Friday, May 16, 2008

Retro-Journal: Trivia and Eternal Significance in Late 2002

Today — May 16, 2008 — moviegoers are getting a small dose of Christian allegory along with more blatant forms of fantasy via the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Five and a half years ago, I was getting a big dose of Christianity in the small form of girlfriend Dawn Eden.

Dawn is more than eloquent enough to explain her own beliefs, so I won’t presume to do that here, but I will briefly explain my own decidedly non-religious views (which were spelled out at slightly greater length in all my “Month Without God” blog entries throughout February, easily located in my archives) — and I will also explain why my views weren’t as hopelessly at odds with Dawn’s as our critics might think.

I recognize that most people navigate their daily activities in much the same way regardless of their stated philosophical allegiances, so as a practical matter I don’t necessarily think someone’s understanding of the cosmos as a whole is the most important thing to know when dealing with the person. I would expect a trip to an amusement park with socialists, for example, to be pretty much the same as a trip to an amusement park with libertarians. Only on those occasions — extremely rare for most of us — when it comes time to render a decision on whether to nationalize the amusement park would the underlying philosophical differences necessarily become heated or significant.

The fewer such decisions we need to make, the better. Indeed, the idea that all social-democratic decision-making is necessarily decision-making by ignorant incompetents will be a central claim of my Book Selection for July in two months: the twentieth-anniversary volume of Jeffrey Friedman’s political philosophy journal Critical Review. Friedman’s advice in 2002 on bridging religious divides in dating, by the way, was to strive for agnosticism instead of atheism. Like the distinction between socialism and communism, this seems to be a terminological difference that many people become incensed about without there being any clear consensus on precisely what the difference is.

The record will show that I try very hard to avoid getting bogged down in hairsplitting semantic differences, tending to think that when such ambiguities arise, the more substantive underlying disagreements should just be resolved using other words (i.e., no more “Is he really a conservative?” or “I’m not sure you’re even a libertarian anymore” or “If you’re an ‘atheist,’ you’re saying you’re absolutely 100% certain about it” or “If he’s a Mormon, clearly he’s not a Christian” or “How can say you’re liberal if you refuse to even consider blah blah blah” — big waste of time in almost every case).

In any case, while I would not claim to be 100% certain about anything (in principle, I might somehow be deluded by my mental wiring even about basic math, though it seems unlikely — and careful observers will notice I use the word “seems” an awful lot, for a reason), I think I can safely be called an atheist. I would say that having no evidence at all from the outside, observable world strong enough to adjudicate between a beloved theory and countless hypothetical rivals is a good reason not to embrace the theory and thus that the groundless claim there’s a God is likely as false as any other groundless claim, such as that there are purple monkeys living on Mercury or that by eating lots of oatmeal I would gain the strength to lift the Empire State Building — with the burden always on the person who advances a claim that purportedly adds some phenomenon to the set of things in reality, not on someone who merely finds the new claim implausible (otherwise one is left claiming there is something like a 50% chance of those purple monkeys existing, and there isn’t).

And for all their rather mean-spirited insistence that we non-religious folk are myopic and self-absorbed (and nasty and hollow and what have you), it seems to me that religious people — aside from the gullible portion who believe sketchy reports of concrete miracles being observed throughout the world (bleeding statues and what have you), which would at least in principle constitute empirical evidence — tend to be the ones who think they can base plausible beliefs on little more than the deep internal wells of their own emotions and their own certitude. No scientist would be so arrogant and self-aggrandizing as to say “My theory must be true because it fills my heart with joy!”


Roughly, the average (or perhaps more thoughtful than average) religious person seems to think something like: “I think there’s a God, and when I peer into my ‘heart,’ I find conviction and warmth regarding this belief, so I believe all the more, and since I get happier the stronger my faith is and sad when I doubt, I will keep believing.” For someone whose goal is maintaining already-existing beliefs, I have no doubt that, on a functional level, that sort of “faith spiral” (if you will) is sufficient to keep the ball rolling. But it is no more a reason for an intelligent, skeptical person to think the initial belief was warranted than would be the internal monologue of someone who gets very excited thinking about the UFO menace and bored and listless whenever he starts thinking that there may be no UFO menace.

In the case of God-belief, unlike UFOlogy, of course, there are countless traditional reinforcers of the belief — and warnings of sorrow and hellfire for dwelling too much upon doubts (I think youthful identification of conscience with an imagined “outside observer” is also a mental habit the breaking of which becomes frightening for most people, like trying to hide from parents, which may indeed be the decisive thing). Too, the belief has been shored up throughout most of human history by threats of real burnings at the stake and so forth.

Then, too, at the risk of just adding fuel to the anti-Darwin fire, I can’t really blame anyone prior to a century and a half ago for thinking that (absent the idea of natural selection) it was hard to see how the universe could have gotten to be as it is except by design — which is why I have plenty of respect for the Deists, who were at least moving in the direction of keeping the non-empirical suppositions to a minimum, positing no more than a physical-rules-making entity. But now we know enough to make even that supposition unnecessary.

And so if one must probe a believer’s thinking — and I honestly don’t seek to do this as sport on a regular basis, but believers keep talking about the topic, and it would be unethical not to respond — one will usually find them implicitly or explicitly falling back on, essentially, a “Don’t make me sad” argument for continued belief. And no decent person wants to make anyone else sad. Well, perhaps Michael Malice, who was like the tiny devil-figure on my left shoulder while Dawn was the tiny angel-figure on my right in 2002, would disagree — and not surprisingly, he sometimes found himself at odds with Dawn. At least he and Dawn have one thing in common now: they’ve both hosted bar trivia contests, Dawn with Caren Lissner at the Baggot Inn on a regular basis back then and Malice starting just this week with Jen Dziura.

Just as it would be wrong to teach children that nothing that makes them sad (even in the short term) can be true, we are not helping to foster mental adulthood in our religious acquaintances by pretending that our desire to avoid saddening them is itself proof of the validity of their beliefs. I can happily stay off the topic if people don’t want to talk about it — and, wisely perhaps, most people don’t — but if they insist on doing so, they will not get my submissive pretense of assent. And even the most intellectually-sophisticated religious believers I’ve known (take for example Read Schuchardt, whose lecture on religious symbolism I’ll attend Thursday next week, 6:30, at the Albert Ellis Institute at 45 East 65th St.) have tended at some point to hint at believing out of fear of the imagined emotional alternatives: despair, loss of purpose, inability to make decisions, immoral impulses, etc.

Why not address such fears directly instead of clinging to something that wards them off at the price of abnegating one’s reason and skeptical faculties, like a child clutching a teddy bear? Not that one cruelly relishes being anti-teddy-bear, of course. (I like Pooh, who is not so unlike a Narnia character.)


Far from life seeming to lack a foundation without religion — or without government, to take another popular source of emotional reassurance — it seems to me that the very foundations of human consciousness must, in some limited and non-doctrinaire sense, be both skeptical and libertarian. You open your eyes upon birth to an observable world, and the two most basic functions of the human brain are, in essence, trying to figure out what the real situation before you is and what actions you’re going to take in response. If you decide to abandon careful observation in favor of clinging to pleasing but non-evidential beliefs and decide to surrender your ability to make decisions to someone with more physical power or more imagined “authority,” you have essentially abandoned the two most basic mental functions underlying all human life.

I would not really say this leaves you in a primitive mental state, either, since only someone living in a very cushy, non-threatening (that is, modern) world, it seems to me, can really get away with abandoning such basic mental faculties and expect to survive. The ancients believed in gods and followed the tribal elders, yes, but they genuinely had not yet come up with any better ideas and saw nearly every deviation from established practice leading to death by ice or mastodon or what have you. We ought to know better. We have the time and comfort to contemplate and choose wisely — but also, alas, the time and comfort necessary to spin ludicrous theories and rationales for the most patently absurd and destructive worldviews.

I have decided that I need to stop showing as much deference to the religious as I have in the past. I should not, for instance, shy away from (politely) telling priests to go into another line of work if the topic arises. They are, after all, only fellow humans who’ve made some terrible philosophical errors (and put on white collars) rather than messengers from the beyond with deep insights that should be listened to in hushed silence. In 2002, though, I was willing to attend church for a time with Dawn (then a non-denominational Protestant who’d grown up Jewish) on the off-chance I’d somehow overlooked something that might make the whole religious enterprise seem more plausible. Dawn didn’t just want someone willing to listen with an open-mind (and politely, I assure you), though — to make a long story short, she needed a fellow believer in the end, broke up with me, remained a friend, vowed to avoid premarital sex, wrote a book about it, converted to Catholicism, and moved to DC to better nudge the national conversation.

Oil and water, some might conclude, an impossible union from the get-go. And yet: in a world where (by some baffling happenstance) almost no one except me and a handful of others — or perhaps just me — has happened upon the correct worldview and philosophy, I must often (to put it in Clintonian terms) triangulate my way toward allegiances with other human beings by looking at the ways in which they’ve hybridized various pre-existing beliefs or attitudes to come to something approximating the truth.

Just as I can admire a right-wing rock performer who has cobbled together a philosophy that’s a sort of conservatism for punks (to use the phrase that is the working title of my long-delayed book in progress) or a Marxist who has turned anti-statist, anti-relativist, and anti-green, so too do I see a slow tack toward reality by a kindred spirit in someone like Dawn, who was a rock writer and neo-“mod” (meeting countless retired 60s musicians and writing more album liner notes than any other woman alive) who turned old-fashioned moralist. Then, too, there’s just the postmodern appeal of such a combo — not so unlike the amusement I get contemplating the final resting place of my Jewish uncle-by-marriage Don, who passed away that half-year and arranged for his ashes to be deposited in a sunken German U-boat. I tried in vain to convince Dawn to call her book From Mod to God just to emphasize the postmodern aspect of it all, but she of course went with The Thrill of the Chaste.

But somewhere above the level of trivia and below the cosmic level of metaphysics are the truly important practical questions like: Do you lie? Do you treat people with the respect they deserve? Do you want vows and promises and art as well to be rich and meaningful instead of shallow and perfunctory? Do you care more about honor than “winning”? In a world full of cynics who seem to pride themselves on not taking such questions seriously, sometimes a diehard skeptic atheist empiricist utilitarian can find himself having more in common with the religious conservatives, culturally, than with the typical New York City unbeliever.

That doesn’t mean there’s a God — there almost certainly isn’t — but it does mean most of the skeptics and liberals would do well to consider the conservative argument that they’ve lost some important things along the way in building an often cut-throat, shallow, hedonist modern world. There are worse things out there than your polite, elderly, Bible-reading neighbor. I just don’t think we need to share his delusions in order to work at getting rid of those worse things.

Then, too, it was nice to be dating someone who, for example, enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movies and a retrospective of all of David Bowie’s videos at the Museum of Television and Radio as much as I did — and at that pre-Catholic time at least, she shared my desire to go through life without children, which must of necessity count for a lot, too. If all goes according to plan, in fact, my Book Selections for December through March will all be items culled from Dawn’s discard pile (it’s not just my movie-going that I plan in advance): Chesterton, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, and a combination of Peanuts and Terry Gilliam for March, when of course the Watchmen movie comes out — but more about all that later.


On a less personal, more political note: we may for now need a fusionist alliance of laissez-faire capitalists and conservative moralists to pull the U.S. out of its current morass, and so, for the second-to-last week of the Month of the Nerd, I will turn my attention (starting in two days) to blogging in anticipation of the potentially historic May 22-26 Libertarian Party nominating convention, which just may anoint conservative/libertarian Bob Barr as the presidential candidate destined to pull enough disgruntled-Republican votes from McCain to put Obama in the White House, finally destroying the Republican Party in order to save it.

And I don’t relish doing that either — but much has changed since late 2002, when I saw Christopher Hitchens (one of five times I’ve seen him speak, now that I think about it) and Andrew Sullivan appear together on a panel, talking about their support for Bush and the possible necessity of going to war with Iraq. Talking of his ties to leftist pro-democracy activists suffering under Saddam, Hitchens said, “I’m more a comrade now than I have ever been” — and he and Sullivan, no doubt, spend a lot of time thinking about the promise and peril of strange alliances and triangulation.

Would that all human conflict, philosophical and military, could be solved with the grace and ease of a Kaiju Big Battel wrestling match, something else I saw for the first time that half-year, while worrying that more brutal real-world battles lay just ahead.

1 comment:

Nice said...

That’s kind of sweet. Good luck to both you and Dawn in your separate paths, and in the places where they cross!