Disbelief Versus Unbelief

Skeptical womanYesterday I ran into a link to an article I think every Christian, especially budding theologians, should read:

“Learning skepticism, an essential skill for citizenship in 21st century America”

Contrary to what some might argue, doctrine is important. For instance, Jesus is the Son of God; if you do not believe that, you are not a Christian and are not saved. However, I would posit that, by sheer volume, most Christian doctrine is neither as clear nor as important as “Jesus is the Son of God.” That is not the same as saying it is unimportant (although some of it isn’t), but doctrines to place in your “castle keep,” that are a “hill to die on,” etcetera are few compared to the total.

Which leads to the article:

Regretfully, the term “skeptic” today is being used by many who adopt that label for themselves in a misleading way. To many, it is falsely equated with the term “rationalist.” The dictionary meaning of the term indicates that a skeptic is one who raises doubts. Thus the word is meant to reflect nonbelief rather than disbelief. But when we look at those who trumpet that they are skeptics towards claims of anomalies, we find disbelievers and debunkers rather than those who express uncertainty or doubt. The public “skeptics” of today present us with answers rather than questions.

It is important to distinguish between disbelief and nonbelief– between believing a sentence is false and merely not believing it true. Disbelief is a case of belief; to believe a sentence false is to believe the negation of the sentence true.

With everything in life, especially that which we cannot confirm with our five senses, we should be skeptical. As the article notes, however, skepticism is not the same as disbelief; it is nonbelief. An atheist should be skeptical of the claims of Christianity, because they are incredible! Having said that, and continuing with Marcello Truzzi’s post, they also would be wise to consider these words from James H. Hyslop:

The public has gotten into the attitude of mind which it likes to call scepticism, but which is nothing more or less than dogmatism hiding under false colors. It thinks that belief is the only thing that can be biased and does not dream that denial can be biased, and in fact that the bias of denial is not only less justifiable but far worse than the bias of belief. It has not basis upon which to rest at all except belief.

And that is why disbelief often is, “dogmatism hiding under false colors.” It is one thing to say, “I have weighed all the evidence and I am not convinced of such-and-such” and quite another to say, “Such-and-such is false.” The evidence for Christianity may not be sufficient, but if you reject the possibility of a supernatural explanation, that is a philosophical conclusion, not a scientific one. The more rabid you are in insisting your philosophical view is correct, the more likely you are far more in debt to blind faith than even the strictest Christian.

Does that mean Christianity is true? Not in the least. However, disbelief is a form of belief, and shifts the burden of proof to you. As Truzzi notes:

First, science places the burden of proof on the claimant. Second, the proof for a claim must in some sense be commensurate with the character of the claim. Thus, an extraordinary claim requires “extraordinary” (meaning stronger than usual) proof.

Yes, the claims of Christianity are extraordinary! Yet, assertions that you, trapped in the natural, can confidently insist there is no supernatural…well, that is quite extraordinary too!

Now, at this point I would say, “Alan, your article is disjointed. It starts as if the scope is Christian doctrine, but then jumps into atheism.”

You are right. 🙂

But they do sync. Just as an atheist would be far better to say, “I am not convinced”…with much (most?) Christian theology I disagree with…it is not that I disbelieve it…I am just not convinced. I would suggest that it would be better for the body of Christ if that was the attitude across the board. Short of damnable heresies, it would be healthier to say, “I am not convinced” than to state, “You are wrong.” However, this also means that we recipients of “I am not convinced” cannot take umbredge at it and, when possible, should instead come up with additional (more convincing) evidence.

Finally, belief/nonbelief/disbelief is not a strict three-state condition. There are doctrines I believe; there are others I see as “could be,” yet others that I find extremely unlikely, and finally ones that I disbelieve (and everywhere in between). Returning once more to Truzzi’s thoughts:

Science can speak of the highly improbable; it can not properly speak of the impossible. But as a practical matter, the highly improbable is treated as though it were impossible. Working on a perpetual motion machine is almost certainly a waste of time, but once we deem it absolutely a waste of time, we close the door on such research and violate the equilibrium of the “essential tension” and disobey Peirce’s injunction by blocking inquiry. The scientist who works on a perpetual motion machine may be playing the longest shot of all, and he may be conducting stupid science, but it is not necessarily false or pseudoscience.

With Christian doctrine, it is all about probability: Once you accept Jesus is Divine Lord and that the Bible is the Word of God, then how likely are the individual doctrinal claims out there? My guess is that if we are intellectually honest, not many attain 100%. As such, we should show the humility demanded in acknowledging our personal perpensity to be wrong (and worse, to be sure we are right when we are wrong), spend less time arguing about the unproven, and spend more time pointing to that which we know is true: Jesus Christ!

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