An atheist who understands the importance of epistemology

This is one of the reasons l like John Loftus:

If I have a focus when it comes to debunking Christianity it is with control beliefs. Control beliefs are those beliefs that control how we view the evidence, and so my critique is generally philosophical and epistemological in nature. I’m interested in how we know what we know. How we view that which we know is the difference that makes all of the difference.

How we each look at the evidence is controlled by certain beliefs of ours. Since this is so, I want to know how to justify those control beliefs themselves. For me it’s all about seeing things differently. It’s not about more and more knowledge. It’s about viewing what we know in a different light. …

How do we decide which approach, which bias, and which set of control beliefs are preferrable when looking at Christianity? That’s the biggest question of them all! Why? Because the set of control beliefs we start with when looking at the Bible is usually the same set we will come away with.

After people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, this is a breath of fresh air.  In fact, if you look back through my posts and comments you’ll see that I’ve been saying the same thing.  Whether you talk about worldviews, paradigms, presuppositions, narratives or control beliefs, the point is this: if you don’t deal with the differences at this level, discussion about topics like the truth of Christianity are pointless. Yet, the majority of discussions and debates stay fixed on the minutia rather than at the “meta” level.  Words don’t even mean the same thing in different belief systems.

However, I still have major disagreements with Loftus on many of his control beliefs, and question whether he’s gone deep enough; perhaps there are presuppositions controlling his control beliefs. John is, without a doubt, a modernist, as he makes the point, “I call our modern ways of thinking the Achilles’ heel of Christianity.”

Here, again, I would tend to agree with Loftus. Modernism as a worldview is at the very least hostile to Christianity; it is a competing and contrasting worldview.  However, as it emerged at least partially from within the Roman Catholic church, it became over time the predominant worldview of the West, including that of the Western church.  Now, not all facets of modernism are necessarily bad; but, as modernism reframed how we look at the evidence, as Loftus talks about, and also redefined evidence itself, a Christianity whose apologetics (itself a modern concept) is framed within modernism is essentially cut off at the knees.

I believe the question of “Does God exist” or “Is Christianity true” can only partially be addressed without addressing the question of whether modernism is an accurate worldview.  While modernism certainly still has its adherents, especially those for whom modernism serves as a necessary foundation, it is generally held that modernism is a failed worldview. Whether it simply implodes or is transformed in a post-modern derivative remains to be seen. In any event I have a hunch that the discussions of the next generation will be quite different from those we have today.

Further into Loftus’ post he lists his control beliefs, which I believe are discussed more fully in his book. What I think John is saying is that essentially in order for him to really challenge Christianity, he needs to bring people completely into a modernist mindset.  As I indicated, I would tend to agree with him. My contention, however, is that to adopt a completely modernist mindset is already to abandon a Christian worldview. For those who try to maintain a set of Christian beliefs within a modernist worldview, I think it is quite easy to draw them away from Christianity. To try to maintain a dual worldview is difficult at best, and often requires some type of loss of intellectual integrity. Others take a compartmentalized view, such as Francis Collins; but this, too, seems like intellectual suicide.

Loftus concludes:

I just don’t see how Christians can refute any of these reasons for starting with a skeptical attitude, since they are all practically undeniable (and even obvious) to modern educated scientifically literate people. How much more is this so when these reasons are all taken together as a whole. So it is no surprise that I look at Christianity with the presumption of skepticism. And it is no surprise that I reject it.

While I think some (or perhaps all) of John’s points are able to be challenged from within modernism, I suspect that the more someone is inclined toward a totally modernist worldview, the more likely they are to find these points convincing.  However, I suspect that the opposite is also true: the more someone’s mind has been transformed (Romans 12:2) away from the “pattern of the world,” the less likely that these arguments will have that impact.  Modernism is but one of several philosophies that has challenged a Biblical worldview, as discussed in my series on Webber, and the current evangelical church has been weakened by more than just modernism.  I also suspect that someone whose worldview has been impacted by other contrary philosophies such as romanticism are more susceptible to challenges as their belief system is already impaired.

I appreciate Loftus’ level of thinking here; where many atheists today refuse to deal with worldview issues or discussions about presuppositions, Loftus appears to understand the importance of recognizing and identifying presuppositions, which is probably why people like Norm Geisler recommend his book. However, as I stated earlier, I don’t think Loftus goes deep enough in identifying presuppositions, which is possibly why he and William Lane Craig seem to talk past each other.

7 thoughts on “An atheist who understands the importance of epistemology”

  1. Thanks Mike. Glad it helps.

    ahswan, I’ll look for you.

    And I argue against the idea that educated modern scientifically literate people are not supertitious n the same ways as the ancients were precisely because of science.

    We can see how applied science has impacted us (in no particular order) in the areas of medicine, biology, earth science, computer science, engineering technology, zoology, geology, electricity, botany, genetics, dental technology, rocket science, astronomy, forensics, meteorology, chemistry, laser surgery, hydraulics, x-rays, and plasma physics. It has increased the number of elements in the periodic table of elements, as well as aided our understanding the nervous and muscular system, brain science, the whole notion of friction, and so on.

    Compare the above scientific disciplines with such things as divination, casting of lots, dreams, visions, trances, magic, exorcisms healing people, astrology, necromancy, sorcery, prophets for every religion, idol worship, gods and goddesses for every natural phenomena, human and animal sacrifices, priests, omens, temples, festivals, sacred writings, and the Pseudepigrapha. We live in a much different world than the ancients, primarily because of applied (or Newtonian) science.

  2. John,

    btw, I am the “ahswan” who occasionally drops in at the DC blog. I just realized that my blogger ID doesn’t connect back to my blog like wordpress does.

    As to being a modernist, I have to confess that I am, at least partially a modernist. I don’t know if it’s possible to grow up in the U.S. and not be; we’re immersed in it 24/7 from the day we’re born. However, I have been greatly influenced over the years by pre-modern thought (such as Eastern Orthodox theology), enough to be skeptical of modernism, especially the belief in progress, an anti-historical bias, and an excessive faith in reason and science. But, even in that I approach things as a modernist, in a logical, reasoned manner (well, most of the time, anyway).

    I don’t necessarily assume a natural explanation, nor do I assume a spiritual explanation (of course, it depends on what I’m considering). I do allow for both explanations to be both possible and reasonable. By the way, modernists may be just as superstitious as the ancients.

  3. Hey, pretty impressive, Alden. I admire Loftus he has a solid grounding in philosphy in both Christianity and philosophy, and here he comes to reply to you. John, if you come back to this post and read it, thanks for your book.

    I am an old friend of Alden’s and an atheist, also having grown up with Christianity. Alden and I have gone round many times about presuppositions and modernism.

  4. Well thank you, I think. I defend my control beliefs in the first half of my book which is roughly 243 pages out of 428!

    And I maintain that you too are a modernist. At least, you don’t approve of slavery or racism, and you always first consider a natural explanation for any event you experience. In my longest chapter I compare the superstitious beliefs in the Bible, like the Pool of Siloam, healing handkerchiefs, the evil eye, visions, dreams, child sacrifices, divination through lots like the Urim and Thummin, and the use of Magic itself (as Daniel was overseeing) with what you accept today. Here’s one example of what I do (with a link to another one). In any story of the Bible put yourself in the place of everyone involved.


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