Monday, March 12, 2012

A Christian Asks an Atheist...Part 2

Heathens like you are going straight to HELL!

(This is the second part of a 3-part interview. Part One is here)

Q. Do you believe we all have a spirit/soul?

No, not in the accepted Christian sense. I do not believe in a god-given, inborn, supernatural "soul" which is supposed to be the key to a mythological eternal life but has been already besmirched by the actions of prehistoric, mythical people. The repugnant idea that right from birth one is stained with "sin" not of one's own doing is one of the most sad and self-loathing aspects of Christianity. I do not share that belief and I never have.

I do believe, however, that some sort of entirely natural "spirit" is possible. There could be a spark of energy which animates our bodies and fires our minds while we are alive.  I could call it a "soul", especially since that word seems to be in general usage meaning the parts of ourselves that we cannot yet explain easily. I imagine that such a spirit or soul would be pure and bright and joyful.  It could be a spark of the source of life itself, whatever that was.

My beliefs and imaginings about spirits and souls are completely subjective.  I recognize that these ideas are just my own pleasant musings on the subject, often inspired by books I have read or the insights of others. My fantasies have no basis in reality nor any hard evidence to support them.  In that sense, my ideas have exactly the same weight and validity as the ideas about an afterlife held by theists.

Q. If so, does it live on after bodily death? If so, where does it go?

Perhaps the spirit becomes one with the universe when we die. Maybe it leaves our bodies and joins the energy in the living things around us. The most likely answer is that "it" - if there actually is a soul or spirit - goes nowhere, but simply ceases to exist when bodily death occurs.  If that is the case, of course, none of us will know or care when it happens to us.

Obviously, though, the idea that people we love (including ourselves) will simply cease to exist anymore one day is really hard to handle. Emotionally, this is not a concept that sits comfortably with self-aware human beings.  Most of us would like to think that some part of us continues after we die.  I recognize this wish in myself and in others. I don't confuse wishing with reality, though.

We are star stuff!
So, like most people, when painful loss occurs I indulge myself in fantasies about what I would like to think could possibly happen if there is a special spark of life energy inside living things. I don't see the harm in doing so, and who knows?  Maybe something wonderful does happen!  It is nice to let oneself daydream - to feel that departed dear ones might still be somewhere close by. To relieve the pain of grief, I am as apt as a theist to invent stories to comfort myself about my loved ones' "souls" or spirits living on in some form after death.

I know that my ideas are pure fantasy and I expect that other people will have their own, probably different, fantasies.  It is a coping tool, not dogma. I remain aware that most of what I let myself believe on this subject is what I want to believe. I think most people tell themselves what they want to believe when contemplating an "afterlife", but religionists tell themselves it is the objective truth - based on dogma not evidence - instead of accepting what it really is: a psychological coping tool.

None of us knows what really happens after death but if the stories people believe sooth the pain of losing a loved one (or soothes the fear of where we are going ourselves after we die), I have no quibble with any of them, as long as the concept of soul is only used to ease private emotional pain. I believe that is one of the purposes of the mythos of afterlife. And a perfectly sensible one it is, given our human fear of death. You have to marvel at the resourcefulness and creativity of our ancient ancestors!

Unfortunately, most religious traditions do not use the soul concept or the idea of afterlife simply to cope with grief and loss. I reject totally the usual religious imaginings about what happens after death - ascension to some sort of Valhalla/Paradise/Heaven to live among the gods or else condemnation to a Uffern/Hades/Hell to suffer for eternity.  Those fantasies strike me as naked revenge fantasies and nothing more.  However, codified into religious dogma,  these fantasies cause real harm to people.

The fundamentalist Christian idea, for example, is that one's eternal destination is completely dependent upon belief.  This means that the concept of sin - though used by religionists to cause untold misery to their fellow humans - is, in fact, just a red herring:  eternal joy or eternal damnation depend completely upon something which a person cannot actually control - whether or not s/he can believe in a deity - so sin and morality are actually irrelevant  to Christian "salvation",  making their theology amoral at best and (if you think causing suffering to millions of people all over the world is immoral, as I do) evil at worst.

I feel that only people who have swallowed the entire theist mythos could ever accept these ideas at all, let alone consider them just or good. It is a psychological tool used for ill, in my opinion, and is yet another reason why I dislike religion.

Q. Do you absolutely believe there is no God/Higher Power?

Absolutely not.  Unlike some theists, I don't pretend to be absolutely sure about anything for which there is inadequate evidence or - as in the case of gods -  no evidence at all.  However, like Bertrand Russell famously said in his book of essays, Why I Am Not A Christian,  neither can anybody say for certain that there is no teapot orbiting the planets, invisible to the naked eye...but I do think it is reasonable to believe that a teapot in a space orbit is so unlikely that we probably would all call ourselves "aorbitalteapot".

Proof for teapot-belief! 
I feel as certain as most people feel about orbiting teapots that there is no Biblical God, whom I consider to be exactly like - and as real as - the gods and goddesses which preceded him. They are all human fabrications used by humans to explain natural events or to provide themselves with the comfort of imagining a higher power watching over them in times of crisis - sort of a parental figure, which is what most of us long for when we are in trouble or afraid - so I think the fact that people assigned this role to a supremely powerful God is perfectly understandable and its genesis is not difficult to figure out.

I think the most important (and least defensible) reason why gods were invented was to provide a supreme, supernatural power upon whose authority ancient peoples were able to base justification for their own political and social and cultural ambitions.  This is the aspect of god-belief that disturbs me the most and continues to cause the most trouble to this day.  I don't know if it should be surprising, though.

In prehistoric times, when god-belief is thought to have developed, life was a constant struggle for survival. As humankind began to evolve more complex brains and critical- and creative- thinking ability, it stands to reason that people would begin to use these new skills to augment their physical survival skills. Standing thousands of years in the future,  and out of harm's way so to speak,  I can appreciate that inventing monotheism was a pretty creative and resourceful hammer in the survival toolbox of ancient peoples.

As for some kind of higher power that may be suggested or pointed toward through god-mythos:  that, I feel, is more likely than a literal god-being, though not at all in the way people usually mean by "higher power".  I believe that whatever higher power there might be in our universe is likely within all of us and, if it is unconnected with self-consciousness, then it is probably within all living things.  However, it is power we are probably several millennia from understanding or being able to harness for good, because I don't think we've evolved enough yet to overcome our more primitive urges and needs.

Nevertheless, my completely imaginary concept of what a real higher power might be gives me tremendous hope for humankind when nothing else is cutting it.  I do believe that a transcendent impersonal energy probably does exist.  I do not believe in any anthropomorphized gods; at most I think it is possible that we are all small parts of a universal energy.  But with or without a higher power, the growing moral power of the human spirit is evident to me in the striving of more and more individuals for justice and peace.  While we have not yet come anywhere close to realizing our full human potential, I think we are evolving steadily toward it.

It will be a long journey, but I think we will get there.

Part Three

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