Addressing Shane Hayes on Agnosticism, Atheism, and Choosing to Believe
A week ago, Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) featured an excerpt from Shane Hayes’ new book The End of Unbelief: A new approach to the question of God. I only found out about that post because of Hemant’s tweet about a followup from Shane where he addressed a few of the comments in the first thread and provided additional explanation. Shane is part of the collection of formerly-atheist Christians who claim to have new methods for converting atheism as a result of their own conversion. However, like most formerly-atheist Christians, Shane ultimately shows that apparently, not all people experience atheism similarly, so one person’s reasons for converting won’t appeal to another. (Maybe if I become a theist I can write my own book, though?)
That being said, even if I wasn’t convinced by Shane’s thinking, I give him some credit for being willing to walk into the proverbial lion’s den. Also (and the main reason for this post), I also did find the excerpt interesting for its unexpected Mormon parallels (because I doubt Shane is familiar with the Mormon thinking on the subject.)The excerpt that Hemant posted was Shane’s “Agnostic Argument for Faith”. From the excerpt:
We’re in this mess together — we’re all human, vulnerable to illness, crushing accidents, the carnage of war, calamities of every kind. We’re aging, and we’re mortal. We don’t know whether there’s an all-powerful God who cares deeply about his creatures, or not. There is reason to think there is not. There is reason to think there is. Either hypothesis seems far-fetched in light of certain observable facts. From six-day creation, to creation over eons with evolution, to Cosmic Inflation, to the Big Bang theory, there is no explanation of the universe that is not from some point of view wildly improbable.
I can’t say with certainty that there is a God. But I can say with certainty that if there is a God, that reality makes a huge difference in the character of the universe and of human life. Consider these three questions that we can’t escape, because they keep coming at us: (1) When faced with problems or troubles that seem overwhelming, is supernatural help available or not? (2) Are we ephemeral creatures who expire utterly with our last breath, or is there a spirit in us that survives physical death? (3) If death is not the end of human consciousness, if there is a whole realm of being beyond that, is it good or bad — or might it be either, depending on how we relate to each other and how we relate to God . . . while we’re here?
These are a few ways in which faith can enrich people’s lives and its rejection can impoverish them. Since we can’t know whether the world is Godless or God-filled, why not embrace the radiant view and enjoy its benefits? Why not swim against the tide?
What struck me about this excerpt was that it felt so much like a restatement of Terryl Givens. Seriously, check out my post on Terryl Givens’ Letter to a Doubter. The essence of Givens’ argument there (and Hayes’ argument here) is fundamentally that we are presented with an enduring uncertainty, but this enduring uncertainty is not a feature, but a bug…because this uncertainty is precisely the prerequisite condition for choice and faith. Of course, Givens and Hayes also do not believe that either choice is equivalent in terms of value — both Givens and Hayes believes that the choice to pursue faith and belief imbue the world and life with beauty (which is a theme of Terryl and Fiona’s The God Who Weeps — the religious picture, but most specifically the Mormon one, is to be treasured partially because of its aesthetic appeal) and radiance.
Consequently, my misgivings with Shane’s thinking are ultimately very similar to my misgivings with the Givens. As an atheist who wholly identifies as agnostic as well, I disagree with Shane about whether belief is chosen (“doxastic voluntarism”) and I also disagree with Shane about the aesthetic value of theism.
What Atheists Choose to Believe
Shane, like Terryl, believes that the opacity of reality provides uncertainty as to what lies behind what we can see and feel. Shane, like Terryl, believes that said uncertainty is necessary and sufficient for us to make a choice about what we will believe regarding reality. Shane’s explicit coupling of this thinking with agnosticism intrigued me — it seemed to be a direct address to many atheists I know (myself included) who use agnosticism as a profession of intellectual humility. If you are uncertain of God’s existence, great! Shane seems to say. That means that you more fully have the choice to believe one way or the other.
And, as Shane explicitly addresses, you are choosing. For Shane also writes:
So we must have either no explanation or an unlikely one. To some rational minds, the theistic view is less unlikely than the atheistic. Did the Big Bang ultimately produce Einstein, or did a cause more like Einstein produce him? Did cosmic dust evolve into a great mind, or did a Great Mind produce the cosmos? Since the keenest powers of human reasoning leave us without proof on this crucial issue, uncertainty is our fate. We can’t know. We can only believe.
But the atheist says, “I don’t believe.” Ahh, but you do, I reply. You don’t believe in God, but you believe in No God. You believe in the hypothesis that there is no God. I believe in the hypothesis that there is a God. Mine is a religious belief. Yours an unreligious belief. But we both believe. Some atheists would rather die than admit this.
My first major problem with Shane’s concept is a structural one. I simply do not agree that a lack of belief in a proposition equates to a belief in the opposite proposition. I do not think that not believing God exists necessarily equates to believing God doesn’t exist.
This is tied to my agnosticism. My lack of belief in God’s existence is tied to my not being convinced that God exists. It is not tied to being convinced that God does not exist — that is a completely separate proposition to be evaluated on its own. (I am not convinced that God does not exist either.) What I recognize, however, is that while my lack of being convinced may stay my belief (in one proposition or the other), it does not take me out of the equation. My lack of belief still fits in either atheism or theism — it fits squarely as atheism.
When I say I’m an atheist, however, I am not saying that as an atheist I do not believe anything. I believe a ton of things, and more importantly, some of those things even inform my atheism. If I had to state the positive beliefs I have that are most relevant to my atheism, they would not be directly that God does not exist. They would be elementary – beliefs like “I believe in things that make sense to me as likely to be true.” My atheism is the result of my personal fact that God hypotheses just don’t make sense to me as being likely to be true.
My positive beliefs would include “my own personal sanity in not trying to lie to myself in trying to convince myself to believe things I don’t find personally compelling is more important than potentially being incorrect about the objective truth of the universe.” I know about belief voluntarism; Mormonism is full of it. I’ve tried it, and it made me miserable. So the author is right that I have positive beliefs. But it’s not the belief that God does not exist. It’s more elementary beliefs (that I have not consciously chosen and do not perceive I can consciously choose against) about my internal mental states (that is, belief), evidence, and so on.
Can We Choose to Believe?
I concede that as a practical matter, yes, all of what I’ve said means that I’m going to live as if I think there is no God, and if there is a God who so cares about something like that, then I’ll probably be judged accordingly. But as a matter of principle, I think this is important to distinguish, because as long as Shane believes that atheists believe that God doesn’t exist, his conclusion that atheists choose to believe this given some sort of perfect uncertainty on the matter is fundamentally flawed.
But whether Shane believes that atheists (positively) believe that God doesn’t exist or Shane believes that atheists (positively) believe that atheists only believe things that they perceive they have adequate evidence for (with the emphasis on perception), my bigger problem is that I simply do not perceive that we choose to believe, and I do not think that uncertainty necessarily helps.
If I am not persuaded that God exists, and it feels like a lie to say that I do believe that God exists, then just pointing out that the slate of evidence is uncertainty and could go both ways doesn’t actually change my perceptions.
Shane’s task is ultimately to change my perceptions. To get me to see different things. Or to get me to see the same stuff that’s been around forever in a different way. Telling me just to choose to do it is not going to fly.
Why would I try choosing to believe?
Perhaps learning to believe is like acquiring a taste. Maybe it’s not so much about brute choice, but about putting in effort over times in the hope that things will become more bearable, that things will become more habitual.
But the next question is: why would I try it? Why would I try acquiring a taste for new food when I’m satisfied with the food I have. (Expand my horizon with sour and bitter tasting food? But I haven’t explored all of the sweet food there is!)
My next disagreement with Shane (and also Terryl) is that I disagree with them on the aesthetics of theism. And I think I can understand a little bit of why this has happened. To quote various parts from Shane:
The tide of modern intellectual culture flows strongly toward atheism, a destination congenial to some but abhorrent to others. For me, it was like Antarctica — glacially cold and wind-lashed, an ice-bound waste devoid of tree, shrub, or flower, no hint of blossoming life visible to the horizon, and beyond the horizon . . . nothing. I endured it for most of a decade.
…Atheists have decided that there is no supernatural help and death ends all. Fine, but that belief has consequences. The world feels different because they view it in that light. If supernatural help is available only to those who reach out for it in faith, they won’t get that help. The joy of feeling the presence of a loving God in their lives, and connecting with him in prayer, will never be theirs. Thoughts of our mortality are more daunting if we can’t link them to thoughts of our immortality. Grief is blacker if the lost child, parent, friend, or lover is gone forever, not just gone ahead. And if this life is harder because we have rejected belief in God, a future life might be harder still because we’ve done so.
And also this snippet from another chapter, where he discusses his concept of “pure theism”:
Look anew at the question of God’s existence completely apart from the Bible, Judeo-Christian theology, and the theology of any organized religion. The doctrines and Scriptures of Jews, Christians, and Muslims need have no bearing on the elemental question of whether a personal and loving God exists. If he does, we can conceive of him apart from all established theologies and Scriptures. We can commune and build a relationship with him directly without intervention of a rabbi, priest, minister, or imam.
Although I have embraced an organized religion, I was a pure theist for years. For me, it was the only way out of atheism. I began with the most simplified and essential concept of a supernatural being: one who created the universe, loves what he made, and follows with benevolent concern the fate of every human life. Not the God of Abraham, not the trinitarian God we Christians believe in, not Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. That would have been too much for me — and I had said no to it again and again. Just God, a supreme being who cares about his human creatures and wants a relationship with them. The distance between no God and just God, Pure Theism, is immeasurable.
Apply a Pragmatic Test: If one hypothesis (either God — or No God) will make you happier, stronger, more resilient, more at home in this brutal universe, more able to cope with life’s setbacks, tragedies, and the inevitable decline or plunge toward death, it is prudent, pragmatically sound, and entirely rational to embrace that view. Agnosticism assures us there is no rational barrier to either view. Neither can be known. Either may be true.
Many of Hemant’s commenters say it’s irrational to even weigh such factors as what makes us happier, stronger, more hopeful, more serene. It’s not. Others say that when they weigh them, atheism wins. Fine. I admit that atheism can be a rational choice, and as an agnostic I can’t argue with it. But be sure that you weigh all the benefits of belief that I mention — including those you’re most inclined to scoff at — because they all matter.
First of all, I want to congratulate Shane for recognizing throughout here that people can disagree. I don’t think this is emphasized enough, but I am glad that he recognizes that this is a theoretical possibility.
I want to flesh that out.
In the first selection I’ve quoted for this section, I’ve noted that atheism for Shane was miserable — like Antarctica. I have heard many people describe atheism like that, especially former atheists.
The basic problem here is that as soon as someone describes atheism like this, I know that they do not have a comparable experience of atheism to mine. And the differences in experience are critical.
As I mentioned before, trying to force myself to believe in God was a miserable experience. Constantly, my brain reminded me that my own perception of the world did not justify the attempt. Constantly, my brain would tell me, “You’re lying to yourself. This isn’t how the world works. This isn’t real. Why are you lying to yourself? Why are you lying to others?”
This trashes through Shane’s entire project, though. Shane talks about the way the world feels different with the choice to believe. I cannot say that I am conceptually opposed to the world appearing differently given different beliefs about it. However, I feel the causal chain is reversed: to me, it’s not that atheists do not get supernatural help because we fail to reach for it. It’s that we fail to reach for it because we do not get supernatural help. It’s not that I fail to feel the presence of a loving God in my life because I am an atheist. To the contrary, I identify as atheist because I fail to feel the presence of a loving God in my life.
Shane’s exercise with “pure theism” continues on with this trend. Firstly, I’ll state that I do not think Shane’s pure theism is all that pure. Even if I can conceptually think of a deity existing, it does not follow that the deity is benevolent or wants a relationship with everyone. (To the contrary, even these traits put the formulation of deity out of the category of “plausible given my perception of the universe” and into the category of “not personally credible.” I could see plausibly see myself becoming a deist or impersonal “ground of being”, but part of what seems uncompelling to me about God is the idea of personality and personal relationship) But even if I concede that such a concept could be “pure,” it is still a non-starter. It isn’t as if I have never prayed. It isn’t as if I have never sought a relationship with deity. It’s that, from my perspective, my attempts to contact go nowhere and I hear nothing back.
Ultimately, I feel that I have tried the pragmatic test. With God, the world and universe does not make sense. God seems like completing Ikea furniture and inexplicably having leftover parts — where did things go wrong? With the various hypothesis for God, I have to spend time trying to reconcile the world as I see it with the world as it is told by religion (or by “pure theism”). I have to reconcile God with silence and indifference.
To the contrary, if I take away that extra piece, I can be happy with my furniture without worrying if I’ve messed something up. (Even if I have — even if I’m actually wrong — I can actually enjoy my furniture until it falls apart.) I don’t have to devote brain cycles to trying to make things work out — I can live my life.