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Thursday, February 18, 2010
Socrates Cafe ...

I went to the local Socrates Cafe meeting the other night, for an interesting discussion about God. The topic for the evening, suggested by a young medical school student from the Middle East, was whether God exists. Yes, the young student made it clear that he comes from the Islamic faith tradition. However, the science and high-tech environment of western medicine was giving him some . . . well, perhaps not doubts about God, but some second thoughts anyway. He said that he was reading some books by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who of course goes totally nuclear against any notion of a transcendent creator and sustainer in the universe. So, the young fellow with the beard had come to the local half-assed western philosophers, to see what they had to say about it.

This was quite interesting and special. I myself have lived a sheltered life, relative to the Islamic world. I really haven’t known too many Muslims; and the few that I have known weren’t / aren’t very up-front about it. They are mostly just average Americans, trying to get by; their religious practice and heritage just happens to be Islam. This young doctor-to-be wasn’t really all that different. However, he certainly did care about God, and was open-minded enough to reach out beyond the counsels of the local mosque or imam to talk about “it” (i.e., the question of God’s existence).

The group was rather small, only myself, the moderator, the young student, and four other searchers on the path to wisdom (maybe). The discussion got going at about 8pm, and went go for maybe 70 minutes. I stayed quiet for the first half. Interestingly, only one fellow, a former biochemist (not far from Dawkins’ area of expertise) came out strongly against God. He made his case for empiricism and logical positivism, arguing that God is unprovable either way, and therefore irrelevant. Two others were more or less neutral on the topic, but open to the idea that “there’s more than we know”. The other two had some deep thoughts and reflections on their life experiences and how they related to the idea of God. Both admitted to doubt and dissatisfaction with mainstream religion, but ultimately reflected their openness to God’s existence.

And then it was my turn. OK, this is a topic that I have invested a lot of thought into over the course of my life. So I was intellectually loaded for bear, especially since the glass of wine that I had over dinner was by now wearing off. Since I am an Aspie, to one degree or another, I was going to talk. And talk. AND TALK. I told the moderator up front to cut me off if I got too verbose (the moderator was the positivist biochemist). He graciously shook his head, indicating that the floor was mine.

So away I went, rambling on about emergence and quantum weirdness and David Bohm, ancient patriarchal conceptions of God and Sufi mystics, the problem of pain and the Haiti earthquake, relationships unbounded by the dimension of time and the moon reflecting the true light of the sun. I finally ran out of steam trying to make the point that the QUESTION OF GOD is important in and of itself, both historically and metaphysically, even if God was not provable in the same sense that water can be proven a combination of hydrogen and oxygen.

By that time, the biochemist moderator was giving me something of a dirty look mixed with a bit of worry; he seemed like a man who had lost control. He followed up on my screed with a comment about how people’s explanations of God say more about themselves than anything real or not about God. I don’t think he was attacking me, but he clearly seemed uncomfortable. The others in the group ranged from mildly bored to slightly embarrassed to be in the presence of a madman (I did get rather animated until I finally tired out). But the young doctor-2B seemed somewhat edified. He stayed awake through my entire performance. A few minutes later, he gave his own, shorter “personality dump”; and in it, he repeated one of my opening statements, i.e. “I would like there to be a God”. He seemed a bit confused that none of us had referred to the usual foundations of traditional Abramic faith, i.e. Moses, Jesus and Mohammad. But then he summed up his reflections by saying that he would continue his own search for God.

So, it was definitely an interesting evening. There I was, in effect urging a Muslim man not to give up on God, arguing to him that even though the scientific wisdom which he was studying often claims to exclude God, it ultimately gives hints and clues as to God’s nature and true being. And there he was, perhaps taking me seriously – perhaps seeing the point that although we do well to listen to and revere the great prophets of old, we must also dare to walk in their shoes, to seek our own reckoning with God, to not just take their word for it.

Or really, not just take the word of those who followed the holy ones and maintain stodgy religious institutions built around their memory (along with the perversions that follow when bishops, evangelists, ayatollahs and other religious leaders exploit the political and financial powers they gain over ordinary mortals). I’d bet that the big three of Judaism, Christianity and Islam would do just what Roger Daltry and the Who said in “I’m Free”. I.e., “you’ve been told many times before, messiahs pointed to the door”. But (unfortunately), no one had the guts to leave the temple . . .

Well, perhaps my new friend is at least “looking out the door” of the metaphorical mosque. And the atheist biochemist wrapped it up with an observation from Updike’s book “Roger’s Version” (NOT Roger Daltry!), i.e. that perhaps God doesn’t WANT to be known for sure by us. Overall, I think that God maintained his or her mystery, but still did pretty well that evening.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:06 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim,
    I’m not sure I can “join the conversation”, so to speak here; so I will go off on my on tangent. Years ago—I think in the 1980s—I had a student who was a Muslim. I remember him as a lovely, happy man. He told me how he enjoyed the feast days of what would be the Muslim liturgical year. I’m not sure what else to call it as I know nothing of how the year is considered in Islam. It was clear to see that for this man and his family the celebration of the feast days of the year was an important part of his and his family’s lives. But I can’t say that he got into any deep discussion of God as such. Perhaps for him (at least at the time) he did not need “deep discussions” of God.

    Then too, perhaps more specifically to address your comments, I wonder just why it is that discussion about God seems almost always to take a “philosophical” approach—if that is what it is.

    I wonder why it is that no one seems to give thought to the fact and implications of the pursuit of our growth as individuals (which each person at the Socrates Café that night seems to have at least tacitly agreed to), which growth is by definition an ongoing process throughout one’s life. If this growth is an ongoing process that lasts a lifetime, are we not then our own creators? Would we not then, basically, be the God we seek because we are our own creators?

    Then too, I wonder why it is that a mystical approach to the topic of God seems never to be considered in “serious” discussion of God. What would the mystical approach involve? I wonder how God would look if serious searchers (such as the individuals in the group) considered the mystical. (I can’t say I have an answer to this question; I’m just asking it.)

    Then another point: I get the impression that all the attendees at the meeting were men. I wonder what contribution a woman equally serious in her search for God would have made. I would hope that the men in the Socrates Café group would certainly not make the same mistake the Greeks of ancient times made—discount the contribution women might make to serious discussions about God. I wonder what would happen should a woman equally serious about the search for answers to the “big questions” of life be asked to attend such a group and how she would perceive the approach of the group and what contribution(s) she might make.

    Just asking.
    MCS

    Comment by MCS — February 19, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

  2. Ah, Mary — contributing some feminist deconstruction of my Socrates Cafe group. OK, a different point of view from my own perspective is always a good thing.

    But, as to your impression that the attendees were all men . . . OK, just the facts. I've only been to two meetings recently. At one, there were seven men and two women. At the other, five men and one woman. FYI, at both meetings, the women vigorously participated; they were contributing comments and discussion all through the meeting. They seemed like part of the mix, an integral part of the dialectic; not some separate faction with a unique view.

    That's my impression, take it or leave it.

    Comment by Jim — February 21, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

  3. Jim,
    I stand corrected.
    MCS

    Comment by MCS — February 21, 2010 @ 8:55 pm

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