John Moore: Atheism and the irrational mind
Comments Twitter LinkedIn Email .John Moore December 22, 2010 – 9:17 am
A letter to Charles Lewis
I have read your last two letters in Holy Post about faith as well as Father Tim Moyle’s. Technically they weren’t addressed to me because I am an agnostic and not an atheist but I felt the need to respond nonetheless.
Your first letter was titled “Dear Atheists: No-one Cares What You Think”. To be frank, I found the headline somewhat churlish and contrary to the intellectual tradition of the faith community but perhaps you were merely undone by your headline writer. Let’s assume that while you are not persuaded by secularists you at least maintain a healthy curiosity about what any group of thinking people has to offer.
You write “Most atheists do not have a clue what religion is about.” This struck me as odd since in my experience most non-believers actually know a great deal about whatever faith they were raised in. If anything non-believers may know more about religion precisely because they had to know it to reject it.
You go on to say “atheists are utopians who believe a perfect society can be built if only religion was not in the way”. Two problems here: the first is the assumption that there is some kind of collectivity or even homogeneity amongst non-believers. There isn’t. Who would have time for the meetings? Second is the notion that by absenting ourselves from religion we are necessarily engaged in an ongoing operation to undo faith wherever we find it. We’re not. Like I said, we’re pretty busy.
True there are those who routinely attack faith (Dawkins, Hitchens and the people who plan to run those atheist bus ads) but the overwhelming majority of non-believers are ordinary citizens whose atheism is about as top of mind as their handedness.
In your second letter (Dear Atheists: Can’t We All Just Get Along or Whatever) you provide a rundown of the nasty e-mails and comments your first column drew. Believe me Charles, as the National Post’s resident communist, I appreciate that things can get pretty ugly in the comments section on line and through e-mail but you can’t make a whole group of people wear that stuff. Just because Prarieboy32 calls you names doesn’t mean all atheists are swaggering ignoramuses.
Like I said, I don’t speak for a community but I think I can safely say that the majority of atheists don’t pre-occupy themselves with what other people believe. What we want is to be left alone. We don’t want schools used as distribution centers for Bibles, we don’t want to have our court cases presided over by judges who believe the law is rooted in the Old Testament and we believe public behaviour — where it is legislated at all — should be governed by common sense and not rules divined from ancient texts.
Father Tim asks of atheists “Why the long face?” which would be a good question if vast numbers of us were in a permanent funk. This is a common error of logic amongst believers: if faith gives them purpose, then a lack of faith must leave one without purpose. Similarly, if Jesus makes them happy, an absence of Jesus must make one sad.
Finally, in an essay published in Tuesday’s print edition, Ian Hunter offers that agnosticism is “for the spiritually timid”. I suppose that’s true to the point of being a tautology since if someone is predisposed to only believe in those things that can be proved, then one is necessarily timid about believing in things that cannot be proved.
Ian posits “if nothing about religion can reliably be known, then it cannot be known whether anything about religion can reliably be known”. I’m not sure if this sentence is better deconstructed by Donald Rumsfeld or one of my Jesuit professors but if I understand Ian correctly he is asserting that since non-believers can’t prove the NON-existence of God their assertion that he does not exist is as disputable as faith itself. It’s a compelling theological position but logic dictates that if you want to assert that something exists then you bear the full burden of proof.
I think the disconnect for many religious people arises out of the fact that faith is by its very definition irrational. Sometimes I suspect one of the reasons religious people are so irked by atheists is because on a strictly logical plane, we have the advantage. That’s the trade off when you choose the mystical over the temporal.
I know for some of the faithful enforced secularism in the public square is perceived as an assault on religion but that’s like saying an empty glass is an attack on booze. You are free to practice your faith in spaces we do not share. Public atheism may infringe on your consciousness but it does not violate your rights.
And if being a believer in an increasingly secular world is a chore, bear in mind that it pales in comparison to the burden of the early Christians. Atheists have got nothing on the Romans.
by John Moore @nationalpost.com