The Book: The edge of atheism

Doctor of the Church St. Anselm of Canterbury in an English glass window of 19th cent. | By Unknown, English [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In my high school and early college years, I loved to argue and debate almost any topic, using words to batter an opponent into intellectual submission. There was very little listening going on, except vigilance to spot an exploitable flaw in someone’s argument.

In college, as I plunged into history, logic and philosophy courses, I discovered something that troubled me: I had been living a life based on ad-libbed facts tossed at me in classrooms and debate-like discussions over the years. I found that many of these “facts” were nothing of the sort. Whether considering the causes of the Civil War or delving into the religious beliefs of our founding fathers, I found a striking difference between what others wanted me to believe and what could be known by the unambiguous historical record.

I began to move from my emotional and immature desire to win arguments to a singular interest in facts with the evidence to back them up. That’s what attracted me to the field of journalism where, I believed, I could spend a lifetime illuminating facts from which my readers could make informed decisions.

It was in college logic and philosophy courses that I first examined why I even believed there was a god, let alone a Judeo-Christian God. My atheist professor – never outwardly hostile toward religion – did an excellent job of exposing us to the ancient philosophers and the doctors of the Catholic Church, including Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm. While others emerged from that coursework without a belief in God, I found a lifelong friendship with those early philosophers and a stronger belief in God.

In just a handful of philosophy courses, I found some well thought out attempts to prove the existence of God, including Anselm’s “Ontological” argument that God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” Anselm believed if the reality of God is greater than that which we can think in our minds, God must exist.

Good thinking should never take place in a bubble, and I found some equally well-constructed arguments against each of the proofs offered by the various philosophers, both ancient and modern.

It was through Anselm that I found I could embrace logic and philosophy yet choose to believe in a Judeo-Christian God. For ultimately, that is what this belief is – a choice. Anselm also chose to believe in God and Jesus Christ. Then, after that choice, he set about to prove the existence of what he had already come to believe. “For I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand. For I believe this: unless I believe, I will not understand.”

I came to believe in God because it explained my perceptions of the frightening world I encountered. I came of age during the Cold War and fully expected a nuclear exchange would end us all before 1990. It was a world in which the Soviets could calmly shoot down an unarmed Korean airliner, killing 269 innocents. And, it was a world in which the enormously popular Star Wars trilogy played out an astonishingly familiar battle between the virtuous Rebel Alliance and the evil Galactic Empire.

My sense of this world of the early 1980s was that it involved an apparent battle of good versus evil. Very often that evil was the result of human behavior, whether the genocides of Hitler and Stalin or my own selfish behavior harming those closest to me. Looking around, it was easy for me to conceive of a supreme good and an absolute evil. The Judeo-Christian explanation of that battle made great sense to me. However, others in my philosophy classes perceived a less spiritually frightening world, reaching reasons for our existence that excluded any form of deity, let alone a Judeo-Christian God. Unlike the world of 2017, we students of the early ‘80s openly discussed these conflicting ideas in classrooms and over coffee. We often spoke with great enthusiasm, but no anger or outrage.

Read much of my blog, and you’ll see that I find faith and life in a rational mind difficult. I don’t trust emotional decisions, yet undoubtedly feelings contribute to my belief in the Judeo-Christian God.

Do I find there is persuasive evidence to believe in this God? Yes.

Do I believe there is proof of God so compelling as to overpower the most skeptical of minds? No. If there was, all mankind would have no choice but to believe.

I told a friend recently that I walk on the ragged edge of atheism every day. Some of my Christian friends likely will find that statement horrifying. For their reassurance, I would point the Biblical precedence of Mark 9:24 when the father of a sick child cried out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” and John 20:24 in which Thomas doubted the resurrection.

I don’t expect I will ever learn how to live life without examining the legitimately challenging questions and points of view – including atheism – that are not my own. I’m not sure I ever want to be so immensely confident in my beliefs that I dismiss offhand the legitimate questions of others.

Socrates found the unexamined life not worth living. I agree, but only in part.  For me, my faith, the people I love, and the beauty of the world make life very much worth living. But, an examined life can be intensely fascinating for the unafraid.

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