An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 10

I'll be honest... this has gotten to be a bit of a slog. The best arguments this book has had to offer are ones that I've thought through, and found lacking, many times in the past. The worst arguments are responses to straw men – distortions or misunderstandings of the atheist point of view.

David Marshall, whose previous chapter left me unimpressed, is back for the tenth chapter which, similarly to the previous few chapters, tries to link Christianity and rationality to the degree that not only does the former follow from the latter, but the latter requires the former. And, it's pretty terrible. But I'll save the explanation for the post to follow.


Chapter 10: The Marriage of Faith and Reason

Marshall begins with the old canard that faith is just another way of knowing:
Faith is not some peculiar, mystical path to belief in things probably unreal. In fact, faith is simply one of two faculties (along with its close cousin, reason) by which we know all that we know.
Already, something doesn't smell right. In case you missed my post on it the other day, Sean Carroll penned a great piece on the problem of faith as a means to knowledge, and had this to say:
Even if your faith is extremely strong in some particular proposition, e.g. that God loves you, it’s important to recognize that there’s a chance you are mistaken. That should be an important part of any respectable road to knowledge. So you are faced with (at least) two alternative ideas: first, that God exists and really does love you and has put that belief into your mind via the road of faith, and second, that God doesn’t exist and that you have just made a mistake.
The problem is that you haven’t given yourself any way to legitimately decide between these two alternatives. Once you say that you have faith, and that it comes directly from God, there is no self-correction mechanism. You can justify essentially any belief at all by claiming that God gave it to you directly, despite any logical or evidence-based arguments to the contrary. This isn’t just nit-picking; it’s precisely what you see in many religious believers. An evidence-based person might reason, “I am becoming skeptical that there exists an all-powerful and all-loving deity, given how much random suffering exists in the world.” But a faith-based person can always think, “I have faith that God exists, so when I see suffering, I need to think of a reason why God would let it happen.”
I think Sean hits the nail on the head. But Marshall thinks that Christian faith and reason are inseparable. How does he plan to demonstrate this?
I intend, in this chapter, to describe how the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings about the “marriage of faith and reason.”
Yeah. He's gonna quote the Bible.

But he does a little better than that. He starts out by claiming that reason requires faith:
Faith must be tested by reason. But reason relies on four levels of faith for all the facts that it holds dear: faith in the mind, senses, other people, and (the question at issue between theists and atheists) in God.
Sigh. No. Marshall is confusing assumptions, which are necessary in any epistemological framework, with 'faith'. It's at best a misunderstanding, and at worst it's outright equivocation. Assumptions are, by definition, provisional. They can be tested or amended. But I'm late to the party, because Sean Carroll already hit on that point, too:
Sometimes you will hear that “science requires faith,” for example faith that our sense data are reliable or that nature really obeys laws. That’s an abuse of language; science requires assumptions, just like anything else, but those assumptions are subject to testing and updating if necessary. If we built theories on the basis of our sense data, and those theories kept making predictions that turned out to be wrong, we would examine and possibly discard that assumption. If the universe exhibited a chaotic jumble of non-lawlike behavior, rather than falling into beautiful patterns, we would abandon that assumption as well. That’s the most compelling thing about science: it always stands ready to improve by casting out an old idea when the evidence demands it.
Faith, however, is not provisional. It has no self-correcting mechanism. It's the polar opposite of rationality or reason, and it should never be confused with provisional assumptions.


The Bible 

So now, Marshall turns to the Bible.
In fact, the New Testament emphatically ties faith to reason in at least seven ways: historical investigation, rational argument, critical accounts of Jesus’ life, miraculous “signs” (which are not just psychosomatic— an anachronistic concept, anyway), prophecy, convincing depictions of Jesus’ character, and the resurrection.
I'm going to come right out and say that there's already a huge problem for Marshall, not the least of which is the fact that he's obviously gearing this toward Christians. Quoting the Bible is not generally a great way to persuade atheists about anything, because you're presuming that the Bible is actually, y'know, true.

I'm a bit torn about how to deal with the rest of this chapter, then. I dealt with a lot of the reasons why I think the New Testament is a work of fiction in my review of the movie The Case for Christ, and I've touched on various issues over the years throughout the blog. Since I was hoping this book would present something I hadn't considered before, I'm not just going to repeat myself when there's a perfectly functional search bar on the right side of the page.

Marshall quotes the Bible as though we should simply take it all at face value, even repeating the dubious claim by Paul that many living Christians had actually met the resurrected Jesus, which I talked about in the previous post (see the subsection "Reason and the Resurrection"). But unless you actually do take the Bible at face value, which you most definitely should not (again, see the movie review linked above), you're not going to be persuaded by his arguments.


And that's pretty much the chapter. He does manage to throw in one especially asinine piece of equivocation though:
Scientists, too, are blessed because “they have not seen, and yet believe.” Scientists incessantly appeal to human testimony: read Dawkins or Darwin and underline their citations of scientific work other people have done. Without faith in other people, it is impossible to do and advanced science. And even to reach and maintain conclusions from one’s own dabblings, one trusts one’s own memory, which is also human and therefore fallible.
I almost feel like it should go without saying that there are vital differences between scientific research – performed by people with years of training in their respective fields – which is open to peer review and replication (or the attempt thereof), and the kind of religious faith that David Marshall is talking about. Science rests on provisional assumptions (not 'faith' in one's senses) and is open to review and revision; faith is, by definition, not amenable to evidence. To quote William Lane Craig:
...even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit's witness.
Contrast that with what Sean Carroll said above, as well as this excerpt by Richard Dawkins, from The God Delusion:
Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief. The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not an end product of a process of reasoning. The book is true, and if the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence, not the book, that must be thrown out. By contrast, what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence. It really is a very different matter. Books about evolution are believed not because they are holy. They are believed because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence. In principle, any reader can go and check that evidence. When a science book is wrong, someone eventually discovers the mistake and it is corrected in subsequent books. That conspicuously doesn't happen with holy books. [p.319]

Comments

Popular Posts