So in my travels here and there around the internet, I ran across “Five Problems with Atheism“, written by a “Spiritual Traveller”. Seems a nice enough person, just pointing out some ways to perhaps heal the rift between believers and atheists, by pointing out some things atheists get wrong:
[T]here are some fundamental problems with atheism. I’m not nailing these five thesis to the door of a church, because there isn’t one. That isn’t the problem. There are problems with atheism a wider view could possibly bridge, or at least decrease the polarity between atheists and non-atheists. These persuasions are intended to reach across the aisle of a doorless structure.
Again, I see he has the best of intentions. But the way I see it, what he sees as problems, I see as misunderstandings on his part. Understandable mistakes, but mistakes nonetheless. I’m sure he did not intend to insult atheists, and I write in the same sense of open communication, with no malice aimed at the Spiritual Traveller. continues…
1. Scientists should not be atheists (hardcore atheist Richard Dawkins claims that 93% of scientists are atheist, although that number is likely biased and highly inflated). They should be agnostic. Science can neither prove nor disapprove the existence of God. Any scientist who professionally says otherwise is operating under bias. When it comes to ultimate Mystery, the most science can say is: “There is an awful lot we just don’t know.” (That’s a statement of shared experience.)
First, an aside: the anti-Dawkins types have filled the internet recently with squeals of “Dawkins admits the possibility of God!” Yes, he is a “hardcore atheist”, but that’s evidence of the first misunderstanding on your part.
You see, in science, all knowledge is provisional; although we look for the best possible explanation for our observations, we recognize always that a new theory, or new evidence, could change everything. Mind you, the new theory would have to explain everything the old one did and more, but that’s pretty much the definition of a better theory. Newton’s physics still works for aiming projectiles, but Einstein’s physics covers that and more. Dawkins is accustomed to knowledge being provisional, and while he does not believe in a god (thus, he is an atheist), he cannot absolutely rule out the possibility (thus, he is an agnostic). Scientists may be believers or atheists; that is independent of the provisional (agnostic, in a way) nature of scientific belief.
But there’s more to this. Scientists, while doing science, actually should be atheists. That is, they should hold the axiomatic assumption that what they are observing is not being influenced by supernatural means. We must make that assumption in order to conclude that it was our manipulation, rather than a god’s intervention, that was responsible for the results we observed. Put simply, it cannot be science when God intervenes.
2. Atheism is sometimes less a belief than an opposition to a belief. In other words, atheists are often in opposition to religious authority or fundamentalist views that appear controlling, maladaptive, uneducated, anti-science, or even dangerous. I believe it is possible to put yourself in opposition to a fundamentalist belief without engaging polarity.
Not opposition to a belief, but defined by not being a religious view. Atheism is the privative category, the “none of the above” category. When a category is defined by what it is not, it will look polarized. But the thing is, if atheism is defined by the things it is not, then any polarization pretty much has to come from those other things. After all, once the amount of belief is “nothing”, you’ve hit bottom; I can’t believe in god any less than I do.
3. The history of religious tradition has tended to define atheists very strictly: our way or no way at all. God the Father or nothing. Our God or the godless (and, in fact, one historical method of governance was to reject local gods in favor of one “state” God). With only two apparent choices, Atheists have tended to go along with the “nothing” side of the equation. There are other ways to view the Divine, an incredibly rich and sometimes diverse range of views – none of which can define the undefinable with complete success.
“Our way or no way” is very close to the distillation of religious truth. And (see #2), when atheists are defined privatively, there is no surprise at all that we are on the “nothing” side of the equation. By definition–your definition, not ours!
Interestingly, in science, we often start of with a multiplicity of methods to investigate a phenomenon. Some work better than others; some are abandoned, others refined. Over time, though, we either get better at observing that phenomenon or we conclude we were mistaken in claiming it (see N-Rays for a perfect example of the latter). We converge on agreement; we say “this appears to be the way it works”. What then, of god? Have religions converged on a common understanding? Rather than discarding what doesn’t work, it seems that every disagreement ends with yet more views of what god is like, of what god likes and does not like. There may be “other ways to view the Divine”, as you say, but how can you possibly know that is what you are viewing, when you all disagree?
4. A strictly materialist view limits the potentials of experience. If one denies the potential of sacred experience, they also remove the possibility of experiencing the sacred. Psychologist Abraham Maslow labeled this as the defense mechanism of desacralization (1967). Desacralization means to divest or negate sacred significance. Maslow states that one may be protecting their sense of self-worth by negating those reported experiences that seem grand or beyond their personal capability. To do so also negates the potential of ever having those experiences.
I would like to re-define “desacralization” as the process of removing one’s head from one’s ass. The Latin still fits, I think. (Sorry, I did not mean to insult, but when a pun like that is just sitting there at the base of my spine, I can’t help it!)
I also would like to disagree strongly with Maslow; to attribute something to a supernatural explanation is to shut the door on understanding it (see response #1 again). In the decades since Maslow, experimental psychology has made tremendous strides in understanding consciousness, transcendence, spirituality. They have done so by treating them as just another natural phenomenon. I should also mention that a misunderstanding of “sacred experience” leaves us open for exploitation, with potentially nasty consequences.
5. But sometimes it may be a matter of language. We shouldn’t let words confuse experience. Some “materialists” may experience mystery, wonder, and grace as well as some “spiritualists.” For example, I had a poetry instructor in college who described a peer as a self-defined atheist, but added that his peer had a deep reverence for poetry. I asked if he meant a spiritual reverence. My instructor stated: “Yes, I believe poetry is his religion, his god.” I had no direct knowledge of the situation, but it was certainly possible. Genuine experience of the arts could be labeled as Divine. The transcendence of epiphany does not require religious language to acknowledge or appreciate the experience.
Poetry is not my religion, not my god. My goodness, the theistic vocabulary emerged when we still thought the world was flat, that the sun circled the earth, that we were the only world, let alone the only galaxy, in existence. Our universe has expanded so much since god was invented; the petty tyrant of the Old Testament is puny and insignificant next to the Hubble Space Telescope’s view. Chariots with iron wheels were a formidable foe even when God was on your side; now one bomb can melt the steel in a whole city.
I do love poetry (and science, of course–the two are not incompatible in the slightest), but this love is not “spiritual”. It is much, much bigger than that.
I think an honest effort to understand these five “problems” could close the gap between atheists and various beliefs in the Divine. But I’m not trying to convert anyone. I’m not threatened by personal beliefs that do not approximate my own. I have no problem with civil disagreement. I’m threatened by polarity on both ends of the spectrum, because polarity breeds fundamentalism.
I agree, absolutely. But I disagree that these “problems” are, well, problems. They are misunderstandings, yes. But whose?