Tag Archives: thoughts

How some atheists might do circular reasoning

Last week, I introduced “circular reasoning” to my students. It’s not only about bad reasoning; it makes for bad sentences, too!

Before that class, I had searched Google Images for illustrations and cartoon strips related to circular reasoning. So many of the them related to Christian circular reasoning:

The Bible is the Word of God because the Bible says it is the Word of God because the Word of God is the Bible.

That’s just a quick summation.

Not being particularly annoyed with that kind of illustration of circular reasoning, I did become a little annoyed at the sheer number of these things in the Google Image results. The sheer number seemed a little too triumphant, and to my way of thinking, triumphalism is poor taste even when you’re trying to answer annoyingly triumphant opponents.

Then, walking to the library a bit later on that class day, the following occurred to me, about how some atheists might be equally circular:

There is no supernatural dimension or anything beyond observable nature. Unexplained phenomena ultimately have a natural explanation because there is no supernatural dimension because all things have a natural explanation. 

Perhaps crudely put, here in the library during an hour’s break, but the above is basically an operating premise for many atheists, and a circular one.

If you’ve read any of this blog lately, you know I’ve tried to record and analyze the nonsense and unhealthiness in American Christianity. I agree with the circularity of the Bible-is-the-Word-of-God-because-it-says-so. This blog could say it is the Word of God and you could even feel like it is the Word of God, but would that mean anything in any ultimate sense? No.

That circularity does not make an atheistic argument non-circular.

Why say, “My natural senses have never detected anything supernatural; therefore there is no supernatural”? It seems like “natural senses” would by definition not be “supernatural senses.”

Just to be crystal clear, the existence of the word “supernatural” and the phrase “supernatural senses” do not create or necessitate any kind of supernatural realm any more than the existence of the word Narnia creates a real place.

Some tangentially related things bugging me:

  • Why should anything in a supernatural dimension have to meet my standards of natural proof?
  • But if we claim to know there’s a supernatural realm, then our knowing might be based on natural experience, which is manipulable.
  • What is the survival function of our ability to imagine a greater, supernatural realm? What is the evolutionary necessity of believing in an imaginary supernatural realm? (These questions spurred in part by something I once heard Malcolm Guite say at a C.S. Lewis conference.) If the supernatural realm is only a delusion, what evolutionary purpose does a belief in the supernatural — especially such a belief among otherwise sane and intelligent people — serve for survival and reproduction?

The aggregate of thoughts, feelings, and years

I can stand up for hope, faith, love
But while I’m getting over certainty
Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady  — U2

With this blog during the past five years, I’ve tried to make the case that Protestant evangelicalism and its close cousins are intellectually problematic exercises in futility.

The available Reformed and fundamentalist views of God, humans, and the Bible never really work out, intellectually or experientially, without constant guess work and endless, tiny adjustments in the particulars of belief.

Unfortunately for me, this line of argument has been just as futile as evangelicalism.

Even when others have understood specific, concrete stories from my own life, they could not understand what brought me to the point of exasperation.

What can’t be explained is the aggregate of thousands of hours in conversations with friends, ministers, and psychologists.

What can’t be explained is the aggregate of thousands of hours of observations and, later, evaluation of those observations, the mulling over and over of words spoken and actions observed.

In other words, I don’t have arguments for or against evangelicalism. I have a life that offers deep and broad reasons why evangelicalism as a way of life does not work and couldn’t possibly.

When I found a church with candles and liturgy, I thought at least I could continue to believe in God and worship what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world,” which I took to be the Incarnation. That was the best I could do.

These days I see people going back in the same direction I came from, tempting the darker forces of religion to control congregations. But there is no way to bottle or package my experiences and my perspectives and present them concretely as a cautionary tale. Others are trying to bottle and package their experiences and their perspectives, and they carry more certainty than I do, maybe with fewer years, but with more zeal.

For them, “there’s one size for everyone.”

For me, “this particular size works for no one.”

Which is the more limited point of view?

G.K. Chesterton once contrasted the pagan circle with the Christian cross. The circle is closed, he said, with no expansion possible. The cross, however, extends infinitely in four directions, essentially in all directions.

I am sure my opposites would consider my point of view to be the circle, and their point of view to be the cross. Of course, I see it the other way around. The only thing I can say in response is that the liturgy and the candles — and, certainly, the bread and wine — enabled me to imagine the cross extending infinitely into past and future, while its crux remains firmly at “the still point of the turning world.”

The strange thing about the way sovereignty is assumed among Reformed, fundamentalist, and evangelical circles is this: there’s nothing to imagine. Only precision of abstract doctrine, none of the genuine mystery of the Baptized God and His universe as sensed and intuited by poets, novelists, and artists. Perhaps there’s nothing to imagine because the ministers feel certain they have grasped the mind of God.

The imaginations that drove Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien and Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor were Roman Catholic. The imagination that drove T.S. Eliot was Anglo-Catholic. The imagination that drove Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was Russian Orthodox. The biggest imagination that was close to evangelicalism was C.S. Lewis, who was Anglican. Are there any evangelical,  fundamentalist, or Reformed authors or poets of their caliber in the last 100 years? Perhaps in parts of Europe, but certainly not in the United States or the United Kingdom. I doubt the Reformed, evangelical, or fundamental crowds would claim John Updike or Garrison Keillor — they’re too liberal.

Elsewhere, others have said that our wills fail because the images in our subconscious minds undercut us. The imagination, as most deeply engrained in our minds, as most symbolically woven together with our beliefs, runs on stores of images. Those images must have a basic goodness to them if our wills are to accomplish what our rational minds say we want to achieve.

The Christian imagination ought to be broad and deep and it should buoy our wills toward good ends. The mindset that focuses on doctrinal precision and steps and methods and curricula and numerical growth in congregations only engages the rational mind. This is a failing mindset. As Chesterton said, “The mad man is not the man who has lost his reason. The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”