Dead Apologists Society

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“Debate on the Evidences for Christianity” – Alexander Campbell vs. Robert Owen (1829) Part 4- Historical Apologetics Debates

Alexander Campbell

Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) was a Scots-Irish immigrant in the United States who debated Christianity with a few well-known skeptics. One of his best known debates was with Robert Owen (1771-1858), who argued in favor of agnosticism. This debate was published as “Debate on the Evidences of Christianity” (1829, see link for download). Here, will look at what answers Campbell gave and where his arguments might have been improved. Owen was a fine opponent whom Campbell himself acknowledged as a worthy scholar.

Debate on the Evidences for Christianity Part IV

We left off last time at an intermission (page 40) and pick up there. The moderators interject here to try to reign in the conversation, asking Owen and Campbell to limit the discussion in this afternoon (think about it–multiple days-long debates!) to the first proposition at question, namely “that all religions have been founded in ignorance” (40). Owen begins his defense of the proposition.

First, Owen flatly states that he would not have to defend the proposition that all religions ever are ignorant if humans were not themselves kept in ignorance of “what manner of beings they were, how they were formed at birth, and how their characters were afterword produced for them” (40-41). This bold claim has interest to us today–what more have we learned about these questions than Owen and Campbell might have known in 1829? It seems clear we know more about at least a few of these questions, though one could argue that psychology, anthropology, and biology have digressed–that position would be interesting to see defended. Nonetheless, what does it say that religions persist to this day, almost 200 years later, with possibly more knowledge of these questions than Owen had?

Owen goes on, here making a much more interesting claim: he states that he will demonstrate that humans are different from whatever any religion supposes them to be and that none of the religions apply to humans as they truly are (41). What is interesting to reflect on at this point in the debate is how frequently Owen makes these lofty, impossible to prove claims. Is he really going to survey every religion ever in existence to demonstrate individually that they are all impossible to reconcile with what he believes is human nature? No, of course not. But keep an eye on modern debates over the existence of God or the nature of Christianity as well–how often do the interlocutors in those debates make similarly grand claims without support?

Owen goes on to claim that to prove his contention, we need only to look at ourselves and the facts that we know of right now (41). Here he makes one of the first relevant points to Christianity specifically in the debate so far (though he does so as an attack on “all” religions, apparently): he argues that human beings come into the world entirely ignorant of the state of things and without control over their formation, and concludes from that any religion that teaches humanity is by nature sinful or “bad” (as he puts it) is therefore mistaken. Specifically, Owen asserts that “no being… can ever be made to become responsible for [its] nature” (ibid).

Owen goes on to stress his previous argument that no one is in control of the circumstances of their birth, such that it is an accident of history that people are born into places in which they believe whatever religion they believe (41-43). He asks, “Who amongst us decided that he should be taught to speak English, be instructed in the Christian religion and belong to his particular sect?” (43). He then appeals to the commonality of all humanity in being accidents of birth to find unity: all the things which separate us, he asserts, can be attributed to the accidents of circumstance (I’m using the phrase “accident” here to substitute for his wordier descriptors). Thus, we can turn to our neighbors and unite with them over our shared humanity. It is a powerful call to a humanist faith in the unity of all humankind.

Campbell rises to meet this mixed challenge. And he does so with startling clarity:

Let us try this position with a reference to our existing institutions : all schools and colleges have been founded and predicated on the ignorance of man ; all testimony has been predicated on the ignorance of man; all the books that have ever been printed are predicated on the ignorance of man? Are not these facts? But does the existence of these facts cast any opprobrium [censure], obloquy [public verbal abuse], or disparagement upon books, human testimony, or seminaries of instruction?— These terms, then, have nothing in their nature or import calculated to engender a prejudice against religion. (45)

Campbell goes on in to frankly concede Owen’s point that all religions are founded in ignorance, so long as it is taken by that to mean that all religions are founded on humans who do not have the capacity to control the place of their birth, the circumstances thereof, etc. But rather than concluding that this means the are all false or unnecessary, Campbell flips the narrative on its head and says that this ignorance itself shows the need for religion! The reason, he asserts, is because religion helps us to sort out the many things that happen as accidents of birth and provides a basis for morality and rational sorting out of all the myriad of details that we are made aware of throughout our lives. ” If, then, [people] need a religion at all, they need it because of their ignorance. It was instituted to remove human ignorance, and the necessity of supernatural revelation has ever been predicated on that ignorance” (45).

The question of what human knowledge is gained and what is necessary is “thorny,” as Campbell notes, and he goes on to state that Owen’s position effectively makes all human capacities and reasoning necessary based upon the way Nature operates on them. But nature itself does not explain all things, and the capacity for our observation of all things is not limitless. Metaphysical truths, like many principles of mathematics which seem unquestionable, can become difficult when the test of observation is applied, but that does not undermine the possibility for their truth.

Moreover, Campbell argues that we are not entirely products of circumstance: Owen himself went against the nature of British society from which he sprang. The ceding of all knowledge to circumstance has led to a number of ideas that are difficult to reconcile with reality, according to Campbell. Among these are those philosophers who came to deny right and wrong; others who denied the existence of the physical world; and many other difficult positions. Then, Campbell goes on a somewhat lengthy discourse about not just Owen’s 12 principles (introduced before) but also on how philosophers in general tend to pick a favored principle (or set thereof) and reduce all human activity and thought down to that–an exercise that is often futile, according to Campbell (47-49).

With this, Campbell concludes, and the two retired for the day. We, too, will leave off here (page 51) and pick it up later. For now, think on how the debate of this day played out: Owen asserts that all religions are founded on ignorance due to circumstances of birth. Campbell concedes the point but notes that if that is the argument, all human institutions are also founded in the same ignorance, such that it is hardly a reason to dismiss religion specifically. Moving on, Campbell argues that religion is necessary exactly for the reason Owen asserts it ought to be condemned. A fascinating day for the debate, don’t you agree?

Questions

  1. Do we know more about what manner of beings humans are, how we are formed at birth, and how characters are produced than Owen and Campbell did in the 1800s? Is it historical hubris to suggest we might? And, if so, what does that say for Owen’s thesis that if we just knew about these questions, all humanity would disavow all religions as ignorance?
  2. What do you think of Campbell’s counter-charge that religion is, in fact, made necessary by humanity’s ignorance?
  3. Should the bare fact of accident of birth be an argument against a position–religion, philosophy, etc.?

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Apologetics Read-Through: Historical Apologetics Read-Along– Here are links for the collected posts in this series and other read-throughs of apologetics books (forthcoming).

Dead Apologists Society– A page for Christians interested in the works of historical apologetics. There is also a Facebook group for it.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Apologetic Arguments: Let’s not unintentionally weaken them

Constellation_Fornax,_EXtreme_Deep_FieldJ.J. Blunt (1794-1855) gave some advice in his book Undesigned Coincidences (freely available at that link–copyright expired) that ought to be applied by we apologists to every single argument we consider. His own book put forward the argument from undesigned coincidences, which is essentially an argument that looks across the Bible to compare books to each other in order to see if details in one might be confirmed in another. Blunt, however, did not feel every single one he found would be seen as useful to his overall argument, and that is where I think his advice might be applied to apologetics generally. He wrote:

I could add several other examples of this class [referring to an undesigned coincidence], i.e. where allusions in the prophets are very sufficiently responded to by events recorded in the historical Books of Scripture, but still the want of precision in the terms makes it difficult to affirm the coincidence between the two documents with confidence; and therefore I have thought it better to suppress such instances, as not possessing that force of evidence which entitles them to a place in these pages… the internal testimony is not so strong as to carry conviction along with it, of such being really the case; and this failing, it is folly to weaken a sound argument by a fanciful extension of it (253).

Here we see that Blunt has more arguments and instances he believes may carry at least some tiny weight, but that he decides it is better to “suppress” (i.e. not share) them, for doing so might take away from the stronger evidences that carry the proof. This, I think, presents an admirable way to approach doing apologetics, and one that we need to take to heart. It is all to easy to present an argument and then either (1) press the argument’s conclusion so far beyond what is warranted that we undercut the conclusion itself or (2) give continual, weak evidences.

Regarding the first potential difficulty, an argument can easily be pressed beyond its conclusion. Thus, for example, we may argue that a form of the cosmological argument demonstrates a first cause, and go on to argue this first cause is omnipotent, which seems a strong enough inference. But then we may go on and say the first cause must be free, to bring something out of nothing, which involves a choice. And then we may argue this implies omniscience for what could be free and able to create a universe as intricate as ours? One can see how quickly we’ve gone beyond an argument’s conclusion (a cause of the universe) to the point that we need to construct many more arguments to make our case. It may be better to let the cause be what we conclude, and use other arguments to establish other conclusions.

The second difficulty is one that is difficult to nuance. For example, a “cumulative case” approach is a good way to present arguments, but we need to balance that cumulative case with whether the arguments we are using for cumulative effect carry enough weight to be considered. We ought to be careful not to include arguments that, due to their weakness, may distract from the strength of the overall case. This applies even if the “weak” arguments do, in fact, provide some positive evidence. Sometimes it is best to let the case stand as it is. Other times, it is not.

As far as Blunt’s specific instances, I kind of wish he’d at least preserved them somewhere for us to browse, even if they are weak enough he doesn’t think them convincing. That way, we could look them up ourselves and see if 160+ years may have shed more light on the potential coincidence. Alas, we will not know what they are until the hereafter. As it stands, though, Blunt’s work is a giant of apologetics.

We apologists need to be careful not to unintentionally weaken our argument by being tempted to include every possible line of evidence. Sometimes, that can make our case appear weaker than it actually is.

Source

J.J. Blunt, Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings both of the Old and New Testaments: An Argument of their Veracity (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855).

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Dead Apologists Society– A page for Christians interested in the works of historical apologetics. There is also a Facebook group for it.

Library of Historical Apologetics– A massive wealth of resources, with links to many, many books freely available (copyright expired) for those interested in historical apologetics.

Forgotten Arguments for Christianity: Undesigned Coincidences- The argument stated– I explain the argument from undesigned coincidences in more detail, with several links for further reading.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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