WSJ: Why Atheists Need Faith

This one will be controversial…

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Where’s the controversy? Isn’t it universally agreed that he’s talking nonsense?

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Atheism’s central conceit is that it is a worldview grounded in logic and scientific evidence.

This essay’s central conceit is that atheism is a “worldview.” It’s not.
It’s merely a conclusion, tentative like all such conclusions.

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As with perhaps 99% of what I see written about atheism, the WSJ Opinion starts with problems of definitions and basic concepts and goes downhill from there.

Even the term worldview suffers from multiple (and usually unstated) definitions in conversations of this sort—but when both theists and non-theists are involved, there is usually a lot of talking past one another even in the presumed meaning of atheism and atheist. Most evangelical Christians I know assume that an atheist is one who defiantly denies the existence of God—but when I ask them for examples, most either struggle to name such an atheist or they cite someone who, in fact, simply states that they have not found any argument/evidence for a deity to be compelling. (My academic training was in the 1970’s when my professors at a state university used terms like “hard/soft atheist” or “gnostic/agnostic atheist” to clarify a philosophical stance, and in some cases I think they did use the word worldview. However, they certainly would not have agreed with many of Michael Guillen’s claims.)

The opinion piece lost me with its first three words: “Atheism’s central conceit . . .” Which type of atheism is he talking about? Certainly not the agnostic atheism of my academic colleagues who simply stated that they did not affirm the existence of any deities—although some went on to say that if they were to come upon compelling evidence in the future, they were quite willing to change their stance. That doesn’t sound like conceit to me.

The author speaks of exploring “Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism” but also states “Without exception, every worldview is ruled over by a god or gods. It’s the who or what that occupies its center stage.” Of course, some types of Buddhism (and even the Judaism of my next door office-neighbor in 1979) are devoid of any “western tradition” concept of a god/gods but it is clear that this poses no problem for Guillen because he has redefined god/gods to be virtually any “who or what.” So I assume he might say, as I’ve heard some of my Christian friends say, “Anyone who denies a personal belief in a deity has appointed themself as the ultimate deity.” If absolutely anyone/anything can be considered a god, then the term has little meaning.

Enough said. I don’t find Guillen’s pontifications useful other than reminding me of some popular tropes that have been recycled for years but aren’t all that convincing of anything.

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I don’t believe in Michael Guillen.

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Yeah, and I wish that word would not get used so much. Most of the time it’s basically an attempt to claim that even if some theistic views rest upon thin ice, atheistic views do, too: naively invoking relativism to say that, well, we ALL rest everything we believe on completely asinine and insupportable assumptions, so nyah nyah.

But it misses the point, for almost every atheist I can think of. I don’t know people who have an atheistic “worldview.” It’s a conclusion about a question of fact, judged in relation to evidence. I believe cheese is delicious, but this belief is not a “worldview.” I think it’s probably wise to look both ways before crossing the street; likewise, not a “worldview.”

What is my “worldview”? I don’t even know what that means. But it’s surely clear that all humans have in some sense the same one: the one governed by the common aspects of human experience. We have the types of sense perceptions, feelings and reasoning that humans have. That’s a worldview, I suppose. But it’s damned hard to have a different one.

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Huxley, on just this sort of thing:

Preachers, orthodox and heterodox, din into our ears that the world cannot get on without faith of some sort. There is a sense in which that is as eminently as obviously true; there is another, in which, in my judgment, it is as eminently as obviously false, and it seems to me that the hortatory, or pulpit, mind is apt to oscillate between the false and the true meanings, without being aware of the fact.

It is quite true that the ground of every one of our actions, and the validity of all our reasonings, rest upon the great act of faith, which leads us to take the experience of the past as a safe guide in our dealings with the present and the future. From the nature of ratiocination, it is obvious that the axioms, on which it is based, cannot be demonstrated by ratiocination. It is also a trite observation that, in the business of life, we constantly take the most serious action upon evidence of an utterly insufficient character. But it is surely plain that faith is not necessarily entitled to dispense with ratiocination because ratiocination cannot dispense with faith as a starting-point; and that because we are often obliged, by the pressure of events, to act on very bad evidence, it does not follow that it is proper to act on such evidence when the pressure is absent.

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Using the term “worldview” is usually an attempt at obfuscation, with or without awareness of doing so.

It’s often used to avoid using evidence and rationality.

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Thank you for posting. The article puts in to words ideas that have been forming in my mind. I was a Christian until I went to study science at Cambridge University in the 1970’s and struggled to reconcile my faith then with what I understood about science. I became a Christian again nearly 20 years ago and have spent much time since studying the relationship between religion and science. As the article says we have learned that the universe is much stranger place than we thought, and “Faith is the foundation of the entire human experience—the basis of both science and religion.”
To take one example, belief that there is a Multiverse is akin to a religion (see Sabine Hossenfelder: Backreaction: Why the multiverse is religion, not science. )

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The WSJ editorial indulges in that and other equivocations. In fact the method of argument there seems to consist mostly of equivocation and other forms of obfuscation.

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Mr Guillen appears to live in an alternate universe from me. His concept of atheism is unrecognisable.

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I am so old that I can remember a time when some things published in the WSJ were genuinely informative.

Now was that the news or the editorial page? There’s a big difference.

Alas, I am now so old that I can remember genuinely informative content in both. Death beckons.

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Alas, I am now so old that . . . uh . . . well . . .

(Sorry. Can’t remember.)

Death beckons.

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Probably Cox & Rathvon’s crossword.

Mine seems kind of friendly. A cartoonish fellow. I call him Grimmy.

I’m old enough to remember when Time Magazine really mattered, and Scientific American articles were written by actual scientists.

My gall bladder, sent before and awaiting me in Heaven, beckons.

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Mine’s in hell, but same deal. I’ve managed to get this far without any more excisions.

I think that’s the point. I think one looks on his or her atheism quite differently after becoming a believer. I think someone changes their mind because they find a different way of thinking more valuable in some way. He’s trying to show why his version of the universe is much more joyful and profound than the one he lived in before.