Atheism Versus Theism

By Micah Cowan

My brother-in-law Tim had some interesting points to make about neurotheology, which he submitted in comments to my posted link to DagoodS’s article, Prove It!. I responded in-thread to most of what he had to say, but some comments he made presented an opportunity to discuss a topic that I believe is worth a separate post, and so here it is.

Tim says:

The fact that you can measure something like that [one’s spirituality, via externally observable properties in the brain] implies to me that atheists and theists should adopt a truce similar to the one Stephen Jay Gould offered between science and religion.

I’m very much in favor of this. I have no quarrel with theism, I just don’t personally hold to it. The atheist, if he is honest, cannot lay claim to a certainty of explanation in support of abiogenesis (the spontaneous transition of lifeless matter into living). There are some interesting hypotheses, to be sure, but I’m confident that we will never be able to determine how life really began.

Modern scientific inquiry may well bring us to understand how all the matter in the universe came to be: it appears that we may have done so, through the study of quantum mechanics, the veracity of which findings I cannot begin to pretend to be capable of ascertaining. If we have indeed done so, however, we are still left with the unenviable task of determining how the underlying fabric that spawned our matter was itself activated; and whether it was “started” somehow or forms some sort of perpetual motion machine.

At some point then, both atheist and theist encounter something which must be eternal in nature, existing forever before, and potentially forever after, the existence of everything of which we are currently aware. Theists presume that this something is intelligent on its own, and call it God. But we have no explanation for what started God, and, I believe, God is no more of an answer than leaving that answer blank, as it has not explained the mystery of something being eternal to any greater satisfaction than we had before we placed God in the answer space. The difference between atheism and theism (without addenda) seems very slight, then, to me, and doesn’t bother me much. I think it can be useful and interesting to debate, but I have no compulsion to convince theists that they are wrong.

But theism is not religion. The degree to which I may have a quarrel with religion is proportional to the degree to which that particular flavor of religion encourages the suspension of rational arguments based on what may be observed, in deference to faith; and the suspension of our innate moral sensitivities, in deference to what someone put down in a book. Since my abandonment of Evangelical Christianity, I have become increasingly disturbed by Bible literalism, and the actions, philosophies, sensibilities, and thinking processes of Bible literalists.

Basing one’s morality and decision-making upon the Bible is great when the book is saying, “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and proclaiming that the essence of good is to “do justly, love mercy, and walk in humility.” There are many principles that I love and admire from the Bible, and still continue to seek to apply to my life.

But using the Bible as the basis for morality is less great when it approves the wholesale slaughter of infants for the mere fact of who their parents were [1 Sam 15:2-3, & various], or of women on the basis of a test for virginity that is not even remotely reliable (that is, the absence of the flow of blood, subsequent to her first act of copulation) [Deut 22:13-21], places women under the subjugation of men, insults and discredits women as being significantly more susceptible to deception than men and unfit for giving instruction to men [1 Tim 2:12-15], and condemns consenting adults for what they may choose to do in the privacy of their own home.

Does the cannon of atheism have an equivalent to Matthew 5:16? Should you convince the Jehovah’s Witness at your door to become the next Bertrand Russel, or just take his flyer and bid him cuique suum?

Is there such thing as a canon of atheism? :)

If there were, Richard Dawkins and Samuel Harris would probably feature prominently. I have not read Harris, and I have mixed feelings regarding Dawkins; in any case, neither of them seem to be the “be and let be” types. :)

Let me say this: I would not derive any satisfaction, as many atheists of my acquaintance appear to do in “debating” with religious people, from telling the Witness how very wrong he is, and how my views are vastly superior to his. The Watchtower is a destructive cult, however, and I would be glad for any individual to escape its influence, so I am motivated thereby to attempt to debate beliefs with the open-minded (not a particularly common creature in the Watchtower, given that they apparently forbid the reading or examination of other points of view).

I’m not saying you should let others run roughshod over your beliefs in the public sphere; I’m saying it may be more personally fulfilling to be a pluralist than a polemicist.

I doubt it: the idea of pluralism—which to me means the notion that all beliefs are approximately equal in acceptability—leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Which is why I’d have some trouble being a Unitarian Universalist, though I sometimes toy with the idea of attending Unitarian services, and suspect that there may well be some such churches in which I could even be comfortable. I find the Society of Friends to be a more palatable prospect, as it is a fairly mild form of theism, and in some versions of Quakerism I could feel free to substitute a simple humanistic innate inner voice for the concept of The Guiding Light.

I don’t hate religion, and I feel no need to convince people that all religion is bad (though I do feel that most religions have some negative aspects), or that Christianity in particular is bad (but see my previous parenthetical remark). I do despise ignorance, and am very motivated to write against that. As my chief encounters with ignorance by far are in connection to my experience with particular brands of my particular former religion, that is undoubtedly where my thoughts, and my writing, is likely to center.

To monitor comments posted to this topic, use .

Pageviews this week: