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February 26, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Last week, Paul Campos wrote an article in the The Rocky Mountain News entitled “The Atheist’s Dilemma.” When I see a title like that I tend to think the article is going to be a train wreck, which this one is.

The first issue isn’t really an issue, but more like something I just want to mock. There’s no actual substance in the article; it’s simply Campos quoting Stanley Fish. I assume finding material is difficult (just look at me, I’m blogging about an article from last week), but it’s quite amusing that someone would publish a column to simply echo another (more famous) writer.
The essential claim is a variant of atheism is based on faith, just like religion:

Here is Dawkins on the evidence for religious belief: Such belief, Dawkins writes, “will earn the right to be taken seriously when it provides the slightest, smallest smidgen of a reason for believing in the existence of the divine.”

Consider what Dawkins – the author of The God Delusion and, along with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, the most prominent of the current crop of evangelical atheists – is claiming.

He’s claiming that if one draws up a list of things that Dawkins considers evidence for the existence of God, and another list of things Dawkins considers evidence for atheism, one list has nothing on it and the other list has everything else.

I can’t say Campos has actually read Dawkins’ book. Dawkins point is that there’s is nothing that is evidence for religion. This is all atheism, at its weakest, needs. I see no reason to believe in God, so I don’t. I don’t need evidence against its existence if I don’t have any evidence for it. Dawkins makes a positive case that religion is wrong, but it certainly doesn’t include “everything.”

And he would, of course, be right. Dawkins is a true believer, and for the true believer literally everything is evidence for the truth of his belief. For example, Fish points to St. Augustine’s advice when confronting something that appears to contradict Christian belief: The phenomenon should be subjected “to diligent scrutiny until an interpretation contributing to the reign of charity is produced.”

Now Dawkins will object that he, unlike the religious believer, is committed to the methods of “science,” and will therefore change his mind when evidence refuting his beliefs appears – but it just so happens none ever has.

Dawkins would also object that Augustine explicitly claimed that was his methodology and he hasn’t. Campos (or Fish) has decided that this is Dawkins methodology based on the fact that Dawkins believes there isn’t any evidence for belief in a god. Which seems to me a bit like saying Dawkins is dogmatic because he doesn’t believe he’s wrong.

The striking naivete of this viewpoint becomes clear if one asks a simple question: What, for Dawkins, would constitute evidence of God’s existence? Suppose an angel of the Lord were to appear before Dawkins, even as he was delivering another lecture on the delusion that God exists. Would such an experience change Dawkins’ views?

Fish has spent his whole career pointing out why it wouldn’t: not because of the nature of angels, but because of the nature of interpretation. As long as Dawkins remains who he is now, he will remain incapable of seeing an angel of the Lord.

After all, a genuine atheist must interpret such an event as a temporarily inexplicable hallucination, or a sudden psychotic break, or a clever technological trick – in short, as anything but evidence that atheism is false. (An atheist who questions the truth of atheism is ceasing to be a genuine atheist precisely to the extent that he is asking himself a genuine question).

If you can explain the last sentence, you win a medal. Why Campos (or Fish) thinks atheism is special in that you can’t simultaneously subscribe to it and question it the same time, as you can any other belief or opinion is beyond me.

Continuing on, yes, those could be explanations of what Dawkins saw. Of course, Campos (Fish) is guilty of not actually understanding why an atheist would believe that. A one-off apparition, seen by one person only is highly questionable. What us skeptical types like to use to evalute these things is something called “science.” A singular, unreplicated event is not that convincing. Now, if multiple people could evaluate the phenomenon consistently and under controlled conditions, and came to the conclusion that the phenomenon was supernatural, I’d believe them. So would Dawkins. That hasn’t happened, of course.

Similarly, how about if any of the arguments normally advanced for theism were correct? I’d believe in a god if the appearance of design in nature really did mean there was a designer.

In other words, evidence must always be interpreted within the context of interpretive assumptions which necessarily determine what that evidence is understood to signify, and which by their nature are themselves matters of faith. Thus the only way someone like Dawkins will ever see any evidence for the existence of God will be if he loses his faith that he never will.

You’d think he could come up with better examples if that were the case. The thing is, though, my assumptions about the world are shared by nearly everyone. Science and reason are reliable indicators of truth. Very few dispute this, except when applying it to religion. Why do they make this exception? Because they have faith. Why? Just because. They feel it to be true, which is the same as saying there’s no reason. So, how can a framework that’s based on a logical fallacy be on equal footing with a framework that says science and reason determine truth?

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