My independent study student has been wrestling with what I’ve come to think of (at Rebecca Goldstein’s instigation in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction) as the “atheist with a soul” challenge. I wrestle with it too.
The challenge, put succinctly, is to decide whether non-believers ought to concede the rational right of believers to believe. Goldstein draws heavily on William James’s famous essay “Will to Believe,” in which James rejects the standard of W.K. Clifford that it’s always wrong to believe anything on “insufficient evidence.” (That has to be scare-quoted, because the question of what constitutes sufficiency is itself a point of serious contention here.)
James may go too far in his defense of “belief,” and I’m personally very sympathetic in my own habits of belief-formation to the Clifford line. It’s finally a question, though, of how humbly ecumenical and “friendly” an atheist should be towards theists.
James said this debate is not mostly about God. Most of what humans have said and thought about God may even be “absurd” without tarnishing the religious impulse. It’s about life.
It’s about individuals coming to terms with their existence, and finding ways of living constructive, engaged lives.
With the semester at last concluded, I finally got around to watching the Hitchens-Blair debate in Toronto last month. Of course Hitch wiped the floor, forensically speaking, with his Right Honourable opponent. But…
Blair’s humility and solicitude on behalf of those whose lives have been enriched by their peculiar personal religiosity still rings true to me. Or rather, not “true” but somehow “right.”
Yes, much harm has been done historically, hysterically, in the name of religion. Much harm has been done, period. I wish everyone found, in our shared natural and humanistic legacy, the sufficient ground for good that I and my fellow humanists find.
But when we come across good people doing good work and crediting faith with supplying their fuel, let’s look pragmatically to the fruits – not the roots. And let’s keep encouraging them to consider the inspiration under our feet, in the stars, in the natural universe.
That said, though, I have to say too: Damn! Hitch is magnificent.