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A Commentary on Doubt

February 15, 2010

Loss of faith is necessarily personal. I have no interest in “refuting” Chris, a former Christian whose YouTube video on deconversion was featured earlier this week at the Daily Dish. The arguments for believing in God rehearsed in the video are not mine. Moreover, while it is clear to me that arguments can strengthen or hinder faith, “arguments” are not why I believe in God –- nor are they, I would contend, the sole reason Chris has lost his faith. I therefore do not offer a refutation here so much as a commentary, albeit a believer’s commentary.

Chris says he believed in God because he could not otherwise account for his observations about the world around him. That all changed, we learn in the video, as the result of one simple question from a college professor. “Do you see how it is possible,” the professor asked him, “that all of this, the entire history of religion, the entire history of the world, the entire history of the universe, and your entire religious life could have happened without God actually existing?” After walking himself and his viewers through the arguments for God he once accepted, Chris comes to realize that “all of this” is indeed possible without God.

Chris tells us that he used to believe that morality existed independently of God and could be discovered through human reason and experience. Otherwise, Chris tells us, it would “just be a meaningless expression of God’s opinions,” which might possibly include approval for rape, murder, child molestation, and other horrors. With a little help from his professor, Chris realizes that, since “praiseworthy systems of ethics” exist independently of God, the concept of God is dispensable.

There can be no denying that not all ethical systems depend on God or biblical injunctions. The reason for this is, I think, obvious: not everyone is a Christian, and no Christian is a mere Christian (not even C.S. Lewis). The world is, in fact, full of ethical systems. In philosophy, there is Kant’s categorical imperative (“act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”); Mill’s utilitarianism (seek the “greatest good for the greatest number of people”); Sartre’s authenticity (be true to yourself); and many others. To this list, one could add the ethical systems of non-Christian religions (e.g. Buddhist and Confucian), and of specific cultures (e.g. Zen Buddhism in China and Eastern Orthodoxy in Russia).

Philosophy is the only source of ethics that purports to rely on reason alone. Religion and culture tend toward intermingling, not only with each other, but with ritual, scripture, history and geography — all arbitrary by Chris’s standards. Yet Chris would do well to ask himself whether or not philosophy lives up to its promise of pure rationality. Is Kant’s categorical imperative a more “reasonable” foundation for ethics than Mill’s utilitarianism or Sartre’s authenticity? The history of philosophy, with its endless upheavals, would suggest that reason is not the sole ground of ethics (as a long line of philosophers, from the pre-Socratics on down to the postmodernists, have observed). Rather, where there is ethics, there is culture. Put another way, ethics involves people, and where there are people, there is culture.

This is true not only of philosophy’s origins, but of its transmission. Thus, Enlightenment ideals have come down to us not through Kant or Mill, but through the founding fathers. Nor is it possible to read Kant or Mill impartially; even upon returning to the origins of American political and legal theory, we could never fully rid ourselves of the historical development that has made us who we are. (A point that strict constructionists fail to grasp.) In reality, debates over gun control or abortion or affirmative action rarely involve a quest for ideological origins. More commonly, we simply take for granted notions of “rights” and “liberties” as we find them — adapted to suit the evolving needs of feminists and environmentalists, gun lobbyists and investment bankers. In this respect, Enlightenment reason itself belongs to a tradition, which is arbitrary insofar as it is historical and contingent.

It may have been “just a meaningless expression of opinion” for God to command Abraham to kill his son Isaac. But, from the standpoint of pure rationality, the West’s most cherished ideals — gender equality, human rights, and religious freedom – are also a “meaningless” (i.e. historical and contingent) expression of opinion. George Bush’s failure to spread democracy in the Middle East alone demonstrates this point, as does the recent minaret ban in Switzerland. (I am not, incidentally, making the case for cultural relativism. Relativism is a simple reversal of the rationalist error, making culture the primary thing and reason its offshoot, whereas in my view, culture, religion and reason are all interdependent.)

For Chris, belief in God is either rational or it is irrational — a seemingly fair assumption which nevertheless depends on a denial of history. Thus, Chris tells us that his belief in the Bible’s divine inspiration was shattered by the “documentary hypothesis,” by which researchers investigating the origin of the Bible discovered a “set of clear political goals that served very human purposes.” Likewise, Chris comes to realize that his own experience of God, which he had previously took to be “irrefutable,” was easily explained away as “simply a result of [his] own psychology.” What never seems to occur to Chris is that Enlightenment rationalism might itself have resulted from “clear political goals” serving human purposes – or that gravitation from one pole (faith) to another (reason) might also result from his own psychology. Nor does Chris scrutinize his assumption that political and religious ends, science and religion, and God and his “own psychology” are all irreconcilable.

Moving from the humanities and social sciences (philosophy, history, and psychology) to the hard sciences (physics and biology), Chris observes that the theory of evolution has managed to explain human origins without reference to God. In an inventive metaphor, Chris describes a scenario in which he hears a bump in his closet and decides to investigate. Initially, he might assume that an animal caused the bump. Supposing, however, that he finds a box on the floor, and no trace of an animal — whether fur, claws, or a hole in the wall — Chris says he could reasonably conclude that the box had “fell off the shelf because of natural processes like a lack of friction and gravity or the fact that the shelf was tilted.”

The metaphor is misleading. Excepting fundamentalists, few theists would claim today that the “animal” knocked the box over directly, which would amount to a figurative creationism. There is no reason, in other words, to think that the “animal” couldn’t have worked through natural forces to knock the box onto the floor. Chris is certainly right to observe that the theory of evolution is self-sufficient insofar as it does not require any help from a divine “animal.” This, however, does not mean that theism makes assumptions whereas evolution merely states the facts, but that theism and science make different sets of assumptions. (Stephan Jay Gould correctly described the difference between science and religion as one of “non-overlapping magisteria.”) I agree with Chris that St. Thomas’ First Cause argument for God’s existence is no longer convincing – but I simply do not understand what the explanation of human origins by means of evolution has to do with theism, beyond discrediting one of its weaker arguments.

Chris — I fully agree — made a number of bad arguments for God while a Christian, including the argument from First Cause; yet whereas I would get rid of the arguments, Chris gets rid of the God. This is a decision that, as I mentioned earlier, I can comment on, but would be ill advised to “refute,” since it involves something other than reason — something that Chris’s “reasons” in fact suppress: history.

Having rehearsed all of his former arguments for God’s existence (some of which I have not addressed), Chris states the principle by which he came to reject them: Occam’s Razor. According to 14th century philosopher William of Occam, “when faced with two opposing explanations for the same set of evidence, our minds will naturally prefer the explanation that makes the fewest assumptions.” To reiterate, Chris concludes that morality, the bible’s origins, and his personal experience of God can all be explained without reference to God — a concept that is, for Chris, therefore superfluous.

I have endeavored here to show that Enlightenment rationalism is no more devoid of assumptions than the theism it opposes. Rather, it seems to me that ideology succeeds by covering its tracks; by making itself seem natural and inevitable. Given the predominance of rationalist ideology in the West today, it is no wonder religious belief has undergone such dramatic decline.

Update: I have responded to reader comments in a separate post.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    February 21, 2010 9:46 am

    Ideology does indeed try to cover its tracks. That calls for those who crave honest thought to continue ever the process of uncovering those tracks. Not to leap onto whatever ideology is comfortable.

  2. seth permalink
    February 21, 2010 10:12 am

    The need for god, and the satisfaction found in belief, are emotional conditions, not rational or intellectual. The same is true of hard and soft atheism.

  3. AdamK permalink
    February 21, 2010 10:25 am

    And you have made no positive case for the actual existence of anything supernatural.

  4. Chris permalink
    February 21, 2010 10:28 am

    I thought the video was a good presentation of a standard rationalist argument against the existence of God, and I think this response is very astute in challenging some of the suppressed assumptions of that argument. But in the end, I don’t see how what anything you say here rehabilitates the idea of God.

    Let me take the point about morality as an example. The author of the video claims that morality is independent of God – or that it is possible that morality is independent of God. The point, I think it, is that God is not a necessary hypothesis for explaining the authority of morality.

    Your response, as I understood it, is that it is a rationalist illusion to suppose that we can demonstrate the authority of morality on purely secular first principles. Kant thought he could do it, but the Utilitarians disagreed and provided their own account. Sartre disagreed in turn and provided his account, and agreement thus eludes us.

    I agree with you on this specific point. There are no non-arbitrary non-theistic first principles from which we can demonstrate the authority of morality. But I would add that nor are there any non-arbitrary theistic first principles that can do the trick. And if persistent disagreement is what reveals the inexistence of secular first principles, then there is equally good reason to extend our skepticism about first principles to include the theistic.

    I guess my response to the vide on this point is to agree with you that secular reason doesn’t provide a fully non-arbitrary explanation for the authority of morality but to add that neither do theistic accounts. So I agree that there is no good atheistic argument of the form “we can explain X without God.” But there is also no theistic argument of the form “X can be explained only if we assume God”. So the whole issue is a wash. And now, I think, Occam’s Razor (or something similar: explanatory parsimony) can do its proper job.

  5. Deen permalink
    February 21, 2010 10:42 am

    This is certainly a thoughtful post, but I do not know if you have made a convincing argument. I agree whole-heartedly that even Enlightenment beliefs are historically constituted, despite original claims that they are matter of pure, universal reason.

    However, noting the existence of historical content and underlying assumptions for all belief does not justify belief in God. Some assumptions are more rationally defensible than others. We must ask whether those assumptions stand up to rational inquiry – acknowledging that rationalities have their own traditions.

    Belief in the existence of God does not satisfy the requirements self-critical inquiry and public testability of beliefs. Such belief is then highly questionable and, if it not required to explain the existence of morality, then there is not sufficient reason to do so – the principle of sufficient reason being a standard of rationality with a long history.

    In sum, it is not enough to note that all belief systems make assumptions. You haven’t made the positive case that the assumptions underlying belief in God are more rationally defensible than the those underlying naturalism. If it enough to note that everyone makes assumptions, and are therefore equally irrational, then you really have collapsed into relativism, despite your hopes.

  6. Mike Horan permalink
    February 21, 2010 10:43 am

    Until my late teens I was an intensely devout Catholic, experiencing God as a real presence in my daily life. I came close to entering a seminary after high school. But by the end of my freshman year of college, at a Catholic university, my faith had almost left me. In the years since, what was left then has gone. Why? Not because of philosophical or theological argument, as appears here and in the referenced video. It is much simpler: there is not a shred of objective evidence for the existence of the supernatural. I don’t remember the exact quote, but Arthur Conan Doyle said in reference to his belief in spiritualism that if only one event (communication with the deceased) could be proven, all else is possible. He was right in his assertion, but wrong in his interpretation of the evidence. There is not one recorded, scientifically valid, piece of evidence for the existence of anything but the physical world in which we live. There is certainly much in science we don’t understand, and more we have yet to discover, but nothing to support belief in the supernatural. Virtually all assertions to the contrary boil down to wishful thinking. I don’t begrudge others their faith when it is to them a source of comfort, as it was for me, and a force for good in the world. I do, however, resent those who push those beliefs on others.

  7. Dennis permalink
    February 21, 2010 11:11 am

    If science can explain everything that exists can it explain when time started?

  8. Deen permalink
    February 21, 2010 12:03 pm

    Good lord. A typo, an unclear antecedent and I misstated the principle of sufficient reason. I shouldn’t argue before breakfast.

  9. Paul permalink
    February 21, 2010 12:11 pm

    But what should the default position be? Rejecting Chris’s arguments against God does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that God exists any more than criticizing Obama leads to the conclusion that Palin would make a great President. Even if we were to accept your position that Enlightment rationalism is also full of assumptions, does that get us any closer to having a reason to believe God exists?

    My personal view is that belief in God necessarily requires faith, which by definition requires no evidence. Unfortunately, believers often seem to expect that their faith should constitute evidence to others that God exists.

    When we get into a discussion of evidence for an against God, the most important consideration is which party bears the burden of proof. In my opinion, it is appropriate for the believer to bear the burden of proof because the believer is the one making the positive claim (and very often using the positive claim in an attempt to direct the actions of the rest of society).

    It doesn’t take Occam’s Razor to conclude that the theists have failed to sustain their burden of proof (especially considering the contradictory positions espoused by all the various theists from Catholics, to Protestants, to Jews, to Muslims).

  10. February 21, 2010 12:40 pm

    Pardon me if I’m not reading this carefully enough, but it seems to me that this post is somewhat afflicted by equivocation between Enlightenment ideals as cultural tradition (which is contingent) and Enlightenment ideals as discovered truths (which are not). Now, it may be that those ideals are not true, and there is inevitably a multitude of ways in which our particular construction and incorporation of them is arbitrary or even mistaken, but at the end of the day, the enduring and universal part of their force derives from our belief that they express something true sub specie aeternitatis. If one grants this point, the presuppositions involved in the true parts of Enlightenment rationalism are those to which all are obligated to accede, and so Occam’s razor has nothing to pare off there.

    Put another way, if an ethical system can be justified without taking on assumptions the theist doesn’t need, then it stands as true whether or not its eventuation was historically contingent, whether there’s a God, or anything else. Evoking the messy history of an idea doesn’t automatically mean set its epistemic status equal to all the other ideas with similarly messy histories.

    So, responding to Chris should actually address inadequacies or additional considerations, both of which one would think would be easy to locate in so short a statement of skepticism.

  11. J.D. permalink
    February 21, 2010 2:35 pm

    “…yet whereas I would get rid of the arguments, Chris gets rid of the God.”

    A– I believe P.
    B– Why?
    A– Because X, Y and Z.
    B– Uh, but those aren’t good reasons to believe P. X is blatantly false, Y is probably just your imagination, and Z, even if true, just doesn’t rationally support your belief that P.

    B– Do you accept that X, Y and Z do not support P?
    A– Yeah, I guess.
    B– So do you not believe P anymore?
    A– Don’t be silly. Of course I still believe P.
    B– What? Why?
    A– I don’t know. Maybe I’ll think of something later.
    B– Uh…OK. But wouldn’t anything you came up with just be a rationalization? An excuse to keep doing what you are going to do anyway?
    A– Maybe. But hey, I’m not going to stop believing something just because I have no reason to believe it! That would be crazy!

    P = “that Jodie Foster is in love with me”
    X = “we got married last June”
    Y = “she sends me love notes via my dreams”
    Z = “in one of her movies that I saw she looked right out into the audience at me and smiled”

  12. February 21, 2010 2:42 pm

    I appreciate your thoughtful discussion, but I’m not sure what it proves. You’d be hard pressed to find an atheist who doesn’t acknowledge that Enlightenment rationalism is a product of culture and history. Rather, most rationalists prefer naturalistic rationalism as a mode of thinking because, even with its cultural baggage, it better describes the conditions in which we find ourselves and provides better answers to our questions about life (from scientific discussions of the universe to philosophical ethics). Very few would hold out rationalism as “natural and inevitable.”

    By definition, the same cannot be said of religion. Even the most moderate believer must hold some core truths of their faith to be eternal and divine rather than products of history. One simply cannot be a sincere believer in a particular faith and acknowledge that the contents of that faith arose from entirely man-made sources with (among others) political motivations, including the dominant culture. To do so would make belief in those precepts folly (I admit, from a rationalist’s viewpoint), because there would be no reason to believe that your faith is more true than any other.

    And this is where I find the author’s argument somewhat confusing. Saying that rationalism is just as contingent as religion doesn’t support religion. Quite the opposite, just as with the “atheism [or science] is just another religion” argument, the author’s thesis seems to bring religion down into the same realm as other man-made pursuits. A worthy admission from a clearly thoughtful believer. But it leaves me wondering…without arguments or a claim of divine revelation, what then DOES make you believe?

  13. wallamaarif permalink
    February 21, 2010 3:17 pm

    “My personal view is that belief in God necessarily requires faith, which by definition requires no evidence. Unfortunately, believers often seem to expect that their faith should constitute evidence to others that God exists.”

    “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” — Hebrews 11:1

    The Bible explicitly tells them that their faith is evidence. (Never mind the absurdity of claiming that something that is literally defined by its lack of evidence might be taken to be itself evidentiary proof. This is what the faithful call a “mystery,” what the rest of us call “doublespeak.”)

  14. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    February 21, 2010 5:28 pm

    Thank you all for your intelligent comments! Please see “A Commentary on Religious Doubt, Round Two” for my response (which I couldn’t fit into the thread).

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