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.