Recently, I was writing about the difference between rational faith and irrational forms of fundamentalism. Naturally, some of my atheist commentariat concluded that I was either an atheist in Christian clothing, or else that I’m on the quick and slippery slope that leads to atheism. So I want to talk about why I’m not an atheist.
First, the practical side of it. One of the things that I often hear from dedicated atheists is that they tried really hard to be a good Christian, they found that they couldn’t do it, the cognitive dissonance eventually became too great and so that they let go of their faith and they’ve felt happier and more liberated ever since.
Okay, so I can understand that. In my experience, all rigid ideological system suffer from what I’m going to call terminal incompleteness. That is, whenever you choose to subscribe to a set of well-defined, coherent, totalizing beliefs that are supposed to explain everything, those beliefs will, in fact, turn out to be self-referencing, incomplete, and ultimately self-refuting. Derrida calls these gaps in our philosophies lacunae, and argues that they are a perennial feature of all thought-systems. This very much accords with my experience as someone who has tried on a lot of different ideologies and philosophies over the course of my life.
So the problem is that when you adopt an ideology, no matter how good it looks on the surface, sooner or later you’re going to find its deficiencies wearing. It’s kind of like eating a diet of only one food: even if it’s a highly nutritious Aztec super-food, it’s not going to contain every nutrient that you need. Even if eating a lot of it makes you feel a thousand times better in the short run (because it’s making up for things that were genuinely lacking in your previous diet), after a while the benefits will taper off and you’ll start to suffer from deprivation of whatever it lacks.
This is why I’m skeptical of conversion stories that include a claim that the convertee felt so much better on the other side. You could be converting from Christianity to atheism, from atheism to Zoroastrianism, from liberal to conservative, or from Neo-Paganism to Stoicism: my skepticism would remain the same. (Yes, yes, I know. I’ve been known to peddle in conversion stories. That’s probably part of why I’m skeptical.) Basically, I think that most radical conversions are basically caused by moral, intellectual or spiritual malnourishment and the relief that a person feels upon converting is the result of finally satisfying an appetite that has been suppressed for far too long.
In my own case, I tried to be a good atheist. I tried very hard. I went through about a dozen different atheist philosophies, always trying to find one that would satisfy certain deep-seated longings within my personality. I tried nihilism, atheistic Platonism, existentialism, communism, non-religious Kantianism, radical feminism… The thing was, that no matter what philosophical beliefs I happened to espouse at any given time there were certain fundamental needs that weren’t being fulfilled, and also weren’t going away.
For the most part, these centered around the need to have some kind of basis for a set of primary loyalties that I’ve never been willing to part with. As a deer longs for running streams, so my soul longs for goodness, beauty, truth, meaning, justice, love, and some other thing which doesn’t really have a name but which I’m going to call “worship.” Basically, the desire to have someone or something to thank for the staggering and implausible fact of my existence.
A few of these psycho-spiritual appetites I could explain in terms of evolution. It would be disappointing. If you posit that goodness is really just an evolved altruistic mechanism for promoting the survival of the individual by strengthening their solidarity with the group – an accidental result of the fact that we happen to have evolved as a social species – it kind of takes oomph out of it. But oomph is frankly not a very important philosophical category, so if I really thought it was true that there is nothing more to morality than that, I would have gird my loins, stop daydreaming about Athenian-cheesecake-in-the-sky, and eat my Spartan porridge like a good girl.
But the problem is that as I move from the things that have an obvious purpose vis a vis human survival, like goodness, towards things that have no obvious purpose, like beauty, a purely atheistic account becomes increasingly hard to swallow. The further that you move away from the practical and towards what has historically been called the “spiritual,” the more strained the explanations become. Why, for example, do we actively seek after truth – not just pragmatic, instrumental truths, but truths that couldn’t foreseeably have anything to do with our survival? Worse, why do we crave meaning? It’s one thing to want to find patterns that will help me figure out when the deer will next be at the watering hole, it’s quite another to derive pleasure from the perception of patterns that are way too complex to analyze, and that provide me with no practically useful information.
At each stage of the game there’s a leap that must be made. The leap from a kind of semi-intelligent behaviour that makes sense for what Medieval theologian called a sensitive or appetitive soul to a kind of fully intelligent behaviour that makes sense for a rational soul. Explaining these leaps is not just a matter of filling in some kind of hole in the anthropological, sociological or evolutionary account. I’m not suggesting that God is required to fill in the gaps. What I’m suggesting is that my inmost being is ordered towards a set of goods that can only possibly be intelligible if there is some kind of greater consciousness ordering the world.
Now, I realize that it’s possible that my soul is ordered towards something purely imaginary. It’s possible that there was some kind of weird quirk in our evolution, a neurological aberration that arises, basically, from the overdevelopment of certain purely functional mental systems. It’s possible that we crave God as an unfortunate epiphenomenon of various survival intincts.
Or, it’s possible that we crave God because God exists and has created us to desire a relationship with Him.
For me, given a choice between these two possibilities, it’s a no-brainer. There’s literally no advantage to choosing to believe in the first. Both are cogent. Both are possible. Neither can ever be completely proven or disproven. But it’s not just a matter of Pascal’s wager, because I’m not wagering on some abstract reality that may never come to pass. The fact is that the appetite for God, for truth, for meaning, for beauty, and goodness, and mercy, and all the rest actually can be satisfied. It can be satisfied here and now, in this world. Not perfectly, I admit, but that’s true of pretty much all of our desires.
The point is, the spiritual nourishment that I crave is, in fact, available. All I have to do is cultivate a relationship with God, and lo! these curious desires of my heart are slaked.
Now, as I said, I could be getting satisfaction from an imaginary being, a social construct. But if this is the case, why is there a problem with that? I mean, seriously, we live in a world where we are all in agreement that it’s cool to roam around chasing imaginary pocket monsters on our cell-phones because it brings us pleasure. If evolution is all that there is, then on what possible basis could we argue that it’s somehow wrong to worship a figment of our imaginations who orders us to love our neighbours, forgive those who hurt us, feed the poor, clothe the naked, love the unlovely, and offer non-violent resistance when we are attacked? If religion is just a really cool low-tech VR technology for turning life into an awesome fantasy epic, and the goal is to catch all of the virtues, why not get behind that?
But in the event (in my opinion, the much more likely event) that there is a God, and that we desire mystical union with the Divine because we were wonderfully wrought to be espoused eternally to our Creator, then the reasons for belief are not only compelling, but absolutely essential to our very being.
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