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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2015

How to Have a Justified Belief

The concepts of belief and knowledge are woefully confused today by both Christians and non-Christians. Some of this has to do with anti-theistic rhetoric made popular by the New Atheists, some is the prevalence of Internet memes that make slick sounding but fallacious charges, and some is just the general ignorance. For example, here's how Christopher Hitchens tried to separate himself from beliefs:
And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.1
First of all, everyone has beliefs. For Hitchens to say that he doesn't have a belief is simply ridiculous. He believes he should not rely on science and reason alone and he believes he should distrust other forms of knowledge that contradict them.  His entire book is a treatise on what he believes and what he believes you should believe, too! So, let's set aside any nonsense that one can hold to facts without beliefs. As I showed yesterday, any claim of knowledge requires one to believe that the claim is true.

Yesterday, I was asked, "To what degree do you think it's possible to be 'belief-free'?" It's simply impossible to be belief free, since beliefs are a core part of our knowledge. The famous philosopher Rene Descartes developed a thought experiment where he tried to doubt everything. He even doubted his own senses, considering the possibility that they may be manipulations of a deceiving spirit (think the Matrix).  But he found that he couldn't doubt the fact that he was doubting! He had at least found one belief—that he was capable of thinking and doubting—he held to always be true.

What is a Justified Belief?

All people hold beliefs, but that doesn't mean that all beliefs are equal. There is a difference between a justified belief and an unjustified belief. For example, I may mention to you that I believe a certain sports team will win in the playoffs this year. You would naturally ask, "Why do you believe that?" If I respond with statistics about the team or how they have performed against their opponent, you would know that my belief isn't based on nothing, but I've come to my conclusion using information appropriate to make a decision. Even if you disagree with me, you wouldn't say my belief was arbitrary. It is rational given the facts presented. My belief is justified. It was derived based on relevant data, and it is not an unreasonable conclusion.

However, if I were to tell you that the team will win because I picked them out of a hat, or I liked their team colors, or even because they are "my team," then you could conclude that my belief is not justified. Team colors or a person's allegiance doesn't affect the outcome of a professional sporting match. They have no influence on the performance of the players.

Of course, there are degrees of justification, too. The strength of the facts presented and how well the belief explains other things we know give a belief more justification than one that rests on just a few facts. Roderick Chisholm breaks justification into six degrees of positive belief (Certain, Obvious, Evident, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, Epistemically in the Clear, and Probable) and defines each one to show how one belief may be stronger or weaker than another.2

One Cannot Justify Science and Reason without Belief

All people have beliefs and some of those beliefs concern how one understands God, life, and the world around us. These are important beliefs, as they make up our worldview. If one's beliefs can be shown to be justified and they don't contradict one another, then that person has a coherent worldview.  Hitchens' has a problem, however. He holds that science and reason are good and beliefs are bad. Yet, one cannot have science or reason without beliefs. That means that Hitchens' worldview is contradictory; he wants to reject beliefs and uphold rationality when rationality forces one to choose whether to believe a claim or not.

Beliefs matter and they are fundamental to knowledge. To discount belief is to know nothing at all.


1. Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything New York: Twelve Books, 2007. Kindle Edition. 8.
2. Chisholm, Roderick M. Theory of Knowledge. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1989. Print. 8-17.

Monday, January 05, 2015

You Can't Be an Atheist Without a Belief

It all started with a tweet.

Yesterday, I tweeted:
The idea was to provide an example of the distinction between the terms agnostic and atheist. As I said before, this idea that one can be both an atheist and an agnostic makes no sense. Of course, not everyone who identifies as an atheist or as an agnostic believes that one can be an "agnostic atheist," but the concept has become more and more popular, even though it’s nonsense. My tweet was what I thought a simple way to demonstrate that.

Then the atheists responded.

One tweeted:
Uh, sure. But that doesn’t solve the problem. Breaking down the prefix of the words does nothing to show how an atheist can also be an agnostic. The "without" of agnosticism doesn’t mean "without a positive belief in," it means "without any beliefs for or against." It means you either don’t know or cannot know. Either way, one cannot be an atheist and hold that God does not exist.

Philosophers understand that claiming to have any kind of knowledge about a thing, you must hold to some beliefs about that thing. Using my football example, if I claim to know that  Team X will not make it to the Superbowl, that knowledge must be predicated on the belief that they will not be victorious in the conference final against Team Y, or something like that. If I have a belief it is either that they will win or they will lose. Knowledge requires that I have some kind of belief. Therefore, if one holds no beliefs, such as my neutrality regarding football playoffs, then one cannot make a claim to know about them.

Give that background, I received this response:
What followed was an extended Twitter conversation where I tried to show how knowledge requires belief. Feel free to read it. I think a lot of this confusion stems from how many "atheists on the street" mis-define knowledge and belief. They seem to confuse knowledge with facts and belief with feeling.Thus I had one atheist tell me:

That's confused. If you believe that your team will win the Conference finals, you may hold that belief based on their previous record, the analysis of the opposing team, and other factors. You may know know they will will, but you can certainly believe so, based on the facts.

Yet, some people persist in mis-defining agnosticism, atheism, knowledge, and belief. It’s why one atheist actually said:
To which I replied: "You believe that you don't have any beliefs! That's at least one."

Sunday, January 04, 2015

How We Are Created in the Image of God? (Video Clip)

There seems to be a lot of confusion people have over the biblical teaching that man is created in God's image. Some falsely believe it means that God must be a human being with a body.  However, this cannot be right as God has revealed himself as a spirit.

In this short clip, Lenny explains just what the phrase "created in God's image" means and lists several specific attributes that only humans and God share. For more on this idea, see the Come Reason article "How is Man Created in the Image of God?"

Saturday, January 03, 2015

How Modern Society Turns Virtue into Vice

Our culture today has lost the concept of virtue. As I've written before, colleges have placed feelings above values, and relativism above moral responsibility. Because the only thing now considered wrong is the critique of another's actions, the concept of virtue has nearly disappeared from Western society. We feign virtuousness by boasting of our tolerance and demand a society where no one's choices are called out as illegitimate. But that misunderstands the very nature of virtue.

In this short quote below, J. Budziszewski explains just what virtue is:
If I said, “The excellence of a knife is its sharpness,” you would know what I meant: sharpness is the specific quality that enables a knife not just to cut, but to cut excellently. Another word for excellence is virtue. So you would also know what I meant if I said the virtue of an eye is clearness or that the virtue of a racehorse is swiftness. Clearness is what enables an eye to see excellently, swiftness is what enables a racehorse to race excellently. Once again we have a formula. A virtue or excellence of a thing (there may be more than one) is the specific quality that enables it to perform its function or proper work excellently and so achieve its highest good.

Like our last formula, this one too can be applied to mankind. How do we know whether a particular human quality, such as courage or ruthlessness, is a virtue or not? The proper work of a human soul is using and following reason. So the quality is a virtue only if it helps it to do so excellently. For instance, one virtue is theoretical wisdom, the discipline of mind which helps us reason our way to truth while avoiding error; another is practical wisdom, the discipline of mind which helps us reason our way to good choices while avoiding evil.

But here we run into a problem. It looks at first as though the only true virtues are intellectual ones. What about moral virtues, such as courage, justice, self-control and friendliness? Isn't there a place for them? Yes, for two main reasons. To understand the first one, remember that more than one thing is active in the human soul: not only the power of reasoning itself but also the power of feeling and the power of desiring. … Just as the intellectual virtues discipline the thoughts, the moral virtues discipline the feelings and desires. An example of moral virtue that disciplines the feelings is courage, whereas an example of moral virtue that disciplines the desires is self-control.

To sum up, the main reason the intellectual virtues are not the only virtues is that different virtues are needed to put each of the different powers of the soul in rational order. The second main reason is that different virtues bring the soul into rational order in different respects.1
Virtue is lost in our society because we no longer look at the entire person and his purpose for existence. Modern culture has elevated feeling above reason; the action or critique is wrong because it makes someone feel bad or it stifles his desire. Instead, one must understand what it means to be an excellent human being, which encompasses both intellectual and moral excellence. To not approach human excellence holistically turns tolerance into a vice, not a virtue.


1 Budziszewski, J. Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1997. Print. 26-27.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Back to the Future and the Existence of God

We made it! It's finally 2015, that famous year Marty McFly visited in the 1989 Back to the Future sequel. For years, Internet blogs and commentators have been waiting to see the hoverboard, flying cars, and the Nike self-lacing shoes. Some of these are actually getting closer to being a reality, while others may never be seen.

I've always been interested in the way people envision the future. It actually says a lot about humanity. Sometimes, sci-fi writers get things pretty accurate; Jules Verne's submarines and Star Trek's flip phone/communicators are prime examples. But other times they get things terribly wrong. Two such predictions can be seen in Back to the Future II: flying cars and a fax machine in every room. The reason for this is not technological. Both flying vehicles and fax machines exist today. Instead, there are other considerations that come into play.

For me, there are significant parallels in the way people misunderstand the future and the way unbelievers misunderstand God. Using the flying cars and the fax machine examples from the movie, Let's briefly look at two ways people get God wrong.

People Overestimate Themselves

Let's begin with the flying car example. People have been predicting them almost as long as the Wright Brothers safely touched down at Kitty Hawk. But there are some incredible dangers that are attached to flying. First of all, safe driving requires the attention of the driver. But if you've ever commuted to work, you know that as people become more comfortable with their daily routines, they tend to over-estimate their ability and begin to drive and eat, drive and put on make-up, or drive and text.

With flying cars, however, there wouldn't be merely a single plane of traffic flowing horizontally, but there would be multiple planes where other vehicles could approach yours. Cars could merge from above, below, or diagonally. This is why we currently use air traffic controllers who watch all the planes in the sky and direct traffic. Now, imagine the millions of vehicles we use to commute all take to the skies. Who will make sure everyone is behaving appropriately in the sky? What kind of risk would a "crazy driver" place you in in the air? And, as Christopher Neiger notes, if your flying car breaks down, it will fall out of the sky and you can't drive them if the weather's bad.1

Similarly, when I talk with people about the existence of God, they over-romanticize their view of what God should or shouldn't do based on a very limited viewpoint. Some will say a God of love would never allow such and such. But God knows a whole lot more about us, our future, and our choices than we do. I don't think these pictures of God are taking into account how issues of human freedom work, the problems of all other world views,  and they underestimate the true immorality of most people.

People Underestimate the Glory of God

Another classic scene in BTTF II is when Marty McFly is fired from CusCo and fax machines all over the house relay the message. We look back and laugh at the scene now. While most folks yearn for a flying car, not really thinking through all the dangers they bring, I know of no one who is demanding a fax machine in every room! But in 1989, fax machines were still considered a great business innovation; no longer did you have to wait for documents to be sent via mail, but they could be instantly transported to anywhere as long as the recipient had a machine of his own. It would be natural that such technology would extend to the home environment.

Then the Internet happened.

With email and scanners, fax machines are redundant. Add to that laptop computers, wireless connectivity, and the ability to go online via your mobile phone, and fax technology is pretty much obsolete. It is actually a hassle for most people to retrieve a fax unless they sign up for a service that delivers it to their email account. But, we can't blame the script writers of BTTF II for not predicting the online explosion that we've experienced in the last 15 years. The underlying communications structure of the Internet, TCP/IP, was only beginning to be established in the late 80s2, and the Tim Berners-Lee wouldn't invent the language of the World Wide Web for another year.3

I believe many people suffer from the same problem with believing in God. In his book, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, Paul Vitz offers the "Defective Father Theory" and provides many examples of notable atheists throughout history who had such difficult relationships with their father than partially caused them to see God in a similar light.4 Other people cannot grasp how one can be happy and still live without whatever specific vice they desire to hold on to. Still more cannot see that the world to come will be much more glorious than anything we can envision today. Their view of heaven is just a bigger version of the world they now experience; they see a fax machine heaven instead of an Internet one.

As we jump into 2015. I pray that you would be open to God's leading in your life. Don't underestimate His love for you nor overestimate your need for Him. Perhaps this year won't take you where you anticipated. That's OK. It may very well be that God has a much better plan for your life than you can foresee. And you may be able to use these ideas to share God's love with others. While movies like Back to the Future are fun, they really do offer a way to open conversations about issues of eternal consequence.


1. Neiger, Christopher.  "Top 5 Reasons You Don\u0027t Want a Flying Car"  03 October 2011. Web. 02 January 2015.
2. Stewart, William. "TCP/IP Internet Protocol." Living Internet. William Stewart, 1996. Web. 02 Jan. 2015. .
W3C. "Tim Berners-Lee." W3C. W3 Consortium, 10 Sept. 2014. Web. 02 Jan. 2015.
4 Vitz, Paul C. Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism. Dallas: Spence Pub., 1999. Print.
Image courtesy Ewen Roberts and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
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