Issues and content aside, the most compelling upshot of this past weekend’s meeting of atheists in Ireland is what it tells us about the universe we Westerners (and increasingly, all of us on this hot and crowded planet) inhabit– believers and atheists alike. Succinctly, we don’t live in a universe anymore. We live in a multi-verse– or, less charitably, we live in a chaos (the opposite of a cosmos).
The way that I am asking this question– what kind of universe do we inhabit?– is a metaphysical/philosophical question, not a physical/scientific question. The evidence that we live in a multi-verse, is that there is no common understanding– in fact, there is very serious disagreement– about the nature of what is real; about what we can know and how we know it; about where we came from and where we’re going; about what is beautiful and good, and on what ground we can make that judgment— in sum, about all questions of meaning and purpose. Any universe begins from assumptions about the nature of what exists; the defining characteristic of those assumptions is that they themselves cannot be proven. Even the universe of Western material science is not exempt from the logical necessity for this epistemological first move, which for materialistic atheists is the functional equivalent to, ironically, a religious leap of faith.
Western culture has been in turmoil– more or less– since at least the Enlightenment, and as the West has bumped elbows with non-Western cultures, those cultures have at various times elbowed back. Fundamentalisms of all stripes– Christianism, Islamism, scientism– have wide appeal, because they aim to supply us once again with a universe to inhabit– a cosmos instead of a chaos. Such a tidy resolution to questions of ultimate purpose– such a tidy restoration of the universe– is not possible, because the commitments that people have to their cosmos– to their way of making meaning of experience– are, at root, non-rational.
A multi-verse– a world with different and competing ways of ordering morality and meaning, origin and destiny– is always at risk of becoming a chaos. The opportunity of our time is achieving a widely-shared, deepening appreciation for all that is life-affirming in the multi-verses we inhabit together– and for the mystery at which our knowing cannot reach.
[Last] weekend [June 5th and 6th], about 350 conventioneers descend[ed] on Dublin to discuss matters of faith and its place in public life. It’s not a meeting of the Catholic Church hierarchy, but the first World Atheist Convention.
Organizers claim they aren’t trying to make a statement by selecting Ireland, often seen as one of Europe’s most religious nations, but the get-together of nonbelievers does come in a country where religiosity has been in steady decline. In fact, faith seems to be on many European minds of late and questions of religion in public life have reentered political discourse here – from the French “burqa ban” to Ireland’s antiblasphemy law to frequent complaints from Pope Benedict XVI about perceived moral relativism.
Long considered a private matter, some say public questions of faith are even threatening Europe’s traditionally secular politics. “Broadly speaking, religion is back on the agenda in a way people didn’t think it would be 10 or 15 years ago,” says Titus Hjelm, a sociologist of religion at University College London.