Monday, December 11, 2006


A friend of mine lent me his copies of Dawkins's The God Delusion and Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith, mostly because he knows that i am a fellow heathen. I finally managed to get through Letter, and i'll probably finish Dawkins eventually just because i think he's an excellent writer. But i have to admit i have little enthusiasm for the arguments against religion. It's not that i don't agree with the authors -- if they are the preachers, i am the choir-- but i know that they will have no effect on the people who need to read them.

Very few believers will read the books to begin with, though many will condemn them. But of the small percentage who do read them, the arguments therein will not only fail to convince, they will probably strengthen the resolve of most. Belief in God, especially in specific variations like Christianity and Islam, is not a subtle misinterpretation of evidence or a trick of the senses. It is the willful acceptance of the obviously absurd. I don't say this as a sarcastic jibe. I know exactly what it feels like. I went to a Lutheran parochial grade school, and i came very near to choosing a Lutheran high school as a prelude to the Lutheran seminary when i was about 13. The sense of being a part of that religious community was one of the most powerful emotional experiences of my life. Even though you know intellectually that virgin birth and the resurrection of the dead and the Biblical version of creation are not reasonable, there is a sense of exhilaration at accepting them as real despite what your brain tells you.

For me, it took a process of self-discovery to go from true believer to non-believer. It took being away from the influences of that community and being able (even required) to think about things for myself. When i was 14 or so, no amount of criticism or rebuttal would have swayed me from my religious beliefs. When i finally came to think that there is no God, the shift from certainty to doubt made me reluctant to ever profess any conviction too vociferously.

While i don't the buy the hogwash that atheism is just another belief system, i do think of it as a sort of advocacy. In other words, atheism isn't just the lack of belief in God, it is the viewpoint that non-belief is a superior way to treat with the world around you. My personal viewpoint is that there is no God, but also that there are many unknowable things in the universe. Not unknown, but unknowable. We cannot see to the ends of the universe, we can't conduct experiments that span vast spaces and times, we can't observe without altering. Not now, not ever. To me, that's a sufficient basis for agnosticism, though i think i'm what Dawkins calls a de-facto atheist, in the sense that i think it's far more likely that there is no God even if i think the question is ultimately unanswerable.

For me atheism or agnosticism comes along with skepticism, rationalism, materialism, etc.; but i don't think of myself as being entirely nonspiritual. I'm not sure how i would describe my version of being spiritual, but it encompasses my desire to undergo slightly crazy physical trials and to put myself in situations that provoke my sense of wonder (the night sky in the middle of nowhere is profoundly spiritual). It is connected to the completely irrational love that i feel for my children, and the inexplicable bliss i can feel on a Saturday morning with my arms wrapped around my wife. It's in the pain and distress i can feel about things that are not, in any reasonable sense, painful. For me, the soul consists of all those parts of my brain that make me something more than an animal.

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