Without God–2

For part 2 I’m going to quote actual parts from Steven Weinberg’s “Without God” Article.

“It is not my purpose here to argue that the decline of religious belief is a good thing (although I think it is), or to try to change anyone’s mind…I want just to offer a few opinions, on the basis of no expertise whatever, for those who have already lost their religious beliefs, or who may be losing them, or fear that they will lose their beliefs, about how it is possible to live without God.” (Emphasis mine.)

When I was an undergraduate I knew a rabbi, Will Herberg, who worried about my lack of religious faith. he warned me that we must worship God, because other wise we would start worshiping each other. He was right about the danger, but I would suggest a different cure: we should get out of the habit of worshiping anything.”

I have to ask if anyone has the cure for worship. Weinberg is right that we are in the habit, but how he proposes to get out of it the essay did not explain. He goes on from here to say that it’s not easy to live without God. That science is rather chilling when it’s a worldview; and that whatever theory “unifies all observed particles and forces, we will never know why it is that that theory describes the real world and not some other thing.” 

What baffles me is that he thinks man can cease to worship. If man can possibly stop paying homage to things or people in some way, if he can stop devoting his time and energy to things whether they are addictions or matters of principle, and if he can cease to hold some things of more importance than any other things (even if that is himself) then maybe he can cease to worship.

But it seems to me that man would have to be reduced to less than a beast before that could ever come about. Perhaps a mad dog worships and submits to nothing, but a mad dog is as good as a dead dog, just with the added danger of infecting others.

For everything else, even birds and beasts recognize the superiority of other creatures, and submit to it. Which is worship in a sense. And I would argue that the kind of servitude dogs and horses and such display is even more like adoration, which is also a kind of worship.

But worship is even more so when it is done with an intellectual consciousness, which only mankind has, and it’s what makes us man. Our minds have to look to something to help soothe and stimulate them, and whatever we look to, we worship.

Tell me how we can stop that and you’ll tell me how to become a god.

Which I suppose is the idea.

I’ll say it’s not easy, it’s downright impossible.

Weinberg goes on:

“We even learn [from science] that the emotions we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet me must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.”

That’s an edge all right. Why not sink into nihilism? What moral grounds are there for not doing this? What rational grounds are there? If chemical reactions create our emotions then our emotions have as much value as a pastry or a lab experiment. Something not meant to last the week often as not. And many people live this way with their emotions, but Weinberg proposes another route:

“What, then, can we do? One thing that helps is humor…just as we laughed with sympathy but not scorn when we see a one-yer-old struggling to stay erect when she takes her first steps, we can feel a sympathetic merriment at ourselves, trying to live balanced on a knife-edge…Then there are the ordinary pleasures of life…Visiting New England in early June, when the rhododendrons and azaleas are blazing away, reminds one how beautiful spring can be. And let’s not dismiss the pleasures of the flesh. We who are not zealots can rejoice that when bread and wine are no longer sacraments, they will still be bread and wine.”

At this point I cease to feel like mocking this man, and I start to pity him. Because I don’t see how any of these things are any real comfort. Spring is lovely; bread and wine are good; the pleasures of the flesh are what are generally turned to when spiritual things have been discounted.

How do any of these things possibly substitute for the inner strength and assurance that only faith has ever and will ever be able to provide for man. Faith not always in God, I’ll grant you, but faith in man itself and in fate and in something bigger than what we can experience on our solitary level. That worship thing coming into play.

Like it or not, that has produced all the best things in human history.

Weinberg seems to be reflecting on this as he goes on to talk about the pleasures of fine art, which he laments will suffer from a decline in religion since so much fine art has been inspired by religion. Though he thinks very great poetry can be written without religion. Using Shakespeare as an example. (I found this hilarious because Shakespeare’s plays, which contain poetry, all have numerous religious themes and references. But his sonnets have less, admittedly.)

“I do not think we have to worry that giving up religion will lead to a moral decline. There are plenty of people without religious faith who live exemplary moral lives (as, for example, me), and though religion has sometimes inspired admirable ethical standards, it has often fostered the most hideous crimes.”

I’ll leave that can of worms for another time, but I don’t think that proves or disproves anything about his point. Evolution and science have done just the same.

The more we reflect on the pleasures of life, the more we miss the greatest consolation that used to be provided by religious belief: the promise that our lives will continue after death, and that in the afterlife we will meet the people we have loved. As religious belief weakens, more and more of us know that after death there is nothing. This is the thing that makes cowards of us all.” 

That’s true enough, if the fear of oblivion can be called cowardly, it seems very natural to me; and He’s right, the pleasure of life have never provided consolation for death. I don’t think Christianity or Judaism or Islam provide much consolation on that account if you want to have the good afterlife without the God, as many people do. But they do have another option. It is necessary to have a hope like that, or else you are indeed on the edge of despair. And nothing in this life will ever change that.

But there is no way to know that there is nothing after death except to die, and that will be too late to change your mind.

The idea that a decline in religion would not lead to a moral decline shows an astounding lack of foresight. This essay is based on an oration given in 2008, so it’s safe to say it was written in the last decade. And moral decline has been in progress since the sixties, right along with a decline in religious belief.

Maybe this virtuous scientist can find a reason to be moral after destroying all sense of purpose that a higher power might give you, but not many of the rest of us can.

Weinberg’s conclusion is this:

“Living without God isn’t easy. But its very difficulty offers one other consolation–that there is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, in facing up to our condition without despair and without wishful thinking–with good humor, but without God.”

Even though I see a kind of nobility in his resolve, if it is sincere, I think it’s silly.

There is no need to rule out God unless you want to do so, and the resulting depression is your own fault. I see no profound solution to the God problem in simply trying to get by without Him and laughing grimly at just how ridiculous that position is.

I suppose my position is biased, but so is his. The question is, which is true? Which makes more sense in real life?

You’ll have to answer that yourselves, until next time–Natasha.

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