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Nathan Gilmour (Christian Humanist podcast) and Pastor Rob Dyer join Mark and Wes for to discuss the reasonableness of religious belief reading:
- Antony Flew, "The Presumption of Atheism" (1976)
- Norwood Russell Hanson, “The Agnostic’s Dilemma” (1971)
- Steven Cahn, "The Irrelevance of Proof to Religion" (1969)
- Alvin Plantinga, “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” (1981)
- Merold Westphal, "Sin and Reason" (1990)
- Basil Mitchell “Faith and Criticism” (1994)
- Peter van Inwagen, "Clifford's Principle" (1994)
- William Alston "Experience in Religious Belief" (1991)
- Richard Swinburne, "The Voluntariness of Faith" (1981) and “The World and Its Order” (1996)
- Paul Helm, "Faith and Merit" (1999)
These were all published as the final chapter of the Oxford reader edited by Helm, Faith and Reason.
What is reasonableness, and is it compatible with religious faith, if we take "faith" to mean accepting a claim without evidence? Clearly, there are smart, thoughtful people on both sides of the issue, but why should that be, if one could glean correct opinions about religious matters from our shared experience of the world? Or if the evidence is insufficient either way, aren't there still some standards of reasonableness we can appeal to for what the wisest course of action to take is when we don't have sufficient evidence?
We start with Flew, who compares the situation to a court of law, where we presume innocence; likewise, we should presume atheism. Cahn tells us why believers don't care about proofs for the existence of God. Hanson thinks we would all accept as proof of God if He appeared before us publicly, which means we treat His existence as an empirical proposition and should't remain agnostic any more than we suspend judgment about never-observed physical phenomena like egg-laying bats. Westphall argues that original sin means that there is no "natural light of reason" that would allow us to objectively determine without revelation anything out religious matters.
In the second half, we focus on the critique of evidentialism in Basil Mitchell's “Faith and Criticism” (1994), Peter van Inwagen's "Clifford's Principle" (1994, from his "Quam Dilecta"), and Alvin Plantinga's “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” (1981). We consider briefly how mysticism plays into the idea of private experience counting as evidence with William Alston's "Experience in Religious Belief" (1991), and then we consider whether you can will yourself to believe (or not) by considering "pragmatic faith" in Richard Swinburne's "The Voluntariness of Faith" (1981) and editor Paul Helm's strange rebuttal in "Faith and Merit" (1999).
For a breakdown of each of the twelve(!) readings that we covered, read the topic announcement.
End song: "Let Us Meet," a new recording of a tune written in 1994 by Mark Lint, setting a poem by Kim Casey (later Linsenmayer) to music.
mark roddy says
I have a problem with believers like for example christians who believe in a god that “appeared”, but claim that the evidence argument is irrelevant.. Seems to be a dishonest argument where what they believe depends on what argument is being made.
I have a problem with the episode having both guests on the same side of the fence. Where is the balance? Why not have someone else on the show with an opposing view? There has been so much bagging of people like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett on this show but they, or anyone like them, never get a chance to defend themselves or give their point of view. Instead, for example, it’s believers and Wes alike taking things like Descartes’ ridiculous argument for the existence of God seriously. It would have been great if you had the two theists plus two non-theists. God gets taken way too seriously on this show and needs to be taken down a peg or two.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Head-on collision is not, I think, the best way to get insight into anyone’s views.
I think that the entire show has a presumption of atheism (listen to our Kierkegaard episode if you question that), and so an episode like this (like the recent ones on Ricoeur and Jesus) is an attempt to expose ourselves to a world-view that’s fundamentally foreign to us. You should look on these guests as themselves constituting more texts that we tried to cover on the episode.
We’ve covered plenty of Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, and other atheist luminaries without crapping on them for their atheism in the least. As described on our New Atheists episode, I think that they’re involved in a political rather than philosophical enterprise, one that I fundamentally agree with even if I may quibble with the particular arguments they use. If anyone in our audience wants to step up as a potential guest with a good potential reading (or set of readings, though 12 was too goddamn many for this episode), I’d be happy to consider them. That’s how we found these two guys, and that’s always going to lead to a better discussion than my just reaching out to someone who’s never heard of PEL (e.g. clear atheist David Brin). At this point, I can’t see getting someone from the atheist society or whatever on to critique Plantinga or whoever else like that we might read, much less reading more New Atheist texts, as resulting in anything particularly interesting, but please, someone step up and argue me out of that position! (Note that last year at this time we had Luke M. from Common Sense Atheism on our AI episode with Nick Bostrom.)
I have invited Sam Harris on the show (recently; he didn’t reply to my email). We have Hume on natural religion and Spinoza arguing against traditional theology on the list.
Fair enough Mark. I hear you and I’m glad that you’ve invited Sam Harris on the show. Do you think Wes will be around for that episode if it happens? It just annoys me when I hear stuff like “your life will be better if you accept Jesus” or they talk about “the Lord Almighty God” and neither host says a word when all that is to me is meaningless white noise. These people not only don’t know whether a god exists or not, they have gone further than that and believe in a particular one. How did they come to believe in the Christian God and not in others? I would argue family and/or geography.
Even if you say it is rational to believe in the notion of a god, which I wouldn’t, surely it’s not rational to fully characterize that god and make specific claims about that god. At that point you are implicitly rejecting other specific gods, whose believers have just as much claim to being rational about the belief in their god. At that point you are just making stuff up.
Anyway, all I’m saying is that if you are going to ask the question “Is Faith Rational?” then, if you don’t want confrontation but you do want balance, you should have two episodes, one with a couple of theists and one with a couple of atheists. Otherwise it just becomes a Hallelujah discussion.
John Yetter says
I think that your approach of non-combative questioning is brilliant, and that looking across episodes you have allowed a strong representation of many thoughtful perspectives. On the political side, Charlie Rose takes a very similar approach, asking questions and listening to perspectives, even when he may not agree with them. There are too many screaming heads in the media and on the web, and I appreciate you not contributing to the tumult.
Marc Burock says
This was perhaps the most level-headed critical discussion about Faith and God on the Internet! I think Wes gave a better philosophical argument for faith in God than either of the believers, and I would have liked to have more of Wes’ insights and comments. Great closing comments Wes (not the part about meeting women).
The main argument of the guest was that “these arguments against God don’t resonant with me, they don’t get into me,” which from a philosophical standpoint is not particularly convincing to those who don’t believe.
I’d like to pitch a text to PEL near to this topic, titled “From Religion to Philosophy” by F.M. Cornford. In this 1912 book, Cornford, an acclaimed Classical Philologist, traces the written history of Greek religious concepts of God, Soul, and Law to the begins of philosophy and natural science. The grandfather of western philosophy, Thales of Miletus, immediately announces that the ultimate ‘nature’ of all things is water, and the universe is alive–‘has soul in it’–and is full of spirits or Gods. But where did these philosophical speculations come from? Certainly not from simply observing natural phenomena with the senses, nor by reflecting upon inward self-reflective experience. Cornford traces the origins and history of these claims, and argues that the most significant truth about the universe, according to ancient Greek religious conceptions, is that the universe is portioned out spatially into a general scheme of allotted provinces or spheres of power (law givers), where this partitioning is associated with the Greek word Moira. Think about the Homeric Gods, each in a sphere of power. Science arises as certain mythical elements are removed from Moira, where the partitioning becomes an atomism in the limit, while the Law giving aspect becomes separated, becoming Natural and Moral laws. But all of this arises out of early religious representations. The rational and the religious arose out of the same broth, and there may be a necessary connection between faith and reason that defies any simplistic rational analysis.
The book is free online. Also, Cornford is a great writer.
For the record, I’d describe myself as a ‘spatio-temporal skeptic’ who is humbled before the mysteries of existence. On questions of God, I take an extreme believing apophatic position, meaning I will deny every proposition about God yet agree God is a meaningful concept, and yes, I am contradictory, but I am not agnostic.
god save us from the tea-readings of philology, there are actually good neuroanthropological/evolutionary reasons for thinking that it was something along the lines of “simply observing natural phenomena with the senses…reflecting upon inward self-reflective experience”
for a slightly overwrought discussion of the evolutionary account vs a theological account see:
A favorite on this podcast is Nietzsche, a well-known philologist; and almost every major philosopher after the Greeks is well-versed in ancient Greek philosophy and language, so hastily dismissing philology as tea-reading–at least on this podcast/site–is rather short-sighted.
A major problem with evolutionary theorizers beyond studying physical structures and adaptations, and neuro-X scholarship, is that these people do not spend enough time getting their concepts clear in a philosophical sense before they begin theorizing about the said topic. With regard to evolutionary theories of religion, for instance, it is very difficult to rigorously pin down a religious concept that ought to be amenable to evolutionary theorizing. Most of religion today, and concepts of God, are complex socio-cultural constructions that took root over the past 2000 years, where the forces of culture, language, politics, and whatever shaped these concepts more so than any evolutionary force involving differential reproduction. I’d say that evolution, as a biological force, has very little to say about today’s Christian God, and it would take a lot of work (like Cornford’s) to pin down a religious representation that might be amenable evolutionary theorizing before cultural forces twisted and mutated that concept. Moira (for the Greeks) and Ma’at (for the Egyptians) are two very similar religiously motivated conceptions at the beginnings of recorded language that happen to give rise directly to concepts of Natural Law that pervade current scientific theorizing.
Even if evolutionary theorizing did better define its targets, the end result of this theorizing is still the same old story. A ‘just-so’ story of how religion(or whatever) became dominate because it increased differential reproduction of those that professed it. This is barely more explanatory than saying ‘God made it so’, because I can contrive another ‘just-so’ evolutionary story that would explain why atheism will increase differential reproduction in the future. And I am not against evolution–it explains the differential reproduction of species with respect to biological traits/structures. But when applied to things like religion, god, love, our penchant for reality TV shows, whatever; it becomes pseudo-explanatory nonsense much of the time, and closes off further inquiry.
I tried listening to your link, but it is over 2 hours, and after 30 minutes didn’t get to the issue at hand.
Nietzsche’s academic work as a philologist isn’t why he is of interest for philosophy/philosophers, he is rather known as the philosophical genealogy guy who gave us the mobile metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms, and set us on the way to anthropological thinkers like Wittgenstein who illustrated that our it is thru our many and continually shifting uses (in differing contexts/assemblages) that language/grammar/etc gain their meanings, evolution outlines the how we come to certain predispositions/cognitive-biases/etc the content isn’t hard than to fill in with a bit of ethnography, if a debate between a believer in evolutionary sciences and a newage/process theolgian isn’t to the point I can’t imagine what would be.
Chris Marchetti says
> The main argument of the guest was that
> “these arguments against God don’t resonant with me, they don’t get into me,”
> which from a philosophical standpoint is not particularly convincing to those
> who don’t believe.
This sentiment resonates with me, and gets at something about this episode that bothered me.
What I typically look for in discussions like these is a way into the theist’s head. I used to be religious only tacitly, until I came across the idea of atheism while reading Ayn Rand, which is what set me down the path to realizing that I really didn’t believe. What I hope to get is a similar sort of story, where the devout Christian (for example) says what pushed them from some level of tacit belief toward religiosity. I haven’t found that yet, this episode included. Perhaps that’s a case of my expectations being misaligned.
Nathan and Rob’s comments about the aspect of tradition in mainstream religion were enlightening, and I think they provide a partial answer to the criticisms that Russell voiced earlier in the comments. The reason that people attach to rich religious traditions is not because of a rational process of joining a sect after reasoning through its beliefs one by one. It is because, without that structure, they would not be able to direct their religious feeling toward any direction in particular. Cahn (whose article I will read in its entirety – one is available http://homepage.westmont.edu/hoeckley/readings/symposium/pdf/001_100/031.pdf) puts it well: “Note, however, that the proofs for the existence of God provide us with no hint whatever as to which actions God wishes us to perform, or what we ought to do so as to please or obey Him.”
The problem for me, ultimately, is where does this desire come from? What exactly motivates people to want to please or obey a god? Like Mark, I can’t see any logical connection between “a god says this” and “you are morally obliged do this,” so I don’t see why someone should be interested in the will of a god at all. The guests didn’t really shed any light on this point.
Interesting. I have a great respect for the history and tradition of Christian Humanism, religious humanism (like Quakers and Unitarians, etc.), Humanistic Judaism, as well as Islamic humanism (which I think we need a revival of) as many great scientific and philosophical minds have belonged to and come from these traditions.
The title and topic is odd in that “faith” is ONLY a Christian concept and specifically central to protestant Christianity. “Faith” is NOT rational that is why it’s called “faith”.
Christianity arose in the middle of the a society, the Greco-Roman world, that was already very scientific and technologically advanced with reason and skepticism and philosophical schools that had little or no room for God(s).
It is only in the midst of such a scientific, technological, rationalistic, skeptical society that a concept such as “faith” could arise.
It says ‘We believe anyway,’ inventing the idea of belief as a leap.
Hebrews 11:1 – Now faith is …, the evidence of things not seen.
Mathew 21:21 – Jesus answered…, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not,….
Thanks for an interesting episode! (caveat: as a non-citizen, I’ve only heard part 1 thus far) A couple of observations:
First, those whose ostensible priority is epistemology should be slower, I think, to clamour for a debate. Debates are great…as entertainment. As recognized since antiquity, rhetoric (persuasion) has no necessary connection to demonstration/truth. I find myself often listening to views quite different from my own without feeling proselytized or otherwise chafed by the experience. So props for the format: these guests, as Mark says, are simply other texts to exegete/critique.
Secondly, I often find myself amazed at the (unselfconscious?) commitment to Enlightenment preconceptions amongst (New) Atheists–and especially amongst the argumentative kind. I understand that it seems harder to adjudicate non-propositional claims, yet sometimes existence doesn’t offer us our preferred conveniences. To claim access to presuppositionless or objective ‘rationality’ is only to beg the question: whose justice? Which rationality? (cf. MacIntyre). I feel as though we tend to be postfoundationalists and postmodernists only selectively, forgetting that contemporary epistemology and philosophical hermeneutics has long since dispensed with the claims of Enlightenment positivism. Yet, when I hear so many clamouring for self-evident rationality, or conversely, the self-evident irrationality of theists (cf. Dawkins amongst many), I wonder what justifies such empty bombast–the atheist equivalent of pulpit-pounders who cry ‘Just so! Such ones might do well to return to the trenchant critique of objective, positivistic rationality offered by the likes of Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Godel, Dilthey, Gadamer, Ricoeur, Derrida, Foucault…
Nathan was referred to as premodern in this episode. In fact, with meaningful references to Wittgenstein and MacIntrye among others, he also seems like the most postmodern of the bunch. He seems postmodern insofar as he recognizes that meaning is generated in through a nexus of context-bounded relations, and that ‘truth’ is not equivalent to the pretensions of logical positivism. He is premodern insofar as he seems to believe that the good, the beautiful, and the true are not distinct entities (as in modern philosophy), but that they converge. For this reason, he rightly notes that belief or unbelief (whether religious or otherwise) is bound up in the stories in which we find ourselves; this is not merely (or even mostly) syllogistically-driven, but finally holistic, embodied, aesthetic, and sometimes even non-verbal. It is an (overdetermined) sense of ‘persuasion’ rather than ‘demonstration.’ I feel that Wes concedes the point when opining that he found science a “more satisfying way” of explaining phenomena that God used to be invoked to explain.
Another way of looking at this is to appeal to a coherence theory of truth, rather than (solely) a correspondence theory of truth. This is also congruent with a Scheler’s belief in the ‘primacy of affect’–the notion that conviction, however multifariously determined, often precedes rationality. In other words, belief tends to come first, rationality comes afterwards to translate it into logical discourse (see Iain McGilchrist provides an excellent interdisciplinary treatment of this in his ‘The Master and His Emissary’). Affective conviction, and the inscrutable reasons for belief or unbelief are indeed frustratingly difficulty to debate about, but perhaps that is the nature of Being. (Even fideism is a legitimate, however frustrating, philosophical position: it is hard to falsify.) Nor do I believe that the ‘aesthetic contest’ or appeal to ‘explanatory power’ is a knock-down argument epistemologically, but it goes a long way to explaining belief (in any form), as some previous comments have queried over.
Thanks for a collegial discussion on interesting subjects, lads. I, for one, am reassured by your atheism(!), but found this podcast considerably more tolerable than another round of Dawkins-sneering.
I was once on a jury for a murder trial. At one point the defendant gave some testimony that was transparently false. To my astonishment the prosecutor said nothing and the moment passed as if it had not happened, yet every jury member later recalled it vividly. The deliberations were very brief – Guilty.
I often wonder if the prosecutor was extremely clever or oblivious to the event.
I think the power of an unchallenged argument is vastly underestimated.
Keep up the great work – I love it all.
Whenever somebody offers a poignant metaphor, it seems a travesty to force the implicit to become explicit; I therefore hope that I’m rightly intuiting your meaning when I proceed to ask: in what sense, and at what point, do you feel that any of the discussants have impugned themselves?
Good job at one of the most generously open and considerate faith / atheism discussions I’ve ever heard.
My experience is the opposite of one of your guests, who is a believer who has never had a personal religious or enlightenment experience. Not to bore you I hope, but In my 30’s (now 66) I had a fully enveloping cosmic EXPERIENCE of being in the presence of god (and there was no other), experienced unbounded love totally beyond our human conception, where love was all I was, that’s all god was, that’s all there was – and I experienced eternity. There were no drugs involved except, to the way I understand it now, whatever chemicals may have flooded my brain.
I briefly considered seminary and searched for years for understanding and meaning, and, in the process, went from believing to not believing in gods, souls, essential selves and other apparent superstitions. In my experience, the faith vs. rationality gap – where neither side recognizes the validity of the basis (subjective revelation vs evidence) of the other’s belief – is insurmountable. In the end, we’re just talking past each other.
Thanks for the most consistently entertaining podcast on the net.
One of the Christian participants in this discussion stated the following: “God created Being itself”.
This seems to imply that God precedes “Being”. So, logically, given these assumptions, “God is neither “Being itself”, nor is God “a being”.
So, what is God (assuming God exists) if God is neither Being itself nor a being?
Also, did God create the world/universe? If so, the world/universe must be separate from God, which means God must be limited? I know this is a point made by many others over the years.
Further, once again assuming God exists, nobody “knows” that God created Being itself.
Nobody “knows” anything about God. Many people believe in God, but nobody knows that a God exists, nor, assuming God exists, that God did/does this or that.
There may be a God. There may not be a God. Many good people believe in God. Many good people don’t believe in God. And many consider the question of God’s existence moot/irrelevant.
My understanding is that when some monks asked the Buddha whether there was an afterlife, he told them (I’m paraphrasing of course) that this was a foolish question. Focus on your life here and now. Focus on what you can do today to reduce your suffering and the suffering of others. Stop dreaming about an afterlife. Didn’t Socrates focus primarily on discussing how we can, here and now, live a virtuous life. To him this was key. And it seems that in most cases Jesus also zeroed in on what we need to do to improve our own lives and the lives of others, here and now, today, this minute, by being patient, tolerant, forgiving, and loving?
I know the questions of an afterlife and immortality were not at issue in this podcast, but I believe that the central motivation for faith in the Christian God was/is to attain eternal life.
I’ve always found the idea of eternal life somewhat absurd for the following reasons:
1) To me, the notion of living forever would be like “hell”, not heaven. How would you like to have to put up with your cousin or co-worker or neighbor you can’t stand for trillions of years?
2) Where is heaven? Is there a Planet Heaven? But if heaven is NOT a physical location (which the Pope proclaimed in 1999. He said heaven is a state of being), then what
happened to the body of Jesus after he ascended into heaven? And what happened to the body of Mary after she was assumed into heaven?
I enjoyed the podcast and found it very interesting. But I think it would have been much more interesting if you also had a seasoned atheist participate in the discussion to balance things out.