Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Impasse or hiking

In response to last week's post, Suz asked me, "Have you ever thought that maybe in holding onto doubt you are refusing to believe?"

From Across Izmir

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend who is a believing Christian. She asked me what I think of her belief, how I regard it in my agnostic perspective. I told her that, while I respect her greatly and see that her belief has shaped her in beautiful ways, I think that she's holding on to it out of a lack of intellectual integrity. It pained me to say it, to suggest that she was dishonest about the belief she holds dearest.

As we talked, it became clear that she felt the same way about my unbelief, that she respected me as a human being, but she had no explanation of my unbelief, in her worldview, other than that I am intellectually dishonest.

However, I couldn't find to a specific source of intellectual dishonesty in her, and she couldn't pinpoint the intellectual dishonesty in me. The standard Christian line that I've heard is that people who don't believe don't want to believe because they don't want God to be in authority over them. I suppose the Four Horseman of the New Atheism could be explained this way. Most of the atheists I know don't merely not believe in God, they absolutely don't want to.

I stopped believing that God exists two and a half years ago, my response to this was to struggle arduously to believe. I don't feel like I'm holding on to doubt, I feel like I've been holding on to belief. I suppose that, in the Christian mindset, my unbelief could be explained as me, deep down, not wanting to believe in God because I'm rebellious, but that I've cloaked that in feelings of wanting to believe. I thought that for a while, and wound up feeling futile guilt and confusion.

Fundamentally, informed, educated, insightful believers and nonbelievers have to regard each other as intellectually dishonest for their own worldviews to be coherent. At the core, believers understand nonbelievers as not believing in God out of rebelliousness. Contrariwise, nonbelievers understand believers as believing in God out of a fear of a lack of ultimate meaning. I don't know which human tendency is stronger: dread of living in a cosmos with no meaning, or dread of standing before God.

Either way, it feels about as mean to me for my friend to suggest that I'm doubting because I don't want to believe in God as it does for me to suggest that my friend is feeble and fearful and clings to belief in God out of despair. It seemed as if we were at an impasse.

Don't worry, Suz, you've said nothing to offend me; I hope you've taken no offense at anything I've said. It's the nature of disagreement that people with incompatible worldviews can't both have confidence in their own beliefs while having confidence in people who adhere to beliefs that contradict theirs. In general, I'm afraid that there is despair among believers that nonbelievers can offer anything meaningful, and vice-versa.

I don't think this despair is warranted. In fact, I think that people thinking that dialog with the other side is futile are being more condescending than people who engage in dialog and say mean things, because to refuse to talk is to give up on the other party being reasonable and flexible. Oodles of people who believed in God gave up that belief and oodles of nonbelievers have converted to belief in God. We live in the same world, we have access to the same sorts of experiences. I think it's best to talk about things we can describe in real terms, like fruit and hiking and astronomy, and building up from there, rather than working down from abstract ideas about God and meaning.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Doubt vomit angry refreshing

Doubt is the distance between what we expect of God and what we experience in reality. What could be sinful about this?

The act of doubt, that is, the admitting of this gap, this distance, is not sin at all. It is a sort of repentance.

If we're going to doubt, we might as well doubt a God worth doubting. I don't bother expending much energy doubting the existence of Chemosh the Fish-Headed God of the Moabites, or the Mormon God or a god who would have endorsed slavery in the American South, or a deist conception of a God who watches us at a distance. Whether these gods are more plausible than a properly Christian conception of God is irrelevant. None of these God enthrall me. They don't evoke worship from me.

This principle, doubt a God worth doubting, makes doubt so much easier. Would the God I want to believe in hold it against me that he doesn't seem real to me?

I might doubt for terrible, sinful reasons. I might doubt God because he doesn't give me what I want, or because he's not an anarcho-syndicalist and I think I might be, or because of widespread human suffering that might not actually be his fault. Forcing God into a false conception of him is wrong; and it's foolish if I don't even like that false conception. However, the doubt itself isn't the sin, it's a symptom of a sinful attitude towards God. Doubt is the start of how that attitude would get resolution.

When I have an idea of a God I really want to love, one with integrity and mirth and mercy and danger, but I just don't see signs of his work in the world, no matter how hard I look, that's good doubt for me.

I love fights. I love wrestling and jokes and crying and yelling and singing and repentance and screaming. I love a good poop, or when I'm sick, hocking a huge loogie. I haven't vomited in years, but when I get a stomach bug, I wish for a puke-o-rama, to get it all out.

If you're angry at God, you're angry at God. Be angry at God.

If you're angry at God, do it at God, emphasis on the at. The Israelites in the Pentateuch wouldn't get angry at God, their dissatisfaction smoldered in grumbling, and this is sin. The Pharisees in the New Testament behave in precisely the same way; notice how many times in the gospels they grumble among themselves—but they never ask an honest question of Jesus.

If you're going to doubt, I suggest going all the way, doubting as thoroughly as you can. Don't say "I'm struggling to believe in God." If God doesn't seem real to you, just say so! Get used to thinking two things at once. This sounds confusing, but it only takes twice as much thinking as you're used to. Scream "God isn't real!" if that's the way it seems to you. But, think, "If God is real, then he'd certainly know better than to believe me when I say he's not, and if he's not real, there's no God to be troubled at all by my doubts." It's very refreshing.

I'm amused by the particularly angry atheists, who study a lot of anti-apologetics to prove to Christians that God isn't real. I think I'm the only one that I know personally who was wooed by their thinking. They hate being atheists, but they hate the Christian notion of God, too. They become embittered, bile and gall accumulates in their souls. They're very logical people, but they don't see the lack of logic in expending energy in disproving a God they don't even like. It's futile to be disappointed at God you don't like for not existing, that's like Jonah cursing the vine.

(There is a different category of angry atheists that I don't think are goofy. They are angry at the Christians who are worth being angry at. I wish them the best of luck. I also want them to think that I'm cool.)

Doubt because that's what you really feel. Don't doubt to punish God, that's silly, that's like when a child punishes his parents by holding his breath. I know one person who would hold his breath until he would pass out. He is now a black-belt in jujitsu, but that's irrelevant. Wise parents know to let the unruly child hold his breath as long as he likes, but not to budge an inch: otherwise, they're teaching the child that asphyxiation is an effective way to get what he wants. I suppose God, being a good parent, would deal with inauthentic doubt by ignoring it.

You don't even have to know, though, which god you're doubting. You don't have to be consistent in your doubts—the biblical conception of God is gleefully inconsistent, "Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated." The things that everyone in your church says are the really good things about God can seem diabolical to you. You can take your pick of scriptures that you find dull or backwards; I could help you find good examples. Why would God push you away, if you were to meander near him, but with confusing reservations? I'm sure he confuses himself quite often, and won't blame you for your confusion. Christianity has never taught salvation by not being confused by God.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pascal's wager sends chain email

People who send chain email are complete idiots. No, Microsoft will not give you money for forwarding this email. Nope, there isn't a kid with cancer who needs strangers on the Internet to lift his spirits. If you don't forward this email, you are still a good friend to the people that you are a good friend to. That isn't the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe.

But, you know, it only costs you a couple of seconds of your time to forward whatever nonsense to everyone in your address book. You might as well, why not?

(Facebook applications are even worse, but that's another story.)

Some people advocate belief in God on the same terms. Who knows if there's a God or not, but if belief in God will let you into heaven, you might as well believe, why not?

Pascal's wager can be read on a handful of levels, depending on what Pascal thought was necessary for salvation. If what Pascal meant by belief was inauthentic intellectual assent, then, yes, Pascal's wager is entirely sensible. Perhaps Pascal thought that God would be impressed with a profession of faith, walking down the aisle at a big tent revival, maybe that would make the difference between heaven and hell.

Pascal thought that it is impossible to know if God is real or not. If Pascal thought that true saving faith cost anything weighty, then his reasoning is dangerous and foolish, given his thoughts about God's knowability. If reason is truly useless in determining God's existence, and if that's because God isn't real, I have one life to live. Why would I spend it chasing an imaginary friend?

I want to live by a reverse Pascal's wager. Pascal's reasoning assumed that it was impossible to know whether God is real or not; I think that a God that is unknowable is cold, standoffish, irrelevant. Instead, I'm interested in a basically Biblical conception of God, who seems to want to be known, but who is harder for the rich and powerful and prideful and greedy to accept.

Simplicity and love and humility are things that I aspire to; they matter to me, regardless of my mood. I don't think I'm so simple or loving or humble that it's worth noting, and I don't think I could ever be so simple or loving or humble that God would be impressed. I don't know why God is hard to know, but these virtues seem to have something to do with knowing God, and even if God isn't there, I'd like to have them, regardless.

Pascal showed cleverness in this one aspect of his wager: he realized that the outcomes of a matter of chance are just as important, if not more so, than the probabilities.

Pascal's wager is cheap if it's about a God I'm indifferent toward who requires me to just nod my head.

I'm not indifferent towards God, I want him to be real, I truly want to experience Jesus. I suppose it might cost me a lot to find and follow Jesus. However, the way in which I want Jesus makes me want to be like him.

I don't think that God exists, I don't think I have a good reason to believe. However, if I were to know for sure, one way or the other, whether God is real, I don't know that I'd change anything about my routine. I follow Jesus because I like Jesus, everything about Jesus, the honesty, the love, the jokes, the way he tells people that they're wrong. If I knew he were real, that might focus my devotion. If I knew he weren't, I see no reason why I'd abandon his teaching. I still like him.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Links to share

Suz, who just commented on Controlling for God has posted her testimony on her blog; I want to link to it here because it's part of the discussion for this week's post. I had asked her why she believes in God, and wrote that post in response. I'm always honored when strangers read my writing and have something to say. Thanks, Suz!

Also, Graham wrote 9 things christian writers seem to think about secularism, which I agree with so much it hurts my face.

I also want to acknowledge Matt Morrison, who wrote Cute Cartoon Genocide. In Jericho and babies, I suppose that I suggest that the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua is genocidal and barbaric. Some people don't feel that way. They will not be amused by Matt's post.

I also want to give a nod to Evan; he writes rarely, but with high quality. Readers of this blog should especially enjoy Apocalypse Whenever.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Controlling for God

One time, Ludwig Wittgenstein was walking around by the pond with Bertrand Russel. Bertie said, "People treat the ancients as if they're terribly silly for thinking that the sun went around the earth. I think this is unfair; that is how it looks, after all." Ludwig said, in reply, "Oh really? How would it look if it were the other way 'round?"

(This never happened, by the way, this is a philosophical folk story. I suppose Wittgenstein would like being remembered for something that never happened, though.)

Sometimes, after music time in church, I hear people say, 'I really felt God moving in that time of worship. The music was so good.' It's rarer that I hear people say, 'The musicians made a lot of terrible mistakes, but, in God's sovereignty, I felt his presence, regardless.'

At one point in my life, I kept a daily journal to track problems with insomnia. I recorded things like when I ate and exercised and went to bed and woke up. I also recorded my mood. I rated, on a scale from zero to ten, how happy, alert, mellow, and theistic I felt.

I was expecting to believe in God less on days in which I was in a bad mood. I was thinking I would feel grumpy, and this would make me doubt God's existence, in which case my doubt would be illegitimate; the other possibility was that I would doubt God's existence, and that would put me in a bad mood.

I was surprised and liberated when I looked over a few weeks of data, and realized that there wasn't a meaningful correlation between mood and theism. I have a flakey problem with anxiety that comes and goes, independent of my life circumstances, and I go back and forth on how I feel about belief in God; these two things are independent. It's good to know this. Since then, I stopped telling myself that I feel anxiety simply because I don't believe in God, and I no longer tell myself that my unbelief is a mere artifact of my condition. Putting a feather in my cap might cheer me up, but it won't make me believe, and I need not force myself to believe something that I find unreasonable just to control my mood.

The problem of knowing God is different from any other knowledge problem because you can't control for God. That is, we don't have access to two universes, one with God, and one without, that we could compare what it would be like to be in one instead of the other, and know for sure what sorts of things prove that God is there. Some people look at poverty and use that as proof that God isn't real, and some people look at the compassion shown to and among the poor, and use that as proof that God is. However, without another universe to compare with, we can't honestly connect the dots between the state of our universe and whether God is real.

One can control for God a little bit, though, if one believes that God can be experienced personally, rather than only seen in nature. I used to think that experiences in meditative prayer were valid reasons to believe that God is there, until I started doing simple breath meditation. What I felt in meditative prayer wasn't any different from what I felt in breath meditation, so it's reasonable to explain those experiences as resulting from the repetition, the quiet, and the focus on breath, these things are the shared between the two practices.

(What I found in meditative prayer was superficial, it was what I wanted to find. I don't think this disqualifies meditative prayer from being useful and special; I don't know of anyone who promises that meditative prayer is particularly useful unless it's practiced consistently for a long time. I'll keep trying, to see if there's something else.)

Maybe you could compare how you feel while singing with a group of friends with how you feel singing worship songs in church on Sunday morning. Compare how you feel reading a good book, The House at Pooh Corner or Thus Spoke Zarathustra, with the feeling you get while reading the Bible. Look for the times when you didn't pray and you should have, and things still turned out pretty well.

It would be a needless loss to live your life thinking that God is there, if he isn't, if your belief was only grounded in how you feel singing worshipful songs; you've at least missed many opportunities for fun in sing-a-longs on car trips, you might find those times just as significant. It would also be a needless loss if you believe in God, but for vague and subjective reasons, and that satisfied you, if God is real and has better things to show you.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Natty Boh

One time, I was drinking Natty Boh with one of my brothers (the one who is of drinking age). We got to talking about doubt and how religion has emotionally scarred us. He mentioned a bumper sticker that said "I believe in God, only I spell it nature." "I think there's something to that." my brother said.

I like that statement, but it's a little sneaky.

A lot of religious people are distrustful of people who don't think God exists. In No Country For Old Men, Anton Chiurgh is so scary because he only believes in what he sees. He's unhindered by concepts of society or order; he kills mercilessly, he has a singleminded focus on his goal. I suppose that a lot of distrust of the nonreligious comes from the expectation that their lack of belief would turn them into violent anarchists or abortionists. Atheists make up 15% of the population of America, but only 0.2% of the population of America's prisons. Atheists are unusually good at either hiding their foul misdeeds or behaving politely.

Most nonbelievers aren't at all like Anton Chiurgh, they aren't soulless machines. They have a deep sense of beauty and wonder at nature. They have a deep sense of love and compassion due to human nature. These two kinds of nature, an outdoors and an indoors, lead to a lot of wonderful human acts, and they're accessible to everyone. Whatever it is of God that believers see in nature, nonbelievers see, too; we might not call it God, but we're just as easily transfixed and delighted.

Calling nature God is a little sneaky because these things that believers see of God in nature aren't the same thing as God; good feelings from sharing or from having a pet rabbit or a lively hike aren't the same as a worshipful relationship with a personal God. While Frank Lloyd Wright might be happy with spelling God n-a-t-u-r-e, his theist friends don't typically mean nature when they ask, "Do you believe in God?"