25 November 2016

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar - the review, part 2

Note: I'm blogging remotely from the sunny shores of Jamaica, using the Blogger app on my phone. The app kind of sucks, so unfortunately my first few posts on this book will likely have some formatting issues until I can get back to my desktop later this weekend. Til then, enjoy!

Chapter 2: God, Faith, and Testimony

Faith is a tricky subject, and one that I feel is too frequently subject to equivocation. What is faith? What does it mean to believe something "on faith", and when is it ir/rational to do so?

The second chapter begins with a cursory overview of the concept of faith. Rauser suggests that it can be held to mean either a faith, as in "the Christian faith", or it can mean something equivalent to trust. Schieber rightly opines that most non-believers would simply prefer to use the word "trust" in such contexts, but I feel he missed an opportunity to ride Rauser a bit harder. I would add that the religious concept of faith is, in my experience at least, most often used when evidence is not only absent, but unobtainable in principle.
For example, if I say that I have faith in my wife, it's a statement based on a preponderance of background evidence - her established behaviour and demonstrations of sincerity, tenacity, and trustworthiness. When a Christian claims to have faith in the truth of central tenets of their religion, they are often based on claims that cannot be evidentially substantiated - the resurrection, blood atonement, ancient accounts of miracles, etc. To then simply equate religious faith with "trust", as Rauser does ("whichever you prefer!" he quips) does a disservice to both terms.

I'm also disappointed to see Rauser use this approach as means of trivializing the difference between believers and non-believers: "There is no view-from-nowhere that allows us to test our beliefs apart from faith". Rauser is equivocating, and I think Schieber missed an opportunity to press him harder; it's true that we cannot test our beliefs apart from certain assumptions, but we can critically examine what those assumptions are and whether they're really necessary or even useful. Such awareness of the necessity and utility of assumptions is a far cry from the concept of religious faith, in which specific doctrinal beliefs are held, as Richard Dawkins famously quipped, in spite of - or even because of - a lack of evidence.

The value of testimony

Rauser has on many occasions argued that it is rational to believe in the existence of God based solely upon the testimony of others. In this discussion, the authors weave through several analogies and  qualifiers - testimony from whom, under what circumstances, etc.

I've spent quite a bit of time discussing this argument here at The A-Unicornist, and it should come as no surprise that I remain largely unpersuaded. However, I think Rauser makes a valid point: simply that in principle, one can rationally assent to theism, or even specific religious claims, based on testimony alone. In such circumstances, one would have to be unaware of defeaters that could undermine one's epistemic confidence. In practice though, I think that is a more difficult bridge to cross. Schieber rightly notes that since many non-believers are aware of "the variety and conflicting nature of testimony regarding supernatural entities in general and God in particular, most have good reason not to grant mete testimony much weight - if any at all".

Perhaps my time as a non-believer has colored my outlook, but I have a difficult time imagining any rational adult human in our modern society who is utterly oblivious to the fact that belief in God - and especially specific religious doctrines - is controversial, and who is committing to remaining in such a state of blissful ignorance by avoiding potential exposure to contrarian ideas. I certainly agree with Rauser that testimony can be viewed as a form of evidence that can in principle increase one's confidence in the likelihood of God's existence; however, the elephant in the room is that this is true of literally any and all claims about reality. I see no reason to give testimony about the God of classical theism (much less any particular doctrine of Western monotheism) any more weight than any arbitrary epistemic claim. On the contrary, given my background knowledge of theological disagreements as well as cognitive biases that may lead one to accept the testimony of others uncritically, I feel I have strong reason to be highly skeptical of religious testimony.

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — review index

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