Have you ever heard this kind of claim from an atheist:
Unlike you theists, I am open to change. All you need to do is show me the evidence and I’ll confess on the spot that I was wrong. If you can prove God I will switch sides. You theists on the other hand obstinately cling on to the God hypothesis no matter what the evidence. You call this irrationality “faith.”
How to respond?
Do we say “No I’m very open to change, I just think the evidence is better on our side”?
That might sound tempting. After all it has the air of intellectual credibility about it (if, ironically, you don’t think about it too long). And it’s the least we could do seeing as the atheist has been so even-handed with “the evidence.” Besides, what hope is there for genuine dialogue if we’re not open to change?
Well let’s slow down a second. What kind of openness is being claimed by the atheist?
Doesn’t their claim amount to:
I, the neutral observer, will accept the God hypothesis if and only if naturalistic evidence meets my criteria. And of course such acceptance will be eternally tentative, since opposing evidence may arise to dis-prove the God hypothesis.
Let me ask some questions about those bolded phrases…
Are you really a neutral observer? Is the scientific community, religious community or indeed the human race collectively a neutral observer? How could you ever know? What tests could you perform to figure out whether, when it comes to God, humanity suppresses the truth?
If you are assessing ‘the God hypothesis’, are your investigations being carried out in a way proper to the object of your study. I.e. is God really a ‘hypothesis’ to be tested? And if you think he is, the question must be asked, Which god are you talking about? Because it doesn’t sound like the God of the Bible. If, on the other hand, God is a Self-Revealing Speaker, doesn’t “scientific investigation” look very different? i.e. Wouldn’t a proper correspondence to this Object of enquiry entail listening to His Word?
Who gets to decide what is “evidence”? Does the Bible count? Does it count on its own terms, or only when filtered through other tests? What about encountering Christ spiritually through Scripture or worship? Wouldn’t that be quite a “knock-down” proof – for some even literally! Is this evidence allowed at the bar?
Even if you are a neutral observer, even if God is a hypothesis that could be tested and even if the evidence you demand is the right kind of evidence – will you really ‘become a believer’ on the basis of this evidence? Surely, to be consistent with your methods, you will merely line up with the God-hypothesis-camp until a better hypothesis comes along? This is nothing like what Christians mean by “faith in God.”
Therefore in what sense are you open to change? Admittedly, you are open to reshaping certain of your views – and that is a very laudable thing. Few ever do it, so such openness is indeed commendable. But the openness of which you speak is set within a tightly de-limited, pre-established epistemological system (i.e. system of gaining knowledge).
And if that’s your definition of “open” then the Christian is at least as open. If you show me convincing evidence about a pre-millennial return of Christ (to choose an intra-mural Christian dispute of secondary importance) then I hope I’m open enough to change. I hope I am. Obviously, people are biased, obstinate, self-justifying fools by nature (the Bible told us that long before science did), so it might be an uphill battle, but allow me to declare my willingness to change.
So there you are. I’m open.
Of course, at this stage, the atheist says: “That’s not openness to change! That’s just redecorating the exact same house.” To which I say, “Pretty much! But then, a tentative assent to the God-hypothesis is also just re-decoration. The foundations and structure of your beliefs would remain exactly the same.”
You might rate yourself as a De-Facto Theist on Richard Dawkins’ scale, but it’s your commitments to a naturalistic method of knowledge that are really God for you.
To inflexibly hold pre-commitments about yourself, your object of enquiry, your method of enquiry and your criteria of judgement is to be “open” in only a very limited sense. But here’s the thing… pre-commitments about Me and God and the World and how I know things are absolutely inescapable! I can’t even begin to think without at least a shadow of an opinion on these things.
Which means none of us are very open. There is no neutral space between the Christian position and the naturalistic position. There is only conversion – i.e. a radical re-ordering of my view of self and God and the world.
Does this shut down all conversation? Absolutely not! This is the beginning of genuine conversation. Now that we know where we all stand (and both Christians and atheists are regularly deluded about this), real interaction can happen. How? I say “Come on over to my house. Let me show you around. For a time, come in on my foundations, my vision of God and self and how to know things. Experience the world from within these commitments. See if life doesn’t make more sense. See if you don’t confess that Jesus really is the deepest Truth” And, by the same token, you can say to me “Come over to my house. Allow me to show you the Magic of Reality as I see it. Experience the world from within these commitments.”
There’s great hope for fruitful engagement (though this is a real statement of faith, I acknowledge!). I believe that there is plenty to be said on the other side of an acknowledgement of our radical differences. But let’s be honest enough to state our differences. It’s not a case of simply assessing mutually agreed-upon evidence with the obvious tools for the job. It’s about show-casing different visions of reality.
This doesn’t mean we cast stones at each other’s “houses” or dig into our entrenched positions. Instead it’s a call to hospitality. Let’s love our neighbours.