Wednesday, May 14, 2008

An Uncomfortable Discussion

She was beautiful; they usually are. Pouty lips, head-to-toe in black, her hair mapping a sharp line down both sides of her face. Twenty-four, maybe, reading The God Delusion. I wasn't surprised.

Every day at work I seem to notice more bombs being fired in the war surrounding the 'new' atheism, a war sparked by writers like Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris but escalated by the 2006 publication of Dawkins' fiery tome. The Christians, from Lee Strobel to Antony Flew [himself a former atheist], were quick to respond, and the back and forth has gone on for more than two years now.

For all the hip dismissal of religion and faith, no subject continues to work people up as quickly. To this day, the article I wrote for this blog that gets the most traffic is a story on the Dominion Christian Centre in Hamilton. Two of years of blogging [more or less] twice daily, how many entries is that? And that one piece is the one people talked about the most. Maybe it's just our location, but the two subjects I get asked about the most are dictionaries and bible studies.

I, for one, have never been able to saddle up to the ideas of the 'new' atheists, who despite their claims to the contrary, seem more concerned with reveling in the reaction they get than having any sort of discussion [Hitchens]. I admit I'm a closet theist, the inevitable hangover brought on by 20 years of a Catholic upbringing, but I feel no need to argue on the subject. Maybe it's the long buried Irish in me, but I feel no need to argue on matters of religion, any religion. I don't get why some novelists spend their whole careers writing about being Jewish, I don't understand the need for the 'Left Behind' series and I don't see the need to gleefully rip apart a person's belief system on the auspices of science.

I have no intention of ever reading Dawkins's book, so colour me illiberal if you wish, but I did flip through the preface of the paperback edition, where the author argues he isn't preaching to the choir; subtle religion is okay but there's too little of it; he's more tolerant than the religion he skewers, etc. It felt like a teenager posturing as hyper-rational in the face of a hysterical mother. But I can still give Dawkins some credit. He's written extensively on evolution, and some of his issues with organized religion are no different than my own. Trust me, I have as much love for militant, homphobic, intolerant Christians as I do for their atheist counterparts.

But here's the thing: I was under the impression that the whole function of science [the importance of which Dawkins and his ilk hold paramount] was to search for answers to the things we don't know. Which is the same reason a lot of people tell me they go to Church.

Put another way: In Yann Martel's novel The Life of Pi, the title character, who is a practicing Christian, Muslim and Jew, survives a shipwreck and a horrifying ordeal on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, before finally hitting land in Mexico. At the novel's conclusion [SPOILER ALERT!] the Japanese owners of the ship he was on demand to know what happened and find his story too fantastic. So Pi tells them another story, a story where he watched his mother get killed and eaten by a French cook who was also in the lifeboat with them, before Pi killed and ate the cook. At the end of this story, Pi tells them bluntly that in either case, they will know no more than they did before. They will never know what happened to their ship. So which story would they rather believe?

At this point in time, no one knows what happens when we finally kick off [because that's really what this whole dialogue centers on]; faith paints a fantastical world of clouds and harps, science leaves more questions than it answers. If anyone can tell me they are perfectly content to live their lives believing that when it's over we cease to be, our consciousness dissipates to nowhere, they're a better man than me. I choose a different story.


Anonymous The Paper Cut said...

I am perfectly content to believe that when it's over, it's just over. I don't find that outlook harsh, or particularly hip, or particularly science-based. It's just always been much easier for me to believe [as one who was also raised Catholic, even].

On the one hand, I think religion can be lovely, especially when it makes the believers do good things in the world. On the other hand, life is so much more beautiful and valuable when each person only gets so much.

7:21 PM

Blogger The Trail said...

I believe a large part of it has to do with the fact that all through your 20's, the finality is barely a blip on your radar, despite a legion of self help books telling you to live each moment like your last.

Then, with some more age under your belt, you start picking up the small physical ailments that plague your parents: weak knees going down a flight of stairs, the way your legs lock up when you wake up in the morning, etc. Constant little niggling reminders that you're no longer a young man, and that clock is ticking downwards.

This is not a dismissal of your opinion as the petulance of youth, I used to feel the same way. But when it becomes more difficult to compartmentalize death as something that happens to other people, when you do the math that goes with, 'If I have kids today...' your perspective starts to change. At least it has for me.

12:49 AM

Anonymous the paper cut said...

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.

- George Bernard Shaw.

Gotta love them playwrights for their quotable quotes.

The quote would be all the more applicable if you seemed to have more true belief than just adopted faith. Do you really believe in God, and in an afterlife, or do you just choose to pretend because you find it a more comforting perspective? You comments unfortunately suggest the latter.

Those who truly believe in God are beyond any sort of reproach or argument, but those who half-heartedly cling to religion because it seems better than the alternative are kind of open season in my book.

Several of my friends have died, at the ages of 12 and 16 and 20. Death seems fairly real to me, and not just for the sick or the old. I don't think my comparatively springy joints limit my perspective on the matter.

I don't mean to be all harsh, especially not in such a public forum, but I hope your embracing of religion has more to do with some sort of personal revelation, and less to do with repeating to yourself what you once felt was lies until you believe it is true.

11:08 PM

Blogger The Trail said...

I don't believe I ever said I was reverting to Catholicism. I believe I said:

i) Faith is a prevalent concern for more people than the fashionable care to acknowledge.

ii) I hate dogma regardless of which side of the fence it's spewing from.

iii) I don't see the need to have conversations like this one.

Not in that order.

No mention of me personally embracing religion, or God. Merely a choice made to be the optimist and hope [pray? :O] my consciousness doesn't flit into the ether when I kick off. Not joining the clergy, not in the front pew every Sunday. Just willing to admit there could be more to this than I understand. No longer willing to dismiss it outright.

Sum it up like this: A friend's ex-wife, who I've known since grade school, after dumping my buddy, jumped headfirst into evangelical missions, and is touring the world saving the children next year. I rolled my eyes at her, pointed at my temple and corkscrewed my finger, but hey, she lost her dad three years ago. Who knows what that will do to me when it happens, cause it's gonna. I figure I should figure out where I stand on these things now.

If that's weakness, or 'open season' to you, so be it.

You're free to be as harsh or soft as you like in this forum. Despite all signs to the contrary, I am a grown-ass man, I can take it. You still my friend, Heather.

The faith that stands on authority is not faith. --Emerson.

I'm not one for quotes, though.

12:13 AM


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