Preferred Position

I really like Neil deGrasse Tyson.  He’s my kinda scientist and he speaks well.  Please watch the entire video before continuing with my little bit.

Okay, there’s a lot in that with which I agree.  In fact, he gets to my preferred stance on the whole issue, that I would rather not have to deal with the categories and all the rhetorically inevitable garbage that comes with them.  The problem is that most people actually won’t let you do that.

If I am asked honestly about my thoughts on whether or not there is a god, my answer is usually predetermined, not by me but by the person asking the question.  You can pick this up from context, from body language, from tone of voice, from a hundred small cues that accumulate into the preferred position of the asker.  And while there are many permutations, and shades of gray, it usually—not always, but usually—comes down to two formats.

There are those, few though they may be, who are honestly interested in a philosophical discussion.  This is the “how do you see this god question” conversation, which can lead to very interesting and fruitful dialogues and can be immensely enjoyable and even enriching.  These are people who, while they may have a preferred position, aren’t interested in pushing it on anyone, they really want to explore the topic.  One key feature of such people is that they are not threatened by the unorthodox, the heterodox, the outre, the radical.  They want to have a conversation about this admittedly complex topic.

Then there are those who are looking for a reason to pigeonhole and proselytize.  They don’t want to know your ideas, they want to know if you’re With Them or Against Them.

Atheists and Believers fit into this description and I unhesitatingly claim that there is no functional difference between them if this is all they are interested in.  They don’t want a dialogue, they want a chance to tell you how wrong you are, or hold forth on all the idiots who don’t think like them.

I’ll admit right here that I’ve fallen into that paradigm on many an occasion.  There’s no real defense for it, but there are reasons.  I do get tired of certain positions on certain topics and the shortcut to ending the harangue often seems more desirable than any possible benefit that may come out of trying to address the questioner as if he or she belonged to the first group.

Do I believe there is a god?

Depends on what kind of a god you’re asking me to believe in.  But right there you see the potential for a long explanation.  The concept is not reducible to a simple statement of fact, because all gods have been believed in and it is an insult to suggest that such belief automatically meant one set of acolytes was dumber than another.  When belief faded, the god became an artifact of history.  Do I then belief there never was such a god?  Depends on your requirements for a god.

There are many aspects of the proposition with which I can categorically disagree.  But the thing that makes it impossible to dismiss out of hand is Belief.  To me, asking if I believe there is a god has many of the same characteristics of asking if I believe there’s such a thing as an idea.  You can’t see either one, there’s no physical evidence for them other than how they motivate people, it is easy (and done all the time) to say that ideas aren’t real.

It’s in the realm of human action where the problems with both the discussion and the notion of a god pop up, but to my mind that’s a separate issue.  If someone creates a great good—hospitals, art, music, a new way to see—in the name of a god they believe in, it is easy enough to accept that they drew their inspiration from that god and except for some diehard ideologues no one has an issue with the conflation.  No one goes around beating them up for that belief.  If, on the other hand, some one goes around killing, maiming, stirring social ill-will against groups of people because they claim their god wants them to, everyone gets uncomfortable.  The people who may believe in the same god have a problem, atheists use it as an excuse to deny agency, and the zealot feels justified in his or her isolation and martyrdom.  Nothing is solved.  We seem hard put to separate out the issues because inevitably questions are raised as to the nature of belief and the nature of god.

To me, all gods are real and at the same time they are all irrelevant.  They’re real because people believe in them.  They’re irrelevant because I don’t and do not wish to.  And yet the world functions, regardless which position is true.

You want to know where I think god is?  In the dialogue.  Whatever it may be.  God, however you choose to define it, appears in the midst of honest communication.  When someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson talks to us about the stars, the universe, the cosmos, and we listen—there’s god.

When that doesn’t happen, when people don’t communicate—there is no god.

I invite you all to chew on that idea for a while.

Unless you think ideas aren’t real.

Published by Mark Tiedemann