Taking comedy (&religion) seriously

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.

Also to that 2nd point about contemplating science, here’s a long-ish excerpt from Do Atheists Exist?   Do Atheists Exist?  (from the 12/31/13 issue of National Review)

No one disputes that atheism is compatible with wonder at the physical universe and how it works. Wonder at how it came to be just so, however, soon leads to wonder at how it came to be at all, a question that atheists typically sidestep…  Philosophically if not historically, the theism of Judaism and Christianity, as well as of Islam and major religious currents outside the Western tradition, begins with the observation that the mystery of being is irreducibly mysterious, absolutely immune to attempts at demystifying it. The articulation of thought about what that mystery is — “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is,” in Wittgenstein’s succinct rendition of the matter — has been so honed by succeeding generations of thinkers descended from the union of Greek philosophy and Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theology that it’s now difficult for anyone, whether theist or atheist, to improve on their exact formulations. So the atheist seeking to communicate an accurate answer to the question “Why is there not nothing?” will find himself borrowing theologically inflected terminology. Inescapably, he affirms the most fundamental of theological precepts. He agrees with it implicitly. He asserts that he doesn’t. His disagreement is first of all with himself.

A dramatic declaration of atheism is usually an assertion of disbelief in a god no one else believes in either. Judging the shadowy masculine presence at the center of the Hebrew Bible to be a tyrannical father figure and a lie — Richard Dawkins calls him “the most unpleasant character in all fiction” — atheists who cross over into militant antitheism make quite the show of manfully defying the Lord’s authority to command them. They plant their flag in the ground. There they stand, they can do no other.

They lose their footing when they recoil as they do, reflexively, from classical theism as well. They don’t trust it. If it’s related to Him, they’re not interested; they won’t be seduced. They plug their ears to keep from hearing too distinctly the siren song of sweet reason, which they dodge, rather than confront. Either they see plainly or they intuit that God in his aspect as God of the philosophers is ground on which reason offers no apparent means of escape or resistance. We might as well try to refute the multiplication tables. They are what they are.

“I Am That I Am” is the conventional translation of the enigmatic Hebrew expression by which God in the burning bush identifies himself to Moses (Exodus 3:14). In the Greek of the Septuagint, “I am” is egō eimi. Jesus scandalizes his critics when, shifting to the present tense in a context in which you would expect the past tense, he answers them, “Before Abraham ever was, I am” — egō eimi (John 8:58). In first-century Jerusalem, that statement is either blasphemous or a theophany.

Greek philosophy influenced this turn toward equating God with Being itself, as Hellenistic culture spread across the eastern Mediterranean, and the influence was reciprocal: Classical theism is the cumulative achievement of generations of theologians reading scripture in the light of Plato and Aristotle, but also vice versa. From the New Testament we can estimate the extent to which Jews by the time of Christ had come to understand that Yahweh was not a god — not, at any rate, in the sense in which their ancestors had spoken of “strange gods,” “household gods,” or the gods of other nations. The discernment of God as what Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century would term “ipsum esse subsistens” — the “Ground of Being,” in the parlance of Christian mysticism and theology — developed organically over the course of more than a millennium, with no clear moment of birth, although it was mature certainly by the High Middle Ages. Where the approach to God had been anthropological, it was now also philosophical — ontological, to be more precise.

So now we know that something of what Moses experienced when God visited him on Mount Horeb is available to anyone who will only take enough thought. The mystery of being induces wonder, or awe, commensurate with our willingness to engage it. It’s astonishing, when you think about it, that anything exists.

Q: Why is there something rather than nothing?

A: God, although maybe we need a new name for him.

Many people who would never think to participate in the rancor of public antitheism are nonetheless susceptible to the zeitgeist in which atheism flourishes. It’s what they know. Doesn’t it speak well enough for them too? They start from the proposition that God is a person and rule it out as implausible. The argument that God can only be personal because he can’t be less than we are may be cogent in itself, but it needs a lot of unpacking. It has as its premise the God of the philosophers. To begin to make theism intelligible to a modern atheist, you have to bracket the God of the patriarchs and start from the premise.

Atheism is religion for people in a hurry. They’re quick to assume they understand someone who, engrossed in the question of why there isn’t nothing, says a few words to indicate what he sees the question pointing to. They mistake his verbal gesture for an answer that’s intended to close the question or do it justice. To see what he’s trying to get at, they would have to enter into the wonder that the question elicits in him and dwell there for a moment. The closest thing the question has to an answer is the wonder itself.

Religious culture adorns our collective understanding of God but also conceals it. The Psalms, the Sistine Chapel, the terms of art employed by philosophers and theologians — all those noble efforts at representing God can be helps to someone who speaks their language. To someone who doesn’t, they can be a hindrance. For their rejection of all “gods” in the familiar sense of the term, Christians in ancient Rome were sometimes accused of being atheists. Now the misunderstanding is turned on its head: Atheists hold the Christian, and indeed any modern theist, to be most glaringly wrong in his understanding that God is a person, like a god of pagan antiquity. Training their sights on the notion of an anthropomorphic god, they excite and distract themselves. God as Being itself barely registers with them.

“Why don’t you see the extraordinary beauty of the idea that we can explain the world, life, how it started, from nothing?” Dawkins asked the archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Rowan Williams, during a debate at the Cambridge Union Society last year. “Why clutter it up with something so messy as God?”

“I’m not thinking of God as being shoehorned in,” Williams answered.

But “that is exactly how I see God,” Dawkins replied, helpfully, illustrating how the sound and the fury that is the New Atheism — and the old atheism, for that matter — is generated mostly from confusion about the terms of the debate. That the world comes “from nothing” is an idea that Dawkins finds to be of “extraordinary beauty.” To ask what he means by “nothing” will provoke some eyeball-rolling at first, but the longer you think about it, the more you realize just how stubbornly inscrutable a concept “nothing” is, like “time,” which gave Saint Augustine so much trouble: “I know what time is until you ask me for a definition of it.”

To define “nothing” is to say what it is, when what it’s intended to convey is an absence of being. You can’t talk about nothing without treating it as something. And so, on close inspection, the question “Why is there not nothing?” turns out to be paradoxical — as we should expect, given that “when the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question,” as Wittgenstein observed. Still, it’s hard to let the question go; we intuit the intended meaning even as it eludes our ability to capture it in precise language. While the word “nothing” is self-contradictory and irrational when strictly interpreted, it does, like the number zero in mathematics, serve a purpose when used gingerly or with enough qualification.

Used loosely, “nothing” is put to practical use every day. Dawkins makes it a placeholder for “God.” By invoking “nothing,” he can point to the source of the universe without implying that You Know Who had anything to do with it. So much anxiety rides on the “G” word and what Dawkins evidently regards as the undue respect it might connote. He treats it as if it were a proper name, which it isn’t, as David Bentley Hart patiently points out in his gem of a new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Still, on their own terms, antitheists are correct to be mindful of the halo that surrounds “God” in everyday usage; some observant Jews omit the vowel, for example, treating it almost as if it were the Tetragrammaton itself.

It’s become too familiar, this ordinary English word for what we tend to talk around rather than talk about. So forget “God.” Call him “Nothing,” if you prefer:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Nothing, and the Word was Nothing.” The key to understanding John 1:1 turns on the verbs, not the nouns. Dawkins in his awe before the Nothing sounds like Heidegger but without Heidegger’s awareness of the unfathomable profundity of what it means “to be.”

Notice how “nothing” can function for the atheist as “God” does for the theist. Are the two only using different linguistic tokens in parallel efforts to express the same ineffable thought? Their fear and trembling at the prospect of the “eternal nada,” Jones and Evans explain, moves them to cultivate their appreciation for the physical world (Christians call it “Creation”) that tickles our sense organs in the here and now: “Transcendence can be found in a breath of wind on your face or in a mouthful of custard tart,” they write. They pronounce nature “awesome,” a word whose recently acquired colloquial sense still shades into its older, literal sense. Open the door to just that much transcendence, however, and all of it comes rushing in, like a strong wind. Atheists instinctively try to resist it, while those of us who have been blown away by it recommend the experience.

“Wonder more,” the Sunday Assembly urges, and adherents of monotheistic religions echo the advice back to them. No, following wonder to its logical conclusion does not by itself make an atheist suddenly Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. It only means he’s not an atheist. Someone should tell him.

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