Maggie’s Argument Against Atheism

November 15, 2006 | 50 comments
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Oddly enough, I have never really struggled with belief in God. I can emotionally understand a crisis of faith over something like anachronisms in the Book of Mormon or sermons on blood atonement. These are not the sorts of things that trouble me now, but I can imaginatively enter into the emotional logic of such a crisis. Out and out atheism is more difficult. I can certainly intellectually appreciate the arguments that could be marshaled against God. There are perfectly plausible and respectable reasons for becoming an atheist or an agnostic. I can even parrot back to you descriptions of the emotions that might be involved. I have read Camus. Ultimately, however, on some deep level I just don’t emotionally “get it.”

After moving to Williamsburg, we adopted a four-year-old Black Lab named Maggie. Labs are beautiful, wonderful animals, but if they don’t get regular exercise they become utterly psychotic and will destroy your home. As fate – and my anti-morning wife – would have it, I am the dog walker in our family. I hate getting out of bed, but I love the walks. The Virginia Tidewater is one of the more beautiful spots on earth. A quarter mile from our home there is a bike trail that winds its way through cornfields, woods, and marshes. Sometimes Maggie and I drive a mile or two down to the banks of the James River and walk along the estuary looking out toward the Chesapeake. Walking along the beach, watching the early morning mist hover above the surface the water, which reflects the blaze of color from the fall trees, and partaking second-hand of that special joy that a dog gets when it rouses a flock of geese and sends it honking over the river, the beauty and goodness of God is so imminent and overwhelming that atheism becomes, for me, an emotional impossibility.

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50 Responses to Maggie’s Argument Against Atheism

  1. Mark IV on November 14, 2006 at 11:14 pm

    Just a half hour ago I read an essay describing the joys of a dog’s companionship. The author claimed that having a dog was the closest one could come in life to experiencing unconditional love.

  2. manaen on November 14, 2006 at 11:25 pm

    I believe that it was Ester Rasband who noted that maybe sign seeking is sinful because for believers, signs of God and His goodness abound everywhere.

    BTW, I had a Golden Retriever named “Maggie” for the homespun-ness of it — and because her coat was similar color as the hair of similarly-named wife of a business leader who started my career and accomplished much while holding to his principles.

  3. Susan S. on November 15, 2006 at 1:15 am

    do you think belief is a matter of will or choice

  4. dangermom on November 15, 2006 at 1:54 am

    Reminds me of my dad, who says he doesn’t understand how anyone can have a cherry tree and be an atheist.

  5. tracy m on November 15, 2006 at 3:59 am

    That was just lovely. And it makes me want to give in to the pleading and begging of my boys and get a dog.

  6. Ronan on November 15, 2006 at 4:02 am

    Nate,
    You have landed in the most beautiful spot in America. 2007 should be fun.

  7. Herodotus on November 15, 2006 at 4:56 am

    I enjoyed your post. Having given that disclaimer, I’m going focus on one part of it and nitpick a bit, largely for discussion’s sake.

    Let me state at the outset that I think we have pretty good precedent for the sort of experience you describe (Alma 30:44):

    “…all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”

    My concern about this sort of proof (finding God in the beauty of nature) is that it can make us “lazy thinkers.” By way of illustration, consider Newton. (I was a physics undergraduate and this is a pretty common example.) As he described the universe, he was struck by the fact that the planets moved in their orbit around the sun in (more or less) a single plane. And he (the greatest scientific mind of his time, and still one of the greatest in history) could find no explanation for this! Lacking an explanation, he offered this motion as proof for God’s existence. Today of course we understand the dynamics of the formation of planets and this configuration seems much less miraculous. Few people would accept it as proof of God’s existence.

    Atheists call this the “God of Gaps” argument. (I’m sure this isn’t the first time someone has mentioned this here.) The idea being that when we see something miraculous in nature (lightning for example) that surpasses our understanding we then use the divine to fill the “gap” (enter Thor and Zeus).

    So I wonder if there a risk that finding God in the “gaps” can make our intellect and our faith “lazy.” How can I be sure that I find Alma’s evidence rather than Newton’s when I look at the sky? Or does it matter at all (Pascal’s wager)?

    (Again, I enjoyed the post. I just like the discussion.)

  8. paul on November 15, 2006 at 8:41 am

    Nate–

    Great post. For me, the knowing comes on Angel’s Landing, high above the Virgin River, overlooking Zion Canyon in Southern Utah.

    Herodotus–

    I’m sure Nate will have a much more eloquent and philosophicallys-response, that said: I think the proof Newton presents is qualitatively different from the experience of which Nate speaks. Nate, after all, hasn’t really mentioned a gap–there is nothing particularly mysterious or elusive about the tidewater, except that it is surpassingly beautiful and that something about the soundness of beauty strikes a chord deep within us that reminds us of things we’ve forgotten.

  9. Herodotus on November 15, 2006 at 11:04 am

    @Paul

    Yeah, I agree with you of course. I might suggest that there is a gap implied in the wonder produced by his descriptions of natural beauty, but there’s no question that this is the stretch in my post. On the other hand, I don’t know that all gaps these days are as obvious as being unable to explain lightning for instance. And I legitimately wonder sometimes when I feel awe at a natural phenomenon if I can really consider that awe to be evidence for God, or if it is just where my intellect fails to fill in the blanks.

  10. Nate Oman on November 15, 2006 at 11:30 am

    Herodotus: Don’t you feel awe of what you understand as well? I think that Paul hit it on the head. I am not talking about a gap, but rather about beauty. Now as an apologetic argument to the skeptic, it is extremely weak. On the other hand, for me at least it is extremely powerful emotionally, and at the end of the day I suspect that continued life as a believer is much more tied up in such emotional and aesthetic responses than in any set of proofs or evidences.

    Mom: I don’t know if my reaction is a matter of choice or not. I suspect not. Rather, I suspect it is more a matter of temperment. On the other hand, I do think that our temperments are maleable. Hence, while my religious reaction to watching Maggie chase geese in the early morning mists comes unbidden to me, if I live a very different kind of life I suspect that I would have a difference kind of reaction.

  11. MikeInWeHo on November 15, 2006 at 11:56 am

    “….continued life as a believer is much more tied up in such emotional and aesthetic responses than in any set of proofs or evidences.” Yes! Well put, Nate! That is exactly how I feel.

    Focusing on evidences is a mistake. The late, great Carl Sagan years ago articulated how one could stand in awe of of the universe (he did not call it creation) and still be quite comfortably atheist.

  12. Russell Arben Fox on November 15, 2006 at 12:13 pm

    “…the beauty and goodness of God is so imminent and overwhelming that atheism becomes, for me, an emotional impossibility.”

    Nate, you’re a romantic! Cool. Keep working this vein, and maybe you’ll end up a Tory after all.

  13. Mike Parker on November 15, 2006 at 1:09 pm

    A Public Service Announcement:

    There are two types of people in the world: Dog People, and Non-Dog People.

    Dog People love dogs and think they are the best life has to offer.

    Non-Dog People simply find dogs pointless at best, and annoying at worst.

    Dog People generally assume that all people love dogs. They do not understand the passionate dislike Non-Dog People have for dogs.

    As a Non-Dog Person, I plead with Dog People everywhere: Just because you love your dog doesn’t mean everyone else does. Remember that when dealing with neighbors and people on the street.

  14. anon on November 15, 2006 at 1:17 pm

    Haha…Mike Parker. I rarely agree with a word you say, but I have to agree with you on the dog issue.

  15. Nate Oman on November 15, 2006 at 1:31 pm

    Just for the record, I want to state that I think that Carl Sagan was a twit on religious issue; a totally tin ear…

  16. Nate Oman on November 15, 2006 at 1:35 pm

    Mike: This morning I encoutered such a “Non-Dog Person” (NDP) while I was on my walk with Maggie. I let her off her leash to run about a fallow corn field. At which point a very uptight man in his fifties jogged by. Maggie ran up to him wagging her tail, and the the man jogged by me and said, “You need to get a leash.” To which I responded, “Nah. I think that you do just fine off-leash.”

    Is this the sort of sensitivity to NDPs that you had in mind?

  17. Nate Oman on November 15, 2006 at 2:09 pm

    RAF: Think of me as a Gladstonian Liberal who reads the Lake Poets in the evening. (Actually, it is not an entirely inaccurate description even at a literal level.)

  18. tyler on November 15, 2006 at 2:10 pm

    Nate–

    Did you really say that?

    Herodotus–

    I wonder, how many people have ever accepted religion on anything other than a gap (using the broader definition you now suggest). Faith requires a gap; otherwise, it’s not faith–right? Meanwhile, while centuries (millenia, perhaps) of philosophers have tried to “prove” God’s existence, as Nate intimates, the best they can really do is provide a rational framework upon which a belief in God can exist–I don’t know anyone who woke up an atheist, heard the ontological (or any other) argument for God’s existence, and went to bed a believer.

  19. Nate Oman on November 15, 2006 at 2:14 pm

    “Did you really say that?”

    Yes. I am actually not as nice as I superficially appear. Also, I thought that the guy was being an uptight, officious jerk — a type that I learned to loathe when I lived in Cambridge. My attitude is that if you don’t like dogs, you don’t belong on this side of the Mason-Dixon Line. At the very least, you ought to stay north of the Rappahanock.

  20. tyler on November 15, 2006 at 2:26 pm

    Nate–

    Forgive the digression: Dave Barry said you can always tell a person who went to Harvard because he will never mention Harvard but will frequently refer to Cambridge–is that true?

  21. Russell Arben Fox on November 15, 2006 at 2:28 pm

    The important thing, Nate, is the your dog is an Actual Dog, a creature that leaps and sniffs and slobbers and attacks and digs and chases and generally approaches life with a very Doglike worldview. I heartily approve of this choice. All dogs should be Dogs, allowed to cavort and bark and challenge trees to duels (which they sometimes win). Dogs should be large, loyal, and comfortable with (that is, unaware of) their mental limitations. Unfortunately, human civilization has brought with it corruptions, one of the greatest of which is the attempt to turn certain dog breeds into small, yipping, fussy, domesticated, existentially depressed, genetically warped rat-things. If any of you out there owns a “dog” smaller than, say, a beagle, destroy it immediately; it is a False Creature, an Abomination, the result of an ancient and evil attempt to make true Dogs into Cats. God spoke against this practice somewhere in Deuteromony, I’m certain of it. Cats are special creations, whose peculiar and rather elite virtues should not be brought out in such otherwise ordinary and humble creatures like Dogs. Cats can go to cat shows, and the world continues on as created, but once you start holding beauty contests for dogs, you’ve lost that Doglike essence, and you’re on the edge of destruction. America, be warned.

  22. Nate Oman on November 15, 2006 at 2:38 pm

    Tyler: Probably, although I know lots of Harvard grads who are more than happy to own up to being Harvard grads. The Cambridge reference was not meant as a subtle attempt to drop the H-bomb. I just had a lot of experiences with nosy and officious strangers in Cambridge giving me parenting advice when I took my son to a play ground, on a walk, etc. Apparently if you are unmarried, have not children, but vote Democratic and are highly educated you are just brimming over with parenting advice that must be inflicted on young strangers (who actually are parents). Think of it as the supports of the public nanny state simply being public nannies. Apparently the ideal parent in the eyes of child care mandrins of Cambridge is one who constantly hovers over his son and never lets him climb anything or do anything except sit in a small apartment listening to Baby Mozart and reviewing flashcards designed to stimulate cognitive development.

    Rant over. (Boy, that was an intense memory).

  23. Nate Oman on November 15, 2006 at 2:40 pm

    RAF: Amen.

    ” dog breeds into small, yipping, fussy, domesticated, existentially depressed, genetically warped rat-things.”

    A one word solution that you will appreciate: Poshintang!

  24. Anon at Harvard on November 15, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    While attending a lecture at Harvard this semester a professor quoted the words of Mr. Barry, referred to by tyler above:

    “Massachusetts is also the site of the nation’s first college, Harvard, which for more than three centuries has produced graduates who, no matter what
    their philosophical differences, are all dedicated to the lofty goal of subtly letting you know that they went to Harvard. They never mention it
    directly. What they do is constantly work the name “Cambridge” into the conversation. You’ll say “Nice day,” and they’ll say “Yes! We had days
    like this in Cambridge!” Or you’ll say “Pass the salt,” and they’ll say “Certainly! I used to pass the salt in Cambridge.”

    – Dave Barry

  25. Anon at Harvard on November 15, 2006 at 2:58 pm

    I should add that I really don’t think that this is what Nate was doing at all, but it’s a funny Dave Barry quote and, sadly, I’ve known plenty of people who do use strategies like this to “drop the H-bomb”, so I thought I’d pass it along.

  26. Herodotus on November 15, 2006 at 2:58 pm

    @Tyler and Nate
    “…life as a believer is much more tied up in such emotional and aesthetic responses than in any set of proofs or evidences.”
    “…how many people have ever accepted religion on anything other than a gap ?”

    I’m actually in agreement with these things. My concern is of course when the emotional response *becomes* the evidence or basis for faith. And the question I mean to ask is if we need to differentiate between emotional responses. Are there false emotions that lead to God, or does it matter provided that it leads to God? Thus I posed my quesiton about if I should worry if my response is more in tune with Alma or Newton when I look into the sky and am amazed.

    But eventually I’m not really sure you can really have a discussion about people’s emotional responses. It invariably returns to the old “listen to the Spirit” thing which really can’t be beat.

  27. Craig V. on November 15, 2006 at 3:02 pm

    Nate, your post put me in a comfortably complacent state and then RAF’s reponse reminded me of the problem of dogs and evil and I was awakened from my dogmatic slumber.

  28. Russell Arben Fox on November 15, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    “A one word solution that you will appreciate: Poshintang!”

    I can remember tracting once along some village road, and a truck came by, carrying a large cage filled with ill-fed, filthy, runny-eyed dogs, off the the slaughterhouse. In a different culture, those could have been fine, squirrel-chasing, noble, car-chasing, loyal, leaf-blowing-along-the-ground-chasing animals; instead, they were off to be made into soup. Sad. Still, every culture has its crimes. We eat cows, which as the Hindus understand (even if they get their theology wrong) are the only animal which was not affected by the Fall.

    “…RAF’s reponse reminded me of the problem of dogs and evil and I was awakened from my dogmatic slumber.”

    Budddum-bum-CHING! Thank you, thank you, I’m here through Friday.

  29. Nate Oman on November 15, 2006 at 3:21 pm

    Of course, Dave Barry might simply be confusing MIT grads with Harvard grads.

  30. mel on November 15, 2006 at 3:34 pm

    re 15

    nate– briliiant!

    last week on a trail in park city i had the same experience. of course i didn’t handle it as well. i told him to keep his kids on a leash. ok, i didn’t really say that but i did think it.

    as a new member to the church, someone told me that God is subject to the same laws of physics that we are. of course that set my head spinning when watching PBS specials about about string theory, black holes, ect. Finally the world made sense.

    i believe– that the difference between God and us is simply our intelligence. because God has a complete knowlede of physics, he is able to (for lack of a better word) manipulate
    it.

    for me, the ability to know that “God is” has everything to do with gaining knowledge (however limited) of the physical world and allowing the Spirit to fill in the blanks when needed.

    Russell, I totally agree with your take on dogs.

    Real Dogs, ones larger than a beagle, are for real people.
    they keep you humble. they remind you of your humanity, if you let them. IF YOU LET THEM.

    i paid $75 dollars for a scrappy, sick yellow lab a couple of years ago. I have spent countless hours training him to do all of the normal dog things, feeding him, and keeping him healthy . In return he lets me and my husband hike, bike, and swim with him. He has let us throw sticks into lakes (fully submerging himselft to retrieve them) and spent many late nights keeping us company while working. Best of all he lets us laugh at him, and with him. I have definitely gotten my money’s worth of comedy from bodie, the yellow dog. I think I’ll keep him.

  31. Mark B. on November 15, 2006 at 4:06 pm

    I hope you’ll next post a picture of Maggie jumping into the water. What’s a lab without that wonderful grin on her face as she swims out to retrieve whatever you’ve thrown for her? Our Abby would envy Maggie her early morning run along the James, but she’d be more envious still if she knew Maggie was going swimming too.

  32. Bill on November 15, 2006 at 4:29 pm

    A few years ago I was running in Riverside Park when a giant dog bounded over to me and leaped up, putting its mud-stained paws all over me. I immediately threw it to the ground and continued onward glaring at the owners who were yards away, and making some probably rude comment about a leash. Even if they had thought of a clever comeback, it wouldn’t have changed what is the law in New York City:

    A person who owns, possesses or controls a dog shall not permit it to be in any public place or in any open or unfenced area abutting on a public place unless the dog is effectively restrained by a leash or chain not more than six feet long.

    - section161.05 of the New York City Health Code

    I’m also happy to report that many parks now have special dog drinking fountains attached at the bottom of regular drinking fountains. It was disappointing to see dog owners letting their dogs drink out of the same fountains intended for humans, almost persuading me to that environmental disaster, bottled water.

  33. Russell Arben Fox on November 15, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    “A few years ago I was running in Riverside Park when a giant dog bounded over to me and leaped up, putting its mud-stained paws all over me. I immediately threw it to the ground and continued onward glaring at the owners who were yards away, and making some probably rude comment about a leash.”

    You should have wrestled with the dog. All true Dogs love wrestling. Especially in the mud. Preferably with other Dogs, but humans will do, or really just anything, including inanimate objects. Possibly a parked car, in a pinch. Also, you should sleep with the Dog. Allow his germs and fleas to inhabit your body space. Feed her table scraps; allow her to lick the baby clean (possibly you can do both of these simultaneously). This is Dog Life. Do not attempt to make your Dog clean; it may begin to think it is a Cat, and then you’re on the Wrong Path. Let Cats be Cats, and Dogs be Dogs. (The French have the right idea; if you’re actually seriously worried about poop and leashes and cleanliness, why get a dog?)

    Tricks performed by Actual Dogs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwvCoKDcgCU

    Tricks performed by sad, warped, miserable, perverted dogs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BwM9Of8gJQ

  34. ifly4fun on November 15, 2006 at 4:58 pm

    My brother was raised LDS but is now Athiest (Or so he Thinks) He and I have discussed this alot over the years. It comes down to this, and I believe that the SouthPark show on TV said it best (I don’t watch it but my stepson does. I overheard this one day after work) “Evolution is the HOW but God is th WHY.” We know that The Lord works according to natural laws. Don’t get me wrong, I know that we did not in any way descend from apes. But the fact that things evolve around their surroundings gives strength to the evolution thoery. For example; Dandilions used to grow to be 6 feet tall. When man began tilling the earth and cutting them back the dandilions had to evolve to survive. Evolution is a fact, in the sense that things, and even people evolve around their surroundings.

  35. tyler on November 15, 2006 at 5:05 pm

    Nate–

    For my two cents: a kid without scars was probably too sheltered (not huge scars, necessarily, but something from falling off the monkey bars or wrestling with a big dog, say).

    PS: Speaking of pretentiousness, the link you put up to the NYer article a couple of days ago was amazing–the logic could only have passed muster in a place where certain smug arguments are no longer subject to scrutiny.

  36. Hellmut on November 15, 2006 at 5:08 pm

    The other day, I was observing the soothing twirps of the sparrows. It’s less soothing once one realizes that it expresses the fight for food, sex, and territory. I suppose that it is soothing to us because birds’ song indicates that there is no predator in the immediate vicinity.

  37. Julie M. Smith on November 15, 2006 at 5:31 pm

    the the man jogged by me and said, “You need to get a leash.” To which I responded, “Nah. I think that you do just fine off-leash.”

    Uh, don’t ever move to Texas. I think you’d last one week max before you got shot.

  38. Nate Oman on November 15, 2006 at 6:28 pm

    Bill: Yet another reason not to move to New York City…

  39. Susan M on November 15, 2006 at 7:56 pm

    So many things to object to in these comments…

    1. While I’m sure the Virginia Tidewater is lovely and induces that rare feeling of finding a divine spot on earth, the most beautiful place in America, besides Hawaii, is this:

    http://qsysue.tagplazen.org/pics/august2006vacation/DSCF6445.jpg

    2. Not all small dogs are created equal. Some are the best dogs on earth.

    3. There is such a thing as a person who isn’t a dog person and also isn’t a non-dog person. I’m a dog person about certain dogs. Other dogs, a non-dog person.

    Nate, thanks for such an awesome post. I still miss my childhood dog, Daisy. The best dog in the world. Who was also a small dog. :)

  40. Proud Daughter of Eve on November 15, 2006 at 7:57 pm

    Great post and discussion but what I like best is the photo of the Chesapeake. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wrangle a move back (something to do with teacher’s pay in the States resembling certain legume-like things favored as snacks) but I grew up there and the Bay and the birds and the crabs and the sail boats are practically part of my bones.

  41. Jack on November 15, 2006 at 9:13 pm

    Creation is so beautiful. Why does there have to be a God looming over it all? Spoiling it all? I want my golden calf.

    The beauty of the earth may yet make an atheist out of me.

  42. Jim F. on November 16, 2006 at 12:44 am

    Jack, why is God looming over it all? I don’t get it. I love a beautiful painting or sculpture and do not feel the artist looming over it.

  43. Larry Ogan on November 16, 2006 at 1:00 am

    I love atheist. They are more obsessed with God than most believers. I only disagree with them that when you die there is nothing. Maybe they will become unconscious Matter and energy is never destroyed only changed. Even if we perceived that nothing is left, there would still be our perception and God.

  44. Locke on November 16, 2006 at 2:27 am

    Too often when new scientific discoveries are made previous discoveries an oberservations that are made are brushed aside and mentioned as a part of history. This tendency makes some people scoff at those who would find the creation of life amazing and a spiritual experience rather than the process of meisois and a number of biological systems working together to create a stem cell. Although my understanding is increasing my admiration of the “creator” does not and should not diminish. I guess I don’t have an answer for Jack on why God has to loom above it all. It’s instinctive for me and a thing of beauty.

  45. ifly4fun on November 16, 2006 at 8:29 am

    God is not “Looming over it all” Moses 1:39 “For behold this is my work and my glory to bring to pass the inmortality and eternal life of man”

    I build airplane models. Ienjoy building them. I love everything about aviation. and I build them because I enjoy looking at them. God did not create this world as a hobby. It’s not something he put on some cosmic shelf somewhere to look at once in a while.

    He created this earth and everything on and around it for one reason and one reason alone. For us to come to mortality and try to come back to him. This earth was given to man.
    When we see the complexities and miricles and absolute beauty around us, it makes Alma’s words to Korihor ring true. (Alma 30:44)

  46. Jack on November 16, 2006 at 9:44 pm

    Jim,

    Perhaps the “looming” feeling comes of an excess of religion.

  47. Jack on November 17, 2006 at 12:17 am

    ifly4fun,

    I love model trains the way you love model airplanes except that my hobbie has caused me no small amount of guilt–you know, because of scriptures like Moses 1:39…

    Locke,

    I think the only answer that makes any sense to me at this point is to view creation has having more purpose than forwarding the progress of human kind.

  48. mm on November 20, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    garrison keillor:

    GLACIER BAY, Alaska — I am aboard a cruise ship gliding slowly between snow-capped mountains that remind me of the art my parents hung on our living room wall back in Minnesota in the ’50s. It was a large translucent picture of snow-capped mountains, lit by an electric bulb behind it, and when guests came we made sure to turn it on. We were all quite proud of it, and I guess it was considered inspirational, in the sense of “How can you look at this and say there is no God?” It occupied a place of prominence over the couch. Of course, to base one’s faith on beautiful scenery is to leave oneself open to grave doubt if you should see Texas. Texas would make any man an atheist, unless he understood that God means to challenge us.

  49. jethro on November 28, 2006 at 6:26 pm

    why does beauty suggest authorship to you?

  50. Bill on December 7, 2006 at 1:55 am

    Update: Maybe you can move here now, Nate.

    http://www.amny.com/news/local/newyork/am-dogs1206,0,4468006.story