My wife alerted me to a well written, thoughtful op-ed piece in our local paper, The Roanoke Times, by a minister/philosophy teacher, George C. Anderson, about, yes, you guessed it, the differences between the atheists and believers. (Roanoke Times, 2/2/14, “Must faith be a fairly tale?”). He dismissed recent non-believers, such as Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, as little boy atheists unlike the big boy ones like the existentialists, Sartre and Camus. These latter, Anderson writes, faced a cold valueless universe and still affirmed the need and place for justice. The former he concludes are too vituperative, cherry pick their facts to support their positions, and fail to appreciate the religious good for supporting justice. In conclusion, he affirms his belief in god, a loving god and that I appreciate very much, saying that the cold, lawful but valueless universe is real but not all.
But the context, what about the context? Certainly Sartre and Camus are giants and came to face a meaningless universe while intimately, and please consider the full meaning and power of that word, fighting off fascism and its belief in its own superiority delusional enough to take pride in genocide. It is impossible to understand or accept that evil in any satisfying manner. Dawkins sees religious fundamentalism once again seeking control through any means possible from manipulating elections to murdering doctors performing legal procedures to terrorist violence to genocide. This is current history and Dawkins is concerned that our culture, this Americanized version of western thought, is becoming increasingly anti-scientific. Note America’s loss of standing in STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering and math. Note the acceptance of the validity of intelligent design as science. Note the continued widespread disbelief of the science and data found through studying evolution and climate change. These all reflect a science IQ below freezing. Not that America is alone in this, nor even the leader, thank heavens, as religious fundamentalists around the world kill aid workers who provide immunizations, continue to see females as property and as unworthy of education, doubt that AIDS is a communicable disease, and the list goes on.
Chris Hitchens until his death in 2011 pretty consistently showed rare and much needed courage in reporting world events, from the disgraceful US support of Pinochet to the hypocrisy evident in much of the standard press and society at large. Note his book and movie on Mother Teresa. He did not shy away from visiting dangerous and war torn areas nor from reporting it as he saw it. He protected his friend, Salman Rushdie, from a religious fatwa issued because he wrote a satirical and profound novel, a work of delightful fictional imagination, despite warnings from our own government. The only difference between this fatwa and the religious acts of violence by religious terrorists in this country and around the world is in name only. And Chris Hitchens is one of our times’ best writers and most productive essayists. Little boy indeed.
Because my science IQ is above freezing I am not going to address issues of ignorance evident from the Scopes trial on. I am going to assert that between God and a cold, lawful though valueless universe lies life that is local, warm,wet and caring. All of our cultural beliefs and knowledge have their roots in our biology and the evolution of our brain and mental capacities. And life produces its own values of fairness and justice because, at least on our planet, life has evolved and higher forms succeed and depend upon empathy. For some of the data, I refer you to Frans de Waal’s interesting book, The Age of Empathy, summarizing a life time’s study of animal behaviors. He reports a variety of findings showing that chimpanzees will refuse to participate in an experiment when the procedures are unfair and that they will willingly engage in procedures where a partner is rewarded more than themselves. He tells of an elephant who inadvertently broke a human observer’s leg and then stayed around protecting, even comforting him, from the wild savannah to the point of refusing initially access by the human rescuers. Tales of caring among cetaceans and between them and humans go far back in history. And speaking of injustice I have seen a video of a male blue whale charging the harpooner’s perch after its mate was killed only to meet its own demise. In this regard humans are notable for our violations of fairness and empathy which some seek to justify by their presumed superiority. Yes, we are in a class by ourselves and some of us want to resign and join another.
Another important implication I see growing from our biological roots lies in how our minds reach out to understand. We can feel in the present moment but we otherwise are caught in considering information as old or new. Even our consciousness of now is, as William James so aptly put it, a “remembered present.” Efforts to develop understanding, then, can be based upon feedback, relating new to old, or feedforward, relating old to new. Both are useful and no robust mental operation is exclusively one or the other. The difference can be illustrated in the two major types of remembering (this based upon declarative knowledge). Recognition involves new being recognized as old and recall involves old being produced as new. Religious fundamentalism relies heavily, maybe exclusively, on feedback and recognition. I make a differentiation here between those whose beliefs are perhaps more vital and nuanced like Mr. Anderson’s and then fundamentalists. Mention anything and they understand it in reference and evaluation to their god; it is all in the plan and for the best though beyond our comprehension sometimes. Science, good science, relies more on feedforward processes. Test that hypothesis and revise the old understanding accordingly. Benefiting as I do from the accoutrements of modern society (needing antibiotics and other medications to breathe and stay alive as I write this), I must claim that our brains’ understanding through scientific means is most helpful.
What we cannot comprehend through feedback nor feedforward is our own after death. We cannot, strictly speaking, recognize it nor recall it (except for certain religious beliefs endorsing reincarnation). What we can do is empathize and then render that into meaningful discourse and art. Consider John Donne’s poem, No Man is an Island: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. Our universe is cold, lawful and yields no values EXCEPT where life gains a foothold, keeps the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and entropy in abeyance while yet we live, and cries in joy and sorrow with the other. Finally, listen to Iris Dement’s song, Let the mystery be, wherein she sings about “how everyone is talking about what and where we all came from/ everybody’s worrying about where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done/ but no one knows for certain so it’s all the same to me/ I think I’ll just let the mystery be.” She later affirms what I have taken as my credo, “Oh I believe in love and live my life accordingly/ but I choose to let the mystery be”. Make it so, please.