A little ways back, I found myself reading two books high on the Amazon psychology reading list. They are The Ego Trick by Dr. Julian Baggini and The Belief Instinct by Dr. Jesse Bering. After reading them, I sent letters to both authors in an attempt engage them further around various topics. I never heard back from Dr. Bering, but did get a brief response from Dr. Baggini. Each book was well-researched and thought-provoking, and provided excellent insights and points of discussion about how our brains function, specifically around the ideas of the “self” and “theory of mind.” Both were written by self-professed atheists. Both possessed a fatal flaw. In their zest to promote psychological theory, these books became a proof against God and our immaterial souls. It was a disappointing end to a set of hypotheses that held significant promise for our understanding of humanity.
I reside in a field where many professionals share these author’s atheistic, or at least agnostic, beliefs. These views are expressed in many ways. But the more I have come to understand the atheistic perspective, the more it seems that three themes repeatedly underlie almost all beliefs. Simply put, belief in God does not seem 1) logical or understandable 2) scientifically verifiable, or 3) emotionally reasonable. Over and over, those who deny a divine existence come back to these three pedestals.
When spiritual matters fail to meet either of these criteria, it is assumed that God cannot exist. This of course supposes that God must be explainable, which of course is in direct contrast to Christian and other religious views which hold that many mysteries, such of that as the Trinity, exist beyond our understanding and exist for our joy. But in our current culture, where narcissism continues to soar, it seems that the idea of a “mystery” is not acceptable, and so therefore, it becomes not plausible. For example, some atheists will say that all of the needless suffering in the world proves there is not a God. I understand how they feel especially as young children reside in horrid conditions. Others will say that scientific discovery of a neuronal mechanism for faith-like experiences attests that God is a figment of our imagination. New scientific findings do make me wonder. But when questions become assumptions, and the assumptions become accepted modes of atheistic reasoning, we must ponder if it is our ego getting in the way.
Ironically, psychology has something to say about these three avenues of atheism. In regards to the idea that God is neither logical nor understandable, there is a long-known principle at play called the Illusion of Control. We all like to believe that our surroundings are predictable and controllable. But in actuality, this is often not true, especially when realities are too complex and too vast to understand. When atheism attempts to shrink a divine existence into concrete, logical terms, it supports the illusion that our logic is in control. Moving onto the scientific invalidation of God, we again find that our own psychological realities come into play. The Confirmation Bias convinces us that our opinions are the result of years of polished research and observation. In reality, oodles of psychological research finds otherwise. Our opinions are often the result of paying attention to what we believe, and ignoring information that challenges what we do not. When scientific ideas such as evolution or theory of mind are used as a proof against God, it seems done in the spirit of confirming a bias in what we “know” and “believe”, not in creating a greater openness of what we may not be able to scientifically prove. And finally, when it comes to the understandable difficulty in merging God with emotional distress, hardship, and horror, psychology again offers a unique view. In the world of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses on reducing irrational beliefs (cognitive distortions), there is one belief that we all struggle with from time to time. It is called Emotional Reasoning. It is the idea that what I feel must be true. If I feel stupid, I must be stupid. If I feel alone, I must be alone. If I feel that God does not exist, then he must not exist. Ironically, many of our greatest saints suffered from this sense of desolation at points in their lives before finding their way home.
But moving beyond psychological theory, I can’t help but be struck by a few further observations. If one, just one, Eucharistic miracle is authentic, then atheism fails. If just one saint truly lies uncorrupted, then atheism fails. But there is even another perspective that deserves further intimation. Throughout the history of our world, there have been stunning objects of beauty created by numerous individuals. These include paintings, symphonies, sculptures, buildings, monuments, inventions, if only to name a few. Sadly, some of these may have gradually eroded, faded, crumbled, or even been used for evil deeds. But no one has ever questioned that each of these creations, were in fact created, by a creator. We all agree the Great Wall of China didn’t happen by accident.
So, as we look at our world, and admire the genius of the human body and the many stunning landscapes that dot our earth, it seems, well, frankly hard to believe in an analogous sense that a creator, using whatever mechanism (e.g., evolution, theory of mind) is needed, is not responsible. Furthermore, it is important to note that while science and logic can attempt to explain the mechanisms of any worldly creator, both repeatedly fall short of being able to recreate the genius that was responsible. Try explaining how a human can run 100 miles in a half a day. Science and logic have tried, and failed. Try and explain how the universe exists and operates. Science and logic have tried, and failed. Try and explain how a one-celled human being in the womb is someday able to speak, and run, and learn, and lead, and love, and live on in the hearts and souls of millions. Science and logic…
In essence, even our brilliant worldly realities defy the law of logic, science, and emotion in many ways. This being so, it seems rather strange that we wouldn’t assume that a divine Creator would do the same. In the end, it isn’t about having doubts. We all have doubts, and in my weakest moments, I sometimes struggle to believe the epic story of Christianity. It appears so much more remarkable than any fictional story could be. But maybe the greatest Ego Trick is the one that an ego plays in believing it knows what is true.