Since my Christian deconstruction I’ve started to try on various labels for size. Among these labels have been: post-Christian, nontheistic Christian, esoteric Christian, nontheist, Satanist, and, of course, atheist.
(Some annoying hippie in the back will, at this point, ask “why do you have to have a label, man? Why can’t you just be yourself?” Suffice it to say, I like identities, and I am pro-label. That other people are less comfortable with that is fine.)
In The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Eastern Orthodox Theologian David Bentley Hart writes that he believes true atheism must be “nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations.”
I’ve already written a post about DBH, and I won’t belabor the points I made in that post. Rather, I want to explore the above assumption. Now that I’m a nontheist, it’s an assumption I see everywhere, where it was previously invisible to me.
The assumption goes like this: if you had an adequate understanding of the vastness and mystery of the cosmos, the hard problem of consciousness, or the sheer inability of physical stuff to explain why physical stuff itself exists at all, then you would understand that God is the only logical explanation. Because you don’t believe in God, that must mean you don’t have a truly expansive sense of wonder in the face of reality.
It’s also an assumption I myself held about atheism, nontheism, and naturalism. Perhaps it was the strident assholery of Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. which led me to assume (naively) that all naturalists and atheists lack a fundamental curiosity about the universe. But now that I am myself a nontheist, I understand how misguided an assumption this is.
It’s hard to describe why this assumption is wrong until one crosses that formidable chasm between theism and nontheism. The mystery of the universe is, in fact, bigger and more astounding to me because I can’t easily rely on God as an explanation for existence.
Sure, I can use God in a “Ground of Being”, or “First Cause,” sort of way, but that for me is just a semantic trick, and has little relation to the material claims of world religions, and could be interchangeable with many other terms, like Ultimate Reality, or Brahman, or simply “Reality.” I’m not opposed to these uses of the word “God,” and in fact I quite like them. But they still, ultimately, leave me far outside theistic religions which make claims that I can’t sign off on until they have been verified, such as virgin births, resurrections, and what not. So all this leads me back, in a huge circle, to wonder — and not knowing much of anything about ultimate reality.
I generally agree with Hart’s criticisms of naturalism — that it can’t explain consciousness, qualia, or being. I agree that when we remove God from our worldview, these fundamental aspects of the cosmos (what could be more fundamental to human experience than consciousness?) are left inexplicably, magically mysterious. The annoying assumption then becomes: “well, you must not take seriously the real depth of these problems, and that is made evident because you don’t believe in God in the same way I do.”
But we do take these problems seriously. In fact, it is atheistic scientists and philosophers themselves who call it “The Hard Problem of Consciousness,” presumably for a reason. We don’t know what consciousness is, or how it exists at all, and we may never know. That leaves us with a mystery so deep, so profound, that it literally keeps me up at night.
As Kathryn Schulz explains in this TED talk, we make a series of unfortunate assumptions about those who disagree with us:
The first assumption is that someone is just misinformed. If they see the same data that we have, then they would obviously find that we were right all along. But when that proves not to be the case, then we just assume they are stupid: they have all the data, they just aren’t smart enough to properly put it all together. But that often proves untrue as well, which leads us to a darker conclusion: if our interlocutor has the same data we have, and is not stupid, that must mean that they are evil, or (in my own interpretation) have a fatal character flaw.
The assumption that nontheists lack wonder, as articulated by David Bentley Hart above, strikes me as a variation of the final argument. We see the same universe, many atheists are clearly very smart, and as a result we must be inclined towards a world proportionate to our own humdrum view of things.
But what could be a more honest assessment of mystery than saying, “I don’t know — this all kind of blows my mind?” And that’s exactly what many atheists and nontheists say. We are just unable, for whatever reason, to make the leap from mystery to God the way theists do. That doesn’t make us evil or unimaginative, and that doesn’t make theists stupid. Instead, I’m convinced that it is generally our integrity that informs our belief or unbelief.
Could I be wrong about the universe? Do I find myself doubting everything I think I know? Of course I do. So do many nontheists I know, as well as many Christians. For threat of tooting my own horn, I think such self-doubt is a sign of integrity. And it leaves me in this place of crushing humility: my methodological materialist vision of reality could be all wrong, and I acknowledge that there are some serious problems with it. But, it’s the model I’m working with right now, until a better model of reality comes along for me.
The excellent Goodreads reviewer Nostalgebraist expresses this beautifully in their review of Hart’s book:
I doubt you will find many atheists who are unmoved by the deep mysteries Hart discusses. Hart and his opponents agree that these mysteries are deep, and that they are very difficult, perhaps even impossible to solve within the framework of naturalism. Indeed, this is repeatedly emphasized in the very naturalist writing on these problems which Hart brings in for criticism. (I was shocked that he didn’t mention Chalmers’ “water into wine” turn of phrase, and I’m not sure he even brought up the phrase “Hard Problem of consciousness.”) There is a very basic confusion running through the book: Hart believes that these problems are obviously unsolvable in a naturalist framework, and so he assumes that the naturalists working on them must not realize the full severity of the problems. I think they do, and that is precisely why there is so much interest in working on them, and so much excitement over proposed solutions. If you were a young philosopher, which would you want to work on: the plodding completion of some little piece of the dominant system, or on some problem that seems impossible within that system? (Either you prove the potentially-impossible can be done after all, and thereby win eternal glory, or you prove it really is impossible, and overthrow the current order entirely — either is exciting!)
All this said, let’s make a deal, dear theists, Christians, and believers. I won’t assume, as some unpleasant atheists do, that you are stupid, naive, mentally ill, or evil for believing in a God and the supernatural. In fact, I will assume that it is your integrity which leads you to your conclusions. And I will ask that you give me the same courtesy. do not assume what the universe looks like to me, because I’m willing to bet that you have no way of knowing. Don’t assume I want to protect myself, like a fragile old man, from the hostilities of a preposterous universe, and that I am simply too comfortable in my materialist world to ever go outdoors and look at the sky and wonder at it all. I do just that, on a daily basis.
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David Bentley Hart’s ponderous tome The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss has been regularly touted to me as the book every nontheist must read. I’m happy to oblige, and I’m about 30% of the way through (including footnotes.) While I find Hart pompous, bloviating, and even an occasional bully, I’m also enjoying his erudition and mastery of the English language. As he makes clear again and again, he is not so much trying to defend God, but rather to describe the classical view of God, which he feels modern atheists have sorely missed.
Ever since coming out as an atheist, I’ve noticed a few recurring questions about my unbelief. I thought I would offer a few clarifications so I can refer people to this article when the questions come up again.
I love Christianity. I love the symbolism, the myth, the ritual. I love Augustine, and Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis, and T.S. Eliot, and Thomas Aquinas, and the Saints, and the story of the cosmic Christ who came to earth to save us all. To my very core, I love it. But I feel it’s time to let go of the label Christian altogether, primarily because I’m exceedingly tired.
I’ve been reading Chris Kratzer’s book Leatherbound Terrorism — a heartfelt diatribe about how thoroughly Evangelical fundamentalism has destroyed his — and everyone else’s — life. He writes with the fervor of an end-times prophet, except his message is an inversion of the usual religious pessimism: Evangelicalism is killing the vulnerable, oppressing minorities, destroying hearts and minds, and imperiling the whole world with their blunt denial of human diversity and scientific truth.
Last week in my Sunday Curiosities series, I posted a fiery video in which Steve Shives explains why he thinks Sam Harris is a douchebag. Of all the interesting things I posted in that article, I was dismayed to see my item on Harris get the most attention. People on social media were aggrieved that I would post such an “unfair” portrayal of Harris.
When I was deep in the Evangelical fold, doubt was sometimes discussed as a temporary and seasonal necessity. Doubt was talked about as a period of testing, in which we just had to lean in to prayer and trust, even in the face of an insurmountable void of evidence. Inevitably, they said, this season would come to an end, the winter would turn to spring, and you would know without a doubt that God is real. In other words, doubt was understood as a sort of spiritual flu — a seasonal disruption that builds our immune systems.
I always assumed that atheists were assholes. Whenever Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens would show up on my computer screen, I would internally snarl at them: so angry, I thought. So prone to bitterness and self-righteousness.
Now that I’ve undergone my own deconstruction of faith I have to say that, while not excusing their more egregious behavior, I get why atheists can be assholes. It can feel like the whole world is against you, putting words in your mouth, or making assumptions about your character. Ever since coming out as a nontheist, I’ve gotten a steady torrent of unpleasantness from theists. I’ve gotten unsolicited challenges to debate, condescending private messages, and annoying assumptions about my personal integrity hurled at me.