March 28, 2007
THE FLIGHT FROM MEANING
Jay B. Gaskill
In my earlier post, I cited an article by Michael Novak, “The Lonely Atheists of The Global Village,” in which he discusses recent books by three prominent atheists.
His piece begins….
“Time magazine, ever the vigilant trend spotter, has celebrated a recent wave of books by atheists — among them, these three by Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. These books have three purposes: to speed up the disappearance of Biblical faith, especially in America; to proselytize for rational atheism; and to boost morale among atheists, in part by calling attention to support groups for them.”
Michael Novak’s full article is available on line at;
Here is the key excerpt:
“The whole inner world of aware and self-questioning religious persons seems to be territory unexplored by our authors. All around them are millions who spend many moments each day (and hours each week) in communion with God. Yet of the silent and inward parts of these lives — and why these inner silences ring to those who share them so true, and seem more grounded in reality than anything else in life — our writers seem unaware. Surely, if our atheist friends were to reconsider their methods, and deepen their understanding of such terms as “experience” and “the empirical,” they might come closer to walking for a tentative while in the moccasins of so many of their more religious companions in life, who find theism more intellectually satisfying — less self-contradictory, less alienating from their own nature — than atheism.”
Mr. Novak is the George Frederick Jewett scholar of religion, philosophy, and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute.
For my own part, I think we must undertake the task of climbing out of that arid desert of the soul — that imagined realm where there exists no good, no evil, and no loving Creator — as a matter of survival. Finding the way up and out is a matter of attaining the appropriate scale perspective and a willingness to take in the deep implications.
We have a hint of that process from that nominal atheist, Carl Sagan, who wrote:
“We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
“The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Excerpted from the famous commencement address delivered by the late Carl Sagan on May 11, 1996
Without necessarily being able to explain how, human intelligence is able to proceed from the awe-at-creation narrative to an ethic of kindness and compassion.
Awe is the beginning of wisdom. I return to this idea below.
The Post-Trauma Atheists
I suspect that naïve atheism, the kind that remains open to new insights about the topic, is simply the natural and health product of a reasonable mind when exposed only to the explanatory power of science and the narrow irrationalities of strict fundamentalism. God loves these atheists because they are seeking the truth.
But this naïve view tends to harden into flinty, cold doctrine. This is a withdrawal from all meaningful dialogue. The hardening takes place, I suspect, because of the pervasive propaganda that tells “all thinking people” that the mainstream religions are unsophisticated versions of the original fundamentalist perspective, protecting the ghettos of intolerance and the rigid, Taliban-like authority that inhabit their core.
I also strongly suspect that some of the most militant atheists are revealing signs of an early trauma, the lingering pain of their sharply bruised expectations.
I can imagine an adult version of Santa Claus betrayal that goes something like: “I no longer buy the notion that there is a loving God. There never was a loving God. I was lied to!”
This becomes betrayal so painful that any hopeful view of things based on the existence of a benign higher being or power must be a fraud. Once jilted, the wounded personality is never again led to trust: “I hereafter refuse to believe in fairy tales.”
In the wounded soul, all claims about the ultimate power and authority of the good become mere arbitrary assertions. The bleak implication is that all “good premises” about ultimate reality are demoted to arbitrary assertions. All moral authority is arbitrary and therefore all moral “truth’ is reversible.
Seeing Farther and Wiser
I have come to fully accept the world view that God communicates to intelligent life in many different ways. One of these ways is via the meta-scale morphologies of the Life, the Universe and Everything, confident that sufficient intelligence will emerge that humans will be able to tease out the profound implications that are encoded in the seemingly simple.
The universe is embedded with Meaning. The large scale form of the timeline of our making is a message in itself. There is a compelling narrative arch from Big Bang to the appearance of morally founded civilizations. This narrative makes its deepest sense only when the outcome is understood as having been prefigured in the Beginning. This is a narrative of foreordained births – of the eventual arrival of meaning, value and significance in the World coupled with the foreordained arrival of thinking beings who are able to glean the embedded meaning, value and purpose. This is a comprehensively integrated view of reality that neatly transcends the arch-materialist claims of procedural Darwinism and value-free physics because it accepts the world yet folds in our own esthetic, empathetic and creative capabilities.
Religionists of many stripes, especially Christians, Jews and Buddhists, can quibble over the exact nature of the Great Intentionality that hovered over and sparked that Beginning.
But one aspect of the first Event is beyond reasonable question: It was an act of benign caring; put another way, it was an act of love.
To arrive at that simple assessment, we need only accomplish two mental feats:
(1) We must recover from the self-imposed faux autism of the scientistic mindset that would deny our own interior knowledge of the good, the beautiful and of Beloved Other.
(2) We must be able to do writ large that which we naturally tend to do writ small among our friends: Recognize love when it is manifestly demonstrated, and return it when it is wanted.
Carl Sagan of blessed memory was using secular language but he was decoding a divine message: “…our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”