27 August 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 1

True Reason is a collection of Christian apologetics, from a variety of Christian theologians (the only one with whom I am familiar is William Lane Craig, who contributed a critique of The God Delusion for chapter 2), that is postured as a response to the upsurge in atheism in the last five or six years. Y'know... people like me.

I've read several apologetics books since my deconversion – Tim Keller's The Reason for God, Francis Collins' The Language of God, and the aptly named The End of Reason by Ravi Zacharias. And yet, I'm still an atheist! I haven't found any of the arguments persuasive yet. Maybe I just haven't heard the right one yet. Maybe I'm in denial. Maybe I'm just a fool. But I'm going to give it shot and read some more Christian apologetics and see if, at the very least, their critiques of atheism represent the arguments fairly and counter them effectively. Even if the book doesn't immediately re-convert me, it will have done its job simply if it makes me take a good critical look at some of my opinions.

With that said.... on to Chapter 1, which is really more of an introduction to the book.

Chapter 1: The Party of Reason

Chapter 1 is written by Tom Gilson. I can't find much about who he is, but aside from this introductory chapter, he's simply the book's editor. I expect the meat and potatoes to be a fair bit more involved.

This introductory chapter serves to set up the book's central claim: atheists, especially the popular ones like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, aren't the reasoned ones. We, the Christian thinkers, are. Gilson goes on to cite a few examples of what he thinks is terrible reasoning on the part of atheists, and the results aren't an encouraging start to the book. He begins with a critique of Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker:
Dawkins’ skill as an author is plainly evident in this book. Although in places his reasoning seems quite a stretch— he tries, for example, to illustrate evolution’s unintelligent capacities by drawing an analogy to an intelligently designed computer program— still he makes a passionate and fascinating case for evolution.
But it was his argument against design I was looking for, and although he touched on it here and there, he never really landed on it until near the end of the last chapter: Evolution, he says, makes God superfluous, thus there is no design in the universe. That’s his argument. There is a way nature could have come about without design, therefore it came about without design.
Sigh. One of the problems with discussing faith with believers is that they generally speak from an assumption that God's existence is sufficiently established. Since when did it become any skeptic's job to disprove that the universe was designed? Nobody has to disprove things that have yet to be proved in the first place. I would argue that such an endeavor is in principle futile, because no matter what the universe looks like, you can always claim that it is precisely the way God intended it to be, and there is absolutely no way to prove or disprove such a claim. It's a tautology.

Dawkins' argument in The Blind Watchermaker is twofold: One, he shows that the indifference to suffering embedded in nature, and the inefficiencies and waste in the process of evolution, are antithetical to the idea of a God who lovingly crafts and looks after his precious creation. God, of course, could be defined in lots of different ways that don't include those particular traits, but those are characteristics commonly ascribed to the god of Christianity. Dawkins then shows that the process of evolution renders God, at best, a useless bystander. There is nothing about evolution, no gap, that needs to be filled with "God did it". The process both works and can be understood purely naturalistically.

But okay. Atheists haven't conclusively disproved that the universe was designed. If that's what it takes to undermine the argument from design, then the goalposts are already set beyond the reach of evidence or reason. We lose because the game is unplayable. Checkmate, atheists! Gilson then moves on to Christopher Hitchens's critique of the New Testament, responding:
No reputable scholar doubts the existence of Jesus; few agree with Hitchens’ radical rejection of the historical record.
Richard Carrier, Robert Price, Bart Ehrman. Bam. Three reputable scholars who reject the existence of Jesus as he is described in the Bible (the existence of a non-Biblical "historical" Jesus is another matter). And that's just off the top of my head. But so what? New Testament scholarship is a field well-populated by Christians. Saying that Christian scholars affirm the historicity of the Bible is like saying Muslim scholars affirm the historicity of the Koran. Nobody cares. Gilson doesn't actually address Hitchens' arguments, but he alludes to the idea that we'll see a more thorough rebuttal later in the book. So, we'll see.

Gilson finishes by rejecting the idea that the only justified beliefs are ones that are empirical or scientific in nature. He writes:
If I take that principle to be true, how can I demonstrate that that is true? Its truth cannot be empirically demonstrated. Yet throughout their writings, New Atheists echo this as their chief canon of reason.
I've written extensively on the importance of evidence, and a central idea in Christian philosophy is that there are "ways of knowing" that are not empirical. You can know things by intuition, revelation, or plain old strong conviction.

It's true that we all have to make basic assumptions about what our senses perceive, and about our mere existence. I can't prove my senses are accurate; perhaps everything I experience is a trick! Maybe I'm a dream of an elephant, and all that mumbo jumbo. 

But beyond such basic assumptions, all our understanding of the world is formed through evidence. And while subjective experiences can sometimes give us accurate information, they are in themselves insufficient to establish something as true or false. Empirical evidence is the only kind of evidence that is equally available (in principle) to everyone. You might claim you saw a miracle or heard God's voice, and maybe that's evidence for you – but I don't have access to your subjective experiences. If I'm to be expected to take your claims at face value, I need to see evidence equally available to us both – empirical evidence.

But I do at least agree that we atheists are making that contention. We're saying that faith, revelation, conviction, and intuition are not good enough to demonstrate something as true. They are not independently valid methods of acquiring knowledge – they must always be buttressed with empirical evidence.

[Related post: The importance of evidence]

The chapter ends there. Next up... Chapter 2: The Irony of Atheism.

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