The persistence of faith
By William Deresiewicz
“We all believe in some goofy shit.” So said Trey Parker and Matt Stone a couple of years ago during their promotional appearances for The Book of Mormon. In other words, if the Latter-day Saints believe in the Angel Moroni, the golden plates, and Utah as the Promised Land—well, shucks, don’t we all accept things that are equally absurd? No, I thought, we don’t. That’s just the kind of brainless, PC split-the-differencism that forbids us from applying our intelligence to people’s belief systems, reducing the whole topic of religion to a bland, tepid, homogenized mush.
But lately I’ve been wondering if maybe they weren’t right. The physicist Lawrence Krauss, who has a sideline in antireligious skepticism, was on Bill Maher earlier this year. Tina Brown was also on, and Maher and Krauss spent several minutes ridiculing her for a cover story she had run in Newsweek. An excerpt of Eben Alexander’s best-selling Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, it was called “Is Heaven Real?” Never mind Alexander’s Gospel-according-to-my-coma, which is bad enough. What really stunned me was a remark that Krauss let drop in arguing his unbelief. “Lots of people have spiritual experiences,” he said. “I have one when I look at the Hubble Space Telescope images and see galaxies that are 10 billion light-years away with civilizations that are long gone.”
Hold on there just a minute, slugger. Civilizations that are long gone? Is there any proof of that? Krauss would no doubt claim that the probability is overwhelming that we aren’t the only civilization in the history of the universe. But we don’t have any way of knowing, and besides, that isn’t what he said. “Civilizations that are long gone” appears to be his own little piece of unexamined belief: comforting, irrational, a reprieve from the idea of a cold, indifferent universe, devoid of intelligence or feeling.
I’m also reminded of Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos. Nagel—an esteemed philosopher and, yes, an atheist—argues, from what I understand, that scientific materialism cannot account for the existence of consciousness. Instead he posits a teleological explanation: the universe possesses an innate tendency to move in that direction. The cosmos wants, as it were, to become aware of itself, which it does through creatures like us. As for the idea that consciousness emerged through natural selection, Nagel simply says that it flies in the face of common sense. Well, science is built on the corpse of notions of what counts as common sense. Meanwhile, Nagel makes no attempt to explain how his teleological principle arose or might operate. It sounds a lot to me like God.
Krauss and Nagel’s views are hardly in the same league as the planet Kolob or the Book of Abraham, but they confirm our inability to rid ourselves of mystical beliefs. We just can’t seem to accept the fact that this is all there is. That’s what really needs to be explained.
All Points will be on hiatus for Memorial Day. Posts resume June 2.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.