“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."
Continued in PART 2