Hot on the heels of discussions about doubt and divinely-recommended computer monitors, I found us an evangelical talking about how the tribe can feel certainty about their beliefs being true (archive). We’ve talked about this particular guy and his incompetent apologetics before. But today, he’s trying something different. He’s trying to reassure his quickly-shrinking tribe that they can and should feel total certainty about their beliefs. Alas for him, he’s just as bad at reasoning now as he was a few years ago when we first discovered him. It’s very clear that Robin Schumacher has completely misunderstood what certainty actually is. But we’re gonna help him out, and we’re gonna do it right now.
Today’s ride has it all: Smearing atheism, strawmanning, numerous false claims simply assumed to be true, circular reasoning, appeals to authority and other such arguments from x, threats for nonbelief, and more. Get in and fasten your seatbelt! Let’s gooooooo!
A quick refresher about our newest certainty expert
Back in 2021, we talked about an apologetics post written by one Robin Schumacher. He writes sporadic posts for Christian Post, a site that is sorta like Weekly World News if all it focused on was far-right evangelical blahblah instead of UFOs and Bat Boy. Naturally, I adore Christian Post. The people writing for that site cater to a population that would not know reality if it came up to their faces in sequins and fireworks and bit them right on the nose. That said, these writers tend to be quick to pick up on evangelical trends, so I keep an eye on the site.
In real life, Schumacher likely still attends a boilerplate fundagelical megachurch with many branches in the Southeast. An article about him on his church’s website is gone now, but an archive reveals that he has that boilerplate totes-an-ex-atheist testimony that a lot of hucksters nowadays peddle to their dazzled marks.
Schumacher is a product of evangelical apologetics. He idolizes all the boilerplate incompetent apologists that his tribe has decided are great at apologetics. He even earned a degree in apologetics, that article says, and then a Ph.D in New Testament. [Yes, but New Testament what? Studies? Fanfic? Literary Criticism? Cooking? Languages? Costuming? Card games? Animal husbandry? The mind boggles.]
Nowadays, he writes for Christian Post and apparently sometimes for Got Questions, another evangelical site that isn’t quite as far-right-leaning as Christian Post. In addition, he published a book in 2020 about how to convert heathens through “the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.”
And a brief word about apologetics
Somehow, Robin Schumacher’s book utterly failed to turn evangelicals’ sagging numbers around.
That’s not surprising, though. Apologetics isn’t really meant to persuade people like us heathens. Indeed, it can’t. It’s far too poor in quality for that. Even the very best apologetics, like the stuff we find in very high-end Catholicism, can only make Christianity sound slightly more plausible and slightly less ridiculous.
What evangelicals churn out in greater numbers every year is nowhere near that level. Their audience couldn’t handle it anyway. What they get instead is meant for a broad and not at all scholarly audience of people with downright childish views of the Bible and theology. That audience is incapable of using critical thinking to assess apologetics.
And as such, their apologists are capable only of reassuring the flocks that their beliefs might have some basis in reality. They believe for some good reason.
As a result, the flocks devour apologetics, particularly now that their religion’s on the downturn culturally and numerically. An apologetics book means someone else has done the messy math for them. Someone with an official degree or experience has declared that Christianity is based in reality. That’s really all they want to know. Often, they are comforted by the mere presence of apologetics in their worldview.
A decade ago, many of us heathens had evangelicals shoving apologetics books at us that they swore would “answer all of our questions.” Apparently, some evangelical sites even offered lists of apologists for every heathen objection to Christianity! And almost always, those pushing the books at us had never even read them themselves.
Of course, once an evangelical learns critical thinking skills and applies them to apologetics, that faucet feeding their faith pool turns off in short order. Apologetics simply can’t withstand that kind of examination. It is for those who believe very firmly, not for anyone else.
The reason I bring this stuff up is that Robin Schumacher is going to use apologetics in his most recent post. His arguments only make his case look worse to folks like us. But evangelicals will eat up his writing with a spoon.
‘Certainty can be a funny thing’
Schumacher begins by telling us about Horton Hears a Who. This 1954 Dr. Seuss story involves an elephant-like creature who realizes that a certain speck of dust contains intelligent life. Only Horton hears the voices coming from that speck. No other creature in the book can perceive or hear anything there. The other forest animals mock and harass Horton for his certainty about the life he’s detected on the dust speck. Eventually, just as the other animals are about to destroy the speck, the people living on it make enough noise to be heard.
Evangelicals like this story. They use it to make a false comparison with their anti-abortion crusade (which Seuss’ widow and lawyer alike criticize). So I’m not surprised that Schumacher reaches for it to demonstrate his point that “certainty can be a funny thing.”
He name-checks Karl Popper and offers a quote from an interview he gave in 1992 (archive): “Scientific certainty doesn’t exist.” This quote appears to shock Schumacher, who remarks that this observation “no doubt raises eyebrows among those who think that science is the only vehicle providing us with certainty about anything.”
Then, Schumacher mentions that Popper goes on to make a distinction regarding certainty:
I noted that in his writings he seemed to abhor the notion of absolute truths. “No no!” Popper replied, shaking his head. He, like the logical positivists before him, believed that a scientific theory can be “absolutely” true. In fact, he had “no doubt” that some current theories are true (although he refused to say which ones). But he rejected the positivist belief that we can ever know that a theory is true. “We must distinguish between truth, which is objective and absolute, and certainty, which is subjective.”
Once again, we’ve got ourselves an evangelical who has no clue whatsoever how science works, much less certainty. But he thinks that if science embracers can’t be certain of their science, then that makes science—if not inferior to his religious faith—at least sit on the same shelf as it.
If you’re just now rearing up to make a very important point about certainty, hang on. We’re getting there. I won’t leave you hanging.
Now we plunge into an examination of the two kinds of certainty
I don’t think Schumacher likes thinking that certainty is subjective. He feels very certain that his false beliefs are true, after all, and a lot is riding on those beliefs being actually true. Consequently, he tries hard to knock down the idea of certainty being a subjective feeling.
Psychologists and philosophers will tell you that there are two types of certainty. We have epistemic certainty, which equates to something having the highest possible status regarding knowledge, and then there is psychological certainty where you or I are supremely convinced of a truth, even though what we believe may be false.
It’s the latter that Popper refers to, and it’s also the type of certainty that Christians are accused of having without any backing of the former by those who contend God doesn’t exist. This leads to the million-dollar question of whether one can have both kinds of certainty about God.
Of course, nobody “contends” that Schumacher’s god doesn’t exist. Rather, we observe that Christians have offered no objective evidence to support such a claim. He’s just shirking his burden of proof—a common tactic for apologists.
He cites a Stanford University philosophy page here (archive). If you check that page out, you’ll see immediately that it doesn’t help Schumacher with his contentions about certainty. I mean, it does indeed talk about epistemic and psychological certainty, yes. But it also tells us:
As with knowledge, it is difficult to provide an uncontentious analysis of certainty. There are several reasons for this. One is that there are different kinds of certainty, which are easy to conflate. Another is that the full value of certainty is surprisingly hard to capture. A third reason is that there are two dimensions to certainty: a belief can be certain at a moment or over some greater length of time.
Overall, the paper seeks to find a way to define certainty in a way can be studied and assessed. I’m willing to bet that Schumacher didn’t understand a fifth of what’s written there. In college, I hung out with philosophy majors and was well-known in my peer group for being the only non-philosophy major who could actually understand them, and I barely got through it.
But to Schumacher, it’s fodder for his notion that Christians should be able to have both kinds of certainty regarding their beliefs.
Again, we are getting to the big major objection to certainty that this guy has entirely missed. Don’t worry!
Wait, what’s that second kind of certainty?
I found this part really intriguing. Schumacher talks about two kinds of certainty: epistemic and psychological. He looks down on psychological certainty because it is subjective and feelings-based, but perhaps most of all because it can easily turn out to be wrong. What he really wants Christians to have is that other kind, the epistemic kind.
Stanford’s philosophy department defines epistemology (archive) in a few different ways in another paper. They summarize these definitions as trying to explain how our sense of certainty in a claim works with the evidence supporting or refuting it. So in a way, epistemology is the science of learning how we know what we know.
In apologetics, however, epistemology takes on a different meaning. Calvinists in particular have warped the term’s meaning. In apologetics, particularly in Calvinist apologetics, it means connecting Christian beliefs to the universe so people will be more obedient to Yahweh/Jesus. This kind of epistemology does not require any support for the claim (archive) that Yahweh/Jesus exists in the form that particular Christians imagine he takes.
Moreover, in this worldview people who do not believe that Yahweh/Jesus exists in that form cannot be certain of anything else they think they know. Without belief in Yahweh/Jesus’ existence, nothing else can be known with any degree of certainty. That belief forms the bedrock of all other knowledge.
Certainty in evangelicalism
I can see why evangelicals are so interested in different kinds of certainty.
In their belief system, certainty represents the most important facet of their faith.
Evangelicals officially believe in a literal Bible that tells of a literal god who does literal things in the literal world all the time. To get into Heaven and—more importantly—avoid eternal torture in Hell, they must embrace and believe in a vast array of claims about this god. If they do not hold the correct beliefs, then they will almost certainly go to Hell.
Certainty, then, spells the difference between Heaven and Hell. Doubt, which eats away at certainty, could well enrage their god so much that he allows them to suffer eternally in Hell.
However, the real world contradicts Christian claims. It does so constantly, 24/7. Nothing about our world, ourselves, or our entire universe speaks to the existence of any omnimax gods. Regarding all the times we have ever gotten to the bottom of any mystery about our world, we have never found any reason to ascribe that mystery to any gods, demons, angels, pixies, fairies, unicorns, or anything of their like.
Thus, the only certainty that Christians can have is the psychological kind. And that’s anathema to Schumacher as well as to evangelicals generally, because it’s the kind that can be dead wrong. It’s a subjective feeling, and they of all people know how easily feelings can be wrong.
They need a real god doing real things in the real world. But nothing about the real world attests to such a god. So they have to go for broke on shoring up psychological certainty.
Confidence vs certainty
Now, finally, let’s have that big objection to certainty. Smrnda touched on it last time in a comment, and it’s so profound that it touched off this topic in my mind.
Rather than be utterly certain that a scientific theory is objectively true, what we have instead is a high confidence that it is true. That confidence is so high because by the time an explanation becomes a theory, it is well-supported by experimentation—and not contradicted by anything. As the explanation starts out and gets support, our confidence in it grows higher and higher.
Karl Popper was a very big influence on our understanding of the universe. He pushed the principle of falsification. That’s what an experiment does: researchers ask a question (or make a prediction) that could, conceivably, be answered in the negative. Then, they see if the observations garnered during the experiment support the question or refute it.
Likewise, scientists should not and do not ever reach a point where they can say with absolute assurance that any of their ideas are true. They must always leave open the possibility that some future experiment may completely destroy it. They must be okay with being wrong (archive), because chances are good that they will be wrong more than a few times during their careers.
It’s okay to be wrong (archive). In fact, I’ve personally met scientists who eagerly await being proven wrong. They’d love to be proven wrong. And if some big major theory like the Theory of Evolution turned out to be wrong, or if Christians finally found some real evidence to support their claims about their god, scientists would throw parties in celebration because in such cases a whole new avenue of discovery and learning would open up.
When some CERN scientists ran an experiment that found that neutrinos might travel faster than the speed of light in 2020 (archive), nobody got furious or demanded that the Science Illuminati shut down discussion of the finding. Instead, they patiently examined their equipment—and realized that user error easily explained the anomalous reading (archive). After fixing some loose connections, they reran the experiment. This time, it produced the expected results.
Evangelicals can’t do any of that.
They cannot ask falsifiable questions about their god or his actions. They cannot observe or measure anything about their god or his actions. Nor can they predict anything about him or what he’ll do in the future. Karl Popper should be the their antichrist, because his entire falsification legacy bites them and their claims right on the ass.
Confusing people isn’t the same thing as inspiring certainty in them
I strongly suspect that Schumacher doesn’t actually understand the difference between subjective feelings of certainty and a high degree of confidence in claims that we’ve connected to objective real-world observations and measurements. He tells us that epistemic certainty involves “having the highest possible status regarding knowledge.” Elsewhere in the post, he gives us gibberish about what that looks like:
Whether it’s God or anything else, having knowledge and arriving at a conclusion about something involves forming a belief based on warrant that leads to truth.
What is “based on warrant?” And without having objective, real-world support for a claim, as indeed he does not in the case of his beliefs, how does Schumacher know that any particular “warrant” even “leads to truth” in the first place?
that ‘quality or quantity, (perhaps it comes in degrees), whatever precisely it may be, enough of which distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief
It sure sounds like Schumacher thinks (as clearly do other evangelicals) that a “warrant” can be something other than real-world support for his claims. They can know that their beliefs are true because they’ve got all these “warrants” leading that way.
Alas, they just can’t show anything they know. It’s all words, words, words. The “warrant” in Schumacher’s post is more or less just apologetics! As atheist science teacher Aron-Ra says: if you can’t show it, you don’t really know it.
How evangelicals deal with this lack of certainty
One major way that evangelicals deal with their utter lack of falsifiable claims is to shirk their burden of proof. We’ve already seen Schumacher do that in his crack about meaniepies “contending” that his god doesn’t exist. But after dishonestly trying to make Karl Popper sound like a supporter of his ideas, Schumacher will engage more directly in this strategy:
Professor Paul Copan was once confronted [archive] by a student who demanded, “Prove to me that God exists.” Copan replied, “What would you take as an acceptable level of proof?”, at which point the student assumed a deer-in-the-headlights pose because he’d never thought about what would be satisfactory evidence for God’s existence.
How about you? If you’re an agnostic or atheist, what would it take?
Here, again, Schumacher—and Paul Copan, it seems—flees from his own burden of proof. They’re both so very giddy that they’ve found the GOTCHA zinger of all zingers to fling at meaniepie atheists. But Copan’s response here is purely dishonest and disingenuous. The student was flummoxed by his reply because he probably expected Copan to respond in an intellectually honest way. And that’s not how Copan rolls.
It’s interesting that Copan describes this encounter in his 2016 post as having occurred during a college debate club meeting. Around that time, the grand age of Christian-vs-atheist debates was dying out. Maybe people just realized that these debates revealed who thought the most quickly far more often than the rightness or wrongness of any participant’s views. That, or perhaps atheists had begun handing evangelicals their asses reliably enough by that time that they had to strategically withdraw from the fray.
(Three such debates: Ham on Nye 2014 [archive]; Carroll vs Craig at Biola, also 2014; Hitchens and Fry vs Two Catholic Literal Whos in 2015.)
Arguments are not evidence. Nobody has ever discovered or supported a real-world objective truth by arguing about it. In arguments, the goal is to be considered correct, not to actually be correct. So if any gods are real, it won’t be apologists with their sleazy sleight of hand that finally find evidence for them. It’ll be scientists with their experiments, with the falsifiability and observations and predictions that go along with the scientific method as a whole.
We’re not arguing about the price of a used car Schumacher hopes to sell us. It’s not our burden to tell Christians what would convince us of their claims. Rather, it’s their burden to support the claims they keep making.
Shirking the burden of proof, Part II
Shifting his burden of proof onto atheists/agnostics is really all Schumacher can do. And he pushes that strategy to its limits in his post:
Where God is concerned, it’s normal for skeptics to think they have the higher ground in this matter whereas in reality, the atheist, agnostic, and God-believer all make claims, with those assertions requiring justification and each bearing the burden of proof. In other words, the playing field is truly leveled where the God / no God debate is concerned.
Evangelical apologetics fans never catch that this strategy pisses on their own shoes. In effect, he’s trying to level the playing field here by equating his lack of evidence with his targets’ lack of it: “Aww, fellas, we ALL make claims! So whoever is most certain of their claims MUST be right!”
But his targets lack evidence because they’re not making claims in the first place. They’re not required to come up with evidence. He is. Their role here involves only surveying the evidence he offers. And even that depends entirely on their willingness to do so. Nobody owes him time or attention.
And deep down, Schumacher knows he can’t meet his burden of proof. All this cha-cha-cha-ing he does here just highlights that he knows perfectly well that he has no evidence. If he had any, he’d offer it. But he doesn’t. So now, his own certainty depends upon him denying that his lack of evidence is any kind of problem. In fact, it’s so much the problem of his targets that if they can’t come up with evidence that his god doesn’t exist, then they are morally required to fall on their knees and repent!
Sidebar: Another shirking of burden of proof in ‘the absence of evidence’
Right after completely denying his own burden of proof, Schumacher cautions his readers that “the absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.” That’s a very popular apologetics saying. It means that if even apologists have entirely failed to persuade their targets with their manipulation attempts, their claims can still be completely true. He writes:
It’s possible that God could exist even if evidence for Him was nonexistent, although, admittedly, it would not be the most reasonable position to assume.
Yes. Exactly. That’s why heathens reject Christians’ claims. There’s no real-world support for anything they say. We have no reason to feel confidence in their claims, much less certainty.
The problem Schumacher has here is the stuff he considers evidence really isn’t support for his claims in the real world. In the total absence of evidence, evangelicals have devised a wealth of pseudo-evidence over the years. Alas for them, no matter how much pseudo-evidence they create, it never rises to the level of actual evidence.
When I was Christian, I thought I had all kinds of reasons to believe in Yahweh/Jesus. Bit by bit, I learned better. I learned the truth about testimonies, miracle claims, prayer, how the Bible was made, the history of 1st-century Judea and how Christianity sparked to life in that heady century of turmoil, and even Christians’ claims to moral superiority over heathens. As I learned, those faucets in my Christian faith pool turned off. They stopped feeding water to my faith pool. And as reality acts as a drain on the Christianity faith pool 24/7, eventually no faucets were left running, the pool emptied, and I lost faith.
If Christians’ claims were true, then there’d be no absence of evidence. That’d be impossible. One cannot reconcile absence of evidence with Christians’ claims about their god. If he were real, and doing the things he claim he does all the time, then he’d of necessity leave very obvious footprints behind constantly. But that’s not what we see when we look around ourselves in this world.
Evangelicals like Schumacher want a real live god doing real live things in the real live world. But they also want a god whose existence and doings cannot possibly be detected by any means except their own subjective feelings. These are not the same picture. The gods in these scenarios cannot be the same god. Evangelicals can’t have both of these.
Certainty in evangelicalism apparently requires demonization of heathens
But Schumacher has another strategy to pursue here in dealing with his own lack of evidence: demonizing heathens for their failure to accept his dishonesty!
Second, when it comes to beliefs in our post-truth culture, it’s hard to disagree with Pascal who said: “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” And let’s acknowledge that sword is double-edged where belief in God and atheism is concerned, i.e., both can hold beliefs because they like what the worldview teaches.
See, evangelicals have all this (pseudo-)EVIDENCE. It’s so much that it’s just everywhere! And it’s really real (pseudo-)evidence, too! But meaniepie heathens don’t accept it. They reject it because they don’t want to be Christians. They like being meaniepie heathens.
And Yahweh/Jesus hasn’t yet led them to convert, anyway. Only Yahweh/Jesus can possibly make any evil ickie heathen sinner open to that pseudo-evidence. So once Yahweh/Jesus decides it’s time for them to convert, they’ll be totally open to accepting all that pseudo-evidence evangelicals have created over the years:
In the end, brilliant people achieve certainty about God and other brilliant people do not. Epistemic and psychological certainty can only get you so far. We all need God to rewire our spiritual dimension and then “The Spirit Himself [will testify] with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16).
See? So it’s not about reviewing evidence to achieve a measure of confidence in Christian claims at all. It’s about Yahweh/Jesus magically making evangelical pseudo-evidence look persuasive at last. Once heathens get bitten by the Jesus bug, they’ll join evangelicals in their powerful certainty in their beliefs.
Oh, and for real certainty, throw out the entire need for evidence
I liked this interesting little admission. Schumacher has spent the entire post telling us that evangelicals have PROOF YES PROOF of their claims, just heathens don’t accept it. Now, we get this strange contradiction:
Paul’s declaration in Romans is also why the ridicule skeptics hurl at Christians about needing faith to believe that God exists falls flat. There is an important difference between faith that vs. faith in. The latter is all about trust and fidelity that is oftentimes outside the bounds of philosophical, empirical, and historical verification whereas the former is open to all three.
He refers here to Romans 1:19-20. This is a much-beloved set of verses. Evangelicals reach for these when they want to tell heathens that they do too believe, but live in denial of that truth! Here’s the whole context of those verses, with 19-20 emphasized by me:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. For what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from His workmanship, so that men are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and darkened in their foolish hearts. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images of mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
It’s just bizarre to read this part of Schumacher’s post. He’s spent an entire post telling us about PROOF YES PROOF. Now, he falls back on not needing it in the first place because everyone really believes, even if they won’t admit it.
Schumacher has no clue that he’s just shot his entire career as an apologist in the foot. If the objective reality of his god were even one-tenth as obvious as Paul tries to claim in Romans 1, there’d be no need for apologetics, ever. Apologetics is what Christians created in the absence of evidence. It’s what they use in lieu of evidence.
And apologetics as a publishing field has exploded in recent decades because Christians are just like anyone else. They want to think they believe for good reasons. Between faith-alone belief and for-good-reasons belief, they want the latter every time. They know that they live in a veritable sea of contradictory reality, and they know that their god isn’t nearly as obvious as they claim.
If they didn’t know these things, they’d never need to buy apologetics materials.
Certainty achieved at last! Or not
So let’s summarize Schumacher’s post:
- Evil ickie meaniepie heathens think TRUE CHRISTIANS™ only have psychological, subjective-feelings-based certainty about their beliefs.
- But there’s another kind of certainty called “epistemic certainty.” He never really defines what he means, offering us only a bunch of evangelical jargon. If he’s using the term as other evangelicals do, it doesn’t hinge on real-world observations at all. It can be just apologetics arguments and feelings.
- Evil ickie meaniepie heathens haven’t actually thought about what it’d take for them to believe Christian claims. HAHA, LOSERS!
- Those heathens claim that Yahweh/Jesus doesn’t exist, but nobody ever gets mad at them for not presenting evidence for that claim! (Ignore please that it’s not a claim, but a conclusion.)
- Yahweh/Jesus is both acting in the real world constantly, and also absolutely impossible to detect in any way. This is not a completely contradictory statement.
- Oh well, why even bother? Only Yahweh/Jesus can lead people to Christianity. Once heathens become Christian, then and only then will they understand and accept all the PROOF YES PROOF that evangelicals have. Until then, they will keep rejecting it because they like atheism better than Christianity. (Read: They just want to have unapproved sex.)
- Evangelicals totally have (pseudo-)evidence for their claims, but they don’t need it. Their certainty doesn’t depend on real-world evidence anyway. That is a feature of their worldview, not a bug.
And amid all the word salad he served up, Schumacher still has given us no real reason to take anything he says as objective reality. He’s just tried to make his lack of evidence seem less devastating to his case than it really is. But the lack still shines through every word-game he plays here. If I’d read this post while still Christian, it would have inspired the opposite of certainty in me!
It’s gonna be great when Christians figure out just how dishonest apologetics really is. But they’re too enamored of the feeling of spinning around in circles and then declaring victory. Until they realize that false certainty isn’t better than real reality, they won’t change.
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