Saturday, July 10, 2010

Still an Atheist, Thank God

I got e-mail the other day that sent me back to a conundrum I've been fretting about for decades. It might be summed up by something the great twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote to his student Norman Malcolm:
... what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc. & if it does not improve your thinking about important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious ... You see, I know that it's difficult to think well about 'certainty,' 'probability,' 'perception,' etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other people's lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it's nasty then it's most important.
I've always been inspired by these words, but they also worry me. As I've mentioned before, happiness is hard to define, but I think I can safely say that by all accounts Wittgenstein wasn't a very happy person. This seems to have been more a matter of his temperament than of his lack of religious belief; suffering seems to have run in his family. Philosophy was an ongoing struggle for him, but it was still important to him to continue that struggle. It's also important to me to think about these things.

Thinking about them, though, doesn't lead anywhere, not to final answers, not to the certainty that so many people (including me, in some moods) crave. Which brings me to the e-mail I received. I'd mentioned that, on one hand, I think atheists should inform ourselves about the religions we criticize, but on the other, we don't really need to criticize them, informing ourselves is a lot of work, and not everybody wants to do that work. Certainly most believers don't bother to inform themselves even about their own religion. My correspondent wrote:
Frankly, I think Christians (and other theists, for that matter) do have an obligation to study other faiths. Not just because the NT has no monopoly on truth, but seeing the truths revealed in the NT from other standpoints (and therefore removed from Christianity's local and temporal peculiarities) can only be beneficial. Otherwise, what folks call Christianity is all-too often just a devotional cult. Not that there's anything wrong with devotional cults, mind you, Christianity just purports to be something different. For a religion based on a book, as you point out, its followers are often shockingly illiterate.
I agree that "the NT has no monopoly on truth," but I consider that too modest a concession: I don't think the NT even has a significant market share. (I react the same way when someone declares that Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on morality. It's meant to be a generous concession, but it still claims too much.) I don't find Christian believers' ignorance about their religion all that shocking, though. Between the writing of the New Testament in the vernacular and the Protestant insistence that the Bible should be available in the vernacular, there was a long period in the West when the Bible was available in Latin and believers were discouraged from reading it. And what is the "something different" that Christianity purports to be? The early Christians didn't study the New Testament, because it didn't exist for the first Christian century or so: Christianity was a devotional cult in those days, the glory days of Christian beginnings. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is another question, but it has little to do with the importance of learning and thinking. It was, however, a point of pride for the early churches that most of the early Christians were anything but philosophers or scholars. Robert Wilken described a mid-second century "pagan" caricature of Christians in The Myth of Christian Beginnings, and commented (176-7):
Most Christians probably fitted this caricature, and even more significantly, liked being unlettered. They even made a virtue of their lack of sophistication by quoting the New Testament. In answer to questions about the reasons behind Christian beliefs, some Christians replied, "Simply believe. Your faith will save you." Or "The wisdom of this world is foolishness." Proud of their isolation from the surrounding culture, many Christians thumbed their noses at the autocrats and intellectuals. Confident they had found a way of life better than their fellows, they were content to remain in their ghettos. Exploited and abused by the upper classes, these people now had their own franchise on truth and were not about to let it be taken over by others.
One reason atheists so often put their facts about religion wrong is that they were raised and trained in one religion or another. (I myself was not; I had no religious upbringing, though I wasn't raised to be an atheist either.) Such atheists therefore feel as qualified to talk about their former religion and what is wrong with it as anyone still in the circle, and in a sense they are: they are as little qualified to talk about Christianity, for example, as most Christians are, since most Christians are spectacularly ill-informed about their religion. Sometimes liberal Christians trot out the statistics about Biblical illiteracy in order to hit "fundamentalists" over the head with them, but the liberals are no more knowledgeable themselves. (Christians, including liberals, mostly honor "Let him who is without sin be first to cast a stone" and "Judge not, lest you be judged" in the breach rather than the observance.) I've seen claims that this ignorance about the bare facts of the Bible and Christianity is a new development caused by Teh Teevee and Teh Video Games, but I doubt it: surveys of Americans' biblical knowledge in the 1950s produced essentially the same results. (This article, by a conservative Christian theologian, discusses the problem pretty well.)

Worse (or better?) still, there isn't really any consensus about what, say, Christianity is, or what it teaches, or how Christians should conduct themselves. Those who do trouble to inform themselves will soon find this out. There is no true core of Christianity, nor of Judaism, or probably of any other religion. Nor is there a true core of atheism -- some of us militantly deny the existence of gods, others simply don't view theism as a live option and put the burden of argument on the theist. Moving beyond the nonexistence of gods to questions of knowledge and conduct, we disagree among ourselves as much as believers do. Atheism really has few if any consequences that follow from the rejection of theism; we can't even do the opposite of what believers do, since believers exhibit such a contradictory range of opinion and behavior.

But here's my question for today. How much do we need to know about religion or philosophy? As numerous writers have argued on the biblical literacy question, it's not certain what constitutes biblical literacy. It's probably good for Christians to know the names of the gospels, who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, what's in the Ten Commandments (presumably both versions), and so on, but is such rote knowledge enough? More complex questions raise more serious difficulties, because they don't have simple soundbyte answers: how does a Christian decide questions of right and wrong, for example, where the Bible is either equivocal or silent on an issue? (Or, for that matter, where the Bible is explicit on an issue?  Even there, believers differ.) And how do atheists decide right and wrong? Most atheists I've encountered tend to skate round this question. I'm not denying that atheists have moral values, of course, since I'm an atheist myself, but I don't find that atheists are more thoughtful about moral philosophy than theists. In either case there is a wide range of positions and views, with no resolution in sight.

When I studied the Bible a couple of decades ago, I found it very interesting -- not because it was written by God, but because it was written by human beings. It made much more sense to me when I read it as a human document like any other. But that is a reflection of my own interest in reading as a way of learning about what it means to be human. There are other ways, which are also important to me, but reading isn't important or useful to many people -- maybe most? I've read enough about education to reach the conclusion that it's not possible to prescribe for everyone what they should learn. When people ask me for suggestions, I have to spend a fair amount of time listening to them, so that I know what they know and what they want to learn, before I can make any suggestions. That would be a teacher's obligation in any subject.

On one hand there's too much information that has to be taken into account on just about any matter of importance, and any important question has too many ramifications to settle simply. On the other hand, people have to decide and act, even in the absence of certainty; and there's enough shared information between different traditions that if you don't get information and ideas from one tradition, you'll eventually get it from another. That's not to say that "all religions teach the same truth", because each religion is divided within and against itself; and because all religions also teach the same lies. Belonging to a religious tradition doesn't exempt you from the necessity of choosing among its claims and prescriptions, but neither does rejecting all religious traditions.