Do Religious People Have Shaky Foundations?

Are you standing on shaky ground if you’re a theist? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Recently, an article showed up at Salon.com by John Messerly. In it, the author claims that those who are religious have a shaky foundation for what they believe in and was trying to explain the religious mind. Naturally, I saw no citation of people who would consider themselves religious to ask why we really believe what we believe and think what we think. I have no doubt that many do so for flimsy and superficial reasons. I have spent much time at this blog condemning such a mindset. (You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!) I’ve long said our intellectual foundations need to be strong and we need to wrestle with the big questions of life.

The article starts by pointing to a survey stating that 14% of professional philosophers are theists. However, I do think the data is not really as conclusive. Nearly 2,000 faculty members at various institutions were asked what they thought and less than half of that number actually responded. That means more than half of them did not respond and that’s out of only the number surveyed. What institutions were asked as well?

For instance, let’s suppose that there was a survey sent to the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic university. There you’ll find Alvin Plantinga. Do you think you’ll find others like him there who are theists? Absolutely. It’s not a shock that many Christian philosophers might want to teach at Christian seminaries because they want to educate fellow Christians. Were such institutions excluded? If so, could that also not just as much show a bias? Does that mean you should only examine Christian institutions? Absolutely not! Examine all of them.

So right at the start, color me suspicious. I want to see more data.

What about the claim that 7% of the National Academy of Sciences are theists? Rob Bowman in an excellent article answering Victor Stenger nearly a year ago said the following about that:

“Assuming that’s true, how does one get into the NAS? Here’s what the National Academy of Sciences website says: “Because membership is achieved by election, there is no membership application process. Although many names are suggested informally, only Academy members may submit formal nominations.” In other words, it’s an exclusive club that decides who may even be considered for membership. According to a 2010 article in Scientific American, about 18,000 American citizens earn PhDs in the sciences or engineering every year. There are only about 2,200 members in the NAS, and no more than 84 new members are inducted each year. Even the geniuses in the NAS can figure out that its membership does not represent an adequately representative sampling of well-trained scientists.”

So again, we have the same sort of problem. If you have a good ol’ boys association, they can choose who gets in and gets out and can conclude that real scientists aren’t theists so don’t accept them. We are regularly told how Christians do this at Seminaries and such where you have to have such and such beliefs to get in the door. Does it seem ludicrous to think other people could do the same thing?

Messerly is certainly right when he says this doesn’t say anything about the truth of theism or atheism, but it could cause believers discomfort. But why? Is this supposed to be something we don’t know? For those of us who are Christians, we expect people today to not accept the Gospel just as has often been the norm. Messerly attributes the disbelief to a rise in modern science as well as claims that the traditional theistic arguments don’t work.

Well both of those need to be shown rather than just asserted.

For instance, if we are told science has disproven theism, then how? When was this done? What branch of science did it? What experiment? Can we point to a conclusive date? Now someone might ask me if science has proven theism. Absolutely not. This is not the realm of science. I happen to agree with Francis Beckwith. Science can provide interesting data and it is useful in many areas, but it is not the final arbiter on the theism debate. The arguments I use for believing in God and establishing His existence do not depend on modern science. Suppose tomorrow an eternal universe is proven beyond the shadow of a doubt,. So what? My arguments are safe. Suppose evolution is shown to be false beyond the shadow of a doubt tomorrow. So what? My arguments are safe.

Science however does make sense in a Christian context. If there’s a rational God behind the world establishing order and acting with purpose, we can expect to find his purpose. This is why so many of the scientists in the Middle Ages and beyond were Christians and never saw a conflict between Christianity and science. The supposed warfare between science and religion has been a myth foisted on us by post-enlightenment thinkers. James Hannam gives an excellent look at this myth here. You can also listen to my interview with him here.

I know a lot of atheist readers are ready to scream “Bias” at this point. If so, because a lot of them like to look at supposed bias instead of looking at the data, then how about Tim O’Neill? How does his bio on his page describe him?

“Wry, dry, rather sarcastic, eccentric, occasionally arrogant Irish-Australian atheist bastard.”

How about also a book edited by the agnostic Ronald Numbers that deals with many of these bogus claims as well? That would be Galileo Goes To Jail.

Now if Messerly meanwhile wants to say theistic arguments have failed, okay. How about listing them and going through them? How about pointing to references that show where this has happened? Peter Boghossian has done the same thing in his book, A Manual for Creating Atheists. On page 28, he says all the arguments have been refuted. Demonstration? None. The endnote he gives points to no works on the topic at all. It’s simply a statement of faith.

Which at this point is all Messerly has given.

So now we get to how to explain religious belief, and right at the get-go there’s a problem here. What is religion exactly? Does Messerly ever define it? Not at all.

So what is it? Is it something that believes in God? Does anyone want to say classical Buddhism which denies a creator is a religion? It is hard to think of something that all religions would have in common, except perhaps ethical practice, which atheists today regularly say they follow. In America, atheists even have 501c3’s for their organizations, just like various religious groups do. Could we consider atheism a religion?

If Messerly wants to say religion is problematic for smart people, it would be smart of him to tell us what exactly religion is.

But alas, it looks like Messerly has already concluded without sufficient evidence that theism is just not held by smart people so let’s treat it like an anomaly and see how it arose. Maybe it arose because people wanted social cohesion!

So let’s get this straight. Atheists that tell us how often it is that people have been killed in the name of religion and how many wars have supposedly been fought in the name of religion want to tell us that people believe in religion because it helped to provide social unity?

Chesterton wrote years ago on how Christianity was blamed for different things. It was blamed for being too pacifist by people and then it was blamed for being too aggressive and hungry for war. It was blamed for people wanting to attribute money and wealth and it was blamed for keeping us in poverty. When Christianity was blamed for both ends, Chesterton started wondering how this was possible. It was looking at Christianity then that got him to come to Christ. He would say he became a Christian based on reading the skeptics of Christianity.

Let’s also look at the three great monotheistic systems.

Judaism came first. Judaism is said to have committed genocide on the Canaanites, (though that can be disputed) and was seen as an anomaly in the Roman world. The only reason it was granted any leeway was because it was an old belief. Christianity comes next. Christians could have cohesion with themselves, but the rest of society saw them as deviant. In fact, Judaism itself saw them that way. If they wanted to create a belief for social cohesion, they went entirely wrong with that one!

And how about Islam? Islam was also deviant at the start. Why was Muhammad rejected at first? What provided the unity? Muhammad went to war and there were great benefits for being a Muslim then. You got wealth and women for instance. Now don’t we think most men would like to have those things? But do we see Islam today really providing the social unity that we see? If you want to say that people of like mind establish unity with one another, sure, but this also happens in atheist churches, which do exist, and we could say it can happen in anti-theistic scientific communities. One does not need a religion for social cohesion.

How about coming up with deities to explain natural causes? What would be good for this is if we have some evidence that this was so instead of a just-so story. (It’s amazing that those who scream for evidence so much seem to think they’re excluded from it.) Why should I think that god was made to fill in the gaps? Why not think that people were theistic at the start? Since we have found so many remnants of ancient practices that were theistic or polytheistic or animistic, shouldn’t we consider that that was the original belief? What about the work of scholars in this area like Win Corduan that also argue that monotheism was the original belief?

But alas, if you are looking for evidence for Messerly’s position, you will be waiting for awhile. It’s just a look at the start that say “The really smart people are the ones that agree with me and they say you’re wrong so now we’ll just study why you believe the way you do.” You kind of get the idea that religious people, again whatever those are, are being treated like lab rats whose strange views must be explained.

Messerly also wants to say that much of what is believed in religious circles is influenced by where we are born. This is true. Of course, many non-religious beliefs are also affected. You are more likely to believe in evolution if you grew up in the modern west than if you grow up an Aborigine in Australia. If you grow up an Eskimo, you are quite likely to believe that whale blubber is extremely healthy for you. If you grow up in a Christian culture, you are more likely to believe ethical statements like “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We could ask is it possible that if you grow up in a society that believes strongly in social conditioning, could not then be socially conditioned to believe that beliefs rise up from social conditioning? How does that belief not refute itself? Note again I do agree you are more likely to believe X if you grow up in a culture that teaches X. That says nothing about whether X is true or not and that applies to non-religious beliefs as well. Why should religious beliefs be treated differently? My same parents who taught me about Jesus also taught me about mathematics and the value of reading and the moral system that I hold to. They taught me the world really exists and that it is not an illusion and that evil is a reality in the world. Should I reject all those other beliefs as well?

We’re also told religion could result from a lack of a good social safety net. Yet how would this follow? It again never occurs to people that religious belief could develop for intellectual reasons. This is especially so since so many of us are screaming out that we believe in God for intellectual reasons. The reply is “Be quiet! That can’t be the answer! We want to find out why you really believe! We’ve already decided it’s not intellectual!” Atheistic presuppositionalism at its finest.

Interestingly, we are also told religious belief is responsible for social dysfunction resulting in homicides, incarcerations, infant mortality, teen pregnancy, STD’s, abortions, etc. Now this is quite amazing. We are told that religion is there for social cohesion and in the same article we are told that it causes social dysfunction. Once again we have the paradox of Chesterton taking place.

The reference cited in the article contains a number of straw men, including the idea that it’s important to point out that atheists can be moral without believing in God. It gets so tiring to see this straw man. I don’t know a single Christian intellectual that has argued that belief in God is necessary to be moral. We have in fact all argued against it and said that this is not the statement. It is being said instead that God provides a necessary foundation for moral truths and this is so whether one believes in Him or not. If God is real and God is necessary for moral truths to be real, then that is so. Those moral truths can still exist and be observed if one does not believe in God. In fact, Romans 2 and other passages like it make it clear that those who do not know God still have the moral law written on their hearts. Knowledge of God is not necessary for the knowledge of moral truths.

But if he wants evidence of what Christians are doing differently, he can see this piece by Brian Stewart.

As for other countries, many of these still have a Christian background. Perhaps the government is not religious, but the government is not the culture. What we need to see is what’s going to happen more and more when the background is removed and how will the country be in comparison to where it was. For saying America is a religious country, why should I really think that? Many pay lip service to Christianity here for instance, but is it really followed? Perhaps we should compare to societies in the past where Christianity was taken seriously and see what their crime rates and such were like.

We’re also told believers in scientific ideas don’t take public opinion polls to see if their beliefs are true. I would like to know though who the religious people are that determine if a religion is true by looking at public opinion polls. If I saw a poll that indicated belief in Scientology was rapidly increasing in America, does that mean I’m jumping on the Scientology bandwagon? Not at all. I need the data. For someone who is stating about not needing polls to defend a belief, why is it that he’s pointing to polls of the NAS and polls of professional philosophers and a poll indicating more people believe in the virgin birth than biological evolution?

We are told science attests to its own truth. It works. Why yes. Yes indeed.

Science works!
That’s a photo of Hiroshima after the bombing. Note that that took place in Japan which the article cited stated had very little Christian influence and Christianity is in the minority and that’s the country we were at war with. Was it a religious war? Hardly. Still, we dropped the bomb and you know what? The bomb worked! It caused the devastation it was meant to. I’m not arguing whether it was the right or wrong decision. I’m just arguing that it worked.

Did “religious people” fly the planes into 9/11. Yes. Atheists could just as easily have done the same. We could just as well say science still works when Mengele performs his twisted experiments on Jews. Science is a tool and it can be used for good or for evil. In the hands of the good, it can do tremendously good things, and this includes good people who are religious. In the hands of the evil, it can do greatly evil things, and this includes non-religious people who are evil.

Note also that for many of us who are religious per se, the claim has never been that we believe in Christianity because it works. The concept doesn’t even make sense. Works for what? Is it meant to make us good people? It does that, but that’s not the purpose. We believe in Christianity because it’s true. Interestingly, Messerly himself in the same paragraph drops this little gem.

“The simplest answer is that people believe what they want to, what they find comforting, not what the evidence supports: In general, people don’t want to know; they want to believe. This best summarizes why people tend to believe.”

Why should Messerly be excluded?

I could argue it could be very comforting to some people to know that there is not a God who is going to judge them one day. It could be comforting to know you don’t have to risk exclusion from intellectual circles for believing in a deity. Because of that then, you can dismiss the claims of evidence (You know, like saying that the arguments are unconvincing without telling why and making claims like science has disproven theism without providing evidence) and go on with your life.

Maybe Messerly wants to believe that there is no higher power and wants to believe he is one of the intellectual elite. Why not?

Let’s suppose Messerly replies saying I believe in God because I want to believe in Him. Okay. That’s false, but let’s suppose it was true. If I give intellectual arguments, how does pointing to insincere motives disprove the argument? The argument works or it doesn’t. Let’s suppose there is an atheist who wants to live a sexually promiscuous lifestyle and in doing so, knows he needs to exclude God, so he argues for evolution because he wrongly thinks that if he demonstrates evolution, then he has proven God does not exist.

Would it disprove evolution if any of us said “Well see here now! You do not believe in God because you want to live a sexually promiscuous lifestyle. Your arguments are invalid because you are believing what you want to believe because of emotional reasons.” Not at all. This is the old weak excuse of bias. The atheist could have all the bias in the world and his argument could still be true.

But people like Messerly like to point to insincere motives because it just blows their mind to think that people could believe on the basis of evidence.

So what else do we have? I think it’s important to quote this next section entirely.

“Why, then, do some highly educated people believe religious claims? First, smart persons are good at defending ideas that they originally believed for non-smart reasons. They want to believe something, say for emotional reasons, and they then become adept at defending those beliefs. No rational person would say there is more evidence for creation science than biological evolution, but the former satisfies some psychological need for many that the latter does not. How else to explain the hubris of the philosopher or theologian who knows little of biology or physics yet denies the findings of those sciences? It is arrogant of those with no scientific credentials and no experience in the field or laboratory, to reject the hard-earned knowledge of the science. Still they do it. (I knew a professional philosopher who doubted both evolution and climate science but believed he could prove that the Christian God must take a Trinitarian form! Surely something emotional had short-circuited his rational faculties.)”

A number of us can come to beliefs for non-smart reasons at the start. Suppose you believe in heliocentrism and your reason is your parents told you so. That would hardly be an intellectual reason, but then you later study astronomy and find more reasons to believe in heliocentrism. That you find later reasons for a belief you held as a child for less than stellar reasons is not a proof that you held the belief falsely.

Second, this also doesn’t explain how many people come to believe in God later on after a search and that is one based on finding evidence. What of people like Alister McGrath, John Polkinghorne, C.S. Lewis, Chuck Colson, Francis Collins, and others?

Messerly writes of the hubris of those who know little of biology and physics and yet denies the findings of those sciences. Sure. That’s a problem. Those who don’t know those areas should not argue them. What of the atheist who knows little of history and philosophy and argues Christ-mythicism and says philosophical theistic arguments do not work? Should I accept Richard Dawkins as an authority on history or philosophy? Not at all, yet how many atheists eat up his work on the topic and pass it off as Gospel?

This hubris works both ways. The difference is I’m willing to leave areas of science to those who study science. Would that atheists would return the compliment! Practically every NT scholar and ancient historian out there says it’s certain Jesus existed, yet how many atheists tout out his non-existence regularly on the internet and instead point to those who are seen as the fringe. (If you want to say ID is the fringe, you must be fair and do the same with Christ-mythicism.)

Messerly then points to a professional philosopher who doubts evolution and climate change but is convinced that he can show God must be Trinitarian. Okay. Who is he? What were his reasons for thinking such? Messerly does not tell us. Is it a crime to ask questions of biological evolution? What kind did he doubt? Did he doubt evolution without any guiding hand whatsoever? As for climate change, there are plenty today who do doubt climate change. It’s not written in stone. Meanwhile, perhaps theism is a specialty area of his. Should Messerly not follow his own advice and listen to someone who is a professional in this area? It is quite amusing to hear Messerly argue that one should listen to the professionals and then disregard a professional and claim that there must be some emotional reason. Does he give any evidence for this? Nope. It just must be there.

Could it be Messerly is just believing what he wants to believe instead of really looking at the evidence?

The next reason?

Second, the proclamations of educated believers are not always to be taken at face value. Many don’t believe religious claims but think them useful. They fear that in their absence others will lose a basis for hope, morality or meaning. These educated believers may believe that ordinary folks can’t handle the truth. They may feel it heartless to tell parents of a dying child that their little one doesn’t go to a better place. They may want to give bread to the masses, like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.”

This must be it! They’re just lying! They don’t believe the claims are true. The claims are just useful! We cannot take their words at face value.

Yes. That’s a great attitude to have. Enter the debate assuming your opponent must be lying about what he believes! He has deep emotional reasons! Okay. Let’s do that.

Messerly has deep emotional reasons for not wanting theism to be true. I do not know what these are, but hey, who needs evidence? Now he can say all he wants to that this is not so, but we cannot take his words at face value! He might present a lot of arguments, but we must realize those can’t be taken at face value because those arguments were made after the fact and are just written to support what he already believes. Truly we must study Messerly and find out what the deep emotional reason he has for not supporting theism is.

Would anyone accept this? Doubtful. Should anyone? Hopefully not. Yet this is exactly what Messerly has done. He has chosen to think that it’s more probable that people like me are lying about what we say and should not be taken at face value.

Gotta love that kind of attitude.

The next reason is control. One does not want to look bad in the face of others.

Because, dude, we all know the totally cool thing in our American society today is to say you’re a Christian! Don’t you know how awesomely we are treated? I mean, look at how respectfully we’re treated on American television and in movies. Look at how we’re proclaimed as the champions of tolerance and reason! Society just so regularly goes out and celebrates Christianity.

I wonder what color the sky is in Messerly’s world because he sure isn’t living in mine.

Moving on….

Third, when sophisticated thinkers claim to be religious, they often have something in mind unlike what the general populace believes. They may be process theologians who argue that god is not omnipotent, contains the world, and changes. They may identify god as an anti-entropic force pervading the universe leading it to higher levels of organization. They may be pantheists, panentheists, or death-of-god theologians. Yet these sophisticated varieties of religious belief bear little resemblance to popular religion. The masses would be astonished to discover how far such beliefs deviate from their theism.”

Once again, the person is not being honest. Now of course, Messerly has not defined what religious is, but perhaps the person is really a process theologian or a pantheist. Of course, these are the “sophisticated” versions of religious belief. (It’s so nice of Messerly to tell us what is and isn’t sophisticated isn’t it?) Messerly just can’t bring himself to say “Some people do believe in a monotheistic God for intellectual reasons.” There HAS to be something else. There just HAS to be.

“But we shouldn’t be deceived. Although there are many educated religious believers, including some philosophers and scientists, religious belief declines with educational attainment, particularly with scientific education. Studies also show that religious belief declines among those with higher IQs. Hawking, Dennett and Dawkins are not outliers, and neither is Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.”

So let’s get this straight. If you go to an institution of higher education where atheism is normally taught, then lo and behold, you become an atheist. This from the same person who said that religion is socially conditioned. Is it not possible that atheism could be conditioned just as much and that by intelligentsia? If you say intelligent people don’t believe in God and then exclude those who do and don’t let them teach at such institutions, what a shock that such institutions produce atheists!

This just in. Catholic Universities have a tendency to produce graduates who believe in God! Seminaries have a tendency to produce graduates that are theists! Shocking! Details at 11!

Instead, we get an appeal to popularity with people with higher IQs. Naturally, these are atheists. Again, what about people like Polkinghorne or Swinburne or McGrath or Collins? Do these people just not count? It’s really easy to make the game work in your favor when you decide what evidence you will include and only mention smart people who don’t believe in God.

“Or consider this anecdotal evidence. Among the intelligentsia it is common and widespread to find individuals who lost childhood religious beliefs as their education in philosophy and the sciences advanced. By contrast, it is almost unheard of to find disbelievers in youth who came to belief as their education progressed. This asymmetry is significant; advancing education is detrimental to religious belief. This suggest another part of the explanation for religious belief—scientific illiteracy.”

Anecdotal evidence. Now if a believer stands up and gives a personal testimony, that’s anecdotal and not accepted, but when an atheist stands up and gives a personal testimony of how he abandoned theism and came to be an atheist, that is not anecdotal and that works. It looks like many atheists just can’t seem to escape a “religious” mindset and want to give a a personal testimony. All Messerly needed after this section was a YouTube clip of “Just as I am” for all ready to deconvert.

And as for scientific illiteracy, yes. We can be sure that Francis Collins, Alister McGrath, John Lennox, and John Polkinghorne must simply be scientifically illiterate. Could it be the problem of atheism is that too many atheists are philosophically and historically illiterate? Why assume that science is the supreme arbiter? Has Messerly given any argument for that?

“If we combine reasonable explanations of the origin of religious beliefs and the small amount of belief among the intelligentsia with the problematic nature of beliefs in gods, souls, afterlives or supernatural phenomena generally, we can conclude that (supernatural) religious beliefs are probably false. And we should remember that the burden of proof is not on the disbeliever to demonstrate there are no gods, but on believers to demonstrate that there areBelievers are not justified in affirming their belief on the basis of another’s inability to conclusively refute them, any more than a believer in invisible elephants can command my assent on the basis of my not being able to “disprove” the existence of the aforementioned elephants. If the believer can’t provide evidence for a god’s existence, then I have no reason to believe in gods.”

Of course, we naturally have the natural/supernatural dichotomy, a belief some of us question. Interestingly, the same article that says that these polls do not indicate the truth of a belief system and that scientists don’t go to polls to establish belief, has now used those same polls and said that religious belief is probably false. It’s just so amusing to see this take place.

Naturallythere’s the claim that the burden of proof is on the believer always. Why should this be so? How about this bizarre idea? Anyone who makes a claim should have a burden of backing it. If I make a claim of theism and can’t demonstrate it, that does not prove theism is false, which is the claim that Messerly is making. If he makes the claim of atheism and cannot back it, does that prove theism is true? Nope.

Oh. He might be tempted to say that atheism is not about denying God but rather is a lack of God-belief. Not going to work.

“Atheism is the position that affirms the non-existence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief.”

William Rowe The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy p.62

“Atheism, as presented in this book, is a definite doctrine, and defending it requires one to engage with religious ideas. An atheist is one who denies the existence of a personal, transcendent creator of the universe, rather than one who simply lives life without reference to such a being.”

Robin Le Poidevin Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion p.xvii

Of course, the burden of proof argument is one too many atheists like to make so they can make the theists do all the work and feel justified at the end of the day since they don’t have to put forward actual arguments. Thankfully, there are atheists who do not accept this, but on the internet, they are too often in the minority. The simple solution is that anyone who makes any claim has the obligation to back that claim.

“In response to the difficulties with providing reasons to believe in things unseen, combined with the various explanations of belief, you might turn to faith. It is easy to believe something without good reasons if you are determined to do so—like the queen in “Alice and Wonderland” who “sometimes … believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” But there are problems with this approach. First, if you defend such beliefs by claiming that you have a right to your opinion, however unsupported by evidence it might be, you are referring to a political or legal right, not an epistemic one. You may have a legal right to say whatever you want, but you have epistemic justification only if there are good reasons and evidence to support your claim. If someone makes a claim without concern for reasons and evidence, we should conclude that they simply don’t care about what’s true. We shouldn’t conclude that their beliefs are true because they are fervently held.”

Of course, one wonders what things unseen are being talked about since many of us believe in things unseen. I believe in triangularity. I have never seen it. I have seen examples of triangularity in triangles, but I have never seen triangularity itself. I have never seen morality or goodness itself. I have seen things that are good and moral, but not goodness and morality. I have never seen numbers. I have never seen existence itself. I have seen things that exist, but never existence. I have also never seen laws of nature. I have seen things acting according to so-called laws of nature, but I have not seen the laws themselves.

Is Messerly a total nominalist?

But yet, Messerly again goes to faith, a favorite canard of skeptics. Does he show any understanding of faith? Nope. He just assumes his definition. Meanwhile, some of us have a counter-definition of faith. Messerly assumes that it is belief without reason or evidence, but this is a nonsense claim. No one can truly believe anything without reason or evidence. It could be poor reason or insufficient evidence or some other combination, but it is still some reason and some evidence.

“Another problem is that fideism—basing one’s beliefs exclusively on faith—makes belief arbitrary, leaving no way to distinguish one religious belief from another. Fideism allows no reason to favor your preferred beliefs or superstitions over others. If I must accept your beliefs without evidence, then you must accept mine, no matter what absurdity I believe in. But is belief without reason and evidence worthy of rational beings? Doesn’t it perpetuate the cycle of superstition and ignorance that has historically enslaved us? I agree with W.K. Clifford. “It is wrong always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Why? Because your beliefs affect other people, and your false beliefs may harm them.”

Yes. The cycle of superstition and ignorance. It’s so amusing that those who complain about emotional reasons for belief often give their own emotional reasons. Could Messerly point to this time of superstition and ignorance? Will he use the Dark Ages myth dealt with already in the links above?

“The counter to Clifford’s evidentialism has been captured by thinkers like Blaise Pascal, William James, and Miguel de Unamuno. Pascal’s famous dictum expresses: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” William James claimed that reason can’t resolve all issues and so we are sometimes justified believing ideas that work for us. Unamuno searched for answers to existential questions, counseling us to abandon rationalism and embrace faith. Such proposals are probably the best the religious can muster, but if reason can’t resolve our questions then agnosticism, not faith, is required.”

Of course, the people he cites as responding to Clifford first off, have all been dead for decades so he points to no contemporary replies, and in fact, Pascal had been dead long before Clifford was even born. How was Pascal replying to Clifford then? Pascal was hardly anti-evidence either. He did base a lot on a personal experience, but he was also a champion of reasoning and a genius in his time with many inventions including in the area of mathematics. To base all of Pascal’s arguments on one statement of his is frankly dishonest.

Messerly also says these statements are probably the best religious people can muster. Probably the best? Probably? How about going out and actually interviewing people who are “religious” and intellectual and even believe in monotheistic deities, you know, those less sophisticated forms of religion, and see why it is that they believe what they believe? How about reading their works and grappling with their arguments?

But for someone like Messerly, this is not required. Just pull up three different people and assume that represents the whole of theistic defense and then say that’s the best. There is no interaction with an Alvin Plantinga or William Lane Craig or Richard Swinburne or Edward Feser. Could it be that an anti-religious person like Messerly is just comforting himself with what he wants to believe. For someone who says you should not believe based on insufficient evidence, and he’s totally right in that by the way, it looks like he gathered insufficient evidence to believe what he believes about religious people.

Like too many of the anti-religious, it is foreign to the mind of Messerly to talk to modern scholars in the field who actually hold to theistic belief and ask them why they believe. Of course, if he did, he would just say he couldn’t take what they say at face value anyway so he always has an out.

“Besides, faith without reason doesn’t satisfy most of us, hence our willingness to seek reasons to believe. If those reasons are not convincing, if you conclude that religious beliefs are untrue, then religious answers to life’s questions are worthless. You might comfort yourself by believing that little green dogs in the sky care for you but this is just nonsense, as are any answers attached to such nonsense. Religion may help us in the way that whisky helps a drunk, but we don’t want to go through life drunk. If religious beliefs are just vulgar superstitions, then we are basing our lives on delusions. And who would want to do that?”

If religious answers are untrue, yes. They’re worthless. So it is also with non-religious answers. If they’re not true, they’re worthless. Yet it is those of us who are said to be “religious” who need to comfort ourselves. Could I not just say that Messerly writes a piece like he does because he needs to get social approval from his anti-religious kin and provide comfort and try to convince himself? I could, but I would have insufficient evidence, yet this does not stop Messerly from doing the same kind of thing to his critics.

“Why is all this important? Because human beings need their childhood to end; they need to face life with all its bleakness and beauty, its lust and  its love, its war and its peace. They need to make the world better. No one else will.”

It is strange that Messerly ends this piece talking about things unseen. Has he seen bleakness and beauty? I don’t doubt he’s seen things he calls bleak and things he calls beautiful, but has he seen the things themselves? Does he have a material measurement by which he can measure beauty? Could he take some beauty and put in a jar for me and scientifically study it?

How about lust and love? Why not be consistent and believe like the Churchlands do? There is no love or lust. It’s all just chemical reactions taking place. If Messerly wants to point to an unseen reality called love, perhaps he should give some evidence that it exists, unless he just has faith.

And we need to make the world better? What does that mean? Has he given evidence of this unseen thing called good? As for making the world better, the article by Brian Stewart shows that Christians are doing just that. Many of us who happen to believe in another world treat this world so seriously because it is the creation of God and it is to be treated as a great good that He has provided.

By contrast in atheism, what about what Bertrand Russell said?

“Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Or someone like Alex Rosenberg who when answering questions in his book says

“Is there a God? No.

What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

Does prayer work? Of course not.

Is there a soul? Is it immortal? — Are you kidding?

Is there free will? Not a chance!

What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no difference between them.

Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.”

Interesting with those last bits since we were just told about how religion makes those worse and a modern atheist like Rosenberg says “anything goes.”

In conclusion, Messerly is just writing from the position of atheistic presuppositionalism not wanting to actually engage in any arguments and hand wave away that which disagrees with him. It would be nice to see Messerly do some real research asking contemporary minds what they believe and why they do, but we know he will just not take them at face-value. He has reached his conclusion already and who cares what the future data is.

And of course, too many internet atheists will eat it all up.

Perhaps those who are believing what they want to believe could actually be in the other camp.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

7 Responses to “Do Religious People Have Shaky Foundations?”

  1. Dawn Says:

    Sorry to nitpick here but I can’t help it 🙂
    It is easy to believe something without good reasons if you are determined to do so—like the queen in “Alice and Wonderland” who “sometimes … believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

    First, the title is “Alice IN Wonderland”. And, second, it wasn’t in “Alice in Wonderland”. The white queen who could believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast was actually in “Through the Looking Glass” – For someone so scientifically based, shouldn’t he at least make sure of his quotes?

  2. Mark Richmond Says:

    Wow reading this was a chore- I am not as sharp as you and therefore I had to read and re-read. But the fundamental thing I got from it was the thing I think I have realized for ages with highly intellectual atheists- that when you break down their arguments they self contradict and they seek a moralistic high ground right away so their own view is not scrutinized the way they are scrutinizing Christianity. Is that about right? The snotty tone and other deprecating words and tone seem to be utilized to disarm the believer at the beginning and if that doesn’t work then the personal insults begin (that’s been my experience at least)

  3. Joe Foster Says:

    Excellent. Your best blog entry to date, in my opinion. I’m saving this one for future reference. Very nicely done, indeed.

  4. labreuer Says:

    Nice work, Nick! Were I to have written something like this, I think I would have been a bit more pedantic to provide less “attack surface” to the quibblers, but I didn’t see any main points that I thought were wrong. Yeah, I spend a lot of time thinking of how to make perfectly rigorous arguments because internet atheists love to quibble instead of tackle the real issues…

    Consider the following ‘further reading’. I’d love to get any input you have; much of what you say is on my high-priority list to learn and understand ever-better.

    “The simplest answer is that people believe what they want to, what they find comforting, not what the evidence supports: In general, people don’t want to know; they want to believe. This best summarizes why people tend to believe.”

    First, I want to know what scientific evidence John Messerly has for this hypothesis, and how he has tried to ingeniously falsify it. It sounds like he could have assumed this instead of concluded it, but that’s just a guess—he simply isn’t clear enough.

    Second, Wayne C. Booth provides a wonderful attack against this kind of thinking in Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent (around p49). Nick, you clearly know some of what Booth argues, for you said things that parallel what he does. You might like enhancing your knowledge on this point, for Messerly’s claim is a powerful mythological element in the atheist’s tool belt. It doesn’t matter if it lacks consistency: people simply aren’t all that consistent.

    Messerly also wants to say that much of what is believed in religious circles is influenced by where we are born.

    See Tomas Bogardus’ The Problem of Contingency for Religious Belief. As you correctly observed, Messerly conflates (i) how you come to belief with (ii) how you justify belief. There is an obsession these days among some atheists that one never adopt beliefs except when they’re fully justified by some Method. This is nonsense; there is no Method and every scholar worth anything knows this these days. It may have been avant-garde when Paul Feyerabend wrote Against Method, but now it’s so well accepted that died-in-the-wool naturalist Penelope Maddy accepts it on page 1 of Second Philosophy: A Naturalistic Method. Anyone who knows anything knows that trust must frequently precede verification/​justification.

    We could ask is it possible that if you grow up in a society that believes strongly in social conditioning, could not then be socially conditioned to believe that beliefs rise up from social conditioning?

    I suggest a read of Noam Chomsky’s The Case Against B.F. Skinner for some more detail on this argument. I can’t pick out anything specific, but I have a hunch that there is more atheist argumentation out there that quite well pattern-matches onto B.F. Skinner’s ideology, such that Chomsky’s critique is valid.

    Did “religious people” fly the planes into 9/11. Yes.

    I’ve just started William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict and so far it’s fantastic. His thesis is that the distinction between ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’ are socially constructed in order to legitimate the nation-state as superior to religion. The ultimate version of this is that it is good and correct for people to die for their country, but incorrect and evil for them to die for their religion. This idea of ‘religion’ as a bogeyman was literally a myth that became reality; one of the fundamental aspects of power is that it lets you define reality (see Bent Flyvbjerg’s Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice and James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World).

    “Why, then, do some highly educated people believe religious claims? First, smart persons are good at defending ideas that they originally believed for non-smart reasons. They want to believe something, say for emotional reasons, and they then become adept at defending those beliefs.

    Slight problem: this sounds unfalsifiable. Science is defined as the sole, all-encompassing enterprise for discovering what is true. By definition, religion is not engaged in discovering what is true. Therefore, religious belief cannot be used to aid in scientific endeavors in any [rational] way. But why ought I accept this person’s attempt to carve up reality this way? Maybe only some forms of religious belief do this: can Messerly even entertain this possibility, or has his dogma blinded him?

    There’s another problem, here: the scientific renunciation of teleology. Of course this isn’t consistent, because the only way to actually define ‘science’ such that it captures all effort we want to think of as ‘science’ is teleologically: “That which helps humans understand and manipulate reality better and better.” Putting that aside, anytime you hear science defended because it is ‘reliable’, there is the question: “Reliable for what?” That is, ‘science’ ends up being whatever accomplishes someone’s purposes. And yet, one of the major aspects to many religions is to challenge one’s purposes. There’s nothing inherently unscientific about this in the sense of ‘irrational’; instead such questions are merely defined to be ‘out of scope’. Why would that be? Well, I suspect it is so that certain questions are not allowed to be asked.

    So, what Messerly is really arguing, I think, is that religions are antithetical to what he wants, because (among other things), he doesn’t want his purposes to be questioned. Sure, he can complain about ‘blind faith’, but you and I both know that such a thing is not unique to religion. Indeed, I’m not sure it can be shown that religion increases one’s tendency to have ‘blind faith’. I’ve never seen such a study—have you? All I’ve seen is studies of correlation, as if that gives any confidence of causation.

  5. Ian Wardell Says:

    I read the linked article. In response I wrote an essay which people might be interested in. It’s concerning the reasonability or otherwise of an afterlife rather than God though. I’m currently writing another essay about the latter:

    http://ian-wardell.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/science-afterlife-and-intelligentsia.html

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: