Has anyone else read Paula Kirby’s recent pieces in The Hibernian Times, ‘Atheism is the True Embrace of Reality’ and the follow-up ‘Breaking out from the Prison of Religion’? If not, do have a read. A good atheist friend and sparring partner drew them to my attention and I found them both interesting, though unsurprisingly I disagree with her conclusions.
‘How do I know?’
I actually have considerable fellow-feeling for Paula’s first piece (though rather less for the second). Until 2003 she was a devout Christian; then she asked herself the question ‘how do I know?’ and her faith started to unravel until nothing was left.
The big problem for Paula seems to have been the apparent subjectivity of faith. Even leaving aside all the other religions, there were almost as many versions of Christianity as there were different churches, each with their own widely-differing interpretations of the Bible.
Most significantly, though each individual Christian claimed to have direct personal experience of God and relationship with him, the God experienced by each was so different from others’ experiences, often mutually incompatible. Furthermore, the version of God that people believed in seemed to depend on their personality. Those whose personality led them to see the world as threatening and evil believed in a scary, vengeful God; those able to embrace the world in openness and generosity also saw God in those terms. Paula therefore came to the understandable conclusion God is simply a phantom created in our own image.
I suspect and hope that many Christians reading this blog will have asked themselves similar questions to Paula, and will have given serious consideration to these kinds of issues. Those of us who are still Christians in any sense have clearly not come to the same conclusions as Paula, but will have a lot of understanding for her views.
Paula seems to think that if anyone honestly questions their faith (‘how do I know?’) they will be forced to the conclusion that it’s false, or that there just isn’t enough evidence to sustain belief. In her own experience, churches strongly discourage such questioning, preferring to keep their faithful in submissive ignorance – or ‘blind faith’.
I can’t argue with her specific experience, except to say that it’s very different from mine; but I can argue on generalities. I believe that healthy faith thrives on such questioning; faith that withers when exposed to robust questioning is either very young and immature faith, not yet ready for the difficult questions, or else unhealthy faith which requires absolute black-and-white certainties, rigid doctrines and judgemental exclusivism to sustain itself. Questioning is always to be encouraged, and I know many more-or-less healthy church communities which are glad to encourage and make space for such strong questioning.
It would doubtless irritate Paula for me to locate her on a spiritual-journey schema, but it seems to me that her story fits very neatly with Fowler’s and Scott Peck’s Stages of Faith model. Her devout stage bears all the hallmarks of a classic pre-critical ‘Stage 2’, and her subsequent questioning accords with a classic critical ‘Stage 3’. Sadly, it seems that the religious context she was in wasn’t able to encourage and accept her questioning and to provide her with a secure framework in which to explore her difficulties.
The questions Paula asked were good and valid and it’s absolutely right to ask them; but it’s certainly not inevitable that they should ultimately lead to atheism. I would argue that they can equally lead to a deeper, more open and authentic faith, one that’s able to productively embrace difference, paradox and uncertainty. That’s certainly been my own experience.
Subjectivity and reality
One of the things Paula found so difficult was that religion should be so subject to subjective interpretation. This to me suggests that psychologically she’s still operating in a Stage 2 mindset, wanting everything to be clear, defined, objective, black-and-white. When that doesn’t turn out to be the case, she rejects the whole religious enterprise and looks for another system – atheism – in which she can find consistency, clarity and even a degree of certainty. This is perfectly understandable and I’ve no problem with it; but it doesn’t really have any bearing on the reality or otherwise of God.
The thing is, the subjectivity question is precisely another one of those equivocal-evidence matters which can be read either way according to your preference (ironically, in that way it’s like the Bible and religious experience, whose openness to different interpretations Paula found so hard to accept).
You can of course argue, as Paula does, that this proneness to subjective interpretation shows the whole religious enterprise to be nothing more than pyschological projection and wishful fantasy. However, you can equally argue the opposite – that people will inevitably respond to the divine (the transcendent, God) at the level of their own emotional health. Of course emotionally healthy people will view both the world and God in emotionally healthy, open and generous terms, whereas emotionally unhealthy people will view the world and God in fearful, punitive terms. This does not mean that God is a fantasy of their imagining, any more than it means that the world is a fantasy of their imagining! The ‘problem’ is neither the world nor God (or religion); it is the person, the emotional health of the subjective beholder. Ask two people to describe the same painting and they will give you very different accounts; the difference is in the people, not the painting.
Same for the Bible. Yes, of course it can be and has been interpreted in widely differing ways by different people with different agendas and different worldviews. But again that’s a problem with people, not with the Bible. Such a complex and difficult set of ancient texts requires careful and intelligent handling, with an eye to context, nuance, literary form, alternative translations of phrases etc. Sadly, it often doesn’t get such treatment – hence phenomena like the recent Rapture ridiculousness.
Healthy and unhealthy religion
US psychologist and author M. Scott Peck has a fascinating section on religion in his bestseller The Road Less Traveled. His view is that all people are religious (though clearly not all believing in ‘God’); that the religious element or impulse is an innate and essential part of all humanity. He also believes that this religious element can be healthy or unhealthy (strictly, more and less healthy). Based on his own clinical experience, he believes that people need to be liberated from unhealthy religion and encouraged to grow into healthy religion.
Scott Peck cites the case of ‘Kathy’, whose mother-enforced religion was a fearful and ritualistic guilt-prison which she needed to break free from in order to grow emotionally and spiritually. He contrasts this with ‘Marcia’, brought up in atheism by intellectual but emotionally-distant parents; through the course of therapy and with no prompting she started to see the world in new terms which encouraged her to explore and embrace the possibility of a good and loving God.
To Scott Peck, sceptical atheism is clearly healthier than unhealthy, fearful, guilt-ridden pre-critical ‘blind’ faith; that’s a no-brainer. However, in his view it is nonetheless a less full and rich view of reality and way of life than that offered by healthy and open religion. (Incidentally, Robin Skinner and John Cleese discuss very similar ideas in Life and how to survive it, based again on Skinner’s clinical practice along with some Timberlawn research on healthy families.)
From my own experience I strongly endorse this view. I’m convinced that we all have a religious or spiritual dimension as part of being human, just as we all also have emotional and relational dimensions (among others). Our religion is healthier or less healthy depending on our own emotional and relational health and on the healthiness of the church or religious system we’ve grown up in. We all need to grow, to move out of less healthy religious, emotional and relational ways and systems into more healthy ones. We may even need for a time to discard or lay aside overtly religious things altogether (I discuss this in my post ‘Don’t read your Bible…’). But ultimately, ideally we should be growing towards a healthy religious consciousness; atheism is just a staging-post along the road of freedom, not the end destination.
No evidence for God?
Paula’s other big reason for abandoning her former beliefs was that she could find no solid evidence for the validity of any kind of religion or belief in God. Again, to me this typifies a Stage 2 way of thinking; one that requires a particular kind of certainty and proof which is simply not available in most aspects of life. I’ve argued elsewhere that there is an abundance of evidence for belief in God and in particular for the historical Christian faith – I won’t re-hash those arguments here. However, of course none of it constitutes ‘proof’ in the scientific sense; unlike the laws of thermodynamics or the proof of Pythagorus’ theorem, you can in the end take it or leave it.
If you require absolute proof, it’s hard to see what evidence would be sufficient, given the impossibility of putting God in a test-tube. Miracles, healings, visions and revelations can all be explained away. Answered prayers could be coincidences. Personal experiences are subjective and may be the result of any number of factors. I’ve argued before that all evidence for or against religious belief is ultimately equivocal; you can read it either way according to your assumptions and presuppositions. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the evidence doesn’t point more strongly or clearly one way or the other (I of course believe it points to God). It simply means that all humans are adept at coaxing even ill-fitting things into their existing thought/belief systems, which are often originally held for emotional rather than rational reasons. And yes, that’s true for rationalistic atheism as much as for Christianity or Buddhism.
So, I don’t think it’s so much a case of no evidence, as that the nature of the kind of evidence that can be put forward for God means that you have to come to your own decision.
Paula finishes her first article with the following statement:
“Atheists care about reality… And this focus on reality, far from diminishing our experience of life, as so many religious people imagine, actually makes our lives all the richer: once you have faced up to the reality that there is no evidence to suggest there is another life after this one, it becomes all the more important to live this finite life to the full, learning and growing, and caring for others, because this is their only life, too, and there is no reason to believe there will be heavenly compensation for their earthly sufferings.”
I have no problem with this kind of atheism at all – in fact I welcome it. With Scott Peck I think it’s a vast improvement on unhealthy and superstitious kinds of religious faith. If Paula Kirby and other atheists genuinely do live life to the full, ‘learning and growing, and caring for others’, then that’s fantastic and I applaud them. And I believe that if they do so they are close to the true spirit of Christ.
I do of course take issue with her statement that religious people imagine that focusing on reality will diminish one’s experience of life. That strikes me as a serious misunderstanding of religion and if that was Paula’s experience, she’s definitely better off out of it. Good and healthy religion has a strong focus on reality, on the here and now, on people’s real lives, on the planet, on ‘learning and growing, and caring for others’. The fact that it claims a heavenly basis or source does not diminish this earthly focus – it’s always ‘Love God and love your neighbour’ (or love God by loving your neighbour). This is the religion of Love Wins, of Surprised by Hope, of Godzone, of Whistling in the Dark. It’s the rich wine of the kingdom, the true alternative to extremism.
So is Atheism the ‘True Embrace of Reality’ as Paula’s title claims? Yes and no, in my view. I would say that atheism can certainly be the true embrace of an important part of reality, but it’s nonetheless only a limited part. Atheism is okay as far as it goes, and much better than some of the alternatives; but it’s not the full, real thing. Truly healthy religion is, I believe, better, more real and more enriching than even the best atheism. But I genuinely wish all the best to Paula and hope that she finds joy, peace and fulfilment in her journey.
In my next post I intend to look at her second article, ‘Breaking out from the Prison of Religion’, which seemed to me less helpful and nuanced than her first. Still interesting though.