19 December 2010

Facing the truth

I recently watched a lengthy debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson from the Westminster Theological Seminary. It was a long and interesting debate, one that maintained a surprisingly civil, even humorous tone throughout, but it was in fact one of the more productive debates I'd watched in a while. (I tend to look at academic style debates rather cynically — I don't think they're often an effective medium for communicating ideas.) Hitchens made a comment that I thought was interesting in light of some of my current thoughts on religion, which is that (and I'm very loosely paraphrasing here) he is not an atheist because he wants to be; he is simply led by the evidence to find atheism to be the most reasoned conclusion, and he accepts it.

In a discussion some time back with my brother (a Christian), I made the remark that if we all converted to Jainism, it would certainly be a net positive for the world. Jainism is a religion of strict non-violence, even toward animals. There would be no wars, no violent crime, no wasting of resources through industrial farming which would alleviate famine the world over. An all-Jain world might not be a perfect world, but it would be a much, much better world than we have today. And yet, I do not want an all-Jain world. I do not want it because, regardless of how comforting or how peaceful or how inspiring it is, I do not think it is true. And, like Christopher Hitchens, I think there is something valuable, something noble, and something special, about facing the world as it really is, regardless of how it makes us feel.

I am not particularly looking forward to my own death. I don't believe that I have an immortal soul that will survive my bodily demise; when I die, I shall simply cease to be. This isn't a particularly comforting or inspiring belief; it might be nicer to believe that I will live forever in a wonderful paradise and be reunited with my loved ones. But the paucity of evidence to this regard leads me to reject it as an ideal worth investing in, regardless of how comforting to me it may be. I heard a great insight from the comedian Adam Corolla of all people, who happens to be an outspoken atheist. He said that for everything else in our lives, we are able to give it a context, a reference point. You lose your job or get dumped by your girlfriend, it sucks; but you can put it into context. But death is different — there is no reference point for zero. There is simply nothing. I may live on in the memories of others for one generation or 100 generations, depending on how loved, hated, famous or infamous I'll be. But whether I am remembered will be of no consequence to me, because there will be no "me" to give it consequence.

By contrast, I remember Billy Graham describing to Larry King in vivid detail what will happen to him when he dies; he talked about an angel swooping down to carry his soul to Heaven, and meeting God face to face (so much, I suppose, as ethereal things can have faces). He spoke about it with unwavering conviction and a glimmer of joy and excitement in his eyes. While he probably grows sad at the thought of saying goodbye to his loved ones, he certainly derives comfort from the belief that he will see them again in an afterlife where everything will be perfect.

There is essentially nothing to stop me from adopting a similar belief. Many cultures have made up their own stories about the hereafter, so why can't I? I can believe it with all my heart, teach it to my children and my neighbors, and take great solace in it. Yet, as a probability, it's no more likely to be true than the belief that when I die I will be resurrected as a worm on a distant planet in another galaxy. The latter isn't much more comforting than death as a finality, but it illustrates the fact that there is simply no rational recourse for indulging in such wishful thinking. The fact is that, despite whatever else I may desire to be true, I have no reason to believe I will ethereally survive my death. Rather than comfort myself with delusion, I choose to accept the truth.

Some people assail atheism by saying it's a depressing, hopeless world view. I don't think it is, and I'm quick to point out that my many atheist/agnostic friends and I are all quite happy, nice, well-adjusted normal people. But I don't attempt to sell atheism because I think it's uplifting; I am an atheist because I believe it to be true, because the evidence leads me to believe that this is simply the way the world is. I can choose to view it hopefully or cynically, and I choose the former; I derive inspiration from the brevity and preciousness of life. But I don't entertain any delusion that I am owed such inspiration, or that I am here for any other reason than 3.5 billion years of natural selection and a shit ton of luck. It's the millions (billions?) who were never born who are the unlucky ones — the children who never made it out of the womb, or those who died in infancy. I was lucky enough not only to successfully eject from the womb, but to be born not in a cold field to a malnourished mother, but in a hospital surrounded and kept safe by the fruits of hundreds of years of humankind's scientific progress.

I think that religion speaks to greater comforts with broader delusions. Richard Dawkins puts it elegantly:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

The idea of a pitiless, indifferent universe may not be as inspiring, as uplifting or as comforting as the idea of a God who created us, loves us, and watches over us. But as Carl Sagan once mused, "If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?" Such a God would need a lot of explanation. Nearly 99% of all species that have ever lived are extinct. Death, famine, disease and disaster strike indiscriminately: the world does not care if you are good or bad, young or old, rich or poor, religious or nonreligious. Our sun is dying and will one day (about 5 billion years from now) engulf the Earth (which itself will have long before become a barren, lifeless rock) as it becomes a red giant. The universe will continue its accelerating expansion until it either begins to collapse on itself or becomes a cold, lifeless void. And those who seek solace with their myths must find a way to reconcile their beliefs with these realities. They must find a way to explain how their loving god fits into this dying, indifferent world. Of course, it's also possible that there is a God, but that he's a real asshole. But not too many people seem too eager to entertain that particular delusion.

And far be it from me to dissuade people from rationalizing such things, should they feel them essential to their happiness. But being an atheist means being willing to own up to the evidence, to face the universe as it actually is, to concede that there are many mysteries whose answers we do not and may never know. Are religious delusions essential to our being? Can we not face the truth with courage and humility, and still find ourselves happy, peaceful people? Or must we always entertain the delusion of religious dogma and mythology, like the human batteries plugged into The Matrix, blissfully ignorant of reality's utter indifference to us? I'd like to think that the truth is not such a bad thing, and that while the universe may deflate our conceits, there is a beauty, an elegance to it to which no delusion can do justice.


"I don't think God is an explanation at all. It's simply redescribing the problem."
- Richard Dawkins

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