Sunday, January 27, 2008

Atheism: a question of faith?

Alister McGrath, in The Twilight of Atheism, outlines the fascinating history of modern day atheism. I really enjoyed the book, but the main issue I had with McGrath's account is that, although he covers the cultural trend of atheism in detail, he fails to examine the philosophical merits of atheism itself. When examining a specific worldview, it is important to explore the cultural aspects of that worldview, as McGrath has done with atheism. But if one needs to examine the merits of a worldview, additional questions have to be asked. Can the worldview be adequately defended? Does it make philosophical and logical sense? Is it probable that it is true? This line of questioning is absent from Twilight. I understand that this is not the real scope of the book, as it is primarily an historical account. If this was McGrath’s only reason for not including philosophical discussion, I would have left it at that. However, on page 180, McGrath writes:

The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God. If 'faith' is defined as 'belief lying beyond proof’' both Christianity and atheism are faiths.

According to McGrath, any philosophical or scientific argument about the existence, or non-existence, of God leads to a stalemate (page 182); the matter lies beyond rational proof, and is ultimately a matter of faith (page 179). In other words, discussing the philosophical merits of atheism is a fruitless exercise.

I will, in a number of posts, unpack my reasons for why I disagree with McGrath on this point, but in this post I want to focus on the claim that atheism is simply a form of faith. I agree with McGrath that one cannot prove with absolute certainty that God doesn't or does exist, but does this mean that atheists make their choice based on faith alone? I offer two comments in response.

There is a lot of faith going around
Firstly, one can argue that there are many things of which we can conceive, but for which we don't have ultimate proof. Invisible trolls, ESP, UFOs, the Loch Ness monster, to name a few. Can we prove or disprove each of these things with absolute certainty? I would think that we can't. The list of improvable things is endless; does it make sense then to claim that I'm exercising faith when I decide to not believe in all these conceivable things? Would it make sense for a friend of mine to argue that I'm using faith when I don't believe in his claim that he recently witnessed a stray cat talking Spanish? After all, I can’t prove, with ultimate certainty, that the cat in question did not speak.

Is faith involved here? When I come across a claim as incredible as a speaking cat, I ponder the following questions: (1) are the characteristics of the claim logically co-herent, (2) does the claim agree, more or less, with our current knowledge of the universe, and (3) does the claim correspond with our experience of how things work?

If the general answer to these questions is no, then I would think it rational to not believe in said claim, unless evidence, more than the usual amount, is presented to me.

The Bible is full of events and claims that seem incredibly improbable. It is only rational, in my own mind at least, to not believe in these claims until good evidence is forthcoming. I'm not making a decision that lies beyond the proof, but rather making a decision based on what I currently know. No faith seems to be involved in this process.

Does lack of belief = faith?
Secondly, I guess if every atheist declared “I believe that there is no God”, then McGrath would have a point, but as I’ve explained before on this blog, my own position is somewhat different. I would not claim that “I believe that God doesn't exist”; rather my position would be best described by the statement: “I don't believe in the existence of God”. The first statement denotes belief, while the second statement denotes lack of belief. If faith is about having belief, without sufficient evidence, about the existence or non-existence of an entity, then the position of lack of belief cannot, by definition, be a product of faith.

Atheism thus has very little to defend. McGrath, on the other hand, believes that the creator or the universe has entered time and history in order to communicate with us, and he claims to have a personal relationship with this creator. It is true that we cannot prove, or disprove, the existence of God with absolute certainty, but surely the burden of proof is more heavily placed on those who claim, or even believe, that such a god exists.

To summerise: I don’t agree with McGrath’s claim that atheists in general use faith to reject the existence of God. Firstly, most atheists would claim to have used a rational process of thinking when evaluating, and eventually rejecting, the claims of Christianity, Secondly, most atheists do not make a positive claim of belief regarding the non-existence of God. Their very lack of belief rules out faith by default.

Your thoughts?

Return to Twilight of Atheism index page

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Book: His Dark Materials

Sin is good, because without it we would not be fully human. This was the theme that stood out for me when reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, of which The Golden Compass in some countries printed under the title The Northern Lights – comprises the first book.

What I love about fantasy in general is that authors are free to create an entirely new world, and then infuse it with themes and ideas that mirror our own dreams, beliefs, hopes and fears. The Lord of the Rings explores the elements of temptation and choice; The Chronicles of Narnia is a story beautifully intertwined with Christian symbolism.

His Dark Materials is no different. On the surface, the story is about the adventures of two children who travel among many worlds, encountering a range of incredible creatures, friends and foes. But there are many different themes threaded into the story. On one level, the story is about the difficulties of growing up, becoming an adult and finding love. On another, it is about rebellion against authority, especially against religion that has abused power.

Pullman has turned the tables in this trilogy with a clever twist, one which has caused much of the controversy amongst Christians. In the story, God
referred to as the Authority is the villain. The angels who rebelled against God and were kicked out of heaven: they are part of the protagonist camp. The original Fall in the Garden of Eden is seen as a positive event, as it allowed humankind to mature and gain knowledge, like a child reaching the maturity of adulthood.

In the story, the Authority is once again increasing his tyrannical rule among many worlds, mainly through the use of the church (referred to as the Magisterium), and humans are poised on the edge of another great rebellion. Lyra Belacqua, the young girl and main character in the story, has a pivotal role to play in this war. It has been prophesied that she is the second Eve; she – together with her friend – will bring the downfall of the Authority by succumbing to temptation.

But the most interesting part of the story is the mysterious particle called Dust. Symbolically used by Pullman to refer to the concept of sin, Dust is only attracted to adults who have passed the ‘age of accountability’. The Magisterium attempts to destroy Dust, because without it, humans will lose their ability to rebel and will become totally subservient to the Authority. In other words, without Dust (i.e., sin), humans will lose their freewill.

And this last point got me thinking. I’ve heard many Christians stress the importance and positive nature of having freewill. But isn’t freewill impossible without sin? Will Christians become mindless robots when they finally enter the gates of heaven one day, free from their sinful nature? In Pullman’s view, having sin is what makes us fully human, as it provides us with freedom.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Relgious belief: poison or cure?

The atheist Christopher Hitchens and Christian Alister McGrath square off in this debate on whether religion is good for society. I'm not a great fan of Christopher Hitchens: his belief that we should destroy our enemies, as well as his views on the Iraq war, is quite bewildering, but he definitely seems to dominate this debate.

If you don't have the time to watch the entire debate now, you can download it here. It's about 255Mb in size, so if you don't have adequate bandwidth (like me), then you can download an MP3 version here.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Book: The Twilight of Atheism

Does belief in God (or no belief in God) cause intolerance, or do some people – irrespective of their belief system – become intolerant because they are simply human? This is the question that continuously played on my mind as I read Alister McGrath’s fascinating historical account of the origins of modern day atheism.

In McGrath’s view, atheism is simply a cultural trend that became popular during the Enlightenment, experiencing its peak during the 1960’s. Atheism, McGrath argues, arose as a response to the oppressive control of the church in Europe, and was seen as a worldview that would liberate the West, both politically and sexually, from religious domination. McGrath points to the French Revolution as the event that introduced atheism into politics, and in later years this was followed by the development of the intellectual case for atheism, through proponents such as Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.

However, McGrath argues that atheism is now on the decline, due to a number of reasons: (1) it arose as a response to form of Christianity that is no longer dominant in the West; (2) atheism, ‘the natural ideology of the Communist state’, was tainted by Communism’s brutal rule; and (3) the rise of postmodernism has weakened atheism’s hold on society, as atheism is largely based on the precepts of modernistic thought.

McGrath claims that atheism lacks imagination, currently has poor leadership, and is viewed by many as an outdated worldview. On page 174:

Atheism, once seen as Western culture’s hot date with the future, is now seen as an embarrassing link with a largely discredited past.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. McGrath is incredibly gracious towards atheists (you won’t find hell fire preaching here), and he weaves an engaging story. There are points that I disagree with, and I am in the process of writing additional blog posts that cover some of these. So watch this space.

In this post, I will return to the question I posed at the beginning: is evil inherent in belief (or non-belief) in God, or does evil arise from human beings despite what they believe? On one hand, McGrath seems to argue that atheism naturally leads to evil. While discussing the relationship of atheism with communism, McGrath writes on page 235:

Yet, as Dostoyevsky foresaw, the elimination of God led to new heights of moral brutality and political violence in Stalinism and Nazism.

In other words, atheism is inherently bad for society because if you remove God from your worldview, there is nothing stopping you from hurting your fellow man. However, elsewhere, McGrath seems to imply that it is human nature, not necessarily belief (or lack of belief) in God, that causes evil. On page 262:

Yes this not to say anything especially negative about atheism – merely that it is just as prone as any other system of thought to the frailties and failings of human nature.

I don’t agree with McGrath that atheism naturally leads to evil, but something can be said for his second comment, that any belief system can fall prey to the frailties of human nature.

What are your thoughts?

Other posts on The Twilight of Atheism:
Atheism: a question of faith?
No to an atheistic world

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Happy to be an atheist

Jon Voisey, author of the Angry Astronomer blog, posted an interesting article on why he is happy to be an atheist. He raised, what he believes, are the following characteristics of the atheist mindset:

1) The big answers about life require struggle

With atheism, you don't get any prepackaged answers. Science has become the default explanation, but unlike theists, those answers had to be worked for, instead of just having them handed down from on high.

2) We are intricately part of the natural world
Voisey quotes Chuck Lunney:

Rather than being created apart and unique from the rest of the living biosphere, accepting the fact that humans are part of and intimately connected to the universe makes me care intensely about every little thing that exists.

3) A love for critical thought and skepticism

Another advantage [of the atheist] mindset is that it avoids hasty and irrational decisions. Every time I've heard about people being taken in by the silly Nigerian Email scam, it's always someone taking a "something for nothing" offer on blind faith. . . This is not to say that atheists are immune to such scams, but having a mindset that requires actually holding answers up to some sort of scrutiny greatly decreases the chances of getting taken in by frauds.

4) Optimism

Another one of the things I'm quite happy about is that I have a general optimistic view of humanity. Unlike religion, which tells us that humans are all awful sinners and deserve eternal damnation unless they accept the particular deity of choice, atheism carries no such inherent emotional baggage. We're free to actually make informed decisions on one another.

5) Claiming ownership of one’s own life

Lastly, I'm glad for my time. Not just that I get to sleep in on Sunday mornings, but that I get to actually live my life without absurd notions about what I have to do or not do to to (sic) ensure eternal life. It's freeing to know that my time is my own and that, when I do give it, it's because I do so knowing I care about friends and humanity, and not because I'm trying to earn karma points for the afterlife.

These are positive values, and I subscribe to these, but I think some atheists mistakenly believe that these values are unique to atheism. I know they are not, as I personally know theists who subscribe to many of these as well. However, I wonder if intellectual atheism at least
encourages these values.

Update: 13/04/08
The blog, Struggles with Faith, has posted an excellent response to this article. Please take time to read it here.