The Skeptical Believer

Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist
Bog Walk Press, 2013. (ISBN 978-0-9706511-5-0).


“Disbelief is wasted on atheists.”
Richard Rodriguez

The first time I can remember doubting God was when I first heard about sex. I was seven and it sounded so disgusting that I shouted to the kid who told me as he walked away, “God would never let that happen!” But inside a little voice wondered if God had, in fact, let that happen, and, if so, it said he couldn’t be as good as I had been led to believe.

I’ve been hearing that little voice ever since, and probably before. It is the voice of what Richard Rodriquez calls my “inner atheist.”

Atheists come in two varieties—external and internal. External atheists are a dime a dozen. I want to speak respectfully of them—they are trying to figure all this stuff out, just like the rest of us–but it is difficult. The one’s in print and on cable television often sound too much like their fundamentalist alter-egos. Lots of braying, bluster, and bravado. Like most culture warriors, they speak much too confidently on things they know much too little about.

I read the books and hear the talks of professional atheists and respond, “Me thinks thou protests too much.” These people claim not to believe in God, but in truth they are obsessed with God. Few religious people I know have as much God-hunger as public atheists. They feed that hunger by talking about God endlessly, but it only makes them more ravenous. Strangely, they organize their lives around something they don’t believe exists. It’s like spending your life guarding the world against a Martian invasion and believing you are being successful. If there’s no God, then relax fellows, and find something to make yourself useful.

But the real reason I feel public atheists are mostly wasting both their time and mine is that they are redundant. I have an in-house atheist all my own. No external voice of disbelief holds a candle to the disbelief I carry in my own head. Disbelief is the background noise of my belief. It is that static on a radio station with a weak signal. It is the irritating base thumping through the walls from my neighbor’s stereo.

This inner atheist knows me well because he is me. He is only a part of me, to be sure, but he is not a part that can be isolated from the rest of me and surgically cut out. He is fully integrated, a member of the family, often annoying but undeniably a blood relation.

My inner atheist is always with me. I am tempted to compare him to an inoperable brain tumor or a cancer cell, but I can’t bring myself to do it. That’s so unfriendly. He isn’t really an invader, something alien. He’s me. He’s me when I’m tired, when I’m a bit discouraged, feeling cynical, or maybe when I’ve been feeling a little too smart and educated for my own good.

Yes, my inner atheist is me, but for a long time I wanted to kill him. I am capable of murder. There, I’ve confessed it.

As I said earlier in the book, there was a time in my life that I was a proofmonger. I bought into the idea that if God were real we should be able to prove it, or at the very least offer a case that was much stronger than any case for any other way of understanding the world. I repeated the mantra, hoping to believe it, that faith could not be simply subjective. It had to be based on facts, on careful reasoning, on proofs or near-proofs. Subjectivity was for the emotionally and intellectually weak. Worse yet, the next step down the slippery slope from subjectivity was—gasp—relativism!

But somewhere along the way it occurred to me that I was, for better or worse, a subject. I certainly wasn’t an object, so if subject and object were my only two choices, then I was and am a subject. And anything I believe, know, think, feel, intuit, imagine, suffer, enjoy, laugh or wonder about is going to be as a subject and will, therefore, be, dare I say it, subjective.

Does that mean everything is merely subjective (merely being the all-purpose put down word in these contexts)? No. All these things I know, feel, and so on can be genuine responses to things that have genuine objective existence—are true, if you will. (I subjectively feel pain in my toe, and, yes, there objectively is a rock that I stubbed it against.) But my experience of them can never be anything but a subjective experience, because I am a finite, limited, fallen, time-bound, culturally-conditioned hunk of subjectivity.

And my inner atheist will never let me forget that.

Okay, my belief is subjective. So what? Everyone’s belief about everything is subjective. There is no fact in the world, however brute, that does not require interpretation. That does not have to be cleaned off, inspected, spruced up, taught its manners, dressed up and introduced politely at the grand ball of whatever system of thought of which it is to be a part. (Does electrical activity in a certain part of the brain increase when one has strong emotions, including spiritual ones? All right, that looks like a fact. But when you try fitting that fact into an explanation, especially one about human nature or the human experience, you have become subjective.)

This kind of talk drives rationalists—including rationalistic apologists for faith—crazy. How can we be certain about something if it is merely (there’s that word again) subjective? (We can’t.) That opens the door to every looney idea and ideology imaginable! (Including the notion, looney to some, that there is a God.) It is irrational to believe something without evidence! (It is also irrational to think that reason alone can decide what counts as evidence.)

Somewhere around the time I made peace with subjectivity, I also made peace with my inner atheist. I started by cutting back on his rations. I learned from experience that he got fat off hostility and oppression. My attempts to kill him with definitive answers were his meat and potatoes. “You want to play the questions and answers game? “ he says. “I invented the questions and answers game. My questions have questions. I thought of my tenth question while you were still fumbling with your first answer. I have more questions than the ocean has grains of sand. I am the e=mc2 of questions. I waited an eternity for you to be born so I could start asking questions. When you have given your last answer with you last dying breath, the last words you will hear from me as the lights go out will be another question. (And none of your answers, in case you’re wondering, will satisfy me in the least. Not one.)”

See how mean-spirited this guy can be if you feed him?

But if you don’t feed him, he’s not so bad. If I decide to hear him out rather than drown him out, he kind of deflates down to a manageable size. He’s a bit of a Wizard of Oz figure: “I am Skepticism, the Great and Powerful!” But in fact, he’s just a little man behind a curtain playing with knobs. Having looked behind his curtain, I sort of like him. My inner atheist still talks trash now and again, but once you see through him, he’s almost entertaining.

I’ve also noticed that he gets quiet during stories. I think, in fact, that my resident atheist may like stories. He doesn’t complain nearly so much during story telling as when I feed him propositions and facts. He tends to sit in the corner and listen, not affirming but not protesting much either. Sometimes he’ll say, “That’s just a story,” hoping the word “just” will [frighten or irritate me] and diminish the story a bit. Or he’ll grouse, “Well other people have their stories, too,” as though stories cancel each other out. But he really doesn’t know what to do with stories and so he mostly shuts up.

So, here’s the deal we’ve struck. I let my inner atheist have his say. I let him ask his question, express his doubts, roll his eyes, vent his spleen, pass a little cynical gas–whatever he feels the need to do. I even compliment him occasionally when he makes a good point. (He hates that.)

Then I go on believing. I go on trying to live my part in the story.

I’ve thought about this a lot. I don’t think this is stubborn belief despite the facts or glorying in irrationality (what some would call fideism). I think it actually quite a rational response to the limitations of reason and the rewards of belief. The upside of believing, of being part of the story, is enormous. The only downside is the possibility of being wrong. I can live with that—maybe forever.