Tonight’s entry will be the latest in an exchange of cordial blog entries between myself and Curtis Clark, an atheist. His latest, which I will be responding to, expands on my request for his thoughts on the ‘presumption of atheism.’
There are three basic parts to my response today. First on Mr. Clark’s distinction between ‘faith’ and ‘reason.’ Simply put, I do not accept it. About the only people who do accept his distinction are atheists themselves and Christians like myself sit around scratching our heads for most of us do not view ‘faith’ the way that atheists think we do. That would be fine- except when we try to correct them our correction is rejected- as if they know better what we mean then we do ourselves. I think Mr. Clark will prove the exception, so let me address it.
Except for a narrow segment within the educated Christian community and a wide segment of the uneducated Christian community, faith is understood along the lines of trust. As such, Christians try to point out that atheists also rely on ‘faith.’ I am sitting in a chair. I trust that it will not fail, or pop out of existence. I therefore have faith in my chair. No doubt the reader is sitting in his chair, too. Doing so indicates that he is exhibiting faith. There is such a thing as an unreasonable faith: if every day I sit in the chair and it collapses beneath me but every day I say “Maybe today it will hold me!” that is an unreasonable faith. If the chair has held you a thousand times in a row, it is reasonable to suppose it will hold you the thousand and oneth time.
At the very least, then, Mr. Curtis has faith in reason. As do I. But I understand that reason brings us always to a point of decision where the consequences of that decision might conceivably be other than we suppose. It is always possible that even after a thousand times my chair will break. Technically, it is even possible that all of the atoms will align and I’ll simply pass through it. Yet I sit. Likewise, faith in God is not simply the belief that there is a God, but rather trust in God. Whether or not that is a reasonable trust or an unreasonable one is a separate question but at least let us acknowledge that faith as the Christians present it is not only compatible with reason, but essential when it comes to acting on reason.
Recently Mr. Curtis said that one was never justified in inferring a supernatural cause and that we must infer naturalistic ones, always. My rejoinder to that is that this is begging the question: one could never have evidence for the supernatural because one has already established the assumption that all evidence must be construed naturally. Mr. Curtis is wavering on that, now:
I myself will tell you the same thing: If God came to me it would be less than rational to ascribe his identity to him. But I will also tell you that since the concept of “atheist” means denial of the supernatural realm, asking your question is like asking whether one would believe in sapient army ants if one showed up. Of course I would believe in sapient army ants if one showed up. It isn’t going to happen.
The obvious challenge to such a statement is whether or not his atheism is derived first from the presupposition or first from the evidence. Invoking ‘sapient army ants’ is a smokescreen- and an unfortunate one at that. Why unfortunate? Because it proves my case! How does one know that sapient army ants won’t show up? Do we know so much about the universe to know that they won’t? Surely the only way that you could actually know this is if you looked into it. If you found no evidence for sapient army ants than by all means, your later view that “It isn’t going to happen” follows reasonablly. But if you haven’t looked into it, and simply assumed that army ants can’t be sapient, then even if one did show up you would have to reject your own eyes, for after all, there is no such thing as sapient army ants! We are arguing in a circle!
Mr. Curtis, like many atheists, wants to have their cake and eat it too. They want to assert (or imply, as in this quote) that atheism is backed by evidence while simultaneously asserting that one had to interpret all evidence naturalistically, anyway. But the sapient army ant example lets the cat out of the bag. Clearly, the nature of the thing being investigated determines how we look for it. If you looked for sapient army ants at the bottom of the ocean you may very well conclude that there is no evidence for the existence of sapient army ants but we wouldn’t think much of your investigation. If instead you had looked where ants are commonly found, that would have been different. Likewise, if you’re looking for ants that are also intelligent agents, you would have in mind exactly what ‘intelligent agency’ looks like so you could recognize if if you came upon it. Looking when you already know they don’t exist isn’t looking at all!
Now God, by definition, is an intelligent entity that transcends nature and is the creator of the very system which we call ‘nature.’ As such, one tailors their investigation so that it is compatible with the thing being investigated. This is how it all started: my distinction between ‘natural revelation’ and ‘special revelation.’
That is how it started, but we need to do more clarification. My contention is that because of what we are saying God is, almost everything worth knowing about God must be revealed by God himself, and because of his relation to us, the initiative is all on Him. No telescope, not even one of infinite strength, could possibly (logically) detect God let alone uncover his attributes.
Mr. Clark recounts a very moving story of an experience he had that shook him to the core. Is this a Damascus experience? No. Is it ‘special revelation’? No. Was it from God? I think it probably was, but it is still not ‘special revelation.’ We will recall in the Damascus Experience Paul had an actual conversation with God. God told Paul things he would never have known had God not told him. This is very much what the life of Jesus was about according to Christians: God’s prolonged stay on this earth to suffer on our behalf and in doing so communicate God’s devotion, care, and love for those who have strayed away from him. You could not have known that God so loved the world had Jesus (God) said so… you could not have trusted what he said if he hadn’t backed it up with his suffering and death on the cross.
I have never had a ‘Damascus Road’ experience nor have I ever received ‘special revelation.’ I have had encounters with God since my re-conversion but none of these are the basis of my faith. My faith in God is based on his demonstrable ability to keep his promises. But the trick is that one can’t know there is or isn’t a God until one has actually looked into it. That looking cannot be burdened by the presumption that there is no God, nor can it be hindered by looking for God at the bottom of the ocean or through a telescope. One must identify how God might reveal himself, if he existed, and look there, and if it is not going to be circular reasoning, one must set aside their ‘presumption of atheism’ while looking.