On My Non-Belief, Part 2

A second excerpt from my ongoing e-mail exchange.

We agree that evidence is important when deciding one’s world view. As you know, I was once a Christian believer, and now I am not. Obviously, that says something about me. To me, it says that my world view is flexible, conditioned on the evidence. I gave deep consideration to the evidence I found before I gave up religion, but I have also given serious consideration to the sort of evidence I would need to see in order to become a believer again. In the various conversations I have had with Christians, I have heard a lot of talk of respect for evidence (and the evidence-based methods of science and historical scholarship) but a generally low level of consideration for the standards of evidence that would be necessary to actually shift one’s world view. So one of my “standard” questions in theological conversations that I now put to you is: What is your standard of evidence for being (or remaining) a believer? Have you deeply considered what sort of evidence you would need to shift your world view? More to the point: how weak would the evidence for your religious beliefs have to be before you would shift to a provisional stance, (i.e., they only might be true.) I point out that Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most prominent atheist, in his book The God Delusion, titles the pivotal chapter of that book, “Why there is almost certainly no God,” (emphasis mine.) This is an example of a provisional stance. Dawkins may personally find the idea that God exists to be highly unlikely based on the evidence he has considered, but qualifies that statement to acknowledge that there may be compelling evidence in the opposite direction of which he is unaware. This stance is markedly different from that typically seen in the believer. Can you in all honesty utter the statement, “There is almost certainly a God.”? The infinite weight that Christian dogma places on attestations of faith, even in the face of doubt (“Lord I believe, but help my unbelief!”, Mark 9:24) and the utter contempt it places on unbelief (“The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There are none that do good.”, Psalms 14:1) means that most Christians are indoctrinated to recoil from a truly open examination of their beliefs. I have found that this presuppositionalism is the single largest barrier to having useful dialogs with believers.

You compare public education about science to Christian education in theology. I agree that “science” can be taught and defended as dogma. In this case I prefer to use the term “scientism,” because science as scientists understand it is not dogmatic— it is evidence-based, which is the antithesis of dogma. The major theories of science (gravitation, relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, etc.) are often pointed to by religious believers as dogma. However, they are not— the difference being that dogma is not testable nor quantifiable, while scientific theories emphatically are. In fact, the history of science is replete with theories that have been overturned in the light of new evidence and the emergence of more powerful (i.e., predictive) theories. Even common GPS devices we use in our car must make corrections based on the Theory of Relativity, lest they become inaccurate. Back to the point: I certainly acknowledge that some schools are more effective at teaching science than others. But you also gloss over a huge amount in your comparison: which schools (high or low) teach which “scientific truths” wrong, and in what way? The blanket comparison you make seems more like a rhetorical device than a way of advancing the conversation.

In the lower grades, science education is intended to do three things: 1) present some of the major findings of science, 2) develop an appreciation for the methods of science, 3) increase awareness of how science has impacted our lives. When done correctly, this should not leave the student with the impression that science is an impenetrable mystery guarded by a jealous and powerful priesthood who hand down unquestionable dogma, but rather an open inquiry into nature. Of course, how well public schools achieve the goals of science education is a quite separate issue from the goals of science education themselves, and the goals of science itself.

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