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Why We Don't Change Our Minds

In his short story, “Bulletproof,” T.C Boyle illustrates the impasse between those who see things as the creation and those who see the same things as a result of chance and matter. The point of the story is that two different people might see exactly the same thing, but interpret it in very different ways. The culmination of the story is the meeting of the two main characters—one atheist, one Christian—on a trail in the woods. They watch a group of snakes and comment on what they see. Both see the same thing, but interpret it in wildly different ways. To the Christian, the snakes tell her something about God; she calls them “the ribbons of God” The atheist sees no such thing – they are just snakes. The point of the story is that there is no way to cross the divide, to bridge the gap, to make any difference to the world of the other person. The way each of them sees the world is impenetrable to the other person. They have bulletproof worldviews.

But what if the Christian girl could somehow demonstrate that God made the snakes, provide evidence? Would the atheist change his mind? Apparently it is not that easy to change someone's mind by presenting them with new evidence. According to Chris Mooney, writing for Mother Jones, new evidence is not sufficient to change someone's mind about something. In fact, he says, we are more likely to read into evidence in order to support our already existing opinion. Try telling Harold Camping that he is wrong. Not wrong, he will say, just a couple of months off target. Not many people will give no thought at all to giving their child an MMR vaccine even though we have seen bounteous evidence to suggest no link with autism. There are those, however, that will never be convinced, they will always believe that the MMR vaccine is the cause of autism.

I could attempt to demonstrate this idea by listing the many evidences for the resurrection of Jesus. The trouble is that even if you are bowled over by my case, it wont make you a Christian. So what? You might say, someone came back from the dead, that does not mean the bible is true in any other way.

More than likely, Mooney would suggest, it would not matter how much evidence I gave to support the resurrection, a person who does not believe that it is possible to rise from the dead would still not believe it. This, Mooney suggests, is the result of a prior commitment.

That prior commitment is what makes it seem like there is no way across the divide, no argumentative shot to breach the barrier. Worldviews are like that. A worldview is “a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) that we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.” (James Sire The Universe Next Door p. 20).

This perhaps explains the response Paul gives to the Athenians at the Areopogus in Acts 17. They too were skeptical about the resurrection. Neither Epicurean nor Stoic had any category into which resurrection could fit. Paul does not set out to show how the resurrection was possible; he shows how the resurrection fits into the Christian worldview. (Here is the full account from Acts 17) .

The clash between Paul and the Athenians was a clash of entire worldviews. It was not merely a debate about the resurrection. Paul discerns this and so does not attempt to convince them that the resurrection actually took place. Instead he argues that reality is such that the resurrection makes sense. He never concedes that reality could be any other way than the way he sees it. Whilst his worldview and that of the Athenians differed radically, according to Paul, they both inhabit the same world. The Athenian worldview was not merely another perspective, but a denial of reality.

Reality is pre-interpreted. This comes as a shock to us as all the while—at least since the enlightenment—we were under the impression that it was open to interpretation. What made us think this? Was it that we had a revelation from God that all was now plain, ready for us to structure our worldview and impose it on the blunt and speechless cosmos? Or did we rather, much like the Athenians, attempt to go against such a pre-interpretation. This is why an atheist and a Christian can look at the same thing and interpret in it in very different ways. The thing we see—snakes, person coming back from the dead—is not a mere fact, but always an interpretation of reality.

Many consider it enough to say “snake” and leave it at that. At least, they think they are leaving it at that. But think about what is really assumed. Reality, in the case of the atheist in Boyle's story, is not an innocent observer. He is rather an interpreter. He treats what he sees as pure hypothesis. This is indeed the conclusion of modern science. As Roger Scruton points out: “the concept of probability, which features in our very first hypothesis, reappears in the final diagnosis; the world of nature is governed by laws, but no scientific law, however deep, is more than a statement of probability. Of nothing in the natural world can it be said that it must be so, but at best that it is highly likely to be so” (Roger Scruton The Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy p. 17).

The interpretation of snakes as snakes alone, uncreated, caused only by another material cause, assumes reality and its interpretation is probable and reliant only upon the interpretation of the human observer. Of course this statement itself can be no more than probable, reliant upon your interpretation alone for any kind of meaning. But the assumption is anything but an innocent observation.

The C hristian in Boyle's story is reliant upon another interpretation apart from her own. “Ribbons of God” might be too romantic a gloss, but the point is that the snakes are created by God. She does not deny the material causes, but she denies that they are only chance causes in a one level universe. Her reality is not her own interpretation, but is the interpretation of God's. This is the affirmation of revelation – that reality requires an interpretation from its Creator. Nature is not designed to “stand alone” but to be consistently interpreted by its creator. This is why Cornelius Van Til says:

“There is nothing in this universe on which human beings can have full and true information unless they take the Bible into account. We do not mean, of course, that one must go to the Bible rather than the laboratory if one wishes to study the anatomy of the snake. But if one goes only to the laboratory and not also to the Bible, one will not have a full or even true interpretation of the snake” (Christian Apologetics Cornelius Van Til p. 20).

Since reality is pre-interpreted by God it is not merely a mistake to attempt to forge our own version without him, it is immoral. This is the conlcusion of Paul in his speach to the Athenians. He says "The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31).

The Resurrection is not merely vindication of the Christian view, as if it is a piece of evidence to support it; it is, rather, a demonstration of man's willful disregard of such a view. This is a tough pill for many to swallow. Yet it does explain why we are prone to dismiss the evidence for God. There is something which has to change before any such evidence will make a difference to the way we see the world. It is not merely that evidence has or has not worked, but that we are fundamentally at odds with the interpreter of reality and attempt to deny him at every point. It requires not the building of a better case for Christ, but the rebuilding of the broken person. This rebuilding project is an act of God and as miraculous as the original creation of the earth. It is the fundamental rebirth of our nature into God's worldview. We are, as Paul puts it, given the very mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).