29 July 2007

14 July 2007

Odd Preoccupations

Sometime recently I was in the company of someone who, when some attempt at religious classification arose, ostentatiously and insistently called himself an Apathist. I cannot say I much liked his manner, but I did like his term, with its implication that religion is just not a useful enough idea to bother about. If I thought the word had any kind of widespread currency (a perfunctory Google search yielded this, which for all I know was posted by the same eccentric individual who brought the term to my attention in the first place; a link to the place the word would have been in the Free Dictionary if it were in the Free Dictionary, which it is not; and a Manifesto which is "temporarily available, please try again later"), I might just adopt it too. Of course, it would be either dishonest or deluded for an early-twenty-first-century American to claim that religion simply doesn't matter. Even with the feeble, flawed, and fragmentary tools of contemporary social science, I suspect, it would be possible to trace a direct route from the religious beliefs of individual U.S. citizens, through political institutions designed to compress individual ideas into group actions, to the death, dismemberment, and derangement (variously and in combination) of some U.S. citizens and an awful lot of other people in Afghanistan and Iraq. (For example.) But if Apathy is a conviction not that religion has, in fact, no significance, but merely that it should not have significance, then I could be an Apathist.

Feeling that running around trying to demonstrate the nonexistence of God gives Him altogether more weight than He really deserves, I've never taken the trouble to read atheist books. Therefore is it that I am unsure whether atheism really has more to do with an active belief in the absence of deity (which seems a waste of time) or with pointing out the evils of belief in things that probably do not exist (which seems more likely). If there is a set of standard arguments against religious belief, which I suspect there must be, I am unacquainted with it. I did discover recently, however, while driving in circles around the West in the company of the sort of vocal believer who makes it hard to preserve one's antireligious thoughts fuzzily unarticulated, that the distinction between belief about deity and belief about religion is a crucial one.

I do not think, however, I am the only muddle-headed person who has, occasionally or routinely, got these two ideas confused. I have been asked whether I'm really an atheist or just an agnostic, thought for a minute, and said agnostic, by which I meant that I am unwilling to identify the really very extremely unlikely with the absolutely impossible. But if I call myself agnostic, it seems to me, I am taken to regard a religiously-oriented existence as a legitimate way of being, good for those whose boat it floats, feasible even for myself.

This is not the case. I am firmly convinced that it is harmful to people to catch hold of an undemonstrable proposition, embellish and elaborate it, and organize their lives around the idea that it is true. If nothing else, it diverts vast buckets of thinking to irrigating fields of mental tares.

Suppose, for instance, the afternoon sun, lighting a finger of fog that creeps up from the bay.

"Wah!" one might well think, joyful.

"Oh, look, God made it!" one might alternatively think, losing a little bit of the time in which one might be absorbing the view.

And the more substantial one's religious beliefs, the worse it gets, to where one might hardly see the glow of light flowing up the valley from the surface of the water for saying to oneself, "How can one look upon the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and still doubt its creation by a divine Hand? Now how would He have done that, hmm? It has to have been one day about six thousand years ago, which means that there really hasn't been time for those pines over on the other side of the water to have evolved from unicellular organisms, but then, the platypus is really not a very viable sort of organism, so evolution was really not a very good idea in the first place, and I really must remind my kids not to listen to anything any of the other kids at school say to them, cause they might get confused."

Here we get past mere wasting of time to the systematic perversion of people's modes of thought to allow them to maintain a set of ideas at odds with what they see around them.

Of course, religions are not the only elaborate, socially transmitted systems of counterproductive thinking habits, but they are distinctive in that they so easily reduce to a single, simple, dubious core proposition.

Anyway. It was my contention, driving in circles in the West, that religion promoted bad thinking, but I didn't have a concrete example to hand (having slept too ill the previous night to be able to extract much from my memory, much less organize it).

But I happened across a good example today of the sort of mishmash of strained argument and misdirection that can grow out of the desire to maintain (and promote) a religious way of thinking. In this newspaper opinion piece, Michael Gerson very carefully avoids making a claim to the existence of God, on the grounds that "proving God's existence in 750 words or fewer would daunt even Thomas Aquinas." Well. In fact, there's pretty near nothing that can be usefully explicated in 750 words or less. That's why newspaper articles allude to commonly-held assumptions, quote experts, refer to other publications, summarize. That Gerson employs none of these strategies leads me to suspect he does not in fact believe God's existence can be proved, which makes the implication that it could be (if one had more than 750 words) rather dishonest.

Instead of positing the actual existence of God, Gerson says, he's just going to ask about the effect of godlessness on human morality.

It's easy to answer by pointing out the ways in which religious morality undermines itself, as Christopher Hitchens convincingly does in his reply to Gerson. But this does not address the peculiarity of Gerson's basic proposition, that if it would be good for something to be true, it would therefore be both possible and desirable to act, even if in the complete absence of evidence, as if in fact it were.

How can such a very strange idea be so common?

Perhaps if I'd happened across this pair of articles on a Sunday, rather than a Saturday, morning, I would have been the recipient of divine guidance, and all would now be clear.

08 July 2007

Eggs? How so?

This is the way to make fried rice.

You need (in order of appearance):

oil
Sichuan pepper (whole)
meat (sliced)
chili bean sauce
garlic (minced)
ginger (minced)
celery (chopped)
frozen peas
soy sauce
dark vinegar
old rice

What to do:

Put a wok on high heat (a.k.a. a military fire). Make a lake of oil in the bottom of the wok. When the oil has become quite martial, throw in the Sichuan pepper, and then the meat right after. When the meat has turned white, put in a good dollop of chili bean sauce. Stir in garlic and ginger. After a while, when the meat is pretty much cooked through, add the celery and peas. When the peas are thawed, add a little soy sauce and vinegar. Put in the rice, and thump the big chunks to bits. When the rice has separated into grains and absorbed the sauce, serve it up, with beer. Maybe even Japanese beer.

04 July 2007

Telling All, Part 2

I go to the bank to deposit my paycheck.

"Can I help you?" he says.

(Wait a second, thinks I, to myself.)

"Were you at a different branch, a couple of weeks ago?" I ask.

He takes my check and deposit slip. "You go to more than one branch? The Seattle one?"

(Are we not now in Seattle?)

"Yeah . . . I didn't know they moved you back and forth." I note he is working a good bit faster than he did last month.

He puts on a pained look. "Well, they--do you know X?"

(Who? Am I expected to know the people who staff my bank?)

"Uh . . ." I tell him he can print my balance on my receipt.

He runs the receipt through the machine. "He's my uncle, he worked at that branch, so--I couldn't work there."

(Didn't someone realize this before you started?)

"Oh." I take the receipt. "You can give me the cash in quarters."

"That's a lot of quarters!" Thoughtful pause. "Have a nice day!"

"I will. I can wash my clothes now."

He looks deeply perplexed, but after a minute his face clears. "You'll have lots of bus money! You can wash lots of laundry!"

I've revised my opinion. He doesn't spend his lunch hour weeping, he spends it trimming his sandwich with pinking shears, because he's developed the impression that that's what people expect of him.