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.






Monday, July 9, 2007

Addendum to "A response to patrickimo's comment"

It occurred to me that quite possibly a great deal of Christianity's supposedly 'great profundity' may simply arise out of its spurning of reason and rationality. Christianity teaches that reason, thought,and intellect are not enough to come to terms with one's existence. Freud, incidentally, had a wonderfully: applicable metaphor: merely telling someone the answers, e.g., giving a patient his diagnosis without psycho-analysis, is like giving a starving man a menu. Reason and intellect are one thing, the experience of transformation and redemption are something else.



Accordingly, Kierkegaard was right to insist rather loudly on the experiential core of Christianity. However, that hardly means that Christianity is the only possible way of experiencing transformation and redemption. Or even that Christianity is integral to the discovery of one's own subjectivity -- to speak bad Kierkegaardian.



As would seem from the examples Christians, especially Evangelical Christians, present, that Christianity's transformation and redemption can be easily twisted into an impediment to redemption and transformation. In spite of all the counter-examples from doctrine and history that can be produced, Christianity's primal emphasis on belief and conviction remains. Believing Christians are told first to believe then to understand. And since very few if any understand, they all look to each other to see what they should do. Nietzsche called it the "herd instinct" and today it is popularly called "conformity."



Principled conformity, also known as Christian conviction and Christian "faith," means that it is Verboten to think and reckon for oneself according to one's own lights and knowledge. Christians have enough historical experience to realize that once one begins evaluating and interpreting Scripture according to what one knows, it is only a matter of time before such a "believer" realizes that Christianity refutes itself.




Saturday, July 7, 2007

A response to patrickimo's comment

Patrickimo left a comment to an old post, Acknowledging the Absurdity of Religion. His comment in full:



From my reading of Dawkins, it would seem that he agrees with your statement that only ridicule can effectively deal with something as nonsensical as religion. I'm not sure that I agree with such a strategy. If we were all rational, and we all understood the rational arguments against religion, then it seems to me that religion would be quickly relegated to the outer fringes of society. Yet, it thrives. I'm thinking that perhaps we're not putting as much stock in rationality as we should be, and that's a big part of the problem. Would be interested to know your thoughts on this.



It was a pleasant surprise to receive such a thoughtful and on point comment to a post. I perused and skimmed some of his blog. I don't really have anything to report as of yet. I'll go back and read some more over the next few days.



The contingency of reason and rationality is a fact that most of us living in the 21st Century live with. What do I mean by the "contingency of reason and rationality"? The results produced by reason and rationality are dependent on presuppositions, unspoken feelings and beliefs inherited from one's parents, and are most generally dependent upon a person's place and history in the world. The practical upshot for someone who values reason and rationality [incidentally, I am one of these, since I fancy myself clever and all.] is that reason itself cannot guarantee the truth or falsity of any starting point to rational deliberation.



The truth or falsity of starting points for reason and rationality can only be found out through empirical investigation. Empirical here is taken in a broad sense of verifiable. Or alternatively, there are questions that you answer by going out into the world. Then there are questions which cannot be answered by any kind of empirical investigation: how much does a soul weigh?



How much does a soul weigh? Have you stopped beating your wife, yet? It's easy enough to come up with other examples. There are a large class of propositions and ideas which are neither true nor false because they are nonsensical. Souls are not physical entities and since weight is a property of physical entities, it is nonsensical to ask for the weight of a soul. This doesn't mean that souls don't exist. Songs aren't usually thought of as having weight either, and no one makes bones about their existence.



I digressed slightly. Christians try to evade the problem of the (non)verifiability of starting points by claiming revelation. God gave them the right answers. Revelation is not a rational process or experience. Consequently, any believer will attribute blindness to overly rational reason-loving atheists who use rational argumentation against their flavor of Christianity.



The fall back position of all Christians is God's self-disclosure to Humanity. It is important to understand that this self-disclosure is non-rational and completely experiential for human beings. The Christians who claim to be able to prove God's existence or the truth of Scripture aren't persuading anybody except themselves and their wives/mistresses/girlfriends. Firmness of conviction of the Truth of Jesus' Resurrection does not come through strength of reason, but through the strength of habit.



Consequently, even the strictest and most rigorous evisceration of Christian Conviction by and through reason and rationality will only make an impression to the extent that The Religious Conviction is made to look irrational, wacky, insane, primitive, and the like.



As a social matter, it is well-known that many otherwise reasonable people strongly associate regular church attendance with respectability. If being a Christian were to take on connotations of silliness, church attendance would begin to decline.



In line with that thought, consider an aphorism from Nietzsche: "Every so often someone comes along who is convinced his reason is strong enough to refute once and for all the doctrine of the immortality of the soul." [from memory and I think it is from The Gay Science. The point being that Christianity and its web of lies, deceptions, half-truths, and craven absurdities has been refuted, debunked, and shown to be false in all essential particulars many times over. The hypocrisy intrinsic to Christianity and organized religion can be found in Chaucer and later writers.



That some people -- Christians for example -- insist on playing their game of make-believe in spite of all truth and reason strongly suggests that neither truth nor reason are essential to human survival. Further, the existence of Christians is strong empirical evidence that human beings have no innate drive for truth, logic, reason, or even mental health. Stupidity is immune to correction by appeals to experience and to reason.



But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness. 1 Corinthians 1:23
. And who are the Greeks? Lovers of reason, rationality, and generally anyone who thinks the world around them is worthy of investigation and is amenable to human understanding. In other words, Evangelicals in particular are proud of their hatred of reason. One does not reason one's way into Heaven.



Anyway, short of extermination -- which would be bad idea for lots of reasons, all that is left is to make fun at the expense of the fools. I recall reading once that seriousness and an inability/unwillingness to laugh is symptomatic of some forms of mental illness. Or considered socially and politically: If laughter at something is forbidden, rational inquiry "uninformed" by revelation is also forbidden.

So, by all means never let up with reason and rationality, but don't expect them to be particularly effective in most cases. After all, we don't understand some things the "right" way. But laughter, laughter almost always hits a nerve.




Why don't believers talk about these kinds of religious experiences?

This IRC transcript was too good not to share. It was copied & pasted from here.



#779288 +(1018)- [X]



[TRG] so, my mom was putting in her CD with church pics but it wouldn't work on her computer

[TRG] so she put it in mine

[TRG] now, the last thing I watched on windows media player was hardcore lesbian porn

[TRG] that got into the action right away

[TRG] so my mom puts in the cd into my computer

[TRG] opens up windows media players

[TRG] and the porn starts playing

[TRG] and when I realized what was happening I was like "oh fuck"

[TRG] but then...

[TRG] she goes berserk

[TRG] she was screaming "THIS CD HAS BEEN POSSESSED BY THE DEVIL!!"

[TRG] and she took out a HAMMER

[TRG] and smashed the fucking CD

[TRG] it was the best thing ever

[TRG] not only was I completely off the hook

[TRG] you have to love the awesome displays of religious apeshit

[TRG] I think if god existed, he put people like my mom on this earth to entertain us



* * *



When Christians talk about their experiences of the divine, what's the devil doing? Why aren't there more religious experiences of evil, meaning of SATAN???? Christians claim to directly experience the personhood of God, but Satan has to work through hints and misdirection? It just doesn't seem fair somehow.





Thursday, July 5, 2007

A Parable for Creationists

In the land of Nod, there is a religion called Oddism. One of the principal tenets of Oddism is that there is a multiple of 2 that is odd and this multiple of two is in fact not perfectly & evenly divisible by 2. Arithmeticians are known for their lack of belief in Oddism. In fact, Arithmeticians impute to Oddists a fanatical and irrational hatred of arithmetical reasoning. The Oddists in turn impute fanaticism and irrational belief to the Arithmeticians because of the Arithmeticians' consistent refusal to consider Oddist Arithmetic to be as equally arithmetic as the Arithmetic of the Arithmeticians.



In case you're wondering, Oddists argue that since the set of whole numbers is unbounded (= not finite = infinite), no one can examine all possible numbers. Since there will always be numbers unexamined, the possibility always remains that one of these unexamined numbers is a multiple of two that is odd and thus not divisible by 2 without remainder. The consistent refusal of Arithmeticians to admit to the possibility of an odd, whole number multiple of 2 that is also divisible without remainder by 2 is PROOF POSITIVE of how close-minded Arithmeticians really are in spite of all protestations to the contrary.





Monday, July 2, 2007

Making Sense of Religion

The question atheists and nonbelievers should ask of religion is not is religion false (or true) or irrational or a crime against humanity. Rather questions should be posed that seek to understand religion in spite of its obvious irrationality, stupidity, and hatred of individual autonomy.



What is religion good for, even if it is not good for anyone who values the ability to make their own decisions without heavy-handed guidance? What needs to be true about the world in order for religion to be good for human beings? That strikes me as a far more useful inquiry. That the answers are something no religious person would look kindly upon is something else entirely.



What morality does religion most generally inculcate by example? The answer is obedience. This also explains why religions hate reason and fear the use of unfettered reason. Unfettered reason is, of course, reason "unenlightened" by the teachings of the local religion. Hence the absurdity of religious doctrine. Obedience and sacrifice: the more absurd and even bizarre a Christian's belief, the greater the proof of his proficiency in obedience. This is why Christians are so heavy-handed in their interpretations of Scripture.



The lack of good sense, restraint, rationality, and lack of any credible evidence is hardly an objection to a good Christian. In the bizarro world of Christian fundamentalists obedience is all. A Good Christian need only obey the Idea and The Desire for Christianity to be True.



The God of the Christians is not The God of Love, but the God of Obedience. Christians worship obedience.



Oh, and for the oft criticized God of the Old Testament who was full of anger and vengeance? If as a thought experiment, the (ethnic) group to which a person belongs is completely determinative of what a person is morally, religiously, and spiritually, then the Old Testament makes perfect sense. One member of the tribe sins against God, then the whole tribe sins against God. If one human being disobeys God, then all human beings disobey God. Once any concept of individuality that we today might recognize is treated as aberrant and marginal at best, then the Old Testament God and the various seemingly irrational doctrines of Christianity don't appear so irrational or insanely cruel.



To sum up:



Religion = obedience as highest virtue + elevation of group membership over individual identity. With this formula, the absurdities of religion are no longer absurd, just abhorrent.





Sunday, July 1, 2007

An Evolution-Related Challenge

Many Young Earth creationists believe that methods used to date fossils and rock strata that rely on the decay of radioactive isotopes do not give reliable results.



In my limited understanding creationist thought, this would seem to pose some very serious problems for modern technology. If the physics on which the use of radio-isotopes to date fossils and geological strata is "wrong," to use common parlance, then how do the myriads of devices that rely on this erroneous theory work?



The challenge to Young Earth Creationists: if radio-isotope dating is based on erroneous physics, THEN how are MRI's, smoke detectors, lasers, quantum computing, and the like to be explained?



For any of my readers who are familiar with the relevant physics, what would have to be different about the world for the results from radio-isotope dating to be not only wrong but more or less consistent with a 10,000(+/-) year old earth? Think of it as speculative fiction.



As for the Creationists who believe that God created the earth with dinosaur bones in place, do you really want to portray your God as a Deceiver and first runner-up for the title of Prince of Lies?




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