The Absurdity of Profundity

Tomorrow I’m going to Washington D.C. to cover the Reason Rally — billed as the largest gathering of secular Americans in our history — for the The Quietus, an online magazine based in London. One of the most interesting people I’m going to interview, Greg Graffin, who’s the frontman of the punk band Bad Religion, a lecturer in evolutionary biology at Cornell University and a truly devout atheist, is going to perform at the rally with his band; but he’s also going to give a speech. Why? Because for him, singing about the enlightenment that accompanies godlessness isn’t enough. Dr. Graffin also feels the need to educate the world about atheism and naturalism (the view that says everything in existence can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws).

I learned this about him by reading the book Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant? — which is just a correspondence via email between Graffin and Preston Jones (a history professor at a Christian university) that was edited and published in 2006. They have a pretty spirited back-and-forth about the validity of theism, and neither one comes to any profitable new conclusions. But I enjoyed it because I think it showed me a lot of interesting stuff about the nature of this conflict right now. At this point it’s clear to me that it it’s no longer just ancient God vs. modern science. At the intellectual level, it’s more like an old fashioned war between schools of thought, and one not unlike those that have taken place within both the religious and scientific communities since they respectively began (mostly to the annoyance or confusion of the general public). And, as someone who doesn’t believe in God, what I found most exciting about the book was that Graffin, for all his unexpected erudition, didn’t make such a compelling argument.

He didn’t seem to understand that, in his attempts to convert theists to an exclusively scientific way of analyzing the world, he reveals the same limitations of faith-based thinking as do believers. And I know Graffin doesn’t represent atheistic thinkers everywhere, but, as we continue to cruise towards the implosion of Christianity as a functioning piece of Western society, it’s pretty important to recognize the fact that the religious devotion to empirical data stands a good chance of becoming a carbon copied replacement for theistic religion. (Not now, but probably by the time I’m old.)

The dogma this time is academic instead of beatific, which is basically just as bad. As Graffin writes, while likely referring to theists in general as well as philosophers:

It is clear that philosophers are not going to surprise biologists with some overlooked item in biologists’ worldview. Whether the philosophers concern themselves with environment or genetics or development or behavior, they are dealing with issues that biologists have been trained to think about for a long time. The really good biologists have no difficulty destroying the philosophers’ weak foundation for rebuttal.

Face it. People need to study more biology. Then they can make better claims about human nature and, more importantly, reject the bogus claims made by bad biologists!”

While there’s a certain pettiness that’s fun to observe in stuff like this, I also love it because it reminds us of the fundamentally ubiquitous presence of language and representation, the only true gods of humanity. We’ve reached the point at which academic texts (or works of fiction) are being written not only to support or deny theistic teachings, but to reconcile the two paths in infinitely various ways. Whether or not one supplants the other, the gods of humanity tell me that, in order to properly worship them, we need to stop wondering which approach is most beneficial and ask why the debate itself, over the validity and usefulness of belief systems, exists at all. And it would seem that the only answer to that question would be a nod and wink in the direction of the texts.

Graffin confirms it — without recognizing it — when he feels the need to keep repeating the fact that didactic religious stories play a vital part in what he might as well call the religious brainwashing of young children, and Jones confirms it when he rebuts those statements with equally appropriate and effective examples in support of theism. At every turn it feels like they’re missing a more basic point: that the meaningful expression of reality isn’t found within the books; it is the books.

And while I’m at the rally tomorrow — an event that basically serves the purpose of creating “live” textual material for whatever faith group (that includes atheists) holds the microphone — I’ll probably be reminded of that feeling wherever I go and to whomever I speak or watch. For now, though, I’d rather just sigh and laugh at the absurdity of profundity, while sharing a line from Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of my favorite religious texts.

Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.”

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