Monday, 10 September 2012

The Agnostic Argument - 5 (On Being Nothing)

Theists and atheists are more alike than they may imagine. The key point on which both agree is humility. Theists emphasise the insignificance of man before God. Atheists emphasise the insignificance of man, period. Same difference?

A recent article in the New York Times expresses the angst of a person painfully aware of his insignificance. Brian Jay Stanley, in "On Being Nothing", expresses the sentiment excellently. 

I know that the world only tramples me as a street crowd does an earthworm — not out of malice or stupidity, but because no one sees it. Thus my pain is not to feel wrongly slighted, but to feel rightly slighted.

Couldn't have put it better myself.

I was brought up in a fairly religious environment. The South India of my childhood was unquestioningly religious. And humility before God was constantly emphasised. We were not to be vain, for God teaches a lesson to vain people and shows them, in The Joker's words, "how pathetic their attempts to control things really are".

I won't rehash the whole story of the Divine Plan and how God does everything for the good. Never mind the contradiction over free will and the divine plan. Religion has never succeeded in convincing me either way about whether I do have free will. [For that matter, the purely materialistic view of the mind as nothing more than the atoms of the physical brain call the notion of free will into question just as effectively.] And the whole vexing question about why bad things happen to good people required this elaborate theory of karma that just fundamentally seems unfair. It explains, but does not satisfy. We (human society, that is) let criminals off lightly if they suffer from amnesia and cannot remember the crimes they committed. And we're not even divine. Why would a "perfect" cosmic system insist on making us reap the fruit of seeds none of us remembers sowing? And this system is supposed to be fair and worthy of admiration?

During my youth, I remember feeling contempt for the karma theory but also feeling a bit powerless. I think I must have felt at the time that it was real but unfair. Now I can see that it's just another fairytale. The Dharmic religions have a more sophisticated fairytale with cyclical time and cyclical lives than the linear Abrahamic religions, but that doesn't make their fairytale any more "true".

I've since discovered a far simpler and more elegant explanation than karma for why bad things happen to good people, and it can be expressed in just two words: "Sh*t happens."

A theist friend of mine persisted, "But why does sh*t happen?"

And that, I believe, is the root of the problem - searching for meaning where there is none. We humans cannot accept a situation devoid of meaning. More than happiness, it is meaning we seek from life. Even a model of existence where no event has meaning is a model that provides meaning.

That in fact is the model I prefer. Atheists (and agnostics) are convinced there is no divine reason for their being born, that there is no inherent purpose to their continued existence, no meaning to the events that occur in their lives, and that they will with utter finality cease to exist once they die. Accepting an atheistic view of life is humbling, not arrogant, as the theists wrongly claim. And it also brings an odd peace. There's no pressure to be anything special because there's nobody to disappoint.

And Stanley in his New York Times article arrives at a similar peace.

There must be a Copernican revolution of the self. Instead of pointlessly cursing the sun to go around me, my chance of contentment is learning to orbit, being the world’s audience instead of demanding the world be mine.

With deep irony then, amen. It is such a relief to be nothing and nobody.

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