A long time ago, I wrote a post reacting to a piece by Nicholas Frankovich over at the National Review: Do Atheists Exist? I found the article about as irritating as anyone would if their own identity was being existentially challenged. Yes, it was pretty annoying.
Well, my post must have shown up in one of Nicholas' Google filters and he was kind enough to respond to my post in a comment. This is fantastic, by the way. I mean, I'm always really impressed when someone takes the time to leave a comment, especially someone who writes for the National Review.
Re religion and atheism: The definition of "religion" is disputed, even among scholars of religion. I don't attempt to define it in the article. I don't say that being morally or philosophically serious necessarily means one is "religious." I only note that it's a position that was argued by Dworkin, for example. It's also held by Ethical Culture Societies, which self-identify as a religion and are officially atheist (though emphatically not antitheist).
If religion as you define it is bad, you'll reject the label, as many do (including some Christians). Dworkin and the Ethical Culture Societies define religion as good, and so they claim the label. That's all.
It sounds like you're unfamiliar with Jurgen Habermas. Check him out. He's been prolific over the years, so no one except him (and not even him, given that he thinks a lot and so probably changes his mind about things now and then) will agree with all of it, but you might find in his writing some nuggets of insight that you value.
Re atheism and sidestepping the mystery of Being itself: If you don't sidestep it, you're probably not an atheist, insofar as classical theism, commonly understood, is the response to that mystery. Are you sure that your experience of it is different from that of those who consider themselves theists? I'm not.
The God of faith, the God of the philosophers: It's a longstanding distinction, and helpful. I gather that your identity as an atheist is based on your rejection of the God of faith. I'm not convinced that you reject the God of the philosophers, though it's clear that you reject the term "God" and the identification of the God of the philosophers with the God of faith.Re "nothing": The concept is problematic in mathematics, formal logic, and philosophy, for reasons that I touch on in the article. Heidegger's treatment of the question in "What Is Metaphysics?" is good, and I recommend it.
A couple of corrections:
Moses does not ask God why there is something rather than nothing.
I say not that atheists are too quick to assume they've understood God but that they are too quick to assume they've understood someone who ventures to speak about the mystery of being.So, I'm by no means a theologian. And I'm sorry to say that although this response took a very long time, it's far from a masterpiece -- I spent much time avoiding it. In fact, it's really nothing more than a reaction to his comments. I guess it's no much more than one end of a conversation.
Anyway, I think his first point has to do with definitions and I think that, in a sense, Frankovich's original arguments rests primarily definitions of theism and atheism. More on this later.
Okay, I've never heard of Jürgen Habermas, but he sounds interesting enough. Still, I'd like to take this opportunity to vent a little about some of the Catholics with whom I converse. They all seem to be a well-read lot with rather ornate and complicated minds; with plenty of intricate folds which could be used to stash away difficult things. In other words, I mean this in a good way and a bad way too.
Several years ago, after my first wave of doubt, I settled into a sort of neo-pagan position and the very first Catholic I encountered then calmly told me I was dismissing a religion that I didn't properly understand. When I asked him to please clarify, he advised me to tolle lege my way through Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica. It was all there, I just had to read the whole thing, come up with arguments against them and demonstrate them. Well after I get through all that, wouldn't it be a shame if it were all a big waste of time.
An analogy. The Hindu, of course, could demand that I read all of the Vedas to discount Hinduism. Muslims could refer me to the Hadith.
More recently on the Catholic front, I have been prescribed Frank Sheed's Theology and Sanity by Catholic Blogger Stacy Transancos. I went forth valiantly into the material and penetrated fairly deeply until mind recoiled in horror several times. Such warping and bending of the very fabric of reality in this work caused a sort of shock and awe to my intellect - which I was advised to put on pause when it came between me and believing.
Christianity is just not easy, apparently. Whenever I ask for straight answers I get sent off to many a long tome. After awhile, it sort of begins to feel like being led down a bunny trail.
In the end, it's really up to Christians to package the information in such a way that it is solid convincing evidence for the atheist. The burden of proof is on them and it seems like after 2,000 years of work, they still have a ways to go.
Editor's Note: Shortly after publishing (less than one day), I changed Catholic to Christian in the last two paragraphs.
Re atheism and sidestepping the mystery of Being itself: If you don't sidestep it, you're probably not an atheist, insofar as classical theism, commonly understood, is the response to that mystery. Are you sure that your experience of it is different from that of those who consider themselves theists? I'm not.Again, a sort of definition game. because, apparently, theism is the response to the mystery of Being. No, I'm not sure that my experience, whatever that is supposed to mean, is different than those who consider themselves theists. I'm reasonably sure we experience being in similar ways but we have different ways of processing it.
Responding to mystery by feeling the wonder, awe and emotion but not slapping a God label on it is the intellectually honest response to that mystery.
When it comes to the god of the philosophers, I did consider myself a neoplatonist for some time. I read Plotinus and some of the others. Then I realized that the closer one went towards the monad, so to speak, the slimmer god got until it was hardly anything at all.
Too much ado about nothing. Nothing, for me, means nothing at all. In a sense, nothing can never exist because it doesn't exist. If I were to put my bets on the table, I would say that there is no nothing and as a God comes closer to this, he too disappears into oblivion.
Nicholas responded also to a reader, Fallulah, who asked what was meant by God of the Philosophers. To which Nicholas responded:
"What is the God of the philosophers"? Classical theism, based in ontology, the mystery of being. Forget labels ("atheism," "theism"), tribal loyalties (to atheism or theism), and semantics ("atheism" and "theism" again).
The fact of being elicits wonder in you when you think about it slowly enough. It elicits wonder in me too. It elicits wonder in people who call themselves atheists and in those who call themselves theists.
Over the centuries people have established linguistic conventions for naming the mystery of being, though no one can explain it. We can only point to it.
If we're going to use the word "God," either to deny or to affirm it, let's define the term. If you're allergic to it, fine. We can call what it points to something else. It's not a proper name. It's only a label.
As I explain in my article. It's not that long. Tolle, lege.Why don't we stop trying to define God? Because it seems like this word has billions of subtly different definitions and we're no closer to knowing what it is. It seems like this word has so many meanings that it means nothing at all. Nothing can be pinned on it anymore.
Why not leave this wonder at the fabric of being as the awe that Carl Sagan spoke about? Isn't it amazing how both theists and atheists can agree on the compelling -- nay spiritual -- emotion of this mystery of why we're here and how we're here? The atheist may look to Science for explanations, spurred on by his feeling of wonder and excitement at the world, not unlike a child. While it seems like the theist must slap their God word on top; a pointer which, as far as I can tell, means very little on its own... practically nothing.