Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Guest Posting by Alex

One of my great blog pleasures over the last few months has been reading and tentatively participating in, the debates between Alex, (Christian) Matt (atheist) and some others on the subject of faith over at Alex's blog In Search of High Places. This is a subject which often entails abuse, ignorance and all manner of high-temperature low intelligence frothing. Alex's blog is an exception. He debates with people diametrically opposed to his worldview with humility, intelligence and a sense of "we are all in this together so let's see how we get on". The commenters have played their full part in this debate, making Alex's blog one of the most consistently thought provoking around.

Accordingly, some days ago I asked Alex to write up a guest post for The Tin Drummer on this subject, so without further ago, Alex in his own words writes:

A while back The Tin Drummer approached me to do a little write up on belief as part of the guest blogging initiative started by the Blog Power crew. Let me first say that I am honored that anyone would approach me with such a request. I hope I can bring a helpful perspective to this topic.

Let me start off with a little introduction. My name is Alex Blondeau. I am a follower of Jesus, whom I believe to be a visitation of God Himself into His creation. In the same breath I must also say that I don't know that I will ever fully understand what that means in this life. To be honest, I seem to have the heart of a skeptic. I also have this uncanny ability to surround myself with atheists. Not sure what that's all about, but I seem to attract them like moths to a flame. I should also mention that I wouldn't have it any other way. I have been pushed towards growth more from my interactions with skeptics and atheists than in all my prior education. Of the atheists I speak with regularly, I would count many of them as my friends.

Now when TD asked me to to write on the topic of belief, my first thought was: "What about it?" Being asked to write on the topic of belief seems similar to having someone ask an engineer to build a space ship, then toss him a pencil and paper on his way out the door. How big of a space ship? How far must it be able to fly? What's the goal we are trying to meet here? Instead of doing the logical thing and asking for a little more direction, I decided to just run with my thoughts. Because of that, this essay may be a bit stream-of-thought. Sorry about that.

But enough on disclaimers. To begin, I'd like to look at how I've seen atheists deal with belief and how I've seen them apply the term to their world-view. Atheists are often considered "rationalists", as well as people who are without belief. They want to affirm that they are at the very least more rational than their theistic counterparts. Is that actually the case? Depends on which one you are talking to. ;-) Rationalists would like to use the term 'belief' as seldom as possible. For that reason, most reasonable atheists quickly back away from the first generally understood definition of atheism, which is:

1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.

The reason this is a somewhat unpopular position amongst the atheists is that it requires a strong dose of faith to hold such a position. You see, when you ask how one might be able to defend such a claim, it becomes readily apparent that atheism, in it's strictest sense, is untenable. How can a human who operates within a physical reality claim to know that a being who is outside of our physical reality does not exist? It's indefensible Ñ and for that reason I have yet to meet a person who attempts to operate in the realm of strict atheism. Most will instead opt for a for a sort of agnosticism with a bias towards atheism. Still, some will try to cling to the second common definition of atheism, which is:

2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

Most commonly it will be stated: It's not that I believe there is no God. It's just that I lack the belief that there is a God.

Sounds a bit slippery, does it not? The person making this claim is attempting to demonstrate that they are not trying to sustain a negative belief, but they simply lack the positive belief. In a sense, they are trying to convince themselves that they have no belief at all.

I don't buy it. For the most part I don't think the average atheist does either. You see, nature abhors a vacuum. With the absence of belief in God you are left with belief in something else, namely, a Godless existence. If one wants to take the position that they simply do not have enough information to make a decision one way or another, let's just call it what it is: Agnosticism.

At least for the atheists that I run with, their title 'atheism' simply means: according to the best information I have I find it highly improbable that there is a God. However, I would argue that one's taking the position of atheism (in the mind as well as the heart) has little to do with the information they are looking at. A confession of atheism is not a logical conclusion, it's a posture of the heart. In fact, atheism is an irrational conviction that does not rely on empirically demonstrable facts.

But that's okay. I would say that Theism is no better.

I know, I know, good believer folk aren't supposed to say things like that. We are supposed to believe that reason is king! Many believers come off as if all they need to do to convert the infidels is to pull out some well reasoned arguments. However, I'm sad to say that if one relies on reason alone you're not going to get very far. There's more to our mind than pure reason.

Now don't take that to mean that I think belief, or lack of belief, in God is stupid or sub-rational. I mean that our belief regarding God, is beyond reason. I am also not, saying reason should play no part in our beliefs. In fact, I'm sorely tempted to start parading out several arguments that I personally consider on a regular basis, but that's really beyond the scope this essay. What I am saying is this: Whether you are an atheist or a theist you take that position based on factors that are beyond what pure reason can give you.

I would argue that each of us has a spirit that is going one of two directions. We are either turning inward and growing in concern for our own affairs, or we are growing in our realization that this life is not about us. Far from it. This life is a gift from one much larger than us. In light of that, we must realize the proper focus of our existence cannot be ourselves. There is nothing in us that warrants the attention we give ourselves. We are not here by our own merits. We do not sustain our own existence. The only proper response to source of our existence is one of fear and awe. Furthermore, if Christ was indeed a visitation of this divine reality, then we can know that our creator and sustainer is good, just, merciful and above all, love. He is worthy not only of fear and awe, but of our surrender and our love.

In closing I would like to ask a question that is aimed more at the heart than the mind. When presented with the reality that Christianity holds to be truth vs. the reality that Atheism posits as truth, which world view seems more worthy of belief?

On one hand you have a world view that says we are created by a God who is love, who means for us to love Him and for us love each other. He grants us the freedom that love requires and has been working since the beginning of time to win our love; even to the extreme of becoming one of us and suffering the consequence of our rebellion in our stead. Human life is honored. Justice is honored. Love is honored.

On the other hand, you have a world view that tells us we are the product of mindless matter, energy and chance. We came from nothing, by nothing, for nothing and soon we will return to the nothingness from which we arose. Freedom of will is abolished since we are simply one insignificant step in a chain of cause and effect reactions. Our very sentience is passed off as an odd fluke that matter may sometimes generate under the right circumstances. All of our ethics and morality are illusionary properties that our freak conscious experience generates. In the real (read physical) world there is no such thing as a moral 'good', or 'evil'. All you have is a mindless matter hurtling on towards heat-death. You have no ultimate value. Your life has no ultimate significance. Your most selfless expression of compassion is no more praiseworthy than indigestion.

As for me, my hope is in Christ.


cramerj said...

Lots of words but still you "hope".
Even if there was a god why, oh why, does it always end up with coercive priests, expensive buildings and bloodshed?

As if a god would care.

The Tin Drummer said...

Not a terribly thoughtful comment.

Even if there isn't a god, why - oh why - do atheists always end up with aggressive self righteousness, selective readings of history and bloodshed?

See. Anyone can write that.

james higham said...

Actually I'm chuffed that Alex wrote here. He's a great guy and not because he believes in the same G-d as me. I take very little part in those debates with Matt.

There are some nice things happening with the Blogpowerers lately and Alex is very much part of that. Thank you, TD, for inviting him to guest post.

Crushed by Ingsoc said...

I've always found In Search of High Places one of the more interesting sites for debates around here. sometimes i feel I intrude with my short-ish comments, which seem paltry by comparison with the high level of intellectual debate there.
but it's a blog I really do have respect for.

Matt M said...

Hi Alex,

Heh - at this rate we'll have taken over the entire blogosphere by Christmas.

You have no ultimate value. Your life has no ultimate significance. Your most selfless expression of compassion is no more praiseworthy than indigestion.

This is where I think you and I really take different paths.

In order to state the above you have to step outside of yourself and adopt the view of an external force - to that external observer, who doesn't give a fig about what I feel, my life is pointless and has no value.

However, for me, that external observer is a complete fiction. It doesn't exist, and even if it did, I see no reason why it's judgments should be more valid than my own.

My life has value to me - that's enough. That one thing alone, no matter what caused it, is enough to make my life worthwhile to me and to make the judgments I make about life significant to me.

It'd be nice if there all this were some grand masterplan, but if wishes were horses then we'd be knee-deep in crap... or however that saying goes.

The Tin Drummer said...

Matt - a lot worse could happen to the blogosphere than have you and Alex taking it over.

My life has value to me - that's enough. That one thing alone, no matter what caused it, is enough to make my life worthwhile to me and to make the judgments I make about life significant to me.

And this is the crux of my problem with atheism, and where I really appreciate Alex writing it so much better than I could: I understand, Matt, that your life has value to you - but what happens when it ceases to have that value? surely then, in case of illness, or depression, or whatever, it necessarily ceases to have any value at all, since the value you put on it comes from you. I would say, in such an eventuality, that the creator's existence means that you still possess value even when you don't think you do. To me, that's more positive than the other position, even if I'm not a particularly positive person (but good at alliteration).

Matt M said...

but what happens when it ceases to have that value?

I'd say that's actually incredibly rare - for example, most suicide attempts aren't made because the person doesn't want to live, but because they don't want to live as they are and believe that it's too difficult to change, which is a very different proposition.

But, if a person didn't value their life, and no-one else valued it either, then that life would be valueless. Personally, I think that all life has value, so technically, as long as I believe this, no-one's life can be valueless.

the creator's existence means that you still possess value even when you don't think you do

Thta's true. But we can't wish God into existence, so it has no bearing on whether I'm a theist or atheist.

The Tin Drummer said...

the creator's existence means that you still possess value even when you don't think you do

Thta's true. But we can't wish God into existence, so it has no bearing on whether I'm a theist or atheist.

I didn't mean to imply that it did - but it affects my inclination in that I find it more ethically satisfying, and hence, if you like, a kind of ontological evidence. I'm fully aware of all the other problems it creates, which don't exist in an atheist worldview, but it's the one that kind of sticks with me. My ethics hinge on the question of value and valuelessness: even if you do value your life that doesn't mean I should,(value yours I mean) unless there is some other kind of source for value we both adhere to.

As you rightly point out, you can value all life and be an atheist. It's just that, for me, that value in that case would need to be invented by a foolish, flawed human being (ie me) and not exist outside me as something real; and hence be flawed, even mistaken itself.

The Tin Drummer said...

Incidentally, on the subject of wishing God into existence, the Doctor Who New Adventures novel "Timewyrm: Revelation" - St Paul of Cornell's first novel - does feature a church which has become sentient through the accumulated prayer of its worshippers (if I remember rightly).

Matt M said...

The church spirit was called 'Saul'.

He was an accumulated wisdom, an intelligence formed from the focus of so many dutiful minds over such a long time. The Celtic Cenomanni had called him Cernwn, and each succeeding people had their own name for the spirit of the hill.

Saul had been surprised when the Christian missionaries had tried to exorcise him. But he had been taken aback when, failing to do so, they came up with a typically pragmatic answer to the problem.

They built a church around him and declared that he was an angel, or the Grace of God. Or something.

One of my favourite books that.

The Tin Drummer said...

Yeah, Cornell is pure class.

Incidentally - trumpet blowing time here - as President of the Oxford DocSoc I invited him to talk to the soc, which he did, brilliantly, and he then returned for our annual dinner at which he proved that as well as being a fine writer he is also extremely funny and a shocking gossip. Or was, a decade ago.

Crikey. Time flies....

Matt M said...

Have you seen his blog?


Alex said...

Hey Matt,
It's a fun time spreading our joy around like this ay?

As for your discussion with TD, I'd have to say I feel pretty much the same as him on this topic.

If you are an atheist who wishes to hold to monist naturalism, then you really have no control over your feelings, thoughts or whatever, so even the value you impose on your life or others becomes nonexistent. I suppose if you want to join the camp of the dualist atheists that Stephen talks about, then we might have something to talk about, but at that point you are opening the door to something that doesn't sound quite like the atheism I've grown to know you for.

It starts to sound strangely like what you might call 'super-natural'. To be honest I'm growing increasingly uncomfortable with the connotations we've attached to that phrase, but you get my point.

Thanks to all for the encouraging words. Much is owed to the fortuitous chemistry we both rather stumbled into.

Ruthie said...

Alex, that was a very interesting post. I'm glad I read it. I'll be looking at your blog...

Incidentally, have you ever read Francis Schaeffer?

If not, you should. I highly recommend any of his books.

Matt M said...

If you are an atheist who wishes to hold to monist naturalism, then you really have no control over your feelings, thoughts or whatever

No-one's yet been able to explain to me how theism gets round the issue of determinism though - if our choices aren't determined by who we are, and they're not random, then what are they? How exactly does the libertarian concept of free will actually work?

The Tin Drummer said...

I haven't been to St Paul's blog, yet....I like to think of the genius as he was, a decade ago...

how sad is that.

anyway - Alex - heat death, eh? According to no less a source than wikipedia, the heat death fate of the universe may have been greatly exaggerated, although either way, I guess proton decay hits on us all at some point (namely, 10 to the 32 years).