Before we know what we know (and well before we know HOW we know what we know), we have to gather evidence. We do this naturally; it is part of learning how to navigate through the world into which we were born. Some things are obvious and easy to learn and categorize – “water is wet” for example – while other things are not – such as “there is a God.” We don’t even notice when we gather evidence for obvious things so when we have to put our minds to gathering evidence consciously, we need to know what we are doing.
I’m an evidence gatherer – and not a one sided one, either. Not only do I read books on Christian apologetics, I read atheist literature including books, magazines, and websites. The quality of arguments on both sides varies considerably. I’ve read some Christian books that were full of bad science and “just believe” stories of angelic encounters that would never convince anyone but the already convinced and I’ve read a great deal of atheist (and agnostic) literature that only preaches to their own choir; offering nothing that would sway a Christian away from their faith.
A few years ago I set myself to reading everything I could get my hands on from the leaders of the New Atheist movement (or “The Brights” as Richard Dawkins names them – and himself). This would include the popular atheists such as Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. I can sum up my response to all of them in two words – “sadness” and “disappointment.” They made no new arguments. All of them had been made long before and there were answers to their arguments that they never brought up. They made other arguments poorly (such as when Dawkins blasted the New Testament by quoting from the Gospel of Thomas which isn’t in it) leaving holes that we could drive a church through.
But at least those were arguments. Sadly, most of their books were devoid of argument and replete with assertions. It is important to know the difference. An argument puts forward a point of view or argues for a statement as fact and then builds a case to support what they said. The case is built carefully by assembling evidence that the majority of the community can agree on (there will always be a fringe – think of those who refuse to believe we landed on the moon or who insist that the government was behind 9/11) that leads to a conclusion supporting the original statement. An assertion is just a bald statement without any supporting evidence, but which is made as if such evidence existed and was already widely accepted.
“Democrats are idiots” is an assertion. “Republicans hate the poor” is an assertion. Both are often made as if the evidence was clear and unassailable while many of my readers would be quite offended should I have made these statements seriously… and they would be reacting appropriately. Before either of these statements could be accepted as true there would have to be a large body of evidence carefully assembled piece by piece, each piece being evidence that was acceptable to the average reasonable individual.
And many of the assertions made in atheist literature state that Christians aren’t allowed to do any of that. Daniel Dennett says “People of all faiths consider it demeaning to ask God tough questions.” I know… I was stunned when I read that. Has he never entered a library and seen the thousands of books written by Christians questioning our own scripture, our interpretation of the life and teaching of Jesus, the historicity of our faith and its stories, etc.? And do we ostracize those who question God or ask Him tough questions? No – the last I heard, Philip Yancey, Gregory Boyd, C.S. Lewis, and scores of others were considered valuable and esteemed members of the Christian faith.
Sam Harris says faith is “nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.” I admit I have seen some Christian literature that falls into that camp but I believe it is not typical of how Christians deal with reasons, facts, and faith. Harris goes on to say “It should go without saying that these rival belief systems are all equally uncontaminated by evidence.”
Quick question: how does Harris know this? He cites atheists in his writing but he never – not even once – quotes from Christians who have questioned their faith and assembled evidence that kept them in the faith. Dawkins is even worse. He calls religious belief “a kind of mental illness… a state of mind that leads people to believe something…in the total absence of supporting evidence…not only in the absence of evidence but in the teeth of evidence.” I call Dawkins “worse” here because he has friends and colleagues – Lennox, McGrath, Swinburne and others – who have written over 20 books on evidences for the existence of God and yet Dawkins acts as if those books don’t exist. He never mentions them.
Some of his friends have even written books specifically directed to Dawkins (“The Dawkins Delusion” by the McGraths is one example). Dawkins claims to have read them but never engages one of their arguments, never mentions their evidence and, again, merely “asserts” that they had no valid arguments. That’s intellectually dishonest, but par for the course with Dawkins. McGrath (whose new book “Mere Apologetics” is quite good, by the way) told his friend that faith begins “with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence.” It seems the Christians are quite happy calling for evidence for their own side and for opposing sides, contrary to the assertions of the New Atheists.
I think it is entirely appropriate for Dawkins to present his evidence for rational atheism. He is well out of his element, however, when he tries to take his expertise in evolutionary biology and assume expertise in other fields. His treatment of the Bible is pitiful; misquoting, misattributing, misapplying, and misunderstanding. Even one of his friends said that Dawkins and Harris trying to explain what Christianity is all about is like “Archie Bunker explaining the errors of Zen Buddhism.”
So how DO we gather reliable evidence? Our first step is to admit that we do not know how our mind works, where it is located, and how it is affected by internal and external forces (e.g. we have discovered about a dozen neurochemicals of note but we believe there might be as many as a hundred at work). While theories abound, hard science is lacking and we don’t seem to be on the cusp of suddenly understanding the human mind. When Dawkins says that “faith is a misfiring of the brain” he is using his brain to tell us our brains are wrong… but what evidence is there that it is HIS brain that is reliable and not those of believers? While this may discomfit some of my readers, the fact is that there is no way to prove that when our brains figure out biology they are right but when they think there is a God, they are wrong. The biological evidence for such is nonexistent. So we have to go look at other evidence… knowing that our mysterious brains will process it so…
We know that we have senses and that we use them to take in our world. But another level of evidence is required to process what we sense: how do you know that you are reading a blog? How do you know that the song you hear is that of a sparrow? Why do you interpret what your dog is doing as sleeping or eating? The answer is simple but the process most certainly is not: you take in information via your senses and you work to arrange that information in a way that makes sense in your world. That is how we get through this world (and why schizophrenics have such a struggle doing so. Read Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” for an understandable look at those whose senses are not organized enough to navigate life).
But not all information we need and use comes via our own senses. Much of it comes from the senses of others. We call this “testimonial evidence.” We have parents, teachers, professors, pastors, friends… but we also have street signs, the internet, electronically reconstituted visuals and voices on our TVs and cell phones, etc. When we limit the pathways for testimonial evidence, we limit what we can know. If a person, say, only watches their local news they might be well informed on the weather, traffic, and recipes but their knowledge of Europe’s financial woes will be nonexistent. If you only read the classics of literature, you won’t know much about Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. And every one of us has to make decisions like this: how much can we take in and from what source? This is why footnotes and bibliographies are so very important. And they are nonexistent in most New Atheists’ books. We cannot follow their assertions to a footnote, to a paper or book or lecture, and find out if there is an argument supporting their assertion. It is merely a naked statement, made forcibly, that we are to accept because of the social/educational power of the one who made it.
Dawkins loves to say that he did not get “where I am from reading a holy book.” Okay – I get that. However, he never tells us how he got where he is. He didn’t get there alone. He read something, listened to someone, and was influenced by this or that group… but they are not mentioned and there are no footnotes for the reader to trace that for themselves. The fact is that Dawkins got where he is by looking at pictures of fossils he has never seen for himself taken by people he has never met and explained and described by people he doesn’t know. He assumes all those people exist but he has no empirical proof of even that rudimentary fact. You see, even scientific fact is taken on faith – informed faith, the same kind Christians have.
Scientists (and I am one, so I know a bit about this) place their trust in the mind – and most atheists are inordinately proud of theirs and will tell you so, hence “The Brights.” That is called Positivism – the idea that only facts grounded in scientific evidence are valid. However, positivism cannot be proven scientifically. It is assumed. By faith and by the way we have trained our brains to organize and describe what our senses and those of others have taken in.
Trying to use positivism to prove things beyond its reach is unreasonable. That used to be understood but since the days of Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould a sharp divide has been created by the New Atheists: anything that speaks of God is not scientific, period. And if you want to prove anything or believe anything, you must do so using the tools of science and nothing else. That’s what they are saying but it is ridiculous. That would be (as physicist John Lennox puts it) like trying to make your wife prove her faithfulness to you mathematically. Dawkins insists that if God is real, He must make Himself knowable and provable to Dawkins’ own mind. But if God is real, He is much larger than Dawkins’ mind and the mind of a human could not hope to process Him unless and until He gives us information we can use.
But did He? Dawkins isn’t speaking for any religious person I know when he says of all believers “Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief. The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not the end product of reasoning. The book is true, and if evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book.” And, of course, he offers no evidence for this statement, no footnotes, no references.
Can anyone who has read this blog over the last year or so say that Dawkins has it right? We DO question our book and we are constantly looking at it with critical eyes in search of truth, working out our salvation as we rightly divide the scriptures.
But you know what? His description of us works a lot better as a description of himself and his holy book – The Origin of Species.