‘Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes’: Bit of a Joke

Book coverI bought a book lately called ‘Plato and Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes’ by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. It’s quite a fun read, although as sympathetic to my evangelical convictions as you’d expect from two Harvard grads from New England. In spite of anticipating some light-hearted hostility, I was nevertheless a little surprised by the ‘Philosophy of Religion’ section. Not because it is surprisingly offensive — it isn’t — but more because it is surprisingly inaccurate.

Pascal’s Wager

The first quibble I had with the book had to do with Pascal’s Wager, about which I have written before (when Dawkins got it wrong). Cathcart and Klein say the following:

‘The seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that deciding whether or not to believe in God is essentially a wager. If we choose to behave as if there is a God and we get to the end and it turns out there isn’t, it’s not such a big deal. Well, maybe we’ve lost the ability to thoroughly enjoy the Seven Deadly Sins, but that’s small potatoes compared to the alternative. If we bet there isn’t a God, and get to the end only to find out there is a God, we’ve lost the Big Enchilada, eternal bliss. Therefore, according to Pascal, it is a better strategy to live as if there is a God. This is known to academics as “Pascal’s Wager.” To the rest of us, it’s known as hedging your bets.’ (Pg 100)

Calling the idea represented above ‘Pascal’s Wager’ is a bit like calling Hamlet a book about whether or not to commit suicide. As I tried to point out in my post about Dawkins’ objection to it, Pascal’s Wager does have to do with betting on belief in God as the best strategy, but Pascal himself immediately warns that it is not possible to fake it, which brings him to the actual content of his wager.

God is not likely to be fooled by bet-hedging faith based entirely on greed. You have to throw in your lot wholeheartedly one way or another, and reason, says Pascal, has no solution to the problem of whether or not God and His promises are true. This is why Pascal’s discourse on the subject rather aims at urging people to experience the Christian life to see whether it is worth committing to. He is actually wagering that living as a Christian (as a sort of a trial period) — though it seems like a terrible life of restriction and sacrifice — will prove it to be the better bet even in the here and now, which removes a significant obstacle to wholehearted conversion. Perhaps the wager is more like trying to convince Cadillac drivers to buy an electric car (which promises to be rubbish but ends up being fantastic to drive, if only you’ll get behind the wheel).

Apples with Apples

My next issue with the book arose out of a Sam Harris quote, which is as follows:

‘Tell a devout Christian his wife is cheating on him, or a frozen yoghurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anybody else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book that he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity that will punish him by fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.’ (Pg 99-100)

Harris has made a living out of publishing clever jibes against religion for a popularist atheist movement, and I suppose (if I’m being generous) this quote is important to the extent that it captures the unfortunate mindlessness exhibited by some Christians. However, I think this quote is actually deeply unfair if applied to Christianity in general, and not on the grounds that some might give, i.e. that other Christian groups have abandoned the Bible’s ‘incredible claims’.

It is unfair because it obscures the fact that different types of belief require different types of evidence. Belief in superpowered dessert treats requires paradigm-shifting empirical evidence. Belief that my wife loves me probably requires some evidence (or at least absence of evidence to the contrary), but some  non-evidential trust. The belief that I love my wife while we’re fighting requires still different ratios of evidence, trust and conviction on my part.

Belief in Jesus is not a matter of swallowing a series of fantastical stories without questioning. Our faith — as we make no end of prostesting — is a matter of relationship. It comes about through being convinced that the Biblical view of the world is true; through being convinced that the historical evidence for the life and resurrection of Jesus is plausible enough; and through no small measure of belief that one has had the subjective experience of being met and called by God Himself. There is no evidence for this latter belief, although it forms the most significant part of conversion. So consider the following as an alternative analogy to frozen yoghurt:

Jane gets to know a family in her neighbourhood whose son is away at war. She learns about the son from his parents, she sees pictures, hears of his past and so on. Eventually Jane decides to write to him. He writes back, and in time they embark on a long-distance relationship. Although there are many risks involved, they decide that they love each other, and get engaged. His letters include remarkable tales of bravery and selflessness, and promises of a happy life together once the war is over. The end.

On the basis of this story, I’d like to ask Samharrisites a few questions:

  • What evidence does Jane have that they have fallen in love other than that she has personal experience of it and assurances from him? What proof should she demand? Is her trust in their relationship a fiction because they’ve never met?
  • Is it OK for her to base her trust in his character on the testimony of his family and his writings? Or is she mindlessly swallowing invisibility yoghurt by doing so?
  • If the news is quiet about the war and no tales of valour are being reported from other sources, should she believe his ‘remarkable tales’ or should she doubt him just because naysayers in her home town haven’t seen anything comparable with their own eyes?
  • If he’s long in coming home and the other boys start asking Jane out, should she break her engagement and settle for something immediate with a person she doesn’t love so well?
  • If he never comes home at all and Jane dies a spinster, in love with some dusty old letters, does she become a tragic figure and a wasted life? Or is her love and lifelong faithfulness a worthy enough existence?

Christianity is much more like the long-distance relationship and not at all like the evidence-demanding frozen yoghurt. We believe on the basis of God’s character, His actions in history and subjective relational experiences — a basis that cannot (like it or not) fruitfully be subjected to much scientific testing.

Jane’s story is not beyond belief. I’m sure people like her have existed in human history. We accept it readily enough without demanding proof, because we can relate it to our own experiences and to a long history of similar events. Yet real-life Janes have only one life. She does not have the luxury of assurances that things will work out or any ‘do-overs’ if they don’t. In the same way, this is our only life and this is the one-and-only human history. We don’t have the luxury of multiple worlds in which we can observe God’s track record or the likelihood of incarnations and resurrections. These things have happened in our history or not. Their uniqueness in history doesn’t make them more or less possible. So we take God at His word and wait patiently. If the naysayers are right and our faith and calling are illusions, then perhaps we’re pityable, but with Jane and with Pascal I’m convinced that even if all we have at the end is a life lived in hope and good character is was not a waste.


Why Dawkins is not the Devil

Devil Dawkins

Devil Dawkins

This is the text of my presentation at the FSI / IHEU Conference.

Why Dawkins is not the Devil: A Christian Appreciation of The God Delusion


Todd was a bright and popular boy. He lived in a good neighbourhood with his happily married parents in a modest, but comfortable home. He was on the football team at his high school, and did well enough at school to make him a prospect for a College scholarship. He was also involved in leading the local Christian youth group down at the church every week. He had a bright future ahead of him, with the world at his feet.

At some point, Todd’s parents noticed that his attitude had changed. He seemed troubled. He no longer took pride in his schoolwork, and he had started skipping church some Sunday mornings because he claimed not to be feeling well. Then one day, suddenly and unexpectedly, Todd was found hanged in a grove of trees near to his house. In his possession there were only two items. One was a suicide note that explained that he had lost his faith and couldn’t go on like this anymore. The other item was a copy of The God Delusion. Continue reading

IHEU / FSI Conference (oh, and witches)

I have been given the terrifying and exciting challenge of presenting a seminar at an upcoming humanist / atheist conference. An atheist friend of mine has recently begun the Free Society Institute, and together with an international humanist organisation (IHEU) is hosting a small day-long conference here in Cape Town. After I bemoaned the fact that public Christian voices so often do more harm than good, he invited me to do better, which left me no option but to accept, as daunting as the prospect is. Continue reading

Holy Horror: The Levite and the Concubine

JUDGES 19-21

Horror movies follow a predictable set-up. They always begin with the most normal, wholesome scenes possible. It’s the picket fence, the high school, the camping trip. Of course, just as we become saturated with the calm, everyday familiarity, it becomes increasingly obvious that something is a bit off. Even though horror movies are usually the most fantastical genre, the better the viewer believes the normalness of the set up, the more terrifying the horror is when it finally splatters on screen. [In fact, movies that start off with unrealistic settings and circumstances are probably comedies, and if you find yourself completely incapable of suspending disbelief far enough, it’s probably a chick flick.]

If the story of Micah’s Idols in Judges is divine comedy, the book’s conclusion with the much-maligned story of the Levite and the Concubine is holy horror (without hollywood’s sense of relish at the bloodshed). It covers a vicious re-enactment of the horrors of Sodom, the rape and murder of a woman, a grisly summons to war, and inter-tribal genocide. It is a story that is frequently misunderstood, meeting with criticism, for example, in Dawkins’ God Delusion, and some inarticulate gasps from skepticsannotatedbible.com. What critics seem always to miss is that the narrator shares their revulsion towards these events, and is passing comment on the moral depravity into which God’s chosen nation has sunk. Continue reading

Further Dawkinsian Arguments 1

Dawkins’ argument against Pascal’s Wager includes a couple more interesting objections that are worth dealing with on their own.

What’s so hard about belief?
People often criticise Pascal’s Wager with the complaint that he only allows for belief in God or disbelief, whereas I am perfectly capable of believing, for example, that Arsenal will win the premiership, or believing that they won’t, or choosing not to hold any belief on the matter at all. Why must we hold an opinion when it comes to belief in God?

Dawkins adds a different complaint, but one that has much the same answer:

“But why in any case do we so readily accept the idea that the one thing that you must do if you want to please God is believe in him? What’s so special about believing? Isn’t it just as likely that God would reward kindness, or generosity, or humility?” (The God Delusion, pg 131)

This is a good question. What is so special about belief? Continue reading

Further Dawkinsian Arguments 2

Dawkins’ argument against Pascal’s Wager includes a couple more interesting objections that are worth dealing with on their own.

What if we wager on the wrong God?
Dawkins also criticises Pascal’s Wager because it assumes one knows which God will be waiting for believers when we get there. What if we wager on the Holy Trinity, but God ends up being Baal or any nasty member of someone else’s pantheon?

The best way for me to answer this question is to present reasons why I consider Biblical Christianity to be unique among all other religions and by far the most likely to be genuine. Continue reading