This is a post I made to another blog – enjoy! (or not)

“Often it seems that the claim is made that atheists are reasonable and theists are not, or that atheists use reason to interpret the world and theists do not. This is a really frustrating way to characterize the disagreement between the two “camps”. (I know there is great diversity in theists and atheists; here I’m referring to the perennial theist/atheist debate which seems to be manifesting here) It seems to me that both sides are using reason, at least to a degree. The problem I see is that reason requires premises. You can’t just “reason” in a cognitive and symbolic vacuum. You have assumptions and you reason from there. To put it bluntly, if your premises include “all religion is meaningless garbage” then of course you’re not going to find theists reasonable. You’ll reject their premises out of hand, which makes it impossible to reason together or communicate reasonably. If, on the other hand, your premises include “the Bible is literally true and inerrant”, of course you’ll find atheists unreasonable because they can’t accept your premises as a matter of course. Both sides see themselves as being reasonable – the problem is a disagreement about premises.

So the next step seems to be to attack premises. “Of course religion isn’t garbage, look at all the good that comes from it! Also, how can you not see the existence of God when I see God everywhere!?” Or, “How can you take your book to be true and other religions’ books to be falce!? Why disbelieve in all but one of the gods!?” These attacks don’t seem to actually get anyone anywhere either, becaues what it comes down to is a difference of experience, and everyone will take their experience to be fundamental evidence behind what they think and/or believe. Atheists have no experience they would characterize as God, and therefore have no evidence that would point to a God. Therefore, they can’t in good conscience believe in God. On the other hand, theists have a multitude of experiences that they characterize as God, and so they cannot in good conscience disbelieve in God for which/whom they see so much evidence. Each side is baffled by the other side.

Here one might refer to belief in God as a delusoin, that all of these people are delusional. On the other hand, though, God isn’t a teacup orbiting the sun (in reference to the awful Bertrand Russell analogy). God is more like love. You can account for love with reference to chemical reactions of hormones and neurotransmitters, but no one is telling poets to shut up about love just because it can be accounted for in a reductionistic way. (Maybe a minority of people out there would tell poets to shut up about love, but most of us don’t seem inclined to listen) Similarly, experiences that theists call “God” can probably be accounted for in reductionistic terms – brain waves, particular neuralogical states, etc. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist, in the same way that it doesn’t mean that love doesn’t exist. Its probably possible to take anything and strip it of its meaning and present it as the interaction of physical forces. But just as the poet is better at talking about the truth of the experience of love than the biochemist, the theist is potentially better at talking about the truth of the experience of God. Simply being able to explain something doesn’t satisfy a need for meaning, and it certainly doesn’t address the experience of meaning. It only satisfies someone who wants the world to be reductionistic. For someone who doesn’t want that world, who doesn’t see the world in those terms, it borders on meaninglessness. For that person, there is a transcendent, mysterious quality to things like love or perhaps God that a reductionist explanation does not begin to address. The reductionist is answering a question that the lover, or the theist, simply isn’t asking, and doesn’t care to ask.

What we come out with is mutual unintelligibility between the two positions. Each is unable to account for the experience of the other. Because there are so few shared premises, reasoned discussion is nearly impossible. Each side thinks the other is being obtuse and unreasonable. It keeps resulting in these frustrating discussions which never seem to lead anywhere. Unless you have two sides who are willing to at least respect each others’ premises, you can’t have a conversation that’s very meaningful – and this goes for both sides.

For myself, I’m a theist, and I have friendships and conversations with atheists all the time. We’re able to respect each other, and I accept that their reasoning is honestly based on what they think are best premises, and they often accept that my reasoning is based on what I think are best premises. There’s still room for conversation and relationship because the starting point is mutual respect and consideration rather than a desire to semantically beat the other person into submission. There are also atheists and theists who I can’t talk to, who I might characterize as “absolutist” or “fundamentalist”, who are interested in winning an argument and proving themselves objectively right. I don’t think I’m ultimately right in all I think and believe, but I’m not about to accept that anyone else is either. Reasonable, intelligent, wise, thoughtful, knowledgeable people can carefully consider their positions and respectfully disagree while still being open to discussion, to seeking greater truth. If you don’t think that’s true, I don’t know how we can have a conversation at all.”

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