11/25/2005

God: conspiracy or coincidence?

I've just been reading an article in December's Atlantic Monthly, entitled, "Is God an Accident?" It's really more on the evolutionary psychology front, and the answer, according to the author, Paul Bloom, is yes. God is an accident of evolution, but belief in God and, particularly, in the promise of an afterlife, is now basically hardwired.

The evolutionary psychology aspect of it has to do with survival, of course. Bloom writes: "religion thrives because groups that have it outgrow and outlast those that do not." It gives the group cohesion, like a fraternity, he argues. And I would agree this is a central function of religion that we can see at play easily enough in today's culture and politics. It's a kind of tribalism.

But the main argument here centers on biology, and it is a fascinating one. Citing studies of infants and autistic kids, Bloom and his cohorts assert that "a distinction between the physical and the psychological is fundamental to human thought.... Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in a baby's brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks.... Babies have two systems that work in a cold-bloodedly rational way to help them anticipate and understand—and, when they get older, to manipulate—physical and social entities. In other words, both these systems are biological adaptations that give human beings a badly needed head start in dealing with objects and people. But these systems go awry in two important ways that are the foundations of religion. First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us animists and creationists."

The long and short of it is: "[T]he universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature."

Just an observation.

This time of year all the newspapers and magazines start running these statistics, like "Seventy-nine percent of Americans believe that, as the Bible says, Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, without a human father, according to a new NEWSWEEK poll."

"In the NEWSWEEK poll, 93 percent of Americans say they believe Jesus Christ actually lived and 82 percent believe Jesus Christ was God or the Son of God. Fifty-two percent of all those polled believe, as the Bible proclaims, that Jesus will return to earth someday; 21 percent do not believe it. Fifteen percent believe Jesus will return in their lifetime; 47 percent do not, the poll shows."

And so on. I'm sorry, but I don't trust these polls, and even if they are accurate, I think for a lot of people belief in God can be explained in terms of Pascal's wager. It's always a better "bet" to believe in God, because what's to be gained from believing in God is always greater than the expected value from non-belief.

The evolutionary psychologists' argument makes sense here. The gut seems to say "there must be a god." But when you start thinking about an afterlife and all that--I mean, really, if you just sit down and think about it for, like, ten minutes, it's like, nah, no way. I mean, check out this vision of Heaven quoted in the Atlantic piece:

"Heaven is dynamic. It's bursting with excitement and action. It's the ultimate playground, created purely for our enjoyment, by someone who knows what enjoyment means, because He invented it. It's Disney World, Hawaii, Paris, Rome, and New York all rolled up into one. And it's forever! Heaven truly is the vacation that never ends."

Yikes. That perfectly ghastly picture is from some perhaps wee bit cynical book called A Travel Guide to Heaven. But, really, that's how a lot of people who apparently don't think a lot think about it. I mean, "in two Newsweek Polls about the existence of heaven and hell, majorities of Americans [like 3/4 of us] believe heaven is an actual place and how you live your life on earth determines if you'll get there. And you'll eat well while in heaven: 47 percent say there will be plenty of good food to eat. And 77 percent say there won't be favoritism for the especially holy."

I don't want to mock anybody's beliefs here, but it's hard not to. I used to know this very WASPy guy, lily white, who, every winter insisted that come summer he would get black as a Moor. He really believed it, too. You'd see him at the height of summer, and he'd always look just as white as ever. I was always like, "rrowwrr, savage tan, dude!" You know, people believe what they believe. Most the time it's no skin off my arse. But when it comes to religion, people get all pushy all the sudden.

I grew up with a very reasonable amount of religion in my life. It wasn't Jesus this and Jesus that all night and day, and What Would Jesus Do? Pepsi or Coke? Jordache or Lee? McDonald's or Wendy's? Would Jesus smoke another bowl? Would Jesus spit or swallow? You know, for us, back in Speedway, Indiana in the seventies, Jesus was not some persnickety micromanager, always checking up to make sure you weren't slouching off during office hours. That shit started in the eighties when corporate was cool. I mean, Jesus isn't even likable anymore. If Falwell's Jesus came back, can you imagine? What a prick. It'd be, "do this and do that, and don't do this and don't do that! And we've got CCTV so we can see what you're doing and not doing at all times! And we're monitoring your emails! And I'm the boss! And my daddy owns this company! And don't you forget it!" And all those brown nosers from the 700 Club would be toadying up to him. "Wouldst thou liketh some coffee, Lord? Nutrasweet? Cremora, Lord? May I send that fax for thou, oh Lord, and then annointeth thy head with spikenard?" Nauseating.

Anyway, I didn't really think about mortality much through my twenties. Most people don't. I mean, occasionally there's some Harold and Maude type character out there, but most people cruise through their twenties still pretty much believing they're invincible and, frankly, immortal. And I did, too. But I had a very dark period a few years ago, and had nothing better to do than think about death all the time. Since early childhood my interests had run toward the morbid and the grotesque, but now the morbidity took center stage. I was living in a medieval village in Eastern Europe at the time, and working in an underground bunker. It seemed appropriate. I got so freaked out about dying someday that I threw out all my porn. I didn’t want them to find me dead in my flat with all this porn everywhere. It was clearly an existential crisis of thitherto unimaginable proportions.

But it wasn't Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche or Kafka, or some other giant of existentialism who set me off, it was, of all people, C.S. Lewis.

I’d read Mere Christianity on the train from the capital, and started mulling it over. Lewis is fairly unequivocal about a couple of points, one of which is this issue of eternal life. But when I actually sat down and thought about it, it didn't make a lick of sense. Not a lick. I don’t suppose it has to in the end. I mean, God works in mysterious ways, as they say, but as scary as it is to contemplate ceasing to exist (of course, once one ceases to exist I'm guessing the fear subsides pretty quick-like), the prospect of never ceasing to exist is even harder on the head. I mean, try to get your mind around that one. Give yourself a brain hemorrhage.

We get lots of practice for eternal sleep, but what could prepare us for eternal life? Life itself is defined by the persistance of desire and the certainty of death. Who would want to deal with that forever? Even in nature, there’s no correlate for this idea of everlasting stasis. What in nature, which is always moving, always morphing, is there to relate this strange concept to? Where would we even get the idea that such a thing could be true, much less desirable?

Well, embarrassingly enough, it obviously comes straight from childhood. There’s a time in childhood, I think, when every kid’s thinking, I wish things would stay just the way they are right now forever and ever and ever. I remember several times in my formative years when I thought, well, now I’m perfect. I’m young and hung, and full of spunk! I don’t ever want to change. But then you change, and you realize that it’s all for the best, even if things are always getting worse. Because it'll soon be over. And hey, that’s the course of Nature.

Struggling to find a correlate in nature to the concept of eternal life is only one problem. I suppose if I could at least see the point of living forever I would be willing to accept the concept on faith. I mean, there are a lot of things I know nothing about and couldn’t possibly understand in this lifetime that I readily enough accept, because it’s advantageous to do so. I don’t have a tough time accepting the concept of divinity, of God, for that matter, mostly because of this nettlesome issue of a first cause. I mean, they say everything that is was once packed into the space of a sugar cube. But why should there have been anything at all, much less a sugar cube? And where was this sugar cube in the first place?

That’s when God comes in handy. When you start asking questions. God is the sum total of all unanswerable questions. Even if, say, pi, is practically impossible to conceive of, isn’t it nice to know that we have a little symbol to make it theoretically conceivable? Because our minds are made (God knows why) for asking questions the answers to which are, even when known, totally incomprehensible, we risk flinging ourselves headlong into madness by asking them. God makes the practically incomprehensible theoretically conceivable.

So Lewis says Christianity demands that we accept the literal truth of eternal life. He provides a clue as to how we are to do it with his explanation of God’s reality. Apparently, it was God and the sugar cube before time began. Still God stands outside of time. When we become like God, or gods in our own right, which is the opportunity God is offering us, according to Lewis, we, too, presumably, will stand outside of time. And this, I gather, is what is meant by eternal life. Life without end, because life without end is life outside of time. But is this really all that comforting? I mean, don’t the majority of Christians have this warm, fuzzy picture of a big family picnic in the sky? But how much potato salad can you eat? How many times can you listen to Aunt Bernice tell that story about seeing Hugh Jackman outside the Ritz-Carlton when she visited New York in the summer of '03? And I guarantee you're gonna get sick and tired of Uncle Jack (even in Heaven everyone calls him "Uncle Jerk") drinking his highballs, and scratching his low balls, smoking his Kools, belching and popping out his teeth. FOREVER. Even the harpist--you'd want to throttle her after the twelve millionth rendition of "How Great Thou Art," wouldn't you?

Anyway, the more I thought about it the more horrified I became and the more comfort I sought. I decided to go back and read the Gospels. See what wisdom I could glean from them about these vexing questions. Matthew, Mark, and Luke sure know how to grab the reader and draw him into the narrative. Matthew, for instance, opens with an Old Testament-style chapter relating who begat whom, starting with Abraham. Sixteen verses later we’re all the way down to Jacob, son of Matthan, who begat Joseph, husband of Mary, and you’re asking yourself, who the hell cares who begat Joseph? I mean, what the hell does Joseph have to do with it? And anyway, even if he had a role in the birth of Christ, which would kind of defeat the whole purpose, isn’t Judaism matrilineal?

Mark is no less gripping. He’s got the right idea, starting off with John the Baptist, who is indisputably one of the most compelling figures in the Bible, but then he’s off on a wild tangent, and most of the time you’ve no idea really what the hell he’s banging on about. For all the excitement what he’s relating in the first few verses should elicit, the tone of the narrative is so ho-hum, you’d think there was nothing at all out of the ordinary about any of it. Three lousy verses about Christ’s forty days in the wilderness. After Christ is baptized by John, “there came a voice from heaven, saying, thou art my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. And immediately the spirit driveth him into the wilderness. And he was there in the wilderness for forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him. And yadda yadda yadda. And after that he worked some miracles, the details aren’t really interesting, he walked on the water, and so on. And then the bastards crucified him. But he got the last laugh. The end.” Mark, baby! Don’t beat us over the head with it! We want to be seduced!

Luke is the intellectual of the bunch. Or maybe he was a lawyer. He starts off with “Forasmuch”. NEXT! “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they deliver them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first…” and etc. You get the picture. The whole book of Luke is one long run-on sentence. Twenty-four whole chapters! Très avant-garde, Luke! Bravo!

No, it’s only St John who’s got the gift. Chapter One, verse one: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Any questions? Gives me chills all up and down my spine. If the rest of the Bible was like that people would actually read it, instead of using it to beat other people over the head with.

But I have to admit I was, frankly, a little disappointed over all. I guess I'd expected something else. Questions still nagging me, I went to visit my Socrates, an old man called Lajos, who, at the time, thought he had cancer and was preparing himself for death. (Turned out he was fine.) He said he was not afraid of death, but not so keen on the actual dying part, which is reasonable. Though a lot of people are afraid of death. And that's the thing, innit? My Socrates offered another piece of the puzzle. I mean, it's true, I’m afraid of death, despite the consolation offered us by the likes of Montaigne, who, in “To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die,” wrote:

"[A]lmost imperceptibly, Nature leads us by the hand down a gentle slope; little by little, step by step, she engulfs us in that pitiful state and breaks us in, so that we feel no jolt when youth dies in us, although in essence and in truth that is a harsher death than the total extinction of a languishing life as old age dies. For it is not so grievous a leap from wretched existence to non-existence as it is from a sweet existence in full bloom to one of travail and pain."

Hazlitt has some good advice for us, echoing Lucretius:

"Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death [he writes in “On the Fear of Death”] is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern – why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? …We do not consider the six thousand years of the world before we were born as so much lost time to us: we are perfectly indifferent about the matter."

But I don’t know, unless you’re a very enlightened Buddhist, your own irrefutable demise is the one thing you can’t imagine. If you turn Descarte’s clever declaration on its little head what are you left with? We simply cannot ourselves imagine what it is like not to be, for being is the main ingredient of a self. And while we can imagine a world in which we are not present, we cannot imagine it but from the perspective granted by being present somehow somewhere else.

Of course, every philosopher or religious thinker worth his salt has tackled the issue of death. It is The Big One, after all. Thomas Nagel, in his essay “Death” opens with “if death is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence, the question arises whether it is a bad thing to die.” Personally, I think it’s a moot point, as good or bad, it must be done, but the essay raises some interesting issues, nonetheless. “If we are to make sense of the view that to die is bad,” he writes, “it must be on the ground that life is a good and death is the corresponding deprivation or loss, bad not because of any positive features but because of the desirability of what it removes.”

Nagel hits the nail on the head when he says, “Observed from without, human beings obviously have a natural lifespan and cannot live much longer than a hundred years. A man’s sense of his own experience, on the other hand, does not embody this idea of a natural limit. His existence defines for him an essentially open-ended possible future.”

This is why, Nagel contends, Lucretius’s observation, which is echoed by Hazlitt in the passage above, that no one bothers much about the eternity preceding his existence, and thus it’s irrational to bother about the eternity following his death, is itself not entirely rational. “The direction of time is crucial,” Nagel writes. “It is true that both the time before a man’s birth and the time after his death are times when he does not exist. But the time after his death is time of which his death deprives him.”

So C.S. Lewis imagines a God outside of Time (for surely if there is a First Cause, it is somewhere outside of time), and imagines mankind joining him. But what would such an existence be like? It would entail such a complete change of state that it would constitute a total break from human existence. We, our human lives and the consciousness of them, would be lost in this infinite view anyway. This is why belief in God doesn’t comfort me in the least on this count. It must be admitted that the fear of death, where death is defined as Nagel defines it in his essay—“the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence”—is precisely what draws people to Christianity, I think, but God will have to do better than promise me eternal life if he wants me to join his club. People are looking for the same assurances from Ramakrishna and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the lot. But isn’t there some God out there with the balls to say, look, I’m sorry, I can’t change the fact that you’re gonna die, and when you die that’s the end of you, but I can make this short, brutish life a little brighter by doing x, y, and z? Maybe that’s what sex is. I mean, God could have made life short, brutish, and had us reproduce asexually. But he had mercy.

I suppose that’s the way evolutionary biology, which I still maintain is the true religion of our age, deals with the question of immortality. Like everything else, it’s in the genes. And yet, the very real issue is the persistence of the individual, the mystery of subjectivity, of individual consciousness. I think it only makes sense in the context of a bigger—a much bigger—a truly gigantic—picture, in which what looks to us like individual consciousness is actually no such thing. Still, I cannot deny the fact of my own existence, as much as I would sometimes like to. And whether I am part of a much larger organism in a more essential way than I can at this point imagine, there is still the basic problem of my own existence, my subjectivity, to consider.

But let’s not.

Actually, the pieces of the evolutionary biological puzzle fit together pretty nicely. That’s the thing. In Evolutionary Biology there’s a place for everything and everything’s in its place. It’s very tidy. Everyone has a role to play, everyone has a function. Except homosexuals, of course. But probably they make sense somehow. Or at least sodomy isn’t such a stretch. I mean, it may not serve a quantifiable function, but it might be argued it’s just another, if extreme form of male-bonding, or establishing and reinforcing male hierarchies. Or maybe it’s an Everest thing. I mean, not everything has to be a big, hairy deal, even for Evolutionary Biologists. To be perfectly honest, in biological terms, I don’t think sodomy and fellatio are in any way significant. There’s no reason homosexual behavior has to have any kind of impact on the biological imperative to reproduce. It actually supplements this function quite nicely. It is a moral question, though, and a valid one. And it has to do with establishing what exactly constitutes the bond of friendship. But that’s another matter, entirely, isn’t it?

What I want to get at before the thread of my thought becomes absolutely frayed is the degree to which the belief systems that have risen to address our fear of death influence our actions in this life. It seems to me that’s The Thing. Did God give us sex as a small consolation, or was it a practical consideration, or merely a fluke? Well, we’ve got it now. The question is what to do with it. It provides us the only possibility of some kind of immortality, though maybe not the kind we’d have chosen for ourselves (I am inclined to believe that God was wiser in this, as in countless other things, than we are).

As for the consolation of an afterlife. Hazlitt gets it right when he says, “the love of life is an habitual attachment…we have an inveterate prejudice in favor of our immediate existence, such as it is.”

Hazlitt also writes: “We would all of us wish the present moment to last forever,” which seems to me the essence of it. If you take the long-view (and this is why I think so few do), I mean, looking backwards, you’ll be struck by how mistaken you were in the pleasure you took in yourself each fleeting moment. But because we are always essentially in that moving instant, we don’t think about it. We are perfectly happy, or if not happy, perfectly adjusted to what we are in that instant. This is why murderers can appear so detached during their trials. They are not, in fact, the same men who committed the act they are being judged for now. Now they are in the other’s shoes. Now they are the other, in a way.

Anyway, that’s what we want to last, that moving instant. Because who we are is forever changing. If we lived a million years can you imagine how distorted we would become, how perverted our senses, how lost in the maze of our thoughts? How bitter we would become at having to endure so long a life?

Swift gives us a picture of what eternal life might look like in Gulliver’s Travels. During Gulliver’s short stay in Luggnagg, he is told of the “Struldbruggs” or Immortals. Gulliver goes into raptures over the whole idea. His hosts explain that it’s not so great a thing as he thinks. For the Immortals do grow old. “The question therefore was not whether a man would choose to be always in the prime of youth, attended with prosperity and health, but how he would pass a perpetual life under all the usual disadvantages which old age brings along with it.”

"He said they commonly acted like mortals, till about thirty years old, after which by degrees they grew melancholy and dejected, increasing in both till they came to fourscore…. When they came to fourscore years, which is reckoned the extremity of living in this country, they had not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying. They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grand­ children. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions. But those objects against which their envy seems principally directed, are the vices of the younger sort, and the deaths of the old. By reflecting on the former, they find them­selves cut off from all possibility of pleasure; and whenever they see a funeral, they lament and repine that others are gone to an harbour of rest, to which they themselves never can hope to arrive. They have no remembrance of anything but what they learned and observed in their youth and middle age, and even that is very imperfect. And for the truth or particulars of any fact, it is safer to depend on common traditions than upon their best recollections. The least miserable among them appear to be those who turn to dotage, and entirely lose their memories; these meet with more pity and assistance, because they want many bad qualities which abound in others.”

“Averice,” Swift concludes in true Swiftian style, “is the necessary consequent of old age.”

If you try to imagine the practical aspects of eternal life, as, say, C.S. Lewis encourages us to do in Mere Christianity, you’ll see immediately what a real hassle it is. Lewis asks us to think about how perverted a man’s character can become in the space of a mere four score, and then multiply that by a factor of, well, ∞.

“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace, and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”

And apparently, this process just goes on and on forever. Sounds like fun, eh?

Think about it.

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