Do You Have to Choose between Your Brains and Your Beliefs? No, Part One

A young journalist once said to me, as the sound guy was winding up his cables and the camera guy was putting his equipment in its case, “May I ask you a personal question?”

She had been interviewing me for a Canadian TV network on some topic in contemporary religion and society in my historical/sociological mode and the interview had gone fine. Now we had a couple of minutes while the tech guys tidied up.

“Sure,” I replied.

“Well,” she started, “you actually seem to believe some of this stuff.”

“I do.”

“Really!” she exclaimed. “And do you go to church?”

“Yes, pretty much every week.”

“Really!” she exclaimed again. And then there was a pause.

“You know,” she then went on, pensively, “I had a roommate like you once. She was reasonably bright, and had a sense of humour, and also was a Christian. That’s now two!”

When I think of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens railing against stupid Christians, which is to say, against Christians (who, by their definition, simply are stupid), my first reaction simply is, “These guys need to get out more.”

However much sophistication they affect, they must run in very narrow circles. I mean, two billion or so Christians and they think that all of them are stupid? Two billion Christians, and Dawkins and Hitchens don’t know any who are intelligent?

Actually, of course, they do. Geneticist Dawkins ought to know, and certainly knows of, Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and an outspoken Christian. For his part, Hitchens is a columnist for The Atlantic Monthly and used to submit copy to former managing editor Cullen Murphy, a Roman Catholic.

So people who ask this question either badly need to expand their circles of acquaintance or, instead, rephrase the question.

For the question really can’t be, “Do You Have to Choose between Your Brains and Your Beliefs?” Obviously, obviously, you don’t. Many, many manifestly smart people don’t.

But the question might be, “How Do You Put It Together? (I Can’t See How You Can.)”

And that is a perfectly good question, to which I’ll turn in my next post.

0 Responses to “Do You Have to Choose between Your Brains and Your Beliefs? No, Part One”

  1. Drew

    The issue that you raise here is an important one. The argument they present is that all faith is not a good thing no matter how it manifests itself and so, even those who operate with faith with quite good intentions are simply legitimating the foundation of faith for someone with bad intentions.

    Yet the only connection here is the presence of some sort of faith claim which they continually insist is belief in that for which there is no evidence. Thus, having any beliefs in anything for which we have no scientific basis (for this is clearly the way that evidence is defined) to verify it is a problem.

    So the first problem is that they are making an argument that faith is bad regardless of the behaviors it elicits. In fact the behaviors its elicits seem to be assumed to be bad based on the foundation of faith alone. So can one’s epistemological claim be therefore “bad” in all cases? Ought all our claims to reality be rooted in scientifically verifiable evidence? Does anyone really live life this way? Do all Christians therefore not live life in this manner?

    The notion of how values impact how one lives is simply ignored in their arguments. If there are values that one has other than faith in God that legitimates certain behaviors on a rational basis, then it would seem to damage any purely naturalistic argument that belief in God is stupid and even poisonous. But this is well-trodden ground through thinkers like Karl Popper and Michael Polayi who present arguments that blow holes in logical positivism which these atheists continue to espouse.

  2. Ryan

    I think you’re exactly right John. Dawkins expresses his astonishment that folks like Collins, Polkinghorne, Peackocke, etc can actually believe, not only in some kind of physicist God who set the whole thing in motion, but in the particular “thought-reading,” prayer-answering God of the Bible and in the details of the Christian religion, “resurrection, forgiveness of sins and all.”

    But that’s exactly where he stops – at astonishment. He doesn’t bother to investigate how they might “put it together” or why they might think such a project worthwhile in the first place – two pretty important pieces of the equation to just leave out, in my opinion.

  3. David

    “I mean, two billion or so Christians and they think that all of them are stupid? Two billion Christians, and Dawkins and Hitchens don’t know any who are intelligent?”

    It’s interesting that, although there are and have been so many Christians of great intellectual capacity, the idea that faith and intellect are incompatible continues to be so prevalent. How much of this has to do with the dogmatic views of folks like Dawkins and Hitchens, and how much is related to how Christians conduct ourselves in the public square?

    I look forward to the next part of this series. Thanks.

  4. myarhouse

    Great exchange. Thanks for sharing. I appreciate your intellectual integrity, and I look forward to reading more of the series.

  5. Cliff

    Geneticist Dawkins ought to know, and certainly knows of, Francis Collins …

    These two were interviewed together for an issue of Time magazine in November, 2006. So Dawkins definitely knows Collins, though if my memory serves me correctly, he displayed considerable disdain for Collins and his opinions. But then, what would you expect?

  6. John Stackhouse

    Well, Cliff, I ought to be able to expect Dawkins to apply basic canons of argument to his discussion with Collins (I read the same exchange you did, now that you mention it!), but I was disappointed on that score–and not surprised, as you were not. Dawkins and others like him wrap themselves in the mantle of objective reason but it gets pretty threadbare in spots, and through the holes one gets unwelcome glimpses of something other than sheer intellection at work….

  7. Philip Donald

    Hi John

    Thank you for your blog and comments. I was wondering whether you could add something to your site, namely links between blogs and follow ups. For instance between this blog and part two. It would be useful, as searching would become a lot easier. Obviously it means more work for you, so if you can’t fit it in, I understand.

    Will continue searching anyway.


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