Sunday, September 02, 2007

A Futile and Hysterical Rant on Behalf of Reason

Big excitement: I have discovered why it is that I find the anti-rational stance of religious fundamentalists so irritating. This discovery is not of the scientific variety, but if it were, would that not be a most delicious irony? So I will pretend.

I have scientifically proven that the fundamentalists are irritating.

This is a major breakthrough for me. It comes after many fruitless years of plotting philosophical battle against my prayer-blind foe. How I labored to craft some few pithy words so irresistibly persuasive that the scales would fall from the eyes of even the most fervent evangelicals, words to convey that the earth is not 8,000 years old, that yes, we are monkeys, and that while the end of the world is indeed nigh, it will be a lot less like a sound-stage Hollywood musical than the rapture they envision. Like de Soto, Ponce de León, or Faust, my quest for the withering repartee that would end all debate became an obsession. And like those tragic heroes, I drank the bitter dregs of futility.

For the conflict between religion and reason must ever defy resolution. They do not even share the common language in which to attempt reconciliation. If one side is speaking German, the other is echolocating like bats. But just as bats and Germans will bump into each other sometimes, religion and reason may now and again collide. Or perhaps we should think of reason and religion as separate armies that should be disinclined to battle, but cannot refrain from probing each other to establish position. And inevitably, where there is contact blood will be shed. It would be shame to lug all those guns around for nothing.

I have always been devoted secular humanist. In college I had a velvet-embossed black-light poster of John Locke on my wall, and valued it nearly as much as my bong. My personal loyalty to reason is unwavering. But reliance on rational debate proves to be secular humanism's Achilles heel when its opponents refuse to acknowledge the supremacy of reason. Surely, I might say to my evangelical counterpart, reason has to be the lingua franca of a multi-faith society? No, he could respond, when a conflict arises, my faith trumps reason. Certainly, I retort, we can all agree that reason is the more practical tool? What is practical for me, answers the person of faith, is to sustain this rape-induced pregnancy, so that I may enter heaven some day. I might make a tactical retrenchment: OK, I will allow you your conveniently white, male, 60-something god, but surely you won't advocate a literal interpretation of the Bible's more implausible passages?

Wanna bet?, replies the fundamentalist.

I can pound away for all eternity, but in the faithful there is no stud into which to drive the nail of reason. Stalemate is the only possible result.

I should point out that despite my apostasy, I am a big fan of spirituality. If the fundamentalists are so appalled at the notion that we are mere Baboons that have mastered the craft of indoor plumbing, they should spend less time acting like animals by wishing death on Muslims and burning school books, and more time practicing love, compassion and tolerance. These are the values that let us transcend everything that is unavoidably crummy about this life, like venereal disease and the Department of Motor vehicles. It is worth noting that Jesus--who was a bit of a doormat but a hard guy to dislike--was obsessed with this love and compassion stuff. I'm not sure when the fundies made that a members-only benefit. Or how they gloss over the fact that he was a socialist hippie.

So my concept of spirituality and Christianity's rest on very similar foundations. Perhaps organized religion is an example of a perfectly respectable product ruined in the rollout. The instruction manual--this arrogantly named "bible"--is an absolute mess. I don't know whether the problem was the writers they hired or the translation, but things were bad enough when Christianity came factory-assembled by certified catholic priests; whose brilliant idea was it to let people do the assembly at home? (Martin Luther, please report to the principal's office...) If we were just trying to put together a ping pong table we could acknowledge that we're missing a package of screws, call customer service and move on. But this bible is supposed to be infallible. You've got people reading it all day--on the train, at lunch, before bed--trying to figure out how to fold flap A of first Corinthians into slot B of the book of Joshua... People! It will never work! The thing's like 5,000 pages long and translated from the Aramaic. I hope you all kept your receipts and the original packaging.

In reality, the bible never had the smallest chance of successfully reflecting the essence of the religion it purports to represent, for at the center of religious thought lies the unknowable. Some call it god, some call it Buddha. (On three or four occasions of inebriation my friend Gordon believed he was the one holding the marionette strings of the universe. Only the sound of the jail cell door closing prompted him to reconsider.) But regardless of how we name the central mystery, all morality flows from the humility, weakness and vulnerability we feel when our lives are subject to forces we cannot control or understand. Forces that seem intent on subjecting us to every imaginable cruelty and mockery, holding out some secret, shiny gift and jerking it away each time we reach for it, until fortune finally relents and lets us open the box to reveal the coronary embolism that is the just recompense for our patience and suffering.

It's a funny thing about the unknowable: you can't really know much about it. The big mistake made by the tag-team of biblical authors was that, in their attempt to annotate and illuminate, they created the false impression that the great mystery might in fact have a solution, thus opening the door to all the religious tyrants and bullies who have claimed special knowledge. So much for humility.

Ironically, the one thing that could equip today's intellectually stunted mall walkers to grapple with real spirituality is the one thing they most revile: science. The experiences of science are the mental calisthenics that prepare us to assimilate challenging esoteric concepts. Consider an example: If we have confidence in atomic theory, it comes from our ability to extend our immediate senses into ever higher levels of abstraction. We believe what we see with our eyes. We extend that to what we see through a microscope, and from there to what we "see" with an electron microscope, and so on until we are watching particles in quantum space with the same comfort and confidence as we might watch a baseball game. This ability to connect the abstract and the concrete without conflating the two could go a long way towards preserving the peace outside of abortion clinics. Because once you get comfortable with the notion that you don't know anything and that you never will know anything, you become a lot more reticent about telling other people what to do.

It is more than a trivial tautology to note that because science is based on what we detect with our senses--whether directly with our ears or via interstellar listening devices--it is great at bringing us products that address the needs of our senses. Researchers study pain therapies and develop drugs that really do reduce pain. We study coolants and build refrigerators that provide us with undeniably frosty beers. We synthesize plastics that keep our hoagies fresh and which keep the rain off of our heads.

And this brings me to the indisputable validation of my rightful disgust with the fundamentalists. You see, I don't want any of the benefits of membership in their club. I don't want to be saved. I don't want to be forgiven. And I will not cherry pick their faith for whatever elements may be to my advantage and try to leave the rest on the table. But they want to have it both ways. They want the air conditioners that my science invented to cool their obscenely spacious Texas homes. They want my computers to furtively surf gay porn. They want my televisions to watch the puerile Hollywood tripe that tomorrow they will condemn as immoral. They want my snack food preservatives and then they want my tummy tuck surgeries because those snack food preservatives worked so damn well. They want my Oxycontin, my fuel injection systems, and my electric air fresheners.

But they do not want my evolution. They do not want my geology that proves the earth is about 5 billion years old. They do not want my climate studies that suggest there's a problem with the aforementioned fuel injection systems. They will not confess that all these things--the ones they love and cling to and the ones they reject--are all of a kind and can not be sold separately.

They keep breaking into the bubble wrap and taking just the parts they like. And it is irritating.

Though it gives me some satisfaction to put my finger on the source of my long-standing exasperation, I realize no ground is thus gained in the battle between reason and faith. There still remains the core, unsolvable conflict of belief, a difference of of opinion, where there can be no right or wrong.

Except for this small point: I am right. And these pie-eyed, pamphlet wielding, shallow-thinking, holier-than-thou, sickeningly-wholesome-yet-closeted-homosexual, re-virginized born-agains who reconstructed their own hymens through the power of prayer are wrong.

I sure hope they do not hold with equal certainty that the reverse is true. Because if that's the case, this trouble will be with us for a long time.