Yesterday I wrote about one of the things I hate about religion, the tyranny of their ideas, or said another way, using religious belief as a justification to force their beliefs on everyone. But there has been a lot lately in the news about religion and atheists, and in my mind some very confused babble. Two particular articles last week were The Way of the Agnostic by Gary Gutting, and Is Atheism a Religion – Room for Debate. The later is fairly simple to deal with and I am an atheist. No, it is not a religion unless you decide that you have the ultimate truth and everyone else should believe it. The beauty of my atheism is that I can show rationally why most religious beliefs are nonsense, but tomorrow is another day. In other words, I don’t know everything and I am always searching. If you are no longer searching but have the absolute confidence in you convictions, well then it has become a religion for you because now it is based on faith, not on an ever questioning mind that is open to change.
But Gary Gutting’s article gives me a little more raw material to work with. Gary is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and he takes an intellectual approach to understanding some of the nonsense in religion, but to not disavow religion itself. I won’t pretend I understood everything he said. It was a slog, but he made some good points, but I think he missed the simple and direct understanding of religion which I will get to, so eloquently written in Life of Pi. His first statement I believe is pretty much true:
“On the one hand, religions express perennial human impulses and aspirations that cannot plausibly be rejected out of hand as foolish or delusional. The idea that there is simply nothing worthwhile in religion is as unlikely as the idea that there is nothing worthwhile in poetry, art, philosophy or science. On the other hand, taken at their literal word, many religious claims are at best unjustified and at worst absurd or repugnant. There may be deep truths in religions, but these may well not be the truths that the religions themselves officially proclaim. To borrow a term Jürgen Habermas employs in a different context, religions may suffer from a “self-misunderstanding” of their own significance.”
You can read this as religion can be very good and motivate us to find truth and justice in the world, but a lot of it is nonsense, provenly false, but that does not negate some of its basic truths that are not based on literal belief of religion’s stories. Okay, I can certainly go with that. I don’t need to believe in a fairy godfather who watches over each of our lives to believe that the some of the morals and directives for the way we should treat our fellow human beings are not basic truths. He then spends a lot of time explaining how religion typically satisfies these basic human needs, love, understanding, and knowledge. He makes some good points about how religion satisfies these needs. Note that this has nothing to do with whether it is “true”, but a way that it works. He says it best:
“There are serious moral objections to aspects of some religions. But many believers rightly judge that their religion has great moral value for them, that it gives them access to a rich and fulfilling life of love. What is not justified is an exclusivist or infallibilist reading of this belief, implying that the life of a given religion is the only or the best way toward moral fulfillment for everyone, or that there is no room for criticism of the religion’s moral stances.”
He then takes on atheists by criticizing their belief that the very lack of good arguments for religious claims provides a solid basis for rejecting all of them. My problem with the rest of his argument is that it broke down into he said/she said. In other words it became a philosophical argument about morality and aesthetic meanings and how religion gives many the needed moral superiority of their beliefs. He implies that the fact that we can not understand some of our experiences means we can never know the answer to this question. That may be true, but I would add that his view is far evolved from what we actually see embodied as religious belief today, and in that embodiment one can understand why atheism could become a religion, denying all aspects of religion. He finishes with what I think is a great piece of advice:
“We should, then, make room for those who embrace a religion as a source of love and understanding but remain agnostic about the religion’s knowledge claims. We should, for example, countenance those who are Christians while doubting the literal truth of, say, the Trinity and the Resurrection. I wager, in fact, that many professed Christians are not at all sure about the truth of these doctrines —and other believers have similar doubts. They are, quite properly, religious agnostics.”
I found quite a bit of truth and common ground between religion and moral atheists in this article, but I found it a hard slog. Using rational thought sometimes just confuses the issue even though I am a profound rationalist. Sometimes literature can provide meaning that rational arguments struggle to impart. They give us great insight into our human condition. That is why I now turn to that absolutely wonderful book by Yann Martel, Life of Pi.
In this book, the main character, Pi, needs religion to understand the wonder of his world. It is a need basic to his very being. He even shows us how faith is critical whether we believe in a supreme being or not as was embodied in his rational biology teacher who had his own faith in the workings of nature. But Pi was never one into the “literal word” or as as Gary described it above, in the “knowledge” of religion, because he practiced being a Hindu, Muslim, and Christian even though his parents tell him he has to choose because you can’t have contradictory “knowledge”.
Pi then spends 227 days on a lifeboat and he is challenged with the chaos and cruelty of the loss of his family, the punishment he is suffering at the vicissitudes of a chaotic ocean , and his belief in a just and caring god. Yet he sees all the amazing wonder about him so beautifully display in the wonderful motion picture, and can only see this in some spirituality beyond himself. But he resolves all of this and all the questions of atheism and religion when he is being questioned by the two Japanese investigators who just can’t believe his fantastic story about Robert Parker (The tiger he shared his boat with). So Pi tells them a different story about the cook, a injured seaman, and his mother in the life raft. It is a story of violence, murder, and survival. At the end he says to the two interrogators:
“I told you two stories that account for the 227 days in between.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Neither explains the sinking of the Tsimtsum.”
“Neither makes a factual difference to you.”
“You can’t prove which story is true and which is not. You must take my word for it.”
“I guess so.”
“In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”
Mr. Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question…”
Mr. Chiba” “The story with the animals.”
Mr. Okamoto: “Yes. The story with animals is the better story.”
Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
I think we interpret the world the way we need to. It allows us to do things we do not think we can do otherwise. Sometimes it allows us to far exceed our own abilities and expectations. It allows us to understand and appreciate the world around us or to simply deal with it. It gives us comfort. But in the end it is a personal choice and unless it is used to force choices on others (see yesterday’s blog) or to limit our understanding, why should we care? We are all seeking truth, understanding, and love, and how we get there is not so very important that we have to establish only one path. There are many paths. I think that is what Gary was saying and Yann said in his narrative. That is what religion is all about and the only other blogs I will do on the issue is when fools try to use religion as a tool to enslave the rest of us or limit the ways we can understand the world around us and limit our ability to find truth, love, and understanding.