Christians Aren't Stupid

This post is a follow up to Atheists Aren't Evil.

How can anyone believe that the Earth was created in six days? Or that a boat carried all life on Earth during a global flood? Or that there was a guy who was born of a virgin, and rose from the dead, and that that guy was the son of God? Such a person would have to be stupid or crazy, right? How can any modern person believe this stuff? Christians must be stupid.

No. Christians aren't stupid. First, Christian beliefs aren't homogeneous. Not all Christians are Young Earth Creationists, and many Christians take a non-literal interpretation of scripture. Any discussion about "Christianity" must start with its incredible diversity.

There's no question that developed societies are becoming less religious (although not necessarily less spiritual). To be clear, I use the term "religion" to refer to the organized practice of spirituality, while I use "spiritual" to reflect belief in higher powers, the afterlife, souls, and other immaterial concepts.

Skepticism is on the rise in our culture, and its roots in rationalism set skeptics up for natural opposition to faith. Widespread Atheism is a recent development in human history, and it requires some specific soil to grow. Large atheist movements are only seen in affluent countries with significant investments in science and higher education. People who live on the edge of poverty, it seems, don't have time to ponder the possible inexistence of God. They're too busy trying to find food. But among those lucky enough to live in societies that can support atheism, an animosity toward faith among skeptics is common.

Some skeptics see religious faith as something that is dangerous. Skeptics believe that it is only reasonable to believe what you can provide evidence of. They believe Christians believe without evidence. But is that true? I've certainly heard Christians say they believe on faith alone. A clarifying question can help. I'll ask "If you believe in Christ on faith, and a Muslim believes Muhammed on faith, how do you know who is correct?" Do you know what happens next?

The Christian will cite evidence! They will tell you about the Bible, and the vast scholarship behind it. They’ll point to the resurrection, and the eye witness accounts recorded in scripture, and the cultural continuity that validates those accounts. Most Christians can offer evidential support and rational argument in support of their faith. That is not faith alone.

It's simply not true that Christians believe without evidence. You can't reasonably debate the existence of evidence for Christian faith. A reasonable argument must focus on the quality of that evidence. For most people, weighing the claims of secular and sacred academics is an overwhelming prospect.

People of faith often quip that "Science takes faith." As a lover of science, this statement has always confounded me. After a lot of study and consideration, I think there is a kernel of truth in the idea that science take faith: everyone makes assumptions.

There's a whole field of study called epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how we can know anything at all, so epistemology is a fundamental examination of everything. How do we know we exist? How can we know what is true? Most people just assume we're real and that truth is a thing, but people who study epistemology want to know more.

You've probably heard "I think therefore I am." That was Descartes, and he was thinking about how we can know anything. His idea is that if you can ask if you exist, you exist. Works for me. People of all backgrounds agree on this point. Christians, atheists, agnostics, and even football fans. No one is arguing we aren't real, at least not seriously. That's an assumption, but we all make it.

Next, we all assume that our senses are generally showing us reality. We know our senses aren't perfect because sometimes we see, hear, or feel things that aren't there. Who hasn’t panicked when they felt a bug crawling on their skin that turned out to be a strand of hair? But we all agree that our senses are showing us something real. Reality isn't a dream, or a video game. It's reality. That's also an assumption, and in a bit of delicious irony, we can only validate the usefulness of our senses with our senses. It's circular reasoning, like validating the Bible with the Bible.

Things diverge pretty quickly from there. Empiricists say that all knowledge has to be based on physical evidence, while rationalists say that some basic truths are self evident, and rational analysis allows us to deduce further truths. Most philosophies in Western culture contain elements of both rationalism and empiricism, including religions.

Which brings me back to "science takes faith." If faith is accepting an assumption, science does take faith. It just takes less faith than religions. I say this because there is one form of evidence that Christians rely on that scientists don't accept: personal spiritual experiences.

Christians assume that personal spiritual experiences and revelation are a way to know truth. Skeptics don't accept that. Religious faith makes additional assumptions beyond pure rationalism or empiricism. In both cases, we have to make some assumptions to operate in reality. Skeptics just believe you need to make as few assumptions as possible.

Is this additional assumption about personal experience stupid? A study at Oxford indicates that humans are inherently prone to dualism (the belief in unseen realms or forces). They showed that children automatically believe in supernatural powers like all-knowing or unseen beings. These beliefs often persist beyond childhood. Researchers also found that belief in the afterlife and a soul is common across all cultures–including secularized cultures in Europe and Asia. Finally, these researchers found that humans more readily accept purpose-based explanations for natural phenomena. These four tendencies create the soil for religious belief in humans.

Christians are part of large communities with rich, diverse scholarship. They have a book which documents the interactions of their God with people. Most powerfully, they have personal experience with this God in prayer and worship, and they have friends who have had similar experiences. Christians see prayers answered, and they see lives changed.

Skeptics argue that these beliefs are not justified, and they can point to copious secular scholarship to support their position. But let's talk about faith again.

I believe that the Big Bang Theory is the most accurate model we have for how the Universe was formed. I believe this because I have studied Young Earth Creationism and cosmology extensively for more than half of my life. However, I can reach a point in both fields where I am hopelessly over my head. In Young Earth Creationism, it's language. I can't read ancient Hebrew. In cosmology, it's math. The mathematics of astrophysics is beyond me. In the end, I have to go with the group that best convinces me, without the ability to independently verify their claims.

Most people don't spend half their lives studying the differences between Young Earth Creationism and the Big Bang Theory. I bet most people have invested quite a lot less time, including most skeptics.

We make the assumptions we need to make to operate in reality, spiritualist and skeptics alike. Social identity plays a huge role in how we accept beliefs–including skeptics. That’s what makes us human.

Christians aren’t stupid. Instead they are part of a multi-millennial tradition of exploring and defining mystical experiences.