Article ID: JAF1421W | By: Travis M. Dickinson
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I find the evidence for Christianity compelling and convincing. When I consider the great variety of arguments for Christianity, I find many of them to be extremely plausible and well supported. My friend Ethan, however, does not. He has, like me, spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the evidence for Christianity. But, unlike me, he is not moved intellectually, and sincerely believes that God does not exist and Christianity is false. Though we are looking at the same arguments, we disagree.
When it comes to religious issues, disagreement like this is not at all uncommon. There is a great diversity of religious views, and this has become even more evident in an age of social media and global technology. Christians disagree with non-Christians on a host of fundamental issues, and (I know this will come as a shock, but) Christians disagree with other Christians. In fact, we seem to have perfected the art of finding issues with which to disagree!
The Objection from Disagreement
The fact of all of this disagreement can be pressed as a challenge to Christian belief (or any religious belief one takes as objectively true). The rough idea is that Christian belief (or any religious belief) is unjustified given the wide, varied, and regular disagreement among people who are all equally competent in forming their views.
Let’s unpack. No matter how smart one is, there’s always someone equally smart or smarter who disagrees. No matter how educated one is, there will always be adherents of other faiths and atheists who are equally or even better educated. These are what are known as epistemic peers. According to Thomas Kelly, epistemic peers, as it relates to some specific question, are “equals with respect to their familiarity with the evidence and arguments which bear on that question.”1 A peer is also said to be, on the whole, an equal in terms of intellectual ability. So the epistemic peer in view here is one who has considered all the same evidence for Christianity, is equally intelligent, and yet rejects the truth of Christianity.
The objection is, given the radical disagreement among epistemic peers, the evidence for Christianity cannot be compelling. If epistemic peers are looking at the very same evidence and coming to radically different views, then the evidence must not be definitive. The Christian has a broad set of defeaters, then, for her claims. What are the defeaters? The defeaters are all the epistemic peers across all the different religious views. And that’s a lot of defeaters!
Putting Disagreement in Its Place
The first thing to say about disagreement is that diversity of opinion is not simply a phenomenon of religious inquiry. There is an equal amount of diversity among epistemic peers in disciplines such as philosophy, ethics, economics, and politics. Even in science there is an incredible amount of disagreement on a host of important issues. Most people don’t seem to mind holding a position in these areas in the face of wide disagreement. These are epistemic peers looking at the same evidence and deciding to affirm different positions. If it is not a problem in these areas, why should it be different for religious topics?
Moreover, one will be hard-pressed to find beliefs for which there is no dissent whatsoever from someone who looks to be an epistemic peer. This is true of the basic facts of science and what may seem like obvious moral views. For example, suppose Smith believes that White supremacy is a morally abhorrent view. Let’s say that Smith has arrived at this view as a matter of careful reflection, and it is a matter of strong conviction. However, suppose one points out the fact there are many White supremacists, some of whom presumably would be epistemic peers. Does this make Smith’s conviction that White supremacy is false unjustified? Hardly! He might be at a loss to understand why someone would genuinely find White supremacy plausible. But it would seem to be intellectually irresponsible of him to lessen his conviction on the mere fact that there are White supremacists in the world. In the same way, if I have come to my Christian beliefs in a careful and reflective way, why should the mere fact that people disagree make my Christian beliefs unjustified?
Do We Have Epistemic Peers?
To push further on this objection, we should ask just how plausible the notion of being an epistemic peer is. How common is it for there to be those who are truly looking at all the same evidence in the very same way as I am? There are many who I encounter who have an almost absolute confidence that Christianity is false and yet clearly have not worked hard to fully appreciate the Christian arguments. The writings of the so-called New Atheists are a good example of this. In fact, philosopher and atheist Michael Ruse makes this very point:
I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, “What caused God?” as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery….There are a lot of very bright and well informed Christian theologians. We atheists should demand no less.2
The point here is not to return the favor and merely ridicule Dawkins and company. It is to say there are far too many who act like they have plumbed the depths of the Christian claims and found them wanting when, in reality, they haven’t taken the time and care to understand the view they so confidently reject. Many of these individuals are extremely smart. Far smarter than me! But since they have not sufficiently considered the arguments and evidence, they are not my epistemic peers. Thus their disagreement doesn’t present a problem.
But what about those who thoughtfully reject Christianity, such as my friend Ethan? Michael Ruse says that he has given effort to understand the Christian claims, but he is an atheist. Are these, who thoughtfully consider Christianity, my epistemic peers?
I think there is reason to say no, at least not in a strict sense of being an epistemic peer. This again has nothing at all to do with their intelligence. The reason to think they are not my epistemic peers is there is so very much that goes into forming our fundamental beliefs. It is at least plausible that no two people share a strictly identical epistemic situation. There are too many arguments that have innumerable subtleties and nuances on which important points turn. It seems extremely unlikely that two people have considered all of these same subtleties and nuances in identical ways.
So just because they disagree more thoughtfully, it doesn’t follow that they have the exact same evidence as I do. If this is right, then the mere fact they disagree is also not a problem because we all occupy different epistemic situations.
There are also many nonepistemic factors that affect our belief formation. We are not logic machines. Our hopes, fears, and desires certainly figure in to how we consider the evidence and how we form our beliefs. The atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has famously said:
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time.3
Now I don’t think that Nagel is necessarily irrational in his atheism just because he admits he wants it to be true. I’m confident that he, as a world-class philosopher, has reasons for being an atheist. But the point is I don’t share his desire for atheism to be true. Thus his approach and perspective on these matters is going to be very different from mine.
Our background and prior experiences also have a profound effect on how we form our beliefs. Over the years, I have had the privilege to see the gospel affect the lives of many, many people (including my own). Also my Christian experience continues to sustain my outlook on life. I can’t shake the effect these experiences have had on me. Many non-Christians lack this kind of experience, and this undoubtedly has an effect.
Believing Rationally Despite Our Biases
Where does this leave us? I’d like to suggest that, given the subtlety of the evidence and the way that we bring our desires and background to bear on what we believe, there are no identical epistemic peers. We might be equals in our general ability to discover truth, but this need not mean that we are identical epistemic peers. Rather it seems we simply have a limited but nonidentical view of the world.
Does this leave us condemned to skepticism? Not at all! For one, skepticism, as a view, is subject to the same concerns. The skeptic has a limited view of the world, too, and not everyone agrees about skepticism. Also, just because our biases and backgrounds affect our belief formation, they do not determine our beliefs. It seems clear that we can do our due diligence and overcome our biases.
At the end of the day, we must do our level best to believe in accord with the evidence we have. We must adopt good practices to keep our biases in check. We should, for example, consider both sides of any issue, press our own views with tenacity, and consider the hardest objections we can possibly find. But then, after careful inquiry and reflection, we should believe those things that are best supported by the evidence we have. If our best evidence, on balance, points to atheism, then we should be atheists. If our best evidence points to Christianity, then we should so believe.
I for one look at this world and see a wide variety of evidence for God. I also find the evidence for Christianity extremely compelling. Though there certainly are substantive objections to Christian belief, none of the objections outweigh the cumulative force of the evidence. And here I stand. The fact that there are thoughtful people who disagree out there does not unseat the compelling evidence on which I base my belief.
Now we might still be a bit bothered by the fact there is wide disagreement among thoughtful and intellectual people regarding Christian beliefs. Again, this fact alone is not an effective defeater for our beliefs so long as we have good evidence. But what should we do with all this disagreement? I suggest it should foster an attitude of intellectual humility. The fact that thoughtful people disagree should make us aware of the possibility of being wrong and drive us to welcome and highly value thoughtful dialogue with those who disagree.
We so often talk only to those who share our views. But by only ever talking with those who agree, it is very unlikely we will press our beliefs as carefully and honestly as those who are coming at the issues from a different perspective. It is also rather easy to be overconfident on issues that are not as settled as we assume.
Now we need to be careful, as seeking we can get overwhelmed. As we engage those who disagree, it’s absolutely crucial to have a home base of likeminded believers with whom we can share questions and challenges as they come. We also may need to take this slowly, as it can be difficult to grapple with too many issues at once. The point is that we don’t and won’t have it all figured out and, therefore, we need a community of people for both support and to be challenged.
In the end, intellectual humility is completely consistent with confidently believing on the basis of good evidence. Somewhat ironically, this humility should lead us to even stronger evidence as we dialogue and engage with others, both those who are likeminded and those with whom we disagree.
Travis M. Dickinson, PhD (University of Iowa), is associate professor of philosophy and Christian apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the coauthor of Stand Firm: Apologetics and the Brilliance of the Gospel (B and H Academic, 2018). Travis blogs regularly at www.travisdickinson.com.
- Thomas Kelly, “The Epistemic Significance of Disagreement,” in Oxford Studies in Epistemology, John Hawthorne and Tamar Gendler (New York: Oxford, 2005), 174.
- Michael Ruse, “Dawkins et al Bring Us into Disrepute,” The Guardian, November 2, 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/nov/02/atheism-dawkins-ruse.
- Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 130–31.