Category Archives: Christianity and Science

For Your Reading Pleasure…

I (Joel) have been invited to participate in a new blogging community called Flux of Thought. There you can find brief discussions on theology, philosophy, political theory among other related things.

You can read here: Flux of Thought

You can follow the blog on Twitter here: @fluxofthought

I’ll still be writing and posting at A Church Unbound as well since FoT is going to be made up of much shorter posts, and I can’t help but be long-winded sometimes.

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Suspicion and Faith and Hating Mother Teresa

Christian reaction to the news of Christopher Hitchens’ death last night of complications due to cancer have certainly been mixed. Tweets jovially poking fun at the New Atheist read “ ‘Hitchens doesn’t exist anymore’—God.” Many more conservative Christians vindictively celebrate the death of someone whom they probably felt had backed them into a corner along with the other three (self-titled) Horsemen of New Atheism (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.) Now one is gone. Just as they celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden, so they celebrate Hitchens’ untimely demise. Chalk one more up for us. It’s been a good year.

Then there are the more progressive Christians, mostly academics that I know, who are posting about how much Christopher Hitchens’ improved their faith. After all, we were all decrying belief in the same god—the god of fundamentalism, violence, and empire that is clearly not the God of the Israelites, of the Bible, of the universe. I have to agree with them. While I didn’t grow up in an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist home, I understand why my friends who did are grateful to Hitchens and the other New Atheists for exposing the flaws in a Christianity that has its grip on so many American Christians. The hermeneutics of suspicion can be quite powerful. And Hitchens, et al. are not the first to bring such glad tidings to Christians looking for a better way than the idols of their past. Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Heidegger—many 19th and 20th century philosophers preceded the Horsemen pointing out many of the same flaws in believing in a god who would condone the violence perpetrated by fundamentalist religion. Of course, none of these philosophers nor the New Atheists believe that they’re freeing the religious from their own dogma so that they may experience a better, more robust faith. That’s beside the point here, however.

I hesitate in participating in either strand of response. The first for obvious reasons. It isn’t so much hesitation as refusal: Christians should never celebrate the death of another human being. And while I identify with friends who’d rather celebrate Hitchens’ life, in some ways seeming like a back-handed way of saying to atheists, “You have no idea what actual Christianity entails, let alone actual religion,” I have trouble celebrating the life of a man who made a career out of spitting venom at others. If he had been a Christian doing this to atheists or Muslims or anyone else, we would have been appalled. I recognize that Christianity abides in the sort of humiliation Hitchens and others seek to pile on to us—that above all, our call is to humility to the point of death (Matt. 16:24-25). But Hitchens’ vitriol went beyond just trying to prove how dumb religious people are.

The man hated Mother Teresa. He thought she was a complete fraud. On top of that, he ironically supported the Iraq Warbecause it was leading to the death of Islamic fundamentalists. What’s that saying about strange bedfellows? Fundamentalist Christianity could link arms with Hitchens and sing some songs together over that point. What we need to be careful of is not caving too quickly to the pressure of expectations. Atheists expect Christians to be celebrating, so those of us who do not identify with that group of Christians desire to distance ourselves quickly by talking about what a tragedy it is to lose someone so brilliant. It is certainly tragic to see someone die before his time, especially someone who did contribute fruitfully in some ways to the demolition of religious fundamentalism. I’m on his side in that. But I can’t ignore the rest. He was extremely misguided, not only in his account of history but in his responses to some important contemporary issues as well. I won’t celebrate that part of his life.

by Joel Harrison

Finding a New Playing Field: The Failure of Foundationalism, the Benefits of Holism, and the Implications for Christian Scholarship

Religious belief has found itself under fire—and not just recently. Since the project of the Enlightenment began in the mid 17th century, questions about the rationality of religious belief has been steadily creeping into the territory that religion once dominated during the Middle Ages: a totalizing explanation of not just why we are here, but how we came to be here and how the world operates. It has only been in the last one hundred years or so, however, that Christian scholars have really felt a significant burden to defend religious belief as not only rational but absolutely true over against the strong oppositional growth of scientific naturalists and logical positivists who have demanded empirical, testable proof to determine the viability of religious belief. It is in this climate that Christian scholars have turned to methods in biblical hermeneutics such as redaction and historical criticism in order to try and provide an irrefutable, historical foundation for religious belief or they have attempted to use science itself, whether they are engaging in actual science (Hugh Ross, for example), or some form of pseudoscience.

The problem is that it has become increasingly obvious, particularly since the rise of the New Atheists such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, that religious belief cannot meet the criteria that “science” demands. But does it have to? I place “science” in scare quotes because recent developments in both philosophy and science have demonstrated that the criteria for knowledge set forth in the logical positivist or scientific naturalist worldview of New Atheism is actually based upon flawed assumptions that can be traced all the way back to Descartes and the seeds of the Enlightenment—in other words, their criteria do not necessarily reflect the way that science is actually done today (or has ever been done for that matter) nor the way that our epistemology is actually structured. If this is the case, then why are Christian scholars attempting to beat atheistic dogma at its own game? If the rules are flawed, then why are we playing?

The thrust of this paper will be to explain the foundationalist epistemological project and its failure in the 20th century, to explain holistic epistemology as a viable alternative to foundationalism, and to illuminate the important implications for Christian scholarship. Therefore, my thesis is twofold:  Foundationalist epistemology, though still prevalent in popular thinking, is flawed and should be abandoned for a viable alternative, which I argue is holism; as a result of this shift, Christian scholarship is free to take a more balanced approach to hermeneutics—one which can accommodate the inclusion of literary theory and other methods currently seen as too relativistic—and is no longer required to “prove itself” to science on the basis of rules which science itself has never actually followed.

Descartes’ Case for Foundationalism

The majority of scholars trace the beginnings of the Enlightenment and the beginnings of foundationalism to René Descartes and his [in]famous Meditations on First Philosophy published in 1641. It is here that Descartes sets for himself a project of radical doubt in which he attempts to doubt everything that he previously had held to be true since he recognizes that, over time, his beliefs have changed—things he had held to be true in his youth may have turned out to be false once he had gained new evidence or further developed his reasoning ability. In his course of radical doubt, he sought a foundation, at least one thing he could know for certain was indubitable and universally known by all. Descartes was inspired, as Nancey Murphy points out, by the ways in which buildings were constructed. He created a mental picture that has stuck with modern epistemology ever since.[1] Descartes saw an infinite regress occuring when one attempts to justify a particular belief. The knowledge that justifies it must itself require justification, and on, and on, ad infinitum. He believed that there had to be a rock bottom, a point where it was not necessary to travel any further.

The historical reasons behind his motivations are important to take into account. Murphy writes that since Descartes lived through the horrors produced by the Thirty Years’ War, he recognized that “the epistemologist could render a service to humanity by finding a way to produce [universal] agreement.”[2] Furthermore, there was a great fear on weighing on Descartes: he had come to see the difficultly in reconciling his traditional religious belief with the new data and hypotheses he was encountering in his work as a scientist and mathematician. He was aware of Galileo’s house arrest, and did not want the same fate for himself. We can see his desire to reconcile science and religious belief in his letter “To the Very Sage and Illustrious, the Dean and Doctors of the Sacred Faculty of Theology of Paris” found as a preface to his Meditations. He wanted to make absolutely sure the Church knew his program of doubt was not going to doubt the existence of God—it was, in fact, going to prove His existence. In reality, the radical doubt he used to seek out an indubitable foundation only worked to serve the Enlightenment project of science and had the disastrous consequences of casting religious belief as irrational appeal to authority and tradition.

Foundationalism, Scripture, and Science

Part of these consequences has to do with foundationalism’s deep history with science. Foundationalism, to some scientists, but mostly to the science enthusiast, just seems so obvious that many take it completely for granted. The work of the scientist is simple: He or she observes the world; he or she develops hypotheses; he or she draws conclusions that either support or refute those hypotheses based on more observation. And all this is done, as Descartes, Locke, and many others claimed and have claimed since, without the interference of any “outside” beliefs, particularly something as pervasive as religious belief and authority. Observations and claims made about the world must be contextless because in foundationalism knowledge must be built upon facts about the world that are universal, indubitable, and known a priori.

Following David Hume, there is an important split in foundationalist epistemology that will be fruitful to trace out briefly in order to talk more completely about the inherent flaws in foundationalism and to discuss the implications it has had on Christian scholarship and the interactions in the 20th century between science and religion. The split is between the common sense realism of Thomas Reid and the German idealism of Immanuel Kant. Reid’s foundationalism consists of simply examining the facts that are laid out for every observer to see. Because Hume had made it clear that the only viable way to have knowledge was through direct experience, Reid saw a way to legitimize Christianity through scripture—the only “direct experience” we have of it. Scripture rests as the universal foundation (a major flaw that I will explore in due course), and, as the name of his school of thought suggests, one may rely on common sense to discover truth.

Kant, however, is more concerned with rescuing science from Hume’s critique. Hume was so skeptical of our rational capacities, that he claimed the only definite knowledge one could have a priori is analytic knowledge, i.e. definitions such as “all bachelors are unmarried” or “all triangles have three sides.” The problem is that such statements do not contribute any new knowledge—they are equative statements. If these statements constitute the only indubitable knowledge that we have, science is up against a serious issue because we have nowhere to build from them. Kant however argued that not all a priori knowledge is analytic. Theorems such as the Pythagorean theorem are, in Kant’s view, synthetic a priori knowledge because we do intuit such things but only after we experience their truth. We see the theorem in action, working again and again, but once we’ve seen it a few times, we intuit that all right angled triangles are subject to it. There’s no need to work out the problem on every triangle, since such a thing would be impossible in the first place not only because there is an infinite number but also because precise measurement of irrational numbers is not possible. In making this argument, Kant secured a new foundation for science, one that seemingly retained the universality foundationalism requires.

The Flaws of Foundationalism and the Need for an Alternative

Foundationalsim and its currents, as I have described above, suffer from some serious flaws and are thus subject to a number of critiques.  It will be helpful to break them up into four categories, logical critique, cultural critique, scientific critique, and theological critique, with some interplay and overlap between them. I will begin with the first two, which provide us ample reason to seek out an alternative to foundationalism. Describing what I see as the best alternative, holism, will give us a good opportunity to see how both scientific and theological inquiry actually work and how they also offer an inherent critique of foundationalism

The first critique is a general one and is quite simple: Foundationalism is a self refuting system. The requirements for a suitable foundation set forth by Descartes and accepted by foundationalists are that it be universal, indubitable, and known a priori; however, foundationalism itself meets none of those requirements. The fact that one can sit down and work out a logical, well reasoned case against it makes far too strong a case for it not being universal, indubitable, and a priori. Given this, what good reason do we have to accept foundationalism as a, let alone the only, viable epistemology?

This notion of good reasons is important in the cultural critique of foundationalism. In my brief sketch of the history of foundationalism, we can see that there were some very important cultural motivations behind Descartes’ search for a universal epistemelogical foundation. In other words, it was not without context as he had wanted it to be—indeed, it could not be. We also notice that there are a number of things Descartes did not doubt, such as his capacity for philosophical method once his radical doubt was achieved. Alasdair MacIntyre states the Cartesian problem this way:

[The doubt] is to be contextless doubt. Hence also that tradition of philosophical teaching arises which presupposes that Cartesian doubts can be entertained by anyone at any place or time. But of course someone who really believed that he knew nothing would not even know how to begin on a course of radical doubt; for he would have no conception of what his task might be, of what it would be to settle his doubts and to acquire well-founded beliefs.[3]

Hume falls victim to the same problem. In all of his frustration over not being able to find a suitable foundation based upon experience, he never stopped to ask himself what experience he had for needing a foundation in the first place. He had none. As I mention above, it just seemed so obvious given his training, and the culture in which he was living, that one could question whether or not he, or Descartes for that matter, even had the capacity at all to ask such questions that seem just as obvious to us today as foundationalism seemed for them.

Before we approach the critiques that both the nature of scientific and theological inquiry provide, it is important to note that the logical and cultural critiques do more for us here than simply refute foundationalism. Both point to something that is much closer to the way that our epistemology actually works. The fact that foundationalism is self-refuting must in turn mean that our knowledge is not based upon universal absolutes, and observing how cultural context so strongly affected both Descartes and Hume points to a strong case for including that (along with other factors, as we shall see) as viable justification for our knowledge claims. We are in need of an epistemelogical alternative.

Holism

W.V.O. Quine, in his 1951 essay entitled “Two Dogmas of Empericism,” refutes the foundationalists of his day (logical positivists) and provides us with a new image for knowledge, a web or net—a holistic epistemology. In this system, there is no difference between beliefs that seem to us “more foundational” and beliefs that are not this way; rather, beliefs differ in their distance from experience, which marks the boundaries of knowledge.[4] The following diagram will help to explain:

We can imagine each point where lines either end alone or meet together as various beliefs and knowledge claims. The point in the center we could refer to as the most basic of beliefs for someone and also note that a number of other beliefs are connected to (justified by) it. But there are others that have a number of beliefs connected to them as well, and some beliefs are supported by a number of others which are supported still by others. There are a few near experience that are justified directly by perhaps only one other belief. These are the most volatile since new experience can either erase or alter them.

This is one of the primary benefits of holism over foundationalism. William Placher writes: “Quine’s point is that we can always solve the problem in more than one way. Since a solution at one point will always have consequences elsewhere, we cannot decide single questions in isolation.”[5] The points and lines in the web can change due to experience, shifts in reasoning, the disappearance of other points and lines—a whole host of reasons. The points closest to the center are more unlikely to change, but their justification, the lines that connect to them, may change depending on the factors above. In other words, when we encounter something that contradicts a particular belief, whether it be sensory experience or something else, we look for a new way to justify that belief. If we cannot find a new way, then the belief is most likely erased. For instance, imagine a child on Christmas Eve, sneaking downstairs to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus because she heard some rustling under the tree. The moment she sees her parents wrapping presents and placing them under the tree, she is forced to either seek new justification for her belief (i.e. “My parents are helping Santa Claus who had to take care of the reindeer”), or she decides to abandon the belief altogether based upon this new experience.

This system of knowledge is able to account for the two major errors discussed above that foundationalism has encountered. There is no need in this system to justify any belief as indubitable and universal. Beliefs can be justified by experiences, but they can also just as rationally be justified by agreed upon cultural assumptions, history, or any number of reasons. In other words, beliefs rationally justify other beliefs. This must be the case if we can arrive at no indubitable foundation for beliefs. The phenomenon of belief-justified knowledge leads us right into seeing how scientific knowledge is holistic and thus the scientific critique of foundationalism.

Science as Theory-laden

The foundationalist model of science, as we have seen with Hume, assumes that we must build knowledge upon indubitable facts, which Hume argues we can only have from direct experience. However, as Murphy points out, “It is widely recognized that data are not just given [. . .] they are made (‘facts’ comes from facere) by means of their interpretation in light of “ideals of natural order” (Toulmin) or theoretical assumptions (Hanson, Kuhn).”[6] In other words, the way we gather experience does not work in the ways that Hume assumed it did: we do not merely experience data as if it were simply lying around the universe, waiting to be collected and used to compose hypotheses and theories. Rather, science works the other way around. Placher writes: “What we see is shaped by what we already know, by other things we see, and by what we expect. The uninterrupted bare impression proves an illusion.”[7] We cannot even begin to collect data if we do not already know what data we are seeking out. Scientists may observe certain phenomena that are surprising, out of the ordinary, seemingly brand new; however, the only reason scientists are able to see phenomena this way in the first place is because they already have the conceptual framework necessary to recognize the phenomena as novel as well as the “theories of instrumentation” (the physical, scientific tools) needed to collect the data which also come from  a conceptual framework about how optics or thermometers operate.[8]

If we attempt to imagine this structure in terms of foundationalism, as a building, we see that it is rather difficult. We can no longer say that raw data, pure experience as Hume would say, is foundational since what we see as data in the first place is shaped by the theories that, under foundationalism, we assumed were derived from the data. We have a problem of circularity. Imagining how science works in terms of the holistic model, however, solves this problem by allowing us to accept that we do not have an indubitable starting point.

Holism and Self-contained Systems

Finally, we must address the Kantian Synthesis, which houses the last foothold of foundationalism to address. As discussed above, Kant provided the reasoning by which we could say we have synthetic a priori knowledge—knowledge that, observed once, can then be intuited and applied to all cases of that knowledge. These knowledge claims seem foundational because we can intuit them to be universally true. We have seen how this works with the Pythagorean Theorem. Let us now look at a different case, one that raises a problem for the foundationlist: the parallel postulate. In Euclidean geometry, the postulate serves us very well. We can see two parallel lines on a Cartesian plane, note how, mathematically, they will never intersect, and intuit that this must be the case for all parallel lines. However, we know now, thanks to Einstein’s theory of relativity that no straight line parallel to the original line could be drawn through a point not on the line.[9] In other words, space time is curved, and on a cosmic scale, the parallel postulate is actually false. Something we thought to be so basic and foundational does not actually describe the way the universe is as a whole.

However, that does not mean that the postulate is useless. It serves an important purpose within the self-contained system of Euclidian geometry. Indeed, without the parallel postulate being true in some cases, we would not have railroads or solidly built houses. The fact that it is not true universally does not negate its usefulness or necessity in some cases. Placher writes of the postulate that we

cannot judge it in isolation, either by empirical test or by some criterion of intuitive self-evidence. On the face of it, the postulate does seem reasonable, but in order to preserve it, we have to give up something else that also seems reasonable. We can do that, but we then have to face a different set of consequences, and we have to look at connections all through our system.[10]

In other words, even something as seemingly basic as synthetic a priori knowledge is subject to the give and take of the holist system—which is acceptable since this example proves that even mathematical postulates cannot serve as foundations for knowledge either.

Christian Scholarship: Finding a New Playing Field

One of the primary consequences of Enlightenment foundationalism as discussed at the beginning of the paper is that it sets the standard for rational thinking as tossing out all assumptions and beginning at something objective and foundational. This presents a huge problem for Christianity. Let us return briefly to Thomas Reid and the Common Sense School and our final critique of foundationalism as an example. Reid claimed that one could use Scripture as the foundation for knowledge and rather than interpret or guess at what the Bible was saying, one simply had to open one’s eyes in order to see the inherent truth laid out plainly in the text. Given what we have already discussed with science, this should give us pause. If we cannot use something as obviously basic as a geometric postulate as a foundation, how can we use something as culturally rich and contextual as the Bible? The challenge to Christianity on the basis of science has always been that while science is just so obvious and basic, Christianity requires assent to a particular worldview, a particular narrative.

Christian scholarship has then made the unfortunate mistake of attempting to prove, using scientific means, that it is as viable a theory of how the world operates and why as any scientific theory is. However, both the scientist who expects scientific proof for religious belief and the Christian who thinks he or she has found it are operating under a foundationalist epistemology. Science, even though it deals primarily with what we can observe directly, is no more foundational or basic than any religion. It has the same limitations in terms of arriving at absolute knowledge.

Furthermore, Christian scholars must also ask themselves what foundational reasons they have for seeking a foundation upon which to base belief. This means that we must question the motivation behind critical redaction and historical criticism in biblical hermeneutics. Certainly, those methods can be useful given the proper circumstances; however, if the goal is to arrive at the most basic, absolute understanding of the biblical text, then we are essentially falling into the same trap that Reid does. We fail to recognize our own cultural conditions and subjectivity in an attempt to somehow stand from an objective position. In doing this, scholars tend to devalue other hermeneutical methods, such as those found in literary criticism, on the basis that they are not close enough to the actual meaning of the text. But why do we need that, and can we ever know it? The critique I have provided thus far will hopefully tell us that the answer is that we do not and we cannot, and it seems that our motivation behind seeking these things has been driven primarily as a reaction against scientific doubt. Therefore, scholars must leave the field of foundationalism behind.

by Joel Harrison

Bibliography

MacIntyre, Alasdair. “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of    Science.” The Monist. 60. 1977.

Murphy, Nancey. Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics. Boulder: Westview Press, 1997.

Placher, William. Unapologetic Theology. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.


[1] Murphy, Nancey, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 9

[2] Murphy, Nancey, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 10.

[3] MacIntyre, Alasdair, “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science”, 59.

[4] Murphy, Nancey, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 27.

[5] Placher, William, Unapologetic Theology, 32.

[6] Murphy, Nancey, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 27.

[7] Placher, William, Unapologetic Theology, 27

[8] Murphy, Nancey, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 27.

[9] Placher, William, Unapologetic Theology, 30.

[10] Ibid., 31

The Chainless Mind Problematic: Foundationalism as an Indefensible Epistemology

The foundationalist model of epistemology is rather attractive in many respects primarily because it seems to be rooted deeply in two phenomena. First is the very prevalent human desire to provide a totalizing explanation for existence, which require some sort of justification. Even if one were to present a nihilistic account of existence, such an account would still require rationalization and would be subject to critique. Second is the desire for such an explanation to be infallible and absolute, which is a more recent development borne out of the Enlightenment. Foundationalism, also a product of the Enlightenment, seemingly provides the means to achieve both of these goals. If one could establish an infallible premise to begin with, one could certainly reason out an absolute and totalizing metanarrtive, which would also be infallible and universal. The presupposition in foundationalism, then, is that one has the ability to unchain one’s mind from all influence, to retreat into one’s own consciousness as a blank slate in order to establish the universal which will serve as the foundational premise. The development of metanarratives to explain existence is certainly a phenomenon necessary to the establishment of knowledge systems; however, such narratives need not be universalized to be valid, and thus, an indubitable foundation, if such a thing were possible, is not necessary to the development of a rational epistemology, and foundationalism cannot be justified.

The Enlightenment Foundationalist Debate

It will be first helpful to trace out the development of foundationalism through the Kantian Synthesis so that we may get a clear picture of the implications foundationalism has for us today, particularly for the Church. René Descartes, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, sets out to establish a universal foundation upon which he can build his own epistemology and metaphysics, and as a consequence, alters the course of Western thought until well into the twentieth century. Descartes begins the first meditation with a discussion of his doubts regarding what he thought he knew to be truth and that in order to actually find truth, he must throw out all that has even the slightest doubt cast upon it. He writes,

But, to this end it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false—a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach; but as even now my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I find in each some ground for doubt.[1]

Descartes believes that he is able to doubt all sensory experience because he recognizes that his senses deceive him quite often and that it is his rationality that allows him to convert deceiving sensory data into something intelligible. Descartes believes then that the only thing he cannot doubt is that he is a thinking thing.[2] This becomes his indubitable foundation for building his epistemology.

David Hume’s foundationalist epistemology based purely on empirical evidence provides one of the most profound rebuttals to Descartes’ purely rational epistemology. Hume takes the rather bleak position that we cannot know anything at all outside of experience. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding he writes, “When it is asked, What is the nature of all our reasonings concerning matter of fact? the proper answer seems to be that they are founded on the relation of cause and effect [. . .] I say then, that, even after we have experience of the operations of cause and effect, our conclusions from that experience are not founded on reasoning, or any process of the understanding.”[3] For Hume, it is not possible to establish a necessary connection between any two events. In his analysis of causality, he lays out the observations that we can describe intelligibly when trying to describe causation. One can describe it in the following way:

a cause b

1) a occurs right before b

2) a is spatially right next to b

3) a is one of a kind A which is constantly followed by events of a kind B to which b belongs.

The only intelligible description of these events is to say that a and b are spatio-temporally contiguous and that this chain of events seems to repeat itself often. However, we can imagine and thus conceive that it be another way, and because of this, we cannot inductively reason that b must occur because a occurs. For Hume, all we have here is a sequence of perceptions.

This of course has major implications for foundationalism particularly with regard to science because it eliminates the intelligibility of any scientific claim made that addresses the cause and effect of a particular event—which is essentially every scientific claim. If such claims are no longer intelligible, then they cannot serve as indubitable foundations upon which to develop an epistemology. As for Descartes’ metaphysical separation of the mind and the body, Hume practically scoffs. Metaphysics for Hume is little more than erroneous speculation and wishful thinking because it is based purely upon reason and not experience. Descartes’ assertion that he is first a thinking thing is unintelligible for Hume because our experience gives us no good reason to believe that to be true. An intelligible statement for Hume is one that “can be distinctly conceived, implies no contradiction, and can never be proved false by any demonstrative argument or abstract reasoning a priori.”[4] For Hume, conclusions reached through inductive reasoning, which Descartes’ ultimately is, cannot stand as intelligible because there is no necessary connection between the premise and the conclusion.[5] As a consequence of Hume’s strong skepticism, he becomes distraught over the apparent fact that experience cannot provide him justification for establishing anything—an issue which later philosophers attempt to reconcile.

Following Hume, there is an important split in thought between the common sense realism of Thomas Reid and the German idealism of Immanuel Kant. Reid’s foundationalism consists of simply examining the facts that are laid out for every observer to see, or in other words, as the name of his school of thought suggests, relying on one’s common sense to discover truth. In relation to scripture, Reid criticizes those who believe the scriptures require interpretation. For Reid, one would know the facts and truth of scripture if one simply read and opened one’s eyes to the truth that was already plainly laid out. Reid calls for those who wish to know the truth to unchain their minds from their cultural influences. It is only through what Reid sees as establishing a completely objective foundation based solely upon experience can one ever build a legitimate epistemology.

Kant essentially saves foundationalism from Hume’s critique and in doing so, saves the discipline of science as well. Hume believed that the only knowledge one could have a priori is analytic, i.e. definitional or equative statements such as “All triangles have three sides.” If these statements, however, constitute the only indubitable knowledge, then a foundationalist epistemology can hardly be built on them since they do not contribute any new knowledge. Kant however argued that not all a priori knowledge is analytic. Theorems, such as the Pythagorean theorem, are in Kant’s view synthetic a priori knowledge because we do intuit such things but only after we experience their truth. In other words, once we see a few times that the Pythagorean theorem works, we intuit that all right angled triangles are subject to it. It would be impossible for us to measure every triangle, not only because there is an infinite number but also because precise measurement of irrational numbers is impossible. Hence, we intuit the “infallible” truth of the Pythagorean theorem and it behaves as though it were axiomatic.[6] Kant agrees with Hume that we cannot have knowledge of causes; however, based upon his observation that synthetic a priori knowledge exists, Kant argues that Science can establish a new foundation upon the perception of sequences rather than a sequence of perceptions, which further solidifies the scientific method as the cornerstone of the foundation of science.

 

 

Foundationalism in Self-contained Systems

Kant’s conclusion, however, leaves us in an interesting position. Synthetic a priori knowledge is very useful in describing phenomena in math and science. It saves us from having to attempt to literally exhaust all possibilities in order to prove that a theorem or law can serve as an indubitable foundation. However, both disciplines also recognize the possibility that someday such foundations could be undermined.

Euclidean geometry has had serious doubt cast upon it as a universal system since Einstein’s discovery that space and time are curved. The parallel postulate, for example, is not true in space-time geometry. We can say, then, that the parallel postulate may be assumed to be true in the closed system of Euclidean geometry, but nowhere else. This calls into question the validity of a strong foundationalism that requires a universal, indubitable foundation upon which to build an epistemology because even in a system as efficient and well organized as Euclidean geometry, certain truths, which once seemed universal may be proven to not be.

The foundationalist must ask himself: Is it possible to universalize any judgment that is synthetic rather than analytic even if the synthetic judgment is known a priori? The short answer must be no, and the easiest way to see that it is such is to look at both Descartes and Reid and examine some very important presuppositions inherent in their arguments and how they undermine foundationalism making it unjustifiable.

The Social Imaginary and the Role of Narrative

Alasdair MacIntyre describes the types of events such as the overthrow of Euclidean geometry by the curvature of spacetime as epistemological crises, and indeed, they provide moments of brief and perhaps sometimes prolonged panic. For MacIntyre, these moments need to be accounted for in developing an epistemology, and they point to the difficulty in utilizing the foundationalist model in doing so. MacIntyre writes of Cartesian doubt that,

It is to be contextless doubt. Hence also that tradition of philosophical teaching arises which presupposes that Cartesian doubts can be entertained by anyone at any place or time. But of course someone who really believed that he knew nothing would not even know how to begin on a course of radical doubt; for he would have no conception of what his task might be, of what it would be to settle his doubts and to acquire well-founded beliefs.[7]

Literary critic Stanley Fish puts it another way: “A chainless mind would be a mind not hostage to or fettered by any pre-conceptions, a mind that was free to go its own way. But how could you go any way if you are not anywhere, if you are not planted in some restricted location in relation to which the directions “here,” “there” and “elsewhere” have a sense?”[8] The primary error in foundationalism is that it fails to account for the fact that our consciousness is completely and unavoidably shaped by the social imaginary of our culture. Individuals have narratives, to which they adhere, which help them to describe their epistemology. Descartes had one. Hume, Reid, and Kant did as well, and they were very different from the narratives held by various people groups around the globe at that time and certainly different from the narratives held by people today. Their narratives even differed from each other in certain respects since they came from different nations and lived during different periods of time. I use the term fact above quite literally. As MacIntyre points out, one who is completely detached would have no basis upon which to begin his course. Descartes is perhaps on the right track when he writes, “What is there, then, that can be esteemed true? Perhaps this only, that there is absolutely nothing certain.”[9] However, this is only true in a foundationalist model.

MacIntyre also discusses David Hume’s distress at realizing that his skepticism has left him unable to trust any of his beliefs. Hume has set for himself such a high standard for his foundation that, “all beliefs founder equally.”[10] Hume, just like Descartes, never entertains the possibility that it is his own narrative, which allows him to come to this place of radical doubt. Without this narrative, Hume would not even know how to order his experience in the first place.

Reid’s call to unchain our minds and see the facts plainly laid out before us also becomes unintelligible. Stanley Fish writes this about observation: “To be sure, there is observation and observation can indeed serve to support or challenge hypotheses. But the act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is) that cannot be observation’s objects because it is within them that observation and reasoning occur.”[11] In other words, it is impossible for us to claim objectivity in observation not only because of our commitment to the narrative of the social imaginary as MacIntyre points out, but also because observation cannot comment on hypotheses themselves because observation is already constrained to them. The laws of gravity, as hypotheses, for instance cannot be observed objectively from some point outside of them since they already govern everything we know about physics.

Foundationalism as Self-refuting

Michael Peterson, in Reason & Religious Belief, points out another very important point regarding foundationalism that differs from MacIntyre’s approach involving individual consciousness being impacted strongly by narrative. Peterson puts it very plainly: “When we apply strong foundationalism to itself, it defeats itself—or, we may say, it self-destructs.”[12] The explanation of this is simple. Foundationalism requires an indubitable premise from which an epistemology may be built. This premise, by definition, must be known a priori. However, when we ask the question, “Is foundationalism itself indubitable a priori,” the answer is most certainly, no.

If we return to our foundationalists, we can easily see this error played out. Not only does Descartes doubt everything except the method of how to doubt and then how to proceed from that point, he also does not doubt the presupposition that an indubitable foundation is required. Hume makes the same error with different results. In his anguish at not finding a foundation among his experiences, he never stops to question why a foundation is even necessary. What experience could he base that assumption upon? He had none—it was his deep commitment to the narrative of philosophical method that told him the need for a foundation was a priori, though he had absolutely no justification for that belief.

Implications for Religion and Science

If foundationalism cannot be justified, what does that mean for religion? Surprisingly, the rejection of foundationalism has many positive implications. The debate between science and religion has been heated since the late 19th century. Questions of how religion will account for the discoveries of science have become a solid part of our culture. However, these questions arise primarily because of the presupposition that like science, religion must provide a strong, indubitable foundation in order to establish rational justification for belief.

This presupposition also presupposes something else though. Peterson writes, “But science as a total worldview—the idea that science can tell us everything there is to know about what reality consists of—enjoys no such overwhelming support. [. . .] To claim that strong support enjoyed by, say, the periodic table of the elements transfers over to scientific naturalism as a worldview is highly confused if not deliberately misleading.”[13] There is a rampant presupposition that science not only will provide all the answers but that this is somehow a default position in no need of justification because of individual, self-contained foundations such as the periodic table or the gravitational constant. MacIntyre points out that, “Scientific reason turns out to be subordinate to, and intelligible only in terms of, historical reason.”[14] Science is not simply an objective tool with which to discover facts neatly labeled for us in the real world. It can only be understood in terms of narrative.

The overwhelming presupposition that science not only is an objective, default position, but also that it can explain everything we experience seems extremely problematic for religion. There are two major problems with this, however. First, science and religion answer different questions entirely. Terry Eagleton writes, “For theology, science does not start far back enough—not in the sense that if fails to posit a Creator, but in the sense that it does not ask questions such as why there is anything in the first place, or why what we do have is actually intelligible to us.”[15] The Bible is not meant to make natural phenomenon intelligible to us in the way that science is. But it is the placing of religion within a foundationalist model of epistemology that makes the issues raised in the science-religion debate seem problematic. Science will always seemingly win on that front because there are built in to it self-contained foundations that remain constant until, as the scientific method allows, they are replaced with new foundations.

Religion, however, does not work this way. It’s core beliefs are supported by different kinds of evidence, not always empirical. Such beliefs are justified as long as they are supported by a variety of grounds and warrants that will most likely be a result of the social imaginary that the one holding the beliefs is a part of. To be entirely accurate, science really does not operate in a foundationalist epistemology either. The so-called “foundations” of self-contained systems really cannot stand up to the criteria of strong foundationalism. Furthermore, science is self-validating because the foundation of enquiry, the scientific method, cannot be called into question since we have no method by which to examine it. It is validated through the method itself.

A holistic approach to epistemology, such as that suggested by W.V.O. Quine, is a much more accurate way to describe the way that we develop our knowledge systems. We develop core beliefs that are supported by a wide variety of beliefs and knowledge that range from the social imaginary to experience to rational judgments. If we encounter new evidence, we may experience what MacIntyre calls an epistemological crisis, and our core beliefs may be replaced. This allows for both science and religion to coexist without one having to oust the other as a universal foundation for knowledge.

by Joel Harrison

Works Cited

Descartes, René. “Meditations on the First Philosophy.” 1641. Trans. John Veitch. The Rationalists. New York: Anchor Books, 1974. 99-175.

Eagleton, Terry. Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009.

Fish, Stanley. “God Talk, Part 2.” The New York Times Online. 17 May 2009. < http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/god-talk-part-2/&gt;.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. 1748. The Empiricists. New York: Anchor Books, 1961. 307-430.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science.” The Monist. 60. 1977.

Peterson, Michael, et al. Reason & Religious Belief. New York: Oxford UP, 2009.


[1]. Descartes René, Meditations on First Philosophy, 112-3.

[2]. Descartes recognizes the possibility that everything he experiences could be deception; however, even in being deceived, one must be conscious of the something taking place even if that something is actually a deception (Ibid., 119).

[3]. Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 327-8.

[4]. Ibid., 330.

[5]. I say that Descartes’ conclusion is reached ultimately through inductive reasoning because he moves from the premise, “I think; therefore, I am” to the obvious assumption and conclusion that this is necessarily the case for everyone; otherwise, he could not be justified in using this premise as the foundation for his epistemology. However, for Hume, such a conclusion cannot be justified.

[6]. I place the word “infallible” in quotes above because, as we shall see, such synthetic a priori truths are not necessarily universal.

[7]. MacIntyre, Alasdair, “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science”, 59.

[8]. Fish, Stanley, “God Talk, Part 2”, 1.

[9]. Descartes, René, Meditations on the First Philosophy, 118.

[10]. MacIntyre, Alasdair, “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science”, 64.

[11]. Fish, Stanley, “God Talk, Part 2,” 1.

[12]. Peterson, Michael, Reason & Religious Belief, 127.

[13]. Peterson, Michael, Reason & Religious Belief, 57.

[14]. MacIntyre, Alasdair, “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science”, 66.

[15]. Eagleton, Terry, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, 11.

The Post-____________ Church

To say that we live in a distinctively confusing period of human history may seem like a rather bland, superficial way to begin what I hope to be a continuing conversation about the direction of The Church and Christianity’s place in the contemporary West; however, I believe it to be fairly accurate particularly from the Christian perspective. At the risk of generalizing, we can say almost certainly that many generations throughout history have felt confused, have sought to find meaning, have tried to discover how everything fits together. One could then very easily point out that postmodernism, over the last forty or more years, has given rise to a certain type of relativity—a dismissal of all transcendent foundations upon which one can rest universal truth—as one way in which the current epoch differs from those previous. But it is not as simple as that. Somehow it seems that culturally, intellectually, and spiritually, the West has arrived at very different places.

The Church and the Academy

First, allow me to preface this discussion by disclosing that I am trained as an English scholar, and in particular have a special interest in post-structuralism and Continental philosophy. As such, my discussion will necessarily ignore certain key figures in the development of postmodernism, particularly with regard to its Marxist critics and contributors as well as the American analytic tradition. I hope to provide a more comprehensive picture at another time.

Let’s go back about fifty years. In 1959, we could probably say that church, in general, was seeing the beginnings of a revival within popular culture. Billy Graham had been organizing revival meetings for ten or eleven years that were covered by the Hearst papers  and Time in the early 1950s. At the core of church evangelism was the very modernist message that Christianity was the absolute truth all were searching for and that it was the responsibility of Christians to be Warriors of Christ. This is quite possibly a term that many are still hearing. The Church, as a whole has changed very little in the last fifty years; it still operates under the ideology of modernism—there is one knowable, transcendent truth, and its discovery is necessary for the betterment, even the salvation, of humanity.

During this same period, however, a new epoch was emerging in the academy. Atheistic existentialism had been gaining mass appeal since the 1930s and the prominence of Martin Heidegger. At the core of existentialism is still a transcendent truth—man himself. However, the rest of the universe is completely meaningless. It is man who must rise above this and create meaning and purpose for himself. Heidegger provides the famous analogy of being marooned on a desert island without having any idea of where we are exactly or why we are there. We must invent a purpose or else, as Albert Camus argues in The Myth of Sisyphus, we would have no reason to live, and would commit suicide. This worldview was still largely modern in that it rested on mankind finding the Truth within himself despite the meaninglessness of everything else. It wasn’t until the work of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Franscios Lyotard, and other Continental and post-structuralist philosophers and literary critics coupled with the publication of novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow, Slaughterhouse-Five, and so on, which both reflected and fragmented the ethos of the post-industrial age, that postmodernism truly began to take some shape.

No longer was the search for an absolute truth important or even possible. In fact, the idea that there is such a transcendental truth is primarily a power play made by those seeking control over others, particularly in the minds of Foucault and Lyotard. For Derrida, such a “Truth” is impossible because of the nature of language itself—the constant play of signifier and signified. Rather than the existence of a single transcendent, universal Truth, truths are developed as a product of community interaction, historical circumstance, and cultural influence. The world we perceive is composed of fragments, partial truths, and ambiguity. It is quite obvious then why this remained, and in some sense has continued to remain, such a threat for The Church. If we can’t know absolute truth, then how can we really know that Jesus is our Lord and Savior?

It took until the mid-1990s through the current decade for theologians and other religious academics to really start paying attention to this shift within the academy. The timing was perhaps fortunate and unfortunate simultaneously. Fortunate, because it was in the mid-nineties that intellectuals, particularly in America, began to realize in far greater numbers that the problem with post-structuralist “modes” like deconstruction is that they can become ideologies “without ideology” far too easily. That is, deconstruction was only ever meant to be a method of reading—a way to recognize the places in a text where the text subverts itself through its own language. Such a method is supposedly without agenda or ideology; however, it has been widely misread and misunderstood to merely be an ideology, which undoes the priorities of other ideologies but simultaneously claims to be without ideology. The pessimism that came along with the dismissal of absolute truth was losing its importance among some by this point within the academy. This made it far easier for theologians to swoop in and point out the ways in which postmodernism was not threatening to The Church. Books such as Stanley Grenz’s A Primer on Postmodernism (1996), Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy (2004), James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (2006), theologians such as Ted Peters, Mark Taylor, and Harvey Cox, and within the secular academy, John D. Caputo’s work including The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida (1997) are all major contributions and contributors to The Church’s understanding of how postmodernism fits in with and helps to inform the Christian narrative in a much different way.

I say it was unfortunate because it seems it was far too late to make much of an impact on the culture of The Church. Many Christians are very fearful of the postmodern worldview. However, they are not addressing the postmodern from a position beyond it; rather, they equate it entirely with the secular, not realizing that they are still only barely holding on to the sinking ship of modernism. And even though the Emergent church has made attempts at change, they certainly haven’t been radical enough to constitute an entire paradigm shift in Christian culture. Many of these churches are not changing the way church is done—just the way it looks. And now the academy is transitioning away from postmodernism.

Regarding transition in the academy, I can really only speak for English departments, since that is where I was trained primarily, but what I can say is that the focus of high literary theory and the use of theory itself is currently experiencing a major shift. Timothy Keller, in the preface to his most recent book The Reason for God, cites an article written by Stanley Fish, a prominent Milton scholar, in which Fish relates a brief anecdote regarding the death of Jacques Derrida. Fish writes that following the news of Derrida’s death, a reporter asked him what would replace the triumvirate of race, class, and gender in high theory within the academy. Fish answered with one word: Religion. Fish of course isn’t suggesting that we’ll some how crawl (or fall) back into the Dark Ages or that we’ll return to religion because we couldn’t deal with facing the meaninglessness postmodernism presented us. Rather, I see Fish’s comment as representative of a post-secularism in which religion will be raised up from the mud it’s been thrown in to by the academy and searched extensively for any intrinsic value that can be found in helping us make sense of objects of study—as Marxism has, as the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan has, as deconstruction has. It will no longer be seen as an ideology of the Dark Ages that somehow managed to hang around despite the countless attempts on its life. It will be seen as a legitimate tool for exploring and writing about a text.

So it seems as if the Church is now, mostly, two steps behind the academy. However, in relation to Science, the two are on the same plane.

The Church and Science

Science seems to occupy a very strange place within culture and the academy. It, along with the majority of the Church, seems to be the last bastion of modernist thinking. Perhaps accusing Science itself of this isn’t quite fair—those who adhere to Science as an ideology is more accurate.

A few months ago, I began posting comments on a website called soulpancake.com. The site was created by Rainn Wilson of The Office as a means for people of all walks to come and share their views on “deep” questions about the existence of God or the meaning of this or that. Some of the people who post are cordial, open to possibilities they hadn’t thought of, and willing to engage in intelligent conversation. Many, however, were not. And of those, the vast majority was sternly rooted to the idea that Science was really the end-all be-all with regard to what human beings can know. Take for example this response:

“Absolute truth can only be awarded to one religion. So let us look at the probability for a second. All religions say they are the truth, what are the odds that even one of them is remotely close to the truth?? It seems to me that all religions are actually wrong… none of them hit the nail on the head about anything. The closest thing to truth and the closest thing to finding actual truth through knowledge is science.

So my conclusion is that all religions are at least 98% incorrect and inaccurate. Some day religions may be proven to be 100% incorrect through the triumphs of science. Ahh science… the calming, soothing, realistic, logical, factual quest for actual truth. I’m excited to see what science can show us in the next few years.”

Notice, that although this person discounts religion completely as being able to find absolute truth, he claims that Science will find the Truth. There is a direct trade: Science for Religion. His faith in the “triumph of science” as he puts it is unwavering, and his conviction that it will find all of the answers is a very obvious mode of modern Enlightenment thinking. Stanley Grenz, in his aforementioned book, gives this concise description of Enlightenment thinking:

“At the intellectual foundation of the Enlightenment project are certain epistemological assumptions. Specifically, the modern mind assumes that knowledge is certain, objective, and good. Moreover, moderns assume that, in principle, knowledge is accessible to the human mind. [. . .] The Enlightenment perspective assumes that knowledge is not only certain (and hence rational) but also objective. The assumption of objectivity leads the modernist to claim access to dispassionate knowledge. Modern knowers profess to be more than merely conditioned participants in the world they observe: they claim to be able to view the world as unconditioned observers—that is to survey the world from a vantage point outside the flux of history.

[. . .]

In addition to assuming that knowledge is certain and objective, Enlightenment thinkers also assume that it is inherently good. The modern scientist, for example, considers it axiomatic that the discovery of knowledge is always good. This assumption of the inherent goodness of knowledge renders the Enlightenment outlook optimistic. It leads to the belief that progress is inevitable, that science, coupled with the power of education, will eventually free us from our vulnerability to nature as well as from all social bondage.

[. . .]

Enlightenment optimism, together with the focus on reason, elevates on human freedom. Suspect are all beliefs that seem to curtail autonomy or to be based on some external authority rather than reason (and experience.) The Enlightenment project understands freedom largely in individual terms. In fact, the modern ideal champions the autonomous self, the self-determining subject who exists outside any tradition or community.”

This description does not only describe Enlightenment science, though I think it’s fairly clear to see how the comment above fits almost exactly with Grenz’s explanation. In some ways, this describes the mindset of the modern Christian as well. The assumption of the modern Christian is that God is completely “knowable”—a point of theology that we’ll perhaps have to dive into later on as this conversation progresses. The modern Christian also believes that all the evidence for God is merely lying around, waiting to be collected and catalogued in order to build a case for the existence of God. Of course, this affinity is what seems to cause the greatest point of tension between Science and Christianity. Like the commenter above, those who hold to a scientific ideology are naturally going to be at odds with someone who holds to a modern Christian ideology because they seem to be diametrically opposed. Science, at the level of ideology, is no longer a tool. It becomes a worldview complete with its own system of priorities, exclusions, inclusions, and claims. This is then to suggest that a Christian worldview that is not modern, will not be diametrically opposed to Science.

There is nothing superficially wrong with Science at the level of worldview. To be sure, all of us, many even without realizing it, adhere to some kind of worldview. Our perception is shaped by our families, our communities, our culture as a whole—our heroes and villains, teachers, friends, and so on. But there are two problems with the contemporary scientific worldview, specifically within the popular culture of new atheism created by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and the like.

Cultural Duality and the Veil of Perception

The first issue at hand is that of the prominence of relativism and scientific certainty at the same time in Western culture. Coupled with the problem of ideological incompatability between the scientific worldview and that of the modern Christian is the sense that Christians are close-minded, intolerant, and archaic. Part of this stems from the perception that Christianity attempts to provide a literal explanation of natural phenomena like the creation of the universe that seems to rooted in myth (viewed as an inferior way of knowing,) but it also stems from a desire to be inclusive of all religious viewpoints. I’ve seen questions posted on soulpancake.com asking things along the lines of “How can Christians be atheists with regard to every god except their own?”, a reworking of a similar question that has been posed by Dawkins, essentially asking, “Of all the ‘beings’ invisible to us, how is it that Christians have the nerve to claim their invisible being is the right one?”

The question raises some very interesting problems. On the surface, it is a question about the “close-mindedness” of Christianity and the atrocities Christians have perpetrated in the name of it. Dawkins and his followers will point to the death, war, and pain caused all for what they see as an ultimately ridiculous endeavor. Their solution is to either outlaw individual religion altogether, or to attempt to convince people of individual faith that they should adopt a pluralistic view for the greater good. The underpinnings of this answer, however, are tied to two very non-relativistic presuppositions. First, it presupposes that Science is the actual location of absolute truth, and furthermore seems to suggest that wars, death, and pain would not be caused by Science—a claim the survivors of the twentieth century know to be a complete load of crap, if I may be frank. Secondly, it seems to suggest that asking one to abandon his conviction regarding the “rightness” of his religion for a pluralistic view is not contradictory, when it most definitely is. In other words, a staunchly pluralistic worldview regarding religion is in fact not pluralistic. This is the classic problem with absolute relativity—it can’t truly exist. There seems to be then a duality, culturally speaking, that desires Scientific certainty, even autonomy, but also religious plurality and an illusion of cultural relativism.

The second issue is tied to the fact that there is a strong sense among the popular atheistic community that atheists do not have to make a case for their position. In fact, it is not a position at all. For many, it just “is” as evidenced by the previous comment and the following two:

“But the thing is, it’s not a system. One doesn’t have to understand science to be an atheist. One merely needs to reject/ignore religious claims. Atheism is a neutral stance, not making any claims. Although some do say, “There is no god,” atheism says “I don’t believe in a god.” Semantics, but important. As an atheist I see no evidence for a god therefore I don’t believe in one. I’m not making a statement, but rather dismissing the statements of others. You can consider it the default setting. It really is that simple.”

“Let me be clear, what I believe is not at issue, because it is self evident and within the natural Universe. What you believe is supernatural and not of the Universe. That is an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. That, as they say, is that.”

These two positions are also distinctly modern. What is most interesting is that neither accounts for the veil of perception that we experience as observers. They speak of what Christopher Hitchens calls “the chainless mind.” I see this desire to be a chainless mind, to simply believe only what you can see, as symptomatic of an extreme backlash against what Western culture has perceived to be the “blind faith” of religion. In other words, if one hates Religion and everything it stands for, one is going to attempt to find a location that is furthest from it.

Conclusion: The Search for a New Core

I’ve touched on quite a bit that needs further explanation. I hope that this site can be a forum for developing these points. But before that, we need to take a look at where this confluence of worldviews leaves us. First, it is important to realize that the church is confronted by culture on at least two major fronts: Science and postmodernism. Even though the academy is beginning to abandon postmodernism, it will certainly be a few decades before culture does. Paradoxically, modernist Science still thrives within a culture that is more and more distinctly postmodern. The church, however, is fading into obscurity the longer it clings to the dying body of modernist thought. How did the Church become so irrelevant and how do we make it relevant again? The answer to that, I believe, lies in radically changing the way we as Christians view not just The Church, our individual, and secular culture as well. How we react to the responses offered to our faith like the ones above is important too. If we attempt to fight fire with fire, we will lose. However, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated to some extent, the modernist view of Science is not just an objective position, free of human influence. Despite what the third comment says, it is at issue. But if we approach this problem from the same point he does, a modernist worldview, it will be very difficult to convince anyone that what we have to say is valid. The third commentator is correct on one level after all—there is lots of evidence in the natural world, which validate the claims of Science. But that is certainly not the only kind of evidence there is.

Addressing the popular claims of postmodern culture requires a similar strategy—we must find a different ground from which we can critique these claims. This is how the dialectic of history works. Whatever foundation we find now will have to be modified again when nonbelievers come up with a rebuttal. It won’t end. The Bible tells us as much. Why should we assume that the modern church, the church of our parents and grandparents, were the ones who got it right? the problem has been that The Church as a whole has been steps behind, culturally and academically, for nearly 150 years now. It’s time for us to take a leap forward.

by Joel Harrison