Saturday, February 5, 2011
Ultimately in the back and forth of discussions about the existence of God, religion and the like, there is an important question that must be dealt with. For the believer, that question is, what is the relationship, as you see it, between reasoning about God and your belief in God? That is, is your belief in God more fundamental than your commitment to believe what reason and evidence indicates, or are you prepared, if the evidence demands it, to abandon your view of God as irrational? The question is of obvious importance because disagreement about God’s existence that is pursued in the form of a dialogue about reasons, justifications, and the evidence is actually done in bad faith if ultimately the believer doesn’t really care what the evidence is. If the believer places a higher premium on believing than anything else, including being reasonable about counter evidence, then he’s just engaging in sophistry when he engages in dialogue.
Here are some examples of famous theological writers who have ordered their priorities so that believing comes first and any other information, ideas, or evidence must conform to that belief or simply be rejected:
Nicholas Wolterstorff says,
“The religious beliefs of the Christian scholar ought to function as control beliefs within his devising and weighing of theories. . . . Since his fundamental commitment to following Christ ought to be decisively ultimate in his life, the rest of his life ought to be brought into harmony with it. As control, the belief-content of his authentic commitment ought to function both negatively and positively. Negatively, the Christian scholar ought to reject certain theories on the ground that they conflict or do not comport well with the belief-content of his authentic commitment.” (72 Reason Within the Bounds of Religion.)
Why is it that one must first run an evidential test on Scripture before one is justified in accepting it? Does this not fundamentally subordinate revelation to reason? What then is left of the authority of Scripture?
William Lane Craig insists that nothing could possibly counter indicate the truth of the Gospels because of a self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit in his heart than gives him knowledge independent of all questions of evidence.
Believing is somehow “self-authenticating” for them. It “carries its own evidence.” As they see it, it is a mistake to think that believing itself must be held to standards of evidence or rationality. Rather, our standards of evidence and rationality must answer to our belief in God.
On a similar note, we find this doctrinal statement at The Talbot School of Theology:
"The Bible, consisting of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God, a supernaturally given revelation from God Himself, concerning Himself, His being, nature, character, will and purposes; and concerning man, his nature, need and duty and destiny. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind." http://www.talbot.edu/about/biblical-inerrancy/
The infallibility of the Bible is their starting point. As an “educational” institution, this statement is a promise—whatever other ideas you may encounter, no matter what objections arise, and no matter what the evidence is, it must all conform to our picture of Biblical truth, or it will be flatly rejected. Bible first, reasoning and evidence second. We can contrast this approach with the fundamental principle of a liberal arts university where the free exchange of ideas, whatever they may be, is allowed and encouraged in order to achieve intellectual liberation from dogma. At an institute like Talbot, the goal is to propagate a preordained dogma despite the facts. At a real university, the purpose is to instill the critical reasoning skills and a methodology for rooting out error so that the seductive trap of dogmatism can be avoided.
There are many more believers who won’t be as forthright about their bottom line as Craig, Wolterstorff, and the Talbot School. But in practice, they are more deeply resolved to continue believing than they are to any principles of reasoning that might lead them to reconsider their theism. The epistemological term “defeater” has drifter over to these discussions through people like Plantinga, and believers will now sometimes say, even after hearing stark, and powerful objections to their positions that they have yet to hear anything that amounts to a defeater of the belief they started with. This sometimes amounts to code for, “I don’t value being intellectually responsible about the powerful argument you are making more than I value my continued believing in God, so I will continue believing as I started, unaffected.” At this point, of course, there’s really nothing left to be said. If someone is resolved to believe at all costs, then nothing else that any skeptic could say, no matter how thoughtful or persuasive can undermine that stubbornness. At this point, we should be prepared to conclude that someone has simply left the rational thought game and must be considered a lost cause.
Of course, as the dedicated Christian sees it, this kind of complete devotion to believing in God is an admirable thing. It shows that he is utterly committed and that he has subjugated every facet of his life. And our culture is full of references and allusions that seem to encourage this bizarrely backward belief structure. In our literature, movies, and stories, when someone stands by their principles and believes, no matter what, he’s a hero. But being skeptical or being prepared to change your mind when the evidence calls for it treated as failures of character, moral defects, and personal failures of courage and strength of will. I’ve long suspected that we elevate these behaviors in our books and movies as part of a nervous effort to fortify our own shrinking resolve to believe religious and superstitious silliness. If Bruce Willis retains his faith in humanity, or God, or whatever, then it soothes my quavering feelings about them in me. But I’m at a total loss to see how dedication or belief for its own sake is an admirable thing, particularly when the devotion is to something so patently misguided as vindictive, truculent, and capricious Iron Age creator deity. If believing it doesn’t make sense in the first place, then continuing to believe it no matter what the challenge is even worse. As they say, if it’s not worth doing, then it’s not worth doing well.
What the inversion of belief and reason really amounts to is a slavish devotion that runs so deep it robs a person of their autonomy, their self, and the only tool they have for discovering the truth: their reason. This is someone who values believing more than they value believing that which is supported by the evidence or reasons. What’s always baffling about this kind of believer is the question of how one could ever legitimately move into such a position. If you don’t already believe, then what possible means of access can there be? Aside from a psychotic break that just results in one’s believing, what could possibly lead a thoughtful, responsible adult from not believing that Jesus is the Lord to then believing that he is and then to the policy that the belief must be elevated in importance above everything else, including any of the appeals to reason or evidence that might have got you there.
Wolterstorff also says, “For he like everyone else ought to seek consistency, wholeness, and integrity in the body of his beliefs and commitments,” as long as all of those beliefs are brought into conformity with following Christ.
But one wonders why there is any concern about internal consistency and integrity once reason and responsiveness to evidence have been rejected in this manner. If the conspiracy theorist, who has rejected the most plausible interpretations of the evidence in favor of some far flung delusion, labors long and hard to get his fundamentally misguided picture of the world to be internally consistent, what possible difference does it make? Internal consistency is a game worth playing only if we are serious about getting our model of the world to anchor to reality. Consistency isn’t valuable for its own sake, it is only useful insofar as we are confident that the world itself is consistent, so our model of it must mirror that feature. But that’s just the start. If the model isn’t responsive to the constant input of new information, it’s worthless. But once we’ve enslaved ourselves to some obstinacy like those above, why should one care about consistency? Without the basic concern of making our belief structure about gods conform to reality and the evidence, there’s no motivation to pretend or pursue any such rules. It’s as if Wolterstorff is insisting that it’s only acceptable to cheat on one line of your taxes, but for the rest of the project one must be internally scrupulous with the bogus numbers that result.
What’s deeply disturbing about these admissions, besides their candor (Did he actually say that he’s only going to accept those accounts of history that conform to his preconceived religious commitments?), is their complete abandonment of the very rules that would render any of their beliefs justified. Once we elevate a religious belief to this status and declare that all other things we think or belief must conform to it, we’ve left the realm of sanity. The doctrine is believing you in this case, not the other way around.
Even from the inside of this strange position, this problem must be troubling. The most ardent believer of Wolterstorff’s type must acknowledge that there are many other people in the world who have drawn a similar line in the sand about their favored religious claims. That is, the Christian here will readily concur that were a Muslim or a fundamentalist Jew, or a Zoroastrian, or some other non-Christian to make a similar declaration, they would be mistaken. Others who claim a similar primacy for their religious views, where that view is incommensurate with the Christian one, must be mistaken because there is only one true Christian God and Jesus is his only son. So we must all acknowledge the possibility of error in this type of defense (if we can call it that) of a theistic belief. If it is possible to be mistaken then, what is the method whereby we can hope to separate the proposals that are misguided from the ones that are authentic? When you have the impulse to say, “All other beliefs, standards of evidence, and even reasoning itself must conform to my belief in God,” how do you know you’ve stumbled upon the right one, particularly when you know there are so many people around who have gotten it wrong by this route? What independent route to the belief in God do you have left available to you?
We might have said, “Well, I can know that my God is the one, authentic God because all of the evidence and a powerful set of carefully reasoned arguments shows it.” But of course, that defense isn’t available to people like Wolterstorff--they have denied that there is any need to defend their belief this way. The folks at Talbot can’t say on the one hand that the Bible is incorrigible, and when pressed for why, respond by insisting that the Bible says it is. So the problem is that once you abandon the one set of methods we have for error correction, you’re set adrift. What can be your criteria for preferring one religious scheme over another? More importantly, what’s to separate the view you prefer (unjustifiably) from delusions or insanity?
Consider the paradox this believer is now in. They assert: “Many people who subjugate their lives and their faculties of reasoning to their religious beliefs are misguided and wrong.” “Nevertheless, my reasoning must be subordinated to my Jesus ideology.”
Or, “I am unwilling to consider any reasoning that might challenge my Christian convictions. Other people who fail to do likewise are mistaken. But without any reasoning at my disposal, I am unable to explain or defend why they are mistaken.”
To their credit, these authors have put their cards on the table. They have been up front with their resolve to simply believe no matter what other considerations they encounter. But these admissions also make it clear that any rational discussion of justifications for their beliefs are pointless. Reasons do not matter to this sort of believer. Without any justification for their beliefs or their slavish dedication to them, and with their dogmatic refusal to reason about them, there’s no difference between what they are doing and getting swallowed up by a cult. They have left the rationality playing field. There’s no human mind left there, just dogma.
Unfortunately, the unsuspecting skeptic has often wandered into this trap in good faith, as it were, thinking that the point of having a discussion about God or Jesus or whatever was to figure out the truth, analyze reasons, possibly answer unanswered questions. But once we dig deeper, we see that this sort of believer does not have a similar view of things. There can only be their Biblical truth. So there’s nothing, even in principle that might dissuade him or lead him to change his mind. That is, there’s really no point for the skeptic to offer contrary ideas, criticisms, objections, or counter arguments. Unless those arguments conform to the believer’s prior convictions, they will be rejected no matter how great their merit. (There’s something nihilistic and cynical about this approach, particularly if the believer is not forthcoming about his bottom line.)
So in the spirit of John Loftus’ Outside Test for Faith, I propose a test. Before I or any other doubter, atheist, skeptic, or non-believer engages in a discussion about the reasons for and against God, the believer must look deep into his heart and mind and ask this question: Are there any considerations, arguments, evidence, or reasons, even hypothetically that could possibly lead me to change my mind about God? Is it even a remotely possible outcome that in carefully and thoughtfully reflecting on the broadest and most even body of evidence that I can grasp, that I would come to think that my current view about God is mistaken? That is to say, is my belief defeasible?
If the answer is no, then we’re done. There is nothing informative, constructive, or interesting to be found in your contribution to dialogue. Anything you have to say amounts to sophistry. We can’t take your input any more seriously than the lawyer who is a master of casuistry and who can provide rhetorically masterful defenses of every side of an issue. She’s not interested in the truth, only is scoring debate points or the construction of elaborate rhetorical castles (that float on air).
In all fairness, we must demand the same from skeptics, doubters, and atheists. They are just as guilty of conflict if they rail against religious beliefs for lacking rational justification, but in turn there are no possible considerations that could ever lead them to relinquish their doubts.
So before we can get down to the real issues, is your view defeasible?
Posted by Matt McCormick at 4:36 PM