Letter 16 to Thinking Christian

meTom,

You write:

We are [discussing] whether Christianity or naturalism is a better explanation [something]. But now it’s becoming apparent that we don’t agree on what the term “Christianity” signifies.

You persist in insisting that Christianity believes in an “imaginary magical friend who grants wishes”… [but] neither of us believes that.

If you do not present Christianity as a belief in an invisible, magical, wish-granting friend, then I’m certainly not going to debate such a view. I’m going to debate whatever set of hypotheses you present as the best explanation for the world as we know it.

But yes, I do think most Christians believe they have an invisible, magical, wish-granting friend. I don’t think that’s a metaphor. I think that’s literally true of what most Christians believe.

You disagree.

For example, you write: “God is invisible and a friend, but he is not an ‘invisible friend’ as the term is generally understood.” I don’t know what to make of that. You seem to be saying that “God is A and also B but God is not A and B.”

You say the problem is that the phrase “invisible friend” conjures up notions of a child’s invisible friend. I’m not used to hearing that phrase. I’m used to the phrase “imaginary friend.” But when I searched wikipedia for “invisible friend” it redirected to “imaginary friend,” so apparently some people use the term that way.

I’m not very familiar with the concept of an imaginary childhood friend. I never had one, and I still have never met anyone who did (except Jesus, whom you say is not an imaginary friend).

The Wikipedia article on imaginary friends has several warnings at the top, so I didn’t want to trust it as even a first-step source of information. I was able to track down a few research papers, though. Apparently the research term for this phenomenon is “imaginary companions.”

Children’s imaginary companions seem to often function as both guardians and playmates. They have personalities. And even though they appear real to the child, the child usually knows “deep down” that their imaginary companion is not real.

Now, who do Christians think Jesus is? A guardian, yes, but probably not a playmate. They certainly think God has a personality, whatever philosophers try to tell them about God. And believers do not appear to “know deep down” that Jesus is not actually real.

So there is a big difference between the idea of a childhood imaginary friend and the believer’s conception of Jesus. And I don’t think anybody would say the two are identical.

But I never said the two were the same, or even implied it. I used the term “invisible friend,” I did not invoke the notion of a childhood imaginary friend, and as you admitted, the term “invisible friend” is literally true of what you believe.

Tom, I know that the phrase “invisible friend” has a negative connotation. That is part of the point. If you can say “I believe in an invisible friend, and here are my reasons for thinking so…” then more power to ya. But I think that forcing believers (in anything) out of their own euphemisms for things helps us biased humans to see things outside of our own bubble, which is important.

For example, I am quite happy to admit that I believe that “Consciousness and morality evolved from the unguided bouncing around of invisible particles.”

Those aren’t quite the words I would use to describe what I believe, but I am happy to say “Yes, that’s what I believe, and here are my reasons…”

Phrasing my beliefs in terms I’d prefer not to use allows me to see them as an outsider might see them, and to see them as how “crazy” they potentially are. For example, it reminds me that it’s far from obvious that consciousness or morality could arise from subatomic particles.

But there is a parallel between a child’s invisible friend and the Christian conception of Jesus. Namely, they are both invisible and they are both a friend. And that is exactly the parallel I’m trying to make, if any.

Okay, as for Christians believing in magic. Jesus sometimes invokes “the Father” to supernaturally affect the natural world. Now if you believe they are the same people, I’m not sure what to say. The concept of the Trinity is incoherent to me.

But either way, Christians themselves certainly invoke the supernatural all the time. They pray to God to affect the natural world in their favor. They believe there is a particular “art” to it, as Jesus taught it (the Lord’s prayer, etc.). Most Christians believe there are specific techniques that are more effective than others, whether it be candles or holy water or drawing a cross on one’s forehead with oil. Most Christians use specific phrases in their prayers that they believe to have special power, like “Amen” or “in the name of Jesus.” Again, you may not believe in all of this but most Christians do, and that’s what I’m talking about.

(But I think you do believe in magic, for you are quite explicitly invoking the supernatural to explain natural phenomenon as the basis of your argument that God exists.)

As for granting wishes, I never said that God’s only role was in granting wishes, just as I never said that his only attributes were invisibility, magicality, and friendliness. In any case, it sounds like you’ve agreed that your idea of God sometimes grants wishes (if not, then I assume you reject the idea of intercessory prayer, as some Christians do).

So yeah, it’s literally true that most Christians believe Jesus is “an invisible, magical, wish-granting friend.” He is many other things as well, but that’s one of them. And it’s no less fair to say it that way than to say he’s “our Creator, Sustainer, and Savior” (or whatever), because that “unfairly” leaves out the part about him being invisible, magical, and wish-granting.

Tom, I understand why this upsets you and other Christians. Perhaps it’s embarrassing to literally believe in an invisible, magical friend who grants wishes. But if you’ve got good reasons for believing all that is true, then it shouldn’t be embarrassing at all! Likewise, I could be embarrassed that I believe “consciousness evolved from invisible particles bouncing around.” But I’m not embarrassed to admit that, because I believe I have good reasons for believing that is true.

The reason I use this language from time to time – while at other times dealing very somberly with the details of various arguments for theism – is because this language made a big difference in my life.

As a Christian, when I realized that I literally believed in an invisible magical friend who grants me wishes, I ranted and raved against the atheist who said it. I told him he was being unfair and disingenuous. I really let him have it.

But later, when I was “off the stage” and not in competition mode, I considered what he had said. And I realized that whatever connotations came with the phrase, it was literally true of what I believed. And I said to myself, “Woah, Luke, you really believe you have an invisible magical friend who grants you wishes. That might be true, but you’d better at least look into that.”

That wasn’t the year I lost my faith. But it was the year that things changed and I was able to look at my faith from the outside and try to examine it as objectively as humanly possible.

So that’s why I use such language. But I don’t just use it on religious believers. I use it on atheists, too. We all need a shock every now and then to step outside the protective bubble of our familiar worldview and examine it from the outside.

And I use this technique on myself. All the time. It’s been very, very useful. It’s just one more tool to combat my own prejudices and biases, which are always barking at the door and sometimes smash through the window and take over.

So I’m not sure what your objections is. It sounds like you’re admitting that your concept of Jesus is that of “an invisible, magical, wish-granting friend,” though of course your concept of Jesus is many other things also (cosmic savior, creator of the universe, etc.). Maybe your objection is not with the literal truth of what I said but with my choice of words. But I’ve just explained the utility of my choice of words.

I’m happy to continue discussing this with you, but again, I don’t think it’s relevant to our debate. When you put forward “Christianity” as an explanation for y, I’ll need you to lay out the hypotheses that you intend by offering “Christianity” as an explanation for y, anyway. And if you don’t include the part about how Jesus grants wishes or whatever, then that’s fine. I’m going to argue against the explanatory merits of whatever hypothesis or set of hypotheses you put forward as an explanation.

By the way, if you want to add more punch to the part of your upcoming book where you write that “What others hear when we [Christians] speak is that we are asking them… to order their… lives according to advice given by a legendary miracle worker who (maybe?) lived two thousand years ago,” you could instead (quite accurately) write that “What others hear when we Christians speak is that we are asking them to order their lives according to the advice of their invisible, magical, wish-granting friend.” Because that’s not just what we hear, it’s what seems to be literally true of what most Christians believe.

Finally, allow me to propose one more point of agreement:

For x to be a successful explanation of y, we do not need to also have an explanation of x.

Richard Dawkins has asserted that for x to be an explanation of y, we must also have an explanation of x.1 But this is nonsense. This requirement immediately leads to an infinite regress of “Why?” questions. Because I’m lazy, I’ll just quote William Lane Craig:

Dawkins says that you cannot infer a Designer of the universe [from] the complexity of the universe because this raises a further question: namely, “Who designed the Designer?” [But] this argument is quite inept, because philosophers of science [know] that in order to recognize an explanation as the best explanation, you don’t have to have an explanation of the explanation…

Let me give you an example. Suppose archaeologists digging in the earth were to come across artifacts looking like arrowheads and pottery shards… it would obviously be justifiable to infer that these artifacts were the product of some lost tribe of people, even if the archaeologists have no idea whatsoever who these people were or how they came to be there.

Similarly, if astronauts were to discover a pile of machinery on the back side of the moon, they would be justified in inferring that these were the products of intelligent design, even if they had no idea whatsoever where this machinery came from or who put it there…

In fact… if in order to recognize an explanation as the best you have to have an explanation of the explanation, that leads immediately to an infinite regress. You’d need to have an explanation of the explanation of the explanation, and so on… to infinity. You would never have explanation of anything, which would destroy science. [So] Dawkins’ principle, if adopted, would actually be completely destructive of science. That’s how inept this argument is.

So I hope we can agree on that.

Cheers,

Luke

  1. Well, he didn’t make that algebraic statement, but he has said that theists cannot offer God as an explanation for something because it leaves God himself unexplained. []