Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why I Am Not An Atheist

There's a wonderful poem by Frank O'Hara called "Why I Am Not a Painter," which, by giving an example of what poetry is not, gives as good a demonstration of what it is as I have ever heard. [This is the painting he refers to. >>]

So thinking about atheists recently, following their support for Darwin Day, I wondered why I'm not one of them. After all, their position is really about questioning, and I've always believed we learn more by questioning than we do by accepting things on faith. I'm also a believer in science and its method of arriving at the truth by observation. So why shouldn't I expect some sort of physical proof of God's existence? Bertrand Russell, for example, when asked what he would say if he were to die and find himself confronting God, replied, "I would say, 'You didn't give us enough evidence.'"

There's nothing wrong with faith itself, but there was nothing wrong with believing the Earth was flat, either -- except that, since it wasn't, we probably wouldn't ever have learned to orbit around it, or depart from it for the moon. Now that we know how spherical it is, we can have faith in that while remaining open to whatever other possibilities there might be, such as a warp in the four-dimensional space-time continuum.

My first encounter with the concept of atheism came when I was about fifteen. Over summer vacation I had read The Story of Philosophy, by Will and Ariel Durant, and then discovered a book on my father's shelves called A Game of Chess (author unknown). This turned out not to be about chess at all. Instead it was a philosophical dialog conducted between two men over a chess board. One of them (the hero) was an atheist, and the other (I guess you would call him the goat) seemed to have been placed there by the author to feed the atheist exactly the arguments that he could refute with wit and alacrity.

As you can tell, the book was pretty bad, even in sophomoric terms. I don't remember, but no doubt the story ended with the atheist declaring "checkmate!" Nevertheless I read the whole thing, even though the further I went the more I felt certain that I disagreed. No, it was stronger than that. Something inside me disagreed, giving me almost a physical sense of claustrophobia and discomfort.

You might ask at this point what my father was doing with this book on his shelf. Well, that would be a long story, but the short version is that after having been raised as a Catholic he found himself suddenly transported into the later stages of the Second World War, where all the Catholics, Protestants, etc., remaining in Europe were doing their best to murder one another. After being shot himself, he was transported back to what later veterans would call "The World" and plunked into Columbia University where he was exposed to other philosophies of all kinds. Let's just say his faith was tested, and it flunked. By the time he had married my mother he no longer felt comfortable as a Catholic and had stopped attending church. He felt strongly enough about it that he eventually persuaded my mom to follow suit, with the result that I have only the foggiest early memories of ever attending mass.

Later they went church shopping, largely so that my sister and I could have something to call a religious background of our own. They settled on the Unitarians. This was partly because the organist liked to play Bach, and they were both fans of Albert Schweitzer, but also because of the inclusiveness and open-mindedness of the Unitarians, who, like the Quakers, find room even for those of no faith at all. This varies a lot from one congregation to another, but the one in Miami was so progressive that in the 1970's the minister created a furor by coming out in favor of legalizing marijuana, though as he put it, "I still have my doubts about LSD."

I've written elsewhere about my first exposure to the Unitarian church school, which involved lots of natural history (the teacher was also a middle-school science teacher), classical mythology, and comparative religion. When I went back in my teens it was a place to learn about Bob Dylan, sing folk songs, and debate Civil Rights issues with local political candidates. But the point is that this was the foundation for my own spiritual search, which began with Alan Watts teaching zen on TV and then the Durant's introduction to philosophy, and continued on through the years up till today. The Unitarians didn't ever tell me what to think; they gave me information and encouraged me to think for myself. Eventually I ended up as a Quaker for the same reason.

Meanwhile my dad, ever restless, had abandoned the Unitarians as "a bunch of neurotic intellectuals." Somewhere in the void beyond he experimented with atheism before drawing back, unable to take the leap, and declaring himself firmly agnostic. (That position, being firmly on the fence, has always seemed to me an indication that you would like to believe in something but have not yet found a compelling argument.) Late in his life he dabbled with astrology and formed a conviction that the planets were against him -- especially the distant, slow-moving ones. Yet there are traces in the poetry he left behind that he experienced a sense of grandeur when contemplating the universe that held the same place for him that God, prayer, and religious grace hold for the believer.

Which brings us back to poetry, where we began. No doubt this could be a lot shorter if I wrote it as a poem, but it's got me thinking that the real answer to Why I Am Not An Atheist has as much to do with poetry as it does with philosophy and religion. It's emotional and experiential, not logical and rational. Since becoming a Quaker I've become comfortable with the idea that "there is that of God in everyone." To me this means much more than having something like life or a soul given to me as a gift; it is an immediate awareness of a direct connection to, and unity with, a universal spirit. In Hinduism they use the term atman, which means God as manifested in the human -- God as existing in the human -- and that means every human, not just the rare incarnations of the divine such as Jesus or Krishna.

So that part of me that became so uncomfortable when I read the atheist book was the deepest part of myself, my most true nature, and the part that is one with that universal spirit. It's hard to see because it is so obvious -- we are aware, and we are aware that we are aware. Through us the universe itself is alive and aware. We are parts of a living, conscious thing, and we know it because we are living and conscious. And quite simply, no matter how much atheists may speak of human values, it seems to me that the universe they inhabit is dead, a lonely meaningless place in which life arose as a fluke and must do the best it can against the void that surrounds it. However much we may have in common in this view, we are all separate, rather than being equal manifestations of the same cosmic urge to intelligence.

Neitzche's famous declaration that "God is dead" may have had some sociological importance back in the 19th century, but it makes as much sense to me as declaring "I am dead." And that's why that book about atheism made me so uncomfortable. It was endless arguments for why that thing within me did not exist -- and all the while that thing within me was protesting, like someone being buried alive in a coffin, "No -- no -- I'm alive -- I'm in here!"

Cosmologists, wondering why the physical constants of the universe appear to be perfectly arranged to make life possible, are forced to consider the possibility that they are the way they are simply because we exist -- we can only observe a universe in which life is possible, even if there might be other universes in which life, or even stars and galaxies, are not possible. Quite likely we will never know if this set of fortuitous conditions is just one of an infinite series of random possibilities, or if a powerful Demiurge compels it to be only this way.

But it doesn't really matter if there are other lifeless universes or not. Just as there are lifeless planets sharing the space around our own sun, we could be surrounded by other lifeless universes and yet we would still be alive. It comes down to the pure, age-old question: Why is there Everything instead of Nothing?

Those who would seek a rational explanation for this are probably doomed to disappointment. Like the forlorn characters in the fiction of Flannery O'Connor, who are driven to deny their own deepest beliefs, they may eventually come around or be brought up short by some impasse that convinces them.

The vastness that contains us has burst into being somehow of its own volition, and whatever force compels it to exist has brought us into being to bear witness to the miracle. Let us then watch, and listen, and be.

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