Andrew Sullivan thinks “militant atheists” have an excessively crude epistemology. (Via WEIT)
As to Coyne’s challenge to present a criterion of what is real in the Bible and what is true, I’d argue that empirical claims – like, say, a census around the time of Christ’s birth, or the rule of Pontius Pilate in Palestine at the time – can be tested empirically. But the Gospels themselves have factually contradictory Nativity and Crucifixion stories…and so scream that these are ways to express something inexpressible – God’s entrance into human history as a human being.
If you are treating these texts as if they were just published as news stories in the New York Times, you are missing the forest for the trees. You are just guilty of a category error – or rather of forcing all experience into the category of science.
No, not science. News stories in the New York Times are not science (apart from the few that are). That’s a false dichotomy. Science is not the only alternative to fiction or myth. News stories in the New York Times are not science, but they are supposed to be, and expected to be, accurate. They are expected to get things right. They are not expected to make things up. (If you don’t believe me, Google Jayson Blair.) They are expected, in short, to tell the truth.
Sullivan apparently doesn’t agree with this (which is disconcerting, given that he is a journalist).
The rub is the miracles, as Hume noted. Here we have clear empirical accounts of things that we cannot account for in nature, indeed stories that are told precisely because they defy the laws of nature. And when the real and the true seem to conflict, I think we need to rely on the true, and leave the real to one side. The point of curing a blind man is the lesson of faith: “I once was blind and now I see.” I remain agnostic about the miracles as real; I have no doubt that they were true, that those who experienced Jesus’ touch and message were transformed in ways perhaps only expressible in terms of physical miracles. That goes for Lazarus as well. When we are talking about coming back from the dead, we are entering non-real truths. And the most profound unreal truth is, of course, the Resurrection.
He’s saying stories about miracles can be true even if they’re not real. Try that with the New York Times then. Try it with the Atlantic. Try it with the Daily Beast. If Sullivan reports something, as opposed to commenting on it or interpreting it, does he give himself permission to report it as true even if he knows it’s not real? Does he actually make truth claims in print in journalistic outlets that he knows are not “real” (by which the rest of us mean “true”)? I doubt it, and if he does, he risks getting in the kind of trouble that Jayson Blair did – but with a much bigger reputation to lose.
In other words, I think he’s bullshitting. I think he’s bullshitting rather shamelessly, since he probably wouldn’t act on that (bogus-seeming) distinction in his professional life. He wouldn’t call a fiction “true” to his editors or his readers (at least I don’t think he would, because as far as I know he’s a reputable journalist).
It’s interesting that this kind of special rule doesn’t apply in other areas. There’s no such thing as “true but not real” in the courtroom, or psychology, or history, or engineering. It might be a way of talking about fiction and story-telling, but that of course is the opposite of what Sullivan means – he is not saying that the Resurrection and the New Testament are fiction.
At the end he quotes a reader
Notice that the fundamentalist and the militant Atheist both confuse truth with fact, the fundamentalist by insisting that truth overwhelm fact, and the militant Atheist by insisting that fact overwhelm truth. Neither, usually, have [sic] solid epistemological grasp of truth or fact.
Because their epistemology is too crude, in my opinion.
No. Thanks, but no.