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Monday, Sep 04, 2017

An atheist crisis of faith

Losing one's faith is not just for religious people any more.

F rom time to time I see articles by religious people worrying about losing their faith in God. As an atheist I read these with interest because, believe it or not, we atheists go through something similar.

No, most atheists don't stay awake at night worrying that their belief in the probable non-existence of God might be false. But everyone has faith in something, whether it's the intrinsic worth of their fellow man, the question of whether existence has any discoverable meaning or purpose, or the question of whether the universe really exists.

Linux fish
Linux fish

My concept of God, for what it's worth (which is nothing), is that it's a metaphor for the universal laws of nature. When someone says God did this or that, I tend to agree, because I take it to mean that it was ordained to happen by the way the universe works. Everything religious people say about God, including the ‘wrath’ part, could be said about the universe, which means that logically they're equivalent.

Maybe Jürgen Habermas is right when he says our society is becoming post-secular. Secularists have trouble with a theocentric worldview, but under the surface our beliefs are almost identical to those of many religious people.

It’s like the fable of the blind men and the elephant: one person concludes that it is an angry vice-like cutting instrument that chops off people’s hands; another concludes that it’s a seven-ton pile driver that crushes your foot; and another concludes that it is a big hole full of s**t. None has the full picture.

I don't mean to make light of this: a crisis of faith is nothing to laugh about. Science understands only a tiny fraction of the laws of nature, and even those we claim to understand remain mysterious. But we are still subject to them, both as individuals and as a society. For all we know, those laws might somehow be conscious.

They also might not be: the question of what is consciousness could well turn out to be meaningless, an artifact of language perhaps, or maybe it will morph into something else, as have so many other mysteries: what is life, do we have free will, and so on. But there's something seriously fundamental missing in our understanding of the cosmos.

The default secular view about mankind these days is that humans are little different from other animal species, neither intrinsically good nor evil. Their behavior is defined by their physical programming, their conditioning, and by their situation. If they believe that, all things taken together, it benefits them to carry out some action, they will do it. If not, then they won't. Morality is a social invention which, I hasten to add, doesn't make it any less important. But whether we like it or not, the universe as a whole remains a sort of wild west. It doesn't recognize our sense of fairness, nor does it care in the slightest whether we continue to exist or go extinct. And it's perfectly willing to smite us for our sins and our mistakes.

I can live with that because I'm convinced that if something is true, no matter how much we'd like it to be otherwise we must accept the world as it is. But sometimes even that small amount of faith fades away and I find myself wondering whether actual communication with humans is really possible.

Although I never bothered with such things as Twitter or Facebook, and I closed this site to comments years ago, reading the comments on other websites fills me with despair. So many moronic statements, so many people so full of hatred. So many abysmally bad ideas.

Maybe it's because, thanks to my career, I'm stuck at a university, where all the social interactions that I observe are manifestly fake. The humans on campus convince themselves they're being kind and polite, and seem not to care that it is all a charade.

Oh, we still have leafy trees and a tradition of supposedly free inquiry, but that too is fake: we can only study the things the government is willing to pay for. The faculty spends most of their time trying to find ways to suck more money from the government. So okay, it's not a gulag. But I still must go through the day making certain never to express any opinion lest it be misinterpreted and twisted beyond recognition and used against me.

Depression is the brain's way of telling you that you must change something in your life. Humans need a goal, and if one is not available, they must invent one. Having a goal transforms your brain: the brain starts adding new synapses to enable you to make plans and avoid setbacks, and that pushes back the depression.

Maybe that's why it's so tempting for people to get involved in politics or Linux or science. If the world could be transformed, we hope that maybe things would suck less. That is faith.

I think this is what's behind much of the activism we see on campuses and elsewhere. By inventing things to fight about, they're covering up the abyss, trying to convince themselves that it's somebody else's fault. Some even call themselves progressives to create the illusion that they're moving forward. But they're only changing things, often for the worse. Once one goal is obtained, they will have to invent another one, or the depression will return.

Does that mean despair is our natural state, and everything else is fake?

Religious people have the benefit of a pre-made intellectual scaffold that lets them pose questions like this in religious terms. It seems to me that religion has little to do with it, and it's more a question of neurophysiology. But some days I envy those who can find meaning in it.

sep 04, 2017; last edited sep 04, 2017, 10:45 am

See also

Science is a religion
Religion has not lost the culture war. On the contrary, the intellectual descendants of religion have conquered the world.

If there is no God, is everything permitted?
The eternal wisdom of Meat Loaf.

Particle Religion
Religious metaphors in science are a sign that our beliefs are changing.

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise
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