"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Friday, December 28, 2007

Faith, Religion and Atheists

Two articles last week had me thinking how easy it’s been for prominent blowhard atheists of late to control the terms of the debate. The first was in the Chicago Tribune, “Of books, faith and cathedrals: The mystery at the heart of religion is individual belief.” Notice how the author compares religious faith to that of the atheist:

Without question, the New Atheism sells. Even with what seems to me to be a smug, hip, self-congratulatory tone, these books do quite well. Hitchens' "God Is Not Great" is a best seller . . . . And unlike Hitchens and his fellow nonbelievers, I'm willing -- to employ the phrase of the great singer and songwriter Iris DeMent -- to let the mystery be.

Mystery. That's really the point, isn't it? The mystery at the heart of religious faith isn't about syllogisms or axioms. It's not about logic. It's not about what I think about your beliefs; it's about what you believe. Faith baffles. It's supposed to. It's as puzzling and inscrutable as the emotion one feels when strolling through a Swiss cathedral on a cold afternoon in mid-December, holding a book, minding one's footsteps on the chipped and craggy stone floor but dreaming, all the while, of sky.
Faith is in effect a synonym for religion, while the atheists get the logic, the syllogisms and axioms. Are you kidding me? As if Hitchens doesn’t have faith! We can say it is not religious faith, but it is faith nonetheless. In fact the leap of faith it takes to be an atheist is incomprehensible, because they have to believe that everything came from nothing. I would say that is impossible, but then that would be a self-evident truth that requires no proof, or yes, an axiom.

It is not religious faith that baffles, or puzzles, and it is certainly not inscrutable (i.e. incapable of being investigated, analyzed, or scrutinized; impenetrable). What is incapable of being investigated or proved is the philosophical pre-commitment of the atheist that nothing is responsible for everything. That truly baffles. There is much mystery in religion, and Christianity in particular, but it is not incoherent or illogical. People embrace it for many reasons, but not because it makes no sense. To allow the atheists to traipse around proudly wearing the unchallenged assumption that they are the logical ones with no need of faith is absurd. It is also not accurate or true.

The other article was a wonderful piece wishing Mr. Hitchens a Merry Christmas while making fun of the blowhard atheists. But it also gives them a pass on the faith issue. Here it is:

But for those of us who don’t need a God Helmet, who intuit a Presence all on our own, what Hitchens writes doesn’t matter. Here is a man who admits he has no faith, nor capacity for it, but presumes to write volumes on the topic.
Why do we allow the atheists to determine that faith is a synonym for religion? That’s what in effect is happening here. So we let these little blowhards think that we, the religious folk, we’re the ones who need the faith, we weak minded souls looking for a crutch before a threatening and uncertain universe. In fact, not only do atheists have faith, they have a gargantuan capacity for faith bigger than a black hole. How else could one believe (there’s the word, friends, they must believe, i.e. have faith) that, I say again, everything came from nothing? The only capacity they have bigger than faith is the capacity for self-delusion. It is we, the faithful, yes the religious, who inhabit the rhetorical high ground. Let us stop ceding it to the leapers.


Jay D. Homnick said...

I second the motion heartily. The atheists occupy an absurd logical position, since they believe in something from nothing-that-you-cannot-understand.

Theists believe in something from something-that-you-cannot-understand, and that is something that you can understand.

Tom Van Dyke said...

That's a very good place to start. In fact, Paul Williams, one of Britain's leading scholars on Buddhism, returned to Christianity because of one question that Buddhism found unanswerable---why is there something instead of nothing?

James F. Elliott said...

In fact the leap of faith it takes to be an atheist is incomprehensible, because they have to believe that everything came from nothing.

Of course this is baffling to you, because you get to create the straw man that confuses you. Have you ever bothered to read anything by an atheist, ever? S.T. Joshi, maybe, or Richard Rorty? Hell, surely you're of an age to have read some Hemingway. Try arguing against what some atheists actually say and write, and not what you think they say and write.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I agree with James that a reasonable case can be made for atheism, especially when it comes to human suffering. If there's a God, etc.

Also, this isn't bad.

However, James, Mr. Homnick's [and Paul Williams'] question about something-from-nothing is a worthy counter-question that cannot be ignored.

James F. Elliott said...

Sure it can, since theism doesn't answer the something-from-nothing question either; it merely stops it at an emotionally satisfactory answer to where our something comes from. But where, in this explanation, does god come from? Is god simply ex nihilo, and if so, how does that make theism any more explanatory? All the theist does is add one extra step to the path, and that's completely unsatisfactory in itself. Atheism does not necessarily entail either scientific materialism or nihilism, it simply rejects theism as an answer. And well it should; theism in the "something from nothing" sense, is only one step removed from atheism when it comes to this same problem.

Most atheists that I've read -- including the "new" atheists that seem to garner so much vitriol given their public indecency in having the temerity to be public about their belief -- readily concede that you can't know for certain that there is or isn't a god or gods; one can only be reasonably certain, but never sure. And that's true of everything. Is that unsatisfactory? Maybe. But it's a hell of a lot more defensible than adherence to claiming the truth value of a scriptural tradition.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, I think the something-from-nothing question is key, and atheists simply decide to stop thinking about it.

But that is not an answer, nor would a proper philosopher stop musing on any question.

The second problem is that the New Atheists are also anti-theists, and seek to drive religion out of the public square by using the legal resources of government against it.

Me, I don't see how a manger poses any threat to philosophy. Let 1000flowers bloom, even if the atheist ones are gray, scentless and sterile.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And we may add, Brother James, per this excellent essay, chockful of cool quotes, the question of why is there order instead of chaos?