I was reading a very interesting double interview on BillMoyers.com from 2006 featuring Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis on the subject of faith. Atwood is interviewed first, while Amis fills up the second half. Both discussions are enlightening, but for different reasons.
Amis may be dismissed as no more than your garden variety Islamophobe on par with the likes of Bill Maher. He brings forth nothing new and is quite vapid in his attacks on Islam, often glossing over the extremism of Christians and Jews and ignoring the very real legitimate reasons for why some Muslims use violence against the West (Hint: it’s because we keep invading and bombing their countries and because we prop up brutal authoritarian dictatorships in said countries.) I’m actually quite disappointed that Moyers, who so often critiques such right-wing lunacy masquerading as ideology, failed to challenge Amis on any of his assertions.
That said, the first half of the segment, which interviewed Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, is worth the listening. In it, she puts forth that atheism is itself a form of faith. Moyers asks her if we as humans have a need to ascribe to reality a certain mystical or spiritual meaning that goes beyond our physical senses.
BILL MOYERS: In church on Sunday, we sang a 200 and some odd year old hymn, Franz Josef Haydn. With some contemporary words. And the words go, “God, you spin the whirling planets, fill the seas and spread the plain. Mold the mountains, fashion blossoms, call for the sunshine, wind, and rain.”
Now the scientists wouldn’t have put it that way. The scientists would have said there is an explanation for why the planets whirl, for why the rain falls, for why the seas rise, for why the mountains form. But knowledge isn’t enough for us. It’s not enough to know why– how these things happen. We need the poetry don’t we. Are we hard wired to seek that kind of meaning in life that only poetry, religion, and writing can give us?
MARGARET ATWOOD: Okay, probably so, because we are a symbol making creature. We seem to need, create, and exist within structures of symbolism of one kind or another. We seem always to have done that as human beings. We usually date humanness from the point at which we discover some form of art. Art is always symbolic, okay.
So, we’ve even found Neanderthal graves. There is an argument about this that some people say, “Okay. This was a like us burial.” That is, people put flowers in it. They put implements. It wasn’t a burial that indicated that people thought, people who did this thought- the soul was going somewhere else. And that is part of the symbolic structure in which the visible world is only part of reality.
It’s very interesting to talk to people about dreams and experiences they may have had. And if you tell me your dream, that is an experience you have had that is part of the invisible world. I can’t see you having that dream. I can’t prove that you had it. I’ve only got your say so. And I can’t then tell you, “No, you didn’t have that dream. No, that wasn’t real. You didn’t have that dream.” It’s an experience that you had. It says nothing about whether there is a material reality attached to that. They can have a profound influence on you that can alter how you’re seeing life.
Moyers then follows up by asking if Atwood is “suggesting that in the same way that the dream is a reality that we cannot measure, cannot prove except that our experience of it confirms it for us, that religious language, the language of the Bible is also symbolic of the reality that we do not comprehend”?
Later in the segment, Atwood describes atheism as a religion. It’s not, in the technical sense of being an institution with a core set of beliefs and an official dogma. There is no ‘church of Atheism’ as such. But there is a sort of dogmatic belief among extreme atheists who waste no opportunity to ridicule all religions and those who subscribe to them. Atwood describes her own agnosticism thus:
A strict agnostic says, you cannot pronounce, as knowledge, anything you cannot demonstrate. In other words if you’re going to call it knowledge you have to be able to run an experiment on it that’s repeatable. You can’t run an experiment on whether God exists or not, therefore you can’t say anything about it as knowledge. You can have a belief if you want to, or if that is what grabs you, if you were called in that direction, if you have a subjective experience of that kind, that would be your belief system. You just can’t call it knowledge.
Since dogmatic atheists proclaim their beliefs as settled fact, rather than an unprovable belief, theirs may be considered a sort of faith, albeit one that dictates that there is no god or gods.
There are plenty of other intriguing concepts presented by Atwood, such as the notion that we as humans tend to humanize God because it gives us comfort to think of the Creator as being like us in appearance, thought, and sensibilities. Atwood also says that it gives us comfort to think of a universe that has a God in it who takes a special interest in us because a universe devoid of a deity seems rather pointless. I would like to ask her if she’s read Stapledon, because it seems she missed the obvious question of, “Suppose there is a God but that it is indifferent to its creations?”
But I digress. Returning to the subject of atheism as its own form of faith, it does seem to me that this is true. Because there is no way to test the existence or nonexistence of God(s), one must take it as faith whatever he or she believes. If you believe in a God or gods, you must do so as a matter of faith because you cannot prove such beings truly exist. Likewise, an atheist must attribute his or her belief to faith because, as the adage goes, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. You can no more prove to me there is no God than I can prove there is.
The interview as a whole is very enlightening, and I highly recommend it. The Amis interview…not so much. But I will leave it to you to make up your own mind about it.