Sunday, 5 April 2015

Why I am not an atheist?

Why I am not an atheist? This is not an easy question to answer. It is a loaded question. There is just too much laden biasness that I have to debunk before answering it. I have to tell myself that I have been a Christian for 30 years when I was only 15 years old.  So I have only 15 years as an atheist, a non-believer. I am 45 now. Not counting the time when I have yet to develop a mature mind from my birth in the year 1970 to the time I took my PSLE in 1982 (15 years minus 12 years), I have only 3 out of that 15 years of being a so-called reflective atheist. Now, against the 30 years of complete immersion in the Christian culture, faith and practice, 3 years are in fact fleeting.

What’s more, my wife is a Christian. She was born into a family of Christians. Her father is a Christian pastor. He converted early in life. He married a deeply devout wife, my mother-in-law. And her siblings and their wives are all Christians. Most of my own siblings and their spouses are Christians too.  Not to mention most of my close friends (and their wives) are Christians, some nominal and disillusioned no doubt, but nevertheless people of the professed faith. As such, the bias is just as rock solid as dried cement. And that question of “Why I am not an atheist?” may just as well be answered cavalierly with this: “Because I have been a Christian for so long, I can’t imagine not being one.

Now, a little confession here. Although I have been a Christian for the last 30 years, I have lived some years of it experiencing (and struggling) with some variant forms of unbelief.  I have also religiously written about my doubts in my blog. And for a long time, in a state of mental duplicity, I had also experienced how it was like to think and act like an atheist.

Although I did not cross over to the “doubt side”, the four horsemen of atheism, namely, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and the late Hitchens, are people I admittedly admire. I had also read most of their books, highlighting a large chunk of it, and marveled at their velvety-smooth arguments. In the not-too-distant past, I had even argued with dye-in-the-wool Christians during their street evangelism just to see how strong they held up. In fact, there is this irrepressible mischief in me to disguise myself as an atheist and then throw curve balls at the red-in-the-face believers - something I am not proud of…of course.

If I had been an atheist, instead of a Christian for the last 30 years, I would have been one of their zealous advocates, crusading for atheism the same way a Christian would crusade for God. But of course, all of that is just arrogance speaking. And in the end, I am back to square one where I first started this journey to comprehend the incomprehensible or to understand that which defies understanding. And I realized that when confronted by faith, the joke was really on me. I am often caught flat-nosed by the cocksureness of my own atheistic-leaning shenanigans.

In the book, “Why I am a Christian?” the late John Stott offered seven reasons why he was a Christian. Let me recite them here for your digest. The first reason has to do with being hounded by God in the same way that CS Lewis was “checkmated” by the lover of his soul when he wrote in Surprised by Joy: “First, God was the great Angler, playing his fish and I never dreamed that the hook was in my tongue.” 

The second reason is the claims of Jesus. John Stott believed that the claims of Jesus are true. When Jesus proclaimed that the scriptures in Isaiah were fulfilled, he meant every word of it and he lived every word of it too. The third reason is the Cross of Christ. This is one reason that for me spoke louder than words because his death on the cross was a life-transforming message. These are John Stott’s own words about the hope of Calvary: “First, Christ died to atone for our sins. Second, Christ died to reveal the character of God. Third, Christ died to conquer the powers of evil.” 

The fourth reason is what he described as “The paradox of our humanness.” In the book, John Stott adopted a quote from Bishop Richard Holloway to shed light on this point, “This is my dilemma…I am dust and ashes, frail and wayward, a set of pre-determined behavioral responses…riddled with fears, beset with needs…the quintessence of dust and unto dust I shall return…But there is something else in me…Dust I may be, but troubled dust, dust that dreams, dust that has strange premonitions of transfiguration, of a glory in store, a destiny prepared, an inheritance that will one day be my own, So my life is stretched out in a painful dialectic between ashes and glory, between weakness and transfiguration. I am a riddle to myself, an exasperating enigma…this strange duality of dust and glory.

The above quote actually coincides with what I am thinking all along, that is, we are thinking meat. Now that’s a paradoxical duality that has tormented philosophers and neuroscientists for ages. But for John Stott, the answer lies in the first few pages of the Bible where it is written that we are created in his image. That seemed to have resolved the “exasperating enigma” for him.

The fifth reason is about true freedom for it is written, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” On this, he quoted Michelangelo, “When I am yours, then at last I am completely myself.” John Stott also did a modern twist on Mark 8:35, which I find illuminating, “If you insist on holding on to yourself and living for yourself and refusing to let yourself go, you will lose yourself. But if you are prepared to lose yourself, to give yourself away in love for God and your fellow human beings, then in that moment of complete abandon, when you think you have lost everything, the miracle takes place and you find yourself.” Now that’s something even the atheist can relate to minus the supernatural bit of course.

The sixth reason is what John Stott subtitled, “The fulfillment of our aspirations.” When philosopher Bertrand Russell, the atheist extraordinaire, wrote the following in the prologue of his autobiography, it struck an existential chord with John Stott and it made the scripture in John 10:10 that reads, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” come fully alive in his spirit. 

Here is what Bertrand Russell candidly admitted about life: “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly  strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair. I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy…I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness…that terrible loneliness in which one’s shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss…

For John Stott, love found him and he held on to it ever since; even to the day he passed on. He strongly believed that “over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss”, his loving Savior awaits with open arms. And in the passing of his soul comes the dawning of a new horizon.

And the last and seventh reason is the great invitation of God. To John Stott, this was one invitation he could not resist. It was not a superficial call, that is, a call for a night out or to a weekend stay. It was the deep calling to the deep. It cuts through all the middlemen of the soul, all the chambers of pretensions, and all the hidden nooks and crevices of self-serving motives. It is the call of one’s creator for his creation, a shepherd for his lost sheep. You can say that God made an offer that John Stott could not refuse. He concluded with these words, “It is under Christ’s yoke that we find rest, and in his service that we find freedom.” 

So, there you have it, 7 reasons for being a Christian, even unto death. Now, if the question had been, “Why I am a Christian?” then, with little reservation, as a Christian for three decades, I would have been inspired by the conviction of John StottEven as an atheistic philosophy of life (minus the supernatural bit), most of the reasons stated above would make for solid, consistent and emotionally-arousing sense.

I mean, amongst the 7 reasons, there are sacrificial love, empowerment of hope, freedom in full, and the fulfillment of aspirations. What could be more inspiring than all that? Aren’t all that conviction what a good and complete life should be even in the midst of the seemingly irreconcilable human suffering and pain?  

But, if you’d recall, the question was, “Why I am not an atheist?”, so I have to tweak it accordingly. I have to explain why I reject atheism notwithstanding the 7 reasons cited by John Stott above because the supernatural is something wholly alien to the atheist. To them, the love of God and the Cross are more of a figment of my imagination rather than the everyday reality they are familiar with. In other words, I have to give reason why atheism does not shoo-in well with my existential philosophy of life without the so-called religious baggage or bias. 

Here I have no 7 reasons like the ones John Stott had. I only have one and it is not a perfect defence. So, here goes...

Why I am not an atheist is because I will fail as one along the way. I will be tormented by a sense of void that I don’t think atheism (or even agnosticism) can fill. To a militant atheist, I am what they would call a coward. Instead of taking the leap of faith, I should have taken the leap of logic or the crossover of reason. But on that rationality front, I dare not jump. I freeze. I wet my theological pants. It is not about some Pascal’s wager or what-have-I-got-to-lose-if-I-believe gambit because I am not a existential gambler. I am risk-averse. I don’t gamble with life and the afterlife. I fear placing all my life’s chips on a wrong bet (atheism) when the choice is seemingly obvious, at least to me.

But what is my belief based on then? What makes it seemingly obvious to me and seemingly unobvious to so many atheists out there? Isn’t the evidence inadequate on both sides? Because neither the atheists nor the theists can convince either side, right? So, unless God makes a public appearance upon prior appointment for all to see, none of us are the wiser.  

Here’s why it is not a perfect defence. I can’t fully explain it. That is, I can’t fully explain why it is seemingly obvious to me. Seemingly, that is. Maybe this is where my 30-years bias rears its ugly head? Yet, I recall these words of Ravi Zacharias, “God has put enough into the world to make faith in Him a most reasonable thing. But He has left enough out to make it impossible to live by sheer reason or observation alone.” For me, there will always be this tussle within, this tug of war to live believing and doubting. It is undeniable that faith and reason often clash with each other more than they complement.

Einstein once said that “there are two ways to live. You can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.” Of course, he is not referring to the miracles performed by a personal God. Some have called Einstein’s conception of the supernatural as a form of Spinoza’s pantheism where god is the natural extension of the cosmic reality we marvel at and not the personal God Christians have come to believe in.

But Einstein had this to say about his conviction: “I am not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist.” He then continued with the following paragraph that is most congruous with my stand on the unknowable: “We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being towards God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.

Imagine the man who had singlehandedly constructed the theory of relativity in his head humbly conceding that we only “dimly understand” the laws that govern the universe as we observe it. I guess we can pursue the mystery of this universe and its origin like a child in a huge library as Einstein’s metaphor so deftly captures it or we can pursue it like an adult observing and recording his findings at the top of his self-constructed panoptical tower. Or a little of both in this journey of inscrutable unknowing-ness where "believers and non-believers are both voyagers" who thrive in this "brotherhood of inquiry and concern". (Michael Novak - "Belief and Unbelief")

In respect of religion, that is, the question about the supernatural, the difference is that the default position of the former, the child, is that of ever-glowing curiosity, and the default position of the latter, the adult, is that of self-assuring certainty. As such, the child will not be so quick to dismiss the supernatural because there is so much about this world and the universe that is beyond his grasp. But to the adult, he has presumably seen it all and he is able to work it out without any deference to the god hypothesis. Mind you, the child metaphor is not so much a God-of-the-gaps position but the hole-in-our-heart condition.

So, for me and for now, I can intimately identify with the child-lost-in-a-huge-library metaphor (and my hopeless bias for books has nothing to do with it of course).  It is one metaphor that I can relate to best. It is a personal preference. And this is in line with what R. Buckminster Fuller once said, “Sometimes I think we’re alone. Sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the thought is staggering.” I guess it is staggering because the compounded mystery of it all is truly beyond all that we know and are able to ever know.

I end here with the words of the atheist-turn-theist professor Antony Flew who came to this conclusion in his book There is a God: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind: “Where do I go from here? In the first place, I am entirely open to learning more about the divine Reality, especially in the light of what we know about the history of nature. Second, the question of whether the Divine has revealed itself in human history remains a valid topic of discussion. You cannot limit the possibilities of omnipotence except to produce the logically impossible, Everything else is open to omnipotence.

And being open to omnipotence, in whatever form it takes, whether personal or otherwise, is why I am not an atheist. And it is in this specific manner of speaking that the same is seemingly obvious to me. I guess it is just me. Cheerz.

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