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Personal Relationship with Religion September 28, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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This is an old chestnut which I have cracked before, but I wanted to say a few words about the idea that a person’s personal relationship with some particular god is somehow not religious.

Most people in our culture believe in a god.  Not only that, but the tradition from which most people get their idea of god tends to identify this supernatural being as having some relationship to Jesus; Jesus is the Son of God, is God, etc.  So, when people in our culture start talking about god, you have a pretty safe bet they are talking about Jesus.

Which means they are talking about the Bible.  Or, more specifically, some limited exposure to the collection of books which was put together by a group of people in the 4th century who had specific theological and political motives.  And those motives allowed them to choose certain books and dismiss others for the theological content within.  Those theological ideas became a religious tradition, or a set of traditions, we now call Christianity.

In other words, the idea of God that they have is not divorced from religion, it is wholly dependent upon it.

And yet, more than a few times (Hell, more than a few dozen times) I have heard people who “believe in Jesus” claim that their relationship with Jesus is not religion.  The idea is ridiculous to me.  But before I say precisely why, I want to clarify something related.

It is possible to have ideas about god and other supernatural things without being religious.  That is, you can come up with an idea for god (some call this “revelation”) and believe it, and until you start collecting other followers and perhaps throwing in some rituals and so forth, you are nowhere near having a religion yet.  You simply have an unwarranted belief, truly personal and possibly unique.

But is that how people find out about Jesus?  Is there really anyone who has simply came up with the story of Jesus, or at least the essential highlights of it, without some connection to the long theological, historical, and religious tradition of that idea?  No, there isn’t.

Have these people not gotten their idea of Jesus from a religious tradition? Of course they get it from that tradition.  They may claim that they had some personal experience with some god or other supernatural force, but it is their relationship to that tradition which causes them to identify it as Jesus, the Holy Spirit etc rather than Allah or Vishnu.

That is why any person who has a personal relationship with Jesus is religious; they need the religious tradition to give context and focus to the experience they had, and the religious framework of some specific Christian theology formed their interpretation and understanding.  If they merely had an experience and said to themselves something like the following:

“that was pretty wierd, I wonder what that was.  It felt like something divine, but it never gave a name or anything”

then at that point they can at least have some basis for saying they have a relationship with something divine that is not religious.

However, very few people make this type of claim.  In most cases, people pull out Jesus and all of the religious implications of that name when they have personal experiences and forget that they must justify doing so.  Why have they identified their personal experiences, their personal relationship, as having anything to do with Jesus or any other specific god?

By not realizing this oversight, they make their personal experiences into religion without realizing it.  If they just dealt with their personal experience on their own terms, and hopefully with a little skepticism, then the gap between it and the religious traditions of the world would be more apparent.

And there would probably be more atheists.

Accommodating to Connotation September 25, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Since the discussion about the word “shallow” and such with my last post, I have had a couple of discussions with people about the pragmatism of bowing to popular connotations of words.  Essentially, I’m being too literal and not understanding that some words simply have connotations that color them, I’m being told.  Therefore, if I choose to ignore those popular connotations I will invite mis-communication.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

While I can point back to what a word really means, according to a dictionary or a philosophical tradition (for example), having a reasonable explanation for ignoring commonly used connotations of a word is not going to help when I inadvertently offend or confuse someone such that they ignore any more that I have to say out of annoyance.  After all, as Wittgenstein said, it is the use of a term that really provides the context for meaning.

This problem of  word connotation, use, and definition is actually a problem that atheists have in general, as the term “atheist” is (mis)understood by many to mean something other than how I and the vast majority of the atheist community uses it.

And because of the misunderstanding of this term in our culture (and the world), atheists have had to re-educate people to a different usage.  That is, the common usage by many people was simply wrong.  It didn’t matter that it came to mean Satan-worshiper, immoral heathen, or person who says there absolutely is no god.  What mattered was that when actual atheists came out of the closet, they didn’t fit into these definitions.  When the term is analyzed in context to the relevant philosophical questions, the use that makes sense is “lacks belief in any gods.”  Connotations be damned!

Shaming and depth-evaluation

So, when Greta Christina started defending fashion (I know, I’m writing about it again!) as not being shallow (also not vain or trivial), she was defending it against the negative connotations of the word.  She was shallow-shaming.  She was not only saying that fashion is not shallow, but if it were, then it would probably be a bad thing.  So when someone called her out on this, saying that fashion does seem to fit the criteria as being shallow, she reacted as if they had claimed that a thing she cared about was stupid, not deserving of attention, etc.  But what was really happening was a re-evaluation of the term shallow, and our orientation towards how we think about having shallow interests.

Much of our culture and the daily lives we live are shallow.  Further, much of it is primarily and overwhelmingly shallow.  Many of us like our home sports team to win, the physical appearance of our lovers, and that our political candidates appear to be saying something important.  The surface-level part of the majority of our existence is, well, superficial and quite distracting from what lies (clever pun intended) underneath .

But there is depth under those things, and many people appreciate that too.  The relative level of how much we care about one or the other is the criteria, I believe, by which we should judge a person, and not whether they actually like anything that does not dig very deep at any point.  Like fashion.  I will not hold anyone to the standard of never being irrational, never liking anything primarily shallow, or generally not living up to whatever standards we impose upon them.  So, appreciate fashion and baseball if you like, but stop pretending that these things are not shallow and trivial.

Standing up to Connotations

Connotations certainly shift word-usage over time.  The question is to what extent it is legitimate to stop, once in a while, and say “wait, I think that the connotation which has built up around this word is philosophically problematic and has implications which you may not be aware of.”  Or you might say something less complicated, if you are not me.

But at bottom it is sometimes useful to recognize that we may be demonizing a term (like “shallow” or “slut”), artificially heightening it (like “faith”), or even unnecessarily moderating it (like “accommodationist”).  Sometimes the connotations of words are not valid, if considered carefully.  Sometimes we need to step up and declare that the way our culture, or a segment of it, uses a word is simply problematic or wrong.

There is nothing inherently wrong with liking shallow pursuits, being a slut, or being an atheist.  There is nothing inherently good about having faith, and we should not give that term the free pass it usually gets in our culture.  And we should not consider accommodationists (those nice atheists who defend religion and apologize for us mean atheists) as being the wise, moderate, and fair critics they think of themselves as; sometimes a thing is just wrong, and there is nothing wrong with pointing that out.

So, yes, fashion is shallow and I’m pointing that out.  Like fashion, do you? I don’t care, nor will I judge you as a bad person based solely on that fact.  Only like things like fashion, weight lifting, pop music, sports, and interior design?  Well….

 

Fashion is shallow…not that there is anything wrong with that September 23, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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I have avoided jumping in on the fray (parts one, two, and three) over at Greta Christina’s blog.  The reason is that I generally do not care about fashion, and so I didn’t feel motivated enough to add my thoughts.  The other reason is that another person I know, with whom I tend to agree on many things, already had jumped in.

I am one of those people who thinks that judging a person by what they wear, even if it is inevitable, is problematic and  shallow.  I think that there are things you can tell about a person by what they generally wear, and there is a very loose sort of language (I agree that body language is a better analogy than language per se) that comes along with clothing.  I would like to see the role of fashion in our culture mitigated somewhat, but I don’t think it’s a problem that is damaging enough to spend significant time thinking about.  As far as I remember, this is the first time I’ve ever written about this topic.  It very well may be the last time as well.

So, when I first saw Greta Christina writing about it, I read the piece because she generally has good insight about things.  I figured I would have something to learn.  It was not one of her better pieces, in my opinion, but it didn’t bother me too much and simply put it out of mind.  And then the second one came around, and I realized I had missed some interesting conversation in the comments, which I initially ignored out of lack of interest.  After having gone back and read the comments and the subsequent posts with their comments, I found myself a little disappointed, honestly, that Greta became so offended and affected by what some people said.  Considering her directness and highly critical comments on religion (which I tend to agree with and like), I would have expected her to have a thicker skin.  I think that her taking offense at someone demonstrating why fashion is shallow, vain, and trivial is, frankly, irrational and misses the point he was trying to make.

(full disclosure, “Wes” is someone I know personally, and is, in fact, my fiance’s boyfriend).

So, using these posts and subsequent comments as a springboard, I wanted to make a point or two about words like “shallow,” a point that I believe resonates with what Wes was trying to say over at Greta’s and which was misunderstood by Greta Christina and generally missed by people in our culture.  And it is simply this; being shallow is not a bad thing in itself.  We all have shallow interests, and “owning” this is a part of being adults.  The truth is important, even if that truth points to shallow aspects of ourselves.

We are shallow about all sorts of things.  My like of hockey is shallow.  My care about if my hair looks nice today is shallow.  When I do actually make an effort to wear nicer clothes, I am being shallow in doing so.  And there is nothing wrong with any of that, so long as I am aware that it is less important than other aspects of my personality and that I don’t pretend that it isn’t true.  Now, if I were to spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about these things, especially to the detriment of more profound things (such as improving my emotional maturity, being a virtuous person, etc), then there would be a problem.  I cannot spend all of my time in self-improvement and dealing with weighty philosophical, political, and cultural issues.  Sometimes I have to play a video game, get a hair cut, or buy a new pair of shoes.  These are things that should not matter as much as dealing with poverty, maintaining relationships, or trying to educate people about the inherent dangers of faith and anti-intellectualism (which may be somewhat trivial, in relation to some other things), but they do matter a little.  The fact that they matter less, that they have less depth of meaning in our lives, does not strip them of meaning completely.

They are just relatively shallow.

Now, many may respond saying that the word “shallow” has a different connotation than this use.  That referring to something as “shallow” is not merely saying the trivial thing that it is not particularly important or deep in comparison to other things.  It is really a dig, an insult, and should not be tolerated in a civil conversation.  But I think that this is too simplistic.  I, for example, do not think that Greta Christina is a shallow person.  Her thoughts and efforts in the skeptical and atheist community have demonstrated that she is a person of great breadth and depth, and I have held her in very high esteem for her writing and observations on culture, religion, etc.  She was, in fact, the very first blogger I remember recommending to my fiance, and I have read her blog consistently for about 2 years now.

Her interest in fashion, however, is an exception to this rule.  It is a shallow and human thing that fills her out as a rounded person, and if she claimed to have no such interests I’d assume she was lying. Because she’s human.  I don’t fault her for having this interest, nor do I think I should.  It is obviously something she cares about, and it is one of many interests that she has which fills her out as a person, most of which is deep, considered, and important.  Hell, even her discussion of fashion is deeper than other conversations of fashion I have heard before.

I think that Greta, as well as many other people in our culture, need to take a second look at the word “shallow” and see if it really is an insult.  The same goes for “trivial” and “vain.”  These terms are not all bad, and in fact may not be bad at all.

Take, for example, the word “slut.”  In most of our culture, the word “slut” has a negative connotation.  It is an insult for most people, especially women.  But I, as well as many women I know, use the word as a positive one.  I proudly identify as a slut, and prefer to date sluts.  Why?  Because the insult of the term is predicated upon being sexually promiscuous and not ashamed of it as a bad thing.  If what the word “slut” refers to are not actually bad, then the term is not bad.  Similarly, “shallow” is considered an insult because it is assumed that to be interested in things without intellectual or cultural depth is a flaw.  But what is overlooked here is that what is bad (if anything is bad here) is a person who is predominantly or solely interested in shallow pursuits, not merely having any shallow pursuits.  Pointing out that an interest, like fashion, that someone has as being shallow is not an insult per se.  It is not an indictment of the whole person.

Now, whether a person is interested in predominantly shallow things is bad or not is a question that I will not tackle here.  I think it is a character flaw, but whether it’s bad…that’s a conversation I’m willing to have.

But for now, I am satisfied having addressed these points..

Marriage rights and religious discrimination September 21, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Now, I’m no lawyer, but I have some thoughts,  Any lawyers who come upon this are free to slice and dice the argument as they like.  This will, of course, be a brief sketch of the idea, not a comprehensive argument.

Marriage and family

Now, those who think about marriage rights in the United States, as well as many other Western nations, have had to deal with the question of gay marriage in recent years.  And while I know some atheists who oppose gay marriage, it is my opinion that their opposition to such things are ultimately based upon cultural values and traditions which are carried to us on the back of religious doctrines and tradition.  That is, while homophobia, discrimination, etc are natural human phenomena which are merely magnified and perpetuated by the many kinds of religious institutions, it is primarily religion that is the social basis for opposition to equal marriage rights.  There simply is no coherent argument against gay marriage.  Religious arguments, while still not coherent when seen from the outside, are at least more internally consistent.

The so-called definition of marriage is deeply problematic, and not challenged often enough.  The idea that it is only marriage when institutions, both civil and religious, wed one man and one woman, is not particularly traditional or universal.  The history of marriage, which is too complicated to summarize effectively here, is one based upon property relationships.  Contained within but also found outside of the traditional religious scriptures of many faiths is the idea that a wife is property, and the idea that marriage is a union of two people whom love one-another and both enter into willingly is a relatively modern idea.  The idea of the nuclear family, with (stay-at-home) mother, (bread-winning) father, and children (and possibly grandma or an uncle or aunt being around) is an idealized picture that is not more than a hundred years old.  Sure, families may have looked that way previous to that, but it was not the definition of family until more recently.

The bottom line is the traditionally conservative definition of marriage, and therefore of family, is not actually traditional.  It is a conservative notion, for sure, but it seeks to conserve an idea which is younger than the airplane or the automobile.  In a world that moves and thinks faster, where innovation is the bedrock of many economies, it is absurd that we should expect cultural and personal ideas not to change.  Marriage has already changed from a hierarchical property relationship to one between consenting equals, and it will continue to change as we learn more about ourselves and what we are capable of.

But change into what? Into whatever consenting, mature, and responsible adults want it to change into.  We are, after all, the arbiters of our own culture.  We bow to no universal definitions or standards.  Or, at least, we shouldn’t.

Religious discrimination

Descrimination is not allowed under the law in Western “Democracies” (I’m not getting into that today…).  In the United States, Title VII protects people from “discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” and many other nations have similar types of laws.  Now, this may not seem like a way to argue about marriage (and perhaps it is not, ultimately) but allow me to present an argument. Similar or very different arguments might have to be levied in the legal whirlwind of other nations, but I’m an American, so I’ll pretend no other places exist for a little while, as is our way.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that a religious institution would start marrying homosexuals in the United States.  And, let’s say, this church wanted to do so throughout the united states, even in states that don’t recognize or allow gay marriage.  And, let’s say, the church proclaims that this act is part of their religious doctrine.  Now, despite the fact that Christian, Jewish, Mormon, and Islamic texts say otherwise, there are other religious institutions that could, hypothetically, do so without this contradiction.  Hindus, for example (As far as I can remember) don’t have the same problem with homosexuality. And what about the Shinto? Ah, how we always forget about them, don’t we?  But it does not matter what religious group steps forward to do this, because the first amendment protects all religious views.

Wouldn’t these acts and doctrines, by whatever religious group that decides to act in such a way,  be a challenge to the state not recognizing gay marriage?  In the face of such an act, the state and/or federal government not allowing these marriages to be recognized equally with a Catholic, Jewish, or Hindu marriage seems to be religious discrimination issue.  Would a religious institution who had, as part of their beliefs, the idea that anyone should be free to marry anyone, be discriminated against if they tried to do so?

Now, I know how I would respond to this.  I would say that there is a distinction between what a church does within it’s doors and what the state is compelled to recognize.  That is, the Temple of Holy Perversity can marry Adam and Steve, Lilith and Eve, or (perhaps) Adam, Steve and Eve, but that does not compel the state to recognize this union legally, with all the rights and privileges that come with it.  That is, the marriage could be a religious one, but not a civil one.  A person who took this road might argue, as some do, that marriage is a religious institution and whatever legal rights “married” people get now is really a civil union we call ‘marriage’ for the sake of simplicity and tradition.  They might argue that the state should only recognize civil unions, and not any marriage that a religion can conceive of.  Many people seem to be moving in this direction, although it contains seeds of further problems associated with discrimination.

Why, for example, should the government recognize the civil union of Billy and Barbara while rejecting Bobby and Mike?  On what basis does it accept one type of civil union and not another? Tradition? Is this traditional distinction not based upon a biased practiced which has been perpetuated by religious bigotry and centuries of  discrimination against homosexuality?  Would accepting this traditional idea, carried to us by religion, not a way to respect one set of religious traditions over ones that might not accept those traditions? In short, isn’t the civil union compromise merely a way to shovel off the question of discrimination and religious preferential treatment one step further down the line?

It also seems to me (and my legal understanding of the issue gets fuzzy here) that the term “marriage” not only is not a mere religious term (because religion has usurped the idea, much like it has done to morality), but that to allow one type of union between people to have automatic civil rights and benefits while denying it to others seems to be an inequality that is not only unfair, but possibly illegal.  For the states or the federal government to recognize one type of union while not another, especially if where that line lays just [sarcasm]happens [/sarcasm] to overwhelmingly coincide with the lines between religious opinions in our culture, seems a little like discrimination based upon religion to me.

I’m going to start my own religion

Now, since it is unlikely that any established church or religious institution is going to take this step, even though many specific congregations are in favor of gay marriage, we might have to start our own.  And of course, since I’m an atheist, it might not be me.  Or maybe not.  Humanism, for example, is recognized as a religion, legally, according to some precedent.  And while many atheists, including myself, are not particularly comfortable with having atheism recognized as a religion (because it’s not a religion), I will admit that in the legal sense there is meaning to talking about it as if it were.  This is not a double-standard, because the point of the law against discrimination, as I understand it, is to protect people from discrimination based on whatever religious position they take, not what religion they adhere to.  So while atheism is not a religion, it is protected in the same way as any religion would be.

So, could Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, or any sect thereof be the group that takes this step? Sure.  And if this group starts performing ceremonies which marry two men, two women, or groups of people and these people who have all decided, as adults of their own free will, to enter into this arrangement, then does the state have to recognize it?  Perhaps not, but what happens when these people start losing their jobs as a result of it.  Can’t they point to their religious group, who not only blessed the union but performed it as part of their religious beliefs, and say that there are being discriminated based upon their religion?

And couldn’t they also point to the traditional religious groups, point to the fact that those who attend and marry in those mainstream places of worship don’t face this discrimination, and say that’s not fair! That’s discrimination! and be right?

Not only morally, but legally?

That’s my question.

It is a question that has implications for not only gay marriage, but polyamorous marriage.  And while much of the LGBTQ community does not want to address the larger polyamory issue when it comes to marriage (a political decision, of course), I believe that it is a question that my generation will see come to more public exposure in my lifetime.  Will we solve it? Well, these things change slowly, but if the polyamory community can get itself into the public sphere the way atheists did over the last 10 years, we might be able to make some headway.

There is a lot of work to be done.

Finding a poly community IRL September 19, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Some years ago, when I decided I wanted to live a polyamorous lifestyle, I discovered a local meetup groupand started to attend meetings, met some people (including a lover or two), and learned a lot.  That group still exists.  I don’t go to meetings anymore for a few reasons, but I will not dwell on that right now.

Instead, I want to talk about how I have become part of a small group of people who are predominantly polyamorous (and therefore there are many interlinking connections both sexual and non-sexual) who are young, intelligent, fun, and includes many atheists.

That is to say, not exactly like my experience elsewhere.  Yes, they were fun, and I met people with insightful and useful things to teach me, but the general age gap was noticeable (younger people tended to come, but not to be repeat attenders), and the predominance of non-atheists was somewhat annoying.

So, how did I land among such people? Well, some luck and some causation related to he fact hat my fiance is not only a sexy, sexy lady but also quite intelligent, personable, and therefore a means towards making friend with people who like that sort of thing.  And of course they know people.

So, whether it is Thursday night karaoke, the Philly Fringe festival, or Sunday night football (not my thing, but it draws people together for non-football conversations, food, and so forth), I have found myself hanging out with pretty awesome people who are poly or poly-friendly.  It is a wonderful way to live, and I feel a slight twinge of pity for those normal monotonous monogamous people out there who are missing out on all the fun.

Oh well, I’m sure they are having fun too.  So long as everyone is happy, right? I guess.

Well, here’s to living a full life with awesome people!  Philadelphia and the surrounding area certainly has polyamorous people enjoying their lives of all ages, with different interests, and with different goals.  And while there are certainly some poly people who are really bad at it, who perhaps are not mature enough to do it right, or who are using it as an excuse to act poorly in relationships which are not very transparent, honest, or healthy, I hope these are the exceptions.

So thank you, everyone, for being so awesome.  You know who you are.

 

Cynical City Living September 13, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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I’m going to step aside from polyamory and religion for a quick second.  Today, a thought occurred to me.  It was not the first time this thought occurred to me, but I felt compelled to share it today, for some reason.

Ah, home...

I love living in a city.  I can walk or bike pretty much anywhere I want to go, there are tons of things to choose from to do, and there are lots of interesting people to spend time with.

My thought orbits around that last point, and I would like to make an observation concerning this issue of interesting people.

Interesting people are rare.  In my opinion, most people are severely uninteresting.  They are often not merely unintelligent (although some are, and I don’t fault them for it), but they are uneducated, incurious, and unwilling to challenge themselves.  They are boring, hetero-normative, monogamous, and fearful people who I really don’t want to spend time with.

(This is not to say that a person is is any of these things is automatically uninteresting, it just seems to make it more likely to be a correlative marker)

San Fransisco, apparently

And because they are rare, you need a large sample size of people to have enough of them around.  Further, concentrated areas like cities draw people like this in, like magnets to each other.  In rural areas, suburbs, or other less populated areas rare people often feel left out, abnormal, and seek to be closer to open minded and intelligent people.  Like cities.

One reason I don’t think I could enjoy living in a small town, a suburban area, etc is that I’d miss the dynamic of people that cites bring.  Not that interesting people can’t and don’t live away from cities (I know they do), but that there are less of them, and they will be harder to find.  Also, we’d have less varied choice of activities.

For those of you who like the suburbs or the country, I suppose you have your reasons.  If you would like to share them, by all means do so.  I just don’t get it.

Interdependence in relationships September 13, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Recent events in life have gotten me thinking about how relationships affect each other.  I mean all kinds of relationships, and not only polyamorous ones.  Of course, the level of intimacy and proximity exacerbates this phenomenon, but it occurs naturally nonetheless, and to think that it does not is simply not reasonable.

The relationships we have affect our mood, thinking, etc and therefore affect our behavior and disposition.  The argument you have with a parent, a friend, etc will affect your mood when you see you lover, or vice-versa.  The dynamics of all your relationships will affect the others you have, and that will, in turn, effect their other relationships.

Expectations, needs, and the logistics of time-management are a few of the obvious suspects here.  How much time do you dedicate to that project at work? How much time do you give your friends who you meet for drinks after work? How much time to just spend with your boyfriend or girlfriend in the evening? And if you have 2 or 3 lovers, how much time, and in what configuration, do you give each?

All of these questions, and the answers you give to them, will affect the other people in your life, as well as the people in theirs.  There is simply no way to get around this.  Your relationships, even relatively small and non-intimate ones, are not islands.  They cannot exist independent of the other ones you have, at least not completely.  Even in situations where you may think that no overlap makes sense to consider, because of the way you are affected (perhaps unconsciously) it will have some effect.

Even in situations where monogamous people have love/sex affairs, it does not take long for their partner to notice (or to at least ignore the obvious signs of) the affair.  Your mood changes, the way you interact as well, and before you know it things are different, and people are effected.  And in this situation it is in the interest of the violator of fidelity to keep these relationships as separate as possible.  And yet, it usually fails.

The great thing about polyamory is that, at least ideally, everyone is aware of this issue.  We recognize that the decisions we make effect other people in terms of how often we see them, how they feel, and what they will think.  To be a responsible, caring, and fair partner, you have to consider how the decisions you make will affect not only the other people in your life, but how those decisions will affect other people in the life of those you choose to be with.

It’s not an easy problem to master.  The issues of time-management, meeting of multiple needs (even the ones of people you are not directly connected to), and management of emotions is of paramount importance, and takes communication and practice.  These skills are necessary if you intend to make your life more efficient, happy, and to prevent or solve problems that are rife in such complexity.  Failure to master, or at least to address openly, these skills is a recipe for disaster in the long run.  I know this from experience.

What you do, say, or think about people will affect you, them, and ultimately everyone who is important to them.  This idea must be kept in mind, or you risk losing something in what you have.  Relationships require maintenance, and sometimes that means maintaining things which are not in your direct interest.  It’s like the idea of enlightened self-interest but applied to sets of people, rather than mere individuals.  Take care of the community you are in, and the community will take care of you.

Damn, that sounded really hippy.  Stupid Quaker schools!

I’ll stop there before I start advising people to have feeling-sharing exercises or something lame like that.

Now, where did I put that granola….

9/11 and Smarmy Ecumenicalism in Philadelphia September 11, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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So, I was walking with Gina through town earlier today, since she had to pick up tickets for her show this after noon and evening, and I decided I would walk over to Rittenhouse Square and read my book for a while.  But when I got there, I realized I would be reading no book.  It turned out that the atheist fairy left me some presents.

As I approached the center of the park, I saw a number of white-topped tents set up (there turned out to be 15 of them) and my eyebrows raised.

Today is September 11th I said to myself.  It’s been ten years They are going to be doing some uber patriotic anniversary thing.

Not quite.  Better.

Is that a church group? Is that a Moslem group?

The answer was yes, to both, and my mouth curled into a devilish smirk (of course).  This is going to be fun.

Now, since I had originally planned on being at a wedding this weekend (the trip got canceled due to lack of traveling funds), I had not bothered to pay attention to what might be going on in Philadelphia this weekend, so I didn’t know about this event until I stumbled upon it.  But after I thought about it I realized that I should have known about this anyway…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

15 booths.  One city living group (or something like that), the Shambala meditation center, one Jewish, one Moslem (CAIR), one Turkish American group, and about 10 Christian churches were milling about and talking to each other.  Then I saw the stage, complete with lectern and seal of the Mayer of Philadelphia, Mr. Nutter himself.  He was off stage at first, but that would change.

This was going to be an interfaith, ecumenical lovefest among the local religious groups and I was going to be able to watch.  I was quite amused.  It was called Hands Across the Square.  It was supposed to start at 2:00, and it was around 1:00 when I arrived.  I had time to mingle, and mingle I did.  I had some short but friendly conversations with people who noticed my “Atheism: A Non-Prophet Organization” T-Shirt (what else is a man supposed to wear?), and when it was time for prayers and such, I made my way near the front to watch, take notes, and a couple of pictures.

And before I knew it, I was saying to myself Hey, there’s the mayor.  He’s totally going to speak, isn’t he? Yes, totally going to get his G-O-D on today!  With official government seal and everything.  Yay church and state!

So, when the invocations, prayers, etc started (led by a female priest from St. Mark’s) I started taking notes.  Phrases like the following would be thrown about liberally;

“Celebrate our unity”

“we need each other”

“No religion is an island”

“Disagreement without disrespect’

and, of course…

“One nation under God” (said by a Moslem)

There was a sense that these religious traditions are really alike, and there is no reason for there to be strife.  They doth protest too much, methought, and I started to think about all the things religious texts say about other faiths as I tried not to laugh or look too amused.

And, of course, there were no atheist groups represented.  And, believe me, many of us would have liked to participate.  Had the people organizing the event even considered inviting an atheist, I would have likely heard something about it.  I would have personally loved to address the crown as a voice for atheists; and yes, I would have remained civil, even if I would not have toed the ecumenical line completely.  I suppose that’s why I would not have been invited.

I tried to ask Mayor Nutter, after the event ended, why no atheist was included in the event.  But rather than even get a chance to voice the question he looked me up and down, read my shirt, and made some comment about having to be at another appointment.  Not surprising, really. No time for us atheists, especially with voters around.  We atheists, after all,  are nothing but rabble-rousers and have no place in such an event. We might cause trouble, such as pointing out the utter absurdity of unity through religious difference, especially in how it overlooks the obvious logical flaws in ecumenicalism.  Couldn’t they have at least thrown in a token accommodationist atheist?

Would the Mayor’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives even know what an accommodationist v. a gnu atheist is? I doubt it.  It’s not really their job, I suppose.  But they didn’t even try and include us.

The prayers and so forth were followed by everyone holding hands in a continuous line around the park, while the church on the corner did some music with it’s bell tower.  A few minutes of silence to remember that horrible day 10 years ago.  I didn’t include myself because, as I told one person who tried to make room for me, I’m philosophically opposed to the basis for this act of religious ecumenicalism, even if it was in part a rememberence of 9/11.  Atheists remember this day too.  And for many of us, myself included, 9/11 was a catalyst for more dramatically opposing religion and faith in our world, not a cause to overlook those differences in order to pretend we can all be friends.  It’s a delusion; religions, while having some good qualities, are a part of the problem, not the solution.  Events such as this are an attempt to cover this fact with wishes and rainbows.

I remain unimpressed.

I do not believe that ecumenicalism is useful.  I do want people to live among each other peacefully, but I think it is a deception to argue, as the many speakers did today, that religions need each other, that the fundamental virtues of compassion, love, and unity supersede the fact that much of religion calls for the death of non-adherents, apostates, and perpetually oppression of women much more than they call for unity.

Unity is a human virtue, usurped by religion and claimed as its own.

I am perpetually annoyed by this short-sighted and insincere attempts by groups such as these to pretend like there are not real things within their religions which make this ecumenical perspective fundamentally flawed.  There are parts of scripture from the Tanakh, the Qu’ran, and the New Testament which make each mutually exclusive to the other.  Granted, the Shambala Center, which was also represented, truly does accept people of all faiths (and no faith, thank you  Jeffrey Lee, for adding that to your talk), but their willingness to accept people does not say whether those people can actually do so with logical coherence.

Oh, right, logical coherence is not really a buzz word in ecumenical circles.  Never mind, I suppose.  This was an event for warm fuzzy feelings devoid of actual critical thought.  They must know that real analysis of religion, faith, and history does not lead to the liberal-porn of ecumenicalism which I saw paraded about today.  And if they don’t know, their levels of compartmentalization transcend anything I would have thought possible.  But, then again, I have stopped being surprised by human inadequacy, especially when it comes to faith.  Moving from a position of faith in gods and souls to the idea that people with other ideas of gods and souls could be their BFF  is not really a huge step.  Never mind that their heaven is not yours, and you aren’t invited.

Without the need for reality-based thinking, there is no limit to the amount of rationalization and one could achieve.  The sky is not even the limit when there is an imaginary heaven above.

There was, of course, a lot of reading from scripture, including Arabic reading from the Qu’ran, Old and New Testaments, and some talk of fearlessness and cowardice (which I thought was actually pretty cool.  I may blog about that later).  I was bemused by the statement, made by more than 2 speakers, that we are all drawn together as “children of Adam” or at least of some god.  Lets just say that I felt a little unrepresented in this category, as I don’t have any Adams in my family (I don’t think) and this god-thingy is somewhat puzzling to me.  Perhaps I’m not a real Philadelphian.  Because, as Mayor Nutter said, “this is so Philadelphia.”  I guess I’m not included, even though it is my home town and all. And while it is true that Philadelphia, with it’s pluralism rooted in William Penn’s view of religious freedom, is a tolerant and open city, Mayor Nutter forgets that there are people that are not of god at all.  He also forgets that he represents a government which is supposed to be neutral in such regards, and I feel somewhat slighted in his office even having a Faith Based Initiatives office, let alone utilizing it in this discriminatory way.

The similarities of these religious traditions are due to the fact that they are done by humans, and not because of any shared divine insight.  Religion has usurped our humanism and called it their own, and they overlook their vast differences in order to try and pretend that we can all just live with each other without conflict.  It’s naive.  Yes, we can live with each other without killing each other, but that’s only because the common decency that exists within most people trumps what the scriptures say when they command us to kill each other.  The people that get together to have these religious love fests are ignoring too much of the scriptures they claim to be god’s word, cherry-picking what they like and ignoring what they don’t.  It’s simply annoying to witness.

Oh, and after the event the Truthers came out.  They don’t deserve any more comment than that.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Priciple and “true religion” September 8, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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I was just reading the comments over at Greta Christina’s new piece when I ran across this:

As soon as someone points out an ACTUAL issue with Christian culture, doctrine, or a sacred book, all the “true Christians” somehow scatter and disappear.

Something in my head clicked.

I have written before, at some point, about how people pick and choose their beliefs based on interpretations of their religious tradition.  In many cases, it is due to clear ignorance; they simply don’t know enough about their scripture or the history of their religion to know better, and so their beliefs are not coherent either internally or with the any theological tradition.  In many cases, their selection bias takes over and they only pay attention to what their worldview allows them to, which often is at odds with the orthodoxy of their religious tradition.  I see many Catholics do this, for example, when it comes to pre-marital sex, divorce, and contraceptives.  They will claim that their source is the word of god, that they really do believe in it, but they either don’t know or don’t care what the orthodox position is.  They seem, in other words, to exist in some epistemological limbo where their worldview is a mix of allegiance to tradition as well as rebellion against it.  Their simply is no larger consistency for them, and they don’t seem bothered by this at all. Granted, we all are irrational and inconsistent sometimes, but I think we should at least try or to correct it when it is pointed out.

And, of course, people think they are right.  What I mean by this (because this claim has been the source of some argument between myself and people who called this claim arrogant or wrong-headed) is that people accept that their opinions are ideas which are true.  Not that they don’t, in some cases at least, think they could change their mind, only that they are currently convinced of that which they currently believe.  I don’t know why that point is so controversial, but it is.

And so when you talk to some Christians (for example; this is true for people of all sorts of worldviews) about what it means to be a Christian, they think that either their sect is the true Christianity (or, more generally, the Truth) or they claim that there really is a truth and it is at least related to their opinion.  They may not know all the answers, but the god they believe in surely does. And this, in conjunction with the inconsistencies they have, leads to a situation where they believe both that their ideas are right, and that the religious tradition which they associate is also true even if they don’t adhere to all of its doctrines.  So,when you ask them for the truth, or at least answers to specific questions, the answer you will get depends on factors too complicated to spell out here but which are logically incoherent.

Ask a Catholic of they use condoms.  Ask them what is the right thing to do.  Ask them what the church thinks about this issue.  Ask them, again, if they are really a Catholic.  Chances are, this line of questioning will leave you flabbergasted and possibly cynical.  I’ve become to used to it to be surprised anymore, so I usually just skip over to the cynicism.

 

Meta-theology

In the public discourse about religion, policy, etc there is this problem that is pointed out to those that say, for example, that this is a Christian nation.  The problem is actually quite simple, and goes something like this:

Which Christianity?

And this is certainly a problem for those public representatives who make such claims, but his problem goes deeper.  More essential to this question is the meta-theological question of what interpretation (or set of interpretations) is accurate? Which theological school is right?

Now, from my point of view, this question is meaningless.  It is akin to asking what color underwear Batman wears.  The question has no answer because unless Batman is drawn wearing some particular underwear (and I am not aware that this has been the case in any of his many comics), this question has no answer.  It’s like the classic example whether the King of France is bald?  Unless there is a king of France, this question is meaningless.  Similarly, unless their is a god or some other sort of divine truth, an internally coherent and true theology is meaningless.

But for a believer, this question of meta-theology becomes important, and leads to the many complicated hallways of theological intricacy which I have little interest in.  Because as one studies such things, one begins to realize that the closer you get to answering such questions the more the problem starts to slip away from you.  Now, this is not a problem of internal inconsistency as much (although this is a problem) as it is a problem for consistency with the world in general.  And because the ways in which theological opinions are related to the real world (and sometimes it seems that the former prefers to ignore the latter), theology is in flux, motion, or can be said to have a position and momentum, in some analogous sense.

Theological worldview are, in a very loosely analogous way, not unlike physical particles.  Describing it takes complex descriptions, and in some sense they do not really exist in the way we classically thought of stuff existing; not as solid and unchanging substance, but as concepts involving probabilities in relation to what is around them.  And just like with a particle, a theological position is something that cannot be pinned down with precision;  the more you know about its position, the less you know about its momentum (and vice-versa).  I say this because things such as theological positions are agent-dependent; they exist in the real-time shifting environments of minds, and change in relation to social, cultural, and historical factors.  Theology changes due to its relationships with science, history, and skeptical analysis in general.  It is not solely dependent upon revelation or scripture, it has to contend with reality (even if only minimally).

In short, finding what the true religion is becomes subject to something akin to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  Perhaps we can call it Theisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle? Nah, that’s lame.

And within a larger politically charged field, especially in current America where religion is such a large factor, what a true Christian is can never be nailed down. Not only are their too many claims to the title, even when you get one of them, they slip and slide around, refusing to be defined.

Take, for example, what the anonymous emailer said to Greta Christina from her post today:

The problem is that you’re not talking about any actual progressive religious types I’ve ever encountered. You’re talking about a straw man, a portrait of the religious progressive that certainly doesn’t represent all of them, and which may not even exist.

Now, Greta and the many commenters on her blog have made many excellent comments in response to this already, so I will try not to be too repetitive.  This person has made a claim that Greta (and by extension me, since I have made similar points) is doing something uncouth by trying to criticize people who seem to pick and choose their beliefs from a larger set of possible beliefs drawn from the tradition they associate with.  Why is it uncouth? Because, you see, they apparently they don’t do so.

Even as a commenter points out (in defense of the emailer)

When you see somebody apparently cherry picking, you can only conclude that they have a highly nuanced way of reading their scripture. And if they agree that they are cherry picking, that might only because their nuanced view is too complex to easily explain, so it is easier to go along with the crude “cherry picking” description.

It’s not that they are choosing what to believe, it is that their epistemological criteria is complicated.  It’s not that people are ignorant of their religious tradition and so they simply grab onto what they do hear mixed with their own humanistic intuitions, it is that they are super ninjas of theology (despite the fact that religious people are much less informed of their own religion) and so they are coming up with uber ways to believe in way that look to us to be theological noise.  My skepticism does not allow me to accept this claim of nuance.  It is, in fact, reminiscent of the term “sophisticated theology,” which is also annoying.

The fact that people do “cherry-pick” their beliefs from a larger theological set is pretty incontrovertible, it seems.  A fully consistent and non-picked worldview from a varied tradition such as Christianity, but certainly any major religion would just as easily serve as an example, is seemingly impossible.  The traditions change too frequently, beliefs are not checked against the whole of tradition and its sources, and so therefore what it means to be a true [insert religion here] is frankly impossible.  Once you have most religious apologists pegged on a view, they are moving in a different direction due to some moral or philosophical conflict we point out, and then they are somewhere else.  Our observing their theological point of view changes their theological point of view, again much like a particle.  And then once you have them admit that they are moving (questioning, or whatever), you have no idea where they are or will end up.  Inevitably, they will often return to their original position, and you don’t know how they got there again.

I’ve seen this behavior for years, both in my personal correspondences, on shows such as the Atheist Experience, etc.  Trying to figure out what a religious person believes in the light of an observing non-believer is a task to marvel at, and one worthy of a person who likes paradoxical-seeming circumstances.  Sounds like a job for a quantum physicist.  No, wait.  It sound like a job for a psychiatrist.

Time flies…. September 4, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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I had hardly noticed that so much time had passed without a post.  Frankly, I’ve ben having too much fun.  The summer is winding down, people are going back to school (includng my lovely Ginny, who just started a Human Sexuality program at Widener), and this weekend is full of cooking, eating and drinking.  Later today I will go to a BBQ at some other poly peoples’ house and continue this fine tradition.

So, what have I been up to? Well, spending time with Ginny and Gina (being polyGinous….) for the most part.  There has been a hurricane, an earthquake, and some idiot Republican candidates making me want to move to Europe, but there have not been any issues either polyamorous or atheist which caught my attention enough to comment upon them.  Hell, even my google reader has been neglected so there may be all sorts of interesting things going on of which I am simply not aware.

So, polyamory is great, monogamy is fine but artificially limiting and should not be the social default.  Religions are sort of silly, there are no reasons to believe in any gods that I have seen, and people should grow up and realize this so we can actually find solutions to problems rather than pray and hope them away.  Skepticism, the application of reason and the scientific method of questions in our lives, should be a practice which employ in all aspects of our lives, and doing so properly will lead to atheism and the negotiated relationships which bring us fullfillments of desirs platonic, romantic, and sexual.

That’s pretty much my blog,  dear readers.  If I have something more specific to say, I’ll try and do so more frequently.  In the mean time, enjoy the end of your summer (for those of you in the northern hemisphere) and keep enjoying this life.

It’s the only one we have, and we should love those whom we love openly, freely, and without reservation or fear.