Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Theist/Athiest Debate: Prospects

I feel less desire to debate the atheist than I once did. I have become skeptical that argument has any power to change minds.

Indeed both theist and atheist should expect that debate will prove forever fruitless. Their reasons will be different, but that conclusion will be the same.

What will their reasons be? I will let the theist speak first.

The Theist
We live in a world ruined by sin. It effects are plain, both within us and without us. Within us we find vice and ignorance, and these two defects cannot be rectified by us. Instead they will persist for so long as God allows. Only He can set them right.

Atheism - explicit, doctrinal atheism - is one expression of the ignorance of God, His existence and His works. Atheism is thus a symptom of sin. Atheism is the sin of ignorance of God become a matter of fixed belief.

Can argument alone serve to dislodge atheism? Of course not. Argument alone can no more undo it than it can undo, say, greed or lust. All are symptoms of our alienation from God, and the chasm that separates us from God can be bridged only by God. Atheism can be overcome only by an act of God's grace (and act which can be either accepted or rejected by the atheist). We cannot do it; only God can do it. Our arguments will prove ineffective.

Do not doubt the power of God to work through our arguments if He so wishes. But the power of the argument itself, the logical power that it possesses in itself, is as naught. So deep are the hooks of sin within him that no matter how powerful the argument, the atheist will reject it. The ignorance of the atheist is a willful ignorance. It betrays a defect not just of intellect but of will. The atheist stubbornly clings to his atheism in spite of all argument to the contrary. Do not pray, then, for eloquence. Pray instead that the atheist will accept the gift of grace. What is needed is not more and better arguments. What is needed is a change of heart, and without the latter all arguments will fall on barren ground.

The Atheist
We ought always to apportion our belief to the evidence. Where there is evidence, we ought to believe. Where there is not, we ought not believe.

This most basic requirement of rationality is flouted by the theist. She believes though there is no evidence. Moreover, much depends on that belief. It shapes who she is, how she acts. The whole of the intellectual edifice of her ideas depends upon it. The whole of her character and its expression in action depends upon it.

Her theism is thus not a little piece of her psyche. It is the greater part of it, and so the irrationality that gives rise to it permeates her whole being. It isn't as if she has some one irrational belief or other. Rather she herself is deeply irrational. She shows herself quite able to take on a whole host of beliefs with little or no reason at all.

We shouldn't expect the theist to be amenable to rational persuasion. The arguments of the atheist will fall on deaf ears. When we ask the theist to believe only that for which there is good evidence, we should expect to be ignored. For we have already been ignored, and the theist has made her identity hang upon her irrational belief.

Thus, as I said, both atheist and theist have good reason to suppose that their arguments will be ignored. The atheist/theist debate thus seems pointless, no matter whose point of view we adopt.


Hesiodos said...

I appreciate it when people debate such topics, as I am under few illusions as to my personal ability to philosophize exhaustively on any subject. It may well be the inner witness is the key to theistic belief. It may be that this is the only witness we can expect. Debate can perhaps sharpen the ear by removing barriers, enabling the soft voice to be heard in Elijah's cave. I hope we can indeed change and learn- in fact my own changes can testify to that, as can yours (at least from the testimony of your blog.) It may be no knock out punch can be delivered, and that Stephen Jay Gould's non overlapping magisteria is the practical/functional result.

Yet is anything beyond the reach of reason? How will we know when the human thought mechanisms are exhausted? I am not a professional philosopher and so my opinion is that of an uninformed lay person, but I have hopes that progress will be made in epistemology, in metaphysics, and in the essential questions of existence. If God is in the Universe, in our hearts and our minds, indwelling, animating, informing, etc, I would hope this would be something we could notice. If it can be noticed it can be studied. One thing I have done is read deeply and long in the Carmelite Spiritual Fathers and Mothers, back when I believed. In St. John of the Cross may be phenomena, experienced inwardly, which could be studied. It may be when the Grand Unified Theory of Everything is worked out by physicists that we find, ontologic proof -like, that something along the lines of God is a necessary existence. Whether this would be "merely" a deistic God or the personal Abrahamic God is less clear- certainly the former, maybe the latter.

One question that has come to me in the course of reading your recent posts is how one can go from the experience of the God within and the testimony of preconditions/ suppositions to a specific, ie orthodox christian, position. Why not Mormon, Jewish, Moslem, etc? How does one know?

When I became a theist 25 years ago from an agnostic childhood I became Christian in part from a desire to explore the religion of my ancestors first, and out of respect for CS Lewis who helped pave the way. Neither of these are universally persuasive, but rather reflect extrarational personal reasons. How should one make these decisions?

Franklin Mason said...

I'm a bit sleepy, so I'll only address one of your points now. I'll return to the other tomorrow. (I have the day off and hope to write lots.)

I don't believe that simple lack of evidence is a barrier to belief, as you seem to suggest. It isn't as if we don't know enough as of yet and that further inquiry might reveal God's existence. God's existence, I would say, can be known now and does not await advance in one or another discipline.

How can it be known? It is a matter of the proper interpretation of what one already knows. For me, the primary basis for belief came in reflection upon moral obligation. I've always been convinced that there is such a thing and that it in no way depends upon us. It is "out there"; it is objective. Reflection led me to believe that objective moral obligation is inexplicable if God's existence is rejected. Indeed I came to think that moral obligation reflects God's will for us.

Thus for me knowledge of God's existence grew out of the realization that something I always knew - that moral obligation is objectively real - was in fact one among many ways in which God is revealed. God is always there but we do not recognize Him when we see him.

Hesiodos said...

"I don't believe that simple lack of evidence is a barrier to belief, as you seem to suggest. It isn't as if we don't know enough as of yet and that further inquiry might reveal God's existence. God's existence, I would say, can be known now and does not await advance in one or another discipline. "

I'll have to re-read the last few posts of yours with this in mind. Sorry I've been a bit obtuse- this comment has already helped me frame your arguments better. I appreciate your willingness to interact in the blog. For myself the two things which combined to destroy my faith was the problem of the hiddenness of God. I read a book, "Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason" by J. L. Schellenberg (Cornell 1993) which was fairly devastating in the setting of the personal feelings of God's absence, and also was studying for medical specialty board recertification and was thinking about the idea of "evidence based medicine" and the power of self-deception in medicine to think some modality of therapy worked when in fact when studied rigorously the therapy in question was worthless. This "revelation" caused me to re-examine basic suppositions of what I thought to be true using more empirical methodology, and my faith fell away, much to my wife's chagrin. It is in part in deference to her that I do not just go on my happy atheist way and instead retread, again and again, the reasons for faith, especially as I have been self deceived before. So these are my motivations, rather than any atheistic evangelism.
Thanks again,

Hesiodos said...

By the way, it was the argument of the existence of moral absolutes and the problem of relativism which caused me to posit theism when I was 19-20 years old. It may well be that I was on the right path then and have gone astray from the truth now. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on the matter.

Franklin Mason said...

I do agree that self-deception is always possible. Many would say that I am guilty of it.

I would also agree that, if I am wrong, I myself am the source of my error. If I am deceived, I am self-deceived. But of course I don't think that I am. (Though I admit the possibility of self-deception in the abstract, when I look at those particular reasons which seem to me to compel belief, I feel self-deception is not a real possibility. If I'm the victim of an illusion, that illusion is complete.)

I took a moment to read around again in Schellenberg. It's been some time since I looked at "Divine Hiddenness". I take it that his core argument is that, if there is a God, there is no inculpable unbelief; but since there are clear cases where unbelief is inculpable, there is no God.

One might then attack the argument in two ways: (i) argue that there is no inculpable disbelief, or (ii) argue that God might have good reason to allow for inculpable disbelief.

Though I'll make no friends when I say it, I suspect that i can be made successful. I'm both deeply pessimistic and deeply optimistic about humanity. The source of my pessimism is the ingrained and universal tendency to sin; and I take unbelief to be one symptom of this. (Don't think that I single nonbelievers out here. All of us here in this world are sinners, and unbelief is just one among many, many kinds of sin.) The source of my optimism is the divine promise to heal our sin-nature (and I've argued elsewhere that all will eventually be healed).

One might ask why that sin-nature has not been healed yet. I reply that we are given the freedom to either heed or reject God's call and that this freedom is a very great good. God desires of us the free decision to follow Him; and the soul-maturation which is the purpose of this fallen world occurs only when we freely decide to follow Him.

There is unbelief, then, because there is sin; and sin persists because God quite rightly allows us the freedom to resist His overtures.

Or so say I. This why I find Schellenberg's case ultimately weak.

Bruce said...

I have never strayed far from my theistic training as a child. I have been skeptical at times, but never willing to supplant my belief in God with anything else. In my most skeptic times I have held tenaciously to Christianity believing I would one day find answers. I did from several sources, including Francis Collins, Gerald Schroeder and James Kugel.

Your blog I also find interesting and encourage you to continue. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

"If God is in the Universe, in our hearts and our minds, indwelling, animating, informing, etc, I would hope this would be something we could notice. If it can be noticed it can be studied."

Perhaps we could. But I don't think that's what God wants us to do. God does not want us to study Him under a microscope - or at least Christ did not come across advocating that, what Christ wanted was total love and devotion. Many agnostics and atheists want empiric proof of God but surely this is the logical conclusion of the Original Sin, we think we know better than God and because He stands in our way we deny Him. Atheist arguments about the God of the Gaps are just arguments against straw men because Christ never explained the basis of scientific naturalism to us, He never imparted scientific knowledge to us we could now disprove. Mankind eager to find God in all acts of nature often posited God as the cause of individual events such as lightning strikes but that was never something Christ taught us. All His teachings are moral and they have stood the test of time. Science in fact, seems to confirm them (e.g. frequent sexual intercourse with multiple concurrent partners leads to easier spread of HIV because of higher viral counts), as does tradition and personal experience.

So while perhaps one day we'll find some conclusive empirical proof for God, I don't think we'll find it on our own, we'll only find it if God chooses to let us find it.