Friday, April 04, 2014

Dark Clay

I started writing this post at 22.47 on the 7th of February, 2013. It's probably the most personal thing I'll ever post on the internet, and is undoubtedly a rambling mess, but if I don't post it now I never will.

Background, part one:

I stumbled onto Levi Weaver on a once-great music site called TheSixtyOne. I can't remember exactly when - it must have been between 2008 and 2010 - but the song was Family Feud, "an old west song about murder". (At the time, I described it as the kind of song Nick Cave would write if he knew how to keep it under seven minutes.) I've been a fan ever since.

Background, part two:

I describe myself as a "lapsed atheist". I went through a period thinking I was atheist, but eventually realised I took it for granted that I didn't believe, without ever really examining what that meant any more than I'd ever thought about what God's existence would mean when I accepted that, growing up.

There's a statement that I remember using years ago in arguments with creationists, who questioned the evidence of a "missing link" in the fossil record: "absence of proof is not proof of absence". Meaning, just because we haven't found the evidence doesn't mean it's not out there, somewhere. It only struck me recently how deeply ironic that sentiment is in an argument about faith in science versus belief in a deity.

In the last few years, I started actually thinking about what I believe. I was still, when pressed, identifying myself as atheist at the time, but part of a Levi Weaver song, Sick, or Determined kept sticking in my head, and it was bothering me.

And part of what it means to be a man is to believe in something grander than his hands can hold / Faith and love are evidence of something more than circumstance / Of work beneath the skin and bone / The logical, the monotone / I can't explain, but still I know / Someday I will figure you out

I trust in empirical evidence and science. Our ability to observe, understand and extrapolate from our surroundings has been fundamental to our progression from roaming hunters to agrarian societies to industrial nations.

But part of the great attraction of the scientific method is that sense of trying to comprehend something that's outside our current understanding. Even if we don't have a law or even a solid theory to explain a phenomenon, that doesn't stop scientists (or amateur enthusiasts) coming up with best guesses and hypotheses.

And part of what it means to be a man is to believe in something grander than his hands can hold

If you don't believe that there's more out there in the universe than our current observations and theories explain, why keep searching? Why invent new technology if what we have is good enough? You have to believe in something better than - or maybe just different from - what we already have.

Then Levi Weaver got into my crisis of doubt again: I read this blog post, the name of which I've shamelessly stolen for this one. I recommend reading it, whether you're a believer or not1.

What resonated with me was that, even though he's starting from a position that's the opposite of mine - he assumes that there is a God, and I assume that there is not - I could identify almost exactly with every fear and question and hope expressed in that post. The belief in the existence of a God that you can't prove was an earth-shattering moment of clarity for me. I had always assumed that people with Faith have an unshakable certainty, that it gives them answers and stability the way Real Atheists get certainty and stability and answers from their Not Faith. I always felt like I was stuck in the middle, unsure and unconvinced by either argument.

I don't know why, but it's given me a lot of comfort to know that there isn't a simple answer, that faith alone doesn't dispel the sense that you're aimless, confused, unfinished. I have tried to seriously consider the possibility that there is a God. That's kind of embarrassing to write, somehow - like an admission of failure, and I'm sure I know people who would see it as such.

But I don't think it's a failure to try something new, to look at things from a different perspective, even if it doesn't work out. I don't think it's a weakness to believe that human beings are ultimately spiritual as well as physical creatures. I have to believe - I can't not believe - that there's more to us, and to the universe, than meets the eye.

The second guiding light in my confusion was Yoda.

Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

Honestly, I don't think I'm any closer to a firm position on this stuff either way than I was before Levi Weaver gave me this stuff to think about. But more stimuli and additional points of view can only give us a broader perspective. I cannot thank him enough for provoking my thoughts with his words and music and the honesty with which he writes about his relationship with his own faith, because it's made me re-examine my own and, I believe, has made me a better, more thoughtful and more tolerant human being for it.

I do feel the need to point out that there is, in my mind, an important distinction to be made between faith and religion. A lot of atheists seem to conflate the two, but while I do find the dogma of religions troubling, it seems unnecessarily cruel to attempt to rob people of a belief that can give them such strength to overcome difficulties and inspiration to achieve great things.

1 I'd also recommend this and this, by the same author.