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[cancer|religion] Atheism, cancer and me - Lakeshore
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Jay Lake
Date: 2009-12-24 05:55
Subject: [cancer|religion] Atheism, cancer and me
Security: Public
Tags:calendula, cancer, child, health, personal, religion
I've received various comments on my cancer in a religious context here and there. Almost all entirely well meant, and some well stated. As I mentioned yesterday, even my clinic advises coping through my faith.

Except I have no faith, in the sense that they mean the term. I am an atheist.

I have faith in many things: Gravity. Entropy. The sheer perversity of the universe. Human nature. the_child. The love of calendula_witch and so many other people in my life. The healing power of a good pizza. The glory of sex. Tomorrow's sunrise. The value of a good story.

But those are all small-f "faith." And I am a small-a "atheist." Low Church Atheism, I call it in my snarkier moments. No more than daveraines is out to convert me am I out to deconvert him. I firmly believe (have faith?) in our First Amendment freedom of religion. You can believe in YHWH, God, Zeus, Allah, Zoroaster, Gaea, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Verruca Gnome for all it matters to me. They're all equally provable assertions, which is to say absolutely unprovable. Your Faith is as important to me as your favorite color. Which is to say, if I like you, I care that you care, but the thing you believe in has zero impact on the real world.

Basically, if you're a person of Faith, unless you're a pagan or a polytheist, I only believe in one less god than you do. Really, we do have a lot in common.

The fact that you believe can have tremendous impact. Viz the Crusades, the Inquisition, the World Trade Center attacks, imprecatory prayer for the death of Senator Byrd. But that's not God talking, that's the insecurities and needs and beliefs of millions of individual people who look to God for comfort, rationale or revenge. Or something. I don't know, I'm not them.

What I do know is that religious belief is strongly privileged in virtually every modern society except some interpretations of the Socialist-Communist spectrum. Our own First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion, which I think would have been far more foresighted of the Founding Fathers.

Faith can reinforce certainty, until we get the lunacy that is modern conservative movement, where politics, culture, a specific swathe of Protestantism and a whole lot of white resentment have been braided together to form a lash that scourges our body politic, sabotages our culture, and makes the United States the laughingstock of the world. Without the strand of Faith in the braid, the whole structure of the post-Nixonian Republican party would have been vastly different, and the world quite possibly would not have suffered the presidencies of Bush the Younger.

Likewise, Faith consistently privileges behaviors that would neurotic or psychotic in any other circumstance. Or simply criminal. From Catholic abuse scandals to snake handling and glossolalia to honor killings, people of faith behave over and over again in manners that would have this atheist locked up, and rightly so. And because it's part of their Faith, their consciences are undisturbed and their lives are called good.

Tell me again why I need Faith? For anything?

So what we have is a gigantic social structure that seems to be as old as human consciousness. It clearly fulfills a vast and fantastic need in the human spirit. And yes, I have a spirit, too. Anyone who's ever read much of my fiction knows that I am on a spiritual quest of my own. I constantly interrogate many of the same questions that Faith is supposed to interrogate. What is my purpose? How am I to act? Why is there good and evil in the world? To whom are my higher loyalties owed? Who is responsible?

Being a rank empiricist and good-hearted skeptic, I can only look for those answers within myself. Sometimes I feel like Jacob wrestling with the angel, in a world innocent of the corrupting touch of God.

I don't lack Faith. To say that implies that Faith is a requirement, or a default condition of being human. I simply don't find any cause to have Faith, any more than I find any cause to believe in the influence of retrograde Mercury on my daily life. And for precisely the same reason. If I lack Faith, I lack it the same way I lack my third hand. It was never a necessary part of me in the first place.

(As an aside, I was raised in Faith, during my early years. My grandfather Lake was a preacher in the Disciples of Christ. I still have a shelf of Bibles and concordances, some of them inscribed with praise for my studies and my knowledge. I even attended missionary schools in my youth. My views of Faith aren't from a lack of exposure, trust me.)

All of which is why I am an atheist. Ultimately because I see no reason not to be, except wishful thinking and the spiritual yearning that all human beings share. Wishful thinking I can dispatch with a wave of my adult hand. Spiritual yearning I address through literature, writing, discourse and thought. Perhaps you could argue I am my own god, but I don't think I'd ever make that claim seriously.

Now to cancer.

As I said yesterday, a well-meaning acquaintance recently told me, "I just don't understand how you can do this without faith in God." I'm not sure if he was referring to my suffering, or the real and significant confrontation with mortality that this disease represents. Perhaps both. I didn't ask, because I like him enough not to want to communicate my sense of insult, and I don't like him so much to want the effort of working through that together.

As an atheist, my simple response might be, "What does God have to do with this?" If God, in the Evangelical Christian sense (his perspective), is real, I could only blame Him for my disease. He is said to act directly in our lives, sending red Mercedes to the deserving and hurricanes to punish the gay. Retail religion, I suppose, and I got handed a rotten apple here at the divine service counter.

Do I need God to blame? No. I don't really need anyone or anything to blame, but I suppose if I do, it's myself and evolution. Colon cancer isn't explicitly a lifestyle cancer, like smoking-related lung cancer, but possibly if I'd eaten a lot less fried food and red meat, and lot more fresh fruits and vegetables, I could have postponed this. I don't carry the known genetic markers (we've checked, and also I have no recent family history). Evolution, well, cancer is a cell division error, fundamentally, a disease of self-repair and reproduction. And what is evolution but cell division accompanied by recombinancy? Welcome to the universe, mister vertebrate. Here's your long odds.

Do I need God to comfort me? No. What comfort would an invisible, unprovable assertion bring me? I have family, friends, lovers, co-workers, readers, fans, and random strangers who offer me far more support and comfort than I know what to do with. No one can reach into my side and still the twanging of the nerves in my ribs right now, not God, not calendula_witch, not my doctors. I can only cope, and work through it. No one can reach into my bloodstream and still the tiny assassin cells that lurk there, waiting to colonize my liver and lungs, except my doctors with their arsenal of drugs. My comfort lies in living, pushing forward, struggling, and perhaps eventually dying with some grace and meaning.

My life does have intent, and purpose. Cancer has focused that to a point beyond pain. Some people find intent and purpose through Faith, and unto them I say, yea, verily, go forth and do what raises your spirit. I cannot see anything in Faith except the barking of carnies and the psychological needs of a lonely ape long lost from his East African plains, and so I find my intent and purpose in myself, in my circle of love and friendship, and ultimately in these words.

Am I richer for it? Who's to say? But I'm happy all by myself, without God. In some ways, happier than I've ever been, right now, with two holes in my left side and four holes in my right side and a medical appliance poking against my throat and some dreadful poisons two weeks in my future.

Are you happy? With or without God? For your sake, I hope like hell it doesn't take cancer for you to answer that question.

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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-12-24 14:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
In this, we are as one.
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Scott Raun
User: sraun
Date: 2009-12-24 14:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Isn't being an atheist as much an expression of faith as being a theist of whatever stripe? Both are making statements about something unknowable. That's why I'm agnostic - I don't know that there is a god (or many gods), but neither do I know that there is not.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-12-24 14:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Isn't being an atheist as much an expression of faith as being a theist of whatever stripe? Both are making statements about something unknowable.

That's not how I see it. The only statement I'm making about the unknowable is that it is unknowable, and therefore empirically irrelevant. That's almost the opposite of faith, to my eye.

I prefer my assertions provable. :D
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kellymccullough
User: kellymccullough
Date: 2009-12-24 14:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for this. I have at various hard places in my life thought that it might be nice to have Faith in something, or then again, not. But I never have and I very likely never will and you've made an eloquent address for some of the why and how of that "not" here.
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wyld_dandelyon: dragon reading
User: wyld_dandelyon
Date: 2009-12-25 15:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:dragon reading
I have been reading that geneticists now think that some people are predisposed toward having what we call transcendent or religious experiences, and some are not.

They do not make any judgment, of course, as to whether those experiences correspond to an external reality, or whether they are figments of brain chemistry.

I believe in Deity because I sense it. I don't know that what I sense is Goddess or Gods and Goddesses, though those descriptions fit my experiences. But I don't demand anyone else believe.

As to the genetics, if more than half of people have religious experiences, I figure that on an evolutionary scale, there's likely some use to it.
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Autopope
User: autopope
Date: 2009-12-24 14:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I mostly agree with you, except ...

I think faith -- faith untempered by evidence, skepticism, and ungrounded in observation -- is an abomination. Faith isn't something harmless; it's an excuse (a cognitive disorder, projection of self-defined belief onto the external universe) used to justify a multitude of atrocities.

And as for spirituality ...

I'm an animal, like any other. I am not the centre of the universe. To the extent that I have a purpose, it is one that I have come up with for myself; there's no divine providence behind it, and in the scheme of things I'm utterly unimportant. It's enjoyable to imagine otherwise, but nothing I do will fundamentally alter the trajectory of my existence, or its ultimate destination (a return to nothingness, from nothingness).

This isn't nihilism: it's just a statement of fact and a refusal to irrationally believe that I'm special.

(Call this an attempt at updating classical Stoicism. Works for me ...)
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fledgist
User: fledgist
Date: 2009-12-24 16:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm more Epicurean than Stoic, I'd say (with a touch of the Carvaka).
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jtdiii
User: jtdiii
Date: 2009-12-24 14:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Your number of flight hours probably did more to aggravate or cause the cancer than the red meat and friend food. The slight increase in radiation at altitude and all.

But would that be worth giving up?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-12-24 14:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Huh. Interesting. A different spin on lifestyle cancer, to be sure. My lifetime air mileage is well on the way to 2 million, so, yes, that's a lot of hours at 7 miles high.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
Paul
User: horrorofitall
Date: 2009-12-24 14:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I bet you have read Daniel Dennett's "Thank Goodness" already but if not here it is. One of the best essays, I think, on close to what you are talking about. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/dennett06/dennett06_index.html
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-12-24 15:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting read. Thank you, I had not seen that before.
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Michael: man
User: akaspeedo
Date: 2009-12-24 15:16 (UTC)
Subject: Thank you.
Keyword:man
Beautifully put. I especially appreciate, "Our own First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion." Yes!

The only way that belief in god could "help" a person get through something horrible is if they think there's a good explanation or reason for this horrible experience, somewhere. In god's mind, perhaps? It's a little like the idea that the meaning of life will only be discovered, um, when you're dead. Frankly, neither of those is appealing, sensible or even comforting to me. I'll take my meaning now, thanks, and trust in chaos theory.
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daveraines
User: daveraines
Date: 2009-12-24 16:56 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Thank you.
I remember learning how to take multiple-choice tests, and one of my teachers said "any time you see absolute words like ONLY and ALWAYS, odds are the statement is false."

I can point you to any number of people who have no idea why "something horrible" has happened to them - or who believe it happened because stuff happens - yet whose "belief in god" has helped them get through it. (There are probably books, too. See, for instance, the Book of Job.)
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cathshaffer
User: cathshaffer
Date: 2009-12-24 15:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It is your prerogative to deal with your illness in a manner consistent with your beliefs and worldview. Studies show that religious faith is a powerful coping tool for people going through cancer or other major life events and losses, and thus it is not inappropriate for your clinic to suggest that you should seek solace and support from your faith and faith community. It is also not inappropriate for your to let them know that you're an atheist and thus that particular toolkit not available to you (at least not in the same way). In a similar way, your physical therapist might suggest a hot tub to deal with your shoulder pain, and you could respond either that you have no hot tub or that you are not allowed to use one until your sutures are removed. Some may judge you for not using a hot tub, but in the end that is their problem, not yours.

The view of faith you put forth here is one that many westerners share, and is particularly dominant in the evangelical style of christianity in which you grew up. This is a view of god as a deity that plans and controls everything and thus is responsible for any suffering. There are two basic ways to deal with major suffering in this context--one is to assume that "god has a plan" and it will all turn out for the best somehow. Another is to blame god, get angry, and reject faith altogether. Quite a lot of people take the former path, but what tends to happen is when challenges pile up there is a breaking point where most people will eventually reject faith. Ultimately, trust in a plan for the greater good tends to break down when you realize you are the one supposedly paying the price for everyone else's greater good.

Another way of looking at suffering is through the lens of free will and natural law, and understanding that suffering is something we are prone to by human nature--by the choices we make and by the existence of viruses, cancer, natural disasters, etc. In that context, god is not the arbitrator of an awful destiny, but a source of external grace and support to carry us through the inevitable sufferings of our lives. This is how I have always perceived faith, but am reading a very good book called _Finding God in Trouble Times_ by Richard J. Hauser that has really helped me define my view. Hauser was a chaplain at a university years ago when a terrible car accident killed a number of students that were in his spiritual care. Tending to the survivors was a harrowing experience for him that tested his faith, and this book is a detailed meditation on the difference between a childlike view of god wherein god is the author of all of our misfortunes through some incomprehensible mysterious plan, and one in which god is a partner connecting us to something greater and giving meaning through suffering. Even if you don't find a belief in god relevant to your own situation, it might be an interesting read for you to see how faith and spirituality can play a positive role in suffering, beyond the ever-annoying "god has a plan" kind of thing. I believe that most people who successfully use faith as a coping tool end up with this type of relation to it, and as an atheist this route is not entirely closed to you. Even if you don't believe in a deity or life after death, you can postulate the existence of some greater "energy" or "connection," to use in gathering strength for your journey.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-12-24 15:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you. And to be clear, I'm not the least bit interested in stirring shit at the clinic. Faith is a powerful tool for those who hold it, and the last thing I want to do is strip that away in their time of need. (Or any other time, really.) I have a number of political and cultural arguments with Faith (viz evolution denial, for one), and you're familiar with most of them as a long-time friend, but this is an intensely personal context for me, and for anyone else on my road.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
I cared not for consequences but wrote
User: elorie
Date: 2009-12-24 15:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, I decided to respond because I'm in that sort of mood. I suspect it's going to be mostly background so my answer will make sense.

To begin with, I'm a Pagan, of the initiatory-tradition variety. I don't actually have a lot of truck with faith. Like a lot of Pagans, belief is a lot less important to me than practice.

Although...I'm also a mystic by nature and a shaman. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, I don't believe in gods any more than I believe in the postman. On the other hand, to paraphrase a fellow Pagany shaman type (Raven Caldera), I don't really expect other people to believe in gods they haven't met.

That is to say, when I talk about gods and my religious practice, I am talking about experiences I have had. In that sense, I know that the Gods I work with are real. However, I am absolutely not attached to a particular explanation of what their nature is. It's possible they are "just" artifacts of the funky interaction between human consciousness and archetypes, or something. This doesn't strike me as an important issue that I have to nail down, because my practice doesn't stand or fall on that. You could prove to me that they are absolutely epiphenomena of my own consciousness and I would say, "Oh. How interesting" and go right back to meditating.

That is because (to finally address your question), the reason I do this stuff is partially to understand my place in the world (and the symbols I use are good for that regardless) and partially because it makes my life better. I am a happier, more focused, more integrated, and consequently rather nicer person as a result of my religious practice. Much happier. As in, the difference between seriously depressed and not, happier. So the answer to your question is, yes. I definitely don't think that what I do is the only way to achieve the same goals. But it works for me.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-12-24 15:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I definitely don't think that what I do is the only way to achieve the same goals. But it works for me.

And that's what's important.

I'm also a big fan of religious practice that doesn't judge, condemn or try to control nonbelievers through a narrative that claims a monopoly on truth or goodness. Which Christianity explicitly does here in the United States, with its profound distorting influence on law, medicine, education and public discourse. I like yours much better.
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Eric T. Reynolds
User: ericreynolds
Date: 2009-12-24 16:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well said. I don't think I've heard, or read, it said better.
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User: jess_ka
Date: 2009-12-24 16:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:luminousrain
I think faith in the love of your loved ones, in good food, in sex, in stories, is plenty faith enough.
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mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2009-12-24 16:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Everyone negotiates their relationship with the universe in their own way. You have faith. It's just not in god or gods. It seems to me that you have faith in love and beauty and art and the amazingness of the universe itself.

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torreybird
User: torreybird
Date: 2009-12-24 16:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The fundamental skill one needs to be a good theoretical physicist: a great imagination.

For every theory – gravity included – before you can construct tests to collect evidence to support or deny the theory, you must imagine the details of the theory. In order to have a rich, and hopefully accurate imagining, you must first collect data. The data is nuanced, unstructured, chaotic, and categorically unscientific – but still necessary. Otherwise, on basis do you first imagine? Once you have an idea of how things work, you (or your predecessors) drop spheres from towers, roll wheels down ramps, reflect light across distances and polish lenses. As the data builds, it is encumbered and decorated by details, which in turn have various degrees of accuracy. Remember phlogiston? Aether? Sometimes we have to discard a favorite detail in favor of what might be more accurate.

I try to take the same approach to my spiritual life. The concept of god is too big and overlapping, and impossible to collect data about, so I ignore it and work on the little stuff. I have lots of evidence that supports the idea that the connection to community most frequently found in religious settings can strongly affect we humans, so I put that postulate in the “pretty sure” bucket. I don’t have any evidence for eternal salvation or damnation, so I put it in the “SRSLY?!?” bucket. Whether something is fair or not, the idea of Justice, is something that I think is tangential to the real spiritual story. Fairness has its own bucket, data to be compared against and correlated with when the core of the religious theory is complete. Prayer is in the most interesting bucket: “significant evidence, as yet unexplained, so keep poking at it & collecting evidence.” When I feel the need to pray – or when someone asks me to pray – I do. Even though my theories are not sufficiently robust to explain how, if, or why, prayer may or may not affect any situation. For some things, even though I have a need to judge, it’s not up to me. I certainly wouldn’t want my incomplete understanding to get in the way of doing something good.

So, am I happy with this not-relationship with an unbaked god postulate? Yes, possibly because I have a system that works toward an understanding, which is part of what my human nature requires.
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daveraines
User: daveraines
Date: 2009-12-24 17:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Huh. This is thought-provoking. Can I steal it for a sermon sometime?
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kit: discover
User: mizkit
Date: 2009-12-24 16:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:discover
I am happy without any Faith in my life beyond the sorts you describe--I have utter faith the sun will rise tomorrow, because empirical evidence suggests it's been doing so for four billion years, and I seriously doubt anything in the next four or ten billion years is going to disrupt that.

I have always found it bewildering that there are people who require God (or gods, or what-have-you) in their life to be content, but at the end of the day, as far as I'm concerned, whatever works for them.

One of my good friends in high school, the daughter of a preacher, said to me one time that she was very concerned about my lack of belief in God, and that she would pray for me. I told her that was fine, but please don't tell me about it. We're still friends. She probably still prays for me, but she doesn't tell me about it. We're both good with that solution.

Another friend and I were recently discussing faith--he's religious and was mildly surprised I wasn't, particularly when I was willing and interested in /having/ a discussion about faith and God with him. He said his general experience was that atheists tried to argue him out of his faith. I said I wasn't any more likely to convert him than he was to convert me, so why should either of us waste our time? He loved that idea, the idea of *converting* to atheism, and said he would use that phrasing next time somebody tried getting into it with him.

I also figure any god-like being I could believe in would be an awful lot like Q from TNG: exceedingly powerful and utterly capricious, and not somebody I would be very likely to consider a *god* because of that. And I'm inclined to feel any god worth believing in wouldn't bar you from his, her or its favored afterlife just because you didn't believe in it. Give me a quantifiable god of that nature and I'll consider converting. :)
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wyld_dandelyon: Rainbow Owl
User: wyld_dandelyon
Date: 2009-12-25 16:31 (UTC)
Subject: Reply to Mizkit
Keyword:Rainbow Owl
Whether a person believes in God (a God, some Gods, Goddess, three Gods in one, etc.) doesn't necessarily have to do with what they feel they need.

I don't require color, for instance, but I do perceive colors, and I enjoy them. They enrich my life.

If I was colorblind, I would doubtless find other things to enjoy, other ways to enrich my life.

My partner is partially colorblind; in some situations, she sees better than I do. Her colorblindness is a disability in some situations; my color vision is a disability in others. Still, I will enjoy my colors, as long as I've got them. They're bright, and vibrant, and beautiful, and bring me joy.
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ygolonac
User: ygolonac
Date: 2009-12-24 16:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm another cancer survivor without 'faith', though I was raised Catholic.

I think Patton Oswalt sums up my view of religion pretty good :)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55h1FO8V_3w

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