Friday, November 09, 2007

Is That All There Is?

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all there is
Written and sung by Peggy Lee

In my bleakest moments, this is the question that I ask. Who am I and what am I supposed to do in this world into which I've been thrown? Is this or that all there is?

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the other provocative proponents of the "New Atheism" movement say yes. There is no god, no inexplicable mystery and no supernatural escape from the vagaries of matter in motion. We humans and the present natural world are the end result of natural selection, the process described by Darwin, which is all we need to understand the evolution from simplicity to complexity. Evolution and not an intelligent designer produced the world. What we make of it is a psychological, social and political question, not a religious one.

Who does that answer satisfy? I've been looking for metaphysical solutions to the conundrum of existence for most of my adult life. In my youth it was flying saucers and Theosophy, in middle age , General Semantics, quantum physics and est, and now I've settled on a mix of insights from Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism to quell my curiosity. The answers won't last. They never do.

The respective positions are oversimplified by their opponents: Faith vs. reason, superstition vs. the scientific method, myth vs. reality, deed vs. creed, evolution vs. creationism (AKA intelligent design), etc. [insert here your favorite binary oppositions] The funny thing is, I find myself swayed by whomever I am reading. The writings of Thomas Merton and many others persuaded me that there is a divine dimension to reality that science cannot detect. But while reading The God Delusion and God is Not Great during the past week I found myself laughing along with Dawkins and Hitchens and agreeing with their trenchant criticisms of religion.

I've never thought that one's religious practice or spiritual path is primarily a matter of belief, of assent to linguistic propositions. The churches, temples, synagogues and mosques are full of people striving to be good according to the dictates of their faith tradition. They participate in long-hallowed rituals and rites, hoping to heal and cleanse themselves of imperfections through chants, songs, recitations and prayers. The test of faith for me has always been its evidence in the world. Through a relationship with the divine, faith begets good works: God-intoxicated people feed the hungry, clothe the poor and take care of the sick.

The New Atheists, on the contrary, believe that "religion is poison" (Hitchens) and that the religious education of the young is child abuse. Believers in God down through history have been more likely to commit evil in the name of their Lord or Prophet. The Crusades, Inquisition, Jihad -- name your crime and religion was behind it. Even the moderately religious are complicit, according to Sam Harris, because they provide excuses and give cover to fundamentalists for extremism. The critics ask: Why is religious faith privileged in polite discussion? Such excessive tolerance is tantamount to condoning terrorism in the name of God or Allah.

Like Dawkins, et al, I am scared of religious fundamentalism, whether from the no-nothing Christian right-wing hordes that permitted George Bush to hijack America or from Muslim fanatics who blow themselves and others up to win entry into Paradise. Since the French Enlightenment, atheists have become increasingly vocal, according to Jonathan Miller's comprehensive and insightful BBC-TV documentary, "A Rough Guide to Disbelief." But despite the success of science and technology to explain and exploit the natural world, people today seem to be MORE religious rather than LESS. While the global corporate economy homogenizes the world, populations fragment into ethnicities with competing religious identities. How many can explain the different between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims?

Without fully understanding how natural selection works, I am satisfied that the earth was created billions of years ago, and not four or six thousand, as the fundamentalists believe. My belief has more in common with the deists who see God as a first principle rather than a meddlesome divinity who listens to and answers individual prayers, or who saves some from calamitous accidents but condemns others to random mutilation and death. I cling to the idea of purpose in the universe and search for evidence in manifestations of love and beauty rather than in things.

When it comes to living in the world, I suspect there is not much difference between me and the New Atheists. I do not think you need to believe in God to be good. And, as Dawkins and Hitchens argue, people who claim direction from God are often very bad. There is a social and political dimension to morality often missed by the religious (like the pro-lifers who ignore the plight of hungry kids or who advocate the death penalty). Religion is concerned with why the world is, and what we should do, and science with how the world is and what we can do.

All of this sidesteps a discussion about religious institutions, hierarchy and authority. Without Constantine, Christianity (if it existed at all) might look very different. If religion is a cultural universal, it appears almost invariably hand-in-glove with authority, and has been used to justify subservience and oppression. The Spanish conquerors of America carried a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other. Plantation owners in the south used Christianity to pacify their slaves. The horror story goes on. But not always. Liberation theology in Latin America inspired peasants to overthrow military regimes supported by the Catholic church. Followers of the social Gospel sought a this-worldly Kingdom of God rather than one with rewards and punishments in the next. The abolitionist and civil rights movements in America were led by faithful Christians.

An evolutionary psychologist told Madeleine Bunting, who reviewed Hitchens' book critically in the London Guardian last spring, that the "durability and near universality of religion is one of the most enduring conundrums of evolutionary thinking.” Some of the New Atheists make a stab at it. Dawkins thinks it might be the by-product of useful behavior, like obedience in children. "But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility," Dawkins writes, which could lead to religious faith. Another possible cause is that children innately assign purpose to everything, and this could lead in maturity to "viruses of the mind" that imagine a divine purpose dictated by a creator. Even love, misfiring, is a cause. "Could irrational religion be a by-product of the irrationality mechanisms that were originally built into the brain by selection for falling in love?"

At the beginning of next month, some of us will gather in Bangkok to view Dawkins' excellent two-part BBC documentary, "Root of All Evil?", and discuss the pros and cons of supernatural explanations and descriptions of reality. One member of our sangha has already said that he believes in the metaphysical beings described in some Buddhist texts, and that he thinks an exploration of the atheist position will be of no use to his Buddhist practice. Perhaps. Certainly the bare bones of the Buddha's teaching is existential and experiential; he tells us that his words must be tested in practice and not blindly believed. Indeed, he seemed to have little patience for the big questions about cosmology and ontology, and perhaps would have found debate about the existence or non-existence of God irrelevant for the path to enlightenment.

For me, the question of God has most often been a linguistic question: Is the word "God" meaningful? If it stands for a being, with all the characteristics of a person, then I cannot believe. Some I respect, including Martin Buber, think of God as a relationship rather than a thing, and point to the idea of the Trinity which symbolizes that divine community which includes the believer as well. Jose Miranda, the liberation theologian, wrote that "God comes to be in an act of justice," which makes "God" a verb rather than a noun. I feel as if my intellectual and spiritual world would be impoverished if I were denied the language of faith and belief, but this is not the same as affirming any dogmas of Christianity (why do we unify this as a Religion when clearly the competing sectarian definitions are so different?).

It is good to listen to the critique of the New Atheists, hysterical though their language seems at time, just as it is good to have an annual spring cleaning of the mind to determine what ideas and thoughts are important and which ones can be discarded as fossilized and arthritic holdovers from the past.

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