Essay / Philosophy

Two Frequent Secular Charges

John Mark Reynolds, 2004.

Frequently when I chat with friends who do not believe in God they will insist on two things. I find both things odd. First, some secularists assert that religious people “cannot question,” but scientists must. Of course, there are some religious people who are dogmatic (in the bad sense). I have certainly known some of these insecure people, but then I have known secularists who fit this mold. Sadly, denying the importance of the dialectic is all too common. Such evil has nothing to do with the religion of the Western philosophers. It is simply false that one cannot be orthodox and question everything. The assumption seems to be that questioning will lead to heresy. This is rather like assuming that if I ask my wife if she loves me, she will say “no.” In fact, all my friends who are theologians question every strand of their systems. This (oddly) leads them back to orthodoxy, since orthodoxy appears to be true. If it is true, it can take any question. If it is not, who wants it?

Theology is as capable of self-correction as any field of knowledge. In fact, in my experience it was easier to talk to traditional theologians, who had been forced by the culture to think through their beliefs, than to secularists. Secularists tend to get defensive. In part of course, it may be that many of them (in my experience) have been scarred by some religious group or another. (God forgive me a sinner!) They have made a hard and often painful decision to become secularists, often giving up family relationships. The hint that such pain might have been in vain is pretty tough to handle. . . as any convert to any religious group knows as well. Defensive reactions are too common. We must get over those. However, I see no reason that religious people cannot follow the demands of Scripture to reason about their faith. Where am I told not to question, but only to believe? I live by the motto, “You inquire for yourself!” (Socrates) and no one has ever called me a theological liberal. The burden of proof is on a secularist to show why this is wrong.

Second, some secularists demand that the burden of proof is on a theist to prove God exists to his satisfaction. Surely this is a misuse of the (invented by a theist) Razor that demands that we not multiply entities needlessly. If I experience my children, I am under no special compulsion to try to explain my experience to a skeptic about their existence. He might argue that my experiences can be explained without resorting to four children (3? 2? 1 very active child?), but this is false parsimony. Without good reason to doubt my straight forward experience of 4 children, I have every right to conserve it. (Besides I love all 4 of them! Why try to explain away any of them?) Usually a secularist replies that there is something particularly suspect about the notion of God. I should doubt it (though I don’t doubt most of my other experiences), because it is odd.

What is odd about it? At this point, I usually hear that there have been many ideas about God. How can I trust my experience when so many people have explained their own experiences in many ways? One should note quickly that the fact that people misunderstand what a thing is still implies there is probably still a thing there to be misunderstood. I suggest that no one (much) doubts the cosmos, though there have been many (pretty absurd!) ideas about it. Divine experiences are like that: big and complicated. People have given all sorts of descriptions and explanations of them.

Why monotheism? First, that is the way God describes Himself in the Bible. The Bible is a book I take seriously, since it is both artistically excellent and seems to capture the deep truths of the world well. Though I believe it to be without error, I would not have to do so to take it this seriously. One takes Plato seriously without believing (for a moment) that any of the dialogues are perfect! If you are a Platonist (as I am), there are good reasons (in Plato) to reject polytheism (two Goods? Which is better?) and argue for monotheism. However, the cosmos is a complicated thing and it might contain many beings that on a chance encounter would merit the name “god.” However, there could (logically) only be one God.

Others respond that something about the nature of God is incoherent. Many fewer informed people say that today, since philosophers have pretty much settled that claim. Careful analytic work shows that sense can be made of most traditional attributes of God. They can be made to work. Note that this is not true of all of them. It is not just that clever theists can make any old word work. Divine simplicity is now widely rejected, because it is hard (if not impossible) to defend. I cannot help but laugh when someone says they will believe in nothing that their five senses cannot verify. What about numbers? Don’t they exist? My five senses cannot verify ideas like numbers…and if Platonism is true about numbers, as many secular mathematicians believe, they seem no odder (in the end) than a personal God. At least I have experiences with persons, while I have no direct experience of numbers! See my former professor Ed Wierenga’s work for more on the coherence of theistic language.

Finally, just because an idea is comforting (a God of love) does not mean I must doubt it. In fact, it seems a good reason to hope it is true. . . surely it is sensible to give the benefit of the doubt to a hopeful idea. Scientists do it all the time. No one should believe an idea just because it is attractive, but no one should doubt it for the same reason! Best reason and best experience must be used (always!) to test such ideas. However, some atheists (in particular) seem to think having a grim view of the cosmos and life entitles them to a certain smug superiority. Being Eeyore about the Universe is not smarter, just gloomier. Cheerfulness about logos that undergirds the cosmos, and makes it orderly in the first place, makes sense. All things being equal (if you have to guess about a world view), pick the happy one. Pick one that allows real Goodness, real Truth, and real Beauty. I shan’t let any secularists spoil my fun unless they have reason or some experience on their side which demands it. They don’t so I don’t.

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