It all started with a mouse. OK, it might have been a rat, but if so, it was a cute, thoughtful-looking rat.
I was in my SLU office, grading essays, straining--as always--to straddle the balance between assessment and encouragement, when I saw him sitting in a little hole in the wall that lay in the short space between an exposed pipe and the room’s corner. He was probably only trying to decide whether I was an immediate threat, but he looked so earnest and interested, crouched there staring, blinking at me, that for a moment, caught in mid-comment with my pen on the paper, I entertained the idea that he might be trying to understand the complicated internal negotiation process behind what I was choosing to write on the student’s essay.
But, of course, no mouse, not even a (Da Vinci + Newton) x (Einstein + Hawking)2 of mice, could ever grasp even the most basic ideas behind what I was doing, a feat which would require much more than a knowledge and understanding of these hastily-listed concepts:
the structure and mores of human society;
the notion of the university;
the English language—and not just the language, but all of its subtleties and inferences;
the concept of academic assignments;
the idea of writing;
the goals associated with teaching someone else to write better;
the specific nature of whatever sentence in the essay that I was commenting on;
And more. Way, way more.
So as I thought about what might be necessary to teach what I was doing to the mouse, I realized that no mouse society would ever progress to the point that any of its citizens would comprehend what I was up to, at least not until their brains physically evolved into something much more complex.
And there I was, confronted with the sliding scale of mental proficiency. We seem to be at the top of the Earth's mental complexity ladder in most areas, but what sort of arrogance assumes that the ladder doesn't—somewhere, at least—extend beyond human intellect?
When I was a kid, protons, electrons and neutrons were the smallest things there were; now, they’re the wooly mammoths of the microscopic world. Conversely, our understanding of the vastness of the universe has expanded—shall I say it, astronomically—during my lifetime. The most we can say about reality for sure is that it extends in both directions, large and small, further than we can know or understand. Wait, did I say “both directions?” I should have said, “all directions,” since String Theory has opened the possibility of multiple, parallel dimensions. Given all of this, on what grounds could we make the hubristic assumption that we’re the intellectual center of the multiverse, the one being “made in God’s image” around whom everything revolves? Or even that we might be able to do anything beyond making feeble guesses about the true nature of reality in terms that our quaint brains can comprehend?
The mouse might—in his own way—understand that my mental faculties exceed his, but more than likely, he'd simply believe I was acting incomprehensibly, wasting my time scratching a stick against a piece of paper instead of chewing the paper into a nest or looking for food. It strikes me that the smartest thing that mouse could say about Dave, grading his papers is, "I have no idea what that big, hairless creature is or what it is doing. I can have no opinion about this because understanding it is beyond my simple mouse mind."
Since then, I haven't been able to shake or ignore the knowledge that we're all that mouse.
For this reason, I'm neither Christian nor Atheist. Those positions--as well as the "Agnostic" flavors positioned between them—seem to me to require some sort of surety, a "final" take on the cosmos: a "this is what the universe is" attitude.
Incidentally, had I read this blog post back when I was a Christian, I wouldn’t, as yet, have found anything to argue with: “I’ve read all you’ve said, Dave, and I agree about the mouse and about the unknowability of the universe, at least by human minds. All this only reiterates the awesome majesty of God.” But does it? One can choose to believe in the Biblical God (or even in the 21st-century, “beyond the Bible” God), but how is this belief superior to any other non-violent belief system? What—beyond mouse-intuition—nails God down to the guy wandering around the Garden of Eden, looking for Adam so that he could confront him and lay down the law, so to speak?
Because buying into Christianity involves carting around a large pile of baggage that’s quite specific, a pile that leaves believers either struggling to fit the bags into the overhead compartments of the 21st century mind, or at least one that forces them to simply abandon the specifics and adopt a “trust God to explain it in Heaven” attitude. That’s where I was during my last years as a Christian, and once I’d been in that place for a while, I began to acknowledge its futility. At some point, all I had left was a belief that Christianity at its best gave believers a social context within which to carry out the selfless ideals exemplified by Jesus, ideas which were revolutionary in their time, but which now can be understood as merely evolutionary. In a debate posted on his blog, Sam Harris writes this:
Religion gets people to do good things for bad reasons, when good reasons are actually available; I have also argued that it rather often gets people to do very bad things that they would not otherwise do. On the subject of doing good, I ask you, which is more moral, helping people purely out of concern for their suffering, or helping them because you think God wants you to do it? Personally, I’d much prefer that my children acquire the former sensibility.
Yes, it is possible to “love others as thyself” without ever having to use the word “thy” at a social gathering. In fact, I’d argue that it’s demonstrably more moral to act selflessly for purely secular reasons of kindness than it is to do it in order to curry god’s favor, or even to please or “glorify” him; it’s certainly more moral than the notion of doing good in order to avoid eternal punishment.
Atheists, on the other hand, have at the very least the reputation for a kind of anti-faith that’s every bit as dogmatic as the canon of the most fervent fundamentalist. Growing up Baptist, I was taught that Atheists were people who believed that there was absolutely no god, people who knew for sure that death was the end of the road for all organisms, people who knew that there was no “spiritual” realm beyond the physical plane. This is certainly the attitude most Christians have about Atheists. If social media are any indicator, the Christian community sees Atheists as folks who spend most of their time trying to “disprove” God. “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence,” Christopher Hitchens famously said in response to this criticism. I recently participated in a Facebook-comment argument prompted by a post which said, “If there was no God, there’d be no reason to be an Atheist.” I’m not going to argue against the silly non-logic of that idea here; I only mention it because of the telling nature of the Christian comments lobbed at me: “. . .there would be no such thing as an Atheist if there wasn’t a God,” “. . .Atheists feel the need to get together as a group to try to disprove something.” “. . .How do people organize a belief system based around not believing in something?”
Yes, it’s obvious that the Atheist label implies a certain amount of “there’s no god, ha ha ha!” oppositional spitefulness and certitude, at least in the minds of believers. But having read quite a bit of “Atheist” literature over the last few years, I’ve found this not really to be the case (even despite Richard Dawkins’s occasionally strident forays into science-will-answer-all, rational certainty). Most Atheists simply opt for rationality over faith, for observable phenomena over superstition (though it also seems to me that many in the Atheist community believe that one day, we will figure it all out, whereas I'd argue that until our brains evolve into something more complex, we'll continue to sit around the fire in Plato's cave). But while a large segment of the “New Atheist” community chooses—in the absence of proof of god—to believe that there isn’t one, at least until convincing evidence pops up, I choose to simply live as a secular, moral person with an “I don’t know” attitude.
The significance of this distinction is missed by many Atheists and Christians alike. Because it isn’t just “I don’t know” (an existentialist shrug, implying a wishy-washy, lukewarm apathy that refuses to commit to one side or the other); it’s “I DON’T KNOW! WHO-HOO!” And that's totally different: it's a joyful, barbaric yawp of exciting, hopeful uncertainty which is invigorating in its possibilities. Really.
This is why I have a Flying Spaghetti Monster symbol on the back of my truck. Do I believe in a literal FSM? Of course not. No one does. What I believe in is the bracing slap of not-knowing.
Let me provide some examples. Let’s say that everything in the Bible is literally true, that there’s a physical Heaven that’s just like the cliché, with clouds and harps, presided over by a fair-but-masterful God on a throne, a God with a white beard and—presumably—a penis. Ok. All that is really true, and AT THE SAME TIME, there is no god at all; everything happened entirely by chance, with no outside guidance or intent. Uh huh. I'm suggesting that God exists and doesn’t exist, simultaneously. Don't like that one? How about this: there’s only God at the center of creation. And there’s only Allah. And there’s only Buhdda. And only Zeuss. And the real truth was revealed to Joseph Smith by the Angel Moroni. And it wasn't. That Jesus was right when he said, "I am the way, the truth and the life: no man comes unto the Father, but by me." And he was entirely wrong.
You might say, “Ok, Dave, now you’re just being silly. There can’t be a God and no God at the same time! And God can’t be the only God simultaneously with other Gods!” And, of course, you’d be right, according to the cognitive capabilities of our mouse-brains. But just as the only really smart opinion the mouse could have about me is that he simply can’t know, no matter how much mouse-research he does, I choose to acknowledge that the reality is more than likely beyond my ability to conceive of it, even if it could be reduced to language, and someone could explain it patiently, simply and slowly.
I love the idea behind Roger Zelazny’s “Nine Princes in Amber” books which I read as a teenager, in which an infinite number of universes fans out, universes in which every possible event is happening at every moment. Of course, Zelazny's infinite multiverse fans out from a central point. I prefer the much less-comprehensible idea that it fans out from no point at all (and, thus, from every point).
Many people aren’t built for a completely open-ended notion of cosmology. They would argue that the whole point of religion is to provide comfort, to offer order as an alternative to chaos. I don’t have a problem with that; I like order—chaos is scary. But there’s a difference between believing something because (having been indoctrinated as a child) you see it as the only way the world makes sense and believing something because you’re consiously aware that it’s the act of belief—rather than the system being believed in—which provides the comfort. My grandpa used to remark that “there are no Atheists in foxholes,” a truism which, rather than pointing out, as he intended, that we all intuitively do understand that God exists, simply proves that when it we’re in mortal danger, our mouse-minds take over, and we scramble for the safety of our childhood beliefs.
In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton warns against the reductive outcome of choosing your own explanation for the infinite:
a small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions.
He even pings the truth somewhat, in his admission that the denominational differences of “many modern religions” are all ultimately reductive, in that they substitute the imagined (or, rather, interpreted) for the absolute. Of course, his criticism rests on the notion that Christian Orthodoxy itself is not an interpretation, an imagined construct. I’d take his argument and apply it to any philosophical, religious or even scientific system that aspires to explain things. All are reductive. The only conceivable explanation is that we haven’t the cognitive means of grasping the explanation.
So do I believe that there’s a “spiritual” reality beyond the physical one? I feel like there is, just as I sense the love my family has for me, even though it isn’t physically tangible. I also believe there are good reasons to suspect the reality of a spiritual plane, based on observations as simple as the fact that my dog (who might be smart compared to other dogs, but is still a bonehead compared to me) hears frequencies I cannot and experiences a world of smell-differentiation that I’ll never comprehend. If my ears and my nose aren’t catching everything that’s really happening, why should I assume that my third eye has 20/20 vision? But while Atheists generally map the edges of observable phenomena as the edges of believable reality, I accept those edges only as the boundaries of my cosmic-awareness obligations. I suspect that there’s something more, I even want there to be something more, but in the absence of verifiable evidence, I choose to be consciously secular, at least in practice, and spiritually hopeful, though a non-specific way.
So where does that leave us? It leaves me filled with optimism and excitement. There’s not only more out there than I’ll ever know; there’s more out there than I ever could know, even if it were revealed to me. I remember reading as a kid, thinking how much larger and full of mystery the world must have seemed in the 15th through 18th centuries, when so much of it was being explored and mapped for the first time (at least, for the first time by western Europeans). I loved the crazy maps with the dragons and odd beasts around the edges. It seemed disappointing that except for the ocean floor and a few places in the Amazon or New Guinea, we’d sort of mapped and categorized the whole planet by my lifetime. We won’t map the fabric of reality so easily, or even at all, and that’s a good thing.
It also leaves us with a much stronger—to my thinking—mandate to be kind and tolerant towards one another. Because once you remove dogma from the equation, all you’re left with as the goal is a system of moral behavior which best benefits humanity. The most noble parts of Christianity reflect these ideas: the need to forgive, the absolute wrongness of revenge or vendetta, the regenerative power of selfless love. These are all ideals that make more sense once you free them from the trappings of Sunday school and the judgmental, arbitrary silliness that oozes out of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Exodus, 2nd Samuel, 2nd Thessalonians and Revelation.
I originally titled this post "Why I Don't Believe in Anything (and Why You Probably Shouldn't, Either)," but I changed the end to ". . .Why you Probably Should, too)" because there's a wonderful sort of proactive morality implicit in this brand of non-belief.
Maybe the point is simply to live our mouse lives as best we can, making sure that everybody gets enough cheese.