Wednesday, November 19, 2008
On Religion (Two)
Like most kids, I had a religious upbringing, albeit in a family of generationally diminishing fervor. Great grandparents were founders of temples, rabbis; grandparents lit the Sabbath candles more often than not, insisted on Holy Day get-togethers, trips to the Temple, and following the proper rituals. Once in a while my mom tried valiantly and mostly in vain to get us to services on Friday nights; my dad had an abiding dislike of all men of the cloth except for the priest (later Bishop, then Archbishop) who presided over the University of Portland. I attended Sunday School until I graduated high school, took a certain amount of pride in my heritage, went through the usual adolescent period of religiosity, even imagining what it would be like to give moving and soul-expanding sermons to my future flock. At about age fourteen, I received a scholarship to a religious camp in California, where I had what some might describe as an experience of the divine, one evening in the woods, away from the bonfire, with a girl from Piedmont...
But that's another story.
I have a clear recollection -- clear enough almost to be able to re-conjure the feeling -- of asking my mom about death, probably around age six or eight. "Will I die," I asked. Her affirmative answer included nothing about afterlife, no heaven: Jews are pretty silent on that subject, especially we of the Reform variety. I recall feeling the numbing and transfixing coldness of terror, deep and abiding, palpably physical. It was the foreverness of it, the infinitude: less the idea of death itself but that there was no end to it, I'd be dead always and evermore, millions of billions of years. That feeling has stayed with me, lessened with time by the realization that it must be like it was for the infinity in the other direction, before I was born. And that seems to have been all right.
In that moment, whether I fully apprehended it or not, was the existential engine of belief: even a little boy could feel the terrifying certainty of death and the panic it engenders. That's an (if not the) essence of us: before there is belief, there is dread. Enough to drive us to the certainty and peacefulness of ignorance, in the "ignoring" sense of the word. The need is too great to resist.
And yet, I do; and I can only wonder what it is that separates those that do from those that don't. It's not intelligence or even inquisitiveness. Is one, or the other, more evolved? Is one, or the other, more felicitous for the future of man? I don't know, and I won't live to find out.
At some point it just stopped making sense.
I guess belief, by definition, isn't supposed to make sense. I'm okay with fantasy books and movies, but there has to be internal consistency. In my single-digit youth, Saturday morning serials pissed me off when the next episode showed King of the Rocket Men free of his impossible predicament without ever explaining how it happened. I like good science fiction that creates improbable worlds with imaginative rules that make a sort of sense of their own and that plays within them. And so I think it should be with belief: even if unrooted from reality, it ought to follow a sort of esoteric logic. I can't -- nobody really can, convincingly -- reconcile an omniscient, omnipotent god who has a plan for us, loves us, with what we see around us every day. Or with free will. Or miracles. Or the power of prayer. Or, for that matter, with the idea of eternal reward and eternal punishment. It takes theologians to do that, which is to say people willing to suspend reason and call it scholarship.
That's why I said, in post one on this subject, "The fact that I'm no theological expert makes my thoughts particularly worthy, because since there's no true religion, there can be no true experts. The world needs a little input from that perspective." There's much to say, lots of fascinating subjects; in the name of brevity, let's start with the biggest -- and easiest -- one: who created God?
Contemplating the Universe, one has to accept the idea of existence without creation. Either of stuff, or of God. Or gods. People look at the complexity of our world, of life, of nephrons and nucleotides and say it can't just have happened: such intricacy implies a creator. And yet what could be more complex than that creator: a tinkerer with tryptophane, a meddler with mitochondria? It's a lot easier, for me anyway, to accept the primordial existence of atoms and rocks than of a big guy with jewelers' forceps and loupes. Who sat around for an infinite number of eons with nothing to do until twelve-thousand (or is it six-?) years ago, when it occurred to him to create something.
So that's the first thing: if you can get your mind around the idea of the most complex, powerful, brilliant and perfect being imaginable existing forever with no creator, why not protons and electrons? If neither is explainable, isn't the latter a hell of a lot simpler? More sensible, even? Occam's razor.
Given a little more time, I intend to spout off on those other issues, too.