Atheism, Certainty, Mysticism, And Faitheism

In reply to Daniel Dennett’s attack on the supposed need for belief in belief, a Daily Dish reader writes:

Something I find annoying about this atheist-believer dispute is that it all depends on what you mean by “god”. If you require the talking snake, then, yeah, Dennet rules, in my opinion. But if you are some sort of mystic or pantheist and you experience that as “faith,” then the the naivete of Dennet’s arguments is indeed grating. The exquisitely beautiful, scientific worldview is rife with chaos, weirdness, randomness, unknowns and chance. And chance is mystery, and mystery is at the heart of religion. And that’s at the heart of this dispute.

No, that’s not what is at the heart of this dispute.  The heart of the dispute is not whether there is anything mysterious about the universe.  The heart of the dispute is whether those who do not have concrete, specific beliefs about supernatural beings and miracles and divine plans for “salvation”,  etc. should be mollycoddled by those who reject such things out of a belief that it’s better for humanity if the non-believers silence themselves and outright encourage the illusions of their neighbors for the sake of other social goods.  That’s the debate here.  Should atheists stand up for their disbelief in the matters in which religious believers baldly assert an intellectual right to faith.

That says nothing about our mystical feelings of your connection to the entirety of existence.  And as far as I’m concerned it does not rule out defensible metaphysical speculations about the source of being itself.  It only rules out positive statements about the source of all being giving specific people special knowledge or performing special divine interventions into human affairs.  Mystery itself is not religion.  Richard Dawkins opens up his God Delusion with what is essentially an ode to wonder before the universe.

The curious investigation into the details of how the universe works is an expression of reverence and fascination with its mysteries far greater than religious mythmaking which oscillates between celebrating confusion itself as mystery and creating extra fictional contradictory faux-mysteries to worry about.  Science and other rigorous investigations into the natures of things uncover further layers of actual workings and relationships within reality at whose deep complexities and ever deeper riddles we can further marvel.  Meanwhile religion tries to end the mystery with cop outs like “God did it” and then to promulgate ludicrous contradictions like the Trinity or the God-incarnate offered to us as “mysteries” when really they’re just painful attempts to rationalize the sloppy thinking of the Gospel writers.

That’s not nearly as mystically sublime as contemplating the actual known vastness of the Universe, dwelling as suggested on the interconnections of all actually known realities (even where this takes a harmlessly speculatively pantheistic bend that has no connection to unfounded beliefs or unjustified actions), or upon the amazing discoveries of the fundamental dynamics of nearly anything we can study rigorously within reality—from quantum mechanics to the nature of the human brain and innumerable things in the middle.

And I don’t know anyone who argues for belief in belief in vague mysticisms or pantheisms or abstract philosophical positions about a ground of all being.  Those are not the kinds of beliefs which have any practical implications positive or negative.  Those sorts of beliefs are compatible enough with atheistic approaches to the rest of the world that there is no need for New Atheists to adamantly oppose them.  Now, as soon as one’s mysticism or metaphysical speculations about the ground of all being or the pantheistic divine totality in which we all ultimately participate are sought as justifications for specific beliefs and actions with consequences for the world, then those further beliefs and actions require publically accessible reasons to be legitimately justified.  Sublime speculations are not a license for unwarranted truth claims.

To be a scientific atheist and assert scientific certainty about the world when, in fact, the scientific model is so full of uncertainty is, yes, just as irritating as the arguments of naive religious fundamentalists. Both assert that they know in a way that denies the mystery.

I missed the part where Dennett asserted “certainty” about the world.   The majority of atheists I encounter (including myself and even Dawkins) are technically agnostics since we are well aware of the ultimate unresolvability of the questions.  The atheist point is not to dwell on any particular knowledge that there definitely, absolutely is no God.  The point is to demolish dogma’s barriers to open ended, wideranging investigations into the mysteries of the world.  Saying there is most probably no God, or, more precisely no personal, self-revealing divinity as described by any of the religious traditions, is not to strip the world of a mystery but to leave the source of being as the mystery which it is to us and to leave all avenues of inquiry into actually investigatable natures open.

And this has nothing to do with certainty, it’s about probability.  Religious people tend to try to exploit the merest, remotest possibility into a realistic chance.  In a nutshell, they’re like this guy:

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So, yeah, we atheists push back in terms that sound certain, when really they’re just so significantly probable as to be not realistically doubtable by honest inquirers.  But it’s not because we do not take the hard road to certainty seriously, it’s because they don’t.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.