Monday, July 27, 2009

Faith, Meaning, and Evidence

It's probably a mistake to post this one. Although it's a long post, it's too short for me to fully explain what I'm trying to say. It used to be even longer, but I cut a bunch of it out. What I've left will probably offend some people or have people telling me I'm going to hell. (Like I don't already know that!) But here it is, anyway:

Every summer I take a couple of days and head east of my home in Atlanta, out Interstate 20. I stop in Columbia, South Carolina, and spend a couple of hours in Papa Jazz, one of my favorite record stores - I always find some great stuff there. From there I head 70 miles northwest to Ora, the little town where my grandfather was born. Ora is hardly a town out all; there is a church, with its old cemetery, an abandoned school, and a few houses - that's about it. Visiting Ora gives me a strange sense of belonging, even though I have never lived there. My grandparents, their parents, and their parents are buried there, and my sister and I scattered some of my mom's ashes there when she died. Visiting this homeplace where I never lived is oddly comforting.

This year I took a detour on the way to Columbia, and visited two spots which seem related to each other somehow. I drove south of Madison, Georgia and visited Rock Eagle, a large, bird-shaped rock mound built somewhere between 1000 and 3000 years ago. There is now an observation tower at the foot of the mound; as you climb, you see the eagle slowly emerge from what just looks like a pile of rocks at ground level. Since history belongs to the winners, the purpose and meaning of the monument haven't survived. But it's likely that it had some religious meaning. It's moving to see this artifact built by unknown people so long ago.

From Rock Eagle I continued south on US 441 until I reached Andalusia, the farm home of Flannery O'Connor, the brilliant Georgia writer who died of lupus in 1964. I have read O'Connor's short stories and novels since I was about 15. Her work is strange and familiar at the same time; I "recognized" many of the characters right away, but her stories are filled with violence and bizarre twists. It took me several years to realize that her work was inspired by her Catholic faith.

Visiting Andalusia was, again, very moving. Since I have read and reread all of O'Connor's fiction, the place seemed somehow familiar and brought certain scenes from her work more into focus. Andalusia was a dairy farm, and peering in the locked, disused milk processing shed, I could almost see Asbury smoking over the objections of the hired hands: "She don't 'low no smoking in here." The tenant farmers' house, which had been the original plantation house in the 19th century, was obviously the home of the Shortleys and all the other hired hands in O'Connor's stories. It was an amazing visit.

Rock Eagle and Andalusia, only about 30 miles apart, seemed connected by mankind's longing to make sense of the universe - a quest that has so often come to rest in religion. Religion has resulted in so many wonderful creations, such as the Rock Eagle mound and the fiction of Flannery O'Connor, but it seems clear to me that religion is a result of man's attempts to impose order on the universe, not any god's revelation to man.

I'm a proponent of David Hume's dictum, "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence." If you want me to believe that I have an eternal soul which will live forever, you'd better have some pretty strong evidence, since that's contrary to what is suggested by even a casual examination of the world. And you can tell me that God will either reward me or torture me forever after I die, but it's going to take more than the fact that you were taught that from childhood to convince me.

I don't think that it's an accident that every religion I've examined puts a lot of emphasis on faith. From what I gather, most people consider faith a good thing; I guess my attitude is not as positive - to me, a concise definition of faith is "believing in that for which there is no evidence." The problem with that is that if you choose to believe something with no evidence, you might as well believe anything. You could choose to believe that a god wants you to sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor or that a god wants you to kill those who follow another religion.

So what do I believe? All the evidence seems to lead to the conclusion that we a short life on earth - and then it's over. I half-jokingly tell people that my basic philosophy comes from the prophet Louis Jordan: "Hey everybody, let's have some fun; 'cause you only live once, and when you're dead, you're done. So let the good times roll!" (Seriously, I don't live [or recommend] the kind of hedonist life that line seems to recommend if you take it at face value. Without moderation, life gets out of balance pretty quickly, and just gets even shorter. But it's a great line!)

I'm not a particularly profound thinker, but here's what I think about the meaning of life: life has no intrinsic meaning. We just are. That doesn't mean that my life or your life can't have meaning. It's just not automatically there, and it's not imposed from outside. The meaning of your life is whatever you decide it is. And for a lot of people, that's religion. And that's okay with me - just don't expect me to take your religion seriously as "truth" or as what my life should mean.

As to what my life means, well, that's where my own irrational faith comes in. I have far too much faith in the strange power of the organized vibration of air molecules. Like Charlie Parker, I'm a devout musician. Those vibrating air molecules have anchored my life for years. There are other anchors, but I won't get into that here.

Okay, that's enough of my half-baked philosophy. Back to regularly scheduled programming.

1 comment:

Kenny said...

Vibrating air molecules? I like that! I've been warned about my irrational faith in and reliance on music at various times in my life. I can understand such concerns intellectually. But there's been a heap of times when nothing or no one else has worked worth a damn. So I strongly doubt I'll ever be in the mood to apologies or otherwise be contrite about any of it, including a gazillion blasted brain cells and tinnitus in my left ear.