National Catholic Register

Commentary

Faith and Skepticism

‘I Doubt, Therefore I Am’

BY Melinda Selmys

June 3-9, 2007 Issue | Posted 5/29/07 at 10:00 AM

 
On Trinity Sunday we begin a three part series on what it means to believe — and what it means to doubt.

Skepticism is one of those ideas to which the average secular person naturally falls prey unless he possesses some sort of specific inoculation against it.

We live, for the most part, in a society that rejects supernatural claims as something outlandish and obsolete — in the same category as phrenology or witch-burning.

Indeed, this tendency towards anti-supernaturalism is so pronounced that many Christian denominations are extremely wary of any discussion of the blatantly miraculous or of the clearly demonic. Texts where Jesus performs exorcisms are softened into vague discussions about the healing power of God. Descriptions of miracles are routinely de-mythologized away.

The majority of us don’t really believe in angels except as vaguely fuzzy or highly abstract ideas, and we don’t perceive ourselves as being in a real war against ten-horned demons coughed up from the sulfur-breathing pits of darkest hell. Indeed, the average believing Christian, if actually confronted by a mountain that had wandered off to dive head-long into the nearest ocean, would fall down dead from the shock. If we, believing in God and in the gospel, find it difficult to swallow particular supernatural claims, it is hardly surprising that modern secularists are resistant to claims about God and the supernatural in general.

I was, I think, a skeptic for most of my life, and to a large degree I still remain one — in spite of numerous occurrences in my own life where the supernatural explanation is far simpler, more elegant, and on the whole more likely than the natural ones that my brain offers as alternatives.

Before I converted to Christianity, I had a rather absurd, but probably not atypical relationship with my skepticism: On the one hand I embraced it unreservedly with my intellect, while on the other I had an intense romantic yearning for there to be something more to the universe than simply minds and matter.

I wanted enchanted forests, faerie seas and magic casements — but if anything of an even remotely supernatural character actually happened, either in my life or in that of someone I knew, I immediately dismissed it as a figment of imagination or a perfectly natural phenomenon that we simply didn’t understand. Indeed, I was willing to accept the conclusion that I, and some of my close friends, were more or less insane and suffered from serious delusions rather than believe that supernatural entities actually existed.

For any phenomenon, no matter how strange, I was willing to accept the most wildly implausible natural explanations, simply because I was not willing to conceive of myself as a member of the ignorant and superstitious masses that still believed in ghosts, goblins and other childhood spooks.

My resistance to supernatural claims was based on a latent assumption, widely circulated as “scientific fact,” that the world is of a more or less materialist cast, with the human mind functioning as a lonely résistance to the otherwise unchallenged dictatorship of the bouncing atomic particle. I, like the vast majority of atheistic skeptics, saw God as being in the same category as the Tooth Fairy or the Bogey Man — something made up either to frighten or delight the imagination, but something that had no correlation to reality.

Thus, when confronted with someone who actually believed in this omnipresent Tooth Fairy, I would call upon one of a large and varied atheistic pantheon of incredible deities, ranging from the classic “invisible, intangible purple dragon who is causing the room to heat up with his fire-breath,” to more bizarre creatures such as the “giant, slime-oozing kangaroo who laid the universe like an egg.”

What all of these strange and fabulous creatures have in common is that they are patently outrageous, they most certainly do not exist, and the average atheist thinks that they are on par with God in terms of their relationship with objective reality. These fantastic beings are generally introduced in a very predictable format.

You, as a Christian, ask, “So, why don’t you believe in God anyway?” and I, as a skeptical atheist, flippantly reply, “For the same reason that I don’t believe in a colossal interstellar dung-beetle who, after contracting the stomach flu from a pile of rotten hamburger meat, offhandedly vomited forth the solar system one afternoon while wandering around in deep space.”

The skeptic is saying, with the maximum possible contempt, that they see no evidence in favor of God’s existence. They think that the Christian explanations for why God can’t, for example, be proved empirically are vain sophistries.

If God were really all powerful, and if the salvation of souls really rested upon knowledge of him, then he would be obligated to provide more convincing proofs of his existence. “Why,” the atheist asks, “doesn’t he just pop down in my living room and have a friendly chat with me in which he — using what I can only assume would be an infinitely superior intellect — demonstrates to me, beyond a shadow of a rational doubt, that he really exists, and that I really should follow him?”

The Christian usually responds to this in a more or less predictable way: “God doesn’t just pop down and see you in your living room, because God wants to respect your free will.” To which the atheist replies that that is the most unconvincing rationalization that he has ever heard. After all, how would mere knowledge interfere with free will? Don’t we have a freer choice between two options when we understand fully what, precisely, the options are?

If someone makes a choice that leads to their death, are they not culpable for suicide only if they knew that it would lead to their death? God seems to be deliberately withholding information that is absolutely vital to our decision-making process for or against him. This seems, rather than being a sign of respect for our free will, to be a rather petty and arbitrary restriction placed on the graces that might otherwise have led us to salvation.

One thing to keep in mind in trying to answer this is that it can be extremely helpful to admit, up-front, the apparent weaknesses of the Christian position.

Atheists are, for the most part, inclined to reject God out of pride. They expect to be able to disdain any arguments given by a Christian, and they tend to believe that Christians are, on the whole, such gullible and credulous fools that they will bite at any pro-God argument, no matter how thread-bare or unconvincing.

A show of humility on our part — and particularly a revelation that we understand the difficulties that they are experiencing in accepting our position — can be a tremendous help towards buying their respect.

The answer, of course, is precisely the answer that every Christian gives, and that every atheist is sick to death of hearing: that God wants us to have faith.

Next week, we’ll look at how to offer a compelling justification for this state of affairs, so that it won’t just seem like pseudo-rational sophistry attempting to cover up a serious flaw in the Christian worldview.

Melinda Selmys writes from

Etibicoke, Ontario.