Wednesday, February 28, 2007

What kind of an atheist am I?

When I was younger I read a great deal of Nietzsche. Unfortunately for my youthful faith in Christ, this reading came at a time when I was in the throes of a full-blown religious crisis. From early adolescence until my early twenties when I first encountered Nietzsche, I had alternated between a rabid fundamentalist Christianity and an equally rabid atheism.

The intellectual source of the conflict was a pernicious question that I had posed to myself: what if it [Christianity] was all true in spite of all rational argumentation to the contrary? Being from the Bible Belt, and having attended more than a few United Pentecostal Church services, "Christianity" meant fundamentalist, literalist, six-day creationist Christianity complete with salvation assured only after baptism by the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues.

What I found liberating about Nietzsche is that he changed the question for me from "Is Christianity true?" to "Are my reasons for believing Christianity consistent with Christianity?" The change from emphasizing, one might say, the object of faith, in this case Christianity, to emphasizing motivations for that faith, setting aside for the moment questions of truth. I found myself professing something that I did not believe to be true. I was unpersuaded by the reasons that I was giving for why I believed.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Remedial Blasphemy for Christians, or Why do believers often hate and mistrust atheists? (Redux)

Why do Christians hate and mistrust atheists? It's not like were the ones who go around condemning something that they secretly hate, or use the gullibility faith of their congregation for swindles.

Honestly, read through the following stories and then ask yourself who has more right to fear and mistrust?

Ted Haggard.

David Paszkiewicz: the high school teacher at Kearny High School in Kearny, NJ, who told his students would go to hell if they didn't believe in Jesus. And who denied proselytizing in his class until confronted with a tape recording by one of his students.

Gay marriage critic tried on lewdness

The Murder of Larry Hooper

California pastor faked documents, stole the church and then cut a deal

And these are just the examples that I can think of off the top of my head. With a google search, many more can be found.

Of course, the easy retort is that they aren't real Christians, or they were only acting out of base motives, or some other self-excusing rationale. But that only begs the question: how is anyone, believer, saved, or not, to tell the difference between charlatans and true Christians? It would appear that that could only be revealed on Judgment Day.

If the Holy Ghost fills Christians, so that it inspires their actions, then when a Christian lies, murders, or commits some other sin in the name of Christ, then is he not committing Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, AKA the unforgivable sin?

If only a tenth of what the Palestinians say of Israel's actions towards them is true, then isn't support of those atrocities still a sin? Murder is murder. Theft remains theft. Bearing false witness remains bearing false witness. I can't see how sinning in the Name of The Father is any more excusable than sinning out of everyday lust. If God is truly all-powerful, why does He need me to lie, murder, cheat and be party to a whole host of sins all for the sake of the Big Picture of His Plan for Humanity?

Isn't there something sinful and shamefully prideful in the Evangelical push to hurry up the Apocalypse? As if their all-knowing and all-powerful God should need them to make His plans come to fruition? His plans that were set into motion from before Creation?

Pride remains pride. Maybe that was Lucifer's sin: he wanted to hurry up God's plan. But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my father only. [Matthew 24:36], but now anyone with thirty some odd dollars at Barnes & Noble can get an illustrated guide to The End Times, as well as numerous explanations of exactly when & how & what will happen before the Fightin' Jesus shows up.

The temptation of Apocalyptic thinking is that of self-importance. Apocalyptic Christians no longer imitate the Crucified, they imitate the Fightin' Jesus, as if they could sit on Jesus' throne in this life and then pass judgment on friends, neighbors, and strangers in this life.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

I'm not that kind of atheist (Pt. II)

My atheism differs from Dawkins' in another way. While I concede readily enough that a life of reason is certainly preferable to one of faith in fanciful tales of angels, eternal torment and a last minute miracle on the road to Damascus, I would argue along with the Evangelicals that the difference between a life of reason and a life of faith is not predicated on rationality. However, they might be defined, these two different ways of life represent two different ideals, and as ideals are a matter of desire and even willful blind striving.

Dawkins argues forcefully and persuasively for a life of inquiry, investigation, and a pragmatic empirical-mindedness. As a preeminent Darwinian, he also must also acknowledge that human reason, however defined and understood, developed as it did because it allowed humans and proto-humans to persist long enough to reproduce and secure their continued existence and that of their children. Discovery and knowledge for their own sake are not the conditions under which human reason arose.

Further, because human reason is embodied, the limits of human physicality also limit human reason. Admittedly, this point is rather abstract, but consider if our ancestors had used echo location similar to bats, would our abilities to represent and visualize three dimensional space not be different? Wouldn't that in turn lead to different mathematical discoveries? Or, what if we had evolved so as to see gamma rays, would we look at the night sky differently?

More troubling, might it also not be the case that certain types of problems would be easier if our reason had developed differently, and also some types of problems would be more difficult, if at frameable.

Or consider this: Schizophrenia Delusion Without Illusion.

It seems that schizophrenics are not as prone to certain types of optical illusions as non-schizophrenics. Schizophrenics apparently take visual context less into account in evaluating visual clues. My big point here is that human intellect has not evolved to discover truth and if this study is any indication, human intellect is primarily "for" navigating the human social landscape.

Consequently, there is no necessary correlation between how the human brain works and the so-called natural order. The order and flow of human thought does not correspond to the order and flow of things. Again, if this study is any indication, illusion and error are necessary for the healthy functioning of human reason. Following this line of thought further, we can say with Nietzsche that Truth is another error.

But I've digressed. To sum up my digression: rational thought is as fraught with error and irrationality as an unexamined life of blind faith. One cannot choose rationality and a life of reason because of promises of harmony: self-respect forbids it. One cannot have the life of the mind because it of promises of truth. Again honesty and reason are obstacles to an easy acquiescence to truth.

I suggest rather that there are two grand strategies for living in the modern world. Reason and rationality as opposed to dogma and blind faith. "Strategy" is the right word. Strategy as a series of decisions that accomplish as their result but not as their end justification certain things: living, prospering after one's own fashion, have children (perhaps), etc.

A person finds himself in so many situations different and unrelated to the situations of his nearest and dearest. Great and trivial decisions need to be made in these situations. Some individuals, and individual is the right word, take pleasure in deciding without guidance in finding themselves in circumstances for which they have no precedent. The phrase existential thrill-seeking comes to mind. The motivations for this strategy are curiosity and courage.

The alternative strategy which I have labeled as dogmatic and as the way of blind faith, should not be underestimated in its power to guide. My labels also betray my sympathies. Its fundamental premise is that what is new is dangerous. The unprecedented is a calamity. There is a recognition that runs deep, so deep I'm tempted to say its genetic: a mistakes are always fatal. The only sure means to avoid ruination is to do only what has been done before.

What I call a strategy of blind faith should be recognizable to anyone with a passing familiarity with so-called traditional societies. The strategy of blind faith is also a very workable strategy for circumstances of extreme poverty. Experimentation is a luxury that cannot be afforded. It will bring disaster upon the tribe, the clan, or the village. This would also suggest that the strategy of blind faith is the strategy that has been pursued in almost all human societies throughout human history.

That the strategy of blind faith was not consciously chosen is irrelevant. It is never called the way of blind faith. Rather the way of heaven, the way of the Cross, The Path of Righteousness, and so on. The end result though is the same. An evolutionist understanding suggests that societies are organized not to attain their professed values and ends, but that some ways of organizing are self-perpetuating in spite of the best intentions of their members.

Considered in this way, a life of reason is not necessarily "better", more practical, or ethically and morally superior. Most accounts of the life of the mind fail to take into account the fact that the extreme conservatism of a life of blind faith also confers survival. In this regard, Dawkins is no different.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Links to an exchange on another forum.

An exchange on a forum for Central Arkansas Atheists.

and a related exchange:

This one has some silly poetry.

My wife describes these exchanges as between a deaf person and a blind person. We're talking at cross purposes. It would seem that we each think we understand the other, but we also believe that the other person doesn't get some critical point.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Why do believers often hate and mistrust atheists?

The answer to this question is rather straightforward. For many Christians, the substance and justification of their religion is the social life that flourishes in and around their church. Considered in this way, a rejection of Christianity is a rejection of not just bible study groups, but support groups, places presumed safe to meet the opposite sex, friendships, summer bible camp, the list is endless. The social power of Christianity should not be underestimated.

Because of this, a typical believer feels it to be an affront and an implicit attack on all these activities and on the images that swarm around in his feelings for his religion. The atheist, then, is the consummate outsider and such a one cannot share in the believer's hopes, fears, values, and feeling for life.

Doctrinally, although God is love, He is also a punishing God. Intercourse with non-believers carries a risk of contamination and eventual eternal damnation. Consequently, in order to preserve what he holds dear, the Christian fears and hates the nonbeliever. Or rather he seeks to convert, assimilate, and remove the danger.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

"The God Delusion" or I'm not that kind of atheist. (Pt. I)

I finished Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion about a month ago. I would like to write a full review, but with school starting I doubt that I will have time. There are several topics that I would like include in a review. Some of these will be the subject of blog posts from time to time.

Dawkins' book left me with the feeling that I'm a different kind of atheist than he is. Dawkins believes that someway, somehow, all differences can be resolved. He has a faith that apparently irreconcilable differences can be resolved. For him it seems that the natural sciences strive to think the thoughts of God before Creation. Intuitively, setting aside issues of His existence and the like, the natural sciences strive to answer the question what would God have to know in order to create the world around us. Consequently, there is also a faith seen in many natural scientists that reality is fundamentally harmonious and conflict is illusion and deceptive. I think this the meaning of the passages on the beauty of the Theory of Evolution as well as why he quotes various natural scientists waxing poetic about the beauty of Nature and her laws.

What kind of atheist am I? I'm not quite so optimistic as Dawkins that reality really is harmonious and that opposites and conflicts can be reconciled. In a nutshell: I don't think there is any intrinsic harmony between reality and human wishes, needs, and desires. I particularly like how Cornelius Castoriadis phrased this problem:

The creation of democracy and philosophy and the link between them has its essential precondition in the Greek vision of the world and human life, the nucleus of the Greek imaginary. This can perhaps be clarified by the three questions in which Kant summarizes the interests of Man. About the first two: What can I know? What ought I to do? an endless discussion begins in Greece, and there is no “Greek answer” to them. But to the third question: What am I allowed to hope for? there is a definite and clear Greek answer, and this is a massive and resounding nothing. And evidently it is the true answer.

[Cornelius Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy, “The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy,” (Oxford University Press, New York: 1991), p. 102.]

What may I hope for? Christians treat the lack of any basis for hope as a refutation in itself. It's been said that Christians can't write tragedy, because they believe that human suffering in this world is minuscule when compared to the joys that await Christians in the world to come. I agree with the first of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths: Existence is suffering. What this means is that there is suffering. The world is always out of sync with human wishes, needs, and desires. No one is at fault: not the devil, not Woman, other people, God, or whoever. There is no metaphysical conspiracy without which human beings would not otherwise suffer frustration, pain, and sickness.

This being out of sync suggests that Nature and her ways are also not amenable to human understanding. For the kind of creatures that we have become with our evolutionary history, it may very well be necessary that reality, God, a faith in a fundamental harmony to existence, is a necessity.

Our intellect did not arise so that we may understand the world around us. It arose so that we might persist a little longer before dying and to have offspring. Understanding the world around us is at best a side-effect, and more likely it is a charade put on by our drives and desires. Naive self-deception is more likely to be the norm. Human beings are astonishingly good at believing that what they need to believe to be true is in fact true.

Of course, if one believes the Truth, and not merely the pursuit of truth, is of inestimable value then that last sentence is particularly depressing. But what can I say? Life sucks, but it rarely sucks completely and without reserve.

Thinking, Evolution, & Faith

After reading Dawkins' The God Delusion, the thought came to me that Christians with their faith teach implicitly that self-reflection, reflection, inquiry, and reason in all but its theological forms, is a liability significantly increasing one's likelihood of eternal damnation.

A momentary digression: theological reasoning is an exception because it bears a superficial resemblance to thinking. Theological reasoning is simply the charade of an inquiry to prove what one already knows. Theology is the science of proving what one already knows. Is it any wonder that when a Christian studies something that there really are no surprises except the thought that somebody might really find such tortured logic persuasive? Has a Christian ever found anything unexpected in one of his charades of faithfulness? Well, maybe one has, but such a Christian quickly in many cases becomes an ex-Christian.

Darwin's Theory of Evolution strongly implies that reason, thinking, and rationality are an essential part of being human. They are not tools of the devil to mislead the faithful. They are tools human beings have acquired for living. In order to have faith, Christians must excise their critical faculties. Hence their notorious reputation for gullibility, superstition, and self-surety.

It ought to give every Evangelical pause to realize that in the former Soviet Union young people were often told not too think too much. Just like young people in American, especially in Christian, families are often told. It is not just religion that discourages independence of thought.

Given the Evangelicals' belief that little good comes of thinking, a question arises: why did God imbue human beings with the capacity for thought if it was so likely to lead to damnation?

The party line among evangelicals is that the question is falsely posed. It is not a matter of reason per se, but of having free-will. God wanted human beings to choose freely. He wants human beings to love him. Making will, meaning loving God or not loving God, primary means that inquiry and reason are secondary to (the proper shows of) faith. The doctrine of free-will is a long-winded way of saying that in order to avoid eternal damnation one must choose God. In choosing God, reason and rationality are impediments to "salvation."

Free-will, then, means that either one loves God, or one does not. One is accountable for actions and outcomes irrespective of motivations for those actions and motivations. Reasons, knowledge, facts are irrelevant. Consequently, they must be impediments tools of Satan and incitements to damnation.

Considered in the context of these ruminations, one of the key differences between denominations is where the line is drawn beyond which inquiry unenlightened by revelation is forbidden. Another closely related division is how different denominations would punish forbidden inquiries.

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