What you really believe is . . . 


Richard Dawkins says that faith is belief without any evidence whatsoever, even though no serious Christian thinker has ever said such a thing. Some Christians say that atheists have no morality, even though no atheist would agree. What these have in common is, "When I want your opinion, I'll give it to you." Now, isn't that a bit presumptuous? 

Respectful dialogue starts with respecting each others' statements. If I'm in debate with an atheist, as happens all the time on this blog, it behooves me to be careful that I really understand what the other person is saying, and to take it at face value. There have been times recently when I have thought I understood another person's position, and found out I didn't have it straight (here, for example, including the thread leading up to it and following it).

Yet there are also times when it's appropriate to challenge someone's statements: "Do you really believe that?" Human psychology being what it is, we cannot expect in practice that everyone's beliefs would always be consistent and coherent. It's the ideal we strive for, but none of us arrives. If I examined all my beliefs side by side, I'm sure I would discover they don't all fit together well. I haven't examined all my beliefs that thoroughly. Nobody has, I dare say.

Writing this blog and interacting with commenters has forced me to examine many of my beliefs in that careful way, though, because others challenge me. There's a general form that challenge can constructively take:

    1. You say you believe A and B.
    2. A and B logically imply C.
    3. You say you believe ~C (not-C, or something other than C).
    4. Can you really believe A, B, and ~C together?

Here's an example we theists have used with in discussion with atheists:*


    1. You say that all of reality is the product of nothing but law and chance acting on impersonal, unconscious matter and energy.
    2. This logically implies that all processes are impersonal and unconscious.
    3. You say you believe there is such a thing as personality and consciousness.
    4. Statements (2) and (3) being contradictory, can you really believe all of that?


But this approach can go wrong, if we allow it, sometimes in an almost (but not quite) innocuous way:


    1. You say that all of reality is the product of nothing but law and chance acting on impersonal, unconscious matter and energy.
    2. This logically implies that all processes are impersonal and unconscious.
    3. You say you believe there is such a thing as personality and consciousness.
    4a. Obviously, though, since it's impossible, you don't really believe that.


Sometimes, I'm afraid, what we say is not at all innocuous:


    4b. You can't really believe all that, you blithering idiot!


Or worse yet,


    4c. You manipulative, lying rascal, you're just saying you believe all that because you're being dishonest!


In actual fact, there could be several reasons why the person believes both (1) and (3), or, more generally, A, B, and ~C.

  A. They might have thought it through, and found what they consider a logically consistent way to reconcile all the statements. Their reasoning can be opened up for debate, to see how well it really holds up.
  B. They might never have thought it through, because it is arcane, difficult, or it has simply never come up as an item of interest.
  C. They might lack necessary information that would reveal the inconsistencies in their beliefs.
  D. They might have a strong psychological commitment to A, B, and ~C, and are provisionally holding all of them as beliefs in spite of the logical tension between them. Even this, I think, can be legitimate, provided that they recognize that tension, that their acceptance of the beliefs really is provisional, and that they are willing to let go of the psychological commitment if and when facts and logic lead them that direction.

I'm sure there are other good reasons besides these four. (I suppose it's also possible that the person actually is a blithering idiot or a manipulative liar, but that would be the last conclusion I would want to consider.)

We can help each other with this. I owe a lot to the commenters here who disagree with me. Mike S., for example (who hasn't been around for a while--where are you, Mike?), helped me see that evolutionism is not equivalent to atheism. He led me to a genuine change of opinion. Others have caused me to sharpen and strengthen my thinking. I said above that I haven't examined the mutual fit of all my beliefs--but the ones I've written on this blog have certainly been put to that test!

We're all good for each other--even if we think the other is totally wrong--if we approach it with mutual learning in mind, and if we give each other the respect due to fellow human beings.

*This is by way of illustration only, and not intended to kick off a debate on the validity of statement (2), which would be contested by many atheist thinkers. (I've hardly developed it as an argument, after all.)

(Posted under Thinking Christianly--it's the best category I have on hand for this kind of topic--but that's not to imply it's only a Christian thing.) 

Posted: Wed - February 14, 2007 at 12:34 PM           |


© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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