A Dialogue Between a Theist and an Atheist
*It feels good to get this post out. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I haven’t written a proper one in a while.
I’ve been meaning to blog about this series of exchanges between Ebonmuse (the man behind Daylight Atheism, and the atheist naturally) and one of his regular readers, MS Quixote. Here’s a short introduction by Quixote himself:
I’m philosophically and theologically trained, and even have a semester of Philosophy of Religion under Keith Parsons, who I remember as an excellent, fair-minded, atheist professor. I enjoyed him very much, and was even able to catch him in action at a psuedo-science seminar, at which my Christian brethren acted out a bit, but that’s another story. I only provide this brief background on myself by way of introduction, and to say that I will make myself available to all, and to answer each and every comment directed specifically to me, whether it be a criticism of theism or Christianity, or a specific question you may have had but have never been able to get a straight answer on. I only ask that due to the amount and presumed depth of the comments, that you understand it may take me as a single responder multiple days to get to every comment, not to mention follow-ups.
One reason I’ve been putting off writing about it is the heaviness of the topic. The exchanges are not an easy read, especially the replies from Quixote, who writes in a much more verbose manner than I’m used to, and quotes many philosophical arguments which I am not acquainted with at all. So I decided to read through the exchanges again before I blogged about it.
This dialogue (from what I see) mainly argues over the reasons why theists believe, and why atheists do not (I hesitate to use the word ‘disbelieve’, as I believe in the burden of proof and the word implies the burden of disproof for the omnimax God). It’s a civil exchange and it’s not likely to make you change your position, but it gives readers at both ends of the argument insights, or at least a glimpse, into the inner workings of such different minds. There are seven pieces of writing in total, and I have posted the links below. If your level of the English language and grasp of philosophical arguments is anywhere near as bad as mine, you’ll want to set aside a fair amount of time to read it (it probably took me more than an hour to read all seven posts in a single go), and you’ll want to (like me) read this with two tabs open - Wikipedia and Webster. Even now, I still don’t fully understand some of the arguments made, but I promise you, if you are interested in debates on religion, this will not be an exercise in futility. The arguments are, however, heavily skewed towards Christianity. They are Americans after all =p.
I’m still hoping that there will be a final reply from Quixote; this is another reason why I’ve held off blogging about this.
One point that really interests me is the ‘awareness of God’ that theists experience. As Quixote describes in Part IV:
Can I describe this awareness to you in more detail? I doubt it. The closest I might bring you to the experience is your encounter with the sublime or perhaps the numinous, so let’s take a quick look at both.
Certainly you’ve encountered the sublime: a gaze at a sunset, a fascination with the stars, a sense of something greater than yourself. In fact, I believe I recall your exposition of the sublime from an atheist’s perspective in one of your essays. I’d not suggest to you that your confrontation with the sublime is equivalent to the awareness I’ve mentioned. It’s not; however, theists tend to meld the two in their minds, so perhaps that experience of the stars at night is as close as I can guide you to my personal experience. I suspect it is.
But, perhaps the numinous, a term coined by Rudolf Otto as far as I know, is more fertile ground. Otto described the sense of contact with a being wholly other as the numinous. While I would not describe God as wholly other — there must be some common frame of reference for contact with God if we were to know him — the conception of a being similar to the attributes customarily ascribed to the Christian God should engender a sensation of the numinous. The feeling produced by the holy God described by Christianity may cause this aspect of Otto’s numinous: the mysterium tremendum, an unsettling awareness, one perhaps of fear. Moreover, there’s the mysterium fascinas: as the phrase suggests, an awareness of a being so infinitely wonderful that it’s irresistible in its allure.
Hopefully, that gives you an inkling of the experience. It’s an odd situation. I have no doubt of your honesty when you claim to possess no like experience, yet I’m certain that billions of theists would report similar experiences. They’ll know what I’m talking about, but collectively we won’t be able to adequately explain it to you.
Ebonmuse has his own take on the numinous in another post:
I remember standing in the rain of El Yunque, touching the leaf of a plant and contemplating our kinship, our both belonging to that unbroken tree of evolutionary history that unites all life on Earth. My sense of the transcendent was not undermined, but deepened and magnified by that knowledge, the insight into the vastnesses of time and space and the twisting paths of contingency that led to we two living things side by side in the rainfall. I look at my hands with the knowledge that they are shaped from the dust of exploded stars, and that looking up at the night sky, I am looking at the place of my origin. Many more examples like this could be given, proving that true understanding does not diminish awe, but enhances it immeasurably.
(Let me also refer you to yet another of his posts, which while does not address the topic of the sublime or the numinous directly, provides beautiful instances of it.)
I guess everyone will have experienced the sublime at certain points in their life, or even the numinous (as vague as the term still is to me). It is rather fascinating for me how different groups of people can come to such different conclusions about the nature or origins of what I think are rather similar experiences. I have never associated such experiences with a supernatural being or an ‘awareness of God’ myself, or even felt the impulse to. I don’t know whether to contribute this to my cynical nature, my rather sparsely religious upbringing, or just the lack of a ‘God gene or some other neurological peculiarity’. Whatever the case might be, it brings me to the main point of contention with some of Quixote’s arguments – you need to have a prior belief in the existence of God for them to work. Quoting Quixote himself in Part II:
And, I concur; considering the Bible and Christianity without a prior God belief is meaningless. There’s a reason Christ told Nicodemus you must be born again before you can see the kingdom. The Bible and Christianity will appear particularly foolish to any naturalist, and I don’t hold this against any particular naturalist in the least. Conversely, I predict it.
Personally, I am unable to see the validity of arguments where you have to presuppose its verity to deductively conclude that it’s true (assuming A is true, it follows that B, C, D is true and therefore A is true). It’s all much too cylical for me.
Either way, it’s all a good read. If you have the time and tenacity, do trawl through the comments (they’re longer than the orginal posts!) to get a better appreciation of the whole exchange. I must admit I haven’t done so myself, but from what I’ve seen there are fresh perspectives in there, and both Ebonmuse and Quixote do post replies too. I’ll write an update if I find something interesting.