Q & R: on atheism

This is an especially interesting question, from an atheist. Here’s the Q:

Hello Brian, I have just read your book “A Search for What Makes Sense – Seeking Faith” and this raised some questions for me, that I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on. They centre on your point that atheism and theism both require some level of faith and are therefore on a ‘level playing field’ in terms of faith and reason.
One of the points you make is that “It does mean that the playing field is level. The atheist does not have the high ground of logic, reason, science, knowledge and certainty”.

However, in my understanding a religious position is centred not on reason or rationale, but on feeling the knowledge and love of God. That is why it is a faith position, it is not founded on reasons. Based on this I think atheism can claim the high ground on logic, reason, science and rationale. Whilst religion can claim the high ground on faith, security, community, support, ritual and practice. Religion has many facets that recommend it, but I don’t think that reason and logic are among them. It strikes me that ‘good faith’, secure faith, could recognise and accept this, which would spare us from pointless, and often destructive, arguments about proofs for God’s existence, creationism, life after death, the source of morality, science etc. I think the best that can be claimed is that while reason doesn’t rule out the existence of a god, it doesn’t support the position well.

My understanding of the positive atheist position is this; the world is as it seems and works the way I perceive it to work, and when I die my consciousness will come to an end.
One could also state it in the negative; unless I see good evidence for supernatural agency in the world or for life after death, I see no reason to believe in either.
You stated a very reasonable version of this yourself; “I have thoroughly examined the evidence (for the existence of a god), and I found it less than compelling, so I have made my choice on the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ premise; without compelling proof to the contrary, I will believe the universe exists innocent of any deity”.
The atheist position does not make any claims that are not backed up by demonstrable evidence. This is the essence of the position. It does not require more faith than that required for practical (relative) certainty of a very prosaic kind, e.g. I am sure (practically certain, as you put it) it is me sitting here typing this email.
This is very different from the level of faith required to hold a theist or religious position; that there is a god, who is omnipresent, omniscient and all-loving, there is life after death, that God created the universe and all within it. There is no strong evidence to support any of these points, indeed on some points the position defies logic, which is why faith is required.
It seems to me that the atheist and theist/religious positions are not in the same sport, let alone on the same level playing field. This is why argument between them proves so fruitless, and misunderstanding sadly flourishes. It would be better to concentrate on understanding the other’s position as they see it, rather than trying to force reconciliation of two irreconcilable positions.

Here’s the R:
First, I have to thank you for the respectful and civil tone in your question. You set an example for many of the religious folks I’m in dialogue with! I really appreciate this, and I think everyone who reads this blog will join me in saying thanks.
A key to this kind of respectful dialogue is learning to express “the other’s” position in terms the other can affirm: “Yes, that’s exactly what I think. You’ve got it.” I’m glad you felt I did that in describing the atheist’s position, and I feel you did that in regards to my position. This is truly remarkable … something I call “achieving disagreement,” harder than it looks, and rarer than it should be.
Second, a hunch – that you and I are both trying to get beyond the traditional bitter impasse between modernist religion and science. I think you’re trying to do so by allowing religion to claim other warrants or legitimations than science – “feeling the knowledge and love of God.” This allows religion to have the high ground in some areas and science in other areas. This is a noble effort.
Third, a concern. I’m nervous about religion claiming the high ground in certain limited areas (faith, security, community, support, ritual and practice) and abdicating reason to others. First, religion often fails in the areas that are its supposed strength, and second, certain sectors of religion really do (in my experience and opinion, anyway) excel in reason. True, there are reactionary and defensive strains of religion that make a parody of reason, and they are amazingly popular these days. But I think we make a mistake to let these reactionary voices speak for all of religion, whether in the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or whatever zone. I think it will be better for all of us to highlight the more reasonable voices in the faith community and work (and hope and/or pray!) for their tribe to increase.
Let me offer a couple of examples. Science was right (via Copernicus and Galileo) in courageously deconstructing an outmoded view of the universe. The church was wrong to defend that view. Science was right (via Wallace and Darwin) to challenge an untenable interpretation of Genesis. Religion was wrong to defend that view.
But there were, in both cases, religious leaders who courageously broke with their communities’ authority figures … Galileo, of course, being a reverent man himself, as was Newton, who in a sense “sanctified” a new world view that used mathematical formulae instead of crystalline spheres to explain how the universe moves. In the case of evolution, I think of people like Teilhard de Chardin, John Cobb, John Haught, Philip Clayton, and many others who have modeled a “theology of evolution” rather than “theology versus evolution.”
I suppose a key question is what we mean by “demonstrable evidence.” If by demonstrable, we mean weighable, measurable, repeatable, and so on, then I think you’re right. This is the high ground of science. But certain things – things accessible to intuition, imagination, contemplation, and so on (and even history might be in this category, since it’s not repeatable) – can still be reasonably considered, even though they aren’t weighable and so on.
I also don’t want to minimize – as the Einstein quotes in the book (elucidated by Lesslie Newbigin) are intended to demonstrate – that good science also involves intuition, imagination, and even a kind of contemplation.
But even with my concerns, I think you bring up a hard-to-dispute fact: there is a lot of faith involved in faith, and I think if one decides not opt out of any more than the least possible faith, he or she is going to lean atheist.
Your comment strikes me in one other way: reasonable doesn’t have to mean argumentative. There is an aggressive, forceful, prosecutorial kind of reason that, whether wielded by the religious or non-religious, sets us backward. And there is a ‘sweet reasonableness” (I think the apostle James describes it well in 3:13 ff.) that helps us move forward.
And that’s needed today as never before. When believers in various tribes, in partnership with atheists and agnostics, can join in respectful, reasonable conversation, we can work together on the huge ethical and practical challenges that face us all … notably, the crises of planet, poverty, and peace, which I wrote about in another of my books you may be interested in.
I really appreciated your final comment:

This is why argument between them proves so fruitless, and misunderstanding sadly flourishes. It would be better to concentrate on understanding the other’s position as they see it, rather than trying to force reconciliation of two irreconcilable positions.

As you say, reconciliation, like most good things, can’t be forced, but understanding is something we can achieve, or at least work toward, through conversations like these.