I was going to keep my mouth shut on the atheism thing, but an essay the other day in the NYTimes, by MIT’s Alan Lightman (Our Lonely Home in Nature) both amused and pissed me off a little.
I’m supposed to side with the scientists when they go all anti-religion, but this dude went one step beyond and dismissed my own world view in a dangerous way. Thankfully, he did it in a way that made me laugh.
I applaud Lightman’s humanistic message that we humans need to look after each other. I could not agree more with atheists like him and Richard Dawkins that don’t believe we should depend on being rescued from our follies by a magic God. It’s been a few years since Sam Harris’ the End of Faith announced, “F- you and your stupid god.” OK, I’m paraphrasing a bit there, the book was a vigorous atheist response to the religious fanaticism of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. It’s an important book, great for discussion, but these atheist diatribes rub me the wrong way for two reasons. Their apparent lack of irony in holding righteous and fundamentalist world views, and their lack of compassion for people who find comfort in religion. The hypocrisy of a rational humanism without compassion for most of humanity seems to me a shaky foundation.
My view on how people use religion is informed by my experiences with patients on our transplant and leukemia service. WhenI’m on the wards, the phrase, “there are no atheists in fox holes,” often comes to my mind. I see good people, regular Joes and Janes, who have been kidnapped by disease and thrown into a world of illness and death they are completely unprepared for. Good for Christopher Hitchens who can face death with areligious rationality. Good for Richard Dawkins who can contemplate the horrors of the known and the abyss of the unknown with a calculus textbook and the complete works of Shakespeare for comfort and guidance. But, for the um… “handful” of people that weren’t educated at Oxford or MIT, a concept of God is a fucking useful tool for understanding and communicating about the universe. It pisses me off when the intellectual 1% look down their noses at the struggles of their fellow men and women trying to make sense of their world.
I smiled when, in the first pages of Dawkin’s “The God Delusion,” he says he isn’t arguing against the God of Einstein and Spinoza because theirs is an esoteric view held by an insignificant minority. Ha!! That minority is me!! And the nature-based religion I hold dear is the view that Lightman takes a swipe at in his piece. Briefly, the foundation of Spinoza’s view is that there is no separation between the creator and the created. This division is the foundation of the Abrahamic religions, but serves a mostly political purpose, and erasing this line brings the religious and secular worlds into harmony. Spinoza believed that studying the world was the way to get closer to God. “Nature is God,” is an oversimplification, but comes close. Which brings me to what was humorous and mildly offensive about the “Our Lonely Home in Nature” essay.
The first thing that made me smirk was the arrogance in the guise of humility. The Lightman piece describes his near-death experience in the Aegean Sea. He and his wife lost sight of land and the experience of nearly getting caught in a strong wind changed his life. He realized that, “there was no compassionate overseer or oceanic consciousness…” Sure, many of us have had the realization that, hey, I could die here. I have sympathy there. Life is fragile, for sure. What made me chuckle was the light bulb over this guy’s head, thinking, if the universe doesn’t care about me personally…then the universe doesn’t care about anyone. Heh. If I’m not the center of the universe, then the universe is an ass!! That made me laugh.
The smile was wiped off my face by Lightman’s core argument that, “Nature, in fact, is mindless.” Ok, hold up, that view is deeply stupid. My childhood was infused with science fiction and I’m still fascinated by the question of whether there is intelligent life in the universe besides ours. Think about non-human consciousness for a minute. If there are other life forms out there…you think they will look like Tasha Yar*? Doubtful. One could argue that the greatest challenge in our search for extraterrestrial life is our lack of imagination regarding what constitutes life and intelligence. Beyond star-gazing, the “nature is not intelligent,” view is dangerous for life here on earth. Lightman advocates looking with our own limited intelligence and profound ignorance at the infinite complexity of Nature and concluding that there is no mind there because we don’t recognize ourselves in it. Do I recognize myself in my fellow humans? Sometimes. Not always. If someone is different from me, if someone doesn’t care about me, does that make them mindless? No. Lightman has taken secularism to an extreme that undermines not only Western religion, but also core principles of Eastern religions (e.g. there is no real separation between you and the universe) and condones a close-minded outlook that shuts out our fellow humans if they don’t look like us.
* Thanks to DrugMonkey for pointing out that Tasha Yar was, in fact, human. I agree, Kira Nerys would be better example here..