Sully quotes a reader’s reaction to his now-epic running debate with Sam Harris. The gist of it is that atheists are awfully uncomfortable with “mystery” and so keep stubbornly demanding good reasons for things which don’t admit to any sort of deductive proof. The limited extent to which I think there’s something to be said for this is: I’ve always thought the most respectable grounds for belief was a simple appeal to a private encounter with something profound and ineffable that doesn’t admit to interpersonal scrutiny. Not that I think it’s good enough, since people have all sorts of experiences that they ought to recognize can’t necessarily be taken at face value, especially in light of various neurological findings about such states. Still, color-sighted people would probably sound nuts to a population with monochrome vision, and maybe there are just areas of radical subjectivity where dialog has to come to a halt.
That said, the theistic invocation of mystery often has a whiff of flim-flam about it, something of the perverse pride in unjustified confidence best exemplified by Tertullian’s certum est, quia impossible est.. It has its parallel in the tendency of pomo academics of the left (gleefully, if justly, ridiculed by conservatives) to conflate the incomprehensible and the profound. Consider, for instance, Michael Novak’s National Review essay on atheism’s most prominent soi-disant spokesmen. (His comments on their tone, alas, are not always off the mark: To proselytize for the absence of a belief, which most atheists feel no particular obligation to do, probably demands a measure of active repugnance for religion. And as John Bolton has taught us, contempt for one’s interlocutors is an unhelpful trait in an ambassador.) The single affirmative argument for theism in the rather long piece—which, perhaps wisely, Novak fobs off on his collegiate daughter—amounts to a metaphysically pretentious version of the argument from design. But when it comes to confronting the sieve’s-worth of holes in that argument, at least in its more familiar form, Novak gives us this stirring bit of misdirection:
They want to show that if there is a Designer, he is an incompetent one; or, more exactly, that there is too much evidence of lack of design. What kind of maudlin artificer do they think God is? Our God is the God of the Absurd, of night, of suffering, and silent peace.
In other words, arguments will be deployed precisely as far as they can be given a sheen of plausibility, past which point—MYSTERY, you rube.
But the more general point I want to make here is that Andrew’s correspondent gets it, I think, almost entirely backwards. Yes, the theory of evolution now gives us at least a partial answer to one of the great, pressing puzzles of our existence. But many remain for the atheist. I don’t know, or pretend to know, how life first arose on Earth, or why there is Something rather than Nothing, or whether I have any special purpose in life, or how subjective mind arises from objective matter, or why the physical constants of the universe are what they are, or even why there are any physical laws at all. To be an atheist in the face of those gaps in understanding is to refuse the temptation to tame our ignorance by affixing a name to it. We reject one Mystery, and receive many mysteries in exchange.