A Skeptical View of Christianity

Aug 24, 1998 |J. Budziszewski

It may be more biblical than you realize.

Professor Theophilus?

Hmm? Oh, hello, Mark. Have a seat. What can I do for you?

Are you busy?

I'm about to be — with you. Do you want to talk about something?

Yes, about Christianity. You're the only Christian professor I know.

What's your question?

I've been wondering if I'm stupid or something.

You did fine in my course last semester.

That was different. I'm wondering if I'm stupid to have faith.

Faith about what? Whether God is real, whether the Resurrection happened — something like that?

No. My problem isn't with faith in this or that — it's with faith in general. I feel like I'm being bombarded.

Why?

The other day my journalism professor quoted something that said Christians are "uneducated and easily led." This morning my physics T.A. said he's an atheist because science demands proof and there's no proof of God. My R.A. said the difference between philosophy and religion is that religion depends on faith but philosophy depends on reasoning. All these people seem to be saying the same thing.

And that thing is ... ?

That faith isn't intellectually honest. That the only stance worthy of an intelligent person is skepticism.

Let's start there. What's skepticism?

Doubting everything.

There's your first mistake.

Already? Why?

You say a skeptic doubts everything. What would it be like to doubt everything?

It would make you cautious. You'd reason instead of accepting things blindly. You wouldn't be taken in by falsehoods.

Are you sure? If you doubted everything, wouldn't you doubt the good of caution too?

Hmm. Yeah, I guess you would.

And if you doubted everything, wouldn't you doubt whether reasoning works?

I suppose that's true too. But doubting everything would keep you from being taken in by falsehoods, wouldn't it?

Yes, but wouldn't it also keep you from being "taken in" by truths?

Why?

Because you can't know a truth unless you believe it, and you can't believe it unless you stop doubting it.

I see. If I doubt everything, I can't even know that two and two are four.

Exactly.

So in order to know anything, eventually I have to stop doubting.

Right. As G.K. Chesterton said, "Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid."

Then is doubt bad?

No, you just have to know when to stop. The purpose of opening the mind is ...

To shut it again on something solid.

But you can't shut it on something solid unless ...

You open it first.

Do you understand?

I think so. Doubt might push me to find a truth, but once I find it I should believe it.

Exactly. A way of life of permanent doubt would be senseless.

Okay, I see that. Maybe skepticism is just demanding that things be put to the test.

Okay. So?

So then faith is out. If the choice is between testing things and taking them on faith, I think I should test them.

I think you should too.

You do?

Of course.

But that's not Christian.

Why not? St. Paul says, "test everything."

Really?

Check it out. 1 Thessalonians 5:21.

Now you're making it sound as though Christians are skeptics!

We are — in a way.

Then I'm confused.

Start at the beginning. You just said skepticism means demanding that things be put to the test, right?

Right.

Now in order to test anything you have to have a standard, don't you?

How so?

How do you test whether a mineral is hard or soft?

You compare it with another mineral whose hardness you already know.

How do you test whether someone is a real expert or an imposter?

You have him questioned by people whose expertise you trust.

How do you test whether a claim about the past is true?

You see whether the evidence supports it.

How do you test whether a logical argument is valid?

You check it against rules of good reasoning, like "Don't contradict yourself."

Do you see where I'm going?

Not yet.

In every case you test the thing you're less sure about by using something you're more sure about. That's your standard.

And you say Christians have testing standards too?

Sure. For example the Bible includes at least nine tests just for the authenticity of alleged gifts of the Holy Spirit.

I didn't know that.

Not many people do.

Okay, suppose I'm testing a mineral or an expert or something. How do I know whether I can trust my standard?

What do you think?

Test the standard?

Right.

How?

With a higher standard.

For example?

Students are tested by teachers, but teachers are tested by certifiers. Or try this one: the claim about the past is tested by the evidence, but the evidence is tested by the rules of the historical profession.

But then where does faith come in?

Consider. You test A by using the B, you test B by using C, you test C by using D ... do you see a problem here?

Sure. The chain has to end somewhere. There has to be a Highest Standard.

Right. Something absolutely trustworthy ...

Something you trust not for the sake of some still higher standard, but for itself.

THAT'S where faith comes in.

Why?

You have to accept the Highest Standard on faith, because there isn't any higher one to test it with and the chain can't go on forever.

So demanding that things be tested doesn't rule out faith after all!

Nope. In fact, it depends on faith.

I sure didn't expect that.

It is a little mind-boggling.

But faith in what?

We ought to give absolute trust only to what deserves trust absolutely.

What deserves trust absolutely?

God does. And His Word does.

But secular people don't believe in God.

No, they don't.

So does that mean they can't test things?

Not at all. They use what they trust more to test what they trust less, just like everyone does.

But for them, there's nothing at the end of their chain. They don't have a Highest Standard.

Sure they do. They just end the chain too soon.

What do you mean?

A secular person treats as the Highest Standard something that isn't the Highest Standard. He puts faith in something that can't support his faith.

Like what?

Usually something God has made. He trusts the "creature" instead of the Creator.

Could you give an example?

Sure. Let's take the T.A. in your physics class. What do you think he'd say about miracles?

He'd reject them.

And why?

He'd say they violate the laws of nature.

So his standard for testing belief in miracles is ...

The laws of nature.

How does he test his standard?

I don't think he does test it. He said once in class that "nature is all there is." When I asked him how he knew, he said, "It just is."

So are the laws of nature his Highest Standard?

Yes.

Then that's where he places his faith.

I think he'd be surprised to hear himself described as a man of faith.

I'm sure he would.

But don't Christians believe in the laws of nature too?

Certainly we do, but they aren't our Highest Standard. The Creator is. If He made the laws of nature, He can suspend them.

This conversation has helped me a lot. But I'm still not sure how to deal with the bombardment.

Well, there's no formula. But maybe I can offer a few suggestions. Tell me again what your bombardiers said.

My journalism professor quoted something that said Christians are "uneducated and easy to command."

You can tell him that if that were true, you'd believe him right away.

Isn't that just being humorous?

Sometimes you can use humor to make a point.

Then my physics T.A. said he's an atheist because science demands proof, and there's no proof of God.

Ask him what proof he has that there isn't any.

Doesn't that reduce everything to the level of "I say, you say"?

Sure it does, if you stop there. I'm not suggesting a way to end the conversation, but to begin it. He needs to realize that he has a faith commitment too.

What about what my resident assistant said?

What did he say again?

That the difference between philosophy and religion is that religion depends on faith but philosophy depends on reasoning.

That's just nonsense. Reasoning itself depends on faith.

How could that be?

Think. What do you do to construct a defense of reasoning?

You reason.

So you defend reasoning by reasoning?

Right.

Then your defense is circular. It proves that reasoning works only if you already know that reasoning works.

So reasoning can't justify reasoning!

Right. You have to accept reasoning by faith. The only question is the one you asked earlier — "Faith in what?"

You've given me a lot to ponder. Would you mind if I asked you some more questions next week?

I'll be expecting you.

Copyright ©1998 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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