Interfaith Dialogue Reflection – Part II

In my last blog post I brought up some reflections that I had about the talk given by Imtiaz Ahmed, who was the Muslim speaker for the Interfaith Dialogue I was a part of last week. During the night, the one representing atheism (Doug Thomas) also said a few things I thought I would comment on. His main point was the idea of following the evidence where it leads.

During his talk, Thomas spoke of the concepts of evidence and logic. He gave definitions of logical terms like “deduction” and “induction”, however, his definitions were incredibly problematic (my educational background is in philosophy, and I’ve taken four courses that were specifically on the nature of logic). Perhaps I was misunderstanding him (which I do hope I was), but it seemed as though he was saying deduction is the process of assuming a premise, and working from there, while induction is the process of evaluating the evidence (in other words, a more “scientific” approach). The problem is that these explanations are not what those words mean (the true definition of what deduction and induction mean each is an explanation about how the premises impact the conclusion, which I won’t bother getting into here). His point through this description was to say that religious thinking presumes their premises, without argument, and then tries to work out their beliefs from there. On the other hand (in his view), a scientific mind will evaluate the evidence to see what sorts of premises are worth holding.

While the above statements sound good, I’d say it’s just obviously false. Religious thought does not just “presume” some point, and then work from there. Religious thought can use the exact same process of evidence/reason/logic and evaluate the data available, in order to come to rational conclusions. Thomas made it seem as though religious views have absolutely no evidence to support them, and that scientific (and atheistic) thought is far superior, since it is willing to evaluate the data objectively. Here’s the problem; I, as a Christian, have quite a great deal of evidence and argumentation to support my views. Nothing I believe is built on a premise that I have presumed by blind faith, as Thomas would have the audience believe. To support his opinion of how religious thought works, Thomas brought up a story from his younger years, when he asked the minister at his United church a question, and was quite literally patted on the head, and told to fall in line. I made sure to publicly denounce that type of response during the night, and said that the Bible actually tells us we should have reasons for what we believe.

One of the things that really stood out to me was Thomas’ view of agnosticism. What he said is that he is not an atheist, since that would mean that he actively believes there is no god (this is quite a common move by modern atheists). Instead, he labels himself an agnostic, in the true sense of the term: that he has made up his mind but there is just not enough evidence to know one way or the other. What he proposes is that there is no argument in favor of, or against, the existence of God, so he simply chooses to not hold a view one way or the other. He further stated that, in order for him to believe in something, he requires evidence. He brought up a story about Sir Isaac Brock, where someone had invented a pleasant story about this historical figure, and the story began circulating. But there as an eyewitness testimony that contradicted it, and thus, the story was certainly false. Thomas’ point? That we don’t merely believe things; we need to follow the evidence (being the eye witness testimony).

The reason I found this point of Thomas’ so interesting, is that (at the risk of being unkind), it seems either horribly uninformed, or horribly dishonest. If anyone says that there is actually no argument for God, then this person is either completely ignorant about the past two and a half millennia of ink spilt on the subject, or, the person knows about all the arguments that have been made for theism, and is trying to make the audience believe these arguments don’t exist. It would be an entirely different matter if an atheist were to make a statement like, “I believe all the arguments for theism fail”, but to say there is no evidence or argument for God is just blatantly false.It would be an entirely different matter if an atheist were to make a statement like, “I believe all the arguments for theism fail”, but to say there is no evidence or argument for God is just blatantly false.

Even worse than the point above is a further point, coming back to the idea of evidence. After the night was over, I spoke briefly with Thomas about the reliability of the New Testament text. He was actually willing to commit to saying that modern day scholars are a better source of historical information about the first century, than actual first century writers are. Let that sink in for a moment. If you want to know about the first century, clearly the best thing to do would be to read first century writers. However, Thomas is so biased against anything Christian, that he would go so far as to say that the books of the New Testament, written during the first century, are completely unreliable, but the writers of our century (two thousand years removed from the events) are far superior sources of truth about what occurred during the first century. This made me think of another interesting point. During his talk, hadn’t Thomas claimed to follow the evidence where it leads? And hadn’t he used a specific example of an eyewitness testimony being adequate evidence? If this is a reasonable thing to hold (which I believe it is; eyewitnesses should always be a valuable source of information), then why doesn’t he follow the same logical path in relation to the New Testament? Here we have extremely early documents, claimed to have been written by eyewitnesses, and the readers of these documents understood them to be eyewitness accounts. Shouldn’t these be considered valuable sources of information? Rather than tossed out merely because of a bias?

The next point I wanted to bring up briefly was what Thomas said about God Himself. Thomas made the argument that there is no empirical test to prove the existence of God, so theism is not a rational thing to believe in. However, this seems to be obviously making a category mistake. God is not the type of thing that there could be an empirical test for. It’s like asking something to tell you the colour of the number four; it’s just not a reasonable thing to ask for. As an example of how some things just aren’t empirically verifiable, and yet we still believe them, think about this: I want you to prove to me that there are other minds out there other than my own. For example, suppose I believe I can rationally believe that I have a mind (because I’m currently thinking), however, I disbelieve that you are actually a mind. Instead, I believe you to be a physical object that just follows pre-programmed responses, and that I’m the only real mind in the universe. By definition, there could never be an empirical argument here, because we’re talking about something non-empirical, mainly, the status of “thought”. Yes, there are signals firing in the brain, but that only means our biological computer is working; it doesn’t necessitate that there is a mind attached to that phenomena. This sort of question is left to metaphysics, rather than the hard sciences. The existence of God is like that; God isn’t the sort of thing you can stick in a test tube, just like “thought” isn’t. We shouldn’t expect there to be an empirical test to prove God, and when someone demands there be such a test, it shows they don’t really grasp the discussion.

Does this then imply that there is no argument for God? Far from it! It just means there’s no “empirical” evidence for God. However, there are many arguments that are not scientific in nature (since we should not expect God to be scientifically verifiable). For example, you can look up the cosmological argument, teleological argument, and moral arguments for God. There are plenty of things that don’t have empirical arguments for them, and yet we are all rational to believe them. Other examples would be things like mathematics. You cannot empirically prove math to me; instead, you presume math before beginning empirical tests. Additionally, you cannot empirically prove to me that a piece of art is beautiful; even though art often physically exists, aesthetics is something beyond empirical data. For these reasons, I think Thomas’ complaint that there is no empirical evidence for God seems to suggest a deep misunderstanding on the nature of what’s being discussed.

The last point I would like to bring up is a point Thomas brought up during the night about the nature of religious experiences. He pointed out (quite rightly) that many religions begin in a very peculiar way, mainly, there was an entirely private religious experience had by one person, who then shared it with others, and the others blindly followed. I believe he mentioned Muhammad, Buddha, and Moses for this (and Joseph Smith would be another good example). Here I believe he is somewhat right. For example, when Muhammad went off on his own and came back with messages from Allah, there was no way to verify that he wasn’t merely inventing the message himself. The same can be said of Buddha and Joseph Smith. However, I would differ with the story of Moses. While Moses spoke with God alone, and received the Torah alone, the presence of God was openly verified by everyone in the Israeli camp (they could see the pillar of fire/smoke themselves, and they could hear God at times). Additionally, Christianity doesn’t follow this “private religious experience” sort of template. Jesus’ death by crucifixion was an extremely public matter. Then, the empty tomb was a very public matter. Lastly, the risen Christ was also a very public matters, with hundreds of people being eyewitnesses to it. I can understand someone being skeptical of private religious experiences being the foundation to an entire religion, but with Christianity we have extremely public religious experiences being our foundation.

I wish we had more opportunities during the night to comment back and forth on these ideas. Hopefully in the future I’ll get such an opportunity. However, I do believe the evening was insightful for those present, and hopefully everyone walked away intellectually stimulated, and also that the audience would consider the Gospel.

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