Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins is fond of pointing out that Christians are all atheists of sorts. We are atheists with respect to Zeus, Thor, Marduk, and a whole host of other gods. At that point he likes to quote Stephen Roberts to the effect that he just believes in one less god than we do. One of the main points of this observation is that once you realize how silly believing in Zeus is, you’ll realize the silliness of believing in Jesus. Cute.
The other point I see being made is that the atheism/theism debate is about belief in a certain proposition: does God exist. The theist does and the atheist just doesn’t. There’s just a proposition’s difference between them and the theist is the one who has to justify his acceptance of said proposition. The problem is that this picture is too simple. Rarely do we simply “disbelieve” in something. Atheist’s minds do not have a blank space where the “theism” belief supposedly resides in the mind of the believer. No, it is filled–with something else. It’s not just believing in Christianity or disbelieving it. It’s believing something else instead.
See, in a sense, we all live by creeds. A creed is a summary statement that encapsulates our deepest-held, foundational beliefs about reality and the world. We all have them, even if we’ve never made them explicit. Put another way, sociologists tell us that we tell ourselves stories, understand ourselves at very deep levels as actors in some drama, starting with the small, personal ones like “I am Derek, son of Arliett and Tino, born such and such, grew up in so and so, now married, living in Orange, and working towards future X”. This is a short narrative understanding of myself. We usually fit these into broader narrative understandings such as Buddhism, Islam, Marxism, or Christianity that tell us big-picture stories about who we are, how we got here, and where were going. It’s inevitable.
Because of this, we are all living according to alternative creeds. The Christian recites the Apostles’ Creed, but she doesn’t do so in a vacuum. Rather, she does so in contrast with the other creeds on offer. It is those creeds which I find incredible and in particular, the dominant, competing creed that has been offered up as a substitute–that of the Enlightenment.
A Unbelievable Creed
Philosopher Peter Van Inwagen’s delightful essay outlining his journey from atheism to Christianity, Quam Dilecta has a very helpful description of the creed of the Enlightenment.
There is, I believe, an identifiable and cohesive historical phenomenon that named itself the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and which, although it long ago abandoned the name, still exists. Like the Church, it does not speak with one voice. Like the Church, it has no central government. Like the Church, it is made up of many groups some of which heartily detest many of the others–some of which, indeed, regard themselves as its sole true representatives and all others who claim to be its representatives as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Like the Church, it has a creed, although, unlike the Church’s creeds, its creed has never received an official formulation. But that is a minor point. Its creed can be written down, and here it is:
”There is no God. There is, in fact, nothing besides the physical cosmos that science investigates. Human beings, since they are a part of this cosmos, are physical things and therefore do not survive death. Human beings are, in fact, animals among other animals, and differ from other animals only in being more complex. Like other animals, they are a product of uncaring and unconscious physical processes that did not have them, or anything else, in mind. There is, therefore, nothing external to humanity that is capable of conferring meaning or purpose on human existence. In the end, the only evil is pain and the only good is pleasure. The only purpose of morality and politics is the minimization of pain and the maximization of pleasure. Human beings, however, have an unfortunate tendency to wish to deny these facts and to believe comforting myths according to which they have an eternal purpose. This irrational component in the psyches of most human beings–it is the great good fortune of the species that there are a few strong-minded progressives who can see through the comforting myths–encourages the confidence-game called religion. Religions invent complicated and arbitrary moral codes and fantastic future rewards and punishments in order to consolidate their own power. Fortunately, they are gradually but steadily being exposed as frauds by the progress of science (which was invented by strong-minded progressives), and they will gradually disappear through the agency of scientific education and enlightened journalism.”
Van Inwagen goes on to concede that there are various Enlightenment denominations (Marxist, Positivist, New Atheist) who would object that he’s left something crucial out. At its core though, this complex is central to all of them.
It is this creed that I find myself unable to subscribe to for a number of reasons too large to expound here. I will simply point out that any sort of optimism about the human condition in light of the history of the 20th Century has always struck me as farcical. The idea that science and reason (whatever that last term actually means) can actually deliver anything close to a utopia, or even a decent place to live is a fairy tale. Studying almost entirely secular moral philosophy in college had the interesting effect of convincing me that prospects of finding any sort of viable, normative moral system connected with naturalism, (ie. absent the divine, or a transcendent order), is similarly risible. Once again, I commend Van Inwagen’s essay, the second half of which is devoted to showing why he finds this creed untenable.
Where am I going with this?
I’d be lying if I were to tell you that I never find Christianity difficult and hard to accept. It has moral codes that are uncomfortable, both because they are personally hard to follow, as well as because they are socially unacceptable. Reading the Bible is weird sometimes. I mean, really? Bears? (2 Kings 2:23-25) I look out at the world filled with evil and horror, and even though I’ve read a lot of good answers on the subject, it’s still hard to stomach that God is good while he allows these things. I could go on for a while listing the difficulties. I’m sure you have a number of your own.
Still, when I look to the alternatives I find that while Christianity is tough sometimes, the competing options on offer are just impossible to swallow. At those times, I feel like Winston Churchill when speaking of democracy in the House of Commons:
“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Please don’t misunderstand me–I think there are good, positive reasons to believe in Jesus. I have to admit though, one of the main ones is the fact I find the other options simply unbelievable.
Update and clarification: There apparently has been some confusion as to the point of his post. Please do not take this as a denigration of either reason or science. As a Christian I believe as humans made in the Image of the Creator God have been endowed with reason and given an impulse towards the exploration and study of nature. Rather, it is a rejection of a rationalism and scientism. Those are two different things. I have a healthy respect for and appreciation of the deliverances of reason and the advances of science while recognizing their limits and the dangers of misunderstanding their role and function in human life.
“Studying almost entirely secular moral philosophy in college had the interesting effect of convincing me that prospects of finding any sort of viable, normative moral system connected with naturalism, (ie. absent the divine, or a transcendent order), is similarly risible.”
You should check out Scandinavia then, and see how they’re doing.
Hey, thanks for your comment!
Please note that I did not come away with the idea that secular people cannot develop a society with low crime-rates or behave as decent people. They obviously can and do. Most of my atheist and secular friends in college were delightfully kind people.
My comment was more about the rational justification of such goodness. It’s more about the moral ontology (what is it about the world that make certain things right or wrong), not moral ability (can we be good?) or even moral epistemology (how do we know what’s right and wrong?) Basically, I found the various deontological as well as consequentialist systems lacking.
Once again, thanks for stopping by!
“My comment was more about the rational justification of such goodness”
And clearly, many secular people have found very good rational justification for such goodness. I have. I’m not good ‘just because’.
Sure, you’ve found one that “works” for you. You’re not good “just because.” You have reasons. So have I. They’re called the Gospel. At the same time, as an atheist you probably don’t think my reasons, my rational justification for why I do the good things I do, are actually warranted. In that sense, in your eyes my rational justification is not adequate. In the same way, there are a lot of good utilitarians. Utilitarianism provides the framework though which they understand their moral choices and they largely make good ones. John Stuart Mill was one of those. That doesn’t mean that utilitarianism really is justified as a meta-ethical system. It isn’t. It’s horribly flawed and leads to some really goofy things if taken to its logical conclusions. So, people can have a rational justification that leads to good actions, even while the rational justification is wrong. There are times when both true beliefs and false beliefs can both lead to right action. Two people might avoid the same poisonous red berries and stay alive for very different reasons. The first does so because he believes they are poisonous, the second because he falsely believes that all red berries are secretly witch doctors trying to kill him. Both have reasons which motivate the same right action, only one of them is actually rationally justified with respect to his action.
That’s more my point. Thanks again for your comment!
Hi, Derek Rishmawy. Nice blog.
I think this is an incisive, thoughtful blog post. I hope you write more like it in the future. As a liberal Christian, I argue with New Atheists on the internet all the time, and this will certainly provide some novel, much-needed ammunition.
Thanks for the comment, Occam. Yeah, hopefully I’ll keep writing some apologetic pieces. I’m going through a series on difficult issues in the faith with my students right now so it may continue to come up.
I do highly recommend the article I pulled the quote from. Inwagen’s a clear writer and should give you plenty of help in your endeavors.