Friday, June 1, 2012

Reasons to Believe—Thinking Faith in Today's Society

Mitch Stokes, PhD, A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists

Since the turn of the millennium, a new generation of extremely vocal atheists with a strident tone and a near-dogmatic reliance on science have reached the forefront of public discourse. Though they’ve had little impact on what Americans (and other peoples) actually believe, they have raised questions that deserve answers. Sadly, many theists have tried to answer the New Atheists note for note, dragging the discussion into the mud.

That’s why I like Dr. Mitch Stokes. Rather than sorting the New Atheists’ hash, he recognizes that it’s more important for Christians to have sufficient insight and mental hygiene to hold their own in a discussion. Drawing primarily on his mentor, Alvin Plantigna, Stokes brings Christians up to date on spiritual philosophy. This is no small task: as Stokes makes plain, Christian philosophy, once left for dead, is now a thriving enterprise.

Like Peter Hitchens (brother of Christopher) and Alister McGrath, Stokes is a former atheist who could not sustain his unbelief. Having studied philosophy and religion after a successful career in engineering, he is supremely qualified to stand in the gap between religious and secularist mindsets, translating each for the other. And, though he definitely takes sides in that debate, he treats even those he opposes with remarkable fairness.

In the first part of his treatise, he discusses epistemology, the philosophical study of how we know what we know. This matters because many prominent atheists decry theism as an irrational proposition which flies in the face of supported reason. Stokes discusses what reason really looks like, as well as the limitations humans routinely place upon their own faculties. Some people try to constrain reason by simply declaring certain topics off limits a priori.

In fairness, atheist adherents probably don’t know they have done this. Like a fish explaining water, these advocates have been so immersed in their position for so long that they see it as eminently reasonable. And has happens in such situations, disagreement looks like unreason, even when it’s not. Stokes shows, in several diverse ways, why the evidence does not lead to the conclusion, and why belief in God is as reasonable as its opposite number.

Following on that, Stokes graduates onto the two most common objections to religion: that science renders God moot, and that evil contradicts the presence of a good God. But in both cases, the premises fail to sustain the conclusions. Stokes approaches both questions from multiple angles, allowing both believers and unbelievers to examine why we cannot consider atheist reasoning as ironclad as its proponents claim.

Consider, first, science. The feud between them did not arise until very late; Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton were deeply religious. (Darwin, a parson by training, vacillated throughout his life.) Early conflicts, like that surrounding Galileo and his trial, turned not on whether science refuted God, but whether Galileo’s science accorded with Christianity better than Aristotle’s. Even the Vatican now concedes it does.

More important, science, by creating explanations that do not follow inevitably from observation, takes a theological tack. Whether we believe our universe was designed or arose through mechanical principles, we cannot discuss origins without taking some position on God. (Bonhoeffer realized this eighty years ago.) Modern physics has reached a point of dependence on principles which exist outside nature, and are therefore supernatural.

Stokes does less justice to the problem of evil. I fear he takes too much as written. He makes the point, like many before him, that we have no concept of evil without absolute standards, which imply a First Cause. Even Nietzsche, nobody’s theist, fled atheism because it lacked moral foundation. But Stokes ignores recent atheist strides in codifying non-religious morality.

Unlike the perennially frustrating Hank Hanegraaff, who tries to instill faith by outmaneuvering doubt, Stokes does not try to convince others to believe. Creating faith is, by Christian reckoning, the exclusive domain of the Spirit. Rather, Stokes attempts to create head space in which belief is simply possible. Christianity, for him, is as much intellectual as religious, and he wants believers to take faith as seriously as any other mental proposition.

Stokes admits few people have ever been converted to theism by weight of argument. But that does not absolve Christians from having solid intellectual positions. In fact, this lack of learning has contributed to Christianity’s more egregious failings. Stokes translates the newest Christian scholarship into plain English, so believers can not only counter unbelievers’ arguments, but can test their own doubt, and thus grow stronger in their own faith.

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