Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I wish it was the sixties

Its one of those days where everything seems wrong, and since I can't do a thing about the real problems I have, I try to concentrate on the small, ordinary tasks in front of me. I find that the best therapy for helplessness is to reach out and touch something real: plants in the garden or dirty dishes or yarn on a needle. Physical objects are both more solid and more malleable than fears about the future, more solid than pain or fatigue or worries about money.

Whenever a doctor reads my medical records and sees that I've been diagnosed with depression, they try to refer me to counseling, and I have a hard time explaining why I have no desire to go. Talking about things does make you feel better, but it can only help so much when your problems are genuinely unchangeable. No one can take away the pain I feel, and no one can make the VA give me the benefits to which I'm entitled; talking about things won't change that a bit, but talking is all the help that doctors ever offer.

Completing tasks that decrease the amount of entropy in my immediate environment is my primary method of coping. What I mean is, I plant seeds and knit sweaters because changing some small thing so that its different than it was before is a way of affirming my connection to the world, to life, to happiness. I put my world in order to prove that some things are improvable. I hate to assume that anyone is reading this, but if you see this and have a particular coping mechanism that you've more or less invented on your own, it would be neat to hear about it.

I completed the finishing on two sweaters in the past couple of days, and filled the tires of my bicycle this morning. I'm going to teach myself a new knitting pattern here in a bit, and things are growing in my garden. For now, the sun is shining, and I took some pictures.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Living with Darwin

Christian resistance to Darwin rests on the genuine insight that life without God, in the sense of a Darwinian account of the natural world, really does mean life without God in a far more literal and unnerving sense. Even those who understand, and contribute to, the enlightenment case can find the resultant picture of the world, and our place in it, unbearable.

...For many Americans, their churches, overwhelmingly supernaturalist, providentialist churches, not only provide a sense of hope, illusory to be sure, but also offer other mechanisms of comfort. They are places in which hearts can be opened, serious issues can be discussed, common ground with others can be explored, places in which there is real community, places in which people come to matter to one another- and thus come to matter to themselves. Without such places, what is left?

…There is truth in Marx's dictum that religion, more precisely supernaturalist and providentialist religion, is the opium of the people, but the consumption should be seen as medical rather than recreational. The most ardent apostles of science and reason recommend immediate withdrawal of the drug- but they do not acknowledge the pain that would be left unpaliated, pain too intense for their stark atheism to be a viable solution. Genuine medicine is needed, and the proper treatment consists of showing how lives can matter.

- Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith,
Philip Kitcher

Kitcher’s Living with Darwin is as elegant a defense of evolution against Intelligent Design as any I’ve read, and I recommend reading it if you’re interested in the subject. The part of the book that I most valued, however, was his conclusions about the place of religion in a society that accepts scientific reality. Kitcher describes two variations of religion; the first is “providentialist” religion, which is based on the idea “that the universe has been created by a Being who has a great design, a Being who cares for his creatures, who observes the fall of every sparrow and who is especially concerned with humanity.” The second variation is what he calls “spiritual” religion, which doesn’t rely on any description of the supernatural, but is solely concerned with the state of one’s mind and one’s relationship with others.

Kitcher, who, by the way, is a professor of philosophy, makes a strong case for the incompatibility of providentialist religion and current scientific knowledge, but, unlike a lot of what I’ve been reading lately on the subject of science, he doesn’t take that to mean that people should resign themselves to being without the comfort of religion. His entire essay is a wonderful argument for reinventing religion as a primarily social phenomenon, concerned with the present, not stories about the past or future.

His final few paragraphs, about the idea that “religion is the opium of the people,” got me thinking. There is actually quite a bit of similarity between the way I face physical pain and the way I think about religion. A lot of people with chronic pain try to keep positive by telling stories about the possibility that in the future they will recover; doctors recommend techniques to distract the mind from focusing on pain. Avoidance is a common coping technique, and when it comes to pain, it’s a perfectly healthy one, but I find that it does nothing to make me feel better about being in pain.

The best way I’ve found to stay positive is actually to spend a little time focusing on the pain, feeling exactly how and where it hurts, falling into it to see if, this time, I will be overwhelmed. I do this, and I find that, as bad as it gets, I can endure it. I may moan and cry, but when it comes down to it, I am able to make the choice to live in pain, and I find that strength an incredibly positive thing.

I think this is very similar to the way I refuse stories about the world that offer a more comforting version of reality. I want the world as it is, no matter how much it hurts. And its kind of funny that I can see how odd I am when it comes to my pain coping techniques, but I’m inclined to expect that everyone will react the same way I do to the conflict between religion and science. Reading Kitcher makes me think that it may be more important to carve a place for the religious impulse in science than is obvious to me.

Friday, April 18, 2008

I'll be here quite a while

Some days it just seems like everything I can think of to say has already been said better by someone else, and I find that it feels more rewarding to sit on my ass and watch bootlegged episodes of grim crime shows.

Some things that people have said about how stupid our political process is getting: the funny, by publius at Obsidian Wings, and the angry, by Brad at Sadly, No!

Suzie at Echidne of the Snakes proves that I'm actually a man, because I'm argumentative and I don't like shoes.

I'm kind of in love with Wheelchair Dancer. Also with Cuttlefish.

And in the best news I've had in a long time, my physical therapist today had me try a paraffin bath for my hands, because heat sometimes decreases the amount of pain I feel. These things are absolutely wonderful, and not only do I get to look forward to episodes of the absence of pain in my hands once a week when I go to physical therapy, but she may be able to help me get the VA to buy me my very own paraffin warmer, like this one. If all this positivity keeps up, I may have to abandon my belief that the VA is run by a demon overlord straight out of Buffy who feeds on human suffering.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Just a better way to fall

So my brother wants to know why I’m an atheist.

Short answer is, I’m an atheist because I haven’t encountered a persuasive reason to believe that a God, or anything else supernatural, exists.

Long answer is, I was raised to believe that there is a God- the God of the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.

And I fell away from various aspects of this faith one at a time. The first to go was belief in ‘the holy catholic church' and 'the communion of saints.’ Frankly, Christians aren’t better people than anyone else, and their actions show it. There are good and bad Christians just like there are good and bad people of all faith; there is nothing about the church that is holy or even unusual in any way.

The second belief to go was the belief that Jesus is the son of God, and all that follows from that. C. S. Lewis wrote on various occasions versions of the idea that there are two options: either Jesus was who he said he was, i.e. God, or he was a madman; he can’t possibly have been just an above-average, wise man. I was raised in the middle of all kinds of “proof” that Jesus was God and that he really did rise from the dead, and my rejection of this belief didn’t actually deal with the factual veracity of any of these claims. What I realized was that Lewis’ imagination was too limited. There is in fact a third option: Jesus was an ordinary man, manipulated by God because God views human history as a work of art that is more interesting when covered in blood. History makes ever so much more sense if you don’t try to wedge it into a worldview that includes a good and loving God.

Along with the idea that Jesus is God, I abandoned the idea that there is a God who is interested in me personally. There have been times in my life where the smallest intervention would have made the difference between hope and despair; and I don’t mean “small” miracles, I mean the little coincidences that are so often used in churches to support the idea that God loves each of us personally. A smile, a kind word, a hopeful dream, the sort of thing that people often claim God does all the time. The year I was 17, I spent a lot of time praying for some small sign that there was a God who cared, but nothing ever came. When you go to church on a regular basis, you're told all the time that you have to pray and read your Bible consistently because you have to have a relationship with God and relationships take persistent work, but it was like trying to have a relationship with a rock… or an imaginary friend. Eventually I gave up.

I guess what it comes down to is that this is just the way my mind works. I am not capable of faith. I am not able to subscribe to an ideology that I know isn’t supported by any kind of evidence. Things have to make logical sense to me; I think things through and reject my emotional reactions in favor of ideas that I can support with evidence (not just in the religious arena, either: sometime I should write about my hopeless fondness for anarchist political philosophy). I’m not always right; my logical reasoning is sometimes flawed, but I still have to try. Its just the way I am.

And honestly, I think its a good way to be. Life doesn’t consist of the world the way we want it to be, it consists of the world as it is. Emotion is an important part of being human, and intuition and faith and all that are an important part of the way the human mind works, but in order to be a successful person, you have to be able to deal with the world as it is. That means dealing with facts, facing fear and pain, and, when you tell stories about the world to make it seem a more hospitable place, you have to understand what is story and what is real.

I think this also answers, at least partially, the question of what exactly I mean when I say I am an atheist. I believe that the world can be discovered. I believe in reason and science and a way of looking at the world that requires facts before conclusions. There really isn't an atheist orthodoxy that I follow, but a better writer than I put it this way:

An atheist's creed

I believe in time,
matter, and energy,
which make up the whole of the world.

I believe in reason, evidence and the human mind,
the only tools we have;
they are the product of natural forces
in a majestic but impersonal universe,
grander and richer than we can imagine,
a source of endless opportunities for discovery.

I believe in the power of doubt;
I do not seek out reassurances,
but embrace the question,
and strive to challenge my own beliefs.

I accept human mortality.

We have but one life,
brief and full of struggle,
leavened with love and community,
learning and exploration,
beauty and the creation of
new life, new art, and new ideas.

I rejoice in this life that I have,
and in the grandeur of a world that preceded me,
and an earth that will abide without me.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The days get longer and the nights smell green

We're finally getting weather that is consistently warm enough to go out in, although we've also been getting a rather large amount of rain. Today the sky is clear, though, so I went out to the park.
The world is a beautiful place.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Problem of Pain: The Celestial Abuser

Until the evil man finds evil unmistakably present in his existence, in the form of pain, he is enclosed in illusion.

If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. ... Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. ... The creature's illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature's sake, be shattered; and by trouble or fear of trouble on earth, by crude fear of the eternal flames, God shatters it "unmindful of His glory's diminution". Those who would like the God of scripture to be more purely ethical, do not know what they ask. If God were Kantian, who would not have us until we came to Him from the purest and best motives, who could be saved? And this illusion of self-sufficiency may be at its strongest in some very honest, kindly, and temperate people, and on such people, therefore, misfortune must fall.

-C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Everyone knows that God prefers the weak to the strong, the humble to the proud, the poor to the rich, the child to the philosopher. I was always under the impression that this was because God was egalitarian in a way that human society can never be, and judged people solely on their merits and not their social status, but C. S. Lewis would have his readers believe that this isn't the case. God loves broken people for the same reason that an abuser prefers to form relationships with people who have little education or life experience and don't have social support systems: they're easier to manipulate into a position of complete dependency.

When humans exhibit this kind of behavior, it is condemned as despicable and creepy and unhealthy; I'm not entirely sure why Lewis describes the same kind of behavior as one of the nobler characteristics of God. He goes on at length about how perfect God is, and how ugly and mean humans are, but even if you grant that humans benefit from a relationship with God no matter the circumstances of that relationship, I don't really see how it follows that we should accept that God causes us pain because he loves us. If there were a rich guy who took in poor kids, bought them clothes and tutors and vacations in Spain and improved their lives in a multitude of ways, but at the same time cut them off from their family so that they would be completely dependent on him, the good he did wouldn't outweigh the creepy abusiveness of demanding complete dependence.

Lewis is very clear that this suffering is sent by God with a purpose. Its not the direct result of sin, or the action of some other near-omnipotent godlike being like Satan or anything. This suffering is inflicted on good, "honest, kindly, and temperate people," so its not meant as punishment to direct people away from sinful ways. Lewis is clear that God's purpose in allowing suffering is to strip away every good thing in life so that people will have no sense of self-sufficiency, no sense of control, no sense that there is any hope of joy in anything but Him. I guess whether or not you see this as psychopathic behavior depends on whether or not you think that its true, that there is no hope of anything positive apart from God. Clearly Lewis thinks that this kind of behavior is admirable and holy. I can't help but think, though, that even if its true that there is an almighty God who knows that humans can only be happy when they're with him, that doesn't make manipulating people with all the horror the world holds into something pure and holy.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Problem of Pain: The Goodness of God

Previous posts on this topic here and here.

"Love and kindness are not coterminous... Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering. As Scripture points out, it is bastards who are spoiled: the legitimate sons, who are to carry on the family tradition, are punished. It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms: with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes."

"You asked for a loving God: you have one. ... not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself... persistent as the artist's love for his work and despotic as a man's love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father's love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes."

"It is good for us to know love; and best for us to know the love of the best object, God. But to know it as a love in which we were primarily the wooers and God the wooed, in which we sought and He was found, in which His conformity to our needs, not ours to His, came first, would be to know it in a form false to the very nature of things. For we are only creatures: our role must always be that of patient to agent, female to male, mirror to light, echo to voice. Our highest activity must be response, not initiative."

"When we want to be something other than the thing God wants us to be, we must be wanting what, in fact, will not make us happy. Those Divine demands which sound to our natural ears most like those of a despot and least like those of a lover, in fact marshal us where we should want to go if we knew what we wanted... whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want. "
-C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

C. S. Lewis clearly was a product of some of the worst cultural prejudices of his time, and its difficult for me to type out these quotes without ranting about the years I spent convinced by my religion that my very nature was abhorrent. However, the damage this version of Christianity does to impressionable young girls is not the point today. The point is how Lewis defines the love and goodness of God in order to get around the problem of pain in a world ruled by a loving God. Like I said in the previous post, Lewis admits that if God is loving as we generally think of the term, then there is no way to reconcile the reality of suffering people experience with the power of God. He solves this problem by redefining "loving" as "abusive."

I realize this is a bold claim, so to illustrate my point, here's a picture:
This is an infant with smallpox. According to Wikipedia, during (the first 3/4s of) the 20th century between 300 and 500 million people died of smallpox; 80% of children infected with the virus that causes smallpox died. Smallpox is not caused by any kind of human sin. Its not even sexually transmitted- you can get it simply from breathing near someone who is infected. Or you could, anyway, until it was eradicated with the use of vaccinations in a worldwide effort.

Since we measly humans were able to erase smallpox from the face of the earth, I have to assume that even Lewis' not-quite-omnipotent God had the power to do something about it, but didn't; therefore, either smallpox was created for some purpose or God just didn't care. Its clear from the selections above that Lewis believes the same thing I was taught growing up: God cares, and does have a purpose: any misfortune that can't be prayed away is actually a lesson from God specially designed to make one a better, more holy person. Its all for the best, see. God hurts you because he loves you.

I think Lewis' upbringing and cultural blindness influenced his philosophy of love. Influenced really isn't a strong enough word. Dictated, maybe- although maybe I'm being harsh on his culture and the deviance here is all Lewis'. The "love" Lewis describes is the blindly jealous obsession of the stalker who would kill the object of his affection rather than see her love another, the stubborn stupid pride of the father who disowns his son for choosing a career of which he doesn't approve. People who love do beautiful things, and they do horrible things, but I think that most people at least wish that their love would produce only things that are beautiful, and not horrible. Lewis doesn't seem to agree. For him, the horrible things done in the name of love are a more true sign of love than anything else. He patterns his God after the most twisted and evil side of human nature, and calls Him good.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Problem of Pain: Omnipotence

Today C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain finally made it through the queue at the library. I've read the first few chapters and already have about a million things I want to say about it, which I guess is as good a criteria for a good book as any. This whole internal debate process started with a post I wrote a while back about creationism and the problem of pain, here.

Lewis defines the problem of pain like this: "If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both." I think that Lewis believed that he had a solution to this problem, but he admits further on in the same paragraph that "if the popular meanings attached to these words (speaking of 'good', 'almighty' and 'happy') are the best, or the only possible, meanings, then the argument is unanswerable." Normally an attempt to define away the terms of an argument as a means of defeating the argument would annoy the hell out of me, but the way Lewis defines things is interesting, so I'm going to write about it like this isn't a cheap and cowardly tactic.

The first term he addresses is 'almighty;' if I'm reading this right, what he's saying is that an almighty God can't in fact do anything he wishes, but instead has limits. He claims to believe in miracles- I guess he didn't particularly want to be a heretic- but maintains that a physical universe must have certain natural laws that produce a certain amount of suffering, and God is not able to create a universe that doesn't work this way.

"The inexorable "laws of Nature" which operate in defiance of human suffering or desert, which are not turned aside by prayer, seem, at first sight to furnish a strong argument against the goodness and power of God. I am going to submit that not even Omnipotence could create a society of free souls without at the same time creating a relatively independent and "inexorable" Nature."

The proof of this, I think, is supposed to be free will, which requires things to choose among, which requires a physical world, which requires laws of nature, which means the exact laws of nature which we have now and which cause so much suffering.

This approach is very interesting to me. I've heard a lot of people talk about the problem of pain from the angle of goodness, and from the angle of happiness, but I don't think I've ever actually encountered someone who seriously argued that part of the solution to the problem is the idea that God is not actually omnipotent as we understand the word, but rather is constrained by the laws of the universe (but can somehow do miracles anyway, as long as he limits them enough to not actually prove or disprove his existence). It makes sense, but it's not an argument I expect from a Christian, much less C. S. Lewis. If God is subject to scientific laws of nature, you'd expect science to be a big deal, but Lewis is much fonder of weird magical thinking, which he shows in his chapter on the Fall of Man, where he spins a tale that accepts evolution but posits a 'missing link' between pre-humans and modern humans that is essentially super-human: in control of every cell in the body, never dying or ill or in pain, fully one with God and the animals around him and at peace. Like I said, weird and fantastical.

Lewis makes it clear that he believes both that God is limited in power, and that God is something beyond human comprehension beside which humans are vermin. In his chapters on the goodness of God and the wickedness of men, he actually goes into quite a bit of detail about how horrible humans are and how unfortunate it is that modern culture doesn't condemn everything human as utterly worthless and disgusting. These two beliefs don't seem very compatible to me, and if you had asked me before I read this if claiming the omnipotence of God was limited was allowed in orthodox Christianity I would have said it absolutely was not. However, this book is supposed to be one of the best modern works on the problem of pain, so I guess I must be wrong about that. Anyway, Lewis' positions on omnipotence aren't nearly as interesting as his positions on goodness and love, but I think I'm going to write a separate post for that.