The 3 Words That Make Me An Atheist: “I Don’t Know”

“I have always been grateful to Hebrew School for making me the atheist I am today”. That’s how I sign on to “The Faitheism Project Podcast” that I do every week with my good friend the Reverend Randy Lovejoy. In fairness, I’m pretty sure I dropped from the womb an “unbeliever”. Hebrew School merely closed the deal. Back then, I hadn’t had time yet (or the intellectual capacity) to reason out exactly why theism didn’t add up for me. That’s not to say I didn’t feel awe as I gazed up at the cosmos. I felt tons of awe. And tons of curiosity. I just didn’t see Yahweh staring back with the answers.

My awe is no different from the awe a Christian feels as they contemplate the nature of God (their version in their head) or the the all knowing state of Bodhisattva a Buddhist might experience as they achieve nirvana. But that’s where our paths diverge — me and my faith-practicing friends. People of faith need to know what’s behind the awe (even if the explanation isn’t entirely satisfying or logical). Why does the universe exist in the first place? God knows. Whether he reveals that truth to them is a whole other question; that “knowledge” that God has the answer, that’s good enough for them. Not for me. I’m pretty clear about one essential fact: Yahweh did not invent humans, humans invented Yahweh. If you’re looking to Yawheh for real answers, you’re looking in the wrong place.

The scribes who first scratched out what eventually became “The Book Of Genesis” were memorializing more than a thousand years of accumulated mythology — all bent toward answering the question “Why are we here?” Unsatisfied by a polytheist answer, whoever the actual “Abraham” was (mostly likely, he was a tribal chieftain who migrated his tribe from modern day Iraq to Canaan, now modern day Israel), he also migrated his tribe away from the polytheistic gods of their past to a “new God” called Yahweh. But, even Yahweh wasn’t entirely original. The newly arrived monotheists must have liked a lot about the Canaanite god EL; they incorporated not just EL into Yahweh, but El into their identity. El’s presence remains in place names like “Beth EL” and “IsraEL”.

Even Yahweh says of himself that he used to be called El but, at long last, has gotten to show his true self.

Knowledge — “gnosis” — became extremely important in the monotheistic universe. Human beings weren’t allowed to have “ultimate knowledge”. That’s Eve’s original sin — wanting to know what Yahweh knew.

To know everything therefore, is to “be” Yahweh. To be a god.

Atheists aspire “to know”. Same goes for many agnostics. Their agnosticism hinges on the fact that they don’t and therefore won’t conclude definitively whether or not Yahweh (or any god) exists. The information I want is out there somewhere. Will I ever acquire it definitively? I don’t know. And that’s the bottom line. Until I do “know” what happened, I’ll have to accept that I don’t know. The question is — can I live with that? Can I live with not knowing definitively?

What preceded the Big Bang? I don’t know. I think string theory provides a more satisfying answer than “Yahweh preceded it”. At least string theory can rest on a foundation of math. Yahweh rests on a foundation of storytelling in the absence of hard data. If the first monotheist (be it Abraham who whoever) had had access to a telescope or a microscope — or the internet — would they have written Genesis the way they did? Would they have described an earth-centric universe all geared toward the creation of human beings? Of course not — they would have started mythologizing with what they already knew then used the mythologizing to explain what they, as yet, didn’t know. In the beginning, Yahweh might have been standing on the other side the singularity that started Life As We Know It — and Genesis might have opened by describing The Big Bang in remarkable, proto-second by proto-second detail.

The bottom line is how do any of us deal with uncertainty? Those with little tolerance turn to religion because they need to know. Religion says it WILL provide the answer. Science can only say “it might” provide an answer and the answer it provides today may not be good tomorrow because we’ve learned new information. That’s the best science can ever do. If you want certainty, science — ironically — is not for you.

When I say “science”, I mean a process of analytical, observation-based thinking as opposed to “revealed knowledge”. Back before Darwin, theology was considered “the Queen Of The Sciences” — for real. But, with Darwin came not just science but a “scientific method” of thinking that demanded all conclusions be based on actual data and not just “cos God said”. Forced to provide receipts, theology fled the building. Whereas the institutional church could have used the occasion to reinvest in Jesus and teach a spiritual “Do Unto Others” message (something they’d never really done before), instead (in America), the church doubled down on the ooga-booga. Rather than see the Bible as a bastion of good messages for good living, the institutional churches of America insisted that their sacred texts were the “divinely inspired word o’ God” and therefore even better than science. Unlike science, the church insisted (and still does) God does not need receipts.

What’s true inside a church stops being true outside it.

Not having a reason to be here imposed upon me by a bipolar deity doesn’t scare me. Hell, it liberates me! I can tolerate living in a DIY universe where the Big Questions are concerned. Hell, I half expect it to turn out that the the whole Universe is just a giant piece of IKEA furniture — and the nitwit putting it together misunderstood the instructions and flipped the main piece upside down; we’re moments away from him realizing he’s going to have to break the whole Universe down and start all over again. How “Noah”…

That’s just the Universe being ironic, right…?

Unfortunately, There’s Really No Such Thing As “Fair”

“Fair” is kind of like the Buddhist notion of “Bodhisattva”. A Bodhisattva is someone on the road to enlightenment. But they’re not there yet. If they think they’re there? They’re definitely not “there”. Enlightenment is as hard a goal to achieve as “fair” is. It’s more surreal than real, more abstract than plastic.

And it’s so personal. What’s fair to me might not be fair to you. Even when we compromise (the goal, really), if the compromise is “fair”? Neither of us will like it much; it’s not “fair”.

“Fair” gets harder when there are multiple competing interests whose concept of “fair” contradicts one another. Maybe the problem is we value “fair” to the individual over “fair” to the group. Assuming everyone’s rights are being respected (a big assumption), it’s hard to justify being fair to one person at the expense of a large chunk of everyone else.

When we say “All men are created equal”, we better mean “everyone” is created equal — before the law (which is what it means). If the Law treats everyone fairly — that is, “equally”, there’s a better chance we’ll feel that we’ve been treated fairly. That’s all we can ask. It’s the consistency that creates a basis for “fairness” in our minds. That’s why the Rule Of Law — as a concept — gives us the best possible chance to experience the most “fairness” for the most people.

Racism is inherently unfair. Ditto bigotry, misogyny and every other form of irrational, ignorant hatred.

But, just like “fair” is a human construct, so’s the Rule Of Law. We invented it. And though we want to think it’s “automatic” or autonomous, it isn’t. It does not self-perpetuate. It’s not some perpetual motion machine. We have to care for these ideas and nurture them. We have to renew both the ideas and our passion for them.

As the Trump years have taught us, if you start taking “fairness” for granted, you’re doomed to a life of perpetual unfairness. Minority rule — as an example? Not fair. Mitch McConnell hijacking the judiciary — to give hard core conservative judges power over an increasingly progressive majority? Not even remotely fair. Committing treason to win the presidency in 2016? Don’t get me started…

“Fair” is a muscle we have to exercise every single day. We have make sure we’re being fair — despite the unfairness around us. If we don’t exercise our own sense of fair — that is, fair for the group — our “fairness” muscle will atrophy, wither and die. Before long, we’ll become like every Trump supporter. Their idea of “fair” begins and ends with them.

You want fair? Be fair. Have receipts ready to demonstrate what real fairness looks like. Be prepared to persist. “Unfair” is the bully’s preference and there are plenty of bullies around.