Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Strange Gods

So, as you all know, I'm an atheist. Until recently I was a hardcore "I don't know" agnostic, but certain life events have erased even that glimmer of doubt that the universe is unregulated chaos that forms areas of organization - sometimes very detailed organization - only insofar as the laws of physics encourage it. Chaos makes sense to me, because when I look at the world, I see chaos. The organization I do see is just about entirely explainable by science. I don't see the hand of a supreme being.

That said, I'm interested in investigations into the veracity of religious beliefs or paranormal activity (the same thing, as far as I'm concerned), because study of anything curious and seemingly inexplicable is, well, interesting.

That's why I was fascinated to learn that a former student and now friend of mine participated as a researcher in this study on "Chinese character induction" or "finger reading" when he was a student many years ago. (This blog post by Michael Turton, as well as this paper, are the only English-language mentions online of this study that I could find). According to him, the study was more than just writing on paper and then folding it into a small ball - they put the papers under metal sheets and blindfolded the children, and the children could still use their fingers to "read" the characters and accurately tell scientists what the characters were. And that the characters that could be most easily read were ones like "Jesus", "God", "Buddha" and "Guanyin" as well as some Indian gods, among others. "Matsu"was also fairly strong, but other minor deities or supernatural/mythical beings were either barely readable or unreadable. Common characters (like "book", "coffee", "wash" or "jacket") were not readable. The children apparently reported that they could "see" the characters with their fingers, and they'd present themselves in their minds as lights of various brightness (that's not what the paper says, however, not exactly).

This person now has his PhD and is fiercely intelligent. He's not a wacko. He said that before working on the study, he was about as much as an atheist as me, except that he didn't care enough to label himself. Now, he says, he believes that "there has to be something".

Now, as I said, I'm an atheist. I don't believe any of this. At the same time, I don't think he's lying. I think he certainly did work on that study and he probably did see something that freaked him out. That doesn't mean, necessarily, that this stuff is true, just as "there is a God because I feel God's presence" is not solid evidence that there is, in fact, a God. Not even studies showing that there is a slight uptick beyond regular probability that something will happen - like a relative getting well - if people pray for it prove this.

It's a strange middle ground to be in, when you believe your friend and know he's not crazy, but you are also dead certain that this stuff isn't "real", or even if it is, there has to be a scientific explanation that we're just nowhere near understanding yet. I absolutely do not believe there is anything that can never be explained by science: only things that science as it is now can't yet explain, as it is insufficiently advanced. If there were something in this world that could not be explained by science, why have science to begin with?

It also made me think of something else: see, I have another friend who recently became a Christian (his wife is Christian - they are both Taiwanese). While I personally would not have made that choice, I am happy for him insofar as he's made a choice that he feels is right for him and makes him happy, and that's really what's important. In that way, I fully support him.

This friend and I had had a chat many months ago in which he asked me why I go to all these temple parades and festivals in Taiwan. "Because they're COOL," I replied. "Far more interesting than religious services in the USA, and far more interesting than parades by far."

"But do you actually believe in, say, Baosheng Dadi or Matsu or any of that?"

"Honestly, no. I don't believe that Baosheng Dadi is a real immortal being or a god. He was a real person, but I don't go in for gods."

After that, I thought about it for awhile. I don't believe in God or gods, but if I had to choose between the two, I'd go with the folk gods - be they Chinese, or Hindu gods, or any polytheistic pantheon of gods with specific functions and often difficult personalities with their own desires and whims, likes and dislikes and internal disputes.


Because, while it still makes no sense that there are these immortal powerful beings who can control events in the physical world, at least one thing does make sense: how the world would be if they were the ones in control. It would more or less match up with what we have now. In Taiwan people regularly consult "fortune blocks" (校杯) - those crescent-shaped wood or red blocks that can give one of three answers - no, yes, or "laughing god" (for the final one, imagine if you said "God, will I die of cancer?" and God answered "ha ha ha!"). The answer they give correlates basically exactly to probability, because it cannot do anything else - and so, yes, the world that we have, with correlates with statistical probability, would align pretty well with those blocks, including the times that the blocks are wrong.

Taiwanese will regularly make it clear that the god they are praying to may choose to answer their prayer or heed their request...or not. It really is up to the whim of the god. If you pray they may listen, and so you've upped your chances, but then if you don't pray, it may still happen. Only Baosheng Dadi or Hua Tuo or Wenchang Dijun can really know, and it is pretty well understood and respected that they act on their own preferences or whims. To me, that also correlates pretty well with the world I see.

Gods in folk-grounded pantheons - be they Hindu, Chinese or whatever - tend to have a lot of internal disputes, weird hierarchies and difficult personalities. When you think of them more as brawling, incestuous, clique-forming and reality-show-imitating natural forces, what happens in life fits perfectly with how you envision them acting. Kids are starving in Africa because the god of food either doesn't care, or is busy doing his sister, or is pissed off, or is otherwise occupied. Not "people are starving in Africa, but hey, GOD LOVES YOU, even the starving ones, but you're still starving because...uh..."

Think about it: bad things happen to good people. All the time. Half of Africa is bad stuff happening to good people. Good things happen to bad people: just look at Wall Street. You could say that God is benevolent and kind and this horribleness is the work of terrible, evil, original sinning humans...

...or you could say that that's just how it is, life sucks then you die, or maybe it doesn't suck, or maybe like most of us it's somewhere in the middle, and it's all random because that's how it seems.

You could then decide you want a religious belief, because you want to believe there is something bigger than you, bigger than all of us. That's great - it's a natural human urge. Even I have it. You could either believe in one omniscient, omnipotent God who loves us all (or create a really angry god who then gets a personality makeover a la New Testament), and then try to twist what you see in the world to fit that belief...

...or you could take what you see in the world and empirically try to deduct what the spiritual/godly realm must be like.

Science works based on the latter principle of deductive reasoning. The former is inductive reasoning, and it's just not how we do science, generally (although it sure is mighty tempting). It makes sense to me to base a spiritual belief system on deductive, rather than inductive, thought and explanation.

So no, I'm still not into this whole spiritual thing, although I find discussing it and thinking about it to be fascinating and worthwhile, and I do respect the beliefs of others (if you wanna be Christian, that's fine by me, as long as you don't tell me what I should believe. I'll even join you at the "Jesus was a pretty awesome progressive dude with a strong moral philosophy that we can learn from even today" party. I'll bring the whiskey. I'm pretty sure that although Jesus was a wine guy, he'd probably like whiskey).

But if someone put a gun to my head and told me I had to believe something - hey, it's happened to people - I'd go with polytheistic folk beliefs. Definitely. At least those jive with what I see.

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