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 , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Great post Fr Chris.

    I think you are right that many Australian “atheists” are simply people who can’t find a home in organised religion but also can’t exclude the mysterious and spiritual. Perhaps organised Christianity is partly to blame for making faith a “private matter” for too long. Perhaps after a few decades of the New Evangelsim non-believers will no longer think that spiritual belief is a private matter.

  2. If God exists, that God must be more sublime than science can give account of. It is true that all the phenomena that we currently consider spirituality, could some day be described in a some grand unified theory, still that would then mean there is no God, because God must be inexplicable.
    God is not an object, thing or external reality.
    Thomas Merton wrote that “Many who consider themselves atheists are in fact persons who are discontented with the naïve idea of God which makes him appear to be an ‘object’ or a ‘thing’ in a merely finite and human sense.” This is where a dialogue with them might begin.
    Those familiar with mysticism are fully aware that the temporary or permanent inability to imagine God or to ‘experience’ him as present, or even to find him credible, is not new to our own age.
    I think that if we are honest, this way fr. Ryan is describing God, is not the way the majority of religious present their faith. Their proselytizing often constitutes a falsification of religious truth. Thomas Merton asserted that the religious problem of the twentieth century was also a problem of “Believers” who had substituted truth, for comfortable, cultural illusions and cheap grace.
    We do not have to choose between faith and science, nor between Christ and the World.
    The fact is that just as many people choose to reject the world in search of god, as reject god in search of science. We can only know God by taking the world as it really is encountered by us. God will not be discovered by willful concentration upon a few clear and comforting ideas, but a life of inner struggle, a true pilgrim will doubt.
    The truth is the mystic and the atheist are very close at times, wanting to pull down the facade of religion, and get to the core truth. The God they do not believe in is not a God I ever believed in, and the “believers” they attack are insecure, faithless souls who use religion as a drug to sooth their anxieties or as a club to beat those who disagree with them. True persons of faith do not reject scientific discoveries, secular wisdom, or open dialogue. In fact, such things can be seen as the very fruits of faith—not its antitheses.
    If people of faith want a real conversation with atheists, they could begin by admitting that they too reject the ‘god’ of religion

  3. Hi Father, I saw you speak yesterday at Guiness and God about having faith in a post modern world and wanted to say that what you said made sense, and was honest. It made me think more about the science/faith debate that I have been seeing around a lot lately.

    I wanted to ask a question at the end of the talk but didn’t get a chance to, so thought I would just ask on the blog: I was just wondering what your opinion was of people who seem to need proof in order to believe.

    Some people I know cling on to certain “proofs” that Jesus does exist, that miracles happen, and that God is real. For example, a bleeding statue of Jesus, which, after having several scientific tests done, was found to not have been tampered with so couldn’t be explained scientifically (and thus, must be a miracle some would think). Also, proof of incorruptible saints.

    Sometimes I feel that these can help us to feel more secure in our faith, but it also indicates that there is some insecurity in the first place about whether or not to believe. It may also make us less tolerant of others who do not share our beliefs as it is apparently so obviously true to us.

    Anyway, enough rambling! I’d love to know your thoughts on this.

  1. Pingback: QandA: Atheism vs Faith… Science vs The Wright Brothers? « Lead Anyway

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