Reason And Faith:
Apples And Oranges

Todd Smith

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This piece was abbridged and used in the November, 2000, edition of Positive Atheism Magazine.

 

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 "By definition, no apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information." 

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 "Martin Luther correctly distinguished between the magisterial and ministerial use of reason. The magisterial use of reason occurs when reason stands over Scripture like a magistrate and judges it. Such "reasoning" is bound to be flawed, because it starts with axioms invented by fallible humans and not revealed by the infallible God. But this is the chief characteristic of liberal "Christianity." It is refuted by Scriptural passages such as Isaiah 55:8-9.... The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to Scripture. This means that all things necessary for our faith and life are either expressly set down in Scripture or may be deduced by good and necessary consequence from Scripture." 

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: Todd Smith
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Thursday, December 14, 2000 10:21 AM

My position is that the god question is a silly reason to get into a fight. This is what I have been trying to emphasize for some time.

True, we get only a few billion seconds of life (if we're lucky) and there are more productive ways to spend one's finite amount of time, depending on what one wants out of life. But I think developing and exercising my skills in ascertaining truth is a productive use of my time (hence the careful arguments I present on this forum). However, to get into an argument over whether a god exists is monumentally stupid. I am not talking about philosophical discussions but bitter, divisive arguments.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that before anybody can talk about "creation," that person must first cough up a creator. Any discussion of creationism is necessarily premised by the existence of a creator: if creationists cannot first prove the exisence of a creator, all discussion of "creation" is moot. I discussed this in the premier editorial column for Positive Atheism, "Where's the Watchmaker?" In this piece, I suggest that, "If I find a watch in the desert, it looks unnatural; I can verify it was created [only] if I visit the watchmaker." All other arguments for creationism are inadequate -- but this demonstration would be irrefutable -- if only the creationists could pull it off!
 

Since the creationist is trying to overthrow a well-established scientific theory, it's the creationist's responsibility to bring forth arguments that the new hypothesis is superior to the theory which currently prevails. (Darwin had to do this when he overthrew the then-dominant view of Deistic creationism.) If they cannot do this (either because they don't have a case or because their attempt at making a case uses falsehood), the exsiting theory stands, and remains the accepted theory. Thus, it is paramount to scrutinize new claims and try to find holes in those claims. This is the very gist of liberal scientific method.

The case for evolution is compellingly strong, as any book on evolution will show. Science is not perfect (as anyone who attacks the theory of evolution will more than gladly point out), but is a process designed to address the very fallibility which forces us to make our own discoveries and to rigorously test our current understanding of reality.

But much of what goes into counter-attacking creationism necessarily involves exposing the sophistry and the dishonesty of the creationists. This is because sophistry is the only method left for them in trying to win popular support for their position. It is clear that they don't have even a remotely valid case to make, so they get popular support by giving the public a snow-job. It's all they've got left to work with.
 

You're very right on this one: many defenders of evolution simply defend the theory of evolution over creationism and fail to realize that this is insufficient to making the real point, which has more to do with the role which human reason plays in discovering and discerning truth.

When I spoke with Professor M. Reza Ghadiri and with Professor Victor J. Stenger, I suggested that perhaps science needs a publicist, much like Charles Darwin had in Thomas Henry Huxley. Both professors agreed with me that most scientists would prefer to spend their precious time working, and don't really have what it takes to deal with the public. It's tough enough just getting funding for your projects without the added burden of dealing with things like creationism.

So perhaps science needs someone along the lines of a philosopher of science as spokesperson. When I was young, this was Isaac Asimov (who drew more attention with his science-fiction, but this nevertheless played a big role in promoting legitimate science). I was more interested in his books such as The Genetic Code than I was in the I Robot series. Later Carl Sagan took this mantle, and even later (and to a less visible extent) Richard Dawkins and Victor J. Stenger. Two busy (but not widely known) spokesmen for skepticism are Michael Shermer and James Randi. But I'm talking as much about pro-science as about pro-skepticism. Finally, I'd be remiss if I did not give credit to John F. Kennedy's vow to win the "Space Race" of the 1960s.

I'd like to see a Discovery Channel that works much the same way as 60 Minutes does, sticking to the prevailing viewpoints of science and unafraid to boldly attack what mainstream science sees as science-related frauds. I'd like to see the public schools begin to emphasize the basics of scientific method more heavily, even if it means spending less time on the history of what science has done. A firm grasp of liberal scientific method and of rhetorical fallacies would eliminate the need to defend evolution or physics or any other field of science. If people understood liberal scientific method (what it is and how it works), and if people would learn the dishonest ways in which certain people fast-talk the public into accepting their ideas, then these people would instantly recognize bogus science whenever they encounter it.
 

You have here encountered a very desperate variety of ultra-fundamentalists. They appear to reject human reason altogether. These are not your garden-variety theists by any stretch (and I will use the term "garden-variety," for lack of a better way to distinguish the liberals and moderates from the ultra-fundamentalists). We cannot approach them or respond to them the way we do to most thiests, because they do not recognize human reason as even being valid.

The garden-variety people of faith tend use a definition for logic and reason similar to the one we use. They give to reason pretty much the respect that it deserves. But such theists tend to give a different priority to human reason than we give to it. This is because they must somehow bring faith into the picture so that they can justify their claims for the existence of gods. So, the non-fundamentalist posits faith as an additional method for discerning truth, along side reason, whereas the atheist sees human reason as the only way we have of discerning truth. In his book Atheism: The Case Against God, George H. Smith shows the theist claiming that reason is one of many tools in the toolbox, and that faith, along side reason, is another one of those tools. No, says Smith, reason is the entire toolbox. As Ingersoll said:

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I admit that reason is a small and feeble flame, a flickering torch by stumblers carried in the starless night, -- blown and flared by passion's storm, -- and yet, it is the only light. Extinguish that, and nought remains.
-- Robert Green Ingersoll, "A Reply to the Rev. Henry M. Field, D.D." (1887)

 

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Moderate and liberal theists will use reason only so far as it can touch on matters that can be resolved by reason. After this, they will resort to faith.

Atheists, when placed in the same position, will usually throw up their hands and say, "I don't know: this is not something that I can address because it is not something that can be addressed through reason."

Theists posit "faith" (whatever that is: the very idea of faith defies reason) because they need something upon which to ground their ideas about gods and the supernatural. Human reason clearly cannot explain a scenario involving gods and the supernatural, so theists must come up with another way to explain it if they wish to convince others that their claims are worthy of assent. This method is faith, and non-fundamentalists postulate faith as an additional way to discern truth. Since faith cannot be described through natural means (human reason) the atheist rejects faith as a valid method for discerning truth. Naught but reason remains.

Since atheists reject faith, theists cannot speak to atheists in terms of faith. But atheists and garden-variety theists agree that human reason is one valid method for discerning whether a claim is true. Thus, if theists wish to make claims, they must be willing to back up those claims using the one method that we all agree works: human reason. If they cannot do this, then they cannot expect the rest of us to take their claims seriously. Unable to convince us to share their religious views, their religion remains a private affair, being devoid of the elements that make up public discussion.

The ultra-fundamentalists you have encountered seem to have rejected human reason as altogether inferior to faith. Reason, they seem to be saying, is not just another tool in the toolbox, but is not to be trusted at all. Such theists don't simply "let faith take over where reason fails," but will start off with faith, letting faith prevail even in the face of a well-reasoned argument. This is what distinguishes the fundamentalist from the garden-variety theist.

But a good case can be made that theistic leaders in general and these fundamentalistic leaders in particular know what they are doing, that they actually know good reason when they see it, and that they deliberately downgrade or abandon reason in order to "snow" the public into accepting their claims. (I'm not saying that the rank-and-file layperson knows better, but am suggesting that the seasoned professional apologist knows that he is deliberately misleading his "flock" in this regard.)

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George H. Smith's
Explanation of the Burden of Proof

In his new book, Why Atheism? (chapter 2: emphasis his; square brackets ours), George H. Smith says:

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 The onus probandi [burden of proof] is about as clear and incontestable as any philosophical procedure could possibly be. Indeed, it is indispensable to any intellectual exchange in which the participants are seriously committed to the pursuit of truth. 

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Smith then paints a not-so-imaginary scenario of what things would be like if the onus probandi were not an accepted procedural rule. He describes an "elfist" who merely reports to the "aelfist" that there is an invisible elf sitting on somebody's shoulder.

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 "Granted," says the elfist, "I cannot offer even a scintilla of evidence to support my claim, so I do not expect the aelfist to believe as I do. Nevertheless, the aelfist cannot prove me wrong: He cannot prove that invisible elves do not exist. If the aelfist cannot see what I do, this is because he does not have the faith that is necessary if one is to perceive invisible elves. 

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Smith's elfist goes on about how sensitive these critters are, and concludes:

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 "If the aelfist does not wish to make this commitment of faith, then that is his right, but it is not his right to dismiss my belief as unjustified merely because I cannot prove what I say. On the contrary, since the aelfist cannot prove that my elves do not exist, his disbelief is no more justified than my belief." 

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Sound familiar? I'm sure Smith intended it this way! He says this argument "would be quite legitimate if not for the burden of proof." He explains:

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 The elfist ... has excluded as irrelevant any appeal to empirical evidence. This means that elfism cannot be falsified, even in principle, because failure to perceive these elves (who are, after all, invisible) can always be blamed on one's lack of faith. 

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This is what the theists have done to reason so that they could justify belief in the supernatural. Smith continues:

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 Thus without the burden of proof, a belief would become more reasonable as it became less vulnerable to falsification: The fact that a belief could not be proven false under any circumstances would bestow upon it the same cognitive status as a belief that could be proven true. 

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Smith then says that if a "more rational elfist" were to specify an emperical test whereby we could test his claim, he would actually weaken the case for elfism! If the burden of proof were spread equally, says Smith, then

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 as the elfist becomes more rational -- as he becomes more willing to present evidence for his belief -- he also becomes more vulnerable to criticism. To provide evidence for a belief is to provide fodder for its critics; and with more evidence comes more opportunity for criticism. Conversely, with little evidence comes little opportunity for criticism, and a belief with no evidence becomes immune to all criticism. 

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Smith concludes with language which points clearly to why theists in general need to downgrade or supplant reason, and why fundamentalists in particular reject it: without a firm grasp of reason, it becomes very easy to "snow" the public with their claims!

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 If, therefore, we discard the onus probandi, if we divide the burden of proof equally among those assent to an affirmative proposition and those who do not, then the justification for a belief will increase as the evidence for that belief decreases. And a belief that is supported by no evidence whatever, having been immunized against all criticism, will be the strongest possible belief, because it cannot possibly be disproved. 

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Keep in mind that Smith is much more subtle than I am. Smith merely describes the philosophical implications of these arguments, it is I who am suggesting that they know what they're doing when they do this. Certainly the layperson is not up on the subtleties of philsophical discussion, but I think a case can be made that educated Christian leaders, such as Josh McDowell and the late Dr. Walter Martin, know exactly what they're doing when they subjugate reason the way they do when they're defending the Christian religion.
 

I still suggest that pointing out sophistry such as this is our first order of business when these people bring their claims to the public forum. They have every right to talk amongst themselves this way, but when they try to convince the rest of us to go along with their delusions, and when they use dishonest rhetorical techniques in the process, we are duty-bound to point this out and to show one another exactly what they're up to. You'll see me doing this in the letters section, actually naming the fallacy and showing, by example, how what they've done constitutes this or that fallacy (and, most importantly, showing why doing this is dishonest). Several letter writers have earned their fifteen minutes of fame by becoming examples in the sophistry section of our "Introduction To Activistic Atheism"! I might already have enough examples to revise that section so that it consists entirely of fallacies which people, writing to our letters forum, have tried to pull on me.

We must also keep in mind the basic disagreement over reason and faith. Much of the problem boils down to this disagreement, so we must keep this element in the forefront of any discussion. If we don't, then whenever I use the word reason to mean one thing, my listener will hear a completely different word. Evangelical (quasi-funadamentalist) and moderate Christians will understand this, because they have the same issues when dealing with fringe Christian groups, such as the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses, who have different definitions for key biblical terms than do the more orthodox Christians. Even the name "Jesus" has different meaning among these various groups, and much of orthodox apologetics revolves around making sure the parties in question understand each other when using certain words. So, this discussion is not foreign to Christian apologists at all, and we can expect them to understand our concern over semantics.
 

Reason. It all boils down to reason. Even the decision to subjugate reason to faith is initially based upon reason (albeit sloppy use of reason, to be sure!). But you will not get very far with a theist trying to convince her or him of this.

What we need to keep in mind is that the theist is making claims. In order to be taken seriously, those claims must be stated in terms upon which both sides can agree. That common ground is reason. The theist must make the case for faith by using reason. The theist must make the case for faith by using reason. Specifically, the theist must first come up with a hypothetical situation that would falsify her or his claim: before this, we cannot even have a discussion. In lieu of this, the theist may be able to gain converts through sophistry, but sophistry can never rightly be called a reasonable discussion.

To me, the fundamentalists are more honest (self-consistent) than their more liberal counterparts. The fundamentalist says that (for example) the Bible is the Word of God -- the final authority on all matters. Thus, if the Bible said (explicitly) that the Earth is flat (it only says this implicitly), the Bible fundamentalist would need to assert that the Earth is flat and would need to ignore anything reason says to the contrary. The more liberal a Christian sect is, the more willing they are to compromise on this or that issue, and to bring their faith in line with what reason has shown. Thus, the liberal would change the meaning of the Bible's statement, calling it metaphor (or whatever).

This is precisely what has happened with the Creation myth: the fundamentalists interpret it literally, while the liberals (and the Roman Catholics) have accepted that tale as a metaphor or poem, with a "deeper" message than can be had by taking the story at face value. The fundamentalist protects faith by making it supreme over reason and ignoring any evidence that might show them to be wrong; the liberal accepts reason and redefines faith to fit reason.

Both have every right (and every reason) to believe however they want. It is when they bring their beliefs into the public forum (such as trying to install creationism into the public school curriculum) that they necessarily open themselves to criticism. If they wish to be taken seriously, they need to make their case in the same language (reason) that everyone involved agrees is useful. And everybody is willing to give at least lip-service to reason: we only differ on where reason stands on our list of priorities.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
    people with no reason to believe

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