Sunday, April 09, 2006

What Am I? Glad you Asked.

Every once in a while someone asks me about my religious beliefs, and I always almost feel uncomfortable. Sometimes it's because the askers are children and I worry that their parents will be upset in that what-are-you-telling-my-kids-THAT-for sort of way. Other times it's a student of mine who clearly has strong religious convictions, and then I worry that the student will somehow feel threatened in a way that has really nothing to do with the subject at hand. And then of course there's always the nightmare scenario which involves someone shouting about how professors should just stick to their subjects and not try to convert students to their twisted ways of thinking.

But lately I've been coming to the conclusion that there's no harm in speaking my mind respectfully in these matters. So, for those of you who've been wondering, here is the conversation that I hope to have in the future when a well-meaning and curious person asks.

WMCP: So, what religion are you?

ME: I'm an atheist.

WMCP: Really?

ME: Yes. I used to say "born again atheist" but I think that's maybe a bit flippant.

WMCP: So you don't believe in anything?

ME: Oh, I believe in a great many things. I just don't believe in a god. Or, rather, I believe there is no god.

WMCP: Who do you think made the universe?

ME: I don't think anyone made the universe.

WCMP: Then where did the universe come from?

ME: I have no idea. I don't know that it came from anywhere. Maybe it's always existed. Or it came into being spontaneously. Nobody knows and maybe we never will.

WMCP: Maybe it was God.

ME: Maybe, but I haven't seen any reason to suppose it was.

WMCP: But everything in the universe comes from somewhere, so the universe itself must have come from something, don't you think?

ME: Not at all. The qualities of a the parts of thing are not necessarily the qualites of the whole. A car tire is made of rubber, but cars are not made of rubber. And even if Something somehow caused the universe to come into being, there's no reason to imagine that Something was God in any sense that religions use the word.

WMCP: But you can't prove that God doesn't exist.

ME: No, but typically I don't expect proof for the non-existence of things. Typically I expect people to prove that something does exist. I can't prove that unicorns don't exist, but in the absence of evidence that they do exist, I feel confident that they don't.

WMCP: You're comparing God to unicorns?

ME: No offense, but in this case yes. Both are things that potentially could exist, and could be verified with evidence if they did exist, but they haven't been and so must be taken as non-existent.

WMCP: Aren't living creatures too complex and too obviously designed to have arisen by accident?

ME: No. In the final analysis, living things are not as complex as we often imagine. Just little strings of 4 bases that code for strings of amino acids called proteins. That's what's so profound about evolutionary theory. It explains how seemingly complex creatures arise from very simply processes.

WMCP: But doesn't the Bible show that Jesus was the Son of God and thus that God exists?

ME: Well, what exactly the Bible says about Jesus is fairly complex, but simply put, I don't believe everything in the Bible is reliable. I think there is good deal of wisdom in it, and that's valuable, but I think you can take the wisdom and not believe the everything.

WMCP: Some people say that Jesus was so wise, he could not have been a normal man.

ME: Maybe not normal, but there have been many extraordinary men and women who said and did remarkable things throughout history. As for Jesus, his call for peace and compassion are valuable, but I think his argument for non-violence even in self-defence is dubious. Further, I think the Christian notion of sin without action -- which Christ supported -- is a pernicious doctrine that has led to much needless suffering.

WMCP: I don't know...people have always believed in God. Most people still do. Are you saying that all those people are wrong and you're right?

ME: Yes. But that's not as egotistical as you make it sound. First of all, all those people you mention don't even agree with each other about what God or how many gods or even if there is a god in the way that you mean it. In the west, religious people often speak about "higher powers" and that sort of thing, statements that would have made them atheists by the standards of just a few hundred years ago. Besides the fact that lots of people have believed things in the past is no reason to believe them now.

WMCP: So you're against all religion then?

ME: Not at all. I think most serious religions have wisdom to offer and we would be foolish to ignore it. There is precious little wisdom in the world; I'll take it where I can find it. Whether it is a pagan like Marcus Aurelius or a Christian like C.S. Lewis or a Buddhist like Jack Kornfield. If you have someting that makes sense, I'll listen and be glad for the chance to think more clearly.

WMCP: What is the wisdom that Christianity has to offer?

ME: By their fruits you shall know them. An evil tree does not produce good fruit and a good tree does not produce evil fruit.

WMCP: You're paraphrasing, of course.

ME: Of course.

WMCP: And what happens to you after you die?

ME: Nothing. I don't believe in a soul or an afterlife.

WMCP: Doesn't that make this life meaningless?

ME: Just the opposite. It means we have to make the most of life while it lasts, because this is it. If this life is just a prelude to an infinite afterlife, well, that would make life seem meaningless to me.

WMCP: Hmmm... well, I still believe in God.

ME: I'm not trying to convince you otherwise. And I try not to be judgemental, either. Life is hard. Everybody does what they have to do to get through. If your faith helps you along the journey, I would not dare begrudge you that.

WMCP: Well, this has been a really interesting conversation.

ME: I couldn't agree more. Shall we get a muffin?

WMCP: Yes, let's. And some chocolate milk. I see the Blue Jays lost again...


Anonymous said...

Todd - please tell me this is in that play you were writting. Seems like it's a winner.

Best line: "You're comparing God to unicorns?"

- James F.W.

PS - That line coulda been just a little bit better if it said "Unicron" instead, but that's just a personal preference.

Sar said...

WMCP: Maybe it was God.

ME: Maybe, but I haven't seen any reason to suppose it was.

Does that not make you more or less an agnostic? Do you have any spiritual beliefs of any kind? I consider myself an agnostic because I see no proof in the existence of God "as religion sees it" but I do believe in inner spiritualism. Perhaps it is different for everyone. Perhaps if I choose to make this life a spiritual one, than that is what it will be for me. Your world, the way you look at it, the way I look at my world - all very different concepts. In that way, there is no universal truth in God.

Anyway. I'm rambling about nothing. Do you believe in any kind of spiritualism??

pettigogy said...

I was once an agnostic on the grounds that one could neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, but that argument was demolished for me many years ago when it was pointed out that, when there COULD be evidence for a thing, the LACK of evidence demonstrates its non-existence, at least until new facts come to light. In other words, I am not an agnostic about the existence of fire-breathing dragons; I can't prove they don't exist, but when it comes to the existence of things in the world, it is unreasonable to expect proof of non-existence except to point out that there's no good reason to believe that it does. Same with God: in the absence of good evidence for God, I believe he does not exist. Now, some people believe that they do have enough evidence to convince them that God exists, and I would not presume to tell people they are flat out wrong about something so deeply personal. Moreover, many people simply accept God as a matter of faith -- and as long as your faith leads you to do right by your fellow human beings (by their fruits you shall know them) -- I have no problem with that either.

As for spirituality, I do feel I am a spiritual person, though I do not invoke any supernatural forces here. For me, the spirit lies in the marvellous fact that things take on different qualities at different levels of organization. A star is just hydrogen, but you get enough of it together and something incredible happens. We all recognize that people may technically be mostly hydrogen and oxygen with a little carbon and nitrogen and so on, but put it together in just the right way and you have life, and let life run its incredible course for a few billion years and you get people! For me the spirit is the difference between what we are as human beings -- thinking, loving, dreaming creatures -- and what we are as masses of chemicals.

Sar said...

Well put. I agree with your concept of spirituality, in a way, I view it more as an abundance of variant energy. The whole world is made up of it.