An Old Absolute Newly Discovered — (A series of 5 articles)
Part I – THE TWO BRANDS OF ATHEISM
In all of my studies and observations of atheists and their beliefs, I have found that atheism is not monolithic in its beliefs or in the philosophic position it takes. As a matter of fact, there is a profound conflict among atheists as to how they view and approach reality. To define atheists, it is not simply a matter of saying that atheists are folks who refuse to believe in the existence of a Supreme Being who created all things. If this was all there was to atheism, then surely we could say that atheistic belief is simple and monolithic.
Such is not the case however because once atheists have put aside belief in a Sovereign God and Creator, they must forge a purely human or humanistic approach to understanding and explaining existence and the universe around us. It is here, in the establishing of this humanistic philosophy or understanding of universal reality that atheism is found to consist of profound cleavages of belief in the form of very disparate and actually opposing distinctions. In this article, we will examine these distinctions.
I have become aware of at least two kinds of atheists: (1) Atheists who can be called rational-optimists and (2) atheists who can be called irrational-pessimists. Atheists who are rational-optimists believe with unbounded optimism that all of reality and existence can actually be reduced to or explained on the basis of some form of rational philosophy. In rosy idealism, these folks are driven to adopt a very hopeful and positive outlook on reality and human progress. Atheists who are irrational-pessimists, on the other hand, take an opposite view. They are supreme realists who look at life and existence with cynicism and somber pessimism.
Beginning here with Part I of a series on atheism and rational philosophy (i.e., philosophy based on reason), this series will encompass topics under the following headings:
Part I – THE TWO BRANDS OF ATHEISM
Part 2 – REASON AND THE NEW PHILOSOPHY OF THE NON-RATIONAL
Part 3 – REASON AND THE NON-RATIONALITY OF GOD
Part 4 – PARADOX AND POST-MODERNISM
Part 5 – THE WAY OF FAITH
Rational atheists are fond of telling the world that they see no need to invoke the existence of a God to explain the existence of the universe or its contents. They simply ask, “Why can’t we just accept that everything that exists has always existed self-sufficiently and uncreated by a God?”
But in my view, this question assumes or takes too much for granted. Thus, a related question that would have greater force for me is one which does not simply take our complex and complicated universe for granted but would rather ask, as others have, “Why does anything exist at all in the first place and in the curious and specific modes and the symbiotic or mutually dependent relationships that they do? Why not nothing… not even space itself in all of its infinite and imponderable reaches?”
Atheists who are optimists seem to have one significant thing in common. There is a tendency among them to put unquestioning faith and trust in the power of human reason and science to achieve beneficial human progress and to explain all apparent mysteries in the universe. Such atheists are rationalists (i.e., people who, philosophically speaking, adhere to rationalism). Rationalism is defined in dictionaries as the philosophy or belief that human reason and logic are the primary sources of knowledge and truth and that human reason and logic should be relied on in searching for and testing the truth of all things. Rationalism has also been defined as the principle or practice of accepting human reason as the only authority in determining one’s opinions or course of action.
It is very important here to take special note of two key elements, that of “test” and “authority,” which are at the center of these two definitions of rationalism, promoted by rationalist atheists as a replacement for God. First of all, under such rationalism, which is based and revolves around reason, reason is viewed as a means to “test” what is true or false. Secondly, reason is viewed as “the authority” to guide one’s opinion and behavior. Given these facts, it is obvious that rationalist atheists put great expectations on their concept of reason, though it is uncertain what this authoritative “reason” is or where one might find it. Having rejected God, or any claim of divine revelation, as a test to tell us what is true or false or as an authority to guide our opinions and behavior, the rational atheists have taken the concept of what they call “reason” and elevated this to the high altar of what otherwise could have been the place of God in their thinking.
But in view of this, several questions arise that will be examined in this series. For example, having virtually deified their concept of reason, one could ask rational atheists how this “reason” of theirs can acquire a real objective existence outside of being just a subjective mental concept in someone’s brain. Where and how could such an existence of reason be found? Whose concept of reason would have the required prerequisites to be the authoritative one? Outside of establishing a fascist order where force would be used to impose this authority on all, how would the purported authority of this reason be universally accepted so that all could see and accept it as rational and reasonable and as authority to test what is true or false or to guide one’s opinions and behavior?
With respect to the bright optimism of rational atheists, quite the opposite of this is found in atheists who are pessimists. Pessimist atheists have a tendency to see life in a harshly sour and gloomy way. While the optimists feel quite liberated and happy at the thought of not having to worry about a God who doesn’t exist (or so they believe), and are more than eager to rise to the task of creating a reasonable and rational world where, as they perceive, religion has failed, and armed only with their science and reason, the pessimists see the implications of a Godless universe quite differently and somberly. In a universe devoid of a Father-Creator God, all of existence for these pessimists becomes totally absurd, hopeless and fundamentally meaningless, that is, outside of whatever meaning each individual manages to “create” for their own individual existence. This is taking atheism to its final moral, philosophical and psychological conclusion.
Concerning the professed supremacy of human reason promoted by rational atheists, the despair of the pessimists reaches the depths that it does not only because, according to their belief, there is no God in the universe, but also because they cannot and do not accept the optimists’ unbounded trust in science or reason. So the pessimists are the most thoroughgoing atheists one can find. They are atheists not only with respect to God, but “atheistic” as well with respect to the optimists’ deified Reason.
The pessimists view the optimists’ touted primacy and universality of human reason and science as pathetically naive. They do not believe that beneficial human progress is attainable in any lasting way. Instead, and notwithstanding science and reason, they see life and human history as ever doomed to absurdity and to hopeless, never-ending cycles of human aspirations which for a time may reach fulfillment but finally always ending in decadence, corruption, death, failure and despair.
To make the point clearer, it can be said that a significant contrast between rationalist atheists and those who are pessimists is the following:
In addition to treating it virtually as a deity, rationalist atheists have a general tendency to virtually assume and treat their concept of reason as something of a universal given or absolute (that is, idealistically assuming that our entire universe is at every level subject, or at least amenable, to the principles of this reason. This is to be understood in the sense of reason having the ability to provide a universal understanding of all that exists. The end result of such understanding is achieving a certain mastery of that which is known by the sheer power and/or control that rational knowledge is believed to carry in itself).
Pessimist atheists, on the other hand, believe quite the opposite. They do not believe in any universal primacy-let alone triumph-of human reason but give instead universal primacy to irrationality. In this, at least some pessimistic atheists of the recent past (as in the philosophy of the late French existentialist and atheist Jean Paul Sartre) have systematically and purposely adopted the philosophy of “irrationalism.” According to the definition found in ismbook.com, the philosophy of irrationalism is “a form of subjectivism holding that knowledge and values are relative to each individual person, and therefore denouncing objectivity and elevating irrationality.” Here, irrationality is further defined “as another term for emotionalism or nihilism.” For such pessimist philosopher-atheists, in the absence of a Supreme or Absolute Being who would determine universal values in an absolute way, each human self becomes, as it were, a god unto himself or herself, determining subjectively for themselves what is right or wrong, good or bad, true or false. This is at the core of what the current debate over “relativism” is about.
In passing, it may be useful to note that in this irrational philosophy so-called, we find a strong impetus or justification for that pervasive narcissism we find thriving in modern world culture. A sentiment similar to this was expressed by the famed Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky when he expressed in connection with a universe void of a Supreme Being that, in such a state, selfishness emerges to rule as a prevalent human disposition.
Since in the pessimist-atheist view, true human objectivity in knowing anything-which human reason needs to be reliable-is seen as impossible, any reason or rationality that is promoted in absolute or universal terms and that is supposed to be self-evident to all is impossible. Yes, people can and do use principles of logic to reason based on a variety of facts being observed and they can and do arrive at reasoned conclusions. But the same set of facts may lead different people who reason to reach different conclusions.
From my own personal perspective as a Christian theologian, all this critique of reason is not to say that human reason has no real value in the human community. If this were so, I could not be using reason as I am now and be consistent with my critique of reason at the same time. The ongoing critique of reason is being made simply to show that human reason is in fact not an absolute in its nature or unlimited in what it can accomplish. Instead, I perceive human reason to be simply a useful and necessary subset (or part) of a greater whole, a whole which I perceive to be the one true absolute that is felt by all that exists and that I have called “the absolute of non-rationality” (or simply, the “non-rational”). Much more will be said about this absolute in future segments of this series.
Given the above, both I and the pessimist atheists conclude that there is therefore no reason or method of reasoning that can exist, or in fact exists, that will invariably lead all reasoning people completely to agree in their conclusions. At every level of culture and learning, it is found that what is rational or reasonable to one is not necessarily or absolutely rational or reasonable in every aspect to another. A consensus or compromise may be established among disagreeing or partisan equals so as to be able to get along peacefully, but the irrationality of disagreement is always present beneath the surface ever pushing to emerge. This is the principle of irrationality (or, in my case, “non-rationality”) in existence asserting itself in human affairs.
In primary politics of American presidential elections one sees this principle or absolute of irrationality playing itself out in high drama. Though candidates belong to the same party and supposedly adhere to the same political philosophy, they will nonetheless cut each other down and compete with each other as enemies, seeking to show the public who has the best logic and reason to lead the country. Even in academia, where reason and rationality is cultivated and nurtured to the highest degree, you will find similar differences and petty disagreements among “rational” professors.
This, very basically, is why pessimist atheists, not to mention myself, cannot see the sense in deifying reason as the optimists do. For the pessimists, such a “replacement God” to replace the God who was denied and rejected is just as much a fiction. As a result, what does exist for the pessimists is the irrational, here understood simply as that which is opposite to or lacking in a rationality or reason of universal acceptance. In other words, in the mutual exclusivity that exists between the rational and the irrational, if one does not exist, then the other is necessarily present, as it were, by default.
Furthermore, the pessimist-atheist view has a tendency to believe that the absolute of irrationality not only rules in all human knowledge and thought (subjective and individualistic, relative and conflicting as all this is seen) but that all of existence is ruled by irrational forces. As the pessimists see it, these forces have the power to prevail over human reason and rationality, thus bringing a certain pre-destined doom to the rosy hopes and aspirations of human reason, the great pillar on which the optimist, rational atheists rest their cause.
Rational atheists refuse to believe in God because for them, God, or at least the biblical God presented by Judaism and Christianity, or faith in such a God, is irrational and “un-scientific.” They are like a bunch of “Mr. Spocks” (as personified by the stoical character “Mr. Spock” from the classic sci-fi TV thriller “Star Trek”), who approach reality emotionless, armed only with the cold, calculating logic of human reason and scientific learning.
Hence, for rationalist atheism, faith in God, or any belief in the supernatural, is not a necessity for coping with or understanding reality. For them human reason (or rationality) and science are enough to accomplish this.
As for irrational atheists, being as cynical as they are, they view any belief in a God who is supposed to be good and the Almighty Creator as a total irrelevance. They reason that if there is a God who is supposed to be good and the Almighty Creator of all that exists, then why is existence so absurd and full of evil, violence and pain? Since this correlation is seen as a rational oxymoron, then, for irrational atheists, such a good and Almighty God cannot exist. It is all a wishful-thinking fantasy.
Yet, in response to such a critique, I would respond simply by asking, “Who says, and by what authority, that God must be rational? What if God happens to be non-rational (which I believe he is) and even capable of expressing violence or permitting evil to accomplish his will (as I believe he has and still does)? Who is going to dictate to him what he should be or do? If he created all things, wouldn’t he have the right to do as he pleases with what belongs to him as his own creation, either to preserve or destroy it as he sees fit for his own purposes? If he drowned all of existing humanity with a flood as he did in Noah’s time, if he ordered Abraham to kill his son Isaac as a sacrificial offering, if he ordered the Israelis to commit genocide against the idolatrous inhabitants of Palestine as he did, if he permitted the crucifixion of Jesus his own Messiah, if he says he will cast into hell all who oppose him to the end, who can resist or conquer him so as to force him to change his ways and become ‘rational’? Or as the Apostle Paul expressed it, ‘The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?’ (Rom. 9:20 NASB).” (Parenthetically, I must say that I am aware that some have said that God may be feminine, a “she” rather than a “he.” However, for the purposes of this article series, I consider that issue a totally separate one and not within the present scope).
Given that God is violent and permits evil, does that mean he is not good? No. It simply means that he is both good and severe. So the best way to conceive of God is to understand that he is a paradox or a paradoxical duality of goodness and severity. As such, he can be likened to a coin of opposite sides. The coin is single. So God in his being is not two separate gods, one good and one evil. God is one. But the coin is also dual sided. It has two separate sides showing different images.
So God shows himself on one side of his being as being most good and benevolent but on the other most fearful and severe. Those who give him honor know only of his goodness, even in the midst of hard times. On the other hand, those who become incensed against him also receive of his goodness, as shown through all the good things that life offers and are received indiscriminately by all. In the end, however, those who resist God can only justly expect to receive of his fearful severity, both now and in the hereafter.
An excellent example of the gratuitous optimism and idealism of rational atheism can be drawn from the self-definition given by the organized movement known as “humanism.” Following, drawn from The Humanist Magazine, is how this movement defines itself:
“Humanism is a rational philosophy (hence the rationalism in humanism that exalts reason), informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion (hence the optimism of rationalism). Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility (hence the belief in moral values held to be universal, as opposed to relativistic irrationalism). Free of supernaturalism (hence the atheism), humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and assert that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny (hence a slight tendency to fascism in promoting its values).”
In contrast with this rosy optimism of rational atheists is the pessimist view of the irrationalist atheist Sartre, who through the main character of his novel, Nausea, had something atheistically relevant to say: “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.”
What appears to me to be implied by this Sartrean assumption is that, absent the existence of God as Supreme Being, life and the universe into which we are born, and as it appears to our physical senses, offers no rationally or communicable explanation for being there or for our coming upon it at birth. People who came to existence before us, including those who have died, may personally or through books, speak to us of their beliefs in an effort to explain life and its meaning. But the fundamental question stubbornly persists – how can we be sure that this or that belief is true?
No one seems to be able to calm our doubts completely, however much we may study different views. If anything, such searching – initially filled with hope – in the end add more confusion to that which faced us in the beginning. Different people offer different and conflicting solutions.
Just when we think we have found the answer in the writings of some impressive intellect, another such intellect comes along and dashes the view to pieces. As a result, our anguish, despair and loneliness persists. Though we have parents, inwardly we feel like orphans in a world and universe that seem alien, threatening and indifferent to the fact that we exist and desolate of meaning or hope. It all makes us feel so vulnerable.
Yet most of us lack a certain courage or strong decisiveness that would lead us to end our life by suicide. Because of this weakness, we prolong our life in the world. But, in prolonging it, we are set upon by the pressures and daily grind of demands, obligations, and necessities of earthly life. This goes on until by some circumstance, we die. Death in this sense comes upon us unpredictably as by chance.
Contemplating all this, we are led to a seemingly inevitable conclusion-life is irrational (nothing that happens makes any final sense) and absurd (life is ridiculous nonsense). Anguish, despair, and loneliness set in when we realize that, by coming into existence – not by our request – we have been forcefully cast into a cruel trap from which, it appears at times, death is the only exit.
We are all alone in our pain of existence. We cannot feel someone else’s pain of life and they cannot feel ours. Hence, each one stands lonely and vulnerable in the midst of a harsh, irrational and impersonal world.
My own perspective as a Christian theist is actually closer to that of the atheist irrationalists than to that of the rationalists. I say that in view of the fact that I do believe that an apparent irrationality rules in existence, and this with a greater primacy and prevailing power than that of human rationality and with the ability to effectively resist, overwhelm and even make a mockery of such rationality. Because of this, it does not surprise me at all that no matter how energetically or creatively human beings work to build a world of peace and rationality, irrationality in one form or another comes invariably in due time to knock down the house of cards that reason ever seeks to build.
Does this make me an irrationalist theist? Not exactly. I would prefer to identify myself as a theist who believes that all of existence, which would include all the events that take place therein, is at its core ultimately non-rational. So I would insist that my position is that of a “non-rationalist” as opposed to that of an irrationalist. More on this distinction is said below.
Thus we have seen how rational-optimist atheists put great trust in human reason and in science, the child of methodical human reasoning. On the other hand, we have also seen how irrational atheists, such as was the late existentialist French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, are constantly seeking to make the point that all of existence is at its core irrational and absurd. Yet in their insistence that existence is at its core irrational and absurd, irrational atheists are ironically in this aspect, very close to the view of religious faith-at least to that biblical and Christian faith I hold with respect to what I have referred to as the “non-rational.” From this point of view, all of existence everywhere is at its core non-rational.
In an ironic twist, and as it turns out to the chagrin of rational atheism, the very science on which both rational atheists and rational science have relied on historically to establish their case, is now lending support instead to the irrationalists, not to mention my own Christian beliefs.
The secret is out. Science has reached its limit-and so has human reason-in trying to make rational sense of the universe we live in. The knowledge of this actually began to trickle in at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s with the discovery of the behavior of matter at the atomic level. This was the era in Europe of the renowned physicists Albert Einstein in Switzerland, Max Planck in Germany and Neils Bohr in Denmark. These were the pioneer scientists who originally discovered and helped establish the beginnings of that body of scientific of knowledge in physics which is now known as “Quantum Mechanics.”
After much experimentation to test theories and to seek to disprove findings, the conclusion reached by these pioneers and other leading scientists who built on their work is that the physical universe in which we live in is, at its fundamental or atomic level, not only strange to human reason and common sense but stranger than can possibly be figured out on the basis of human reason. In Quantum Mechanics, the old adage that “truth can be stranger than fiction” finds its fulfillment in a most dramatic way.
In other words, our universe at its fundamental level is, from the standpoint of human reason and common sense, hopelessly irrational and absurd. At the atomic level, for example, it has been discovered that when not observed by measuring instruments, physical matter exists only as a probability, not an actuality, and that physical matter comes to actual existence only when one chooses to observe it. This is what is now being referred to as “observer-created reality.”
Albert Einstein, a fierce rationalist scientist who strongly resisted this quantum finding, called the finding “spooky,” leading him to ask the question as to whether the moon exists when not observed. In other words, physics, the most foundational of all sciences, has run up against some strange, non-rational powers of “consciousness,” which being non-physical, is something that physics is not equipped to handle. This, at its root, is what some are calling the “Quantum Scandal.”
The Quantum Scandal is a scandal, not only to rational atheists but also to rational scientists, both of whom had up to these discoveries optimistically thought, after the classic scientific formulations of the great physicist Isaac Newton (1642-1727), that reason and science was enough to unravel all apparent mysteries in the universe. The scandal is that this classic, rational world of science is now past and gone, at least in its fundamental presuppositions concerning reason and the nature of the universe. In Quantum Mechanics, the rationalist dream of optimist atheists and of old Newtonian science has come to a squealing halt. As already noted, the quantum discoveries came in as a shock to the Newtonian-rationalist Einstein who, in reaction, worked hard to disprove the revolutionary findings, though he failed, however cleverly he tried. The Quantum Scandal is at least a very severe or serious setback for rationalism. A most frank and revealing discussion of this topic is found in “Quantum Enigma,” a book authored by two physics professors at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The fact that quantum reality is so absurd and irrational, as scientists, the high priests of rationalism have discovered, only serves to support the view of the irrational atheists and my own Christian theological view, namely, that reality is at its core irrational or, better yet for me, non-rational.
My preference for the word “non-rational,” as opposed to “irrational” is borne from the thought that both the idea of the rational and the idea of the irrational seem to me to assume too much. Who can determine authoritatively what is rational or, by contrast, irrational? We have already noted how relative and subjective these terms are, what is rational to one may be irrational to another. One does not have to go very far to discover that such differences exist even among highly educated and cultured individuals.
For example, you will find such differences in the current debate between those intellectuals who wish to hang on to the classic, old world rational principles that have its roots in the 17th century Enlightenment period and those equally cultured intellectuals of what has been loosely referred to as the “post-modern” movement. Up to at least the middle of the 20th century, the rational or “Enlightenment” point of view had been referred to as “modernity” or the “modern” view of reality, Post-modern intellectuals generally now consider Enlightenment rational philosophy to be a thing of the past and no longer relevant to what reality is. In compelling ways, though having created new philosophical problems of their own, post-modernists have thoroughly deconstructed and demolished Enlightenment rational philosophy with its naive belief in human reason as an absolute universal throughout existence.
Having said this, and coming back to my preference for the word “non-rational” as opposed to “irrational,” though I take side with irrational atheists from the standpoint of my Christian faith, insofar as sharing their belief that reality at its core is not rational, I do not reach the same conclusion as these pessimists who conclude that life is therefore absurd and irrational. I would prefer to say that life or reality is at its core “non-rational.”
The reason for my preference for such language is due to the fact that I envision the possibility that while reality presents massive evidence of being at its core irrational or absurd, at least as practical human reason or commonsense goes, conceivably, reality may not be irrational or absurd (that is, as human reason goes) to an infinite God. I refer to a God who may exist and whose ways or nature in the totality of his being may be beyond the ability of finite human reason to fathom in any adequate, complete or absolute way. To such an inscrutable God, reality could simply be non-rational, and it may be so because God himself is non-rational. It is precisely for this reason that I prefer to say that life and reality is not necessarily absurd or irrational. It is just simply non-rational.
So much for the distinctions between rational and irrational atheists. In Part II of this series, we will be examining the distinctions there are between human reason or rationality, upheld by rational science and rational atheists, and the concept of “non-rationality” or the “non-rational,” which is an old absolute being now newly discovered.
[tags]atheism and rational philosophy, John C Garrison, atheists and their beliefs, humanistic approach to understanding existence, rational optimists, irrational pessimists[/tags]