The problem with fundamentalist atheism
|William Blake's image of the 'Inferno,' Canto XII,12-28, The Minotaur XII. Source: Wikipedia.|
As someone with a fairly rationalistic, skeptical, and even scientistic background (though slowly improving), I confess to have some degree of sympathy for parts of the message coming from fundamentalist atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. To the extent that they promote critical thinking, I believe they make a positive contribution to society. But there may be a significant way in which they fall victim to the very criticism they pass onto others. Allow me to share a thought on this.
Of the three, Daniel Dennett has most of my respect, for the very cogent, clear, and even fun way in which he argues his case. I find it delightful to watch his eloquence in action, and I have sincerely learned much from him. He has, unquestionably, an analytical intellect of enormous power; there lying his key weakness, in my view. Indeed, I believe Dennett is wrong regarding just about every important point he has argued, from the nature of consciousness to the validity of so-called spiritual experience. Yet, because of his eloquence, he has forced me to think very hard to try and make explicit for myself just in what way he is wrong. And I’ve come to conclude that not only him, but many fundamentalist atheists, are wrong in a very similar way: They implicitly define the rules of a private game, assume everyone is playing that same game according to those same rules, and then explain with much bravado how they have won the game. The problem is that others weren’t aware they were supposed to be playing that game, and didn’t even know the rules. Fundamentalist atheists themselves, I believe, are not cognizant that this is what is actually happening, so their passion truly is sincere. If only Carl Jung were alive, he would have had a field day with this.
Here is the key rule of the game implicitly played by fundamentalist atheists: All truths can be captured fully and accurately by literal constructs of language. In other words, everything that is, has been, or will ever be true about reality can be stated in literal words with absolute accuracy. This is a severe and entirely artificial expectation; they forgot to tell Ms. Language that she was supposed to be able to do so much.
You see, the motivation for the invention and continuing evolution of language was, and continues largely to be, to facilitate the practicalities of life. Language helps us get things done in the outside, empirical world, since the coordination of activities in that extravert landscape is what required the invention of language to begin with. Our inner landscapes – the subjective world of personal experience, like inspiration and insight – did not demand the clarity and accuracy of description that practical tasks did, so language did not evolve to capture those to the same extent. Moreover, language depends on shared experiences to ground the meaning of its associated dictionary: If you say ‘table’ I know what you mean because I myself have seen a table before, so we have this shared experience to ground the meaning of the word ‘table.’ But more private, inner experiences cannot be shared in as straight-forward a manner as observing a table together. Therefore, again, one would be very naïve to expect that language can unambiguously, accurately, and completely capture the reality of inner experience and perception. This is why poets and mystics throughout history have refined the art of using metaphor, allegory, simile, analogy, to “force the horse of language onto a ladder,” as Terence McKenna once beautifully put it.
Inner experiences are as much a part of reality as any other experiences. Indeed, it can be cogently argued that all experiences are subjective in nature and, therefore, inner experiences. At a time when physics has all but demonstrated that objectivity is an illusion, denying that much of reality cannot be captured in literal language is a reflection of naiveté and, perhaps, unconscious hubris. The key rule – the fundamental assumption – behind the private game of fundamentalist atheists is, therefore, false.
Let us use a metaphor (!) to get this point across. The hypothesis here is that the elusive truths of existence are like solid objects, while language representations are limited to shadows of these objects. Describing the shadows is enough for us to resolve the practicalities of life. However, it is obviously impossible to literally describe all qualities of a solid object through the contours of its shadow. The best one can do is to attempt to convey an intuition of its real shape through the creative use of shadows, even shadows of other objects easier to visualize. This is what language metaphors are. The result is a partial and roundabout description that cannot be interpreted literally, nor construed to capture the truth fully. One is always ultimately responsible for 'reconstructing' the solid object of truth inside one's own mind, based on language hints coming from others.
Fundamentalist atheists attack the reports of non-materialist experiences (I could have used the more vague expression ‘spiritual experiences’) by pointing out all the ways in which what is described cannot be literally true. Duh. They are attacking shadows, revealing their own inability to think more broadly and 'reconstruct' the underlying message one is attempting to hint at. They a priori exclude from their mental landscapes the truths of a Blake, or a Keats; a tremendous loss. And yet, they believe they are in a position of superior understanding. The irony couldn’t have been more cruel.
There is a significant way in which fundamentalist atheists may be unconsciously attributing to others their own cognitive limitations. In psychological terms, this is called a projection. By passing judgment onto their own projections according to the rules of their own private games, they reveal parts of their psychological makeup but assert nothing of relevance about the nature of reality.