Friday, September 19, 2008

Two dogs

"An Eskimo fisherman came to town every Saturday afternoon. He always brought his two dogs with him. One was white and the other was black. He had taught them to fight on command. Every Saturday afternoon in the town square the people would gather and these two dogs would fight and the fisherman would take bets. On one Saturday, the black dog would win; another Saturday the white dog would win - but the fisherman always won! His friends began to ask him how he did it. He said, "I starve one and feed the other. The one I feed always wins because he is stronger."
From "The Holy Spirit: Activating God's Power in Your Life," by Billy Graham (1978)
I've listened to and read a lot of good, sound, Christian material this year. I've also listened to and read quite a lot of the 'new atheist' material by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

What I've noticed is that I have a natural, inbuilt tendency to align my beliefs with whatever I am listening to. I try not to, but it happens. If I listen to Christian stuff I get more Christianised, if I listen to the atheist stuff I get more skeptical.

We know this. Preachers have preached on that point many, many times before. But I find myself questioning the whole thing. It seems to be merely a comparison between two equal and opposite ideologies.

But if Christianity is true, it isn't merely an ideology. What about Jesus saying 'I am the truth', what about the Spirit of God? Surely that should bias the comparison, more than slightly? If Christianity is true then reading about the false alternatives should not be enough to cause my faith to falter. But it looks like it might be.

To be a 'good Christian' do we really need to remain ignorant of the alternatives that the world has to offer? If so I'd need to give up being a scientist (and a Bayesian) too, because the scientific method is always to question, always to consider the alternatives. I'm not sure I could force myself to remain ignorant.

From the point of view of someone sitting (skeptically) in the middle, there seems no compelling reason to choose to go either way, only good arguments and compelling reasoning on either side. If I feed one dog (by biasing my reading and listening towards one side) then that dog will win. But there is no obvious reason why I should choose one dog over the other, both appear to have merits, both appear to have faults. I simply have to choose which dog I want to win. What if I pick the wrong one?


Anonymous said...

Without wanting to sound either too liberal or too post-modern, I don't think one has to decide to 'choose between' following Jesus down the path of religion or following Dawkins down the path of atheism. What I am convinced of is my need for a world view that has the 'best fit' for my experiences. Which is why I unashamedly reject 6day creation theory, but wholeheartedly cling to the idea that God exists in 3persons. If when I doubted the trinity and probed it, it fell apart then I would be a unitarian now.
I think I might be trying to say that I'm happy to mix-and-match different ideas untill I'm happy. Hey I guess thats why I'm an Anglican.

Ricky Carvel said...

Hey, you can never sound too liberal or post-modern on this blog... ;o)

I'm generally happy with the mix and match, best fit approach too, but this only leads you to what works for you, it doesn't necessarily lead you to the truth.

I haven't had a huge number of what might be called 'religious experiences', but I have had a few. When 'feeding' on Christian material, these experiences bolster my faith as they seem to prove (or at least support) the existance of God and his inclination to interact with me.

But, when feeding on the atheist material, these experiences are (reasonably convincingly) demonstrated to be merely manipulative psychology (whether intentional or not) on the part of the church. No god is needed to generate these feelings, only the right mood of music, the right ideas suggested in the right way and the right behaviour of the others around you.

Even the apparent answers to prayer may turn out to be just coincidences.

But then I have to cling to stories like the one I heard the other week. A guy in my church was working in some remote part of Africa when the missionary station he was working on was attacked by people with machettes. None of the doors were locked, none of the folk on the station were armed. Yet these thugs totally failed to get into most of the rooms they tried to get into (where people were sleeping) and when they did manage to get into the room where the guy was, they attacked some of the men there and their machettes simply bounced off the heads of those they were attacking. The thugs got a bit freaked by this and ran away... That's not psychology, that's a miracle. But I need to delibrately cling to stories like that to work my way through the clever reasoning of the atheists.

Anonymous said...

You have to love a bit of the post modernism lol

I see what you mean, and I -along with almost everyone else- have the same kind of experience in my faith.

But how about reading centrist, agnostic, deist etc writings, I find these instead of becoming their own third viewpoint, or bolstering the sceptics they inevitably lead to a rise in faith.

As you said, my approach may not necessarily lead to the truth, but I fail to see whats wrong with a touch of pragmatism in with our rationality. After all, the story of our faith is going to end up as a bit subjective, a bit narrative, why not name it and claim it.

Chris Hamer-Hodges said...

In your story the fisherman chose which dog he wanted to win and fed them accordingly.

I don't think this means you have to be ignorant, but it probably does mean you should choose your battles. You can educate yourself on the issues without reading Dawkins.

Ricky Carvel said...

The problem I have with the analogy (and the whole concept described) is that the two dogs are equal and opposite.

If the fisherman had brought a tiger and a mouse, it wouldn't generally matter which he fed, the tiger would most likely win.

The analogy only works if (in this instance) theism and atheism are equal and opposite.

Surely the Spirit of God should make it more of a tiger vs mouse contest? But, to be honest, I don't really see that skewing in reality.

I really do want Christianity to be more than just an ideology, but is it?

Chris Hamer-Hodges said...

I don't think the analogy works if the dogs represent the objective merits of the two worldviews. It is the subjective persuasiveness to the individual that they represent. If I read the Bible, that makes me more sure of my faith, but it doesn't make Christianity any more true. Just as reading Dawkins doesn't make it any more false.

I think the reason it's not tiger and mouse is that one has to chose to back the right dog on the basis of faith, and not intelect alone.