In my last post I critiqued the 5 Minute Apologist Rick Cornish for his claim that “Honest, objective investigation repays our efforts with more than adequate evidence to know him [that is, to know that God exists].” I don’t dispute for one minute that some doubt in God’s existence may be borne out of an intellectually dishonest appraisal of evidence. After all, we all have our confirmation biases, and the atheist or agnostic assessing evidence for God’s existence is certainly no different in this regard. What troubles me is the unqualified nature of Cornish’s assertion, for it suggests that any failure to recognize that God exists following an investigation implies that the investigation itself was neither honest nor obective. And that is a claim that I don’t think we are able to make a priori.
What I want to do here is take note of how the person who makes this charge unwittingly finds themselves, or at least members of their own doxastic community, hoist with their own petard. (To be hoist with one’s own petard means to be injured by the very device that one was intending to use to inflict injury on others.)
The problem arises because if Cornish is right then people who engage in honest investigation ought to believe that God exists without any doubts or qualms or questions. Now let’s think about this in concrete terms. Consider Don. He engaged in what appeared to be a very honest investigation and came to the conclusion that God exists. If Cornish is right then Don ought to retain that belief at the same strength, at least insofar as he continues to be intellectually honest. Is that obviously true?
Let’s say that Don’s seven year old is diagnosed with Leukemia and dies of the disease several months later. Let’s say that throughout this ordeal we were to survey Don’s belief in God by asking him twice a day whether he believes God exists. “0” would mean that Don doesn’t believe God exists (a response consistent with both atheism and agnosticism) while 1-10 would relect the belief that God does exist with 1 suggesting a very low confidence and 10 a high confidence.
I would expect that once we gathered the data Don’s answers would fluctuate over time. Perhaps some days he may rank his belief at a 1 or 2. At some points he may answer 0, and here and there he may rank a 7, 8, or 9.
If Cornish’s analysis were correct that one’s likelihood to affirm the proposition “God exists” were directly correlated with one’s intellectual honesty, then he would end up impugning not only atheists and agnostics, but also Don on every day his belief wavered below 10.
I don’t have to tell you that this is a really terrible way to think about belief and doubt. It reminds me of the health and wellness preachers who blame people who struggle with illness as lacking the faith to make themselves well. By the same token, Cornish’s analysis would suggest that those who doubt Christian truths like “God exists” do so to the precise degree that they are intellectually dishonest. Perhaps such an analysis has some initial plausibility when applied to a generic community of atheists and agnostics. It’s implausibility is effectively revealed when we consider applying it to the grieving doubter in the next pew.
For further discussion see my article “The night Dr. Z became an agnostic” as well as You’re not as Crazy as I Think (Biblica, 2011), chapter 10, “Not all Atheists are Fools.”