trading faith for faith: a critique of reasons for unbelief

A battle has raged for years between Evangelical Christians and those who claim skepticism/agnosticism/atheism on the grounds of critical thinking. The accusations are of garden variety: Christians allegedly aren’t able to think for themselves or keep an open mind. The charges are usually levelled by those who used to be believers, charges lobbed with all the zeal of a fresh convert.

One website I have become familiar with is manned by a former Christian trying to figure out “what it means to be an unbeliever and a skeptic.” I don’t mind that people choose to abandon their faith, that is, it does not offend me. Perhaps it should, but that’s not the point. That said, it does profoundly bother me when they proclaim their new gospel with little intellectual integrity or currency. To be clever or witty is not to be mistaken with being thoughtful or reasonable. It makes for good punditry, but awful, imbalanced rhetoric. (I’m looking at you, Mencken.) In other words, politicians ought not be mistaken for intellectuals; whether one wants to admit it or not, the battle for a dominant particular cultural theistic paradigm is more political posturing than anything else.

Plainly, there is no such thing as open-mindedness. To be open-minded does not say as much about a person as it does contrast from someone else. If someone claims to be open-minded, she says nothing about herself as much as she does those who she assumes are supposedly closed-minded. Ironically, the claim of open-mindedness actually is closed-minded, but under the pretense of relativism, she can claim nothing about herself as much as she can fling an under-the-radar ad hominem at someone else. It’s no different than a politician claiming to be ‘progressive’. What is that, anyway? What constitutes your progress? Without an assumption of something that is either status quo or regressive, the progressive has no leg on which to stand.

The issue here is assumption, particularly epistemic assumption. No one lacks epistemic assumptions, every person has a set of parameters by which he or she understands the world. So, the recently-converted unbeliever claims on the grounds of thinking for himself, presuming that believers do not think for themselves. Or that they have developed critical thinking capacities that preclude religious belief, presuming that religious believers are intellectual neanderthals.

In the interest of full disclosure, it comes as no surprise to many of you that I hold a particular disdain for the subcultural foolishness and accidental hubris of pop Christianity, I lament the general lack of theological development in our churches from clergy and laity alike, stupidity drives me batty and I generally have a low view of humanity. If that were all there was to it, I’d be a pretty miserable person. That said, I am moved by nobility and goodness, extraordinary acts of valor and beauty, celebrate in communities that have found a way to eschew mediocrity spiritual and social and am unafraid to act in sacrificial compassion for those around me. I refuse to be defined by the things that would keep me merely a cynic and nothing more.

It seems that our defiant agnostic friends would, in a great and terrible kicking against the goads, rather that they were simply not those people. Critical thinking, then, is a cop out, if for no other reason than the truth: critical thinking itself cannot and does not automatically render religious faith to be false. Critical thinking is not designed to deny the existence of things, but to affirm, leaving the a-theist, a-gnostic, un-believer in a most undesirable position: if the point of the aforementioned is to carve out a position that refutes supernatural or religious activity, why all the bluster? As has been said elsewhere, if there is nothing, from a purely materialist perspective, why (again, causally, not metaphysically) is there anything at all?

In sum, perhaps the time has come to doubt doubt, a point Michael Polanyi makes in his tacit epistemology. This falsification-run-amok has caused much harm to the intellectual cause. It’s easy to negate, it’s more difficult to affirm. Negation comes in the critique of something already presented, while the task of epistemic affirmation requires the enterprising and courageous mind to construct a case for something. The epistemic affirmation process requires, at its core a + b = c. The negation is a parasite to the affirming host. Rather than building a case for a-theism, the process ought to be a case for something else, for example, nihilism.

The absurdity of arguing against something that, in the mind of the skeptic, doesn’t exist reaches epic proportions. In a post next week on sailerb, I shall demonstrate why the Pfeffergorgles should have nothing to do with northwestern Iowa.

This is not to say that there is no place for critical thinking: clearly, there have been varying levels of crappy arguments for different things, from Xeno’s paradox to the earth-centered universe to the existence of God. The philosophical task involves the critique of substandard arguments, and standard arguments ought to withstand criticism. There is a level of quality control involved here, let there be no doubt. In fact, this work is an exercise in critique. I digress.

If critical thinking isn’t enough, there’s always science. Indeed, our friend also claims that reading science books (“with an open mind”, he proudly proclaims) helped to “[remove] layer after layer of propaganda”. Now, what exactly about science delivered him to salvation? Old-earth and (presumably Darwinian) evolution. This is a circumstantial ad hominem: the inference here is that young-earth creationism and intelligent design are non-negotiable aspects of Christian faith. This is patently false, moreover, they have nothing to do with Christian soteriology. Like much of what one will see coming from people like our unbeliever, it is a red herring.

I would agree that there is far too much happy, thoughtless chugging of the kool-aid in Evangelical church circles; our response to Darwin has been tepid at best. That said, there are two major points that have been deliberately left out of the general conversation. First, the line of thinking that faith and science are at odds with one another is a philosophical fiction, and actually couldn’t be further from the truth. Religion is often the strawman by which those who hold to naturalism (atheism repackaged) create their aire of dominance. Second, the acceptance of evolution does not, by any means, delegitimize Christianity. The head gasket of a car engine does not blow because someone purchases a car.  When it is also considered that a hyper-literal interpretation of Genesis is fundamentally improper, then the idea that evolution ruins faith is almost laughable. I am willing to concede, again, the fact that our churches have by and large abandoned the scientific conversation, but in the same way, science has generally abandoned faith. It’s a two-way street, paved not by science, but by philosophy.

Science is an extension of empiricism. For centuries, it was natural philosophy, a way of understanding the world around us. Today, it lurches toward scientism, the idea that science is the only way to properly interpret reality. There is one glaring problem, though: science, the process of understanding the empirical world, is reliant on epistemic assumptions, if for no other reason than everything can be reduced to one fundamentally unjustifiable premise. Science not only has its limits, it is, by definition, limited. Science cannot affirm or deny the existence of anything beyond the observable world, which makes Dawkins’ task, amongst others, utterly vain.

What can science do? It can provide powerful explanatory ability, help us understand and harness the capabilities of the world and its resources, provide us a means by which we can use technology as a tool to help (or sometimes, harm) humanity. It is reliant upon the observer or participant. It is not designed to provide us with a why, particularly, a why that is there is no why. And, in the process of understanding the world, it, like critical thinking, is designed to affirm truth and refute error. It also has been the means by which scientists for centuries until late have found a place of worship.

Science is always philosophical, but philosophy is seldom, if ever, scientific. That which is more limited has less explanatory power.

Even in these two instances, it is clear that the idea of science and critical thought somehow negates Christian faith is little more than a red herring, a diversion from the affirming task naturalism consistently fails to undertake. Through circumstantial ad hominem and a lot of clever sound and fury, there is little beyond the presentation that would constitute serious reflection on a very serious matter of personal worldview.

I grant that some of these matters cause serious questions for the theist, and we ought to consider them: if evolution has taken place, what do we do with Christian salvation? Is evolution a legitimate way to understand the creation of the world? If so, why is it that so many other fields of science have moved past the 19th century, while the origins of the universe have apparently been settled for nearly 200 years? Or could it be that Darwin’s work was a product of the times, a work fueled with the spirit of the Enlightenment? Could it be that Darwin, who clearly was inspired by/borrowed from Hegel, Lyell and LaPlace, simply applied a philosophical paradigm to the observable world? Even Newton got trumped. Why not Darwin?

This is what we have by the very pen (or, in this instance, fingers) of our friend: “I was an evangelical Christian for over a decade, completely convinced that God was real and Jesus was alive today. I attended Bible college to train to be a pastor. I worked at a Christian church for many years. I have ‘led people to Christ.’ I have left tracts in bathrooms. I have knocked on hundreds of doors asking people to repent and believe in Jesus. . . . I no longer believe in a personal God or that Jesus was born of a virgin, worked miracles, and rose from the dead. I don’t believe in heaven or hell, angels or demons, holy books or prophecy. I don’t believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago, or that God intelligently designed every species.”

What does he believe? As a self-professed “unbeliever” and “skeptic”, he believes that Christian faith is false, and that there is no way to know anything with certainty.

Problem one: faith cannot be false, a faith claim is a belief claim. Truth and falsehood are terms reserved for facts, not beliefs. Problem two: he is certain that nothing can be certain. However, he is certain that critical thinking works and that Darwinian evolution is factual. He is also certain with regard to probability. (Never mind that Pascal was certain about probability, and yet held firmly to his Christian beliefs.) A skeptic, by definition, doubts the possibility of real knowledge. Why science? Why logic? In spinning himself out of one alleged delusion, he has strangled himself with another.

So, what we have is a person who simply no longer wants to be a Christian, and believes he is warranted in doing so. And that would be fine: he is welcome to find his own way. I have no relationship to him and have no way to provide insight or investment into his life. That said, his reasoning for abandoning faith is little more than one watery excuse after another. He is not interested in declaring what actually happened to change his mind, or in building a case for a better worldview. He is only interested in differentiating himself from his subjective cultural experiences in a setting that affirmed young-earth, literal six-day creation and demanded that he and his friends go door-to-door with tracts and win the lost for Jesus. And in his attempts to say “I’m not one of them anymore,” all he has are generalities: Christians don’t think for themselves, believe in science or probability, ask tough questions, can’t imagine the Bible as anything but literally written by God, and are closed-minded anti-intellectual bigots who believe that God literally created the universe in six days about six to ten-thousand years ago. He may as well be campaigning against bleeding heart liberals or tax cuts for the rich.

In all honesty, I pity him; that his experience in Christian faith was so intellectually vapid that he felt the need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But I have no pity for his reasons, as they are insulting to anyone who is interested in thoughtful discourse. He is entitled to his reasons for walking away, but he ought not presume to insult the intelligence of his audience, many of whom simply accept his conclusions as true. Preach it, brother!

In reality, his new-found faith is no more reasonable than the faith he left. His new faith is, also, quite unreasonable. He just doesn’t realize it yet.

http:// unreasonablefaith [dot] com [slash] about

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