Show me the money!
This is a response to Alex’s comment here. As it deals with something I’ve been mulling over for a while now I thought I’d give it the honour of its own post, in the hope that it will help move the discussion along slightly.
After battering the origin and design of the universe around for a bit, and coming to no firm conclusion, Alex suggested we turn to the issue of the resurrection, to which I replied:
Both of us are going to read into it what we believe: for you it's the work of God, for me it's a distorted version of a non-divine event.
…which Alex felt was a little glib and relativistic.
However, I didn’t quite intend it in that way.
As I see it, knowledge comes in two general forms: that supplied by direct observation, and speculation built on this observation.
Let’s take the theory of evolution for example. The theory that natural selection can account for the diverse range of life which exists on this planet, as species adapt to the environment they find themselves in is largely a matter of speculation for all of us – no-one was around to observe the events of the last few billion years. However, it has its foundations in things can be directly observed: genetic variation within species and competition for resources and procreation.
Without that direct observation, I’d have no good reason for accepting the theory of evolution as likely.
It’s a similar situation with the resurrection of Christ: The theory that Christ was the son of God and rose from the dead is a matter of speculation for all of us – no-one alive today was around to witness these events. However, if you’ve had direct experience of God in some way, and found religious texts like the Bible to be generally true to what happened, then you have grounds for accepting the resurrection of Christ as likely.
But, equally: the theory that tales of Christ’s resurrection are simply distorted versions of a non-supernatural event is pure speculation – I wasn’t there. However, in terms of direct observation I know that I’ve never had any personal experience of God’s existence, I’ve found that arguments put forward by believers are generally flawed/unconvincing and I know that events can become distorted in the telling.
Therefore, for people in my position, the distortion theory is really the only one we’re justified in holding.
Any debate between theists and atheists has to be conducted in terms of what is directly observable – if I have no experience of God, then tales which posit his existence are generally going to seem extremely unlikely, and are therefore unlikely to lead to anything except fundamental disagreement.