Thursday, 23 February 2012

What, as I see it, is wrong with Atheism

In the past few weeks I've been trying to sum up my feelings about religion and religiousness. I tried to organise it in a sensible way, but unfortunately I've been going over some of the same ground. I've also ended up speaking to both religious people and atheists in almost the same breath, which is a bit of a balancing act. Thankfully, as you may be able to see from the title, this week I will be being a bit more direct and, for the sake of the argument, will be talking directly to the Atheists* (that is, assume that science is correct and Religion, at least in the factual sense, is wrong). Hopefully, I will also be treading some totally new ground.

So, what exactly is it I'm going to argue against, what is wrong with Atheism? Well firstly, I've already pointed out in the last few weeks why I think we should all be Religious and why Religiousness is a personal thing. What I want to address here is the perception which, it seems to me at least, is pervasive among Atheists, that religious people are simply wrong, that the facts are against them and that it is clear they are simply misguided or stupid. It feels to me as though this point of view is quite widely held despite the fact that it is singularly destructive and ill thought out.

The first point I need to make, which really is the crux of my whole argument, is that this is not about right or wrong, but about different points of view. It doesn't matter if an idea is right or not if it serves a definite and useful purpose. It may greatly comfort a person to believe that there are fairies which live at the end of their garden and I think the important factor is whether such an idea is a constructive and useful influence on their lives. They may well be wrong in a strict logical sense, but in a personal sense they may actually be living a happier, freer existence.

We have complex and rich inner lives and one of the things we search for in the depths of these is understanding, some sense of how the world works**. I think it's fair to say that ever since the conception of early religions this has been a big part of their purpose. We didn't understand the thunder and lightning, so we came up with the concept of a god, something bigger than us, and had him be responsible for that. It's what we're built to do, to understand the world, it's what allowed us to beat out all the other creatures and get to the top of the food chain and it's what makes us search for meaning constantly, even when there is none. In this sense, I think having a god, having some explanation for what happens after death and where it all comes from, makes perfect sense.

“Well sure” I can hear all the Atheists exclaiming, “but we can explain all that now, science answers those questions now”. Let me be clear, science does answer all of these things and it works logically and with careful definite proofs. In a very real sense it is more correct than those old religious answers. However there is another sense in which the answers which science provides simply aren't up to snuff. Even for relatively intelligent people, there are gaps which science doesn't fill, 'what came before the big bang?' and 'where do I go when I die?'. These are, in many ways, nonsensical scientific questions, obviously I simply cease to exist after death. However in a personal sense they are very real and appropriate questions. Whatever you tell someone, they are never going to lose that sense that their personality has a powerful intrinsic force to it, telling them that it can just stop simply isn't something which everyone's brains can accept as true.

This is what it all comes down to for me. There are answers which science provides, and there are ways of finding in those answers great comfort and even a religious sense of the expanse and wonder of the Universe. However, not everyone can understand the deeper concepts of science, for many those answers simply don't fit into the way they understand the world. I expect that for a vast majority of the population (even some physicists) theoretical physics simply doesn't make much sense. It is counter-intuitive and strange, a set of wholly alien concepts. Equally, for a smaller percentage of people, things like the big bang and an entirely physical self may not fit into their understanding of the world.

It has always felt a bit like intellectual snobbery to say “well we have an understanding of the world that is right, so if you believe otherwise you are wrong”. It isn't that all these religious people are wrong, they simply can't accept, for whatever reason, the answers which science provides. This may be a matter of personality or, sure, it could be because they are stupid (though really, is it okay to attack something which people feel, only as a result of being less clever than you). Really though, I don't think it is them being wrong. They are filling in the blanks in their understanding of the world in the way which is most sensible to them and which comforts them the most. Is that really such a bad thing? Is this really about right or wrong, or is this about a personal sense of the shape of the world? In which case, how can you be wrong?

I want to finish by saying that part of the real problem is that so many people are so insufferably obnoxious about their religion. They push it into people's faces and their politics and that is most definitely wrong on all sorts of levels. However, all too often I see Atheists argue beyond that, taking things to the next step where not just the obnoxiousness of religions, but the simple fact of individual people's religiousness, is offensive to them. They take this to the point where they see having a religion as being wrong and stupid and, for all the reasons I've given above, that seems like a foolish argument to me. Too often it just feels as though it is coming from that old, awfully human place of: 'you disagree with me, therefore you are an idiot'.
Ultimately this isn't the route which I would like to see Atheism take, it just doesn't seem productive. Ideally I think the proper way to progress is for Atheists to argue with religious people against their religions. To try to guide the whole thing so that each person has a greater sense of autonomy from their church and preacher. However that is an argument which I will get into next week.

*[I realise that I've made a total hash out of the capitalisations of “atheist”, “god” and various other tangled words over the past few weeks. I'm happy to be corrected on that, but I just thought it was worth also offering an apology if you feel I got it particularly wrong]

**[There is also the matter of religious experiences, which I think may be an equally valid part of what people look for when defining their faith. However I felt that this was simply a better example and one which is more exactly analogous to scientific discoveries. I do however think it is endlessly fascinating the extent to which people can have, what seem to be religious feelings and inspirations about the hard facts of science]

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Why I think all religion is personal

In my previous entry I talked about why I thought you ought to be religious, but I also brought up my own personal beliefs. I think that word 'personal' is an important distinction. Most people, I imagine, wouldn't see anything to be gained from what I believe and even those who subscribe to something similar probably experience and understand it in a very different way. Equally I believe Christians (as an example of the religion I know the most about) take many different things from the religion, different parts comfort them and they focus on different sections. This is true across not just between the various denominations, but even within each church.

The trouble is, I don't think that this is how we treat religion and religious people. On one side of the argument, we have Atheists with a tendency to treat all religion in a very blanket way, generalising and even, at times, victimising. On the other, we have religions and religious people, who force various teachings and rules upon people and who have a tendency to treat themselves as a singular tribe (in much the same reductive way that the Atheists do).

Let me clarify something which I think will be misunderstood. Religions, the institutions upon which this is all based, are clearly rigid, often immovable and not at all fluid. What I'm defending is the personal sense of belief which each person takes, either from those religions or from their own experiences or, more often, a mixture of the two. People are bundles of contradictions and uncertainties and, as an example, I think many people see science and religion as being diametrically opposed. For a huge number of people, scientists included, I don't think this is true. Of course it makes no logical sense to believe in both science and a religion, but people are, generally, not very logical beings and really those two things serve very different purposes in the human brain.

This is getting a little close to the argument I made last week. My point is that there seems to be a sense that people's inner worlds (which is what we are really talking about here) should conform and fit with some previous model. Really, every person's inner world is a new and different land and they very rarely conform to much at all.

This misunderstanding/mistreatment of belief causes a number of problems. Firstly, belief is a very delicate and intricate thing, and trying to foist your own sense of the world upon someone else (as any writer will tell you) is an incredibly delicate operation. The way that a lot of religions evangelise and advertise seems to ignore this and, as a result, as much as they attract some of the disenfranchised, I also think they put off a lot of thinking people who otherwise might have something to gain from what they are teaching.

Equally, Atheism (at least the aggressive modern form) makes very little allowance for thought and depth to an individual person's religiousness, beyond what their central religion teaches. Again, I feel that this often creates umbrage where there is no need for it to exist, it allows so little room for compromise.

I think the reasons for this are quite interesting. Going back a bit to my post about tigers (and tribalism), I believe that in the kind of small society which we evolved in it is correct to treat any strange new ideas as potentially very dangerous. For this reason, when I, as a part of some perceived group, find that I disagree with someone else, my immediate instinct may be to point out how wrong they are and how bad their idea is as vehemently as possible. In a small society these kinds of reactions keep us cohesive and, as a result, safe. However in a larger society (such as we find ourselves a part of today), I think differences in ideas and ideologies are our very lifeblood, that variety is necessary for our survival.

To put this entirely another way, imagine a musician who spends their lives just playing music and doing nothing else. They have no reason to believe in or have any opinion on science or religion, in fact they may even find themselves, because of their distance, strongly disagreeing with both outlooks on the world. This doesn't make them especially wrong, immoral or even stupid, they are just different and, of that difference, they may make great music.

At this point, as an aside, I think I should address the problem which most people likely have with this argument. Specifically that everyone will claim that they are fine with a live and let live approach, but that the other side simply aren't allowing them that privilege. That: the Religious/Atheists insist on trying to have an influence on government and law, and by doing so they make it your business to argue against them.

Honestly, I don't want to get into who is in the right/wrong here (I have an opinion, but it seems like stating it will cloud my whole argument), what I will say though is that this right in a way. If I as a religious person believe that abortion is murder, or I as an Atheist believe that prayer in schools is wrong, then I ought to go to my representative and try, through democracy, to get this changed (which presumably ought to happen if a majority agree with me).

The important thing though, is that in getting into these arguments, people seem to get too involved in that tribal mindset. That means that they can end up arguing or attacking other people in a more personal setting, ignoring the fact that that person has a vital and full inner world which, really, it is meaningless to attack. It is fine to fight these ideas back and forth in a world of ideas, like politics, but doing so in a one to one way is totally unproductive and destructive.

Finally, I wanted to finish by saying that I think what I'm arguing here, although it is very rarely articulated, is quite widely understood by most people. Christians may often be friends with people who are having sex before marriage or otherwise violating what they believe in and yet never mention this. Equally Atheists may have many religious friends without being destructive towards their beliefs at all (often even expressing a genuine and heartfelt interest). In both cases they understand that they have enough in common to enjoy one another's company and that their respective inner worlds really don't have much influence on that. Really I suppose the people I am making this argument to/at are zealots, and what I'm saying is that our differences really, although they mean we often disagree, are amazing

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Why you should have a religion and what mine is

Way back in my first post I promised that at some point I would attempt to describe my own personal theology here. It's a fluid incorporeal thing, but I am keen to try and nail it down. First though I thought it would be a good idea to put forward my rationalist reasoning for why I think everyone should be religious (as opposed to all my other reasons).

I've been wanting to write about my feelings in this area for a while, but it took a lot of planning to get it all organised correctly. As a result this is going to be the first of a series of four (I think) posts talking about religion and Atheism. The working titles for the others are: 'Why I think all religion is personal', 'What, as I see it, is wrong with Atheism' and 'What, as I see it, is wrong with religion'. Obviously these are areas on which a huge amount has already been written. Nevertheless, I hope that I can bring a slightly fresh point of view to the table.


So, why should you be religious? There are a few points I need to make on the way to arguing for this. I fully expect that some of those things will upset religious people and some Atheists. Still, it would be no fun if everyone just agreed with me.

The first point I need to make is that religions are, in many ways, designed to and influential in easing well being. That an awful lot of the commonalities across different belief structures are there to answer difficult questions in a way which saves the believer from worry. Questions like, “What happens after death?” and “Why is the world so awful sometimes?”. I don't think that science fails to answer these, it has answers, but it's answers are along the lines of a shrug and I don't feel that they ever will (or really should) offer tangible purchase to the human mind. When you wake up sweating with the cold realisation that you are, certainly, bound to die, science offers no easy answer, whereas religion does.

What I'm really trying to point out is that religion gives you answers to these questions and takes away those worries. Further that, as they are unanswerable, these aren't really things worth worrying about. Religion provides this comfort and that's a good thing, I think it's fairly uncontroversial to say that people who worry less lead happier and easier lives. Religious people ought then to be happier (on the whole, I think they're not, but that's an issue with religions, of the organised variety, rather than religiousness, something I'll get on to in a few weeks). In this sense, for the atheists among you, I think it's best to think of religion as a great big placebo, but one which applies generally to the mind in the same way that acupuncture applies generally to the body.

This is all well and good, but I suppose most of you are thinking that belief is pretty binary. That's the usual way of understanding it, that if I believe in god that is equivalent to believing in the table in front of me and my level of trust and knowledge is just the same. As such, belief isn't something you can choose to have a bit of, so why does all this matter?

Well I'm very much of the opinion that belief is fluid. That, rather than being a definite fixed point in our lives, it is more of a choice which we make. Furthermore, I think it can be a partial thing. It may seem an awful contradiction, but I think it's entirely possible, for instance, for a Mother to believe strongly that the Bible is true and that homosexuality is wrong, yet at the same time believe that her gay son is probably okay with God, that he's a good man really. Logically this makes no sense, if we're to analyse the thinking then clearly it conflicts itself, but humans are masters of contradiction. I think it's entirely possible to be a pure scientist who believes superstitions are irrational, but still put on that special pair of trousers that you wear on first dates... just because.

What I'm saying is that even if you believe strongly that there can be no supernatural god figure, you could still have one who you occasionally resort to and that wouldn't be an awful logical break, at least not within the strange confines of the logic in the human brain.*

So, if you were to have a strange imagined god figure in your head, but you knew he contradicted everything and that you'd just created him, surely he wouldn't have an effect, he wouldn't help you to worry less. This makes sense, since I'm arguing that this whole thing is a placebo, but you'd know for certain (since you created it) that this was a placebo. Well firstly, there is evidence that placebos have an effect even if you know they are placebos (Bam! Science! Bam! Easier-to-read-article!). Secondly, I personally believe that if you really commit to an idea then it will have even more of an effect. Like the imagined wonderfulness of a crush you've never spoken to, by committing more of your brain space to the idea you give it more importance and it will give you more relief**.

So then, why wouldn't you do this? By just occasionally asking Thor to help you, and thinking about enjoying Valhalla in the afterlife, you'll worry less and feel better about life (perhaps that's a bad example, don't go dying in battle on my behalf). It just makes sense to have a set of ideas in your head that, when the world is getting you down, you can lean on, even if in your more rational moments you realise that they don't make much sense.

My final point is, I think there's a perception that religion has to be all or nothing fundamentalism, as this is what we're always presented with in the media. There are whole tracts though, of much more reasonable religions (Quakers for instance) and religious people and, more importantly, if you agree with everything I've just said, you just can go ahead and build your own set of beliefs. That surely has to be one of the most creative and adventurous activities available, you get to decide how, for you, the entire universe is going to function. I should know, I love doing it, I probably end up building an entirely new theology every few years.

Which leads me on nicely to the reason why I started this entry in the first place, my own personal religion. This is a little difficult to describe because as I mentioned before, the ideas don't exist outside of my head very well (as I'll try to argue next week, I think that's because religions are, and ought to be, so personal), but I'm going to give it my best shot.

It is my current belief that the Universe is something much higher dimensional in the process of becoming. If you like, it is a four dimensional egg incubating a creature developing up through the dimensions until it can become a new five (maybe more) dimensional being. In that sense, as the bits of it which can know ourselves and it, we are the Universe's braincells. The Universe is unimaginably large and complex and filled with wonder I will never understand, but we/I/it are going somewhere, there is an end point to the journey. That thought fills me with comfort.

The second part of my belief is that consciousness, ours and that of other beings, is like a force radiating through the Universe, being filtered through it into rarer stuff. The ultimate effect of this is that for the 'I' which is my self, right at the heart of that 'I', is some cosmic singular personhood. Put another way the thing which is becoming is in the centre of all people and all things.

In a way that second point is meaningless, except that I think time works along two axes. There is the simple linear time which we experience, but there is also a more fluid narrative time which all things also move along. On this narrative track there is a different movement, from birth, to life, to fullness of life, to decline and then on to death. That track contains every Spring to Winter, every dawn to dusk and every birth to death and it doesn't follow the same rules as our linear time. Instead each one of those deaths, from a simple falling asleep to each final breath, happens at the same point (the same moment if you like) and that all the births equally happen together.

I like to think that, ultimately, I am the same as everyone else and that, in my final moments alive, rather than being completely alone, I will suddenly find I am with everyone and we are all the same and that will be the moment when the egg Universe cracks and opens out into some new dimension and some new set of challenges, all of us together to tackle them as a single 'I' at last.

This may not gel with you at all, in fact, I would expect that most of you found that all a bit odd. That is entirely my point, these things are mine, these ideas are what personally elevates and inspires me through my crappier moments. It was surprisingly fun to write them out, but I don't want anyone else to take them for themselves, not really. I think each one of us should have our own set of ideas, each as deeply personal as these.

*[I feel I should correctly attribute the root of this reasoning to Robert Anton Wilson, who used to spend entire weeks choosing to believe in Catholicism just to see how it effected his thinking. Some day I will write an entry on all the effects he's had on my thinking (and I'll stop just lazily linking to Wikipedia)]

**[I wanted to post here that there is evidence that more expensive placebos have more effect, but all there seems to be is articles like this one with no scientific paper that I can find, this makes me inordinately unhappy]

Friday, 3 February 2012

Space, and why I could never be a speechwriter

Not so long ago I set out to write a few speeches. The reasoning was that there exists a huge backlog of speeches recorded throughout history, all of them written with incredible care by intelligent people with the express purpose of inspiring emotions, of rousing people. If I wanted to be able to do the same with my writing, well then I figured this was a good place to start.

I tried to read as much as I could about their construction, listened to them being read aloud, tried to learn a few by heart and even re-watched whole sections of West Wing. Ultimately though, the point where my passion fell apart was when I tried to write one myself.

I decided that I wanted to write about space, about why we ought to go into space, to try and express all the reasons why that is inspiring to me and impart it in a way which was inspiring to others. For a week or so I didn't think about much else, I just detailed my plan, went over how exactly to express certain sections, looked up various facts. Then, suddenly, I found I had to stop. The problem was, that I was getting too inspired, too excited, by my own fantastical rhetoric. During the day, particularly in long meetings, that is a welcome distraction, but I was also losing out on a significant amount of sleep just from lying in bed thinking about these ideas and working them over in my head.

So, that's why I could never be a speechwriter. I can imagine writing inspiring language, but the moment I do I get a little too inspired myself. I don't think it's something I could ever do dispassionately (writing occasionally effects me in a similar way, if I'm writing a particularly sad scene I might find I'm quite down for a few days, but the effect is never so pronounced).

Still, these ideas have been sitting fermenting in my head for such a long time now, waiting for some kind of outlet. I feel that it's only be right for me to give them that, even if not in the originally intended form. Without any further faffing then, here is my argument for why we should go into space.

Whenever people question the value of our continued excursions into space there are a number of justifications which get used. I thought I should start by pointing out how I disagree with most of these.

First off there's the argument that it leads to all sorts of innovation, normally followed by a list of the things for which we have the space program to thank. Honestly I don't think this argument holds up to much scrutiny. If the research we did to get into space happened to produce some useful offshoots, then surely more directed research (into... feeding the world more efficiently say) would have produced far more. You could just as easily make this argument about both world wars, which for me says it all, just because some good came from something does not make that thing worthwhile as a whole.

Secondly people often make the argument that we need space colonisation to ensure our safety from destruction. That the Earth could get taken out by a rogue asteroid any day now and the only way to be certain of the survival of the human race is if spread ourselves over on a number of different planets. Honestly if we were closer to colonising other planets I think this would make sense, but the fact is that we are so far away from that possibility that it doesn't seem worth it. If we look at, say, our percentage chance of surviving the next thousand years. Then every million spent on space travel probably has a negligibly small effect on this chance. Whereas spending that money elsewhere would, again, have a much more appreciable effect.

The final point people normally make is that we are natural explorers. That we've covered the majority of the surface of our own planet and this is the obvious next frontier for us to venture into. I probably have the most sympathy for this argument, and my own bears some similarities, but I still feel it is somewhat flawed. Specifically because if we really are to look at exploring as something intrinsic to humanity, as something which we need and love, then why do we need to make an argument for space travel. Surely it should just come about organically in the same way that it did with the rest of our famous explorations, with people racing to reach the next big boundary.

I should say, in many ways I think my own argument is aligned with each of these three. My main objection is the way that they are usually presented, as purely utilitarian, when actually I think space travel is anything but that. It's something more, it doesn't simply plod us forward, it inspires us and raises us up.

Throughout human history it's possible to pick out any number of examples of real inspiration. The plays of William Shakespeare, which inspired so many further works of literature, of stage and screen, copying and expanding on the original. The great conquests of Alexander the great, which inspired later leaders throughout history. The humanity and daring of Oskar Schindler, and so many others, in working to save other humans in danger without regard for themselves. All of these things are stories which we tell and which, in turn, lead on to more of the same.

I should be clear, I'm not saying that modern literature was entirely born from Shakespeare, but I'm saying that having clear and powerful figures like this provides a more constant movement and direction. That, in part, people's actions often have their seed in previous examples.

Space exploration provides this as well. From scientists, who've studied their whole lives simply because they want to be involved in something that big, to more casual stargazers, who are constantly amazed and uplifted by the mere fact of its existence.

Space does something more though. You see with all of the previous examples there is an obvious tie in to some singular theme. There is one genius or one country or one particular belief system which is intrinsic to the inspirational factors. If I'm not from the right place, or I don't believe the right thing, or I don't think I have quite a clever enough brain, then these examples could work against me and leave me cold. Space exploration doesn't have this flaw, it is a purely inspirational act, a brute force example of the grand success of human progress. It doesn't just represent one set of people, because the stars belong to us all, because everyone can see and appreciate the sheer energy of a rocket lifting into space and the delicate nature of an astronaut silhouetted against his planet far below.

To put it another way, space is like dinosaurs. It is impossible to see a picture of a T-Rex next to a man and not be deeply aware of the awful destructive forces at play there. The same is true of space. That's why I think these two things are probably the only constants on children's walls all across the world. Pop stars are changeable brief little things, but our fragile ventures into space will always have an immutable reality which is powerful no matter where you live.

There's the story Carl Sagan tells that there were tribes in New Guinea who had almost no contact with humanity, who didn't understand or care about any modern technology, but who were deeply invested in the fact that men had walked on the moon.

It doesn't even seem to matter who landed on the moon first. Even people alive at the time talk about seeing the first man on the moon, not the first American. Somehow I feel that these greater travels into the stars, which we've spent so many thousands of years looking up at, simply cannot be claimed for just one person or country.

Through our progress in space, possibly more than any other human achievement, I believe we have advanced the progress of human society. We have given ourselves something to look up to, an achievement which is frighteningly tangible in the way it expresses our raw potential. It is hard not to see how that knowledge would change the lives of every human being, not just the scientists and explorers, but every person who, with the knowledge of what we have done, can stare at the night sky and dream not just of tomorrow and the dangers it brings, but of a far distant future and a place among the stars.