A perennial problem in any exchange or conversation with atheists/agnostics heavily invested in scientism is the complete misunderstanding of the terms and concepts used by Christians specifically, and philosophers in general. Now, do Christians also misunderstand the terms and concepts used by those who inhabit the narrative of scientism? Of course. Do I? I’m sure I do. But I would argue it is much more pronounced and there is much less self-awareness on the part of those inhabiting scientism than the other way round (ironically, we may see any comments either confirm this or prove me wrong). Most Christians outside fundamentalism, who have college degrees, are much more familiar with the terms and concepts of those holding to scientism than those inhabiting that narrative, with similar educational backgrounds, are of Christianity and its understanding of itself. I want to look at three links that will further unpack my observation of this disparity.
This first is here and it is a short review of David B. Hart’s latest publication, which is a collection of his essays. Here are some portions that will highlight my point:
“Did Gopnik bother to read what he was writing there? I ask only because it is so colossally silly. If my dog were to utter such words, I should be deeply disappointed in my dog’s powers of reasoning. If my salad at lunch were suddenly to deliver itself of such an opinion, my only thought would be ‘What a very stupid salad.’”
The above, it is pointed out, is Hart’s response to the comments Adam Gopnik made regarding something Hart had written. And here, along with commentary, is what it is Gopnik wrote that prodded Hart to such a response:
“If that seems smug to you [Hart’s comments above regarding Gopnik], you might not dig Hart. His tone here gets at something else that Robinson and Hart share — a hard-earned exasperation with what passes for intelligent discourse about religion. For here is what Gopnik wrote, in The New Yorker of all places, that moved Hart to rebuke his salad: Unbelievers possess ‘a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world.’ Why? Because we know that human beings evolved and ‘that the earth is not the center of the universe’; and because we have no ‘evidence’ of a miracle’s ever having taken place.’”
Clearly the above shows how someone like Gopnik simply has no idea on earth what he is talking about. His comments show a breath-taking ignorance of even elementary philosophy/logical reasoning or Christian beliefs.
The writer goes on:
“The question of how knowing these things — not one of which any religious believer of my acquaintance would deny, by the way — implies a monopoly on scientific knowledge for materialists is, of course, easy to answer: It doesn’t.
There are important arguments to make here about ideology, epistemology and background assumptions, but Hart registers a more elementary objection: As ‘Augustine or Philo or Ramanuja (and so on) could have told’ Gopnik,
God is not a natural phenomenon. Is it really so difficult to grasp that the classical concept of God has always occupied a logical space that cannot be approached from the necessarily limited perspective of natural science?
As Stanley Hauerwas put it in a discussion of Thomas Aquinas, ‘if we could have the kind of evidence of God the evidentialist desires, then we would have evidence that the God Christians worship does not exist.’
This seems like a cop-out to the acolytes of scientism, because scientism just is the belief, in MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson’s definition, that ‘science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge.’ Whether or not God exists, expecting science to illuminate the question is a category mistake.”
Normally, to show an even further disconnect, the believer in scientism will reply, “ But, if God isn’t a natural phenomenon, then such does not exist” without even realizing they are begging-the-very-question and simply assuming, by faith, that only that which is natural, that which can be proved empirically, can exist. Since that is the very point disputed, to simply repeat it over and over is the surest sign one doesn’t understand the conversation. The bottom line is one cannot have a conversation when one side is this completely ignorant of the other’s meaning and this ignorant of basic errors of logic and category mistakes as noted by the writer. I frankly do not see that same problem, or rather, see it rise to that level, on the part of Christians as they speak to those atheists/agnostics who repeat comments like Gopnik’s.
Here is the bottom line: The moment we hear an atheist/agnostic, in relation to the question of God’s existence, the truthfulness of Christianity, or similar topic, begin to ask for evidence, for empirical or scientific proof, as if we were speaking of Big Foot or something that would show up on radar, we know the person is simply speaking to a straw-man, who, when that is pointed out, will then just beg the question. Further, it shows they have no idea what people, whether Christians or philosophers, are actually talking about. It is a non-starter, a dead end. No real conversation took place then, no matter how much the atheist/agnostic thought there was an exchange of information.
The next link is here. The writer is discussing some reasons why fewer Americans are going to church services. But this is how the writer begins:
“The standard narrative of American religious decline goes something like this: A few hundred years ago, European and American intellectuals began doubting the validity of God as an explanatory mechanism for natural life. As science became a more widely accepted method for investigating and understanding the physical world, religion became a less viable way of thinking—not just about medicine and mechanics, but also culture and politics and economics and every other sphere of public life. As the United States became more secular, people slowly began drifting away from faith.
Of course, this tale is not just reductive—it’s arguably inaccurate, in that it seems to capture neither the reasons nor the reality behind contemporary American belief. For one thing, the U.S. is still overwhelmingly religious, despite years of predictions about religion’s demise. A significant number of people who don’t identify with any particular faith group still say they believe in God, and roughly 40 percent pray daily or weekly. While there have been changes in this kind of private belief and practice, the most significant shift has been in the way people publicly practice their faith: Americans, and particularly young Americans, are less likely to attend services or identify with a religious group than they have at any time in recent memory.
If most people haven’t just logicked their way out of believing in God, what’s behind this shift in public religious practice…”
What’s interesting here is the writer recites the secular conventional wisdom, basically the “Enlightenment” story of the decline of religious belief and practice but then points out its reductive nature and probable inaccuracy on a purely factual level. Putting that aside, the problem for those who believe in scientism is the complete unawareness, the total non-reflective assertion of the story as if it were a basic fact or “everyone knows that” type of historical reality. The writer simply notes it, dismisses it, and moves on. That is where we are presently and I think it a good thing. Until those who still, in knee-jerk fashion, just believe this story can realize it is only one view, only one story, and not established “fact” they too should be dismissed. Again, it is a great example of their unawareness, their obliviousness to how their story is seen by many. It is embarrassing frankly. Most non-fundamentalist Christians, however, know their own story is not an established “fact” as if it were just as common and known as the earth being round. Until atheists/agnostics can come to this same realization regarding their scientism and the “Enlightenment” story, there will continue to be a huge barrier in the ability to hear other narratives of either religious decline or its continued relevance.
The final link is here. He writes:
“What if reality and unreality are not a one or a zero, a true or false affair? What if there are degrees of reality?
Simone Weil, whose religious philosophy weaves Plato with the New Testament and shows a scrupulous concern with the material world, writes in Gravity and Grace, ‘The mind is not forced to believe in the existence of anything…the only organ of contact with existence is acceptance, love. That is why beauty and reality are identical. That is why joy and the sense of reality are identical.’
Her idea is that something, anything—the Bible, the cross, the person slumped over there in the café or asleep on that park bench—can become more or less real depending on the degree to which we accept them, how much we are open to loving them. She says, ‘Among human beings, only the existence of those we love is fully recognized.’
I’m beginning to accept the stories and symbols of Christianity without expecting they come out of the gate fully real or believable for me. I continue to harbor doubts about them. I’ve experienced them by turns as sites of wonder and as stories whose literal and historical truth I wonder about.
If God is the ultimate transitional object, occupying an intermediate space between our subjective experience and external, measurable reality, so be it. God is both transitional object and provider of the re-enchanting holding environment we all still need, the one in whom Paul says ‘we live, and move, and have our being.’
To live is to be in transit, moving as we do between fleeting people and moments. One option is to let the Great Big, Very Real Disappearing Act make us seek escape in the deadening pendulum swing from private anxious fantasies to external distractions. (Lest I risk succumbing to the temptation of playing the prophet with perfect vision that I discovered in adolescence, here’s where I confess, and halfheartedly repent of, my current “reality” addiction: Season 12 of “The Bachelorette”).
Another option is to trust that with repeated exposure, the signs and wonders of religion—undeniably tarnished by abuse and neglect—can become less rote, more real. And with its increasing vividness, the imagined world that takes shape inside our brains can draw us more fully out into the world of hurting, in-transit humans, who need as much real presence and attentive holding as we can pass along.”
Does the writer mean he believes in the Christian narrative, even though he knows it’s not really true? I don’t think so; it is more complex than that. He notes that even though this world takes shape “inside our brains” it becomes “more real”. How can something be “imagined” and more “real”? How might we talk about the above? Fundamentalists can’t quite get their heads around the above, just like many teenagers can’t quite get their heads around the difference between love and sexual urges. The above is about first accepting something, to be able to really see it. It’s about loving to be able to perceive. The above is about beginning to realize that existence is that which always points beyond itself, whether the cross or a person “asleep on a park bench.” The above is about an orientation to existence, and not a set of beliefs or ideology about existence from a distance. If we hooked a teenager up to a machine that monitored his heart rate, temperature, and chemical reactions throughout his body, while he was talking to the person he had a crush on, we could just print out the findings and say “this is love”, we are seeing love here. But that is not “seeing” love. We can’t see love that way. We may have an ideology that love can be reduced to the print-out and think we are seeing love, but that is actually to be blind.
Or perhaps that person is “just” a collection of molecules at rest on a bench in a park—another collection atoms and molecules. Perhaps it points to nothing. Perhaps the chemical changes in one’s body when one meets that “significant” other is nothing more than that and the songs, the poems, and the literature that well up, that bleed out, that cry out, and laugh out, in response to those changes (as humanity has produced from time immemorial) is some weird palsy, some form of brain malfunction, pointing to nothing (all that literature, all those songs, and poems) other than chemical reactions and matter-in-motion. And perhaps the only meaning is that which I assign to it, or not assign, knowing all along, either way, it is meaning made up in my head, based upon nothing that is true outside my head. Perhaps.
What are we open to? What are we willing to see? What if we can only recognize the truth when we love and every “fact” and piece of “evidence” is only true to the extent it is seen and understood from a perspective of love, even though we all see the same facts and evidence. Now the fundamentalist will read this and shake his head; “nonsense” he will mumble to himself. “All this talk of ‘love’ and ‘acceptance’ to know what is true. Good grief. All I have to do is go out and proceed empirically, scientifically, and I will know what is true. Love and acceptance have nothing to do with it. The sun is the same distance from the earth whether I love or accept anything” And with this attitude, therein lies the problem, the disconnect, the complete misunderstanding of what is being talked about, the complete act of talking past the other, of not hearing.
I think non-fundamentalist Christians, for the most part, get what the great majority of atheists/agnostics are saying, whether we agree with them or not, although I’m sure we still have much work to do in that area. We are certainly nowhere near where we need to be in truly “hearing” the atheist/agnostic. I’m sure I’m more than guilty in that regard. The question I pose to the atheist/agnostic is: How close are you to hearing the non-fundamentalist Christian? I think one has to leave fundamentalism before he can “hear” the other. That is the journey I have been on for the past decade at least. I have far to go. For both secular and religious fundamentalism, that is indeed the only way out of this blindness, this deafness, and the only way to get past the disconnect and the inability to even participate meaningfully in these types of conversations with the “other”.