(Note: These exchanges are now complete. There is a Table of Contents to the discussion now available.)
Last week a friend of mine named Daniel Bastian posted a well thought-out catalog of the reasons why he is an Atheist (let me know if the link doesn’t work). This list includes items that don’t usually pop up in similar offerings, and I encourage every Christian to read this list and wrestle through the realities of what he says.
As I thought about it, though, and thought through how I would respond to some of these things, I found a consistent theme to what I would critique to each of his points: over-simplicity. In this series of posts, rather than going through each of the writer’s twenty points, I’d like to go through some broader ideas he touches on, and offer my thoughts.
By the time I was done writing everything up, I had at least four parts to this response. Today, we’ll briefly talk about how Daniel’s post represents an over-simplifying of human reason and spirituality..
Here, I’m offering the usual critique of any materialistic perspective on reality. The problem with any such perspective is that it focuses solely on human reason and “brute facts” as the “reason” for its Atheism. It simplifies all of reality to that which can be “plainly” perceived by our reason and senses.
In a sense, it’s intellectual fundamentalism that insists on a “plain, literal reading” of the world, without nuance or admission to anything higher than their own interpretive powers.
Not only does this not offer a full account of reality as we know it–there is certainly more to the world and ourselves than what is merely reasoned, observed, and tested–but it minimizes the interpretive filters involved in assessing facts at all! The unproven assumption here is that there is nothing beyond (or above) “facts” and “reason”.
I’m reminded of a G.K. Chesterton passage, where he talks about how a madman’s logic is completely reasonable. You can’t argue with the logic, because it is a tight circle of reason. The problem is that their “circle” of logical reasoning isn’t big enough. It’s too small; it doesn’t incorporate even the possibility of other legitimate reasons behind things. He has found a tight system where all the lose-ends are tied-up. He needs no more, and every alternative is inferior, not as legitimate, or doesn’t stand up to the facts (as already defined and limited by him).
On one of the author’s friend’s blog, I found this Flannery O’Connor quote that encapsulates the Christian view well:
“Of course, I am a Catholic and I believe the opposite of all this. I believe what the church teaches—that God has given us reason to use and that it can lead us toward a knowledge of him, through analogy; that he has revealed himself in history and continues to do so through the church, and that he is present (not just symbolically) in the Eucharist on our altars. To believe all this I don’t take any leap into the absurd. I find it reasonable to believe even though these beliefs are beyond reason.”
The human person and mind is far more complex than Daniel seems to give credence to. The process by which we assess competing claims is far more complex than he acknowledges. The picture of a world where there is nothing that is beyond reason and objective assessment is a world to complex and nuanced to find a showing in his post.
A Simplistic Spirituality
Because there is this assumption that human assessment of brute facts is the basis of this discussion, there ends up being a misunderstanding and flattening out of spirituality in the first place. The Christian account of spirituality is a lot more complex.
Ascribing to a religion is not an academic exercise by which we evaluate competing claims and then just “decide” one day. Anyone that’s converted or “de-converted” will tell you it’s a process, with deep things going on that are beyond explicit cognitive assessments, and long before an explicit “choice” is made.
To put it simply: the author of the post seems to treat Christianity is a fundamentally intellectual enterprise with spiritual implications. But the truth is that Christianity is fundamentally a spiritual enterprise with intellectual implications. It is not something that can “merely” by mulled about and assessed cognitively and dispassionately.
We simply are not fundamentally creatures of reason. At our core, we are not primarily “thinking” or “reasoning” creatures. We are, instead, “liturgical” creatures. Who we are and what we believe is more shaped by our habits that form what we value and love, more than our neutral, objective assessment of facts and claims.
This is the idea defended by James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom:
We feel our way around our world more than we think our way through it. Our worldview is more a matter of the imagination than the intellect, and the imagination runs off the fuel of images that are channeled by the senses. So our affective, noncognitive disposition is an aspect of our animal, bodily nature. The result is a much more holistic (and less dualistic) picture of human persons as essentially embodied.
And so, though Daniel may say that all “possible” reasons for things are not equal, and he is simply ascribing to the worldview that makes the most sens of the world that is, the human person is not so objective and neutral. The terms by which a claim would be found legitimate, the reasons that he would find authoritative, and his very idea of the world which he is trying to “make sense of” are all conditioned and formed culturally, spiritually, affectively, socially, psychologically, and even bodily.
In the Christian account, spirituality is a bringing together and communing of heaven and earth, God and humanity, transcendent and imminent, infinite and finite. The world “Religion” literally means “to reconnect”. That is not the sort of thing that can be simplified as to occupy merely the world of ideas to be assessed like any other. It’s a much more complicated, substantive dance of the whole of reality, both seen and unseen.
Tomorrow, in Part 2, we’ll talk about how the post offers an oversimplified view of Science and how Theology can intersect with it. Part 3 will talk about the Bible, miracles, and history. Part 4 will give a bigger picture of his over-simplification of the world itself and God. I’ll then end with answering the question: what would make me an Atheist?
P.S. I’m sorry for having broken all of this up into separate posts, and I’m sorry if many comment, rebuttals, and responses are met with me saying “oh that’s addressed in a different part”. Just try to keep the comments limited strictly to the content of this post, and we’ll get to Daniel’s other points the rest of this week.
[image credit: Francisco de Goya, “The sleep of reason produces monsters”]