Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Christians: Read the atheist's whole post!

If anything, the responses I got to “The Golden Calf of Scientism” on The Impractical Catholic have provided some good blogging material. One reply, in fact, dovetails nicely with a reply Jennifer Fulweiler got on a recent post.

In “The Golden Calf”, I listed some ways that some scientists misuse or violate the scientific method. One example was, “They cherry-pick statistics and results that support their arguments, while leaving out those that contraindicate.” A respondent jumped on that line:

[I]s this the definition of science or religion. Is this not what most, if not all, [Christians] do today. Scream/preach about the parts that make others sinners and ignore and overlook the parts that make you one. [How original … a tu quoque argument. Yawn.]

Fulweiler, for her part, was telling us that, for some atheists, it’s insufficient merely to reason with them because they’re “trapped in a prison of reason”; that is, they have an answer for everything, so logical arguments become fruitlessly repetitive. To this end, she quoted a couple of paragraphs about the insane from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. And in her combox, what do I find?

“[Prison] of reason”? Some might call that sanity. [Yes, and some North Koreans might find their cultural paranoia very reasonable. But that’s not the point.]

To be fair, atheists aren’t the only ones who, having encountered a provoking phrase, immediately jump down to the combox to dash off a witty, devastating reply, not realizing that the remainder of the post makes their comment look merely idiotic. Christians and non-Christians do it alike; heck, I’ve done so a couple of times … much to my mortification.

The Christian apologist faces a problem that both Peter Kreeft and the late Mortimer J. Adler wrote of, the former in Handbook of Christian Apologetics (with Ronald K. Tacelli) and the latter in How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan. Namely, the problem is that we can build a philosophical case for a God who in many ways seems to be the God of Christianity, but we can’t make the identity 100% certain without appealing to revelation.

On the other hand, the scientific method can’t disprove the “God hypothesis” because many points of Christian faith couldn’t possibly leave scientifically analyzable evidence even if true. For instance, if Jesus Christ truly rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, what kind of material evidence could a scientist reasonably ask for? By definition, there would be no body anyway! Unless and until we can go back in time with a video camera to chronicle the events of 30 AD, Science can neither verify nor falsify the point; it can only shrug and answer honestly, “I don’t know;” to claim “absence of evidence is evidence of absence” is to commit an ad ignorantiam fallacy, since we have no independent, objective grounds for presuming such claims false.

In this light, demanding scientific proof of Christianity’s claims is not unlike clapping a gun to the head of a hobo and demanding all his Berkshire Hathaway stock: all you’ve proven is how unreasonable the requirement is (a kind of “no true Scotsman” fallacy). It assumes without proof that a lack of scientific evidence means the assertion is unconditionally false, that we can’t really say anything is true without such evidence.

Yes, blog posts on either side can be unfairly and even nastily dismissive of the other side’s claims; they can argue by sneer and ad hominem, treating the other side in a lump as fools and knaves. And yes, to a certain extent, many blogs such as mine tend to gather more people who agree than who disagree, which seems to beg for an opposing view in the combox.

So how does that justify skipping half the post in your haste to fill the combox with your chachma?

Such respondents aren’t interested in arguments per se. They’re not interested in the post’s contention as a totality; as far as they’re concerned, they’ve seen it all before, and it’s so much hogwash. Rather, they appear to have the same motivation as hecklers at a stand-up comedian’s show; their intent is to badger and make fun of you until you retire from the stage in embarrassment and humiliation. The only difference between the Christian and the non-Christian in this respect is whether they wrap themselves in piety or in claims of superior intelligence and rationality.

One respondent on Fulweiler’s post, “I am not Spartacus”, wrote:

I have never understood the desire of Catholics to enter into an exchange with individuals who clearly hate them.
In better days, we would have just laughed at them rather than take their guff seriously. And, of course, there is the example of ecclesiastical orthopraxis and Biblical injunction to ignore atheists after a few attempts to explain the Gospel to them.
Of course, it is possible that there are atheists who exist who are not jerks, but, they are the ones who Catholics do not run into online. The atheists one runs into online are, invariably, complete jerks.

Not invariably. Leah of Unequally Yoked seems to be trying to understand her boyfriend’s Catholicism even as she maintains her own atheism. Here and there I’ve seen atheists and agnostics who are careful not to phrase their opposition in offensive terms, such as Michael, who’s posted comments on The Impractical Catholic. And “I am not Spartacus’” own comment is as unfairly dismissive (bordering on contemptuous) as any New Atheist crack about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

The whole point of reaching out to atheists is to shake them out of their certainty, to show the implications of their rejection of God and remove their objections to Him. The price we pay for the occasional success is the exposure to ridicule and hatred. Yes, a lot of atheists online are complete jerks.

But it’s the Christian’s obligation to not be a jerk. So hold your temper and read the whole thing.