Saturday, September 10, 2005

Atheist vs. Atheist

It is difficult for me to show any respect whatsoever for the belief that there is some sort of immortal space-alien Superman who hears your thoughts and grants your wishes. It's ridiculous on its face.
-- posted to an online forum.

I'm an atheist, but I take strong issue with your claim that Christian cosmology is patently ridiculous. Have you seriously studied Christianity or are you simply saying, "I know a bunch of people with absurd beliefs"? I certainly know plenty of people with absurd beliefs. I know people who believe that science has proven that ESP exists. This doesn't mean science itself it absurd. It just means that some people are ill-informed about science.

Let's examine your claims more closely:

1) It's absurd that God is immortal. Why? Mortality isn't a physical law, like the speed of light or gravity. We die because things go wrong with our body. It should be possible, at least in principal, to construct an immortal being. So why is the very notion of an immortal being absurd?

2) It's absurd that God is a space alien. I don't know any Christians who claim that God is a space alien. Most Christians that I know -- unless they are very small children -- don't locate God "up in the sky." Perhaps you meant "space alien" as a metaphor for non-human. Well, there are plenty of non-human creatures on Earth, so clearly the idea of non-human isn't absurd. Do you think non-terrestrial intelligence is totally out of the question? If so, you're in a tiny minority. Most scientists believe extra-terrestrial intelligence is at least possible.

3) It's absurd that God is a Superman. A Superman is a being that is similar to a human but who has special powers that normal humans don't have, right? I don't think this is exactly the Christian conception of God, but what is absurd about this possibility? If we one day discover alien life, surely it will be different from human life -- with different abilities. Some of these abilities might be superior (super) to human abilities.

4) It's absurd that God hears your thoughts. Why? Thinking is a physical process. We are starting to develop machines that can tap into the brain and perform a crude kind of mind reading. Why couldn't a more advanced "creature" have refined this process?

5) It's absurd that God grants wishes. DOES God grant wishes? I know very few Christians who believe that if you ask God for a new car, he'll give it to you. Sure, SOME Christians believe this, but they may not be very educated about their own religion. Most Christians do pray to God, but prayer != wishing. Praying is talking to God. The chief point of Christianity is forming a relationship with God.

It DOES make sense to ask Christians, "Why do you believe in all that stuff?" Their beliefs aren't patently absurd, but just because something isn't absurd, that doesn't make it true or even likely. There's nothing absurd about claiming that there's a small island in the Pacific called Farmer's Island, but why should I believe in it?

Many Christians would say that they believe in God because (a) they FEEL that He exists and (b) believing in Him makes their lives better.

Well, I don't think feelings are a good basis for judging facts about the natural world, but if you force me to ground all my factual knowledge in first principals, at some point I have to admit that I base my knowledge on my senses. And sensory data is -- like feelings -- untrustworthy. (Yes, I base my knowledge on scientific findings, but how do I KNOW about those findings? By reading about them and hearing about them. Reading and hearing are things that I do via my unreliable senses.)

And I'm happy for them that believing makes their lives better. Unfortunately for me, I can't force belief on myself. Too bad. I would like to be happier.

My friend John, an observant Christian, read all this and wrote me the following email:

The only one of your responses I'd qualify a bit is #5.
If someone claims Christians believe that every request they might make will be granted, that is obviously untrue. By logic alone, if Christian A asks that P come to pass, and at the same time Christian B prays that not-P comes to pass, it is certain that at least one of them will be disappointed.
What you go on to faintly imply, however, is that no serious Christian really asks God for concrete things, but rather prays only as a means of communion. That would be misleading. Petitionary prayer is an essential part of Christian life. Our Lord specifically instructs us to do this. He does it Himself (and is at one point refused by the Father).
But you are right that, even when we don't (apparently) get what we believe we have asked for, that does not necessarily phase a Christian, for two reasons. One is the reason you said: that prayer is not a shopping expedition. Even when we our petitions go ungranted, the very act of praying brought us close to the Lord which we discover each time was more important than getting what we want. The other reason is faith. If a child and parent are in perfect relationship at a particular moment, the child will have faith in him. Faith = trust. So ideally we trust that God has some reason for this, a reason that is not simply abstract or intellectual or removed, but a reason rooted in infinite and tender solicitude for me in particular.


Miss Jones said...

Interesting blog.

J.D. said...

In the aforementioned "online forum", I saw the comment to which you are referring. I, too, was a little taken aback by it. I am an atheist now, but was raised Christian.

The other night, our book group met to discuss Chaim Potok's The Chosen, a book very much informed by deep religious values. Two people, including my wife, found the book almost worthless because they couldn't buy into the required religious belief. A third person, who had been raised without any sort of religion, had no point of referenc, so she sat silent the whole night.

This saddens me. Yes, there are many problems with organized religion. Yes, on the surface, religion is absurd. But there are also elements of great value to found in religion: codes of conduct, complex social structures, and sometimes a meaning for life.

I've been suffering a prolonged existential crisis, largely, I believe, because I no longer have a source of meaning in my life. I don't believe there's any one meaning for life, but my life has no real meaning at all. I need to find it, or I may be doomed to unhappiness.

Great entry.

Marcus said...

Hi j.d. I am confused by people who can't relate to a religious story because they are not religious. That's like saying, "I can't relate to 'Lord of the Rings' because I've never been to Middle Earth.'"

I've never been religious, but I can relate to religious stories by using the same part of my brain that relates to fairy tales. (I'm not claiming religion is a fairy tale; I'm just saying that I don't have to believe in something in order to like it.) Disclaimer: I haven't read "The Chosen."

As for your existential crisis, I'm very sorry to hear about it. I hope the following doesn't sound condescending, but I'm always skeptical when people say they are depressed because their life doesn't have any meaning.

It just doesn't seem like a real cause for depression. It sounds similar to, "I'm depressed because I just found out that the universe is expanding." (Have you seen "Annie Hall"?)

We tend to get depressed because we are lonely, because we hate our jobs, because we don't have enough money, because we're ill. All that mundane stuff. And then we want to elevate our misery to cosmic levels. We figure that since we can't have happiness, we might as well romanticize our depression. So we have an "existential crisis."

God, this sounds so horrible. I don't mean to belittle your problems. And I might be talking out my ass. I've never had religion "taken away from me," so maybe I don't know how it feels to have once been in the presence of God and to have lost that feeling.

But if all of your "animal" needs are met -- if you have all the sex and companionship you crave; if you have all the money you need; access to great food; interesting books to read and fun movies to watch -- then will you really care about the meaning of your life?

If so, that sucks. Because you can't force your life to mean something. But you can work to improve your financial situation, your love life, and your intellectual stimulation.

I'm not saying that you're not depressed. And I'm not telling you to just "get over it." If I'm right, then I'm suggesting you look at the nuts and bolts issues in your life: Are you lonely? Are you afraid of dying? Do you hate your boss? If so, then deal with those problems.

I don't think those everyday problems are mundane. They seem so, because we've seen so many bad soap operas about them. But these problems ARE the stuff of human life.

Romeo was lonely. Uncle Vanya was jealous. Lear was betrayed. Hedda Gabler hated her "job". These "little" things are the great human tragedies.