Posts Tagged ‘Skepticism’

I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he trusts them too deeply. I seek not death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and the stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let the teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.

-Robert E. Howard, from “Queen of the Black Coast.”

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Mary Lefkowitz wrote an excellent article for the LA Times a little more than a year ago about the Greek gods that’s well worth reading.

Bring back the Greek gods

Mere mortals had a better life when more than one ruler presided from on high.

By Mary Lefkowitz
October 23, 2007 in print edition A-27

Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion “poisons” human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn’t religion; it’s monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.

There is much we still can learn from these ancient notions of divinity, even if we can agree that the practices of animal sacrifice, deification of leaders and divining the future through animal entrails and bird flights are well lost.

My Hindu students could always see something many scholars miss: The Greek gods weren’t mere representations of forces in nature but independent beings with transcendent powers who controlled the world and everything in it. Some of the gods were strictly local, such as the deities of rivers and forests. Others were universal, such as Zeus, his siblings and his children.

Zeus did not communicate directly with humankind. But his children — Athena, Apollo and Dionysus — played active roles in human life. Athena was the closest to Zeus of all the gods; without her aid, none of the great heroes could accomplish anything extraordinary. Apollo could tell mortals what the future had in store for them. Dionysus could alter human perception to make people see what’s not really there. He was worshiped in antiquity as the god of the theater and of wine. Today, he would be the god of psychology.

Zeus, the ruler of the gods, retained his power by using his intelligence along with superior force. Unlike his father (whom he deposed), he did not keep all the power for himself but granted rights and privileges to other gods. He was not an autocratic ruler but listened to, and was often persuaded by, the other gods.

Openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system of government the Athenians called democracy.

Unlike the monotheistic traditions, Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural. The Greeks and Romans did not share the narrow view of the ancient Hebrews that a divinity could only be masculine. Like many other ancient peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks recognized female divinities, and they attributed to goddesses almost all of the powers held by the male gods.

The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of the nature of divinity allowed the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people’s gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation, they gave the foreign gods names of their own gods: the Egyptian goddess Isis was Demeter, Horus was Apollo, and so on. Thus they incorporated other people’s gods into their pantheon.

What they did not approve of was atheism, by which they meant refusal to believe in the existence of any gods at all. One reason many Athenians resented Socrates was that he claimed a divinity spoke with him privately, but he could not name it. Similarly, when Christians denied the existence of any gods other than their own, the Romans suspected political or seditious motives and persecuted them as enemies of the state.

The existence of many different gods also offers a more plausible account than monotheism of the presence of evil and confusion in the world. A mortal may have had the support of one god but incur the enmity of another, who could attack when the patron god was away. The goddess Hera hated the hero Heracles and sent the goddess Madness to make him kill his wife and children. Heracles’ father, Zeus, did nothing to stop her, although he did in the end make Heracles immortal.

But in the monotheistic traditions, in which God is omnipresent and always good, mortals must take the blame for whatever goes wrong, even though God permits evil to exist in the world he created. In the Old Testament, God takes away Job’s family and his wealth but restores him to prosperity after Job acknowledges God’s power.

The god of the Hebrews created the Earth for the benefit of humankind. But as the Greeks saw it, the gods made life hard for humans, didn’t seek to improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement was memorialized. There was no hope of redemption, no promise of a happy life or rewards after death. If things did go wrong, as they inevitably did, humans had to seek comfort not from the gods but from other humans.

The separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans to complain to the gods without the guilt or fear of reprisal the deity of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the possible causes of events. Philosophy — that characteristically Greek invention — had its roots in such theological inquiry. As did science.

Paradoxically, the main advantage of ancient Greek religion lies in this ability to recognize and accept human fallibility. Mortals cannot suppose that they have all the answers. The people most likely to know what to do are prophets directly inspired by a god. Yet prophets inevitably meet resistance, because people hear only what they wish to hear, whether or not it is true. Mortals are particularly prone to error at the moments when they think they know what they are doing. The gods are fully aware of this human weakness. If they choose to communicate with mortals, they tend to do so only indirectly, by signs and portents, which mortals often misinterpret.

Ancient Greek religion gives an account of the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today.

I’m not going to claim that the article is flawless: a quick Google search for “Hindu nationalist violence” will demonstrate pretty easily that polytheists are just as capable of violence in the name of their gods as monotheists are. However, I think you can make the case that Hindu religious violence is a primarily cultural rather than specifically religious affair–they’re not lashing out because people refuse to accept the truth of Vishnu, but because they perceive their culture as one that is under siege by a long history of encroachment by Muslims and Christians into India.

At the same time, I think editorials like Lefkowitz’s are important, if for nothing else than to make us think about the plausibility and, well, the utility of polytheism. In modern civilization, polytheism gets a bad rap, honestly. Most people would discard it as completely implausible, even ridiculous, but the only reason they think that is because monotheistic religions–religions that have had a privileged place in western culture and society for over a thousand years–ridicule them.

Even atheists who discard polytheism out of hand do so not because they have dealt with polytheism on its own terms. Instead they’re rejecting a monotheist caricature of polytheism. Polytheism is frankly not treated fairly.

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Like I said in my last post, I’m extremely hesitant to just come out and say that I flat-out don’t believe in God in the typical atheist sense.  This isn’t hedging my bet; I absolutely don’t believe in hell, I’m skeptical about an afterlife anyway (and even if there is one, I doubt very strongly that the particulars can be known), and a quick scan of the state of the world tells me that it doesn’t look like people who believe in God are getting all the breaks.  Part of it is an agnostic approach to epistemology: I don’t see how humans can know anything for sure at all.  All our sensory input is filtered through the double-filter of sensation and perception, and there’s no particular reason to trust that either one of those filters feeds us objective data.  We can’t really be sure that we’re not in The Matrix, so we certainly can’t be sure of something as attenuated from our direct empirical experience as the existence or nonexistence of God.

As far as we know, there is a God who is simply cleverly making the universe look to us like there is no God (I call this “Fossil-Hiding God”).  How would we know?  If an omnipotent or even mostly-potent supernatural being with more or less total control over the universe wanted to cover his tracks completely, I imagine he could do it pretty well.  Either way, like I said in my last post, I’m not actually convinced by the logical arguments of atheists for the nonexistence of God.  Despite all out efforts to reason him out of existence, I think it possible that he nevertheless exists–C. S. Lewis’s fantastic novel, Till We Have Faces, had a proufound the way I thought about the existence of deity and made me extremely reluctant to flat-out deny that the divine exists, even if it is totally unlike the traditional Judeo-Christian conetption of Yahweh.

So in terms of the existence versus nonexistence of God, I’m really more of an agnostic with a theoretically rebuttable presumption God’s nonexistence, at least inasmuch as we’re talking about God as a distinct transcendant supernatural personal entity, with or without a flowing white beard.

That’s not the end of the story, though.  the word “God” can be stretched to fit an amazing diversity of theistic and quasi-theistic concepts, many of which aren’t anything at all like the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of the supreme being, and it turns out that I actually do believe in something that if pressed, I could call God (although I would be reluctant to do so because the label “God” would confuse most people by implying that there’s a beard in there somewhere).  I think it’s worth explaining what I mean by all of this, especially since I’m actually trying to get to a point eventually, but I’m not going to make this post more confusing than it already is.  So hold your horses a bit and wait for the next post.

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One of the funny things about this blog, wherein I document my spiritual journey to some kind of truth or meaning or whatever, is that whichever twist or turn I take, there’s always a chorus of cheerleaders telling me I’m doing the right thing. That’s why when my journey then takes me away from whatever detour it had me wandering through, I’m often reluctant to say so, in fear of disappointing the people who were excited that I stopped by.

I first noticed this with paganism. When I was looking into neopaganism and druidry, I attracted many neopagans and druids who were excited by the path my journey was leading me down. When it then led me back away from paganism, they mostly kind of faded into the woodwork (with some exceptions- I’ve picked up some good friends along the way). And I was sad to say that I didn’t think paganism or druidry was going to be where I ended up, because I knew those people would be let down in a sense. On the other hand, pagans tend to be really nice, nonjudgmental people, and as long as I’m not making fun of them or damning them to Hel, I’m pretty sure they’ve still got my back.

However, this dilemma was much more acute with atheism. When I ultimately spiralled into nonbelief, I was greeted with accolades and cheers from some of the internet’s atheists, for finally freeing myself from the shackles of atheism and being a mature human being who didn’t need deities as crutches anymore. When I decided that atheism wasn’t going to really work for me, I was reluctant to say so. For starters, accolades are nice. And the opposite of accolades is scorn, and I didn’t really want that.

Of course, I wasn’t really going to let how other people decide how I believe or don’t believe, but there was a minute where I was at least a little bit cagey about saying anything. I was getting so much support for declaring my atheism, and when I recanted, that support would probably vanish.

I say all of that by way of introduction tot his post. My goal hereis to explain why I stopped believing in God and why I started again. This might be a long post, so hang on to your hats.

When I first started seriously questioning the Mormon church last summer, my initial criticisms were centered around my feeling that Mormonism wasn’t Christian enough- Mormonism and Mormon scripture didn’t track closely enough with what I thought Christianity was all about (based on the New Testament, Church history, and the true Christians that I had come across over time). I felt like Mormonism was not leading me closer to Christ, but actually keeping me away from Him. Thus, in leaving Mormonism, my initial question was “what kind of Christian should I be?”

When I started this blog, my wife and I had only recently decided to actually leave Mormonism behind us, after struggling with it for some six months. I had also just read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, and I felt like becoming a Christian was something I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. For some reason I didn’t feel like I already was a Christian, like I was already really committed to Jesus.

The problem was that my reasons for believing in Jesus, and in fact my reasons for believing in God at all, were basically the same reasons I believed in Mormonism. That is, I had simply been raised to assume that they were true, and this assumption was backed up by emotional “spiritual” confirmations. In deciding that those bases were insufficient for continued belief in Mormonism, I also took out the foundation, as flimsy as it may have been, for my entire belief in God. In other words, the same conclusions that made me question my belief in Mormonism made me ultimately question my belief in Jesus Christ and in any kind of God whatesoever.

I was waiting for some kind of mystical experience, some kind of contact with the divine that was the real deal, not the easy “warm fuzzy” self-delusion of Mormonism’s Holy Ghost. I was waiting for God to reach out and shake me, to let me know that he was real, to give me some kind of contact. But it kept not happening.

With that in mind, I began giving a loud voice to my innner skeptic. I started reading Ebon Musings’s essays on atheism, which are honestly extremely compelling and very difficult to dispute. Eventually, I was in a place where I had to admit that I had no real reason to believe in God other than wishful thinking, and if I was to be honest with myself, I would have to admit that I simply did not believe.

It seemed like a destination of sorts. It wasn’t what I was shooting for when I set out towards Byzantium, but maybe the place we intend to be is often a lot less realistic than the place we really wind up. I wasn’t a nihilist or anything; I still had some core beliefs that I was more or less confident in. But I could not say that I affirmatively believed in God.

The thing was, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t really want to be an atheist. I actually like religion! Specifically, I was (and still am) convinced that while an aheist can be a very good and moral person, and that a religious person can be a complete jerkwad, nevertheless for me personally, religion in general and Christianity in specific were going to have a much greater potential to make me the kind of person that I wished I was. I could be a good person and an atheist, that was never in question. But no atheist philosophy was going to actually transform me into a New Man. And Christianity made that promise.

But my problem was that if I was going to believe something, it would have to be more intellectually honest than my beliefs had previously been. No putting doubts on the shelf. No convincing myself until I was convinced. Nothing like that. I wanted to believe, but I didn’t want it so bad that i was willing to delude myself into believing.

So I went about tentatively trying to figure out how I could believe in God despite my loud internal skeptic (but without squashing him and pretending he didn’t exist) and despite the very good and compelling logical arguments against God’s existence, and the generally weak and limp logical arguments for God’s existence.

I read some Kierkegaard. I thought about how God and logic would interact, if there was a God. I thought about doubt, and whether there was a place for it within faith. I read Brian McLaren’s Finding Faith. I thought about hope.

In the end, I made a place where I thought I could theoreticaly believe in God. I had room for God in my framework again. However, having room for God, i.e., acknowledging the possibility of God, doesn’t equal belief in God. If, at that point, I had simply declared myself a believer, I would have been guilty of doing the very thing I was most loathe to do: talking myself into believing. Instead, I let it simmer for awhile.

At the same time, I started thinking seriously about Jesus Christ, and I found him extremely compelling. Christianity still kind of gave me the heebie jeebies, so I was still reluctant to even express interest in the religion. But the man? The more I thought about Jesus, the more I felt like there was something to him. Something more. I wasn’t really sure what it was, but I knew I liked it, and maybe I even needed it.

I then let this stew for a bit. The more I thought about God, the more I thought that maybe God exists after all, despite my efforts to logic him out of existence. And the more I thought about Jesus, the more he seemed electrifying, powerful, important. Much more so than a simple wise moral philosopher, however great he may have been.

When I read C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, I finished the book and realized that after reading it, there was no way I could ever say that I do not believe in God. I can’t explain it very well, because the book touched me on an extremely personal, maybe even primal level. But it completely evaporated all of my defenses. It didn’t resolve my concerns or wipe away all of my doubts or anything, but it spoke loud and clear to me: nevertheless, there is a God. It was a life-changing experience that I can’t do justice in writing or even in speaking- it was so strange and powerful that I have a hard time articulating exactly what it was about the book that changed my whole way of looking at God.

Once I had made room for the possibility of God, Till We Have Faces showed me that God was a sure thing.  All of my anger, my logic, my insecurity, my waffling, and my careful arguments are made completely insignificant when faced with God’s existence.

In any case, that’s where I am now. I am sure that there is a God, and I suspect that Jesus might actually have been God. I’ve not got a lot more than that. I suppose it’s a start. I can’t really be the poster child for honest atheism anymore, but I probably never should have been. I’m not at my destination yet- in fact I don’t know if I’ll ever really “have arrived”- but I like where I’m sailing right now, and I’m interested and excited to see what’s ahead.

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