Sunday, July 31, 2011

Barlin's Atheism Part 1

Pastor Graham Barlin sent me his seven page précis of what he believes atheism to be, called “Atheism Lost.” It seems to be from a sermon, or perhaps, intended pastoral he wrote. I intend to do a thorough review of his seven page explication, but first I should admit that I don’t know much about Mr. Graham Barlin except that he emailed me out of the blue and started quoting scripture to me—which without any context seemed rather meaningless. Random quotes are fine, don’t get me wrong, I like a good quote sharing like the rest, but it seemed rather arbitrary. After a few exchanges the topic of atheism came up.

Now if you’re a regular reader of this blog you will know that I was a Born again Born again, baptized twice, in the Assemblies of God Church, a strand of Protestant Evangelical Christianity, which I actively, and piously, adhered to for nearly three decades. Until recently, I was an ardent acolyte of Christian faith—and a passion for my beliefs raged within me as strong as my love for Jesus Christ—or more specifically—it was because of my beliefs that Jesus was Lord and Savior and the Redeemer of the human race, who brought us out of sin, by paying the ultimate price, his life, and thereby cleansing us through one final atonement—via these beliefs I came to have a personal experience with Jesus as I worked hard to follow his teachings.

Granted, I wasn’t perfect. Like all peoples, I had my flaws, and perhaps the most fatal flaw was my undying curiosity and thirst for knowledge. After about five years of intense involvement with Biblical Criticism and New Testament studies including reading nearly 150 books on historical matters related to Christianity, I gradually shifted in my position about what I thought I knew. As it turns out, convictions are best left uncontested, but when they are challenged, and when they are challenged by opposing information which seeks to override the cherished beliefs you hold dear to your heart, it’s no simple task merely to ignore these challenges. Many people retreat further into faith—and practice a type of blind faith—so they don’t have to ask the questions these sorts of challenges raise. But I was bold—intrepid—and perhaps a little naïve. I thought my faith was impervious. I accepted that doubt was natural—but no doubt was too big—in the end, I believed, the Bible had all the answers—but more importantly—God would show me the way.

As I investigated my faith, I did something most people who study religion usually do not do. I made a pact with myself. I promised myself that for every religious history or theology book I read I would balance it out with a science book. I didn’t want my faith to be lopsided by a lack of real world knowledge, because I felt that the real science, and the real wonders of nature, would only reaffirm my faith—and ultimately reinforce and strengthen it. So I dove right in—reading books on evolution and cosmology, divided up by books of ancient history and religion, which in turn were divided up by books of psychology and cutting edge neuroscience. Philosophy books were stacked next to theology books, and the more I read, the more I came to see a very specific pattern of human involvement in the area of religious belief (but more on this later).

After five years of this regiment study plan, I finally admitted to myself that I was no longer a believer. Now I didn’t get upset, although I found the prospect a bit of a letdown. After all, my faith had failed me, not I it. I tried my best to understand it, and like most people I know who have become nonbelievers/atheists, it’s not because they never took the time to understand religion, but often times, they become nonbelievers because they understand their religious beliefs and experiences all too well.

Barlin’s Atheism Part 1
This brings me back to Pastor Barlin’s version of atheism. He admits there are different kinds of atheism, and this he is certainly right about, but he goes on to state that “People choose to become atheists for different reasons.”

First I’d make the necessary interjection that it is our beliefs we adopt, which we chose, atheism in itself is not a belief, per say. Barlin seems to be aware of this too, when he asserts, “Whatever the reason, and there may well be others, most people who have decided to become atheists justify their atheistic viewpoint based on the following reasoning:

Because it cannot be proved that there is a God, I would be intellectually dishonest with myself if I were to believe that He exists.”

Barlin thus far is correct. But he makes the common mistake of assuming his latter classification as a form of atheism. Because God cannot be proved, and the fact that it would be intellectually dishonest to believe despite not having any proof, doesn’t take us all the way to atheism, but merely, brings us to a form of strong agnosticism. I do not know whether or not Barlin is aware of this issue, as he skips over it and moves on to talking about various types of proof, claiming atheists require empirical proof, which is certainly true, and in such a context atheists are also materialists, which I again agree with Barlin on these points. But I part ways with his line of reasoning when he says:

In this context an atheist must inevitably also be classified as a “materialist”. What this means is that, to the “materialist”, the material world around us (that which can be perceived with the five physical senses and thus understood with the rational mind) is all that there is - beyond this physical realm there is nothing. Crudely put, a materialist will say: “Everything has a logical explanation - give me the facts, don’t give me this spiritual mumbo jumbo!”

So much for the atheistic point of view.

It makes me wonder, why would he claim atheists are only concerned with empirically relevant matters and then dismiss them off hand? Maybe that was not his intention, but I don’t think I could honestly claim all atheists dismiss the spiritual. In fact, most atheists I know admit that there is something to spiritual experiences which even science has yet to explain. Other atheists I know feel uncomfortable using the term atheist to describe themselves, because they still go to Church, or they meditate, or they have grown more spiritual since their departure of organized religion, not less. I know many nonbelievers who would call themselves secular spiritualists, so I would not dismiss atheists as anti-spiritual. We are open to the mysterious—we are curious about it—but we do not fear it because we are not defending any beliefs predicated on our atheism.

Barlin goes on to say:

An “assumption” simply put is something we assume to be true without needing to prove it. (We assume that the sun will rise every day - we don’t have to wait for it to happen first every day to ‘prove´ that it does) The assumption that atheism makes is that empirical proof is infallible. The reasoning could thus be stated as follows: Because empirical proof cannot produce evidence that there is a God and because empirical proof can’t be wrong, this proves conclusively that He cannot exist: for this reason therefore, I cannot be expected to believe in Him.

But hold on a minute, just who said that empirical proof is infallible? What if it isn’t ? Why must we just accept as a fact that empirical proof is the be all and end all of everything that we can or cannot believe? If it can be shown that empirical proof is faulty in some way, the entire argument collapses in a heap of rubble.

First of all, a small clarification, an assumption is simply taking something for granted, regardless of whether or not it’s true. I only mention this because it helps to keep in mind that not all assumptions are necessarily invalid just because they are assumptions. Sometimes our intuitions turn out right, but I would presume such instances are rare, and that they depend on a lot of other factors—such as how well informed we are and how much empirical evidence there is to support the assumption before it is made.

But what really bothers me here is Barlin’s belief that atheists hold empiricism to be infallible. Empiricism, is just a way of testing facts and holding them up to scrutiny. Frequently, those that pass the test are deemed empirically valid, those that do not, are usually deemed empirically invalid, but this doesn’t mean atheists hold to empiricism with a religious zeal. We do make room for mistakes, which is why the testing part of empiricism, i.e. the scientific method, is so extremely valuable. It gives us a way to gauge the information, and classify is as good or bad, depending on how well the facts hold up in support of any given theory—i.e. science shows us whether or not the facts support our assumptions.

Which is why his using the rising sun a s an analogy for assumption seems out of place. We don’t merely “assume” the sun will rise, for all intents and purposes, we “know” it will—at least for another approximately five billion years. This is basic eighth grade level astronomy, and it’s not merely an assumption, but a scientifically established fact. One which is testable. Still, I think I get what Barlin is trying to say in that we assume the sun will continue to rise each and every day. We take for granted the fact that there are a billion random variables that we have never considered, nor can we predict, that would invalidate our assumption quite readily. In other words, we take for granted that the sun will come up tomorrow, because it always has in the past.

But this in no way means that, as Barlin claims, “If it can be shown that empirical proof is faulty in some way, the entire argument collapses in a heap of rubble.”

It simply does not follow, in this context, that because empirical proof may be faulty then the argument that we ought to rely on empiricism to help formulate our beliefs is somehow *not necessary. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. We must rely on our empiricism to help inform our basic beliefs. If, on the other hand, empirical proofs always proved faulty, then Barlin’s claim would be true. But as it is, empiricism can stand on its own, which means empiricism is more trustworthy than Barlin seems to be letting on.

Next Barlin mentions that he feels empirical proof faces some limitations. He mentions the most cited example I come across, love. As the argument usually goes: just because things are unseen, or immeasurable, doesn’t mean they’re not real, I love my wife—and that’s as real as anything. Just because we can’t see or measure “love” doesn’t mean that the thing we feel called love isn’t real.

Barlin continues on to offer a reply from a faux materialist, informing:

In reply however the materialist might answer: “One day science will come up with the reason why chemically we experience this “chemistry” – one day we will understand it all, it will make perfect logical sense, we will be able to measure it one day.

Thank you for falling right into my trap!

Although, this last bit sounds a little too alarmist to me, mainly because it’s not much of a trap, since for the atheist it’s not really much of an issue. Before I explain why, we must hear out Barlin’s case:

One day science will prove”? - exactly my point. “One day in the future” means that we might not understand or be able to prove this thing called love conclusively right now, but does that mean that we never will? Everyone I am sure will agree that the field of science is expanding rapidly all the time. Does anyone you know really believe that you can’t carry your own private telephone around in your pocket? When I was at school no one had even dreamed, let alone heard, of a cell phone! (We didn’t even have a clue what a video player was - can you believe!) Would any thinking person, let alone any true scientist claim that the scientific world has discovered all that there is to discover? Anyone who really believed that would be regarded as seriously deluded and yet this is the assumption on which atheists base their claim.

Even though we can all see where Barlin is going with this, I think he makes too much of a straw man of atheism in this case. Atheists do not base their claim that there is no God based on a lack of evidence, rather, the lack of evidence suggests there is no God. Does that mean we definitively know that there is no such thing as god or a [G]od? Of course not! But we would be irrational to claim there is a deity based on an utter deficiency of evidence!

More than this, however, is the fact that much of the empirical evidence does more than just show a gaping absence of God, but often times shows that God is completely unnecessary to perform any of the roles traditional prescribed to his Being. Which means, science has the bad habit of showing that God, real or not, is completely unnecessary and so irrelevant. Nothing could be worse for the theist, because the only thing worse than a non-existent God is one that is so inconsequential that he might as well not exist anyway. But there is no surprise that this is not the sort of God theists believe in. Which is why, according to the peculiar and often times highly specific beliefs of believers, we can surmise the sort of being they envision existing, and on this basis, we can look towards empiricism as a means to either establish support for such a being, or invalidate the God concept altogether. 

Barlin asks a rather fitting question:

How can we, on the one hand, say that one day science will prove every other thing that we don’t know right now but then, with the very same breath, categorically state that science will never be able to prove the existence of God? Just because according to our understanding of the empirical evidence that we have available at the moment we believe there is no conclusive proof of a God, does this mean that there never will be?

If we do have scientific questions about the existence of God…. the most we could say, if we are honest that is, is that: according to all the empirical data that we have at our disposal at the moment, we can’t prove that God exists. But that leaves open the logical possibility that He might yet be proved empirically to our satisfaction.

Interestingly enough, I agree. Although no God is yet proved, and it takes a strong man of faith to admit this much, as Barlin seemingly has, I concur that just because nobody has yet discovered God that nobody ever will. Indeed, if science did find a way to prove the existence of God, somehow I doubt this god would resemble the sort of being any of the religious faiths of the world purport exists. In fact, I bet you it would be so unlike anything anybody has ever imagined that it wouldn’t even seem like “God” according to those who professed a belief in God. In which case, I guess we could claim atheists aren’t accusing theists of an overabundance of imagination, but rather, a lack of one. Just, hopefully, it’s not the sort of being that Captain James T. Kirk finds at the end of Star Trek V, because although we would have empirical verification of God, we wouldn’t be at all satisfied. In fact, such a god would end up being a bigger disappointment than the movie ultimately was.

If science proved the existence of god, any god, I think it would be safe to say it wouldn’t likely be relatable to any human concept of god, sorry to say. Which is why most atheists I know are specific in the types of deity they reject, that is, we are not denying all possible existence of god or gods, we are merely denying the theistically conceived ones, with very distinct characteristics, features, habits and traits, which are completely without support. Which is why the atheist will often preface their criticism with a disclaimer, such as, “It is the Christian God I am addressing,” or “It is Vishnu, the Hindu god of creation, which is without support.”

As such, the more sophisticated critiques will be more specific in examining the evidence related to very specific God concepts. After scrutinizing the available evidence, it is only then can we comfortably say whether or not it seems likely, with any assurance, whether such a God as, say, the Christian deity conceivably exists.

Pastor Barlin finishes his first objection with the closing statement that:

If we accept this perfectly logical conclusion then we must change our stand from categorically denying the existence of God to one of accepting the possibility that He might be somewhere out there, somewhere beyond our current scientific knowledge. The moment we make this change in thinking, we can no longer, strictly speaking, call ourselves atheist. We have now become agnostic….

Although this is true when talking about generic philosophical propositions, such as existence and God concepts, as I pointed out, it is a little bit more nuanced than this when we shift our focus to specific gods and the very specific claims made about him. One of the problems I see theists face is how they defend the generic concept of God so voraciously, admittedly because it’s easier to do, but fail to see the problem when they pull the old bait and switch—saying because generic god A is proved viable, then my God belief in god B is viable. Basically, all they have done, is proved a different god than the one they believe in, which would be fine if the two were mutually compatible—but in my experience this rarely ever seems to be the case. Which is why Barlin is mistaken here. We can still be skeptical of the Christian God, and be atheist with regard to the Christian God’s existence, but we may reserve our agnosticism for other possible deities. That is to say, atheists can simultaneously be agnostics, but believers cannot be either agnostic or atheist.

In part two of Barlin’s Atheism, we will discuss his second objection to empiricism, namely the subjectivity of belief. Stay tuned for the next installment of my critique!

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist