The Atheist as True Believer

Down below, Rod commented over the weekend on a rather creepy incident which took place when he was a young sprout in boarding school. Curiously, Jody (who, you recall, chose to become an atheist based on the mental processes of the teenager who happened to be himself), writes in response, “Not to take away from Rod’s childhood experiences, but a remembered story from the 15th or 16th or 17th year of life is not proof that ouija boards are real and Satan is waiting just out of earshot to send kids spiraling into madness and self destruction.” This is followed by a number of questions which, being translated, say, “Such things do not fit my philosophy, so they cannot be real.” In short, Jody’s reaction is an act of faith, not a response to the evidence. This is, if anything, more common with atheists than it is with supposedly “dogmatic” (read: “ignorant and obscurantist”) religious believers.

Reality has a way of impinging on neat little philosophies, both religious and atheistic. Our little systems of order are forever breaking down. The faith system most under assault by reality is the one which denies the biggest chunk of reality, because reality goes on being what it is. Since God and the supernatural are ultimately the biggest part of reality (He existed before all else and, when heaven and earth pass away, will still exist), atheism has a tough row to hoe to continue plodding away in denial of reality. Believers in the supernatural are free to believe in all sorts of supernatural phenomena they can’t explain. Rigorous dogmatic atheists (and all atheists are dogmatic) have to get rid of every speck of the supernatural, or their system is in ruins. Once again, Chesterton says it better than me:

Any one who likes, therefore, may call my belief in God merely mystical; the phrase is not worth fighting about. But my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America. Upon this point there is a simple logical fact that only requires to be stated and cleared up. Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism — the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence — it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred. All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle. If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer, “But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles. If I say “a peasant saw a ghost,” I am told, “But peasants are so credulous.” If I ask, “Why credulous?” the only answer is — that they see ghosts. Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.

And so, for instance, when presented with a home videotape of a Eucharistic miracle at Betania, which numerous other eyewitnesses attest, which an honest priest attests, which the bishop attests, and which my own senses attest, I can say, “We live in a world that is stranger than we know. God can do as he likes.” and believe the miracle occurred. Jody, however, is constrained by an extremely limiting dogma (promulgated, you will recall, by a 15 year old who once read some dubious stuff on comparative religion and who thereby decided that this was the (convenient for him) Last Word on how Christianity is Really Just Mithraism/paganism Dressed Up in Jewish Robes). This controlling dogma, promulgated by a 15 year old and never reconsidered by the adult, is what now compels Jody to make purely faith-based statements (some of them extremely far-fetched) to reject what a straightforward believer in the supernatural could just take in stride. To believe in the supernatural is a great aid to broad-mindedness.