Scully: “Really? And you think that makes sense?”
Mulder: “It does to me.”
(Chris Carter, The X-Files)
Atheism is increasingly occupying some ideological space in Pakistani electronic print media. In a recently published piece, Mr Waseem Altaf makes an ostensibly strong self-statement regarding his choice to be an atheist. The aim of present exposition in not to question the sensibilities of his discourse, per se, but just to deconstruct it better from a completely rational and philosophical standpoint to create a dialogue.
Mr Altaf’s profound presentation of his belief reminds me  of the character of Fox Mulder in the famous television series X-files, whose was portrayed to reflect an iconic desire to believe beyond an empirical reality. Moulder’s character and the narratives built around his intuitive impulse not only represents the struggle between belief and disbelief but also depicts the subtle nature of dynamics of belief, which usually goes unnoticed at a cursory glance. In fact, his character depicts a quest to find ‘evidence’ for what he has an a priori belief.
The overall import of the referred monologue seems less like an atheistic dialectic but more like a reluctant believer’s reaction when he fails to grapple with popular (but nonsensical, in his opinion) interpretation of religious truth. In the end, it comes out as a concrete, yet simplistic, polemic that primarily presents a hermeneutical challenge to a believer rather than directly questioning the ethico-ontological basis of religious reality.
But before we move on to deconstruct the discourse in question, we must first try to understand dispassionately what it actually means when a completely self-critical individual, like me, rationally makes a choice to believe.
From reluctant as well as firm believer’s standpoint, it is imperative to understand a subtle (yet important) distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, in his book Faith and Belief, draws etymological distinctions between the two concepts and calls it one of the cardinal contemporary errors to consider them synonymous. He argues that both dispositions are essentially different in terms of associated degrees of certitude. Furthermore, the contemporary usage of word ‘belief’ is in sharp distinction (if not in complete contrast) with the word ‘knowledge’; the former implying an essential degree of uncertainty or allowance for disagreement, unlike latter. Therefore, there is an essential difference between someone contending that, “I know that there are two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen in each molecule of water” or “I believe that there are two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen in each molecule of water.”
In this sense, with the possible exception of Prophets, mystics and Carl Jung, not many theists can actually claim to ‘know’ that there is God. At the most one can claim, and I most certainly belong there, that he or she strongly ‘believes’ in God. I would contend that for theists, converting this belief into knowledge can be understood as their ideal mission statement, until they are exposed to the ultimate reality for which they already possess a subjective certitude.
But coming back to Mulder, one must also ask regarding the ultimate faculty that helps human beings to have faith. Should we contemplate regarding the true nature of categories like ‘intellect’, ‘empirical evidence’ and ‘objective reasoning’, which interact and consequently capacitate us to have knowledge? This is especially important because atheistic lingua franca, like the one before us, makes incessant use of these categories to show weaknesses of theistic standpoints by insinuating that these standpoints do not conform to objectivity, thus going against the ‘values of fair play’. But don’t the same values of fair play entail atheistic viewpoints to come up with completely objective definition of these categories?
Being children of enlightenment, we are in a blessed age to inherit a complete speculative tradition, brooding over intricacies of human objectivity from different angles. Since David Hume’s enquiry into human understanding and Kant’s subsequent awakening from his ‘dogmatic slumber’ to produce a critique of pure reason, there is now an arguably unanimous view that our understanding of the reality is profoundly conditioned by the subjective structures of thought within us.
We are indeed as much rational as allowed by our own subjective percepts of consciousness. In this sense, even schizophrenics do believe in a construct which they ‘rationally’ understand as reality. Therefore, arguing for complete objectivity to have a place in possibilities of human thought is perhaps nothing more than a Utopian desire.
Perhaps, medieval scholasticism is as much to blame for this indulgence; however, we see an exponential rise in the tendency to reduce explanation of God to completely scientific or so-called rational, explanation. I am not necessarily arguing for science and religion occupying their respective non-overlapping magisteria , but just that atheistic discourses in their relentless proclivity to rely on ‘empirical evidence’ are also doing disservice to science by merely transforming it into a dogma, thereby creating ideological space for radical atheism.
Karl Popper, in his treatise on logic of scientific discovery, conclusively argued against the scientific truth being always based on empirically (as well as perfectly) verified facts. Therefore, science among all categories of knowledge is perhaps most consistent in showing us by perpetually revising its stances that human beings may never attain perfect knowledge. Given our best try, we can merely ‘believe’ with a better degree of certitude.
The bottom line is that all atheists, while being passionately committed to their beliefs, must acknowledge a necessary degree of ‘unknowing’ inherent in a theist’s claim. The scripture itself closes the door on such kind of claim by contending that “there is nothing like the likeness of Him“. All we have are symbols pointing towards the nature of ultimate truth concerning God and sundry eschatological issues.
Irrespective of our various standpoints, our epistemic view (how do I know) and ethics (what should I do or how should I live) are greatly transformed by our ontological view (what is real). In other words, our reason and moral percepts are continuously tweaked by our respective perceptions of reality. In many ways, our ontological view is more or less dependent upon our respective relationship with surrounding reality. Therefore, our moral judgments as well as epistemic preferences are considered ‘true’ by us as long as they are in sync with our perception of reality.
This is an inherent subjectivism from which we cannot escape. It is at the juncture of these three human inclinations that belief and faith resides. In simple words, what we believe to be true is a product of our epistemic and moral enquiries, and therefore, ultimately shaped by our perception of reality.
Coming to the epistemic dimension, the most remarkable polemic in Mr Altaf’s exposition is the one that presents us with scriptural samples. This part is primarily striking because of two important reasons, i.e., one, it inadvertently attaches itself with the most radical hermeneutics, thereby denying all space to more rational and diverse interpretations of scripture and two, it paradoxically leads one to infer a kind of causality between the atheistic standpoint and the scriptural content it supplies to establish its position.
The latter is particularly remarkable because it implies that if those “certain issues with God” are somehow settled, the rationale for atheistic belief will not have enough ground to position itself firmly.
It was perhaps Kafka who wrote that all language is but a poor translation. For us who choose to believe, scripture is just a vehicle to communicate us God’s will; however, the already explained subtle distinction between belief and knowledge is also valid here.
My belief does not logically necessitate a claim regarding ultimate knowledge of what God actually intends to communicate. More simplistically, it is my interaction with the text that supplies me with the understanding of God’s intent. As my atheist friends are well aware, I am necessarily a being in time and space, and my belief in a transcendent God essentially entails that His intended message will only be meaningful if it confines to my perception of reality.
The present indulgence is neither a religious apology nor a polemic; otherwise diverse counter-readings of scripture can be presented which are more transcendent, svelte and truer than the ones sampled to characterize the so-called “issues with God”. But nevertheless, it is pertinent to mention that to use radically patriarchal, misogynist, out of context and essentially authoritarian readings of scripture to represent theistic standpoints across the board is rather crass and not in line with the same ‘rules of fair play’.
Given, that these are indeed your issues with God, but then there is something dangerously wrong with your employed hermeneutic because it is informing you with a version of God’s intent that is diametrically opposite to God’s ideal and universal image.
For a moment if I dare to represent all those who ‘intentionally’ choose to believe, I would contend that our belief embraces us from the shackles of nihilism. But of course, all of us do not subscribe to a stringently homogeneous representation of ultimate reality. Unlike Fox Mulder, most of us do not believe in the ‘unseen’ because aliens have presumably kidnapped our sisters, though our reasons, no matter how rational they are, may seem as nonsensical to you as Mulder’s are to Scully, if you are an atheist.
But eventually, if we are persistent and positively dispassionate, we may understand the ‘other’ from other’s perspective and consequently be able to shape our realities better.
- I owe this pointer to Ahmed Afzaal’s ruminations on dynamics of believing and knowing.
- The term non-overlapping magisteria was coined by Stephen Jay Gould to argue that science and religion belong to their respective realms and cannot comment on each other decisively.