3 / 1 / 2011

Brandon links to a fascinating series of responses that atheists gave to the following argument: “Why let atheists talk about theology? That’s like letting English majors criticize quantum mechanics!” The responses were not only eminently reasonable and clear-headed but also articulate three distinct points of view which together seem to fill out the reasonable points of view on the subject. Not being an atheist, I didn’t find myself in perfect agreement with everything they said, but if one wrote a dialogue or disputed question on the modern problem of faith and atheism, he would do well to take each of these three persons as models for disputants or objectors.

Both the first and the last responder argue that the original argument is that atheists lack the authority to judge religious claims. The first responder concedes that he has no religious experience, but he denies that this deprives him of the authority to speak objectively about religion since religion is, in fact, false. He gives no argument that religion is false, but he doesn’t need to.  He does not beg the question since the original argument made no explicit claims that religion is true, indeed, the original argument is only efficacious if religion is assumed to be true, which no atheist is bound to assume. The third responder also argues that the original argument is about atheists lacking the authority to speak, but he does not avail himself of the simplest response to this; rather, he denies that any belief, as a belief, gives one the authority to speak about the things believed. Why, indeed, should I consider myself empowered to speak authoritatively about something  just because I believe it is so? And so the believer should not assume that he is any more empowerd to speak about faith an the non believer.

The second responder gives two compelling arguments – the second one is that many (or most) atheists frequently do have the experience of religious faith, since many (most?) became atheists by leaving the faith. The first argument is more subtle, namely that religious insight is properly attained by interest in religion rather than belief in it, and anyone can be interested in religion. One cannot therefore assume that a lack of belief requires a lack of insight.

All three responses can therefore be seen as arguments about belief, each of which, if true, would undermine the original argument – the first argues that a belief need not be true, the second that belief need not give one a motive for learning, the last that belief need not give one insight into what they believe. This is why I thought that the three responses exausted all the critiques one could make of belief in its relation to truth or authority, for the first says belief need not be true, the second that it is nto the best motive for learning, and the last that it never as such gives one authority to speak truly.  

In response to all this, I think a.) the original argument is correct, but b.) in the precise way it is true, it has no value for atheist apologetics. I limit my answer to the response from Christian doctrine, though I find it reasonable to do so since Christianity is the religion that that is most properly based on faith. Faith simply doesn’t play the same fundamental and utterly foundational role for all religions that it plays for Christianity.

To respond: the original argument is only true if faith is seen not only belief but also a light, which is exactly how the Christian sees it. Seen in this way, the claim is not that an atheist lacks a belief or even an experience, but a light to judge experience and to cause belief. The claim that faith in Christ is a light pours forth from the Scriptures, and first from Christ himself: I am the light of the world, that whosoever believes in me, walks not in darkness (Jn. 12:46 see also Jn. 1: 5 and 3:19). The whole Scripture begins with this calling forth the light from darkness, and the Scriptures themselves see this as a sign of the light of faith in those who believe: For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts, to [give] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6). Personal conversion and the fruit of evangelization is repeatedly spoken of as a light. This is most striking in Paul, who describes his own personal conversion and call to evangelization as a call to turn from darkness to light… and [to the] inheritance among them who are sanctified by faith… (Acts 26:18). This testimony is repeated continually throughout the Christian tradition, as when St. Augustine describes the very moment of his conversion as experiencing  all the gloom of doubt vanish away by a light of security infused into my heart (Confessions  VIII c. 12), and when the Imitation takes as its first and foundational quotation the passage first given above from John 12:46.

Since faith for the Christian is light, faithlessness is blindness. The Christian is therefore committed to seeing an atheist speaking about God as a blind man speaking of colors. Obviously, this is an all but worthless card to play in apologetics with atheists, but there is more to Christianity than such apologetics. This is why I would argue that in the sense in which original argument is true it can avoid all the objections raised against it (none of which recognize faith as a light), but it is of almost no value on atheist apologetics, since one cannot be aware of such blindness until it is gone (or if one has never been blind), and in the absence of the light one can only repent or believe that he sees. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great [is] that darkness! (Mt. 6: 23)

There is a remote sense in which the awareness of faith as a light can help in atheist apologetics, but to my mind this is more a critique of modern apologetics than a critique of atheism. Christians too easily fall into justifying faith by treating it as mere belief (e.g. “everyone has faith in something, even scientists…”) or as a component of a worldview (e.g. “everyone has a worldview, even atheists…) but christians are not mere believers in authoritative testimony. They are not just doing what anyone does when he places his trust in another. We are claiming to be stewards of  the mysteries (I Cor. 4:1) namely the mysteries that have been hidden since the foundation of the world (Mt. 13:15) and which are folly to those who are perishing (1 Cor 1:18).

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