A big article in today’s Globe and Mail (which I cannot identify because it already is in the recycling bin) claims that we are in a big period of considering atheism. He has to be right. I hadn’t notice before, but I keep getting into conversations about the loss of faith, or about religious doubt, or about a righteous antagonism toward one or all religions. Something is in the air. A lot of it comes from current books by Richard Dawkins (see photo), who simply hates religion. I have not read Dawkins himself, but I can hardly avoid reading other people's opinions of him. Apparently he is railing against a simplistic view of God that nobody except fundamentalists have believed anyhow for centuries. But the current concern that religions contain irrational elements seems to go beyond Dawkins, troubling lots of people nowadays.
Item: the same copy of today’s Globe has an article about people in Germany who are organizing themselves to promote their own values as “ex-Muslims.” It doesn’t say what they do believe, but it’s clear that they resent being lumped in with a religion that they explicitly gave up years ago.
Item: I had a conversation with a dear friend who defines herself as an atheist now, but who used to pray in her youth. One day, she says, she suddenly realized: “There’s nobody listening.” That seems to have been the moment when she stopped being religious. Her change was not like my own, in that she seems instantly to have dropped any interest in ascertaining what ultimate reality might be all about, whereas many times a day I keep questioning what my place may be in the grand scheme of things — what it is that I’m supposed to be doing with my life. I wonder how it feels not to think that there are answers to such questions.
Item: Another conversation took place three weeks ago when another old friend told me that life is “empty and meaningless.” He actually meant that we each supply the meaning of our own lives, and presumably the meaning of the universe. In that sense we are God. So he didn’t really intend to be representing a nihilistic view, though that’s how it seems to me. If I “create” meaning then it’s not out there calling me, speaking to me, demanding anything of me. I don’t believe that I make up meaning; instead, I discover it. (When I’m lucky.) However, such a discovery always should be tentative and probably should not be shared with others readily, lest I get carried away with convincing others that it is right. There’s such a thing as having too much faith – too much conviction about the meaning one discovers.
Item: Just now I’m off to meet a friend who’s a Zen master. She seems to believe too that we’re all part of God. Except she doesn’t believe that there actually IS a God as creator. The universe always was here. That’s okay. I don’t care whether there was a moment when God created the universe. My faith is that there is meaning, a directionality in what is going on, and that the directionality even includes what seems evil. What would it be like to not believe that – to suppose that everything happens randomly without any underlying pattern? I can’t imagine what that opinion would feel like.
Item: For a month or six weeks, Holy Trinity’s e-mail list has been the site of a conversation about Christians’ doubt. It seems that many parishioners are concerned because they doubt the virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension of Christ to heaven, and a lot of miracles. The discussion began when one woman asked whether she’s still entitled to belong to Holy Trinity, given the extent of her doubts. Others replied by saying that it’s perfectly normal to doubt; they doubt too. Indeed, they add, we’re supposed to experience doubt because that’s part of the spiritual journey. But oddly, they hadn’t been talked about it before, at least in my presence. Why is it happening now?
Item: If a Christian hadn’t worked through these questions before, she is going to have to think it through now. Simcha Jacobovici has presented enough material evidence to make it necessary for everyone to consider whether she believes that Jesus’s bones are on this world or not. If not, what happened to them? If Jesus was caught up in a cloud and sucked off this planet by God, what happened to him when he got to about 30,000 feet? Did he go to the moon, or to Mars, or where? Most Christians have avoided such questions until now.
The answer to these questions for anyone who cannot become an atheist, or at least a non-Christian, is to make these stories into metaphors and myths. That’s what I did about 40 years ago. I didn’t give up on God and I didn’t even renounce the theological messages of Jesus, which admittedly are pretty obscure, so I may not understand them correctly. I just read them as inspiring stories that point to some kind of deeper truth and that may even give me tips on how to live well on this earth, in this society. Never did I doubt that what’s going on — the whole universe as it’s working out now — is excellent, perfect. But I don’t have to believe in any historical anomalies for that to be true.
This is not the first time such a solution has been handy for rescuing a dying religious tradition. When Socrates was put to death it was for casting doubt on the truth about the gods on Mount Olympus. But by the time Aristotle was writing, he didn’t really discuss the gods. His philosophy was rationalistic and sometimes even empirical. So the Greeks were losing faith in their gods, just as we are apparently in a period of doubt ourselves.
The French philosopher Luc Brisson claims that it was actually philosophers who saved these Greek myths. They did so by reinterpreting them as allegories rather than as empirical facts. Various new meanings could be attributed to these gods. For example, Zeus could represent reason and Athena could represent art. They could even be personifications of natural substances. Thus Poseidon represents water and Dionysus represents wine. Transforming material persons and historical events into myths and allegories allows us to appreciate them in other ways.
Unless you're an ex-Muslim, or a Richard Dawkins. If you are, I don't know how to help you.