Powers and principalities

I’ve recently been reading a book on the theology of evil. That’s an important topic in its own right, though regulars will know my position that the physical creation is neither intrinsically nor derivatively evil (see several 2011 posts on it starting here, and I’m still waiting and hoping for the publication of a proper paper on it). In this blog, majoring on creation doctrine rather than hamartology, I tend to follow the dictum of the late great guitarist John Martyn:

I don’t wanna know about evil
I only wanna know about love

One relatively minor aspect of the book struck me, as it has done before, and that is the prominence given to angelic personifications of power or authority, most notably by the apostle Paul. When I did my series Christological Creation, I noted with some surprise that Paul, when talking about the creation, says far more about these principalities than he does about the natural world (eg Rom 8.38-39). So I thought I would try to wrest them from their usual abode either in “demonology” or, more commonly, doctrinal oblivion. After all, Eddie Robinsom noted recently that he’s seldom, if ever, heard a sermon on the Book of Revelation: how many of us have heard one on these “powers and rulers”, despite maybe half a dozen mentions by Paul and allusions by other New Testament writers? Theological blind spots are often quite significant.

In this case, though, after a brief review of how the Bible deals with them, I want to focus on their intended role in the creation, which hardly seems to have been considered at all, in my limited experience. First, a word to those who may be thinking “angels, schmangels”. Since influential books by Hendrik Berkhof and G B Caird around the time of World War II (years which concentrated a lot of minds on the nature of evil) a prominent and useful stream of interpretation has viewed these powers not as “bad angels” but in terms of the political and other power structures. In this view, to quote John Stott:

Paul himself had begun to “demythologize” the concept of angels and demons, and that he sees them rather as structures of earthly existence and power, especially the state, but also tradition, law, economics and even religion.

redsIn other words, it sees them as the effects of “collective psyche” beyond the power or control of the individual. What induces mildly disgruntled citizens to end up in a mob committing atrocities? Why do some ideas (remember the “Great Chain of Being“?) dominate cultures like a meme pandemic? What is it about politicians from Adolf Hitler to John F Kennedy that enables them to bend millions of ordinary people to their will? It surely doesn’t happen to the rest of us. I think it is quite a useful concept to see power and authority as something more than good or bad men gaining assent.

But Stott points out, and I think he is right, that this impersonal interpretation doesn’t do justice to the specific mention Paul makes of some of these powers being in “heavenly realms” (eg Eph 6.12), nor with the language of punishment associated with them (1 Cor 15.24, cf Isa 24.21). What is clear is that Paul is not simply tossing apocalyptic ideas about in the wind – that is not his style – but has developed some biblical ideas in a way that is coherent to him, though largely unfamiliar to us.

One such idea is that theme in Isaiah 21, that God’s judgement on the earth (24.1) involves punishing “the powers in heavens above and the kings on the earth below.” This clearly implies that whatever these powers are up to, it’s not some separate celestial rebellion but is intimately associated with what’s gone wrong in the world of men. That’s why, whether you accept them as personal angelic agencies or “demythologized” human phenomena they’re important theologically, and not to be quietly sidelined or left to the Charismatics busily “binding territorial demons” to no obvious effect.

HitlerTo me, a good way of understanding how familar political and social “powers” might relate to angelic agencies “in the heavens” is by employing the concept of “participation”, or what we might call “correspondence”, that I explored a bit in the work of Owen Barfield. In some way there is a link between power exerted by these supra-human forces, and the powers and accountability of humans for their own treatment of others. Pilate has power, but only because it is given from above, and yet he is its accountable wielder, not merely its victim.

What convinces me of the importance of “the powers” is that they underpin maybe half of Paul’s theology of atonement, namely that associated with the concept of Christus Victor, which in slightly garbled form as the “ransom theory” was the main Patristic theory of salvation, and which is increasingly popular today. In Colossians 2.9ff Paul writes:

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority… When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

I would suggest that both key elements of the Cross are here – by it Christ disarms and triumphs over these mysterious powers, but the means by which he does it is substitutionary atonement for human sins. It would appear that, whatever they are, they’ve “got something over us” which the selfless and sacrificial death of Christ “disarms”. Other Scriptures, referring to Satan as the accuser as well as the tempter, hint that the vicious circle is that our sin is justly accused by him, resulting in our death. Since Satan is referred to as “the Prince of this world”, offering Jesus in the wilderness its power structures in return for worship, one supposes that he speaks on behalf of the authorities that Paul means here. Remove sin, and they no longer have us in their power.

But why do they exist in the first place? It seems to me the popular assumption rests on some Miltonian idea of a primordial rebellion in heaven leading to a bunch of wicked angels muscling in on human affairs by sheer main force, starting with a bit of agitprop in Eden involving a pantomine snake. But here, to me, is where it gets more interesting. In Colossians, Paul’s first mention of the powers is in ch 1.15ff:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.

Paul is clearly conflating, as he habitually does, every source of authority that matters to us, whether “the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world” or “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” It would appear that the same phenomenological realities are involved, seen both from earthly and spiritual perspectives. And these authorites, all, were created as authorities under and for Christ – and presumably, since from ch2 we see they have a say in our affairs, they were created for the benefit of mankind, but have somehow gone wrong.

This explains what, otherwise, seems Paul’s (together with Peter’s, actually) apparently odd attitude to governments. Both commend obedience to Caesar, and to any other authorities whatever, as being created by God for man’s good, even though both Jewish and Gentile power structures were clearly antagonistic to the Gospel. Paul is seeing authority itself as an actual “thing”, an element of creation made for us, involving angelic powers with God-given dignity and hence worthy of respect, just like their human counterparts. In both Peter’s and Jude’s letters, concerning angelic powers, you find the same sense of respect for what God has ordained, even though they have fallen into evil and though God – who alone has the right – will punish them in time.

flagsAt this point, then, let me try to suggest (somewhat speculatively), the place of these powers in the business of the original creation, and how what God intended for good might have been perverted, not through a pre-creation war in heaven, but through the failure of mankind – the only creature (angels not excepted) made in God’s image.

I suggest that in the original economy of creation the “powers and principalities” were created, like the other angelic beings, as servants for the people created in the image of God, that is in his Son. “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Heb 1.14) That means that however personal their power (or impersonal – remember the true personhood of humanity is linked to our being in the divine image), it was intended to be under the control of sinless humanity.

As I noted in connection with Richard Middleton’s book the image of God was intended to be shown partly in the social structures – perhaps even we may say political structures – built as the population of the earth increased. It seems that arrangements for communal power and authority were built into that plan. What happens to that, then, in the eventuality of the reality of sin? Those heavenly/earthly powers were not withdrawn, any more than the ability to make fire or throw rocks was withdrawn. It remained as an invisible, but very powerful, force. Imagine that early man had possessed the power of nuclear fission – the power of authority structures are on that kind of level. Such an idea is consistent with the oldest mythologies of man – it is notable that in Mesopotamia, it was the descent of kingship from heaven that began cvilization.

Only, with sinful men taking the reins of power, one has what my book on evil called a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” situation. Give the powers distorted instructions, and it’s the equivalent of a madman pressing the nuclear red button. Forget the need to give them guidance at all, and, like robots in a science fiction tale (I have in mind But Who Can Replace a Man? by Brian Aldiss) they are in danger of becoming autonomous. And so in this scenario, our oppression by the powers – a very real theme in Scripture – is the direct result of our misuse of them. The angelic Fall, if such it can be termed, may then be the result, rather then the cause, of our own, if one allows that perhaps even Satan’s original role as tempter was as something like a divine agent provocateur to stiffen Adam’s obedience.

Since we’ve recently discussed the age to come, what can be said about authorities and powers, and therefore authority and power itself, at that time? I suggest that the Cross of Christ does not so much redeem these powers, as render them unnecessary, for Christ himself will be the only source of authority, directly under God and directly for mankind sharing his image:

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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43 Responses to Powers and principalities

  1. pngarrison says:

    Philip Jenkins just had a nice post on the history of the development of the idea of Satan that you might find interesting. He has been dealing with ideas that seem to have come up in the Jewish world in the few centuries before Christ. Someone raised the question on Biologos of how this relates to Adam, Eve and the Fall. It seems a murky business to me, and probably intentionally so on God’s part. I agree with Lewis that it is unhealthy to be to preoccupied with this stuff and unhealthy to deny that it exists.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Yeah – partly because of focus and partly to avoid wallowing around in the subject I didn’t cover anything of the development of angelology through the historical period, though my main source (by Nigel Wright, now out of print) covered it and it’s unavoidable in studying the development of apocalyptic.

      Wright is careful to steer readers away from the human fascination for evil, and I was interested only in showing, if evil is a negation of good, what was being negated in this particular case – which is given, as I said, some prominence in Pauline theology in particular (by no means denying it in Jesus and the other apostles).

  2. Lou Jost says:

    For some reason I can’t log in to your last post [The limitations of (excluding) natural theology] to answer Eddie’s comment and yours, so I’ll do it here (this post recognizes me and logs me in automatically…I must have burned some cyber-bridges on the other post). Sorry for the intrusion on this post.

    First to your (Jon’s) comment:

    Ah – the quest for the objective human subject. Good luck with that one, Lou.

    I didn’t say “an objective person”, I said “a person not invested in either side”. I agree perfect objectivity is impossible, but I think there are people who really don’t care which side is right, and just want to decide as fairly as possible given the information we have.

    Then to Eddie’ comment, whose essence is that

    I don’t understand why you are contrasting “evolution” with “Resurrection.” What you should be contrasting is “evolution” …and “creation” …. While resurrection presupposes creation, the reverse is not the case. …The evidence for the Resurrection, be it ever so weak and unconvincing, has nothing to do with the evidence for creation.

    Eddie, you’re right. I was sticking with Jon’s two examples, evolution and the Resurrection, and making the point that just because we can’t definitively prove one or the other, we can still make rational judgements about them. I shouldn’t have said “if we had to choose between one or the other”, because there are other choices. But there is a strong, if not perfect, link between them. If we discover the resurrection happened, then the whole Christian narrative gains enormous credibility, and unguided, unplanned evolution loses credibility. And if we discover that unguided evolution is true, then the Christian narrative does not make much sense, making the Resurrection doubtful. On the other hand, if we discover the Resurrection didn’t happen, of course you are right that there could still be other ways that unguided evolution could be falsified; Vishnu could have been the guiding force, or there could be some naturalistic teleological law.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Can’t see why your comment was refused on the other thread – but I can’t see a way of moving it in WordPress, even with my admin hat on. Sorry..

      On the comment – you may not see it as such, but you’ve actually employed an invalid rhetorical ploy. “I’ve got biases, you’ve got biases, but I think an unbiased person would certainly agree with me.” To which the only reply is, “Your biased opinion on that is certainly interesting, and concurs with mine – only it would be me he agrees with.”

      It’s really along the same lines as, “All right-thinking people will agree that…”

      In the real world, us ordinary biased people have to find, somehow, a person who’s grown up (in our biased opinion) without any formative influences at all on religion and evolution, judge that he’s truly unbiased (How? Because he says so?), and be committed to continue in that judgement when he comes to his conclusion.

      If we really thought he was unbiased, and he disagreed with us, we’d have to change our own views or admit to bigotry, so odds on we’d decide he was nobbled at some stage.

      It’s all down, once more, to that myth that objective truth is accessible to some subjective human minds, and the implicit belief that, remarkably, our own minds happen to be the objective ones.

      • Lou Jost says:

        I’m not saying we can ever be sure of obtaining objective truths, I’m saying that given the choice between two concrete hypotheses, sometimes one choice is more rational than the other, given what we (think we) know today. Are you denying this?

        If an uninvested person had to choose between germ theory and voodoo to explain illnesses, and had time to learn both theories very well, do you not think that he or she would usually take germ theory? If an uninvested person had to choose between geocentrism and versus earth rotating around the sun-earth barycenter, is there not a most-rational choice? If an uninvested person had to choose between a flat earth theory and a more-or-less spherical earth, do you think there is no best choice today? Do you really think it is purely an accident of culture that people come to a consensus on these subjects? Don’t you think it might also have to do with the predictive power and consistency of the consensus theory versus the alternatives I mentioned?

        I think you are yourself engaging a rhetorical device, always trying to misrepresent me as talking about objective truth, while in reality I am talking about best choices given what we think we know today. I am not making claims that I know the objective truth, though I am making an effort to head towards that truth.

        In my experience, religious people themselves often eventually say that the main arguments for their faith are not really rational.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


      I think we are in agreement now. My main point was that arguments about the Resurrection, the Flood, etc. are arguments about the occurrence or non-occurrence of particular historical incidents, and therefore quite often involve the assessment of testimony, whereas arguments for design in nature are not about particular historical incidents but about the general characteristics of nature (or of particular subsystems within nature) and therefore have nothing to do with testimony.

      Thus, for the a-historical proposition, “The characteristics of the bacterial flagellum imply intelligent design,” the negation is the equally a-historical proposition, “The characteristics of the bacterial flagellum can be accounted for without any appeal to design,” whereas for the historical proposition, “The evidence indicates that Jesus rose from the dead in 29 A.D. (pick your year)” the negation is “There is insufficient evidence to warrant believing that Jesus rose from the dead in 29 A.D.” I don’t like to see the kind of historical arguments made by someone like Wright conflated with the kind of a-historical arguments made by someone like Denton or Behe.

      It is interesting, though, that some Christians do conflate these types of argument. I have asked literalist-inerrantist Christians what they would do if the bones of Jesus were discovered. In at least one case, the answer was that he would become an atheist and materialist. This struck me as illogical. If the bones of Jesus were discovered, one could still be a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or many other things. But this person had no interest in any religious alternatives. So in this person’s mind, the case for creation was inextricably tied up with the case for the resurrection. The only God worth believing in was Jesus Christ, and if Jesus wasn’t really God, then it would be better not to believe in any God at all.

      I of course reject this approach. I think that general arguments for a designer of nature are a separate matter from proving the truth of a particular religion. If the bones of Jesus were discovered tomorrow, I would have to rethink a number of things, but I would have no reason (based on that discovery alone) to stop thinking that certain features of nature were designed and that a mind lay behind them. My affinity for ID comes from the fact that ID clearly upholds this distinction in theory, even though a number of ID proponents (more among the rank and file than among the leaders) blur this distinction in practice because their ID commitments are very much subsidiary to their literalist-inerrantist commitments.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        Your reply is interesting from an epistemic point of view. Logically speaking, being unfazed by the discovery of Jesus’s bones would imply that your faith in God was principally grounded in some other thing, such as philosophical reasoning or, conceivably, mystical experience. The resurrection of Jesus would be an add-on to that and therefore dispensible.

        To the person whose faith is based on accepting testimony (which is the historic Christian source of epistemology), disproof of the resurrection would refute the testimony on which it rests, even if other knowledge (such as rational argument or personal experience) were superadded.

        In practice (cf my post today) faith in God, like all other beliefs and unbeliefs, is a complex of synergistic “evidences”. They tend to be mutually supportive, which is why they tend to come together or fall apart en masse: the atheist gets converted to Catholicism rather than qualified agnosticism, or the disillusioned Jehovah’s Witness scorns religion altogether.

        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


          I’m trying to distinguish between “coming to the rational conclusion that an intelligent designer exists” and “identifying that intelligent designer as the Logos, the Second Person, Jesus Christ, someone to whom one can pray, etc.” If the bones of Jesus were found, then certainly specifically Christian faith would have to be either abandoned or re-thought in some radical way, but it doesn’t follow that rational arguments for the existence of a designer would have to be re-thought.

          Perhaps the problem here is the word “faith” or the phrase “faith in God”; I don’t conceive of Aquinas’s Five Ways, or Paley’s arguments, as having anything to do with “faith.” “Faith” to me brings in a personal or subjective element which I think is intentionally lacking in the arguments of both Aquinas and Paley. I’ve always taken both Paley and Aquinas to mean: “Even someone who has never heard of Jesus or the Bible or the Church could reason thus far about a First Cause, Designer, etc.”

          Faith comes in when one feels sure that the Designer is Jesus Christ (as Logos), or Krishna, or Allah, or someone else — and of course that is where the idea of revelation comes in. You don’t need a revelation to assent to Aquinas’s or Paley’s arguments for God. But if someone tells you that the God who created the universe hung on a cross, or assisted the Pandavas in the Great War, that someone is not giving you an argument for the existence of God, but passing on a revelation about what God has done — something you could never have figured out for yourself, no matter how acute a reasoner you were.

          That’s why I thought the opposition of “Resurrection” and “evolution” was odd; it seems to me that “unguided evolution” versus “design” is at least in principle something that could be settled by unaided reason, without need for revelation, whereas we can know of the resurrection only through revelation, i.e., through the Gospel story and the tradition which goes with it. (One could add the personal religious experience of those who have encountered the risen Jesus in post-Biblical times, but I would regard such encounters as a form of revelation, taking place inside the soul instead of sitting there as words in the pages of a book.)

          So I thought that Lou’s categories were mismatched. But he has explained what he meant, and I agree with him that for many religious believers “resurrection” and “creation” are connected in such a way that questioning one means questioning the other. So I think that’s cleared up with Lou, anyway.

          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

            Fair do’s, Ed.

            Interestingly, the author of the book that inspired this post (as opposed to the one we’re discussing – BioLogos would have shuffled the entire pack by now!) makes the same kind of distinction when discussing “belief in” the devil, which he regards as a rather inappropriate equation with “belief in Christ”.

            In Greek, of course, the root πιστις doesn’t distinguish the two senses. Perhaps it’s just the range of meaning, but perhaps it has a stronger sense that belief implies commitment rather than mere assent.

            • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


              I agree. We’re often hampered by our culture’s language. The notion of “faith,” and even more so, the notion of “belief,” has tended to become more oriented to propositions rather than to attitudes and commitments. This is an interesting development, whose history is traced in several books by Wilfred Cantwell Smith.

              The typical modern person, with his Humean language, has lost the richness of a word like pistis . Most fundamentalists and most New Atheists treat arguments over religion as wholly arguments over propositions of a strictly empirical nature, and even Lou here, who is better read in religion than most of his atheist allies, has this tendency.

              For the purpose of my discussion, if I could distinguish between propositional “belief” and existential “faith”, I would say that it is possible to “believe” that a designer exists without having any particular religious “faith.” This seems to be the position of Michael Denton, as far as I can make it out. And the philosopher who accepts Aquinas’s “Five Ways” can “know that God exists”, without “knowing God” as a Christian would mean that phrase.

              It would be possible (though I don’t know of any cases) for someone to “believe” that the Resurrection happened as a physical event, while not having any “faith” in Jesus — if one interpreted the event differently from the New Testament writers. For example, maybe the cause of the Resurrection was a “Night of the Living Dead” thing — something from outer space. But of course the NT writers weren’t offering the “bare event” as something proved by evidence, and then modestly speculating on its religious meaning. For them, the event and its religious meaning were all wrapped up together.

              This is why I’ve always been cold to the American-style “evidence that demands a verdict” sort of apologetics, which is written as if the author seriously hopes to convince outsiders with no Christian commitments or even belief in God or gods that the “evidence” available to atheists as well as believers compels the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead. This is silly. The Gospels were written in the mode of confession, not the mode of historical or scientific journal articles. They weren’t aimed primarily (if at all) at the ancient equivalents of Richard Dawkins or Tom Paine. They were aimed in the first place at believing Jews and in the second place at believing pagans, who already took the existence of divine powers for granted, so that the questions was not whether divine powers exist, but which divine powers exist.

              The problem I have with Lou is that he keeps wanting “evidence” for the Resurrection that would convince a cold, uncaring scientist; the problem I have with many of the American religious people he is opposing is that they think they *have* such evidence. But the way the Gospels are written (a few passages excepted) tells us that such a debate is being conducted in the wrong frame of mind.

              If a man stands up at his father’s funeral and tells you why his father was the greatest man in the whole world, you don’t subject his testimony to the canons of historical or scientific evidence. You understand the epistemological limitations of the eulogy form. You look not for absolute literal truth, but only for the level of truth that such a form can be expected to provide. Similarly, the Gospel form has its own structures and intentions, and those have to be understood before one goes tearing into the stories and ripping details out of context, and subjecting them to the scrutiny of alien modern intellectual enterprises.

              Did Jesus rise from the dead? Christianity says so. But does Christianity — when it understands itself properly — teach that it can be proved by “objective” means, to godless Gentile strangers living 2,000 years after the events, that Jesus rose from the dead? I would say: No.

              • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


                It’s tempting to pursue the “epistemology” excursion further by suggesting that scientistic thinking has given us a highly skewed and restricted view of what constitutes knowledge.

                So on the one hand, as you say, the demand for “hard evidence” is a barrier to finding knowledge of the deeper kind.

                But on the other hand, it’s necessary to build bridges for those trapped within the modern mindset, so that “evidence that demands a verdict”, like natural theology, can be a place to start, though not to finish.

                But I’ve said enough, so I won’t go further along that way.

                I will just mention that I have come across a number of examples of people who came to believe in the Resurrection through examination of the historical evidence and so on, who then held back from a faith commitment. It happened regularly in an Enquirers’ Group one of my friends ran.

                I guess that underlines the two distinct types of “belief” we’ve been discussing.

              • Lou Jost 2 says:

                The problem I have with Lou is that he keeps wanting “evidence” for the Resurrection that would convince a cold, uncaring scientist…But the way the Gospels are written (a few passages excepted) tells us that such a debate is being conducted in the wrong frame of mind.

                does Christianity — when it understands itself properly — teach that it can be proved by “objective” means, to godless Gentile strangers living 2,000 years after the events, that Jesus rose from the dead? I would say: No.

                Eddie, I know that the gospels weren’t intended as scientific demonstrations (though I do think some elements were deliberately added to those stories to make them more convincing). It does not matter what Christianity teaches or what the writers’ intentions were, though. The gospels are the reason most Christians give for believing in the resurrection of Jesus. If the Resurrection didn’t happen, then there is no reason to believe Jesus was anything more than a good apocalyptic preacher. Anyone who is looking into which religion (if any) is the right one would have to dig into the resurrection story in the form that we have it, and figure out what underlies it. We have to do this even if the story is not intended to serve as hardcore proof of the resurrection.

        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

          Follow-up note, Jon:

          I didn’t say that I would be “unfazed” by the discovery of Jesus’s bones; I acknowledged that I would have to re-think a number of things; but there is no logical reason why, even in the worst-case scenario (i.e., suppose I decided, based on the bones, that the Gospel stories were all lies and fantasies invented by insane first-century writers), I should stop believing that an intelligent God created the universe. After all, Jews don’t think the Resurrection happened, and they still believe in God; and someone who takes Plato’s Timaeus as an approximate statement of the truth will believe in a designer of the world. So also worshippers of Siva, Vishnu, Allah, etc. This is where the fundamentalists I spoke of, who think that the only options are Jesus and atheism, are not being logical.

          Your point about the disillusioned JW, which applies, mutatis mutandis, to a good number of disillusioned Baptists, etc. in the USA, reinforces my point. The shattered JW is a destroyed hulk of a human being, in a way that, say, someone who moves from Christianity to Judaism is not, or who moves from theism to pantheism, or who takes up Wicca or eco-spiritualism, is not. It’s precisely because the fundamentalist has tied *any* possibility of divine reality to one narrow exposition of that divine reality that if even one crack in the JW edifice appears, all faith in God is lost. Ex-fundamentalist atheists are the most pathetic of all atheists. Their life is one of either anger or bitterness at what they used to believe in, or one of downward-spiralling apathy and despair.

          As for “mutually supportive” I presume you mean that arguments for the existence of God, revelation, personal religious experience, church tradition, moral experience, etc. all work together to confirm a person’s religious belief. I agree with that. But that doesn’t negate my point. A believing Jew experiences that same kind of multi-sided confirmation of Jewish faith, but doesn’t accept the Resurrection. So faith in God doesn’t stand or fall with belief in the Resurrection. Faith in God *as Christians understand God* does; but I’m speaking throughout of God-generic, unless otherwise noted. Which makes sense, since I’m here usually speaking about ID, which is concerned only with God-generic in its biological and cosmological discussions, not with the Christian God specifically.

          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

            No argument with that – my main thought here has been the practical realities of loss of faith, which I think depend on the structure of that faith, not just for Fundamentalists, but in terms of human nature.

            People will react to any loss in ways that don’t necessarily follow rationally, and that too reflects the holistic nature of who we are – beliefs become organic parts of us, rather than bolt on appendages. It can be like the loss of a limb, rather than the failure of a component.

            So the easy-going Victorian Anglican, exposed to some error in what he was taught, has lost what shaped his worldview, even though unlike the Fundamentalist he didn’t realise he was particularly committed to it.

            That’s not to imply that the trauma is necessarily permanent – people challenged in that way can actually find real “faith” for the first time, rather than lapsing into unbelief, still less existential despair.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Eddie, yes, we’re in agreement about this. However, there is no sharp line between a historical claim and a general scientific one. A historical claim that a river certain river once flowed uphill would contradict the general scientific claim that this can’t ever happen. But even mundane historical claims can often, at least in principle, be confirmed or falsified by analysis of evidential traces using general scientific knowledge. Historical claims in astronomy provide many examples of both these types of interactions with general scientific statements.

        PS I continue to have trouble logging in here, even changing computers and user name and password. Can’t figure out the pattern or reason.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    You’re still assuming there’s some independent measure of “rational” that somehow (conveniently) corresponds to “current state of science”. Many people believe in evolution. Probably many more in the resurrection, worldwide. And millions believe in both, citing rational, but not always scientific, reasons for doing so.

    Conversely surveys of non-belief amongst atheist scientists often cite reasons for non-belief that cover all the bases of rational/emotional/habitual. Whereas if you did the same survey amongst philosophers the likelihood is they’d make a better fist of watertight reasons for faith or non-faith – which says nothing about anyone’s rationality, but their expertise and experience. Ask Thomist philosophers and they’d give you highly reasoned arguments for the existence of God, and say you were denying reason to reject them.

    And there are still no “uninvested” persons, nor any way of assessing what intellectual baggage may bias their reasoning. Any more than anyone speaks English without an accent, unless they don’t speak it at all.

    • Lou Jost says:

      You’re still assuming there’s some independent measure of “rational” that somehow (conveniently) corresponds to “current state of science”.

      No I am not. I didn’t say that rationality = current science. I said I thought that on the question at hand, there would be a consensus among uninvested people exposed to all the available information. Sure it might be hard to find uninvested people in some cultures, but I’ve met people who don’t seem to care what the answer is.

      You ignored my examples and continue to claim that rationality is subjective. I don’t think you can show me a pilot, or rocket designer, who can rationally argue that the earth is flat. The world is not a free-for-all where every theory or belief is equally rational.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        There’s really nothing much in the way of comparison between your three purely material and evidential questions – theories of disease, geocentrism and flat earth – and the two examples I gave: scientific speculation about the unknown origins of life, and belief in the historical event of the Resurrection. There’s really no conceptual connection, least of all “reason”.

        Nevertheless it would still be an interesting problem to find someone neutral to test your thories on – “not caring” is hardly the same thing, suggesting intellectual indolence rather than rational unbias. To be unbiased your subject needs to be someone who has been raised in a society whose “folk knowledge” was neither voodoo nor germ theory – in which case your education would be competing with whatever theory of disease they did grow up with. Likewise for the geophysical examples. There are no such people.

        It would also be a problem to find a truly neutral education – presumably you’d have to find the best, convinced exponents of voodoo, geocentrism and flat earth as well as of modern views to avoid bias due to the authority currently invested in the opposite views by virtue of their being current. That’s true whether your educators were variously charismatic or boring humans, or books.

        Take a parallel. A century ago most intellectuals assumed from childhood that the white race is superior, and the science followed suit. Today the opposite is true, and the transition came much more through historical contingencies like the holocaust or the human rights movement than by any scientific or other rational conclusion. Certainly the sociology preceded the science. So would your educational programme in modern genetics applied to, say, a resurrected Erst Haeckel, lead him to conclude he was wrong? Or would he not rather find reasons to maintain his comfort level?

        I remember when Hans Eysenck, basing his claims about racial differences in intelligence on what he considered firm science (and considering himself neutral as being a Holocaust survivor), was shouted down in Cambridge not by academics with a better case, but by Lefties with a polemic agenda. I was doing social psychology there at the time, and the gut feeling in the department against Eysenck’s position was clearly a lot more to do with ideological bias (and professional prejudice against experimental psychology) than the firm science available.

        Presumably they should have found a truly unbiased observer to rule on the evidence rationally, and not only would social and experimental psychology have become united, but political differences would have dissolved as well.

        • Lou Jost says:

          There’s really nothing much in the way of comparison between your three purely material and evidential questions – theories of disease, geocentrism and flat earth – and the two examples I gave: scientific speculation about the unknown origins of life, and belief in the historical event of the Resurrection.

          The two examples you gave were unguided evolution and the Resurrection. Both these are empirical, evidential propositions. They can be treated rationally. (If you want to admit that belief in the Resurrection is irrational, that’s fine, and I grant that my argument is irrelevant in that case.)

          While it may be that perfect rationality is not possible in practice, we don’t need to demand perfection. We don’t say “We can’t use reason to argue about the shape of the earth, because everyone these days grew up in cultures that brainwash people into thinking the earth is round.”

          Several times in my life I’ve actually met people who didn’t know that the earth was round, or that it went around the sun. It was possible to argue rationally about it (rather as Galileo did in his Dialogues) and convince these people of these facts, even though they were initially predisposed against them.

          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


            If you check, you’ll see that the example I cited in juxtaposition to the Resurrection was “…life is proven not to be improbable”, taking my cue from the discussion on fine-tuning based on Metaxas’ article. Unlike evolution (a currently potentially observable phenomenon) OOL has neither observational evidence nor theory.

            Be that as it may, my argument is not about irrationality, but the limits of reason, and especially the unreality of pure reason unlinked to culture.

            Culture includes, of course, empirical evidence, which is why it’s been easy to persuade most people since 500BC that the earth is round, and most people since c1600AD that it orbits the sun.

            But as Eddie points out, the matter is different, but no less rational, when it comes to matters of history, or lost prehistory. Other forms of epistemology, such as testimony, may be involved and are still judged by reason.

            Given its uniqueness as an event, it’s equally rational to suggest that OOL arose from some “natural” cause unknown, since such causes are all around us though they don’t form new life, or that it was the act of a Creator, since the “natural” causes around don’t form life, but the creative intelligences around us are always doing original stuff.

            It would be possible, of course, to make room for both explanations at once, if a Creator uses natural causes.

            My point is that the option one prefers (and maybe labels “more rational”) will be coloured by factors other than reason, which is therefore, like all human faculties, a useful, not a definitive, tool.

            “Several times in my life I’ve actually met people who didn’t know that Christ is the Son of God, and that he rose from the dead. It was possible to argue rationally about it (rather as Paul did in his epistles) and convince these people of these facts, even though they were initially predisposed against them.”

            One difference in this pastiche of your paragraph is that I was one of the people so persuaded before I ever found flat-earthers of my own. But I count among the latter several doctors, a high-ranking military officer, engineers and others whose commitment to rationality was high.

            • Lou Jost says:

              It was possible to argue rationally about it (rather as Paul did in his epistles) and convince these people of these facts, even though they were initially predisposed against them.

              I’d love to see that argument, and check the degree of rationality of each step, to and see how it scores relative to the opposite argument.

              Again, I grant you that there is no such thing as pure rationality, and rationality has a cultural element, but even so, some arguments are demonstrably more rational than others, when they are fully laid out.

              • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

                Lou, you’ve returned to yourself as the arbiter of rationality again, having already suggested the need to find an unbiased outsider to decide on such matters.

                He’s the one who alone could demonstrate an argument to be rational or not, as opposed to regurgitating their own worldview.

                Unfortunately, as I’ve been saying throughout, he doesn’t exist.

              • Lou Jost says:

                So as far as you’re concerned, reason and logic are completely subjective?

  4. Avatar photo GD says:

    I do not want to become involved in an exchange with Lou, so my comments are restricted to the notion the resurrection of Christ is, or should be, subject to this nonsensical empirical verification. An atheist may argue the apostles and disciples did not gather enough data, witnesses (mainly Romans who did not believe in these things), or such odd notions, but any rational person cannot deny the apostles and disciples stated their experiences accurately (if they suspect they did, there is no evidence that shows anyone provided data to refute what they said).

    So how can any reasonable person make any rational argument concerning an even that all Christians attribute to God ONLY – it is utterly irrational to make statements such as found in these exchanges.

    The ONLY argument that can be made is resurrection is not a common occurrence that people may anticipate and then examine in detail. Christians say it is not common – so why these odd and irrational comments by anti-Christians? Since they cannot believe it, why labour the point? This is what makes their incessant comments so odd!!!!

    • Lou Jost says:

      “any rational person cannot deny the apostles and disciples stated their experiences accurately ”

      We don’t have any contemporaneous record of their statements, and even if we did, we know people can be mistaken. Paul, our most primary source, wrote very ambiguously about the physicality of the resurrection.

      By your standards, we should also believe Mohammed flew to Mecca on the back of a horse, and some swamis in India rose from the dead, and Joseph Smith translated hieroglyphics from golden tablets he happened to find, etc, etc. Some Mormons and Muslims died for their firmly-held beliefs. Must be true, then.

  5. Avatar photo GD says:

    I almost feel gratitude that atheists such as Lou continue with their “parroting” on the resurrection, as it may cause us to read more widely on this topic. John Chrysostom, in his discussion of the Gospel according to Mathew, treats the resurrection in a way that links us to the OT and also to show us how the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ links to the entire message in the OT and the NT.

    This quote is a powerful statement by St John:

    “… that unto His last breath they might see that He honors His Father, and is no adversary of God. Wherefore also He uttered a certain cry from the prophet, even to His last hour bearing witness to the Old Testament, and not simply a cry from the prophet, but also in Hebrew, so as to be plain and intelligible to them, and by all things He shows how He is of one mind with Him that begat Him.”

    St John’s homily also shows us that many events may be understood as resurrection, but the risen Christ was for the sake of the disciple’s faith (and ours), and to show the endless Grace of God (and not a need for scientific examination, although proper science is welcome). The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ need to be fully understood within the Faith from God because of Christ – events that people may experience and observe, are an “add on”, and if we become fixated on such things, we lose the message. St John makes it clear that many resurrection events may be observed and people may believe them as such – yet regarding the miracles by Christ, recorded in the Gospels, the general response by others is one of disbelief – this response has continued to this day. It is not a case of people unable to provide scientific evidence of such things; rather it is the natural proclivity to think such things cannot occur. Yet those who wish to convince others go to many lengths to do so – the Gospel, on the other hand, simply states what occurred, including the religious leaders of the day opposing Christ in all that He did.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      One of the things that cannot be articulated simply (it belongs to the realm of “personal knowledge” gleaned over maybe fifty years) is the way that the biblical account hangs together in the way that Chrysostom describes.

      The best theology even now builds on such a foundation – one writer who comes to mind on the theme of Christ throughout Scripture is John Salehamer, whom I mentioned a little while ago.

    • Lou Jost says:

      GD (and Jon), a good Hindu or Muslim can and does make the same kinds of arguments about his or her particular faith.

      To distinguish myth from reality takes real work, not blind faith in one particular outcome. If the argument you use to defend your belief also applies equally well to the conflicting beliefs of some other religions, your argument is not sufficient.

      Finally, I am no bible scholar but I thought Jesus mainly spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew, and a quick look at the venerable Wikipedia confirms that Jesus’ exhortation from the cross was not in Hebrew but Aramaic, contrary to GD’s saint.

      • Avatar photo GD says:


        You are obsessed with something without specifying it – what arguments do you detect in my comments? I do not present anything to defend anything; if you bother to read what has been written, you will see that at times, even after Christ performed a miracle, people did not believe (or have faith). This is not an argument but a simple statement of fact recorded in the Gospel.

        As for language, I assume, as St John does, that Christ spoke in the language of the Jews, sometimes referred to as the Hebrews in old manuscripts. Your comments are sometimes hysterical.

        • Lou Jost says:

          Your last comment made me smile too. Who needs evidence if you can just assume what you want to believe?

        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


          Regarding the linguistic point, you are correct to say that sometimes the term “Hebrew” was used loosely, both by Greek writers and by later translators, and in some cases may really mean “Aramaic.” But Lou was correct to say that the spoken language of Jesus (as distinct from the language Jesus used in synagogue recitation, which probably would have been Hebrew) would have been the typical language of Palestinian Jews, i.e., Aramaic. So you are both right, and there is no serious issue here.

          On the other point, it is quite clear what “argument” Lou detected in your comments above. You made a very clear factual claim:

          “any rational person cannot deny the apostles and disciples stated their experiences accurately”

          Lou was contesting this claim. He was saying (a) we don’t have the actual words of these people, but only later reports; and (b) people can be wrong about their experience, or what they think they experience.

          Let’s focus on (b). He gave examples from other religious traditions; e.g., some Hindus have “experienced” Krishna in certain ways. He wanted to know if you thought those Hindus were lying, or had misinterpreted their experience as an encounter with Krishna when it was really something else (perhaps the influence of drugs, sleepless nights, or the sort of brain disorder that Robert Schumann had, etc.). His point is, if you say, “Those Hindus did not experience Krishna, because Krishna is not real; we should explain away their experience by the use of secular psychology,” then the Hindus can turn around and use exactly the same sort of reductionist, materialist explanations to challenge the truth of the “experience” of the risen Christ of the disciples and apostles.

          So Lou is testing you to see if your epistemology is consistent, applied across the board to human religious experience, or arbitrarily tailored to vindicate the particular religious tradition that you deem true. And while I don’t share many of Lou’s motives or presuppositions or conclusions about either Christianity or religion in general, I do think, as a scholar of religion, that his question is entirely legitimate and should not be shoved aside. The question of “subjective certainty” in the religious believer, in relation to the multiplicity of religious traditions, has in my view never been adequately dealt with on the theoretical level.

          What do you say to a person who is certain that God has talked to him? How do you deal with the fact that God has apparently told Mother Theresa and the jihadists such different things? How do you deal with the BioLogos poster (who shall remain nameless, but is not yourself or anyone here) who is certain that he knows (because his soul is in communication with God) that pantheism rather than theism is correct, and that BioLogos “between the lines” endorses such pantheism? Who can say that these people have reported their “experience” inaccurately? How can we know that these people are delusional? How do we know that God has not spoken to them? If we use secular means to debunk their religious claims, we are employing a two-edged sword which cannot consistently be stopped from being used against Christian belief.

          This is a huge problem. I don’t know whether or not it is a problem that interests you, but it does interest me, so I am sympathetic with Lou’s objection– not because I think the disciples were liars or delusional, but because I don’t see any “objective” way (i.e., way acceptable to all rational people, of all nations, religions, races, and times) of determining whether or not their experiences were real.

          This comes back to Jon’s point about the absence of neutrality. But Jon is being frank that neither he nor anyone else is neutral on such questions, because everyone brings baggage to the discussion. Lou is asking you whether your exclusion of Hindu experience and acceptance of Christian experience makes any pretense to epistemological neutrality.

          If you say, “I accept the Christian religious experience, but not the Hindu, because I am biased, but there is nothing wrong with being biased,” then you have answered Lou’s concern in one way; and if you say “I can prove that the Hindu experience is not real and the Christian experience is real,” you have answered Lou’s concern in another way. But you must say something ; otherwise, your statement — the one contested by Lou — is sheer assertion, and no one needs to take sheer assertion seriously.

          • Avatar photo GD says:


            You have raised many points and I am not addressing only those that interest/concern me – both you and Lou have missed the point – the accounts in the Gospels simply record what the disciples stated, and these statements do not have the form of anyone trying to convince others on a belief in the resurrection. Instead there are various accounts, some which (a) would fit in with Lou’s disbelief (or extreme denial of the records) and (b) and also people who did not come to believe even after witnessing a miracle of two. I do not bring some odd “evidence” to be examined by an objective person, support or to show the Gospels provide an accurate account of what disciples saw and understood, so a rational person cannot find, or examine, an argument? My comments simply show what the Gospel states – and not in a form for an argument, but as a statement that others may read, accept, or reject – any of these responses are ok, but none would take the form of an argument.

            If others object to the accounts in the Gospel, then they should conduct themselves according to their proclaimed position, and provide reliable and credible evidence. If not, they simply present their subjective (and in Lou’s case, a jaundiced) outlook, and add rambling to boot. Lou is free to adopt any outlook he wishes – he does not have the right to insist as he does, that he has a scientist’s position and make demands in these nauseating exchanges, on the presumption that he knows what he is talking about. The onus is on him to display the scholarship he demands on the topic in question. If he cannot, he should take the wise course and be silent.

            The responses to miracles I have referred to in a general manner are typical of most people, and nowadays disbelief in miracles is more or less the norm – I think most people in 30AD would have a similar attitude. You and Lou are instead focussing on the authenticity of the records – how do we know that these are not made up? Why should we not accept the notion of a vast conspiracy stretching many centuries and continued to this day? and similar statements. This is the language of an Inquisitor, not someone who is interested in what is believably true. If anyone, including you and Lou, has serious problems, a legitimate response would be to examine any available documents going back as far as possible, to, as Lou is fond of saying, “examine the evidence” – once someone has done that, he or she may come to a conclusion, which, by the way, will inevitably reflect their subjective view.

            Almost all historical events suffer to various degrees from various difficulties – if you think a historical record is a fake or a deliberate forgery, you need to prove your case (especially if many people think otherwise). It is extremely illogical, irrational, to put the onus on disproving something, on those who have come to a positive conclusion and regard the records are genuine and valid for study.

            Lou has not shown me that he has performed the tasks required of a sincere person whose only concern is to arrive at what he may believe is true. Instead he parrots things about science and verification of this and that, (and odd stuff that looks like the paranormal) which in the scheme of things, is woeful, when we see the comments he makes regarding the Gospel. You Eddie, claim you are a scholar, and yet from what I can see, have failed to make this point to Lou in your various exchanges.

            Now regarding the other beliefs and practices you and Lou keep bringing up, I fail to see the relevance of such things when we discuss matters such as the resurrection and the veracity of the Gospels – it smacks of someone who does not have anything of substance to convey, and brings distractions to cover his ignorance. If you and Lou think these beliefs are relevant to our discussions, then by all means provide authoritative text and other material from these religions that address the resurrected Christ and I would at least have something to consider.

            It is also obnoxious to make statement such as these Eddie (but you display this approach on many posts) that I should say things such as: “I accept the Christian religious experience, but not the Hindu, because I am biased, but there is nothing wrong with being biased,” I have not made a comment on any other religion or experience – yet you and Lou persist in this macabre methodology. You should stop this offensive method – and it makes it worse when you respond privately, or publicly, with tirades to justify your eccentric mannerism(s). I admonish you to cease and desist; you do not achieve anything with this approach and people such as I find it offensive.

            Christianity should not have a problem with what other people believe or disbelieve, because faith is a gift from God and an act of Grace. Since everything is under the sovereignty of God, I accept this includes people’s beliefs and non-belief. I as a Christian do not have any difficulties with this, and accept other people who are sincere and seek the good in human affairs. I think if you reflect on these matters, you may conclude that it is not a problem for Christianity, although there are people who have turned it into such – St John shows us that we, as Gentiles, were plagued with many things that displease God, and yet those of us who seek Grace may find it. If it works for Gentiles, it will work even more for those who display through their acts, goodness and good faith. Again, others may think these are assertions, or otherwise, and are free to take these seriously, or otherwise, as they wish.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Thank you very much, Eddie, for restating my question more clearly than I did. I hoped your reformulation would break through GD’s barriers, but I could honestly not understand his response to you. He seems unwilling to step away from his beliefs, even provisionally, to see how his arguments might sound to people from outside his culture. You on the other hand are good at doing that. It is very difficult to talk to someone who can’t step out of their bubble.

            • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

              Thanks for the kind compliment, Lou. I guess my teachers in comparative religion get some credit for what abilities I have — they forced me to try to understand the teachings of a text as the might appear to an insider as well as to an outsider. So whether we were studying Buddhism, Hinduism, Marx, Freud, Buber, the Bible, or something else, we were forced to engage seriously before coming to judgment.

              I didn’t understand most of GD’s response to me, either, but I don’t think pursuing clarification would yield useful results, so I will let it go.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Lou: “So as far as you’re concerned, reason and logic are completely subjective?”

    A rational person will be able to determine that from careful examination of the case I’ve been putting. Replacing nuanced arguments backed by references to book-length sources with “completely subjective” isn’t a good start.

    We still seem to be looking for that totally uncommitted arbiter.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Jon, there is not much nuance in your statement that “We still seem to be looking for that totally uncommitted arbiter”. If you really think that a totally uncommitted arbiter is needed, then it follows that no argument can be decided rationally, since you deny the existence of such an arbiter.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        It was you who introduced the “unbiased observer” as the one who would surely support your viewpoint against mine. I merely pointed out the invalidity of such a rhetorical device.

        Now, rather than suggesting that you might disagree with the steps in a (hypothetically restored) chain of argument, or that so disagreeing a generality of people might agree with you, you instead set yourself as the one to judge its rationality with respect to some other chain.

        Who would be the one to judge, in turn, your rationality? Or is there some independent arbiter… woops, forgot, he’s been discussed already.

        Perhaps one can put it more simply – you put your arguments as well as you can, your opponents do likewise, and those reading decide who, if either, they consider to be closer to the truth. Discuss the particular issues, and not which views on them comply to a rather hard-to-define (and historically often differently defined) “reason”.

        • Lou Jost 2 says:

          The point I am trying to make is that rationality is not entirely subjective. Even in cases where both sides have a lot invested in an outcome, as at El Mozote, both sides do eventually distinguish a rational argument from irrational ones.

          Not many Christians claim that they have come to that specific religion via strictly rational arguments. I’ve yet to see such a rational argument. (Like I said earlier, I’d love to see you lay out what that would look like.) Many Christians admit that their belief is not entirely rational, or is based on subtle private personal experiences that cannot be properly evaluated.

          • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


            I won’t enter into the general discussion regarding the possibility of “objectivity” with you and Jon, but I will comment on this post.

            As a Platonist, I agree with you that rationality is not entirely subjective.

            As for religion, I think it is possible for religious belief to be “beyond reason but not against reason.” For example, you may put your trust in a stranger, based on an intuition that the stranger is honest and has good will toward you. There may be some evidence of the stranger’s honesty and good will, but the evidence may be ambiguous, so that what carries you over into trust is a sort of divination of the person’s character. Because there is some evidence supporting your evaluation, your trust is not against reason, but it goes beyond reason.

            I would not scorn private personal experiences as private measures of truth, but I would reject any attempt to argue from them the way one argues from generally accessible data. If someone believes that Jesus rose from the dead because he has personally seen Jesus, I would not say he was being irrational; but I would not allow him to impose that experience on all as a public experience.

            In any case, I don’t see why the fact that religious believers concede that there is something extra-rational in their faith is a problem. It strikes that it could not be otherwise. A religion which had no extra-rational beliefs, which derived itself entirely from biology, or economics, or utilitarian principles, or whatever, would be mechanical. Of course religion will appeal at some point to the transcendent. It always has. I don’t see why this is a problem. To say that religion would be fine if it would just get rid of the extra-rational part would be like saying that music would be fine if it would just get rid of the emotional part. What would non-emotional music be like? I don’t know, maybe like Richard Harris singing “MacArthur Park”; but surely it would be a worthless experience.

  7. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


    Regarding your point far above (where the answers thinned out to zero due to skinny margins), I agree that there is an appeal to evidence, but it is testimonial evidence, and usually offered secondhand. It’s more like: “This is why I believe what I believe; will you take my word for this?” I find this more in keeping with genuine religious expression than “A rational person using the canons of modern historical criticism would have to conclude that the Resurrection occurred” — which sometimes seems to me what some Christian apologists — including some celebrated British professors of New Testament — seem to me to be arguing. It seems to me that this kind of apologetics simply generates its own opposite –mocking antireligious polemics — and the cycle continues indefinitely. And as is plain, nothing is ever settled by these arguments.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Your point is true, yet like your former defence of ID as just one strand of support for theistic belief there’s no reason to be exclusive – for someone to be convinced by historical evidence, and the testimony of others and personal knowledge is the sum that makes up the total of their faith, and the resulting mindset is really no more divisible than my original example of the guy who is persuaded by a statistical case plus the eye-witness testimony of his brother-in-law as to the factuality of an event.

      But to get at the heart of what’s been under discussion – rationality itself – all these epistemological sources may be, and are, subject to reason, but in a way that shows it to be a tool of relative, not absolute, value.

      So for someone to be convinced of the resurrection by assessing it through historical criticism is rational – but so may be the process of somebody coming to the opposite conclusion from the same evidence. For someone to believe credible testimony is also rational – but it’s not necessarily irrational to make a judgement that rejects it as not credible.

      And of course, someone may decide to reject what seems watertight evidence because of what they judge even more watertight testimony, or vice versa. Hume’s arguments against miracles may seem incontrovertible, yet your own experience of instant healing from cancer might outweigh it – and quite rationally so, whether you turn out to be right or wrong in the end.

      Conversely, irrationality could only really consist of things like rejecting the united multiple testimony of witnesses, or of deciding that, despite agreeing the physical evidence conclusive, something isn’t true. But even then one would expect that there has usually been an appeal to a higher rationality – all the witnesses were bribed by the CIA; the evidence has been produced by a corrupt corporation, etc.

      One set of scientists may conclude that Neodarwinism is restrictive and resistant to correction, and another set that it is liberal, accommodating and progressive, without either side being demonstrably irrational. That’s because evidence is always underdeterminative, and decisions are always (in real life) reached on grounds that are not solely rational. One side’s case may be stronger, and arguments may be invoked (though I’m not sure how relevant a relative count of publications is – on that standard neither side would have any right to comment on Creationism at all).

      The danger is when humans mistake their use of reason, as a component of their deliberation, for being the totality of their deliberation, and then elevate reason itself to a pure and infallible thing.

      That’s more problematic the less controlled the situation is: it is easy to compare a rational and irrational response to a logical syllogism. It’s relatively easy to conclude that Boyle’s law truly applies to gases (but that will involve a whole load of assumptions before one gets to apply rational judgement). It’s plain naive to think that political choices, for example, can be made on the basis of pure reason – at least, not without irrationally assuming that all who disagree with your judgement therefore lack rationality.

      Biology comes somewhere in between, and possibly closer to politics than physics.

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