The Jig is (almost) Up

5 04 2013

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I think I’m slowly coming to terms with the whole phenomenon of the atheist fad for the ruse it truly is; that it isn’t so much about whether God actually exists or not (that’s an accidental philosophical by-product) but more about not liking to be told what to believe and how to live. It’s essentially an anti-establishment impulse wrought to a blunt point. I find that atheists are generally of two types: 1) malcontents who don’t like to be told what to do or how to live, even though they’ve been told what to do all their lives–and continue to be told what to do by their betters; 2) and existential elitists (this includes scientist types, bitter and/or entitled members of the cultural elite, and second-tier philosophers), who don’t like to be told what to believe, even though they are told what to believe by their betters every day.

Look, I’m the first to admit that one of the most aggravating establishments known to humankind is the Church, which has had a lot of desperately terrible things done in its name over the last 2,000 years, which gives a lot of people a lot of reasons to be anti-establishment. But the plain fact is, the Church has also done innumerably good and wonderful things over that same span of time, things that don’t typically make the five o’clock news because good news historically makes for bad copy. Just like any human institution, it’s a mix of good and bad, tawdry and sublime. Like Martin Luther once said, “The Church may be a whore, but the Church is my mother.”

And let’s admit it, the standard atheist explanation for existence is just plain ugly and brutish. They may claim their explanations for existence are elegant, even beautiful, but that’s only because they focus on either the products of existence (a sunset, supernovas) or its mechanics (action at a distance, the double helix). Yeah, I think those things are beautiful, too, but that has absolutely no bearing on whether the Atheist explanation for why they exist is beautiful (or not). That’s like pointing to a beautiful child who is athletically gifted and concluding that she must come from a wonderful family. Huh?!? One has nothing to do with the other. Fact is, the atheist’s explanation for life is existentially threadbare. There’s nothing beautiful or mysterious about it. It fails the aesthetic test, and fails it miserably. I miss the atheists of old who at least had the requisite huevos to understand that God’s death was nothing to celebrate, but instead was something to mourn because it made for a pretty bleak existence if it was true. But there aren’t many of those folks around anymore (the Sartres and Nietzsches of the world) because it takes “men with chests” (as C.S. Lewis put it) to believe what they did.

Scientists are concerned with the questions of what and how, which they happen to be quite good at answering. The trouble comes when they assume that, in answering the questions of what and how, they’ve simultaneously answered the question of why, too. But that’s just… well, bad science. I think of my high school math teacher, Mr. Anderson. I’d been moved a few years ahead in math because apparently I showed a proclivity for numbers and abstract quantities. Actually, I remember loving math. By my sophomore year in high school I figured I’d reached a sufficiently advanced stage of math that I could justifiably start asking the question “why” certain mathematical properties held. Big mistake. Mr. Anderson looked at me like I was from Mars when I started to press him on why, exactly, the Pythagorean theorem worked. Why?!? he said incredulously. What do you mean Why? It was the last math class I ever took, at the tender age of fifteen. Point is, you can know the what and the how of something and not have the vaguest idea of the why. You can know the what and how of material existence, for example, and not have a damn clue about the why of it.

I read and re-read the stories of Scripture that answer the questions of our existence, and I find them compelling, even beautiful, for a number of reasons, not least because they have the feel and smell and taste of reality. They’re so un-made up. Take, for example, the stories surrounding Christ’s post-resurrection appearances. These do not read like tracts someone conjured up in order to sound convincing. In fact, on one level they’re very unconvincing. The disciples don’t recognize Jesus at first, women are the first to report his resurrection (which you’d never say even if it were true because, back in those days, that didn’t exactly add credibility to your story), and still, after Jesus has made an appearance, some of the disciples don’t believe. The first century was not a stranger to rumors of ghosts and apparitions and hallucinations. It took fish over a fire on the shores of a lake to convince the apostles of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

For these very reasons, the stories have a feel of authenticity, an eye-witness vibe to them. They’re life size, exactly what you’d expect from eye-witness accounts, so that in their expressed incredulity shines the very heart of their mystery. They contradict each other in small places, make the ones who are doing the reporting seem daft. There’s little, in other words, of propaganda about them (though those with a political or theological or ideological axe to grind see propaganda dripping from every word. “To a hammer…” and all that).

This is all to say that the atheist jig is up, at least for me. They–atheists, too many of them–just seem too angry to be thoughtfully engaged, too cock-sure to be trusted, and too agenda-driven to be taken with anything more than a grain of salt. And they too often end up foisting themselves on their own petard by insisting on logical, proof-ridden arguments for their positions, positions that so often lack precisely those things: logical precision and any proofs beyond anecdotal evidence. Those who believe in God, on the other hand, have no trouble with anecdotal evidence and aren’t imprisoned by the constraints of airtight logic simply because they’ve never claimed for an historical second that the position of faith can be proved. Faith rests on anecdotal evidence, on witnesses with holes in their testimonies, on the intuition of the masses. And when it comes down to it, that’s all our explanations have to live up to.

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Fortunes and Futures

11 03 2013

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Could this be one of those times in human history when the future looks more bleak than the past? I look out ahead of me and don’t like what I see: explanations of our existence bereft of any soul; theories of our origins that could be explained with a pencil and a slide rule; ideas about love that are the provenance of chemists and not poets; and poetry itself, reduced to nothing but syntax arranged by a computer.

Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “I miss culture and I want it back” (from her “The Death of Adam and Other Essays” collection, I think). I join in her lament. Scientists, those high priests of truth, are the self-appointed experts on everything, a position we all happily oblige them. After all, says we, if they can invent a light bulb, surely they can explain the mysteries of life. And so, slowly but surely, eternity morphs into infinity, poetry into word-play, erotic love into the chemical consummation of oxytocin and dopamine. You see this kind of reductionist metamorphosis all around you if you know where — and more importantly, how —  to look. Ads on TV, the perfume fragrance strips of magazines, pop music. It’s all about appearances, about glitz and glamor, pomp and ceremony, OMG! and Highlight reels. Even talk of content these days is so stylized, so self-conscious. Our souls collectively waste away as we settle for the Quick Fix.

Yes, I believe in souls, and that we embody them, and that because of this, our existence is greater than the sum of our parts, more complicated than our chemical alchemy, more mysterious than multiverses. Even philosophers, long since relegated to the back of the cultural and intellectual bus (I mean, who’s the last living philosopher you’ve read?), think they can cash in on the cheapest bit of intellectual property left for intellectual speculators: religion. It won’t be long before religion becomes an artifact of history, and supernatural belief a diagnosis in the DSM. Flannery O’Connor was right when she said that nihilism is in the very air we breathe.

Count me among the relics if and when that time comes, because explaining life by nothing more than a series of fantastical collisions of atoms does nothing for me. It doesn’t even make me sigh. It’s like being hit over the head by a fortune cookie. I mean, what’s the point?