Thursday, April 14, 2011

Belief and Assumptions, part 3

I just finished reading a fascinating book, The Fire in the Equations by Kitty Ferguson. I've actually owned it for years but had put off reading it, thinking it would be about how "science points to God" like Lee Strobel's The Case for a Creator. What it was actually about pleasantly surprised me. The book was basically a detailed exploration of advances in modern physics, biology, and philosophy and their implications for philosophy and religion. The author explores the issues in great depth, but leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions on the existence of God and in fact chooses not to reveal her own beliefs. She explores issues that often come up in religious debates, like the origin of life and the universe and free will, and ultimately decides that the evidence doesn't point--conclusively--towards the existence or nonexistence of God. The answer is beyond our ability to prove.

The book resonated with a line of thought I've been developing for years. "Prove to me that God exists" has become a defiant challenge I've heard issued by many atheists and skeptics. Often it is met by Christians or other believers with an equally defiant "prove that God doesn't exist." What I am arguing is that this debate, this clash of intellectual brinkmanship, is meaningless. Every piece of evidence that religion has brought to bear to suggest the existence of God--the necessity of a first cause, the existence of complex life or apparent design, our consciousness or sense of good and evil--science has found at least a plausible explanation for. Likewise, try as they may, skeptics have been unable to deal a decisive deathblow to religious thought. One can hardly expect science, the study of the natural, to tell us about the existence of the supernatural. Other arguments like the existence of apparent evil in the world, while convincing to a skeptic, can be turned to point in the other direction under a religious worldview. Whatever religious/philosophical camp you're in, everything seems explainable. Depending on your assumptions, you can draw any number of conclusions from the same evidence.

Not only does the evidence make sense under your worldview, I think it has to. Our preconceptions color and shape our perceptions, guiding us to conclusions that make sense under our assumptions. This became evident to me as I was reading about scientific theories on the beginning of the universe. Apparently Stephen Hawking postulated a theory that time itself somehow "curves back on itself" as you go back in time so that the universe need not have a beginning. The Big Bang theory, once considered a powerful argument for the existence of a creator, is no longer necessarily so. Science found a way to escape from this conclusion. Far from proven, but at least plausible (if you believe in modern physics). If we only ever consider our worldview's interpretation of the information around us, it leads to close-mindedness and (I think) stagnation. If we consider other views and notice that they explain something better (a terribly subjective term) than ours, the door is opened to the possibility of growth and change to our worldview.

Okay, I was kind of surprised by how dense I was writing there. My goal is to 'level the playing field', at least a bit, in the discourse between religion and skepticism, two forces powerfully opposed to each other in American culture. Just as we Christians can claim the moral high ground on issues and use it to justify ourselves, I think opponents to religion like to claim the intellectual high ground by representing their views as reasonable, rational, well thought-out, and commonsense, whereas religion is unfounded superstition that spits upon reason. Richard Dawkins, one of the leaders of the "new atheist" movement of late, describes faith as "belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence." I think this is an unfair criticism. Yes, because no one has proved that the God of the Bible exists, Christian belief does require faith that goes beyond what the evidence can tell us. It requires us to decide to attribute our existence to the work of a Creator, our sense of 'ought'-ness to the Spirit of God in us, and evil in the world to our own inherent fallen-ness. There are other explanations for these things, but by faith we choose to believe what we believe.

But what the new atheists fail to realize is that their own position also requires faith! Their worldview is just as built on assumptions--which I have already argued are unavoidable--as the Christian one. Faced with the same questions the Christian faces, they choose the scientific, naturalistic answers instead. Their choice was not inevitable--as the lives of Christian thinkers like C.S. Lewis show, they could have chosen quite differently and lived intellectually fulfilled lives. They, too, went beyond what the mere evidence could prove in developing their worldview. As much as opponents of apologists like to point out our "God of the gaps", the fact is that those gaps exist and it's up to us to choose how to fill them--with God, science, or something else. Perhaps not consciously, but at some level, these assumptions are there. People don't like having unanswered questions--'gaps' in their worldview, and will try to figure things out from their chosen starting point.

So, ultimately, neither (and I would even say no commonly held) worldview can claim to be 'purely rational', the product of unbiased interpretation of the evidence from science and our experience. If we stick only with what the evidence directly tells us, refusing to make faith-based leaps, we won't get very far indeed--without some basic assumptions, we might not even get outside our own existence. Everyone makes assumptions and uses faith of some kind in forming their worldview, and none of us are entitled to look down on others for doing so. Now, can we please move on?

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