Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Are Vegetarians Evil? Or, Are Meat-Eaters? A Taunt

Are vegetarians evil? Or are they simply misguided? As I think of the vegetarians that I've known over the years, I really don't think I've ever met a single one that didn't also exude moral superiority, whether of the quiet and hardly noticeable sort, of the loud and obnoxious sort, or somewhere in between.



When I think of the responses that meat-eaters make to vegetarians, overwhelmingly the justification offered is some variation of "Eating meat gives me pleasure." Just to be clear: I also put justifications for eating meat for reasons of health under this rubric. Part of health is the absence of nutritional deficiencies and as well as the absence of mental and spiritual maladies.



From the vegetarian's perspective the meat eating is somebody else's pleasure. Vegetarianism is one instance of a broader conundrum: the problem of other people's pleasure(s). Another instance of this: sexual mores. Consider the hullabaloo that Evangelicals make about homosexuality. The conflict about homosexuality mirrors oddly enough the conflict around vegetarianism: Christian Morality condemns certain desires and behaviors. Or if delicate ears prefer: Christian Morality would limit desires and behaviors to their life-affirming and positive forms: procreation, monogamy, love, etc. But in so doing, sex as a vehicle of self-discovery and enhancement of one's autonomy and individuality is quietly and delicately hushed up. Self-discover in whatever venue is fraught with error, mistakes, poor judgment, and above all learning from experience, which is to say from bad experience.



It would then seem that the sometimes not so subtle air of moral superiority that vegetarians sometimes exude is rooted in the pleasure of denying oneself a pleasure of little value to the vegetarian. The vegetarian denies himself the pleasure of eating meat because she cares little for it. And because the vegetarian can make this little self-denial in the name of justice, fairness, kindness, avoiding cruelty, or what have you, it must of course follow that any person who is unwilling to make the same self-denial is necessarily immoral.



Morality is in large part then dependent on the belief that some pleasures are inessential, unreal, immoral, and only apparent pleasures. The pleasure that one can deny oneself will almost assuredly be intimately bound up another person's autonomy. For such a person, there is nothing "apparent" and "merely" about it.



For most meat eaters giving up meat, the possible reason to give up meat is because vegetarians are unhappy with the consumption of flesh by non-vegetarians. Just like Evangelicals find other people's pleasures to be a powerful political rallying point.

So, I ask anyone stumbling upon these pages: an analogy worth pursuing? Is an argument? Or enough of a taunt to disarm the not-so-clever and the all too unwary?




Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I'm back (again)

I dropped the blog for a while because of school, mood, and a peevishness of character. It's hard for me to fall in with a (more or less) like-minded group for long. I have always found the agreement of others with my beliefs and opinions highly disagreeable. One of the implications of atheism in pretty much any variety is that one's beliefs are cosmically and eternally insignificant. Generally speaking, atheists don't believe that anyone is going to suffer eternal torment for having the wrong beliefs.



One of the reasons that I started this blog was to keep myself in a writing frame of mind so that I would be able to work on my papers.




Nonbelieving Literati #1a

I liked The Exterminator's post about Julian, It can be found here.



Can a “liberal” political leader who professes faith — even one who picks and chooses practices from various different religions — be truly tolerant? Or is there something inherent in every system of supernatural belief that causes its adherents to be enemies of those with differing worldviews?



As might be expected, The Exterminator answers in the negative. And further, he makes clear that he doesn't think the character of Julian as Vidal presents him is the man for the job, so to speak, of implementing policies of tolerance and peaceful coexistence.



The pre-Christian Ancient World generally regarded apparently similar deities as equivalent. Jupiter of the Romans was the same deity as Zeus for the Greeks, for example. For the Greeks, "Jupiter" was simply what the Romans called Zeus, and if the Roman rites were different? That was between the Romans and the Deity in question. Further, there have been religions and social systems in the past that were unabashedly eclectic.



There is a phrase that gets bandied about from time to time: the prejudice against prejudice. The rhetorical thrust of this phrase goes to the heart of the matter: Is the preference and bias for policies of tolerance and diversity over policies of intolerance and hatred just another irrational prejudice? That in following policies of tolerance and diversity fewer people would get hurt would seem to be not insignificant. But tolerance and diversity can also be the arguments of the delicate and the cowardly who are afraid of getting hurt physically or otherwise.



There is a way out of that paradox: a commitment to values, ideals, and institutions of tolerance and diversity. This would require, of course, the recognition that conflict, misunderstanding, and strife are inherent to human social life. No doubt such thoughts strike many as immoral. This recognition can be less controversially phrased: instead of beginning with the belief that it is possible in principle to remove completely from public life egoism, strife, oppression, and the like, or in the worst case to hide these all too human qualities in private life. humanity's less than presentable rather than being removable are the mud and clay from which a body politic is to be sculpted. If this thought strike readers as bizarre or proto-fascist, I cannot recommend The Federalist Papers strongly enough.



However, in exacting a commitment to values and institutions, there is a corresponding loss of transcendental justifications for one's institutions. The commitment to the values and principles embodied in one's institutions does not flow from (a) God's commandment, but rather from
love in the same way that parents of a severely handcapped child loves their child: because it is one's own. Love of the fatherland is like any other human passion: it can be phenomenally stupid, blind, ignorant, intolerant, and the like. And it can also be love of the principles embodied in a way of life.



If sectarians do not themselves profess a similar love, then that is the limit of tolerance.




Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nonbelieving Literati #1

I was supposed to have this posted on Saturday, September 15. I procured a new laptop on Labor Day weekend. And of course, me being me, I had to install Kubuntu Linux on it. Everything went fairly well. I got to the wireless to work and all the various bits of hardware. Then wireless stopped working. I spent a week trying to figure it out. In the end I had to take it back to the store. Yes, the wireless went out after one session. I took my refund and ordered a Toshiba Satellite P205-S6267. I spent almost a day getting a version of Kubuntu Linux set up on it. Then I found out that with the version of Kubuntu Linux due out in October, only one command is needed to setup wireless. Suffice it to say, I'm in Linux heaven: wireless works, sound works, video is lovely. Since I don't use a webcam, I'll wait on setting it up.



* * *



So, this month's reading assignment was Julian by Gore Vidal. It's a historical novel set in the time of the Roman Empire. I haven't had time to read the whole thing. I've only had time to thumb through the novel. I'm not big on fiction, historical or otherwise. I've always pretty much preferred philosophy and social science.



Thumbing through Julian, I was forcibly struck by Christianity's emphatic reliance on historical claims. It really is absolutely essential for the "faith" of the vast majority of Christians that there really lived and breathed a man who bore the name Jesus at a particular time in history.



If this belief in the historicity of Jesus were shown to be undeniably false and untruthful, what would Christianity lose? Or less awkwardly phrased what does belief in the historical elements of Christianity make possible? If, for example, the historicity of Jesus was shown to be part of a hoax perpetrated by the Romans to prop up the empire, what would Christianity lose?



I find this a really, really hard question. My inclination is to think that Jesus' historicity makes a number of things possible, or at least much, much easier. Rather than dwelling on the historicity or ahistoricity of Jesus' life and works, I suggest asking why insist on a historical savior and messiah?



Any answer that presumes an intrinsic value to truth begs the question. Why value truth? Why is truth better than error or falsehood? It's not at all clear that truth is always to be preferred to error and lies. Young children, for example, need praise for their efforts all out of proportion to the efficacy and competency of those efforts. Further, there is the expression "to tell a white lie." The point of these examples is to show that Truth does not possess absolute value and is always to be preferred to error, deception, and outright lies. Or if a more dramatic example is needed, consider the figure of Odysseus.



Of course, the Christian response to this is to interpret the necessity of deception for human life as prima facie evidence of Original Sin and of Adam's Fall from Grace. The hatred of deception can also interpreted as prima facie evidence of a systematic hatred of humanity, life, and of an unrelenting compulsion to self-condemnation.



It's a sign of how far removed I've become from my Pentacostal roots that I'm simply not interested in fairy-tales about Jesus or any other figure from the Bible. Those stories don't strike me as particularly relevant. The stories would be about as relevant as stories written by a Hindu several centuries ago about an incarnation of Vishnu.



* * *



I've been reading The Promise of Politics by Hannah Arendt. She talks a lot about the significance of the founding of Roman to the Roman Republic and to the Roman Empire. The founding was the source of authority for the Republic. The importance of Jesus giving the keys to Peter captures something of this. The historicity of Christianity's core beliefs is the foundation of authority of the Popes and of the Roman Catholic Church. The priests, the bishops, and other officials of the church all trace their way back -- according to the Official Story-- to the original disclosure of divinity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.



If that disclosure were shown to be either a mistake or a fraud, then the Roman Catholic Church has no special mission other than to perpetuate itself. And Protestants? With Protestants claims of historicity have a repressive effect: they exclude argumentation. After Kierkegaard the tendency is to treat the Incarnation and historicity of Jesus as an empirical phenomenon: it can't be proved nor disproved. Faith proves itself. Or as I would put it: the neurotic insistence on the historicity of Jesus is another rationalization for not thinking and avoiding reality.




Monday, September 10, 2007

The Fermi Non-Paradox, Or Questions, Questions, Questions

This post is a holiday from religious topics. I decided to indulge one of my other interests, or rather peeves.



***



So, where are they? Enrico Fermi asked of the little green men. Ever since then very some very clever people have tried to explain why the night time sky isn't like busy, busy like their favorite scifi show. Think Farscape or Star Trek.



The first fact that all speculation about extraterrestial civilizations encounters is that the speed of light in a vacuum is a fixed constant. For extraterrestial speculations, closely related is the immensity of the distances between stars and galaxies coupled with the mind-boggling enormity of the multitude of galaxies and stars in the universe.



This superabundance of stars and galaxies like Spinoza's God the universe will bring into existence whatever may possibly exist. Therefore, the line of thought goes, if it is at all possible for an interstellar civilization to exist, one must exist, or have existed somewhere in the cosmos. Given the recent discoveries of extra-solar planets, it would appear that conditions favorable for life are common thoughout the observable universe.



As more becomes known, the Fermi Paradox becomes even more, well, paradoxical. Over at Sentient Developments there is a sense that all is not well with hopes for super-advanced alien civilizations. As human technology and science becomes ever more sensitive and capable of detailed investigations of stars and planets that are light years away from us, it becomes more unlikely that we are unable to find traces or at least ambiguous evidence of advanced extraterrestial civilizations. And as we know more about the rest of the universe, it appears ever more unlikely that we are alone.



Given the ever increasing sharpness of the paradox, the question presents itself? Is the search for extraterrestial civilizations wrongly conceived? There are some questions that don't seem to be posed in these discussions: assuming for sake of argument feasibility of the energy projects described Kardashev scale, what would a civilization need with the energy of a single star, let alone of a whole galaxy? This strikes me very much as example of a particular culturally- and temporally-bound way of thinking: what can be done must be done.



What would a civilization need all that energy for? It would seem to imply a crass understanding of Darwinian fitness: the most fit species is the species that is numerically greatest. Unlimited population growth would seem to be problematic at best: reproduction for reproductions sake? This is the same imperative followed by the most primitive viruses. A transcendental purpose that we ape-brains could not hope to comprehend? Excuse me, but this sounds much too similar to a common rationalization sometimes offered by Christians for the problem of evil: His ways are not our ways. In other words, here tucked away in a purported obeisance to science, rationality, reason, and intelligence qua intelligence hides a filthy wallowing in the impotence of one's own intelligence and reason: profundity is measured by the extent of one's ignorance.



It should not be forgotten that Kardashev formulated his scale in the Soviet Union. Under Stalin the Soviet Union from the 1930's up to the time of its eventual collapse favored big industry: big dams, big factories, big collective farms, big manufacturing. Considered historically, the Kardashev Scale strongly suggests a projection of narrow historical and social conceptions.



Considered this way, is the standard of Super Big Industry implied by the Kardashev Scale the only meaningful measure of technological progress?



Another element to these discussions that I find particularly annoying is the assumption that a sufficient level of intelligence will (somehow) provide an escape from biological imperatives, especially of reproduction and sexual desire. The real subtext of discussions of super-advanced and hyper-intelligent extraterrestial civilizations betrays a hope and wish for complete control of human fertility. A better characterization of how intelligence is often conceived: a tool to escape Malthusian constraints of unfettered population growth and limited resources to support that growth.



Phrased in less grandiosely, this is consumerist dream run amok. It is the faith and justification of the French Revolution: the elimination of scarcity so as to create dignity and freedom. This is the historically unjustified faith of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But as River said in Serenity, people don't like to be meddled with.



So, can technophiles be divided into 2 groups? Those who believe that the Star Trek: Next Generation techno-wow is just around the corner & those that find themselves living in the Firefly Future. The former believe *all* social problems are fundamentally fixable because *all* social problems are fundamentally problems of scarcity: a technological solution can be found so that people can have enough, and then there would no war, crime, bad childhoods, etc. The latter types find the problem with social relations to
be people don't like to be meddled with (River's line in Serenity). In other words, social problems are fundamentally unfixable: because people are the problem. Looked at this way, "Serenity" is a polemic against the belief that social problems are amenable to a technological fix. The movie shows what Roddenberry's utopian future of the Next Generation must bring.



Ultimately, in order to have that future without war, crime, poverty, etc. human beings will have to be fixed. Hence, the Miranda experiment in Serenity. The administrators who ordered the "fixing" of Miranda's population were not themselves given the treatment, nor were they ever likely to be given it -- assuming that it would work as intended.



Incidentally, in the Firefly future, people still use old tech. Just like in the real world. We all know people who are satisfied with 486's, pentium classics,VCR's, b&w tv's, etc.



Possession of sufficiently developed technology leads to the belief that all things are possible, even the reegineering of humankind. And so far, that has never ended well. And further, that experience in no way indicates that future attempts to fix human nature will end any better.

* * *



It is an unquestioned belief in many of discussions of the Fermi Paradox that evolution at least in the case of homo sapiens has produced an intelligent species. While all lip service is given to evolution, it is assumed apparently without question that once a species reaches a sufficient level of intelligence, that species is no longer subject to biological necessities and imperatives. Sometimes this is presented as creation of artificial environments or of an economy in which the resources necessary for survival have become so plentiful that competition for resources is no longer even possible.



There is also implied in the descriptions of super-advanced hyper-intelligent civilizations the faith that a sufficient level of intelligence can foresee all possible consequences of actions that that civilization might take. Super-advanced hyper-intelligent civilizations do not make mistakes and never have to say that they are sorry.



Not being an economist, I can only ask if there are economies of scale that would prevent the realization of Kardashev civilizations? Are there diminishing returns on the development of "advanced technology"?



Consider this. As personal computers have become more capable, more and more users find themselves with machines possessing computing power sufficient to their computing needs. More and more users find themselves satisfied with older models of personal computers because of a lack of a compelling reason to upgrade. Is it possible that a level of technological progress could be reached on which it is no longer economically feasible to develop further?



I will give the participants in these discussions of the Fermi Paradox one thing: they get the intimate association of intelligence with technology right. However, misunderstandings of intelligence and technology are rife in these discussions. What is technology?



* * *



Technology broadly conceived is the means to removal of obstacles to the fulfillment of desire.



The above definition of technology suggests that living organisms tend towards homeostasis. However, if desires are too readily satisfied, boredom sets in. Worse than the mischief and folly that such boredom would produce is the belief that danger and ground for fear had been eliminated. If all external and physical impediments to the realization of desire had been eradicated, if dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and suffering remained, the only possible explanation would be a flaw in the genome of the intelligent creature itself. Reegineering, "fixing," as it were, the creature itself is implied in the dream of plenty.



Intelligence evolved not to discover truth, not to implement justice, fairness, equity, and the like. Intelligence evolved to aid in the survival and reproductive success of particular species. Consequently, any attempt by an intelligent species to reegineer itself will fail. There will be bias, there will be short-sightedness. Further, the whole enterprise of self-reegineering implies an objective and unarguable ideal of what that intelligent species should be. In other words, a loss of variability within the species. And with the loss of variability comes specialization and a greater risk of extinction.



A technological society such as Western Society is self-limiting through biological/genetic and economic factors. So-called advanced technological societies are little more than pipe dreams and unwitting projections of current social and political realities filtered through a narrow lens of wishful thinking and frustrated religiosity.




Thursday, September 6, 2007

I can't believe it's been over a month...

It's been over a month since my last posting. I feel a minor obligation to explain. The lack of postings was fallout from trying to get my disturbed sleeping pattern under control. My doctor prescribed something that made restful sleep impossible for about a week. I would sleep 4 or 5 hours but not a deep tthis reaction. I stuck it out for a week. Luckily, I didn't have to drive much and wasn't in school. It was hellish week. Needless to say, I stopped blogging for the time being. Afterwards, I was just out of habit.



I've got some catching up to do. Over at Sentient Developments there's some posts on which I dearly want to comment: Meat eaters are bad people and The Fermi Paradox: Possible solutions and next steps.




Monday, August 6, 2007

Another Letter to Phil (if he exists)

Phil,



I have never been one to let things lie. One of the advantages of a blog is that I can always indulge that part of me that thinks of clever things to say after the fact. Mainly I find myself to be a slow thinker. I have random thoughts and insights after I read something, and sometimes while I'm reading something. I don't think I've ever finished thinking about something on one reading or in one fit of cogitation.



It's 2am and I can't sleep. I thought thinking about your letter to God would send me off to sleep. It didn't. I ended up complaining to myself about this, that, and the other thing.



I found the last two paragraphs of your letter to God particularly thought-provoking. Probably not in a way that you intended:




It is your[God's] responsibility as the parent of humanity to ensure our well being. At least until we are well grown up and we are able to take care of ourselves, otherwise what type of parent would you be?



If you do not, faith in you could be damned. Humanity could be damned too.







I included the first paragraph for context and to clarify a little the second paragraph in the quoted section. Incidentally, these are the last two paragraphs of your letter.



Some of these expressions that you come up with challenge the stylistics and syntax of modern English. I don't know how "faith in God could be damned." It's always been my understanding that in Christianity to damn means to curse and more specifically to eternal punishment in hell. If by some chance you mean that "faith in God could be immoral and therefore worthy of damnation," I can only agree with you.



Faith in God can be immoral and judging from what I've seen of contemporary Christendom, I should say that it is almost always immoral, if not now then later. An explanation of possible exceptions can be found here. There so much familiarity, so much rubbing elbows with God and Jesus, as if the three days on the Cross was like a really bad day at the mall. The immorality of Christendom is acquiescence in banality, conformity, fear, and laziness, as if three days on the Cross was just so that little Jane and Johnny could avoid the hard spiritual work of doubt, ostracism, and persecution. One of the things I never, ever understood about Christians is how they could believe God would see to their needs, when He crucified his own firstborn. Why should a "Christian" think that he will be treated any better?



Once the possibility is admitted that one's faith is immoral, it's not such a big step to rejection of faith as immoral. Really, it's not so much a matter of rejection, as it is admitting that the old formulas, arguments, and Bible verses are no longer persuasive. Nietzsche seemed to have arrived at his atheism by a similar route. "Christian morality overcoming itself" or something similar. I prefer to phrase it as realizing that one is too honest to remain a Christian.



The last paragraph, though, sounds nihilistic: God be damned, and this world too! Without God, there's nothing to live for. Consequently, nothing matters. There are no standards, no basis for morality, etc. etc. It's all very melodramatic and more appropriate for adolescents than for adults.



* * *



One of my principal objections to Christianity is the lack of humility. It offends my sense of modesty that I am supposed to attach such a great significance to my own thoughts, moods, feelings, and desires. Somehow feelings of guilt, pride, envy, lust, etc. are supposed to have metaphysical importance? My feelings of guilt over are tied up with the most important event in human history? The comings and goings of my feelings and desires affect my fate after my death??? My fate post mortem is directly linked to the opinions and beliefs that I espouse before I die? It's all so fantastic. I have great difficulty attaching so much significance to my opinions. I'm just not egotistical enough and so craven in my desire for the admiration, respect, and fear of my fellow human beings.



bob



PS. Phil--it's not nice to post a link to your site in the comments section and then not have a section for comments on your site. It just doesn't seem fair somehow. What if God decides to reply to your letter? Cf. The Grand Inquisitor.




Sunday, August 5, 2007

An Open Letter to Phil (if he exists)

Phil,




You posted a comment to What would it take for me to stop being an atheist?. The full text of your comment:




Proof of God is anything that can withstand indefinite scientific scrutiny for all of time.



Phil

Read more here:

http://www.philforhumanity.com/A_Letter_to_God.html




Here is a fixed hyperlink to your Letter to God (if he exists) for the one-click convenience of my readers.



Putting aside idle speculation that English may not be your first language, what does your sentence mean? Proof of God is anything that can withstand indefinite scientific scrutiny for all of time.



In your mind there seems to be a strong association of God with proof. Equally important to you is science and scientific scrutiny. From the juxtaposition of God and science in your sentence, I can only infer either that you subscribe to a crude materialism: God is a physical entity subject to scientific scrutiny. Or, scientists will one day somehow in the future realize that there is a gap in their equations and knowledge and this gap can only filled by God.



The latter is a variation of the way of thinking that lets religion teach values based on the spiritual world and lets science study the physical world. This coexistence has broken down. The creationists and their Conservative Christian Brethren in this country are no doubt in denial that their failed incursions into public schools and public life have provoked a backlash from a rather vocal and articulate minority.



For all the hullabaloo about values and nihilistic atheists, the fact remains, and it is a fact, that science does not need religion. Creationists for all their pitiable caricatures of science admit that science is the real authority. If their doctrines can't be twisted and contorted to conform to consistency with scientific explanations, then those doctrines must be false(!). Admittedly, I'm using the word "consistency" in a rather loose & unscientific sense. If you take a step back, so-called creationist science is in large measure an attempt to provide an explanation of how the mainstream sciences of geology, biology, physics, etc., "got it all wrong." In the most generous interpretation of creationist science that I can imagine: creationist science is to mainstream science as a Einstein's theory of relativity is to Newtonian physics. In short, creationists want some of the luster of the authority that mainstream science enjoys to rub off on them.



For all their hatred of modern science, Creationists implicitly acknowledge Modern Science as their standard by which to understand and interpret their Holy Scriptures. If Modern Science cannot be brought into harmony with their Scriptures, then their Scriptures would have to be wrong. For creationists, religion and science speak the same kind of Truth. And we know which has a proven track record in healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and even bringing back the dead to a limited extent.



Unfortunately for fundamentalists and the rest of us, as well, fundamentalists are by and large unproductive, even parasitic. They are too fearful and hate-filled towards everything that is outside their purview. If fundamentalists cannot shoe-horn a cultural artifact, scientific doctrine, fact of nature, or social phenomenon into their Holy Scriptures, then that thing must be destroyed, either by them "acting on God's orders," or by God Himself on Judgment Day.



* * *



I digress. I've been meaning to write something about Creationists needing Modern Science for some time. I read your Letter to God. I do not have kind words for it. Especially since there is a link on the page to the Desiring God 2007 National Conference.



There's a part of me that finds the shenanigans of Christians and other believers funny. So much excitement, anxiety, dread, pathos, and bathos over nothing. It reminds me of nothing so much as my 3 year old trying to explain why she's afraid to watch Underdog. She's afraid of feeling afraid and of the phantasms of her imagination. It's really not so dissimilar to the agonies religious people put themselves through.



Just to be 100% clear: religion is most definitely not one of the greater accomplishments of humankind. Fundamentally, religion represents one possible survival strategy: we do what we are told. If a set of beliefs and practices, no matter how foolish and absurd, has allowed a tribe to persist in their existence, the fact of their continued existence is an argument for following those beliefs and practices, no matter how irrational, absurd, and anti-empirical they might appear to a disinterested observer.



Religion as a survival strategy: my 3-year old imitates her 5-year old sister in all kinds of ways. Considered in terms of evolution, since the older sibling has survived successfully for so long then she must be doing something right, therefore imitation of the older sibling's behaviors will likely result in the continued survival of the younger sibling.



To sum up: religion is institutionalized stupidity. But, it should to be acknowledged in the next breath that more often than most of us would like to admit, stupidity is oftentimes successful as a survival strategy. This is why religion hasn't died out, as was promised in the Enlightenment.



* * *



Sorry. Another digression. In the end, Phil, God is no longer believable. What's He good for? What gap does He fill in human knowledge? The most generous and sarcastic answer is that "God" means "I don't know." Then why not just say, "I don't know" and be done with it?



Or is it that you like the big words of Humanity, Right, Morality, and The Meaning of Life, The Universe, and Everything? The denial of morality, God, and The Meaning of Life, The Universe, and Everything means that you would be left to tend your own miserable, pathetic existence with no claim to monkey with the lives of other people.



Take note: I've never seen a definition of humanity that didn't imply that at least some specimens of homo sapiens did not partake of that humanity. In other words, "humanity" however defined always excludes somebody with a name, a biography, and a beating heart.



bob



PS. One of the things that creationists and religious types get wrong inevitably is that there really are events and consequences of human actions that are belief-independent. I drop a rock on my foot. It hurts. Or, even more significant: the recurring phenomenon of being wrong: the recurring experience of unexpectedness. Unexpected events set a limit on what may be safely attributed to "faith" and "the power of conviction." There is an escape from the seemingly unlimited subjectivity of modern religion and postmodernism.




Thursday, August 2, 2007

Making Sense of Religion Pt. II -- Redux

Atheist Hussy doesn't quite get what I was after in Pt. II of this series. Her comment to Making Sense of Religion Pt. II missed the point of my post. Her comment in full:


I'd say "I agree!" but that's obvious. :P

Religion is so immoral!



I'll readily admit that I wasn't as clear as I might have been. Let me try again.



Religion has played an important role to the development of human society from before the beginnings of recorded history. Religion continues to be important to the development of culture and human psychology. For all of the absurdity, brutality, and irrationality religion encourages in its practitioners, it is almost certainly also essential to what has enabled homo sapiens has to persist for as long as it has.



If "the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it's stranger than we can imagine," as J. B. S. Haldane once remarked, then what does this mean for reason, empirical-mindedness and rationality as survival strategies? Further, considered in that kind of context, then doesn't the irrationality, brutality, and absurdity of religion are acknowledged, then don't the antics of our fundamentalists look a good deal less irrational and absurd? And who knows? Maybe the brutality that religion often begets is a kindness in the grand scheme of things.



A fundamentalist is a walking, talking refution made flesh of the assertion that reason, rationality, and empirical-mindedness necessarily confer some kind of innate advantage over those infected with religion.



Sometimes listening to atheists complain about religion -- see especially Scientia Natura -- reminds me of nothing so much as someone complaining about how poorly they have been treated by their significant other for so many years. The questions arise, naturally enough: why did you stay in this abusive relationship for so long? What were you getting out of it? If you weren't getting anything, you would have left a long time ago.



As ought to be plain, condemnations of religion while spiritually uplifting and even an effective tonic against mild depression don't interest me. The psychology of religion, however, gets me going. It is a minor amusement that many atheists, for all of their self-professed rationality and empirical-mindedness don't see how accusations of irrationality and anti-empiricism are hardly effective against a foe who prides himself on his irrationality and anti-empiricism.



The fact that fundamentalists survive, and even prosper, calls into question the value of Truth and truthfulness. They don't appear to need either.



That is the perplexity I was trying to suss out in my other post.



* * *



The criticism of religion as irrational will only be effective IF the irrationality that religion exhibits is harmful or morally reprehensible in some way.



My big point above is that fundamentalists for all their irrationality and cognitive dissonances don't appear to be obviously worse off. And even if they are, the irrationality and cognitive dissonances intrinsic to religion have been a part of humanity since before recorded history. Religion (in some form) may be the oldest human social institution.



What do the irrationality and cognitive dissonances intrinsic to religion have to tell us about reason, rationality, and empirical-mindedness?




Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Pearl of Wisdom from Big Mischief

--What does heaven mean? Is it like jail?



I kid you not.





Happiness, Joy, and the Meaning of Life, Pt. I

Nietzsche rather consistently presented the Christ on the Cross as a crime against life, as a pointer to seek redemption elsewhere. His beloved Dionysus in being torn apart was a symbol of desire for life and not just any life: this life. Not some life that might be found only in heaven. The Crucified was a curse on human life as we know it. The Crucifixion means that life is cursed and thus in need of redemption. Dionysus being torn apart was a blessing and benediction.



Even if Nietzsche's Dionysus is found to be less than compelling, his central questions remain: what is the meaning of suffering? What is suffering?



Christianity has a limited conception of happiness and joy. Even after allowing for "all of the joys of this world" that the most generous interpretation of Christianity might find, there still remains a lingering, inconsolable dissatisfied unhappiness. A poem by William Butler Yeats captures this gnawing unhappiness:



What Then?

by William Butler Yeats



HIS chosen comrades thought at school

He must grow a famous man;

He thought the same and lived by rule,

All his twenties crammed with toil;

"What then?" sang Plato's ghost. "What then?"



Everything he wrote was read,

After certain years he won

Sufficient money for his need,

Friends that have been friends indeed;

"What then?" sang Plato's ghost. "What then?"



All his happier dreams came true --

A small old house, wife, daughter, son,

Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,

poets and Wits about him drew;

"What then?" sang Plato's ghost. "What then?"


"The work is done," grown old he thought,

"According to my boyish plan;

Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,

Something to perfection brought';

But louder sang that ghost, "What then?"



However great the joys of this world, alas, something is amiss. Something is lacking. Some something that makes everything significant, beautiful, and satisfying is not to be found amid the joys of worldly success, friendships, love fulfilled, or children grown to successful adulthood.



The question that came to me when I was studying Nietzsche and struggling with religious doubts and questions: could this gnawing dissatisfaction, could suffering itself, even, be an enhancement and even incentive to living this life?



Another poem. This time one of mine:



Just Once?



Just once, only once, dear Christ,

To hang from a tree and mock Death?



Just once, only once, dear Christ,

To suffer and suffer and find final relief?



Just once, only once, dear Christ,

To rise in joy, clothed in light?



Just once, only once, dear Christ,

And not over and over and over, and yet once more,



Until life herself shouts in ecstasy,

Oh, just once more, only once more, dear Christ?






Thursday, July 26, 2007

Making Sense of Religion Pt. II

Atheist Hussy's latest post is about why religion matters and should matter to atheists. I agree with her that Christianity, and religion generally, has been a disaster for humankind. Religion matters because it is a plague upon human beings. Intellectually and spiritually it is the equivalent of tuberculosis or the Black Death for emotional and intellectual health.



However deserving of our hatred and disgust religion may be, the fact remains that religion was (and remains still) important to the social, intellectual, and emotional life of the vast majority of human beings throughout all of human history. Complaining about religion bears an uncanny resemblance to complaining about a close blood relative who is simply a manipulative prick. The suspicion that you related by more than blood is unshakable and unprovable.



I haven't worked out all the details but it seems very likely that the criticism that religion is a curse because it is false, irrational, immoral, harmful, etc. is grounded in morality. "Grounded in morality" means that not all beliefs, actions, thoughts, intentions, behaviors, etc. have the same worth. And further that this difference in worth is not to be found in the natural world.



Lurking further back, intuitively speaking, is a faith in the rationality of the natural world. This faith is simple enough: the natural world is amenable to complete description and understanding through unaided human reason. Generally speaking, the order and arrangements of thoughts in the human mind can sometimes reflect the order and arrangements of things in the world.



Once God is banished from explanations, a question arises: how and why does the order and arrangement of events and objects in the phenomenal world (sometimes) correlate with the arrangement and order of the cognitive processes of the human brain? With God, of course, it's easy: God made the world. God made human beings like him. Humans can know the world because humans partake of Divinity: humans are made in His Image. I don't have a solution to that problem.



That is one conundrum that I wanted to point out. Another conundrum and more relevant to Atheist Hussy's post is that the sheer irrationality of religion calls into question the necessity, wisdom, and rationality of elevating reason and rationality at the expense of religion. The typical resistance of fundamentalist Christians to reason, empirical evidence, and rationality in general means that those things are not essential to human life.



Fundamentalists are themselves a walking, talking attempt at a refutation of reason and inquiry. Hurling down upon all the curses which reason may invent does not touch upon the taunt to reasonableness that is their life. They live as if to say that reason is shallow, inconsequential, and irrelevant to most of human existence.



The immunity of our fundamentalist Christians to the charms and beauties of reason and rationality strongly suggests that we do not understand our own love of reason and rationality as well as we like to think we do.






Tuesday, July 24, 2007

What If ...?

Modern medicine, and biology generally, are unthinkable without Darwinian evolution. According to the poll numbers Americans have their doubts to about the central tenets of evolution, to put it mildly. The practical result of these doubts will be the neutering of American medicine and biology generally.



At some point, the destructive effects of "creationist science" on biology and medicine will become apparent. Almost certainly this will be when advanced biology and medicine will be developed somewhere other than the US.



I picture maybe the Chinese or the Koreans developing some wonderful and powerful application of biology. This hypothetical application would be the biological equivalent of Sputnik. Perhaps it will be something from stem cells, perhaps it will be something that would be difficult to imagine today. But thoroughly as if from science fiction.



I've started reading Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism, Amazon link. It is a collection of essays by various scientists and philosophers. I've only read the introduction and the first essay, but as a matter of first impression, this is the one book to have handy if you are likely to find yourself participating in discussions/disputes about Intelligent Design and Creationism.



I'll post more about it as I read more, even though I generally dislike discussing items with which I find myself in substantial agreement. A tension necessary for thought is lacking.




Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Stab at An Answer to My Challenge to Atheists

How might some common doctrines and beliefs bandied about by Christians be evidence of crypto-atheism?



One example. One of the clichés many believers toss merrily about is that evolution is how God created. Science can only study the mechanisms by which God acts and not the hand of God itself in the material world.



First, implied in this answer is that there is no evidence, or at least no unambiguous evidence, for God acting in the world. Appeals to evidence indicates an empirically-minded approach to the problem of God in the world. God is not a scientific hypothesis. Consequently, God is superfluous to science.



If God is superfluous to empirically-minded investigations of the world around us, of what use is God, if He does not help us understand the physical world? God, one might say, is not in phenomena. Assertions of God's existence do not indicate any new truth or further understanding of what an empirically-minded person might investigate, rather such assertions are rooted in the needs, desires, and fears of the person making the assertions. Consequently, God is a psychological phenomena.



I suspect that people who believe that God acts in history believe that God acts in the same way that I do when I move my hand. God acting in the physical world is an assertion of will. It would be consistent to believe that so-called physical laws are a figment of human thinking: positing hard and fast relations where there are in fact none. Moment to moment all of Creation continues to exist at His behest. The physical world would not exist independently of His Will.



In order for God not to be eventually made superfluous to an explanation of the world, God must absolutely and without reserve provide for the continued existence of all physicality.



Of course this means that the religious-minded would be absolutely indispensable. The religious-minded would have no need of knowledge of illusory physical entities. The religious-minded would know of things far, far more important than the illusions of mere matter. Their ignorance of physicality would be an asset.




Maybe It's All in the Definition of Atheist? Atheist Fanaticism revisited for the last time -- God, I hope so.

I had a passing thought last night. What if most, if not all, of the disagreement between nonbelievers and Christians boils down to how "atheism" is defined?



Consider:



1) Atheism is the disbelief in any God, not just the Christian God.



2) Atheism is the lack of belief in any God, not just the Christian God.



The difference is that the first implies a proposition on which [so-called] atheists can focus their (dis)belief. Disbelief is the assertion of a negative belief: that such and such is not the case. In the case of atheism, this would be that God does not exist.



In the latter, the lack of a belief does not imply anything about what atheists believe (or do not believe) other than not believing in God. Nothing is implied about spiritual states or attitudes towards beliefs in the lack of a belief.



The realization that many atheists really don't spend a lot time asserting the non-existence of God, Christian or otherwise, might be offensive and upsetting to Christians. If it is any comfort to those offended and upset Christians, any denials of the existence of God mostly take place in conversation with believers of one sort or another.



Atheists of the second sort bear an uncanny resemblance to Schrodinger's Cat: they neither deny the existence of God nor do they assert the non-existence of God until a Christian observes them when the question is posed to them: the quantum possibilities collapse into an actuality.



Some Christians need atheists to be thinking about God's non-existence all the time. I can only imagine this would make sense as a shield against doubt. God is primarily an issue for believers. In seeking to portray atheists as pale imitations of Christians, believers betray their own seeds of fanaticism: hatred of anyone who lives as if God failed to exist and is none the worse for their lack of a need for God..




Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Challenge for Atheists and Other Nonbelievers

It's well known that theists, especially Christians, are fond of stating categorically that there are no real atheists. Or telling atheists and other nonbelievers that they are too moral, nice, ethical, etc. not to believe in God. Atheists just don't know that they believe in God.



Here's the challenge:



Is it possible to rephrase and rework some of the presentations of Christian conviction(s) to imply that believers are "really" atheists or better yet "quasi-atheist"?



My thinking is to present an attack and series of arguments that would put apologists for Christianity on the defensive.



I freely admit that this is more likely to be a rhetorical/debater's trick than an honest and down-to-earth criticism.

A Challenge for Adherents of Intelligent Design

There have been some good arguments made against ID. And after the legal debacle in Dover, Pennsylvania, I feel more like I'm on the tail-end of yesterday's hot fashion: debunking ID.



Here's the challenge:



Does ID in any form generate scientific hypotheses that either challenge current theories of cosmology, biology, etc., or hypotheses that lead to experiments and tests which can be performed, at least in principle, given the current state of scientific knowledge.



If ID does not lead to new scientific hypotheses, then the arguments generally in support of design to the physical world rests on statements such as Phenomena X is too complicated to have arisen by chance. Or rephrased, the so-called irreducible complexity of Phenomena X is directly proportionate to human ignorance about Phenomena X.



If ID does not lead to specific hypotheses that are testable at least in principle, then ID is pseudo-science. Philosophy, or even religion, masquerading none too well as science.



In case anyone read "What Is Wrong with Intelligent Design" by Elliott Sober, appearing in the March 2007 issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology, the above is derived from it. Read it. It's only 8 pages and it's well written. I'd say that it would be appropriate for a school board member of average intelligence.




Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Biblical Action Figures (Again)

One of the rationales given for Biblical Action Figures is that many parents would prefer that their children not play with Spiderman figures.



Given that Christians are not particularly prone to critical self-reflection, this desire for toys of their own indicates an odd sense of inferiority vis a vis popular culture and a resentment that they should be in that inferior position.



Witold Gombrowicz, a Polish emigre writer of the 1940's through the 1960's, satirized a similar attitude widespread among Poles. A prevalent theme in Polish Culture and Letters was to show how the Poles belonged to Western Europe. The highlights of Poles to the West were lauded and praised. Poles seemed absolutely determined to show that they were at least as good as West Europeans. Theories were developed to argue that Poland "protected" the West from The (evil) East (= Russia) throughout history. Etc.



Gombrowicz satirized this attitude of institutionalized inferiority in plays, novels, stories, and in his diaries. He is often credited with being the father of contemporary Polish identity, a curious mixture of irony, seriousness, megalomania, inferiority, and honor.



It's just that once I got "it." It became easy to see this parasitic, sterile, vacuous attitude when it presented itself. This desire to be as good as some dominant group is always doomed to failure: the inferiority, in this case, the Evangelical Christians is never addressed. The spirituality that generated Biblical Action Figures would rather see the destruction of popular culture than create something of its own.



What this means is that Christians, Evangelicals in particular, need to see themselves as already oppressed so that they can act against their oppressors. Revenge drives much of their thinking, feeling, and social interactions. It's not that they wish for our destruction, they merely wish that we would be different than what we are: non-Christian.



An Afterthought (Added 2:40pm CST)



Creationist "science" can also be construed according to this model: it is "our science," meaning science by Christians, for Christians. A science which does not make Christians self-conscious, feel awkward and defensive about their beliefs. In other words, "science" that is not as good as the real thing but no less deserving of preeminence of place.



It is hardly any wonder that Christians find no evidence of this resentment and impotent hatred in their spiritual lives. Their beliefs strongly discourage a careful reckoning of motivations, let alone any sort of unbiased self-critique that does not end with finding inspiration by the Holy Ghost.

Over on Atheist Revolution there's nice example of exactly what I'm talking about: Darwin Fish Exposes Christian Privilege.






Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Godmen don't eat quiche (revised 10:50pm)

I'm sure it's very, very bad to revise blog posts after publishing to the web. I don't see why foolish mistakes should be sacrosanct, especially my own.



* * *



Blame this post on Atheist in a Mini-van." And more specifically, Jesus Toys.



An exchange of suggestions for witty mottoes for the various Biblical action figures developed in the comments to this post. Thinking of slogans, mottoes, epigrams is like catnip for me. Once I start, it's difficult to stop until I find just the right clever, compact, and witty embodiment of irony and sarcasm, preferably in 10 words or less. My best so far, of course a Fightin' Jesus action figure, and his motto: "He's back and it's time to do unto others."


Just in case you didn't know, take a look at this. And an article in the mainstream press is available here.



It all strikes me as profoundly weird and perverse. Perverse because it strikes me as quasi-atheist. What is most notable about this sort of thing is the loss of the belief that it is what happens in the world to come that matters. The value of life in this world on this earth is at best a proving ground for one's faith. Traditionally, the value of action, pleasure and goods in this world pales in comparison to eternal life in the next.



If events of this world indicate what is to come in the next, then the theological statements appear to be subject to empirical investigation. Obviously I don't mean tests but rather using believers as a window and mirror into the world to come. Believers would then be the manifestation of God and and of His kingdom. Believers would be God's representatives in this world. What believers say about themselves and their God becomes the prima facie evidence of who and what God is. For the scripturally-way: "By their fruits ye shall know them."



Given the general contempt Evangelicals show for any attempts at rationality and fairness in doctrinal matters, what can be the basis for appeals for conversion? Not appeals to the whore of reason, and not balanced argumentation, either. Ultimately, it's fear and appetites. Fear of hell, and well, maybe just fear. Fear of death, fear of hell, fear of despair, fear of uncertainty (=fear of deciding for oneself), and so on ad nauseum.



[The question for Evangelicals is which comes first: the fear or faith? Is faith in Jesus just a means of escaping from fear? Just whistling in the dark? Fear without an identifiable object and cause? And then the "discovery" that this object-less fear is really the fear induced by sin and caused by ignorance of God's saving grace. But then if the fear is first, isn't it possible that one's "faith" is really about using God? about subjecting God the whims of your own egotistical creature needs?]



Anyway... I digress. The Godmen. Manly Christians. Biblical Action Figures. A Jesus who kicks serious butt. Given the general lack of self-reflection for which Christians are well-known, slogans like "GodMen, When Faith Gets Dangerous" will almost certainly result in the creation of fear in non-Godmen being taken as proof positive of a Godman's faith and closeness to God and Jesus. Given America's long history of anti-intellectualism, Godmen won't have time for any pansy talk about the meaning of life, or debating whether Scripture is true. "These Christians are Real Men! And Real Men, I mean Godmen don't eat quiche."



To sum up. Godmen won't end well. If us non-Godmen are lucky, it will fizzle out with homosexual outings, scandals, and all sorts of gender-bending gymnastics. Men being men, if something is presented as beautiful, a not insignificant percentage will want to have sex with it.



If that last paragraph seems a little unfair, consider this: what sort of person will almost certainly be drawn to such a movement? A happy well-adjusted family man with a healthy social life? Or, someone who is unsure of just how masculine he really is because of troubling feelings, and is looking to resolve doubts about himself? I'd put my money on the latter.




Monday, July 16, 2007

Relativists for Christ

The strongest objection to interpreting Kierkegaard's leap of faith as a manifestation of relativism comes from the simple fact that Christians express very strong preferences and articulate a powerful basis for those preferences.



Relativism can be many things, but I think for many Evangelicals it comes down to "everything is just as good (or as bad) as anything else." There is no justification external to an individual for preferring one thing, one set of beliefs, one religion, etc., over another.



One way of dealing with this perceived lack of values and bases for preferences is to latch on to one and hang on to it for dear life. The relativist, as I describe him, believes there is no basis to preferring one set of values over another. Consequently, for him, the choice is completely arbitrary.



I think the reason Evangelical Christianity has such a following is simply that it preaches that without God there is no alternative. Once one has achieved belief, then the demon of despair and of uncertainty is exorcised.



To make matters worse there is a perverse logic at work: the perceived lack of foundations without God becomes proof of the necessity of some kind of belief. The alternative to belief as taught by Evangelicals is nothingness, despair, and a plethora of choices.



For all the apparent absurdity and rape of reason that Evangelical theology appears to be, there is a clumsy sign language of experiences to be interpreted.




Addendum, or Relativists for Christ

As I was getting ready for bed, it hit me. What kept bugging me about Kierkegaard and his leap of faith.



It's relativism, I tell you. Spurning reason(s) and rationality. Believing because you can. Believing and having "faith" because it makes you feel better. Not because of any shared experiences with other human beings, or because of how and what other people are, say, or do.



And if you believe because you want to. The only arbiter left to resolve conflict and differences between people is force. God is on the side of poll numbers.



I'll have to think this one through. But "relativists for Christ" captures something for me. Of course, a plausible definition of relativism would be helpful.




Sunday, July 15, 2007

Kierkegaard or I've been rambling too much lately

Every now and then, a Christian will say something that reveals far more than they could imagine. Over on Julia Sweeney's forum in a discussion generated by a believer sharing her conversion experience, she produces this gem to support her belief in the inerrancy of Scripture:




Ok, so you are choosing to believe these men, I choose another group of men, that I believe were divinely inspired.




The context for this can be found here.



I'll readily admit that if "Caira" were to be asked about this remark, she would qualify it, and maybe she would even take it back. Be that as it may, lightning has struck.



But what does this have to do with Kierkegaard?



Kierkegaard's provides our contemporary Evangelicals with a means of side-stepping rational argumentation about faith. His doctrine of "the leap of faith" provides a means of transforming mere "belief" of the Truth of Christianity into "faith" in God, in His Mercy, and the rest.



Because of this transformation, "faith" is something special for Kierkegaard and for Evangelicals, even if they never heard of him. Kierkegaard presented his "leap of faith" in "Fear and Trembling." He told and retold over and over the story of the Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. In the retellings, Kierkegaard tries to understand Abraham's attitudes, beliefs, and thinking.



Kierkegaard builds a wonderful edifice. Suffice it to say, he argues for a conception of faith that is more of a way of life, than it is a set of beliefs and convictions. Faith for Kierkegaard is more a way of seeing and apprehending the world, it is a way of being in the world.



His wonderful edifice is built on a foundation of sand. Never once. Not even as an irresponsible flight of fancy, does he consider the possibility that his beloved Abraham may very well never have existed. There is an even more troubling fact: of human experience: it is possible to imagine far more than what is real. That I can thinksomething in no way guarantees its reality. Or more cynically phrased, that I want something to be true, no matter how fervently and sincerely, in no way guarantees the fulfillment of my desire.



It is a bit of trickery on Kierkegaard's part to make the leap of faith primarily and even exclusively experiential. Faith is no longer subject to logic, rationality, or even of commonsense. Faith cannot be refuted as can mere belief and conviction. The faithful can stop up their ears because they experience "faith" daily. The feeling of superiority which cretins imagine to be integral to possession of truth abides.



I will give Kierkegaard one thing: his faith is not a conviction or belief in any creed. It is an amplification of the New Testament theme of "what must I do to be saved?" It is first and foremost individual and egotistical in the extreme. It is Protestant. I'd be surprised if Kierkegaard had much of a following in Roman Catholic theological circles. There's really no place in his theology for the Church to be God's emissary on earth.



Further, even more egotistical in Kierkegaard's theology, is that faith is its own end and justification. It is unclear to me whether faith is a means to God, or God is a means to faith, meaning a particular frame of mind of a particular individual.



Because faith is so important, and even if there is some super-special kind of faith that is beyond most so-called Christians, the question remains is faith the end and justification of theology and religion? One believes in God, Jesus, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Allah, et al. not for their sake, but for the sake of the believing. Faith is its own reward?



* * *



I got a little side-tracked. The weak foundation of Kierkegaard's leap of faith? He avoids questions. Maybe it's an anachronism to suppose, "But maybe Abraham didn't exist at all." Not believing that Abraham ever existed as portrayed in Genesis makes Fear and Trembling a very, very difficult book. If I acknowledge that he was writing theology and that the specific brand of theology that he was writing presupposed a real Abraham and the factual accuracy of the Bible, then a certain parochialism presents itself in his writings.



He avoids questions. The leap of faith looks too much like a desperate attempt to avoid a plague of doubts, questions and uncertainties. There maybe psychological insights in his writings, but when he discusses God, religion, Christianity, Abraham, and company, there is no psychology. He takes those concepts and ideas at face value. They are transparent.



For Kierkegaard when a person talks about Christianity, there is no psychology and no question of motivation. Consideration of such questions would lead to never ending uncertainty. On the other hand, his leap of faith certainly looks like an attempt to divine the motivations of a true Christian, but without considering whether such a creature is possible, let alone desirable.



It may very well be that living over a century and half after Kierkegaard, we are a bit wiser than in his day. Despair may be "the sickness unto death" but it only feels that way for a while. The horror of conceiving of a life without God and Jesus lies in the imagination. It's good for the soul, as it were, to live through a little period of nihilism and existential despair. It can be gotten over. And if not, then the problem is not theological, philosophical or existential.



* * *



Faith means never having to produce evidence. As long as one has faith, there is no need for mere evidence. Evidence is for the godless skeptics. Faith is the absence of evidence. Faith with evidence is not faith. Ergo, the less evidence the greater the faith. Just look at creationists.



It is Kierkegaard who is responsible for the Evangelical hocus-pocus of "faith" being more than mere belief and simple conviction.

* * *



God exists only as long as we have no reason to doubt him. Playing make-believe that one has no doubts is not the same as having no reason to doubt.



Why do I say such things? I would like to believe that once upon a time it was possible to believe in God with self-deception, without hatred of those who think differently. Or using one's belief in God as a tool to self-induce feelings of superiority.



* * *



To go back to Caira's remark. She has her experts that she chooses to believe. Kierkegaard may not have intended his leap of faith to be a justification for a crass relativism: each person believing as they wish. Further, without reason's giving of justifications for belief, discussions of faith become assertions of power, control, and manipulation of one's listeners. Or rather, discussion ceases.



It also occurred to me just now that Kierkegaard may very well be the origin of this nonsense that ex-Christians were never "true Christians." It's very difficult to see how one of his knights of infinite resignation would decide one day to stop being a Christian. Presumably once one finds the way to authentic existence, it is very, very difficult, if not impossible, to give it up. The authentic life seems to be something about which one may not change one's mind.




Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Thought Experiment Without A Conclusion

Derrick Bell in Faces at the Bottom of The Well opened with a short story about aliens from space taking away all of the African-Americans. He was pessimistic about the reaction of white America, to say the least.



Analogously, let us ask ourselves, what would the Christians do, if all the abortionists, homosexuals, atheists, and all manner of publicly denounced sinners were to be spirited away. Imagine it as an inverse Rapture: only the Christians would be left to build their City of God.



How do you think they would get on?




A Christian Nation?

I'll give the Conservative Christians their pet mantra: The United States of American was founded according to Christian principles as one nation under God.



However, it should also be admitted there were a variety of competing denominations, each mistrustful of what the others would do should they become the Official state-approved Christianity.



In the USA secularism results from Christian denominations competing with one another. They all want(ed) to be the Official Church, but the reality was that none of them could achieve supremacy.



When I covered the Federalist Papers and The Constitution in the US History class that I taught once upon at time, I summed up Federalist #10 this way: the cure for faction is more faction. Just for the record, when reading No. 10, substitute "special interest" and "lobbyists" for "faction."



I bring up No. 10 because in it Madison shows how plurality is the guarantee of freedom and constitutional stability. Any of the Protestant denominations unchecked by the others would give Calvin's Geneva a run for it's money. BUT sometimes they make common cause to achieve something some or even all value.



A less charitable rephrasing: separation of Church and State protects Christians from themselves. Once the machinery for maintenance of doctrinal purity is set in motion, it is very, very difficult to be gotten rid of. New heresies and new sinners can always be found. And besides, what would all those out work bureaucrats do? Payroll size and budgets are very much the measure of administrative ego and power.




More Childrearing Ramble, This Time About Music

Music. I look for music that all of us can enjoy. I highly recommend all of the following:



1. John Lithgow, Singin' in the Bathtub



2. Maria Muldaur, Swingin' in the Rain



3. Sandra Boynton, Philadelphia Chickens



4. Sandra Boynton, Dog Train



5. Laurie Berkner.



John Lithgow was a particular surprise. He has started a second (or third?) career making children's music. Singin' in the Bathtub is a collection of covers and adaptations of songs from the 30's and 40's mostly. He sounds so classy. Big Mischief's favorite is The Codfish Ball and I like the Hippopotamus Song with its refrain of "Mud, mud, glorious mud/Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood/So follow me, follow/Down to the hollow/And there let us wallow in glorious mud." The inset for this CD says that these songs are meant for family sing-alongs.



Maria Muldaur is best known for Midnight at the Oasis. She has a couple CD's of music for children. Mostly she sings jazz or blue. Big Mischief particularly likes Three Little Fishes and If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake.

John Lithgow's site is here.

The Sandra Boynton's CD's are done as faux musicals. Philadelphia Chickens is arranged as if it were the soundtrack to a major Broadway musical. Dog Train is styled like a rock musical. To my ear the songs on these CD's scream middle school talent show material. Sandra Boynton is adept at creating and producing music that celebrates childhood without at the same time being saccharine, insipid, or condescending. Her website is here.



Laurie Berkner shows up on one of the Nickelodeon channels on Cable. She seems to be better known for this reason. She also likes making intelligent and witty children's music.



That is hardly the extent of the Mischiefs' exposure to music. We listen to different things in the car. Paul Simon, Republica, REM, blues, old blues especially. My hope is that by exposure to variety and encouraging them to develop their own taste and preferences they won't have the patience to listen to a lot of the mindless twaddle that passes for music: it will be too boring.



I fully admit that I am deficient with respect to classical music. I don't know much about it. I don't dislike most of it. But there's so much that I like so much more. I recently came into something called Beethoven's Wig. I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet.



Big Mischief figures more prominently in a discussion of music because she is articulate enough to make her preferences known. Little Mischief seems willing enough to listen and dance to whatever is playing.




Friday, July 13, 2007

Childrearing -- One Unbeliever's Ramble

About the time Big Mischief was born, I formulated three principles of childrearing:



1. I should teach my child how to take care of herself. This means I am more of a guide and coach. At best, I am merely a steward of her independence and her sexuality. She is dependent on me, but there is no reason to rub her face in that fact or to use it in attempts to control her.



2. I want her to want to spend time with her parents when she doesn't have to.



3. I want her to be someone that her mother and I will want to spend time with, when we don't have to.



Arguably these are more criteria than principles. Criteria are useful for decision. But they do provide a perspective and a reminder of how to deal with those two little half-civilized monkeys.



But, alas, as all things planned and foreseen, my three principles provide little guidance in specific situations. Bottle or breast? When should they begin the transition to real food? When should they find out where babies come from?



In in the end, it always comes back to the same things: Mom, childrearing books [note plural], and commonsense. My wife & I both like the "What to expect..." series. What sold us was a comment on Amazon: the authors explained everything in detail, both the good and the bad. The commentor complained that she worried because now she knew all of the bad things that could happen. My wife and I both prefer to know about the unlikely things that could happen. If one of the Mischiefs is running a high fever, I get out the books and read about fevers -- just in case there was something that I overlooked or forgot about. If in doubt we're off to the dr or the emergency room.



Dealing with a seriously ill child is probably the most nerve-wracking part of being a parent. There are no certainties at 2am. It's a more extreme case of everyday life. A person can only make decisions based on the information available to them. The hard thing to remember is that any decision can be second-guessed after the fact.

Paralysis by doubt is always possible, "faith" or no "faith." One needs to engage one's doubts in conversation as it were. Doubt must produce its reasons, and if reasons are not forthcoming, then it is to be resisted until it produces its reasons. Or until it becomes apparent what is motivating the doubt: fear, anger, but usually it's fear of something.



* * *



Big Mischief and I made a deal once upon a time: "Try one bite, and I'll leave you alone about it." The result is that today she'll try just about anything. She's not afraid of new foods. Of course, there is a responsibility on my part to offer her things to try that I'm pretty sure that she'll like. No jalapeños, no hot sauce, and the like. Little Mischief is more resistant to trying new things. I'll have to check whether she tries something new only after her sister tries it. Does Little Mischief use her older sister as a food taster and poison detector?



As far as her reading goes. I think we've bought less than 10 books new for the Mischiefs. However, at yard sales and thrift stores, I always peruse the children's books looking for something new or unusual. The result is that now they have dozens and dozens of books of different stories, different illustration styles, and even some science for kids books.



The reason I have prattled on about this is to illustrate a strategy for nonbelievers of how to deal with religion in the Bible Belt. It is my hope that if the Mischiefs have the recurring experience of a discovering and encountering a variety of perspectives and new experiences, it will inoculate them against the original sin of religiosity: placing a high value on the opinions of people who agree with them.



My hope is that even if they go through a religious phase, it will get too boring PDQ. From what I've seen of Evangelicals, they are not the most health conscious in their diet and life-style choices. Did I mention that I can bribe her with brussel sprouts and broccoli? If her food preferences are any indication of what's to come, she'll avoid gatherings of Evangelicals just because of the food.



Being a nonbeliever, the question of childrearing is how can parents significantly increase the likelihood of healthy skepticism in their children? Part of the answer has to be variety: variety in diet, variety in reading, and exposure to variety. With exposure to variety, the child has to be encouraged to make its own mind about its preferences. I am no partisan of relativism, meaning that stupidity of refusing to acknowledge one's own preferences.



The last more or less random thought about childrearing is that children present a caricature of their parents. Children are not as sophisticated or experienced as their parents. Consequently, they are not very good at imitation, and they don't know which behaviors and traits they should copy from their parents. To the extent that parents value reason, rationality, kindness, and things of the spirits (as my German friends might say), the greater the likelihood that their children will also.




Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Thinking of The Children

Or rather my children: Big Mischief and Little Mischief. Big Mischief is almost 5 and Little Mischief just had her 3rd birthday.



Big Mischief learned to read several months ago. Now she's occasionally has a go at books for 3rd graders [that's 8 or 9 years old for my European readers]. Big Mischief is also well on her way to learning addition and subtraction and has a hazy idea of multiplication. She also has dance lessons once a week. Big Mischief likes to do her "homework" now that my wife and I are enrolled in degree programs. She also has a sense of responsibility and likes to help around the house. I fear her greatest danger in school will be boredom. Oh and I almost forgot: Big Mischief is learning to add, subtract the same way I did: keeping her own score at rummy.



Little Mischief is also known as Big Mischief in a Little Package. She occasionally torments and terrorizes her older sister who is almost twice her weight. And she'll do it with a sweet, sweet smile on her face. Little Mischief also likes her books. She's learned a few of her letters and numbers. For the longest time, my wife & I were mildly concerned that Little Mischief seemed to have no appreciable sense of fear. That girl was completely unafraid of dogs, insects, strangers, getting hurt, or of just about anything else. Then one day when she was about 2-1/2 there was a thunderstorm and the thunder frightened her terribly.



Little Mischief has shown great courage in the swimming pool: she'll float around and splash around in the big pool with just a kiddie flotation ring. She was terrified because her feet couldn't touch bottom. It only took a little doing and after a couple of times in the big pool, she would cry when it was time to get out. Little Mischief has also started dance lessons this summer. But she's flightier and much more impulsive than her sister. However, when something catches her attention she's all over it and for as long as it takes. I've seen her sit playing Pretend with her dolls for what seemed like all day. Little Mischief also likes to go around saying, "I'm a hungry tiger, rooooaaaar," or "I'm a frog, ribbit, ribbitt, ribbitt," and the like.



Momma Mischief is from the Former Soviet Bloc. But as I tried to explain to her before we moved back closer to home, she's far more Western than most people around here. She works as an administrator at a local college. I think she's more hardcore atheist than I am. She reads more literature than I do. And I generally read more social science than she does.

Last Spring we had to send the Mischiefs to preschool for two days a week. Apparently, they taught the kids various songs or maybe they prayed before lunch. One day Little Mischief started singing/reciting, "God is good, God is Great" over and over and over. Momma Mischief ended up in tears over it. I persuaded her to let it go. We compromised. She told her sister that it's a big secret that God is pretend, but not everybody knows this. And the attitude and occasional discussions/arguments(?) between Little Mischief and Big Mischief led to the gradual disappearance of Little Mischief's God talk.



So does this mean an end to weighty philosophical posts? Hardly. Partly it was Possum Momma aka Atheist in a van but mostly the problems, joys, etc. of being a nonbeliever in the Bible Belt raising two precocious children. How best to raise them and how to deal with religion are problems my wife & I frequently discuss. It's also one of those things that I think a lot about. In order to expand my range of topics, introductions seemed to be in order.






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