If humans are the only intelligent life in the universe, should we feel sad about that? Should we feel bereft, or disappointed?
That’s how David Kestenbaum describes his feelings on a recent This American Life.
“This would mean,” he tells Ira Glass, “there’s nobody out there that knows more than we do…. Like, what we know is it. What we are is it.”
Most people Kestenbaum speaks with during don’t understand him, but it seems obvious to me. He has invested the idea of aliens with transcendent value. The “world” for him is defined by the limits of human knowledge, and he seems to doubt that we can save ourselves. His hope, then, is that some other intelligence could show us the way.
Therefore, the thought that there may not be any such intelligence troubles him. It struck me as a version of atheist doubt. I mean, they must doubt, sometimes, right?
Doubt has been a part of my spiritual vocabulary for a long time, though not in the way most Christian magazine headlines mean it.
I doubt plenty of things: Whether I hear God speak. Whether I place my life sufficiently in the way of the Spirit. Whether God will bless my career. Whether my theologies of the Bible or politics or salvation are right.
This kind of doubt, for me, is the counterpoint to faith. It gives faith its teeth, presents faith in its truest aspect as a constantly renewed choice. Doubt does not in itself pose any problems for my faith. I don’t “struggle” to overcome doubt so much as to dwell with it in tandem with faith.
Of course, sometimes doubt reaches that core question: Is any of this real? Does God really exist? Am I deluding myself? This, truly, can be a troubling kind of doubt. I’ve had periods when this question sunk me into a deeper depression than Kestenbaum’s. I’ve had my dark night, my night of wrestling with the silence of God.
And I came out of it stronger. Not more certain, exactly, but more convinced that I did not wrestle with only my own mind, that by morning I had been blessed by a power beyond me. Doubt no longer shakes me to the core. I’ve found Kamieńska’s place “inaccessible to unbelief.”
Do atheists have a place inaccessible to belief? Could someone be certain that all this is chance, just as I am certain it never could be?
Kestenbaum, like many of his NPR atheist colleagues, seems unwilling or unable to frame his question in spiritual terms. If there is an “NPR atheist type,” this is a central feature. While I often admire their honest doubts about matters of justice, law, politics, even science, I never hear them question their fundamental conviction—and it is a conviction—that the material is all there is.
I’ve studied Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud, Marx, Derrida. I’ve wondered if alternative explanations weren’t superior. Surely these NPR atheists must sometimes wonder if some kind of God is necessary to explain things for them?
I recently got into a Facebook fight about atheism’s grounds for morality. My atheist interlocutor insisted religions not only did not have a monopoly on morality, they were more likely to be immorally violent or hateful. Setting aside the first part, I agreed there was no monopoly, but I asked why he thought he was right about morality. Why wasn’t his morality, on naturalism, just preference or an evolutionary fluke or even a tool of the weak to reign in the strong?
Maybe I didn’t ask it clearly enough. At any rate, he wasn’t able to answer me. Instead, he kept insisting, with a righteous passion, that such and such things were moral, and others were immoral.
What happened there? Most likely, we simply ran aground on the inadequacy of social media to support serious dialogue. Of course, it’s also possible I rubbed a raw nerve, a deep place of doubt that, just maybe, his morality was not properly grounded—or that he might have to recognize a God as the only adequate ground.
I suspect he had similar reasons for his faith in naturalism that I do for my faith in Christ. That he was raised with certain values that continue to make sense to him. That further experience and reflection confirmed those values somewhere deep within him. That he has built a complex structure of identity on these values.
My theology of the human, though, will not let me believe I am essentially different than any other human being, irrespective of era, culture, politics, or faith. I cannot believe other than that moral truths have a prima facie grounding in our spiritual nature—whether we believe we are spiritual or not.
Ironically, that conviction may put me at an absolute difference from a naturalistic atheist like Kestenbaum. To my mind, Kestenbaum is closer to God in his hopes for some transcendent personality to save us than I am to atheism in my doubts about miracles or providence. If he were to convert to theism, it would be a shorter leap for him than were I to despairingly assent to naturalism.
In John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, Father Flynn preaches that doubt “can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” I used to think these words were cryptic. Shouldn’t doubt call into question the very things by which we found common cause with one another?
The wisdom in the words, however, makes perhaps more sense across lines of spiritual belief than even within it. When I turn from the Sunday morning sermon to the radio, it sometimes feels too exhausting to negotiate the very different mindsets required to make sense of each. Yet perhaps we are not all so different, precisely in our doubt, and that, ironically, may be reason to have faith in one another.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Brad Fruhauff
Brad Fruhauff is a film buff, comics nerd, literature scholar, editor, and writer living in Evanston, Illinois. He is Senior Editor at Relief: A Christian Literary Review and a Writing and Communications Specialist at Trinity International University where he also serves as Contributing Editor for Sapientia. He has published poems, essays, and reviews in Books & Culture, catapult, Christianity and Literature, Englewood Review of Books, Every Day Poems, Not Yet Christmas: An Advent Reader, Rock & Sling, and in the newly released How to Write a Poem.
Above image by Marketa, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.