Monday, August 29, 2011

Atheists in Foxholes: Myth or Fact?

No one laughs at God in a hospital. There are no atheists in foxholes. Or are there?

No matter what beliefs you hold, I hope everyone can appreciate the artistry and beauty of this song, by the amazing Regina Spektor. She has a lot of great music - my other two favourite songs by her are Eet and The Call (from Prince Caspian).

While Laughing With’s quality is indisputable, the lyrics are more controversial. To me, the song's lyrics speak of the potent and ever-present human need for faith, stemming from our powerful and primal fear of the unknown. But I imagine no two people hear the exact same message.

For those who subscribe to some religious faith,
Laughing With carries a powerful message that “everyone believes. There are no atheists in foxholes.” From that point of view, the danger and fear are only wake-up calls reminding people of what is truly important in life.

But the song is equally powerful (if not more so) when heard from a atheist or skeptic’s point of view. Yes, the song literally says that people turn to God in hard times, but in doing so it begs the question: If it takes hard times to turn people toward God, does He truly exist, or are we imagining Him to assuage our own terror?

I'm inclined toward the latter point of view, in part because of my dad, who
underwent a bone marrow transplant a few years ago. Before the transplant he wasn’t a religious man, but in the hospital, when he felt so bad he didn't think he'd live, he prayed. In desperation, he turned to something he believed was a figment of humanity’s collective imagination. Once safe, he laughed about it.

And then there's Terry Pratchett, someone I admire as both an author and a human being. He has never thought highly of religion, asking: “Who would not rather be a rising ape than a falling angel?”

But a few years ago he told the Daily Mail about
“a sudden, distinct feeling I had one hectic day that everything I was doing was right and things were happening as they should. It seemed like the memory of a voice and it came wrapped in its own brief little bubble of tranquillity.” 

Terry Pratchett has one of the finest minds in the world, but thanks to a rare form of early onset Alzheimer's, he is slowly losing it. Although he still writes, he’s in the proverbial hospital or war. He’s gotten the bad news, the doctor’s phone call. And then one day he has this feeling…

Someone inclined toward religion might call it a ‘godlike presence’, but Pratchett is still a humanist. He calls it the universe and says he hasn’t found any sort of god - just maybe the feeling that causes humans to believe in them.
“It's that moment, that brief epiphany when the universe opens up and shows us something, and in that instant we get just a sense of an order greater than Heaven and, as yet at least, beyond the grasp of Stephen Hawking. It doesn't require worship, but, I think, rewards intelligence, observation and enquiring minds.
I don't think I've found God, but I may have seen where gods come from.”
I don’t think religion is a debate that can ever be resolved, not unless we suddenly get gods along the lines of those in fantasy novels - heavily involved and empirically verifiable.

Barring that, I'll continue to count myself with the skeptics. I think so much of organized religion is and always has been about politics and power. True and pure founding tenets are twisted to serve base human purposes.

Having placed my faith in logic and reason, I know it doesn’t make any sense for there to be any sort of god at all. And yet…

I want there to be something, against all logic and probability. I don’t want to die and just disappear. I certainly don’t believe in some sort of next life where you get to be the same person you were on Earth. I just don’t want death to be emptiness.

I accept that in all probability, death is nothing. I understand that my choice stems from primal human fear, not some deep philosophy. But I also know that when faced with death I will pray - to whomever might care to listen. 

Until then, if the joke is funny, I’ll keep laughing.

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