(3) There is a tree outside my window,
Religious Belief As ‘Properly Basic’
As a student of religion I often encountered arguments both for and against a myriad of spiritual issues: the existence of a god, gods, or some spiritual essence, the value of organized religion, the reality of faith, among others. Virtually every university hosts regular debates on the question of “god.” I have never attended one but I usually take the time to read any material about them, including the basic premise of the debate and the general positions of the participants. Philosophers have managed to devise a limited number of arguments for both sides, and these are generally repeated in each and every debate. The main problem with all arguments for and against the existence of god is very simple, no matter how we rationalize the unknowable, it remains unknowable. We place faith in people, objects, our bodies and senses, nature, the universe, and, for some, god (or a supernaturally ordered universe). As we make progress towards better understanding our universe we still struggle to comprehend some of the most basic premises of existence. Why do we die? Why is suffering part of life? Why are intelligent beings, such as ourselves, such a small part of an enormous universe? We have figured out parts of these questions, but we have yet to put it all together in a meaningful way outside the context of religious explanation, and even those often struggle to adequately address these questions. We are regularly reminded that what we don’t know vastly outweighs what we do, and the answers aren’t coming quickly. Outside of attempted conversion to one ideology or another what is the point of debating the supernatural?
Occasionally (though not very often) someone will ask me about my religious beliefs. I think many just assume I have some deep conviction to a specific belief system because I studied religion. People in my field range from the very religious to the very not. Our common thread is an interest in the beliefs of people around the world, and a desire to probe the limits of what is known and what is thought. Much like the behavioural psychologist who studies people to see why they act the way we do, religious studies scholars concern themselves with the more than the how and what of belief, to break open the why. For me it has always been part of a quest to be understand ultimate truth, the elusive answers to the questions I posed above.
Once, when I was an undergrad, I attempted to systematically document my own beliefs. I have long since lost that document, and it would be irrelevant now anyway. A person who deeply considers their faith will normally fluctuate in what they believe over the course of their lives. After all, when dealing with grand ideas, there are many possible points of contact, and a plethora of directions to explore. Although I am not quite as adventurous as some, I have been exposed to a large number of different ideas about spirituality.
The common debate of religion versus spirituality, one that seems to have found its way around Western society on its own, has so many permutations it challenges even the best religious thinkers. But that is not a question for this post. The real question that concerns me today is, can we resolve the issue of the existence of god if we accept that neither sie will concede (short of god appearing on the mountain and moving it)? Let me first state that I do not have the magic answer that proves or disproves the reality of the supernatural. I have read the arguments that exist and none satisfy me in any real way. They sometimes work rationally, but most fail the “so what?” test. It is fantastic to say that an ordered universe implies an intelligent designer, but we can then ask about the obvious flaws in that design, sickness, suffering, and the dark side of human nature. Surely we could demand a better blueprint. This is, again, beside the point. I don’t want to convince you to believe in a supernatural idea. In fact, I am mostly interested in people accepting moral responsibility for their actions and adhering to a code of behaviour that promotes the value of the person as an interdependent member of society. Thus for me there is no need to argue about the existence of god, although I do think it is a healthy exercise as part of spiritual development (or lack of). I also see the value of philosophical discussion, even if its just a repeated thought experiment, every term, on every campus.
If we are going to get serious about the question of god’s existence, and I have no doubt that many people are serious about it, we need to ask ourselves about our endgame. What do we hope to accomplish from this? Why are we arguing? Why is it so important to you to prove or disprove somethign that by its definition can’t be known for sure? I can see three main motivations for engaging in this conversation, though I am sure there are more. The first is the desire to discuss the topic at hand in a scholarly way, and thus be part of the academic community. in other words, the participant wants to be involved in the debate because it is one of the classic debates of the last few hundred years, in particular the last century or so. This group might also be motivated by the need to definitively convince the other side of the truth of their position. There are certainly those who think they can change the beliefs of others by presenting them with the “facts,” and to some degree I’m sure they can persuade the undecided in one direction or the other. But the thought that someone who is entrenched will suddenly change, even as the result of vigorous debate is mostly a dream. Debates tend to increase people’s belief in their own cause rather than softening them to the other position. The final main motivation I can see for such a debate is insecurity. Certainly there are those who need to convince themselves that what they believe is the truth, and by dismissing the ideas of others with rational arguments they give themselves the security blanket they desire. Now there is nothing wrong with any of these reasons for entering a debate, and if you enjoy the process then you should get involved. I only mention them as a contrast to my own ideas about discussing the supernatural meaning of life. I have never felt the urge to participate in such a debate, mostly because I don’t agree with the purpose of it. If I want to discuss the nature of the universe, and learn other people’s beliefs I’d rather do it a a dialogue, not a debate. Certainly their ideas will challenge my long held assumptions, but as I mentioned on an episode of the podcast that is exactly what I want. I don’t want to be able to hide behind the walls of my own beliefs (as ill-defined as they may be at any given time). Can I speak with conviction about how I see the world? Of course I can, and from time to time I do so on the blog or podcast. I think that the focus of a discussion about the existence of god should be on meaning of such a universe rather than the veracity of the claim. We should present the arguments for and against every kind of belief for people who wish to explore them, but when we meet to discuss beliefs it is more useful to look at the impact of belief. By all means engage in debate if you like, but I will be off sorting out what existence means for those who are experiencing it.
I recently heard a prominent fictional character say that they don’t believe in an afterlife because they don’t want life to be a test. In a future post I will be exploring the notion that the afterlife exists independently of life on earth. In other words, heaven is not a reward for a life well lived, but the next step in the process. Thus it is more like experiencing puberty than graduating high school. The implications of that line of thought are enormous, and I should say that I don’t believe in acting justly because there is a supernatural reward. I think any reward cheapens the activity, though it does not diminish its inherent value independent of the actor.