The Myth of Neutrality

You aren’t a neutral vacuum of intellectual possibilities. You’re not nearly as open-minded as you consider yourself to be. Sorry to burst your bias-free bubble. Yes, I’m talking to you.

Why would I say such a thing? Well, for a few reasons. First, every intellectual position is built on some assumptions about reality that can’t be proved. Second, trying to separate out notions like “secular” and “religious” explanations is not as easy as you might think. And one more thing, to be completely free from bias might require something like not being human. In short, it can’t be done.

By the way, if you are uncertain what the word bias means the Merriam-Webster defines it as, “an inclination of temperament or outlook; especiallya personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment.” Biases are like armpits. Everybody’s got ’em. Some of ’em stink.

I agree with Crispin Sartwell, an atheistic philosophy professor, who hit the intellectual nail squarely upon the head regarding biases when he said, “The idea that the atheist comes to her view of the world through rationality and argumentation, while the believer relies on arbitrary emotional commitments, is false.” Both parties, atheists and believers, are starting with certain inclinations, biases, or assumptions. It’s not that one group uses rationality and the other arbitrary emotional commitments. They both begin with something they cannot prove.

Unavoidable Starting Points

That’s illustrated by the fact that you make basic assumptions everyday that govern how you think about things and how you evaluate truth claims. For example, you assume that you are not the only person in the world. You can’t prove that, amazingly enough. Every proof you point to could simply be in your head, a projection of your private world. But in the face of this unprovable claim: you still believe you’re not alone.

Who knows, maybe you really are living in the Matrix. Are you? Prove that you’re not.

You also believe that you can trust your senses. But can you prove that your senses are reliable? Shockingly, you cannot. Every proof you give could be filtered through senses that aren’t trustworthy. All of humanity can be equipped with faulty sensory perception. If everyone’s senses were off we would never know it.

Consider this, if everyone was color blind we would never really know the difference between blue and green. That wouldn’t mean that there is no difference between blue and green. We just wouldn’t know it. Reality could be something other than what our senses allow us to perceive. This is not to mention the many ways that our senses often fail us, like when we waive franticly and run up to someone we see in public only to discover it’s not who we thought they were. Not that I’ve ever done that.

Whether it’s the belief that you are not the only person in the world, or a conviction that you are not living in the Matrix, or the trust you put in your senses, my point is simply that we all start with some fundamental assumptions that cannot themselves be proven to be true.

The Nebulous Sacred/Secular Divide

But religious people take this habit of presupposing something about reality to a whole new extreme, don’t they? Maybe. Maybe not.

Consider for a moment how really difficult it is, if not impossible, to reduce religious explanations to a universal definition. If the term “religious explanations” is to have any value it needs to be basic enough that it applies in general to most explanations that would fit into that category. And this is more difficult than you might imagine. As author and philosopher Roy Clouser points out in his book The Myth of Religious Neutrality published by University of Notre Dame Press, “Defining “religion” is notoriously difficult.”

For starters you could begin by saying that a religious explanation is something that implies the divine. But then you have to define what you mean by divine. If you mean something like “not dependent on anything else” then you’ve made it broad enough to include many secular understandings of the nature of reality. For example, the belief that the natural world is all that exists could fit easily into this category.

You might further define divine as involving worship. If you do this, you rule out many eastern religions which don’t always require worship of the absolute. Would you then not consider them religious? Or you could go a step further and add into your definition the use of holy books. But if you included only claims based on a divinely inspired text like the Bible or the Quran then you exclude most of the pagan religions and even Deism that don’t have sacred texts.

As you can see, it’s not as easy as you might think to call one thing secular and another religious. That’s all I’m saying. If you’re offended by this, just come up with a better definition that clears away the rubble that many scholars consider problematic in drawing a clear distinction between the two.

You might try to reduce your understanding of the issue to something like this, “I only believe things for which there is scientific evidence; anything less than this is a religious claim.” But the fact that you only value scientific truth is itself not a scientific fact. By that standard it it would be a religious claim. It is a philosophical belief about the nature of reality not a scientific one. And this type of scientism has a tendency of cutting its own legs out from under itself.

The Reality of Armpits (a.k.a. biases)

So, what should we do? Shall we throw in our lot with the radical skeptics and concede that truth is unknowable? Or, should we embrace a little humility and recognize this is more complicated than a Twitter update can summarize?

We have assumptions we cannot prove. Separating these assumptions into secular and religious categories can be difficult. And if we are really honest, we all have a bias that affects what assumptions we consider to be plausible. And biases pose the biggest problem when we ignore or deny them. The person most blinded by their biases is the very one, perhaps you, who denies that they have any biases at all.

But it’s so common to hear that it is only religious people, believers, who are guilty of having biases. I do think this allegation works at a really popular level but breaks down badly when considered at a deeper level. Consider what the aforementioned Crispin Sartwell said in his controversial piece “Irrational Atheism” published in The Atlantic:

It [Atheism] pictures the universe as a natural system, a system not guided by intelligent design and not traversed by spirits; a universe that can be explained by science, because it consists of material objects operating according to physical laws. In this sense, atheism embodies a whole picture of the world, offering explanations about its most general organization to the character of individual events.

Ironically, this is similar to the totalizing worldview of religion—neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.

Then there’s that stubborn quote that Christian apologists love to use, for good reason, to make this very point taken from a 1997 New York Times review of a book by Carl Sagan written by Harvard Professor Richard Lewontin:

“It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

The same year that Lewontin made his shocking admission, a New York University philosophy professor Thomas Nagel offered a similar concession in his book The Last Word:

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Well, enough of that. Time to wrap up.

G.K. Chesterton once likened an open mind to an open mouth. An open mouth is intended to close shut on something solid. So is an open mind. You can’t indefinitely avoid making some assumptions about reality, whether you realize it or not. You’re not as neutral as you like to think. Neutrality is a modern myth. You bring your biases to the table of intellectual options.

The real question is “What is truth?” The road test for your answer is not an ivory tower, or a scientific laboratory, but real life. Which assumptions about reality best explain the human condition?

These are questions with an expiration date. You have a limited amount of time to find the answers. There are voices on both sides vying for your attention. The way is littered with intellectual roadblocks. A wise teacher once said something to this effect, “There is a broad road that leads to destruction with lots of people on it. And there is a narrow road that leads to life with far fewer travelers.” Choose your path carefully.