No, John, That’s Not Rationality

Let me start by saying that I like John Shore. On the scale of liberal Christians, he’s second only to Fred Clark in my book. He’s smart, funny, snarky, and exhibits a quality that is noticeably lacking in the vast majority of liberal Christianity: he calls out the church regularly in uncompromising fashion when he thinks they’re wrong. None of this “trying to find a middle ground” or “showing eternal grace” bullshit. When people are wrong and believe terrible things, Shore is there is call them out and mock the fuck out of them because they’re wrong and believe terrible things.

With all of that said, though, I can’t help but take exception to many of his apologetics, largely because they’re really bizarre. They don’t have the smirking dishonesty of William Lane Craig or Lee Strobel, who know the holes in their logic and continue to make the same arguments over and over again anyway as if they’ve never heard why it’s bullshit. No, Shore’s apologetics are instead really sincere, and it’s clear that these are the ideas that he’s chosen to hang his spiritual hat on, but you’re left wondering why he doesn’t notice that that particular hatrack is termite stricken and falling apart. And not even really there. And actually a table. An invisible table.

In this case, I’m referring specifically to his fairly recent post on why he gets upset when people accuse him of holding irrational beliefs. His premise seems to be that “core Christianity” is entirely rational so long as you accept the premise of God a priori because it has a recognizable story arc.

Business I do accept as mine, though, is defending the sheer, clear, tight-as-a-frog’s-butt rationality of what I believe. As a logical construct, core Christianity has always been as solid as a Roman arch. It is simply not vulnerable to the accusations of being intellectually untenable. And I must admit that I find exasperating the constantly proffered assumption that it is.

If it’s true that God exists (and the chances are exactly even on that either way; so choosing to vote that there is a God hardly represents a failure of reasoning), then the traditional, old-school, Gospel-based story of Jesus Christ is perfect. It works. It makes sense.

And this is where I start having problems with Shore’s assertions. This doesn’t even really make sense, but let’s start with the most problematic and easiest bit to answer.

If it’s true that God exists (and the chances are exactly even on that either way; so choosing to vote that there is a God hardly represents a failure of reasoning)…

Hold on a minute. Stop right there. “The chances are exactly even on that either way”? By what measure?

I’m reminded of one of my favorite sketches from The Daily Show. I don’t know how to embed non-Youtube clips into WordPress, but you can find a copy here. It’s from the John Oliver bit about the Large Hadron Collider and fears that when it was turned on for the first time, it would destroy the world. Oliver speaks to a scientist who gives the odds of that happening, then he speaks to Walter Wagner, just in case, who says that the odds are “a one in two chance” because “if you have something that can happen, and you have something that won’t necessarily happen, it’s either going to happen or it’s not going to happen.”

Suffice it to say, it ends with Oliver and Walter sitting in a bunker together and this exchange:

Oliver: “Walter, if we’re the only two humans left on Earth, we might as well try breeding, right? It’s worth a shot is all I’m saying.”

Wagner: “No, I don’t think it’s worth a shot.”

Oliver: “Well, like you said, there’s a fifty percent chance it’ll work.”

Now, I know it’s bad form to explain the joke, but I think it’s necessary because what Oliver says as a joke is what Shore is claiming here. What’s funny about the punchline is we know that there is a zero percent chance of a man getting another one pregnant. I don’t need to “disprove” the possibility of this because there is no evidence of a human male getting another human male pregnant, let alone being able to populate the planet, in the history of humanity. The lack of evidence for it ever happening changes the odds significantly.

Similarly, we’re not discussing “if there’s a chance god does exist, and a chance god doesn’t exist, that means that it’s a dead even chance that either is possible.” We can instead look to the fact that no observable evidence for the supernatural has ever been found. Never has there been a replicable violation of natural law. Not once in the history of humanity has something that had a naturalistic explanation been found to be the cause of the supernatural, yet mysticism is replaced by naturalistic explanations all the time. These are important factors that Shore discounts, relying instead on a formula that makes his position sound plausible.

He then goes on to explain the basic story construction of Christianity. I’ll skip the long quote and quote him boiling it down to the basics.

To boil it down to its absolute essence:

God → us → free will → guilt/shame → suffering  → Jesus → Jesus on the cross → forgiveness  →  reconciliation → peace. (And, for an extra-special bonus, the Holy Spirit!)

Again, his premise seems to be that if you accept that god is real, the structure of this story makes it seem plausible. But that doesn’t actually make any sense.

Let’s take one of my favorite examples. I make no secret of the fact that I consider Willow to be one of the most perfectly written stories in all of moviedom. It’s tight, it tells us exactly what we need to know and nothing else, it shows instead of tells, and every step of the journey follows logically from the last one, allowing the characters to develop along the way.

However, by Shore’s logic here, I could easily say, “If you accept the existence of magic (50/50 chance it exists), then there’s no reason to not believe that Willow isn’t a fantasy film, it’s historical fiction.” Think about it, we have Little People in our world, which is what Nelwins are. We have humans (Daikini), obviously. We have babies. We have swords. We have Val Kilmer in a dress. We even have kingdoms that have been lost but we find out later existed, so nothing says that Nockmaar, Galladoorn, and Tir Asleen couldn’t have once been real places. Everything else? Evil sorceresses, good sorceresses, fairies, brownies, trolls? All of these things can have their existence explained by the addition of “magic” to the world.

However, there’s no reason to arbitrarily add the assumption of magic to the world. It’s like when hack writer Jennifer Rubin was trying to say how good a president George W. Bush was and pointed out

Unlike Obama’s tenure, there was no successful attack on the homeland after 9/11.

Wh-wh-what? Why are we drawing the line there? That’s not even really true, but even if it was, why would we exclude 9/11 from the list of national security issues?

Similarly, I don’t see why we would arbitrarily decide, even given the weird 50/50 chance assumption, that we’re going to go with believing in an invisible, inaudible being that is both perfect and not particularly good at communication. It makes his argument somewhat circular.

In the end, Shore doesn’t much care what people believe and don’t believe, and I can kind of get behind him on that when it comes to the existence or non-existence of something that seems to have no meaningful effect on my life that doesn’t exactly resemble it not being there, but I really am having trouble buying into this logic. While it lacks the malice that comes from Craig and Strobel, it is no more consistent or logical, and I think Shore can do better than that.

Feel free to claim that you’ve had a personal revelation. Say you like some of the ideas and that means you believe. Even say, like Clark, that you realize that the stories are probably made up but they tell an overarching story about a world that bends ever more toward justice. But please don’t try to tell me that a book that is known primarily for the parts where the rules of reality are shattered to pieces is the rational position because it happens to have a beginning, middle, and end buried somewhere in the scores of meaningless subplots. That simply doesn’t hold up.


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