosmos.

    This is regrettable, but the simple truth is that we will have faith, at least in Augustine’s sense.

    1. Hey Philonius, good points.
      1) True, but I would say that showing that the denial of certain claims creates irreconcilable contradictions is synonymous with justifying them, at least for our purposes. I suspect, however (and tell me if you think I’m wrong), that the kinds of claims with which this blog is concerned are not those kinds of claims.
      2) Yes, the word “faith” certainly begs clarification, and this will no doubt come up in a later post. For now, I just mean it serve as an example of a method of justification that people may not always agree is legitimate.
      You make a great point about how pretty much all discourse, and therefore also the process of justifying claims, requires some “trust” in certain assumptions, like our heritage or evolution. But do you think that God’s existence or the truth of any religion is one of those assumptions? I do not think so. Of course, as we attempt to justify our religious beliefs (or lack thereof) we should be examining what assumptions we take on to ultimately get us to those beliefs–that’s part of why I wrote this post–but I think in the end, we shouldn’t have to “trust” anything to determine whether these particular beliefs are justified. And in my opinion, we shouldn’t want to either: the stakes are too high.

      1. (1) Fair enough — the main point I was getting at is that eventually we get to first principles, and we won’t get anywhere else if we choose to be skeptical about these.
        (2) It’s a good point that God’s existence and the truth of religion are often assumptions. However, my clarification was meant to be that, most properly, we have faith in people, not ideas (at least, on Augustine’s account). Our belief in an idea, such as Jesus’ resurrection or general relativity, follows upon our trust in the witness given to us by a believer. If, after being preached to by a Gospel writer or a physicist, one finds that the testimony given is credible (literally, “believable”) then one has rational grounds (I would say) for accepting it. On the other hand, if one has grounds for believing that the Gospel writer or physicist is a lousy witness, and doesn’t know what he or she is talking about, then one should not accept what he or she has to say.

        I would content that 99% of our beliefs are based on testimony. I certainly wouldn’t have discovered quantum wave functions, but I know that they exist and that they work. Likewise, we trust in our historical sources about Alexander the Great, the some of the earliest were written hundreds of years after him.

        I agree that the stakes are high. To the extent that we are able (subsistence level farmers in Africa are not), we have a duty to seek the truth. The more interesting question for me is, when do we stop? Do we have to be persuaded that we have solved every philosophical and scientific issue before we can settle into our beliefs and just live? How do we decide that we have discovered truth as best we can, such that we can live in the confidence that we haven’t missed some important point?

        Perhaps this is something which cannot be argued for, one way or another, but must simply be done. I would contend that it is in the company of others that we find and settle upon truth, especially through dialogue.

        1. Awesome questions. If the theist believes based on trust, then it seems the skeptic’s responsibility, for the purposes of argumentation, is to convince the theist that he ought not trust his witnesses, whether by showing the witness’ claims to be unjustified, or by showing the witness himself to be untrustworthy. By “witness” I assume here that we’re not just talking about human individuals, but one of the many sources of belief, like the Bible or Church tradition. Also I think that a huge advantage of the skeptic is that insofar as he is a pure skeptic, he hardly trusts anything at all, but rather does the opposite. I will write about this later.
          You raise great questions on “when to stop questioning” as well. You may think that because I am writing this blog, I agree that we have a categorical duty to seek the truth. I do not. Rather, I personally enjoy it and find it fulfilling, and I DO believe I’m right, and I personally place value in being right. You ask when we should stop questioning and start living. Questioning, for me, is PART of living; something I do for its own sake.
          I can say (and I do) that people “ought” to question their beliefs, but what I’m really saying is that I personally think it’s a good thing for me, that I would like people to do it with me, and that I think they might benefit in a similar way. I’m not like the Christian evangelists who are on a mission to save souls. But I do think this particular issue of God and religion, because it deals with our eternal fate (or lack thereof) is one truly worth engaging with. I mean, if you’re going to think about stuff, why not think about this?

          1. I agree — any witness whose character or reliability can be convincingly called into question is not a worthy source of belief. If the Bible, Church, or scientific community can be discredited, then they can reasonably be disbelieved.

            I would also agree that we don’t have a “duty” to seek truth, depending on what you mean by duty. Initially, we have no reason to suppose that there is a some invisible entity telling us that we “ought” to look for “truth.” However, I would also say that seeking truth is a precondition for any life worth living. If you are human, then you have desires that you wish to satisfy. Even Buddhists *desire* to eliminate desire. But one cannot fulfill desires without some handle on the truth. Even if one insists that values are relative, there will still be hypothetical imperatives based on reason (“If you want X, then you should Y”), which one must know. Hence, one must seek truth (to some degree), if one wishes to accomplish or do anything.

            Nor you can you live with other human beings without sharing some truths, e.g. the truth that it would be good for us to live together peaceably. Truth is essential in politics: for instance, if you believe that gay marriage is wrong, or that abortion should be legal, then you had better explain why your position is correct.

            I agree that the stakes are high in the question of God.

            With respect to stopping questioning, my question was more along the lines of, “When is it acceptable to settle into a belief which regulates the course of one’s life?” Inevitably, there are beliefs which are more or less important to us; the answers we give to these partially determine who we are and how we live. It wasn’t my intent to suggest that we should ever shut down intellectually.

          2. Ah, I understand. I think in any case, your question, “When is it acceptable to settle into a belief which regulates the course of one’s life?” is an interesting one, though not one that has an objective answer… but I’m not even sure if I can give a subjective answer. What would such an answer even sound like? “You can settle into your belief when you’re really, really certain about it” ? That’s obviously problematic… In the end, I just enjoy this kind of discourse and want other people to join me. That’s not a philosophically satisfying conclusion, but I’m happy with it.

            I concur with everything else you’ve said.

          3. “Rather, I personally enjoy it and find it fulfilling, and I DO believe I’m right, and I personally place value in being right. You ask when we should stop questioning and start living. Questioning, for me, is PART of living; something I do for its own sake.”

            Not sure I see what the fulfillment is if you are already convinced you are right. How many times do you need to be convinced you are right, and why?

          4. Of course I think I’m right. Don’t you think you’re right? The enjoyment and fulfillment are in the act of questioning and engaging with others and learning and living, as we are doing now; uncertainty in what we believe is not a necessary precondition for these things.

            I’m not sure what you mean by “How many times do you need to be convinced you’re right, and why?” Can you clarify?

          5. I’ve exhausted my quota of “REPLY” buttons, so I am posting here. This is in response to: Nathan Swope, Author, February 10, 2017 at 5:06 pm “Of course I think I’m right…”

            Yes, I do think I am right, but more about some things than others. I have always considered it sensible to temper myself with the realization that I could be wrong about things (to a greater or lesser extent), especially given the diversity of views held by so many different people. Even with things I think I am surer about, I always try not to be too immovable. As I have always been fond of saying, I think that ultimately everyone is wrong, and the only One who is really right is God.

            What I meant was that, to me, if I were very positive that I am right, then I am not sure I wouldn’t find it belaboring the point to continually go back to the same thing. Of course, you may get something out of it that I may not easily relate to. At the same time, I kind of get the sense that you’re, I don’t know, looking for something in this blog not just for sheer discussion sake? Not quite sure, but that’s okay. You don’t have to explain yourself to me.

  2. The first thoughts that come to mind…

    I remember really liking the epistemology unit in Philosophy 101. Trouble is, that was 34 years ago. I am reluctant to throw my hat in the ring (very much) without giving myself a fairly comprehensive refresh.

    Also, I am not terribly interested in “convincing” anyone of anything. According to what I believe to be true, becoming a believer is an affair of the heart between the individual and God, and it is something the individual must come-to on her of his own. The same could be said for becoming a skeptic. If someone has to convince you to become a skeptic, do you really fully own who you are?

    The idea that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is an idea that I have been cogitating on for a while. I cannot deny that on the face of it, it makes its own kind of sense. But, at the same time, there is something about it that doesn’t seem quite right to me… Where is this idea written in stone? Why should it be accepted?

    Whether a philosophical debate or a courtroom, so much of the struggling of humans to get things resolved (for better or worse) results from our lack of knowledge, yet such a pervasive lack of knowledge doesn’t seem to stop humanity from engaging in the very things that they have insufficient knowledge of. Lacking philosophically complete knowledge is a baseline problem for humanity. Complex philosophical constructs are fine for ivory towers, but the reality that most people live in from day-to-day affects how truth is reckoned, and, I think, rightly so. Extraordinary claim or not, something can be true even if there is no evidence whatsoever. The inability to be able to discern it is a limitation of a mind that lacks omniscience.

    However, if I can manage it, I will try to read up on epistemology.

    1. In one sense I agree. The purpose of this blog was never to “convince” anyone or be convinced, but to share perspective. However, I feel the best way for us to extract perspective from each other is to try to demonstrate, as effectively and respectfully as possible, why others ought to be believe what we do. That’s why I frame this as an attempt to “convince” each other.

      But ultimately it’s about trying to determine what’s true. If you think you can determine what’s true by listening to your heart, or trusting in your relationship with God, then I will take issue with that. If you can determine what’s true that way, then everyone else can do the same to justify their beliefs, including the scientologists and the horoscope readers, and in terms of determining the truth we get nowhere; everyone will believe what they want, what feels right. But I can’t force anyone to justify their beliefs, or try to convince me, or convince themselves. I just enjoy doing it myself, and engaging with others who do it too. I’m glad you choose to participate, but you don’t have to.

      Yes, some things can be true even if there is no evidence, but if there is no evidence we have no way of discovering what those things are, so how would we find out about them, and why should we believe them?

      1. Personally, I don’t think any one human being, or group, has a total monopoly on truth. It’s pretty unavoidable that there will be differences of opinion among thinking people (not just feelings), but you know that already. I had previously listed some reasons for my belief (other than feelings), but I think you refrained from publishing them because you wanted to wait to address the points on a more individual basis going forward, if I understood correctly.

        I also enjoy this kind of discussion, but, as I mentioned, without brushing up on epistemology, I may not be able to do it justice.

      2. While I hope to brush up on my epistemology, there is something else I think is interesting that popped up in my memory. Intuition, as I understand, is a command prerogative for military leaders, including in combat situations – surely high stakes. While this may not map perfectly to all aspects of our discussion, it does seem like a very interesting point that should have some application and that I think might reinforce my idea of the difference between ivory tower philosophies and real life as people live it.

        Wanting to test my memory, I did find a website that discusses this. Now, it is something I found quickly, so I have not verified the authenticity of the site (disclosure: I’d have to figure out how to do that, too). Recently, a friend who wrote a thesis for his graduate degree discussed with me the matter reliability of source material when doing research. I hope this site is reliable. It does offer references:

        http://www.idsa.in/jds/2_2_2008_RoleofIntuitioninMilitaryCommand_SKSaini

  3. Dear Nathan,

    I was supportive of this blog from the beginning, because I’m always an advocate for healthy debate and sharing views. I admire you for trying to discuss without making the mistakes people have made before you. But the more I read, the more I get the feeling that you won’t really find what you’re looking for.

    First, I’m with uncle Peter in his discomfort with the word “convince,” and his skepticism about needing greater justification for more extraordinary claims. First of all, who is determining what is an extraordinary claim? Is it you, the skeptic? Do you think belief in a God is an extraordinary claim? It may seem very extraordinary to some, but to others it seems more extraordinary not to believe. I don’t know, it just seems like you’re setting yourself up to demand more evidence from the claims of others than from yourself.

    The reason I don’t think you’ll find what you’re looking for is that you, as an atheist trying to talk about God, are operating on a wholly different plane from the theists you interact with. Your main basis for justifying claims is, as you say, “empirical evidence, reason, logic”… “personal experience” you might throw in as a side note. Every modern skeptic seems to try to restrict reality to these terms — that’s what makes them a skeptic.

    But one of my favorite quotes from Dostoyevsky is:
    “He who wishes to see God face to face should not seek him in the empty firmament of the mind but in human love.”
    It sounds sappy, doesn’t it? If I believe that, am I dodging the intellectual justification for believing in God? This, or something similar to this, seems to be the constant drama between theist and atheist. The atheist cries “I’ve won!”… having, of course, discredited the theist’s justification of God through other things like faith, or experience, or intuition. But has he really confronted the argument at all?

    The reason why most people believe in God may be because they have been taught, or they grew up with it, or because through their psychological insecurities they conjure up the idea of an ever-watchful Father keeping them safe and comfortable (which, by the way, God does not). I concede that point to you and Bertrand Russel. But the reason why most people are atheists may also be because they were taught to be, or they grew up without God (kind of how Bertrand Russel did), or because they don’t want to be held accountable for their actions. We can disregard the majority of people on Skeptic’s Point, and focus in on those people who have thought deeply about their beliefs, who claim to have considered both sides and settled on one.

    When you consider those thoughtful people… on what do they base their belief? The atheists may base theirs on logical or empirical grounds – lack of “proof” maybe. But the greatest writers who believe in God — like St. Augustine or CS Lewis or Dostoevsky… and the greatest saints — St Francis, Mother Theresa, St Therese of Lisieux — they embrace a much broader picture of reality, which includes those mysterious, undefinable aspects of human experience which atheists dismiss as unscientific. That is the problem with an online intellectual debate on God like this one. Isn’t there only room for intellectual justification of claims?

    Sorry I just wrote a great big essay. All that being said, I’ll try and participate in the intellectual sparring as far as I’m able. I’m not entirely a-logical 😉

    1. Ruth, great to hear your well-expressed thoughts.
      As I told Peter in my response, and as I wrote in my intro post, the ultimate point of the blog isn’t to convince but to share perspective and encourage people to grapple with their own beliefs. But I think that the best way to extract perspective and to grapple with the question of whether our beliefs reflect the truth is to present those beliefs in a way that ought to convince others, and, more importantly, ourselves (if you can’t convince yourself, you definitely shouldn’t believe it). But if I’m being honest, part of it is also because I enjoy this kind of argumentative engagement. If you think another format would be more effective in furthering the goals of the blog, let me know.
      In regards to your point about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence, in an earlier draft I actually had a sentence that said “How we determine what claims are extraordinary is another question…” but I think that goes without saying. If we can all agree that more extraordinary claims require more extraordinary evidence at a certain basic level, like with the Grand Canyon/moon example, then I think it will still be helpful to guiding the conversation. As you rightfully point out, whether or not a claim IS extraordinary will have to be part of the conversation, but for now it’s just a general principle that we should keep in mind.
      Much of your “essay” seems to have missed perhaps the most important point of this post, which is underlined in paragraph 7. Maybe I didn’t emphasize or make it clear enough: the means by which we come to believe ought to be scrutinized just as much as the beliefs themselves. I hope to devote a lot of time interrogating some of the means you’ve mentioned, like faith, experience, intuition, or Dostoyevsky’s “human love”. If I can convince you that those are not legitimate means by which to come to believe in God, have I “not confronted the argument”? On the contrary, I think I’ve confronted it at its source. That’s the whole point. You seem to be saying that those methods somehow insulate religious belief from any scrutiny at all, which I know is not what you mean. So, how do YOU think that I, a skeptic, can truly confront religious beliefs in a way that ought to change your minds, or my own? That’s a tough question, and I’d love to hear what you think.
      I’m not sure what you mean about atheists dismissing those “undefinable aspects of human experience” as “unscientific”. What I think you mean is that we (or at least I) don’t consider them legitimate means of justifying belief in things like God, and that they can be explained without him. That there are mysterious aspects of human experience, no one should deny.
      As we’ve talked about before, you and I seem to be conscious of many of the same problems when it comes to belief and these kinds of controversies (politics is the other great example). Since you and I are close in that respect, but on different sides of the God debate, I would love if you would stick around and continue to give your input. I think it’s valuable to the debate itself–the “convincing” part– but more importantly, I think we can all learn and grow from this kind of intellectual engagement, whether we convince people to change their minds or not.
      I know, as you do, that “what I’m looking for” is not easy to find, nor is it even clearly definable. That’s why nobody has been able to do it (as far as I can see). But I’m going to try anyway.

      1. “I hope to devote a lot of time interrogating some of the means you’ve mentioned, like faith, experience, intuition, or Dostoyevsky’s ‘human love’. If I can convince you that those are not legitimate means by which to come to believe in God, have I ‘not confronted the argument’? On the contrary, I think I’ve confronted it at its source.”

        The Christian has more than these reasons available to support belief, and the variety of reasons are additive. May I suggest that we proceed with the historical evidence, while bearing in mind that the legitimacy of such a discussion would benefit the most with input from experts on history as well as in manuscript evidence? If none who participate are extensively capable of this, then I would say that for the purposes of our discussion, an extraordinary claim may be satisfactorily answered by available knowledge and evidence.

        1. I certainly hope that the Christian has more than those reasons available to support belief. The point I hope to make, which I have not mentioned up to this point, is that those means not only do not count as justification of belief, but that they actually counter-act justification. In other words, those beliefs that tug at our feelings ought to be doubted and scrutinized all the more.

          I will not proceed from here with historical evidence because I think that would be getting caught up too quickly in the details of an argument while there is still a fair amount of framing that needs to be done before such a conversation can be fruitful (here my definition of “fruitful” is admittedly nebulous). If you think that historical evidence can demonstrate the truth of Christianity to a certainty on its own, that’s one thing, but I doubt you think it can.
          I am also not an expert on biblical evidence, and neither are you I presume, but we could both cite “experts” that agree with our beliefs or lack thereof. In my view this is a problem. And it’s the kind of fundamental difficulty with evidence and justifying claims that I would like to address in this blog, and it must necessarily come before we actually start talking about any claims in particular. Why should we talk about evidence for the resurrection when we both have to refer to sources knowing that some sources will confirm our beliefs and some will refute it? How do we get around that inevitable bias? These are the kinds of questions that take precedence over raw historical arguments.

          1. Jesus’ miracles either happened or they didn’t. As far as evidence is concerned, believers find sufficiency and even abundance. Yes, anything can be called into question, but if we treated everything else the way skeptics treat religion, we would have to be content to know little or nothing in this life. Most of our day-to-day experience takes many things on faith of one kind or another, and no one can go about with a truckload of scientific equipment in tow to verify the atomic weight of every frankfurter they encounter.

            Perhaps in a manner similar to (though not identical, I suppose) the way non-believers feel they can define their own meaning and purpose, believers can legitimately decide that the evidence is indeed as valid as any other relative viewpoint in spite of what some experts might say to the contrary.

          2. “if we treated everything else the way skeptics treat religion, we would have to be content to know little or nothing in this life”
            First off, I think my own skepticism of religion is justified given the claims they make about the world, which is something I will be discussing throughout the blog. I also think you use a similar level of skepticism to discredit the claims of other religions.
            Second, what’s more important to you: Not believing in false claims, or believing in something for the sake of having something to believe in? To me, if the evidence doesn’t stack up, we shouldn’t believe it. Yes, that can come with the recognition that humans actually know very little, and for some people that’s hard to accept. I, for one, would rather we be comfortable with our ignorance than believe in claims we cannot sufficiently justify.

            Yes, our everyday experience does take many claims on a certain kind of trust, which is normal and necessary. But religious claims are not of the same sort. Jesus’ miracles, for example, are not “everyday experience”. They are extraordinary claims with extraordinarily high stakes and ought to be scrutinized as such.
            No one should be surprised that Christians find the evidence for Jesus’ miracles sufficient, and non-Christians don’t. That’s precisely the kind of bias we want to try to pick apart to figure out who is actually right. I would challenge you, for example, to prove that you wouldn’t use the same kind of skepticism I do towards the miraculous claims of your religion to discredit the miraculous claims of another religion. Many religions claim to have miracles, and many of them have historical evidence to justify them. I doubt you’ve vetted them all and determined that yours are the most believable among them based purely on the available evidence.
            You see how beginning with these kinds of arguments doesn’t get very far before we start having to go back and investigate our prior assumptions? I’m trying to start at the foundation of why we believe claims at all before I start talking about the circumstances surrounding any claim in particular.

          3. I remember Hitchens talking about how religion’s metaphysical view of the world is “wrong.” Perhaps this is what you are referring to. In any case, I confess I am rushing you somewhat, which I should try to make an effort not to do so much. But, since you raised some very good questions, let me try to respond after which I will try to contain myself until you start a new thread of your choosing.

            As far as whether it is more important to me to not believe in false claims vs. believing in something for the sake of having something to believe in, I can only say that I have enough to believe in that smacks me in the face every day that I do not need any false beliefs. A pragmatic life (most people) doesn’t always afford the luxury of such stark choices. Real life usually does not boil down to this. And, religion is not the only issue of great consequence in day-to-day life. In practical terms, there are plenty of other things in life about which we need to decide what to believe that have serious and far more immediate consequences. Examples? Every time we get behind the wheel of a car, we take things on a kind of faith, and our life is at the greatest risk that most ordinary people usually face. In other words, you don’t need worry if your airbags will properly deploy if you stay home and miss church services. The irreligious have the luxury of being at very low risk on earth by not believing, but if they need surgery, they at best can hope for the right surgeon.

            As far as my view of other religions… I do not think that any one religion has a total monopoly on truth. I believe that there is at least some truth to most or all religions, while some religions get closer to total truth than others. Where other religions disagree with certain consequential things about Christianity, yes, I believe Christianity is right. However, even in this there should not be too much emphasis, because I do not believe the disagreements are spiritually fatal. The Catholic Church, for instance, does not teach that people in other religions are necessarily damned to Hell, which is a view I greatly respect.

            As far as the miraculous claims of other religions, I do not necessarily find contradiction in it. A good example? Take Mormonism. To shorten the story, early in their history, their community was facing starvation, and an extremely unusual event saved them all from dying. They consider it a miracle of God, the proximity of which validating their religion. Some orthodox Christians see it as either a lie (there was no actual miracle) or even as a satanic manifestation. I see it as God’s compassion upon a group of starving people who were calling out to Him, with the relative rightness or wrongness of their doctrine taking a back seat to the fact that they were starving. And so forth.

      2. So, I happened to find this article about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence. As I had mentioned previously, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what bothered me about it, but I think this article does a pretty decent job of it. The article is primarily concerned with perhaps what might be thought of as fringe science. But, the points it brings up about the problem with requiring extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims I think validly apply to our discussion: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201103/do-extraordinary-claims-require-extraordinary-evidence

        1. I like this article. Here’s a quote from a comment I wrote to Ruth, who made the same sort of objection: “In regards to your point about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence, in an earlier draft I actually had a sentence that said “How we determine what claims are extraordinary is another question…” but I think that goes without saying. If we can all agree that more extraordinary claims require more extraordinary evidence at a certain basic level, like with the Grand Canyon/moon example, then I think it will still be helpful to guiding the conversation. As you rightfully point out, whether or not a claim IS extraordinary will have to be part of the conversation, but for now it’s just a general principle that we should keep in mind.”

          So yes, I accept the critique. Without really parsing out what constitutes extraordinary, the “dictum” doesn’t carry a huge amount of weight; it’s just an important guideline. But I think it’s true, and this article has actually influenced me on this (imagine that!), that it’s not enough on its own. We skeptics have to show why religious beliefs are not only extraordinary in a vague sense, but extraordinary in the sense that they should not be believed.

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