Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Faith of Atheism

Being a theist, I naturally have problems with atheism, a number of them in fact. (Oddly enough, I tend to have more problems with atheists than I do with the -ism, but that's a topic for another post.) At one point in my life, I gave atheism a run for its money, but it just didn't work for me. It's not that I think atheism is completely irrational; I just thought the arguments for, first, the existence of God outpaced those against it, and the same for the arguments for Christianity (Peter Kreeft does a good job articulating them).  But today, the problem I want to talk about here is what I'm calling the faith of atheism, and yes, I'm using that somewhat ironically.

One of my favorite authors is Terry Pratchett. The man, unfortunately, is an avowed atheist. And just like all authors, he writes his point of view into his works.  Who knows, maybe that cynical bent helps him to write his characters as well as he does.

Anyways, one of the recurring characters (maybe the recurring character) is Death. Pratchett develops Death's character in such a way to make him likable, but Death is also the character that Pratchett uses to cast his most critical eye on humanity (because, you know, Death is outside of humanity, but he is made in humanity's image). A lot of what Death says is both humorous as well as insightful, and I think I can dare to say that at times Death most closely articulates Pratchett's own views on things.  In fact, I think I saw a DVD extra in which he says as much.

In Hogfather (one of my family's favorites among his prolific Discworld series), Pratchett waxes particularly philosophical. I don't have the quote handy, but the basic gist is that things like Justice are just big lies we tell ourselves that we have to believe.  He says something like "take apart the universe to its smallest particles and show me one grain of Justice" or something like that. It's actually fairly poetic in its own way (I'm not doing the passage justice, no pun intended).

Sadly, I think it does accurately portray what an atheistic, materialistic worldview honestly is left with at the end of the day. No indeed, there is no atomic element of Ju (Justice), nor of Lv (Love), nor any other virtue. In a materialistic philosophy, these things really are lies, and an adherent is forced to have faith in those lies in order to create a reality that is bearable as a human.

This faith in terms of the scientific basis for it and the act of will it requires is not different from that of believers in God--it's just the object of the belief that differs. And I tend to think that in terms of the day-to-day impact, much like for many folks who place themselves in the theist camp, the faith is typically just an assumed substrate in their day to day life, not something they actively engage. Perhaps one difference is that some atheists may try to deny that they have such faith, if put to the test, saying rather that, for example, Justice is only a handy term to represent a reasoned view of moral behavior in society based on mutual self-interest.  But then ask them what they think about having prayer in schools or not redefining marriage to include homosexual unions, and just listen to them go off on how "unjust" those things are.

The point is not to call them out as inconsistent (we are all inconsistent; it's part of being human). The point is just to highlight that on a day-to-day functional level, we all believe in concepts like Justice, and often it goes deeper than functional to a non-rational, emotional level. We just believe in it.

So what is my problem, then, with atheism? Well this specific problem is that if I'm going to believe in things like Justice, Love, Freedom, Happiness, and other ideals and virtues, I prefer to have a rational basis for believing in them. I couldn't bring myself to believe in something that I rationally thought to be a lie, and a humongous one at that.

Not only that, my own human experience is such that I have experienced these things personally. I think it takes a tremendous amount of faith to believe that my human experience is only the result of material interactions in my body. On the contrary, every fiber of my being tells me that there is more to my existence than the material--my own, observed and reasoned experience (I tend to be fairly self-reflective). So why would I take it on faith from scientists (an Authority) or atheistic philosophers (another Authority) that this is so, contrary to my own observations of life?

For me, that would take a lot more faith than to believe in what seems obvious to me based on my own experience and reason, namely that there is a Prime Mover in and from whose very Being these ideals and virtues immutably subsist in eternal perfection, that this Being created the universe, including humanity, to have some share in those, and that it is because of this that I innately recognize them as real and not a lie we have all agreed to tell ourselves.


P.S. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that what I've said here is somehow a proof for God or even that there's no way to be an atheist and be rational. My view is that we are human and that means we are more than only rational intellects (and more than only bodies). We're all partly rational and partly not, and frankly I think our personal experiences factor into our choice of worldview a lot more than pure reason.

I do think that it is self-deceiving to say (as I've heard some atheists proudly proclaim) that one can live his or her life strictly on "facts" and "science." One would have to be paralyzed (intellectually and, ergo, physically) to do that; it's just not a practicable viewpoint to take--you have to build up a worldview based mostly on three sources: 1) what you have experienced personally (this would include any scientific experiments you've done), 2) the authority of others whom you trust (for whatever reason--this is where what is functionally faith comes into the picture), and 3) reasoning about these two basic sources of information.  You simply can't practicably live by only (1) and (3), and you can't effectively even develop the ideas of "facts," "science," "scientific method," or leverage "peer review" without (2).

P.P.S. Note that I am using the term "faith" loosely here. Generally I prefer the traditional approach of reserving it to mean that belief specifically applied to God, especially as applied to the theological virtue of faith. But I use it here intentionally to illustrate that in human terms, the movement of the mind and will towards a materially unverified (and sometimes unverifiable, in any practical sense) object is functionally equivalent regardless of the object. Hence, the "faith" of atheism, of which I have only scratched the surface in this reflection.