Sunday, January 22, 2006

God's Funeral And Our Own

The NYTs Mag has a nice little interview with arch-atheist Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University. Dennett will hear nothing of a magisterial creator that endowed us with life in his own image. He owes the religious impulse to something genetic in man. For him, evolution, not Ecclesiastes, is a better explanation for why we look to the sky and see purpose pitched so beautifully up yonder.

What does Dennett think about God, you may wonder? His answer is as curt as it is refreshing considering the way most public intellectuals sidestep questions about religion and the all-mighty.
Certainly the idea of a God that can answer prayers and whom you can talk to, and who intervenes in the world - that's a hopeless idea. There is no such thing.
Or what about answered prayers? I mean sometimes people pray really hard for something, and wa-la, it happens.
We have a built-in, very potent hair-trigger tendency to find agency in things that are not agents, like snow falling off the roof.
Isn't it funny today how people believe in prayer as opposed to ancient rituals calling on the gods for rain. While one is adhered to by many, many Americans, its ancient corollary would be laughed off as primitive and nonsensical.

Religious belief ultimately boils down to fear. Fear of chaos. Fear of death. Fear, yes, of life itself. Dennett puts his finger on what maybe is the enduring feature of belief:
When a person dies, we can't just turn that off. We go on thinking about that person as if that person were still alive. Our inability to turn off our people-seer and our people-hearer naturally turns into our hallucinations of ghosts, our sense that they are still with us.
When I really stop and think about God and religion and immortality, I always return to a poem published during the latter half of the 19th century after Darwin rocked religion to its core, yet before Nietzsche wrote his morbid sentence, "God is dead."

Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach, produced at the height of the Victorian world's crisis of faith, understands how to live in a world with no God, however vulnerable, fleeting, and random that life becomes. His conclusion, which is the poem's last nine lines, is simple:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

In the end, all we have is each other -- and that isn't even assured. Therefore the choice is stark: we can either live alone and die alone or we can live together and die alone. It's a simple and unsettling dichotomy; nevertheless, it's true.