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Evidence can't shake your faith if your faith excludes it as evidence

Thanks to Barbie for the link.

Reposted from:

Evidence must always be interpreted within the context of interpretive assumptions.

Why is Stanley Fish so much smarter than Richard Dawkins? That question occurred to me last week, while attending a lecture at which Fish, the well-known literary and legal theorist, did the thing he always does, which is to make the following point over and over again:

"No believer will find his faith shaken by evidence that is evidence only in the light of assumptions he does not share and considers flatly wrong."

Richard Dawkins is, I'm told by persons whose authority I accept on faith, a distinguished evolutionary biologist. He holds a chair at Oxford. He has won many prestigious academic prizes. By all conventional measures, Dawkins is an extremely intelligent man. So why does he seem incapable of understanding what Fish is saying?

Here is Dawkins on the evidence for religious belief: Such belief, Dawkins writes, "will earn the right to be taken seriously when it provides the slightest, smallest smidgen of a reason for believing in the existence of the divine."

Consider what Dawkins — the author of "The God Delusion" and, along with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens the most prominent of the current crop of evangelical atheists — is claiming.

He's claiming that if one draws up a list of things that Dawkins considers evidence for the existence of God, and another list of things Dawkins considers evidence for atheism, one list has nothing on it and the other list has everything else.

And he would, of course, be right. Dawkins is a true believer, and for the true believer literally everything is evidence for the truth of his belief. For example, Fish points to St. Augustine's advice when confronting something that appears to contradict Christian belief: the phenomenon should be subjected "to diligent scrutiny until an interpretation contributing to the reign of charity is produced."

That is, Augustine's first principle of sound interpretation is that an interpretation is sound if it confirms the truth of the Christian faith. Indeed, for the perfected soul — which Augustine points out again and again he himself is not — "diligent scrutiny" is unnecessary. For "the pure and healthy internal eye," he says, "God is everywhere."

Dawkins, whose atheism is every bit as zealous as Augustine's Christianity, employs the identical interpretive procedure to reach the opposite conclusion.

Now Dawkins will object that he, unlike the religious believer, is committed to the methods of "science," and will therefore change his mind when evidence refuting his beliefs appears — but it just so happens none ever has.

The striking naivete of this viewpoint becomes clear if one asks a simple question: What, for Dawkins, would constitute evidence of God's existence? Suppose an angel of the Lord were to appear before Dawkins, even as he was delivering another lecture on the delusion that God exists. Would such an experience change Dawkins' views?

Fish has spent his whole career pointing out why it wouldn't: not because of the nature of angels, but because of the nature of interpretation. As long as Dawkins remains who he is now, he will remain incapable of seeing an angel of the Lord.

After all, a genuine atheist must interpret such an event as a temporarily inexplicable hallucination, or a sudden psychotic break, or a clever technological trick — in short, as anything but evidence that atheism is false. (An atheist who questions the truth of atheism is ceasing to be a genuine atheist precisely to the extent that he is asking himself a genuine question.)

In other words, evidence must always be interpreted within the context of interpretive assumptions that necessarily determine what that evidence is understood to signify, and which by their nature are themselves matters of faith. Thus the only way someone like Dawkins will ever see any evidence for the existence of God will be if he loses his faith that he never will.



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