Religious people are not that different from nonbelievers

Jason Rosenhouse makes a point that I too have noticed in my discussions about religion with both sophisticated and fundamentalist believers. The former will pooh-pooh the whole idea of evidence for the existence of god and say that religion is based on faith and is a different way of knowing and thus is exempt from the normal demands of evidence and reason that we apply to every other aspect of our lives. They will argue that as a result these are two non-overlapping worldviews and that applying the standards of science to religious beliefs makes no sense.

But if you talk to your average religious believer, as I have done many times and reported on this blog (search the blog for the phrase “Jesus people”), you will find that they do not make this distinction. They will in fact appeal to evidence and reason to support their beliefs just like we do. In fact, you will find that they have put in a great deal of thought on the evidence for god and the validity of their religious texts. Of course, their evidence tends to be weak and their reasoning circular and can be easily demolished by people who have looked even cursorily at the issues. But I have found that it is only if pinned in a corner that they will invoke the faith card that sophisticated people play right at the beginning.

The problem for religious believers is well put by physicist Alan Sokal in a debate with philosopher Michael Lynch. Lynch had made the common sophisticated accommodationist argument that science and religion have different epistemic starting points and thus deal with different forms of knowledge that can never be confronted with each other. This is usually followed by chiding us new atheists for talking naively about god in ways that they feel is not up to their level of sophistication. Sokal responds thusly:

The point is, simply, that fundamentalist Christians’ epistemic principles are not, at bottom, so different from ours. They accept as evidence the same types of sense experience that the rest of us do; and in most circumstances they are attentive, just like the rest of us, to potential errors in the interpretation of sense experience.

The trouble is not that fundamentalist Christians reject our core epistemic principles; on the contrary, they accept them. The trouble is that they supplement the ordinary epistemic principles that we all adopt in everyday life — the ones that we would use, for instance, when serving on jury duty — with additional principles like “This particular book always tells the infallible truth.”

But then we have a right to inquire about the compatibility of this special epistemic principle with the other, general, epistemic principles that they and we share. Why this particular book? Especially, why this particular book in view of the overwhelming evidence collected by scholars (employing the general epistemic principles that we all share) that it was written many decades after the events it purports to describe, by people who not only were not eyewitnesses but who also lived in a different country and spoke a different language, who recorded stories that had been told and retold many times orally, and so on. Indeed, how can one possibly consider this particular book to be infallible, given the many internal contradictions within it?

Sokal is exactly right. For example, I have pointed out that under the normal rules of logic, when it comes to existence statements the burden of proof is on the person making the claim while when it comes to universal statements about something (once its existence has been established), the burden of proof is on the person contesting it. Most people, religious and non-religious alike, routinely use this logic in everyday life even if they are not consciously aware that they are doing so. This is what enables us to confidently assert that unicorns do not exist (because the existence statement has not been proved) and that no penguins can fly (because that universal statement has not been disproved). But when it comes to religious questions such as the existence of god, believers abruptly add a new rule and assert that all their beliefs, including the existence of god, must be accepted as a priori true unless they can be disproved.

As Rosenhouse says, this raises the interesting question of why religious people place such value on their religious texts from whence they get their religious beliefs. I agree with him that this is not because of faith but that for them, the evidence of their reliability is overwhelming.

As fundamentalists see it, their confidence in the Bible is the most rational thing in the world. They talk more about facts, logic and evidence than just about anyone else you’ll ever meet. It certainly is not the result of blind faith or anything like that.

When I lived in Kansas I became a regular listener to a fundamentalist radio station. It seemed like every third sermon was about proving, rationally, the divine authorship of the Bible. When I went to creationist conferences and discussed this question with the attendees, the better informed among them would unleash a barrage of arguments meant to convince any reasonable person that the Bible is the Word of God. Go to any fundamentalist bookstore and look at all the books devoted to apologetics. None of them argue that faith in the Bible should be taken as an epistemic first principle.

In short, their view is that any reasonable person in possession of the facts should conclude that the Bible is the Word of God.

Their arguments are not very good, of course. One of their favorites involves the many instances of prophecies in the Old Testament that came to pass in the New. They never seem to consider the possibility that the New Testament accounts were specifically written with the Old Testament prophecies in mind.

Jesus and Mo make that point more succinctly.

This is why I find discussions on religion with ordinary believers more interesting than those with sophisticated believers. They actually talk about facts and evidence and reality. They come right out and say what they believe and why. With sophisticated believers like Marilynne Robinson, on the other hand, it is not only extraordinarily hard to pin down exactly what they believe, it is even harder to have them explain why they believe it. This is why talking with them can be so exasperating.

It may seem counter-intuitive but nonbelievers have more in common with fundamentalist religious believers, at least as far as the role of evidence goes, than with the sophisticated ones.


  1. grumpyoldfart says

    It never occurred to me that fundies were using logic. I thought they were just repeating what their preachers told them. The atheist asks a question; the fundie recognises it as question #47 in his catechism, and immediately recites the appropriate answer (probably without understanding it in any detail).

  2. Somite says

    There is no evidence of a different “epistemology” other than the natural world and our verified observations of it. When someone uses the word, by definition they are saying “I am just going to make up some stuff now for which there is no evidence”.

    I find more entertaining to make it a drinking game than to take “epistemology” arguments seriously.

    Thanks to you Mano I am starting the day with a buzz! Cheers!

  3. slc1 says

    At least in the case of YECs, I disagree with Prof. Rosenhouse, and apparently Prof. Singham. Here is a comment that I posted over at Prof. Rosenhouse’s blog.

    I would argue that all creationists (at least YECs) are presuppositionalists, whether they admit it or not. Thus, I would argue that “scientific” creationists like Kurt Wise, Jason Lisle, Marcus Ross etc. start from the notion that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are inerrant and then proceed to look for scientific support for that position, which usually amounts to making shit up.

    As an example, if one raises the question as to how light from distant galaxies arrived at the location of the earth in less then 6000 years, they will argue that:

    1. The supposed distances to those galaxies are in error.

    2. The speed of light was much faster 6000 years ago then it is today.

    3. There are intense gravitational fields in the neighborhood of the earth that dilate time such that clocks run much slower here then elsewhere in the universe due to gravitational time dilation.

    There is, of course, not a jot or a tittle of evidence supporting any of these notions. In fact, there is evidence that all of them would lead to predicted observations that are not observed. For example, if item 3 above were true, light coming from those distant galaxies would be blue shifted far outside the visible spectrum and they would be invisible to optical telescopes.

    Having some experience with YECs, particularly with a clown calling himself Jon S, over at Prof. Rosenhouse’s blog, the fact is that they lie. Point out that there are two contradictory creation myths in the Hebrew scriptures, they will lie and claim that they really don’t contradict each other.

  4. says

    Thanks for a precisely-worded and insight-rich article. I think much of this boils down to biological limitations in brain power, and capacity for abstract thought and reasoning. When we agree on key underlying principles, we happily tick the ‘agreed’ box: check! We move on to concepts that are (we hope) built upon these common foundations.

    That’s where things get a little tenuous- as we move one or more levels of abstraction up the hierarchy of complex thought, it’s easier to lose track of what the original assumptions and context were, and we’re prone to making associations and leaps in logic that might not hold up under more detailed examination. For the purposes of saving time and keeping social relations smooth, we skimp on the rigor and start checking boxes too quickly. In other words, we tire easily.

    What could we do to stave off effects of mental exhaustion? Well, slow down. Take your time. Don’t try to cover too much ground at once, or the discussion gets unmanageable and out of hand.

    Hard advice to follow when each statement brings to mind a veritable warren of new references and rabbit holes to run down- but it’s better to end up having thoroughly discussed one thing and reached some kind of consensus, than to have scatteredly touched on numerous disparate things without having made any solid connections.

    For more:

  5. Mano Singham says

    But isn’t that the point that Rosenhouse and I were making, that they don’t appeal to faith and argue that science has nothing to say about it? Their point is that science does have something to say but does not say what we think it says. They appeal to evidence and reason and not faith, at least explicitly. Of course, their evidences may not be much good, as I said in the post, but that is the way they argue.

  6. mnb0 says

    “Lynch had made ….. This is usually followed by chiding us new atheists….”
    Here you can find the hypocrisy of those liberal, sophisticated believers. The vast majority of them – I’ve met only one exception – typically only uses this argument against atheists. I don’t consider myself a New Atheist (for one thing I have been unbelieving since 35 years or so and a convinced atheist since about 1985 and my two main reasons haven’t changed a bit). Thus I am willing to buy that science and religion have different epistemic starting points, although I wouldn’t exactly call the result of the religious method knowledge.
    But why do those liberal, sophistic believers confront me with this when I’m criticizing fundies? Why do they so seldomly – in 12 years internet I have met less than a handful – confront their fellow-christians?
    Example: a quite intelligent Flemish catholic theologian, Erik Buys, wrote in an article that the also Flemish atheist Etienne Vermeersch used a wrong image of the christian god when quoting Epicurus’ famous evidence for the non-existing of god. Not any mention of his converservative fellow-catholics. Only when pressed har on a Dutch atheist forum EB was willing to admit that catholics like Santorum are wrong too (EB does support gay marriage and the likes) and then only in the vaguest possible way an on the most general level, immediately followed by “but because the messenger is wrong it doesn’t follow that the message is wrong.”
    This is plain intellectual dishonesty, resulting from a deep desire to silence atheists indeed. His entire logic boils down to: “look how enlightened by views are, you atheists should admit that my god is great. (literally: Jesus is the perfect embodiment of agapè – I’d like to add: until atheists prove otherwise but I’m going to reject or neglect every single argument a priori; hell, I even argued that Franciscus of Assisi was a closer to perfect embodiment)”.
    Well, it’s like another ft blogger wrote: I don’t believe in that motherfucker either.

  7. kagekiri says

    As a former Christian, yeah, I did think there was evidence. It wasn’t supposed to be actually blind faith, but more like faith in a friend who you know other people have counted on and who you’ve interacted with yourself in the past, so you trust them into the future.

    The emotional relationship with God, His ability to change people’s lives, the feelings of bliss and redemption during worship and prayer, that was a major part of my faith, and evidence that others couldn’t disprove. I also had all those other apologetics stuff and BS Young Earther crap that I searched for, but I was never confident enough in my faith to really take a hard look at the counter-evidence or claims of atheists.

    Of course, there was the problem of other religions’ followers having similar spiritual experiences, but you could always blame it on demons…and for any doubts, the Bible has plenty of built-in beliefs to scare you into just continuing to believe, like saying people who distrust the Holy Spirit (or blaspheme it) are damned, or those who raise their kids outside of Scripture are damned, or anything atheistic is folly, and warnings of false teachers and false prophets, and all sorts of other crap.

    Even when I finally had enough doubt in God’s goodness, I still thought he was there, just a crazy dictator. It took a lot of unanswered prayers and years of depression for me to realize I had just been fooling myself about God’s existence, grasping onto a false believe by making God’s claims invincible to evidence, shoving God into any gaps where he would fit.

    I had been emotionally manipulated by Scripture and preachers into hating myself, which allowed for all those cathartic moments in worship when I wallowed in my unworthiness and God’s “greatness” and “love”. I saw other people collapsing, prophesying, speaking in tongues, but other religions had people could act crazy or drive themselves into hypnosis like states, and I never saw undeniable healing. Most other religions could produce similar feelings and actions (all without actual healing, too), there was nothing more true or special about the Christian God.

    Basically, you have to remove that fake emotional evidence of God’s existence before you’re going to really affect anyone’s faith, or their “God” will always retreat to the gaps, even if you strike down all of their other evidence and apologetics. They believe that they experience God, they blame all good things that happen on Him, so He’s more than just a historical figure or logical argument. They believe that moral whisper in their head is His spirit; He’s a person to them.

  8. slc1 says

    I think the problem is that Prof. Rosenhouse is making what I believe to be a false assumption, that “scientific” YECs like Wise, Lisle, and Ross are not presuppositionalists. The point is that they assume that the scriptures are inerrant and then look for “scientific” arguments to support that position. The fact that they don’t argue from faith is nothing but an attempt to cover their tracks (actually, Wise does admit to arguing from faith, as Dr. Dawkins has pointed out but he too looks for “scientific” evidence to support his YEC views). If they can’t find anything to support their position, they just make shit up (see the discussion on light from distant galaxies).

    One of their favorite arguments, made by the aforementioned Jon S, is that we have our experts and they have their “experts” and they believe their “experts”. The fact that their “experts” are outnumbered by several orders of magnitude is irrelevant to them.

  9. Mano Singham says

    You are right that they think their scriptures are inerrant. Rosenhouse was exploring the question of why they think so.


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