an attempt at closure

June 24, 2005

Of all the stinging comments I've received in the exchange, the stingingest may have been this:

I see the underlying problem that theists face is that they need some way, any way to work an irrational mode of thinking into validity. If their beliefs are shown to be logically contradictory, they must first question the contradictions, and if that fails, question logic itself. If scientific evidence counters their religious tales, they need to do something similar. The ignorant theist will tend to stubbornly question the evidence. The more intelligent theist takes another approach, though. Instead of questioning the scientific data, they question the method through which the data arose. They will carefully pick and peel away the reliability of logic/empiricism in order to fit their irrational mode of belief into the equation. It all comes back to the need. At some root level, there is a need to have these comforting beliefs, and so these beliefs must be upheld. For ignorant theists, it’s a simple matter of ignoring
logic and denying evidence. For more intelligent theists, it requires complex philosophical weaseling in order to create the illusion that a superstitious framework is indeed just as valid as a rational one.

A lot of common themes come up in this attack. First, religious beliefs are comforting, and the religious cling to them primarily to receive comfort. Second, the Xian distorts the world by forcibly mapping it onto his irrational grid, while I see the world as it is through the lenses of rational thought. Third, “intelligent theists” are arguing in bad faith; they know that their position is weak and so scramble for a fig leaf.

The first makes as much sense as the homophobic cliche that a gay youth must have chosen the gay lifestyle for the purpose of indulging in sexual activity, or because they were overcome by unnatural lust. There is more to sexuality than sexual fulfillment and there is more to religion than religious comfort. It’s true that people cling to their religious beliefs because in them they find comfort. If we consider that primary, then we will have a problem accounting for their continued adherence when the beliefs are a source of affliction. Perhaps the comfort that is truly primary is that of sticking to what one has found true, through ease and adversity, a comfort with which the atheist and the Xian are equally familiar.

The second theme is fine as long as you reject all postmodernity. I would invoke history here. There were two responses Xians could have made to the challenges of modernity. They could have embraced it without reservation, or rejected it by trying to turn back the clock. Liberal Protestants tried the former and fundamentalists tried the latter. No one would applaud the results in either case. I’d suggest that one who tries to maintain that there is still an enlightened standpoint from which one can see clearly, while others can only see the world as they wish it were, is trying to live in the modern world. That world no longer exists.

The third theme is profound. It suggests that some intellectuals, who should know better, are trying to apologize for religious faith in intellectual terms. That may be exactly my situation, and it’s part of why I’m resigning. The problem, however, is not that those who sincerely believe are ignorant. They may be ignorant, but some measure of ignorance is inevitable and most is remediable. The problem is the intellectual believers who are “double-minded,” trying to justify themselves by satisfying the criteria of mere human beings while the call to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” lingers in the air, unheeded.

My primary goal going into this conversation was to genuinely understand my opponent’s viewpoint, and before I move on I’m going to give the best summary of it that I presently can.

In the polemic Reason in the Balance, Phillip Johnson articulates what he calls “modernist naturalism,” believing it to be the dominant philosophy in the intellectual world of the West right now. Whether he’s right or not, I’ve found in it some helpful similarities to my interlocutor’s perspective. He agrees with the modernist view that religion is a private matter, a holdover from less enlightened times, and that scientific truth should preside over the public sphere. He also agrees with the naturalist view that nature is all there is, and that science is ultimately the only discipline needed to understand life.

In its own terms, why should modernist naturalism rule?

1.  It’s reality-based.  Science has amassed a huge body of evidence that nature is a closed system of causes and effects.  Any alternative would necessarily be based on an illusion, some supernatural entity from the human imagination.

2.  It’s rational.  Some other system could be logically consistent, but would proceed from metaphysical premises that are simply asserted without evidence.  We don’t have metaphysics – we only have physics.

3.  It’s liberating.  Moral norms can evolve as people grow in knowledge and understanding.  The alternative, of representing outdated cultural norms as somehow of supernatural origin, is oppressive and intolerant.

4.  It makes democracy possible.  As modern naturalists, we rely only on knowledge that is in principle available to every citizen.  If public debate is carried out only on the basis of sense-data and logical extrapolation, then everyone can (in principle) participate and conflicts can be resolved by reason.  If we admit any ideas that cannot be supported with evidence or don’t logically follow from the evidence, we are being irrational and inegalitarian.

5.  It’s tolerant of religion.  As long as religious beliefs are relegated to their proper place in private life, there is no need for conflict.  A government that assumes the truth of naturalism does not encroach on the legitimate sphere of the majority religion, and protects minority religions from the tyranny of the majority.

Do the words God or the supernatural mean anything, then?  Sure.  These are names many people in our world use to make concrete their feeling that their lives mean something.  Furthermore, historically, these terms are essential in understanding how civilization functioned for thousands of years.  All the major cultures of the world, including the West (up until the Enlightenment), considered God’s existence and the reality of the supernatural to be self-evident.  The history of religion is the history of how human beings have given various shapes and forms to their ideas of what life is all about.  The modern naturalist can demonstrate on the basis of the success of Western science that our ancestors were dealing in unnecessary pluralities – superfluous notions.  Now that we have the scientific method, the human race will eventually leave all that behind.

Scratch that.  Unwarranted assumption.  The human race ought to eventually leave all that behind.

Scratch that.  We have no basis for saying the human race “ought” to do anything.  It’s only safe to assume that the human race will do what it can to survive – although we can’t assume that it will succeed in surviving.

So God, as an object, is irrelevant.  I think, as far as it goes, that’s a fair representation of my opponent’s views.

What about God, not as an object, but as a subject?  Religious folks have consistently testified to a variety of events in which people who were interested in knowing about God, where the supernatural was an object of study, suddenly found themselves knowing God, that is, they heard the supernatural addressing them personally.  What if we pick up the Bible, a book which in various ways declares itself to be the utterance of God, and actually hear it speaking to us?

I concede that there is no way of starting with a logical-empiricist viewpoint and arriving at any useful notion of God.  The log-emp stance is that we should look at science in terms of the justification of scientific ideas, not in terms of their discovery.  In other words, we should be empiricist about the world, but we should not be empiricist about science: the observable realities about how science proceeds are not important, only the retrospectively imposed order.  If we study the context of discovery, however, and want to continue to call science “rational,” we have to acknowledge that sense-data and logic are not the only “reasons” at play.  So I think it’s meaningful to say that there are reasons to consider the possibility of God, reasons that wouldn’t fly in a logical-empiricist reconstruction of scientific knowledge, but that are recognizably reasons that would hold up in any number of rational human activities (including science).

So what happens if we, even for a moment, entertain the possibility that God is real?

1. Redefine reality to include the supernatural.  

2. Redefine rationality to include reasoning from metaphysical premises.

3. Redefine liberation to include freedom from cultural and biological determination.  

4. Redefine democracy to make space for religious voices.

5. Redefine tolerance to include divergent viewpoints (as opposed to convergent).

An important secondary argument we’ve been having is not simply about the irrationality of belief, but the terrible consequences to which it leads.  I’m not going to argue that modernist naturalism shouldn’t rule, and I’m really not trying to argue that theism should.  However, I think if my opponent were right that religious belief is an intrinsically bad thing to admit into the public sphere, that would be a good argument for the invalidity of religious belief.  The brief outline above is meant to suggest the potential for a realistic /rational /liberating /democratic /tolerant faith.

The last idea, no. 5, is probably the least clear.  My opponent’s view is that if people weren’t blinded by superstition, and the human race had sufficient time, everyone could come to an agreement about everything – all legitimate views would converge.  The only views that could diverge would have to be speculations arising from a lack of evidence.  What concerns me is that, in the best-case scenario for naturalism, everyone must be in agreement – if you weren’t, it could only be because you were unintelligent or had a mental illness.

In response, I'll present a worst-case scenario.  A Christian majority in the US establishes a de-facto theocracy.  There’s a lot of evidence to think that this would mean a curtailment of sexual and reproductive liberties, more politicians who feel superior to the law, self-righteous and imperialistic foreign policy, etc.  I’d like to dispute that, but the fact is a lot of Christians in this country are making it hard to do so.  What I can say is that the presence of supernatural authority relativizes all human authority: e.g., human rights are non-negotiable because they derive from supernatural authority.  Furthermore, there is good evidence to suggest that Christians, not being a monolithic bloc but composed of evangelicals, liberals, Catholics, Protestants, etc., will always already have to live with schism and disagreement.  According to theism, there is an absolute truth, and no human being, group or society has a monopoly or solid grip on it – not even evangelical Christians.  So by definition, not everyone is going to agree.

I hope this worst-case scenario gives my interlocutor a reasonable doubt that religious ideas must never be admitted into the public sphere.  And I hope my summary of his p.o.v.  was not a caricature.  And I hope he knows that I appreciate all the time he devoted to this discussion, some of which was undoubtedly lost in procrastination (as was some of my time) and some of which was time well spent in love for the truth.


good enough

June 23, 2005

I was a freshman in college when I first got sucked into the world of evangelical Christianity. While my friendships within the IV Fellowship on campus were certainly influential, and I certainly felt the appeal of the community life which the Fellowship offered, what really tripped me up was my need for certainty. I thought by converting to Christianity I would find out for sure that God was real. I didn't particularly want God to be real, but I was intellectually convinced that there was a strong possibility… a possibility too strong to leave just bumping around in the basement. It had to be addressed, even resolved. I think I probably had my fingers crossed somewhere in the back of my mind – if living as a Christian made it apparent that God was real, great, and if there was no god, then my commitment hadn't meant anything in the first place and I could go on my way. A fatal premise was that I could be certain as to the presence or absence of God in the world. A physics major who suddenly decided he had to attain certainty as to the existence of theoretical entities like quarks would equally well set himself up for a fall.

Later in my life, understanding better the nature and power of commitment, I gave my life to God for real. However, I set some limits on the gift. Trying to learn from my experience in college, I imposed some rules – my faith would not be something to talk about with others. If I didn't put it into practice, it wouldn't exist, because I wasn't going to talk it into being – and I wasn't going to put myself at the mercy of others' definitions of what following God should mean for me. It would be private, and so it would not call for intellectual analysis or defense. I knew many of the contradictions inherent in believing in God, and I knew there would always be more, as long as I was willing to hunt for them. The hunt for weak points and vulnerabilities in religion was called off. I was going to remember that it was not within my power as an individual to resolve those contradictions, and I would consider them secondary matters in light of my primary duty to God.

In other words, I felt significant arguments for and against faith had tangled in my intellect for years, and they had fought each other to a standstill. My new life in God would not be an expedition to collect data to start the fight afresh. It was time to actually walk with God, to try to give him the life I owed. You don't need a bachelor's degree to do that.

Very gradually, my faith became a less and less private matter, although I was still cautious about dealing with it in strictly intellectual terms – reading a lot of theology, or trying to win arguments, etc. Of course, I gradually relaxed in that area too, and I've rediscovered the addictive (and not entirely healthy) pleasures of a rhubarb with a skeptic or atheist, particularly since I discovered LiveJournal.

This year – pretty much starting at Christmas in 2004 – I really got involved in hashing out the big question: why believe at all? To such an extent that a good friend approached me the other day, concerned, because he had been following the blog, and to him all this hashing out reflected an uneasy mind and a setup for anguish. I was stunned at first, because that didn't resemble my inner experience at all. I'd been having fun, for the most part. But thinking about what he said, I felt he was simply confirming what I knew was true. The five or six months had been really educational, but the resolutions I made when I first turned my life over to God were still relevant – the intellectual concerns were still a sideshow, a diversion. It was past time I stopped.

Why had I gotten started in the first place? I think the readiness came from my preparations to become a formal member of my church – and at the same time, have our daughter baptized. Just like in my marriage, a time when your commitment deepens or is suddenly made more manifest is often a fruitful time. And then, I'd found an interlocutor I liked and trusted, someone who wasn't simply opposed to religion but was a positive advocate for his own viewpoint and was secure in that viewpoint. He was a good writer, a highly intelligent and sensitive person, and would never serve as a straw man in a pseudo-debate. Most importantly, of course, he liked to tangle. He was willing to try to argue me down. So, like most of the important things that have happened in my life, it came in the form of a relationship. A very limited relationship, to be sure, but a relationship nonetheless. And that was a big part of why this intellectual work didn't feel traumatic like it had in college – not because nothing was at stake, but because only a limited number of issues could come to the table. I was only interested in what would help me understand or make myself understand this particular person. So my mind was on a leash, but it still got to go for a walk, and it really enjoyed having freedom within that secure structure.

A few weeks back, wrote something that helped to crystallize what was wrong with the scenario. He said, paraphrased, that he considered the argument I was engaged in winnable, but winning it was not a Christian duty. He doesn't think the crucial elements of our lives – “an existential faith; an interpersonal faith; and a personal relationship with God” – require or even accomodate an intellectual grasp. In the same spirit, a little bit earlier, a friend had reminded me of Paul's flat statement that the gospel will ultimately look foolish in the light of the world's greatest philosophy and science. It was a profound reminder. Paul may have been saying that right to me, rebuking me for trying to surpass the greatest intellects around me by somehow defending the folly of the gospel. They're great intellects, man – and you're a fool. Stop pretending otherwise.

Then my concerned friend came along, saying, “You know, sometimes you need to be able to say, when someone asks you or you're asking yourself if you have good reasons for believing what you do: well, the reasons are good enough. They're good enough for me. You're too smart to be an absolutist – I know you know that there's no such thing as a reason that's absolutely good for everyone. A reason can be good in relation to your life and what you know or think about the world. And that's good enough.”

So, that said, I want to do one last post to try to bring some closure to this extended discussion we've been having. After that, the last word is his to make, if he wants.

faith and reason

June 2, 2005

recently made a very interesting post on
theory-laden observations in science.  The argument
he refers to in what follows is an argument about circular reasoning in
certain ontological claims based on empirical findings.  He
argues, if I understand correctly, that the methodological choice to
view the human being as an object in biology and physiology ultimately
results in reinforcements for the metaphysical claim that a human being
is nothing more than an object.  That is, scientific observations
are taken to be “evidence” in support of the broader theory – which
ignores the fact that the observations are already “laden” with the
theory that human subjectivity is an irrelevant notion.  Circular

In connection with this argument, I asked
for some guidance in my ongoing preoccupation with the relationship
between religious faith and scientific rationality.  This was his

I generally… do not see a conflict between faith and reason —
it could be my Catholic upbringing. On one side, I've found that
Christian theology permits an entirely defensible position. On the
other side, I've found that the conclusions of science and secular
philosophy do not lend the support to atheist metaphysical positions that
is often assumed.

On the question of how to reply, or how to
live with, the atheist, I again see two fundamental aspects of the act:
on one hand, defending theological positions against the atheist's
misunderstanding and fallacious logic; on the other hand, answering the
atheist's questions on his own terms.

The argument I give here is a good example. We could
use this argument against the atheist arguing for a reductive
materialist conception of man; and, thereby, in defense of a theistic
position to the contrary. However, it's not a
theistic argument.

I think this is the preferable strategy in the wide variety of disputed issues.

ramification of this strategy is that it eliminates the problem of the
theist and atheist perceiving each other as profoundly alien beings —
which exacerbates a variety of social issues and is, I think, contrary
to distinctly Christian notions of universality.

A disclaimer is
in order: following the logic of the original argument here, an atheist
may take the position that the only legitimate way of approaching
things in the world is 'as objects' — the way my biologist does. With
sufficient popularity, the category of 'reason' may be reduced to such
a perspective. At this point, a theist makes such a statement as I have
made here: that he does not see an in-principle conflict between faith
and reason. To this, many of his fellow theists are likely to respond
with outrage: imagining that he has claimed that God can be approached
and understood as an object.

In so doing, they unwittingly
reinforce and support the atheist's original position — that
approaching things as objects is the only legitimate form of reason. My
argument here is meant to demonstrate the contrary.

To say that
reason and faith are not in conflict, then, is not to say, as the
classical Greeks did, that one may, with formal reason alone, find the
essence of God. The Christian ought rightly to consider such a
perspective heretical.

To the contrary, it's to recognize the
explicitly constrained and also multifarious manifestations of the
thing which we call 'reason' — one complexity of which I have outlined
above, in the concept of approaching things as objects or not.

a similar note, theists advocating an inherent conflict between faith
and reason character 'faith' as 'a positive belief held in the absence
of reason.' As a curious parallel, this is, again, the
conceptualization the atheist would like to advocate.

when the Christian is asked to have faith in Christ, I do not think
this is, generally speaking, what is intended. God does not make a
positive claim, like 2+2=5, which is contrary to reason, and define the
faith He requests of us as the belief in that claim. In the language of
my argument here, Christian faith is not faith in an object.

faith manifests itself in a daily surrender to the will of God — a
will which does not, like a math professor, express logical statements
to be assented to; but rather, a will which guides the believer through
the existential currents of his life.

When a man lies dehydrated
in the desert, and looks up with his last breath with a profound smile
— marvelling at the beauty of God's creation — he is exhibiting his
faith; his surrender to God's will. Not only
is this not contrary to reason — it cannot be: for it relates to a category of existence completely independent of the belief or nonbelief in logical statements.

This is why, while I believe Christian theology is wholly defensible,
and the popular atheist position a misunderstanding of the science it
claims itself as a foundation, I do not believe that establishing these
points is, in any sense, an act required of the faithful Christian.
They are intellectual distractions; which is not to say that they are
useless. But the Christian is called to have an existential faith; an
interpersonal faith; and a personal relationship with God. None of
these constructs require intellectual elaboration, since they are
wholly other to what can be intellectually elaborated upon. 

thinking for oneself

June 1, 2005

[The following are all quotations from Abraham Joshua Heschel's book, God In Search of Man.]

We must accept in order to be able to explore. At the beginning is the commitment, the supreme acquiescence.

He who cannot make up his mind, who will not introduce his soul to the Bible until the reasons for its divine dignity have gone all the way to meet his mind, is like a person who refuses to look at a painting before he can decipher the name of the artist signed at its corner. He does not realize it is the work which identifies the signature. Signatures may be forged, a work of art must be created.

Revelation is not vicarious thinking.

The worship of reason is arrogance and betrays a lack of intelligence. The rejection of reason is cowardice and betrays a lack of faith.

Philosophy is, in a sense, a kind of thinking that has a beginning but no end. In it, the awareness of the problem outlives all solutions. Its answers are questions in disguise; every new answer giving rise to new questions. In religion, on the other hand, the mystery of the answer hovers over all questions.

Philosophy deals with problems as universal issues; to religion the universal issues are personal problems. Philosophy, then, stresses the primacy of the problem, religion stresses the primacy of the person.

What we face is not only a problem which is apart from ourselves but a situation of which we are a part and in which we are totally involved.

[on speculation and religion] The first is a question about God; the second is a question from God. The first is concerned with a solution to the problem, whether there is a God and, if there is a God, what is His nature? The second is concerned with our personal answer to the problem that is addressed to us in the facts and events of the world and our own experience. Unlike questions of science which we may if we wish leave to others, the ultimate question gives us no rest… what is asked of us?

The term “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” is semantically different from a term such as “the God of truth, goodness and beauty.” Abraham, Isaac and Jacob do not signify ideas, principles or abstract values… not principles to be comprehended but lives to be continued. The life of him who joins the covenant of Abraham continues the life of Abraham.

It is in deeds that man becomes aware of what his life really is… What he may not dare to think, he often utters in deeds.

If man were able to survey at a glance all he has done in the course of his life, what would he feel? He would be terrified at the extent of his own power.

The dichotomy of faith and works which presented such an important problem in Christian theology was never a problem in Judaism. To us, the basic problem is neither what is the right action nor what is the right intention. The basic problem is: what is right living? And life is indivisible… All a person thinks and feels enters everything he does, and all he does is involved in everything he thinks and feels.

Jewish thinking and living can only be adequately understood in terms of a dialectic pattern… these terms are opposite to one another and exemplify a polarity which lies at the very heart of Judaism, the polarity of ideas and events, of mitsvah and sin, of kavanah and deed, of regularity and spontaneity, of uniformity and individuality, of halacha and agada, of law and inwardness, of love and fear, of understanding and obedience, of joy and discipline, of the good and the evil drive, of time and eternity, of this world and the world to come, of revelation and response, of insight and information, of empathy and self-expression, of creed and faith, of the word and that which is beyond words, of man's quest for God and God in search of man.