July 19, 2015
On October 21, 2013, you responded to a question by a lifelong Christian who said they were having trouble believing because of reading material from people like Richard Dawkins, and from discussions they had with their atheist friends (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/garbage-in-garbage-out). You chided this person (and other Christians like them) very strongly for the "cavalier way" that they "expose themselves to material which is potentially destructive to them." In your summary list of suggestions for how to deal with this problem, one of your points was this: "Quit reading and watching the infidel material you've been absorbing. Confess your recklessness and irresponsibility to God. Notice: I'm not saying, quit asking questions. I'm saying, quit going to the wrong people for answers."
Personally, I don't understand what the value is of asking questions is, if you consider anyone who doesn't agree with the answers you already have to be "the wrong people." But that's not my main point. I'm more concerned about that first sentence, which sounds more like something you might hear from an imam of ISIS than a prominent Christian philosopher, who believes so strongly that Christianity is a reasonable faith. If Christianity truly is consistent with reality itself, then shouldn't it hold up to scrutiny?
Ultimately, the question comes down to this; is knowledge ever a bad thing? Wouldn't it be better for people of faith to learn what the opposing arguments are, and make their own informed decision about whether those arguments are fallacious (perhaps using your refutations to inform their decision, but still with a firsthand exposure to the opposing arguments themselves), then to just take your word for it and make an a priori dismissal of their validity without ever seeing them? What would you say about an atheist who dismissed Christian arguments the same way? Do you believe that God wants people to follow him through blind faith? If not, what makes "quit reading and watching the infidel material you've been absorbing" distinct from blind faith?
It surprises me, Tim, that any right-thinking person could disagree with what I’ve said about the recklessness of immature Christians’ exposing themselves to material which would endanger their spiritual lives. Parents don’t allow their children to go in the deep end of the pool until they’ve taught them to swim. The Army does not send school teachers and accountants to the battlefield until they have gone through basic training. This is just common sense. You don’t expose people to danger until they are equipped to deal with it.
It was evident from his letter that the anonymous author of QoW #340 was an ill-equipped Christian who knew little if anything of natural theology, had no understanding of the doctrine of divine providence, and couldn’t even spell “intervene.” Such a person has no business reading and listening to the material he mentions.
Recently I was struck by the following Facebook comment on Kevin Harris and my podcast on the interview between Richard Dawkins and Ricky Gervais:
It's been such a long time, since I last listened to the likes of Richard Dawkins and Ricky Gervais, that I was appalled at the anti-intellectual, superficial, populist, adolescent drivel in the clips of their conversation reviewed in this podcast. THIS is supposed to be the cream of enlightened, ‘clear-thinking’? But then I needed to remind myself, I used to find this compelling too. Thank God for people like William Lane Craig, who are prepared to speak out and expose the fallacies, mis-information, and frankly cavalier and hypocritical reasoning of these New Atheist ‘rock stars’.
I was especially sobered by the phrase I’ve emphasized, “I used to find this compelling, too.” Many people are just not ready to confront such deceptive material.
Now maybe you are not such a person. Then go to it (with appropriate caution and attention to your soul)! A policeman who has been trained in safely detonating an explosive device can and must undertake tasks which those of us not so trained should avoid.
So to deal with your minor concern first: What is the value of asking questions, if you consider anyone who doesn't agree with the answers you already have to be ‘the wrong people?’ This is a loaded question (like Have you stopped beating your wife yet?). It is based on false assumptions.
In the first place, a Christian may not have any answers to his question. Look at the questions we receive weekly at this site. Many people don’t know the answers to the questions that trouble them and may not even be aware of the alternatives. So obviously, in asking their question of another Christian whom they trust, they’re not asking someone who already agrees with the answer they already have.
Secondly, your question fails to appreciate the degree to which Christians disagree with one another on a great many questions. If someone has a question, for example, about the alleged incompatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom, then he will be confronted with around ten different answers from Christian thinkers. The Christian Weltanschauung is a big tent which includes a diversity of perspectives even if we are united on the essentials.
Thirdly, as one who has been professionally involved in Christian education, I am firmly convinced, Tim, that you will get more thorough and rigorous treatment of your questions from Christian thinkers than from our secular colleagues. In a course on Philosophy of Religion taught by a Christian philosopher, you will hear the positions presented more fairly and the objections to them presented more vigorously than you will in a class taught by a secular philosopher, who usually treats the issues superficially and dismissively.
So there is inestimable value in asking questions of another Christian who is well-trained in his field.
Now to your major concern: “If Christianity truly is consistent with reality itself, then shouldn't it hold up to scrutiny?” Yes, if scrutiny is carried out by a perfectly rational person who is thoroughly informed of the facts. But my point is precisely that we are not such persons, and some are so ill-informed and philosophically untrained that they risk self-destruction by deviating from the truth and wandering into error, like a vision-impaired man trying to navigate a minefield. I know, Tim, that you would not send a blind man into a minefield to try to get through himself, but would provide, if you could, a reliable guide or else steer him clear of it altogether.
The question is not ultimately, “is knowledge ever a bad thing?” Rather it is, am I sufficiently well-trained and informed to discern truth from error, to spot logical fallacies, and to detect factual mistakes when they are made? Many people are not so equipped when it comes to matters pertaining to Christianity.
You ask, “Wouldn't it be better for people of faith to learn what the opposing arguments are, and make their own informed decision about whether those arguments are fallacious (perhaps using your refutations to inform their decision, but still with a firsthand exposure to the opposing arguments themselves), then to just take your word for it and make an a priori dismissal of their validity without ever seeing them?”
This is a false dichotomy, Tim, as a moment’s reflection reveals. The first alternative is precisely the option my philosophy students at Talbot School of Theology and Houston Baptist University have chosen. They are the fortunate ones.
But most men and women don’t have the time and money for such devoted study. We’re concerned rather with someone like the anonymous author of QoW #340, who is an ignorant Christian layman venturing to self-educate by reading the resources of the Internet. Just as the blind man would be better off by taking your word for it that a dangerous minefield lies ahead without investigating for himself, so the immature Christian is far better off taking the word of a trusted Christian scholar rather than risking his soul by trying to read and refute atheistic material which he is not equipped to handle.
You ask, “Do you believe that God wants people to follow him through blind faith? If not, what makes ‘quit reading and watching the infidel material you've been absorbing’ distinct from blind faith?” No, I am not a fideist, as you may readily discern from reading my chapter on Faith and Reason in Reasonable Faith. I hold that we Christians have a dual warrant for the truth of our faith: (i) arguments and evidence which warrant the central truths of Christianity, and (ii) the inner witness of God’s Spirit that the central claims of the Gospel are true.
Now how does an immature believer’s avoiding reading infidel material (I’m not sure you’re aware, Tim, that “infidel” is a term of self-designation by those on the secular web) in any way endorse fideism? Such a person could read Christian authors in order to become informed about the evidentiary support for his faith and answers to purported defeaters. Indeed, in time he may be ready to enter the battlefield himself and tackle infidel material. But even if he remains uneducated and unread, that does not make his faith blind, for it still rests on, or is grounded by, the witness of the Holy Spirit. As Reformed epistemologists remind us, this is a far cry from fideism.
Finally, “What would you say about an atheist who dismissed Christian arguments the same way?” I would say that the atheist lacks, on his own view, anything comparable to the witness of the Holy Spirit which could make atheism a properly basic belief. So he has to rely on evidence and argument alone to secure his atheistic belief. So he has to consider both sides of the case. Since atheism is not a properly basic belief for a normally situated adult, for him to ignore the evidence for Christianity would, indeed, be blind faith.