Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A New Project

I've left some loose ends in some blog postings. But there is one longish project that I'm toying with. Conservative Christians in the USA take as gospel claims that the Founding Fathers were (Protestant) Christian; and that The Founding Fathers intended the shiny, new republic to be and to remain a Christian Republic. These claims are backed up by cherry-picking quotes from the various Founding Fathers. From what I've seen atheists and others opposing this haven't done much better.

My contention is simple: there is a fundamental conflict between how the Founding Fathers constructed the Constitution and Conservative Evangelical Christianity. I would use The Federalist Papers which is the closest thing to an official commentary on the American Constitution that we will ever have.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Christianity, Cancer, & "Comfort"

I've been in a funk the last several weeks. I would like to say that is why I haven't been posting as much as I probably should. There's been a bit going on. My mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer of Unknown Origin in May. After several rounds of chemotherapy, an MRI indicated that the tumors had their point of origin in one of her ovaries.

May was unpleasant. The diagnosis came shortly after my 50th birthday.June was also without much hope. My wife and I decided that instead of staying close to home for our vacation in August that we would visit her and family, because at the time we didn't know if we would be able to see her again before she passed away. Suffice it to say, she was in much, much better spirits and her state of physical well-being was far better than I had expected.

During the most stressful period I remembered how Christianity is supposed to be The Religion of Comfort. Being the sort that I am, I asked myself, "Was there anything there for me?" I can safely say, "No. No there was not. No in the least."

It took me some time to think of a metaphor to describe the revulsion, disgust, and contempt that a hypothetical return provoked. It took some time, but I found it.

I used to smoke. I stopped smoking on a regular basis about 12 years ago. I have had a few off & on over the years. The last one was in August 2009. It was an American Spirit. Not even one of the Camels or Gauloises of which I was so fond once upon a time. The smell, the taste, the stink on my fingers were awful. I realized that I wanted the way that I remembered feeling after a Gauloises or two. But as I much as I wanted it, I didn't have that feeling of well-being or calmness at all. I was too busy hacking up phlegm that wouldn't budge.

Consideration of a return to Christianity, provoked those same feelings: disgust, revulsion, and contempt. Further, any nostalgia was purely for remembrances of experiences that in retrospect I only imagined.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Accommodationism: Intentionally Stupid or Just Clueless?

I am with PZ Meyers on reconciling religion and science. It's a doomed enterprise. For any believer, whether the most asinine creationist or the most well-meaning liberal, belief in the local deity is of the utmost importance. Between an atheist, a creationist, and well-meaning liberal Christian, the differences between the atheist and well-intentioned liberal Christian will be more significant and so much more profound than the differences between the most clueless liberal and most asinine creationist.

To the extent that the belief in the local deity matters, meaningful reconciliation between science and religion recedes into the distance. There will always be some sect or another that teaches that some element of science and medicine is wrong. Whether it's evangelicals and creationism, or Jehovah's Witnesses and blood transfusions. Or some other foolishness in the name of an eternal fount of goodness, wisdom, and justice.

Considered in this way, it's hardly surprising that liberal Christians shush atheists and complain about those mean old atheists. Again, it's hardly surprising in this god awful triangle that the atheist is the odd man out.

For clarity's sake, an atheist is someone who doesn't know when to stop asking questions, and a believer is someone who says "this far, and no further!" about when to stop asking questions.

The above means that atheists are for Christians, and other believers, the quintessential Other. They expect us to conform to their strictures, their sense of propriety. If, as I have argued elsewhere in this blog, reason, rationality, and questioning are the sine qua non of an individual's autonomy and self-determination, then when to cease questioning is also a matter of individual discretion, that is to say an essential part of adulthood.

This leads to a paradox: the atheist who would makes believers uncomfortable with ceaseless inquiries would seem to violate the autonomy of believers, just as believers who berate atheists for their ceaseless inquiries seemingly violate the self-determination of atheists.

If this were a matter of opinion without consequences set against opinion without consequence, then the paradox would become an impasse. Superficially considered, the situation might seem dire. Believers themselves, provide an exit. Believers are always insistent upon the truth of their superstitions and the supreme value of their "truths." To the extent that an ever deeper understanding is sought, the more likely cherished beliefs will be made uncertain. The search for deeper understanding of received truths always grows out of hitherto dormant ambiguities and conundrums.

Christians and other believers betray themselves when inquiries are expected to jibe with already known "truths." Failure to produce the expected and pre-arranged results results in violence: sometimes physical, and sometimes less so but no less traumatic -- loss of employment, ostracism, and the like. In other words, Christians and other believers value conformity above all else.

Conformity nurtures violence. Violence nurtures conformity. Fear, anxiety, and dread are the one true trinity. The passion with which an opinion and a belief is a tepid justification for violence and supression of dissent. But I digress...

Are our opinions consequence-free? If so, then whether I believe X or I believe Y is a matter of personal preference, akin to preferring the color blue to mauve, or French cuisine to Italian. De gustibus non est disputandum.

If, on the other hand, beliefs and opinions are quantifications and compressions of experience (some first-hand, some not), then any belief, no matter how cherished, will be incomplete, and because of its incompleteness it will also contain error. By error, I mean simply that reliance upon a belief will sometimes result in unexpected and even unpleasant results. Expectations of what will happen mean that opinions and believes are not simply matters of taste and are fraught with consequences. Further, every person harbors error in his heart of hearts. So much for the arrogance of atheists.

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From the atheists point of view, the atheist is perhaps closer to the most asinine creationist than the most well-intentioned liberal Christian. The atheist and the asinine creationist agree that beliefs and opinions matter, albeit for very different reasons and in very different ways.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Power, Reality & Narcissism

Definitions are a good place to start.

First, "reality." It's less a matter of the specific content or "what reality is" or what is "real" & what is "true." Let's begin with what Freud meant by the "reality principle." It's those things over which one has no control. The experience of reality refers to the Unexpected. The unexpected, unforeseen, and unguessed events in life lead to the inference and eventual discovery that some things are independent and even at odds with my wants, needs, and desires. Unexpectedness importantly provides an escape from the family and all-too-regular sequence of events that make up everyday life. Long ruminations on unexpected and unfamiliar events leads to the suspicion that familiar circumstances are happy accidents, and not the blessing of a benevolent deity, or of right living, or even of a positive attitude. More understanding, fewer surprises.

Second, "power." Power: capacity and ability to make things happen by rearranging and changing circumstances; ideally so as to lead satisfaction of needs, wants, and desires. The experience of reality leads initially to feeling of a want of power. Hence impotence, feelings of weakness, and more impotence. A modicum of power presents tempts to an arrangement of circumstances so as to avoid experiencing the limits of one's capacity to arrange circumstances. The "love of power for power's sake" misleads. The so-called love of power loves fruits of power consequent with mistrust and squabbling over a too meager harvest. Genuine love of power wants more power. The increase in power is pleasure and happiness itself. A power-mad person would live at the limits of their power: joy and suffering becoming indistinguishable.

Third, narcissism. Originally love of self. See the myth of Narcissus. Popular culture construes it to mean what used to be called egoism and selfishness. A lack of consideration of others feelings, desires, and needs. Thusly considered the embodiment of instrumental reason. Considered as a power problem the narcissist is in love with the fruits of power, fearing loss, impotence, and death. But only to the extent that the narcissist strives for equilibrium and a status quo. Could a narcissist strive for equilibrium only upend it so as to strive for an even more profound balance, even if only momentarily?


From the Department of Unnecessary Redundancies Department:

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Can Religion Be Explained as a Meta-Cognitive Deficit? Or, the Kowalski Conjecture

What is meta-cognition? My acquaintance with this concept comes by way of Big Mischief's precocity: it was in some literature about gifted & talented children. The long & short of it is that meta-cognition means thinking about thinking.

Thinking about thinking certainly bears on the conundrums that religion presents to the sceptically minded. The religious-minded are notorious for their gullibility, shoddy reasoning,empirical evidence, and even disdain of all rationality. Meanwhile, skeptics, even ancient skeptics are concerned with the reliability of knowledge and thinking.

The religious-minded of all varieties, but especially Christians, tend toward either a binary opposition of either X is true, or X is false; either one complete certainty, or sinful doubt. The unreflected quality of this style of thinking wants to present the truth or falsity of a belief to be a property of that belief. How one thinks is of no consequence, rather it is what one thinks that of supreme importance. This latter style of thinking if allowed free reign would completely ignore the person holding beliefs and doing the thinking. To borrow a mathematical term: the subject would cancel out, leaving only the propositions and belief in question.

Contemporary skeptics complain incessantly of shoddy reasoning coupled with disdain for empirical evidence that mark the religious-minded. The demand for absolute certainty that Evangelical Christianity demands forbids consideration of the nuances of doubt, certainty, and full range of possible conclusions that may be drawn from a piece of evidence. Metaphorically speaking, apologists for Young Earth Creationism can be likened to a freight train speeding along to its final destination: there is no possibility of reconsideration of conclusions. There can be no reflection and consideration of the question, "Could I have made a mistake?"

Sceptically-minded blogs such as Pharyngula, The Bad Astronomer, or Respectful Insolence, are all marked by a careful consideration of pro's and con's. Evidence is carefully weighed so as to extract the maximum possible certainty and no more. Implicit in all the posts for those blogs is the recognition that how one arrives at a conclusion is infinitely more important than the conclusion arrived at. In these representative blogs, it is a given that thinking is not something to be taken for granted.

It is characteristic of the genuinely religious to be perplexed at this attention to nuances of certainty and doubt. That doubt and certainty come in shades of gray probably makes as much sense "those with their eyes on the prize of heaven" as speaking of colors to the blind, or of quantum field theory to a four year-old. There is a deficit of understanding that be filled with mere words devoid of understanding and meaning.

* * *

Just to be clear the differences between the religiously-minded, conspiratorially-minded, and the ideologically-driven lie less in the specific content of the religion, conspiracy, ideology, than in the ways that specific contents of a given religion, conspiracy, and ideology are used to avoid recognition and assimilation of evidence and its attendant continuum of certainties and doubts.

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