Commending the Faith

October 26, 2010

This past Saturday, I attended John Stackhouse’s
lectures on faith, reason, and the new atheism down at the Vancouver
Island Conference Centre.  Evidently, there is still some interest in
this topic as the event sold out—even in hyper-secular Nanaimo!  
Around twenty people from our church attended which was fantastic to
see!  I was in and out of the sessions throughout the day due to
carting kids to hockey, friends’ houses, etc, but a couple of things
struck me about his presentations:

  1. Rather than offering a blow-by-blow refutation of the arguments of
    folks like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris or a “here’s how to answer
    atheists” checklist (which some may have been expecting), Stackhouse
    began with some pretty basic anthropology and epistemology.  He dealt
    with issues such as the limitations of human knowledge, how knowledge
    and faith are related, and how both are necessary for all human knowing
    and behaving, and how the view set forth by the new atheists—that
    knowledge is for smart, rational people, and faith is for the
    superstitious and ignorant—is a simplistic and, well, untrue.  Faith is
    a condition for all knowledge and knowledge is necessary for faith. 
    The prying apart of faith and knowledge as two completely unrelated
    things is among the less helpful of the new atheist offerings.
  2. Stackhouse also talked a bit about what he called the “hierarchy of
    disciplines” moving from the physical to the metaphysical.  Natural
    sciences (physics, biology, chemistry) are at the bottom, then come the
    social sciences (sociology, psychology, etc), then the humanities
    (philosophy, history, literature), and then, at the top, we find
    theology/religion/worldview.  Of course this isn’t meant to be an
    evaluative hierarchy—as if the disciplines at the bottom are less
    important than those at the top—but I thought it nicely illustrated the
    comprehensive scope of human understanding, and how each level of the
    hierarchy needs to be appreciated.  If folks like Richard Dawkins are
    often guilty of contenting themselves with explanations at the bottom
    level (as if all of life can be explained by evolutionary theory),
    Christians are often guilty of the opposite.  We decide upon a
    religion/philosophy of life, and then ignore both the insights and
    challenges that might come from the levels “below.”  The result, in
    both cases, is an impoverished worldview that doesn’t take enough into
    account.
  3. Finally, Stackhouse asked us to consider how the worldview set
    forth by the new atheists deal with the classical philosophical
    categories of “the good,” the “the true,” and “the beautiful.”  Can the
    worldview of the new atheists sufficiently account for our conceptions
    that goodness and beauty are more than adaptive fictions?  Even more
    interestingly, can they account for the normative force of truth that
    they rely on in the very process of making their arguments (i.e., why
    should we care what is “true” in a world where survival value is the
    final standard?  If believing lies is adaptive, so much the better!). 
    If our view of the world—our philosophy of life—cannot account for how
    we experience the good, the true, and the beautiful and the importance
    we place on these categories, then it might be worth rethinking.

Given my history researching this topic and my time spent in Stackhouse’s classes at Regent, the content of the presentations was familiar enough. What was interesting to observe, at least for me, was the strategy
adopted by Stackhouse on Saturday.  Anyone with even a nodding
acquaintance with the nature of debate and written responses to the new
atheists over the last few years will know that there are no shortage
of writers and lecturers eager to pick apart this or that argument set
forth in their books, whether it is historical, scientific, or
philosophical in nature.  What Stackhouse did, I think, was better.  Or
at least more enjoyable.  He gave us an honest assessment of who we are
and what we can know and how we come to know it, whether we are
Christians, atheists, or anything else.   He also gave us a reminder of
what we care about as human beings and asked us to consider what kinds
of worldviews might be up to the task of explaining and addressing
these.

All in all, a very good approach to apologetics, I think.  Rather
than attacking the deficiencies of the new atheists’ arguments or
defending Christianity from this or that critique, Stackhouse actually commended the faith—in the best sense of the word—as that which meets us at the point of our deepest human need.

Originally posted at Rumblings, part of the CCblogs network.