Essay / Culture

Atheism, Spiritualism, and Me

John Mark Reynolds, 2004.

Lately, secularism has fallen into name calling as a substitute for argument. After the election, secularists have been active in calling believers bad names. They simply refuse to acknowledge that most people are theists for sensible reasons.

First, people have experiences of the divine that they try to understand. They are thoughtful enough to not merely trust these experiences, but also wish to conserve those experiences if they can. Second, theists make philosophically defensible arguments (Craig, Moreland, Plantinga). Third, they have strong reasons to wish theism to be true (the existence of goodness, truth, and beauty as ideas in the mind of God). Theists may be wrong, but they are not stupid. Of course atheists may be wrong, but they also are not stupid. However, since most people in most places at most times have religious experiences they wish to preserve atheists seem to feel the need to “own” rationalism. In this manner, they can attack the common presumption in favor of religion.

Of course, people have different ideas about religion. I would never attack the veracity of most people’s religious experiences (though there are frauds). For example, a Hindu claims to sense the divine. He tries to makes sense of this event by explaining it. Like a scientist, he attempts to understand by hypothesis. I would argue that these religious ideas are sometimes wrong and that many cannot be defended using reason. I also think Christian explanations of religious experience are better. However, I also may be wrong, so I listen while anyone shares his faith. There is a difference in accepting that a person has had a religious experience and accepting their explanation of it. Secularism is not the main foe of Christianity in today’s world. Globally secularism is small and, I believe, in decline.

If general spiritual belief is true, then explaining atheism is not difficult. Like the first non-theists, the Epicureans, atheism is sometimes motivated by fear. A simple universe of particles seems safer to a certain kind of person than one in which “there are more things in heaven and earth” than simple matter and energy. Other folk may be “god blind” in the same way that some are color blind. Some may have had bad experiences with religion and so leave it. Others, of course, have come to the rational (though I believe mistaken) conclusion that there is no supernatural realm. Since this latter group of people exist (or seem to exist), the theist must also approach secularism with humility. Such folk are living courageous lives in denying what some of them may wish were true for the sake of reason. As a person who returned to traditional Christianity despite wishing it were not true, I understand the pain this causes. A believer does not think a secularist right, be he can respect him.

The more interesting foe for Christians is a generic “spirituality.” Atheism, at least in the West, often depends on ideas gained (though infrequently acknowledged) from monotheistic religions. Atheism tends to be culturally dependent on theism, having great difficulty producing art and high culture. If as Christians believe, there is a spiritual realm, then an idea set that acknowledges that fact would be more dangerous than one that does not. A popular Western notion of this dangerous sort is “mere spirituality” which recognizes, and even seeks, religious experience, but is adverse to traditional religions.”Mere” spirituality is much more dangerous as it is much more appealing than atheism to more people in more places.

Why dangerous? First, a general “worship” of spirituality rarely comes with a sensible theology to explain it. Often the merely spiritual shun hard theological work as confining. However, this means that the rational capacity is being excluded from an important area of life. This strikes me as being just as dangerous as messing about in the physical world without a good scientific theory to explain what you are doing. Just as the result in physics is likely to be nothing or negative, so too a spirituality without theology seems rife with peril. Just looking for religious experience without such a theology from a rational tradition (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Taoism, et al) runs the risk of relying on mere experience. This often leads to anti-intellectualism and irrational beliefs. I prefer reason to non-reason.

Second, the quest for spiritual experience for its own sake, devoid of theology, often leads to fraud. Religious tricksters prey on those who pray without a theology in all the major religious traditions. Just as some ideas that seem scientific (magnetic therapy) are not, and can be known to be bad by good, careful scientific thinking, so some religious impostors can be revealed merely by good theology. Is God likely to fill the teeth of wealthy Americans with gold? Is this the sort of miracle worked by the God of the Bible? Almost all theologians would be very, very skeptical of such claims. Of course God could do such things. We might examine an alleged example, if we had the time, but we would not go out of our way to embrace it.

Finally, the quest for mere spirituality is too often disrespectful of science. Science works. The physical world matters (!). There is real danger in any religious view that denigrates the importance of the material realm. A warning is in order. A blog post, however long, is not a book. One of my least favorite internet games is to respond to a post by saying, “Bob, in his five paragraph blog does not take into account x, y, and z.” I am sure that this is true. What I have presented is the outline of an argument, not an argument.Atheists have written many books and have journals worth reading. Religious folk can say the same. Read up on both ideas. One weakness of mere spirituality is it often rejects this important intellectual dialogue. Avoid it altogether for this reason. Check out contemporary atheism and theism. Think for yourself. No one has a monopoly on reason. Avoid people who act like they do. On the other hand, you will eventually have to decide how to live your life. I believe best reason and best experience argues for Christianity. (See C.S. Lewis, Al Plantinga, JP Moreland, and Phil Johnson for contemporary arguments that are sophisticated and interesting.)

Whatever I say, as Socrates would put it, “You must inquire for yourself.” Amen.

Share this essay [social_share/]