The Continuum Of Faith

Posted Sunday, 11 February 2007, 6:32 pm

All generalizations are faulty – including this one.

That said, we seem to be highly attuned to generalizations – making them, and accepting them. ‘Whatever line you’re waiting in, the other lines will move faster’. ‘Republicans tend to be pro-business and anti-social-welfare’. ‘Blondes have more fun’. And so on. Likewise, there are some areas where the only way one can discuss something is by the use of generalities. “Fundamentalists”. “Atheists”. (“Fundamentalist” is really not the most accurate term. As I am not a theologian, nor all that well studied in matters of faith, I hope the use can be excused. Perhaps “Orthodox” would be a better word…?). Present me with two religious fundamentalists, and chances are each will have some very different opinions and beliefs from the other, even if they’re of the same faith. The same with atheists. There’s no such thing as a ‘pure’ fundamentalist or atheist. The descriptor may be helpful, but underneath it all, you have to accept that both the fundamentalist and atheist must sometimes have to stand naked (with apologies to Bob Dylan). What defines a man or woman cannot be boiled down to a simplistic term like ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘atheist’.

Nevertheless, in order to discuss the differences, you have to use the generalizations. And so, I shall.

Yesterday, I viewed a thought-provoking video on youtube. I’ve seen a number of this fellow’s videos, and he’s definitely a smart cookie. He has a knack for highlighting the ‘grey’ that fills the expanse between the extremes of any particular two points of view. Heck, a man after my own heart.

This particular video was about fundamentalists, agnostics, and atheists. As my legions of fans know, I’m interested in matters of and about faith. A bone I pick regularly has to do with the ‘extreme’ atheists who should more accurately refer to themselves as antitheists – atheist is too gentle a term for them. The extreme atheists/antitheists exhibit many of the tendencies of the extreme Fundamentalists – they can be shrill, hectoring, annoying, self-absorbed, exceedingly judgemental, and downright nasty towards their fellow humans. If you don’t share their views, you are seen as ignorant, deluded, and dangerous.

Again, note that I refer to extreme fundamentalists and extreme atheists. There are legions of fundamentalists and atheists who do their own thing, and really don’t have any interest in getting in other people’s faces about whether or not they should share their beliefs.

On that basis, I think what I’m driving at is – and reminding myself of the caveats regarding generalizations – that I think a broader continuum may be more informative regarding these measures of faith than ‘fundamentalist, agnostic, atheist’.

chart of beliefs

Generally, that’s an accurate representation of the range of opinions regarding faith/god. Acknowledging all the same that there are non-extreme fundamentalists, as well as non-extreme antitheists. Acknowledging also the weakness of labeling the moderate view as simply ‘religious’.

An ironic characteristic of generalizations is how they both shape, and are shaped by, the person making the generalization. You’ll often find that the most zealous, extreme fundamentalists are convinced that most of the world is filled with either godless communists or believers of other faiths who are on the wrong path – and that both pose a grave threat to their way of life. Likewise, the most zealous, extreme antitheists are convinced that  most of the world is filled with either religious fanatics or apathetically religious dupes – and both pose a grave threat to their way of life.

As a person with a fairly centrist mentality, my generalization tends to be that there are some zealous extremists in the world who are fundamentalists and some who are antitheists – but that neither poses a terribly great threat to my way of life.

Interestingly enough, most people – regardless of where they fall on the continuum – tend to believe that they have the superior view of the world. If anything, the most grave fault – and threat – may be that tendency in itself.  Perhaps the less conviction one has that their own views are infallible, the more balanced that person’s view of the world may be.

Then again, perhaps that’s merely my centrist superiority complex being expressed…

Now, the video I referred to touched on a number of other aspects of beliefs. I have quibbles with some of the ideas presented, but only because their imprecision is in some ways where all the problems arise. The commonly posed statement from atheists is “There is no proof of the existence of god”. The problem is that “existence” and “god” are antithetical concepts. The fact is, there is no proof of the “existence” of love, for that matter. You cannot objectively measure love. No quantity of microphones, seismic instrumentation, microscopes or telescopes, geiger counters, or calipers, can quantitatively measure love. According to the laws of science, love does not “exist”. But as any reasonably mature individual will assure you, from their own direct experience, love does indeed ‘exist’. The insistence that physical evidence must be presented for the existence of god indicates that one doesn’t have a clear grasp of the concepts.

Setting aside that conceptual issue, an important point still remains. Atheists, in general, state “God does not exist”, because there is a lack of evidence that god exists. The problem with that is that to state that something does not exist because there is no evidence for it is illogical

Here’s an example. In 1928, Paul Dirac postulated the existence of the positron, a nuclear antiparticle. In 1932, the existence of the positron was proven experimentally. In the interval between 1928 and 1932, there was no proof, no evidence, that the positron existed. Would it have been logical then, in 1930, to have stated unequivocally, that “The positron does not exist”? Of course not. The lack of evidence for the existence of the positron had no actual bearing on whether or not positrons really did exist – we were merely ignorant of their existence. Surely, some people in 1930 believed that the positron existed, and some people believed that it did not exist. On the basis of belief, both were right. Absent the evidence, all one had was belief.

And belief, as we know, most certainly and emphatically, is not fact.

Stating that god does not exist is irrational. The only rational statement is that god may or may not exist. And that, my friends, is where the middle of the chart above comes in to play.

Thankfully, we humans have no obligation to be rational in all things and at all times. It’s quite irrational for me to love my wife, and quite irrational to enjoy watching Wings of Desire. There is no logic involved – merely humanity.

I suppose my beef with atheists and antitheists is their insistence that science, logic, and rationality are the only acceptable modes of thought.  That if one isn’t scientific, one is ignorant or deluded.

I beg to differ.


           A mind all logic is like a knife all blade.
          It makes the hand bleed that uses it.

           —Rabindranath Tagore



Categorically Incorrect


Ando said:

Great post. I was having a similar conversation recently with a friend. Perhaps I’ll direct him in this direction.

Sunday, 11 February 2007, 10:29 pm | Permalink

Chris said:

Paul, Another intelligent, enjoyable, and deeply reasoned post.

I think one of the biggest problems is what you stated above:

“Interestingly enough, most people – regardless of where they fall on the continuum – tend to believe that they have the superior view of the world.”

We are all surrounded by people who live and breathe this attitude. I fight against it because I find myself every now and again slipping into this state.

But, even stating the above, I do not understand the athiest logic or illogic – whether moderate or extreme.

It’s as though they walk through life with blinders on and refuse to see the infinite complexities of every single thing they encounter. If they do half-heartedly acknowledge the wonders of the world around them, they intellectually disparage themselves by “believing” it all came from random chance.

I like C.S. Lewis’ little saying that indirectly addresses athiests: “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”

Thursday, 12 April 2012, 7:14 pm | Permalink


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