Friday, October 21, 2005

Of Atheism

Searchy LaFemme quotes in her most recent (and quite fascinating, if "esoteric," as she modestly puts it) post, this bit from the sly Enlightenment anticlericalist Denis Diderot:

Mme La Maréchale: Then what do you gain by not being a believer?
Crudeli: Nothing at all, Madame. Is one a believer from motives of profit?
~ Denis Diderot, "Conversation with a Christian Lady" (1774)

Astute readers will recognize this as a clever riposte to what is known as "Pascal's wager" from the Pensees. I do not have the book readily to hand (ha; that will be the day), but my recollection is that he frames the "to believe or not to believe" question something like this. If I choose not to believe, I am implicitly wagering my immortal soul, to little evident gain, yet at the risk of losing everything. If, on the other hand, I choose to believe, I risk at very worst nothing at all (for in that event I have no soul to lose), and at best I stand to gain everything. The former option is, in these terms, the wager of the fool; and Pascal wisely opts for the latter.

Now it is not that Diderot doesn't make a very telling point here. But he is being satirically reductive, and Pascal's Wager is not so shallow or obvious as he (and I) make it sound. It is subject to more depth (and ambiguity) of interpretation than the usual anecdotal summary might allow. It has, in short, a context -- a series of thoughts towards an understanding of his faith (and doubt.) It is one step on a staircase.

Still, we (meaning I) may be forgiven for thinking that Blaise has pulled a classic bait-and-switch: we are baited with belief, which entails choice, in this case rational choice; and are left holding faith, which is not reducible to rationalism (although reason can be used to explore and buttress faith.) Further, faith is not ultimately reducible to choice (although it may inform and guide choice, and choice can of course lead to faith.) I leave aside the modernest theological question of "the will to believe," which, like many modernist questions, confuses matters no end by attempting to eat the cake and have it, and leads to more complexities of interpretation than even my tricky mind can invent.

In my experience, faith is a gift; or it is an inherent quality, which is also a gift. It is not chosen as one might choose a political affiliation, or the proper suit of clothes, or even the more likely way at a forking in the road.

I suspect this because I am an atheist (or a good heathen, as a friend kindly put it once.) Although there are pettifogging sophomoric rationalists who find that, given this and that, atheism is rationally inevitable, I find this school of thought rather silly, and their counter-faith rather touching. (Why do they insist so indignantly? Why does it anger them so that somewhere, somehow, other people might be being horribly irrational?) Sometimes I wonder if they are really atheists at all, and not just sullen, angry teens who have happened to outgrow their pimples. (As Chesterton noted famously, those who believe nothing will believe anything, and so it seems to be with the aggressively anti-religious.)

My atheism was not chosen. Every instinct has always told me that that is not the way the world is. Yet I also know that my instincts and my reason, for all that I may take pride in them (sometimes justifiable) are just a ripple in the pond. The divide between what I know and what I do not know is just a needle's breadth short of infinite. (Which I know is not a mathematically correct formulation, as those astute readers will have noted.)

But I know atheism very well. I know every reason conceivable, and quite possibly more than a few no one has thought of (nor would I wish to share them.) This is why I do not read books about atheism (although I read a great number by atheists.) They have nothing to tell me (and, as an existentialist might say, Nothing to tell me, too.) I prefer, when my thoughts incline this way, to read books about faith and theology. Here is something to try to understand -- not to psychologize (the lowest form of reductionism) -- but to attempt to grasp. I've been at it for a number of years, not to seek faith for myself (that's been denied) but to comprehend it. And it's been a fascinating journey, with an ever-expanding array of questions.

This has of course led me to some slight social misunderstandings (and of course I am a past master of fostering misunderstandings of this sort.) I have sometimes ended up being the sole person in a room, where the fashionable ragging of Judeo-Christianity is running full-throttle, to say, "I beg to differ," and to step into the role of explicator, apologist, and defender. Pupils start flying in both directions at once as individuals attempt to exchange sideward glances and roll their eyes simultaneously. I long ago started leaving off the part where I interject, "Of course, I am an atheist myself, but..." One doesn't want to hear their sighs of relief. And one wonders (sadly) how many of the quietly faithful are sitting there, saying not a word.

This has absolutely nothing to do with Searchie's post -- at least I think it has nothing to do with it, but she's deep. I have merely taken liberties with her quotation to revisit old haunts, which is what a blog is for. I guess. Yes, it is also for the display of garters and stockings.

I find that Searchie postively invites exegesis. I shall have to steel my nerves to take on some of the more painful topics she variously alludes to throughout her writings. On the one hand, I have not the advantage of anonymity; on the other hand, I have learned over the years not to care overmuch what people will think -- both because there are other things of greater importance, and because I often haven't the remotest clue about what other people think.

Any who have tuned in for garters will need to go to the previous post but one (the previous post plus one?) Eh, it's down there somewhere.