We are our own prisoners. We defeat ourselves, believing in defeatism, which is itself our own creation.
– D.T. Suzuki
Just because the vision blurs, this does not mean the eyes cannot see.
If you read my previous post, you know that I consider myself (to an extent) an atheist. Which creates certain difficulties when it comes to the idea of “faith.” There is a widely-held misconception that a turn to atheism is a turn away from “beliefs” in general; in fact, some atheist writers themselves insist that this must be the case, especially in terms of having faith, which to these thinkers denotes an acceptance of something intangible, something that cannot be seen.
Fair enough. But wrong.
I’ve always been a humanist, even in my most committed Christian moments (although it’s not really something you’re allowed to talk about as a Christian, since it is assumed that humans stand no chance on their own, without divine assistance). Having set aside the Christian identity, I’m free to embrace the humanist in me openly, without qualifiers. The moment that did it for me came at a roadside rest stop in West Texas, reading Malcolm Murray’s definition of atheism: the rejection of supernatural (metaphysical) agency. I’ve always waffled on the atheism concept because I refuse to reject the idea of the human spirit, which I believe firmly is very real. But I also believe that it comes from us, and not the other way around. We can call it “God” if we want, and it may be metaphysical (in the sense that it’s not “physical”), but it is most definitely not supernatural, and it definitely has no agency independent of the humanity from which it springs.
That in which I have “faith” is people, you and me, and particularly Us, and the things we could do if we could find a way to set aside all the details that separate us and really take up the humanity that brings us together. I have faith in human potential; I have faith that, somehow, somewhen, we will rise above and show the universe what we, as a species, can do.
Some might say that faith in the human spirit is as insubstantial as faith in an Absolute Being. I will admit that at times it feels as if this is truly the case. We often struggle to see the underlying goodness in people, hidden as it is beneath the layers and layers of distraction and deception time has piled on top of us. This is where Zen offers the most beautiful of insights: our nature, the Buddha-nature, simply is–beyond the categories of good or evil, above human constructions of beauty and ugliness. It IS. But as it is, it has become lost in the accretions of a species trapped in history and tethered to philosophy and intellect, driven by a need to analyze and categorize. It is our quest for understanding, expressed in the only way we know how, that has brought us to a place of self-dejection, self-repudiation. We live; we die; the cycle goes on over and around us, in spite of us, and the only way as semi-finite creatures to conceive of ourselves is to freeze ourselves in place, and confuse a mere snapshot for the whole of reality.
We see ourselves in our failures, and assume that failure is who we are. We see our hands about evil deeds, and assume they can perform nothing else. We stare into the darkness and decide there is no light.
In the end, as D.T. Suzuki wrote, we are the victims of our own creation: having convinced ourselves we cannot win, we set out to codify our perpetual defeat. We devise philosophical and religious systems to explain why we must decline, and those systems in turn become the boulder chasing us down the slope. Zen calls our attention to the homemade chains we wear, reminds us whose handiwork they really are, and that if we wish we may choose to cast them aside. Not that it is easy: seeing into the nature we’ve forgotten demands patience and determination, persistence in the face of a seemingly hopeless task, and the willingness to see past momentary failure to the everpresent promise of subsequent success.
The potential of human goodness lies in the recognition of human Being. If we are twisted, it is because we have so long insisted that it must be so. If our logic is flawed, it is because we believe it can be otherwise. If our system is broken, it is because we believe it must be fixed. To recognize the truth is to build upon it; to create that which is good is to embrace our nature as it is, to fill it with emptiness and watch it overflow.
In the words of John Daishin Buksbazen, “Remember who you are, and keep on going.”
– Emily Dickinson
They always told me: If you have faith “the size of a mustard seed,” you can move mountains. Problem is, mountains don’t move. And when you’re told that they can, and you aren’t able to do it…well, then, what does that say about your faith?
It’s not you, God; it’s me.
It’s July, 2011. I’m standing alone on a trail off of Cataloochee in the Great Smoky Mountains. It is quiet, and I am in turmoil. I’m still clinging to the tatters of my Christian identity, to what little is left of whatever divine dependency I might once have had. I speak into the stillness: “If you’re there, give me a sign.”
This scene has played out in my heart and in my mind a multitude of times over the previous two years, I the honest supplicant, God the (supposedly) loving auditor. Words run amok in my mind: “Whatever ye ask of me believing, ye shall receive.” And I believed, desperately. I had faith, if only the size of a mustard seed. I had doubts, but up until that day I also had faith. And there I was again, on my inner knees, begging for just one tiny proof of life.
Nothing. Silence. Complete and utter silence. Except for a rustling in the trees off to my left–a fisherman who, I realize, must have heard what I just said and is now convinced I’m insane.
But God? Zilch.
In that moment, a moment of absolute despair, the straw fell, the back broke, and I was done. The God who made a donkey speak couldn’t be bothered to speak to me. I had given up a whole life for him to climb into a pulpit and talk him up on a weekly basis, and when I needed him, he was not there. He was nowhere to be found.
As I stumbled back down the trail, fighting the tears and resisting the urge to scream profanities at the sky, I knew. I just knew. I’ve been called a doubter recently, with the best of intentions, but that’s really not an accurate description of my stance. In that moment, I didn’t doubt. I knew, in the pit of my stomach. I was alone.
At first, and for a long time, I was angry. That has faded, for the most part. In its place, there is now determination. I will not be a pawn in anyone’s game, no matter how monumental their cosmic powers.
Since that moment, my true moment of deconversion (to use the popular term), I’ve had my share of life’s well-timed insults. But I had my share of those before that moment, as well. Things have gone wrong; things have gone well. I have been sick; I’ve gotten better. Income has dropped; income has gone back up. I’ve had good days as well as bad. There is virtually no difference between my day to day existence now and my day to day existence before, except that now I sleep later on Sundays.
You might respond with the old story (and an old, old, old story it is): it’s not about this life; it’s about the next. Okay. Prove it. Prove to me that I ought to live this life in fear of what might happen after it ends. And then think about this: there’s a name for this sort of thing. When someone powerful tells someone less so that if he obeys, he’ll have a home and be taken care of, and if he doesn’t, he’ll suffer and die–we call that slavery. Read a history book. We call it slavery…unless we’re talking about God, in which case we call it love.
I. Will. Not. Be. Owned.
Don’t test the Lord, you say. Fine. As soon as it stops being okay for him to allow people to go through hell in this life just so they can sit it out in the next, and call it A Test. Then we can talk.
It’s not the desperate anecdotal efforts to prove that God works miracles that bother me. It’s that these anecdotal efforts serve only to underline the extent to which he does not. No self-respecting zoologist would accept the absence of the unicorn for proof of its existence, but millions of Christians throughout the ages have been taught to accept a chronic lack of action as proof of power (or at least not a denial of it). Like he didn’t act that day in the national park, or on any of the days prior to it, as I, the guy he knit together in my mother’s womb, slowly came apart at the seams.
I’ve somewhat accepted the “atheist” label now, for convenience’s sake, but again, not a strictly accurate description of my position. It isn’t that I believe there is no God. It’s that, even if there is, I have no faith in him. I have no use for him. Because, if he exists, he has not been faithful to me. He hasn’t been faithful to a lot of people. And a God who doesn’t act might as well not exist.
If my wife tells me she loves me every day, if she sacrifices for me, bends over backwards to show me how special I am to her, and in return I toss her in a puddle of crap and leave her there to drown; what’s more, if I tell her it’s her own fault she’s in the puddle, and unless she pulls herself out of it by way of proving her love, I’ll leave her there for good; and if I tell her no matter how much she tries to live up to my love, it’ll never be good enough for me; that she needs me in order to have value, and without me she’s nothing; that the only thing she can do is beg me for acceptance every day of her life and hope that I’m telling the truth, that in the end, I’ll make up for the abuse by giving her a great big hug and “wiping the tears from her eyes”; not only would that be an abusive relationship, but it would be fairly clear that she isn’t the problem.
So, God, if you’re listening: I was wrong. It’s not me; it’s you.
…All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
So I’ve stopped reading the Bible. I no longer pray (at least, not in the traditional hands-folded, knees-bent sort of way); haven’t for going on five years. I don’t, under any circumstances, insist that my interlocutors “praise Jesus,” although I may return a polite “You, too” when someone tells me to have a “blessed day,” simply because I’m fairly certain God hasn’t cornered the market on blessing people.
Which brings me to my point: I still want desperately to bless people. Not by proxy. Not by pointing to some undefined deity in the Great Unknown, thereby relieving myself of any real involvement in the matter. I want to bless them. Through my actions, with my words–a smile here, a wave there, a handful of pocket change, if the occasion warrants, whatever. And I want all this in the absence of religious belief (institutional religious belief, that is; everybody’s religious, but that’s an argument for a different day).
Cue cognitive dissonance…
Here’s the old chestnut: How do we explain our ability to distinguish between good and evil, or our desire to help others and avoid hurting them, if there is no Absolute Example, no Ultimate Source, in which to ground them?
Heck. I don’t know. Does it matter? Really? Or is it just one more of the pointless arguments in which we entangle ourselves, thereby obviating the question? I don’t know why I want others to be warm and well-fed, and I don’t really put too much time into thinking about it.
It seems that, to some, “good works” are not legitimate unless legitimized by particular base assumptions. I’ve heard Christians, for example, claim that unless we love “because He first loved us,” then we might as well quit the clanging and chuck our cymbals out the window. On the other hand, I’ve heard atheists suggest that Christian actions are so bedecked with “ulterior motives” that they must be suspect by their very nature. And the conversation, as it does so often anymore, breaks down again…
I leave you with the words of political scientist Robert Audi, from Political Commitment and Secular Reason (2000): “an extensive agreement in moral practice is compatible with absence of agreement or even sharp disagreement in moral theory.”
To my atheist friends: Is it really the “ulterior motive” that worries you when you see a Christian doing good? Or is it that it makes you wonder if the “God-folks” might actually have a leg to stand on?
To my Christian friends: Why are you so desperate to prove that non-Christian means non-moral? Is it perhaps that loving actions performed by non-believers hint that maybe Truth extends beyond the pages of Holy Scripture?
Would the real Jesus please stand up?
– James T. Kirk
Question of the day: Do I want to be an atheist?
Answer: Not necessarily. Call it phantom limb syndrome or whatever you like, but a part of me still very much wishes I was a Christian. More to the point, it wishes all my Christian acquaintances would allow me to still be one.
It seems that it’s not cricket to claim a Christian identity without accepting a prescribed bill of goods. Prescribed, generally, by the same people who insist that any attempt to categorize the Divine is beyond us puny humans. I never cease to be amazed that those who speak of God and faith as beyond definition are all too happy to force that elusive definition upon unsuspecting others.
On the other side of the equation, I wish my new atheist friends would stop trying to revoke my membership anytime I express continuing affection for my Christian upbringing or any amount of regard for people who remain within the Christian fold.
Apparently, unless I’m willing to concede that all those folks, near and dear to my heart regardless of philosophical disagreements, who continue to embrace a religious worldview are near-sighted simpletons who only do good in spite of themselves, I’m betraying the atheist worldview. My wife, my parents, my sibling and siblings-in-law, close friends and long-time mentors–either I condemn them as idiots, or I’m no longer welcome in the sandbox.
So I’m stuck, between a Christian rock and an atheist hard place. I can’t even say I’m an agnostic without the hardliners on both sides accusing me of either intellectual laziness or moral cowardice.
Newsflash: I am who I am. Some days, I’m so strong an atheist that I can’t even spell “God.” On other days, I’m so sick of atheists that I consider baptizing myself again. I am who I am…and here’s what that looks like:
I am a follower of Jesus (the man, not the ex post facto metaphysical invention). But then, I’m also a follower of Shakyamuni Buddha. And a follower of U2, and Jon Stewart. And of truth wherever else I might find it.
I refuse to judge a book–any book–by the worst thing it contains, or a group of people by the most despicable individual among them. The Bible, taken as a whole, contains a lot of stuff that to our postmodern sensitivities is beyond abhorrent, but it also contains a lot of stuff that is beautiful and good. To refuse to learn from the good out of anger at the bad…well, that’s ignorance, as far as I’m concerned. And there are individual Christians out there who make me want to punch a baby, the Fred Phelpses, James Dobsons, and Franklin Grahams and such. But if I allow those infuriating, narrow-minded, self-righteous few to act as straw men for all the good and loving people who raised me and taught to me to be who I am today–heterodoxy and all–then I do Christians everywhere a grave injustice, and I’m the one not worth their time.
(Just so we’re clear, there are also individual atheists out there that I find completely intolerable, Dawkins, Harris, and the like. Anyone who can, with a straight face, tell me that these guys are any more open-minded than the “religious nuts” they go on about–well, XYZ, my friend.)
Religious upbringing is not child abuse. Sometimes abusers happen to be religious, and religion can be transmitted in harmful ways, but one of these things is not (necessarily) like the other. There are things about my childhood that I wish had been different, but that applies, I expect, to all of us. What I know for a fact is that, while my parents raised me in a very Christian home, they also taught me to be the loving, accepting, thoughtful person I try so hard to be. I owe them who I am, even the willingness to tell all y’all to take a flying leap if you suggest otherwise.
Take away the ad hominem, and we’re all just a bunch of plankton convinced that we’re whales. We’re all on the same journey, whether or not we agree on the stops along the way. It’s hard to believe, I know, but there are Christians out there who don’t believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God; who don’t believe in an afterlife, or Noah’s ark, or a six 24-hour day creation. They don’t even believe in stoning homosexuals. And they are Christians whether you like it or not.
There are also atheists who are more than willing to see the beauty in Scripture (anybody’s Scripture, Bible, Koran, Talmud, etc.), and to engage Christians in respectful conversations based on an assumption of mutual intelligence. I know there are, mainly because I am one of them.
Somewhere inside me, Christianity lurks, hand in hand with the atheist’s skepticism. Why? Because it occupied the first three decades, plus, of my life. I cannot turn my back on that part of my identity anymore than I ought to turn from my search for Truth. Because some of that Truth still speaks through the Christian in me…
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Dawkins’ The God Delusion is by far the most frustrating book I’ve read in a very long time. I so desperately wanted to love it, as it’s been recommended by several people whose opinions I value. But the best I can go is two stars out of five: the author makes some very good, very perceptive, very necessary points, but they are swallowed up by all the points he doesn’t quite land (including his central point), and by the tone of the book in general.
The author declares that the anthropic principle “provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence” (p. 136). However, the anthropic principle, on its own, is of no explanatory value: it is tantamount to arguing that the building one is standing in is a Macdonalds because the building one is standing in is a Macdonalds. It is a tautology at best: as Dawkins uses it, the presence of life in the universe is explained by the presence of life in the universe (we’re here because we’re here), which is not so much to provide an answer as it is to beg the question. As such, the anthropic principle is not an “alternative” to the creationist stance, as Dawkins claims. It is not an “alternative to” anything. It is a starting point, not a conclusion.
Dawkins espouses natural selection, in part, as the means by which the anthropic principle worked itself out in the case of planet Earth. In this regard, he does a fairly decent job of arguing his case: it is an actual explanation for the ways in which life came about on this world. Many may find it more convincing than the creationist stance–for that matter, so do I. But it is still only AN argument, as is the creationist stance itself. The same may be said of the other mechanisms he suggests whereby the anthropic principle may have found expression in our solar system/universe. They are each continuations of the anthropic principle; without them that principle applies to nothing. While Dawkins accuses religious thinkers of misunderstanding the anthropic principle, one is left with the distinct impression that he has not understood it himself (or that he has, and has chosen to use it anyway, hoping no one will notice the difficulty).
This, however, is not the biggest issue I take with his book. In the final analysis, Dawkins is an elitist and a bully. Throughout the book, contrasts are drawn between the atheist sophisticate and the unsophisticated religious thinker, the “Brights” and the “Dims,” if you will. He makes it very clear, if implicitly so, that disagreement with the Darwinian point of view equals a lower-level intellect, immaturity of mind, etc. It is impossible, in his opinion, for a rational thinker to arrive at any conclusion other than his own. Thus far the elitism. As for the bullying: the natural outcome of Dawkins’ attitude to what he considers unjustified opposing viewpoints is itself fairly Darwinian. One wonders how many “Dawkinsians” came to their position freely, and how many did so because to do otherwise would consign them, willy-nilly, to the stupid, uneducated junk pile? In the case of the “evidence from majority scientific opinion,” how likely is a scientist openly to embrace a religious worldview if the inescapable consequence is being (literally) laughed out of her profession? Ultimately, Dawkins does not allow for honest opposition or argument, not unlike the religious thinkers he criticizes.
Again, Dawkins makes a number of very good, quite necessary points with which even lifelong religious adherents might easily agree. The idea of pasting religious labels on children before they are able to form any concept of what the labels mean is ludicrous and potentially harmful, whether psychologically or simply as affects intellectual openness and honesty. It is laughable for Christians to embrace scientific discovery when it supports what they believe and reject it as soon as it begins to contradict. And so on. Ultimately though, the tone of the book (at least in my opinion) overshadows its content. It is a good rule of thumb to distrust anyone who insists that others think as they do in order to be judged intelligent. This is exactly what Dawkins does, again and again throughout the book.
I am no disciple of any particular faith tradition, but having read this book I am also no disciple of Dawkins. The points he makes are often good; the manner in which those points are made is off-putting at best, completely alienating at worst. The old saying is true: you catch more flies with honey. Dawkins has chucked the honey pot out the window.