Thursday, February 19, 2009

Notes on faith and atheism

Adam Kotsko, in a post nominally about his recent television viewing, encapsulates the kind of argument I've been trying to make in recent years (his ability to whip this kind of thing off better than I can may have something to do with him being a student of theology; just a theory). Here he's talking about "House" (a show I've seen a handful of times, with some combination of amusement and irritation) (italics Adam's):
House is a great example of how useless dogmatic rationalists are when they talk about religion. His constant accusations of “hypocrisy” on Cuddy’s part reflect a common gambit on the part of these people: if you don’t want to do “all” of a religion, you are a hypocrite for doing some. Who defines what “all” of a religion is, though? Obviously that doesn’t fall within the rationalist’s own job description, so he’ll usually defer to whoever purports to be the most “true” or “literal” or whatever representative of the given religion. Thus the options are fundamentalism or rationalism — anyone who tries to do otherwise is an equivocating coward. (This is the dynamic that leads to us only hearing from religious wackos as the representatives of the “religious” position in media debates.)

But the majority of religious people then become equivocating cowards in this view, because even in fundamentalist sects, there is usually only a small core of “true believers” who try to do everything. Back here in reality, the majority of “religious” practices are essentially “cultural” practices, or to put it better: the line between “religious” and “cultural” practices isn’t very clear. It’s really only Protestantism and religions influenced by it (like latter-day Catholicism) that really thematize something like “belief.” (Note that I’m not saying non-Protestant-ish people don’t “believe” in their religion — just that it doesn’t become a major issue. They take it for granted, rather than treating it as some big existential test.)


I realize that whenever I make arguments like this, some people get really pissed off and others want to spend a lot of time in comments trying to come up with some really firm definition of religion that reflects their intuition that my blurring of the boundaries between cultural and religious practices is missing something. I’ll save you a little time: that “something” is going to turn out to be belief. But if you go down that road, you’re just going to wind up defining religion as Protestantism or things like Protestantism, and not all religions are like that. In fact, not all religious practices that find their origin in the Protestant Reformation have turned out to be like that — I’m pretty sure you’ll find a lot of Episcopalians who just enjoy the liturgy and fellowship, for instance, and don’t really beat themselves up about whether they “believe” hard enough. Nor should they! It’s a free country, after all. Or you could define religion as a quest for meaning, but then how do you exclude secular philosophy? Etc., etc. Just give up, please. Criticizing fundamentalism is awesome. I do it all the time. Criticizing religious people for not being fundamentalists is stupid.
Let me take this opportunity to thank Adam for his apparently tireless efforts in this regard. As I've discussed elsewhere on this blog, I once would have described myself as a hardcore rationalist and would have made many of the arguments so often made by dogmatic atheists, including the one noted above, defining religion as essentially and necessarily the religion of fundamentalists. In recent years, I have moved away from these positions but have struggled to effectively explain my problems with them, beyond some degree of unease. In this regard, I've found the efforts of Adam and his compatriots to articulate and defend this kind of argument enormously helpful, whether at The Weblog or An und für sich, or elsewhere (I'm recalling several highly contentious Valve threads over the years).

I recently attempted to articulate a version of this argument in a comment to this post at Wisdom of the West, in which Jim H. argues in part that Darwin's theory, by smashing the basis for the myth of divinity, destroyed the traditional appeal to authority as divine right. This is why "they hate us", he says. I had trouble with who "they" was supposed to be, among other things, taking issue in particular with the antagonistic stance so often taken by atheists. Jim replied, in part emphasizing that he is not an atheist, but agnostic. To be atheist, he argues, requires faith, but he is agnostic since one cannot truly know. He says: "Faith, as Kierkegaard, says is a gift. It takes a leap beyond the limits of knowledge and rationality I am not willing to make." I was interested to see Jim invoke Kierkegaard, for I had just read Fear and Trembling for the first time (and am therefore naturally an expert). Atheists hate being told that atheism is as much a faith as religion. I used to hate it myself; more recently, I've thought it wrong-headed, but not hateful. Now, I'm not so sure it's wrong. This is part of my follow-up comment replying to Jim (cleaned up somewhat for clarity and grammar):
I do consider myself an atheist, not because I know there's no God, but because I see it as meaning that I believe there is no God, so to speak. You're right that we can't know, of course (hence you opt for "agnostic"). But your reference to "faith" as a gift, per Kierkegaard, forces me to say more. I usually object when someone says that atheism is a faith just as much as theism. But in the sense that it's true that I lack the "gift" of faith, in the Kierkegaardian sense, I find it interesting to think that I have the gift of non-faith in God. That is, my non-belief is matter of faith, but in the sense that it simply is. It's not based on rational assessment of the religious question. I simply don't have faith, or I have the faith of non-faith.
One reason I found myself pulling back from my more strident expressions of atheism of the past had to do with being confronted with close friends and relatives who are deeply religious. I used to tell myself that if they were honest with themselves, they would eventually be forced to conclude the error of their beliefs. I soon found that arguing premises, content, got me nowhere. That, in fact, nothing got me anywhere. It was easy, and self-congratulatory, for me to say that this was a weakness on their part. Ultimately I concluded that this thing called faith was finally literally incomprehensible to those of us who lacked it. Now I'm interested in this idea that rather than think of the lack of faith as a lack, as an absence distinguishing the rational atheist from the irrational believer, that instead it is indeed fruitful to think of it as a kind of faith of its own, but if we think of it as a capacity, and in that regard as a gift similar to the gift of faith.


Anonymous said...

This is a good post, and I feel like it really articulates a lot of my own problems with the antagonistic atheist position.

In terms of atheism being a faith, I think when people generally use the term "atheism" they are actually referring to two things: (1) the lack of belief in a deity and (2) a positive set of beliefs which many outspoken atheists happen to hold, but which not all atheists hold or need to hold in order to be atheists.

The beliefs in #2 tend to include things like holding the metaphysical position of materialism, believing that the scientific and moral progress of human beings are closely linked (and perhaps even inevitable), etc.

As I said earlier, obviously not all atheists happen to hold these beliefs but because many outspoken ones do, "atheism" becomes a kind of shorthand for this particular set of beliefs which is more accurately described as a particular kind of secular humanism.

Richard said...

Thanks for the comment, xxx.

You make an good point, about the belief in the necessary relationship between scientific and moral progress.

Jim H. said...


Sorry I didn't see this post earlier and comment; I've been relatively pre-occupied with non-Web matters.

As always, your OP is thought-provoking. First, as for Adam Kotsko, thanks for pointing me to his blog. I look forward to delving further. Now, as for Adam Kotsko, in religious organizations (as in revolutionary ones!) there are always going to be the purer-than-thou's. It's the nature of commitment: in for a penny, in for a pound. If you're not with us (all the way), you're against us. It's how they sort things out, develop hierarchies, assert authority. Religious organizations are, further, naturally conservative: if you lose one element of faith, you lose them all. It's a precarious stance.

We can recognize in our culture varying degrees of commitment, but if you ask some hard-core religionists what they think of Kotsko's Episcopalians, they'll sneer and tell you they're not 'saved' and they're going to hell. It's just the nature of the beast. (Believe me on this, I've been affiliated with both such polities in my lifetime.)

One comment, too, on your kind reference to our discussion over at WoW, and to keep the dialogue going: there's a quite strong (though I would hesitate to call it mainstream) theological tradition—and, again, it's mostly from Protestant quarters—that holds that it is not the content (call it doctrine, dogma, belief) of faith that matters, but the process. It's not 'I believe in the holy trinity' or 'I believe in Jesus the Christ as my personal savior' or 'I believe the sacraments are salvific' or whatever doctrine is being peddled. Rather, it's the seeking that matters. The "Honest to God" questioning. No faith but through the dark night of doubt. Yet another (mostly Catholic, mostly 70s and 80s, mostly marginalized) school holds it is the way you live and act and treat the poor and downtrodden among us that matters.

That whole 'saved through faith alone' school is merely one doctrine, though it's certainly can lay claim to a 'holier than thou' status in some quarters.

Now, if I can, I'd like to tie this back to my WoW post. People who peddle doctrines or dogmas or demand you believe the way they believe and act they way they act have agendas, and often these agendas have ulterior authoritarian motives. This is ultimately what bothers me. Catholics have emprisoned and tortured and burned Protestants and Jews inter alia over doctrinal matters throughout Europe in 'modern' times. In England and some other 'enlightened' countries (such as early America), the Protestants reciprocated against the Catholics and Baptists and witches. All over matters of dogma: "Say you believe and I'll kill you quickly and torture you no more so you won't feel the lick of the flames." These, of course, are the purists when they have achieved unchecked authority.

I don't understand why people have to say (or force someone else to say) 'I believe that... (such and such or so and so) the case.' Belief is, philosophically, really only a species of opinion. Agreement is being sought. Community. Conformity. It makes for strong ties (not necessarily a bad thing). And many adherents (again, you have to take my word for this) have never questioned the grounds of their own beliefs to the extent you obviously have—read Kierkegaard? You've got to be kidding me. You can probably count the number of people sitting in one of these mega-churches who've struggled with SK on two hands—They merely say they believe in order to be accepted by the community of believers. They don't question. They don't understand. Paul didn't call them 'sheep' for nothing.

But I ramble. This is your blog. Keep up the good work. And never stop questioning.

Jim H.

Richard said...

Hi Jim, thanks for the comment.

It my not have been evident by this post or our earlier discussion, but agree with much of what you say here.

You write: "People who peddle doctrines or dogmas or demand you believe the way they believe and act they way they act have agendas, and often these agendas have ulterior authoritarian motives."

This is one of my major points. In my view, though there are actual disputes about matters of belief and faith, in my view most of what we so often identify as the problem of religion (whatever tendencies it may evince towards repression, etc), are really about power, control. I've said more about this elsewhere on this blog, and will no doubt return to this topic in the future, so I'll leave it go at that.