5/20/2006

towards faith

A good friend recently mentioned that they were reconsidering their life-long atheism, and asked me what my thoughts were. I'm obvously a non-objective voice on the matter, but I value my friends' happiness more than mere prosletyzation scorekeeping. In that spirit I offer these thoughts on the issue of finding faith, not to try and lure people to Islam but rather to help people who are sincerely ready begin journeying towards God. What path they choose is not my business - it's a supremely personal matter, one that requires a re-examination of all the values and motivations in life. Belief gives a new perspective on every issue, on every topic, on every debate, and anyone undertaking such a journey with sincerity is a courageous person who deserves genuine respect.

Many atheists are perfectly comfortable in their atheism - it sustains them sufficiently. However, someone who is atheist and finds themselves questioning their disbelief has basically run into the limit of what spiritual sustenance atheism can provide. That limit is profoundly a personal one and in my opinion is not reflective of atheism's lack, but rather the questioner's capacity.

But if atheism is insufficient, that does not neccessarily mean that religion is needed! This may seem a surprising position to take for a strong believer as myself, but it is actually consistent with the conviction that religion is unlike atheism in that it is a dynamic journey, not a static one. In that regard, religion is like science - it drives its practitioners forward.

I would advise the atheist to consider agnosticism first, as a means to overcome the limitation of atheism. But then to take the next step, towards actual religion, I would argue that there needs to be a genuine recognition of a void that religion will fill. And the desire to maintain forward motion. The worst thing would be to accept a nominal faith, look up the big answer to the routine Questions (why are we here, etc) and then stop, satisfied. Religion is not atheism+god, an easy answer - it's a hard path to trod and many who claim to trod it are really just treading water without really unlocking the full potential of what faith can bring to their understanding of the universe.

I suppose most of the above is rather generic, vague, and meaningless to anyone who has not really invested in faith. It's probably compelling to believers, and strangely alluring but not quite convincing to those on the cusp. All I can say to that is, that's faith for you. You can never accept faith on evidence; in fact proof actually denies faith (as Douglas Adams said, ironically given his own militant atheism!).

Look first, only to choose what direction you'll leap in. But then leap with all your heart.

11 comments:

Andrew said...

You know, I tend to think that you can at least following a somewhat rational process arrive at the idea that God exists, if for no other reason that the universe exists.

OTOH, when you get to the question of the specifics about God, the whole thing seems disturbingly contingent on the circumstances of one's culture, upbringing, etc. After all, a man born and raised in Dahran is more likely to see the idea that Jesus was God to be a hideous blasphemy, whereas a man born and raised in Mobile is likely to see it as the most potent manifestation of God's love for humanity.

Now then, it could be argued that those circumstances are part of the chain of events that are part of Kismet/Predestination/Whatever and thus part of God's will, but I think that answer is something of a dodge, since it basically says, "Of course you're belief is contingent on surroundings--It's God's will."

I was wondering what you think of the issue that once you go from atheism to theism, the steps to take after that are knotty and confusing.

Aziz Poonawalla said...

andrew, actually I do know of people who - born in one cultural mileu, have found faith in another. Whether the relative rarity of that is due to difficulty inherent in changing your mind or whether it's due to cultural inertia is debatable - likely both. There's a Spaniard I know who read one of my websites and actually became a Bohra, and he overcame both types of inertia to arrive there (though at no time did I ever attempt to convert him - I only answered his questions of me as honestly as I could).

Once you're a theist choosing a route, you simply have to rely on your best judgement, and trust that God will guide you. it's not God's will, but rather yours.

I do think that we all have a destiny, in a sense, thouhg I also am a strong free-willer (and my positions in these regards are rooted in the theologic teachings of my sect, not merely my opinion).

Dean Esmay said...

You remind me a good deal of C.S. Lewis, Aziz, except that you are somewhat less reductionist. I find it interesting to question whether that's because Islam is less reductionist in general, or if your fascinating Bohra sect is less reductionist, or, if Aziz is somewhat less reductionist. And while I know the Bohra are not Sufi, your thinking seems somewhat Sufi-ish (and I hope I do not offend in saying so, please forgive if so, it is merely an off-the-cuff observation and may be driven by ignorance).

Science is a thing I respect greatly, and what annoys me at times is how much today's advocates of science take the parsimony which is science and apply it too broadly. The truth is an enormous number of people of faith--including many faithful and believing Jews, Muslims, and Christians (as well as apostates to their faiths)--were incredibly important to the development of science as we know it today. Name most any great scientist prior to the 20th century and he was probably not an atheist; name one of the early 20th century and he may have been an expressed atheist but then had a habit of saying distressingly non-atheist things (including Einstein's famous "God does not play dice with the universe" assertion, and the observation that Dr. Hawking admits at times that his cosmology is a search for God, and has had audiences with the Pope--because he was honored to be asked, not because he felt compelled).

Jerry said...

I have to agree that one can make a case for a Creator (although, to me, it's less compelling than science's explanation for why the universe is here, and begs the question of where the Creator came from). Even granting that, of course, it's a huge leap from the Creator to the God or Gods that religions believe in.

People do seem unwilling to accept answers like "we don't know and we may never know" for questions like the origins of the universe and of mankind, our purpose here, and what happens after we die. It seems like a perfectly good answer to all those questions to me. It's not comforting, exactly, but I acknowledge that the universe is not obliged to comfort me no matter how much I want to be comforted. I do take some solace in the fact that even if I was religious, I still wouldn't actually know the answers to those questions -- I'd just believe I did. So at least I'm not deceiving myself for my own comfort, and then deceiving myself into thinking I'm not deceiving myself, which is something.

I don't know why religion didn't stick for me (I was raised in a very strict fundamentalist Christian sect). I like to think it's because I'm "smrt" (note Homer Simpson spelling) but I'm aware that there are people smarter than me, and not all of them are atheists or even agnostic. I do think that a lot of people are religious because they got it from their parents and have never really thought about it, and that if people did more thinking there would be less religion. But most people are simply not prone to introspection, and there's a fairly narrow window in which that can work anyway (corresponding roughly, in my experience, to the college years). So, I dunno, maybe it's just chance that I discovered BBSs in my 20s and encountered the broader world and secular thinking for the first time and found it convincing.

plunge said...

"I would advise the atheist to consider agnosticism first, as a means to overcome the limitation of atheism."

It's always striking how believers completely misunderstand atheism in this way.

Look. Just because we don't believe the PARTICULAR thing that you believe, DOESN'T mean we don't all have our own beliefs, values, ideas, etc.

You speak of atheism as if it were itself a particular worldview and ideology that offered the same thing to everyone, has particular limitations, and so forth. But you couldn't be more wrong. Atheists are alike only in that they do NOT share particular ideology (theism). Their particular ideologies and beliefs otherwise need not share anything else in common.

james said...

"After all, a man born and raised in Dahran is more likely to see the idea that Jesus was God to be a hideous blasphemy" Likewise a man born and raised as a first century Jew. Although some were convinced otherwise, or we'd not have any Christians at all.

My personal journey was through atheism, so perhaps that shapes my view of agnosticism, but I had an itch to know things like where justice came from. Agnosticism seems to mean either "I don't know," which makes it not a philosophy itself but the attitude of looking; or it means "I can't know," which makes it a kind of despair.

Of course it isn't quite that simple. I'm content to be agnostic about things that don't matter (what is the nature of angels?) or left in suspense if that's reasonable (when is the last day?). I've learned there are things I don't have a big enough mind to comprehend (why allow wars? why are some of my children autistic?) and I have to try to trust in Who I know rather than my mental model of His plan; which I guess is a kind of agnosticism that trades despair for something more like endurance. (Endurance sounds a lot more impressive than "fumbling through," doesn't it? Perhaps only at the end of the day do you get to give it a better name.)

If by agnosticism you mean trying to understand what is missing, to know what it is you don't know; then I agree with you. But if your correspondant takes it to mean "give up," then it seems disastrous advice. Though if he is dissatisfied now, he might also be dissatisfied with giving up, and keep on looking; so maybe it doesn't matter too much.

Aziz Poonawalla said...

that's a really intriguing compliment, Dean - how do i remind you of Lewis, specifically? I quite like the idea, as I am sure you wont be surprised to hear :)

As for reductionism, I agree its a bad thing in general. I wrote an essay on it once in fact that I need to dig up and find for you. Was CS Lewis particularly reductionist? And what vestiges of reductionism do you see in my own position on the topic of faith?

being Sufi-esque is no insult :) you are full of compliments!

plunge: you wrote,

Just because we don't believe the PARTICULAR thing that you believe, DOESN'T mean we don't all have our own beliefs, values, ideas, etc.

You speak of atheism as if it were itself a particular worldview and ideology that offered the same thing to everyone, has particular limitations, and so forth.


I see this as a contradiction. Being atheist neccessarily brings along additional baggage about the why's and how's of the universe, and in that regard the basic questions remain the same as with religion, only the answers are different. So, yes atheism IS a particular worldview, though one with considerable diversity. And you certainly DO have your own beliefs, values, ideas, etc - and they are heavily iunfluencved by your a-priori belief that there is no God.

james: well said. I don't know what specific meaning my correspondent had in mind, but I do know that agnosticism is by its nature only an intermediate step; ultimately the human psych demands commitment on the Big questions of relevance, and so I don't know if agnosticism is really a satisfying endpoint for anyone.

Loren Heal said...

The leg of the journey to faith from atheism to agnosticism may seem short, but it is, in fact, almost the entire trip.

For if one is willing to allow for the possibility of God, that is, God of Abraham's existence, the infinite nature of an eternity in communion with God or an eternity without Him reduces the rest to obviousmess.

I'm working on a piece about Pascal's Wager. If one allows for the possiblity of God, the reward for belief and the penalty for unbelief are infinite, while the rewards of unbelief and the penalty of belief are not.

Would you wager a dollar if the odds were lottery-like, but the jackpot were infinite?

Some argue that this results in false faith, but I say whatever brings down silly barriers to faith, such as pride and intellectual snobbery, can bear fruit where a thousand three-point-sermons could not.

Brent Rasmussen said...

I see this as a contradiction. Being atheist neccessarily brings along additional baggage about the why's and how's of the universe, and in that regard the basic questions remain the same as with religion, only the answers are different. So, yes atheism IS a particular worldview, though one with considerable diversity. And you certainly DO have your own beliefs, values, ideas, etc - and they are heavily iunfluencved by your a-priori belief that there is no God.

I have to agree with plunge here. I don't think you quite understand what atheism is.

Atheism is not a worldview, or a positive "belief that god does not exist". This is a common misconception, so don't feel bad that you got it wrong. A lot of folks do. ;)

I have noticed that apologists for their faiths tend to characterize atheism in this fashion because it makes it easier to defend against, or attack.

Atheism is in fact simply a word that indicates the absence of god-belief in a human being. Theism is the opposite; a word that indicates the presence of god-belief in a human being. It doesn't matter which god - only the presence or absence of a god belief of any kind.

With that being said, it is easy to understand plunge's point. All theists are different in their beliefs and attitudes. The same can be said for atheists.

Atheists are not all monolithic "believers in no-god" who worship Darwin and all subscribe to metaphysical naturalism. It easier for a theist to stereotype atheists this way, but it is not true.

In other words, the myth that atheists must have an "a-priori belief that there is no God" is just that - a myth. Atheists have no such a-priori belief. They are merely human being in whom there is an absence of god-belief of any kind, for any reason.

After that, all bets are off. Atheists are only similar to each other in this one, single respect.

An atheist said...

God is a vacuous placeholder for our ignorance. It is a catch all declaration, not an explanation. Lacking any explanatory substance or validity, I fail to see a sufficient justification for God belief.

An atheist said...

God is a vacuous placeholder for our ignorance. It is a catch all declaration, not an explanation. Lacking any explanatory substance or validity, I fail to see a sufficient justification for God belief.