Continuing the series on popular atheist arguments, in this post I’ll address not so much an argument but the notion that the atheist comes into the discussion with a completely objective and open mind compared to religious people.
A while ago, I saw a post on Facebook by an atheist that can be paraphrased like this: “The one thing I hate about apologists is that they’re defending a position that is important to them. When I engage in discussion, I WANT to be eviscerated. If I don’t believe in the truth, then I want to be proven wrong. They don’t enter discussion with the same open-mindedness.” This post was followed by a large number of likes by like-minded folks.
On the surface, this sounds so noble. It sounds like a guy who is going into a discussion with complete objectivity, following only where pure logic and evidence lead, even if this means his utter embarrassment. In contrast, religious apologists have ulterior motives that make them unfit for true, open-minded discourse. Clearly, atheists rely on reason why religious people only pretend to use reason. Another rendering of this notion is something like, “I would LOVE to be religious, but I just can’t due to reason.”
However, when I read this, I literally chuckled. This kind of assumption of pure objectivity is terribly naive and has long been rejected by the majority of philosophers. Logical positivism and strong empiricism are basically dead in philosophical circles, and ultimately for a rather simple reason: The claims “Beliefs should come only through evidence” and “You should believe in something only if you have strong reasons for it” are themselves unprovable by evidence or logic. This consideration tells us this: Everyone comes in with certain biases and presuppositions. Atheists are no exception; all one has to do is listen to Richard Dawkins rant to know how important atheism is to him and how unwilling he is to be wrong. Post-modernism brought with it a host of problems, but the dismantling of modernity’s presumption of complete objectivity was one of its good contributions. That does not mean we have to believe that each of us is hopelessly lost in our cultural and historical context, as some strong post-modernists believe, such that we can never attain some level of objective truth; human beings still have the ability to make the move towards objective evaluation. Still, this is never a perfect objectivity, as human beings have natural limitations in perspective. I’ve seen many atheists lose arguments, both in public debates and in normal conversation. Very, very few of them even go so far as to say, “Hmm, that’s an interesting point, I’ll have to think about that.” The normal reaction is anger followed with either red herrings or even personal attacks. So much for desiring to be eviscerated, huh?
What this means is that it is important to be reflective and upfront about one’s presuppositions, not hide behind a veil of false objectivity. It’s also important to admit that, normally, people do not like to be wrong. If I predict the Texas Longhorns will lose a game because I do not like the matchup, that is one scenario where I hope they prove me wrong, but when it comes down to our central beliefs about reality, it’s disingenuous to claim that one wants to be torn to shreds. Far from improving discussion, it hinders it because that is not an open and honest way to do dialogue.
For example, in one debate between William Lane Craig and an atheist scientist, Mike Begon, Begon kept claiming that he was open-minded about God and that all theists needed to do was to present evidence for God’s existence. Then he would accept. However, not only did he spend the entire debate calling belief in God a “delusion” (and changing the definition of “delusion” to try to avoid giving positive arguments for atheism, which he was called out on), he also simply rejected all of Craig’s arguments without understanding the philosophy behind them. In the Q&A section, an audience member called him to task: What possible evidence could there be, hypothetically, that would lead this man to believe in God? His answer was telling: He first started off snarky before dancing around the issue, never answering it directly. Craig was highly amused that the atheist could not give an answer to that question, and the reason was obvious: He really was not open-minded in the slightest. He had no interest in being “eviscerated,” as the atheist Facebook poster above naively thought he desired. Those who think that they don’t have philosophical biases, like this scientist, are the most prone to be uncritical and even completely oblivious to their own presuppositions. Such people are actually the most close-minded people you can run into in discussion.
I have no problem saying on the outset that I’m a Christian and believe myself to have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I of course want to be corrected on any untruth, but I believe that to be true very strongly and would need a lot of convincing to drop the belief in my experience with the risen Savior. None of this means that the arguments in favor of Christianity are automatically wrong or suspect; it only means that I have presuppositions and biases that I bring to the table (like everyone else). I shouldn’t let those biases completely close myself off from having good dialogue, and one way to do that is to not pretend that I have some sort of purely objective perspective where evidence and logic flow in completely unfiltered. Even agnostics (real ones) who are undecided on this matter should not think that they’re some blank slate with no inclinations, much less atheists who are making claims on reality. Atheists like Bill Maher claim that they’re not passionate about atheism at all, but that is obviously not true given how much time they take to rant against God and religion while advocating secular principles. The late Christopher Hitchens, in his debate with Craig, even told the audience that one reason he’s an atheist is because he finds believing in God to be intolerably crummy and an offense to human freedom (he even called God a “heavenly North Korea”). At least he got around to being honest about that.
To review, the “open-minded” person in debate is actually the one who knows that he is not completely open-minded, not the one who naively believes himself to be perfectly objective. The former is at least willing to have his presuppositions get critiqued as well, while the other won’t even accept that he has strong biases. As I’ve written before, many atheists, particularly the New Atheist variety, are driven much more by emotion than reason, which is ironic given how much they advertise themselves to be the great champions of reason and evidence. At the very least, it would be helpful for them to admit it so that talking to New Atheists wouldn’t be like talking to a brick wall.