Sunday, September 2, 2007

Thank You, Mother Teresa. You've shown me a new way to frame atheism.

“The priests used to say that faith can move mountains, and nobody believed them. Today the scientists say that they can level mountains, and nobody doubts them.”
— Joseph Campbell

I've been following the articles about the publication of the letters where Mother Teresa revealed her personal crisis of faith. While reading Christopher Hitchens "Teresa, Bright and Dark" (also on Richard Dawkin's site) it finally hit me, the difference that really matters between atheists like me and theists of Mother Teresa's type is how we deal with doubt, ignorance and uncertainty. We atheists really have been framing a lot of our arguments badly.

I think I can show you all a better way to frame this debate. You decide.

The Barefoot Bum writes that the "supposed coexistence of faith and doubt—in either sense of the word—is a transparent sham." And that's pretty close to my own views. However, doubt and faith do co-exist in all of us, but not both doubt and faith in the same assertion. There are only three options for any single assertion you're asked to believe: 1) "I trust it," 2) "I don't know," or 3) "I doubt it." You can't claim to mix two opposite ends of that spectrum, doubt and faith, and make sense unless you're talking about trusting some claims and assertions while doubting others. For example, Andrew Sullivan who makes a big deal about his mix of doubt and faith has faith in claims about some happy after-life but doubts biblical passages saying homosexuality is an abomination to God.

I'm bringing up this rather obvious point because I think a lot of us atheists are focusing on the wrong assertions. It's not about whether something like a God exists or doesn't exist so much as whether you can make any claims about knowing anything about God. For example, consider how much there is to agree with in the works of non-atheists like Thomas Paine and Voltaire in their criticism of religion. Much of what they had to say about religion is still relevant today and is still rejected by most religious people.

For another example, there's an old article in the New York Times, "Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch," about Nick Bostrom's idea that it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation. Maybe our universe is a simulation and if so, wouldn't the programmer(s) be our god(s)? If such gods exist they are so unknowable that there are few rational beliefs I can have about them/him/her/it. The only thing that would make the programmer gods of Nick Bostrom's future supercomputers more knowable than the gods of traditional religion is the concept that the simulation we are in is an ancestor simulation. It would mean our gods were once like us. They would have evolved in a godless universe too.

You don't find atheists complaining about Nick Bostrom's speculations because Nick isn't claiming to have talked to the programmers and come back to tell us how to live our lives and to have "faith" in the programmers. I don't know what to do with Nick's idea. I just go on living as I have before. Nick doesn't ask me to do anything much with the idea.

And what is religion? In some ways a religion can be defined as a collection of assertions that comprise a world view. Each different religion and sub-sect has a mix of different assertions. Some theists like to say atheism is a religion and the usual response to that is to say something like "if atheism is a religion then bald is a hair color," or, "... then off is a TV channel," or "... then sanity is another mental disorder." Well, we are turning off all assertions made about gods and there isn't necessarily any other assertions made to replace them, but most of us do have a naturalistic world view.

The problem with taking down the whole collection of religious assertions, made by every religious variant, in one debate is that it is like trying to nail jello to a tree. The theist can avoid stating his most doubtful assertions, like Al Sharpton did when debating Christopher Hitchens, and focus on the things you can't know either, like whether there is a god.

What Mother Teresa has shown us is what would be a good focus for future books and debates. We can skip over all those complicated arguments about God and religion and get to the real issue, which is how do you deal with doubt, ignorance and uncertainty? Mother T. has shown us this by showing us how badly some theists deal with doubt. She suffered not because she doubted, but because she didn't know how to effectively doubt.

I think Hitch might have missed something important in his article, and in his Hardball debate with Bill Donohue. Hitchens seemed to think that when Mother Teresa wrote in her letters things like; "Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear," that she was talking about doubting God's existence. But that doesn't make sense. How can you doubt God before you doubt the church? She retained her faith in her spiritual directors and confessors while she doubted God? That would be like me rejecting Nick Bostrom's speculations about our universe being a simulation yet still believing him when he tells me what the programmer wants me to do. I have to doubt the claims made about the programmer before I can doubt there is a programmer.

The same thing would apply for a flock of Christians who certainly believe in God but who might then be confronted by a preacher who tells them, "God wants you all to drink this cyanide laced kool-aid," as they probably wouldn't believe that preacher even though they believe in God. Oh, wait... I forgot Jonestown. Alright, how about a preacher who tells them God wants his followers to fly airplanes into skyscrapers... Oh, wait... Well, we hopefully can assume most religious people will not just follow anything someone who claims to speak for God says. Those are the ones we might reach with this different frame because they at least can doubt someone who merely claims to speak for God. It's impossible not to doubt many of the contradictory and absurd religious claims we encounter in our society, even believers doubt most of them.

I'm sure most Christians don't believe that everyone who thinks they’re hearing God’s voice really is. After all, most of us don't believe that because a schizophrenic is claiming that they can feel the microwave beams the CIA is sending into their brains that this is evidence that the CIA is doing such a thing.

The point is that if Mother Teresa really doubted God's existence she would have necessarily started by doubting those people who were telling her about God. You can't get to atheism while still believing in people who send you to an exorcist. You might trust them to be honest about their own beliefs and experiences, but you can't think they got the interpretation right, you can't believe that they know anything about a God you don't believe in. You might experimentally try things like prayer and exorcism, but not the same people over and over when nothing is working. The great tragedy of Mother T. is that if she really doubted she might have sought help from a psychologist and found out she was clinically depressed and then have gotten real help.

The Time magazine article I read had said that only a couple of the letters can be interpreted as expressing doubt about God's existence. They really seem to be indicating a hunger for some experience within her. The letters are also being published as part of the investigation into Mother Teresa's suitability for sainthood and I don't think Catholics would ever begin to make a saint of a real atheist or skeptic.

Mother Teresa is more unlike us, Hitchens and me at least, in her doubts than she is like us. Did she ever come to doubt her past experiences? Mother Teresa supposedly had a period of time where she literally heard God’s voice directing her to go to in India and help the poor. As soon as she did start her mission, God's silence began. In spite of the lack of instruction and encouragement from God, she continued her work.

Feeling the abandonment by God is not the same as doubting God. Mother T. knew something of what she was missing. I don't think she doubted her interpretation of her own past experiences. You can't doubt the meaning of your own past experiences without doubting the meaning of the experiences of others. The doubt of other's experience necessarily precedes doubting your own experience. It necessarily begins by seeing yourself in others. Quite a few Christians will claim confidence in their own experiences of God while doubting others merely because they haven't seen themselves in those others, but Mother Teresa did not doubt her confessors, she was just feeling a lack of something she expected. Mother T. did not really doubt and if she called her experience doubt, then she didn't really know what doubt was.

"I gave my love to Jesus, but now he never calls."
-Betty Bowers

Continued in PART 2


Anonymous said...

I came here from your Pharyngula blog spam on the story about "Growing Godlessness." :-P

This is a very interesting and well-written essay. My only critique is that it is too long, which makes your central argument less accessible. I hope you will write further on the topic to nail down your ideas. Now I will reveal my hypocrisy by responding with a comment that is also very long.

I agree that a new frame for the debate is needed, and I like the example you have given here. I had a similar reaction when Bill Donohue said "next week we might find out that she thought of herself a sinner!", by which he implied that "Christian doubt" is compatible with and common to piety.

Dawkins, etc. al., have argued under the New Atheist genre that religion is incompatible with physical reality, and that it should be shunned because it is simultaneously bad for society. I think the Mother T situation (and your commentary) has hinted to a complementary idea: religion is incompatible with psychological reality, and it should be forsaken because it is harmful to the individual. While this is not really a new idea, it may embody a new direction for atheist activism.

Nearly everyone alive ultimately embraces dualism, either in an explicitly religious sense or simply because of the neurologically-imposed perception that consciousness is somehow different from the rest of reality. Maybe this is why people are so quick to reject arguments for atheism which are made on empirical grounds.

Perhaps the atheism activist movement could find new success through an introspective line of argument--How and when did I come to believe this? Why do I feel the need to follow my leaders despite my doubts?--rather than focusing on the existence of god and any magic tricks he may or may not have performed.

You've been RSS'd. Good luck! ;-)

David Marjanović said...

Now, Pentecostals, who do things like speak in tongues, are known to preach on the joy of feeling a divine presence and think they get some “holier than thou” status from it, but are Catholics doing the same? Mother T's letters suggest they are doing it and my not knowing that until now no doubt reveals how ignorant I am of Catholicism.

No, they don't. No, your ignorance has not been revealed.

I suspect that most people, when they "feel the presence" of God, are probably misinterpreting some induced psychological state, some chemical, neurological high that, judging by Mother T's account, has addictive properties. It's a kind of spiritual heroin, a real opiate of the masses. Need a quick high? Get a does of God’s presence.

Sounds like a good description.

John Morales said...

I, too, consider this an excellent post. It made me think.

It would've been easier to digest had it been split into two parts (the second beginning with The biography, "Come Be My Light," [...]).

normdoering said...

An anonymous commenter wrote:
"My only critique is that it is too long, which makes your central argument less accessible."

John Morales wrote:
"It would've been easier to digest had it been split into two parts (the second beginning with The biography, "Come Be My Light," [...])."

So be it.

The essay is now split in two.

Greg Laden said...

Great post, very interesting.

I definitely question Bostrom's assertion:

Its really just a new form of navel gazing. Or is it naval. I can never remember.

Marian Paroo said...

For someone who is an doesn't believe in God, you sure have spent a whole bunch of time and space on God (or the lack thereof). I wonder why. If you don't believe-you don't believe. Frankly, how can one who doesn't believe in God even begin to discuss God? How does one disprove the existence of something that doesn't exist? Do you see my confusion here? Also-Is there an atheist pledge one takes that make you promise to go out and make atheist disciples? Something along the lines "I believe it is my duty to help others not believe." That would be ironic at best. This also reminds me of Shakespeare-"Me thinks he doth protest too much." Are you sure you are an atheist?

normdoering said...

Marian Paroo asked:
Do you see my confusion here?

Yes, I see you are very confused, Marian. You seem to think I've written something about God. I haven't. I've written about people who believe in God, in this case, Mother T.

Do you think that believers have no effect on the lives of others, like they don't fly airplanes into skyscrapers, or start wars in Iraq, or mess up our lives in all sorts of ways? You're a perfect illustration of how theists try to force their lying frames on us to the point of ignoring what is actually said in my post.

You're comment is so inane you've become the subject of a new post:
"Marian Paroo, another non-comprehending nit-wit leaves a comment on my blog."

MTran said...

Marian Paroo made a few typos so I have fixed them, gratis:

"Frankly, how can one who doesn't believe in slavery even begin to discuss slavery?

"How does one disprove the virtue of something that doesn't have virtue?

"Do you see my confusion here?"

Yes, Marian Paroo, you are clearly confused. This is likely the result of your deliberate, long term immersion in superstition, ignorance, and magical thinking.

Are you sure you are mentally competent?

Think again.

MTran said...

Marian Paroo made a few typos so I have fixed them, gratis:

"Frankly, how can one who doesn't believe in slavery even begin to discuss slavery?

"How does one disprove the virtue of something that doesn't have virtue?

"Do you see my confusion here?"

Yes, Marian Paroo, you are clearly confused. This is likely the result of your deliberate, long term immersion in superstition, ignorance, and magical thinking.

Are you sure you are mentally competent?

Think again.

MTran said...

Hey! I repeat myself! Am I mentally incompetent? No, I have nerve damage in my hands that makes them do or not do some goofy things. Like hit keys too many times. Or not enough! Sorry.

Isn't there an internet law about these sorts of things?

Kenzie said...

Interesting essay.

I'm not sure that it follows that belief in the well-meaningness and potential right-ness of members of the church is dependent on a personal experience of belief in God.

If Mother Theresa wrote that she was going through a crisis of faith and her belief in God was compromised, empty and unsatisfying, that doesn't mean that she lost sight of the fact that she felt she was doing good in the world.

In fact, it seems rather odd for an atheist to claim that without faith in God she could not continue doing good works (I know that there is some question as to whether or not her works were universally good, and I believe that in several cases she was disastrously wrong in her beliefs, but let us assume for the moment that she believed her works were good). After all, many people who are not christian, including many folks in Medicins Sans Frontieres and like NGOs, go to desperate peoples and places and do their best to turn things around, to do good works in the best way they know how.

Her ability to continue doing the work that she was doing with the poor and dying in Calcutta, which she definitely believed to be good, depended on her continued association with the church. It was not her faith or lack of faith in God that made this so, it was the real results she saw on a day-to-day basis.

Just an opposing viewpoint.