There may be some things in this essay that address, again, the ongoing conversation taking place within the threads of the last several posts.  Here is a good quote:
“The supposedly self-evident truth of the non-existence of the Creator is nothing more than a postulate that cannot be demonstrated – as Dawkins, like many scientists and philosophers before him, recognises. It is nothing more than an opinion, a belief, just as much the product of a sort of “faith” as the opposing thesis. Atheist rationalism cannot claim for itself a monopoly of scientific validity for the simple reason that its view of God is not “scientific” – is not proof-based and is, in fact, but an assemblage of hypotheses and probabilities.”
I do think the writer misspeaks when he says that Dawkins recognizes this truth, as he clearly does not.  Anyway, here the writer sums up what I think is the way we need to address the issue of narratives that oppose one another on critical points:
“One would have thought that the only truly humanistic attitude – midway between two theses that cannot prove themselves definitively – would be to make a commitment to ongoing debate, and then actively to pursue it out of concern for mutual intellectual integrity. It is only through such a clash of ideas that we learn to be self-critical and approach intellectual humility.”
He touches on one of the dilemmas I hear often, which is this: If there are two beliefs that can be reached by reasonable people in reasonable ways, then are we not “privileging” one over the other if we were to say (or if those holding the opposing beliefs were to say), this narrative is “true” and the other “false”?  Isn’t it “exclusivist” to hold that one’s metaphysical beliefs are true, while the other persons’ are false?
I have already noted my response to this sort of question, but here it is again:
“…The matter of all faiths (comprehensive world-views/philosophies) being ultimately unfounded by appeals to evidence and facts alone, is not the same issue as to then how do we know which one is correct (and such an issue and question assumes so much by the way!). That is another question and matter. The first assertion no doubt can lead to the next, but everyone wants to jump there before they sit for a moment and take in the fact that their own faith, their own world-view, sits on an equal plane with other narratives in the sense that it is an interpretation of the facts and evidence—it is not a one-to-one direct correlation between our gaze of the universe and TRUTH. Of course that is what we want, that one-to-one correlation so we can say, “Look at me—I’m right and everyone else is wrong—because I have all the facts and evidence on my side (or the “right” reading of the Bible—“it clearly says…”). It is the fundamentalist temptation, for both the secular and religious, whether it is a “reading” of nature or the Bible or other text.”

“Finally, because all narratives sit on this equal plane, it should not necessarily lead one to conclude that one cannot then ever know which one is true or truer than another. Because to conclude such could only mean that one had a-priori set up a bar (had in mind) for truth that no narrative can reach. Any such bar could only be constructed or arrived at by some other faith, some other world-view or philosophy.”

The dilemma was also addressed by James Olthuis.  Here is what he writes in the link I provided in another post:
“There is another important implication of understanding worldviews in this way. If we recognize that though our faith is affirmed and nurtured in terms of our worldview, still our worldviews do not flow from our faith alone, then we have the room as well as the obligation to acknowledge and honor other world-views as being significant and worthy formations of a common underlying faith. Such recognition allows us to endorse our own worldview enthusiastically even as we recognize and learn from other worldviews.”

“Even though we can do nothing other than confess and use our perception of reality as true for us – if we didn’t so believe, we would have another perception – we may not canonize our interpretation of reality as the infallible blueprint for life. Such absolutization of our views conveniently absolves us from the need constantly to test and refine our own perceptions, and it negates the possibility of seriously considering any other perception of truth and reality. Indeed, it blocks us from being truly open to God’s revelation.”

And of course, this is exactly what fundamentalists, whether like Dawkins’ of the secular type or those of the religious type, fail to see and do.  So when I think of Bernard’s “distaste” issue, it could be that he is reacting to the fundamentalist urge to “canonize” their interpretation of reality.  And I agree with him.  However, it is not mutually exclusive to believe, one, that my narrative is true (in Olthuis’s sense of the ultimate) and, two, that I am still a flawed person who is on a journey and needs to continue learning and growing.  Any one of us could learn over time that our narrative is wrong.  This is what we normally call a crisis of belief or faith (it can happen—and does—to the atheist, the theist, and the agnostic) and is how “conversion” happens.  We also need to be open to the possibility (fact!) that we do not understand well or misapply what could still be a world-view/narrative that captures the truth of reality.
We cannot then (because of the fundamentalist error and our reaction to it) make the mistake of thinking that one side is “privileging” or being “exclusivist” because there are a number of things we would have to assume to come to that conclusion.
First, we would have to assume that such claims are private opinions rather than truths in an objective and universal sense.  Out of respect, we should take the atheist and theist at their word, that they really believe what they do- in a universal, for all time, and in all places sort of way.  The agnostic’s objection then should be, “I just don’t know who is correct here,” and not, “It has nothing to do with who is correct (they may be for all I know!), it’s just that I don’t like the idea of privileging private subjective opinions over others because such is exclusivist.”  “They are both reasonable people who have reached their conclusions in reasonable ways- viewing the same evidence.”  To the contrary, logic, I think, demands that if we believe something to be true, whether “The earth is round” or “God exists” we are not then “privileging” or being “exclusivist” to assert its truthfulness, even if someone disagrees.  The person asserting the “privileging” critique must recognize that logic or explain why it doesn’t hold.  And, again, it matters not that the truth of each statement is reached in different ways (They must be reached in different ways- otherwise we commit philosophical category errors). 
Second, we would have to assume that only those claims or assertions that can be shown empirically can be true, again, in the sense already noted.  This just begs the question and also ends in making philosophical category errors.  It also, ironically, actually privileges empiricism- the epistemology of a greater narrative called philosophical naturalism.  In other words, this is where we get the idea that all meta-physical beliefs are on the same plane so to speak.  “They are all equally immune from empirical proof therefore…”  These two lines of thought, these two assumptions, actually “privilege” the narrative (Enlightenment/Secular) of those who assert this charge of “privileging” or of being “exclusivist”.
In my view, then, the only reasonable type of agnosticism that makes sense to me is the one that simply says, “I just don’t know whether or not God exists.”
Now, it would still be fairly easy to deconstruct such an honest and plain response and get to the narrative or world-view that provides one the reasons to come to that conclusion.  Even when we say, “I just don’t know,” we have reasons for doing so.  For instance, a dead give-away would be if the person followed up that response with, “I just need more evidence…”  However, there are some who do not reflect much.  Perhaps life is a struggle to survive day-to-day or paycheck to paycheck.  Some people never have the time or were given the educational resources to pursue and contemplate what we would call the “big questions.”  Clearly we could see such a person honestly asserting, “I don’t know— I’ve never thought about it much.”  However, even this grouping is probably a small minority.  Most studies seem to indicate that those at the lower economical levels and those with only High School educations, are far more prone to be theists or spiritual.  But if we just leave it there (“I just don’t know.”), barring belief, I think the agnostic has certainly carved out a space that is far more reasonable than explicit atheism.
The bottom line: True tolerance respects and recognizes real differences as important and significant and seeks understanding; it does not assert a condescending dismissal of differences as if we were speaking of differences of taste or private opinion-and not the very things people believe deeply and strongly as true, objective, and ultimate matters.
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125 Responses to Tolerance?

  1. Burk Braun says:


    “My preferred method is to start with those statements where best guesses, or consensus, is established. At the point where I know of no other viable explanation being proffered, it seems to me I can be justified taking a belief on board on the grounds that there is no known working alternative. This doesn't imply empiricism, any method that provides consensus can underpin such foundations. And I have argued that one can withhold belief beyond this point, if there's no clear way of choosing between alternative beliefs.”

    If I could suggest .. that this is insufficient. This kind of criterion is satisfied by any kind of cultural consensus whatsoever, such as Christianity used to be. Darrell would like nothing more than to go back to the Byzantine dream of one church, one power, … as a total cultural consensus. Ditto for any wayward cultural movement we have been caught up in. These may lead to many things, but not to viable “explanations”, other than in a narrative, psychological sense. But in a philosophical / reality sense? Not really.


  2. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    Would you say neither is more or less likely to be making a true statement?

    By “likely”, are you referring to probability? Probability isn't much help here, as I think you agreed on your blog. Past experience is necessary to determine probability. The question of whether or not God exists isn't one about which we have that experience.

    Now, if you're simply saying that you see no way to determine which of us (myself and the atheist) is making the true claim, I can understand that. I don't hold that your agnosticism is an unreasonable position for you to be in. I do think it's unreasonable to justify staying in it.

    It seems to me that people often want to rationalize the positions they've arrived at to convince themselves and others that they've come to their conclusions based on “reason” and “evidence”. They claim to hold the truths they do because they're “compelled” to. I have ideas about why this is so, but ultimately I think we're still just kidding ourselves when we do that. Truth is, we can believe anything we want to believe. Two people from similar backgrounds share an experience… One uses that experience to justify faith in God, the other uses the same experience to reject faith in God. There's more going on here than “evidence”. When I hear and read peoples' stories, I'm trying to listen past the reasons they give for believing the way they do to why they want to give those reasons in the first place. It's often enlightening, helping me to see why I want to believe the things I do (and where I'm rationalizing my own self).

    This gives me a reason to take the views of those who disagree with me seriously — maybe more seriously than I take the views of those who do agree. That people disagree doesn't suggest to me that I shouldn't choose at all; but it does suggest I can't stop questioning my choices.


  3. Hi Ron

    Does this idea that people are free to believe anything they want mean that, as you see it, there's no necessary relationship between truth and belief?

    Where I think I stand on this (and it's an admittedly fluid arrangement) is that reality has a way of impinging upon belief. It does this by creating implications for beliefs, such that we aren't exactly free to believe whatever we want.

    So, I hold that the person who believes he shouldn't step in front of the moving vehicle is more rational than the one who holds otherwise. And the criterion for rationality here is the way the reality of the bus' momentum impinges upon the believer.

    Now metaphysical beliefs have implications too, but I'm less clear about the way in which the metaphysical reality impinges upon the believer. It's more difficult, perhaps impossible, to judge. And so it seems to me we are sometimes free to believe whatever we want. Should we not then seek, in these cases, some sort of language that signals in such a case our beliefs are not tethered to reality in the same way?

    And, as you say, we believe things very often because we want to believe them, there is a psychological element to them (see, you and Burk do agree after all). If this is true in the metaphysical realm, is it not more accurate to say 'I believe in X in the sense that I want to believe in X, it suits my personal needs?' rather than saying 'I believe in X because I have cause to think this is the way reality actually is.'

    As I say, just looking for the language that might capture this difference between the physical and metaphysical.

    I'm interested you think there is something inherently unreasonable about choosing to stay with agnosticism, by the way, if such choices really are about one's wants, rather than evidence or reason. Your reasoning would interest me.



  4. Hi Burk

    Yeah, I'm sensitive to the weaknesses you suggest in this approach to intellectual foundations. I'm just not sure what the alternative looks like.

    We have certain beliefs we all seem to agree upon. There is something compelling about them, given the current state of our knowledge. Our planet really does seem to be round, life on earth really does seem to have a shared ancestry, etc. So, before we dive into the realm of the very many differences in the way we see the world, it seems sensible (to me at least) to work out what binds those beliefs we have in common.

    Now, it clearly has something to do with the nature of the evidence. There are agreed standards of measurement, and there's the ability to test any model against the predictions it generates. But don't both of these aspects in some sense reduce to levels of consensus?

    Insomuch as reality can be known, we have to start by assuming that some of our observations can be trusted. And the ones we trust most are those that do not appear to jump about with the whim of the observer.

    I do think that at some point we have to dig down to our most fundamental shared beliefs and use these as our building blocks. What else could we use?



  5. Burk Braun says:


    I appreciate what you are saying, but the scope of the assumptions being made are vastly different. For the reality-based community, what needs to be assumed is simply that the world is, at a first pass, pretty much the way it looks- that we are not brains in vats, etc. The consensus here is very minimal.

    Then we can (and have) gone on to take that somewhat shaky foundation and extend it into all the nooks and corners of what this reality is telling us about its construction and relationships.

    This involves quite a bit of inferring unseen things, like time itself going at different speeds, or gluons, etc. But these are all still rigorously based ultimately on observation and the assumption that apparent reality is what we've got.

    Contrast that with the Platonic/theist postion that reality is not at all what we are faced with, but rather that there is a hidden reality and we can feel through our quivering navels, our existential fears, and our transcendent hopes. Such assumptions are simply wild, in comparison to the ones above, and moreover have such clear origins much closer to home than the cosmic author that it is at once no surprize and a great surprize that anyone would take them seriously at all.

    Such assumptions are also fundamentally unbounded- they can postulate absolutely anything, so long as it can not be disproved by observation, ironically enough. Building a consensus here is immeasurably more difficult, (philosophically speaking, but not, alas, narratively/psychologically speaking), because the shared ground is not .. real. It is stories we tell each other based on our imagination, with no outside criterion.

    Proceeding to metaphysics, the question is very similar.. is math, for example, something Platonic, with cosmic existence and magical authorship, or is it simply a human invention to compress and manage our understanding of reality (or to entertain us if it happens to have no application)? Here again, we needn't make wild assumptions, or pay particular attention to those who do- they are unnecessary.


  6. Darrell says:

    “Here again, we needn't make wild assumptions, or pay particular attention to those who do- they are unnecessary.”

    Does anyone here see the irony (or comical nature) of the above comment being made within a post entitled “Tolerance?” Anyone?

    Bernard, you have made your “distaste” issue the critical linchpin of your agnosticism. If it is so critical and important to you, why don’t you ever bring it up when it is so clearly needed or the very point being illustrated for you?

    Just curious.


  7. Burk Braun says:

    “they (the assumptions) are unnecessary.”


  8. Darrell says:

    Oh, that makes a big difference. Thank you for being so tolerant. We will go back to being invisible now.


  9. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    Some people do believe they're better off stepping in front of a bus (or a train). It happens in Japan with some regularity, in fact. What are your criteria for concluding they are irrational for believing that?

    Clearly, some beliefs require more complicated rationalization to sustain than others. That the US government is competent enough to both effectively stage the Apollo landings and keep it a secret for forty years truly defies belief — and yet there are those who believe it. As bystanders, we may talk about the relationship between those beliefs and truth; but to those who hold such beliefs, they are the truth. Convincing them that they're wrong is obviously going to take more than simply throwing more “evidence” at them. (“Evidence” is a loaded term, as I've mentioned before, since it is really “interpreted facts” and thus begs the question. To us, the hours of film footage are “evidence” of the landing; to them, it is “evidence” of government skill at duplicity.)

    I don't at all deny the psychological component of belief. I don't think Burk and I really agree though, since Burk seems to think I'm just not psychologically equipped to deal with the reality he finds to be self-evident. I on the other hand think that all of us hold to the beliefs we do because we want to. Burk rationalizes as much as anyone else… That's why he delegitimizes Christians as foolish, irrational, or psychologically desperate — never mind the fact that all sorts of people demonstrably more intelligent and rational than Burk still find Christianity to be an emininently reasonable thing to believe.Now, while I believe in Christianity because I want to, a necessary component of that belief is the belief that Christianity is in fact true. If I don't believe it is true, then it doesn't, as you say, “suit my personal needs”. Who believes things that they nevertheless think probably are false? I do have cause to think Christianity describes the way reality actually is, albeit a subjective cause that some others do not see.

    Again, I'm simplifying greatly here. This isn't a matter of merely plucking beliefs randomly from the air and then deciding to believe them. Lunar conspiracy theories, homeopathy, Mormonism, young-earth creationism, and naturalism all fail to account for my experience of the world sufficiently to entice me to believe in them. Christianity does. Why do you think I shouldn't express this the way I do?

    Viewing agnosticism as an end in itself is unreasonable, as I've explained before (remember the open mouth, open mind?). Considering possibilities is reasonable if one has in mind the goal of choosing at some point. If one views not choosing as inherently more desirable than choosing, then considering possibilities is a pointless exercise because one is a priori ruling out any criteria for choosing in the first place. Now, if you want to claim that engaging in a self-contradictory exercise is enjoyable and therefore it is reasonable for you to engage in it, fair enough. In that case, my belief in Christianity is every bit as reasonable, including the bit about Christianity being true.


  10. RonH says:

    Oh, and I just want to echo Darrell's observation regarding “tolerance”. Nobody in this conversation is demonstrating the level of dismissiveness, disrespect, and dogmatism that Burk is. That doesn't appear to be an issue, however.


  11. Hi Ron

    Sorry, I was unclear. I meant it's irrational to step out in front of the bus motivated by the belief that no harm will occur. In this sense reality constrains the belief, we are not in this case free to believe whatever we want.

    When you say 'to those who hold such beliefs, they are the truth' I immediately think, yes, but when groups of people hold contradictory beliefs, and for both of them they are true, but they can't both be objectively true, we are moving between two slightly different uses of the word truth. Language is tricky in this way, isn't it?

    Where I get muddled is here: on the one hand, we speak of truths as referring just to ways we have personally managed to make sense of the world, in which case two people can have contradictory truths, as they must only hold true from their perspective.

    On the other hand, we have truths which reflect objective reality, meaning some viewing perspectives are flawed.

    I understand how the process you use to embrace your truths gets you to the first type of truth. I don't much understand why it could be expected to get you to the second. The point I'm stuck on is that these processes, as described, are capable of generating contradictory takes on the the truth. Is this not the same as saying, at some level at least, that these methods are necessarily unreliable?

    I don't view not choosing as inherently more desirable than choosing, by the way. There's nothing inherent about it. Of course the goal is to close on something solid. But processes capable of generating contradictory results, that doesn't feel like the sort of thing I'd want to chew upon.

    Now, if someone can build a case to show why one world view is a better guide to objective true, my mind will snap shut in an instant. I'm poised and ready.

    Finally, with regard to your feelings about Burk's approach, there's no way I'm getting into a game of who's being most dogmatic or disrespectful. The substance is so much more interesting.



  12. Darrell says:


    “Finally, with regard to your feelings about Burk's approach, there's no way I'm getting into a game of who's being most dogmatic or disrespectful. The substance is so much more interesting.”

    Are you saying that as long as you find the substance interesting that being dismissive and disrespectful is okay with you? That somehow it’s not distasteful?

    And it is not a “game” anyone is trying to get you into. You got yourself into it when you claimed that the “substance” of your agnosticism boiled down to a “distaste” you felt toward, presumably, the very thing Burk is doing. That you remain silent (although you don’t remain silent when you sense “derisiveness” from certain quarters) takes us back to our suspicion that using the word “taste” is simply a convenient way to avoid justifying your own assertions and is not about something that really bothers you on a personal level.

    So you will forgive us if we take your talk about distaste with a grain of salt from hereon I hope. And I also now will be on the lookout for attempts to point out a lack of tolerance or privileging on the part of anyone except Burk when coming from you. Fair enough?


  13. Hi Darrell

    I'm just of the opinion that the best way to stop mud slinging is not to sling mud. That's all. Apologies if you've taken any of my comments to be personal attacks, it's never intended. I enjoy these conversations.



  14. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    I meant it's irrational to step out in front of the bus motivated by the belief that no harm will occur.

    Well, “no harm” is a value judgment, isn't it? A person intent on killing himself believes that stepping in front of the bus will be an improvement on his current situation. I think the belief you're wanting to articulate here is the belief that when the bus comes in contact with his body, a level of disruption will be created such that he is most likely to cease living. This is indeed a belief that will be difficult to sustain should one choose to act on it… However, it's also a rather obvious and trivial belief which by itself is insufficient to help us answer the question “Should I step in front of the bus?”

    I'm not on board with the notion of different kinds of truth. Things are either true or they aren't. There is variability in how we come to know truths, and the certainty with which we can know them. But that doesn't have a bearing on their “truthiness”. That two different people might make contradictory truth statements only means that one or both of them must be false. That you don't see how to determine which one is false at present (and they do) is a different issue, and has no bearing on the truth claims themselves.

    That my wife loves me is either objectively true or objectively false. I cannot know it scientifically (there are no “love” particles whose existence I can test for), only through subjective experience. And I know even that experience can be unreliable, as people are regularly mistaken or deceived as to the feelings other people have for them. But my ability to get at this truth doesn't change whether or not it is true or false. (In fact, if it weren't one or the other there'd be nothing to “get at” in the first place.) It also doesn't change my inclination to make knowledge claims despite the uncertainty: I know she does love me.

    All human methods of ascertaining truth can produce contradictory claims, including science. There's a huge number of scientific truths we hold today that contradict truths held by scientists in the past. There are truths widely held today that will no doubt be disproven in the future. And, obviously, we don't know which truths those are. I don't think trying to create “classes” of truth is acknowledging this reality in a useful way; and saying that methods which contain uncertainty are “necessarily unreliable” is overstating the case. Uncertainty is present in any method of knowing. That you may be uncomfortable adjudicating between the claims of theists and atheists is something I can accept. My experience leaves me less uncertain than you.



  15. RonH says:


    As for dismissiveness or mudslinging… Far from being a “game”, this aspect of the conversation is quite serious. When one dismisses a perspective as silliness, childishness, irrationality, or psychosis, one is making a pure power-play: it is claiming that the holders of the perspective are inherently deficient and should not be taken seriously. There is a strong desire among strident unbelievers to shut religious voices down completely. Myers, Coyne, Dawkins, Harris, et al believe that no accomodation can or should be made with religious believers, and they use the same kind of rhetoric that Burk employs here. They'll even attack their own side (i.e. Ruse, de Botton) for suggesting otherwise. This is divisive tribalism, as bad as any rhetoric coming from religious fundamentalists. Get enough people to believe it and you have all the support you need to bring state power to bear on “fixing” the undesirables. In his discussion of worldview, Darrell is trying to show how our worldviews all rest on things we take to be true but cannot prove or know for certain are true. This is not a controversial claim in philosophical circles, even among non-theists. What it does do is expose the emptiness of fundamentalist rhetoric by pointing out that it's meaningless to condemn another worldview as stupid or irrational on the basis of one's own assumptions. Recognition that we all begin from a priori assumptions of equal foundation (i.e. none beyond our own experience) means we're not justified in silencing another view on the grounds that it is epistemically inferior. While you may not share Burk's rhetoric, you appear to share in his opposition to Darrell's claim that our worldviews are epistemically equal. This is implicit support for naturalism's assertion of epistemic superiority. In principle, your agnosticism may reject the claims of both theists and atheists. In practice, it seems to be more accomodating of one side than the other, inflammatory speech notwithstanding.


  16. Hi Ron

    Yes, it's the trivial case, that stepping in front of buses causes physical damage, that I was attempting to articulate. Sorry if I was being unclear.

    And from the instincts that yield such trivial relations (the instinct, for instance, to believe those models that have proven most reliable in the past represent the best bet for the future) a whole raft of perhaps less trivial claims have emerged (which mosquitos carry malaria, which chemo regimes work best against which cancers, which gases have most impact upon heat retention in the atmosphere etc).

    We can, I think, create a distinction here that does not rely upon certainty, but rather upon the notion of best guess. Sure, one day in the future we may see it differently (although I struggle to see how), but for now the round earth stands as our best hypothesis. Scientific knowledge is hence both probabilistic and evolving, but still the notion of a best guess makes sense for the established core of knowledge (at the frontiers, agnosticism rules).

    In the case of the metaphysical, the best guess doesn't hold, in that we are unable to describe a process by which beliefs converge. I think this difference is very important, especially if it is indeed possible to restrict one's beliefs to those in the first (best guess) category.

    And so, before we dismiss Burk for failing to realise that we are all on an epistemic level playing field here, it's first necessary to establish why this distinction doesn't hold. I suspect that, beneath the rhetoric, he's claiming the distinction is valid and important. If we simply taken it as given that all world views make the same sorts of call on faith, we are in danger of dismissing his view as ill informed without explaining why.

    And I heartily agree, such dismissals are exactly at the heart of so much pointless and frankly damaging animosity. It is actually possible to have respectful conversations across the trenches, I think there are loads of good examples of this here. I have my own opinions of when that line is crossed, of course, and doubtless I transgress myself too, in moments of frustration at my inability to explain myself more clearly. But I think the way forward is to try one's best, and not respond to goading.



  17. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    In the case of the metaphysical, the best guess doesn't hold, in that we are unable to describe a process by which beliefs converge.

    Why not? I've already suggested history. Religions evolve, die off, and even converge. For example, monotheistic religions have proven to be rather more successful — even to the extent that Hindu friends have told me that Hinduism isn't really polytheistic in the sense most non-Hindus think it to be. You want an answer to the question “How can I know for sure?”, but there isn't any answer you're going to be satisfied with. All we've demonstrated here is that the metaphysical isn't physical. Physically, we know what will happen when we step out in front of the bus. But whether or not we should do it is the more pertinent question, and we'll unfortunately have to settle for an answer with uncertainty.

    I suspect that, beneath the rhetoric, he's claiming the distinction is valid and important.

    No, he's not. He's claiming (and not “beneath the rhetoric” either) that metaphysical truth isn't truth at all. He's not establishing a distinction. He's saying there is no distinction. There is only “empirical” truth, and that's it. This is why theists are irrational: they're positing something to be true which cannot possibly be (on his assumptions, of course).

    If we simply taken it as given that all world views make the same sorts of call on faith, we are in danger of dismissing his view as ill informed without explaining why.

    Hardly. First of all, nobody's saying we make the “same sorts of call on faith”. I think a theist makes more a priori assumptions than an atheist does, but an atheist still makes some. Secondly, nobody is dismissing Burk's view: Burk is the only one doing the dismissing. Anyone who holds assumptions he does not cannot even think properly.

    Someone who fails to see that we all build worldviews on assumptions that cannot be validated outside of the worldview is simply off the philosophical reservation — and that's not just a theist's perspective (c.f. the philosophers Darrell links). Indeed, much of evangelical Christianty rails against this “postmodern” notion for the same reason Burk does: if true, it becomes more difficult to damn The Other out of hand as evil, stupid, ignorant, irrational, or psychotic.

    such dismissals are exactly at the heart of so much pointless and frankly damaging animosity.

    Damaging, yes. Pointless, no. Because damage is the point. The more strident atheists are true believers in their Really Real Truth that everyone else must become subject to. “Stupidity” is their new original sin — and of course they get to define what's “stupid”. “Experts” are the new priesthood, and “studies show” replaces “thus says the Lord”. And conveniently enough every area of life can be reduced to science — morality, education, the value of human life, politics, etc. I'm not the one doing the dismissing here — I'm arguing that none of us are in a position to dismiss the other. Oddly enough, this notion doesn't appear to be gaining traction…

    Sorry, Bernard… History is a pretty good indicator of what happens when True Believers of any sort manage to obtain power. I'm not interested in living in an “intellectual” oligarchy any more than a theocracy (you folks ever read Brave New World or seen Gattaca?). This notion of worldviews as leveling the playing field might help us carve out enough space to establish a workable pluralism. Problem is, pluralism isn't really what everyone wants.


  18. Ron

    You wrote 'Burk is the only one doing the dismissing. Anyone who holds the assumptions he does cannot even think properly.'

    That reads rather oddly to me.


  19. Darrell says:


    You misquote Ron. I wish you would go over Burk's writing with the same eye for detecting intolerance you seem to be using on the rest of us. Just a thought.


  20. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    You misread what I wrote (and in a way that contradicted the entire rest of my comment). I said (with clarifying bold): “Anyone who holds assumptions he does not cannot even think properly.” And I'm just restating what I hear him saying. Theists are irrational for making assumptions he does not want to make.


  21. Sorry, misread it!



  22. Burk Braun says:


    I appreciate your analysis, and it is correct in several points. But the question really is.. are we really talking about metaphysical issues, or about scientific (and cultural power issues) clothed as metaphysical issues?

    Theists claim the right to believe basically anything they want, per the cultural/traditional templates of religion, making various exceptions for what science has found out as bounds to what they can pile on top as inferences about “truth” and “reality” (or not, depending on how retrograde they wish to be). Tolerance should be given to any belief, as in civil society, we extend tolerance to any civil person. But intellectual and social tolerance are quite different things.

    In the vast majority of theistic beliefs, (origin of everything, resurrections, etc.), however, theists are not dealing in metaphysics at all, but in history, physics, biology, cosmology, … the works. That is why this is such an important issue, for me as it is for you.

    It would be helpful if you could define the -metaphysical- issues in a clean way. From what I understand, the only one in play is … suppose god … then all the other inferences and conclusions become believable, (insofar as they have not yet been disproved empirically), because one has loosed every possible bound on what reality might consist of. It allows imaginary thinking to pose as “truth” / “belief”, when it is the most tenuous of speculation.

    That is really my whole point- that the metaphysics (epistemology, really) are indeed the most important, and that under that banner and after making their grand assumption, theists smuggle in an endless array of speculations, absurdities, social constructs, and psychological fixations as the consequence of a grievously misguided (though extremely common!) metaphysical position. Skepticism and intellectual humility is called for, as is psychological insight!


  23. Hi Ron

    The distinction I'm interested in is this. You say we all know what will happen when we step in front of a bus. Quite.

    Do we all know there's a God? Well, some know there is, some know there isn't, some are unsure.

    When convergence does occur regarding metaphysical matters (say regularity) then I think we can still speak of a best guess, in that there's no awareness of a viable alternative. Similarly, should we end up converging on a God solution, such that no alternative seems viable, then in this case the distinction would break down.

    We don't yet have convergence on the existence of God, and as such we can't use the 'no known alternative' approach to settling upon a best guess.

    There is, I think, a live distinction between 'the earth is round, how else could one fit the evidence together' with 'the Christian God is the one true God, although clearly there are many other ways of piecing the evidence together.'

    I don't claim that we shouldn't commit to the second type of belief, I think that's not just a personal choice, but a reasonable option. But I do maintain one can live without making such assumptions, and hence the 'we all live by faith, it's a level playing field' claim might require a little refining.

    I also wonder, although I'm hazy on this one, what it means to speak of truth or knowledge in the second case, and whether reasonable is entirely the right word, in that we move beyond reason in order to choose between options (and I'm aware that for some choice isn't the right word here either.)



  24. RonH says:

    Hi, Burk…

    Just because one believes in God doesn't mean one can (and will) believe in anything. The conclusions theists arrive at they do so through reason based on their assumptions — same as you, just different assumptions.

    But, as I said, none of this is about philosophy: it's all about power. This is a worldview clash, pure and simple. When the first Christians were persecuted by the Romans, it wasn't because they had odd beliefs or denied the existence of the Roman gods. It was because they refused to acknowledge the divine authority of Caesar; and in doing so they were a perceived threat to the social order — a competing reality that had to be destroyed. Unfortunately, Christians with the sword have often not behaved any better. Human beings seem to love controlling others, and possess no end of creative ways to rationalize doing it. (Although Christianity at least has the advantage of being able to condemn this behavior in itself.)

    Now, as I see it, there are two ways this can play out. We can all decide that another go 'round on this wheel isn't gonna lead to anything good, and that we're just going to have to come to coexist with people who hold fundamentally different assumptions than we do. Or, we can take the “easy” way out and conclude that we'd all be better off if we could just shut down Those Stupid/Irrational/Ignorant/Evil/Imbalanced People and get on with Making The World Better. So long as you possess not a worldview but the Really Real Truth, then option #2 is nigh on unavoidable. You'll understand if I don't wish you “good luck with that”.


  25. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    You seem unconvinced that I can speak of truth, knowledge, or reason as regards my beliefs, and at this point I'm at a loss as to how I might persuade you otherwise. To me, this feels an awful lot like privileging the naturalist worldview, which presumably does satisfy your criteria for truth, knowledge, and reason — or, at the very least, makes no demands that cannot be harmonized easily with your own desires. A level playing field seems to be explicitly not on the table here, so I guess there is nothing left for me to say.

    We all make assumptions — a priori assumptions — the truth of which cannot be established outside our own worldview. We don't make the same assumptions, and our assumptions may have very different implications. We often make assumptions whose truth is somewhat shaky even within our own worldview. If we could agree on a common definition of truth, there wouldn't be a worldview conflict in the first place.

    Saying “well, we can all agree on the truth of empirical science” simply doesn't work. As I said to Burk: this isn't about science, it's about power, and science is just the weapon. So many “scientific” claims aren't science at all. Dawkins feels science demonstrates “there almost certainly is no god”, and that religious education is a form of child abuse. The eugenicists and “social Darwinists” in the US during the early part of the 20th century appealed to science in their advancement of all sorts of Utopian notions: racial purity, compulsory sterilization, social engineering, etc. Those were precisely the movements, by the way, that created the first serious organized hostility towards evolution in the US (which had been brought over by Darwin's good friend Asa Gray — a Christian — and up to that point had encountered little significant resistance). It was the trans-scientific claims that provoked American distrust of science and indirectly gave birth to modern creationism as a defensive (if misguided) reaction. The fact that the Nazis took those concepts and applied a little German engineering to them only added more fuel to the fire in the 50s and following. It's all well and good for naturalists to disavow these notions as “unscientific” now… But they didn't then, and were every bit as certain of them.

    Ironically, prominent atheists have quite resourcefully seen the advantage in perpetuating the creation wars. Organizations like Francis Collins' BioLogos, dedicated to helping evangelical Christians come to terms with evolution, get nothing but scorn and attacks from the likes of Myers, Coyne, et al.

    Christianity did indeed forge this blade, and stropped it to a razor's edge. It will now likely have it's own throat cut by it, if the New Atheists have their way. Ah well. Fortunately for us, resurrection is all part of the schtick…


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