Sunday, January 28, 2018

What Is a Hyper-Skeptic?

The Christian blog run by apologist Bill Pratt is called Tough Questions Answered.  This blog appears to consist mainly of discussion and commentary about biblical matters - how to understand or interpret various biblical stories and passages, reconciliation of apparent discrepancies, etc.  While it's not unusual for sites like this to contain all manner of hare-brained religious apologia, I don't usually get too excited about such things.  But it also includes some articles that relate to science and skepticism.  And that tends to get my attention.  I like to see if the apologist takes an even-handed view of things that are based on facts and evidence.  One of his articles that might help me to answer that question is called You Might Be a Hyper-Skeptic of Christianity If ...  Pratt introduces it by noting that not all skeptics are alike.  A skeptic can be fair-minded, or he can be what Pratt calls a hyper-skeptic, "someone who will not ever consider any evidences, arguments, or reasoning given for Christianity". 

Fair enough.  As this discussion begins, Pratt sounds quite reasonable.  I wouldn't enjoy discussing some issue with a person who refuses to consider evidence.  But I would note that there are different meanings to the word 'skeptic'.  The one that he seems to be using is "a person who doubts the truth of Christianity and other religions; an atheist or agnostic."  When I first coined my own handle for commenting on the internet, this is exactly what I had in mind.  Another common usage of the term, especially in recent years, is "Someone who habitually doubts beliefs and claims presented as accepted by others, requiring strong evidence before accepting any belief or claim."  This latter definition is not specifically about religious matters, but covers all kinds of beliefs, and it might be considered a worldview.  It might be reasonable for a Christian apologist to call himself a skeptic in the latter sense of the word, especially if he wants to claim that his belief is based on solid evidence.  And it would strengthen his case against skeptics of Christianity if he could present that evidence in a convincing way.  But I don't think that's what Pratt is trying to do.  He wants to warn any "fair-minded" skeptics of Christianity against adopting the attitudes of the hyper-skeptic.  And he gives us a number of indications or signs to watch for.  You might be a hyper-skeptic if ...

You don’t need to read anything actually written by Christian scholars, because you are just smarter than they are (and you’ve heard it all before).
I agree wholeheartedly.  A skeptic needs to have some understanding of what it is that he doesn't accept.  But I would add that it is not necessary to read everything that has been written.  Of course, this goes both ways.  In cases where religious belief contradicts scientific knowledge, for example, the religionist would be well-advised to become familiar with what scientists have to say, and not just what their fellow apologists say.

You think it’s doubtful that Jesus ever lived.
I can't accept this one.  There is plenty of scholarly support for both sides of the issue.  Many objective scholars are far from certain that the historical Jesus existed, but they lean toward the truth of that claim.  Others lean against it.  Neither of these positions is unreasonable, based on the evidence and research available today.  To dismiss the doubters is an indication of unyielding religious faith.  (dare I say hyper-religionism?)

You believe that Christian apologists are lying most of the time.
Again, I agree with Pratt on this.  One should at least listen to what they say before judging whether it is true.

You actually think that the evidence for a flying spaghetti monster is as good as the evidence for the Christian God.
This might fall into a gray area, depending on your perspective.  People who make this claim are usually speaking from a strictly scientific perspective.  And I think it's true that scientific evidence for the FSM is identical to scientific evidence for God.  Especially if you consider what evidence really is.  There is also much written material (both scholarly and otherwise), many stories and many arguments about God.  There are subjective feelings that theists find convincing.  If one regards these latter things as evidence, then it is understandable that he would think the science-oriented skeptic is being unreasonable in rejecting those things.  But it is not unreasonable to adopt a stricter understanding of what constitutes evidence.

When you read a blog post written by a Christian, you aren’t reading for understanding; you’re reading to find isolated phrases or sentences that you can attack.
I can't disagree with that.  A skeptic should certainly try to understand what others have to say.  Unfortunately, cherry-picking is something we see very often, and religionists are certainly no better.  I'd say it is more indicative of tribalism.

You believe that Antony Flew renounced atheism only because of old age and senility.
I know it's difficult for a theist to accept that this might be the case, but we've seen it before.  As with Jean Paul Sartre and Charles Darwin, Christians sometimes try to put their words in the mouth of a famous atheist, to make it seem as if these atheists had converted before their death.  I'm not saying that this was definitely the case with Flew, but I do think that there is good reason to suspect that his book might have had a Christian ghost-writer, or at least that someone was whispering things in Flew's ear.  His book never presents any actual reason for changing his mind, and that's something I expected to see.

You don’t understand theology or metaphysics, but you’re certain it’s just a bunch of made-up mumbo-jumbo.
I would agree with this if it is actually the case that one's judgment is based on ignorance of the theistic position.  On the other hand, it is entirely possible to have a reasonable understanding of theology and metaphysics, and still think that it’s just a bunch of made-up mumbo-jumbo.

You almost never agree with anything a Christian apologist writes, even on the most uncontroversial subjects.
There are certain Christian apologists that I rarely if ever agree with.  Sometimes they can be quite unreasonable.  This is more a function of their claims and their attitudes than of mine.  This does not apply to apologists in general, who often say things I can agree with.

You believe that if you ever publicly agree with a Christian, you are contributing to the downfall of civilization.
And once again we find ourselves on common ground.  It is unreasonable to take a posture of disagreement based on who someone is rather than what they have to say.

You are 100% certain that people cannot rise from the dead, and no amount of historical evidence would ever be convincing.
I am as close to 100% certain as one could reasonably be, based on scientific knowledge, as well as historical information.  Note that there may be considerable disagreement as to what constitutes historical evidence.  Unlike the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus as a real person, there is little room for doubt in this case.  Aside from the stories in the bible, there is no independent historical corroboration of any kind for the resurrection.  Most atheists agree, whether they are hyper-skeptical or not, that it is unreasonable to think the resurrection ever happened.  But that is based on evidence - not some imagined refusal to look at the evidence.

You think that the strength of the historical evidence supporting the stories in the Book of Mormon is roughly equivalent to the strength of the historical evidence supporting the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.
Here we see the selective skepticism of the Christian.  Pratt can take a skeptical view of the religious scriptures of another religion, but can't muster the same level of skepticism when it comes to his own.  For an atheist to take an even-handed view of both is not at all unreasonable.

You think that The God Delusion is a tour de force that annihilates all of the best Christian arguments for God.
I have to agree with Pratt on this.  When it comes to providing formal philosophical arguments against God, this book is no tour de force.  On the other hand it does provide a powerful message that religionists like Pratt may refuse to acknowledge.

You think that the Bible contains nothing of value.
Agreed.  It's just a question of how much of the bible's content is worth listening to.

So Pratt and I seem to be in agreement on some of these issues, and not on others.  This points out that there are differences on what we think is a reasonable position for a skeptic to hold.  Pratt would probably call me a hyper-skeptic based on the fact that I fit several of the criteria he lays out in this article.  On the other hand, the mere fact that he considers some of these things to be hyper-skeptical is a clear indication that he is closed to evidence and reason.  For example, to doubt the historicity of Jesus (not to absolutely deny it) shows healthy and reasonable skepticism, and a willingness (not a refusal) to look at evidence.  Christians who don't see this are not taking a reasonable view, but simply basing their beliefs on faith without regard to evidence.  They are the ones who should be viewed with a suspicious eye as to whether they are capable of looking at evidence objectively.  Pratt claims to agree that general skepticism is healthy, but when it comes to his religion, he shows little sign of it.  Does that make him a hyper-religionist?

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