The Sceptical Believer.

Allan Ramsay, David Hume, 1711 - 1776. Historian and philosopher

David Hume portrait by Allan Ramsay

The Scottish Philosopher David Hume wrote  the following defence of his scepticism, in response to  claims circulated, by those opposed to his appointment to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University

In Reality, a Philosopher who affects to doubt of the Maxims of common Reason, and even of his Senses, declares sufficiently that he is not in earnest, and that he intends not to advance an Opinion which he would recommend as Standards of Judgment and Action. All he means by these Scruples is to abate the Pride of mere human Reasoners,  by showing them, that even with regard to Principles which seem the clearest, and which they are necessitated from the strongest Instincts of Nature to embrace, they are not able to attain a full Consistence and absolute Certainty. Modesty then, and Humility, with regard to the Operations of our natural Faculties, is the Result of Scepticism; not an universal Doubt, which it is impossible for any Man to support, and which the first and most trivial Accident in Life must immediately disconcert and destroy.

David Hume  A Letter from a Gentleman to his friend in Edinburgh 1745 taken from The Writings of David Hume#, ed. James Fieser (Internet Release, 1995)

To function as a human being we must act as though we believe in the real existence of the material world.  And this of itself provides evidence that we believe in its existence. We generally also require social relationships and this requires us to believe not only in our own existence, but of the existence of other people.

Many of us go beyond this, believing that reality has purpose. It is not just the theists amongst us that are believers in Providence. My atheist friends are as likely as my theist ones to hold that some things are so right that they are just meant to be. Drawing attention to the illogicality of this kind of  statement coming from an atheist, when that which is being endorsed is positive, seems to me a mean act. One not conducive to the forming of healthy social relationships.

Not every providence related belief expressed by theists or atheists is so positive.  For instance the belief that bad things don’t happen to good people, or that people get what they deserve, are two related negative concepts which can be used to justify our indifference to the suffering of other people, and the endorsement of torture and rape.

It can be argued that this sense that reality is purposeful, has evolutionary advantages and that this is why it is so widespread. Obviously a widespread feeling does not make it so. Nor does a natural explanation for why this feeling is prevalent, mean that it is not a true impression.

But whether or not the believer in Providence, feels the need for capitalisation, the credited actions are widely prevalent, with by and large no suggestion that they require the overturn of natural law.

Providence is experienced within the normal workings of natural law. Which means that miracles, that is events that are contrary to the laws of nature, are as foreign to the experienced reality of believers in divine Providence, as they are to atheists.

David Hume’s claim that the miracles recorded in the Bible did not provide evidence for the truth of Christianity, strikes me as  common sense, possibly rather in the way that the works of William Shakespeare appear to be riddled with clichés.  (An Enquiry Chapter 10)  What was then original appears commonplace now.

However not all Christians understand that recorded miracles only provide evidence of the truth of Christianity if you already believe in the truth of Christianity.

I remember the first time I heard a Christian apologist offer the resurrection as “proof” for the existence of God. I rejected his argument, not because of historical doubts or because of its miraculous nature per se, but because I didn’t even take it seriously.

Jeff Lowder  The Miracle of the Resurrection 1995

In fact even if one believes that Christ is the divine Messiah, the miracles, for most of us anyway, are so different, from the non-showy way in which one experiences God/Providence acting in the world, that they are a cause for doubt.  Something extra that you have to believe.

This, if the Gospels are literally true, does not apply to the first followers of Jesus, who had the chance to experience showy miracles so often, that they were commonplace. For them they would indeed have provided evidence for Jesus divine mission.

That a major world religion is based on the belief that a young man who suffered an agonising and humiliating public execution almost 2000 years ago, is God, seems improbable beyond belief.  And yet it is demonstrably true that this is the case.

It is the sheer improbability of this belief , that is sometimes used as proof that the miracles recorded in the New Testament, most particularly the bodily resurrection of Christ, must have taken place.

Those who make this type of claim, notably the English theologian Tom Wright, are basing it on empirical evidence, the demonstrably real, both historical and present, existence of Christianity.

The claim being made in the following quote is the induction based; similar acts have similar effects. Wright states that in every other case where a proclaimed messiah died, his followers ceased to believe that he was the Messiah, but the same thing didn’t happen with Christ.  He says that this evidence demands an explanation.

The historian is bound to face the question: once Jesus had been crucified, why would anyone say that he was Israel’s Messiah?

Nobody said that about Judas the Galilean after his revolt ended in failure in AD 6. Nobody said it of Simon bar-Giora after his death at the end of Titus’s triumph in AD 70. Nobody said it about bar-Kochbar after his defeat and death in 135. On the contrary. Where messianic movements tried to carry on after the death of their would-be Messiah, their most important task was to find another Messiah. The fact that the early Christians did not do that, but continued, against all precedent, to regard Jesus himself as Messiah, despite outstanding alternative candidates such as the righteous, devout and well-respected James, Jesus’ own brother, is evidence that demands an explanation. As with their beliefs about resurrection, they redefined Messiahship itself, and with it their whole view of the problem that Israel and the world faced and the solution that they believed God had provided.

N.T. Wright Jesus Resurrection and Christian Origins 2002

For any given evidence there are a myriad of explanations possible.  We are constrained only by our worldview and the limits of our imagination. And the following quote from Tom Wright is a faith statement. A reiteration  of his belief in his own belief. Anyone holding a different worldview, or expressing the notion that other interpretations are possible must be wrong, because Tom Wright is certain that his worldview is true.

But, as far as I am concerned, the historian may and must say that all other explanations for why Christianity arose, and why it took the shape it did, are far less convincing as historical explanations than the one the early Christians themselves offer: that Jesus really did rise from the dead on Easter morning, leaving an empty tomb behind him.  The origins of Christianity, the reason why this new movement came into being and took the unexpected form it did, and particularly the strange mutations it produced within the Jewish hope for resurrection and the Jewish hope for a Messiah, are best explained by saying that something happened, two or three days after Jesus’ death, for which the accounts in the four gospels are the least inadequate expression we have.

N.T. Wright Jesus Resurrection and Christian Origins 2002

Tom Wright’s claim is not only that something must have happened within 2 or 3 days of the crucifixion, but that this something was the miraculous raising of a man from the dead, as recorded in the gospels.

Such an event does have precedent within the gospels, where others were raised from the dead.  But it is unparalleled in our ordinary experience of life.  This according to David Hume, is what gives us good reason to doubt it.  Tom Wright is not arguing with this.  He is merely claiming that the rise of Christianity is so without precedent, that a miraculous explanation is more likely than any other explanation.

When horrific things happen to human beings, the frequent  response is that they must have been asking for it.  They brought it upon themselves. And those claiming this will use all their powers of intellect in the service of, the possibly instinct driven monster that is, confirmation bias.

That this doesn’t happen with all of the people all of the time, can be demonstrated by events following the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in January 2015. Then millions marched to proclaim that the dead were risen in them. ‘Je suis Charlie.’

A similar explanation for the rise of Christianity strikes me as possible.  That those very first Christians were proclaiming, that Christ is risen from the dead.  He is risen in us.  ‘Nous sommes tous Christ.’

Evidence that the first Christians did make this kind of claim can be found in the New Testament, in documents written much closer to the events of that first Easter, than were the gospels.

Now you are the body of Christ 1 Corinthians 12:27

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: Galatians 2:20

I think this statement  from 1 Corinthians is also very relevant.

22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

1 Corinthians 1 22,23

The gospels are full of miraculous signs, and theologians have long since found ways, although they haven’t always agreed, to explain the logic of the crucifixion.  Yet here, comparatively early in the history of Christianity, when Paul proclaims the centrality of the crucifixion, the plain reading is that the signs and the logic did not exist. That the miracles with which the gospels are packed are later additions, which served to confirm for subsequent generations the depth of meaning that the first Christians had experienced.

The German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, in arguing for the need to demythologise scripture, made  the following claim, a hostage to fortune, gifted to those who might want to discredit his argument.

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless [radio] and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.

Rudolf Bultmann Kerygma and Myth 1948 quote taken from Radical Faith

Here Bultmann strongly underestimates the power of the human mind.  We have evolved with the capacity to believe all manner of things, that our cultures and social groupings expect of us. Even when they are in contradiction of each other. We have also the amazing capacity to affirm these beliefs in all sincerity, while completely failing to notice that our behaviour is at odds with our acclamations.

And he has misidentified the problem. The problem isn’t modern science, but that the miracles are inconsistent with the way we experience the world.

There is within scripture, evidence that the high significance the first Christians placed on the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was wrapped up by later generations, in Jewish Mythology. And it is in this form, that it has been transported through time.

I think  Rudolf Bultmann may have been right that it is impossible to disentangle the historical Jesus from the mythology. But the gospels deliver something else, in the God Man at their hearts. An image of what it means to be good. An image of goodness that exposes the omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent god of traditional Western theology as an imposter.

David Hume argued that the existence of an, omnipotent, omniscient, and all good God was incompatible  with the fact that evil exists in the world. This very much depends on how you interpret the words.

The first two claims are normally interpreted as meaning all the power and all the knowledge that it is possible to have, without logical contradiction. So that for instance the claim that God could not make a stone to big for Himself to lift, and then lift it, is not evidence against omnipotence.

It does seem obvious that if these first two claims are true, and as suffering exists in the world that God cannot be all good. But that depends on how you interpret the word good. There has been a tradition within Christianity from at least the time of St Anselm (1033-1109), the first of the scholastic philosophers, of believing that ‘Might is Right.’

Anselm sees the duty of every rational creature as subjecting every inclination to the will of God. Of this Anselm writes, “This is the debt which angels and men owe to God. No one who pays it sins; everyone who does not pay it sins. This is the sole and entire honor which we owe to God, and God requires from us. One who does not render this honor to God takes away from God what belongs to him, and dishonors God, and to do this is to sin”.

Scott David Foutz  A Brief Survey of Anselm of Canterbury’s ‘Cur Deus Homo’ 1994

In the Medieval Feudal system the weak had a duty to the powerful, but not the other way around.  This is the system that Anselm translated into Christian Doctrine.  In this system it is impossible for an Omnipotent, Omniscient Being’s goodness to be impugned by anything that he does or allows to happen to us.

If you accept this interpretation of the word goodness, then the existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient, and all good God, is logically possible.

Providentially the Gospels do not restrict themselves to the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  They also tell of his behaviour, teaching and miracles.  The incarnated God that walks these pages, is not King Herod.  The God Man at the centre of the Gospels gives the lie, to Anselm’s Omnipotent Monster.

If to be an atheist is to deny the existence, of the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent monster of Anselm’s imagination, then  to be loyal to the Gospel of Christ, one must be an atheist.