One of the things that led me to reject atheism is the realization that most of its arguments, if true, mean that we couldn’t possibly know its true. It violates what I call “the Golden rule of Epistemology,” which means, basically, “any epistemological approach that undermines epistemology itself must be rejected out of hand.” I have a long essay written on the subject with many examples, which you can buy on Amazon. Sometimes, it isn’t an argument, per se, but a tactic, or an attitude, or approach to truth propositions, in general, that has the actual effect of undermining our ability to say that we ‘know’ what we say we ‘know.’
One of the areas that I see this frequently is in attacks on ‘religion’ based on the myriad of different interpretations that exist for different passages, and so on. This, is almost always raised in contrast to ‘science’, where, apparently, there are never different interpretations. *rolls eyes* And pretty much every atheist I’ve ever met believes that he is better than his fellow man because he is a man of science, not myth, fable, superstition, or what not. Although, I will grant that the atheists of old don’t share the same arrogance… but then, I wouldn’t have met them, would I?
I saw this line of argument recently in a similar context. As usual, the attempt is being made to distinguish one’s approach as ‘scientific’, over against the pure subjectivity of ‘religion.’ I will save my criticisms of this perspective on ‘science’ for another day, but it was one of the clearest, most direct examples of the self-defeating nature of the argument against religion, I’ve seen in awhile. The correspondent wrote:
A Bible or any written word can be made to say anything you think it says which is why there are so many different sects of Christianity and other religions based on books.
To which I replied,
I am very insulted by that comment. Why did you just call me a moron?
You can see his confusion in his next remark:
For the same reason you commented.”He seems to think that it can be made to say anything that he thinks it can be made to say.” Therefore calling everyone but you a moron for thinking different. Your words. You can choose to be insulted on not. I defend your right to feel that way as much as I defend the right not to be worried about it.
To which I replied,
Why have you now invoked the Scandinavian mud-toad to explain the existence of diabetics?
An onlooker, sympathetic to my correspondent, now chimes in…
Am I having a stroke?
I try to help him understand the situation:
Hey, “any written word can be made to say anything you think it says”, right?
But even now he doesn’t get it.
Why is [this] conversation degenerating into a Lewis Carroll nonsense poem?
The fact that this guy also doesn’t get the joke reveals, in my opinion, just how deeply entrenched this ‘attitude’ is that views words as infinitely malleable… when addressing ‘religious’ matters, and how unaware they are that if their statement was true, it would rebound onto every other matter where ‘words’ were used. So, I have to spell it out:
argument ad absurdem?
And finally one of them ‘gets it.’
Ah, I see.
Unable to help myself, I conclude:
This is no time to bring up Christopher Columbus.
My comments are ‘absurd,’ but if the proposition is true: “any written word can be made to say anything you think it says” then, well, any written word means whatever we think it means… and this can’t be limited to to religious matters, which the correspondent stated. Remember, the added phrase, “any written word” was his. Not mine.
This is not by any means the first time that I’ve encountered this line of argument, and not by any means that I’ve responded by replying with absurdities, and not the first time that I received blank looks in response. The fact that they have difficulty following their own ‘logic’ illustrates a great deal of things, some of them certainly not confined to atheists. But let’s stay on the atheist a little more, especially in light of their smug self-assurance that their own position, by contrast, is based on ‘science.’
In point of fact, very little of what they think they know is based on ‘science.’ I would be willing to bet real money that not one of them has performed even 1% of the experiments that have been conducted or 1% of the ‘analysis’ that they, in their divine discretion, consider ‘science.’ How then did they come about this knowledge, if they didn’t themselves do the experiments? Why, I do believe they read about them… or heard about them… that is, someone used ‘words’, which they in turn interpreted.
Or, to put it another way, almost everything an atheist believes as ‘science’ they actually received as ‘Revelation.’ In this sense, there is nothing all that different between an atheist and a religionist. The only difference are the priests the atheist pays homage to.
Of course, it never occurs to them that when interpreting the ‘written words’ of the accounts of these ‘scientific’ studies, that “interpretation of ‘any written word’ is infinitely malleable”, so undermining their very hope that what they just read actually correlates to reality. They may have read, “The sun is the center of our solar system” but interpreting this as “I like hot pockets” is as viable as any other possible interpretation.
Moreover, I would be willing to bet (real money) that not one of them has even read 1% of the available primary sources detailing these accounts of what we ‘scientifically’ know. What they think they know about what we ‘scientifically know’ comes to them second hand, third hand, or fourth hand. They read it in a text book, or a news article, or picked it up in a meme on Facebook. Which means that even the words they are interpreting have already been interpreted. It’s worse than the dreaded ‘telephone game’ that is supposed to have rendered the Christian Scriptures completely untrustworthy, because on their own account, what they have interpreted could very well have come about through a sequence like this:
Original scientist: “There are blades of grass in the ocean…”
Reported in a newspaper: “We found onions in Richard Nixon’s sock drawer.”
Translated into a meme: “We atheists are smarter than ya’ll.”
Finally interpreted by the given atheist, “The sun is the center of the solar system.”
By which they may very well mean, “If I know anything, its that I’m smarter than a ham sandwich.”
Of course, it isn’t actually like this, because in point of fact, it is not true that “any written word can be made to say anything you think it says…” It is an atheistic article of faith that this is true, but only vis a vis ‘religious’ words. If the principle was applied consistently, it would rebound upon all words, written or otherwise. So, they don’t apply it consistently, and in this way are able to maintain the belief that they are the ‘brights’ and we are the ‘dims.’
Well, you can guess what I think about that!
Does this mean that there are not difficulties related to interpreting language? Of course not. It just means that the epistemological challenges felt acutely by theologians–who take these challenges far more seriously than most atheists will ever know (because they don’t actually read theology, but rather get it second, third, and fourth hand)–are in some ways more pronounced in this field of inquiry rather than in others. But that doesn’t mean the epistemological challenge is unique to this field of inquiry.
Indeed, this epistemological challenge pervades all human experience. Allow this fact to sink in, and then have another run at the whole “is there a God” question, and get back to me.
If anyone did not like this post, well, its not my fault your livers wear shoes.