Is Christianity falsifiable?

In the philosophy of science, one of the big questions is what criteria are used to distinguish the scientific from the non-scientific. One prominent view, often attributed to Karl Popper, is that falsifiability is the key characteristic of scientific claims. I’m not going to explore that the topic directly here. My interest is not in labeling particular claims as “scientific” or “non-scientific” in a technical sense, but in exploring in more general terms the perceived conflicts between reason and faith in the search for truth.

I often hear non-believers (and many believers too) speak of statements of faith as if they are completely divorced from or immune from the process of reason or the consideration of evidence. From this perspective, the process looks like (a) the believer makes a leap of faith to assume that the Bible is inerrant, and then (b) any claim the Bible must be an error in the claim itself or an error in someone’s interpretation of the Bible. And the viewpoint is both impossible to prove and flexible enough to avoid being disproved; there is no way to “falsify” it, no way to convince a person holding that belief to change their mind.

Not everyone sees it this way of course. There are numerous testimonies of ex-Christians who once believed the Bible was inerrant, then considered the evidence against this, and changed their minds. To them, the Bible is falsifiable, because it makes claims that can be tested. For example, if one follows the chronologies of the Old Testament, the Earth is something like 6000 years old, one can examine the fossil record to verify or falsify this, and fossils that have been carbon dated to a much earlier time falsify that chronology. In a strict sense, the creationist can still push back with counterarguments – e.g. that maybe God is trying to trick us with fossils – but a healthy mind is able to weight the various claims appropriately and accept when something has been proven false beyond some level of reasonable doubt. So clearly one can see the Bible as falsifiable, and from many non-believers’ perspective it is.

What sometimes seems to be lacking from the discourse is the perspective of a believer who admits that his/her faith is falsifiable. I will attempt to provide that perspective here.

The important thing to notice for starters is the phrase I used a couple paragraphs back “ex-Christians who once believed the Bible was inerrant”. The relative vigor and media savvy of fundamentalism within Christianity in 21st century America is such that Christianity and the doctrine of biblical inerrancy are often viewed as interchangeable. But many of us do not think that way (see more of my thoughts on that here). To me, Christianity is not one claim, 1000 pages long, that stands or falls together, but a series of claims, some of which I have more confidence in than others. Some of these claims are falsifiable, but some of them are not. For example, claims about the age of the earth are (to my satisfaction) falsifiable, while claims about moral right and wrong, or what heaven is like, are not.

From this, you may surmise that my faith is grounded on philosophical beliefs about the creation of the universe and the sanctity and immortality of the soul, and expressed in trying to live out ethical beliefs about right and wrong, and for the most part you would be correct. And these beliefs are, to a very large extent, immune from falsification. They are supported by direct observation of myself, from the inside, but (in most cases) do not lead to testable predictions about what the world is like on the outside.

But this would be an incomplete summary of what I believe, and it wouldn’t be Christianity. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that He walked the earth, taught, performed miracles, died willingly in order to, in some sense, save us, and rose from the dead. These are, as I see it, the central claims, although others’ defintions of Christianity will differ.

I believe that the authors of the New Testament, while not exempt from human capacity for error, were in general honest men (or women, as may be the case with the epistle to the Hebrews) who passed on what they saw and heard and what they compiled from earlier witnesses, and meant for parts of it to be understood as real history, other parts as private revelation, and other parts as their own philosophy of life.

Some of these things are falsifiable, others are not. The claims that are not falsifiable by things in the external world (e.g. Jesus’s claims about heaven and God’s nature, or James’s advice on treatment of the poor, or Paul’s ideas about love) can nonetheless be evaluated in the light of both internal observation and also the extent to which the other claims made in the New Testament that are externally falsifiable hold up.

This is an extremely complicated dynamic, similar in some ways to determining whether one thinks a particular law is good or bad for society, whether the price of gold is going to be higher or lower in a few years, whether a particular person is the right one to marry, or the right one to be the starting pitcher, or the right one to run the country.

In all of these areas, there are numerous considerations, many of which are qualitative and fuzzy, some of which are quantitative and tractable. The decision process is not immune from evidence; in fact there is a lot of relevant evidence to consider. Those engaging in these kinds of debates, if they are being honest and intelligent about it, should admit that (a) their view is subject to some uncertainty, and (b) there could, in principle, be additional evidence out there that, if it came to light, would change their mind.

For me, Christianity is a lot like that. Unlike my views about the existence of God generally, and the soul, and right and wrong, Christianity doesn’t start from the inside. It starts from the external evidence, from the history, the texts, the church institutions as they’ve developed over time and as they exist today. It gets tested, constantly, both against the internal evidence and the external evidence. This process has been going on with me for years. In my late twenties and early thirties, it was evolving rapidly, as I read through the Bible for the first time, consumed a lot of history and philosophy, weighed arguments on all sides, and tried to make sense of what particular things I believed were very probable, somewhat probable, somewhat improbable, and very improbable. And how best to live in accordance with all of that. What resulted, and is expressed throughout the blog, is not necessarily in agreement with any denomination’s statement of faith, but it is Christian in that Jesus, Son of God, is front and center, and the differences between myself and others are moderate enough to make me comfortable inside many churches.

The key differences that opened up between my faith and the more conservative views – say on inerrancy, evolution, hell, gays – are to a large extent based on the conservative views having been falsified, either by scientific evidence, or history, or contradiction within the texts, or conflict between doctrines and conscience / internal observation. “Falsified” here can be either full or partial; on some questions I am highly confident in my view, but on others less so. What I mean is each piece of relevant evidence had the effect of “moving the needle” in one direction or the other on each component of my beliefs.

That process has quieted down in recent years, as it becomes increasingly uncommon for me to come across anything new that is germane to these questions. I wouldn’t claim to be completely caught up on the debates of the last two thousand years, but most of what I am hearing either for or against Christianity in general or my beliefs on specific questions is some variation of an issue I’ve already thought through and formed a view upon (even if that view doesn’t come with certainty). Jesus survived the process and continues to be the Lord of my life. I believe He is the Son of God and did rise from the dead. But the long years of questioning and investigating, while they increased my awareness of the seriousness of the matter and deepened the practice of my faith, did weaken my confidence that I am right about it. I have good reasons to believe that the central claims of the Gospels are probably true, but I am also familiar with the alternative hypotheses about Christianity’s origins.

Although the process of figuring out beliefs has quieted down, it hasn’t ceased. I regularly encounter a piece of scripture I had forgotten about, or from an angle that I hadn’t noticed before, causing me to re-examine the picture I have in mind of what Jesus is really like and what really happened in the first century. Sometimes such an insight solves a problem that had been troubling me for years, strengthening my faith; other times, it causes a new problem to open up, weakening it. It’s not just scripture that does this; scientific discussion moves the needle as well. The pathetic attempts to provide a scientific account for consciousness strengthen my overall level of belief in God (which is of course necessary to belief in Christianity, which is more specific), while studies in the evolution of morality often push in the other direction by weakening evidence for universal common threads in conscience (leaving me more reliant on internal experience, in which conscience feels much different from instinct).

This all leads up to a common question.  Is there any piece of evidence that would cause be to abandon Christianity altogether?  In principle, yes.  For example, a cache of documents, dated to a time earlier than the New Testament, in which Jesus or the apostles lays out a very different narrative, or the groundwork for some kind of hoax, would certainly be significant.  Documents from the office of Pontius Pilate, or from the Sanhedrin, dealing with the ministry or trial of Jesus would also be significant.  Unless and until such things are found, the New Testament, even though it was written over a period of time perhaps 15-60 years after Christ, contains the earliest source material pertaining to the events in question.  It is perhaps unlikely that such things will ever be found, because unlike the New Testament there were not large numbers of copies made.

So does this make the potential falsifiability of my beliefs merely theoretical?  Not necessarily. There are archaeological questions that are relevant to an understanding of the New Testament. One of those has come to the forefront recently and presented a real challenge to my current thinking, and the dust has yet to settle on it.  I will explore it in more detail in my next post.

The idea that historical considerations can shape one’s beliefs about God seems to me to be something relatively unique to Christianity.  No other major world religion seems amenable to that same approach.  One can be a Hindu or Jew because of a connection to one’s particular cultural identity.  One can be a Buddhist because the Four Noble Truths ring true to one’s experience.  One can be a Muslim because of a sense of global community or an innate belief in the oneness of God. But in these traditions there seems to be much less interest in assembling evidence, of a historical sort, in favor of any of these alternatives being true not just to the believer but objectively true. Apologists for other faiths do exist, but they seem far less numerous, and I have yet to encounter anyone personally who has advanced a strong case in favor of one of these alternatives as being true (as opposed to just suitable for themselves).

Christianity bases it central claims on things that actually happened, in front of crowds, in a known time and place.  As such, its credibility is deeply tied to the credibility of the documents that describe those events, as well as the balance between corroborating or contradictory evidence provided by other sources and by the trajectory of history during the lifetime of the key participants.  (This is not true of all New Testament books, however.  The Book of Revelation, as one individual’s private vision, has more in common in this sense with the Koran than with the Gospels.  It is harder to dispute an individual’s religious experience than a biography of a public figure, but it is also harder to base one’s own faith on it.)

As such, some version of Christianity seems to be the only game in town for those expecting to find something more concrete than the generic God of deism, but who are also desiring to base faith on evidence.  Yet because the evidence is not sufficient to be coercive, the strength of one’s foundation is constantly shifting.  As Pascal put it, “there is enough light for those to see who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”  (Pensées #430) I think there is more to explore with this, and things that I personally need to work on.  I plan on covering this two posts from now.

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