In the last week or so I had two exchanges where the debate turned on why the atheist/agnostic was demanding a higher level of scrutiny for ‘religious’ claims than other kinds of claims. In one of the cases, the really odd thing is that the person(s) had admitted that science, being limited as it is to the natural order, is unable to touch the supernatural and yet continued to say that science nonetheless remains the best way to learn about the world. This is not coherent. When pressed, in this case they again admitted that science couldn’t prove or disprove the supernatural but continued to insist that we use science to investigate the question. Truly, this world leaves me scratching my head.
In the course of this conversation I believe the real objection was expressed. I have heard this objection recently as well and it is not uncommon. Simply put: if the religious claims be true, then this entails a necessary change in attitude, beliefs, and behavior, and as such they demand higher scrutiny. If religious claims succeed on ‘ordinary’ scrutiny that is not enough. Ie, even if one could demonstrate on standard historical methods that it is more likely that Jesus really did rise from the dead than that Socrates existed and was poisoned to death, it wouldn’t matter.
It is a twist on the old ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ gambit except here we aren’t talking about something intrinsic to the claim (which is subjective) but rather intrinsic to the response if the claim be accepted.
Using techniques like this, atheists can escape any argument. Here you see that the way is open to concede as likely that Jesus really rose from the dead- at least when evaluated on standard historical methodology- and still reject it. It is at times like this that I remind myself that Jesus did say that no one can come to him unless he draws him…
But what of their argument? In the first place, I’d like to point out that in contrast to the standard atheistic talking points, the ones imposing a ‘special’ kind of study are the atheists. It is the theist (me) demanding that we use only the epistemological tools common to all men as employed in our every day life. You thought that it was the Christian saying, “You’ve got to view this through religious eyes!” But it isn’t. It is the atheist saying that, here.
In my view, a truly objective approach to the supernatural and ‘religion’ in general must rest on our common toolbox or else we can always wonder that we were deceived. If we invoke ‘special’ methods to get places we can always wonder if the invocation is ad hoc, whereas we entrust our lives to the common methods.
What I am saying is that atheists would have us use methods regarding ‘religious’ matters that they wouldn’t trust to safely get them across the street.
In the second place, I fear that the argument is a smokescreen. A well meaning one, but a smokescreen. If the idea is that your beliefs may change your entire outlook on life, and consequently how you live that life, and thus these beliefs require ‘extraordinary scrutiny’ shouldn’t it follow then that the beliefs that drive your current outlook on life- and consequently how you live that life- are also subject to ‘extraordinary scrutiny’?
In other words, doesn’t this argument- if valid- actually return us to the ‘common toolbox’? If so, can these atheists/agnostics sincerely tell me that they’ve thoroughly considered their current belief system to the extent that they feel they are justified in changing their behavior and their ‘life’? I ran out of time to press the point. I suspect the answer is “no” because in the case I have been dwelling on they insisted that their atheism/agnosticism must be the default view. That sounds to me like they’re acting as though their ‘presumption of atheism’ comes pre-installed.
I challenged that and would challenge it more if I had the time. At the very least, some 6 billion people have ‘religious’ beliefs of some kind. Their own view would seem to be an anomaly. Moreover, we agreed that science is great for deciding what temperature water boils and thus deriving an understanding of what the natural laws are but that it is useless in telling us why the natural laws are what they are. If one is trying to decide if there is a law-giver, it is hardly sufficient to content oneself only with codifying the laws encountered.
In conclusion, all of us are living our lives and if there is any ‘default’ it is that we will go on living, generally independent on what beliefs we adopt. Whether one adopts a Christian outlook or an atheistic outlook, a great deal of our daily living really is not much different, resting as it does on certain pragmatic necessities. But it is worth saying that if you are going to demand ‘extraordinary scrutiny’ to ‘religious claims’ because they lay claim on the way you live your life, you had better be darn ready to do the same with whatever beliefs you’ve already got- since you are living your life on something as it is.