Wednesday, June 6, 2007

God is Not Great, Neither are You

I get increasingly annoyed with atheists/anti-theists/anti-deists who object to a theological system by arrogantly assuming they know everything about it. I've been studying religions (many different religions) seriously since I was in high school, and the more I learn, the more I realize "religion" is just as subtle, complex and confusing a realm of human existence as any other. Claiming that "religion is wrong" because a particular conception of deity is unlikely or inconvenient is akin to saying "politics is wrong because Bush is an idiot." As if the only form of "politics" is the modern American version of democracy and, furthermore, the only possible president of such a system is one of Bush's ilk. As if the only form of "religion" is the angry-irresponsible-father-God of fundamentalist monotheistic communities in modern Western society. Need I point out the narrowness of this assumption? The atheists who write the best-selling books on how "religion poisons everything" seem utterly unfamiliar with the rich tapestry of Eastern traditions, the intricate historical development of world religions in general, and even the more subtle distinctions between religious groups in their own backyard.

Religion is, of course, man-made because it is a cultural system; just like politics; just like science. Do we confuse science with reality? Or do we recognize it as an explanatory system based on particular axioms enabling us to develop a consistent and coherent view of reality? Likewise, "religion" is not a uniform, pre-existing phenomenon within reality, it is a cultural construct that develops historically, that reflects the many changing understandings about the non-material and/or spiritual aspect of reality. Philosophy is free to deal with similar matters, as well as addressing matters of the material or "scientific" realm, and in some ways it provides the "missing links" between the two which enable science and religion to function together to describe reality and our experiences of it. Indeed, the modern world's obsession with science has perhaps pushed the importance of philosophy into the background, so that we have lost perspective on the relationship among differing approaches to a common "real" world, whether those approaches are scientific, political, religious, or artistic, etc. In my opinion, there is no definite line between religion and philosophy, and the line between philosophy and science is entirely self-imposed through the consistent use of the "scientific method" to formalize research methods and data collection (the scientific method itself was first imagined and developed by a philosopher, and modern physics often seems to verge again on philosophy and even a certain kind of mysticism). I know a few Buddhists who see Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion, and a few philosophers who postulate theories of spirit or consciousness that resemble religious notions of the "soul" without relying on any formal belief in deity.

Yet you will often hear devout atheists today claim that religion is at odds with intellectual thought or reason. Would these individuals say the same of philosophy, that it is opposed to reason and the intellect? Doubtful. It seems these atheists stay safely towards the faith-alone end of the religiousness spectrum, rather than risk treading too closely to thoughtful theological concepts that might jeopardize the idea of the God in which they (don't) believe. It may be quite true that most "believers" do not honestly believe in the god these atheists name and reject--but then, does this mean such believers do not actually believe in any god at all? Is it possible they have a difficult time justifying their faith because their faith is not placed in the same "God" atheists accuse them of believing in? I myself would find it hard to justify a blind faith in a "celestial dictator," but then, that is not my conception of deity in the first place. Yet I do believe in God/Spirit/the Divine, very strongly, and in accordance with my intelligence and knowledge of reality, not in spite of it.

All of that said, I have a great admiration and appreciation for certain atheists--those individuals brave and humble enough to confront the struggles and sufferings of reality without seeking a constructed notion of comforting-father-figure in which to hide. I am reminded, for instance, of Maynard Keenan, lyricist for the band, Tool, whose earlier atheism was spurred by his mother's painful and crippling paralysis; and of Greg Gaffin, whose scientific-materialist philosophy is often complicated by his own questions of free will, creative consciousness and social activism. I am reminded of a boy I dated in college who very carefully explained that, as a scientist, he was forced to be agnostic (being unable to prove God didn't exist), but that "in his heart" he was an atheist--only to mention to me later the possibility that the natural world could itself be one huge, living being (at which point I laughed and said, "That's Gaia! You're not an atheist, you're a Pagan!"). It takes a great deal of honesty and courage to know oneself, to acknowledge when a particular religious system simply does not speak to you.

Then, of course, there are the "believers" in that celestial Father whose belief is itself a challenge and a struggle. Those who face down pain and hardship with simplicity, faith and humility, who survive on a sense of gratitude when others might find little for which to be grateful. I have great admiration and appreciation for these individuals as well, though I may not agree with their conception of the Divine or be able to justify it. If through their struggles they have come to the core of their being, and there they find the love and support, the guiding hand of Jehovah, Allah or Christ, then this, too, is honest and courageous of them.

What I do not understand, and cannot admire, is any person who seeks to condemn whole swaths of individuals and whole systems of thought or belief, without distinction or qualification. What makes the sweeping condemnations of the angry atheist any different from the sweeping condemnations of this or that intolerant religious person? Both claim that there is only one path to truth, and that they are its exclusive and enlightened guardian. God may not be great, but I'm not so sure I can bring myself to put that much faith in you, either.


  1. I know very well what you are talking about here. I work with two very staunch atheists. They are both very aware of my polytheistic beliefs, yet time and again they will refer to "idiots who believe in God", not only right in front of me, but sometimes to me!

    What is odd is that after a time I realized that the reason they did not think that this would offend me was that when they say "God" or "religion" they are really talking about "Christian fundamentalism". Weird.

    I think that our culture is really not used to thinking about religion in any other way besides flavors of monotheism. I share your frustration with blanket condemnation of spiritual systems across the board. I have met some atheists that were complete idiots, who literally could not think their way out a of a wet paper bag!

    Sad really. ;-)

  2. I just wanted to say that my version of what you called Gaia sounded way more plausible than how you summarize because I used words and phrases like 'system' and 'molecules' and 'I don't know'.

  3. Yes, but then, you always thought the way you said things was more plausible. ;)

    I still like your idea about "eddies"--do you remember that one? That was genius.