Many atheists feel uncomfortable because the Christians they talk to seem to be very subjective about their faith. It doesn’t feel like someone searching for the truth, but someone out to make a case. The difference is important. It’s like the difference between a doctor searching for the cure to a disease and a lawyer defending his client. The doctor has to pay attention to reality: this is not something you can fudge, for people’s lives are at stake. But the lawyer’s job is to advocate for his client; whether the client is really guilty or innocent is irrelevant and the lawyer just has to make the most convincing case he possibly can.
So which of these two models best fits how a person should approach their faith? I think that there is room for both.
I believe one should start with, and always maintain as the default approach, the medical research strategy. Truth, for Truth’s sake, above all else. This is never easy.
For one thing, it is dangerous. What if the truth turns out different to what you have believed and cherished all your life? Given the growing sense of cynicism and scepticism in our world today, what if you woke up one day to find that God, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny all belong to the same club? What would happen to your life if it were so? What of all those structures in your life, the friendships, the habits of thought and behaviour, the principles and ideals that lend your life meaning and purpose? There is a lot at stake!
For another thing, we are not built for objectivity first and foremost. We are hardwired for all kinds of bias; there is a whole literature out there on this endearing little trait of ours. Bias encourages us to love our families and our friends, to prefer safe foods to poisons, and make more effective use of our time, among many things. It allows us to deal with the bewildering inflow of information that batters our senses every day by filtering out what is unimportant to us and focussing on what is important.
But when it comes to discussing your faith with someone who thinks differently, bias kicks in to make you ignore the valid things they say, and inflate the invalid things you yourself say into irrefutable truths (even if they’re silly).
Atheists are by no means immune to this. New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, for all their protestations of ‘objectivity’, are perfect case studies in bias. When I first picked up Dawkins’ The God Delusion some years ago, it was with some trepidation. Here, after all, was a book that promised to open my eyes to how I have been kidding myself about the existence of God all these years. What if he was right?
But the more I read, the more my reaction changed from trepidation to incredulity. Could thus guy be serious??? The logical and factual fallacies in the book alone would make any genuine lover of Truth cringe (and many sensible atheists I know do in fact cringe at Dawkins’ pronouncements), but the killer for me was that the book drips with bias. It is on every page, every sentence screams out, “I don’t want religion to be right, and I am not going to let the truth get in my way!”
I would have no problem with this if Dawkins was honest enough with himself and with his readers to admit this bias from the start – fair enough. But I do have a problem with him presenting himself as an objective, fair thinker, surrounded with an aura of scientific respectability, presenting a balanced critique of Christianity. That, he certainly ain’t, and he loses my respect for thinking and presenting himself so. Compare these two quotes from the prefaces of two books that overlap in the topics they cover:
“The dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word defines a delusion as ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder’. The first part captures religious faith perfectly. As to whether it is a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, I am inclined to follow Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: ‘When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called Religion’.”
~Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.
“This book is in no sense an impartial work of history. Perfect detachment is impossible for even the soberest of historians, since the writing of history is … necessarily an act of interpretation, which by its nature can never be wholly free of prejudice. But I am not really a historian, in any event, and I do not even aspire to detachment. In what follows, my prejudices are transparent and unreserved…”
~David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions.
Can you spot the difference? Dawkins is so convinced that he is objective that he makes the claim that anyone who thinks otherwise must be pathologically deluded. Hart in response (hence the ‘Delusions’ in his book title) freely admits up front that this is his subjective and necessarily prejudiced opinion on things, leaving room for those who disagree with him to still be rational and sane. There are debaters of both types on both sides of the fence, both professional and amateur. Such is human nature.
As the years have passed, I have become more firmly convinced that you can’t go wrong if you are genuinely searching for Truth. If our faith is true, then it should be able to stand up to any criticisms levelled against it. It should not need to be ‘protected’ from its critics. Sure, that involves quite a bit of detailed examination and consideration; things are rarely simple in this world. But in the end, when you have done all that is humanly possible to gather every fact and consider every argument, if Christianity is true, it should come out looking that way. And if it is not true, then why on earth would you want to believe it? Wouldn’t you rather know?
And that’s where the lawyer-defence strategy comes in. While the medical research strategy should be our core approach, a very useful and effective way of testing the truth of a position or belief is to make the best case you can for it, then hit it with everything you’ve got. Apparently, Soviet era scientists used to do just that. In the morning, they would gather for a meeting. One scientist would present his latest theory, and the rest would then spend hours attacking it in every way they could possibly think of (including personal attacks on the scientist presenting!) The presenter would have to do his best to defend his theory against all attacks. Things would often get quite heated. If the theory survived this gruelling session, it was considered a pretty good one and worthy of further development.
That’s a bit of an extreme case, but it shows that lawyer style advocacy, in the right context, can actually be quite a helpful tool. However, used in the wrong way, it becomes mere pig-headedness and closed-mindedness. There is, after all, a time for everything under the sun … we just need to learn the right time to be pig-headed.
On this dangerous road, I have so far had many ups and downs, periods of exultant faith together with some very dark nights of the soul filled with doubt. But the long term result has been a faith of which I never have to be ashamed. I never have to deal with that niggling worry that perhaps I am just elaborately deluding myself after all. So far as I have seen, Christianity has indeed come out on top, and stunningly so. First, I came to be convinced that Christian faith is a completely rational position to hold. Gradually, I have also come to find that the case for Christianity being the most persuasive position to hold is quite robust. Throw what you like at it, even Russian scientist style; it stands stronger than the alternatives – or has so far, for me, at least.
That’s not to say that tomorrow I may not come upon something that will cast me back into doubt once more; such is the dangerous life of the seeker for Truth. But then Christianity is very honest about that. It never claims to be something you can know with absolute certainty: that’s why it’s called ‘faith’, that’s why Jesus continually asked people, ‘Do you believe in Me?’ Some said yes, others said, no. Christianity is faith, but so is non-belief, contrary to the protestations of many atheists. The difference is that the Christian knows and acknowledges that, while the atheist who denies it is missing an important truth.