In a recent post about last year's Beyond Belief Conference in La Jolla, California, which I entitled "Beyond Belief Conference" was Really Beyond Belief (which I should more accurately have named "Beyond Belief Conference was Really All About Belief") I opined that based on the descriptions from Beyond Belief's own website and the responses I found to the conference in New Scientist magazine the conference was little more than a gathering of atheists in white lab coats. A reader (thank you) challenged my characterization of the conference saying that he had watched some of the videos offered through the Beyond Belief site and found them interesting. He said "the speakers all impress with their ability to give, take, rebut, and withstand criticism from a highly-trained audience." That's all fine and good. Certainly, while I was of the opinion that the lectures were not worth the time, I am not telling anyone that they can't watch them. And certainly, I have now watched one of the lectures recommended and was surprised that it was actually somewhat entertaining (if misguided, but more on that next time).
But the reader than added a statement that I understand, but which I think is a challenge based on faulty thinking. The reader wrote:
Please, just watch it with an open mind and feel free to disagree. Just don't judge without really knowing what the other side says. (This is especially intended for BK. Trained in the law, do you judge without examining the evidence?)
I appreciate the sentiment here. I am certainly an advocate for making reasoned decisions, and to that end it is important to gather enough data to make an informed decision. But the statement (which is one that I have heard on more than one occasion related to different statements I have made) is one that deserves a bit more attention and a fuller response.
First, the statement assumes that I have not examined the evidence when I make my claim. While I readily admit that I haven't watched these particular videos (or read a particular book or tried a particular mystical experience) the writer assumes that I have not examined the evidence sufficiently to reach a conclusion that there is little chance for this particular evidence to have merit. To the contrary, one reason that I am a Christian (and still a Christian after debating about Christianity for ten solid years now) is that I have examined the evidence for the Christian claims and found it to be cohesive and compelling. My examination has revealed a complete philosophical system that -- when properly understood -- makes sense of the world with good answers that are consistent with both what is known and our own deep-rooted intuitions.
Now, if I understand something to be true based upon reason and examination, I think it is fair to be skeptical about teachings and philosophies that reject that philosophy. Let me give a couple of analogies for clarification. First, I know that 2 + 2 = 4. I have taken two apples and put them together with two other apples and found that the two groups of apples when combined come to four apples. I am as positive that 2 + 2 = 4 as I am of anything that I can think of. Now, if someone comes along and publishes a book that claims that 2 + 2 = 5, do I need to read that book to come to conclude that the author has almost certainly made an error in thought somewhere? I don't think so, and if you really think so then you are being so open-minded that your brains may have fallen out (to paraphrase Greg Koukl). Of course you wouldn't feel it necessary to read that book to find out the author's explanation as to how it is that he came to the conclusion that 2 + 2 = 5. You are free to reject it out of hand without wasting your time reading the book.
Stepping into an area with a bit less certainty, there was recently a conference in Iran that questioned whether the holocaust ever happened. These holocaust deniers spoke for three or four days giving lectures detailing their reasons for believing that the holocaust was all a myth. Did I feel it necessary to listen to their lectures so that I don't make the mistake of judging "without really knowing what the other side says"? Of course not. Why not? Because I know enough about the holocaust to know that it really happened. I know that the conference was based on erroneous facts and faulty logic and I don't have to have listened to a single lecture or glanced at a single power point slide to reasonably reach such a conclusion.
Now, how many people who ask this question about making sure that I listen to what they have to say without judging them would argue that I shouldn't judge what was said at the Iranian holocaust-denial conference before reaching the conclusion that they are simply wrong. I suspect that most of these people did not take time to order transcripts of the speeches to make certain that they weren't being too quick to dismiss the scholarship of the holocaust-denial crowd. Why not? Because they know enough about the holocaust and the facts supporting the holocaust to know that the Iranian conference was wrong even if they don't know the specific points at which it is wrong.
The same is true here. I have enough of an understanding and study of Christianity that I have good reason to believe it to be correct. I have read much information from the other side. As I said a long time ago, I haven't read much by the biggest names in atheist studies, but I have a great deal of information available on such places as the Secular Web and other skeptic websites which are treated as authorities by the skeptics with whom I have discussed these matters and which often summarize or restate the arguments made by the leading skeptical thinkers. Thus, I am aware of the arguments for and against the Christian position, and I have certainly reached the conclusion that the Christian side is the more intellectually compelling of the two. Have I read every book and article and listened to every lecture arguing against the Christian position? Of course not, but I don't have to engage in such activity to recognize when something is wrong.
The idea that anyone should have to read every possible resource arguing against any philosophical position or belief before coming to the conclusion that one side is right and the other is wrong is misguided and unrealistic. No one has the time for such an massive investigation, and rationality doesn't require such a feat. Rather, rationality requires that we reach a conclusion based upon a fair examination of the evidence, and if our conclusion is rationally defensible after such a review we are free to defend that position against attacks that are similar to the attacks that we have previously encountered even if we haven't reviewed the specific attacks in detail.
Now, I did ask the reader to tell me what the speakers at the Beyond Belief Conference said that he found particularly interesting or compelling. He didn't specify, but pointed me towards three of the lectures in particular. I chose to watch lecture number two -- the first of the three lectures identified by the reader -- so that I could see if it contained anything new or compelling. I will give my impressions on the lecture I watched next week.
Cross-blogged at Apologia Christi.