Wednesday, January 28, 2009
That One Word
I believe in God. I always have. I don’t know how to define that God. But I do call it God and not "Higher Power". "Higher Power" is just a new age way to say God. I’m not new age. So I just say God. It’s easier to say God.
But it offends more people than "Higher Power". Good.
I’ve never been an atheist, even though I wasn’t raised in a religious family. But neither was my family composed of secular humanists. We weren’t intellectuals. We were blue-collar. We didn’t make enough money to be secular humanists. When times got tough, we called on God. True, it wasn’t often. Grit and self-determination carried us as far as it could. But once in a blue moon, we’d have to fall on our knees and turn our eyes toward heaven.
There isn’t much to be smug about in a blue-collar household. Secular humanism cannot exist without smugness.
True, I was agnostic for many years. Until my early twenties, I thought I’d play it safe and straddle the fence. Then I discovered Pascal and Blake and Aquinas and Augustine. Then I opened my eyes and I realized how daft I had been! Miracles were everywhere! How incredulous it was to conceive of existence as mere accident! What smugness, indeed!
So I believe in God. That’s probably why I have such a problem with Islam. We have two different conceptions of God, the Islamic world and myself. I don’t like theirs. My God creates and does not destroy. My God advances and does not retard. My God unshackles and does not imprison. My God is art and not censorship. My God is God and not allah.
Am I saying that the Christian God is better than the Muslim God? No. In fact, I haven’t even said that I was a Christian. For I am not. But I bet that's what you thought I was talking about, didn’t you?
That’s because I use the term God. And not "Higher Power". Or "Mother Earth". Or allah.
All I am saying is that My God is better than theirs.
Monday night, I was at a dinner in San Francisco following a show. I was having an argument with an atheist friend of mine.
I really enjoyed the argument. He didn’t believe in God and I did. I thought I was making some great points. He didn’t. Still, it was fun. Like I imagine a tennis match is for people who don’t smoke.
Then a girl came in and sat at our table. The discussion stopped there. I have learned that when it comes to women, it’s best not to talk about religion or politics until after you have taken them to bed.
The girl began talking about roller coasters and how much she enjoyed them.
I told her that I also loved roller coasters.
She said that she liked wooden roller coasters.
I told her that I preferred steel roller coasters. Then I asked her where she had come from.
She told me that she had been having a discussion with some friends at another bar and had become bored.
I asked her what the argument had been about. She said that it hadn’t been an argument. It had been a polite discussion.
I told her that I preferred arguments. That it was fun to draw a line in the sand and engage in ideological fisticuffs. She told me that she preferred polite discussions. I disagreed and said that arguments were better.
“Okay,” she said, “Well, you and I can have an argument about wood versus steel roller coasters.”
“No,” I said, “That’s boring. How about this one: My friend over here doesn’t believe in God and I do. Let’s get into that.”
“Well,” she said, “I’m an agnostic, so it doesn’t really matter to me.”
“Oh, I know what it’s like to be on the fence, too. But let me see if I can get you to fall down from it.”
Then I tried to use an experiment I picked up from C.S. Lewis to convince her of the existence of an underlying moral code to the universe (separate entry to follow). She began to panic and motioned frantically for my atheist friend to come and help her out.
She began talking about right-wing Christian extremists, even though nobody had mentioned the name of Jesus Christ. The Spanish Inquisition was alluded to, even though nobody had brought up Catholicism. Sexual repression was decried, even though nobody had mentioned Puritanism.
The panic was solely about God.
Not "Higher Power", not "Mother Earth", not the "Wise Buddha", not "Ganesh". . .
My atheist friend and the girl teamed up against me. At one point, the girl threw up her hands in disgust and said, “Why should we even have this conversation? You’re never going to convince me and I’m never going to convince you, so what’s the point?”
“Because,” I said, “my beliefs wouldn’t be worth anything--even to me--if I didn’t try to convince anybody of their truth. The same goes for any philosophical belief, scientific proof, or political platform. That’s the essence of progress. If you’re convinced of the truth of something, what’s the point of keeping it to yourself? What if Edison had refused to share his discoveries for fear of being impolite?”
The tennis match continued. Doubles against a single.
Then I lobbed what I thought was a really good one: “What I find telling is that you described yourself as an agnostic. But for some reason, the moment I mentioned God, you started clinging to my atheist friend like a life preserver. As an agnostic, couldn’t you just as easily have been pulled this way? You seem to have the jumped off the fence, all right. Without any struggle at all, you've landed in the pastures of non-belief.”
Later, my atheist friend and myself had a cigarette outside.
“You know,” he said, “I think that agnostic girl likes me.”
“She probably does,” I said, “after all, you’re the atheist.”
More than "Higher Power", more than "Vishnu", more than "Xenu", more than "Goddess". . .
How that one word still has the power to attract or to repulse.
You’ll find it standing just outside of Nature. For that is Its creation.
Posted by Will Franken at 2:15 PM