Appeals to authority (otherwise known as the ‘Stephen Fry syndrome’ after the funny, charming and above all clever comedian) can often act as placebos, giving us the idea that we’re more clued up than we really are, while actually stopping us from engaging with the question of truth.
Both Christians and atheists do it, and it can be annoying.
So let’s check out some more quotes that get bandied around, and look at how we might respond. Obviously, shooting down a quotation doesn’t necessarily prove anyone right or wrong, but the gripe is with people who victoriously parade such quotes like placards of objective truth. Truth is not a popularity contest.
‘Every thinking man is an atheist’– Ernest Hemingway.
Ok, Ernest…but what if I think hard about what you’ve just said and I disagree? What if the idea that I accept everything on blind faith is misinformed, and that I’ve thought long and hard about this? Or did Descartes say, ‘I think therefore I am…an atheist’? The bell tolls for you on this one, I think.
There are of course people who accept all sorts of propositions without much thought, but being wrong is not the same as being unthinking. I thought for a long time during my GCSE Maths exam, and still got the worst score in the school’s history – but then according to Hemingway I’m an atheist now, so it won’t have any lasting significance.
‘Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it?’ – Douglas Adams.
Yes, of course it is. And frankly, if I thought there were actual live fairies anywhere in my garden, the ‘For Sale’ sign would be straight up.
But when you see a beautiful garden, mightn’t you think that there was at least a gardener? Or at least a scrawny teen who comes to cut the lawn once a fortnight ‘cos your wife works with his mum and he really just needs to get out and not languish on Fortnite? I digress.
It reminds me of the God of the Gaps thing: the idea that theists attribute to our Magic Sky Clown anything in the world that we don’t understand. In fact, for most of us (I hope) God is simply the best explanation of what we do know from science and the world around us. Also, where does this experience of beauty come from? This transcendent feeling we experience when we look at a snow-capped mountain range or a beach at sunset is not necessary for evolution, but it lifts us out of the physical towards something ‘other’. To just accept beauty as a brute fact is perhaps to dishonour it. Besides, isn’t it enough to think that the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is amazing, without having to believe it was written by someone?
‘You can’t convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it’s based on a deep seated need to believe’ – Carl Sagan.
This is a good example of how being a genius doesn’t guarantee that everything you say will be genius. To whom does this apply? Every single person who believes in God? The theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne? The geneticist Francis Collins? Bono?
For most Christians, faith is not blind obedience to a childhood indoctrination but something that we have put our trust in based on the evidence around us, rather than in spite of it. To say our belief is not based on evidence is uninformed and quite rude. We may be wrong about God, but let’s not build up a hideous army of straw men. I’ve also met plenty of non-believers whose disbelief is based on a deep-seated desire to disbelieve.
I actually think Sagan is right about us (all of us) having a deep-seated need to believe. We all need to put our trust and faith in something. How many football teams are starting this season believing they can win their league? Is that wrong? And I think we see the power of positive belief successfully played out in society around us. Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right. We’re all confidence players.
We may put our faith in science to explain everything, but we are all wired to ground ourselves in something we can trust. And wouldn’t it make sense, if God was real and wanted us to engage in relationship with him, that he would at least give us a few hints? If we had no in-built need to believe or trust anything, we would never find him. The fact that we all have this longing to believe is a good sign that there is something worth believing in.