My Cross Examination series has led me to read some of the more recent popular books regarding atheism and Christianity. It seems like the popular books do not often have the evidence that I’m looking for, on either side of the debate, but they have pointed me towards some of the more fundamental, though more obscure, sources of the debate.
While some of the debate is over science or the historicity of the Bible, some of the debate, I’ve found, is also over philosophy. This has led me to read a lot more philosophy than I’d originally envisioned reading. One of those fundamental sources that I was encouraged to read was an essay written in 1896 by Harvard philosopher William James.
James’ main argument is that people often will themselves to believe a proposition before they can prove that proposition. He says, “Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question open,’ is itself a passional decision,–just like deciding yes or not,–and is attended with the same risk of losing truth.”
This is one argument that atheists often level against Christians: that Christians take the tenets of Christianity by “faith,” without any evidence of those tenets being true. I think that, for many Christians, this is true. Their Christian faith is just that… faith. However, I would also say that, for many atheists, this is also the case. They will themselves to believe that there is no god before they prove that there is no god, and then find just enough evidence to reinforce that belief in their mind.
To be sure, atheists do offer some arguments against Christianity that can be easily believed, just as Christians can offer arguments that can be easily believed without any intellectual follow-up. But for all the accusations that Christians “don’t know” their own religion, many atheists seems to be in the same boat.
James seems to take aim at skepticism in the essay:
“Scepticism [sic], then, is not avoidance of option; it is option of a certain particular kind of risk. Better risk loss of truth than chance of error,–that is your faith-vetoer’s exact position. He is actively playing his stake as much as the believer is; he is backing the field against the religious hypothesis, just as the believer is backing the religious hypothesis against the field. To preach scepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law. And by what, forsooth, is the supreme wisdom of this passion warranted? Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear?”
James’ argument opens the Pandora’s box of paradigms in belief. A person’s paradigm is their system of belief–this includes their philosophical views, their political views, their views on family, their psychological outlook, etc. James makes the argument that a person can only begin to change their paradigm very slowly, by considering contrary ideas that are “live, forced and momentous.” In this statement, he makes three distinctions:
- Live vs. dead options – a live belief option is one that we can imagine ourselves believing (for example, believing in God or not believing in God). A dead option is something in which we cannot imagine ourselves believing (for example, that the earth is flat). An example of two live options would be: “Be an agnostic or be a Christian.”
- Forced vs. avoidable options – an avoidable option would be “Choose between going out with your umbrella or without it.” This option can be avoided by not going out at all. But James says, “if I say, ‘Either accept this truth or go without it,’ I put on you a forced option, for there is no standing place outside of the alternative.”
- Momentous vs. trivial options – A momentous option would be “Go on this expedition to the North Pole.” James says, “Per contra, the option is trivial when the opportunity is not unique, when the stake is insignificant, or when the decision is reversible if it later prove unwise.”
It seems to me that most people are brought up in a certain paradigm–Catholic, Protestant, atheist, conservative, liberal, libertarian, apathetic, dogmatic, agnostic, left, right, strong-willed, compliant, etc–and if they live with that paradigm through a certain age, they are not easily swayed from this paradigm. Those who find their way from their initial paradigm often hold their new paradigm with a tightly-clenched fist. There’s a famous quote that says, “There’s no zealot like a convert.” I find that this is true.
Questions: Do you think that one can will themselves to believe something? Have you experienced a paradigm shift in your thinking throughout your lifetime? You can leave your comments by clicking here.
|This post is in my series called “Cross Examination: Is Debunking Christianity Possible?” I’m looking at a myriad of topics in the rational examination of my faith, and will write at least one post per week for the next year. If you would like to read some of the previous posts in this series, click on the links below: