Monday, December 8, 2008

RtBotS, Part 3 of 9: The Faithful Atheist and the Rationalist Credo


(5) There are four words that have become entangled in the battle between atheism and its religious competitors, invested with so much emotional energy by both sides that their original meanings are all but lost. They are rational, irrational, belief, and faith, and each side has claimed two: the atheists seem to think they own the exclusive rights to "rational" and "irrational," and the religious believers seem to feel similar exclusive entitlement to "belief" and "faith." This strikes me as profoundly wrong. Both sides of the debate have an equal right to all four words.

The most common complaint leveled against the Four Horsemen by religious believers is that they're arrogant and condescending. And indeed they are. They get up in front of audiences of religious believers and tell them, in essence, "We're atheists because we're rational; you're religious because you're irrational." Such a statement may adequately preach to the choir, but it's a monumentally shitty sales pitch. Everyone thinks they're rational; even schizophrenics consigned to live out their lives in mental hospitals feel rational. Given that, "irrational" is simply a dirty word, an insult that no one wants to hear, one that is guaranteed to kill off any courteous receptiveness the listener might otherwise have been willing to extend.

But there is an even deeper problem. Suppose that everyone's skin were much thicker, and being called irrational weren't automatically a turnoff. The atheist claim to complete and total rationality is simply false, for reasons into which I will soon delve.

"Faith," meanwhile, has been co-opted by religious believers to mean "belief in some type of God"; talk to them long enough and it will become clear which type of God they mean. "People of faith" has become synonymous with "religious believers," and both sides of the debate seem content with that usage. But, if they are honest, even atheists must confess to being people of faith. This is because the definition of faith hinges not upon what people believe, but upon their reasons for believing it.

It is evident that human beings -- whether you think they were created by God or shaped by evolution -- are born with a libido, a limitless wellspring of mental energy that is expended solely through sex. What people really find pleasurable about sex is not so much the onslaught of physical sensations as the psychological release afforded by that discharge of libidinal energy. (If you find that hard to swallow, consider the old saying "When sex is good, it's great, and even when it's bad, it's still pretty good"; or, in a more extreme manifestation, think of Joe Pantoliano's character from The Sopranos, who found sex fulfilling only if it involved his partner taking a cheese grater to his dick.)

It is my thesis that human beings are born with another limitless wellspring of mental energy, one that is expended solely through faith. This "spiritual libido" exists because the world is, and has always been, so complex, confusing, threatening, and inscrutable that human beings find it profoundly pleasurable to simply accept some notions just because they feel right. Despite the obvious benefits of acting rationally, ya gotta admit that it takes some work. It feels good to deliberately take a break from that work by accepting some things through intuition rather than evidence, through the heart rather than the mind. Just as sex is the act through which people derive the pleasure of discharging their sexual libido, so is taking something on faith the act through which people derive the pleasure of discharging their spiritual libido.

When Sam Harris writes a book with a title like The End of Faith I cringe, because he might as well have titled the book The End of Humanity. Right or wrong, the spiritual libido is an innate part of what it means to be human, and the Four Horsemen ignore that fact at their peril. To denigrate and marginalize faith is to denigrate and (more importantly, from a marketing standpoint) marginalize oneself.

This does not mean that all belief systems are on an equal footing; we still have a right to debate and discuss which vessels are more or less suited to receiving the faith that our spiritual libido drives us to pour out. It simply means that, in the marketplace of belief systems, faith is the currency with which we make our purchases.

I, an atheist, am just as much a "person of faith" as any pious Christian or Muslim or Jew you care to name. We all have a core set of beliefs that we are unwilling to doubt, reconsider, or abandon. Our decision to adopt our core set of beliefs was made with the heart and not the mind; was made through intuition and not reason; was made simply because it felt right on some numinous level, and not because it was shown to be right through evidence or argument. Indeed, none of us can provide an irreproachable proof of why our core set of beliefs is "right"/"true," or this debate would not rage in the first place.

The big thing that separates my faith from that of the Christian or Muslim or Jew is that the object of my faith -- the core set of beliefs I used my faith to purchase -- is very simple. The major religions of the world have core sets of beliefs that are so vast, complex, and intricate that they can be expressed only in thousand-page-long books like the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the Book of Mormon, the Veda, and their ilk. My core set of beliefs takes up about three paragraphs; certainly no more than one typed single-spaced 8.5" x 11" page. (This compactness carries an important benefit that we'll revisit later.) That page bears the following five things:

(a) A statement that, in principle, human beings can eventually know and understand all things, even if they are not known or understood at present.
(b) A description of the scientific method.
(c) Occam's Razor.
(d) The Golden Rule.
(e) A statement that it is a greater evil to arrive at a sound conclusion through faulty reasoning than to arrive at a faulty conclusion through sound reasoning.

Since it doesn't have a name, let's christen this one-page document the Rationalist Credo. Note that atheism appears nowhere in it. My atheism is not a part of my belief system; it is a consequence of it. (This is a distinction that will play an important role in the discussion of Communism below.) My faith in the scientific method doesn't mean that I'll insist that I'm right and you're wrong about any particular aspect of the world; it means that what I will insist on is that there is a single correct way for us to find out about any particular aspect of the world. It is an object of faith precisely because I cannot irreproachably prove anyone wrong when they say that there are paths to knowledge other than the scientific method. I simply believe that there aren't. (This will be revisited in Part 6.)

This is why the Four Horsemen are not being honest when they claim to be completely rational. It is true that they are mostly rational -- but their decision to embrace rationality was made through irrational means. They aspire to rationality because doing so simply feels right to them. The atheist chooses to focus his doubt on everything he encounters, except his own decision to focus doubt on everything he encounters. His atheism is like a pearl; the milky white part, the part revered for its beauty, the part that makes up 99% of its bulk, is composed of rationality; but it would never have formed had it not been for the tiny, ugly grain of irrational faith at its core.

Compared to the alternatives currently being used to market atheism, I think this is a much better sales pitch. The main reason is that it depersonalizes the attack -- it acknowledges that we're all in the same boat, trying to figure out how best to spend our faith in the marketplace of belief systems, rather than trying to artificially divide humanity into "rationals" and "nonrationals." It shifts the emphasis to where it should be, i.e. the relative merits of the belief-products themselves. In religious terms, it allows us to love the sinner while hating the sin.


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