Friday, January 30, 2004

Reader Mail (Reprinted by Permission)

Dear Keith

Thank you for posting the letter from the UTA alumna or alumnus on religious belief. I find in it several common confusions about the relationship between reason and faith. I'd be curious to know what you think.

First, the writer says that most things in the Bible don't have a scientific explanation. But isn't it true that we all believe many things without a scientific reason for doing so? For instance, much of what we believe we accept on the testimony of authorities we regard as reliable, whether our parents, or historians, or legislatures. One might even include our memories among the authorities we sometimes trust. What is more, as we grow and learn, we refine our criteria for trusting authorities, such that we decide that some authorities are to be trusted on certain subjects or under certain circumstances, but not on other subjects or in other circumstances. Any realistic account of belief formation must take these phenomena into account, and yet so often people who think of themselves as scientifically minded overlook the role that testimony plays in their beliefs. If we exclude this category of belief formation from rationality, then most of us lead largely irrational lives even in this scientific age, and those (if indeed there are any) who do restrict their beliefs to what can be scientifically verified probably lead very impoverished lives. Perhaps you can tell that I recently read Plantinga's essay "Reason and Belief in God". In fact, that essay incited my renewed interest in philosophy.

Second, the writer seems to take a reductionist line in the way he suggests that science mitigates against religious faith.

If science truly confines itself to natural phenomena as its base of data, it is then never in a position to apprehend supernatural phenomena (if there are any). Strict science can never say whether its failure to observe supernatural phenomena is due to the fact that there aren't any such phenomena, or to its own epistemological blind spot. When scientists encounter phenomena they cannot explain in terms of current science, they are obliged to assume that there are yet undiscovered scientific explanations for the phenomena, and to pursue those explanations under that assumption. Since I believe in a God who with few exceptions governs the universe according to the natural laws he established, I believe that this assumption is largely warranted, but it is nonetheless an assumption.

To illustrate the problem with this sort of argument against religion, Wittgenstein is said to have used the example of a group of researchers studying the fish in a pond. Using a net with a 2" mesh to drag the pond, they conclude that there are no fish smaller than 2" in the pond. (see

I do see two ways in which science can be used to argue against religious faith:

(1) it can be used to point out inconsistencies in revelation regarded as authoritative, thereby suggesting that the revelation is fallible and doesn't deserve credence (or as much credence as it claims);

(2) it can be used to suggest that there is no need to resort to God as an explanation for the natural universe, thus paring God away with Occam's razor.

There are probably other approaches from science that can plausibly be used to argue against religious faith, but these are the two that occur to me now. (1) has more promise in my mind, as there is the hope of uncovering inconsistencies that cannot be reconciled. However, many Christians consider their understanding of the Bible fallible even while they consider the Bible infallible. Thus, they are always open to improving their understanding of scripture, and it may be that arguments of the type of (1) will incite them to refine their interpretations rather than give up their faith (and it may be that this applies to believers in other religions as well). Still, (1) does have some hope of falsifying a religion. (2) seems to me worth little if the religion being criticized asserts that God ordained natural law, and that he accomplishes his will through its natural outworking as well as through whatever supernatural means he chooses. In that case, (2) seems to me rather to amount to a criticism of how particular adherents of the religion have understood the relationship of God to his creation, and unless those adherents' understanding of that relationship is the only one consistent with the faith in question, then (2) is of no force against that religion.

I think you are correct that very few people are swayed by the classical arguments [ontological, cosmological, teleological] for and against religious faith.

You write that some people find belief in a god and an afterlife comforting, and that they can't or won't face up to their mortality. While this is doubtless true, it doesn't seem to me to offer a complete explanation of religious faith, nor a cogent critique of it. Perhaps you didn't mean it that way. Some people believe a particular faith is true in spite of finding the idea of accountability to God frightening. These people might find the idea of annihilation at death more comforting than the thought of a final judgment. But I think that psychological explanations and critiques of religion (e.g. that it arises from some weakness of character in the believer) suffer from a more fundamental problem: they have no bearing on the truth claims of the religion (unless the religion makes claims about the psychological state of each and every person who professes that faith). Many of the central claims of Christianity are historical, e.g. that God brought about the redemption of his people through the atoning death of Jesus on the cross. Even if we claim that 95% of professing Christians believe solely because they derive comfort from that belief (and I don't claim that), that claim still does not touch the central claims of the Christian faith. The psychological argument against religious faith is a kind of ad hominem fallacy it seems to me.

This email has gone on long enough--much longer than I intended. I hope it hasn't been too tedious. I welcome any comments, criticisms, and suggestions, however brief. Thanks again for your interesting weblog.

Chuck Bearden

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