Why are people who show most evidence of firmly believing in and being committed to God not taken more seriously by atheists?

There are many noted people who made significant life changes because of what they resolutely believed was a direct experience of God. Within the Christian tradition, a hastily made “top 10” list would include people such as:

  • Hildegard of Bingen (from 1141)
  • Francis of Assisi (from 1205)
  • Julian of Norwich (from 1373)
  • Ignatius of Loyola (from 1521)
  • Teresa of Avila (from 1527)
  • George Fox (from 1643)
  • Blaise Pascal (from 1654)
  • John Wesley (from 1738)
  • S. Lewis (from 1929)
  • Thomas Merton (from 1941)

There are many other lesser-known but perhaps no less changed people who could be included.

But people such as these are dismissed as superstitious, irrational or even delusional by those who are ardent atheists, such as Jerry A. Coyne.

Coyne is a professor of biology at the University of Chicago. His book, “Why Evolution Is True,” was on the bestseller list of the New York Times in 2009. In May, his new book, “Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible,” was published.

Richard Dawkins’ book, “The God Delusion,” was a bestselling book in 2006. In it the British biologist argued that belief in a personal God qualifies as a delusion, which he defines as a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence.

Dawkins highly recommends Coyne’s book. “The distinguished geneticist Jerry Coyne trains his formidable intellectual firepower on religious faith, and it’s hard to see how any reasonable person can resist the conclusions of his superbly argued book,” Dawkins writes. “Though religion will live on in the minds of the unlettered, in educated circles faith is entering its death throes.”

But has Coyne been adequately “scientific” in his research?

He considers many religious fundamentalists and examples from splinter religious groups, such as Jehovah Witnesses and Scientology.

But he doesn’t consider people of deep faith based on direct experience of God, such as the people in the list above – or contemporary believers such as Joan Chittister.

This month I have been reading some of Chittister’s writings, especially her superlative “Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir” (2004).

Sister Joan, a Benedictine Catholic nun, born in 1936, has struggled through life questioning dogmatism and institutional religion (Catholicism). But without question she is a woman of unflagging faith in God.

A biography of Sister Joan by Tom Roberts was published recently with the title, “Joan Chittister: Her Journey from Certainty to Faith.”

And Sister Joan certainly has been, and is, a part of “educated circles.” She has a doctorate from Penn State University, is the author of more than 50 books and has been a research associate at Cambridge University. She also writes a column for the National Catholic Reporter.

Coyne doesn’t consider people like Chittister to be worthy dialogue partners, though.

He declares in “Faith vs. Fact” that “anything useful will come from a monologue – one in which science does all the talking and religion the listening.”

And while he doesn’t say so explicitly, Coyne, like Dawkins, seems to think that Sister Joan, and all others of us who believe in God, are delusional because our faith in God cannot be adequately authenticated by scientific evidence.

But why does Coyne, or any other militant atheist, have the right to make a judgment about the psychological condition of Sister Joan – or of anyone who claims to have personal and meaningful experience of God?

Why should she have the richness of her experience denigrated by paucity of his experience?

That is a question Coyne, Dawkins and other vocal atheists fail to address.

Leroy Seat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church. A version of this article also appeared on his blog, The View from this Seat, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @LKSeat.

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