Writing in the L. A. Times earlier this month, Lee Siegel concludes an op/ed about militant atheists with harsh, misguided criticism:
When our anti-religionists attack the mechanism of religious faith by demanding that our beliefs be underpinned by science, statistics and cold logic, they are, in effect, attacking our right to believe in unseen, unprovable things at all. Their assault on religious faith amounts to an attack on the human imagination…
The leap of faith is really a very ordinary operation. We take it every time we fall in love, expect kindness from someone, impulsively sacrifice some little piece of our self-interest. After all, you cannot prove the existence of truth, beauty, goodness and decency; you cannot prove the dignity of being human, or your obligation to treat people as ends and not just as means. You take a gamble on the existence of these inestimable things. For that reason, when you lay scientific, logical and empirical siege to the leap of faith at the core of the religious impulse, you are not just attacking faith in God. You are attacking the act of faith itself, faith in anything that can’t be proved. But it just so happens that the qualities that make life rich, joyful and humane cannot be proved.
Ugh. It’s a pernicious myth that because atheists insist on being scientifically rigorous in their beliefs about the world that they must be equally austere in their relations with the world. This is nonsense.
The distinction isn’t difficult. Orson Scott Card put it well in Children of the Mind, the muddled fourth book in the Ender series. In the scene, Andrew is asking his wife if they can join a Christian order together. She says no with good reason:
“You don’t believe in God, how’s that for starters?”
“I certainly do too believe in God,” said Ender, annoyed.
“Oh, you’re willing to concede God’s existence, but that’s not what I meant. I mean believe in him the way a mother means it when she says to her son, I believe in you. She’s not saying that she believes that he exists — what is that worth? — she’s saying he believes in his future, she trusts that he’ll do all the good that is in him to do. She puts her future in his hands, that’s how she believes in him. You don’t believe in Christ that way, Andrew. You still believe in yourself. In other people.
Technically speaking, atheism concerns itself only with belief in God’s existence. The rest — faith in other people, artistic inspiration, personal feelings of transcendence, a sense of awe — is totally up for grabs.
I’m not going to let Siegel off the hook for this; he is, after all, making an obvious error. But his confusion does bring to mind Sam Harris’ recent essay on atheists’ image problem:
As “atheists” we give others, and even ourselves, the sense that we are well on our way toward purging the universe of mystery. As advocates of reason, we know that mystery is going to be with us for a very long time. Indeed, there are good reasons to believe that mystery is ineradicable from our circumstance, because however much we know, it seems like there will always be brute facts that we cannot account for but which we must rely upon to explain everything else. This may be a problem for epistemology but it is not a problem for human life and for human solidarity. It does not rob our lives of meaning. And it is not a barrier to human happiness.
We are faced, however, with the challenge of communicating this view to others. We are faced with the monumental task of persuading a myth-infatuated world that love and curiosity are sufficient, and that we need not console or frighten ourselves or our children with Iron Age fairy tales.
Unfortunately, some of our most vocal advocates are among the least effective at this challenging task.