Search for Certainty

I read an interesting interview of Meghan O’Gieblyn upon the publication of her book of essays Interior States, in an on-line version of Mockingbird magazine dated Feb 14, 2019. I’m excerpting one question and answer for you because it pertains to the so-called “New Atheists” of a few years ago. I used to get so exercised about them because their influence at the time was all out of proportion to their pathetic arguments.

Mockingbird: In your essay “On Subtlety,” you describe the relief you imagined having if you stripped yourself of the superstitions of religious belief, if you finally settled into the warmth of scientific facts and clear reason. This is reminiscent of the promises of the New Atheism campaign, the whole, “There’s Probably No God, Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.” You mention, then, how ridiculous this idea is, that even in the simplest of sciences the facts are concealed from us, and require faith to address the subtlety. What might this mean for secular “nones” and “dones” among us, and what might this mean for tried-and-true “believers”?

O’Gieblyn: Yeah, like a lot of new apostates, I had the predictable fling with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. I think I was searching for the certainty I’d felt as a fundamentalist, and I believed that science and reason could provide definite answers. During that time, too, I read a lot of popular science books about contemporary physics, but it quickly became clear that the field was in crisis. The Standard Model of physics had been thrown into doubt. There was still very little knowledge about basic things like dark matter. It seems as though the more we learn about the universe, the more we’re forced to contend with the fact that the physical world eludes our human understanding. There’s a persistent narrative that technology is eventually going to bring about more enlightenment, but that too has bred more confusion. Neural networks and deep-learning algorithms are essentially black boxes—nobody knows how they work, or how they make decisions.

For me, there was no small irony in this realization because the thing that I’d found so frustrating about the Christian God was that he refused to provide answers or explain himself. When Job asks for answers, he’s basically told that his limited human brain cannot fathom the infinite nature of God. Well, now it’s become evident that our limited human brains can also not comprehend the universe, or even the technologies that we ourselves create. So I suppose I’ve become skeptical of the idea that religious faith is necessarily more mystical or irrational than reason-based pursuits like science or technology.

In response to another question, Ms. O’Gieblyn wrote this:

One of the ideas that I keep returning to in my essays is that my own experience of leaving the faith is, in some sense, symbolic of the loss the West has experienced as we’ve become increasingly nonreligious. My own experience leads me to suspect that spiritual longing is endemic to human nature: even after I’d outwardly denounced my faith, I began looking to other ideologies and lifestyles to fulfill that longing. And it seems to me that this is what’s happening on a larger scale, as more and more Americans leave behind religious belief. Instead of becoming purely rational agents, we increasingly displace those religious enthusiasms onto other things.

Let me say something more about the New Atheists. First, they weren’t an aberration that blipped briefly on the screen of public consciousness, recently, before fading away again. In fact, I think it’s fair to say they represent the spirit of the age, the perspective that physical things, matter in motion, are all of reality; that there is no spiritual reality which runs in and through that reality.

A word for this belief is naturalism. And yet another: materialism. “Naturalism” is not the love of nature. It is the philosophical position that matter responding to natural forces constitutes all of reality. “Materialism” is not magpie avarice. It also denotes that the scope of reality is matter in motion.

To show you this philosophical point of view is not new, here are some fair quotes from a piece in the New York Review of Books, March 7, 2019, about the Enlightenment-era French thinker Denis Diderot.

“Marx found most attractive Diderot’s materialism – the idea that all of nature, including humans, is simply matter in motion. Without materialism, there is no Marxism.”

To be fair to Diderot, he didn’t shrink from the implications of his materialism:

“What can be the argument for doing good when our actions are predetermined by our inner natures and our upbringing? If humans are simply matter in motion, then can life be anything other than the war of all against all with the spoils going to the victor?”

In my apologetics book I wrote:

“The existence of the unseen world is rejected, by naturalism. Many people, including people with faith and some of those without faith, believe that this disenchantment leaves us intellectually and spiritually impoverished. . . . The concern is whether as a society our over-all thriving is keeping up with our material prosperity. Could the disenchantment of the world be behind increased reports of depression, loneliness, civil strife, disintegration of families, crime, hopelessness, drug abuse, suicide? If people internalize a materialist view of reality, they are necessarily internalizing certain of its necessary corollaries, like meaninglessness.”

A better explication of this theme is by Carl Olson, in his essay “Suicide and Secularism on a Wednesday Afternoon,” located at, published there February 12th. He writes about two prophets of “the subtle ugliness of secularism:” T.S. Eliot and Walker Percy, and these in the context of the recent suicide of a Manhattan socialite who seemed to have it all. I recommend you read the whole thing, but if you’re not so inclined, here is a key excerpt:   

“Eliot and Percy alike struggled mightily against the darkness of doubt and nihilism, both of them eventually embracing orthodox Christianity. ‘This life is much too much trouble,’ wrote Percy in a self-interview, ‘far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then be asked what you make of it and have to answer, “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and infinite delight; i.e., God.’”









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