Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Butterfly

The other night I watched a lovely French film entitled "The Butterfly". The movie tells a delightful story about a lonely septuagenarian lepidopterist named Julian (Michael Serrault) and a young girl of eight named Elsa (Claire Bouanich) who is pretty much ignored by her mother. The girl lives in the apartment above Julian and attaches herself to the grandfatherly butterfly collector, somewhat to his dismay. She even manages to persuade him to allow her to tag along as he journeys into the French Alps in search of a rare species of butterfly (it's actually a moth, but no matter) called the Isabella. For those who like stories about how relationships develop this movie will touch your heart.

There is a line where Elsa tells the old man an off-color joke which one might wish were not in the film, but aside from this it's a wonderful movie. You might want to add it to your Netflix queue.


Without God: Concluding Thoughts

So, we are confronted with a choice: Either we believe that there is no God and that consequently our existential yearnings are inexplicable and unfulfillable, a view which leads logically to nihilism, or we believe that there is a God and that we possess those yearnings because they lead us to the source of their satisfaction. They point us toward God. In other words, the existence of God is the best explanation for the data of human existence. The atheist has no good explanation for these yearnings and must take a leap of faith to avoid the nihilism and despair that her worldview pushes her toward. She has to live as if God exists while denying that He does. Many atheists actually repudiate their own naturalism simply by the way they choose to live their lives.

I've sought in this series of posts to defend the claim that the simplest explanation for the nature of the world and the deepest longings and feelings of the human spirit is that they are what they are because they conform to some existential reality. Those profound convictions are most simply accounted for by positing the possibility of satisfaction, but they can only be satisfied if there is a being that corresponds to the traditional notion of God. If theism is correct we can find intellectual and emotional contentment in the hope that the tragic condition of the world and of our lives is only temporary, that death is not the end and that a beautiful future lies ahead.

If God exists then we can assume that He made us for a reason, that there is a purpose to our existence and that we have dignity and inalienable rights as human beings because we are made in the image of God and loved by Him. If God exists then there is a transcendent moral authority which obligates us to respect others, which provides us in this life with an objective standard upon which to base moral judgment and which will ultimately mete out justice. We feel guilt because we're actually guilty. We feel free because we're actually free. We have an identity that endures because that identity exists in the mind of God. If God exists there is a basis for hope of life beyond death and some sense can be made of an otherwise senseless and existentially chaotic world.

The atheist, if he's consistent with his belief that there is no God, finds himself completely at odds in almost every important way with the structure of his own being. He finds himself inexplicably out of synch with his world. He is alone, forlorn, abandoned in an empty, unfeeling, indifferent universe that offers no solace nor prospect that there might be meaning, morality, justice, dignity, and solutions to the riddles of existence. The atheist lives without expectation or hope that any of the most profound yearnings of our hearts and minds can ever be fulfilled. How, then, do we come to have them? Why would natural selection shape us in such a way as to be so metaphysically and psychologically out of phase with the world in which we are situated?

It's possible, of course, that the atheistic answer is correct, that this is just the way things are, and we should simply make the best of a very bad situation. Yet surely the skeptic should hope that he's mistaken. Surely he would want there to be a God to infuse the cosmos with all the richness it is starved of by His absence. Nevertheless, I've never known or read one who held such a hope. It's incomprehensible that some, like philosopher Thomas Nagel, for instance, actually cling to the fervent desire that there be no God. This is tantamount to wishing, bizarrely enough, that life really is a meaningless, senseless, cruel and absurd joke. Nagel says in his book The Last Word:

"I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."

Nagel's ability to see his motivations clearly is uncommon and commendable, but his honesty and insight are little compensation for the profound sadness one feels at what he finds in his own heart. How anyone can actually wish the universe to be the sort of place where meaning, morality, justice, human worth and all the rest are vain illusions, is very difficult, for me, at least, to understand.