Chatting with a Religious Skeptic Till 3:30am – Faith & empiricism

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In order to keep the anonymity of the person with whom I dialogued I shall be referring to him as Jack. This post is picking up on like nearly five hours of dialogue that we had in his lounge between the hours 12am and 3:30am. I will be spreading this dialogue across a number of articles (we will see how many it ends up being but I am suspecting roughly between 5 and 7) as Jack and I really chatted about a lot of stuff. I’ve tried to exercise as much fidelity to the actual conversation Jack and I had as I fully intend to repeat it as best I remember. Any changes that have been made are limited to grammar and sentence structure (my English is terrible!). For example, I’ve tried to iron out some of the informalities that tend to characterize my everyday speech such as words like “dude,” “man,” “cool,” “ya” (=yes) and other colloquialisms. I’ve tried to replicate this to the extent that if “Jack” was reading it he’d be familiar and in agreement with what is mentioned.

I’m on holiday with my family in a city 1600 kms away from where I live. Jack and I have separated from the others and have decided to head back to his home after a very pleasant steak supper at a restaurant just down the road. It’s 12:30am by the time we’ve turned on the TV on which Russia and Canada are bashing it about in a game of 7s rugby. I’ve also just put my laptop down to charge on the lounge table (we end up making use of my laptop a little later as I’ll touch on in the next article) and Jack breaks the silence, “I’ve read your blog. I see the posts you sometimes share on Facebook.”

I love it when people read my content so I thank Jack. This marks the beginning to what ends up being a deep and meaningful conversation. With a good dose of excitement as I seem to pick up in his voice, almost as if this was the first time he’s spoken on deep matters of belief to a religious person, Jack proclaims, “One of the biggest problems I have with religion is the faith, it’s all about faith, you know? Just have faith,” Jack says while making a motion with both arms. “But Jack,” I jump in, “faith is a massive part to what makes us human beings and this certainly extends beyond just religion, Christianity, or belief in God.” Jack relaxes a little into his wide sofa, “Like?” But before I can begin to answer he says, “I can’t believe in things I can’t see.

Well, there’s a lot you’ve just said here.” I decide to continue on the subject of faith, “Faith isn’t bad at all especially when one understands what it actually means. I think what you have in mind is a kind of blind faith…” “Yes,” Jack agrees, “just believing something.

Indeed, I’d fully agree,” I say. “In fact, I’d probably say the vast majority of religious people, Christians too, have blind faith.” Jack looks at me as if he didn’t expect me to say such a thing, “But,” I continue, “it wouldn’t be fair to say that every Christian, or religious believer, is like that. But also be sure to realize that this doesn’t actually relate to the truth of a religious worldview. That Christians, and even atheists, might have blind faith is not a comment on whether what they believe is true.” Jack nods as he digests what I’ve just said.

Look,” I try to reason, “we take many things on faith so we shouldn’t view faith as something that is necessarily bad. Most philosophers, and especially one of which I follow quite keenly by the name of William Lane Craig, have identified a number of things we take on a matter faith but are empirically unverifiable. I think this probably explains your claim to not believe in things you cannot see.” “Yes,” jumps in Jack. “Things I, nor anyone else, can’t see or touch.” “Cool,” I respond, “I see what you mean. But you’ve never actually seen with your eyes or physically felt radio waves or even dark matter?” “But that’s not the same thing,” retorts Jack, “those are scientific facts.

I know they are, and that’s kind of why I brought them up. Basically, they show that you do accept the existence of things that you cannot touch with your hands or see with your eyes. But that’s hardly all of them.” I continue, “There are a number of, what philosophers call, metaphysical truths that we take for granted. These are beliefs that we all feel we are rational to hold to but that we cannot empirically verify.”

For one,” I say, “is the concept of morality.” I decide to make this point by asking Jack, “Do you think rape is morally evil?” Jack nods as if eagerly anticipating what point I am about to make. “Now, that belief of yours that some things are morally evil is immaterial, in other words, you appeal to a non-physical transcendent standard, or law, that is binding on all people that rape is wrong. It is not just your opinion that rape is evil, rather you believe it is objectively evil. But that is a metaphysical belief. You cannot, as philosopher Craig would say, test that belief in a tube. You can’t say, for example, that the Nazi scientists in Germany during WW2 did anything evil as opposed to good via the scientific method.

Jack’s eyes quickly light up which suggests he must have an explanation, “But that’s a sensation!” This confuses me a little and it results in a few of seconds of silence between us, “What do you mean it’s a sensation?” I suspect Jack doesn’t really know what he himself means because he goes blank and doesn’t say anything. “What I take you mean by that is you “know” it’s wrong. But that only goes to show that you believe, through your inner moral intuition, that some things are objectively evil as opposed to good, and vice versa. That is an immaterial belief which only affirms what I’ve been saying.” Jack doesn’t say anything so I end up wondering if I’ve managed to explain this properly, if he’s understood it, or if I’m just downright bad at explaining things. But I don’t stop there.

Also,” I continue to make my point, “are other things. Like we all believe that the external world exists outside of our own minds. This belief makes us objective realists. But this is also a belief that is unverifiable. It is simply taken on faith. For example, there is no non-circular way we could empirically verify the existence of the external world as our minds sees it for we’d have to make use of our minds in the first place to come to the belief that it exists. In other words, we’re using our minds to vouch for our minds. So if we use our minds to argue for this then we’re kind of basing our argument on a logical fallacy. What that shows is that we can’t help but exercise faith which only shows how naive it is for some to deny that they have faith.”

I get what you’ve been saying,” opens up Jack, “but it still doesn’t answer what I said. That belief in religion is blind.

I mull over what Jack’s has stated and try to keep the conversation on track, “But now that’s a different thing you’ve just said. Your initial claim was that you can’t believe in what you can’t see. Jack, I think what I’ve been trying to say is that your skepticism is inconsistent. Essentially, you’re holding to this standard that you will only believe in empirically verifiable things but at the same time you’ve been accepting many non-empirically verifiable beliefs as I’ve tried to show.”

Jack responds, “Again, a major issue for me is that when it comes to this stuff there’s always room for doubt and that’s the problem.

Jack hasn’t really made an argument here so I try to put it into one within my head. The result is that I find it to be quite weak, “Consider the point I’ve just made through our belief in the external world. We believe it exists but far smarter people than both of us I have proposed the opposite. They’re called solipsists. But just because there’s wiggle room for doubt doesn’t mean we shouldn’t believe the external world exists. In other words, just because there’s room for doubt doesn’t mean, or never should mean, we don’t want to come to a best explanation of something.

I close off, “I think the certainty you are looking for quite obviously doesn’t exist. So I wouldn’t recommend one to use that as an ultimate decider of what beliefs we should adopt.

Jack is again in thought and steers the discussion in a new direction, “My mother gave me a Bible two years ago and asked me to read it. But I got to a part where it said that…[to be continued]

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