Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Manual for Creating Atheists: Socrates Meets Paul

Chapter five of MCA takes the reader through the strategies and stages of how to use the Socratic Method to separate the faithful from their faith. Now, I am a huge proponent of the Socratic Method, even if I am not a huge fan of Socrates. Moreover, I think that every Christian could benefit from reading this chapter because they will learn something about the method as well as how to use it in evangelism and apologetics. In addition, it gives us great insight into minds like Boghossian so that we can better understand how they think.
The Socratic Method is fine as far as it goes but like any other method, it is easily integrated into a person’s system of beliefs, or their noetic structure if you will. This structure is fundamentally and radically different for Christian theism than it is for empiricism, rationalism, or existentialism. As Herman Bavinck writes, 

“The revelation of God in Christ does not seek support or justification from men. It posits and maintains itself in high majesty. Its authority is not only normative but also causative. It fights for its own triumph. It conquers for itself the hearts of men. It makes itself irresistible.”[1] 
The very point of contention here is that Christian epistemology transcends human reason and experience. It only begs the question for Boghossian to insist on subjecting the faithful to an epistemology they do not regard to begin with. Nevertheless, I think my interaction with this chapter should be fun and entertaining, if not a little stimulating.

As Boghossian moves to “Actual Socratic Interventions” he makes this startling statement: “Sometimes, even after years of treatment, the faith virus is not separated from its host.” [Loc. 1977] I must confess that is virtually impossible for me to take someone with this kind of attitude toward the conversation seriously. What Boghossian has not acknowledged so far in this project is the fact that most people hold beliefs that are true knowledge and yet if challenged would not be able to justify them. And that especially would not be able to justify them with a philosophy professor. Mr. Boghossian provides several examples of what he calls “interventions” in this chapter. They basically amount to a philosophy professor intellectually bullying ordinary every day folks that do not have the time to sit around and think up strategies for tripping people up as he apparently does. While he might find these things self-amusing, I think most fair-minded educators would find it reprehensible.

For his first victim, he picks a young man that has apparently just converted to Christianity. He is new to the Christian faith. So new that he is in no way ready to engage the sort of questions that Boghossian will ask him. Boghossian asks, “How do you know the thing you felt was caused by Jesus?” The trained Christian might reply something like this, “Because Scripture describes this for me in exactly the same way I experienced it. I once hated Christ and loved sin. Now, I love the Lord and hate sin.”

Boghossian’s next question is a straw man because he treats religious truth as if it is entirely experiential. It is not. He basically says that all religions do the very same thing. The Christian might answer: “With all due respect, that is patently false. Only Christianity provides the basis for my experience. There is nothing like the gospel, sin, and redemption in Buddhism, Islam, or Mormonism. In fact, you may think that all religions are fundamentally the same and only superficially different but the truth is they are only superficially the same and fundamentally different. If you spent more time studying Christian theism and less time studying Socrates and philosophy, you might have known this.”

Boghossian’s next question: “So what do you think accounts for the fact that different people have religious experiences that they’re convinced are true?” The Christian might answer: “In Matthew 7 and 24 Jesus warned His disciples about false religions. Then again, Paul warned about false gospels in Galatians 1, and he also warned about false teachers in 2 Corinthians 11. Additionally, Paul informs us about a fascinating phenomenon in 2 Thessalonians 2:11 called in the Greek, a ἐνέργειαν πλάνης (energeian planes). God allows men who do not love the truth of His revelation to fall into delusion.” Note to the Christian: if you are ever approached in this way, you should not look at it as an opportunity to flex your knowledge or to make Christianity look incredibly rational. You may be incredibly intelligent and Christianity certainly is rational. However, your goal is to give as much of the gospel as you can in the exchange even if it appears that your interlocutor isn’t listening. Always remember this clear statement from Paul: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18) Give them the word. Do not get caught up in philosophical conjectures and speculation. Paul said this about secular philosophy: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (Col. 2:8) Secular philosophy is a natural enemy of Christian faith. It is the attempt to discover truth about the world apart from trusting in God’s own self-disclosure. It is an outright refusal to trust in God’s revelation in nature and in Scripture.

Boghossian then asks the faithful to consider that their conversion might not be caused by what they think. The Christian might answer, “That is a good question and one that Christians ask themselves all the time. 1 Jn. 4:1 commands Christians to be critical thinkers, to test every claim against Scripture and so that is how we know that a claim or an experience is either true or false. Tell me something Mr. Boghossian, how do you know that human reason is as reliable as you claim it is?”

The next intervention that Boghossian describes is not reflective of genuine Christian theism at all. Christians do not hold onto their faith because it gives them comfort. According to Christian theism, faith is a gift from God. (Eph. 2:8-10) It is the necessary result of divine regeneration. The role of God in the process of Christian conversion is completely absent in Boghossian’s assessment. It truly is something that he does not and cannot understand. Christians are kept by the power of God because it is God’s good pleasure to keep them. That is how He works in us and through us. (1 Peter 1:5) Nothing can separate the genuine Christian from their faith. (Rom. 8:32-39) If you are an atheist, and you really want to engage genuine Christians, you should read these texts if for no other reason so that you might at least attempt to understand what Christians believe. If you really want a challenge, try talking a true Christian out of their faith.

Boghossian’s tactics are more than a little distasteful. It is the typical atheist rudeness and arrogance that always seems to find its way into these discussions. He compares the comfort of faith with the comfort of slave owners. The Christian might answer, “Are you suggesting there is a relationship between having faith and being a slave owner? Do you think these two behaviors are moral equivalents? Earlier you said there was nothing virtuous about faith or about not having faith. Do you think there is anything virtuous about owning slaves or not owning slaves?” This forces Boghossian to explain why he thinks this is a good analogy. He could have easily picked an analogy that was uncontroversial. He chose this one for a very specific reason. Why did Boghossian make the decision to use this analogy? Here, we turn the tables on the philosopher and subject him to some of his own Socratic medicine.

Boghossian then asks, “Are the beliefs in your faith true?” The Christian would certainly answer without hesitation: “yes, they are most certainly true. Scripture teaches that God created the universe and all that is in it, including humanity. Man rebelled and came under God’s curse. This curse extends to the areas of philosophy that seem to fully occupy your time. Epistemologically, man is doomed to contort the knowledge of God he has, so long as he is unregenerate. Ontologically, man is separated from God, in a most wretched condition and doomed for damnation. Ethically, man is hostile to God, totally depraved and unable of doing anything that commends him to his Creator. But God sent His only Son to redeem man, despite the fact that he is unworthy. Now, faith in God’s Son leads to life, leads to hope, leads to meaning, purpose, and dignity. Through Christ, man be in a right position with God, he can know the truth he desperate seeks, and he is capable now of pleasing the one for whom He was made.” As Christians, we are commanded to give an account for the hope that is in us to all that might ask. Boghossian is asking and we need to answer. However, we do not need to concern ourselves with providing Boghossian an answer with which he will be satisfied. That is not the mandate of Christian apologetics and evangelism. 

Boghossian wants Christians to submit their beliefs to his unregenerate criteria for justification. This is exactly what we cannot do. We cannot accommodate Boghossian and let him continue to pretend to possess true knowledge apart from God. In our answers, we appeal to the epistemic authority of Christian theism: Scripture. We do this repeatedly until it sounds like a broken record. However, sooner or later, it will be Boghossian’s turn to sit in our chair and provide justification for his view of justifiability. And there is where we shall demonstrate that Boghossian’s own beliefs are not internally consistent. In fact, we will move to show that Boghossian’s claims are self-referentially incoherent. His basic presuppositions do not comport with his noetic structure.

Just a quick comment about Boghossians questions concerning Jesus and His death. The line of questioning is incredibly silly. Boghossian asks if Jesus was clever. The Christian might respond: “Jesus was fully God and fully man. Being fully God, He was omniscient. But as a man, he was the wisest this earth has seen.” Boghossian then asks if I would consider Him a greater man for having made that sacrifice (death). The Christian might answer: “no.” “God’s works are amazing because they are the works of God. Nothing God does can increase His greatness. God is infinitely great.” Next question. Boghossian then implies that Jesus had to be clever to pull off the sacrifice. Could Jesus have not made the sacrifice? The Christian would answer: “no.” “The death of Christ was decreed in eternity past, in every single detail and God providentially works His decrees with utmost efficacy. There is no contingency in the divine decree. Therefore, there was no possibility that Christ would not carry out His work on the cross.”

At the end of the day, the Socratic Method is a tool of a tool. It is a tool of reason, which is also a tool. Reason is the tool of the human intellect. It is not independent of human predication. The disposition of a person’s intellect will determine how they use the tool of reason. This fact explains the volume of disagreement among the various schools of philosophy. On the one hand, secular philosophy denies design while on the other hand seeking to unify the particular with the general. The philosophy of the metaphysics of chance is entirely powerless to produce unity in reality. The problem disagreement between Christian theism and godless atheism is that we have two different epistemic courts of appeal. The final authority for Christian theism is God speaking in Scripture while the final authority for philosophers like Peter Boghossian is their own autonomous reasoning. The Christian appeal is to an authority that they believe transcends all of humanity and creation, while Boghossian and his atheist friends appeal to a product of their own invention. This explains why they have such difficulties like, for instance, making the meaning in life, well, sound meaningful. That is just one of a long list of difficulties the atheist worldview has trouble explaining.

Going back to 1 Cor. 1:18 where Paul informs the Christian that the gospel is considered foolish by the philosopher, by the debater, by the lawyer, by the wise and mighty for the most part, we should be used to men like Boghossian. Scripture told us long before they did that they would consider the Christian message moronic. And so they do. Boghossian is one very small proof for the credibility of Scripture. Scripture says men like him will consider the message of Christ moronic. How many pages have been filled with men like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Boghossian attempting to convince us that Christianity is moronic? New Flash Dr. Boghossian: you are one example for why we should believe the Scripture.

[1] Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge. (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1969).

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