Friday, June 3, 2011

How Do You Know?

One of the key problems that I now have with Christianity is what philosophers and theologians call "epistemology." Namely, I've grown increasingly uncomfortable with claims within Christianity (or any revealed religion) that certain people have come to possess knowledge of God and what God wants for humanity, while such knowledge remains inaccessible—in an immediate sense—to all others. A great example is the "conversion experience" of St. Paul on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-19), where Paul (then Saul) had a vision and heard a voice, and suddenly believed in the Christian message. Because of this experience, Christianity became for him an irrefutable truth. Were anyone to ask, "Paul, how do you know it's true?" He would simply have said, "Because I had a vision of Jesus. You can't argue with that, can you?" Thus, Paul held a religious trump card that, at the end of any argument, he could lay down to demonstrate his authority, his "rightness," or the veracity of his religious claims.

And this is what happens all the time. For example, when I was a Christian and came up against serious intellectual challenges to my faith, I could always fall back on that one stronghold: "Ok, there are some problems that aren't easily explained, but I know it's true because I've experienced X, Y, and Z!" Other Christians do this more frequently than I did, especially Christian fundamentalists who have more fronts to defend. Yet, for many non-Christians, such claims to certainty seem absurd, if not downright delusional.

So, I've now come to see this is a major problem, but I had no idea how close to home it would hit. 
When I told my parents  that I was no longer a Christian, one of the things that my mom said was this: "There will be consequences of this decision. I just want you to know that. I don't know what they are, or when they'll come, but there will be consequences." Her tone was nothing short of dire, if not threatening, as if she was channelling a vindictive deity scorned by a mere mortal.

My wife pushed back on this, asking what exactly my mom meant. The response was the same: "I don't know. But I know there will be serious consequences." 

I just wanted to scream out (but didn't): "How do you know this?" She had such certainty, but if I asked her how she could possibly possess this knowledge, she would have given an irrational answer, such as: "I just do. I have the Holy Spirit." (Of course, Christianity, particularly Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, have loads of bullshit lines like this.) Her claims to religious knowledge are just as dogmatic as those of Paul, the Pope, or Pat Robertson, and just as wrong

While I've never been a big fan of rationalism—i.e., a worldview that denies anything but what can be empirically and rationally proven— and some of its claims to certainty that rival those of religious beliefs, I do see more and more that rationality (as a mindset and approach to the world) sheds much light on the utter nonsense of so many religious systems. 

I hope I can, somehow, help others to see this, too. My next post will be on doing post-Christian biblical scholarship, and how I'm beginning to understand my academic career in light of some of this foundational changes in my life.

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