Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Godlessness : A Meandering Rant on Belief

Rachel Maddow, who has done more to illuminate for me the appeal of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck (i.e., a pundit sharing clearly political opinions on the issues of the day from an unapologetic point of view...something I never quite got until, well, a Liberal started doing it so well [and even better, from an intellectually honest standpoint]), had a segment on her show that tied in with something I've been mulling over a fair bit lately. We've had a few threads here about the belief or non-belief in God and I've noted how I'm increasingly agnostic the older I get...how my long-held position of feeling it's better to leave my mind open to the possibility of an Almighty being than close it off to such a notion, even though there is nothing in this world I see that convinces me "God" is anything more than a human construct abused far too often to let go unchallenged out of wanting to play it safe, still leads me to stop short of declaring myself atheist.

But that point of view, arrived at honestly, after decades of reflection, is so threatening to some folks (including members of my immediate family) that sharing it has serious social consequences. In some places, as Rachel explains, it has consequences that reach all the way up to the US Constitution. Here's the clip:

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As Rachel noted, North Carolina and another 6 US states (Arkansas, Maryland, South Carolina, Tennesse, Texas, Mississipi) all, in variations of terms, make it illegal to hold public office if you don't believe in God. Here's how North Carolina's Constitution states it:

Sec. 8. Disqualifications for office.

The following persons shall be disqualified for office:

First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.

And to just be clear, here's the same topic covered in the US Constitution (which, again as Maddow points out, reigns supreme should there be any discrepancies between it and a state's constitution):
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. [emphasis mine]
This seems as iron-clad a legal issue as one could imagine. The US Constitution wins.

But the issue for me here cuts a bit deeper and isn't as clear. The part of this wider topic that I have so much trouble wrapping my mind and comfort level around is what is someone who is sincerely not sure God exists expected to do socially. There is something very twisted going on here in America.

I suspect goodhearted, sincere folks who support North Carolina's qualifications for office might suggest that if you're that confused about something so fundamental to the moral fabric that would make you fit for office, you should spend some time soul-searching until you work it all out, but stay out of public office where your muddled mind could do real harm. They'd recommend a spiritual counselor, or invite you to their church, but tell you you're not quite ready to be a public official. I mean, I can't imagine they'd want you to 1) just accept God, doing whatever it takes you to quell those questions in your mind or 2) fake it even if you don't really believe.

And yet, that second approach does seem to be what some people want. I mean, it wasn't that an atheist was elected that upset so many people in North Carolina (otherwise he wouldn't have won election). It was that he wouldn't say "So help me God," leading me to suspect that had he simply uttered those words (i.e., faked it at that moment), he'd be happily buried under petty local political red tape by this point and not a national controversy. This willingness to let people fake it is what's really been bothering me lately. I mean, it's not like one could argue that someone's willingness to simply go along with something they don't sincerely believe is a better indication of their moral fabric than their openly stating they have questions or simply don't believe, is it? Doesn't honesty trump everything else in the moral fabric department?

I'm not 100% certain that God doesn't exist, so I can't actually speak to the minds of those who are that would like still to serve their country or state (I do believe firmly that the Constitution makes it crystal clear that it's no one else's business what they believe and their rights as Americans cannot be be denied). I'm more obsessed with the idea of being in between the two camps.

Rather than let folks work through the mind-numbingly complicated questions of belief in an Almighty on their own time and in their own way, there seems to be this collective need to have politicians (or even non-politicians, by their families at least) sweep any doubts under the rug in public. This is willful deceit.

I know there are those for whom even suggesting you have doubts will lead them to conclude then that you're not ready to lead (our leaders can't question things, they have to know what to do based on unyielding values and the guts to start wars without any idea how to pay for them because, well, their bad-ass deciders selves said so). But leaders who think that way have been roundly discredited, at our great expense, to my mind.

The most ironic and pathetic part of the willful deceit that demands that folks pretend they believe is the presumption that it will somehow ensure better behavior. As if lying about believing in God is a better foundation for honest behavior and treating others well than openly questioning God's existence. How anyone could think that a public face founded in a lie isn't more treacherous boggles my mind. Lying to people is seemingly preferable than making them think for themselves. "I mean, if that talented and obviously honest public figure doesn't believe in God, why am I so sure He exists?"

After 9/11 we saw the appeal of organized religion surge in the US:
Church attendance increased by about 25 percent nationwide after the attacks, according to Barna Research Group, a California company that tracks social, religious and political trends.
Personally, this time period coincided with two people close to me passing away in succession and a severe anger at the universe (i.e., anger at the force that presumably controls the universe) and a fair bit of soul-searching about what I personally believe, making the folks who turned to religion to cope with the attacks and uncertainty afterward seem utterly cowardly and sheepish in my eyes. The religious leaders springing up everywhere like mushrooms in their shopping-mall-like mega-churches were absurd charlatans in my eyes. Opportunistic wolves come to prey on the quivering sheep.

And yet, I do wonder, what might have been the longer term response to the attacks had people not had someone repeating the reassuring, love-your-neighbor-like lessons of Jesus or Mohamed or Abraham or whoever to help them calm down. Would their fear and anger have turned even more ugly and violent? Wasn't it better to let them drink from the opiate fountain of religion than shoot anyone who looked foreign?

And yet, that notion, that's it was better (safer) to let them be dazzled by the charlatans than honestly and openly express their fear and anger is the ironic flip side to my complaint above about asking folks to fake it for the sake of polite society. It's still willful deceit.

All of which leaves me more confused than ever about all this.

I didn't promise any useful conclusions here...just a meandering rant...it's something that's been on my mind for a while and it's helpful to get it out of my system. Carry on.

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Blogger Kirstin said...

There should be an agnostic/atheistic word for amen. Thank you!

12/15/2009 09:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post Edward. Something tells me this love of the opiate of religion is in direct proportion to people voting constantly against their own best interests and allowing their political representatives to prefer corporations over people, the rich over the poor (in direct conflict to their faith). Also to tolerate endless wars that make no sense from a moral standpoint nor are affordable yet the populace is not in the streets screaming over any of these issues.

Unless your a French citizen, then you get health care and your country stopped supporting this insanity a half a century ago since they learned their lessons in Indochina and Algeria. Michael Moore was correct, the French government is afraid of its citizens, if only the US was. Then again the US citizens in the streets these days are the Fox News Teabagging brigade and are marching against health reform, for the co-mingling of church and state and the only liberal thing they love is the idea of liberally supplying themselves with as many guns as possible.

--ondine nyc

12/15/2009 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I do love that the teabaggers are taking to the streets...warms the heart of this veteran of multiple street protests and makes me like them a bit more.

12/15/2009 10:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh I don't know. It seems that if people can assume your eternal damnation because you don't believe as they do, dictating that you can't run for public office seems pretty humdrum. For a believer to condemn or a nonbeliever to mock is to commit spiritual violence for what is being condemned or mocked are our deepest feelings. There is more honesty in them than in anything the intellect can concoct. It's a hopeless mess.


12/15/2009 11:05:00 AM  
Blogger Tatiana said...

In between-ers should have the choice to lean either way...use the God word in their oath or not -- whichever way they lean more.
Better yet -- and my personal opinion: because there is no clear evidence either way, any God words should just be taken out of any political documentation/oral oathes and just stick to 'personal moral fiber' wording -- THAT can be evidenced and frankly puts more emphasis on the individual to 'keep it real.'

12/15/2009 11:15:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Is it "moral fiber" and not "moral fabric" ?

Sometimes I think I should stop abusing English.

12/15/2009 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger Tatiana said...

fabric? fiber? ...it's all about what we have woven inside, no?
uh, and um....i'm the one abusing English: oaths -- no "e" in oaths! yikes!

12/15/2009 11:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

If this life was a godly test, a moral test, a test to see if we can get along together, I assume we would have not been allowed much clues to certainties. Perhaps that's why even believers are scared of death or cry when someone near to them die: they have doubts. And it's ok that way, mystery is good for psychology.

I have lots of doubt about great religious schemes because I'm aware of humans desire and skills to gain power. The whole story of the Vatican reeks of these desires. The abrahamic books were found texts, copied from millenaries of oral bla-bla, but no one assumed for a minute that these people were just men like everyone else able to make mistakes or to fall into deep paranoiac psychosis like Charles Manson did. Now, how did Charles Manson convinced so many people to provide him with murder, just by yelling his Helter Skelter theory? Because paranoia is contagious, or rather, some paranoiacs have great skills in convincing their peers (the dysfunction doesn't affect the IQ but enhances it). Some parts in the Bible, let's face it, read like they could be the result of paranoia, or they could be written on purpose by people with means to control a people.

Sometimes a religion and the technological means by which it is spread sound illogical with how a godly being would have made its presence known. The kabbalah make things more problematic. It sounds closer to a godly magic than the spreading of a long narrative with loose ends. But it could also be mystical misinterpretations of a mathematical scheme developed by some genie.

Let's presume prophets really existed, and really met with spiritual beings, then you also have the issue of misinterpretation. It's just like when you play the Tarot (a simplification of the Kabbalah), there is no perfect interpretation. The symbols are there, but there are always engulfed with mystery.

So, having someone come to me and tell me "this is what God says, this is how things should be done", to me this implies that I'm facing a bullshitter. People who never even began to question the historical sources of their religion, how it evolved through time or even how and where they were taught it.

I love esoterism because it is filled with mystery, but I don't have firm beliefs in anything. I pretend to believe. I allow myself to believe. Like with meditation: I don't have to believe all the time about universal consciousness. I can "enter in and out" of that belief every time I want it, and it is not hurting. Not hurting the way a priest tells you that you are going to hell for doubting the scriptures of some badly translated version of a very old collage of a book.

Ah well, back into the witch temple at the back of my house...

Cedric Lunatic (gosh I feel perticularly drifting these days: where's my Gingko Biloba?)

12/15/2009 12:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

since i've never been any good at believing what i'm told, i have a different take on what an ultimate end might be compared to most in this culture, and i recognize institutionalized pretense for what it is but decide to participate in it, joyfully. in my understanding of absolute truth, we're here to have a human experience, the end. the gene pool is very interested in providing every conceivable human experience for the godhead, of which we're all a part, so there's at least one of every kind of suffering and delight, and every experience of self and identity, every iteration of ritual and questioning, etc etc.
where faith comes in for me is in the fervent hope that i will return to undifferentiated consciousness- i'll be dead a great deal longer in human terms than i'll be alive. i don't know for sure if that will happen- that's why it's faith. it's hope - for some kind of continuity. soon we will have had our chance to be human and do and make and think and write the way humans do. it's a trip, and i'm grateful to have been on board.
but i'm honestly saddened by how christianity -my heritage-has been caricaturized in our culture, as though every christian is a foaming, unthinking bible-thumper. mind you, i understand why that image has purchase- but still think it's a deflection - a spin. there are plenty who struggle with the human experience of faith. but there is beauty, very artistic beauty, in acts and thoughts which are generally labeled as prayerful, as sweet supplication: bless us to bless one another. help us to help one another. be with us to be with one another.
because those thoughts have place in my consciousness, i cannot be an atheist.

12/15/2009 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger ztdavis said...

The captcha blogger is requiring for me to post this comment says "siner". A misspelled omen?

As an unabashed atheist married to a staunch Christian (against the wishes of her parents) a lot of these issues play out somewhat regularly in my life. And, if you don't like discussing your beliefs, don't mention you're an atheist while riding Amtrak. For some reason there are always a lot of people that want to confront you about it.

I live in Chicago, where you tend to not stand out as much if you aren't religious, but even then there are countless social occasions where it would be less awkward to just pretend to be a good Christian. People seem to take it as affront a lot of the time.

In politics I do not find it suprising, in America, that so few politicians are "openly" atheist. I kind of doubt, as well, that there are many who are but are faking it. The statistics for atheism in America are still below 10%. For people like me, who after well thought out deliberation on the arguments have tended towards a stronger agnosticism/atheism (you probably can't know either way but I don't believe there is a god), I would hope you'd be true enough to yourself to not present your beliefs falsely.

What is interesting about North Carolina's unconstitutional law is that fighting it is politicaly suicide: it "outs" you as a non-believer and essentially makes you unelectable in the state. So it doesn't matter if it is unconstitutional from a functional standpoint.

But I'm not in politics.

There is an excellent treatise on bullshit called, appropriately, "On Bullshit", that concludes at the end that bullshitting isn't lying, it isn't hiding the truth deliberately, it is saying statements without caring about the truth value of the argument. I feel like a lot of talk of religion by politicians falls into this realm: it could be true, it could not be true, but saying it is achieves your goals so why not.

12/15/2009 01:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Edward, I'd have to say "mostly" well said. The idea of being forced to fake a belief you don't have, to serve your community is simply appalling. Our nation’s constitution is our governing rule. Having contradicting constitutions just confuses the law.

What seems equally bothersome to me though, is the idea of being agnostic leaning towards atheism. One serves only self while the other serves no understanding of or a willingness to get to know God (a creator). I've read many forums of self proclaimed Agnostic's that complain about those who stand firm on their belief in God, heaven, and hell, and yet they themselves stand firm on nothing but indecision. Perfect by no means, but at least the Christian stands on his Bibles teaching.

It seems to me that if a believer in Christianity was to lean back and forth between following the teachings of Christ, and being Agnostic to make his/her sin (actions) acceptable in the eyes of others, he/she would be called a hypocrite. Yet the gamble of agnostic leaning toward atheist is supposed to be a fair choice to live by while some are being critical of that which they have no understanding (Christianity), and have obviously already made a choice not to completely choose. Which is a choice in and of it’s self.

I do see your points of confusion. What to believe and Why, are good questions. I've lived several of those questions myself. And now I would like to encourage you to choose. Choose to seek “all” the truth. Dig deeper into both sides (God and the world), while keeping an open mind to the possibilities that you may find something that proves God's existence beyond your current understanding. Based on your blogs writings you are definitely someone who enjoys learning and growing. So go learn and grow.

I look forward to reading your blog regularly. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, hopes and dreams, and your opinion, even when it rants.

A blog fan.

12/15/2009 03:07:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

A blog fan,

while I appreciate the gentleness with which you're prodding me, I do have to say that your underlying assumption that, if I just explore more I'll come to God, is actually counter to my experience. The more I explore (and I've been exploring for decades), the more I find to undercut the faith I adopted wholesale as a child.

It might be self-serving, having spent time reflecting on this, to hold tight to my agnosticism, but I find it equally if not more self-serving to do no reflection at all and just pretend one believes for the sake of getting ahead in the material world, which is how (with careful study) I interpret the actions of the vast majority of people around me.

To be honest, I am actually much more concerned that should I "go learn" more than I already have (I grew up in a evangelical church, studied its doctrines extensively, and have seen religion from many angles in many parts of the world) I will conclude that there is no God rather than find "something that proves God's existence beyond your current understanding." It is that concern that keeps me in neutral, so to speak.

12/15/2009 03:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Edward, if it helps, to me a real goodhearted God wouldn't mind if you believe or not, as long you're not planning on evil deeds. Maybe trying to make other people feel guilty is such an evil deed.

Cedric C

12/15/2009 04:53:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I would agree with that last sentiment wholeheartedly, Cedric. Ostracizing or guilt-tripping nonbelievers is a tale-tell sign to me that people doing so are less Christian-like than they think they are.

12/15/2009 05:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting conversation. I think this topic actually ties in nicely with the "too much tooo many" topic concerning artists. Too much speculation and too many authority figures(in the art world and the religious community).

I think these issues really reflect the paradox of public and private life. What we say in the open is often very different from what we say think and feel in our private life. Doubt, uncertainty and honesty are fundamentally the most importatn aspects of a developed faith and spiritual life. I am a Christian and I will always be a Christian... it is my root and my anchor in life. However, I far from claiming any authority of my own and my life is continually blessed and plagued with doubt and uncertanty, but I endure. Perhaps foolishly of faithfully I continue to seek and hunger after expereinces that draw me closer to the divine.

As an ultimate manifestation of God, I look to Jesus, but I explore the truth of the human condition through Krishnamurti, Thomas Merton, Herman Hesse, Gandhi, Thomas Kempis and numerous others.

But above all, I see art and spirituality as the ground for everyone to address their own expression and of the human condition. If only more people were earnestly concerned with such a sincere pursuit.

Excellent post ED... Honesty does trump everything, but a little faith never hurts (afterall we are so limited as humans).


12/15/2009 07:22:00 PM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

I once heard the argument from a philosopher that it's much more 'intellectually respectable' (his words) to be an atheist than an agnostic.

This philosopher used the example of fairies at the bottom of your garden. You can't prove there are fairies at the bottom of your garden, but neither can you conclusively disprove it.

Which is the reasonable course to take? Is it more reasonable to keep an an open mind as to whether there are fairies at the bottom of the garden or to conclude that, on the balance of probabilities, there are not?

On a vaguely related note, here's what the dinosaurs have to say. As a common-sense nihilist, I heartily endorse it.

12/15/2009 07:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


One important point of fact, fairies at the bottom of a garden have little to no societal relevance. However, faith/beleif in God have dramamtic social and personal significance.

I think it is far more intellectually reasonable to be an agnostic rather than an atheist (atheism is the ultimate faith in one's own understanding.. incredibly ridiculous, not intellectually wise. There are of course varying degrees of christian practice, so I don't think the most viable option is to be a fundamentalist either.

12/15/2009 07:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So David, do intelligent, respectful, and reasonable people know more about the unknown than the rest of us poor slobs? I kind of doubt it.

12/15/2009 09:57:00 PM  
Blogger ztdavis said...

Not to get into a long debate of semantics, but there is strong agnosticism and weak. The weaker agnosticism more resembles a "I'm not sure about it" and the stronger is an actual affirmative statement: "It is impossible to know for certain there is or is not a god." When I say I am agnostic I am not saying that I have yet to make up my mind on the issue: I have. Some people have faith, some don't, and neither group can assert (although they do) that they are following or not following god because of something they've proved deductively and comprehensively.

I'm a fan of Karen Armstrong's skeptical histories of religion. Both her "History of God" and her very recent "Case for God" are excellently summarized but not even remotely simplified histories of how man has related to god throughout time. The "Case for God" I would especially recommend if you do at all have interest in reading more, as Armstrong is not sympathetic towards any current religions, extremely skeptical of all beliefs, but nonetheless truly believes in god and man's need of him. It is a very interesting perspective.

Greetings, by the by. I've read your blog for what feels like years because of my interest in fine art photography, although this is certainly a pleasant aside.

12/15/2009 10:17:00 PM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

So David, do intelligent, respectful, and reasonable people know more about the unknown than the rest of us poor slobs? I kind of doubt it.

I think the point is that it is better to come down on one side or the other rather than sit on the fence.

Perhaps UFOs would've been a better example. However, I repeated the argument as I heard it rather than try to pass it off as my own.

12/16/2009 01:46:00 AM  
Blogger Ilaria said...

I recommend " Nothing To Be Frigntened Of", a lighthearted book by agnostic Julian Barnes. Sounds rather grim, a book on death, but in fact is a very good read.


12/16/2009 10:25:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Atheism is treated the way apostates & heretics were in late Antiquity and Middle ages.

I think because an Atheist has to make a declaration that there is no God which implies or outright accuses that everyone who practices a religion is wasting their time or a fool and a dupe.

Agnosticism is saying "We don't know" which is more of a personal expression.

My two cents.

12/16/2009 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Brent said...

There is a terrific new book called "The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason" by Victor Stenger which is a well reasoned, accessible book - a very good read.

12/16/2009 12:40:00 PM  
Blogger waynestead said...

Nice post, Ed. I've found that few in the contemporary art world are willing to talk about the notions of God or religion at all. Thanks for doing both. An intelligent discourse is needed, indeed - if only because religion is such a recurring theme in so much contemporary artwork.

Habermas recently argued (roughly) that secularists should allow the religious to use openly religious language in the public sphere (rather than dismissing outright) - citing a lack of adequate language for many of the horrific atrocities of our time (war,terrorism,etc). He exhorts both secularists and religionists to cooperate in interpreting said language for general use and understanding.

That said, religious language is very different from religious requirement (as in the oath you mention). Your argument for a more honest/tolerant system is completely warranted.

Thanks for keeping the lines open.


12/17/2009 04:21:00 PM  
Anonymous nick said...

"I think it is far more intellectually reasonable to be an agnostic rather than an atheist (atheism is the ultimate faith in one's own understanding.. incredibly ridiculous, not intellectually wise. There are of course varying degrees of christian practice, so I don't think the most viable option is to be a fundamentalist either."

I think one of the most misunderstood thing about atheists is that atheism - is not Atheism. I quoted the comment above because it is not "the ultimate faith in one's own understanding". It's no faith in a higher power - and not by substituting it with something else. It is not a religion in itself. It is the absence of religion. That is all. Nothing more. Maybe that brings into play much bigger complexities and the notion of atheism VS Atheism. However, as a firm atheist I just wanted to note the difference.

That said - I'm sure there are those that disagree with that as well so the only thing we can really take out of that is that there are as many degrees of faith as non-faith. Sorry to veer off-topic but I think thats a sometimes overlooked aside.

12/22/2009 10:17:00 AM  

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