Monday, February 20, 2006

Autobiographical atheism

John Loftus has posted the “Cliff Notes” version of his nominal conversion and subsequent apostasy.

Evan Fales also has an anecdotal piece along the same lines, which I’ll get to a little later.

In passing I’d note the studied duplicity between John’s editorial policy and the autobiographical character of his case against the faith.

Both he and Exbeliever advertise their Christian background, but then take exception to “personal attacks.”

But if they are going to mount an ad hominem defense of atheism, then they leave themselves open to an ad hominem rebuttal of atheism.

Add to that Exbeliever’s resort to innuendo.

They’re the ones who choose to frame and preface so much of their own argument in anecdotal and autobiographical terms.

I would add that I’ve never tried to characterize John’s IQ. What I have done, rather, is to characterize his unintelligent arguments.

He has a habit of dashing off hit-pieces against the faith without bothering to anticipate the glaringly obvious counterexamples to his position. His attacks are riddled with careless inconsistencies of the most elementary sort.

Let’s look at two examples of autobiographical atheism, beginning with Loftus.

“Let me just briefly mention the information that changed my mind. I carried on a correspondence debate with my cousin who was a Lieutenant in the Air Force (now a Colonel) and teaches Bio-Chemistry at a base in Colorado. I handed him a book arguing for creation over evolution and asked him to look at it and let me know what he thought of it. After several months he wrote me a long letter and sent me a box full of articles and books on the subject. Some of them were much too technical for me to understand, but I tried to read them. While he didn’t convince me of much at the time, he did convince me of one solid truth: the universe is as old as scientists say it is, and the consensus is that it is 12-15 billion years old.”

Now, let’s juxtapose this statement with something Loftus says in the combox:

“I was a 'concordist,' in that the days of Genesis represented eons of time. I just didn't know much at all by way of astronomy. Maybe the impact of the material from my cousin jolted me into seeing what the age of the universe really entails. It forced me to reconsider concordism like nothing I had ever read.”

But the whole point of concordism is that it’s able to accommodate modern cosmology. I’m not saying that this is a good way of reading Gen 1, but if you accept that interpretation, then evidence for the vast antiquity of the universe would not count as evidence against Gen 1. Likewise, concordism is flexible about the actual sequence of events.

“Now that by itself isn’t too harmful of an idea to Christian thinking. But two corollaries of that idea started me down the road to being the honest doubter I am today. The first is that in Genesis chapter 1 we see that the earth existed before the sun, moon, and stars, which were all created on the fourth day. This doesn’t square with astronomy. So I began looking at the first chapters of Genesis, and as my thinking developed over time I came to the conclusion that those chapters are folk literature—myth. You can see my studies on this later in this book.

The second corollary is this: if God took so long to create the universe, then why would he all of a sudden snap his fingers, so to speak, and create human beings?… Astronomy describes the long process of star, planet, and galaxy formation.”

This brings us to another deficiency in Loftus’ quality of reasoning.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, the traditional interpretation of Gen 1. What Loftus needs to ask himself is what the world would look like if this were true. What are the internal implications of this position? What would count as evidence against this position?

If Gen 1 attributed to God’s creative fiats the same mode of operation as governs the forces of nature today, and if Gen 1 posited a certain sequence or duration of events on the basis of that common mode of operation, then it might be possible to falsify the account in case the chronology ran counter to extrapolations from the status quo quem.

In other words, the same cyclical process will yield the same results. Hence, the past should resemble the present.

But, of course, the creation account doesn’t do that. It indexes the sequence and duration to a mode of operation which is discontinuous with natural law. For God’s creative action is what gets the cycle started in the first place. It is not governed by preexisting law.

So if the world were phased in through a six –stage process of calendar days, what would the effect resemble?

Since the initial mode of operation is disanalogous with the status quo quem, an inference from the nature of the status quo quem to the nature of the status quo ante is fallacious. Loftus is attempting to measure the creation account by the yardstick of providence.

Given the inner logic of the creation account, what type of scientific evidence would be germane? Loftus has yet to get inside of Gen 1 and grapple with the account on its own terms.

Keep in mind that I’m playing off of his own interpretation of Gen 1. This follows from his own operating assumption.

BTW, I don’t agree with his interpretation of the fourth day. As I’ve argued otherwise, I think this reading overlooks an architectural metaphor.


“It is quite ironic, really. I started with faith. That faith inspired me to understand. With more understanding, my faith increased to the point where I was confident no argument could stand up against my faith. So I proceeded to gain more and more knowledge for the express purpose of debunking the skeptics. But in so doing I finally realized that the arguments on behalf of the Christian faith were simply not there. The skeptics were right all along.”

No, what is quite ironic is that Loftus could be so easily disillusioned. We are all children of the scientific age. We are all brought up on modern cosmology, historical geology, and naturalistic evolution.

A Christian is not a Christian in ignorance of the scientific data, such as it is. How could Loftus ever have been so naïve? Was he raised in a broom-closet?

BTW, it is quite possible to be a professional astronomer and a young-earth creationist. Read the arguments by John Byl in God & Cosmos (Banner of Truth 2001).

“People believe and doubt for a wide variety of reasons, and that’s all there is to it.”

If that’s all there is to it, whatever became of John’s argument from social conditioning?

This is one of the recurring problems with Loftus. He isn’t very logical. He’s continually contradicting himself as the most basic level, as if his left-brain and his right-brain aren’t on speaking terms.

Let’s briefly turn from Loftus to Evan Fales, who is a much more polished unbeliever. He, too, is an exponent of autobiographical atheism:

“The most obvious thing that will be lacking, for most Christian theists at least, is eternal existence, or the assurance of an eternal existence, in the presence of God. The importance of this assurance, and of the conviction that it is provided by Scripture, was vividly brought home to me by Billy Warfel, who had been a high school classmate of mine. I ran into Billy again in my 17th summer, at a local tent revival that I went to out of curiosity. Billy was the leader, it turned out, of the local Youth for Christ movement, and our discussion turned to Darwin. After I left that night, it occurred to me that I could prove the evolution of species if the Bible specified the dimensions of Noah's Ark. It did, and I made a quick calculation that showed the Ark to be not nearly capacious enough to hold all the living species of land animals. Returning the next evening, I put my case before Billy. Billy's response, which made an indelible impression on me, was to look me in the eye and to say, quietly: "I don't see any mistake in your argument. But if I were to accept that there are any errors in the Bible, my life would not be worth living at all."

Billy's sincerity was unmistakable. I let the matter drop. Other remarks he made indicated to me that it was the hope of personal salvation that stood uppermost in Billy's mind.”

What are we to make of this?

i) All it really proves is that Billy is not a rocket scientist. By contrast, Evan Fales is a thinker. As such, Fales could argue circles around his high school buddy.

Billy’s response is intellectually unsatisfying because Billy is not an intellectual. He can’t operate at that level.

This is true of many believers. What is more, it’s equally true of many unbelievers. The proverbial village atheist would just get slaughtered in a debate with Alvin Plantinga or William Lane Craig or John Warwick Montgomery or Richard Swinburne.

ii) The fact that you may not be smart enough to defend your faith doesn’t, of itself, mean that your faith is either erroneous or irrational. It’s simply a reflection of your own intellectual limitations.

iii) It’s quite possible for someone to have very good reasons for what he believes even if he lacks the sophistication to give good reasons for what he believes.

Cardinal Newman illustrated that point long ago in his exposition of the illative sense.

For many Christians, their only evidence is existential: the experience of God’s grace and providence in their lives, their ability to identify with the experience of the saints in Scripture. That sort of thing. An intuitive, prereflective apprehension of the truth imprinted on their minds and their lives.

This is the argument from experience. And the experience precedes the argument.

iv) There is also a measure of merit to Billy’s response. Suppose I were diagnosed with terminal cancer. I’m given four months to live.

What would be the most rational course of action? Should I start a weblog in which I devote my remaining four months of life to proving that I only have four remaining months to live?

Or would it not make more sense for me to explore alternative, experimental therapies which held out some slim hope of a cure?

At a certain level, isn’t Billy’s desperation more reasonable than Fales’ resignation?

If one proposition is a losing proposition, then doesn’t it make more sense to investigate more promising avenues?

v) What’s the advantage to being right if Fales is right? Nature doesn’t reward the atheist for getting it right. Those who are right and those who are wrong share a common oblivion. What does it matter to the grave whether you were once an atheist or a theist? There’s no value to being an atheist if atheism is true.

vi) I’m not saying that this is a good reason to be a Christian. And this is not a good reason to reject atheism.

It is, however, a very good reason not to dedicate your life to a suicide mission.

vii) Incidentally, making a back-of-the-envelope calculation on the logistics of the flood is hardly a very astute weigh of sizing up the options.

It’s not as if the creationist community has never heard these objections before. It’s not as if they’ve been speechless in face of such objections. Cf. J. Woodmorappe, Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study (ICR 1996).

viii) Finally, autobiographical atheism cuts both ways. As Paul Vitz, in Faith of the Fatherless, and Os Guinness, in Long Journey Home, have documented, the lives of unbelievers is very much an argument for the Christian faith, and not against it.

1 comment:

  1. You just can't seem to post something without attacking us can you? Believe me when I say that a mark of being educated and intelligent is the lack of personal attacks when you disagree with someone, because an educated person knows it's not a matter of intelligence that we disagree with each other in the first place, He's been exposed to a variety of viewpoints that have been defended by intelligent people for him to learn this, and he knows that his own views have their own inconsistency's to them, since he's had intelligent people point them out to him.

    Anyway, the biggest objection to concordism is the fourth day—the creation of the sun, moon, stars after the earth and its vegetation and trees! To say God revealed the sun, moon and stars on the fourth day is an ad hoc theory. You cannot turn the word “made” into “reveal”(1:16). Genesis has a perfect word for “appear” when it needed to use it (1:9). “On this reef the concordist boat is wrecked.” In the Beginning by Henri Blocher, (p. 45).