pallas_athena: (tarot)
[personal profile] pallas_athena
My good friend, author and singer [ profile] simonsatori, has posted some intriguing thoughts on atheism, which has given rise to some thoughts on my part.

You should go read his post, first of all, which ends thus:

If god doesn’t exist [...] then I will not just ‘… go and enjoy my life’. I will suddenly live in a meaningless universe. Not only will there be no hope or chance of any higher power guiding or interacting with us but I will have the sure knowledge that there never was and never will be and the infinite universe becomes a smaller and finite one. This is not my definition of enjoyment.

I agree with many of Simon's fundamental points, including that Richard Dawkins is a bit of an arse and that smug evangelical atheists are just as annoying as smug evangelical anything else.

Here's where I differ, though: a universe devoid of deities would not, to me, be meaningless. It would still contain wonders aplenty, and it would still beckon us to search industriously for any theories or systems underlying it all. It would still be expanding, challenging us to understand that. It would still contain the light and radio waves emanating from distant stars, quasars, pulsars and all their relations. It would still contain billions of other planets and their satellites, of which (even within our own solar system) we have sent probes to the surfaces of only two (plus two moons and two asteroids.) It would still contain whales, elephants, great apes and other social animals whose ways of communication and interrelation are largely unknown to us. It would still contain rocks whose crystalline structure the human eye finds elegant, and water droplets whose prismatic refraction the human brain finds beautiful. It would still contain us and our insanely complex biology, about which a hell of a lot still remains to be discovered. It would still contain the silky black cat with white feet currently attempting interspecies communication by arranging herself on my lap and purring. It would still contain the human affection I feel towards the aforementioned black cat, as well as the urges which would prompt other humans to kick her, or kill and eat her. And my desire to punch them in the face.

In short, a definitely-godless universe would still contain all the things previously thought to be evidence for the hand of an omniscient creator, only now they would be evidence that the universe is an amazing, fucking awe-inspiring place. Perhaps, in the absence of gods, we would begin to personify that universe which reveals its secrets so slowly and dangles its veiled areas so tantalisingly before us, daring us to discover it and cheering us on as we do. Within a generation or two, humans might not even miss the concept of God-- or might have redefined it along the foregoing lines.

As for us and our philosophy: I spent my post-University years dating a neo-Kantian philosopher of Anglican belief, who answered the question "Can you have Good without God?" with "No." I believe that the opposite is the case: that Good and Evil are human constructs, and that without the accompanying human construct of deity, they would continue to exist (defined subjectively, of course, by each culture, sociopolitical system and individual.) Debates on the nature of the good have taken place since before Christianity, and will still take place long after. Questions like "is it better to spend our resources improving human quality of life, or preserving the biosphere so that humans will survive as a species?" don't require a god to solve-- they require human intellect and ingenuity. Good doesn't require a god any more than evil requires a devil. Both are our own work.

Regarding my own beliefs, I often say "agnostic pantheist"; which is to say that I don't know, or believe it possible to know, whether there is a God or not; and if there is, whether the deities are one, a few, or many; or whether indeed the nature of a deity that did exist would be at all comprehensible to humans. I do think that polytheistic systems have a certain advantage, in that whether or not a god is "real", the thing or concept which the god represents is, in some cases, undeniably present. You can say "Poseidon doesn't exist; nor does he cause earthquakes by smiting the ground with his trident" but the ocean, and people's reliance on their accumulated knowledge of it, still exists; earthquakes still happen, and it's still important to know what to do in one. "The corn failed because we didn't make the proper offerings to Ceres and she was displeased" isn't as accurate an explanation as "The corn failed because we used the wrong kind of fertiliser and turned the soil acidic", but they add up to more or less the same thing. Inanimate forces may not possess cognition or will, but sometimes it can be useful to treat them as though they did.

Finally, I come at this as a former student of literature. To read British and European Medieval and Renaissance literature requires you to understand contemporary religious thought, irrespective of personal belief. It also requires you to know a certain amount about period beliefs in and thinking on the supernatural and the occult. You need, above all, to suspend judgement as you read, while also declining to be converted. Once I get my nose out of the text, I find that this mode of thinking works fairly well for interacting with religion and the religious in general-- until human freedoms are infringed, and suffering and death result, at which point the old face-punching imperative takes over and I will judge the hell out of anyone.

I'm aware that for every Allegri Miserere there's a Fourth Crusade; for every Bamiyan Buddha there is a Taleban massacre. The effects of religion are many, and in the end-- God or no God-- we did that. For good or ill, we humans invented religion, and it will probably, in some form, exist as long as we do.

(I'm also aware that this is kind of a long-winded way of saying "Religion is neither as necessary nor as evil as some people think." It's all been said before by wiser heads than mine. But Simon has made me think, and words are the consequence of that.)

on 2013-02-07 12:47 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile]
The first part of what you wrote puts me in mind of Meister Eckhart:
'Man's last and highest parting occurs when, for God's sake, he takes leave of God.'
I came across that in Don Cupitt's 'Taking Leave of God'; he's reasoning that Christian values and even Christian rituals and traditions can have worth and meaning, even without needing to believe in the Holy Trinity et al, which is another slant on where religion might / might not add something to societies.

on 2013-02-07 02:17 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile]
Very well and artfully said, even if I don't really subscribe to your newsletter.

on 2013-02-07 05:15 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile]
When I hear people who find a recent atheist sticker “presumptious and annoying” saying the same about the religious billboards all over the country that I have walked past regularly all my life, then I’ll have some sympathy with their argument. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. (Yes, this is an argument that makes me want to ram a radio down their throat while it plays Thought for the Day.)

Re. students of literature, I did Dr Faustus for A-level. As a class our knowledge of medieval/early modern religion was pretty negligible before we studied Faustus, but to a pupil we found the religious dimension of the text absolutely fascinating (likewisewise the religious dimensions of The Pardoner's Tale, which we also did, but Faustus was the favourite). I can't imagine it changed anyone's mind about their own beliefs, but it was a great text for insight into a different philosophical mindset.

on 2013-02-07 09:52 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile]
I like your arguments for happiness in a godless universe. There is so much amazing stuff all around us that we can explain without ever having to reach for the g word.

Although there’s also so much mystery in every wonderful thing that you’ve described that maybe the great g is just lurking in all the shadowy bits and waiting to be discovered... well... maybe.

My problem is really one of definition. What is your definition of god, what is mine, what is Dawkins’ definition of god, and is it different from someone else’s definition? For instance, I am quite happy if you disbelieve that there is a big bearded guy on a cloud shooting electrostatic pulses at Adam to create life. I agree that this is artistic symbolism and not a serious attempt to interpret the universe, but disbelieving this is not the same (in my mind) as disbelieving in god. In fact did anyone really believe in this simplistic version of a deity and does anyone nowadays?

What makes a single monotheistic god? Could the laws of physics be god? Why ever not? They create the universe, control the universe, and define the universe: sounds like a definition for a singular god to me? OK. Now remove those laws. I can’t even imagine what is left: presumably a void.

What makes a pantheistic god: a being with consciousness and abilities above that of mortal humans? What happens if we remove all these beings? In the short term, maybe not much since our experience of these (we can call them angels, gods, fairies or aliens) is, at best, fleeting and inconclusive, but I think it does make the universe a disappointing and lonely place if we’re the pinnacle of consciousness. Also, I’m sure I’m in good company in my belief that probability demands that there are greater minds than ours in an infinite universe so denying gods will involve some clever tweaking of probability… perhaps it’s only possible in a finite universe.

As always: these arguments of mine are probably composed of only a third of my own confused-but-heartfelt beliefs, a third that is built of real inquiry and debate and a third that is a cynical but friendly attack on others' position (but can anyone really be a devil’s advocate in a godless universe?)

It all reminds me of my first week at university where we learnt that there are no correct definitions of ‘religion’. You either end up with such a strict classification that you exclude a number of ‘known religions’ (eg. many forms of Buddhism have no gods) or you have such a woolly definition that you include any belief system with an ‘ism’ at the end of it (including capitalism, nihilism and atheism!)


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