Albert Einstein and Advaita Vedanta

By Jin-yeong Yi

In “Atheism, Autism, and the Abstract Mind,” I mentioned Einstein and the ambiguity of his viewpoint on metaphysics. He has been called an atheist, an agnostic, an agnostic theist, a deist, a pantheist, and a panentheist. Given the persisting controversy, it could well be that his views were simply too nebulous to determine.

I have wondered about Einstein’s beliefs for a while now, though my research has not gotten any further than reading some quotations on the Internet. But I think my studies in general have finally yielded the beginnings of a possible and plausible answer to the mystery. It is this: that Einstein was an Advaitin.

I will use Einstein’s remarks on the Bhagavad Gita as a starting point for this brief, bullet-point style discussion:

“When I read the Bhagavad-Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous.”[1]

Traditional Advaita denies that we have free will. Einstein took the same position, being a hardcore determinist. Citing Schopenhauer (who was heavily influenced by both Hinduism and Buddhism), he repeatedly expressed the view that all events were directed by a rigorous chain of cause and effect.

“[The] knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals.”

*

“Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”

*

“If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord….So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.”

The quintessence of Advaita is nonduality, the notion that everything is fundamentally and ultimately a single, unified whole, and that only ignorance and illusion, trapping us in delusions of egoism and individualism, prevents us from perceiving this.

“I feel myself so much a part of everything living that I am not the least concerned with the beginning or ending of the concrete existence of any one person in this eternal flow.”

The following quote fits in quite nicely with Karma Yoga:

“Strange is our situation here on Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men—above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends.”

Here he comes close to echoing Swami Vivekananda, who believed in serving humankind as one’s “larger Self.”

Perhaps the most suggestive pronouncement of all is the following:

“I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.”

Here, Einstein appears to be one with the Advaitin philosophers in that he implies that the existence of order in the universe suggests the existence of an intelligent, creative force (though not necessarily a personal one–Einstein made it quite clear that he did not believe in the traditional theistic concepts of deity), i.e., God/Brahman, and that he proclaims the unknowability of this entity/force.

Supposing that Einstein really was an Advaitin, was he himself aware of the fact? It seems unlikely that he was ignorant of Advaita, because he was arguably as much of a philosopher as he was a scientist. But since he never actually used the label “Advaitin” or “Hindu” to describe his beliefs, it seems reasonable to infer that his thinking just happened to culminate in that Weltanschauung.

These are really only sketchy speculations, and are not intended to be taken too seriously. Hopefully a scholar who is equally familiar with Albert Einstein and Advaita Vedanta will give us his or her own opinion on the subject.

Notes

[1] http://hinduism.about.com/od/thegita/a/famousquotes.htm

Further Reading

Arthur Schopenhauer – Essay on the Freedom of the Will 

Dennis Waite – Back to the Truth: 5000 Years of Advaita

Joseph McCabe

By Jin-yeong Yi

Joseph McCabe in 1910

“[T]he trained athlete of disbelief”

—H. G. Wells

“One of the giants of not only English atheism, but world atheism, Joseph McCabe left a legacy of aggressive atheist and antireligious literature that remains fresh and insightful today.”

—infidels.org

For me, Joseph McCabe (1867-1955), Irish English Roman Catholic priest turned atheist intellectual and writer, has been something of a patron saint of not only atheism and freethought, but also learning and education in general. One of his chief publishers, the Jewish American socialist intellectual E. Haldeman-Julius, declared him to be the “world’s greatest scholar.” Overpraise, perhaps, but there seems to be little doubt that he was a scholar of the first order. Even Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton, one of his most notable opponents, acknowledged his competence and sincerity and applauded his intellect, albeit ironically, writing: “He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding.”[1]

Armed with tremendous mental energy, discipline, dedication (one non-contemporary commentator describes him as “a force of nature”); a thorough knowledge of Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, and Spanish; as well as an unwavering belief in his mission and ideals, McCabe wrote extensively on religion, philosophy, evolutionary biology, chemistry, physics, politics, culture, and, above all, history, for half a century in a lifelong quest to disseminate knowledge and spread the gospel of scientific progress.

Although this Old Atheist no longer had “an atom of religion” in him ever since leaving the church, he was still very much the preacher, except that now he was championing atheism, science, freethought, democracy, secularism, rationalism, materialism, and Edwardian feminism. He wrote over 200 (250 by some counts) books. As he had a firm belief in the educability of all people, much of his output consisted of short booklets (some as short as a few dozen pages) that were designed primarily for working class laymen and laywomen. (I expect that he would be rolling in his grave if he knew of the exorbitant prices his books are selling for today.)[2]

McCabe was justifiably called a “one-man university” by contemporary Isaac Goldberg[3] and dubbed a “20th century Diderot” by biographer Bill Cooke (see his excellent biography on McCabe, titled A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism). When he wasn’t debating or drafting pamphlets, monographs, or encyclopedias with his sleek and lucid prose (which was not infrequently infused with subtle and dry wit), he gave lectures, delivering three to four thousand (according to his own estimate) of them by the end of his long life.

Unsurprisingly, McCabe was a controversial figure in his day. George Bernard Shaw is said to have once remarked that people smelled brimstone wherever the man went[4]. Also consider Hyman Levy’s hilarious recollection of him:

When I was a boy Joseph McCabe was taboo. He was the Bad Man who spread the gospel of wickedness, using Science, the gift of the Almighty, for his nefarious ends. And so when the Bad man came to Edinburgh to lecture the young boy slipped into the meeting (without paying), and listened enraptured to a discourse on the Evolution of the Universe, illustrated with a series of marvellous lantern slides.[5]

Few, if any, would claim that Joseph McCabe’s legacy is perfect. He was perhaps too keen on the atheistic Soviet Union (though he never actually embraced Marxism himself, having no use for dialectical materialism)[6], and, most unfortunately, had a proclivity for alienating other freethinkers with unremitting and unyielding criticism. Nonetheless, he always strove to keep a balanced view of the complex and multitudinous issues he tackled, and what he may have lacked in diplomacy he made up for with loyalty to his friends and all-around honesty. An individual who better represents the love of learning (as well as the love of teaching) would be difficult to find. It is hoped that his legacy will one day be revived and be given its rightful place in history.

Selected Quotes

“…Atheism grows in proportion to the growth of knowledge and freedom. No law of history is more consistently revealed in the records.”

(from “Is The Position Of Atheism Growing Stronger?”)

“Blessed are the ignorant, for they have no difficulties.”

(from “The Mythical History of the Jews”)

“[T]he most deadly solvent of religious belief—let the anti-evolutionists realize this—is the patient examination of the so-called evidence which is offered us in support of it.”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“The mind which has been artificially repressed will, if the process be not continued too long, expand more rapidly than the mind which is suffered to grow normally.”

(from The Romance of the Romanoffs)

“It is one of the ironies of the history of religion that what we call the great, historical, or organized religions took their rise from prophets whose mission in life it was to denounce religion in the sense in which these organized bodies use the word.”

(from How Christianity Grew Out Of Paganism)

“Do not listen to those who say that critics crush the voice of the heart in the name of reason. We want all the heart we can get in life, all the strength of emotion and devotion we can engender. But let it be expended on the plain, and plainly profitable, task of making this earth a Summerland. Do that, as your leisure and your powers permit, and, when your day is over, you will lie down with a smile, whether you are ever to awaken or are to sleep forever.”

“No people is entitled to be called civilised which complacently tolerates war, squalid and widespread poverty, dense areas of ignorance, political corruption, and the many other remnants of barbarism which they tolerated. The twentienth century was the last hour of barbarism, lit by a few rays of the civilisation which dawned in the twenty-first century.”

(from The Tyranny of Shams)

“Death is the law of the universe. In the days when Plato worked out the first rational arguments for immortality, as distinct from mere religious tradition, the claim was not so exorbitant. The stars themselves, the Greeks thought, were immortal. They were small, undying fires set in the firmament. Plants and animals died, of course, but these stars made men familiar with things which never died.

Now we know that the stars—not three thousand of them, as the Greeks thought, but two billion—are born and grow and die just like dogs, except that their life is immeasurably longer. There is a time when each is a shapeless cloud of stardust. There will be a time when the most brilliant star in the heavens will fade from the eyes of whatever mortals there may then be. They are made of the same material as our bodies: of gas and earth and metal. They fall under the great cosmic law that things which come together shall in the end go asunder—shall die.”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“Materialists do not deny the existence and importance of mind and its ideals.They deny that these are spiritual. But because the world has been accustomed to regard the mind and its ideals as spiritual, the cry is raised that ‘spiritual realities’ are in danger, when the question is merely whether they are spiritual or not. A great man of science like my friend the late Professor Loeb would smile at the idea that his interest in science ought to diminish when he came to the conclusion that the mind is only a function of the brain. Most of us ought to smile at the idea that we will turn the world upside down because we have come to the conclusion that it is the only world we shall ever know!”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“Pardon my little ironies whenever I come to these anti-democrats. I have never been able to see why the blunders of an uneducated democracy, as ours still is (though many an artisan is a sounder politician than many a professor or property owner), recommend anything except a practical education of the people.”

(on Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacob Burckhardt)

“[N]early 40 years’ experience has shown me that a taste for beer and cowboy-stories is entirely consistent with a taste for perfect art and the highest intellectual exercises.”

“We are not only evolving, but evolving more rapidly than living thing ever did before. The pace increases every century. A calm and critical review of our development inspires a conviction that a few centuries will bring about the realisation of the highest dream that ever haunted the mind of the prophet. What splendours lie beyond that, the most soaring imagination cannot have the dimmest perception. …

“… Darwin was right. It is—not exclusively, but mainly—the struggle for life that has begotten higher types. Must every step of future progress be won by fresh and sustained struggle? At least we may say that the notion that progress in the future depends, as in the past, upon the pitting of flesh against flesh, and tooth against tooth, is a deplorable illusion. Such physical struggle is indeed necessary to evolve and maintain a type fit for the struggle. But a new thing has come into the story of the earth—wisdom and fine emotion. The processes which begot animal types in the past may be superseded; perhaps must be superseded. The battle of the future lies between wit and wit, art and art, generosity and generosity; and a great struggle and rivalry may proceed that will carry the distinctive powers of man to undreamed-of heights, yet be wholly innocent of the passion-lit, blood-stained conflict that has hitherto been the instrument of progress.”

(from The Story of Evolution)

“The end or purpose of life is what we choose to make it. There is no end or purpose written upon the stars. We make our goal; and the only end upon which we can agree, the ‘supreme good’ to which all other ideals are subordinate, is general happiness—the greatest happiness of the greatest number. …But what is happiness? I am not sure that I know.”

Notes

[1] Orthodoxy, Chapter 2: The Maniac

[2] From what I gather, in McCabe’s day, the books sold from anywhere between $0.05-$0.25, which translates into roughly $1.10-$5.50 today. Granted, they were cheaply printed pocket books, but considering the sheer quantity of volumes that McCabe was generating, it only made sense (no pun intended) to make them as affordable as possible. At present, $15-$25 price tags are the norm.

[3] Joseph McCabe: Fighter for Freethought – Fifty Years on the Rationalist Front 

[4] http://www.mclemee.com/id155.html

[5] A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism, Chapter 3: The Trained Athlete of Disbelief

[6] Also, considering the fact that he died long before the collapse of the USSR, it is difficult if not impossible to tell what a complete evaluation of the regime would have looked like.

We All Live in Purgatory

By Jin-yeong Yi

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry - Fiery Purgatory

Trapped in purgatory
A lifeless object, alive
Awaiting reprisal
Death will be their acquisition

The sky is turning red
Return to power draws near
Fall into me, the sky’s crimson tears
Abolish the rules made of stone

Pierced from below, souls of my treacherous past
Betrayed by many, now ornaments dripping above

Awaiting the hour of reprisal
Your time slips away

Raining blood
From a lacerated sky
Bleeding its horror
Creating my structure
Now I shall reign in blood!

—Slayer, “Raining Blood”

One time in an art class in high school, I was listening to a conversation being held among classmates I was sitting with. One of them, a female punk, wondered aloud if this world was Hell itself. When her friend disagreed, arguing that it wasn’t “bad enough,” she immediately shot back with “How do you know?” Incidentally, the late Chuck Schuldiner (Death) actually once said that this world was Hell, and that there were demons in people.

I tend to take a more moderate position. In my post on Painkiller, I noted that I saw the game as a metaphor for life, and I feel strongly as ever about this. This world is neither Heaven nor Hell. This world is Purgatory. Unlike Heaven and Hell, Purgatory is a mixed bag–here one finds beauty as well as ugliness, good as well as evil, reasons to live as well as reasons to die. Also, unlike Heaven and Hell, Purgatory is not static; it’s a journey rather than a destination. It is a temporary state of being, one full of perils–and possibilities. Above all, it’s a perpetual war, full of uncertainty, chaos, horror, suffering, and death.

If we’re here for a reason, I doubt it’s to pursue happiness, which is as elusive as a pot of gold on the other side of a rainbow. The sum of my observations and experiences suggests to me that, if we’re here for a reason, it’s to do battle, to oppose our wills and wits to the howling fury of demons within and without us.

So pick up your sword–or your Painkiller, if you happen to own one of those–and brace yourself for the next battle, with a smile of grim determination on your battered and bloodied face. Having some kickass music playing in the background wouldn’t hurt either.

Suicide: Scourge or Savior?

By Jin-yeong Yi

Vincent van Gogh - Wheatfield with Crows

“That society who has not the ability, or who is not willing to procure man any one benefit, loses all its rights over him; Nature, when it has rendered his existence completely miserable, has in fact, ordered him to quit it: in dying he does no more than fulfil one of her decrees, as he did when he first drew his breath. To him who is fearless of death, there is no evil without a remedy; for him who refuses to die, there yet exists benefits which attach him to the world; in this case let him rally his powers—let him oppose courage to a destiny that oppresses him—let him call forth those resources with which Nature yet furnishes him; she cannot have totally abandoned him, while she yet leaves him the sensation of pleasure; the hopes of seeing a period to his pains.”

—Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature 

It seems obvious that the debate on assisted suicide ultimately comes down to the question of whether suicide itself is right or wrong. Many of the arguments against suicide, it seems to me, are predicated on religion. In terms of rhetoric, one probably need not look further than G. K. Chesterton:

“Under the lengthening shadow of Ibsen, an argument arose whether it was not a very nice thing to murder one’s self. Grave moderns told us that we must not even say “poor fellow,” of a man who had blown his brains out, since he was an enviable person, and had only blown them out because of their exceptional excellence. Mr. William Archer even suggested that in the golden age there would be penny-in-the-slot machines, by which a man could kill himself for a penny. In all this I found myself utterly hostile to many who called themselves liberal and humane. Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings: it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer. When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a personal affront. Of course there may be pathetic emotional excuses for the act. There often are for rape, and there almost always are for dynamite. But if it comes to clear ideas and the intelligent meaning of things, then there is much more rational and philosophic truth in the burial at the cross-roads and the stake driven through the body, than in Mr. Archer’s suicidal automatic machines. There is a meaning in burying the suicide apart. The man’s crime is different from other crimes—for it makes even crimes impossible.

“About the same time I read a solemn flippancy by some free thinker: he said that a suicide was only the same as a martyr. The open fallacy of this helped to clear the question. Obviously a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live. The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe. And then I remembered the stake and the cross-roads, and the queer fact that Christianity had shown this weird harshness to the suicide. For Christianity had shown a wild encouragement of the martyr. Historic Christianity was accused, not entirely without reason, of carrying martyrdom and asceticism to a point, desolate and pessimistic. The early Christian martyrs talked of death with a horrible happiness. They blasphemed the beautiful duties of the body: they smelt the grave afar off like a field of flowers. All this has seemed to many the very poetry of pessimism. Yet there is the stake at the crossroads to show what Christianity thought of the pessimist.”[1]

While I agree that Archer’s view is dubious (the last time I checked, a “golden age” consisted of mass flourishing, not mass extinction), I also find myself in vehement disagreement with Chesterton’s condemnation.

True, Chesterton himself did contemplate suicide in his adolescence, but in the above passage he speaks as someone who is rationalizing his religious beliefs, not someone who has truly known the power of the desire to die. According to his logic, exterminating 7 billion people pales in comparison, both literally and figuratively, to taking one’s own life without injuring anyone else. It follows that a Vincent van Gogh, say, or a Dimitris Christoulas,[2] commits a far graver crime than a Genghis Khan or a Joseph Stalin. As long as the murderer asks God for forgiveness, he will be given a far more lenient sentence than the suicide, and he will, unlike the suicide, be given a proper burial. Personally, I think that such a notion is breathtakingly ludicrous and silly, and hardly deserves a reply. I must say of Chesterton what Eugene Rose (Father Seraphim) once said of Arthur Schopenhauer: “[He] does not speak to us as one who knows, as one who has truly had a vision of the nature of things.”[3]

I tend to see myself as avoiding both extremes of opinion, the one represented by Chesterton and the other represented by Archer. In other words, I see suicide as being neither an absolute “good” nor an absolute “evil.” In my view, the decision to stay and the decision to leave are more or less equally valid. Let those who wish to live continue their struggle in this world of suffering, and let those who wish to die embark on, ahead of schedule, that great voyage that awaits each and every one of us. I can praise the former for their courage to cling onto life, and the latter for their courage to embrace death.

In an interview, Ludwig Minelli, founder and director Swiss assisted dying organization Dignitas, notes a peculiar pattern he has observed among potential suicides throughout the years:

“Seventy percent of our members which have got provisional green light [for assisted suicide] do never call again. It’s very interesting.

“They are just looking in order to have a choice, to make a choice, because normally they are in a terrible dilemma. … Would I have to go through the whole illness until the so-called natural death, with all the pains, with all the difficulties, or must I make a very risky suicide attempt? When we are getting the provisional green light, this is a sort of opening an emergency exit. So they know, ‘I could go through this emergency exit if really I am in difficulties,’ and this is calming them. …”[4][5]

When I say that suicide saves, I am not being flippant. Of course, the act of suicide destroys, but the possibility of suicide is, as it turns out, a double-edged sword. With it comes the realization that the world has only so much power over you, and that it can rule you only for as long as you allow it to. Those who are truly prepared to die have little left to be afraid of. As strange as it might sound to some, the clear knowledge that one can liberate oneself from an unbearable existence at any moment one chooses can give one not only strength but also a sense of near-invincibility, which can give rise to the will to “oppose courage to a destiny that oppresses”–if only for another day.

Notes

[1] Orthodoxy, Chapter V: The Flag of the World

[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/apr/05/greece-suicide-tributes-retired-pharmacist

[3] “Schopenhauer: System; Comment,” quoted from Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works by Hieromonk Damascene

[4] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/suicidetourist/etc/minelli.html

[5] Mr. Minelli goes on to note: “Not only never come to Zurich, never call again. We never hear from them. Then we get the invoice for the membership fee for the next year, and then they will pay the membership fee, but they will never call again. It’s very, very interesting.”

Heavy Metal: The Soundtrack to Your Existence

By Jin-yeong Yi

Bill Harrison - Urban decay

“The trick in my situation was that there was no trick, no matter what the movies tell you–
No rules, no secret mantra, no road map.
It wasn’t about how smart or how good you were.
It was chaos and luck, and anyone who thought different was a fool.
All you could do was to hang on madly, as long and hard as you could.”

—Max Payne, Max Payne

I got into heavy metal in the middle of high school, when a friend and avid metalhead introduced me to Metallica. At that time, I was still a Christian, so I made a point of staying away from any “Satanic” bands, particularly Slayer, which my friend was a devotee of (to the point of carving the band’s name into his arm). I remember the days in which my choices of metal songs to play on the guitar were limited to bands that weren’t “Satanic” or anti-Christian (or at least not overtly so), such as Children of Bodom, Dream Theater, Kalmah, and Megadeth. I also listened to the Christian metal bands Extol and Lengsel. No Burzum, Darkthrone, Deicide, Dissection, Emperor, Gorgoroth, Mayhem, Morbid Angel, or Slayer for me–no siree, Bob.

As I would find out before long, heavy metal is really not the kind of genre in which one can afford to be constrained by taboo. It’s like trying to avoid all of the religious composers in classical music (from Bach to Rachmaninoff)–there’s just too much to miss out on. This I came to understand very well when I discovered bands like Asphyx, Atheist, Beherit, Demoncy, Enslaved, Gorguts, Hypocrisy, Immolation, Necrophobic, Profanatica, Sacramentum, and Therion, as well as the other bands I mentioned. Even in high school, sparing listens to such taboo music, whether it was an occasional dose of Venom’s “Black Metal” or Dissection’s “Crimson Towers,” were a guilty pleasure of mine.

I avoided such music not only because it was “evil,” but also because I thought it was depressing. My friend, who suffered from bipolar disorder, denied that there was any correlation between his depression and the aural hellfire he immersed himself in day after day. I wasn’t at all convinced. I was sure that he was in denial, and that he’d be better off health-wise if he stopped listening.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that heavy metal doesn’t so much surrender to or glorify the dark side of existence as acknowledge it, face it, grapple with it, and, in a way, redeem it. Heavy metal is music that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. Where classical music embraces suffering and beauty, heavy metal embraces suffering, beauty, and ugliness. One would be hard-pressed to find a more fitting soundtrack for the grim and hideous realities of life, the hellish abomination that is the prison of the real. Heavy metal may be obsessed about the dark side of existence, but rather than driving one to an early death, it grants one the strength to cling onto life, to persist and endure in this world–out of sheer defiance, if nothing else.

The Limits of Reality

By Jin-yeong Yi

The Matrix television

“You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”

—Morpheus, The Matrix

Less than 2 years ago, Richard Dawkins published a book titled The Magic of Reality. It’s a very nice book, with Dr. Dawkins’s trademark prose complemented by Dave McKean’s richly detailed illustrations. At the end of the first chapter, Dr. Dawkins writes:

“[T]he real world, as understood scientifically, has magic of its own – the kind I call poetic magic: an inspiring beauty which is all the more magical because it is real and because we can understand how it works. Next to the true beauty and magic of the real world, supernatural spells and stage tricks seem cheap and tawdry by comparison. The magic of reality is neither supernatural nor a trick, but – quite simply – wonderful. Wonderful, and real. Wonderful because real.”

I agree, I think reality is wonderful–and I think reality is overrated. Shoot me. To the good professor I would say: have a lucid dream and then tell me it wasn’t wonderful. Tell me that meeting Charles Darwin in person and discussing evolution with him for two days straight was boring compared to reading The Origin of Species. Tell me that flying with invisible wings was a dull and uninspiring experience compared to flying on an airplane. Tell me that traveling to the center of the Sun was a cheap and tawdry experience compared to observing it through a filtered telescope. It’s your world we are talking about, not mine, not theirs, not ours–but yours. And it’s wonderful because it’s yours.

There are plenty of things I appreciate about reality. Reality made my standards, reality gives me contrast. If there were no reality, or at least the knowledge of reality, I’m not sure that it would be possible to appreciate fantasy.

H. L. Mencken had a point when he wrote:

“Alone among the animals, [man] is dowered with the capacity to invent imaginary worlds, and he is always making himself unhappy by trying to move into them. Thus he underrates the world in which he actually lives, and so misses most of the fun that is in it. That world, I am convinced, could be materially improved, but even as it stands it is good enough to keep any reasonable man entertained for a lifetime.”

I wish I could be like him, sometimes…sort of.

But to suggest that reality is superior to anything that we can imagine is practically Leibnizian. Reality is a one-size-fits-all world that wasn’t designed for us on even a collective level, let alone on an individual level. In my view, to be able to have dreams but not be able to realize them is not only a waste, but a perverse travesty. What makes for a richer experience, observing and studying the stars, or reaching out and touching them?

I am not content with the magic of reality. I want magic–real magic. As I’ve said before, I respect science and can appreciate the wonders of the natural world it has and continues to reveal, but I do have a longing for more. For all its beauty, the world seems too fixed, too solid, too predictable, too mechanical. I have a deep-seated longing to find a hole within the omnipresent tapestry of unalterable constants, of scientific theories and mathematical equations, a “glitch in the Matrix,” if you will.

One might ask, “Then why acknowledge reality at all? Why don’t you just ignore it and pretend that it isn’t there?” Easier said than done. As Ayn Rand pointed out, “You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

In his critique of arch-materialist Joseph McCabe in Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton proves Rand’s point:

“Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine. The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel.”

To which a good materialist can only reply, as S. T. Joshi did: “To be sure, it is more ‘restrictive’ to believe that two plus two always equals four rather than that, at various times as my fancy dictates, it equals five or seven or a billion, but what is one to do?”[1] I am not unsympathetic to Chesterton’s wish to believe in fairies and imps and the supernatural in general, but alas, that does not seem to be the universe we live in.

I don’t believe that I hold a grudge against science. If the universe really is as “mathematical and regular” as it looks, science cannot be faulted for that. A person that jumps off the roof of a 100 floor building, convinced that he has wings, will very likely end up as a sorry mess of meat and bone on the ground, regardless of whether or not he acknowledged the law of gravity. Science didn’t invent the law of gravity or any other natural law; it merely discovered and codified them.

Science is all well and good, but when it comes down to it, I’m more concerned about the universe within than the universe without. In other words, the subjective world, as opposed to the objective world. The world where anything and everything is possible, the world where any and every fantasy can be realized.

Joseph McCabe once wrote, “A nation is most gifted with poetic imagery in its adolescence, when the imagination is far more developed than the intellect.”[2] No matter where science and reason take us, may we never lose our capacity to imagine and dream!

[1] God’s Defenders by S. T. Joshi, Chapter 2 (“The Bulldog and the Patrician: G. K. Chesterton and T. S. Eliot”)

[2] “The Truth about the Prophets” by Joseph McCabe

An Atheist Goes to Confession

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Conscience is the inner voice that warns us that someone might be looking.”

—H. L. Mencken

“The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me”

—Meister Eckhart

I went to confession last month in preparation for Easter.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic and was confirmed as a Catholic in my teenage years, shortly before becoming an atheist. Technically, I am still a Catholic. Like Martin Scorsese once said, “I’m a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic, there’s no way out of it.” In addition to my qualifications, I attend Mass every Sunday morning and recite the prayers, sing the hymns, exchange signs of peace, and receive the body and blood of Christ. I do it because I think it gives my devoutly Catholic parents some comfort to know that their son is keeping in touch with the Lord.

My mother had called me about the mass confessions that were to take place at her church, and at first I refused to go. (“I have no sins to confess.”) Attending Mass was one thing, but going to confession was a bit much. I’d already gone last year, and, though I didn’t believe in right and wrong, I’d felt guilty about it, because in a way I’d been betraying the priest’s trust by pretending to be a believer. However, I didn’t want my mother to feel that I was missing out on the opportunity to receive God’s forgiveness, so I ended up going. This was to be my second confession as an atheist. Since I didn’t believe in sin, I would, like last time, enumerate the things I wasn’t proud of.

After a fairly brief wait at church, I walked into the confession room. There I was once again face to face with the elderly Irish priest I’d met last year.

The following is a rough reconstruction of the conversation that took place:

“How long has it been since your last confession?” the priest asked.

“Three, four months, I think.”

He nodded, as if in approval. I wondered if he remembered who I was.

“So, do you have any sins to confess?”

“Well, yes; that’s what I’m here for.”

If I was going to go through with this, I wanted to at least be sincere about it. My strategy this time around was to make use of Christian language. Last time, I’d spoken in such a way that the priest might have wondered if I was a closet secular humanist.

“I don’t honor my father and mother as much as they deserve,” I began. The priest nodded knowingly as I spoke.

I proceeded to the next item on the short list I’d written up. “Gluttony—I often eat more than I need to. Sloth—I often procrastinate, and don’t make the best use of my time. Wrath—I often get angry at others even while knowing that they’re ultimately not responsible for what I blame them for. Envy—oh, this is a big problem for me.” There was a hint of something resembling enthusiasm in my voice, and part of the reason for that was that envy really was one of my biggest problems, if not the biggest one. “I often feel envy when I see that someone has something that I don’t have, and I feel jealousy when I see that someone has something that I do have.”

Thus ended my confession.

“How are you feeling right now?” inquired the priest.

“How am I feeling?”

“Are you feeling good, or bad?”

“Well, I guess you can say I feel kind of bad.” (Because I’d failed myself, because I wasn’t able to meet my own expectations.)

Then the priest asked, “If you could ask God for one thing, what would it be?”

The million dollar question. I was prepared this time, or so I’d thought. For a moment I couldn’t remember what it was I wanted to say. I fumbled for words before the answer clicked back into place.

“I want determination.”

For some reason the priest couldn’t understand, so I tried “passion.”

“I want to have passion for my goals,” I clarified.

“Does anything about what you’ve just said strike you?” asked the priest.

“Strike me?” I racked my brains to try to figure out what that could possibly be.

After a long pause, the priest supplied the answer I wasn’t able to find.

“It’s somewhat self-centered. What about other people? Don’t you think about what you can do for others?”

“Well, yes. I do help others…but not as much as I can,” I said.

The priest waited for me to elaborate.

“It’s kind of the opposite of a slippery slope,” I explained, struggling to find the words.

“Ah,” the priest said, appearing to have immediately grasped what it was I was clumsily trying to convey.

“I can do things for others, but there’s always something more I can do,” I continued. “There’s no limit. There’s always…more.”

I thought of the countless ambitions I had, the personal goals that I would not be able to achieve in two lifetimes.

“Complete self-sacrifice…is something I can never do,” I concluded.

The priest administered my penance: 5 Our Father’s and 3 Hail Mary’s. I started to get up from my chair when the priest started to speak again.

“When I was about your age, I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.

“An airplane pilot?” For some reason I’d felt the need to ask for clarification.

“Yes. But my eyesight wasn’t good enough. So I became a missionary. I worked in Korea, then Koreatown, and…here I am.”

Then the priest asked me to pray for him. Not sure I’d heard him correctly, I got him to repeat what he’d said. After crossing myself and exchanging words of thanks, I got up, left the room, and headed toward the parking lot. I was puzzled. Why did he want me to pray for him? It was as if he’d somehow felt humbled by something I’d said.

Either way, I’d agreed to pray for him. So on the drive home, I, a godless nihilist, prayed for a Catholic priest. As far as I was concerned, I was talking to no one but myself. I don’t quite remember what I “prayed” for; I think it was for the laws of physics to operate in ways that would be favorable to the priest. Since the laws of physics were blind and indifferent, all one could do was hope. I also did my penance, reciting the Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s over the roar of Incantation’s “Blasphemous Cremation.” Why did I do it? Because the priest was trusting that I would do it, and because I wanted to honor the agreement between us. God wasn’t watching me, but I was.

In the same way, the confession was ultimately not between me and God, or even between me and the priest, but between me and myself.