Thursday, July 03, 2008

God and Reason

Flying Rodent (parental advisory - swearing and moderate verbal violence) on atheism. While he's a man without religion aka Godless infidel, he doesn't think the ills of the world are going to vanish if only enough people read Richard Dorkins - far from it.

He's knocking out some good stuff at the moment - this is enjoyable too.

I posted Churchill's views on God and Reason for him - and I think they're worth sharing. From his My Early Life.


My various readings during the next two years led me to ask myself questions about religion. Hitherto I had dutifully accepted everything I had been told. Even in the holidays I always had to go once a week to Church, and at Harrow there were three services every Sunday, besides morning and evening prayers throughout the week. All this was very good. I accumulated in those years so fine a surplus in the Bank of Observance that I have been drawing confidently upon it ever since. Weddings, christenings, and funerals have brought in a steady annual income, and I have never made too close enquiries about the state of my account. It might well even be that I should find an overdraft. But now in these bright days of youth my attendances were well ahead of the Sundays. In the Army too there were regular church parades, and sometimes I marched the Roman Catholics to church, and sometimes the Protestants. Religious toleration in the British Army had spread till it overlapped the regions of indifference. No one was ever hampered or prejudiced on account of his religion. Everyone had the regulation facilities for its observance. In India the deities of a hundred creeds were placed by respectful routine in the Imperial Pantheon.

In the regiment we sometimes used to argue questions like 'Whether we should live again in another world after this was over?' 'Whether we have ever lived before?' 'Whether we remember and meet each other after Death or merely start again like the Buddhists?' 'Whether some high intelligence is looking after the world or whether things are just drifting on anyhow?' There was general agreement that if you tried your best to live an honourable life and did your duty and were faithful to friends and not unkind to the weak and poor, it did not matter much what you believed or disbelieved. All. would come out right. This is what would nowadays I suppose be called 'The Religion of Healthy Mindedness.'

Some of the senior officers also dwelt upon the value of the Christian religion to women ('It helps to keep them straight'); and also generally to the lower orders ('Nothing can give them a good time here, but it makes them more contented to think they will get one hereafter'). Christianity, it appeared, had also a disciplinary value, especially when presented through the Church of England. It made people want to be respectable, to keep up appearances, and so saved lots of scandals. From this standpoint ceremonies and ritual ceased to be of importance. They were merely the same idea translated into different languages to suit different races and temperaments. Too much religion of any kind, however, was a bad thing. Among natives especially, fanaticism was highly dangerous and roused them to murder, mutiny or rebellion. Such is, I think, a fair gauging of the climate of opinion in which I dwelt.

I now begin to read a number of books which challenged the whole religious education I had received at Harrow. The first of these books was The Martyrdom of Man by Winwood Reade. This was Colonel Brabazon's great book. He had read it many times over and regarded it as a sort of Bible. It is in fact a concise and well-written universal history of mankind, dealing in harsh terms with the mysteries of all religions and leading to the depressing conclusion that we simply go out like candles. I was much startled and indeed offended by what I read. But then I found that Gibbon evidently held the same view; and finally Mr. Lecky, in his Rise and Influence of Rationalism and History of European Morals, both of which I read this winter, established in my mind a predominantly secular view, For a time I was indignant at having been told so many untruths, as I then regarded them, by the schoolmasters and clergy who had guided my youth. Of course if I had been at a University my difficulties might have been resolved by the eminent professors and divines who are gathered there. At any rate, they would have shown me equally convincing books putting the opposite point of view. As it was I passed through a violent and aggressive anti-religious phase which, had it lasted, might easily have made me a nuisance. My poise was restored during the next few years by frequent contact with danger. I found that whatever I might think and argue, I did not hesitate to ask for special protection when about to come under the fire of the enemy: nor to feel sincerely grateful when I got home safe to tea. I even asked for lesser things than not to be killed too soon, and nearly always in these years, and indeed throughout my life, I got what I wanted. This practice seemed perfectly natural, and just as strong and real as the reasoning process which contradicted it so sharply. Moreover the practice was comforting and the reasoning led nowhere. I therefore acted in accordance with my feelings without troubling to square such conduct with the conclusions of thought.

It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations. Bartlett's Familiar Quotations is an admirable work, and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more. In this or some other similar book I came across a French saying which seemed singularly opposite. 'Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait pas.' It seemed to me that it would be very foolish to discard the reasons of the heart for those of the head. Indeed I could not see why I should not enjoy them both. I did not worry about the inconsistency of thinking one way and believing the other. It seemed good to let the mind explore so far as it could the paths of thought and logic, and also good to pray for help and succour, and be thankful when they came. I could not feel that the Supreme Creator who gave us our minds as well as our souls would be offended if they did not always run smoothly together in double harness. After all He must have foreseen this from the beginning and of course He would understand it all.

Accordingly I have always been surprised to see some of our Bishops and clergy making such heavy weather about reconciling the Bible story with modern scientific and historical knowledge. Why do they want to reconcile them? If you are the recipient of a message which cheers your heart and fortifies your soul, which promises you reunion with those you have loved in a world of larger opportunity and wider sympathies, why should you worry about the shape or colour of the travel-stained envelope; whether it is duly stamped, whether the date on the postmark is right or wrong? These matters may be puzzling, but they are certainly not important. What is important is the message and the benefits to you of receiving it. Close reasoning can conduct one to the precise conclusion that miracles are impossible: that 'it is much more likely that human testimony should err, than that the laws of nature should be violated'; and at the same time one may rejoice to read how Christ turned the water into wine in Cana of Galilee or walked on the lake or rose from the dead. The human brain cannot comprehend infinity, but the discovery of mathematics enables it to be handled quite easily. The idea that nothing is true except what we comprehend is silly, and that ideas which our minds cannot reconcile are mutually destructive, sillier still.

Certainly nothing could be more repulsive both to our minds and feelings than the spectacle of thousands of millions of universes—for that is what they say it comes to now—all knocking about together for ever without any rational or good purpose behind them. I therefore adopted quite early in life a system of believing whatever I wanted to believe, while at the same time leaving reason to pursue unfettered whatever paths she was capable of treading.

7 comments:

Hugh Oxford said...

I recognise this story a little, though I may have been an atheist to the point of being a nuisance.

Atheism doesn't work because it's not true. What I mean by that is that in its final analysis, atheism renders life arbitrary and meaningless, our existence pointless and mechanical, devoid of higher purpose.

As someone suggested on the wireless recently (I think it was the Moral Maze), the fact that we have discussions about religion is evidence that God exists. Because the atheist explanation is utterly at odds with our experience as human beings. Although we can't know for a fact that God does exist, we can be almost certain in our hearts and heads that he definitely doesn't not exist. And that's what faith is, the logical response to that conundrum.

Anonymous said...

Oriana Fallaci got it about right when she described herself as a Christian atheist.

I think it's important to be rational and anti-mystical in all things, but to appreciate at the same time that we have biological constraints which aren't likely to change much for tens of thousands of years. Religion, whether we like it or not, is human-shaped and a good fit for our hard-wired propensities. We discard it too lightly at our peril.

TDK said...

This comment of Churchill's stands out.

Of course if I had been at a University my difficulties (with belief in god) might have been resolved by the eminent professors and divines who are gathered there.

A slight reversal to today!

FlyingRodent said...

Atheism doesn't work because it's not true. What I mean by that is that in its final analysis, atheism renders life arbitrary and meaningless, our existence pointless and mechanical, devoid of higher purpose.

Yes, it does. How does this preclude its being true, exactly? "Proposition (x) leads to conclusions I don't like, ergo Proposition (x) is untrue" is going to fall at the first hurdle.

If we live in an indifferent universe, that means that there's only this life and you have to make the best of what you have. That strikes me as quite a clear-eyed and rational belief.

...the fact that we have discussions about religion is evidence that God exists.

I've spent a lot of time this week speculating about Doctor Who. Any idea how many lives have been wasted trying to transform lead into gold, or track down the Loch Ness Monster or JFK's real killers? You can see where I'm going with this.

And that's what faith is, the logical response to that conundrum.

Or, an irrational insistence on clinging to the answer you want to find. It's all down to interpretation, isn't it?

Religion, whether we like it or not, is human-shaped and a good fit for our hard-wired propensities. We discard it too lightly at our peril.

There are plenty of things that are hard-wired into us, which is why we have a legal system. It's far easier to mug a granny for her pension than it is to build a career, for instance, and humanity has a long history of rape and pillage, often by the devoutly religious. Were we too hasty to discard our basic kill/steal instincts as well?

British history is full of holy traditions that have been discarded when they were no longer useful. That's why my doctor prescribes anti-biotics rather than leeches.

TDK said...

That's why my doctor prescribes anti-biotics rather than leeches.

Strangely enough, they still use leeches

Gray Fox said...

Here's the response to atheism:

Shadowplay - Joy Division

To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you,
To the depths of the ocean where all hopes sank, searching for you,
I was moving through the silence without motion, waiting for you,
In a room with a window in the corner I found truth.

In the shadowplay, acting out your own death, knowing no more,

I did everything, everything I wanted to.


The machines that you have raised up to help you make this life "all it can be" will become your Golgotha, and you will wish for death but no death will come - and life will be meaningless.

cantueso said...

The whole little book is a good read, if only to see how very much things have changed since then. -- I keep wondering why he is so widely disliked. I myself dislike him, but spent hundreds of hours on his WW2.

One thing. In his Early Life, all the time, there is nothing but great fun, great excitement, great food and wine, great company, more great fun, more excitement. There is only this one official dimension! Here is the most honest of great writers and never sounds true.