- Religion and Philosophy»
- Atheism & Agnosticism
Is Your Faith Falsifiable? What Would Make You Wrong?
Faith and Falsifiability
As an atheist, I get asked a lot of questions. One of the most common questions is "what would it take to make you change your mind and become a believer (again)?" My answer has changed over the years. If I want to answer honestly, which I do, I would have to say that, as of now, my answer is that I don't know. There is no shame in admitting that you don't know something, and I am comfortable in my ignorance on what would cause my perception to shift and re-embrace a religion I left behind long ago. I will say, however, that if the god of the bible were true (or practically any other monotheistic deity) and that god is omnipotent, that god would know what would change my mind. As of yet, that potential deity has failed to do so. I have encountered no evidence to convince me in the existence of the christian god - or any other god.
Flip the Script:
While I am uncertain what would cause a resurgence of faith in my life, I wanted to take the opportunity to put the shoe on the other foot and ask believers the same question. What would make you start to seriously question your faith? What would make you start doubting its validity? What would make you stop believing entirely? What would it take to make you pack your bags and move away from a religion, a theology or a belief in your particular god entirely - without a backwards glance?
Most of the times I have asked that question, I have received a somewhat surprising answer. A large majority of the time, believers have told me that nothing would be possible to make them rethink their faith. They're determined to believe in their god regardless of any evidence to the contrary - and their faith is truly (at least to them) unfalsifiable. In the realm of science, this would be unheard of. In matters of religion, however, it seems nearly commonplace. If a believer's faith is truly unfalsifiable, to me that means that they don't care if their beliefs are true or false. They're determined to believe because it makes them feel better about themselves, their lives or their particular life circumstances.
Is Your Faith Falsifiable?
The Principle of Falsifiability:
In order for something to be falsifiable, you need to know what it would take to make your statement, claim or hypothesis wrong. Religious people particularly seem to negate the importance of falsifiability on a regular basis. They don't seem to understand why falsifiability is critical to any claim in almost any realm - and religion is not immune from criticism, skepticism or critical thinking.
Scientifically speaking, falsifiability is almost more important than confirmation. You need to know what would prove your theory wrong. You need to know how to test your theory in order to come to a conclusion. You need to be able to examine the principles and theories involved impartially in order to come to an understanding of the principle or theory as a whole.
The Basis of Christian Theism:
For believers who have actually attempted to answer the problem of falsifiability, their belief in their god usually rests on one (or all) of the following:
a) the bible
b) the person of Jesus Christ
c) personal experience.
When confronted with criticism on any (or all) of these points, they usually react in a manner similar to sticking their fingers in their ears and refusing to listen at all - or they start the mad apologist scramble to try to rationalize, justify or prove their already-established beliefs. For the most part, theists are not interested in evidence - at least not in the realm that skeptics are. What may constitute evidence to a believer would not be considered evidence by any other criteria. In the interest of brevity (because I really could go on forever on any of these subjects) I'll briefly touch on the three points listed above - and explain my reasons for disregarding these as proofs of the god of the bible - or any other deity.
It's true - I cannot prove with absolute certainty that Jesus didn't exist. Likewise, however, no theist or christian can prove with any certainty at all that he did. I have no problem in acknowledging that a person (or collection of people) may have existed in first-century Judea who ultimately contributed to the life of the figure we've come to recognize as Jesus Christ. There is no proof of him, however - and the biblical accounts are not corroborated by ANY contemporary historical sources. Should they be? Absolutely. In his book "Nailed", author David Fitzgerald goes into great detail about contemporary historians, mythologists and writers who would have taken great interest in a person of Jesus' caliper. They don't. Apologists claim that Jesus was relatively unknown throughout his lifetime -but then turn around and claim that he changed the world. You can't have it both ways. He was either worthy of note (in which case it should have been noted) or he was insignificant. The other possibility, of course, is that he never existed at all and the legend surrounding the story of Jesus was a story that was expanded, adapted from earlier pagan traditions and changed to suit the needs of a pseudo-Jewish cult.
These experiences are the hardest to debunk - nor do I think anyone should try to. Most Christians who claim to have undergone a personal religious experience freely admit that their experiences are personal. They're not testable. They're not able to be duplicated. They cannot be offered as proof that is sufficient for any other person. These believers often do not look for alternate explanations, either. They credit god for a "miracle" in their lives - and they're simply uninterested in exploring other options. It's sufficient for them to confirm a faith that they already have - or a faith that they already are predisposed to - or want to be true.
Christians are divided on the issue of the Bible. I was raised southern-baptist, which means that I was emphatically taught that the bible was the word of the only god, and as such it was above reproach or question. I was taught early on to not question what I was told, and never, under any circumstance was I to question what the bible said. I got in trouble for asking questions in school, in church and at home. When I'd ask my mother difficult questions, I would commonly get the answer that "gods ways are not our ways. We're not meant to understand, we're meant to obey - and all questions will be answered in the end". That answer was simply not satisfying to me - not even as a child. It was the theist equivalent to "because I said so". Not all Christians were raised the way that I was, however. Some denominations believe that the bible is simply inspired by god, but written by men. Some denominations believe that the bible should be taken literally, while others insist on a figurative approach. Firstly, I would like to point out that, if the bible is the word of god in any sense, god is a horrid writer/inspirer/director. You'd think that an almighty, all powerful all knowing god would know how to dictate words that could transcend millenniums, cultures and languages. On that level, the bible fails.
The subject of biblical prophecy will be addressed in it's own separate hub that is currently in-progress. For those that like to point out the validity of the bible based solely on "fulfilled" prophecy, however, there are a few points that knock that argument out of the water. In order for a prophecy to be considered valid, it has to meet certain criteria.
1) It has to be specific. The large majority of biblical prophecy is anything but. By specific, I mean that a prophecy has to be fulfill-able by one event at one time in order to be distinguishable. The majority of biblical prophecies have been interpreted, re-interpreted and reestablished for over two thousand years. This means that they are unspecific enough that even believers cannot determine what they mean - and if you don't know what a prophecy means, how can you possibly be justified in saying that it's come true.
2) A prophecy also has to be unique and not a common occurrence. For example, I could say right here and now "I prophecy that the sun will come up tomorrow". Would anyone consider that prophecy? Possibly. Realistically speaking, however, that is not prophecy at all. The sun comes up every day. Is there a possibility that someday it won't? Of course. But the likelihood of that occurring is extraordinarily rare. If I said instead that "I predict the sun will NOT come up tomorrow" and it DOESN'T, that could be considered a prophecy.
3) A prophecy cannot be intentionally self-fulfilled. This goes hand-in-hand with the fact that it cannot be widely publicized. If a lot of people with the correct amount of power know of a certain prophecy, it is possible for them to force it to come about. Can that really be a miraculous fulfillment of prophecy? No. Likewise, if an individual knows about a prophecy ahead of time and then actively strives to make it come true, that is not a valid fulfillment of prophecy either. The gospel writers (matthew especially) is obsessed with old-testament prophecy. Almost every chapter in the gospel contains references to old-testament prophecies and are highlighted with the phrase "this was in order to fulfill the prophecy". Since Matthew was written long AFTER the old testament, and it's clear that matthew was familiar with the prophecies of the old testament, it makes sense to determine that matthew wrote his gospel AROUND these prophecies - in order to make it seem like they had been fulfilled. Unfortunately, however, there is no way to determine if they actually happened - or if they were just creative license from an anonymous gospel writer desperate to validate his account of events - that may or may not have taken place at all.
Additionally to this point, it's interesting to point out that the reason that the majority of jews do not accept jesus christ as the messiah is because they have an entirely different list of messianic prophecy than the christians do. This is interesting because early church leaders were known to pour over the old testament and contemporary historical sources to try to validate their beliefs in their savior. They found obscure passages that sounded similar to what they believed to be the life-story of their savior. They invented prophecies out of things that were never to be meant to be prophetic at all. They falsified and forged historical documents to point to contemporary sources that mentioned jesus. These facts are well-known and mentioned by dozens of credentialed biblical scholars - religious and secular alike.
I don't know what it would take for me to rethink my stoic skepticism and reexamine a case for the god of the bible or zeus or krishna. If I begin to believe again, however improbable that may be, I want it to be because I have undeniable proof that what I believe in is true - and I want to be able to be proud of that faith because I have examined all of the evidence for it - and against it - and reached the conclusion that my belief is ultimately justified, whether anyone else accepts it or not.