Monday, January 07, 2013

Atheism (and agnosticism) teach us that consequences matter!

I certainly appreciate the essay by Susan Jacoby, “The Blessings if Atheism: Is it here and now?” on p. 6 of the New York Times Sunday Review, January 7, 2013, link here

Jacoby is the author of the forthcoming book “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Thought”.
I can remember prayers in church services, “I’m a believer, not a doubter”, even at MCC Dallas back in the 1980s.  I can remember that my parents would say that people who need to have everything "proven" to them are doomed to unhappiness.  And the post-Resurrection story of the “Doubting Thomas” does have special significance to me  (Movies blog, Dec. 8, 2012).

Jacoby writes “The absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on Earth.”

I saw, “Pom Wonderful”!  But I actually go around in circles on this one a bit.

I do indeed get irritated when I hear people pray about “surrendering all” to Jesus – as if I were supposed to be all right with doing the same if I can’t “compete”.  (No, you don’t have to be a martyred, injured RG3 on the gridiron to “compete”.   Yup, I “saw” it.  But you need to be good at something – and remain yourself doing it.  Not everyone gets that far.)

But I do think there is an afterlife, a continuing awareness of self or something bigger.  Here, intelligent design, statistics, entropy, thermodynamics and all the rest of physics come together.   The way I would read Stephen Hawking (movie reviews, Jan. 3), consciousness – at least to a level allowing free will and a sense of right and wrong – is a natural step up from “everything” to quarks, to particles, atoms, molecules, organic chemistry (like in college), biological systems.  What is “above” the human being?  Maybe angels, and then God (and indeed maybe a Son able to impart Grace), the ability to create, but only within a system of consistent laws of physics. 
It seems as though nature progresses toward living systems – with sexual reproduction to exchange genes – in order to counteract entropy, which would inevitably swallow the universe otherwise.  Maybe there is some other way (to stop entropy) that consciousness above human has access to.  We don’t know that yet.  It gets into the world of  a teenage Clark Kent and his “powers”.   It’s remarkable, too, how repeatable the drive toward intelligent consciousness is.  Dolphins and orcas, who grew separately, seem to be just about equal to us, except for lacking hands that would enable them to make tools (which means they should have basic rights).  Without primates, big cats might rule the world, and they are indeed quite advanced.  (Just go see “Life of PI”.) 
In a world of combating entropy, the “law of karma” makes perfect sense.  So it seems that when we pass, we still experience something.  (How can there be just nothing?  That seems inconsistent with physics.)  Maybe the near-death experiences do mean something. Bu it sounds more likely that our self-awareness (the “inner self”) joins that of others in some sort of group sharing of karma.  The Rosicrucians (with their "Invisible Empire") have a lot to say about this.  (See Books blog, April 7. 2007).   Some of us may well start over, maybe in much less advantageous circumstances than we had this time, even on other worlds.  Yes, I think it makes sense that intelligence is ubiquitous in the universe, and that it recycles.
Even so, what happens here on this Earth, in the “here and now”, is of profound moral importance.  Indeed, those of us who are socially isolated and don’t share “back watching” are very sensitive to our vulnerability, either to our own mistakes or particularly to the negligence or hostility of others, which can well be inspired by indignation (hidden injustice) or nihilism.  Consequences are real and often irreversible, and ruinous.  None of us can reverse the time arrow of physics (not counting “lucid dreaming”, where consequences are reversed upon awakening.) 
I’m particularly taken back by claims that a victim of a crime or incident is home with God and loved ones.  When a child passes, he or she has not had the opportunity (in this incarnation) to learn what it is like to be grown up.  How can he or she have meaningful “eternal life” without learning adulthood first?  The idea of a condo in Heaven (for extended family( just doesn’t make sense to me.  But don’t get me wrong.  There are ideas about the afterlife in a number of faith systems – from Mormonism to Islam – that are interesting and could, in some bigger context, have validity. 

So the whole question of afterlife brings me home to Earth, with its mild (if warming)  climate – to consider the legitimacy of personal aims and goals, in conjunction with the needs and lives of others, and to consider right and wrong, and to wonder where the limits to personal sovereignty live and when coercion becomes unavoidable.  It’s just that those who coerce others must explain what they want, and they usually can’t articulate what they wish for. 

This "coercion" sometimes seems to prod me into the direction of making other people whom I would not normally have related personally to feel that they are "all right".  That came up in some specific settings, like substitute teaching.  Of course, we value all human life, and we say that every life should have the opportunity to do its best (which will not be equal among everyone -- nature is never "equal" this way, partly because of entropy.)   That could imply that the actual of experiencing that personal value in someone else is a common experience, not just the province of those who "choose" to have children.  When this gets down to personal communication and belief, it does get difficult, for me at least.   
First picture: My parents on vacation, 1942;  second -- a restaurant in Imajica

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