[cancer|religion] Faith, science and the afterlife
I put my stick in the faith-and-reason hive yesterday again, in comments on this post, and then on my Facebook presence here.
What I said in the blog comments was:
Actually, we have perfectly good physics that refutes the existence of the afterlife. It’s called entropy. You or anyone else has an extremely high burden of proof to surmount in order to counter that with objective evidence.
As for metaphysics, that is of course another word for faith, which rarely if ever has validity outside the individual faithholder’s frame of reference.
I am curious, as you challenge my statement of basic truth as if it were ragtag belief system. What objective, repeatable evidence does exist for the survival of self beyond the death of the brain?
I’m talking testable, empirical evidence, not scripture and faith statements. Faith can be a bedrock truth in the private universe of the individual that holds it, but articles of faith very rarely translate into characteristics of the physical universe we all inhabit
I then vented on Facebook with this comment:
Claiming we don’t have enough science to disprove the afterlife is like denying evolution. It’s a defect in your education, not in science.
Pretty much every time I get into this topic, people seem to think I’m denying the power or value of faith. As I said downthread in that Facebook post:
I have an immense respect for faith and its power. I have a profound disrespect for confusion between the truths of faith and the truths of testable, empirical reality
As one might imagine, my interest in the experience of death and dying is much sharpened of late. However, I’ve had this basic issue on my mind for years. Science is a process, a mode of thinking. It’s not some institution with the power to bury some ideas and elevate others. If there were some testable, provable hypothesis about survival of the self beyond the clinical death of the body, the medical journals would be full of it. That is, after all, one of the central questions of human culture for as far back as we have any history of human culture to evaluate.
But the whole burden of proof of afterlife is on those who would assert that as empirical reality. Science can no more disprove the afterlife than it can disprove the existence of pink unicorns. Less so, in fact. The question is a logical null.
However, to state the simple truth that there is no evidence of life after death is profoundly offensive to many people, and profoundly discomforting to many others. Speaking as someone who’s wrestling with precisely those fears, I say tough shit to them. It’s not a disrespect to your faith to state that your faith claims have no empirical basis. The universe doesn’t care if you’re Catholic or Hindu or Voudoun or Seventh Day Adventist or an atheist or what. It functions perfectly well without the lens of faith. In fact, the universe functions precisely as well without faith as it does with faith.
But human hearts and minds do not. What to me is an obvious conflation of wishful thinking and faith narrative is to others a truth so profound as to be indistinguishable from the sunrise or the tides or the fingers of their own hand.
Which is precisely my point. Privileging one’s faith narrative so strongly that one views science as unable to answer faith questions is a failure of one’s own education and worldview, not a failure of science. The process of science can test the assertions of a faith narrative as easily as it can test assertions of chemistry and physics.
The whole purpose of a faith narrative is not empirical testability. One does both science and faith a disservice when one tries to hold faith up to the standards of science.
Think of it this way. Science works in a completely testable, repeatable manner for anyone, anywhere, with the right education, data and equipment. Faith is so profoundly individual that there are about 41,000 Christian denominations in the world, and thousands, possibly tens of thousands of other religions. Many if not most of them proclaim a monopoly on the truth, but they cannot each and all in their tens of thousands of revelations be in sole possession of the truth. To hear most religionists tell it, only one faith can be right. Theirs. In other words, faith is not testable and repeatable for anyone, anywhere; rather, it is profoundly individual.
Very nearly the opposite of what science seeks to do.
Meanwhile, I’m still dying. When I’m dead, I’ll still be dead. If 40,000 years of human history and culture haven’t managed to come up with any repeatable, empirical evidence to the contrary thus far, I don’t think the next six or nine months are going to make much difference now. Regardless of anyone’s sincerely held beliefs. Or their irritation at my pointing out the obvious.
Posted: 7:53 am Mon November 25 2013 | Comments(15) |
[cancer|religion] Talking about God with a faith holding friend
My good friend daveraines, a UMC pastor, has another post in his Jay Lake, Cancer, and God series. I read his post, and saw it as an unfinished interview. I asked Dave if he’d mind me responding. He said, “I would love for you to respond to this!”
So, here we are. I respond to each of his sections below.
Empirical vs. Mythical truth
Dave captured my point of view on this pretty well. I would make a small correction of “Mythical” to “Mythic”, mostly because of Dave himself pointing out to me that “mythical” is a specific kind of dismissive, while “mythic” is descriptive of a certain kind of thought process outside the linear, objective structures of the Apollonian perspective.
How Those Christians Behave
Again, Dave captured my point of view pretty well here. I have a lot more to say on this topic than his encapsulation. I will add one thing now: I have what evangelists call a “pain story” about the enormous hurt and damage that American Christianity caused me and my family back in the 1990s. Mother of the Child was pregnant (this was about 1994). The fetus died at 14 weeks. Her body would not spontaneously miscarry, so our doctor scheduled a D&C (which is normally an abortion procedure) for 18 weeks. Thanks to protests and pressure from Christian protestors, almost all the hospitals in Austin, TX had stopped allowing D&C procedures to be performed in their operating rooms for any reason.
It was Bible-believing Christians who would have forced my wife to carry a nonviable fetus indefinitely. There is not enough of God’s love in the world to justify the misery they wanted to inflict on my family for the sake of their narrow minded beliefs. There is nothing moral or ethical about opposition to abortion when it includes this kind of profound cruelty.
That experience hardened my existing political and cultural opposition to the religious extremism of the public face of American Christianity from a sort of generic liberal-progressive discomfort to a deeply personal hatred which has never guttered out.
This is the section where Dave said the least. I’ll quote him in full:
I must label this as speculation. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of some kind of personal struggle between Jay and God, or perhaps with the church. The first thing he ever said to me (upon finding out I am a pastor) was something like, “Many of my stories work out my struggle with the god I don’t believe in.”
I was raised churched early in life, mostly under the influence of my very strict grandfather. He was a devout member of the Disciples of Christ who slightly after that point in my life earned a Doctorate of Divinity from Texas Christian University and was preacher for the remainder of his working life. (Having previously been a dentist, a colonel in the army, a land developer, a retail store owner, a black market meat smuggler, an armed strike breaker, and quite a few other things.) I was a good little Bible student, earning all kinds of awards.
Then I actually read the story of Passover and the Angel of Death with some care.
4 And Moses said, Thus saith the Lord, About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt:
5 And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.
6 And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more.
— Exodus 11:4-6 (KJV)
Even at age five or so, I could not understand how a God who loved his creation could kill all the firstborn children of Egypt. How were they to blame for the misdeeds of Pharaoh? What would they have done. Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents had nothing on what the Lord God Almighty did to those poor children whose only crime was to be sleeping in the wrong house.
That was the beginning of my lifelong dispute with God. My teen aged and adult observations of the behavior of His followers in Christian America have only confirmed that the God of my fathers is a petty, mean spirited tyrant who reduces his followers to cruelty and intellectual dishonesty in the name of faith. The same God who killed thousands of innocent children just to make a political point, something that was obviously immoral even to my five year old self. And yet, we celebrate this as a miracle?
It is Christians like Dave Raines, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, John R. White and Fred Clark who remind me that I am wrong about this. My argument is with God, not His followers. As Dave quoted me, the God I don’t believe in.
There is absolutely no proof of God in the world. The Bible no more proves His existence than comic books prove the existence of Spiderman. I’m an empirical guy (Dave’s first point), and I see no empirical evidence. Nonetheless, God plays a very powerful role in the world precisely because so many people do believe (Dave’s second point), and so it is this God-by-implication that I am really arguing with.
As for cancer, well. I can neither blame God nor Satan, as neither of them exist in any form meaningful enough to have an effect on my health. But my own mythic truths are powerful and deep, and they have been shaped by the Christian narrative.
So I argue as I not so slowly die.
Posted: 9:14 am Fri September 06 2013 | Comments(35) |
[cancer|religion] Me and prayer
As anyone who’s read my blog for more than about twelve minutes knows, I am a staunch atheist. One might even say raving. This is both a personal stance and cultural-political stance. No one’s interests, least of all those of the faithful, are served by intruding religion into public policy, let alone the law. In such a scenario, whichever faith serves as the template diminishes all the others. I’m fairly certain, for example, that those many conservative Christian advocates of school prayer would be horrified if the prayers were Islamic. Which is pretty much how those of us who aren’t Christian feel about Christian prayer in schools and other public settings.
That being said, I have an absolute respect for the role of religion in the private life of every individual, whatever their faith (or lack thereof), citizenship, place of residence and what have you. So when a friend tells me they pray, I respect what prayer means to them and for them.
When a friend tells me they pray for me and my cancer, I respect that as well. That isn’t a statement about my relationship with faith. That’s a statement about their relationship with faith.
I’m saying this because people on Facebook and in my blog comments fairly often tell me they’re praying for me, and somewhat less often but still frequently apologize for that. Please, pray if your spirit is so moved. I don’t have to believe in your faith. It’s enough for me that you do.
And to those who do pray for me, thank you.
Posted: 4:52 am Mon June 24 2013 | Comments(71) |
[religion] In which we discover that I may be a Wheatonist
Yesterday, Lisa Costello and I were talking about religion, as we are sometimes wont to do. I am somewhat infamously an atheist, from a Calvinist background. She is a serious Shambhala Buddhist, also from a Protestant background.
What prompted the conversation was this comment on my blog, from Stevo Darkly, partially excerpted here:
I suspect Jay is as “saved” as he needs to be. The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner posits the concept of the “anonymous” Christian. Horrible label, but basically it means if a person lives as Christ would like, they are effectively a Christian. [...] Certainly Jay lives a life as loving and tolerant and kind as any sort if Christ or God could want. Better than most self-claimed Christians.
I felt both complimented and amused by Stevo’s remarks, and took them in what I am fairly confident was the spirit intended. As it happens, Lisa and I have an ongoing dispute about whether I’m a good Buddhist or a bad Buddhist. Which is also pretty amusing, given my active commitment to atheism. The serious underpinnings of that dispute parallel the comment above, to the effect that Lisa claims I live my life much the way I would if I were trying to be a good Buddhist.
I observed that in simplistic terms, most constructive religious commandments boil down to Wheaton’s Law: “Don’t be a dick.” I’m not talking about the religious commandments about not eating shrimp, or avoiding cheeseburgers, or hating on gay people, or wearing magic underwear, or whatever. Those are tribal in-group signifiers, not moral guidance. I’m talking about the whole not bearing false witness thing, not coveting your neighbor’s ass in a non-consensual fashion, do as you would be done by, an it harm none, and so forth. Those are affirmative statements of social principle. (Some of which may of course also be tribal in-group signifiers.)
So I suppose if I were to subscribe to a religion, I’d be a Wheatonist. My religion would have one commandment: “Don’t be a dick.” That’s about it. Seems to cover almost everything what needs covering. Living as a Wheatonist, I could be mistaken for an anonymous Christian or a good Buddhist either one.
I think Wil is on to something bigger than he realizes.
Or maybe he already knows it…
Posted: 5:25 am Wed May 15 2013 | Comments(49) |
[cancer|religion] Cancer and religion and you and me
Not unexpectedly, my terminal diagnosis has brought out the religion in some of my friends and acquaintances. I know this is sincere, and very well meant, but it’s also annoying as hell. People who hold faith sincerely take it very seriously. This I respect. Some people who take their faith very seriously desperate want to share it with me as a way to help me. This I respect.
But I really don’t need to hear it.
First of all, I’ve heard the Good News. As an atheist, I take a great interest in religion. Whatever variety of it you happen to subscribe to, there’s a good chance I know something about it. I’m aware of the truth of the word of God. I’m also aware that there are about 30,000 versions of it (the rough count of Christian denominations in the world), which right there tells any thoughtful person everything they need to know about the obviousness and inviolability of God’s word. Come on, you can’t grow up in American culture without being saturated with the Christian message.
More to the point, I have been thoroughly churched. My grandfather was a pastor in the Disciples of Christ, with a divinity degree from Texas Christian University. I won all kinds of awards in Sunday school as a child. I was baptized at thirteen. I have a whole shelf of Bibles and concordances here at Nuevo Rancho Lake. I’ve read the King James Bible from cover to cover. I know the word of God from the inside.
My atheism is a conscious, confident choice. Not an error, not simple ignorance of some better way. A considered position based on a lifetime spent grappling with both faith and reason. While I am pathologically cynical about religion in the public square and in politics, I am absolutely respectful of religion as a private choice and a personal behavior.
My private choice and personal behavior is to be an atheist.
I wouldn’t dream of approaching a religious friend who is mortally ill and attempting to convince them how much better their life, and death, would be if they rejected God and turned to the comfort of rational, empirical humanism. Yet I have religious friends who feel compelled to do this very same thing to me. I’ve been told in so many desperate words that a friend cannot understand how I can face such trials without Jesus in my life.
I know this is motivated out of love and concern. I know that for many Christians (and a number of other religious) proselytization is both a duty and an act of faith. But I’m extremely comfortable with my spiritual stance. What kind of hypocrite would I be to turn away from my intellectual bedrock now, in the face of troubled times?
Besides which, cancer is the Problem of Evil on the hoof. If I came to once again accept belief in God, the first thing I’d do is get into a knock-down, drag-out argument with Him over why He is treating me this way.
So I recognize that you love me when you reach out to me about faith. But really, truly, I’ve heard it before, and I know what’s important to me. Your spiritual truths are not mine. And with a life full of cancer and all its discontents, I don’t need that distraction now.
Posted: 5:41 am Fri May 10 2013 | Comments(130) |
[religion|cancer] An important change in direction
Cancer continues to really challenge my sense of myself and the world. As long time readers know, I’ve been a staunch atheist all my adult life. Even so, I’ve always acknowledged the tension between logos and mythos in the human mind. I’ve historically found my mythos, my access to the spiritual dimensions of thought, through my writing and through reading the writings of others.
But cancer slowly turns my head. I’ve come to realize that cancer is a kind of miracle of creation in its own right. A series of tumors arising from my own genome are as much me as if I were carrying a child in my body. They are of me. They are me.
Rather than combat these children-of-my-cells, I am coming to understand that I should honor them. I’m developing a new philosophy, one I am tentatively calling carcinosubstantiation, with the goal of focusing on cancer as a positive change agent and a spiritual touchstone in my life.
The catechism will be simple, as befits a blunt and cruel disease like cancer. The commandments will be subtle, as befits a protean and sophisticated disease like cancer. Carcinosubstatiation will celebrate the miracle of evolution, because after all, what is cancer but cellular evolution with the brakes turned off?
I’ll be updating as my thoughts evolve, and perhaps lighting a path for those who are called to follow. What is cancer but the master of my life, after all? Should I not surrender to it, and remake myself in cancer’s image?
I have not finally gotten religion, but perhaps religion has finally gotten me. This first day of April, 2013, I am dedicating myself to a new belief.
Posted: 5:50 am Mon April 01 2013 | Comments(40) |
[politics|religion] Where should the rules come from?
Yesterday on Facebook, a conservative friend said, I suspect part of the issue is that most writers and artists of the last 150 years working in the fantastic field have been (more or less) refugees from religion, of one sort or another. To them, a more perfect (or at least more fun) world is a world where god and church… are just not present. God and church mean rules and we work in genres inhabited (more or less) by people who hate rules. On their persons. On their choices. On their thoughts and ideas.
(No link, because I don’t want to accidentally create a dog pile.)
As it turns out, I somewhat mistook the context of my friend’s remark, but I still wanted to repost what I said, because I think it may have some value. Below is a synthesis of several comments of my own:
I think you’re oversimplifying terribly. I don’t know a single liberal or atheist who doesn’t believe firmly in the social contract, and the social contract requires rules. Frankly, from our point of view, it’s conservatives who have been abandoning the rules in working so hard over these past decades to void much of the social contract.
As an atheist myself, and definitely a proud refugee from religion, I write about religion all the time in my fiction. See my entire Mainspring series, as well as my Green series, as well as a large percentage of my short stories, as well as Death of a Starship, whose protagonist is an Orthodox priest, and my yet-unpublished Sunspin, one of whose key characters is also a Christian priest. Portrayed with loving care and as much internal honesty and morality as I can manage, not with liberal snark.
To oversimplify on my part, the fundamental disagreement you’re so casually alluding to isn’t over the question of rules vs. no rules, it’s over the source and meaning of the rules. I don’t think any single faith should be the source of societal rules. How would you as a conservative Christian feel about living in a society based on rules drawn from the Sharia, for example? That’s how I feel about living under Christian rules. Though in all fairness, the vast majority of the secular rules I favor and the Christian rules I presume you favor are in alignment.
In my personal case, I have a particular allergy to both Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, but I also work pretty hard to talk about religion fairly in my writing. I’m an atheist, but I’m not a fool, and religion is one of the defining human experiences/institutions.
Likewise, on the political front, the assertion that the US is a Christian nation is obvious religious fantasy when contrasted with the blackletter content of the Constitution as well as the writings of the Founders taken as a whole in context (as opposed to cherry picking ‘gotcha’ quotes). Nonetheless, it is an act of intellectual idiocy to deny that we are overwhelmingly a Christian nation in a cultural and historical sense. To me, freedom of religion means freedom from religion. That in turn is the single most important protection any particular religion or denomination or sect or individual faith-holder has in pursuit of their own religious freedoms.
To sum up, those of us who reject religion in our own lives are not the libertine1 anarchists of conservative fantasies. We’re just people who think there are better ways than arbitrary faith in revelation to organize society. Better for everyone, including faith holders.
1. Well, okay, I personally am something of a libertine, but that’s not the point here.
Posted: 6:39 am Thu January 17 2013 | Comments(8) |
[religion|cancer] Discussing just how bad a Buddhist I would be
Yesterday whilst indulging in the diurnal ritual of my postprandial parboil (a warm baking soda bath which helps the Vectibix-induced skin condition and incidentally has the effect of profoundly exhausting me), Lisa Costello and I had a talk about what a terrible Buddhist I’d make. My observation was that in my extremely limited understanding of the practice, one of the keys of Buddhism was releasing the death-grip that most of us keep on our inner narrative and sense of self. Given that I pretty much define myself by my inner narrative, this strikes me as an improbable stepping stone on any path to enlightenment I might ever follow.
Somewhat to my surprise, Lisa disagreed with me.
We got into a long(ish) talk about how narrative relates to external reality, the nature of truth and what people tend to want to hold on to, mind-body dualism, and a few other related light conversational topics. As I’ve often said on this blog, I’m a relentless empiricist, firmly moored in the world of logos, who doesn’t have any trouble acknowledging the value and power of mythos as a key component of human existence. Including my own personal version of mythos.
My sometimes ugly public quarrels with religion and the religious have entirely to do with people confusing their personal beliefs with some form of objective truth, and then projecting that confusion into the public square to the detriment of both themselves and the rest of society. When it comes to religion, I am a First Amendment absolutist. I will defend to the death your right to worship as you please (and equally my right to find your worship ridiculous); and I will defend to the death my right to be entirely free of the pleasures of your worship.
In the faith-holding sense, I don’t believe in anything. The universe just is, evolution and thermodynamics don’t require my spiritual assent to exist, any more than gravity or climate change or tomatoes do. That’s not to say I’m some mindless, amoral spiritual void. My mythos is always aboil, bubbling over, as anyone who’s ever read my fiction can probably attest. I just don’t confuse the structures of my consciousness with the external reality of the world.
And cancer, like a morning hanging, has a way of focusing the mind. Cancer, at least my path of it, has seized my narrative, and will likely drive me for the rest of my life, whether to an early grave or to a long and thoughtful post-disease survivorship.
I would be a terrible Buddhist these days because the literalized metaphor of my suffering is written in scars across my body, in the daily convulsions of my stomach and my bowels, in the despair and fear and occasional triumph of my thoughts. I live in the valley of the shadow of death, and there is no one here to succor me except myself, and those whose hands reach back from the light beyond.
This suffering would make me a terrible Buddhist, because it keeps me too focused on my sense of self and my narrative in this world. But it might be making me a better human being. At least I love more thoughtfully and live more carefully than I used to. If I am coming to believe in anything in the faith-holding sense, it is that I have come to believe in my own death. Which is of course the least surprising aspect of life.
The narrative? She keeps changing.
Posted: 6:39 am Thu December 06 2012 | Comments(13) |
[religion] A bit more on theism
Yesterday’s post on theism [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ] produced some nice, civil discussion in comments on both sides of my blog. I appreciated that. I did want to elevate a couple of remarks from comments to highlight just a little further.
Me, on losing my religion:
The initial crack in my unquestioning childhood theism was when I was 6(ish) and found myself in Sunday School wondering why we were celebrating Passover as a miracle, when thousands of little boys were being killed. Not that I phrased it that way at the time, of course, but that was the thought. That was not the deed of a loving God.
I realize that for someone who holds Christian faith, part of the challenge and mystery is reconciling the inherent contradictions in scripture and God’s message. Some people reconcile this through denialism, claiming Biblical inerrancy and asserting that it is a human failing, not God’s, when contradiction is perceived. Others reconcile this through acceptance. Others yet through lifetimes of fearsome logic chopping. All of that is fine with me. I quarrel with no one else’s faith, not at its roots. (Faith in politics is of course another matter entirely.) But it seems to me a lot like acquiring a taste for Scotch, which to me is like drinking paint thinner. Why would I want to go to all that trouble for something that doesn’t make sense to me in the first place? Personally, I cherish my rationalism.
mmegaera, on the self-reinforcing logic of faith:
Well, as I was told growing up, he is what he is whether you believe in him or not.
Saying you don’t believe in God, I was told, is like saying you don’t believe that you yourself exist.
To which I responded:
Wow, does that fail the pink unicorn test hard. Nothing like self-reinforcing nonsense passing as logic.
The pink unicorn test is essentially an Internet version of Russell’s teapot. Put simplistically, it says faith claims aren’t provable, and therefore aren’t subject to external logic. My point to mmegaera was that claim made to them as a child has no meaning outside its own hermetically sealed internal logic, and is therefore meaningless beyond whatever meaning the believer chooses to assign to it.
And I suppose as an atheist, that’s really where I land. Faith has whatever meaning the believer chooses to assign to it. The toxic swamp rises up when faith holders confuse their inner meaning with external reality. I will defend to the bitter end to your right to your faith. I will defend to the bitter end my right to live free of the strictures of your faith.
I don’t find those the least bit contradictory. Frankly, anyone who does is deeply confused in their thinking, or possibly has never heard of majoritarianism.
Posted: 5:47 am Fri November 02 2012 | Comments(7) |
[religion] If I were a theist
If I were a theist, I would want to believe in a deity who was better than me.
A deity who showed me how to love what I want to hate.
A deity who showed me the good in others, rather than reflecting my own fears in the faces of others.
A deity who expected me to see the world around me rather than denying it.
A deity who was above my prejudices and dislikes, and lifted me above them as well.
A deity who trusted me rather than testing me.
If I were a theist.
Posted: 5:31 am Thu November 01 2012 | Comments(8) |
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