A Commentary on Doubt
Loss of faith is necessarily personal. I have no interest in “refuting” Chris, a former Christian whose YouTube video on deconversion was featured earlier this week at the Daily Dish. The arguments for believing in God rehearsed in the video are not mine. Moreover, while it is clear to me that arguments can strengthen or hinder faith, “arguments” are not why I believe in God –- nor are they, I would contend, the sole reason Chris has lost his faith. I therefore do not offer a refutation here so much as a commentary, albeit a believer’s commentary.
Chris says he believed in God because he could not otherwise account for his observations about the world around him. That all changed, we learn in the video, as the result of one simple question from a college professor. “Do you see how it is possible,” the professor asked him, “that all of this, the entire history of religion, the entire history of the world, the entire history of the universe, and your entire religious life could have happened without God actually existing?” After walking himself and his viewers through the arguments for God he once accepted, Chris comes to realize that “all of this” is indeed possible without God.
Chris tells us that he used to believe that morality existed independently of God and could be discovered through human reason and experience. Otherwise, Chris tells us, it would “just be a meaningless expression of God’s opinions,” which might possibly include approval for rape, murder, child molestation, and other horrors. With a little help from his professor, Chris realizes that, since “praiseworthy systems of ethics” exist independently of God, the concept of God is dispensable.
There can be no denying that not all ethical systems depend on God or biblical injunctions. The reason for this is, I think, obvious: not everyone is a Christian, and no Christian is a mere Christian (not even C.S. Lewis). The world is, in fact, full of ethical systems. In philosophy, there is Kant’s categorical imperative (“act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”); Mill’s utilitarianism (seek the “greatest good for the greatest number of people”); Sartre’s authenticity (be true to yourself); and many others. To this list, one could add the ethical systems of non-Christian religions (e.g. Buddhist and Confucian), and of specific cultures (e.g. Zen Buddhism in China and Eastern Orthodoxy in Russia).
Philosophy is the only source of ethics that purports to rely on reason alone. Religion and culture tend toward intermingling, not only with each other, but with ritual, scripture, history and geography — all arbitrary by Chris’s standards. Yet Chris would do well to ask himself whether or not philosophy lives up to its promise of pure rationality. Is Kant’s categorical imperative a more “reasonable” foundation for ethics than Mill’s utilitarianism or Sartre’s authenticity? The history of philosophy, with its endless upheavals, would suggest that reason is not the sole ground of ethics (as a long line of philosophers, from the pre-Socratics on down to the postmodernists, have observed). Rather, where there is ethics, there is culture. Put another way, ethics involves people, and where there are people, there is culture.
This is true not only of philosophy’s origins, but of its transmission. Thus, Enlightenment ideals have come down to us not through Kant or Mill, but through the founding fathers. Nor is it possible to read Kant or Mill impartially; even upon returning to the origins of American political and legal theory, we could never fully rid ourselves of the historical development that has made us who we are. (A point that strict constructionists fail to grasp.) In reality, debates over gun control or abortion or affirmative action rarely involve a quest for ideological origins. More commonly, we simply take for granted notions of “rights” and “liberties” as we find them — adapted to suit the evolving needs of feminists and environmentalists, gun lobbyists and investment bankers. In this respect, Enlightenment reason itself belongs to a tradition, which is arbitrary insofar as it is historical and contingent.
It may have been “just a meaningless expression of opinion” for God to command Abraham to kill his son Isaac. But, from the standpoint of pure rationality, the West’s most cherished ideals — gender equality, human rights, and religious freedom – are also a “meaningless” (i.e. historical and contingent) expression of opinion. George Bush’s failure to spread democracy in the Middle East alone demonstrates this point, as does the recent minaret ban in Switzerland. (I am not, incidentally, making the case for cultural relativism. Relativism is a simple reversal of the rationalist error, making culture the primary thing and reason its offshoot, whereas in my view, culture, religion and reason are all interdependent.)
For Chris, belief in God is either rational or it is irrational — a seemingly fair assumption which nevertheless depends on a denial of history. Thus, Chris tells us that his belief in the Bible’s divine inspiration was shattered by the “documentary hypothesis,” by which researchers investigating the origin of the Bible discovered a “set of clear political goals that served very human purposes.” Likewise, Chris comes to realize that his own experience of God, which he had previously took to be “irrefutable,” was easily explained away as “simply a result of [his] own psychology.” What never seems to occur to Chris is that Enlightenment rationalism might itself have resulted from “clear political goals” serving human purposes – or that gravitation from one pole (faith) to another (reason) might also result from his own psychology. Nor does Chris scrutinize his assumption that political and religious ends, science and religion, and God and his “own psychology” are all irreconcilable.
Moving from the humanities and social sciences (philosophy, history, and psychology) to the hard sciences (physics and biology), Chris observes that the theory of evolution has managed to explain human origins without reference to God. In an inventive metaphor, Chris describes a scenario in which he hears a bump in his closet and decides to investigate. Initially, he might assume that an animal caused the bump. Supposing, however, that he finds a box on the floor, and no trace of an animal — whether fur, claws, or a hole in the wall — Chris says he could reasonably conclude that the box had “fell off the shelf because of natural processes like a lack of friction and gravity or the fact that the shelf was tilted.”
The metaphor is misleading. Excepting fundamentalists, few theists would claim today that the “animal” knocked the box over directly, which would amount to a figurative creationism. There is no reason, in other words, to think that the “animal” couldn’t have worked through natural forces to knock the box onto the floor. Chris is certainly right to observe that the theory of evolution is self-sufficient insofar as it does not require any help from a divine “animal.” This, however, does not mean that theism makes assumptions whereas evolution merely states the facts, but that theism and science make different sets of assumptions. (Stephan Jay Gould correctly described the difference between science and religion as one of “non-overlapping magisteria.”) I agree with Chris that St. Thomas’ First Cause argument for God’s existence is no longer convincing – but I simply do not understand what the explanation of human origins by means of evolution has to do with theism, beyond discrediting one of its weaker arguments.
Chris — I fully agree — made a number of bad arguments for God while a Christian, including the argument from First Cause; yet whereas I would get rid of the arguments, Chris gets rid of the God. This is a decision that, as I mentioned earlier, I can comment on, but would be ill advised to “refute,” since it involves something other than reason — something that Chris’s “reasons” in fact suppress: history.
Having rehearsed all of his former arguments for God’s existence (some of which I have not addressed), Chris states the principle by which he came to reject them: Occam’s Razor. According to 14th century philosopher William of Occam, “when faced with two opposing explanations for the same set of evidence, our minds will naturally prefer the explanation that makes the fewest assumptions.” To reiterate, Chris concludes that morality, the bible’s origins, and his personal experience of God can all be explained without reference to God — a concept that is, for Chris, therefore superfluous.
I have endeavored here to show that Enlightenment rationalism is no more devoid of assumptions than the theism it opposes. Rather, it seems to me that ideology succeeds by covering its tracks; by making itself seem natural and inevitable. Given the predominance of rationalist ideology in the West today, it is no wonder religious belief has undergone such dramatic decline.
Update: I have responded to reader comments in a separate post.