A Scale Depicting Extraordinary Claims

I'm toying with something and wondering what my readers think of it. I put together a scale that depicts extraordinary claims by different groups below. See what you think and of my explanation.

This scale to the left shows us which groups have more and more extraordinary claims. The agnostic makes no positive or affirmative claims about the questions before us. I call this the default position. If nothing else we should all be agnostics.


The atheist position is not far from the agnostic for the agnostic already rejects all supernatural explanations. The atheist merely concludes what the agnostic refuses to do, by saying that it's probable there are no supernatural explanations at all, and as such the cosmos is all that exists. And this is not an extraordinary claim to make. In fact it's the opposite of one.

As we move off into the other direction the pantheist claims all is ONE. While it's a hard claim to wrap one's head around, it is a simple claim.

With deism we see this group will only accept what reason leads them to accept, and for most of them this means there is a creator God. This claim is more extraordinary than pantheism since they now affirm a spiritual reality that exists beside the reality we experience, a creator God.

The (Orthodox) Jew accepts the existence of a creator God but in addition also accepts the Old Testament as a revealed revelation from God.

The Muslim accepts some of the early portions of the Old Testament but in addition will accept the Koran as revealed by God (i.e. Allah), and that Jesus was his prophet.

See a trend here?

The Christian, or at least the evangelical, accepts a creator God, the Old Testament, and also the New Testament as the revealed will of God. While neither Jews nor Muslims accept a trinity, an incarnation, an atonement, nor a resurrection of Jesus, Christians do.

Now when we look at these groups based on who makes the greater number of extraordinary claims, then isn't it quite obvious Christians do?

Now consider the following undeniable facts: 1) The larger the claim is then the less likely it is to be true. 2) The larger the claim is then the more evidence is needed to show that it is true. 3) The larger the claim is then the more other things have to be defended such that if any one of these other things are shown to be improbable then the whole house of cards falls to the ground.

One conclusion I draw from this is that Christianity is by far less likely than Islam, or Orthodox Judaism, or Pantheism. But since Christians were raised in a Christian culture they think it's more likely because they are more familiar with it. Yet that does not follow at all.

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20 comments:

Cole said...

The Trinity is a very extraordinary view of God.

God is One God.

One God in three persons.

a)Jesus prayed to the Father

B)Jesus is God

C)The Father is God

D) God therefore prayed to God

E) God therefore prayed to Himself

F) God said to Himself "Not my will but thine be done.

The conclusion is that there are two opposing wills in the One God of Christianity. One or Two Eternal Person's with no opposing wills makes more sense than the Trinity. They are also simpler explanations for reality than the Trinity

Tyro said...

The agnostic makes no positive or affirmative claims about the questions before us. I call this the default position.

It's my understanding that the default position is to reject new claims. We need some weak evidence and argumentation to bring us to the fence-sitter/agnostic position. We see this with any number of new claims in science or culture - doubt & disbelief first ("atheist"), moving to acknowledge that the model is consistent and plausible but unsupported so we reserve judgment ("agnostic"), before moving to acceptance or rejection.

One conclusion I draw from this is that Christianity is by far less likely than Islam, or Orthodox Judaism, or Pantheism.

Superficially this appears to have some validity but since the OT is filled with such a volume of, well, crap and Christians often argue that it should be ignored in favour of the NT, it's not clear that Christians are making more or grander claims. The same goes double with Islam: Christians may believe that God tells them how to lead the good life but many Muslims believe this PLUS believe God wants them to violently enforce these rules. It's one thing to say you believe women should not teach men, it's another to believe uppity women should be buried alive or burned with acid when they stand up for themselves.

I think you'd need to look at the actual claims rather than relying on a Venn diagram based on a timeline.

I do agree that Christians make some preposterous claims which they may not fully appreciate and it's a good idea to try to find a way (graphical perhaps) to illustrate this. It's an uphill struggle though, it's hard to take someone out of their culture & upbringing.

Joshua Jung said...

I like it. However, things seem really fuzzy after Judaism. After all, there are some Christians who don't make as radical of claims as some fundamentalist Muslims and vice versa.

Perhaps you could have 'polytheism', 'monotheism', 'personal monotheism', 'Trinitarian monotheism', and 'God-indwelt' instead. I mean, the most extraordinary claim a Christian makes is that God is indwelling them but that every flaw they exhibit is their own and God is the non-flaws (or however they resole the dissonance). Anyway...

At this point you would then be classifying religious belief by a scale, rather than classifying beliefs categories with specific religions.

Hmmm, you know, this would be really, really fun to work with. You could come up with an entire chart - like Linnaeus did with the animal kingdom - for beliefs. THAT would be pretty damn cool... and fun. Sort-of a genetic mapping of supernatural beliefs.

jimbo said...

John,

I like the way you sum it all up in a concise way, as an engineer I say pure genius.. with one exception.

Plot the probabability of each claim on a log scale. I would say that the christian approach is at least 3 - 4 orders of magnitude less likely than the nearest ones due to the incarnation issue. The omnipotent one comes to earth to do what he can't do by his eternal power alone..hmm..a contradiction ..:)

Jim

Justkem said...

"The atheist position is not far from the agnostic for the agnostic already rejects all supernatural explanations. The atheist merely concludes what the agnostic refuses to do, by saying that it's probable there are no supernatural explanations at all, and as such the cosmos is all that exists."

This really is muddying the waters here. An atheist is someone who does not believe that a god or gods exist. An agnostic is someone who does not think gnostic revelation is reliable. The two are essentially parallel positions. If you want to put strong atheism (the assertion that there is no god) as an end point on that scale, I'm fine with that, but doing it in this way excludes the weak atheist/agnostic position that I and practically every atheist I've ever known identifies with.

I mention this because so many agnostics feel compelled to differentiate themselves from atheists even though they live their lives in a state of pragmatic non-belief. i.e., closet atheists, who are uncomfortable acknowledging that they don't believe in a god or gods because it's a socially unattractive/extremist position. There are distinctions between the agnostic pantheist, the agnostic deist, and the agnostic atheist. Appreciation of those subtle differences goes a long way towards facilitating interfaith discussions.

Dane Eidson said...

John,
This is Dane Eidson. Thanks for a great interview on my TV show. The six segments will be uploaded by the end of the day Feb. 26th.
I enjoyed our discussion!
Thanks gain.

Hendy said...

@jimbo: I agree; I think the current chart can be incorrectly viewed as 'to scale' when, in fact, there should be far more 'white space' between agnostic and Judaism and even more as you move down the line.

Some neat ideas?
- Some other type of graphical representation of 'number of beliefs' so that scale is more accurate?
- Some way to rank 'magnitude of claim' so that 'there may be creator' can be seen in stark contrast to 'the creator was born of a virgin women miraculously impregnated by the third person of the trinity?
- Some way to rank disagreement with current scientific views to show that some beliefs perhaps aren't infringing while others would just be out-of-this-world-surprising if they were, indeed, true?

Anyway, I just wanted to toss out some ideas that could get at the 'scale' issue. Even if you leave the current picture up, it might be good to separate the left two categories from the right three a little more?

This said, I think it's really hard to quantify all of this... would a Jew believe god really did part the red sea? Write words in their language into stone? Make the sun 'reverse' 10 degrees? Or are we talking there's a sky-god who wants me to be holy? I find the first variation far more approaching of believing NT miracles and would not be inclined to separate it from Christianities claims all that much. Even in Genesis god says, 'Let us (plural) make man in our (plural) likeness.' Also, later Genesis says that god was afraid that if man ate the tree of life he would live for ever and 'be like us' or something to that effect. Jews are not completely free from the idea of some sort of plurality, are they?

Just some thoughts. On the suggested logarithmic scale, I find that entering the realm of any supernatural claims that one would have to stand by to believe in one of the big three is probably going to get blurred toward the right end of the spectrum.

Hendy said...

Alright, how about this for a quick redo? Check out my redesigned chart HERE

Please, please, please do not focus on the actual claims, which claims I attribute to the religions, or the way I have ranked the claims! I admit ignorance and only want this to illustrate a concept of a different way to present the data.

Currently:
- the y axis represents the 'type' of god believed in
- the x axis represents the various beliefs held about that god

Ideally, the x axis could be made such that each claim is progressively more unlikely (requires more supporting evidence to be true) as well as being written such that any religion that holds belief Xn also holds all beliefs to the left (down to a certain starting belief for that religion).

If claims were written in this way, the more improbable the belief system, not only the higher up the y scale would it be, but the longer the bar representing it. It could even be modified to have a 'overarching' bar to serve as an 'umbrella' for any given religion and then little ones could be placed under it to show the various sects (some Christians believe in an inerrant Bible, some don't for example). Probably the simplest way would just be to keep the claims broad enough that the point gets across, shows the progressive scale of beliefs, and yet remains true for all (or nearly all) of a particular religion's variations...

Anyway... there you go. If anyone wants the OpenOffice Drawing file itself to tinker further... it's HERE

unkle e said...

John:

As an engineer, I too like the idea of using graphs to illustrate, though it also serves to obscure some question-begging problems.

And as a christian I see one of them right at the start. You say: " the cosmos is all that exists. And this is not an extraordinary claim to make"

I personally regard that as an absolutely extraordinary and unjustified claim to make. It can't have existed forever or all physical process (which are finite and moving towards a conclusion according to thermodynamics) would have long since reached that conclusion. So either it caused itself, or it has no cause or something caused it. And so we are right in the middle of the Cosmological argument, and while you will disagree, I think the God explanation is by far the least unlikely of those options.

So the graph is unsupportable, just an opinion. Nice work, but no cigar!! : )

busterggi said...

Okay but you should put Mormons even farther from reality than Christians.

Cole said...

Uncle e,

If God is outside time then He doesn't change. He's changeless and therefore He becomes frozen. He doesn't act or move and He therefore doesn't stand in causal relations with His creatures. Relationships with God become impossible without time.

But suppose the First Cause exists in some sort of metaphysical time or another dimension of time. But then the problem arises as to how could this Cause traverse an actually infinite number of equal, non-zero, past temporal intervals to arrive at the moment of creation? The God explanation seems to be just as unlikely.


One could simply take the position that the world is absurd and no reason can be given for it's existence. The world is the sort of thing which ought to have an explanation for it's existence, but does not.

What do you think?

Harold said...

John,
You make claims about using hard empirical evidence. You claim that we need to judge our beliefs on hard empirical evidence. So give me some hard empirical evidence regarding your scale. All you have done so fare is to give me your opinion. It is your opinion that Judaism has less extraordinary claims than Christianity. It is your opinion that pantheist have less extraordinary claims than the three monotheistic religions. I don’t want your opinion. I want hard empirical evidence. I want to see the research done by experts in sociology, archeology or psychology. I want experiments not opinion base on ones bias. Trust me atheist are as bias as any one else.
Harold

unkle e said...

Cole said: "One could simply take the position that the world is absurd and no reason can be given for it's existence. The world is the sort of thing which ought to have an explanation for it's existence, but does not.

What do you think?"


Since you ask what I think, I can say I don't think that. (If the universe was absurd, I would expect it to be random and chaotic, when in fact its laws are very mathematical and amazingly precise.)

But that isn't the topic here. John's graph is. And I still think it hides assumptions that I wouldn't be willing to grant, and which he would need to offer good evidence before his graph can stand as anything more than a diversion.

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

Differentiate between strong and weak agnostism, and perhaps also differentiate on the different Christian denominations.

Don said...

I have issue with where you placed Deism. It seems it would be easier to claim there probably is a god than there are many gods, and these are their names. Pantheism is not one set of beliefs. There are numerous systems, each with numerous gods with specific attributes. While the incredible claims made for individual gods may be fewer or less extensive than the incredible claims from monotheism, there are more gods and incredible claims to fill the space.

Your chart and explanation seem to imply that it is more extraordinary to claim that a pink unicorn lives in my back yard than to claim unicorns live on a magical island somewhere or that a god that lives in my heart is more extraordinary than a god that lives in "Heaven". Extraordinariness is binary. It either is or is not. Are fairies more extraordinary than elves or dragons? Once you get past "God did it" what does it matter what God is alleged to have done?

mchang said...

It’s an interesting chart, and seems to make logical sense. I caution it might complicate matters because the different groups believe in different claimed miracles/events, so it’d be hard to say one group believes in “more” than others.

I’d suggest the following thought. Considering that both Islam and Christianity trace their origins to Judaism, either as a whole (Christianity) or in part (Islam), their own traditions confirm the unique nature of God to the Jewish people and unwillingly demonstrate them as the ‘intermediaries’ between God and humanity. So logically speaking, it seems fruitless to be debating the issue of resurrection or any other philosophical or miracle claim (in the NT) if one can demonstrate that Christianity’s claims of Jesus’ divinity, blood atonement, trinity, etc., are at odds with the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Atheist Dave said...

It seems to me that the claim that one immaterial God as the creator of all things is the most extraordinary. It would make it necessary for God to have existed all alone with no time or place in which to exist. Something that exists at no place and at no time is non-existent by definition unless someone redefines what it means to exist. If this God were also omniscient then what did he have knowledge of? How did this immaterial God think or act with no time in which to think and no space or time in which to act? The claim itself seems to be self contradictory.

Chris Jones said...

Following after my remark in the other thread, this scale would be a representation of the colloquial usage of agnostic/atheist rather than the correct literal definition. Literally, the two don't belong on a sliding scale of differing degrees of belief because agnosticism isn't about belief. While it isn't really possible to be any combination of any two or more of the other items on the list, it is possible to be agnostic and still be any of the others on the list. Again, my agnostic Christan acquaintances come to mind. I'll refer to the other blog post's comments where I point out the different issues being addressed by agnosticism (knowledge) and atheism (belief).

If you're preferring to go with the colloquial, I suppose the chart would be accurate.

I really do resist the colloquial usage of "agnostic" and "atheist" for two reasons -- one, that this usage leaves an awkward inability to account for those agnostic Christians (as bizarre as this position is), and two, this sort of conversation that happens to me all the time:

Me: I'm an atheist.
Theist: You're so certain God doesn't exist?
Me: That's not my position -- I just don't think it's likely, so I don't believe it.
Theist: If you're not certain God doesn't exist, you're an agnostic and not an atheist.
Me: I'm an atheist because I don't believe in any gods.
Theist: Then what's the difference between you and an agnostic?
Me: .......... (now we're on to the knowledge vs. belief thing)

Chris Jones said...

Harold,

I can't imagine how it is anything short of self-evident that Judaism makes more extraordinary claims than Pantheism, and that Christianity makes more extraordinary claims than Judaism. The fact that each incorporates more or less all of the elements of the ones defined as "less extraordinary" and includes more claims is by definition "more extraordinary". Christianity essentially affirms everything in Judaism and goes further to create a trinitarian god and an assortment of other features. How is the layering on of more features not more extraordinary?

Harold said...

Chris Jones,
My question to John has to do with his request to Christians about using hard empirical evidence. I asked John for hard empirical evidence for his scale. It would be hypocritical of someone to expect out of one group what they do not expect out of themselves. Your opinion about what is or is not self evident is not hard empirical evidence it is just an opinion. So my question still remains give me hard empirical evidence for this scale. If there is none then according to John Loftus criteria I should reject it.