How do you know? Atheist vs believer debates strike again

Two hundred people packed into an auditorium at the State Library of Victoria last night to hear Professor Peter Boghossian and Dr Richard Shumack debate the age old question: how do you know?

The event was organised by the Rationalist Society and City Bible Forum. Boghossian is professor of education and moral reasoning at Portland State University and author of A Manual for Creating Atheists. Dr Shumack is a research fellow with Centre For Public Christianity and on the faculty at Melbourne School of Theology.

Boghossian titled his talk “Jesus, the Easter Bunny and Other Delusions: Just Say No!” He believes that “the most charitable thing we can say about faith is that it’s likely to be false.”

He called all faith-based beliefs “delusions”, and urged the people in the room with faith-based beliefs to “be honest with yourself and jettison your faith.”

Shumack made the opposite point, saying that in university philosophy departments faith-based processes are still considered plausible, and are therefore not delusional. He cited scholars for whom “you can hold theistic belief by a reasonable epistemology.”

Anger became palpable in the room during question time. Questions and statements included:

  • “How do you know that the Bible is true? Can’t you see that a fiction story that is completely made up and false can still resonate with people?”
  • “How do you know that [the apostle] Paul was who he said he was and not just a narcissistic dreamer?”
  • “You’ve just misrepresented Ancient History and Biblical History departments around the world.”
  • One man asked, “Isn’t it wrong to threaten people with hell? Especially children?” and half the room clapped in support.

Obviously, people get passionate about this question. We are all invested in the question of how we know things, and the truth of those processes and their outcomes. It evokes a visceral response. It’s truth, or not, matters to us.

But for me, the most striking aspect was the pose of hyper-rationality throughout. It’s par for the course that there’s going to be a bunch of philosophy-speak in a debate like this, and a fair bit of obsessive rationality, but this took it to a whole new level. At the same time, no one seemed able to notice or name the passions surging through the room. No one asked, or seemed able to answer, whether cognitive arguments against (or for) God are affected by our emotional investments.

The God/no God debate has degenerated to a theatrical show of hyper-cognition that has become devoid of any emotional intelligence. Perhaps a belief that we can solve the matter cognitively is attractive, because it promises purity of thought, instead of mess, ambiguity and uncertainty. Who doesn’t want that occasionally? But it won’t disprove God, or prove God for that matter.

To be fair, the speakers were more practiced in distinguishing between cognitive and emotional arguments about God. But when question time rolled around, it was obvious that the people in the crowd were still wrestling with the emotional aspect of the God question, and perhaps didn’t realise that.

In the end, the division we seek between cognitive thought and our emotional connection to what really matters needs to be bridged, not further divided.

Prof. Boghossian will be speaking at several events around the country over the next few weeks.

Image: Vassilis Galopoulos on Flickr, used under CC License.