Friday, January 28, 2011

Links to share regarding secular hope

Matthew and I have been discussing ideas about secular hope over the past few weeks, and I want to point to his side of the discussion here. I suppose these discussions started with some talk on Twitter, which is a terrible venue for discussing serious matters at length. Written up in essay form, in chronological order, are:

If you have thoughts to share, either comment, or blog something and send one of us a link.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On "A World Without Jobs", and, implicitly, Obama's speech at Tucson

Andy Crouch wrote A World Without Jobs in response to Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, announcing that he is taking medical leave. Crouch, he contrasts the hope offered by Steve Jobs' "secular gospel" with Barack Obama's expression of hope in his recent speech at Tucson after the shooting there. Jobs' gospel, according to Crouch, is technological progress and courage in the face of death found in a meaningful life here and now. (Jobs' thoughts on the matter are expressed well in his commencement address at Stanford; I recommend watching this.) Jobs, on death:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.

Crouch says, in response:

Upon close inspection, this gospel offers no hope that you cannot generate yourself, and only the comfort of having been true to yourself. In the face of tragedy and evil it is strangely inert. Such a speech would have been hard to take at the funeral of Christina Taylor Greene, nine years old, killed along with five others on a bright Saturday morning in Tucson, Arizona. It is no wonder that Barack Obama, who had to address these deeper forms of grief this past week, turned to a vision which only makes sense if there is more to the world than we can see. Anything less is cold comfort indeed.

Which is the better source of hope: this world, small, and often backwards as it is, but certain, or transcendent meaning and eternal life, known by invisible evidence? What can comfort? In Obama's speech at Tucson, he presents both of these ideas of hope, and this is most apparent in his remembrance of Christina Taylor Green, the nine-year-old who was killed in the shooting. First, the secular hope:

I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here—they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

That's what I believe, in part because that's what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation's future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us—we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.

Contrast this with his more symbolic and religious appeal to hope:

Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called "Faces of Hope." On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child's life. "I hope you help those in need," read one. "I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles."

If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.

May God bless and keep those we've lost in restful and eternal peace. May He love and watch over the survivors. And may He bless the United States of America.

(Emphasis mine.)

Crouch closes his article:

Steve Jobs’s gospel is, in the end, a set of beautifully polished empty promises. But I look on my secular neighbors, millions of them, like sheep without a shepherd, who no longer believe in anything they cannot see, and I cannot help feeling compassion for them, and something like fear. When, not if, Steve Jobs departs the stage, will there be anyone left who can convince them to hope?

The question of what is the better hope to offer someone who is suffering, "Certain goodness in the material world, though modest and mixed, or possible perfection from above?", this question is an empirical one, if subjective. I offer for consideration my story as a case. As I was deconverting, finding the claims of Christianity to be dubious, I was upset at the loss of the hope from heaven, hope for a better life in eternity, and hope for justice in this world; the loss of these beliefs was the most painful element of my doubt. I don't miss these at all now, though, and I shudder when people like Andy Crouch say that I should feel like my worldview offers only "cold comfort"; I don't need his compassion and I don't need him to fear for me on account of my naturalist worldview, and I find these offers condescending.

Since I accepted my nonbelief, about a year and a half ago, I've been consistently happy in a way that I haven't been since I was a kid. I have a rabbit and I enjoy chili and reading books and doing my job and going to the beach with friends. Jobs' commencement speech reminds me of the motto, memento mori, remember to die. I understand that my life is finite and I occupy myself with making the most of it now: enjoying it for myself, loving the people close to me, and trying to do work that is useful for strangers. This attitude clearly doesn't work for everybody, but looking for hope from somewhere outside of the universe hasn't worked for me.

I'm thinking now of conversations with religious friends, concerned that I, an atheist, am deprived of hope. I hope that they can accept that I have a happy, meaningful life, and that it is possible to have hope without God. I hope that my friends who doubt are not pained by the threat of a loss of hope, that they can peacefully consider their beliefs. I hope that when humans suffer, we would be filled with courage, regardless of our source of solace.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Regarding atheists going to church

Yesterday I was at a party and somehow I got to talking with strangers about my non-belief in God; this happens a lot. I mentioned that I go to church sometimes, and the strangers were pretty sure that they hadn't heard me properly; this happens a lot, too.

We had two visitors at church yesterday from the Mennonite Central Committee. One of the visitors is a librarian and she is starting a library in Burundi. Her plan to do this involves people here donating books, filling a shipping container, and sending that container to Burundi. She doesn't have high standards of quality for these books; old calendars count. As she was explaining this plan, I was thinking of the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough and all of the articles on it about the troubles with donations.

The librarian read a book to the kids. In the book, the main character, a little boy living in a village in Africa, invited a lot of people to his home to have pancakes for supper that night; this made his mother nervous. Everyone brought something, though: put together, this was a feast. There is a way in which librarians read books to kids at story time, and I had happily sat through a lot of story times when I was a kid. I don't like the librarian's plan about getting old books and putting them in a shipping container, but, as I write this, I have trouble even formulating an argument in my mind to complain about this properly because I like books and I like that this librarian likes books, and I am glad she got to come to church and ask us to share books with people in Burundi.

So, I was talking with some people at this party and someone asked me how I, as an atheist, would explain how the universe began. I gave my normal response to this question, that at the moment of the Big Bang, quantum effects would have encompassed the entire universe, making causality impossible. I said that when I think about things, I don't start at the beginning, I start where I am, with the experiments and experiences I know about, and I work backward and forward, and I suppose that we have a pretty good understanding of what happened between now and the first moments of the universe. Another non-believer helpfully added that you can't talk about a time-before-the-universe because there wouldn't have been anything to make the time pass or to measure it with.

The subject changed, but I kept thinking about what I'd said about the Big Bang, and then I sort of apologized to this new acquaintance. Atheists are used to being asked antagonistically where the universe could have come from if there is no God to make it, and I'm used to giving an argument. The religious people who would ask this question are, I hope, motivated by a belief that the universe was started by someone wonderful, and for me to say that it's not meaningful to discuss a before-the-beginning might be correct, but it's not fulfilling.

I won't say the universe was started by someone wonderful, but I'll say that its beginning was something wonderful. That something wonderful isn't the same as the something wonderful inside of blueberries or the one that makes people smile at strangers or that helps people share oranges in concentration camps, but I imagine these something wonderfuls as relatives of each other. I dread being thought of as a deist or universalist or spiritualist or something, please don't read me that way. I'm an atheist, I say that God doesn't exist. My church works for me because my nonbelief doesn't invalidate my friendships with others in my church.

At the party yesterday, I got to talk with a Sufi about a mutual friend of ours; this friend is an evangelical missionary type, and the Sufi and I admire her because she has firm beliefs and, without compromising them, shows respect and friendliness to people like atheists and Sufis. There are people like that in my church and they make church worthwhile for me.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Regarding that xkcd comic

A comic about finding answers when dealing with serious illness was posted on xkcd recently. One of my brothers was recently in the hospital for a while and I have been thinking about him. I like the comic.

I have bipolar disorder and I didn't get treatment until four years after onset, and I think about what I made of my illness before I got a diagnosis. Now that I'm getting appropriate care, pills help, but the other half of my treatment is cognitive, and most of that is getting information from my mood about how to keep myself well. It used to be that if I felt guilty, apropos of nothing, I would first think seriously and sternly about whether I'd done anything bad lately, and, if not, judge myself according to impossible ideals, fretting about God or social justice or fame or what is necessary to live a meaningful life. Now, when I feel guilty and it's not obvious why, I first ask myself if I need a snack or a nap or to take a walk; I think it's important to save guilt for actual sin. I certainly don't expect my mood to tell me anything new or constructive about spirits. I used to interpret my confusing mood fluctuations as information about what's out there, in the cosmos or in the heavens, but now, when my mood confuses me, I look for information about what's going on inside of me, and the second pattern works better.

When I got the message at 1:30 AM that my brother was in the hospital, I didn't speculate about why God would will such a thing, or why he would allow it, or what my brother was supposed to learn from his hardship. Instead, what's been meaningful to me is seeing how loving and supportive my family can be, and how resilient and patient and funny my brother is. I don't want to look for what lessons I'm "supposed to learn", I want to make my own lessons out of the experiences I have.

I remember hearing a story on NPR regarding the role of psychologists in relief work, responding to the earthquake in Haiti. A lot of psychologists evidently planned on showing up and sitting victims down on the proverbial couch and talking with them about the traumas they've faced. Instead, they were put to work helping people find family members and connecting them with resources to get necessities, like shelter and clean water: to help disaster victims have healthier minds, acting like a social worker seems to be more helpful than acting like an analyst. The talk therapy is important, but it comes later.

I like science because my job holds me in tension between concrete, observable facts, and the fact that scientific knowledge is always changing; what we know is reliable but we're always learning surprising new things.

When I'm suffering, I want support from my religious friends, I'm happy that they pray for me, because it's good to know that I'm cared for. I don't want them turning this into an opportunity to try to make me reconsider something that I've reconsidered a thousand times and have finally settled in my mind. When my religious friends suffer, rather than thinking of God as a source of answers, I hope that they look at their God and are inspired by his love, and, remembering that God is incomprehensibly big, remain open to their suffering having no perceivable meaning. I would rather that they not expect their suffering to have a built-in meaning that we can discover in our lifetimes. The best religious impulses are humble and loving; I hope that my religious friends can be open to seeing suffering as ambiguous, and that they can find meaning first by courageously overcoming their challenges.

I mean, yes idealism, yes the dignity of pure research, yes, the pursuit of truth in all its forms, but there comes a point I'm afraid where you begin to suspect that if there's any real truth it's that the entire multi-dimensional infinity of the Universe is almost certainly being run by a bunch of maniacs; and if it comes to a choice between spending another ten million years finding that out and on the other hand just taking the money and running, I for one could do with the exercise.

—Frankie the mouse, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams