Thursday, 17 July 2008

reason and belief (2) - unbelievers

We've looked at how believers balance faith and reason. Are unbelievers more logical?

You'd expect they would be, because modern unbelief is generally based on science and evidence, developed via peer-reviewed papers published in reputable scientific journals. But the rise of more militant atheism in recent years seems to have changed this a little. Here are a few examples .....

the jesus myth

Unbelievers have, of course, long disbelieved that Jesus was the Son of God as Christians claim, or that he performed miracles or was resurrected. But in recent years, theories that Jesus never even existed, long rejected by historians, have been revived by some atheists. Many ingenious arguments are used, but the proponents are generally not recognised historians and the arguments are generally not made in reputable peer-reviewed journals.

So it remains true, as far as I can ascertain, that almost all peer-reviewd historians reject the idea that the stories of Jesus are a myth (see are all the stories about jesus true?), although they disagree somewhat on exactly how much of what we know about him can be historically verified. But most modern atheists, so adamant that the best science should be followed, for example, in understanding evolution, ignore the best historical analysis available. (For a long and depressing example of this, see this discussion about the Roman historian Tacitus.) Some even argue that the whole academic history establishment has somehow been "influenced" by the church to come to erroneous conclusions.

the history of christendom

The history of Christendom is littered with both good and bad. The crusades and the inquisition, religious intolerance and witch hunts, fighting over the papacy and support for warfare and genocide have all blighted the history of the church. Alongside this have been the establishment of education and hospitals, caring for women and children in the days of the Roman empire and support for the establishment of modern science, the anti-slavery movement and social welfare.

Any balanced account of Christendom must include assessment of these contrary impacts on people, and compare these to the similar impacts of other belief systems. However modern atheism often takes a one-sided view, ignoring the judgment of the best historians on the extent of both the good and the bad, and seeking at every turn to present everything in the worst possible light. Hitler's terrible record is blamed on Christianity contrary to historians and despite Hitler's own statements to the contrary. The obvious evils of the Inquisition are exaggerated and over-stated compared to what historians have determined. Unhistorical claims are made about the alleged conflict between science and religion in the past. (For another long and depressing discussion where a militant atheist argues an anti-church line from ignorance, against another atheist who knows his history, see here.)

do miracles happen?

Believers make many claims that miracles have occurred, and non-believers claim none of them are true. No-one would defend all miracle claims, but some appear to be supported by plausible evidence (e.g. when a Catholic Church medical commission investigated a large number of cases of apparent miraculous cures at Lourdes, there was sufficient evidence in only 63 cases for the commission to claim the miracles were verified).

When discussing evidence, some atheists argue that miracles are scientifically impossible, and therefore don't require investigation, a somewhat circular argument. When I presented evidence for this apparent miracle on a forum not long ago, most of the responses from atheists proposed hypotheses clearly contradicted by the evidence. When I invited them to join me in investigating further, no-one was willing. Thus many non-believers base their response more on their pre-conceived view than on evidence - which is not very different to many believers, just opposite in their conclusion.


It would not be fair to suggest that all unbelievers think the same, any more than all believers do. There are many fair-minded non-believers who are willing to accept the evidence of history. But it seems that many of the "new atheists" are more dogmatic, somewhat in denial of their professed creed of evidence-based reason.

I would say, in my experience, that logic and illogic can be found on both sides of the belief fence, but that the illogic among non-believers seems to be increasing, and can be found in quite educated people, whereas among believers, there seems to be a trend in the other direction, among educated believers at least. But doubtless there are places where this assessment would be entirely wrong!

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