“God is Love,” My Mama Said
April 27, 2009 § 2 Comments
The New York Times has an article* about how atheists are now organizing, coming out of the closet as they put it, asserting discrimination akin to, if not as severe as, that suffered by gays. The gay analogy is particularly apt, since the first task for gays was to win credence for the idea that discrimination based on sexual orientation is not okay, not simply to be expected. Atheists will also have an uphill battle to get people to understand that their complaints have merit. It’s apt but also depressing, since gay rights is a new chapter of Western Civ, but this country was settled by those fleeing religious persecution. Atheism doesn’t have to be a religion for the equivalence to hold; all that matters is that the persecution is because of religion. It’s not really a subtle point.
I live in New York, so I’ve never faced anything like the problems of the South Carolina couple mentioned in the article: the husband fears that if his wife makes her atheism public, it might imperil his job. But to read about it makes me angry in that particular way one gets angry about an injustice visited on one’s own kind.
When it’s a great coup for the President of the United States to grant respect in his inaugural address to those who don’t have faith along with those who do, it’s past time for atheists and agnostics to assert themselves intellectually and politically. And although I can generally do without Christopher Hitchens, and don’t agree with everything in Richard Dawkins’ book, it did astonish me when those books were reviewed by the usual East Coast critics, and they seemed more worried about giving offense to the religious intelligensia than anything else. They reminded me of shopkeepers in border towns afraid that raids and skirmishes will hurt trade—an entirely reasonable concern for shopkeepers in border towns, but critics are supposed to be in a different business.
I don’t consider myself an atheist, exactly. My position on any of the ‘great’ questions—the meaning of life, does God exist, what is truth, what is evil—is militantly agnostic, which is to say that I find it preposterous that humans should believe it possible to ever understand the real nature of the universe, our place in it, how much we know and how much we don’t, or even whether these questions have any meaning at all.
Consider a dog, a crab, a mosquito. Can any of these creatures see the limits of their experience? Human self-consciousness, culture and our rapidly growing body of scientific knowledge don’t suggest to me infinite capability. I remember as a child asking someone (my mother, my math teacher?) what the biggest number in the world was and having it explained to me that there never could be a biggest number because whatever number you come up with, all you have to do is add 1 to get a bigger number. That was the sort of thing that used to give me shivers.
Believing in God is one way of acknowledging human fallibility and encouraging wonder and awe at the mystery of existence, and I was attracted to it. I spent my 20’s reading about religion, mysticism and other esoteric traditions, and concluded that all we know is that people are full of desire, fear and hope; have vivid and similar imaginations; and that certain disciplines and activities affect mental states, sometimes remarkably.
I was gravely disappointed. I wanted to find the meaning of life. I wanted to contact greater-than-human intelligences. I wanted my spirit to go on after death. I still do. I just don’t think any of it is likely, anymore than it’s likely I’m going to wake up able to fly.
But I wonder where it will lead, atheists demanding respect. The ideas of evolutionary biologists about why human societies have been almost uniformly religious are often interesting, but the most important part is that human societies have been almost uniformly religious. Is it possible for people to hold on to the faith that so many crave without believing they must shout down those who don’t believe?
For some, of course, it is. But I’ve come across a number of (intelligent) people’s musings about faith lately. None of them seem to understand that faith is deepened by doubt, just as love is deepened by trial. God can’t be disproven. Nobody should worry about that. We’re nowhere near smart enough.
One of my less pleasant chores when I was young was to read the Bible from one end to the other. Reading the Bible straight through is at least 70 percent discipline, like learning Latin. But the good parts are, of course, simply amazing. God is an extremely uneven writer, but when He’s good, nobody can touch Him.
Did St. Francis really preach to the birds? Whatever for? If he really liked birds he would have done better to preach to the cats.