A couple of weeks ago I proposed that physicists have essentially stumbled onto the existence of some form of “super”natural reality, and that their discoveries tip the balance of evidence in favor of the existence of a God. Thanks to Andrew Sullivan at The Dish, I found a piece from Walter Russell Mead that sums up very eloquently what that sort of belief in God actually means:
Like [the late Christopher] Hitchens, religious believers look at values like justice and truth and find them to be compelling in their own right. That power is real. But theists also think these values point beyond themselves and tell us something about the way the world is made. The concept of justice isn’t just a product of our evolutionary upbringing, a flicker of sensation in our synapses that points to nothing beyond our conditioning or our genes. Justice claims to be a real value, objectively rooted in something beyond human perception, a legitimate demand on our consciences based on the nature of reality. Theists don’t think that this is a lie.
For theists, the universe isn’t just a place with scattered bits of meaning in it. Meaning isn’t decoration or illusion, a subjective human response to hardwired stimuli in our brains or grace notes that accompany us on our meaningless way through the dark void. Existentialists and others who believe that the universe is ultimately meaningless but who still choose to act as if meaning was real are among the moral heroes of the world, but theists think there is more to life than the brave but doomed affirmation of meaningless ideals in the face of an idiot, uncaring universe.
I highly recommend the whole article. Great Sunday read.
I suppose I have a couple of comments about this, first that Mead is obviously writing as a Christian and, frankly, has a hard time wrapping his brain around the concept that others do not accept his theism. He tries to imagine how an atheist views life, the universe and everything, but does so through a lens inevitably colored by his own views.
Second, it’s a heck of a long haul from the nebulous transcendentalism he describes to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What I mean by that there is a philosophical concept of god in Aquinas’s uncaused cause or the “spirit” of spiritualism. Then there is the Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim) God, an entity in human form with a history and rituals enacted in detail.
Finally, he writes, “Virtually all human beings encounter something in life that seems to transcend ordinary experience.”
“Seems to” is a key word here. The fact that some instances in a person’s life are more profound than others is not surprising or transcendental; it’s completely normal. The birth of my son was such an experience: on one level it was a moment, an experience, that I will never forget (that combination of pride, astonishment and panic that new fathers feel). On another level, it was a messy, error-prone, and excruciating bit of biology, experienced every day by millions of people. The thing is that people who EXPECT things to “transcend ordinary experience” do indeed find things that do. That does not mean that they actually are anything other than normal experiences perceived as special by that person.
Richard Dawkins pretty much sums up my belief in so called organized Christian religion.
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Mead sounds a little blythe about God’s Personhood when he says that “Something this beautiful, this lively, this intelligent, this powerful, this transcendent, theists believe, cannot be less than alive and self aware. It is not a Thing, but a Person.” Many Persons would be greatly improved by a glimmer of Thinghood that is a fraction as beautiful, lively, intelligent, powerful, and transcendent as life around them.
Are you suggesting that for atheists, “the universe is just a place with scattered bits of meaning in it,” and that for them, “meaning is decoration or illusion…etc.”?
Are you suggesting that athiesms must feel that their lives are meaningless ways through the dark void, and that “existentialists and others who believe that the universe is ultimately meaningless”?
It’s easy to invent an intellectual phalanx and then to read its simple mind, but is it possible that a few, even a lot, of atheists aren’t caricatures wending meaningless ways through the dark void of ultimate meaninglessness in an idiot, uncaring universe with their brave but doomed meaningless ideals?
That’s why I linked to the whole article. From the piece just previous to the excerpt:
Mystic or spiritual experience of the meaning and coherence of existence; the appeal of values like justice and truths which speak directly to our hearts in ways that cannot be denied: these are two ways in which almost everyone on earth experiences the power of transcendence in ordinary life. Having these experiences is part of what it means to be human; interpreting these experiences is what often divides people into different theological and political camps.
Most of the atheists I’ve known have a profound and moving faith in the meaning and value of human life and in the value of abstract ideas and ideals. Some believe in these virtues and values enough to stake their lives on them and they have faith that doing so results in a life that is more meaningful and more real than one squandered simply on the pursuit of material goods or prestige and success. The late Christopher Hitchens was one such person; Hitch passionately believed in social and political ideals and thought it was his duty to speak up for them whatever the consequences.