Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?Lately I've been reading Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?: A Professor And a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism & Christianity, a book that chronicles an email discussion between Dr Preston Jones (Christian, history professor, PhD University of Ottawa) and Dr Greg Graffin (naturalist, singer from the punk band Bad Religion, PhD Cornell University). Overall, it's an interesting read. I'm glad their discussion never turned into a "debate" because, generally speaking, a debate is about "winning" at all costs, not honest discussion or learning about how others view things.

I'm slightly disappointed so far with some of Dr Jones' responses, though. One of the main things that annoys me so far is the logic given to assume a naturalistic worldview. [EDIT: As Preston himself (!) points out in the comments, he does not support Gaffin's view, and in fact does support a view similar to the one I expound later on in this post. Probably the format of the dialogue made it difficult to get his view out in the open fully in the book.]

Now, I'm probably oversimplifying this, and Dr Graffin could probably kick my ass (in both the physical and intellectual arenas) but nonetheless here's how I understand the argument:

  1. Empirical observation of the universe is the 'sum of all truth'. (cf p.43 of Jones and Gaffin's book)
  2. Therefore, the only way to know the truth about God is to use the same methods used to study naturalistic phenomena.
  3. Since there is no proof of God observable in this way, God does not exist.

Now, while I disagree with point #1 (this seems to be a self-refuting argument; how can you prove this statement is true by empirical observation?) and also with point #3 (see for example What about natural theology? which suggests that we can know some things about God via observation), I'd like to comment briefly on point #2.

The idea that the same methods used to study naturalistic phenomena (that is, the physical things in our own universe) can be used to study God (who is outside of, not limited to, our physical universe) is to me a faulty assumption. I'll try not to repeat what I've already posted on this blog, so see my post Knowing God for a fuller explanation, but the gist of it is this: "I am suggesting that rigidly applying the same methodology used for studying mundane things would be in some sense deficient when considering divine things." If God is in an entirely different category than physical things, we cannot "study" Him in the same way we study physical things, so therefore concluding that God does not exist because He cannot be empirically studied is a faulty assumption. This doesn't prove that God exists, it only suggests that the naturalistic reasoning like that given above is not sufficient to conclude that God does not exist.

Further reading:

  • Lessons from a Punker Ph.D. – Preston Jones reflects on his conversation with Greg Graffin.
  • Finding Faith – Brian McLaren's book (in particular pages 102-104) were the inspiration for my line of thinking on this subject.
  • Is Faith Just a Psychological Crutch? – I hear this all the time: "You may need God, but I don't." Implicit in the statement is "You believe in God because you're weak". Besides being fallacious reasoning, I don't think this charge is true.