Dec 172012
 

I ran into this article the other day on cracked.com. It’s normally a humor site, but this article by David Wong is actually extremely perceptive and intelligent about unraveling the atheist/believer conflict. I highly recommend it as required reading for anyone attempting to debate religion.

One of the greatest religious thinkers and debaters of any age was my patron Thomas Aquinas. His particular strength was his ability to put himself into the minds of his opponents. He could understand, and explain their positions even better than they could themselves.

People are much more willing to listen to someone who they believe truly understands them. On the contrary, feeling misunderstood is one of the greatest obstacles to communication – especially in a contentious situation. David shows a remarkable ability in this article to understand the mindset of both sides of the equation.

The link is here

Jun 252007
 

Science rules out all religion except the highest. "

D.E. Harding

 

As most of you know, I have a lot of sympathy with atheists. There’s something noble in many of them. Since childhood, most of them have been approached with crass literal interpretations of the religious metaphors of the Bible. They have heard irrational justifications for the divine misbehavior in the Old Testament. They have been told they are damned for wrongs they never personally committed. They have been offered contradictory and arcane explanations for why Jesus dying on the cross should matter to them. They have been called fools and swine when they found all these ideas unpersuasive. Ultimately they have been threatened with everlasting torture and finally shunned.

 

There’s a refreshing courage in someone who can simply tell the Christian culture it can take a hike. And buried under a reasonable skepticism is often a profound regard for the truth, however stark it may be. But… I find that I cannot be an atheist. There are simply too many important things in my experience that hard-line atheism either dismisses or disparages.

 

One of my favorite quotations from G. K. Chesterton goes like this: “We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”

 

There are moments in my experience when rationality and positivism aren’t an adequate world view. In fact, to say they are inadequate is a terrible understatement. They seem, as Chesterton said, “dead”. When I try to get into the mindset of the hard-core materialism, I feel like the men in Eliot’s poem.

 

“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar”

 

The External World

“Flower in the crannied wall, I pluck you out of the crannies, I hold you here, root and all in my hand, little flower—but if I could understand what you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what God and man is.” – Tennyson

I felt the dryness of rationalism first in relation to the external features of the cosmos. My first major in college was zoology, so I had a reasonably good scientific education. But time and time again I would find that science simply pointed me toward profound states of awe, but then couldn't follow me into the wonder of it. I can remember many of the exact experiences – Looking at a map of the universe in National Geographic. Staring up into a profoundly clear night sky at sea. Studying the ATP cycle in molecular biology. I would be left with a overwhelming sense of wonder and amazement, and nothing to this day changes my belief that these things are WORTHY of amazement – in fact demand it. It makes no difference to point out that the ATP cycle, for example, could have come about by “natural” processes. All this does is rearrange the wonder, not diminish it. It is just as inexplicable that it should be possible for “natural processes” to create such a marvel. The natural processes themselves become the wonder.

 

The Internal World

"The heart has reasons that reason knows not of. We feel it in a thousand things. . . . . do you love by reason?" – Pascal

 

Looking at my own inner life inspires more wonder. Is it really possible that so much meaning and joy and wonder arises in a cosmos who’s own interior is entirely dead and inert? No physical explanation of cognition even touches the inner experience. Joy, and spirit and art and ecstasy simply are not, to my mind, fortunate epiphenomena arising out of the cold physical facts of the world. They are more important to me, and more real to me, than the physical world itself, and it seems unavoidable that they arise out of the innermost nature of the cosmos itself. And so I suspect that not only in myself, but in the entire cosmos, “inner experience” is a fact, and that the whole cosmos has an “interior life” of some kind.

Aesthetic experience

When I experience natural beauty, look at a sunset or ponder a flower – or when I read a transcendent poem or look at a great painting – what is this profound feeling I experience in connection with the quality of these objects? It is really a matter of my mere subjective preferences – just as I like carrots but abhor beets? This seems a totally unsatisfactory answer for aesthetic experience. When we appreciate quality in the world, we are appreciating something real – something supremely important. This quality is recognized by a non-thinking process, and hence cannot be defined, tested for or recorded by an instrument. And yet… we know what it is.

 

Existence Itself

Nothing is more amazing than the fact that anything exists at all. It's difficult to really wrap our mind around just how bizarre the fact of existence is. I remember at least one occasion, however, when the whole foreign mystery of existence itself came crashing through to my consciousness. I felt trapped in some terribly foreign state of being, totally out of place. I suspect many have had similar experiences. WHY is there something rather than nothing – this seems the ultimate question, and it is impossible to feel the full weight of this mystery bearing down on your consciousness without sensing that something terribly important is behind it all. But, as Ken Wilber pointed out, strict materialism has nothing to offer to the mystery of existence beyond what he calls "the philosophy of oops" – a reluctance even allow the question of "why?"

Mystical experience

At the end of his life, Thomas Aquinas (the real one that is) experienced a profound mystical vision that caused him to put down his pen and leave his Summa Theologica for another to finish. His scribe begged him to complete the work that would come to be considered the greatest masterpiece of rational theology of all time. "I cannot.” Thomas replied. “Such things have been revealed to me that what I have written seems but straw." Profound mystical experiences of various kinds open up a perspective that is not adequately addressed by rationality alone. These range from such things as out-of-body experiences to profound states of non-dual awareness that, while impossible to completely communicate, make it utterly impossible to look at the world without seeing it asmanifestation of a divine unity. I'd recommend the following link as an excellent example of such an experience: http://www.nonduality.com/dazdark.htm. It's understandable that a hard-line atheist would find a description of someone else's experience unpersuasive. But I believe it's utterly impossible to have one and remain entirely satisfied with hard-line atheism alone as a worldview. To quote a line from Sagan's Contact, where Ellie is explaining her experience, "I… had an experience… I can't prove it, I can't even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever… A vision of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater then ourselves, that we are *not*, that none of us are alone!"

This is just a brief survey of some of the areas that make hard-core atheism, as a worldview, something I can't accept. Is it possible that I'm deceiving myself – that all this meaning and beauty and unity that I seem to sense in the world are really just epiphenomena of physics and chemistry? Logically, I would answer that yes, it's possible. But my whole point is that logic is inadequate to the task of answering this question.

I'll close with a few words from "The Silver Chair" by C.S. Lewis. The story is about several children, accompanied by a strange pessimistic creature called a “marshwiggle” named “Puddleglum” who descend from the kingdom of Narnia, ruled by the good lion Aslan and enter a subterranean kingdom ruled by a witch-queen to try to rescue a kidnapped prince. Once there, the witch puts them under a spell of confusion and forgetfulness. She gradually convinces the children that there IS no world above ground, no sun, no sky, no Aslan. They become convinced that these are all simply children’s tales and dreams – projections they have created in their minds from the drab and ordinary objects in the miserable underground world ruled by the witch. Only Puddleglum rebels.

“One word, Ma’am” he says to the witch, “All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face on I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we HAVE only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours IS the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

Aug 182006
 

I followed a link the other day to an excerpt on beliefnet titled “The Problem of Religious Moderates”, found at: http://beliefnet.com/story/153/story_15332_1.html. The basic thesis of the atheist author is that religious moderates are doing the world a disservice by making it politically incorrect to tell the more fundamentalist believers they are ignorant fools.

I read the article (by Sam Harris), but found it to be skimming somewhat on the surface. I believe the author has overlooked some important points. For example, in the opening paragraph:

“People of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy.”

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped the author that people of little or no faith at all fall on the same continuum? Some are content to discuss ideas pleasantly in chat rooms and others would spill buckets of blood to promote their particular ideology. The worst atrocities of history have been committed in the last century or so, and they have been, almost entirely, SECULAR atrocities who purpose was to destroy large portions of mankind in the name of some kind of historical evolution or pseudo-Darwinian racial fitness. Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were not moderates, and their activities are almost enough to make one think of the Inquisition and the 100 years war as the “good old days”. Harris dismisses the idea that violence and intolerance are simply a part of human nature – religious or not – as a “myth”, but he does nothing to prove this is a myth other than simply assert it. The body count says otherwise.

Harris, in fact, sounds like he’s arguing for reviving one of the old “mottos” of the Inquisition which said “Truth has all the rights. Error has no rights”. In fact, “Truth” and “Error” are abstract principles, to which the concept of rights do not apply. PEOPLE have rights, and because of that, tolerance is, in fact, a civilizing and noble virtue. It is not simply a “capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God.” Religious tolerance is a recognition that human beings, because they are expressions of the divine nature, are worthy of respect and dignity – even when we believe they are wrong.

Harris portrays most Christians, Jews and Muslims as believing everyone outside their own sect is bound for everlasting hell and seems to extend this view generally to all religious believers as the “norm”. This is perhaps because of the large percentage of fundamentalist Christians in America, and fundamentalist Muslims in the news. In fact, most Christians (worldwide) and most Jews do NOT believe this. About Islam, it seems to be a reasonably accurate statement that moderates are in the minority.

Harris believes that religious moderation gags one from criticizing fundamentalist errors. I would probably be seen as a “moderate” In Harris’ eyes, but as anyone who follows my posts would know, I don’t have any compunction against criticizing fundamentalist errors, even if I try to do it with respect for the individual. After all, aren’t these the individuals Harris hopes to convince of the error of their ways? And does he really think that this will be better accomplished once the moderates step out of the way and he can tell them in no uncertain terms what ignorant asses they all are? Does he really have so little experience in the psychology of persuasion?

It’s hard not to suspicious about what really irritates Harris. Reasonable, spiritual people don’t fit the role of “enemy” quite as nicely as he’d like. Ego needs enemies. They reinforce the boundary between “me” (or “us”) and the rest of the cosmos. They are part of the fabric of the ego’s self-definition. In fact, all the time I’ve been writing this piece, I’m aware of my ego urging me to make Harris into as big an enemy as possible. So let’s see where he’s right…

Yes, it’s quite true that the Bible and the Koran contain all sorts of things that would constitute awful advice if taken as divine instruction. People do NOT go to hell for believing in the wrong religion. Religion – ALL religion, is at it’s core a metaphor for a metaphysical reality. It is probably inevitable that people at some stage will seize upon the exoteric details as paramount. The exoteric details are DIFFERENT, and hence allow us as religious people to reinforce our collective religious ego – by regarding anyone who has different exoteric details as the enemy. But they aren’t the enemy. At the esoteric core, their religion is saying the same thing as ours is – because there is only ONE metaphysical reality. The only difference is in detail and emphasis.

And understanding that metaphysical reality is the only thing that can really save us from our egos. The article is a perfect case in point that even atheism doesn’t get around the ego and it’s need to find (and fight) enemies.

Yes, that’s basically the assertion Harris dismissed as “myth #1”. So I urge an investigation. Look at the lives and work of people thoroughly committed to tolerance, love, and the mystical path, and ask if they are not a contribution to the well-being of the planet.

Anger and intolerance are the twin enemies of correct understanding — Mahatma Gandhi

Difference of opinion is helpful in religion. – Thomas Jefferson

In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher. – The Dali Lama

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there – Rumi

Jul 262006
 

After watching and participating in innumerable discussions with atheists over the existence of ‘God’, I am coming to feel that the word ‘God’ itself is an almost insurmountable obstacle to communication.

To an atheist, to believe in ‘God’, means:

That you believe a Supreme Being hand-crafted each species of life separately, and then made it look like they descended from each other. That you believe this Being created the universe 6,000 years ago but gave it an apparent age of billions of years. That you believe this Being, while being wise and benevolent, throws tizzy fits, destroys his enemies if they anger him, changes his mind, orders the slaughter of innocents, plays favorites, asks for human sacrifice as a ‘test’ of obedience, requires elaborate rituals, is pleased with animal sacrifices, and engages in all the other odd behaviors a casual reading of the Old Testament would suggest. That you believe this Being, in the New Testament, is willing to accept the awful torture and murder of his own innocent Son as an acceptable substitute to punishing people who are clearly guilty. That you believe that in spite of his omnipotence, this being is unable to communicate his will in written form without apparent contradiction. That you believe that in spite of wanting to save everyone, this omnipotent being is unable to persuade many people of his very existence. That you believe that this being will totally forgive and eternally reward those who approach him with the right formula, but will condemn to everlasting torment those who were unaware of this formula or were unable to correctly pick this formula from the several competing formulas. That you believe the condemned group above will suffer eternal torment in spite of the possibility of their being more moral, sincere, honest, and trying harder to find the truth than the first group that followed the correct formula. That in spite of an infinite love and goodness, this Being will permit such things as for a small child to suffer a horrible, painful death all the while calling out in vain to this Being for help, so long as it serves his purpose. That you believe in a Supreme Being who’s followers don’t show remarkable signs of being more moral or more intelligent than anyone else ? in fact often LESS so. That you believe in a Supreme Being who’s followers invoke his name as a reason for killing other human beings.

The list could be elaborated on a bit. However, taken as it is, and without any mitigation, the atheist’s position seems entirely sensible. Who would believe in such a Being? Even if he DID exist, what sort of moral blindness would make us want to worship such a being? The only thing more despicable than the being described would be a person who could be bribed into worshipping and obeying such a being for the promise of rewards.

Now some of these issues may be straw men to some degree (although you can probably find a believer out there somewhere to argue for any or all of them.) Others may have reasonable explanations. Still others may not be relevant. But the fact is that in order to even get to the point of having a neutral discussion on the existence of God, you often have to first overcome a list like the above, point by point and line by line.

I’m wondering if I’m not doing a disservice to people by trying to persuade them to believe in ‘God’, when, if I’m successful, there’s a danger they might believe in something like the being above. Clearly, to go from atheism to a belief in the being above is a giant leap backwards. I have a friend who over the course of several years and a lot of conversation, has come to believe in something transcendent, but still refuses to call it ‘God’ because of all the ‘baggage’ that comes with the word. Perhaps it would sometimes be better if we should start from scratch ? pick some more neutral word to talk about the transcendent, and then work our way up. Something like ‘Spirit’ for example.

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