Impervious to Evidence: Hitchens and Hume

While watching videos on YouTube the other day, I came across a nugget which I found to be particularly rewarding.  In a debate on religion with Frank Turek, Christopher Hitchens said something which I found to be intensely gratifying:

. . . (the virgin birth) does not prove that his paternity is divine and it wouldn’t prove that any of his moral teachings were thereby correct . . . nor, if I was to see him executed one day and see him walking the streets the next would that show that his father was God . . . I will give you all the miracles and you will still be left where you are, holding an empty sack.  (Christopher Hitchens in a debate with Frank Turek)

How did I find this statement to be gratifying?  The story goes back almost twenty years to when I first became a Christian.  Knowing that I was a sinner and having been convinced that the Bible was plausibly consistent with the scientific evidence concerning the creation of the universe, I had become a tentative Christian.  I was tentative in the sense that I was willing to give Christianity the old “college try” and to “Taste and see if the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).  As part of my attempt at Christianity, I was reading through the Bible to see if it made any sense when I came across a verse in my studies that perplexed and bewildered me.  It was in the gospel of Luke that Jesus gave a parable which I simply could not believe:

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family,  for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16: 27-31 NIV)

“Are you kidding me?”, I thought to myself, “there is no way that anyone would deny the truth of Christianity if they saw someone raised from the dead.”  To illustrate my difficulty, let us envision the scene:

“Hey Chris how is it going?  Just came back from the dead to tell you that Jesus is Lord and that he wants to forgive you of your sins.”

“Rob?  I saw you get hit by that bus yesterday!  What a mess!  Splattered all over the street like that.  And here you are walking around and telling me that Jesus is Lord and that I have to repent of my sins.  Of course, you understand that it is all hopeless?  I cannot construe this experience as evidence that Jesus is the Son of God or that any of what he said was true . . .”

Do you see the source of my incredulity?  A resurrection is not evidence for the truth of Christianity?  I could not believe that such hardness of heart was possible and my new-found faith was badly shaken.

Desperate to make sense of this problem, I went to my Christian mentor and told him my dilemma.  Much to my consternation, he laughed at me!  “This may seem difficult for you to believe as a newborn believer in Jesus Christ, but in my thirty years I have seen hardness of heart like that many times.”  I expressed my complete incredulity at this possibility and he assured me, “Just give it some time and you will become convinced of the truth of what Jesus said in this passage.”

It is some twenty years later and my experience has certainly confirmed my old mentor’s prediction time and time again.  But up until watching the video of the debate between Frank Turek and Christopher Hitchens, I had never actually seen someone directly say that they wouldn’t believe even if they saw a resurrection.  I have seen hardness of heart, but the degree of hardness necessary to reject Christ in the face of a resurrection was always an extrapolation from lesser examples.  How gratifying to see one of the most difficult teachings of Jesus completely confirmed by one of the greatest atheists of all time!

Of course, we don’t have to rely on Christopher Hitchens to understand what Jesus is saying and determine its plausibility in this case.  When Jesus says that a person who rejects the law and the prophets would not be deterred by a resurrection, what he is really saying is that a person who is living a lifestyle that rejects God’s restraints won’t be dissuaded by mere evidence.  All around us every day we see confirmation of this fact.  Smokers, drug addicts, porn addicts and many other people continue in their lifestyles even when they would readily acknowledge that they are destructive.  All the same, it is very gratifying to have Mr. Hitchens confirm my faith by illustrating the truth of one of the most difficult teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Argument of Hume

The only justification that Mr. Hitchens gives for this “skepticism” is the probability argument made by Hume:

What is more likely?  That the laws of nature have been suspended in your favor and in a way that you approve?  Or that you have made a mistake?  (Christopher Hitchens in a debate with Frank Turek)

Now I have two primary problems with the argument of Hume.  The first has to do with the nature of probability and the second has to do with the nature of delusion and hallucination.  Let us consider these two objections.

The first problem that I have with this argument is that it makes one impervious to evidence.  To see what I mean by this, let us perform a thought experiment.  Let us imagine that a friend sent you the birthday present of a lottery ticket.  The lottery ticket is for the “Pick Six and Win!” lottery hosted by the state government.  Since the game requires that you pick 6 numbers from one to fifty that match the painted ping pong balls drawn out of a rotating cylinder, some simple math tells us that your chance of winning is one in 15,890,700.

Now these odds of winning are so low that one would hardly bother to  watch the exciting and dramatic telecast where the ping pong balls are drawn to determine the winner.  Nevertheless, let us imagine that you receive a phone call from the friend that sent you the ticket and he says, “You won the lottery!”  Being a pessimist and using the argument of Hume and Hitchens you would say, “What is more likely?  That I won the lottery or that you misread the numbers?  Don’t you remember that time when you thought that Amy Smith was calling you?  You looked at the incoming phone number and you swore it was her number?  We all misread numbers every day and it is 15 million to one that you correctly read those numbers.”  “But look at the ticket!  Look at it!  The winning numbers are 14, 22, 37, 12, 26 and 45!”  “No I didn’t” you say and you hang up.   You’re position is impervious to the physical evidence that you actually did win the lottery.

Now I am not arguing that you should purchase lottery tickets.  I am arguing that if you are in possession of a lottery ticket which has the winning numbers on it, you should attempt to claim the money.  Yes the lottery ticket may have a misprint.  Yes your friend may have mistaken the numbers.  Yes it is unlikely that you have won, but you should still, at least, make the attempt.  It is not rational to do otherwise.  “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”  (Psalm 34:8)

The second problem I have with the argument of Hume is that it doesn’t take into account what we know about the nature of delusions and hallucinations.  When a person is deluded or hallucinating, they are disconnected from reality and their experiences don’t make any sense.  Let us take examples of what seem to me to be typical of the delusions and hallucinations around us:

The voice of Naruchi the Neanderthal barbarian came to me and said many wondrous things.  “Eat the cupcake!  Eat the cupcake!”  “Snort that line of coke!  Snort that line of coke!  Now hack 5 year old Bobby up with a chainsaw!”

Like man, I totally dreamed that a gigantic rainbow turtle came down in a shower of polka dot roses and told me that free love was the key to true happiness

What doesn’t typically happen, as far as I can see, is that the product of such hallucinations is sound and morally upright teaching.  The people that taught that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and was raised from the dead himself, also taught us to live sober and chaste lives, to be charitable to others, to be grateful for the things that we have and to turn the other cheek when injured.  Perhaps it is just me, but these teachings do not seem to be the product of minds given to delusion and hallucination.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
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3 Responses to Impervious to Evidence: Hitchens and Hume

  1. Ryan says:

    This is a common objection to Hume made by believers, but it misconstrues Hume’s argument in the first place. I will address your two points:

    1. Hume’s argument focuses on the supernatural nature of miracles. Winning the lottery (or as Turek and others suggest, believing the big bang theory, Hume’s own birth, the rising of life from non-life etc) are all singular events, yes- however, they are NATURAL events, not supernatural ones. The standard of proof for a supernatural event is necessarily incredibly high, whereas the standard of proof for natural events cannot, by definition, ever be as high as a miraculous one (I’m using a definition of miracle here that I think Hume would be on board with- some that somehow occurs when nature is interfered with by an outside influence of some sort). The lottery analogy put forth by Craig, Turek and others therefore fails because it misunderstands how Hume was using probability.

    2. “The people that taught that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and was raised from the dead himself, also taught us to live sober and chaste lives, to be charitable to others, to be grateful for the things that we have and to turn the other cheek when injured. Perhaps it is just me, but these teachings do not seem to be the product of minds given to delusion and hallucination.” – Firstly, this doesn’t make any of the miracles claimed any more likely to be true, but I will assume for the sake of argument and to give you the benefit of the doubt that this wasn’t your intention.

    Secondly, (and this is all according to the writers of the NT) Jesus didn’t really have any original contributions to morality. To suggest that he taught the things you mentioned is to ignore outright other things that Jesus said and did, such as Luke 19 where Jesus tells people that if others don’t accept him as their king, they should bring them before him (Jesus) and slay them. SLAY them- for not accepting Jesus as their king. How exactly is this moral, or consistent with righteous morality?

    Of course, we could go on and on about the contridictory nature of the Bible and the morality (or lack thereof) within it (the story of Lot, God’s endorsement of slavery and genocide immediately come to mind), but I hope you get my point. If not, we can continue this at your leisure.

    • Ryan,

      Christopher Hitchens argued that if he had SEEN someone raised from the dead with his own eyes, that this would not be proof of the claims of Jesus Christ. To give this position the honorable badge of skepticism is the grossest distortion of logic and reason that I can imagine. If seeing a resurrection is not sufficient evidence for the supernatural, then what would conceivably prove to you that the supernatural could exist? Don’t give me the “I have a high standard of proof for the existence of the supernatural and this is only reasonable” and then say that a naturalistic explanation must always be preferred to a supernatural explanation. In that case, you have ruled out the supernatural “a priori” for there is no supernatural event that could not be construed as a delusion. As I have pointed out in my essay “A Case for Christianity Part 2” there is an over-whelming amount of evidence for divine mind available to us and thus the supernatural should not be rejected without a more careful consideration of the evidence.

      “Firstly, this doesn’t make any of the miracles claimed any more likely to be true, but I will assume for the sake of argument and to give you the benefit of the doubt that this wasn’t your intention.”

      I strenuously disagree. If I have a friend who lives a clean and sober life and is not given to invention and he comes to me with a claim of the supernatural miracle, I must give that claim far more credence than if someone who is an alcoholic and a chronic, if not pathological liar, came to me with the same story.

      “Secondly, (and this is all according to the writers of the NT) Jesus didn’t really have any original contributions to morality. To suggest that he taught the things you mentioned is to ignore outright other things that Jesus said and did, such as Luke 19 where Jesus tells people that if others don’t accept him as their king, they should bring them before him (Jesus) and slay them. SLAY them- for not accepting Jesus as their king. How exactly is this moral, or consistent with righteous morality?”

      I am writing an essay on this that should be finished this weekend and I will post it and refer you to it.

      “Of course, we could go on and on about the contridictory nature of the Bible and the morality (or lack thereof) within it (the story of Lot, God’s endorsement of slavery and genocide immediately come to mind), but I hope you get my point. If not, we can continue this at your leisure.”

      I have written a series of essays (and a book) on the various aspects of this topic. “Please see my “Understanding the Old Testament / Throwing Moses Under the Bus” series of essays.

      Thank you for your comment and God Bless,

      rob

    • Ryan,

      I have discussed your comment on Luke 19 in my latest essay, “Where Religions Go To Die”. I wanted to thank you for the prompting. I have had that essay “in my head” for weeks and needed you to trigger my resolve to finish it off.

      Thanks for the help and God Bless,

      rob

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