Saturday, November 10, 2012

Forget the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Let's talk about the Lava Monster.

A terrifying creature made of lava
Atheists and those who believe in evolution often use an absurd fictional deity called the Flying Spaghetti Monster (or FSM) to underscore their basic point about the absurdity of religion and its creation myths. While I wish these people well, the FSM is of almost no use to me as a metaphor or allegory and has had very little impact on my beliefs, religious or otherwise.

I am much more concerned about the Lava Monster. Let me explain.

An Indonesian village near a volcano
I want you to picture, reader, a village built in the shadow of a large and terrifying volcano. Within this volcano dwells an enormous, terrifying creature made of hot molten rock. At any time he desires, this Lava Monster can demolish the village in whole or in part. In fact, he has done so on several occasions, and his powers seem to be without end. Summoning the awesome forces of nature at his disposal, the temperamental and unpredictable beast can create or destroy at will, however he sees fit. The villagers are well aware of the Lava Monster's existence, and the majority of them live in fear of the creature and seek to appease him by holding ceremonies in his honor and following an arcane and complicated set of traditions supposedly "approved" by the Lava Monster. The worshipers of the Lava Monster feel they know his wishes because he has directly communicated these wishes to them in no uncertain terms. The motivation of the villagers is simple: they don't want to be incinerated by rivers of hot molten lava.

Got all that? Good. Now I want to ask you a few basic questions:

  1. How likely is it that there would be widespread disagreement among the villagers about the Lava Monster's wishes? 
  2. If the Monster had very particular desires and could easily communicate them, why would he allow the confusion to persist, especially when that confusion has led to deadly sectarian violence among the villagers?
  3. Would it be possible to live as a non-believer in this village? How?
  4. Would there be any need for the villagers to advertise or proselytize on behalf of the Monster? How could you possibly forget him, when the evidence of his power is all around you?
  5. Assuming you do know the will of the all-powerful Lava Monster and carry out his wishes, what is the moral basis for your behavior? Why would you feel morally superior to someone who disobeyed the Monster's commands?

I don't know how long the Lava Monster has gestated in my imagination. Maybe since childhood. I do know, though, that whenever I think of an omnipotent God, my mind inevitably returns to the story of the Lava Monster. It is that fifth issue which particularly troubles me. If God is real and omnipotent, then obeying his wishes is merely common sense and has nothing whatsoever to do with morality. There's nothing righteous or lofty about giving a bully your lunch money or carrying out your boss's orders at work. You do it to preserve yourself, which is something we all do every day. I don't touch hot stoves, for instance, but that's because I don't want to burn my hand. If you choose to touch hot stoves and repeatedly incur severe burns as result, that may make you foolish but it does not make you immoral.

Virginia Woolf
Have you ever read the Old Testament? You should. In my amateur estimation, it's the work of literature which has most affected the course of human history and led to the civilization we now know. Professional historians may disagree. In any event, the main character in this multi-book saga -- for the Bible is truly a collection of books, like The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter series -- is an all-powerful deity named God, and he is a complex and ambiguous character at best. "I read the Book of Job last night," observed Virginia Woolf, referring to one of the works which make up what we call the Bible. "I don't think God comes well out of it." She is astute in this observation. The character of God, as he is portrayed in the Old Testament, is temperamental, insecure, jealous, vengeful, and capable of incredible violence. In brief, even if God were real, you might not want him running the universe. You'd probably want someone a little calmer and more rational at the helm.

Again, I do not claim to have any answers. I don't know how the universe functions, but I'm sure there are underpaid scientists working on the problem now. I hope they're getting enough sleep at night. If we are lucky, we have five senses with which to take in information and one brain with which to process that information. And that's all we'll ever have. Think about everything and everyone you have ever known. Remember every experience of your past, both major and minor. Everything you can recall about them was conveyed to you by your senses and processed by your brain. Your brain and sense organs are imperfect, yet we must rely upon them. I'll never truly know what it's like to be you. You'll never truly know what it's like to be me. We're all just guessing. What frightens me are the people who are certain they know how it all works. I can cope with uncertainty, but certainty scares me.

This post was not meant to settle anything but rather to raise questions and provoke discussion. Have at it. And don't touch hot stoves. You'll burn yourself. That I think we can all agree on.

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