Do atheists simply want to know the truth? Does anybody?
A few years ago I undertook an extended review of the volume The Christian Delusion edited by John Loftus. I find that with the topic of culpability and non-belief having arisen, this would be a good time to repost the second part of that extended review. So here it is:
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When I enter an important art museum like the Tate Modern or National Gallery I don’t aim to be out in twenty minutes. Rather, I linger over the displays, biding my time as I seek to extract every ounce of juice from the rinds of canvas and marble. (Ugh, that’s a rather tortured idiom, is it not?)
Anyway, I carry the same attitude with important books. Forget the Coles notes folks. Let’s linger. That is my justification for spending the last post devoted to a back cover blurb of The Christian Delusion and this present post just on the Foreword. Yes, I will get to the body of the work eventually, but there are nuggets of discussion to be had here too. So let’s squeeze the pages and see what kind of juice oozes out. (Ugh the idioms become more tortured yet.)
The Foreword to CD is written by one time evangelical evangelist now atheistic evangelist Dan Barker. Mr. Barker begins by quoting pop Christian apologist Lee Strobel reflecting on his own experience back when he was an atheist. As Strobel analyzes his own disbelief, it was motivated largely by the desire to live a certain kind of lifestyle and not be accountable to a higher power.
I take Strobel’s analysis to be correct. Surely he is a reasonably reliable guide on his own past disbelief. I take it as well that others may be in a similar boat. But many Christians assume more strongly that all disbelief is evidence of sinful rebellion. Many find an advocate for those conclusions in the Apostle Paul:
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Rom. 1:1-21)
On this reading Paul is taken to be saying that the atheist suppresses universally available knowledge of God (AKA general revelation) because they want to justify wicked, licentious behavior. (By my reading Christian ethicist J. Budziszewski provides some very candid analyses of the sinful motivations of disbelief.)
There are big problems with such Pauline exegesis. For one thing, while it is directed most forcefully against atheists, the post Enlightenment atheist who rejects any and all higher powers was a virtual unknown in the ancient world and thus was no where near Paul’s target here.
Not all Christians accept that the atheist opinion is a matter of rebellion. Thus in the Foreword to atheist Hemant Mehta’s I Sold My Soul on eBay, Christian writer Rob Bell comments: “As you try to figure out what exactly his agenda is, you’ll probably arrive at the same conclusion I did. I think he’s [that is, Mehta] simply after the truth.”
Barker is clearly on the same page as Rob Bell:
“what unites the authors of this volume is not revenge for having been victimized by the deceptions of religion, but a burning desire for actual facts. If we doubters do have a psychological motivation, perhaps it is the mental hunger, the intense craving to truly fill in the blanks of knowledge. As you read the following chapters, you will sense-almost palpably-the searing human drive to understand.” (11)
Here I find myself caught in the middle. On the one hand, I heartily agree that it is untenable to dismiss all those who take a particular view of the world that dissents from mine, be they atheists, Mormons, or Chicago school capitalists, to be morally suspect simply in virtue of dissenting from my opinions.
But I am also a bit cautious about saying that anybody, be they atheists, Mormons, Chicago school capitalists, or me, is ever simply after the truth.
There is a popular notion that academics – philosophers and especially scientists – are driven by the pure desire to know. That’s baloney. As an academic, you stake a claim that a certain set of propositions is true, or more likely true, than another set (even if that set is the skeptic’s set which advocates withholding belief in other sets).
The more time and effort you put into developing and defending your chosen set of claims, the more you have a vested interest in it, the more it becomes part of your identity, and the more that an attack on it becomes an attack on you. Career, pride, fear, and innumerable other factors all shape the way that we assess the evidence.
(Illustration: Mr. X tells you that your nation is an oppressor, your spouse is a jerk or your child is a monster. It is the rare patriot, spouse or parent that will respond to such a charge with a pure, dispassionate quest to know the truth. Most of us in at least some of these circumstances will feel the fire under our collar as we formulate our supposedly “dispassionate rebuttal”. Just as we identify emotionally with nations and persons, so we identify with truth claims, theories and ideologies.)
So to sum up: are any of us motivated simply by a burning desire for actual facts, an intense craving to truly fill in the blanks of knowledge? I doubt it. But then if atheists are no better off on this count, neither can we say they are categorically any worse off. And with that, let’s all concede that we begin on the same ground, a self-interested desire to know, more or less.