Skip to content

Who’s Afraid to Face Reality?

Over the course of the last half a year or so I’ve slogged through pretty much the entire catalogue of atheist writings that have come out in the last four years. Not surprisingly, this hasn’t been the most edifying experience I’ve ever gone through, but at the very least it does force one to think carefully about the claims these authors make about religious folks. One of the consistent refrains found in Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Onfray, Stenger and, before them, Freud, Feuerbach, and Marx is that religion is for people who are afraid to face reality as it is. The inability of religious people to deal with the harsh realities of life is claimed to lead them to wild flights of fantasy and delusion in order to provide comfort and security in a universe that, at rock bottom, is characterized by nothing but “blind pitiless indifference.”

I thought about this yesterday as I was sitting in church. Our congregation has had to deal with a number of difficult times in the last couple of years—one member murdered, others dealing with potentially serious complications in an unborn baby, one young man faced with the task of being the primary caregiver for his mother after a stroke, and many more dealing with loved ones suffering long-term physical and mental illnesses, and all of the pain that goes along with these things.

Yesterday morning, in particular, our corporate prayer time seemed to simply be an endless litany of tragedy and suffering. At one point, I looked around and saw a host of heads bowed, in sadness and in prayer, silently bearing corporate witness to the simple truth that our faith does not immunize us from the difficulties of the world. I saw no flight from reality here, only a determination to grieve and hope together in a world where God can, at times, seem inexplicably silent. I saw no exulting in death as the portal into a spiritual utopia; rather I saw a people who felt the full weight of the pain of the world, but who nonetheless resolved to face it together, and to put their faith in a God who we believe will one day redeem the evils of our individual and collective histories.

I couldn’t help but contrast this with what the average North American is fed on a daily basis through the various media of irreligious popular culture. Here the message seems to be: extract whatever pleasure you can from the moment, enjoy your youth while it lasts and anesthetize yourself with mindless entertainment or buy another product to dull the pain (or the boredom) of reality. Our highest paid citizens are those who entertain us. Youth, strength, and beauty are exalted and clung to desperately through various “anti-aging” techniques, surgeries, and products. A quick scan of the average newsstand or a glance at the options in a typical evening of prime time television highlights our cultural obsession with the minutiae of the lives of celebrities (and their children, it turns out—I recently saw a magazine headline proudly declaring that their current issue had four pages devoted to what Tom Cruise’s kid is wearing these days). Twenty years after Neil Postman complained that we were in danger of fatally compromising public discourse with our obsession with entertainment, little has changed—we remain in danger of “amusing ourselves to death.” All of this could lead one to the conclusion that there are many ways of avoiding the harshness of reality, and not all of them are religious.

At the conclusion of yesterday morning’s service we celebrated the Eucharist together. It had been a fairly long and heavy morning. The text our pastor had preached from was Jeremiah 23 where the prophet chastises the religious leaders of Israel for declaring “peace” when peace was nowhere in sight. It was an indictment on the prophets of Israel for falsely—for being afraid or unwilling to face reality as it was. Jeremiah wanted his people to see what lay ahead—a time of great difficulty and hardship. While he believed that their time of exile would ultimately come to an end, this did not minimize or detract from his understanding of the suffering that lay ahead. Jeremiah wanted his people to look reality squarely in the eye.

I wonder if the Eucharist might be symbolic of a determination to look at the world in a “realistic” fashion. Through it, we acknowledge both that the world is not yet as it ought to be and that the manner in which it has been and is being redeemed is through the suffering self-sacrifice of the God who created it. The symbol of Christian hope is the broken body and blood of a crucified Redeemer—a reminder that God himself did not attempt to avoid the pain of reality and that we ought not to expect to either.

At the same time, the Eucharist is, obviously, a symbol of profound hope—that our intuitions about the nature of the world will one day be validated and that the Christ event really is the key to history. We remember what redemption has cost, but we look forward to its ultimate consummation. And we do all of this, I would suggest, realistically—we acknowledge reality for what it is, but we also acknowledge ourselves for who we are—creatures designed to expect more from ourselves and from the world we inhabit.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you Ryan for this thoughtful piece. I really appreciated this comment: “I wonder if the Eucharist might be symbolic of a determination to look at the world in a “realistic” fashion.”

    I have to think about it more; but it strung a chord with me…

    October 29, 2007
  2. It’s hard to read this without wincing. Not because what you’ve said isn’t true. I’m not sure if I am wincing out of jealousy, incredulity, or shame. I can’t say that my experience of ‘church’ could really actually be characterized in the way you’ve described. That makes me jealous and ashamed. Ashamed that I have perhaps not tried hard enough to believe better about my spiritual kin. And I don’t doubt for a moment that your reflection on your experience is genuine but I am left incredulous because the lenses that i look at the church (in general) through seem to pick out a much different picture.
    I see consumerism rampant – so that ‘church’ becomes a utility that we (royal) maximize, upgrade, retrofit, discard, trade, and (of course if it’s being consumed) waste.
    The currency seems to be attention – how long it can be kept and at what intensity? Magic/sizzle/pizazz finds a lot of room to play in this context. Pain only serves to heighten the tension in room so to speak. Pretense…
    An overly cynical view perhaps. And I have no doubt that if Marx and all those others could gaze on experiences like you have described their song and dance might (have) change(d). Alas I am afraid that by in large the ‘view from the pew’ might still give them far too much justification for their perspective.
    I do not intend to discredit or discount your account here – only to express the deep longing that I too have to find a place that looks more like what you have described. A place where we wear pain like gitch not like ties. A place where our longing is not for comfort or release but for grace.
    anyway forgive me…

    November 1, 2007
  3. Thanks for your honesty Dale. Obviously, as you say, I was not meaning to extrapolate from a single experience in a single church to “the church” as a whole. You’re right, churches do often embrace the very same “reality-escaping” methods employed by the broader culture. I certainly do not mean to suggest that Christians or religious people in general are, by definition, more willing to face life in all of its complexity and difficulty than others. As you say, the “view from the pew” may still provide some justification for the claim that religion is about escaping/ignoring reality.

    I do think, however, that this is not a characteristic that is peculiar to religious folks (as it is consistently portrayed to be by the authors I mentioned). In many ways human beings and the world seem to be a poor fit for one another – we tend to want more than it can possibly give us whether we’re religious or not. My suspicion is that the issue isn’t “reality-avoidance” vs “reality-acceptance” but “religious reality-avoidance” vs “irreligious reality avoidance.”

    November 2, 2007
  4. Sorry Ryan
    I really did not mean to discount anything you said.

    November 2, 2007
  5. No need to apologize Dale (really!) – I appreciate the points you raise.

    November 2, 2007
  6. I suppose, as long as I’m an atheist, my perspective will include a struggle to see creedal doctrines of Christianity as a realistic portrayal of life as it is.

    Believing that all of nature is created out of nothing by a man thought to be a Supreme Being seems to me (presently) to not be the most realistic perspective of our world. Or believing a perfectly good Supreme Being exists that would rather have physical pain inflicted on an incarnation of himself as an act of compassion for humanity instead of using his omniscient powers to empathize like no one else can – also seems to me to be an unrealistic “God” idea to believe in.

    So, I guess I see myself not only as a creature (designed or not) that not only expects “more from ourselves and from the world we inhabit,” but I also expect more from the “God” idea. I don’t think the bible should be changed to do this. But, you could say, I also have hope for what would seem to me to be a more realistic God idea to come out of the church – though I can’t say I’m optimistic.

    November 3, 2007
  7. I meant to say, “…instead of only using his omniscient powers to empathize like no one else can”. Sorry for the error.

    November 3, 2007
  8. Would you say that an eternally existing universe which exists for no discernible purpose and inexplicably, through entirely natural processes, gave rise to creatures with strong moral intuitions about the nature of an inherently amoral world which offered no possibility of redemption is a more realistic view?

    November 3, 2007
  9. Based on my limited knowledge and experience of the world, I see and have read about the universe’s changing of forms without ever changing its naturalist substance into supernatural substances (or visa-versa). Though I’d have to say that there’s purpose found in every living thing by the fact that all living things are innately fit with instinctive goals. And, I suppose your use of the word “redemption” would have to be unpacked a little…

    Other than that, to answer your question — yes.

    November 3, 2007
  10. It seems to me that your answer to the above question is, in fact, “no.” You affirm that the universe contains inherent purpose (from where, I’m not sure) and you seem to leave the door open for some kind of properly qualified redemption.

    November 4, 2007
  11. I’ll try to clarify my thoughts. (And I’d appreciate more of the help you’ve given me above to articulate what I think to be the more realistic view. It’s an onward struggle for me.)

    We’ve all read about the evolutionary principle that nature explores options to select the better ones. [By the way, I hope to research more on the current understanding of evolution accepted by the high percentage of biologists and sociologists in order to correct any misrepresentations I make.] We do this all the time, even when exploring different worldviews, including religious belief. Some might say the evolutionary principle supports belief in the supernatural because humanity has widely selected it. Others, as you’ve mentioned above, say it is and has been a means to better options.

    I suppose I lean in the latter camp. I think it’s more realistic to see religious belief as currently one of the psychologically practical responses to personal experiences of suffering. Though I don’t think religious worldviews to be the best as representing reality (which I’m ultimately concerned about).

    I think it’s more realistic to recognize our world as inhabited with life that, for the most part, chooses “to be” rather than “not to be”. And by doing this, life made living an instinctive purpose resulting in communal efforts to save each other from harm. From what I gather, this was accomplished through oral and/or written (fiction and/or non-fiction) understandings of proper human conduct.

    Two possible perceived gaps in this idea I’d like to draw attention to is the seemingly lack of purpose in a pre-life universe and the inexplicable origin of life. There’s no science on the latter, and I haven’t read enough philosophy on the former. And, I can’t personally justify an insertion of the supernatural into these gaps.

    Also, as a reminder of previous dialogue with you, I don’t think that a complete redemption from the existence of evil and evil acts is realistic. To infallibly have all our thoughts policed or our memories wiped clean of evil is not realistic to me.

    November 4, 2007
  12. “We’ve all read about the evolutionary principle that nature explores options to select the better ones.”

    Evolution does not “explore” anything, nor does it “select” among “options” according to which ones are “better” in any normative sense of the word. What evolution does is eliminate those things which hinder an organism’s ability to compete. The fact that many people continue to use purposive language when speaking of what they take to be a wholly unguided natural process testifies to how deeply embedded notions of “purpose” and “ends” and “meaning” are in our very thinking about the world. Unless you’re prepared to accept that evolution is in some sense guided toward certain specific ends, I don’t see how the conclusion that life is little more than a brute survival game is avoidable.

    “I think it’s more realistic to see religious belief as currently one of the psychologically practical responses to personal experiences of suffering.”

    This is a fairly frequent claim made in the books I’ve read – the implication being that if it can be demonstrated that religion is psychologically beneficial, it is thereby proven to be nothing but a psychological strategy. But the fact that religious belief is “psychologically practical” doesn’t really say much about its truth value. There are plenty of things that we believe about the world that are “psychologically practical” precisely because they are true. I’d be fairly suspicious about the existential claims of religion re: suffering if they were psychologically impractical.

    “I think it’s more realistic to recognize our world as inhabited with life that, for the most part, chooses “to be” rather than “not to be”. And by doing this, life made living an instinctive purpose resulting in communal efforts to save each other from harm.”

    This seems to be little more than a bare acknowledgment that life exists. How does life “choose to be” – or “choose” anything else for that matter? Presumably if life had “chosen” not to be, we wouldn’t be here discussing the matter. The question is why is our world inhabited with life – and at least one form of life that seems to persistently think in terms of meaning, purpose, and ethics? To assert that life “chooses to be,” aside from being somewhat confusing, attributes causal efficacy to the very phenomenon we’re trying to account for here. “Life” is what requires explanation. Saying that life made itself an instinctive purpose and that it resulted in its creatures attempting to save each other from harm is no less of a circular argument than saying a personal God did it – it just substitutes the term “life” for “God.”

    Aside from that, it’s very difficult to look at the picture presented by evolutionary biology and conclude that the natural world is in any way interested in saving anyone or anything from harm. As people like Dawkins never tire of pointing out, evolution is a brutal process – nature is “red in tooth in claw.” Even theories about kin selection and reciprocal altruism still reduce everything, at rock bottom, to preserving one’s own genetic material. People like Dawkins and Dennett are at least honest enough to admit that on their view when human beings behave ethically they’re really just being tricked by their genes into what is, ultimately, self-serving behaviour.

    “I don’t think that a complete redemption from the existence of evil and evil acts is realistic. To infallibly have all our thoughts policed or our memories wiped clean of evil is not realistic to me.”

    I can’t say I recall when I used the words “thoughts policed,” but you’re right, I do think that evil will be fully redeemed. I suppose our disagreement about this possibility is largely due to our different presuppositions about the nature of the world itself. A good God who made the world with specific intentions in mind and who has allowed and continues to allow a good deal of evil and suffering can be rightly expected to justify his actions at some point in the future. An impersonal “life” that made “living an instinctive purpose” cannot, presumably, be held to the same moral standard.

    November 4, 2007
  13. Thanks for your response. I’m fascinated by it because, correct me if I’m wrong, you seem to suggest that scientists have exclusively presented evolution as a derogatory process. And that to properly appreciate evolution, it’s more important to recognize any impersonal beginnings rather than any personal ends.

    You also seem to be communicating to me that without external guidance and purpose from a personal God, life itself is not personal and is incapable of guiding itself with purpose.

    How you came to these conclusions, I don’t know. Nor do I understand your requirement that life must be “guided toward certain specific ends”. Are you speaking of predestination here, in the sense that we must know more than the immediate effects on human life from their causes – we must know or create an ultimate destiny, a determined fate far beyond what causality can predict? If so, this also seems unrealistic to me.

    You said: “Life” is what requires explanation. Saying that life made itself an instinctive purpose and that it resulted in its creatures attempting to save each other from harm is no less of a circular argument than saying a personal God did it – it just substitutes the term “life” for “God.”

    I suppose, as an atheist, the value difference between these two circular arguments is that everyone knows of their own existence, and it would require a lot more imagination to replace workings of life with the belief in a “God” idea.

    November 5, 2007
  14. “Correct me if I’m wrong, you seem to suggest that scientists have exclusively presented evolution as a derogatory process. And that to properly appreciate evolution, it’s more important to recognize any impersonal beginnings rather than any personal ends.”

    I don’t know what you mean by referring to evolution as a “derogatory” process. I’ve simply described it in the terms that many of its atheist proponents do. The authors I referred to in the main post would claim that it is an impersonal process in its beginnings, its ends, and everything in between.

    “You also seem to be communicating to me that without external guidance and purpose from a personal God, life itself is not personal and is incapable of guiding itself with purpose. How you came to these conclusions, I don’t know.”

    These are hardly conclusions unique to me. I’d welcome you to read any of the authors I mentioned and see if they consider notions such as “purpose” or “personality” to be anything other than human creations and impositions upon an essentially meaningless natural world.

    As I said in my previous response, I find the fact that human beings find it difficult (if not impossible) to think and live in the world without invoking such notions as “purpose” or “meaning” to be suggestive. To claim that life itself has inherent purpose and can guide itself according to that purpose is certainly one possible explanation for why this is so. I just don’t find it to be a particularly plausible one. As I said, it just substitutes “life” for “God” and seems to require more faith than believing in a God who designed us and the world to have purpose.

    “I suppose, as an atheist, the value difference between these two circular arguments is that everyone knows of their own existence, and it would require a lot more imagination to replace workings of life with the belief in a “God” idea.”

    How does the fact that everyone knows of their own existence represent a “value difference” between atheistic and theistic responses to the world? Of course everyone knows this – it’s what motivates the why question in the first place. Based on what you’ve said so far, you have a pretty clear (and imaginative) belief in a “God idea” yourself – you just give it the name “life.”

    November 5, 2007

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Who Sees Clearly? | Rumblings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: