Dear Andrew-

Many thanks for your last essay. Before I address your central argument, I'd like to point out that you continue to misunderstand me in small ways that make me seem (even) more boorish than I am. I did not, for instance, claim that you could not possibly offer an adequate response to my arguments, only that repeatedly calling me "intolerant" would not constitute such a response. Indeed, if I thought there were nothing you could say to convince me of the legitimacy of your point of view, I could scarcely be having this debate in good faith. I remain open to evidence and argument on this and all other fronts. In fact, I could easily imagine a scenario that would persuade me of the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, and the utter sanctity of the blessed Virgin. Granted, this communication would have to be of the crass "signs and wonders" variety, for I am a very doubting Thomas, but there is no question that my mind could be fundamentally changed, even in this email exchange. If, for instance, your "Imaginary Friend" gave you some highly specific information that you could not have obtained by any other means, I would take this as powerful evidence in favor of your point of view. To increase my vulnerability to this line of attack, I have just written a 30-digit number on a scrap of paper and hidden it in my office. If God tells you (or any of our readers) what this number is, I will be appropriately astounded and will publicize the results of this experiment to the limit of my abilities. It is, of course, true that your success would be open to a variety of interpretations-perhaps such a miracle says nothing about the existence of God but demonstrates that clairvoyance is an actual power of the human mind and that you possess it in spades. Or perhaps it proves that Satan exists, and he is similarly endowed. Of course, we should expect some skeptical readers to accuse us both of fraud. Let us cross these bridges if we ever come to them. The point, of course, is that if God exists, it would be trivially easy for Him to blow my mind. (Hint to the Creator: I'm thinking of an even number, and it's not 927459757074561008328610835528).

This brings me to a point upon which atheists like myself are always harping: most people consent to have their minds blown on far lesser terms, with far more ambiguous stimuli, and keep reason in chains while the "will to believe" triumphs in a very unfair fight. Atheists like myself are generally asked to contemplate "miracles" of the following sort: some fellow was a big drinker (like our president), prayed to Jesus, and now lives a life of blissful sobriety. It is left to professional skeptics to wonder how an intelligent person can believe that mere recovery from alcoholism confirms the doctrine of Christianity. Hindus get sober, and atheists do as well. These facts alone nullify any religious interpretation of the data.

Testimony on the basis of "spiritual" experience tends to be equally ambiguous. Here is something I recently wrote for the Newsweek/Washington Post blog "On Faith" I quote it here, because I think it bears on this question of what counts as evidence for specific religious ideas:

I recently spent an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon. It was an infernally hot day, and the sanctuary was crowded with Christian pilgrims from many continents. Some gathered silently in the shade, while others staggered in the noonday sun, taking photographs.
As I sat and gazed upon the surrounding hills gently sloping to an inland sea, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self-an "I" or a "me"-vanished. Everything was as it had been-the cloudless sky, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water-but I no longer felt like I was separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.
The experience lasted just a few moments, but returned many times as I gazed out over the land where Jesus is believed to have walked, gathered his apostles, and worked many of his miracles. If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly interpret this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God, or felt the descent of the Holy Spirit. But I am not a Christian. If I were a Hindu, I might talk about "Brahman," the eternal Self, of which all individual minds are thought to be a mere modification. But I am not a Hindu. If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the "dharmakaya of emptiness" in which all apparent things manifest. But I am not a Buddhist.
As someone who is simply making his best effort to be a rational human being, I am very slow to draw metaphysical conclusions from experiences of this sort. The truth is, I experience what I would call the "selflessness of consciousness" rather often, wherever I happen to meditate-be it in a Buddhist monastery, a Hindu temple, or while having my teeth cleaned. Consequently, the fact that I also had this experience at a Christian holy site does not lend an ounce of credibility to the doctrine of Christianity.
You are, of course, right to say that there are many different contexts in which a statement about the world can be deemed "true" (or likely to be true) and not all of these are empirical or scientific, narrowly defined. Some are even fictional. It is, for instance, true to say that "Hamlet was the prince of Denmark." But admitting the role of context does not render all truth-claims equally legitimate. As you point out, history is not an exact science, but it isn't exactly in conflict with science either. Permit me to quote from another of my essays, as it addresses precisely this point:
It is time we conceded a basic fact of human discourse: Either people have good reasons for what they believe, or they do not. When they have good reasons, their beliefs contribute to our growing understanding of the world. We need not distinguish between "hard" and "soft" sciences here, or between science and other evidence-based disciplines, like history. There happen to be very good reasons to believe that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Consequently, the idea that the Egyptians actually did it lacks credibility. Every sane human being recognizes that to rely merely on "faith" to decide specific questions of historical fact would be both idiotic and grotesque-that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the Bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad's conversation with the angel Gabriel, or to any of the other hallowed travesties that still crowd the altar of human ignorance.
Science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to Heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Faith is nothing more than the license that religious people give one another to believe such propositions when reasons fail. The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments and a passionate unwillingness to do so. The distinction could not be more obvious, or more consequential, and yet it is everywhere elided, even in the ivory tower.
So, while I admit that there are many different contexts in which our beliefs may be justified, and many different modes of justification, there is still an important difference between justified and unjustified belief. My previous remarks-about not knowing what happens after death, about the gaps in science, about the potential validity of contemplative experience, etc.-do nothing to change this picture. And it is the manifest failure of most religious people to observe the distinction between justified and unjustified belief (generally calling their non-observance "faith") that leaves me convinced that they are generally misled in their search for truth.

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