Joyful Atheism: A Response to James O

Joyful Atheism: A Response to James O'Connell

While I respect James O'Connell's intent with his essay, here's where I disagree and why.

Atheism is Not a Belief System
I understand where this comes from, because everyone needs a common point of reference, even when views diverge. A lot of believers will insist that atheism is itself a religion or a subset of it, and writers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are the high priests. Faced with a more muscular defense of atheism than was ever possible in the past, some believers are put off by what they can only term as evangelical non-belief: intolerant, arrogant and convinced that all believers are foolish. For their part, believers tend to react to this more vocal atheism like some ridiculous, breakaway sect fighting against the mother religion. It's not long before the acrimony begins.

Atheism Does Not Equal Science
The assumption in James' piece is that atheism equals science, and throughout, he uses one as a synonym for the other. While it is true that many scientists are not believers but prefer to remain "agnostic," it's for lack of a definable adversary that scientists suffice as stand-ins for atheists. And since Dawkins, Harris and Daniel Dennett are scientists and best-selling writers, we have names to attach to the ideas. John F. Haught and his book "God and the New Atheists" is one of a growing number of titles coming out to counter atheist arguments.

Higher, Truer Knowledge
James is a clever writer, and that's meant as a compliment. He deftly combines praise for evolution while bringing up the idea of looking at the night sky and praising God. What he left unsaid is the subtext: that there is another form of knowledge that is above and beyond science. The refrain that science answers only some questions and religion answers others has been around for some time. In James' case, the "higher" knowledge makes the "temporal (science)" one entirely possible. Moreover, the higher knowledge has more meaning and more depth than a material explanation of the universe. It is, in short, the only real truth worth knowing.

Now, this isn't meant as an outright criticism, because I agree with the general theme of his essay, that a scientist can also be a believer and should not be regarded as a "compartmentalizing fool." At the same time, anyone can have a sense of wonder without invoking the supernatural as the source of that wonder. Anyone can moved by a poem, a sound, or the look of a loved one. And I agree with James that quantifying those feelings as mere physiological responses from an evolutionary perspective is the fastest way to kill the mood: there *is* mystery in the world, there are moments that don't need to be rationalized and shouldn't. For James, this ineffable feeling finds its source in the divine; for me, not so much. But for both our hearts? Eppure si muove.

One of the things that I suspect irritates believers is that for the first time in civilization, religious claims are being tested scientifically. Remember that the scientific method is really not that old, but it's only been in the last few decades that some of the extraordinary claims of religion are of interest to scientists. Why shouldn't we test to see if prayer really works? After centuries of describing the world only through one lens, it's hard for me to be completely sympathetic to believers who want me solely to take their word for it when I can now test their assumptions. But the purpose is not to damage religion or make people unbelievers: it's about having the courage to look our beliefs in the eye and see what happens when we question them.

And in the end, so what if prayer is shown not to effect the outcome of a sick person's treatment? I often think of prayer as the one, true universal language because just about every person will offer a prayer up at some point in his life. The first recorded prayer in the Hebrew Bible is by an unnamed servant, who with eloquent brevity, asks that his task meet with a good outcome. It's here where I fully agree with James. We are, first and foremost, human beings with complex minds, not believers and unbelievers. We are just people.

The 21 Gram Gorilla
Do we have a soul? I don't know, but why can't we test it out someday? For believers, it's a pointless question, but why should you deny me the ability to give it scientific treatment? While it may be true that there are more things in the heavens than are dreamt up by our philosophies, we have progressed beyond the times of obeying the words of priests under the threat of eternal damnation. It's funny how often believers will ascribe the worst motives to scientists or atheists, but bristle when you want to take their claims at face value and test it. That always seems to bring out the worst in them. Atheists are not all scientists. Atheism is not a belief system requiring dogma and fidelity to the texts of Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris. It's a choice not to believe. It's also a right not to believe. But that doesn't remove, not one iota, the mystery that we all encounter on a daily basis. If an atheist says when looking at the night sky, "This really touches my soul," that doesn't mean he's gone back on his lack of belief. It means that he's connecting to others with the best point of reference possible. Is that really so hard to fathom?

So there are plenty of assumptions of James' essay, but like I said, his finer point is well taken. There are far more believers than nonbelievers in the world, but there's enough space for all of us.