A deistic friend recently sent me an essay by a religious skeptic by the name of Samuel Harris and asked me to respond to this paragraph from his piece:
My friend went on to ask:
The following is my response to his questions (slightly modified):
You asked if I would respond to Harris' opening statement, and I will, but I think it would be best if I tried to reply to your other questions first.
You ask for proof that there is a personal creator, but as you know, outside of mathematics and logic there really is very little, if anything, that we can actually prove. Everything we believe is based on factors other than proof - the force of induction, intuition, how well something fits with other well-established beliefs, and so on.
I don't know for sure what I base my belief in a personal creator upon, but one argument for that belief is this:
I exist. I have consciousness, intelligence, and am a complex arrangement of integrated systems that display astonishing engineering. I also am contingent (i.e. dependent upon something else for my existence), and possess the attributes of personality.
I ask myself how I can account for the existence of such an entity, and I find I have essentially two alternatives: Either I am the product of blind, unguided, unintelligent, impersonal forces that produced me purely by accident, a possibility which I find highly implausible, or I am the intentional product of an intelligent, purposeful being which is also conscious, self-aware and which is ultimately non-contingent. Moreover, since I possess the attributes of personality, it seems reasonable to impute some kind of personality to that which has produced that quality in me as well. In other words, whatever caused me, it's reasonable to assume, probably possesses the same qualities in Itself that It created.
But this is not a proof, of course. It may be that I really am just the product of time, chance and the impersonal, but I think it's intellectually justifiable to believe that I am not. I think it reasonable to believe that the ultimate cause of me and you and the universe as a whole is purposeful, extraordinarily intelligent and powerful, non-contingent, and conscious of, and concerned about, It's creation. It's reasonable to believe, in short, that the ultimate cause of human beings is personal.
I freely admit that I want there to be such a Being because, among other reasons, the existential consequences of such a Being not existing are severe: Indeed, our existence would have no real meaning, there would be no basis for morality, there'd be no hope for justice, and man would have no special worth, dignity or rights, to name a few of the consequences of there being no personal Creator. In other words, if I am wrong about the existence of the kind of Being I'm describing, then the logical endpoint is nihilism and despair.
Since I want very much for there to be such a Being (let's call It God for the sake of discussion), and since the existence of God seems to me to be highly probable for the reasons I discussed above, I find myself accepting, or believing, or hoping, that God does, in fact, exist. I find myself living my life more or less in accord with that hope. Someone else might come to a different conclusion, and I don't think I could argue him out of it. I would just ask him whether deep down he wants, or doesn't want, there to be a God. If he does want God to exist but finds himself unable to believe that He does, then I would suggest to him that there's really no reason not to believe and ample reason to believe. If his answer is that he doesn't really want there to be a God, which for skeptics, it often is, then there's nothing more that I can say except to ask him why he's not a nihilist.
Now, none of this gets at the question of special revelation and religious conflict that Harris poses in his essay. Let me keep my promise and respond to what he says in the passage you quote above. I agree with everything in it. What he asserts is true, but his implied conclusion that all religions are bogus doesn't follow from what he says any more than the fact that different political ideologies have caused horrible conflict in the world (much worse in the 20th century than religion ever caused) leads to the conclusion that they're all wrong. You and I both agree, I think, that a system that promotes freedom, democracy, property rights, and free markets is far superior to, say, communism, socialism, or fascism. The fact that these ideologies conflict with democratic capitalism doesn't mean we should not believe in freedom.
The question for me, then, is do I have sufficient warrant to believe that Christianity is essentially true? In order to answer that question I have to ask whether I have sufficient reason to think that the Bible is basically correct in what it says, and in order to answer that question, I have to come to grips with one of the two most fundamental stumbling blocks for many moderns when they read the Bible - miracles (the other being the deity of Christ). One miracle in particular is crucial - the resurrection of Jesus.
So, setting aside all the claims of skeptics about this or that error in the Bible, and the counterclaims that defenders throw into the breach, perhaps we can agree that the only thing that really matters is whether Jesus actually and literally rose from the dead. If he did then all the arguments raised against the historical facticity of the Old Testament and the objections to stories like the virgin birth, are irrelevant. If Jesus really rose from the dead then Christianity is, in almost every respect that matters, highly credible.
Of course, we can't know with certainty that Jesus rose from the dead or that he did not. Some skeptics counter that we can indeed know that he did not because miracles are impossible, but this is a weak argument. Miracles can only be impossible if there is no chance that the laws of nature could be superceded. But we can only have confidence that the laws of nature cannot be superceded if we know that there is no God. If the existence of the kind of Being I've talked about above is possible then so must miracles be possible, and, of course, the existence of God is certainly possible.
Thus we have to look at the evidence for the resurrection to determine whether it is a credible event or not. I do this here(scroll down to VI) and invite you to read what I've written there.
It seems to me that, as fantastic as the story sounds to the modern ear, if there is a personal God who cares about His creation and loves His creatures then what the gospels record is certainly possible and to me, at least, plausible. I understand that it won't seem so to others, but I can find no reason based upon human rationality for discounting it other than an a priori belief that miracles are impossible, which, as I've argued, is only the case if atheism is true. Even a deist such as yourself believes that God performed at least one miracle when He created the universe.
Anyway, I'm sorry if this is a little long-winded, but I thought your question deserved more than just a cursory answer.