“I think, therefore I am.” Descartes famously tried to find some basis for knowledge that was beyond all doubt, and settled on that as his foundation. Yet, as Buddhist writers among others have pointed out, he still fucked it up by taking for granted the existence of the self, the greatest illusion of all, the one most in need of doubt. Wikipedia puts it slightly more generously, saying, “Initially, Descartes arrives at only a single principle: thought exists. Thought cannot be separated from me, therefore, I exist.” Of course, he should have taken that last step and realized that he himself did not, could not exist in a vacuum, therefore everything else exists too.
The properties of a thing are effects on other “things”:
if one removes other “things”, then a thing has no properties,
i.e., there is no thing without other things,
i.e., there is no “thing-in-itself”.
I’ve been thinking lately about the inadequacy and pointlessness of atheism.
Now that I have your attention, haha! — no, I’m mostly kidding. I haven’t suddenly become a devotee of Zeus, Ra or Jeebus. I just mean that I’ve come to think that arguing about the existence or lack thereof of God, as fun and stimulating as that can be, misses the real point: the ego, the sense of independent selfhood. It’s kind of common now to hear people quip about how God was created in man’s image rather than the other way around, but they don’t often seem to grasp the true import of that statement.
I’ve often explained my decision to identify as an atheist rather than, say, an agnostic on the grounds that when the majority of people, especially in a majority Christian nation, ask if you believe in God, they are not asking if you believe in a Deist Supreme Architect, a Gnostic Logos, or some other similarly abstract, bloodless rational construction. They are asking if you believe in the personal, loving, bipolar, father-figure god, the one who rewards you and smites your enemies, the one who holds out the promise of reunion in the afterlife with all your loved ones, and since it seems ridiculously obvious that such a being is a projection of human vanity upon the universe, I feel perfectly comfortable saying no, I’m certain nothing like that exists.
The thing is, rather than promptly getting sidetracked in hair-splitting discussions of how such a being could possibly exist and for what reasons and in what circumstances, I think it would be far more relevant to stick to the original point: it’s not about Him, it’s all about you.
Most of us know that repressing thoughts and urges only strengthens them. Likewise, arguing and wrestling with egoistic delusions only reinforces the ego. All of our babbling about God boils down to one question: What’s in it for me? Pretending to see evidence of such an anthropomorphic being reassures you that your own existence is meaningful. You might fear the thought of being judged for your actions and found wanting, yet it’s still more comforting to believe that your thoughts and actions are so tremendously important as to require consideration and judgment at all. And whether there is/could be/might be such a being, it really doesn’t matter, seeing as how there’s no abiding, permanent essence to your existence that will ever be around to find out:
To have become a person means to have emerged contingently from a matrix of genetic, psychological, social and cultural conditions. You are neither reducible to one or all of them, nor separate from them. While a person is more than a DNA code, a psychological profile and a social and cultural background, he or she cannot be understood apart from such factors. You are unique not because you possess an essential metaphysical quality that differs from the essential metaphysical quality of everyone else, but because you have emerged from a unique and unrepeatable set of conditions.
It seems to me it would be a lot easier to make this concept understood to people than to waste time debating the existence of God. Anything you could point to in an attempt to define some irreducible essence of “you”, any quality about yourself, whether physical, mental or emotional, is a compound phenomenon contingent upon others for its existence. “Soul” and “spirit” are nothing more than useful metaphors.
Your body is a product of your parents’ DNA (and that of all your earlier relatives), and its continued existence relies, at the very least, on a regular supply of air, food and water. You probably wouldn’t include “oxygen” in a definition of what it means to be you, but it’s impossible to talk about any human being existing in an environment without it.
The language you speak, which shapes and communicates the sorts of thoughts you have, is a cultural work-in-progress, stretching back over thousands of years at least, with contributions from countless people. The ideas you have, the beliefs you hold, the mental qualities that you consider to form such an important aspect of who you are, were pieced together over time and expressed by many different people, adapted to many different situations. You may find a clever way to apply certain ideas, beliefs or insights to your particular experience, but the basic themes were laid down long ago.
Your thoughts and feelings emerge from the interplay between your brain and sensory organs. They are not going to float around in the atmosphere or out in space after your death, waiting for a new host organism to attach themselves to. Any God that mattered would have to make himself known in the here and now, because your death will be the end of your opportunity to know anything about him, as your component atoms dissolve back into the endless flow of life itself from which they arose.
One who denies the permanent essence of self — what should be the word for that?