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Atheism, Reason and Reader Mail
by Jeremy Browning
Dec. 28, 2008 12:45

Reader Jim C. has been kind enough to share his thoughts with me over the last month and it has resulted in a couple interesting exchanges via email. I'll replay a bit of that here, along with my most recent reply to Jim's last response.

Jim originally wrote in November, replying in response to an article I wrote, titled Evangelical Atheism. Here's part of his remarks:

In short, the journey from "physics" as you put it your blog to Christ and the Bible is like the journey from kindergarten to grad school. It doesn’t come all in one day or in one simple explanation. It is a conclusion that I came to over a period of several months. I looked at all the above and then some. I looked into the historical reliability of the Old and New Testaments. I compared the biblical world view with reality and found it amazingly accurate. Eventually I came to the place where I had to make a decision. Either accept it as probably true and commit to it or reject it. I couldn’t really reject it as “rubbish” as some people seem to do because taken as a whole and in systematic order it had its points. I was not raised in the church so I didn’t have a lot of the baggage that comes with all that. I could look at Christianity fairly coldly and analytically and found it coherent, consistent and complete although I couldn’t have named those classic tests for truth at the time.

Here was my reply:

I don't think I got around to it in the article you cited, but it's not just Christian metaphysics that I'm at odds with. Christian ethics also are a mystery to me. In my life I've found plenty of reasons to be honest, kind and generous, loathing of violence and corruption without reference to the supernatural or the Bible. To my mind, there are real, clear, rational, self-interested reasons to practice virtue. I haven't had any trouble finding objective reasons to be virtuous.

I had something like a Kindergarten to College education in Christianity, in the sense that I was involved in every kind of Christian activity you can imagine for the first 20 years of my life. I'm talking about Sunday School and Christian Camps, countless sermons, Biblical studies, formal debates (at which I was cheerfully on the side of the Christians) and on and on and on. I've learned about Christianity first-hand, by watching it in practice and practicing it. And I didn't come at atheism from the perspective of someone who was jaded or vengeful of Christianity. I came at it rather by surprise. And then there was the moment of realizing what an incredible weight would be lifted from my life if there no longer was any pretending to be done.

We may have a lot in common after all, in the sense that there are countless "Gods" neither of us believes in. It's only that I believe in one less than you.

Again, Jim responded, in part speaking about the limits of reason. Here are a couple quotes from his letter:

Reason or logic is like a machine. Say a juicer. The machine has gears and levers and springs that process whatever you stick into it. I'm reminded of the crude sugar processing machines I saw in the country in Argentina and Brazil. They take the sugar cane and trim off the leaves and stick just the stock (sort of like a really long corn stock) into the machine. Some form of power turns the gears (sometimes a donkey) and out the other end comes this green/white frothy liquid that is sweet and full of vitamins and minerals. Of course if you dump a rock into the machine you will break it (the machine, that is, and maybe the rock, too).

That is what reason and logic do. They process what we put into them. We insert premises into the machine and out come conclusions. If the machine (the logic) is working right the conclusion follows from (is shown to have already been included in) the premises. All that refers to deductive logic.


Logic and reason won't tell you what is true. It is, however, great at evaluating arguments and testing the processes used to get at conclusions.
If you are into math then the analogy is that of a function like y = 5x.
Stick x = 3 in and get y = 15 out. But in and of itself the function doesn't tell you much. For that you have to go to actual empirical observation and the physical world around us. When I compare Christianity with the empirical evidence around me I find it pretty coherent and consistent and complete. The world looks like it was intelligently designed so I think it probably was. Even though you mention that there are plenty of good, objective reasons for being honest, kind and generous without recourse to a God I find that those things are greatly lacking in mankind in general and in myself in particular. Since Christianity addresses the issue of sin and corruption and does so so very accurately I tend to look at Christianity favorably.

These things are not proofs and the best that we Christians can say is that it seems reasonable to believe in the Christian worldview based on its coherency, consistency and relative completeness. I sometimes get flak from believers when I say that but that is the way it is. I also say that if someone were to show me something better (more coherent, consistent and
complete) I would be open to changing my mind. Now there is an important detail here. Perpetual indecisiveness in the face of sufficient reason is illogical and by default becomes a de facto decision.

Now, atheism is basically an argument. The conclusion is "there is no God". But what are the premises? The difficulty of proving a negative it is generally conceded to be very great and therefore many non-theists prefer to call themselves agnostics. The atheist, for example, may demonstrate that all the arguments for God are fallacious or unpersuasive but that of itself is not evidence for atheism. It may be that Christians are just not good at presenting their argument (and many aren't).

Here are some thoughts on my reading of Jim's latest letter.

I've really never understood arguments that propose to find the limits of reason or point out flaws in the concept of reason, such as Jim does when he says "Logic and reason won't tell you what is true". To my mind, it looks as if Jim is trying to convince me (via reason?) that logic and reason won't tell me what is true.

How then shall I begin to weigh the merits of Jim's statement?

Isn't Jim saying that it stands to reason that reason and logic won't tell us what is true?

Isn't he assuming I'll use reason to evaluate his statement?

Does he consider his statement to be a true statement?

Does he claim his statement is not based on reason? Then why offer reasons? Why are analogies like the juicer machine necessary?

[At this point, it's probably necessary to explain the tone of my comments. I get extremely excited when it comes to discussions of philosophy. If you speak with me in person, I sometimes raise my voice, I become animated, etc. Despite the excitement, I always try to be respectful and adult. So believe me when I tell you: I'm not angry with Jim. But I'm quite eager to respond.]

So what I'm getting at is this problem of offering reasons (which the speaker expects to be evaluated) for the supposed shortcomings of man's basic tool of evaluation.

Reason absolutely brings us knowledge of reality, and by that I mean: truth. Let me use an analogy. Engineers, after investigating the metallurgic properties of steel, conclude that a certain type of beam can support a certain amount of weight. They use that knowledge in construction of buildings, such as gymnasiums. When you sit in a gymnasium, with hundreds of pounds of metal and lights and roofing hanging over your head, you sit in peace only because the engineers used reason and logic to find out that it is true that the roof will support the weight. They didn't divine the structural characteristics of the roof. They didn't rely on faith. They knew the roof would hold because of the logic of their calculations. I touched on this in my article Skeptics, Anti-Scientists & the Walls Around Us. It's a bit rough and unrefined, but I'm still happy with the point I made in that article: namely that we live in a world where monstrous structures are held aloft above our heads and if it weren't for logic and reason, we'd be crushed to death. And yet we don't get crushed. And my point was that the practical applications of logic are quite self-evident, non-mysterious, and entirely uncontroversial in plenty of areas where our very lives depend on them.

Now for Jim's statement that, "Now, atheism is basically an argument. The conclusion is 'there is no God. But what are the premises? The difficulty of proving a negative it is generally conceded to be very great and therefore many non-theists prefer to call themselves agnostics."

I'm familiar with the problems of proving a negative. It's like saying, "What evidence would follow from the non-existence of X." For instance, what evidence would follow from the nonexistence of small, humanoid creatures on Mars? It's futile. That's clear, that's basic. I get that.

That's why the onus is not on me to disprove the existence of God. Those who make the positive claim for a being of a certain kind are responsible for bringing forth the evidence. It's like with Bigfoot. It's not everyone in America's job to disprove the existence of Bigfoot. The Bigfoot believers know that once they bring back a Bigfoot carcass that can be scientifically evaluated, their mission will be complete. Our society instinctively knows that those who make a claim are responsible for proving it.

I'll use one of Jim's techniques here and see how it holds up. Consider this response to the Bigfoot claim:

Now, aBigfootism is basically an argument. The conclusion is "there is no Bigfoot." But what are the premises?

Sure, it sounds philosophical, but does it get us anywhere? No. Because those who don't believe in Bigfoot are only responding to a claim made by others.

My atheism is a defense, a refutation. I'm not the one asserting a positive. Christians assert the existence of a being. In the face of that assertion, I respond as an atheist. But otherwise, I don't need that title too much. Until or unless I'm confronted by a Christian or another religionist, the term "atheism" isn't required. To my mind, it's redundant. And superfluous.

If there is an way to make Christianity work logically -- believe me, I've tried it. When it began not to add up for me, I went through incredible mental contortions to make Christianity jibe with reality. It just plain doesn't hold water. If you want to say phooey with logic, then that is OK -- for you.

Edited Dec. 29, 2008 12:45


log (lôg) n. a record of details of a voyage made by a ship's captain or crew