Information icon.svg Results for the 2023 RationalWiki Moderator Election have now been posted. Thank you for participating in this election, and congratulations to the winners!

The Case Against Christianity

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Great and terrible
Icon books.svg
On our shelf:
Writer's block

The Case Against Christianity (ISBN 9781566390811) is a 1991 book by American philosopher Michael Martin (a professor at Boston University), in which he seeks to present philosophical arguments against Christianity. His book is original in that, although the existence of God has long been a frequent topic in the philosophy of religion, relatively little serious philosophical work has sought to address some of the other major doctrines of the Christian religion, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Atonement, etc. Although Martin is a well-known philosophical defender of atheism, he elects not to assume or argue for atheism in his book (given that there is already plenty of philosophical literature addressing that topic, and he wrote a previous book himself defending that view), and thus tries to use only arguments which a theist might find convincing.


He begins in the introduction[1] with an attempt to define Christianity. He examines the major ecumenical creeds (Apostles', Nicene and Athanasian) as statements of the fundamentals of Christian belief. From these, he extracts 9 basic beliefs common to most Christians, to which he adds a tenth - acceptance of the ethical teachings of Jesus. He then identifies what he sees as the most essential of these beliefs, and uses this to define Basic Christianity. In turn, he defines Orthodox Christianity as building on Basic Christianity to include all of those ten beliefs, and Liberal Christianity as a minimalist version incorporating only belief in God and acceptance of Jesus' moral teachings. He also considers extensions of these definitions, to consider not just beliefs, but also behavior conforming to those beliefs (or genuine attempts at such behavior), and receipt of any necessary sacraments (such as baptism).

Chapter 1[edit]

Having defined what he seeks to refute, he then proceeds in chapter 1[2] to respond to a number of Christian claims concerning the logical foundations of Christian belief:

  • He addresses arguments of the form that we ought to believe in Christianity because it is good for us to do so. These can be seen as pragmatic or ethical arguments - or, as he puts the distinction, believing for beneficial rather than epistemic reasons. Examples of such arguments include Pascal's wager and William James' attempts to justify religious belief in pragmatic terms.
  • He argues that there is a strong presumption that we ought to believe for epistemic rather than beneficial reasons. At this juncture he invokes W. K. Clifford's arguments in his famous essay The Ethics of Belief that believing without sufficient evidence is morally wrong. Clifford advances a number of reasons for its alleged immorality. Martin adopts these reasons, but adds an additional element: in addition to its violation of our moral duties, Martin believes belief without evidence contradicts epistemological duties which exist independently from ethics.
  • Martin accepts that, hypothetically, there are situations in which belief without evidence may be justifiable. He gives the example of the nuclear terrorist who threatens to destroy New York, London, Paris and Tokyo, unless you convert to Christianity.[3] He argues that, under such an unlikely circumstance, the rational and moral approach is to at least try to believe in Christianity. However, given that these are very rare circumstances, his implication is that in more ordinary circumstances belief in Christianity without evidence is morally and epistemologically impermissible.
  • Next, he addresses the concept of faith. He identifies three main theories of faith - that of Aquinas, that of Kierkegaard, and that of Wittgensteinian fideism:
    • Aquinas' conception of faith is based on the assumption that God exists, and that it is rational to believe that God has revealed truths to humanity through special revelation, and that fulfilled biblical prophecy, miracles, and Christianity's success is proof of this revelation. Aquinas is aware of Islam's competing claims to have received divine revelation, but Aquinas rejects them on the alleged grounds that he knew better because he was a Christian Islam's success has been due to threats of violence and promises of carnal pleasure in the afterlife. Martin responds by doubting several of Aquinas' assertions - that the Bible contains fulfilled prophecies, that miracles have occurred, and Martin also questions the accuracy of Aquinas' characterization of the rise of Islam. He also questions how Aquinas' faith can be certain, when it is based on history, and the conclusions of history are inevitably tentative.[4]
    • Kierkegaard's conception of faith is based on having the credulousness courage to believe in spite of the evidence. Kierkegaard uses as an example the biblical story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. Martin's response is to question whether such courage is desirable at all from an ethical perspective, since it is indistinguishable in practice from fanaticism. He also questions whether a good God would really want his creatures to believe in him contrary to evidence - surely, if a good God exists, he would have provided sufficient evidence for his own existence, such that belief contrary to the evidence is unnecessary. Finally, Martin raises the point that there is nothing in Kierkegaard's approach to faith which restricts its application to Christianity - Kierkegaard's arguments could be used equally well to argue for a faith in Judaism or Islam and so on.[5]
    • Wittgensteinian fideism originates in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, as extended by several of his students. Wittgensteinian fideism argues that religion constitutes its own independent domain of discourse (a "language game"), totally independent from other domains of discourse (such as science). It cannot be judged by the rules of any other discipline, only by the rules it has established for itself. Martin raises an objection to this approach - it is unclear where to draw the boundaries between different language games - is religion as a whole a separate language game, or each independent religion its own independent language game? If each religion is its own independent language game, why is not each branch, denomination or sect within that religion its own language game also? But if each denomination or sect is its own language game, then two separate Baptist sects are not actually speaking the same language. To give another example, Jesus features in both Christianity and Islam, although the two religions have rather different opinions about him. If Wittgensteinian fideism is true, then when Christians and Muslims argue about "Jesus", they are actually arguing about completely separate things, and thus in reality not really disagreeing. But, Martin argues, it is clear that different religions, and groups within a religion, really do have disagreements, and hence Wittgensteinian fideism must be false. He also argues that this approach renders all religions (and not just religion, but also other beliefs such as astrology or numerology) immune from external rational or ethical criticism, when no system of thought should be considered exempt from criticism from the outside.
  • Finally, Martin considers the foundationalism of Alvin Plantinga and others - the argument that basic Christian doctrines are basic beliefs, and thus do not require any justification.[6] Martin's first criticism is that Plantinga has fundamentally failed to understand or respect the purpose of the foundationalist project in epistemology. Foundationalism sought, however unsuccessfully, to ground human belief in absolutes, believing that in doing so the edifice of belief could be reconstructed on a firmer footing. Plantinga's approach to foundationalism is however fundamentally relativistic - any belief whatsoever can be put beyond criticism simply by declaring it to be epistemologically basic. Martin criticises Plantinga for a lack of clear criteria for what makes a belief basic - Plantinga's criteria amounts to little more than "I know it when I see it". Martin also points out that Plantinga's approach is not just available to Christians, but to followers of any belief system - followers of Voodoo could equally claim their own beliefs as epistemologically foundational. Plantinga's response is that he is proposing that the Christian community (and more specifically, Calvinism) decide for itself what beliefs are foundational; however, if that is an approach open to Christians, it is equally open to all other perspectives, religious or non-religious.

Subsequent chapters[edit]

In the subsequent chapters:

  • In the second chapter, Martin considers the evidence for Jesus' existence. He largely adopts the approach of G. A. Wells, and argues that Jesus never existed.
  • In the third, he confronts the Resurrection, and argues that the evidence does not support the claim that the Resurrection happened.
  • In the fourth chapter, he critiques the ideas of the Virgin Birth and the Second Coming.
  • Fifth chapter: He argues that the notion of the Incarnation - that Jesus, uniquely of all humans in history, is both human and divine simultaneously — is logically incoherent.
  • Sixth: He argues that Jesus' ethical teachings are open to criticism, and that Jesus is not the great ethical teacher he is commonly put out to be.
  • Seventh: He challenges the doctrine of salvation by faith.
  • Eighth: He discusses a number of possible Christian responses to his arguments in the previous chapters, and attempts to rebut them.
  • There are two appendices. The first critiques the divine command theory of ethics. The second summarises the major theories of the Atonement, and presents criticisms of each of them.

External links[edit]


  1. pp. 3ff
  2. pp. 18ff
  3. p. 20
  4. pp. 22-23
  5. pp. 24-25
  6. pp. 27-32