Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

THAT'S Better!: Another Take on Atheism, Bible-Worship, and Prayer

[Excerpt from an email I wrote a few days ago to an evangelical pen-pal, where I think I was a little more careful in my statements...]

...To a certain extent, I think evangelicals are right when they say (as I said in the chapter I sent you), "If I doubt that miracle [like, say, the parting of the Red Sea], where do I stop?" You really do only have two choices: be obedient to the Bible and believe everything it says, or admit you're just picking and choosing which parts of the Bible to believe, which implies that the Bible is subject to human wisdom. What I see evangelicals doing is an odd third way: picking and choosing without admitting that that's what they're doing, in order to maintain the belief that they really are following the Bible where other Christians aren't. What they're really doing, it seems to me, is applying judgment and human wisdom to judge what to follow and what not to, but trying to impose as little judgment on it as possible. They'll believe things that make certain evangelicals uncomfortable (like women not being allowed to preach, which is always guaranteed a section under "Hard Sayings of the Bible"), but they won't believe anything that's clearly unworkable in our modern culture (like selling everything and giving it to the poor, or really taking Hell seriously enough to warn people constantly about its great and endless danger). They'll claim that this is "what the Bible teaches," but a conservative compromise is still a compromise, not the ideal. It's a mistake to pretend differently.

You say: "From my perspective, your core premise - there is no God - is false on the face of it. I *know* there is a God (just as much as you know there isn't), so anything you say carries very little instructional value to me. ... To me, someone who doesn't believe in God writing about how Christianity works is like someone who can't do basic math teaching advanced calculus. Speaking from an Evangelical perspective that finds God ridiculously obvious, you trying to explain him away to Christians is like trying to explain how 1 + 1 doesn't *really* equal 2 - we've only been taught that by a misguided institution. To me, OF COURSE 1 + 1 = 2 and, just as plainly, there is a God."

But surely you don't think that everything evangelicals do is so radically spiritual that it's completely incomprehensible to anyone else? Evangelicals make common-sense appeals all the time, even to each other: "Premarital sex is bad because it hardens the heart and makes relationships more difficult," they say, not "Premarital sex is bad because God says so and if you aren't religious you'll just never understand." In fact, the spiritual appeal is generally the appeal of last resort, even for Christians. If you're asked why getting drunk is bad, evangelicals will point out the bad effects of alcohol--the real, physical facts--and base their argument's weight on that evidence, as proof that the Bible knows what it's talking about. It's only when they have no particularly good reason for something that they say, "You have to be spiritual to understand it." (The classic example of this, to my mind, is the idea of sex creating a "spiritual bond" so that it's bad to do even if you're both in love, willing to do it, accepting of the consequences, and devoted to each other outside a traditional marriage bond. Since a "spiritual bond" can't be seen, tested, or proven to exist, saying, "sex with someone you love is bad because you're ruining a spiritual bond" is, for all practical purposes, exactly the same thing as saying, "if you're not spiritual, you'll never understand it"--and it is, as any nonChristian will tell you, the weakest argument a Christian has, which is why even Christians try to steer to more practical ground most of the time [STD's, pregnancy, etc.])

Let me take another tack. You say "God exists, and I know it as clearly as 1 + 1 = 2." But of course you don't know it THAT clearly. You know it--deep in your heart, and unshakably--but not because it can be logically, clinically proven. If I'm correct about religious people, I strongly suspect that the main conflict between theists and atheists comes down to two principles:

1.) Most people have a capacity for numinous awe--the mountaintop experience, the loving look into the heart of the universe at night--and most human beings, historically, have tended to find this experience uplifting or renewing, and have tended further to see this experience as coming from a being we call God. Moreover, this "God" is generally perceived as more than something merely greater than us (more than the mountain or the night sky): he (or she) is also a source of goodness and something that grounds our lives in eternal meaning, and this force speaks to us in hundreds of little ways: a seeming coincidence here, a lesson there, an answered prayer or two or twenty. And these little evidences amass into what are effectively "proofs" that God exists: not that you can see him or put him on a slide, but your life's experience speaks to the existence of God in a decades-long string of stories and anecdotes--ways that only really make sense to the eyes of faith.

2.) The world as we actually see it, if we're seeing dispassionately, looks pretty much exactly as we'd expect it to look if there were no God: huge, ancient universe? Check. Bad design of parts of our bodies? Check. Problem of evil/theodicy? Definitely. Prayer working in subtle ambiguous ways but failing to levitate objects or regrow lost limbs? Check. Lack of hard evidence of life after death? Unfortunately so. The evidence for atheism is literally everywhere you look. [FOOTNOTE: The huge ancient universe is important because if God exists, we could live in any kind of universe He wanted, and if we were the point of creation, or one of the points, we could, one assumes, expect a younger universe with us at its center, or near it. But if we evolved by chance, we MUST live in a mind-bogglingly vast universe that's had a lot of time and a lot of room to roll the dice in, and we might be off in a pretty insignificant portion of it...and this is exactly what we see. Any other universe would make atheism practically impossible, and God really WOULD be as obvious as 1 + 1 = 2.]

So what we have is a constant conflict--at least a potential one--between the world we see with our brains, and the word as we feel with our hearts. The theist votes that the heart is correct and makes a thousand good-enough-for-the-moment excuses for the things we see (suffering is the cost of free will; God IS all good and all powerful, but isn't exercising the latter; most of all, God is mysterious and doesn't have to make sense to us); arguments that are really only satisfying to people who feel that this view of the world "makes sense" already (i.e., feels in accord with the way they experience the world daily). But none of the arguments the theist makes is really compelling to anyone who demands a good answer; ask long enough, and theists always wind up pointing out that some things are mysterious and God doesn't explain himself. Which, to the atheist, is essentially saying that theism doesn't make sense.

The atheist votes that the brain is correct--what we see does fit; God doesn't exist--and then explains away the first principle (we instinctively feel that the universe has meaning and that a God exists) usually by suggesting that human beings are inherently hard-wired to find meaning in things, and to feel more comfortable when things have a pattern or a narrative arc to them. If, like many rationalistic people, you're more comfortable when everything is explained, this really does explain everything. But it leaves you without an obvious solution for whether life really does have objective meaning. Oops! This end result is what makes atheism, for most people, essentially unthinkable, and unacceptable as any sort of option. This is an understandable choice. However, I repeat that this is not quite the same thing as 1 + 1 = 2; it's more like "I know God exists because I see God work everywhere, and I find a purely natural explanation deeply distasteful by comparison." Right?

This, by the way, is related to how I finally became an atheist. I've got a longer version of this, but I'll keep it simple: essentially, I was reading a book on the power of prayer, and I read a story where a woman prayed to God for rain, and--because this was a book on the power of prayer--it rained. But it started raining so much that the water was rising and threatening to flood the house, and the woman wrote, "and so, rebuking Satan, I prayed for the rain to stop..." and I stopped short and said, "Wait a minute! So God makes it rain, but Satan makes it rain too much?" On the one hand, this sounds perfectly ridiculous. On the other hand, I could completely understand bringing the same interpretation to that situation. And it struck me then that "I'm praying for x" often meant, "I'm anxious about x, [too much water OR too little, e.g.] over which I have no control, and my prayer is a sort of reponse to this helplessness." As C.S. Lewis points out, we don't pray for eclipses. We don't pray that aspirin will work. Or (if you're me) how some distant cricket team's season is going to play out. We only pray about things we care about, that we can't control, and that might turn out in at least two different ways. We pray about test results, and the safety of those we love, and for guidance in times of confusion.

So I started thinking, "What if all our God talk is really just talk about our own anxieties about things we can't control?" So I started listening to other peoples' religious talk, and found exactly that, plus another thing: God is also often invoked to give something more meaning than mere coincidence, as in "I know God meant for us to run into each other at lunch" or "I know God wants me to work on my anger" (which sounds more meaningful than, "I'd like to not get angry so much"). When I started seeing prayer and God as a habit where a mind that's hungry for meaning sort of imaginatively asserts control over how the unknown is interpreted...well, the more I looked at it, the more God seemed to vanish. Even simple meditation started to look like the response of an organism that was feeling out of balance and needed a moment of relaxed concentration. That was the day I became an atheist. As Laplace said, I had no need for the God hypothesis. (Though of course he said it in French.)



Blogger Chad E Burns said...

GREAT POST. One of your best. Much better than the ones previous.

And, dare I say, very convincing. It at the very least forced me to admit I believe in G-d simply because I choose to. while I may have abandoned "religion" and Christianity and declared myself a generic "theist"; your argument holds the most water, and I agree with it, when I look inside, honestly.

My only issue is the focus on the brain in detriment to the heart. Why can't an atheist have a heart--I know this is not what you are saying; and I know many atheists are VERY (Most even more than some "Christians)--but I guess what I am looking for is a "spiritual atheist"--sounds like an oxymoron . . . or is that possibly the argument Deism actually makes? Can't wait for yuor reply. :)

2/26/2008 9:52 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Thanks, Chad! Your encouragement means a lot to me, especially since I've been screwing up a tad lately.

I'll be planning a post on how to be a "spiritual atheist," but the short answer is that you embrace the numinous (which is the same awe-inspiring experience for both atheists and theists) but instead of leaping from there to a series of conclusions about God that are ultimately unhelpful, you derive from it a sense of the interrelatedness of everything: this is how Zen Buddhism can lead to increased compassion (by meditating on what is, your ego breaks down and you realize how alike we all are), and you see the same thing in scientific-atheist spirituality: Sagan and Dawkins, in particular, spend a good deal of time reflecting on how we're all made of the same material, which continues to exist after we die, and which came from the beginning of the universe. I have more to add (I have a theory about The Secret), but I hope that holds you for now.

2/26/2008 10:30 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Oh! Also: I agree that there's a tendency in our culture to divide the brain and the heart as if the two are completely separate things (as if no one ever had a passionate thought!). But there is also definitely a tendency that you can see in people where if they overintellectualize things, it can be a way of avoiding feeling. So thinking and feeling aren't incompatible, but EXTREME thinkiness and feeling often are.

2/26/2008 10:32 AM  
Blogger Chad E Burns said...

Thanks Dave,

I def agree. I love the scientific/spirtual idea of combining the "we are all connected" of Zen Buddhism to the actuality "we are all of the same particles" of science--I never looked at it like that before. EXCELLENT!

As far as EXTREME intelligence or emotion--couldn't agree with you more.

BTW--are you into String Theory?
Can't wait for your post on "spiritual atheism". :)

2/26/2008 11:06 AM  
Blogger SaltLakeBlues said...

This was a really interesting conversation.

To me, atheists often seem to cling to their independence from nature with the same fervor as do the religious. Though many atheists are willing to say "my morality is not my own, it is a product of genes and environment" (since genes are a part of environment, really just environment) almost all jealously regard their intellect, their reason, in English we even have the term "freethinker" to mean atheist, or at least skeptic. Much as the Puritan took pride in being morally "right" so the atheist takes pride in being "right right," rather than allowing that the thoughts that make him so are only his own in the most technical sense. Personally, I've always felt that believing that this is all there is has to be accepting that you are simply part of the larger system, and just kinda flowing with that in a sorta Zen Buddhist-y way. BTW though Sagan seemed pretty chill to me, Dawkins seems a little more like my Grandpa, who though he may be Buddhist I would never describe as "Zen-like".

Personally, I still believe that morality and reason come from a personal Deity. Not that this doesn't lead to many difficulties, not least of which is the natural tendency to want to find a specific religion rather than a vague Deism that describes Him. I still want Christianity to be true despite its own difficulties, there is something that feels "right" about the words of Jesus in the NT, and his attributed claims to divinity seem to me to blend into those words.

And 'Bourbon Cowboy'... that's just a really cool name. Dang, it's 12:51 I need to sleep!

3/24/2008 2:54 AM  

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