Christianity made of iron and straw

Christianity makes a virtue of faith. Faith seems to mean “believing without evidence”. On the other hand, if you talk to most Christians, they’ll deny this description of faith.

Christians usually believe that morality comes from God. This seems to indicate a divine command theory of morality: God says it, therefore it’s right. On the other hand, in my experience most Christians will deny that they believe in divine command theory.

In both of these examples, I’m describing straw men that we use against Christians. If they’re such straw men, why do we keep using them? Why don’t we talk about faith or Christian moral theory as Christians really mean them?

Answer: We don’t talk about what Christians really mean, because Christians are unable to coherently explain what they really mean.

In all my years talking about atheism and Christianity, I have heard many accusations that atheists construct straw men of Christianity, but have received very few explanations of what Christianity actually says. Of those explanations, most of them are incoherent or otherwise unsatisfactory.

Sometimes there’s a thin line between the straw man fallacy and iron man fallacy. A straw man is a fictional version of one’s opponent which is weaker than the real opponent. An iron man is a fictional version of one’s opponent which is stronger than the real opponent. But the difference between weaker and stronger is subjective. When I criticize faith as “believing things without evidence”, it feels like I am creating an iron man, because at least this definition of faith is coherent. But many Christians instead see it as a straw man, and they’re not wrong.  Christians are not obligated to value coherence as much as I do.

I have some Christian readers, who might take this post as a challenge to explain how they see faith or Christian moral theory. But I’m not saying you can’t come up with any answer.  It’s more like, different people come up with different answers.

To give an example, I’ve heard “faith” defined merely as trust.  This is a decent answer because at least it’s coherent.  But it doesn’t seem particularly accurate to the way that people use “faith”.  And what would it mean to have faith that god exists?  Who or what is being trusted?  Why does that thing or person deserve trust?

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26 thoughts on “Christianity made of iron and straw

  1. T-Bone November 13, 2015 / 2:06 pm

    Christianity encompasses Divine Command, but it is not just a simple ideology. Christianity has traditions, reason, history, etc. I would say “faith” is probably akin to “belief”. You seem to be hung up on “reason”, but there is not reason without belief/faith.

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  2. Siggy November 13, 2015 / 7:38 pm

    @T-Bone
    I don’t know how you drew your conclusion or what you even mean by that, since I did not use the word “reason” in my post at all.

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  3. T-Bone November 16, 2015 / 2:12 pm

    @Siggy, You used the words “coherent” I equate that with “reason.” Instead of possibly going off on a tangent, simply replace the word “reason” and my point stands and addresses what you wrote.

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  4. Siggy November 16, 2015 / 3:58 pm

    I don’t understand what your point was, so whether it stands or not is moot.

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  5. T-Bone November 17, 2015 / 3:08 pm

    @Siggy,
    You objected to my use of the word “reason” because you claimed not to use it. I asked you to replace the word “reason” with one you did use and now you come back that you don’t understand what I am saying. I am getting the feeling that you are not very interested in a discussion that doesn’t reinforce your point of view. I will try one last time.

    Christianity encompasses Divine Command, but it is not just a simple ideology. Christianity has traditions, reason, history, etc. I would say “faith” is probably akin to “belief”. You seem to be hung up on Christianity being “coherent”, but one cannot have “coherence” without belief/faith.

    Is that better?

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  6. Siggy November 17, 2015 / 4:02 pm

    @T-Bone, if you’re trying to have a discussion, you’re getting way ahead of yourself. Step 1 is to state your opinion. Step 2 is to argue for your opinion. Step 3 is to discuss it. We’re still stuck on step 1.

    Sentence by sentence:
    “it is not just a simple ideology.” “It” has an ambiguous antecedent, either referring to Christianity or to Divine Command.
    “Christianity has traditions, reason, history, etc.” Given that my question was about Christian moral theory, I take it you are saying that moral theory is informed by traditions, reason, and history?
    “I would say ‘faith’ is probably akin to ‘belief’.” This statement is clear and direct.
    “You seem to be hung up on Christianity being ‘coherent'” This is infinitely more clear than your first comment. But is it intended as an answer to my question, or is it just a tangential observation, or a criticism?
    “but one cannot have ‘coherence’ without belief/faith.” I have no idea what that means. Is any belief sufficient to enable coherence, such as my belief that the sun will rise in the morning, or did you have a particular belief in mind?

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  7. Siggy November 17, 2015 / 4:23 pm

    I’m actually happy to have these conversations, and even if we don’t get to step 3, I hope we can at least finish step 1. That would put you ahead of many people, let me tell you.

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  8. T-Bone November 18, 2015 / 8:16 am

    @Siggy, Jeez, if we’re having this much trouble with just Step 1…

    “‘It’ has an ambiguous antecedent, either referring to Christianity or to Divine Command.”
    The subject here is Christianity, as in “7 THOUGHTS ON “CHRISTIANITY MADE OF IRON AND STRAW”. That and context should make it clear that ‘it’ refers to Christianity and not Divine Command.

    “Given that my question was about Christian moral theory, I take it you are saying that moral theory is informed by traditions, reason, and history?”
    Yes. There is much of the morality that comes down from God and some informed by traditions, reason, and history.

    ‘You seem to be hung up on Christianity being coherent’ is more of a criticism. What I am trying to say is that reason or coherence ALONE is not enough for a moral theory; there needs to be faith/belief. It is more important to look at those foundational beliefs than it is to ascertain coherence.

    One cannot have coherence or reason without belief/faith, means that any system of knowledge like reason/coherence begins with or is founded in faith/belief. I am trying to say that you cannot ascertain coherence UNTIL you understand those foundational beliefs; those axioms DEFINE coherence.

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  9. T-Bone November 18, 2015 / 8:20 am

    Copy paste error: “CHRISTIANITY MADE OF IRON AND STRAW” instead of “7 THOUGHTS ON CHRISTIANITY MADE OF IRON AND STRAW”.

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  10. Siggy November 18, 2015 / 8:48 am

    Okay, great! So now I can comment more on the substance of what you’re saying.

    You didn’t really explain what Christian moral theory is, but you described it as a complex entity drawing from many sources, so I understand why it would be difficult to explain what it is in brief. Note that Divine Command theory often comes up in the context of people arguing that morals require God. You haven’t made that argument yourself, but when people do, the question is, “How does God provide morals in a way that other things can’t?” Divine Command theory is the only simple answer to that question, and if Christians have a more complex answer in mind, it’s not clear to me. You can, of course, derive morals from tradition/reason/history without God.

    You said “faith” might be akin to “belief”, but based on how you are using it, perhaps it refers to “foundational belief”. Incidentally, my philosophy is anti-foundationalist, so I would still be rejecting faith under that definition.

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  11. T-Bone November 18, 2015 / 1:36 pm

    Great response! Let me try to answer some of your questions. God can provide morals in a way that other things can’t because nothing else is as perfect as God (omniscient), assuming you buy into God of course.

    Once can derive morals from tradition/reason/history but it would be tough to do without acknowledging that there was some influence from some religion somewhere in that tradition/reason/history. That said, I think that one can come up with morals “from scratch” but these would probably be arbitrary or circular in reasoning, at the very least.

    Yes, I was referring to foundational belief. As far as anti-foundationalism goes, I reject it. It is a flawed philosophy that claims to use logic/reason yet rejects logic: logic itself is an axiomatic system (ie foundational.)

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  12. Siggy November 18, 2015 / 3:25 pm

    It’s true that logic and math are foundationalist systems, but I also think logic and math push the limits of what can be achieved within foundationalism. Anything that goes beyond logic and math is de facto not foundationalist. I am a practicing scientist, and the only “foundation” we have is basically just stuff that everyone agrees about, because most disputes were settled decades or centuries ago. It is in fact common to use “circular reasoning”, in a sort of A -> B -> C -> A structure. Each arrow here represents a loose inference that can be disputed. It is better for the web of ideas to be well-connected, since it means that to reject any particular idea you have to dispute more than one inference.

    I think it’s all too common for people to claim that their knowledge is foundationalist when it actually isn’t. The most infamous example is Objectivism, which claims to be based on a few simple axioms. But don’t you find it incredible that you can derive the virtue of selfishness from “A is A”? Likewise, I find it incredible that people can derive morality from the existence of god, and even more so when they say god is the only way to make such a derivation. I mean, there are a few steps in the middle which remain unexplained, don’t you think?

    Anyway, that’s my brief anti-foundationalist schpiel, although I don’t expect to settle age-old epistemology arguments in a single blog comment. I thank you for sharing your point of view, and even going so far trudge through several comments worth of miscommunication.

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  13. T-Bone November 19, 2015 / 8:10 am

    Another great response!

    I agree that math, logic, reason, etc. are great and have helped us accomplished so many things. I also agree that there are limitations to them, but there will always be limitations to knowledge and I think these offer the least limitations.

    I agree that most of the “foundation” in science is basically stuff that everyone agrees about, but I’m not so sure that everything is so settled. There are always observations that make us sometimes question those foundations like quantum physics vs Newtonian. We still use both and yet both are at odds in some respects.

    While circular reasoning is sometimes used, it is in fact a logical fallacy and thus incorrect. I’m not sure exactly what you meant by your structural example of circular reasoning; perhaps an actual example would serve better?

    “I think it’s all too common for people to claim that their knowledge is foundationalist when it actually isn’t. The most infamous example is Objectivism, which claims to be based on a few simple axioms.”
    Are you claiming that Objectivism isn’t based on axioms? It’s undeniable to me that Objectivism is based on axioms and thus foundationalist. Whether there are a few or many axioms and whether the axioms are simple or complex is moot; the fact that it’s axiomatic means it’s foundational.

    “But don’t you find it incredible that you can derive the virtue of selfishness from ‘A is A’?”
    How so? ‘A is A’ is a tautology (not to be confused with circular reasoning, btw) from which you can only derive that selfishness = selfishness. It says nothing regarding selfishness having virtue. I think ‘A is A’ is one of the most powerful axioms there are.

    It is indeed incredible that people derive morality from God, but it’s not simply from the fact that He exists. God commands morality, has edicts, etc. There’s also history and traditions as well; some influenced by God, and some not. Curiously, morals are a foundation from which we draw insight regarding how to treat ourselves and each other; it’s odd that someone who rejects foundationalism would be so interested in the subject…unless the objection to foundationalism is simply academic and not practiced in reality…

    When we say that God is the only way to make such a derivation, it’s not that someone else cannot arrive to the same conclusions irrespective of God, it’s that such conclusions would lack the weight and authority God lends them. In the end, anyone can derive any moral code and they would all be equal in weight and authority with no way of knowing which to choose.

    I’d be interested in hearing more about anti-foundationalism because, so far, I’ve found it to be quite foundational!

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  14. Siggy November 19, 2015 / 8:42 am

    Objectivism claims to be based on axioms, but it is clear that its conclusions could not possibly follow from its axioms. For example, one of the axioms is “A is A” (and there are a few similar ones), and one of the conclusions is that selfishness is a virtue. As you yourself observed, the axiom appears to say nothing regarding the virtue of selfishness.

    Likewise, I think the existence of God has nothing to say regarding morality, and cannot possibly confer any weight or authority to any particular moral code. You assert that it does, I assert that it doesn’t, which leads to an impasse until you actually explain the mechanics of how that works. Divine Command theory means that God commands or endorses a moral code, and that is what gives it weight. But since you don’t endorse Divine Command theory, what do you mean?

    You are correct that the “foundations” of science are not entirely settled, and can be questioned. That’s partly why it is inappropriate to describe science under foundationalism. The anti-foundationalist point of view is that knowledge is structured more like a web of ideas. Rather than starting from one point and reasoning to another, all the points are connected in all directions (naturally including circles). This is important because it means the web is robust to the removal of any single idea, as will happen frequently. Whereas under foundationalism, if you disprove any step, the entire building above it topples over.

    Incidentally, my robot boyfriend disputes that even math and logic are foundationalist. For example, real numbers can in fact be defined and constructed from simpler axioms. But mathematicians ignore these axioms for all practical purposes. In fact, there are multiple equally valid methods to construct real numbers (i.e. dedekind cuts and cauchy sequences), and obviously mathematicians are not going to preface all their papers with an explanation of which construction they are using. And modern logic is basically an exercise in testing out different sets of axioms.

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  15. T-Bone November 23, 2015 / 7:17 am

    Ayn Rand wasn’t a particularly good philosopher, though I find her to be an interesting person…minus her anti-religion stuff, of course! That said, I don’t Objectivism is a particularly good example of axiomatic system of knowledge. I’d refer more to mathematics or other more robust philosophies than Objectivism.
    “Likewise, I think the existence of God has nothing to say regarding morality, and cannot possibly confer any weight or authority to any particular moral code.”
    As an atheist, I would expect no less.

    “You assert that it does, I assert that it doesn’t, which leads to an impasse until you actually explain the mechanics of how that works.”
    Well, I’m not trying to convince you of anything; I’m just trying to explain.

    “Divine Command theory means that God commands or endorses a moral code, and that is what gives it weight. But since you don’t endorse Divine Command theory, what do you mean?”
    I didn’t say I didn’t endorse it, I just said that it wasn’t the ONLY source of morality for Christians. Clearly, there are many ways in which God commands His believers to be moral.

    “You are correct that the ‘foundations’ of science are not entirely settled, and can be questioned. That’s partly why it is inappropriate to describe science under foundationalism.”
    Perhaps I didn’t express myself properly. What I meant is that science itself is not settled and that there are still some things in science that many take as ‘foundational’ but can turn out to be not ENTIRELY correct. That said, there are axioms that precede science that are settled. You brought one of them up earlier: A is A. That’s pretty much settled.

    “The anti-foundationalist point of view is that knowledge is structured more like a web of ideas. Rather than starting from one point and reasoning to another, all the points are connected in all directions (naturally including circles). This is important because it means the web is robust to the removal of any single idea, as will happen frequently.”
    A web is attached at points on its periphery to a foundation. A web cannot be spun without these points.

    “Whereas under foundationalism, if you disprove any step, the entire building above it topples over.”
    Sure, if by ‘building’ you mean some conclusion being drawn in some syllogism, but not foundationalism itself.

    Your boyfriend is correct: math is indeed foundationalist. I would go as far as saying that so is the way we acquire knowledge.

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  16. Siggy November 23, 2015 / 7:33 am

    You misread; my boyfriend argued that math and logic are not foundationalist, since their supposed foundations are interchangeable and always changing.

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  17. Siggy November 23, 2015 / 7:45 am

    So basically, faith means believing without evidence (in the foundationalist sense). And Christian morality is based on, well we haven’t answered that question, but you explicitly refuse to deny that it involves Divine Command theory. The “straw men” in the OP appear not to really have been straw men in your case.

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  18. T-Bone November 23, 2015 / 2:32 pm

    Not sure I misread because I take “Incidentally, my robot boyfriend disputes that even math and logic are foundationalist” to mean that he thinks math and logic are foundationalist.

    The fact that there is more than one way to express an axiom doesn’t make the axiom invalid; the fact that there maybe a different set of axioms that can be used to derive the same syllogisms also does not make the axiomatic system non-foundationalist especially if they are capable of expressing the exact same things.

    As far as I can tell, non-foundationlist systems seem to be incomplete and inconsistent descriptions of nature, whereas there are axiomatic systems that can be complete and inconsistent or incomplete and consistent, both of which are preferable and more useful. Regardless, there are axioms that are universal like the tautology A = A; that cannot be denied.

    I’m not sure were you get “faith means believing without evidence (in the foundationalist sense)” because foundationalists require proof (ie self-evident.) It should be self-evident that A = A, for example. For Christians, it is self-evident that God exists; there are experiences that (ie evidence) that has led them to believe so. You (and other atheists alike) may not agree or accept with our evidence and thus you reject our axioms.

    My only disagreement with the OP was (splitting hairs I suppose) that Christian morality isn’t strictly Divine Command. That said, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s suppose it is. So, I think once one accepts those (Christian) axioms, I think that the morality of Christianity follows rather logically or reasonably from there.

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  19. Siggy November 23, 2015 / 3:30 pm

    “The fact that there is more than one way to express an axiom doesn’t make the axiom invalid;”

    You misunderstand. I am not saying that there is more than one way to express logical/mathematical axioms, nor am I saying that they are invalid. There are literally multiple non-equivalent sets of axioms. For example, do you consider the axiom of choice or the axiom of determinacy to be true? Under foundationalism, you’d have to pick one or the other, since they’re inconsistent with each other. In mathematics, neither is considered to be “true” or “self-evident”. Instead, the two axioms are understood to lead to different conclusions.

    “For Christians, it is self-evident that God exists; there are experiences that (ie evidence) that has led them to believe so.”

    To say something is self-evident means that no further evidence is needed beyond the statement of the claim. Here you are offering additional evidence (ie experiences), which indicates to me that you are not actually confident in the self-evidence of god.

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  20. T-Bone November 25, 2015 / 7:56 am

    “For example, do you consider the axiom of choice or the axiom of determinacy to be true? Under foundationalism, you’d have to pick one or the other, since they’re inconsistent with each other.”
    Precisely. You have to pick one, you cannot come to a coherent conclusion using both. That’s been my point to you all along. You cannot say (in keeping with the analogy) that ‘religion is like the axiom of choice’ AND ‘religion is like the axiom of determinacy’.

    “In mathematics, neither is considered to be ‘true’ or ‘self-evident.’ Instead, the two axioms are understood to lead to different conclusions.”
    That’s false. Any system of mathematics that incorporates either one of these axioms (to the exclusion of the other), will consider the axiom they incorporate as ‘true.’ This analogy is distracting and not supportive of your position because unlike you view of ‘religion’, the terms of the analogy ‘Axiom of Choice’, ‘Axiom of Determinacy’, and ‘Mathematics’ all have clear definitions.

    “To say something is self-evident means that no further evidence is needed beyond the statement of the claim.”
    Correct: a Christian, needs no further evidence than his experience that God exists.

    “Here you are offering additional evidence (ie experiences), which indicates to me that you are not actually confident in the self-evidence of god.”
    That does not follow. You are saying that I made 2 claims when in fact I only made 1: a Christian has an experience that tells them that God exists. Where’s the other claim?

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  21. Siggy November 25, 2015 / 9:21 am

    @T-bone,
    Okay, now we’re back to where we started, with you saying things that just don’t make any sense. For instance, you are talking about the definition of religion, as if you confused this thread with the other comment thread? Then you refer to an analogy I made, and I literally have no idea what you’re talking about. Then you say I said you made 2 claims, and I also don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.

    Anyway, I don’t have time to work further on your communication ability. It’s on you.

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  22. T-Bone December 3, 2015 / 8:59 am

    @Siggy, “For instance, you are talking about the definition of religion, as if you confused this thread with the other comment thread?”
    Indeed I did refer to the other thread. Of course, it changes nothing regarding the reasoning behind the point I made. This also tells me you actually understand what I am saying; if not, please explain what part is unclear to you.

    “Then you refer to an analogy I made, and I literally have no idea what you’re talking about.”
    It’s your analogy; what part don’t you understand?

    “Then you say I said you made 2 claims, and I also don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”
    Really? You said “here you are offering additional evidence (ie experiences)”. The word “additional” implies more than one. The plural of the word “experience” implies more than one. Two, is more than one.

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  23. Siggy December 3, 2015 / 9:10 am

    T-bone, here’s some advice for explaining yourself better. First, repeat what you said using the exact same words. Second, point to what you said and ask me to read it again. Third, declare that the point still stands.

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  24. Siggy December 3, 2015 / 9:13 am

    Wait, actually you already got those three steps down. Well, good luck!

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  25. T-Bone December 9, 2015 / 8:00 am

    You missed some:

    “if not, please explain what part is unclear to you.”

    “what part don’t you understand?”

    It’s all rather clear, it’s all in English, I honestly don’t see the confusion.

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