A couple years ago, I got into a discussion with a non-Christian friend about the historicity of the Resurrection. When I recommended a few books on the matter, my friend scoffed: “Of course they think that; they’re Christians!” (I am paraphrasing.)
In my friend’s mind, Christians could not defend their point of view presumably because, as Christians, they had sacrificed any claim to objectivity.
I was pretty flabbergasted (and annoyed) by my friend’s remark. It was nothing more than an ad hominem attack that undercut any possibility of reasonable discourse on the matter; my friend was dismissing the scholarship of extremely educated historians because of their religious beliefs.
Why do people have these sorts of ideas about Christians (or religious people in general)? I can think of several different explanations: wariness of the subjectivity of religious experience, an appreciation of the fact that most Christians are raised as Christians and thus have Christianity somewhat thrust upon them, &c.
But the explanations don’t matter.
Such explanations form the basis of my friend’s decision to ignore the books I recommended. He looked at Christians’ ulterior motives – reasons why we believe what we believe apart from the validity of Christianity itself – and, assuming that such motives undergird (and thus undermine) any Christian attempt at persuasive argument, dismissed the books I had recommended outright. (To be fair to my friend, I have had discussions with him that were much more productive than the one described here.)
Of course, non-Christians are not the only people who do this. Some creationists have suggested that “Darwinist” scientists believe in evolution simply because they are demon-possessed. I have heard several Christians attribute atheism to pride on the part of atheists. People of all political stripes have accused their opponents of harboring undisclosed motives. And many people seem to think that I am a Christian only because my parents were missionaries. (Ulterior motives for beliefs, by the way, do not have to be malicious or deliberate. My friend certainly does not believe that Christian scholars are purposefully distorting the Truth when they argue for the historicity of the Resurrection – only that their judgment is being clouded by emotions or desires.)
What is the motivation behind people’s focus on motivation? In general, writing off those with whom we disagree is easy, whereas understanding their explanations for why they disagree with us is hard. It is more convenient for us to point to others’ motives than to engage and examine their ideas.
None of this is to deny that ulterior motives – emotions, predispositions, and what-have-you – exist; it would be foolish to pretend that they don’t. The point, rather, is that we can’t focus on people’s motives for believing certain things until we understand how people actually justify those beliefs.
Assume, for the sake of argument, that every conservative economist in the world has been paid a small fortune to advocate conservative economic policies. (I’m picking on conservatives because I’m conservative. The economic incentives of economists, by the way, is a very interesting topic.) That would look really, really bad for conservative economists – but it wouldn’t affect at all the truth of conservative economics.
Let’s consider a more realistic case. Many Christians believe in Christianity because of personal religious experiences. My friend and others might say that Christians’ reliance on such experiences is epistemically unjustifiable. (Some very able Christian philosophers would disagree.) But the fact remains that these religious experiences in and of themselves do not lessen the plausibility of the Resurrection.
In fact, the Resurrection could have happened even if all Christian historians and apologists were secret atheists. Similarly, evolution could still be true even if all “evolutionists” became young-Earth creationists. The reason for this is that ideas stand independent of the people who argue for them and the motives behind their arguments.