But the atheist’s statement was not simply about the Nobel-winning poet. Had I retorted with the information that I have a wonderful relationship with my tarot card reader, with whom I have sessions every three months or so, or that I know the house placement and sign of Mars in my horoscope and that I have had entire conversations complaining about that placement and sign, or that I am a lapsed atheist who has strayed back into belief and my belief is actually very important to me, his sadness would have spread to all of humanity and our silly, superstitious ways.…And yet the atheists keep on, telling us that we don’t have to believe in God. It maybe never occurred to them that perhaps we want to.…Informing neo-Druids of their falsified lineage is probably not going to do much to sway them, anymore than an advertisement on a bus proclaiming, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” — like the recent campaign that ran on London buses — is not going to do much to sway me. I’ll still be reading my Maud Gonne. In a time of great grief, having lost her son at the age of 1, right around the time Parnell died, she decided to use her will to fight against the current sad circumstances in her life. She began to research how she might reincarnate her dead son back onto the earthly plane. After a night of ritualistic sex on his grave (Yeats reports in his Memoirs, disapprovingly), a daughter was born nine months later. Maud was convinced that Iseult, as she named her daughter, contained the soul of her lost son. Those needs — for solace, for change, for order, for a little magic and irrationality — are not met with the ideals of the Enlightenment, and pretending those needs don’t even exist is not the way to win converts.
Would it surprise you if I said that I have no problem with people falling short of a rigorous standard of perfect rationality? For example, I pretty much agree with what Alan Watts said here:
Indeed, an exponent of the I Ching might give us quite a tough argument about the relative merits of our ways for making important decisions. We feel that we decide rationally because we base our decisions on collecting relevant data about the matter in hand. We do not depend on such irrelevant trifles as the chance tossing of a coin, or the patterns of tea leaves or cracks in a shell. Yet he might ask whether we really know what information is relevant, since our plans are constantly upset by utterly unforeseen incidents. He might ask how we know when we have collected enough information upon which to decide. If we were rigorously “scientific” in collecting information for our decisions, it would take us so long to collect the data that the time for action would have passed long before the work had been completed. So how do we know when we have enough? Does the information itself tell us that it is enough? On the contrary, we go through the motions of gathering the necessary information in a rational way, and then, because of a hunch, or just because we are tired of thinking, or because the time has come to decide, we act. He would ask whether this is not depending just as much on “irrelevant trifles” as if we had been casting the yarrow stalks.In other words, the “rigorously scientific” method of predicting the future can be applied only in special cases – where prompt action is not urgent, where the factors involved are largely mechanical, or in circumstances so restricted as to be trivial. By far the greater part of our important decisions depend on “hunch” – in other words, upon the “peripheral vision” of the mind. Thus the reliability of our decisions rests ultimately upon our ability to “feel” the situation, upon the degree to which this “peripheral vision” has been developed.Every exponent of the I Ching knows this. He knows that the book itself does not contain an exact science, but rather a useful tool which will work for him if he has a good “intuition”, or if, as he would say, he is “in the Tao”. Thus one does not consult the oracle without proper preparation, without going quietly and meticulously through the prescribed rituals in order to bring the mind into that calm state where the intuition is felt to act more effectively.
I think it may have been John Gray who used the metaphor of conscious awareness being like a penlight being used to scan a darkened warehouse full of information. Point taken. There should always be consideration granted to the “peripheral vision of the mind”. There may be something to your intuition whether or not you have a coherent articulation of it. Much of what grabs our attention or motivates our action never rises to the level of being officially noticed or labeled. But this strawman atheism that says we’re not allowed to enjoy music, art, literature, love or a feeling of the sublime in nature without being able to reduce it to its constituent atoms and define it in terms of chemical reactions is a little tiring. Who actually claims this? Would someone please point out the one brainy, obnoxious, newly-minted teenage atheist who delights in taking an empirical hammer to everyone’s metaphysical fine china so we can all join together in solidarity and go kick the supercilious shit out of him and be done with it already?
You know, I don’t think any of my offline friends are atheists. Most are what I call spiritual-not-religious. Some are into alternative healing and therapies, some are buffet-style spiritual dabblers, and some are what I think of as quantum mystics. Most of them have subtly imputed arrogance to me if they haven’t outright accused me of it. I’m fairly sure they think my worldview is bleak, sad, empty, or lacking in joy, imagination and creativity. If anyone ought to be complaining about slings and arrows, you’d think it would be people like me.
But I love ’em all the same. I don’t take our differences there any more seriously than I would if they were fans of different fútbol teams. It’s something fun to argue about, but once the contest is over, there are more important things in life, and more significant contexts in which our beliefs may manifest themselves besides that of an official statement of dogma and principles. Why is my confidence unruffled by being the odd one out? Why am I not so defensive and thin-skinned about what they think of my lack of metaphysical beliefs?
I’m starting to wonder if it’s because I have a sharper distinction drawn between objective truth and aesthetic truth. Objective truth about the world is pretty bleak and disheartening. You have to lead a sheltered life or a willfully blinkered one to avoid facing up to the unimaginable suffering that has always permeated it; the countless lives of people just like you, with just as much a feeling of importance and a desire to live, who died suddenly, terribly and anonymously without having fulfilled anything like what we think of as purpose. Aesthetic truth – at least in the sense that I define it – ameliorates that to a large degree, allows us to get on with our lives as if they matter. The optimistic prospects for Liverpool Football Club next season, the writings of my favorite authors, the new music on the horizon, the love of my girlfriend; they all give my life meaning in a way that couldn’t necessarily be justified to anyone skeptical of them. None of them offset the fact that my ultimate destination is a crematorium, but they sure make the journey there a lot more pleasant. You either get it or you don’t. It doesn’t diminish my profound enjoyment of Nietzsche’s writing if a friend thinks he’s too bombastic, shrill and offensive. Why should it diminish their woo-woo beliefs if I point out that, strictly speaking, your personality is not conditioned by the position of stars in the sky at the time of your birth, that the nurse in the delivery room exerts more of a gravitational pull on you than the distant planets, and that paying careful attention to the specific details and circumstances of your individual life might perhaps serve you better than scrutinizing playing cards associated with a grab-bag of vague generalizations about human nature?
At the heart of it, most of us don’t think much of ignorance, willful delusion or cowardice in others and certainly don’t want to be thought of as possessing any of those traits ourselves. The problem seems to be, it’s hard to claim honest belief in most religions or spiritual beliefs without harboring at least one of them. It would be one thing if people were clear on the fact that they’re only using tarot cards, say, as a convenient means of enabling lateral thinking, but if they haven’t clearly distinguished between “the way the world is” and “the way I feel and act within it”, the hurt feelings are probably going to continue.