Expressing certainty

Be careful. Your choice of phrases when you express an opinion will often expose your lack of epistemic humility and/or your understanding of standards of evidence. For example, we all often hear…

“Y is proof of X.”

If Y is something understood inductively (by exploring its degree of regularity from a human perspective), it can only unconventionally be called a “proof”. Proofs are most commonly limited to the deductive domains mathematics and logic.  A better expression might be…

“Y is ((very) strong) evidence for X.”

Another abused expression is…

“X is a fact!”

While most often used conventionally to refer to a statement that is not currently very controversial, the word “fact” is sometimes attached to a notion as if anyone who would deny the notion must be stupid. 
Perhaps a better expression might be…

“There is ((very) strong) evidence for X.”

…or…

“Few experts in the relevant field dispute X.”

This will encourage your interlocutor to engage you with evidence and argumentation rather than having things degenerate into a shrill “‘Yes, it is”-“No, it ain’t” exchange. 

It also helps to, if at all possible, quantify your degree of certainty. Probabilities can be determined to a high degree of precision for a few scenarios such as coin flips, but for other multivariable and complex inquiries we can fairly accurately reflect our general degree of certainty by adding modifiers such as “quite”, “slightly”, “fairly” to the words “certain” or “confident”. 

This will make you appear less dogmatic and honestly committed to the evidence, as well as allow you to more easily engage in a productive discussion of the relevant evidence and arguments. 

The seductive nature of emotionally satisfying answers

Many of the world’s religions and ideologies are ultimately grounded in the notion that their particular ideology has satisfying answers to life’s questions. And the popularity of those ideologies are a good measure of the degree of satisfaction. But what kind of satisfaction do those ideologies provide?

Consider the satisfaction many children derive from hearing their parents explain that good children get presents from Santa. It makes perfect emotional sense that there should be someone watching everyone, keeping track of their behaviors, and rewarding only those who have been good. If this were not true, there would be injustice in the world, and that is simply emotionally unacceptable. This emotional drive for justice is but one of the many emotional drives that encourage children to readily accept the notion of Santa. Others might include the emotional drive to have some transcendent realm of magic we can somehow interact with, and the affection of a forever kind grandfather figure. 

But can we call Santa an answer to the question of the source of presents simply because of all the emotional holes such an explanation plugs? Clearly not if we place any value on the truth of the answers we accept. An answer that is emotionally satisfying is no more true than an answer that is emotionally undesirable. If we are to be rational, we do not accept facts and ideologies that make us feel good. In fact, we are extra cautious of facts and ideologies that have emotional appeal. We instead accept facts and ideologies that we have honestly assessed to be true. 

Yet, most of the world’s religions provide “answers” that are merely unsubstantiated plugs for our natural human emotions. Some god is presented as able to alleviate fear, loneliness, injustice, meaninglessness, and the yearning for certainty, and then the emotional appeal of such a god is said to be evidence for that god. This is not the way truth is properly assessed. 

The honest seeker of truth first commits to following the evidence down whatever path it leads, even paths that are emotionally unpleasant. Emotions are not our friend in our assessment of what may be true. Our emotions too often lead us astray. And many religions and ideologies are far to ready to encourage us to filter claims through our emotions since their systems of belief are built on claims tailored to emotionally seduce us. 

Once we commit to following truth down whatever emotionally dark path it may lead, the next step is to acquire legitimate tools for assessing truth such as general rationality, an awareness of logical fallacies and cognitive biases, and a deeper understanding of probabilities, logic and standards of evidence. 

It is much easier to follow our emotions as do those who follow unsubstantiated religious claims. Basing truth on our emotions requires far less effort. Millions of people around the world “know” they are right because it feels emotionally right. But I personally prefer to have my beliefs filtered through the more demanding filters of rationality. The question is essentially whether we want our beliefs to be correct, or to simply make us feel good.

Properly assessing a splitting moon or resurrection

Imagine you have a line of 100 friends playing a game of “telephone” in which the first person in line whispers a message to the second person, who in turn whispers the message to the third person…until the message reaches the hundredth person.

How do you assess the probability that the message will be transmitted without error through the 100-person chain? There are two possible methods.

  1. Reason the probability of each of your friends either mishearing or intentional distorting the message to be negligible, and multiply zero by 100 to arrive at the conclusion there is zero chance the message you receive at the end of the chain is corrupted.
  2. Reason the probability of each of your friends either mishearing or intentionally distorting the message to be slight, and calculate that slight probability, say 1%, over 100 events (0.99^100) to arrive at the conclusion that there is only a 36.6% chance of an uncorrupted message.

This failure to perceive this substantial probability of corruption (63.4%) intrinsic to a long series of events, each with low probability of corruption, seems to be at the heart of Christian illogic when considering the probability of a human resurrection based on the evidences available.
In this case, the probabilities of “corruption” are not chronologically linear, but remain probabilistically additive, and can therefore be calculated the same way.
Imagine a case in which you have an unreliable friend Tom who has 1) a mendacious character, 2) an appetite for hallucinagens, 3) a gullibility towards pranksters, and 4) a poor understanding of standards of evidence. Tom tells you his dog rose from the dead. You consider alternative explanations. For the sake of simplicity, imagine that, in this scenario, the probability of 1) a lie, 2) a hallucination, 3) a deception, and an unconsidered natural explanation are all 10%. We don’t, of course, suppose that the rather low probability of each of these contingencies warrants concluding his dog most certainly did rise from the dead. We instead calculate the final probability his claim is true given all the alternative explanations. This would be 0.9^4, or about 65%.
However, does an honest assessment stop here? Do we therefore conclude that there is a 65% probability that Tom’s dog rose from the dead? No.
We have only assessed the probability that Tom’s claim that his dog resurrected is wrong based on the alternative explanations we can identify. We have not yet assessed the probability of a dog rising from the dead. And this is a step that many Christians seem to ignore in respect to the alleged resurrection of Jesus.
Though we can not demonstrate with any degree of certainty that any of the four possible alternative explanations for the apparent resurrection of Tom’s dog we have introduced are true, we don’t conclude that their individual unlikelihoods, even when properly combined to arrive at the 65% probability Tom is a reliable source for any claim, demand that we place a 65% degree of certainty in the notion that Tom’s dog did, in fact, resurrect.
We very seldom see dogs resurrect. I don’t think it would be a stretch to place, for my readers, the probability of a dog actually resurrecting based on our inductive experience to be far below one in a million.
So though the assessment of the probabilities of the alternative explanations we have identified suggests Tom is still more than likely to be relating a truth, we intuitively understand that such an assessment is incomplete until we include the probability of a dog rising from the dead.
We now need to reflect on disparity between our 65% degree of certainty we have in Tom based on the alternative explanations we have thought of, and our induction-based 0.0001% degree of certainty that a dog can rise from the dead. This, if we are rational, will lead us to conclude there may also be other unknown possible explanations that we have not thought of.
Perhaps these explanations are of such a nature that we could not possibly currently think of them such as in the non-demonic neurological explanation of epileptic fits unavailable to us prior to scientific knowledge of neurology. In that context, demon possession (an explanation reenforced by other contemporary “supernatural” events such as lightening) would have seemed very likely absent the understanding there may be natural explanations we may not yet have considered or have access to.
We all correctly conclude that even multiple claims from even quite reliable sources do not trump our inductive assessment of the probability of physical events. If Tom and ten others of high reputation tell us Tom’s dog resurrected, we rightfully remain quite skeptical, even when there is no alternative explanation that comes to mind.
I strongly recommend Christians do this when considering the claim of a resurrected Jesus.
First, we should properly calculate the probabilities of the alternative explanations we can think of. A partial list is as follows.

  1. The entire story was fabricated by one or a few individuals.
  2. The resurrection emerged after many retellings of the life of Jesus.
  3. The body was never in the tomb or was stolen.
  4. The events were hallucinated.

Note that we shouldn’t make the error that some do and ignore remote probabilities of individual events that become a substantial probability when the probability of those events are combined.
(Something else to consider is whether you would believe an evidentially equivalent story from an non-biblical source.)
Once we have determined the probability of the Biblical account being in error, we then more importantly weigh that probability against the probability that someone will rise from the dead based on our inductive experience. It is this step that is far too often missing from the analysis of the Christian.
This becomes quite salient when we consider the Muslim claim that Muhammed split the moon. We may consider the reliability of the Koran and collaborating sources, but we rightfully more importantly simply consider the physical possibility that the moon can be split. The same holds for Muhammed’s flying on a horse. The fact that we have never seen a horse fly makes an assessment of the reliability of the eye-witnesses quite unnecessary.
We don’t need to waste much time assessing the reliability of the sources of such claims when the claims run so counter to our inductive experience. So also for claims of the resurrection. For a Muslim to suggest we must give an account of all the eye-witnesses to these miracles or believe those miracles happened is silly. So also for the claims of the resurrection.
If Tom, as unreliable as he is, tells me his dog chased a rabbit yesterday, I may still be rational in giving him the benefit of a doubt. But if he claims his dog rose from the dead, it does not fall on me to come up with a definitive alternative explanation that would explain his claim. I can dismiss his claim of a resurrected dog as highly improbable and get on with life without knowing what the actual explanation is.
This recent attempt by apologists to shift the burden of proof to those who are highly doubtful a man named Jesus came back from the dead is silly. Those same apologist employ different standards of evidence to reject equally evidenced claims of resurrecting dogs, splitting moons and flying horses.
I’m willing to accept that many Christians have never given the proper assessment of probabilities in such context much thought. But it does appear some apologists intentionally 1) avoid combining improbable explanations that suggest the far more probable conclusion a miraculous claims is in error, and more importantly 2) dismiss the essential step of inductively assessing the probability of the actual event in question.
A source with a fair degree of reliability can claim a) a dog caught a rabbit, and b) a dog resurrected. We justifiably accept (a) and reject (b) if we understand the proper and honest way to assess such claims.

The perennial theistic “oops” 

Epileptic fits used to be explain by demon possession. The persons who arrived at this conclusion could have honestly said “I don’t know”, but instead they invoked a specific untestable paradigm in which fallen angels of a particular God were causing the odd behavior of the epileptic. They defaulted to one unsubstantiated explanation, and conceded the actual explanation only after it became far too obvious to ignore. There was no apology for the centuries of abuse of epileptics. Theists simply shrugged and retreated back to the next mystery in science. 
Have theists repented of this irrational, arrogant, dishonest and hurtful tactic? 

It appears not. They still hold that, since it appears to them there are no conclusive physical explanations for questions about consciousness and cosmology, they are warranted in defaulting to a god-explanation. 

Compare the track record of theist explanations against the success of the explanations of scientific consensus. Are their track records even remotely close to similar? No. Yet theists would have us start each assessment of each new mystery as if there was no track record to inform our expectations of the correct type of explanation. No epistemic humility nor rationality. Only an irrational pride in the sound of their own affirmations with an imagined God at their back. 

How long will this go on?

The Failure of the Biblical Notion of Salvific Belief

This post will demonstrate that the binary notion of salvific belief (belief leading to salvation of the soul) found in the Bible is logically absurd.

You may love both 1) pizza and 2) your children, but you wouldn’t abandon your children as you might a pizza during a catastrophe.

You may spend money on both 1) a pizza and 2) a house, but I would hope the prices you pay for each are vastly different.

You may believe both that 1) your young son will attend university and that 2) your young son will live to see tomorrow, but those two beliefs are very likely at very different degrees of certainty.

Loving, spending money and believing are all gradient concepts.

Gradient concepts are sometimes represented with low-resolution paired binary tags such as “hate” and “love”, “cheap” and “expensive”, and “disbelief” and “belief”.

These tags, in spite of their binary linguistic essences, do nothing to change the gradient essences of the concepts they are recruited to represent.

Modifiers such as “very”, “slightly”, “absolutely” or “tend to” are often attached to the basic tags in an attempt to add precision to the actual degree of loving, spending or believing one wishes to convey.

Most humans have no trouble understanding the intrinsic gradient nature of loving and spending, but have much more difficulty perceiving the concept of believing a gradient concept.

We have a psychological impulse and social pressure to either believe or disbelieve any given proposition. Even those deeply schooled in science often deviate from the degree of scientific certainty to epistemically gravitate to one of the poles of either disbelief or belief.

But, once again, neither the binary nature of the linguistic terms employed to reflect a gradient concept, nor the psychological impulse to sort propositions into one of the low resolution buckets of disbelief or belief are reasons not to map our degree of certainty to the degree of the relevant scientific certainty.

Rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of the relevant evidence as one perceives it.

Because evidence for inductively assessed propositions normally arrives incrementally to the assessor of the evidence, adding to or subtracting from the balance of evidence with each bit of confirming or disconfirming piece of evidence, the scientific certainty for such a proposition can be at any point upon the evidential gradient for any assessor of the evidence..

And because a rational degree of certainty must invariably map to the current degree of scientific certainty, the rational mind updates its epistemic degree of certainty upwards or downwards with the introduction of each new bit of confirming or disconfirming evidence.

This notion of rational belief as intrinsically gradient is not controversial, and this notion sets the stages for our discussion of the salvific belief found in the Bible.

Salvific belief treated as vague or binary

John 3:18 says…

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Imagine a stranger knocks at your door and says…

“Give me money. If you do, I’ll reward you with everything you’ve ever dreamed of. If you don’t, I’ll inflict upon you every misery you can imagine.”

Wouldn’t this be not just a little bit strange? The stranger has not specified how much money will result in reward and not misery.

This is the first absurdity. The demands for belief in Jesus found in the Bible are presented as demand for a binary belief: either you believe or you don’t. Nothing specifying the degree of belief accompanies the demand, yet the consequences are highly nuanced and as polar as one could ever imagine. It is almost as if these passages were written in an age that had not yet conceived of the necessary nuanced degrees of certainty we easily recognize as essential to a rational epistemic position in this age of science. It is as absurd as our stranger demanding an unspecified amount of money without including the threshold at which the reward will be granted, and the misery avoided.

I’ve been quite interested in the various degree of belief at which Christians place this threshold absent in the Bible. There seems to be four very different positions on this.

1. Any degree of belief greater than zero.

2. Any degree of belief greater than 50%.

3. Any “high” degree of belief.

4. Only 100% certainty.

This list of vastly diverse opinions on salvific belief serves to highlight the absurdity of treating belief as if it were binary. Salvific belief is the only way to redemption, yet it is presented so vaguely as to completely confuse the very Christians who seek that redemption. They disagree on the threshold in incomparable ways. This vague treatment of the belief at the core of salvation is not the modus operandi of a rational god who wishes to present the method of salvation in an unambiguous way.

This becomes more salient when you imagine “believe” replaced with another gradient concept, “love” in our scenario of the stranger at your door.

Imagine the stranger at your door demanding that you “love” him to be rewarded and avoid unimaginable misery. We recognize instantly that, while we might love the stranger as we would any other human, we probably do not love him to the degree that he expects. So also for the the amount of money, and so also for the amount of belief he might expect as we shall soon see.

Now imagine the stranger at your door says…

“I am your king. If you believe I am your king, I’ll reward you with great pleasure in my kingdom, but if you disbelieve, you’ll be tormented for a very long time in my dungeons.”

Now that we have introduced belief into the scenario, we can see how absurd the demand is. The two possible choices and their consequences are unambiguous, yet the degree of belief is unstated. Belief is not binary, yet the Bible treats it as such with no gradient nuance introduced in any of the hundreds of passages referring to salvific belief.

(Some Christians attempt to suggest that salvific belief is binary since it involves the binary choice of following or not following Jesus. This is misguided. Imagine you are forced to cross an old bridge because a bear is chasing you. You assess the bridge to be 50% likely to hold your weight. You make the rational choice to cross the bridge since your chances of fighting off the bear are very small. As you cross the bridge, would you then increase the original 50% degree of likelihood the bridge will hold your weight to near 100%? Of course not. Yet the Bible absurdly presents such a move away from the actual evidence a virtue as we shall see next.)

(Another objection I’ve heard is that we can not easily place a highly specific number to the degree of belief. This is often true, but rationality only requires that the epistemic agents feels they have honestly mapped their degree of belief to the degree of the evidence, even though those degrees may be quantitatively imprecise. This will be dealt with in the next section.)

Salvific belief encouraged with no reference to the degree of the evidence

The absurdity deepens. Not only do we have an alleged God of the Universe unable to clearly state how much belief is required, we also have hundreds of passages referring to salvific belief without the slightest suggestion that the degree of belief be mapped to the degree of the evidence.

As we’ve already established, rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of relevant evidence. Imagine the stranger at your door says…

“I am a king. If you believe I am king, I’ll reward you with great pleasure in my kingdom, but if you disbelieve, you’ll be tormented for a very long time in my dungeons.”

In this circumstance, it is not hard to imagine a majority of those so confronted simply conjuring up belief in the stranger as king just to avoid the negative consequences were the stranger is telling the truth.

However, how could any actual king be just? Would not a perfectly just king honor only epistemic honesty from you?

Let’s review John 3:18.

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Here we have the bald affirmation that Jesus is God’s one and only son. There is no requirement to map your degree of belief to the degree of the evidence. In fact, you will unlikely find any promoter of Christianity suggesting that believing in Jesus to a degree not warranted by the perceived degree of relevant evidence is improper.

(This would be an interesting study. Ask church leaders the following question: “Is believing in Jesus to a degree not warranted by the perceived degree of the evidence a virtue? Is it epistemically dishonest?” I suggest you’ll find yourself up against the most vigorous attempts to evade this question.)

Let’s modify our scenario a bit.

Imagine two strangers arrive at your door, each claiming to be the actual king (let’s ignore the fact that neither may be) that will reward you immensely if you believe, and torture you horribly if you disbelieve. Each offers you a letter allegedly certifying their right to the thrown. Each asks you to look deep in their eyes as evidence of their honesty. Yet, each stranger continues to emphasize that you’ll be tormented horribly if you do not believe one or the other is indeed king in spite of the evidence that each is the actual king being equivalent in weight.

Is this an unrealistic scenario? Not at all.

Imagine a young girl with a Muslim father and a Christian mother. In her honest little mind, based on the teaching of each parent, she holds it equally likely that the Muslim God and the Christian God are actual…yet she must choose only one according to both the Koran and the Bible. And neither book leaves open the option of simply and honestly not choosing either. Both books affirm that, if she fails to choose, that is tantamount to rejection, and worthy of eternal damnation.

Is it here not clear to the rational mind that neither alleged God could be just? For how could any just God condemn epistemic honesty?

Nowhere in the Bible do you find the notion that rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of relevant evidence as perceived. And the Bible’s demand for a degree of belief unmapped to the evidence is quite ample grounds for its rejection. Just gods don’t encourage you to become epistemically dishonest by detaching your degree of epistemic certainty from the scientific certainty. And just gods certainty do not damn humans who, out of epistemically honesty, refuse to choose one of two or more evidentially equivalent options.

Not only does the Bible ignore the rational epistemic commitment to mapping your degree of belief to the degree of the relevant evidence, it encourages belief beyond the evidence, and classifies doubt a character flaw rather than as a rational response to the evidence.

Look at the following verses.

“For we live by faith and not by sight.”

“διὰ πίστεως γὰρ περιπατοῦμεν, οὐ διὰ εἴδους”

2 Corinthians 5:7

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων”

Hebrews 11:1

Note these verses contain no suggestion belief (πίστις) is a gradient act rationally mapping to the degree of the evidence. Explore the many other reference to belief in the Bible. You’ll find the consistently irrational form of belief you see in these two verses encouraged. (http://biblehub.com/greek/4102.htm) There is one notable exception.

“For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.”

“Λέγω γὰρ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τῆς δοθείσης μοι παντὶ τῷ ὄντι ἐν ὑμῖν μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ’ ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν ἀλλὰ φρονεῖν εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν, ἑκάστῳ ὡς ὁ θεὸς ἐμέρισεν μέτρον πίστεως”

Romans 12:3

This verse is not dealing with salvific belief, but with a post-redemptive belief related to the assessment of one’s worth. Note that, rather than the measure of belief depending upon the measure of the evidence, the degree of belief is absurdly dealt to individuals by God. This frees the Christian from the obligation of aligning their degree of belief to the degree of the evidence, and instead associates virtuous belief with whatever degree of belief God grants. If you find yourself believing more than the evidence warrants, it can be, according to this verse, be attributed to the grace of God, and that would be, if not rational, at least virtuous, right? Of course not.

The absurdity in this can be seen if adherent to religion X considers the identical form of belief of the adherent of religion Y. If religion Y also states belief comes from its particular God, and their own God-belief is, as a result, honest and virtuous, no adherents of either religion can be considered irrational. And since no just God would damn someone for an honest and virtuous form of belief, your own religion is in error if it condemns those who have “honestly” and “virtuously” arrived at their God-beliefs through the same process you employ.

This perverse severing of the degree of belief away from the degree of the evidence is made even more clear by the Bible’s treatment of doubt.

“But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For that person must not suppose he will receive anything from the Lord. He is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

“αιτειτω δε εν πιστει μηδεν διακρινομενος ο γαρ διακρινομενος εοικεν κλυδωνι θαλασσης ανεμιζομενω και ριπιζομενω. μη γαρ οιεσθω ο ανθρωπος εκεινος οτι ληψεται τι παρα του κυριου. ανηρ διψυχος ακαταστατος εν πασαις ταις οδοις αυτου.”

James 1:6-8

Those who doubt, according to the Bible, are not simply mapping their degree of belief to the degree of the evidence, but are “double-minded” and “unstable in all [their] ways”.

The facts are clear. The Bible wrenches the degree of belief away from the degree of the evidence, and makes a degree of belief exceeding the evidence virtuous, and any doubt a character flaw. The Bible is therefore not representative of any God who encourages rational belief.

And this abandoning of the mapping between belief and evidence becomes even more apparent based on the history of Christianity. Martin Luther stated “Reason is a whore.” Turtullian proclaimed “credible est quia ineptum est” (“I believe because it is incongruous”). Kierkegaard spoke of a “qualitative leap” of belief above the evidence necessary to follow God. This notion that salvific belief is rational in some way is a recent invention. Nothing in the Bible suggests that its God requires a mapping of the degree of belief to the degree of the relevant evidence as honestly perceived. The Bible introduces not the slightest reference to the standards of evidence and tools of rationality we successfully employ today in the sciences and in our personal lives.

(One exception cited is the Bereans in Acts 17:11 who “…received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” But this is was simply their comparing the account of the life of Jesus to Old Testament prophecies that the New Testament writers had access to before they wrote down the account of the life of Jesus. Imagine being able to invent and/or tweak the life of a god-man based on a multitude of well-known vague messianic prophecies the public held in high anticipation.)

And even those who claim their belief in Jesus is rational do nothing to discourage those who believe in Jesus irrationally. Children in churches the world over are encouraged to believe long before they are taught standards of evidence or the tools of rationality. Many adult Christians, even as they claim they believe based on various evidences for an intelligent creator and an actual resurrection, know they did not become a Christian based on these evidences. A substantial majority of Christians become Christians long before they are taught to think rationally, and older Christians will invoke as virtuous the innocent unschooled belief the little child places in a salvation story motivated by emotions, most predominantly, the fear of eternal damnation. At the same time they will consider the belief of a Muslim child, identical to Christian belief in all but its object, worthy of damnation.

This attempted reformation of salvific belief into something somehow rational transparently transgresses the Bible, Christian history, and the actual practices found in Sunday Schools around the world.

Conclusion

The Bible’s notion of salvific belief can be safely rejected as nonsense for the two reason argued above.

1. The Bible, instead of treating belief as gradient, treats it as a binary act, making no reference to any sort of nuanced position.

2. The Bible, makes no reference to the evidence in the context of salvific belief, encourages a degree of belief above the degree of the evidence, and disparages doubt as a character flaw.

Any ideology that encourages a perversion of rational belief is false. For the rational mind, the degree of belief in any proposition must be honestly mapped to the degree of the relevant perceived evidence for that proposition. The Bible fails in this respect, and can therefore be dismissed as nonsense.

Jehovah’s Lawyers

In a recent podcast, I heard a Christian apologist attempt to explain away the killing of the Canaanites. The following are the primary points made. 
1. Not that many people were actually killed since the “cities” were actually villages. (This is to tacitly admit it would have been somehow morally wrong if more people had been killed.)

2. Because there were not that many people killed, it was not all that immoral. (An argument made just a few minutes later suggested that the Canaanites had to be killed since there were too many to be assimilated.)

3. Only combatants were killed since the noncombatants had already fled. (Though the issue is actually whether Jehovah commanded noncombatants be killed…and he did. And are we to imagine the elderly and infants were all able to flee prior to the slaughter?)

4. The number of people claimed to be killed was exaggerated as exaggeration was the custom of books written in that day. (In addition to avoiding the actual issue of whether a just and loving God would order the slaughter of all the Canaanites the Israelites encountered, it exposes the fact that the Bible does not have the fidelity and style if written by a God of Truth.)

5. The order by Jehovah to kill infants was “hyperbole”. (Is this the “Word of God” we are talking about, or just another book written with the human style of exaggeration common to that time?)

6. Jehovah’s order to kill everyone must have been hyperbole. “In the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18) (Except that Jehovah here clearly gives the reason to kill all of them.)

7. The reason to kill infants was that Jehovah knew they would grow up to be like their allegedly wicked parents. (Would we today ever employ this silly argument when dealing with the children of criminals? Would not the adoption of infants and children by loving Israelites parents have made them just as righteous as Israelite children?)

What is perhaps most mendacious is that fact that, in this podcast and another dealing with this issue I’ve listened to recently, both over an hour in length, neither one ever mentioned the fact that God commanded infants to be killed. This is like arguing a murderer was not actually illegally parked during the murder, completely ignoring the most egregious act committed that day.

(Exodus 23:28-33, 33:2, 34:11-16, Numbers 33:50-56, Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 9:3, 11:23, 12:2-3, 20:10-18, Joshua 3:10, 13:6, 23:5)

The Failure of the Biblical Notion of Salvific Belief

This post will demonstrate that the binary notion of salvific belief (belief leading to salvation of the soul) found in the Bible is logically absurd.

You may love both 1) pizza and 2) your children, but you wouldn’t abandon your children as you might a pizza during a catastrophe.

You may spend money on both 1) a pizza and 2) a house, but I would hope the prices you pay for each are vastly different.

You may believe both that 1) your young son will attend university and that 2) your young son will live to see tomorrow, but those two beliefs are very likely at very different degrees of certainty.

Loving, spending money and believing are all gradient concepts.

Gradient concepts are sometimes represented with low-resolution paired binary tags such as “hate” and “love”, “cheap” and “expensive”, and “disbelief” and “belief”.

These tags, in spite of their binary linguistic essences, do nothing to change the gradient essences of the concepts they are recruited to represent.

Modifiers such as “very”, “slightly”, “absolutely” or “tend to” are often attached to the basic tags in an attempt to add precision to the actual degree of loving, spending or believing one wishes to convey.

Most humans have no trouble understanding the intrinsic gradient nature of loving and spending, but have much more difficulty perceiving the concept of believing a gradient concept.

We have a psychological impulse and social pressure to either believe or disbelieve any given proposition. Even those deeply schooled in science often deviate from the degree of scientific certainty to epistemically gravitate to one of the poles of either disbelief or belief.

But, once again, neither the binary nature of the linguistic terms employed to reflect a gradient concept, nor the psychological impulse to sort propositions into one of the low resolution buckets of disbelief or belief are reasons not to map our degree of certainty to the degree of the relevant scientific certainty.

Rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of the relevant evidence as one perceives it.

Because evidence for inductively assessed propositions normally arrives incrementally to the assessor of the evidence, adding to or subtracting from the balance of evidence with each bit of confirming or disconfirming piece of evidence, the scientific certainty for such a proposition can be at any point upon the evidential gradient for any assessor of the evidence..

And because a rational degree of certainty must invariably map to the current degree of scientific certainty, the rational mind updates its epistemic degree of certainty upwards or downwards with the introduction of each new bit of confirming or disconfirming evidence.

This notion of rational belief as intrinsically gradient is not controversial, and this notion sets the stages for our discussion of the salvific belief found in the Bible.

Salvific belief treated as meaninglessly vague or binary

John 3:18 says…

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Imagine a stranger knocks at your door and says…

“Give me money. If you do, I’ll reward you with everything you’ve ever dreamed of. If you don’t, I’ll inflict upon you every misery you can imagine.”

Wouldn’t this be not just a little bit strange? The stranger has not specified how much money will result in reward and not misery.

This is the first absurdity. The demands for belief in Jesus found in the Bible are presented as demand for a binary belief: either you believe or you don’t. Nothing specifying the degree of belief accompanies the demand, yet the consequences are highly nuanced and as polar as one could ever imagine. It is almost as if these passages were written in an age that had not yet conceived of the necessary nuanced degrees of certainty we easily recognize as essential to a rational epistemic position in this age of science. It is as absurd as our stranger demanding an unspecified amount of money without including the threshold at which the reward will be granted, and the misery avoided.

I’ve been quite interested in the various degree of belief at which Christians place this threshold absent in the Bible. There seems to be four very different positions on this.

1. Any degree of belief greater than zero.
2. Any degree of belief greater than 50%.
3. Any “high” degree of belief.
4. Only 100% certainty.

This list of vastly diverse opinions on salvific belief serves to highlight the absurdity of treating belief as if it were binary. Salvific belief is the only way to redemption, yet it is presented so vaguely as to completely confuse the very Christians who seek that redemption. They disagree on the threshold in incomparable ways. This vague treatment of the belief at the core of salvation is not the modus operandi of a rational god who wishes to present the method of salvation in an unambiguous way.

This becomes more salient when you imagine “believe” replaced with another gradient concept, “love” in our scenario of the stranger at your door.

Imagine the stranger at your door demanding that you “love” him to be rewarded and avoid unimaginable misery. We recognize instantly that, while we might love the stranger as we would any other human, we probably do not love him to the degree that he expects. So also for the the amount of money, and so also for the amount of belief he might expect as we shall soon see.

Now imagine the stranger at your door says…

“I am your king. If you believe I am your king, I’ll reward you with great pleasure in my kingdom, but if you disbelieve, you’ll be tormented for a very long time in my dungeons.”

Now that we have introduced belief into the scenario, we can see how absurd the demand is. The two possible choices and their consequences are unambiguous, yet the degree of belief is unstated. Belief is not binary, yet the Bible treats it as such with no gradient nuance introduced in any of the hundreds of passages referring to salvific belief.

(Some Christians attempt to suggest that salvific belief is binary since it involves the binary choice of following or not following Jesus. This is misguided. Imagine you are forced to cross an old bridge because a bear is chasing you. You assess the bridge to be 50% likely to hold your weight. You make the rational choice to cross the bridge since your chances of fighting off the bear are very small. As you cross the bridge, would you then increase the original 50% degree of likelihood the bridge will hold your weight to near 100%? Of course not. Yet the Bible absurdly presents such a move away from the actual evidence a virtue as we shall see next.)

(Another objection I’ve heard is that we can not easily place a highly specific number to the degree of belief. This is often true, but rationality only requires that the epistemic agents feels they have honestly mapped their degree of belief to the degree of the evidence, even though those degrees may be quantitatively imprecise. This will be dealt with in the next section.)

Salvific belief encouraged with no reference to the degree of the evidence

The absurdity deepens. Not only do we have an alleged God of the Universe unable to clearly state how much belief is required, we also have hundreds of passages referring to salvific belief without the slightest suggestion that the degree of belief be mapped to the degree of the evidence.

As we’ve already established, rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of relevant evidence. Imagine the stranger at your door says…

“I am a king. If you believe I am king, I’ll reward you with great pleasure in my kingdom, but if you disbelieve, you’ll be tormented for a very long time in my dungeons.”

In this circumstance, it is not hard to imagine a majority of those so confronted simply conjuring up belief in the stranger as king just to avoid the negative consequences were the stranger is telling the truth.

However, how could any actual king be just? Would not a perfectly just king honor only epistemic honesty from you?

Let’s review John 3:18.

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Here we have the bald affirmation that Jesus is God’s one and only son. There is no requirement to map your degree of belief to the degree of the evidence. In fact, you will unlikely find any promoter of Christianity suggesting that believing in Jesus to a degree not warranted by the perceived degree of relevant evidence is improper.

(This would be an interesting study. Ask church leaders the following question: “Is believing in Jesus to a degree not warranted by the perceived degree of the evidence a virtue? Is it epistemically dishonest?” I suggest you’ll find yourself up against the most vigorous attempts to evade this question.)

Let’s modify our scenario a bit.

Imagine two strangers arrive at your door, each claiming to be the actual king (let’s ignore the fact that neither may be) that will reward you immensely if you believe, and torture you horribly if you disbelieve. Each offers you a letter allegedly certifying their right to the throne. Each asks you to look deep in their eyes as evidence of their honesty. Yet, each stranger continues to emphasize that you’ll be tormented horribly if you do not believe one or the other is indeed king in spite of the evidence that each is the actual king being equivalent in weight.

Is this an unrealistic scenario? Not at all.

Imagine a young girl with a Muslim father and a Christian mother. In her honest little mind, based on the teaching of each parent, she holds it equally likely that the Muslim God and the Christian God are actual…yet she must choose only one according to both the Koran and the Bible. And neither book leaves open the option of simply and honestly not choosing either. Both books affirm that, if she fails to choose, that is tantamount to rejection, and worthy of eternal damnation.

Is it here not clear to the rational mind that neither alleged God could be just? For how could any just God condemn epistemic honesty?

Nowhere in the Bible do you find the notion that rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of relevant evidence as perceived. And the Bible’s demand for a degree of belief unmapped to the evidence is quite ample grounds for its rejection. Just gods don’t encourage you to become epistemically dishonest by detaching your degree of epistemic certainty from the scientific certainty. And just gods certainty do not damn humans who, out of epistemically honesty, refuse to choose one of two or more evidentially equivalent options.

Not only does the Bible ignore the rational epistemic commitment to mapping your degree of belief to the degree of the relevant evidence, it encourages belief beyond the evidence, and classifies doubt a character flaw rather than as a rational response to the evidence.

Look at the following verses.

“For we live by faith and not by sight.”
“διὰ πίστεως γὰρ περιπατοῦμεν, οὐ διὰ εἴδους”
2 Corinthians 5:7

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων”
Hebrews 11:1

Note these verses contain no suggestion belief (πίστις) is a gradient act rationally mapping to the degree of the evidence. Explore the many other reference to belief in the Bible. You’ll find the consistently irrational form of belief you see in these two verses encouraged. (http://biblehub.com/greek/4102.htm) There is one notable exception.

“For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.”
“Λέγω γὰρ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τῆς δοθείσης μοι παντὶ τῷ ὄντι ἐν ὑμῖν μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ’ ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν ἀλλὰ φρονεῖν εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν, ἑκάστῳ ὡς ὁ θεὸς ἐμέρισεν μέτρον πίστεως”
Romans 12:3

This verse is not dealing with salvific belief, but with a post-redemptive belief related to the assessment of one’s worth. Note that, rather than the measure of belief depending upon the measure of the evidence, the degree of belief is absurdly dealt to individuals by God. This frees the Christian from the obligation of aligning their degree of belief to the degree of the evidence, and instead associates virtuous belief with whatever degree of belief God grants. If you find yourself believing more than the evidence warrants, it can be, according to this verse, be attributed to the grace of God, and that would be, if not rational, at least virtuous, right? Of course not.

The absurdity in this can be seen if adherent to religion X considers the identical form of belief of the adherent of religion Y. If religion Y also states belief comes from its particular God, and their own God-belief is, as a result, honest and virtuous, no adherents of either religion can be considered irrational. And since no just God would damn someone for an honest and virtuous form of belief, your own religion is in error if it condemns those who have “honestly” and “virtuously” arrived at their God-beliefs through the same process you employ.

This perverse severing of the degree of belief away from the degree of the evidence is made even more clear by the Bible’s treatment of doubt.

“But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For that person must not suppose he will receive anything from the Lord. He is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
“αιτειτω δε εν πιστει μηδεν διακρινομενος ο γαρ διακρινομενος εοικεν κλυδωνι θαλασσης ανεμιζομενω και ριπιζομενω. μη γαρ οιεσθω ο ανθρωπος εκεινος οτι ληψεται τι παρα του κυριου. ανηρ διψυχος ακαταστατος εν πασαις ταις οδοις αυτου.”
James 1:6-8

Those who doubt, according to the Bible, are not simply mapping their degree of belief to the degree of the evidence, but are “double-minded” and “unstable in all [their] ways”.

The facts are clear. The Bible wrenches the degree of belief away from the degree of the evidence, and makes a degree of belief exceeding the evidence virtuous, and any doubt a character flaw. The Bible is therefore not representative of any God who encourages rational belief.

And this abandoning of the mapping between belief and evidence becomes even more apparent based on the history of Christianity. Martin Luther stated “Reason is a whore.” Turtullian proclaimed “credible est quia ineptum est” (“I believe because it is incongruous”). Kierkegaard spoke of a “qualitative leap” of belief above the evidence necessary to follow God. This notion that salvific belief is rational in some way is a recent invention. Nothing in the Bible suggests that its God requires a mapping of the degree of belief to the degree of the relevant evidence as honestly perceived. The Bible introduces not the slightest reference to the standards of evidence and tools of rationality we successfully employ today in the sciences and in our personal lives.

(One exception cited is the Bereans in Acts 17:11 who “…received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” But this is was simply their comparing the account of the life of Jesus to Old Testament prophecies that the New Testament writers had access to before they wrote down the account of the life of Jesus. Imagine being able to invent and/or tweak the life of a god-man based on a multitude of well-known vague messianic prophecies the public held in high anticipation.)

And even those who claim their belief in Jesus is rational do nothing to discourage those who believe in Jesus irrationally. Children in churches the world over are encouraged to believe long before they are taught standards of evidence or the tools of rationality. Many adult Christians, even as they claim they believe based on various evidences for an intelligent creator and an actual resurrection, know they did not become a Christian based on these evidences. A substantial majority of Christians become Christians long before they are taught to think rationally, and older Christians will invoke as virtuous the innocent unschooled belief the little child places in a salvation story motivated by emotions, most predominantly, the fear of eternal damnation. At the same time they will consider the belief of a Muslim child, identical to Christian belief in all but its object, worthy of damnation.

This attempted reformation of salvific belief into something somehow rational transparently transgresses the Bible, Christian history, and the actual practices found in Sunday Schools around the world.

Conclusion

The Bible’s notion of salvific belief can be safely rejected as nonsense for the two reason argued above.

1. The Bible, instead of treating belief as gradient, treats it as a binary act, making no reference to any sort of nuanced position.
2. The Bible, makes no reference to the evidence in the context of salvific belief, encourages a degree of belief above the degree of the evidence, and disparages doubt as a character flaw.

Any ideology that encourages a perversion of rational belief is false. For the rational mind, the degree of belief in any proposition must be honestly mapped to the degree of the relevant perceived evidence for that proposition. The Bible fails in this respect, and can therefore be dismissed as nonsense.