Sunday, November 16, 2008

Are You There God? It's Me, That Guy Who Doesn't Believe In You

Hector and I were talking in the Smoke thread about the phenomenon of atheists in Church. I think it's not uncommon. I wrote:

Religion serves a purpose that isn't diminished by disbelief. I go to the Jews again here, because they adhere to the roots of religion which are "to bind". Many of the great atheists were Jewish because, of course, Jewish-ness transcends what one believes. Every Jew knows, I think, that when the next round of pogroms start, whether or not they're practicing will not change their fate.

So the outside world binds them as well.

I think the need for the religious binding remains even when we can't see God.

Hector responded with some interesting questions.

1) does Pascal's wager imply some contempt for God's intelligence? Isn't it just a transparent ruse?

Pascal's wager, of course, says (roughly) that there's no penalty for believing in God and a tremendous penalty for not (believing in the Christian God), therefore belief is the safest choice. You can read the various rebuttals and apologetics, but I think the key to Hector's question comes from a subtler view of the wager.

That is, Pascal is not advising anyone to pretend to believe in God; nor do I think that he came up with this wager to win converts. No, I think Pascal's wager is meant to be a comfort to Christians who, like Pascal, lead logic-driven lives and then have to confront the challenges of faith.

2) is there a way that does not involve belief in God (or deities of some sort) to get the sort of social networks that churches promote, in which people care for, and actually help, people outside the group of their blood or marriage relations? Is this commitment of people to care for one another what you mean by "the religious binding?" If so, is belief in a God or Gods required to make it work?

I think people are bound by necessity. I think that's why, for example, bonds are generally less powerful today in the developed world: Lower necessity means a weaker bond. (You can see this writ small on marriage: Women need men less, and men are more likely to see women as an unnecessary enemy.) So I think you do see a binding in, say, frontier towns that isn't necessarily driven by religion. But it's tied to the frontier. It wouldn't survive a diaspora.

Does it need a God? Not exactly, I don't think. If we look at the other things people could bind over (blood ties, geography, philosophy, God, ritual, occupation, military service athleticism, TV shows, etc.), it's clear that some things work better than others. And if we look at the many forms of statism (including communism, socialism, fascism, etc.), you see that it doesn't work at all, and in fact undermines other bonds.

I think that's a clue. Statism places the authority of the state above all. Spiritualism tells Man that he is, in portion, greater than any temporal organization. That there are fates worse than death. And that he has responsibilities that go beyond his own body. (I believe this is what underlies the antagonism between Church and State.)

So, I think you need a powerful abstraction to unite people. People sign on to collectivist ideas because it's fundamentally true that we are interdependent. But the State quickly--like, immediately--reduces to a self-aggrandizing monster, and so fails to bind people. (Except in the same way a natural disaster binds people.)

Modern libertarianism--probably the most logical approach to governance--also fails to unite people very strongly, because it describes a negative. Compare "the virtues of selfishness" to "All Men are created equal...[and]...are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Both describe the same thing, essentially, yet Jefferson's argument posits a noble Man.

Sidebar: I think this is the reason for Jefferson's ascendance over Adams. Adams was probably a better President, a nobler man, maybe even a better human being than Jefferson, but Jefferson set the gold standard in appealing to our better nature. Adams was wary of us, Jefferson told us we were better than anyone had let on before.

God, in His various forms, unites people in much the way Santa Claus unites children: There's a guy out there watching and judging your every move. This works because it's true, because minimally you--your Inner Jefferson, if you like--are watching and judging your every move.

In summary, God isn't necessary, but you need something huge--and there has to be some truth. Consider Selma and the Civil Rights Movement: Something huge has to be behind you if you're going to stand up to the awesome power of the State. (See? The State knew the Church was trouble!)

3) do the Unitarian Universalists have the answer to #2? If so, why aren't they more successful? In terms of membership numbers, or any other objective measurement.

Oh, I think the other major part of binding that's necessary is missing with UUs: Sacrifice. Religions require sacrifice. Time. Money. Food. Sex. Public approval. It costs something to be Jewish. If you're born Jewish, you carry that potential sacrifice with you all the time, even if you renounce the faith. If you practice the faith seriously, there are all kinds of things you can do, you can't do, etc.

The modern attitude is "Why do I need all this? Does God really care if I keep my foreskin and eat ham sandwiches?" Thus completely missing the point. If you want to believe that a particular faith is right, you can without any other fuss. But you're not a member of a religion till you make the necessary sacrifices.

Most religions deal with severe persecution. Christians with their lions. Jews with, well, practically everyone. The Druze are so secret, even they don't know what they believe. What do UUs sacrifice? Not only have they no Big Idea, they have no shared sacrifice.

Look at evangelicals: At some level, they're responsible for the soul of every living human. What are Unitarians responsible for? (You can translate this to the marriage debate pretty easily.)

This also explains why disbelief doesn't diminish religion. Even if you're an atheist, you can appreciate religion and what it does. Religious people are usually happy to share their experiences and welcome you in. You can fight alongside them in righteous causes. And the question of whether you are a True Believer is entirely separate from the actual practice of religion. (Consider me the anti-Bill Maher.)

4) Would you like to keep the tone of The Bit Maelstrom a little lighter than this? If so, feel free to delete this comment, I won't mind a bit. (Won't mind a bit! Hah! And I say things about Larry Niven's prose style being telegraphic, when I do it myself all the time.)

You know, I tend to ramble, and I can go on for days about this stuff, which is why I tend to avoid it. I find it fascinating, but pointless without an interested listener.

1 comment:

  1. Whew. And I thought I needed a little more thinking time to respond what you said before. This may take days.

    To start before the beginning: I don't care who believes in what as long as they don't drag me into it. All right then, here's that TMI post again, so we're all together at the start:

    I liked the Carlin bit. He's right, that a certain amount of exposure to dirt and germs are required to get the immune system started. Something that bugs me (hah! bugs!) is when people who obviously have a cold insist on shaking my hand. Keep it to yourself, can't you? At church they do this thing called "sharing the peace." If germs and virus were big enough to see, people would realize that this is the same kind of thing as snake-handling, counting on God to protect you from danger. I think it's asking too much of God. He made those snakes and those germs dangerous. A little respect, please! A couple of years ago, the pastor said that since the flu was so bad that year, the "sharing the peace" would be suspended for a few weeks. [Sounds like "The snakes are especially venomous this season, so we won't be handling them for a month or so."] That was sensible, and should have continued indefinitely, but no, here we are back again with the coughers and snifflers extending their hands and feeling snubbed if I won't grab them. And then the backbiting starts: "He's so full of himself, he won't shake your hand!" Well, that's enough about that. Yes, I'm an atheist; yes, I go to church now and then; so what. It's a social thing.

    (Several hundred words deleted.) … I place a great deal of value on the social networking that arises from church membership. It would please me greatly if I could see somewhere else for this kind of caring to come from, that was not mediated by the State; since State-mediated caring is not really caring at all, it's somebody's job. The reason I love my daughter, or feel concerned about my neighbor, is not because I am paid to do so; I do those things because they are part of myself. They are not things I can give up if I get another job at the highway department or investment bank.

    What you say about people being "bound by necessity" reminds me of E.M. Forster's story, "The Machine Stops," a prescient vision of a society in which everybody telecommutes, no-one knows his neighbor, and what happens when the Net breaks down. Increasing affluence leads to less binding: if the kids can afford a place of their own, they won't want to live with Mom and Dad any more; if Grandma can afford to keep her place, she won't want to, or have to, move in with the kids. And you're just not as close, literally and figuratively, to people you don't see every day, or who may live on the other side of the continent, or the world. So, if I'm reading you right, this sort of binding comes from poverty and privation. I'd rather see it come from the kind of self-interest that incorporates the realization that, to use a cliché, "a rising tide lifts all boats." Can we get past the idea that what's good for me has to be bad for you. The world is not a zero-sum process.

    I just can't make out where a belief in supernatural powers is required to make love work in human lives. But then: I have long thought that it should be possible to prove ethics by mathematics, i.e., that there must be some way to show that the right thing is also the rational thing. In other words, we don't need threats from a supernatural power to tell us that, for instance, it's wrong to [sin of your choice here, let's use "covet" as an example] covet; a little rational thought will show us that it's counter-productive to covet. Don't covet your neighbor's HDTV, and get indigestion thinking about it; it makes more sense to save your pennies and get one of your own. As simple as that.

    I didn't mean to start something, and I certainly didn't want to be made to think this hard. But I am an "interested listener," for what that's worth. Thanks.


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