Thursday, February 21, 2008

Atheism: Moral or Intellectual?

My well intentioned mother recently sent me an article from Daily Encounter, entitled, "Is Atheism an Intellectual or a Moral Issue?" The article begins on a false dialectical premise; it is either ones heart, or ones mind that is hindering someone from finding God in Christ. This need not be the case.

This blog often seems to be more 'Catholic' than 'atheist', but it is not a misnomer. We have to be authentic to what we believe, not prideful, but honest. The reason the article was so painful to read is that it perpetuated two problematic, and popular, (mis)understandings of atheism.

1) Atheists are intellectually stubborn or myopic. If they were honest they would see the abundant and (obvious) proofs of God's existence. The article states:

The incredible vastness of the universe and its formation is staggering. To accept all of this as happening by chance would take a mountain more of faith than to believe it all happened by intelligent design by a divine creator. And still the atheist says there is no God.

Certainly, there is agnosticism that should pervade every human thought in connection to the creation of the world, be Christians or atheists, alike. Christians profess that God created the world ex nihilo. Though to profess and to comprehend are different intellectual claims. No one, but God, could comprehend in totality what it means to create something from nothing. This is why births are so fantastical, whence did this new life come from? Though biological it may be explicable, but perhaps not fully comprehendible. I am certainly in awe of the starry sky above me. So, the claim of atheism is not a pronouncement on creation, but an assertion against the existence of God – they are separate issues.

However, the larger issue is that atheism need not be about the intellectual quandaries that seem to have mesmerized Christians and non-Christians. So often you here atheists argue that God can not exist because of evil, or there is no historical evidence to prove that Jesus rose from the dead. Others argue that the Church, if God was real, would not be so corrupted. To point, many Christian theologians are constructing new theologies to try and better articulate answers to these ‘problems.’ Christians should be sympathetic to these concerns, but ultimately the Church (which used Scripture), I believe, has rather persuasive answers to these concerns; the Augustinian notion of evil, the Kierkegaardian 'leap to faith', and the doctrine of sin, respectively. These issues often perplex, worry and even at times estrange Christians from their faith. However, these intellectual concerns are not what necessarily lead people to atheism.

Perhaps we ought to turn to Thomas (from John 20:24-29):
24 Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe." 28 Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!" 29Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

In Luke, two followers of Jesus, on their way to Emmaus talk of Jesus without recognizing him as their companion until the supper feast. Thus, my hope is that someday, while during the Eucharist I see, saying, 'My Lord and my God.' However, there is for some atheists an inexplicable nature in their disbelief. Personally, there is no 'reason' for my disbelief. I find Christianity persuasive, desirable, and admirable, but I still do not believe. Just as Thomas would have surely have wanted to believe Jesus had risen, he did not. Thus, atheism is not essentially driven by intellectual quandaries; it is not simply an 'intellectual issue'.

The article stated somewhat rightly, that, "If I say there is no God, I make myself the final voice of authority and therein usurp the role of God in my life. I become a god unto myself." This type of arrogant atheism is currently and unfortunately more the rule than the exception. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins come to mind. Often some believe that a type of 'reverent agnosticism' ought to be adopted. I rather think a type of reverent humility would be better. Agnosticism suggests that one doesn't know, humility suggests the possibility of error. Atheist, believe they know, but should always concede that they may be wrong, and for me, hope to be wrong.

2) The article suggested that atheists are taking a moralistic 'pass'. They know that if they accept Christ, they must also accept the responsibility to live a moral life. Thus, atheists have eschewed the Church so as to shirk their responsibilities to their fellow brothers and sisters. The article states:
In the end we ultimately believe what we choose to believe—often what is the most convenient for us. For instance, if I choose to believe in God, I know I am morally responsible. On the other hand, if I chose not to believe in God, I delude myself into thinking I am not morally responsible and can live as I please. For example, "Philosopher Mortimer Adler, one of the great intellectuals of the twentieth century, believed Christianity was true, but refused to accept it because it would interfere with his lifestyle. In time, he overcame that objection and became a Christian, which, given the evidence, was the only rational thing to do." I would dare to suggest that maybe, just maybe, his honesty led him in his choice to make a commitment of his life to God and become a Christian.

Perhaps some atheists have figured this crude calculus, I think most have not. To suppose that atheists have cleverly weighed their moralistic options, and chosen that religion is too high a cost seems ludicrous, or at least suspect. Many Christians blithely live immoral lives, and many atheists live meritoriously moral lives. I saw Jim Wallis give a lecture recently where he stated that, "Christians do not have a monopoly on morality." And he is right. But, Christianity does claim to have the true reason for why one must be moral.

Secular humanists have often supported important moral movements. Kurt Vonnegut - my favorite author - was a deeply moral person, and it was embodied in both in his books and his life. Secular humanists share many concerns that the Church shares, but it is in their reasons that they differ with Christianity so poignantly.

Thus, it would seem evident that atheism is not a moral issue, nor is it a intellectual issue. Though it may be for some, it is not exclusively these two.

So what is the issue of atheism?
Whence does disbelief come?

This saddens me, but I do not know. I have no 'reason' for being atheist, I simply am. It is not to be antagonist or stubborn. Yet, the lack of faith, makes me then turn and reexamine theological understandings of soteriology and grace.

If one posits that there is a prevenient grace, then why cannot can I not choose to accept it? If the grace is open and free to all why then do so many not grasp for it, especially those very many who want it?

Another possibility is that many (all?) atheists are just anonymous Christians. They understand the truth of God in a different, but still equally meaningful way. The way this is usually presented is not very satisfying. It seems to mitigate the absolute truth in Christ, while also usurping the real beliefs (or unbeliefs) that others hold toward God in general and Christianity in particular.

Another possibility is that Calvin’s double-predestination was correct. I do often joke to friends that I am the only Calvinist that believes I am not part of the elect. Yet, my Methodists friends usually grow concerned with such a suggestion. They critique that such a God seems to be a God not worth worship, a God that ostensibly arbitrarily predetermined the outcome and course of history and salvation.

Of course, none of these options (and there are more) seem to rectify my lack of faith, nor someone else’s. Humility must then finds its place.

Until the pronouncement of faith through revelation, "My Lord and my God" the issue of atheism is neither intellectually or morally situated. It simply is the situation.


Jimmy Cooper said...

We agree. I hope you are wrong too.

In all seriousness, though, I definitely agree with you that we must resist the temptation of thinking that every rational person, if they only honestly looked at the evidence, would see that Christianity can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. In his recent book "Evangelism After Christendom," Bryan Stone argues that the Gospel must always be presented in a such a way where it can be rejected.

Regarding prevenient grace, while Wesley would want to say that all of us are swimming in a sea of it, he would also probably contend that all of us must make sure that we open ourselves up to the ordinary channels of God's grace, the usual ways that God chooses to share that grace with us--things like prayer, searching the Scriptures, fasting, the duty of constant Communion, worship, works of piety and mercy, etc.

Thanks for the wisdom. You are certainly my intellectual and moral equal. I hope you are enjoying the Democratic debate.

Comments from the Coop

Hellernot said...

"Atheist, believe they know, but should always concede that they may be wrong, and for me, hope to be wrong."
Interesting----but I have a question---Do you pray that you are wrong?
My two cents.......

Chris said...

Wow, Jason.
Thank-you for articulating this. It helps me understand you and atheists as a whole. It makes me want to pray more for you rather than trying to "reason" with you, as if you haven't been reasoning with yourself all this time.

By the way, you're a good writer as well.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.

Please check out this reference which points out that conventional religionists and atheists SHARE the SAME reductionist assumptions about the nature of Reality---and the sophomoric nature of the usual shouting match between them--full of sound & fury and signifying nothing, except hot air.


Plus related references:


Go Out At The Light said...

"Most people live dejectedly in worldly sorrow and joy; they are the ones who sit along the wall and do not join in the dance. The knights of infinity are dancers and possess elevation. They make the movements upward, and fall down again; and this too is no mean pastime, nor ungraceful to behold. But whenever they fall down they are not able at once to assume the posture, they vacillate an instant, and this vacillation shows that after all they are strangers in the world. This is more or less strikingly evident in proportion to the art they possess, but even the most artistic knights cannot altogether conceal this vacillation. One need not look at them when they are up in the air, but only the instant they touch or have touched the ground–then one recognizes them. But to be able to fall down in such a way that the same second it looks as if one were standing and walking, to transform the leap of life into a walk, absolutely to express the sublime in the pedestrian–that only the knight of faith can do–and this is the one and only prodigy."
– Johannes de Silentio, Fear and Trembling, 1843
"Any genuine philosophy leads to action and from action back again to wonder, to enduring fact of mystery."
~Henry Miller

The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be
~Aart Van Der Leeuw
To be a Catholic style of Christian
is to fully accept the notion that God exists outside of space & time and thus is a GREAT MYSTERY to be embraced experientially...Enjoyed your thoughts. JL

Anonymous said...

I think you've missed his point my friend. Some of us, dare I say even Christians, want nothing more than that "experience". Having the existence of this experience perpetuated in our faces can, at times, do nothing more than elicit depression.

What, I wonder, would be your suggestion to those who do want the experience and never receive it? And by experience, I am assuming you mean (1) a knowledge that Jesus is alive and conquered sin and the sting of death for me (Justification or evidence thereof), and (2) a growing into the likeness of the image of God and having, more and more, the same mind and heart that was in Christ (sanctification).

So often I hear encouragement to "take the leap of faith into the absurd" or "embrace the mystery, none of us understand it but we can accept it". I agree with you brother that the triune God and the history of salvation is not a problem to be solved but is, rather, a mystery. But saying that it is a mystery to be experienced is, in this case, preaching to the choir.

I think that, once we have reached a state of humility and possibly despair, encouragement to "experience the mystery" becomes a taunt--no matter your intentions.

I will finish by quoting our mutual friend I like to call Kierkegaard:

"Faith is the highest passion in a person. There perhaps are many in every generation who do not come to faith, but no one goes further. Whether there also are many in our day who do not find it, I do not decide. I dare to refer only to myself, without concealing that he has a long way to go, without therefore wishing to deceive himself or what is great by making a trifle of it, a childhood disease one may wish to get over as soon as possible".

Might I suggest that to refer to an "end" of your own faith as the "means" to another's may be to make a trifle out of faith itself. Embracing the mystery of God an end of faith, not the place from whence it flows. It's almost as dangerous as confusing the means of grace with grace proper. As one who has received a gift of faith that leaves me, at times, as alone and worried as Mr. Silentio's Knight, I must say that this confusion is one we recipients of faith must "get over as soon as possible" lest we ourselves squelch the gift.

On one last note, there are means to grace. I am told in my Methodist tradition that these are channels through which God brings both justifying and sanctifying grace. Until I find evidence of the fulfillment of either in my own life, I will wait in these: reading and study of scripture, proclamation of the word, participation in the Lord's Supper, prayer, fasting, and Christian conference (confession) and works of mercy. In love and hope, I invite any and all into the absurdity which has become my own life. If that isn't attractive, I also love the pub. My wife just pointed out that this Jimmy Cooper character already said the same thing about the means of grace, but didn't offer a drink. He must be one of those "real" Methodists.

grace and peace.

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