Belief in God and belief in the Christian faith are both vulnerable to skepticism in view of the fact that both beliefs consist in conjuctions.
Some of the key divine attributes are:
- eternally bodiless
- eternally omnipotent
- eternally omniscient
- eternally perfectly morally good
- the creator of the universe
In order for God to exist, there must be one and only one person who has all five of these divine attributes.
If there is an omnipotent person who is evil or morally flawed, but no omnipotent person who is perfectly morally good, then there is no God. If there is an omniscient person who is not omnipotent, but no omniscient person who is omnipotent, then there is no God. If there is a perfectly morally good person who has a body, but there is no perfectly morally good person who is bodiless, then there is no God. Each of the above attributes is a necessary condition for something to be God, so if there is no being who has all five of these attributes, then theism (classical western theism) is false.
The probability that there is an eternally bodiless person is LESS THAN the probability that there is an eternally bodiless person who is also eternally omnipotent. I don’t see any logical or causal connection between being an eternally bodiless person and being an eternally omnipotent person, so it appears that the multiplication rule of probability would apply here. If there is a one in a million chance that there is an eternally bodiless person, and a one in a million chance that there is an eternally omnipotent person, then the probability that both claims are true is one millionth times one millionth:
1/1,000,000 x 1/1,000,000 = 1/1,000,000,000,000
Furthermore, not only do we need to have a person who is eternally bodiless and a person who is eternally omnipotent, but we need to have one person who has both of these attributes, which is even less probable because that represents only one particular scenario out of the various possibilities in which there is at least one eternally bodiless person and at least one eternally omnipotent person.
To the extent that the divine attributes are independent of each other, we can multiply the small probabilities and derive even smaller probabilities.
An eternally omnipotent person could eventually decide to cause itself to become bodiless or to become omniscient, but if an omnipotent person caused itself to BECOME bodiless or to BECOME omniscient, then it clearly would not be an eternally bodiless person, nor an eternally omniscient person. So, the power of an omnipotent person to give itself new attributes is irrelevant to the question of the existence of God.
Similarly, an eternally omniscient person might eventually use it’s knowledge to become an omnipotent person or a bodiless person, but if it caused itself to BECOME omnipotent or to BECOME bodiless, then it would not be eternally omnipotent or eternally bodiless. So, the ability of an eternally omniscient person to use its knowledge to obtain other divine attributes is irrelevant to the question of the existence of God.
Theism must fight a steep uphill battle against the multiplication of probabilities, because theism implies the assertion that there is a person who possesses MANY (at least five) different divine attributes, each one of which is such that it is improbable that there is any person who has the attribute.
Christianity is also vulnerable to skepticism in view of the fact the Christian faith consists in a CONJUNCTION of SEVERAL beliefs:
- God exists.
- Jesus existed.
- Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem in about 30 C.E.
- Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified.
- Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem less than 48 hours afer he was crucified.
- Jesus rose from the dead.
- God caused Jesus to rise from the dead.
- All human beings have sinned (except for Jesus).
- All human beings have souls.
- Any human being who has sinned deserves eternal punishment.
- Jesus’ death on the cross provided atonement for the sins of all human beings.
- Any human being can obtain an eternal life of happiness by repenting of his/her sins and believing that Jesus is the divine Son of God and savior of humankind who died for our sins and who was raised from the dead by God.
This is only a partial list of some basic Christian beliefs. If just one of these beliefs is false, then Christianity is false, at least traditional or orthodox Christianity is false.
Some modern Christians reject the physical resurrection of Jesus, so they don’t accept the belief that “Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem less than 48 hours after he was crucified”. But such Christians still believe in some sort of “resurrection”, and that alternative view is a part of their modern version of Christianity.
Some Christians reject the idea of eternal punishment, but they still believe in some sort of divine judgment, so they have some alternative to eternal hellfire, such as annihilation of a person. This, again, is an alternative belief that substitutes for the traditional belief that “Any human being who has sinned deserves eternal punishment”.
So, although there are modern and non-traditional versions of Christianity available, those alternative versions usually substitute some alternative belief for a traditional Christian belief that has been rejected. Non-traditional versions of Christianity, like the traditional version of Christianity, consist of several basic beliefs, some of which are modified or revised versions of traditional Christian beliefs.
If somone claims to be a Christian yet rejects most of the above traditional Christian beliefs and does NOT substitute some alternative beliefs in place of the rejected beliefs, then this non-traditional “Christian” might well be nothing more than a theist (or even a pantheist) who is pretending to be a Christian believer, but whose worldview has very little connection to the Christian religion. Belief in the existence of God is NOT sufficient to make a person a Christian. There is clearly some flexibility in the concepts of “Christian” and “Christianity”, but there is a limit to that flexibility. Concepts can be stretched only so far before they break.
Many of the dozen basic traditional Christian beliefs listed above are improbable. Some of these beliefs are independent of each other. The existence of God, for example, has little or no impact on the probability of the existence of Jesus. The non-existence of God has no significant implications as to whether there was an historical Jesus. The existence of God also has no significant implications as to whether there was an historical Jesus. We can investigate these two questions independently.
The existence of God does have some relevance to the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead and whether God raised Jesus from the dead. Obviously, if there is no God, then it is NOT the case that God raised Jesus from the dead. But Jesus might have risen from the dead even if there were no God. Perhaps Jesus was simply an extraordinary human being with extraordinary powers. Or perhaps there were highly advanced space aliens who used advanced medical knowledge and technology to bring Jesus back to life. So, the resurrection of Jesus is not entirely dependent on the existence of God.
Clearly, it is also possible that God exists but that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Perhaps the deists are correct that God does not intervene in human affairs, and God refused to intervene in the death of Jesus, just like God refused to intervene in the deaths of millions of innocent people over the past few thousand years. So, even if the Christian wins the debate on the existence of God, that still leaves the questions about Jesus open to skepticism and doubt.
Because there is a significant number of independent beliefs and a significant degree of independence even with those Christian beliefs that have some logical or causal relationship, probabilities must generally be multiplied here. Although Christians often assert these beliefs dogmatically and with great confidence, it seems clear to me that an objective evaluation of these beliefs can at most arrive at the conclusion that the belief is probable or in a few cases, very probable. But with a dozen beliefs at issue, it is highly probable that at least one of the dozen or so of these beliefs is false.
Let’s suppose that the beliefs were all independent of each other, just to see the skeptical power of multiplying probabilities. Even if each of the twelve beliefs was evaluated to have a probability of .8, the probability of the conjunction of all twelve beliefs is low:
.8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 = .068719476736
= approximately .07 (less than one chance in ten)
Since an objective evaluation of these beliefs will generally result in a judgment that the probability of a claim is less than .5 (most of these beliefs are improbable), even if we are generous and allow that some of the beliefs could be evaluated as very probable (say .8), the average probability is going to be no more than about .6 (somewhat probable). This generous evaluation of the probabilities of these dozen beliefs would then result in an even lower probability than the previous calclulation:
.6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 = .002176782336
= approximately .002 (two chances in 1,000)
Because the Christian faith involves accepting a conjunction of SEVERAL beliefs (most of which are improbable), even if we skeptics are generous in granting that each of the basic Christian beliefs is somewhat probable (e.g allowing for an average probablility of .6) it is highly probable that at least one of these beliefs is false. If objectivity and probability play a significant role in a person’s reasoning, then skepticism will win the war, even if skepticism doesn’t win each and every battle.
UPDATE on 9/25/16
I failed to mention one of my favorite examples of skepticism and conjunctions:
(GRJ) God raised Jesus from the dead.
This is an important and basic Christian belief. Although this is a brief sentence, it packs a lot into just a few words.
The meaning of this sentence, in the context of the Christian faith, can be analyzed in terms of a number of claims that must all be true in order for (GRJ) to be true:
- God exists.
- Jesus existed.
- Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem in about 30 CE.
- Jesus died on the cross on the same day that he was crucified.
- Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem less than 48 hours after being crucified.
- If Jesus came back to life after he died on the cross, that was because God caused Jesus to come back to life.
Strictly speaking, Jesus could have been burned alive at the stake, or strangled to death, or beheaded, or stoned to death, or drowned, and then came back to life. But these alternative possibilities would imply that the Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus were purely fictional, and so these alternatives would seriously undermine the credibility of the Gospels and of the Christian faith. Thus, in the context of the Christian faith (GRJ) is NOT compatible with just any kind of cause of the death of Jesus. The context eliminates many logical possibilities that a simple and context-free interpretation of (GRJ) would peremit.
None of these claims is certain. There are very good reasons to doubt the existence of God, even if one is impressed by one or more of the arguments offered in support of the existence of God. Swinburne, for example, argues that the probability of the existence of God is above .5, but he does not argue that the probability of the existence of God is above .6 (at least, not in his book The Existence of God).
Although I think it is probable that Jesus existed, I have argued that the case for the existence of Jesus is less than compelling, and that an objective evaluation of the probability would be somewhere between .6 and .8.
Christian apologists and many biblical scholars claim that the crucifixion of Jesus is almost certain, but I have argued that even if we ASSUME that Jesus did exist, there are still good reasons to doubt the claim that Jesus was crucified, and that the probability (on the assumption that Jesus did exist) is significantly less than 1.0 (perhaps .8 or .9).
That Jesus died on the cross on the same day that he was crucified is a priori improbable, because it usually took a number of days for a victim of crucifixion to die, and there are many legitimate grounds for doubting the accuracy of the details of the Gospel accounts of Jesus crucifixion and death, so this claim is subject to significant doubt.
If we ASSUME that Jesus really existed, that he really was crucified, and that he really did die on the cross on the same day he was crucified, then the claim that Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem a couple of days later is a priori extremely improbable, and since the Gospel accounts are filled with contradictions and inconsistencies on this issue, and since we have no eyewitness accounts of the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem, this claim is subject to very serious doubt.
I have also argued that it is clear that Jesus was a FALSE PROPHET, and so it is highly improbable that God, if God exists, would raise Jesus from the dead, because that would constitute a great deception, but God is, by definition, an eternally perfectly morally good person, and so God would be very ulikely to be involved in such a great deception.
In order for (GRJ) to be true, all of the above six claims must be true. The issue of the existence of God is, largely, independent from the issue of the existence of Jesus. These issues can reasonably (for the most part) be evaluated independently of each other. The existence of Jesus can also (for the most part) be evaluated independently of the question of whether Jesus was crucified, and although the death of Jesus by crucifixion on the same day he was crucified requires that Jesus first be crucified, this further claim has problems or doubts that still hold even on the assumption that Jesus was in fact crucified.
There is an obvious dependency between the claim that Jesus died on the cross on the day he was crucified and the claim that Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem less than 48 hours after being crucified, but the dependence between these claims goes AGAINST the Christian belief that BOTH of these claims are true. In other words, the truth of one of the claims would make the probability of the other claim very low.
The probability of God being the cause of Jesus coming back to life (assuming that God exists and that Jesus came back to life) is based primarily on considerations about the character and motivations of God, and thus this probability is (for the most part) independent of the probabilities of the various alleged historical events in the life of Jesus.
Because the various claims that constitute (GRJ) have probabilities that are (for the most part) independent of each other, calculating the probabilty of (GRJ) would involve multiplication of the probabilities of the six claims above (with some minor adjustments here and there). Thus, the skeptical problem of conjunctions arises with this important and central Christian belief.