Beyond QandA: Insights into Atheism and Faith with Nikki Gemmell
So last night we had the so-called great debate between Cardinal Pell and Dr Richard Dawkins, and of course today the social media has been atwitter with the postmortems. I don’t intend to offer such a post- QandA analysis, but rather would like to direct you to Nikki Gemmell’s latest column from the Weekend Australian’s magazine (p14, April 7-8, 2012). It’s obviously not an analysis of last night’s debate, but it might better serve people who would like to genuinely explore some of the issues around belief and unbelief today.
In the column Gemmell traces something of her own quest for faith, for meaning. She begins by describing herself in her 20s as “one of those pitbull atheists, a sneerer a la Dawkins”, but she nonetheless would occasionally slip into a church service, a practice which slowly developed into a semi-regular habit in her early thirties. Gemmell no longer goes to church, and now identifies more with the atheism of Alain de Botton, “tipping a hat to the graces within organised religion but not be sucked in by it. I’ll never be with Dawkins, thumping that believers are deluded, stupid; I’ve too much respect for the mysterious in life, can’t turn my back on wonder”.
Gemmell’s article concludes with a summation of her sense of spirituality:
My spirituality is private, bound by no institution, carved from years of bitsy church-going and from the land and giving birth, carved from the shock of kindness I see again and again in people and am deeply moved by. These attacks of Dawkins and his ilk feel like a violation in some way, but I can’t explain why. Because my head’s telling me they’re right, it’s true. Yet, yet…
Dawkins surely has his supporters in Australia, but I can’t help thinking that Gemmell has articulated far more successfully what many Australians feel about the possibility of belief and the seeming inevitability of unbelief. She has clearly experienced the power of some of the practices of religious faith and the power of sacred sites to engender a sense of peace and invite a return to wholeness. She is drawn to the values of religious faith: “generosity, compassion and quiet”, as she names them. And yet her article concludes with her “head”, her reason telling her that the atheists are right; her intellect or reason precludes her from believing, as much as she might in some way like to.
There’s possibly (indeed probably) a whole bunch of reasons running around inside Gemmell’s head making religious belief within an institutional setting implausible for her. And so there is more that could be said than is possible in a single blog from me. But in response to her insightful column, I would simply point out this: in the last lines of her article it would appear that Gemmell has articulated a fundamental belief of the age in which we live, namely that the only “reasons” that count are the one’s that belong to her “head”. As a product of modernity she believes that empirical proof is the only valid form of knowledge. But every paragraph of her article points to another mode of knowing that she is not prepared to trust and yet feels so intensely: a mode that has several different names in the Christian tradition, but is probably best known as the way of the heart. As Blaise Pascal so famously expressed it, “the heart has reasons that reason knows not of”. The heart’s knowledge is more than emotion or feeling; in fact Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both described this kind of knowledge as a higher part of the mind or a higher reason, distinguishable from the normal processes of discursive thought that we commonly call reason.
Now when the atheist looks in vain for proof of God’s existence, and when Nikki Gemmell’s “head” tells her that the atheist’s arguments are right, they are looking for reasons at the level of discursive thought, at the level of what we usually call reason. In part that’s because modern epistemology (the philosophy of how we know) has said that such empirical reasoning is the only real way of knowing anything. But it stands to reason (pun intended) that if God is not a thing in the world, not an object that can be found in the world, but is rather the very foundation of all things and is thus utterly beyond the world, then he is not to be found or discovered by discursive reason at all. Which is why the Christian tradition has maintained, over and against this modern epistemology, that God is known and encountered by the heart, by the higher form of reason that modern epistemology has excluded or forgotten. I would contend that Dawkins doesn’t get this. He is totally convinced that the only form of trustworthy knowledge comes from empirical reason, from the scientific method. But Gemmell does get it. She needs to trust her heart, trust the mystery that she intuits within her life experience, the “tugging” that she feels. Because the heart has reasons that reason knows not of. And they are valid reasons to believe.
Posted on April 10, 2012, in Culture and tagged atheism, Augustine, Cardinal George Pell, epistemology, faith, heart, Nikki Gemmell, Q and A, reason, Richard Dawkins, Thomas Aquinas. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.