Thursday, December 11, 2008

Out of Ones Head - the persistence of bullshit.

I had ambled into a second hand store the other day and picked up a copy of Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation" , which I have been flicking through in the idle moments before bed.

And for me, as an atheist, it read as a statement of the obvious. Stuff that, to me at least is so clear as to be boring: God doesnt exist, the Bible is full of contradictions, there is no parity possible between science and religion: One is a truthful and honest way of looking at the world, and the other simply isnt.

But it set me to thinking as I was on my way to work the next day: People like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and all the rest, spend an awful lot of energy trying to show us how ridiculous and self-contradictory religion is. Of course they are correct: The core beleifs of Christianity can be punctured by any reasonably bright 10 Year Old - the interesting thing however is this: Atheists already know this, and religious beleivers are not likely to be convinced by any arguement, however clearly laid out. Ok, but , so what?

Well then it occured to me: Maybe religious beleivers are attracted to religious ideas, not in spite of their ridiculousness, but because of their ridiculousness. Let me explain: There seems to be some inate human desire to transcend rational thought: At times, all human beings try and find ways of not making sense just in order to feel free: Think of that Police Song "Doo-doo-doo-dah-dah-dah.", for example: The Lyrics being about how sometimes, Sting feels like just singing a nonsensical song cause "logic ties me up and rapes me." (I apologise for mentioning Sting in polite company.)

Doesnt this desire find it's way into so many things that human beings do ? (including religious belief). For example, we look at somebody hammered out of their gourd on rotgut booze and think "So sad, why would somebody want to get in that state...talking rubbish, making a fool of himself..." , when really, it's being "out of it" that many of us seek, that's the fun of getting drunk: "Oh man, I was so smashed last night I took a whizz in the tumble dryer."

Or look at most contemporary art: Everybody knows that 99% of it is pure bullshit and makes no sense, yet many of us are transfixed by the idea that the artist may be creating "new ways of speaking or expressing themselves" , and we love this idea and are willing to give millions to people who can embody it.

For all that logic and reason has built the roads and hospitals and schools and democracies that sustain us, most of us want to escape it for some of the time. That seems to be something that people like Sam Harris miss. Their arguments are solid, but they are arguing against people's inate desire for bullshit.

Think of it this way: If Jesus was a matter of historical record: This guy did these things, wrote a book, and died, he would be simply an interesting historical figure. Its precisely because the stories about him are shady, full of conjecture and self-contradiction, and huge parts of it blatantly made up, that it has become something it is possible to be 'religious' about.

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