New Atheists, Old Realities

As far as I can see, the New Atheists have been slowly executing a strategic retreat. Many seem to admit that there is not now, and can never be, a knock-down proof for atheism. Many seem also to be admitting that, no matter what their skeptical friends write, belief in God is not only here to stay, but also seems to be rooted in human nature itself. It may even provide an evolutionary advantage. Thus, the line of defense they have more and more frequently retreated seems modest and open-minded. As their reply to the question, “Is there a God?” their new answer is perfect for a bumper sticker: “I don’t know, and you don’t know, either.”

This is a mistake. The New Agnostic holds that the burden of proof is not on him; the burden is on others to “prove” to him that there is an object “out there.”

But the evidence about God is not to be sought “out there.” It does not reside among other classifiable, sensory objects in this universe. The question about God is essentially a question about one’s own personal identity. Do you yourself, Mr. Agnostic, find evidence within your own inner life (in a way that can be replicated by others) that your identity is not fully known until you admit that you participate in a life much larger than your own, drawing you toward becoming more fully developed and greater than you are? In a Light more powerful than the light of your own conscience? The question is about you.

Those who discover such evidence can claim to know that God exists within them, not simply to believe it. They hold that to find this evidence is the norm, not the exception; it is the default position of human beings. That is why the emergence of the religious impulse is to be expected in every generation. That is why a personal tie with God keeps being rediscovered in every era in human history, in virtually every culture.

There are two chief inner experiences that lead humans to the knowledge that in order to understand their own human nature adequately, they must come however slowly to recognize that they already participate in a divine nature, whose demands upon them as they currently find themselves are quite severe.

Consider first the “prison literature” of the twentieth century. In the prisons of officially atheist regimes, Fascist and Communist, there were many who were thrown into their cells at a time when they thought themselves to be atheists. Only slowly did some discover that there was an inner demand in them, a demand that they not become complicit in the lies of the regime; they must not sign their names to the lies put in front of them. On this imperative to stay honest, even at the cost of great pain, rested their entire integrity. If they had compromised that, they would have become part of the universal depravity insisted upon by the regime: “There is no truth but the truth of the Party.” They would have become like their jailers.

But why did they come to hold that this inner drive for absolute honesty was essential to their own human identity? Their senses of touch, hearing, seeing, smelling, and tasting may have ached with pain and violation. They may have been without any feeling of assistance from anybody, human or divine. Even their ability to give reasons for what they were doing might have collapsed, because the pain was so great and the terror of death so acute. The arguments of their torturers may have come to seem evident to them – and yet some deeper inner light drove them to refuse to lie.

What is the source of that light within them, which refused to let them surrender, even when their bodies could bear no more? They experienced that source as something greater than any part of their own body or mind. Yet that light seemed integral to their own self-identity.

This is the evidence that led Sharansky, Valladares, Mihailov, and an unknown number of others to perceive that they in fact lived in a spiritual community larger than their own ego, a community with all other humans struggling to preserve their integrity under threat of pain, and more than that. They also experienced by a kind of connaturality a mysterious Other (incorruptible and insistent) within them, more important than their own bodies and their own temporal life.

Such persons felt inwardly that, if they were not faithful, their moral failure would matter to that Other, in a wholly different way than it would matter to their jailers. Their moral surrender would be interpreted by their jailers as yet more evidence that everybody, just like themselves, had a price at which they would surrender. In such a surrender, their own integrity would die, and so would the real presence of God.

A second bit of evidence within myself (evidence that I participate in a wholly other, inconceivable Source of light) is my own insatiable drive to ask questions. Nothing finite satisfies me. There are always more questions to be asked. No existing concept seems final. In fact, this unrelenting drive lies at the basis of the scientific impulse. But it arises also in our intellectual lives outside of the habit of science. It arises within the habit of being faithful to reason, even in areas where science itself cannot go.

Ought I to marry this particular person? Ought I to take this job, make this work the center of my life’s pursuits? Is this the right institutional home for me, the community best designed to keep me asking questions and growing morally stronger?

One can make such choices intelligently, with good reasons. On the other hand, one may fail to anticipate realistically later twists of fortune. Later, one can blame oneself for having been more blind than one ought to have been. One can deeply regret past choices. In brief, science itself is not the only use for reason; in practical life, reason is also extremely important.

Here, some philosophers observe that people deploying practical reason live as if in the presence of an objective Observer. This Observer cannot be deceived by a person’s own self-deceptions. This Observer keeps pushing one to become more honest with oneself. And this Observer is not “out there,” but within. This Observer is sentinel not only over our scientific reasoning, but also our practical reasoning.

This, too, is evidence that we live in God, and He in us, at the very center of our identity. Within us is the Light, Judge, Merciful One, Brother, Inspirer, Prodder, Driver at the heart of our existence. Without becoming aware of this dimension of our own honesty and unlimited drive to understand, we cannot properly understand ourselves. We think ourselves smaller than we are.

“I searched for Thee everywhere, my God,” wrote St. Augustine in his mature, pagan, often profligate years. “When I found Thee, Thou wert within.” And later: “Thou wert closer to me than I to myself.”

The New Agnostic may not know, not yet, but a great, great number of us do know – yes, know – that the best drives within us do not come from our finite, sensory selves. We participate in them as an inner light all unbidden. Sometimes even as a torment. These inner drives are much greater than ourselves. They teach us that we are open to the Infinite.

Published in The Washington Post/Newsweek June 20, 2008