The odor of a growing hostility toward the Faith has become particularly putrid over the past year.  A (very new) concept of freedom has caught on in our nation which accepts no limit other than each person’s impulse and desire.  What’s more, those who hold this idea of freedom also argue that the fulfillment of personal impulse is a civil right framed by the nation’s Constitution.  It is no wonder that Christianity falls under attack for holding a very different view of the world: namely, that in the tempering of impulse and the cultivation of virtue, a man finds fulfillment.

The debate over the meaning of “freedom” has, in turn, fanned the flame of another fire: the belief that any form of faith is backward or irrational.  Both sides find it easier to demonize the other, rather than spending the energy that true dialogue demands.  The “religion is silly” bandwagon – so vocal in mainstream media reports and online comment boxes – presents itself as the path of the educated and “enlightened” in the culture.  All the while, people of faith cry foul, claiming the vicious and insincere “they” continue to erode the foundations of society and to impoverish human beings by advocating ideas not worthy of their dignity or nature.

 

This article aims at a rather modest goal.  It does not claim to offer a rational defense of the Christian faith, nor to defend the Christian concept of freedom, nor to prove the existence of God.  It seeks only to level the playing field by showing that both theism and atheism come from an identical source.  And, by doing so, it hopes to reveal a basis for real dialogue between them.

Finger-Pointing at Faith

The most popular form of the notion that Christianity, or any faith, is irrational finds its roots in two philosophical concepts: the first, an idea about the world itself (materialism) and the second, an idea about how we can know the world (positivism).

Materialism claims that only the material world is real and that every experience of life is reducible to material causes.  The idea of immaterial (or spiritual) realities is ruled out from the beginning.  Love is reduced to chemical reactions, thought to the structure of the brain, and the spiritual realm as a mere projection of the human heart longing for something beyond the finite, material realm.

Positivism builds on materialism by saying that human beings can only find certain knowledge through testing their sense experience of the material world.  Anything beyond what is capable of being examined through the senses cannot be known.  This also appears under the mask of scientism, which claims that only the scientific method can produce or guarantee true knowledge.  Anything not capable of scientific experiment cannot be held as true.  A strong trust in science results – just think of how often you hear or read the phrase “I believe in science, not religion.”

As these philosophies (which, please note, are not proven by science itself) have gained cultural momentum, the common view of religion has become condescending and scornful.  Christians claim to present true knowledge about God; in response, materialism laughs as it denies the very existence of a supposedly immaterial Being, while positivism ridicules the idea of being able to have any certain knowledge about It, anyway.  God is treated as a fairytale or voodoo curse and the faith as an irrational attachment to a “medieval idea” before humanity’s “enlightenment” by the scientific method.

And upon the rock of materialism and positivism, atheism (or practical atheism) plants its flag and claims intellectual superiority.

“Three Fingers Pointing Back at You”

Now, the author doesn’t fall into the “religion is silly” camp.  On the contrary, he finds the Catholic Faith to be majestically rational (albeit on very different terms than the arbitrary ones listed above).  Still, in its modest goal, this article chooses to play the game by the materialist’s and positivist’s rules.

And by those rules, atheism is shown to be as irrational as faith.

If (according to positivism/scientism) a human being can only know what he can examine through the senses or experiment upon through the scientific method, materialism can never be something a human being can prove to be true.  He can never be certain that immaterial reality doesn’t exist, because what is immaterial can’t be examined or tested in such a way.  The most that could be said is that a person can’t know if an immaterial world exists or not.  To choose to think that nothing other than the material world exists is merely that: a choice.

And if it’s not certain knowledge that materialism is true, who can say that it’s certain that God (an immaterial Spirit) doesn’t exist?  Again, positivism/scientism (which simply can’t scientifically examine on immaterial things) could assert only that God’s existence or nonexistence is beyond us, that it can’t be known.  To choose to think that an immaterial God doesn’t exist because he can’t be verified by our senses or by science, again, is just that: a choice.

A choice, not a rationally-deduced fact.  On these terms, the belief in God’s non-existence is just as irrational as belief in God’s existence.[1]  Theism and Atheism trace their roots to the same source: a choice on the part of the individual.

Some Direction from Friedrich Nietzsche

The brilliant, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, an avowed atheist (though he contended it would be a crude understatement to call him merely an “atheist”) recognized this very point.  He knew that the majority of his peers had made their choice for the Christian faith due to nothing more than socialization or other irrational reasons.  Therefore, he needed no rational basis on which to deny it: “What decides against Christianity now is our taste, not our reasons.”[2]

There’s an honest atheist!  “Our taste, not our reasons!”  It highlights so clearly the problem of modern atheists who litter internet comment boxes: the failure to see that atheism is a choice, a choice just like theism.  In the end, if theism is irrational, so is atheism – neither is proved by reason before being accepted as true; they both rest on an identical, non-rational choice.

And upon discovering this common ground – the core choice that each person makes before reason – real dialogue becomes possible.  The air of intellectual superiority evaporates and each can now discuss why the choice was made.

I don’t presume to know the reason for the choice of each individual atheist.  However, I would imagine that the most sophisticated and sincere Christian might say that his choice was not entirely his, but the result of an encounter with a God who first chose to break through the uncertainty of his mind and asked for this: trust.  And in choosing to trust – rather than mistrust – the world acquired a new horizon and an intense meaning.

And, if both theists and atheists must settle with being irrational, that seems like a choice worth making.

 

 

 

[1] The better term here is not “irrational” but “a-rational,” that is, something that happens apart from reason (not against it).  “Irrational” is used for the sake of argument and convention.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book III, 132.  I am indebted to Alistair Kee in his Nietzsche Against the Crucified [(London: SCM Press, 1999), 27-28.] for this insight.

  • De Ha

    At the beginning of this article, you complained about the fact that we think we’re smart and you are stupid. However, you ended up perfectly illustrating WHY that is.

    You are projecting your own way of thinking onto us, and by accusing us of thinking like you, you are viciously insulting us, because your way of thinking is extremely stupid. I don’t think you even realise how much you’re insulting us by accusing us of thinking like you.

    “Materialism” is a strawman based on a complete exaggeration of the philosophical significance of a minor observation that all molecules fall under the umbrella term “Material”, “Scientism” is a completely nonsense strawman where you project your own narrow-mindedness onto us and assume we have unquestioning unchanging belief in something that’s all about questioning things and updates all the time, and “Positivism” is a strawman you made up.

    The way to begin a debate with us is NOT to tell us how we think. I have NEVER, ONCE, EVER been in ONE flame war that started with a theist telling me how I think and then ever moved on from that point. Theist tells me how I think, I correct them, they argue with me, we exchange swear words, I later describe the theist as “Thick skulled”.

  • Emmett

    I found your argument very interesting that materialism rules out atheism. If I understood you correctly, it seems your saying since atheism is itself a statement about something immaterial, namely that it does not exist, and materialism rules out any possibility of any knowledge of anything beyond the purely material, then even knowing the immaterial does not exist would be impossible (if materialism is true) because that itself is knowledge of something about the hypothetical immaterial, which was said to be unknowable.

    However, I am not sure I agree with you on one point though. It seemed you were saying that both atheist and theist choose their belief based on a somewhat irrational choice. Not because they are irrational, but because there is simply no determining factor for that first step. The closest thing a theist has to evidence for his belief is some internal calling to trust, some feeling inside him. In this way, it seems there is a “blind faith” as many atheists may want to call it (though to be fair, your article seems to argue that atheism also relies on a “blind faith”). So it seems your saying that basically any statement of belief in regard to this requires some sort of “blind faith.” Now I want to pause here and say I think I may have misunderstood your article. It seemed you may have been saying that this simply follows from what atheist say, not that this is necessarily the case.
    But if it is the former, I wanted to respond to that. I think we can make positive statements of belief without blind faith. Thomas’ five ways is a good (albeit deep and philosophical) start. Stepping further than that, there are arguments for Christianity and specifically Catholicism. I firmly believe in the Catholic faith, but I don’t believe this by any sort of “blind faith.” My feelings aside, I have looked at the world as objectively as I can (which to be fair, since I’m human, is probably still somewhat biased) and I think Catholicism is by far the most rational choice. Now, I am not trying to do away with faith, it is a theological virtue of course. However, I don’t buy the “just have faith” argument. I think of faith as ultimately being trust in God. Is trust in God irrational? I certainly don’t think so. I think it is (or at least can be) a rigorously logical decision to trust God. However, that is easier said than done. God tells us many hard truths (some of which are not even fully comprehensible to the human mind), most of them through His church. If God is saying there is bread and wine, and even though you can’t tell any difference with your senses, it actually because the Body and Blood of Christ, I would say it makes logical sense to believe Him (after all, He is God). But this is a great example of what I’m talking about with “faith.” I think it makes all the sense in the world to believe in the Real Presence, but it takes faith (in other words, trust) to fully believe it in my heart of hearts. It’s the ultimate “trust fall.” Your senses tell you one thing, but because of your trust in another person, you believe something else. And God seems infinitely more trustworthy than any human person.
    Thoughts?

  • Chris W.

    This is an amazing and charitable look at how logical fallacies can play into the atheist debate. I have a friend who actually is honest about it. He says that scientifically he has to be agnostic but, by choice he is an atheist.