The Motte and Bailey of Christian Belief

I remain connected to the Christian world, even though I’m not a Christian. This is because I value friendship, and I don’t want to cut ties with people who are very dear to me. While having conversations about faith with Christians, though, I’ve noticed a trend that annoys me.

Christians will often make strong, extraordinary, and hard-to-defend claims about the world. But when pressed on these claims, they often retreat to more philosophical, vague, and easier-to-defend claims. This tactic is called the Motte and Bailey. When the Bailey is under attack, they retreat to the Motte.

Nicholas Shackel, the originator of the concept, described the Motte and Bailey fallacy this way:

A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of land (the Bailey) which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible and so neither is the Bailey. Rather one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land. … the Bailey, represents a philosophical doctrine or position with similar properties: desirable to its proponent but only lightly defensible. The Motte is the defensible but undesired position to which one retreats when hard pressed.

Christianity, as it is understood by the majority of its own adherents, makes solid, extraordinary claims that are both metaphysical and physical in nature. These include the central creeds of Christianity:

  • Christ was born of a virgin
  • Jesus is the son of God the Father
  • God is a trinity, three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  • Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried
  • He was raised from the dead on the third day
  • This death and resurrection are central to humanity’s salvation and reconciliation with God.

There is a myriad of other claims, but this is a tidy summation of some of the most important ones. Different traditions will quibble, of course. Roman Catholics will have a lot more to say about Mary, the Pope, apostolic succession, and the Church of Rome. Various protestants will want to do what they’ve always done and fistfight over minutia and split into a million fragments. Every tradition will want to argue over sacraments and what gets included in that list.

All that aside, the point remains: the vast majority of Christian sects make unambiguous claims about things that did or did not happen in the past, many of which are miraculous. They also make unambiguous and extraordinary claims about the present and the future: the end of the world, the afterlife, the nature of human fallenness, goodness, evil, and our relationship with God.

The central claims of Christianity are bold and extraordinary, and I’m not a Christian because I don’t believe they muster enough evidence to warrant belief. God is a trinity? Give me a good reason to believe such a claim that doesn’t rely on the logical equivalent of the snake eating its own tail. Jesus was born of a virgin? Impressive if true, but I just don’t have a good reason to believe such a thing happened. And — here’s the part I just can’t get around no matter how much theology I read — **if I don’t have a good reason to believe something, then why should I believe it?

Just to be clear, what I’m not saying is that the core creeds of Christianity are a requirement to consider yourself a Christian. You call yourself a Christian but don’t believe in the resurrection? Great! You call yourself a Christian but believe in a non-trinitarian god? That’s fine! The fundamentalists will get mad, but I don’t care. I’m simply saying that certain claims have been a foundational part of most Christian institutions throughout the centuries and remain widely believed to this day. A Christian in Nigeria and a hipster Catholic in Brooklyn, despite all their differences, will likely be united in the claim that Christ was raised from the dead.

I believe that all these creedal claims are the Bailey of Christian belief. They are controversial and hard-to-defend claims. When pushed on these claims in conversation, many Christians drop them completely and retreat to the Motte.

The Motte some Christians pivot to usually takes one of two forms:

Motte #1: The God-Shaped Hole: it is reasonable to believe in God/Christianity because humanity is designed or evolved (or both?) to maintain organized religion, and nasty things happen when we stop having organized religion and supernatural belief. Institutions, morals, and society collapse without this bulwark. This is because humanity has a God-shaped hole that only religion and the divine can fill, and we abandon the wisdom and structures of religion at our peril. This is the school of author and psychology professor Jordan Peterson.

Motte #2: The Ground of Being: It is reasonable to believe in God because all of reality must, logically, be predicated on something that started it all. This is Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, Paul Tillich’s Ground of Being. The existence of wonders like consciousness and the cosmos point toward fundamental mysteries at the base of reality, and that foundational reality is what we call God. This is the school of theologians like David Bentley Hart.

I have a lot of sympathy and even some agreement with these theological Baileys. I love talking about ritual, mysticism, the cosmos, and the mysteries of consciousness. I even believe that there might be a “first cause” or some “prior state” upon which all things move and have their being. I love all that woo stoner bullshit. And I fully agree that religion and belief are important human experiences, and I personally resonate with the intuition that religion meets very deep human needs.

The problem is that all of this has absolutely nothing to do with whether Jesus Christ was resurrected on the third day. The Motte and the Bailey of God’s existence are nonsequiturs. Absolutely nowhere in Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, Paul Tillich’s Ground of Being, or the conservative defense of religion as a bulwark against chaos, will you find any good reason to believe that Mohammad is the prophet, that Joseph Smith read the golden plates, or that Jesus is the son of God. There is an impassable chasm between The Ground of Being or the God-Shaped Hole and the hard claims of individual religions.

It doesn’t bother me if someone says, “I don’t really take the resurrection of Christ literally, but I still call myself a Christian because of (Ground of Being argument) or (God Shaped Hole argument), and my particular cultural religious myth helps me live a better life.” Nor am I bothered if someone might say, “I don’t know why I believe in the resurrection. I know that’s hard to defend and I’m still working on figuring that out. But I do believe in (Ground of Being argument) or (God Shaped Hole argument), and I find meaning and comfort in my faith.” That’s fine, and not what I’m discussing. I mean consciously or unconsciously using these arguments as a diversion from having to defend the claims one professes to believe.

The examples I provided above are illustrative. If you can bear it, watch this multi-hour debate between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris about the nature of belief. When asked to steel-man Peterson’s beliefs, Harris answered:

Here is what I think Jordan thinks I’m getting wrong. Clearly I don’t understand how valuable stories are, how deep they go, the degree to which stories encode not only the wisdom of our ancestors but quite possibily the wisdom borne of the hard knocks of the evolution of the species. There’s no telling how deep the significance of the information encoded in stories goes. And there is a class of stories that are religious stories, and they are religious for a reason because they are dealing with the deepest questions in human life. They are questions about what constitutes a good life, waht’s worth living for, what’s worth dying for. …This is not knowledge that we could recapitulate for ourself easily. And so we edit or ignore these ancient stories at our peril — at minimum at some considerable risk, because we don’t really know what baby is in the bathwater. So we should have immense respect for these traditions.

Peterson consented that this was an adequate summation of his views. So here we have Bailey #1 in crystallized form. But, when Harris pressed Peterson on whether Christ is actually God, Peterson melted into a puddle of incoherent metaphysical goo. After many minutes of embarrassing rambling, he protests “well, it’s very complicated!” He can defend the Motte with admirable fervor. The central claims of Christianity, not so much.

The best example of Motte #2 that I can think of is David Bentley Hart’s book Experience, Consciousness, Bliss. Even though I dragged his book when I first read it, in retrospect I think it is sublime. He mounts fascinating arguments for the existence of a philosophical, ground-of-being god that transcends all human understanding. He wrote the book out of frustration with the shoddy philosophy of a number of New Atheists, and I will be the first to concede that the New Atheists can suck sometimes. Where I think the New Atheists shine, though, is in criticizing the specific bold claims of specific religions, and that happens to be where David Bentley Hart vacated the premises completely.

Absolutely nowhere in his book does he explain how his argument for God as “Being, Consciousness, Bliss” leads in any coherent way to the ancient and concrete claims of his own faith, Eastern Orthodoxy. I believe that’s because there is no connection. Being, Consciousness, Bliss is touted as the One Book that every nontheist like myself should read, but it fundamentally failed to address the core objections I have to the Christian faith: I have no good reason to believe the truth claims that Christianity makes about the material world, the human condition, and human history.

The same pattern is revealed in nearly every conversation about Christian faith I have with Christians: after having a diverting stroll through the nature of the cosmos, the mysteries of consciousness, the possibility of the Prime Mover, and the human need for ultimate meaning, I am still left at a complete loss as to why belief in the resurrection of Christ is reasonable.

One cannot start with the Ground of Being or a God-Shaped Hole and reason one’s way to the resurrection. If one starts in the transcendent, the transcendent is where one will stay. Something more is needed to bridge the gap between the resurrection and the Ground of Being or God-Shaped Hole, and I’ve found every bridge untenable at best.

But that’s just me. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below or on my discord server. And, if you enjoy my work, please consider becoming a patron and signing up for my newsletter.

5 thoughts on “The Motte and Bailey of Christian Belief

  1. Single correction to your otherwise excellent post that does not affect your premise at all. The Catholic church is not monolithic while the protestant churches fragment. There are at least 4 popes in the world right now, and at least a half-dozen major divisions. The Roman Catholic church likes to pretend it has a singular claim to original lineage, but this is nothing but propaganda.

    As to the meat of your post, I agree that not only as a matter of strategy but as an unconcious mental attempt to maintain their belief, they actually only defend very little.


  2. I do not mean to offend, but this is a broad reading which lacks depth.

    You’re stuck in an exvangelical mode where Christianity is reduced to “things that did or did not happen in the past.” Because of this, you cannot conceive of existential or similar theology having any real connection to the Christian narrative because their basis is in something besides historical criticism. You even relay the myth of a universal, apostolic tradition, that “certain claims have been a foundational part of most Christian institutions throughout the centuries.”

    As far as you’re concerned then, modernist and postmodernist theologies like existentialism have “absolutely nothing to do with whether Jesus Christ was resurrected on the third day.”

    Unfortunately, you may have left fundamentalism aesthetically, but you actually kept most of the metaphysical baggage with you.


    1. Hi Kaleb! Thanks so much for your comment and constructive feedback. There’s a lot here, so I will take it piece by piece:

      “This is a broad reading which lacks depth.” That’s likely true! I read very widely but broadly, and will fully admit that I’m not a scholar or have theological training. This is why I take my public work on the blog and podcast as a conversation between myself and my audience.

      Regarding your second paragraph, I don’t think that this is an entirely accurate summation. You suggest that I “cannot conceive of existential or similar theology having any real connection to the Christian narrative because their basis is in something besides historical criticism.” That’s really not true – I’m fascinated by a vast variety of theological schools, and I think that a move away from the literalist and historical into the metaphysical/mythic makes for more humane religion. As I make clear in the article, literalist claims about the resurrection or absolute belief in creedal claims are not pre-requisite for being a Christian.

      The problem, though, is that I’m not the one claiming Christ was literally raised from the dead, Christians are! For example, the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, of which there are a billion adherents, reads,

      “The truth of Jesus’ divinity is confirmed by his Resurrection. He had said: “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he.” 523 The Resurrection of the crucified one shows that he was truly “I AM”, the Son of God and God himself. So St. Paul could declare to the Jews: “What God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.'” 524 Christ’s Resurrection is closely linked to the Incarnation of God’s Son, and is its fulfilment in accordance with God’s eternal plan.”

      This can be taken as metaphorical, or metaphysical. But there is also a literalist substrate: I think the Catholic church actually teaches that Jesus was literally raised from the dead, and I think that it’s reasonable to assume that a good number of Catholics actually believe what the church claims is true.

      What I’m observing in this post is a specific dynamic I’ve experienced in conversations with Christians who profess a literal belief in the resurrection. I want to know why believing in a literal resurrection of Christ is reasonable. They retreat from that ground and instead tell me that it’s good to believe because of some broader philosophical notion. What I’m observing is how the latter provides no good reason for me to believe the former.

      You write, “Unfortunately, you may have left fundamentalism aesthetically, but you actually kept most of the metaphysical baggage with you.” I don’t believe this is accurate. What I’m not arguing in this post is that there is no value, meaning, wisdom, or beauty in the story of Christ, or in non-literalist theologies. I consider myself deeply religious, although I am a nontheist. I am guided by religious narratives even though I remain agnostic on literal claims.

      Again, I appreciate your comment and thoughts!


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