Dialogue on Religious Epistemology with an Agnostic

Dialogue on Religious Epistemology with an Agnostic November 17, 2015


René Descartes (1596-1650), the great theistic philosopher; portrait by Frans Hals (c. 1582-1666) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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This took place in the combox for my post, “Fairies, Atheism, God, & Ad Populum Fallacy.” The words of the always stimulating and interesting JD Eveland will be in blue.

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An atheist asked: “How do you differentiate a trick of a fallible mind from a genuine experience if it cannot be evidenced or corroborated?” I replied:

By applying the cumulative effect of many different arguments for God, including the experiential one.

Each and every one of these classes of arguments has been criticized and sometimes refuted, over the course of centuries. Is it your contention that anyone who doubts the truth of the Christian narrative of the Universe must personally contend with and argue against all of these arguments collectively? I could assemble an equally impressive listing of such counter-arguments. But even if I were able to do that (which at my advanced age am not), would that change anything at all about your faith or the nature of your religious practice?

“Proofs of God” and their counter-arguments seem to me to be largely epiphenomenal – that is, they comfort and reinforce the already believing, but do little to causally influence those not already in sympathy with them. Are there any committed and reasoning atheists or agnostics out there who have been convinced into the Catholic Church through reading your materials? I ask this not to question your value or your quality of argument; simply as an inquiry. If so, what would be the key to that conversion? And why haven’t you sprung it on me or some of your other dialogue partners of a skeptical bent?

I agree about arguments. Probably 95% or more of Christians are not convinced because of intellectual arguments. They feel the thing intuitively or subjectively to be true.

Probably some atheists have become Christians because of my writing. I don’t recall for sure. I know that several hundred people have become Catholics, from letters received.

As I wrote recently, I think the thing most likely to convert an atheist or agnostic would be a profound act of love towards them, like saving their life. Or, secondly, something that brings them to the end of themselves, so that they surrender and reach out to God (as happened to me in 1977, with a huge clinical depression and existential despair).

Interesting! I’ve been dealing with clinical depression and despair for some time now, and I can’t say that I’ve ever found that moving me toward religion as a solution. But then, I was raised with a free-thinking (that term is just descriptive, not evaluative in any way) mindset, not a Christian mindset as you were, so vocabulary such as “God” and “salvation” wouldn’t naturally occur to me. I have a hard time imagining how anything other than myself is going to get me out of a mental state that I’ve systematically generated for myself.

I wasn’t raised in a “Christian mindset” (by my definition), but rather, a very nominally Methodist mindset. I didn’t know Christian theology from a hole in the ground. So when I converted to evangelicalism in 1977, it was a whole new thing for me, not a “renewal” of a familiar thing.

At that time, I hadn’t gone to church regularly for ten years. Even after my conversion I went to Bible studies and not church on Sunday, for another three years.

I should note, though, that my brother had been an evangelical Christian for six years before I was, so he was an influence. But I wasn’t raised in it initially. I was 13 when he converted as part of the “Jesus People” movement (long hair, former hippies and druggies, etc.).

Thus, one might argue that you stuck with what you were raised with all along because of strong conditioning, or “environment” (if we want to analyze it in that fashion), whereas I was the nonconformist and followed my own way despite my upbringing.

Conversion to Catholicism was even more radical of a move, in 1990. I knew virtually nothing about Catholicism, and had no background whatever (of any family or friends) in that. Intellectual curiosity was the primary driver in that case.

No one in their right mind who knew me in those days would have ever predicted in a million years that I would “go Catholic.” Nor would I have, myslf. But I follow truth wherever I think it leads. That’s the common thread.

One could make that argument. Of course, since what I have “stuck with” – free thinking – isn’t about content of any sort; it’s about process. It had allowed me to explore a number of religious and spiritual paths. Had I found any of them to be convincing to the exclusion of any others, I would have been quite able to stop there; but I didn’t, and I didn’t. I’ve found many of them (including Catholicism) to have ideas of value, but no convincing reason why I should stop there and wrap up my spiritual explorations.

Had I by some chance been brought up Catholic, there’s a strong probability that I would have joined the priesthood, probably the jesuits whom I’ve always much admired. 

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And I’ve had my life saved on several occasions (first as a child, by an older child when I was drowning, a couple of other occasions, and most recently a couple of years ago by my partner, from choking). My response has always been profound gratitude to the person involved, but not to any abstraction beyond that.

I should add, regarding this scenario of saving a life: it would only have “theological impact” if it was seen as a manifestation of a particularly profound love for others, which the person attributes to the grace of God in his life.

There was a scene of similar nature in the famous Christian movie and book, The Cross and the Switchblade, written by evangelical David Wilkerson. In the book was a guy named Nicky Cruz, who was a gang member. Wilkerson was trying to “get him saved” and was preaching to him and Nicky got so agitated that he said, “I’ll cut you, preacher!”

Then Wilkerson said back to him, “you can cut me in a thousand pieces and each piece will still love you.”

That cut Cruz to the quick (no pun intended) so profoundly that it led to his conversion to Christ.

This is what I mean: an act of love that seems to have an origin in the grace of God and not mere human origin. Why would someone be willing to die for a guy he doesn’t even know, who was being quite mean to him? Well, it’s the love of Jesus, that goes beyond mere human capacity or predisposition. 

This is what Jesus taught His disciples: “love one another as I have loved you.” He laid down His life for them. Thus, that is a profound manifestation of love.

And that goes far beyond any argument ever conceived.

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[A]ny religion is also a human model of some aspects of reality, constructed by human minds to achieve human purposes. But much like any scientific model, any religious model is also always going to be an approximation, within its domain – never “true” or “false” in any precise sense, but more or less useful to those who employ it.

Of course I disagree with your analysis of religion. I believe quite the opposite: not that human beings necessarily invent all religions (certainly some do invent some), but rather, that God put belief in Him inside of us, as innate knowledge (which Newman has described as the illative sense, and Polanyi as tacit knowledge). I suppose this would be a species of Platonic thought rather than the beloved empiricism.

There is no way of “proving” anything about consciousness. Consciousness is an emergent property of human bodies and nervous systems, that allows us to build up entire worlds of experience on the basis of really quite limited sensory inputs. Quite creative, indeed!

In fact, there is no way to establish the “reality” of anything. Human beings share their experiences of consciousness with each other, on the theory that they might be of use to someone else. I have no way of establishing the reality of any experience you share with me, but it might be useful.

I don’t see “spirituality” as necessarily implying “the supernatural”. There are varieties of conscious experience that relate to the physical world accessed through the senses, and varieties that relate to purely mental constructions, particularly speculations and experiences about consciousness itself. It’s the latter I’m referring to. There is simply a great deal about being human that we do not currently understand.

It is entirely possible that various “spiritual” issues and experiences will turn out on more sophisticated investigation to be physical phenomena presently unknown and/or undetectable. That would neither shock nor surprise me. It’s also possible that some are mere epiphenomena – random neuron firings of some sort. And I wouldn’t automatically reject the possibility that there are indeed super-natural processes at work in unknown ways.

The problem is that, contrary to many people’s views (including Dave) the latter is not a very helpful hypothesis for day-to-day living. It encourages dependence, reduces the incentives for inquiry, and in general minimizes human potential. But it’s equally important not to automatically reject experiences and ideas just because we don’t have immediate explanations for them.

It didn’t do that in the Middle Ages when Christian Europe produced stuff like, um, universities and modern science . . . and the monks preserved classical pagan learning by copying manuscripts.

The great cathedrals are also monuments to a “minimization” of human [architectural and artistic] potential, ain’t they?

That damned Christian belief in the supernatural ruins everything, doesn’t it?

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We trust our senses for giving us accurate information about the external world. Indeed, all of science is built upon this initial premise.

We all do that naturally. A baby can do it. Does that mean it’s not valid or trustworthy or “serious” until and unless we can fully explain it? Clearly not.

It’s only recently, in fact, that we have advanced in neuroscience to the extent that we can actually explain the particular processes that go into sight and storage of such information obtained by sight into our brains.

But we all had trusted our eyesight (and other senses) all those years before we had technical explanations of it. We had created modern science before we could “prove” all the ins and outs of sensory perception.

That kind of proposition is known as a “heuristic”. It’s a working assumption that one can’t “prove” to be true (outside of mathematics and formal logic, there is no way to establish “truth”, only falsity) but which seem to work. a statement like “the sun will rise tomorrow” is one such heuristic. We pretty much all believe that one, since it’s consistent with a lot of experience, but there’s no evidence for it apart from that accumulated experience until tomorrow morning actually arrives.

I’ve written a couple of blog columns about the idea of technology we don’t understand being more or less like magic. We’re all applied magicians, since we understand the spells and incantations and potions necessary to make something work, even if we haven’t the vaguest idea of how it works. We manipulate most of our world through such magic-based heuristics. Check this out on my blog if you’re interested.

And this is the sort of approach I’ve suggested with you: the thought of Alvin Plantinga (“properly basic beliefs”), Michael Polanyi (tacit knowledge), and John Henry Newman (Illative sense).

I love this sort of thinking because it meets people where they (some 90%) are at, and it is non-empirical (which atheists love above all) and non-positivistic. Non-intellectuals or folks who may not be able to articulate or explain to the nth degree arrive at many truths, too.

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Even more of a leap “…leap to go from “there is an uncaused cause” to “that cause is God””, and then on to “that God is the specific vision/version of God defined by the Roman Catholic Church, and any other versions are invalid”. Dave’s been trying to explain to me why that last leap makes sense, but I haven’t been able to fold my brain around it yet.

You won’t until you accept the validity of revelation: the evidences for which are of a completely different nature (legal-historical).

But the “Catholic God” is not altogether exclusive to us. In most respects, Protestants and Orthodox believe in the same God, with the same characteristics. It’s only highly abstract stuff that is controversial (temporality, process theology, etc.).

The Jewish God is also very similar, minus the trinitarian aspect. The Old Testament God is essentially the same as what we believe to be God the Father.

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Forget the Tooth Fairy; how about Brahma/Vishnu/Shiva? Or the Buddha? There are well-established academic fields at universities across Asia that would argue there’s just as much systematic theology supporting them as there is with regard to Christianity. And certainly, as previously observed, there is a vast amount of atheist scholarship and thinking and philosophizing without any divine focus at all.

I would say that the eastern religions lack the historical arguments that Christianity has. Buddha didn’t claim to be God. Buddhism isn’t monotheistic; indeed, I understand that its primary form is not theistic at all. It would say, rather, “we’re all God / gods” or “we’re all part of God.” This is a denial of the transcendence of God in Christian thought.

There is a reason why science didn’t develop in India, and did in Christian western Europe. Hinduism didn’t lend itself to scientific thinking. And for similar reasons, neither can it be defended rationally in the way that Christianity can.

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