In a recent opinion piece, Penn Jillette, entertainer, writer and atheist, explains the his basis for not only being an atheist, but a libertarian as well:
What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist — I don’t know. If I don’t know, I don’t believe. I don’t know exactly how we got here, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. We have some of the pieces of the puzzle and we’ll get more, but I’m not going to use faith to fill in the gaps. I’m not going to believe things that TV hosts state without proof. I’ll wait for real evidence and then I’ll believe.
Though I share none of his metaphysical views, I find Penn’s approach quite refreshing. In making this statement, Jillette is exhibiting a characteristic called epistemic humility; that is the acknowledgement that one doesn’t and will never have ultimate knowledge about the nature of reality. He ties this characteristic to libertarianism, but I would offer that it is actually integral to conservative thinking, at least of the modern American variety. It has also been instumental in directing various people towards a Christian worldview. I’ll consider conservative thought first.
In his argument for libertarianism, Penn explains how the government is insufficient to provide for the multitude of disparate needs of the our society:
And I don’t think anyone really knows how to help everyone. I don’t even know what’s best for me. Take my uncertainty about what’s best for me and multiply that by every combination of the over 300 million people in theUnited States and I have no idea what the government should do.
In many ways this is a reflection of one of the ideas of conservative economist FA Hayek concerning the inability of governments to plan economies, and that it was the task of economics to, “demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” He continued, ” To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account.”
That is, we can never have sufficient knowledge to ‘plan’ an economy – and the best and most creative societies are always the result of individuals acting in accordance with their own knowledge and experience.
Such thinking is also reflected in one of the tenets of the conservative thinker and writer Russell Kirk, who observed the benefit of an, “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems;”
This is one of the reasons conservatives tend to oppose large, centralized bureaucratic systems of any sort – they fail to take into account individual human experiences and capabilities, and so invariably become dictatorial and antithetical to human freedom. So there is much that is shared between conservative thought and the intellectual motivation Penn describes here.
Though Penn finds in this thinking some foundation for his atheism (and I laud him for his thoughtful approach to the subject) I would offer that New Atheism is actually antithetical to epistemic humility. Though they occasionally point out the willingness of scientists to say ‘I don’t know’ (all the while deriding Christians for their reliance on ‘mystery’) , New Atheists by and large place great faith in the ability of material science to provide ultimate explanations for the existence of the universe, life, human nature and thought, as well as being foundational to morality and social systems.
At the heart of New Atheism is scientism, the ideological notion that the totality of reality and human experience can be described by science. It is a reductionist view which, rather than freeing human intellectually, binds them to current consensus of the scientific community. It neither appreciates the variety and mystery of human existence, nor how civilization has advanced by unprovable axioms.
Rather than leading to atheism, acknowledging the limits of human knowledge leads one to wisdom, which begins with understanding the limits of one’s own understanding and abilities. Indeed, this is where belief in God began for many Christian thinkers, among them scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal. As he put it in his masterpiece Pensées:
“What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!
Who will unravel this tangle? Nature confutes the sceptics, and reason confutes the dogmatists. What, then, will you become, O men! who try to find out by your natural reason what is your true condition? You cannot avoid one of these sects, nor adhere to one of them.
Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Humble yourself, weak reason; be silent, foolish nature; learn that man infinitely transcends man, and learn from your Master your true condition, of which you are ignorant. Hear God.”
For Pascal, knowing God began with realizing one’s own intellectual limitations. This comports with the Scriptural notion that the knowledge of God is predicated by understanding of the limitations of human knowledge:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. – Proverbs 3:5-6
As I have mentioned previously, my Christian faith began with skepticism; that is a growing awareness of the inability of materialism or naturalism alone to address critical aspects of the human experience and our understanding of reality. It also sprung from my own realization that no person or group of persons possessed in and of themselves the knowledge or the capability to successfully overcome inherent human shortcomings and the impact those shortcomings had on our ability to live well. I was in a word humbled by this.
It appears Penn Jillette has begun to discover the benefits of such humility as well – and that is a hopeful sign.