Esteemed cosmologist, and my old friend, Andrew Jaffe just posted a quick retort on his blog to a long essay by philosopher John Gray. Gray has an objection to the strident challenging tone of modern atheist thought-leaders like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.
I am not the scientist Andrew Jaffe is, and I was hopeful that Gray’s essay was something endearing and woolly, a plea for magic in our contemplative moments. Some time ago I began having issues with my atheism, a matter of personal feeling about this great universe. I’m not sure even now if I am proud or sheepish about it, but it is what it is – I am a woolly atheist.
Gray’s objections alas are very different, and worrisome. Supposedly Gray is discussing why militant religion is in resurgence, but Gray – himself a self-professed atheist – really writes to vilify and blame, cheekily calling the New Atheists “missionary” and “evangelical,” and less cheekily comparing them to the pseudo-scientists who justified Nazi and Soviet genocides.
It took a while for me to understand: John Gray has Stockholm syndrome. He’s been living in a culture that has been deferential to the religious for a very long time, and he can’t see a way past that.
Modern atheists are revolutionaries, not missionaries, and this is their revolution: to insist that in the modern world — where we fly without feathered wings, talk across distances without magic crystals, kill far-away enemies without thunderbolts and stop epidemics without human sacrifices — religion must now justify the exalted place it demands in the making of public policy and education. Continue reading →
Four months since I did any work worth the mention. Five days since my beloved dog T__ died, his death too sudden. He lived 13 years, long enough to see his work completed: my first novel, written and rewritten while his snoring bulk warmed my toes, finally finished; my firstborn son, born to the wife he found for me, now just old enough to remember him always.
We go on. But not comfortably.
I am a privileged man. I live well in a rich country, my few problems good ones to have. As a young man I made public light of our universal predicament, joking that I was an ephemeral being floating through life, leaving no vestige of my passing. In middle-age it is truer and less funny. I am the defiant cry of my parents, exiled by wars both hot and cold from the land of their birth. But I fear I am merely the echo that starts some avalanche. I want something more.
I want to write memorably but I don’t know who is looking for that.
Last year my friend A___ sent an excerpt of Rudy Rucker’s autobiography. Rucker in turn cites Camus to explain the depressing experience of writing as well as you can only to have no one notice. It is what I return to as motivation, a reminder that the world is hard to move. Continue reading →
I have decided to come clean. I am not an atheist.
People who note the Abrahamic and Gothic mythologies behind my first novel, might be a little surprised to hear I ever thought I was an atheist. Thing is, they’re my mythologies too. I’m as entitled to use them to tell my difficult tales as the wonky Athenians were when they took up PTSD through the lens of oracles and furies.
But I thought I was an atheist. I evolved (I mean, a priori). I’m embarrassed by human religions, all illogically animist, perniciously tribal and desperately placatory. The bit in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, where the school choir sings “Oh Lord, please don’t burn us / Don’t grill or toast your flock”? Nutshell. I’ll give Christ points for trying but he got disillusioned hard — I suspect more by the carnival of Palm Sunday than the crucifixion that followed. Building your church on the guy who thrice denied you to the cops, and calling him your rock? That’s one bitter parable.
But I digress.
I just can’t in good conscience call myself an atheist anymore. It’s not even conscience. I recoil in my gut. It’s not merely how self-satisfied they are, from their eloquently brutal public advocates to the know-it-all kids in so many blog comments. It’s that they think they’re just as cosmically right as theists, and they’re not. There is more to heaven and earth, as Hamlet says. I know it in my bones, and to tell me I am wrong to trust this knowledge is as much a con as what the religious try to sell me.
I’ve been checking out agnosticism, which is slowly developing its muscles (and thanks to the wonderful Aldous, I’m open to any idea that comes from a Huxley). Again, the terms of debate all seem to rest on God’s presence or absence. Why must it be so reductive? Why begin with a God, a monolithic spiritual source — or its absence? Even matter changes rules from the very small to the very big, and “matter” itself seems to be a subset of things-that-are-not-energy. Such fecundity and contradiction in things we can see and touch, yet the immaterial is or isn’t in just one way?
I am declaring my own path, and maybe I’ll find fellow travelers. Here’s the map:
I know there is something beyond the physical. I don’t know if it moves mountains but I believe it moves crowds. I believe one day we will have words for it and a form of evidence-based science to explain it — at least as much as our little primate brains can hold. One day maybe our robots will intercede with it for us, as they do with planets now.
I suspect it is, or is found through, an emergent property of humanity or consciousness, just as consciousness is an emergent property of the systems that regulate the disparate organs of single living things. Or not, or also: maybe a kind of life encompasses our own, as we encompass E. coli; maybe it inspires us to write holy books and seek oracles so we treat each other nicely and don’t poison it.
And, sometimes, inevitably and probably usefully, it gets nasty and horrible in the worst ways, echoing and expanding the damage of our own puny venal selves. As all our burning hydrocarbons make tornadoes and hurricanes, as supernovas kill their own worlds and make new ones.
Something is there. What it is, I don’t know. I am OK with that; I even think it a strength. I can contemplate it without preconceptions. I can break bread with the religious, in its generous spirit, learning the peripheral truths of their myths, without being bound by miserly dogma — and without the burden of contempt.
Something is there. We have only known about dark matter for a couple of decades, and all we know for sure is that without it, the universe doesn’t hold together.
Call this, dark consciousness. I believe in it. I have faith.