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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What I Believe

Nonbelievers like myself, ascribing to no established religion, spend much of their time defining themselves in terms of all the ideas they fail to align with. The handiest words for us are AGNOSTIC or ATHEIST, which just mean NOT those other things. But having no religion or nameable god doesn’t mean having no beliefs. (Early Christians were apparently called Atheists by the Romans, because of their refusal to worship the Roman pantheon.) I have plenty. They just require fuller explanations, because there is no single label for a prepackaged set of ideas I can claim.

Stating my beliefs seems relevant right now, especially because my wife has imminent plans for a Christian dedication ceremony for our daughter. I have mixed feelings about this, but her church is one of the better ones, and I have no trouble with the people there. Their particular version of Christianity is one I consider respectable (surprisingly, though, it is the same denomination that brought us the poisoned Kool-Aid of Jim Jones). Still, even if I disliked it, it would be hard for me to stake claim to any alternative, because there is no name for what I am, no place for me to go, no community of like-minded people to shelter in. And that is a big reason why atheists/agnostics/skeptics tend to go quietly, at least in this country—not only are they non-joiners in a non-movement, they have no banner to rally under, no real name, and of course no big prizes to offer:

    “Hey, jump aboard.”
    “Who are you guys?”
    “Um, agnostics. Atheists when we get cranky.”
    “You’re devil worshipers, right?”
    “Pshaw! No.”
    “What are you into again?”
    “Empiricism, I guess.”
    “Huh? What’s that?”
     “We just go around not believing silly things.”
    “Hm. What do I get?”
    “You’ll live by your wits, go it alone, and then when you’re dead, you’re dead.”
    “Those other guys are offering eternal life, Heaven, even squads of virgins.”
    “Nope, ain’t happening.”
    “They have ceremonies, feasts, and really nice old buildings.”
    “I guess we could have potlucks. But most of the best cooks are monotheists.”
    “And they’re tax-free.”
    “Oh yeah. Crap.”

Oddly enough, a statement of beliefs would benefit many religious people these days, too—most Christians, for example, disagree with at least one thing in the Bible, or in the common culture of their denomination. I think most religious people actually know less about their beliefs than those who have gone so far as to opt out of established religion. Most believers have accepted not only the expediency of a label, but the reality that some religious leader will be telling them what they should believe (that doesn’t mean they will follow blindly—the Catholic church, for example, is far from monolithic, which has had so many defections that the spinoff denominations need their own family tree, and the outright deserters are legion).

As for myself, I am basically an agnostic. No metaphysical thing is really known with certainty. I know that if all of human history has been spent on these problems, I am not going to nail it all down in my meager spare time. But we have arrived at a point where the mechanisms of the universe have been explained, with a few exceptions: 1) What kicked it all off? 2) Why? 3) The remarkable holistic illusion of being alive, moving through time, having continuity of consciousness. Mystery #2 above will, I believe, always be left to the individual by way of existentialism. There will always be mysteries, if for no other reason than our reliance on finite brains to comprehend an infinite cosmos.  

Or am I an atheist? If so, I am not a very aggressive one. As much as I enjoy reading Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, I am not motivated to disprove the existence of God, at least until some theistic foolishness is forced upon me. The problem is, that is all too common. Many a thinker has probably been minding his or her own business, silently piecing together a sensible worldview, when some overzealous religious person has come along spouting nonsense or making demands. Twice in the same bookstore, I have been on-hand for statements like, “People who don’t believe in God have no morals or values, because they have nothing to obey.” Not only does it show that the speaker has never taken a philosophy or ethics course, it betrays unthoughtful, threadbare stinginess of spirit. My argument tends to be just the opposite, and the same one that Hitchens and others have made: I do have morals and maybe the religious are the ones lacking them, because they seem to be saying that they will only do the right thing if they imagine a supernatural Dad-figure is watching their every move, at the ready with plagues of punishment. It’s like boasting that you are righteous because you’re against stealing now that stores have security cameras.

In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris wrote:

In fact, "atheism" is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a "non-astrologer" or a "non-alchemist." We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

Had I lived in the days of the Enlightenment, I would probably have been a Deist. I agree with all the operational notions of Deism: that truth comes from observing the natural world, and that reason and rational analysis are to be trusted, not pushed away in favor of passed-down lore and superstitions. It may also be very possible that man’s unhappiness derives from ignorance of his place in the workings of the universe. But in the end, I don’t believe in any omnipotent Creator/God/Prime Mover as the Deists did*. If ever I sat on the fence in this, I was pushed off it by my political antagonism for today’s purveyors of Creationism/Intelligent Design.

Existentialism appeals to me, especially in its meaningful embrace of absurdity, but I’m not sure about the basic idea that all meaning comes from the individual. Yes, each of us will have to decide why we are here. But bare existentialism flirts easily with nihilism, which doesn’t do much for me, or anyone.

Like any former academic/ armchair intellectual, I had a Joseph Campbell phase that left marks on me, so that I am wont to squeeze meaning from myths or belief systems of all sorts. “The Power of Myth” can be further universalized to what I call “the power of story.” Myths are common, traditional tales spun for multi-generational audiences, which does make them special, but people derive meaning from stories of all kinds, especially those that involve themselves, their ancestors, or their nation—hence ancestor worship, nationalism, and the ongoing culture wars between not only Islamic fundamentalism and Western modernity, but between religion and secularism in general. All these conflicts, even when rooted in physical confrontations over resources and control, evolve into cultural disagreements where each side wishes to overwrite its own story atop that of the opposition. Of course, this overwriting may require killing those responsible for the competing narrative; in a scenario like Israel/Palestine, the lethality of the conflict raises the stakes to the point where “the power of story” seems like a silly academic overlay. Still, frequent statements by both sides saying the other hasn’t the right to exist points to a desire to, more than anything, wipe away the other side to make room for their own apparently more just and divine story. The primacy of story is hard to dispute in the Israel conundrum, because it is based (at least rhetorically) on conflicting histories and dueling religious texts. At this point, trying to prove which story is ‘right’ is as impossible as proving one kid’s dad is better than another kid’s dad, or trying to confirm that Star Trek is empirically better than Star Wars. 

I think such conflicts could be solved if everyone could learn to read the text that is common to us all, which is the planet itself in all its geological and historical wisdom. Some call it The Book of Creation, and as authoritative texts go, it’s hard to beat, with chapters laid down over epochs in sediment and cataclysm, where entire species may fall to faded footnotes. Toss any edition of any holy book over the rim of the Grand Canyon, and see which suddenly seems like litter. I obviously sympathize with the man on the Nature special who treks through Yellowstone in winter and says of the surrounding snowy trees, “This is my church, my cathedral.”

But it is also too late in history to be a simple pagan. Human beings have proven they are full of enough potential greatness to justify a dash of humanism in one’s outlook. I say we deserve credit for our achievements. And when we fail, we fail ourselves first, not some Heavenly Father or some bloodthirsty goddess of the hunt. “God” is a handy shorthand for all that exceeds our grasp, for the fertile enormity of both known and unknowable, and perhaps our own abstracted potential. The greatest failing of religion as it has happened on planet Earth, apart from countless disasters of inhumane behavior, is an easily corruptible source code that allows frequent lapses from the metaphorical into the literal. Shortcomings in language, in translation, and in people’s minds turn slippery paradoxes and fantastic imagery into a bramble of confusion for literalists who approach it as an instruction manual. Yes, there is wisdom to be found in works like the Bible, but like any literature, they are metabolized in the mind by way of luminous images and illuminating metaphors. 

Why, above all, is religion in our time represented most loudly by those who use religion to diminish people so they can be controlled, or pitted against other groups? Has this always been the way, or has this evolved because of some sociopolitical underpinning, because viral ideas take on greater power the more people they infect, with the side effect that people become subservient to the idea (akin to sports-team loyalty) rather than becoming liberated and elevated? Or, how did the fearlessly selfless Jesus come to inspire so many fearful and selfish followers? My disgruntlement with such running hypocrisy—not to mention reading stuff like Stranger in a Strange Land as a youngster—predisposed me toward a rapport with the renegade fringe-prophets of Christianity: John Milton, William Blake, and Philip K. Dick. What they get right is the most vital ingredient of all spiritual matters: that religion should make everything bigger, not smaller. And rather than drawing boxes around us to squeeze us into little survivalist groups, religion should erase those boxes so we can expand a little into the looming infinity.

Numinous was one of Carl Sagan’s favorite words for describing the mind-expanding effect of coming to terms with the radical immensity and miraculous richness of the cosmos—that a human mind could arrive, by reason and the senses, at the same mystical elation that Blake claimed in fever-dreams, or Phil Dick experienced in probably-drug-induced visions into VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System)—the mind of God. Sagan obviously championed science as a path to enlightenment. He did it so well that, in his wake, one might make the joke that someday religion might also become a viable path to enlightenment. It may be a bit self-consciously postmodern of me, but I find that religion, like great art, science, or literature, ought to be a conduit of wonder, not a smother of rules and guilt. It should be a door forever swinging open.

*At least, as a verbal construct. As sons of the Enlightenment, many of the Founding Fathers were Deists who, I believe, used the word ‘God’ not as a worshipful Christian tic, but as a shorthand reference to the cosmos, eternity, or the universe. Jefferson in particular had no use for ideas that would today be called Fundamentalist or supernatural, and the founders in general were too canny and practical to fall for cartoonish beliefs that defied empirical reality.


BBrown said...

I loved this. Now, I am on to Google Philip K. Dick.

BBrown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
joelmw said...

Thanks for this. Lots of good stuff here.

Sometimes I think that "atheists" are the only ones who can truly encounter God.

Brad said...

I'd say you nailed it, sir, great post! Reminded of a favorite bit from Dogen: "Not only should we avoid deciding that what we see is what we see, we should be firmly convinced that there is an essential message to be studied in all the ten thousand activities. We should know that, just as we may see the Buddha without knowing or understanding him, so we may see water and yet not know water, may see mountains and yet not know mountains. The precipitate assumption that the phenomena before one's eyes offer no further passage is not the study of the Buddha." (from Zazenshin, 12th c.)