Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ariel Sightings and Atheist Faith

A few days ago, as my family was getting loaded into the car for a thrilling afternoon of shopping, we all noticed a bird dropping on the rear driver’s side window—a mostly white SPLAT with, of course, the requisite dribbles (now dry). Actually, I should say that my wife and I noticed it, as did our five-year-old son. My daughter, who is two, didn’t notice it until a little while later, as we were driving away from a visit to Goody’s Department Store.

We were pulling out of our parking space when my daughter shouted out, “Ariel!” I glanced around and saw no obvious images of the Little Mermaid, but my daughter is good at spotting them even when I don’t. A few months ago, at the airport, her Ariel radar proved to be especially keen, and whenever she cried out “Ariel!” or “Mermaid!” I would eventually (after looking around for a few minutes), find some tiny Little Mermaid bookmark in a shop window or an Ariel backpack disappearing around a corner (attached to the back of a flouncy five-year-old with pigtails).

But this time I could see nothing of the sort. “Where?” I asked.

She pointed insistently out her brother’s window. I looked out across the parking lot, in the direction she had indicated, but saw nothing…until I abruptly realized she was pointing at the window.

To be precise, she was pointing at the bird poop. And as I looked at it, the splat of excrement took on a new meaning. I could see Ariel rising in the water, her hair streaming behind her, her fish tail lost in a roiling swirl, clearly about to be transformed into legs.

The poop bore a remarkable resemblance to the scene from Disney’s The Little Mermaid in which Ariel is rising to the surface of the ocean just after visiting with the sea witch, as her wish for human legs is in the process of coming true.

And I thought to myself: “Too bad it doesn’t look like Our Lady of Guadalupe. Then I could remove the window, laminate it, and sell it on e-Bay for $28,000.”

Instead, when we stopped to fill gas, I went after the Ariel image with the blue window washing liquid and squeegee courteously supplied by the gas station. In moments, Ariel was no more.

The lesson, of course, is this: bird poop is always forming patterns. Most of the time these patterns don’t match any to which we’ve attached special significance. Sometimes they match ones that are deeply important only to two-year-olds. And, every once in awhile, they’re going to match images that someone, somewhere, invests with religious meaning. The same is true, of course, of patterns in toast and chocolate drippings.

And so, when it just so happens that an image imprinted in toast looks like the Blessed Virgin, it really doesn’t make any more sense to view this as a sign from God than it does to view Ariel-in-bird-poop as a sign from Triton the Sea King.

But many religious people are hungry for signs of this sort—tangible images which we can see or touch or (God forbid) taste. They long for a world in which God shows up not just as a quiet presence in a moment of meditative prayer, but in more straightforwardly empirical ways.

Of course, there is a long theological tradition which claims that God does show up in the empirical world all the time because the very existence of the empirical world in all its wonder and mystery is a constant manifestation of the divine. Such a theological view has no need for Virgin Mary sightings, because the entire created world in every aspect is a constant testament to the glory of God. (I should note that this tradition of thought, although it needn't exclude talk of miracles, is very different from the tradition of religious thought which is fixated on miraculous suspensions of natural laws).

But this idea that the empirical world is an ongoing manifestation of the divine is a WAY of seeing the world—and there are other ways to see it, too.

A religious worldview offers one set of glasses through which to interpret and understand the meaning of our ordinary experience. But there are non-religious worldviews that do this, too. So long as these worldviews do not call upon us to reject or deny empirical facts or the best understandings of the patterns by which the material world works (in the way that, say, Young Earth Creationists do), there is nothing in the empirical evidence that will force us to prefer one such worldview to another. There may be more broadly philosophical reasons to favor one general worldview over another, but the empirical data by itself is “polysemitic”—that is, able to be invested with alternative fundamental meanings.

And this means that the embrace of a broadly religious worldview will always be a matter of choice and hope, not a matter of certainty. But many are uncomfortable with living in hope. For a variety of reasons they long for a certainty that is impossible to have, at least in this world we live in.

We see this hunger for certainty not just among the religious, but also among many atheists, who insist that their naturalistic worldview—according to which the world we encounter through our senses and through scientific investigation constitutes all that there is—is an incontrovertible truth established by the empirical evidence. But it should be plain that the question, “Is there more to reality than meets the eye?”, will not be answered by pointing out that I cannot see more to reality than meets my eye. Empirical evidence cannot settle the question of whether there are orders of reality beyond the empirical one.

But the hunger for certainty leads many to look for empirical evidence that confirms in some way their worldview. And this is why so many cling to Virgin Mary sightings. They want something in the empirical world that settles the question of what, if anything, lies beyond the world. The problem, of course, is that nothing will really do this trick. Even if the heavens parted tomorrow and a booming voice declared to the entire planet, “I AM,” it would still be possible to be an atheist. After all, the manifestation might be the work of space aliens (or the result of a freakishly rare confluence of natural events that produced a sonic boom which, by virtue of our tendency to discern anthropomorphic patterns in natural events, we interpreted as the words “I AM”).

In short, to look for proof that your way of seeing the world is the right one by pointing to images of the Blessed Virgin in a grilled cheese sandwich is just shifting the problem of interpretation down one level. The image in the grilled cheese is itself polysemitic, and to treat that image as the deliberate product of a transcendent God is to offer one possible interpretation among many.

In the words of the theologian John Hick, “the true character of the universe does not force itself upon us, and we are left with an important element of freedom and responsibility in response to it…I would suggest that this element of uncompelled interpretation in our experience of life is to be identified with faith in the most fundamental sense of that word.”

If there is a God, he hasn’t created a universe in which His presence is unambuously attested to, perhaps because such an uncompromising testament to His presence would stifle our development as autonomous selves. And if there is no God, then nothing in the universe cares enough about us to make the fundamental nature of reality manifest to us. And so we are left with the “element of uncompelled interpretation” that Hick identifies with faith.

In other words, even the atheist has faith when we get to the most basic level of interpretation. I would argue that even agnostics have faith in this sense, insofar as some kind of implicit worldview is needed in order to live one’s life in any kind of coherent way. At least on an implicit or practical level, we make a decision about what the world is like at its root. And it’s just that, inescapably that: a decision. It's a decision that ought to pay attention to the facts. That is, we should make sure as best we can that our interpretation fits with the facts. But I am sceptical of anyone who claims that only one worldview, or one kind of worldview, will offer such a fit.


  1. Yesterday evening I was having a conversation with my Spiritual Friends, talking about our various inner versions of the visual images we have for the object of our prayers. How do we picture whatever it is we pray to? I was saying something to the effect that I see no problem with visualizing a more human-like entity to help provide a focal point, and at the same time having a broader, more universal concept of the Divine being all that is. These types images are our own internal constructs, (as are the rest of our experiences we often claim to be reality) and each is just as valid. When I said 'just as valid' my friend thought I'd said the various types of images of a divine nature are all 'just a salad.' Well, perhaps that too, if it is a meaningful image for you.


  2. I'm imagining a tossed-deity salad with croutons and a raspberry vinagrette. It's putting me in a prayerful mood. Or is that hunger?

    On a more serious note, I think it may be helpful to draw a distinction between (a) the images, metaphors, and myths we invoke to put us into contact with the divine, and (b) the attempts to describe for others the nature of the divine (perhaps an attempt to gesture towards that which we experience coming into contact with in our most prayerful moments).

    The measure of adequacy in relation to the former is essentially subjective: how useful is this image for helping the individual come into alignment with the divine? But without some kind of sense of the nature of the divine as a starting point, we won't have a clear sense of what exactly we are striving to connect WITH in our moments of meditative prayer--and so we won't have a very good idea of which images and metaphors will be of greatest use in bringing us closer to an experience of the divine.

    Meditating on images of torture and abuse may generate a sense of alignment with some diabolical energy; but we don't call these images useful for connecting us with the divine precisely because we already have some sense, however vague, of what "the divine" means, a sense that excludes anything diabolical from being divine).

    Consider the prophet Zoroaster. The reason why he was so angry at the worshipers of the war god Indra was because the image of a superbeing who takes sides in human conflicts and delights in violence was fundamentally at odds with his EXPERIENCE of the divine.

    And this is the key, I think: our initial conception of the divine has to be born out of some kind of special experience--what might be called religious experience, or mystical experience, or revelatory experience. Our attempt to describe that experience will inevitably be metaphorical, since the divine by its nature transcends our concepts. But some metaphors will be better than others precisely to the extent that they help others to have religious experiences of the same sort as those that originally gave birth to the metaphors.

    When I encounter contemporary portraits of God in which God is portrayed as a cosmic tyrant who demands obedience and lashes out violently at those who don't comply, I might say something like the following: "I have had intimations of something extraordinary at work behind the empirical skin of the world, something that is both tender and awesome, something that at once exposes my inadequacies and washes them away as irrelevant, something that inspires me to love more fully and broadly than I would ever imagine doing on my own. This something is what I mean by 'God.' Not only do I find it hard to see how your picture can be an alternative picture of the same reality that I have encountered, but I cannot imagine how meditating on that picture could help bring anyone closer to an experience of the divine in the sense that I understand it."

    So, there may be many different images that are just as valid (or just a salad), but I would add that there are also images that are not. Some things do not a salad make--at least if, by "salad," you mean anything like what I mean. There are a great diversity of great salads, but chopped liver mixed with styrofoam just ISN'T one of them.

  3. My two year old grandson's radar is set for backhoes. As I was driving him to our house, he in the back seat, I would make conversation like "do you see the trees? the birds? What do you see?" Long silence....then "backhoe". Fortunately, we passed a lot full of backhoes on the way to the house.

    We had our own message from the birds in Santa Fe. A hummingbird wrote a message in some kind of substance on the studio window. Michael watched as it wrote it out. I saw the message. It was about an inch and a half long and looked something like Arabic and something like a crocodile. I thought it could mean an Arabic crocodile would be coming up through the park from the dry Santa Fe riverbed to our studio, but it never happened. It was probably meant for the other birds and not for us. Maybe it meant "don't fly into this window."

    Can't remember what you said Hick said, but it sounded right when I read it. It's all sacred, and I think we all together are creating the world as it is, or the worlds as they are, not knowing how many dimensions we all encompass, or encompass us...
    The hummingbird somehow bridged one of its dimensions to one of ours...we didn't know what it said, but we knew who wrote it, which was just as good. I can't think of anything more valuable than trying to find a way to communicate that forms a bridge and finds commonground, Maybe that's what the hummingbird was saying.


  4. Sometimes people get alarmed, angry, or upset when I use the words "God" or "Christ." It hurts and puzzles me when they assume I am referring to a Cosmic Tyrant when in fact I am referring to the most precious and transformative power in my life: The Essence and Experience of Love Itself.

    The other thing that saddens me is when others assume my identity with Christianity is the same as condoning institutional problems found in the history of Christianity and in current practices of some who call themselves Christian. e.g., sexism, racism, militarism,and intolerance of non-Christians.

    When these misunderstandings happen, I feel like a bowl of chopped liver with styrofoam in it...not a very yummy mix.


  5. Elizabeth--

    I can relate to your experience. One reason I wrote my book (and one reason I wrote the "Angry Atheists" blog post) was to attempt to express the sense of "theistic religion" and "Christianity" that I identify with, and to distinguish it from those senses which inspire so much (justified) outrage.

    There is, in my view, something precious that shouldn't be cast out along with all the accumulated crud. In many ways, my defensiveness with respect to religion and Christianity is similar in kind to my defensiveness towards many of those inmates I have met doing AVP workshops in prison, whose essential humanity became vivid to me in the course of the weekend, whom I came to love and identify with, but who were viewed by the wider world as nothing but scum and filth.

    While I cannot deny the evil that many of these people have done, and the bad habits which have characterized so much of their lives, I balk at efforts to say that these dark things constitute their real ESSENCE.

    On the contrary, I believe that at their core, beneath the layers of crud, there is that which is precious. I've seen it and experienced it myself--both with violent murderers locked away in prison, and with Christianity and other religions.

  6. Oh Eric,
    Your analogy of loving Christianity despite layers of crud the same way you have loved prison inmates despite their crimes, brought tears to my eyes. When I visited my brother and his fellow inmates in prison, I too, found myself opening to these folks whose inner goodness I could clearly see when I turned on the inner light to get past the shadows and gloom. ---Elizabeth