Sunday, May 27, 2007

Atheism and Reason

Back in the early 80s, there was a somewhat popular sitcom called Benson. This Soap spin off followed the daily goings-on of Benson DuBois, the household manager and later budget director for an unspecified state's governor's office. In the second season episode "No Sad Songs," Benson's mother tragically dies while visiting him. Prior to her death however, an exchange takes place between them over a small wooden cross that she carries with her.

Benson's mother says that this cross was made from wood from the True Cross - the actual cross on which Jesus Christ suffered and died. Benson disagrees. His mother bought the cross from a street salesman in New York City, and he insists that it was simply a scam. 'What makes you believe that is from the actual cross,' he asks her? 'Faith,' she replies. She believes that this little item was made from that sacred wood, and so, in here eyes, it was - and that's all that matters. At the end of the episode, a heartwarming scene occurs in which Benson learns to live life with some faith and to trust that everything will be alright without his mother. Upon this realization, Benson picks up the cross and smiles, apparently having decided that his mother was right after all.

The story of this cross is a perfect example of what is unfortunately a very common misunderstanding of faith which plagues today's atheism in which faith is understood to be some kind of subjective experience, rather than simply belief in an objective reality. This false notion is forgivable, because atheists typically get it from the various theists that hold to it today. A perfect example of this can be seen in the Creation Museum, a new attraction which opens this week in Kentucky. The Washington Post reports that, "One sign [in the museum] sets 'Human Reason' against 'God's Word.'" This is the conception of faith that the average atheist associates with the faith of Christianity, and in a broader context, theism in general.

But this is not faith. This is nominalism. "It is because I believe it is" is not the faith of the Christian, at least not until after the time of the Reformation. (I must quickly point out that neither do all Protestants hold to this notion nor does creationism itself necessarily embrace it; the museum is simply a rather good example from which to draw.) Nominalism is the philosophical doctrine that no objective, but that things are essentially what they are called. Benson's mother believed that her cross was from the True Cross, so her faith made it so, at least as far as she was concerned. But the reality (ignoring for a moment that this was a fictional program) was that this wood either was from the True Cross or it wasn't; her beliefs made no difference either way. If the cross was real, then Mrs. DuBois was merely assenting to a fact. If it wasn't, she was deluding herself into a fantasy with no basis in reality.

And this strikes at the heart of the question of theism. Either God exists or He doesn't. Our beliefs on the matter make no difference to the reality of the situation. Where they do make a difference is to us and whether we are conforming our own ideas to reality or trying to conform reality to our ideas. True faith is not some nominalist adherence to what we choose to believe, but is simply a real assent of our own beliefs to what is true.

Thomas Aquinas would have been appalled at any notion of "faith" based on some subjective grounds. To him, faith was simply the assent to truth of a properly ordered human intellect. God's existence was the most fundamental reality of the universe, and so human reason, properly exercised, would believe in Him - not as some subjective idea, but as the logical necessity of assenting to all the evidence available.

Of course, we all recognize that human reason can, and does, err - not because it is reason, but because it is human. Human reason errs from many human causes. Some people are simply not intelligent. Others operate with incomplete evidence, and lest one claim to be omniscient we must acknowledge that human reason always operates with incomplete evidence. Sometimes, a person's reason works perfectly well, but he simply chooses not to accept it for whatever reason.

This third possibility is nominalism. It is the "faith" of Benson's mother, of some theists, and as many atheists would suggest, all the other theists as well. Reason says one thing, but these people wish to reject that and believe another thing anyways. "Reason shows that there is no God," the atheist says, "and so those who believe must either be stupid, unlearned, or simply rejecting reason."

However, this conclusion rests on a faulty assumption, namely, that the atheist is the one with the honesty, the more complete library, or simply the keener mind. Implicitly, it outright rejects - dogmatically - the idea that a person can be intelligent, well-read, honest, and also believe in God. This idea must be held, or else the atheist's foundation collapses. This is why I say that it is dogmatic, even as atheists criticize the alleged inability of theists to accommodate new knowledge due to their theological dogmas. If the atheist accepts that a person of these various qualities can exist and be a theist, then his case against God evaporates because reason can no longer be opposed to Him, as I will explain.

This brings us to a fourth possibility: the possibility that two honest, highly intelligent, and equally well-read persons can disagree on a point of reason. The idea itself is not problematic; in fact most persons would acknowledge that it happens all the time. The implication, which I have already mentioned, is where the atheist's problem arises. Something besides reason must separate some atheists from some theists, because some atheists are just as honest, intelligent, and well-read as some theists on the question of theism, and yet they disagree. Aquinas would say that what separates them is Grace. Sin darkens the intellect, he would say, and Grace restores it to its properly ordered operation.

In any case, the rejection of this "atheistic dogma" leads to the necessary conclusion that reason alone cannot bring man to the truth. Something else is required. Even if one suggests that it is genetic, as some now claim, this still excludes reason from any definitive role in matters of discerning reality. In fact, it makes matters worse because it subjects our ability to understand reality to an uncontrollable biological predisposition, and more importantly, puts the atheist's claim on equal footing with the theist's, since there is no reason to believe that either predisposition is more in accord with reality than the other. A similar situation arises if one attributes the difference to life experiences (nature versus nurture, as it were).

And so we see that in atheism, a faith does exist. It is a faith simply in the idea that God does not exist. To abandon this faith puts one in the position of having to either attribute certain realities to something beyond humanity and nature (and so supernatural), or to embracing a cold and reasonless nihilism in which we cannot know the truth about reality anyways. For the atheist to retain reason, he must embrace something supernatural.

And this brings us back to the "faith" of Mrs. DuBois, only this time it is the atheist insisting that the wood is from the True Cross -reason be damned. The atheist believes that God does not exist simply because he chooses to believe it is so, for it is impossible to accept reason without accepting that nature is not all that there is to the world. And, like Mrs. DuBois, the atheist must sometime choose to accept reason or die clinging to a counterfeit "faith."

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