There are some facts that are so obvious no one will likely question them (e.g. ‘the sun produces heat’); but most need to be proven true before they are accepted as such. Even a prima facie truth (one that appears true at first sight) can and should be scrutinized and rejected if found false; although the burden of proof lies on those who are skeptical.
Most theories become facts only after gaining nearly universal acceptance, at least within the field of study they belong to. This requires proof. We expect evidence to be presented for claims when less than an overwhelming majority of people hold them. This does not mean beliefs with less support are false (or that the majority is always correct), but they need to be supported by a convincing argument before people will rely on them. If we weren’t so picky we would believe everything, no questions asked, and accept all theories on everything (ALIENS! BIGFOOT!)
It seems that many Christians, especially presuppositionalists, present Christian beliefs as self-evident truth. They assume that the burden of proof is on those who don’t believe; despite the fact that there is no empirical evidence of God. The hypothesis of God’s existence is unfalsifiable, as Christians are often quick to point out (e.g. the argument made in the popular movie God’s Not Dead). Because of this, the burden of proof should be on those who present it as fact. If we did not require proof for unfalsifiable claims, we would be forced to accept all religions as true, since their beliefs in the supernatural are likewise unfalsifiable. Presuppositionalists should be consistent and acknowledge that their epistemology (theory of knowledge) necessarily leads to subjectivism.
Beyond the foundational question of God’s existence, Christianity (at least in the way it is most represented) is a complicated and comprehensive belief system; not just simple belief in a deity. If you believe the wrong thing about God (i.e. God doesn’t want people to stop sinning) you would likely not fit in at any church. So the question of self-evidence is not whether most people believe in a deity, but whether the entire belief system of biblical Christianity is prima facie truth.
Examining the Prevalence of Christianity
As mentioned before, the most important gauge of self-evident truth is whether an overwhelming majority of people accept it. If Christianity truly were self-evident, it would naturally follow that the majority of people in the world would be Christians. But this is not the case. In a 2012 study, Pew Research Center found that 31.5% of people in the world identify as Christians (keep in mind that Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. all fall under the umbrella of ‘Christianity’). Christians represent less than 5% of the populations of 38 countries, and they represent less than 0.5% of the populations of Morocco, Somalia, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Iran, Tunisia, Western Sahara, Yemen, Mauritania, Cambodia, Maldives, Turkey, Bhutan, Comoros, and Nepal. If the “truth” of Christianity is prima facie, one would have to assume that roughly 99.5% of people in the countries listed above are rejecting an obvious, self-evident truth.
The study goes on to say that “nearly nine-in-ten Christians (87%) are found in the world’s 157 Christian-majority countries.” Is God more self-evident in Christianized countries? Here’s a novel thought: religious people generally hold their beliefs because they are a part of their culture, not because the truth of their religion is self-evident. Christianity is not a part of Morocco’s culture; therefore it is not surprising that less than 0.1% of people in Morocco are Christians. It would seem that evangelism of these countries would not be needed if Christianity were self-evident. Wouldn’t it just be stating the obvious? If everyone has knowledge of God in their hearts, why do many act woefully ignorant of the fact and need to hear the gospel before they can be saved?
In response many Christians will say that people reject God because they are either blinded, depraved, selfish, sinful, arrogant, or all of the above. The assumption is that non-Christians do not reject Christianity out of sincere ignorance, but rather make a conscious decision knowing full well that what they are rejecting is the truth. Of course, not all Christians believe this, and many sympathize with skeptics. But the presuppositional apologist cannot see things that way, as it would undermine his epistemology.
The Doctrine of Biblical Infallibility and Presuppositionalism
This belief in the self-evidence of the Christian God originated in the writings of Paul; specifically passages like Romans 1:18-23. The presuppositionalist takes the view that, regarding those who do not believe: “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them . . . So they are without excuse.” This is the basis of presuppositional apologetics. It is rooted in the belief in biblical infallibility (a doctrine I argued against here). If the Bible was not assumed by some to be infallible, this claim would not be taken seriously by anyone. The apostle Paul couldn’t objectively prove his unfalsifiable hypothesis of universal knowledge of God in the first place, and neither can the presuppositionalist.
But where exactly does this belief in biblical infallibility come from? We would never assume any writing to be beyond dispute unless there were some motive to do so. This belief is again unfalsifiable, and no one can prove that the Bible is absolutely true in all matters. The motive is obvious: without an infallible Bible, Christianity would have to fight battles over the reliability of texts that contain discrepancies, or are historically dubious. There would be no authority in Protestantism without the doctrine of biblical infallibility. The Catholic church has their belief in church infallibility, and rejects a strict doctrine of biblical infallibility/inerrancy. That allows them to have authority. Religion has always been, and always will be about establishing unquestionable authority. If you get enough people to believe in the authority of a religious text or institution, you can set clear dividing lines between the ‘righteous’ and the ‘wicked’ based solely on obedience and conformity to the established authority.
Are All Beliefs Equally Subjective?
The presuppositionalist tries to make the case that everyone has presuppositions that inform their worldview, and the ones that are held by Christians are no less subjective or unjustified than the ones held by atheists. While it is certainly true that everyone operates on presuppositions, this does not mean that all presuppositions are equally justified.
If I presuppose for example, that science is more reliable than the Bible, am I committing a subjective fallacy? I think not. Science has rigorous methodologies and theories undergo intense scrutiny. The results of scientific development are plain to see. If we abandoned it, civilization would quickly start to regress. I doubt many people would be willing to ignore all scientific findings, choosing instead to rely on the Bible as their only information about the world. If we reversed this, and civilization abandoned the Bible, would we regress to the same degree as if we abandoned science? I think not. I would suggest that humanity would not be significantly worse off if the Bible was no longer read.
I would encourage presuppositionalists who think their beliefs could never possibly be proved wrong by science to put their money where their mouth is and not appeal to science for anything. I personally, along with most atheists have chosen not to live according to the Bible, and so I don’t appeal to the Bible in my daily life. Presuppositionalists will still appeal to science in other areas of their lives, yet treat it as untrustworthy when it conflicts with the Bible.
Even more damning to this view is the fact that the Bible has been proven to be incorrect in many instances. Whether it be the mistaken authorship of the Book of Enoch, or many other well-documented internal and historical discrepancies and contradictions. The Bible cannot be inerrant or infallible given the sheer amount of evidence to the contrary, so the question becomes whether we can know if the Bible is reliable in the important details. And the truth is that we can’t know. The Bible may have some truth or it may not, but Christians have no objective methodologies for developing their doctrines. If they did, mainstream denominations would be creating updated Bibles which remove the unreliable information. Of course they don’t because that would undermine certain church doctrines, and open theology up to the possibility of new interpretations and doctrines. The average pastor will never admit that there is unreliable information in the Bible because it would undermine the authority of the church.
In my opinion, an atheistic worldview that is based on scientific truths is a justified presupposition. While a Christian worldview based on the Bible is an unjustified presupposition which ignores evidence. People are entitled to hold that view, but to claim that atheistic presuppositions about scientific methodologies and Christian presuppositions about the Bible are equally subjective is incredibly tendentious.
The Holy Spirit Factor
Presuppositional apologetics was born out of Calvinist theology (the belief that God chooses who will be saved and blinds everyone else). What makes it so difficult to reason with a Calvinist is that they believe they have access to a hypothetical entity (the Holy Spirit) which enables them to believe, while everyone else is just blinded by sin and depravity. This exempts Christians from the burden of proving their claims; after all, no one can be convinced unless God opens their eyes.
The belief in this entity (the Holy Spirit) is based on teachings found in the Bible. The belief in the Bible can only come through the work of the Holy Spirit, say Calvinists. The reasoning is entirely circular. Calvinists cannot present any evidence for the existence of the Holy Spirit, so it is clear that they learned about it because it is taught in the Bible.
Belief in the Bible > belief in the Holy Spirit > belief in the Bible
Despite the claims of presuppositional apologists, Christian beliefs are not self-evident, and this means that they should not be accepted as fact unless they are proven true. I do not think they have been, so it seems to me that Christianity is more appropriately understood as a belief, or a faith, than indisputable truth that is beyond scrutiny.