False Positive

As I troll around the Internet, posting under my various aliases, igniting social unrest and engaging the paradox of “organized anarchy,” I stumbled across a reasonably civil combox conversation between a few atheists and a few theists.

Though not much ground was being gained by either side, I did genuinely appreciate the civility.  I appreciate when philosophical opponents can at least afford some measure of respect for those on the other side.

One of the atheists, after a while, aired a grievance:  He noticed, first of all, that many theists did not seem prepared to defend their faith at much logical depth.  He seemed to be implying – I believe wrongly – that atheists tend to demonstrate greater logical depth when defending their beliefs.

But leave that where it lies.  He noticed that, at the moment, these were not his “ordinary” theists.  These theists had a robust and respectable – albeit it wrong – position, a deep understanding of who God is, if He exists.

So the complaint:  Our atheist said that, while there was this seemingly defensible position of theism, most theists (I believe he meant Christians) do not have this idea of God in mind when they profess their faith.  Namely, according to him, most theists do not have a deep understanding of God as “being itself,” or as “the ground of reality,” or even what it really means to be omniscient and omnipotent at the same time.  They, instead, imagine some gray-bearded man in the clouds, some “super” being, some god significantly better than Zeus who yet (the atheist thinks) falls victim to the same criticisms that Zeus does.*

This state of affairs, the atheist seemed to say, de-legitimized the belief of those more simple believers.

I would like to respond to this complaint.

On the one hand, I won’t argue with his observation.  I do think the majority of Christians – and I could be wrong – have a fundamentally anthropomorphic view of God, that they have generally not thought about the philosophical implications of who they say God is, and what God is capable of.  As a theist, I find myself wishing the conversation about God was more robust – and behold, an entire series on the subject, 39 posts and counting.

But – on the other hand – my thoughts do not represent the height of all possible thought about God.  Most assuredly, far from it.  So, as a first response, I wonder what our atheist wants:  If all were better educated, and of greater intellectual capacity, and so they all had a deeper conception of God – wouldn’t he want still more?  If the average IQ were 150, wouldn’t he want a 200 level discussion, and bemoan all of the 125-150’s that he was seeing?

And even if he did – so would I.  But this is more a wish than a grievance.

So, on this first count, I think it is fair to acknowledge what is “good enough.”  That is, our atheist has some understanding of the world which leads him to believe there is no God.  Whatever that understanding is, with its attendant facts and inevitable absence of other facts, he has declared his understanding “good enough” to declare himself an atheist.

And I say – likewise, for the Christian of “lower” understanding.  Not all will have the depth of understanding of Augustine or Aquinas – perhaps no one else ever again.

Now, this may be enough to dispense with the complaint.  I suspect our atheist might dispense with it, given some kind of explanation like this.  But let’s go one further.

We go further, because there is something about the complaint which is particular to this discussion.  Let me give an example.

It is like evolution.  (Yikes!  The third rail!)

Now, just imagine that I have no position on evolution.  Imagine I have just woken from a slumber which began when I was seven, and now I am 32.  I am trying to get a grip on the world around me, our collective understanding of it, and most importantly, whatever is true.

Take that as my intellectual position, and let me share my (generalized, but real) experiences in asking about evolution.

I have asked those who readily – eagerly, with the salaciousness of an inquisitor – accept evolution, “What is meant by the statement, ‘Evolution is a fact.’?”

And they seem not to know.  It is puzzling, since this is one of the central truths taught to us in biology.  Again, I’m talking about adherents, not dissenters.  But among those I ask, there is confusion about what is really a fact – as in, something observed – and what is theory – as in, what we make of our observations, and what we infer from them.  And atheists may be surprised to know that it took a Catholic to clear things up for me.**

Now, certainly, there are professional biologists who really do understand evolution, and could clearly articulate the facts and the theory to me.  For them, there is not the same confusion as there is among laymen.  I just don’t know them personally – or I’ve been asking the wrong people.

So, let’s tie this together…

If I were to complain that none of the evolutionists I know really understands evolution, and therefore evolution is an inferior belief – this only takes me so far.  It is the very fact that there are professional evolutionary biologists, who possess a clear and deep understanding of evolution, that should silence my complaint.  Whatever they say – the professionals, the ones who understand evolution deeply – is what I should deliberate upon.

Our atheist wants to say that some Christians are unsophisticated in their belief.  And so they are.

But that is no defeater for Christianity.  One must reckon with giants – Aquinas, Augustine, Anselm, just to mention the A’s – before he dismisses the faith as so much rubbish.


…But wait…we can go another one furtherer…


I have sometimes been met with the opposite objection, which is a peculiar thing to behold.  To paraphrase an atheist friend:  “You have obviously thought a great deal about this, and you have worked these things out over a long period of time.  But what about those who are not as smart, who have not thought about it as much, who have not worked out all of the details – how are they supposed to arrive at the same conclusions?”

That is odd, isn’t it?  The first atheist uses the unsophisticated as a low water mark, to suggest faith is untenable because it is sometimes intellectually shallow; the second sees the faith is tenable, but worries that the unsophisticated may sink rather than swim in these deep waters.

And I would answer:  You don’t have to know that air is lighter than water.  You just have to see what floats.

That is, the unsophisticated Christian can sense God, can rudely understand His requisite attributes, can appreciate – sometimes better than the sophisticated Christian – what an awesome and awful thing it is to encounter God.

The sophisticated Christian wants to understand how vision works; the unsophisticated simply sees.  That he fails to understand the mechanics of vision does not refute the fact that he can see, nor the one whom he sees.^


*But oh, holy Zeus, not this nonsense of “We go one god further” anymore.  Hearing this makes me think the speaker still can’t color inside the lines.

**But this should not be surprising at all, since the Church has declared that the Truth is one, and that scientific truth cannot contradict theological truth, and vice versa.  The stance, properly, is that a scientific truth is what it is, and theological truth is what it is, and they only overlap in the sense that the scientific truth is a kind of program God has drafted in order to establish the world we live in.  The corollary would be like thinking a “story truth” could somehow disprove the existence of the author.

^I know there are some friendly atheists who may read this, and I want to offer an addendum in a follow-up post.

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