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Part 5: Choosing Belief

2,600 Words

This is part 5 of my series ‘There and Back Again: An (A)Theist’s Tale’. This series is intended to tell you my story from the last few years of losing my faith and the slow journey of finding it again but not quite in same way as before.

The previous blog in this series (Part 4) ended by stating that if it hadn’t been for Western Christianity’s spiritual quest for certainty and fact, then Atheism might never have been born. Part 5 is all about exploring this close relationship between modern Western Atheism and Western Christianity.

You can find the rest of this series under the 'There and Back Again: An (A)Theist's Tale' tab at the top of the screen.

(Credit to Eleanor Vivian and Miki Kwek for their proof-reading and critical feedback)

 

“The more I thought about the material world and the whole of nature, as far as we can be aware of it through our bodily senses, and the more I took stock of the various theories, the more I began to think that the opinions of the majority of the philosophers were most likely to be true. So, treating everything as a matter of doubt, as the Academics are generally supposed to do, and hovering between one doctrine and another, I made up my mind at least to leave the Manichees*.”

-St. Augustine[1]

History has always been a great passion of mine, though it is I think a subject that is very much misunderstood. Unlike what most people think, although history is rooted in the past, the past is not its chief object of study. If it was, we would be frequently disappointed. It is a sad fact of history that there are countless civilisations, peoples and events which we will never hear about or learn anything from. They have returned to dust, and no one thought to leave anything behind. Moreover, even for the myriad of civilisations, peoples and events that we do know about, often what we claim to know is based on educated guesswork, attempts to put together jigsaws with missing pieces, and trust in the laws of probability. Even recent events are shadowed in doubt and possibility – why else are the events of 1948 in Israel and Palestine so hotly debated to this day? Though history can tell us about the past, its memory is often hazy. The point I’m essentially making is that that though we can certainly learn about the past through history, we can’t know as much about the past as we might like.

So how are we to understand history? That, perhaps, is a topic saved in its fullness for a future blog, but I will give you an early spoiler. One of most important ways to understand history is that it exists to tells us who we are. History is very often an exercise in identity-creation, laying the roots of the identities we occupy in the present. By showing where we came from, history helps us to come to terms with who we are now and even to some extent where we are going. Legend and myth bear similar identity-shaping functions, and so it is no surprise that it is often tricky to separate history from the two. Essentially, in a significant way history is the art of telling the relevant past – those bits of the past that interplay with who we are in the present.

In terms of this series then, there is one event of the relevant past whose story is worth telling. Through this event, we catch a glimpse of how two identities emerged at once so different but so similar. We see how the West found itself with a Christian Theism that in many ways became a very ‘Christian’ Atheism. Both identities shared the same foundation, they just chose to walk different paths. The story is ultimately one of how the West came to value certainty over belief, and unless we know it, we won’t get the chance to decide whether it is something with which we truly agree.

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“For modern Western atheism is chiefly a Christian heresy and could not have arisen in a non-Christian setting.”[2]

-David Bentley-Hart

The Heresy that Destroyed Christendom

That Western Christianity created modern Atheism shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise. After all, it is only in the West that Atheism is truly organic and indigenous in substance. Indeed, other Atheisms exist most famously in the Communist and post-Communist Atheisms of China and the former Soviet bloc. However, there is a difference in that in both cases their Atheism’s were at least in part imported from Karl Marx’s Western world and in both the relaxation of totalitarian control over religion has revealed a remarkable religious resurgence. However, no such resurgence is expected in the West. The difference? Only the West had the Protestant Reformation.[3]

The legacy of the Protestant Reformation is far too complex to be summarised in one simple blog post, but for my purposes here, suffice it to say that alongside forming the foundations for transformational belief in many people, it also laid the foundations for transformational unbelief. Truly, the Protestant Reformers were the first deconstructionists and they were merciless. For much of the previous 1,000 years, the Roman Church had held sway over the hearts and minds of the people of European Christendom. However, as the Reformation broke across Western and Central Europe, nothing in this long-standing tradition was secure. Long-standing Christian practices like pilgrimage, the sacraments and purgatory were ridiculed as ‘superstitious’. The Church and the religion it promoted was lambasted as corrupt, evil, manipulative and deceitful. Finally, the eternal Church was stripped of its perceived ‘illegitimate’ authority; authority was instead given to the individual, for it was up to each, without the mediation of any Church, to work out their salvation as they interpreted it from the Bible.

The intellectual conflicts of the Reformation are characterised by Prof. Alec Ryrie as a ‘Battle for Credulity’.[4] The Protestants labelled the Catholics as ‘credulous’ – willing to believe in anything including superstition. The Catholics responded in turn by labelling the Protestants as ‘incredulous’ – being stubbornly unwilling to believe and accept the limits of their reason. Prof. Ryrie points out that nothing demonstrates this more than the debate over the doctrine of transubstantiation. This Catholic doctrine states that during the Eucharistic Mass, the bread and wine offered to the faithful becomes the literal essence of the body and blood of Jesus. Moreover, the whole point of the doctrine is that there is no empirical change in the bread and wine; the change in essence must be accepted in faith for it is beyond reason. Like many today, the idea that you should believe this purely on faith in the face of reason and empirical evidence was deemed laughable by the first Protestants. This didn’t mean Catholics didn’t have sophisticated philosophical arguments that called on reason in defence of the doctrine, but rarely did Protestants feel a need to respond philosophically in kind. The doctrine was so laughable that it deserved nothing more than derision in their minds, and why waste brain cells when one impious joke about how Christ must feel every time his faithful go to the toilet says all that is required? In the face of this derision and incredulity, despairing Catholics, frustrated by their opponents incredulity, prophesied that “once you have put into their [the common people’s] hands the foolhardiness of despising and criticising opinions…they soon cast all the rest of their beliefs into similar uncertainty.”[5]

Unfortunately for Protestants, within two hundred years they discovered that the prophecy was true. For all their smug derision of Catholic credulity, it didn’t take long for people to identify Protestantism’s own credulousness. If Protestants refused to accept the authority of the Roman Church, why then did they so readily accept the Bible as the inspired word of God? If the Bible was all that was required for authority, why then had so many Protestant churches arisen, each stating their interpretation of Scripture as true? Weren’t Protestants then just as ‘superstitious’ and irrational as their Catholic rivals? So the West began to realise that the same arguments spoken in great piety by Protestants against the Roman Church could also be spoken with great impiety against God Himself. Just a century after the Reformation, English philosopher, Henry More, bemoaned that in this environment “the Tempter would take advantage where he may, to carry men captive out of one dark prison into another, out of Superstition into Atheism itself…Being emboldened by the tottering and falling of what they took for Religion before, they will gladly…conclude that there is as well no God as no Religion.”[6]

A ‘Rational’ Religion

“Instead of seeing the idea of God as a symbol of a reality that had no existence in the usual sense of the word and which could only be discovered by the imaginative disciplines of prayer and contemplation, it was increasingly assumed that God was simply a fact of life like any other.”

-Karen Armstrong[7]

So it was in the 17th century as both Catholic and Protestant credulity was being made plain that a lifeline seemed to be thrown from the exciting new discoveries of the Scientific Revolution. Desperate to prove that their faith was not as superstitious, irrational and faith-based as their rival, West European Protestants and Catholics turned to reason and science to prove theirs as the ‘natural’ religion.

Likewise, many Christians today, desperate to gain credibility for the faith in the face of the secularist onslaught, are eager to point out that many of the first scientists and Enlightenment thinkers were Christians. Indeed, this is true. However, it should be noted that for many of these men, their intellectual pursuits were inextricably linked to their desire to vindicate Christianity as a ‘rational’ religion. Two Christians integral to the Scientific Revolution, a Catholic and a Protestant, demonstrate this well.

Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) was wracked by philosophical scepticism in his early life, and so made it his life’s philosophical mission to determine what he could truly know. His hugely influential scientific and philosophical work Discourse on the Method was written to propose his method for true epistemology. In the book, he embraces radical scepticism and proposes a new method for thought based on mathematical and geometric reductionism by which he can therefore determine universal truths. Moreover, as a devout Catholic writing a book rejecting anything that can be doubted and emphasising a method for determining universal truth, it is no surprise that the fourth part of the book is given over to showing through his method that the existence of God can be proved. Descartes’s religion was one that could be proved; he was not satisfied with belief.

Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) meanwhile was also a devout Christian, though this time a Protestant, and like Descartes, he was keen to rid Christianity of mystery and superstition. While most famous for his scientific writings, Newton was also a theologian and in The Philosophical Origins of Gentile Theology, he argued that the original true religion of ‘loving God and our neighbour’ had been founded by Noah, not Moses. This religion was free of superstition and advocated rational worship of the one God. In this rational, pure religion, Jesus was a prophet along with others like the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, but like the others he was not himself God. For if it is a nonsense to claim that bread and wine can be simultaneously Jesus’s literal body and blood, then so it is also a nonsense to claim that anyone could be both fully God and fully man at once. In a similar way, the God of this pure religion could not be a Trinity – another irrational doctrine lacking in logical rigour. Meanwhile, regarding his ground-breaking scientific works, Newton’s discovery of the laws of motion and universal gravitation showed for him the foresight and handiwork of the masterful Creator of the Universe. It made sense that rationality being the guiding light of humanity should be the handiwork of a God who was Himself Rational.

The lives of both men show how, in the aftermath of the Reformation, both Protestants and Catholics were keen to vindicate their religion as rational and factual. Unfortunately, this trajectory would prove problematic for Christian faith in the West. Although future generations were greatly influenced by the scepticism and quest for certainty outlined in Descartes’s Discourses on the Method, they were less than convinced by the Theistic arguments he presented. Indeed, it could be argued that Descartes’s ultimate legacy was in shifting Western philosophical debate from the question of “what is true?” to the question “of what can I be certain?”. This shift would prove disastrous for immaterial faiths in the coming centuries defined by empiricism. Meanwhile, in making a mechanical understanding of the doctrine of Creation crucial to the conception of God, Newton had unintentionally made it possible to have a worldview without God. For if God is just an extension of the natural, physical order – ‘fact like any other’[8] to kickstart the Universe Machine – then ‘God’ becomes just one potential solution to an equation amongst others. As the 18th century philosopher, Denis Diderot, exclaimed, “Whether God exists or does not exist, He has come to rank among the most sublime and useless truths.”

The post-Reformation baggage of Western Christianity was that it’s theologians and believers became gripped by both a desire to prove that God ‘existed’ like all other things in the physical universe and a fear that they would be charged with superstition. Neither this desire nor fear has yet to leave Western Christianity. It is witnessed every time Christians seek to pass the Bible off as a scientific textbook, describe the Gospels as ‘eyewitness’ accounts which can be trusted beyond any doubt, and present their belief in God as purely the result of reasoned argument and logical deduction. If Atheism seeks to pass off its beliefs as factual certainties, it is only because they are newly arrived players to a game Western Christendom began. The unfortunate thing being that though Christendom made the rules, the Atheists discovered they could play it better.

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This game is something I realised I didn’t want to play. In Part 2, I wrote how the false certainties of my Christian belief – that the Bible was unquestionably the inspired Word of God, that the afterlife was assured, and that the Christian life would be the best way for me to live – had been exposed; in Part 4, I wrote how the false certainties of my temporary Atheist unbelief – that all that exists is matter and that there is no afterlife – had also been unmasked. I now realised that both required belief but neither could provide easy answers. So rather than choose to play the game and pick a side, I decided it was better to leave the game altogether. If there was truth to be discovered, it would require a step into uncertainty, and a willingness on my part to forgo self-assurance. A pragmatic Agnosticism if you will much like that described by St. Augustine at the start.

Nevertheless, I did find myself ever so slowly beginning to be drawn back towards faith or at least a vague, quiet assertion that there likely was something more than the material. Partly this was emotional. Having been a minority, renegade religious person within a secularist ocean – in both China and the UK – for all my life meant that to continue drawing to Atheism was in some way to admit defeat. It meant accepting that the majority had been right all along; and my British underdog stubbornness would not allow that without more of a fight. Moreover, there was still the fear of fully losing the faith that had defined my life up to that point, and Agnosticism seemed a less sharp break. However, it was also because if Western Christianity had unconsciously walked into seeking to prove itself as a factual certainty, at least it hadn’t been born from that. Unfortunately, Western Atheism, being born as it was in the Age of Science, lacked an ‘atheology’ of uncertainty. There were no Atheistic dark nights of the soul I could relate to or draw on to help me through my greyness. To find this, I realised I would need to look beyond the particular Western Protestant Christian tradition I grew up with as well as the Atheism it had set itself apart from. I would need to learn ‘God’ afresh, as That Which I Could Not Know.

Notes

*Manichees were followers of Manicheanism, a gnostic religion that once spanned from Rome to China. You can learn more about it here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Manichaeism

References

  1. St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, circa, 397 A.D., Translated from Latin by R.S. Pine-Coffin, London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1961

  2. David Bentley Hart, No Enduring City in ‘Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays’, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016

  3. Alec Ryrie, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, London: William Collins, 2019

  4. Prof. Alec Ryrie, Lecture 2: How the Reformation Trained Us to be Sceptics in ‘The Origins of Atheism, a Gresham College Lecture Series’, 2018. URL: https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/reformation-trained-us-to-be-sceptics

  5. Michel de Montaigne, An Apology for Raymond Sebond circa. 1580 in ‘Lecture 2: How the Reformation Trained Us to be Sceptics – The Origins of Atheism, a Gresham College Lecture Series’, 2018

  6. Henry More, An Antidote Against Atheism, circa. 1653, in ‘Lecture 2: How the Reformation Trained Us to be Sceptics – The Origins of Atheism, a Gresham College Lecture Series’, 2018

  7. Karen Armstrong, The History of God, Vintage Publishing, 1999

  8. Ibid.

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