Friday, June 11, 2004

The Religious Divide

Some political science types see the political divide in this country as running between red and blue states, some between rich and poor citizens, but evidence is building that the biggest political separation in this country is between those who are religious, i.e. those who believe in a personal God, and those who are not. Religion, we had been told for the last half century, was dying in the U.S. just as it had been in Europe. Atheism is the wave of the future and will soon extinguish its pre-modern competitor. Be all this as it may, it seems that religion is not going gently into that dark night. At least in the United States it remains a potent political force and will continue to be so for some time to come.

That is not to say that religious belief is thriving everywhere in the U.S. It certainly seems moribund, even despised, among the cultural elites. The late Carl Sagan, an astronomer who achieved celebrity status in the 1970s, was well-known for his claim that "The universe is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be." How Sagan knew this is a mystery to me. It's also a mystery where an atheistic scientist finds philosophical justification for these words: "The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look Death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides."

If the universe really is all there is then the first sentence in this quote is romantic flummery. The second is metaphysically vacuous. I don't know where Sagan is looking that he sees so much love in the world, but even if his keen eye does discern it in some nook somewhere, on his own principle that nature is the highest metaphysical reality, that all there is can be reduced to matter and energy, then the abundant love he espies is nothing more than a meaningless mixture of chemicals in the brain. It's little else than an interesting arrangement of atoms, ultimately no more significant than, say, digestion. On what grounds, then, does Sagan privilege love over digestion or excretion?

It's true that love stimulates us to desire union with the people we care deeply for, to meld our souls to theirs like the alloy of two disparate metals, but we are existentially doomed to be always other, to be isolated, to be never able to fully realize that oneness we yearn for. The chemicals in our bodies deceive us so that, at least in some instances, we unite only long enough to copulate and perpetuate the species. Big deal. Plants and animals do that without, as far as we know, experiencing love.

As for Sagan's "moral depth" there is no such thing as moral oughtness, and certainly no such thing as moral depth if each of us is nothing more than a biochemical machine. Neither you nor I have any more moral responsibility than does the computer I'm writing this on. Where would moral responsibility come from in a world where everyone is simply the product of Darwinian chance and mutation? Who are we responsible to if the universe is all there is? Why talk about morality at all if life beyond death is just a "pretty story" and if death is in fact utter annihilation? Sagan states that we should be "grateful every day for the brief opportunity that life provides," but to whom should we be grateful? Why should we be grateful? If "nature" is god then nature is cruelly teasing us with this brief taste of life which is, for so many people, a woeful tale of suffering, sorrow, injustice and then death. Even if Sagan could tell us who or what we should be grateful to, why should we be grateful for life as so many experience it?

Another writer, Christopher Hitchens, who has the distinction of having written a book about Mother Teresa in which he finds virtually nothing good to say about her, and pretty much calls her a fraud, elsewhere writes this: "I have many political disagreements with all kinds of people, but they are irrelevant compared with the ones between me and anyone who is a religious believer-It's such a disgusting idea-the idea that you would want permanent, inescapable supervision from the cradle to the grave ..and it's a fantastic vanity - 'The universe is about me. God cares what I'm up to' - masked in the most horrible way as modesty and resignation. It's the element in us that is slavish, stupid, childish, superstitious and bigoted...It bids to all the bits of us that are not properly evolved."

Hitchens doesn't explain why it is a vanity to believe that one's life has a purpose and that the purpose is to live in a love relationship with one's Creator. Nor does he explain why it is so horrible to be modest (I assume he means humble) and to hope and trust that, even though the world appears to be going to hell, the Creator will not abandon us. Hitchens considers it slavish and stupid to believe that a world saturated with signs of intelligent agency actually is the work of an intelligent Creator rather than blind, purposeless forces and random chance. Presumably in his world it's much more grown-up and far less superstitious to believe that matter, chance, time, and physical forces can fashion a living cell, a human immune system, a human brain, or, for that matter, a physical force.

According to Hitchens it's bigoted and superstitious to believe that the reason we deeply desire to find meaning in our lives is because there really is true meaning out there. It's bigoted, he apparently assumes, to believe that we think in moral categories because there really is a moral law written into the fabric of the universe. It's superstitious to hope that there really is an ultimate justice, that love is truly meaningful and not just an evolutionary survival mechanism, that peace will someday prevail, that we long to know the answers to life's deepest questions because answers actually exist. In other words, for Hitchens, as for Sagan, it's childish to hope, to believe, that the cosmos is anything but an incredibly improbable, inexplicable freak with no meaning, no purpose, no hope, no justice. The proper view is that life is a crushingly pointless cycle of birth, suffering, terror, and death with now and then a brief flash, perhaps, of a chemical reaction which delights us with a fleeting frisson of joy, to keep us from despairing at the absurdity of it all.

The world of Sagan and Hitchens is as empty and sterile as it is absurd. It is a world which has led many who've accepted it to nihilism and despair. That Sagan and Hitchens would urge us to stop short of this final step says more about the inconsistency of their logic than of the soundness of their metaphysics. In the U.S., at least, we may be grateful that, for now, a large segment of the population evidently isn't paying such as Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens much heed.