Monthly Archives: September 2008

Atheism and Faith, part II

In my last post I sketched out an existential perspective in which an atheist could take spiritual comfort in, without losing his anti-supernaturalistic principles. This vision of man, as embodied and existentially engaged in the environment, is one which has resonated with many modern and contemporary philosophers, philosophers who struck out to enrich the human vocabulary in such a way as to re-orient the human mind towards his or her own experience. It is the anti-optimistic and anti-pessimistic spirit to these writings which paints the human experience in richer colors, infusing their language with a curious and highly relevant mix of metaphorical expressions of that which matters to us: our own finitude, anxiety, and the absence or presence of God.

As an atheist and has a naturalist, I do not feel the “sensus divinitas” of Calvin and the reform epistemologists. To feel otherwise, would be to beg the question against naturalism and the naturalistic interpretation of divine phenomenology. I say this because such a subjective argumentation for the presence of God in man’s heart is the only escape from the rationalistic perspective, a perspective which rules out the proposition “God exists” as meaningless. What is left is a shell of experience, filled with meaning for those surrounded by Christian imagery and symbolization, but empty for those of us who reject the divinity surrounding such religiosity. For us, it is impossible to have faith in the propositions of God’s existence, for our rationality compels us to reject metaphysical speculation in the same way that we reject Zeus, Ra, and the Invisible Pink Unicorn. We see Christian belief in terms of psychology and irrationality, despite the attempts of Christian theologians to present their system of beliefs in terms of “rational epistemic rights” and other philosophical cop-outs. For atheists, it isn’t the rational coherence of a system which compels us to believe in it, it is the truth which drives our search for knowledge and understanding.

Some would say this is a faith in science and a faith in the finite, yet hungry, man as man. But this is not my faith. My faith cannot be described in terms of a single propositional object, such as “science.” No, this will not do at all, for my faith is an ultimate concern with my own being, my life as lived through a physical body in a physical environment. I am nothing but the motion of matter and yet I am more than this, because I have an experience, an experience which is rich phenomenologically. Through this experience I have understoodd the essential importance of existence, as a human, as a philosopher, an atheist, a friend, and a lover. I live my life with a dynamic faith which places my ultimate concern in the hands of the present moment, a moment which jumps through time and space, compelling me forward towards my death.

Such a perspective might sound morbid for the Christian who has visions of heaven, but my bliss will be in the silence of non-being, satisfied with a life well lived. This faith of mine is rooted in physicality, in the reality of my own being, situated and embodied. It doesn’t require knowledge, it only requires existence, which is the essence of man.

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Atheism and Faith

[Note: This is the first post I’ve written for this blog in many months due to a lack of philosophical creativity and post-worthy ideas. Now that the fall semester has started and I’ve begun to read philosophy again, I will try and update this blog semi-regularly, but don’t hold your breath if I don’t.]

I am taking a class this semester called “faith and reason” and we are exploring the relationship between truth, rationality, and faith. The first book we read for the class was Christian existentialist-theologian-philosopher Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith. In this work, Tillich provides an existentialist definition of faith that I believe is compatible with atheism. How is this possible? Allow me to elucidate on Tillich’s refreshing idea.

Tillich essentially defines faith as an “ultimate concern with the infinite[or unconditional. I prefer “infinite.”]”. Thus, if you are an atheist you can still have “faith” granted that you are ultimately concerned with something that is not finite. What does this seemingly mystic definition mean? Surely, it is too abstract and mystical to be of any relevance to a scientifically oriented atheist such as myself (that, granted, has many philosophical leanings) What does Tillich mean here?

First of all, in order to understand what Tillich means by faith, it is important to understand what he doesn’t mean. He doesn’t equate faith with a cognitive belief structure or propositional knowledge-based faith, such as “I believe in God because I have faith that God exists.” This is not true faith for Tillich because only the cognitive aspect of the human being is concerned in such a faith. As an existentialist, this is unacceptable because “ultimate concern” deals with the total personality and not just a limited aspect of the human being, namely theoretical and reflective cognition.

Utilizing Heideggerian terminology, I think ultimate concern can be conceptualized in terms of ontological comportment by a Dasein. That is to say, as ontologically oriented creatures, human beings comport themselves towards that which defines their being, which is their own individual existence. I am a life to live. Such a conception of humanity differs from the Cartesian tradition’s emphasis on self-consciousness and mental gymnastics, instead focusing on how we are engaged with the world in our own personal lives. Furthermore, we care about our lives: our being is an issue for us and in this sense, Tillich seems to be echoing Heidegger in his insistence that the most critical aspect of our total personality is our ultimate concern with the infinite.

So what is the infinite if not some metaphysically abstract mumbojumbo? Well, ultimately its a metaphor so take it as you will, but I think its useful to view the infinite in terms of the reductionist/holist debate. I see the infinite as that which can’t be reduced to the finite, i.e. the infinite is wrapped up in that which can only be captured in holistic vocabulary. Such as what? Well, for one, our ontological being, which is social in nature, can’t be reduced to the physical motions of matter which supports our constitution, but rather, resides in an existential matrix that is spread out ontologically amongst a community of involved and engaged language users. It is this matrix which provides the significance missing in crudely naturalistic conceptions of the human world.

So, the infinite, is transcendent in that it goes above and beyond the concrete realm holistically, but nevertheless, remains grounded in the physicality of reality. It is this conception of infinite that I think is useful for the atheist in coming to terms with Tillich’s existentialist theology.

So how does an atheist utilize Tillich’s definitions to provide existential perspective to his life? Well, for starters, one can appreciate that mostly everyone is ultimately concerned with something, whether that something is a child, their work, or a nation/idea/etc. However, for Tillich, all these concerns are idolatrous in that they aren’t concerned with the infinite. How does Tillich get around this? Well, as a Christian he is concerned with the religious symbolism of God as an unconditional infinite Ground of Being. While I can make this work in my own mind, I fear that in our day and age, such terminology will never be socially useful because it would be annoying to try and explain in existentialist terms what you mean by “ultimate ground of being” everytime you mention that you have faith in God. So what should a good philosopher-atheist do? Take the Heideggerian path: situate your ultimate concern in terms of what you are already concerned with as an ontological being: your own being, your own life and how you live it, engaged and embodied in the world.

[To be continued]

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