In many of my discussions with non-believers, especially those who once were believers, I find a common thread – that christian belief does not stand up to critical analysis, and that is sufficient reason to disbelieve. And, commonly, they feel surprised, sometimes even angry, that some christians refuse to be self-critical. Recent examples include my good friend Nate at Finding Truth, and the He Is Sailing blog (see the discussion).
So should all people, including christians, always be self critical and only believe what can be shown to be true in a quasi-scientific manner? Is this the only way to know God, or to know the truth?
The problem as they see it
Nate was a christian who came to believe that errors in the Bible invalidated his faith, and wanted to share honestly with his believing family and friends. He says: “I just wanted to know more so I could get closer to the truth. I assumed my family would feel the same way. ….. But I was naive to think they would be able to critically examine their beliefs so easily.”
‘HeIsSailing’ similarly values critical thinking, and comes to this conclusion: “The way to knowledge is not to find reasons why a given idea is true. The way to knowledge is to find reasons why the idea is not true. …. gaining knowledge is not a process of propping up ideas then supporting them with any rationale. Rather, it is a process of propping up ideas, then whittling away the dead weight of the unsupportable ….”
Ways of knowing truth
The philosophers tell us that critical examination via objective physical evidence is not the only way to know truth. We can also know truth by other means.
Intuition. Sometimes we don’t have all the facts, or don’t have the time to get them, yet the human brain can often jump to the right conclusion. I have read scientists who say they intuited, or “just saw”, the right answer long before they could prove it. And the person who looked for scientific verifiability in finding an escape from a burning building would likely die, while the person who relied on intuition might at least have a 50/50 chance of making it.
Personal experience. Ultimately, everything we know has to come from our senses (or our logic) – i.e. what we experience. Our memory may play us tricks, but there are many parts of our lives and many truths that we cannot know any other way. For example, some people are wrongly imprisoned. The evidence ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ stacks up against them, and the jury members feel they ‘know’ the person is guilty, and yet the accused person actually knows they are innocent.
It works. In the real world, if it works, it’s quite likely right. For example, in environmental management, there is often insufficient time and resources to rigorously determine the correct management of a river or catchment, so we use “adaptive management’ – make the best decision we can on the incomplete information we have, monitor progress to see what works, and adjust.
Authority. I seem to be visiting doctors more and more as I grow older. I trust them. And while I ask them to explain, I never understand enough to make the decision, but must accept their expertise.
Horses for courses
It is clear then that different situations and different types of questions require different ways of knowing. We cannot just assume that the scientific way is best for all questions.
I would say all these methods are appropriate to different aspects of knowing God.
- If God exists, he can give us an intuition, especially if rigour is inconclusive and we need intuition to decide, or in a situation requiring a quick decision – see for example The day God saved my life …. perhaps.
- Who could argue when this man who was pronounced dead by an expert medical team then revived after prayer, or this opium addict, who completely came off a 20 year habit while praying, choose to believe in the God who healed them based on their experience? For more on this, see Can we trust our experience?
- Millions of christians, like this lady, have found that following Jesus ‘works’ when other lifestyles did not. It is not surprising they choose to believe.
- When faced with conflicting claims, for example, about the historical evidence for Jesus, the most sensible course of action seems to be to believe the consensus of experts who have studied the question (see Jesus in history).
Another place for rigour?
It is worth noting that those who argue for an objective, rigorous approach to the question of God, don’t necessarily apply this to other important questions. For example, many atheists are moral people who teach morality to their children – but on what basis? The objective truth of morality cannot be established by scientific thinking. The most science can do is show us how some moral choices work out, and many neuroscientists believe our ethics are subjective.
I’m not sure why they try to be moral and how they know what being moral looks like, but I suggest sometimes it is a left over from the christian culture most westerners grew up in, or perhaps an intuition – or perhaps even just that “it works”.
People are different
Finally, it is surely true to say that some people would not be rigorously analytical whether they were atheists or christians – their minds just don’t work that way. They will inevitably make their choice to believe or disbelieve on other grounds, perhaps some of those outlined above. And there is not necessarily anything wrong with that. So those that are christians believe for many different reasons, all potentially valid, though often not so clear – just as do unbelievers.
And people are not consistent, which isn’t always bad. Even the sceptics behave less analytically than they claim much of the time, fortunately. They fall in love, live mostly moral lives, have prejudices and think their own experience shows them to be right, even though these things may not have the tight logical basis they strive for – just like the rest of us do.
I am by nature an analytical person, and using critical thinking about evidence and reason will always be a major factor in my beliefs. And I recognise that some people believe silly things for silly reasons. But I think it is clear that people believe and disbelieve for many reasons, and a blanket criticism of this is mistaken.
God can be known in many ways.
So I feel Nate and HiS have overstated the case, probably with the enthusiasm of new converts, and this leads to a mistaken assessment of other people’s motives. They will doubtless disagree. Let the discussion continue!
Thanks for taking the time to write this thoughtful response. I agree with much of what you’ve written here, and I don’t want to discount the other avenues people may use to get to their respective beliefs. However, when talking about whether a particular belief is objectively true, I think a higher standard may be in order.
Christianity teaches that there is only one God — and the OT is full of examples of those who were slaughtered because they followed a different one. Even the NT says that Jesus is the only way to salvation. If that’s true, then there must be some objective way to evaluate the truth of Christianity; otherwise, God is not behaving morally.
For example, let’s say there’s someone who sees the Bible has some errors, but he remains a Christian because of his intuition, or because he had some kind of experience he can’t explain. How then do we explain the Muslim that remains in his own religion because his intuition tells him he should? Or because he had a strange experience that he attributes to Allah’s intervention? He is not going through Christ for his salvation, so according to the NT, he won’t be saved (whatever that might mean).
Is it just for this individual to be found unworthy when he has the same basis for belief that the Christian has?
That’s why I think we must be willing to ask tough questions (and receive the tough answers) about our own beliefs. We can’t just assume they’re true — we should investigate them rigorously. I’m not saying that you haven’t investigated your own beliefs, but we both know that many people do not. Why should they be saved when others are not?
Thanks again for tackling this issue. 🙂
“The objective truth of morality cannot be established by scientific thinking. The most science can do is show us how some moral choices work out…”
Since we usually disagree I thought I would agree with you. This is the strange new arena of intellectual discussion between believers and non-believers. Strangely, I am on your side.
For me, there are certain concepts that are inappropriate for the scientific method like morality and ethics. Morality and ethics have no chemical composition, no mass, no magnetism, no polarization states–they are not tangible. Science can study, measure, analyze, and describe the factors that cause sexism or racism, but it cannot say whether these actions are wrong or right; moral or immoral.
For example, science has developed drugs that can arrest breathing so that a person dies painlessly and science can tell us the metabolic effects of using these drugs, but it cannot tell us whether it is right to use them to help a person die and avoid pain.
I know why some of my comrades want science to be the ultimate arbiter of human morality but saying that science can or is the ultimate arbiter of human morality is…well unscientific.
Nate, thanks for your comment, and for your respect for other views. And I can understand why you chose to say: ” when talking about whether a particular belief is objectively true, I think a higher standard may be in order”
But my suggestion is that others don’t have to feel the same way. Do you agree that a wrongly convicted criminal can actually know that he didn’t commit the crime? i.e. while we know that it is possible that memory can be faulty, mostly when we remember things we can “know” they occurred pretty much that way. For example, we trust that your memory of your deconversion is reliable, though you and we all know that some of your memories may be vague, you broadly report what you can remember.
So the convicted man can legitimately hold on to his memory knowledge even though the police “facts” established beyond reasonable doubt suggest otherwise, and the convicted man cannot “prove” objectively what he knows. (In fact, the word “objective” is interesting here, for the man’s memory is objective to him, but subjective to the rest of us, I would think.)
If that is the case (and I’d be interested in your comment), then (assuming the Biblical stories are true for the moment) couldn’t Moses or a leper healed by Jesus, or Paul say they had a definite experience of God that is stronger than logic, proof and objective facts?
So I think these statements of yours are mistaken:
“If that’s true, then there must be some objective way to evaluate the truth of Christianity; otherwise, God is not behaving morally.”
I think rather that there must be some convincing way to evaluate the truths of christianity, whether that be objective or subjective.
“we must be willing to ask tough questions (and receive the tough answers) about our own beliefs”
This is true for people who believe, like you, that we need objective “proof”, but those who believe from personal experience would not find that helpful or necessary.
I realise in all this that you can ask questions like you do about Muslims saying similar things. But those questions don’t prevent christianity being true and Islam being less true, they “merely” show that for every true belief there are many untrue beliefs that don’t look all that different.
I personally remain committed to knowing truth as objectively as possible, but I don’t believe we are right to demand that of others who may have far stronger reasons to believe than you or I know.
“Since we usually disagree I thought I would agree with you. This is the strange new arena of intellectual discussion between believers and non-believers. Strangely, I am on your side.”
I am enjoying the new experience, Persto! : )
Yes, science can also tell us (sometimes) how different ethical decisions will turn out, but that still doesn’t tell us which outcome we should prefer. Thanks for your comment.
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