Atheists who bring logic to the Easter story are missing the point | Julian Baggini
Having faith is a complex business. To assume that religious people are either crazy or stupid is lazy, says philosopher Julian Baggini
Many years ago, I had to recount the life of Jesus to a young Taiwanese student who knew nothing about Christianity. As I told him about the virgin birth, the miracles, crucifixion and resurrection, he responded with incredulous laughter.
Most nonbelievers in traditionally Christian cultures would show a bit more respect. But inside, our reaction is often pretty much the same: how can people really believe this stuff? Rising from the grave isnt even the most preposterous part of the Easter story. Far more bizarre is the claim that God had to send his son to die for our sins. And if God really wanted all humanity to heed his message, why did the resurrected Christ onlyreveal himself to a few select people before ascending to heaven?
Vociferous atheists dont shy away from revealing their mocking bemusement at all this. Those of us who make determined efforts to understand and debate with religious believers might be too polite to admit it, but we often feel just as baffled.
The laziest way to try to cross this credulity gap is to shrug our shoulders and accept that people are often crazy, stupid or both. Yes, there are plenty of people celebrating the resurrection who are sane, intelligent and well-educated, but they are statistical anomalies in a world where higher levels of education are strongly correlated with a lack of religious belief.
Smart people can have blind spots, but this quick and easy explanation does not do justice to the complexities of religious belief. If we genuinely accept that a believer in the resurrection can be intelligent, but also think that any intelligent person would find the idea of the resurrection preposterous, the most charitable explanation is that intelligent believers are as aware of the implausibility of their beliefs as anyone else. This is indeed what you tend to find if you bother to talk to a Christian. They dont use the word miracle for nothing they know their faith defies laws of logic and nature.
Some believe the unbelievable because they have had religious experiences so strong that they are literally unable to doubt their veracity of. Its hard for those of us who havent had such an experience to appreciate how powerful it can be. But once you accept the existence of a divine creator who has a personal relationship with you, almost anything else is possible. It is not crazy but logical to conclude that what such a God says or does will sometimes be beyond our comprehension. It follows that there is nothing irrational in accepting a story that we are unable to make sense of rationally.
What atheists often forget is that many perhaps most religious believers are less than completely convinced anyway. Many of them are fully aware of the dissonance between what their faith and their rational mind tell them. Religion offers many tools to help manage this. It tells people that faith is superior to belief based on evidence. Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed, Jesus told doubting Thomas, adding: Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. Religion also tells believers that doubt is to be expected, even welcomed, as part of the journey of faith, all the time reassuring them that God is beyond our understanding. The Easter story thus ends up rather like quantum theory: if you find it easy to believe, you havent understood it. Illogicality is adesign feature, not a design flaw.
Anyone surprised that people manage to sustain this dissonance all their lives hasnt been paying enough attention to what psychology has taught us about our capacities to assert contradictions. What we call our selves are far less unified and coherent than common sense suggests. When we say a part of me believes one thing and another part something else, we are being more literal than we think. Dismissing believers as simply deluded could therefore itself be a way for us atheists to deal with our own dissonance between the belief that Easter is palpable nonsense, and the awareness that seemingly intelligent people believe in it. If we really do find implausible beliefs offensive, we ought at least to have more plausible explanations for why others have them.