When I was a Christian I wondered often why many of my peers who were atheists did not believe. And more importantly I questioned why I did believe. We were of similar intellect, social and economic background so why the difference?
I theorized there was some watershed idea, experience or environmental variable that caused one person to believe and another to reject faith.
Now after having a deconversion experience and becoming an atheist myself, I think I have some insight into why intelligent people of good faith believe and others do not.
Our culture encapsulates us completely. Like a fish that is unaware that it is wet, we are blind to the culture that surrounds us. It influences us in benign and insidious ways. For the purposes of this discussion, let me just point out that the surrounding culture dramatically influences our thinking and perspective sometimes in imperceptible ways.
For me and my likely readers we are a part of Western culture. Western culture has been heavily influenced by ancient Greek thinking. We have many great cultural artifacts from our Greek past including democracy, the Socratic method and geometry.
One of the Greek ideas that we could do without is dualism. Dualism, simply put, is the idea that the physical and the non-physical exist and may or may not be seen as in opposition to one another. The two major philosophical influences that lead us to dualism are the Platonic ideals and Gnosticism.
In The analogy of the cave Plato argues that the reality we experience is a mere shadow of the true reality. We are like cave dwellers who are looking at shadows on the wall rather than going out into the light and witnessing the reality that causes the shadows. Plato is suggesting that the perfect ideals are the real reality and that the physical reality we experience is crude facsimile of the perfect forms.
From Platonism we get the idea that the non-physical ideals (or forms) are more real than the physical world we experience around us. Let that sink in.
Soon after came Gnosticism which took dualism to the next level. They taught the dichotomy that the material physical world was evil and that the spiritual non-physical world was good. The flesh is to be despised while the things of the spiritual world were holy.
Relevant to our discussion, the early Christian fathers argued with and against the Gnostics. Much of the early doctrinal creeds had to do with arguing against Gnosticism. Many of the rejected books of the apocrypha are Gnostic books. In spite of this effort, early Christianity was deeply influenced by the Gnostics. The Gnostic influence on Christianity is seen in the ascetic sects which taught the need to flagellate the flesh into submission.
This dualistic perspective has permeated what we call Western thinking throughout history. Dualism to one degree or another has continued to influence our thinking to this day.
It is in the sea of unexamined cultural dualism that most people view spirituality. The non-physical exists and it in some mystical way is more real than the physical reality around them. It is holy. Through the prism of dualism theism is not a huge leap.
To those who reject dualism either intuitively or analytically the physical, that which can be experienced, tested and examined is all there is. For these people theism is a very huge leap indeed.
The point I am trying to make is that we have a number of presuppositions that lead us either to credulity or incredulity. One’s perspective on theism or atheism does not happen in a vacuum.
It wasn’t so much my rejection of Christianity itself that lead to my deconversion but the eroding of these underlying beliefs. I held on to faith in the resurrection for dear life up until the bitter end knowing that it was a binary choice. Once I admitted to myself I did not believe in the resurrection it was all over. This did not come from a rejection of the “evidence” in the bible because that was all of a piece, a closed system. It came by examining the assumptions that the closed system rested on.
To further make the point, given a certain set of presuppositions it might even be reasonable to have faith in a theistic god. This is why Christian apologists almost always use the same arguments. They are arguing within the closed system that makes assumptions about reality. The atheists who debate with them are speaking an entirely different language based upon an orthogonal set of assumptions.
You may note that I have not shied away from using the term assumption. At some level we must make assumptions. I think math is beautiful in that it conveys rock solid truth. 1+1=2 is True with a capital T. But even mathematics makes some assumptions about reality. For even the concept of twoness is abstract, not two sheep or two apples but two as a concept. It took humanity a while to understand numbers as abstract ideas. It is very easy to fall into an epistemological black hole when discussing assumptions, a hole which I would like to avoid.
Therefore, I would like to posit a number of presuppositions that act as watersheds separating those who believe and those who reject belief. My plan is to write a blog post about each of these in the coming months. We have already talked about dualism here, and I have written about the soul. I’ll be adding to the list as time goes on. Let me know what you would add to the list.
- The non-physical exists
- Eternality of the Soul
- After life
- Objective Static Morality
- Atheism requires as much faith as theism
- The correct image of god leads to faith
- Everything happens for a reason
- No coincidences
- Cosomological time scales
- How evolution works
- Free will
- Meaning in life
- Ancient texts are more profound than newer texts
- The traditional is better than the new
2 thoughts on “Watershed Presuppositions”
Dear Graceful Atheist,
I am finding your blog very interesting! Thank you for your candour and the way you are wrestling with beliefs to find out the truth. I have a question, and some background to the question: I am a Christian from Asia, so in a culture that, while once colonized, is much more influenced by Buddhist and Hindu belief. I am not sure if that is also dualist in the way it perceives the world…
But the question is this: you mention that the early church fathers disagreed with Gnosticism that posits this split between the physical and the spiritual. You don’t really go into the question of why they disagreed with this split, and whether modern platonism-influenced Christianity might not be the problem, rather than the original accounts of Christianity? As I understand it, Hebrew culture did not have such a split between the material and the spiritual – for example, the word “nephesh” that gets translated as ‘soul’ in some places, also is translated as ‘living being’ in other places, and the word “ruach” that gets translated as ‘spirit’ also gets translated as ‘wind’ or ‘breath’ in others. So the Hebraic understanding of a person is kind of more integrated than the modern Western understanding of a person (the legacy of the Gnostic split). All this to ask: if one of the cultural assumptions that makes it more probable for a person to believe in a god is the assumption of a separate and ‘better’/more real spiritual realm, then what do you make of the Hebrew culture which apparently does not carry this assumption?