An Atheist Contemplates Mortality: A Letter to My Daughter

May 1, 2012

ZK,

You are growing much too fast. Sometimes I just want a few more moments with you at a couple of days or weeks old. Not because I think things were better then, or that you are difficult now. It’s been a thrill experiencing every single one of your milestones with you. And I am eager to experience those to come. In fact, you’ve given me the gift of seeing the world anew.

Instead, it’s because time has passed so quickly since your birth that I must constantly confront my own mortality, and yours. Reflect upon it and embrace it. It’s as sobering and humbling as it is exciting and electrifying. There is not a single night that passes that the enormity of our mortality does not haunt my thoughts. I want just a few more moments of the newness of you to assuage the breath-taking weight of knowing that, someday, we will be apart.

It’s not that I fear what is to come in death. I won’t feel it, or know that it has happened. In the sense of ‘non-existence,’ I was ‘dead’ in the aeons past and suffered not at all for it. Instead, I will return to the nothingness from which we are born, without you and your mom. But if I imagine a future you after I have passed, I miss rather than fear the loss of future experiences with the two of you. I miss, in advance, the loss of sharing our lives and your mother’s embrace. As I struggle with how fast you grow up, and the speed with which you develop into this wonderful person, I miss these things to come in much the same way that I miss those that have past: you as a tiny newborn, your first steps. I miss them, but am thrilled to be a part of you now and throughout our mortal existence.

But comfort comes. At some point in the aeons to come, the substance of our bodies will return, not just to this Earth but, to the cosmos itself. Perhaps we will then participate in the creation of another star, another world, another system of life. Or, perhaps, it will be all of them together. Though we won’t know it when it happens, we can contemplate it now and share that with each other and those around us. This is nothing short of remarkable. It is awe-inspiring, glorious, and beautiful. It is beauty. And, if beauty can be said to endure beyond all consciousness and minds to perceive it, it is a beauty that endures.

You are beautiful. And if I could, I would ensure that you endured as you are now for as long as beauty itself. Though the depth of human ability is profound, this is beyond anyone’s capacity. But know, when you look to the planets and the stars, that this beauty in eternity is our all-too-human destiny.

I love you always,

Papa

Copyright © 2012 JP Laughlin

Profound and Sublime: a New Face, a New Atheist

Contra “Believe it or Not” by David B. Hart…part 2 (part 1) (part 3)

A New Face, A New Atheist

In David Hart’s lamentation of the “utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism,” he expresses admiration for high manifestations of skepticism and atheism. Moreover, he argues for their necessity. In doing so he defines the “true skeptic” and “truly profound atheist” as “someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection.” Let’s leave aside that his assessment of the New Atheists that they lack this quality reveals that Hart either did not understand what the New Atheists have to say or he cannot defend his faith against their indictments. (The New Atheists, every one of them, are expressing outrage and “profound moral alarm” at religious corruption, psychological terror, injustices, suffering, and evil caused by religion, all of which, Hart admits, are the precious qualities of skepticism and religion). Instead, let’s examine what it might mean to be an atheist of profound proportions and offer an alternative definition.

First, it must be said that atheists are not required to have a deep knowledge of the beliefs they reject. One does not, for example, have to have a deep knowledge of Buddhism and its cultural and historical impact (or the consequences of rejecting it) to reject it as a belief system. Nor does one have to have such knowledge of Aesop’s fables (with their own cultural and historical impact) to reject the idea that a tortoise will beat a rabbit in a race. Perhaps Hart is correct in that lacking this knowledge an atheist risks not being “profound.” But I’m not convinced of the utility of an atheist aiming for profundity (at least, not the kind Hart is looking for)…unless, of course, they are seeking to impress Mr. Hart.

What is a “truly profound atheist?” When I look in my infant daughter’s eyes I see atheism (in the sense of “absence of belief”) in its purest, most unadulterated form. This is profound in its own right. A friend, and Presbyterian minister, described it as sublime. Not only does my daughter inherently lack belief in a god, she is naturally equipped with rudimentary forms of scientific reasoning. The discovery of the world through play engaged in by infants is the process of experimentation. It is experimentation to determine the nature of the world – cause and effect. For example, in a fitting display of inflicting operant conditioning upon a parent, my daughter has discovered that by investigating sound (experimentation) through exploring the changes in her vocal cords and the shape of her mouth, she can create adorable baby coos (cause) that make her father do silly things (effect) that make her laugh – she can do this repeatedly (replicable).

We are born into this world as natural scientists and without belief in a god. This is profound and sublime. What happens to change this? How does a child cross the threshold from non-belief to belief in a god? Pastor Douglas Wilson provides a revealing example in the film Collision. (I recommend Pastor Wilson to any believer who seeks an example of an honest confrontation of atheism. He is smart, funny, and refreshingly honest in his apologetics). In this film, the camera follows Pastor Wilson and Christopher Hitchens as they tour the country to promote their book Is Christianity Good for the World? This book is a series of letters that they exchanged with each other while engaging in a theism/atheism debate. In one scene, while sitting in a taxi Pastor Wilson confesses, “The first reason, the most fundamental reason, the most basic reason I’m a Christian is because my parents are Christians and they loved me and taught me and my mom spanked me diligently and brought me up in the nurture and [admonition?] of the Lord.” To put it mildly, a child must be told, often repeatedly, by a trusted authority figure, usually parents, that a god exists. Why is this the case?  Because it is not obvious to the developing mind that such a being exists.  Keep in mind that every time an idea is read, said, or heard another imprint of that idea is formed in our minds…“the most basic reason I’m a Christian is because my parents are Christians and they loved me and taught me and my mom spanked me diligently …”! This is the meaning of “indoctrination” at its very core.

Moreover, I question whether Hart is willing to apply the corollary of this criterion to theists in all of their diversity. Does he expect his fellow theists to have a sophisticated knowledge of the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the cycle of SaṃsāraMaitreya, or Buddhist eschatology (and the consequences of rejecting them) in order to disavow the Buddhist belief system?  I think it’d be great if they did, but I wouldn’t say that it was a necessity for profound theological exploration. Or, more specifically, and perhaps more relevantly, does he expect his fellow profound Christian theists to have a sophisticated knowledge of the concept of tawhid (the fundamental unity of God), its philosophical impact on the concept of the Ummah (the Muslim community of believers) and its direct challenge to the doctrine of the Trinity in order for them to say, at best, that there is not sufficient evidence to believe that the message of Islam is true?  Though I find all of these subjects interesting and worthy of academic study, I cannot be so bold as to think that everyone would or should share this appreciation. Furthermore, I am certain that an understanding of these concepts is not a necessary condition for any Christian to provide a profound answer as to why they are Christian.

However, I would suggest that even this is not what Hart means in his lamentations of the utterly inconsequential. Instead, by saying that he wants atheists to understand the “sophisticated forms” of theology and the consequences of rejecting them, I have a suspicion that he does not mean understanding theology or rejecting religion in general. Rather, what he means is that he wants atheists to understand his “sophisticated” theological endeavors and the consequences of rejecting his religion. (In Hart’s own words, “Gosh, who could’ve seen that coming?”) And why atheists would desire to attain this kind of profundity he does not say.

(part 1) (part 3)

Copyright © 2011 JP Laughlin

(Un)Answered Prayers: If He is There, He is Silent

Contra “Believe it or Not” by David B. Hart…part 1 (part 2) (part 3)

In a May 2010 article entitled “Believe It or Not,” theologian David B. Hart addresses the weaknesses that he sees in New Atheism. The tone of his address is dismissive and condescending and the content of his address is as weak as he perceives the New Atheists to be. If his attempt was to argue for a more intellectual form of public atheist, I believe his attempt failed. If religious believers are to find a champion for their cause to battle the New Atheists I would hope, for their sake, that it is not Mr. Hart. However, I do have to thank Mr. Hart for two things. His article has reconnected me with an admired friend and it has inspired this writing and what follows.

In his critique of the book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We are Atheists, Hart declares that many of the issues raised in the book are unimportant. With a wave of his hand like a Jedi master he says, in effect, “these arguments are not worth discussing.” He assures that he is not – honestly, he is not – being dismissive. Yet, he is. In two short paragraphs he casually tosses aside the ideas of a dozen essayists. I think this is unfortunate because I find these ideas to be worthy of very honest consideration in any serious discourse on belief and disbelief. It is particularly unfortunate because a common critique of the New Atheists is that they focus upon the lunatic, bible-thumping, fringe of religion to deliver their damnable message of irreligion. However, within these essays are ideas that address some core principles of theistic belief. For example, the idea of the benevolence of the god of Abraham and the efficacy of prayer are not fringe principles. The former is the centuries old problem of theodicy; the latter is a common justification for why believers believe in a god.

I’ll highlight one of these examples here, Hart’s near mockery of Christine Overall who explains the reasons for her disbelief as lying in prayers that went unanswered as a child. I find it hard to believe (and revolting if it were true) that Hart would scoff at a child suffering from physical hunger. So I am surprised and find it unconscionable that as a theologian Hart would scoff at someone who admits to being spiritually hungry and unfulfilled as a child.

I can empathize with Overall in this regard because my earliest memory of prayer is one of disappointment and abandonment. At age 7, I somehow decided that what I wanted most for Christmas was to share my dinner with Jesus. With a singularity of purpose I prayed every night in the weeks leading up to Christmas that Jesus would grace our dinner with his presence. We were assured, after all, that through him all things are possible. As everyone can imagine, I was greatly disappointed on that Christmas morning. My parents and grandparents, trying to make me feel better, assured me that Jesus was, indeed, with us and even set an empty chair and place setting for him at the table.  Even at that age it was too much to believe. The results of this episode were twofold. First, long before I ever heard the word “efficacy,” I doubted the efficacy of prayer. This was painful as a child because I often heard other people claiming to have had their prayers answered – often for much more mundane results. Though it did not shake my faith, it was my first memorable feeling of abandonment. Second, I learned to distrust my parents and grandparents.

The fact of unanswered prayers is not just in the realm of the disbeliever. The vacancy and absence that can result from this fact is something to which believers are not immune. Mother Teresa, for example, struggled with this very theme to the point that she admitted to not praying. The responses of Teresa’s confessors to that pain differ from my parents and grandparents only in their experience and skill in religious psychology. And the response of the church to this confession is perhaps even more telling. Teresa’s struggle with feeling nothing when she prayed and consequently not praying is supporting evidence in favor of her beatification according to Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, the priest making the case to the Vatican. The logic is convoluted and strikes me as profoundly similar to our former president claiming that the intensity of attacks against US troops was a sign that we are winning.

Beliefs matter and have consequences. In this case, the seemingly simple belief in the power of prayer led to some negative consequences. What are we to do, after all, if we are assured that he is there, but to you, he is silent? For Christine Overall, it led to disbelief. She is not alone in this regard. For myself, it planted the first seeds of doubt and, perhaps more disastrous for my parents, it led to a distrust of what they had to say about many things. You can imagine how well that went over with them when I hit my teens. For Mother Teresa, it led to her beatification through an argument that at its core says to us all “not praying is one step on the path to sainthood.” This last point bears repeating: to not pray is one step on the path to sainthood.

In “Believe it or Not,” Hart laments the “utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism” and, to be even handed, suggests that this is a “social and spiritual catastrophe.” But what is the greater spiritual catastrophe here? Is it that unanswered prayers (and the problem of theodicy) sometimes still lead believers to disbelief? Or is it that after centuries of intellectual energy being spent on the subject, theologians still have not provided satisfactory answers to important spiritual dilemmas? I would suggest that the latter is the spiritual catastrophe at issue here. And if the theologians of our day have found some compelling answers (perhaps, in a defense of divine apatheia?), the fact that these answers are not making their way to the “flock,” and some believers are consequently turning to disbelief, calls into question the consequentiality of the endeavors of the theologians. Would a thorough explanation of the impassibility of God have filled the void felt by Overall, my childhood self, or Mother Teresa? I can answer for myself an honest and definitive No.

(part 2) (part 3)

Copyright © 2011 JP Laughlin

A Neologism for Atheists: Religioflage

religioflage (ri-LI-juh-flahzh) noun 

an object or objects used to disguise the purchase of a book on theology or religious belief.

There was a time when purchasing books on religious belief and Christian theology was quite an ordinary thing. A Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in religion tends to do that to a person. But recently I experienced a great sense of embarrassment at purchasing a book on the philosophy of religion and felt compelled to purchase something else to place on top of it to (half-)disguise my purchase. Lacking a word to describe this pointed to a lexical gap.

It began with a blog post by Keith Parsons, a professor of philosophy. In two sentences, he expressed a devastating critique of a book he once used when he taught courses in the philosophy of religion. He described C. Stephen Layman’s Letters to a Doubting Thomas: A Case for the Existence of God as follows:

I found the arguments so execrably awful and pointless that they bored and disgusted me (Layman is not a kook or an ignoramus; he is the author of a very useful logic textbook). I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory.

Ouch!

Others have said of this book that “[It] is the best book of its kind…”

Could Layman’s arguments be that bad? If Parsons assessment is to be believed, then the best book regarding “the case for theism” is “execrably awful and pointless.”

Double ouch!

Curious as to the substance of Layman’s arguments, I decided to see for myself. However, on the walk to the checkout, I found myself embarrassed. “The cashier will think I’m religious,” I thought to myself. This thought was deeply disconcerting. I could feel the warmth of my cheeks reddening, followed by the flush of my entire face. And, thus, I needed a disguise.

In an effort to give the appearance that I was merely reading two sides to an argument (but really the cashier probably neither noticed nor cared), I chose Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great.

Sure, I already had a copy…but not in hardback.

Copyright © 2012 JP Laughlin

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