Point where I agree with many atheists

This will be a small post, and hopefully not provocative in a wrong way, but I thought that it was worth a mention.

I am wrapping up some preparation for a Bible Study tonight on one of our booklets, The Real God: Proofs and Promises, and I am reminded of a belief out there amongst some which I cannot go along with.  It is the idea that God must be believed in with a “blind faith” — that His existence is somehow something that can neither be proven or disproven.  Not only do I disagree with this, I disagree with its cousin, the belief that a religion, itself, cannot be evaluated and proven to be true or false.

It would be one thing to believe that this is a practical outcome of dealing with complex issues.  While I would still disagree, the fact is that many argue that a religion cannot be proven to be true or false (or to exist or not to exist) and so one must somehow make a blind “leap of faith.”  And, I see this stated more often than not by many who call themselves Christians than by those who consider themselves atheists.

This idea that religion or the matter of God’s existence is somehow immune to reason and really is just silly.  If you believe this, I hope that does not offend you.  You’re certainly free to call me “silly” as well–I can’t hear you, anyway.  (Or can I?…)  But it is.  And it is unbiblical.

I do not subscribe to that belief, nor even to Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” in which it is assumed that religion and science are two fields of study and knowledge that do not “overlap” in any significant way.  The fact is that all real religions make statements about reality–and even history–that must be true or false.  And as such, they are subject to verification and reason.

This may seem to contradict my frequent comments concerning the dominating role assumptions play in our understanding, bu–rather–these two things are related.  Many different geometries have been built “post-Euclid” by discarding the assumption that there exist through a point a unique line that is parallel to a given line, and those geometries have had many varied applications.  But that doesn’t mean that the assumption is not true or false in our reality, in our universe.

So, please don’t misunderstand me — I am definitely a “religious fellow.”  I do believe that God exists, that Jesus Christ is His Son, that Christ lived and died and lived again almost 2000 years ago, and that He is returning again with a Kingdom which He will rule with His saints.  But I do not claim that these things must be taken on “blind faith” — without appeal to “real life”, history, or reason.  And those who do so claim do more harm to their cause than good.  Unless, of course, I misunderstand their cause.

9 thoughts on “Point where I agree with many atheists

  1. Well, I agree with you absolutely. The theory of evolution is built on a premise that God doesn’t exist. That premise shuts down areas of investigation. Their conclusion then becomes a reinforcement of their original premise. It’s nonsense.

    One of basic laws of physics is the tendency toward diffusion. Everything moves towards a random state. If you drop a coin on the ground, then it will degrade, because the chemical reactions move the atoms toward a random state.

    The architecture of life shows the exact opposite. I don’t care how many times you drop a load of bricks, you’re not going to build a house by randomly dropping bricks on the ground. Somebody has to build the house.

  2. Hi Mr. Smith,

    Greetings! I hope your Bible study went well.

    This relates to something that I don’t think we’ve thought through very well over the years. I could write a paper on it, styled after some of Mr. Herbert Armstrong’s booklet titles: “JUST WHAT DO YOU MEAN…PROOF?” In other words, what is the real relationship between faith, logic and evidence? Without realizing it, we have equivocated on the meaning of “proof”, and that kept me confused as a “religious fellow” for literally decades.

    It’s certainly true that atheists are being either foolish or hypocritical when they claim that theism requires “blind faith”. Theism is indeed based on evidence, which is the one thing atheism can never be (but rather, only on *explaining away* evidence — talk about the need for “blind faith”). But it says something when I have to go to Protestant apologists and secular logicians to help me think through what we could’ve said as well or better ourselves. The sad part is that we’ve had some who’ve done just that, and every time they seem to have been shouted down by those who think God’s existence can be “proven” logically (as if pointing out the plain — if not all that simple — truth about faith, logic and evidence were a threat to our ability to believe in Him).

    In a strictly logical sense, atheists are RIGHT when they say that God’s existence cannot be “proven” or “disproven”. (But the same is true of atheism, and many atheists cannot or will not admit that.) True, one comes to belief in God’s existence with the aid of inference from evidence. But inference only establishes high probability, even if beyond reasonable doubt — not absolute certainty, which is what many atheists demand (however unfairly, since the one thing atheism can’t do above all is establish its own certainty). Whereas if one starts from the premise that God exists, then one can make deductions about what the real world should be like. If the premise is true, then the conclusions must be true also. But other premises may lead to the same conclusions, and any premise can seem to be “disproven” if the real-world evidence seems to be contrary to deductions from the premise (as — let’s be honest — is still quite often the case with regard to the Bible vis-a-vis the external evidence on both the intellectual and the personal levels).

    The problem becomes worse when one confuses (as we have) the different kinds of “proof” (inferential and deductive) with each other and with yet another kind of “proof” (see below), which is what we really mean most of the time when we speak of “proof” of God’s existence.

    The only way human beings have of choosing between potential axioms (articles of faith) is by Occam’s Razor: what is the simplest and the most complete explanation of the evidence — the one that makes the fewest possible untestable assumptions? On that grounds, atheism is the least fruitful of all metaphysical worldviews, theism the most. In order to demonstrate atheism beyond all doubt, one would have to have all the divine attributes himself — an obvious self-contradiction! But one can always put forward evidence that is most simply explained by biblical theism, even if “we (still) know in part” on many issues. Even so, all this only leads us to *know of God* — not to *know God*.

    That’s why faith in God (aka the fear of God) is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7) and the essence of wisdom (Job 28:28) — not the end. Theism, like atheism, is held as an axiom by people. One may come to have confidence in theism as a premise through merely human wisdom (including observation, experimentation, and inference and deduction), but (at the risk of taking Paul out of context) we still see that the world did not know God through wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:21). Genuine faith — belief in the true God in an axiomatic way — is the gift of God, not the result of human logic working on evidence gathered through observation and experimentation (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9). But after the gift, one can apply observation, experimentation, and inference and deduction so that one’s faith grows (cf. Romans 1:16-17 and all of Hebrews 11, which gives good examples of faith being held axiomatically even in the face of what seems to be contradictory evidence). Thus “the Word of God is the foundation of knowledge” — not the other way around as I submit we sometimes imply, willy-nilly.

    We must not misunderstand or misinterpret Hebrews 11:1, as sometimes we have. This verse does not say that “faith is based on evidence” (although one of the Greek words used does imply this, first and foremost on biblical evidence). It says that “faith IS…evidence” — evidence (in the sense of confidence or conviction) of things not seen, as based on the Word of God. It is by such faith (not by extra-biblical “evidence” per se, but by how faith leads to the simplest and most complete explanation of that evidence) that we understand that God created the world (and how — Hebrews 11:3).

    Sorry to be so long-winded — one thing you just don’t need is a long text to reply to. But I would be interested, as always, in your comments.

    יוחנן רכב

  3. Howdy, Mr. Wheeler —

    For the sake of time, let me reply with a shorter response than your comment deserves.

    For one, you have said many worthwhile things — thanks. I don’t think that I am quite ready to treat faith in such a purely axiomatic fashion, but your points are to be noted.

    Also, while I agree with you that the word “proof” suffers from much equivocation, at the same time I would not say that discussions of these natures are always best served by exacting specificity. As a mathematician, I have been tempted in the past to completely banish the word “proof” from common usage (at least from my usage), because few “proofs” connected in any way with reality meet the exacting standards of mathematical proof. But that would have been silly. Language rarely admits of such precision, and in engaging the greater audience, demanding such a level of precision can sometimes do more harm than good.

    I think more people can be reached by, as much as is possible, using the language as they use it (he says, hoping nothing beyond what he intends to say is read into his comment) rather than trying to convince them to alter their speech and choice of words before dialog even begins. Does it mean that there is a potential for misunderstanding at the beginning (due to equivocation and the like)? Yes. But it gets the ball rolling — generally a much harder task than redirecting it once it’s moving. And not unproductive, since it isn’t always necessary in a practical sense that we completely agree 100% on the meaning of the terms — it is often sufficient that we agree enough.

    I take encouragement in this approach from two sources: Jerry P. King’s discussion about such matters (esp. in his introduction) in his most excellent book, The Art of Mathematics (a book I cannot praise enough–an all-time favorite of mine), and from the approach we have taken for more than half-a-century in the Plain Truth, the World Ahead, and Tomorrow’s World: put it plainly. So, while there is, indeed, equivocation (both accidental and purposeful) involved with the use of the word “proof”, the real question is whether or not the current manner of use produces better fruit than that which would be produced by any other manner in which we were to use it. With those things in mind, I think all is well for the moment.

    At the same time, I also recognize that there are subsets of humanity for which a more precise discussion is warranted, and for them I think it is best to be equipped for such precision of word and phrase. After all, “all things to all people”!

    Ack! I’ve already written more than I planned.

    Thanks for a thoughtful entry, Mr. Wheeler!

    Best regards,
    Wallace Smith

  4. Dear Mr. Smith,

    To quote Treebeard the Ent in THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (the novel — here I show my irredeemable geekitude again): “You said much less than you might, and no more than you should.” And what you said was exactly what I needed to hear. Bravo!

    Unfortunately, I came from a subset of humanity that indeed needs better precision in terminology than we’ve sometimes used. No doubt the fact that I was *nurtured* by a mother who had a certain confusing combination of skepticism and superstition contributed to this. No doubt my *nature* as a scientist/artist like Dr. Sagan (according to some students of “temperament”, the most independent-minded personality type of all) contributed to this too. Finally, despite my artistry I am unusually literal-minded. I want to believe that words mean what they say and say what they mean, and have less tolerance for ambiguity in speech or in life than some.

    But I still think that a lot of people — not just scientists (most of whom, in Dr. Einstein’s words, are poor philosophers) — are confused as to the relationship of faith, logic and evidence because they have never been taught it properly (maybe that takes God’s calling and choice in the end), and their colloquial language reflects this. So we face a certain handicap when we use their own language to reach them: we can take on the color of their hidden false assumptions without knowing it.

    Of course, what you say also involves the Third Law of Semantics: words mean what people want them to mean. Dealing with a highly context-driven second language (biblical Hebrew) has helped me put the context-driven features of “plain English” into perspective. So I try these days to take in the *context* when we use “proof”, although confessedly the hyperliteral side of me still wishes we *weren’t* quite so context-driven about it. There are simple, commonly used and well-understood words we can use in its stead. Protestant apologists worth their salt use them all the time (cf. Dr. Geisler’s I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH FAITH TO BE AN ATHEIST, for example). It’s where their own theological biases get under their radar that their language becomes confusing.

    Thanks for your time and interest, as always!

    שבת שלום
    יוחנן רכב

  5. P.S.: I found early on in my Christian life that I was *forced* to treat godly faith as axiomatic — through being the gift of God, despite what extra-biblical evidence might indicate at any given time — because it was so patently obvious that simply applying observation, experimentation, and human reason neither brought me to genuine faith nor kept me in it. I understand why better now. One aspect of untreated bipolar disorder (and I was not diagnosed and treated until 1999) is that one can swing from unreasoning confidence in oneself to unreasoning lack of confidence in oneself and in everyone and everything else. Either way, one’s ability to evaluate evidence properly is stripped from the patient. Put another way, bipolar disorder — at least in me — magnifies the natural skepticism of human nature to unreasonable bounds in one direction or another. I think God has allowed this to demonstrate just how skeptical I really am by nature, even when I’m in a normal, “baseline” mood.

    I have been brought more times than I care to think about to where I have had to trust God *despite* these severe “mood swings” and the perspectives they brought to the world, because (especially in depression) I literally could not grasp any evidence whatsoever as being adequate to “prove” God’s existence or personal concern. At such times I desperately wanted the one thing the human condition can’t grant through observation, experimentation and human reason: absolute certainty about metaphysical truth. My frustration you can easily imagine, I think, even if you’ve not experienced this kind of psychiatric pressure yourself. ALL really severe trials can bring out the same longing, just in different ways.

    That’s where revelation from God (via the Tree of Life) comes in (which is why I thought Mr. Armstrong’s take on the “two trees” was so brilliant and so worth repeating). We either believe it axiomatically — we either take God at His Word, period — or we do not. We aren’t asked to believe it axiomatically APART from evidence (quite the contrary, Mr. Armstrong affirmed that observation, experimentation and human reason are necessary, just as Dr. Einstein said that “science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind”). But sometimes we are asked to do so DESPITE the evidence we have on hand at the moment (or even despite our lack of ability to evaluate evidence properly), so that God may know whether we trust Him *implicitly*. But such axiomatic confidence is no more easy for me to summon in the real world than it is for you. It is simply the goal that I aim for.

    If you feel this should not be posted publicly, I understand. But I thought that some further background would be helpful, even if for your eyes only. Take care and God bless you.

    יוחנן רכב

  6. Perhaps I didn’t follow or understand the discussion as closely as I should have. My comment could be off-track as a result.

    For me, “faith” is simply another word for “trust.” It’s not the same thing as “belief.” Since I believe that God exists, I follow this Bible stuff, because I trust Him.

    Now, I grew up in a secular home. I never saw a Bible until I was a teenager. At the time I was into logic and mathmatics, and if I had a hero, it was Spock from the TV show, “Star Trek.”

    In college I learned that evolutionary theory breaks scientific law at several points. The professor excused it by claiming that science was always gaining new knowledge. In the same fashion that Einstein changed Newton’s mechanics.

    Nonsense. Evolutionary theory convinced me that God exists. Not some religious writer. Believing in God’s existence was a matter of “belief” and not “faith,” however.

    Believing that God exists, I decided to have faith – to trust Him – by following this Bible stuff in everyday life. “Man, I don’t know about this one, but I’ll do it anyway.”

    My experience since then? I know that God exists from things that have happened to me. Faith then becomes my proof.

  7. Howdy to all of you — Mr. Wheeler, Steve, and Ed (on the follow up post) — and thanks so much for your very insightful comments. Really, I find them very beneficial.

    Mr. Wheeler — have you, by any chance, read C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea by Victor Reppert? Some of the ideas expressed there seem to put into well written words many of the things you say. Many of those ideas are not original to him, but it is a book I am reading at the moment, and certain passages reminded me of your comments.

  8. Hi Mr. Smith,

    Thanks for mentioning Mr. Reppert’s book (here and elsewhere) and for posting both of my comments. I haven’t seen the book yet, and it may be some time before I can (I am too far behind as it is), but I appreciate the reference.

    I don’t know if Steve will read this, but his comments provoke some thought. First, how can evolutionary theory convince anyone that God exists — assuming for the moment that Steve means the acceptance of said theory? Evolutionism is the handmaiden of anti-theism (of which atheism is but one variety), not of theism. Creationism is the handmaiden of theism. *Examining* evolutionary theory and seeing its fallacies — *that* could convince one that its opposite number is true. I conclude that this is what Steve actually means.

    More important is that contrary to Steve’s statement, in the Bible “faith”, “belief” and “trust” are not three different things — they are three different ways of translating the same thing and have essentially the same meaning. The New Testament Greek word is *pistos*. So if one has “belief” in God, then one has “faith” in God and “trust” in God — they are the same thing, not two or three different things. And what happens experientially as a result of our faith is a confirmation of faith, not faith itself (which is the gift of God, even if we must do our part by responding to that gift). But our experience then enables us (if we let it) to grow in our faith. And even so, sometimes faith is all the evidence we have…and all that we need…to the great astonishment of the skeptics.

    Interestingly, the New Testament emphasizes our trustfulness toward God (*pistos*) while the Old Testament emphasizes God’s trustworthiness toward us (*emunah*). Of course both Testaments speak of both things, because what Jesus called “faith” (as one of “the weightier matters of the law”) requires that God be able to trust us and vice versa. Mutual trust of this kind is one of the “seven principles of God’s government” that we’ve mentioned in the Church from time to time (just not under that general heading — that’s the title of an essay of my own).

    יוחנן רכב

  9. Howdy! Just a quick comment. Mr. Wheeler, I don’t think Steve is talking about acceptance of evolution convincing someone of the existence of God. When he said that “Evolutionary theory convinced me that God exists” it seemed to me that he was saying that seeing the failure of a naturalistic approach to provide enough explanatory was what prompted him to reject naturalism and accept God’s existence as a more plausible alternative.

    As for the belief/faith/trust issue, I do not think that your two viewpoints are wholly exclusive of each other and I would say that the words as used around us would allow enough flexibility to embrace what each of you is trying to get across. I think that the cry of the distraught father in Mark 9:24 hints at a richness present in the concept of pistos that would admit much of what both of you are saying.

    Thanks for the comments!

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