Saturday, September 18, 2010

Militant Atheism isn't why I oppose the Pope...

It's more a sense of agnosticism that's anchored very deeply within a set of beliefs based upon a Christian philosophical framework.

I don't often talk in too much detail about faith, apart from to lambast it, but perhaps rather than join a chorus of voices repeating a mantra of finding fault with the way of life that others adhere to, it's better to assert a positive standpoint and state clearly what I personally believe in and why that sets me in opposition to some faith groups.

It's a common point of faith among most faiths that inflated pride is a sin, and although I know I'm often someone who falls into that bragging pit of temptation and ego, I think there's a line between having an inflated sense of your own importance, which is bad enough and assuming that we are in any way capable of knowing or understanding the infinite, universal mind of that thing that religions describe as God.

As a person with a great interest in science, it's hard not to be drawn into a sense of profound awe and wonder at the profound majesty and complexity of the machine of the universe. The way that energy and matter interact to create a reality that confounds our capacity to comprehend it is something as humbling as it is compelling. To try to understand the way that this grand engine works is not to detract in any matter whatsoever from the sense of deep respect for the fact that it exists, let alone that we can only just scratch the questions of what where when and how, but are yet far from understanding any notion of why it exists, and we within it, at all.

To be drawn to understand the microscopic or the macroscopic sciences, to witness the rules that bind everything from gravity to immunology to how a bicycle's brakes work, to me, does not diminish in any manner, a sense that there's a sense of connectedness and poetry to the universe that dwarfs human endeavour and it doesn't take much to understand that the teaching tool that says if the Earth's a marble and the moon's a peppercorn, then the Sun's as wide as I am tall to start to function as a parable for how my own struggles and achievements are nothing compared to the scale of the cosmos.

Science does not seek to destroy the sense of wonder that Faith encourages, but to inspire it in new ways.

That's not to say that Science and Faith occupy the same intellectual role. I think that's a logical error that Stephen Hawking was making when he said there was no room for God in his cosmology. Perhaps that's true for him personally, but I think it needs to be unpacked before it can be taken alone as a statement. I think it's very fair to say that few people of religious conviction remain unswayed by the evidence that empirical science puts forward in order to demonstrate how the universe exists, and to describe what happened in her earliest moments. It falls apart when you add in some omnipotent extradimensional entity, because you can say, "Yeah, ok, so that's how He did it, but He made it that way." and we're none the wiser.

And it's that none the wiser that I want to think about for a little while.

It's a fundamental tenet of Christianity that you must not worship false idols. Partly, to me, it seems that that's rooted in a desire to stop you from joining other ethnic or faith groups at a time when the faith would have been a very real tribal set of values, but I have a slightly different take on it.

We should not attempt to represent God in any manner, because it's inexcusably arrogant for us to in any way whatsoever assume that we, as insignificant pinpricks in the infinite tapestry of the universe, to have any idea what the image on that tapestry might be, or what the hand or hands that wove it might look like - if they exist in any way we can understand, or if this is even a meaningful metaphor or if there are hands there. We cannot know. We simply don't have the right perspective to ever know, nor should we pretend to know.

Pride is first among the deadly sins for a reason; it implies that you have lost a sense of your own insignificance in the face of the infinite almighty and omnipotent divine. This is something I believe in, and that is why I believe that the idea of religions that place intermediaries between individuals and that nebulous sense of wonder that we sense might be some resonant connection between us and something much greater is a woefully arrogant sin of pride, even by their own rules.

I was brought up in a family where my parents wouldn't have me Christened, reasoning the future of my soul was my own business. They taught me about Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and any other Faith they could find out about; but they also let me read stories and I think my standpoint on faith comes very much from this upbringing, as much as the upbringing of a Catholic leads them down their own path.

I do not believe that religion is inherently dangerous, not by any measure. I am an artist, I tell stories, make pictures and write poetry. I would be a hypocrite to say I did not believe that symbols have a power beyond their physical forms to inspire, transform or provide meaning in troubled times. I believe that the Bible contains some incredibly powerful stories with profound and lasting value as lessons for how we can and should live, but those lessons are the same lessons we learn of human kindness and frailty that we are shown in Greek legend, Fairy Tales, Shakespeare or Eastenders.

To me, it doesn't matter where you learn your morals from, so long as your morals are sound, so to proclaim that one Faith is right while another is wrong is to say that Shakespeare teaches us about human existence in a way that Dot Cotton does not, or that Alan Moore does not. It's a meaningless distinction, and dangerous if it leads us into conflict, when we could instead celebrate that Shakespeare still teaches us that vaulted ambition leads us into dangerous turmoil, that Eastenders teaches us that the truth will always come out and Alan Moore tells us that the world around us is interwoven with symbolic power we should be mindful of.

Humility, honesty and mindfulness are all wonderful virtues, and I think we're losing all of those if we find ourselves saying that there's only one true path to gaining those, or that there are some arbitrary exclusions from virtue. If we say that anyone is inferior by virtue of being female or male, gay or otherwise, disabled or not, then we're playing into a notion that there's a hierarchy of humanity that's based on what you are, rather than what you do, and if that prejudiced is couched in a rationale of holiness or ritual cleanliness, then we're back into the awful muddle I described before about the arrogance of assuming that it's possible to understand the mind of God.

It's not. There is no intermediary between anyone and the infinite divine, because it is around and within everything, because it is everything. Its universal nature makes it, perhaps oddly, impossible to detect and certainly impossible for us to define. If God exists, God exists everywhere and everywhen and beyond that, and the universal nature of God therefore means there's no meaningful difference whether God exists or does not.

To say that God is irrelevant is not to say that the teachings of Faith or the power of art are meaningless. If God is like Shrodinger's Cat within a universal box we can't ever open, there and not there at once, then what matters instead is what we can know and what we can deal with, and that means we must accept responsibility for our own actions. With a God who may or may not exist, we cannot abdicate responsibility for good fortune or ill to some mystical force, but instead we must accept that what happens happens and that what we do has consequences that we may or may not witness directly.

I don't believe it's possible to live a life free from causing harm or from being harmed, but I think that if we remove a pressure to make an external and anthropomorphic entity responsible for a moral framework for what happens, then we can at least try to take personal pride in our own actions and feel remorse for when we inflict harm on others.

All I can hope to do is to attempt to tread lightly on this beautiful, majestic and complex universe, whether or not we see a divine hand in its poetry, and that's enough for me. If that means refuting anyone's right to stand between me and that Romantic sense of wonder, then I will defend my beliefs.

I am not a militant atheist, nor a militant secularist. I simply believe it's not for us to pretend it's for us to know anything about God at all. Just be the best person you can be, using whichever story you need to remind yourself of how best to do that.

That's my standpoint, what's yours?


Anonymous said...

why hasn't anyone commented on this?'re incredibly eloquent.

Vincent said...

I agree......and the last two paragraphs beautifully present my own outlook on this huge issue..... and much else in life.