Atheism and Belief: Some recent articles

A couple of weeks ago, the Sunday Times had a profile of Jerry DeWitt, a Pentecostal pastor in Louisiana who “came out” as an atheist. It’s a sensitive profile of a sensitive man and I couldn’t help wondering if DeWitt’s spiritual journey turned out the way it did because he was doing it on his own. He never attended college but clearly is bright, thoughtful, and wanted to make sense of his faith. Unfortunately, there weren’t mentors who could help him along the line and when his doubts got the better of him, he ended up jettisoning all of Christianity. I was particularly taken by this paragraph:

Afterward, we met with the church’s founding pastor in an elegantly appointed office adjoining the main auditorium. He was a 79-year-old man named George Glass, with a wrinkled face and a magnificent deep voice full of warmth and gravitas. He hugged us both as we came in, chiding DeWitt for having stayed away for so long. We sat down, and over the course of an hour, he spoke movingly about his own struggles as a younger man, when he lost his first ministry and had to start from scratch. He reassured DeWitt that he understood his doubts and did not think any less of him. As we said our goodbyes at the door, Glass spoke again in his slow, Southern cadence, fixing DeWitt with his gaze. “The thing of it is,” he said, and we all waited as he allowed a weighty pause to fill the air — “you’ve just got to keep your mouth shut.”

As if keeping one’s mouth shut can keep the doubts away.

The article points out the growing network of atheist organizations, including the Clergy Project which seeks to help clergy who no longer believe. This communal aspect of atheism is called into question by Andrew Brown, who writes in The Guardian that atheism is impossible as an organizing force because of its individualism:

If I’m right, then liberal, individualistic atheism is impossible as an organising principle of society because any doctrine that actually works to hold society together is indistinguishable from a religion. It needs its rituals and it needs its myths. A philosophy will grow around it in due course. Now perhaps you can have, at least on a small scale, a society committed to the principles of rational and tolerant disagreement and the sovereignty of reason.

Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and himself on a journey away from traditional Christianity, reviews Francis Spufford’s recent book (a previous post on it is here) and has this to say:

He is also good at describing what it feels like to sit silently in front of the resonant absence and feel beckoned beyond it. This is not a book about religious theory; it is a record of religious experience. Like the rest of us, he doesn’t know if there is a god. “And neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins, and neither does anyone. It not being a knowable item. What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if he’s there, to dare the conditionality.” His book itself is an act of daring, a message from the frontline of an old and bruising war.

Thomas Nagel reviews Alvin Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. The heart of Plantinga’s argument seems to be here:

Plantinga discusses many topics in the course of the book, but his most important claims are epistemological. He holds, first, that the theistic conception of the relation between God, the natural world, and ourselves makes it reasonable for us to regard our perceptual and rational faculties as reliable. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the scientific theories they allow us to create do describe reality. He holds, second, that the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief in evolution is self-defeating. However, Plantinga thinks we can reasonably believe that we are the products of evolution provided that we also believe, contrary to naturalism, that the process was in some way guided by God.

Nagel concludes:

Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly—in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.

I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.

Unapologetic: Francis Spufford on Religious Belief

Francis Spufford has a new book. It’s excerpted at The Guardian. It looks to be an innovative defense of Christian faith:

a defence of Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity. The book is called Unapologetic because it isn’t giving an “apologia”, the technical term for a defence of the ideas.

And also because I’m not sorry.

On belief:

The funny thing is that, to me, it’s belief that involves the most uncompromising attention to the nature of things of which you are capable. Belief demands that you dispense with illusion after illusion, while contemporary common sense requires continual, fluffy pretending – pretending that might as well be systematic, it’s so thoroughly incentivised by our culture.

On the emotions:

It’s got itself established in our culture, relatively recently, that the emotions involved in religious belief must be different from the ones involved in all the other kinds of continuous imagining, hoping, dreaming, and so on, that humans do. These emotions must be alien, freakish, sad, embarrassing, humiliating, immature, pathetic. These emotions must be quite separate from commonsensical us. But they aren’t. The emotions that sustain religious belief are all, in fact, deeply ordinary and deeply recognisable to anybody who has ever made their way across the common ground of human experience as an adult.

Mark Vernon reviews Spufford’s book (and Rowan Williams’ volume on C.S. Lewis) here.