Subjective Atheism

Abraham and Issac2I am writing this lecture in response to Martin’s lecture on atheism the week before last. In one sense, Martin and I stand in the same corner, we are both atheists, but in other sense, we are, to mix a metaphor, poles apart. If I were to describe Martin (and of course in the end he must speak for himself), I would say that he is an objective atheist, whereas I would say I am an subjective atheist. This difference between an objective atheist and subjective one is mirrored in those who have a religious belief (mentioning that word that Martin did not want to be mentioned, ‘religion’). There are those, I think, who believe objectively and those who do so subjectively. Because of this cross-over, I think, strangely enough, that there is more in common with subjective believers and subjective atheists, than there is between objective and subjective atheists, and thereby more in common with objective atheists and objective believers. What subjective atheists and subjective believers have in common is uncertainty and doubt (what I would call faith). Whereas, what objective atheists and objective believers have in common is certainty and conviction (what I would call fundamentalism). This is why when you listen to a fundamentalist religious believer and a fundamentalist atheist (like Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens), they sound, to me at least, the same.

What is at the heart of objective atheism is a certain conviction about science. That science, as Martin, tells us is what is real. The opposite side of this conviction is that religion is a falsehood, because religion tells us that there are fairies at the end of the garden, when clearly there are not, or that Santa Claus exists, when clearly he does not. There are two ways to respond to this accusation. Firstly, this is a very positivist view of science. Positivism is the assertion that there are only true facts about the world are empirical, that science is the only method that can investigate these facts, and as science progresses we are getting closer and closer to what reality is. There are no doubt many people who believe this, and indeed there are many scientists who do (Brian Cox being currently the most famous of its adherents). This would mean that art, literature (which is what Martin does), philosophy and all the other activities that human beings engage in that are not science, would have nothing true to say about the world at all, which would be rather extraordinary. Yet what most people don’t notice about the assertion ‘only science can tell us what reality is’, is that it is not in fact a scientific statement at all (how would you empirically prove this?), but a matter of belief. To believe that only science can tell you what is true is not science but scientism, and scientism is a conviction, a fundamental belief. Scientific theories themselves, like quantum mechanics or evolution, are remarkable open and uncertain (that is they allow for anomalies that cannot be explained), otherwise they would not be able to function as theories that set the boundaries for what we see as normal science. Scientism is in fact normal science raised to the status of objective belief and that is why objective atheists tend to become indiscernible from objective believers. They both believe that they have an iron grasp of what truth and certainty might be. One of course sees it in their equations and the other in their sacred texts.

Secondly, however, and even if Martin were right to think that science tells us what reality is (and I don’t think he is), this should not make a difference to anyone who has a religious belief (I am pretty certain that no one who entered the lecture hall with a religious belief came out of it suddenly having lost it). This is because I do think there is any conflict between science and religion because they are totally different discourses. Even though I am sceptical that science could ever come up with a definite answer to the question about what the nature of reality is (which would be pretty bad for science anyway since it would have come to an end), I still think that it is about the external world. If I wanted to know what a tree is, then I would ask a scientist. Religion, on the contrary is not about the external world but the internal one. If I want to know about my internal world, then it would be better to ask a priest, and if I don’t like priests, then it would be better to ask an artist, like for example Camus, who Martin actually quotes (who I would say is a subjective atheist like me, and not an objective one like Martin).

I know that the clever ones amongst you will say to me that science surely can now tell us about our internal world and we don’t need religion and art anymore. Does not neuroscience tell us how our brains work, and aren’t our brains just who we are? I think the claims that some neuroscientists make are pretty absurd, and if you talk to any of the serious ones, they will tell you that we hardly know anything about how the brain works, but even if we did, nothing that science says externally about the function of the brain, allows one to make the jump from an objective description to the meaning of subjective experience (and ‘meaning’ is the key word here). Sometimes you here people speaking about how their brain does this and that . Their brain opens the door, their brain drives their car, their brain loves their children, and so on and so on. But of course a brain does not do any of those things. It would be pretty messy if it did. We know really that it is a metaphor when someone speaks of their brain opening a door, but this metaphor hides a lot of metaphysics that gets surreptitiously sneaked in so we don’t have to think about it. Someone who thinks that brains open doors, drives cars, kisses children on the forehead, is like someone who thinks that programme that they are watching on the TV or the book they are reading in their hand is to be explained by the objective description of the TV (the wires and electronics that make it up) or the book (the paper, ink and binding), which of course doesn’t. What explains the programme or the book is the subjective meaning and not the objective description.

So having said that what is common to a subjective atheist and subjective believer is uncertainty and faith, I am now going to say something categorical: there can never be an objective description of a subjective meaning, not because we lack knowledge, but what is subjective is never open to an objective description. This is why I would say that if you want to know what the meaning of love is then read literature. Knowing which part of your brain ‘lights up’ when you are in love is not going to tell anything at all, even though it might be objectively true and in itself very interesting.

So what is common to an objective atheist and an objective believer is both of them reject subjective experience, though they do so in very different ways. Now I don’t think it is very difficult to understand why an objective atheist might do so, since the positivist image of science would impel then to do so, even though I think they are wrong, but what is difficult to see is how anyone religious has managed to get themselves in the confusion that their religion is objectively true and needs to be so, when everything that we know about the world tells us that it cannot be so. Why would anyone think, for example, that there is a conflict between a belief in God and evolution? One is subjective and the other objective. Why would anyone think that what is written in a sacred text like the bible is literally true since these are historical documents written by people like us with subjective experiences shaped by the societies they lived in? This does not mean that these documents still cannot speaks to us, but so does Shakespeare, but we do not have to think that these are literally true. The answer to these questions are probably political, and that as usual, fundamentalism is all about power and control. What better way to dominate others that to get them to deny the reality of their subjective experience through objective ideologies? But such a fundamentalism is just as possible in science as it is in religion, and no more true of religion than it is of science.

I am going to end this lecture with a writer who I have been reading for some time, Soren Kierkegaard. He is someone perhaps some of you have heard of. He is said to have been the inventor of the philosophy that Martin himself mentioned last week, existentialism, but that is not of course, how he would have seen himself. He saw himself as a religious writer, indeed a deeply troubled and uncertain one. No doubt what he had to say about religion affected other more philosophical writers (like Heidegger, for example), but that is not what would have interested him. What mattered to him was what it meant to become a Christian, and it is important that it was becoming a Christian that concerned him, because religion is a philosophical abstraction, whereas, he would argue, becoming a Christian is not.

So the key question for Kierkegaard is how does one become a Christian (or even how does one not become one). Whatever one’s answer to this question might be, he was certain that at the heart of it was the issue of what it means to be a self. In other words, there is no objective answer to this question (including whether God exists objectively or not). To exist as a self is an accomplishment and a task and not something that one simply is. It is possible to describe one’s existence objectively, and this is what science does. In that way, you and I do not exist any differently than a stone or the Big Bang that began the universe. This is why some people worry whether God is necessary for such an existence, or some that he is not, and to suggest so is to be superstitious. But this is not where Kierkegaard thinks the absence or presence of God is.

How can we say that the matter of my existence is different from that of a stone? Because I can lose it. Again you might reply, the stone too can lose its existence. It can be annihilated by the hammer as I can by the bullet. But that is not the loss that Kierkegaard is talking about. He says that we can lose our existence simply by not being ourselves, by thinking and acting in the same way as everyone else. To be objectively is actually quite easy; one simply is. But to be subjectively, now that is really very hard indeed. Becoming or not becoming a Christian has to do with that. How one decides to live one’s life. Now of course, this is a very difficult decision, so we like falling back onto objective reasons why we should or should not be a Christian. The fundamentalist falls back onto his sacred texts or culture and history, the objective atheist onto science and logic. Yet these are objective answers to a subjective question, and so miss what is stake completely.

Why is the subjective question more difficult than the objective one? It is not because it requires more or less knowledge, but rather the opposite. It is because it can only be answered in uncertainty. At the very moment that I think that I am being most true to myself, I could be betraying myself, and vice versa. Nothing objective could make you become a Christian as a matter of faith. No-one becomes a Christian through the proofs of the existence of God, even if these arguments were truly objectively. On the contrary faith is not a matter of reason for Kierkegaard but a subjective decision and it would be an ontological error to measure the latter by the former (as though faith were irrational in relation to the rationality of reason). An ‘objective acceptance of Christianity,’ Kierkegaard writes, ‘is paganism or thoughtlessness’ (Kierkegaard 2009, p.108). What is ‘thoughtless’ here is not that one has made an objective mistake, but one has confused the subjective with the objective.

The objective justifies itself in the face of the universal (rules, reasons, and axioms – what Martin calls science), but the subjective in the face of the absolute. This mistake is to think that the absolute and the universal are one and the same, but they are not. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard retells the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. From the outside, he is either a murderer or a man of faith, but if he is a man of faith, then what he does makes no sense at all (one might imagine Martin standing at the bottom of the mountain berating Abraham for his foolishness and superstition). No judgement from the outside can compare with the inner anguish and torment of Abraham’s acceptance of God’s command to sacrifice his son and his long journey up the mountain. Our judgement of him would pale in comparison. For he knows that there is no reason to listen to this voice, no scientific, no logical, indeed not even religious, in the objective sense, and yet he does. How would he know if what he was doing was right or not? He could not be certain. His faith could only be subjective. You might reply to me. Haven’t religious people always done terrible things in the name of a God that speaks to them? But they do so through certainty, and not through a subjective God that they do not even know exists. Even Jesus, Kierkegaard says, doubted whether God existed or not, how much more so should a Christian live in doubt. But even if they think they are acting objectively they are wrong. They are doing so subjectively. Every certainty has its roots in a uncertainty that it forgets and represses. What I am saying in hold onto the uncertainty subjectively, whether you are an atheist or a believer.

Abraham acts the way he does because he believes in God. From the outside this does not make any sense at all. We should be appalled by it, and Kierkegaard wants to us to be horrified by it and worst still would be disgusted by those who would use this story objectively to prove the existence in God. From the inside, the whole story changes. He acts because he believes in God. His trial is not to commit the act, but not not to commit it. Objectively God might not exist, and then he is a murderer. Or objectively God might exist (though this makes no sense to Kierkegaard), then he is a man of faith, but subjectively this makes no difference. He acts because he believes.

I do not believe, but I do not do so objectively like Martin does, but anxiously in the face of the absolute whose absence I feel with a passion. To me there is something banal about filling in this absence with facts about chimpanzees and super novae, however wonderful both may be. I want to face the terror of the absence of God with the same horror that must have seized Abraham when he thought he heard the voice of God tell him to sacrifice his son. If some feel the subjective need for God, then they already in a relation with God. Nothing that anyone says objectively about God is going to make any difference at all. Of course, you can also feel the subjective absence of God, but I do not think that this is an objective decision. That would be to confuse what is at stake here. An atheist who comes to their atheism objectively is not really an atheist at all (or perhaps it is better to say that they are confused about their atheism, for anything that matters to us, even scientific understanding of the universe, is subjective, for without subjectivity there is no passion). But equally, anyone who thinks there are objective grounds to be religious, whether in the universe, or in their sacred texts, is at best stupid, and at worse dangerous.

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