Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Faith and Doubt: The Perennial Battle

This past week I read Victor Stenger’s The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009). Stenger is an American physicist in his mid seventies. The book looked like it would survey the recent literature of the so-called New Atheists, so I thought it would be a splendid idea to use Stenger as my guide in reflecting on the related books I’ve read over the last few years as well as numerous lectures and debates I’ve watched on YouTube. I’m not writing a book review, mind you, nor will I give a chapter by chapter summary of the book’s contents; rather, I will bounce my ideas off of the book and select only those ideas and themes that interest me most.

Sam Harris sounded the clarion call with his book The End of Faith (2004).  Not long thereafter Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett followed with a best-seller of their own devoted to the topic of atheism. Stenger, rather obnoxiously, likes to show his own contributions to what he calls a “movement” (though I could imagine Hitchens and Dawkins preferring a word like “trend” so as to preserve the idea that they’re all independently minded). It’s not a coincidence that these books follow 911. Harris is quite vocal about the impact of 911 on influencing him to write about religious fanaticism. I’m not entirely sure, though, what motivates these writers; it could in fact be a confluence of various concerns.

“New Atheism,” as opposed to old school atheism, is more “evangelistic” and strident. In Stenger's words: "The new atheists are committed to helping accelerate the trend away from religion that is already occurring in certain parts of the world."  I would also add that the aforementioned authors are not content with doubters settling into agnosticism much less letting believers remain in their belief undisturbed by the facts of science and reason. As Stenger points out, the late Harvard scientist Stephen Gould, himself an atheist, had separated the knowledge we can attain from science and religion into two "non-overlapping magisteria." The New Atheists are convinced that there is no such distinction. I can’t blame them. If they’re convinced that there is no God and no life after this one, that our body forevermore returns to the earth and we go into nonexistence with the expiration of our biological functions, then they have every right to proclaim the truth as they see it from the rooftops. Back in the day, Christians defended their missionary emphasis, what was called in the peculiar language of christianese “witnessing” or “sharing one’s testimony,” with the analogy of a burning house. If you saw a burning house, would you go in there and save whomever you could or would you just keep walking by and not intervene? If, and I do say if, believers have the salvation of souls from eternal damnation as their motivation, regardless of whatever religion they’re peddling, I can’t blame them for proselytizing. Problem is, it appears that more often than not missionary activity—and one thinks of 19-year-old Mormon boys knocking on doors—is about obligation and church growth (read: increasing the demographics to validate the faith) than a heartfelt concern for one’s spiritual destination.

First let me point out a few minor criticisms of The New Atheism. You’d think that the publisher, Prometheus Books, a bastion of atheist and agnostic sentiment, could afford more vigilant and able editors given the new interest in atheism and non-belief. The book is riddled with typos and poor phrasing. Secondly, I tire of Stenger tooting his own horn, always pointing out his original arguments and contributions to New Atheism; he constantly refers to his best-selling book God: The Failed Hypothesis (2007), and he’s not afraid to tell you it’s a best-seller. He obviously wants to place himself in the camp of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett); I’m not saying his voice isn’t important, but he’s not near the writers these guys are. Thirdly, this book is largely derivative, at best rehashing theories the author has already worked out. He pads the book with a chapter, entitled “Holy Smoke,” with information entirely culled from Jon Krakauer’s excellent book on the Mormons, Under the Banner of Heaven. You might as well read the original book. Fourthly, I detect a political bias throughout the opening chapters, which is his right, but I find it annoying. I have a more substantive criticism, however, and I suppose it’s leveled at the New Atheists in general.

I still take issue with the notion that religion is the culprit for violence throughout the world and the concomitant claim that a world of atheists would be peaceful. I’ll pull a “Stenger” and refer to one of my previous writings, “Of Pulpits and Primates,” which discusses the former claim. Stenger’s example of Mormonism, specifically the Lafferty murders described originally by Krakauer, does make the case that religion can be the main, if not sole, source for killing. Dan Lafferty slit a baby’s throat convinced that it was God’s will—God’s will as revealed through a self-proclaimed prophet named Robert Crossfield.

Although Dawkins doesn’t say that religion is the root of all evil, Hitchens acknowledges that some religions are worse than others, and Harris is open to a Buddhism divested of spirituality, they go too far in arguing that religion is, as Stenger paraphrases Harris’s view, “a major source of evil in the world.” Perhaps they make this argument for rhetorical purposes, as they want to show how ironic is the theist claim that atheism accounts for millions of deaths in the 20th century. I recently caught a debate between Harris and Reza Aslan on YouTube and perceived Harris backtracking slightly; he claimed he was talking about ideology, a belief system, more generally, and not religion per se. Fine. I agree that communism and Nazism operate like secular religions. So my point about religion, that is, religion in the traditional sense, not being the source of most atrocities in the world, still stands.

The implication here is that atheists would not commit foul and loathsome deeds. Presumably they would not succumb to fanaticism and blind devotion. If only everyone were a Dawkins or Hitchens, they seem to say. Have they forgotten the deep truths of natural selection so readily? Human nature will probably take millennia to catch up with technology. For generations and generations to come we will use the handy-dandy inventions of our frontal lobe like nuclear fission and string theory to dominate as a nation or ethnic group (or whatever defines a group) other nations or ethnic groups. Our base instincts, the viscera, will have us calculating what is in our best interest. The Us and Them mentality is firmly rooted in us all. And please don’t charge me with seeing the glass half empty; I’m not saying what I want to be the case but what is the case. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, a world of atheists would still be a violent world. We can quibble over whether it would be less violent, however; Stenger points to peaceful countries like Denmark and Sweden that have “lost their religion” for the most part.

You might think that as an agnostic I have residual feelings for religion or those who to subscribe to religion, but I don’t. I’m convinced by both Darwin and Marxist that ideologies are created to dominate and, in the process of natural selection, control the gene pool. Darwin’s second major work, The Descent of Man (1871), addresses the moral implications of natural selection. Since only half my readership consists of rabid Leninist-Marxists, the passage in The Communist Manifesto (1848) merits quoting. Addressing the poor saps who have been duped by the wicked bourgeoisie, Marx and Engels write:

Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the condition of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will, whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of existence of your class. The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason [and religious obligation], the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property…this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you.

I’m not an advocate of their economic and political agenda, especially when they go on to propose some wacky and offensive things like the abolition of the family, marriage, and private property. Moreover, their revolution never happened and the state that adopted their views, Russia, put a tyrant on the Soviet throne and in any case was woefully behind the West in wealth and technology. But there’s a general principle here. You need to look behind the superficial reasons given for actions to discover the basic selfish drive for territory, wealth, goods, and women that they screen. Similarly, much of “religious violence” is really good old-fashioned violence with a religious veneer. The New Atheists seem convinced that a world of atheists will mean a world without genocide and suffering. I don’t believe that atheists are any less moral than believers, and I’d agree with them that there are plenty of cases in which atheists are more moral than believers.  However, they're not particularly less moral than everyone else.

Did the New Atheists convince me to turn agnostic? Yes and no. They perhaps tipped the scales of my doubts and most certainly provided greater clarity in the arguments for and against the existence of God and an afterlife. Most people don’t give up a belief system overnight, and I’m defining a few years of “New Atheism” as overnight. My journey was years in the making, and I only gradually realized that I had been traversing down a path of doubt, always uncertain or unaware whither it might lead me, Der Viator, the wayfarer. Leo Tolstoy once recounted the story of two brothers who went on a hunting expedition. One of the brothers offered a prayer before he went to bed. The other brother remarked simply that he didn’t realize his brother still kept up with prayer. He didn’t try to talk him out of a religious life; he just made an offhanded comment. The brother who prayed never did so again for the rest of his life. William James cites this story as an example of counter-conversion in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Tolstoy’s account of the brothers, according to James, shows how an “additional stimulus,” however small, “will overthrow the mind into a new state of equilibrium when the process of preparation and incubation has proceeded far enough.” This “hypothesis of subconscious incubation” pretty much sums up my situation.

But like other non-believers, be they agnostic or atheist, I base my decision on what I believe to be true and not what might be comforting or useful. Believers too often conflate these two separate issues. Unless you’re a professional philosopher or scientist or otherwise someone who’s spent a lifetime on a serious quest for truth, don’t try to throw out this or that argument to me because, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I’ve probably expended more energy and have read in more depth and breadth both religious and non-theist literature than you have. And if you say that such learning and “intellectualism” is beside the point and a harmful diversion from spiritual issues, well, then any discussion would be pointless.

If I were absolutely convinced that there is no God, I might be inclined to “evangelize” my newfound atheism like the New Atheists. Perhaps I would help those benighted souls see the light and henceforth live a life based on reason and science. Remember the metaphor of the burning house? I should snatch believers from the flames of ignorance and fear rather than walk on blithely.  For their part, the New Atheists would spur any fellow atheist into action. To their way of thinking, it would be arrogant and condescending to let others continue in their blind faith, just like the kings and priests of old who used religion as an opiate of the masses. Harris, Stenger, and Dawkins believe we can appreciate life better once we've come to terms with truth. They also affirm that the atheist position, contrary to the theist claim, hold the mysteries and beauty of the universe in greater awe. Dawkins calls nature the “greatest show on earth.” Plus they’d say the stakes are too high; religion is too dangerous not to try and root it out of people. Think of the president of Iran or the United States operating more on the idea of a returning imam or apocalypse than reason and science.  "We not only regard such beliefs as wrong," writes Stenger, "we see them as immoral and dangerous to the future of society."

Even if I were an atheist, however, I wouldn't feel compelled to spread the less-than-good news.  A friend of mine who is treading on the same path mutatis mutandis has commented that he doesn’t want to be the source of someone’s disillusionment. I agree.  If any friends or acquaintances of mine were to challenge me to disabuse them of their credulity and theism, in the spirit of an intellectual joust, I would point them elsewhere; there are plenty of books and documentaries available that they can consult instead.

Perhaps for some atheists “morality shapes theology.” Evangelical Christians like to talk about how the unbelief of unbelievers stems from their desire for immorality and unwillingness to face a Holy God who demands righteousness. Some of the things I hear Christopher Hitchens say might give some credence to this view. While some atheists, like the comedic actor Ricky Gervais, wish there were a benevolent God but just can’t bring themselves to believe it without any evidence, Hitchens claims he’d never want such a “totalitarian” tyrant peering into every aspect of his life. However, I don’t think a desire to live their lives the way they want to is one of the strong motivations for atheists in rejecting the existence of God.  For most of them it's more about the weight of scientific evidence against the notion.

Stenger devotes a chapter to “Suffering and Morality.” Theodicy, or the “problem of pain,” has interested me for years and years. For atheists and secular humanists, the presence of suffering and evil in the world has provided them with ammunition against theism. Maybe, maybe not. Stenger incorporates some of the insights of biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, who lost his evangelical faith after studying Scripture in depth. I have a couple of his books. Stenger’s main claim here is that the Bible is not the most moral book and he gives some examples. He brings up an observation I had never really considered. The book of Job recounts the life of a man who lost everything. Satan told God that Job serves him faithfully only because he’s living on easy street. Take his livestock and children away and he’ll be singing a different tune. Apart from the problem that God comes across rather capricious and subjects himself to Satan’s criticisms, another disturbing conclusion of this story is that Job’s children, the ones who die and not the new batch he gets after God’s test is over, don’t fare very well. If the book of Job is about remaining faithful to God throughout trials and tribulations, this lesson was lost on Job’s dead children.

I'm not an atheist, but I am an agnostic of a sort.  It'd probably be more accurate to say that I've become more self-conscious of my agnosticism.  Let me address briefly my dear Jewish, Christian and Muslim readers, that is to say, the non-rabid-Leninist-Marxist operatives who visit this site. Don’t think I relinquish my faith easily; it’s a joyless occasion. It’s not a rite of passage to be celebrated with fanfare and feasting. The prospect that life ends with our biological demise is a bitter pill indeed, even if long-term atheists have learned to accept this reality or in fact never had an issue with it. Stenger, rightly and wryly, comments that he’ll never win adherents with a message of non-existence after death.

Who wouldn’t want to live forever in paradise alongside loved ones? With death comes the cessation of all my precious memories. Everything that I have studied and learned—history, science, economics, you name it—will be erased. The love of family and friends will be no more. All the passion, heartache, sacrifice, devotion, exhilaration that you have ever experienced—all for nought.  Atheists try to salvage a modicum of comfort out of these hard facts. They say, for instance, that we live on in the memories of future generations and in the DNA we’ve bequeathed to our progeny. They might also add that my knowledge and involvement have contributed to the advancement of the species in some small way. We could similarly add the old Roman notion of fama (fame) as a kind of immortality.  I think of the words of the fictional character in the movie Gladiator, Maximus Decimus Meridius, as he leads a cavalary charge against the Germanic hordes: “What we do in life echoes in eternity!” Whatever. If I ever find consolation in these suggestions I would be absolutely amazed!  I find them hollow and futile.

Why do humans possess a yearning for something eternal?  I don't want to rehearse a version of St. Anselm's bogus ontological argument here, but our innate thoughts about something beyond ourselves must give us pause.  We must wonder if our thoughts stem from a real spiritual realm of some kind.  Of course these thoughts don't have to lead us toward a personal, intelligent and ethical God in the Abrahamic tradition.  No, there might be some "force" out there devoid of intelligence and morality.  I know what Darwinists would say: We as a species have created gods and an afterlife either as a way of coping with our short, mortal existence or as a means of adapting to our environment.  Think of the passage from The Communist Manifesto above.  The Haves will fashion an ideology of control, replete with morals and a vengeful deity, in order to keep the Have-Nots in their places.  I'm not entirely convinced by these valid arguments.  Only those who are predisposed to be anti-religious would say that religion is entirely about control and leave out other positive aspects.  And why do we need to come up with a life beyond ours as a way to cope with our mortality?  Why couldn't we be hardwired just to accept this fate?  Just because we seem drawn to a spiritual explanation of phenomena and many of us long for a life after this one doesn't prove anything.  But it's still worth pondering.

I remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown,” which is at least in part an allegory of faith or the lack thereof. The Puritan man leaves behind his beloved Faith, “exchange a parting kiss” only to stumble across a witches Sabbath in the woods. I feel like Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown stumbling across his beloved Faith at a witches Sabbath in the dark woods. You might think me impious or sacrilegious when I say that if a personal God is out there, by all means please reveal yourself to my weak eyes and weaker faith. I’m waiting with open arms to embrace a life of purpose, a life beyond this mundane one, full of eternal joy. I haven’t done away with faith altogether; I’m an agnostic and existential theist with a lot of hope. I remember the author Steven King once saying in a radio interview that it would bum out his day if God didn’t exist. That's how I feel too.

I am not an atheist and I don't think I ever will be. I understand the point Stenger makes about lack of evidence, but I’m still taken aback that the New Atheists speak with such certitude on things that they can't possibly know for sure. Theism and atheism are both dogmas. The theist and atheist are making an assertion about the way things are. Alas! I feel like a ship without an anchor adrift in a sea of uncertainty. For good or ill, I must be faithful to the dictates of my doubts; my conscience is captive to intellectual integrity.  Here I stand.  I can do no other.  God help me.  Amen.