The local evangelical students society had me along last night to talk about “Is belief in the Christian God rational?” I was on the negative, although I did ask them which side they wanted me to argue for. It was done in traditional debating format, and I found it incredibly restrictive – speakers were allowed to get away with introducing stuff they hadn’t mentioned in their main point piece, and a number of things were left up in the air.
Kudos to the undergraduate organisers Tim and Stewart for having a philosophy lecturer and a graduate student in physics and moral philosophy (Sebastian Schnelle, my cospeaker) address them while they, as undergraduates, took the affirmative. And they were very well behaved too, no Ken Ham-style rhetorical tricks (although I did make mention of the Gish Gallop, which may have forestalled some moves). But one thing that my honorable opponents did do is a standard way of framing such debates:
Both pro speakers made mention of the fact that “atheism/agnosticism is a worldview of naturalism”. Now this is a theme that is repeated so often one might start to believe it if not for the fact that it licenses the following argument:
Christianity is a worldview that rests on a set of presuppositions.
Atheism and agnosticism is a worldview that rests on a set of presuppositions.
One’s choice of presuppositions makes one’s worldview reasonable.
Ergo, Christianity is a reasonable belief (at least as rational as agnosticism/atheism)
Similar arguments are put that “belief” in science is on a par with belief in Jesus or the Bible, and so this is really about duelling worldviews. That is, about which religion is correct.
But there’s a couple of deep flaws here. Agnosticism is the absence of knowledge about a god-claim. Atheism is the absence of a god-claim. Absences, although they may make the heart grow fonder, have no other implications. They cannot, for they are not-things, not things, and for something to have a property or implication it has to be a thing.
In simpler terms, as the old saying has it, bald is not a hair colour. Not believing in some religion is not a religion. It may be that those who are either agnostic about Christianity, or atheist about it, have some other set of commitments that might qualify as a religion, but they do not need to, just in virtue of being a not-theist or a not-knower. So the choice is between believing in Christianity or not-believing in Christianity. It is not a case of commensurable religions, but a religion and no religion. This is the privative fallacy, from the old term for a lack of something.
The other error is more widespread. I was in effect accused of having a worldview that precluded the existence of God, and the audience was invited to compare that with my opponents, who had one that permitted God. But the simple fact is, I don’t have a worldview. In fact, neither do they. I don’t think worldviews exist. They are a gross oversimplification of what is actually going on inside people’s heads, and are mere abstractions. If one believes in God, one might still believe things that are inconsistent with a belief in God. Intellectual schemes are not whole cloth, and you can entertain incompatible ideas, and in fact I think you must, because nobody gets a simple set of coherent ideas handed to them at birth, free of all confounding beliefs.
Christians, who have an extensive body of traditional dogma which they like to reassure themselves is true and consistent, like to think also that everybody has something like this. Religions are “rationally reconstructed” as sets of dogma by the Christian tradition (e.g., when doing anthropology by missionary) when in fact there is no dogma at all, just stories, rituals, and ways of life. The idea that one has a worldview by necessity is one that is made by analogy with a false view of themselves. The worldview tradition comes out of the propositional view of beliefs that ultimately found its best expression in Wittgenstein:
When two Principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled, then each man calls the other a fool and a heretic. On Certainty, §611
If a Lion could talk, we could not understand him. Philosophical Investigations, p190
The lion comment is understood as being based on meaning as a “form of life” (Lebensform): lions have a form of life that is different to us and so the meaning of their utterances would be opaque. Likewise, the principles (Prinzipe) are basic, fundamental, giving meaning to the belief system of their holders in ways that are ultimately equivalent and between which one cannot decide – you either hold the Prinzipe or not.
I think this is a fundamental error, on Wittgenstein’s part as much as that of anyone else who holds to this Weltanschauung mythology. If a lion could talk we’d understand quite a lot – because we share a form of life (we have an evolutionarily related biology, for a start), and two principles of human intellect also share forms of life – that of being human biologically and that of a shared history if there is one. And that shared nature means we can evaluate one or both for coherence, sense and reliability. Some views are just not amenable to a good life. I think Christianity is one, and not because I have some well-worked alternative I’d like to sell you, but because I can learn from the past and make inferences, and so can you.
Beliefs are not abstract sets of propositions. Or rather, some are, but not all of them. We have malformed, half formed and underinterpreted ideas all the time, but that doesn’t give us a conceptual scheme. In this regard I am with Donald Davidson’s attack on the very idea.
So to my Christian audience I say, do not commit either the privative fallacy or the Weltanschauung mistake. If you think you can evade my and others criticisms by assigning some faux ideology to us in virtue of us not adopting your own preferred set of absolutes, you are greatly mistaken, and building a nice strawman to knock over.