I saw a comment on Facebook today that prompted a memory of something I have thought previously but not written about. So now I am writing about it. Thanks, Facebook!
A Christian friend of mine told the world that he is about to read a copy of Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, that well known, aggressive (and often lampooned as philosophically poorly constructed) case against religious belief. Perhaps sensing from the comments being made that my friend was unlikely to be persuaded, an atheist friend of his was quick to advise him that while she did not think highly of Dawkins’ books on atheism, still: “you should at least approach atheism with the openness that Christians tell atheists to approach the Bible with.”
This might sound reasonable to you at first. It just sounds like a person is being asked to be reasonable, right? I don’t think so. Suppose that you are a happily married man, and that you have been one for some years. You have a wonderful marriage, and you can honestly say that you love and trust your wife more than anyone else in the world. With this background in mind, just imagine if I told you that your wife is being unfaithful to you. What would your initial reaction be? Imagine, further, that I told you that you should really be open minded about this. You should, I tell you, try to be just as open to the possibility that she is cheating on you as you’d like others to be to the possibility that she is not. Further, imagine that you were immediately persuaded that my approach was the right one.
Suppose that your wife hears of your open mindedness and protests with you. “How could you suspect me of this, after all these years?” Do you think you’d be making matters better by telling her that you couldn’t possibly let your history together influence your judgement on this most important matter? If your wife didn’t have a reason to run off, you just gave her one!
Now what’s wrong with this picture? What is it that would make your judgement astonishingly poor in the above scenario? It should be pretty obvious: An approach to investigation might be fine for somebody who has no commitments of a certain type, and yet quite inappropriate for someone who has those commitments. In this case, because of the type of commitment that you believe you and your wife have to one another, you actually have a prima facie duty to trust your wife rather than her accuser. If you didn’t know your wife at all, and a wise friend who you have come to trust told you that she is a loose woman that you should probably avoid, then the situation is reversed. Because of your relationship with your friend, you could well have a justified suspicion of this woman. How high the evidential hurdle is must take into account what you already know and the duties you take yourself to have. If you’re going to accuse my wife of being unfaithful, you’d better have the kind of evidence that can clear a very high hurdle.
So it is when a Christian is asked to consider atheism. It’s not true that the Christian should be as open minded to the possibility of atheism as he would like people to be to the possibility of Christianity, any more than I should be as open to the possibility of my wife’s unfaithfulness as I would like people to be to the possibility of her faithfulness. A person who is a Christian has what he or she takes to be a relationship of trust. They have a prior commitment (and in fact the relationship between Christ and the church is likened, in the Bible, to a marriage e.g. Ephesians 5:31-33). When I talk about a prior commitment here, I do not just mean a prior belief, something that they affirmed before and don’t want to give up. I mean not a commitment to a proposition but to a person – to a relationship, call it what you will. It is a relationship of trust, and more than that, of worship. Of course, you might not believe that any such real such relationship exists any more than one that a person might have with an imaginary friend. But if you use that as a reason for the Christian not to put stock in that relationship, you’d obviously just be asking them to give up Christianity before they even begin. As far as the Christian is concerned, such a relationship does exist at the outset, and hence the duty of trust exists as well.
So here’s what I think about the instruction to investigate impartially, being just as open minded on the issue as we want everyone else to be: What might sound like a simple request for reasonableness actually conceals the very type of presuppositions (whether conscious or not) that the inviter is asking you not to bring to the investigation.