74. dragons

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I want to talk about Feng Shui, which is something I know very little about . . . Apparently, we need to think about the building being inhabited by dragons and look at it in terms of how a dragon would move around it. So, if a dragon wouldn’t be happy in the house, you have to put a red fish bowl here or a window there. This sounds like complete and utter nonsense . . . there aren’t any dragons, so any theory based on how dragons behave is nonsense.

There are all sorts of things we know how to do, but don’t necessarily know what we do—we just do them. Go back to the issue of how you figure out how a room or a house should be designed and instead of going through all the business of trying to work out the angles and trying to digest which genuine architectural principles . . .  just ask yourself, ‘how would a dragon live here?’

We are used to thinking in terms of organic creatures; an organic creature may consist of an enormous complexity of all sorts of different variables that are beyond our ability to resolve but we know how organic creatures live. We’ve never seen a dragon but we’ve all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, ‘Well if a dragon went through here, he’d get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn’t see that and he’d wave his tail and knock that vase over’. You figure out how the dragon’s going to be happy here and lo and behold! you’ve suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in.

So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there.

— Douglas Adams, impromptu speech delivered at Digital Biota 2, Magdelene College, Cambridge, September 1998


I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking and writing lately about the veracity of Christianity and how it’s mostly a complete crock based on the extreme lack of evidence and support for believing in God (and, if you don’t believe in God, well, the whole rest of religion sort of falls apart around you).

The other night while shelving my books, I was listening to Douglas Adams’ posthumous book, The Salmon of Doubt, a collection of his published and unpublished writings from the nested subfolders of his Macintosh computer. The excerpt from the speech above is from a talk he gave at a science conference titled “Is There an Artificial God?“, which starts off by admitting to being rather cowed at first to be “in a room full of such luminaries,” but after a couple of days realizing that “you’re just a bunch of guys!”

I was particularly struck by those last few paragraphs of the speech, up until which he’d spent the majority of the time building up the case for a God-less world and discussing the definition of “life” (in a Douglas-like roundabout manner); but I guess his words spoke to the part of me that still holds onto belief in God, however irrational it seems at times. I’ll freely admit that there is about as much evidence for God as there is against, although the atheists do seem to have the stronger argument—after all, the invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.

Where does the idea of God come from? Well, I think we have a very skewed point of view on an awful lot of things, but let’s try and see where our point of view comes from.

Imagine an early man surveying his surroundings at the end of a happy day’s tool making. He looks around and he sees a world which pleases him mightily: behind him are mountains with caves in – mountains are great because you can go and hide in the caves and you are out of the rain and the bears can’t get you; in front of him there’s the forest – it’s got nuts and berries and delicious food; there’s a stream going by, which is full of water – water’s delicious to drink, you can float your boats in it and do all sorts of stuff with it; here’s cousin Ug and he’s caught a mammoth – mammoth’s are great, you can eat them, you can wear their coats, you can use their bones to create weapons to catch other mammoths. I mean this is a great world, it’s fantastic.

But our early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, ‘well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in’ and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question which is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says ‘So who made this then?’ Who made this? – you can see why it’s a treacherous question. Early man thinks, ‘Well, because there’s only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male’. And so we have the idea of a god.

Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , ‘If he made it, what did he make it for?’ Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, ‘This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely’ and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.

This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in – an interesting hole I find myself in – fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.

I love the puddle analogy. And he makes a strong point—we have a natural tendency to want to believe in God or a deity of some sort. Try as we might, we never entirely grow up, and the thought of having a “heavenly father” is rather nice. Someone to look out for you and so on.

Lately I’ve been having discussions about God along the lines of, “What does it matter if it’s literally true so long as you believe it?” I think it matters quite a lot, personally. A recent NPR article on Evangelicals questioning belief in a historical Adam and Eve had quotes from two scholars—one is Fazale Rana, vice president of Reasons To Believe, who said that “if the parts of Scripture that you are claiming to be false, in effect, are responsible for creating the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, then you’ve got a problem.”

The article continued with a quote from Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, who said that “without Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul’s description of the Gospel, which is the classic description of the Gospel we have in the New Testament.”

Alternatively, you have Dennis Venema of Trinity Western University saying, “There is nothing to be alarmed about. It’s actually an opportunity to have an increasingly accurate understanding of the world — and from a Christian perspective, that’s an increasingly accurate understanding of how God brought us into existence.”

Nothing to be alarmed about? Even when Paul wrote that “death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come” (Romans 5:14), or “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). This is a literal, non-metaphorical Adam that Paul is talking about.

We could say that, okay, Paul was studied in Jewish theology so his perspective reflects his theology. Of course he assumed Adam and Eve were real. Standards and expectations of scholarship were different back then—they would have never questioned the veracity of the story. The entire Jewish culture was based on it!

Besides—who’s to say that Paul had any more authority than any other early Christian writer (e.g., Augustine, Tertullian, Origen, etc) just because he was the first to tackle theology? Aren’t our attempts at describing God just stabs in the dark anyway? And most every post-first century Christian writer based their theology on the work that Paul did in those early years of the Church.

Okay. What if Adam and Eve are merely metaphors for humanity’s “sinful” condition, and the rest is still true? That Christ came to earth to die and redeem us? After all, we don’t necessarily need a Garden of Eden for people to kill, cheat, lie, steal, etc. However, if there was no Tree of Life and no “original sin” to offend God in the first place, why did Jesus end up on the cross? What was he “saving” us from?

This is where everything starts to fall apart for me. The idea that it could be a fiction and still “true” in the psychological sense is very attractive because it offers you the option of having your proverbial cake and eating it too. Again, of all people I should have the least problem with gleaning “truth” from fiction. But somehow, it just doesn’t add up. You can’t base an entire belief system on what amounts to a fairy story. Either it’s true and it happened, or it isn’t and it’s irrelevant, which pretty much makes the rest of Christianity irrelevant. It just turns into this self-help religion, and there are plenty of those around that do a better job and don’t teach you that you’re a horrible person and God loves you, but unless you believe this, this and this, he’s going to throw you into Hell forever.

Now, as to Adams’ proposal of an “artificial god,” a fiction which has been around for thousands of years because it works as a psychological construct, I’m on board to an extent. Yes, there are tenets and principles of Christianity that are good. Love your neighbor. Do as you would be done to. Don’t steal. Those are good things. And just like the dragons of Feng Shui make complex architectural principles simpler, if believing in God makes your life simpler, then you should believe in God.

I guess what I really don’t like about Christianity is its denigration of both humans and human intellect. It ultimately teaches that you’re a horrible, disgusting person who, for no direct fault of your own, was saddled at birth with this collective guilt that Jesus had to die for 2,000 years ago by being nailed to a tree. What’s so wonderful about that?

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4 thoughts on “74. dragons

  1. David –
    I came here from Mr. Rao’s blog, finding I couldn’t leave a reply to your questions (which are good ones, and I’m happy to reply via email if you so wish…but if they were rhetorical I will skip it). I was also curious about your post, and I am glad I stopped by.

    I’m with you for the most part. While I may disagree with your evaluation of the evidences for/against the faith, or your perspective on Christianity’s portrayal of human dignity, I am in full agreement that Christianity falls apart if the historical claims are false. It is a faith which means little other than self-comfort if, for instance, the resurrection didn’t really happen. Paul says as much in the NT. If Christianity is false, I can think of myriad more appealing philosophies to get me through the day. If it is true, I can think of none better. Truth matters, and when a faith makes factual/historical claims, the veracity of those claims matters.

    Blessings –
    Ron

    • David

      Ron,

      Thank you so much for the comment! And yes, feel free to reply to the questions I posed by email if you wish. I’d be interested to hear your responses. In this case, no question is rhetorical. I’m doing some serious thinking about and pondering of these issues.

      But I greatly appreciate that we agree on the importance of the veracity of truth claims, and thank you for stating it so clearly and eloquently. This is one of the reasons why I think Richard Dawkins’ voice here is one of the more important ones for our time since he too is saying that what we hold as truth really matters. It’s not enough that you believe something; and while it sounds nice to say that Christianity itself may still be valid even though many of the bedrock events (e.g., the Garden of Eden, the Exodus, the whole Old Testament) are mythical, it’s ultimately an untenable position. This is partly why I’d like to hear more from Adam about what he believes about the Bible. Like you said, what’s to say that your story is any more valid or “true” than any other beyond how happy or well-adjusted it makes you? It’s true, or it’s not.

      What you believe about spiritual realities defines your entire worldview, and that has consequences if you follow the chain of logic down to its conclusions. I believe that the universe is largely material, while giving an inch for the possibility that there may be a metaphysical realm that affects the physical world (and Dawkins has said the same, bending over backwards to allow for the possibility of God).

      Looking forward to more conversation.

      [unsure of what the apostatical equivalent of “Blessings” is],
      David

  2. Unless I’m missing it, you don’t have an email link – so if you want my reply feel free to visit my blog and use my email link to send me your address.

    Truth claims are important. God exists or he does not. Jesus lived or he did not. The resurrection happened or it did not. Were any of these statements proven false, I would have to abandon Christianity (and, if the first were proven false, I would have to abandon theism). Those who deny truth are irrational. We can disagree about what truth is, and debate different evidences for a given position – but the starting point has to be agreement that there is in fact a truth we are seeking, then work together to discover it. (Or, believing we’ve discovered it, persuade the one in error).

    Blessings – or regards, or whatever closing salutation you prefer:)

    Ron

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