An apology to Atheists

Recently in this space, I made the bold claim that atheism by its very nature, since it defies all tradition and repudiates all the greatest thought of all history Western and Eastern as superstitious nonsense, subjects the atheist to an irresistible temptation to pride and vainglory.

Two readers objected, and their objections proved to me my that the claim was, alas, overbold, and cannot be maintained. I hereby retract the comment.

You see, my argument hinged on the fact that theology is not physics. It is perfectly possible to respect an rival who holds a theory of physics one regards as untrue or unsupported, and perfectly possible to admire and even adore one’s forefathers in physics as giants on whose shoulders one stands, even when those giants are mistaken.

I know of no disciple of Einstein who scorns Newton as an obscurantist, and no Newtonian who dismissed Brahe, Galileo and Copernicus as fools, and no votary of Copernicus who scorned Ptolemy as superstitious.

Indeed, persons persuaded of the truth or utility of one model of physics or another do not refer to themselves as votaries nor disciples. Science is neutral: one has no moral obligation to agree with one model over the other, when both enjoy equal predictive accuracy or elegance of the model. Only in pseudo-sciences, as practiced by cultists preaching Global Warming or Teutonic Race-Science, do we find preachers telling us it is a moral imperative never to be skeptical of the allegedly scientific claim.

On the other hand, the odium of theologians for their rivals is well known, and equals or exceeds the odium of political theorists and politicians for rival factions.

The reason for this any candid man can soon discover by looking into his own heart. Let me use the example of the difference between a policy discussion and a political discussion.

For the purpose of argument, let us call a policy discussion one where all parties are agreed on the ends sought, and differ only on the best means to use; or the disagreement on ends can be reconciled or compromised within some more general agreement about how to work out a compromise. With some friction, bargaining and horsetrading, business can get done. The parties can respect each other because nothing ultimate is at stake.

For the purpose of argument, let us call a political discussion one where the two parties differ on the ultimate ends sought. They have a different view of the nature of man, or the nature of justice, or the nature of the state and her role, or all of the foregoing.

They agree on little terminology or none. Even if they use similar words for things, they means opposite things by their words.  Their imaginations are stirred by different images or opposite, different slogans, different loyalties. Symbols have different or opposite meanings. The rivals do not even agree on the facts of history.

Hence each man confronting a rival worldview in politics confronts a mental world incompatible with his. There is no room for compromise. Each gain to a rival is a loss for him, either in imponderables such as honor and prestige or in concretes such as wealth and land.

There is little opportunity for sympathy or mutual respect: each rival seems like a paragon of evil or an exemplar of folly to the other.

Nor is the discussion merely academic: the rival political belief is a vision of a world whose axioms and conclusions are alien to him, a moral atmosphere he cannot breathe. The rivalry is one which touches his intimate and precious and personal opinions, habits, beliefs, and virtues.

Political beliefs are intimate, since the laws under which the state is constituted influence one’s daily public behavior, and political beliefs are public, since they extend to one’s neighbors and fellow citizens and to foreign allies and enemies as well.

So political rivalries cannot be conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect with those whose rivalry is radical. The ideas are too intimate, too public, and too mutually hostile to admit of compromise.

(Let me hasten to add that mine is a deliberate simplification. In any real discussion, what I am calling ‘policy’ and ‘politics’ are commingled, and have different degrees of influence on different questions; and obviously a man’s own character, whether passionate or dispassionate, and his philosophy, what questions he considers to be public versus private, plays a major role in whether he can maintain his dignified respect for his rivals.)

Now religion is even more intimate than politics, because more of one’s personal life is influenced and controlled by one’s religious faith than by one’s political belief.

(If, on the other hand, your political belief influences more of your life than your religious faith, your politics serves as an ersatz religion, and you are not even worthy of the backhanded compliment of being called a Pharisee.  You are a Sadducee, a collaborator with the pagans who worship Caesar as a god.)

Religion is also more public than politics, because it influences not just one’s acts or attitudes toward fellow subject or citizens, toward foreign allies and enemies, but rather one’s attitudes toward all of mankind, all of history, all of the cosmos and all of creation.

So religious questions touch the heart more intimately than political ones (at least in healthy souls) but also touch the world more broadly; religious questions are simply bigger questions with more implications than political questions.

Small wonder the enmity between rival theologians is legendary. The hatred of heretics toward orthodoxy and of the orthodox toward heretics is more vehement, deeper, more bitter, and more persistent than nearly anything I can bring to mind. Men still wax indignant over the controversies of the Arians and Donatists, Gnostics and Cathars, for Christ’s sake!

Atheism is a theological stance. It is a theory of theology, or, rather, of metaphysics which holds first, the that universe is explicable without recourse to any theory of god or gods; and holds, second, that human knowledge proffers no clear evidence of the nature of divine things, whether god is one or many, whether life ends in oblivion, reincarnation, or last judgment; and holds, third, the human conscience and human prudence is sufficient, without recourse to divine spokesmen, to instruct the conscience and human decency sufficient to motivate the will to follow the conscience; and holds, fourth, that no account is logically coherent of an omnipotent god powerless to remove evil from the world nor a benevolent god unwilling to do so; and atheism concludes from this and other reasons that there is no god, and that even if there were, we would owe him no love nor loyalty nor obedience.

I draw a distinction between atheists and agnostics, since while the latter live like atheists, they do not hold the question of god’s nonexistence to be settled and sure. But as a practical matter, their uncertainty forbids their loyalty to God as surely as does the certainty of the atheist.

However, I am forced to retract my former statements that atheists suffer an insufferable temptation to arrogance on the simple grounds that the atheist do not necessarily regard their stance as a theological one.

The weird way many atheists talk, as if the belief in God were a question of philosophy or physics, a belief which (for them) has no implications either in how they live their lives nor how they regard the cosmos around them. If they mean it seriously, would excuse them from the temptation of which I speak.

A polite disagreement can exist between two physicists, one believing in the Big Bang and the other in the Steady State theory, or between a geocentric or heliocentric theory, precisely because these theories do not really mean much at the end of the day. And physicists do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants and build on their work even as they learn from their gigantic mistakes. The models of physicists both evolve from and revolutionize prior models.

An atheist stands to a theologian in the same posture a consistent Buddhist might stand toward a physicist: since all material reality is the Illusion of Maya to study it at all merely entraps the soul ever more helplessly in the webs of deception. He does not disagree with a theory of physics, he disagree that any physics at all can exist. In both cases, the difference is radical, because it rejects the whole body of thought and all its disputes.

If an atheist mistakes theism for a theoretical question like that of the geocentric versus the heliocentric, Copernicus versus Ptolemy, or for a philosophical question like that of the One and the Many, Parmenides versus Heraclitus, and if the atheist is able to maintain his intellectual integrity and reserve, why, then, the temptation to the odium and arrogance of the heretic to the orthodox will pass him by.

I said previously I had not met such men. I apologize and correct myself, for there are men of goodwill who resist the temptation to pride among atheists. An Atheist like Edward Gibbon the historian or Frederich Nietzsche the philosopher displays his contempt for the faith which fathered his civilization, but an atheist like Theodore Dalrymple the prison doctor show no signs of such contempt, and even displays some respect for the faith.

I will not, however, retract my warning that the temptation is ever present and almost inescapable. I say this because I fell into it.

While my disbelief in Christianity or any supernaturalism was, at first, in my youth, merely the polite disagreement of a philosophical secularism for a mystic spiritualism, my disrespect grew as years passed and hardened into an implacable hatred, and to mock and jape and sneer at what I regarded as a filthy superstition was something I could not resist, and I saw no reason to do so.

Indeed, I thought it was my duty to puncture the self satisfied delusions of the superstitious age in which I found myself, so I scrupled not to belittle better men than I whenever the opportunity arose, or could be concocted.  And what duty is more pleasant that to rise one’s own self esteem by trampling down another man’s?

I will end with one final note of irony: if atheism is correct, than man is the highest form of life and the greatest intelligence known to exist anywhere. There are neither angels nor divinities to supersede him. Also, if atheism is correct, the atheist have indeed, usually by an individual effort in a family and community hostile to the attempt, thrown aside the chains of ignorance under which mankind has suffered since prehistory: and it is an act of unparalleled mental integrity and clarity of vision. They are each of them in the position of Einstein, whose view was so radically different from all previous physics of all previous age, that no praise of his originality is sufficient.

In other words, if atheism is correct, atheists have no need to be humble. They are the most clear-eyed thinkers of the highest form of intelligence in the universe: the Lords of Creation.

But I received only one comment from an atheist saying, in effect, that he regards it as no criticism to be called proud because his atheism gives him a right to be proud. All the other atheists who wrote me were offended that I said they lacked Christian humility.

Why would even one man crave Christian humility when he lacks the craving for Christ? I assume that the heart yearns for divine things no matter what the head reasons and no matter what the blind eye fails to see.