Friday, April 21, 2017

Losing My Religion: A Tale of Grumpy Old Men

“Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble, and I believe truer, to consider him created from animals.”
         Charles Darwin. 1809-1882.


“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
         Carl Sagan. 1934-1996.


"A faith which cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets."
         Arthur C. Clarke. 1917-2008.


“A Catholic… which I was until I reached the age of reason.”
         George Carlin. 1937-2008.


I spent a couple of days recently with two cousins of mine in Southern California. These two are brothers, both slightly older than me, and both successful professionals in their chosen careers. One manages a large engineering organization that designs jet engines, the other is responsible for public water services in Orange County.


Most people are blessed with four or five cousins. I happen to have over a hundred! I kid you not nor am I exaggerating. My parents are members of broods, respectively, of eleven and nine siblings. The combined twenty uncles and aunts have, you guessed it, been “busy”, offering up over a hundred cousins for yours truly.


Over the years, I've fallen out of touch with most of my cousins. Everything from a revolution to emigration to career to family to lifestyle to plain old exhaustion have, over the past four decades or so, in one way or another, conspired to reduce cousins to Facebook friends at best or faded memories in black and white photos at worst. Through the years, though, I've managed to stay in close contact with half a dozen or so of my cousins, these two among them. Both went to the same high school I did, although they were a few years ahead of me. We spent quite a bit of time together as teenagers and still reminisce about “the good old days”. I still enjoy spending time with them, even if it happens, on average, only once every few years.


Inevitably, as men of fifty-something years are known to be, we are all infernal “Grumpy Old Men” - hard and crusty on the outside but soft and mushy on the inside. I call them, affectionately, “Eminem”, as both their names start with the letter “M”.


So, there I was, with the two of them going for long hikes, playing tennis, cooking dinners (I “observed” and "critiqued"), and drinking wine. More than once, the topic of god and religion came up. I am, you might say, a devout atheist and have, to the consternation of friends and family, even blogged on the topic multiple times. It doesn't matter whether they agree with me or not. Mostly, they all ask me to stop “preaching”. I won't bore you with the details. I don't think I can improve upon The Oatmeal on brevity and clarity but feel free to read some of my arguments here. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and others have done a much more comprehensive and scholarly presentation of the very same arguments.


Hiking and drinking seem to bring out the theological - or at least the philosophical - in all of us. The end result was several hours of strenuous hiking interrupted by declarations of incredulity as one or the other of us made a salient point. It may have been just wishful thinking but I walked away believing that we saw eye to eye on most topics. If anything, Eminem's nuanced approach to the topic helped me better recognize my own shortcomings. No one wants to listen to a bore who preaches atheism any more than they want to listen to a man of God proclaim his faith. It doesn't matter whether I'm right or wrong because, as Stephen J. Gould once famously said, religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria. People “believe” because it brings them comfort, it helps them bond with others of the same faith. Logic has very little, if anything, to do with it.


As we sat around in the evenings complaining about sore muscles, injured knees and ankles, and various other ailments, one of “The Brothers Eminem” said something that resonated with me. People like the stories that they learn as part of their religious upbringing. They take comfort in them. You can't take away all those stories and replace them with cold hard science and logic. I thought about this later and realized he was right. As Atheists, we will never win unless we weave a story around the science that we teach our children.


It hardly matters, for example, if the story of Noah’s Ark is a re-telling of the prehistoric Babylonian myth of Gilgamesh. It packs a moral lesson that is sugar coated for delivery to children, regardless of the book we ascribe it to. It doesn’t really matter that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is lifted, almost verbatim, from Zoroastrianism. As Voltaire said, if God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to create him. And stories are the only way we have known for thousands of years to pass the associated ethical lessons to our children. I can talk (or write) until I’m blue in the face but I won’t change people’s minds. Either they already agree with me or they’ve made up their minds about what they want to believe and their decision was not based on logic or science.


No wonder that recent religions like Mormonism and Scientology have their own stories, including improbable and obviously fabricated tales of space aliens! You can't discard the story of Adam and Eve unless you replace it with a similar story, perhaps one about a pair of chimps named Chip and Charla. Unless and until we come up with alternative stories, we are stuck with the ones we tell our children today.

Time to write some children’s books, I guess...

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