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The Middle Ground between staunch theism and atheism

January 27, 2013

I keep reading these things that try to define a space between “staunch” theism and “staunch” atheism. Typically, the person who is doing this is going to be some sort of agnostic who thinks that his agnosticism is mutually exclusive to both theism and atheism…but there are many variations on this theme — religious agnostics, atheists who want to reconcile with liberal/moderate religious folks, and even liberal/moderate religious folks themselves.

This post is my thoughts about that last group — just a response to some things I’ve seen from an article I’ve read.

In the July 2009 edition of Sunstone, Boyd Peterson wrote an article Soulcraft 101: Faith, Doubt, and the Process of Education. Apart from sounding a great name for a video game, Soulcraft attempts to harmonize “doubt” (which, honestly, I don’t even know what Peterson means when he uses that term) with faith. The following passage from early on sets up the dichotomy that is so often heard in the church — a dichotomy that Peterson wishes to dismantle:

“Either everything taught about the Church is true, or none of it is; either Joseph Smith was a flawless prophet, or he was a fraud; either the Book of Mormon is historically true, or it isn’t. Such extremes and ultimatums may set these students up for a fall. When they encounter, as they surely will, problems in our history, theology, or scripture, the message they have been given since birth tells them to reject the whole thing. They feel they must either deny the problems or renounce the Church, retain a naïve faith or adopt a sophisticated agnosticism. This simple, either/or view of faith seems not only unproductive but detrimental to true, abiding faith. It confuses the interplay that doubt and faith have in the development of the soul.

“Deny the problems” or “renounce the Church” — ok, I can see how this is a false dichotomy.

“Retain a naive faith” or “adopt a sophisticated agnosticism.” — OK, I can also see how this is a false dichotomy, but particularly because it seems so weird.

Like, I don’t even know what Peterson is trying to avoid here. I can maybe get if he’s trying to avoid “a naive faith” and a “sophisticated agnosticism” (although it would seem to me that a sophisticated agnosticism would be a pretty good place to be)…but later on, he talks about the results of informal surveying of many of his students, and says:

…I am impressed that these students see that the position of denying the existence of God requires just as much faith as accepting His existence. As one student writes:

…My return to church was partly because of a feeling that staunch atheism was just as arrogant and problematic as staunch theism.

Another student writes:

I have serious issues with the term “closed-minded” and take particular offense when individuals use it in conjunction with Mormon or religious people in general…I could quite easily flip that around and ask someone, “Do you believe in God?” If they say, “No,” I could just as easily say, “Well, that’s closed-minded.”

I…don’t even. Like on the point of open-mindedness or closed-mindedness, I just want to toss in a Qualia Soup video on open-mindedness

As for this overall trope of denying the existence of God requiring as much faith as accepting his existence…I just want to toss another Qualia Soup video on lack of beliefs in gods.

Hmm, it’s been a while since I’ve watched Qualia Soup…this post might be basically over because he really covers a lot of the same stuff I would.

Still, I guess that there is something to these comments. Apparently, there are definitely several things that many atheists do or say that understandably could be really unappealing. That get people to calling them “staunch” or “strident” or “vocal” or “fundamentalist” or whatever the negative term is. But 1) I don’t see these things as being intrinsic to atheism (so is it OK if someone is an atheist, but not a staunch one? I don’t think that Peterson allows for the possibility) and 2) when I try to describe what a person who has moved away from these sorts of unappealing traits would look like, I move to something that looks pretty much like “a sophisticated agnosticism” (but, like QualiaSoup discusses, I don’t think that atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive.) This apparently isn’t good enough for Peterson, though.

Peterson forges forward with a discussion of how doubt can be constructive when not being all-consuming. He actually quotes a lot from Terryl Givens (the parts that Peterson quotes are actually some of the things I responded to in my post on Givens’ Letter to a Doubter). He points out that “doubt is not a moral weakness; it does not inexorably lead to agnosticism or atheism.”

Here, I wonder how he defines agnosticism.

I would wonder how he defines atheism, but later in the article, he writes:

The response to doubts is not less thinking, but more thinking. Just as one can be arrogantly certain about believing in God, one can be arrogantly certain about believing in no God.

It would be one thing if he were just taking aim at strong atheism and that were it…but the fact that he’s not really open to agnosticism as an answer either is just really confusing. What about people who just plain don’t believe? Or people who believe either way, but aren’t certain?

Again, I wonder how he defines agnosticism.

Peterson writes that his own bouts of depression (with its attendant silence to prayers) have caused him to wonder if God even exists. On the one hand, I want more people to discuss the role that neurology and brain states play on one’s beliefs and perceptions. I do want people to recognize that some people might not believe — and there’s not really anything they can do consciously about that.

…but I don’t want people to pathologize this. I don’t want people to say, “well, if you don’t believe God exists and can’t make yourself believe that, then there must be something wrong with your brain.” I want people to recognize that inspite of conditions like depression, there is natural variation here.

In the end, I don’t even know how he defines faith, theism, or even belief, however. I don’t see what his doubt-supported, yet non-agnostic faith looks like.

Through the end of the article, Peterson describes the process in the Hopi culture where as part of maturation, children are taught to revere a symbol (kachina dancers) as being the referent (the gods). As they grow and mature, the children eventually reach a rite of passage where they are disavowed of this belief — they come face to face with the kachina dancers that have terrified and enchanted them…but this time, the dancers wear no masks. The new adults realize that the beings they thought to be gods were actually members of their own community.

…somehow, coming face to face with this deconstruction is supposed to pave the way for a deeper belief. As Peterson says, “The simple, one-dimensional world view of youth is forever gone, and the initiate is either confronted with a rejection of the Hopi ways or else finds a deeper meaning within the symbol.

Even though Peterson allows that one possible reaction might be “rejection,” he doesn’t seem to explain why this isn’t or shouldn’t be considered the most likely option, how the “deeper meaning” is found, what that deeper meaning actually is, or how it can still really be called faith. Peterson dares to make a comparison to Santa Claus — as if learning that Santa isn’t real actually does anything constructive for children’s view of faith. Furthermore, he speaks of the possibility of the secular university situation to provide a similar grounds for incubating naive believers into more nuanced one.

But even as Peterson talks about the possibilities of a bigger God, I still don’t feel he has ever described what such a God is like.

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  1. “What about people who just plain don’t believe? Or people who believe either way, but aren’t certain?”

    I think some of the problem comes from the tendency Mormons (among others) have to conflate “faith” with certainty. Within Mormonism, “having faith” means you feel able to go up to the podium on fast Sunday and bear a testimony that “I know the Church is true.” It then follows that conversely, being an atheist (in this view) means you would want to make statements like “I know God doesn’t exist.”

    But of course, the typical true believing Mormon’s faith is not certainty, and generally “I know the Church is true” translates to “I prayed about it and got a certain feeling, and based on that I believe the Church is true.” In other words, it’s just a choice the believer makes about how to interpret his or her emotional experience, but again, it’s not certainty.

    On the other hand, if one accepts and is open about the fact that “faith” is about interpretions and choices and doesn’t actually mean certainty, then as an atheist I’m not embarrassed to say that my non-belief in God is also a kind of faith – I’ve interpreted my emotional experiences differently and chosen to base my life on the premise that there isn’t a God (at least not one whose existence would make any difference in how I choose to live my life). But my atheist belief system doesn’t involve the kind of certainty that would allow me to go up to a podium on Fast Sunday and say, “I know God doesn’t exist.”

    Maybe the false dichotomy between staunch faith and staunch atheism originates with false understandings of what faith or belief in God is in the first place …

  2. Therese,

    I do think that some of the problem comes from the conflation of faith with certainty…but what I don’t get is that many of these writers who want to make a middle way generally do have a more nuanced view than that. So, it’s just confusing then that these same sorts of comments come from them.

    Your comment has triggered my main stickling point — the perception of choice in beliefs. I don’t think most believers make a choice about how to interpret their emotional experience, and I don’t think nonbelievers make a choice about how to interpret their emotional experience (although I recognize as well that many people at least seem to feel that they do make such a choice). Rather, their emotional experience comes complete with presumptions about what the emotional experience entails. I believe what I find to be compelling. But I don’t choose what I find to be compelling.

    So, to make faith about “interpretations and choices,” I’d be thinking, ‘But I didn’t choose the way I interpret things, and I could not consciously choose to interpret otherwise.” The way faith is defined either makes it trivial to me (generally, definitions of faith that apply to *everyone* fit this) or something that does not apply to me (I generally think that faith as it applies to theists just isn’t going to apply to agnostic atheists).

    If someone feels they choose the way they interpret their experiences, then maybe I can concede that that is faith. But my question would be: what about the folks who don’t perceive that they choose the way they interpret their experiences?

  3. Yeah, choice is a tricky element … do you really think you couldn’t choose a different interpretation of your experiences with Mormonism? I mean, a Mormon might come to you and say, “Andrew, you just haven’t experienced that warm fuzzy feeling that conveys the truth of the gospel … if only you prayed, fasted, and read the scriptures enough, you’d get that feeling, and then you’d know for yourself that all of this is true.” And maybe then you respond by saying, “Actually, I did pray, I did try fasting, and I did try reading the scriptures, and … yeah, I just didn’t feel it …” Yet, if you really wanted to, couldn’t you maybe decide instead to interpret that lack of feeling you experienced as the result of not having read the scriptures/prayed/fasted *enough*? To me looking at the situation from outside, it would seem like you might have that choice?

    And then there’s choice in the sense of how you decide to act. You might choose not to attend Mormon church services because you’ve decided it’s not going to benefit you. I would argue that this choosing is kind of an act of faith – through your action of staying home instead of going to Church, you’re kind of performatively also declaring that you are putting your faith in secularism/humanism/etc rather than in the Church’s teachings. But could you perhaps one Sunday choose differently? Maybe one Sunday you think to yourself, Heck, I’ll go to Church, because my Mormon friends say that I’ll never get that truthy feeling unless I go every Sunday, and I’m really curious as to what this truthy feeling is all about … so you go, and by your action you’re performatively showing that you’re putting faith in the possibility that if you go to Church enough you’ll gain a testimony …

    Would that count in your book as being able to choose to have/show faith?

  4. Therese,

    Yeah, not consciously.

    Like, take your hypothetical situation. Notice how you preface one line with, “If you really wanted to…”

    Does a person choose what he or she wants? I would say no. That alone impacts everything that comes after (but I’ll note that what someone wants isn’t decisive…one can believe something one doesn’t want to believe…and one can be unable to believe something he or she wants to believe):

    “…couldn’t you maybe decide instead to interpret that lack of feeling you experienced as the result of not having read the scriptures/prayed/fasted *enough*?”

    I could SAY that. But I wouldn’t BELIEVE it. It would ring as a lie.

    And I conclude that yeah, some people do buy this. But I don’t. And I recognize that sometimes people change from one position to another (on many issues). But for me, it seems like there’s always an unconscious element here.

    I agree (most days) on choice in terms of actions. I definitely would say I perceive far more “choice” in terms of actions as opposed to beliefs, emotional or psychological states. Because of that, I could see how faith might be defined as the driving force behind action and habits as it seems this paragraph of yours is getting at.

    …But then, I’m thinking: what is the difference between acting with *lack of faith* in the church’s claims vs. acting with faith in secularism/humanism/etc.,? i mean, I guess you’d have to define what secularism/humanism/etc., claims (I am aware that humanism makes some very specific claims…so I would probably be closer to agreeing that one could have faith in humanism) But I mean, being an atheist is not the same as being a humanist, so that still doesn’t make much sense of the idea that it takes faith to be an atheist.

    As for your performative faith idea…what if someone goes to church because they want to socialize? How does that fit in your faith claims?

    What if the reason someone does not go to church is because it is a painful/negative experience for them? How does that fit in your faith claims?

    It seems to me that your actions do not need to suggest a particular reason, and at some point, it seems a bit absurd to me to frame the reasons in terms of faith. (e.g., “faith that I will avoid a negative experience” seems to really trivialize the definition of faith.)

    Also, I have a real problem with this line:

    …by your action you’re performatively showing that you’re putting faith in the possibility that if you go to Church enough you’ll gain a testimony …

    Faith in the possibility???

    If faith is about possibility, then this really seems to trivialize the concept of faith.

    I mean, the only other options would be to actively think something is impossible or not think it is possible. But that’s exactly the kind of “staunch”-ness that I don’t think is really necessary to atheism or agnosticism.

    So, suppose I don’t believe in God. But I believe that God is possible, because I have no reason to feel that God is utterly impossible. Does that count as faith? Does that make me any closer to being a theist, given that I do not actually believe in God?

    If I believe that it is possible for me to gain a testimony, does that mean I actually expect it to happen? Does that mean I can be said to be acting to actually try to get one, if I go to church?

    Would that count in your book as being able to choose to have/show faith?

    I don’t know what the time frame would be, but generally, there would have to be a shortened time period from when my “choice” is made and when it happens. E.g., if I choose to raise my arm, there is no delay to actually raise my arm. I’m not saying the progression must be instantaneous, but the longer the delay, the less repeatable the process is, etc., that’s going to have an impact on if I think it’s chosen.

    ok, let me put it in another way: acquired tastes. Does one choose to acquire a taste? I would say no. I would say that one can choose to keep eating a food/drink that he currently doesn’t like in the hopes that one day, he’ll get used to it, but the unreliability of the process, and the delay in time in the process, suggests to me that it’s not a conscious choice.

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