Clearing the Rubble of Hume in the Making of an “Unapologetic” Argument for God

Hume’s argument against miracles seems to be more of an exercise in satire than a sincere exercise in reasoning.

I have been trying to clear the way for an “unapologetic” argument for God. I am four articles in, and still making me way to the beginning. Standing in the way as I move forward is Hume’s standard of proof for miracles.

David Hume has had a profound influence on Western thought in the promotion of the Enlightenment view, which values human reason as the supreme measuring stick. Hume’s argument against miracles has been viewed as a gold standard among proofs that Christianity is not credible, especially to the extent that Christianity stands on the foundation of a miraculous event – the resurrection of Jesus.

Hume does not hide his antipathy for Christianity.[1] He calls the “Christian religion” a doctrine “so little worthy of a serious refutation … founded merely in the testimony of the apostles”. He labels belief in Christianity “arrogant bigotry and superstition”.

Hume speaks of the “greediness” with which “miraculous accounts” are received. He characterizes the “religionist” as “an enthusiast who sees no reality”, whose vanity is excited by strong temptations and self-interest to promote narratives he knows to be false for what he deems to be a holy. Hume accuses “religionists” of renouncing judgment by principle and losing grip on judgment by “passion and a heated imagination”.

Hume blames the popularity of religion on a “strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvellous”. Hume’s disdain carries over to “the generality of mankind” from “ignorant and barbarous nations” who he says are fools … propagating the imposture” of the “supernatural and marvellous”, the “grossest delusions”, and “delusive prophecies”.

Hume rails on the religions “of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China” equally. He lumps together the testimony of “a few barbarous Arabians” about Mahomet with “Titus Livius, Plutarch, Tacitus, and… all the authors and witnesses, Grecian, Chinese, and Roman Catholic, who have related any miracle in their particular religion”.

Me thinks he doth protest too much. The standard Hume created to determine the veracity and credibility of a miraculous account contains the poison of his strong convictions. Yet, that standard has adherents today, perhaps because he reduces it to mathematical proportions that have the appearance of sacred science. Hume says,

“A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.”

He acknowledges the importance of eyewitness testimony, but he imposes a standard on it that diminishes the value of any eyewitness testimony that contradicts widely established human experience. This seems reasonable on its face. “Marvelous” assertions are suspect; miraculous ones are even more suspect.

I think most of us can “go there” with him. On miracles, Hume says.

“A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.”

In one sense, Hume is merely acknowledging the nature of a miracle: it is a miracle that goes against the laws of nature and the weight of common experience. Nothing would be considered a miracle that was common to the experience of people, even if that experience is relatively uncommon among human experience. He reasonably says,

“There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation.”

Hume, though, is not content to define relegate miracles to the rarity they are by definition. He proceeds to define them out of the realm of possibility. He says,  

“And as an uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.”

Perhaps, wanting to appear open-minded, Hume allows for some proof that might establish a miracle. The proof of a miracle, Hume says, must so weighty “that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours [sic] to establish”.

Even then, Hume says, such counter-balancing evidence only levels the scales; it doesn’t make the factual assertion of the miracle more likely than not (and rejection of the assertion of a miracle would be justified either way).


Hume says, the mere testimony that a miracle occurred should be dismissed out of hand unless the falsehood of the assertion would require believing the miraculous, itself.

Hume seems to assume the possibility of such corroborative evidence, but a simple application of math belies the lack of substance he saw in anything miraculous. Nil plus nil equals nil.

As Hume’s approach is a mathematical one, we can see by the application of math and the value Hume has given to the miraculous the impossibility of establishing proof of a miracle on Hume’s position. The likelihood of proof is nil.

Indeed, he sets his bar so high and makes the requisite proof so onerous that a miracle would be required to prove a miracle. Lest there be any doubt about the meaninglessness of Hume’s standard, he admits:

“I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved….”

Hume is saying that miracles cannot be proven by any amount or kind of evidence.

Hume’s argument against miracles seems (to me) to be more of an exercise in satire than a sincere exercise in reasoning. I am surprised, therefore, that we take him at all seriously. To give further illustration and to remove all doubt about his pretense, Hume seems to beg the question in the following example:

“But suppose, that all the historians who treat of England, should agree, that, on the first of January 1600, Queen Elizabeth died; that both before and after her death she was seen by her physicians and the whole court, as is usual with persons of her rank; that her successor was acknowledged and proclaimed by the parliament; and that, after being interred a month, she again appeared, resumed the throne, and governed England for three years: I must confess that I should be surprized [sic] at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances, but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous an event.”

The fact that people still take him seriously, though the force of his conviction seems stronger than his argument, is one reason I address him here.

Continue reading “Clearing the Rubble of Hume in the Making of an “Unapologetic” Argument for God”

Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World

Down at the bedrock of modern, western values remains a Christian foundation.

Galleries under the central arena of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

I read Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion, about a year ago, and I have written about it a few times. Many Christians would not think to read a history about Western Civilization by a self-described secular humanist (once atheist, perhaps now agnostic) historian.

Most non-Christians are likely to be uncomfortable with the chronicle Holland describes of the radically influential role that Christianity played in the development of Western Civilization, providing the foundation, in fact, for secular humanist ideals. When Holland dug down to the bedrock of modern, western values, he was surprised himself to find them anchored on a Christian foundation.

Holland did not set out to write a Christian apologetic, and he seems to remain somewhat uncertain how to process what he “discovered”. What he found, though, changed his mind about Christianity. He gives a brief explanation in the following clip:

Though Holland has had a turnabout on his view of Christianity, he finds himself caught in an odd position wrought by the unexpected discovery that his lifelong, secular humanist values flow from the radical catalyst of Christian influence and remain embedded ubiquitously in its very fabric. The awkwardness of his current position is evident in his interviews and discussions about the book.

Christians and secular thinkers, alike, wrestle with his book. Holland doesn’t hide any warts, and he doesn’t pull any punches. Neither does he obfuscate the thoroughly paradigmatic shift in Western thinking that Christianity worked into a society that once proudly and unashamedly championed strength and privilege over the poor, the weak, and the lowly.

Holland exposes the metanarrative developed during the Enlightenment and thereafter that belies the foundation on which the Enlightenment structure was built. Far from advancing the progression of human values, the Enlightenment threatened to undo the distinctly Christian concern for the poor, weak, and lowly while attempting to wrest western civilization from the hold of the Divine. Humanism saved the Christian ethic, albeit divorced from Christ.

Consider the full title of Darwin’s great tome which staked out the ground of a scientific (and social) revolution free from God’s interference:

“The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”

The title of Darwin’s book championing the evolutionary paradigm, harkens back to the Greco-Roman value system that despised the poor, the weak and the lowly. That value system did not just turn a callous eye at wanton and discriminate cruelty, it cheered on the strong while they snuffed out the weak. It was national sport!

The very reason the full title never “stuck” (I now believe) is due to a fundamental, pervasive, and thoroughly entrenched counter-value of the intrinsic worth of human life that is uniquely Christian in its source.

The intrinsic value of all human life, from the greatest to the least, from the wisest and strongest to the weakest and most imbecilic, from the fittest to the most infirm, is traceable to the Christian belief that all human beings are made in the image of God. That the survival of the fittest did not take hold as a western social or ethical value is attributable to the deeply ingrained Christian ethic that survived yet, despite the efforts to eradicate its God from modern equations.

Modern humanists may attempt to recast Darwin into a humanistic mold, but the idea of “social Darwinism” bears his name through no model of random, unguided selection. According to John G. West, Charles Darwin, himself, set in motion the inertia for eugenics, among other things, that were associated with social Darwinism:

Darwin himself in The Descent of Man provided the rationale for what became the eugenics movement, and how the vast majority of evolutionary biologists early in the twentieth century were right to see negative eugenics as a logical application of Darwin’s theory.

While the defense of Darwin against the charge of social Darwinism has largely succeeded in popular and polite company, the very title of the Origin of Species (by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) belies the success of that effort. The fact that the full title is merely a parenthetical today is evidence only of a concerted rescue campaign.

Christian values survived despite the Enlightenment coupe, not because of it. Humanism today assumes the evolutionary paradigm for its science alongside the uniquely Christian paradigm of intrinsic human value. That the two assumptions do not fit well together seems to be lost on modern minds.

Continue reading “Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World”

How Does a Living God Relate to a Pagan World?

We have our gods, though we don’t give them names or ascribe human personalities to them.

My thoughts today are based on the story of Paul and Barnabas while they were in Lystra, a city in central Anatolia, part of present-day Turkey. While Paul was speaking, his gaze came to rest on a man listening to him speak who was “crippled at birth”.

Paul saw the man had faith, so he loudly told the man to stand up. (Acts 14:8-10) The man sprang up, and the crowd was awed, saying, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11)

The people in Lystra were pagans. They worshiped Roman gods and, perhaps, other gods as well. They started calling Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes and began making preparations to worship them.

When Paul and Barnabas realized what was happening, they were appalled! They rushed into crowd, saying, “Don’t do that! We are just men like you!” (Acts 14:14-15 (paraphrasing)). Then, Paul addressed his pagan audience like this:

“[W]e bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things[i] to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

Acts 14:15-18

This is, perhaps, the first sermon preached in the early church to people who are not Jews. The pagans did not believe one God. They didn’t understand Mosaic Law, the concept of sin or the prohibition against worshiping idols considered to be false gods.

Thus, Paul didn’t address them as he did his Jewish audiences. He didn’t appeal to Mosaic Law, or accuse them of sin, or call them to repent.

Just as the Gospel is good news to the Jews, it is good news to the pagan Gentiles. The message, however, is different. Paul urged them merely to “turn from vain things to a living God”!

By “vain things” Paul meant their gods, the idols that the pagans worshiped. Instead of calling them idols, as he would have done to a Jewish audience, he referred to them descriptively by their character – their worthlessness, emptiness and utter inability to accomplish anything.

We have a hard time relating to idol worship in the 21st Century. Idol worship is so Bronze Age! Our ancestors long ago stopped believing in gods and sacrificing to them, right?

Tim Keller, in his sermon, The Gospel for the Pagan, paints a different story. These pagans were not so different from us.

In a polytheistic society, of course, people worshiped and sacrificed to a variety of gods. There was no supreme god. People had to decide what gods to worship. Thus, people chose gods to worship based on how those gods could help them.


A a merchant might sacrifice to the god of commerce. A farmer might sacrifice to the god of agriculture. Other people might sacrifice to the god of art and music, or love and beauty, or a combination of gods, depending on what was most important to them.

Keller says that sacrificing to the god(s) of choice was, in effect, worshiping the things people valued most. By sacrificing to the gods of commerce, agriculture, art and music, love and beauty, etc., they were worshiping whatever it was the god represented.  Whatever a person sought help for was the thing from which they sought meaning in life, hope and fulfillment.

Thus, says Keller, “vain things” (idols) are things that “promise fulfillment, but leave you empty”.

We may think of ancient pagans as a brutish and unsophisticated lot, but we are no different than they in the sense that we sacrifice for the things we think will fulfill and satisfy us. The only difference is that we have dispensed with the representative gods.

The person who values career, or accomplishment or being respected by peers as a matter of first priority will sacrifice for those things. The person who thinks that love, romance and family are the highest forms of meaning will devout primary attention to those things. The person who loves art and music will sacrifice for those things and from them seek meaning and fulfillment.

We aren’t that different, really from our pagan ancestors, though we might scoff at the idea of gods, as in idols. We have our gods, though. We just don’t call them names or ascribe human personalities to them.

Paul’s message to the pagans in Lystra was, “These are worthless things!” They can’t fulfill you. Only the Living God can do that. His message has more application to us in the 21st Century than we might think at first glance.

Continue reading “How Does a Living God Relate to a Pagan World?”

The Extraordinary Generosity and Hospitality of CS Lewis

CS Lewis believed there are no ordinary people, and he lived as if it were so.

The statue outside the library in the Irish town where CS Lewis was born
depicts him, as the Narnia narrator Digory Kirke, stepping into a wardrobe.

Ever since I read Mere Christianity in college as a new believer I have been a lifelong admirer of CS Lewis. He may be better known for his children series of books, The Chronicles of Narnia. He wrote other fiction, including a trilogy of science fiction novels, but Lewis more than just a writer of fiction.

Lewis was a professor, a poet, a critic of English literature, and he was a first-rate Christian thinker with an ability to tease nuanced meaning out of complex ideas with rare clarity in his writing. Having been an atheist almost into his 30’s. Lewis came to Christianity with a wealth of knowledge in the classic languages and literature from a scholarly and secular perspective.

His autobiographical book, Surprised by Joy, is a literary cornucopia of allegorical references to the classics. Ancient Greek, Roman, Celtic and Germanic writings were the universe in which his mind operated and found meaning. He was intimately familiar with the myths found in these writings.

When he became a Christian, and he looked back on that wealth of knowledge with new insight, the language of classic literature became the background and (in some ways) the springboard for his belief in “the true myth”, as he came to call it. The “true myth” is the life, death and resurrection of God who became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

While Lewis is known for being a Christian apologist in addition to being a writer of children’s fiction, he was first and foremost a scholar of classic literature. He was a lifelong professor of English Literature with tenures at Oxford University (Magdalen College, 1925–1954) and Cambridge University (Magdalene College, 1954–1963). His books include a highly regarded and well-used critique of Paradise Lost and a textbook on Sixteenth Century English literature.  

To say that Lewis was a prodigious writer and thinker is to understate the fact. He wrote over 30 books of varying types in addition to his “fulltime job” as a distinguished university professor and sought-after speaker.

Given the legacy of thought and writing that Lewis generated, one might suppose that Lewis had no time for the more mundane matters of life. One might suppose that his ego was as prodigious as his works. One might be wrong about such suppositions.

Lewis was one of a kind. Born in 1898, Lewis didn’t marry until 1956. One might suppose that bachelorhood allowed him the luxury of time, but Lewis made a different kind of lifetime commitment that infringed greatly on his time. Lewis took in a woman he didn’t know and cared and provided for her until she died.

The backstory is that Lewis and Paddy Moore met as soldiers in the trenches during the Great War (WWI). They made a pact with each other that the survivor of them would take care of the family of the other if one of them did not survive he war. Lewis, himself, was injured and ended his involvement in the war in the hospital, but Paddy Moore went missing and was never found.

True to his word, CS Lewis, who had interrupted his college years to volunteer for the war, took Paddy’s mother and sister in to live with him on a very modest student’s budget. Lewis cared and provided for Mrs. Moore the rest of her life – a total of 30 years – often doing the household chores himself. After she developed dementia and was moved to a nursing home, Lewis visited her every day until she passed.

Perhaps because of that care and provision, Lewis lived a very modest life, but he always found time for hospitality. Lewis was, perhaps, as generous with his hospitality as he was productive in his writing and professorial vocation.

When the Germans invaded Poland, Lewis opened up his home to several groups of children forced to evacuate the big cities. Lewis also regularly hosted the Inklings on Thursday evenings in his classroom for nearly two decades. (They met alternately at the Eagle and Child Pub, affectionately known as The Bird and Baby) on Tuesdays at midday).


The Inklings was more or less an ad hoc group of writers and thinkers who met to discuss their literary works in progress and whatever other subjects suited their fancy, often late into the night. J.R.R. Tolkien was a faithful member of this group from the beginning, reading the Lord of the Rings to his fellow Inklings, who critiqued it, before it was published. Including a small handful of regulars, the group included about 15 frequent visitors and another dozen infrequent visitors and guests over the years.

As noted above, Lewis married later in life. The marriage, itself, was an exercise in hospitality.  Lewis opened his home to Joy Gresham Davidman, a writer from New York city, and her two sons David and Douglas. They eventually married in a civil ceremony so she could gain British citizenship, but what began as a gesture of generous hospitality, turned into true romantic affection.

They were married a short while, by a priest this time. Joy had developed cancer, and their wedding vows were exchanged in a hospital. They had four more years together when Joy went into remission, but cancer eventually claimed her. Their unlikely story is the subject of the movie, Shadowlands, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger and directed by Sir Richard Attenborough. Lewis also wrote about her death in A Grief Observed.  


But all of this is prelude to the real purpose for which I write today. My inspiration comes from Douglas Gresham, one of Joy’s sons, who was very young when he went to live with his mother in the home of CS Lewis.

Continue reading “The Extraordinary Generosity and Hospitality of CS Lewis”

Holland Digs Up the Root of Modern Western Values as Others Attempt to Dig It Out

The exposure and expose of a wildly popular myth

I have written about Tom Holland before and the book he published called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. The story about the book has intrigued me since I heard him talk about it. I am taking my time reading through it.

We all have a perspective, right? We come to whatever we read or hear with certain assumptions that have developed in our thinking. Affirmations of those assumptions sit well, but challenges to those assumptions do not rest easy. You know what I am talking about.

Holland challenges assumptions from all sides, including his own. For that reason, it’s a challenging read, but all lasting growth of any kind comes through conflict and tension.

Holland is a historian with a particular focus on ancient, classical history. He chose dinosaurs over the Bible as a young child. He was more taken y Pontius Pilate than Jesus Christ as a teenager. The ancient, classical world and likes of Julius Caesar captured his imagination. His passion became both avocation and vocation.

When Holland wrote a book, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, that painted Islam in a candid and critical light, Holland was criticized and challenged to do a similar history of the assumptions that underlie his worldview. The criticism was fair, so he set out to do it.

His worldview? Holland is an atheist and modern humanist. His worldview is undergirded with ideas like human rights that are equal and unalienable, separation of church and state, the value of scientific endeavor and the social necessity of charity and good will.

When he set out to write a book tracing these values back to their sources, he was not predisposed to assume where he would find them, though he certainly had assumptions and presuppositions. Like the paleontologist sifting through layers of a dig site, though, Holland did his work.

Beginning with Darius and the great Persian Empire, he sought to uncover the roots of modern western thought from one empire to the next. Holland was looking for the roots of ideas that inform the modern western mind.

He did not focus on the usual events that historians often catalogue. He focused on thoughts as they developed and the people who championed them and events as they influenced those thoughts and ideas.

In the ancient world, as one might expect, many of those ideas were garbed in metaphysical dress. Holland’s focus, though, is always on the those thoughts and ideas that continue in our modern values today. The ones that died off, like the dinosaurs, are only interesting side notes to that history.

Much of the book explores the world of gods and beliefs, which seems like an odd thing coming from an atheist, but all the more intriguing. Those were the ideas that animated the ancient world. The beliefs of the ancients are the evolutionary precursors to our modern thought. In those layers of metaphysical sediment lie the traces of our modern values.

In sifting through the soils of history, Holland identifies the roots and beginnings of the ethics and values that ground his worldview as a humanist in the sedimentary layers in which they arose. As often is the case in such endeavors, Holland makes some startling discoveries.

What Holland carefully and methodically uncovers is one seismic development that sets and defines the course of the history of the western mind – a metaphysical Cambrian Explosion” our western thinking is founded on, permeated with and inextricably intertwined in Christian ideas.

Thus, when Holland gets into the Enlightenment Era, he exposes a disconnect that arises out of that soil – an incongruity that bears some candid analysis for its deviation from the origin and trajectory of historical developments to that stage. That the very essence of Enlightenment thinking is sourced from the root it seeks to dig out is both ironic and dangerous, like the man sawing the branch that supports him.

Continue reading “Holland Digs Up the Root of Modern Western Values as Others Attempt to Dig It Out”