Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Monday, February 07, 2011

Because I Must

Well, another year has begun. Another snowy, miserable winter, where I am housebound and introspective. My thoughts turn, disturbingly enough, toward my own mortality. It must be a sign of getting old; you wonder what's at the end of this road. And I begin to ponder just what it is I believe in.

I was raised Catholic, but I don't really consider myself practicing anymore. There's a lot I don't agree with about the Church, even though there is a lot I do like about it. Enough to make me occasionally reach for the Catechism and brush up on my Latin. I guess being Catholic is a little like being a Marine: you never stop being one, on one level or another. And it's pretty much just as tough on you, too. I think if I were were to define my belief system, I would probably call myself a Deist. The idea of the universe as an artifact, constructed by some great craftsman and then set in motion, has some appeal to me. I don't really believe God interferes in our everyday lives; he's GOD; he doesn't need to. Some people I've talked to find Deism a little cold, what with there being no personal connection with God, with God being some distant, detached being who set the cosmos in motion and then just sit back and let it run. But I actually find it oddly comforting. The thought that there IS a cosmic plan, and that every single person, place, or thing in the universe plays a part in it, no matter how large or small, is pleasant. That the universe is unfolding as it should, because it must. That we are all doing God's Will in our own way, because we were created to do just that and can do nothing else. That no matter how chaotic or random the ways of the world seem to us, on some level, from some distant vantage point, it all makes sense. I like that. It gives me comfort in dark times.

I don't consider myself an Atheist. I'm hardly devout anything, but I don't ascribe to Atheist thought. There are a lot of reasons, and I guess most of them are petty. Many self-declared Atheists I've known personally have just not been fun to be around. Smug bastards with chips on their shoulders. Or sympathetic people who've turned from God out of very legitimate feelings anger or grief. CS Lewis once said something to the effect that there is no more devout believer than an Atheist: someone with a personal issue with God, raging effectively at the Heavens they deny even exists. And I do sympathize with people like that. I really do. I wish I knew how to respond to them. And it often makes me wonder if faith is really so fragile. If all it takes is one personal tragedy, one incomprehensible act, one senseless death, to shatter our belief in the Divine. If I'm just an Atheist that hasn't had his faith betrayed yet.

I do have great respect for scientists who declare themselves Atheists, though. Theirs is the world of facts, of things quantifiable, and they accept it is not their place to acknowledge unquantifiables like faith and religion. I respect Richard Dawkins' assertion that, like any scientist, he will change his position on God if presented with proof (though I'm skeptical that he really would if it ever did happen; he seems to like controversy a little too much). And I respect the position of Sir David Attenborough, who simply has seen too many of life's small cruelties in his long career as a naturalist to ever believe there is some benign intelligence behind it all. I respect them, but I don't know how to respond to them. And perhaps it's better that I don't; faith is a personal thing, after all.

I consider morality, then. At its core, morality is simply a set of rules of behavior, of things we should and shouldn't do. Ethics. Values. Traditions. Established and enforced by societies, to maintain order. But is that really all it is? That was where I could never get a satisfying answer in all my debates with my Atheist friends. In the absence of the divine, what is the point of moral behavior? Let's be honest for a moment here: the qualities that we consider virtues - honesty, kindness, diligence - are not often rewarded in this life. In fact they're often punished. We've all been in these situations before. Your reward for being a hard worker is to be given more work. Your reward for being dependable is to be depended upon. It makes us wonder why we bother. Of course, the Atheist side of the debate says that any moral system based solely on fear of punishment is invalid. But we don't do the right thing out of fear of punishment; we do it out of hope of reward. It's not fear of Hell that motivates the Saints; it's desire for Heaven. Or even, in some cases, we do the right thing BECAUSE it's the right thing.

But there's the thing, isn't it? The validity of any moral code depends on there actually being a "right thing." So how do we determine what the "right thing" is? Philosophers have been puzzling over this for untold ages. And no one's really been able to come up with an answer, at least not one that stands the test of time. In the absence of God, in the absence of the Divine, where there is no Heaven or Hell, no reward or punishment beyond this life, then what is "right"? That's a depressing prospect if you ask me. Because then morality is fluid. "Right" and "Wrong" are simply values determined by those in power, to be simply dismissed and replaced when a regime changes or an election occurs. There is no Good; there is only Consensus. There is no Truth; there is only Public Opinion. There is no Justice; there is only Law. And whenever we have a nagging feeling that some law is unjust and should be changed, we're wrong. Actually, we're worse than wrong. We're IRRELEVANT. We're not morally superior, or even morally inferior; we simply hold a minority opinion. In a moral state such as this, the only valid ethical standpoint is a sort of functional sociopathy: we follow the rules to get what we want. That's a dark place to be, and I'd rather not believe that.

Maybe I'm deluding myself. Maybe I'm just clinging to a pie-in-the-sky hope that there must be something better out there. That there must be more to the Human Condition than just a bunch of bald chimps with delusions of grandeur. That there must be some reason why we're here, on this rock adrift in space, and that if we're winked out of existence by any of a thousand cosmic disasters, someone somewhere will remember we were here.

I believe that because I must. I cannot do otherwise.