Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Answers to Everything, Coming Full Circle

When I was in 9th grade, I decided that I didn't believe in God.  This felt like my biggest step of rebellion at that point, living in an affluent Northern California suburb along a street with about a dozen churches in the half mile going south.  In retrospect, I wasn't really rejecting all definitions of God, just the Christian one as the only one I was really familiar with.  I was both finding that model both uncompelling and easy to rationalize as filling a human need as that handy answer to everything for the living conditions and community fundraising needs people experienced for a millennium and a half.

As I've aged, and noticed the fervor of which atheism has received vocal and popular support this century, I've kind of flipped about what position is actually the rebellious one.  I live in a time and place where scarcity is a non-issue, science explains a vast majority of what we face in our daily lives, and questions about the source of everything don't feel all that disconcerting or unreasonable to not know the answer to.  Frankly, atheism is much more likely to be the default position for today's upscale American in exactly the same way Christianity was for the less fortunate European of yesteryear.  It is a luxury to live in a world where man has control over enough things that we don't need the bigger answers.

In that context, I have to appreciate the efforts of any group who puts a huge amount of energy into developing a model for the universe that makes a serious effort to have internal logical consistency and also address the holes that others try to punch in it.  When it comes down to it, atheism isn't so much a belief as it is a rejection of other beliefs, and I no longer feel as proud about rejecting others if I'm not willing to bring my own project to the science fair.  I think my father was trying to tell me this once, but he couldn't articulate it in a way that registered for me.  But then again, his model of God was so not fleshed out that I've never found it much of an explanation either.

Today, at six years and one month, my little girl asked the big questions: "Where did the first people come from?" When given the theory of evolution, she followed up with "Where did the animals come from?" When given the theory of creationism, she said, "Then where did God come from?"

After some consideration, she decided that science sounded more likely than magic, and I assured her she was free to decide whatever she wanted and she could change her mind any time she wanted.  I think that kind of liberty is the greatest gift, and I hope she will always care enough to keep asking smart questions and looking for answers just because she can.


Scott Schroeder said...

You lost me there, I'm afraid.

The reason religions have church dogma is because they want/demand their followers to blindly follow. In fact, faith in what the church says is central to religions, they make no attempt to hide it. The difference for atheists is that there is no central control that atheists recognize, that they can have faith in.

And the answers that church leaders provide are sometimes "who can know God's plan?" They have a huge vested interest in maintaining control - they are very powerful, even in an era of increasing atheism.

The difference that troubles me between religion and atheism isn't regarding the answers to the big questions, though. Religions develop and strengthen community and culture. By default, atheism leaves a void regarding community and culture. I'm an atheist... but my family celebrates Christmas and Easter, in our own way. I fall back on Christian values rather than embracing a specific set of humanist values derived logically. Perhaps I'm simply an uninformed/unconnected atheist, perhaps there are people who care about such things more than I do.

I wonder whether it's the community/cultural gap that your father was indicating? Your daughter is immersed in multiple cultures, it's amazing that she absorbs so much, like a sponge!

achiappanza said...

Hey there, Scott!

I'm not sure why you're saying I lost you because I feel like your points are compatible with mine. Sure the church has a control incentive... that goes right alongside my point about why I can understand how it was easier to demand compliance centuries ago than it is now. The evolution of the church is not a surprise given living conditions and human nature.

Maybe you're saying that my appreciation of their effort to create a coherent world view is giving them too much credit for an intellectually pure exercise when in fact underlying and corrupting it all was self interest. If so, then I am referring less to the church's titular heads than I am to the huge investment by people into Biblical scholarship.

As to your reference to atheism having a void of community and culture... I think I refer to the Joseph Campbell point of view and an appreciation for all forms of ritual and rapture, which are a universal form of human nature and highly spiritual while not necessarily religious. Sounds to me like you wish there were humanistic rituals we could choose that were as integrated into society as the ones the Christians have spent centuries building.

achiappanza said...

Here's an article several levels deeper that I liked: