Wednesday, November 28, 2007

No god but no-god

As stupid as I think this whole "pulling The Golden Compass from the school library shelves" thing is – and I do think it's stupid; a result of a hysterical policy of jumping the instant one parent says "boo"– I find it amusing/annoying to see that it has become yet another opportunity for committed aetheists to grab their copies of Richard Dawkins (if nü-skool) or Bertrand Russell (if old-) and march around the square, holding aloft the gilt case with the door open to show where God is supposed to be, but isn't, man.

The Catholic-bashing is just as knee-jerk, but – despite the fact that I am married to one (semi-lapsed, anyway) – in these cases, I tend to think "well, it's not like they didn't have it coming..."

(Her take on this Pullman thing, by the way, is that Catholics will do what they do, and they really don't give a shit what people outside think – which is not exactly helpful, but important to keep in mind amidst the huffery and puffery.)

I just don't fully get the notion of atheism having a moral dimension. I mean, I did when I was 16, but back then I thought being drunk all the time was a partly moral decision, too. Ever since then, I've been slipping further into a mushy form of agnosticism, with an ever-growing sense that someone just over my shoulder keeps clearing His throat. That's my problem, however.

Cutting ties with a particular religion or church is very often a moral act – and questions of faith certainly get mixed into those decisions – but outright believing or not believing is not something that is consciously willed. It's like assuming there's a moral dimension to one's sexual preference – either you is or you isn't (or both, I guess). Lots of people believe who wish they didn't, and vice versa. People who lose their faith are not "coming to their senses," and people who discover nagging religious feelings within themselves – perhaps to their own horror – are not "going soft." Faith can be a painful, irrational burden, as anyone who has read Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky knows.

That has nothing to do with not recognizing the various mainstream religions' poor track-record on women, etc., the particularly egregious things that have come out of the Vatican in the past few years, decades, millenia, or the nefarious influence of evangelical Christianity in the States, or radical Islam in the Middle East and Asia, or the influence of the Israel Lobby, or the horror of sectarian violence, or whether books should be pulled from shelves, or whether it's boring in church, etc etc etc etc etc etc...

It's about recognizing that no one really chooses to believe or not. It's also about recognizing that, in Canada at least, we are lucky to not live under the heel of a theocracy ("Just you wait!" I can hear people crying already), which makes furious, vocal atheists resemble Daffyd, the only gay in the village, always ready to trumpet their status, to general shrugs. They also resemble, not so shockingly, people who suddenly go from zero to a hundred, religious-wise, late in life, and can't stop mentioning it at every available opportunity. ("Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax...")

Which makes me think this all has more to do with Pride than anything else.

(What's this, a can of worms? Wonder what's inside?)


Ognir Rrats said...

Belief can be a choice.

nathan said...

I really don't think it can. Pretty much by definition.

You may not be in for every loaf and fish, but at the most basic level of "is there a transcendent intelligence/order in the universe?" it's not a matter of choice, whether you are envisioning it as a wheel, a fat man with big earlobes, a giant raven, a multi-armed dancer, or "the monkey with the beard and the crap ideas."

And remember: I'm not arguing against atheism per se, I'm arguing against it as a moral stance. That only works as a reaction to the same thing from the religious side ("You say I have to believe? I say I don't!"), and getting partisan about such a question seems a little narrow.

Zachariah Wells said...

What you believe is a factor of what you know and don't know (and in many cases, what you actively refuse to know). There is choice involved. Saying there isn't is an abdication of agency. The sexual-orientation analogy sounds convincing, but it doesn't hold up. There's no evidence for a biological basis to belief in a deity (as opposed to a belief in multiple deities, which is a very damn different thing; just ask Constantine). Humans tend to need myth, yes, but as some astute thinkers have pointed out, the sciences have their own myths, and those myths are equipped with better metaphors for our present understanding of the universe than those of Judaeo-Islamic-Christianism. Atheism's capital A has always seemed rather unfortunate to me, because it implies an absence. Not so. It's not a case of belief or un-belief.

nathan said...

Obviously, your own thoughts and experiences can put you on the road one way or the other, but saying there is no biological basis for faith is an a priori argument of the type religion gets bashed for (very often justly): you're saying there is no empirical proof for something that has no direct relation to empiricism. (The enormous number of scientists who are also believers would back me up on this one.)

The gay analogy wasn't about biology, it was about moral superiority. Feeling morally and intellectually superior to a snake-handler or someone lashing themselves to ribbons before a monkey shrine is one thing, but I've encountered far too many brilliant and perceptive people – in person and in books, etc – who believe in some form of transcendent order to say they're all willing dupes. Einstein is the one that usually gets pulled out of the cupboard here, but for me, I can't imagine reading Flannery O'Connor with a sad shake of the head at her naïvete or unwillingness is believe in a "better" mythology.

Again, I'm not arguing against atheism, I'm arguing against the notion – which just about every vocal atheist holds – that they are the first to really give some hard thought to the inherent contradictions of faith and the gaps in religion's mythological record.

There is also the assumption that science invented doubt (sometime in the 18th century, I guess).

Zachariah Wells said...

Unfortunately, Nathan, the "enormous number" of scientists that believe in God is actually a pretty small percentage:

There is a significant correlation--not positive proof, no, but enough to give this non-believer faith--between high levels of literacy/education and low levels of religious belief.

Einstein did not believe in a personal god. He made that very clear, and those who try to use him as a science-and-faith-are-compatible exemplar do so either ignorantly or disingenuously, by quoting one famous statement whilst ignoring many others that make clear that the "god" in "God does not play dice with the universe" was nothing more than a literary metaphor.

Atheists certainly aren't the first or only to give hard thought to the inherent contradictions of faith etc. But they are the ones who pursue those questions to their ineluctable conclusions. A lot of people, some of them very intelligent, think that solace is more important than knowledge. That doesn't make the two equally important or valid.

No, that doesn't make O'Connor or Hopkins or any number of others worthy of contempt or dismissal. But it doesn't make them right, either, however brilliant their religion-infused writing. Literary truth is a very different matter from factual truth. See Einstein + God + dice. This could be rephrased as "the temperature of microwave radiation in the universe is for all intents and purposes uniform and constant." But it kinda lacks something, don't it?

nathan said...

Einstein didn't believe in a personal God, you're right - but I didn't imply he did.

What Einstein did have to say on the matter was: "I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our being."

Zachariah Wells said...

...which is far more compatible with agnosticism or atheism than it is with faith. The dominant metaphors of religion, particularly monotheistic religion, are metaphors of authority, power and knowledge, not of awe and ignorance. It's why they've traditionally been so easy to co-opt for authoritarian political agendas and why supposedly atheistic regimes like Stalin's, Mao's and Kim Il Sung's, have adopted the trappings of religion.

Einstein was a genius physicist--but not so shit-hot a psychologist. I received no religious indoctrination whatsoever as a youth. Nor did I receive atheistic indoctrination. Religious matters were simply absent from my youth, except insofar as I was aware that many of my neighbours and classmates went to church and believed in one version or another of the Christian God to one degree or another. What I did learn was curiosity--and the more I learned about religion--thru academic study and independent reading, as well as thru attending Anglican services as a teenager--the more I realised that it was, fundamentally, inimical to curiosity. You and I can cite any number of individual Christians or Jews or Muslims as exceptional to this rule, but their exceptionalism is something that exists in spite of their beliefs. The institutions of religion do not, by and large, foster critical inquiry.

Religious belief isn't a character flaw, as such, any more than alcoholism or drug addiction is. You might think this analogy unfair, but think of how many alcoholics turn from the bottle to God. These are coping mechanisms for people who have a hard time dealing with life, for whatever combination of bio-chemical and environmental reasons. That doesn't mean that it's a good thing to use tobacco, whisky, pot, heroin or Jesus to solve or mute your problems. And it doesn't mean that people can't believe in God and still lead productive and responsible lives. But that doesn't make it healthy. The daily drunk who goes to work every day and raises a family still dies of psirosis at 60. Religious belief, just like drug addiction, is a treatable affliction. I'm not such a utopian as to believe that it will ever go away entirely--nor do I think it wise or humane to try to impose an atheistic worldview on society--but the harm that religion visits upon individuals and society can be reduced thru education and enlightened public policy. Indeed, it already has been, significantly.

The "crusading atheist's" campaign isn't to replace one set of beliefs with another, it's to encourage all people to question all things and to believe nothing absolutely. It's a fundamentally democratic campaign, one to which it is nearly impossible to affix a partisan agenda.

jep said...

I'm pretty sure I've witnessed people choosing to believe and to not believe - the former taking the "leap of faith", which is more of a surrender to an idea, and the other taking the path of rational investigation. I suspect most people do neither.

I think what Einstein might have been saying - "I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature" - was that crusading on either side, and faith on either side, is arrogant at best. Uncomfortable as it may be, the only fact of the matter is that nobody knows - and nobody has ever known - what the deal is with what happens after we die, where the universe comes from, or whether there's a god. Accepting that takes humility.

Great post, great argument. Cheers.