“It’s either mean or it’s arbitrary,” said the little boy in the strip, “and either way I’ve got the heebie-jeebies.”
Set the Wayback Machine to roughly 1992. I was in my living room reading “Calvin & Hobbes,” a comic strip about a rambunctious boy and his imaginary friend. I was beginning to question my Pentecostal faith but this was before I’d gotten very far. Meanwhile, this very badly shaken-up fictional boy was considering the death of a tiny baby raccoon. (You can feel welcome to insert questions about “The Problem of Evil” here, which the strip sequence briefly explored.)
It was clearly the first time the boy had ever encountered death. He was badly shaken. His parents didn’t feed him any mumbo-jumbo about it, though. His mother told him that death was as natural as birth, but we didn’t understand it very well. That said, she continued, we didn’t understand a lot of things. Her advice to her son was to do the best he could with the knowledge he had.
It was one of the first times I’d ever encountered a parent using a non-Christian approach to explain anything to a child. I was struck by how honest and gentle a reply that was. Even more than that, though, I realized that when it came down to it, my religion was not actually needed to make sense of what was, at its core, senseless, and that this non-theistic explanation was at its heart honest and truthful, giving adequate respect to the boy’s pain and fear, but at the same time assuring him that the death had been completely non-malevolent. Sometimes bad stuff happened, was the implication, and it doesn’t always make sense, nor must it. This fictional mother didn’t need religion to comfort her child, or to make what little sense she could out of it.
Please remember that at this time, fundagelical Christianity wasn’t nearly as drilled-down-on-dumb as it is now. The depths of its science denial hadn’t quite come yet. I held the contradictory views of “of course evolution is a thing” and “Genesis is totally objectively accurate” in my mind without too much trouble. I fused the Bible’s science and history claims in with general metaphorical religious-truth and didn’t worry about it. Nowadays, by contrast, refusing to accept science is not only popular in evangelical circles but almost mandatory. This glorification of ignorance and dogged refusal to engage with science did not yet exist, though. So I was free to learn what I could; nothing hindered me. Nor was I constrained to refuse to accept anything I learned.
I’ll go even further to say, as well, that absolutely nothing science had discovered really threatened the thrust of Christianity to me. I took several astronomy classes and never felt anything but the deepest appreciation for what my god had wrought. At the time, I thought that all of these things were evidence that my god existed.
What’s really funny is that I already understood the concept of superfluity. My Pentecostal church was right next door to a Mormon church, so our congregations tended to butt up against each other fairly often. Their missionaries often visited to hone their claws, and we were always happy to meet them head-on. I had a tabbed study Bible with one whole color of tabs devoted to “why Mormonism is total nonsense” (they were the purple tabs, I remember that for some reason; red was for stuff about baptism either in water or in the Spirit, if you’re wondering). Eventually it came down to me telling one pair of bright-eyed young men, “So wait, if I’m a good Christian and I die, then I still go to heaven, right?”
And they said yes. “So why do I need to be a Mormon instead?” I asked.
“Well, so you can go to the awesomest heaven,” they said, but they used some technical term for it that escapes me right now.
“But it’d still be heaven. In other words, not hell. Right?”
They had to admit that was so. But didn’t I want to go to the awesomest heaven and all that?
“No,” I said, “I don’t really care what kind of heaven I go to.”
I might as well have said I wanted to floop the winsham for all those poor kids understood. They couldn’t even wrap their heads around the idea that I might not give a wet slap about going to the very nicest tier of heaven and just be grateful to be allowed into heaven at all.
“So basically,” I said at last, “it comes down to this: either Mormonism is totally false, or else it’s unnecessary. The only reason you’d bet on it is if you wanted to go to the extra-special heaven. And that doesn’t sound in the least bizarrely egocentric to you.”
(Yeah, by the way, that was the first of about three sets of Mormon missionaries I personally am responsible for sending back home for reconditioning. I’m not proud of that fact anymore, but hey, each time we tangled they started it.)
Alas, I did not apply the same reasoning to my own religion. Yet.
Some time later, I realized that not a single one of the things science has discovered requires a god or divine intervention at all to happen. There simply is no process from the beginning of time to the cold final death we theorize will come at the end that requires at any point “a nudge from a super-powerful intelligence.” None of it. And nothing else about our world has proven to depend upon a god’s actions. Storms happen not because a god wills them to happen but because of geologic and atmospheric processes we understand fairly well. Car accidents happen not because someone forgot to pray s/he’d get somewhere safely but because sometimes we’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Birth defects aren’t evidence of a god’s displeasure but the product of genetic and environmental problems. This world and the creatures on it formed not because a god sang it all into existence but because of processes that we generally understand and which have been very reliably documented through a dozen disciplines of science from geology to genetics. Every single time we’ve found out about a facet of our universe we previously thought was supernatural, we’ve found that no, whatever it was, it was quite natural.
We’ve got a few questions here and there, and we’re not at 100% certainty on everything, but we are sure of enough to know that nothing we look at requires a deity to design or transform or kick-start a single bit of it. It all functions fine without that sort of input. A god is completely irrelevant to any of it.
I slowly came to this realization when I realized that prayer doesn’t really work. I’d fought the idea for some time, but finally I had to admit that not only does prayer not produce a divine intervention but that everything that’d ever happened after I’d prayed was easily enough attributed to chance and natural processes. Not a single god was required for anything that had ever happened to me. I already knew I hadn’t seen any medical miracles, but when I tallied up the other “miracles” I thought I’d seen or experienced, I could clearly see that there were plenty of other rational explanations for what had happened (like the near-accident I escaped in my previous post).
At first I was scared to death to think that my god didn’t exist. Part of me really wanted to have that big magic daddy to appeal to. When I became an adult and realized that adults don’t have any more idea what’s going on than their kids do, it was scary, but at least I had a god I could call upon for aid and support. If my god didn’t exist, that meant I was alone and that there wasn’t any final authority who could help me if I ever needed it or who would even up the odds one day. Like a small child does, I needed someone bigger than me to rely upon and trust.
Nobody likes to think that he or she is alone.
But I never was. I always had family around me and loved ones as well. They weren’t omnipotent, but as far as I could see, neither was the Bible’s god, so that worked out all right.
Even now, as I survey the vast and glorious realms of knowledge, I see no reason for a god to be involved at all. The nutbars trying to shoehorn a god into things, like the “Intelligent Design” crowd, are being ridiculed worse and worse by real scientists and the public at large, and are drilling down harder and harder on the willful ignorance required to believe so blindly and mistakenly in their brand of pseudo-science. I’m not willing (yet) to go so far as to say that there cannot possibly be any gods, but it seems more clear than ever that regardless of whether or not any exist, this universe doesn’t require their presence at all.
This revelation brings us to the principle of Occam’s Razor. To rephrase the concept in my usual alarmingly-simplistic manner, Occam’s Razor states that when making a hypothesis about something, one should make as few unproven assumptions as possible. As the old saying goes, if an Englishman hears hoofbeats behind him, he expects to turn around to see a horse, not a zebra. If a woman who owns a dog hears a crash in the bedroom, she’s almost certainly correct to think that the noise was caused by her dog, not by space aliens. Zebras are not required to form an adequate guess about what’s behind the Englishman; aliens, whose existence has never been truly demonstrated, are not required for the woman with the dog to make a good guess about what caused that noise. Zebras and aliens are assumptions that must first be sorted out before they can become a valid explanation for the hoofbeats and crashing noise. Explanations that don’t make any wild assumptions are far more likely to be true than ones that require assumptions.
If the universe’s beginnings don’t require a god for anything we’ve seen happening, then there’s no reason why we should add in the touch of a being we’ve never conclusively shown actually exists. If a god’s touch is not required for someone to recover from a disease or for peace to reach a country at long last, then there’s no reason to gratuitously stick one in when a thoroughly more earthly explanation is easily enough deduced.
I can see why that idea threatens people who firmly believe in a god. It certainly made me feel challenged once I’d worked it out. When you live and breathe and move through a world thronging with unseen angels, demons, and who knows what else, it’s threatening to think that none of that exists and we’re all on our own.
But isn’t it, in its way, more reassuring? Rather than bash our brains out trying to work out why a god would kill a baby raccoon that’s never seen or done anything in its little life, instead of trying to figure out what the “message” was or what the “lesson” might be when something bad happens to anyone around us, isn’t it far more comforting to think that there isn’t some divine intelligence behind any of it–that it’s not malevolent or planned, but just is, and we might not understand it, but there are lots of things we still don’t understand. Instead of spending our limited time and energy trying to appease a being we’ve never seen and can’t demonstrate exists, we should spend our time doing the best we can with the knowledge we have.
On that note, next we’re going to be talking about how cruel and malevolent the concept of divine “messages” really is, and why I think this dogma is one of the most harmful parts of the Christian mindset. Ruh-roh! Strap yourself in, because we’re going to Nuke York and we’ve only got half a Voltage Wagon.