Friday, July 23, 2010

There Are No Believable Gods

Returning briefly to that Roger Friedland post, this also caught my eye:

Almost everybody who claims to belong to a religion also believes in God. A lot of students -- just shy of a third -- don't identify with any religion. But just because somebody doesn't belong does not mean they don't believe. About a quarter of those unaffiliated nonetheless believe in God. Most commonly, they believe in a higher, ordering power or cosmic force, but not God, not the big Who. True atheists are a tiny minority in the sample -- about eight percent.

"A higher ordering power or cosmic force." guys are members of the cult of the Theory of Everything? Seriously, what the fuck does that even mean otherwise?

A brief aside: Contra the conventional wisdom, I don't see a necessary conflict between agnosticism and atheism. Agnosticism is a statement about the limits of available knowledge. Atheism is a statement about the limits of credible belief. I can fully acknowledge that we don't know everything important there is to know about the universe (and may never be able to do so) while still feeling confident enough to say that, given what we do know, there is no personal God waiting to judge us on our behavior after we die. That God is a primitive artifact of the reptile brain, but funny enough, it's the only kind that most people would have any use for -- better a violent schizophrenic who might at least occasionally answer a prayer than the indifferent Watchmaker God of the Deists.

Anyway, this is probably the most common objection to explicit atheism you'll hear from the spiritual-not-religious crowd, that there might be some unknown principle or force governing everything, so it would be premature to declare against the existence of a god or gods. But when I hear words like principle, power or force, it sounds to me like we're in the domain of science, are we not? What God worthy of the name could be neatly encapsulated in a scientific formula? And this from people who bristle at the idea that they could be explained in terms of natural phenomena, without any need of supernatural metaphysics!

Really, this is just an attempt to continue believing that meaning and validation are "out there" somewhere to be discovered, having been created for us already. But having grown too sophisticated to believe in a literal superhuman father figure who lives somewhere out in space, these people are stuck at the next step, incoherently muddling around, hoping to find preordained meaning by avenues that were never meant to provide it, like science or nature.

You're in the vanguard. It starts with you.

"This is my way, where is yours?" – Thus I answered those who asked me "the way". For the way – that does not exist.

- Nietzsche


  1. Utter skepticism seems to ignore the fact that the order and structure of the universe is an awesome mystery. I'm a skeptic, but I enjoy believing that beauty and goodness are objectively important. Faith in a higher power is generally naive, but it is correct in recognizing that there is something about the the universe that is humbling. I think the truth is at a vanishing point that can perhaps be approached from either direction.

  2. I'm all for cultivating a sense of amazement and wonder. Hell, the symmetry, harmony and beauty of music alone is enough to keep me spellbound for the rest of my life. But I still don't get people whose first reaction to something awe-inspiring is to drop to their knees, start genuflecting and whispering about God or higher powers.

  3. Well, yes, belief in a personal God who needs to be worshipped is silly, but the practices of religion, which should include self-discipline, humility, and some kind of meditation, can lead people to a better life and maybe a better understanding of the world. Conversely, atheism probably won't lead anywhere good unless accompanied by the same practices. Since no one's understanding of Nature is perfect, we should be understanding of those whose approach is different but who are at least getting something right, rather than being hedonistic, selfish, short-sighted brutes, which seems to be the default for humans.

  4. You're right, of course. I would just say that I criticize the spiritual-not-religious crowd because a) they better represent where the culture is these days, in my opinion, and b) the predominance and easy acceptance of their core themes makes them complacent. There are plenty of traditionally religious people who will criticize them from a religiously conservative view; there aren't too many people that I see criticizing them from a more radical perspective.

  5. I'm fine with that. I'm the same way about new age nonsense, which many people with a liberal bent seem attracted to unfortunately.