Illusions and Boats

Watts, George Frederic, 1817-1904; A Sea Ghost

Sea Ghost by G.F. Watts

“We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.” G.K. Chesterton

Here is a thoughtful article from one of my favorite scientists/theologians, Alister McGrath: Is God a Figment of Our Imagination? On Certainty, Scepticism and the Limits of Proof. In it, he claims that “everyone who believes anything worthwhile and takes the trouble to think about things – including atheists, Marxists, or secular humanists – will find themselves having to confront the vulnerability of their beliefs. We are all in the same boat.”

I would add that honestly confronting the vulnerability is key and as I did this, I saw that I would have to give up more with atheism. We are all in the same boat in some ways but at the end of the day, when it comes to levels of vulnerability, our beliefs are ultimately in different boats. Not all boats are created equal. I learned this by investigating the fundamentals of atheism or the bottom atheism’s boat, you could say. It had more holes.

More became a figment of my imagination under atheism. It turned more of my experience into an evolutionary sleight-of-hand or trick of the brain. For example, the love I felt for my child was reduced to oxytocin surging through my veins, merely the best means by which my genes are passed on to the next generation. My perception of genuine good and evil became another illusion. It could have evolved differently such that what seemed evil could be good and vice versa. Even my reasoning faculty became less trustworthy – so much so that how could I know anything? The quest for knowledge became merely a pattern-making, survival mechanism and not necessarily aimed at true beliefs. Under atheism, my reasoning faculty suffered the greatest blow. There is a thought that stops all thought and makes us wonder if we have a right to think at all, as Chesterton would say.

How could we ever hope to rise above such a host of illusions in order to discern the difference between them and the truth? It seemed like an infinite regress of illusions from which we could never escape!

The atheist boat began to appear as if it was constructed out of one conspiracy theory after another; theories that explained by explaining away. It was too simply built and not complex enough to allow for all of my experience. It only worked by eliminating the need for explanation, calling everything worth anything an illusion. More and more holes became evident. The boat began to sink into meaninglessness and absurdity.

In the Christian boat, there are still questions and areas in which I am forced to admit the limits of human reason. This is especially true when it comes to the problem of evil, the most difficult area, in my view. I am forced to trust God with a capital ‘T” here and it is not easy by any means. Yet despite the limits, I do not have to give up my reasoning faculty altogether as I would under atheism. There is more that I get to keep, as well: free-will/moral responsibility, love, goodness, kindness, excellence, beauty, meaning, genuine evil like the Holocaust and racism, etc. All of these become suddenly more real and pressing with Christianity. In Christianity, they have a solid reality beyond my often faulty and finite perception and desires.

In the end, I had to conclude with Chesterton and Lewis the following:

“The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, [theism] explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility.” (G. K. Chesterton)


“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (C.S. Lewis)

McGrath concludes the same writing, “Christianity is, for me, both cognitively and existentially meaningful. We all need a way of seeing ourselves and our world, which we find to be deeply satisfying rationally, morally and aesthetically.”

Which system has greater explanatory power and is least vulnerable to explaining itself away as a bag of clever of illusions? Or, as Chesterton wrote, which system of thought keeps us most sane? I highly recommend reading the chapters “The Suicide of Thought” and “The Maniac” in his book “Orthodoxy” and why such thinking moved him from agnosticism to theism and, eventually, to Christianity.

He writes, “That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself. Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought. It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all’ … There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

It makes sense that Christianity keeps us healthy and sane, too, for we are the handiwork of a good and loving Mind. He wants our boats to float, after all!


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