Friday, October 08, 2010

The metaphysics of bowling

[Third in a series]


We certainly agree on more than we disagree, and one of the things that we agree on is that the world would be a better place if religion were more like bowling, which actually brings up a very interesting point: why do people bowl? It is, if you think about it, a completely ridiculous activity. What is the point? You do all this work to set up the pins (or to make machines to set them up for you) only to try to knock them down again under constraints deliberately designed to make the task difficult. If you want the pins down, why not just walk up to them and kick them over? And if you want them up, why not just set them up and leave them that way?

And it's not like bowling skills are transferrable to anything useful. If you go hunting instead of bowling, or running or hiking or gardening or even bird watching you can make the argument that you are honing a skill that under certain circumstances could have actual utility. But bowling?

No, bowling is just completely and utterly useless, except for one thing: it's fun. It's fun precisely because it's not related in any way to anything important or useful, and that is in fact the appeal: it provides an escape. If something is important and useful that inherently means that the stakes are high, topping out at the proverbial matters of life and death, where we find the most important and useful -- and hence the most stressful -- activities of all: the business of keeping yourself and your family alive. Bowling is about as far removed from that as you can get.

In that sense Religion is like bowling. A bowling alley is not always readily at hand, but God is always there, like a little portable bowling alley that you can carry along with you in a corner of your mind. When times get tough you can always turn to Him. You don't even have to put on special shoes.

The problem, of course, is that using God this way requires one (on the hard atheist view) to abandon objective reality, which leads to all sorts of negative consequences. People don't usually engage in jihad over bowling. But they do riot over soccer games on a regular basis, and soccer doesn't require you to abandon reality any more than bowling does. So I contend that it's not religion that's the problem, but extremism, and that this is true in nearly every realm of human endeavor. What makes bowling attractive to you and P.Z. Myers is not that it's not a religion, but that it's not extreme, that it doesn't provoke its adherents to violence or to undermine science education. But neither does Buddhism. Or Quakerism. Or Jainism. I could go on. When was the last time you heard of a bunch of Episcopalians bombing an abortion clinic?

Framing the debate as religion-versus-atheism is a serious mistake, not only because it takes the focus off the real underlying problem, but also for practical and political reasons. It makes enemies of moderate religions who really ought to be our allies in the fight for what I really want: a peaceful, prosperous world with as few crazy people as possible in positions of influence and power. It makes the message a negative one ("There is no God") rather than a positive one, which makes a tough sell in a tough world.

You say that what you want is "greater respect for rationality and empirical science, and less respect for faith, as a trusted means for understanding the world." That is a fine aspiration. But you're more likely to get it if you reciprocate and make an effort to understand and develop a greater respect for faith, even if in developing that understanding and respect you do not yourself arrive at faith. Towards that end I have recommended two books written by the noted author Karen Armstrong. The first is A Short History of Myth and the other is The Case for God, which is really just an expanded version of Short History.

I apologize for bringing up what you may have considered a privileged out-of-band communication, but your initial reaction upon reading Short History was, "I hated the beginning. Just hated it. She was claiming value for non-truth..." To which I responded, "Have you never enjoyed a novel?" The reason I bring this up is that your devotion to objective truth is understandable, even admirable, but if taken to an extreme it can lead you astray, and in ways that have much more serious consequences than just missing out on a cracklin' good yarn. I hope you will keep this in mind as we proceed.

No comments: