Tuesday, May 15, 2007

I lied ...

One of the reasons I commented earlier is because I think this God thing has some potential and didn't want to see it derailed. Hopefully it won't be, so I guess I can't resist jumping in. I should really wait to see if Seth posts anything, so that this discussion might still make some small amount of sense to a person who reads this blog for the first time tomorrow, but instead I'll offer what I have as far as the rationality of believing in God or not believing in God.

Insofar as I can try to summarize the opposing points of view on this presented thus far:

Seth's: Believing in God is a rational position because neither human consciousness nor the creation of the universe can (yet) be explained as physical processes, and therefore cannot be explained by science, and therefore can reasonably be attributed to God.

Connor's: Believing in God is either irrational, or at least a less rational position than atheism, because science has historically disproven the apocrypha of religion and will likely continue to do so to the point of explaining human consciousness and the creation of the universe through advanced scientific theorum such as string theory, et. al.

Let me be the first to say that I'm coming from a less rational perspective than either of my predecessors'. I have neither an advanced degree in religion (Seth) nor a longstanding concrete religious belief based on significant amounts of reading, introspection, and consideration (Connor). Instead, I have a longstanding but uncomfortable and uncertain religious belief based on youthful indoctrination, introspection in the wake of traumatic experience, and a prodigious fear of death and the unknown. I am a lapsed Catholic obsessed with death; I view God as a guillotine.

In other words, I consider myself an agnostic. Connor has said before that being an agnostic is a copout, a position I don't disagree with. Being an agnostic is essentially saying, "I don't know if there's a God, and so I doubt the capability of humans to answer that question, and therefore I'm going to fornicate and debase myself for all of my remaining days and try to convince myself that I'm avoiding the fundamental difficulty of being human, which is wondering about God, the afterlife, and, by extension, the purpose of existence." Or, at least, that's what it means for me.

However, while it may be a copout, I would also argue that it's a rational position. And, since arguing whether or not something is a rational position without taking or advocating that position is also sort of a copout (sorry, Seth), I further will go out on a limb and say that I think being an agnostic is actually the most logical of the three positions. I mean, if we're going to try to talk about divinity in logical terms, isn't it most logical to say that we can't?

This is interesting to me both because I'm an agnostic relative to the question of God, and because I consider myself -- probably more strongly, in fact -- an agnostic in the other sense of the word, meaning that I doubt the availability of complete or ultimate knowledge. Unlike Connor, I don't think humans will ever be able to completely understand the world. Unlike (I'm assuming) Seth, I don't think that last sentence is a compelling argument in support of the existence of a higher being.

Which leaves us with three relatively well-delineated and fundamentally different positions on the most significant and timeless question of human existence. I feel like there's some potential for disagreement here. (Millions of Crusaders, Inquisitionists, terrorists, and mass murderers throughout history agree.)

The related topic that interests me most, however, is the one I broached to Connor near the end of our argument on Tuesday, after cracking something like my eighth Guinness of the night: what about the afterlife?

Connor has, in the past, joined many other atheists I've met or read who have criticized religion as an opiate, particularly because it promises an afterlife that is better than this one. I agree with this criticism wholeheartedly as a social comment: the conviction of an afterlife is not a good thing for human society in this life. An individual who cannot wait for a better life in Heaven or Wherever doesn't care much about doing anything to improve life on this planet (or in this country -- observe the destructive force that is evangelical Christianity, the second most heinous form of contemporary religion behind only radical fundamentalist Islam). This is nothing new; Edward Gibbon famously named the rise of Christianity as one of the primary reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

However, that's really neither here nor there in a discussion of the rationality and/or tenability of religious beliefs themselves. The question I have, and the question I want to ask, is the same one I posed to Connor:

What do atheists think happens to human consciousness when its vessel dies? Is it really as simple of an answer as believing that it is the end of that being's existence? Do atheists imagine the lifespan of consciousness as being from the moment of birth to the moment of death?

I think this is important for a number of reasons. First, consciousness is a sticking point in this and any discussion of divinity. Whatever our disagreements regarding the term, I think we all would agree that there is something about the mentality or awareness of humans that is unique among known beings. Science may one day be able to explain consciousness, as Connor posits. But right now, it can't. So, in the meantime, does the atheist worldview assume that consciousness is a physical process not yet proven as such, and that it begins at birth and ends at death?

This strikes me as just as significant a distinction as the varying views on the nature or existence of God. The two ideas -- God and the afterlife -- are inextricably related. And one of my primary sticking points with atheism -- one of the reasons I cling to the word agnostic -- is that I think the end of consciousness I just described seems too easy.

To wit: I've often heard atheists describe religion as a comfort, but in fact it seems, at least to me, that the atheist idea of death as an end is actually the most comforting one. (Their idea of God, it should be noted, is almost indubitably the least comfortable one.) For me, the idea of consciousness ending at the moment of death has long seemed like the most desirable outcome. (Indeed, though this will surely sound more disturbing than it should, I've long felt that the most desirable eventuality of life was not being born at all.) That way, nothing you do really matters in the long term. There is no reckoning.

Perhaps that makes me a cynic; maybe it's just because I'm Catholic, and death for us is painted (often literally) as pretty much an eternal cleansing via indescribable pain. If you're lucky, you get Purgatory, which is not quite eternal. But, I would argue, the nature of Catholicism is such that few of its practitioners dare to presume their spot in Heaven. To Protestants, who seem to do that much more readily, perhaps their theist afterlife seems most comforting. I can't speak with any authority about Muslims or non-Christians. (I can hear the cries already, echoing from Appalachia: "Hegemonist!")

And I don't think I've quite wrapped this up, but morning is advancing, so I'll leave it here for now. I'm going to lull myself to sleep by listening to the new Wilco album. Perhaps soon I'll write a long post ripping it and we'll really have some fun.

1 comment:

AnEasyMark said...

A comment regarding organized religion and its effects on society.

"The making of new land belongs to God alone," proclaimed sixteenth-century hydraulic engineer Andries Vierlingh, "for He gives to some people the wit and strength to do it."
In American Theorcracy, author Kevin Phillips cites a historian, Simon Schama, who gives credit for the rise of seventeenth century Holland to its Protestant Reformers.

It is simple to say religion X brought about a rise or fall of Empire Y. Rather, there is here, I think, a grand insight into how an ethos directs the course of a people. However, it escapes me.