Monday, August 3, 2009

Airy Nothings

In The New Republic Jerry A. Coyne coolly dismantles another instance of fuzzy theological thinking, this time Robert Wright's The Evolution of God (unread by me). According to this and other reviews of the book I've read, Wright argues not only that religion has become globally more beneficent and tolerant over historical time (a questionable enough claim), but also, without venturing to affirm that God does in fact exist, suggests in myriad hedging ways that it certainly looks as though he could exist, inasmuch as humanity is supposedly following the Golden Rule more often as the centuries pass.

Folks never tire, it seems, of trying to adduce evidence, whether scientific, historical, or sociological, for God's real existence. Kierkegaard--and many others besides I'm sure--had a lot to say about the folly of this undertaking. If you're going to believe, fine, but do so as a leap of faith, and stop saying that science suggests anything about the nature of God. There are a number of things in life that science per se can't help us with (such as how to live, what to do), but what it does do--explain the nature of material reality in testable fashion--it does very well indeed. There are things science can't explain yet, such as how the universe came to be, but science as of 1800 couldn't explain viruses either.

Not having read Wright's book, I obviously can't say much, but it seems to me that if humanity is becoming somewhat more peaceful and pro-social over time, it is less likely due to some kind of divinely inspired evolution than to the simple fact that the planet is getting a lot more crowded, and it's a lot harder than it ever was to swing one's elbows without hitting a neighbor. Folks could tolerate six-shooters on the frontier, but not nuclear weapons (or excessive carbon dioxide emissions) down the street. It's becoming more apparent as history passes that humanity resides not in a fortress, but in a boat. We can't allow ourselves to use up the fish or shoot up the hull.

Seeking to use science to buttress religion is precisely a lack of faith. I personally wouldn't care for any God who would allow (her)self to be captured in the nets of science.


Anonymous said...

There's nothing wrong with parallel or birfurcating lines of thought and existence. Parallel lines actually provide a useful mechanism by which humans are able to travel beyond their insularity; bifurcation allows even further expansion and progression beyond the eternally dating now. Why this obsession with the integration of two useful dissimilars? Granted, it makes for a more tidy ponderance on the meaning of life, but to what end?

I agree it's a 'lack of faith' in the potential of humanity.

fraise said...

"...without venturing to affirm that God does in fact exist, suggests in myriad hedging ways that it certainly looks as though he could exist, inasmuch as humanity is supposedly following the Golden Rule more often as the centuries pass."

Wright shot himself in the foot pretty well with that hypothesis. (I haven't yet read the entire Coyne article, so apologies if he too points this out.) The "golden rule" has existed in numerous cultures -- some polytheist, some monotheist, some agnostic/atheist (for instance Taoism, since it believes in archetypes and doesn't necessarily posit the existence of a god/goddess). So if the Golden Rule is gaining ground, then... the Golden Rule is gaining ground! Unless we're to extrapolate believing in *every* deity, non-deity, etc. from that.

What bugs this here agnostic secular humanist is that it removes so much responsibility from humans. People are following the Golden Rule more? Well, wouldn't that be due to, y'know, *people*?
(Their name for "the Golden Rule")

Retriever said...

Oh, Neil, don't waste your time on reviews of second rate books. Just as no one ever falls in love with a person on the basis of talk about them from a person who sees them thru a muddy car window, you can't make up your mind about God on the basis of other's people opinions. You wouldn't evaluate a patient that way, you wouldn't decide whether to believe one of your children's fantastical story that way, you wouldn't have picked your wife that way, you wouldn't decide whether to be honest, diligent and kind that way.

I always loved the famous quote of Karl Barth, asked in old age to sum up his theology (after all those gazillion pages of almost unreadable books). He said simply "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the BIble tells me so." But I wouldn't shove my own faith on you, but I know that so long as I looked for intellectual arguments in favor of God, I was lost. Christianity, in the famous cliche, isn't taught, it's caught.

Find a friend you respect, and ask them if you can visit their church. Visit it regularly for a year, and just listen. If you think it is all BS at the end of the year, what have you lost? You have learned more about the people who will likely be your patients (living as you do in the Bible belt) so you will be a better doctor to them. If you have grown to love the people, and to feel the love of GOd mediated thru their kindness, their struggles to align their own selfish , unruly wills with the love and mercy of God, you may have found a spiritual home.

But don't dismiss the faith without trying to practice it. And without reading the Bible every day. Faith and practice are to deciding to believe in God as marriage is to a wedding. Most people focus too much on the latter, when the former is where the real action is...

No, not trying to proselytise you, as you are a friend and I wouldn't insult your right to believe whatever you choose. BUT: you are too smart a person, and you know from your own studies and clinical experience that direct encounter with a thing or person is always preferable to secondary sources.

Please do not snap and snarl at me for this, just a thought from a blog friend and admirer of your work and insights...

Novalis said...

As ever, my friend, no offense taken. But regarding:

"You can't make up your mind about God on the basis of other people's opinions"


"Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

Many would consider the Bible to be a compilation of...other people's opinions, even if they are ancient.

So there's no escape from the swarm of opinions, reality being consensual in pragmatic terms. There is no direct or unmediated access to the truth. The question, as you imply, is whose opinions one ultimately finds most persuasive.

Retriever said...

A few more personal reflections, don't want to give offence...and am Eeyorishly aware that I am not any good advertisement for my faith, but that never stopped me blathering on about it...

Re: your comment "There is no direct or unmediated access to the truth," I happen to think that there is. Religion and commentary (and we "religious" people) may be insufferable, and do more to alienate people from God than even tragedy and wickedness flourishing unchecked in the world, but once you have walked with God, heard Him, felt Him, you will know that you can approach truth. And that it sets you free.

St. Paul was knocked off his horse, blinded before he could see, but he saw. Fortunately, most of us believers have not needed quite such melodramatic events to get our attention...

It interests me that so many people (especially feminists) love to trash St. Paul, but he was actually an awesome character. Even if you just read the Book of Acts and Paul's letters as case studies, I think you would find them fascinating.

But as far as what is truth? Pilate asked that, and I write my own version of midrash about that encounter with JC. I imagine him sick at having to carry out a cruel punishment on behalf of a bunch of religious fanatics mad to kill a guy who seemed harmless to Pilate. And yet Pilate wondering, maybe this guy really knows. What I have been looking for, and even being stuck in this backwater of a place hasn't totally killed my longing for the answer. There has to be something better than this. Truth must exist beyond these smelly alleys and mudbrick houses, and rancid animal fat lanterns that sting the eyes...Could this guy know?

Jesus said, the Kingdom of God is within you. But it is also all around us. To jolt us free of despair, bondage, off the sandbar we thought had wrecked us. Like a tide rising. We could not move, but are somehow lifted up and able to move again.

Yet most us seldom see it. We are usually searching for more of a feeling of being inspired, the exaltation of enlightenment, the sensation of peace. It's interesting comparing the similarities between the way recovered alcoholics describe a drinking life spent chasing a repeat of that first glorious drunk feeling (after which all subsequent ones were disappointing) with some Christians' efforts to recapture that first heady experience of encountering a loving God. Or married couples nostalgic for early magic. The things most people do to try to hold onto a feeling, keep love alive, often strike observers as ridiculous if not outright sick. But the impulse is brave, I think. We humanoids are so stubborn about attempting the impossible that sometimes we succeed.

(continues in next comment)

Retriever said...

(continued) For me, the images, metaphors and stories in the Bible help me to discern GOd at work around us now.

Real life in the here and now is a bit like when you look at a pattern of seemingly unrelated dots on a page, but when someone says "Can you see the outline of a loaf in them," you do. It was there all along, but you were distracted by everything else.

I always loved the image in Genesis of God walking in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. An image of companionship, love, a father who loves to be with his children. A cultural artifact, viewed as sexist by some, but tender.

The great treasure of the Protestant Reformation was the message that God could be approached, and communicated with directly, unmediated by a priest or hierarchy. The cry Sola Scriptura referred to the fact that the Scriptures contain all things necessary for salvation. I do not believe this means we are to literally apply the barbarous sections. But to me, it means that the individual's disciplined study of and reflection upon the Bible can help to lead them to God.

Perhaps like a GPS? Imperfect (I have been tempted to throw the Bible as least as often as I have been tempted to do the same with my GPS) when it doesn't get me where I want to go, or is unclear or too complicate. But I do better with it than without.

I don't mean to sound anti Catholic here, or to suggest that Protestantism is any better--St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises offer the individual a highly structured way to grow closer to God as well, and at its best the practice of confession both illuminated and helped heal the everyday lives of ordinary fallible mortals. It was never about say six Hail Marys.

In some sense, Protestants developed the journal (ancestor of the blog?) because they no longer had the confessor to go to. Both activities, tho therapeutic, were about something far bigger than the individual, tho.

Not to be irreverent, but the Bible is a bit like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. One reads it, tries to figure out what on earth or in the universe it means, looks for guidance, sometimes under such duress that one only realizes later "Oh, THAT was what it referred to..."

Dr X said...

@ Retriever:

"St. Paul was knocked off his horse, blinded before he could see, but he saw. Fortunately, most of us believers have not needed quite such melodramatic events to get our attention..."

Then there are some like me who had to go through such an experience.