Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Practical Atheist

The prestige enjoyed by the agnostic solution today does not stand up to colder examination. As a pure theory, it may seem exceedingly illuminating. But in its essence, agnosticism is much more than a theory: what is at stake here is the praxis of one’s life. When one attempts to put it into practice in one’s real field of action, agnosticism slips out of one’s hands like a soap bubble; it dissolves into thin air, because it is not possible to escape the very option it seeks to avoid. When faced with the question of God, man cannot permit himself to remain neutral. All he can say is Yes or No—without ever avoiding all the consequences that derive from this choice even in the smallest details of life.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 88-9

Reflection – Well, we’ve been down this road before on this blog – click the agnosticism label at the bottom of the post if you want the full story. But it bears saying again and again; we cannot really suspend judgment on the question of God.

Intellectually, yes we can, of course. It is clearly not psychologically impossible or logically unsound to say ‘I don’t know’ about the God question or any other question. But the God question, unlike, say, the wave/particle nature of light or the average wing span of a swallow (European or African? I don’t know… auggggh!), has direct practical implications for what you and I are going to do today, doesn’t it?

If there is a supreme being—that is, One who created you, holds you in being, and who is the author and end of your life—then you had better be talking to Him/Her/It today, right? If there is a God, you had better be asking this God to show you how to live, right? If there is a God, then prayer is a priority for each one of our lives, without exception.

So if you don’t pray, you are acting as if there is no God. You are a practical atheist, even if you insist that you are an agnostic. It seems to me that there are very few agnostics who end up adopting theistic practice—a rigorous, disciplined life of prayer—while most self-declared agnostics end up living as atheists.

But this whole prayer business opens up for us a whole stance to life that does not stop when we get up off our knees. If there is a God, then the truth, the meaning, the goodness, the point of virtually everything in the universe is not ours to decide. It is ours to discover, but that’s entirely different. Columbus ‘discovered’ North America; he did not invent it. There is a whole attitude towards life that emerges from practical theism as opposed to practical atheism, a reverence, a listening spirit, a deep humility.

I will never forget the shock I had one day when I, still a layman at that point but already in my final promises in Madonna House, realized that by and large I was living as a practical atheist. Generally speaking, I made up my own mind about stuff without much serious reference to… you know, the Big Guy. It was actually a key moment of repentance in my life that led me in a circuitous sort of way to my current state of affairs (where I at least once in a while check in with Him about stuff!).

Anyhow, agnosticism is a bust, practically speaking. Either there is a God or there is not one, and our whole way of life either is based on the existence of God or it is not. It is fairly simple, even though practical atheism can slip into our hearts in myriad subtle ways. And perhaps (realizing that most of my readers are churchy-type people) that’s a good focus for this post—are we living as theists or as atheists? Is God the center of our lives… or something else? Something to ponder…


  1. Very few non believers are really atheists, most are agnostics to varying degrees. Richard Dawkins in his book "The God Delusion" suggest a seven point scale where 1 is complete belief and 7 and complete disbelief ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectrum_of_theistic_probability ). He describes himself as in the "sixes", 6.7 to 6.9 depending upon the day. In the same way that I am technically agnostic (to various degrees) with regards to astrology, homeopathy and ESP I am also agnostic towards the existence of a God or Gods. One can't philosophically disprove any of these beliefs, only form ones opinion based upon their varying lack of evidence.

    "Practical atheism" does not base its way of life upon the non existence of God, especially with regards to how one acts. Rather it bases its action upon reason, critical analysis, constructive discussion, empathy towards others and science ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgHoyTvyh4o ). And if that methodology slips into our hearts, or better our minds, then we would be hard pressed to do better than being based upon those principles.

    1. I think we've had this conversation before (the deja vu, it is strong...). You seem to miss the point Ratzinger and I are making. Of course agnosticism is an intellectually defensible position, and of course many atheists are agnostics... but they cannot 'live' as agnostics. They live as atheists. God does not factor into their actions, choices, decisions. They do not pray 'just in case', and if they do, they are probably in the midst of a conversion to faith. Really it's not complicated. And in fact, the comparison with astrology, etc., is not all that telling. Of course you are agnostic re: all that stuff... and live as if it is untrue and irrelevant to your life. Intellectually we can be undecided, but existentially we cannot be. And the more ultimate and absolute the question is (the origin, goal, meaning, purpose of all that is, myself above all), the less is there any neutral stance.
      I would point out that with astrology, etc., there is no rational argument possible, or that has ever been offered for these things, while at least a dozen rational arguments for God's existence have been formulated over the millennia. You may disagree with those arugments, but that doesn't make them unrational.
      Reason, etc. as a basis for life sounds fine... but what is reason's basis? Ultimately the practical atheist chooses to live a life without a ground to being, or with the ground of being wholly unexplored and ignored.
      All that being said, I do suspect we're talking past each other somehow, which is unfortunate. Thanks for being courteous and kind in your comments, though.

  2. Fr. Denis Lemieux - I enjoy the way you think. But what of agnostics that accept that there are forces out there beyond their control and that need not be revered, fear or atoned. That things are just the way they are and we can be the way we be without the need for communication to this entity or entities to try and achieve some personally gratified motive. That knowing there is nothing we can do to change the will of whatever that is - that praying is pointless because whatever will be, will be. That things are perfect the way they are, even though our human emotion might sometimes tell us they are not - because we like to feel superior and in control. Atheists sure like to feel superior and in control! The belief I am describing is of something unknown, unidentifiable - therefore something unquestionable because it is unanswerable. Logic therefore ensues a pointless argument to explore, so why bother exploring it? Just accepting that there is something without having to actually 'pray' or focus on it does not make one an atheist - it is definitely an agnostic viewpoint and cannot be likened to atheism at all. For me, I am not a fan of religions - that they think they have the answers is ridiculous. And for a similar reason, I am not a fan of atheism - to think there is no answer because there is no question is ignorance. What I have experienced in my life raises many unanswerable questions... and I like that. And I am not the only one.
    Thanks for listening :-)

    1. Thanks for your good words, and your courteous manner - always a gift on the Internet, eh? I do think, though, that you are not in serious disagreement with me, at least not on the point I am making (along with himself) in this post.
      Namely, as far as I can make out, while you are indeed intellectually agnostic, you are existentially atheist.
      Admittedly, you are a nice (practical) atheist, not obnoxiously claiming to know more than you do and seemingly quite pleasant to those who disagree with you. But the practical consequences of your beliefs is that you act without reference to God or gods or the ultimate. At least it seems so to me - realizing that a comment on a blog is hardly the whole story of your life!
      I respect the stance you have adopted, and that you try to respect the stances of others. If I say 'God bless you', will you be offended? (It's hard for us priests not to say that...). Pax to you.
      I do