Monday, April 20, 2009

On getting someone else to stare into the Abyss

I've had a healthy respect and awe for science ever since I was able to utter the word 'science'. In nigh 3 decades on this Earth, I've come to know enough of it's history and methods to understand that the universe holds far more wonders than any human could possibly imagine, and that science is the only (reliable) way to uncovering these wonders.

Now, it took many years and no small amount of books in various fields to build up my present understanding. A MSci in Physics certainly didn't hurt, and, after a hell of a lot more reading after receiving my degree, I'm very much accustomed to living this life based on logic and evidence.

In every theist I've encountered, religion is truly a crutch. God is thanked for every good thing that happens in this life, and every bad thing (including, of course, conversations with people like me) is a test of faith. Prayers are made, regardless of known success rates or lack thereof. Life and death are accepted with a certain kind of shallow forebearance, as they continue to tell themselves that loved ones long since past their expiry date are "in a better place"*.

All these little lies they tell themselves, just to draw a pretty pink curtain between them and the abyss of existential angst. They want, with all their hearts, to believe that there's a point to it all, that beyond the cold touch of death, someone will love them. Anyone acquainted with a smidgeon of history or philosophy** (or the finances of the Vatican) is well aware how such desires can be twisted to suit the purposes of those who seek power over others. But that is not the focus of this entry.

What I'd like to call your attention to is the more down-to-earth breed of believer. I suppose we atheists would call them 'moderates' - you know, the quiet ones who just try hard to live well and do the right thing, and are generally either sensible enough or just brainwashed to ignore the more insane parts of whatever scripture they happen to be following. And what I think about whenever I meet such people is:

How does one remove the parasite without injuring the host?

A situation not unlike this comes to mind:

Assume for a moment that I've just had a long talk with one of these moderates and struck a killing blow to her faith and the whole system of self-supporting myths in her head comes tumbling down. What then? Many of the moderates I encounter are scientifically illiterate working professionals who, over the course of their lives, filled in pretty much all the gaps in their knowledge with God. I have likened religion to a crutch, and, in the cases of many adherents I meet, the crutch has been in use for so long, I really don't know anymore if they can do without it.

*Somewhere around here I had about 3 paragraphs of what I felt was rather good stuff. Then Windows decided to install some updates and restart and send what I thought were some fairly inspired words right down the crapper. What follows is my heartbroken and hamfisted attempt to recreate what was lost.*

How could I possibly impart my solution to my existential angst in it's entirety to a former adherent? It seems to me like trying to fill a dump truck with a teaspoon! I have no simple solution, and the answer that I am ultimately satisfied with is a large array of interconnected truths I have come to realize over many years. Like a sword forged with my own hands, my answer is mine alone, and I cannot quite share it in it's entirety with anyone else even if I wanted to, simply because I am me, and no one else is.

What I suppose I can try to do is lay out some of the basics. I could say something about the ways of empiricism, which are simple enough. I could state with great confidence that our minds are immensely powerful, yet so very limited, and try as we might, we may only ever take a small sip out of a boundless sea of information. I could try to point out that life is both utterly meaningless and singularly significant. Your mind makes it as important as you choose to make it. By the very same token, our very existence is both with and without purpose, miraculous, yet inevitable. Such attributes are simply constructs of the human mind, illusions that we choose to make real, like good, evil, justice, duty...

All these little truths I mention are woven together to form the core of the mental (spiritual?) machinery that keeps me running. None will stand alone by themselves. All have thus far held up under scrutiny to my satisfaction for nigh 30 years, where many other "truths" have since withered away.

So how can I go up to one of the innumerable vapid, consumerist believers that populate our planet, kill their god in front of their face, and fill the yawning void left behind? To break through wall after wall of denial, hubris and ignorance to tear down the delusion is one thing, but it seems to me to be insufficient to leave it at that. It seems to me that among the more insidious side effects of the theist delusion is a lingering scorn for intellectual pursuits. This is a problem which I sense has not quite been addressed adequately by the atheist camp, though not for lack of effort.

I can't claim to have a solution, but I write this now to lay out what I can of the problem as I percieve it. The modern atheist is stuck with either preaching to the crowd or, at best, winning over those who are already wavering in their faith. The die-hard faithful will forever hate us, and, by association, anything even vaguely related to science, but they are not an issue, being as they are the dim end of the bell curve. What I'm interested in is the bulk of believers, who just quietly get on with it, the ones you don't see in the papers, the ones who, ultimately, must be turned in order for religion to finally be put in its proper place.

* And, as George Carlin points out, not for an instant do they entertain the possibility that dead loved ones may well have been doing the wrong thing all their lives and hence ended up in, say, Niflheim or wading through serpents in the Sanzu River.

** And I mean philosophy, not metaphysical mucking about.

No comments: