Monday, January 16, 2012

Are You a Believer?

A few months back a coworker asked me if I was a believer. She, of course, was referring to God. I told her that, no, I really do not believe in anything. She was sort of taken aback by my statement. I think she assumed I was an atheist. I really didn't have the time, or the ability to explain myself clearly and coherently without pulling out a copy of "If They Give you Lined Paper Write Sideways." Plus, her husband is trying to survive late stage brain cancer, so I wouldn't even try. But I will post the excerpt out of Lined Paper here for anyone that is ever faced with the belief in God question. And typing it out might help me some day come up with an answer that I can put in my own words.

Elaine. Of course...I have a question of my own. It's probably been asked many times.

Daniel. Go ahead.

Elaine. We've been talking about living in the hands of the gods.

Daniel. Yes?

Elaine. But you never make it quiet clear whether you BELIEVE in these gods, or any god.

Daniel. When Ishmael talk about the gods...Let me start that a different way. The subject of Ishmael is the unrecognized and unacknowledged mythology of our culture, which Ishmael formulates as a story that spells out the relationships among Man, the world, and the gods. In this context the gods are mythological, which is not to say that they're unreal but rather that their reality is irrelevant. The world was made for Man to conquer and rule, and Man was made to conquer and rule it--according to our mythology. It goes without saying that this is a divinely appointed mission. The Europeans who drove the Indians off their lands and put that land to the plow sincerely believed they were doing God's work.

Elaine. Yes, I understand that. But I don't see how it answers my question.

Danie. Which is, do I believe in God.

Elaine. Yes, I guess so.

Daniel. Being a Martian anthropologist, I have to pull back from your question, have to take off the blinders you're asking me to wear. Believing in things that may not exist--or disbelieving in things that MAY exist--is a peculiarity of your culture, not a universal human activity. Because it's universal among you, you assume it's universal among humans in general.

Elaine. That's true. It never occurred to me that it might not be universal among humans.

Daniel. You variously believe in God, though God may not exist, or you disbelieve in God, though God may exist. You variously believe in angels, though angels may not exist, or you disbelieve in angels, though angels may exist. You variously believe in extraterrestrial spacecraft that have the world under surveillance, though these spacecraft may not exist, or disbelieve in them, though they may exist. You variously believe in ghosts, though ghosts may not exist, or you dibelieve in ghosts, though ghosts may exist.

Elaine. Yes, that's all true.

Daniel. Tell me, do you believe in supermodels?

Elaine[laughing]. Supermodels? I don't BELIEVE in them. That isn't the word I would use.

Daniel. For you, the existence of supermodels doesn't require you to exercise the faculty of belief.

Elaine. That's true. Though I've never thought of belief as a faculty.

Daniel. Oh it definitely is. It's the faculty you must call upon in the face of the absurd. As William of Occam put it, Credo quia absurdum: "I believe because it is absurd." A thing whose reality doesn't seem to you absurd doesn't require belief.

Elaine. Yes, I suppose that's true. But the existence of God doesn't strike me as absurd.

Daniel. It's absurd in the sense that no one can produce even the slightest evidence of God's existence. They can produce PROOFS, but these are only valid if you accept the premises on which they're based. If you don't accept those premises, then they're just empty exercises in logic.

Elaine. I suppose I'm dimly aware that such things exist.

Daniel. Another faculty exists that is a kind of cousin of the faculty of belief. This is the faculty that comes into play with regard to supermodels. You PEOPLE THE WORLD with supermodels. Fifty years ago there were no supermodels, but in the last few decades you have peopled your world with them. A hundred years ago there were no movie stars, but since then you've peopled your world with hundreds of them. Europe in the Middle Ages was peopled with saints.

Elaine. Yes, I see what you mean.

Daniel. The Gebusi of New Guinea consort with spirits on a daily basis. Their world is peopled with spirits, and if you were to ask them if they believe in spirits, they would react just the way you did when I asked if you believe in supermodels... But to return to your original question, I have to say the faculty of belief has completely atrophied in me. It strikes me as foolish to believe in things that may not exist -- or to deny the existence of things that may exist. Nonetheless, I've peopled my own personal universe with gods who have a care for all living things. I don't pray to these gods or build shrines to them or expect favors from them or perform rituals for them. Nor do I expect other people to 'believe' in these gods or to people their own universes with them.

Elaine. I understand. This resolves a question that was very much on my mind--and is probably on the minds of many of your readers.

Daniel. What question is that?

Elaine. I imagine a great many of your readers consider you a nonbeliever.

Daniel. I assume you mean a nonbeliever in the Judeo-Christian God.

Elaine. In any kind of god.

Daniel. I'm afraid I don't know whether that's true or not. But I'm not sure why this is relevant. Or what question I've resolved for you.

Elaine. You've explained how it was possible for you to write a book like "Tales of Adam," in which the gods figure so prominently.

Daniel. Yes...?

Elaine. Some readers must wonder if you were writing from the heart or if it was just a sort of...poetic re-creation of the animist worldview.

Daniel. Someone might imagine that I'd merely adopted an animist persona--a false or alien persona--for literary purposes, as James Hogg did in writing his "Confessions of a Justified Sinner."

Elaine. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with that.

Daniel. It's a classic that enjoys a sort of cult status. To write it, Hogg had to adopt a persona diametrically opposed to his own, that of an extreme predestinarian, one who believes that one's salvation or damnation was ordained unalterably by God from the beginning of time. Believing himself to be of the elect, regardless of any sin he might commit, the narrator considered himself "justified" even as he murdered his brother, his mother, and others, and allowed others to be hanged for his crimes. The book, Written in the early 1820s, decades ahead of its time, was received with scorn and fell into obscurity until being redicovered by authors like Robert Louis Stevenson and Andre Gide...In any case, you can be sure that the Tales were definitely written "from my heart," to use your phrase.

Elaine. I didn't doubt it.

Daniel. So...Where are we? I take it we've disposed of the question of my personal beliefs.

Elaine. Yes. ( pages 48-53, If They Give You Lined Paper Write Sideways)

1 comment:

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