"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Groups, God, And The Need To Belong

The number of atheists in America is growing quickly, and have increased almost 100 percent in less than ten years.  One would think that the decision to reject the existence of God would be a highly personal one reached after years of reflection and investigation much like Tolstoy did throughout his life. After years of looking for answers in science, philosophy, and logic with no satisfaction; and years more studying religion and its conclusions about God, he was still uncertain and even more troubled than when he began. Reason and rationality were now powerful enough tools to deal with the question of divinity; and faith alone was to supine and emotional.

One day after many decades of anxious contemplation, he woke up one morning and realized that tens of millions of human beings alive believed in God; and that tens of billions before him had also.  How could they be wrong, Tolstoy asked himself; and began a life of faith expressed in his personal autobiography A Confession.

Tolstoy A Confession

The point is, the search for God – or conversely the dismissal of God – is a matter of individual search.  In Tolstoy’s case he understood that he was determinedly rational, almost obstinately so; and he understood that his own spiritual quest would necessarily be limited within the disciplined reasoning of Augustine, Aquinas, and others.  He was not only indifferent to established religion, but hostile to it; and became a political nihilist. In his younger years he was committed to social change which would come about through collective, social action, not prayer or divine intercession.  Later on he became disaffected with politics but not reason, and until his epiphany felt that only through rational exegesis could he possibly come to any spiritual conclusions.

Aquinas

Atheism today is by no means an individual exercise.  There are atheist conferences, clubs, online chat rooms, regular publications, and a variety of associations.  Some groups like the New Atheists, the late Christopher Hitchens being perhaps the most outspoken, claim that not only is belief in religion ignorant and misplaced, it is immoral.  So much war, killing, and barbarity has occurred in the name of religion, that it is not enough to disbelieve.  One must act militantly to destroy religion.

Atheist Conference

In other words, atheism has become a group practice like any other religion or social cause.  Atheism shares as much with environmentalism than it does with organized religion.

In the case of atheism, however, one can understand the need to form, and participate in groups. In a religious society with a long religious tradition, it is hard to reject God.  A godless world can be a very cold and comfortless indeed.

A rejection of God necessarily implies a belief in meaningless and randomness.  Nothing but natural forces set the world spinning, and individual actions are no more than the repercussions, collisions, and reactions of those that preceded them.  Not only is there no God to pray to in times of trouble and pain; but there is nowhere to turn in a world where everything is relative. It is no wonder, then, that atheists more than any other ‘religious’ group feel the need to gather together.

Environmentalism like atheism has grown significantly in the past decade.  More and more American have become committed to slowing or stopping global warming; reversing air and water pollution, and stopping what they consider the commercial rape of the natural world.  Like atheism, environmentalism is a group activity; but environmentalists do not group together only to increase political influence like any other lobby group.  They do so to be a member of a movement which has higher, even spiritual ends.  Saving the planet is as close to religious evangelism and the saving of souls as anything.  Environmentalists are passionate, even ecstatic about their mission; and belonging to a like-minded group of believers is like participating in a Holy War or a Crusade.

Image result for images crusades

Group behavior is not confined to social causes. We all travel in packs, self-identify and associate almost unwittingly. Adolescents breaking away from parents are no different from atheists who break away from God.  They need comfort and support in a world they find suddenly rudderless. So they dress alike, talk alike, and share the same likes and dislikes.

At a 9th hole lunch restaurant at a popular golf resort in Georgia I noticed that each table of golfers was as uniform as a pack of 10th graders. There were good ‘ol boys from Alabama, all girth and rough bonhomie at one table; Connecticut doctors at another; Low Country patrician women; at a third; and a public course tour group from Minnesota at a long table in the middle of the room.  Golf was incidental. Group affiliation and display was why they were there.

Online petitions circulating on Facebook make it easy to belong to cybernetic groups. By signing petitions against global warming, the One Percent, crony capitalism, income inequality, wealth and privilege, the signer not only supports a cause but tells thousands of ‘friends’ and thousands more of their friends who he is and what he stands for.  Once again, it is less about cause than image, affiliation, and belief.

In The Death of Ivan Ilyich Tolstoy explores the nature of death and dying; but he also discusses belonging and aloneness. We may group together in life, he says, but we die alone. How can this incongruity be resolved? We are compelled by one and doomed to the other.

Ivan Ilyich saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair. In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it. The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter's Logic: "Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal," had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius — man in the abstract — was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others.

Those fortunate enough to understand and appreciate Tolstoy’s incongruity early on can begin to live a more reflective life while there is still time.  “Too soon old, too late schmart”, goes the Yiddish expression, and since aloneness is the essential characteristic of dying, then it is high time to prepare for it.  Most people imagine dying surrounded by family and friends – a kind of social send-off – but in reality their last thoughts are about anything but the predictable ordinariness of life. Facing eternity, one is not likely to think about one’s wife.

Hinduism divides life into four phases – Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (retired) and Sannyasa (renunciation). Man is social, but then becomes solitary, meditative, and spiritual.  Every Hindu understands the nature and purpose of every phase, the first three of which are only preparations for the fourth. Life is illusion (maya) Hindus believe, and the regimentation of one’s mundane life serves the purpose of putting the evanescent nature of being into perspective.  In other words, Hindus have structured a life which is necessarily social around the ultimate purpose of lie which is spiritual.

Image result for images four phases hindu life

Most of us are afraid to face death because we have invested so much in social life and its groupings. We have preferred to identify ourselves as a reflection of others rather than as individuals; and therefore are frightened by the thought of facing death and eternal extinction alone.  Ivan Ilyich finally figured it all out, almost too late; but at least he had his epiphany.  Most of us never do.

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