Friday, February 17, 2012

Room Enough for Both at the Table: Reason Rally

At the end of March, many prominent atheists plan to march on Washington, DC. Among them is famed firebrand Richard Dawkins and MythBuster Adam Savage. Both of these names, plus other scheduled speakers have one very large area of commonality. They are skilled in science, math, and technology. So-called left-brained individuals have a tendency to favor conclusions that can be either convincingly be proved or disproved. That is the logic upon which their thoughts are often based.

People who work in the sciences and in mathematics often think in terms of purely correct and purely incorrect. This is a somewhat crude rendering of a complicated truth, but I seek to make an argument. People who excel at numbers and figures can always take pride and comfort that every equation works out perfectly, should one first discover the proper series of steps. Likewise, the same thing is true if one wishes to balance a chemical equation or calculate precise quantity. Left-brained people intuitively gravitate towards resolutions which contain an element of perfection.

Right-brained people, however, live in a much messier world. For them, many inherent and indisputable truths exist in shades of grey. They are believers in a kind of world without cut-and-dried solutions. Right-brained creativity takes a theme and expands upon it, instead of working within the close confines of a system. To them, it is unrealistic to expect outcomes so easily solved. Every metaphorical math problem upon which they work always leaves a remainder. Each scientific discovery has a hidden flaw or even multiple flaws.

The STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields are usually where atheism is most popular. To some, the concept of a mysterious, unpredictable, sometimes confusing God does not compute. However, merely because brain function strongly differs from person to person does not mean that a Higher Power is a fiction. I have met left-brained people who have a strong belief in God. Often, this is the result of having survived some crisis like a severe illness or a personal tragedy. A universe of indisputable evidence and methodology is not much help when no answers can be found.

In the South, where I grew up, atheism was often a protest against the predominant religion of the Bible Belt. Rural areas, in particular, are mainstays of conservative Christianity. Foremost among these groups are the Southern Baptists, who hold a strong majority of church-going believers even today. Those who rejected what they saw as a limiting and a very narrowly defined view of individual liberty often flipped to the opposite end of the spectrum. I’ve seen many a copy of British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s 1927 essay “Why I Am Not a Christian” in their personal collection.

I’m not fearful of the growing scourge of the unbelievers. Those who would receive the message are those to whom I speak. People who would push it away are entitled to their own views. Atheism, much like Theism, takes many forms. Sometimes it’s a temporary way to contradict past hurtful teachings. Other times, it arrives and is practiced for the rest of one’s life. Predicting inevitable outcomes along one’s Spiritual journey is a futile gesture in the end. None of us truly know the direction our life will take. No system shaped by our hands provides a satisfying answer.

Until that day, all of us can learn from each other. The muddy, messy, inexact world of the right-brained can learn from the precise, conclusive, and pinpoint reality of the left-brained. And in the middle one finds God and the limits of human understanding. God is both comprehensible and infuriatingly difficult to fully realize. Theology and scientific knowledge need not be mutually exclusive. We ought not form opposing camps, digging in for the bombardment to follow. Instead, we should acknowledge the mystery of systems beyond any telescope or any collection of moral teachings.

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