A Different Kind of God Debate

Whenever a theist and an atheist get together to debate the existence of God, you can be pretty certain of hearing a catalog of “traditional” arguments for and against; the argument from design, the argument from evil, and so on. Most of these arguments I am not interested in rehashing here. If people are still debating them after centuries if not millennia, that is not because they are conclusive but because they are comforting. In Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem the skeptical narrator responds to a believer by saying “That’s funny because if anyone actually did prove the existence of God we’d just tell him ‘nice proof, Fraa Bly’ and start believing in God.” That’s sort of how I feel about these so-called proofs. If you believe in God, it almost certainly wasn’t the cosmological argument that convinced you, though it may confirm you in your belief; nor is the argument from evil likely to shake your faith. The same could be said for the atheist. Such arguments are, at best, post hoc rationalizations; at worst, they are distractions from the more interesting discussion of why we believe the things we do, why we can have confidence in our beliefs, and when, if ever, we should have confidence in our convictions even in the face of seemingly disconfirming evidence.

There is, however, a category of arguments often featured in these debates that does squarely address these questions. Sometimes it goes by the name of presuppositionalism, sometimes the argument from perceived transcendence, but by whatever name you call it, the gist is that to have certain knowledge, one must already, consciously or not, have assented to the existence of a metaphysical reality superior and antecedent to the physical reality of experience. Furthermore, it is not even possible to doubt the existence of such a metaphysical reality because any argument against its existence would have to be made in terms of its transcendent categories and in accordance with its rules of inference. Thus, all rational argument presupposes the existence of a metaphysical realm, and no rational argument could possibly disprove it. It’s worth addressing this line of argument, not because it would settle the question of God’s existence (it wouldn’t), but because it may help us clarify what we mean by knowledge. Additionally, and even more importantly, unpacking this idea will also point us toward a split in worldviews even more important than the traditional atheist/theist division.

The most obvious problem with this argument is that it’s circular. Theists may see this more clearly if we restate it in such as way as to render its conclusion less intuitively appealing. Say a psychologist claimed to have a theory of knowledge. According to his theory, we can be confident in our knowledge because there exists a mental faculty, irreducible and unobservable, which is responsible for categorizing all sense data into concepts and drawing logical inferences. Since any argument against the existence of this faculty must necessarily employ concepts and inference, all such arguments actually presuppose the faculty’s existence. Needless to say, we should not expect our psychologist to find any respectable journal willing to publish his theory. An argument being logically airtight may sometimes be a strength, but as the case of conspiracy theories shows, it is not always so.

A deeper problem with this argument is that it assumes knowledge must be absolutely certain, or else entirely worthless. Of course it is true that if we are committed to the proposition that any knowledge worthy of the name must be absolutely certain, then we will be forced to bring in some supernatural guarantor like the metaphysical realm or our psychologist’s hypothetical faculty. On the other hand, if we are comfortable with the idea that knowledge can inspire varying degrees of confidence, we not only avoid the dubious foundations of circular arguments, but we also open up whole avenues of inquiry into the reasons for the relative strengths of different claims. It begins to make sense to ask why we feel more confident of some claims compared to others, whereas under the proposition that all genuine knowledge is absolutely true, such feelings of relative confidence must necessarily be delusions. And by the way, shouldn’t that proposition — that the only genuine knowledge is absolutely certain — require some justification? Indeed, by its own standard of absoluteness, shouldn’t the evidence allow no possible alternative explanation?

Finally, the idea that knowledge must be founded upon a firm metaphysical footing licenses a range of undesirable attitudes, from dismissive hand-waving to smug moralism to rabid dogmatism. Throughout history artists, philosophers, scientists, theologians, and others have been motivated by ideals like truth, justice, beauty, freedom, and love. There is no question that these ideals existed for them, as they continue to exist for us, as sources of moral conviction and springs to action. But as John Dewey pointed out in A Common Faith, “[t]he inherent vice of all intellectual schemes of idealism is that they convert the idealism of action into a system of beliefs about antecedent reality.” That’s because we are always tempted to reassure ourselves of the ultimate justice of our ideals by imagining that they already exist in some metaphysical plane. For if they do so exist, any setbacks in their realization are necessarily temporary; eventually they must prevail. We are relieved of the burden of doubting our ideals, and since we have invested so much of our identity in their realization, we are by extension relieved of doubting our own choices. But as we will see, this doubt is central to the concept of faith.

In Dynamics of Faith, the Christian theologian Paul Tillich tells us it is a mistake to understand faith as “an act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence.” Rather, faith is a matter of being ultimately concerned, of being grasped by a transcendent value, which gives meaning and purpose to our actions. It makes an unconditional demand on our personality, but also promises ultimate fulfillment. It is not an empirical stance, like believing the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Instead, being ultimately concerned means taking an existential stance with respect to some value. When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his dream of racial equality, for example, he was sharing his faith, and calling others to share it with him. Unlike mere belief, faith always calls us to action. I believe that Ottawa is the capital of Canada, that the average annual rainfall in Riyadh is less than in Mumbai, and so forth. None of these beliefs stir me to action. Some beliefs do, but only because they are backed up by faith. I believe that the Earth is warming, and that at least part of that warming is due to human behavior. If this belief is salient to me, if it induces me to speak out or act on it, that is because I have an allegiance to truth, justice, and kindness, all of which are threatened by conspiracy theorists and science denialists, and the harmful ecological, political, and economic consequences of climate change on the health and welfare of my fellow human beings. I have no guarantee that my allegiance to these values will be rewarded during my life. It may well not be. That is the risk we all must run, the price of any kind of conviction. Tillich writes:

“If faith is understood as belief that something is true, doubt is incompatible with the act of faith. If faith is understood as being ultimately concerned, doubt is a necessary element in it.”

Now compare with Dewey:

“There is a difference between belief that is a conviction that some end should be supreme over conduct, and belief that some object or being exists as a truth for the intellect. Conviction in the moral sense signifies being conquered, vanquished, in our active nature by an ideal end; it signifies acknowledgment of its rightful claim over our desires and purposes. Such acknowledgment is practical, not primarily intellectual. It goes beyond evidence that can be presented to any possible observer.”

Now I find it very interesting that a Christian like Tillich and a humanist like Dewey could reach nearly identical conclusions on the nature of faith versus mere belief. At the very least this is an important point of agreement upon which a more constructive conversation can be built. Indeed their agreement goes further. For example, Tillich’s view of faith as the moral center of our being means that it projects outward to touch pretty much every aspect of our lives. “No piece of reality is excluded from the possibility of becoming a bearer of the holy.” Again, compare with Dewey, who says that

“Those who hold to the notion that there is a definite kind of experience which is itself religious, by that very fact make out of it something specific, as a kind of experience that is marked off from experience as aesthetic, scientific, moral, political; from experience as companionship and friendship. But “religious” as a quality of experience signifies something that may belong to all these experiences.”

But maybe the most important point of agreement between these two men concerns the negative consequences of confusing faith and belief. For Tillich, confusing the symbols of our ultimate concern with the ultimate concern itself, as happens for example when we take Scriptures to be the inerrant word of God, is one kind of idolatry. Biblical literalism requires faith not in God but in the Bible, and leads it adherents to do violence to both reason and faith. For Dewey, the confusion of the ideal as an image of the possible with the ideal as an image of the actual ultimately lessens its power over us as an ideal. He writes, “[b]elief in the supernatural as a necessary power for apprehension of the ideal and for practical attachment to it has for its counterpart a pessimistic belief in the corruption and impotency of natural means.”

The Christian apologist and author Frank Turek has written a book called “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”. Maybe he’s right. Maybe he and other presuppositionalists don’t actually have enough faith. You look at the news and you see tribalism ascendant, democracy yielding to nationalism, free trade to protectionism, and it’s hard to believe that we’re working toward a world in which all people are given equal rights and equal dignity. But as a humanist, I have faith in that vision. I cannot console myself with logical proofs of the ultimate justice of the universe. I understand that the realization of justice is my responsibility. Or, rather, it is our responsibility, because faith is never entirely personal. It is always grounded in symbols whose content derives from the life of a community.

There is a tradition in Jewish theology of imagining God as something we bring into the world by our actions. The scriptural passage, “you are my witness, I am the Lord” has been interpreted by some Rabbinical scholars to mean something like “when you are my witness, then I am the Lord”. In other words, God is realized whenever our actions bear witness to the value God symbolizes. In this view, God is not something whose reality could be established by a person cogitating alone in an armchair. If we understand faith as a matter of moral rather than empirical conviction, this point becomes obvious. I fear all this preoccupation with proving God’s existence, with torturing logic and science in a vain and frankly idolatrous quest for certainty, distracts theists from the genuinely redemptive power of their faith. Worse than that, if the Good has already been ordained by God, and indeed exists not just as an idea of what is possible, but as a description of actual metaphysical reality, one may reasonably conclude that human agency directed toward the Good is not only futile, but counterproductive.

In his book Where the Conflict Really Lies, the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga argued that religion really isn’t in conflict with science, but with scientism. While I found plenty to criticize in his arguments for the existence of God, I basically agree with this point. And in the spirit of finding common ground, I’d expand on his point and argue that the more interesting debate isn’t between atheism and theism as such, but between two worldviews each of which can be found among theists and atheists of various stripes. Not all theists subscribe to the view criticized by Dewey, which attempts to warrant faith in truth and goodness by appeal to an antecedent metaphysical reality. We may call this view the theology of static revelation. According to it, God’s will has been revealed and it is now our duty merely to discover and obey it, usually by appeal to sacred texts and the pronouncements of hierarchical institutions. In contrast to this view is one exemplified by a sign outside a church where I used to live in Northern Virginia. It was an LGBT pride flag emblazoned with the words “God is still speaking!” This attitude is the essence of what I would call dynamic revelation. The theology of dynamic revelation holds that God’s will is made manifest by our struggles to realize ideals like justice and compassion. Static revelation imagines a morally pure metaphysical realm that corrupts and decays the more we inhabit the material world. Our only hope lies in strict obedience to church teachings or even complete renunciation of worldly concerns. Dynamic revelation pictures a world made more perfect by our continued commitment to moral ideals.

For over five years I volunteered as an organizer for Recovering from Religion, a support group for people who had left or were thinking about leaving their churches. During that time, I noticed something very interesting. Nearly all of the people who came to our meetings came from churches — Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Catholics, and various evangelical or fundamentalist sects — that espouse a static view of divine revelation. No one was recovering from dynamic theologies like those of the Unitarians or the United Church of Christ.

And the split between static and dynamic conceptions of the Good is not limited to theology. Secular worldviews also reflect this distinction. Nationalism and political tribalism, for example, are equal opportunity sources of temptation. And there are false idols to which atheists seem particularly prone. The doctrine of laissez-faire, for example, collapses the complex, multi-dimensional creature that is a human being into a utility-maximizing automaton, and the complex web of human relationships necessary to sustain life, into nothing more than a demand curve. I suppose the allure of laissez-faire for the non-religious is that it attempts to eliminate the difficult-to-quantify psychological and sociological aspects of the human condition which are all too eagerly taken up by purveyors of myth and superstition. But there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Gospel’s warning that “man cannot live by bread alone” is true. As the historian and critic of industrial capitalism Karl Polanyi put it, “man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only insofar as they serve this end.” The effect of laissez faire is to invert this relationship, to subordinate our social lives to the logic of the market, a perversion that ultimately undermines social bonds and reinforces the idolatrous love of wealth and status.

Another common form of atheistic idolatry is scientism. Unlike science, which is more a tool or method for forming true beliefs about the physical world, scientism is a worldview that makes assertions about the ultimate nature of reality. It holds that science is the only means of acquiring knowledge about the world, and tends to dismiss not just religion but also philosophy and art as truth-seeking human endeavors. I think many atheists are under the misimpression that atheism implies scientism. They think, incorrectly, that atheism entails a number of other philosophical positions, such as determinism and materialism, and therefore view with suspicion any school of thought concerned with questions of a moral or existential nature. But in fact philosophy teaches us that any deterministic model of the universe requires a causal story, or theory, and that many different theories may coexist at different levels of analysis. Thus, the natural world appears capable of generating emergent phenomena whose understanding cannot all be reduced to one master theory.

The figurative flattening of complex human beings and their relationships implied by these and other ideologies necessarily leads to a literal distortion, sometimes destruction, of the physical and emotional beings subjected to the tyranny of false idols like wealth, fame, or race. Unfortunately, I have seen many atheists who think their rejection of religion makes them enlightened fall prey to reductionist ideologies like these. And I’ve known Christians and Jews for whom “God” is essentially a placeholder for a moral truth that is constantly evolving and in need of our continued commitment. Though an atheist myself, I find I have more in common with the latter than the former. But my hope for the future is that, instead of the same old stale debates over the existence of God, we will eventually outgrow the static conceptions of the Good that have led to so much conflict in the past, and come together around a dynamic Good centered on the search for truth, the pursuit of justice, the teaching of compassion, and the appreciation of beauty. I look forward to a day when the debates between people like Richard Dawkins and David Lane Craig strike us as the quaint relics of an age when we took the symbols of our tribe more seriously than the welfare of our fellows, when we anthropomorphized our ideas while dehumanizing each other.

Author of Truth Evolves

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