Monday, August 6, 2007

Another Letter to Phil (if he exists)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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


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

Sunday, August 5, 2007

An Open Letter to Phil (if he exists)


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

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


Read more here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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


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

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Making Sense of Religion Pt. II -- Redux

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

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

Religion is so immoral!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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