Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

Another of my gurus died this week.

I first encountered Nathaniel Branden long ago when I was a shy, introverted young man of questionable self-esteem. Initially I found him a bit off-putting. Like most of the followers of Ayn Rand, Nathaniel was (at that time) a dogmatic Objectivist with no room to even enter into discussions with people like me – we who want to wrestle with hard questions like the existence of God; the possibility that not everything about individualism is good; the possibility that there is something to be learned from Kant or Rousseau no matter how much we disagree with – perhaps even detest – them; or the idea that dogmatic, doctrinal,, rationalism is not necessarily any better than dogmatic, doctrinal religion. The evidence of the senses and the finitude of Aristotelian logic were, in early Objectivism, incontestable. And Nathaniel was the great teacher with the great aversion to even speaking about other possibilities.

I once told Nathaniel that I was a practicing reform Jew because I felt it was to only way to preserve the culture and civilization of the Jewish people. I asked him if there was a way to compartmentalize and to live a rational life while still saying prayers and practicing rituals. He told me that it would never work and that if I wanted to have high self-esteem I need to live consistently not in perpetual contradiction. Of course, you know, he’s right. But, Judaism is important to me and if keeping our culture alive forces me to live with contradictions, I’ll accept that. Long ago Nathaniel would chastise me for saying that and even in these last years he would not agree with it. But, by the end, he would no longer refuse to admit that I’m a good person even with my imperfect application of reason.

When I say that, what I mean is that over the years, Nathaniel shed his dogmatism, became willing to enter dialog with all sorts of people (evening going so far as to befriend Ken Wilbur, who could not be a more opposite thinker), and learned the power of benevolence and spontaneity. That is why I like Nathaniel more than almost any other Objectivist I know.

Nathaniel was part of Ayn Rand’s “Collective”. He and Ms. Rand had a sexual relationship and split entirely when their affair ended inharmoniously in the late 60’s. After that, all “official” Objectivists were required to denounce him, Evidently Ms. Rand did not leave all of her Soviet history behind! Still, the break was a good thing and eventually Nathaniel became an extremely successful writer on human psychology, and the pioneer of the “self-esteem” movement.

It is Nathaniel’s work in Los Angeles that brought me to revere him. Although he remained an Objectivist to the end of his life, he was more of a pragmatic “doer” than he was a philosopher. Nathaniel never gave up devotion to even a single Objectivist virtue. What he did give up was that dogmatic devotion to Ms. Rand. He could have remained in the class of Randian rationalists who viewed Objectivism as a closed system. But, no. Like other more open-minded Objectivists such as David Kelley, Nathaniel came to accept diversity, to have a willingness to discuss even what he did not agree with, and most profoundly, to realize that objective happiness could include spontaneous joy, benevolence for the pure sake of benevolence, and kindness unhinged from self-edification.

From his early beginnings with Ms. Rand, to his death this week at the age of 84, Nathaniel grew and matured. Ultimately being a man who I personally view as “Atlas Matured”.

Rest in peace, Dr. Branden!

By tradition a Jew begins every day with the two words “modeh ani“. Basically  this means “I acknowledge and thank God for giving me the gift of life once again today”. Fundamentally, the Jewish notion of gratitude; even in the midst of obstacles, problems, and difficulties; is intended to make life more bearable in the face of so much we don’t understand. Gratitude breeds optimism. Optimism (which I am well known to often lack myself – but not for lack of trying) makes life easier. The question is to whom we should be grateful and the most obvious answer may well be “God”. This would lead to the conclusion that, without God, there can be no gratitude. But wait

Does Judaism really teach that you can only be grateful to God? If we consider the possibility that everything is part of God, sure. But, that’s a recursive argument because if God is everything, then being grateful to God is just being grateful to everything. Where’s the incremental value to God in that proposition? So let’s set that argument aside and look at another Jewish idea. The great Mussar Rabbi, Eliyahu Lopian (1872 – 1970), is said to have once been chatting with a student after prayers. Simultaneously, he was folding his tallit. The tallit was one of those big Orthodox ones so R. Elyah had to set it on a table to fold it. After he had folded up his tallit. the Rabbi noticed that the table was dirty so he went out to get a towel to clean it off. The student noticed what Reb Elyah was doing and started to go get him the towel. Reb Elyah stopped him. “No! No! No! Wait, please!, he said, I must clean it myself. I must show my gratitude to the table for being here for me.” In other words, we can be grateful just because; we should show gratitude to everything from which we benefit. Not gratitude to God; just gratitude… period.

So what would happen if we just set God aside for a moment? Well, let’s see what some well known atheists have to say. First, I LOVE this quote from Richard Dawkins:

“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings.”

That is an interesting take on living, but only partially on gratitude. In a quote that I’m not as enamored with, but which makes my point, Dawkins speaks directly to the issue. He says this:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die, because they are never going to be born. The number of people who could be here in my place outnumbers the sand grains of Sahara. If you think about all the different ways our genes could be permuted, you and I are quite grotesquely lucky to be here: the number of events that had to happen in order for you to exist, in order for me to exist. We are privileged to be alive and we should make the most of our time on this world.”

Essentially, Dawkins is saying that even in a Godless, atheistic, worldview there is room for gratitude. Why? Because in a universe of randomness there is much more of a chance that any one of us as an individual would never have existed at all. Why should we be grateful? Because we EXIST! And to whom? Well…. I don’t know…. maybe Brownian motion, maybe 1/f randomness, maybe white noise. But that random nothingness is not necessarily depressing or nihilistic  It can be wonderful… because out of random variation came ME! What kind of wonderful chance was there of THAT!

I’m not saying that I side with Dawkins. What I am saying is that you don’t need a Christ, or a Muhammad, or a Buddha, or a Shiva, or an Adonai, or any particular Godhead to feel grateful. Gratitude is a wonderful thing for everyone. Gratitude breeds optimism, which breeds happiness, no matter what religion you have or don’t have.

In my particular case, there are lots of things for which I’m thankful today. Number one is my unconditionally loving and supportive wife, Patt. This is a great example of how gratitude can come from any worldview. If I am with Patt because God brought us together, cool! I’m a happy guy. But… If it just happened by randomness, I’m cool with that too because, in that case, out of random variation came US! What kind of wonderful chance was there of THAT!

Another cause for gratitude this Thanksgiving is that I’ve been given the chance to go back to work for Grass Valley, a company I really love. God? Maybe. Seems like Brownian motion to me. But, I’ll chose to just think it was a perfect fit and those guys are lucky as hell to have me back 🙂 I could go on, and there are many more things I could think of from this past year. But since this is my year of reading Proust, and since those other things generally involve the people in my life, I’ll take a moment to share what Proust has to say about gratitude:

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” 

That is a beautiful way to express gratitude for friends. But, I’ll end with something I’ve said before because this is an àpropos way to close. Whether or not you believe in God, take to heart what one of my guru’s, Bob Nozick, has said – because this is a perfect expression of why one’s heart may feel gratitude, with or without a religious receiver. Take this into your heart and soul:

“It is a privilege to be part of the ongoing realm of existing things and processes… we identify with the totality and, in the calmness this brings, feel solidarity with all of our comrades in existing” — Robert Nozick (1989) 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today, on his Radio Program “Focal Point”, the spokesman for the American Family Association, Bryan Fischer, said that gays and lesbians are a risk to US security.  Mr. Fischer twists a tiny bit of research into such a knot that it becomes both devoid of context and intrinsically nonsensical to make it seem that anyone who does not conform of his idea of sexually “correct” is inherently mentally ill. But, why should this surprise us when Mr. Fischer is also the nut who said that repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is “treasonous” because it leaves us with “with a military comprised of nothing but sexual deviants.” But let’s leave the stupid, irrational blabber aside so that we can look at some of Mr. Fischer’s even stupider, irrational blabber.

What could be stupider than to say that gays are intrinsically mentally ill? Well…. how about this:

“… to me it would not be a loving thing for God to say to Christopher Hitchens ‘you spent your entire life defying me, you’re still defying me. You died in defiance; you still are in defiance as you stand before me. You don’t want anything to do with me. You don’t want anything to do with my son. You don’t want anything to do with my Gospel. You don’t want anything to do with the word of God. You don’t want anything to do with other people that are followers of me.’ It would not be a loving thing to compel someone like Christopher Hitchens to spend the rest of eternity in a place that he hated; a place that he does not want to be; a place that he has no desire to be; a place that he has spent all of his life resisting, condemning, avoiding, refusing to embrace. To me, that’s not love, that would be a form of cruelty.”

But, wait. There is no context here. If I stop now, I’ll be accused of some stupid, irrational blabber of my own since I too will be dismissing context. So, I won’t stop. I’ll offer the requisite context.

The extended quotation I just provided was a summary of Mr. Fischer’s contention that “if the Scriptures mean anything” then Christopher Hitchens is now in Hell; and he’s there because God LOVES’s him“. First, Mr. Fischer, the “Scriptures” in your sentence means nothing more than “YOUR interpretation of the Christian scriptures”. The whole book you call the “old testament” is the “Hebrew Bible”, which never discusses “Hell” because “Hell” is a Christian concept. We Jews love the miracle of humanity too much to even have a concept of “Hell”. So it’s not “The” Scriptures. It’s your interpretation of scripture. But that is not what disgusts me about the line of “reasoning” (or shall we call it. “anti-reasoning”) you offer.

What I detest is your definition of “love”. If you define the word “love” to mean “allowing someone to be forever tortured in a mythical land of eternal torment” then you don’t define the word the way any dictionary does. You can’t just take a word and change its meaning to suit yourself. You have taken the word “love” and turned it into the word ‘hate”. That is not how language works. You see, you are not describing a loving, benevolent Being. You are describing a hateful one. And, here’s the rub: God is not the purveyor of hate. YOU are. You teach hatred toward gays (12/19/11); you teach hatred toward Mormons and Muslims (12/7/11); you teach hatred toward people who use words you dislike (11/29/11); you teach hatred toward Liberals (10/31/11); and now you are teaching hatred toward atheism, reason, intellectual honesty, and integrity in attacking Christopher Hitchens even as we mourn his death.

The best I can tell, Mr. Fischer, is that, if you are the representative of the American Family Association, then they should re-name themselves the “American Hatred Association”. Or maybe not. Maybe I can just do what you do with the word “love”. I can just change the word “Family” to mean “Hatred” and we’ll be all done!

Here are some examples of the kind and compassionate comments that were posted on the FOX News Facebook page after Blair Scott, Communications Director for American Atheists, appeared on FOX News a while back. These are taken from from the American Atheists website but I first found them on Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” Blog.

I’m not an atheist and atheism is not my point. My point is that these same people would walk into a church and say that others should ask the question “What would Jesus do?” And… advocating shooting the people you don’t agree with is NOT what Jesus would do. (Of course, I’m no expert, but that New Testament book sure does spin him as a bit more tolerant than these guys).

I also want to be clear in saying that I don’t think this represents Christianity. Most people I interact with every day are Christian and even the fundamentalists with whom I most disagree would find this appalling. Not only that but I’ll also acknowledge that we Jews have our wackos too, and Islam has theirs. So, this is certainly not a “Christian-thing”. But it is certainly sad to see these comments from people who would say that they understand “God’s love”. THAT just kills me.

So, check these out:

I guess the point that I really want to make is this: If we don’t learn to live for tolerance, to preach tolerance, to teach tolerance, and to love our neighbors with tolerance, then the world will just continue to deteriorate until people like this have enough power to destroy the American vision of equality and acceptance. This represents a small (but arguably growing) minority. Still, it is a horror and it does represent a segment of the American psyche. It’s bad and it must stop if the human race plans to continue.

And… what about having tolerance for people like those who have posted these comments? Well… I suppose there are limits to everything – because, I don’t.