How do we navigate the differences between science and religion? What are the limits of rational human comprehension? What is faith and does it play a role in gaining knowledge?
None of these questions are addressed in a typical modern atheist v. theist debate.
Professional skeptics and their followers defend metaphysical naturalism, where nothing exists that can’t theoretically be observed by humans using the scientific method. The supernatural is assumed to be impossible by definition. I’ve never heard a good reason why that assumption is true, but that’s not surprising because proselytizing atheists write and speak more like stand-up comedians than philosophy professors. They present religion in its most ridiculous, most offensive form, and hope the silliness of it will “wake theists up.” They’ll pass over Erasmus and Kierkegaard and present Osama bin Laden as the world’s foremost theologian.
Most of the world’s Christians belong to churches that accept evolution as compatible with the Bible, but the atheist debater usually acts like every Christian is a King-James-Only fundamentalist creationist.
The typical atheist debater doesn’t argue against Christianity as actually practiced in the real world. When he reads the Bible, he cherry-picks verses out of the Old Testament, removes them from textual, cultural and linguistic context, and comes up with a bizarre Hyper-Calvinist tyrant God that no one on earth actually believes in. As Richard Dawkins put it in “The God Delusion,” he sees God as “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Now, real-life Christians agree with Dawkins in that if a creature like the one he describes exists, it should be rebelled against, not worshiped. In fact, most Christians agree with critiques that atheists make about religion. There’s no question that Christianity has been used as a tool of oppression and war. Good Christians follow Jesus’ lead in combating corrupt clergy and bad theology.
Too many Christian apologists play right into the atheists’ hands. I’ve seen very smart people waste their lives trying to prove dinosaurs and humans co-existed. I’ve seen otherwise good people twist common sense to justify genocide, sexism and homophobia because of their reading of a few translated verses. In their hands, love comes second to a hyper-literal parsing of every verse.
I’ve actually heard the following debate play out in real life:
The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible claimed there is a contradiction because in the King James Version, Jonah 1:17 says the prophet was swallowed by a great fish, while Matthew 12:40 says he was swallowed by a whale. A Christian apologist noted that the phrases were translated from two different languages several centuries ago, and that classifying whales as fish was scientifically acceptable until the 19th Century, and was, interestingly, the subject of the 1818 case Maurice v. Judd. The skeptic countered that there are no whales in the Mediterranean, where Jonah supposedly was when the whale swallows him. The apologist came up with a theory about a whale that swam very far, and had the names of a couple large shark species that might have included the culprit.
None of this had anything to do with the existence of a deity. If the supernatural exists, a man-eating whale is entirely possible. Arguing about fish species avoided the central issue and ignored the entire point of the Book of Jonah anyway.
There’s no way to know if any method of finding knowledge is reliable, because its reliability must be judged by its own already suspect standards or by another method’s suspect standards. It’s a frustrating situation, but that’s what we’ve got. Nothing is categorically unquestionable. Belief of any sort is a choice.
If you’re with a woman, you’re never going to be 100 percent, absolutely sure that she’s faithful and that she loves you. You might be able to make an educated guess, but we’ve all been wrong one way or another. But, if you’re going to have any sort of a relationship, you have to trust her and choose to believe her, despite reasonable doubts.
For me, it’s like that with the universe. I don’t know in a scientific sense whether there’s a god or not. I certainly can’t prove it. But if I’m going to have any sort of a relationship with the divine and the infinite, I have to choose to believe He does exist, is faithful even when it might not seem obvious, and loves me. Scientific inquiry is a way to talk to my lover and grow close.
Both the typical skeptic and the typical apologist however, are like jealous spouses who obsessively pour through Facebook photos to look for potential rivals. They need to shut off the laptop and take her out for sushi.
(originally published at The Arkansas Traveler)