Atheism and Mystery


A reader writes:

I've been catching glimpses of your conversation with Sam Harris. But what's caught my eye have been the e-mails from your detractors like this one and this one and this one. The last one in particular, which asks,

"Do you think God knows that you won't have very good answers to the points Sam Harris brings up at the end of his last reply?"

got me thinking that this obsession with "good answers" points to something close to the heart of this frustration with faith, something you touched on in your last post to Sam - the concept of mystery.  Not the Colonel-Mustard-in-the-library-with-a-candlestick kind of mystery, but the awe-and-humility-before-truths-and-experiences-greater-than- we-are-and-deeper-than-we-can-grasp kind of mystery. Seekers like you and I aren't afraid of it, and find our lives are invigorated by it. Some, however, seem allergic to it.

But why is it so hard to embrace mystery? It is so tightly woven into our human experience.  The search for answers to even the most basic questions about ourselves can take us to unplumbed depths of the unknown:  Who am I? Not my name, not what I do, but who am I? What do I want? Why do I love this person? What is the meaning of this experience? Try to really answer these questions, really answer them, and you inevitably run up against the unknown. And the unknown only grows and multiplies when we ask the even bigger questions that reach beyond ourselves: Where did I come from? Why am I here?

Maybe this is the fundamental disconnect between believers and non-believers - that the latter insist on answers, and if the answer appeals in any way to mystery, then the answer must be wrong. But practical human experience shows us that mystery is all around us, and that answers to even the simplest questions often cannot be found or must bow, at least somewhat, to mystery - not as a cop-out or a catch-all explanation, but as a humble acceptance of the limitations of human understanding and the possibility that the answers are more than we can know. 

Sometimes, instead of finding answers, we just have to live the questions. And we do. We all do. Every day. This is the real world and our experience of it: no matter how much we know, most of the important stuff is steeped in mystery. Strange that some athiests, who fashion themselves realists, cannot accept that simple reality.

This reality is, in my view, the core basis of all true religious faith and the only solid philosophical foundation for political conservatism. It's also why I find agnosticism far more persuasive than atheism.