Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Conversation about Atheism, Faith, Science, and Radicalism

A while back I posted an essay entitled “Those Wacky Atheists” and hot-linked it on Facebook. I've gotten some very good responses which I'd like to respond to in turn. (I'll code the three respondents R1, R2, and R3; my answers are coded as A. Some responses are broken up by my comments; I did some minimal editing as well.)

R1:  Yes, militant atheists are, to me, more annoying than their counterparts, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, who come knocking every now and then. The latter are usually gentle and sincere, while the former tend toward stridency and insistence. Who needed Madalyn Murray O'Hair (RIP) going around being a pain in the ass about mentioning God in public? Although better presented, Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation) seem to be her heirs in recent times, as thought leaders for aggressive atheism. Even the more nuanced Richard Carrier (Sense & Goodness Without God) and Daniel C. Dennett (Breaking The Spell) ultimately can't avoid urgency and advocacy in their tomes.

A: “Urgency and advocacy” -- correct, as though we're all approaching a critical juncture at which the choice between belief and non-belief becomes not only critical, but a matter of life and death (in the strictly material sense for those on the atheist side of the argument). It reflects the idea that, to the militant/aggressive atheists, religion, and religious people, must be stopped before it is too late (although what the criteria for “too late” might be is seldom discussed). But yes, the battle is not only joined but the “mother of all battles” (Armageddon if you're a Christian) is at hand. In this sense, they may actually be right. It does seem as if there is less “wiggle room” than ever, and not just because of increasing world population. And yet, many eras in the past have also felt (to the people at the time) like “the last days”. Various Protestant groups have been talking this way at least since the nation was founded. Likewise, every few years some world figure comes along who is identified as the Antichrist – and yet, in retrospect, they turn out to have been a “figure” of the Antichrist at best, but far from the real thing. Does this mean that atheists are as “apocalyptic” in their thinking as religious people – if not more so? This is certainly true if we're talking about the global warming/climate change/pollution activists. Many of them believe that we are already past the “tipping point” -- but then again, the population control advocates believed that decades ago, and we have yet to see the mass starvation that they expected to start at any time. (By now, according to some of the “population bomb” prophets of a few decades back, there should already have been a mass die-off of humanity and the survivors should be making a modest comeback.) Yes, there is way too much anxiety and longing for the end – for that final reckoning, that cleansing... and it's not confined to Christian fundamentalists. Everyone wants to see “justice”, however they define it, done in their lifetime – a verdict, a judgment.  If you're a Christian, it is God who will judge; if you're a materialist, the Earth itself will render judgment.  This is a longing that Christians and materialists share in about equal parts, it seems to me. But each side needs a dose of patience – and that's one of the things I was trying to bring out in my post.

R1: If there is any place for tolerance in human discourse (and there had better be as we approach the ability to decimate whole populations with the push of a button), religious belief should stand high, if not first, on the list. Sadly, and dangerously, it doesn't. Also sadly, the path to it really can't be found by aggressively outlawing negative criticism of religiosity, nor by the opposite approach of trying to stamp out religiosity. We need to learn to accept that some find their meaning in it just as others find their meaning in other pursuits. Fat chance, if you read any history and see the power of that confounded urge, which seizes religionists and contra-religionists, to proselytize their point of view.

A: If for no other reason, suppression of any belief (or non-belief) system tends to give it a kind of added strength and endurance. Better to “let a hundred flowers bloom” and let public discourse happen in broad daylight. (A fascinating historical note is that the Scholastics, in the late Middle Ages, used to hold theological debates among Christian, Jewish, and Moslem scholars. I don't think we've fully gotten back to that stage of intellectual fearlessness as yet.)

R2: A lot of militant atheists are of course arrogant fools, insisting on limiting the universe to what they can explain. There’s an awful lot we don’t understand, especially with regard to phenomena of life and consciousness, and that’s partly because our science has been so bad. There’s no reason not to be open to clues about whatever may be out there that we can’t yet begin to explain. But an attitude of openness doesn’t commit one to theism, either. The forced choice of either (a) there is a God, or (b) the world as understood by modern science is all there is, seems to me to reflect a serious lack of imagination.

A: I can agree on (b), but it seems to me that (a) is a black-and-white question. That is, either God exists or not. God cannot halfway, or kind of, exist, or exist for some people but not for others, etc. And yes, this is an “absolutist” point of view, but I think it's necessary if one accepts that any meaningful concept of God has to be an absolute one – that God has to exist outside of the created order, i.e. outside of time and space, because otherwise how could He have created it? (And if God is somehow part of the created order, that just pushes back the question or origins.) Such a Creator must be all-powerful and omniscient, because how could any part of that which He created stand outside His power or knowledge? And so on (it's all in Aquinas, of course). So regarding the above choices, one can opt for (a), which automatically implies non-(b). Or, opting for (b) automatically implies non-(a). However, opting for (a) therefore non-(b) certainly doesn't mean that we reject that which legitimate science has come up with to date, or anything it might come up with at a later time – only that one's attitude toward science is “agnostic” in a way – we can never be ultimately certain of our epistemology or our metaphysics in the scientific arena.

R2: I’ve always thought it hard to see much hope for progress in a debate where one side remained so resolutely undefined. Are atheists supposed to believe in an omniscient, omnipotent creator of the universe? The sadistic monster of the Old Testament, slaughtering whole populations of infidels, and demanding that one of the faithful prove his devotion by killing his son (“Wait, just kidding.”)? All of the above?

A: Well, there is certainly more than one creed among the monotheistic religions, and a good variety of epistemological and metaphysical teaching among the others, so yes, there is a choice. I would say generically that there is a choice between strict here-and-now empiricism and spirituality, however defined. All religious people have at least one thing in common, which is the feeling that there is “something more”. Now, a non-religious person may feel that there is something more, but it will still have to be on a continuum with what is already known (in the here-and-now empirical sense) – unless an entirely new “way of knowledge” that is neither scientific nor spiritual manifests itself. This would be a paradigm shift comparable in magnitude to proof that intelligent life exists on other planets (another very strong longing in our time – and actually relevant to the discussion, but I'll leave it for now).

R2: I’ve been inclined to think of atheists as defined by negation, by their rejection of that ill-defined package. That makes them a motley crew, with little more in common than people who don’t like Brazil nuts. But your post suggests the interesting possibility that _both_ sides are defined by negation, so then neither theists nor atheists are asserting anything positive, and it’s no wonder there isn’t much to say.

A: Theists are asserting something very positive – again, referring to the creeds. There is far more discussion in the Bible of who, or what, God is than of who, or what He is not. Ultimately – according to Christian theology as I understand it – God is not only good, but He is goodness itself, i.e. entirely positive, and the created order is both good and positive as created, but corrupted by sin, i.e. negativity (first manifested in rebellion against God Himself, not just against the idea of God). So in some ultimate sense evil is all negative – a lack, a vacuum. (I'm not sure where in my post I implied that religion is defined by negation; please point it out.)

R2: There are some schools of jujitsu which are purely defensive; within the system, it is impossible to have a tournament, since nobody can make the first move. You make the very interesting charge—it seems to me an apt one—that atheists are not “metaphysically dissatisfied”. I assume your intended meaning is that, no matter what the future state of scientific understanding, we should always be metaphysically dissatisfied. (“Is this all there is? I want my money back.”) Like perpetual ingrates, we should insist that there always has to be something else.

A: Not that there “has” to be something else, but what are the chances that we already know all there is to know? (We do get occasional clues to the contrary, after all.) And far from being ingrates, we should be in a perpetual state of awe as to the Creation and our part in it (yes, including the part where we are perpetually looking for answers and ways to improve the human lot as well as increase our knowledge).

R2: But that something is defined only negatively, based purely on a rejection of the world as sufficient in itself.

A: Again, not rejection, but being pretty sure that there is more – and that there will always be more. I think it's much more “negative” to just close the book and go home. Intellectual history is full of examples of people who felt that a given field of inquiry had been completely explored, only to be proven wrong within a short period of time. Now, I suppose one could have an “existential” attitude about the state of knowledge as it is, as being sufficient for the time – but then be willing to accept each new finding as adding to that, at which point that becomes sufficient, etc. So each state of knowledge is, by definition, sufficient for a given moment in time. But does that make it insufficient for all later moments in time? And if so, were we deluded in thinking it was ever sufficient? My tendency is to, basically, not even worry about the sufficiency issue, but I don't think this puts me in the same boat as the “metaphysically non-dissatisfied” atheists.

R2: So the concept of God as ineradicable residual, what’s left after we subtract out the known universe, makes it an inherently negative concept, defined by what it is not: anything that we can observe or understand. Since it can neither be defended nor refuted, it is not a very cognitively compelling concept.

A: God must be “ineradicable” if He is truly God. But knowledge of God, AKA theology, is far from negative. And, as the Scholastics held, sound theology and sound philosophy (which, for them, included what we call science) are complementary and mutually supportive. (Once again, I'm looking for the negativity here and not finding it.) There are countless “defenses” of the existence of God, and yes, they can be held to standards of logic. But as to refutation, once we enter the realm of belief, or faith, then it becomes an individual choice and there's really no question of refutation (despite what the militant atheists would like to think). But belief or faith does not have to be “illogical”, nor does it have to be “anti-scientific” as long as we have a correct notion of the nature of science – what it can and cannot do.

R2: But all of us are familiar with feelings for which we can’t identify an object. The most common such experience may be anxiety, but I’ve also sometimes felt unaccountably cheerful when the world was objectively crashing down around my ears. Feelings of reverence, of a need to worship, or to serve, or to be a part of, naturally prompt a search for an object, if one isn’t already apparent. And the attendant attitudes and practices can have real-world effects which reinforce the appearance of reality in the object.

A: Well, who knows, that “appearance of reality” may reflect an actual reality!  And as for "the world objectively crashing down around my ears", yes, I know the feeling, and I identify it with, at least, (1) a sense of adventure, as in, "now what", and whatever it is won't be anything like what came before; and (2) liberation, as if the "old life" is over with, for better or worse, and since we can't go back we have to move forward with a "clean" (or cleansed) slate.  Once can even think of death in this way, which is consoling.    

R2: When I commented to ____ at her wedding on the apparent absence of the usual conflicts between the bride and the bride’s mother over wedding preparations, she said, “We’re both very prayerful, and that helps.” I immediately realized that the act itself of turning away from each other and toward a shared object, together with the shift in attitude from assertive/combative to receptive, would likely be very helpful to both parties, and that helpfulness would strengthen the impression that it came from the external object of focus rather than from the shift in attitude. The need for self-transcendence is a powerful one, partly because it feels good, and right; it prompts extraordinary sacrifices, not only in religion, but in nationalism and in the S-M relationships I’ve observed.

A: “Nationalism and S-M relationships” -- there's a juxtaposition for you! I'm sure there's some common ground...

R3: Militant atheists are just radicals who believe in not-god, just like the radicals who believe in god. radicals are radicals and should be ignored.

A: Many of the saints were considered radicals in their time. When one is dealing with the absolute, one tends to think in absolute terms. “Absolute” behavior, on the other hand – as exhibited by ISIS, for example – is another matter. That's where mercy and tolerance have to be added to the mix, and good Christians (and Moslems, and Jews) have always tried to do that.

R2: Evidently nonradicals are nonbelievers?

R3: Nonradicals are just not radical. They can believe whatever the hell they want and are easier to live with.

R2: But they can't believe in God, and they can't believe in not-God, because then they would be radical. So on that issue, at least, they can't believe whatever the hell they want.

R3: Christians believe in god as do Muslims, Jews and a couple of other religions, but most of them are not radical. Secular Humanists, agnostics, atheists, and even a few other religions don't believe in god and most of them are not radical. Again, it is the radicals of any ilk who make all the noise we all could do without.

R2: Ok, understood. I would have been inclined to label the troublemakers as militants rather than radicals, since I think nonmilitant radicalism is just the way to be. But I've made enough noise for this conversation.

R3: Yeah, they shoot with their guns rather than just with their mouths.

A: I think what this amounts to is that “radical” belief, or faith, is one thing, and is in fact appropriate if we want to call ourselves real believers. I'm not even sure what non-radical belief, or faith, would look like; if it's all that conditional and tentative then it's more like agnosticism or (good) science than belief. Yes, there is a place for tentativeness and conditionality, and that is precisely in the realm of science – which in the most general sense would include psychology, sociology, economics, and even politics. The problem is that our language has been corrupted. Nowadays people are subjected to litmus tests like whether they “believe” in Evolution, or in global warming. These are scientific questions, and belief should not enter in – and if it does, it ceases to be science. On the other hand, an expression of belief or faith in an ultimate (non-scientific) truth is not a rejection of science and empiricism, but an acknowledgment that there are other questions, other modes of inquiry, and other answers – and that those answers, being articles of faith, must by their very nature be absolute (and “radical”) since they deal with eternal verities.

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