Over on his blog, Rodibidably poses the question
“How certain are you that your version of the “truth” (truth of god, religion, the world, the universe, etc) is the correct one, and more importantly, how do you know what that “truth” is?”
He has a long discussion going on, this is my contribution to it.
So, how do we know if something is true? Is it possible to know, 100% for certain that anything is true? Let’s say we think something might be true, so we test it. This is what science does – it comes up with theories which might be true, and it tests them. So, for example, if I want to know if, say, all apples are red, I start picking apples. I keep doing this either until I’ve found an apple that isn’t red – disproving the theory, or until I’ve picked enough apples so I’m convinced that all apples are indeed red.
Does the testing prove the theories? No, but each subsequent test shows that it is working on at least one more occasion. As we test more and more times we can be confident that the same thing will happen. Eventually we spot a trend and are confident enough to assert, beyond reasonable doubt, that the theory is true. We have not proved it, but we have seen it enough to be sure enough that it is true, so we believe that it is.
Note that even in a scientific experiment, the very last stage of ‘proving’ the theory comes down to a matter of faith – faith that what we have seen shows that the theory is true.
This basic method which underlies science is sound and fairly reliable, but there is necessarily always some element of doubt, however small, in the theories themselves. Should another conflicting bit of data come along, it is tested, and a new hypothesis is formed which takes into account this new information, replacing the old theory. They can be replaced when a new, stronger theory comes along. So, talk of ‘knowledge’ or ‘fact’ is misguided.
Definitive knowledge can only be known by building logically on top of a firm foundation, so there could be total certainty about the outcomes. However, the only discipline which is subject to this methodology and is not open to doubt is mathematics, and maths to this degree of proof exists only in the abstract. Even Einstein admits that this is the case:
“As for as the propositions of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality” (Einstein, quoted in Leslie Newbigin’s book ‘The Gospel in a Pluralist Society’ p31)
Later, Newbigin says
“There is no knowing without believing, and believing is the way to knowing”
So, if we want to work out if we think something is true, we need to look at the evidence and ask ourselves, ‘is it reasonable to believe?’ and ‘Does it work?’
So, why do I think that Christianity is true?
First, it is pretty clear that there was a man called Jesus who lived in the middle east and claimed to do miracles. Non-Christian historians of the time such as Josephus, Tacitus and others attest that he existed and was put to death by Pontius Pilate. Josephus reports that his followers claimed that three days after his death, Jesus was alive again and appeared to them. There are places you can read about this in much more detail, – Wikipedia has a short entry here. These are non-Christian sources.
Christian sources, such as the accounts in the gospels are shown to be reliable. They were written soon after the events by people who were there at the time or by people who knew people who were. There are many fragments of manuscripts from early on – far more than with other documents of the same era (such as some of Caesars writings), so we can be fairly sure that what was written then was pretty much the same as what we have now. So it is reasonable to believe the Bible. (Again, there have been many, many books written on this subject. Any commentary on one of the gospels should detail the historicity of it).
As Josephus reports, the disciples claimed that they saw Jesus alive after he died (the Bible says Jesus appeared to 500 followers of Jesus after the resurrection). We have two choices. Either they are telling the truth or they are lying. If they were lying, they would know. However, almost all the 12 disciples died gruesome deaths at the hand of the Romans or others who were persecuting Christians. Surely, if they were lying, they would have said so? Who would give their life for something that they knew was not true?
Obviously, there is much more that I could say. There are many other claims of Christianity that can be investigated in a similar manner. But overall, the evidence points to something that is intellectually reasonable to believe.
Secondly, does it work? Does Christianity still play out as if it is true? Does what the Bible says play out as true? Well, why don’t you ask a Christian you know. I find it does – Jesus gives my life hope, purpose, and a rock solid foundation to build upon. I know many people, some who were former drug addicts who attest that it was only the power of God that helped them to quit, and if it wasn’t for the saving work of Jesus, they would, quite literally, be dead from their addiction. I know some Christians who have had powerful experiences of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, I have had some of those experiences myself that I can only attribute to God.
So, I have found that Christianity is intellectually reasonable to believe, and I have found that it works. We know what truth is through investigation and experience. The next step is to take that leap of faith and actually believe it. It will involve re-evaluating your life, but if God exists, it is worth it. Isn’t it??
(As for other religions, they can’t all be true because they are all quite different. I would recommend Michael Green’s excellent short book “But Don’t All Religions Lead To God” to highlight the differences.)