In the latest of our series of guest posts about beauty and faith, Ed Watson of Ed’s Eye View questions the terms of the debate and concludes that “we cannot argue for either Christianity or atheism on the basis of beauty.”
I’m writing this as a sort of joint response to two excellent pieces on Christian belief and atheism (and I do think they were both excellent). As I read then, the first gave a nuanced account of a particular decision to try and live a Christian life. The second argued that the stated motivation for that decision actually supported atheism. That stated motivation was beauty, and in each post it was claimed for two opposing narratives, the first being that of Christianity, the second being that of atheism. Without wanting to ride completely roughshod over the details, I’d like to make a quick counterclaim to both: that when it comes to deciding to live a Christian life, and so by extension when it comes to deciding for atheism, beauty is irrelevant.
I’m going to try and make four points in support of this: the first, against the first post, is that the Christian narrative does not just describe an unambiguously beautiful world, and that though it might be better for the universe if the Christian story is true, this certainly doesn’t entail that the universe itself is better. The second, against the second post, is that what we consider beautiful is again rarely unambiguously so, especially when it is the virtues given pride of place in most atheist and humanist accounts. The third is that in both cases an invalid form of argument is being used in any case, though perhaps informally. The fourth, which is I hope an original-ish addition to the dialogue, will just be the claim that though we might give reasons for believing in God, there aren’t any actual reasons to so believe other that God himself. As such, beauty just doesn’t come into it.
First: Helen writes that the Christian story paints the picture of a beautiful world. I don’t entirely disagree; the world clearly has a great amount of beauty in it (though this is beauty which can be equally consistent with both atheism and Christianity), and the Christian story does have many beautiful aspects to it, many of which Helen has listed. What I’m going to focus on, however, are the less beautiful aspects of the Christian story; those aspects which make it very clear that though there is great beauty in the universe, the universe itself is not therefore beautiful. Specifically, I’m going to try and highlight the one glaring omission from Helen’s account of the Christian narrative: that humanity rebelled in sinful pride against God, and in hiding themselves from God so damned themselves to live in a world within which He (for the most part) cannot be seen except through unpredictable, undefinable, and often undesired grace.
The consequences of this, according to Christianity, are neither pretty nor beautiful. The world as it is does not run according to a divine plan, but is governed by human caprice and natural accident. The cruelty we manifest throughout our lives is not an unhappy accident which we can purge ourselves of through our works (especially our faith, when we turn that faith into a work), but an essential part of who we are, made in the image of God or not. Most particular events in the world are not the necessary works of a divine plan (though God may always work some good from most things), but the results of either caprice or sinful cruelty on the part of humanity or the fact that nature can be cruel as well. When we look to the great evils of history, in and of themselves they are not for a greater good or part of a greater plan: they are just the pointless expressions of evil from a species aspiring to divinity in the form of power (on this, atheists and Christians can certainly agree). The remedy for this is out of our hands, such that God himself had to come down to earth and die an incredibly ugly death for there to be any hope. Even given this hope, the world is not transformed: whatever salvation means, it doesn’t mean that everything in this world will be ok or that everything that happens will be good. Neither are we guaranteed anything after death, not because of a weakness in God’s Word, but because of a weakness in our understanding: a promise has certainly been made, but our interpretations of that promise are so naturally distorted by our own wills that we cannot ourselves guarantee we’ve understood it.
In this world, meanwhile, Christians can expect to suffer, though they might pray for comfort, and they can expect to give up most of the supposed beauties of life. If they are called to do so, they can expect to leave their families. If they are called to do so, they can expect to give up prestige, authority, freedom, security, and all the other things we tend to seek in our careers. Though they might pray for safe passage, the inscrutability of God’s will means that they can never guarantee anything, least of all that they’ll make it out of the places they go unscathed. The suffering of Christians across time (and we Christians in the west can think ourselves lucky we are no longer called to crucifixion) does not paint a beautiful picture, either of this world or of Christian life.
The point of all this is not that there is not beauty in the Christian story: there is (and it is a beauty that in some sense exists precisely because of the above, rather than in spite of it). It is that this beauty is equally matched by an extreme ugliness, to the extent that this beauty in-and-of-itself cannot argue for this story’s truth. Any wager based on the fact that Christianity tells a beautiful story must take into account the absolute horror inherent in the whole thing as well. This doesn’t straight up invalidate what Helen writes, but I do think it calls into question the impulse behind the reasoning.
Second: let’s take a close look at what we consider to be beautiful. I’m going to look specifically at one of the things in particular that Robin mentioned as a beautiful aspect of the atheist story (I take no issue with the idea that the world is a world created by amazing coincidences, one which seems just as consistent with a Christian world view as an atheist one).
The first is this: ‘I embrace atheism because it allows us to understand our own freedom and power, and also our own fallacies.’ Now, leaving aside the fact that atheism does less to help us understand our freedom and power than to delude us into absolutising that freedom and that power, let’s look at the beauty here. Obviously we are free, and obviously we are powerful: but against what are we to consider these things beautiful? In and of themselves? In which case the freedom and power of those who engaged in the Rwandan Genocide must be considered beautiful, as indeed must the freedom and power of those who abuse their neighbours physically and emotionally (including those with in positions of religious authority), as indeed must the freedom and power of all men and women no matter what they do.
Not in and of themselves then: so, then what? Perhaps the fact that we would not ‘feel compelled to see [our] purpose as serving a deity who might never makes its presence known to [us], and whose edicts and proclamations are frequently confusing.’ Well, this may well be a comfort, but beautiful? As far as I can see it simply leaves us back with the first paragraph: that the beauty is in our having ‘complete freedom to choose [our] own direction and meaning in life’, which should leave us complimenting Ghengis Khan on the aesthetic nature of his life in virtue of his clear self-determination.
Now, I am not saying that we do not have freedom to decide: we do. It is, in fact, an essential part of the Christian story that we have freedom and are so responsible for a good number of our most vital decisions. What I am saying is that if we think this freedom and power is in and of itself beautiful, and so idolise the creative impulse of the human spirit, we ignore the fact that the human spirit (mine and yours included) is incredibly ugly in a lot of ways, even in the best of people: human beings are certainly wonderful, joyful, and cause for celebration; we are also, more or less all of us, capable of unmitigated evil. The overall point being, again, that if we’re looking for the beauty of human freedom to support atheism then we’d better allow for the absolute horror that that freedom lets us wreak as well. We might even wish that we were sometimes more open to the idea of freely deciding to let our own desires play second fiddle to the will of another and allowing ourselves to be determined by something other than our own personally chosen direction (especially those who use religion to validate their own agendas or excuse their abuses).
(The point here is not that there is something in this world which is unqualifiedly beautiful against which others can be held to come up short but that human freedom is not that thing: even our basic notions of beauty both can be and are qualified. If I were to make this argument broadly, I would try to say that there is nothing which we can properly say is beautiful in and of itself, even our basic notions/instincts of beauty, such that we cannot argue from the qualified beauty of certain things to an overarching world view without the sort of qualification which undermines that world view’s capacity to be overarching (whether that world view be that of atheism or Christianity, both of which make overarching claims).)
To sum up so far: I’ve tried to argue (in somewhat polemical fashion) that we cannot argue for either Christianity or atheism on the basis of beauty, in the first case because the world according to Christianity is just as horrific as it is beautiful, in the second because what Robin seems to think to be beautiful is questionable to say the least.
Overall, if I were to go into more depth, I’d make the case that when it comes to explaining why the world is the way it is atheism and Christianity are on equal footing, such that we cannot infer the validity of either from claims of either beauty or horror. Even if they weren’t on equal footing, meanwhile, to pursue this form of argument is to indulge in logical fallacy, even as a matter of probability, specifically the fallacy of confirming the consequent (if P then Q, Q, therefore P, is invalid). I think Robin’s post suffers a little more from this, but this may well be because Helen’s post speaks of willing to believe in a beautiful world first, rather than straight up asserting it.
How then to decide though, one might then ask? If each of the stories fit the facts equally well, can one decide? Well, perhaps not, and if so then agnosticism is a perfectly coherent position to hold. Hell, in terms of logic and reason, agnosticism certainly seems the most rational position to hold (I differ from Helen in that I would argue that all philosophical arguments for God not only fail in comprehensive fashion when it comes to the Christian God, but undermine the very belief they explicitly attempt to support). Christian belief in God is not a question of reason however, at least, not a question of a fundamental belief that is grounded in a reason other than its own object. It’s more a question of whether or not, when push comes to shove, you believe in a God who can only be believed in on the basis of His own revelation. Do you trust in that revelation, when it doesn’t have and couldn’t have any reason beyond itself to support it? Do you believe that, because of this revelation, you should attempt to submit your will to a command that has no neutral guarantee? Do you believe in a God so inscrutable that you can never claim total understanding of what He wills you to do, whose command you can never make your own? Can you, to steal the words of T.S. Eliot, wait without hope, knowing that to hope would be to hope for the wrong thing, yet hold firm to the promise of Christ and so wait anyway? And are you willing to attempt to shape your life in a fundamental way around this belief, this faith, this trust?
It is easy to answer no to these questions, and it is far better to honestly say no than pretend to say yes. After all, there is a great risk involved (one where Kierkegaard would disagree with Pascal that the Christian side of the wager is the safer bet, though they may well agree in many their things), and certainly no empirical evidence to support an answer yes. Christ himself meanwhile had a fair few scathing words about the hypocrisy of paying tribute to God with ones lips but ignoring him in ones life.
On the other hand, it is harder to answer yes, and not just because as far as we can know on our own there doesn’t appear to be any sort of God. Honestly, I’m not sure these are questions that can be fully answered in the affirmative, and I am almost certain that they cannot be answered once and for all. As far as I can see, Christianity makes it very hard for Christians to say with absolute confidence that they in fact believe in God, as the human will has a habit of idolising its own creations and mistaking them for gods instead, and it makes it practically impossible for people to say that because they believe in God now they can be assured that they will tomorrow. Here, then, I am with Helen completely: whilst one can very much answer no to these questions, the most one can do the other way is say ‘I pray that I do’.
Whichever way one decides, however, it will be without reason, whether we think that reason to be beauty or some other thing. To paraphrase another less known aspect of Pascal’s thought, it is in our hearts that we affirm or deny the existence of God, not our heads, whilst it is in our lives that we show this, not in the intellectual positions we assent to in philosophical discussion.