[I asked this question nearly seven years ago, and found that it led to an interesting discussion, so I thought I'd ask it of our current readers.]
My sense, from reading comments and reader e-mail, is that this blog has many articulate and thoughtful readers who are pretty deeply religious, and many who are pretty deeply irreligious. I wonder whether this might make room for a good opportunity for each side to see what the other thinks.
I’m not expecting or intending to convert anyone in either direction — just to enlighten people about others’ world views, by asking each side to explain themselves about something that I think the other side really is curious about. I have many friends, both deeply religious and deeply irreligious, whom I much respect. Precisely because I respect people on both sides of this question, I think it’s helpful for people on the other side to understand more about how intelligent and moral people on the other side come to the conclusions they do. I am not claiming that the questions I will pose are unanswerable; in fact, I’m asking you to answer them, so the other side can understand why you think what you think.
Let me start by asking a question of those religious readers who might roughly be described as “believing in miracles”: those who believe that in the last (say) 10,000 years God (or some divine power) has done things that don’t normally occur in our experience (or in our experience as aided with various observational tools), such as brought about a resurrection, caused someone to literally walk on water, literally spoken from a burning bush, brought a literal angel to visit someone, and the like. If you don’t believe in this — if, for instance, you only believe in a creator-God who doesn’t intervene in human affairs, or you believe that God acts only through normal behavior (for instance, by inspiring human beings to do certain things) — then the question is not for you.
Here’s the question: I suspect that you are a normally and healthily skeptical person. If someone claims that he has seen something that doesn’t normally occur in our experience — for instance, seen a werewolf, a ghost, or even an extraterrestrial — you’re probably pretty skeptical. If the claim is based on hearsay, for instance when someone says that there were werewolves in the Middle Ages because there are various books that report on their existence, you’re probably even more skeptical.
And that’s so even if the claims are religious. There are, after all, lots of religions other than your own that make their own factual claims, whether about an angel visiting Joseph Smith, about the actions of Hindu gods, about an alien named Xenu, and so on. (I am not claiming that these religions are morally or theologically equivalent, only giving them all as examples of religions that make factual assertions about which members of other religions are skeptical.)
Why then do you believe the factual assertions that form the basis of your religion? If, for instance, you wouldn’t believe a claim that Joe Schmoe rose from the dead, why do you believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead? My sense is that irreligious people really do want to know this.
Before you answer this in the comments, let me point to a couple of answers that I think are incomplete, and that would at least require more elaboration.
(1) The argument by design: Even if the complexity of the world suggests that some intelligent being created it (a separate matter from the one I’m describing here), this doesn’t tell us whether this being continues to perform extraordinary actions, much less whether he has performed particular extraordinary actions.
(2) A scripture’s consistency with certain historical accounts: Even if there is historical evidence for the nonextraordinary claims mentioned in a holy book (e.g., historical evidence that a religious figure named Jesus Christ existed roughly 2000 years ago in Judaea), this doesn’t tell us about the validity of the extraordinary claims mentioned in that book. We’re all familiar with accounts that combine factually accurate statements with fanciful ones; many ancient historical works, for instance, fall in that category.
(3) Inspiration: Some religious people report that they feel in their hearts that certain things are true, even if they can’t prove them. (In fact, both religious people and irreligious people tend to take this view about many moral issues; here, though, the question relates to factual events, not moral judgments.) Yet we all know that such feelings can often be mistaken, even when they are plausible inferences about observable reality.
Why should we give credence to factual beliefs that are inconsistent with our everyday experience? Even if we strongly believe them, shouldn’t we be skeptical about them? Again, note that millions of other people feel in their hearts the truth of certain other religious factual claims. For many such claims, it can’t be that both you and they are right. Why doesn’t that lead you at least to agnosticism on the question?
(4) Faith: Likewise, some people say that they have faith in their religion’s factual assertions, and that the whole point is to take them on faith. Yet I take it that you don’t take on faith most other people’s assertions about supernatural phenomena, whether secular (werewolves) or religious (claims of other religions). You probably even think less of people who are too willing to take on faith claims about extraterrestrials, vampires, reincarnation, and the like. Why do you take on faith the religious claims that you do accept?
(5) The social and moral value of religiosity: Many people argue that religious belief, including belief in miracles, is important to make people more moral, and to help society survive. But even if that’s so, that doesn’t seem like an argument in favor of the belief’s being factually correct, rather than useful.
In any event, I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you fall in the categories given above. I also ask above a related question of my irreligious readers, so don’t feel like I’m only picking on one side here.
Note, though, an important rule applicable only to the comments to this post and its mate: I want only comments that try to answer these questions, not those that argue against the answers, or that criticize the answers, even politely. I do reserve for myself the blogger’s prerogative of adding updates that clarify the question or ask for clarifications to the answers. But because I want people to feel as free as possible to express their deeply held views, in this instance I would rather that they do so without risk of criticism from other commenters.
Remember: The point of this thread is to help irreligious people (or religious people that don’t share the belief in miracles) understand the other side’s thinking, not to have a debate (though such understanding may eventually help debate in other forums).
Those who really want to comment on the questions generally, rather than to answer them (or to criticize the answers), may do so in the comments to this placeholder post.