Science rules out all religion except the highest. "
– D.E. Harding
As most of you know, I have a lot of sympathy with atheists. There’s something noble in many of them. Since childhood, most of them have been approached with crass literal interpretations of the religious metaphors of the Bible. They have heard irrational justifications for the divine misbehavior in the Old Testament. They have been told they are damned for wrongs they never personally committed. They have been offered contradictory and arcane explanations for why Jesus dying on the cross should matter to them. They have been called fools and swine when they found all these ideas unpersuasive. Ultimately they have been threatened with everlasting torture and finally shunned.
There’s a refreshing courage in someone who can simply tell the Christian culture it can take a hike. And buried under a reasonable skepticism is often a profound regard for the truth, however stark it may be. But… I find that I cannot be an atheist. There are simply too many important things in my experience that hard-line atheism either dismisses or disparages.
One of my favorite quotations from G. K. Chesterton goes like this: “We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”
There are moments in my experience when rationality and positivism aren’t an adequate world view. In fact, to say they are inadequate is a terrible understatement. They seem, as Chesterton said, “dead”. When I try to get into the mindset of the hard-core materialism, I feel like the men in Eliot’s poem.
“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar”
The External World
“Flower in the crannied wall, I pluck you out of the crannies, I hold you here, root and all in my hand, little flower—but if I could understand what you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what God and man is.” – Tennyson
I felt the dryness of rationalism first in relation to the external features of the cosmos. My first major in college was zoology, so I had a reasonably good scientific education. But time and time again I would find that science simply pointed me toward profound states of awe, but then couldn't follow me into the wonder of it. I can remember many of the exact experiences – Looking at a map of the universe in National Geographic. Staring up into a profoundly clear night sky at sea. Studying the ATP cycle in molecular biology. I would be left with a overwhelming sense of wonder and amazement, and nothing to this day changes my belief that these things are WORTHY of amazement – in fact demand it. It makes no difference to point out that the ATP cycle, for example, could have come about by “natural” processes. All this does is rearrange the wonder, not diminish it. It is just as inexplicable that it should be possible for “natural processes” to create such a marvel. The natural processes themselves become the wonder.
The Internal World
"The heart has reasons that reason knows not of. We feel it in a thousand things. . . . . do you love by reason?" – Pascal
Looking at my own inner life inspires more wonder. Is it really possible that so much meaning and joy and wonder arises in a cosmos who’s own interior is entirely dead and inert? No physical explanation of cognition even touches the inner experience. Joy, and spirit and art and ecstasy simply are not, to my mind, fortunate epiphenomena arising out of the cold physical facts of the world. They are more important to me, and more real to me, than the physical world itself, and it seems unavoidable that they arise out of the innermost nature of the cosmos itself. And so I suspect that not only in myself, but in the entire cosmos, “inner experience” is a fact, and that the whole cosmos has an “interior life” of some kind.
When I experience natural beauty, look at a sunset or ponder a flower – or when I read a transcendent poem or look at a great painting – what is this profound feeling I experience in connection with the quality of these objects? It is really a matter of my mere subjective preferences – just as I like carrots but abhor beets? This seems a totally unsatisfactory answer for aesthetic experience. When we appreciate quality in the world, we are appreciating something real – something supremely important. This quality is recognized by a non-thinking process, and hence cannot be defined, tested for or recorded by an instrument. And yet… we know what it is.
Nothing is more amazing than the fact that anything exists at all. It's difficult to really wrap our mind around just how bizarre the fact of existence is. I remember at least one occasion, however, when the whole foreign mystery of existence itself came crashing through to my consciousness. I felt trapped in some terribly foreign state of being, totally out of place. I suspect many have had similar experiences. WHY is there something rather than nothing – this seems the ultimate question, and it is impossible to feel the full weight of this mystery bearing down on your consciousness without sensing that something terribly important is behind it all. But, as Ken Wilber pointed out, strict materialism has nothing to offer to the mystery of existence beyond what he calls "the philosophy of oops" – a reluctance even allow the question of "why?"
At the end of his life, Thomas Aquinas (the real one that is) experienced a profound mystical vision that caused him to put down his pen and leave his Summa Theologica for another to finish. His scribe begged him to complete the work that would come to be considered the greatest masterpiece of rational theology of all time. "I cannot.” Thomas replied. “Such things have been revealed to me that what I have written seems but straw." Profound mystical experiences of various kinds open up a perspective that is not adequately addressed by rationality alone. These range from such things as out-of-body experiences to profound states of non-dual awareness that, while impossible to completely communicate, make it utterly impossible to look at the world without seeing it asmanifestation of a divine unity. I'd recommend the following link as an excellent example of such an experience: http://www.nonduality.com/dazdark.htm. It's understandable that a hard-line atheist would find a description of someone else's experience unpersuasive. But I believe it's utterly impossible to have one and remain entirely satisfied with hard-line atheism alone as a worldview. To quote a line from Sagan's Contact, where Ellie is explaining her experience, "I… had an experience… I can't prove it, I can't even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever… A vision of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater then ourselves, that we are *not*, that none of us are alone!"
This is just a brief survey of some of the areas that make hard-core atheism, as a worldview, something I can't accept. Is it possible that I'm deceiving myself – that all this meaning and beauty and unity that I seem to sense in the world are really just epiphenomena of physics and chemistry? Logically, I would answer that yes, it's possible. But my whole point is that logic is inadequate to the task of answering this question.
I'll close with a few words from "The Silver Chair" by C.S. Lewis. The story is about several children, accompanied by a strange pessimistic creature called a “marshwiggle” named “Puddleglum” who descend from the kingdom of Narnia, ruled by the good lion Aslan and enter a subterranean kingdom ruled by a witch-queen to try to rescue a kidnapped prince. Once there, the witch puts them under a spell of confusion and forgetfulness. She gradually convinces the children that there IS no world above ground, no sun, no sky, no Aslan. They become convinced that these are all simply children’s tales and dreams – projections they have created in their minds from the drab and ordinary objects in the miserable underground world ruled by the witch. Only Puddleglum rebels.
“One word, Ma’am” he says to the witch, “All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face on I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we HAVE only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours IS the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”