Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Godlesspell: the two faces of atheism

Richard Dawkins can’t quite make up his mind on how were supposed to feel about our godless existence. On the one hand there’s Dawkins in his sour dour drill sergeant mode, who tries to shame us into accepting our sorry lot. That’s the manly, heroic posture to adopt:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

There are all sorts of things that would be comforting. I expect an injection of morphine would be comforting–it might be more comforting, for all I know. But to say that something is comforting is not to say that it's true.

If it's true that it causes people to feel despair, that's tough. It's still the truth. The universe doesn't owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn't owe us a nice warm feeling inside. If it's true, it's true, and you'd better live with it.  

On the other hand there’s Dawkins in his euphoric, Summer-of-Love mode, who tries to inspire us to embrace the sheer wonderfulness of our godless existence. Follow your bliss:

 Godspell, 35th Anniversary Edition DVD   -

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked -- as I am surprisingly often -- why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?

1 comment:

  1. One thing immediately comes to mind n regards to the drill sergeant situation: C.S. Lewis in 'The Problem of Pain' makes the point that, while we can approximate a total sum of suffering, no one actually suffers that. Paraphrasing his example - I may have a toothache of pain "x". You may also have a toothache of pain "x" therefore the total sum of pain is 2x. But neither one of us suffers from pain 2x. I would also refer to his chapter on Animal pain as well. While suffering can be and is horrible, let me state something that would probably be considered horrendous in this P.C. world - it is not without benefit. Speaking personally, I've been thru triple bypass, a 3-day coma, and a compressed vertebrae. But they have also been instances of blessings as well as pain.