Evangelicals Pitching Skepticism?

(Part one of two on the apologetics offered by missionaries outside the Reason Rally)

I was about an hour late to the Reason Rally because I couldn’t resist stopping to talk to the Christian evangelists who were ringing the rally. The conversations probably went on longer than was productive (I’m bad at taking my own advice about walking away from arguments), but I thought there were some interesting tactics on display.

The biggest surprise? I heard more pitches for radical skepticism from the proselytizers than the atheists. One of the first evangelicals I talked to asked me if I’d been to the Library of Congress, and then asked me what percent of those works I would estimate that I had read. “How can you be so sure there’s no God,” he asked, “when there’s so much you don’t know? Isn’t that arrogant?

I asked him how much of the Library of Congress I’d need to read to have opinions about gravity (despite my geekery, I sure don’t understand the theoretical physics that explain my experience). He seemed surprised by the question, and we talked for a little bit longer about whether the standard of knowledge for philosophy and/or metaphysics should be different than for empirical questions.

You must be THIS well read to have opinions

I ran into this argument from radical uncertainty more than once from the Christians at the Reason Rally. It leaves me wondering whether the Christians are offering incomplete arguments because they are theists. They don’t have to worry as much about follow-up because they think that God is going to be the one to exploit any seeds of doubt they sow.

I’m pretty skittish around this kind of argument.  For one thing, the kind of skepticism they’re promoting seems a lot more likely to result in nihilism than anything else, so I suspect they are applying it to truth-propositions unevenly.  For another, I have a weakness for coherence.  There’s a real relief in adhering to a formalized, well-fleshed out system, and it can be tempting to join up with a flawed one (that you’ll fix later!) to avoid being left alone to build up a whole philosophy yourself.  There has to be some additional impetus to submit to a tradition (whether religious or philosophical) beside ideological loneliness.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Joe

    I understand how you avoid moral nihilism to a certain extent with your metaphysics but how do you solve the problem of meaning? In a universe as brute fact is there an ultimate purpose for the basic purposes that exist in nature? Im not understanding how your atheism is any less hopeless than nihilism. Platonic atheism just seems like nihilism in slow motion.

    • anodognosic

      Joe, what exactly do you mean by “meaning”, what exactly about atheism strips life of it, and what exactly about belief in God provides it?

      I ask in good faith. I just find the concept to be generally slippery, poorly defined and perhaps even incoherent. Sometimes, it seems to mean a divinely-determined plan for a person’s life, sometimes the guarantee of our permanence, sometimes the existence of a perfect judge (often coupled with the guaranteed dispensation of justice), sometimes a psychological sense of worth of a person and his or her choices. I believe only the last is truly important, and that even non-Platonic atheism is perfectly compatible with it.

      • Joe

        I guess I just mean that metaphysics proves that there is a basic telos for people and that persons ought to strive for virtue. But if virtue and moral law have no end as in the Glorification of God and the sanctification of the soul then it seems obeying these laws and striving for virtue and moral character are meaningless pursuits. Its like metaphysical masturbation you obey the laws of nature and strive for virtue with no end out side of yourself acting solely for your own self-satisfaction and the expansion of your ego, with no expectation of spiritual fruit. If there is no purpose for goodness then why pay any attention to it?

        • anodognosic

          That’s a fair and clear formulation. My response is something not entirely alien to yours. I agree that ordering your life around self-satisfaction and the expansion of your ego leads to meaninglessness and desperation. The key is, to dig up a platonic idea, the well-ordering of the soul. Virtue is one aspect of a well-ordered soul; having a disposition of humility and wonder before the universe is another; looking for purposes outside the fulfillment of your desires is yet another. The well-ordering of the soul brings a meaningful life.

          And perhaps you may call this metaphysical masturbation. I can just as easily tar your telos of glorifying God as divine bootlicking. But I think they are both false characterizations, and that in fact both can be equally meaningful.

          • Joe

            Divine bootlicking is fine by me I would even wash His feet if he’d let me.

            Well-ordering of the soul does in deed bring meaningfulness in to life but if it comes about to the exclusion of our final purpose or end which is God then it is shallow at best, and I may argue that your soul is not fully ordered at all.

        • Patrick

          The problem here is that “meaning” is not a well defined concept.

      • Ray

        So Joe, would you also expect Atheists to stop eating too? because that bears no spiritual fruit either if you’re an atheist. And what is the purpose of spiritual fruit anyway?

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    The evangelicals’ promotion of radical skepticism was probably being deployed as an adjunct to Pascal’s wager. I’ve seen this tactic more and more often lately: they insist that all worldviews are ultimately held on faith and, therefore, all are equally unprovable; so why not just pick the one that has the best consequences if you believe it? It’s a bizarre strategy which essentially denies that reason or evidence can mean anything at all.

    • http://tomlarsen.org/blog Thomas Larsen

      Hey, Pascal’s Wager isn’t so bad…

      • anodognosic

        It is so bad. Not only does it make a number of unjustified assumptions, but it can also get you to believe virtually anything if you accept it.

        • http://tomlarsen.org/blog Thomas Larsen

          Well, that’s interesting; could you elaborate, please?

          • anodognosic

            The essential problem with Pascal’s Wager is the assumption that there is potentially only one god that will send you to hell/exclude you from heaven if you don’t believe. In practice, we know that there are a multiplicity, perhaps not of gods per se, but of mutually exclusive sets of propositions that you need to believe and ways in which you need to order your life in order to gain access to heaven/avoid hell.

            On my second point specifically: Pascal’s Wager rests, basically, on a calculation of expected value, which is the product of the probability of a certain outcome and the value assigned to that outcome. The supposed strength of Pascal’s Wager is that the value of the outcome–attaining heaven, avoiding hell–is so superlatively large that it overwhelms the expected value of any other outcome, no matter how small the probability that you assign to the existence of God. But a large enough value can overwhelm any odds you throw at it. I can tell you that if you believe in X, you will go to super heaven, which is better than heaven in the same proportion that X is less likely than God, and Pascal’s Wager would compel you to believe in X with as much strength as you believe in God.

            Even if you say that heaven is infinitely good, that doesn’t help you. Infinity overwhelms all odds equally, because infinity multiplied by any number is infinity. All you need is to imagine any other possibility that yields an infinitely good reward or avoids an infinitely bad punishment, and Pascal’s Wager compels you to believe in that too. Except lots, if not most, of these are going to be mutually contradictory. An honest application of Pascal’s Wager, therefore, leads necessarily into contradiction.

      • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

        So I take it you’re a Muslim, then? After all, if Islam isn’t the true faith you stand to lose nothing, and if it is, you stand to gain an eternity in Jannah!

    • leahlibresco

      I think you’ve put your finger on it, Adam. It’s way more nihilist than they have any right to be!

  • @b

    Beware of those who sell agnosticism but don’t buy it themselves.

    The non-religious needn’t agree that contemporary academic books contain the answer (no gods known).

    Whereas the monotheist MUST agree that their Book miraculously contains the answer (one god, these divine interventions).

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