by Jay Johansen | May 20, 2006
I'm a Fundamentalist Christian. Years ago I was reading a book called, Atheism: The Case Against God. I was carrying it around one day when one of my Christian friends noticed it and asked why I was reading such a book. "Aren't you afraid," he asked, "that it will endanger your faith?"
I hand't really thought about it that way. I replied that if the author had a convincing argument that everything I believed was, in fact, wrong, I'd like to know that. Why would I want to spend years of my life making decisions on the basis of something that wasn't true?
But in fact, that book strengthened my faith. If that sounds paradoxical, let me explain. I've made some effort to study Christian theology, and I have found points here and there where orthodox Christian thinking seemed weak to me. There are parts of the Bible that I find difficult to accept as true. There are doctrines that don't really make sense to me. And sometimes when I think about these issues, it leads me to question my faith.
So now and then I read a book by an atheist. And I discover that while Christian theology has some weak spots here and there, atheism is filled with such gaping holes that ... well, I realize that the tiny flaws in Christian thinking are very tiny indeed.
The arguments in The Case Against God were laughably weak. For example, he "proved" that miracles are impossible by defining a miracle as making something behave "contrary to its function", and then declaring that it is impossible for anything to behave contrary to its function, therefore miracles are impossible. Like: Heavy objects naturally fall to the ground. For a heavy object to not fall to the ground would be a miracle, because that's not what they naturally do. But that's not what they naturally do, therefore it's impossible. But of course this not only proves that a heavy object cannot miraculously float into the air; it also proves that you can't pick up a heavy object with a fork-lift truck, because whether you do it miraculously or with a piece of machinery, in either case you are causing it to behave "contrary to its natural function". In real life it is routinely possible to make objects behave contrary to their natural function by the application of some outside force. If we theorize that a miracle is a powerful being taking action -- for the sake of argument let's refer to this being as "God" -- then all sorts of things that might otherwise seem impossible become quite possible indeed. And so on.
My 13-year-old daughter decided that she wants to be home-schooled, so we're making preparations to start when the current school year ends. I was chatting about this to a friend at work, and I commented that along the way I'd like my daughter to read some of the authors who have proven to be very influential, like both Adam Smith, a founder of modern capitalism, and John Maynard Keynes, a founder of modern socialism. My friend expressed surprise that I would want my daughter to read books that I disagreed with. She knows that I'm an extreme right-winger (she's somewhat liberal), and so she assumed that I would only want my daughter to read right-wing books. I replied that I want her to read both sides of the arguments so that she'll have the best chance of truly understanding the issues. If the things that I believe don't stand up to scrutiny, than why should she believe them? My friend asked if I wasn't concerned that my daughter might end up coming to different conclusions than I had. Yes, I agreed, if she considers both sides, it's likely that somewhere along the line she'll conclude that some things I believe are wrong. But I'm confident enough in my beliefs that I think that if she does analyze both sides carefully, most of the time she'll end up agreeing with me.
As I've thought about it since that conversation, it seems to me that she will surely be better off in the long run if she learns how to weigh opposing arguments and reach defensible conclusions, then if I simply tell her the "right" answers. Even if every single theory I believe is in fact completely true -- and rationally I have to admit that, smart as I like to think I am, I am surely wrong about some things -- me telling her the right answer may be the end of the discussion now when she's 13, but in a few years "daddy said so" isn't going to be sufficient reason to believe anything. But if she believes something because she studied both sides and concluded that such-and-such is the correct answer, that should hold up.
I used to run a web site for a right-wing organization where I followed this philosophy, sometimes linking to sites with opposing views. Another member of the organization objected to this strongly. He argued that people who are spreading falsehoods can be very skillful at deceit, and if we encourage others to read their arguments, those others might be fooled. Not to say that everyone who disagrees with me and my friends is a liar and a villain, of course. I assume that most people who disagree with me are simply mistaken, and of course some are probably right and I am the one who is mistaken. But surely you don't deny that there are people out there who are deliberately deceitful.
I must concede that there is validity to my friend's position. I think I can objectively say that I have above-average intelligence -- according to IQ tests and the like anyway. Maybe I'm more able to spot the flaws in a clever lie than others are. Or forget lies, just consider flawed arguments. There are surely many arguments that sound plausible and convincing, but in fact are not true. I'm sure we've all heard the saying, "That sounds good in theory, but it doesn't work in practice." We've all seen that demonstrated often enough to know that it happens.
But still ... Do liars ever dupe people? Of course. Can an argument sound absolutely convincing but still be flawed? Also true. Whether I am deceived by a liar or deceived by someone who is himself confused, either way I am still deceived. But the fact that our logic is not perfect doesn't mean it's worthless. While a person willing to consider a question fairly may be fooled, at least if he knows and understands the arguments, there is hope that he will eventually see the flaw and discover the truth. But if someone simply believes whatever he is told, how can he hope to ever know what is true and what is not? And how does he know who to believe?
I am sticking to my belief that knowledge is better than ignorance, and full and free debate is better than propaganda and indoctrination.
© 2006 by Jay Johansen