A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 2

This is part 2 of my “Think! Of God and Government” debate series with Christian author Andrew Murtagh. Read my first post and Andrew’s reply.

Andrew,

Thanks again for your fairness and hospitality at the Midtown Scholar debate last month. It was a pleasure for me as well! You’ll have to come out to NYC some time in the coming months so I can repay it.

So, with your assent, let’s table the debate about morality for now and turn to this question of how it is that people come to be religious.

To answer your question, I think that believers and skeptics tend to approach the question of God’s existence in different ways. As you say, most religious skeptics, like myself, treat this as an empirical question; and finding the evidence insufficient, we withhold belief. But I think few, if any, theists come at the question this same way. That would mean becoming a theist by way of investigating the evidence and deciding that it’s sufficient to support one particular conception of God while ruling out the others. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who can credibly claim to have done that, and since you say that the Christian-specific conception has “irrationality written all over it”, I’d assume you agree.

In any case, I’m not sure if you meant your three possibilities to delineate the logically possible routes to faith, or the means by which most people in fact arrive at faith. But in either case, I think you left out a fourth possibility, and I’d go so far as to say it’s the most common one: the route of tradition.

What I mean by this is that most people believe in God because it’s the belief held by most people in their cultural in-group, the one that defines their identity and differentiates them from outsiders, and it’s safest and easiest to go with the flow. In some societies this is backed up by ostracism, harassment or even severe legal punishments for nonbelievers and dissenters, but it’s not usually enforced so harshly. More often, it’s simply passed down as received wisdom, what everyone in our society knows, what makes us who we are. When a belief is woven into the culture like that, few people will even think to question it.

Obviously, many people are taught a certain set of religious beliefs as infallible truth from childhood, which is the major way that any tradition perpetuates itself. But even if you’re not indoctrinated during childhood, it’s also the case that people who go through an existential crisis and convert later in life will tend to pick the religion that’s most common in their culture and social circles, just because it’s the one they’re most familiar with and/or have the most chance to encounter. (I once wrote about a pastor named Dave Schmelzer, who converted to Christianity because he was lost on a late-night drive and came across two large, floodlit crosses in a row, which he attributes to divine providence. Well, what other large religious symbols was he expecting to see in the United States of America?)

Now, you mentioned a presuppositional, an evidential, and an existential approach to becoming a theist. But I notice an inconsistency that you didn’t remark on: these three approaches all contradict each other! After all, if God’s existence is a self-evident prerequisite for knowledge (presuppositional), then it can’t be the case that it’s believed because it’s a leap into absurdity (existential). Similarly, if God’s existence is believed because it’s absurd, or because it’s a a priori truth that precedes evidence, then that forecloses the possibility that God’s existence is a conclusion derived from studying the evidence. The opposite holds true as well, of course: if God’s existence is a conclusion grounded in evidence, then it must be the case that evidence can overthrow it, which wouldn’t be true of either the presuppositional or existential approaches.

Since you said you relate most to the existential approach, I’ll focus on that. I think this goes a long way toward explaining your “doubting theist” self-identification. That had intrigued me, since doubt isn’t treated as an essential element in most forms of Christianity, whereas you seem to place it front and center. That seemed like something I hadn’t come across before, and I always like to learn about new things. Besides, I think excessive certainty is the cause of some of the worst harm that’s done in the name of religion, and doubt is a welcome and necessary corrective.

And on that note, I hope you’ll clarify something for me. You said that this approach is an irrational leap of faith. Fine, but why this particular leap, rather than any of the other countless ones that were open to you? Why do you believe God was incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ, rather than, say, believing that God expressed his will for humanity in a perfect Arabic document called the Qur’an which was given to the final prophet Mohammed? Or why not believe that God is a cosmic being named Brahma who created himself out of a lotus flower which sprouted from the navel of Vishnu?

This is where tradition and culture weigh in. If belief in God was purely a leap of faith, a free embrace of the absurd, then choosing a set of religious beliefs ought to be as random a process as picking numbers out of a hat. Obviously, that’s not what happens. Religions rise to dominance at certain places and times, thrive for a while, then mutate into new forms or fade away as they’re replaced by different beliefs. Just by knowing where and when someone was born, you can predict with a reasonable degree of confidence what beliefs they’ll hold, and that would only be true if the acquisition of religious belief was culturally influenced.

If you were born in Mecca, that Kierkegaardian leap into the absurd would very likely have landed you in Islam instead. In Kolkata, it might instead have taken you to Hinduism. However you personally came to hold your faith, do you think it’s a coincidence that you’re a Christian in a time and place where Christianity is dominant?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • MNb

    I just posted this:

    “The “leap of faith” portion of atheism (naturalism specifically) is irrational”
    What about naturalism exactly is irrational? Given the fact that science works (some theists dispute this, but apparently not you) and has changed how our world looks like more in 200 years than all forms of theism in several millennia we both can accept methodological naturalism aka the scientific method.
    How exactly is it a leap of faith to assume there is nothing more than science can investigate? Note that I am not stating that all questions can be answered by science. Science cannot decide if we should prefer Mozart or Salieri, The Beatles or The Monkeys. But science very much can investigate how many people prefer one or the other and formulate models to describe why. In this sense esthetics and ethics are scientific subjects as well.
    God defined as an immaterial entity – and if you don’t he should be subject to scientific research by definition – cannot be researched by the scientific method, because empiry and induction fail.
    So how exactly is it a leap of faith, ie irrational, in stead of lack of faith, ie rational, that what escapes the scientific method does not exist? If you are right not believing in invisible fairies and not believing in Santa Claus also requires an irrational leap of faith.

  • Jason Wexler

    All first principles are held presupositionally or achieved through a “leap of faith”. We have faith that our senses accurately report to us the world as it is, and we then build empiricism and rationalism and methodological naturalism from that belief. Although we have attempted to empirically test the hypothesis that our senses accurately report the world to us, and have surprisingly found it to be true only within certain domains and limitations, that beyond those limitations the universe behaves in uncertain and probabalistic ways.

    That said if our belief that our senses accurately report the world as it is, turns out to be wrong than everything we’ve built from that assumption is wrong as well.

    I agree that saying naturalism is irrational, when he appears to accept it is befuddling. The best I was able to conclude from that statement was that he meant it is irrational to assume that, that which is beyond the ability of science to investigate can’t or doesn’t exist. As a potential example consider the question of multiple universes specifically from the hypothesis of broken symmetry. It may in fact be the case that, that hypothesis is correct, that universes form from symmetry breaking events inside of “meta-reality”, further it may also be the case that naturalistic laws or meta laws which govern the process have set a peculiar limitation which makes it impossible for events and things within a broken symmetry bubble from interacting with anything beyond the bubble, both meta-reality as I am calling it or other broken symmetry bubbles. Where we run into a problem then is that even if what I am proposing were true, it would be beyond sciences scope or ability to confirm or deny it. Unlike your example of musical preference, what I have proposed is an unquantifiable unprovable truth which for the sake of the argument we are assuming is true and untestable. Now in reality what I have proposed is far beyond the scope and ability of modern science, but may not be in the future, and it may turn out that what I proposed is testable and false, or testable and true. Point being (and I apologize for meandering) even if naturalism and science have been good and useful tools for accurately testing the world we can perceive it would be irrational to assume that we have access to all of reality, that there is nothing we can’t test, and he communicated the idea poorly. Then again maybe he is just blowing smoke and is unworthy of this debate after all. In either case I hope he responds to you.

  • GCT

    All first principles are held presupositionally or achieved through a “leap of faith”.

    This is not correct. I don’t need to hold any faith to reject the faith positions of religions. IOW, the null position does not require faith.

    We have faith that our senses accurately report to us the world as it is, and we then build empiricism and rationalism and methodological naturalism from that belief.

    This is also incorrect. We know that our senses are unreliable, which is why we have things like verification, independent experimental controls, etc. Although, I agree that they are somewhat reliable when we do control for problems and take into account known issues. But, what you’re basically trying to claim is that anything that isn’t 100% certainty is assumptions and faith.

    That said if our belief that our senses accurately report the world as it is, turns out to be wrong than everything we’ve built from that assumption is wrong as well.

    It’s not an assumption, especially if we have evidence to back it up. That’s like saying that we assume the Earth moves around the sun because all the evidence we have points to that.

  • GCT

    Adam, I think Mr. Murtagh, no matter how well intentioned, needs an Atheism 101 primer before going any further. He doesn’t seem to understand concepts like null hypothesis and burden of proof, especially not for what constitutes positive statements and rejections of those statements. His reply to MNb is pretty indicative of that elementary flaw, and it doesn’t sound like you’ll be able to get very far if he keeps throwing the “Atheism is irrational too” line around.

  • Jason Wexler

    Yes but how do we know evidence is reliable? Don’t get me wrong I am firm believer in empiricism but I also recognize that it is possible that the entire enterprise of empiricism may in fact be fatally flawed in a way which can’t be empirically deduced. Our shared belief that evidence is reliable, can’t be independently verified it is a first principle, which has to be assumed for everything else to go on.

    And for what it is worth, you are incorrect in your first response to me, it isn’t “faith to reject the faith positions of religions”, it is faith that the evidentiary system is good and valid and superior to other systems, and allows you to then discredit religions via the null hypothesis.

  • AnyBeth

    True, empiricism cannot, for example, verify that there is such a thing as the external world. Even so, very few supposed people in what may be my own dream or delusion claim to consider themselves solipsists, though it’s probably more logically defensible. It explains everything while explaining nothing and people don’t seem to like it much (though if there’s one and they’re right…)

    I’ve no idea how empiricism might win out or lose to other systems, other ways of knowing, perhaps. It all depends on what’s being judged, doesn’t it? I suppose if you judge by the ability to answer fuzzy questions rife with words of slippery definitions and answers are judged to be good or bad by a panel of three judges, it’s entirely possible a non-empirical system could win out. Of course, the empiricist might sputter, “But– that doesn’t answer anything!” to which two judges can reply, “It sounded good to us”, whereupon the empiricist is left to wonder why they ever took up such a nebulous challenge. But give the empiricist a clear question and a more solid goal than what “sounds good” or “feels right” and the method has a tendency to get somewhere.

  • David Simon

    We are induction machines. We take in information through our senses, build models based upon it, and use those models to predict future data. That’s all that’s needed for nearly all practical concerns.

    “Reality” is just the name we give to wherever our experimental data comes from.

  • GCT

    Yes but how do we know evidence is reliable?

    By the fact that it works.

    Don’t get me wrong I am firm believer in empiricism but I also recognize that it is possible that the entire enterprise of empiricism may in fact be fatally flawed in a way which can’t be empirically deduced. Our shared belief that evidence is reliable, can’t be independently verified it is a first principle, which has to be assumed for everything else to go on.

    I’m not simply assuming that I’m not in the matrix. I’m deducing it. I could be wrong. I could also be wrong about god, but I’m not assuming my conclusions in either case. It seems like you’re trying to set up a system where it’s either 100% correct knowledge or it must be faith of some sort. I disagree.

    …it is faith that the evidentiary system is good and valid and superior to other systems, and allows you to then discredit religions via the null hypothesis.

    No, it is not. I don’t have to have faith in anything in order to reject a positive claim. That is doing violence to the idea of what “faith” means. Faith is the acceptance of something despite the lack of evidence for it, or even in spite of contrary evidence. When Mr. Murtagh claims that god is real, it requires no faith on my part to say that I do not accept his claim as valid and do not subscribe to it. That holds true even if we live in the Matrix.

  • Jason Wexler

    Thank you, this argument was able to clarify for me a logical error I was making. I was conflating the idea of faith, with the idea of initial assumptions, in large part because that is what Mr. Murtagh was doing and it’s a mistake I should have caught.

    If you were to replace in my arguments the phrase “initial assumption” for anyplace where I used or implied “faith” and then corrected for grammar would that alleviate our disagreement?

  • Jason Wexler

    My argument isn’t against empiricism, I am an empiricist to the core, my argument is that if to use your example we are all living life in our own epistemic delusional bubble, than we would not be able to independently and empirically verify that fact. The logical conclusion would be then that if we were in epistemic delusions empiricism would not be reliable to understand the world as our data and conclusions would be filtered through our delusions.

    As I hope I have somewhat more successfully explained to GCT below, by accepting the empirical method those of us who do at least, are making an initial and fundamentally unprovable assumption about the nature of reality and our experiences, one which if we are wrong we would not be able to discover.

  • GCT

    Not entirely, but it’s certainly a good step towards reconciliation. I’m unclear what my “initial assumption” is? Are we talking a priori assumptions? Rejecting a god “hypothesis” is not dependent upon assumptions at all, as far as I can tell. This gets us to another error that Mr. Murtagh is making, which is continually conflating atheism with naturalism. I pointed that out to him in the last go-round and he seems to have not gotten it.

    If we’re talking about assumptions of being able to deduce truth about the world through empirical means, I’m not so sure it’s that simple. If we ignore the case of potentially being in the Matrix, we don’t really assume that science works, because we see it work. If we really wanted to claim that we have to make the assumption that we aren’t in the Matrix, then maybe one could make that argument, but it seems a stretch to me, because we have no rational reason to believe we are in the Matrix. Either way, it would still be wrong to claim that an assumption of that sort – if it is an assumption – is irrational, something I believe we both agree on.

  • Jason Wexler

    I am hesitant to say that initial assumption is the same thing as a priori assumption, as I am not sure we would necessarily define the concept the same. It’s been more than 17 years since I took philosophy in college and my understanding of the word may have shifted in that time.

    What I mean by initial assumption is the idea that we aren’t in the Martix, or that we can rationally deduce things about the world around us, or that evidence is useful or accurate. I don’t think we can get to something like rejecting the god hypothesis without first making an initial assumption about knowledge or reality. In other words I think I am working more from an area of either metaphysics or epistemology or a combination of the two. How do we know what we know? I don’t believe it to be irrational to claim we aren’t in the Matrix or otherwise experiencing discontinuous realities, but I do believe it is still an assumption we are making when we operate in the world and think as though we aren’t (inside the Matrix).

    There are other possible first principle to which one can ascribe, and build alternative views of how the world works. It is also the case that people may not be able to study their own first principle or initial assumptions but that people with differing ones can.

    This in many respects is the basis of the research into why it can be difficult for people of different ideological persuasions to reconcile. For the faithful or at least conservative faithful, what Adam has been calling their epistemic bubble, is actually their foundational principle. They tune us out because when we say there is no god, or that this policy or that policy doesn’t work and can’t, what they hear is the equivalent for us of being told evidence is meaningless or knowledge can’t be achieved. From their perspective we are the ones in an epistemic bubble, which is why it is important to recognize that we do have initial assumptions.

  • GCT

    What I mean by initial assumption is the idea that we aren’t in the Martix, or that we can rationally deduce things about the world around us, or that evidence is useful or accurate.

    Except that those aren’t assumptions, especially not initial assumptions. I don’t assume that evidence is useful, I see it being useful. If we lived in a world where gravity constantly changed, we’d be having a very different discussion, but it doesn’t, and it’s not an assumption to note that fact, nor does it require an assumption.

    Further, if I have to assume that we aren’t in the Matrix, does that also mean I have to assume that Santa Claus doesn’t exist? I don’t think you’d agree with that, but there’s really no functional difference. We don’t accept the idea that we live in the Matrix, because we don’t have reason to accept that idea. We don’t simply assume it away.

    They tune us out because when we say there is no god, or that this policy or that policy doesn’t work and can’t, what they hear is the equivalent for us of being told evidence is meaningless or knowledge can’t be achieved. From their perspective we are the ones in an epistemic bubble, which is why it is important to recognize that we do have initial assumptions.

    In addition to what I said above about this not being an assumption, the acceptance of evidence is something that all of us do. They simply ignore it when it butts up against their preconceptions about god. It’s not an equivalent case here, even if you could make the case that we are making assumptions, because our “assumptions” would be consistent with reality. I don’t see why it should be important for us to recognize anything of the sort, when I disagree that it’s what we are doing to begin with, and even if we were it would be a false equivalence.

  • Jorge Agudelo

    I would like to comment on something regarding the “christians become christians because of culture, atheist become atheist because of science and reason” argument. How old were you guys when you became atheist? Because at least from most deconversion stories I have read, most people who become atheist tend to do so around their teenage years, if not even younger (I can’t tell you how many people I have seen who “realized” God didn’t exists at 12) while most atheist to christian testimonials I have read correspond to people who abandoned their faith during tenage years but came back to it in adulthood. Now, who is more likely to have better judgement on something, a teenager or an adult?

    I’m not saying this as a point against atheism per se. But I still think it is interesting to point out that atheist-to-Christian conversions tend to take place in a period of intellectual maturity, whereas Christian-to-atheist conversions tend to take place during a time of intellectual immaturity and unfinished brain development.

  • GCT

    Who made that argument? Adam certainly didn’t make that argument in the OP.

    As for conversions, the majority of Xians are Xians from their childhood years. I don’t think you can support the assertion that “atheist-to-Christian conversions tend to take place in a period of intellectual maturity.” Do you have something to back that up? How many people convert during adulthood into and out of Xianity, and into and out of atheism? Do you even know? How many of those conversions from atheism to Xianity are true, considering that some people claim to have done so as part of their re-birth story, when they were never atheists (like Kirk Cameron, for instance)?

  • Tommykey69

    Jorge, people become atheists for different reasons, just as people who become religious. Personally, I became an atheist in my early 20′s after being raised Catholic. Granted, a teenager who declares atheism may be doing so as part of an act of rebellion rather than arriving at atheism after a prolonged period of consideration. What I believe happens in such situations is that when people raised in a religious environment from an early age rebel against it, the religious teachings are still embedded in them, so that later in life it can reassert itself. Maybe the person experienced one or more personal crises and turned to religion for the perceived comfort it offers, or maybe the person has become a parent and identifies religion with stability, tradition, etc. and so reverts to it. You are not likely to see this in children who are raised by parents who are atheists.

    I have been an atheist for over 20 years and have two children, and yet I have not felt the tug of religion on me. I see it clearly for what it is. As for my children, I tell them that when they are old enough, they are free to learn about all the different religions and make their own determination as to whether or not they are true.

  • Pofarmer

    I left it in college, came back somewhat in my 20′s when I met my wife, and left it again at 42. Does that count?


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