I don’t know why, but sometimes I get into arguments with my friends –sorry, discussions– about the strangest things: things neither of us know anything about. At our ages, you would think we would know better… Or maybe more, I suppose. But there you have it: the ravages of Age writ loud.
Sometimes it’s politics –often it’s politics, actually- but the other day, surprisingly, it wasn’t. Now there’s not much that either of us know less about than politics, so I think we both figured we were pawing at new ground here –rutting over ideas without the benefit of antlers. But it’s like that when you get old, and hard-earned habits solidify into convictions that we toss to the young as wisdom. And Alistair figured that his beliefs about religion and its progeny should qualify.
“You can’t be an atheist, you know!” he said out of the blue one morning, with that air of certainty I knew so well from our political discourses. All the while, he was staring at me as if he’d been mulling the matter over for quite some time.
I returned the stare somewhat defensively, uncertain whether he was suggesting that the concept itself was inherently flawed, or that I was. Of course, given the omniscient way he was propounding it, I accepted neither. “And why is that, Alistair?” I said with what I hoped was a condescending tone of voice.
We were sitting on his porch having a Sunday morning coffee; neither of us were even considering going to church.
He sat forward in his recliner and put his coffee cup on the little glass table we shared. “Because ‘atheist’ –the word- comes from the Latin, a –or ‘without’ and theos, – ‘god’…”
“Greek,” I corrected.
“Theos is the Greek word for god. Deus is the Latin one…”
He reached for his coffee again, sipped it –desperately, I thought- then glared at me for a moment, probably more upset at losing his train of thought, than his etymological one.
“You were going to crush the concept of atheism, Alistair,” I said to help him out.
He put the cup down again and smiled. “To deny the actuality of a god, you must first accept the concept of god… Or you wouldn’t even have a word for it,” he said, smirked, and picked up the cup again to give me time to digest the profound revelation he had granted me.
I tried not to roll my eyes. “So, does that mean that if there’s a word for something, then it exists?”
He shook his head, but carefully, as he tried to figure out whether I was trying to trap him. “No, but would you accept that unless it’s a deliberate nonsense-word, it does refer to something?”
My turn to be careful. I nodded cautiously. Alistair isn’t known for his logical prowess… But then again, neither am I.
He sat back in his chair and stared out at the trees, their arms waving slowly in the breeze. For a while the only sound was the souffle of wind tousling the leaves. “So, are you…?” he said, finally, after scouting my face with his eyes.
“Am I what?”
I hate it when I’m confronted. “You mean am I someone who denies a concept that by its very negation proves its a priori existence?”
He took a moment to work that through and then nodded. “I think so…” But he didn’t sound at all certain of his work.
I like to think of myself as more of a fence-sitter on the question of god –an ‘a gnosis’ kind of guy. If we can’t know, then how is it we can be certain? I thought maybe I’d sit on the fence with my answer as well, to be logically consistent. “Is anything in life either fully black, or fully white?”
A mischievous smile suddenly appeared on his face. “So you’re a greytheist?” he said and laughed.
I had to admit it was clever. “How about you, Alistair?”
He shrugged. “I’m a catholic.”
“What do you mean?”
“The word means ‘universal’ –as in ‘all embracing’…”
He smiled. “Yeah, I think that would pretty well cover it. I embrace all religions…” But when he saw one of my eyebrows wrinkling my forehead, he amended his catholicism somewhat. “I mean, people can believe what they want, eh?”
“That go for atheists, too?”
His previous smile of agape was suddenly replaced by a wry one. “What do atheists believe –if not in no god?”
He had me there. “I don’t know –the word just refers to what they don’t believe in, doesn’t it? I guess that leaves a lot of room for other things, though…”
He nodded and was silent for a while, staring into space as the relentless wind still played with the leaves. “Pretty hard to prove or disprove a negative, though, don’t you think?”
“You mean the old saw, ‘Absence of evidence isn’t necessarily evidence of absence?’”
He nodded again, and I could see something hardening in his face. I had the impression I was being led. “How can you prove something isn’t? Even the Scientific Method –which relies heavily on inductive reasoning: deriving general principles from observations- contains uncertainty, doesn’t it? If I only see white swans, that doesn’t prove that all swans are necessarily white. One black swan disproves the conclusion. Disproves the principle…”
Alistair must have been reading up on this –I only vaguely remembered it from university. But I nodded anyway, deciding I’d adopt his catholic approach: when in doubt and sitting on someone else’s porch, agree with them.
“Deduction, on the other hand, works from the top down –from general principles to predicting what the observations should reveal. So… if your general principle is uncertain… and you can only prove that with observations…” He hesitated, obviously stumbling down a path he didn’t recognize. “Either way, in everyday life, we are forced to draw conclusions from limited experience, so we may get it wrong…” He stared at the trees again.
“Alistair what are you talking about, for heaven’s sake?”
He chuckled, but he looked embarrassed. “Uhmm, I thought I was going to disprove atheism…”
“Can we maybe go back to politics next Sunday, Alistair?”
He shrugged, nodded, and then stared at his coffee cup. “I was pretty sure I was on to something, though…”