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Monday, December 12, 2005


This Things I Believe

Last night Anne and I (avowed atheists) had a long, interesting talk with one of our best friends (a liberal Christian) about religion. I'm not sure how the conversation started, as I was in the kitchen making brownies, but instead of playing cards, we ended up going around for about two hours trying to understand each others' point of view on all matters spiritual. Today I see a Christmas essay from Umberto Eco which could have served as notes to much of our discussion (albeit much more eloquent than I was.) While some of what Eco says is inarguable, I do take issue with this point, by way of G.K. Chesterton:
G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: "When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in anything."
While it may be true that we live in a credulous age, I don't see Anne, myself or most of the other atheists/agnostics we know in either of those possibilities. Then again Chesterton seems to make the same definitional error that I tried to dispel last night--that atheism is a "belief" akin to "believing" in God or Santa or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Rather--and I insist that this is an essential distinction--atheism is not an affirmative belief in "no God" but rather a lack of belief. I simply don't think in those terms. For me, the very question's not valid. Eco says:
Human beings are religious animals. It is psychologically very hard to go through life without the justification, and the hope, provided by religion. You can see this in the positivist scientists of the 19th century.
I think he makes too many assumptions here, seeing something biologically or socially inherent and permanent in a few thousand years of human history--much of which happens to contain huge swaths of people who have lived and died without religious faith as we conceive of it. While it may be very hard for many of us to "imagine there's no heaven/no religion too," that doesn't mean that religion is a preferable or unavoidable endstate of human understanding. Who knows how our social systems and ability to process life's mysteries will evolve? To point to credulity in 19th century scientists is merely to point to people in a time when sorting out genuine scientific fact from entrenched superstition was very difficult. Who was to say that discovering a new element was any different from possibly discovering the means to communicate with a ghost, given the right equipment? Famously, Newton was an obssessive alchemist. But so what?

Last night our friend asked us if atheism didn't invariably lead to nihilism. I'm not sure we gave him an answer that satisfied him, but from my own experience I have to say certainly not. Granted, given my understanding of the factual nature and origins of the universe/our planet, I find it impossible to ascribe any greater or eternal "meaning" to our particular assemblage of atoms in this backwater of the Milky Way, 14.5 billion years into cosmic history. That would imply something outside the system generating that meaning, all for the benefit of a very, very tiny bit of time and space. That the truth, via religion, would be revealed to an even tinier sliver of one species in that time and space rests on an arc of improbability approaching infinity.

Despite my utter absence of supernatural belief, however, I don't--and can't-- consider human existence meaningless. Whatever way we got here, the fact is here we are, and we must make our own meaning. As such, we should make the best of it. And here is where I think I can be in complete agreement with my friend, who himself puts aside questions of the supernatural to focus on the ability of religious thought and experience to help people find faith in themselves, to answer their existential question about what their lives ultimately mean. This reminded me of reknowned atheist Douglas Adams' point that religion exists as possibly the first and most powerful "virtual reality". Because so many people believe in it, for them and for the rest of us, it becomes effectively true--at least to the extent that people make decisions and live with their consequences as if it were true. As our friend pointed out, this breaks down at the level of the faith-based invisible bullet-proof vests "worn" by technologically overwhelmed Native Americans facing US troops. Then again, I tend to think that much of religious belief is but a slightly more subtle version of that invisible vest.

Eco, caught between his conception of Christianity as essentially an effective, proven tool for coping with death, and the narcotic, destabilizing effect of soulless commercialism as its opposite, doesn't acknowledge another possibility. He apparently concludes that humans are inevitably ruled by irrational fears; that without commonly recognized religious traditions most people will fall into the absurdity of weird, commercialized private notions, cults and subsects; and that at least Christianity's absurdity is widespread and orderly. So it comes down to a choice between absurd chaos and absurd order? Who's the nihilist here again? I may not have any religious faith, but I have more hope that that.

Hey, Cole. Tom and I revisit this conversation and its implications in our lives fairly frequently. My friend's son, who is a freshman at WMU, interviewed us regarding our views and beliefs for his intro philosophy class. It was kind of fun seeing Tom articulate his thoughts while being video-taped. I had a strangely guilty reaction to proclaiming myself agnostic with an atheistic bent on film--that Catholic upbringing, you know...Here is one of my favorite blogs--this guy reflects (and articulates much better than I) quite a bit of my feelings on these matters. http://blog.case.edu/mxs24/
The reason I have rejected atheism is that, despite all atheists’ hope, it isn’t a “lack of belief”. It is a worldview comparable to any other. The atheist worldview however, creates for me more contradictions than the religious worldview.

The problem is this idea of religion being the only “virtual reality”. It is plain to even the casual observer of human life that all culture, not just religious culture, fits into the category of “virtual realty”. As Cole said, we must make our own meaning. Even atheists have cherished meanings that they would put above scientific proof to the contrary. Take something like animal rights. Where in evolutionary biology does anyone find any sort of support for animal rights? Talk about a “virtual reality”! All ethics are human inventions or “beliefs” and don’t make any sense outside of humanity. This is the hypocrisy of every atheist. They refuse to see or acknowledge that the meaning/purpose/ethics they ascribe to are actually beliefs or leaps of faith.

Is it possible to have a worldview that is entirely rational? Based purely on science? How about Nazism? They were pretty rational. Every sick idea they had was, unfortunately, potentially scientifically supportable proposition. Are there genetically inferior races? Who knows, but certain aspects of race are genetically determined and if one race gets wiped out by another, maybe this is just the ebb and flow of evolution? Why not experiment on other humans? It’s “rational” and “scientific”. One of the lessons of Nazism is that one shouldn’t base society on only science, but the unprovable belief in the “sacredness” of another being (or whatever term you want to use).

All the above is outside the discussion of God. God just adds the idea that in addition to the moral imperative/absolute (outside of science), there is something eternal to existence itself (also outside of science). A “More” or whatever you want to call it. Obviously this is unprovable. And one doesn’t “need” God to get through life. However, it seems awfully presumptuous to completely cut the idea off that there is a “More” the human mind can’t comprehend fully. Especially when math and science itself are riddled with paradoxes we can’t comprehend.

“Granted, given my understanding of the factual nature and origins of the universe/our planet, I find it impossible to ascribe any greater or eternal ‘meaning’ to our particular assemblage of atoms”. Greater than what? What is the meaning you have to start with? Probably something along the line of “love your neighbor as yourself”. Christianity states there is no greater meaning than this. It doesn’t matter how we got here – evolution, creation, alien constructs. The religious worldview calls a spade a spade – that our ‘meaning’ is the ultimate reality and atoms/matter are merely the vehicle for it. I couldn’t take the opposite view without feeling that I was buying into a lie.
Chris, thanks for your response. I like being made to think.

And what do I think? I think this is mostly a frame of reference issue. You see, I'm mostly hung up on the specific leap of faith into acceptance of at least some supernatural elements--an afterlife, an omnipotent creator, a genuine resurrection, you name it--which I take to be the price of admission to most religions for most adherents. Religious people believe in *some* kind of magic that extends beyond metaphor, right? If not, what makes them "religious"? The philosophical frameworks of religion, with their conclusions for living meaningfully, ability to transform lives, etc, I can deal with. It's the magic I can't wrap my head around.

On the other hand, I think you tend to see atheism too much as an inhuman, clinical attempt to find a mathematical proof for ethics. I think that's a mischaracterization on par with we secular humanists who too easily misinterpret the meaning of faith. I realize that science only goes so far (maybe not far at all) in helping us determine questions of good and bad, or right and wrong. I'd be a fool to think otherwise. I hope you don't think I'm a fool (let alone a Nazi--which is about as pertinent to deciding the validity of atheism as the worst excesses of say, the Spanish Inquisition or Rev. Fred Phelps with his "God Hates Fags" signs are to determining the validity of Christianity.) I think the paragraph in which you take down the purely rational society is an effective takedown of an argument I didn't, and wouldn't make.

Here's the argument I would make: I live quite comfortably with paradox. I believe (uh oh, there's that word) that from the human vantage point, what we do and how we treat one another obviously matters--it makes all the difference in the world.

From nearly any other vantage point, however--subatomic, galactic, cosmic time, etc.--it would be preposterous to imagine that our consciousness, our ethics and dilemmas mean much of anything at all. So I guess I both believe that our lives are all the meaning there is, and that conversely there's no intrinsic meaning at all. It depends on how you look at it. In neither case, however, do I believe in an "eternal" state. This isn't nilihistic, pessimistic or anything of the kind. And it's not hypocrisy. Instead, like quantum mechanics, in which light is both a particle and a wave depending on how you choose to measure it, it's just the inherently contradictory nature of how things are. I can't reject my understanding of reality because I think it contains genuine contradictions. I actually get excited by the contradictions. I'm humbled by reminders of my cosmic insignificance, and bolstered by my belief that I mean something very real to the people I love, that we're all obligated to help one another get through with as little suffering, and as much joy as possible.

An aside: Einsteinian relativity shows us that there is no such thing as a privileged frame of reference, something that prior human thought had always more or less taken for granted. Everything you see, says Einstein's general relativity, depends entirely on where you're looking from. I've long wondered why the fundamentalists we both disdain who are so threatened by Darwin aren't just as threatened by a scientist (Jewish to boot) who provided the ultimate extension of guys like Copernicus and Galileo who blew people's minds by pointing out that the earth (and by implication, the people on it) wasn't the center of the universe. What is God if not the quintessential privileged frame of reference?

Finally, I look at animal rights differently, and I really disagree that my stance is hypocritical.

From one vantage point, I don't think our consciousness makes us inherently special, but instead that we're on a continuum of consciousness with all of our fellow animals Therfefore, I find it hard to draw the line at killing and eating other animals at those in my species. Based on that, I could go either way--eating human babies as well as chickens, or I could choose not to kill and eat any animals if I can help it.

From another vantage point, I accept that all of this is an ethical invention of my humanity. But I figure if I've got it I better use it, and it's only fair to extend it to all creatures great and small. Just because I won the consciousness lottery, I get to cause fear and pain and death to a cow? I can't be responsible for whether a tiger's instincts would cause it to eat me, but I can use my consciouness to govern my own instincts and refrain from eating it.
Well, I wouldn't call you an athiest, per se according to your comments here. A bona fide athiest will say without hesitation: I know there is no God."

You seem to be more along the lines of an agnostic.

Those unsure, or doubtful, but not exercising a belief in no God.
Just food for thought.
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