The atheist’s dilemma is a hypothetical situation
one can present to the neighborhood insert organized religion here
proselytizer, assuming, of course, they’re open to discussion:
Suppose you place a person in a circular room, with many doors, all closed, all identical, along the wall. Now, tell that person that behind all the doors – save one – is an unlimited amount of poisonous gas that will kill the person with a single whiff. The one door that does not is not discernible from any of the rest, but it will lead out of the room. What is the rational thing for that person to do?
Not open any of them, of course.
After all, the person seems well enough in the room as it is. There’s no pressure to leave. And if we should place some pressure upon the person, they might as well choose arbitrarily, since they’re most likely to guess wrong anyway.
The situation is used to demonstrate that, for the atheist, there is no rational or objective way for hir to choose between the many religions presented, all with a claim of veracity. For example, while the Christian may claim that since Christianity contains the realization of ancient prophecy, exemplifies a working, simple, and beneficial moral system, and brings a sense of personal, inner peace, hir religion has some objective characteristics that differentiate itself from the other organized religions on the planet. However, the evidence that Christianity does do all that is derived from religious documents and subjective claims that are internal to the faith itself. In other words, it is only natural to the believers of a particular faith that their own religion should demonstrate those attributes they believe a religion should demonstrate. What is obvious to them is not obvious to the atheist of our dilemma; if it were, there probably would be no atheist in the world, let alone any faith but the one, true faith.
So, when faced with a proselytizer, one may use this dilemma to ask how an atheist with no prior inclination to choose one religion over another could or should choose.
No such atheist exists, however.
Which is probably what most intelligent philosophers and proselytizers will point out. We naturally seem to have an inclination toward what is right. Nobody told me to be nice to kids. Nobody told you to eat your green beans. Nobody told John Ashcroft to be a big pain in the ass. We just sense that our actions have moral value to them, and we can often assign such value without deliberation. We use reason and tradition to fill out what we don’t already feel in our gut.
As an extension of this, the work of many ethical philosophers seems to be an attempt to codify a sense of morality within themselves which is itself never explicitly justified; they use that “innate morality” as a guide, so that, if they come up with an ethical system that says “Killing babies = good,” they know that they have misstepped. Kant comes most immediately to mind, but he is by no means the only ethical philosopher to work that way.
So doesn’t it seem possible, a proselytizer might say, that, even absent any sort of objective, demonstrable characteristic drawing a person to a particular faith, that person might hirself be drawn by a feeling which is innate? That the one, true faith might be marked by the existence of such a sentiment drawing people to it?
If that seems a strawman, it is, to an extent, but one built into a false worldview. It isn’t reasonable to conclude that all people in the world have a natural inclination toward a single faith, but most choose to go against that natural sentiment. A person who feels that Christianity is the one, true faith may find it hard to grasp that a person who feels that Islam is the one, true faith feels just as strongly about it and with an equal sincerity. But there isn’t any evidence to suggest that people, equally devout in different religions, somehow have different levels of sincerity about what they’ve chosen to do with their religious lives.
But the fact remains that people do have natural inclinations toward one religion over another, for whatever reason. I’m personally drawn to Buddhism over Hinduism, because it jives with my sense of reality better, and I’m personally drawn to Hinduism over Christianity, because it appeals to my sense of right and wrong, and I’m personally drawn to Christianity over Islam because it seems more laid-back. All of this is based on personal prejudices and (mis)perceptions of the world’s many faiths. They are, in a sense, innate. But the source of those innate inclinations are not cosmic or divine, as a proselytizer would claim, but rather, they are cultural.
And that is really the crux of the so-called atheist dilemma. An atheist, or any other person for that matter, has no way to discern among the varied religions of the world but by cultural inclinations they have been taught throughout their lifetime. So it isn’t surprising when a person raised by atheists within the American, predominantly Christian society might later choose to join some random Christian sect, because this society – if not hir parents themselves – is replete with memes about human fallibility, good v. evil, selflessness as virtue, etc. Similarly, an atheist in a Muslim country will be infused with memes preconditioning them to accept Islam, or at least, to believe that Islam is the best organized religion there is. I was raised Catholic. Is it any surprise that, even though I’m an atheist now, I still feel Catholicism is the most user-friendly Christian sect there is?
The trouble, though, in discourse between the religious and the non-religious, is that the unfortunate notion of “absolute truth” gets bundled up in discussions about differences that are primarily cultural in nature. And thus, the ultimate nature of the universe is generally thought of as amorphous, mysterious, and unknowable. Even weak atheists and agnostics find themselves allowing that there may exist a spiritual realm about which theophile (an awkward neologism, meant to indicate a person with an inclination to believe that a god or gods exist) can speculate. But the cause for this is not, as commonly believed, part of a cosmic uncertainty principle.
Say you earnestly believe in a single God, who created the universe and the world and the human race, who presented humans with paradise, only to have us reject it in favor of knowledge, casting us out of the God’s presence and into a life of sin, and the only way out of the misery created by self-knowledge is to abandon one’s critical capacity and accept the sacrifice of the God’s only Son, a sacrifice paradoxically required and fulfilled by the same God, on the faith that doing so will absolve one of one’s inevitable sinful transgressions. Say I earnestly believe in a set of Gods, one of which created the universe, another of which reigns over it with wisdom and prudence, another of which is responsible for death and destruction, another for life and renewal, an infinite pantheon of gods really, all of which are the higher realizations of the same cosmic manna that is the very life within us, and our existence transcends several lifetimes, as we seek peace in making ourselves harmonious to that very manna from which we have sprung. Since we have equal sincerity, and our claims are equally lacking in differentiating objective qualities, we are forced to either conclude that (1) one of us accurately perceives the universe, the other does not, but we have no way of telling which is which, or (2) we are both right, and we are both wrong, meaning the cosmic truths of the universe are not graspable by limited human minds. Since we cannot even tell which of those options is correct, the only conclusion rational people can reach in a world full of diverse, sincere religious belief is that the universe is inherently unknowable.
Which is an absurd proposition, and a false conclusion, since science and reason shows that it is knowable, albeit in a way that we are pre-conditioned to recognize as different from the “knowledge” we gain through faith. An isolated atheist has no reason to conclude, upon observing the world, that the only explanation for “why the things that are are the way they are” depends upon a supernatural, benign influence. Granted, there are things an isolated atheist might not understand, might never understand due to the very nature of hir finite and carbon-based brain, but even when speculating upon those things that are not conceivable or not yet conceived by human minds, one is not logically compelled to conclude that the universe is amorphous, or that a divine, infinitely intelligent being is somehow responsible for the whole of existence. Those convictions spring from religious influences.
The problem, then, lies in our premises, specifically, in our premise that religions actually have a nit to say about the nature of reality. Since assuming that they do leads to a contradiction, we are forced to conclude that they don’t. Religions are, in reality, little more than convenient cultural packages, easy-to-transmit memeplexes that predominate in the world not because they have any veracity to them, but because they are finely-tuned to convince people that they do. The real reason a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Buddhist can’t totally agree on the nature of cosmic reality is because their beliefs each spring from different cultural backgrounds, and asking a person to decide what religious cultural background is the most “correct” or what elements of each background are most “correct” is analogous to asking a goth and a teen-bopper to reach a consensus as to the one, true pop star. It isn’t possible, and there isn’t even an imperative that we reach such a consensus.
When religions are recognized as such – as the cultural memeplexes they are – the field is then clear to set to the tasks of formulating ethical systems that are appropriate for a diverse national and world society. When a religious conservative riles on about codifying some religious doctrine in secular law – whether it be in anti-abortion rights laws, laws enforcing sexual orientation discrimination, or the imposition of Sharia law – it should be recognized that their motivation is fundamentally cultural and not, as they claim, divine, meaning that their desire to impose cultural norms upon other cultures amounts to no more than arbitrary and blatant discrimination.
Having recognized religious debates in the public sector as such, we can then re-approach the contested cultural issues and ask, from a pragmatic and more reasoned ethical standpoint, if there is some legitimate philosophical reason to accept a given culture’s view on the issue. A reasoned and thorough review of fetal development might convince a majority of individuals to conclude that abortion after viability is, indeed, wrong, without having to stoop to religious rhetoric; similarly, they might realize that allowing homosexual couples to marry and to adopt is actually in the better interest of a family-oriented society than keeping them legally separated, since it helps establish a safe and stable atmosphere within which homes can be built and children can be raised. The notion that religion is tied up with absolute truth obfuscates contemporary discussions of these issues, and renders the public battles over them “wars,” where one side must attempt to outwit and overpower the other, a clash of cultures, not of ideological merit.
And that, I suppose, is the larger atheist’s dilemma. How does one interact respectfully with a world that actively believes in abject fallacy?