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A Question for Our Religious 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, 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, etc. (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 these feelings can often be mistaken: It's natural, for instance, for people to feel strongly that the Sun revolves around the Earth, and many people did believe that for millennia, yet they were mistaken. And that was something consistent with what appears from our everyday experience.

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.

aslanfan (mail):
C.S. Lewis puts it this way. If one believes that the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels are at least roughly accurate (a big "if" for many people, but that's another subject), then a fair reading of those words leaves only two possibilities: 1) either he was the divine Son of God, or 2) he was a crazy, monomaniacal fanatic. His words don't leave room for the conclusion that he was simply a wise (or perhaps unwise, for the Randians) moral teacher. As Lewis puts it, he did not intend to leave that option open.

Another factor that weighs heavily in my mind is the reaction of ordinary people to the events described in the Gospels. Skeptical fishermen and thousands of others encountered a personality that led them to sacrifice their lives rather than to deny Him. I find it unconvincing when people cite zealous followers of Jim Jones (and others) as counterexamples, largely because of Christian teachings and the fruit of those teachings. Oxford prof. C.H. Dodd is good on this point.
12.1.2005 3:01pm
Kristian (mail) (www):
Yes, I believe in miracles. I believe God created the universe, the Earth, man, etc.

Lets look at ressurection miracles. There are (IIRC) three ressurections in the Bible: One by Elijah of the widow's son, one by Paul of a boy who fell from a window, and Jesus of himself. [Of course, what makes Jesus' ressurection unique is that no Earthly agent was involved.] Now, three resurrections of billions who have died is pretty long odds.

There is a difference between skepticism of an event and a belief of impossibility of the event. I would need pretty serious proof (doubting Thomas I may be), but I do not discount the POSSIBILTY of the event. See also the miracles at Lourdes. The officials there do not accept every claim of healing as true nor necessarily as a miracle. Yet, through all human perception, knowledge and wisdom there are still healing event beyond their ability to explain or see how they could happen.

So, to make an argument short, if the event is possible scripturally, I would be willing to accept the event, but only if I had some evidence.
12.1.2005 3:07pm
Traveler:
What you have labeled "faith" and "inspiration" function as complements to each other. The feeling in my heart, the opening of my eyes to God's presence in the world, the strength and the love that I experience when I walk the path of faith, and the knowledge that so many others share the same experiences, is convincing.

What distinguishes this from a belief "that the Sun revolves around the Earth", or that someone else's assertions about werewolves are true? I've never seen a belief in an extra-religious fact that produces the same transcendent change in our perception of everything, from facts about the world to spiritual experiences to emotions about other people, and ourselves.

As for taking other people's religious assertions on faith - I do. Can God in his divine wisdom have created multiple paths to faith? I believe so -- and it's my own faith that helps me recognize that other people's faith is likely divinely inspired. That doesn't mean that their faith or path to faith could be mine.
12.1.2005 3:08pm
John McG (mail) (www):
My belief in any miracles rests on my belief that Jesus rose from the dead.

Why do I beleive this? Well, I probably wouldn't independently arrive at that conclusion if I had not been raised to, which is some combination of the 5 reasons Prof. Volokh listed above.

But beyond, that, I find the testimony of the early Christians to be credible because they were willing to suffer and die for this belief, and it's difficult for me to fathom this large a number of people being willing to suffer and die for something they knew to be a hoax.
12.1.2005 3:14pm
Syr 2L:
The second section of aslanfan's answer is what I thought of immediately when I read the question. Focus the inquiry specifically on whether Christ was resurrected and you are faced with the Biblical and historic fact that his followers certainly acted as though he had been -- in a time when doing so led directly to their violent deaths and the forfeiture of everything they owned. I find no other compelling justification for their actions or the meteoric growth of the ancient church than this: they believed He rose from the dead because He did rise from the dead.

So in part because those eyewitnesses believed that and passed it along so voraciously, and with corroboration from all the sources that Mr. Volokh has declared incomplete by themselves (creation, inspiration, faith, support from history), I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as well. As the Man himself is quoted as saying to the disciple Thomas, "Because you have seen, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed."

Another prong to address is the fact that I believe miraculous divine intervention in human affairs continues to this day, and that I have personally seen its works and results. Perhaps the irreligious would refer to some of this as coincidence, but I would argue some events - especially healings - cannot be adequately explained in a way that would cause me to doubt the involvement of God. This sort of personal experience is probably less valuable in convincing others, but this question is about why I believe what I do, after all. And if I have seen in my own life, and those of others, events that seem to be directed by a miracle-working God, it makes me more likely to believe those I did not witness in the past.
12.1.2005 3:25pm
Moshe (mail):
I think that a short comment is inadequate for a question of this magnitude but a good first step, I think is to point out that to a certain extent the question is not answerable. All assertions about the world really only have meaning in relation to all of the other assertions about the world that a person holds to be true. The question that you are asking requires the respondent to try to validate specific assertions with regard to a system of assertions that is foreign to it. The entire frame for your question is irreligious; its founding assumptions are those of someone who is immersed in a system of thought within which certain religious tenets are implausible.

To some extent there is no convincing on this matter. That being said, from an Orthodox Jewish perspective we believe the things that we believe first and foremost because of a very strict chain of tradition that traces its way to Sinai. I know, I know, other people have traditions as well—good for them—in theory we could sit back and discuss the relative validity of different chains of tradition, but for me it does not matter. I believe something because my father told me, and his father told him, etc. Again, this is unlikely to be convincing unless you accept the framework to begin with—but short of having inherited a particular framework for viewing the world as part of a tradition there is no logical reason to choose one over the other. The scientific framework for understanding the world is not logically necessary, (think of Bertrand Russell's example of the chicken), it just happens to be very convincing because it is very powerful—it can do things like cure disease and put a man on the moon.

In general, the argument that other people make similar claims to yours is not a convincing reason to abandon one's claim. If I have a moment where I say that I feel the hand of G-d in my life, the fact that someone else makes this claim with a different G-d, to me, only means that he is wrong, it in no way bares on my experience. That type on contradiction makes sense only from a scientific perspective where conflicting accounts would have to be resolved by some objective standard. For a religious person, it matters not at all.

Similarly, I don't think you are quite right about the social and moral value not being a valid argument. Specific beliefs don't exist in a vacuum, they are part of a larger package which includes all sorts of practices and beliefs. If you buy into the package because certain moral and ethical aspects seem correct, or because you see that a religion has promulgated these values throughout the world, you cannot simply say that you don't agree with certain parts—either you buy into the system or you don't.

There are many, many reasons why people believe. The chain of tradition is the basic one in Jewish thought but many people (Jews) see the persistence of anti-Semitism throughout the ages as being so improbable as to only be divinely attributable. Sure, in any given situation there is historical context to explain it—but over time it becomes incredible. (This is an outside the system of belief argument).

Another point worth making is that the things that you say we would not believe are not necessarily things that we would not believe—or at least we might not be as skeptical as you are.

But really, there is no good answer that can be expressed outside of an entire system of thought that supports these beliefs.
12.1.2005 3:36pm
Houston Lawyer:
[When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. "Lord," he said, "my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering." Jesus said to him, "I will go and heal him." The centurion replied, "Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it."

When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go! It will be done just as you believed it would." And his servant was healed at that very hour]

I am often amazed at certain passages in the Bible, such as the one above. They comport with a reality that I accept and want to accept. Like most others that will respond to this post, I was raised in the church and have been conditioned all my life to believe. However, skeptics and preachers both dwell within my family.

There are many alternative explanations proffered for life on this planet. None explain to me the ability to play a piano by ear, but that we were created in God's own image.

I believe that we are predisposed towards faith. Those of us who were raised in the church often take our faith for granted. The most intense faith I have ever witnessed was a young woman who converted to Christianity during her college years. Strong faith inspires faith in others.

As for the social or moral value of religiosity, I believe this to be a bit of a red herring. Much preaching is expended trying to get people to behave in accordance with Old Testament laws. However, the purpose of preaching should be to save souls, not to get good conduct medals.
12.1.2005 3:43pm
Not Representative:
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?

I believe that Jesus rose from the dead; but (for me personally) this belief is the conclusion of an inductive process which proceeds upon religious commitments. That is to say, my belief that Jesus rose from the dead proceeds from my belief as Jesus as God, rather than vice-versa.

That the Resurrection is not a fact upon which I base my belief might be a good thing, because such a fact relies more heavily upon the belief system which justifies, to the extent that it is miraculous.

My religious commitments themselves inductively proceed from two (broadly speaking) more independent types of observations. (1) A general observation that things normally have a cause, and it is hard for me to imagine a Big Bang without something/someone causing it. (2) Christian beliefs probably best characterize this someone/something because they:
(a) Premise the meaningfulness of reality upon factual reality in a way that seems to best describe the way that we think of things: "X is meaningful" rather than "X is meaningful because we agree that X is meaningful". That is to say, I believe that a description of the meaningfulness of general existence should be more analogous to how we describe the meaningfulness of an individual, particular, life experience, than how we might describe the meaningfulness of currency.
(b) Premise ethical commitments upon the meaningfulness of reality in a way that best describes what people seem think they are doing when they encounter ethical difficulties - i.e. best describes what it is they think they are arguing about, what problem they face, and what they wish to accomplish. What best describes the person arguing that "X is wrong"? (i) "We live in an independently meaningful universe, morality proceeds from this meaningfulness, morality can thus be discovered or revealed to the extent that our methods allow"; (ii) "I am employing a strategy of rhetoric in order to persuade you to self-impose constraint X."

I think that I am unusual among contemporary Christian believers in miracles, because I don't accept ALL accounts of miracles contained within - to the extent that they don't inductively proceed from my previous religious commitments, and to the extent that they proceed from methodology that hasn't already proven somehow "accurate", I don't hold them as anything more than allegorically true.
12.1.2005 3:45pm
Joel B. (mail):
Interesting question, which I'm afraid I may ramble at. Oh well.

The reason I believe what I believe is that given the existing set of facts in the world as they are today, the Bible best describes the world, as it was created, and as it operates, and our relationship to it.

To many, belief in the creation story in Genesis, is seen by many as quaint or silly, foolish often even. But at the same time, few seem to recognize that recorded human history really doesn't go any further back then the Genesis Account. That's not to say there isn't circumstantial physical evidence that suggests otherwise, but nothing was recorded by men, before the creation of the world in the Bible, or at least, the ascension of man to rationality on Day 6 (however one wishes to believe it).

The Biblical account explains many things, that otherwise seem difficult to explain. Animals know nothing of morality, why should people? Animals do not seem to have an inherent sense of right and wrong. Why ought people, why...should the spontaneous evolution of just a little more intelligence be so significant. The idea that there was just, a tipping point right at that exact point seems odd. Why, do people wear clothes generally? To these 'first questions' only the Bible has really acceptable answers.

People know morality because Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. People wear clothes because this knowledge reveals man nakedness before God. Why of animals does mankind have an overencompassing view of sex? Because the model of man and wife was given to reflect on Christ and his church. What was this tipping point? Why it was God's creation of man in his image, and then man's choice to eat of the knowledge of Good and Evil, that he should perceive that such a thing of Good and Evil exists. Does Good and Evil exist to an animal...no. Other animals can communicate in a rudamentary fashion, but only man can truly communicate in a far more encompassing way. Why? not even the very intelligent dolphins can communicate in a small percentage of the manner of humans. But we see that God gave man communication by creating him in his image. Deaf children have been observed creating spontaneously their own language to communicate with other deaf children. Why, does the human behave so uniquely among all the animals. Have this desire, this need to communicate to others.

Naturalists explain this through parents who taught shame to their children who taught there children similarly with clothes, or whatever, but why should these things be so similar throughout such a wide variety of cultures unless there is something more to it. Granted there are exceptions, but they are very few, observed behavior fits within the Biblical accounts.

And it continues with many other items, why should so many cultures have accounts so similar with that of the account of Noah in the worldwide flood. Yet it is disturbling universal, yet only the Biblical account explains the how and the why behind these numerous flood accounts.

Only the timeline provided by Noah's account explains adequately why (through compound population growth) the world isn't drastically overpopulated. The idea that people lumbered around for 200,000 years and experienced basically no population growth and the like does not seem to me a good explanation for why the Earth isn't dramatically overpopulated with people. It seems like a reasoning accepted because it is necessary to fit the observed rates of growth, but with an explanation that can explain how mankind has been around for 200,000 years, but only for the last 4500 or so really grow.

The Bible explains in a way, unlike many naturalistic explanations and other religious explanations, that I can look at and reasonably say, yes, that makes sense as an explanation. Not only for what we observe, but why we observe it, why things are the way they are. And to me, that is at least partly why I believe what I believe.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment Prof. Volokh.
12.1.2005 3:48pm
Samuel Ventola (www):
There are a couple of steps here. First is the decision whether to believe in God. Second is to decide who to believe about what God has done.

My decision to believe in God is first based on cosmological grounds. That is, we have a universe around us that is changing. It does not seem that it could have existed this way for an eternity, so it had to be created by a Being that could survive an eternity, and is capable of creating all this changing stuff. I call this Being God.

So, why do I choose to believe what the Christian Bible tells us about God? First of all, I think the wisdom contained in it is pretty profound, so that it was either divinely inspired, or created by some pretty deep thinking fakers.

Second, the events reported, at least in the New Testament, were reported more or less contemporaneously, so that if they were false, they could have been contradicted at the time by people with access to the evidence to contradict them. This sets the Christian Bible apart from most other religious books, including the Book or Mormon, which either (1) purport to describe events that can't be contradicted (like a revalation to one person), or (2) purport to describe events that occurred hundreds or thousands of years previously. If Jesus' body were still in the tomb, or if his body was never in a tomb but some anonymous grave, His detractors (and they were many and powerful) would have pointed out that evidence. Instead, the only recorded story seems to be a claim that the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb all fell asleep, which obviously seems highly unlikely.

The evidence of Jesus' existence is at least as extensive as the evidence for the existence of, say, Alexander the Great. Some would say yes, but the evidence of Jesus should be rejected because it purports to describe supernatural occurrences. But, since I believe there is a God, the fact that the events described are unusual doesn't bother me.

Having accepted that there is a God, and the basic premises of the Jesus story, I then question whether to accept the rest of the Bible. However, if there was a God, and He came to Earth as Jesus, it makes sense that he would arrange to leave us with the accurate instructions.

To a lesser extent, I observe and rely on the evidence of God's influence in my own life and the lives of others since Jesus was on the Earth. However, I recognize that it is arguable that all of this can be explained by other causes, and so I recognize that it would not constitute sufficient evidence to a non-believer.
12.1.2005 3:50pm
Bob Flynn (mail):
Good hard questions!

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?

First, 3 premises:

1. I'm Catholic

2. If somebody told me that Joe Schmoe rose from the dead, I would not believe it. Such event violates the known laws of Physics and Biology.

3. If somebody told me that somebody at some point in time at some location arose from the dead, I would be extremely skeptical based on (2). But how could we prove or disprove the claim? It is an unknowable grey area -- at least from the vantage point of 2000+ years after the fact.

To me, the first question is this: (a) Is the universe comprised solely of mindless matter or (b) Does it contain some purposeful non-matter -- however small or large, however fleeting or ubiquitous?

For me, the answer is (b).

From (b), the door to the supernatural is open. From this, I indirectly lead to an authority/creator, ie God -- the entity that created the laws of Physics &Biology, who is not subject to them.

Once I accept there is a God, then I don't worry about whether or not, he can be incarnated as a Man (Jesus Christ). That is a lesser miracle, then the mind-blowing acceptance of God. True, that could lead me to Judaism, a religion I love, but for practical reasons, it hasn't. Indeed, Judaism does hold that a Messiah will descend to Earth, but that it just hasn't happened yet.

So, to answer your question, once I accept the existence of God, accepting a special miraculous event that violates the known laws of Physics and Biology, isn't at all difficult. And, for historical, practical, even biased reasons, I'm comfortable with Jesus as the incarnated version of God.
12.1.2005 3:51pm
Splunge (mail):
Eugene did not specify a forum for agnostics, so I will enter the answer here:

Let me lay a foundation by defining myself as an empiricist in the sense of Heinlein's "Fair Witness." You'll recall, if at all well read, that in Stranger in a Strange Land Jubal Harshaw pointed to a house standing on a hill and asked his guests to say what color it was painted. One said "It's white." Another said "It looks white to me." Anne the Fair Witness said "It's white on this side." I'm like Anne.

That is, I do not doubt the evidence of my senses, nor do I believe in consensus reality or other such farcical New-Age mumbo-jumbo. God exists or he does not, he did miracles or he did not, and Jesus Christ rose from the dead or he did not, and these are all facts that could be established beyond cavil, given the appropriate observational data.

But, like Anne, I try to avoid the very common human tendency to let one's conclusions far outrun what one's observations can justify.

With that in mind, I can't say God exists. Insufficient evidence has come into my possession. However, I am also unable to say he doesn't, inasmuch as there is equally insufficient evidence against Him.

There are logical arguments for and against His existence, of course, but in a middling-long career as a physical scientist I have learned that pure logic is often merely a method of going wrong with confidence. I don't trust pure logic, even when I build it myself -- and I'm very good at that, in my field. I suppose I'll never make a good lawyer, inasmuch as a lawyer seems fairly well defined as that sort of person who would admit to being logically convinced of his own nonexistence, if the argument were good enough.

Anyway, the strange result is that I tend to "believe" in the existence of God as it is convenient, and disbelieve as that is in turn convenient. I mostly regard the proposition in the same way as I regard certain physics models, e.g. the model of light as a particle or a wave: sometimes one model works well and enlightens, sometimes another.

After all, I "believe" in the existence of someone called Eugene Volokh on a similar basis. Like any Fair Witness, I must conclude I have no substantial direct evidence that he exists, but "believing" he does makes discussing this blog a bit less grammatically convoluted.
12.1.2005 3:56pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
A number of others have already made this point, so I won't elaborate on it. An awful lot of people who knew Jesus went to painful deaths based on the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

People will die for a mistaken belief, without question. People will often kill for something that they know is a lie. But how often do sane people die--and often die in quite unpleasant ways--for something that they know is a lie? (Note that while schizophrenics do often do things that seem like "dying for a lie," this is because their senses have misled them; to the schizophrenic, there really are voices being beamed into his head.)

The definition of "miracle" is an interesting problem on its own. Almost anything that happens infrequently and has no immediate scientific explanation might be called a miracle. Where worshippers of science as Revealed Truth get themselves in trouble is when they assert that something that is not reproducible at will, happens infrequently, and has no scientific explanation is impossible.

Here's an example. What appears to be spontaneous human combustion was long denied by scientists because they had no scientific explanation for it, it was very infrequent, and it was not reproducible at will. I understand that a scientist now has found a way to reproduce it, and there's nothing mysterious, New Age, or unlikely about it. But because it didn't fit into the scientific model, for a long time, the rare occurrences of it were simply denied by scientists.

I've had one experience of a miracle, involving an overnight cure of a duodenal ulcer, when I was younger. The ulcer was not getting better, and the doctor scheduled another upper GI to figure out why. The results showed that it was gone--and so was the pain, overnight. Why this miracle? It certainly strengthened my faith as a young Christian, and I'm sure that it did likewise for my fellow believers. It was also a reminder for members of our Bible study (one working on his DDS, another his MS in Planetary Science) that there's more than just the material world around us. You wouldn't be able to design a chemical process around miracles, but pretending that there is nothing but what we can see, smell, feel, and measure, is a pretty arrogant assumption.
12.1.2005 4:00pm
Dave-TuCents (www):
"Why then do you believe the factual assertions that form the basis of your religion?"

The bald answer to the bald question is:

Because this religion is an internally self-consistent system of explanations of phenomena not yet observed by instruments other than human beings,

Because this particular system, of the competing systems, provides the best (most elegant, least additional requirements, Occam's Razor kind of best) explanation for my own personal observations of such phenomena,

Because this particular system provide the least conflict with other people's personal observations as reported to me at second or third hand, and

Because some of the peripheral factual assertions and miracles have been established with as much certainty as many other contemporary historical events.

Therefore I accept the unproven assertions as required elements of the system that are beyond the limitations of certainty due to incomplete knowledge. So I believe in those unproven assertions by faith.

This is to me a totally unsatisfactory answer, as it leaves out everything positive and joyful in my experiences and everything that brought me to Christ in the first place. But it does have the virtues of being a sharable and testable thesis.
12.1.2005 4:07pm
gawaine (mail):
This doesn't truly answer the questions, but I think it may inform a different way of looking at them. (Not claiming it's THE way to look at them, of course).

In my point of view as a Christian, miracles mainly served as a form of positive ID. In the story of Moses, for example, they were his way of answering the inevitable questions about why a murderer on the run should be taken seriously. Similiarly, in the New Testament, most of the identified miracles had some link to Old Testament prophecy.

This point of view is included with, not held separate from, my expectations when someone makes a claim that is outside reasonable expectations. That is, if someone comes to me with a claim about an ability to prophesy, I will evaluate that against my beliefs, which indicate certain things. That makes me skeptical about statements that are outside my particular worldview. To put this another way, I have a set of facts which I believe to be axiomatic - and those facts include those which are religious in nature.

I don't think that's any different from the way that someone with no supernatural or religious beliefs looks at things, they just have a different set of facts - one which intersects with mine on such things as 2+2=4, etc. I'm as skeptical as they are when it comes to things that are outside of my set.

I would point at Quantum Mechanics as an example of something that runs counter to all expectations and experience. I'm sure folks will point out that it's different - for one thing, there are scientific tests that are on point - but that's not the point I'm trying to make. Most people in my experience pick up the facts associated with Quantum Mechanics, and begin to believe them, without having done any of the experimentation that would prove them out. They treat them as facts because they are in a book, because they need to in order to pass a test, because someone they respect wants them to. If they don't end up in that field, they may never do an experience that examines or tests their belief.

Most people who are religious, in my experience, similarly assimilated their beliefs through similar processes that they used to pick up other facts. It may have been because they were made to do so, it may be because they trusted someone who informed them to believe those facts, but the facts themselves made it in somehow.

The reason I think this is important is that the question seems to assume to me, and perhaps I'm taking this the wrong way, is that it presumes that there's something necessarily different about people who are "religious" and "irreligious" in their acceptance of new facts, based solely on whether those facts are religious or not. I don't think there necessarily is, any more than there's a difference in the way that the average person gains expertise in a field, especially in those fields which involve theoretical, non-physical experience. The biggest difference to me is that, for those religious people who do decide to examine their views in depth (which I would not argue is any greater than the number of civil engineering students who, having taken a physics course as freshmen, decide to visit a cyclotron), there are different means to that end, which is where the suggested answers tie in - but they're usually at the end of the process, during the examination of views, not at the beginning, in the acquisition, which seems like an important distinction to me.
12.1.2005 4:12pm
Jeff Licquia (mail) (www):
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?

Be happy to answer that...

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.

Oh. You really don't want to know, then.

Several of the reasons you don't like are precisely the reasons I believe. So, I suppose, for the purpose of the question, you can read your list of answers you don't like for my response. (It's not completely accurate, but close enough for blog work.)

The elaborations you request basically amount to "I don't accept your evidence". That's no surprise. But then I have to ask: why did you ask the question in the first place, if you already had a pretty good idea what the responses would be?
12.1.2005 4:13pm
DBH:
I do not use reason to support my worldview; I use faith. Therefore, I am unable to answer questions that ask for rational explanations of belief. My beliefs are not dependent on demonstrable truth or evidence. The are acts of trust and will.

My belief in God feels good and right. It is the most satisfying and rewarding view of things. It creates rich meaning and purpose in my life.
12.1.2005 4:27pm
Zephyr:
"Why then do you believe the factual assertions that form the basis of [my] religion?"

The "factual assertations" of my religion are, for me, incidences that could not be explained by the people who witnessed them, i.e. children are often born screaming because they cannot describe what just happened. The truth is a strange mix of fact, fiction, embellishment, and ingenuity. Man has not changed since he first "recognized" himself as man.

The "impossible" of religion gives mankind the gift of faith. The ability to endure all in life that is not explainable but has divine purpose should one choose to see it that way.

I am not irreligious, but, I do believe in a higher being or presence of life with an understanding much greater than our own. Bad things happen to good people, and those left to witness the event are being taught that everything is alive and everything is different.

God did not make any snowflake or blade of grass exactly alike, so why is mankind the only intelligent life? Wrong assumption, it nullifies the beauty of our existence. Better yet, when will mankind develope a collective conscience capable of accepting other forms of intelligent life, i.e. we have yet to communicate with the Orca.

We live in the boundaries of our own time. Few of us our capable of truely seeing mankind in the year 3076. We define life only in the mobile, i.e creatures that move or plants that grow. Yet we estimate the age of the earth and do not recognize that even lava is alive in its time. Does that mean the earth was not created in 6 days? No, but the length of those days are as beyond mankind, as mankind's days are beyond the life span of an ant.

Understanding the plurality of life, the uniquness of species, the beauty of individuality is not an easy task for a species bent on modifying nature to find peace, when peace without understanding is what we had to start with. So now we get to muddle through knowledge and supestitution only to return to the quiet peace of real truth: That man should not harm man. That man should provide for all of mankind.

So, now we live in this world of false prophets and misguided news reports. Not everything we record is accurate and all that we record is colored by the author's interpretation. So is religion, a combination of rules to live by and the "impossible" to keep it glued together.
12.1.2005 4:35pm
Jody (mail) (www):
What John said (and my apologies if the following sorta rambles).

Now, I am very dubious of modern day miracles performed via humans and of faith healers. But for Christ's miracles, I have examined all typically offered alternate explanations and have found them wanting. So no matter how otherwise implausible it might seem, as there is only one option that I cannot eliminate, I must assume it to be true.

Giving a more secular example before launching into my more religious discussion, I believe we landed on the moon - even though I lack first-hand knowledge (didn't even see it on TV - wasn't born yet). So my belief is based solely on the testimony of others who I deem credible. Why do I deem them credible? Because the alternative explanations seem less likely to me (I can't believe that there was that big of a conspiracy and nobody had a Woodward moment.)

Specifically in the case of Christ, I find the testimony of early Christians (who claim first hand experience) persuasive that Christ came back from the dead (in addition to his other miracles).

Why? The alternate explanations seem less credible to me than the explanation that Christ really did come back from the dead. Why do I find the other alternatives incredible? Well, that means I need to list the alternatives.

Aslanfan presents two alternatives, commonly phrased (at least in Baptist theology with which I am more familiar) as Lord or Lunatic (there's also Liar - Christ knew full well that He wasn't the Christ, but for some reason went through crucifiction voluntarily anyway). While those three capture the various common possibilities for Christ, his willing execution only rules out Liar and leaves us with Lord (i.e., really did the miracles) or lunatic, both of which are consistent with his willing crucifiction.

To further differentiate, note that most of the people who claimed first-hand experience of Christ's miracles went to their deaths claiming to believe in Christ's miracles. Further as no one is recorded as recanting their beliefs, it seems very likely to me that they really believed to have observed Christ performing the miracles they claim to have seen.

So they saw Christ perform miracles. Does this mean that Christ actually performed miracles? An explanation that would satisfy this fact and the fact that Christ willingly went to his Crucifiction would be if Christ had been both a master illusionist and a lunatic. However, this explanation seems unlikely to me as well as so many people saw his miracles (even those who did not believe he was the Christ are recorded as beleiving he was some sort of miracle worker - and not the Anne Sullivan kind, either).

David Copperfield has performed lots of illusions infront of millions of people as well. However, we don't believe he performs miracles. Why? Because his assistants would know better (and would have to be paid a whole lot to not have their own Woodward moment). Christ's "assistants" were with him virtually every second of every day throughout his ministry. Surely they would've known if he was faking it. However, they went to their death claiming he wasn't faking.

Now David Copperfield had months to make the Statue of Liberty disappear, so perhaps given enough time Christ could've fooled his "assistants". However, a significant number of Christ's miracles appear to be spontaneous so I don't believe Christ had enough time to fake all of his miracles. I'm not asserting that he faked any of them, just that there was no apparent way of setting up some of his miracles ahead of time without his assistants' knowledge. For example while walking on water and the miracle of the fishes could've been set up because they were performed more or less at a time of Christ's choosing, reattaching the soldier's ear appears rather difficult to plan ahead of time and definitely could not have been perrformed without Peter's complicity. (Peter also went to his death professing the Christ is Lord explanation). So the master illusionist + lunatic option also appears unlikely to me.

All that being said, there is one other option that I've struggled to eliminate and didn't really come to a satisfactory conclusion until a few years ago - that Christ was an alien whose technologies are suitably advanced so as to appear as magic (or as a miracle). The alien explanation, however, still suffices for Eugene's request for a logical reason to believe Christ's miracles really did occur.

The reasons why I find the alien hypothesis less credible (or inconsequential) are in the following.

I've continued to not see any evidence to support the existence of advanced alien life, which I figure would be rather obvious (e.g., massive energy signatures in the galaxy, stars or planet moving, credible UFO sighting), so I've grown more willing to believe that we really are alone in the Universe (i.e., I've come to believe that some of the coefficients in Drake's equation are vanishingly small). So the advanced alien life explanation appears unlikely to me. However, that's not to say that the Christ as Lord explanation doesn't also naturally have a low probability assigned to it. But in the balance of the two, I am swayed by the prime mover argument (who put the bop in the bop doo wop we call the Big Bang?).

But even if the prime mover argument turns out to be another turtles all the way down argument, making the alien visitor scenario more likely, I don't think it should change my behavior one iota. Suppose Christ were an immortal alien whose father had created the Earth and mankind in his likeness (if Christ were an advanced alien, that we had been made in the aliens' likeness seems likely as Christ looked human and their advanced technology implies that they predate us) and that for all intents and purposes the aliens were indistinguishable from the features normally ascribed to the Christian God (guiding the Jews out of Egypt, watching over and protecting humanity, bringing to "heaven" those who believe). In such a scenario I believe my actions should be exactly the same. Would not such an entity be worth of worship and someone to pray to? Would not the fact that Christ lived give me hope for life beyond this one? Would not Christ's promise of life beyond this one coupled with the aliens' apparent ability to grant it demand that I follow their teachings? So even if the alien hypothesis were to hold, I don't see how that should affect my behavior in the here and now.

(I will note that if the Universe is indeed a closed system (i.e., entropic heat death is coming some day), then different behavior may be warranted under the alien schema than the "God beyond the universe" schema, but no different behavior would be reasonably possible until after my death, cause the entropic heat death of a closed Universe is trillions of years off and there's still apparently a deadline for me of death on Earth looming some 50 years down the road. So I feel justified focusing on the first deadline until after I get over that hurdle. If the Universe is open as some say membrane theory suggests then there may be no need to act differently even after death on Earth).

So bottom line, of all possible explanations, Christ as Lord appears to me to be the most likely and thus is the explanation I choose to believe.
12.1.2005 4:48pm
Pius XXX:
At the risk of repetition, I will answer as well. I speak from the perspective of Judaism.

The Torah reports numerous deviations from the laws of physics. The Torah was given to ~3 M people in the desert. Moses wrote it all down before he died at the end of the 40 years. The three million passed this life-altering knowledge on to their children. This happened some 3500 hundred years ago (or what if it's 4000? I don't know these dates...)

A proper Torah written on parchment can last 1000 years if properly cared for. Witness the oldest extant substantially complete exemplar known as the Leningrad Codex which dates back to 1008 CE. The text we have today is identical to an extremely high degree to the Codex. In short, we had the Torah copied a single-digit number of times.

How can a writing witnessed by 3 M people and copied only a couple of times be off in more than very minor details? We feel quite strongly about that and have been known to give up our lives in the defense of this belief.

The service in the Jersusalem Temple was designed to be full of "miracles" on a regular basis. All Jews of Israel had to attend several times a year at least, and did. How could their collective testimony over centuries be wrong?

Why don't "miracles" continue today, you ask? Our tradition is that in the last 2000+ years, God has "hidden his countenance" from the world and continues to govern with a hidden hand. Miracles still take place - but they are disguised as nature. Every living organisms is a walking miracle, as far as I am concerned. There are countless other examples.

But yeah, EV, I second Moshe: the Q's were put in an interesting fashion. Of course, he put it much better.

BTW, all errors are undoubtedly my own.

Pius XXX

(Yes, I realize that these arguments could be effectively challenged by inquisitive individuals (pun intended) and we do have answers that are beyond the scope of this post.)
12.1.2005 4:50pm
ptolemy (mail):
"Why then do you believe the factual assertions that form the basis of your religion?"

Lack of data is not negative proof
Why not believe the factual assertions until proven otherwise? The lack of primary data is only an excuse. We all rely on secondary data for most of our "knowledge". For example, I have not personally calculated the distance to the sun, but I "know" that it approximately 93 million miles away.

In other words, just because I have not seen or experienced something myself does not mean it has not occured.

The assumption is that primary data is best, but our senses can be deceived so that means that we really have a difficult time find the ultimate truth of any fact. The best we can do is estimate probabilities.

The assumption of your second question (about Joe Schmoe) is that a reasonable person should DISBELIEVE something based on a lack of primary or secondary data, but look at it the other way around. Why can't a reasonable person BELIEVE unless there is primary or secondary data suggesting otherwise? The absence of data is not the presence of controverting data.

A trite example: People thought the world was flat until they learned otherwise. Evidence eventually came along that diproved the belief. What if someone at that time had believed the world to be round in spite of prevailing thought?

I would not have a hard time believing that Joe Schmoe rose from the dead unless I had some compelling reason to believe that he did not rise from the dead. Logically, the fact that I believe that another person has risen from the dead would make me less skeptical not more skeptical. I had no problem believing that my Quaker friend heard the voice of God because I believe that God has spoken and can speak to man.

Isn't it inconsistent to be skeptical of modern miracles, while truly believing in historical miracles such as resurrection, angelic visitations, and faith healings?

Finally I personally would rather err on the side of belief than on the side of disbelief because I don't feel like I am missing out on anything by believing and I am not afraid of being wrong.
12.1.2005 4:52pm
Mr. Mandias (mail) (www):

1) I believe because I've experienced them in various forms. More importantly, I've experienced the direct presence of God. You describe this as a feeling, and say its unsatisfactory because our feelings can often decieve us. I wouldn't describe it as a feeling--it seemed like the spiritual equivalent of sensory information to me. You are correct that we have reason to believe that people sometimes experience things in their internal mental landscape that are just not so. The same is true, however, of our external sensation. No one's senses are completely trustworthy, most likely, but we just have to trust them, unless we are to be completely skeptics. As I see it, I have no more and no less reason to reject my direct sensation of the divine presence than I do to reject my direct sensation of the keys at my fingertips. I cannot *know* that either is a legitimate interaction with an outside reality. I am inclined to believe that both are.

2) Your second question is very perceptive: accepting some miracles, as I do (Moses recieving the tablets, Christ resurrecting, angels visiting Joseph Smith), what is my attitude to other miracles not tied to my faith?
You are right that I am sometimes sceptical, though I think my scepticism is tempered by the knowledge that I myself beleive in certain miracles. My faith, Mormonism, also happens to give me the resources to believe in a wide variety of miracles for different religious groups. But there is a certain amount of difficulty that remains, I must admit. For a few years now I have been looking into the well-attested accounts of the Fatima visitations and thinking over how to make sense of it.
12.1.2005 4:55pm
MacManWP:
As someone earlier said, the framing of the question is fundamentally irreligious. For those of us raised in a religious home and attended church regularly, our perspective shifts. One of the most convincing elements of Christian faith, to me, is the assertion that man has an inherent need and desire to know God.

This assertion is clearly demonstrated, in that nearly all societies have recognized deities. The need for some sort of meaning to life is a strong motivation here, but to me it seems that we as humans are too good at ignoring these sorts of fundamental issues for this to be the only impetus for the formation of religion. It makes sense to me, in this context, that we are motivated by our inherent need to know our God.

There are also some material proofs. Does it seem consistent with human experience that Israel, and the Jewish people there, would remain after all this time, completely surrounded by those who hate them and think they should be destroyed? This seems to be evidence that they are indeed God's chosen people. There may be another society which has survived under similar circumstances, but I'm hard pressed to identify it.

When it comes to miracles and miraculous happenings, I choose to believe in them in part because I have personally experienced what I believe to be God's answers to my prayers. When I was younger I didn't need a strong logical foundation for my faith, but during that time I had events occur in nearly perfect synchronicity with my praying for them. This has happened in several instances since, and while the events were not supernatural, nor would I call them miracles, they were nevertheless to me nontrivially associated with my requesting them from God. This evidence leads me to believe it when I read the description of the Jesus' resurrection and works on Earth. It's not perfect evidence, but it is consistent enough with my experience and feelings that I feel compelled to believe it.
12.1.2005 4:56pm
anon2:
I too find the arguement by CS Lewis (and restated by John Polkinghorne -- that the witness of scripture and the behavior of the first disciples strongly suggests the reality of the ressurection) compelling at a personal level. But for a more scholarly statement on the reasons one might accept the truth claims of the Bible regarding the resurrection of Christ, I'd strongly suggest NT Wright's work on Christian origins (e.g. http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Jesus_Resurrection.htm).
12.1.2005 5:00pm
claritas:
First, Christ's resurrection is possible because it is impossible to disprove: our inference that "everyone dies and is not physically resurrected" is inductive, and therefore can't disprove a contrary observation.

Second, Christ's resurrection is extremely plausible for reasons relating to the credibility of the people who say he was resurrected:
(1) All the contemporaries acknowledge that he died, and the officials had an interest in seeing that he did finally die.
(2) The judgment that he died is unlikely to be incorrect because of the way he died (gruesome torture followed by crucifixion). By contrast, death by poision might leave the fact of death open to question.
(3) A large number of contemporaries who knew Christ believed that he came back to life.
(4) Because death is the most routine of occurrences, it takes a particularly demented person to erroneously believe that someone that person knew, and had witnessed die, has come back to life.
(5) By all accounts, the people who claimed that Christ had been resurrected were not demented:
(a) They were normal people who functioned in society--fishermen, tax collectors, physicians, etc.
(b) There were many of them, and it is unlikely that so many people would have had the same mental defect--or, even if they all did share that defect, that all of the them would suffer painful consequences as a result.
(c) Several of them (Matthew, Mark, and John) were not just mentally competent--they wrote complex, culturally foundational accounts of what they and others saw.

And so on.

Finally, just as Christ's resurrection cannot ultimately be disproved, the certainty of Christ's resurrection cannot in the end be proved. But it shares this characteristic with almost all of our practical judgments (can you, for example, "prove" that your car is in the garage right now?). Through the power of faith and personal inspiration, many people (including me) do believe, with certainty, that Christ was resurrected.
12.1.2005 5:02pm
W J J Hoge (mail):
I believe in God because I cannot understand the nature of Man without the nature of God as a starting point. Further, I believe in the God who revealed himself through his interaction with Israel, because what he says about himself and his creation in the Hebrew scriptures makes more sense to me than the claims about any other god. I believe that Jesus is who he says he is because I find his claims consistent with the nature of God revealed in the Hebrew scriptures and the historical record.

As to miracles, it seems to me that if God is omnipotent, then he can do as he pleases. If he chooses, for example, to raise the dead, then he can do it. If I understand the way he describes himself, he normally chooses to let the normal processes of the universe run their course, but he does shake things up from time to time. The miracles described in the Bible were all demonstrations that God was a work in a particular place at a particular time. He has already demonstrated who he is and no longer needs to prove his point. For this reason if I heard a report of the dead being raised (and no report of the Second Coming), I would be skeptical.
12.1.2005 5:03pm
monopticus (mail):
Like some of your aforementioned commenters, I would say my answer lies between faith and inspiration. I do feel as if motivated to certain behavior and enhanced by a covenent.

I do however, have a hard time understanding how someone could aspire to "good" behavior without faith, however, of whatever stripe. I have read some works on an atheistic basis for morality and ethics, but it seems to me to be unpersuasive.

I find it ironic that the far left, with utopian dreams of equality, are often the most hostile to religeon. Communitarian groups that have enjoyed some measure of success (Mormon enclaves, Kibutz, Bhutan, Ancient Sparta) have always seemeed to have been theocracies of one sort or another.

In general I think that politics, religeon, science and philosophy are four separate and distinct methods of discovery. I try very hard not to blur them, because I think the results are usually bad (e.g. climate "science"). Each has their own rules and quirks. I think religeon is based solely on "revelation". BY some non-repeatable mechanism, the truth of what is becomes known to you. Whether by Grace, plates, tablet or scripture. I think atheistic "religeon" is revealed by looking deep into the universe and not finding anything past your senses. I don't think that atheism is any more OR less PROVABLE than any religeon, at least scientifically, for which I like Popper's empirical definition. Religeosity requires you to accept that there are some things that just cannot ever be proved. Quibbling over inconsistencies in biblical historiographical or physical record notwithstanding.
12.1.2005 5:10pm
DK:
I believe that the framing of the question misses the point of religion -- and indeed, I think that the entire fields of Biblical criticism, Biblical archaeology, creationism, intelligent design, and the evolution vs. creation debate likewise miss the point. A man once told Jesus that he was waiting to bury his father before following Jesus. Jesus told him "follow me and leave the dead to bury their own dead." In other words, the point is not about the dead or the past, but about "what do we do now?" and "where are we going?"

The reason I am a Christian is that I believe that life has meaning, that we have a purpose, and that purpose is both moral and central to our lives. I believe this because most of the great philosophers, saints and leaders, as well as most of the ordinary humans to have lived have also believed that such purpose and meaning exist. I also believe this because I have had feelings and experiences that match/provide evidence for the idea that life has meaning and moral purpose. Even if I had solid eyewitness proof that none of the Christian miracles happened, I would still believe that we have a purpose and moral obligations, and that some component of the purpose and obligations calling each of us ultimately flows from God.

The above beliefs could apply to any religion, and indeed, I have more in common with the average Buddhist, Hindu, or morally aware atheist than I do with a Christian who devotes his time to fighting evolution (which to me, misses the point, and suggests the fighter hasn't really understood the Bible). I have chosen Christianity in particular because I find that the words and life of Jesus and of other portions of the Bible fit my own moral observations and sense of inner purpose better than those of any other religion on belief system. When I first seriously read the gospels, I found they spoke to me in a way deeper and truer than anything else I have read before or since.

Such moral and psychological truth are for me prior to questions of historical or biological truth -- I came to believe in Jesus' Resurrection because I believed in God and in Jesus' words, not because I counted up the number of witnesses or investigated Roman execution procedures.

Other than the Resurrection, I see the other Biblical miracles as less important but probably mostly true -- i.e. you have to believe in the Resurrection to be a Christian, but the rest is gravy.

I would also say that to me the social utility of belief in purpose/moral calling is debateable at best. Yes it can underwrite charity and encourage a work ethic. But it is also painful, and hard, as I feel I can never fully satisfy the purpose God calls me to, nor can anyone. And there are abundant examples of people mistaking their purposes and wreaking havoc in the name of their misunderstandings of God. On balance, I might be happier day-to-day if I was less burdened by a sense of responsibility, although I'm told that it is worth it in the long run.

One could also call my argument faith and say it is subject to your exclusion of pure-faith arguments. But it is not the kind of faith usually meant when people make a distinction between reason and faith -- because it is ultimately about the future and about the ultimate purpose of things. WHen talking about events 2000 years ago, one can distinguish between people who base their beliefs on scientific evidence and people who base their beliefs on faith. But when we are talking about the future, we are all talking about faith and hunches, whether we are Christians or atheist Marxists or Singularity fans or just weather forecasters.
12.1.2005 5:42pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Being a skeptical Christian, or maybe a Christian skeptic, I'm not sure how many of the NT miracles I credit.

The Resurrection, however, is a biggie. I've seen Thomas Sheehan argue that it's to be taken metaphorically, but metaphorical resurrection doesn't do much for me. Next you get metaphorical God, and then metaphorical religion?

Why do I believe, at least on my good days, that Jesus rose from the dead?

The arguments from the faith of the apostles aren't especially persuasive. People have died for some crazy stuff.

What brought me back to Xtianity, after a long spell of atheism, was Christian humility, which fits with my brand of skepticism--as opposed to the brand that proudly debunks others while remaining itself dogmatic.

Part of that humility is a refusal to dogmatize that Jesus "just couldn't have" risen from the dead, or been God incarnate. I'm supposed to base that dogma on what? My own experience? Who made ME the center of the universe?

In addition, the singularity of the Resurrection makes it easier to accept. I certainly don't see miracles popping up all around me, and my weak humility (because I tend to be pretty arrogant intellectually) wouldn't be equal to believing in a perpetual cascade of miracles.

So, my willingness to accept the miraculous is my attempt to be humble in what I assert that I can know about the world. Which is just the opposite, I'm sure, of how some would take that willingness.
12.1.2005 5:50pm
Sanjay Krishnaswamy:
I'm not sure my religion is based on "factual assertions" as such so much as ideas of how, generally, the world is structured. And much of what I read in it appears to be substantiated, frankly, by personal sensual experience. But to directly answer Professor Volokh's question:

I don't think that the "factual assertions" of scripture _ARE_ "factual" in the same sense that say what I ate for breakfast is factual. For scripture, God's first real manifestation is as "kala' -- time. For God, time itself doesn't have much meaning and I imagine there isn't a lot of distinction between what happened, what will happen, what might have happened, etc. -- He's not real into keeping a "historical record" or telling us about it. So instead we have a collection of stories whose "factual" nature is, for God, probably as good as what I ate for breakfast, but for me, doesn't rise to the level of documentary. That's not what the scripture is for, and I don't think God needs it --- reality seems quite adequate for telling you, what you need to do now, when it has to.

Instead, these stories, of pasts real and imagined, are essentially _selected_, and _that's_ what's interesting about them: they're _useful_ (and maybe _uplfiting_). The scripture is selected to help the individula in his or her religious practice and bettering of self. But truly enlightened individuals don't much need the scripture (as the scripture itself claims here and there). It's not about fact, it's about illustration.
12.1.2005 6:03pm
Harriet Miers' Law Partner:
"'Relevant evidence' means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable that it would be without the evidence." Tex. R. Evid. 401.

Just as each factfinder must weigh the evidence and arrive at a conclusion, so each person must evaluate the evidence (or lack thereof) and determine whether Jesus was Christ. For each person, then, the process is fact-intensive and unique to them. In my experience, factfinders rarely get clear-cut cases and must ultimately make a decision based in part on their faith that the fact is or is not true. And often one fact -- the hardest fact, the most unexplainable fact, the near-non-sensical fact -- causes the factfinder to find for or against. (Also remember, hearsay was an invention to control the jury, unknown at early common law. In matters of faith, then, perhaps the hearsay rule is unwise.)

I offer the following testimony:

(1) When I was 6, I was crossing a busy road to get to my house. I froze in the street as I saw an oncoming RV. I felt a hand lift me up and deposit me on the street. It happened in an instant. There was no other human around.

(2) When I was 21, I was in the hospital with a broken bone which required surgery. I kidded with the nurse, saying I wasn't sure about going under -- what if I didn't wake up? I wasn't ready to see the light yet -- or worse, no light at all. She said (paraphrasing): "It's interesting you bring that up about no light. We had a guy in here about six months ago with a gunshot wound. He had been in a lot over the previous months with rather violent wounds, and the police suspected he was a drug dealer. The last time he was here, we almost lost him -- he flatlined for a minute before the dcotors brought him back. Later in the recovery room he told me that he didn't see a light -- he saw nothing but darkness but could hear screams of anguish and torment. He said he never felt more afraid in his life than at that moment. We've never seen him again."
12.1.2005 6:31pm
Willard:
For myself, I believe in miraculous events because of my own personal encounters (or visions, or experiences, or whatever you want to call them) of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit. Having experienced Jesus's presence myself, I believe that the apostles, and many other Christians since, also experienced it.

Of course, I am aware that if I had been raised in another culture, I might not have experienced visions of Jesus. Perhaps visions of Mohammed? But if I had been raised in another culture, I might not believe in relativity, or democracy, or a hundred other things, so this criticism doesn't seem particularly relevant.
12.1.2005 6:34pm
Dan Simon (www):
Why do I believe in (my tradition's conception of) God, when that belief contradicts the basic rules of science and logic that I use to approach the physical universe?

Well, why do I use those basic rules of science and logic to approach the physical universe? After all, they're of relatively recent historical vintage, and did not exist until millions of people had already lived full, happy lives without knowing the first thing about science or logic. Why, then, do I use them so consistently in (the non-religious parts of) my life?

The answer, of course, is that they work extremely well for me. I have a strong desire--perhaps even a need--to make sense of the physical universe, to be able to predict its behavior, and to be able to use and even invent technologies that exploit this sense and predictability to make my life physically more pleasant and comfortable. Science and logic are easily the most powerful tools available for this purpose.

By the same token, I have a strong desire--perhaps even a need--to make sense of the moral universe, to be able to arrive at moral judgments, and be able to use and even invent moral rules and principles that make my life morally more orderly and peaceful. Science and logic are utterly useless for this purpose, but my religious tradition helps me greatly.

Sure, they conflict on certain matters relating to the physical universe. Fortunately, I haven't yet encountered a situation in which I was uncertain as to whether I was attempting to draw a conclusion about the physical universe or the moral one. Hence it's never been a source of conflict for me--when I'm dealing with the physical world, I don my scientist's hat, and use science. When I'm dealing with the moral world, I don my kippah, and turn to religion.

For example, as long as I'm trying to decide how a good Jew should treat his neighbors, I take it for granted that the Eternal God explained the rules at Sinai. On the other hand, if I want to understand how a doctor should treat his neighbors, I take it for granted that those neighbors are biological systems, the product of millions of years of evolution. As long as I know which role I'm in--and I always seem to--it's easy.
12.1.2005 7:56pm
Michael Fleming (mail):
First a preamble to lay some groundwork.

One of the fundamental tenants of reformed Christian theology (started when Luther posted the 95 theses in 1517 A.D.) is that someone who has not been born again (a supernatural act of creating a new soul within an individual to replace the damaged soul we were born with, John 3) can not have faith in Christ (Romans 8:6-8). Conversely, if you have been born again, you will, of your own free will, without exception, have faith in Christ (John 6:37), the new soul has no other desire. Our belief in this and other doctrines is based on a set of precise and logical principles of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), the main goal of which is to determine the intended meaning of the inspired authors (Moses, Paul, John, etc.). For the evangelical christian (at least when the term "evangelical" was first used as a distinction amongst the various Christian groups), the bible is the *only* source of infallible truth (sola scriptura).

Others have written of the basis for believing the OT was inspired (Jesus spoke of it as such) and the NT (written by the apostles as attested by historical church writers) so I won't go further into that. On second thought, I will add one thing which, though some might consider circular, is nonetheless an important point. I Corinthians 1:18 through to the end of chapter 2 make it very clear that the regenerate also entrust themselves to God's word (especially 1:18 and 2:10-16).

The distinction between faith and belief in the bible is important. Without getting too much into the Greek details (for which I am not particularly qualified) they are both translated from the same Greek word (pistis); however, the context and certain Greek constructs (pisteuo eis, believe in) indicate a distinction between intellectual assent to a truth versus entrusting yourself to that truth. An unregenerate person can give intellectual assent to the person and work of Christ but only the regenerate can entrust himself in repentance to Christ as the only salvation of his soul from the penalty of his rebellion and sin against God. The illustration I usually use is whether someone believes a 2x4 will hold his weight versus entrusting himself to that truth; if you inspect the board sufficiently you may believe that it will hold your weight; however, until you place that board across a chasm and use it to cross the chasm, you don't have faith in the board.

Another distinction I will make between belief and faith is that I am convinced that belief is not an intellectual choice. Some accumulation of evidence builds until some point, at which time, you believe. Faith is an intellectual choice; you must choose to entrust yourself to the 2x4.

So, a part of the answer to your question is that, in some sense, we have no other choice; God has given us a new soul that knows God, why would we follow anything else?

A statement I sometimes make is that Christianity is intellectually defensible but not intellectually attainable. Given that the bible is the inspired Word of God, we defend it against any logical attack. Undoubtedly there are instances of of some difficulty in resolving apparent inconsistencies, but we insist that they are only apparent. To the unregenerate, this is foolishness (see the I Corinthian reference above) but to the believer, the power of God.

That brings me to the second portion of my answer to your question (which I have already made above but now make explicit to the question); we are skeptical of anything that is not in the Bible. We believe and have faith in many things not in scripture (the existence of Abraham Lincoln, stepping on the brake will stop my car, and many other facts); however, since the Bible is the *only* source of infallible truth, all other claims to truth must be consistent with our human experience. The Bible is a supernatural document, all others must pay cash.
12.1.2005 8:19pm
Jim Christiansen (mail):
The only difficult question is: is there a God? There are highly plausible reasons for believing that there is: the cosmological arguments, the improbability of something so complex as life occurring by accident, and so on. Even the noted atheist philosopher Anthony Flew recently acknowledged reluctantly that there might well be a God. For those unfamiliar with Flew, this is like the Pope converting to Hinduism.

If there is a God, the a priori incredibility of miracles disappears -- God can do whatever he wants, so why shouldn't he perform miracles? Well, but does he? Here we can judge by ordinary standards of evidence: (1) Is the reported miracle well attested? There are many Christian miracles, the Resurrection most prominently, that are quite well attested. (2) Is the miracle something that people would be likely to invent? The deeply strange notion that God might become man, be tortured to death, and then rise again is wildly unlikely to be the product of wishful thinking.

Disbelievers tend to not to engage the evidence, but to dismiss the possibility of miracle a priori. When they _do_ engage the evidence, often enough they become believers.

The sincere belief of others in different faiths tends not to disconfirm my faith, but to confirm it. They agree with me on the main point -- the existence of God. That they differ with me on matters of detail, such as the divinity of Christ, indicates to me that they have not paid as much attention as I have to those matters of detail. C.S. Lewis's "Lord, liar, or lunatic" argument, cited by the first commenter, is just one of many arguments for preferring Christianity to other faiths.
12.1.2005 9:12pm
Normie:
Agony and Ecstasy are difficult to explain in Physiological terms. Both are somewhere near the center of my religious experience, which also is only clumsily articulable. For a long time, I found my faith rationally defensible: I still do--after all, its elements are virtually impossibly to DISprove. I'm not sure syllogisms, proofs, or reason are why I would invite someone to live it--much as I could probably not describe to some inanimate thing or unincorporated intelligence why I thought it should try being alive.

I no longer consider reason as capable of--or necessary to-- proving religious claims' veracity or validity or, in the term I prefer, truth.

Reading Hume for the first time years back I wondered whether reason/rationality or sense/sensibility were more 'real' or more 'true'... or if those (or any) words could even house the meanings an individual might attempt to infuse into them.

Even at my most skeptical, my faith was most greatly anchored in its being spiritually satisfying. If there is anything I know, it is that living my religions brings spiritual satisfaction.

I have felt the presence of God in his House--I cannot give a temporal account of why certain steps in my path fell where did, or if they needed to take them. Spiritual satisfaction, though, is not readily translated into the language of reason or even that of pleasure. Some devotees of either the cult of reason or pleasure cast religion aside as irrational or not pleasureable enough.

My mother used to tell me, "Try it, you'll like it" when she wanted me to try a new food. The best evidence for my faith, is experiential, and self-validating: I cannot deny the miraculous in my own life (and am consequentially very generous to other religious beings and groups and their struggles to memorialize their experience in language, ordinances, and prayers which cannot hold them). For years I hoped some vision or powerful spiritual experience would prove something to me. And made no headway. Oddly such experiences came, but they are not the proofs I offer myself or others' first that there is something more to life.

Trying to put the Divine that I have experienced into testimony form is probably something like communicating beauty through some intermediary (description alone cannot do)--or perhaps like trying to create something truly beautiful (Agony and Ecstasy, in the classical sense). I cannot communicate to my blind friends how my heart leapt at Norwegian fjords, to a Eunuch the intense feeling of sexual gratification, nor to an inanimate thing what it feels like to be 'quickened', to'grow', or to 'face death'. Because of this, and as part of my faith, I know there are many things I cannot and do not understand about my fellow creatures, the universe, or God's laws.

I am sorry that 'mere feelings' are not 'complete', if we reduce my experience (or those of Jesus, his disciples, Moses, Abraham, or Joseph Smith) to such. It may be difficult to agree upon the history or what any of them had in mind, let alone on a way to verify, without consulting them, the truthfulness of our understanding of their experiences.

In the sense you seem to be looking for, I am skeptical that science (a TOE), religion, or lifestyle could ever be 'complete.' (complete = logically? mathematically? scientifically (replicably?)?) The question your pose to the irreligious, makes me believe you understand this limitation.

Of the many systems I have encountered to understand myself, my nature, and that of the universe I dwell in, each of the above system has variously promised to be satisfying in its own way. Only one has been so in a spiritual way: powerful, enriching, and revelatory. A way that answers 'Who am I', 'Why am I' 'How ought I be'. And a way whose experiential proof has been so striking, so obvious, but also so difficult--that if it buckles with tensions another 'useful' explanation, I am willing to be generous with both and admit I do not understand either one perfectly.

(Maybe these questions mislead as much as 'complete'... but I have already written enough.)
12.1.2005 9:15pm
KeithK (mail):
I believe in the teachings Christianity because they best explain the experiences of my life. Throughout my life I have had numerious experiences of answered prayer, including physical healing. The skeptic or irreligious might say that these events were not the result of prayer or the action of the divine, but instead merely coincidence or due to some purely worldly agent. Taken alone I might be inclined to agree. But the totality of my experiences, as well as those of friends and family, lead me to the entirely logical conclusion that there is a God who does answer prayers. From there I don't believe it is much of a jump to believe other factual assertions of Christianity, including the Resurrection.
12.1.2005 9:43pm
rob (mail):
To ask if Moses did part the Sea of Reeds or if G-d did bring 10 plagues onto Egypt is to miss the forest for the trees.
12.1.2005 10:04pm
Sam (mail):
I'm going to try to provide a tack I haven't quite seen taken in the earlier comments.

The answer to the question of why I believe in a miracle (Jesus' Resurrection) is "because I am Catholic," which sounds like a dodge and is not. At least for me (and I would be willing to say, for Catholicism as a tradition) belief in the factuality of a particular miracle (even a foundational one) is not expected to be independently intelligible. Similarly, Catholicism does not define itself as a set of beliefs in the sense of propositions held to be true; "being Catholic" is based on a particular event in one's own history (baptism) and one's ongoing participation in events both material and spiritual (the life of the Church). Propositions held to be true are important, but the holding of them is not prior to the rest of it, at least from the inside.

I believe in the Resurrection because believing in the Resurrection is a constitutive element of being Catholic, and I want and choose to be Catholic.

I am capable of believing in the Resurrection because there is no incontrovertible counter-evidence, and because (pace all the arguments above) there are some respectable arguments for its reality.

The reasons I want to be Catholic, most fundamentally, are, in no ranked order: (1) the beauty and internal coherence of the system of beliefs; (2) a historically contiguous tradition which reaches both back in history and continually "out" in spirit to one about whom (as C.S. Lewis pointed out) a fairly significant choice needs to be made; and (3) personal experience stemming from the embrace of the belief system which ratifies the choice.

I hope that helps cast some light.
12.1.2005 10:10pm
Defending the Indefensible:
From whence does our consciousness originate, and to what does it aspire? If "I" have consciousness, is it a contingent outcome of merely mechanical operations, or does it derive from a necessary property of that which I am composed of? All that is said to live exhibits some element of will, even if not entirely free of constraint. The actions of the least microorganism cannot be deterministically predicted, and each and every neuron, cell and mitochondria of my physical being demonstrates a like property. Self-awareness may not be a consequence to all living matter, but is not a necessary precondition of consciousness. Rather, awareness of environment may increase at higher orders of complexity to include some realization of one's being, and yet even man's awareness of himself remains limited, for neither our senses nor our instruments give us full comprehension of how our bodies and minds work. For all our scientific accomplishment, we cannot create even a virus out of inanimate matter. Life is created only from life, all life is offspring of life.

Life is not merely the generative force of life, it is what life consumes to sustain itself. No diet of inorganic chemicals could sustain life for very long, thus life must interact continuously with other life. It is in the process of this interaction that higher orders of complexity form, strands of nucleotides cooperate to form RNA and DNA, these to establish energy producing chloroplasts and mitochondria, which power cells that specialize as neurons and parts of organs necessary to sustain an organism.

From a self-awareness point of view, we often stop here, for if we are each part of something greater than ourselves we may be no more aware of that fact than our cells "know" they are part of "us." There is no reason the process should arbitrarily stop with the individual organism, the single man or woman. Nor does it make sense to do so, for it is clear that by joining our individual consciousnesses we form cultures, having language and government and ever higher forms of complexity.

Why then do we doubt the existence of God, that which all life and consciousness together comprises and which is comprised of all that exists? Surely it is conceit to suppose that our individual minds are the highest and greatest intelligence of the universe. How can we imagine that all of this taken together is an inanimate mechanism? To say this is to say that life derives from nothing and aspires to nothing. Just to say it is to realize the absurdity of such a position.

As we are all a part of God, God is that which we are all a part of. While our limited consciousness cannot encompass God, our consciousnesses are all encompassed.
12.1.2005 10:20pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I must be intoxicated, or I wouldn't respond, but if a rather irreligious fellow might answer such a question....

1. I have not yet resolved the problem of reconciling the existance of evil with an all-good and all-powerful deity. On the other hand, if such exists he may have reasons beyond my ken and feel no obligation to explain. There are two specific events which give my doubt some pause. If doubt can have pause, that is.

2. When I was in 6th grade, the Old Nun at morning prayers told us that something serious was going to happen to a very great man, and asked us to pray that it be averted. It was the morning of November 22. 1963.

3. After my first wife died in 2003, and I was the only family member who thought to get her a priest (I got her two without knowing it... long story, but she was a VERY devout catholic and better too many than too few)
I wanted one thing above all else, to find our wedding album. The house was being sold, everything in it put into storage, to be seen again in decades, if at all.
I searched the house like hades, and no sign. At the very last moment, as I was about to head for the airplane home, I looked in a place I had already diligently searched at least twice, and there it was. In plain view.
I found this VERY striking at the time, and it remains so to this day. I knew exactly what I was searching for. It was large and obvious. I had searched that exact site, a bookcase well known to me, at least twice, and in desperation. But there it was, apparent to even a casual glance.

For whatever it is worth, this comes from a thorough cynic and skeptic. To be scientific and objective, I suppose I'd have to wonder whether there are indicia which are only apparent to those (the nun, my former wife) with devotion far beyond what I can muster. Why the almighty, if there is one, would want it this way is beyond me, but as I note, he would have no particular obligation to make it clear to me or anyone else.
12.1.2005 11:11pm
MCJ (mail):
I hesitate to conflate "belief" (or "scientific" analysis, for that matter) with "conclusion." I.e. I don't feel that my belief in Jesus Christ, his divinity, and his teachings necessarily settles much. It seems to me that, for epistemological reasons, sole reliance on rationality is just a heedless as sole reliance on religion. As humans, we are bounded on both sides; so, I think approaching both with "fear and trembling" is prudent. Perhaps this is humility, perhaps cowardice.

The take-away: I think the gulf separating believers and non- is small indeed. We are all trying to make sense of the same loony existence.
12.1.2005 11:48pm
Thucydides:
The most convincing argument to me is an improved version of Professor Volokh's argument by design. It seems that one can quite reasonably argue that the complexity of the world suggests a creator. And when one accepts that there is a creator, it seems quite reasonable to also believe that there is a high likelihood that the creator would have wanted to provide some form of guidance, or in some way communicate, with the people he created.

If one accepts that the idea that 1) God probably exists and 2) God communicated with us -- then it more or less becomes a matter of examining each religion to find out which one is the most credible. This third step is the easiest; clearly there is more empirical evidence supporting Christianity than other religions (with Judaism coming in as a distant second).
12.2.2005 12:03am
tom schofield (mail):
I was always taught that the strength to live as I ought could not come without a personal witness of the reality of G-d. Were G-d to descend and debate doctrine with me, I would end up convinced, but still lacking the inner strength to live as I should. The way I "know" the truth of something is a feeling of peace and serenity, The leaders of my church repeatedly plead with the members to pray and seek a confirmation, a personal witness that what they have been taught is actually true. "Blind faith" is discouraged, because it can't empower or motivate in the same way a "confirmed" faith can. If however, I am closed off due to pride, tradition, or whatever flaws I carry, I may never get that personal feeling or confirmation for a particular truth. How do I decide if Mohammad saw an angel? I ask G-d through prayer, with faith that if it is important for me to know, He will send me the answer.

Some might say this approach is too subjective. After all, people go through great lengths to make facts fit their worldview, how easy would it be to "get yes answers from G-d" only when it's consistent with my belief system. I'm prepping an article for publication (hopefully) right now. I'm using a program called Mx to assist with my stats. How do I know that it does what it says it does? Well, I see 500 other researchers using it, and I decide it's probably trustworthy. That's faith of a kind. While I (and those 1,000 researchers) could be wrong, I'm not putting my career on hold to learn the program code to "know" that Mx works correctly. Such "skepticism" would only handicap me.
Whatever side one takes on global warming, or the elemental structure of matter, or the downfall of the Roman Empire is probably due to who one chooses to believe. That's not to say that there's more than one correct answer to those questions, just that everyone accepts things on faith.

When I teach students content from my area of science, they are not being asked to "take it on faith" as much as they're being invited to learn something, and to learn the tools to research it for themselves someday. If they put in the effort, they will one day see long-term potentiation for themselves, or see collective efficacy mediate neighborhood level SES effects in their own data. When I taught people during a mission I served for my church, I was not asking them to "take it on faith" as much as I was inviting them to learn something, and to learn the tools to research it for themselves someday. If they put in the effort, they will one day know Jesus is the resurrected Christ for themselves, and see the validity of His doctrine borne out through their own experiences.

I look at religion not as incompatible with skepticism, only another example that some answers are not to be had without concerted effort. Since G-d values humility, He also wants me to learn it, so I have to gain spiritual knowledge on His terms, not my own (which is humbling). I can refuse to play the game and drop out of grad school, but NIH is not likely to give me any research grants if I do. I can refuse to abandon empiricism to instead exercise faith to pay the price necessary to find out if G-d exists, but I'm probably closing a door to knowledge if I do so. NIH has their reasons for not generally funding college dropouts, I believe G-d also has His reasons for trying to teach His children the importance of turning to Him for knowledge, through prayer.
12.2.2005 1:07am
Steve - History Buff:
I believe in the resurrection and other biblical miracles and accept their occurrence as historical fact. I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead for several reasons (in no particular order): one, I accept the Bible's assertion to be divinely inspired and therefore accept its claim that Christ rose from the dead; two, when evaluating a miracle claim, I look for supporting (or negating) evidence -- circumstantial data in the text, context, or history (for the resurrection, claims about empty tombs, probability of surviving a Roman crucifixion, contemporary historical and eyewitness accounts, potential motives for corruption of data, appearances to friends and strangers, ability to eat and interact normally with people post-death/resurrection -- in the case of the resurrection account, women are reported to be among the first witnesses, but their testimony wasn't considered reliable in courts, so I reason that the writer would potentially lose credibility by inserting their reports, therefore there must be a good reason they are included, namely, because they are believed to be true, eyewitness accounts); three, I look for internal consistency among the evidence (if pieces contradict one another, that's a red flag); four, I look for demonstrated accuracy over time (i.e. if something is prophesied or foretold, it must occur as predicted); fifth, I look for preceding circumstances for irregularities (Christ was crucified before the resurrection allegedly occurred, but crucifixion would not have made for a pleasant corpse to view afterwards -- a person who died in their sleep would seem a likelier candidate for resurrection, because their body would not be severely bruised, lacerated, and otherwise visibly damaged -- again the author could lose credibility by reporting a crucifixion followed by resurrection, so to do this may be significant) (the Romans were notorious for their crucifixion efficacy -- the executioner's life and job depended on his ability to ensure that the person was in fact killed). One should rightfully be skeptical of a claim that Joe Schmoe or Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead: After all, we know from experience and history that dead people stay dead. No doubt, many of Christ's early followers were skeptical (as they rightfully should have been). But when one is confronted with evidence, one must evaluate the data and decide what (if anything) it points to. Even if I did not accept the Bible's overall veracity (and thus viewed its claims about Christ as suspect), I would still examine the secular evidence for his life and alleged resurrection and could still potentially reach the same conclusion.

If an intelligent being intervened to create the world, then there is no reason to suppose it hasn't since intervened or will not continue to in the future. The biggest hurdle is the notion of a miracle or divine intervention. Once that obstacle is overcome, repeat occurrences don't pose a problem.

Fanciful accounts that are integrated with history can take a variety of forms -- perhaps even different perspectives or values. If I read a history book regarding a political era, I will get a different interpretation depending on the author's political bias and his or her resulting construction of the data -- a more liberal author may cheer the New Deal, while a more conservative author criticizes it. Fanciful accounts then are based on the author's beliefs -- a classical historian may invoke Greek or Roman deities or explain events as divine intervention. Sorting out the fact from the fantasy depends partially on one's own ideas (Greek and Roman audiences no doubt believed that certain events involved intervention by their gods and goddesses).

One could become agnostic when evaluating competing faith claims. I visualize competing faiths something like Justice Holmes' free marketplace of ideas -- many competing and contradictory claims may exist, but the best one(s) must rise to the top and win (whether by popular acceptance or actual truth may be a different question) (Adam Smith viewed competing religious claims in a similar light).

Skeptical intellectuals such as C.S. Lewis and John Warwick Montgomery say they were dragged, kicking and screaming into Christianity by the force of the evidence they examined. They, of course, had to accede at some point that certain things were miraculous (i.e. Christ's resurrection), but they were hardly accepting Christianity's claims blindly without evidence and investigation.

I take on faith the religious claims I do accept because the evidence I have seen leads me in that direction. Like Aristotle once advised, I do my best to follow where the evidence and argument leads, and not impose my own bias or prejudice.

Factual accuracy is independent of people's belief in a given thing. However, intelligent and thoughtful people are more likely to accept something that is true or highly likely to be true (since the force of the evidence will lead them to that conclusion).

As a history major, I know that the Founding Fathers believed (with classical statesmen) that virtue was required for a successful republic. They had the conviction that religion was the best way to cultivate that virtue among the general population (certain elites might be able to live moral and virtuous lives without faith, but not the masses). Despite often ambiguous or divergent religious beliefs, the majority of the Founders believed that Christianity was the best religion available to cultivate that virtue that would be the bedrock of the American republic. Nonetheless, they wisely put a freedom of conscience provision (known as the Free Exercise Clause) into the Constitution, to ensure that everyone was free to worship (or not) according to his or her own convictions.

Ultimately belief in Christianity (or any other religion) is a matter of faith, but I can assure skeptics and nonbelievers out there that many of us believers (myself included) consider claims seriously and evaluate them critically (not blindly). Thanks, Professor Volokh, for the good questions and starting this interesting discussion.
12.2.2005 1:25am
monkbent (www):
Maybe I'm jumping in late here, but what an excellent series of questions! It actually prompted me to register.

For me, the axiomatic question is whether or not there is a god (small g - i.e. some sort of supernatural being). I, as you might expect, believe there is - but not necessarily the Christian God.

Briefly, I am not concerned with how the world came about, whether through Creation or Evolution (although on that particular question I tend to believe the latter scenario, seeing Genesis as an allegory). After all, even evolution must have a beginning to retain some sort of logical consistancy. The current accepted hypothesis is a "Big Bang", and even if I accept this as a rational explanation for our current world, the question remains, what came before? How did the Big Bang materialize?

I can find no satisfactory answer other than there being some sort of supernatural being.

So why the Christian God? This answer is even more murky, for I consider this supreme beings motivation. Why would he/she/it/they create (small c - method unimportant) the world? Why would it be as it is? The only possible way to answer this is to look at what was created, especially people (being a type of supreme being over the surrounding world due to our extraordinary intelligence). When I consider the motivation of people, I see relationships, communication and intimacy as being driving forces (along with their darker elements, like control, power and lust). Assuming (and this is a big assumption) that the supreme being ultimately behind these finite yet superior beings would have similar motivations, that leaves me with a supreme being similar to the type described in religious traditions (more on this in the next paragraph).

So then why Christianity? Well, if you have come this far, first accepting there is a God, then accepting his character is discernable from the world around us, then what sort of world would those motivations entail? Relationships, communication and intimacy depend on there being two independent beings. A relationship between an inventor and his robot is not a relationship at all. Communication is non-existant, and it is hard to imagine intimacy when you programmed the damn thing.

So now we arrive at the matter of free will. If God (big G now) exists, and if he has traits that are echoed in people, and if those traits are relationships, communication and intimacy, and he wants to create a world to meet his desire for such things, he must necessarily create beings with a free will.

And with a free will, there is evil - the opposite of God. And if you embrace evil (not-God) - even one time - you by definition cannot return to God.

Thus, any means of salvation, by logical definition, must be completely independent of the actions of the one being saved. For the one who has sinned, there is nothing they can do to return to God.

And that is the logical beauty of Christianity. Salvation is completely dependent on God, in the form of Jesus Christ taking on the sin and being separated from God, and then being restored by virtue of his perfect life. In fact, being saved means admitting you are helpless and need God. Salvation is the embrace of helplessness, and helplessness is the only logical way to describe our position.

So, for me, Jesus Christ being raised from the bed is the logical linchpin of my entire view of the world:

believe in supreme being-->believe supreme being has a motivation to create-->believe motivation can be derived from creation-->believe motivation depends on those being created having a free will-->believe free will leads to permanent isolation of created subject-->believe salvation is only possible if initiated from the God-side via replacement-->believe Jesus Christ's death and resurrection is this replacement

Of course some other event would have provided this replacement, but the willingness of eyewitnesses to suffer greatly and die, as well as the explosive growth of the early church has convinced me this was the seminal event.
12.2.2005 7:10am
bobby78jones (mail):
I liked the informative blogs and posts here. Got to know many nice things.
12.2.2005 7:25am
Scipio (mail) (www):
I tend not to examine the rationale behind my beliefs. Clearly I was programmed as a Russian Orthodox Christian from childhood; my personal convictions are, I'm afraid, rather heretical on the whole. I suppose I am guilty of a lazy man's version of Pascal's wager (suffering as I do from a bit of envy re: Judaism, as a religion that doesn't necessarily require faith so much as performing appropriate and authorized acts).
12.2.2005 10:13am
Mr. Mandias (mail) (www):
Here are some other accounts:

http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2734#more-2734
http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2725
http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2730
http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2729
http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2724
http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2712
http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2723

Here are some Catholic stories:
http://www.ancient-future.net/conversion.html

30 seconds of googling didn't reveal anything exactly for Jews, Muslims, Evangelicals, etc., but I'm sure anyone who spends a little more time than that can find it. There also appears to be a genre of (de)conversion stories about people's growing witness of atheism, so to speak.
12.2.2005 10:22am
LP:

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?


Let me start off by trying an answer from a different tact -- "why not believe?" I.e. why do people *not* believe such claims. Do they even [b]mean[/b] it when they ask this question.

Clearing that up first goes a long way (I think) to being able to actually have a profitable discussion about the positive answers to this question. (Briefly considered in the post below as well.)


I think the "don't believe" answers I usually hear are from one of the following five basic categories, which I attempt to summarize and 'refute' below in an egregiously truncated form.


(1) Miracles don't happen. (Atheist)

Fair enough. But this is a statement of faith, even if the faith is atheism. It simply dismisses things out of hand by a postulate. Ultimately, it's part of the school of thought which says "Religion is wrong because religion is wrong."

In other words, this "why not" is a tautological statement, not an argument or discussion. Nice for you if it satisfies you -- but it hardly amounts to a discussion or to *honestly* asking and examining the question with which we started.

Unfortunately, in theology as in politics, many people seem to think that shouting the same thing over and over will make it true -- despite the fact that that's manifestly less true in theology than politics.

So this reply gets us nowhere save to prove that there is an irreconcilable difference of mutually exclusive postulates.



(2) I only believe what I can see and repeat. (Empericist)

In this case, to be consistent, the objector must not believe in history. Can you repeat Abraham Lincoln's presidency in a laboratory? Heck, such an impericist not believe that the world is round when (to the senses) it's so obviously flat.

Now, most people don't mean this, obviously. Rather, someone giving this answer generally means "I only believe in what is consistent with the world I perceive." But such a reply is actually just a fancified version of (1) as it carries the implicit "... and in the world I perceive, miracles don't exist." Therefore religion is wrong because religion is wrong - q.e.d.

But if miracles [b]do[/b] happen, then they are more like Abraham Lincoln's presidency than they are like a reaction in the test tube. Limited personal experience (which may, indeed, even be oblivious to miracles because of atheistic prejudices) is no guide.


In my experience, most people who reply in this empiricist way are simply trying to pretend that their own postulates of faith (atheism) are actually objective scientific conclusions rather than the statements of faith they truly are.

The *honest* empericist answer is to say "well, I personally haven't encountered any miracles - at least not that I'm aware of, but they are not they type of thing which are at all disproved that way."


(3) Religion is false because people are simply trying to get personal comfort or meaning from it. (Enlightenment or psychological answer).

Yes, people get comfort and meaning from religion. How does that prove it false?

People get comfort from eating, sleeping, and personal affection. Does that prove that food, sleep and love don't exist? No more does finding comfort in religion prove religion false.

In fact, it's the other way around. If I see someone out on the beach sunning himself, I'm likely to conclude that it's warm and that they're getting genuine comfort from the sun.

Sure, if it's just one person, I might wonder if they're masochistic or delusional and claim that, in truth, it's cloudy and only 40 deg. F out. But if the beach is full of scantily-clad sunbathers and I still make the claim that it's cloudy and frigid, then I'm probably the delusional one.

So too with people claiming that religion must be false because people derive comfort from it.



(4) People invented these stories to get power. (Political or cynical answer).

A more rational answer, that at least doesn't attempt to claim that tautology or prejudice is arguement.

And one often based on people looking at religious organizations (or, in some cases, the media's distorted image of religious organizations) and concluding that this is what must have been going on in, say, 1st century Palestine.

Now, sure, people from time to time have hypocritically used relgion for their own personal ends. But that doesn't prove that everybody always did so in every case.

To truly test the validity of this response, one has to look at the particular case in question. And, as some here have pointed out, the early Christians got themselves social ostracization, persecution, and even martyrdom. So much for that theory.

(Of course, citing Foucault, some will come back and say that all this was just another kind of power. Fine. But if you go that route, then *everything* is about power, and so everything anybody ever does is about power, and so saying that, in this sense, Christianity is false because its early leaders were just seeking power is about as illogical as saying Christianity is false because it's early leaders were breathing.)


(5) Not true in my experience (Experientialist)

This approach is, sadly, not only very popular among non-religious folk but is, in fact, quite poular among liberal / revisionist / apostate *religious* folk. "This basic element of my religion is false because I don't agree with it" or "this moral claim is false because I find it inconvenient."

Ultimately, this approach is solipsistic. The individual's own thoughts and experiences become the measure of all things... it's only true if they can understand and agree with it; it's only immoral if such a prohibition doesn't inconvenience them; it can only happen to someone else if it has happened to them.

This approach is, again, simply a rejection of the question and discussion rather than an actual engagement in a search for truth. And it's usually pointless to converse with people who aren't interested in cooperatively seeking truth but rather just in making their own infallable pronouncements from their own little molehill Sianis.

(One of the reasons I'm an orthodox Christian is that I *don't* trust my own fallible reason &experience 100% and look to the sum experience of many who are both wiser and holier than I to help guide my understanding. I'm afraid I'm simply not arrogant enough - or contemptuous of other peoples and cultures and times enough - to rewrite or dismiss orthodox Christianity as some so-called Christians do.)


----

In other words, I've found that most objections to the "factual assertions" are, themselves, statements of atheistic faith or of a pre-conceived rejection... statements that amount to little more than "Jesus didn't rise from the dead because I don't believe Jesus rose from the dead" and the like.

This plethora of vacuuous disagreement doesn't prove that religion is true, of course... even though it's the case (to my mind) that the vast majority of those who say religion is false say so on silly and illogical and inconsistent grounds. (Of course, perhaps it's possible that the vast majority of those who *do* believe in religion do so for equally silly or illogical reasons... but, even if so, either way it proves nothing about the actual facts of the case.)



If, however, we set these sillinesses aside, then we approach the question by accepting the _possibility_ of, and examinging the _validity_ of, the following sort of statements:

* Logically, there may be a God

* Logically, such a God may do miracles

* Such miracles, while not reproducable in a "laboratory" setting, may have measurable effects on individuals and history which can be evaluated.

* Such evaluation should be consistent with the nature of the evidence. (E.g. evaluate the textual accuracy of the Bible's transmission as you would any other book; examine the historical claims as you would other historical claims, not as you would a chemical equation, etc.)

* If such a God exists, He will be consistent both with individual experience (objectively and impassively considered, stripped of all prejudice and selfish deception) and objective reason -- or, rather, experience and reason will be consistent with Him.


Then, based on such an examination, one may well conclude that the factual assertions (perhaps we should say historical and logical starting points?) of the religion are valid and credible.


Many of the replies so far strike me as contributing to this sort of "positive" analysis.

But I fear that the objections these replies raise will, more often than not, not be disagreements or examination in kind, but simply the sort of "statements of atheistic faith" which (when stripped of rhetoric and laid out simply) be nothing more than postulated rejection rather than actual discussion. (Go on. Prove me wrong. I double dare ya! :-P )



-- LP
(Anglican)
12.2.2005 12:01pm
Rob Johnson (mail):
Let me quickly suggest two reasons why I believe the biblical assertions about Jesus Christ (that he was resurrected, etc.).

First, I have found that Christ's moral teachings bring me happiness and fulfillment as I have experimented with them and implemented them into my life. I view this as the consummation of Christ's promise when he said, in John 7:17: "If any man will do his will he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself." My experience with Christ's moral teachings makes me willing to entertain and believe the supernatural assertions about his character. In contrast, supernatural assertions about werewolves lack this moral element.

Second, I unapologetically maintain that there are three sources of knowledge whereby mankind can look for truth. The three sources are: deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning (the scientific method being a rigorous form of inductive reasoning), and revelation. Call it begging the question if you like, but I—again unapologetically—believe that mankind can obtain truth and knowledge via revelation. While I applaud efforts to establish as much common ground as possible between religious and irreligious people while utilizing only deductive and inductive reasoning, I think there is a point at which religious people must rely on revelation to explain their beliefs. Have I mentioned that I don't think we need to apologize for that?
12.2.2005 12:52pm
Matt22191 (mail):
Some of my reasons for believing "the factual assertions that form the basis of [my] religion" are much along the lines of those given by aslanfan, Clayton Cramer and others. I won't duplicate their comments, but I will add a little to them.

Several people who I personally know to be sane, intelligent, truthful, educated and sophisticated have related to me experiences that they've had, which they believed to be supernatural. (I won't detail the experiences. It would make for a long comment, and it seems unnecessary: I understand the question to be why I believe, not why others should.) In short, I have decided that I concur: those experiences were supernatural. With one exception, they were the sorts of experiences that Christians refer to as miracles; without exception they were entirely consistent Christianity being true. While this doesn't prove the miraculous claims of the first Christians, I do consider it an additional piece of evidence in favor of their truth.

Of course I can't prove that my friends didn't dupe me, or that they weren't somehow duped, or that they didn't misinterpret natural but exceedingly rare and as-yet scientifically inexplicable phenomena. But those explanations do not seem plausible to me in light of my personal assessments of the people in question, the nature of the events they experienced, and the fact that several of them have experienced such events. Perhaps, Eugene, I'm just not as healthily skeptical as some of your readers.
12.2.2005 1:16pm
dweeb (mail):
answer #2 for me, with the elaboration that the historical record tends to collaborate certain miracle claims. That the Israelites came out of Egypt and formed a nation, against all reasonable expectations, tends to be supported. When a claim of miracle correlates with history that seems difficult without a miracle, that's persuasive. With respect to the resurrection, logic combined with history makes a case for it - given the empty tomb, which isn't disputed, if the Jewish or Roman leaders had emptied it, they'd have paraded the body through the streets to disprove the resurrection, and if the apostles had emptied it, it's doubtful they'd all have been willing to die for a fraud, and the record of their violent martyrdom is not from Scripture. There are other examples, but you get the idea.
12.2.2005 1:55pm
TL:
Why then do you believe the factual assertions that form the basis of your religion?

May not be the best answer for me, but one that I didn't see mentioned above: Because it is internally consistent with a belief/hope/assumption that something looms after this life. I sat in court observing a murder trial earlier this week and had to ponder the question . . . surely there is something after this life. What is the risk that I am running if I believe falsely in Christianity, and it turns out that we all go to the cloud in the sky, or we all cease to exist? Beyond this, raised in a Christian home, studied world religious, always had a faith that presupposes me considering a switch to another religion (though I have critically examined my own faith and if it was sufficient).
12.2.2005 2:21pm
JJV (mail):
I would point out that the Catholic Church, which certainly believes in miracles, is actually always extremely leery of any divine activity claims, such as visions of the Virgin Mary and the like. It takes an awful lot of inquiry before the hiearchy buys any of it. That said, I think one reason people believe in miracles, besides the C.S.Lewis-type answers are that in our own day they have seen the inexplicable with their own eyes. I know people who saw Padre Pio's stigmata. Similiarly, many people have had seemingly impossible prayers answered. There may be perfectly reasonable explanations for this sort of thing but certain events of our own time do not seem explainable from a naturalism or materialistic point of view. The refounding of Israel, the Papacy of John Paul II, including the collapse of the Soviet Union during it(especially when coupled with the prophecies of the Virgin Mary early in the century)and even the continued vitality of a an institution rejecting every easy tenet of modernity lead by an all male, celibate priesthood seems inexplicable by non-supernatural theories. Meanwhile, the Episcopalians who have married priests and every other thing "rational" people urge on religion, shrink. What rationalistic body of thought would predict or even believe these things would occurr before they happened? Yet little kids in a field just after WWI predicted it supposedly after talking to the Virgin Mary. In fact, look at the much derided Humanai Vitai written in 1968. Put any rationalist prediction about the effects of widespread acceptance of contraception from that time and compare it to the predictions of the Pope. Which appear to be more predictive, the sine qua non of the validity of a scientific approach, about the nature of the world? Like the outcome or not the Pope's warnings seem more predictive than the utopia limned by the non-believers.

That said, I was raised an RC. I wonder if you have any readers who have converted from Atheism or Agnosticism? Why do they think miracles happened?
12.2.2005 4:22pm
Ray (mail) (www):
This will sound like a dodge, but here goes: I believe because I must believe. I once tried not believing. I couldn't do it.
12.2.2005 6:59pm
Nathan Wagner:
Three facts are conceded by the majority of biblical scholars, believing and unbelieving:

1. Organized Christianity began in Jerusalem, not very long after the crucifixion.

2. The Apostles preached from the beginning and maintained until their deaths that Jesus rose from the dead.

3. On Good Friday evening Jesus' body was placed in Joseph of Arimathea's Tomb; on Easter Sunday morning, it was not there.

Try, just try, to explain these three facts without the resurrection.

You've got to explain why the apostles taught that Jesus rose and why they maintained the story to their (often violent) deaths. You've got to explain why a substantial number of Jews not originally affiliated with Jesus of Nazareth, who had reason to be skeptical of claims of resurrection, and who were not far removed either in time or place from "the scene of the crime," believed that Jesus rose. You've got to explain what happened to the body. You have to do all three at once.

Try it.

It is well-nigh impossible to come up with a plausible naturalistic narrative.

The question then reduces to the following: Either a narrative which in any other circumstance would not be considered credible is true, or else Jesus rose from the dead.

Because I believe (on other grounds) that God exists and therefore that the potential for miracle also exists, I think it more plausible to believe that Jesus rose.

If Jesus rose, the miraculous has taken place.
12.2.2005 7:29pm
James Kabala (mail):
The mention of N.T. Wright is worth seconding. I think Wright would say that before the Resurrection of Christ, the statement "Joe Schmo rose from the dead" - i.e., rose from the dead permanently, unlike Alcestis from Greek mythology or Lazarus, and long before the resurrection on the last day expected by certain Jewish sects like the Pharisees - was an almost incomprehensible statement. Mary Magdelene, Peter, and the other witnesses of the Resurrection were not describing something that had allegedly happened to other dead prophets or was expected to happen in the future. No one expected the Messiah to be killed and to rise again. When other potential Messiahs (like Bar Kokhba a century later) died, their movements ended. That contrasts with someone like Muhammad or Joseph Smith, whose claims (an angel appeared to me and told me the hidden truth)were familiar Judeo-Christian tropes long before these men lived.
That wasn't quite coherent, but it's hard to sum up 800 pages in a single paragraph. Read Wright's THE RESURRECTION OF THE SON OF GOD and you'll get a better idea of what he's trying to say.
12.3.2005 9:46pm
Ben-David (mail):
The miraculous claim at the core of most religions centers on a handful of people, and basically boil down to a guy coming down from the mountain/out of the wilderness and saying "God spoke to me!"

In contrast, my religion - Judaism - is based on events that effected an entire nation of people. Our core, formative miracles are the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai - which encompassed an entire nation.

Knowing how argumentative Jews are, I consider it impossible that our ancestors could ever agree on this for centuries unless it really happened.

In general, Judaism believes that God limits miraculous intervention in this world, which is supposed to function as an arena for human free will. Physics-bending miracles and prophecy were restricted to early times, and to the bare minimum necessary to set the world on its path. In general, a "wonder-worker" is nowadays treated with great skepticism by even the most religious Jew.

We do believe that God can bring about blessings from behind the veil of nature, by making things work out fortuitously within the limits of natural causation. Again, it's up to human free will to see the hand of God in such "coincidences" - and the purpose of this world is to enable such free-will choice.
12.4.2005 2:07pm
David Joslin:
Notwithstanding evil and sin, great or ordinary, people still pursue and long for and achieve kindness and justice and holiness in their lives. More than that: such people have their reward. They have lives of meaning and purpose, even in suffering; they have children who honor them, they are remembered. Meanwhile the evildoers are destroyed: where are the Nazis, the Romans, the Greeks, the Babylonians? The whole world is ruled by justice and kindness. One need merely to devote oneself to acts of kindness and justice, to belong to a community of people who seek holiness in their lives, to discover that this is really so.
12.4.2005 10:00pm
Ken Alfano (mail):
The rigid dichotomy between the "natural" (science) and the "supernatural" (religion) is rather arbitrary, as it wasn't until a few centuries ago that man so divided the pursuit of knowledge along such subjective boundaries.

As a matter of first principles, we can go back to Descartes, and question even whether even our senses or reasoning ability are in fact reliable. For the agnostic to stipulate to this (presumably on what he would deem a relatively small leap of "faith"), but to then draw the line there -- is every bit as subjective and value-laden as the theist's willingness to equally entertain epistomological sources from beyond our (quite possibly flawed and/or incomplete) physical perception or cognition. For example, the biblical worldview would actually hold that these are infinitely *less* reliable than divine revelation from a sovereign creator, and further that nothing could be more irrational than doubting the existence of the latter -- a starkly polar opposite presupposition from that of naturalism, BOTH of which are fundamentally articles of faith.

I would submit that the question presumes a burden of persuasion on the part of the premodernist/theist by implicitly conceding the secularist's critical premise that naturalism is somehow the most rational *default* framework -- relegating any alternative sources of knowledge to supplemental status at best.
12.5.2005 11:07am