I wrote a recent post about what I called the persistence of faith—the difficulty even hardheaded rationalists appear to have accepting, as I put it, “the fact that this is all there is.” Several readers pounced on the phrase. “The fact?” one asked rhetorically. Another said, “By ‘this’ you mean what we happen to experience with our senses and understand with our intelligence?”
1. The criticisms are valid: we can’t indeed say anything about what lies beyond our senses and intelligence. But I’m not sure that changes the argument. If there are things that can’t impinge upon our senses or intelligence—if they can never become known to us in any way, direct or indirect, now or in the future—then they cannot be said to exist for us. “This,” in any meaningful sense, is still all there is.
2. Besides, the argument cuts both ways. If we can’t know whether there is something more, then why are the religious always claiming otherwise? Why do they regale us with their certain knowledge of the deity—of His laws, and His attributes, and His children, and His glorious plan for humankind? “You believe in the Big Bang?” people have challenged me. Well, I wouldn’t say believe, exactly, but go on. “So where did all the matter come from?” To which the only reasonable response is: how the hell am I supposed to know? Whereof we cannot speak, like the man said, thereof we must be silent.
3. Oh, but the believers say, I feel that God exists. My intuition tells me He exists. Yeah, and I “felt” that Suzie was in love with me in seventh grade, but when I tried to kiss her, she slapped me anyway. Funny thing about those feelings—they so often turn out just to be projections of our needs.
4. But maybe the problem is me. Belief is itself, it’s been proposed, a kind of sense. If some, like me, are blind, that doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t see. I actually find that argument interesting—not persuasive, but interesting. Still, if believers can “see,” why do they see so many different things, and why is what they see reliably determined by their culture? Why do Brazilians see Christ, and Pakistanis Allah, and Balinese the Hindu pantheon? If everybody with a functioning belief organ perceives the existence of God, why don’t they all perceive the same God?
5. Or is it only God in general I’m supposed to see? Okay, God in general. That reminds me of another argument: that since nothing comes from nothing, as our experience confirms, existence itself, the universe itself, implies a Creator. Ah, so that’s where all the matter comes from. But it seems tautological—or at least, extremely limited. If all we can know about “God” is that he created the universe, then “God created the universe” is equivalent to “the creator of the universe created the universe.” And what else can we know? From the mere existence of a creator, nothing of what humans want from God necessarily follows: not benevolence, not an afterlife, not the foundation of an ethical system, not a special place in creation, not even the assurance that He is aware of our existence—still less the Burning Bush or the stroll on the sea. The whole idea that believers call him “He” is laughable. Does the Creator have a gender? Does the Creator have a penis? Wouldn’t “It” be more appropriate? But It is not going to gather us into Its bosom if we stay away from the pork chops, like It told us to. It is going to treat us like an it, and turn us into compost.
6. Atheism is also just a faith, goes the final response—the one believers seem to find the most emotionally satisfying. No, actually, it’s not. It’s a refusal of faith, a simple insistence on evidence. We don’t take things on faith when it comes to the terrestrial world—and by “we,” I mean everybody—so why should it be different when it comes to the celestial? As another reader said, “there is no reason whatsoever to believe there is more.” Until there is, I’m sticking with “this.”
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