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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why I am not an atheist

by John MacBeath Watkins

We live in an age of evangelical atheism, in which prominent atheists argue vociferously that any rational person should give up on religion and show their smarts by adopting a firm belief in the non-existence of god.

I believe myself to be as rational as the next man, in fact rationaler, if I may coin a neologism, but I'm not jumping on the bandwagon. I've been agnostic most of my life, and I remain in that state of suspended belief.

Part of the reason is that rational proofs of the non-existence of a thing strike me as irrational. If I want to know if a blowfish exists, I don't reason whether its existence is possible, I consult those who claim to have seen it and evaluate their evidence. There are many accounts of people encountering them, there's a tradition of eating them even though they can be poisonous if improperly prepared, and I can easily find pictures of them.

All that could be faked, of course, but it would require such a vast conspiracy for so little purpose that the notion that the blowfish is fake is laughable.

God is a bit more problematic. Although there are many accounts of people encountering him or his minions, these accounts are often at variance with who he is supposed to be.  Consider the following verses:

King James Version, Second Kings 2:23-24
23: And he [Elisha] went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up that way, there came forth little children of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; Go up, thou bald head.
24: And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD.  And there came forth two she bears out of the wood and tare forty and two children of them.
 And God so loved the world that he gave it vengeful she-bears.

This gets at the problem of pain, and why a benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being would allow so much of it in the world. Indeed, if he created everything, he created evil (the theological consequences of which are explored in The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis, and The Time Bandits, which contains the following dialogue: Kevin: Yes, why does there have to be evil? Supreme Being: I think it has something to do with free will..)

Christian apologetics is popular, and C.S. Lewis is about the most popular among them, but their logic always struck me as motivated reasoning.

A study by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber proposes that reason evolved not to discover truth, but to persuade people of views one already holds. From their abstract:


Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade.
 In other words, reason does not exist to discover truth, but to persuade others that you are in possession of it.

I'm a bit dubious about that. I'd say that's one of its ancillary functions, but that reason is an abstract expression of that problem solving ability that any animal with a brain needs to survive. We have, relative to other animals, a giant brain, so we have better problem-solving abilities. We have symbolic thought, which is an outgrowth of language, and when you combine symbolic thought with problem-solving, you get reason.

However, in a political setting, Mercier and Sperber may often be right. Political actors work in a series of linked systems of symbol and value, those of family and home, community, ethnicity, commerce, religion, and warfare, for example.

Many of those value systems are based on traditions, emotional attachments, and webs of obligation. Reason may modify these systems at the margins, but for the most part they form our identity and world view to an extent that is more powerful than reason. They form the assumptions on which we base reason. Edmund Burke even argued that our prejudices are an expression of the wisdom of our civilization. From Reflections on the Revolution in France:

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.
Burke was swimming against the tide of the Enlightenment, in which reason ascended from its role as the artisan and mechanic of our symbolic life to its throne. Intellectuals like John Locke and Jean-Jacque Rousseau became important in the political sphere in a way that religion had for millennia, telling people what sort of ruler was legitimate.

"Naked reason" has not always had good effects. Marxism, which claimed to be based on reason, attempted to give us a scientific socialism that would result in a better way of life. It gave us, instead, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot. Of course, any system can produce bad rulers, but Marxism seemed to produce bad results far more often than liberalism or even the tradition-bound system of monarchy.

Part of the problem was that it had no really workable system of value. Yes, all right, labor creates value, but how do you distinguish between productive labor and useless or destructive labor? Liberalism had an answer, which is that value is subjective. From Chapter 10 of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan:

The ‘value,’ or ‘worth,’ of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power; and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgment of another.
 In addition, Marx reasoned that since property and religion were connected with much of the suffering in the world, they must be wrong, and could be done without rather than reformed. Part of the problem, I believe, is a profound misunderstanding of what property is. I would say that property is the rules, obligations and customs regarding the use of things humans use. As long as there are humans and things they use, property will be with us. Marx did not give his followers any such arrangements for determining how such things would be used, and no Communist society based on his work ever fully resolved the problem.

And the officially atheist societies based on Marxism were without religion, but the Communist Party soon took on the characteristics of the worst and most corrupt church, running inquisitions and giving privileges to their functionaries.

The result was unproductive labor, unproductive use of capital, and a social order that tended to terror.

In One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse began with the statement that "A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization..."

When I read that, I wrote in the margin, "that doesn't sound too bad." After all, if we are to have civilization, it must be organized somehow. If we can organize it in a comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic way, we're way ahead of most of human history. Marx despised tradition for its defects, while minimizing its graces.

Reason based on false assumptions also gave us social Darwinism, of both the individualist, capitalist, American sort and the racist, fascist, European sort.

These bastard offspring of the Enlightenment demonstrate the dangers of reason, logically following the wrong assumptions through reason to the wrong conclusions.

So I'm a bit wary of reason unchecked by humility. And I am not at all convinced that reason is the best guide to all aspects of how we should run our lives. Yet I am a creature of the Enlightenment, and to me, Burke's defense of prejudice has at least as many limits as unchecked reason.

If we listened to our prejudice and not our reason, would we not still hold slaves, as most human societies did for most of human history? John Locke, who was himself complicit in slavery, told us that we are each born owning ourselves, and that ownership was inalienable: You will always own yourself, and cannot sell yourself into slavery, because that property right will always be yours, it's what you call an inalienable right. And once we had built an entire civilization on that principle, how could we countenance slavery?

The thing is, both tradition and reason have things to tell us about how to live. When Graham Greene was asked what arguments caused him to convert to Catholicism, he said he couldn't recall. To an atheist, that makes no sense at all, because to an atheist, all belief should be based on reason. But Greene wasn't converted so much to a belief as to a way of life, and I suspect that most people who take religion seriously look to it not for reasoned arguments, so much as a structure for their lives.

Churches offer a sense of belonging, a community and a social safety net. They offer comfort and succor, and guidance on how to live a good life, both in terms of our enjoyment of life and in terms of how we treat others. But Christianity responded to the Enlightenment as if it were a threat to the church, because, in fact, it was. It had the potential to take away the power of the church by offering a way to evaluate the legitimacy of rulers without regard to faith. Religion had probably ruled men's minds from the explosion of evidence of symbolic thought that came with Upper Paleolithic civilization around 50,000 years ago until the Enlightenment, and it's still fighting for that throne.

When we speak of people's reason being unseated, we think of an irrational person, a blithering fool. Yet think of the fact that reason had to unseat faith to become the dominant mode of our civilization. That would make you what, a damned fool?

Christian apologists have done their best to reconcile faith with reason, so that we may be no sort of fool. I'm not convinced they have succeeded. The effort to define God as a rational being who operates on certain principles -- omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent -- is actually harder to reconcile than the ancient sort of god who could be fooled or could be foolish, as the Greek gods sometimes were, whose passions and foibles tripped them up at times.

It strikes me that such an interpretation is actually more compatible with the god of the old testament, who tortured Job on a bet with Satan to see if he would renounce his god, who tested Abraham's faith by demanding he sacrifice his son Isaac on a stone altar like a scene from some Frank Frazetta cover for a Robert E. Howard novel. (All right, it would have to be a busty and barely clad young woman instead of Isaac, but you get the idea.) Consider these verses from Genesis 22:

5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
If you were one of the young men abiding with the ass, you might think god was acting like a psychopathic cult leader at that moment, forcing Abraham into a situation where he was ready to commit an atrocity to show his allegiance.

An angel prevents the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham and Isaac, Rembrandt, 1634

I am unconvinced that the apologists have succeeded in reconciling such passages with their Platonic vision of a perfect god. I'm neither willing to have my reason unseated by evangelical religion nor to accept reason as my only master when we've seen it so badly used. And the logic of the atheist is not unassailable. The problem of pain is sometimes expressed with the lines from Archibald MacLiesh's play, JB:

I heard upon his dry dung-heap
That man cry out who cannot sleep:
"If GOD is GOD He is not good,
If GOD is good He is not GOD;
Take the even, take the odd,
I would not sleep here if I could
Except for the little green leaves in the wood
And the wind on the water."

But that does not preclude the existence of a spiritual world, especially if God were imperfect. The perfect God was a Platonic ideal, an expression of the Enlightenment in that like the perfectly round orbits of the planets and sun around the earth, God was supposed to express perfection. But like the efforts to explain the actual orbits of the the planets with Ptolemaic assumptions, there is a danger that such justifications will evolve into the epicycles of a spiritual armillary sphere.

The conflict between atheist and believer is one between those who would make reason our god, and those who would make god our reason. Neither position seems attractive to me, and I'm a person who has an unusually high tolerance for ambiguity, and unresolved questions. Consequently, I choose to remain suspended between belief and disbelief, open to possibilities of which I remain unpersuaded.



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