Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Contra-Faith: On the Collision of Reason and Faith


As so often seems to be the case, the majority of Christians I engage with still believe that atheism is a form of denial. More specifically that it is a denial of faith in God. However, this is inaccurate since it assumes all atheists are in defiance of God, which comes with it the obtuse presumption that anyone who rejects God must have believed in God before they could have rejected him. But this is merely a dicto secundum quid ad dictum simpliciter. There is such a thing as non-theism apart from theism, after all.

My form of atheism happens to be not so much an absence of faith (although it is that too), but rather, a form of contra-faith. I see the arguments that contradict faith as being the more dependable, trustworthy, and more reliable line of reasoning and so I side with them. As such, contra-faith arguments (e.g. contrasting, contrary, and contradictory arguments against faith go to show faith based propositions aren't sustainable) support my atheist position. Atheism in of itself though is simply the absence of theistic belief, but I take the harder hitting edge of anti-theism, because I think theism has it all wrong. What’s more, I believe such a statement is certifiably true.

Equally, since my atheism is arrived at through an understanding of contra-faith arguments, as well as historical evidence contrary to what Christianity states, gives me an added perspective of both the theistic and atheistic positions, albeit in contrast to one another. Such contrast provides excellent means for comparison, but can only be arrived at via a route of healthy skepticism and taking the time to step outside of the framework of one’s pre-existing ideological premises and look at it from the outside in.

A Life Left Critically Unexamined
Ask almost any Christian and they’ll likely tell you that they do not question their faith, mainly because they have no desire to. Even as, I would posit, there is adequate reason to. Such reasons, however, elude most of them. If I am permitted to take a guess as to why, I would say that individuals of faith are, more often than not, guilty of being complacent in their lebensphilosophie. Presumably, to the great horror of Socrates who believed a life unexamined wasn't worth living, they let their lives and their beliefs go largely unexamined because they see no purpose in questioning the tenets or core ideologies of their faith, and maybe to a lesser degree, because testing the metaphysical claims which their beliefs are predicated on seems too daunting of a task for them. But whatever it may be, it is the rare person of faith who steps outside to look at his faith from a vantage point, from outside the box, and begins to question her beliefs critically and is willing to hold them up to scrutiny. Those who do are probably not your average everyday believer sitting in the pulpit, but are likely to be a more sophisticated person of faith. One who believes faith can’t be had without reason, and that reason can, and for them, does lead to faith. But this ‘thinking spiritualist’ is a rare minority, to say the least.

Still, I have my reservations. When I look around the religious landscape it becomes blatantly clear that most devout practitioners of faith do not question their faith-based beliefs. They just don’t. For them God isn’t even a question of ab esse ad posse valet consequentia, because they have simply reversed the logic, the universe exists, we exist, things exist, therefore God (the Creator) is necessary, so he must exist. Yet such reasoning, for me, is not enough to establish a belief in God, since all it has done is turn God into a semantic paradox: Creation exists therefore the Creator who created it must exist. The real scientific fact of creatio ex nihilo just doesn’t even factor into their equation.

From the outside looking in, as one might expect, it would appear that religious adherents become so enamored with the concepts preached about their god that they rarely find reason to ever think critically about him (or it) in the first place. An intellectual theist may choose to read intellectual arguments for that god, but very seldom do they trace any branch or root from the tree of knowledge, philosophy, or science which is beyond the conventions of their faith. It’s not so much that they fear the alternative theories, although this may play a small part in their reluctance to question their faith (out of fear of losing faith), but instead, they are so indoctrinated, so convinced that what they experience in worship, prayer, Christian community, and life matches exactly what they have been told about god and spiritual faith to such an extent that they find no reason to question anything regarding their sacred held beliefs. When your convictions are that your faith is the highest attainable truth then there can be no other truth worth obtaining. Especially one that would supersede your current certitude.

Ignorance is Bliss
In other words, they are intellectually stifled and culturally cut off,[i] mostly because they have no other perspective to rely on to inform or contrast their opinions with. Inevitably, such an unquestioning position lends itself to favoritism, since their position is the only one they know (or know well) so that a necesse ad esse valet consequentia need not apply. Such modal logic is unfavorable to people of faith, since it requires finding reasons for reaching necessary beliefs, and this requires valid proofs, but such an empirical methodology can never be all that appealing to the person of faith since it puts the burden of proof squarely in their lap. Thus genuine logic is often avoided and the sophist arguments, which often sound logical but sometimes aren’t, get taken up instead. This is probably how theology came about in the first place. Although, the way I see it, the more likely possibility for the friction between reason and faith is that through gaining a reasonable understanding of things people will tend to reject that which becomes manifestly unreasonable, and so this poses a dire threat to religious faith, since much of it is undeniably unreasonable. No one need question the absurdity of Joseph Smith’s magic celestial underpants, or of the Scientology overlord Xenu’s timeless battle with the Thetans, or of Mohammad’s riding a white winged Pegasus and splitting the moon in half, or of magical fruit and a dubious talking snake in a mystical garden paradise who could apparently outwit god. None of this is believable for a rational minded person.

For the general person of faith the pain of having to subject their minds to the mind-bending complexities, not to forget absurdities, of religious belief should be avoided, as not to be outdone by reason perchance to become aware of the inherent faultiness of one’s belief system. Granted, another excuse may be that having one’s mind tied up into a thought pretzel is just never really all that fun, it’s much more peaceful to not have to think about it, let the theologians deal with it, the lay man is free to take his faith for granted—indeed, ignorance is bliss.

Ignorance can exist apart from faith, but faith can rarely ever exist apart from ignorance. Dogmatic driven convictions will likely compound this problem, acting like kindle to a flame, causing a rapid spread of ignorance and assuring that it will become that much more impenetrable. This is for a couple of reasons. First, many religious doctrines teach that any outside influence which tempts you away from your relationship with God or faith is to be shunned, rejected, vilified, and shut out before it has time to plant seeds of doubt. Second, depending on the level of piety of the individual believer, the level of dogmatically instilled distrust may vary drastically. In turn, this causes a wide range of what an individual person of faith allows for; making it nearly impossible to reason with each individual person in quite the same way. Presumably, one sound, rational, and logical argument may work for a few, but others might not be convinced, or even chose to listen for that matter, and some might only listen to part of it before they make up their minds that it just can’t be—because otherwise the skeptics would be proved right—god forbid. All this makes it extremely hard to prove any reasonable claim beyond a reasonable doubt, since each person of faith will argue what seems reasonable to you is not to them, and they will ask you to define what is objectively verifiable, and what is true, but only after you define objectivity and truth according to how they understand it, from the theist’s point of view. Religious types are always the first to doubt a truth claim if it’s not in tune with their devotional understanding of faith, but show them that what you espouse contrary to their beliefs it is verifiably true, and they will claim you’ve changed the meaning of the term or taken everything out of context. Such semantic strategies are common among the low level apologist, who isn’t equipped to answer the real devastating inquiries, but only because, I should point out, because the first reason is true, contrary views must be rejected off hand. Therefore, for those who profess blind faith in god and the teachings of their holy books, contra-faith arguments never have a chance to be properly considered.

A List of Five Consequences
Here lies the problem, when contra-faith arguments are mainly ignored, rarely will a person of faith be given the means to step back and introspectively gaze at their faith in total. And this leaves us with some predictable consequences:

1)      A person of faith will (habitually) keep the faith of their parents.

2)      A person of faith will believe in what their faith teaches them despite the wealth of information challenging their beliefs/faith.

3)      A person of faith will remain ignorant of any number of contra-faith arguments.

4)      A person of faith will remain intellectually stifled and culturally ignorant, i.e. ignorant of most other religions, even sects within one’s own religion, and will often choose to remain uninformed since they automatically distrust any other belief(s) that might be contrary to their own.

5)      A person of faith will almost certainly refuse to face difficult challenges to their faith (e.g. the problem of evil, theodicy, the god of the gaps, etc.) without ever realizing that it’s a challenge to their faith which must be met in the first place.

In conclusion, I find that my atheism is only strengthened by contra-faith arguments. The next step is to address these five issues, and figure out a way to inform, correct, and enlighten believers both politely and respectfully so that they don’t feel like they are constantly coming under attack, but also, so that they feel like they are making an eye-opening realization or epiphany all on their own. Much like how I felts when my faith dwindled away to nothing and I realized the reasons why. And the reasons were profound!

Advocatus Atheist

[i] Just to be clear, I’m not saying people of various cultures are ignorant of the existence of other cultures. I’m saying that those within a religious culture, or sub-culture, don’t always have a sufficient understanding of other religious based cultures. We all know of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, but how many Christians know what it is a Muslim believes, and how many Muslims and Christians could tell you what they believe differently from a Jew? Or a Hindu? Or a Buddhist? Comparative religion plays a large part in unveiling the truth that religions have the cultish tendency to be exclusive institutions with a baser tribal mentality. This is to be expected though by institutions which are based on hierarchical thinking and absolutist assumptions about the despotic nature of heavenly kingdoms filled with divine Lord(s), one-party allegiances, and authoritative holy books. Everything which informs the main three monotheistic faiths is viewed in terms of black and white, good vs. evil, us and them, one God vs. many, believer vs. unbeliever, where loyalty is honorable and apostasy and heresy are intolerable.  Those who have deemed other beliefs to be intolerable, even before having considered them, are not likely to consider them. Bear in mind, this intolerance breeds mistrust, animosity, and prejudices directed at anyone outside of the faith, therefore lending to the ignorance I speak of.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist