What is Needed? Disbelief

There is a wonderful essay here by Paul Wallace. One could quibble with Mr. Wallace here and there, but his over-all take and his tone is refreshing and encouraging to say the least. Here is a guy who “gets” it. More importantly, I think this probably reflects the way a great many, if not most, scientists truly feel about the relationship between “science” and “religion.”

The telling point he makes, which is all too evident when reading the comments he takes issue with, is that most secular fundamentalists haven’t a flipping clue as to what Christianity is or teaches. These people are fighting against phantoms. The ignorance would be funny if it wasn’t just so embarrassing. At least serious Christians know something of philosophy, science, and the thinking of serious atheists of the past. Serious Christians have been to the brink with these thinkers and dared to look down. Today’s secular fundamentalists/atheists have dared nothing but to congratulate themselves for slaying figments.

He also points to what “myth” really means in these sorts of conversations. And in this context, it is what postmodern philosophers mean when they speak of “narratives” “world-views” and really, metaphysics in general. As such, secular humanism and philosophical materialism are “myths” which may or may not be true, but they are myths nevertheless.

Here are some good quotes:

First, Christianity is in fact compatible with evolution and the “closing of the gulf between humans and other animals.” There are many extraordinarily intelligent Christians who have freely admitted that evolution poses challenges to Christian theology and have freely chosen to not ignore them or sweep them under the rug. They have a deep knowledge of Christian history and theology as well as evolutionary theory. And they have reconciled the two and find joy living and working on the boundary between them. These people are not uncommon. Many of them are parishioners in Catholic and mainline churches, many are teachers and professors, and many of them are ordained ministers. What is evidenced in this comment is a failure to pay attention to the fact that Christianity is a complex and intellectually grown-up tradition.

And, Oh my! If only Christians would wrap themselves tighter in the mythology! That would be a good and even glorious thing, so long as we all understand what is meant by “mythology.” To say something is a myth is not to say it is false. Myth tells truths that are not expressible in discursive language. Myths can be true or false. A false myth, like a bad scientific idea, is quickly discarded because it does not speak the truth about the world. A true myth survives because it resonates deeply with lived human experience. A true myth brings one face-to-face with reality and has nothing to do with literalism or the ignoring of scientific evidence.

I would like to ask a favor of the atheists and secular humanists who wonder how to approach us religious people. Please do not “accommodate” us. Please do not “confront” us. Instead, get to know us. Please do not presume to know us already…Get to know some of us. And then, at some point, do the unthinkable: Take the risk of disbelieving—just for a moment and as a truly live option—the ideas you think hold you and your world together. Disbelieving is one of the most vitally important things people can do. Without disbelief there is no growth. To disbelieve is to live.

And what I am aiming for is much more modest: For at least one person to think twice before making a caricature of Christianity. Doing so is sloppy thinking and, more often than not, doing so has no effect beyond making serious people write you off. People should criticize Christianity all they want, but they should do so in knowledge—knowledge won by the act of disbelief—and not in ignorance of the thing criticized.

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3 Responses to What is Needed? Disbelief

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    I feel your pain. It is unfortunate that all the work in this debate seems to be on your side, it being so difficult to harness yourself faithfully to belief while at the same time engaging in various levels of rational thought. I recognize that your job is quite a bit harder than mine, which is simply to advocate for the consistent, evidence-based story of reality. Call it a myth if you like, but as your writer says, there are myths and there are myths.

    I think the key difference is of criterion. One is whether a myth is true or not.. faithful to evidence, reason, reality, etc. And the second is whether a myth is congenial to human psychology. Wallace clearly is divided on this point, since they are fundamentally divergent criteria, as seen in every religious system known to man. He advocates …”A true myth survives because it resonates deeply with lived human experience.” This is acceeding to the criterion of Freud and Jung, not that of reason. The importance of this kind of mythical artistry is undeniable, but it has nothing to do with dealing with reality in a defensible way or even having reasonable moral or other beliefs.

    So, I enjoyed the article as well, and even was moved to write a letter! But it hardly addresses the real issues, calling instead for unbelievers to take seriously sets of beliefs that are not only nonsensical, but inexhaustible. After we are done with Baptist Christianity, do we go on to Mormonism, then to Greek mythology, and thence to Bahai, taking each one seriously in turn and appreciating the truth of each? Where will it all end? It only ends with understanding, and the atheist understanding of religion is extremely acute, even as it renders you and Wallace uncomfortable and battling for some semblance of dignity in belief.

    All I can say is.. keep on working- someday you will get there! On our side, we will keep analyzing and thinking as well, and maybe new evidence will come in against atheism.. stranger things have been said to happen.


  2. Burk Braun says:

    Oh- I forgot to mention that your title seems disingenuous. Whose disbelief? It looks like you need the disbelief of atheists in their own philosophy. It looks like you are, as always, fishing for conversion. Best of luck!


  3. Darrell says:


    Given your comments, you must have missed this part:

    “People should criticize Christianity all they want, but they should do so in knowledge—knowledge won by the act of disbelief—and not in ignorance of the thing criticized.”

    As soon as you are ready to criticize in “knowledge” let us know. Otherwise, you simply prove many of his points. So, either way, keep responding. Please.


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