Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Faith of Atheists

I could never be an atheist. It would take way too much faith.

To be fair, I’ve really got to respect people who are so deeply committed to their faith position, even if I don’t happen to buy their viewpoint myself. We can all learn from each other, I figure. And besides, it’s inspiring to see someone stake their entire worldview, and even their whole lifestyle, around something that can’t be proven. You’ve got to admit there’s something pretty bold about shaking your fist in the face of millennia of human common sense. That just inspires me. It’s pretty gutsy, actually.

Most atheists I know would never brag about it, of course—which I also respect—but it’s not hard to see how their worldview is based solidly on the kind of faith that can never be proven. After all, how can you prove nothing? How on earth could anybody ever check to make sure that God really wasn’t there? Ultimately it comes down to their faith that they won’t find themselves in line at some Pearly Gates or shocked to discover that they’ve been reincarnated as some lower life form. Like anyone else, they’ve made their faith commitments.

Throughout recorded history civilization after civilization has succumbed to the obvious common-sense assumption that someone or something Greater Than Us was responsible for life in our universe. Granted, folks had a hard time agreeing on just who or what that “Greater Than Us” actually was. While some subscribed to Jehovah, others signed on for Baal or Allah, or the Buddha or the Great Pumpkin or whatever other local deity they chose. But no matter what brand name people happened to choose, virtually everyone agreed that there was someone or something out there--from tribes in Africa to the great civilizations in the Middle East or Asia, to the rise of Judaism and Christianity, countered by the celtic religions in Europe and all the various brands of eastern religion now featured. (And don’t even get me started on the whole pantheon of gods that the Greeks and Romans developed. Personally, I can never keep them all straight.) But the fact is that until the Enlightenment suddenly sprang up a few generations back, everyone just took it as obvious that someone or something was behind the wonders of our world.

And that makes sense to me. All I have to do is spend an evening up in the Sierras gaping at the infinite fog of starlight that has exploded in our little corner of the galaxy and I quickly slide into the assumption that this could not have happened by accident. Call it peer pressure if you want—I’ll admit there probably is something reassuring about knowing that for untold centuries of human civilization everyone has come to the same conclusion that I have. But regardless, I just think it would be hard to be an atheist outdoors.

But that’s why I can appreciate the courage of the staunch minority who in the past few generations have decided to march to a different non-drummer. Recently, as seen from the span of human history, a few bold thinkers have theorized that all those galaxies and constellations have somehow appeared by accident. They point proudly to the theory of evolution as a kingpin in their worldview. I’m no scientist, but my understanding of that theory is that we’re all somehow mutants, having morphed from the first glops of seaweed that washed up on a beach somewhere. Maybe other folks can understand some of these fine points, but I have a hard time grasping this. I’ve known a few mutants in my day (hey, I’ve watched cartoons just like anybody else) and I have a hard time seeing how the continually mutating offspring of the first mutants could result in something like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. You ask me, bass guitar licks like Flea’s don’t just happen.

Maybe my problem is with science. Maybe I should put more willing to put my faith in science as a way to figure these things out. But I figure: the best science of the day got us the Flat Earth theory. Then a little bit later the new-and-improved best science of the day got us the Round Earth theory. (Note: at the time of this writing the earth was still round). I just keep looking for someone to take responsibility for that Big Bang. That much noise, somebody had to hear something!

And maybe I’m just a little too common-sense about it all. I suppose any academic discipline can have a bad century now and then. Who knows? Maybe all the pieces did line up just right to enable sea scum to somehow produce Michael Jordan’s dunk shot or whatever magic there is that makes my laptop here come to life when I turn it on.

But it just seems like a long shot to me. Buying into that would take a lot more faith that I seem to have. Rumor has it some guy in Ohio dumped 10,000 dominoes off the roof of a school gymnasium and they randomly formed a perfect version of the Mona Lisa, including getting the smile just right. Call me a skeptic, but I have a hard time with that one, too.

I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m judging my atheist friends. Most of them are really good people who are genuinely sincere about what they believe. And maybe their faith in science can do for modern medicine what Mother Teresa’s faith did for the poor of Calcutta. What’s not to like about that?
But having said that I also don’t like it when atheists get all fundamentalist on me. Maybe I’m not as smart as they are with their fancy theories about everything, but I can’t help but feel judged when they smile kindly at the fact that I still don’t “get it”. Call me crazy, but I still say the emperor has no clothes.
What I would like to see would be an open-minded kind of dialogue about all of our different kinds of faith. I'm not talking about some kind of evangelistic shoot-out where anybody’s trying to convince me that I should have faith in whatever scientific theories they’re betting the farm on. I’d just thing it’d be interesting to learn from the faith stories of some atheists who’ve been at it a while. How does it feel put your faith in a minority viewpoint? How do you shore up your faith when you have those inevitable moments when you can’t help but wonder whether you may have been put here for a reason? How do you begin to explain your trust in something you could never prove?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m missing something simple here. But whenever I look for something that would offer a reason to have faith in atheism, all I find is…



  1. That was awesome Mr. Vanderwell!

  2. Atheism isn't a belief in nothing, it's a faith and belief in oneself... just like god believes in no one but himself. The world is made of 2 different types of people: gods and sods, and you know what that makes you.

    I hope that some day, charlatans like you are put in prison for running your criminal bunco confidence scam on the desperate greedy nudnick losers in the world.

  3. Atheism:1.the position that there are no deities.
    2.the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.
    Most Christian apologists use the first definition to describe atheists, while most atheists use the second definition to describe themselves. The first definition is as dogmatic and certain as the belief of theists and shifts the burden of proof to the atheist to prove a negative, which is impossible. The second definition puts the burden of proof where it belongs, on the theist who makes supernatural claims. The atheist makes no claims, he only asks that you prove what you say is true. To hold atheistic views is not a belief system; it is the absence of belief because of the absence of evidence. It does not require faith. A theist on the other hand does require faith to, as you say, "stake everything on something they can't prove".
    Pastor Vanderwell seems to think it is a shortcoming of science that what was once thought true is no longer believed; that a flat earth belief was replaced by the belief that the earth is a sphere. That is the strength of science, as new evidence is presented new theories are formulated. If you ask an atheist what would make them believe in God they will usually come up with a few scenarios that would convince them. On the other hand, if you ask a theist what evidence would make them disbelieve in God the usual response is,"Nothing, I have faith that it is true and nothing could dissuade me."
    The pastor also seems to think the night sky re-enforces the belief in God. Perhaps because common sense says that since people make things then who made the stars? However, common sense does not always give the correct conclusion. Common sense tells us the world is flat. Common sense tells us the sun revolves around the earth. Science has shown both of these commonsensical things to be wrong. The fact is, we do not "make" things. Matter cannot be created or destroyed. All we do is rearrange things into a new form. All the matter and energy in the universe was "made" in a unique event that science does not yet understand. To plug God in there is to have a "God of the gaps", that is, all things yet unknown must have been because of God. This is delusional thinking.
    In his conclusion the pastor wonders what is like for an atheist to be in such a minority. A simple Google search would reveal that in dozens of studies done over the last several decades it has been shown that there is an inverse relationship between religiosity and intelligence. That is to say, the less intelligence you have the more likely it is that you will believe in God. Now, this does not always hold true of course because I know of many very intelligent believers, but it does show that perhaps with a more thorough examination of the facts using logic and reason instead of faith (which is sometimes defined as belief without reason) the minority may someday be the majority.