20 November 2011

The Only Way Is Ethics

The story so far: I'm still attempting to twist my worldview around by 180 degrees or so, to accommodate a great big absence of God.

Since a couple of readers have been startled at the speed of my volte-face from "christian" to "atheist", I should probably clarify what I mean by the latter.

I no longer see any reason to believe in God. That doesn't mean there isn't a God (or even that there's no reason to believe in one, since obviously I'm not infallible), but -- given the depth of thought I've applied to the area over the past two decades -- it seems to me to mean there's no God who's relevant to me. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but Occam's Razor suggests that the null hypothesis should always be preferred in cases of ambiguity.

I see no reason to believe in God; therefore I don't believe in God; therefore I'm calling myself an atheist. Although I'm claiming no certainty in the matter, using the term agnostic would, in my view, just be pussyfooting around. (In a sense, and I accept that this bit isn't strictly rational, I feel as if I've given God enough benefit of the doubt already.)

That said, I don't like the label much. It defines a philosophy by an absence, and tacitly in opposition to an assumed norm, which is never a brilliant start. I might call myself a humanist instead, if I didn't find the British Humanist Association so irritating. Mind you, I claimed that label when I was a christian too, so maybe I'd be better off keeping it.

The alteration I'm finding most difficult to adjust to is, at this point, the absence of objective truth. I'm not talking about observable fact and the system of scientific knowledge which has been empirically constructed upon it, which is a separate epistemological category. Alpha Centauri may very well be 4.37 light years away, and I'm very happy to accept that as true based on the centuries of astronomical observation which underpin it... but really, it's not fundamental to my world. The figure could be discovered to be wrong by, ooh, anything up to about 20% and I'd still approach questions about human life and its place in the universe in much the same way.

Up to now I've been in the habit, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, of thinking in the face of a complex moral, philosophical or metaphysical issue, "Well, this is what I think, and I think I have good reasons for it, but we'll probably never know the truth -- only God knows that." In the absence of that final clause, the penultimate one breaks down -- if there's no God, then I've no basis for believing that there is a "truth", at least pertaining to any concept or phenomenon not resolutely physical.

Is Shakespeare really better than Marlowe? God knows. Do mathematics reflect a fundamental reality, or are they just a human construct? God knows. Do human beings have "free will" in any real sense? God knows.

Is murder always wrong? God knows.

That phrase used to be a reassuring one. Now it's just rhetoric. It turns out -- and I've always known that this was a standard atheist point of view, but suddenly to be living it is a horrible body-blow -- that there are no absolute truths. We make our own, as best we can, from the materials available, and if ours don't agree with someone else's... well, one may be better than the other according to certain criteria, and if we accept those criteria we may wish to adjust our own views accordingly, but there's no real question of one person being objectively right and the other wrong.

When you believe there are such "rights" and "wrongs", even if they're essentially unknowable in this lifetime[1], simply thinking they're there in the mind of God makes a radical difference to how you approach this whole business of thinking.

For the moment, until I have a proper framework to hang all this on, I have to accept provisionally that: 1. Attempting to follow a system of ethics is a valuable habit, certainly for society and possibly also for the individual; 2. Present-day liberal Western society, into which I happen by sheer fluke to have been born, has on the whole made pretty good assumptions about what make for worthwhile values.

If this sounds pretty feeble, well, yes. I'm working on it.

In fact, I don't think many of my previous values were directly derived from my faith, although I've tried with varying levels of success to claim that they were. My pacifism and vegetarianism always needed some fancy footwork, for instance, and it seems to me that there's a sounder foundation in humanism for justifying the view that murder is always wrong, than in what's necessarily an idiosyncratic interpretation of christianity.

All of this is a work in progress, obviously. Next time I may discuss why I still think Richard Dawkins is an utter tool.

[1] I say "in this lifetime" because this idea rather coloured my view of the afterlife. I saw Heaven as much as anything as a place where the unknown became knowable, all truths were laid before us for our contemplation, and where I could watch the future history of humanity unfolding on fast-forward like the greatest SF epic ever filmed. I bloody miss that.

08 November 2011


I've dithered about posting this. What I have to say here is a very big deal for me. I think, though, that it needs to be said.

When I was nineteen, I had a religious experience. Two, in fact, one a few weeks after the other. The second was in a church, but this wasn’t directly relevant as the first was on a beach. Both involved an intense appreciation of the beauty of the created world (a particularly fine sunset, a woman’s singing voice) which opened up into a transcendent sense of joy, in which I had a profound sense of the Creator who’d worked the beauty I was observing.

It’s fair to say that this pair of experiences was fundamental in maintaining my Christian faith over the following couple of decades. As I came to understand the Bible as an assorted collection of disparate ancient texts whose context we could only attempt to reconstruct; as I became fascinated by other faiths and the alternative truths they represented; as I came to realise that much of traditional Christianity, at least as popularly understood by my contemporaries, was anathema to me; as I became embroiled in more and more discussions with atheists who insisted that faith was a delusion, a self-deception, a complete denial of reason and science, I had this to hang on to: I know God. God must exist, because it’s something I’ve experienced for myself.

I derived a theology based on that premise which was rational and satisfying, at least to me: a theology which acknowledged the many reasons for not believing, but combined them with my certain knowledge that God did exist. It was liberal, allowing the inner light of individual conscience to dispel the shadows of biblical and traditional authority. It was apophatic, maintaining that language, logical propositions and the like simply didn’t apply to God because they were invented to describe the created world. It was pluralist, accepting truths from all faiths while privileging Jesus’s interpretation of the divine truth.

It was -- I’m still convinced, given the premises I was working from -- quite rational.

I understood, of course, that there might be sound biochemical or neurological explanations for those foundational experiences which had no need to invoke the divine. I felt that to accept these would be... I’d have to use the word unfaithful: it would be untrue to the quality of the experience, disloyal to the Person with whom I felt the experience had placed me in contact. Having experienced that transcendence, attributing it to a glitch in my brain chemistry would have felt simply dishonest.

What changed my mind (and here I’m doubly outing myself, compounding my newfound atheism with an admission of mental illness) was my experience of clinical depression. In a diffuse way this is something I’ve suffered from, in retrospect, for my entire life since puberty, and perhaps earlier; but it was the total disruption of all my established habits and coping strategies following the birth of my son which brought it out into the open. It’s a hellish condition, blotting out all happiness and love from life for days or weeks at a time.

I want to be clear about one thing. This isn’t one of those anti-testimonials that runs ‘I believed in God, but then he didn’t help me in my personal tragedy, so I gave up on him’. I wasn’t the kind of naïve, arrogant Christian who cheerily assumes the Problem of Pain doesn’t apply to them, and is gobsmacked to discover that suddenly it does. (There are solutions to the Problem which strike me as intellectually satisfying, and solutions which strike me as emotionally satisfying, but I’ve never seen one which managed to be both. Nonetheless, I didn’t assume that my satisfaction was the most important criterion, or -- given the whole apophatic issue -- that the ‘true’ solution was susceptible to being understood in human terms.)

For a couple of years as I suffered from depression, I integrated it smoothly into my Christian faith -- not in any special way as ‘my cross to bear’, but on what seemed to me the obvious basis that shit happens, I’m bloody lucky I don’t live in Darfur, and this is still a world in which God exists.

Then one day, I wondered what it would take for my depression actually to destroy my faith. And almost at once I came to the conclusion that the only way it could do that would be to make me disbelieve in the reality of those experiences of transcendent joy, back in my teens.

This was followed, seconds later, by the realisation that depression is a state of transcendent misery, every bit as all-encompassing and world-obscuring as those fleeting crises of euphoria. And if I could believe -- as I do, of course -- that my depression came from my aberrant brain-chemistry, how could I any longer deny that those earlier experiences could have arisen the same way, in the strange turmoil of my late teens?

If I had never, in fact, been in contact with the divine, if that sense of transcendence had in fact been a neurological artefact, then all my theology was built on a false foundation, and the many perfectly sensible arguments that God was not a necessary proposition to hold to would have to come powerfully into effect.

One solution, of course, would have been immediately to ascribe depression to the Devil. But Satan had never had a place in my theology, and I couldn’t seriously consider introducing him merely in order that I could go on believing in God.

I’d always maintained that faith is not an irrational phenomenon; that it can be as sensible and sane a philosophy as any secular one; that fear of death, desire for reward and punishment, and submission to authority were not among my reasons for belief; that the desire to believe, no matter that I felt it, was not sufficient reason to believe; and that if I ever became convinced through reason that my faith was invalid, I would abandon it.

It lasted twenty years.

But it would be dishonest -- it would be unfaithful to the truth as I perceive it -- to cling on to it any longer.

I have more to say about the consequences of this, about how my thinking has been and will be affected by this, about the kind of atheist I intend to be, and the kind I intend never to become -- and, perhaps, about the kind of Christian I might conceivably still be. But this is long enough to be getting on with, I think.

Margaret Drabble

Well, it's been three months. Unless you comment and let me know otherwise, I'll assume you've missed me.

I'm still working, when I get potential writing time, on this novel project, and on an exciting side-project which may well get a proper announcement sometime soon. This (and paid work, and childcare, and sleep) leave little time for blogging, so I've missed posting here for quite a while. Significant events since 7 August include my son's second birthay and my mumbleth.

The caffeine withdrawal went fine. I'm now eating chocolate (in modest quantities) again, drinking one or two cups of proper tea a day, and subsisting mostly on Twining's sweet fennel and orange, mango and cinnamon herbal blends. Both of which are actually rather decent.

There's some stuff I want to blog soon, and hope I get the time to. Meanwhile, this idea's been in my head for a little while, and it's too long for Twitter. So I've written it up as a drabble:
     ‘We think the killer started with children,’ says the Special Branch officer. ‘Then worked his way up to MPs, and eventually a Minister. Those two lads at the Bullingdon Club were his halfway house.’
     He shifts awkwardly. ‘There’s no other pattern. The two Labour MPs had shared an office and were friends, but there’s nothing special to connect them to poor Mr Major.’ He swallows. ‘The fact is, ma’am, we can’t even guarantee your safety.’
     The Prime Minister inclines her head and gives him a chilly smile. ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘I think I’m safe enough for now, Inspector, thank you.’