Sunday, May 20, 2012

Critique of Pure Atheism: Freedom From God

Unlike my last critique, this one will have a decent amount of material that is arguable, in the classical sense of having logical analysis and arguments which are falsifiable. However, the essay as a whole is once again a personal one; it is a personal response to a meme I have encountered online. Therefore, on a thesis level this essay is not falsifiable. Sorry, Enlightenment Rationalists.

One other pre-thesis note: I am afraid I may drop into second person in the latter part of this piece. I am afraid of this because I largely despise the use of second person in non-fiction (there are a decent  amount of legitimate uses for it in fiction), and almost universally despise its use in the non-fiction of persons who are not at, say, the G.K. Chesterton level of essay-writing skill—those who can name at least two reasons for any specific word choice in anything they write. My use of second person here is due to the fact that I am responding to a meme which is written in the imperative mode, thus implying a second-person address even though no form of “you” actually appears in it. Thus, for consistency and coherence, I will say that any form of “you” that I use can be considered a response to the original author of the meme, whoever he or she may be.

The meme, which I have encountered more than once over the course of wasting time on the internet, goes like this:


Usually upon encountering this, I simply roll my eyes and move on. But today, perhaps for lack of a more constructive use of my time, I have decided to examine the implications of this meme, starting with rhetorical analysis.

The author, as with most memes, is probably not traceable, so it is admittedly a presumption that the author is an atheist. However, since I have encountered the meme on multiple avowedly atheist forums and webpages, and have both known and read avowed atheists who have said similar things, it doesn't seem terribly straw-mannish to assume that this is an atheistic bit of rhetoric.

It is interesting to look at the presumed audience for this meme. Since the meme is simply declarative and imperative, to take it at face value would be to assume that it is directed at anyone who reads it. Therefore, the audience could theoretically be “anyone who can read English.” However, the wording implies that the members of the audience either believe in God or are trying to decide if they do—people who do not believe in God would not need to be told of God's non-existence. I suppose it could be meant as reassurance to those who already don't believe in God, but the only people who would be affected by acceptance of the message are those who do or might believe. Where it gets interesting is the further presumption: due to believing in God, I am not relaxed. Whatever state of being I as the reader fill in—upset, paranoid, guilty, awe-struck, trembling—apparently stops me from being relaxed, and from enjoying life.

To round out the basic rhetorical analysis I need to look at purpose. To again take the implications at face value, this meme is attempting to deliver a message. Here I am not claiming to know the author's original intent, options for which are manifold, but simply to be looking at the text itself. As I've said, the text is in the imperative mode, as if it is giving me (the reader) instructions, or perhaps suggestions. Therefore if I respond to the text as if I am responding to instructions or suggestions, I am merely taking that text at face value.

So God does not exist. This is apparently supposed to free me, so that I can relax and enjoy my life.

Except, wait.

I know a lot of people who have grown up with a God who seems like an angry, sentient lightning storm with arbitrary rules, a God who makes lists of correct behaviors and draws these really tight lines around How People Should Act and anyone who steps outside of those lines just gets zapped, kapow. I've even known some people who think this is an accurate description of the God of the Bible. I suppose, if I believed in a God like that, it would be a relief if someone told me He didn't exist.

But I believe in a God who is the opposite of that sort of god. The God whose Spirit breathed the Bible into men's ears is a God who hopes all things, believes all things, and bears all things—including all of the things I am too weak to bear—and a God whose grace never fails. To use extreme terms, I could hate my God with the most passionate hatred I am capable of, and He would only ever respond with love, would only ever accept me back the instant I asked.

To understand what I mean, meme author, imagine you met the man or woman of your dreams. Imagine that this person is the only one you ever wanted to be with. Now imagine that they loved you, unconditionally and irretrievably. Now imagine that they set down some rules, say, “Don't sleep with anyone else; don't snore; don't arbitrarily spill water all over the floor.” Imagine that you broke all of these rules in the same day, or the same hour. Imagine that while being understandably annoyed, and perhaps making you, say, wipe up the water you spilled on the floor, your significant other accepted you back unconditionally.

Now imagine that someone came up to you and said, “Your significant other doesn't exist. Now relax and enjoy life!” and assume that somehow this made it true (on the fallacy of which, see common sense). You'd suddenly be free to sleep with anyone you wanted. It wouldn't matter if you snored. You could spit water all over the floor (and the walls, and the ceiling, for that matter). But would you actually be relaxed? Would it actually be more enjoyable?

As far as analogies (an inherently simplifying and limiting technique) go, that one is as good as any.

The God I believe in is capable of bringing grace out of anything. The very concept is staggering. It means that no matter what decision I make—whether it's the right decision or the wrong one, a good decision or a bad one—God will redeem it and make it a blessing. As far as ideas that allow me to relax and enjoy life, this is the best one I've ever encountered.

Don't misunderstand: the whole thing is not easy. Things that are worthwhile are never easy.

To sum up, meme author, you are of course allowed to believe what you want to, and to declare that belief. But to assume that you are freeing me by attempting to take away my God is almost indescribably arrogant and foolish.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Critique of Pure Atheism: Why I am Not an Atheist

To start with the negatives: this is not an apologetic, in the sense that it is not an argument for any particular religion; it has nothing to do with why I believe Christ rose from the dead. It is also not meant as an attack against atheists. If it is anything other than an inexcusably verbose rant, then it's a personal testimony of an atypical sort: not a testimony about conversion to anything, but about a lack of conversion. It's probably the weakest reason I have for belief as well as the weakest reason I have for lack of belief, but that's why it's not an argument.

Basically, if I did not have all of my better reasons for following Christ and for not being an atheist, I would still not be an atheist because I am prone to boredom. And atheism, to me, is unspeakably, unutterably, irretrievably boring.

Sometimes I think speculatively about being an atheist. Not in that I am considering giving up my faith, but because I have the sort of mind that can't resist a good "what-if" scenario. But I can't get very far into it before I come up with, "So what?"

To grant the basic premise of atheism is to grant that, as far as we know, human beings are the highest form of life, the highest form of existence. Granting this, I look at myself and I see someone who is self-centered, snobbish, often resentful, absent-minded, yada yada lots of flaws. I look at people who are very intelligent (say, Stephen Hawking) or people who are physically beautiful (say, ahem, Jennifer Lawrence) or people whose lives are or were incredibly exciting (Sir Richard Burton comes to mind, at random), or people who are extremely talented (anyone from Da Vinci to Twain to Shakespeare), and I think that if even these extraordinary people are the best thing the universe has to offer, or if I were one of them, or if I am the ultimate reality (which without some kind of external frame of reference, I am), then the universe and reality are just incredibly stupid.

Perhaps ironically, this wouldn't make me feel antithetical to people; if we're all stupid and all we have is each other, love and grace seem like much more worthwhile endeavors than does misanthropy.

But if that's what I have to start with, reality seems to get better, not worse, if I turn to religion. I could believe in a personal God who redeems me and whose hand guides my life, or I could believe in an impersonal force which binds all of life together, or in a cycle of death and reincarnation with a journey toward eventual enlightenment and union with everything. All of these seem more worthwhile than not believing in anything. (Of course, I do believe that the greatest and most redemptive truth leads to one specific place--or rather, one specific Man--but for now that's beside the point.) Not all beliefs are equal, and some cam lead to terrible places, but for that matter so can atheistic philosophy.

This may just be a restatement of Pascal's famous wager, which paraphrased argues that if I am an atheist and I am right, then I have gained nothing, and if I am wrong I stand to lose everything; whereas if I have faith and am wrong I have lost nothing (except, maybe, some time that in all honesty I probably would have spent playing Angry Birds anyway) and if I am right I stand to gain everything. To extend the idea beyond Pascal's original purview, it really makes more sense to believe in anything than it does to believe that this life is all we have.

I have heard it argued that not believing in God grants the greatest freedom. I find this idea curious, at best; I could probably post another entire rant in response to it. But for today I'll trade a little freedom (or I would if I had to, which I don't) for a reality that's more interesting than what's in my head.