Friday, March 9, 2012

An Ingenuous Apologetic (. . . or why I still believe that Christianity is true . . . or more true) Part III - The Draw of Atheism

If you have never had the choice of atheism on the table, then you have never really thought carefully. If you assume Christianity, through the process of social coercion rather than thinking your way there, then it is intellectually lazy. However, if Christianity is true, as I think it is, then the laziness has no real consequences. You win.  You win in the same way as the novice bomb de-armer, you randomly cut the red wire, which saves you, rather than the blue wire, which would blow you to kingdom come. So this intellectual laziness is not a moral problem (which we usually associate with other forms of laziness) but simply dangerous.

But as atheism sits on the table, it does not sit in a depression where everything has the natural tendency to roll towards it. Actually I use the term "draw" as an irony. Atheism does not have that natural draw, it would never be the opium that Marx refers to. If you really understood atheism, within it you would find no comfort . . . and no resolution. As I've said before, all ways out of the crater have very steep parts of absurdity.  Since I'm approaching this topic of apologetics ingenuously, I will say that if you were an atheist . . . honestly . . . you have to be a nihilist. But few atheists are because they can't live that way.  A lecture in Seattle this week, which I can't attend, is titled; Religion for the Atheists. I don't know for sure, but I assume it is another illogical attempt to give meaning where there can be none.

So how do people end up in atheism and why is it a choice that many make?  I will deconstruct it the same way I did the belief in Christianity.

For many, it is the same type of social coercion that makes born again adults out of Bible belt babies. In some circles, especially the academic specialties of the humanities and biology it is considered . . . I guess the best word is "cool" to be an atheist. It is lesser so in astronomy, physics and least true in medical sciences. So as the student makes his or her way through the undergraduate years, they have more and more social coercion to conform and think in atheistic ways.  This was probably more true during the 1950s through the 1980s and less so the last two decades.  During the more recent times, pantheistic ideologies have probably become more popular in these specialties.

So, beyond the emotional reasoning of wanting to be like your peers (remember this is the same reason that most Christians are Christians) there are a few other reasons people become atheists.

Another emotional reason is being screwed by something theological. Atheism becomes part of the emotional rebound from a bad experience with Christianity, or other another religious system. Some of the common examples I can think of are the people I've known who claim to be atheist after their little boy died from a brain tumor or their wife was killed in a car wreck. There are some who become atheist in the rebound after being sexually molested by a priest . . . or by their deeply, born again pastor-father.

The last reason that some people become atheist, is probably the most honorable one. That is where they "think their way" to atheism.  Now I'm not saying that good-thinking should always lead you to atheism. Good-thinking can lead you to many, often opposite conclusions.  Some people are Christians through good-thinking and some are Muslims for the same reason.  I will talk about each of those in their due time.

The honest-thinking atheist gets to where they are because they sincerely want to know truth. But true, dogmatic, atheism is as bad (speaking logically) as the dogmatic Evangelicals that claim to know absolute truth at all levels, down to the tiny specifics of life. However, even these atheists got to that point has more, once again, to do with social coercion than pure logic.

I was once trying to teach this concept of social coercion to a group of high school Sunday school kids. I thought it would be very helpful in understanding culture and the role of Christianity in culture. This was just before I was axed for not teaching the Bible. But the point I made to them, as I looked around the room, that 90% of them (including myself) were wearing bluejeans. The reason we were wearing jeans was because of social coercion. So I traced the history of the wearing of jeans back to Nimes, France (where denim was invented) to Levi Strauss and is copper pocket rivet for gold miners and on to James Dean.

Philosophical thinking behaves the same way.  This is where I think the late Francis Schaeffer shined the most, in his understanding of philosophical evolution.

But this is where the social coercion comes from the enlightenment gone a muck. So the preceding centuries (including the Dark Ages), Europe was deeply enthralled in dualistic Christianity, where the physical world, including reason, had no merit, but the spiritual world was all that mattered. I know that you already know this, but, the reaction to that horrible experiment with philosophical dualism, there was a rebound towards reason.

The Medici family may have initiated the transformation in Florence and the Moors (who had not, yet, fallen into Dualism) in Spain.  So there was a tidal wave of transformation towards reason.

But just like in any rebound, the pendulum goes too far. The The Renaissance followed by The Enlightenment brought reason back to its healthy place in society. Then the French "coronated" the new god of France (after Louis' head rolled) as Reason. Then reason was considered perfect, infallible and it was further honed with Empiricism. Eventually it reach an irrational conclusion that if something can't be measured . . . then it doesn't exist.

It is a little like the metaphysical paradox that we face in medicine. In this litigious society it is stated that if it was not documented then it never happened.  So if a patient comes into the emergency room with a heart attack and you follow the exact life-saving protocol of giving the drugs to save their life, and because you were so focused on saving their life that you didn't pause to write down what you did, and the patient died, it will be assumed in a court room that you never did the right things to save their life. So now, strangely, it has become more important to write down what you are doing than focus on actually doing it.  So the patient is at greater risk, but if you fail to document what you've done, and you are sued, you career could be over and your employer out of millions of dollars.

So, in the case of Empiricism, if it can not be observed in the lab, it doesn't exist. In medicine, if it wasn't written down, then it never happened, even if it did happen . . . or in the former case, even if it really does exist.

So, what is thought among philosophers (in the late 17th century), becomes vogue among the artists (18th and 19th centuries) and vogue among us commoners within a generation (early 20th century). So, after thousands of years of considering the existence of God as not being a viable option, but a significantly rational one, insidiously it becomes irrational . . . and the person on the street doesn't even know why it isn't rational any more, any more than we who still wear jeans don't under the culture behind the wearing of jeans.

So, my suggestion is that the majority of those who chose atheism, just like the majority of those who choose Christianity, do so from emotional reasoning.

I will come back to talk about why I'm not an atheist and some of the philosophical problems with that view.  But, keeping with the spirit of this being a "ingenuous" apologetic, I'm not talking about this as an academic exercise. I can only talk about it because I have seriously considered atheism as an option for myself.  What I will share next isn't what I read in a book by Josh McDowell, Paul Little, or even Francis Schaeffer (except to say that Dr. Schaeffer put some language to the thoughts which were already in my head) but from my own, honest explorations


Jaimie said...

Interesting thoughts.

trevor said...

Interesting points, M. I've been thinking a lot about the Enlightenment recently, but your point about the French 'crowning' reason rather than treating her with healthy respect is not one that had occurred to me.

Looking forward to the rest of the series!

Anonymous said...

I'm always impressed by how much you care about this. My take, after 30 years of Baptist churches/ then 20ish evangelical culture- life is pointless. None of this matters. Enjoy it while it lasts. Life isn't any more or less pointless with Jesus or atheism, so why bother going over the differences?
Another way to put it: what in your background and personality makes you care about this, as opposed to just dumping it over the side and saving yourself a lot of heartache? Just because you were socialized as a christian?

Jaimie said...

I like Anonymous's question. I think my answer would be, life isn't pointless with Jesus, if you follow it to its full conclusions. That's what keeps me going on. There's no plus to switching, although I sympathize with people who find Christianity intellectually dishonest.

jmj said...

I would agree with Jaimie, that I can't think of anything more important than trying to figure out why we are here, which will make a bid difference in how we live.