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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Another Exercise in Subjectivity

I just read an extimony.

An extimony, I am reliably informed, is sort of an anti-testimony. It’s the story of how a person un-converted from Christianity, becoming an atheist, agnostic, freethinker or Pastafarian, depending on their particular circumstances and bent.

Short version: I was not overly impressed with the arguments of the gentleman who wrote this one.

“Why I Am No Longer a Christian”

The specific piece in question was written by Kendall Hobbs in 2003, and is posted on something called infidels.org. You can read it for yourself if you have near-endless patience with stupefying solipsism and the relentless worship and ongoing re-analysis of one’s unique cranial processes. I must confess that I faltered in my resolve about halfway through and started skimming, content that Kendall’s experience with Christians and scripture was far from a mirror of my own, and that his methodical determination to judge the credibility of the claims of God by his own very limited life experience is a lost cause as a means of discerning truth.

2003 was a while ago. In the world of revolving belief systems, twelve-plus years amounts to a lifetime. I tried Googling Kendall to see what (if anything) he believes today, but came up with nothing definitive. In any case, Kendall’s extimony has certainly produced a large number of responses on the Web, pro and con. Dave Miller and Kyle Butt chew up his attribution of atrocities to God in this post while Adam Lee doubles down on the Hobbs error here.

Micro-Analysis of the Deconversion Process

While I give Kendall Hobbs credit for the single most painstakingly catalogued record of the micro-steps in a deconversion process that may ever have been written, in the end the level of subjectivity in which he engages is mind-numbing:
“But how could it have all been just misinterpretations? I mean, I really saw and felt God work in my life. Then again, thinking more carefully about it, could I really say that God helped me find my keys, do well on a test, help me make a wise choice about which college to go to, help me make some friends, let me make at least some small difference in the lives of a few of the homeless people at the shelter I volunteered at? Why did God answer those prayers of mine when he ignored the prayers of Christian parents whose children were suffering from chemotherapy treatments as they were dying of leukemia? And if he did, how could I justify worshipping a God whose priorities were that screwed up? Wasn’t it horribly self-centered of me to thank God for taking time from his busy schedule to help me find my keys when he could have been saving a child from being raped and murdered?”
I suppose it is time well wasted pointing out that while God may not always appear to respond to our prayers, or may not respond in exactly the way we’d like, no Christian theologian I’ve ever read thinks that God simply ignores them. Likewise, it may be futile to point out that an infinite, eternal God existing everywhere simultaneously doesn’t have to take “time out from his busy schedule” to do anything at all (including locating a set of keys), as he is never pressed for time. But I’m a glutton for punishment.

Not glutton enough to take the “child being raped and murdered” rhetorical bait though.

A Modest Series of Comparatively Speedy Observations

Not being infinite, to try to answer Mr. Hobbs point by point would take more than one lifetime, so I will not even begin to attempt a comprehensive analysis or rebuttal of his allegations about Christianity and the Bible. I do, however, note a few recurring themes in his dismissal of all things spiritual.

Give God the Credit / Give God the Blame

First, I note that he starts with an assumption (trained into him, he says, by his good church upbringing) that God did things in his teen years like help him find his keys or do well on tests. When he meditated later on these assumptions, he found them to be baseless and eventually arrived at the conclusion that God does not exist. I am shortening the process and leaving out many things for simplicity’s sake that he has seen fit to include, but Mr. Hobbs would surely agree that since he has recounted these events, they were a contributing factor in his loss of faith.

One can only comment that if we start with skewed or false assumptions about how God works, and those assumptions eventually prove debatable or untrue, loss of faith in God is only one possible outcome. Another much more sensible outcome is that we lose faith in our own preconceived notions and begin our search for God from scratch, preferably by reexamining the scriptures that claim to speak of him.

This clearly did not occur in Kendall Hobbs’ case.

Those “Inconsistent” Scriptures

Second, I note that when Mr. Hobbs finally turned to the scriptures, he concluded that they failed him. His examples are too numerous to note, but they all crop up ad nauseum on atheist websites. They are not new, and they have been answered by many serious Bible students over and over again.

But this is the sort of thing he trots out:
“Matthew does indeed contradict John’s account of how Andrew and Simon are called. They also differ in their claims of whether Jesus started preaching and collecting disciples before or after John the Baptist was arrested and put in prison. I found that parallel examinations of different accounts of the same events was a very effective way of dispelling my belief that the Bible is inerrant.”
Here Hobbs makes an error common to many who seek to disprove the biblical accounts. The error is in imagining that every drive-by critic of ancient documents is qualified to pass judgment on minute details of witness accounts almost two millennia after the events themselves actually occurred. The accounts involved may be complementary rather than contradictory. There may be insignificant scribal errors involved or there may have been a miniscule misunderstanding in the translation of a word. There may be any number of plausible explanations that we will never have in our possession because the evidence before us is limited by our understanding of culture, the limitations of our scholarship, the Greek language, Jewish custom and literary conventions of the day, among numerous other factors we cannot hope to parse from this distance. To presume to be able to pronounce authoritatively on such things is the height of arrogance, not to mention monumental ignorance of the reasonable limits of certain human inquiry.

What such would-be debunkers conveniently ignore is that these apostolic writings appear, for the most part, to have passed muster with up to seventy-something generations of believers, most compellingly the few generations of Christians who knew and spoke to the witnesses to the events themselves. There were thousands upon thousands of believers in the early church, and these documents were widely circulated, or we could not possibly have the number of extant manuscript fragments we have available to us today. If it is true that John wrote decades after Matthew, he would surely have been informed almost immediately that he had just managed to “contradict” a gospel already in circulation. A fraud would simply have corrected his work.

And yet here we are with these “inconsistencies” intact 2,000 years down the road. Were those early Christians all so dull that they missed what every atheist in North America has near-instantly clued into?

Perhaps, but a better explanation may be that we don’t know anywhere near as much as we think we do, and that the statements were not seen as inconsistent by their original audience. Do atheists understand the concepts of weight of evidence or benefit of the doubt?

Another Object of Faith

Third, everything in our lives today is taken on faith. Everything. Even an assertion that truth cannot be known is made on the basis of belief, not categorical evidence. I am not a Hebrew or Greek scholar, but then I am also not a physicist, biologist, historian or student of origins. Neither is Mr. Hobbs. I have to trust the work of others for these things. We both pick and choose from the menu of faith-options available to us in the way that seems most consistent and credible to us (at least one hopes these are the criteria of others). In the end, we settle on something and believe, but none of us can claim we have complete and irrefutable evidence for our choices. We can only tell each other that what we believe has satisfied our personal standard, assuming that is in fact the case.

Still, I am told that apparently in the second half of Mr. Hobbs’ extimony (the part I couldn’t bring myself to soldier through) he extols the virtues of rationalism and science. But those who embrace science have only exchanged one set of apparently unsubstantiable assertions for others even more dubious. That’s a claim that for some will require more than a single line in a post about departing from the faith, and fair enough. But no worldview is without numerous detractors, points of contention and apparent inconsistencies. If 100% verifiability is the metric by which theories about origins and worldviews are to be judged, even scientists themselves would agree we are toast.

In the end, God either spoke or he didn’t. He either preserved his word for us or he didn’t. You believe it or you don’t.

Fault With the People

Fourth, a huge factor in Hobbs’ desertion of his childhood profession of faith was the divorce of a much-loved aunt and uncle. We know this because he goes on about it for paragraphs. While it is exceedingly understandable that the failings of respected Christians may throw others around them for a loop, we must stand with the apostle Paul in declaring Let God be true though every one were a liar!” and with the writer to the Hebrews in confirming that “God found fault with the people”.

What Christians do and the testimony we have in the world is not irrelevant. Of course the truth or falsehood of a worldview cannot be accurately assessed without taking into account the behaviour of its adherents. But if we are going to assess the truth of Christianity by looking at Christians: (i) we are more likely to get an accurate picture by looking at the most devoted ones rather than the immature, the dilettantes and the hangers-on; (ii) we need to look at what is characteristic of them rather than exceptional; and, most importantly (iii) we need to recognize that no failure, however horrible, can possibly invalidate a worldview that contains within it the explanation of that same failure.

The Son of the Living God

Fifth, and most fatally, Kendall Hobbs never deals with the person of Jesus Christ. That’s the kicker for me. He writes reams. I can’t actually believe how long his post is. I could write my own complete autobiography and bring it in under 32,000 words, but he can’t even apostatize concisely.

And yet, in all that self-referential blather, he cannot bring himself to hold forth on Jesus Christ. Not even for a paragraph. Where is he in all Mr. Hobbs’ ruminations on morality, science, inconsistency and Christian failings? Gone missing. The single most significant personality in all of scripture, the Son of God himself, and he doesn’t even merit a polite dismissal.

(There are, however, a few brief paragraphs on Mr. Hobbs’ concern that the historical evidence for Jesus does not meet his stringent personal standards. This, by the way, is an opinion not even Wikipedia in all its progressive glory is willing to espouse; their writers aver that “Virtually all modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed historically”. In any case, there is no discussion whatsoever about his claims, his teaching, his morality, his death, or claimed resurrection. It is as if such things are beneath consideration.)

One possible conclusion that may be drawn from such an omission is that Hobbs cannot find compelling reasons to disparage the One he formerly claimed to serve and love. Another and much more likely conclusion may be that Hobbs knows the content of Christianity and perhaps even the Bible quite well, but never knew Christ at all.

You can imagine which option I favour.

The End of the Road

Here, in the end, is where Hobbs finds himself:
“I had to conclude that ‘God’ is not anything ‘out there,’ objectively existing, but is a mislabeling or misunderstanding of our highest and deepest subjective capacities. I certainly do not claim that the phenomena commonly referred to as ‘God’ do not exist. My claim is that ‘God’ is a serious mislabeling and misunderstanding of them. In a way, then, I still believe in God.”
Mr. Hobbs is certainly entitled to share with whomever he pleases the reasons for his apostasy and the joy he has found in his new worldview. But nothing in the overly-lengthy account of his intellectual journey is particular new or persuasive. If Hobbs is as relentlessly self-aware as his musings suggest, one would imagine he might have picked this up and edited his story down to something remotely readable.

It is hard to see his account as anything more than another among millions of similar exercises in subjectivity.

3 comments :

  1. Interesting because I understand where this person is coming from. This is a danger if you have the gift and interest in analyzing your surroundings and the happenings in the world (many, or most, people do not care to and have a more organic, rather than analytical approach to life, (both are useful and even necessary)). The problem in overanalyzing can be loss of trust and common sense. This, in one fashion, is addressed by Christ with Mark, chpt. 7, see excerpt quoted below.

    And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+7&version=ESV

    In other words, there has to be a time in your life when you place your bets on what is right or wrong, given the fact, as you point out, that ALL knowledge is probabilistic. Christ points out with the above that our bets can be placed wrongly given our permitted internal disposition.

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  2. Agreed. He's not the first and won't be the last to change his mind about the things he was raised to believe. The Lord spoke of the kingdom being like a wheat field plagued with weeds planted by an enemy (Matthew 13:24-30). Or I think of his parable about the seed sown on rocky ground that symbolizes a hearer who initially responds to the word of God with joy (Matthew 13:18-23). We can easily confuse such a person with a real believer and interact with them for years. But if there is no root -- no genuine connection to Christ -- then there is no real life there despite all appearances to the contrary.

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  3. I like how the person who is responding is highly suggesting how subjective Kendall Hobbs ex-testimony is, where's they are in fact, subjectively responding based on their own opinions.

    Not to mention that they Skimmed Hobbs ex-testimony, to which begs the question on how credible one should considers this response to be.

    Author of this response starts making predetermined ideas on how they will tackle this read, because they have already formed their thought process based on their take on this said religion.

    What I mean is that, they are not reading with an open mind of the idea that GOD may or may not exist. They are reading with the idea "GOD EXITS!"

    Seems like the counterargument is null.

    It is like stating that X religion is better than Y religion even though the context was skimmed over Y religion. Or simply "I read half the bible, the book is crap"

    Most religions or politics end up to be poor debates because the opposing faction has little to no understanding of others views, ideas, or beliefs.

    Seems very ignorant and arrogant in my opinion.

    I know that this "debate" is with in the same religion, but differ in views. However this does not nullify the etiquette on how one should debate.

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