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Atheist Evidentiary Tactics:
Sam Harris' Pearl of Great Price

by Joel McDurmon


Joel McDurmon recently completed his M.Div. degree and has begun his Ph.D. studies.


Atheist Sam Harris gives an amusing account of the nature of religious belief as he sees it:

"Let's say that I want to believe that there is a diamond buried somewhere in my yard that is the size of a refrigerator. It is true that it would feel uncommonly good to believe this. But do I have any reason to believe that there is actually a diamond in my yard that is thousands of times larger than any yet discovered? No. Here we can see why Pascal's wager, Kierkegaard's leap of faith, and other intellectual ponzi schemes won't do. To believe that God exists is to believe that I stand in some relation to his existence such that his existence is itself the reason for my belief. There must be some causal connection, or an appearance thereof, between the fact in question, and my acceptance of it. In this way, we can see that religious beliefs, to be beliefs about the way the world is, must be as evidentiary in spirit as any other."

Here, in one of his characteristic chucklers, Harris compares believing in God to believing in an obvious absurdity. Setting aside the obvious false analogy - that God cannot be compared to a finite inanimate object, no matter how valuable - we can discern that Harris has unconsciously hit upon something important here. We must ask Sam to back up for just a minute, and actually address (not just assume) the answer to the question, "Is belief in God as evidentiary in spirit as any other?" In other words, do we first require a set of data to be laid down before we can accept, on the authority of those observations, that God in fact exists; or does the nature of God Himself require that His existence be discerned by some other way of thinking?

Of course, to ask this question in this way indicates that I have some issue with Sam’s unstated assumptions on the front end. The issue can be addressed by beginning with Sam's own words, when he says, "To believe that God exists is to believe that I stand in some relation to his existence such that his existence is itself the reason for my belief." Let me say on behalf of almost all Christians, "I totally agree!" God's existence is in itself the very reason that I believe it. This is pretty much self-evident. Why would Sam think that this is somehow a critique of Christian belief? It's because of something additional that he believes up front, but has not revealed to you here.

All Gems Are Not Created Equal

The problem is this: Sam, like many atheists, has assumed that all factual claims are determined to be true of false in exactly the same way. This just simply is not the case, especially when we address the Unique Subject of God. Atheists often claim that there is no immediate physical evidence for the existence of God, and therefore God's existence cannot be proven, but this so far begs the question that did not so many atheists buy the argument and wear it as a badge, it would be pointless to refute it. The problem is, God is so far different from anything we experience by our natural senses, that to try to use only natural "evidentiary" data to pin Him down is as ridiculous as trying to find dark matter with a magnifying glass. God is not an element under the microscope. Rather, it is we who are under His microscope, and the most obvious evidence that He exists is not some sorted set of data that we can analyze, but the supreme clockwork of the universe and humanity, as well as the lights of human reason, logic, meaning, art, and everything else that transcends us on a cosmic scale, as well as the intimacies of human life that defy analysis with a single wink.

So here is the real logical dilemma for atheism when it comes to talking about "evidence" for the existence of God: if a God does exist, One Who created the universe, then it will not be a matter of finding evidence here and evidence there that can be weighed against other contrary evidences. It is simply not a matter of that kind of empirical probability. Rather, in a God-created universe, there can be nothing but evidence for the existence of God. Such a universe - and I believe this is such a universe - declares God's existence and His glory at every turn. It can do no other. Even evidence that is popularly considered to weigh against the existence of God, can be re-evaluated, and if God exists, must be. Likewise, data that heretofore have seemed to have no point or meaning at all, must be re-learned to point to the One Who has creates meaning. It was this type of thinking that, I believe, led Francis Bacon, the founder of the scientific method, to state, "God never wrought miracle to convince atheism, because his ordinary works convince it." To this I would add that every ordinary work confirms it.

Thinking of the issue in this way – the way of discerning the underlying foundations of reality and of human experience, rather than using piecemeal evidences, jigsaw puzzle-like, by which to criticize a caricature of God — creates a much different picture than Sam describes. If God exists, then everything in the universe, and the whole operation of the universe, is evidence of that fact. And on the converse, if God does not exist, then everything in the universe, and the whole way the universe operates, must be interpreted in the light of that truth. Either everything is evidence of God's creation, or nothing at all is. It should be clear, then, that the decision cannot be made by simply taking samples of isolated bits of the universe, because we are asking a much larger question about how to account for the existence and nature of the universe, and everything else for that matter.

The individual is forced to the choice, then, of believing in a God Who created everything, and Who is Providentially "upholding all things by the word of His power" (Heb. 1:3), or of believing in (and trying to justify science in) a universe of chance, meaninglessness, and lawless flux. Sam has assumed the latter world, and then tried to argue against God from his assumed position in this assumed universe. He has tried to force us to not only reason like an atheist, but to first believe like an atheist, and only then to reason from the starting point of that same assumed position. But making the assumption that God does not exist does not warrant the belief that God does not exist. Sam has done nothing but exhibit for us his own beliefs. He has done so eloquently, I might add, and often makes us laugh, but he has proven nothing about the way the universe actually is.

Now, some determined atheists might argue that someday, given enough time, human probing will discover the answers to all perplexing questions that currently transcend humanity. But, of course when that time comes, the question will need to be asked, "Upon what law of though, or nature, or reality, does this new explanation itself rest?" And consequently, "What reason do we have for believing that the most up-to-date measures of science will continue to 'work' benevolently in the future?" And the answer, no matter how much knowledge we ever acquire, will always remain, "None." No matter how much data scientific man gathers into the webs of measured experience, he can never transcend the limits of human experience itself, even with the use of his most powerful tools of measurement and inference.

Thus, the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck rightly asked of man, "Is he not always standing on the boundaries of the unknown? " We are. And no matter how much knowledge we have — knowledge that is "as evidentiary in spirit as any other" — we cannot determine, arbitrate, or preclude the existence of a Being that transcends the physical world when our we have completely submerged our thoughts beneath the firmament of that physical world. Just because you close you eyes really tightly, doesn't make the monster in the corner go away, nor the shadow of the bedpost in the moonlight, either.

The Foundations of Science and Knowledge


What we are dealing with here is one expression of what philosophers have called the "problem of induction." Induction refers to a type of argument which relies on the accumulation of particular instances of external truths in order to build the probability that the argument in true. If we are to believe Sam, particular instances of "evidentiary" knowledge would be required to add up to a great probability that God exists. But this skips a huge step, doesn't it? Don't we first have to ask why we can rest assured in extrapolating beliefs about the present and future from a series of measurements taken from the past? What in the world makes us justified in the belief that human experience is uniform, and meaningful, and ultimately dependable to begin with?

This has been the classic problem of induction, and thus of the philosophy of science, and atheism has absolutely no way to answer this question. It must assume it to be true, and operate accordingly, despite the fact that its system of thought itself cannot account for it. In fact, the standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy admits that this philosophical conundrum "still lacks any generally accepted solution."

Interestingly, when Sam gets down to the real nuts and bolts of this issue, he moves his discussion to an end - note at the back of his book. The determined reader who follows him there may be disappointed. Sam writes, " Whatever reality is, in ultimate terms, the world of our experience displays undeniable regularities. " Well, we agree on that, but how should one go about accounting for such regularities? Sam realizes that in the academic world this " is still a matter of debate, " but does not realize that his atheistic beliefs render the solution to the question impossible. Instead, he is content to accept the regularity of nature unexplained and live like it doesn't matter. He muses, " Once we have our beliefs about the world in hand, and they are guiding our behavior, there seems to be no mystery worth worrying about. " Then the laziness of atheism really shows through: " It just so happens that certain regularities (those we deem to be causal), when adopted as guides to action, serve our purposes admirably; " It just so happens! When it comes down to it, that is the atheist's explanation for that element of human experience which forms the basis of science and knowledge: " It just so happens. "

As a reader, I am desperately unsatisfied with that basis. As a philosopher I find it embarrassing to read. As an intellectual opponent I find it a gaping hole. And as a Christian, I have the only answer to it. Even though Sam has no answer to the problem of induction, and even though he has no prospect for ever finding an answer, he continues to believe in the uniformity of nature because it suits his lifestyle “admirably.” In other words, Sam shows us that in order to live and act in this world, one must inescapably assume the existence of some kind of benevolent Providence. He has shown us that atheism presupposes theism.

Greater philosophers and atheists than Sam have been broken on the same iron problem. Even the great atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, who struggled with the problem of induction, referred to the regularity of nature as a “belief.” Our expectation that the world will behave with order in the future in the same way it has done in the past is an expression of faith. We have no logically compelling reason to automatically assume that the future will continue to be orderly, nor have the same order as now. Yet, despite this lack of certainty, we don’t doubt that the world will roll on. Despite the total lack of evidence, indeed, the impossibility (at this point, without time travel) of obtaining evidence from the, we plan, we save, we calculate, we build, we preserve, we propagate, we teach, we train children — in short, we believe in a future where the world works basically the same as it does now. This is faith in action.

When a subsequent philosopher, Karl Popper, famously tackled the issue of the foundations of knowledge, he ran against the same bounds, only he stated them much more explicitly. He argued that anyone who simply asserted that nothing should be accepted that could not be defended by means of argument or experience defeats their own purpose. Such a reliance on reason and experience, "since it cannot, in its turn, be supported by argument or experience, it implies that it should itself be discarded. . . . Uncritical rationalism can be defeated by its own weapon, argument."

What does this truth, that rational human thought cannot be used to justify itself, mean in everyday life? Popper explains that it means that evidence and reason themselves are not the first or final authorities in human experience, but rather, "a rationalist attitude must be first adopted if any argument or experience is to be effective, and it cannot therefore be based upon argument or experience." This means a great "leap of faith" is required even for the so-called rational scientist: "[T]his means that whoever adopts the rationalist attitude does so because he has adopted, consciously or unconsciously, some proposal, or decision, or belief, or behavior; an adoption which may be called 'irrational'. . . . we may describe it as an irrational faith in reason."

Thank God for honest skeptics: they make our job as apologists so much easier. Here Popper has pushed humanistic rationalism to its limits, and has wound up very candidly giving us the admission that human reason doesn't just spring up from the ground: its must be assumed. We must live with faith in the reliability of our senses and our reason in order to understand human experience. And since the atheist therefore has no room to talk when it comes to making arbitrary assumptions without evidence, he needs to reassess his claim that Pascal's or Kierkegaard's, just to name two examples, leaps of faith can be easily insulted as "intellectual ponzi schemes."

For, suppose at this point that we direct the force of Sam’s buried diamond argument (fallacious as it may be) towards the belief in induction, instead of against belief in God. No one has experience of the future, and there exists absolutely no data by which to measure the future. But are we then justified in comparing belief in the orderliness of the future to something as cartoonish as belief in the gigantic diamond in Sam's yard? If Sam's analogy were to actually work against belief in God, then it would undermine induction, and thus science, to the same degree of lunacy that he hopes to impugn God with. If all beliefs "must be as evidentiary in spirit as any other," then, since our beliefs about the future stand on no evidence at all, induction, according to Sam's logic, must be included in what Sam labels "intellectual ponzi schemes"?

Thus, Sam's own criteria for religious belief, and of beliefs in general, would disqualify our regular and shared belief in the validity of scientific induction from being legitimate. In short, Sam’s atheism would completely destroy science.

The Pearl of Great Price


But the modern atheist ignores this dilemma in his theory of knowledge (and thus in his theory of science). He is content (what a religious concept!) to deny the existence of God because he believes, with all of his heart, that science will some day have the answers he longs for. Even if he does not share this belief — which we shall call "optimistic atheism" — then he will believe that while science may never attain the answers, such answers are nevertheless unneeded for one to get on with life in a meaningful way. Of course, each of these seemingly mere opinions is in reality a positive moral value by which the atheist interprets the world, and thus, once again, the atheist cannot escape the necessity of living according to some proposition that is laid upon his pure faith about how the world is. Faith is inescapable. It is faith in God versus faith in the gaseous chaos of the universe, and the atheist would rather perish in meaninglessness that bow to the rule of the Almighty. The atheist is as devoted to his faith as the Christian is to his Creator.

The question is, "Whence cometh this devotion?" More importantly, "What is that thing for which the atheist has intellectually sold all that he had in order to obtain it?" What is this Pearl for which the atheist ignores all else? In one of Jesus' parables, the Kingdom of Heaven is likened to both a treasure hidden in a field, and an exceedingly rare and valuable pearl (Matt. 13:44-46). When a person has gotten only a glimpse of this Kingdom, he immediately sees the immeasurable value of it. It exceeds all, and precludes all comparison. The value of this Kingdom is that it precedes everything, upholds everything, encompasses everything, surpasses everything. He who has seen it cannot show it to another in order to prove it exists, rather, he argues that without this Kingdom, nothing else would mean anything, nothing else would be worth anything. It is the most valuable thing in the world, and it is that which imputes value to everything else that has any value. It is the Pearl of Great price.

So while Sam is joking about refrigerator-diamonds in his back yard, the Christian really does have such a gem. And what does the atheist really have in return? What has he sold himself for? The illusion of freedom? Of self-determination? Of the mere pursuit of truth? Of sexual license? Of something he calls "happiness," whatever that may be for different people? Of his own right to doubt whenever possible? And what is the value of these things? At this point Pascal's wager — even if it may be a very weak argument for the existence of God per se — gives to everyone a very serious, weighty charge. What are you really doing? What is the value of your life, and in what have you placed the utmost value possible? The Christians answers with Jesus, "the Kingdom of God." The atheist answers, if he answers at all, "the Kingdom of my own desire, for I believe that which suits my purposes admirably." And if you believe like that, it will make a much sense to start digging in Sam's back yard as anywhere.



Joel McDurmon is the author of The Return of the Village Atheist

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