David MacMillan (aka davidstarlingm) sent me a long response he had written to The Atheist Missionary regarding the mutual incredulity that Christians and atheists have toward one another. Given the length an provocative content, I decided to treat it as a guest post. I have included David’s text below and then offered a quick response of my own at the end.
Discussing the elements of Christianity as described in the Bible, The Atheist Missionary made the following observation:
“I don’t understand how any reasonable person can believe these things (i.e. hold them to be more probable than not), particularly a scholar like Randal who is smarter than I can ever hope to be. My continuing fascination with this paradox is what keeps me tuned in.”
I was pondering this particular paradox over lunch. How is it that two groups of people, both with significant numbers of highly intelligent, rational, educated individuals who have made significant contributions to humanity, can so vehemently disagree over what the most probable explanation for the evidence is? It seems that both sides find the other side’s rejection of their explanation baffling.
Both sides have a few predominant explanations (within their own overall worldview) for the anomalous behavior of the other side.
Atheists like Dawkins (and, to a lesser extent, Loftus) seem to prefer the approach that says “believers” uniformly make an irrational leap over improbabilities out of fear or desire or some other unreliable emotion. They then take advantage of the polysemy of the word “faith” to label all “faiths” as “leaps of faith”. The particular advantage of this point of view is that it allows the intrepid atheist to maintain the improbability of Christian claims while providing an explanation for the unexpected behavior of otherwise rational persons.
Of course, this approach is heavily called into question by Christians who don’t believe that their salvation is dependent on their beliefs — like universalists and Calvinists (technically, no legitimate form of Christianity asserts that salvation depends on belief alone, but not all Christians recognize that). Still, the atheist plows forward, ignoring the protests of Christians who point out the excellent evidence for their beliefs.
On their part, many Christians choose to explain the atheist’s rejection of good evidence by the “willful ignorance” argument: the idea that atheists convince themselves to reject the obvious evidence because of their desire to avoid moral responsibility. In support of this, they cite a few prooftexts from the New Testament epistles about individuals who reject the truth because they are afraid of it. This is an attractive argument because it allows the wannabe-apologist to claim that the Bible predicts the behavior of the irritating atheist who keeps making such uncomfortable points.
When examined critically, this notion doesn’t do much better than its “faiths are just irrational” counterpart. Atheists don’t show a general lack of moral responsibility, and so this is an unlikely motivation for their rejection of certain lines of evidence. While this explanation may potentially fit in certain cases (as in the examples given in the Bible), it certainly isn’t generally applicable. Besides, it is usually used at the end of an argument when the Christian is frustrated, bearing a distinct similarity to the Nuclear Option.
So not only do both “believers” and “skeptics” feel that the other side’s rejection of their arguments is ridiculous, but both sides also have self-serving, poorly-constructed explanations that allow them to reject the other side’s reasoning. Lovely.
I would offer a slightly less pejorative explanation for the atheist’s side. I think that the application of methodological naturalism (an approach that proves very useful in the laboratory) to history has evolved to become overly zealous.
History is replete with legends and myths and religious beliefs, but practically all religious texts can be rejected as historically inaccurate on the same grounds that ancient fiction is rejected. There is no need to apply an automatic filter of incredulity to miraculous accounts simply because they contain miracles; they already uniformly fail on the basis of nonhistoricity. Either they are set in locales that do not exist, or they are written many centuries after the fact, or they lack any detectable level of accurate detail about the setting in which they supposedly took place. I know of no religious text (other than the Bible) that passes the basic requirements of historicity even in part.
Thus, there should be no reason to insist that miraculous accounts in texts immediately discredits those texts; most texts containing miraculous accounts are discredited or unreliable on a myriad of other points unrelated to naturalism. The only exception is the Christian Bible, particularly the New Testament.
I hypothesize that accumulated distaste for Christianity in academic circles led to the over-application of naturalism to historical inquiry. Despite the fact that the Christian texts are the only texts which require a naturalistic defeater, the atheist insists that naturalism is the universal principle for discrediting mythic texts — a principle with rather noticeable circularity.
So the atheist is not willfully ignorant per se; he merely follows the pattern of those before him who arbitrarily and unnecessarily applied naturalism to historical inquiry. The only possible reason for doing this would be to exclude the New Testament from the accepted body of historical reference texts; as such, the application of naturalism to historical inquiry constitutes special pleading. But methodological naturalism has been so ingrained into the mindset of scientists (and rightly so) that its application in historical inquiry and textual criticism seems natural (no pun intended).
That’s my theory, anyway; I’ve explained the unexpected hyperskepticism of the otherwise-rational atheist. I just have one question — can the atheists come up with a non-pejorative explanation of their own conundrum?
My brief response will focus on one key sentence. David writes: “It seems that both sides find the other side’s rejection of their explanation baffling.” David takes this to be a serious problem, an explanandum in search of an explanans.
I demur for the simple reason that I don’t find the incredulity of atheists baffling. Nor do I find it particularly unusual. On the contrary, this kind of mutual incomprehension, or at least mutual misunderstanding, very common across society. Republicans don’t understand Democrats, capitalists don’t understand socialists, jazz aficionados don’t understand metalcore, Europeans don’t understand Americans, animal rights activists don’t understand deep ecologists, and atheists don’t understand Christians.
It is just one more example of people having a different process of enculturation, a different plausibility structure, a different set of personal experiences, all leading to a different data set and a different appraisal of the fundamental plausibility of various truth claims.