The first few times I heard about God, I was already suspicious. My earliest clear memory of it was when I was five, leaning against the screen door of our small town home with my older sister, watching a midsummer thunderstorm unfold.
We were in awe, like I have been at every thunderstorm since. I don’t remember if I asked, but my sister said it was God who made the lightning and thunder. Not that she was ever religious, that’s just what her eight-year old mind told me that day. I took note.
At that point, nearly all of my ideas about God had come from Family Circus comics. The kids each prayed every night before bed, depicted casually as if it’s something every normal person does. In one comic, Dolly prays for her father to make it home safely from his trip to New York. The opposite panel shows a rainy street scene in which a six-foot translucent hand stops her Dad from stepping in front of a speeding taxi.
Later on, in my teenage years, I would recognize the Family Circus to be a conservative, unapologetically fundamentalist cartoon, but at the time I wasn’t aware of the play of politics in the things I read and watched. I just knew that the God they depicted didn’t make a whole lot of sense. This was the idea of God I had, and I rejected it, because it made sense to do so.
Sometime in junior high, when I was becoming more politically aware, I remember being shocked one day when I realized that ordinary adults — too old for the likes of the Family Circus — actually still believed in this God thing. Not just the crazies on televangelist shows either, but real, respectable adults who could be found in church on any given Sunday, singing hymns while looking upward with their eyes closed, really believing that they were in contact with this big translucent man, presumably when he’s not busy casting lightning bolts over my hometown, or saving Bil Keane from the natural consequences of wandering into traffic without looking both ways.
Before then I thought God was meant to be something like Santa Claus. As you grow into an adult, reason and knowledge would eventually descend on your world, like it or not, and you’d have to leave certain ideas behind, along with whatever comfort they brought you.
Whenever I questioned adults about the sense in believing in this God, I got a lot of wayward explanations but the gist of them was that this was an area where reason didn’t really apply. God was so powerful that he was off limits to the kind of deductive reasoning or doubt you’d eventually develop about the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.
By eight, Santa Claus was dead to me, and so was God.
The The God Delusion Delusion
As a teenager I learned about religion’s violent track record throughout history, the inquisitions and crusades, sexual abuse and repression of science, and developed a vicious disdain for it altogether.
Had I known about him, Richard Dawkins might have been my hero. Dawkins is a brilliant Oxford-taught scientist, known for his work on genetic evolution, but perhaps moreso as one of the world’s most prominent advocates for atheism.
Last week I borrowed the audio version of his anti-religious book, The God Delusion. In it he attacks any and all arguments for the existence of God and the practice of religion.
Pausing briefly at the outset to exclude Taoism and Buddhism from his criticism, on the grounds that they are philosophies rather than religions, he goes on to dismiss any style of theism, of belief in any interpretation of any God for any reason, as irrational and delusional. Agnosticism, too, he brushes aside, as less logical than de facto atheism.
On that level — logic — he’s right on. His arguments are thoroughly rational, laid out in hard words, inviting inspection by the reader, impervious to all the traditional arguments.
And that’s the problem. He seems to take for granted that rational thinking is the only way to come to dependable understanding of the universe. For this too, he gives his reasons, and I can’t really argue with them.
He made the same mistake I did as a teen. He associated a certain idea with God, the contemporary one: a contrived, wishful idea of an unstoppable Big Brother who will ultimately keep us from harm — and blasted every mention of the G-word to pieces, under the rigid belief that there can’t be anything real or meaningful behind it.
Listening to the audiobook (read by an openly scornful Dawkins, with his wife for backup) I got a strong sense of baby-with-the-bathwater carelessness. He found a mental position he liked, fortified it with logic, plugged all the holes, and started shooting. I returned it after a few CDs.
A letter to my fellow skeptics
What if, Dr Dawkins (or any fellow skeptic), you had an experience of a particular kind that you can’t really explain?
You catch a fleeting glimpse of, well, you can’t really say. Words fail you, but you try anyway: “I’ve witnessed, uh, something… some distinct experience in which I’ve seen the perfection and limitless beauty of the world. I believe, no… I know that I was seeing with utter clarity, and that it was not the way I normally see the world. I saw clearly that I was one with the universe, that unconditional love is its basis, and that I am an eternal being and not a hapless, mortal creature.” Already you sound nuts, even to yourself.
You search for the terms to explain the quality of it, and cringe when the only word you can summon is “divine.” Every stab you take at conveying your experience only amounts to a disappointing, evasive-sounding cliché:
- There is something more to us
- Everything is in its right place, we just can’t see that
- There is a higher intelligence behind all this
Whatever it is, you have a very strong sense that its cultivation is immeasurably valuable, not just as a means of achieving peace and ease in your life, but for others to do the same. It is, clearly, exactly what humanity needs in order to overcome — no, transcend — its current palette of troubles. For this reason you feel it is important for others to have this experience too.
But nothing you can say about it, no anecdote or soliloquy can help you describe it without sounding (to yourself and undoubtedly to others) as a quack, a nutcase — or worse — religious.
Nor can you find any evidence for what you’ve experienced, and you know that there is none, because it is something that happened to you, and not to the material world in front of you. There is no objective, physical evidence for you and a fellow person to examine and share your conclusions about it. No peer reviews, no replication, no leg to stand on in a debate.
What would you do with these feelings?
Would you toss them out, on the grounds that they are unprovable, incommunicable, unscientific? Would you attempt to quantify them somehow, do a study on it? With nothing to measure, nothing objective to observe, you know this is impossible.
When you discover the sheer impossibility of conveying your discovery in conventional, rational terms, you find yourself talking in spiritual-sounding “pointers” — vague, cryptic clues that make you sound like a pretentious Zenster wanna-be.
It’s not something you can let go of though. And that’s because, even though you’d never say it out loud, you know beyond all argument that it is the Alpha and the Omega, it is the peace that passeth all understanding, the sound of one hand clapping, the noise of the tree that falls in the forest with no one around, and all that.
It’s unmentionable, unmanifested, the opposite of “things” and “stuff”, beyond thought — all sorts of other descriptors that are perfectly meaningless and hokey to the staunchly scientific, rational thinker.
Skeptics will always reject your “pointers” as mumbo jumbo, because they don’t provide the skeptic’s only demand: evidence. Your personal experience is wholly subjective, so no matter how profound it is to you, it leaves nothing with which to convince others.
And convincing people isn’t possible anyway, because your discovery isn’t a belief. It is knowledge, but it isn’t a fact. It isn’t a story, or a version of something or other. You could call it a “truth”, maybe adorn it with a capital T, but then you sound like a flake again.
Perhaps you’re stuck with this private understanding — which you don’t really understand, at least not in the same way you might understand, say, the rules of Major League Baseball — and you can’t just pass it along to somebody else like any other knowledge. You can either talk about it in vague, roundabout terms, confusing people all along the way, or just keep it to yourself.
Yet, other people throughout history and today’s society seem to have discovered the same thing, and not all of them strike you as nutjobs. In fact, most of them appear to be unusually sane.
About five hundred years ago, skepticism became the dominant attitude among the scholars of Europe. They had discovered, quite rightly, that human knowledge is more dependable when you require it to be supported by evidence. Simple enough. What was called “Natural Philosophy” came to be called science, and human understanding of the universe quickly mushroomed.
The advances were so great and so beneficial, that the attitude evolved from a helpful rule of thumb, to what can only be called a dogma. To most scientifically-minded people, including the world’s most brilliant minds, knowledge can’t be knowledge without evidence.
That means claims of anything that happens only to an individual, with no external indicators to confirm it to others, gets rejected categorically, often with ridicule.
Not everyone was on board with this. Michel de Montaigne, a French essayist, showed that skepticism could undermine itself. Just as it can be used to refute claims without evidence, it can cast doubt on human reasoning and evidence as well. Evidence, too, must be taken on faith, and therefore the skeptic is better off embracing faith as his guide.
He advocated faith as the basis for one’s entire life, avoiding rigorous attempts to accumulate worldly knowledge, because by regarding empirical knowledge as categorically more certain than faith, it becomes dogma.
“God is Dead.”
I’m not saying I’ve come to believe in God. I mean, I could say that, but it would be misleading. The common conception of God is still some version of the Family Circus one: an omnipotent, impossibly convenient (and sometimes horrifying) creature, intervening in the material world in the most arbitrary and incomprehensible ways, helping the New Orleans Saints win the Super Bowl after nearly obliterating their hometown. And he loves you.
It makes no more sense to me than it ever did. That materialistic idea of God suffers from the exact same affliction as Dawkins’ over-reaching rejection of the whole thing: it defines God in objective terms, makes a mental picture of it — I won’t say “Him” — which is bound by words, defended with argument (as if winning such an argument could matter!), clenched desperately with emotions and ego, fought over like it’s anything but a personal revelation.
God is misunderstood, I think most of us can agree on that.
But as I get older, as I explore more philosophies and traditions, I’m seeing rather clearly what God was meant to be, before being mangled by religion, before being argued into meaninglessness and conceptualized to death.
I’ll talk more about what the word God means to me in a future post. I think it may make sense to you.
I am still an advocate of skepticism as a mindset, but I don’t think of it the same way anymore. I know now that you can know something without evidence, without the approval of others. And I know that all of us, Dawkins included, are incurable believers.