Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Impasse or hiking

In response to last week's post, Suz asked me, "Have you ever thought that maybe in holding onto doubt you are refusing to believe?"

From Across Izmir

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend who is a believing Christian. She asked me what I think of her belief, how I regard it in my agnostic perspective. I told her that, while I respect her greatly and see that her belief has shaped her in beautiful ways, I think that she's holding on to it out of a lack of intellectual integrity. It pained me to say it, to suggest that she was dishonest about the belief she holds dearest.

As we talked, it became clear that she felt the same way about my unbelief, that she respected me as a human being, but she had no explanation of my unbelief, in her worldview, other than that I am intellectually dishonest.

However, I couldn't find to a specific source of intellectual dishonesty in her, and she couldn't pinpoint the intellectual dishonesty in me. The standard Christian line that I've heard is that people who don't believe don't want to believe because they don't want God to be in authority over them. I suppose the Four Horseman of the New Atheism could be explained this way. Most of the atheists I know don't merely not believe in God, they absolutely don't want to.

I stopped believing that God exists two and a half years ago, my response to this was to struggle arduously to believe. I don't feel like I'm holding on to doubt, I feel like I've been holding on to belief. I suppose that, in the Christian mindset, my unbelief could be explained as me, deep down, not wanting to believe in God because I'm rebellious, but that I've cloaked that in feelings of wanting to believe. I thought that for a while, and wound up feeling futile guilt and confusion.

Fundamentally, informed, educated, insightful believers and nonbelievers have to regard each other as intellectually dishonest for their own worldviews to be coherent. At the core, believers understand nonbelievers as not believing in God out of rebelliousness. Contrariwise, nonbelievers understand believers as believing in God out of a fear of a lack of ultimate meaning. I don't know which human tendency is stronger: dread of living in a cosmos with no meaning, or dread of standing before God.

Either way, it feels about as mean to me for my friend to suggest that I'm doubting because I don't want to believe in God as it does for me to suggest that my friend is feeble and fearful and clings to belief in God out of despair. It seemed as if we were at an impasse.

Don't worry, Suz, you've said nothing to offend me; I hope you've taken no offense at anything I've said. It's the nature of disagreement that people with incompatible worldviews can't both have confidence in their own beliefs while having confidence in people who adhere to beliefs that contradict theirs. In general, I'm afraid that there is despair among believers that nonbelievers can offer anything meaningful, and vice-versa.

I don't think this despair is warranted. In fact, I think that people thinking that dialog with the other side is futile are being more condescending than people who engage in dialog and say mean things, because to refuse to talk is to give up on the other party being reasonable and flexible. Oodles of people who believed in God gave up that belief and oodles of nonbelievers have converted to belief in God. We live in the same world, we have access to the same sorts of experiences. I think it's best to talk about things we can describe in real terms, like fruit and hiking and astronomy, and building up from there, rather than working down from abstract ideas about God and meaning.


  1. For me, it has nothing to do with intellectual honesty or dishonesty, but rather trying to believe of ourselves and of our own power. You talk about you a lot and what you've done to try to believe. It seems from what you write as if all this time you want faith proven to you. But, that can't be done. Faith inherently isn't concrete.

  2. And is being intellectual what is most important in life? I think I thought it was very important at one time--but I was convicted that that belief had more to do with my pride than that it was truly most important. Why is it most important to you?

  3. I'm no expert, but the impression I've gotten is that you demand more evidence of God than you see. Either God's not real, you're missing the evidence, or God's not offering the evidence how you want it. The last one is possible, the middle one is possible but less-likely I guess, the last one is where the Christian viewpoint lies.

  4. Suz & Tim make good points, and I would only add that I don't think that it's necessarily a question of intellectual dishonesty. I mean, I guess if God isn't real then it probably is, and I'm being intellectually dishonest for ignoring the lack of empirical evidence for God. But I don't consider you to be intellectually dishonest, I just think you've prioritized certain ways of understanding over others and that's left you concluding that there has to be intellectual dishonesty somewhere in the process when perhaps there isn't.

  5. so, the conclusion: don't worry about finding intellectual dishonesty in yourself or your friends! :) We all just understand and weigh the information we have differently.

  6. I thought of a question before I read Suz, Tim, and Matthew's comments. So, in spite of possible repetition, here it is:

    Why is complete intellectual honesty the ideal? Is it for objectivity? a fear/distrust of emotions? to be better able to communicate? something about science and logic?

    I know that I'm cutting to the core. I've been wondering this after reading yours, Matt Morrison's, and Graham Andrew's posts lately. And I'm genuinely curious.

    I know I'm not always intellectually honest. For one I could be better read in philosophy and comparative religion (or anti-religion). But I know what excites me about christianity; what drew/draws me to love the gospel of christ. Part of me feels like that is enough, but another part wants to continually be convinced.

  7. I think that intellectual honesty really is what we're talking about here. It's not the most important thing in life, but intellectual honesty is important in knowing things.

    I don't think the Bible says that faith can't be proven concretely. In knowing God, the Bible leaves plenty of room for us to misunderstand things about God, sure. But, if God's being real can't be demonstrated plainly and concretely, that is, in such a way that "God exists" is the best explanation for why the world is as it is, then why should I be expected to believe?

  8. Tim, I like your comment. I think you've broken the problem down neatly, taxonomically. (I think it's the first possibility.)

  9. Matthew, I think the problem we're talking about can be cast as a problem of intellectual honesty. Either that, or reason and experience are meaningless in knowing God.

    If we had some way of, say, knowing that the book of Luke is perfectly true, you would only consider "Jesus didn't rise from the dead" to be a valid interpretation of the evidence if you were Derrida himself. (The problem is, we don't have that way of knowing that the book of Luke is perfectly true.)

    Either God is knowable through reason and not knowing him can only be from being uninformed or intellectually dishonest, that is, our falleness, or God is unknowable through reason. If God is unknowable through reason, how can I be persuaded to make that leap?

  10. Ryan, intellectual honesty is a phrase that really means having good epistemology, going about knowing things in a proper and sensible way. We can argue about what a better or worse way is to know things, but we can't know things apart from some epistemology. We might not do our knowing correctly, and in several ways, but that doesn't mean that the endeavor of knowing is meaningless.

  11. Alex, your comment to Ryan was perhaps the most insightful, because in it you defined "intellectual honesty" as "having a good epistemology." I am not sure that we were all getting that impression from your post, so thank you for clarifying! That is most helpful in understanding your post, and I think it gives us fertile ground for a discussion like the one you hypothesized about at the end of your post.

    However, I think you're still making a false dichotomy when you say "Either God is knowable through reason and not knowing him can only be from being uninformed or intellectually dishonest, that is, our falleness, or God is unknowable through reason." I would argue (especially since the Bible never really speaks of knowing God through reason) that good epistemology isn't just made up of reason; rather, there is reason, experience, emotion, community, inspiration, and revelation-- and maybe a few more that I've forgotten. You talk as though reason is the only thing that we can use-- the whole "body" of truth as it were.

    If you'll permit me a terrible analogy, I would suggest that revelation is the skeleton on which knowing God hangs, emotions the viscera which keep it functioning, community the muscles which keep it moving, inspiration the ATP that gives it all energy, and reason the skin that keeps it all together. You have a pile of skin-- it is all intact and seamless. But I would argue that it's only part of the whole, and beyond that it's missing the point of having skin in the first place.

  12. Matthew, I'm glad to have clarified things.

    I absolutely do mean that reason is central, I don't think I've set up a false dichotomy in this. Now, I don't mean reason divorced from all experience, all knowledge of the world. How could you persuade me, using reason and experience, that I should trust the other things you list in knowing God?

  13. "The standard Christian line that I've heard is that people who don't believe don't want to believe because they don't want God to be in authority over them."

    I've heard this before too and there are few things I agree with less. Salvation through Christ is pretty simple as I understand it, no good works or anything, just repent and trust in Jesus. By that simple act, I get to live forever in bliss? That's even the basis of Pascal's Wager, no? What motivation would I have to be dishonest in rejecting that? I would love to hang out and talk shop with Jesus. I bet he knows where the Higgs boson is hiding.

    As for authority, my parents, government, and advisor all have authority over me which I accept (social contract and whathaveyou) because they know things I don't and can do things I can't. Why should God be any different? He's in authority, knows things I don't, and can do things I can't (like grant me eternal bliss). I definitely get something out of the relationship; what motivation would I have to be resentful?

  14. i just finally got around to checking this (is there a way to have blogger email me after ppl comment after me?).

    Thanks for clearing that up for me Alex. I've been taught basic logic before, but never in a way that made me remember long term, and I could definitely use some improvement to my epistemology.

    Also, I have a question on the dichotomy you posed to Matthew: "Either God is knowable through reason and not knowing him can only be from being uninformed or intellectually dishonest, that is, our falleness, or God is unknowable through reason." Why do you equate lack of knowledge or intellectual dishonesty with human sinful falleness? With my Calvinist upbringing, that makes me think no one can know God unless he first reaches out to them (ie regeneration, order of salvation). But I dont think thats what youre saying.

  15. Ryan, you can subscribe to the comment feed; there's a link in the box on the right at the top of every page on this blog.

    The question of whether someone can be uninformed about God and not know him, and what that means, is a sensible one, but I'm setting that aside for the moment.

    As I see it, there are two categories of Christians. There are the fideists, who say that it is impossible to know God in any absolute way, at least, not objectively; relating to God must be done through a "leap of faith". Calvinists and Catholics and a slew of other groups adhere to an opposing position: God can be known through reason and observation, but that our sin obscures us from this. Both of these positions are asking the question, "How can someone be smart and not know that God exists?" Either God can't be known, or someone can be smart, but sinful, pride can blind them. This category of intellectual dishonesty would be sin, that's why I equate these ideas. Intellectual dishonesty is choosing what you think is true based on what you want to be true.

    A scientist who believes that his experiments have produced substantial results, when they've been inconclusive, would think that his results are important because he wants them to be, to get his paper published or what have you. This is intellectual dishonesty. Denying global warming *because* you don't want to deal with it, saying that you *know* that God exists *because* you want him to (or saying that you *know* that God doesn't exist simply *because* you don't want him to), these are all examples of intellectual dishonesty.