Increasingly, the 2008 Presidential campaign is taking on the form of some sort of weird competitive theology stand-off. “My faith is stronger than yours!” “Yeah, well, my God can kick your God’s ass any day of the week! Except on Sunday, when He rests.” Not that you can really blame the candidates; when Americans put atheists just above child molesters in terms of electability, savvy politicians are happy to put their faith in the Big Guy on public display.
Which provides us with an excuse to fire up the Wayback Machine and revisit last May, which brought to us this delicious circumlocution by Karl Rove, of all people:
Karl Rove is not a believer, and he doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly. I think the way he puts it is, “I’m not fortunate enough to be a person of faith.”
That’s courtesy of Christopher Hitchens (of all people).
The “I’m not fortunate enough” phraseology raises two questions. One is, “Is Karl Rove congenitally capable of telling the truth?” I’m guessing no. If he is not a person of faith, then he believes that people of faith are wrong. So he’s saying that he’s not fortunate enough to be wrong. Which is the sort of transcendently twisted conflation of condescension and disingenuousness that only a true political genius is able to achieve, and even then only when all the stars are properly aligned.
The other question is, “Should atheists feel regretful that God doesn’t exist?” To reformulate it in a more operational language, imagine that you are given the choice of a Red Pill and a Blue Pill. If you choose the Red Pill, you suddenly and with 100% certainty live in a world which is purely materialistic, governed by impersonal and ironclad laws of nature, in which we human beings are nothing other than complicated chemical reactions, and there is no realm outside the physical. If you choose the Blue Pill, you suddenly and with 100% certainty live in a world which shares the same gross features and known laws of physics as our world, but in which there exists an all-powerful supernatural deity who cares about us humans and is the origin of our lives and consciousness. Which do you choose?
Not only would I unhesitatingly choose the purely-materialist cosmos in which I actually believe, I would have guessed that almost all atheists would do so. But Ezra Klein provides at least one counterexample, so there you go.
On the face of it, the notion of a higher power that somehow cares about us can be attractive. (Also potentially attractive is the handing-down of rules from on high, helping one decide what actions are right or wrong — there’s something reassuring about being told what to do, rather than working out the rules of the game as you play.) It’s nice to have someone looking over you, in precisely the same way that it’s nice to have parents that care for you when you’re growing up. When it becomes unattractive, I think, is when you try to think seriously and consistently about what kind of deity could possibly be consistent with the world in which we live. One that is purportedly pretty darn powerful, but that allows all sorts of pain and suffering. One that, if the majority of scriptures are to be believed, not only “cares” about us, but is quite willing to punish us when we go wrong, despite handing down somewhat muddled instructions. One that, despite all that power, seems to be pretty darned parsimonious when it comes to actually intervening on our behalf. And one that, when it comes to giving moral guidance in the tangible form of the teaching of various religions, seems to hew suspiciously closely to the prejudices of the local tribes that wrote them down.
When taken to their logical conclusions, the consequences of a supernaturally powerful deity that judges us from on high are not really ones that I would prefer to live with. I know that some people would feel a sort of cosmic disappointment that they and their loved ones simply represent the workings-out of a few physical laws when applied to some particularly complicated chemical structures, but I don’t share the feeling. None of that prevents me from loving them just as fiercely, or caring just as much about justice or beauty in the world. I’m stuck in a universe where the rules of right and wrong and good and bad are for me to decide, on the basis of reason and evidence and consultation and negotiation with my fellow chemical reactions. I like it that way; give me the Red Pill any day.