Having the wrong conversation

Over at Always Have a Reason, J.W. recently wrote a post on the atheists’ rhetorical quip:

“Everyone’s an atheist with regards to most faiths – we just take it one step further”.

We see this sort of thing in blog comments:

“When you understand why you don’t believe in Thor and Osiris, you’ll also understand why I don’t believe in your God.”

It paints a picture of atheism as a pure voice of reason towards which all the silly faith-heads are aspiring, and hopefully will one day attain. The implication is that there is a close accord between the beliefs of atheism and Christianity, and that Christians are in fact “almost atheists”.

In fact, the whole discussion is way off-target. The distinction between a Christian and an atheist is not numerical, and my rejection of Osiris and Thor as worthy of worship cannot be usefully described as “atheism” towards them.

It would seem equally banal to say that “Christians believe in infinitely many more gods than atheists”, but in fact this argument is nearer to the truth. The fundamental point is this:

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Christians acknowledge the existence of the supernatural realm;

atheists deny it.

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This is a very different statement, and it fundamentally affects the way that we approach the conversation. It is useless to invoke the existence of other religions as an argument for atheism. Discrepancies between Christianity and Hinduism do not reinforce the atheist faith, and to even discuss them with an atheist is probably futile. The atheist worldview precludes the possibility that either Hinduism or Christianity can have anything useful to say about the supernatural, because the supernatural does not exist in that worldview. How then, can we discuss spiritual experience in different faiths?

The only function of invoking other faiths in support of atheism is a diversionary tactic. Its intent is to put a Christian in the position of having to defend the validity of supernatural experience while trying not to defend the validity of other faiths, and this position is complicated by the fact that neither person is an expert on all other faiths. It moves the conversation away from the real point of contention and into an area where (usually) neither participant is actually able to talk from personal experience or expertise.

The pivotal step in an inter-faith dialogue between a Christian and an atheist is the existence of God, and the associated reality of the supernatural realm. To discuss intricacies within the supernatural order without acknowledgment of said order is meaningless. It would be like attempting to explore the material world while believing that the material world was just an illusion.

Let’s stop getting distracted by the wrong conversation and start having the right one.

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Related posts:

Lumpy atheism

Faith: reflecting on evidence

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31 thoughts on “Having the wrong conversation

  1. I appreciated your post (as usual). Would you not agree that what tends to be posited as the proper starting point (although not always verbalized) is that atheism is the obvious default position–not only that but it is the only rational conclusion. Therefore, the onus is always on the Christian to defend the existence of God. When the parameters of argument have been set by the atheist (a specifically delineated definition of evidence), if the Christian falls into such an apologetic trap, the discussion is over before it has begun.

    • Thanks Jeff – great comment.

      In a similar way, if we believe that the material is an illusion and that we will discount all evidence of our senses, we cannot hope to have a useful discussion about physics and chemistry. We must first accept the existence of the material world: only then can we discuss whether light travels in waves or particles, or whether atomic theory is useful.

  2. It is good to seek clarity. You’re right about this one:

    “Everyone’s an atheist with regards to most faiths – we just take it one step further”.

    When atheists say this, they are guilty of the fallacy of equivocation, using the word “atheist” in different senses in the same argument. It is a quip, not a good argument.

    There is nothing wrong, however, with this rendering:

    “When you understand why you don’t believe in Thor and Osiris, you’ll also understand why I don’t believe in your God.”

    I’d like to correct this misconception:

    “Christians acknowledge the existence of the supernatural realm; atheists deny it.”

    Some people who call themselves atheists may deny the supernatural realm, but we don’t need to go that far. The prefix “a-” means “without or lacking”, so the word “A-theist” doesn’t necessarily connote denial or active refutation. Atheists simply lack theism. I personally don’t deny the existence of the supernatural; I just don’t believe in it, just as you don’t believe in things you have no reason to believe in. Most atheists are technically Agnostics for this reason. We technically don’t know whether there is a supernatural realm; but we don’t know it in the same way we don’t know whether the Easter Bunny is real. We’re quite justified in lacking belief in the supernatural. The burden of proof is on believers.

    • Atheism in its modern usage has drifted slightly from its etymological roots. Its current definition is more closely described as “belief that there is no God/gods”. I submit that the usage of “know” and “believe” in your post is insufficiently distinct to be useful.

      Someone would be described as agnostic if either:
      – they believe that confidence either way in supernatural questions is impossible (strong agnosticism)
      – they prefer not to engage in supernatural questions at all (weak agnosticism)

      In your post, you seem to have gone further, to saying that you do not believe in the existence of the supernatural. If I’m reading you correctly, that seems to imply that you have considered the question carefully and come to the conclusion that the supernatural does not exist. That would put you in that category of “atheist” as the term is currently used.

      For a couple of more recent definitions:
      Encyclopaedia Britannica (2010): “Instead of saying that an atheist is someone who believes that it is false or probably false that there is a God, a more adequate characterization of atheism consists in the more complex claim that to be an atheist is to be someone who rejects belief in God…”

      Encyclopedia of Philosophy (MacMillan, 2005): “On our definition, an ‘atheist’ is a person who rejects belief in God.”

  3. You are right to point out that discerning between faith traditions is moot if we don’t acknowledge the existence of the supernatural realm. But we do this all the time in philosophy as an exercise, so let’s look at it this way:

    “Supposing a supernatural realm exists, how can we know whether any of the traditions currently existing on Earth accurately reflect its true nature?”

    This can be done without deciding in advance the verity of the supernatural realm. It is a typical hypothetical speculation. But it is one that haunts any belief system outside of science. You can dismiss the people who dismiss supernaturalism, but you can’t dismiss the problems that come with believing in it. This is Alston’s religious diversity problem. I haven’t heard a good resolution yet.

    When we step off the shores of empiricism, we are adrift in a sea of claims with no good way to adjudicate between them. You believe this. You really do. When you are in a courtroom, you would be outraged if a judge allowed the Koran or Upanishads as evidence. Or dreams, or personal revelation. You would demand scientific, empirical evidence. When we are talking about taking away a person’s liberty, in other words, when it really matters, here on Earth, empiricism is the gold standard that everyone uses, regardless of their private beliefs.

    • This is exactly why I suggest that such a conversation is futile. You are proposing a dialogue on the nature of the supernatural, but the participants are in completely different contexts. One, the atheist, is approaching the subject as a purely hypothetical thought exercise. The Christian, on the other hand, is speaking from personal experience of the supernatural.

      I don’t see that such a dialogue can be terribly fruitful.

  4. Thanks Sentinel,

    It seems to me that one’s position as an atheist is firmly rooted in: (all gods and goddesses are imaginary) + (there’s no evidence for them).

    One way in which I see Christians disagreeing with the statement you highlight is that the Christian doesn’t deny the existence of other spiritual beings (or shouldn’t). It’s just that they understand the others to pretend to be God when they shouldn’t. Christians don’t lump the beliefs of other real faiths alongside imaginary constructs, like the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas.

    I’d love to read an article on:

    – dead gods and goddesses and imaginary ones
    – real or current godde and people’s experience

    PS: I can’t express the logic in binary so thought I’d abuse it with math 😉

    • Thanks for that, Tim – I’ll have a think about that post… 🙂

      And you’re absolutely right – Christians do not actually just believe in “one God”. In acknowledging the existence of the supernatural order, Christians believe that there is one supreme omnipotent creator God, but many “gods”, i.e., other (lesser) supernatural entities.

      I thought of including that in this piece, actually, but then ultimately decided that it might be over-complicating the issue and perhaps better put off for another post…

  5. >The Christian, on the other hand, is speaking from personal experience of the supernatural.

    We know that personal experience is unreliable for two main reasons.

    1. People have vital, convincing religious experiences that contradict each other.

    2. There are myriad examples of optical and cognitive illusions. Place a pencil in a glass of water. It appears bent, but it’s not. Moreover, our unconscious, which is inaccessible to introspection, constitutes most of our brain function: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=unconscious-decisions

    Science takes these factors into account and seeks objectivity through careful experimentation. Introspection is inaccessible to verification, so we give it little or no weight. You do this, too. You give no weight to the religious experiences of people who worship gods you believe don’t exist. You think they are mistaken. There is no way to decide that their experience is flawed and yours is not.

    I am skeptical about science, too. Instrumentalism is an approach to scientific study that avoids making ontological conclusions from scientific theories. We hypothesize, gather data and make predictions but we are very conservative about what we will call “knowledge”, or justified belief. I think Evolution and the germ theory of disease are very solid, but they almost certainly will be modified, perhaps a lot, so I consider all that science tells us to be provisional.

    I am very conservative in what I will count as knowledge. Religious faith strikes me as the opposite. It is extremely liberal in granting ontological status to inner experiences. Your faith may have sharp constraints, but the pantheon of beliefs conjured by the faith mechanism does not.

    • Don Severs :

      >The Christian, on the other hand, is speaking from personal experience of the supernatural.

      We know that personal experience is unreliable for two main reasons.

      Ah, but this misses my point. I’m not suggesting that the Christian’s personal experiences should be in any way compelling for the atheist. I only suggest that they are compelling for the Christian.

      We all inform our worldview through our personal experience. I am simply suggesting that the two people in the proposed dialogue are operating under fundamentally different frameworks. I’m not discussing any evidence here as for which framework is closer to the truth.

  6. This summarizes my position:

    While I am some sort of Skeptic, and the situation is very messy, I still think science is the best way to form knowledge. Here is my more careful statement of scientific superiority 😉

    Scientific Naturalism, the hypothesis that there exists a real, external world we can gain knowledge of through experiment, while not free of counterarguments (what is?), has amassed an extravagantly robust track record of interconnected, reinforcing data that defies explanation by other means. Throughout human culture, empiricism is the gold standard for adjudicating claims.

    Humans use other ways of forming knowledge, such as religious belief, intuition, personal revelation, reason and introspection. While these can be declared to lie outside the reach of science, all such methods suffer from the diversity problem: there is nothing preventing individuals using them to reach contradictory conclusions and there is no good way to adjudicate claims between them. Each religion, for example, makes special pleading and declares itself immune from the inquiries of other religions and nonbelievers. Since outsiders haven’t had the requisite vital, inner experience specific to that faith, they lack the authority to dissect it. Thus, we end up with a multitude of mutually exclusive, subjective realities with no way to settle the matter.

    This feature is present on the frontiers of science, where intuition and creativity abound, but here it is a necessary medium for germinating hypotheses. What distinguishes science from other ways of knowing is that ideas in this zone are not yet considered ‘knowledge’. Further, there is a general process for settling out the good ideas from the bad ones. Ideas in the stable center of science are more established but never sacred. Of course, some ideas which stand for centuries are overturned; thus all scientific ideas should be considered provisional.

    Science is the worst way we have to know about the world, except for all the others.

  7. @ Don Severs

    This is why I, as an Agnostic, laugh: the level of certitude, the child-like belief that science will eventually be able to answer all questions irregardless of magisteria, and the dogma that “only by total adherence to a naturalistic mindset can we know reality” which defines Atheism as of late. This is ultimately as valid as the belief of the Theist.

    “This feature is present on the frontiers of science, where intuition and creativity abound, but here it is a necessary medium for germinating hypotheses. What distinguishes science from other ways of knowing is that ideas in this zone are not yet considered ‘knowledge’. Further, there is a general process for settling out the good ideas from the bad ones.”

    Really? How is this different from philosophical arguments, textual criticism, and hermeneutics which have resulted in the growth, elimination, and evolution of faiths? The belief that science alone has this ability and that it alone can perform it well is a remarkable misunderstanding of the nature of other thought processes.

    I believe Rosenbaum said it best in his article “The Rise of the New Agnosticism”:

    “Atheists have no evidence—and certainly no proof!—that science will ever solve the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Just because other difficult-seeming problems have been solved does not mean all difficult problems will always be solved. ”

    You have ascribed to the naturalistic worldview, abilities it does not have and given short-shrift to philosophical inquiry that it does not deserve. Despite your previous protest, you are in fact, an Atheist: a believer in revelation that will come some day, and that only your point of view has a valid track record (which is a remarkable misunderstanding of how both philosophy and theology work).

    You do not lack a belief. In fact, your belief is no different than that of the theist.

  8. >that science will eventually be able to answer all questions

    I don’t make this claim. When we don’t know something, we admit it and get to work on it. We don’t fill in the blanks.

    >“only by total adherence to a naturalistic mindset can we know reality”

    I would say that science is the worst way we have to know reality, except for all the others. If something better comes along, I’d dump science in a flash.

    >your belief is no different than that of the theist.

    I suppose I’ll be happy with a tie. You’ve placed science and religion on the same level; fine. But how will you act in a courtroom? Do you want “philosophical arguments, textual criticism, and hermeneutics” allowed as evidence? Too bad, only scientific evidence is allowed, and for good reason. Because it’s based on nature, it’s the only worldview that humans can agree on.

    Apologists would not make it as judges. They start with the verdict, listen to everything people have to say, bat rebuttals away like flies, then pronounce their verdict: Christianity is still true!

    Most religions are kangaroo courts in this way. It makes no difference to outsiders. I’m just hoping some fence-sitters will read this and defect.

    • Don Severs :
      I would say that science is the worst way we have to know reality, except for all the others.

      Yeah, you regularly trot out this old saw, but I’m afraid I don’t buy it. It’s just question-begging: your definition of “reality” is essentially “that which can be investigated by science”.

      “Ramen is the worst kind of food, except for all the others.”
      “Jogging is the worst kind of excercise, except for all the others.”
      “Pikachu is the worst Pokemon character, except for all the others.”

  9. It’s an attempt at humor. Churchill said the same thing about democracy. The point is that science isn’t perfect, it’s simply the best thing we have for people who can’t stomach supernaturalism.

    Supernaturalism is an extravagant and unjustified move that creates more problems than it solves. Saying God Did It explains nothing.

    “Reality” may indeed include things that can not be investigated by science, but we voluntarily limit ourselves to commenting on those things that can be investigated. To fill in the blanks is not science. For that, we have faith.

    Science is not a truth-generator or a way to discern Reality. It is useful. It concerns what we can justifiably say about Reality.

    If you want to say more than what is scientifically justified, you open the door to infinite claims with no way to adjudicate between them.

    • I note that one of those “infinite claims” is the one that you’re making: that anything outside of science must be ignored and disqualified.

      You don’t really seem to support a “voluntary” limitation: you seem to be saying that you personally “can’t stomach” the supernatural, so everyone else must just shut up about it and hope it goes away.

  10. >anything outside of science must be ignored and disqualified.

    I’m not saying this at all. Undetectable things are not ignored. We look for ways to detect them! But without some data, we are unjustified in saying anything about them.

    How can you say your faith claims are more reliable than another’s? Your scripture? Your personal revelation? This is the religious diversity problem.

    Now, we’d love to enlarge science to include new phenomena. We know there must be many phenomena we haven’t detected. Neutrinos eluded us until recently, but they’re real.

    Here’s a note I wrote recently about this. If you can’t access it, friend me on facebook:

    http://www.facebook.com/notes.php?id=1311182233&notes_tab=app_2347471856#!/note.php?note_id=424460669004

    facebook.com/donsevers

    • Don Severs :

      >anything outside of science must be ignored and disqualified.

      I’m not saying this at all.

      No, you really are saying this. In response to things which are beyond science, you offer your statement of faith that one day science will encompass them, too.

      Why is your particular faith claim uniquely valid? Surely it is just another part of “the religious diversity problem”?

  11. >you offer your statement of faith that one day science will encompass them, too.

    Where did you get this? Please be specific.

    I have no such faith that science will eventually answer all our questions. We will surely explain more things as we move forward, but there is no assurance we will explain it all. I am making no faith claim. I’m an Instrumentalist. I don’t give the findings of science any ontological weight. They are provisional and incomplete. They are simply the best we can do at any given time.

  12. Don Severs :
    Supernaturalism is an extravagant and unjustified move that creates more problems than it solves. Saying God Did It explains nothing.

    Though some approach Godde from the viewpoint of reason, looking at a vast and unfathomable universe and say “I believe Godde did it.” is quite different to the Judeo-Christian point of view (or Taoist but that’s another conversation). It is equally justifiable, on these grounds, to marvel at the universe and say “Something exploded, got mouldy, grew legs and here we are. Isn’t that marvelous!” In BOTH cases we’re dealing with human reason and conclusions as the point of departure.

    But let’s forget pre-history and myth in its various forms, including the Genesis creation narratives, and focus on history. This area is far too loaded with model questions and answers that disable conversation. In bypassing those we get to start afresh and have conversations. In history we rely on reports, just as we do in science and law. It is according to these reports that Godde breaks into the experience of human beings and lays claim to the title Creator. We have little reason to deny these reports and, given these discussions, every reason to responsibly engage them.

    The later experience of others, with this same Godde, results in fidelity to the One who lays claim to the title Creator. Hence many Christians, e.g. Sentinel, maintain their faith in: (science + reason) + personal experience + Godde. These individuals recognize Godde’s right to such a claim and support every human endeavour to understand and explore it.

  13. “Too bad, only scientific evidence is allowed, and for good reason. Because it’s based on nature, it’s the only worldview that humans can agree on.”

    Wrong. Humans can just as easily agree on philosophical truths and disagree with scientific findings (in fact, that frequently happens in court cases at the point where physical evidence ends).

    “Apologists would not make it as judges. They start with the verdict, listen to everything people have to say, bat rebuttals away like flies, then pronounce their verdict: Christianity is still true!”

    The same goes for Atheism, as I’ve seen.

    “I’m just hoping some fence-sitters will read this and defect.”

    Given how you’ve argued on this thread? I think it’s far more likely that Atheists will become Agnostic “fence-sitters” like me. There’s a reason why most Atheists become Agnostic or Deists as they age….

  14. >The same goes for Atheism, as I’ve seen.

    Atheism isn’t a position, it is the absence of any theistic position, but even this is provisional. So, atheists don’t start with a verdict. We are waiting for one. We aren’t (at least, I’m not) apologists for Atheism. There are scenarios where we would become theists.

    People who hold specific beliefs have the burden of proof. Not holding a belief in something requires no argument. You yourself lack the belief in countless things, but you don’t have to justify each of them.

    If you are an apologist, there is no scenario where you will change your position. That’s ok and you’re honest about it; that’s the definition of apolgetics. But it does mean it’s a waste of time talking to you. I’m talking to your readers.

    >Given how you’ve argued on this thread?

    It doesn’t follow that, if you are unpersuaded, that others will be. We start from different places; various arguments will have varying appeal to different people due to this fact. You can’t generalize from yourself to your readers, unless you know all of them. Perhaps you do.

    • Don Severs :
      Atheism isn’t a position, it is the absence of any theistic position

      Incorrect. We’ve already been through this issue in this very thread (scroll up to this comment for the definitions).

      Don Severs :
      We aren’t (at least, I’m not) apologists for Atheism.

      …and yet you expend considerable time and energy engaged in that very activity?

      Can you understand that it’s difficult to believe this assertion when it’s paired with this next statement, in the very same comment?

      It doesn’t follow that, if you are unpersuaded, that others will be.

      It’s hard to read that without thinking, “this guy is totally trying to persuade people to convert to atheism”.

  15. I have greatly enjoyed observing this conversation play out. I have been tempted many times to jump into the fray, but have resisted so far. I am relishing the role of interested observer. Keep up the good work.

  16. >“this guy is totally trying to persuade people to convert to atheism”.

    I think the arguments are persuasive, but I’m not an apologist. I would change my mind. There are things that would cause me to return to the faith of my childhood. They are simply absent.

    Is there anything that would cause you to lose your faith? If no, you’re an apologist, not a philosopher.

    • Courtesy Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary:

      apologist: (n) vindicator, justifier; a person who argues to defend or justify some policy or institution (“an apologist for capital punishment”)

      Hopefully that helps clear up your confusion.

  17. Pingback: There’s no “I” in “Atheism” « Spiritual Meanderings

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