Friday, January 31, 2014

My Religious Experience

There were two parts. The first I’ve already mentioned in “Woke Up Depressed.” The other is rather different. But both were experienced simultaneously.

I had a religious experience before my infatuation with Evangelicalism. I had been drinking a lot. After I did a lot of crazy and reckless things, I was taken back to my room. (It happened in college.) I started screaming that I didn't want to live. That I wanted to die for the sins of the human race. Then I realized that I was feeling guilty about some childhood traumas. I was blaming myself. I realized that I didn't have to die for anyone's sins. Jesus had already done that. I saw myself hanging on the cross with Jesus. I was feeling guilty. I was guilty and my sins were washed away. I had a moment of intense joy, then passed out.

This account omits the sense of being on the Cross with Jesus. I did not just see myself on the Cross, I was on the Cross. Time was different. I would not even use the word “time” to describe the experience. Eternity would do better. But not eternity as an infinite extension of time, but as God’s time in which all events occur “at the same time” from His perspective. In fact perspective is the wrong word. Perspective implies limitation and other, different perspectives of equal or greater scope. The moment of time in which I was, Thanksgiving 1978, was briefly co-temporal with Jesus hanging on the Cross. The Crucifixion was experienced as implicit in every moment of time, ready to burst through.

The second element of the experience was of unity. In a sense it was very egotistical. Everything that existed contributed to making me. All the world in its bits and parts found its culmination in me. The universe found its focus in me. The whole universe in all its particulars and in all its generalities was required to make me with nothing left over. There was no residue. All conflict was reconciled in the whole and simultaneously unreconciled. It takes at least two to make a conflict. They belong together. The parties to the conflict find their unity in their conflict even though unreconciled. I was a whole with and because of my conflicted personality.

Whatever else may be said about my experience, like most, if not all such accounts, it is marked by contradiction, irreality, and self-importance. In the throes of a religious experience one reaches for the words and symbols closest to hand to express thoughts and feelings. Later those same words and symbols are thought about and analyzed in their mundane meanings. The lyricism of the immediate experience is lost. “I was on the Cross with Jesus therefore Christianity because Christianity is about those things from my vision.” As it’s been said, “Hindus don’t have visions of Christ on the Cross.” Once tradition specific symbols and vocabulary are removed, what remains? Vagaries about a higher Reality with a different kind of time and a nebulous sense of importance. This too is culturally specific to Western religious studies departments. Religious experiences prove nothing, even if they are a lifelong source of comfort and inspiration.

Some would say that if it had been an authentic and genuine religious experience, then my life couldn’t but be overwhelmed and filled with its mystery and inspiration. Or, I am just that much of a skeptic.

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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Christianity as an Ethic

In another post I asserted that Christianity is fundamentally an ethic. This needs explaining and some argumentation. An ethical person lives in a certain way and not some other way. In the vernacular he has values and seeks to live according to those values.

If Christianity is an ethic, what of the truth claims that Christianity makes? Jesus was a man who lived in first century Palestine. God exists. Jesus died for our sins. And the list goes on and on even if specific beliefs vary from believer to believer. Belief in these “truths” is a condition of orthodoxy and even of salvation.

Another element of Christianity, especially Evangelical Christianity, is that it is not enough to merely give one’s assent to a collection of propositions, that is to have faith. The would-be Christian must also repent of his former life. Common speech refers to this as “finding Jesus.” When someone “finds Jesus” it means that this person no longer drinks, smokes (probably), does drugs, lies, cheats, steals, etc. Further faith in Jesus is often urged upon someone as means to a “better life.”

Then there is the curious case of the person who claims to have “found Jesus” but continues in his old way of life. In Evangelical jargon such a one is “of the flesh.” This is opposed to being “of the spirit.” The former apparently believes it is enough to be on Jesus’ team, so to speak. A fleshly Christian can be exceedingly clever, able to argue persuasively for various doctrines and “truths” of Christianity. However, a Christian of the flesh lacks a certain something: service, ministration, compassion, devotion, and the like. The Holy Spirit works through a Christian of the spirit to the greater glory of God in word and deed. In other words, commitment to particular ethical ideals.

Be that as it may, what of Christianity’s claims to special truths? My description of the fleshly Christian implies that doctrines and Christian “truths” all serve as a means of persuading, selling and explaining the Christian way of life.

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Was Nietzsche Right?

Was Nietzsche right that all the “meaning of life” amounts to is that “there is something at which it is absolutely forbidden henceforth to laugh”?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Laughing Buddha

Is despair the secret of life? Its meaning and kernel? Is the meaning of life a bad meaning? On despair.com there’s a demotivational poster of a sinking ship with the caption, “It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”

Why does the laughing Buddha laugh? In his moment of Enlightenment he sees that each of us are eternally reborn into our same lives so as to live this same life yet once again. We reincarnate as ourselves in eternal repetition. For some it is a reward to be so reborn. For others it is a punishment.
People to whom I’ve told my parable have often exclaimed, “That’s horrible!” I guess it’s analogous to how many Christians feel about the belief of many atheists that there is no afterlife. What’s comforting to one is an existential horror to another.

It is meaning and value in this life that is at stake. Not some other life past, present, future, or parallel. In the past I found the Laughing Buddha comforting in my darkest times. How so? If I could not merely tolerate but imagine myself desiring an eternal repetition of even the worst, I found not only the confidence to handle the problems insistently demanding of my time and attention, but the energy for future plans and projects.

Is the Laughing Buddha enough now?


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Christian "truths"

Christianity discounts all philosophy and human reasoning as incapable of reaching unaided the truths that a loving God has shared with humanity. Dogmatic truths are beyond the powers of human reason. Revealed religion is synonymous with dogmatic religion. Dispassionate analysis is foreclosed before discussion even begins. How does a Christian know the truths of his religion? By God’s Grace.

The dogmatist might walk and talk as if his truths were fit matter for the impartial study of knowledge and its acquisition. Belief in the dogmatist’s Truth is an ongoing commitment to his Truth as if in a wedding vow: in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer and to forsake all others. Commitment is not epistemic but ethical. And an ethic cannot be refuted, but neither is it true or false.

That Christianity understands itself otherwise is no objection. The questions Christianity poses reveal Christian truths to be a means to an end. Now that you have your truths, then what? What good is truth if not for the salvation of your soul? Truth in Christianity is a rhetorical device to persuade listeners to take up the Christian way of life. Truth is not the highest Good in Christianity, salvation is.

Christianity’s placement of an instrumental value on truth explains in large measure why Christians are especially gullible with respect to their faith: truth seeking means thinking. And there is no way to know beforehand what will come of thinking. Hence, the all too common discouragement of thinking and truth seeking in Christian circles unless the results are known beforehand.

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Monday, January 27, 2014

Last Night’s Dream, A Poem

Last Night’s Dream

On the banks of a distant river.
We sat and talked,
Then you looked away
To another,
Then I wept.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Successfully moved back to bob-kowalski.blogspot.com

Well I did it. Bob Kowalski is now to be found once again at bob-kowalski.blogspot.com. It turned out to be remarkably easy once I found out.

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Christianity as an ethic

In another post I asserted that Christianity is fundamentally an ethic. This needs explaining and some argumentation. An ethical person lives in a certain way and not some other way. In the vernacular he has values and seeks to live according to those values.

If Christianity is an ethic, what of the truth claims that Christianity makes? Jesus was a man who lived in first century Palestine. God exists. Jesus died for our sins. And the list goes on and on even if specific beliefs vary from believer to believer. Belief in these “truths” is a condition of orthodoxy and even of salvation.

Another element of Christianity, especially Evangelical Christianity, is that it is not enough to merely give one’s assent to a collection of propositions, that is to have faith. The would-be Christian must also repent of his former life. Common speech refers to this as “finding Jesus.” When someone “finds Jesus” it means that this person no longer drinks, smokes (probably), does drugs, lies, cheats, steals, etc. Further faith in Jesus is often urged upon someone as means to a “better life.”

Then there is the curious case of the person who claims to have “found Jesus” but continues in his old way of life. In Evangelical jargon such a one is “of the flesh.” This is opposed to being “of the spirit.” The former apparently believes it is enough to be on Jesus’ team, so to speak. This fleshly Christian can be exceedingly clever, able to argue persuasively for various doctrines and “truths” of Christianity. However, a Christian of the flesh lacks a certain something: service, ministration, compassion, devotion, and the like. The Holy Spirit works through a Christian of the spirit to the greater glory of God in word and deed. In other words, commitment to particular ethical ideals.

Be that as it may, what of Christianity’s claims to special truths? My description of the fleshly Christian implies that doctrines and Christian “truths” all serve as a means of persuasion, of selling and explaining the Christian way of life.

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The Death of God?

One of the misconceptions to clear up right away is that the “Death of God” is not synonymous with “God does not exist.” While Nietzsche was certainly an atheist, the thrust of his phrase lies elsewhere. The next sentence in the aphorism: (#125, The Gay Science) “And we have killed him.”

Once upon a time it was possible to inquire with a good conscience into various and sundry matters for the greater glory of God. One inquired and knew that the answer would be God or maybe a doctrine of one’s church. One inquired and investigated as means of worshiping God. A little later, investigation of Nature and her laws was also to the greater glory of God. The essential point, as difficult as may be to imagine, is that it was possible to inquire into Scripture, for example, and without any defensiveness see God’s authorship. What happened?

It became less and less honest to accept God as the inevitable result of honest inquiry. God was banished from the natural realm as an unnecessary hypothesis. Then God was found to be an unnecessary hypothesis for philology, morality, and the other human sciences. Belief in God conflicted with honesty. If one sides with honesty then one becomes an agnostic or an atheist. Otherwise one retreats behind faith. God died when He lost the power to explain anything. God is dead and Christians still worship Him.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

woke up depressed

Some mornings I wake up angry with my ex-wife for taking the kids out of the area. I was a stay-at-home dad for 9 years. I took care of the kids, fixed their lunches, helped them with their homework, took them to play dates, dropped them off to school & picked them up every day, and all the things that a parent would do to take care of their children. Now I get to see them once a month for a few hours.

Short of winning the lottery and moving closer to them, I don't see what I can do. I can just barely take care of myself. Working? Being regular enough in my feelings so that I won't be overwhelmed by the pointlessness of my existence?

Is it any wonder that the feelings of loss overwhelm me at times? People have told me to stop feeling sorry for myself and get over it. I find myself with a curious sort of attachment to the grief and anger. At least if I hang on to them I maintain some kind of connection to when I was with my daughters. My beliefs about personality and suffering tell me to let it go and get on with my life. But my world for all that time was keeping house for my wife & kids. My therapist says that I haven't processed my grief and anger. She's right, but there are times when I think about suicide as self-euthanasia. Then I think about how it would affect my daughters and I'm just miserable until I find something to distract me and the mood passes.

This is why I think about suffering and religion. I'm too restless to settle for a final answer so I find myself with times when I acutely feel the worthlessness of myself and my life. Can the feelings of worthlessness be explained by an abusive father and a guilt-mongering mother?

The Christian answer to suffering finds its ultimate rationale in deferring a final resolution until after death. There are stop gap measures until then: helping marginal groups like the poor, drug users, alcoholics, proselytizing to the spiritually destitute, and the like. Evangelicals find the experience of finding Jesus in their life a down payment on the world to come. But what if this deferment is itself problematical? I don't believe in transcendence either of God or of the world to come. It's too fantastic and looks too much like escapism. And besides, I buy into arguments against transcendence. Religious experience is a psychological and social kind of problem. It's not that a person having a conversion experience is crazy or exaggerating or something else dismissive. The vast overwhelming majority of people claim to have had a religious experience never ever stop and ask themselves, "Wait. What just happened to me? Was it because of fasting not God? Maybe there's a mundane cause for what just happened." In other words, people who have had religious experiences don't think too much about them.

I had a religious experience before my infatuation with Evangelicalism. I had been drinking a lot. After I did a lot of crazy and reckless things, I was taken back to my room. (It happened in college.) I started screaming that I didn't to live. That I wanted to die for the sins of the human race. Then I realized that I was feeling guilty about some childhood traumas. I was blaming myself. I realized that I didn't have to die for anyone's sins. Jesus had already done that. I saw myself hanging on the cross with Jesus. I was feeling guilty. I was guilty and my sins were washed away. I had a moment of intense joy,then passed out. I read Mere Christianity the spring afterwards. I prayed and accepted Jesus into my life because Christianity dealt with those kinds of things. The following semester I became involved with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and stayed a member(?) for about 2 years.

It is easy to dismiss my experience as not genuinely a religious experience because of the alcohol. Other than that it fits the usual pattern of Evangelical conversion experiences. There is the overwhelming consciousness of guilt, the experience of release from that guilt, then making a commitment to follow Jesus. Many evangelicals would dismiss my infatuation with Christianity as not authentically Christian because if it had been, I would not have lost my faith. I must not have tried hard enough. I passionately investigated Evangelical Christianity and found it lacking. What more could I have done?

Rejecting Christianity means that one's suffering is mundane and nothing special like proof of hidden truths like the sinfulness of human nature, or that human beings hunger after Christ's love. I reject a transcendental answer to the meaning of life. My rationale? Life is everything that a person might experience. Meaning requires a context and source. But since meaning requires a context and source outside one's experience, if follows that the meaning of life must be found within that experience or not at all.

So what do I want from my suffering? I want it to be a source of joy, or at least a minimum I want joy inextricably intertwined with my suffering. I want to put my suffering into a context that allows me to say my life is good. Can a person be happy but still be abjectly miserable from time to time?

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Are Atheists Dogmatic on the Question of God’s Existence?

Are atheists dogmatic? What is dogmatism? A dogmatic person holds to his chosen articles of belief with a tenacious will summarily rejecting all objections. Metaphorically speaking, a dogmatist locks up his house, closes the blinds and curtains, and locks all the doors and windows lest a stray thought break in. A dogmatist stays home and does not go wandering aimlessly about the countryside. That is how a dogmatist understands leaving his house: aimless wandering. Better to stay home than run the risk of losing the way home.

Continuing the metaphor, the atheist has a home, but he is free to move to another house. He goes out and about the countryside enjoying the scenery, saying hello to friends, and generally stopping to smell the roses. The atheist knows a freedom of which the dogmatist is ignorant. When the atheist moves house, the dogmatist accuses him of dogmatism for having left his old abode for a new one: you are the same as I! You refuse to remain in or even return to your old house with the same steadfastness with which I stay at home. The dogmatist is confused by the atheist’s seemingly constant changes in abode. He can only understand such changes as the result of adherence to some other dogma.

I might not be willing to die for my beliefs, but I very well might for the right to change my mind. Could a Christian ever say such a thing and remain a Christian for very long?

There is another reason atheists are not dogmatic as are Christians. The Christian demands complete and utter certainty for his most important beliefs. The Platonist-Christian invention of absolute certainty is a historical phenomenon. There was a time when it was unknown and there will be a time (hopefully) when it will be unknown again. It is a perversity of the Christian mindset to impute properties of itself to others. Because the Christian does not understand shadings of certainty in holding (important) opinions, he is forced by the paucity of his imagination to assume everyone is as he is: dogmatic and unwavering in his opinions.



Monday, January 20, 2014

Faith and a Related Matter

Faith in Christianity is called a virtue. What does it mean for Faith to be a virtue worthy of praise? As a worldly matter, faith means closing one’s eyes to what one knows to be true. It is a kind of stubbornness. The faithful stick to their beliefs no matter how compelling the rest of the world might find a counterargument. Faith is obedience to an imperative to cling to certain formulas at all costs. No less than the Apostle Paul refers to himself and his followers as bondsmen in Christ, as slaves to Christ, and Christ himself as his Lord and Master. Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ...(Romans 1:1) If I then, your Lord and Master … (John 13:14) And do not forget referring to God and Jesus as Lord to whom obedience is due.

What does this obedience mean for thoughts and feelings which do not comport with the imperative of obedience? Rebellious thoughts and feelings must be disowned. Unfortunately for Christians disowning is not enough to make thoughts and feelings disappear. Disowned thoughts and feelings manifest traditionally themselves as demons external to the believer. “This is not me” says the believer and lives in fear of the comings and goings of what we would call his. thoughts and feelings. Is it only rebellious thoughts and feelings that are disowned?

But first an objection must be dealt with. Our milder Christians will object that they do not believe in demons and that they recognize the progress made by psychology in understanding pathological states. Primitive Christianity finds it to be rebellious merely giving into disowned thoughts and feelings. Not so primitive Christians find the source of rebellion in the sinful nature of humankind. In more developed forms of Christianity rebellious thoughts and feelings are ours.

Is there anything left for not so primitive Christianity? I submit that there is. It is conscience, knowledge of good and evil, call it what you will. Disowning one’s conscience is the only way that I can explain to myself how anyone could find the argument that only God makes it possible to be good persuasive. If conscience is not disowned, it turns into a problem of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. The voice of conscience is the voice of man in man. I don’t remember who said it, Feuerbach, I think.

If conscience is the result of mundane causes, it is no longer something that commands obedience. One becomes responsible for one’s own Good and Evil. There is no longer a singular standard of Good and Evil. If there is no longer a single standard, then how can God reward and punish? How can one fail to obey the Law, if the Law varies according to individual believers’ consciences? What need then is there for Redemption? Is the difference between a believer and atheist is that one disowns his conscience and the other does not?

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Gullibility

Gullibility might very well be the distinguishing feature of the Christian mind. Christians all seem to share a willingness to believe anything that agrees with their beliefs. This would explain at least the seemingly unending parade of preachers caught in flagrante stealing from their congregations, the sex scandals, and the like. But most of all gullibility explains how someone could claim to be persuaded by weak and self-contradictory arguments for the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus. They already know what the Truth is. The bad arguments and the silly stories only confirm what they already know to be the Truth.

If Christians tend to be gullible especially in regards to their faith, they typically hold themselves to a high standard of honesty and scrupulousness with regard to worldly affairs. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. This is not to say that every Christian is a paragon of secular virtue, only that the standard itself is particularly demanding in non-religious matters. At a minimum this is how the vast majority of Christians like to see themselves.

From time to time, someone, often a young person, comes along and innocently applies the honesty and scrupulousness which they had been taught to their faith. And what is the result? Atheism. Is atheism the logical consequence of Protestantism and perhaps Catholicism as well? Christian ethics overcoming Christian dogma? It is, after all, a common trope for atheists to read and question the Bible more closely than do Christians.

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Lamictal

I’ve mentioned that my prescriber and I seem to have stumbled upon a drug that alleviates the deadness and perennial grayness of my moods. Lamotrigine (the generic form of Lamictal) has lightened my overall mood and has made me more productive. There is a low-level anxiety that it won’t last. There is no rational reason to think so, but the memory of the grayness is still fresh.
Although there has been a lightening of my mood, the change is not uniform. I feel better overall and am more productive. However, the improvement is punctuated by occasional and unpredictable moods of extreme blackness.

Throughout my most recent episode of depression overall it was a dragging oppressive sameness. It didn’t matter whether I got better or got worse. Everything was a boring gray. This has changed. The black moods are filled with an acute despair instead of with a chronic despair.

Ooops! The move didn't go as smooth as I had hoped

I wanted to move Bob Kowalski from my ***718 Google account to my ***508 account. And it appears that I have messed up. Now the address for Bob Kowalski is bob---kowalski.blogspot.com. I thought that if I exported the blog from my ***718 account and then deleted the blog at bob-kowalski.blogspot.com I would be able to use that URL with my ***508 account. And of course there's no way to see if you can except by trying. Now it's too late. But on the plus side, I had to reformat the blog. The attempt at moving the blog resulted in the deletion of my ancient section of Fun Stuff. I hadn't updated it in years, so it's just as well. I'll be fiddling with the bob---kowalski.blogspot.com over the next few days.

Michael Robbins, Richard Dawkins, and the Rationalist Critique of Religion

Michael Robbins’ comments about Richard Dawkins in his review of Mary Worthen’s The Apostles of Reason inspired me to go back and reread The God Delusion. While I would not go so far as to call Richard Dawkins a “clown” as does Michael Robbins, I would say that Dawkins misses a lot of opportunities to critique and criticize religion, Christianity in particular.

Dawkins begins The God Delusion with a 7 point scale of belief. At extremes are atheists and Christians who are absolutely certain that God exists or does not exist, as the case may be. Dawkins places himself at the almost but not quite point in his scale of being pretty sure that God does not exist. He phrases it as “God probably does not exist.” Basing one’s belief (or non-belief) on probabilities is offensive to the religious mind which craves absolute certainty and the absence of doubt. Religious belief typically treats doubt as sin, as rebellion against a good and loving deity. “Almost but not quite” in religious matters doesn’t cut it.

I appreciate Dawkins’ honesty in acknowledging shades of certainty and doubt, but I can’t but wish that he had gone further to argue that certainty as the religious mind understands it is a pathological condition and that life shows itself in a plethora of shades of gray. Absolute certainty is not only a pathological condition, it is an invention of religious-minded fanatics and is a historical phenomenon. Dawkins’ book would be more of a challenge to the religious mind if he had argued that certainty as the religious understand it bears only a passing similarity to certainty as scientists and most people have come to understand certainty: certainty comes in shades. This partiality of certainty is intrinsic to the concept.

As it stands The God Delusion firmly stands in the tradition of rationalist critiques of religion. The overall strategy is to force the reader to confront the absurdities religion begets. Absurd beliefs cause (unnecessary) pain and suffering. No one wants to suffer unnecessarily. Ergo religion is a bad thing and is (probably) false to boot. Obviously, this syllogism fails if it is shown that some people want to suffer, the guilt-ridden for example.

The religious, Christians especially, are obsessed with suffering, their own and that of others. Suffering is proof positive of obedience to God and His Will. It is intrinsic to religion to desire suffering, whether it is the emasculation of one’s reason through creationism, or the concern over fetal suffering, or the high rates of teen-age pregnancy that abstinence-only sex ed begets, or the persecution of homosexuals even if in one’s own family, or an extra mouth to feed in an already too large impoverished family. Religion claims pain and suffering as its private and exclusive domain. It promises to give meaning and purpose to suffering, even at the cost of absurdities. By the way, the question of the meaning of life is really the meaning of suffering: why do I suffer? and why am I unhappy? No one asks about the meaning of life when they are happy.

It is because of beliefs and practices about suffering that rationalist critiques of religion recur and never seem to gain a decisive victory over religion. The rationalist critique fails to win victory over religion because of religion’s attachment to suffering. The religious-minded accuse the rationalist critique of shallowness.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

A Word about Buddhism

My previous post concluded with a question: Are we left with Buddhism? This question suggests that it would be unfortunate if we were to be left with Buddhism as the only possible means of dealing with one’s own pain and suffering. I did not mean it as a slander, but my knowledge of Buddhism is limited leaving much to be desired. What little I know is that one of the sacred catechisms begins with “Existence is suffering.” This I agree with. The Eightfold Path provides the bare bones of Buddhist ethics. It presents the causes and remedy to suffering. As I understand it Buddhist teaching and ethics revolve around the analysis of the causes of suffering and minimizing suffering. The cause of suffering is attachment to feelings, things, thoughts, and other objects. Attachment is a willful blindness to the role one has in one’s own suffering.



I am unclear as to the role of compassion in all this. My best guess is that it is a means of overcoming one’s attachments. I really am unclear about this. It may be that concern and attention to the suffering and well-being of others allows one to detach oneself from one’s own attachments. I am uncomfortable with this formulation because it makes others into instrument of one’s own salvation instead of others being an end in themselves.



Even if my meager understanding of Buddhism is completely wrong in particulars and in general, the question from my last post remains: is the best we can hope for is to minimize suffering? To turn away and try to hide from despair? Is suicide the only answer to despair, great or otherwise? Does this explain materialism’s attractions: beautiful women, fast cars, the latest and best? Running from death, despair and the humiliation suffering begets?



Is despair the great secret of life?



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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Existence as Punishment?

I can certainly understand the attraction of the idea that existence is punishment. In the Christian version this means the Doctrine of Original Sin. Once upon a time we lived in a state of Grace, then without intending to, we sinned and fell from Grace. Because we sinned we became heirs to the infirmities of the flesh. That is the Christian story of how suffering came to be. Our imperfect existence is a consequence of the choice that Adam made for each of us. Or in some versions we were “in” Adam and thereby partook of his rebellion against God.



What is the attraction of believing that existence is punishment? There are several actually. First, the belief that one’s suffering is a punishment for one’s choices means that a sense of control however incompetent remains when life seems out of control. One of the things that feeling guilty does is that it provides a sense of control: one can only be responsible for what one has done. That sometimes a person feels guilty about things obviously outside their power only means an inflated sense of one’s powers of actions. Guilt as incompetent omnipotence.



A second attraction is that it provides a measure of relief to the pain. It is possible and even likely that one no longer feels guilty for one’s guilt. The question of why I suffer finds an answer. The sufferer is no longer at the mercy of events. The question of what one may or may not have done to deserve one’s misery is answered.



Thirdly, it provides the potential of distraction from one’s pain and misery. If my existence and suffering are a punishment, then who is it doing the punishing? What are its mechanics? What can be done about my pain and suffering? Is there also a reward for enduring my punishment with the right attitude? Attention is directed away from the hurt. Hence, the birth pangs of theology.



If existence is not punishment, then does this mean that pain and suffering serve no purpose? The fundamental truth of our lives is that existence is suffering with all else merely distractions from this truth? Is the most that we can hope for is to minimize suffering? Are we left with Buddhism?



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It's been a while again

I haven't posted a while apart from yesterday's post about Michael Robbins' review of Molly Worthen's The Apostles of Reason. I can only say that my depression is to blame. I have good days and bad days, but mostly I don't give a flying fuck about anything except maybe my daughters. That said, my prescribe and I seem to have stumbled upon a medication that lightens my mood(s). Instead of a black sameness of self-criticism and self-denigration there are times when I don't and even find myself able to do more than the bare minimum to keep body and soul together. There are plenty of descriptions of what it's like to suffer from severe depression: I don't feel a need to ad to the mass of all too familiar descriptions.



What I find most relevant about depression for my blog is the fact that I find myself most strongly attracted to Christianity. Mostly it's the militant evangelicalism that I grew up with. The pull of a no-nonsense revealed religion that crucifies all reason and inquiry. Our modern day evangelicals want to have it both ways: they want the certainty promised by revealed religion and they also lust after the trappings of reason and science. Instead of decrying them as abominations that distract human beings from the truth revealed by Christianity and insisting on tradition and obedience, the offer up "rational" proofs of the Truths of Christianity. As Paul says it is foolishness to the Greeks. And who is the heir of the Greeks if not modern science and secularism?



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Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Response to Michael Robbins' review of The Apostles of Reason by Molly Worthen

I wrote the following as a response to Michael Robbins' review of Molly Worthen's The Apostles of Reason on at Slate.com. I also sent it to their feedback link. I expect to hear nothing further.

* * *

I doubt whether Michael Robbins has ever met an atheist who understood Christianity and rejected it nonetheless. As difficult as it may be for Christians, liberal and otherwise, to believe, there are atheists who struggle and occasionally triumph over the same problems and conundrums with which Christians struggle but without the false and manipulative promises. It is difficult for Robbins to accept that there are compelling reasons to shy away from religion and not just the vulgar Christianity of our Conservative Evangelicals. Many atheists become atheists because they take the claims of Christianity more seriously than do many Christians. For example, this is especially true of how many atheists read the Bible, if it is so important, then what of the passages that are all too frequently ignored? Hence the charge that Christians, and not just Evangelicals, all too frequently pick and choose for extra-textual reasons which verses are to be taken as important.



Too many Christians, liberal and otherwise, are prone to dismissing atheists as not understanding Christianity. If only those poor atheists really understood Christianity like I do, then they would not reject Christianity. This attitude is frightfully smug and condescending. It also neatly sidesteps the problem of actually listening to what atheists have to say. Faith in such cases becomes indistinguishable from laziness.



I have known liberal Christians over the years, some were even well-educated. I have also known atheists lacking in subtlety where questions of religion where concerned. I suppose it is a remnant of my own Evangelical upbringing that it is important to me what my opinions are. It is of little concern to me that others hold the same opinions that I do. I do not concern myself with proselytizing (God forbid!) for my own opinions, even if at the same time I am curious as to the opinions of others. Although when I was younger I did go through a phase in which ready to play dumb I would lie in wait for hapless proselytizing Evangelicals, figuring that they had never met an atheist who knew the Bible better than they did. My rationale for that bit of fun was that if it they expected me to put myself at risk, but they were not, why should I play by their rules?



In case it is not obvious, I am an atheist. Growing up I alternated between a fervent, even vulgar Christianity and an equally vulgar atheism. I had assumed that I had to be the one or the other. After a brief but intense infatuation with Evangelical Christianity, I discovered Nietzsche. The concerns and interests of those spheres of my life were not mutually exclusive. Nor did it turn out that I was condemned to the primacy of Christian morals and ethics: there are alternatives. This might all seem trivially true, but for me it was a revelation. Instead of despair in a life without God, I found liberation and freedom.



After a stint in Eastern Europe when Communism looked like it might last for decades yet, I found out that I rejected both Marxism and Christianity, and ideology in general, because of their unquestioning belief that they alone possessed the truth. Truth was something one possessed or else one possessed error. In the Christian version, Truth was, as it were, something for which one quested like some Arthurian knight: once the Truth was found, the quest was thankfully over with no small relief. I found myself asking, but what if it is the questing itself that one loves? God and revealed Truth are injunctions not to inquire.



Probably the major reason that I cannot accept a liberal version of Christianity is that when I did investigate it I found that it was too prone to seek accommodation with the latest intellectual fads. Even if dated, the “God is Dead” school of theology comes to mind. I was never sure that liberal versions of Christianity actually possessed substance. And the more substance, meaning coherent doctrines, that it did possess meant that the reasons for rejecting it that I gave above applied.



A non sequitor. Hell has always been an important, if not intrinsic, part of Christian doctrine. The question of what happens when I choose not to become a Christian needs an answer. If it is nothing, then why bother? Institutions can be built when it is of vital concern to save one’s fellow human beings from eternal torment. If, however, one does not become a Christian, it appears intolerable to believers who do not accept the doctrine of Hell that someone should be left alone with their guilt, even if the unbelievers don’t feel particularly guilty. Guilt is something to be interrogated and not something from which one is redeemed.



The doctrine of Hell is probably the most reviled Christian Doctrine rejected by many Christians. But the question is if one is free to pick and choose one’s doctrines, then what of Christianity’s claim to be a revealed religion? If the doctrines are picked through according to human reason and human feelings, then what remains? A human-built institution without authority that exists completely in this world unable to offer comfort and with no claim to the world to come and without the promise of redemption. And if Christianity is human-built then it is to be judged according to human standards.



I can understand how a person could call himself a Christian out of cowardice in the face of reality, out of nostalgia for an idealized Middle Ages, out of a (mistaken) belief that it is (somehow) true, out of respect for one’s parents, and the list goes on. But none of these make Christianity true according to its own standards of truth or any other, unless it is as a gruesome slow torture of one’s powers of reasoning. Whether to believe or not to believe shows itself as a problem of psychology. Lest I be accused of maligning Christianity with my penultimate point, I refer the interested reader to Pascal’s Pensées.



As a final word, hell, that darling of the Evangelicals, is their answer to the question why a person should be a Christian. Evangelicals, if nothing else, have the virtue of consistency, wherever it may take them.



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