February 24, 2008

On Michael Dowd and Gods in Small Boxes

The title of this entry was supposed to be provisional, but I can't come up with a good one so it will have to do.

I haven't been quiet about my objections to theisms and it's not exactly a secret that I have no use for evangelists and martyrs. People who spend their time trying to filter reality through belief based on some scriptural interpretation bore me on my best days and annoy me on those days when my patience is a little thin. Still, I've been hearing here and there about Michael Dowd, and while I don't agree with everything he says, some of it is interesting enough that I have to admit a certain respect for him. I haven't read his books and probably won't — I don't have the time. My reading list these days is mainly scientific material. The next book not in that category is Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason. Nonetheless, a few things that Dowd is quoted as saying in an article in yesterday's San Diego Union-Tribune caught my eye. They resonate strongly with me for reasons I'll discuss after reproducing some pertinent bits from the article.

Science meets belief as couple put evolution in a sacred context

“Imagine a realm of nothingness,” says Dowd, invoking an image of the beginning of time. “God is the essence of that everything. Everything that emerges is not emerging outside of God, but within God..."

“We're suggesting that a science-based understanding of the universe gives us a more grounded way of being..."

When one man asked him where religion fits into this, Dowd spoke of how knowing that God is in the midst of all that is evolving inspires him to be a better person, to be filled with awe and appreciation, and to be a more responsible member of planet Earth.

“We're organically related to the whole,” he says...
Again, I think Dowd goes off the track here and there, but some of what he's saying looks to me like it comes from someone who is on the edge of a certain sort of breakthrough. Some of it also looks like someone holding back from reaching a conclusion that's inevitable if one is honest with oneself about what the idea that "God is the essence of that everything." There's another step to make, I think. What Dowd is saying when he makes statements like these reminds me a great deal of what Ramakrishna said when he declared that "She herself has become all things" in reference to the divine and the profane. Ramakrishna was an interesting fellow; he questioned religious concepts and frequently found himself in trouble for committing transgressive acts, like feeding a cat in a temple. I'm sure that many of the objections that Dowd gets are similar to the sorts of charges that were leveled against Ramakrishna in his day.

So, why am I writing about this, then? Here's the point of it. Dowd has to make one more big step to get to the real end of his arguments and then he'll be right where Ramakrishna got to in a Hindu context in terms of his thoughts on the divine. That is, if the essence of everything is God (to use Dowd's milieu; what exactly we call this "essence" doesn't really matter), then there isn't anything that isn't divine. Or, to put it as a friend once summed up for me as he and I were discussing Tantra, if everything is sacred, then nothing is sacred.

A useful lie for those who need themIf that's the case, then what use is religion at all? If everything is this "sacred stuff" merely poured into different molds, then why is one thing worthy of worship and some other thing not worthy? How would one go about distinguishing things using sacredness as a criterion? Arriving at that point, the whole game becomes nothing more than a charade based on personal preferences, an exercise in bias and of no good use at all. The criterion itself has to be abandoned and some other valuation chosen; I don't believe for a second that we humans are set up to be absolutely neutral about everything and become detached from the world as some religious philosophies maintain. We could spend hours arguing, as Hindu Tantric sects have done for centuries, whether perfect liberation can be attained in this life or only after death or what have you, but the very act of arguing about things that can't be demonstrated is just as indicative of attachment as anything else. For that matter, that I'm writing this right now and bothering to explain anything about Dowd or Ramakrishna or myself shows that I place a priority on something. The whole "enlightenment" game is, I think, a waste of time unless one is looking for handouts from the faithful. The same goes, and perhaps even moreso, for the idea that there's some deity floating through the heavens on a cloud for which some special class of people can act as intermediaries for we "imperfect" humans or that we can choose to accept or reject on an immediate, personal basis. Christianity, Hinduism, Bahai and Scientology are all equally scams in this regard because they all demand some sort of transformation and all start from the basis that we should be something that we aren't to begin with, that there's some particular worthwhile goal that requires that we make ourselves over in some other image. I get the sense from Dowd that he still clings to such notions here and there.

I don't come to this lightly. I went through a rather tortuous path myself. This probably sounds very strange coming from me; in matters of religion, I tend to side with the atheist crowd and I do so because that position is a lot closer to my own than any religion or self-styled spirituality. It's better to reject any ideas we have about gods and the like than it is to assign particulars to it and wind up with petty deities full of jealousies and demands. More games, that. Fairytales we made up when we huddled together against forces we couldn't comprehend, when we couldn't make heads or tails of the world around us but needed to feel that we were somehow special in the eyes of something. A useful lie for those who need themThat this something could be placated, made to look upon us with favor, rescue us from our pains like a surrogate parent peering over the edge of an infant's crib when it cries with colic in the middle of the night. In a word, infantilism. If we are, as Dowd alludes but doesn't quite make explicit, all this same "divine essence," then we are responsible for ourselves. There's nothing out there to intervene for us and we all have the responsibility to be our own saviors — and one another's, too. Jesus isn't coming back because he never left and it doesn't even matter if he ever showed up in the first place because it's all just a metaphor, anyhow. We might as well have been waiting for King Arthur to rise from the dead and rescue Great Britain during the Second World War.

There's a concept of divinity that runs through much of "left-hand" (vamamarga) Tantra that I've found appealing in this regard. That is, the divine is an infinite set that includes any trait we could possibly ascribe to it and the opposite of that trait. To say that it is conscious is no better, and just as incomplete, than it is to say that it is conscious. We can say it's good or we can say it's bad and in neither case be correct. If there is consciousness, it's our consciousness because we ourselves are "the divine." If it's big or small, that's because it's an ant or an elephant. We can't hold both concepts in our minds at the same time; try imagining a thing that's both black and white at the same time and perhaps you come up with gray, which is neither black nor white, and then you are left with trying to imagine it being gray and not being gray at the same time. In the end, why even bother trying to talk about it as something divorced from any particular bit of reality we care to look at as if it were something separate that could be expected to conform to what we choose to think about it?

All we're left with, then, is a pretty amazing intellect of our own with which to work. If we want to understand something, we have to put aside our biases and look at the thing through honest eyes. We have to test it and take it apart and acknowledge things for what they are in the proper context — the world as it is. That might turn out in ways that we find agreeable or it may turn out in ways we find terrible, but things are what they are whether or not we like them that way. It's by understanding the parts that we get a little closer to understanding the whole thing, even if we can never comprehend all of it as one person at any one given time. To my mind, that's the beginning of science and, as it turns out, scientific inquiry does produce useful things. It's not religion because we can't whip out some cosmic yardstick and measure things and proclaim them to be agreeable or objectionable in the eyes of some deity that exists apart from the thing itself. We can't talk about what divinity thinks about or prefers because we can't know any of that, however strenuously priests and prophets demand that things are otherwise. They're all stuck in their own limited minds just as we're all stuck in our own. It doesn't matter one bit what a holy man tells us about "God." Anyone who talks about "divine consciousness" or "the will of God" is telling stories, whipping up lies to steer us in one way or another as if anyone else can know what we ourselves don't know about ourselves.

We get rid of all the moral precepts supposedly coming from on high that make no sense in the real world. Why are religions so often concerned with sexual matters? Perhaps because sex takes our attention away from the prophets and their desires when we're engrossed in our own — but why should that be a problem in the first place? If there are problems in this realm, they exist in the real world, not the one someone else tries to make up for us. We can have a real morality — one based on treating others well, on not doing harm to achieve our own gratification — or we can have the pretend games of religiously-mandated morality imposed from without. The former is meaningful because we understand it viscerally. We own that. The latter is just another parental substitute giving us orders that, as any number of preachers have been kind enough to demonstrate, don't really stick in the end, anyhow. When you're in charge of making up the stories, after all, you know they're just stories. Why put any stock in them yourself?

I wonder when, and if, Dowd will come to realize the full implications of what he's saying. I wonder, too, whether someone like Ken Miller, who describes himself as Catholic, will get past labels and Latin Masses and no longer have to compartmentalize things into "how" and "why" as if describing two different phenomena. Metaphysical teleology is a rather unbecoming habit, I think, and something done in private if it must be done at all. It always involves grandiose assumptions about divine will which is never anything more than someone sitting about and thinking, "Well, if I were an omnipotent and omniscient creator, here's how I would do it." That's nice, but why should anybody else care? Until one starts whipping up successful universes, there's no way of saying that one purposeful act of creation is better than any other purposeful act of creation. It's just meaningless ego-games, really. In the meanwhile, we've got a whole universe to figure out. "Why" is just turtles all the way down. The first one ought to be, "Why should there be a reason in the first place?" It cuts right to the chase, which takes place on a circular track:

"Why should there be a purpose for things to exist?"
"Because something had to have made them."
"Why did something have to make them?"
"Because things must exist for a purpose."

We needn't make ourselves dizzy by perpetually spinning this way. "Why" is only a good question about human endeavors; that we have a purpose in doing something says nothing about things other than ourselves. By what justification can we expect the whole universe to be the result of a human-like activity? Without imposing purpose on it, is it one bit less incredible?

Mind you, these are hard things for me to write about in the space of a few paragraphs. I'm probably being very clumsy about it. Still, I think Dowd seems to be headed in a useful direction. I wonder what might happen if he goes as far as that direction can take him. At the very least, he's a lot less pernicious than the extremists who insist upon the truthfulness of their stories. I'd rather a world with more Dowds than one with more Hovinds and Robertsons. Dowd's ideas may still be a bit more teleological than is justified when one steps back a bit to gain perspective, but he's nowhere near as anti-life as those latter lunatic fundamentalists.

I've rambled enough. Now for reality.

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