One of the podcasts I enjoy listening to is the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, a science-oriented, religiously skeptical discussion conducted out of the New England Skeptical Society. The shows run long, so I can’t listen to all of them, but I’ve heard a couple of them, featuring Michael Shermer and John Rennie. You can learn a lot of science and unlearn a lot of myth from these discussions.
When they wander onto religious territory, however, their skepticism tends to take a strange turn. I have noted in the past that Michael Shermer’s skepticism does not range as far as it ought. His magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer, approvingly cited a discredited article purporting to show that Christianity has negative social effects. He would have done well to treat that study with more caution.
In an article in current Touchstone magazine, titled “The Skeptical Inquirer,” Edward Tingley takes this question of self-proclaimed skeptics’ skepticism to a far broader and deeper level. The article’s subtitle tells more than the title: it is, If Only Atheists Were the Skeptics They Think They Are. Tingley, a philosopher at Augustine College in Ottawa, launches a strong counter-assault on what he considers an erroneous conception: that today’s atheists and agnostics are the virtuous thinkers who never jump to conclusions ahead of the evidence.
He begins provocatively:
Unbelievers think that skepticism is their special virtue, the key virtue believers lack. Bolstered by bestselling authors, they see the skeptical and scientific mind as muscular thinking, which the believer has failed to develop. He could bulk up if he wished to, by thinking like a scientist, and wind up at the “agnosticism” of a Dawkins or the atheism of a Dennett—but that is just what he doesn’t want, so at every threat to his commitments he shuns science.
That story is almost exactly the opposite of the truth.
He continues in that tone for a few paragraphs, and then moves into providing real support for his claims. It’s drawn primarily from Blaise Pascal:
There are skeptical theists; Pascal was one….
“I have wished a hundred times over that, if there is a God supporting nature, [nature] should unequivocally proclaim him, and that, if the signs in nature are deceptive, she should suppress them altogether”—but nature prefers to tease, so she “presents to me nothing which is not a matter of doubt” (429). “We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty” (401). “We are . . . incapable of knowing . . . whether he is” (418). This is where the modern person usually starts in his assault on the question, Is God real or imaginary?
This is base camp, above the tree-line of convincing reasons and knock-down arguments, at the far edge of things we can kick and see, and it is all uphill from here. Thus, it is astounding how many Dawkinses and Dennetts, undecideds and skeptical nay-sayers—that sea of “progressive” folk who claim to “think critically” about religion and either “take theism on” or claim they are “still looking”—who have not reached the year 1660 in their thinking. They almost never pay attention to what the skeptic Pascal said about this enquiry.
Could it be that it is the atheists and agnostics who have rushed to judgment? Have they missed 350 years (or more) of good thinking on the question of God? In what ways was Pascal a model skeptic? He recognized–did not shrink back from–our inability to judge the existence of God by our senses. Translated: our inability to judge the existence of God through science. The modern atheist says, “well, then, there’s no scientific evidence for God; thus there’s no God.” Tingley suspects more than a little of a rush to judgment in there! For Pascal,
There is still the reasoning of the heart.
The scientist Pascal claims to know a route that will take us over the ice to convincing discovery. It is the refusal to test his thinking that betrays the faith of atheists and agnostics.
No no, they will say, point to something material on which to base belief and then I will look at it. “Give us solid evidence!” They insist that every belief about reality must be accepted on the basis of evidence (“experience or logic”). On what basis do they accept that? Evidence? But there is none.
There is no evidence, that is, for the idea that every belief must be accepted on the basis of “experience or logic.”
But atheists and agnostics pick. They commit in the absence of evidence.
I have quoted enough here. The argument is Tingley’s not mine, so I will borrow no more of it. Don’t evaluate it, please, on the basis of these short excerpts; I present them here merely to stimulate you to go to the source and read it for yourself. Then we can talk about it here.
Related: “Though It Is Not Impossible To See God…”
and Evidence of the Heart: The Sense of God