Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Why Would He?

It never fails: I get an article almost done and something comes in to completely throw me off. Oh well. This time it was another comment, by one who calls himself (or herself) "Rational Baha'i". I love it. It is good to be reminded that there is no one group that has a monopoly on rationality. But more on that later. For now, I'll just sort of paste in the rest of the article I had previously gotten ready for posting today:

As I mentioned recently, I want to address a fairly simple point that someone made in a comment here just the other day. He calls himself "Rational Atheist", and said, "Why do you think I'm reading a religious blog in the first place? All faiths have positive aspects which I wish to explore as I contemplate life, the universe, and everything."

Now before I go on, let me just say that I have no problem with anyone calling themselves that, or describing themselves in that way. After all, is it any different than someone calling themselves a Christian? Or a Baha'i? Personally, I don't think so. These are all just labels, and, really, don't say much about how we actually live, or what we do.

Now I realize that some people may disagree with me, but please, hear me out. Just because I call myself a Baha'i doesn't mean that I am actually living up to the ideals of the Baha'i Faith (although I try). As 'Abdu'l-Baha is reported to have said when asked what is a Baha'i, "It makes no difference whether you have ever heard of Bahá'u'lláh or not, the man who lives the life according to the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh is already a Bahá'í. On the other hand a man may call himself a Bahá'í for fifty years and if he does not live the life he is not a Bahá'í. An ugly man may call himself handsome, but he deceives no one..."

So let's put the labels aside for a moment and see what we can learn from this.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from the book Illusions, by Richard Bach. The Messiah figure in the book says something profound, and the main character asks, "Isn't that from the Peanuts?" The response, which makes so much sense to me, is that we take truth where we find it.

And that, of course, leads me back to Rational Atheist. He is contemplating "life, the universe, and everything", to which the answer is not, I presume, 42. (Yes, I've read Doug Adams, too.) (And knew better than to try and talk to him when it was raining.) (If you don't know, don't ask. It's not worth it.)

When making this contemplation, we should be searching everywhere for whatever grains of truth we can find. It is as Baha'u'llah says in the Valley of Search: One must judge of search by the standard of the Majnun of Love. It is related that one day they came upon Majnun sifting the dust, and his tears flowing down. They said, "What doest thou?" He said, "I seek for Layli." They cried, "Alas for thee! Layli is of pure spirit, and thou seekest her in the dust!" He said, "I seek her everywhere; haply somewhere I shall find her."

We must also remember "The steed of this Valley is patience; without patience the wayfarer on this journey will reach nowhere and attain no goal."

And so I ask, on his behalf, why would a self-proclaimed atheist be reading a religious blog? Because he is ardently searching for truth wherever he can.

It's funny, you know. Every religious blog I have seen has at least one atheist following it. Why? Because they are rational and striving to pick out the bits of truth that they can.

There are many of faith who take offense when these atheists raise questions that are quite reasonable. I'm not sure how many times I have read letters that are variations of "This blog is only for those who believe." Now I'm very grateful that this has never happened here, nor do I expect it, but it has happened elsewhere.

And this also leads me to another question: Who truly believes in God?

Many of us say that we do, but do we really? I would venture to say that what most of us really believe in is a figment of our own imagination. (I can hear the alarm bells going off already.)

Baha'u'llah, Himself, said, "And if I attempt to describe Thee by glorifying the oneness of Thy Being, I soon realize that such a conception is but a notion which mine own fancy hath woven, and that Thou hast ever been immeasurably exalted above the vain imaginations which the hearts of men have devised." He goes on, in the same passage, to say, "Whoso claimeth to have known Thee hath, by virtue of such a claim, testified to his own ignorance..." Pretty powerful words for One Who is the Messenger. If He claims that He is unable to Know God, who am I to think that I do?

No. It seems to me that my own understanding of God is no better than that of an atheist. Or maybe it is not even as good. After all, the atheist knows what God is not. Most atheists I know are merely rejecting other people's notion of what they think God is. And you know, I generally reject their notion, too. I have never met anyone who has a definition of God that I can agree with. And I'm certain that they would disagree with mine. No problem there. I just don't argue about it, because I know we're both wrong, or at least, incomplete.

When I see these two comments (I'm now adding to my previous writing), and their chosen noms de plume (what do you call it on the net? Noms de touche?), I think that it doesn't matter if they are Baha'i or atheist. What is important is that they are rational. They are truly considering what is before them and weighing it within their own ability. And my hat is off to them, both of them.

I can find no better way to end this than to use the quote that Rational Baha'i used in his comment: "If we are lovers of the light we adore it in whatever lamp it may become manifest but if we love the lamp itself and the light is transferred to another lamp we will neither accept nor sanction it."


  1. Ok, just spent an hour on a question for you and I lost it trying to post. Ops Ack!
    About using metaphor. Is the light from one lamp the same as another lamp?
    What if you are blind and stubbling and you heat the warmth of a lamp. You do not love the lamp, but for that moment you cherish it deeply.
    Day, Months, Years go by and the lamp is constantly knocked to the ground. You begin to run in fear to save the light that you would gladly share with others if able to.
    Then you feel the warmth from a new source. How quickly would someone put down the first lamp and blindly reach out to the new source of heat? - KG

  2. Your statement: "It's funny, you know. Every religious blog I have seen has at least one atheist following it. Why? Because they are rational and striving to pick out the bits of truth that they can." strikes a chord, in that we all pick out the 'good' bits of whatever faith we follow, and it's refreshing that you acknowledge that fact, rather than the knee-jerk, dogmatic reaction of many, who stipulate that morals stem from some holy book or another. One of the most common statements made of atheists, usually by fundamentalists, is that we have "no morals" because, in their opinion "morals derive from scripture". The fact that they're not carrying out all the scriptural commandments: stoning those who work on the sabbath, burning witches, etc.; seems to escape them, and if you point it out, they start rambling about allegory and interpretation. But if one is picking and choosing from scripture, by what criteria does one choose? They can only be internal criteria, based on factors such as upbringing, experience, state of mind, etc. To atheists, this is the proof that moral behaviour stems from within. It's been my observation that, generally, atheists have a more rigid, but less strict, moral code than most theists. That is to say, an atheist doesn't sweat all the petty little 'sins' dreamed up by various clergy, taking a rational stance on issues such as abortion, sex, drugs, and rock & roll; while adhering more strictly to his or her rationally determined code of ethics.

    I wouldn't say that I 'know what god is not', rather: I know that god is not. While I don't disagree with your general assessment, in my particular case, I am one of the rare people that truly rates a 0 on the scale of belief. I can understand why there are, or might once have been, evolutionary advantages to the inclusion of genetic traits and instincts that can subsequently be hijacked by religion, such as [more or less] blind obedience to parents and elders; Knowing this, and seeing how, historically, every major religion has been corrupted by money and power, and then furthermore, comparing science's 'track-record' versus religion's, in questions of verifiable data, I see no need for a god, nor how god can be an explanation for anything. As Carl Sagan once said (from 'Cosmos'; as well as memory serves): "The Babylonian god Marduk and the Greek god Zeus were both lord of the gods, master of the skies. But in their other attributes they were quite different; One might decide that one of them was just made up by the priests. But if one, why not both?"

    I stand in awe of the cosmos as revealed by science, and the practitioners thereof, like Carl, (nothing and nobody keep his non-existent soul.) To me, science and its methods provide all the answers I need, and much more reliably: If somebody answers a question by studying it, pondering it, and then answering with an admission that they may be dead wrong, but they did their best to work it out, and they're willing to keep looking for a better answer, I believe them; Somebody who asserts an 'absolute truth' which actually doesn't explain anything, with no evidence, and who will brook no argument, I believe to be a pompous, arrogant windbag.

    You, Sir, are NOT a pompous, arrogant windbag. Tip o' the hat right back at you!

  3. Geeze. I wish most Baha'is were as open as you. Whenever I try to ask rational questions that critique the writings of the Baha'i Faith, all I receive are circular arguments and that devilish word called "faith". Throw some quotes in there and bam -- Baha'i apologetics.

    It is difficult to debate logically with most Baha'is. It is nice that you see some worth in questioning everything and searching for truth. Many Baha'is don't take the "Independent Investigation of Truth" concept to heart and just treat it like a lingo term for Seekers or something.

    Perhaps I have just dealt with several dogmatic Baha'is who take the Writings far too literally. Who knows. I shall continue to question despite this :).

  4. Me again.

    First, I'm a lady.
    (Or rather, my sex is female. I don't think anyone who knows me would call me a "lady".)

    Second, I just wanted to say that what you wrote about labels is so true. When someone tells you "I'm a Christian" or "I'm an atheist" or "I'm a deist" or whatever, not only does that not give any information as to what sort of person they are, it doesn't even really give a whole lot of information on their beliefs!

    I think atheism best illustrates this point - agnostic atheists, gnostic atheists, militant atheists, humanists, free-thinkers, the list goes on. I know atheists who are 100% certain that there is no God, and reject anything that is not backed up by scientific evidence as a "fairy tale" (which I think is kind of illogical, actually. As a rational Baha'i, I definitely support using scientific evidence as a basis for belief, but 300 years ago I could have told someone that matter can be broken down to electrons, and they would have said "There's no evidence to support that. Therefore, what you say is a fairy tale, and is totally 100% not true."), and I know atheists who believe in a spiritual realm, or life after death. So the label "atheist" doesn't provide much information.

    One more thing: back in high school, an atheist friend of mine once proclaimed that I must also be an atheist, despite my claim that I believed in a "God". I had mentioned that saying something like "God is" is inherently illogical, because as soon as you say that, it's like you're bringing God to the level of material existence, within this Universe, which is contradictory and can't be true.

    Anyways, good post once again, Mead. And to Rational Atheist, wonderful insights into atheism and morality. Good without God, more power to you.

  5. Labels can be a dangerous thing. Between rational adults, they can serve as a starting point which establishes only our most basic beliefs, as our Lady Rational Baha'i states; but as Richard Dawkins is fond of pointing out, they can be a horrible thing applied to the young. If it weren't for the application of religious pigeonholing, many long-standing conflicts would have been solved long ago, as the opposing sects would have intermingled and learned to tolerate each other. The labelling of children, and their segregation into different schools (which often actively fuel intolerance,) based only on their parents' superstitions, only serves to perpetuate and widen the gaps between people who otherwise have everything in common.

    Science and its methods have changed, and will continue to change as progress is made and better methods evolve. Truly, a few hundred years ago, there was no evidence to support what we now know about atomic structure, but even then there were scientists thinking about such topics, and trying to find evidence thereof. The concept of the atom dates back to Democritus in ancient Greece. Had you approached the right person 300 years ago, you might have been pleasantly surprised.

    Science is practiced by people with the same foibles, biases, pride and ambitions as others, and certainly there were, and still are, practitioners of science who dogmatically cling to failing, or failed, theories (Fred Hoyle defending the steady-state cosmology comes to mind as a recent example,) and also some shameful suppressions (the Velikovsky hypothesis), and not a few hoaxes (Piltdown man). Most honest scientists are a tad cagy and conservative, not wanting to get caught participating in pseudo-science, so desiring some evidence to start with would not be that surprising. When I was young, SETI was considered a field for crackpots, and only the very bravest researchers would risk their careers on it; I was told by my 7th grade science teacher that we would never be able to detect planets around other stars, or image atoms directly, which was true with the contemporary technology. Now, we've found hundreds of extrasolar planets, seen atoms wiggling with brownian motion, and SETI is a burgeoning international community. Most scientists have learned that a total lack of evidence does not imply impossibility; It is evidence to the contrary which disproves a hypothesis.

    For most of history, it has been maintained that some god or other created the world and all living things, intervened in the weather and environment, answered our prayers and punished the wicked. The evidence for this theory is contained in a pile of mutually contradictory books which are copies of translations of copies of translations of original stories, all written down centuries after the tales they relate. Heck, they aren't even sure who shot JFK a mere 50 years ago, so I, and most atheists, and any scientist worth the title, consider this to be a total lack of evidence. As I said above, though, this isn't the only thing considered: Now we include the fact that all the abilities and accomplishments attributed to god have been (almost) completely explained by simpler theorems which are demonstrably verifiable and repeatable, and the balance of evidence is radically in favour of science, so much so that the scientific explanations are considered as fact. There are gaps in our knowledge, to be sure, but there is no reason to suppose that those gaps will not be eventually filled.