Sometimes Intellectual Arguments Are Besides The Point
Original Publication Date: 2018–03–23
I’m an atheist. I don’t think God exists. But if I’m being honest, I can’t point to a certain argument or piece of evidence that caused me to stop believing in God. Rather, as I grew up and began the slow and mostly unconscious process of constructing my own view of the world and my place in it, God just became increasingly inessential. I developed a way of perceiving and understanding the world that left no meaningful space for God.
On a fundamental level, I can’t really take philosophical arguments for the existence of God seriously. It feels a little like there’s a sense I’m missing; a way of perceiving the world I lack. I don’t understand what it’s like to look at the world and see God as a part of it.
Without this sense, arguments for and against the existence of God are emotionally toothless. Without an idea of what God actually is, it’s impossible for me to Believe. There’s no motive to even try to Believe — it would be like pretending to believe in the Tooth Fairy. Why would I want to lie to myself and believe in something so clearly false?
I must stress that this is a description of my internal disposition towards God, or the idea of God. It isn’t an intellectual position. I don’t believe the philosophical arguments for atheism are bulletproof. They don’t conclusively demonstrate the nonexistence of God. In my view, they establish God’s existence is extraordinarily unlikely, but I can’t say with a straight face that I’ve made a rigorous study of the literature.
My narrative feels different to the narratives of other non-believers. I never fought a prolonged mental battle with God on one side, and Science and Reason on the other. There was never a terrifying struggle; no simultaneous straddling of two worlds. Just certainty in my own view of the world; my core, gut feeling.
It’s embarrassing to admit this to myself. I take pride in having considered, sophisticated opinions which weigh up the balance of evidence. I value rationality, empirical evidence, and truth. But taking an ideal seriously means acknowledging points of weakness and failure.
It’s not hard to find people who’ve had similar experiences. Unfortunately, they’re on the other side of the fence; they’re theists.
Julien Baker, one of my favourite musicians, said in an interview:
Even though I completely disagree with the content of her statement, I believe in her experience. I believe in the experience of other people I’ve heard say similar things. I believe them almost as much as I believe my own perception of reality as Godless.
Reconciling different people having different but equally deeply-held views on the fundamental nature of reality means acknowledging the limits of intellectual discourse. Like me, I expect that Julien Baker finds philosophical arguments about the existence of God to be irrelevant to her life; approximately as meaningful as a discussion about whether chairs or tables exist or not.
This is not to say philosophy of religion is worthless. On the contrary. For every person who sees the world in strictly atheistic or theistic colours there are probably ten who see the world in shades of grey. For these people, philosophy and intellectual arguments can be a key influence on how they should live their life.
The concept of “faith” is a useful tool here. It implies a meaningful difference between a person’s level of religious belief relative to their way of seeing the world. In the case of people like Julien Baker who are certain God exists, the word “faith” is almost redundant. In keeping with the example above, it would be like talking about one’s “faith” in chairs or tables.
In any case, people who are at least somewhat uncertain God exists are vulnerable to intellectual argument, in both directions. They can be persuaded to ignore pieces of their worldview which conflict with their beliefs about God.
The relationship between one’s worldview and explicit argument in the context of believing in God is similar to the relationship between trans people and the associated political and philosophical discourse. Just like the intellectual debate concerning God is of limited value to certain kinds of atheists and theists, intellectual discourse on the subject of gender has little to say to people who are trans. The extent to which gender is biologically or socially determined doesn’t matter for people considering whether to transition. Neither does the degree to which personal identity determines your “true” gender. What matters is whether transitioning will improve your life, on net.
Of course, it’s important to know what gender is and how it interacts with society. These are important questions for a society to ask, with practical and political implications. It’s just that in themselves, these questions don’t change anything about the reality of being transgender.
As a trans woman, I’m content to state that I don’t know the answers to the above questions. I don’t know if I’m “really” a woman, in an absolute, philosophical sense. Of course, I have my opinions, and a preferred answer; I’m just not that confident my preferred answer is correct. But again, it doesn’t matter if my preferred answer is false. All that matters to me is that I can have the body I want to have, and be treated like I want to be treated.
Similarly, people who see God in the world don’t need to have all the solutions to the philosophical problems raised by God’s existence. I don’t imagine these problems enrich their secular and spiritual lives in a meaningful way, but I can’t speak for them. But I do believe they should have the freedom to practice their religion and honour their spirituality in the way they see fit. It pains me to say that, as an atheist and also as a person who has experienced and observed several decades of God-justified cruelty. But I believe it’s true.
Accepting that religious people have the right to practice and advocate for their way of life is difficult. Accepting that trans people have the right to change their bodies and be referred to differently is also difficult. From the view of society as a whole, both are sacrifices. Both are sacrifices worth making.
The exact nature of the relationship of society to the individuals that comprise it is another one of those deeply uncertain philosophical problems. I don’t presume to know the answer, but one view that I think is relevant is society as a social technology. A mutually beneficial framework that allows vast numbers of individuals to live in close proximity to each other. A cooperative tool created by humans FOR humans. On this account, the response to the problem of individuals clashing with society is to fix society, not the individuals.