Watershed Presuppositions

Atheism, Humanism, Philosophy

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.

Culture

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.

Dualism

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.

Presuppositions

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.

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