Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Myth of Secular Neutrality

We're all inclined to think that we're objective and that everyone else is biased. I'm sure Christians fall into this trap forgetting that there are presuppositions we've adopted based upon the work of God in revealing himself in Scripture and in our hearts by his Spirit. The secular mindset seems prone to it too. Richard Dawkins does this by viewing his scientific view as utterly unbiased and untained by 'faith'. Are we neutral?

Alistair McGrath notes at bethinking.org: [John] Hick appears to labour under the misunderstanding that where Christian frameworks are biased, those of liberalism are neutral and disinterested. as he comments on the popular Blind men around an Elephant story used by many to show how naive religion is. McGrath, and more so, Amy Orr-Ewing (But is it real? p26) expose the arrogance of this perspective.

Blaise Pascal famously wrote (as summarised on Wikipedia):



"...even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should "wager" as though God exists, because so living has potentially everything to gain, and certainly nothing to lose."
I've heard this used to try and persuade people to believe. I'm just not sure that is the best use of it. What seems more profitable is what it exposes in the person faced with the wager. Pascal indicates that if we start out neutrally then we ought to bet on God. The lack of willingness to take the bet indicates the lack of neutrality in humanity.

Amy Orr-Ewing has a lot to say about this in her new book 'But is it real?'



"...secular worldview... is uncritically accepted as being entirely unbiased and neutral in it's approach." (p24)
And then countering the charge that a relationship with God is a crutch she observes:




"...this argument about projection cuts both ways. After all, isn't it equally possible to say that Freud and other atheists deny the existence of God out of a need to escape from a father figure... dismissing God as a psychological projection while claiming neutrality in our own psyche is disingenuous at best" (p45)
What counts in a crutch is whether you need it and whether it can support you. Truth and reality count. And to the charge that being a Christian is an accident of geography and birth:




"...notice the arrogance of the assumption: you as a Christian are biased by the circumstanes of your life, but I as a sceptic am completely neutral in my thinking" (p59)
To which she follows up by observing that being a British Christian isn't really going to be an accident of geography - it's actually pretty countercultural to be Christian in Britain today, as church attendance exposes.

Everyone comes with bias, the question is whether our biases and assumptions are based on truth and reality, or whether they're not. Given the vast claims that Christianity makes, about the possibility of personally knowing God - and our need for that it's worth investigating, worth considering seriously. Doing that, from the perspective of a Christian, we have everything to gain, and certainly nothing to lose.

Update/Edit in attempt to clarify (which may fail, but I'll try!)

God, if he exists, being a worthwhile bet isn't the reason to believe. If that were the best reason then it'd be a poor reason, not least because it doesn't work. I think what it exposes however is that we're not neutral to God by default. We're not sitting on a fence where it's all utterly 50:50 about whether to go with God or not. We're already against him.

The key persuasion to believe should be the resurrection of Jesus. This is part of why Christians were frustrated with Dawkins because his famous book didn't engage with that at all. His excuse being that Christians assume the possibility of God and revelation from God - just as he conversely assumes those things are impossible. Having assumptions is ok, but it'd be good to admit that we do. Which was the primary aim of the content of this post.

The question really then is, do we have good cause to have those assumptions, are they real and true. And that is the question that Amy Orr-Ewing's book is written to answer. And in a rather round-about my secondary aim was to suggest that you might like to read it!



Big Thread of Comments over at Rob Hulse's blog picking up on this post, go join in!


Amy Orr-Ewing works for The Zacharias Trust, has many articles and audios at bethinking.org and is the author of books including But is it real? and Why Trust the Bible?

23 comments:

  1. nice. particularly "being christian is actually countercultural today".

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  2. Really nice post Dave.

    I'm not convinced Pascal's Wager evalulates as simply as you're suggesting though. It assumes that the benefit of believing in God is either zero or very large (which seems reasonable), and that the cost of doing so is zero. In fact the cost of believing in God is obviously non zero. That's where it falls down I think (well, there are a number of issues with it, but I think that's one of the big ones).

    If the bet you make is wrong, and God turns out not to exist then arguably you've squandered what little time you have here on earth doing things like going to church etc (actually I think that church etc would be worth doing even if God didn't exist, but I'm sure each person can think of things they'd find to be costly if God turned out not to be real).

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  3. I think I'd agree with Robhu that the cost of being a Christian is non-zero, especially when you take into account Christians in areas where the church is persecuted, martyrs etc. Although to my knowledge simply being a Deist has never been persecuted, except by other Deists. Perhaps being a Deist is relatively painless.

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  4. Fair point Rob/Tiffer - cost does rather depend on what your assumptions about what counts are!

    I think a case can be made for a Christian life being somewhat beneficial - the benefit of being part of a church family for example, as you note.

    Answers may not be simple.

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  5. Also - there are some comments appearing on my blog post referring to this post...

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  6. Being Christian is not countercultural as a brief look at the 2001 Census. 72% of people self-identify as Christian. For that matter, the best figures a quick google can get me are 12 million (or more than 20% of the population) are regular (at least Christmas or Easter) churchgoers, and 4 million weekly churchgoers.

    So you have around 70% of the population claiming to be in your "counterculture" and millions who actively give it time and effort while around half of the population is passively positive towards Christianity. Add the official support to that (bishops in the House of Lords, monarchy being the head of the church, etc.) and the claim of Christianity to be a counterculture just looks silly.

    Given the vast claims that Christianity makes, about the possibility of personally knowing God - and our need for that it's worth investigating, worth considering seriously.

    Perhaps you would care to enlighten me on the difference between a vast claim which doesn't square with observed reality and an absurd claim. Because I see little fundamental difference between your above quote and something like:
    Given the vast claims that Scientology makes, about the possibility of cleaning our mind of impurities and ascending to goodhood - and our need for that it's worth investigating, worth considering seriously.

    If you are genuinely saying that the magnitude of the claims made by $religion are a good reason to investigate it, and you assume that religions can only be investigated fairly from the inside, are you recommending that we spend a few years as a Christian, a few as a Muslim, a few as a Mormon (which IMO is sufficiently distinct from Christianity to qualify separately), a few as a Scientologist, a few as a Zorastrian, a few as a Buddhist, etc.?

    Doing that we have everything to gain, and certainly nothing to lose.

    I'd call the loss of integrity (which some branches of Christianity call for by their espousal of 7 Day Creationism) and the potential of believing untruths (Lex Orendi, Lex Credendi) a pretty huge loss if Christianity is false. And then there's time...

    The lack of willingness to take the bet indicates not the lack of neutrality so much as the opportunity cost for taking the bet and the belief that although the probability may be greater than zero, so is the probability of me spontaniously teleporting 6' sideways through quantumn tunnelling.

    "...secular worldview... is uncritically accepted as being entirely unbiased and neutral in it's approach."

    Evidence please? Were the above the case, people (including myself) wouldn't get so irritated at Dawkins. And the religious wouldn't e.g. have a monopoly on Thought for the Day. The secular worldview is uncritically accepted by some - but so is the Christian worldview. Or the Scientological one.

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  7. Francis,

    Thanks for your comments. As I said in the post, Christians and those who aren't are all guilty at times of presuming neutrality. I'd challenge Christians to be aware of our presuppositions.

    I do however find this particularly prevalant in the secular mindset I grew up with and as educated in at school. Dawkins epouses throughout his writing, everytime he asserts that his beliefs are not faith. He's welcome to adopt faith in science, faith in reason, denial of God's existence, but I'd just like him to be honest that he's taking those as his assumptions.

    It's true that 70% of people ticked a box to say they were Christian in the census, and that 12 million go into a church once or twice a year. No business would consider me a regular customer if I walked into their shop once or twice a year. Granted church is not a shop.

    A ticked box and an infrequent visiting demonstrates nothing about belief. I probably attended around 25 church meetings a year as a child without adopting Christian belief.

    As for the vast claims - fair enough Scientology makes claims too. I do think that the claims of Christianity concerning the resurrection of Jesus are rather different, as are 2000 years of it's impact on individuals and society. The central claims of religions can be investigated fairly swiftly, the abundance of claims shouldn't stop us from looking.

    Your claims about integrity loss surely are only based upon your own assumptions about what integrity is. If you've bought into the same worldview I grew up being taught at school then any system that says God created (in any time scale) is going to effect the integrity of those existing beliefs.

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  8. Francis - while the census 7 years ago had 70%, the number of people now is a tenth of that. This is due to Christianity not being the default any more. Even in 2001, however, living the Christian life, rather than just loose association with the faith was counter-cultural. While 70% professed Christianity, the number who lived Christianity was (again) about a tenth of that. It's become increasingly counter-cultural to actually be a Christian in the past few years. Even so, while, in 2001, calling yourself a Christian was a very common thing, actually being one was not.

    Things like Bishops in the Lords are irrelevant as the state chooses the Bishops, just as it chooses the other Lords. It's actually the case that the state is forcing the CofE to conform to it, rather than the other way around - and because there's these state-church tensions on many issues (the Bishops in the Lords either ignore them, themselves not being Christian, or abstain as they don't want to cause an upset) it just shows how Christianity is counter-cultural as the state is meant to represent the will of the people.

    Yes, 33% pay lip service to it, but only 1/15th (still fairly big, but not that big) make it more than just a seasonal activity and attend weekly - being a Christian isn't a label, isn't something that you pick up when you see fit - it's an integral part of identity. A 24/7 thing - not even all those who attend church weekly are in that category.

    There's a huge difference between calling yourself a Christian and being one - I could call myself a doctor - it's totally not true (not to mention dangerous), but all I've done medically is a couple of first aid courses. I may think I am a doctor, that doesn't mean I am. 90% of those who said on the census that they were a Christian were wrong. This delusion that being white, British and not anything else makes you a Christian has gone.

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  9. Since we're speaking of cognitive bias, allow me to recommend Overcoming Bias on religion. They've covered Pascal's Wager. They've also talked about the multi-polar disagreement on religion, which I think has some bearing on the geography argument.

    I think to make the geography argument, atheists should argue from reasonable unbelief: that is, if there is a God who wants people to know him, he's not making a very good job of it (as evidenced by geographical dependency) and therefore there's probably not such a God. There may still be other sorts of God (the deist sort, for example). This argument cannot be applied to atheists because we are not claiming that there is an omnipotent person who wants people to be atheists, nor that understanding the universe is easy (a sort of atheist version of perspicacity).

    Of course, liberalism isn't neutral, but who cares? I'm asserting it makes more sense than Christianity, not that it's better because it's neutral.

    @Francis, what Dave means by "Christian" is a real Christian i.e. one of the evangelical sort, not any of these godless liberals or people who put "C of E" on the Census form but don't go to church.

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  10. Paul, thanks for the links I'll go off and read them.

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  11. Dawkins epouses throughout his writing, everytime he asserts that his beliefs are not faith. He's welcome to adopt faith in science, faith in reason, denial of God's existence, but I'd just like him to be honest that he's taking those as his assumptions.

    So would I. But Dawkins gets his audience by being extreme. If you start using him as a representative sample I'll start using Creationists as representative samples.

    No business would consider me a regular customer if I walked into their shop once or twice a year.

    On theological grounds, a personal relationship with God and accepting the Lord Jesus as your personal saviour is sufficient to many groups. Those big buildings called churches while useful are neither necessary nor sufficient for many Christian denominations. And therefore the analogy falls.

    And the 70% figure is what makes a mockery of Christianity claiming to be a counter-culture rather than a tally of Christians. You might as well claim that active members of the three major political parties are members of a counter-culture.

    I do think that the claims of Christianity concerning the resurrection of Jesus are rather different, as are 2000 years of it's impact on individuals and society.

    No one expects the Spanish Inquisition! I don't think that the central claims concerning the resurrection are that different to the unexpected and divine in almost any religion fwiw.

    Francis - while the census 7 years ago had 70%, the number of people now is a tenth of that.

    Source? You're claiming that in 7 years the number of people claiming to be Christian has dropped from more than 30 million to under 4 million. I think you've got your like with like with like numbers confused as 4 million is about the number that go to church weekly. (With 12 million going at least annually - and most of them would claim to be Christians).

    it just shows how Christianity is counter-cultural as the state is meant to represent the will of the people

    I think you just broke my brain. The state is meant to represent the will of the people. The will of the people gives law-making powers to representatives of Christianity. Therefore Christianity is counter-cultural?

    I'm also ... intrigued that you call Bishops non-Christian. What is your definition?

    There's a huge difference between calling yourself a Christian and being one - I could call myself a doctor - it's totally not true

    There's a certificate you get to prove you are a doctor. On the other hand anyone could call themself a homeopath...

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  12. Fair point Dawkins is probably not representative of the secular majority of this country... and you're right there are some loopy voices that shout loudly in the Christian camp.

    Being in a political party and/or voting in elections probably are pretty counter-cultural too today.

    To say living in Britain makes someone likely to be actively involved in democracy is as odd as saying that living in Briatin makes you likely to be a Christian. Neither is the case. Contrary to the last census I'd say that then and now (I don't think much has changed in 7 years) people are not likely to be Christians nor are they likely to vote. Yet oddly, 70% of people voluntarily ticked a box 'Christian' on a compulsory form (probably without engaging that they could have just skipped it).... people are inconsistent and complicated.

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  13. There is the somewhat crazy idea that anyone who writes 'Christian' on the census must actually be a Christian going on in the discussion here.

    I think it's important to point out that Richard Dawkins claims to be a Christian in this sense.

    Anyone who wants to argue that 70% of the population are really Christians is either arguing for the sake of it, or thinks someone is a Christian just because they say they are (in which case let me say that I'm a genius - I said it - therefore that's what I am).

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  14. Francis, what Dave means by "Christian" is a real Christian i.e. one of the evangelical sort, not any of these godless liberals or people who put "C of E" on the Census form but don't go to church.

    Thanks. *Shifts lines a few degrees to the right*

    Being in a political party and/or voting in elections probably are pretty counter-cultural too today.

    2005 had a 61% turnout. But I think that we are using the word counter-cultural slightly differently. You seem to be using it for an active minority. I don't consider Friends of the Earth or a political party or even model railway enthusiasts to be countercultural. But if it boils down to a language issue then I don't see any point arguing further about it.

    To be honest, I'd say that the "secular majority" of this country is best represented by the around 50% of the population who put Christian down on their census form but very seldom set foot inside a church door. For practical purposes most of these are neither Christian nor secular. Neither hot, nor cold, but lukewarm.

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  15. On the myth of secular neutrality I've been looking at that recently in a series of posts as to how it impacts on education and students.

    On the geography bit we can draw two handy things from Keller and others. That is that people hold things to be true for personal, social and intellectual reasons. The atheist who says I hold my view for an intellectual reason but you hold yours for a social reason (born in a Christian country/to a Christian family) is being manipulative at best. A neat response from Keller goes along the lines of:

    Person 1: Ah, you're just a Christian because you grew up in the UK and have Christian parents. If you grew up in Madagascar you wouldn't even be a Christian!
    Person 2: Yes and if you grew up in Madagascar you wouldn't be a secular atheist.

    Keller argues that it isn't possible to reduce down belief to simply social factors as the atheist has done here.

    Second, those who believe the Bible affirm Acts 17 that "From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us." This has massive implications for a Christian perspective on geography, sovereignty and salvation that are definitely worth chewing over!

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  16. When the last church attendance census was conducted, it was found that 6.3% of england attended church. Only 40% of this number attended evangelical churches, totalling about 2.5% of the population, some 1,264,800 people (and falling).

    I think that's a pretty low number.

    Add to that the fact that orthodox, evangelical, and traditional christian beliefs are regarded with a fair amount of scepticism on the tv, in the media, increasingly in parliament, often in schools, and even within the churches themselves, and I think Bish is justified in saying that being a Christian (given what he means by that word) is counter-cultural.

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  17. Hey Dave - I don't know if you're following the 50+ comments over here about this post, but if not you ought to (it'd be helpful if you could come over and comment too).

    Some of the things people have said over there that piqued my interest are:

    What do you mean by 'counter-cultural' ? Can you give a few examples of counter cultural Christian things?

    Your post states that non-Christians are biased (like, Christians) - does it mean to imply more than this, that non-Christians (or atheists in particular) are more biased?

    Do you think someone who was 'neutral' ought to choose Christianity on the basis of Pascal's Wager? If so, why?

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  18. Thanks Pete for your statistical accuracy, researching that ahead of writing the post could have saved some of this debate. But then debate is fun.

    To be fair - it's Amy Orr-Ewing's observation, though I entirely agree with it.

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  19. Rob, I'll have a browse.

    1. What do you mean by 'counter-cultural' ? Can you give a few examples of counter cultural Christian things?

    It's a response to the charge that we're only Christians because we live in Britain. See the above comment from Matt Finn for more thoughts picked up from Tim Keller. The point being, actually we're not Christian because we're British. Being British would appear to make us more likely to be secular than Christian, if that kind of argument was valid.

    2. On bias...

    I'm not necessarily saying that secularists are more biased, but that I'm not sure I see them owning up to their assumptions very often.

    3. Pascal...

    With Pascal, I'm using the point that it exposes that people are not neutral, rather than really being a compelling case for believing. This isn't an original thought but I forget exactly where I read it recently.

    The resurrection is why someone should be a Christian, not because it's a good bet.

    Does that clarify?

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  20. Thanks Dave,

    Do you have any examples of counter cultural Christian things?

    When you say you're 'not necessarily' saying that, it kind of implies you might be but don't want to state it :-) Are you saying non-Christians / atheists are more biased than Christians or not?

    I don't understand why you think Pascal's Wager exposes that people are not neutral. If I understand your original argument correctly (and I might not) you think the wager implies that an unbiased person ought to choose to believe in God, but people tend not to do that therefore they are biased, but the wager is flawed in many ways (some of which are stated here), so I don't see how that conclusion can be drawn.

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  21. I agree that secularism rests on a number of assumptions, usually unexamined, that have to be taken on faith rather than on "reason alone". Everyone's beliefs are a result of both reason and decisions to have faith in something, it's just that we often try and delude other people, and often ourselves, into thinking that what we believe is self-evidently true.

    On Pascal's Wager: he doesn't assume that the cost of being a Christian is zero, but that it's finite, while the benefit of being a Christian, if Christianity is true, is infinite.

    Don't believe in God, God doesn't exist - no cost, finite gain (you can live how you like, but when you're dead, that's it)

    Don't believe in God, God does exist - no cost, infinite loss (you can live how you like, but go to hell when you)

    Believe in God, God doesn't exist - finite cost, finite loss (you may lose out while you're alive, but when you're dead, that's it)

    Believe in God, God does exist - finite cost, infinite gain (you may lose out while you're alive, but after death you go to heaven/are resurrected, to infinite happiness)

    Which makes slightly more sense, but only works as a wager against atheism, and doesn't help you decide which God to believe in.

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  22. Caleb: Does it really work as a wager against atheism?

    If theists are wrong and this world is all there is, then the high cost of religion (in the wager) is better thought of as a cost relative the amount of finite value we have to spend on things in our life. OK, so if the atheists are wrong then maybe there is an infinite amount of value available in the afterlife, but if there is only a 0.00000001% chance of that being true (and being a Christian I don't think that's the case, but I'm trying to explain things from the other perspective) I can understand why someone wouldn't want to pay that cost.

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  23. I don't doubt the wager is flawed. I guess what I'm getting at is that if you're going to use it at all, then it's best used to expose lack of neutrality than it is to persuade someone to believe.

    Maybe it doesn't do that either...

    I think being Christian itself is counter-cultural, since the culture is to not be. That then carries through into the implications of valuing marriage, valuing truth etc... which many secularists do of course - though one might ask why...

    The key counter-cultural thing is the being of being a Christian. Which I think counters the argument that you, Caleb, Chris etc aren't Christians because we're in Britain, but because of Jesus.

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