Some Christians say that atheists arrogantly place their own reason and intellect above God, thereby undermining their ability to understand the limits of human reason compared to the wisdom of God. I argue that this notion is completely the inverse of the truth. It is Christians, not atheists, who, for various reasons, arrogantly place their own experiences and intellect as being primarily and unassailable, and it is the Atheist who properly acknowledges the constraints and limits of human reason. (NOTE: this article is polemical, so for the purpose of rhetorical force and clarity, it omits certain caveats, qualifications, and exceptions that I would normally include. Readers should bear this in mind when interpreting the piece.)
There is a myth which many Christians believe, and is frequently raised as an objection or snide refutation of atheist thought. This myth – nay, this lie, for many who reiterate it should know better – asserts that atheists arrogantly place their own reason, their “science”, above all else, displacing God from his rightful place as primary and foremost of all. Christians, so says this lie, humble themselves by accepting the limits of human reason and science falsely so called; the Christian defers his own judgement to that of God, whose wisdom far exceeds our own. For it is a fool who says in his heart “there is no God”, and the beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord. The Christian thus humbles themselves in the face of their limitations, while the Atheist arrogates to themselves the position of arbiter of ultimate truth.
This is a lie. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of the truth. It is the Christian, not the Atheist, who arrogantly asserts their own intellect as supreme above all else, and it is the Atheist, nor the Christian, who properly acknowledges their own limitations. Amongst Christians, there are two main types of attitude with respect to reason; the one can be said to be deficient, and the other, excessive. In actual fact, the sin is as great in either case, for to err either side of the mean is equally deplorable.
The Christians who exhibit deficiency are those who reject the need for reason and evidence altogether. For them, their own personal experience of God, be it through prayer, reading the bible, attending church, or various life experiences, is sufficient to convince them totally, utterly, and with utmost finality, of the truthfulness of all of the many claims of Christianity. Arguments, evidence, logic: these might be useful in making Christianity appear more acceptable to the world, to attract those who would otherwise reject the good news out of hand. But ultimately, such things do not matter, for even if an argument is refuted or a piece of evidence found to be inadequate, it does not matter; after all, even the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. These Christians know the bible is the word of god. They know Jesus died for their sins. They know god answers prayers. In exercising such resolute belief, however, these Christians exhibit perhaps the worst form of intellectual arrogance known to mankind. their own subjective experience, their own interpretation of biblical passages, their own life history, their own thought processes – these things trump every possible argument, objection, and disconfirming piece of evidence imaginable. Such Christians have not made God their sovereign, they have made themselves – their experiences, their emotions, their interpretations – primary, foremost, dominant over all else. They do not care about what is true; they care only for the God that their own subjectivity has built for them, out of a haphazard, idiosyncratic mixture of their personality and life experiences. In worshiping a God that is a construct known only through their subjective experiences, they are in essence worshiping nothing but their own ego.
Christians who exhibit excess, by contrast, are those who claim to believe on the basis of reason and evidence. It is they who appeal to such stratagems as the Ontological Argument, the Moral Argument, the Cosmological Argument, and the appeal to the Resurrection of Jesus. In so doing, however, they venture far beyond the bounds where reason and evidence can safely take them. Not content to remain silent on that about which we cannot speak, such Christians confidently pontificate on matters far beyond human ken, discussing the ‘ultimate meaning’ and ‘true nature’ of such abstruse notions as time, being, essence, goodness, and causation. Indeed, they go further than more speculation; they claim to establish confident, firm knowledge on the basis of these sophistries. They care not that many men and women more learned than they have considered the same matters all throughout the ages, arriving at utterly contradictory conclusions. Nor do they care that such questions are unable to be tested by science, history, or indeed by any known reliable method for separating falsehood from truth. Disagreements, uncertainties, ambiguous evidence, and other difficulties are of no concern to these Christians, for they know that they are right. In making such a determination, however, they place themselves – their own minds, their own intellects, their own wisdom – as supreme above all else. Not only is their wisdom superior to that of all those lesser heathens who disagree with them, but it is also of sufficient penetrating depth and expansive breadth as to be capable of accurately illuminating, with unprecedented surety and clarify, the most arcane mysteries of the universe. Such hubris is the exact opposite of the intellectual humility to which these Christians pretend. Thus, in establishing their own opinion, their own intellect, their own assessment of the evidence as primary and foremost above all else, they have made a God in their own image. They worship not God, but their own minds.
Unlike the both deficient and the excessive Christian, the Atheist attempts, to the best of their ability, to adhere to the Golden Mean of human reason. They seek out reliable evidence wherever it can be found, and as evidence mounts, doubt diminishes and certainly grows – but never to a full ripeness, as the Atheist knows that human reason is limited, always leaving room for doubt. The Atheist seeks to understand the mysteries of life, space, and time as best as they can, but are ever vigilant and watchful of false pretensions to knowledge, when claims are not supported by sufficient evidence, or when our ability to question outstrip our ability to understand. When, as is often the case, evidence is equivocal, good arguments are to be found on both sides, experts are in disagreement, and sources of reliable facts are scarce; in cases like this the Atheist properly withholds judgement. Thus, to the question “do you believe that God exists”, they answer cautiously: “I do not, for the evidence is inconclusive, however I am open to changing my opinion in the future if new evidence or arguments become available”. Atheists are wary of subjective, anecdotal experiences and abstract, unfalsifiable philosophising – not because such things are always wrong, but simply because they have turned out to be wrong so often in the past, and the Atheist does not assume himself to be in such an epistemically privileged position that merely because it is their experience or their reasoning process, that therefore all these difficulties of reliability and uncertainly magically vanish into the ether. In short, rather than arrogantly asserting the supremacy of their own intellect, it is the Atheist, and the Atheist alone, who properly humbles themselves, recognizing both the power, but also the limits, of human reason and certainty.
There is one thing, however, about which the Christians are totally correct. They are right in saying that Atheists do, in fact, worship a God. For, in striving always to abide by the Golden Mean of human reason, the Atheist worships Veritas, god of truth. Although she is elusive and often subtle, she is a far superior God to those worshiped by most Christians.