Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Are You an Atheist?"

Asked this by a student straight out the other night in the middle of our class discussion, I hesitated. I never tell people aloud my religious affiliation, or blended or heretical or unclassifiable denomination thereof, unless responding to their direct inquiry. Even so, what should I confess? Cradle Catholic, Jewish convert, Celtic sympathizer, Buddhist observer, agnostic bystander? Perhaps an atheist in midnight moments of frank introspection or utter rationality. My identification depends on what day I had, or last evening's thoughts.

So, after pausing, I admitted simply: "I'm a skeptic." He half-smiled, and our lesson as scheduled went on. I tried, despite being in the middle of talking about globalization, technology, cultural change, and social values through the humble example of Frito-Lay's potato chip (I assure you it all makes sense if you're taking notes), to recollect what would have prompted his question. I gave the correct answer, one that accurately summed me up, but does this limit my soul or free me?

I must have been comparing the evangelism of the C.E.O.'s at Pepsico (owner of Frito-Lay; that division accounts-- for circa 2002 in our case study we were viewing-- over half the company's $3 billion annual sales) to that of Christian or Islamic missionaries, who, regardless of color or nation, had to sell a do-or-die pitch to natives. I had repeated what ABC Frontline's video itself does: translate into capitalist preaching that incentive for salvation. Pepsico anoints the elect from many lands; pilgrims enter Texas for the laying on of hands from the corporate episcopate; converts return to tell their neighbors their good news in many languages. Top-selling chip and soda Pepsico peddlers flock to Plano, Texas; they worship at the CEO's revival tent. In three dozen languages, these saved speak in tongues, "growing the gondola" and "upselling end-caps" in praise of free enterprise.

Perhaps my student, who happened to be very intelligent and appears week two (the first week he was there; he forgot to attend opening day!) to be the leader of the class, overlooked the video and scrutinized my borrowing of the video's analogy as my amplification. When you teach, you do find (I'll be twenty-five years this autumn at it), that you exaggerate to emphasize. I let loose my own beliefs or lack of them inadvertently, disguising or promoting them as among my many roles. I mimic widely as I get my charges to hear, clumsily interpreted, dramatically competing arguments. At least in their narrow technical and business-oriented majors, my students may not have encountered my type of one-man show, far as we are from any liberal arts campus.

This all leads, wonderfully, to what I had read that very morning before leaving to teach. "Richard Dawkins on-board with a pro-atheist message". January 12, 2008, Henry Chu talks to Dawkins for the Los Angeles Times. For once, I might add, they published better coverage than an earlier New York Times piece. And, the picture on the LAT website (which I must visit more often as we've reduced our subscription and carbon footprint only to toss half the paper immediately in the recycling and the other half scanned seconds or quick minutes after on four days a week), beats the Grey Lady's.

[But, get this: the expanded version of the interview's only on the Web! Had to make room for that photo? No wonder they're losing subscribers. Flanked by an comely comedienne, and perhaps Arnold Toynbee's sensibly scarved relation, we witness between them a predictably chuffed Dawkins, beaming out from Oxford. What a charmed life. If God's angry at His rival, the Unnameable's not letting off steam yet.]

Briefly, Dawkins leapt on the bandwagon of the British Humanist Association's campaign to drape on buses a sign: "There's Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life." They'd be torched here in my less-secular native land. I was impressed when I saw those double-deckers; I nodded in agreement with that qualifier, noting how reasonable Dawkins must have become-- undoubtably after mulling over my spot-on blog entry or Amazon US review (one of nearly a thousand put up by then, mainly drivel by both believers and deniers, on "The God Delusion") about that bestseller last spring!

Then, my eye passed over Chu's interview to find that the ad agency had, after pressure by Christians, modified the statement to include against Dawkins' wishes "probably." I note their Australian heathen cousins urged non-believers towards good actions; the British encouraged (selfish?) fun! Without this qualifier, the slogan could present false advertising, for one could reasonably argue that one cannot prove that there is no God! Double negatives don't make a positive, or do they? (Actually, Dawkins' book goes nearly so far, but then steps an inch back; he claims proving a deity's like asking him to produce a dragon to quell naysayers.) I've always been fascinated by the brute force and suspicious slickness of ontological proofs. St. Anselm: "God is a being greater than which nothing can be conceived." Gaunilo as straw man: "The fool in his heart says there is no God."

The article has much more on Dawkins' view. I found it cogent and lively to match the best sections of "The God Delusion." As with my teaching style that demands a quicksilver if sinful relativity, I can find much that jibes perfectly with my own view-- that day or night, that is. Ask me the next class or the following morning and you may get a different answer. Or, perhaps not. I'm a skeptic, fundamentally.

I have reviewed Dawkins' "The God Delusion" along with Hitchens' "god is not Great" and Sam Harris' "The End of Faith," all on Amazon US, and earned my share of negative ratings as is inevitable whatever your stated position if it's beyond the anodyne blurb. On this blog last year, I entered lengthy and serious critiques of Dawkins and Hitchens. Then, encouraged by a wondering wife, I also posted much afterwards here on my discovery of intriguing books on Buddhism, a topic especially in the Tibetan variety that I found Hitchens unfair towards-- and Harris open about!

Dawkins' own guardedly more nuanced reaction to Christian cultural impacts and literary solace inspired me to reconsider my own long and serpentine path through the ways of desolation and the spirit. A lifelong intrigue with religion inspires me still. I would not have studied medieval literature otherwise, even as I grew away from my childhood's faith during my long matriculation. My reading over this past year found me following seekers, to Tibet, Israel, Ireland, India, and Texas!

However I've responded to that Big Question these past few years, my honest answers displease my parents. No choice I have made has softened those who still follow deeply traditional, temperamentally submissive, ancient patterns forged by church-state, family-tribe, peasant-master; dynamics rutted from centuries of such longing into shamed, fearful, inchoate, half-shadowed relationships. Do I condescend? Or merely understand? Part of me still longs to return to those dimly lit naves, if not the confessionals. Part of me knows the power of romance over logic, and sentiment over truth. The cost of education, I've learned, exacts often this price for one's soul.

My wife and sons struggle to define ourselves by lack of easy ethnic or communal definition. We all four grow and twist towards a distant sun, driven by inexplicable forces we cannot articulate. Perhaps an outside power watches our writhings with as much understanding as Dawkins the don has of what a pulsing plant forcing itself higher cannot know?

We stretch during our short daytime above dark soil. We twist as wonderfully variegated hybrids, never before seen by our boys' disparate ancestors in bog or shetl, cabin or slum. All I can say is that I-- and we-- keep reaching up and out.


Tony Bailie said...

there was a new item on the British station Channel Four earlier this week about the ad. A group of Christians are challenging the wording saying that it can not be proved that there is 'probably no God' and so arguing that the ad is misleading and breaches UK advertising standards legistlation.
A Humanist Association spokeswoman was challenged to prove the statement by a news presenter. She said they had consulted with the advertising standards agency who advised them that their original slogan 'There is no God' would probably fall foul of legislation as this could not be absolutely proved but that the use of the word 'probably' would be acceptable.
Just think of all the death, suffering and turmoil that could have been avoided over the last 2,000 years if everyone had just gone to an advertising watchdog to adjudicate on the existence or non-existance of God.

Layne said...

I am blessed to know you at your least skeptical.