Monday, July 30, 2012

God or No God?

A (comparatively) brief response to this debate

Contrary to Christopher Hitchens, I don't believe that religion poisons everything.  I am more cynical.  I think humanity poisons everything -- human stupidity, if you want to be more precise.  D'Souza is right to point out that we keep religion(s) around for a reason: they let us do our human thing better, a thing which has historically involved lots of lying, manipulating, prostitution, and murder.  Religion helps us do these things better, just as it helps us express our good side, too.  (We do have one, and it does turn up in religion, pace Hitchens.)  Get rid of a handful of stupid religions today, and you would have a bunch more cropping up to replace them tomorrow.  The bloodthirsty devotees of Thor or Shiva become bloodthirsty devotees of Christ or Allah.  People eager to spend lots of money can choose between Mormonism, Scientology, and evangelical megachurches (or pay a top-notch astrologer: if they want to seem scientific, they might consider hiring an economist like Paul Krugman). 

Skepticism is no safe haven: falling for one scam doesn't make you immune to the rest of them (not even if you go around calling yourself an atheist).  Marxism is as much a religion as any other -ism, as far as I can tell, and its record is about par for the course.  (People are Marxists, so Marxism accomodates their human needs, including the ever-present need for stupidity.)  The heaven-on-earth-without-religion that Hitchens dreams of is in some sense most definitely a hopeless fantasy: it ain't happening, as far as I can tell.  And yet I remain convinced that Hitchens has some important things to say.  Question your stupid ideas.  Doubt them.  Do what seems morally right, even when you don't have a Bronze Age myth handy to justify yourself (or especially when the myth tells you to do something that historical experience proves to be completely idiotic, like steal other men's wives and then lie to them about it).

Contrary to Dinesh D'Souza, I am not convinced at all of any kind of intelligent design in the universe that atheism cannot accomodate.  Part of this comes from my personal form of atheism, which is much less "muscular" than Hitchens' (for what it is worth, note that atheists are even less correlated than the LDS: we don't have a Sunday School, and there is no standard curriculum or doctrinal confession; this is one of the nice things about being atheist, in my view).  I am quite comfortable admitting ignorance, and stupidity.  I am not invested in one stupid idea being better than another stupid idea.  When the earth ends as another race of life watches, it won't bother me if they understand physics (and literature and the rest of it) very differently than I do.  Why should my words be the last words on the universe?  Why should the "right" answer to life, the universe, and everything be hiding somewhere in a labyrinth of after-dinner ramblings by a couple of well-dressed primates?  I don't know.  I don't really think that there is a compelling reason that human reason must yield easy objective truth about the nature of the universe.  I am too much of an empiricist to find logic terribly compelling, particularly the kind of logic that demands my acquiescence to propositions I am never really in a good position to test empirically.

The argument for intelligent design (ID) falls apart for me on the fact that it deconstructs itself.  What does intelligent design look like in the human world that we experience every day?  Contrary to popular myth, it is not true that all modern machines leaped full-grown from the notebooks of Da Vinci.  They evolved, with one engineer contributing this and another one offering that, and another two or three cobbling something together that sort-of half-way worked (until it didn't: all machines break down).  To coin a phrase, the Platonic demiurge never even made shoes ex nihilo, let alone the whole cosmos.  I honestly cannot believe that I ever found ID folks credible, even as a kid, and I don't see how I am ever going to again.  When confronted with inexplicable phenomena, I am much more comfortable saying "I don't know" than coming up with elaborate theoretical explanations (whether these latter involve molecules or gods or God or magic tarot cards or pixie dust or whatever -- I doubt the whole lot, equally: my answer to those who claim explicit knowledge about how the world works is and will always be, "Let's wait and see!").

Last of all, D'Souza's simile comparing God to the guy everybody in the village knows is totally lame: history debunks it completely.  Forgive me for quoting myself:
Let's say my friends tell me that there is this guy named Pete. Pete wants me to be nice, they say, and he will make things go my way if I send money regularly to a certain PO box. I am intrigued, so I start being nice and making payments. Then, my friends come and tell me that Pete wants me to rob a bank. I protest that this is not nice. My friends come up with all kinds of arguments showing me that robbing the bank is necessary: the clincher is that Pete cannot make things go my way if I don't trust him absolutely. I inform my friends that I am not willing to become a bank robber for a man I have never met. They ask me if I am willing to give up all the blessings I have incurred sending money to Pete. I ask them, "What blessings? You mean the same ones I used to get before you even told me Pete existed?" (Being nice is a good idea, even if you don't have an imaginary overlord recommending it to you.) And our conversation is over, unless and until Pete deigns to reveal himself and give me convincing reasons why the bank must be robbed. My friends can strike me dumb as a sign-seeker if they want, but that just proves that they are thugs (the same way Pete would be if that were his only response to my inquiry about the bank job). To make the analogy complete, imagine that I make some new friends who tell me that Pete's real name is Bob, and he wants me to move to LA and take up surfing. Then, other people tell me that my friend is a woman named Chris, and I should be selling Mary Kay products door-to-door. Everyone knows (passionately) that Pete, Bob, and Chris exist, and that they care (passionately) about banks, surfing, and Mary Kay. But I cannot ever meet them face to face. Until I do, our relationship is going nowhere: I cannot have a relationship with someone who cannot talk to me more clearly (and kindly, not to mention coherently) than God does.
I grew up believing in angels, gold plates, and prophets who spoke face to face with God.  But I have never seen an angel.  I have never hefted gold plates.  I have never heard anything more than ordinary human speech from any mouthpiece of the Lord (in my own faith tradition or any other).  If God is so obvious, then why do people see him (her, it, them!) so differently?  From a historical perspective, God is all over the map.  He is human, or not -- or worse, both human and not human.  (How is that even possible?  Many dusty books confirm that God's servants have labored long over this paradox, while nations of unwashed masses festered around them in squalor and ignorance. Was God more interested in hiding his nature than helping those nations with some basic hygiene?)  He is male, or female, or both.  (He is a singularity!  He is a plurality!  He is a singularity indwelling in plurality, and if you say the hocus-pocus wrong, then he will smite you!)  He loves people.  He hates people.  He is all-powerful: nothing can touch him.  Or he can be bound by arcane rituals.  He needs nothing.  He needs more money, now!  He wants us to be skeptics.  He wants the skeptics to burn in hell.  You can follow this chain of non-sequiturs (or paradoxes, if you prefer) all through history, where God is now this, now that -- now the most moral being you can imagine (in the Gospels), now the most immoral (in Joshua or Job).  There is no intelligent design there that I can see, and I spent many years looking.  Even if I were to bump my head really hard and believe in ID again, I would still have to become a Deist (with Thomas Jefferson) rather than find myself arguing that the Holy Inquisition was a necessary part of some greater good that an omnipotent and benevolent Father wanted for his children.  If God exists and that is how he blesses his children, then the real question I should be asking is who's the Devil?  Are you sure he's a really bad guy?  Why? 

At the end of the day, I think deity and religion are here to stay among humans (for the immediate future, certainly).  They are natural, evolved outgrowths of our condition as social primates with very large brains -- an accidental side-effect of matter existing, just as we are.  I don't buy all the arguments D'Souza makes about its being unlikely that conditions would just exist such that life appears.  When you think about it, I could be so many different places in the world right now (Paris, Madrid, Tokyo, Chicago, Salt Lake City, my apartment, my office, a cafe), and yet I am right here in the library basement, typing.  It must be a sign (that the invisible pink unicorn who lives on the dark side of the moon really is pulling on my marionette strings!  I knew it!).  Life is mysterious.  The mystery doesn't suddenly become wholly explicable when you call it God, any more than it does when you call it a pink unicorn or a Big Bang or any other word in any language you care to pick (or invent for the purpose).  Personally, I don't mind people referring to the mystery of life as God.  I don't mind them referring to it as a pink unicorn, either.  I have recently taken to speaking of it as Dame Fortune.  The number of names you could come up with is infinite.  But they are just words.  They don't necessarily give you any useful insight into the vast unknown, the Cause(s) behind all causes (assuming such a thing even exists: why should our primate brains contain real windows onto that impossible vista, that we are forever seeking and never finding? what if the brain asks bigger questions than it can ever answer?). 

People can and will tell whatever stories they want about life, the universe, and the meaning(s) of it all.  I find that fascinating.  I sure as heck don't understand it all.  I don't think I ever will.  And I don't think there is a magic key to the whole riddle buried in ancient mythology.  The myths might have some useful things to say about how to live well as a human, but they aren't the final word even there (as we continuously acknowledge every time we tell a new story instead of repeating an old one).  Why try to make the myths more definitive and authoritative than they really are, especially when we see how badly this has worked in recent history?  What makes us think we are any better than the story-tellers who gave us the religious past that some of us are ashamed of?  The Deuteronomists really screwed it up, but we're going to get it right?  The early Christians went off the deep-end, but we won't?  The Muslims are deluded fanatics, but we are dedicated freedom fighters?  The Soviets were deluded fanatics disguised as rational atheists, but we aren't?  The Founding Fathers were pro-slavery bigots who compromised to get what they wanted, but we are incorruptible?  Give me a break, people.  You are all full of it, every mother's son of you, and if you go out and found another church today, I guarantee it will soon be full of it too.  In the real world, honest truth does not come in the form of a convenient narrative (the tidy sort of narrative that orders all the causes with their proper effects and lays out how they all work together in perfect harmony, for all time).  The narratives themselves belie our constant attempts to misread them this way, as they persist in evolving and leaving evidence of that evolution (as new readers take old texts and make them mean things that their original authors never dreamed of: this happens all the time in every religion; when people say that you are not being true to the founding text, what they really mean is that you read it differently than they do).

Ah well.  I didn't sleep enough last night, and it shows.  Forgive this long, rambling post, gods of the Internet, and help me stay awake for class today.

No comments:

Post a Comment