Can Any Information be Taken from the Bible?

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In one sense the answer is obviously “yes.” We can know how many books are in it, approximately how long it is. We can glean from it which words are important to certain parts of the early Christian movement, approximately what they believed, etc.

Many skeptics would answer the question with a categorical “no.” It’s full of miracles and contradictions, they say. The book cannot be trusted for anything. No information at all can be taken from it. It’s off-limits when used as evidence for Christianity (though it’s not when used as evidence against Christianity).

Then there are Christians who say “yes” in that they believe everything in the Bible is the Word of God. Christians differ as to what they mean by “Word of God,” some take it to mean “inerrancy” on all matters, when taken in terms of author’s intended meaning in the original manuscripts. Others think it’s more like the Oracle in the Matrix: as she says to Neo what he needs to hear (truth is only one goal of speech), so God speaks to us through the Bible. Still others believe only parts of the Bible: liberal Christians. I tend to go with the Oracle approach these days (though I’m open to arguments).

Of course, there could be a middle ground: say, someone who isn’t a Christian and is skeptical of much of what the Bible says, but thinks that pieces of historical information could, nonetheless, be gleaned from the Bible.

Example: Many non-Christian scholars who look at the Bible believe that John the Baptist existed. Or consider this passage from Matthew chapter 28:

11 Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and [d]keep you out of trouble.” 15 And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.

Suppose that the Bible isn’t the Word of God, that Jesus died and decayed. Still, could we not glean from this passage that people were spreading the story that Jesus’ body was stolen by his disciples while the guards slept? Otherwise, this passage, even as a fabrication, lie, myth,  or whatever, wouldn’t make sense. At least we can glean that people at the time this was written were hearing this story.

This is just the sort of information people like William Lane Craig use to defend Christianity by claiming this is evidence for the empty tomb of Jesus. Yet the rebuttal I hear from sceptics most often takes the form of “well, you can’t take anything from the Bible to show that Christianity is true; that’s circular reasoning!” But you have to remember that one doesn’t have to be a Christian or believe in inerrancy to get information from the Bible! One could be a skeptic and agree with the above reasoning. It doesn’t assume anything about the Bible being the Word of God!

So this knee-jerk reaction is clearly just that. But it’s surprisingly common, even among educated people. Virtually every opponent in Craig’s debates, for example, has said something like that.

In fact, many of these same opponents do use the Bible for their own case: they find harsh commands from Yahweh (e.g., Sam Harris). This is also an attempt to gain information from the Bible: content about what Christians believe.

I wish that atheists would be more careful in their reasoning. I know believers are often irrational, but as Paul says “not many wise” have been called to the faith (here’s another piece of information from the Bible: we can infer that most early Christians were not intellectually skilled). Atheists, on the other hand, claim to be smarter. So I hold them to their word.

Path to Atheism, the Second Most Rebellious Worldview

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I think that a lot of atheists would insist that their path to atheism is one of discovering that it is unreasonable to believe in God, much like it is unreasonable to believe in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. My hypothesis is different. It seems to me, the more I look at debates and such between theists and atheists, that atheists make a choice about how they view the world that prohibit belief in God a priori (that is, right at the start, before any evidence is examined). This choice seems so natural and obvious to atheists that they may not even see it as a choice. It’s the choice of epistemology (way of knowing, forming beliefs). Also I say why I think that this choice is ultimately rooted in rebelliousness.

The Surface Path

I’m not talking about the emotional side here, of course. People get pissed-off at religious people and become atheists because of this. Or they might be horribly disappointed at unanswered prayer, or something really bad happening to them or someone else, and reject God as a result. Intellectual steps are what I’m interested in. Here’s what I think they are. They aren’t always made explicit, but I think that atheists usually go through these.

1. Choose an epistemology that only serves tangible, practical, “hands-on” values and goals either through usable knowledge, or theories that aid in the prediction/control of nature.

2. Point out that such an epistemology has no need of God.

3. Claim that the the fact that such a godless epistemology is successful in meeting tangible goals is evidence against God.

4. Reject God.

I don’t think reflective atheists would deny that they have went through all of these at some point in their adoption of atheism. To them, these steps seem obviously right. Key to this path is the first step.

The choice in 1 goes back a long way, with roots in Francis Bacon, and later, explicit endorsement in John Dewey and his “bulldog” Sidney Hook. A current example of 1 is Sean Carroll’s rejection of God as a hypothesis because it doesn’t produce new information about how the world works. Lawrence Krauss also seems to point this, as does Alva Noe. Noe points out that belief in God will not help you fix your car. To be fair, Carroll (and the others as well, probably) also rejected God as a hypothesis because he didn’t think it was testable. However, the multiverse hypothesis isn’t really testable either, yet they are all willing to entertain it. I think that for them, as for most atheist scientists, it is 1 that is doing most, if not all of the work.

In general, natural explanations are the ones that have hope of allowing us to predict and control nature. These are, in turn, what are useful in developing new technology and solving social problems. In short, natural explanations are what best suit humanistic goals.

2 is insisted by every atheist. Just about anything you can think of could possibly have a natural explanation (How does one rule out all possible natural explanations?). So it’s a short logical step to God not being necessary for such an epistemology.

Regarding 3, that godless science is successful in meeting tangible goals, is obvious to everyone. Theists have to agree. But is this really evidence against God? Only if there’s reason to expect that natural science wouldn’t be successful if God exists. I honestly can’t see why it wouldn’t be successful: if anything, the success of natural science is something God wants, just as long as we don’t see it as the end of all knowledge. Natural science is certainly successful, but limited in its scope (Phillip Goff makes a similar point here about math, physics and subjective experience).

But maybe it’s more like this: God is not useful, for atheists have all that they want in science. I find it hard to argue with this; for given what atheists value (see 1 above), it makes perfect sense to ignore God in the way that they do.

The Deeper Path

tumblr_ndg58ybg4m1tr3d06o1_500What is it that atheists value, at bottom, anyway? I can’t speak for all of them, but I think that it’s expressed very well by atheist philosopher A.C. Greyling (I discussed it here); it’s autonomy. It’s doing what you want, choosing your own path.

Atheism is the second most rebellious worldview: it won’t bow down to or follow any mere person. One’s personal autonomy is limited by only one thing: empirical reality, “the facts.” It is surpassed in rebelliousness by one worldview only: postmodernism. Postmodernists refuse to bow down to anything, not even reality! *

Consider another passage from the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel:

. . . I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself . . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. . .Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world. (From The Last Word, italics mine)

Compare atheism with Islam, the Arabic word for submission. Theism is all about bowing down to a person. The apostle Paul tells Christians to “present their bodies as living sacrifices.” Atheists devoted to personal autonomy could never accept this, even if they believed in God.

So, as a result of this basic preference, or choice, atheists choose an epistemology that is all about how they can know more, predict more, control more, do more. This epistemology finds no ultimate purpose in the universe, but this doesn’t bother atheists; for them, purpose is what they make it. All this epistemology can do is find out how to get from A to B. They decide whether B is worth getting to.

God, of course, could never be part of such an epistemology, for God will not be controlled, predicted, or used. Any epistemology that could learn of God would also have to be prepared to submit to God.

So, in essence, it’s really down to autonomy versus submission. I’m reminded of Milton’s famous line: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

Notice that none of this has to do with the truth about whether or not God exists. It’s more about whether a person could discover God, should He exist. Atheists make epistemological choices that forever make God unfindable. They claim to be open minded, but they really aren’t. Once one commits himself to this sort of pragmatic empiricisim, and only accepts explanations/hypothesis that “tell him how the world works,” he will never, ever, ever, find God. God will have no part of that. And even if God obliged and provided, say, an obvious miracle, the atheist’s methodological naturalism, empiricism, or whatever you want to call it would prevent him from accepting the miracle, and he would find some other possible way of explaining the miracle naturally, or, at worst, would simply say “We cannot know what really happened here.” Even God couldn’t get through to this person!

My feeling is that atheists would reply, “Well, there are no such obvious miracles, so your point is moot. Show me the obvious miracle, and then we can talk.” I think this misses the point, however. What I’m discussing is the logical implications of choices atheists make; it logically follows from the epistemology that atheists adopt that they can’t ever find God. It would be pointless for God to perform one for them, for it would have to fall on deaf ears, as long as they hold on to his epistemology. To be truly openminded they would have to let go of the epistemology.

A Complication

The complication in this is morality. Although some atheists deny that morality is real, in my experience the vast majority of them do hold to an objective morality that they feel everyone should submit to. This morality is, of course, not empirically knowable (Hume, G.E. Moore, and a host of others have made this point). They also, for the most part, try to follow it. So autonomy is limited further still — it’s limited by “the facts,” and it’s limited by what’s right and wrong. Just as we do not get to choose the facts, we also do not get to choose what is right or wrong. We merely decide whether we will obey. And, by in large, atheists do choose to obey. Atheists, in general, desire rebelliousness, not wickedness.

Given the above, the key difference between atheists and theists is, once again, personal. I remember having a very long but interesting discussion with an atheist colleague in grad school about the Euthyphro problem aimed at deriving morals from God. Putting the problem’s details aside, for him the worst thing about morality from God is that it is personally derived; this makes morality arbitrary. He could only give credence to moral theories that are based in an impersonal principle. Following a law is reasonable, but a lawgiver isn’t.

So, summing it up, atheists will bow down to the impersonal, not the personal. If morality is indeed impersonal, and somehow either reducible to empirical facts (Patricia Churchland and Sam Harris argue that it can: I’m not convinced), or to some set of objective, but immaterial, impersonal facts (like those of math, logic), then the atheist can be a consistent moral realist (someone who believes morality is objectively real). Otherwise, he will have an internal conflict in his worldview. He will have to either reject atheism, or objective morality.

The Atheist’s Wager

So what of it? Is the atheist unreasonable? In one sense, no. For he’s convinced that God’s existence, from the start, is extremely unlikely, and that there is some secular basis for morality. There is knowledge to be had, and being open to explanations that don’t provide usable knowledge about the world (i.e., “God did it”) could threaten at least some of this. So he puts his bet on natural science. He doesn’t fear the consequences. If he’s right about God’s inherent low probability, then this is a good bet.

But he might not be. For as I’ve argued in several places, atheists don’t have good reason to think God is inherently improbable. Dawkins’s Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit, for example, is a poster child for bad atheist arguments (I argue for that here). Atheist mockery is more telling — from that their intuition that God is inherently improbable comes from false comparisons with beings that really are inherently improbable, such as fairies, Thor, The Flying Spaghetti Monster. But the God of theism isn’t really like these beings (I argue for that here). About that God, all the atheist can say is that he doesn’t know what the inherent probability of God’s existence is. And we can’t forget that saying that God’s probability is unknown is not the same as saying it is low.

Also, there is something that’s sacrificed in this wager: value, ultimate purpose ,and meaning. Going back to morality, atheists will indeed submit to it. Consider the intuition that right and wrong is somehow based on value. For empiricists, value is personal, subjective. It comes from what some person wants, desires. But atheists also put their desires aside to do what’s right. This would be clearly irrational for an atheist to do, if value is merely the desires of some person (somebody else, in this case) and there is no God. The only way a value-based morality could be anything close to objective is if based on the values of God (or some being with universal authority). I would have to admit it wouldn’t be completely objective, as it would be coming from a person, but it would be as universal as the other things God made, including the physical universe.

Also, purpose and meaning themselves seem to be worth something. Even the ardent atheist Daniel Dennett claimed that the secret to happiness is finding something greater than you are, and committing yourself to it. It’s part of human thriving to be part of something larger, to, well, bow down to something greater than we are. Theism wins this one in spades.

But, at bottom, whether or not a wager is reasonable depends on the probabilities and the payoffs. Here we don’t know what the probabilities are, but we have some idea of the payoffs. Theists can retain much of what atheists want: there is no reason a theist can’t enjoy pretty much all of what science delivers, or contribute to the discoveries science makes. But theists also gain the possibility of true, ultimate purpose, and a more satisfying view of what is right and wrong, and why it makes sense to submit to it. They also gain the riches of experiencing a reality that transcends the material, and the comfort of belief in an afterlife.

One final note. I just saw my father-in-law pass away. When I comfort my wife, imagine the shock she would receive if I told her that her father no longer exists; what existence he has is reduced to the corpse we viewed! The only comforting thing to hear is that he’s in a better place, a place where he is no longer crippled. Theists can take this comfort. Atheists cannot. Given that atheists are, well, betting on unknown probabilities, it’s hard for me to see what the advantage of that is. But that’s just me.

* This one of Richard Rorty’s (well-known pragmatist/postmodernist) complaints about atheist realists (those that believe in reality): they reject the Cross, but they still bow down to the god of science. Rorty bowed to no god.

Another Version of Another Bad But Common Atheist Argument

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Here it is:

(1) You reject Allah.

(2) You reject Ahura Mazda .

(4) You reject Aten.

(5) You reject Voodoo.

(6) You reject Thor.

(7) You reject Zeus.

(8) You reject the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

(9) You reject the Flying Teapot.

(10)-(n-1) You reject X (pick a god for X)

. . .

(n) You should reject Jesus.

Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and countless other atheists make this argument. They say to Christians, “Out of the 1000 or so gods in the world, you reject all but one. We just go one further (so should you).”

The best sense I can make of the argument it to see it as an argument from analogy: God (Jesus’ Father) is similar to the other gods. So if one rejects the other gods, one should reject God too.

In what sense is God similar to these gods? Here I begin to wonder. Regarding the gods, I divide them into two rough categories: theistic gods and polythiestic gods.

Regarding theistic gods, one could say this: all of these religions are really referring to the same being, it’s just that each religion has different beliefs about that one being. In this way, Christians could say that they do believe the God of Islam exists; they are merely claiming that Muslims are wrong in some of their beliefs about that God. The same goes with Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Atenism.

What does this imply? It implies that it is false that Christians reject the God of Islam or Judaism: the premises stated by atheists that say Christians do are false. The question is not one of which of these “gods” are implausible, but which beliefs about God are implausible. So these premises have to be taken out of the argument, leaving only the premises about rejecting polytheistic gods.

What about the polytheistic gods? I believe that they are not really the same kind of thing as God. They are finite. They are corporal (Zeus has a lot of muscles). They are highly anthropomorphic. They are limited in power. They throw lightning bolts. They are made of pasta and meatballs. So rejecting them doesn’t give us any reason to reject God.

God, on the other hand, is a Spirit. God is eternal, timeless, spaceless, etc. The only real similarity God has with human beings is that God is a mind, has purposes, goals, etc. But these do not make God implausible (see my rebuttal to Dawkins’s Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit for why I think this).

Of course, one might point to passages in the Bible that seem to say that God has a body, does the sorts of things Zeus might do, etc. But being a Christian doesn’t imply that one accept these statements at face value: they may be merely symbolic, or at worst, just the views of some ancient people. One can still be a Christian and not accept every single Bible statement literally!

So regarding the above argument, it really has very little weight. Christians don’t reject the being other theistic religions refer to as God, just certain beliefs of theirs about Him. They do reject gods, but rightly so, as they are just the sorts of beings Dawkins’s Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit applies to (complicated, fanciful, physical beings: see above reference); they aren’t the same sort of thing as God.

Another Bad but Common Atheist Argument

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Here it is (often offered by Richard Dawkins):

(1) Christianity is implausible.

(2) Islam is implausible.

(3) Judaism is implausible.

(4) Zoroastrianism is implausible.

(5) Akenatenism is implausible.

(6) Voodoo is implausible.

(7) – (n-1) . . . is implausible.

(n) Therefore, God, in general, is implausible.

The premises are supported by finding fault with the religions. For example, Christianity gets attacked via Bible problems (Should we really stone gay men like the Old Testament says? Do you really believe in the Flood? . . .).

Why is the argument bad? Consider a lottery of 1,000,000. A parallel argument would be:

(1) Ticket 1’s winning is implausible.

(2) Ticket 2’s winning is implausible.

. . .

(n) Therefore, any ticket’s winning is implausible.

Clearly the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises.

Still, an atheist might reply that there is a disanalogy: we already know one of the tickets will win: we don’t already know God exists. That is true, but what the counterexample shows can be seen by considering this:

Statement E = (A1 or A2 or A3 or . . . An)

Each of A1, A2, . . . being implausible doesn’t imply that E is implausible: for E is a disjunction of all the A’s, that is, all E is claiming is that one A or other is true, not that any specific A is true. The probability of any one of the As being true, given that the As are mutually exclusive* is given by:

P(A1 or A2, . . .) = P(A1) + P(A2)  . . . + P(An). Thus the probability of E could be much higher than the probability of any of the As. So just because any one of the As is implausible, that doesn’t mean that E is implausible.

God exists = (Christianity or Islam or Judiaism or . . . all the other possible ways God might exist).  If I’m right, even if each of the religions are implausible, that some God or other exists is not thereby rendered implausible: that is, the argument above has no weight at all.

* This seems true regarding religions: they tend to be incompatible with each other: Christianity and Islam, for example, cannot both be completely true.

Multiculturalism, Philosophy, and STEM Fields

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You wouldn’t trust him with your appendicitis. Would you trust him with your metaphysics?

Muliticulturalists demand cultural diversity for diversity sake. It is partly a way to make up for all the exclusion of the past. For example, multiculturalists will demand in a literature class that Latino, African, African-American, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender, and women’s literature be included along with (replacing?) the writings of “dead white men.”

Notice that nobody is demanding multiculturalism in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). The whole idea of Mexican math, African astrophysics, lesbian electrical engineering, etc. seems ridiculous.

So why the difference? My guess is that STEM fields are studying something that is both practically needed and objective. We need our bridges to stand, our planes to fly, so we’d rather focus on those goals, as opposed to including ethnic and sexually diverse opinions merely for diversity sake. And there is objective truth in these fields; testable truth. Not so with the humanities: all that stuff is about personal viewpoints. The more viewpoints there are, the better. And ethnic/gender/sexual diversity seems a good thing, just in itself.

Philosophers haven’t embraced mulitculturalism. It might be because they are mostly white males. But I think that it’s more the belief that philosophy is studying something objective that explains the resistance. That is, philosophers in the analytic tradition that dominates American and British philosophy departments see their field as more like a STEM field than a part of the humanities. They really do think they are solving problems, researching answers that can be verified, not with experiments in the laboratory, but with meticulously crafted logic. Philosophers see themselves as professionals that use a very systematic and careful methodology in which beliefs have to be proven, and not merely expressed.

Philosophers aren’t, of course, against ideas from Latin America, Africa or Asia, but they don’t want to practice “affirmative action” with regard to ideas (which is what multiculturalism demands): the ideas, regardless of where they are from, have to stand the rigors of philosophical testing (via peer reviewed journals, debate and criticism, etc.). And since the analytic tradition is especially known for this, philosophers turn to it first when doing research.

Is this wrong? That depends on whether philosophy is really indeed more like a STEM field than like literature. People outside philosophy think philosophy is more like literature: it’s just a bunch of ideas people have that express their identities, their viewpoints. As noted above, philosophers disagree: they think they are more like the scientists who discovered the vaccine for polio. For example, they might someday discover what the logic of moral judgements really is, and thus help us answer moral dilemmas with confidence.

Here’s an analogy: multiculturalists see studying at least some subjects as like visiting an art museum or going to a concert: the purpose of going there isn’t to advance knowledge; it’s more to broaden one’s experience, see new perspectives, learn to appreciate other people’s points of view. There’s no truth or falsehood in this: it’s about expression and appreciation. Philosophers don’t see philosophy as like this, of course. It’s more like doing math.

As a philosopher, I don’t like it when people say philosophy is subjective, for that isn’t why I went into it. I went into it to find answers; it wasn’t like the goal I’d have if I went into an art museum. I’m not looking for a broadening experience. I want to know if God exists, for real. I don’t get to decide this: reality does. The only place that really, professionally, objectively pursues this knowledge is philosophy. The same goes for most of the other things philosophers argue about.

Still, there is something to be said for having an art museum for philosophy: appreciation of differing philosophical viewpoints without the rigors of Western logic. But I think we can get that from fields outside of philosophy (the social sciences, the other humanities). The quest for truth regarding the questions philosophers ask is important enough to have a field dedicated to it. Include views from all cultures, but test them with the same tests, the same rigor.

Many in the humanities and social sciences would disagree with all this in that they don’t believe in objective reality. They might tolerate it more in the STEM fields because of the practical benefits STEM fields provide (who doesn’t like their iPhone?). But philosophy, which hasn’t produced any smartphones (though it has contributed to the field of artificial intelligence through its development of logic), is easier to see as more of a matter of taste. If that’s true, diversity of expression in philosophy, for diversity sake, seems good. Or so the postmodernist types would say.

So this is what it really boils down to. Philosophy: art, or logically rigorous attempt to solve problems? I am having faith in the field; I go with the latter.

What Naturalism Really Boils Down To: Personal Values

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Fix a clunker, or find God?

Consider the following quote from Alva Noe:

. . . Naturalism, at most, is committed to the idea that we don’t need to bring God into the story. Not because we know there is no God, but because it won’t help us fix the car.

On my view, this is the case for naturalism: it suits a particular set of values.

The context: suppose my crappy but beloved Honda Civic broke down. How would I explain it? It’s possible that North Korean spies are responsible, but it would suit me better to look for a mechanical cause if I want the car to run again.

Same goes for God: God’s a bad explanation because He doesn’t help us fix things. This rejection very practical. Even religious believers appeal to this most of the time in their daily lives. In no way does the rejection imply anything about God’s existence, only about whether or not we should accept God as an explanation, and ultimately for many, whether or not to believe in God.

Of course, what is practical is value relative. People are practically rational if they act in a way that maximizes what they value. If they value fixing cars, then they should seek a mechanical cause for the breakdown.

But what if fixing things isn’t the only thing one values? What if one values an ultimate meaning to everything? What if one values the sense of the numenal, something greater than humanity, the sense that there is a light shining on us from outside the universe (I can’t put this the way I want to. The master at this is C.S. Lewis). What if one values Joy, as opposed to stomach flutterings and a racing mind? Or Peace, as opposed to sleep, low heart rate, etc? What if one values the spiritual?

Wanting the spiritual values doesn’t make God exist, of course. But it mitigates against a complete naturalism, using natural explanations for absolutely everything natural. Why not open oneself to the supernatural regarding at least some things?

Noe’s fixing a car example is a bad one. There the practical need is very clear and acute, and also dependent on some other goal or need. It can’t be extrapolated to explanations about the universe and spirituality. In other words, just because Noe is right about the car, doesn’t mean he’s right about the universe! But naturalism requires he be right about the universe.

Why I Doubt the Doubts

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Thomas Nagel: has a cosmic authority problem.

In my “about” page I described my story a little; I said that I was a born-again Christian in college, then I started doubting the faith. I studied philosophy at a conservative Christian seminary hoping to solve my doubts, but instead of solving my doubts, studying there got me to doubt the doubts. That is, I didn’t come out with an overwhelming case for Christianity and against, say, atheism, but I did come out with reasons to be doubtful of atheism. In fact, I became doubtful of the whole naturalist project. This was the story of my faith from then through my PhD studies at a secular (and somewhat hostile; well, at least some of the professors were hostile to Christianity) philosophy department. It’s still my story.

Why doubt the doubts? It may be bordering on the genetic fallacy, but let me start with this: consider this blog post from Subversive Thinking. The poster quotes Thomas Nagel, a prominent philosopher. I’ll requote:

I believe that this is one manifestation of a fear of religion which has large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life.

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world.

The field I know best, philosophy, definitely displays what Nagel is talking about. Consider this quote from another prominent philosopher, David Chalmers:

A fourth motivation to avoid dualism [the view that there is a non-physical component to us], for many, has arisen from various spiritualistic, religious, supernatural, and other antiscientific overtones of the view. On the view I advocate, consciousness is governed by natural law, and there may eventually be a reasonable scientific theory to it. There is no a priori principle that says that all natural laws will be physical laws; to deny materialism is not to deny naturalism. A naturalistic dualism expands our view of the world, but it does not invoke the forces of darkness.

From The Conscious Mind, p.170. Italics his.

This passage follows what I take to be a powerful case against materialism (the view that matter and energy are all that exist. By the way, for more on his views, see here.). He tries to reassure his readers that his views are genuinely naturalistic (i.e., secular, atheistic); even if dualistic they do not “invoke the forces of darkness.” This passage reflects a definite trend not only towards arguing for materialism among philosophers, but desiring materialism among philosophers. If the desire wasn’t there, then why the fear of dualism?

If other academics are anything like these philosophers it seems that academic atheists are influenced by emotions and other subjective stuff as much as anyone. They have their worldviews, their cherished beliefs. Contrary to popular opinion, they are not logic machines impersonally crunching the data and destroying God.

Peer review doesn’t eliminate this bias. It may work regarding individual biases, but what I’m talking about isn’t that; it’s more like a Spirit of the Age. I felt it in grad school. Other theists feel it (naturalists may not feel it, as the bias is not directed against them). Since so many in academia are alike in their naturalism, personal biases become a systemic bias, the kind that resists correction from peer-review and the like (so much so that even religious academics typically think that to be good academics they need to keep their religion out of their discipline — e.g. cell biologist and Catholic Ken Miller’s endorsement of methodological naturalism).

Why does this produce “doubts about the doubts?” It might seem that since there is sort of a consensus with academics that naturalism is true, that reasonable people ought to accept it. The above mitigates this, especially since, to my knowledge, no one has really produced an overwhelming case for naturalism. Part of this consensus might be based on emotions, values (humanist values such as the desire for autonomy), and desires as much as it is based on facts and reason. In addition to this, perhaps motivated by such values, academics usually begin with an a priori commitment to naturalism (their justification being something along the lines of the success of science) before they even start investigating a topic. Then they make everything fit in it. Consider this dogmatic passage from Daniel Dennett, a prominent philosopher of mind:

This fundamentally antiscientific stance of dualism is, to my mind, its most disqualifying feature, and is the reason why in this book I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.

From Explaining Consciousness, p 37, emphasis his.

Dennett sees dualism as a non-starter, not because it’s been disproven, but because it’s unscientific and draws a limit to what humans can know. It’s not naturalistic. It violates sacred humanist values! In my mind the doubts arise: “But humanism is just one worldview. And what if there really are souls? What if God really does exist? Wouldn’t this attitude rule out our ever knowing these valuable facts?”

What I take from all this is that I need to be just as careful around atheist arguments as I need to be around theist arguments; I am tempted (due to the confidence we naturally grant to swaggering intellectuals) to let atheists slide in logic when I would pounce on a feeble-minded born-again Christian making a similar error. I also take from this that there are significant personal, psychological, and sociological forces behind naturalism that I, as a rational agent, need to resist.