Simplistic Atheism {1}: a Reason & Spirituality that’s too small


(Note: These exchanges are now complete. There is a Table of Contents to the discussion now available.)

Last week a friend of mine named Daniel Bastian posted a well thought-out catalog of the reasons why he is an Atheist (let me know if the link doesn’t work). This list includes items that don’t usually pop up in similar offerings, and I encourage every Christian to read this list and wrestle through the realities of what he says.

As I thought about it, though, and thought through how I would respond to some of these things, I found a consistent theme to what I would critique to each of his points: over-simplicity. In this series of posts, rather than going through each of the writer’s twenty points, I’d like to go through some broader ideas he touches on, and offer my thoughts.

By the time I was done writing everything up, I had at least four parts to this response. Today, we’ll briefly talk about how Daniel’s post represents an over-simplifying of human reason and spirituality..

Simplistic Reason

Here, I’m offering the usual critique of any materialistic perspective on reality. The problem with any such perspective is that it focuses solely on human reason and “brute facts” as the “reason” for its Atheism. It simplifies all of reality to that which can be “plainly” perceived by our reason and senses.

In a sense, it’s intellectual fundamentalism that insists on a “plain, literal reading” of the world, without nuance or admission to anything higher than their own interpretive powers.

Not only does this not offer a full account of reality as we know it–there is certainly more to the world and ourselves than what is merely reasoned, observed, and tested–but it minimizes the interpretive filters involved in assessing facts at all! The unproven assumption here is that there is nothing beyond (or above) “facts” and “reason”.

I’m reminded of a G.K. Chesterton passage, where he talks about how a madman’s logic is completely reasonable. You can’t argue with the logic, because it is a tight circle of reason. The problem is that their “circle” of logical reasoning isn’t big enough. It’s too small; it doesn’t incorporate even the possibility of other legitimate reasons behind things. He has found a tight system where all the lose-ends are tied-up. He needs no more, and every alternative is inferior, not as legitimate, or doesn’t stand up to the facts (as already defined and limited by him).

On one of the author’s friend’s blog, I found this Flannery O’Connor quote that encapsulates the Christian view well:

“Of course, I am a Catholic and I believe the opposite of all this. I believe what the church teaches—that God has given us reason to use and that it can lead us toward a knowledge of him, through analogy; that he has revealed himself in history and continues to do so through the church, and that he is present (not just symbolically) in the Eucharist on our altars. To believe all this I don’t take any leap into the absurd. I find it reasonable to believe even though these beliefs are beyond reason.”

The human person and mind is far more complex than Daniel seems to give credence to. The process by which we assess competing claims is far more complex than he acknowledges. The picture of a world where there is nothing that is beyond reason and objective assessment is a world to complex and nuanced to find a showing in his post.

A Simplistic Spirituality

Because there is this assumption that human assessment of brute facts is the basis of this discussion, there ends up being a misunderstanding and flattening out of spirituality in the first place. The Christian account of spirituality is a lot more complex.

Ascribing to a religion is not an academic exercise by which we evaluate competing claims and then just “decide” one day. Anyone that’s converted or “de-converted” will tell you it’s a process, with deep things going on that are beyond explicit cognitive assessments, and long before an explicit “choice” is made.

To put it simply: the author of the post seems to treat Christianity is a fundamentally intellectual enterprise with spiritual implications. But the truth is that Christianity is fundamentally a spiritual enterprise with intellectual implications. It is not something that can “merely” by mulled about and assessed cognitively and dispassionately.

We simply are not fundamentally creatures of reason. At our core, we are not primarily “thinking” or “reasoning” creatures. We are, instead, “liturgical” creatures. Who we are and what we believe is more shaped by our habits that form what we value and love, more than our neutral, objective assessment of facts and claims.

This is the idea defended by James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom:

We feel our way around our world more than we think our way through it. Our worldview is more a matter of the imagination than the intellect, and the imagination runs off the fuel of images that are channeled by the senses. So our affective, noncognitive disposition is an aspect of our animal, bodily nature. The result is a much more holistic (and less dualistic) picture of human persons as essentially embodied.

And so, though Daniel may say that all “possible” reasons for things are not equal, and he is simply ascribing to the worldview that makes the most sens of the world that is, the human person is not so objective and neutral. The terms by which a claim would be found legitimate, the reasons that he would find authoritative, and his very idea of the world which he is trying to “make sense of” are all conditioned and formed culturally, spiritually, affectively, socially, psychologically, and even bodily.

In the Christian account, spirituality is a bringing together and communing of heaven and earth, God and humanity, transcendent and imminent, infinite and finite. The world “Religion” literally means “to reconnect”. That is not the sort of thing that can be simplified as to occupy merely the world of ideas to be assessed like any other. It’s a much more complicated, substantive dance of the whole of reality, both seen and unseen.

Tomorrow, in Part 2, we’ll talk about how the post offers an oversimplified view of Science and how Theology can intersect with it. Part 3 will talk about the Bible, miracles, and history. Part 4 will give a bigger picture of his over-simplification of the world itself and God. I’ll then end with answering the question: what would make me an Atheist?

P.S. I’m sorry for having broken all of this up into separate posts, and I’m sorry if many comment, rebuttals, and responses are met with me saying “oh that’s addressed in a different part”. Just try to keep the comments limited strictly to the content of this post, and we’ll get to Daniel’s other points the rest of this week.

[image credit: Francisco de Goya, “The sleep of reason produces monsters”]


17 thoughts on “Simplistic Atheism {1}: a Reason & Spirituality that’s too small

  1. Paul,

    I want to thank you again for taking the time to materialize some thoughts in reply to last week’s note. Unfortunately, I find myself only repeating the promptings I made last week. The preceding post is filled with airy (and often confused) philosophical undercurrents and appears devoid of any detectable substance whatsoever. You continue to evade (with great agility, no less) a critique of any of the arguments made or address anything actually set down in the post. One questions why this was even tied to my note.

    In your original response (which was crowded with false representation and disingenuous rhetoric), you stated, with nary a justification:

    1. I was being “simplistic”.
    2. I used one or more scientific or theological terms “improperly”.

    You again have demonstrated neither in this post and have thus failed to follow through on your pronouncements.

    The crux of the post is actually tied to a misuse of philosophical terminology:

    “Here, I’m offering the usual critique of any materialistic perspective on reality. The problem with any such perspective is that it focuses solely on human reason and “brute facts” as the “reason” for its Atheism. It simplifies all of reality to that which can be “plainly” perceived by our reason and senses.”

    Like most scientists and atheists, I do not *presume* the world to be material. It is simply the conclusion that makes the most sense given what we observe. See more below:

    “Science does not presume the world is natural; most scientists have concluded that the world is natural because that’s the best explanation for what we observe. If you are ever confused about what “science” has to say about something, just ask yourself what actual scientists would do. If real scientists were faced with a purportedly supernatural phenomenon, they wouldn’t just shrug their shoulders because it wasn’t part of their definition of science. They would investigate it and try to come up with the best possible explanation.”

    Even more troubling is that you use the term improperly. Materialism says *nothing* about how said material substance should be characterized, only that realms of existence beyond matter and energy do not exist in anything other than an abstract sense. Materialism is not about about the primacy of reason. *You’re conflating substance theory with epistemological theory*. Rationalism is what you were thinking of there 😉 Your next few paragraphs collapse due to this unvoiced distinction.

    (On the subject of epistemology, do you identify as a rationalist? If not, what do you place above reason in your epistemic hierarchy?)

    As it seems the point of my note continues to be missed from your posts, let me reiterate that my original note was intended as a collaborative exercise to articulate some criteria, expectations and predictors for religious beliefs that, if true, would weight my beliefs toward theism. The invitation was to theists to list out some criteria, et al that they would weight in favor of atheism (or to simply point out why my criteria are misplaced).

    The invitation is outstanding, so once again I’ll reserve any further engagement until that time you can marshal an actual objection to something I have written.

    – Daniel


  2. I almost get the feeling that Paul is attempting to bore his readership to death before getting down to the simple things that would make him an atheist. Things that could realistically happen would be super nice. You know, like the things in the other author’s post could. Jackrabbits could all of a sudden pop up in the precambrian (evolution is demolished), limbs could regrow without science making this happen with stem cells etc (look for it in the next 20 years), god could make an appearance in times square, child mortality could drop to 0 (~0 may well happen due to science in our lifetime or shortly thereafter). You know something that realistically may happen.

    I really detest when authors try to bore you to death before getting to the meat of the matter. Spoiler Paul: nobody cares how simplistic you think his points are, since they’re obviously made simple specifically so that simpletons can understand them and it can have popular appeal. If the author wanted it to be complicated then he could have written it to be complicated to the nth degree. And even if it is simplistic why should anyone care that it is simplistic? Give us something that demands a more complicated view.

    For some not boring reading here’s an article about a man regrowing part of his leg muscle blown off in afghanistan.


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