A friend of mine recently shared a video from a popular atheist animator that caught my attention. In this video an inquisitive atheist encounters a group of people who eventually show themselves to be theists of different religions and denominations. As they express their differences, arguments arise between them which eventually lead to a satirical arms race. After deescalating the conflict, the atheist articulates several thoughtful questions to the group leaving them intellectually speechless. The video ends with the atheist departing without his questions answered, and the group degenerating back into a confused rabble.
Though the video implies the promotion of humanism, the actual belief that the atheist confronts the group with is cultural relativism. According to cultural relativism, the inheritance of ideas is a serious barrier to the recognition of truth. Those who inherit false or misleading information from their upbringing are more likely to accept and defend these mistaken beliefs than recognize truth even when it is presented plainly to them. As the atheist tells the group, the “contradictory things” which God seems to be telling each of the different theists “may be explainable by the culture which you were raised.” The divine encounters claimed by each theist may in fact be unexamined products of culture or inherited desire.
What I find particularly fascinating about the video is that the atheist does not apply cultural relativism to his own belief and descend into nihilism. Instead, he cites a simple math problem and states that "while religion obeys borders, truth does not.” The atheist explains that mathematics -- the scientific study of quantity, space, and change -- fits the criteria of universally recognizable truth. Unlike religion, he argues, mathematics is able to transcend cultural relativism by virtue of its empirical or self-evident nature. After all, can there be any serious disagreement across the universe concerning such an easily demonstrable fact as 2+2=4?
This is fascinating to me because it implies that the atheist is not completely closed off to the existence of God. His objection isn’t so much that God can’t exist as that God doesn’t appear with universal clarity. To appear otherwise -- individually or personally, as the group members suggest -- does not strike the atheist as the proper conduct of a perfect supernatural being. As he explains, a god that acts in such a way effectively tolerates falsehoods, discrepancies, and disagreements and does not seem to be “getting it right from the beginning.” The implication is that a self-evident, empirically verifiable god who efficiently redeems us in clear demonstrable fashion would be much preferable and easier to believe in.
What the atheist precludes, however, is the possibility of a god who doesn’t fit this criteria and yet maintains perfection. Could it be possible, for example, that God’s nature is sovereign rather than empirical – meaning that His work is the condition for the universe and its aspects rather than a component made evidential by them? Could it be that God’s manner of “getting it right from the beginning” was to purposefully trust humanity with evangelism knowing full well that it would lead to confrontation and diversity of experience? Is it conceivable that through such inefficient trust He communicates a graceful patience, tolerance, and love which is a testament to His perfection rather than a detraction from it? Is it ultimately possible that our judgment of what constitutes the proper conduct of a perfect supernatural being may be fallible simply because we are fallible?
We may be asking different questions, but I actually find it amazing how much I agree with the atheist in the video. Like him I recognize and respect cultural relativism as a powerful force. I suspect that many people who practice religion are products of an unexamined inheritance, and I would even count myself as a member of this group for the first twenty years of my life. Furthermore, I also find it implausible that a god exists who conforms to common sense and human rationality. I see no evidence for a god who transmits His message with the simple uniformity and predictability of a basic math problem. The difference between the atheist and myself, however, is that my search doesn’t end there.
I often marvel at the certainty with which we progress through life. Whether watching the news, reading articles, or listening to casual conversations, I find no shortage of unyielding conviction and self-assurance that seemingly must accompany every person’s beliefs. Regardless of the topic, the exchange of ideas so often and so easily becomes a battle. In such cases our reputations, and often our identities, become interwoven with our opinions. We soon become hesitant to amend our minds regardless of what new evidence or method of thinking is introduced. A short descent from here leads us to the point at which we are fighting for the survival of our sentiments as if they were our very lives.
Have we forgotten how we came into this world? Born not of our will, our thought, or even by our own consent, we each awoke to discover a universe far exceeding our limited cognition and understanding. We were “thrown into existence," as Martin Heidegger has described it, and involuntarily flung into the process of encountering all the joys and sorrows of life. This feeling of being thrown, of geworfen, forces within us an instinctive recognition that life has found us and conscripted us into a particular place and time.
But this awareness is fragile. As we progress through life and trek towards adulthood, we too easily discard it along with our immaturity. In doing so we turn our backs on the nature and experience of the past even as we may dimly recall certain details and times. Shadows fall over our peculiar origins, and soon boundaries are erected to confine our imagination within a prison of assumed certainty. In doing so we mistakenly reconstitute ourselves as creatures of our own making, powerful individuals who determine their own destiny by way of strength and intention. Descartes summarized this perspective well in declaring, “I think therefore I am.” Existence, now conceived, submits as a product of our own design.
And yet, as Hannah Arendt and others have recognized, we remain fundamentally bound within the same reality that we seek to dominate. Being and appearance irrevocably coincide for us, and as a result we must at all times make use of our sensory perception to partake of reality. As such, we each assume or rely on a “perceptual faith,” an unverifiable conviction that everything we perceive has an existence independent of the act of perception. Descartes’ statement, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty has demonstrated, ignores this precondition and detrimentally assumes its own validity. In order to think and declare his own existence, Descartes must have already existed or assumed as much.
Reminding us of the formidable nature of reality, such solipsism should restrict our certainty and reacquaint us with humility. Rather than self-assurance, we are left with faith as a sustaining principle for life. It is faith, with its tacit humility and recognition of an inherited reality greater than ourselves, which more accurately describes our continual and constant reliance upon perception to live. It is faith too that ascribes equal status to fellow explorers and unites us all in a respect that rests not on assumption but on curiosity and hypothesis. In rediscovering our curiosity and imagination through faith, perhaps we may again make use of these tools as our most valuable means of navigating this curious existence.