Talking to musicians this weekend after Easter service, Steve Martin’s funny hymn came up in conversation: Atheists Aint Got No Songs
Last year I read Martin’s excellent autobiography Born Standing Up. At college he majored in philosophy and briefly considered becoming a professor. You can easily see the influence in his inventive brand of comedy:
“Hey, there is no cause and effect! There is no logic! There is no anything!’ Then it gets real easy to write this stuff, because all you have to do is twist everything hard—you twist the punch line, you twist the non sequitur so hard away from the things that set it up… What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation.”
He eventually dropped out of college, appeared on The Dating Game, began working the clubs and incorporated a funny bit about philosophy into his stand-up act, pronouncing Socrates as Soh-crates and saying it teaches you “just enough to screw yourself up for the rest of your life.”
“It’s so hard to believe in anything anymore. I mean, it’s like, religion, you really can’t take it seriously, because it seems so mythological, it seems so arbitrary…but, on the other hand, science is just pure empiricism, and by virtue of its method, it excludes metaphysics. I guess I wouldn’t believe in anything anymore if it weren’t for my lucky astrology mood watch.”
I believe he describes himself as an agnostic? I’ll have to re-read that part of the the book.
This morning I came across a good piece from another agnostic, one who’s become “shakier in my disbelief” as he puts some distance between himself and college. Here’s Charles Murray in Taking Religion Seriously
(Y)our generation of high-IQ college-attending young people, like mine 50 years ago, has been as thoroughly socialized to be secular as our counterparts in preceding generations were socialized to be devout. Some of you grew up with parents who were not religious, and you’ve never given religion a thought. Others of you went to Sunday school as a child (I’m going to use the Christian context in this discussion) and went to church with your parents in adolescence, but left religion behind as you were socialized by college. By socialized, I don’t mean that you studied theology under professors who convinced you that Thomas Aquinas was wrong. You didn’t study theology at all. None of the professors you admired were religious. When the topic of religion came up, they treated it dismissively or as a subject of humor. You went along with the zeitgeist.
Murray is describing his own religious life from the time he went to Harvard until he had his first child, and offers three lessons he learned “with the recommendation that you don’t wait as long as I did.” (1) Taking religion seriously means homework, (2) A good way to jar yourself out of unreflective atheism is to read about contemporary science, and (3) The more you are around people who are seriously religious, the harder it is to think there’s nothing to it.
Taking religion seriously means homework
If you’re waiting for a road-to-Damascus experience, you’re kidding yourself. Taking one of the great religions seriously, getting inside its rich body of thought, doesn’t happen by sitting on beaches, watching sunsets, and waiting for enlightenment. It can easily require as much intellectual effort as a law degree. Even dabbling at the edges has demonstrated the truth of that statement to me for Judaism, Buddhism, and Taoism. I assume it’s true of Islam and Hinduism as well. In the case of Christianity, with which I’m most familiar, the church has produced profound religious thinkers for two thousand years. You don’t have to go back to Thomas Aquinas (though that wouldn’t be a bad idea). Just the last century has produced excellent and accessible work. But whomever you read, Christianity considered seriously bears little resemblance to your Sunday school lessons. You’ve got to grapple with the real thing.
Jar yourself to deeper contemplation with contemporary science.
The progress of science from Copernicus until the end of the 19th century delivered one body blow after another to simplistic religious beliefs. … But in the late 19th century quantum physics was born, and with it began the story of an underlying physical reality that was not only stranger than we knew but stranger than we could have imagined. … After the Big Bang became accepted science, astrophysics began to calculate the infinitesimally small probability that any Big Bang would produce a universe capable of sustaining life — so infinitesimally small that the theory of multiple universes has become the necessary default explanation. Unless you posit multiple universes (and a whole lot of them too), either we are a one-in-a-billion chance or some power created the universe explicitly so that it would produce life. It sounds weird, I know, but check it out. Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, who is not himself religious, is a good starting point.
Spend a little more time around people who are seriously religious
I say this mostly out of my wife’s testimony, because she has been around some impressive examples, but to some extent from my own experience. You will encounter people whose intelligence, judgment, and critical faculties are as impressive as those of your smartest atheist friends — and who also possess a disquietingly serene confidence in an underlying reality behind the many religious dogmas. They have learned to reconcile faith and reason, yes, but beyond that, they persuasively convey that there are ways of knowing that transcend intellectual understanding. They exhibit in their own personae a kind of wisdom that goes beyond just having intelligence and good judgment.
I would add to his second point that Christian apologetics underwent a similar, parallel transformation in the 20th century as they responded to 19th century schools of criticism. Those schools challenged biblical scholars, who digested their arguments and responded vigorously.