Posted: Oct 25, 2013 11:28 pm
by Byron
Will's curiosity is hereby sated! I thank him for his challenges, and anticipate my response. First, a challenge of my own.

* * *

These two problems recur throughout Will's argument:-
  • a failure to engage with the underlying issues
  • a tendency to cherry-pick Christian orthodoxy
I understand why they recur -- Christianity is irrational to the core of its being, so Will is forced to make the best of a bad hand. If I were arguing that Christianity is rational, I've no doubt that I would be forced into similar contortions by the poverty the position that I was tasked to defend.

I will highlight examples from each of the five sections in order to illustrate the recurrence of avoidance and cherry-picking in the defense of Christian rationality, in the hope that, at the last, we can cut through the edifice of dogma and assertion, and examine the first principles that lie beneath.


Avoidance and cherry-picking have intertwined from the start of Will's case. They form a scaffold for irrationality, a double helix that threads its way through the debate, and breathes life into claims that would otherwise wither and die. Smoke and selectivity are the DNA of all attempts to rationalize the irrational.

The Christian bible made an early showing in our debate, and Will's reference to it starts as he will go on. In his first rebuttal, Will says
The Bible, which I shall get to in more depth I promise, assures us of God's plans and gives us confidence in his promises. This is not a God of irrationality which would essentially breed chaos, but rather a God of clear and rational intents.

Will goes on to say that, "Faith is a confidence or trust," but does not explain why God values belief formed on the basis of insufficient evidence. Defining faith as "trust" is here a distinction without a difference, since Will's example of friends trusting one another is different in kind to a demand that we believe Christianity's claims, since a friend's trust does not conflict with the observed norms of the universe. (Strike that if your friend is a televangelist who swears on a stack of bibles that there's no truth to any alleged incident involving blow, buff young men, and airport restrooms.)

Likewise, Will asserts that "nowhere in the Bible is God inconsistent," but he does not show it, any more than he shows that it makes sense that God in Christ "is strict and cannot tolerate sin" when Christianity claims that God is the all-powerful, all-knowing creator, who has chosen to construct a reality in which sin exists and in which people commit sins. Divine responsibility is the elephant in the room that Will does not confront, let alone answer. This failure to acquit God of responsibility for God's own actions will recur again and again throughout Will's case.

As will the selective application of Christian orthodoxy illustrated by Will's stance on divine pronouns. "Despite the personal pronoun of He, God is genderless," Will breezily declares. No big. Except that God's gender is a fundamental tenet of Christian orthodoxy, used by evangelicals to deny women "headship" in ministry, and in the Catholic and Orthodox churches to deny women ordination. Will's argument casts aside something that millions of Christians believe in with such vehemence that they are willing to cast half the human race into subservience. For the best part of two millennia, it was used to cast women into a condition barely distinguishable from slavery, justified by a tangled, irrational web of claims about the sin of Eve and the patriarchy of God. Today, this continues in the claim that women exist to "complement" men, "equal but different" reborn.

Throughout the debate, Will's argument yo-yos between Christian orthodoxy and liberal scholarship. The goalposts of his case are tethered by elastic, snapping back and forth depending on the angle of attack. This tendency is on full view in the next two sections, miracles and the resurrection.

II. & III.
Miracles & Resurrection

I'll take these two together, as they're so closely linked. Cherry-picking, and the avoidance of underlying issues via redefinition, are at work throughout.

Will calls miracles "grand displays of God's power," which "are not meant to be a guide to faith, but rather a response to faith." OK, it's an explanation, but it's an explanation that fails to engage my point that an all-powerful god has no need to tease his creation with occasional displays of power. When this power-play is done on the Q.T., it fails on its own terms. It in any case fails to address an underlying issue. According to Christian theology, God all-power could reveal everything, indisputably, at a time of his choosing. He doesn't. Moreover, why did he hide himself to begin with?

In his rebuttal, Will does not meet my challenge that "There shouldn't be a problem to fix," because reality should not be so flawed that God "must periodically ignore its operational norms."

Instead, the tendency to play fast and loose with Christian orthodoxy emerges as Will defines "omniscience" to suit the purposes of his argument, something that fails even on its own terms: if God does, somehow, limit what he knows, and somehow has a good reason for doing so, it does not explain God's failure to actualize his desire for a perfect reality, called Eden in Genesis, the Kingdom in the gospels. This failure isn't fixed by redefining one of God's characteristics. It's not solely a question of God's omniscience, but also his omnipotence and unchangeability. It's hard to read Will's concept of self-limited omniscience as anything besides special pleading for God, redefining his nature to avoid the implication that Christianity's all-powerful and all-knowing deity is responsible for the acts of beings he created, acts that an omniscient god should have foreseen and prevented. Will may dispute the definition of omniscience, but seeking to evade the logical consequences of a proposition with special pleading is the definition of irrationality.

Rather than confront these underlying issues, Will asserts that God gains something from people suffering and becoming stronger for it. He doesn't explain why God benefits from tortured lives. Christianity doesn't like "why?" questions, at least, not ones that refuse to quit when offered Christianity's assertions. Never has, never will. Christianity likes obedience. Always has, always will, unless the day dawns in which its orthodox manifestation is no more. It's unsurprising that this mindset saturates Christian apologetic.

Will also plays fast and loose with the supernatural nature of miracles, via that apologetic standby, Quantum Mechanics, in an argument that would have its cake and eat it by claiming that God works within a natural framework, but also, doesn't.

This is something that's again weak on its own terms, but is also contradicted in short order, as Will comes on to the claimed miracle of Jesus' resurrection, and says, "In honesty, liberal Christianity that removes the supernatural from Christ and portrays him just as a good teacher, is weak." The yo-yo is at work. Will is now back in the orthodox camp, chastising liberal Christians for being too rational. He'll soon return to the liberal camp when we come round to the Bible, but before then, his argument takes a standard apologetic approach to Jesus (the alleged) Christ's (alleged) rising from his tomb.

As with miracles in general, this argument swerves around the underlying issue: my challenge that it is impossible to make probability judgments about miracle claims, since they overturn the observed norms of our existence. Will knows his scriptures as well as anyone, but like his team theologian, N.T. "Tom" Wright, he does not apply what he knows towards a rational end. Will does not explain why God in Christ made a reality at-odds with God's (allegedly) stated desires, and does not explain how you calculate probability without a stable point of reference. Those were the issues I presented, and they went unanswered.


Because if Will were to answer them, he would be compelled to present Christianity's irrationality in his answer. His argument reserves the right not to incriminate itself. Avoiding the challenge does not, however, make it go away, as Will showed again in his penultimate chapter on the Christian canon of scripture.


Here, the twin strands of avoiding underlying issues, and playing fast and loose with orthodoxy, are realized in full, as Will fails to explain how biblical reliability, a claim predicated on assertions about the supernatural nature of scripture, is not based on the authority fallacy.

Will cites N.T. Wright's "story authority" line, but does not explain how this works (any more than Wright can), and then, snapping back from dismissing liberal Christians as "weak," Will uses their methods to an incompatible end in the idea of critical biblical authority, a revelation unearthed by human reason, incoherent because revelation is supposed to supplant reason, not be uncovered by it, as revelation supposedly gives answers that reason can't. This is why the 16th century reformers claimed that God's Spirit guided their interpretation. Using a flawed method to discover a flawless answer is a nonsense. This is not Will's invention, of course -- it is the invention of moderate Christianity, a compromise position that seeks to mask orthodoxy's irrationality instead of to challenge it.

Dogmatism in a cheap suit.

It's no wonder that Will ends his posts on the Bible with this string of non sequuntur:-
A thorough understanding of historical context and hermeneutics is a necessary function of a rational approach to scripture. Instead of blindly accepting a text or an interpretation of the text, a Christian should be challenged to think critically about the text. In doing this, the Christian gains an understanding of the text and can better yield the lesson from the text. By following the lessons of the text, the Christian affirms the authority of Scripture, an inspired tool used for God's plan, and likewise the Christian grows in righteousness and it carries over into the non-Christian world. Living with the authority of Scripture allows the Christian to be firm on their beliefs, but at the same time gives them textual support for their beliefs in which a spiritual belief alone does not have. Therefore Biblical authority, in its proper application is quite rational..

Will does not explain how the Bible controls its interpreters, instead of empowering them and their opinions, any more than he explains how human reason can unearth revelation from a canon that he admits is flawed. He does not rebut the central, damning issue of authoritarianism being fallacious.

The final section, heaven and hell, displays the process of avoidance and cherry-picking at its most pronounced.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church, as orthodox a document as you can get, is junked by Will as "definitely irrational," since it arises from "later Catholic traditions." The cherry is picked, found to be sour, and spat out.

Christianity's internal tensions are evident throughout Will's posts. Christian orthodoxy is, like all totalizing systems, very much in the eye of the beholder, but shibboleths have emerged over the centuries that are shared across the orthodox Christian spectrum, and in his defense of salvation, Will hurls them overboard in a desperate attempt to keep his case afloat.

Will, as throughout, does not meet my challenge that God is responsible for everything. Divine responsibility is the pachyderm that will not budge. Sin only exists because God created people with the capacity for it. If God did not want sin, it isn't the duty of people to avoid sin, it is the duty of God to create people differently. Will does not address God's own responsibility with his rejigged "hell isn't torture, but separation from God" line, and it is unsurprising, because to do so would be to undermine the core tenet of Christianity, one that links everything, from its interpretation of Jewish creation myths, to the life and death of Jesus, to its map of the afterlife.

That tenet? People are irredeemable and need salvation.

Will does not explain how God's will is thwarted. Does not explain why an all-powerful God who desires that all should be saved is incapable of saving all. He does not explain why people are responsible for flaws instilled by their creator. He does not explain why an inter-trinitarian blood sacrifice that only partially succeeds is a rational fix for God's self-imposed problem.

What links all these things is, once more, the inability of the supposedly omnipotent Christian god to actualize his (allegedly) stated desires. If God wants something, and is all-powerful, he should be able to get it. If he can't, the chain of reasoning is severed, and Christianity breaks free, proud in its irrationality. It might be true for all that. Heaven help us if it is. We are not debating God's existence here. Only Christianity's rationality.

Will does not rationalize Christianity's contradictions because they cannot be reconciled: the conflicting propositions can only be asserted as truth, their incompatibility papered-over, not resolved. It's not reason, it's a confidence trick. Christendom used to enforce Christianity's claims with threats and violence. It must now rely on more subtle means of control, but, behind its walls of bluff and obfuscation, its undergirding irrationality remains, the only solid foundation it has.

* * *

Throughout his posts, Will has been flexible and inventive, and has done his damnedest to juggle incompatible and incoherent axioms, but his inventiveness serves only to illustrate my point to its fullest extent. Christianity is irrational through and through. Even a debater as smart, learned and creative as Will cannot defend an indefensible proposition. Christianity is irrational from top to tail, from beginning to end, for the simple and repeated reason that its conclusions are at war with its premises, and its premises at war with one another.

Christianity contradicts itself across the board.

Christianity's claims are based on the authority fallacy, not reason.

Before we wrap, it would be good if Will could set aside the twin strategies of cherry-picking and avoidance, and confront the underlying issues, but I do not blame him if he chooses instead to stay the course. If Will does strip away the masks, and confronts the underlying issues head-on, I suspect that he would be committing dialectical seppuku. As would anyone.

It's a heady challenge to make, and in making it, I would like to be proved wrong. Over to you, Will!