Monday, September 03, 2007

Dead-end conclusion

Working it out alone

There's this Australian guy who lost faith in his atheism. “I was lecturing in literature and philosophy. And I was atheist, actually. I was teaching atheism. I was teaching against God.” It was to God he turned when his atheism failed him. The occasion was the painful and lingering death of his mother, whose ordeal was supposedly a cleansing rite of passage. At least, that's what her formerly nonbelieving son now believes.

“Through the death of my mother I learned that suffering was purifying,” said the former atheist, who ended up living as a hermit in a cave in the Egyptian wilderness.

The hermit was speaking to Megan McCormick of Globe Trekker. She was touring north Africa for an episode on Egypt. She had hiked into the desert from the monastery of St. Antony to interview the man now known as “Father Lazarus.” Megan was permitted to peek into the hermit's cave, but of course she was not allowed to enter. (She's a woman, after all, and therefore a source of sin, though Father Lazarus was nice enough not to make a point of it.)

The hermit observed that most people mutter “Jesus” as an oath, taking the Lord's name in vain. Lazarus, however, says the name with love, as a prayer, which he was good enough to demonstrate. He invokes the name of the Lord constantly, adding his petitions to those of the late St. Antony. “I have called him many times, to this place, and St. Antony called him many times. This mountain is saturated with prayer.” (I wonder how one distinguishes a prayer-soaked mountain from the other peaks in its vicinity.)

As the Globe Trekker camera person focused on the great wilderness vista outside the hermit's cave, Lazarus said that he knew he would never leave the place. Instead of a life full of literature, philosophy, and nonbelief, his existence is now replete with muttered prayers and the panorama of a serene mountain desert. At least the scenery is inspiring.

What are we to make of this?

I confess that I did not follow the man's line of reasoning as he explained to Megan why he had opted for life as a contemplative hermit. When she asked him the motivation for his choice, Father Lazarus told her about his mother:

“She died a very painful death from cancer. I spoke to the nurse who took care of her. And she told me that twice she went into the room; my mother was looking at the ceiling. She said, ‘The Lord came and he said to me, “You have to bear the pain now to purify you. When it's too much, I will come and take it, and carry it for you.”’ Through the death of my mother I learned that suffering was purifying. When I came here, it came to me that I would not leave this place.”

His mother died horribly and that led him to a deep and compulsive faith in Christianity. He dropped out of society and holed up (quite literally) in the Egyptian desert, adopting a new name and a religious vocation. What was his reasoning process? Or was it something other than reason?

I think it was something other than reason. Some people lose faith in God because they discern the arbitrary and capricious nature of life. How would the world look in the absence of God? A lot like what we see today. God is the unnecessary hypothesis. Other people see the arbitrary and capricious nature of life and go in the other direction, seeking a hidden rationale for the dreadful things they see. The Australian was given by his mother a conventionally devout excuse for her dying pangs. It appealed to him sufficiently strongly that he embraced it unreservedly and made it the new (and exceedingly narrow) organizing principle of his life.

It's both fascinating and creepy. I hope Father Lazarus has the peace and contentment that he claimed in his interview with Megan McCormick to have found in the desert. Perhaps it suits him well. I have no reason to doubt him when he implies that his life is fulfilled. I do, however, harbor some doubts about his claim of having been an atheist and a teacher of atheism. He probably wasn't a very good atheist if his rationalistic world-view was overthrown by so shopworn and flimsy a rationale for bad things happening to good people.

He should have read a lot more good literature and philosophy.


Unknown said...

The condescencion in the author's words at the end of this post is uncomfortably familiar to me. As someone who has left their religion, I all-too-often hear people say things like, "I guess your faith must not have been strong enough, or else you wouldn't have felt so challenged by your thoughts," or "You should have read more good scripture and theology." At best, this is unintelligent and lazy commentary that has no purpose but to make us feel better.

Instead of pitying his obviously bad reasoning, let's explore exactly why this man's reasoning is faulty. What is wrong about inferring the validity Christianity from the deathbed-spirituality and pain of his mother? Should this reasoning have been convincing for him? If not, why not?

Intelligence is wrought by scrutiny, not sanctimony.

Zeno said...

Perhaps you did not consider my statement that "God is the unnecessary hypothesis" to be an argument, but it's the kernel of one. Father Lazarus sees acute suffering and posits a God. As I said, that's one way to go, but it's an excessively complicated response. An altogether more parsimonious conclusion is that there is no higher power intervening in our affairs (for either good or ill).

Sorry about the hint of condescension. The tendency was acquired honestly, in defensive reaction to exactly the sort of thing you cite: "Oh, you should read the Bible more!"
I read it. I didn't believe it. Credit a book because the book says I should credit it? Nope. And now I tend to play a bit of turnabout as fair play.

I see that you, too, favor one-liners as exit lines.

geetha said...

stopped by.good post.
for many people, bad things happening to good people and vice versa is hard to digest and so they seek a pattern.
when we understand that nature is totally indifferent we would'nt need a god prop.
btw why do u capitalise the g in god?
would visit again
best wishes

Anonymous said...

I find it more compelling to ask why you have not capitalised a single word, but never mind. I can't speak for Zeno, but although the capitalisation of "Him" is used by Christians as a sign of devotion, it is no more than standard English to capitalise proper nouns. "God" is a proper noun when used, as Christians do, to name a particular deity.

The Science Pundit said...

God is the unnecessary hypothesis.

That says it all!