Christians say that atheists misrepresent faith when they criticise it. Hoping to avoid this trap, I visited my Patheos colleague Tod Worner’s blog, where he had a post entitled “My Quaint, Silly, Ridiculous, Little, Lovely, Lovely Faith“. It’s a title that seems almost designed to draw derision from atheists, so I won’t bother.
What interests me is this:
You see, the myth, the fairy tale, the lark I believe in says something just a bit more complex, offers something a touch more extraordinary, presents something a whiff more brilliant than the cardboard cut-out caricature of faith erected by its haughty, “enlightened” skeptics. In fact, it has always struck me that the most vocal critics of faith never seem to be talking about any faith that I have ever known or practiced.
I am struck by the almost total inability of Christians and ex-Christians (of which I am one) to communicate with each other. My gut reaction, half way through Worner’s post, was to say aloud “What the fuck are you talking about?” I suspect many atheists would respond similarly. I guess Worner might have a similar response, perhaps couched in holier language, were he to read my blog. In some ways, it doesn’t matter that Tod Worner’s way of understanding the world makes absolutely no sense to me, and mine makes absolutely no sense to him. There is no need for everyone to think alike, any more than there is the need for us all to like the same music or be attracted to the same kinds of people. As long as we are both free to pursue what we feel are flourishing lives, who cares? I have always argued that people’s personal beliefs are none of my business unless they make them my business, and religion should only be attacked where it is doing harm. At the same time, we have to share a planet, so it would be nice if we could at least communicate.
Ex-Christians are constantly accused of constructing a strawman when we attack faith. Even when I rely on my old diaries and schoolbooks as resources, I’m told I’m misrepresenting the teachings, even though I know this can’t possibly be a strawman because I was a believer and this is literally what I believed. OK, maybe my faith was never much like Worner’s (he’s a Catholic and I was a charis-maniac), but there are vocal ex-Christians from every possible flavour of church and denomination. We know that we had the same faith as Christians because we lived it and breathed it. Some Christians will dismiss any ex-believer with the ‘you were never a True Christian‘ line, but I am going to credit Tod with a touch more intellectual honesty. So how come we can’t talk to each other?
Seeing through different lenses
The lens of faith completely changes how we interpret events. Removing it (or even changing it to a different faith lens) completely changes our understanding of them. It’s not only that while I was a Christian I focused on the benefits of my faith and now I focus on the harms. It’s that the exact same facts now mean something radically different to me.
I remember delivering prophecies in church, feeling the warmth of the Holy Spirit upon me, feeling a sense of awe that God was speaking through me. I remember feeling excitement putting my money into tithe buckets, knowing God was going to bless me. Now I think that delivering prophecies is easily explained by physiological, psychological, and social factors: you grow up watching adults deliver these prophecies and you learn the lingo and the Bible verses that make up most of the content. The emotional response comes from the accompanying music, and there’s a surge of adrenaline that is essentially a placebo effect because you believe God is speaking through you. It’s no great mystery. Now I see the tithe as simply wasted money.
I doubt that Tod, a Catholic, much goes in for Holy Ghost prophesies or tithes, so he might agree with me on those points. So let’s take a more difficult one: Tod’s argument that his faith gives him a sense of dignity.
… what’s more, this can’t all be explained as the mindless deterministic product of neurotransmitters and hormones, gene proteins and chemical reactions. C’mon. We know we are something more than that. This is about dignity – imbued, imparted, gifted to us by something larger and more brilliant than us. My faith is the faith of Jews and Gentiles, peasants and Kings, lepers and beauties, wise men and simpletons. Human beings, glorious creations that are special…well, special simply because they exist. We are dignified.
Having spent his introduction warning us that standard atheist descriptions of faith are nothing like his faith, Tod then treats us to exactly the kind of emotional guff Dawkins assaulted in The God Delusion. But I understand this viewpoint. I grew up with it. Under Tod’s subheading of ‘Dignity’, he actually runs together a number of different points:
- Humans are capable of things that even the most intelligent mammals cannot remotely do
- Humans have an appreciation of music and art
- We have political notions that are more developed than what we observe in animal societies
- Human consciousness cannot fully be accounted for by our current understanding of biology
And, not stated but presumably implied: 5. God did it.
Point 3 can be collapsed into point 1, and so arguably can point 2, which basically means the entire argument is “I find this amazing, therefore God”. So how exactly is this different from the usual atheist depiction, unless we are supposed to admit emotional language and frantic hand-waving as evidence?
The answer is that we are supposed to admit the emotional language and the hand-waving (ELHW), because (although people of faith won’t like the dismissive language I am using here), that’s the substance of faith. In the ELHW, we find the sense of awe and beauty that people of faith accuse atheists of lacking. I remember viewing atheism as a bleak, miserable worldview. I remember it seeming as though, as Tod puts it, ‘calling’, ‘grace’, and meaning in suffering would be gone from the world without faith. Atheist arguments to the contrary were just unintelligible.
Now I’ve put down the lens of faith, the exact opposite appears to be true. Life is if anything more beautiful. The idea of the divine makes things worse. When I go to funerals, the bit about God isn’t the bit that gives me comfort; it ruins the experience of mourning. It’s like a cushion someone is trying to insert between me and reality, and I’d like to interact with reality directly, thank you very much.
If I were to expound fully what I think of the rest of Tod’s arguments, he would find little consolation. What Tod calls ‘calling’—the idea that our lives have purpose—I put down to humanity’s evolved sense of narrative. Humans tell stories. It’s what we do to make sense of the passing of time. We talk about our lives as if they have a beginning, middle, and end because there’s no other way we can process meaning.
I really don’t like Tod talking about calling, because some lives are meaningless. Some people are born, they suffer, and then they die. Sometimes there is no point. I realise I am not exactly selling atheism to you here, Tod, but that’s the way it is. If faith involves putting on rose-tinted glasses to pretend otherwise, I think that’s irresponsible. And, yes, I saw the ‘suffering’ subheading, but I think it’s even more irresponsible to pretend suffering has meaning, because it insulates us against the horrors of human suffering and reduces the urgency of trying to deal with it.
But there is beauty in atheism. Art and music don’t disappear just because we aren’t pretending they were put there by the divine. The universe doesn’t stop being enormous or beautiful just because I am not important to it—if anything, it’s the opposite. What you call ‘grace’ doesn’t lose value just because it comes from human beings. Human dignity doesn’t need a divine foundation. Eternal life is no longer appealing to me. If I found out God existed and I was going to heaven, I think I’d feel disappointment. I don’t really know how to explain it, except to say that since I stopped believing, I’ve found replacements for everything that used to give my life meaning and beauty, and I prefer these replacements.
It’s the ending of Tod’s post I find most troubling, though. First of all, he quotes this exchange from Brideshead Revisited:
Charles: “I suppose [the Catholic Church tries to] make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?”
Sebastian: “Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”
Charles: “But, my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all?”
Sebastian: “Can’t I?”
Charles: “I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
Sebastian: “Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
Charles: “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea”
Sebastian: “But I do. That’s how I believe.”
It turns out Tod is on Sebastian’s side in this:
Dignity, Calling, Suffering, Grace. My faith. My quaint, silly, ridiculous, little faith.
Is it nonsense? No. Actually, it sounds terribly sensible to me.
In fact, it is a lovely idea.
Yes. Yes. A very lovely idea.
I said earlier I only believe in criticising religion where it is doing harm, and at this point I have to start objecting. This isn’t just a different way of making sense of the world anymore. This is denying reality.
I find a richer beauty in the world since I stopped looking at it with a lens of faith, and that’s true, but I can’t deny I also find much more ugliness. We have to face this head-on. There is no beauty in the suffering of the poor. God is not going to take care of it when we die. There is no justice unless we create justice.
The notion that we should base beliefs on ‘lovely ideas’ is pernicious. A quaint, silly, ridiculous, little, lovely faith? Well, we can agree on four out of five.
- Why fundamentalists will never listen to me
- You were never a true Christian
- Who cares about atheism?
Correction: This post originally misspelled Tod Worner’s name as “Todd”. As someone whose first AND last names are routinely misspelled, I apologise for this mistake. (At least I spelled “Worner” right.)