Chris, an indefatigable commentator on this blog, asks for a defense of my atheism. Jerry, an equally strong voice here, seconds the request. In my mind, that constitutes an irresistible groundswell, so herewith:
In Defense of Atheism
except that this will not be a defense of atheism, but rather an explanation of what atheism is, in my understanding of it, and an account of why I am an atheist. Fair warning: This will take a while, and will not be at all what you might expect.
I begin by asking, What is it to believe in God? Contrary to what you might suppose, in the Judeo-Christian tradition of which I am a dissenting participant, believing in God does not ordinarily mean believing that there is a God, believing in the existence of God. That is taken for granted. Even Doubting Thomas, the disciple who would not believe in the risen Christ until he had touched his crucifixion wounds with his hands and seen them with his eyes, did not doubt the existence of God. He simply doubted that the man before him was risen from the dead. To believe in God, in the Christian tradition, means believing that He will keep His promise of eternal life. It means believing in the sense of trusting God to keep His word, despite all the evidence to the contrary [including most notably the Crucifixion itself, of course.]
To explain what it truly means to believe in the existence of God, I must make a detour through literary theory. [You can find a more extended discussion of these ideas in my essay, “Narrative Time”, archived at box.net and accessible via a link at the top of this blog.] All of us are familiar with novels. The author of a novel brings a fictional world into existence through the medium of words. The world of the novel may resemble some part of the real world. There may even be places in the world of the novel whose names in the novel are the same as the names of real world places. The novel, we say, is “set in London in the late nineteenth century” like the Sherlock Holmes stories, or in rural England of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, like the novels of Jane Austen. But Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s London is not the real London. The people in Doyle’s London are not the people in the real London, and the events in Doyle’s London are not at all the events in the real London.
But there is something more, something so fundamentally important that it is the essential clue to why I am an atheist. The world of a novel exists from a point of view, the point of view of the narrator. The world of a novel has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has people and events and regions that are central, and people and events and regions that are peripheral. The centrality or peripherality of these people, events, and regions is not a matter of subjective opinion, it is an objective fact of the world of the novel. Pip is the hero of Great Expectations. Elizabeth Bennett is the heroine of Pride and Prejudice. These are not the self-important opinions of those characters. In fact, Pip is rather self-deprecating, even though he is the narrator of the novel. These are objective facts of the worlds of those novels. Now, one could, of course, write a novel that tells the story of the events of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of Mr. Collins [wouldn’t that be a hoot!], and there are, I believe, novelists who have attempted something of this sort. But the world brought into being by those novelists’ words would be different fictional worlds.
Let me give you a few examples of what I am talking about. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, is set at least in part in nineteenth century London. In the novel, a character walks from a place called “Tom’s All Alone” to another part of London, and the walk takes a very long time. Later in the novel, a character makes the same walk in a short time. This is not a mistake by the author [like Conan Doyle forgetting which leg Watson was shot in while serving in India]. Physical distance is for Dickens in this novel a metaphor for, and measure of, moral or spiritual distance, and the change in the walking time is meant by him to signal a change in the moral relationship between the characters living in those two locations. In the novel, it is not as though the distance were shortened. In the novel, the distance is shortened.
Another example. Ethan Frome is a well-known novel by Edith Wharton [and required reading when I went to high school.] The novel has what is called a “frame structure.” The narrator is an engineer who has gone to the northwest Massachusetts town of Starkfield [fictional]. He begins his story as he steps across the threshold of the household where Ethan, his wife, and the woman with whom he had an affair [I hope I am recalling this correctly] are all living a kind of perpetual hellish existence. The entire narration takes place with the narrator’s foot poised over the threshold. As the narration ends, he completes the step into the room. Now thresholds play a significant role in Wharton novels. They are places objectively fraught with meaning. In another novelist’s works, thresholds may simply be thresholds, with no objective literary significance whatsoever.
These facts are objective facts of the fictional worlds created by the words of the novelists.
What on earth does all of this have to do with why I am an atheist? Perhaps some of you are beginning to have a clue. In the Judeo-Christian religion, God is the Author of the World. He is quite literally the author. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” These are the opening lines of the Gospel According to John. How does the Old Testament begin? It begins with an act of authorial creation.
1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
The Judeo-Christian world [and the Muslim world as well, but that is neither here nor there] has an objective beginning [the Creation], a series of objectively, metaphysically significant moments, and an objective end [the Last Trump.] The entire universe exists from the point of view of the author and narrator, who is God. The objectively, metaphysically significant moments include the Creation, the Fall, God’s Compact or Testament with Abraham, the Giving of the Law, the Incarnation, and the Crucifixion. The spiritual status of human beings before one of these moments is utterly different from the spiritual status of human beings after the moment, regardless of whether they are enmeshed in the same social relations of production or are living at the same stage of technological development, regardless of the political and cultural characteristics of any particular time. That is why, when medieval artists painted Old Testament scenes, they dressed the characters in clothing appropriate to 13th century France rather than 10th century B. C. Judea. They understood that conventions of dress were irrelevant to the Biblical story.
To believe in God is thus to experience the world as a divine narration existing from, and unfolding in conformity with, the point of view of a creator and narrator.
Believing in the existence of God is not having an ontology in which are listed all the galaxies and nebulae and stars, and planets, and frogs, and pine trees and Lithuanians and also God. That is just silly. Believing in God is experiencing the world as a divine story in which I am a character.
Why am I an atheist? Because I do not, cannot, experience the world in that way.
Why do I exhibit such fondness for the Bible and, more generally, for this story? Because it is a grand story, a beautiful story. And because, although I would find it demeaning to be merely a character in a story, a part of me longs for the security and meaning that being such a character offers.