Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Athiesm, on Trial Again, with Baba

The cc'ing of emails can be a fascinating thing. It lets you glimpse bits and pieces of conversations that aren't yours, but that perhaps you have influenced, and then fill in the mysterious gaps with imagined dialogue. My friend Baba recently started and then abruptly ended some email correspondence with someone named Ted, who appears to be the son or nephew of somebody with a Polish email address (you got me; I don't know him.) The topic: God. Baba has always had something of a problem with him.

From Baba to Ted, cc'd to me:

BABA: Your uncle Bill has in the past forwarded some of his exchanges with you and I found them fascinating. I would very much love to engage in discussion with you but my Parkinson afflictions which has long prevented me from speaking properly is now extended to my typing where because of the tremors I double and triple strike the keys. Rather than attempt discourse I will shoot you a relevant reflection on scattered thoughts that I have now and then.

Andy Rooney said if his house was in flames... there is one book he would attempt to salvage from his library: Walter Lippmann's "A Preface to Morals". I have since read the book and concur with Andy... It is perhaps the most important book I've ever read. Suggest you do the same. Here is some of that exchange:

That exchange was with me. I had read the book at his behest, but he was bewildered by my feeling that it was a "period piece." I had written in explanation:

ME: You're absolutely right about the eternal nature of the book. Lippmann was very prescient in predicting that the loss of religious certainty would leave many people feeling unmoored. It's only a period piece in that he was right there, historically speaking, when the great shift was beginning to happen, and so speaks from the point of view of a very erudite guy who sees a cataclysm coming and doesn't know how it will all play out. You can actually tell how worried he is. Another thing I really love about the book is that it sums up religious history in a way I hadn't seen done before, and makes it so obvious (though Lippmann would never say so, exactly), that religion is an artifact of culture, reflecting us at every period of our development.

He had written back:

BABA: The Freudian notion that God is a projection of child/parent relationships is something with which I've long been familiar... but the further idea that the organization of governments in heaven historically reflect governments and societies on earth was a real mind-blower.

What I wrote in response to Baba's note to Ted:

ME: A few thoughts on this topic.

A while ago I read 'Letter to a Christian Nation' by Sam Harris, and found it quite interesting and challenging, though not always entirely convincing. In fact, in the last 10 years I've read any number of books about religion (including the Bible) in my own quest to understand the story that religion tells and what relevance it has to everyday modern life. I've sought to understand if there was something in it, some kernel, that I could really believe, because faith as a concept is so empty and cynical, at least to me. 'Faith' announces its very hollowness and dares you to
call it what it really is. Instead I wanted to find something in religion, down in the heart of it, that I knew instinctively to be true. I wanted to find something irreducible in it - an idea or fundamental truth - that could explain why modern, scientifically minded people are still carrying out these rituals and proclaiming these beliefs.

This quest was important to me only because the human impulse toward the sacred is so pronounced, at least in me and my life, and because religion offers a hallowed contemplative space that simply isn't available elsewhere.

Say what you will, but I've found this to be absolutely true - religion fills a social and personal function that is utterly unique. This is really the enduring appeal of religion, I've come to see. The discussion can't simply be about the religious claims that athiests get so hung up on.

Anybody can see that most of the "facts" of religion are either unverifiable or easily debunked. It's about the opportunities that religion gives us to think about ourselves, our obligations, and our destiny (and, in Christianity, to hold ourselves up against a model of pure goodness and rectitude, which is what Jesus functions as). And, in the community of a congregation, to join our best intentions with the best intentions of others for purposes that seem not exactly human, but divine.

It's obvious that people who are motivated by God will indeed manage to do things they wouldn't have done otherwise - they're unreasoning, for better or worse.

Either way, it's a powerful and seductive source of energy. I wonder if religious aptitude, so to speak, is like any other human trait - one either has it or doesn't. If one has, no intellectual attack on religion can truly matter. And a great many of us have it. We can try to rid ourselves of it, but we can't quite do it. Believe me, I know. And to the extent that our personal religious expression leads us to act pro-socially (excuse the annoying jargon), that probably isn't a bad thing. To the extent that it makes us stupid and destructive, it is undeniably a bad thing. (Look at social policy in the Bush administration to see how ridiculous religion can make us.)

What he wrote to Ted, who apparently wanted to argue the merits of athiesm:

BABA: This is getting funny. I was nudged into the discussion by your uncle (the one with the the Polish web address). To be fair to the process I would have to beg off since any respectable reply will require too much typing.

But a few quick points... I have been in NUMEROUS debates with atheists over the years except it was always I who was the atheist.

I have since come to realize that there must be a great deal more to this universe than meets the eye. I am content to call it "the great spirit" and let it go at that. Makes me feel good. Makes me feel joined. Gives me a feeling of reverence and humility. Gives me a sense of community and proves nothing!

Don't sweat it. You're an intelligent kid with an inquiring mind and as you continue to probe you'll experience many twists and turns in the years ahead.

You don't have to sell me atheism. On the limited level that it's debated, I already buy the dreary argument. It's just that I've come to realize after 80 years that this puny little ball of cottage cheese above my eyes is simply not up to the task of comprehending that awesome immensity out there. But I reverence it knowing that I, as a diminutive speck of star-stuff, am somehow co-generated and connected with it all. And it is precisely that mysterious connection that inspires in me what others might call religious feeling.

No more proofs. On the limited level of "proving" things, I'm already on your side.


And that is where we've come to rest. I'm with you, Baba. I'm with you.

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