I once found an interesting post on an atheist message board. It was offered by one of the regulars (named “Gnomon”) in response to another atheist (named “Naturalist”) with which I and some other Christians had been debating, here. Naturalist seemed to be surprised that we Christians were using the language of logic and reason to make our points. The following are some excerpts from Gnomon’s reply to him, along with my observations.
Many posters on this forum seem to believe that Atheists are rational and Christians are irrational. Therefore, they are flabbergasted when they run across a Christian who is just as rational as the best Atheists. I think those rational posters are deceiving themselves, perhaps to boost their feeling of superiority to those “stupid Xians”.
This is a refreshing admission from a non-Christian and runs contrary to the attitudes of so many atheists who like to think of themselves as the “Brights,” read books entitled From Faith to Reason, and collect quotes like “All thinking men are atheists” (Ernest Hemingway). This commenter is gracious enough to rebuke this misconception, although as you will see he simply adjusts the scope of where he believes our rational shortcomings lie.
I spend the better part of any dialog with atheists simply dispelling stereotypes about what Christianity is actually about and how the mind and rationality neatly fit into the Christian worldview. In fact, I’ve often been accused of being “too rational,” but this is mostly by postmoderns, cultists, and “eastern” thinkers. I personally find atheists to be much more interesting dialog partners because of their strong (stated) allegiance to the principles of reason. This at least makes the dialog last a bit longer and avoids the personal offense, so often taken by new age types, when you point out flaws in their thinking. Atheists tend to understand the concept of debate (though there are some who prefer simply to belittle), whereas postmoderns and mystics see critique and disagreement as being ungracious or intolerant.
All this finger pointing and wagging is missing the point. In my experience, Christians in general are just as intelligent and just as rational as Atheists. What seems to define the difference between them is their degree of doubt. Christians can be very skeptical about the beliefs of other faiths. But they see no need to point the finger of doubt at their own beliefs.
In some areas, Christians and atheists can make common cause. When it comes to UFOs, psychics, and faith-healing charlatans we are on friendly ground. But atheists lump Christianity into the same pile, and they do not think Christians are willing to look their own myths and frauds squarely in the face. As an amateur apologist, I will have to take exception with this. The objections and alleged problems are ever before my face. In fact, I expect that I could articulate most of the objections to Christianity better than most non-Christian can. It becomes quite tiresome to answer the same accusations for each unbeliever that I encounter, and it is quite frustrating to witness how pervasive the bad arguments are that are supposed to be the sensible reasons for rejecting Christianity.
Am I just rationalizing or dishonestly masking the weaknesses in my belief system? Am I just bailing a leaky boat? Well, I certainly have nothing to gain from all this if it is just a fantasy (and neither did the apostles and church fathers, who paid with their lives). I get none of the Sunday offerings, and I spend a great deal of my time and money that could be invested in more amusing pursuits. I have yet to uncover evidence of the supposed fraud or myth-building of the early church (which was persecuted and powerless for its first 300 years), and I have yet to find any sort of logical defeater for Christianity. Most objections amount to questions about why God would do something in a particular way, pointing out the un-Christian behavior of “Christians,” or raising some conspiracy theory against the historical record. And at the very end of the trail I find that skeptics often just don’t want to be constrained in their thinking and behavior by the kind of demanding and inflexible truth that the Christian God suggests. As atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel so candidly said,
“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope that there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
This is hardly rational grounds for objection. Gnomon continues:
Atheists, and others who have lost faith, were not afraid to question—seriously question—the foundations of their own belief system. Why do you think preachers spend so much time extolling the virtues of faith? Because blind faith is not normal for adults, and it needs a lot of propping up, a lot of brainwashing.
This presumes that when you “seriously question” you discover that there are not serious answers, and so only those who do not question are safe from reason. No one is born a believer. Even those who are raised in the church at some point must grow up and take ownership of their faith, and not everyone who questions their heritage ends up turning from it. It seems a bit presumptuous to claim that only those who do are the ones who are “serious” or “not afraid.” Here we see the atheistic elitism rearing its head again, i.e., atheists are more earnest seekers after truth, bolder in their willingness to question, and smarter in winnowing the wheat from the chaff. With their superior mental skills I am surprised that “evolution” has not favored their kind, but, enigmatically, the vast majority of Homo sapiens are incorrigibly religious. But I digress.
In fact, there is something in what this fellow says about “blind faith,” questions, and doubt. One of the very common reasons given for turning away from the “faith” (whether permanently or temporarily) is intellectual suffering, i.e., not getting your questions answered. Too many of our young people are indeed given no answer—even discouraged from the questions—when they come forward with their natural and childlike curiosity. Faith must not only have an object (something you have faith in), but it must also have a reason; else, why not just have faith in the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster?
Faith carried merely by the momentum of a trusted parent, pastor, or Sunday school teacher will only coast so far without the engine of reason. It is, in reality, impossible to truly believe in something “blindly,” or without reason, even if you very much want to. To use apologist Greg Koukl‘s example, do you think you could honestly muster up faith that there was a flying pink elephant over your head, even if I offered you $100 to do so? At best, it will surely be a weak “faith” and certainly not one you’d dedicate your life to. Similarly, a Christian with little justification will be either no Christian at all (before long) or one who will be passionless in application and timid in witness. It is a shame and a detriment to the modern church that it seldom emphasizes apologetics and the life of the mind. It much prefers to build its house with the cement of emotion.
This is not to say that things like experience and intuition are invalid factors in the formation of beliefs. Not every convert comes by way of the Teleological Argument or a careful examination of the manuscript evidence for the reliability of Scripture. There are many saints better than I of very simple faith, yet even they have their reasons, even if they are not conscious of how to articulate them. The atheist will suggest that these reasons have to do with psychological need or fear of death, but as Nagel’s above quote shows, psychoanalyzing motives can be even more damning for the unbeliever.
The reasons for faith may be only as sophisticated as the particular person or circumstances warrant. Not everyone is an academic or saddled with the same baggage of presuppositions to be overcome. And it would hardly be sporting of God to construct a path that only a genius or guru could discover. The “simple” in faith might appeal to the Gospel as having the ring of truth, or claiming that it resonates with their deepest intuitions about human nature and the world they encounter. All this is in keeping with Scripture’s claim that the Holy Spirit testifies to us of the truth of the Gospel. And since belief itself is, in the end, a subjective exercise, it is no surprise that the Spirit must offer us help to that end.
In the end, I would propose that the answers to almost every conceivable question are available for the asking to any who are earnest and persistent enough to seek them. For believers of simple faith, knowing the questions will win credibility with the seeker, and seeing them answered can only strengthen faith’s conviction. But I think that willful unbelief is happily justified with its first “I don’t know”; yet we should strive not to be that one who must deliver this response.