Disambiguating Faith: The Evidence-Impervious Agnostic Theists

A vast majority of believers, though probably not all, believed in God before they ever encountered any arguments for its existence.  For obvious cultural and psychological reasons, the concept of God is intuitively understandable and believable for most children and by far most believers start believing in childhood.  Even those who spend a short time as self-professed agnostics or atheists before returning to belief in God later quite often believed as children.

And not only do most believers in God believe independently of evidential arguments, a seemingly vast majority also seem wholly disinterested in subjecting their belief in God to evidential tests.  Of course, many believers will provide appeals to evidence when pressured to do so by unbelievers (or even when just learning of our bewildering disbelief).  But that is different than actually forming their own beliefs according to evidence.  Most believers do not believe because of evidence, even if they pull out some arguments for those who seem to not understand what they take to be obvious.

This means that even though they offer evidence,  their beliefs are actually independent of it.  What is striking in this regard is the extent to which their beliefs are independent of evidence in two different directions.  On the one hand, when their evidence is shown to be flimsy, they quite often show complete indifference to this fact.  Very often they do not just ask for more time to consider an interesting objection or make a game effort at reformulating their premises so that they can be more persuasive.  And nor do they insist that the disbeliever must be thinking irrationally to fail to see the strength of their evidence.

Rather, in a great many instances, believers simply abandon a rejected argument like an empty squirt gun which they didn’t really have all that much confidence in anyway and appeal straightaway to the supposed “need” for faith–as though this is a need for everyone and not just for them.  They’ll tell the disbeliever the disbeliever just needs faith and often not just mean “it requires faith to believe this proposition that we just established evidence fails to prove” but, more strongly, “you require faith (period)”—as though there is something defective about the disbeliever since he or she is hung up on this whole evidence thing when normal people just accept things on faith like they’re supposed to.

And the even more remarkable manifestation of many believers’ indifference to evidence is the way that some will actively resist arguments for the existence of God—something I have discovered often, to my surprise, when teaching students arguments for the existence of God.  The majority of my students are, of course, theists and yet when I explicitly advocate for the arguments for the existence of God so that they will understand them and take them seriously, they will often treat them as critically as any other arguments I make all semester, for any other propositions.  They quite often have few compunctions about pointing out the problems with the arguments if they can spot them.  And, yet, they just as frequently assert an unshakable belief in God nonetheless.

Of course this is not everyone.  There are some students who will instantly endorse any argument that leads to the conclusion that God is real and instantly resist any argument to the contrary.  And, more broadly speaking, there are some people who are what I would call “gnostic theists” who perceive their belief as being grounded enough on evidence to say they know there is a God and that atheists are wrong on demonstrable rational grounds.

Some of these people may even be the likeliest candidates for atheism should they ever be dissuaded of their views of the evidence.  I was such a gnostic theist and even though being a gnostic theist made me come off as more confident and unshakable than most people, I ultimately was not.  By fundamentally being more committed to evidence than any specific belief—even the belief which was the central organizing factor around which my entire social, intellectual, and psycho-sexual identities were built—I was fundamentally capable of dissuasion through the force of evidence and argument (nearly) alone.

While the gnostic theist may be in some respects firmer in their beliefs since they hold them as matters of knowledge which they will confidently defend while far more rarely trying to hide behind the (rather pathetic) shield of faith (with its completely illegitimate claim to make undermined beliefs intellectually/morally/spiritually/socially acceptable anyway).  They are more combative and more assured, but also more accepting of the terms of rational belief and capable of deconverting.

But the person who has long ago waived any interest in evidence, or never had one and never will be persuadable to have one, may just be the most imperious to reason.  And, ironically, it is this person who readily concedes reason nearly entirely to the atheist, either only half-heartedly offering evidential arguments or declaring arguments for the existence of God flawed or utterly irrelevant and beside the point.  Maybe these people will push an evidential line with a fellow believer to shore up a wavering faith but when confronted with a no-bullshit sort of atheist, they pretty quickly drop the pretense altogether and stake their claim purely on faith.  They assert their identity.  They are a believer.  This cannot be taken away from them with reason anymore than the color of their eyes or their place of birth could.

This distinction between the person who has genuinely hitched their belief in God to the evidence they perceive for God and who is capable of engaging counter-evidence with intellectual seriousness, on the one hand, and, on the other, the person who only gives the pretense of using evidential arguments but ultimately would never in a million years seriously countenance counter-evidence with an open-mind and who when pressed reveals that he does not even think there is actually any strictly rational reason to believe, is a major one that no one–either theist or atheist–seems to explicitly address.  

But the distinction strikes me as crucial.  And it is why I think it is worth it to classify them with different labels and I think it would be valuable if in the future atheists in arguments with theists would start to get their theistic interlocutors to specifically identify themselves and take a specific stance on the meaning and relevance of evidence and on what kind of endeavor they are engaged in.

We should ask our theistic conversation partners, “Are you appealing to evidence because you are really going to decide this question evidentially yourself or only because you realize I claim to care about evidence?”  Or, to put it another way, “I’m offering you evidence and trying to honestly assess yours, but are you only interested in offering evidence but totally disinterested in taking mine seriously?”  “Will you accept that evidence can decide this question or will you insist on the faith card on any and all points you lose?”

Hopefully confronting those theists who make only a salesman’s disingenuous pretext at giving evidence when not themselves actually being open at all to the power of evidence or arguments for persuasion can force one of two things: (1) self-reflection on the part of such theists when confronted explicitly with the unfair, dishonest, and truth-unconducive manner in which they think or (2) the end of what would otherwise be futile engagements with the hopelessly closed-minded.

A few months ago an old theist friend probed me a few times (sometimes with something of a rude scold) for explanations of my atheism.  When I finally answered her at length in a back and forth, she felt overwhelmed by the torrent of reasons for disbelief and, rightly enough, insisted on time to go investigate what I had said and get back to me. I insisted that she read sources I gave her and not only those friendly to her existing views and she agreed but told me in advance she would not be changing her mind based on anything she read. I told her not to bother then since she would only be wasting both our time. I only agreed to continue to debate the topic with her if she agreed to open her mind and heart to the possibility that she could change her mind if the evidence warranted. She accepted the challenge but I haven’t heard from her since.

There is a common saying, for which I cannot find attribution, which says, “You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.”  While there is truth in this, I think by calling people’s attention to how they did come to their beliefs and how irrational it is to found their beliefs in such irrational manners we have the best shot, if any, of actually confronting and addressing them where their decisions about belief are truthfully made.  Addressing their actual arguments if they are not already a rationalist, committed to evidence, is probably in most cases to be fooled by a distraction and waste our time.

One closing terminological suggestion.  I have for some time now been advocating that we call the theist who rejects arguments for the existence of God as incapable of generating justified beliefs (either in principle or as a matter of fact) a kind of agnostic.  While the person normally referred to as an agnostic simpliciter is one who abstains from embracing either theism or atheism, the agnostic’s essential characteristic is the rejection (either as a matter of principle about the limits of metaphysics or as a conclusion about the state of this particular metaphysical question) of the possibility of justified beliefs on the question of God.

While most people who view the epistemology of the God question in this way become atheists by default (and so are most accurately classified as “agnostic atheists” if you ask me), there are those who share this exact epistemology and nonetheless believe by faith.  These people’s views of the epistemic status of the God question are actually the same as any other agnostic’s, traditionally conceived, despite the fact that they nonetheless affirm belief in God and even despite the fact that they often give vain, disingenuous pretense of offering arguments for God’s existence to those who seem to need them.

When actually pressed, they reveal that, just like any other agnostics, they reject the God question as one either settled or settleable according to evidence.  And if these “agnostic theists” are ever going to be persuaded or dissuaded of anything, it would behoove us to start right there, labeling and engaging them correctly from the start.

Your Thoughts?

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For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above.  It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.

Faith in a Comprehensive Nutshell

 

How Faith Poisons Religion

 

What About The Good Things People Call “Faith”? (Or “Why I Take Such A Strong Semantic Stand Against The Word Faith”)

 

How Religious Beliefs Become Specifically *Faith* Beliefs

 

Faith There’s A God vs. Faith In God

Trustworthiness, Loyalty, And Honesty

Faith As Loyally Trusting Those Insufficiently Proven To Be Trustworthy

Faith As Tradition

Blind Faith: How Faith Traditions Turn Trust Without Warrant Into A Test Of Loyalty

Faith As Tradition’s Advocate And Enforcer, Which Actively Opposes Merely Provisional Forms Of Trust

The Threatening Abomination Of The Faithless

Rational Beliefs, Rational Actions, And When It Is Rational To Act On What You Don’t Think Is True

Faith As Guessing

Are True Gut Feelings And Epiphanies Beliefs Justified By Faith?

Faith Is Neither Brainstorming, Hypothesizing, Nor Simply Reasoning Counter-Intuitively

Faith In The Sub-, Pre-, Or Un-conscious

Can Rationality Overcome Faith?

Faith As A Form Of Rationalization Unique To Religion

Faith As Deliberate Commitment To Rationalization

Heart Over Reason

Faith As Corruption Of Children’s Intellectual Judgment

Faith As Subjectivity Which Claims Objectivity

Faith Is Preconditioned By Doubt, But Precludes Serious Doubting

Soul Searching With Clergy Guy

Faith As Admirable Infinite Commitment For Finite Reasons

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

How A Lack Of Belief In God May Differ From Various Kinds Of Beliefs That Gods Do Not Exist

Why Faith Is Unethical (Or “In Defense Of The Ethical Obligation To Always Proportion Belief To Evidence”

Not All Beliefs Held Without Certainty Are Faith Beliefs

Defending My Definition Of Faith As “Belief Or Trust Beyond Rational Warrant”

Implicit Faith

Agnostics Or Apistics?

The Evidence-Impervious Agnostic Theists

Faith Which Exploits Infinitesimal Probabilities As Openings For Strong Affirmations

Why You Cannot Prove Inductive Reasoning Is Faith-Based Reasoning But Instead Only Assert That By Faith

How Just Opposing Faith, In Principle, Means You Actually Don’t Have Faith, In Practice

Naturalism, Materialism, Empiricism, And Wrong, Weak, And Unsupported Beliefs Are All Not Necessarily Faith Positions

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.freethinker.me.uk/ Anna Johnstone

    Absolutely spot on, mate. Well written.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks Anna!

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    First, people tend not to give up a belief on the spot from arguments. It takes reflection. A very combative and irrational seeming person might only seem so because they don’t how how to respond given the limited time for reflection in a conversation.

    Second, the theist “evidence” is in their worldview. Theists will greatly resist the atheist’s arguments because NOTHING (or very little) in the world will make sense given the atheist’s worldview. A theist needs to see that it is possible that the world is much different — understand the entire atheistic worldview — before any argument will be relevant. Consider the straw man (horrifically stupid) version of atheism that many people have in mind: A person is just atoms, morality is a human invention or emotional expression, the universe just popped into existence for no reason, and so on.

    There is something to be said for coherence theories. One’s belief is justified in being coherent with other beliefs as long as there is no alternative coherent perspective.

    I am unconvinced that “irrational” faith-based belief has any strength whatsoever. “Unreasonable” faith-based theists have to shield themselves from differing perspectives or worldviews or they will quickly doubt their beliefs when confronted with intelligent people who offer powerful alternative worldviews. Only a highly intelligent person who can rationally reject atheism given a highly intelligent atheistic worldview has the strongest theistic beliefs possible. Then your “atheistic arguments” would be totally irrelevant because they would be rationally found to be unconvincing.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yes to all of that, James. Very insightful. Do you think those observations fully undermine my account or can it be reconciled with it?

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    Thanks Dan. I think you have some insight, such as the fact that the belief in God (or at least some supernatural person) seems somewhat effortless and natural.

    My main point is that it is more difficult to separate irrational dogma from rational belief based on the behavior of people within a debate (or confronted by an argument, etc.). The evidence you cite of irrational dogma isn’t what I would consider to be good evidence because of the entire worldview being relevant and so on. It might be that irrational theists will have the behavior that you describe, but rational theists (and rational atheists) can have the same response.

    My secondary point is that I see no reason to think that irrational theists would have stronger or resilient beliefs than rational ones, and I don’t know any way you can salvage your position. The assumption seems to be that rational people can’t help but gravitate towards atheism, but that might be declaring an early victory. If a theist can be a “rational theist” (be a theist for good reason based on research, arguments, evidence, etc.), then their theism should be quite resilient.

  • Daniel Fincke

    While I agree that people shouldn’t be expected to change their minds in the course of a single argument, right in front of you since that’s unrealistic (and probably not even advisable in most cases, even if they’re wrong since it’s still wise for them to go back and reflect first), I think what’s strange is the complete abandonment of the arguments when they fail.

    I never hear an atheist have her argument dismissed and see her say, “oh, well, this isn’t really a matter for evidence, now is it?” But theists do it all the bloody time. That means that this is much deeper than just the understandable resistance to changing one’s views on a dime, it’s a remarkably loose connection to the belief in the validity of their own arguments and evidence. It’s quite irrelevant to many theists whether their arguments or evidence make any sense or stand up. They’re just tactics they’ve been trained in for fending off challenges or the threat of challenges. When they don’t work, the agnostic theists don’t dig their heels in or call the atheist irrational or obtuse, they simply throw them away as ineffective tools.

    This gives me serious reason to think they don’t believe them. It goes well beyond the fact that they don’t just concede defeat. It’s that they willingly concede the defeat of their supposed evidence and just shift to a anti-evidential position which I think is closer to what they really think. Their show at providing evidence is really a pretense. When they start saying it’s a matter that admits of no evidence and all subjectivity, now we’re talking about what they really think. And THAT relativism they are willing to defend much more than the arguments they volley up for the atheist’s sake.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    While I agree that people shouldn’t be expected to change their minds in the course of a single argument, right in front of you since that’s unrealistic (and probably not even advisable in most cases, even if they’re wrong since it’s still wise for them to go back and reflect first), I think what’s strange is the complete abandonment of the arguments when they fail.

    That suggests that the arguments are “rationlizations.” I see that happen all the time and I don’t think it’s just theists who do it. It’s very common for people who are unfamiliar with philosophy.

    I never hear an atheist have her argument dismissed and see her say, “oh, well, this isn’t really a matter for evidence, now is it?”

    You might need to talk more with liberals and relativists. I have met people with that attitude. They think argumentation is silly and people should believe whatever they want. (That is the attitude they find tolerant and acceptable anyway.)

    But theists do it all the bloody time. That means that this is much deeper than just the understandable resistance to changing one’s views on a dime, it’s a remarkably loose connection to the belief in the validity of their own arguments and evidence.

    There is probably truth that faith is used as an excuse to not think for many people. If the theist admits that is what they are doing, then you caught her red handed.

    It’s quite irrelevant to many theists whether their arguments or evidence make any sense or stand up. They’re just tactics they’ve been trained in for fending off challenges or the threat of challenges. When they don’t work, the agnostic theists don’t dig their heels in or call the atheist irrational or obtuse, they simply throw them away as ineffective tools.

    That might be true, but I suspect atheists have similar rationalizations. The straw-man atheist worldview is actually accepted to some extent by real atheists who don’t want to think things through. They constantly argue that “morality is just a product of evolution” to counter the theist’s “argument from morality” despite the fact that it pretty much misses the point entirely.

    This gives me serious reason to think they don’t believe them. It goes well beyond the fact that they don’t just concede defeat. It’s that they willingly concede the defeat of their supposed evidence and just shift to a anti-evidential position which I think is closer to what they really think. Their show at providing evidence is really a pretense. When they start saying it’s a matter that admits of no evidence and all subjectivity, now we’re talking about what they really think. And THAT relativism they are willing to defend much more than the arguments they volley up for the atheist’s sake

    As I said, I don’t think it’s just theists that do this. We might worry that “faith” is taken to be a justification for being irrational by theists in particular, but atheists aren’t totally free of error in this regard. They too use relativistic rationalizations quite often, which were motivated by tolerance and pro-self-esteem values in the school system.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yes, I agree, quite frequently even atheists will wave away tough philosophical questions about morality, epistemology, metaphysics as irrelevant bullshit because it would make them uncomfortable to deal with the ambiguities and uncertainties that answering those questions involves. They are indeed too hasty to dismiss some of the legitimate questions that theists give bad answers to without themselves putting in the hard work of thinking through better answers for.

      Even the most prominent atheists keep wading into philosophical waters beyond their depth and then making snide remarks about philosophers or philosophical questions which they cannot themselves actually answer very well.

      And, yes, in general professed relativism is a plague among as many liberals as it is among conservatives. For both liberals and conservatives, but in opposite ways, it is a lazy excuse not to deal with difficult complexities and for both of them it sits side by side with lots of absolutist beliefs and value judgments which they want to insulate from interpersonal conflict with the relativism defense when they’re actually pushed by members of the other side in a real debate.

      So, I grant all of that. Nonetheless, I would say it is just as much possible that many a self-professed agnostic atheist is just as guilty of laziness as the agnostic theist I indicted in this blog post. But also I would say that while many an atheist is lazy about working through hard philosophical complexities, the atheist often does not really think that’s where the issues lie. And on the grounds where those atheists do think the issues are, they are relatively committed to rationalism, insistent on it, and employ evidence in more than just the disingenuous tactical ways the agnostic theists do.

  • Ben Finney

    There’s great stuff here:

    “You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.” While there is truth in this, I think by calling people’s attention to how they did come to their beliefs and how irrational it is to found their beliefs in such irrational manners we have the best shot, if any, of actually confronting and addressing them where their decisions about belief are truthfully made.

    Yes. I think the aphorism you quote (I don’t know the origin of it either) has its truth in the “you”. That is, you, the person applying reason to your interlocutor’s position, cannot reason the believer our of their position if reason didn’t get them there.

    To the extent that confronting the believer with the stark contradiction they hold – wanting to think of themselves as reasonable, but evidently holding a position in the face of contradictory evidence – can cause them to abandon the false position, I think it’s still not reason that does the job.

    It’s what Ayaan Hirsi Ali identifies as “cognitive dissonance”: the contradiction, made apparent and unavoidable, becomes more and more unbearable. That can, in many cases, lead them to do their own reasoning to resolve the dissonance.

    That might still take the form of rationalisation of their false position; but, primed with enough calm rational argument, and faced with a large enough dissonance in their worldview, they just might actually reason themselves into a reality-based position.

    • Daniel Fincke

      To the extent that confronting the believer with the stark contradiction they hold – wanting to think of themselves as reasonable, but evidently holding a position in the face of contradictory evidence – can cause them to abandon the false position, I think it’s still not reason that does the job.

      In what way does reason not to the job and what does the job if reason doesn’t?. Later on in what you wrote you describe pushing people’s cognitive dissonance until the tension forces them to reason their way to something more stable (if I understood you correctly). Isn’t that a way of using reason to do the job? Showing contradictions is reason.

      Or are you saying that we need to employ non-rational, emotional/social/psychological nudges.

      And if so then the question becomes where the lines are to prevent becoming as manipulative or bullying or irrationalistic in our persuasion techniques as the irrationalists and the religionists inherently are?

      This is one of the hardest questions I wrestle with.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    Dan, you said the following:

    But also I would say that while many an atheist is lazy about working through hard philosophical complexities, the atheist often does not really think that’s where the issues lie. And on the grounds where those atheists do think the issues are, they are relatively committed to rationalism, insistent on it, and employ evidence in more than just the disingenuous tactical ways the agnostic theists do.

    You are saying a lot here. I don’t see an easy answer to the issue. Are atheists insistent on rationalism (of a general ordinary common sense variety)? Some are, but obviously not all. You admit that “I would say it is just as much possible that many a self-professed agnostic atheist is just as guilty of laziness as the agnostic theist I indicted in this blog post.”

    You seem to be saying that more atheists seem to be rationalists than theists. That might be true, but there is nothing intrinsic in theism to make it true. A scientific study would be required to know more about what’s going on with people’s insistence to being irrational and the relation to theism. Even if a connection was found, I don’t know what we should think about the finding. Atheists are using the idea of theists as irrational as an excuse to ridicule. Some even argue that theism is inherently dangerous. (e.g. Sam Harris.) This position is not one I find helpful. Some people are irrational and that does make them dangerous. Let’s try to be more rational rather than less no matter what we think about God.

    Another position many atheists have is, “Look! Theism can’t be rationally justified. Therefore, theists can’t be theists for a good reason. They’re less rational than atheists insofar as that one belief is concerned.” This might be true, but I don’t see such a possible “fact” as helpful for anyone.

    • Daniel Fincke

      The charge of irrationalism towards theists is related to the structural character of religious belief in which irrationalistic sources—appeals to emotion, authority, faith—are treated as legitimate. There is no corresponding structural irrationality in atheism per se. Now there might be some theists who are pure rationalists and reject authoritarian thinking (but then they’d have to reject the Bible, the Koran, the Pope, etc., etc. as ungrounded authorities) and be very, very religiously progressive (if religious at all). The fact is that the overwhelming number of theists go beyond a simple acceptance of some rationalistic proof of some philosophical theists to the point of connecting in to a larger religious tradition and adopting some degree of its irrationalistically based belief and practice commitments.

      While in any number of other issues, atheists may be as irrational as anyone else (and a given atheist regularly more irrational in daily matters or scientific matters, etc. than a given relatively intellectually scrupulous theist is), on the issue that divides atheists and theists most characteristically—the question of irrationalistic religious authorities for beliefs—the atheists come down rationalistically and the theists nearly always incorporate irrationalism, even if their theism is itself grounded primarily or defensibly in rationalistic ways.

      Now, one more caveat. There are many atheists who are unreflective just as there are many theists who are. I’m sure many atheists just find themselves not believing without articulating any express commitment to rationalism or evidentialism, etc. But I was referring to the atheists and theists who actually care to engage the questions in discussions. And in those cases, I think most atheists will focus (even if only in amateur way) on the importance of evidence.

  • Ben Finney

    Daniel, I’m referring to the fact (as I understand it) that our positions are almost always arrived at, and adhered to, on non-rational bases; that where we hold positions that are justifiable on evidence and reason, that’s still not what led us to them nor why we stick to them.

    I could be wrong about that, but it’s what I understand from everything I’ve been learning (as an amateur) about recent decades of neuropsychology research.

    Co-incidentally, I found today that a recent Point Of Inquiry episode deals with this, and what implications it has for how we can convince people effectively.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    Dan,

    You said:

    The charge of irrationalism towards theists is related to the structural character of religious belief in which irrationalistic sources—appeals to emotion, authority, faith—are treated as legitimate.

    Lots of people use fallacious reasoning and “treat it as legitimate.” I agree that “faith” in particular is used as an excuse by many religious people. Perhaps there is no equivalent to that for atheists.

    There is no corresponding structural irrationality in atheism per se. Now there might be some theists who are pure rationalists and reject authoritarian thinking (but then they’d have to reject the Bible, the Koran, the Pope, etc., etc. as ungrounded authorities) and be very, very religiously progressive (if religious at all). The fact is that the overwhelming number of theists go beyond a simple acceptance of some rationalistic proof of some philosophical theists to the point of connecting in to a larger religious tradition and adopting some degree of its irrationalistically based belief and practice commitments.

    I think that there are theists who know very little about their “holy book” and so such a book is irrelevant to them and others try to justify the legitimacy of their holy books through reason — but obviously the “faith” excuse is used as well.

    While in any number of other issues, atheists may be as irrational as anyone else (and a given atheist regularly more irrational in daily matters or scientific matters, etc. than a given relatively intellectually scrupulous theist is), on the issue that divides atheists and theists most characteristically—the question of irrationalistic religious authorities for beliefs—the atheists come down rationalistically and the theists nearly always incorporate irrationalism, even if their theism is itself grounded primarily or defensibly in rationalistic ways.

    The anti-faith objections against religion are powerful and convincing. If that is all you want to do, that’s fine with me. I told you that some theists will admit that they can use faith as a get out of jail free card. If they do that, then you caught them red handed.

    Now, one more caveat. There are many atheists who are unreflective just as there are many theists who are. I’m sure many atheists just find themselves not believing without articulating any express commitment to rationalism or evidentialism, etc. But I was referring to the atheists and theists who actually care to engage the questions in discussions. And in those cases, I think most atheists will focus (even if only in amateur way) on the importance of evidence.

    But you don’t think “most theists” will have an interest in evidence? If they didn’t, then there would be no point to “engage the questions in discussions” to begin with.

    • Daniel Fincke

      But you don’t think “most theists” will have an interest in evidence? If they didn’t, then there would be no point to “engage the questions in discussions” to begin with.

      No, for many theists, the motive to engage the questions in discussion is to either stop someone from leaving their faith or to convert someone to it. Faiths, for whatever reason, make their adherents typically uncomfortable with infidels, non-believers, and apostates. I’m saying there are many theists who don’t even like trying to involve evidence in God questions (or will quickly dismiss arguments for God as weak or irrelevant or will throw them away as failed tactics when they fail, etc.) but who will nonetheless engage the questions for religiously motivated reasons. They’re bugged by atheists or want to stop a rationalist doubting believer from slipping away.

      I don’t know if it is most theists who become indifferent to evidence when God is in question, but either out of a resignation to what they see as the failure of evidence in practice or out of some “agnostic” sense that such metaphysical matters can never have knowledgable answers given or out of some view that faith precludes knowledge or out of their adoption of contemporary relativism, or for any of a number of other reasons, there are some believers who really are indifferent to evidence and this post tried to get a little bit inside their heads.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    You do have to “get inside their heads” because to be indifferent to evidence and truth is not something many would want to admit. Such a position almost forces one to be dishonest.

    I’m not sure if there is much point in trying to reveal this sort of dishonesty through mind reading because it tends to be best to give people the benefit of the doubt. Let’s treat people like adults who care about evidence and act confused when they act dismissive about evidence. Maybe they will learn to start thinking more like an adult.

    If they admit that evidence is irrelevant, then we should try to show them how fanatical and incoherent that position is.

  • Pete C

    I’m not sure where I fall in the spectrum of agnosticism (if i belong there at all) so I can’t really self identify. But I will offer an explanation I have often pondered but never shared. I suspect it may drive people to irritation but I offer it nonetheless.

    You repeatedly talk of evidence and its consideration, which is wholly understandable. However, to insist on evidence and its use in an argument based upon “faith” is to misunderstand what is in my mind an argument that, belive it or not, has a basis in rational thought. To differetiate “faith” from rational conclusions based on evidence I have always thought of it like this: Using logic and evidence to understand the nature of God is like using a screwdriver to cut down a tree. You may get the job done but it’s ultimately not the right tool.

    Outrageous! And a cop out on some level, right? But consider what God supposedly is: omnipotent, omniscient, eternal. We understand these as concepts, but in reality, can we really behold what that actually means? Can you imagine being able to do anything, see anything, or exist independently of time? Yet we can observe the phenomenon in another direction. Consider an ant born and living its life in a small plasic contained colony on my desk. If it can comprehend me at all, would I not seem like God to him? I have the ultimate power over his entire universe. I can observe this. What I cannot observe is if I am, in fact, the ant… because I may not have the ability.

    I am open to the thought that there are things that exist that are beyond my perception. I KNOW this to be true as sure as I can demonstrate that my dog can hear a dog whistle but I cannot. I am also willing to believe that there are concepts in the universe that are beyond my comprehension. I also know this to be true as i attempt to explain something to a person of considerably less intelligence (or someone of considerably greater intelligence explains something to me) and the lights just don’t turn on. The notion that there may exist a being beyond my perception and comprehension is therefore not difficult at all to swallow. Indeed, I submit that it is hubris to boldly and without reservation assert that something of that nature absolutely cannot exist simply because there is no empirical or irrefutable evidence. By it’s very nature, it defies the notion of evidence altogether.

    This, for some (and I suppose for me) forms a basis of faith in SOMETHING. Whether that something actually looks and behaves like the God in the Bible is most certainly up for debate and readily disputable by evidence. But based upon the above logic, which is the only tool that I have, I see it as possible that 1) there is a “god” of some kind that 2) I cannot perceive or possibly fully comprehend.

    This does not, however, prove the existence of god. It merely opens the door. Any assertion to the contrary takes my line of reasoning too far. I don’t believe in God because I don’t know what God is. I do, however, have “faith” that there are things that may exist that are greater than I, which may form the nature of God. This openness of thought is how I personally define faith.

  • Chris Hill

    Suppose that Ultimate Reality is truly a Sacred Mystery as far as we can go with the term mystery, and that whatever we end up believing about it has much more to do with how we human beings end up perceiving and conceiving about said reality? Apparently we will never know one way or the other at least in this lifetime, though perhaps will in another (if another does indeed obtain). Personally, I believe the best positions to take from a more objective stance (as needfully infected by the subjective natures of human beings) are agnostic theism and agnostic atheism. However, it makes plenty of sense still–from a more fidiestic standpoint–for people to align themselves as well with singularly committed agnostic, atheistic and theistic orientations. This is why I tend to side with a much more pluralistic position, particular the one known as neo-perennialism.


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