Taking “counterintuitive assertions purely on faith”

January 18, 2011
Over at First Things, the lovably polemical David Bentley Hart has a column about the strangely universal experience of religious believers throughout the ages doing extreme things (like castrating themselves and worse) for the sake of their faith. Nothing terribly insightful here, but I want to file his last few paragraphs away for the next time we argue about atheism.
I know, obviously, that purely Darwinian explanations of religion have been attempted, and that some kind of evolutionary rationale can be devised to explain just about any phenomenon if one is sufficiently inventive. Most such explanations are utterly impressionistic, of course; and, as with most attempts to use Darwinian theory to explain more than it really can, they are largely exercises in making the implausible sound somehow almost kind of likely…
Anyway, I am not interested in that argument just at the moment; it would take too long and would prove inconclusive. It is simply part of the intellectual burden of modernity, now that every concept of final and formal causes has been explicitly abandoned, that persons of a rationalist bent have to try to see everything (including, impossibly enough, existence itself) as the effect of blind material or physical causes, even if that means taking a shockingly great number of counterintuitive assertions purely on faith.

I strongly agree with him that philosophical materialists use Darwinian theory to “explain more than it really can,” without evidence or proof. Of course this means “taking a shockingly great number of counterintuitive assertions purely on faith.” Many atheists have a hard time conceding that they take anything on faith.

7 Responses to “Taking “counterintuitive assertions purely on faith””

  1. Paul Wallace Says:

    You might be arguing about atheism again pretty soon. I hope you don’t mind that I pointed my Alert Readers to this post. I like it.


  2. brentwhite Says:

    Many hits, no arguing this time. Oh well…

  3. jackd Says:

    This atheist, for one, agrees that many attempts to explain difficult bits of human behavior via mechanisms of selection and heredity are badly done. But it’s not an uncommon opinion in my experience.

    I’m having some trouble with your post as an argument, though. Hart seems to be saying – and I think you are agreeing – that material explanations for some things are not simply wrong, but should not be attempted. I disagree. Daniel Dennet says it pretty well in Breaking the Spell: “It might be that God implants each human being with an immortal soul that thirsts for opportunities to worship God. That would indeed explain the bargain struck, the exchange of human time and energy for religion. The only honest way to defend that proposition, or anything like it, is to give fair consideration to alternative theories of the persistence and popularity of religion and rule them out by showing they are unable to account for the phenomena observed.” (p70)

    I’m very curious as to what these counterintuitive assertions are that materialists take purely on faith. There are probably a number of things I believe or accept without evidence, but I don’t think they are really similar to the tenets of religious faith. The atheist equivalent of a Nicene Creed is notably absent!

    • brentwhite Says:


      I’m tempted to just let Hart defend himself. He’s certainly done so in many essays and books. In fact, here’s his rather damning assessment of the Dennet book you mention. Read this essay. I promise it’s food for thought. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/01/003-daniel-dennett-hunts-the-snark-15

      I think Hart is saying in this case that philosophical materialists can and do bend and shape Darwinian theory to explain any and all physical phenomena, including all aspects of human behavior, no matter how seemingly contrary, without the burden of having to prove anything. It’s often speculation based on highly questionable premises. (Look, for example, at funny John Cleese video to which Paul’s blog points.)

      For example, what are Dennet’s “alternative theories,” for which he actually offers scientific evidence or proof? The careless reader, who is unconvinced of either God’s existence or lack thereof but who happily accepts that Darwinian processes explain one dimension of “how we got here,” might imagine that Dennet’s (or Dawkins’s or anyone else’s) explanations are as scientifically well-established as the fact of evolution. But of course that’s not true. See what I mean?

      Absent of the kind of evidence I’m talking about, how is that not a kind of faith? You don’t need to have a creed to have a kind of faith (although, in fairness, Dawkins has one in _God Delusion_, right? His little “ten commandments” or something?)

      More importantly, atheists have to take a leap of faith regarding the question of existence (as Hart points out in his parenthetical aside). Atheists are usually confused about this—perhaps because the New Atheists are scientists rather than philosophers? I don’t know.

      The point is, every atheist has firmly settled in his mind that there is nothing beyond this physical realm of time, space, and matter. This is an article of faith. They can’t prove it. It’s utterly beyond science. Science itself is agnostic on the question—by definition. It has to be. (This is why the intelligent design people and creationists are failing to do science.)

      Science rules out supernatural explanations at the beginning, as a rule. It only sees natural causes. If there are other aspects of reality out there to “see,” as we Christians believe, science is by definition blind to them. To say, for example, “There is no scientific evidence for God’s existence,” is merely a tautology: “This method that is blind to God cannot see God.” Yes, that’s obviously true. We all should affirm that and move on.

      Christianity has never affirmed anything other than that God is transcendent—utterly beyond time, space, and matter. Whatever we are, God is something else entirely. One consequence of this is that we are incapable of “getting at” God apart from faith. To affirm this is not to offer a grudging concession to the Enlightenment, it’s to say that when it comes to the God of Christianity, it can be no other way.

      I read that Stephen Hawking last year attributed “existence” to gravitational force or something. This is a category mistake. He’s saying nothing whatsoever about existence. Why was there a gravitational force, or any other physical phenomena such that it caused the big bang? Scientific types do this all the time.

      See the following, if you’d like:



      • jackd Says:

        Thanks for the reply, Brent. No, Hart has no fondness at all for Dennett, does he? Why as mild-mannered a book as Dennett’s provokes such fulmination I won’t speculate, but I do find it rather out of proportion.

        The thrust of Dennett’s book is not to proclaim answers but to propose that asking the questions and looking for evidence in a structured, falsifiable manner is a worthwhile endeavor. Yes, in some cases he offers his own speculations, but they are labeled as places where inquiry can begin, not where it ends.

        As I’ve already indicated, I have no problem admitting that some “Darwinian” explanations are no better than just-so stories. But I think you overstate and conflate the issue. Yes, a person who has not become a slave to Allah (just trying to be ecumenical in my metaphors) might be persuaded by Dennett or Dawkins or others that there are no phenomena that require a transcendent God or an invisible soul or any other “rival[s] to any of the contingent, finite, secondary causes by which the universe lives [and] moves” (as Hart put it). But you don’t have to think that all questions of human existence are already answered. As “a kind of faith” it’s primarily a case of having confidence in the best question-answering method humans have yet developed.

        Regarding the question of existence, I’d agree that most atheists probably have nothing very much like a coherent answer – I know that I don’t. But I also suspect that most atheists and agnostics have heard the proffered answer of “God” and found it unsatisfactory.

        By the way, Dawkins’ alternative to the Decaloge is hardly a creed. Number 10 is “Question everything”! Yes, there are plenty of assumptions and ideas behind them, but they look, to my admittedly 21st century Western eyes, to be the kinds of assumptions and ideas that can be shared between people of very different faiths, or none at all.

  4. brentwhite Says:


    I will humbly suggest that Dawkins’s alternative Decalogue is one example of a reason to question one’s belief, not merely that all we can know for sure is material things (which is true), but that the only things that exist are material things, which is a statement of non-religious faith. Dawkins proves he’s just a big softie when it comes to having the courage of his convictions—or worse (as I imagine), he hasn’t even thought it through.

    Here’s an example of what I mean: His list includes words like love, honesty, faithfulness, respect, justice, evil, forgiveness, etc. How can a philosophical materialist possibly imagine these words have any meaning whatsoever? Yes, I’m sure they have meaning to him—he is, after all, a product of his environment, culture, biology, etc., which has given shape and content to these ideas.

    Evolution, on the other hand, contains no “ought.” What seems good to one person, according to Dawkins’s own worldview, is purely an accident of blind, dumb chance. He might respond, “Yes, but social-group cooperation affords some evolutionary advantage,” blah-blah-blah. To which I say, “Prove it scientifically.” Prove the objective value of the statement, “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.” And he can’t, of course. But even if he did offer a reason, even though it would be unscientific, I would say, “I disagree.”

    And with that profound response, I would have blown away whatever ethical house of cards he has built. There is no ought; there is no good; there is no justice—in any way that isn’t hopelessly relative from one person to another. On what basis does Dawkins (or Hitchens, Harris, Dennet, et al.) stand on his moral high ground when it’s made of air?

    I think what drives Christian curmudgeons like Hart crazy is that the good old atheists like Nietzsche used to understand this: they knew they were staring into the abyss. Hart wants better atheists to argue with!

    It bothers me, too, obviously. Don’t mean to take it out on you. If you’re suffering from insomnia, I had a lengthy argument with an atheist (he started it!) a couple of weeks ago along these same lines. Here’s the post, but be sure to read the comments section…


  5. jackd Says:

    Brent, I understand your frustration – to some degree it’s mutual! Shall we agree not to recap your argument with NotAScientist for now? Both of you made a reasonable statement of your positions, and I know where my sympathies lie, but my knowledge of philosophy is mainly an awareness of my own ignorance.

    If we continue, could we perhaps return to the original question I posed? What are some of the “shockingly great number of counterintuitive assertions” that you believe materialists and/or atheists accept “purely on faith”? You’ve made reference to some things that cannot be proved, but so far I’m missing the counterintuitive nature, the shockingly great numbers, or indeed the faith portion.

    E.g. “every atheist has firmly settled in his mind that there is nothing beyond this physical realm of time, space, and matter.”

    No, not necessarily. One might think that mathematical abstractions have a reality that is not tied to time, space, or matter, for example. (It’s a legitimate position among mathematicians with a philosophical bent, as I weakly understand.) Or one might believe that certain ‘multiverse’ speculations are in fact true even while conceding that ‘other universes’ have no possible interaction with ours. So there are at least a couple of exceptions to your assertion.

    Even if every atheist rejects the idea of “beyond time, space and matter”, saying that this is faith does a disservice to the idea of faith itself. I will bet that neither of us believes in reincarnation, but it would be absurd to say we share a ‘non-reincarnationist’ faith.

    I might concede that rejecting the supernatural is counterintuitive, but then, the more I’ve considered the question of what we mean by ‘the supernatural’, the more the idea seems trivial (that is, reduced to ‘unexplained’) or incoherent. So it’s not a counterintuitive assumption, it’s a conclusion based on experience and thought.

    Thanks for the conversation!

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