Recently an atheist stumbled upon my site and in the course of corresponding with him I have discovered that our different points of view aside, he is a gentleman that I can have a conversation with. His site is called The Academy of Metaphysical Naturalism and he recently put up a post responding to a post on my own blog on the distinction between ‘natural’ revelation and ‘special’ revelation. Normally I try to direct correspondents to my discussion forum but in this case, an atheist who has actually announced that I am a rational thinker, I must make an exception!
The reader has all the information in the links above to follow this exchange, if they like.
In my blog entry I indicated that many atheists won’t be convinced by anything less than their own ‘Road to Damascus’ experience. Mr. Clark responds:
I should say not. Atheists don’t believe such revelations are possible, because the cause of them does not exist. Any person who could possibly be looking for a “revealed” revelation would be a fence-sitting agnostic. By definition, an atheist knows there is no god, in the sense that all the resolutions of logic one has in one’s mind is what he “knows.” This is sometimes called “justified true belief,” as opposed to “unjustified.” The justification comes from the soundness of the argument.
Theists “know” God exists. Atheists “know” he does not. Each of them has found the soundness, the justification, within his own logic that to doubt it would be to doubt his own mind. To go looking for a revelation implies that one knows nothing either way, and perhaps has no beliefs one way or the other.
I think Mr. Clark is here engaged in an unnecessary discussion on what constitutes an ‘atheist.’ As he most certainly knows, there are different ‘kinds’ of atheists, including what we construe in technical terms as ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ atheists. I am aware that ‘strong’ atheists often think of ‘weak’ atheists as actually being agnostics. Other atheists are ‘negative’ atheists, asserting that they don’t have a belief that there isn’t a God, but rather simply a lack of belief. My problem as an apologist is that these issues are largely an internal matter among atheists but each atheist insists on telling me what atheism absolutely is! It is hard to see how this internicene conflict will end: unlike Christianity which in theory at least has a static set of documents to limit how the term can be stretched, ‘atheism’ reduces, ultimately, to each individual atheist’s perception of atheism.
Anyway, I recently had one instance that refutes the general claim. A certain atheism on my forum, when I asked if he agreed that revelation would be a useful tool for compensating for ignorance regarding a putative objective moral code, said, “You’re asking me whether if god came to visit me (like some amplified Jehovah’s Witness) and explained the whole thing, then would that change my opinion? Uh, yes.“
Perhaps the hang up is my phrase ‘looking for.’ I freely admit that many atheists are not ‘looking for revelation’ which I think is actually the problem. Mr. Clark is resting his disbelief on the ‘soundness of the argument’ but I maintain that a single contrary fact is enough to put an argument to bed. Quantum indeterminancy has undermined many of the deterministic arguments of the previous centuries, for example. This would require a long conversation with Mr. Clark to flesh out but let me just say that its difficult to imagine how God could possibly meet the burden of demonstration many atheists expect him to fulfill if they would immediately discount the evidence if it was actually provided.
I have now laid out a lot of assertions that would require several nights over several beers to defend but if this is already getting long. 🙂
One thing I’m beginning to admire about sntjohnny is that he seems to have an understanding of naturalism that is better than that of many naturalists. But his understanding of naturalists themselves isn’t as discerning. No naturalist who is also atheist has any justified true belief in either kind of revelation. The naturalist who believes in “natural” revelation is not an atheist. The person who believes in “revealed” revelations is not a naturalist.
Well, obviously the naturalist wouldn’t see the natural order as revelation about God. This is not the language that I would use if my only audience were philosophical naturalists, but my audience is wider than that. The phrase ‘revelation’ can still be rehabilitated, though, because if one wants to get to the bottom of just what reality is all about, than they are going to have to rely on more than just introspection. They’ll have to open their eyes and let the universe around them ‘tell’ them about itself. You cannot deduce the law of gravity. For that you must drop an object and allow it to ‘reveal’ its speed as it rushes to the earth.
So, when we ‘open our eyes’ to let reality speak for itself, what conclusions do we draw? I maintain that we rely on the conclusions that others have drawn for most of the conclusions that we ourselves draw. In other words, most of what we think we know we only know because others have revealed it to us. Sifting through ‘revelation’ is not foreign to our experience. Now, what if the question at hand is whether or not there is more to physical reality? Here, I maintain that logical argumentation, one way or another, has limited value. Ideally, whatever is the ‘more’ would have to reveal itself to us to learn anything truly interesting.
Atheists may not be looking for evidence of revelation but my contention is that they ought to be, and that they ought to do so without prejudging the issue, because that would be circular reasoning.
It is really not a very controversial position. The most efficient way of finding out if I like coffee or not is for me to tell you (I do). It is no good presuming before the investigation that I can’t possibly like coffee, so revelation to the contrary must be summarily dismissed. Similarly, if the question is whether or not there are extraterrestial entities out there, then clearly our best chance of finding out is if they’ve made efforts to reveal their presense to us (or Sagan’s “Contact” and the SETI project are ridiculous). They understand that the only good way to find out is in fact to go looking for revelation. If they believed already, on argument alone, that extraterrestial entities didn’t exist, and then set up SETI, any data they received would be discounted because of their prior conclusion. Of course, if SETI knew that there were not extraterrestial entities one supposes they wouldn’t even bother looking.
Those examples are not that much different than the question of God. The differences would be where and how we’d look for the revelation, just as one looks for extraterrestial revelation differently than one looks for revelation about one’s drinking preferences. As long as one has a plausible reason for looking in the first place then it is perfectly reasonable to ‘look.’ The presence of a billion and a half people who believe that God actually came to earth at one time is certainly a plausible reason to examine the claim. Decide that the claim is false, if you like, but I insist that concluding it is false because you already know such things can’t happen because you already know there isn’t a God is just not reasonable.