In this episode, Kurt speaks with Tyler McNabb on approaches to the knowledge of God.
Listen to “Episode 132: Explore God – Is there a God?” on Spreaker.
Kurt Jaros: Good day to you, and thanks for joining us here for another episode of Veracity Hill, where we are striving for truth on faith, politics, and society. It’s very nice to be with you today, and we are continuing our “Explore God” series at Veracity Hill, where we are dealing with life’s biggest questions. Last week, our guest was Dr. Doug Groothuis, and we talked about whether life has a purpose, reflecting on some of the most popular statements of cynicism in philosophy, with the history, and we can discover that humans do indeed have a purpose in life. In today’s episode, we are talking about: is there a God? It’s one of those questions that many people can find themselves asking. They have doubts, they are seeking God. And for some others, it just seems quite obvious that God exists, and it’s not really much of an intellectual burden for them. And before kicking off to our guest, who is going to really enlighten on the different aspects of the concerns that people have, and how we should be thinking about these sorts of questions, I do want to play a two-and-a-half-minute clip, a very well made video, put out by the folks at Explore God, and it will help us to sort of get a pulse of what people think about whether God exists and what we could think about that. So, without further ado, here we go.
Man #1: I’d like to think that God is real.
Woman #1: I don’t believe in God because the idea that an omniscient, loving being would judge me, who is (sic) mortal and ignorant, and damn me for all eternity, based on lived experience—I find it to be a rather cruel thought.
Man #2: I think that the world around us, from the universe to our being to the beings that have consciousness—I think that it can only be explained by God.
Woman #2: All the power that God has, he/she/it has given to me, so we’re definitely one.
Woman #3 (in a foreign language): Our God is alive, and yes, he wants to know you very well.
Man #3: I hope that something is out there. I mean, it’d be funny to think what it may be that God has in store next. Either that, or it was evolved to apes.
Woman #4: There are so many things where—it’s just like—there’s no way that just happened. There has to be someone or something behind it, and I believe that something is God.
Woman #5: What can I say? I have no idea, to be honest.
Woman #6: I’m really an atheist. I just don’t believe in a higher power. But I also don’t claim to know everything about the world. So I think maybe it’s a bit arrogant for people to try to truly say there is a truth to anything.
Woman #7: For me, yes, yes, it’s obvious. There are so many things, so many personal experiences…oh, that has to be God.
Man #4: The fad answer is, “How can there be no God when there is all of this beauty around us?” But I think about evolution and science and all of that kind of makes me think, “How can you not just accept it the way it is?”
Man #5 (in a foreign language): God created all of us to do his will.
Woman #8: I really don’t know what to believe, to be quite honest. It’s kind of just really hard. All this damned hunger in the world just makes no sense.
Woman #9: I don’t know. I don’t know if there is, but I’ll just be kind, I guess…
Kurt: Alright, so there you have it, a variety of perspectives on whether or not God exists. And as you can see, in this those different perspectives, people came at it from all sorts of different angles. They were thinking about evolution, or beauty, morality. There was one in there who said, “I just kind of pretend that God exists, and just hope there is one.” So to help us think more through these issues, I’ve invited on our program today Dr. Tyler McNabb. He is assistant professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University. And Tyler, thank you for joining us on our program today.
Dr. Tyler McNabb: Howdy! Thank you so much for having me! I’m looking forward to our discussion.
Kurt: Towards the end of last year (that is, 2018), you published by Campus University Press a book called “Religious Epistemology.” And religious epistemology—I know what religion is. Epistemology, though—that seems like a big term. What is epistemology?
McNabb: I take epistemology to be the study of knowledge, justification, warrants, rationality. Specifically, it’s the study of knowledge, but I’d take it as the concept of—the question of, “Is your belief rational? Can we know if God exists, or can we know that we’re not being deceived, that we’re not just being tricked by an evil demon who wants to hurt us, that we’re not just brains in the Matrix? What does it take for a belief to be rational?” These sorts of questions are all asked in the field of epistemology.
Kurt: Yeah, there are all sorts of questions in epistemology, but religious epistemology then deals with those ideas and beliefs about religion, right? Typically speaking, you also get into the nitty-gritty of New Testament studies, or something like that.
McNabb: Yeah, so it takes these kinds of concepts, and relates them back to religious beliefs and practice. So if you like the study of epistemology questions, and you like the study of religion, you put them together, and you’ve got another sort of subfield within a subfield of philosophy, of religious epistemology.
Kurt: Now, I want to ask you a couple of questions to start off, but I do want to get your thoughts on the video that we’ve just played, the two-minute YouTube video. So without maybe going too deep or surprising people with ways that we think about those sorts of questions, first, let’s get more of the lay of the land about how Christians think about these things. So as Christians, we do believe that God exists, but how we come to that belief, or how we think we come to that belief, might vary. So there are different Christian perspectives on this, and maybe you could tell us: what are some of the main views about how Christians come to the belief that God exists, if I’m phrasing that properly? And forgive me, scholars of analytic philosophy would definitely correct me on my failure of nuancing things properly.
McNabb: So I think perhaps what you’re getting at is two questions. One is maybe in reference to what actually happens, why people believe in God, how people actually come to believe in the supernatural. Maybe there’s another question (and correct me if I’m wrong) in reference to what psychological approaches we use, what methods we utilize in order to get people to believe in God. Is that sort of one of the questions that you’re asking?
Kurt: Yes, because number one affects number two. If humans are unable to reason into believing in God, that’s going to affect the psyche of the perspective when we argue with people. And it even varies from person to person!
McNabb: Yeah, so let me tackle the first question first, and then engage the second question. So according to the cognitive science of religion, the paradigm view (and people don’t realize this) is that we’re all born atheists, and we have to be indoctrinated in order to believe in God. Well to quote our President, that’s fake news. According to the cognitive science of religion, belief in God, belief in the supernatural, belief in divinity, or however you want to say it, is an evolutionary expenditure (that is to say, it’s a byproduct of advantageous evolutionary factors). The idea is that there are different theories proposed. Probably the most popular theory is that we have what’s called a hyper-agency detection device, and a hyper-agency detection device is this idea that we have some sort of mechanism that produces belief in agency even when agency is not there. So we’ve all had that feeling before, when it’s nighttime, we wake up, and all of a sudden, we hear something, we hear a creak in the night.
Kurt: I’m hearing some creaks right now. I don’t know if that’s maybe one of your office mates?
McNabb: Oh, perhaps, perhaps! Yeah, so you hear a creak in the night and “It’s a person coming to get me!” So you have to check under the bed and under the closet, maybe open the door. So we project teleology, we project agency or purpose even when it’s not there. So there’s this idea that you don’t see those fearful sounds at night, maybe you go and you see an ocean front with waves crashing against the rocks, and perhaps you might feel a sense of design. You project agency upon (sic) those sort of natural phenomena. So here is one explanation for why people dream of God sort of in a natural way. There have been certain studies done, and they’ve been replicated in China and Scandinavia, Canada and America, which suggest as well that children exist in a kind of natural disposition to believe in teleology. So they’ve gone and asked children of every age to explain certain natural phenomena such as, “Why are rocks pointy?” And children will say, “So that animals won’t sit on them.” They have these sort of teleological explanations. When asked, uneducated adults provided teleological explanations. When asking scientifically educated adults, they did prefer teleological explanations until they were asked things like “Why are rocks pointy” very quickly. They had much more preference to (sic) answers that were of a teleological nature. So it does seem that there is some sort of mechanism within us that—getting put in this natural sort of environment naturally produces within us belief in divinity, belief in the supernatural, beliefs about God. So I think lots of people believe in God because of this. But of course, this also gets into the other question of how we should approach a project of getting people who don’t believe in God to believe in God. So I don’t know if you want me to stop there, or if you want me to keep going.
Kurt: No, keep going! I’m really enjoying this.
McNabb: Alright. So of course, you could think that most people come to believe in God in this way, but still think that people come to believe in God through arguments. So just because you think this is the origin of why people believe in God doesn’t mean this is the only way people believe in God. There are other arguments in a field called natural theology. Natural theology is a field that sort of studies what we can know about God, and whether we can know if there is a God, without the use of revelation. So there’s an approach in natural theology—or in apologetics, rather—called classical apologetics, and it’s an idea of—you’re going to use philosophical arguments to argue for God’s existence. So you have maybe different cosmological arguments, different moral arguments, different arguments from design, teleology, and nature, consciousness, and so forth. And we’re going to be able to concentrate on that. You have what is (sic) called evidentialists (and for those of you who are familiar with epistemology, it’s a slightly different meaning of the term). Evidentialism as it pertains to apologetics is this idea of this sort of primary way in (sic) how we should go about arguing or convincing people that God exists is by way of evidence, especially specifically through the way of historical evidence. So think of Mike Licona’s argument for the resurrection, Gary Habermas’ argument for the resurrection.
Kurt: Mike Licona, he’s a good guy.
McNabb: He is a good guy. I’m excited that I got to meet him.
Kurt: He’s your colleague at Houston Baptist!
McNabb: That he is. There’s another one called presuppositionalism, the most controversial approach in apologetics for someone so interested in apologetics. The idea is sort of that everyone, according to presuppositionalists, begs the question to some degree, reasons in circles (that is to say, you assume that which is in question in order to get to your conclusion). The presuppositionalists argue that scientists are empiricists, but that they assume their reason, their observation, is true. So they say, “Let’s assume the Bible is true,” and…show evidence that deep in their heart of hearts, they assume the Christian worldview is true as well, and they’re suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, and they reference Romans 1, and they go on to show why that’s the case. And then there’s an approach called Reformed epistemology. Reformed epistemology is technically a philosophical thesis. It’s a thesis that belief in God can be rational apart from argumentation. But that thesis has been somewhat developed into an apologetical (sic) system, but you can sort of see that a bit in Plantinga’s “The Knowledge of God” debate, in which he truly sets up a methodology, so to speak. And then…he sort of comes from a Reformed-epistemology view. So Reformed epistemology is echoing back to John Calvin, who was Reformed. John Calvin talked about a faculty called “sensus divinitatis,” the sense of the divine, of divinity. And similar to what…said, Calvin postulated that all human beings have a faculty that is aimed toward producing belief in God. So Alvin Plantinga comes along and says, “If that faculty was functioning rightly, and was aimed at truth, and that person was in the environment for which they (sic) were designed to be in, then that faculty should have produced belief that God exists. Belief in God, and belief in his existence, would be rational apart from argument.” So Reformed epistemology thinks this—again, that belief in God can be rational apart from argument. So what is interesting about that…a little bit with what we were talking about earlier in cognitive science, but it would allow, if Reformed epistemology were true, for lots of people to come to rational belief in God, not just the scholar, the PhD, the person who’s super-duper into apologetics, but also a person who was, say, a medieval farmer. We all have this faculty, and at least in most people, it’s working efficiently enough to produce theistic belief…which sort of sees the good in each of these views, and maybe realizes the good in each particular view given a specific context. I would think that’s roughly an answer to your first and second question.
Kurt: It’s quite impressive that you’re reading this off from the top of your mind. This is great. I’ve got a number of questions. So you talked about the medieval farmer. Here, what the Reformed-epistemology view says is that the medieval farmer doesn’t need to have a robust defense of his belief in God to illustrate or prove, if those are the right words, that his belief is rational, that he is warranted and justified in his belief that God exists. Is that a fair statement?
McNabb: The medieval farmer doesn’t need to know what Thomas’ first Bible is in order to be considered rational. Maybe his faculty is just functioning rightly, he’s out in nature, doing whatever farmers do. He sees the starry sky, sees the beautiful landscape, the beautiful fields, the texture of the grass and the leaves, and all of a sudden, he finds himself believing that God exists. He’s not doing induction or adduction or deduction. He just looks at something, and all of a sudden finds himself with this belief. The faculty is functioning rightly, the sensus divinitatis functions rightly, then his belief would be rational, even if he wasn’t (sic) able to have access to the arguments, or something like that.
Kurt: The first approach, or maybe what you called the natural way, or what cognitive science tells us, it seems sometimes, the research in cognitive science is trying to be reductionistic. “If we could show how, in the brain, humans come to form a belief—which, by the way, I don’t know how we would ever do that (sic), if we’re talking about material and immaterial things—then we could explain away God’s existence.” Now maybe there are some well-intended researchers, but this is all to say: when they provide the cognitive research here (without making any kind of philosophical bent one way or the other), even if we could explain how we come to that belief, that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.
McNabb: Yeah, it’s really just another fallacy when you think that it’s…origins of belief. So some actually do try to use this to develop a defeatist, so to speak, for theistic belief. So people argue, “Well hey, if this is all…it detects errors all the time. Perhaps this is responsible for us believing in ghosts and psychics and leprechauns, different gods, different religions, so it’s not a really reliable faculty. So if this is what is primarily what is getting you to believe that God exists, maybe you shouldn’t really trust the equipment there, the hardwiring. So it’s not really rational. Upon reflection, maybe it was initially rational to believe that God exists, but once you find out all this information about cognitive science, and how unreliable your hyper-agency detection device is, you’re no longer rational.” So yeah, you can develop sort of arguments like that…In fact, in religious epistemology, as you mentioned, I give two sets of responses there, so hopefully it’s an interesting thing.
Kurt: The debate on this is very wide and deep. There’s lots of literature out there, and even for the Christian approaches here, books upon books written on methodology, and we could put a lot of resources for that on our website. I want to get your take on the video we played at the start. There were a number of individuals—and to be honest, I don’t know if they were just actors, or if they were genuine interviews. Nevertheless, I thought that they represented not equivalency of population, but they represented diversity of views. What were your thoughts on some of the remarks that people made?
McNabb: Yeah, so I don’t recall this completely verbatim, but it seemed like one woman argued that we can’t know many important metaphysical or moral truths. So I think she said at first that she was an atheist, but then sort of remained agnostic conceptually by saying, “We can’t know anything,” or maybe anything that’s an important metaphysical or moral truth, something like that. So I guess responding to her, you could respond in several ways. One, if you don’t make the claim that we can know nothing at all, then that would mean we can’t know the answer. If we can’t know anything technical, it seems maybe you are getting onto something technical there, right? You can respond in that sort of way, the self-defeating way. Or of course, you could respond like this. This is how Alvin Plantinga responds, if you were to ask a Reformed epistemologist. “If God exists, he has hardwired our faculties to produce belief in him, and we find ourselves believing that God exists one day by means of this faculty, and it’s working rightly and so forth, then it seems likely we could know that God exists.” So I don’t know why we need to be so skeptical about knowing truths about God’s existence, sort of a Kantian sort of skepticism. There was another sort of interesting—I think it was one of the first ones, if not the first person. There was a lady who argued that—I guess it was something like this. God is supposed to be all-loving and powerful. She can’t believe, however, that God would send people to hell for a few years of learning experience and finite abilities and so forth, so God doesn’t exist. Apparently he’s supposed to be all-loving, but he also can send us to hell if we get things wrong. So I think roughly, that’s what she was articulating. And of course, you could break that down. You could discuss with this person her view that God’s—maybe God’s not going to damn someone who’s completely ignorant, who’s never heard the gospel, who doesn’t know better. Maybe they’re responding to the life that God has given them in the best way that they can. It’s like Abraham before the gospel, because Abraham didn’t believe the gospel obviously, before Jesus came—long before Jesus came! How would he believe the gospel? He was trusting in the promises God was giving him. So I couldn’t really think that someone who’s really ignorant is going to be damned for all eternity. I think my colleague Gary Wells said this as well. He articulated that if God is a maximally great being, which I think most theists would agree, then he’s going to be optimally loving, optimally good. So he’s going to give optimal grace, not just enough grace to damn everyone, to justifiably damn everyone, but he’s going to want to give as much grace as is required to bring about faith, maximal, optimal grace. So it catches her being suspicious of God, and of course that doesn’t prove that God doesn’t exist, or at best, it would show that in her view, she is giving a reason why she personally doesn’t want to follow God, or something like that, not the cosmological argument, or other arguments that we see.
Kurt: In her view, for all she knows, there’s an evil God with almighty power recording events, and he’s just a meanie, and she doesn’t want to follow him.
McNabb: Yeah, so maybe she believes in a different God, or maybe a God that’s more good than not, but still can be a jerk when it comes to cutting people slack, or not wanting to cut people slack.
Kurt: Something like that. Well Tyler, we need to take a break. When we come back, we’re going to explore more about these epistemologies—or methodologies, I should say really, about we come to form our belief, and what are some tactics about how we can be talking to people about God’s existence. Stick with us through this short break from our sponsors!
Kurt: Thanks for sticking with us through that short break from our sponsors. If you would like to learn how you can become a sponsor, you can to go our website veracityhill.com, and click on the Patreon tab to learn more. Patrons are folks that just chip in a few bucks, five or ten or twenty dollars, and it really helps to continue to grow and grow. And if you’re just tuning in to the program in these past couple weeks, about that growing aspect, Veracity Hill is now a radio ministry! We are airing our program through an amateur radio network in Augusta, Georgia: AM 1050, Saturdays at noontime. So if you live in the Augusta area, we are pleased that you are listening to us. We are happy to see that our ministry is growing. So if you want to help Veracity Hill reach other radio markets, please consider becoming one of our monthly contributors. On today’s program, we’re talking about how we come to believe that God exists, and what some good methodologies might be for talking to people about the existence of God. Joining us on our program today is Dr. Tyler McNabb. He is assistant professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University, and he is an analytic philosopher—that is, someone who thinks very deeply about areas within philosophy, specifically religious epistemology and some other areas as well. And an analytic philosopher—Tyler, you can correct me if I’m wrong—is someone who cares very deeply about things like definitions, and thinking through the argumentation, and wants to be very fine and precise. And this is contrasted with what’s called continental philosophy, which I read a bit of when I was doing a master’s degree in theology over in England, actually. I read my continental thinkers and so many writers! The writing style was fluffier, it was harder to follow along with what they were trying to convey. Maybe I’m painting with a broad script (sic) here, Tyler. Is that a description of the two different camps?
McNabb: …also a heavy emphasis on logic and what science can tell us. While analytic philosophy mainly came back to the UK and America, and that sort of part of the world. And then continental philosophy comes from Europe, where the emphasis oftentimes is very different. Some philosophers have the thinking that not being continental is a virtue! Oftentimes, there is a focus on different types of questions, more existential questions about meaning, purpose, being, that sort of thing.
Kurt: Alright, before we jump back into our discussion, Tyler, I’m not sure if you’ve watched our program before, but we do a segment of the show called Rapid Questions, where we ask fun questions, get to know a little bit more about you…I’ll start it, and ask the first question. Sixty seconds, and we’ll see how many you can answer, so are you ready?
Kurt: Alright, here we go! What is your clothing store of choice?
Kurt: Taco Bell or KFC?
McNabb: Taco Bell, for the life of me.
Kurt: What song is playing on your radio these days?
McNabb: Adele, anything by Adele or Tim Smith.
Kurt: Who’s one person you’d like to have dinner with to discuss a topic you disagree on?
McNabb: Probably some sort of ranking member of the Democratic Party to talk about abortion. That could be one thing.
Kurt: Do you drink Dr. Pepper?
McNabb: All the time.
Kurt: Oh, beautiful. Pick a fictional character that you’d like to meet.
McNabb: I would really like…Captain America.
Kurt: If you became a multimillionaire overnight, what would you buy?
McNabb: A house!
Kurt: What type of music do you dislike the most?
Kurt: Metal! My electrician Tony is going to disagree with you on that one!
McNabb: I also had a philosopher on Facebook…
Kurt: Yes, and some people can be very sensitive about who their Facebook friends are. And that goes both ways: people that are hurt when they befriend someone, and people that are hurt because they’ve been unfriended. Fictional characters—Captain America, why is it that you want to meet him?
McNabb: …I can’t meet Superman, I’m more of a Marvel person, and Captain America has this sort of emphasis on liberty and freedom. So as a right-wing person, a person of conservative values, Captain America represents an honest guy, a guy like Jon Snow. He seems like someone I wouldn’t mind hanging out with. He’s someone who’s very kind of pure, and you want to follow him.
Kurt: It’s something that’s attractive to people. Let me ask this: are you excited about the Marvel movies coming out this year?
Kurt: What do you think? We’ve got “Captain Marvel,” “Spiderman,” and “Endgame.” Those are the three coming out this year.
McNabb: With “Endgame,” I’m really afraid that Captain America’s going to die, but if he does, hopefully it will be in a way that saves the world, sacrificing himself for the greater good.
Kurt: I don’t think Captain America dies, I think it would be Steve Rogers. The mantle will continue on.
McNabb: Right, to be analytical about it. With “Captain Marvel,” I don’t know. I was pretty pumped about it…”Spiderman” I think…did an amazing job with the rest of them…
Kurt: Last question about Marvel here, because I just like these movies. “Endgame—“ how do you think—obviously, Spiderman has to come back (spoiler alert for people that haven’t seen “Infinity War” yet). Sorry, Chris! My producer says, “Haven’t (sic) seen it!” Antman…
McNabb: …maybe there will be some sort of time travel with that.
Kurt: I am very much looking forward to “Endgame” coming out. Of course, “Captain Marvel” comes out first, so I’ll be thinking, “They’re going to drop some Easter egg or something about what’s coming.” Well, this is not a show on Marvel, but it’s always good to chat about these things. We are talking about belief in God, whether it’s rational, and how Christians can be rational in their faith. Sometimes it’s not always about reason and having well-deduced arguments. Maybe sometimes it just comes down to, “Hey, it’s a belief that comes across as very natural or basic to man. I look at the heavens and I think there’s a creator!” It’s a properly basic belief, and Tyler here would be sympathetic to that belief. So this is going to touch on the first half of our program: you were talking about the different perspectives in that video that we had, and some people have these doubts, and they don’t believe God exists. In your view, you think that if God exists, then we can be rational, but how do we know that God exists? Or why should we think that God exists? And if we’re doing that, are we taking one of the other different approaches?
McNabb: There’s a theory in epistemology called KK theory, which says that in order to know something, you have to know you know it. Can you hear me? It looks as if you froze up.
Kurt: Oh yeah, KK theory?
McNabb: Yeah, so to me, this theory doesn’t seem very plausible. For example, it seems to me that animals and young infants and young children have knowledge, yet they don’t know that they know. Whenever you put a tennis ball in front of a dog, the dog forms a belief that there is a ball in front of him. If you tell the dog he’s a good boy, maybe he forms the belief, “I’m a good boy!”
Kurt: You’re not a Calvinist, because dogs don’t learn!
McNabb: It’s not—like, the dog knows that he knows that there is a ball in front of him. Cognitive science tells us a lot about what infants know, and how their belief systems develop. It’s not—like, they know that they know that objects go out of existence once they’re not being observed. They don’t have sophisticated faculties and so forth, but they have knowledge.
Kurt: Right, they know these things, but they don’t know that they know.
McNabb: That’s right. So I would reject that. At the end of the day, as long as the faculties—and that’s how we know, that certain faculties produce beliefs given certain things in the environment—as long as your beliefs are products of properly functioning cognitive faculties aimed at truth, based on things in the environment, then this is one of the more technical things that I did mention earlier. There is a high degree of probability, statistical probability, that those beliefs could be true. So if these conditions are there when the belief is true (that is to say, the faculties are reliable), then I think that’s enough. However…we have arguments to get us to God. Then maybe you are going a classical or evidentialist route. I do think that the Reformed epistemologist isn’t completely without resources to put on his opponent (or her opponent). And Plantinga has developed a couple of arguments against naturalism. One is this idea: if you have properly functioning faculties in order to have knowledge, if naturalism is true, if atheism is true, then we can’t make sense of proper function. Maybe there is no proper function on (sic) naturalism. If that’s true, and you have to have proper function to know, then if atheism is true, we can’t know anything. But we do know things, so atheism is false…it’s called the evolutionary argument against naturalism. The idea is that if someone believes that naturalism is true, that atheism is true, and then also believes in Darwinian evolution, at the end of the day, we’re going to have a defeater. We’re trusting that our faculties are indeed reliable. This is because the cognitive faculties have come about as a result of random genetic mutation…says that our faculties are aimed at (I’m paraphrasing) the four F’s: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproducing. So if that’s the case, why can’t our faculties attain to true belief? As long as our beliefs get us in the right place at the right time, and our faculties get us in the right place at the right time to survive, reproduce, feed, and fight, then why can’t they actually start producing true belief?
Kurt: I’m going to summarize here. We could hold false beliefs that help us obtain those evolutionary goals, so the human brain hasn’t been developed per se to develop true belief, or even a faculty to know what’s true, but rather to accomplish those goals. And thus, that view, the evolutionary view devoid of theistic belief is a self-defeating argument. It’s a defeater in terms of the argument that we really couldn’t believe in God.
McNabb: It’s a really complex philosophical, metaphysical, highly technical view. Why is it that our faculties are reliable when it relates to quantum mechanics or A-versus-B theories of time? Why wouldn’t God exist?
Kurt: So for the people in the video, if they don’t think God exists, in your view, if belief in God is, as you say, properly basic, then what’s going on with them? Why are they unable to comprehend the beautiful handiwork of the creator?
McNabb: Well I would think about sin coming into the world and damaging our cognitive faculties, making our faculties not produce the belief as they ought. So maybe our faculties are damaged, but at least most of our faculties, for most people in the world, are still sufficiently operating enough so that they still produce belief about God. Nonetheless, they are not working as well as they would have if sin hadn’t entered the world. Maybe if sin hadn’t entered the world, we would believe in God in the same way that we believe that every man sins. So there’s that factor, that perhaps we’re not under idealized conditions, or not in the environment we were designed for, maybe an environment that brainwashes people, where there’s just constant destruction and bleakness. That’s not an environment that our sensus divinitatis was designed for. There are different explanations for this. Kelly James Clark has an interesting video about this on YouTube; I would encourage you to go and look at it. According to cognitive science, belief in God is natural to our faculties, so what do we make of atheism? Atheism is not natural to our faculties. There is a link between atheism and those who are higher on the scale for autism. Autism prevents the individual from understanding other minds, whereas a person with properly functioning faculties would understand that there is a connection between other minds and other people’s thoughts, there are expectations of social etiquette, and all those sorts of things. It appears—and we’re not saying this is a fact yet—it appears that those who are atheists are higher on the scale for autism than theists, as explained in the video. So one of the arguments is if you’re higher on the scale for autism, and more likely to have a hard time understanding other minds, then what is God? God is a mind. So there have been different oscillations and references to that correlation as well to explain that. So maybe if sin had never entered the world, we would all produce belief in God the same way you and I produce it, or even better.
Kurt: So what’s his name? Kelly James Clark?
Kurt: So his proposal, while controversial, could also help explain other data that we know. For example, it tends to be the case that atheists are more thoughtful about their beliefs, and maybe that’s the case because there is just more introspection happening. And if you’re listening to the program, you may think, “Oh, now I’m going to go and talk to my atheistic neighbor and say, ‘You’re on the spectrum!’” That is a very poor tactic!
Kurt: Yes, it’s a very poor tactic. So with the few minutes we’ve got left here, Tyler, we’ve got these different methodologies, and all these different views about how it is that we come to form belief in God. Give us your advice (and it might vary based on the context) for how we should approach our atheist, our agnostic neighbor, and how to talk to them about our belief that God exists.
McNabb: Well, God is love, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, so seeing them as being made in God’s image, and having great value and worth, with rights and beliefs and emotions, seeing them as persons, seeing them how God sees them. We try to directly say to have love for them because God has great love for them. That’s the first part. While I’m not Reformed, I really like Charles Spurgeon. He says before you go and try to talk to someone about God, pray and talk to God about men. And I think ideally, if you can talk to them in an environment like in nature, where there are great loving relationships, somewhere that is a great loving environment, will perhaps give the sensus divinitatis what it was designed for. That could be quite helpful. And then maybe you’re giving them arguments for God’s existence, just lovingly talking to them. “If God exists, then it seems we can know that he exists.” Give them the story we’ve been discussing today. But if atheism is true, then it seems we couldn’t know God. Give them the concepts and utilize arguments from religious epistemology. And I think at the end of the day, I think it’s really important to use the gospel. The gospel has power; the gospel is great. The Spirit of God, no matter what we say or how we fail in our dialogues and discussions and coming up with arguments—at the end of the day, God can transform and repair that damage to our sensus divinitatis, he can repair the damage that’s been done from (sic) sin, and can testify through scripture, through a preacher, to the truth of the gospel, and the person has a strong inclination to think that it’s true. So do apologetics, and do it as best as you can, but at the end of the day, you pray for a breakthrough, and you try to share the gospel with them and let the Spirit work.
Kurt: That’s some great advice, and not just for one-on-one conversations. Tyler, you’ve had some experience with street evangelism, hopping up on a soapbox and preaching to the crowd. Tell us what that experience was like.
Kurt: You mean anywhere, even on a train?
McNabb: Well it was public property, and a good audience…they’ve heard people get up and say things like, “Hell, fire, brimstone!” But it’s really great to see someone just get up, slightly hipster, and just…syllogism, or I would just go the Reformed-epistemology route. If God exists, then we can know that he exists and explain that. What if atheism is true? Then explain the other side…then I talk about sin, and how we suck as human beings, often. We mess up. Then I bring in the gospel. Throughout that, there were people who raised objections. The best thing you can find is an echo who will dialogue with you. That’s when all of a sudden, the three people kind of looking at you turn into twenty, or thirty, or forty, who will constantly listen to you and engage in dialogue. Dialogue is insane. Dialogue makes everyone attentive and listening. So yeah, it can be a really great ministry for those few that can utilize it well…
Kurt: Right, instead of the people who just say, “You’re a sinner.” While that might be true—while it is true, I should say—it’s not necessarily a very effective way of reaching people…
McNabb: Yeah, so we’re actually planning to go to a university next week and putting up a sign that says something like, “Atheism is self-defeating. Change my mind!”
Kurt: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. Good! Tyler, thank you so much for coming on our program today and enlightening us on these difficult questions that people might be having genuine doubts over. I know I’ve learned something just in this hour, so thank you.
McNabb: Thank you for having me.
Kurt: And if you want to come in mid-June, we’re having an episode on Marvel, and we can totally nerd out over this stuff. God bless you! Thank you.
McNabb: You too, Kurt.
Kurt: Alright, well that does it for our program today. On next week’s program, we have John Peckerman, who is going to be talking about why God allows pain and suffering, as we continue our Explore God series, and asking some of the important questions that people are asking, the big questions of life. I’m grateful for the continued support that we have from our patrons, and partnerships that we have with our sponsors, and they are: Defenders Media, Consult Kevin, The Sky Floor, Rethinking Hell, the Illinois Family Institute, and Fox Restoration. Thank you to our technical producer Chris, for his masterful good work, and if you want any good reason to financially support our program, do it for Chris, alright? That would be a great, good reason. Thank you to our guest today, Dr. Tyler McNabb. If you want to learn more about him, you can go to hbu.edu. We’ll put up a link on our website specifically to his faculty page and to his research, if you want to learn more about what he’s published. And last, but certainly not least, and most of all, I want to thank you for listening in, and striving for truth on faith, politics, and society.
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