Oh, my God! I'm absolutely loving "The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality." So much so, this morning I finished it, fueled by a strong cup of pre-meditation coffee and the joy of reading good writing.
As I said before, Andre Comte-Sponville has a wonderful approach to spirituality.
I started to say "in spite of the fact that he's a philosophy professor," but there's no spite involved here. Comte-Sponville's book springs as much from his life experience as his philosophical experience (assuming there's a difference between life and philosophy, which, really, there isn't – living includes everything).
There's so much that I like in these 206 pages, it's hard to know what to choose as a blog subject. Here's a rundown on a subchapter that made me go Oh, yeah, so true: "Desire and Illusion."
First, some personal sharing, because it relates to what Comte-Sponville is getting at. My parents divorced when I was just a few years old. I had no contact with my father until my mid-30s. No phone conversations. No letters. No visits.
Just a Christmas card, most years, with a small check and a single word: "John." Not, "love, John," or anything else. Just his first name.
So my father was a lot like God to me as I was growing up: unseen and unknown.
I believed he existed, because my mother told me a few things about him (not much, though). And I wanted to know him, because I felt that I was missing something – a lot, actually – by not having a father, like the rest of my friends did (divorce was much rarer in the 50's and 60's).
I'd lie in bed as a kid, talking to God, asking why I didn't have a father and requesting that one be sent to me, ASAP. But no response. From God, or my father. Until events led to me seeing my father for one hour.
Here's what I said at the end of that post:
When the door shut behind me and I started walking down the corridor to my rented car, I was so happy. Not happy that I had finally gotten to meet my father—happy that I would never have to see my father again.
Which I never did.
Moral to this story? If there is one, it's that fantasies aren't reality and what you get in life often is better than what you want in life. Growing up, I wanted my father. When I was grown up, that one hour with him taught me that I was hugely better off fatherless.
Now, we could psychoanalyze the relationship between my physical-father and Godly-father desires. But, let's not. Believe me, I've done a lot of that over my 59 years, and it doesn't lead to much. Everybody's childhood was screwed up somehow.
That's the nature of life, of reality, of existence. Imperfection. Suffering. Desires, some fulfilled, some unfulfilled.
Here's the beginning of Comte-Sponville's "Desire and Illusion" section:
Yes, I desperately wish that God existed, and I see this as a particularly convincing argument not to believe he does. This is only apparently contradictory. To be an atheist is not necessarily to be against God. Why would I be against what does not exist? Personally, I would go even further and admit that I would definitely prefer that there be a god. This is just why, in my eyes, all religions are suspicious.
Isn't it amazing, a remarkable stroke of luck, the good news that every religion brings us: fulfillment of our deepest human desires is precisely how the cosmos has been fashioned, if we follow the tenets of a particular faith.
Now, what does religion tell us – and the Christian religion in particular? That we shall not die, or not really; that we shall rise from the dead and thus be reunited with the loved ones we have lost; that justice and peace will prevail in the end; and, finally, that we are already the object of an infinite love. Who could ask for more? No one, of course! This is what makes religion so very suspicious. As the saying goes, it is too good to be true!
If there's anything I've learned in my nearly six decades of life experience, it's that life doesn't always (or even usually) give me what I want. Hmmmm. I recall hearing that sentiment before.
Yet religions tell me that this evident fact actually is an illusion. I can have what I want; I just need to belly up to a particular religious bar and be served a divine drink that, Wow!, takes all my troubles away. Price: submission, faith, obedience.
What a deal! Like Comte-Sponville says, it seems too good to be true. For a good reason: almost certainly it isn't true.
I threw in "almost." I have to, just as Comte-Sponville does. Nobody knows whether God exists, what happens after death, if some religion really does have a corner on the Ultimate Truth market. We're simply talking about the preponderance of evidence here.
And that points to a different way of looking at life.
What I care about is not my own advantage, but truth – and nothing can guarantee that the two go hand in hand. Indeed, it is rather unlikely that they should, given the particular nature of my advantage and the universal nature of truth.
…Given an alleged reality that nothing attests but which corresponds to our most powerful wishes, we have every reason to suspect it of being the expression of those very wishes, and indeed (as Freud says) directly derived from them – to suspect it, in other words, of having the structure of an illusion.
…An illusion [quoting Freud] is "a belief derived from human wishes" – a desiring credo, you might call it, or a credulous desire.
…Thus illusion is not a particular sort of error; it is a particular sort of belief. To be deluded is to believe that something is true because one wants it to be true. Humanly speaking, nothing could be more comprehensible. Philosophically speaking, nothing could be more dubious.
Anything is possible.
My father could have turned out to be a sterling example of male humanity, simply one who, for some mysterious reason, chose to distance himself from me for some thirty years and engage in seemingly uncaring behavior (like never paying child support to my mother).
Likewise, God could turn out to be real, a being who loves us and will take care of us in every respect after we die, assuming we win his favor beforehand. Maybe God has his own reasons for not fulfilling our desires now. Maybe the cosmos really has been designed for our eternal, but not temporal, satisfaction.
Maybe. But it's doubtful.
"We are inclined by nature to find it easy to believe what we hope for, and hard to believe what we fear," Spinoza wrote in his Ethics. "Whence," he added, "the superstitions by which men are everywhere dominated." All the more reason to be wary of our beliefs, when they start resembling our hopes too closely!