On the Invalidity of Atheism (and also of Theism): An Introduction
The sacred and the divine are matters of faith. This is the truth which has been imposed on Europe of late. Our truth is otherwise…. —Julius Evola
Before wading into the topic of atheism, I should state right here at the beginning the meaning of my terms. I have received some criticism and ridicule in comments in the past, presumably from self-avowed atheists, because I took a few terms for granted and did not define them. So: For the purposes of this discussion an atheist is a person who declares that there is no God, a theist is a person tho declares the opposite, that is that there IS a God, and an agnostic is a person who declares that he doesn’t know if there is a God or not (“agnostic” literally meaning “not knowing”). Hence, to you agnostics out there, I do not consider you to be atheists, even if you consider yourselves to be atheists. At least for the purposes of the following discussion, you’re agnostics.
Usually the members of this last group also don’t care much if there is a God, and are functional atheists—though many people who believe that there IS a God are functional atheists as well, since theism is hardly a factor at all in influencing their perception of the world, or their behavior. These are secular, worldly-minded, spiritually lukewarm people, regardless of their religious or theological beliefs when they’re in a religious frame of mind. But functional atheism is not the issue at hand here; I will be discussing people’s actual beliefs on the matter of God.
Just to be clear, though, with regard to personal beliefs, I do not consider an agnostic to be an atheist. Also to be clear, or necessarily ambiguous, or whatever, I do not consider these three categories of people—theists, atheists, and agnostics—to represent the entire human race. I, for example, do not consider myself to belong to any of these three categories, for reasons that may become clear, or less ambiguous, later on. For now I will say that I consider the question of whether God exists to be a trick question.
I have already written about how atheism is almost always ultimately based upon an appeal to ignorance: A person who declares that there is no God almost always bases this declaration on his own personal ignorance of how God exists, or possibly could exist. He sees no persuasive evidence of God, and then takes the leap of faith, or of culturally conditioned lack of imagination, or intellectual hubris, or whatever, and says, essentially, “I fail to see how there is a God, and therefore there isn’t one.” For more on this aspect of the case I direct the reader to the aforementioned article, which is here. But almost needless to say, basing a firm disbelief of something’s existence on one’s inability to perceive it is a logically feeble argument, like a blind person denying the existence of light, especially when dealing with something that practically by definition is not necessarily obvious, or detectable to perception. (I freely admit here, though, in parentheses, that just as most if not all atheism is based on an appeal to ignorance, even so, most theism is based on an appeal to credulity, or to a different kind of ignorance.)
Atheism is also usually based, in the west anyway, on an interpretation of science called scientific realism, or “scientism.” Scientific realism is only one of any number of possible ways of interpreting scientific empiricism, and is essentially the belief that science actually describes and explains reality, that scientific data and theories reliably explain, at least to a limited extent, a presumed pluralistic external universe. But although this interpretation of science is only one possible one, most scientists and advocates of science, in their philosophical naiveté, assume that it is true, and even go so far as to assume that it is obviously the only plausible interpretation of science (which it is not). Thus atheism almost always goes hand in hand with some sort of materialism.
I am continually exposed to spiritually deprived materialists (who of course are oblivious to the fact that they are spiritually deprived) who scoff, or maybe even sneer, at the very idea of some transcendent Absolute, especially if it goes by the name of “God.” Some (and I won’t name any names here, though some of the names are famous) are even so far gone as to assert that reality and the Universe are inherently rational! So here I am writing again against atheism, though this is certainly not intended to be a defense of theism—rather, it is more like an attempt to explain why atheism in particular, the belief that there is no God, is essentially invalid.
And I need not even belabor the ancient Buddhist idea that all beliefs whatsoever are fundamentally delusional. I have written about this elsewhere when in a more radically philosophical mood than now (in fact I include one of these writings in an Appendix below), although here I will point out that belief is really a state of thinking that one knows something that one doesn’t really know—if we really know something, we no longer merely believe it. If a scientific materialist considers himself to know, and not merely believe, that physical matter exists, let alone that God does not, then he is outrageously philosophically naive; and so we fall back on consensus delusion, or “conventional truth,” not ultimate truth. But I’ll get back to the existence of physical matter later.
I may as well mention here in the first installment of this discussion, that a favorite method of atheists in the past was to assume that God would necessarily be like Jehovah in the Old Testament, or at least like scriptural accounts of the Deity in the three predominant western religions—and then scoff at what a cruel tyrant, liar, and angry fool He appears to be in some of these accounts. Even now some atheistic polemicists adopt a similar method of concocting what is essentially a crude caricature of a child’s or a childish person’s conception of God, and then dismissing, perhaps with some ridicule, the silliness or just the extreme unlikelihood of the concoction being true. The God disbelieved in by some modern atheists tends not to be a transcendent Absolute, which atheists can’t really comprehend anyway (since nobody can comprehend it), but more like an angry old man with a long white beard who is similar to Santa Claus in certain respects but lives up in Heaven instead of at the North Pole, has angels as helpers instead of elves, wears a white suit instead of a red one, and is not nearly so jolly. The God that I would hold up as a possibility to be considered is not like that, and any sort of atheism that contents itself with a refutation of that is a very crude and simplistic sort of atheism. By God, when I speak of that, I imply a transcendent Absolute, maybe something like infinite, formless consciousness, and not the angry old man with the beard, or anything resembling him. But some atheists are more sophisticated.
It has occurred to me that many if not all intelligent, educated materialistic atheists, especially those who have faith in scientific realism and rationalism, are like a fellow accurately, precisely, and maybe even brilliantly identifying, quantifying, measuring, and comparing the flickering shadows on a wall of Plato’s cave, while shackled. And not only this, but out of a sense of intellectual hubris perhaps, or philosophical naiveté, or just culturally conditioned ignorance of or bias against alternative explanations, such intellectuals, shackled in that cave facing the wall, insist that those flickering shadows are the highest reality, or the only true reality. Some might go so far as to hypothesize a fire behind them and objects producing the shadows; but the very idea of an outside to the cave with a sun shining in the sky, which humans could experience if they tried, would seem absurd, a primitive myth.
There are other possible similes, for example an intelligent, successful, and thoroughly blue-pilled inhabitant of the Matrix, who not only considers the computer-generated illusion to be reality, but has even formulated an intellectual philosophy which asserts that the Matrix is the only, or highest reality. Another possibility would be a character in a novel who of course considers the imaginary world of the novelist to be reality, and is clueless of the existence of the novelist himself. It turns out that very few characters in novels wake up to the fact that they are in fact imaginary characters, one of the best known of these individuals being Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout. But this last comparison is a fairly radical one—still plausible though, and incontrovertible to atheists, considering that God (the novelist) would be completely unknowable within the context of the character’s world. But it is only plausible, and as unverifiable to theists as it is irrefutable to atheists, and I am neither an atheist nor a theist.
So anyway, in addition to being based on an appeal to ignorance, and thus being based ultimately on self-disguised ignorance itself, positive atheism, the assertion that there is no God, tends to be based on some severely limited thinking. But more on that next time.
APPENDIX: KNOWING AND BELIEVING
Many years ago, when I was living in Burma/Myanmar, I was more radically philosophical than I am now, especially within the realm of epistemology, and I wrote the following essay. It has some bearing on the subject at hand, and I suppose it may be worth reading on its own merits, so I post it here.
KNOWING AND BELIEVING
Most people are not inclined to distinguish between knowledge and belief. It seems to be human nature to assume that whatever one believes, one knows. People are usually (but not always) reasonable enough to admit, when a belief of theirs has been shown to be manifestly false, that they really did not know after all, but only falsely believed; but such cases are generally shrugged off as trivial exceptions to the rule and put out of mind, and the assumption continues that whatever one believes, one knows. If the average person were pressed to define knowledge as opposed to mere belief, he might say something like, "Well…belief can be wrong, but knowledge can't be wrong." This is of course true, but it does not really define knowledge. So if the fellow is pressed further he might respond with something like, "Well, knowledge is belief that is right." Presumably, many if not most people would agree with and accept this definition.
But is knowledge really nothing more than true belief? Consider the following example, very similar to one given by Bertrand Russell: A clock is stopped with its face showing five minutes to six. In fact, the clock is broken and has shown five minutes to six for the past two weeks. By the sheerest coincidence, at precisely five minutes to six a man who does not know that the clock is broken walks by and looks at the clock to see what time it is, and walks away thinking (and rightly believing) "It's five minutes to six." But does he really know that the correct time is five minutes to six? The following example may illustrate the problem more clearly: Juanita Lovejoy has believed for years that the famous movie actor Myron Schmelnick is dead. Actually, Myron S. has been alive and well, living in peaceful retirement on the French Riviera (it was in fact his renowned brother Milton Schmelnick, the concert violinist, who mysteriously exploded in his swimming pool several years previously). However, one fateful day Myron dies in a tragic car accident. Juanita hears nothing of the news, and her belief that Myron Schmelnick is dead remains essentially unchanged. Bearing this in mind, can it be truly said that last year Juanita did not know, but that now she does? Can knowledge be subjectively indistinguishable from and psychologically identical to ignorance? Can real knowledge, in some cases at least, be nothing more than a lucky guess? If so, if knowing and not knowing can feel exactly the same, then how could a thoughtful person, taking this into account and reflecting upon his beliefs, be absolutely certain that he knows something in particular, or for that matter anything at all? It would seem that one could know something without knowing whether or not one knows.
It may be perceived that that last statement contains some verbal trickery. In the phrase "knowing whether or not one knows" the word "know" is used in two different senses. In the second place "to know" means, in accordance with the hypothesis in question, to have true belief; but in the first place it means something fundamentally different. In the first place "to know" means, essentially, to clearly and plainly see the truth or reality of something, to see it so clearly and plainly in fact that one cannot possibly be wrong about it, or have the slightest reasonable doubt about it. This definition of knowing as opposed to merely believing seems to be more rigorously accurate, and furthermore is probably how most people intuitively define the word even if they never articulate it as such.
It should be pointed out here that seeing the truth of something so clearly that one cannot possibly doubt it is not the same as absolute, undoubting conviction. For example, the Jehovah's Witnesses are just as absolutely convinced that their beliefs are ultimate, divine truth as many worldly-minded atheists are that the beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses are just plain silly. If undoubting conviction amounted to real knowledge, then every fanatic, bigot, and unquestioning dogmatist would be right. Inability to reasonably doubt is not the same as closed-minded refusal to doubt.
So now it may be asked, What can truly be known? As many philosophers and sages, both Eastern and Western, have been saying for millennia: Virtually Nothing! Philosophers as different from each other as Bertrand Russell and the Third Patriarch of Zen are in agreement on this one point. The arguments refuting or at least casting doubt upon the various beliefs of human beings are countless; and it would be beyond the scope of the present discussion to consider even a few of the major ones; but one of the most comprehensive and devastating of them all—namely, radical nondualistic mysticism—is particularly deserving of mention here. According to the mystics, the Universe is (at most) a single whole, and any division of it into parts, into "this" and "that," into self and other, even into figure and ground or existence and nonexistence, be it physical or purely abstract, is delusion (the delusion itself of course being ultimately no different from non-delusion). Can this view/non-view, paradoxical as it seems, be demonstratively, conclusively disproven? No.* Therefore all beliefs involving plurality, which is practically the same as saying all beliefs whatever, leave room for uncertainty and the possibility of reasonable doubt, thereby falling short of the criterion for genuine knowledge—and thereby being ipso facto at least semi-ignorance.
And so again—Is there anything that can be truly known? Is there anything at all that can be clearly and plainly seen to be undoubtably true and real? It seems that all that remains, all that the most radical mysticism and militant skepticism leave standing, is the present phenomenon of conscious sensation itself. (As the old joke goes about David Hume, master of demolishing beliefs, he doubted everything until he finally came to his senses.) Conscious sensation is the very substance of all experience; it is looking every conscious being right in the face every waking moment of every day, and all efforts to argue it away leave it unmoved and just as obviously real and present as before. Thus it is no mere coincidence that highly advanced yogic meditation techniques (mainly found in, but not entirely limited to, Buddhism and Hinduism), aiming as they are at the cultivation of wisdom—the knowing of Reality—involve keeping the mind at the level of bare conscious sensation, without any admixture of perceptual interpretation or belief.
In this search for absolute knowledge there appears to be one problem remaining, and a curiously paradoxical one at that: if the meditative mind abides at the level of bare conscious sensation completely unburdened of all pluralistic differentiation, of all superimposed significance, of all perceptual bias, then it would seem that the mind would be in the highest, purest mystical state, and all its sensation, unsupported by perceptual ignorance, would be, subjectively, no different from absolute emptiness. Thus the mind and its supposedly finally-attained real knowledge could not be said to exist or not exist. And so it is asked a third time: Is there anything at all that is truly knowable? If so, then it wholly transcends the understanding of an ordinary human being. It may be what is called "Nirvana."
Certain knowledge completely divested of ignorance becomes the same as Nothing. Paradox is the plaything of Brahma.
* It also apparently cannot be demonstratively, conclusively proven, but that is beside the point.
—Written on the 8th waxing of Visakha, 2545 old style (29 May 2001)
by Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu