Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Dark Truths from the Darkling Thrush

Peter Kirby, recently back under the wings of Catholicism after a long hiatus in atheism, posts a two-question theology quiz on The Darkling Thrush.

Question #1

God is

• A) Real
• B) A dangerous idea
• C) Both A and B
• D) Neither A nor B

Question #2


• A) Spins sophistry
• B) Finds fault
• C) Joins with us
• D) Tripped, fell, landed on a stick

Kirby says the answers are (A) and (C) and gives his reasons why.

Here are my answers.

Question (1): God could be real, just as he could be a projection of our hopes for things we can't realistically expect. God provides what the sciences and humankind cannot. In this sense he is certainly comforting, whether real or imagined. But he's also a dangerous idea, because in the wrong hands he becomes a tool of human authority. Then too (if he's real) he's dangerous on a personal level, in the sense that no one is off the hook. Everyone's accountable for all their shortcomings, no matter how short.

Since God isn't empirically verifiable, the right answer is "maybe A, and partly B".

Question (2): In my view, (B) is the only answer that makes sense of a reasonably constructed historical Jesus, though it's obviously not the whole picture. Jesus found fault with plenty around him and was judgmental when he needed to be. But he was also exceptionally forgiving depending on the people and circumstances. I don't see him as a sophist. Sometimes he spoke in hidden transcripts (for sake of self-preservation), but the message was loud and clear to most. Choice (C) is too confessional to be of any use in assessing the historical Jesus, and (D) is, well, amusing.

Jesus found fault with a vengeance, balanced it with forgiveness and compassion (especially for the dispossessed), and above all dreamed for a better world where God would crush the kingdoms of men and reign supreme. No doubting how he would have answered question (1).

But if Jesus was wrong about the particulars (the apocalypse didn't come and still hasn't), was he wrong to believe more broadly in a god and hope for a Good Time Coming? Are modern religionists wrong? I think people may be deluded for believing such things, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. David Livingstone Smith warns against coming down too hard on self-deception. The deluded are often mentally healthier than those who are honest with themselves:
"Lying to oneself promotes psychological well-being. Research shows that depressed people deceive themselves less than those who are mentally healthy. Frankly, if we did not deceive ourselves, I think we would go mad from distress. For example, the simple fact that we're all going to die, that there are various people in the world out to get us, that a good deal of the world lives in unrelenting misery and hunger -- it's all enough to drive everyone bonkers. Unless we are capable of shielding ourselves from that, we would be constantly disturbed.

"Also, self-deception relieves us from a sense that we're constantly living in contradiction. We each have a set of values that we constantly violate. When you're aware of transgressing one of those values that you hold dear, you tend to feel bad about yourself. In deceiving ourselves, we relieve ourselves of that burden, making life a lot easier and lot more pleasant for ourselves. It's quite wonderful."
The gnostics had it wrong: self-knowledge doesn't lead to salvation. Science sure doesn't either. Each puts us brutally in touch with reality, and reality can be depressing. Religion is a godsend for escaping reality. No wonder people who pray often feel good.

Dark truths.


Blogger Tim Ricchuiti said...

i have to take issue with the implication contained in your statement “Since God isn't empirically verifiable, the right answer is 'maybe A, and partly B'.” namely, that to be 'real' something must be empirically verifable. perhaps i'm just misreading your comment, but i think your perspective is weighted toward what we can know, or what is knowable, rather than what is real. god (or anything else) is real regardless of the evidence of him (or it). empiricism affects only our ability to say “i know that god is real.” if we take peter's question as “we know that god is...”, i think you're spot on.


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