Further Dawkinsian Arguments 1

Dawkins’ argument against Pascal’s Wager includes a couple more interesting objections that are worth dealing with on their own.

What’s so hard about belief?
People often criticise Pascal’s Wager with the complaint that he only allows for belief in God or disbelief, whereas I am perfectly capable of believing, for example, that Arsenal will win the premiership, or believing that they won’t, or choosing not to hold any belief on the matter at all. Why must we hold an opinion when it comes to belief in God?

Dawkins adds a different complaint, but one that has much the same answer:

“But why in any case do we so readily accept the idea that the one thing that you must do if you want to please God is believe in him? What’s so special about believing? Isn’t it just as likely that God would reward kindness, or generosity, or humility?” (The God Delusion, pg 131)

This is a good question. What is so special about belief? We are confused about faith these days because the word has been emptied of its content. People tend to say, “You’ve got to have faith” when despairing of a hopeless situation, by which they actually mean, “The facts say one thing, but believe the opposite,” and usually the unspoken, “[because your depression is only going to bring everyone else down too]”. One can have ‘faith’ without any need for an object of those beliefs. Faith like this is much the same as wishful thinking, and why indeed would God value those who can hold thumbs harder than others? Likewise, anyone is able to say, “I believe in God”, and yet this is supposed to be the defining characteristic by which God judges mankind?

Dawkins may or may not be pleased to know that this is not remotely Biblical faith. Here’s a rare case of scripture agreeing with Dawkins:

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder. You foolish person…” (James 2:18-20)

God doesn’t congratulate anyone too hard for wagering on belief in Him. Believing that He exists is all very well, but the faith that God values is more akin to faithfulness and selflessness in a relationship (a marriage, for instance), than some kind of vague assent to His existence. In fact, biblical Greek uses the same word for faith and faithfulness, and ‘trust’ and ‘faith’ are nearly synonymous (cf. Ro. 4:5). Being faithful to God requires complete humbling of oneself, renouncing of one’s own autonomy, and lifelong devotion and obedience to Him. Much like a marriage again, actually.

Furthermore, faith means a new relationship between God and man, which in turn is incoherent without new relationships between man and man. Therefore, faith is also expressed in self-control and other-person-centeredness, (that is, love). Scripture continues to agree with Dawkins that a faith that is hermetically sealed off from the rest of life is worthless. Love includes the kindness, generosity, and humility that Dawkins thinks valuable, and this demonstrates that faith is genuine:

If I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1Corinthians 13:2)

Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth. (1John 3:18-19)

Does this kind of faith sound more like a worthy ‘entrance requirement’? Belief in God is not a mere opinion. It is a way of life. The qualities that Dawkins offered as better alternatives are not only included within true belief, but also radically surpassed by it. Surely not many who claim to be Christian even aim at such a faith, and even those of us who do are not completely faithful. Without God’s grace and forgiveness, none of us would remotely qualify.

So, this kind of faith is bad news for the insincere bet-hedger and for the person who believes ‘things they wouldn’t believe in Salt Lake City’, but likely also for any ‘courageous’ sceptic would rather keep the autonomy that (s)he appears to have than believe the gospel.

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One thought on “Further Dawkinsian Arguments 1

  1. Chris Lawrence says:

    This article raises a number of interesting points.

    ‘Faith’ & ‘belief’ have many different & overlapping modes, so for discussion & debate to be possible there must be some agreement that we’re talking about the same things. A belief about a future event (winning the premiership) is different from a belief about a current state of affairs. Belief that particular behaviours or attitudes are desirable is a different thing again. As are the kind of self-belief often characterised as ‘positive thinking’, and generous assumptions about other people in general & strangers in particular.

    I read quite happily until I got to the paragraph beginning ‘God doesn’t congratulate anyone too hard for wagering on belief in Him’, where I got confused. Are you expanding what James thought or are you saying what you think or believe or somehow know?

    More generally, an outsider to this kind of belief finds it hard to know what kind of belief is being referred to here. It is possible to believe that ‘complete humbling of oneself [and] renouncing of one’s own autonomy’ are good things. It is also possible both in theory & in practice to achieve these things without at the same time believing in a particular current state of affairs (eg that God exists). So it is possible that what is being claimed is that humbling oneself & renouncing one’s autonomy just are what ‘being faithful to God’ & ‘lifelong devotion and obedience to Him’ mean. Or maybe not: is the claim to God’s existence a crucial part of that faith – faith which then ‘radically surpasses’ BOTH believing that humbling oneself & renouncing one’s autonomy are desirable AND successfully living one’s life in accordance that that belief?

    Surely other options exist besides ‘keeping one’s autonomy’ & ‘believing the gospel’? One could be a selfless sceptic for example. What a lot of non-believers fear losing is not autonomy but the fundamental preconditions for critical thinking. If that latter is included in ‘autonomy’, then how does a believer know 100% that the God he or she is devoted & obedient to is not a figment of the believer’s own autonomy? Or is that ‘100% knowledge’ what ‘faith’ is?

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