Sunday, January 27, 2013

Is Atheism Practical? Unsound?

Is Atheism Practical? Unsound?

[[ERRATA]] : My apologies: I mixed two quotes from Martin Luther King in my original blog. It was violence that he described as "immoral." In a paper he wrote in 1950 he described atheism as shown below.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described atheism as both “philosophically unsound and impractical.” 

Agnosticism I can relate to, at least on the basis that an honest (if simplistic) assessment of human realities can find no sensory evidence of the Deity. To say, therefore, “I don’t know” is to leave open the possibility rather than to join the ranks of dogmatists, both atheists and religionists in hotly declaring a belief or nonbelief in a reality that neither can prove nor disprove to the other.

My impression of at least some self-declared atheists is that they object to the depiction of a personal and vindictive God foisted on us by dyed-in-the-wool believers. If you can re-direct the atheist’s attention to the beauties of nature, the vastness and awe-inspiring complexities and antiquity of creation, the gift of human love, charity, and self-sacrifice, you will sometimes find a closet deist who worships the Unseen Hand by another name or form. I don’t mean to paint all atheists with the same brush, but in my experience this depiction describes some, perhaps many — those aghast or traumatized by the atrocities or hypocrisy of orthodox religionists.

Science may be devoid of faith or feeling but scientists are not. Too many are the Deist reflections of Albert Einstein, for example, for anyone to insist that the greatest scientists lack feeling, reverence or awe in contemplation of the mysteries of life and the natural world.

Paramhansa Yogananda, renowned author of “Autobiography of a Yogi,” came to live in the United States from India in 1920. He admired the material progress, genius, and good works of western scientists and, as if applying their methods to solving the riddle of human existence, asked for what purpose are we impelled to survive? That we seek to survive is far too obvious to question. But why? What is it we seek? And by what means do we find success and by what means do we fail? His inquiry into the mystery of our existence proceeded, like that of men and women of science, from observation and measurement, not from a priori declarations of absolute or revealed truth.

The ancient Greek sages averred that man’s highest duty is “To know thyself.” One such sage, Protagoras, shocked his contemporaries with the statement that “Man is the measure of all things.” In modern times the well known Indian sage of Arunachala hill, Ramana Maharshi, advised seekers to ask, “Who am I?”

If science teaches us that the universe is both incomprehensibly vast and yet without any known center or direction, we have seemingly two choices for humanity: we are either nothing (and life therefore is without meaning), or, we are, indeed, the “measure of all things.” This latter direction has, itself, two directions: I can join with the ranks of twentieth century existentialists in declaring that my ego is the center of the universe and my desires and impulses are the sole measure of truth for me; or, I can go in the direction of Jesus Christ and the Yogi-Christs of India when Jesus declared, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.”

At this point in human history we’ve yet to find life forms such as ourselves from other planets but given the estimate of 200 billion galaxies, I must supposed that the odds are greater than 100% that they must exist. 

But inasmuch as that inquiry must remain, for now, only speculative, let us turn to the human experience, then, for our inquiry.

The ancient scriptures of India admit that “God cannot be proved.” So, let us also take from them this admission and follow Jesus’ advice and Yogananda’s line of inquiry for the Holy Grail.

Yogananda started with the observation that what all men seek is happiness. Pleasure, yes, too, but that is easily experienced as fleeting and even counterproductive to lasting happiness as sensory indulgence, unless held in check, can destroy health and happiness. Held even in check, pleasure, moreover, is fleeting and even in its midst a reflective person feels its unreality (because based in perception and anticipation) and its limited span of fulfillment. Observation of human pleasure reveals that its pursuit can be addictive and overtake the good judgment, common sense, and human values of its votaries. Disease, harmful emotions, and premature aging await those who fall victim to the pursuit of pleasure as the summum bonum of life’s existence.

Human happiness is usually sought and seen in human love, cherished family ties, financial success and security, prestige, position, fame, talent, or beauty. But these are like prostitutes: loyal to no one. Observation of the facts easily discloses that those who achieve one or more such pinnacles of human happiness too often find the summit to be cold, windy, desolate, dull, fleeting or elusive. At the top there is nowhere to go but down and furiously scrambling up the mountain sides just below you are hordes of competitors and unseen snipers of  death, disease, or betrayal lurking in the shadows below.

None of these easily observable realities and shortcomings of pleasure or human happiness seem to deter the billions of human beings on this planet from seeking their elusive gains. Perhaps it is lack of wisdom, lack of refinement of feeling, lack of the knowledge of a viable alternative or the hypnosis of the allure of these achievements that blind mankind to our own greater potential for true happiness.

Never mind the question of how did this all come about and why. Never mind the fact that the created universe veritably shouts the existence of an overarching Intelligence and Purpose and that the odds of all of this coming into existence randomly is patently absurd, or that the question of the existence of Consciousness belies our very inquiry into it.

Each person can experiment as scientifically as the armies of white lab-coated technicians and their test tubes on what brings them true, lasting and satisfying happiness and contentment. Never mind the cosmos, for now. It seems to get along fine without us.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “Nonviolence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might. The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law — to the strength of the spirit.”

It is not difficult to discover for oneself that a selfish life is shortsighted and brings unhappiness and pain. An unselfish life, applied with common sense and balance, brings harmony and satisfaction. Heroes show themselves willing to give their lives that others may live free. Humanitarians, great leaders and reformers, and saints in all lands show that the way to inner peace and contentment is to live for high ideals and for the greatest good of all. The calm, inward gaze away from material objects and toward the intangible but life sustaining gifts of wisdom, compassion, creativity, selflessness, and devotion to the Creator are proof positive against the ceaseless flux of changing customs, conquerors, disease, war, and hatred.

Life goes on, as Gandhi and King would often put it, and proves that death, disease, and destruction cannot prevail.

How do these self-discoveries relate, then, to the existence of God? Take the journey and see for yourself. 

But along the way consider those whose lives you are following in your experiments with truth (living an unselfish life). What do these heroes and heroines say?

If what the great ones teach us is so obvious, why do so few take the higher path? The higher path requires climbing the mountain and going through the brambles of habit, upbringing, and the ego’s insistence that the body and personality must be satisfied first lest by unselfishness they suffer. And suffer they will, if we listen to them.

Moreover, the selfish life also calls to us, both from our dark past and from the sheer magnetism and allure of its fleeting or dark satisfactions. The great scourge of human happiness is addiction to sense satisfactions, enabled and empowered especially by the power of wealth, possessions, and influence.

The take up of the high road requires the give up of the easy, but descending path, toward the jungle of survival of the fittest ego and towards the swamp of mortal death, disease, and old age. To one whose gaze is fixed upon the greater reality and good of all life, the mortality and frailty of the human body and insecure ego are but universal realities  that we are challenged to “get over it.”

To paraphrase Paramhansa Yogananda and a vision he had of Divine Mother, “Dance of life and dance of death, know that these come from Me.” Fear not for they have no lasting reality for Spirit to Spirit goes, unfettered by matter’s ceaseless flux from form to energy and energy back to form.

Let us return then to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his labeling of atheism as unsound and impractical. I cannot claim to know his thoughts in this statement, but I believe his thoughts derive from the loss of the polestar of higher Self from which to guide one’s life. During his brief life (‘50’s and ‘60’s) post-war materialism and atheism (and the power and threat of communism based upon both), existentialism, together with amateurish interpretations of scientific discoveries and speculations such as chaos theory and relativity, were associated with what would be seen as the breakdown of morality and the rise of atheism and belief in the meaninglessness of life.

Atheism as a rejection of religious dogmas was not yet widely understood. King lived in a time of rebellion, both positive and negative. Thus Martin Luther King, Jr. both devout and deeply religious (in a nonsectarian way) and a deep thinker concerned with the trends of modern culture, would describe atheism as unsound. 

Atheism would be seen as impractical in contrast to how he saw his crusades for social justice as eminently practical in their methods but as justified in the perception of all men as children of God. That an agnostic or atheist might be a humanist, a proponent of an enlightened self-interest, or a pragmatist taking his cue from the scientific establishment of the interdependency of all living things and upon what might be called traditional Stoicism (a morality based on human values including moderation and self-sacrifice) would not have occurred to King or his religious contemporaries. (A Stoic sees that life brings both pleasure and pain, life and death, and taking the long view steps back from the pursuit of false and fleeting experiences to remain calm, dignified, and self-sacrificing, following what we might call the Golden Rule.)

It may well be that an atheist turns to the enlightenment of reason but as there are “no atheists in fox holes,” an atheist who holds fast and true to humanist ideals in the face of personal suffering, conflict, betrayal, humiliation or self-sacrifice is something much more than a mere atheist. Such virtue would not, in my opinion, derive from atheism but from a deeper and intuitive sense of justice and righteousness that no mere non-belief in a deity could suffice to sustain. Well, that’s my opinion. Taking this further, then, loss of moral judgment would not be a far step from one whose only anchor was this lack of a belief.

As studies have shown that those with a strong and abiding faith heal from surgery or illness faster, and cope with dying with greater aplomb, faith in God is already showing itself (using scientific methods of observation) to be practical. Faith-based communities, too, often show themselves effectively serving the ideals and good of society in ways no legislation or taxation could possibly achieve.

None of this is for the purpose of convincing a self-described atheist or agnostic to “come over to the other side.” Such a journey is like a river that runs silent and runs deep. But the impracticality of such a position, and its potential to lead to selfish behavior, productive of unhappiness, is surely worthy of consideration. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. are certainly worth pondering.


Nayaswami Hriman

P.S. For an inspired and insightful explanation for Yogananda's "thesis" and modern thought, I direct your attention to two works by J. Donald Walters (aka Swami Kriyananda): "Out of the Labyrinth" and "Hope for a Better World." (Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City, CA)