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In Awe of Godless Dirt

August 2010
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Dawkins opens his book, The God Delusion, with a quote of Douglas Adams. “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

This quote cuts to the bottom, and finds dirt. At which point, theists or theistically leaning agnostics are wont to say that atheistic concepts of the universe are dreary, melancholy, pessimistic, and hopeless conceptions, even as if this were sufficient grounds for rejecting such conceptions.

But that dirt were all that supported a garden, and that garden were beautiful, then would not dirt be laden with the stuff of amazement? Need we gods to acknowledge beauty? That there were no god, beauty were then but a cruel illusion?

This is most perplexing, a most immature habit, a want of sensibility. If dirt supports the blossoming of a carnation or a sunflower, then so much more is dirt!

But flowers die, as we do, and return to dirt. Corpses rot. And so, would that a life had meaning, we assert a soul, and an immaterial, imperishable realm: spirit, the unseen, the eternal, the abode of soul and god. This soothes our anxieties, and seems to guarantee that our short lives would have meaning. We build our lives around such concepts, though the best of evidence for it is as solid as the water upon which Christ purportedly walked, as sound as the words uttered by a . . . snake?

Granted, a great many believers do not take these stories at face value. They read them as metaphors, which is somewhat more understandable. But these do not serve as proofs. They are objects of meditation, from which understanding is to be gained, and perhaps even wisdom. And there are those who reject the texts completely, yet must keep the concept of a god in their conception of the universe, which brings us back to the original point.

If one is to reject the semitic religions, the monotheistic religions which so plague the western mind and which are infecting ever more widely the world, why then retain a theistic conception? The theistic conceptions of the semitic religions use as their evidence the texts they call holy, and some anecdotal evidence. I’ve never been presented with anything other than these two, save the so-called proofs of reason, all of which have been destroyed under critical analysis, to support the retention of a god.

Yet people insist on retaining the conception of a god. When I press them to discover their reasons, they invariably make one of two moves in the end. And these two moves may turn out to be fundamentally the same.

The first move–if it can be properly so called–is to sustain the argument as long as they are able, and then they crumble under the weight of their emotional attachment to the concept of a god–which is really an ego attachemnt. And then I am the bad guy for pressing them to dig so deeply. But I’m not out to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m only pressing people to examine their lives and the values upon which they form their lives, and, where I can, get some glimpse into the truth of the human condition.

Then the darkness sets in. A garden without fairies at the bottom is nothing but dirt, not beautiful. And I, accused of forwarding this pessimistic thesis, am a sordid kind of fellow.

But I forward no such thesis. I am an atheist. I see a world filled with both suffering and beauty. But I see no reason to keep a god in my philosophy.

The second kind of response I get when I enter into the questions of fairies in the bottom of the garden is overtly intellectual. This tends to be a more honest kind of conversation, though in most cases there is a kind of emotional clinging to a god, if only to hedge their bets.

Often the conversation goes to evolution. This kind of person understands full well that the established theories of science have a mountain of evidence kissing the very sky. They grant that the earth is very, very old. They grand evolution, but insist that some kind of god simply must have started the whole process. It is too complex and amazing to have started by chance.

Anyone who has examined this issue knows that this position is riddled with flaws and misunderstandings. First, evolution by natural selection does not function by chance, though chance is one concept contained in the theory. But this is not the place for that analysis. Second, the theory of evolution does not explain the origin of life, though some scientists are doing their honest best to understand this profound question.

But the final point I’d like to discuss is of their use of the word “must.” They argue that since the fundamental building block of life–the cell–is so complicated, it could not have just happened without God to kickstart it. Yet there is nothing in the concept of  complexity from which it follows that there must have been God to bring the specimen into existence.

There is simply the feeling of awe.

Theists from here feel justified in retaining a concept of God, though there be nothing in the issue to suggest to the impartial mind which is not emotionally crippled by the concept of a God who guarantees that life is meaningful. This is a kind of ego attachment, rooted in the fear of annihilation, which keeps the argument alive. There is nothing in the evidence that even remotely suggests the existence of God. Nothing.

But there is nothing in the evidence which suggests that a garden is not beautiful, or that dirt cannot bring the imaginative mind into a profound state of awe.

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