"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Thoughts on the road, especially about atheism

I've often heard it said that if you want God to laugh, tell him your plans. Indeed: which is why it is even more often said that life is what happens when things don't go according to plan. I've given up even trying to figure out what the ancient pagans called fortuna, and what we moderns instinctively call "luck" whether we are religious believers or not. But if we are Christians, we must call the mystery "providence" for those who believe. Luck becomes meaningful as providence to the extent that it becomes a narrative of God's love for us and, through us, for all. And it becomes that to the extent we offer it as such, to him, in faith. Coincidence becomes luck; bad luck becomes good luck; good luck becomes providence. "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).

I've been thinking about all this because of why I've been travelling again. Over the Easter weekend, I had to interrupt not just my blogging, but also what I thought was my search for meaningful work, in order to deal with a family emergency. Having played my due role in the latter chiefly by my presence, which I've never thought of before as a healing factor for anybody, I found that an even better opportunity for the former was presenting itself. I am now in the process of exploring that opportunity. I wish I could say more and say it publicly; but as usual in my life, whatever it is that's supposed to happen is not happening with the speed and clarity I would prefer. Much depends on the choices I freely make, especially on my choices about the seemingly smallest of practical matters. It is a sore trial for a philosopher who prefers thought and talk to action—thought and talk about Big Things as opposed to little things, which really aren't little when you see them aright, as the youngest Doctor of the Church taught us.

Such is the insight in light of which I've been pondering a combox dialogue between two bloggers who know each other in real life from their time at UC-Berkeley. They do not hide their real names, which are "Arturo" (a Catholic) and "Patrick" (an ex-Catholic atheist). Now I shamelessly admit that I read those guys periodically because they have said nice things about my writings. Arturo often comments here, and Patrick has written favorably about my take on the problem of evil. I also note that the views Arturo expresses in the post heading the combox I've linked to do not surprise or disturb me in the least. I could quibble with him, certainly, in the way professors whose worldviews are very similar quibble with each other in the faculty lounge as a way to avoid real duties for a bit. But Patrick's brief adumbrations of his loss of faith astonished me. I believe they are worth addressing for a wider public.

In the aforesaid combox, he wrote:

...I have seen holiness as a transformative and inspiring power, both first-hand and second-hand; but my knowledge of human nature has expanded to the point where even this holiness seems better explained in natural psychological terms. The most radical avatars of this kenosis (Mother Teresa, Therese of Lisieux, and the examples in my own life) seem to be driven by interior anguish, doubt, guilt and darkness even (and especially) in their most luminous moments to others. Suffering molds character, self-inflicted inner suffering most of all; and the particular nature of the “bad conscience” keeps its bearer on the path of humility we marvel at most in our saints. Catholic theology has explanations for this as well, but I’ve come to find a psychological explanation more and more probable.

Prima facie, what's curious here is the insouciance of the juxtaposition. Patrick fully acknowledges the state of holiness, and understands what it often involves in the souls of the saints; yet he calmly states that he finds "psychological" explanations for the interior struggles of the saints "more and more probable" than those of theology. In a post of his own, Patrick expounds further what he takes to be the relevant concept of probability, and does so as part of a "A Prolegomenon of Prodigious Length to the Further Explanation of my Apostasy."

Reflecting on Patrick's thoughts, though, I find myself astonished by the assumption that "psychological" explanations somehow compete with "theological," which seems to be a particular case of the more general assumption that scientific explanation competes with theological explanation. I find that general assumption simply incomprehensible. I suppose one could assign a Bayesian probability to somebody's coming to believe, or disbelieve, that there is such a God as classical theism holds, given their experience and reasoning ability. This is why Patrick can and does say this:

Thus there is an implicit notion of subjective probability in all the claims we make, even the firmest ones; and the reason that I count myself an atheist today is not because of one knock-down argument against the existence of God, but because the total scope of my human experience leads me to assign the existence of the Christian God a very small probability.

What Patrick is doing in that sentence is stating an undeniable empirical fact about himself. But that is biography, not metaphysics. What I find so astonishing is that Patrick is confusing explanation with justification in a rather elementary way. Given the concepts and experiences Patrick cites, it makes perfect sense that he would be an atheist. But he has said nothing to rule out the live possibility that both scientific and theological explanations of reality could both be true, at different levels of explanation where calculations of probability cannot be univocally made. For a brief take on what that might look like, I suggest this. But that which I and other theists have to say about explanation is less interesting to me at the moment than what Patrick himself is doing.

His aim seems to be to avoid the cardinal sin of "self-deception" and face up to reality with an unflinching concern for objective truth. I applaud that. I have always believed that what really matters is not what matters to any of us as individuals, but what matters period, if there is such a thing and whatever it may be. And I read Nietzsche in college too; I took him seriously enough to write my first philosophy paper about him. But it does not seem to have occurred to Patrick, yet, that being an atheist can be just as much a result of self-deception as being a theist. When discussing the relative rationality of belief and disbelief in God, what matters is not such motives for belief as are peculiar to this-or-that person, which are indeed subjective. What matters is whether both sides can agree on a set of objectively applicable norms for rational assent in such matters, and what those norms are thus taken to be. Much of the difficulty in debates between atheists and theists arises because neither side is as clear about this as they need to be. I don't think Patrick has achieved the requisite clarity yet. But I won't put him down by speculating as to why.
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