Occasionally I find myself in dispute with an atheist or theist. This is not because I enjoy banging my head against a brick wall but part of a long-running investigation into how best to communicate across the great divide that separates what we usually define as ‘religion’ and ‘science’. It makes no difference to me where knowledge is found or what category it falls into, only whether it is reliable, but there are those for whom it seems to be a matter of life and death. For some it would be impossible that science could tell us anything about religious truths, and for others it would be impossible that religion could tell us anything about scientific truths, and for many people the world would fall apart if this was ever found not to be the case.
When I meet the kind of atheist for whom it is inconceivable that religion could be a source of knowledge, often the most difficult category of people to talk to, it always seems safest to approach the issue of God’s existence via metaphysics. Being greatly disliked and studiously avoided by extremists on both sides of the science-religion debate, metaphysics provides a common and neutral ground for discussion. The science-religion distinction becomes irrelevant and the logic of the situation would be all that matters.
Metaphysics would be immediately relevant to the debate because people who endorse a simple atheism, one that requires the rejection of all religion, usually also endorse a simple materialism. This endorsement depends on the idea that the adoption of a metaphysical hypothesis would not require that we actually do any metaphysics, since only by avoiding it would we be able to overlook the inconvenient fact that materialism contradicts human reason. Accordingly, I may try to make the initial point that atheism would not entail that we endorse materialism.
Materialism has been largely abandoned for physicalism, a view that is more difficult to define. This would be for a good reason. Physicalism might be called ‘subtle materialism’ for it is a more sophisticated idea. Some would say it is a more muddled idea, but either way it is progress. The abandonment of materialism is an acknowledgement of the fact that simple materialism, the belief that matter is independently real, that it is substantial, that it reduces to matter, is paradoxical and gives rise to contradictions. It fails as a fundamental theory. My suggestion, therefore, is usually that it would be progress if atheism moved on in the same way and did not tie itself to easily refutable metaphysical theories.
A difficulty here is that in a simple form atheism actually requires that we abandon metaphysics for a commitment to materialism, and thus that we must reject all religion as superstition. It is a thoughtless view of philosophy and religion, a high-school level misunderstanding, and these days it may even be a naïve view of physics. It might be called ‘folk-atheism’, and its persistence in the academic community is inexplicable. It is demonstrably ill-informed and rests on the preposterous assumption that almost the whole of the human race is, and always has been, a bunch of gullible fools. Somehow, however, despite all odds, the view that atheism requires materialism and that together they would form a rational philosophical position remains a common one. It would be impossible to say what could be rational about a theory that is demonstrably absurd, but we probably all know from experience that personal preferences can easily trump rational thinking.
Nor do I find that it does much good to point out that religion would not stand or fall on the existence of God, regardless of how we conceive of Him. The world’s largest religion is atheistic and teaches that God is a meditative delusion, an incorrect or non-reductive interpretation overlaying actual experience. Many Christians, Muslims and Jews have no problem with this teaching. They would not read the scriptures as preaching a simple form of theism or atheism but, rather, a doctrine for which it may be difficult to discern which, if either, it endorses. It seems that this idea is just too subtle and subversive, or perhaps simply too incredible, to be taken into account by those who prefer to polarise the issues and go to war.
The greatest problem for the theism-atheism debate may be that a simplistic idea of God by which ‘He’ or ‘It’ is an objective or subjective phenomenon that must unambiguously exist or not-exist is a vital and necessary one. We can have no other idea of Him. This would be as true for atheists as it is for theists. If we do not have this simple anthropomorphic idea of Him then we will have nothing to argue about. As a fundamental theory, however, this idea does not make complete sense. It fails in metaphysics. That is to say, it fails when we think about it a lot. This form of theism would be a legitimate target for the atheist, for it does not quite add up.
So atheists have some evidence on their side. But the situation is not simple. The failure in metaphysics of certain ideas of God does not point towards the final defeat of religion, for religion does not depend on any simple theism and is often a very clear and public rejection of it. It is simply not the case that an atheist has to be against all religion, and the evidence is there for anyone to see.
The idea that God is not necessary for religion is subversive because it undermines the assumption that atheists and theists need to be arguing. The problem the idea faces in gaining ground is that it is bound to be very difficult for a dogmatic theist, never mind an equally dogmatic atheist, to grasp how it would be possible for a person to believe that the teachings of Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Lao Tsu and Al-Halaj are true and yet remain an atheist. This idea would usually seem idiotic. Yet in principle, as an abstract problem, it can be seen that this seemingly unlikely accommodation of views would require only a form of atheism sufficiently sophisticated that we might also call it a sophisticated form of theism, and then, in addition, an ability to interpret the scriptures so that their message becomes equally sophisticated and in just the same way.
And this is what the Perennial philosophy offers us, a subtle reconciliation of all opposed extreme views for the recognition that there is some truth in all of them, even if none of them are entirely true. This would be one reason why it may be known as the ‘doctrine of the mean’. It is orders of magnitude more subtle than any simple atheism or theism.
A significant problem for the approach via metaphysics is that where atheists are also materialists they are not usually open to reason. It is simply no use pointing out to them that in metaphysics, where we do not simply guess at such things, materialism is a demonstrably absurd idea, that if materialism is true then the universe must remain forever incomprehensible and miraculous to us, and that if it seems incomprehensible and miraculous to materialists then this might be the reason. This strategy does not work because a naïve materialist has to assume, right from the outset and at all costs, that metaphysics is a waste of time. This is because a bit of thought shows that materialism is absurd. Inevitably, this assumption is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It means that proponents of materialism will often know next to nothing about metaphysics and have nothing to say about it, such that it would be a waste of time discussing it with them.
This is a shame, because if we study metaphysical problems we find that there are good reasons for endorsing atheism. Such a study is often shunned for the reasons given. Yet the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness would surely be sufficient evidence of the chaos that ensues if we ignore metaphysics and pick our views out of a hat. Materialism has not been discredited, it was never credited in the first place. In metaphysics we find that if we abandon materialism then atheism becomes a defensible position. We can then actually demonstrate a metaphysical proof of its defensibility. Many such proofs already exist and are well known in religion. The proposal that we should actually think this issue through with the brains that God gave us, however, does not usually go down well where it would threaten an entrenched opinion.
It will always be the case that a fundamental theory requires an ultimate phenomenon, and there are always going to be arguments about what it would be best to call it. Perhaps ‘God’ would be an appropriate term. Not many people would know. But even if it is an appropriate term, a sophisticated theism would not require that this phenomenon ‘exists’, that it acts, that it has intentions, that it judges our behaviour, that it creates anything, or that there is anything more to existence than natural laws and natural phenomena. We would not have to depart from the laws of physics or make unscientific claims. We would not have to adopt a position that is absurd in metaphysics. Our theory would be an interpretation of the results of metaphysics and physics, not a failure to take them into account. Because we would have taken them into account no logical argument could ever defeat our position and no scientific discovery could ever threaten it. We could even call it atheism. Everybody wins.
The only problem is that we would have to endorse the doctrine and world-view of mysticism. Only then can we see objective monotheism as a non-reductive interpretation of the scriptures, a way into the religious life but not quite the end of the ‘life Divine’, a means of invoking and communicating truths about human life and the nature of Reality but not a complete description of what we will find if we pursue the spiritual path to its end. Theism would be vital to religion in the same way that classical concepts are vital to physics, or to the interpretation and communication of physics. We have to use these concepts, they are necessary to our thinking processes. Nevertheless we can, as we do in physics, acknowledge that they are not quite right, do not quite work as a fundamental theory. This final transcendence of our everyday concepts is famously explained in a Sufi teaching story, The Conference of the Birds by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. For a more Christian discussion there is Keith Ward’s God: A Guide for the Perplexed.
This is a kind of atheism that makes sense. True or not, it stands up to analysis. This is not materialism, but neither is it idealism if this is directly opposed to materialism. Where any two metaphysical conjectures are defined so as to directly oppose each other they form the two horns of an ancient, well-known and utterly intractable philosophical dilemma. This is quite easy to verify. Mysticism is the ‘doctrine of the mean’, a middle path between these extremes.
Admittedly, it would be a strange kind of atheism. If we are believers in God it would not require that we abandon our faith. Our faith would be our motivation, our framework for research and learning, our guide to behaviour and practice, an inspiration for love, forgiveness and compassion, our sense of a force ‘rolling through all things’, perhaps including us, and perhaps even what seems to us a necessary interpretation of our own profound experiences. Yet faith, we must admit, is not quite knowledge, for we would have no need to maintain a faith in what we truly know, nor to rely on uncertain interpretations of experience. Motivated and guided by faith we would be asked to think for ourselves, conduct our own experiments, do our own research, while remaining free to believe what we like as long as our beliefs would not prevent us from examining the issues dispassionately or undermine our practice. If our beliefs actually motivate our practice, as a belief in God is very likely to do, and as it does for the flock of birds in Attar’s story, an ornithological Pilgrim’s Progress, then all the better. We would only have to accept that theism is a man-made idea that we make up for ourselves, even when our idea is guided by scripture, and that in the form we usually give it, the foundations for which are often laid in childhood, it does not quite work as a fundamental theory.
There is really no need, then, for atheists to fear metaphysics or religion. Metaphysics would ask us to make concessions but in the end it is on our side. Only when we associate atheism with logically absurd metaphysical conjectures like materialism would our position fall apart. If we endorse the perennial philosophy, for which Buddhism may be the most prominent of many examples, then our position becomes invulnerable in logic and science. It even becomes possible, as I have tried to show elsewhere, to make an effective argument for it.
I was a naïve atheist for many decades, albeit falling occasionally into the heresy of agnosticism, and am well aware of how from some viewpoints the whole of religion can look ridiculous. Yet it seems to me that if we can, conceptually and in our own minds, turn our materialism into physicalism, and then turn this into psycho-physicalism, as is now considered a respectable and some would say necessary approach in scientific consciousness studies, we will then be just one step away from mysticism, a happy accommodation of theism and atheism, and a final reconciliation of religion and science.