There are, in what passes for discussion on the internet, a significant group of atheists who rail against Christianity in principle but display a remarkable degree of ignorance about it in detail. Faced with the suggestion that they learn more about the subject which they spend so much time talking about their response is usually along these lines-
“Some people believe, without proof, in the Christian God and some people believe, without proof, in pink unicorns. Why should I waste my time investigating one absurd belief more than another?” Which is rather like saying that since some people say that Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language and others give that honour to Jeffrey Archer we must assume that there is no superlative writer in English.
In this case, though, we can see that one position is advocated by highly educated, highly intelligent specialists in language and literary criticism whereas the other comes from an unverified purchaser on Amazon reviews. That being so pairing the two claims as if they were of equivalent force, value and merit is a mere superficial playing with words. The reason to consider one claim more than another rests not simply in the claim itself but in the sheer weight of expertise and knowledge which can be found among the claimants.
The matter, of course, is not capable of being proved in a scientific sense but it can be demonstrated within the terms of its own category whether one proposition is more likely to be true than another. When deciding which claims to investigate it makes no real sense to refuse to examine any on the grounds that there is more than one such claim. Some claimants simply possess more authority than others and while this doesn’t in any way prove their propositions it should at least render them worthy of intelligent consideration.
Returning to the subject of Christianity. The advocates of Christian belief, past and present, include some of the greatest intellects in the whole history of Western thought such as Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus and numerous others. The case made in favour of pink unicorns lacks such intellectual heft. To compare the two beliefs as being of equal value and thus equally to be ignored simply because they exist side by side is a logical fallacy.
At this point an atheist might argue that I have fallen into the trap of argumentum ad populum, suggesting that something must be true because many people believe it to be so. That is not, however, the case. I am appealing to the consensus sapientium, the consensus of the wise, where what is crucial is not quantity but quality. It is not an argument from numbers, nor is it for that matter an argument from authority, it is simply a suggestion that if many of the wise think that a proposition has great merit then that proposition is probably worth investigating independently.
What, I think, lies behind the internet atheists refusal to investigate is an a priori assumption that no spiritual belief can be true because no spiritual belief can be proved scientifically. It is worth noting that the statement ‘no spiritual belief can be true’ is itself not capable of being proved scientifically; it is at best an hypothesis. If a person’s basic first principle is an unprovable hypothesis then they do well not to act upon it as if it were an eternally true dogma.
The real problem lies in a confusion of categories. The scientific method is the gold standard for investigating the material universe and the objects which it contains. If a claim about this subject cannot be proved or at least studied scientifically then it is reasonable to doubt it. But the universe inhabited by humans is more than material. Even leaving aside claims about Spirit people live and move and have their being in the worlds of ideas, poetry, music, art, literature, philosophy, political economy and so on. Certainly each of these manifest themselves in the material realm but they take their origin in the abstract activity of Mind. Science cannot demonstrate what is beautiful in art or true in politics and scientists give or withhold their approbation in such matters in the same way that humans did in the pre-scientific age; by using category-appropriate criteria.
Where the internet atheist errs is in extending tools useful to investigating material objects into fields where they are simply not applicable often then assuming that anyone who disagrees with their arbitrary re-categorisation is an intellectual inferior. The simple fact is, though, that every one of us gives our intellectual consent all the time to scientifically unprovable propositions because if we didn’t human societies would cease to function. We do not refuse, for example, at an election to consider any claims by a political party on the grounds that there is more than one such organisation. Instead we, most of us anyway, look at the ideas of the more credible parties and leave the fringe ones to their own devices.
I would suggest the same approach applies to the matter of religious belief. Yes, some people believe in pink unicorns and yes some people believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ but they are not equivalent belief systems and if you disagree with the more credible of them then you have some responsibility to investigate it more closely before you become a public advocate for its destruction.
(An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent by John Henry Newman looks at some of the philosophical issues outlined above, well worth a read)
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