On Faith: Guest Voices: New Atheists, Old Realities
As far as I can see, the New Atheists have been slowly executing a strategic retreat. Many seem to admit that there is not now, and can never be, a knock-down proof for atheism. Many seem also to be admitting that, no matter what their skeptical friends write, belief in God is not only here to stay, but also seems to be rooted in human nature itself. It may even provide an evolutionary advantage.
Thus, the line of defense to which they have more and more frequently retreated seems modest and open-minded. As their reply to the question, “Is there a God?” their new answer is perfect for a bumper sticker: “I don’t know, and you don’t know, either.”
This is a mistake. The New Agnostic holds that the burden of proof is not on him; the burden is on others to “prove” to him that there is an object “out there.”
But the evidence about God is not to be sought “out there.” It does not reside among other classifiable, sensory objects in this universe. The question about God is essentially a question about one’s own personal identity. Do you yourself, Mr. Agnostic, find evidence within your own inner life (in a way that can be replicated by others) that your identity is not fully known until you admit that you participate in a life much larger than your own, drawing you toward becoming more fully developed and greater than you are? In a Light more powerful than the light of your own conscience? The question is about you.
No, I don’t find evidence that my identity is not fully known. There is a much larger universe that is most definitely beyond my humble existence and understanding. That does not lead me to a leap of faith to believe in an intellect beyond my own that can be defined or understood as some sort of god. It takes an even bigger leap of faith to think such an intellect would have any idea that I exist or care about me in any way. Why would I be so self-centered to think I have such a personal connection and importance to the whole of the universe anyway?
Consider first the “prison literature” of the twentieth century. In the prisons of officially atheist regimes, Fascist and Communist, there were many who were thrown into their cells at a time when they thought themselves to be atheists. Only slowly did some discover that there was an inner demand in them, a demand that they not become complicit in the lies of the regime; they must not sign their names to the lies put in front of them. On this imperative to stay honest, even at the cost of great pain, rested their entire integrity. If they had compromised that, they would have become part of the universal depravity insisted upon by the regime: “There is no truth but the truth of the Party.” They would have become like their jailers.
But why did they come to hold that this inner drive for absolute honesty was essential to their own human identity? Their senses of touch, hearing, seeing, smelling, and tasting may have ached with pain and violation. They may have been without any feeling of assistance from anybody, human or divine. Even their ability to give reasons for what they were doing might have collapsed, because the pain was so great and the terror of death so acute. The arguments of their torturers may have come to seem evident to them – and yet some deeper inner light drove them to refuse to lie.
What is the source of that light within them, which refused to let them surrender, even when their bodies could bear no more? They experienced that source as something greater than any part of their own body or mind. Yet that light seemed integral to their own self-identity.
This is the evidence that led Sharansky, Valladares, Mihailov, and an unknown number of others to perceive that they in fact lived in a spiritual community larger than their own ego, a community with all other humans struggling to preserve their integrity under threat of pain, and more than that. They also experienced by a kind of connaturality a mysterious Other (incorruptible and insistent) within them, more important than their own bodies and their own temporal life.
Such persons felt inwardly that, if they were not faithful, their moral failure would matter to that Other, in a wholly different way than it would matter to their jailers. Their moral surrender would be interpreted by their jailers as yet more evidence that everybody, just like themselves, had a price at which they would surrender. In such a surrender, their own integrity would die, and so would the real presence of God.
Religion sells hope to the hopeless. If you see no hope or comfort in your future for this life why wouldn’t you be more likely to cling to a fairy tale that eternal bliss awaits you? You would hold onto this even under threat of death since death is now seen as your salvation to get to that fairy tale ending. Just because people can cling to such hope in such desperate times doesn’t make it real. I don’t see it as a sign of maintaining an honest mind at all cost but just simply holding onto a misplaced hope because the person thinks they have nothing else to live for. It’s a hope that the distress of their current existence can be overcome by something bigger than themselves. It is in no way proof that the hope is based upon any sort of reality.
A second bit of evidence within myself (evidence that I participate in a wholly other, inconceivable Source of light) is my own insatiable drive to ask questions. Nothing finite satisfies me. There are always more questions to be asked. No existing concept seems final. In fact, this unrelenting drive lies at the basis of the scientific impulse. But it arises also in our intellectual lives outside of the habit of science. It arises within the habit of being faithful to reason, even in areas where science itself cannot go.
How ironic, nothing finite satisfying me is the reason why I can’t see a finite god with human traits and emotions as an answer to the biggest mysteries of the universe. That a being can exist without creation but with the power and intellect to create this universe is less plausible to me than the universe itself existing without creation. No existing concepts of gods and religion are even remotely final and raise so many more questions than just acknowledging that we know very little about existence. Where science itself cannot go, I do know that we have no real clue about what might be considered the supernatural.
Ought I to marry this particular person? Ought I to take this job, make this work the center of my life’s pursuits? Is this the right institutional home for me, the community best designed to keep me asking questions and growing morally stronger?
One can make such choices intelligently, with good reasons. On the other hand, one may fail to anticipate realistically later twists of fortune. Later, one can blame oneself for having been more blind than one ought to have been. One can deeply regret past choices. In brief, science itself is not the only use for reason; in practical life, reason is also extremely important.
Here, some philosophers observe that people deploying practical reason live as if in the presence of an objective Observer. This Observer cannot be deceived by a person’s own self-deceptions. This Observer keeps pushing one to become more honest with oneself. And this Observer is not “out there,” but within. This Observer is sentinel not only over our scientific reasoning, but also our practical reasoning.
This, too, is evidence that we live in God, and He in us, at the very center of our identity. Within us is the Light, Judge, Merciful One, Brother, Inspirer, Prodder, Driver at the heart of our existence. Without becoming aware of this dimension of our own honesty and unlimited drive to understand, we cannot properly understand ourselves. We think ourselves smaller than we are.
Huh? What is this Observer and why does this person think such a thing pushes us? I don’t make decisions just based upon my logic and reason. Our reasonings are always colored by our emotions and desires. We make choices to contribute to a greater good in society because of our emotions and desires to be part of a greater good. That greater good is community and society and it can be selfish to do for others in hopes that others do for us. It can also be selfish to help others because we feel good about the results of that action. We don’t need a god or inner light to drive us as long as we understand the benefits of a cooperating and helpful community that was born out of the love for our offspring and families.
The New Agnostic may not know, not yet, but a great, great number of us do know – yes, know – that the best drives within us do not come from our finite, sensory selves. We participate in them as an inner light all unbidden. Sometimes even as a torment. These inner drives are much greater than ourselves. They teach us that we are open to the Infinite.
Do you really know? We do not do everything based on reason since reason does not motivate. Emotion and desire motivates us to be the good or bad humans we end up being. It is our fellow humans that are the external influences that push us one way or another without any inner light to guide us. When people fall short it can be because they are ignorant to the benefits of society and why they should be a positive force in our society. It has nothing to do with any sort of inner light. It is a self-deception to see proof of such a connection to something greater when human behaviors can actually be understood by understanding reason, emotions, and human desires.
Why do religious people sell short the human experience and our own infinite possibilities? Why can’t they see that all that can be good in our existence is simply in our own minds, emotions, and desires? We don’t need an inner light to guide us and we don’t need to understand a complex universe that is so far beyond our present understanding that we can’t truly conceive of how or why it all came to be. The best drives within us DO come from our finite, sensory selves. We are capable of so much more, individually and collectively, than a simple faith in a finite fairy tale can tell us about the infinite universe.