Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Having Faith in Faith in Faith in Faith

I just finished reading 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. It's Goldstein's seventh novel (she's also written two nonfiction works on Godel's Proof and Baruch Spinoza), and it's the first book since her first, The Mind-Body Problem, that I've felt like re-reading. I want to write about it in more detail another time, but for now I want to focus on one of the issues it touches on without real depth.

The climax of 36 Arguments is a debate between the protagonist, lapsed-Hasidic atheist author Cass Seltzer and flamboyant Christian economist Felix Fidley on the existence of God. Fidley builds his case around the old chestnut that it takes as much faith to be an atheist as it takes to be a theist, and Seltzer doesn't do much with that in his rebuttal. I think I can do better.

(Incidentally, Goldstein puts into Fidley's mouth the claim that the philosopher Bertrand Russell "said that the difference between faith and reason is like the difference between theft and honest toil" [302]. Actually what Russell said was: "The method of 'postulating' what we want has many advantages; they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil." He was writing about mathematics here, not religion. This is the kind of misrepresentation that is common among debaters, religious or otherwise. Goldstein, who's a philosopher herself, must surely have known the correct statement; I guess she decided to undercut her character. But she doesn't have Cass correct the error either.)

Many atheists respond to this move by arguing that atheism is not a matter of faith, that they believe nothing without good reason, and so on. Christopher Hitchens contributed a blurb to 36 Arguments, which sits atop the totem pole on the back cover: "You do not have to perpetrate an act of faith to confront the question of why there is something rather than nothing. It is faith itself that consists of nothing. Rebecca Goldstein, on the other hand, is quite something." (A blurb from Hitchens, by the way, is as discrediting here as a blurb from Alan Dershowitz was for Sam Harris's The End of Faith.) Of course "faith" consists of nothing -- like numbers, words, ideas, or any other abstraction, including reason.

Anyhow, I don't think this move really succeeds. The traditional arguments for the existence of God have been attacked so effectively in the past few centuries that most theistic philosophers have largely abandoned them. It seems to me that for the same reason, while atheism -- starting from the absence rather than the denial of god -- is a reasonable position to adopt, it can't be proven. It's a stance, an approach, rather than certain knowledge. I can't prove that the god of Christianity (for example) doesn't exist; however unlikely I think it is, for reasons that seem solid to me, it is conceivable that I'm wrong and that the universe is ruled by such a being; I don't mind saying that I hope not. I'm not sure what I'm talking about is faith, but I think I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'd rather accept the theist's claim for the sake of argument and see where it leads. Let's grant for the sake of argument, then, that atheism involves faith that there is no god. Where does that take us? Not very far. First, it means that atheism and theism are on an equal footing. As Antony Flew argued in God and Philosophy forty-odd years ago,
The claim about the different provinces of faith and reason is presumably to be construed as implying that it is either impossible or unnecessary to offer any sort of good reasons ….

If this is the correct interpretation – and unless it is, the claim would seem to lack point – then it must be regarded how enormously damaging to faith this contention is, and how extremely insulting to all persons of faith. For it makes any and every such commitment equally arbitrary and equally frivolous. They are all made, it is being suggested, for no good reason at all; and every one is as utterly unreasonable as every other. [ix-x]
Outside a debating club, few theists really want to stand by this position, for the reasons Flew gives. To take it seriously would trivialize their own beliefs, and they do not really think that their religious commitment is on a par with believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Santa Claus. (I think that at its core this claim is really an expression of contempt for non-theists, whose "faith" they don't take seriously, though they demand that we take theirs very seriously.)

They believe that their faith is superior to my faith. I believe the reverse, but I also don't believe that faith is as independent of reason as they pretend to believe it is. So I modify the question I ask Christians about different varieties of Christianity. Here is your faith; here is mine. Since they are both, according to you, equally unfounded and trivial, why should anyone else choose yours over mine? If they are consistent, the theists will reply that there's no reason, and there's an end on't. But few theists are really that consistent. They have what they consider reasons, and that takes us full circle to the debating ground -- not debate as a sport for the sake of scoring points, but debate in earnest over the choice between life-and-death positions. And once you're there you've got to decide what reasons will count and which won't.

As I indicated earlier, I'm not sure that my disbelief is faith, because it's not clear what "faith" is. At one point Goldstein's Fidley says, "A man like Bertrand Russell, and presumably a man like Cass Seltzer, is faithful to logic" (303). That doesn't make much sense to me. Primarily "faith" means either trust or loyalty. In the Bible, faith means both, sometimes both at once: to trust Yahweh no matter what, and to be loyal to him no matter what. I don't think Russell was loyal to logic, any more than any worker is loyal to his or her tools. Russell was also more aware than most people of the limitations of both logic and mathematics; he wrote in his autobiography that he began by seeking certainty in mathematics, but "after some twenty years of very arduous toil, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing more that I could do in the way of making mathematical knowledge indubitable." Faith also has come to be a sort of euphemism for a specific religion, or for any religion, as in Dwight Eisenhower's infamous declaration, "Our form of government has no sense unless it is grounded in a deeply felt religious faith -- and I don't care what it is!"

I, however, do care what faith it is. Another thing that occurred to me as I read Goldstein's debate was that most people's religious life has little to do with faith; it has more to do with practice. A Pew poll I've quoted before reported that people who move from irreligion to religion offered reasons "such as the attraction of religious services and styles of worship (74%), having been spiritually unfulfilled while unaffiliated (51%) or feeling called by God (55%)." But people who began as believers often change their "faith" frequently. The same poll found: "In total, about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives. ... Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24, and many of those who change religion do so more than once." Faith by itself isn't enough, it seems, and it's the channels into which people pour their faith that leads to problems.

Unsurprisingly, believers love to tell of atheists who feel empty inside, with a God-shaped hole yearning to be filled. I used to doubt those tales until I encountered such atheists myself. I don't feel empty, and I don't think that believers have something good that I don't have. All they seem to have is something I don't want, a monkey on their back that often fails them when the going gets tough. When I look at the horrors of the world, I don't have to try to understand why such things can happen if there is a god, with all the unsatisfactory answers to that question believers have on offer. Among the least satisfactory of which is that God tortures his creatures to "send us the disaster to overcome." I'd much prefer to mark the disaster "Return to Sender" and let God overcome it; it might be good for his character. My objections to theism, especially Christian theism, are really more moral than they are about whether the deity exists.

In the sense of "trust," no, I don't trust the universe; since the universe is not a person, there's nothing to trust. And it would be foolish to do so, since the sun could go supernova, another asteroid could collide with the earth, there could be an earthquake or a tsunami or a volcano tomorrow. It's just Mother Nature's way of telling us to go fuck ourselves, for those who want to personify nature, which seems to me to combine the worst of religion with the worst of science. Which is a reminder that atheists are as different from each other as believers are.