Thursday, March 26, 2009

Basking In Our Own Glory...

I have been reading voraciously of late. I can’t get enough of books. It’s been a very long time since I felt like learning anything. So, I am pleasantly surprised that this desire had not left me completely. There’s something incredibly powerful about self-directed learning, to find a subject that interests you, acquire materials to explore that subject and then assimilate it in your own time and space. This is the kind of education my soul craved in High School. I really hated schedules and rote memorization and exams. I was so bored. So very bored. But, I digress.

I just finished reading two books that question the new atheism and liberal humanism movements. They are Chris HedgesWhen Atheism Becomes Religion and Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray. Hedges' thesis is what I came to realize post-JW when I began perusing atheist forums online, that fundamental atheism doesn’t look that much different than fundamental religion of any other sort. Where fundamental religionists put their faith in an unseen God, fundamental atheists put their faith in science, reason and the myth of moral progress. Both fundamental groups believe things are getting better rather than seeing reality for what it is. As Hedges concludes in the chapter “The New Fundamentalism”:

“We live in a universe indifferent to our fate. We are seduced by myths that assure us that the world revolves around us, that fate or the gods or destiny have given us a unique and singular role in the cosmos. It is hard to reject these myths and face the bleakness of human existence. It is more comforting and reassuring to have faith in our collective moral advancement as a species, to believe that we are heading toward something great and wondrous. The bitter reality of existence and the bondage of human nature, however, are real. These myths are not. All those who tempt us to play God turn us away from the real world to flirt with our own annihilation.”

John Gray, in Straw Dogs, promotes a similar thesis. We are animals and, as such, behave like animals. Our fascination and narcissistic love of our human status is deluding us into annihilation. Evolution is a morally indifferent process. Humans have not been “chosen” in any way to make the earth subject to our form. These ideas of humanity being able to create its own destiny, to create moral progress, are the same Utopian delusions of Christianity. It is amazing that the atheist who decries a God can then set himself up as one. We are animals, plain and simple. As Gray states in Straw Dogs:

“Other animals are born, seek mates, forage for food and die. That is all. But we humans – we think – are different. We are persons, whose actions are the results of their choices. Other animals pass their lives unawares, but we are conscious. Our image of ourselves is formed from our ingrained belief that consciousness, selfhood and free will are what define us as human beings, and raise us above all other creatures.

In our more detached moments, we admit that this view of ourselves is flawed. Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactments of conscious selves. We control very little of what we most care about; many of our most fateful decisions are made unbeknownst to ourselves. Yet we insist that mankind can achieve what we cannot: conscious mastery of its existence. This is the creed of those who have given up an irrational belief in God for an irrational faith in mankind.

But what if we give up the empty hopes of Christianity and humanism? Once we switch off the soundtrack – the babble of God and immortality, progress and humanity – what sense can we make of our lives?”

Gray’s book is a slap in the face. A much-needed one. If I was clinging to any of my airy-fairy ideologies about man’s progression towards great and wonderful things, this book has cured me of my disease. But make no mistake, I have not entered a nihilistic melancholy. I have sobered up to the reality of what is, a reality that becomes clearer with each passing day. There is no mass salvation, either by God’s hands or humanity’s own, nor is the hope in one necessary for a full life. I concur with Gray’s conclusion, that if there is any purpose at all to life, it is "simply to see."

And so it is.

tall penguin


matt said...

I'm glad you read it, I think it's the message that made me fall on my face recently.

I still don't know how to describe what technology is, and whether it is a progress.

Phil said...

But it sounds like nihilistic existentialism. And what would be the purpose to "simply just see"? See what? Life as it is? As it is according to whom? Obviously, by this definition there is no objective idea of life, so there must then be a subjective idea of life-which means that life is what you make it. Which then means we are not merely animals--not that religion or atheism is the answer....a good read on this is Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death

tall penguin said...

Gray's view of life as "simply to see" is rather Platonic in nature. He views the contemplation of existence as the highest form of meaning. To be and see rather than be caught in endless doing, as we see in the Western world today. There's a whole lot of movement happening, but is it really going anywhere?

matt said...

Circles within circles. Great big circles and teeny tiny circles.

What's wrong with nihilistic existentialism? :)

Phil said...

"He views the contemplation of existence as the highest form of meaning."

Now that seems a bit buddhist monk: do away with the world and contemplate meaning.

It also seems like a bit of a cop out...I agree that all the other things will not get you where you want to be, but sitting at the bus station contemplating where you want to go will not get you on the bus or to where you want to be. And if "contemplating" is an end in itself, well that flies in the face of biology, and thus "contemplation" becomes just like a religion and "contemplation" becomes the God--a legitimate claim just as atheistic existentialism sets oneself up as the God--stuck back to an overall objective "something or other". If not making a decision is the same as deciding, then not doing is the same as doing.

Yes, there's a lot of "going nowhere" in the Western (and Eastern) world but there's also a lot of "going somewhere" happening as well. Of course we all have to decide for ourselves, but it seems rather existential to move from one answer to another seeking "a truth" or an answer of some sort. Throw all the answers out and make your own. Life, make it don't take it... : )

tall penguin said...

To contemplate life and spend time being is not to do away with doing. But to engage in doing with a greater sense of being, to be aware and present while doing is to have a rich life.

We may have to agree to disagree on where mankind is "going". I see life and history as incredibly cyclical, like all aspects of nature. To classify mankind's history (and I'm speaking of moral/social not from a purely physical/evolutionary standpoint) as a linear sort of progress is a bit naive.

"Throw all the answers out and make your own."

If only one could truly do that. I hate to quote scripture here but that Solomon guy said some useful stuff: "There is nothing new under the sun."

In reality, if you think you're able to make your own answers without being influenced by some other school of thought, genetics, basic factors from your past or any number of variables over which you have little control, feel free. Perhaps this is our greatest delusion as human beings...this idea of free will.