Sunday, October 5, 2008

There Is No Why

Today, for the first time in a while, I'd like to discuss religion.

Those of you who follow my blog might find this hard to believe, but I actually try to avoid discussing religion whenever possible. There is always a concern that people will think I'm harping needlessly on just one issue, that I've acquired a certain tunnel vision through which I now view the world. The truth is, however, that like Bill Maher - whose film "Religulous" I saw on Friday - I am truly worried by religion, and by the religious debate itself. I find religion, among those who adhere to it, a constant source of frustration and fear at the rising tide of anti-intellectualism.

Today's transgressor: David Wolpe, author of an essay at The Washington Post entitled "Without God, There Is No Why" - available at - and of a recent book entitled Why Faith Matters. Those of you who have discussed this with me in person should have no trouble discerning what my problem might be with these publications; for the rest of you, here we go again.

The review of Wolpe's book seems to imply that he is among the first to argue that despite its flaws, religion is primarily kind and compassionate - the others, this reviewer implies, are content defend faith "by hiding the darkest moments of Western traditions." In fact, any non-believer who has actually had this debate with another human being will recognize this as the standard response to any aspersions cast against religion - yes, there are some dark moments in religion's past, but it has always been primarily a force for good. This is not a groundbreaking approach; this is more or less par for the course.

It's Wolpe's essay, however, that I'd primarily like to address (having actually read it). In "Without God, There Is No Why", he discusses the way his family's experience with cancer brought them closer to God - by providing them with certainty that even this had a purpose. He recalls a story told by Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor, wherein a spiteful guard informed him that "Here, there is no why." It is this greatest of fears, he argues, that God permits us to live without - faith in the divine reassures us that existence, even suffering, has a purpose. "The greatest terror," he writes, "is if the universe presents us with a blank face. Without God, there is no why."

Of my two giant-sized problems with this argument, the first should be more obvious - although it frustratingly never seems to be. Arguing for the need for God and arguing for the existence of God are not the same thing - not by a long shot. Perhaps atheists like Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are partially responsible for fostering this notion, with their lengthy tomes on the evils of religion - the important point, however, is not really the degree of religion's goodness. It is the degree of factual proof behind religious beliefs. A true agnostic objects first and foremost not to acts of evil, but the level of certainty that permits those acts to leave behind a clear conscience, no matter how despicable they may be. Religious violence is dreadful, but it would not be possible were both sides not absolutely convinced their way was right - and it is to that conviction, absent all proof, that a reasonable person must object.*

To put it another way: in what other area of human thought is "well, it would be a lot better if this were true" admissable as a serious argument for truth? Belief is a choice between what is true and what is not - the relative merit of each position is simply not a viable factor.

Which leads me, paradoxically, to objection number two: why is a universe with a purpose necessarily better than a universe without?

This is a question rarely asked by anybody but Chris Hitchens, whose abrasiveness has unfortunately caused him to be dismissed as a serious participant in this debate. If the most common argument for the existence of God is "boy, your life must be pretty grim without the man upstairs," the most common response by far is "well, sure, having a God would be great - but there's no proof!" This is the right notion, but there's something very wrong with our approach - why must we cede this high ground? Why must we always "admit" that for God to impose purpose and meaning on the universe is a good and valuable thing?

Why do we not want the freedom to choose our own purpose?

The idea of a "divine plan," after all, raises as many questions as it does answers. You've heard these all before - why the Holocaust, why Hiroshima, why Darfur. Why would a loving God include such atrocities in his Great Divine Plan? Now, I've had this argument before (especially with Christians, who I'm pretty sure are chiefly responsible for this concept), and a fair amount of eye-rolling usually accompanies these examples - they're considered pat, obvious, the same old atheistic nonsense. God's unknowable, they say; his ways are not our ways. His purpose for us is not always clear, but he always has a purpose.

I find it frankly astonishing that this truly comforts people.

First of all, the Divine Plan and its inclusion of plague and genocide seem to seriously undermine the argument that "God provides morality" (for which there are simply not enough hours in the day - another time, folks). If God demands that you not kill and then kills you by the hundreds of millions, are not the morals he provided totally arbitrary? If God is the ultimate good, why has he laid down rules for moral behavior that are so wildly at odds with his own? Would emulating the greatest good not be the greatest good?

Second of all, which is the more comforting idea: that God has no purpose for you, or that he has a dreadful one? Don't get me wrong - I understand why a dying person might be struggling to find meaning in their life. If I died young, or before doing all the things I want to do, I might question what it all had been for. But if I were in a hospital bed dying of lymphoma, why would I take comfort in the fact that my divine purpose had been to die of lymphoma? If I were Primo Levi, why would I take comfort in the fact the God did not protect me - that he fed me to the Nazis, and that my despair would serve his ends? If I were raped, why would I feel better knowing God held the knife?

I wouldn't. I'd think I got divinely screwed.

I want the freedom to choose my own purpose - to make my own plans, and to live my own life. I want to know that fate is not decided - that vigilance and wisdom can still protect me. I want to know that by fighting human evil, I can keep it from overwhelming me - and that if it ever does, it was not because the fight was always hopeless. I want to ask the question Why, and to hear the answer in a clear voice - my own.

Human beings give purpose to their own lives. This is not a curse - it is the greatest privilege we have. Don't squander it.

*"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

- C.S. Lewis. Spot the irony.

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