Is belief in a ‘Higher Power’ really necessary?
I have been an atheist/agnostic/various degrees of extremely skeptical since almost as long as I can remember. I vividly remember being a little child, in first grade. We had a priest come in and teach about creationism, and I remember my dad picking me up after school. And he could see something was bothering me, and he asked what was wrong. So, I told him what had happened, and “But all of those science books say the universe is huge and old and stuff.” “Right.” He said, waiting for me to think it out. “So… they can’t both be right, can they?” “Mmm. What do you think?” And I have this distinct memory of looking down at my shoes for a long time. I can still see the garish yellow stripes on my sneakers that I painted one bored afternoon with a highlighter, I can see the scuff marks on the tiled floor, I can hear the bustle of people around tiny me. And I remember slowly saying, “…I think that science makes a lot more sense.” And my dad just nodded and brought me home.
And that general attitude has persisted pretty much my whole life, taking various forms. Full on angry atheism in my more rebellious and goth teenager phase, then more open minded but skeptical agnostic as I learned more of lots of other religions, not just Christianity (which was the overwhelming local majority religion, in various forms), and into the more… open-ended question of Zen and curiosity about the possibilities of the metaphysical in my current age. Consistently however, I have stuck hard to the guns of logic and philosophy, since it seems, well, reasonable, that a reasonable answer is only capable of being… reasoned to. Bit of a loopy sentence, but, ‘logic begets logical answers’ makes logical sense, ne?
The self-deprecating humor of using Constantine as a starter image for this article is actually particularly apropos. As part of my unending burning desire to KNOW, whatever there is to know out there, I dabbled quite extensively in… well, a lot. And a lot of loosely categorized ‘occult’ things. Black magicks, white magicks, green magicks, neo-paganism, demonology, parapsychology, on and on and on. And… frankly, while I have seen some very weird shit in my life that I still can’t explain, …I don’t think it was things that go bump in the night. I have this classic explanation I like to tell people who are… shall we say, more Mulder than I am Scully? “Imagine a roman centurion out patrolling the borders, and one day he sees a piece of hematite sticking to a lump of iron ore. To him, it appears to be an absolutely bizarre, inexplicable magical rock stuck to another rock for no reason other than the gods must be crazy, right? But now we know that’s actually quite a simple explanation: magnetic fields. The fact that we know that now doesn’t negate it happening back then, it just means we didn’t have an explanation back then.” The point being, that I’m betting pretty much everything does have an explanation, somewhere, somehow, …but we just haven’t found it yet. That does not mean that it is supernatural, it just means it’s weird. For now.
However. Getting back to the main thrust of this article: is belief in a “Higher Power” truly necessary? Well, my gut reaction, depending on how cranky I am when you ask will vary between “I doubt it.” and “fuck no.” However… tonight, for some reason, something clicked, and I decided to turn it back around on myself: are you, Scully, sure that you don’t believe in a ‘Higher Power?’ So, I thought about it for a while as I walked my dog in the park and looked up at the night sky.
…And here’s what I’ve got so far. First off, I’m still pretty convinced that there is no such thing as ‘god’ or ‘gods’ insofar as any explanation or description I’ve yet heard. The idea that a literally ‘supernatural’ entity — which by definition defies reality — created everything except itself to be orderly and logical still seems ridiculous to me. On the other hand, pretty much every day there’s some new headline about finding bizarre things in distant massive galaxies or in the teensiest of tiny quarks, so, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe (or at least, speculate) that there could be, in brief, “weird shit out there somewhere.” To put that more plainly, demons, ghosts, angels, fairies, etc.? Probably not. But weird things that don’t have any physical presence, and not composed of matter as we understand it, yet are still capable of some level of awareness or intelligence, which once in a while interact with us? …Yeah, maybe. Unproven as yet, but, I think not impossible. And with the centurion example of earlier, I wonder if a few thousand years from now humans will look back and smirk at how stupid we were for not knowing about ‘demon fields’ and ‘ghost particles’ or some such weirdness, because we just haven’t found a way to look for them yet. Doesn’t mean they’re not here, just means we haven’t shown it to be so. NB: Also doesn’t mean that demons et alia are necessarily true, certainly not. Just means, I think there’s enough wiggle room for a shrug and a “well, I guess we’ll find out someday, eh?” reaction.
But again, what about specifically a Higher Power, one that you call upon for strength, guidance, support, etc.? Does that exist, and/or is it necessary? Again, my initial reaction is to say no. Loads of philosophers have covered this for eons, but the gist of it goes ‘if god(s) is/are so helpful, why is the world still so shit?’ And that’s a fairly compelling argument. But to be honest, I’m not really here to debate whether god etc exist, I’m trying to get you to ask yourself, as I have asked myself, “is such a thing necessary?”
So, I’ll save you a few hours of my internal monologue and cut to the chase: …maybe. But I think it depends on how you define it. And semantics are the bread and butter of philosophy. So, when I turned the question back on myself, do I believe in a higher power? I really tried to honestly answer it. “Hmm. Well, in the sense of deities? No. But I ‘believe’ in science as a method and function of reality, I ‘believe’ in logic as a rules-set for observing and interacting with reality, and, upon reflection, there are certainly figures I look to for inspiration.” So, let’s pause there for a second: I like to say “I don’t believe anything. I either know something is true, I know something isn’t true, or I speculate about something.” Now, some have argued “speculation” could be analogous to ‘belief’, but frankly I feel that falls down an infinite hole of semantics. Science and logic have been proven to be true objectively by millions and millions of people for …ever. So, I would say ‘belief’ doesn’t really matter on them, as they are demonstrably true. But what about inspirational figures as a thing to ‘believe’ in?
That’s what really got me thinking: How are the figures I look up to — to take two random exaples, Miyamoto Musashi and Captain Picard — really any different from a religious person looking up to a prophet/saint/priest/god/whatever? The snarky asshole part of me would be pleased to point out Picard is more ‘real’ than mythological heroes, as we actually have film of him, and direct quotes! But he is, ultimately, made up. And yes, I can hear the steam boiling in your blood already, various theists, “my god/s/prophets/saints/etc are not fictional characters!” And my point is: that’s really neither here nor there, when you get down to brass tacks. In both our cases, I look to these people for ideals of how to live, how to be honorable, how to be kind, how to be brave, how to work hard, how to aspire to greatness, and so on. And, from what I’m told by pretty much every theist of any faith I’ve ever met, that’s what they glean from their idols, too.
So… are we really so different? Putting aside the hate-speech on both sides of atheism/theism about the other’s damages to society etc, on a more practical, individual, and psychological level, is there really any difference between me aspiring to better myself to be more like Picard, and someone aspiring to better themselves to be like, say, a saint? To my own great surprise, I would actually argue… no. Because for both of us, it really boils down to a means to an end. The end ideally being a better version of ourselves. And if you get that way via magicks or religious ceremonies or superstitious habits or praying to statues or studying historical figures or having silly star trek posters in your office, and the end result is still the same: a good citizen of the world who does more good than harm, …well, so what?
To me, this is an excellent case study of ‘live and let live.’ Which I suspect is why I have friends of lots of different beliefs (and lack thereof) and yet we get along: because we all have a sense of honor, we all have a sense of ethics, of kindness, of empathy, etc. We all strive to be good people. We may walk wildly different paths, but our destinations are all the same: goodness.
Whether ‘goodness’ to you means God, or having an impact on the world, or just ‘doing your part’ as a piece of the great whole of humanity, I think it’s wise to… leave well enough alone when it’s none of your business. If they believe something insane but still are a good person, eh, screw it. Let them have their beliefs. And they should let you have yours.
So… in closing, is belief in a Higher Power truly necessary? To be honest, I don’t know. But, it certainly seems to help, as is backed up by a number of studies about the effectiveness of therapies and rehab and so on. And I for one can honestly say there were times in my life where what kept me literally alive were “what would Picard do?” And since that answer led me to surviving and being kind and honorable and good, well, so what if your question is “what would jesus do” or “what would buddha do” if the end result, a good person, is the same?
To go out like I came in, with an apropos Keanu Reeves joke: