Monday, 7 April 2008

and the award for the best Internet beard goes to...

Perhaps I wasn't the only one to get an email from Gerry Rzeppa inviting me to check out the children's book he'd written in response to Prof Dawkins' "militant atheism".

To be fair, it's not a bad read, despite it being a typical theistic confusion of ideas. He writes well so I thought he deserved a polite reply.

As a result we've had a rather pleasent debate that I think may be worth sharing with you. Not that we discussed anything remotely new you understand;



ME:
Hi Gerry,

Thanks for the link to your rather interesting book / poem. Despite it jarring with my personal world view, I enjoyed the read as you write well. It does bother me however, how you've typcast those without belief as bitter nihlists who simply dismiss everything as "dust".

I can see how this conclusion may be reached, however it comes from a brittle undestanding of love, meaning and beauty in my view. There needn't be a source or absolute quality to these things for them to be appreciated fully.

I put it to you that people seek God's protection from existential nothingness simply because it is easier than facing the dichotomy face on - that is - knowing the universe to be pointless yet finding ourselves full of point. God may provide easy answers and emotional comfort to the needy, however it isn't the only way to appreciate life, morality and love.

Anyway, it's not my place to debate with you - you're seeking a much greater quarry than I in Mr Dawkins.

Unfortunately, I won't be publicising your book for the above reasons.

Best Regards, Jamon

GERRY: Hello, .

Thanks for the cordial reply. I greatly appreciate that. As I'm sure you know, there's a wide range of emotional responses to these issues!


I agree with you that it is not only possible but very common for individuals to appreciate various aspects of life without the notion of God intruding. I'm not sure, however, that one can fully appreciate such things. As the master atheist Bertram Russell admitted, near the end of his days, full appreciation of anything includes a feeling of gratitude which is left unsatisfied without a proper object. In short, it seems we find ourselves needing -- or at least wanting -- Someone to thank. Without that, our cup may not be empty -- but it doesn't overflow, either.


Secondly, I think many people are not in a position to face life -- much less enjoy it -- with nothing but the courage that a stark "realism" requires. I've known several quadriplegics over the years, for example, and while at least one of them was able to cope as an agnostic, it would have been impossible for the others to persevere without a deeper -- or should I say, higher -- philosophy. It's hard to live without hope. Especially when you can't scratch your own nose.


That's one of the things my little poem is about. Almost any outlook will do when you're in good health on a sunny day. But how do the competing philosophies of life stack up when they're tested under stress? The father in my story behaves as he does because he's working very hard to be rationally consistent. "No sense crying over spilled molecules," logic says. But his emotions, of course, say something entirely different. And since he can't accept the alternative presented him, he ends up lashing out at the preacher -- whom he doesn't even know -- and his "cognitive dissonance," his pain, is revealed. At heart, he may be, as you suggest, bitter. But I hardly think he's as much of an accomplished nihilist as you think. No, he's much more human than that. And I left his ultimate fate, at the end of the story, up in the air for this very reason. There's hope for the guy. Perhaps there's hope still for you.

Gerry

PS. It may (or may not) interest you to know that I was very philosophical, even as a youth, and did some serious exploration in the austere deserts of atheism 'way back then. Curiously enough, I was turned to seek greener pastures by an unexpected week-long bout with a severe case of diarrhea, during which I quickly discovered that I needed either more fortitude or a different philosophy. I guess I took the easy way out! Perhaps God will bless you with a little adversity.


PPS. Are you quite sure thoughts like these wouldn't be of interest -- and perhaps even helpful -- to the readers of your blog?


ME: Gerry,

To address some of your points;

>Thanks for the cordial reply. I greatly appreciate that.

My pleasure.

>[a] full appreciation of anything includes a feeling of gratitude which is left unsatisfied without a proper object. In short, it seems we find ourselves needing -- or at least wanting -- Someone to thank. Without that, our cup may not be empty -- but it doesn't overflow, either.

You're right of course. Many find themselves yearning for something absolute to be thankful to. It's almost as if this need invokes the notion of god though, don't you think? Just because we have this need doesn't mean there's something there to meet it. Strikes me as rather naive to think that there is.

> Secondly, I think many people are not in a position to face life -- much less enjoy it -- with nothing but the courage that a stark "realism" requires.

Again I find myself agreeing with you, though it depends on what you mean by "stark realism".

I have a friend who describes himself as an "atheist, nihlist & misanthrope". He reads Satre, Schopenhauer and Camus all the time. Unsuprisingly I'm sure he suffers from depression. Personally I think he's looking at things from the wrong angle. Whilst I agree with him that everything is pointless (if you choose to reduce life to the lowest common denominator), I don't suffer from the same bleakness. You see for me, if existence is ultimately pointless, then it's pretty pointless to worry and get down about it. There's so much to appreciate and make sense of in the mean time!

I've spent many years now working with people in late stage dementia - people for whom it could be argued, are in desperate need of spiritual comfort. Yet in my experience, the most effective comfort to be given isn't "higher philosophy" or even worship - it is proximity to other human beings - physical and emotional comfort communicated through smiles, embraces and laughter.

Satre said that "hell is other people". I couldn't disagree more - "heaven" can be found in the other - a very real and immediate 'bliss'. We underestimate ourselves when we argue that these feelings of 'love' have to be something anchored in divinity. Our subjective experience of it (or yearning for it) may overwhelm us, but its basis is biological, even if our self-centred perspectives make it into a gestalt - larger than the sum of its parts.

> guess I took the easy way out! Perhaps God will bless you with a little adversity.

Believe me - I'm no stranger to adversity ;)

>Are you quite sure thoughts like these wouldn't be of interest -- and perhaps even helpful -- to the readers of your blog?

Perhaps.

Cheers, Jamon

GERRY: Jamon,

It seems, then, there's some common ground between us. That's a good thing.

I agree that those in late stage dementia -- and those in lesser troubles, as well -- are more in need of "proximity to other human beings" than abstract philosophical and theological maxims. Though God sometimes comforts me with a mere thought, it works better -- and He knows it -- if the requisite thought is delivered with the butter and honey of human compassion. This is, of course, nothing new. "Pure religion," says James, "is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction." Or as songwriter Don Francisco admonishes his fellow Christians, "After you stop the bleeding, you can show them the promised land." But I think it's a mistake to believe that compassion alone will do the trick. Your "patients" will again be left with an ultimately unsatisfying cup, not-quite-full.



And I fully agree that Satre is wrong -- hell is definitely not other people. Rather, hell is utter separation from others -- including God. To be left with nothing but one's conscious self is the most terrifying of fates. Words can't do justice to the thought. Even Jesus' authoritative metaphor, "where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched," leaves many unenlightened.



I suspected you were "no stranger to adversity" or you wouldn't be strugging with these issues still. And you certainly wouldn't be writing so politely to someone like me about them! Solomon was right about where most men find wisdom (if they find it at all): "It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart." Or, as C. S. Lewis put it, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." I'm afraid that if we won't listen to the former, the latter will come upon us, individually and collectively. History reveals such a pattern, y'know...



ME: Hi Gerry,

If there's a common ground between us, then it's in knowing that some people yearn for something more in their lives - your 'full cup' metaphor for God I suppose. I often wonder what it is about life that people find so unfulfilling? Frankly, there is ample to fill my cup in the real world. Perhaps not to the brim, but the last time I overfilled a cup was helping my four year old fill a glass of milk. There's something about maturing into adulthood that allows one to appreciate ambivalence and that little in life is absolutely perfect. There is a beauty in this I think, and one that would be diluted in a nirvana such as heaven.

In short, life is good enough for me thankyouverymuch! I have no need or want for God to make it perfect!

>I suspected you were "no stranger to adversity" or you wouldn't be strugging with these issues still.

I wouldn't say I'm struggling with these issues firsthand Gerry, as I'd come to terms with my own existentialism some time back. This Sans God project, isn't to explore my own lack of faith per-se, it is to explore why other people 'fail' to come to the logical conclusion of strong agnosticism. This issue I'll admit to struggling with, as I find the god argument utterly non-sequitor and don't comprehend why people would choose 'delude' themselves as Dawkins would say.

You said it yourself - "To be left with nothing but one's conscious self is the most terrifying of fates. Words can't do justice to the thought." - this is the very point I made in my previous e-mail. For some, this existential notion is so unbearable (be it conscious or otherwise) that God is invoked as a balm to the spirit.

Drowning is the most terrifying of fates for me. Words can't do justice to the thought. That doesn't mean I can breathe under water does it?

>I can confidently say that whenever I've been possessed by a persistent, undeniable, and legitimate craving, there has been something in the world apparently designed to satisfy it.

Now, I'm assuming you agree with the basis of Darwinian evolution, yes? Then you will appreciate that it's no coincidence that organisms that have evolved on Earth have adapted to its resources?

>I have found, for example, readily available satisfactions for such diverse cravings as thirst, hunger, clothing, shelter, warmth, light, cleanliness, work, play, sleep, sexual desires;

Let's say we live on the deep sea bed and had evolved to metabolise the sulphur that volcanic plumes excrete. It would come as no surprise to find our home was abundant with the resources we require. It might even seem to us that someone had put them there deliberately...

In short, I think your cart is before your horse.

Anyway, on matters of faith (or lack of), language seems so inadequate to me. I suspect we could debate this tit for tat ad-infinitum! Nonetheless, I've found it interesting.

Many Thanks, Jamon

4 comments:

Zoe said...

Hi Jamon,

An interesting exchange, and as you say, nothing really new...same themes that many of us go over and over in our discussions.

I find his musings about "adversity" perhaps bringing some of us to our knees.

I look at my own suffering and pain and it was through that I actually (as part of my entire journey) moved beyond the need for "God" to manage it or cope. A constant theme in my past conservative evangelical belief was one of "weakness." We are weak, "He" is strong.

What "we" (myself and many of my fellow Christians) never considered is that, we are strong and so much stronger then we'd ever given ourselves credit for. The idea that "God" is the only way to cope with life's challenges may be Gerry's truth and experience. Many of us out here, who have been on both sides now, know that it just isn't the case.

The other thing I note about your exchange is that he thinks you're still wrestling with certain existential issues and your blog here is proof of that. :-) Why is it that non-theists would remove themselves from the theist discussion? We're just suppose to shut-up about it in a world dripping with theism? Nah, I don't think so.

Thanks for sharing this email discussion.

jamon said...

"What "we" (myself and many of my fellow Christians) never considered is that, we are strong and so much stronger then we'd ever given ourselves credit for."

Hear Hear!

stuart said...

" "What "we" (myself and many of my fellow Christians) never considered is that, we are strong and so much stronger then we'd ever given ourselves credit for."

Hear Hear! "

and again, well said.

It is religion that so often creates the "need" for god, by making people fearful and feeling weak, then along comes the preacher (with his collecting pot - don't forget the collecting pot) to make it all better.

As for wrestling with existential issues, I feel the same as Jamon , i'm not wrestling - i'm embracing! I would rather be 99% sure god does not exist, than 100% sure he does.

Moses said...

I did learn one thing from Gerry... apparently atheism leads to diarrhea.

Off to stock up on toilet paper now...