Friday, November 30, 2012

The Funny Thing Is, I Still Believe

Some of the best philosophical advice I ever got was an existential bitch-slap by a friend of mine, who recently suggested to me that my belief in God was a fairy tale. I bristled and took offence at the fact that he disrespected my world view, and put it down to him becoming a hard-line atheist a la Richard Dawkins (whom I respect, but who does sometimes freak me out.)

It took me a while to realise that, in fact, we were arguing the same thing: faith is, really, believing in a fairy tale, and that does not invalidate it. Attempting to prove God’s existence is futile, because logic will always triumph.

That is the point: faith is pointless if there is solid evidence. So, to use my friend’s words, he was merely disrespecting my faith as if it were a choice of food item on a menu. He never said the food item didn’t exist - at least as a concept, he just didn’t like it. (I hate coriander, for example, and would like to rid the world of its horrible soapy taste.)

Is faith a delusion, however, as Richard Dawkins suggests? I don’t think I am deluded, otherwise it behoves Mr Dawkins from removing me (and millions of other doctors) from my profession as you cannot have a psychotic person giving anaesthesia to babies, for example. Insight into possible delusions renders them illusions which invalidates psychosis, and would at worst suggest disorders of personality than loss of reality testing. (For example, a narcissist is under the illusion that they are more “special” than others and hence deserving of special treatment, but this does not mean they need to be on medication or admitted to an institution - much as I would love that.)

I have no beef with atheists. Many of them are my friends, and live more meaningful and moral lives than many “Christians” I know. My father - a deeply devout Catholic - said to me and my sisters that he would rather we be good atheists than bad Christians.

As you can see, I had a more benign experience of religion. Being brought up Catholic (with a Calvinist mother and a Jewish uncle in my case!) is to surf the edge of a wave of guilt and fear and confusion, while being offered one of the most beautiful views in the entire Universe. I am eternally grateful that my parents protected me from the nefarious positions the church has had on sexuality and sin. They instilled in me the idea that God is Love, nothing more and nothing less, and that love is what drives the Universe. Of course, they would have wanted me to accept Jesus as my saviour and infinite trust in the difficult concept of the Trinity (however, even this breaks down at the deepest level of Christianity - many theologians accept that God is unknowable but to Him/Her/Itself). 

It was harsh, then, meeting Catholics who told me my soul would burn in hell for the simple act of being a horny teenager. That abortion was murder (I still won’t anaesthetise for an elective abortion, but I do not judge women who terminate pregnancy - it is not my place) and that man was steeped in original sin, just a hairs breadth away from eternal damnation. If I thought that was bad, I was completely freaked out when I had my first contact with evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. Unfortunately most of my experiences with these people have been unpleasant. Most mean well, I guess, but I found them to be self-satisfied, sanctimonious and sometimes vicious: telling me I would be eternally lost if I weren’t born again, that my infant baptism was meaningless, and that my admiration and appreciation of science was complete anathema to the jealous and angry god they worshipped in the sky.

However strong my faith in God is, I just can’t understand why some people are obsessed with the crazy-ass garbage that is Young Earth Creationism. I don’t see how trying to prove that the planet is only a few thousand years old and that dinosaurs are the product of demon-possessed minds has anything to do with religion - I would posit that it detracts form the true purpose of faith, which is to meditate on something bigger than ourselves and to trust in the divine guidance of a loving being for moral and spiritual support.

Evolution is logical and makes sense, and I believe in it, it is one of the most validated and successful scientifc concepts we have come up with. The Genesis story is a creation myth, and in fact there are two accounts in that book which slightly contradict each other. This does not make the symbolism any less relevant - it is right that the very first words of the core text of Judaism and Christianity should talk about the lead role - the God of Israel. 

I also have a problem with literal interpretation of the Bible - this, I think, has caused humanity and the planet an incalculable amount of harm. The Bible is not a book, it is a library, and it was not written by God, but by human beings with faults and whims and fancies. There are clear political motives evident for some of the books being included (and other books being excised). Many so-called Christians conveniently ignore the 613 mitzvot of the Jewish Law because Jesus himself tells them there are now only two commandments (love the Lord with all thy heart and soul and mind, and love thy neighbour as thyself). But then they gleefully pick out choice bits of vitriol from Leviticus - such as homosexuality being punishable by death - to justify their bitter and isolationist world view. Jesus, of course, makes no mention of homosexuality - rather, he cautions against sexual immorality. In my mind, the Bible should be far more explicit about what I think is the most heinous crime in all of existence: child molestation (and, hot on its heels, rape and cruelty towards any living thing.)

To be sure, religion has caused an infinite amount of harm to society - from Catholicism the Spanish Inquisition leaps into my mind and makes me choke. Yet, mainstream Christianity and Judaism are at least moving on - they have to - today ithey are one of the few religions that will not blow up or threaten the lives of those who make fun of it. I don’t care if people make fun of God, God is powerful enough to deal with that. The point is, *I* don’t, and I believe God has a sense of humour. A gnat cannot really do much damage to a lion.

Another interesting paradox is the fact that the valuable and sophisticated insights modern atheism have given us (as well as the Scientific Enlightenment) are a direct consequence of the Judaeo-Christian influence on Western Civilization. Arguably the greatest contribution Judaism gave to mankind was the idea of there being only one God, and it formed the bedrock of a system of law and (ultimately) rational enquiry. There are the massacres, there are the oppressions, but there are also the great cathedrals and mosques and synagogues, the Masses, the Requiems, the frescoes and altar pieces and high beautiful poetry in some of the Scripture - it is a rich cultural heritage that no-one can ignore.

The atheist philosopher Alain de Botton captures this beautifully in his latest book, “Religion for Atheists”, which I urge everybody interested in faith or atheism to read. It is neither an attack on religion nor a defence of faith - rather, he examines the cultural contribution of all the major faiths to civilisation. We need our rituals, and religion cleverly makes use of this. Complete rejection of rites of passage would make atheism a very dull boy indeed. Like it or not, the Bible - especially the King James Version - has been one of the greatest influences on the development of the English Language, and we use phrases and words from it every day.

I don’t think Theism and Atheism need be enemies, for true adherents of either are tolerant, moral and good people who have realised that the idea of a vicious and angry old man up in the sky does nobody any favours. Both acknowledge free will and an ultimate amazement at the Universe (either the fantastic “design” present in it all as evidence of a Creator, or the stupendous mathematics of there being a planet Earth in the first place.)

And Science is not the enemy of religion, though religion can sometimes be the enemy of science. There is bad religion and there is bad science.

From all this, you might suppose that I am not a Christian. Perhaps I am a christian with a small c, a cafeteria christian, a cultural christian, and you are free to pray for my soul’s deliverance for being so arrogant to reject hateful dogma that I cannot accept.

I think sometimes God needs to grant us the strength to change the things we cannot accept just as we pray for strength to accept that which we cannot change.

But so much of the religious imagery, philosophy and music I was exposed to remains special to me, as are so many beautiful words in both the Old and New Testaments. Take the sheer humbling beauty Psalm 139 for example:

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

It moves me to tears, just as lying back and looking at the night sky with the apparently infinite swirl of the Milky Way inflames my soul. I have written about how our tiny little spot in the Universe can either be source of fear or a source of comfort in this post and I would like you to read it and tell me what you think... even if we do not believe in God, realizing how utterly insignificant we are against the great sprawl of stuff out there does mean that there is Something bigger than us.

Some would say that I am a Deist, in that I believe there was a First Cause or Prime Mover who then left the universe alone to develop according to logical scientific principles. No, I am more of a Theist (perhaps a Panentheist, save my soul) in that I believe God to have a personality and that He/She/It loves us and wants the best for us. I believe that nothing is ultimately lost... and because of this, I am well aware it is my security blanket.

It may all be false.

It may just be a psychological defense mechanism.

But if it is something that gives me comfort, and helps me to be a better person, what harm is done?

I reject and abjure all evil that has been done in the name of religion (or any ideology for that matter). Atheism is entirely logical and I encourage it if it makes people happier. Bad religion does a lot of harm - at worst, it can destroy lives. Fundamentalism is not FUN by any means, people. Judge not - lest ye be judged, and who shall cast the first stone?!

But I hope that for those of us who quietly believe, and do not force our views on anybody else, we might not be seen as deluded sheep who are party to an evil conspiracy trying desperately to hold onto its power. Certainly, I am not party to anything as such; I know of no secret handshake.

My faith is a curious mixture of Pascal, the Psalms, the book of James, Camus, Saints Augustine, the words of Jesus, Francis and Anselm, even Hitchens and Dawkins, and a lot of Forster and Maugham and a sprinkling of CS Lewis. Atheist and theist forming a strange harmony - and not a dissonance. Perhaps I have Religious Multiple Personality Disorder.

So yes, I still believe - and I haven’t provided a full reason, I know, but I hope to explore that in my next post if you would like to know more.

Does God exist, and if he does, does it matter?

We shall never know.

We are, I think, actually, all agnostics now.