I ran into Crispin Sartwell’s essay “Irrational Atheism” from The Atlantic in a few different places over the past few days, and I must admit that I found his honesty refreshing. Rather than engage in apologetics or debate, I think a few comments about his underlying assumptions would help us to understand exactly what Sartwell is advocating when he claims to be an irrational atheist.
All In the Same Boat.
The author begins by asserting that the rational atheism of Dawkins and his ilk is very similar to Christianity and other worldviews. Rational atheism actually believes the world can be summed up by an overarching metanarrative that explains every occurrence from the grandest scientific laws to the most minute cause and effect relationships. For the “new atheists”, pure rational materialism is this metanarrative; for Christians, it is their theistic religion.
According to Sartwell, atheists cannot prove that their reason is to be trusted or that the results of their scientific inquiries are actually truthful any more than a Christian can prove God’s existence. He writes, “Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.”
The “Faith” Leap from Nihilism to Existentialism.
Atheistic materialism states that things just exist. To seek for essence or meaning on the mere basis of existence is irrational. Nietzsche and others have recognized this inconsistency and have ended up nihilists. How does an atheist avoid the depressing and meaningless existence of nihilism? Faith. While rational atheists refuse to acknowledge their faith in reason and science, Sartwell openly embraces the irrationality of generating meaning on the mere basis of existence.
In the philosophical world, this is called existentialism. Sartwell projects meaning onto his experiences. He writes, “By not believing in God, I keep faith with the world’s indifference. I love its beauty. I hate its suffering. I think both are perfectly real, because I experience them both, all the time.” In his mind, rational atheists and Christian theists are also existentialists projecting meaning onto a material universe by the same (albeit at times subconscious) leap of faith.
Essentially, Sartwell presents three alternatives. There are the rational atheists who are unwilling to admit that they take a leap of faith. There are the religious who admit their leap of faith and leap into a religious reality. Then there is Sartwell who happily admits his leap of faith and leaps into an atheistic reality.
At one point in his discussion, Sartwell cites Kierkegaard’s definition of faith: “an objective uncertainty held fast in passionate inwardness.” This is a quintessential statement of existential belief. Faith is the ultimate and passionate leap from a materialistic universe into a system of self-projected meaning. In this sense, the objective of human existence is to admit the necessity of this faith leap and to make this leap into a system of created reality that motivates us to live passionate lives.
For Kierkegaard and Christians, the metanarrative of the Cross is the most motivating created reallity for living a passionate life of existential meaning. For Sartwell, irrational (existential) atheism motivates his sincere life. Both systems are merely frameworks laid over a universe that is ultimately meaningless. In Sartwell’s mind, he chooses atheism over Christianity because it better fits with “[his] actual experiences.”
This is the point of my departure with Sartwell. I agree that all persons who believe in a pure materialist existence must make a leap of faith to avoid sheer nihilism. However, I disagree with Sartwell on his definition of faith. Faith is not ultimately about trusting yourself to project the best reality onto a material universe. Faith, in the Christian sense (not the Kierkegaardian sense), is about recognizing that we do not define ultimate reality. Faith is transitive. Faith has an object. As Christians, we leap by faith not into a reality created by our irrational minds. Faith means submission to an Authority outside of ourselves.
Sartwell’s worldview centers around the conscious leap of faith, but the faith leap is into something constructed by the self. Sartwell’s object of faith is himself. He submits to self-determined standards of reality. The Christian’s object of faith is something outside himself: God. He submits to God-ordained standards of reality.
It is Sartwell’s presuppositional existentialism that allows him to pursue irrational atheism. It is also Sartwell’s existentialism which does not admit what we Christians admit: the universe is teleological. Things have essential purposes that precede their existence. We do not have to generate the best map of meaning to lay over an otherwise meaningless material existence. God himself has declared ultimate reality by His divine decree.
Faith is ultimately an act of trustful submission. Sartwell trustfully submits to his own passionate self-will. I choose to trustfully submit to God through the Risen Savior Jesus Christ. But Sartwell is right: it is a leap of faith.