News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Calling All Atheists

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Calling All Atheists

A recent article at Dissident Voice describes a situation I have always found humorous. The disjunction between those who believe in God and the atheists has always struck me as being a false dichotomy. The fact that many religionists do not trust atheists is reflected in the reciprocating fact that atheists do not trust religionists. But the distrust on both sides seems misplaced to me.

I do not see the necessity of this distrust. Indeed, I find that the two sides perhaps feed off of each other and that the distrust merely reflects a sense of anxiety on both sides for their respective positions. That is, the religionists are anxious about the certainty of their beliefs and their ability to prove beyond doubt the central tenets of their faith; while the atheists are anxious about their denials of any divine or transcendental dimension to life.

I have always found helpful in this debate to remember the comments of Simone Weil, who said (paraphrasing) that she could learn more from atheists than from believers. What did she mean by this? I think she meant several things: 1) atheists critique the abuses of power of an ideology that uses religion to shore up its foundations to oppress others; 2) some atheists display a high sense of morality in their commitment to the plight of the oppressed and the marginalized; 3) atheists ask themselves the hard questions about the reality of God that religionists unthinkingly accept; and 4) atheists often display a steeled sense of purpose that bourgeois religionists forego in their sense of comfort and self-satisfied righteousness.

To say this does not mean that all religionists or all atheists are characterized by these comments. Indeed, there are religionists like Weil herself who could easily fit the description of an atheist, yet her religious life betrays the lie to the atheist claims. On the other side, many atheists are so comfortable in their certainties that they have given up the search for the truth of their own beliefs, becoming thereby just as self-reighteous as many a religionist.

It is an interesting fact that many people in America distrust atheists. If you believe the polls, many Americans would not vote for a candidate who espoused atheist views, Jesse Venture notwithstanding. When I bring this fact up in my world religions class, I am always amazed at the incredulity that my (mostly non-traditional) students evince when I state that I think that atheists can be and perhaps are more ethical than many a religionist. The basic argument they propose is that no-one can be moral who believes that there is no transcendental basis for their beliefs. In other words, how can you be moral if you do not believe that values are eternal? The alternaitve, I imagine, is that values will have no solidity, no basis in reality, no unchanging basis for their "truth."

I believe that it is something like this argument that Dostoevsky's writings attempt to show in his novels about nihilism and spiritual despair. While I see much truth in these views and am sympathetic to them, I do not believe that it is inherently logical. One can only think of such thinkers as Aristotle, who most likely did not believe in a transcendental God yet whose writings on ethics have formed the foundation for Thomistic Xtian ethics. One can think also of Emerson, whose God was Nature, and yet whose ethical outlook enabled him to oppose the genocide of Native Americans, when many a religious spokesperson was silent.

To paraphrase Pomponazzi, a life of virtue should be its own reward; whether or not we live a life as long as a redwood, the point is how true to our morality we can remain, thereby displaying true character.

Does this mean that I think the atheists are right? No, I think many simply do not recognize a basic fact about human nature: people do evil simply for the sake of doing evil. In fact, much ethical behavior is simply not possible unless one recognizes this fact. Yet, in a world of relative means and ends, it is not impossible to imagine an atheist acting more ethically than a religionist. But, I suspect, this is because the religionist has confused relative ends with absolute ends, and relative means with absolute means.

The Xtian religionist is always faced with the fact that the world is a fallen one. This means that one's awareness of achieving certain ends in this world are always suspect, most especially because sin clouds the clarity with which we can see the absolute ends and it infects the will with which we would hope to achieve those ends. In many respects, therefore, differentiation between what a moral atheist would do and a moral religionist would do simply cannot be maintained. A moral atheist just might have some sense of the proper means to accomplishing the right end; and a moral religionist just might confuse his own interests with those of God.

There are no guarantees about how to act rightly in this world. The rule for a Xtian religionist is that one must love one's neighbor and enemy; yet, the difficulty of carrying out that command is obvious from historical circumstance and personal experience. Human nature is built around the desire for self-love, and overcoming that self-love is a struggle that one must face in one's awareness of God's presence.

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