Interfaith Dialogue with Atheists

Real dialogue is necessary, not over the important secondary matter of whether God exists, but over the primary question of what constitutes the basis for human knowing.

Two ads in the most recent edition of Scientific American caught my eye. On page 24 is an ad called “Leaving Truth.” It promotes a book designed to “call the theist’s bluff at this deepest accessible epistemic level.” See more at

The second ad, larger, is entitled “In Reason We Trust” and comes from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It features a picture of Steven Pinker and a quote, “The biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality that the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. . . .The undeniable fact that we are all made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.”

Even within the ads it is clear that those who placed them apparently do not understand either the basis for theism or a theistic understanding of morality. They appear to be directed against popular, ad hoc theology that still has currency in parts of the religious world but scarcely represent the mainstream of theological and philosophical thinking about God and ethics.

The first ad states, “Reality cannot show us, more clearly than it already has, that the miracles upon which our theists base their initial beliefs in their Supernatural Beings never really happened.” I think its fair to say that it has been at least 2000 years since serious western philosophers thought that belief God was contingent upon miraculous events. Atheists might want to check out “A Philosophical Theology for Our Time” by Charles Hartshorne for one way of addressing these concerns. Or his “Philosophers Speak of God” for a historical view.

A conceptual confusion appears to exist between original reasons for believing in gods or God and long standing philosophical rationals for theistic belief. And even if it is a conceptual confusion to which religious people often fall prey, it is surely instantly recognizable by rational scientists. It would be fairer to say that Christians recognize miracles as such because they believe in God, not that they believe in God because of miracles.

With regard to morality I simply note that at least from the time of Aristotle serious Western philosophers (and certainly Confucius and his followers) have not believed that either ethical behavior or ethical systems were contingent upon belief in an immortal soul. Rather it is precisely our sense of commonality with our fellow humans – family first, then clan, then society – that gives rise to our ethics. If biology extends this sense of commonality to other creatures it will simply be reiterating the teaching of the Upanasads and the Buddha from a different perspective. Or for that matter St. Francis.

What biology may add (E.O. Wilson has already written about this) is another way of  understanding moral obligations and motivating us to ethical behavior in new dimensions. But this is in no way problematic for religious ethics, any more than the ever extending reach of the physical sciences is in no way problem to theism.

Seeing this allows us to get to the crux of the issue between atheists, agnostics, and theists, which is epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. Scientists generally (but not necessarily) recognize knowledge as something that derives from observation of the physical world, measurement, and strict mathematical forms of reason.

Theists from across many religious traditions regard this definition of knowledge as too limiting. There are both things to be known, and human ways of knowing, that go beyond what can be observed, measured, and reasoned upon. Faith, in short, is a way of knowing.

A good example of this, to stay within the realm in which physics merges into metaphysics, is theories of a “multi-verse.”  Such theories help address, within a naturalistic set of assumptions, certain problems related to what is commonly called the anthropic principle. But they present no testable hypothesis, or even a hypothesis that can be imagined to be tested. They simply posit that as theories they are more consistent with the human experience that everything is explicable in a naturalist framework than a framework that admits the existence of God.

A theist would argue that evoking a creator God who intends the ultimate emergence of being made in God’s image of rationality and choice is just as consonant with human experience and is equally effective in resolving the question of why intelligent life has come to fruition in the universe we inhabit.

Given a complete lack of observable, repeatable, data upon which to reason neither the multi-verse not the theist hypothesis meets the standards of contemporary science.

Yet it is interesting that one appears regularly in journals and magazines devoted to science and the other does not. Which suggests that these journals, no less that Christianity Today for example, are based on what is essentially a faith commitment.

This is one reason I continue to read Scientific American religiously. I’m extraordinarily interested in truths about the natural world that only science can reveal. I’m also interested in all manner of human faith and how it expresses itself. SA gives insight into both.

It is also the reason that real dialogue is necessary, but not over the important secondary matter of whether God exists, but over the primary question of what constitutes the experiential basis for human knowing of reality.