Sunday, October 29, 2023

An essayist evangelizes for religious “truths”

 By Mathew Goldstein

Religion Unplugged published an article by Paul Prather who describes himself as a rural Pentecostal pastor in Kentucky on October 23 titled An Essayist Evangelizes Readers For Atheism. His article was a response to an article by Kate Cohen published by the Washington Post on October 3 titled America doesn’t need more God. It needs more atheists. Paul Prather somewhat misrepresents her article’s content so you may want to read her article if you read his article. His argument will probably be persuasive to some of the people who read it, which is a reason why I decided to publish a response.

Paul Prather criticizes Kate Cohen’s argument because, he says, “among other things, it fails to understand how people of faith really function in the world.” He starts by claiming that “some myths” were not intended to be taken literally. He then cites the Genesis account of creation as an example. He is correct that myths are not found “in scientific textbooks”, which is a bigger concession to non-theism than he recognizes. He attempts to counter this concession by asserting that the metaphors of his religion are instead “spiritually true” and “eternal, cosmic truths”. The word “truths”,  asserted here with nothing of substance to support it, is carrying too much of his argument with too little justification to succeed.

Religious texts lack credibility for various reasons, including their reliance on stories (a.k.a. myths) that can be interpreted literally or metaphorically with no clear demarcation in the text itself regarding which interpretation is correct. Deities are either ontological facts or fictions. Metaphorical myths, a.k.a. spiritual  truths, are incapable of establishing ontological facts. Spiritual truths are subjective and as such cannot be equated with eternal, cosmic truths which are necessarily objective.

The fact versus fiction dichotomy matters, particularly when we are allegedly discussing eternal, cosmic truth. If the content of religious texts purporting to reveal the existence of deity are all metaphorical then religious texts are no different than poetry or fictional novels. Yet who worships poetry or novels? Poetry and novels can be alluring, if you enjoy poetry or novels then good for you, consider yourself to be lucky. People can participate in weekly poetry or novel readings and occasional seasonal poetry or novel festivals containing lots of metaphors revealing spiritual truths without any ontological baggage attached. Theistic religions are not like that because they are attached to eternal, cosmic truth claims anchored in ontological fact claims, one of which is the existence of deity.

Paul Prather says “doubt is part of any healthy faith“. Doubt should be proportional to evidence. The less evidence the more doubt and the more evidence the less doubt. Doubt should be diminished to the point of becoming insignificant when the evidence is strong. The word faith here is an admission that the evidence is insufficient to rationally compel belief and therefore doubt is rationally compelled, which significantly undermines the ambitious assertion that the same faith reveals eternal, cosmic truth.

Paul Prather then says “Well, on the days that I believe, here’s what I believe.” While our beliefs will change over time as we learn more, for ontological questions it is unlikely that our access to evidence is going to change on a daily basis to justify such daily alternations in our beliefs. When someone says their belief about how the universe operates alternates on an almost daily schedule it indicates that person is probably not anchoring their understanding of how the universe operates in evidence properly. This conclusion is bolstered by the final line in his article, a quote from the Gospels of someone appealing to Jesus for assistance: “I do believe. Help my unbelief!”. If that quote is supposed to qualify as evidence for theism then we disagree about what qualifies as evidence.

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