Adam Patrick Taylor is a 5th year Ph.D. student in the Philosophy Department at the State University of New York, University at Buffalo. I found these exchanges on one of his course sites. The following is a selection I made that captures the highlights of the entries.
Last week in my philosophy of religion class, I had my undergrads read and discuss Richard Dawkins’ article “Is Science A Religion” in Pojman and Rea’s Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. In that text Dawkins says:
“Science is based upon verifiable evidence. Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops. Why else would Christians wax critical of doubting Thomas? The other apostles are held up to us as exemplars of virtue because faith was enough for them. Doubting Thomas, on the other hand, required evidence. Perhaps he should be the patron saint of scientists.”
Dawkins’ fideistic (Fideism = Reliance on faith alone rather than scientific reasoning or philosophy in questions of religion.) reading of this episode intrigued me. So, I looked up the relevant passage (John 20: 24-29 NIV) to see whether it did indeed demand a fideistic reading and found the following:
24. Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.
25. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
26. A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”
27. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28. Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29. Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
It seemed to me at first glance that Christ was, in this instance, endorsing fideism. Which left me somewhat disheartened since I certainly don’t think that this is right account of religious belief. But then while thinking about it aloud during my class a few thoughts came to mind. First, Note that Christ does not say in verse 29:
1. “Blessed are those who have no evidence whatsoever and yet have believed.”
Nor does he say,
2. “Blessed are those who will not have evidence in the future and who yet will believe.”
That Christ did not say the latter is important because I think there is a tendency, when interpreting scripture, to make hasty generalizations. In this case, doubtlessly, Dawkins is generalizing from Christ’s response to Thomas on this occasion to all believers down through history to the present, and I think that this is surely mistaken. That what Christ says in verse 29 is meant just for Thomas and the Apostles is made clear by the tense of the utterance “blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed”. This is in the past tense, it has already happened. It need not apply to all believers through all of time.
That Christ did not say the former is important because, as I read the passage, Thomas did have evidence of the Resurrection in the form of the testimony of his companions. They told him that they had seen the risen Lord. But Thomas refused to believe them.
The upshot here is that, as far I can tell, Christ’s dictum in verse 29 is simply saying that those who believed on the basis of the Apostles testimony, because they loved and trusted in the other Apostles, were blessed (or more blessed on some translations). The other Apostles in turn were given evidence, they saw the risen Lord before them. Thomas’s sin is not that he demands evidence, but that he will not accept the evidence he is given, namely the evidence of the eyewitness testimony of his brothers and sisters. This is a sin against charity and Christian unity. Thomas would have been more blessed than the other Apostles if he could have believed on the basis of his love for them and trust in their testimony, but instead he was made to see for himself.
At any rate it seems Dawkins is clearly wrong to assert: “The other apostles are held up to us as exemplars of virtue because faith was enough for them”. As far as I can tell they believed not on blind faith, but rather on the basis of having seen for themselves, or on the basis of knowing others who had seen for themselves, that Christ was risen. Either way, they had some evidence.
- The issue is that faith involves a trust in testimony. There is a special kind of virtue involved in trusting testimony — in not being a suspicious sort of person, but being a two-way participant in one’s relevant epistemic communities. There is something contrary to the Golden Rule about expecting others to trust one (and if we don’t do that, why would we bother to speak?) but not trusting others.The theme of testimony is central to the Fourth Gospel (I didn’t bother to check the Greek, but in the RSV, “testimony” occurs three times in Matthew, four in Mark, three in Luke, and 15 times in John).In the Christian context, faith involves a trust specifically in God’s testimony — in Christ’s testimony. This is probably an important aspect of the text. It’s not just the testimony of the fellow apostles that Thomas has trouble believing. He has trouble believing the testimony of Christ, who had told them that he would die and rise–of course, the other apostles had the exact same problem, but in this teachable moment Thomas is singled out. However, to balance the apparent unfairness of his being singled out, he is enabled to make the most explicit profession of faith in Christ’s divinity that we find in Scripture: “My Lord and my God”.
- To say that religion celebrates its alleged “independence from evidence” is bizarrely wrong. At least, Judeo-Christian religion could be called a “religion of evidence”, full as it is of revelations and prophets, manifestations and miracles. (You may or may not find the evidence weighty enough to be convincing, but you can hardly deny it’s an integral part of Western theism.) The puzzling thing is that so many religious people themselves seem to think that faith means believing without reasons! Thomas did have reasons to believe — his friends were unlikely to be so earnest about it if they weren’t absolutely certain (–well, maybe if it had just been Peter, but not all the others too!) Nor were they likely to be pulling a practical joke about something like that. But I think it’s important to note that nowhere in the passage is Thomas’s behavior called a crime or a sin.
- Speaking of Doubting Thomas, there is a beautiful quotation from Andrew P. Peabody, Christianity and Science (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1874), pp. 250-51: There are two kinds of skepticism,– that of the heart and that of the intellect. The former is adapted to make unbelievers; the latter, to make Christians. The former will not look at the hands and the side, because it is determined not to be moved morally and spiritually as they would move the honest soul; the latter insists on seeing the wound-marks, because it wants to know the precise truth, and therefore avails itself of whatever evidence God has given.The skepticism of the heart hates the light, and will not come to the light, lest its deeds be reproved. The skepticism of the mind is that which cannot believe without sufficient evidence. It proves all things, and holds fast that which will stand the test. It examines both sides of a question, and adheres to that which imposes the least strain on its belief. Such a mind needs only to have the evidences of Christianity fairly presented, to yield to it entire and cordial faith.
Many of the firmest believers, many of the ablest defenders of the truth as it is in Jesus, belong to this class of minds. In this sense, Lardner, Paley, and Butler, whose contributions to the Christian evidences are invaluable, and will be so for generations to come, were pre-eminently skeptics. They would not believe, without examining the hands and the side, trying all the witnesses, testing the objections against Christianity with the opposing arguments, weighing coolly and impartially the evidence, real or pretended, on either side; and the result was a faith in Christ, which sight could hardly have rendered clearer or stronger.
God has made many such minds, and they are among the noblest and best of his creation.
- One wants to say that Dawkins can claim that Christianity makes a virtue out of belief in the absence of evidence only because he hasn’t actually read the Gospels, the Gospel of John in particular. One wants to say this, but unfortunately it would constitute an indictment on many Christians as well. There are a couple of features of this incident to note: First, as rightly highlighted in this post, Thomas had the unanimous and unequivocal testimony of the other disciples, people with whom he had lived for three years. Should this have been enough?Second, Jesus suddenly appears in their midst (as he had a week earlier). That’s miracle #1.
Third, Jesus reported what Thomas had said earlier in his absence. This is plausibly read as miracle #2 — assuming the others hadn’t independently reported this challenge to Jesus. (Would Peter have tattled on Thomas?)
Fourth, while inviting him to touch, Jesus presumably showed Thomas the holes in his hands and side. That’s pretty strong evidence that he was who he claimed to be.
But here’s the kicker to the whole episode. Jesus did not reject or even belittle Thomas’s request. “Stop doubting” sounds like a rebuke, but need not be read in that tone. Note what Jesus did: he in fact invited Thomas to put his hands in his side, as if to say that if you need more evidence than what you already have in hand, then I am willing to accommodate your hard-headed, perfectly natural, intellectual intransigence (read: scientism) if that is what it takes for you to “stop doubting and believe.”
Jesus calls Thomas’s bluff. When it came right down to it, Thomas didn’t need this additional evidential support; seeing the gaping wound was apparently enough, in spite of his earlier bluster about the need for evidence. Again, the suggestion says something like the following: if it is really a matter of evidence, I’m willing to meet even this high standard of proof. Of course, if it’s a matter of skepticism of the heart, I know that even placing your hands in my side would not convince you.
Thomas’s response was one of a heart’s submission: “My Lord and my God.” Dawkins’s Thomas should have said: “It now appears to me that there is some not insignificant evidence for God hypothesis which may or may not override such alternative explanations as….”
Jesus’s teaching: you are blessed because you could have had more evidence but didn’t require it — you saw and you believed because your heart was ready and your intellectual skepticism was honest (Peabody). That really is a good thing. Others have believed (their hearts were ready) without even that much evidence. Great. Whatever it takes to move a willing heart, I’m willing to provide for you.
There is probably a lot to dispute in this reading, but the point of absolute clarity is the lack of rebuke for the request for more evidence. Dawkins’s Jesus should have said, “Cursed are you for not believing in the absence of evidence.” John’s Jesus says, “Blessed are you for believing upon seeing, even though there was even more evidence (touch) that I was ready to make available to you.”
A. P. Taylor concludes: It is always instructive, especially for undergrads, to see where a thinker goes off the rails. My contention is that Dawkins is, somewhat, straw-manning religion by insisting on an unambiguously fideistic picture of religious belief, which most religious people would not accept.