Guest post: There is a fundamental difference

Originally a comment by Gordon Willis on How different?

The major point is that the desire to learn about the world as it is in itself is not and cannot be the same as the desire to understand god’s creation. There is a fundamental difference which the words “learn more about the world around us” conceals. The one leads to knowledge regardless of any desire for human or personal “significance”, the other has as its goal an interpretation of the world related only to personal meaning (whatever “meaning” means). There is a search for knowledge and a search for meaning, and although these seem to go together there is a point at which the ways divide. Stedman seems to be trying to pretend that such a division can be slurred over, but it effectively destroys common ground except in the most trivial sense: we all “want to know” something or other about the world we live in.

We could suppose that we all find our meaning in response to what we know. For the atheist, “what we know” are observed and established facts, for the Christian “what we know” before anything else is the redemption of God’s fallen creation through the sufferings of Christ and how all things — whatever they are — work together for good to them that love the one supernal Fact. So an atheist might be outraged at the needless suffering and waste of women’s lives that is the result of Catholic policy, while the Christian will humbly submit to God for the outcome — whatever it is, and reject actual knowledge as a proper basis of action.

In this way, the desire to know about the world and to act on the basis of what is known would seem, from the atheist’s point-of-view, to be corrupted at the outset in the case of the believer. Perhaps you could say that for the atheist, meaning is what we make, but for the believer, meaning is truth. For the atheist, meaning emerges in personal life and is not mistaken for reality, whereas for the believer, meaning is something prior to what exists and is imposed upon it and ultimately revealed by the divine fiat.

we’re all trying to construct meaningful lives

Well, not really, not if, for some of us, the meaning is already granted. We atheists might be doing that, but the Christians’ task is to learn obedience. Stedman is like a blind man trying to blind people so that he can lead them. He wishes us to assume that we’re all the same really. No, we are not, and we will never agree; our only common ground is our humanity, and we can’t even agree on what that means.


  1. jedibear says

    This is a simplistic view that obscures the reality and importance of shared humanity.

    Why, if this were completely correct, there would only be two sorts of people: skeptical atheists and fundamentalists.

    This is, of course, not only untrue but frankly ridiculous.

    In reality, atheists and theists share not only common humanity but common culture. There’s really only one point of disagreement, and Stedman is quite correct that it’s just not that important. People come to many of the same conclusions regardless of their opinion on that single subject.

  2. says

    Well it depends. It depends, for instance, on how superficial everything is kept. Once you start digging below the surface, the ways the culture is not common start to appear.

    After all…either theism means something, or it doesn’t. If it does mean something, the things it means have implications for ideas and beliefs about what there is. Sure, it’s possible to wave all that away by insisting that we all share a common culture, but what’s the point? Yes, it’s true that superficially most of us share a common culture; it’s common enough to make chat in a shared taxi or waiting room possible. But no, it isn’t true that we share a common culture that goes all the way down.

  3. Gordon Willis says

    Well, you cannot reduce all religious believers to fundamentalists, and I wasn’t even thinking of them. My concern is the nature of religious belief and how it causes the believer to interpret what is discovered about the world and to change even the perception of what is seen. Of course, you can include the literal interpretation of the bible too, but I was thinking about religious doctrine in general and the nature of belief. I gave examples from Christianity because that is the system with which I am personally familiar. I was never a fundamentalist.

    It is not even true to say that atheists and believers share a common culture, because culture is as much about interpretation as it is about habits of thought and customs and so on. I am trying to highlight a basic distinction in how atheists and believers view the world. It is rather as though two people walked around in the “same” room but each in fact saw a completely different room. To what extent is it actually the same room?

    To talk about common ground requires a prior understanding of our different points of view, and in the present case it seems that common ground disappears the more we understand about each other. Begin with understanding: religious people already know how to understand atheists, so do they really need to listen to them? What does it mean when they do? How does one find common ground between people who try to see simply what there is and people who have everything explained even before they actually look? This is not so much a stumbling-block as a wall, and it is built by one side.

    As to common humanity, there is a great deal in religion about what humanity is: it has a place and a role in the divine scheme and this confers a special significance which has no counterpart in an atheist view. The example I gave of the treatment of women in Catholic hospitals was intended to illustrate the very different idea of the nature of humanity which is found in religious circles. One sees a person who needs help which someone can actually give, another sees a servant of the Lord who must bide in patience till whatever it is has been fulfilled. In the end, we are reduced to common trivialities, and even those can be tricky.

    Skepticism: I wasn’t thinking about sceptics either. Just atheists.

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