It’s somewhat amazing that, despite having written more than 400 articles in the past four years, I’ve never really touched on my religious beliefs. My Asperger’s Syndrome and depression, romantic relationships and childhood traumas, even my Jewish background (from a heritage standpoint)… All these sensitive and personal matters have been explored in my previous articles. Yet until this week, I’ve never discussed my opinions about God.
Like most secular writers who suddenly feel compelled to delve into the metaphysical, I’ve reached this point due to a particularly bad week that I’m grateful to see end. While I’m not going to discuss these personal matters here (no worries, I’ll be fine), they have caused me to contemplate a variety of spiritual matters, some of them only tangentially related to my immediate difficulties. In no particular order, I’m going to address them below.
1. The wisest Biblical verse of them all.
Courtesy of Ecclesiastes 9:11 –
“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
Some of the most intelligent people I know work in food service or retail jobs. Similarly, some of the kindest and wisest people I know face constant hardship and mistreatment. Meanwhile, I know plenty of mediocre people – intellectually, morally, and otherwise – who (on the surface at least) appear to be happy in their professional and personal lives.
These are hardly original thoughts, but they have bothered me for years. My political ideology is in many ways informed by these observations – one can only see so many great minds and decent souls forced to suffer before feeling desperate to do something, anything, to create a political and social order that will reward individuals based on merit rather than mere chance.
As I’ve studied history over the years, however, I’ve begun to seriously worry that these hopes are in vain. Sure, technological advances have increased our life expectancy and made it easier for the masses to muffle their pain with cheap entertainment. At the same time, it still seems as if the vast majority of the opportunities for meaningful socioeconomic advancement are restricted to the lucky few who are born with privilege; for much of the rest, Henry David Thoreau put it best when he wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Although I have my own professional frustrations, by the way, this passage is more about friends and loved ones that I know rather than myself – I’m ABD in a PhD program, a freelance writer, and a local elected official, all jobs that I cherish and find immensely satisfying. This isn’t to say that I’m not ambitious and hope to rise even higher in the near future, but when I think of Ecclesiastes 9:11, my thoughts aren’t primarily on myself. The same cannot be said for my next observation…
2. Right and wrong – both morally and practically speaking – have very little to do with determining the ultimate outcome of important events.
Without going into specifics, I will say that this has been a bad week for me because of several occasions in which I was challenged, tried to do “the right thing” (more on that term in a moment), and found that regardless of what I said or did, a negative result ensued.
When I speak of “the right thing,” I’m doing so in two senses: First, the notion that if you treat others with respect and compassion (i.e., following The Golden Rule), and are always as open and honest as possible with both other people and yourself, that you will more often than not receive positive results; and second, the idea that – moral considerations aside – there is a logic to how events will proceed, meaning that if you are prudent, hard-working, able to learn from your mistakes, and capable of standing your ground when necessary, the fact that you exhibit these practically useful qualities will significantly increase the probability of receiving a desired outcome.
Unfortunately, in addition to my own recent experiences, I’ve observed as many of the people around me do “the right thing” when interacting with others… only to wind up suffering anyway. This doesn’t mean that I think being a bad or irrational person is somehow more likely to lead to success than being a good one, but rather that doing right versus doing wrong really makes very little difference. To the extent that any variable can predetermine outcomes in given situations, the determining factor usually seems to be power – the party(-ies) with money, authority, and/or vital resources tends to win, and the one(s) without tends to lose, regardless of whether the powerful happen to think that they’re right or not.
This is usually the part of the discussion when someone chimes into say that if we didn’t have suffering in the world, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate all of the good things. Well…
3. If God happens to exist, and has a moral code, his moral philosophy bears little relationship to our conventional definition of that term.
First, I need to point out that the question of whether God exists is entirely separate from whether there is an objective, divinely sanctioned “morality.” After all, there have been plenty of brilliant men (Albert Einstein comes to mind) who did believe in a God but also felt that this divine entity, whatever it was, certainly did not intervene in human affairs or pass any kind of moral judgment on our actions. Depending on how you define God, it’s entirely possible to conceive of a universe in which a supernatural hand is behind all creation and yet doesn’t give a damn about what we measly humans do on this single speck of dust in the incomprehensibly vast cosmos.
Assuming, however, that one not only believes in God, but thinks that God has a system of “right” and “wrong” which he applies to our universe, it is inconceivable to me that this notion bears any meaningful relationship with our own sense of those terms. For instance, whenever someone argues that pain is necessary to appreciate pleasure, I like to point out that the only reason such a contrast is necessary is because the alleged omnipotent God who created our universe decided it should be so. Indeed, virtually any argument made to justify the existence of suffering in this world can be rebutted using the same logic: God created the rules, which means that he could have jiggered with them to make it so that those who suffer wouldn’t have to do so. Yet he chose not to.
In fact, when you really examine our world, you realize that God made it so that life itself is fueled by pain. Think about it: Living creatures are, in the end, nothing more than piles of physical matter which happen to be self-aware. Thanks to the laws of biology (at least on this planet), the only way for such self-aware creatures to maintain their brief flashes of consciousness on this planet is to consume organic compounds – in other words, to snuff out the lives of other creatures. This is true not only for carnivores, but herbivores – after all, aren’t plants also alive? And plants aren’t blameless either, for while many of them rely on sunlight to survive, their roots draw nutrients from a soil enriched by the decomposed remains of previous living creatures. Everything that is alive maintains its existence by profiting off of death.
I may be open to the idea that God exists, but it is inconceivable to me that a God whose moral code is based in compassion would choose to construct this system. If God is real and applies moral rules, they certainly aren’t governed by empathy.
Normally this is the point in which I would try to tie together my article’s meandering themes, but truth be told I don’t know how to do it. This is one of those essays that a writer composes to unburden himself, not so much because he has an agenda in mind. I needed to get these thoughts off my chest so I could slough off the refuse of this week and hopefully make the next one better for me. So it is done.