What Atheism Offers: Life’s Mysteries

One of the profound and fundamental misunderstandings theists have of atheists is the belief that the latter lead a cold and narrow existence, unconcerned with the mysteries of the universe. Anything that can’t be immediately, rationally known must be rejected. Wonder is sapped from life. What’s happening when this view is articulated, however, is an unfortunate assumption about the very idea of mystery. The theist defines mystery as “the unknown filled by unfounded imagination.” The atheist sees it differently.

Analogies often best illustrate distinctions, so imagine a mystery novel constructed from the theist’s perspective. A body is found in an alley, shot through the heart. The detective called in clears away the uniformed officers, squats next to the deceased, and inspects the wound. He gathers details — short range, low caliber — and announces, “This is clearly the work of a goblin, armed with a wand, and angry with the victim because he failed to perform the proper appeasement ritual.” With that, the detective stands up, gets in his car, and heads home to perform the ritual himself, so as not to suffer the same fate.

Besides being awfully short, this would make for a rather frustrating novel. Yes, the story the detective has told can be made to fit the facts — though there are some inconsistencies — and a large mythology exists going back countless generations about goblins, magical deaths, and mystic rites designed to prevent them. In short, we can’t entirely rule out the detective’s explanation. But does that make it valid? Does it warrant a satisfying “The End” and a year long wait for the next book in the series? Of course not.

Why, then, should we reject the detective’s theory? Why shouldn’t we afford it the same respect we’d give to one that included a .22 pistol, an unhappy wife, and an overheard fight the night before? Because, when examining theories about the world, we naturally demand evidence. The goblin story isn’t good enough because it has a strong air of simply being made up. While no facts immediately dismiss it, no facts can be found to explicitly support it, either. And we’d hardly claim that the detective who won’t accept goblins doesn’t appreciate mysteries, is cynical, or is intellectually arrogant.

The atheist is no different from the modern detective. Rather than investigating corpses, though, he examines the awesome beauty and wonder of the universe itself. How did this all come into being? Why am I here? What should I do now that I am? What is right, what is wrong? This are huge questions and ones we may never answer. Yet this doesn’t mean they should be approached from a religious standpoint or seen as gaps in knowledge that can only be filled by unfounded imagination.

For theists, the answers are easy. How did the universe get here? God did it. How did life come into being? God. How are we to live? The son of god told us twenty centuries ago. The believer can spend a fulfilling lifetime trying to understand god but that doesn’t make his answers anything more than made up gap filling. He’s posited goblins with wands and accuses anyone who rejects these little monsters of being elitist and intellectually overreaching.

The theist rejects the atheist’s stance, saying that the only honest position is agnosticism, because we can’t know the absolute truth of god’s non-existence. Here, again, we are presented with a misunderstanding of terminology. An atheist rarely makes the flat out claim “There is no god.” Rather, he says, “I don’t believe in god.” An agnostic, on the other hand, says, “I’m not sure whether I believe in god. I could go either way.” Therefore, far from being an intellectually arrogant argument, the atheist is merely saying “Nobody has a good reason for believing in god and, without reasons, we shouldn’t believe things about the nature of reality.” This has been the claim of scientists and philosophers since these fields arose from the sea of human ignorance in distant antiquity. The theist soundly rejects this tradition. His argument, when stripped of its theological veneer, becomes nothing more than “Because we can’t know everything, I can believe anything.”

And that’s not an acknowledgment of mystery. It’s only muddy logic.

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