Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Atheists: Courage, Questions, and Anti-Fatalism

Have you seen the climbing documentary Touching the Void?


It's easily the best climbing film I've ever seen. Two British climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, had an accident during their descent from the west face of Siula Grande in the Bolivian Andes. In the course of the accident Simpson ended up inside the glacier that he'd fallen into, deep within its tomb-like dim blue recesses with only the eerie echoing creaks of the slowly moving ice shelf in the gloom around him. Glaciers are scary, unearthly things even to walk across, much less to be trapped inside when you're badly injured. But Simpson said that he knew at the time you have to keep making decisions, or you're cooked.

That active approach to dealing with the world is the sign of an active and healthy mind. When you're confronted with a daunting challenge, one so complex that you can't even fully understand it - maybe no one can - what's the the response that's most courageous, and most likely to have results? Immediately writing the whole thing off to fate and the whims of unseen entities, or trying to understand it so you can do something, and ignoring all the reasons everyone else can think of not to even try.

I wrote before that optimism and pessimism are somewhat pointless distinctions, if strictly addressing them as ways of looking at the world; passively looking at things in the world and assigning a value of good or bad to them is meaningless. The more important distinction is between fatalism and anti-fatalism, for lack of a better term. In the face of a mystery or a challenge, even a seemingly inexplicable one, a rationalist will take responsibility, rely on him or herself, and assume the problem can be solved and try to solve it or understand it. But when faced with a tough problem when figuring out how the world works, the religious are tempted with a universal out, a black box that everything can be hidden in: God did it. Questioning terminated, as is perserverance. No need to find something else concrete you know about the world to link this to in an effort to understand and solve, just let it go. It's clear who the fatalist is in this situation.

Joe Simpson got out of the glacier alive and crawled miles back to camp with a badly broken leg, over fields of boulders. He relied on himself, he refused to accept ignorance of his situation no matter how bleak, and he refused to give up. Simpson was raised Catholic but by the time of this climb, he no longer considered himself a believer. When discussing whether he thought about praying while he was stuck in the glacier, he said that it had never once crossed his mind.

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