Monday, July 13, 2009
The purpose driven strife
Harry Potter week is finally upon us! Rejoice, true believers! We're seeing the movie Thursday night and I know you're all thinking what a poser I am for not going to the midnight showing on Wednesday, but I've got a kid now and that sort of thing just doesn't happen as easily nowadays. This movie looks AMAZING though, and I totally expect it to Avada Kedavra my ass.
Leah and I took Harper to east Texas this weekend. My brother and his family got to meet her for the first time, and I got to spend a lot of quality time with my niece and nephew. It was really great and Harper travelled well, which we were nervous about. But like a jackass, I accidentally left my computer, phone charger, and Harper's Baby Einstein mat at my parents house. Leaving my stuff sucks a lot but that mat is really the only toy Harper plays with so we're going to have to just buy something else for her.
A lot of you may know that I'm a huge proponent of the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, and for my money, its the single most powerful and transformative philosophy book that I've ever read. I've gotten a few people to read it and typically, there reaction is similar to my own. My brother is reading it now, on my recommendation and judging from his blog, I don't think he's going to be as affected by it as I was. Oh well. He is correct about what he says though, that the book does hinge on the reader already accepting certain facts. For instance, if you don't understand or just don't accept evolutionary theory then you will probably not agree with the rationale of Ishmael because the bulk of the ideas therein stem from humankind sharing the same humble origins as everything else in nature.
I also got my mom to read it not too long ago but I think one of the only reasons she consented to do so was so that she could get me to read a Christian book of her choosing. I'm not sure how even these scales are though: I ask her to read one book and then I have to read another one on top of spending almost 30 years obsessing over the religion of her choice. I'm kidding and I digress, I'm happy to do it. After all, if there is a viable reason out there to jump back into the fold, I'd love to hear it. That being said, if 26 years in the church isn't long enough to have heard all the arguments in favor of Christianity, then what are we doing in church so much?
The book she's chosen for me is Surprised by Faith by Dr. Don Bierle. My problems with the book start early, with the front and back covers. They advertise that Dr. Bierle is a "scientist" but never say what kind. They talk about how he studied life sciences but never say which ones; he's a doctor but what kind? It does say that he holds M.A. and Ph.D degrees in life sciences and an M.A. in New Testament studies. In the preface he talks about how much education he's had which is impressive to me, who has very little education past high school, but he also talks in detail about how devoutly religious his family was and how he was somewhat groomed for the ministry as early as age 14. And with that admission his arguments become somewhat tainted to me. He's been indoctrinated from a young age just like most religious people and that gives him a motive: a desire to return to the comforting religion of his family. I know because I feel it too, and I'm not saying that this is definitely how he is but just that it seems probable to someone like me. Somewhere between 14 and college Dr. Bierle became a skeptic and that's where he starts Chapter 1. I was actually really impressed at the beginning of this chapter because he really seems to get how I feel and understand the problems I see in the plausibility of it all. I guess he was a skeptic after all. A persons perspectives on religion and spirituality are really contingent on the question "at what point are you satisfied?" and pretty quickly, it becomes apparent that Dr. Bierle is far more easily satisfied than I am, at least on the topic of the first chapter which is, essentially, "what is the meaning of life?"
He poses the question "Do we have a purpose in life?" That's a good question, and I say "yes." He agrees but he thinks that the only way to have a real purpose in a finite universe is to have an infinite god give you one. I disagree. He postulates an analogy which essentially says that all the world exists for humankind's eventual benefit and therefore an infinite god must exist. Because there's soil, and soil's only purpose is to grow grass, who's only purpose is to feed cows. And why do cows exist? It can't possibly be for the sake of existing because that doesn't go along with our romantic idea of human purpose. Cows exist to give us meat, but don't tell the cows, they'll just lose all hope. I'm oversimplifying and paraphrasing, of course, but I think I'm giving you the broad strokes. I think that its far more reasonable to say that because soil exists, its possible for grass to grow, and because grass grows, its possible for cows to eat, and because cows die, its possible for grass to grow, etc. Its a system that sustains itself, see?
In the first chapter, for Dr. Bierle, he's satisfied with a god as long as it meets two requirements:
1: God must be infinite.
2: God must be personal.
He has to be infinite because he's the one thing that is OK without a purpose and he has to be personal because he has to be able to reciprocate affection. Why we NEED god to be personal to be relevant, he doesn't say. "Eastern" religions' gods are infinite but not personal and "western" religions' gods are personal but not infinite but there is one bowl of proverbial porridge that's just right. Somehow, just because Christianity meets the needs that this "scientist" has laid out for himself, that is proof that it is the religion that 3 out of 3 celestial beings prefer.
I'm only about 1/4 of the way through this book and I'm not sure if he's building evidence for a big picture or if he's attacking skeptical issues one by one. It certainly seems to be the latter as all the chapters are titled and geared towards a particular problem. So far, the section "What am I here for? The Crisis of Purpose and Meaning" fails to make any headway in proving or rationalizing anything other than the fact that the good doctor can't fathom a world where things simply exist.
I know that there are religious people out there who live every day like they're on a mission and spend their time and their money working towards a better world, and they feel like they're doing god's work and believe that god gave them purpose in life and rightly so. Most people I know aren't like that though. They get up, go to work, come home and hopefully spend time with loved ones or work on whatever it is they're passionate about...or maybe just veg out and watch TV until its time to do it all over again. This is the day to day for people of faith and people without any, alike. If god gives us purpose, I have a hard time seeing what it could possibly be, unless its just to do this: exist. I said that I believe we have purpose, but I believe we make it for ourselves. I love being a husband, a father, a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend and I love making music. Those are the things I'm passionate about and I feel like those are the things that give my life purpose. It really makes me sad when religious people that I love say that without god we'd have no purpose.
We'd still have each other.