Quiet: The Power of Introverts

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Why Atheists and Believers Need Each Other

A different way to look at the God debate.

Here's the question that comes up every holiday season, sometimes explicitly, often not: "Is there a God?"

You already know the answers. Some say yes, others say no, and then we argue about it ceaselessly.

But here's a different way to look at it: through the lens of "basic beliefs."

A basic belief is one that we feel needs no proof: for example, that one plus one equals two.*

This idea gets at something I've long felt -- that faith, and the lack thereof, are both basic beliefs we're probably born with. All the arguments we marshal for and against faith are window dressing, ad hoc justifications for something we feel at a gut level.

But unlike other basic beliefs -- like one plus one equal two -- when it comes to religion, not all humans have the same one. On the contrary, we have two seemingly irreconcilable basic beliefs:

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Exhibit A, on the theist side: “I think there is such a thing as a sensus divinitatis [an innate sense of the divine], and in some people it doesn’t work properly,” says the theist philosopher Alvin Plantinga (according to a fascinating New York Times piece by ideas writer Jenny Schuessler).

And on the atheist side: In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud wrote that he couldn't relate to the "oceanic," eternal feeling that religious believers experience, and posited that religious certainty arises out of "the infant's helplessness and the longing for the father" and "became connected with religion later on."

These clashing "basic beliefs" mostly cause strife between atheists and the faithful. Each tries to bring the other 'round to the "right" way of thinking. Usually, that's a lost cause.

But if there's one thing my background in introversion and extroversion teaches me, it's that these sorts of fundamental differences between people make humanity stronger and richer.

So when it comes to religion, I suspect it's a good thing that we come in two flavors. We just have trouble seeing that.

I'm going to take a crack at explaining why atheists and believers might need each other -- with no offense intended to either side.

Here's why atheists might need believers:

Many of the metaphors of religion speak the truth, even if you believe that the particulars are debatable. For example, Jews don't eat milk and meat together, as a way of signaling respect for the mother-infant bond. This practice is also a reminder that an animal gave up its life for you, that eating is a meaningful act, and that life depends on life.

Of course, there's nothing to stop atheists from studying holy texts and arriving at these interpretations for themselves, but they're less likely to direct their energy this way. They can benefit from the company of people who do. Similarly, the edifices of religion can uplift us all. You don't have to believe that Jesus was the son of God to feel exalted by Manhattan's magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

And here is why believers might need atheists:

Believers must necessarily direct energy to reconciling religious teachings with scientific inquiry. Many arrive at this reconciliation smoothly enough, but it still takes time and attention to get there.

For example, if you don't believe that morality is handed down from God, then you're more likely to spend time investigating humanity's innate sense of morality -- the things that we believe to be good or unconscionable, independently of religious tradition -- and to try to understand the moral lives of animals as a clue to the roots of humanity's sense of compassion and justice. Scientists are starting to make gains in these areas that may prove illuminating for believers and unbelievers alike.

So, in the spirit of the religious holidays/the Winter Solstice (take your pick!), this is a call for mutual appreciation.

What do you think of this theory?

  *I started thinking about the notion of "basic beliefs" courtesy of Jenny Schuessler's article, mentioned above.

 

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Susan Cain is the author of QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, a popular blog and forthcoming book about introversion.

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