On Faith

A friend of mine (the same friend as before, for those of you keeping track) publishes a regular column in our regional newspaper called “On Faith.” He knows that, as someone writing for Vermonters, many in his audience, at the very least, doubt the existence of God, so instead of writing from a place of faith, he writes from a place of reason (such as it is).

His columns are not sermons; they do not enrich his reader’s experience of faith. Instead, they seem intended to convince the unconvinced using the enlightenment languages of logic, evidence, and numbers.

In one article, he used data published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal to argue that a global prejudice against atheists demonstrates an objective understanding arrived at by the human species — just as most of humanity can agree that the world is round, so does most of humanity agree that atheism is wrong. His argument deeply misconstrued the ethical principles motivating the scientists’ analysis of the data, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment.

In another article, he highlighted “a major process-execution problem for the neo-Darwinian model” of the origin of life, arguing that while the young-Earth creationism espoused by fundamentalist Christians is obviously hokum, the idea that life evolved at random is also seriously doubted by current science. Referring to the findings of physicists over the past 25 years, he explains that “the odds against [the highly sophisticated language code employed in DNA] happening by accident are so high that the probability of unguided occurrence is zero, even with a stretch of time of trillions of years.” Seeing this as a reason for legitimate doubt, he wonders if the evolutionary origin of life should maybe not be taught in schools, not because the scientists are wrong, but because  the scientists are right: we don’t, in fact, have a standard model for the origin of life. He thinks to teach our students otherwise is to do them, science, and society a disservice. He has an interesting point, but at least one scientist would argue that my friend’s understanding of the maths involved are “naive”.

I don’t want to argue with my friend at the moment though. Instead, I want to ask why he seems to feel the need to convince me and his other readers to place our faith in God.

My friends seems genuinely bothered by the idea that atheists  don’t share his need to have faith in God. It’s as if he imagines that, as an atheist, I experience a great lack in my life, and that this lack can only be filled by God. But I don’t experience that lack. Instead, I feel what amounts to life’s joyful exuberance (an exuberance that makes itself manifest in this overabundance of words).

My friend’s favorite author is Samuel Beckett (talk about someone who had an overabundance of words!). I love Beckett too (thanks, in part, to this friend), but Beckett wasn’t always right. Yes, life can be a darkly comic tragedy, but one doesn’t have to spend one’s life waiting for the arrival of an absent (and possibly non-existent) God. One can also, with Tom Robbins and Robert Anton Wilson, experience the free-wheeling tilt-a-whirl of life, that ever-spinning chaos whose name we’ve come to know as freedom. Life need not be an unnamed disease, something to be suffered in the silence of our solitary confinement; it can also be art and poetry and love, and the bountiful experience of a graceful dance. As John Coltrane showed us, chaos need not be called chaos; it can also be called music.

My friend seems to believe that atheism needs to be a dark and angry thing. But my atheism did not drag itself through the ashes of World War II, nor does it demand in a self-righteous tone that religion atone for its sins. My atheism is joyful and compassionate. It understands that life is tough and that all of us find our own strategies to deal with it. While some turn to the Heavens, others turn to poetry; while some turn to opiates, others turn to gun-wielding slaughter. My atheism does not judge.

In that, my atheism shares a fundamental principle with most religions: thou shalt not judge. The only difference is that, at the end of the day, I don’t think anyone shall be judged. And my atheism is okay with that.

How can I say that though, given the most recent massacre in Las Vegas? How can I not judge the shooter as a contemptible evil and damn him with all of my power to experience the torments of Hell?

My atheism doesn’t give me the comfort of that. It forces me to sit with the reality that one of my own committed this atrocious act. It compels me to admit that every single one of us is capable of this, and that maybe it’s only the thinnest veneer of civilization (including that aspect of civilization made manifest in organized religions) that prevents us from acting on our vilest impulses. I have to stare that realization in the face and acknowledge its truth. And then I have to be okay with that.

My faith gives me the strength to do that, faith not in an ever-present and all-powerful God, but faith in one thing and one thing only: you.

I have faith that you — yes, you…not someone else, but you — will not kill me today (and God ain’t got nothing to do with it). You don’t need to have faith in God not to kill me, and you don’t need to not have faith in God not to kill me. All you need is to stay your hand.

My friend writes on topics of faith because he wants to convince the unconvinced that the Catholic understanding of God is right and true. I understand the impulse and choose to see it in a charitable light, namely, that this is the method of his calling.

But I write on topics of faith because I want you to understand and experience the rich, inner life of my atheism. I am not trying to convince you or anyone else that I am right. I am only trying to get you to see me.

His method results in argument. My method, I hope, results in love.