Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Believers, Atheists, Agnostics and Penn Jillette

I'm going to break a rule of thumb to which I generally subscribe: don't comment on, and definitely don't criticize, a book you haven't read. But, I did read a review of a book, and I just need to say something about it…

The book is God, no!: Signs You Might Already be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales by Penn Jillette, and I saw it reviewed by Steve Wiggins. If anything I say is unfair to Jillette, then I'll just blame Wiggins (and, even if Jillette didn't say the things attributed to him, many others have, so just apply this towards them!). For what it's worth, I hope to read the book. Jillette is hysterical, very intelligent, and often very insightful. And, based on the review, much of the book sounds wonderful. Despite its premise.

The first part of the premise is this: atheism is more common than we would think. That, actually, doesn't seem very controversial to me. There are probably a lot of nonbelievers who, either because they can't admit it to themselves, or because it's not socially acceptable in their world, don't “come out” as atheists. It's where he defines atheism, and agnosticism, that he loses me:
 “If god (however you perceive him/her/it) told you to kill your child—would you do it? If your answer is no, in my booklet you’re an atheist.” He later qualifies this a bit, asserting that anyone who can’t answer a solid “Yes” to “Does god exist?” is an atheist. Religious specialists, however, tend to be sticklers for precise definitions. Those who don’t know about the existence of god are agnostics. Toward the end Jillette has a few choice words about those who refuse to give a clear answer. Either you believe, or you don’t. Agnosticism is for cowards.
I've read a fair bit of atheist writing these past few years, and I plan to read some more. I find a great deal of what some of them say to be true and compelling. I think I've mentioned before that Letter To A Christian Nation by Sam Harris should be required reading for just about everyone. It states, clearly and cogently, if not always politely, what is wrong with literalist belief.

But, that's exactly the problem—when many of these writers, and it seems that Jillette is included, talk about belief, they're talking about literal belief. About belief in a God who has a personality, is an active agent in our world, responds (or doesn't respond) directly to prayer, talks to people, has moods, and so on. Not believing in that kind of a God does not, automatically, make you an atheist. Or, more to the point, it doesn't make me an atheist, because I most certainly don't believe in that kind of a God, and I am most definitely not an atheist!

For thousands of years, religious thinkers have struggled with God, Struggled to understand what "God" means, who God is, how we know, and so on. Struggled to understand the Bible, even in light of the progress of science. Struggled to articulate a sense of higher meaning which doesn't rely on a Bronze-age image of divinity. From ancient mystics to the great thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries (Buber, Heschel, Kushner and more), the word "God" has been used in so many different ways that one could complain that the word has lost all meaning! What Kushner, for example, believes is radically different from what a Rabbi living 2000 years ago might have believed. But, he still believes.

There are a lot of people in this world who believe in the kind of God which Jillette rejects. But, there are also more than a few who believe in God very differently. There's a lot of space in between literal belief and atheism. A lot.

1 comment:

Jerry said...

Of course many who are atheists are actually in reaction to a conception of God that was force fed them as children. That doesn't mean they do not truly believe that their is no God. But it also may be a reaction to religion itself, rather than belief. There is much to recommend religion, and much to condemn in religion. The balance seems weighted towards evil in the world to many, and they have a lot of data on their side. I find religious association personally rewarding and religious institutions suspect.