iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Bishop Pierre Whalon

GET UPDATES FROM Bishop Pierre Whalon

Why I Am Not An Atheist

Posted: 08/09/11 10:10 AM ET

In the July 25 issue of the New Statesman there is a feature on the replies atheists give to the question of why they do not believe. This gave equal space to non-believers, since the magazine had printed in a previous issue replies from believers.

The answers fell into a few categories. The first is "lack of evidence." For many, science can answer all the questions about why the universe is the way it is, or why we human beings behave the way we do. The second is more pointed, that religion is responsible for so much suffering in the world and has no basis in reality as it is. The third is the impossibility of believing in a loving deity when life is often incredibly cruel.

Some replies were quite inflammatory, in classic "freshman-class-atheist-prof" style. Thus, P.Z. Myers, biologist and blogger from Minnesota:

The whole business of religion is clownshoes freakin' moonshine, hallowed by nothing but unthinking tradition, fear and superstitious behavior, and an establishment of con artists who have dedicated their lives to propping up a sense of self-importance by claiming to talk to an invisible big kahuna.

So, no need for a creator to explain away why things are the way they are, people who believe in such a thing can cause great suffering for no good reason and no God of love could be responsible for the violent uncaring world we live in. Fair enough.

Propping up my own sense of self-importance as an invisible big kahuna speaker, I'd like to tell why I am not an atheist. I have already addressed some of the features of what I call "atheism lite versus Christianity lite." This concerns many people's claims against Christianity, which are in fact negations of heresies. Too many atheists seem to function with a pubescent version of Christianity.

On the other hand, speaking of "lite," I must admit that some Christians really embarrass me. I am heartened by the fact that it has always been so, as witnessed by what Augustine wrote about Bible-thumpers 1,600 years ago:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an non-believer to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. ... Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. --De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim (trans. Taylor in Ancient Christian Writers).

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...eh? So I am beholden to people like Richard Dawkins for puncturing Young-Earth creationists who want to defend the idea that the Earth was created only a few thousand years ago, based on a funky (and quite modern!) reading of Genesis. Those particular brethren (mostly men) are not helpful at all and might as well become members of the Flat Earth Society while they're at it.

Where is the evidence for God? Well, by definition, there isn't any. If you could see God in a telescope or electron microscope, it wouldn't be God. Couldn't be. That would violate the theological ground rules that the 17th-century Christian developers of the scientific method set up: You cannot explain the universe by appealing to a creator. Or as the late Karl Rahner put it, "God is not a datum in the universe."

But what about Thomas Aquinas' proofs for the existence of God? Don't Christians believe because of them? Simply put, no. As the Angelic Doctor himself makes clear, he is reiterating what others have said concerning "what everyone calls 'god.'" Nothing can be proven from nature or scripture to those who do not have faith already -- at best, all we can do is defend the reasonableness of what we believe.

It is therefore unreasonable to look for scientific evidence of God's existence. Whether there is or is not a creator who subsists completely outside of the universe cannot be proven or disproven by any means, scientifically or otherwise.

In the August 2011 issue of Scientific American, a journal I have read faithfully since age 10, there are two articles that confront the edge beyond which science cannot produce evidence. The first: "Does the multiverse really exist?" concerns the "multiverse," the notion that our universe is but one of many. The second, "Why math works," is on the correspondence between higher mathematics and observed reality. In these, the authors conclude that the existence of the multiverse cannot be proven, and the reason why math "works" cannot be understood scientifically. So there are limits to the "evidence" science can produce, and the questions these limits raise are clearly not the confines writ large of human inquiry.

The second basic objection of the atheists is the evil caused by religion. On this argument, nolo contendere. The only point that I wish to make is that atheism, which is itself a religion by negation, has an even worse record than theisms. Nothing in the annals of religious persecutions and wars can equal the slaughters of the atheist regimes that have arisen to power since 1900. It stands to reason. After all, a theist can be called to account because her religion has an ethical standard that stands completely over her. An atheist can have no such check. Admittedly, such calls to moral behavior have not always been effective, to say the least. Consider the just-war theory, for instance, which has never stopped a single war. But if there be none at all, then might makes right. Not just metaphorically, but literally.

The remedy to religious violence is the rigorous separation of religion and state power. When the religious are in charge, power corrupts their religion absolutely. When the state has an obligatory religion, it must use force to enforce conformity. The early history of the Soviet Union is instructive, as well as the current regime in Iran.

The third objection is the evil in the world. There is not only the so-called "natural evil" of catastrophic events like tsunamis, that insurance companies -- who always need someone to blame -- call "acts of God." There is the more personal evil of the same ilk -- cancer, Alzheimer's, falling roof tiles, etc. Then there is evil done to us by others. And finally there is the evil we do.

This is, I think, not a pure atheist's complaint. By this I mean someone like Friedrich Nietzsche who positively revels in the repudiation, as he sees it, of the transcendental values of Truth, Good and Beauty. Why I feel closer to people like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus is not because they are French, as I am; it is their demand that the world be right and good and true, and their wistfulness that it is not in fact so. Camus' novel La peste (The Plague) is perhaps the best example of this, but there is also Sartre's La nausée.

I think that this wistfulness is a pointer that the universe as we know it is in fact more than "Nature red of tooth and claw," though it is certainly that as well. There is also the religious component of science. Long long ago, when I was a physics major, I sat bored in math class, when suddenly I "saw" a shortcut that eliminated two steps of some minor standard proof. At home I worked it out and brought it to the professor, who researched it and said that to his knowledge, it had not been pointed out before.

Now this is no big deal, and I am, er, was, a very average mathematician. The point of the story is that when I "saw" the solution, it was very pleasurable. The praise that followed was pleasurable, too. But the movement of my mind itself as I "saw" the beauty of it was different and deeper. I think that everyone who has devoted a lifetime to science must have experienced this at one time or another. It is a moment of awe and wonder at the universe. It is more than the feeling of gazing at the nighttime sky -- it is an intuition of some hidden order.

And no more than an intuition. It might just be an illusion, though I doubt most scientists would be willing to declare it to be so. Such insights are, however, what drive curiosity, which is essential to the functioning of the mind. Then to behold in veiled fashion this glimpse of the beauty of order, while becoming aware of the routine horrors that nature displays (think digger wasps) and the butchery that human beings can visit upon each other and the environment, requires more than scientific detachment. We no longer stand on science's domain, but on the equally vast field of what used to be called "the queen of sciences" -- theology. And here, you and I are all theologians, and not all theologies are created equal.

In other words, I am convinced that while I cannot prove the existence the God, I can claim that my faith is not irrational. This is not to say that I may be wrong -- faith is, after all, trusting that it is in fact so, and trust can be misplaced. In the evaluation of one's own theology or others, the same criteria of intelligence in the sciences apply also. All the data must be collected and accounted for. All the relevant questions must be asked, and answered correctly. And one must take responsibility for one's conclusions.

That intuition -- that life has a meaning that transcends my momentary flicking in and out of it -- is for me confirmed by the revelation of God on the cross of Jesus, a God who does not justify the creation, with all of its brutality and pain, but who shows solidarity with it precisely by sharing our powerlessness before the facts of our life. Including the viciousness of humans one to another, the facts of senescence, disease and death, and the apparent indifference of the universe toward us who inhabit oh-so-briefly "this fragile earth, our island home."

But that isn't enough. So what if one man among thousands crucified by the Romans millennia ago was sent by God?

What followed after his real historical death and burial (no Passover plots, please) is the tipping point of trust for me, an event that is hardly describable, directly witnessed by no one and yet has changed the course of human history. An event that declares human life, yours and mine, is worth living because it is always more than we can know. I think everyone has that intuition sometime in life, even if they end up dismissing it as impossible.

This is why I am not an atheist.

A final point about believing: In the parable of Lazarus and Dives (The Rich Man), told only by Luke (16:19-31), Dives asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers to warn them. He replies that even if they met someone risen from the dead, they would not be persuaded. The point here is that "evidence" isn't enough to engender mature faith. What matters is that the individual decide that the story and its implications are not only trustworthy in the abstract, but that they are also personally relevant. This is as true of the "atheist story" as it is of mine.

But it isn't just a matter of opinion or taste. What you believe, and how you live it, in the final analysis, makes up what you are and how you touch the lives of all you have known -- and beyond. Faith, atheist or otherwise, is never just a personal option. At least, not for long.

 

Follow Bishop Pierre Whalon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bppwhalon