Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Atheist in Church

From Dark Underbelly/Blood Relations

"That sounds like a case of 'atheist in church,'" Lewis said when I was finished.

"Atheist in church?" I asked. "More wise sayings from the Founder?" Lewis was not above quoting from the writings of the Founder of Stochasticism, who is never referred to by name, mainly because he gave so many names, all of them false. Quite a Trickster was the Founder.

"The very same," Lewis said. "The Founder had a lot of things to say about religion and what place it has in society. 'The Atheist in Church' is one of his best essays. He says, look, there are a whole slew of reasons for having churches. They're a form of social organization, you meet people, get moral instruction helpful for living in society. They can be a store of wealth, a means of education, all that stuff. So even an atheist might wish to join a church, regardless of what his opinion of the theology might be.

"But an atheist makes the theists nervous. He can abide by all the same rules, profess the same moral code, and still the regular churchmen don't like his presence. He's not committed to the group, you see. He doesn't say the password. A secret password can't be something that you can figure out by just being reasonable, it has to be something arbitrary. So religions make their believers do things that just don't make sense. That's what really defines the group, the things they do that don't make sense."

"So what does that have to do with me?" I asked him.

"It's a matter of freedom," he said. "We like to think that freedom is a good thing, but joining society means giving up some freedoms. And society doesn't want it to be a conditional thing. It's not supposed to be a matter of choice. We much prefer to have people who can't rather than won't transgress. Which is the better husband, the man who couldn't beat his wife no matter how he feels, or the man who simply refrains?"

I opened my eyes to see how closely he was watching me when he said that. But he was staring out a view panel at the clouds. "I thought that the whole point of it was moral choices," I said. "You talk as if not having a choice is better."

"'Lead us not into temptation,'" he quoted. "Because we might succumb." He looked over at me and grinned. In my current exhausted state it looked a little like a grimace.

"There are a lot of things in life that we don't know about until they happen to us. It's a lot of potential rather than actual freedom. And the potential may be bogus. We might not be able to do it when push comes to shove. That's part of what dice living is about. To test the limits. But if you do it from the dice, the gods might not get so angry at the freedom. That's a clear thread in most mythology. The gods get very angry when confronted by a free man."

"So do you think that it's just the gods being angry with me?" I asked. I smiled again to show that I thought it was a joke.

His face got a bit more serious though. "That's all metaphor," he said. "'A man's reach must exceed his grasp, else what's a meta for?' The gods are stand-ins for human fate in human society. Stick your head up too far and the body politic will try to shear it off. You make people nervous, pardner. They don't know what motivates you. They don't know what you're capable of, but they're pretty sure you're capable of more than they want to know. If there's the choice of having dinner with someone who hated me and wished me dead -- but couldn't do me harm no matter what -- versus someone who liked me, but could kill me without a thought if he so chose, well, most people would go for the first guy, not the second."

I sat up and looked at him carefully, but he was back to watching the cloud patterns. I looked out at them, but I knew that he saw things in them that I'd never see. And vice versa.

"What about you?" I asked. "You said 'most people,' but you don't say about yourself."

He looked at me and grinned. "Oh, I'd probably go with the first guy also; at least I'd load the dice that way." He paused for a moment. That's the secret of the punchline: timing.

"Present company excepted, of course," he said.


black dog barking said...

So religions make their believers do things that just don't make sense. That's what really defines the group, the things they do that don't make sense.

A professor at that state college way back then was perhaps a bit too committed to the words and thoughts of Milton, John: epic poet of the English language. But he sure was fun in class and when he got wound up the iambs boomed like 17th century thunder, answered by slamming doors up and down the hall as sociologists and educational psychologists fought to recapture the sole attention of their individual flocks. Right Reason, that professor-as-Milton told his twentieth century audience, was the gift that would light the way.

Later I would read that Sir Isaac thought he could use his powers of observation and analysis to read the mind of God. Guess they've had a couple of centuries to beat back those heresies, make it all boring and docile and manageable.

Just looked up very end of Paradise Lost, the expulsion from the garden.

Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:

For some values of Providence one might be rolling dice or casting one's fate to the wind.

They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

James Killus said...

Rhine thought that he'd be able to read the mind of God directly, through ESP. It seems to be a recurring theme, and doubtless why the word hubris was invented. Gather our pebbles with serenity, I think, and count the piles if one must.