Why is Christian Belief Important?

fear-is-a-liarFor as often as I’ve heard that Christian belief is so important, I’ve seen very little high-level discussion about why it’s so important.

By “the claims of Christianity” I mean: The central and unique truth claims–literally understood–of historic mainstream Christianity. The physical resurrection of Jesus, for example, as well as the incarnation, atonement, Trinity, and so forth.

It’s often claimed that theism is necessary for meaning, purpose, morality, etc, and although I think it turns out that theism can’t actually help with these existential questions, nevertheless I understand these concerns and I can sympathize with the (mistaken) belief that theism is therefore existentially important. The “claims of Christianity” I have in mind here, by contrast, don’t appear to have this sort of existential weight. Is there any straightforward way in which morality can be seen to hang crucially on whether the godhead consists of three persons rather than one or four? Or in which purpose hinges critically on whether Jesus’ body walked literally out of a tomb? Yet an incredible amount of physical and digital ink has been spent in order to argue not only that these claims are true, but further, that it’s vastly important that these claims are believed. So why is it that these beliefs are so important?

The obvious first stop is that many (most?) traditionalist Christians consider these beliefs–shall we say, minimally–important if one is to be saved/go to heaven/avoid hell. Many of these Christians don’t hesitate to spell this out in very blunt (let me just say it: very crude) terms, even sharp intellectuals like John Piper. And although many others hold more nuanced inclusivist views here (according to which those who don’t believe these claims might still be saved), nevertheless these beliefs are still often considered very important, and cognitively high functioning adults who knowingly disbelieve these claims are quite likely walking a dangerous line. It’s hard to put a finger exactly on it because there’s quite a wide diversity of opinion here, but the common thread seems to be that these beliefs are very important soteriologically. That heaven and hell might just hang precariously in the balance.

And I’m not going to spend my time here. At risk of sounding dismissive to some of my audience (and perhaps ignorant and arrogant), I just can’t take these kinds of concerns seriously anymore, or the kind of bizarre and miserable god who lurks behind them. Among the most assured of truths is this one: No one risks suffering eternal (or even temporary) anguish or death for disbelieving the claims of Christianity. And though there’s a time and place for a more careful and pastoral discussion of these concerns, this isn’t that time or place.

More interestingly, some Christians might hold that although these claims are true, what’s most important for us is to partner with God in order to build God’s kingdom. Working tangibly, physically, in order to push back against violence, oppression, hunger, disease, hatred, sorrow, and even death–to bring “heaven” that much closer to earth, or vice versa. On this kind of view, these purported truths provide an account of some of the deep ontological mechanisms God has employed in order to usher in the divine plan, and as one partners ever more closely with God one presumably becomes more aware of and confident in these truths. However, God isn’t concerned with the beliefs themselves, and so proselytizing for these beliefs is, at least generally, to put the cart before the horse. In other words: atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, everyone–come just as you are and partner tangibly with God (whether you think of it that way or not) in order to build God’s kingdom; presumably these insights will eventually follow for you but that’s not really the concern here and now, neither for us nor for God.

As a formerly conservative Protestant, I can see how this type of perspective smacks of a works righteousness which is thought to be a rejection of Christianity. However I think that’s to superficially mischaracterize a holistic view which still affirms the central role of divine grace. In any event, I don’t know how many Christians hold this kind of perspective, although I can say that it was my own perspective. Briefly. And I think it probably tends to be a fairly brief landing spot, as it was for me, because it removes the urgency of believing these Christian claims. If one’s focus is to be firmly on partnering tangibly with God, and belief itself in these claims does not have any direct soteriological bearing, then these beliefs are disentangled from the fear which often supports them, and so they tend to recede increasingly into the background.

In my own case I came to a point at which I still tentatively believed these claims, but I couldn’t see any longer why it was so important to believe them. For example, claims about a literal Trinity became a remote intellectual curiosity, the truth of which would presumably become more apparent to me eventually. But I couldn’t any longer see how belief in the Trinity affected my day to day walk with God, other than perhaps to serve as a distraction to worry about. So at this point I became much more willing to hold Trinitarian claims quite tentatively and expose them openly to critical inquiry. And it wasn’t very much longer before I came to realize that these claims almost certainly aren’t true, and so I stopped grasping at them altogether.

But might I be missing something? Again, I don’t take seriously the concern that these beliefs carry direct heaven and hell importance. But might there be something else about these beliefs which does carry a great deal of importance? Are there important actions or consequences which follow from accepting these claims? I pose that question in a spirit of genuine interest. Why is it so very important not only that these claims are true, but further, that they are believed?

For a while I’ve followed the work of Randal Rauser, who defends a traditionally orthodox Christian perspective (physical resurrection, literal incarnation & atonement, etc), though one which is fairly progressive and toward the inclusivist end of that spectrum. He’s certainly not the type to offer blunt heaven and hell belief requirements such as those provided by John Piper, as I referenced above. But clearly he considers his core Christian beliefs to be very important. And since he engages very actively with his blog readers and commenters, I posed this question to him a while ago in a relevant thread (in which he had described losing one’s Christian beliefs as a “tragic” development), and I’d like to share and explore the discussion that followed.

I began by noting that I understand, of course, that he believes that the central orthodox Christian claims are true, and so I understand that his Christian beliefs are important to him, in at least the same way that true beliefs generally are important. But I was curious about his description of losing one’s Christian faith as “tragic,” an emotionally charged term which seems to imply something much more. His response:

Jones accepts Darwinian evolution. Jones then hears Ken Ham and as a result he comes to reject Darwinian evolution in favor of young earth creationism. I think that’s a tragedy. Whenever people reject beliefs that are true and important, that can be described as tragic, and as a Christian I obviously believe Christian beliefs are both true and important.

I replied that I agree that Darwinian evolution is true, and that it’s an important belief because a number of significant consequences often follow from one’s acceptance or rejection of it. But would rejecting it be “tragic”? That seems a stretch to me. More to the point: Would it be a tragedy that’s directly comparable, in Rauser’s opinion, to that of losing one’s Christian faith? So as tragedies go, both comparatively minor? Or, would he consider Christian belief more important, and its loss a greater tragedy? And if so, why? He replied:

If God exists, he is the origin, sustaining ground and end of all things. It follows that it is important to have true beliefs about God.

I’m actually not sure that follows. But rather than contest that very broad point, I asked him to keep the discussion specific: “What is it about the non-Trinitarian’s state that renders it as ‘tragic’ compared with the Trinitarian’s?” He then asked whether I think it’s important to know my wife’s ethnicity. I agreed that this is important knowledge, because it very tangibly and significantly impacts our lives and the lives of those around us. So then, I asked, how might Trinitarian belief tangibly and significantly impact my life and the lives of those around me? What might follow from my belief in Trinitarianism? His reply:

Jeff, are you seriously only interested in knowing what your wife’s ethnicity is because of the “consequences” that follow from that knowledge? Do you have no desire to know her simply because you love her, and when you love someone you want to know more about them?

That seems like a nice sentiment, but actually yes, my interest in my wife’s ethnicity is indeed directly proportional to the perceived consequences that follow. As I said to Rauser, there are an infinite number of questions that I could pursue. An infinite number of questions about my wife. An infinite number of questions about the ostensible divine nature. It should go without saying that I’m a finite being with limited time, limited energy, limited resources, limited intelligence, limited knowledge, and limited perspective. So of course I and those around me are best loved and served if I invest my limited intellectual resources in proportion to perceived consequences.  His reply:

You think this is how relationships work? You view conversations and social interactions as means to glean the most pragmatically useful information about the other party?

Can you hear me laughing?

Whatever. But at least understand that I don’t think of relationships like that. If I care about people I want to know more about them, whether they’re human or divine. That’s it. It ain’t rocket science.

Ah Randal, ever the delicate one. I responded in my own delicate way by asking whether he could hear me rolling my eyes. Again, this all sounds like a nice sentiment and I can see what’s driving it. Of course healthy relationships aren’t about coldly and calculatingly gleaning information from the other. Of course there’s a spontaneity and playfulness to healthy interactions, and our emotional and intellectual curiosity takes our interactions (and our intellectual explorations more generally) along meandering paths that don’t always have immediately obvious destinations. But we certainly do have an eye to the tangible consequences that follow from our social and intellectual explorations, at least to some extent, whether or not we’re consciously thinking of it that way. Homo sapiens would have long since disappeared if we humans paid no heed to the perceived practical consequences of our various pursuits. And if, upon close inspection, we can’t identify any tangible consequences which would follow from belief in Christian claims, then we would do far better to invest our limited time and resources in pursuits which have far greater perceived practical importance.

At this point I was losing my patience with the conversation. Rauser had offered no particular reason to think that Christian beliefs are important. No particular reason to think that failing to believe them is a genuine tragedy, or that there’s any particular reason to devote precious intellectual energy toward them (other than perhaps to try to persuade the countless Christians out there that we’d all be far better served if the tremendous energy diverted toward them were directed instead toward much more fruitful pursuits). And as a prolific apologist who devotes a huge share of his intellectual energy toward defending and advocating for Christian belief, I would expect a fairly straightforward response. If he can’t identify a relatively clear reason for thinking that Christian belief is important, then why advocate so actively for it?

But then another commenter asked this excellent question: “Was it tragic that [the pre-Christian Israelites] didn’t know that God was triune?” Which prompted Rauser’s reply: “The serenity prayer provides your answer.” So I asked for elaboration, and he said:

Niebuhr’s serenity prayer focuses on changing what you can, accepting what you can’t, and seeking the wisdom to know the difference. (Surely you must own a coffee mug or wall plaque with the serenity prayer. Everyone does.)

In the present case, if something is not yet revealed to you about a person, you can’t be held culpable for not knowing it. That’s the serene acceptance of your current epistemic state. And that applies to the ancient Israelites.

I certainly knew what the serenity prayer is, but it wasn’t clear to me why Rauser thought it relevant. But in light of his curious response, I asked him what it might mean to be “held culpable” for rejecting Trinitarian belief, and how that might relate to such a rejection constituting a “tragedy.” His reply:

You’re responsible for knowledge you possess and culpable if you fail to act properly in light of the knowledge you possess.

You can’t be held responsible for information you were never given.

I said:

“Held responsible”…by God? What might it look like to be held responsible by God for having wrong beliefs about him? And you mention “act[ing] properly.” So what morally significant actions follow from an acceptance of or rejection of Trinitarian belief?

He responded:

Ask God. As for your second question, we’re back to your reductionistic pragmatism. We’ve already covered that ground.

I replied:

Randal, that’s no response. You’re claiming that it’s very important that I accept Trinitarian belief and a tragedy that I reject it, that I’ll be held culpable for rejecting it and failing to “act properly in light of” it (I’m not sure why you’re throwing the (silly) charge of reductive pragmatism at me when you’re the one who brought up right action in the first place here).

These are very serious warnings and I can’t believe you’d simply shrug your shoulders when pressed for some small clarification.

At this point he broke off the discussion, with a parting suggestion that “it is enough to say that truth is important in and of itself.” But that rings hollow. A trivial truth is only trivially important, especially when there are vastly important truths and pursuits which deserve our attention instead.

Several times throughout the conversation, Rauser objected to my suggestions that soteriological concerns might be at play. He seemed anxious to avoid that topic, perhaps because on some level he recognizes the absurdity of such concerns, and the false and destructive picture of the world that they paint? But I don’t know how else to plausibly interpret his mentions of “tragedy” and of being “held culpable” and “held responsible” by God, other than in terms of these concerns. Of course that might not be the only thing, or even necessarily the primary thing, driving his interest in Christian claims. But so far as I can tell, he hasn’t offered any plausible alternatives.

And of course he’s simply one voice among many. Perhaps Christian beliefs actually are quite important. But I still see no reason to think so, and instead I see yet more evidence for my suspicion that an unhealthy and misplaced fear is what tends to support these beliefs and vastly inflate their perceived importance, even amongst very sharp and well studied Christian thinkers with nuanced, inclusivist views. I can’t do much better in closing than to quote (and perhaps to appropriate in my own way) the words of one of Christianity’s most revered prophets:

“God is love… There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

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  • labreuer 8.15.15 at 6:27 pm

    And if, upon close inspection, we can’t identify any tangible consequences which would follow from belief in Christian claims, then we would do far better to invest our limited time and resources in pursuits which have far greater perceived practical importance.

    How far and wide have you looked for said “tangible consequences”? For example, from Steven D. Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse:

        Pojman examines ten leading secular arguments [for equal worth of all humans] advanced by theorists such as Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls, Kai Nielsen, Joel Feinberg, Thomas Nagel, and Alan Gewirth, and he finds all of these arguments wanting. Sometimes the arguments turn on demonstrable fallacies or on flagrant and unsupported discursive leaps; more often they do not actually offer any justification for equal worth at all but instead simply assert or assume it, or else posit that in the absence of any persuasive objection we should adopt a “presumption” of equal worth.[85] Pojman concludes that egalitarian commitments are “simply a leftover from a religious worldview now rejected by all of the philosophers discussed in this essay.”[86] Secular egalitarians are free riders, living off an inheritance they view with disdain. And he wonders whether “perhaps we should abandon egalitarianism and devise political philosophies that reflect naturalistic assumptions, theories which are forthright in viewing human as differentially talented animals who must get on together.”[87]

    This indicates that some very “tangible consequences” may have arisen from Christian beliefs. For more details, one can see Pojman’s essay in Equality: Selected Readings, as well as Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs. We can also ask whether the idea of “rights” was pursued under the rubric of “perceived practical importance”, or something closer to “idealism”. What if the latter is the case?

    • Jeff Kesterson 8.17.15 at 2:15 pm

      Luke, thanks for stopping by and interacting!

      I happen to disagree that there’s any unique problem faced by secular ethical discourse that theistic ethics avoids. But in any event, that’s not really the point I’m making here. The comparison wouldn’t be between Christian ethical discourse and secular, but rather between Christian and, say, orthodox Jewish ethical discourse. In other words, theism isn’t the issue here, but rather the unique doctrines of Christianity which differentiates it from other theistic systems. What advantages for ethical discourse does Trinitarian theistic belief carry over and against non-Trinitarian theistic belief, for example?

      • labreuer 8.17.15 at 3:50 pm

        As to Pojman’s claim, it is ostensibly empirically testable, although that would be a major undertaking. The test would be what rationalizations are ‘psychologically tenable’ and ‘socially enforceable’. For example, if the removal of religious grounding results in erosion, that erosion may be detectable. The best way to do this would be via making predictions; two examples: (1) Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s introduction to the 40th anniversary of Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic; (2) Alasdair MacIntyre’s comments in the preface to the third edition of his After Virtue.

        Putting the above aside, I suggest two books by Alistair McFadyen on how specifically Christian doctrines can be important for empirical reality: The Call to Personhood and Bound to Sin. The former talks about what a ‘person’ is, and argues that a non-Trinitarian definition results in ‘person’ being antecedent to ‘relationship’. In contrast, the Trinity allows for a situation where ‘person’ and ‘relationship’ are co-defining; neither is logically antecedent to the other. McFadyen argues that giving either ‘person’ or ‘relationship’ primacy results in bad consequences empirically; in writing the book he draws upon experience as a nurse at a psychiatric hospital. I can elaborate, if you’d like.

        Another book, recommended to me by Randal Rauser, is his Doktorvater Colin E. Gunton’s The One, the Three and the Many. This book is about the philosophical problem of the many (or problem of the one and the many), and how it manifests in culture as cycles of unity-that-squashes-diversity, and diversity-which-sunders-unity. The tension between unity and diversity is a very difficult one, with hugely practical consequences in the ethical domain, and Gunton claims that the Trinity provides a key to getting it right. Note that it was Gunton who turned me onto McFadyen. Also note that Randal rejects Gunton’s argument. I disagree with Randal. :-)

        • Jeff Kesterson 8.17.15 at 9:40 pm

          Thanks Luke–good food for thought.

          I wonder how a Muslim might respond to a similar question about Islamic doctrine. Or how an orthodox Jew might respond. I’m guessing their responses would be very similar in form to your response here, though different of course in specific content.

          I suppose I’d be most interested in how these unique beliefs correspond empirically with desirable behavior, which is a point you raise here, much to your credit. I would certainly be surprised to learn of careful and rigorously controlled research turning up any statistically significant effects.

  • Mike D 10.20.15 at 2:46 am

    And as a prolific apologist who devotes a huge share of his intellectual energy toward defending and advocating for Christian belief, I would expect a fairly straightforward response.

    I assumed that about Randal as well, but the guy is a moving target and reliably responds to pressure with red herrings, as he obviously did with you here. I’m not even sure if he believes that any particular orthodoxy is essential to Christianity.

    • Jeff Kesterson 10.21.15 at 2:44 pm

      Yeah, as you know all too well, it can be incredibly difficult to get a straight answer from Randal when he’s feeling pressure. A habit of his which starts to reflect more poorly on him than if he were simply to offer up a generic, “Good question, I don’t really know how to answer that, I gotta keep thinking about it.”

      About orthodoxy, he certainly casts the net wider than most evangelicals, but another habit of his is to be incredibly dismissive and condescending toward non-literalist Christians of the Bultmann variety. So he definitely seems to think that the so-called core of orthodox Christianity is important (eg, physical resurrection, literal Trinity, literal atonement, etc), apparently because he believes that to reject these claims is to flirt with the very real possibility of inviting divine eternal wrath onto oneself.

      • labreuer 10.21.15 at 4:48 pm

        Just to offer a different perspective, I think that you and Mike D exhibit your own “conversational pathologies”, which perhaps complement and even reinforce the “conversational pathology” you have identified in Randal.

        First, some motivation for the idea that there really is a serious problem, warranting the label of “conversational pathology”. I’ve spent over ten thousand hours talking to atheists online, perhaps too many of those hours engaged in meta-discussion or even meta-meta-discussion. There are a tremendous number of ways these conversations break down, which in my experience results in what I call “infinite loops”: treading the same topic material over, and over, and over again. I suspect this problem is related to the following assessment of the state of public discourse in the United States:

            Ronald Dworkin’s assessment [of the state of public discourse in the US] is, if possible, even gloomier. Dworkin deplores “the lack of any decent argument in American political life.”[3] [M]ost people,” he laments, “now have no interest in discussion or debate with those they regard as belonging to an entirely alien religious or political culture.”[4] Nor is it only ordinary folks (a word I use with apologies to Jacoby, who cringes at the term[5]) who have lost interest in serious deliberation or debate, Dworkin declares. “[T]he news is not much better when we look … to the contributions of public intellectuals and other commentators. Intellectuals on each side set out their own convictions,” but rarely they make any effort to engage in “genuine argument.”[6] (The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, 3–4)

        The book being cited is Dworkin’s Is Democracy Possible Here?; immediately before, Smith references Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason. Wikipedia describes (with citation) Dworkin as “the second most-cited American legal scholar of the twentieth century.” So I’m inclined to think that he is onto something. We have a serious problem in being able to successfully communicate with one another.

        Are you interested in actually characterizing these “conversational pathologies”, with ample evidence and not just generalizations off of one or two concrete instances? Single exemplars are fine, but to identify a strong pattern, one must have an N >> 1.

        To produce the beginning of such a “strong pattern” with Mike D, see: my question on causation, my question on his “the universe is not an empirical object”, my criticism of his stance on analogy, and my criticism of his stance on metaphysics. These all get at core aspects of Mike D’s complaint against A–T metaphysics, and he responded to none of them! It is as if he prefers to hold onto what seem like fallacious ways of thinking, although I am open to the error being shared or even mostly mine.

        Now, Mike D has had some complaints about me; for example, I sometimes write long and rambly comments, where not all the bits and pieces are clearly related to the topic at hand. However, he also engages in such behavior, so I suspect some log-speck issues are at play. To prove that I have successfully understood him in the past, we have his “big complaint”, my response, and the following reply from him:

        MD: It’s late and I really need to hit the sack, so I’ll offer a reply to this in earnest tomorrow. I just wanted to say thank you.

        You could have easily been antagonistic and dismissive of my post, as I’m sure others will be. Instead you showed a lot of patience and saw that I’m not being deliberately provocative or antagonistic but am expressing some longstanding and sincerely-held frustration, and you asked some thoughtful questions and comments.

        However, apparently this kind of successful attempt to understand Mike D’s viewpoint wasn’t enough for him. I have exhausted his patience. And yet, I predict that this exhausting of his patience will be seen as 100% my fault, whereas his exhausting of Randal’s patience (resulting in Randal banning him) will be seen as 100% Randal’s fault. Those numbers can probably be 95% and still result in what I’m calling a “conversational pathology”. I find it very common for the participants in a rocky dialogue to attribute the vast majority of the problem to their interlocutors. I think precisely this behavior is a key causal factor in the collapse of public discourse which I described, above.

        My guess is that you and Mike D vastly underestimate how much effort it takes to maintain successful dialogue with people who look at the world very differently from you. If the effort you allot to an attempt is insufficient, how often do you lay the blame for failure [mostly] at the other’s feet? Such behavior seems common in politics, frequently with ‘the other’ being dismissed as intellectually defective and/or morally defective. This only seems to exacerbate the problem, causing increasing disunity and all the problems which result. I would say that disunity in the US is currently a huge problem; would you?

        • Jeff Kesterson 10.22.15 at 10:53 am

          I have a “conversational pathology”? Why you mother…shitter son of an…ass! :)

          I don’t doubt that a non-negligible portion of the blame for various communication breakdowns I’ve had with Randal falls on me. I genuinely try to be as cordial with him as I can, but I don’t doubt that I could be even more patient and even keeled. But I don’t really butt heads with theists very often at all, whereas a pattern I’ve noticed with Randal is that the only protracted cordial discussions on theology that he seems to be able to have with atheists are with those who are almost superhumanly calm and courteous–those who are able to consistently de-escalate the tensions and discourtesies that Randal tends to bring to these conversations.

          I have no particular interest in going out of my way to pick on Randal, although I am very sore at him at the moment, for his disgraceful response to my “Be (Sorta) Excited that God Doesn’t Exist!” essay. And it wasn’t so much for his initial response (as I said to him: mistakes happen, no big deal) as it was for his stubborn refusal to offer any sort of apology, correction, or retraction. Things have been busy around here lately (just had a baby!), but I’m still trying to decide whether it’s worth “polluting” my blog by authoring a follow up article detailing these shenanigans.

          • labreuer 10.22.15 at 12:42 pm

            I think just about everyone has a nontrivial conversational pathology, at this point. I’m severely concerned about the state of US political discourse, about the ability of Christians and atheists to successfully communicate (Mike D must have been very lucky to find productive pockets of discussion and I really want to learn more about those), and the ability of people to be friends to one another and trust one another. (See the decline in Americans trusting each other in the US, from 56% in 1968 → 33% in 2014.) My wife and I attended a pre-marital class a while ago at our church, and 85% of it was simply “how to be a good friend”. As far as I can tell, the United States has a serious problem. :-( The one way to avoid this is to hang out with people pretty much like yourself (many people do this), but that’s no way to maintain democracy. It’s no way to maintain a marriage. It’s a shitty way to live, compared to the alternatives.

            People’s complaints about Randal really intrigue me. I see them being nasty to him, I see him being nasty to them, but I don’t see the alleged disparity, whereby he is nastier and/or more sensitive. Sometimes Randal seems blind to the thing the atheist is going after, while sometimes the atheist seems blind to the thing Randal is going after. Sometimes Randal is not willing to tutor someone (e.g. about the contents of Colin McGinn’s The Mysterious Flame), but I think one must be cautious in faulting him for that. Randal has limited time and I think folks would do well to think about how they can help him spend it as best as possible, so that everyone’s interests are maximized.

            Would you link to what you see as the core of Randal’s “disgraceful response”? I want to try to see it as you describe; from what I recall in reading the dialogue between you two, nothing took on that tinge even when I tried to modulate toward your point of view and away from Randal’s. My atheist-simulator still needs help, despite all the hours I’ve spent debating with them. Of course, every atheist is different, requiring the ability to ability to simulate those differences. I have criticized Randal before (#1, #2); given that he seems to generally like me and has significant overlap in belief structure (my response to a blog post by Jonathan Pearce targeting Randal’s views was good enough that Randal said he skipped responding and spent more time with his family), perhaps I could phrase things in a way that works for him, where you cannot.

          • Jeff Kesterson 10.22.15 at 2:20 pm

            I don’t know that Randal is necessarily worse at cordial discourse than the average blogger/commenter. But what’s particularly frustrating about interacting with him is that he not infrequently dishes out withering personal attacks and insults–sometimes for bizarrely mistaken or misplaced reasons–and if you ever try to bring that to his attention, even tactfully, he doubles down and becomes even more hostile. And all the while he goes on and on lamenting the state of public discourse. Oh my…

            About his “disgraceful” response, I offered my complaint in the comment section on his site (beginning with this comment and this comment), and I think I laid things out pretty clearly there. To recap: He offered a wildly and obviously misplaced summary of my argument, painting me as having offered an embarrassingly absurd argument (namely: that because universal damnation is logically possible, therefore we ought to hope that God doesn’t exist), and then he responded with a reductio to that absurdity of his own creation. Like I said, mistakes happen. But when I tried to point this out to him (as politely and light-heartedly as I could at first), he stubbornly refused to offer any sort of apology or retraction.

            This is all the more frustrating because the last time he and I had an extended interaction, he ended up slandering me as intellectually dishonest, because in summarizing his position on the evidential problem of evil, I didn’t explicitly add the obvious implicit provisos that 1) he might possibly change his position at some point in the future, and that 2) other people might reasonably disagree with him. If that’s the sort of “misrepresentation” of his work which elicits charges from him of hostility and intellectual dishonestly, then I can only roll my eyes at him when he turns around and butchers my arguments into amateurish absurdity. And I roll my eyes not even in disgust so much as in stunned disbelief that he apparently is so self un-aware.

  • Mike D 10.22.15 at 2:33 am

    However, apparently this kind of successful attempt to understand Mike D’s viewpoint wasn’t enough for him. I have exhausted his patience. And yet, I predict that this exhausting of his patience will be seen as 100% my fault, whereas his exhausting of Randal’s patience (resulting in Randal banning him) will be seen as 100% Randal’s fault.

    Luke, I don’t bother engaging with you because yes, I think your comments are generally rambling, disorganized stream-of-consciousness word salads with often loose or vague connections to the topics at hand. I think your incessant hyperlink spamming is obnoxious and reflects a difficulty you have in focusing on the discussion; you’ll frequently reference content of dubious relevance as though we’re supposed to do the legwork in connecting its significance to the conversation. You haven’t “exhausted my patience”. I just haven’t ever found engaging you to be a productive use of my time. It’s worth noting too that I have a wife, a full-time job, a new small business venture, two puppies, a guitar, my business website and two personal blogs, and a time-sucking copy of The Witcher 3; by contrast, blog-commenting could easily be mistaken for your full-time job, and I simply can’t keep up and don’t care to try. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but it’s how I feel. That said, it’s nothing personal. I don’t know you from Adam and you seem like a perfectly nice guy, so I wish you the best engaging others.

    Now. You say you think Jeff and I “vastly underestimate how much effort it takes to maintain successful dialogue with people who look at the world very differently from [us]”. I don’t think we do. Jeff and I have been active in a/theist discussion communities for years, and we’ve both had many amicable, productive and stimulating discussions and debates over the years and continue to do so. Randal’s persistent evasiveness and short fuse is the exception, not the rule. I don’t rest the burden of my and Randal’s head-butting solely on his shoulders, but I do hold him accountable for his own behavior and have spoken frankly about my opinion of it. And, I’ll leave it at that.

    • labreuer 10.22.15 at 12:29 pm


      You say you’ve had and continue to have excellent discussions with theists, which are much easier than with Randal and perhaps, with me. I would very much like to learn from this, if you are willing to provide any examples. I do much better with positive examples from which to learn, than purely negative criticism. I should think you would want to increase the amount of conversation between theists and atheists which is “amicable, productive, and stimulating”.

      I will note that you’re clearly not “done” with Randal, given that you continuing bringing him up. Your comment above functions to peck at his reputation among a certain population, and peck without the kind of supporting evidence which properly illustrates “moving target” and “reliably responds to pressure with red herrings”. It is not clear to me that such pecking makes the world suck less, but perhaps you disagree.


      P.S. I would be happy to cater those comments I write to you, to your preferred style. Indeed, I have already started doing this. Of the four replies to you which I linked above, two were extremely short, and the other two aren’t very long if you exclude the footnote. Not one contained an excerpt. As to the hyperlinks, I can cite fewer sources and just make unsourced claims to you if you prefer. Other people seem to actually like my ‘standard behavior’, so I would be writing differently, to them.

      P.P.S. It’s curious that you say you “haven’t ever found engaging you to be a productive use of my time”, given the bit I quoted of you, above. You seemed quite happy for me to capture some of your frustrations with Christian apologetics. In a forum dominated by an opposing view, it is extremely helpful for a stalwart of the opposition to give serious credence to complaints which are being otherwise poo-pooed. I suspect you were acknowledging this dynamic.

  • Jackie Booth 11.13.15 at 7:26 pm

    Jeff, I’ve been following this discourse and am impressed with the penchant you and your respondents obviously have for serious inquiry. So I’m certain it will be an easy thing for you to clarify for me what you mean by the word “belief” in the title of your subject. Wondering if you meant to say “doctrine” instead? The reason I’m asking is that as your example you cite the doctrine of the trinity and then proceed to reject it.

    An example of belief would be when Jesus once asked His disciples if they wanted to leave Him. Christian belief can be as simple as Peter’s answer: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (John 6:68,69)

    If there were no more belief/doctrine than this, it would still be all that we need.

    • Jeff Kesterson 11.14.15 at 11:52 am

      Hi Grandma Jackie, thanks for the thoughtful dialogue–I genuinely appreciate it!

      As I’m using the terms, doctrines are the propositional claims of Christianity, whereas belief is the mental assent to these doctrinal claims. To believe various doctrinal claims of Christianity is to consider those claims to be probably true–that is, more likely true than false.

      To ask whether Christian belief is important is related to asking whether Christian doctrine is important, but it’s also a very different question. To say that the doctrine of literal atonement is important is to say that it provides an account of an important part of the ontology of human/divine relations. But it doesn’t obviously (certainly not necessarily) follow that belief in the doctrine of literal atonement is therefore important. To say that such belief is important is to say that certain important consequences (soteriological or otherwise) follow from accepting or rejecting that doctrinal claim.

      Of course, if you’re using the term “belief” in a different way then your mileage might vary.

  • Jackie Booth 11.14.15 at 10:17 pm

    Hi, Jeff! Clicked on reply, did so, and as far as I can ascertain my reply vanished. Will try to
    Glad for your clarification of the words in question. Just a few words on doctrine as it relates to the Christian experience: Sound doctrine (emphasis on the word “sound”) is formulated through careful exegesis of holy Scripture, as evidenced by the Berean Christians. While they gladly received the preaching of Paul, they nevertheless searched the Scriptures daily to find out if these things were so (Acts 17:11).

    And of course, you’re so right about using the term “belief.” To the Christian believer, the subject of most importance is Jesus Christ. If belief is centered in Him it is of value. If doctrine is centered in Him it is of value. Without Christ Jesus as the heart and soul of our faith, neither belief nor doctrine is worth anything.

    • Jeff Kesterson 11.17.15 at 11:06 am

      Thanks for the additional thoughts! Two questions that come to mind: 1) It’s not clear to me what it’s supposed to mean for belief and doctrine to be centered in Jesus Christ. Most Christians, ranging from very conservative to very liberal, would probably say something similar. 2) More pressingly, it’s not clear to me how this belief and doctrine is therefore important. Which important, tangible consequences follow from or are intimately associated with belief, say, in literal atonement?

  • Jackie Booth 11.23.15 at 1:07 pm

    Not sure what you’re probing for, or if it should be profitable to continue at this point. But I thank you for the opportunity to offer a voice in defense of the Christian faith. I do think wordiness and esoteric language have a place in a topic of this sort, but unless such stuff eventually produces satisfactory conclusions, it becomes tedious and ineffective. So, thanks, but I’ll just stay content in the peace, hope and comfort that only Christ can give.

    Prayer and grandmotherly concern – actually (hee hee) I’d like to shake you and ask, “what has happened to you, dear Jeff? What dark influence has beguiled you and stolen your bright young mind?” Anyhow, I hope you will accept the Thanksgiving blessings I send with love to you and your sweet family.

    • Jeff Kesterson 11.24.15 at 4:36 pm

      I don’t mean to drag out the discussion if you’re eager to move on, but I do think it’s worth pointing out that I’m not trying to be esoteric about this. Quite the opposite: I’m asking which clear, tangible, everyday living sorts of consequences follow from or are intimately associated with Christian belief. You say that there’s peace, hope, and comfort that only Christ can give, and I’m simply asking for clarification and elaboration, because I sincerely do not see it.

      About that beguiling dark influence :)

      I wonder whether you recognize that I could just as easily assume the same of you. And then with that sort of abortive start to the conversation, there’s really no hope whatsoever for a productive discussion. I suspect we won’t ever see eye to eye on these matters, but if we don’t even try to have a genuine discussion, then that’s certainly an assured outcome.

      Thanksgiving blessings gladly accepted, and sent to you as well!

  • Jackie Booth 11.30.15 at 12:17 pm

    Well, Jeff, there isn’t a lot more I could say anyway. You’ve challenged Christian belief and graciously accepted my response. To me, if Christian belief or doctrine is based on sold exegesis of Biblical teaching, then it is important. I find the confessional Lutheran belief to be as close an understanding of God’s Word as is possible, given the frailties of the human condition. And I’ve learned as time goes on that it becomes less and less satisfying to be “ever learning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth.” Whether this defense is thought to be worth considering is, of course, entirely up to the reader. BTW, in reference to “wordiness…etc.,” I assumed you understood that it was to the entire dialog on your topic, and not just the exchange between you and me. Your challenge has been a fun exercise for me to try and sharpen whatever wits I have left!

  • Jackie Booth 11.30.15 at 5:51 pm

    P.S. meant to say “solid” exegesis…

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