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Skepticism about Truth

January 27, 2011

There is a barrier between rationality and faith, pseudo-science and most forms of denialism that I am increasingly coming to realise is a very high barrier indeed.

Atheists, skeptics, rationalists in general, we all like to think that we are rationally arguing against positions that are irrational. I for one would argue that this is true. But it’s not always seen that way from the other “side”. I find that  a lot of the time, religious believers feel that they are behaving perfectly rationally. There are a number of ways this is done.

Firstly, they can take some basis for their belief, religious experience say, and argue from this basis. It seems like a perfectly rational move. They have a form of evidence for their believe that they feel contributes sufficient weight to ground claims about the nature of reality. If I know God existed because I experienced his presence, I would argue from the perspective that takes this existence as proven.  The problem here is that most of the grounds which are used as the basis for theistic arguments are not seen as grounds that can be accepted by a wider audience outside of the faith group in which they are found.

Secondly, it can be claimed that it is rational to reject the need for evidence to support all claims. This gives us the argument from faith. I believe in God and you can’t prove he doesn’t exist, so I get to keep on talking about him as if he does exist. This goes against all principles of rational thought and pretty much stops any conversation dead. How do you argue against this? It’s hard.

Linked to all of this is something that I have only been finding out about in the last few weeks. I’ve found it amazing that so much time and effort in theology is given over to discussing atheism. Questions are asked about why people are atheists, how atheists relate to God, what shapes modern atheist thought. Thinkers like Buckley and Rahner have spilt a lot of ink trying to answer these questions. All the arguments I have seen thus far have one thing in common – they all get to a point where it is possible for the believer to reject the atheist and his arguments as a concern.

Consider Buckley. Modern atheism was shaped by modern theism – it is a rejection of a particular God, or particular theism. If we revert to an older, less philosophical model of God, all will be well. Consider Rahner. We experience God in every action, out every experience is a self-gift from God. Therefore theists and atheists are both in the presence of God, it’s just that theists (and I guess Christians in particular) are closer than atheists.

What these arguments aim to do is make the atheist an insignificant problem, but what they miss is that atheism isn’t a negative doctrine but a positive one. Rather than reject a specific God, I say “What is true?”. It’s a search for positive truths rather than a reaction to a particular theism. It just happens that here in north west Europe a particular “brand” of theism is prevalent so it’s that brand that I react against.

What this all amounts to is that theists are trying to find a way to reject that concept of truth that atheists espouse. I think that in the end what every religious person, anti-vaxer, climate change denier and conspiracy  theorist needs is for faith statements to be accepted as a grounding for discussion. “I believe that…” or “I know that…” are often followed by statements with no rational grounding. But how do we get around this? How can it be corrected? I’m not sure it can – as long as the faith card exists, it is it’s own internal justification. You say I need evidence? I know that I don’t!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. dpatrickcollins permalink
    April 26, 2011 1:11 AM

    Nice post. To your comment concerning the non-verifiability of faith ( i.e. “The problem here is that most of the grounds which are used as the basis for theistic arguments are not seen as grounds that can be accepted by a wider audience outside of the faith group in which they are found”) the apparent problem is that faith is an evidence that cannot be externally verifiable. But I would suggest this is only a problem if external verifiability is necessary. In other words, faith is a problem for the individual who demands proof, unless he obtains the same faith that grants him certainty of the unseen.

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