[Editor’s Note: Yesterday, I posted the first in a series of letters exchanged between myself and Quixote, as part of a discussion of the most important reasons why people become theists or atheists. This is Quixote’s first reply.]
Most analytic varieties of atheism seem committed to experience, science, and reason as foundations of rational belief. Consider John Shook’s definition of Naturalism, as published on Naturalisms.org:
Naturalism is usually defined most briefly as the philosophical conclusion that the only reality is nature, as gradually discovered by our intelligence using the tools of experience, reason, and science.
As a Christian theist, I’m happily inclined to agree with experience, science, and reason as foundations of rationality, and as fundamentals of belief; ironically, were I an atheist, I might not so eagerly consent. Continental philosophy beckons from her paradoxical twin towers of being and nothingness.
Fundamentally, however, I comprehend the commonplace, everyman approach to atheism — any who wish to maintain that atheism does not posit positive beliefs may substitute naturalism as defined above — and theism as occurring without substantive personal discourse, without ponderous reflection, without consistent dark nights of the soul. For the theist, the natural and logical consequence is a simple, generic fideism, but first to the atheist.
Most elite atheists, those characterized by education, and say, a working knowledge of the Euthyphro dilemma (ED), seem blissfully unaware that the seemingly overwhelming majority of their fellows engage in afideism. I prefer to call them when you’re dead, you’re dead atheists. This subset of atheism requires absolutely no rationale for a rejection of God belief, no finely tuned argumentation against God’s existence, no consideration of theistic thought on the matter. One non-believer I questioned in this regard today said “It’s a waste of time to think about that.” In fact, the epistemological challenges frequently raised by elite atheists against theists apply with full force to the elite atheists’ philosophically unsophisticated bedfellows.
The resemblance of most theists to when you’re dead, you’re dead atheists is strikingly noteworthy. This very day I queried a very close Christian believer, in order to flesh out Ebon’s question. “Why do you believe in God?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said. “I never thought about it. I just always have. I can’t not believe. It’s impossible.” To further complicate matters, though she was raised to believe in God, so was her sister. Her sister never believed.
Hence, what are the most fundamental reasons why people become atheists or theists? I conclude that whatever the primary answer to the question is, no answer without sufficient motivational imbrication over the two groups seems plausible. But primarily, be it theistic or atheistic, most people appear to approach this question with simple faith, or simple non-faith. The assertion that the realm of fideism is inhabited solely by theists is false.
Then there’s the rest of us on opposite sides who pore over arcane texts, cruise blogs, enroll in Philosophy of Religion classes, wrestle with pedantic points, and yes, even work once more through the ontological argument for God’s existence. We’re the strange ones, my fellow travelers. And I’m glad to share the road with you. I encourage you to follow me at the fork — it’s a road less traveled, but as Frost wrote, it’s made all the difference to me.
Ebon has submitted two initial reasons he’s an atheist. I’d like to respond directly, and will, but first I owe him some positive assertions from my side of the Maginot line. With that image in mind, I’d also like to reaffirm at the outset some ground rules I intend to honor as this discussion matures:
- My allusion to the Maginot line is the nearest I will approach Godwin’s law. Atheists are not National Socialists, nor were National Socialists atheists.
- In whatever manner morality is discussed, it will never be suggested or intimated that atheists are immoral, amoral, or incapable of developing sophisticated, fully functioning ethical systems.
- It’s possible for people to disagree honestly and respectfully, and remain friends even with profound differences in thought.
The following, then, are personal reasons for my faith, not intricate arguments. Let’s begin with experience, and I desire to be transparent about my faith in God. Awareness of God presents itself immediately to most, if not all, theists. I’m no different, and I make no apology for this sense of the divine. I’ve admitted such previously on Daylight Atheism: I can’t remember a time I did not believe in God. I’m like the lady quoted above: I can’t not believe. I am able to imagine a world without God for limited stretches, but it requires effort and vigilance. In essence, it’s unnatural for me.
Nor do I think I need to apologize. If such a thing as properly basicality obtains, belief in God is certainly properly basic in the classic foundational sense. It’s incorrigible, presenting itself as clearly as pain. No wonder most theists do think God is as evident as the sun.
Moreover, a Kierkegaardian leap of faith — not that I claim this for myself in an absolute sense — is no less justified than any naturalistic existential philosophy. If existence does in fact precede essence, and my actions determine meaning in my life, then how does the choice to believe in God differ from any other choice, Sartre’s wish to be unobserved notwithstanding?
Secondly, most Christians find the Bible persuasive, and found their faith on Scripture. I’m no different in this regard. Unlike many, I’m intimately aware of the counterarguments to this claim. Nevertheless, I embrace Christianity in its full supernatural rigor. And, I concur; considering the Bible and Christianity without a prior God belief is meaningless. There’s a reason Christ told Nicodemus you must be born again before you can see the kingdom. The Bible and Christianity will appear particularly foolish to any naturalist, and I don’t hold this against any particular naturalist in the least. Conversely, I predict it.
This immediate sense of God is supported, then, by a great nexus of reason and observation. Reason undergirds theism, in my estimation. While there may or may not be one ironclad argument that demonstrates the existence of God beyond a shadow of a doubt, there are a host of valid, and I think sound, deductive arguments for God’s existence. To these are added inductive arguments based on observation. Our shared observation of the universe — love, morality, justice, consciousness, justice, you know the drill — screams God as the best explanation for the theist. The existence of these arguments and observation, taken together with the direct experience of God, and in the case of Christians through Scripture as well, presents a formidable web of supporting evidence for faith in God.
Is there a confirmation bias, or some other form of bias operating within the theist in considering this question? Does the theist’s sense of God influence her thought with regard to argument’s for God’s existence, her experience, her observations? There’s no question in my mind… of course, there’s bias. I’m biased toward belief in God. I freely admit it, and guard against it to the best of my ability. Nonetheless, bias is a shared failing of humanity. Naturalists are as biased to the question as anyone else. Realizing this is the starter’s pistol for reason, not the finish line.
On the negative side, non-theism, as an alternative to theism, lacks, in my estimation, sufficient explanatory power to entail the whole of my experience, reason, and observation. A methodological naturalism is highly successful in determining the temperature at which water boils, and in this sense it is the best solution to the way the world works. Mr. Shook points to this phenomenon as evidence for Naturalism, since theism is invoked increasingly at the boundaries of what is known.
I reject this notion, however. My most intimate observations and intuitions argue against Naturalism — consciousness, the soul, good and evil, a sense of God, personality — and, likewise, the very borders of the universe, its beginning, the great sub-atomic realm, and the existence of abstract objects and properties, by definition are at the fringes of what can be known or tested scientifically; yet, they are crucial to a systematic consideration of faith or non-faith. Perhaps the naturalist is correct in his confidence that these questions will be resolved naturalistically, but from our historical vantage point, which is the only one we have to go by, this appears a fantastic claim given the present state of knowledge, and our shared notions of science’s capabilities and the manner in which it functions.
Furthermore, I have asserted above a program of natural theology, which I consider to be successful taken as a whole. In this, then, I detect in Naturalism an arbitrary walling-off of what can be known. Lastly, it does not appear clear to me, both logically and intuitively, that Naturalism could ever demonstrate its own claims. This is the great irony of the theism/non-theism debate.
I have run a bit long, and for that I apologize. To remain faithful to the question, I have attempted to provide fundamental reasons why theists believe in God, not specific justifications for those reasons. In this, I will make myself available to address any specific questions to the issues raised.