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Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith
I recently watched a short web-interview with Richard Dawkins on the Washington Post website. The piece was entitled: “Divine Impulses: Richard Dawkins on “the arrogance of religious persons”.
I want to make a quick observation. Let’s say that there are two general types of believers in the world: Modern and Postmodern. Yes, this is an oversimplification. However, it is useful for the purpose of this post, which is to highlight a difference in the varieties of faith and to highlight different ways of engaging with “strident atheists,” as Dawkins says.
At about the 2 minutes and 30 seconds mark in the video Dawkins says:
I can’t know that there’s no God….that’s a sort of cautious sort of thing to say. I’m not saying there’s definitely no God. But the arrogance of a religious person who just knows; not only knows that there’s a God, but that it’s this God, the Christian God, the Trinity, and the Virgin Mary…And they’ve got absolutely not a shred of evidence for any of it. That’s arrogance.
The Modern believer would hear this and probably hone in on Dawkins’ claim that they hold beliefs without a “shred of evidence.” The Modern believer would then respond by mustering a wealth of archaeological, historical, and textual evidence to support their beliefs and refute Dawkins’ claim. Indeed, as Josh McDowell argued in his immensely popular book of the same name: there is a wealth of Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
Why does the Modern believer respond in this way? The answer, I think, is rooted in the same spot as Dawkins’ original criticism. In other words, Dawkins and the Modern believer share a basic understanding: On one hand, there are Objective states of affairs in the world; on the other hand, peoples’ beliefs about those Objective states of affairs are more or less True based on their Accuracy.
The Postmodern believer would hear this and probably hone in on a different part of Dawkins’ claims. In particular, I think there are two points in particular:
1. Postmodernists might all together obviate Dawkins’ criticism regarding knowledge. In other words, they might assert that faith in God has little to do with knowledge. Dawkins’ claim misses the point. Faith is a lived commitment, not a claim to know anything objectively about the world.
2. Postmodernists might challenge Dawkins’ claim to define the limits of what counts as knowledge. In other words, one might argue that Dawkins’ criticisms of the faithful ‘who just know’ are valid in the context of the scientific method and an objectivist epistemology. However, scientifically generated knowledge does not define the limits of all the kinds of knowledge. We should talk of multiple knowledges, not just one knowledge. And on that note, one could then argue further that while one’s knowledge of God is not objective, it is experiential. Claims to know warranted by rich life experience are equally valid, yet different from objectivist claims to know.
Why would Postmodernists respond in this way? The answer, I think, is rooted in a fundamentally different point than Dawkins’ criticisms. Postmodernists who value experiential knowledge, or knowledge from the inside, over and above objectivist knowledge from the outside are coming from a logically distinct starting point compared to Dawkins and compared to Modern believers. Oddly enough, Dawkins and Modern believers share more in common on the matter of what counts as knowledge than do Postmodern and Modern faithful.