Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

Angry Conversations with a Childhood Friend & Calvinist: Part VI

Posted by Clamence/The Chaplain on April 30, 2009

Calvinist Friend:

You define faith as “belief in something without evidence”. However, the dictionary definition for faith is “belief that is not based on proof”. There’s a difference between evidence and proof. True faith should have evidence supporting it. Otherwise we call it “blind faith”, and my God hasn’t called me to have a blind faith. A classic illustration of my definition of faith (and the dictionary’s) was given in a debate on the between Richard Dawkins and his fellow Oxford colleague John Lennox on the existence of God: www.dawkinslennoxdebate.com. dlIn the debate, Dawkins gave the same definition of faith that you gave. Lennox shot back by asking Dawkins, “do you have faith in your wife?”. Dawkins quickly responded “yes”. Then Lennox asked “do you have any evidence to back up this faith in your wife?” Dawkins chuckled and was intellectually honest enough to actually say “yes” again. He fumbled around a little bit and was really thrown off guard at this point in the debate. Again, my faith is not a blind one. Do I get some psychological side benefits from it? Sure, just as you get psychological benefits from your belief in no god. I find comfort in sharing a faith with my family and friends and being a part of a community. But it’s not a crutch. I don’t have to convince myself of the truths of it anymore. I’ve done the hard work. Yes, I’ve studied the ancient religions. I have close friends from many different faiths and backgrounds. Although you may scoff at the difference, I’m actually married to a Catholic. Believe me, I’ve had to do some serious learning of another faith in marrying my wife, as there are some serious longstanding differences in our two religions going back to the 16th Century Protestant Reformation. I’ve studied Islam, I’ve studied Judaism, I’ve studied the ancient eastern mystical religions. Neither do I find Ravi and R.C. Sproul to be light reading in comparison. You diminish theology but forget that it times past “theology was was the queen of the sciences and theology was her handmaiden”. And you repeatedly bring up the test of “being published in a peer review journal” without an honest examination of the politics of the peer review process.

But all the above doesn’t matter if you are not convinced of the existence of a god. Differences between religions are debated among those who already believe in a deity. That common ground is a first step. So yes, we don’t have common ground. You’ve placed your faith in no god, I’ve placed my faith in a god. But once again I ask, what evidence would you accept for the existence of a god? I came across an interesting quote by Antony Flew (who as you know use to be an atheist and is now a converted theist). He wrote this statement back when he was an atheist (in 1968) and basically poses the same question I’m posing but in reverse (i.e., what would one accept as evidence that there is no god). Here’s what he says: “what would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God?” I think that was a fair question he asked.

Believe me, I don’t pray for you because I look down on you. I don’t. You’re clearly a smart person. God teaches me that I’m no better than you and you’re no better than me.

I respect your request not to comment on articles you post on your FB page, but I don’t understand it. Why do you post articles if you don’t want people to comment? You obviously have an audience in mind. What’s the point in posting and then asking people not to comment if they disagree with what you post? That hardly seems intellectually honest? I’m taking a wild stab in the dark, but is it that you are afraid that other friends will see people disagree with you? I have no desire to contribute to your blog, since I’m sure it’s only a venue for those who share your same faith to gang up on people like me. No thanks.

I leave you with a quote a friend just passed on to me today: “we demand proof of God, forgetting that if we could prove God we would be within the compass of our rationalities, and then our logical mind would be our own grotesque God” (George A. Buttrick). You can no more prove God than you can prove evolution or the “big bang”. There’s only evidence. And we agree to disagree on that.

The Chaplain:

Calvinist Friend: You define faith as “belief in something without evidence”. However, the dictionary definition for faith is “belief that is not based on proof”. There’s a difference between evidence and proof.

Not that a dictionary definition means anything at all (take it from an English major)—since words refer to multiple concepts at once, only exist in the society and minds of those utilizing the term, and are connected to multiple connotations that differ from English-speaking culture to English-speaking culture and from individual to individual within the same culture; dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive—but you might want to take a look at the definitions for evidence and proof. They are the same thing. Evidence
Proof
But that is neither here nor there. What truly matters is whether there is a difference between faith in something invisible and faith in something that can be observed or tested for. I will discuss the difference below, when I get to Dawkins.

Calvinist Friend: True faith should have evidence supporting it. Otherwise we call it “blind faith”, and my God hasn’t called me to have a blind faith.

This distinction, between having an examined faith or an inherited faith (sorry to switch terms on you—but I don’t think you’ll object, and I am not trying to pull a bait-and-switch), is one that I used to hear a lot growing up. I can apply this same distinction to non-believers. In fact, I know people who are non-believers simply because they think the idea of miracles is preposterous, they were raised as non-believers, or because they have never met a Christian who wasn’t a self-righteous, I’m-better-than-you asshole. When I have tried to engage these people in discussions about science, philosophy or theology, I discover that they have no idea what I’m talking about. I have commented to my wife before that these non-believers are no different from the Christians I find so distasteful (the ones who have “blind faith”). I am also always dismayed when I discover someone who has left the Christian faith only to become a Wiccan, or to believe in unsubstantiated conspiracy theories (like the laughable idea that the government planned 9/11, or is covering up the real reasons for the buildings’ collapse). I think this is due to their inability to change their world-view engine—they still rely on standards for evidence that do not differentiate between substantiated and unsubstantiated proof.

Am I correct in thinking that you would qualify as having true faith because of your willingness to read and discuss the arguments for and against your faith? I mean this in contrast to someone who does not do much if any reading and has almost no interest in finding out about other paradigms for comprehending the world. If so, then I think that it is vital to approach all issues in life (especially one this important) as you are doing; to make wise and well-informed decisions, it is vital to analyze the rhetorical situation (argument-theory speak explained: understand what real-life situations caused an issue to arise, know who the various parties are who are involved in debating the issue, and recognize what background, beliefs, etc. are constraining people to take specific positions on the issue. Finally, one has to have a thorough understanding of the reasons/evidence/proof that the various groups rely on to reach their positions on the issues). On the other hand, I think that one can be well-read but blinded by what one has read. This is why it is important to evaluate all sources and to have some sort of standards for measuring the reasons/evidence/proof in and of themselves, separate from the “authority” of the person arguing. And we definitely want to avoid believing something simply because it is more “academic” or because it meshes with what we already think. I have noticed a tendency of people on the political Right to focus on fringe views when research reveals something they do not like. For instance, Fox News tries to add authority to those fringe or unqualified opinions by using the broad term of “experts.” That way they can say something like, “Experts have discovered a link between autism and the MMR injection,” and the viewing audience (who is unskilled in rhetorical and research analysis—in fact, they probably aren’t even aware that there is such a thing! For them, if someone on TV says it, it must be true!—automatically thinks that information is a reflection of reality.)

Calvinist Friend: A classic illustration of my definition of faith (and the dictionary’s) was given in a debate on the between Richard Dawkins and his fellow Oxford colleague John Lennox on the existence of God: http://www.dawkinslennoxdebate.com/ . In the debate, Dawkins gave the same definition of faith that you gave. Lennox shot back by asking Dawkins, “do you have faith in your wife?”. Dawkins quickly responded “yes”. Then Lennox asked “do you have any evidence to back up this faith in your wife?”. Dawkins chuckled and was intellectually honest enough to actually say “yes” again. He fumbled around a little bit and was really thrown off guard at this point in the debate.

I hope that you are not presenting being thrown off one’s guard as some sort of evidence. I have heard other Christians present the view that when someone pauses to think, the person they are debating has clearly uncovered and proven a critical truth. I am not too interested in what Dawkins has to say or whether he answered something clumsily (I’ll accept your interpretation of what happened, since I have no interest in watching the interview myself.) I have only read one book of his, The God Delusion. gdIt is a good read, especially his use of the mountain analogy to explain how slow and gradual evolutionary change is. He does a few things in the book that I find annoying, but only because I would have geared the book more towards a Christian audience. He clearly is not making rhetorical choices that would make any friends. He also has this irritating habit of conflating “negative results” of religion. Clearly, a Muslim would never take credit for evils done in the name of Christianity and vice versa. Of course, I have the benefit of having been immersed in conservative evangelical Christianity for my entire childhood and adolescence, so I couldn’t help but fixate on things I would have done better had I written the book. Then again, I am not a biologist! ☺

But back to faith. Like I said in my last message, a dictionary is descriptive, not prescriptive (even though it is you who are incorrect about the definitions of proof and evidence being different). What truly matters is whether Lennox is communicating the same concept when he uses the label “faith,” or whether he is doing a bait-and-switch. In other words, is he using different connotations in each case? I argue that he does, and here is why: I have faith in my wife, because I have observed her behavior in the past. If I had caught her screwing other guys on the side, then I would no longer have “faith” in her. So you see, this type of “faith” is simply a hypothesis about future action based on EVIDENCE of past action. In the other case, there is no past evidence of God to point to. This is why the dictionary definition of faith has the following very different definitions following each other:

1.
confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another’s ability.
2.
belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.

I’m really not sure why Dawkins was “thrown off guard.” Perhaps because he is not familiar with the facts of language that I live and breathe everyday: words mean multiple things. Applying a word to different cases does not mean the cases are the same, since the definition being used is not necessarily the same.

Calvinist Friend: Again, my faith is not a blind one. Do I get some psychological side benefits from it? Sure, just as you get psychological benefits from your belief in no god. I find comfort in sharing a faith with my family and friends and being a part of a community. But it’s not a crutch.

I would never suggest that it is a crutch, since I do not believe it is (at least not in the majority of cases—or, to put it another way, it is no more a crutch than a morning cup of coffee is—something to help you through a moment). My own personal theory is that the majority of people believe in the supernatural because they were raised to believe it. This explains why people overwhelmingly believe in the version of the supernatural that dominates their culture, or that their parents immersed them in. ganeshThere is no doubt in my mind that if you had been born in a Hindu part of India, and your parents were devout Hindus with the last name Patel, you would be a Hindu (and we would now be discussing the existence or non-existence of Ganesh). Additionally, I think the reason only a small group of individuals ever leave their culture’s faith, for non-belief or another religion, is because the pull of culture and family is so strong. Not only that, the power of repetition is incredibly strong. When something gets repeated over and over during the formative years of one’s life, it shapes and hardwires the brain (especially when this “repetition” is ritualized in Sunday services, daily prayers, etc.). After a certain age, worldview becomes ossified as the brain slows down the rate at which it learns and grows. Of course, this explanation leaves out the fact that all cultures throughout history have developed beliefs in the supernatural. There are many theories for why this is (I alluded to one in an earlier message when I mentioned the idea that human children who were more willing to do and believe what their parents say were probably more likely to survive and pass on their genes). We can get into those later if you are interested, but I don’t think it is necessary to address the points you raised above.

Calvinist Friend: I don’t have to convince myself of the truths of it anymore. I’ve done the hard work. Yes, I’ve studied the ancient religions. I have close friends from many different faiths and backgrounds. Although you may scoff at the difference, I’m actually married to a Catholic. Believe me, I’ve had to do some serious learning of another faith in marrying my wife, as there are some serious longstanding differences in our two religions going back to the 16th Century Protestant Reformation.

I don’t scoff at the difference between Catholicism and American, Evangelical Christianity, since (unlike Dawkins and some others who did not eat, drink, sleep and bathe in a religion on a daily basis for 22 years) I learned about these differences throughout my life. The broader implication of what I learned was that Catholic beliefs were heretical and silly, while Evangelical beliefs were true to the original intent of the scriptures. I later learned that this was not exactly an accurate representation.

Calvinist Friend: I’ve studied Islam, I’ve studied Judaism, I’ve studied the ancient eastern mystical religions. Neither do I find Ravi and R.C. Sproul to be light reading in comparison. You diminish theology but forget that it times past “theology was was the queen of the sciences and theology was her handmaiden”. And you repeatedly bring up the test of “being published in a peer review journal” without an honest examination of the politics of the peer review process.

councilWhat theology was in the past seems irrelevant to my point that any serious study of something that has nothing to measure or examine or test for in some way, is really not a field of study at all. Just as Jediology would not be a real academic field of study.

I would be interested to know what you are referring to when you bring up the politics of the review process.

Calvinist Friend: But all the above doesn’t matter if you are not convinced of the existence of a god. Differences between religions are debated among those who already believe in a deity. That common ground is a first step. So yes, we don’t have common ground. You’ve placed your faith in no god, I’ve placed my faith in a god.

No. I have not placed my faith in no God. I think this is a case of getting lost in the maze of language. Belief (or faith) is extant. A lack of belief is an absence. One of the quotes on my blog says, “Calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color.” I think that sums it up well, since something that is absent (the hair) cannot be said to exist. In one of your earlier posts you referred to secular humanism. Referring to this or some other system of belief makes sense since that would exist. The problem you are going to run into though is that I do not hold to a specific dogma for everything. Secular Humanism captures most of the elements of my view of life, the universe and everything, but some aspects of it do not mesh with my thoughts. Still, if you want to attach a label to me in order to make an assertion, since you can’t really talk about something that you do not categorize to some extent, then Secular Humanism is probably the way to go. If I disagree with a specific part of generalized Humanistic thought, I will let you know on a case-by-case basis.

Calvinist Friend: But once again I ask, what evidence would you accept for the existence of a god?

I will accept evidence that derives from the scientific method that has, in just a few hundred years, made discoveries that humans had not been able to make any progress on for tens of thousands of years. That automatically makes it a heuristic to stand in awe of. It has done no less than discover the things that have led to the creation of the technologies (industrial, medical and otherwise) that have led to the modern world; maybe we can have a debate about whether the development of the modern age is a good thing later. ☺ You might find that I agree with you about many more things on that issue.

eplOther forms of evidence I will accept are arguments from sign, induction, cause, deduction, analogy, definition and statistics, as long as those arguments are substantiated enough to avoid being labeled fallacies. I should also mention what I will not accept personal, anecdotal evidence. This is very reasonable, since personal, anecdotal evidence exists for all beliefs in the supernatural. If we were to accept this type of evidence, we would have to say that all beliefs in the supernatural are proven.

Calvinist Friend: I came across an interesting quote by Antony Flew (who as you know use to be an atheist and is now a converted theist). He wrote this statement back when he was an atheist (in 1968) and basically poses the same question I’m posing but in reverse (i.e., what would one accept as evidence that there is no god). Here’s what he says: “what would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God?” I think that was a fair question he asked.

teapotI don’t think that is a reasonable question at all. I will replace “God” with Bertrand Russell’s invisible teapot to illustrate why: what would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, the Invisible Teapot? Flew (I don’t know anything about him other than that his name has been dropped in a few essays I have read) is just restating the old “I dare you to disprove the existence of something invisible” idea. I mentioned in an earlier post that you cannot disprove the existence of ANYTHING. If I say that jolly invisible trolls are responsible for the force of attraction and not this esoteric thing called gravity, there is no way you can prove that those invisible trolls do not exist. If that is a question that convinced Flew to be a theist, he is missing this very important point. I’m hoping he had some other reasons.

Calvinist Friend: Believe me, I don’t pray for you because I look down on you. I don’t. You’re clearly a smart person. God teaches me that I’m no better than you and you’re no better than me.

You are clearly smart as well; it’s time for a brainy group hug.

I don’t intend to suggest that you intentionally view me negatively, but I think your belief system inherently causes believers to see others that way. For instance, in Christianity there is a clear good and a clear bad. These rules are set by an absolute authority. On the other hand, my view of things is that there is no good or bad in an absolute sense. There is harm and benefit, but even that is a gray area since what might be beneficial to a group or person could be harmful or beneficial to another group.

As a result, your absolutes will inevitably cause you to evaluate and measure things and people according to those clear-cut, black-and-white, right-or-wrong realities. Since I am clearly lower down on the scale of obeying those absolutes it is simply a fact that my status is negative when compared to those who accept and do their best to follow those absolutes. (I am aware of the claim that salvation is not earned, but that is not exactly true: having faith is the entrance fee needed to earn the prize. Without it, you get nothing, and, as the Bible says, it makes me a “fool” among other negative things that are much worse than that.)–(e.g. deserving of torture for eternity). To me, this is a very negative worldview. The fact that it is not even real makes it even more disturbing to me.

Calvinist Friend: I respect your request not to comment on articles you post on your FB page, but I don’t understand it. Why do you post articles if you don’t want people to comment? You obviously have an audience in mind. What’s the point in posting and then asking people not to comment if they disagree with what you post? That hardly seems intellectually honest? I’m taking a wild stab in the dark, but is it that you are afraid that other friends will see people disagree with you?

No, no. You are free to comment on things I post. I was simply unhappy with the tone of your posts. The topics I post about are ones people get emotional about. I like to have a difference of opinion with my Facebook friends while at the same time maintaining those friendships. As far as audience goes, I put stuff up for everyone. I get a lot of private comments from people who like what I post and vice versa, but the stuff usually doesn’t generate too much debate on the Wall. I think that this is probably due to the fact that most people are not like you and I—they do no thrive on debate and ideas, and they try to avoid anything that even smells like the mildest confrontation. People like that get spooked easily, but they will come out and discuss things if emotions stay cool and the conversation is civil. In fact, I have an interesting debate happening as we speak. I have no clue how it will turn out, since I still have a lot of research and argument analysis to do on the issue. “Media bias” is something that gets talked about a lot in society, so I view it as professional development (to help my students with the issue) to learn some more about it. Feel free to contribute.

Calvinist Friend:I have no desire to contribute to your blog, since I’m sure it’s only a venue for those who share your same faith to gang up on people like me. No thanks.

Aw, come on now. Have we beaten up on other people? I am actually the most aggressive arguer (and user of ridicule) who contributes to the blog. You can handle the others if you can handle me.

Calvinist Friend: I leave you with a quote a friend just passed on to me today: “we demand proof of God, forgetting that if we could prove God we would be within the compass of our rationalities, and then our logical mind would be our own grotesque God” (George A. Buttrick). You can no more prove God than you can prove evolution or the “big bang”. There’s only evidence. And we agree to disagree on that.

Does your use of this quote mean you are conceding that there is no proof that God exists? Your statement that we “can no more prove God than you can prove evolution or the “big bang,”” is flatly false and I will prove it. For one thing, Evolution, not Natural Selection (I assume you are conflating evolution with Natural Selection and really mean Natural Selection—evolution is simply the FACT that species are evolving and have been evolving. Natural Selection is the theory of the mechanism that explains the connection between evolutionary facts. The other mechanism that drives evolution is genetic drift. By the way, I hope that you are reading the actual works by the scientists who are modifying and elaborating on Darwin’s original theory. I’m just bringing this up, because it is common in ID and Creationist literature to conflate the fact of evolution with the explanatory model first proposed by Darwin. You are doing yourself a huge disservice if your knowledge of Evolution comes only from secondary sources who are not experts in the fields they discuss), is simply the fact that inherited traits change over time with each subsequent generation of an organism. Are you seriously questioning this?

fossilThe fossil record is physical evidence of evolution. It physically proves that species have changed and diversified over time. Other evidence is the vast number of organisms that live on this planet. (Scientists call this biodiversity.) As time goes backward, there are fewer and fewer organisms. It is estimated that it has taken 4 billion years of evolution to arrive at the current state of biodiversity. Oh, and I forgot to mention genes. I’m guessing you are aware that human ancestry has been traced back to Africa around 200,000 years ago. (Neanderthals diverged from our ancestors about 500,000 years ago. This is proven through genetic decoding and molecular analysis. It also shows that gorillas diverged from the line that would become us 6 to 1 and a 1/2 million years ago, and chimpanzees diverged 5 to 1 million years ago.)

Now for the Big Bang. First of all, the Big Bang theory is similar to the theory of Natural Selection in that it is a model to explain a collection of facts. In the case of Natural Selection, they are evolutionary facts. big-bangIn the case of the Big Bang, they are facts gained from observation of the universe (that fact that it is expanding, the existence of cosmic microwave radiation, etc.—you can read up on it to find the other facts, since they slip my mind.) It is also important to note that both Natural Selection and the Big Bang make no comment whatsoever about the initial state prior to the facts garnered about the evolution of the universe or of organisms. These models simply describe how these evolutionary facts fit together. Just as we can trace time backwards through genes and molecular analysis, we can trace time back through the evolution of the universe by measuring cosmic microwave radiation and doing some other crap I have difficulty comprehending, since it has something to do with math. ☺ Scientists have also made some recent discoveries using the Hubble telescope that support the Big Bang model.

3 Responses to “Angry Conversations with a Childhood Friend & Calvinist: Part VI”

  1. JN said

  2. Ann said

    The topics I post about are ones people get emotional about. I like to have a difference of opinion with my Facebook friends while at the same time maintaining those friendships. As far as audience goes, I put stuff up for everyone. I get a lot of private comments from people who like what I post and vice versa, but the stuff usually doesn’t generate too much debate on the Wall. I think that this is probably due to the fact that most people are not like you and I—they do no thrive on debate and ideas, and they try to avoid anything that even smells like the mildest confrontation. People like that get spooked easily, but they will come out and discuss things if emotions stay cool and the conversation is civil.

    Chaplain, this hit a nerve. I enjoy reading/hearing your debates with Christians. But, if I am honest with myself, I am one of those people who generally avoids open debate that gets heated. And, I know I sometimes step in when I sense a conversation is going in a more aggressive direction and attempt to defuse a confrontation. I’m learning to stick my ground though. You are a model for me as far as being willing to put yourself out there, refusing to accept bullshit from me or anyone else when it comes to religion and discussions on Christianity.

    Earlier today I told someone I found fundamentalist Christianity distasteful, but not so much the individual Christian. This is not the complete truth. I do get mad sometimes at individuals who push their beliefs on me, “self-righteous” individuals, who believe people like me, and my friends, and my family, deserve hell, or at least some form of everlasting punishment after life. As though life doesn’t already produce enough pain, and suffering, and anguish. As if a person who has suffered repeated blows from life, through no fault of their own, deserves more punishment after death. It does piss me off that people live their lives for a life and reward after death that doesn’t exist. But mostly, it pisses me off that I don’t feel comfortable, in many situations, speaking out, saying what I think regarding religion. I want, I like, to be myself, and to be accepted as myself.

    I rub shoulders every day with people who live buried by their own bullshit. This is hard to put succinctly, but sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the futility of living. Of what I’m doing. The pointlessness of everything. I find comfort in some people, some activities, and some daily routines. It’s hard holding on to meaning. Not that life is meaningless to me, it’s just damned hard. I too find enjoyment in stupid things. So, if you want to debate Christians, and rile them up Mr. Chaplain, and you find enjoyment and some meaning there, then I say go at it like a pitbull. I’m reading.

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