Well, it happened again this week. Another of my atheist friends (Nick, this time), claimed the high ground with regard to courage. “It takes courage to abandon faith,” I hear over and over. “Atheists must face reality with courage!” I’m not not impressed.
Atheists insist that belief in God is commensurate with belief in The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or in Leprechauns. So let me see if I have this straight: denying the existence of soaring pasta or fantasy imps requires courage? Really? How can atheists, with straight face, tell us that belief in God is vanishingly trivial, and then speak of the abundance of courage necessary for their denial?
No. Atheism requires no courage at all. Walking into a lions den, suppressing your natural fears by pretending lions do not exist, now that requires a semblance of courage (mixed with extreme folly). But atheist are careful to claim that they are doing no such thing. Their “courage” is the kind required to acknowledge that the sky is blue, that fish swim, or that 2 + 2 = 4. Courage?
I responded to my friend’s claims of courage on facebook with this comment:
Nick, I've been thinking a lot lately about that oft repeated mantra, "it takes courage to be an atheistic materialist." I'm not so sure. I often feel it would be much easier for me to let my naturally skeptical mind drift into complete unbelief. And for me, quite honestly, holding on to faith requires the greater effort, and the greater courage.
I'm not saying atheists have wimped out. But I am saying that continuing to believe, maintaining hope that our existence is not futile, that there will be ultimate justice, that there is profound meaning and purpose threaded throughout this universe—for me, this involves determination and courage.
.... How is courage involved in a world-view that has abandoned hope? Sometimes I fear unbelievers mistake "whistling in the dark" for courage.
The Pragmatist, William James, understood (as do I) that faith is a choice. And likewise, for the atheist: disbelief is a choice. Atheists like to assert that non-belief is the default position for an empirically non-verifiable claim. But this assertion holds no water; it begs the question: for the very notion of faith acknowledges the absence of the sort of evidence they consider necessary. James comments,
"To preach scepticism to us as a duty until "sufficient evidence" for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law. And by what ... is the supreme wisdom of this passion warranted? Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear?"
So this is how James saw it: Unbelief is grounded less in courage than fear. Fear of making the mistake of believing without “sufficient evidence”. We can derive from James that faith is grounded in fearlessness, courage, as well as hope.
So the next time an atheist asks me how I can believe what I cannot empirically prove, I will respond, “It takes a lot of courage! do you have enough courage? or have you settled for the safety of resignation?”