Seeing through faith

Ian S. Markham argues that the new atheists just don’t get it.

I once asked a group of Tanzania Christian pastors in Dodoma Tanzania, “Do you ever doubt the truth of Christianity?” Their answer indicated that there was general agreement that “doubt” was an issue, but it took a particular form. For these well-educated, technologically savvy (they all had cell-phones), pastors, doubt does not touch the reality of the religious dimension or the spiritual realm. No one was tempted by scientific reductionism. Instead, in the battle between “spiritism” and “christianity”, they did as pastors sometimes do, doubt the Christian claim that Jesus has the victory over the “principalities and powers”. In a world where the “curse” is feared, the strength of Jesus to resist that “curse” is a real issue.

In parts of Europe and some of the urban centers in the United States, “doubt” takes a more regular form. Here the pervasive achievement of science is much more obvious. Here the narrative of the God explanation has over the last four hundred years been steadily undermined by physics, chemistry, and biology (and the concept of providence has been challenged by political science and modern historical methods). For persons in this arena, “doubt” is the sense that the religious realm is a complete illusion.

This difference is well known. It is yet another illustration of the ways in which our setting, immediate history, and conversation partners are such major factors in our worldview. Live in the world of biology, be a member of an Oxford college in an increasingly secular England, it is likely you will look at the world like Richard Dawkins. Live nearer the land, appreciate the vulnerability of being in a Tanzanian village, then it is likely you will look at the world like a syncretistic animist Christian.

Tempting though it is to stop the conversation there, and surrender to relativism, this is not necessary. Instead we are forced to recognize the “rootedness” of knowing. Appreciating different worldviews is hard work; and it requires patient listening and empathy. We are, as Alasdair MacIntyre observed, “tradition-constituted”, and yet also able to engage across traditions to grow into a greater appreciation of the truth about the world.

It is interesting how “atheism” has never really caught on. The few who articulate the worldview have the feel of the blind person who cannot appreciate colours. To those inside the faith fold, there is a strange disconnect with experience and the atheistic arguments. And the atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris is especially odd. It is clearly a “middle-class” atheism; it assumes a western worldview. It treats religion as if it is no more than a belief in some sort of add-on object, when faith claims religion in so much more.

There are three problems with this sort of atheism. The first is that the fellow-atheists don’t find it convincing. Nietzsche understood the significance of religion in the world. For Nietzsche, once God goes, many other things go. Truth, Nietzsche points out, depends on the intelligibility of the universe; yet once God goes, intelligibility goes, and therefore truth is undermined. For Nietzsche, moral language is clearly grounded in the transcendent, so once the transcendent goes, the moral needs to be redefined. Our trinity of atheists doesn’t want to go there: so the implications of atheism are totally ignored.

The second is that the science of our modern day atheists sounds almost metaphysical. This comes out most clearly when Richard Dawkins discusses the debates in astrophysics around the “anthropic principle”. Dawkins concedes the data – it is clear that the emergence of life here in this universe is heavily dependent on a multitude of factors that statistically are so completely improbable. Dawkins opts for the skeptical alternative – the multiverse theory. This states that along with this vast universe (and it really is extremely big), there are billions of other universes. Most of these universes do not generate life, but we just happen to be in the one that does. Once upon a time, it was only religious people who believed in more than one universe – this one, heaven, and hell; now atheists have billions upon billions of universes. Given the choice of theism or the multiverse theory for the remarkable math of this universe, the multiverse theory is a stretch and certainly sounds almost “religious”.

The third is that the nature of faith is not understood. And perhaps this is inevitable because you do have to be inside to know this. Faith is analogous to sight. I completely understand why blind people are skeptical about colours – seeing people disagree about what colour is what, the inability for seeing people to explain what colours are exactly, and therefore there is no decisive argument for colour. However, those of us who experience colours know that they are there (and granted, philosophically that is a contentious statement). By analogy, the gift of faith is learned. In this respect the disciples of Wittgenstein are right. We learn the language of faith. We learn to see the world through the lens of faith. nd in so doing, there are countless mutually confirming experiences of faith.

Atheism is an interesting conversation partner for faith. And atheists do serve an important purpose when they draw attention to the hypocrisy and damage that many religions inflict. However, in the end, atheism is probably a less significant conversation partner than the “spiritism” conversation in Tanzania. The future lies with people who can see. The question is how can we interweave the various descriptions of the spiritual realm together?

The Very Reverend Ian S. Markham is the author of Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris Are Fundamentally Wrong (Wiley-Blackwell) and Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary

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  1. I don’t think Nietzsche’s views or Wittgenstein’s are accurately characterized at all. However, I find it deeply puzzling, given the way those views are characterized and endorsed, that the author goes from appealing to theism as the foundation of objective truth to reliance on fideistic understandings of faith, distinguishing it from the cognitive endeavors of science and relying on a crude version of Wittgenstein. He does so without so much as pausing to address the tension! Which is it? Is religious belief the very basis of objective truth or is it to be understood as a noncognitive expression of a “way of life”?

    Also, the vision analogy is extraordinarily weak. The blind individual has the widespread consistency of observation reports to go on in judging that there’s a sense she lacks. Imagine being blind but everyone around says they “see” something different. Furthermore, they are lead into conflict over their disagreements. Some are lead to promote “kill the gays” legislation, such as the legislation being pushed by Ugandan Christians. You would not want for this unreliable and misguiding faculty.

  2. “Faith is analogous to sight. I completely understand why blind people are skeptical about colours”

    Can you point to those blind people who do not believe colour (as variant wavelengths of light) exists? We can prove that colour exists: there is no such proof for the gods. To see the world through faith you must close your eyes, ignore evidence, refute reality.

    If people want to believe in the supernatural, then fine. But if they insist that the supernatural can somehow interact with reality (impregnating virgins, defining how we ought to act etc) then they need to empirically demonstrate that interaction and this they cannot do and have never done.

  3. “We learn to see the world through the lens of faith, and in so doing, there are countless mutually confirming experiences of faith.”

    So I should accept a premise as true first, and then I’ll find plenty of verifying instances of that truth. Sounds reasonable. But, if I don’t assume a particular faith is true, then I also find many verifying instances that it is not true. How to explain? Well, tradition holds the first method to be the best.

    The analogy with sight and colour seems imperfect, perhaps, because the author does not state what colour is supposed to be analogous to! No person with a religious sensibility has ever been able to explain this to me. This word “spiritual” is empty, I would argue, and only connotes a feeling of moral superiority. Something so important should be able to be conceptualized for those who don’t “get it”.

  4. Remarkable. So the fact that ‘doubt’ about the existence of God is different amongst different people in different cultures is evidence AGAINST atheistic worldviews? Crazy. The analogy to sight and colour has been dealt with by those above me.

    As one of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens ‘fellow-atheists’, let me assure Ian Markham that I DO find their arguments utterly convincing, and the world intelligable, without religion. In fact I would suggest that my awed appreciation of the beauty and complexity of this universe is actually enhanced by my (generally empirically verified) beliefs in it’s statistically improbable but causally possible and explicable origins. I don’t need a God to find meaning and intelligibility.

  5. @Mike H: Your last point is a very important one. The universe is a truly wondrous place and the science that underpins it, awe-inspiring. I find the religious explanations ego-centric, mean, degrading and dispiriting. A universe in which their beliefs were true would be a dreadful place.

  6. I find it a mystery that the controversy should still be raging between intelligent people. More than twenty-four centuries ago Socrates had the answer: all explanation of what is outside of us is the province of science; the realities within us belong to philosophy. When scientists deny the reality of this latter region they are going blatantly against experience. When religion is not content with claiming this region for itself but goes on to giving its fables and myths factual status, it is going blatantly against reason. I do not see why the Very Reverend Markham should find it necessary to grant that affirming that ‘colours are there’ is ‘philosophically … a contentious statement’: it would only be contentious if ‘are there’ is taken to mean ‘are out there’: the inner experience is an incontestable reality. Markham cites Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that we are “tradition-constituted”: In many books and essays I have been saying that we are only properly human in so far as we live in a world constituted by ideas, ideals, and values created by the mind and to be found nowhere but in the mind. This ideal world is the proper province of philosophy and is our proper reality, which scientists want us to be blind to and which religionists confound with their theological absurdities.

  7. @D. R. Khashaba: “This ideal world is the proper province of philosophy and is our proper reality, which scientists want us to be blind to”

    I have not yet met a scientist who denies the world of ideas or thinks them unimportant: it is the world they mostly inhabit.

  8. “We learn to see the world through the lens of faith. And in so doing, there are countless mutually confirming experiences of faith.”

    Some versions of psychoanalysis are like this; once you start interpreting everything in the light of the theory, everything is seen as confirmatory. However, because of this they tend to be regarded as BAD theories. Following Popper, scientists at least are much more interested in whether a theory is falsifiable than verifiable.

    One of the reasons that religion is not regarded as a scientific theory is precisely that it is unfalsifiable; however, it seems questionable to regard this as a virtue!

  9. Keith McGuinness

    Sigh! More of the usual nonsense.

    “…yet once God goes, intelligibility goes, and therefore truth is undermined.”

    Why is god required for the universe to be intelligible? No argument or evidence is offered. This is simply asserted. Not good enough.

    “…so once the transcendent goes, the moral needs to be redefined. Our trinity of atheists doesn’t want to go there: so the implications of atheism are totally ignored.”

    Yes, once god does we do need another basis for morality but, far from being “totally ignored”, this is something we atheists want. We want to discuss issues to reach a mutually acceptable basis for morality, rather than pointing to some “holy book” and proclaiming “god says…”

    The Very Reverend Ian S. Markham is fundamentally wrong.

  10. I hesitate to join the conversation. However, let me correct certain impressions. I do value the contribution that atheists make to the conversation. However,(and this was the purpose of the ‘sight’ analogy), the key factor that persuades persons of faith is an ‘experience’ of God. Knowledge often depends on experience – I don’t really know what colors are like until I experience them. And people who are born blind do find the concept of colors very difficult to understand. Some complain that I haven’t develop the argument in sufficient detail in this article. And of course this is true. I wrote an entire book explaining why Nietzsche (and as it happens Aquinas) had a point when they both linked intelligibility with theism. Please do buy a copy ‘Truth and the Reality of God’ and it is touched on in ‘Against Atheism’. Finally, and this is the point of the Tanzanian Christians, much as I love atheists, they are numerically a small and marginal minority (both historically and today). They rant, but don’t persuade. In the end the important conversations are with Tanzanian Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups. I enjoy the conversation with atheists, but they are not persuading anyone.

  11. @Ian: why hesitate? This is your article so you would be expected to defend it.

    “the key factor that persuades persons of faith is an ‘experience’ of God”
    – no-one doubts this personal experience of yours. What is wrong is for you to extrapolate this experience you and others have to something which is out there in the real world and which interacts with the real world, issuing decrees, impregnating virgins and so on. That is just daft.
    – as a depressive, I see the world in a different way to non-depressives. That does not give me the right to say that my world view is right, that others who disagree should not critique my world view or that I should raise my children to live according to that view even if they are non-depressive. Religion is as much a mental aberration as depression, giving the afflicted a distorted and unrealistic view of reality. At least I can take medication to ameliorate my condition.

    “they are numerically a small and marginal minority (both historically and today)”
    – maybe because: in some countries they are punished or killed for saying so, including the UK in the past; they are typically brainwashed from birth to accept their parents’ religious doctrine
    – small? Well, smallish but see
    – marginal? Thanks to people like Dawkins, much less so now.

    “They rant, but don’t persuade.”
    – then what are religions afraid of? Why are they pushing to pass laws that stop atheists from proclaiming the stupidity of their claims? They certainly do persuade. I’ll bet there are a lot more children raised in religious households who later become atheists than the reverse.

  12. Whoops, in second para, first point: first ‘they’ are atheists, second ‘they’ are the religious. Apologies.

  13. @ Tony L
    Scientists know there are ideas and work with ideas. Ask them, “What is mind?” Answer: “An epiphenomenon of the brain.” “What is soul?” “An empty word.” The scientists I have in mind take the objective phenomenal world as all there is of reality. Religionists trash both our inner and our outer world and preach to us a world beyond our world. I say that our inner world is the source and ground of whatever meaning and value life has. In speaking against ‘scientists’ I am not advocating religion but a humanism not sold to reductionist empiricism.

  14. @D. R. Khashaba: “speaking against ’scientists’”

    That is the point I disagree with you about. I do not think there is any need to speak against scientists in any way. I am a strict reductionist. A person’s idea is no more than a phenomenon of the brain. But it is impossible to talk about stuff like ethics in terms of neuroscience just as you cannot easily describe the motion of snooker balls in terms of quantum physics.

    Reductionism does not conflict with thoughts of morality, politics, linguistics etc.

  15. I do not accept that specially-endowed religious folks are privy to a noumenal world that I have no access to. That fact is that religious folks have zero epistemological access to this supranatural world, just like me, a practical atheist (philosophically agnostic). Of any believer, I ask them: how do you know what you “know”? How do you know when you’ve had a religious experience? Maybe I’ve had one and didn’t know it, or interpreted it differently.

    Ian: Please, what was your religious experience and describe it conceptually for us to understand how you knew it to be proof of supernatural forces in the world.

  16. We only begin to see the world as it really is when the Doors of Perception are cleansed.

    Unfortunately the kind of exoteric reductionist religion that Ian promotes actively and systematically keeps the doors tightly closed. Religion as nothing more than crowd control.

    Why do you think Jesus was executed with the connivance of the then ecclesiastical establishment. He was a threat to their power and privileges.

    So too, the “catholic” church never liked its Illuminated Saints–they were often imprisoned, persecuted and even executed. Why? Again they were a threat to the established “order”.

    How to open the doors? This reference provides a clue, and a means too.

  17. One thing, doubt grows one’s faith. It is doubt that changes one’s faith from an infant faith to an adolescent faith, and from an adolescent faith to an adult (mature) faith.

  18. Christina Dimakos

    Still waiting for Ian to reply to David’s request of proof of his religious experience. Just because some ‘thing’ gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling, Ian, does not lead to the conclusion of a god. As far as I’m concerned, I get that same warm fuzzy feeling from a nice cup of Starbucks. Do my fellow atheists concur?

  19. Let’s say that the God of the Bible exists. Should he not be brought up on charges? He’s a mass murderer. Aren’t people of faith disturbed by this?

  20. I have been asked to describe my experience of God. So let me try and do so. Granted that there are lots of warm fuzzy experiences, some of which religious people mix up with God. In addition, there are experiences of the divine that some people use to justify wicked actions (e.g. a suicide bombing). So I admit we are in a difficult realm.

    However, please allow me to persist in my ‘sight’ analogy. The appreciation of fine art takes effort; the appreciation of fine wine takes some work. Someone might not be able to detect the grass or gooseberries in a Sauvignon Blanc, but they are there. So by analogy, much that atheists appreciate about the world is really made possible and reflective of the reality of God. For me, my sense of God is a perpetual presence of ultimate sense of goodness and love that underpins the reality of the world around us. It is a sense that is as close to me as my breath. There have been moments when I wish it were not so obvious and just there.

    Now I appreciate that this will not be persuade the atheist. And this is for two reasons. First, certain experiences that the atheist has are not described as God (that sense when everything is desperate and yet that things are going to be OK, I would call God). And second, like art and wine, the spiritual sense needs to be cultivated. In short you need to go to Church.

    Finally, there are other arguments posted here, which I do find a little strange. So is the God of the Bible a mass murderer? Well, certain people thought that God ordered the killing of large numbers of people, which most Christians would recognize is a misunderstanding of the divine revelation. However, the text, if read closely, is interesting. So Deuteronomy 7 for example has God ordering the genocide of large numbers of people. But the text immediately instructs the Jewish people not to ‘intermarry’. What we have here is the ‘self-correcting’ nature of the tradition. The Jewish tradition revisits its own past and modifies an injunction.

    I understand the skeptical tradition of the European Enlightenment; I wish some of my skeptical friends would make the same effort with Christianity.

    Anyway thanks for the conversation, Ian

  21. Occam’s Razor, Ian tells us not to introduce entities beyond necessity: You adduce personal experiences as evidence to support your extravagant theist hypothesis. Yet there is no need to introduce a transdimensional intelligence (beyond our own) to account for that.

    That the world of men contains concepts and feelings we may call love, compassion, or kindness, is likewise no evidence that someone created them – beyond ourselves.

    We (think we) live in a complex multi faceted existence. In which we as subjective perceiving ‘spirits’ by an amazing sleight of mind detach ourselves from and project a reality which we think we inhabit.

    And then become confused by our own creation, wondering who has, in fact created it. And are amazed to find it has anthropic qualities! Whoda thunk it?

    The mere act of being passive reflective observers places the passive reflective observer outside the universe of its observation. This cannot be avoided: In that sense the scientific world-view is of course underpinned by a ‘spirituality’ of mentation. Or to put it simply what we see is a world, but never ourselves seeing it, which absolutely enforces a condition on the world this seen that it can never be ‘all there is’.

    On that point the philosopher and the religious can agree. And science properly restricts its self ONLY to the world so produced. Atheism is not a denial of your God, is simply ignores the issue because it knows that it is not relevant to the pursuit of science, and the anthropic nature of the universes is easily explained by the fact that we exist it it, for if it were not anthropic in some sense we could not. Whether you choose to extend the principles of causality outside the phenomenal world and thereby adduce that either we made the world to suit us, or the world allows us to live because we are adapted to its foibles, is moot.

    In short for us to exist as we do, in a phenomenal world. requires that we have at leasts some ‘beyond’ to account for it, if accounting is to be done. It seems the world cannot account for itself, at least in the way we would like, so we must needs to introduce Law to account for its orderliness, and and Act of Creation – Big Bang or Big God, – to account for its timeliness.

    And yet these principles cannot be proved to be universal. They are not what the world consists of, they are the way we relate to the world. That is the whole metaphysical underpinning in us that allows us to divide the totality of existence into ‘us’ and ‘it’, into one thing differentiated from another, linked by causality, in a massive time integral of implicit differential equations, is the same thing that necessitates the positing of some agency who does this act of division and differentiation. And, having eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, we look round our Creation, and fail to see the creator anywhere. Well of course. We can’t see the back of our own heads, after all.

    The Great Mistake of Science is to confuse the phenomenal world with actual Reality, rather than our particular way of handling it. A tool, Not a thing in itself.

    The Great Mistake of Theologians is to do exactly the same thing, and yet noticing that it is incomplete, come up with a fanciful externality beyond ourselves to account for it.

    IF – and its a big IF – we must needs extend the principles we have developed to account for phenomena IN our world view, to account for how we created that world view in the first place, the of course it leads naturally to the notion of an external agency to that world view. Big G or Natural Law. Whatever.

    HOWEVER firstly, that is a massive gross and unjustifiable extrapolation…we do not know that such principles extend beyond the worldview that produces them – and we can never know, in the way we have knowledge of the phenomenal world. And secondly Occam’s Razor leads us to a far different view of a Creator, as in fact ourselves, backed up by a sophisticated pattern recognition piece off ‘wetware’ that simply filters out those parts of the world that are relevant to our existence. And presents them to us in other that we may interact with it on a less awesome basis than experiencing it all at once. In this metaphysic, we are the sole creators of the world of our experience, and what we sense behind it – an active intelligence, of a more or less kindly/implacable/wrathful/peaceful nature is in fact ourselves. You can pray to yourself and have a reasonable expectation of being heard, too.

    In short the parable of Eden, is strict and accurate: the moment we eat from the Tree of Knowledge, we create our own Creation, become aware not only of it, but of ourselves, and forever split the world into things of which we may have knowledge and experience, and a shadowy ‘ghost in the machine’ entity, which is the part of us that creates the objective world view. We, as players in the drama we have created, becomes separate from the now externalised God figure of a creator. And Sin, original or otherwise, becomes the stupidity of not liking and acting against the world we have made.

    Science becomes the unravelling at the conscious level, of the creation we have created unconsciously.

    And yet this is all just a story – yet another parable of consciousness. Yet more reification of what Schopenhauer calls ‘the thing in itself’ – a last ditch attempt to probe the un-probable with the tools we have developed for rather different purpose – to use causality and objectivity to examine the ultimately subjective nature of our experience.

    The right and proper purpose of religion and philosophy in the end, is not to arrive at certainty about the world, but as a methodology to adapt – as since does better, to the unknown and in the limit unknowable aspects of the world.

    And that is where I reserve my most scathing condemnation of religion: when it ceases to be a humble attempt to develop a way of living in the face if such ultimate uncertainty it becomes not a tool for enlightenment, but a tool for a dangerous restriction on the individual. Faith is a shield: Faith replaces uncertainty with unjustified certainty. There is a valid reason to suppose that such a tool is valuable for the ‘little people’ who simply need a yardstick to live by, but it ill behoves men of intellect and reason to cling to as well. Its is better to behave ‘as if’ there were a god whose judgements are final complete and irrevocable but it is unwise to confuse a convenient conventional assumption, with whatever is the actual case.

    In short we all find ourselves at a given moment, inhabiting a world where we sense an order, and we feel emotion, and sensation of a highly complex sort. We some of us need to be informed in the ways of meeting it face to face, and acting within it. But as we mature, it behoves us to put away childish things, and determine to our own satisfaction what it may be said to consist of, and what rules if any, beyond our own govern its unfolding: Religion seeks to bind us into a childlike awe of it, which is not, for many of us, that helpful.

  22. What I find most often though is that with intellectual interlocutors “Atheism” is a public position, whereas the private one is “Agnostic Atheism”, principled agnosticism with a pragmatic atheist outlook. Furthermore, if you get into a charitable conversation the agnosticism can accommodate a certain gnostic element, and indeed the atheism a certain theistic content. E.g., you can posit God as Logos (reason) and concur that reason may be taken as an absolute (a gnostic position of forms) in small quantities. We may depart from there, but there is a common root of loving kindness that makes us human – and we take that position ultimately on faith.

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