I am a humanist. I do not believe in an afterlife but (to quote Woody), “Just in case, I’m bringing a change of underwear.”
I don’t deny or affirm the existence of God, any god. There have been so many, and all of them had their vague charms and serious hang-ups, ranging from the violent to the sexually perverse. Who could know which to worship? No one. That’s why we usually end up with the god our grandfathers worshiped.
Whether there is a God or not is simply of no consequence to me, and if the truth be told, can anyone in raw honesty claim that the God they pray to for answers, solutions, reversal of fortune, pie-in-the-sky or redress of grievances ever–ever answers their calls. Of course not. I can still see the pious face of a too-close relative asking me, as my mother lay dying in a hospital ICU, whether I believed God answered prayer. “It depends,” I said. “What are we praying for?”
In the paragraph above: the part where I said “is of absolutely no consequence to me.” That was a lie. It is of enormous consequence, and you are lying too if you say it isn’t. If you are a believer, it is what ultimately matters. If you are an atheist, it is what ultimately matters.
Squirm though you may. Notice that I completed the last sentence with no reference to Richard Dawkins or his feckless bulldog, PZ Myers whose lives would be infinitely emptier if it did not ultimately matter.
I am an Unbeliever, of sorts. Joylessly so. I have no axe to swing at the necks of believers. I dislike the word “agnostic.” It sounds as precious in tone and as pretentious as the era when it was coined. It sounds as though we wait patiently for some impossible verdict to emerge from the skies confirming our hunch that we were right to disbelieve all along, Descartes and Pascal be fucked. But it’s not really about evidence, is it? It’s about hunches.
I am not an atheist. Not on Friday. But it is a noble thing to be, done for the right reasons.
There are plenty of good reasons to be an atheist–most of them originating in our human disappointment that the world is not better than it is, and that, for there to be a God, he needs to be better than he seems. Or, at least less adept at hiding his perfection.
But you see the problem with that.
Goodness and imperfection are terms we provide for a world we can see and a God we don’t.
Taken as it is, the world is the world. Taken as he may be, God can be anything at all. I’m not surprised by the fact, human and resourceful as we are, that religion has stepped in as our primitive instrument, in all its imaginative and creative power, to fill in the vast blank canvas that gives us the nature (and picture) of God.
But let’s be clear that God and religion are two different things, and that atheists err when they say “Religion gave us God.”
What religion gave us is an implausible image of God taken from a naive and indefensible view of nature. I find my atheist friends, even the “famous” ones, making this categorical error all the time.
There are also some very silly reasons to be an atheist. The silliest is the belief that the world wasn’t made by God because God doesn’t exist and that people who think this are stupid and ignorant of science.
There are so many fallacies packed into that premise that it’s a bit hard to know where to begin picking. But perhaps this analogy will help:
This clock wasn’t made by Mr Jones because I made Mr Jones up in my head. It was actually made by a clockmaker whose name is lost in the rubbish of history, so if you continue to think Mr Jones made it just because I said so, you’re ignorant.
No, that is not a broadside in favor of intelligent design (though I happen to think the atheist approach to the question is often tremulously visceral); it’s a statement about how we form premises.
The existence of a created order–a universe–will ultimately and always come down to a choice between the infinity of chance and the economy of causation. Whatever the choice, my causation is not muscled and bearded and biblical.
The unreal gods of the human imagination from Marduk to God the Father are. If horses made gods gods would be horses. Xenophanes.
That much we can know.
I am a realist. I believe (with a fair number of thinkers, ancient and modern) that human nature is fundamentally about intelligence and that the world (by which I really mean human civilization) would be much further on if we stopped abusing it.
I regret to say, religion has not been the best use of our intelligence, and it has proven remarkably puissant in retarding it. Science is always to be preferred, except in its applied, for-profit form (as in weapons research) because it expands our vision and understanding of the world while religion beckons us, however poetically, to a constricted view of cosmic and human origins.
To be a realist makes me something of a pessimist (a term going out of fashion) not because I don’t believe in the capacity of human nature to become what it seems designed to be, but because–realistically–we have become as flabby in our thinking as we have become corpulent of mortal coil.Obese America is also fuckwit America. Anti-Enlightenment America. Tea Party America.There may well be countries in the world, developed, developing and undeveloped that have higher illiteracy rates, worse schools and universities, and greater obstacles to face in providing access to education at any level.
Yet America, it seems to me, is the greatest anti-intellectual country of all. Even if America continues to monopolize the Nobel Prize, it has the humiliation of having the worst public school system in among G-20 nations.
Nice. Again I am moved to say Thank You.
You mentioned Handel and Bach, don’t forget Haydn (:
I really really like this post and empathise with the sentiment. “What religion gave us is an implausible image of God taken from a naive and indefensible view of nature” couldn’t have been better expressed. However I’m not sure I’m an “unbeliever” because I’m not sure what I’m unbelieving, and religions as beliefs never really featured until I went to university and studied history and humanity and society.
In environments where no religion is particularly overt, I’m not sure non religious people think much about anything goddish like that. We all did science. And the reality is we’re only human and can’t know everything and I’m happy with what we do know (Big Bang, evolution – which negated the need any self contemplation on other unknowable ‘realities’) and hopeful to learn more. When religions are part of a multi culture, but beliefs are pretty personal, they aren’t generally part of conversation or society. Therefore I’m not sure what to make of the idea that anything could exist, and if whether it does exist or not, is necessarily a relevant idea. It’s sort of foreign and I’m scared of saying its an irrelevant idea because that suggests to you I’m not being truthful, and I am, but I’m not sure what to make of it. I never think about it for myself. I suppose the sensible answer is yes. So yes it matters, whatever that means. Now I’ve really confused myself. I’ve never been religious, or atheist or even agnostic, or anything. Humanist means so many different things to different people – it’s been hijacked. I know what it means to me and it has nothing to do with believing or not believing in ‘gods’ and its about honesty, compassion, empathy, social justice, nature, imagination and learning – a whole lot of things, for which I’m grateful that you write about all the time. I am a fruiterian though and Green. May my feelings about the sea are ‘god’ feelings. I don’t think so – it’s more a sense of passion and freedom.
Van Gogh wrote that he sometimes has “a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars.” Ever since I was small I’ve slept with curtains and windows wide open so I can gaze up at the stars. Wonderful sense of awe, and a thrill of imagining my own insignificance, nothing matters. Religions are part of cultures and its art, music and symbols have always inspired imagination and are things I couldn’t live without. Live well, die well, “oh starry starry night, this is how I want to die”*. And then the light’s out – that’s the end. My death doesn’t matter – what’s hard to deal with is the end of others.
You called it your love for religious music your ‘weak spot’. Never having been affilitiated with any religion, I don’t think it is ‘weak’ and quoted Van Gogh. I too have “a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion” – for want of a better word, and not so terrible. I like the metaphor, I feel “religious”. And all the renaissance religious art, the epitome being Michelangelo, Bach and Handel, all the wonderful religiously inspired poetry, is very much part of, an essential part of, what it means to be religious for me. As well as “painting the stars”. It’s all an expression of the passion, the ‘reverence’ for life and nature, the emotional soul surges and desires, the feelings of inspiration, sort of thing. My god experience or feeling, perhaps. Maybe I can call it all “God”. I like metaphors from religion. And in a sense, Van Gogh’s painting, Donovan’s praise to him in Starry Starry NIght, and Anne Sexton’s poem, are a holy trinity, one in essence.
It’s just that it is a very powerful post and I’ve been thinking about it alot.
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