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.


  1. I don't think there is any "right track" humanity can get on outside of some Brave New World-type scenario where there is universal functionality, efficiency, & happiness with some major philosophical asterisks. It'd be nice if religion never existed perhaps and we all learned to care about our own fucking welfare without sky cake and fairy tale sugar coating, but we can't un-invent religion so we just have to work with what's there.

    The other day I was people-watching in Pacific Beach, CA (by San Diego, typical SoCal shore town) and this guy was on a rant about how there can't be a God and if Jesus were alive today he'd be a total stoner*, and I think there were a few references to cosmic vibrations in there... and he was yelling it at these two bright-eyed** guys from Nebraska on a mission to preach the Bible. Now, I know what side of the "Chick-Fil-A" issue they probably stand, and I probably agreed with the stoner more, but I'm just sick of people taking out their aggression meant for religion in general on individuals. Not that I think Christians can be considered "oppressed", but when people argue they don't even try to construct their argument in a way the other party can understand and relate to. Both sides have these talking points they want to cover, but seem to be more interested in making the other person look crazy than getting them to see the point. I spent about 20 minutes trying to explain this to the stoner and the two bible preachers, and the stoner kept changing the subject and going on about the problems caused by religion, but the preachers listened patiently until the stoner's attention wandered. I kept talking to the preachers about why I'm not a Christian, and they didn't try to convert me. They found a bible verse we could kinda agree upon as being good general advice (I forget what it said, bible-speak all runs together for me), and left. This is an extreme example, but it's not at all uncommon and what it said to me is that in order to understand one another, people need to leave their ego at home and stop acting like it is "Cowboys vs The Eagles" when discussing religion. Perhaps treat it more like sex: in order for both parties to find it beneficial, people should adjust their approach to the individual.***

    *which is funny that he uses something he doesn't believe it to rationalize his marijuana addiction.

    **Pun intended

    ***So are you really going to Fest?? The placement of that triple-asterisk has nothing to do with that question, I just like asterisks.

  2. Another thing that has to be understood is that for almost every religion, specifically Christianity and Buddhism, interpretations of the religion's sacred texts vary enormously. I have a friend who's a pretty devout Catholic; he's convinced that other than a few historical areas in the Old Testament concerning the Israeli state the Bible is strictly metaphorical. He's one of the smartest guys I know and has never attempted to shove his religion down my throat.

    On the other hand I saw an episode of Family Guy for the first time in quite a while. The show jumped into social commentary mode for a few moments as Meg converted to Christianity and Brian tried to talk her out of it. The whole episode presented some of the weakest and most stereotypical arguments against religion I've ever heard (ie "If god is good why are there bad things?"), as well as presenting religous people in a horrible light. However this made me realize that most non-religious people have this same view against religion, being just as blind to logic as most Christians.

    I, and many other folks who are quite smarter than me, have come to the conclusion that there most likely is no deity of any sort. However, that does not mean this is true, facts can be easily looked over and we are extremely opinionated creatures. As Wittgenstein said, nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.

  3. Much respect to you Pat. It seems that lately I keep crossing paths with indoctrinated atheists who hardly have any grasp on their reasons to reject religious views, but simply have memorized some cyclical-logic arguments and /a lot/ of derisive remarks to avoid argument by starting from the prejudiced concept that if you have religious beliefs it has to be because you have sub-human intelligence and be an enormous hypocrite, to top.

    What I've personally discovered is that we live in an uncertain universe (something better understood when we look at it at quantum-size level) that allow each person to construe their own personal version of the universe, which -in as much as cannot be proven wrong with undeniable evidence- is basically "real".

    One of the matters in which I believe we'll never reach evident certainty (and as such, agreement) is the existence or lack of existence of a God. Preachy atheists will tell you that science has already proven the non-existence of God, when talking about the now undeniable evidence for evolution. However, they fail to see that that doesn't prove the nonexistence of a God; rather, it proves that some of the things we /believed about/ God were wrong. There's no shame or blame on this: we, as a race keep getting things wrong even when we apply scientific thinking to our conclusions (see: science according to the ancient Greeks.)

    In this way, if there's not a God, but simply a chain of reactions that produced a being capable not only of analyzing and discovering the patterns on those reactions but also, gifted with an unfathomable ability to /imagine/ things that may or may not be there, there should be no reason to feel animosity towards those who seeking purpose, interpret the patterns as suggestions of design and thus, hints of a designer.

    On the other hand, if there's a God, we can conclude that he (she? it?) has gone out of her (his, etc.) way to make non-readily apparent its influence in the universe and role as creator. Why? Who knows! If there's indeed an out-universally intelligence such as "God", why should we expect to be able to understand his very thought? However, we can try and guess: my guess is that with an evident God in the picture, there would be no such thing as "free will" -nor even the illusion of it as some call it- as everyone would feel compelled to please this undeniable and incredible being that sternly watches upon them. But I digress. If there's a God, and it made the universe in a way such that we are allowed to confidently presume her non-existence... why should we judge and mock those who took that God-given alternative?

    My whole point is this: Whether you believe or not in a God, looking at the universe MUST make you humble. You are welcome and encouraged to draw your own conclusions, but you shouldn't allow your personal certainty on uncertain matters make you feel entitled to think less of those who think differently.

  4. I think religion is capable of making both the best and the worst people I've ever met. What that says about human nature, I'm not sure, but to me it feels like a fault of both the faithful and the atheist that they don't try to be as good as possible their own convictions, not one that is ordained.