Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Is Atheism Worthless?
Modern philosophy taught us that there are ultimate truths, which are knowable, and can be used to understand the world, including religious and political ideas. Post-modernism taught us that this is nonsense, that there are only ideas and words, which are separate and detached from the physical world, and can’t be used to make truth claims.
Religion tends to be more modern. There is a lot of focus on what is “true,” and when the word true is used, it’s in a factual sense. The creation of the Earth by God is true, the resurrection of Jesus is true, etc… One can’t be faulted for being confused by truth claims in the context of a faith-based religion. After all, if something can be known as true, of what use is faith? But regardless, religions work very hard to show that their beliefs are true.
For now, I’m focused on pragmatics. Hypothetically, let’s posit that the arguments for the existence of God are equally as good as the arguments against the existence of God. Antony Flew and Alvin Plantinga argued with each other at great length over who has the burden of proof, the theist or the atheist. I tend to side with Flew (the atheist, at the time), but nevertheless, let’s say the arguments are equally good, and so by default, a person refuses to take a step of faith because there isn’t sufficient reason to do so (this has been my position for many years now).
So, we’ve arrived at atheism. Now what? Intellectually, there is a certain satisfaction in clinging to the evidence, and refusing to go where it hasn’t led. For a long time now, I’ve been proud of my lack of belief, largely because by insisting on knowing things instead of believing them, I don’t have to wade into the waters of division and condemnation that accompany so many faith systems. It’s clear that most of the methods used to clobber people in today’s society stem from faith-based ideas. Aside from the obvious issues of gay marriage, racial discrimination, and male superiority (2 of which are still commonly held beliefs among most Christian denominations), is there anything worse that can be said of a person than “you’re going to hell”? Even when said from a perspective of concern or love (if that sentence can be said with love at all), how much arrogance it takes to say that you hold the truth of that issue!
I’ve assumed, incorrectly, that Christianity was fairly unanimous on these condemnations. Since I started writing this blog, and being involved with some alumni from George Fox, I’ve learned a great deal about belief systems that do not contain most, or any, of these awful beliefs. I’ve met people who have made the leap of faith, but haven’t tacked on silly ideas of gays being an abomination, or the man being the head of the household “because that’s how God designed it.” There are biblical arguments that can be made for darn near anything, and these people have chosen the ones that don’t hurt people. I’m not anywhere near the point where I think the Bible matters on issues of modern morality, but I’m happy that at least among these folks, where they can find a way to interpret the Bible in a way that doesn’t make God look like an asshole, they’re doing it.
So, I’ve ruled out atheism as the only place where angry condemnations can be avoided. Besides the truth-value of atheism, which is debatable, is there any benefit to it? Emotionally it certainly doesn’t bring any happiness, at least to me. There are a lot of people whom I respect immensely (Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Penn Jillette, etc.) who claim to be just fine with the idea that once they die, that’s it. They’ll tell you it helps them to live each day with vigor, since time is limited. But they’re not the only ones. Religious people can live this way also, AND they don’t have to fear their last days. So if the arguments are balanced, but one side can meet an emotional need, wouldn’t it be practical to go with theism?
I don’t know, but that’s where my mind is right now. Atheism gives me finality. But faith offers me answers, even if the answers aren’t very good. Christianity, to pick one faith, answers:
Why am I here?
Where did I come from?
What happens when I die?
Whether the answers provided to these questions are good ones or not, I see a lot of value in having them answered. I know I’m not alone. After all, the bulk of humanity hasn’t chosen to be religious because they’re indifferent to life and death questions.
For now, I’m wrestling with the question of what good atheism is doing me when there are people out there that aren’t doing anybody any harm while also having optimism about the continuity of their consciousness. If only a person could trick themselves into believing something they don’t “know” to be true.