Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A Negative-Sum Game Part 2: Some Non-Ruminative Thoughts

     If you’ve read this earlier piece, you’re already familiar with the aggrieved puzzlement I feel over the phenomenon of the militant atheist. In light of the irrefutable conclusion (hint, hint) that firmly held atheism is just as much a religious faith as any other doctrine about the supernatural, I suppose I should be less puzzled. After all, the holders of other faiths have gone on great, often bloody campaigns to eliminate their “competitors,” so why not the atheists? Why should anyone expect them to be different?

     Having posed the question that way, I suppose this is just one more glimpse into human nature: specifically, the discomfort that afflicts those who hold a particular belief and can’t abide others that don’t share it. Just as “I was wrong” is very hard to say, “You are wrong” is very hard to hear – and for persons of incomplete maturation, “You might be wrong” is almost as hard.

     But the matter doesn’t end there.

     Viewed broadly, faith has been the single most important force in the history of Man. Its influence on politics, economics, warfare, international relations, education, social customs and traditions, the hard sciences, the arts, and the demographics of the world cannot be overstated. Indeed, I could make a good case (Sheesh. I almost typed “god case.” Get back in your box, Sigmund!) that faith is a more important influence today than ever before in history.

     That should be a heads-up to the militant atheist, whose aim, whether express or implied, is the elimination of what he sees as irrationality. Disentangling faith from all of human enterprise and the human experience isn’t likely to be accomplished by a few thousand sour-faced evangelists for atheism.

     Remember, I said viewed broadly. For any conviction that can neither be conclusively proved nor conclusively disproved qualifies as a faith:

  • Socialism is a faith.
  • So is capitalism.
  • Bimetallism is a faith.
  • So is monometallism.
  • And of course, so is Keynesianism.
  • Constitutionalism – the conviction that there must be a Supreme Law that constrains all other lawmaking and government action – is a faith.
  • Monarchism is a faith. Indeed, it’s still held by a fair number of persons. (Look into the Constantian Society if you disbelieve me.)
  • Scientism – i.e., the conviction that all important knowledge can be established by scientific means and procedures – is most definitely a faith.

     None of the enumerated stances can be verified or falsified so conclusively that there remains room for neither doubt nor dissent. There are many other stances of that sort.

     The militant atheist, of course, isn’t aiming at the wholesale rejection of socialism, or capitalism, or bimetallism. His crosshairs settle over the face of God. To him, the belief in a Supreme Being that is beyond our senses yet is responsible for the whole of existence is unacceptable. We who maintain such a belief are equally unacceptable. Indeed, many a militant atheist regards us as not merely irrational but “stupid.” Of course, he imagines himself to occupy a higher intellectual plane.

     A long, long time ago, back at the old Palace of Reason, I posted the following:

Private Knowledge

     I consider myself a Catholic. I also consider myself an agnostic. And while you're catching your breath from that seeming contradiction, I'm going to indulge in a little word-splitting, hopefully of the consciousness-expanding kind.

     The original Gnostic controversy propelled a great deal of the early unrest within the Church. On one side stood men, apparently sincere, who believed that knowledge of God's will came directly to each individual in the form of a private revelation, a gnosis. The most famous case of gnosis recorded in Christian history is the “road to Damascus” revelation of Paul of Tarsus, who may justly be regarded as the doctrinal founder of the Church.

     Opposed to these stood men who rejected the very idea of gnosis. They held that since not all persons had one, and that God would not be so cruel as to deny His word to anyone who desired to hear it, then these private revelations should be regarded as events of unknown significance at best, rather than reliable indicators of God's will. These were the original agnostics.

     Interestingly, the Church, though its doctrines were shaped by the most celebrated gnosis of all time, almost immediately thereafter rejected the Gnostic position, declaring it beyond the pale for any communicant to place his private revelation above the teachings approved by the Church hierarchy. Gnosticism, thus anathematized, acquired an unsavory aspect, allied itself with forms of mysticism at odds with core Christian beliefs, and after a couple of centuries ceased to be an important influence on the development of the Christian faith.

     There are Christian faiths that preserve some fragment of the Gnostic belief. The Church of the Latter-Day Saints, for example, explicitly teaches its adherents that God may be expected to speak directly to them on matters of critical importance to them personally. However, most mainline Christian sects, including my own, are firmly agnostic. True doctrine, they teach, is preserved and propagated by the Church itself, in keeping with the responsibility conferred upon the apostle Peter by Christ Himself.

     All of this might seem a bit abstruse to the layman with a layman's interest in matters of faith. I assure you, it's more important than most Christians realize -- not because of the possible clash between doctrine and revelation, but because of the private nature of all revelations, and the importance of that essential privacy to faith itself.

     In this world, God coerces no one. He has laid down the laws of Nature; that is all. Those laws may be denied or decried, but they cannot be broken. One aspect of those laws is that, for any given miracle -- that is, for any given observed phenomenon that's so far from the ordinary course of things that one explanation offered for it is the hand of God -- there will always be at least one other plausible explanation, such that disbelief will remain possible. I believe that this is a part of the Divine Non-Coercion package, designed to allow men's minds to be free even on the most fundamental of all subjects.

     Why does God want men's minds to be so free? A good question. It might be part of the test. It might be part of what it means to be men. And it might be that we'll all know soon enough. My own theory is that this is how God speaks directly to some men, such as Paul of Tarsus, while leaving others capable of reaching their own conclusions.

     Revelation is always private. Private events, as opposed to public events that may be witnessed by many persons simultaneously, have no evidentiary value for those who have not experienced them. Private events give rise only to private knowledge and private convictions. If a man has had such an experience, it may help him to persuade others, but even here there are stronger factors than the revelation itself: his known character, the degree of his eloquence, and his strength of will in staying true to the substance of the revelation and refraining from adulterating it with opinions of his own.

     To be a Christian agnostic is to say: Revelation is wonderful, if you've had one. It's stunning, thrilling, enlarging beyond any other experience of the mind. But it has no weight as evidence in any argument with others. Your revelation was meant for you alone, or all the rest of us would have had it too.

     The Christian agnostic position is an insistence on personal humility: self-doubt, not doubt of God. How can we doubt what He has said to all of us together, the objectively verifiable laws that govern our universe and dictate how we may use what we find in it? But how can we not politely reserve judgment in the face of a Gnostic's claim to have personal knowledge of His will? To do otherwise would be to elevate the convictions of a mere human above the actual mechanics of the cosmos, the continuously unfolding panoply of Creation itself.

     Why am I nattering on about this, you ask? Have I been accosted by self-nominated visionaries one too many times, or have I had a revelation of my own?

     Sorry, that's private.

     Ponder that for a moment while I fetch more coffee.

     When Francis Bacon proposed what has come to be known as scientific method, he was working within a Christian framework: the conviction that a just God would not allow the laws of the universe to change out from under us. That too is, of course, a religious conviction: a faith. We have no way of knowing whether the laws of physics were at one time not those of today. (Indeed, one of the more popular cosmological theses holds that that must have been the case for the universe of matter to have its current extent.) Neither can we know that the laws of physics will always be what they are today. Both the affirmative and the negative positions are articles of faith.

     It is effectively impossible to separate faith – the willingness to believe without a requirement for conclusive proof – from the rest of the human experience. As I’ve already observed, the militant atheist isn’t concerned with what we might call quotidian faith, but with conceptions of God and the religious propositions founded on such conceptions.

     To these eyes, this is a brief for amiability, a “you go to your church and I’ll go to mine” attitude toward the militant atheist. Yes, he can be annoying. Can’t you? Can’t I? Anyone with a strong opinion about anything, regardless of the subject or his depth of inquiry into it, is capable of being a nuisance. That’s not an argument against having a strong opinion, with one exception:

No matter who you are,
Regardless of what you might believe,
You were not put here to convert the rest of us.

     I think we’d all have it a lot easier, especially at family gatherings, if that particular principle were more widely understood.



As I've said, back when I was a newly-minted atheist I was pretty obnoxious - and mellowed over time.

Now, I am a full-fledged Conservative Jew again; even more so, since I wear a kippa, keep kosher (or try to), and so on. I've had many interesting conversations, including with a former Muslim co-worker, about aspects of their, and my, faith. A good friend of mine is a Baptist and Creationist; OK. So what? We agree to differ.

The issue that I see is that on a Venn Diagram between LEFTISTS and ATHEISTS there's a lot of overlap, and they're BOTH filled with missionary zeal.

AuricTech Shipyards said...

The term I use for atheists who try to convert others to their view is "Militant Atheist Dysangelist." I capitalized the term to make the appropriate acronym clear.... ;-)

For the record, I count myself among the "amiable agnostics" to whom our host has referred in the past. I would rather be on record as sincerely doubting the existence of God than be on record as insincerely proclaiming belief in God's existence.

Tracy Coyle said...

I have considered myself a 'full agnostic' for many years. Raised Roman Catholic, once was 'born-again' and on to my agnostic phase. There have been many unexplanables in my life...call them miracles, call them revelations that I attribute to 'the Universe'. This post has given me enough thought - to consider adding 'religion' back into the mix. It will be a long process of consideration, but the door has been at least...unlocked.

Thank you for that.