Saturday, February 20, 2016

Atheists And Theists Trying To Communicate With Each Other

As you can see by the title of this post, it will have nothing at all to do with either New Atheist nor fundamentalist monotheists, because one of the signal things which makes both of those groups what they are is that they are not the slightest bit interested in communicating with people who disagree with them. They maintain a lot of contact with people who disagree with them, to be sure. But they're not communicating. Hurling insults and curses and twisting what opponents say as far as it will twist is not communication.

So let's turn away from all of that for the moment, and instead regard something much more pleasant: atheists and theists who are actually trying to understand one another on religious topics. I don't think this happens a lot, but it does happen now and then. The attempt happens. I don't know how much the attempt succeeds. In fact I'm not sure whether it ever actually succeeds at all. Maybe the two sides have experiences which are simply different. Maybe each side simply experiences things which the other side doesn't, and no amount of patient discussion will change that.

I started thinking about this recently while reading one of Nikos Kazantzakis' novels, with his detailed descriptions of the interior lives of believers. Kazantzakis is a wonderfully talented writer, and I began to wonder whether these descriptions of his of the thoughts and feelings of Christians might be significantly more accurate than many of the attempts on the part of theists to communicate their worldviews to atheists, attempts which, to us, often sound more or less like, "Look at that tree! Now how can you say there's no God?!" Kazantzakis' passages seem to come across more vividly to atheists. I've noticed that there are quite a few atheists among his fans.

But perhaps he's less convincing to many believers. Perhaps we atheists like him because, in addition to being such a talented writer, his faith never was genuine, and he was just fooling himself about it.

It seems to me that people very often greatly overestimate their ability to know what anyone else's experience is like. How do we know what someone else is feeling? Well -- we feel it. I'm very much inclined to believe that the emotional experience of cats and dogs and apes and monkeys is very similar to ours, not because I have any impressive empirical data to back this up, but, conversely, because I don't believe that anyone has a lot of impressive empirical data about what other humans experience. I don't believe we have any more convincing way of knowing what other people feel than by feeling it, and it seems that we feel very much the same when we interact with certain other species. Ergo, although our actual understnading of other people's feelings is tenuous, our understanding of animal's feelings is no more tenuous.

I see no convincing evidence that we do anything more than poke around in the dark when trying to understand the experience of any other creatures, human or not, other than our solitary selves.

To return to those atheists and theists trying to understand each other, being friendly, listening politely, squelching urges to mock and deride: perhaps there's a very great difference in the experience of atheists and the experience of theists. It seems that each side commonly is quite frustrated with the other, and thinks that the other side is either incapable of grasping certain very evident things, or unwilling to grasp them, or unwilling to admit that they grasp them.

Kazantzakis describes a breeze, or a sunset, or hunger, and he writes so well that an atheist reader feels it, and becomes enveloped in the experience of one of the novel's characters. And then he goes on to say how the character experiences God in that breeze or that sunset, and the atheist reader may be swept up in that for a moment and wonder whether he's having a religious experience.

But in my case, I've only been swept up for a moment or so at a time -- by reading Kazantzakis, or looking at Byzantine mosaics, or listening to a Requiem Mass while looking at Christian art after having read something by Kazanthakis -- and it's just been a matter of emotion, and not a matter of actually wondering: Hey, have I been wrong all this time -- Does God exist? Did Jesus redeem the world? Is Muhammed the greatest prophet?

I can have quite a powerful emotional experience, I can regard the pictures and music and literature to be wonderfully beautiful -- but with me it never comes close to being a religious experience. Because I never start to wonder whether all of those religious things add up to more than legends, stories from more primitive times.

I've started to wonder whether there is some fundamental difference between theists and atheists. I've started to wonder whether it is not just difficult for these two groups to communicate about religion, but actually impossible, because each group simply experiences things in a different way, a difference which mere words cannot bridge.

Yes, I know that there are atheists who used to be theists and theists who used to be theists -- but are there really? If you closely examine the stories of some saints who say that they used to be quite godless, the tales of their early sinning are often quite tame. John Hus, for example. Or Ned Flanders, describing the time he drank hallf a wine cooler and became "more animal than man." And if you look at some people who converted late in life from atheism to theism, you often will find things they said in their atheist phases which sound very theist -- for example, Alfred Doeblin and Joseph Roth. What I'm saying is that maybe Hus and Doeblin and Roth were never actually godless in the way that most of us atheists are. And conversely, maybe we atheists in our typically religious childhoods never really were believers in the way that most believers were. Maybe the two groups, atheists and theists, are fundamentally different in our experience of things, and maybe it's so damned difficult to communicate with each other because each side is describing experiences which the other side never had and never will have.

"Maybe." That's an underused term in general, and it's indispensable whenever one speculates about another creature's experience.

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