A False Dichotomy: The Religion/Atheism Debate

Meteora: Cliff hanging monasteries of Greece.

In many ways, YouTube is our modern debate forum, the equivalent of the Athenian Academy, or The Royal Society. Dig beneath the cat videos and you will find a treasure trove of thought, from noted philosophers, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet, to stars of science, Bill Nye, Michio Kaku and Neil deGrasse Tyson. But, unlike any other time in our history, anyone with access to a smart phone has a soap box upon which to espouse their views. This revolutionary form of expression is a double edged sword, however, often giving voice to the most inane and uninformed, and this plays a major role in the increasing polarization of our society. Never have we in this country seen such unwavering ideological standoffs, and bitter vitriol, between liberals and conservatives, scientists and skeptics, or atheists and Evangelicals. But I often find this to be a false dichotomy. In solely watching YouTube and reading online forums, one might come to the conclusion that there are no other options, no intellectual middle ground. The danger is for otherwise educated people, insulated in this “echo” chamber of thought, to become increasingly radicalized. Studies have shown that Republicans who only watch Fox News, or only converse with Republican friends, form stronger and more unwavering opinions. The same can be said of liberals. It’s a sad fact that brilliant books by brilliant minds, like Bill Nye’s Undeniable, are almost exclusively supported by the choir. Nye wrote his book as a followup to his debate with Ken Ham, the staunch fundamentalist responsible for Kentucky’s “Creationist Museum.” In his book, Nye makes an “undeniable” case for evolution, but it is unlikely many (or any) creationists bothered to read it. Fundamentalists who do not wish to change their beliefs cannot be swayed by facts or reasoning. Rather, both the religious and non-religious seek media that reinforces their already strongly held views. It’s no wonder that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are people who insist vaccines are not safe, and who refuse to vaccinate their children. Never has there been a platform for those with zero medical training to espouse scientific nonsense resulting in a nationwide following

Recently, I discovered YouTube commentator Steve Shives. Shives is a young freelance philosopher and avowed atheist. He is affable, well spoken, and tends to be more polite, a welcome departure from the smug attitude so commonly adopted by atheist activists. But what truly sets him apart is his “An Atheist Reads” series, in which he examines Christian apologetics, books arguing for a literal interpretation of Christianity. These books include The Purpose Driven Life, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, God’s Not Dead, and C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. If there was ever a chance for a Christian to convince an atheist to convert, here would be that chance, but to my knowledge, Shives has yet to change his beliefs. Perhaps this is quite telling, as I have yet to find “A Christian Reads” series picking apart Dawkins or Hitchens or Harris. But while I applaud Shives’ effort to shed light on the opposing side, I am forced to wonder what he wishes to accomplish. In joining the YouTube atheism/religion debate, is he acting as a lightning rod for non-believers, merely to boost his page rankings? I doubt it, as he seems quite sincere in his analyses, never stooping so low as to mischaracterize the books or the arguments they are making. On more than one occasion, he concedes when Lewis’ makes a valid point. So, could there be something else, some deeper purpose to all of these hours spent studying what, for most atheists, is simple nonsense? Don’t get me wrong, I do not favor a literal interpretation of the Bible, nor do I think Shives is seeking to convince himself otherwise. I agree that most religious beliefs are, as he loves to put it, “horse shit.” 

However, even the Hitchenses of the world cannot deny that we have looked to faith for meaning since the dawn of our species. This must account for something more than nonsense and superstition. It points to a deep seated yearning for something transcendent, something beyond the everyday reality of our senses. It’s the primary virtue of all religions, whether it be Zen Buddhism or Mormonism, and it’s what separates faith from science. Unfortunately, as much as the Dawkinses and Harrises of the world will beg to differ, meaning is not inherent in atheism. It may be subjective and internal, a thing we create for ourselves, but it is not reduced by these qualities. Scientists may reach some spiritual understanding by looking at the cosmos or in the study of quantum mechanics, but for the vast majority, science is as lacking in meaning as religion lacks in reason and evidence. If it were otherwise, atheists would have their work cut out for them, and people would have given up on the Church in the 1800s after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. 

Existence can be a terribly daunting thing. In a universe of untold billions of stars, and near infinite space, we are utterly alone, an insignificant speck of floating dust. At any moment, our species can be wiped out by a gamma ray burst, or a local super nova, or a meteorite. God forbid, should a rogue neutron star come near us, there would be no trace of humanity having existed at all. This is what science teaches us. Even if we live to never see such a calamity, which is more than likely, death awaits us all, and should we take heart in that our children will succeed us, extinction is inevitable. And should we somehow escape even that, the universe itself will someday collapse, or expand to a point where gravity can no longer form stars, and everything will grow cold and dark forever in what scientists refer to as “the big freeze.” Considering this, is it any wonder people turn to a belief in an eternal paradise, and an all loving God, as professed by Christians? 

Hassan II Mosque: Faith inspires both Muslims and Christians

I have great respect for many people of faith, especially those from antiquity, in my having found serenity in Greek Orthodox monasteries, built at the precipice of mountains, and in being awestruck by the exquisite architecture of Catholic cathedrals in Italy and France. I remember the joy of singing, “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and “This is the Day that the Lord Has Made” in my elementary school, Lakeside Christian, which I attended for eight years, and I can recall with reverence the time I visited the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the city where I was married. I cannot deny the hand of God that moved the brush and chisel of Michelangelo, or that of countless other artisans, even if such a god was all in their heads. The god “delusion”—delusion though it may be—offers great comfort and meaning to mankind. It is a light that shines in the dim void of an indifferent universe. I applaud atheists who mock Christians, when the target consists of the hate and bigotry represented by the Westboro Church, but I am equally disheartened when such vituperativeness is directed at people like my seventy year old mother, who finds comfort in faith. Back in my younger, idealistic days, I spent weeks debating an elderly Jehova’s Witness. I had set out to crush her beliefs, to prove that what she took to heart was nothing but a sham, and when I began to feel that I was winning the argument, I recoiled, deeply disgusted with myself. What good, really, had I done this woman?

The Pieta: Inspired by God

The problem with the atheism/religion dichotomy is that both sides are unwilling to understand one another, and consistently talk past each other. Christians accuse atheists of belonging to “just another religion,” arguing that science is equally dependent on faith. I do not agree, simply because faith, as defined, does not require evidence; however, both science and religion are systems of belief. This is not to say that these systems are equally valid, but rather, that each is based on fundamentally different values. In the domain of science, the only currency is evidence and reason. Lacking such currency, claims regarding the existence of God can never be substantiated. This is in stark contrast to religion, where emotion is of greater importance. People who believe in God do so because they want to believe in God, because it is something that feels right, and no amount of reasoning can persuade them otherwise. Likewise, atheists will never “see the light,” should they even experience some instance of spiritual transcendence. It’s no wonder atheists look frustrated debating religious people. They seem to be saying, “Look! Look at the evidence! How can you not see it?” But to a person who cares little for evidence, they might as well be arguing in Chinese. I remember standing at the crossroads between the need for God and the imperative of reason. I had just started college, and after eight years of religious school, I was compelled to abandon my faith. Why? Because I valued reason over emotion, because I could not turn off that tiny voice in my head that kept saying, “What about the Chinese? They were born without knowing Jesus; why do they deserve Hell?” But it could have gone another way. I do not doubt that other people, taking greater stock in their feelings, might have stuck to their religion.

Does this mean that religious people are crazy? Are they driven to madness, fearing death, and an unforgiving reality? After all, a life without reason certainly sounds crazy, right? No. Neither science, nor religion, has a total monopoly on truth. There is great beauty and meaning to be found in both, and until these two sides recognize the value that exists in the other, we will remain polarized, and may, in time, lose some crucial element that defines our humanity. 

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2 thoughts on “A False Dichotomy: The Religion/Atheism Debate

  1. Religion deals in absolutes. Or at least modern, monotheistic religion does. There is a god, he is absolute, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-dancing and belief is the truth. Now of course belief is shaped by interpretation, but at the core of it, you must believe, without evidence. Also, I once asked the “what about the Chinese” question to a very ardent Christian preacher. His answer? “They will find Christ by other means if they are meant to be saved; or else, they are destined for Hell.” He answered that with the most absolute and serene of convictions. To him, that was the truth.

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  2. Well, I cannot disagree with you there. No question, religion is dogmatic, and the facts have to match the dogma. Science works the opposite way. If the evidence does not match the belief, the belief must change. My intent for this post was to point out the reasons for these different approaches to belief. Why do religions deal in absolutes, as opposed to science? The answer lies, I believe, in what people value most. Like it or not, human beings are irrational, and driven by irrational needs and wants. Religious people especially, are comforted by absolutism, because they fear doubt, and they fear doubt because they fear that they may be wrong, and what they most fear to be wrong about is death, and whether life has any inherent purpose, and whether a supernatural being watches over them and their loved ones. It is not difficult to understand religious people once you see things from this perspective. It's like Bill Nye states in his book, “Undeniable,” “People don't believe of evolution because of evolution.” In other words, the drive to keep on living is what drives people to reject the possibility of eventual death.

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