Tuesday, May 4, 2010

If There is No Real God, How About an Artificial One?

First Published at Blog Critics on May 4, 2010

We need at least to conduct ourselves as though there were one.

Judeo-Christian religion in the United States is far from dead, but other religions are increasingly viable. In addition to Radical Islam ("eighty percent of the prisoners who 'find faith' in prison convert to Islam,"  generally of the radical kind), Leftism, Multiculturalism, Progressivism and the like seem pervasive. Even the Church of Global Warming, while modestly weakened, remains sufficiently vibrant that absolution may yet be had by buying dispensations. Mere ideologies perhaps, aside from Radical Islam, but their adherents bring religious passion to their dogmas and consider it churlish, if not criminal, to question them. While the Judeo-Christian religions remain vibrant, the others seem not only indignant but overtly hostile; there is at least a chance that they will prevail, if not soon then eventually. As suggested below, that would be unfortunate.

Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and other neat stuff, died in 2001. Although his memorial service was held at the Anglican St. Martin in the Fields Church, he had described himself as a "radical atheist" in order not to be confused with mere Agnostics. Adams did not "believe" in God, nor did he "believe" that there is no God. He was "convinced" that there is no God, and that is rather different. Like Adams, I don't "believe" one way or the other; unlike Adams, I am not "convinced" that there is no God and consider myself an Agnostic rather than an Atheist. I am also partially color blind and can't distinguish various color shades. I understand that most others can do so and I act on the assumption that the various shades exist. I accept that my sensory perceptions as to such matters may be inferior to theirs and also that there is no cure; stuck is stuck. Somewhat analogously, other people may have superior ability to sense the divine than I do; so be it  There is nothing I can do about that either; again, stuck is stuck. Although in some ways I behave as though they may be right, just "going along to get along" wouldn't work because belief cannot be faked; there is also the problem that there are very many divergent perceptions of the divine. It seems unlikely that all of them are right but it is quite possible that all of them are wrong.

In a 1998 speech, Adams propounded a fascinating question, "Is There an Artificial God?" He suggested that there is and cited an example from Bali.

Now, rice is an incredibly efficient food and you can grow an awful lot in a relatively small space, but it's hugely labour intensive and requires a lot of very, very precise co-operation amongst the people there, particularly when you have a large population on a small island needing to bring its harvest in. People now looking at the way in which rice agriculture works in Bali are rather puzzled by it because it is intensely religious. The society of Bali is such that religion permeates every single aspect of it and everybody in that culture is very, very carefully defined in terms of who they are, what their status is and what their role in life is. It's all defined by the church; they have very peculiar calendars and a very peculiar set of customs and rituals, which are precisely defined and, oddly enough, they are fantastically good at being very, very productive with their rice harvest. In the 70s, people came in and noticed that the rice harvest was determined by the temple calendar. It seemed to be totally nonsensical, so they said, 'Get rid of all this, we can help you make your rice harvest much, much more productive than even you're, very successfully, doing at the moment. Use these pesticides, use this calendar, do this, that and the other'. So they started and for two or three years the rice production went up enormously, but the whole predator/prey/pest balance went completely out of kilter. Very shortly, the rice harvest plummeted again and the Balinese said, 'Screw it, we're going back to the temple calendar!' and they reinstated what was there before and it all worked again absolutely perfectly. It's all very well to say that basing the rice harvest on something as irrational and meaningless as a religion is stupid - they should be able to work it out more logically than that, but they might just as well say to us, 'Your culture and society works on the basis of money and that's a fiction, so why don't you get rid of it and just co-operate with each other' - we know it's not going to work!
So, there is a sense in which we build meta-systems above ourselves to fill in the space that we previously populated with an entity that was supposed to be the intentional designer. . . and create one and then allow ourselves to behave as if there was one, all sorts of things begin to happen that otherwise wouldn't happen.

Let's assume for purposes of argument that Adams was correct. Then comes the tricky bit: what sort of artificial God should there be and how should we go about behaving as though He exists and cares about what we do and don't do? Egocentric to raise such questions? Perhaps, but if an actual God made us and is "good," He surely included a healthy dose of ego as well as lots of less desirable attributes. If He exists, I hope that he will not be much offended by the process.

For devout Christians and Jews, these questions probably needn't be answered; their beliefs suffice. Adherents to Radical Islam, the "religion of peace," probably don't need to answer them either, but it might be useful for all of us if, while taking qat breaks from suicide bombings, honor killings and beheadings, they were to give some thought to the matter.

Since Christians long ago ceased burning witches and heretics at the stake and now generally abjure the killing of Jews for having crucified Jesus and thereby kick-starting Christianity, the God of the New Testament might be a good model for an artificial God. The United States, like the rice farmers in Bali, did pretty well until He was shoved to the side by multiculturalism and became decreasingly relevant to the behavior of modern American society. Multiculturalism is not a very propitious God.

Here is what I make of it all. We should act on the assumption that the United States' Judeo-Christian heritage is good rather than bad, that it merits our determined defense and that there are objective standards of right and wrong. Like the rice farmers in Bali, some of us may not know exactly where the standards came from or why, and there is less than unanimous agreement at the periphery as to what they are. Still, I think we can agree that the basics do exist, that they work and that we ignore them at our national peril. It strikes me as plausible that the basic moral teachings of traditional religions which succeeded over the centuries did so because their basic principles worked and were grounded in the nature of man. A variation on a principal teaching of Christianity, the Golden Rule, was articulated by Socrates and many others long before Jesus came on the scene, and if generally observed, it works. The concept of individual charity toward those less fortunate has roots at least as deep, and it would be a good thing if there were enough of it for the government to curtail its own politically directed, profligate and often socially disastrous efforts. My frame of reference, lest there be any doubt, is countries which, like the United States, have their roots in the Judeo-Christian religion but don't enforce an official state religion. Other countries might fare better than at present under such an Artificial God, but I lack sufficient familiarity with them to offer even remotely useful suggestions.

There must be tolerance toward those who disagree, within limits: those who wish to celebrate Saturnalia, or nothing at all, rather than Christmas, for example. That seems very unlikely to harm others and they should be free to do as they wish; that tolerance must be reciprocated if it is to persist. For example, those who wish their non-belief to be tolerated must learn to tolerate such things as Christmas trees, Easter bunnies and the public display of the Ten Commandments. I understand that in some communities, Jews work overtime during Christian holidays so that Christians can be free of secular obligations; I also understand that in some communities this kindness is reciprocated. Those who consider abortion an abomination per se should act in accordance with their views; however, they should not force others, on pain of criminal prosecution or private violence, to adhere to those views; neither should they be required to support, financially or otherwise, abortion or those who advocate abortion.

Kipling's In the Neolithic Age offers some useful insights.There, he essentially channeled a tribal singer from the Neolithic age, who recounted how he had murdered a rival who didn't approve of his songs and a "mammothistic etcher" whose art he didn't care for, because he knew his own work was right and theirs was wrong. His totem saw the shame, and in a vision of the night appeared to him, commenting that "there are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right." Then, the silence closed upon him and he awoke in a modern age, once again a poet.

Still the world is wondrous large,--seven seas from marge to marge,--
And it holds a vast of various kinds of man;
And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu,
And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.

Here's my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
And the reindeer roamed where Paris roars to-night: —
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And — every — single — one — of — them — is — right!
We are in danger of forfeiting much that heretofore made the United States what many of us wish she still were. If the descent is to be halted or possibly even reversed, we had better be careful. Mark Steyn recently wrote,
Every time I retail the latest indignity imposed upon the "citizen" by some or other Continental apparatchik, I receive e-mails from the heartland pointing out, with much reference to the Second Amendment, that it couldn’t happen here because Americans aren’t Euro-weenies. But nor were Euro-weenies once upon a time. Hayek . . . wrote with an immigrant’s eye on the Britain of 1944:
the virtues which are held less and less in esteem and which consequently become rarer are precisely those on which the British people justly prided themselves and in which they were generally agreed to excel. The virtues . . . were independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility, the successful reliance on voluntary activity, noninterference with one’s neighbor and tolerance of the different and queer, respect for custom and tradition, and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.
Two-thirds of a century on, almost every item on the list has been abandoned. . . [T]he reflex response now to almost any passing inconvenience is to demand the government "do something," the cost to individual liberty be damned. . . As Europe demonstrates, a determined state can change the character of a people in the space of a generation or two. Look at what the Great Society did to the black family and imagine it applied to the general population: That’s what happened in Britain.
Regardless of whether there is an actual God and regardless of our views on the matter, we should behave as though there were one of the sort on whom our fundamental national character has long been based. Failure to do so has already led the United States down the road toward oblivion, and this process must be reversed. Whether that can or will happen remains to be seen, but with the resurgence of popular support for the basic principles upon which the nation was founded, there is reason for optimism.

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