I was thinking about William James tonight. The will to believe. I read an essay of his for the first time in over a year and was reminded of a student in my History of Modern Science course. He was what I call a ‘dogmatic atheist.’ He knew that God does not exist. He knew that organized religion is ‘the’ oppressive force in world history. He wasn’t governed by any standards of decency in arguing for its overthrow.
After paraphrasing incorrectly (and with no apparent sense of irony) from Descartes’ Meditations, condemning me as a religious fundamentalist because I referred to myself in passing as a ‘bibliophile,’ yelling at a Catholic, and referring to his term paper’s 64 footnotes (a sure indication at the undergraduate level that the student has a shitty argument), he left me agog over his poor education and everyone else agog over his sheer rudeness.
I’m sure the counterexamples are legion. It can’t be hard to find fundamentalists who, though they disagree on the accidents, agree on the substance of this guy’s dogmatism. I should note that I dislike no one upon abstract principles. An ‘atheist’ is neither inherently smarter nor dumber than a ‘Lutheran’ or an ‘Episcopalian’ or a ‘Hindu.’ It’s like Branson said when he fixed that nice teacher’s car. ‘I don’t believe in types. I believe in people.’
I refer to this example because it illustrates a kind of epistemic certainty very common amongst extremists. It thrives on diametric opposition. It wriggles uncomfortably when it has to deal with nuance. One side must be wholly right and the other wholly wrong. Once one is aligned with the right side, they may forego any moral or intellectual restraint. Annihilation of the opposition is the only imperative. This was the spirit of the Jacobins, and I assume we all remember how that ended.
Absent is the simple observation that we can never know for certain whether we are in the right or in the wrong. In certain cases it may be clear whether one is tending closer to the one or the other, but this is a matter of occupying various places on a spectrum whose poles cannot be seen. The only proper way to judge a system of thought is firstly to determine how someone would act were they to hold its premises as true and secondly to determine whether or not it enabled that person to live a meaningful life. If the answer to the first question is ‘pacifically,’ ‘decently,’ ‘kindly,’ or any such variation, and if the answer to the second is ‘yes,’ then that belief becomes a live hypothesis.
In my mind the argument for a Creator is as logically sound as the argument against. Furthermore, I would wish to live among people who earnestly tried to live according to the precepts set down in the Sermon on the Mount. Some people manage to do so without the aid of organized religion. Others don’t. Again, it’s the substance rather than the form that matters. In any case, nothing can be as bad as listening to that odious man drivel on about Descartes.