A few months ago an acquaintance of mine expressed his exasperation involving a conversation he had with a young Christian. My acquaintance had asked the Christian why he so staunchly believed the Bible to be true, and the Christian had simply responded, “Because the Bible says so.” Of course, what made this conversation so exasperating was the circular reasoning in the Christian’s response. The fallacy he had inadvertently articulated, known in logic as “begging the question,” was assuming the validity of the premise in question. The Bible is true because it’s true.
What surprises me today is not how few Christians are schooled in logical fallacies nor how many take the Bible as self-evident, but rather how many atheists act as if their own worldviews don’t rest on the same type of assumptions. Seemingly the most vocal and active atheists in social media today tend to be those who ascribe to a set of beliefs known as “scientism,” defined as the attempt to universally apply scientific reasoning, the scientific method, and empiricism to the exclusion of all other viewpoints or systems of knowledge.
Many scientists, of course, don’t go this far and simply see science as a tool or means for learning more about the universe. In such cases they imply that non-scientific means of learning and experience, such as spirituality, may have validity in their own right. To say that science is the only tool for acquiring knowledge, as advocates of scientism believe, is thus an argument of exclusion. It challenges all spirituality along with any experience or knowledge eluding scientific analysis.
The problem with scientism is that its advocates must wrestle with the fact that science itself rests upon numerous assumptions which cannot be proven scientifically. Some of these most widely agreed upon assumptions include the theory that the world exists apart from our senses, the theory that there is an order to existence which is discernable in the form of natural laws, and the theory that scientific tools are useful in discerning these laws. As most scientists recognize, even though we act every day as if these theories are true and indisputable, no one is able to scientifically and irrefutably prove them. Every person who tries is disqualified by virtue of being a participant in the same reality and existence in question.
It is this questioning of the reliability of the senses that endeavors to bring down the whole basis of scientism. So long as we can trust the experience of our senses, which each of us does every day with little or no intention, scientific analysis proceeds normally. However, bringing doubt to one’s mind results in an unanswerable conundrum: no person can irrefutably prove the trustworthiness of his or her senses since any proof would be filtered through those same senses. As a result, we may only answer with the illogic of fallacy and circular reasoning. Much like the Christian who believes in the Bible’s self-evidence, we must choose to believe that the experience of our senses is trustworthy because we experience our senses in a trustworthy fashion.
Advocates of scientism will no doubt respond that such questioning of the basis of science is beyond anyone’s scope. Everyone should instead continue on as they always have and take reality “for granted.” The problem with this, of course, is that it sounds an awful lot like faith.
A friend of mine recently shared a video from a popular atheist animator that caught my attention. In this video an inquisitive atheist encounters a group of people who eventually show themselves to be theists of different religions and denominations. As they express their differences, arguments arise between them which eventually lead to a satirical arms race. After deescalating the conflict, the atheist articulates several thoughtful questions to the group leaving them intellectually speechless. The video ends with the atheist departing without his questions answered, and the group degenerating back into a confused rabble.
Though the video implies the promotion of humanism, the actual belief that the atheist confronts the group with is cultural relativism. According to cultural relativism, the inheritance of ideas is a serious barrier to the recognition of truth. Those who inherit false or misleading information from their upbringing are more likely to accept and defend these mistaken beliefs than recognize truth even when it is presented plainly to them. As the atheist tells the group, the “contradictory things” which God seems to be telling each of the different theists “may be explainable by the culture which you were raised.” The divine encounters claimed by each theist may in fact be unexamined products of culture or inherited desire.
What I find particularly fascinating about the video is that the atheist does not apply cultural relativism to his own belief and descend into nihilism. Instead, he cites a simple math problem and states that "while religion obeys borders, truth does not.” The atheist explains that mathematics -- the scientific study of quantity, space, and change -- fits the criteria of universally recognizable truth. Unlike religion, he argues, mathematics is able to transcend cultural relativism by virtue of its empirical or self-evident nature. After all, can there be any serious disagreement across the universe concerning such an easily demonstrable fact as 2+2=4?
This is fascinating to me because it implies that the atheist is not completely closed off to the existence of God. His objection isn’t so much that God can’t exist as that God doesn’t appear with universal clarity. To appear otherwise -- individually or personally, as the group members suggest -- does not strike the atheist as the proper conduct of a perfect supernatural being. As he explains, a god that acts in such a way effectively tolerates falsehoods, discrepancies, and disagreements and does not seem to be “getting it right from the beginning.” The implication is that a self-evident, empirically verifiable god who efficiently redeems us in clear demonstrable fashion would be much preferable and easier to believe in.
What the atheist precludes, however, is the possibility of a god who doesn’t fit this criteria and yet maintains perfection. Could it be possible, for example, that God’s nature is sovereign rather than empirical – meaning that His work is the condition for the universe and its aspects rather than a component made evidential by them? Could it be that God’s manner of “getting it right from the beginning” was to purposefully trust humanity with evangelism knowing full well that it would lead to confrontation and diversity of experience? Is it conceivable that through such inefficient trust He communicates a graceful patience, tolerance, and love which is a testament to His perfection rather than a detraction from it? Is it ultimately possible that our judgment of what constitutes the proper conduct of a perfect supernatural being may be fallible simply because we are fallible?
We may be asking different questions, but I actually find it amazing how much I agree with the atheist in the video. Like him I recognize and respect cultural relativism as a powerful force. I suspect that many people who practice religion are products of an unexamined inheritance, and I would even count myself as a member of this group for the first twenty years of my life. Furthermore, I also find it implausible that a god exists who conforms to common sense and human rationality. I see no evidence for a god who transmits His message with the simple uniformity and predictability of a basic math problem. The difference between the atheist and myself, however, is that my search doesn’t end there.