What Kind of Unbeliever Are You?

The other day the head muckety-mucks of Saudi Arabia, a clique of oil-rich Bedouin barbarians (think bloodthirsty Beverly Hillbillies) have decided it’s not enough to stone women who do not obediently hide their charms (and everything else) inside black garbage bags. No, that doesn’t take them far enough back into the Bronze Age. So they have decreed that all atheists are henceforth to be considered and treated as terrorists.

Of course, in one sense, the sheiks are right. The minute someone casts off the mental straightjacket of Islamic medievalism, he or she does in fact pose a dangerous threat to the regime of pious barbarism. The infection might prove contagious. And then, before long, you might have the kingdom enter the twenty-first century. Or at least the twentieth. Even the eighteenth would be a big improvement.

(And don’t start giving me PC flack for making bigoted remarks about Arabs. Surely you can see I’m sticking up for a group of Arabs, the atheists upon whom open season has just been declared.)

So far I seem to be presupposing a big gap between our enlightened Western civilization and the backwards culture of Saudi Arabia. But not quite. I see shaping up a scenario in which the hyper-sensitivities of a decadent culture (the West) are aligning with the primitive half-civilization of the Middle East. It is a strange yet almost predictable convergence of opposites. Western decadence invites the destruction of its own free society by tolerating (even embracing) intolerance and giving it an equal seat at the big table, somehow failing to see that the intolerant will wind up the only ones at the table—or at least setting the menu and the manners for everybody else.

As you have anticipated, I have in mind the inexplicable equation of opposing Islamo-fascism with “Islamophobia.” But that is not my main point. Some Western countries have made it a crime to criticize Islam. In decadent America no such law is yet on the books, but there is strong social pressure against criticizing Islam, as I have just mentioned. What I mean to point out is the trend of PC politeness-censorship in the eventual direction of anti-blasphemy laws and the criminalizing of critics of religion. As religious believers portray themselves as victims and demand “protection” from criticism, we critics of faith may find ourselves empathizing with the endangered species of Saudi atheists. Atheists in America are already vilified as immoral or morally nihilistic because we do not claim a basis for morality in the divine will. For this reason, some religious people already regard us as threats to the social and moral order. And that is, as I say, not that far from the reasoning of the Saudi authorities.

All this makes me think of an old sermonic conscience-prod: “If it became illegal to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” In the same way, if being a critic of religion makes one a villain, it might be good to rethink just what we have in mind when we call ourselves “atheists” or other labels usually thought to be synonymous (though they may not be…).

Are you an atheist? What is an atheist? Someone who does not believe in God (gods)? Not good enough. Agnostics don’t believe in God either. We’ll get to them in a minute. Now, does the atheist believe there is no deity? That would seem to imply that theists are correct when they characterize atheism as a rival faith position. But it is my impression that most self-styled atheists would not describe their position this way. It would be more accurate to say that atheists just do not see sufficient reason to take the God option seriously, any more than they feel compelled to hold open the possibility that leprechauns exist. Sure, theoretically, the little guys might be real, but what are the chances?

This is where agnosticism comes in. As Thomas Henry Huxley, who coined the term, viewed the matter, the agnostic does not now see any way to prove a deity exists but thinks it is entirely possible. It is an open question, or, as William James put it, a live option. William James figured that as long as the odds are even and it was one of those cases where “not to decide is to decide” (what James called a forced option), it is legitimate to exercise “the will to believe” to tip the balance, since you will have to fall off the fence one way or the other anyway. Pascal must have had the same idea when he said one ought to “wager” that the Christian faith is true, even while admitting that it might not be. You’re either going to live life as a religious person or as a nonreligious one. Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer choice. In this framework, I guess William James would have said Huxley had actually opted for irreligion, and I guess that would be correct. Agnostics are irreligious. They have effectively chosen a side.

But you could choose the other side. And many have. Evangelical theologian Clark H. Pinnock was probably not atypical when he readily admitted that “know” and “believe” do not mean the same thing. He realized that no mortal can possibly know whether God exists. But he thought there was a pretty good case to be made for God and Christianity, and Pinnock figured that a step of faith (no leap being necessary) was justified—as a working hypothesis. This was a man with the courage to change his mind, which he had done more than once on various issues, and at some cost. So I think he meant it. Pinnock was technically an agnostic even while being a devout Christian. Many are.

Back to Huxley. He was quick to point out that he wasn’t saying one could never know there was no way to know if a God exists. That would presuppose just the sort of superhuman knowledge Huxley admitted he lacked. Maybe someone someday will come up with a definitive proof of God. Huxley’s agnosticism grants that possibility. But most people who use the term today seem to mean that they believe you cannot know, you can never know, whether there is a God. Or do they? I suspect they really mean something akin to what I said about atheists: they just don’t see any likelihood that it will ever prove possible to know about God.

How about rationalists? Central here is epistemology: how can we know, whether about God or about anything else? By reason, processing the evidence of the senses. Intuition, feeling, sentiment: these things may rightly prompt certain of our actions, very important ones. But they do not yield true knowledge of factual matters. Religious belief pretends to offer such knowledge, but it does not, as long as we define “knowledge” as “justified true belief.” If the decision to embrace religious doctrines is based in any measure on an act of faith, it cannot claim to be rationally justified. Many advocates of religion are happy to admit that. To them, faith is the missing link. But rationalists call that a bridge to nowhere. It’s using counterfeit money to make up the shortfall.

Logical Positivists used to claim that any belief incapable of scientific verification was merely gibberish. Wittgenstein thought this at first but then decided that scientific verification was not the only game in town, not the only “language game” available. There are other uses of language that do not posit and postulate. Religious language follows a different trajectory and serves a different purpose. It is not cognitive in nature, but neither is it meaningless. It is emotional and expressive in nature. As Tillich taught, religious myths and symbols express and articulate a deeper level of meaning, much in the fashion of poetry. Religion has no business poaching on the preserves of science (“The earth was created in one week.”) or history (“Moses parted the Red Sea.”). Of course, most religious folks do not draw those distinctions and insist on making fact claims they cannot support through evidence and thus are tempted to pretend they can, deceiving themselves and their audiences (e.g., “Scientific Creationists,” William Lane Craig, etc.).

Humanistsespouse the philosophy summed up by the singing group Up with People: “We’ve got to do the best we can with what we’ve got.” Humanists (at least the ones we’re talking about) are usually atheists and agnostics, but they prefer the “humanist” label because they would rather fly the flag of what they do stand for than what they don’t.

Let me take a moment to draw a distinction. Though humanists have many concerns and causes, there is one that I think disqualifies a non-theist as a humanist: radical environmentalism. If you believe that human beings are a pestilence, the worst thing ever to happen to the earth, you are no kind of humanist. If you think the interests of snail darters take precedence over the well-being of humans, you do not espouse humanism. If jobs for people and energy independence mean nothing to you, but “Gaia” does, you probably don’t want to call yourself a humanist, and I wish you wouldn’t.

Similarly, on another issue, if you think a fetus is no more valuable than a tumor, I think you’re confused if you think you’re a humanist.

In my lexicon, a secularist is fundamentally an advocate of the separation of religion and state. But these days that has come to mean advocating the elimination of any and all expressions of religion on public property, which seems pretty scorched-earth to me. That crusade seems to me to pass beyond secularization (dethronement of any official or state religion) to secularism, the attempt to make the rejection of religion into the ruling ideology.

Then there are skeptics. To be “skeptical” means “to scrutinize.” We generally use the term for those like Joe Nickel and James Randi who investigate extraordinary, paranormal claims. Believers in things like telepathy and ghosts dismiss skeptics as “paradigm police,” defenders of an orthodoxy of “normative science” (Thomas Kuhn’s term). This implies skeptics go in with minds made up, determined to debunk. But that’s not really a problem, is it? Isn’t the procedure of scientists to try their best to debunk their own hypotheses? That’s the only way to see if your theory passes the test.

It is not uncommon to find selective skepticism in play. Local skeptic groups often have to tread lightly because they have welcomed fundamentalist Christians as members. These believers would not think of applying skeptical scrutiny to their own beliefs, but flying saucers and ghosts are fair game: they have no place in the fundamentalist (“biblical”) worldview, so fundamentalists are eager to shoot them down. Personally, I sometimes find myself baffled at atheistic skeptics vis a vis the paranormal who seem however to swallow uncritically certain political dogmas – and I am fully aware they look at me the same way!

Tillich spoke of people who cannot seem to believe in anything, who are automatically skeptical of everything. But they are not to be written off as nothing more than jaded smart-asses. Tillich suggested that they do believe in Truth, so fervently that they will not easily accept any claim as the Truth. They’re willing to wait as long as it takes, even if the Truth never comes along. One might say they are employing the concept of the Truth as a sailor employs the North Star: he navigates by it but does not expect to reach it.

I think Nietzsche was saying the same thing when he warned that when we come to realize there is no Truth, we are tempted to regard our favorite fictions as the Truth. To avoid such a convenient self-deception, Nietzsche said we should not reject the category labeled “Truth” but should keep it as an empty drawer, just to remind ourselves that our fictions belong in the “Fiction” drawer, not in the ever-empty “Truth” drawer. We need the empty, purely formal and not material notion of Truth to guard ourselves from imagining that some favorite fiction is not more than a fiction.

Any and all of the above may add “freethinker” to their resume. But I will defend the right of religious folks to claim the title, too. I will admit that my experience and that of others I have observed lead me to expect that a conservative Christian who dares to rethink his theology in an honest and searching way is very likely to end up in one of the camps I have discussed here. His initial stance is one of accepting a package, a platform, a slate of beliefs learned from his inherited church or whichever church got him to convert from unbelief. These beliefs may gain their integrity from a systematic logic. If they do, then, when one discards one feature of the system, the whole thing may collapse.

But even more basically, questioning any feature of a creed accepted on faith erodes the whole warrant of faith. If any single tenet of your creed is no longer safe from critical evaluation, where does it stop? How can you keep the iron curtain of cognitive invulnerability safely around the rest of the tenets? I don’t think you can, without heavy-duty compartmentalizing, and you can keep up that effort for only so long. And once you realize that “faith epistemology” (fideism) amounts to arbitrary stubbornness, stonewalling, you will probably try your best to find or create rational justification for your beliefs. But that is indulging in after-the-fact rationalizing. Just like Creationists and resurrection apologists. I am not optimistic about the prospects for a religious freethinker. But it’s possible; remember Clark Pinnock.

Neither do I have any right to tell anyone not to bother continuing his quest because I can tell him in advance what he will find (namely, my oh-so-wise opinions!). That would make me into the very sort of dogmatist I despise! And even if I am right, for me to tell somebody to save himself the trouble and just agree with me, would be cheating him. Again, even if my conclusions are correct, someone else must come to these conclusions on his own, or they will be worthless because they will be based, once again (and ironically) on faith—faith in me! Nope, you have to reach your own conclusions, even if they do wind up jiving with mine. And I have to remain agnostic as to whether you will.

So says Zarathustra.

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