Crisis of Faithlessness

Nov 01, 2000 |J. Budziszewski

Why do atheists seem so confident in their disbelief? It can be downright unnerving. Don't they ever have any faith crises?

Mark was rising to leave. "Thanks. Do you mind telling me again what that book was that you mentioned?"

"Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost," I said. "Before deciding whether Blake was right about John Milton being 'of the devil's party without knowing it,' I think you should consider chapters 13 and 14."

As Mark reached the door he turned. "You know, Prof, I'm really disappointed in myself. Just when I think I've got this faith thing figured out, someone like my English professor comes along and rocks me all over again."

"Faith isn't about having all the answers, Mark."

"No," he agreed. "But my other professors — they all seem so confident in their disbelief. Why don't atheists ever have any faith crises?"

He smiled ruefully. I opened my mouth to answer, but it was too late — he'd vanished into the hallway.

* * *

The annual conference of the Quixotic Studies Association lasts for three days, and ends with a banquet called a "tilt." According to custom, at the tilt anyone may say anything to anyone, and no one may take offense. My colleague Standish Wanhope had started right in. He was seated opposite, and before the salad plates were taken away I had already learned that he didn't believe in God, that his ethical philosophy was based on Darwin, and that before he had taken his present position he used to teach at a college called St. Mary's where he'd "had fun ruining all the Catholic kids."

Our dialogue hadn't seemed promising at first. Picking up on his comment about Darwinism, I asked Standish what he thought of the new arguments for Intelligent Design. He admitted that he hadn't read them, but proceeded to lecture me why they were wrong. To top off the lecture, he recommended what he said was a good critique. I found him patronizing, he found me dull, and soon we found ourselves speaking with different partners — he with the person on his right, me with the person on my left.

Perhaps my new partner had overheard his remark about ruining all the Catholic kids. "I noticed during the conference that a number of your comments seemed to come from a religious perspective," he said. "That's unusual."

"It is in these circles," I laughed.

"Have you always been religious?"

"I abandoned my childhood faith during college," I said, "and I was an atheist for 10 or 12 years. But I was reconverted after finishing my Ph.D."

"To what religion?"

"Christian."

As we chatted, Standish turned his head, and I saw that he had regained his interest in our conversation.

"You're a Christian?" he asked. "What kind?" When I told him, he exclaimed "I'm very religious. I used to be Lutheran."

"Used to be?" I asked Standish. "What are you now?"

"You'd call me a secular humanist. I stopped believing in God in my teens."

"How did that come about?"

"I believe we have a moral obligation not to hold any belief unless we can find logical reasons for it. In my teens I started asking 'Why?' about my faith, and realized it had no answers." Waggling his wine glass for emphasis, he warned "Don't bother reciting the arguments for God's existence, because I know them all well, and they don't prove a thing. They all commit fallacies such as assuming that existence is a property."

I refused to take the bait. "You became an atheist because you couldn't find a reason for belief in God?"

"Yes."

"That seems inconsistent."

He was surprised. "Why?"

"If you need a reason to believe that God is real, then shouldn't you also need one to believe that He isn't? Why is the burden of proof on the theist?"

"I don't say that I know God doesn't exist. What I say is that I don't know. I'm not an atheist, I'm an agnostic."

There was a certain teacherly quality in the way that Standish spoke. I wondered if I was hearing a fragment of his lectures.

"Well, Standish," I said, "I'm not so sure that agnostics exist either."

"Good one," he said.

"I'm not joking," I replied. "You call yourself an agnostic, Standish, but aren't you an atheist in practice?"

"How so?"

"Although you claim not to know whether God exists, you base your life on the assumption that He doesn't."

"No, you aren't listening to me carefully. I don't assume that God exists or that He doesn't exist. Between belief in God and disbelief in God, I'm neutral."

"I understand that you see yourself as neutral," I said. "I only suggest that you aren't. Not really."

"But I am. For all I know Christianity might be true, and for all I know it might be false. I have no information either way."

"The difficulty with that line of reasoning is that it presupposes that Christianity is false."

"You're not making sense. How can not having any information whether Christianity is true presuppose that it isn't true?"

"Because Christianity denies that you have no information bearing on the truth of its claims."

"What?"

"If nothing else, Christians claim, you already know the reality of God. As a former Lutheran, I suppose you know Paul's letter to the Romans."

"Nothing better."

"Then you remember that in the first chapter, he says that God's reality is already plain to every human being 'from what has been made.' According to Christianity, then, the problem isn't that people are ignorant of God, but that they deny Him."

His answer came straight out of left field. "My lady friend and I have very deep conversations about political and religious subjects. It's so important to be able to share your deepest concerns with someone." Recognizing an evasive maneuver, I ignored it.

"Besides," I said, "if you really thought Christianity might be true, then considering what hangs in the balance, wouldn't you bend every effort to finding out whether or not it was?"

Again he tried to change the subject. "I have a deep, rich secular humanism," he said, and his voice deepened too. "I'm oh, so wonderfully satisfied with it."

"And wouldn't you be a little more hesitant to 'ruining all the Catholic kids'?"

"What do you think of the new religious music?" he said. "To me it's just watered-down Simon and Garfunkel. Give me the fine old traditional hymns any day."

I had to smile. You couldn't not like Standish. I knew he got my point; if he didn't, he wouldn't be trying so hard to evade it. Very well, I'd follow his lead. "Where do you hear the new music?" I asked.

"Why, in churches."

"So you do go into churches sometimes."

"Yes. But isn't the new music awful?"

"I confess I'd find a steady diet of it difficult. What music do you prefer?"

"You know — the great old songs like 'Rise Up, Ye Men of God'."

"Yes, that one sticks to your ribs. But what do you like about it?"

"It stirs you up. Makes you want to stand and be counted."

"But for a cause in which you don't believe."

"I told you that I was religious."

"I have a colleague like you. He's an atheist, but calls himself an 'aesthetic Episcopalian.' He believes in the ritual, but not in the religion."

"You aren't understanding me," he said, and suddenly went into confessional mode. "Let me tell you something you would never guess. My elderly aunt is a person of deep faith. What a great lady. I still visit her sometimes. It's a moving experience. When I'm with her and she speaks about the Lord, I say 'I believe.'"

"But you don't believe."

"When I'm with her, I do."

"Then why not when you're not with her?"

"Because I have no rational basis for belief. It's feelings. Feelings aren't knowledge."

"Like your feelings about the grand old Christian hymns."

"Yes. I miss them terribly. I've been thinking about joining a church choir."

"You would join a church choir without joining the Church?"

"Yes. Just to be able to sing them again."

"Standish, listen to me," I said. "You say that feelings aren't knowledge, and I agree. But you speak just as you would if Paul were right — if deep down you really knew that all that you've rejected is completely true. Is it possible that you've misidentified the things you've been calling feelings, and that they aren't mere feelings after all? Is it possible that they are a mode of knowledge, and your feelings are merely their accompaniment?"

Standish returned my gaze with an unexpected intensity.

"Maybe," he said.

Just then the tilt broke up. Someone was giving announcements. Everyone stood, and we were separated.

* * *

"Faith isn't about having all the answers, Mark."

"No," he agreed. "But my other professors — they all seem so confident in their disbelief. Why don't atheists ever have any faith crises?"

He smiled ruefully. I opened my mouth to answer, but it was too late — he'd vanished into the hallway.

I had been about to say, "They do."

Copyright 2000 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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