Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Believe it - not

Those of you who bother to look at such things may have noticed that the newest addition to the right-hand column is a big letter “A.” That A carries a double meaning. One, of course, is a reference to the scarlet letter, the brand of infamy. The other is what the A stands for: atheist.

I’m an atheist. I am what I guess you could call a quiet atheist in that it’s not something I make a habit of proclaiming and usually only bring up if asked. It’s a position I came to gradually but in a more or less straight progression over a period of about a decade, in a process that had a consistent thread to it, one which will become obvious in a short time. It’s a position in which I deeply believe and which is in accord with my best understanding of - you’ll pardon the term - reality and how it works.

I was brought up Roman Catholic. I went to catechism, learned the drill, said the prayers. I remember the white clothes and the white armband for my first communion. (I also remember making up sins for my first confession because who the hell could remember what and everything you’d done wrong in your whole life up until then?) It was ingrained enough that I did rather well on a Baltimore Catechism quiz I took the other day.

There was a point in my youth when I got very serious about my religion. I went to confession and communion every week, followed the mass in my missal, even in the Latin, as it still was then. Unlike some, I never considered the priesthood, but I was disappointed that my folks couldn’t afford to send me to the Catholic high school my older brother attended.

But that passion proved to be not a lasting one and actually sowed the seeds of my later development, because it involved looking deeply at my faith and realizing just how far the institutional church had moved from the words of Jesus as described in the New Testament and that in fact church dogma was based far more on Paul than on Jesus. I remember saying at some point that the church should be called Paulist, not Christian. The institution of the church not only seemed unnecessary, it was a hindrance.

Pulling away from the Catholic Church, I moved to a sort of undifferentiated Christianity that looked to an understanding of what Jesus actually taught regardless of (indeed, ignoring) the strictures of any formal church. But the very process of doing that undermined what remained of anything that could be called traditional Christian faith: It struck me, for example, that in the synoptic gospels, Jesus never once refers to himself as divine and even cagily avoids directly acknowledging the assertion from others. Ultimately, belief in the divinity of Jesus was simply unnecessary for gaining anything from the wisdom to be found in his teachings and so gradually dissolved. (I will note that I do find wisdom in the gospels, the wisdom of the rabbi, the teacher.)

By the time I hit college I was a deist, a believer in an ultimate being that created the universe but takes no part in its day-to-day existence; a being to be respected, even admired, but certainly not to be worshipped.

But why, I came to think, would a conscious entity be required? We don't think a conscious choice is involved in operating according to the laws of nature, why should a conscious choice have to be involved in establishing them? Again stripping away the unnecessary, which any sort of God-like being certainly appeared to be, I moved rather quickly through agnosticism and wound up, finally, by my early 20s, an atheist.

So that was it, a process of gradually removing what seemed unnecessary to an understanding of life, the universe, and everything until what’s left is the laws of nature themselves. Ultimately, it just makes more sense. I’ve been known to explain it by saying that we are faced with two choices: In one case, we struggle to explain the nature of existence and how it came to be ex nihilo. That is, we can’t explain*, at least not yet, where the universe “came from.” In the other, we have a universe whose origins we can’t explain so we do it by postulating it was created out of nothing by an all-powerful being, who we then define as unknowable. Same result - the ultimate cause is beyond our explanation - but in the latter case we have added complexity without adding clarity. What’s more, in the first case we may yet find an answer while in the second we’ve defined it out of existence. I have one - just one - root conviction is this regard, which is that nature, existence, is not unnecessarily complicated. God is precisely that sort of complication. Or, as I put it to an email friend a few years ago,
[t]here is much I do not understand about the universe, about existence, about life and thought and consciousness; a tiny fraction of what I don’t understand, no one understands; a tiny fraction of what no one understands may perhaps never be understood. But to be honest, I’m not moved to explain what is currently (even what may remain) inexplicable by postulating the existence of something beyond what we can know, a something which is then defined as inexplicable. The universe is wonder enough for me.
Because yes, contrary to what theists of various stripes have told me upon hearing of my atheism, not believing in God does not remove wonder from the world. If anything, it adds to it. As I wrote to that same friend on another occasion,
understanding does not deny wonder.

A couple of weeks ago was a prime time in the northern hemisphere for seeing “Earthshine,” the phenomena where part of the shadowed disk of a crescent Moon is dimly visible. It’s being lit by sunlight reflected from the Earth to the Moon. I know what it is, I know how and why it happens, I know how far away the Moon is and what it’s made of, I can explain the Moon’s effect on the tides and how and why phases of the Moon occur, I can talk about solar and lunar eclipses, about how the Moon is “gravitationally locked” and about how and why it’s slowly moving further and further away from the Earth. I know all that, I understand all that. But do you think I wasn’t out there looking at Earthshine, smiling with enjoyment at how, yes, I could see some of the shadowed areas? If anything, thinking about the journey that light made from the depths of the Sun, across millions of miles of space, to the Earth, to the Moon, and back to the Earth to my eyes, made the experience even more amazing.
Trying to fully conceive of that journey in every detail is mind-boggling. (If you have some understanding of physics and anatomy, I invite you to try it for yourself.)
I regard myself as a spiritual person in that I embrace an awareness of life and of an underlying unity of life, indeed of existence. I used to wonder how, if my body, my skin, the hair on my arms, could actually be seen at a molecular level, the viewer could tell where I stopped and the air around me began. I’ve pondered the almost unfathomable meaning of the fact that by our best current understanding spacetime itself, the very fabric of existence, is on the most basic level a sort of seething foam with bits constantly popping into and out of existence. (And indeed, what then does it mean to “exist?”) I’ve thought about language, about the creation of a thought at a particular moment in a particular person’s mind, about the miracle - if I can use that term to describe something that would remain wondrous to behold even if it were to be explained - of consciousness. I have been aware of how irrelevant we are to the universe, which got along quite well before we appeared and will continue on its merry way for unimaginable eons after we vanish.
The last point also seems to speak against God, or at the very least label the traditional Judeo-Christian God (who created us to know him, love him, and be happy with him in heaven - the Baltimore Catechism strikes again) as incredibly inefficient.

The bottom line is that the concept of God is unnecessary to an understanding of the universe and embracing that concept may - may - inhibit that understanding by discouraging questioning beyond a certain point and making unknowns into just something that “God did and that's good enough for me” rather than something to be investigated and understood.

By logic, by conviction, by understanding, by embrace of wonder and most especially the wonder of discovery and learning, I am an atheist.

But let me be clear: I do not believe. But, unlike some of my compatriots, I do not condemn religion. (In fact, I find the preference of some atheists to call themselves “freethinkers” with the implication that theists do not think for themselves, rather offensive.) I have known too many people for who their religious faith provided a foundation for a life of justice and courage to ever deny it can be a path for some. And I mean not only people like Dan and Phil Berrigan and Dorothy Day but people I have known personally. However, beyond the clear history of devastation that can be laid at the doorstep of religious dogma, I have also seem too many people - again including people I have known personally - who were trapped by their religion, not liberated by it, to even begin to accept it as a path for everyone.

As a general rule, I regard beliefs about Ultimate Truth to be philosophical and personal. As long as they remain so - that is, as long as they are not used as a basis for formulating public policy - they don’t concern me as a citizen. But when that line, and despite some claims, it’s a pretty bright one, is crossed, we take a step toward theocracy, and that does concern me, greatly. The point is, it’s the public policies, not the private beliefs, that matter to me. As an example, I had no problem with Robert Drinan. As another, I have no problem with Mitt Romney being a Mormon; it’s the policies he advocates that I reject. As a third, when Mike Huckabee says he’s against same-sex marriage, he’s being repugnant - but the repugnance lies not in his conservative Christianity but in his bigotry. On the other hand, when he says we should change the Constitution because of what God “says,” he is not only being repugnant, he has gone beyond the bounds of democracy itself.

I seem to have gotten a bit off my track, but I really haven’t, because the role of religion in public life is a directly related topic. Last May I mentioned a poll that asked people “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be [fill in the blank], would you vote for that person?” They inquired about 10 separate characteristics: Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, black, female, Hispanic, married for the third time, seventy-two years old, homosexual, and atheist. In the case of atheist and only in the case of atheist, a majority of those polled said they would not vote for that person. Certainly, in each case the “no” figure was lower than it is actually is in real life (since the question is asking people to confess to a prejudice), but that only serves to emphasize that a prejudice against nonbelievers in public affairs is very real and very deep. (I don’t have the info to link to it, but not that long ago there was a survey done of Congress which could find only one member who would admit even to being agnostic.)

The thing is, according to various surveys, somewhere between 3% and 9% of Americans are atheists (depending on how tightly you define the term). Ask around. You probably know one - or even more.

So I suppose that really is why this quiet atheist, who I expect will remain a quiet atheist, has plastered the scarlet letter on his blog: Consider it a declaration of equal citizenship.

*I am aware of the general agreement that the universe we observe was born of a random fluctuation in the quantum vacuum. It fits what we know and what is derived from that. What I am unsatisfied with are the explanations of what gave rise to that quantum vacuum, some of which, such as the assertion that the energy level of the universe is actually zero so it didn’t “come from” anywhere, strike me as just mathematical tricks rather than explanations.

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