Sunday, August 5, 2012
On a Sunday in August
August. Less than fifty days until the autumn equinox. The summer stars (Vega, Deneb, Altair) blink overheard at sunset, and the autumn stars begin wheeling up and around after midnight. The cicadas chutter by day and the katydids rakakat by night. And I'm returning from my self-imposed exile from blogging. Such summer days as these....
The bad news is that I won't be getting that several-month vacation I've been sorta hoping for and could really use. The good news is that I'm still gonna have a job after the end of the month. The better news is that I've switched positions and will now be working in the library at this place. "This place" meaning, of course, the Quaker study/retreat center at which I've been living and working since last October.
When I pause and think about it, it still feels downright bizarre that I'm living and working in religious community. I've become so acclimated to worship-, god-, and Jesus-related discourse that I barely notice it anymore -- but then I'll end up in a conversation where somebody is asking or telling me about god and have to obtusely change the subject or otherwise just smile and give a noncommittal nod.
A sure indication that this place is having an effect on me: as I type this, my inclination is to capital-G the word "god." It doesn't make a difference to me, but working within the editorial and procedural guidelines of your employers is usually a sound policy.
I'm still an atheist -- there's no doubt about that at all. As far as organized religion is concerned, I'm a lost cause. Once you've stopped superimposing a human face on the cosmos, I'm not sure you can ever find it again without willfully deluding yourself.
However, my feelings toward the social value of faith and religion may have undergone a shift.
I've met some remarkable people at this place. Balls-to-the-wall environmentalists. Money-where-their-mouths-are activists. People who do volunteer work, visit prison inmates, and acting as AA sponsors. Grounded, motivated people who read frequently, take care of their bodies, and live with conviction. People for whom kindness and equity are a way of life rather than arbitrary prescriptions.
I can't help but notice that most of these people are religious. And I can't help noticing that I've found such small concentrations of such people elsewhere in secular or commercial settings.
To the point: even if religion is founded on a fallacy, does faith build better human beings?
Even Plato concedes that his perfect city must be founded on a lie.
It's worth considering what behavioral differences may exist between a person living and acting under the assumption that some extradimensional, omniscient, omnipotent intelligence observes all of humanity's affairs and favors moral conduct and the people who practice it; and a person who understands (accurately) that human action and human existence are inconsequential flickers in the mindless, voiceless void and that the universe doesn't care one way or another what happens to us or what we do.
We needn't place the deity in the role of a boogeyman Santa Claus, either. How do behavioral patterns differ between a person who lives and acts in the belief that humanity is not alone, that there are higher laws than human values, and that everything isn't all for nothing; and a person living and acting under the (almost definitely correct) assumption that existence exists independently of any reason for its being and that whatever he does probably doesn't make much of a difference in any kind of long run?
"We should do X because it is in humanity's best interest for reasons Y and Z" doesn't set a fire in the guts like "we must do X because God wills it." The same distance lies between "I should behave morally for the purposes of social cohesion" and "I must behave morally, no questions asked;" "I should take care of my body and environment for my own health and happiness" and "I should take care of my body and environment because God made my body and the world and God wants me to take care of them, God is glorious, etc;" "I should make art because I find creative behavior rewarding in spite of the frustration it causes me;" and "I must make art because it is my calling."
The world we've built is fucked up. Acting towards getting humanity's shit in order with full earnestness necessitates a kind of loony, irrational optimism. Not the kind of optimism you're likely to have if you're seeing the situation clearly.
Is the god delusion a beneficial human adaptation, I wonder?
Of course, my thinking maybe I should give religion the benefit of the doubt persists only as long as I can go without seeing news stories about the political supporters of Chic-Fil-A or suicide bombings. But I nevertheless wish secularism could step up its game and produce a compelling, accessible, alternative to religion that could galvanize people's best instincts and potential. Mass consumption, rational self-interest, and statism haven't been cutting it so far.