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Humility: The Song and the Notes February 8, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal, Religion, Sex and sexuality.
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Nietzsche_tastevanitySo, you know this concept of humility? Yeah, that one is rough sometimes. It seems like some people hear it’s tones as a discordant miasma of chaos, while others hear a well-trained symphony playing something seemingly divine. The truth is that it’s neither of those things, but the nuances of music are such that there is room for argument and taste.

There is the kind of humility which is supposed to be the theme song which follows you around. It’s like a master beat-box artist, or possibly an angel with a harp or even just some dude just wailin’ on that bass (tastes do differ, after all), but not matter what that arrangement is, it’s one of the presences in your life, ideally keeping arrogance, bias, and simple error at bay.

Listen, confidence is great. I’m all for confidence.  And I’m definitely not for deference or prostration to either gods, absolutist ideals (or Platonism in general), or traditions. But there are other sources of servitude than religions and traditions. Our emotions, desires, and cognitive biases will perpetually get in the way of our ability to navigate between the Scylla/Carybdis of our hubris/timidity. Humility, if played to an Aristotelian key, is a song of temperance, and not docility.

for my own reference as much as anyone else's

for my own reference as much as anyone else’s

So, given the tempo of this Aristotelian ballad, floating between Prestissimo and the Grave (perhaps an adagio today and an allegro tomorrow), I think that some sense of perspective of who, where, and how we are requires the ability to be self corrective more or less based upon the circumstances in which we find ourselves. That is, we need to listen to the other players if we want to make music well. Life is not all solos.

But also because sometimes it’s time for quiet reflection, and sometimes it’s time to dance! Sometimes we need to assert ourselves, and sometimes we need to step back and listen. And sometimes we might hear something new in our favorite songs or discover that upon further reflection, we hate this song (Hell, Nietzsche could tell you all about that, amirite?). Sometimes we can find new ways to interact with the world, as our desires and tastes change.

The path behind and the path forward

Our preferences are linked to things like memory, experience, and emotional associations.  These preferences are also intimately related to the ideals and goals which we revere. These ideals are immensely powerful motivators, but they can also be anchors and delusions.

Sometimes these ideals come from an ancient religion, steeped in history and buried into the very language, culture, and psychology of a community. That is where this blog started, as a log of ideas about how religion wove its way into the fabric of love, sex, and commitment in our culture. It was an exploration of the problematic concepts which underlie all of our ability to conceive of who and what we are as people living in a universe without gods, but within a culture drowning in the psychopathic, unconcerned, or impotent ideas of gods.

Yes, yet another Nietzsche reference. Get used to it.

Yes, yet another Nietzsche reference.
Get used to it.

This was a blog about exploring what was possible, if we stop adhering to the sexual, romantic, and relationship norms our society defers to. It was, in a sense, one more hammer to the old gods, ideals, and philosophies to which so many are still adhered.

And over time it changed. I started thinking about polyamory more.  I started having more experiences within polyamory. I had many wonderful and fulfilling experiences, I’ve had experiences which were fun but often challenging, and I’ve experienced the worst interpersonal trauma from people I lent some trust to.

And I’ve changed. Who I am today is not who I was 6 years ago, when this blog started.  And in the last several months, I came to a realization that has had a profound effect on my outlook for the future.  I realized that I was wrong about something very fundamental about myself; something that has been the cause of a very significant problems in my life. And I owe that knowledge to someone who I love dearly and who had to allow me to sink or swim on my own.

I swam.

What is it? Well, that’s not really important, is it? The specific lesson is not the point, at all. Besides, that revelation is personal, and while I would be more than willing to share that understanding (assuming I could properly articulate it) with the people I’m close to in my life (and I’m happy that I have people in my life who honor me with their friendship and love), it’s not necessary here.

Also, there are people who still read this blog (hi there! You can one star my post if you like, but that’s sort of childish, isn’t it?) who would attempt to bend and stretch such information against me if they could (narrative spinning is their specialty, after all). Also, because it can’t really be that interesting to most of the rest of you anyway. You don’t come here to be my proxy therapist. I tend to pay people to do that for me.

The last reason I’ll not explore this personal revelation here leads to another kind of humility which I’d like to talk about. This is the kind that comes out of nowhere and knocks you on your ass. These are the striking and emotionally intense notes in the song of your life, ones which have consequences for how you hear the rest of the song.

It’s the kind of humility (humiliation, perhaps) where you have found that you (perhaps) fucked up, big time, and now it’s time to shut up and start listening. Of course, one does not always shut up and listen, so one might talk themselves into a corner. And then, well, you’re in a corner having to decide what to do next.

And then you have to learn some things. Then you have to reflect one how you fucked up, what you are going to do about it, and even though you might hate doing it….

Now it’s time to walk the hard path.

And then, sometimes, while walking that path, you find that you didn’t know as much as you thought, especially about yourself.

I think there might be a metaphor in there....

I think there might be a metaphor in there….

My lovely girlfriend and I, with whom I’ve just celebrated a year together just this week (but who must remain anonymous, for unfortunate reasons related to social expectations and cultural taboos), went to see the movie Wild, which I liked quite a lot. Obviously, it’s a movie about self-discovery and traveling a difficult road (both literally and metaphorically) towards a goal which may be arbitrary, but which takes on new meaning as you approach it.

The problem is that by focusing on that destination, that ideal, you miss all the details all around you. It’s also not unlike hearing that note or phrasing in a piece of music which keeps dancing around a melody, harmonic, or note. If you do nothing but anticipate that note, that goal, or even that (perhaps) perfection then you are not paying full attention to the path itself. You start to miss the trees because you are looking for the whole forest.

If we, as listeners and as path-travelers, learn to pay more attention to the moment then we will notice that it changes our journey from progress to process. In other words, we become less-ends-oriented and we become more aware of the experience of journeying. Knowing precisely where you are is a humbling experience, sometimes. Whether we think of this humility in the cosmic sense of size or in the existential sense identity, it amounts to a humility which should offer us some pause.

And we should accept that offer, from time to time.

Eventually that destination, which was so dramatic and distracting to start, dissolves either into the horizon and becomes your theme song or it starts to fade into background noise, ultimately to be unnoticed or forgotten. And then all there is the path. And when you are bored on this path you start to see things differently. When it’s quiet, when you are alone without distraction, you have the opportunity to listen to yourself a little closer, and you will almost certainly learn something.

Since we're on a Cheryl Strayed kick today.

Since we’re on a Cheryl Strayed kick today.

Well, I’ve learned some things recently. And I think that I am feeling better than I have in a long time, at least in terms of being optimistic about my personal future. The dawn has broken, the storm clouds are retreating, and what I thought was going to be my end may end up being my greatest beginning.

I’m not saying that it will be easy, because it will not be.  I will not say that I do not fear it, because I do. But where it will be hard I will work harder, and where it will be terrifying I will allow myself to slow down, look at the path, consider the destination I may create for myself at that moment. As a practical result, I will no longer retreat from the world as I have been in recent months.

Now, the biggest challenge I have is to have the patience to wait for Spring, because this cold weather is not pleasant for me, at all. Is it May yet?

Bottom line? Well, I was wrong about some things concerning myself. But as a result I was able to discover that maybe I have an opportunity for something better, now. My advice is to be willing to listen, be wrong, and to imagine that perhaps the reason you find yourself where you are has more to do about what you are wrong about than anything else. Or, alternatively, you may find that you were more right than you knew, only you didn’t believe in yourself enough.

Not arrogance and not servility, but instead a humble sense of perspective towards finding a way to balance your individual strengths with an ability to weave those strengths into a larger whole. There will be times for solos, soap-boxes, and individual efforts, but working harmoniously and in symphony is often much harder and more rewarding.

I wish for beautiful music along all of your paths.

Re-reading oneself June 28, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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I just had a realization.

The more I (re-)read Nietzsche (although, how does one re-read anything, considering how much we change between readings?), the more I feel like I want to read those of whom he writes.  I want to read ChamfortMontesquieu, and more of Goethe.  But (and this was my realization) what I really want to do is keep reading Nietzsche!

Reading Nietzsche opens my mind to a world of concepts to which my every day life is alien, and what I realize is that this sense comes from the reading itself and not from the references or referents.  I’m inspired by the moment, and not necessarily by the potential or the ambition of that moment.  That ambition is not extensive, it is its own reward.  A

And yet….

And yet there is more ambition out there.

This is not unlike the realization, which I have from time to time, that it is the moment of beauty, and not the object of beauty, which is inspiring and awesome.  In a sense, art and our ability to appreciate it is a phenomenon of appreciating ourselves (both specifically and generally, as human beings).  Yes, it was the creativity and genius of the artist which is the efficient cause, but it is the commonality of interior architecture of our minds—the shared culture, language, and worldview of both observer and creator—which is the (metaphorical) location of the art.

Much like the blueness of an object is not contained within the object itself (and certainly not within some ultimate being, whether “god” or some Vedantic/Noumenal/Platonic reality), but within the relationship between our perceptual gear (our brain) and the actual material object which causes the light to exist in such a wavelength as it does.*  And the label, “blue”, a cultural construction used to identify the coherence and consistency of our shared experience (Assuming we are not color-blind), is mere convention of course.  We could learn new labels, but the material reality is not conventional.  It is real.

No, there is no inherent beauty, no inherent color, and no inherent meaning.  The world actually is—there is a reality and it is not an illusion—but there is no inherent perspective before we create it by perceiving.  There is no objective perspective, whether it be a “god” or some set of Platonic ideals.

Similarly, there is no inherent me, only the passing self that will change upon each re-reading.  In a very loose metaphorical sense, we are a book we are constantly re-reading.  And while the subject is unchanging and (perhaps) the words are the same, each time we look at it we come from a different point of view, we notice different parts of the narrative, and perhaps we remembered this or that part differently than we see on this reading.

Each time I re-read a book such as The Gay Science or The Catcher in the Rye I see it from a different point of view.  But the same basic phenomenon is the case each time I look into myself.  Depending on mood, memory, experience, etc I am a different person each moment, even if I know I’m holding the same ‘book’.

I still want to read some Chamfort, if only to make sure that the next time I re-read myself, there is some new perspective from which to read.  It is when we stop desiring new peaks to view the world from that we become bored–and boring!

*We never actually see the noumenal object not because the noumena is inaccessible to us, but because that concept is a category error.  The object does exist on its own, but the perception, including the color, shape, etc, are a simulation based on a physical relationships with the object.  The concept of noumena is an attempt to project that simulation onto reality, where that noumena is, in fact, merely an abstraction of the phenomena.  The noumena, in short, is a fabrication; an attempt to project our linguistic and cognitive constructs onto the world.  The noumena, therefore, is not inaccessible to us, since we create it.  This is precisely what many atheists, myself included, mean when we say that we create gods.  I’m an atheist, in part, because I recognize that we create the noumenal through projection of our own perception onto reality.  I don’t reject the supernatural because I am an atheist, I am an atheist because I reject the supernatural.

Also, I wanted to add this video here, not because it is (directly) related, but just because it’s amazing and beautiful.

The Privilege of Passion June 19, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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I was out watching the Chicago Blackhawks win game 4 (in overtime) of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, at a local bar I like (because they have a great selection of beer), when I saw that I still had about half a beer to drink once the game was over.  I had brought with me (because I’m totes a nerd, even while drinking beer at a bar with a hockey shirt on) a copy of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science which I started reading again recently.  It’s great because it’s a collection of loosely related aphorisms, so it’s perfect for reading when you don’t have a lot of time, and because it’s just an awesome book.

After reading a section about Nicholas Chamfort (which reminds me that I should read some of his work in the future), I got to section 96, which reads as follows:

Two Speakers.– Of these two speakers, one can show the full rationality of his cause only when he abandons himself to passion: this alone pumps enough blood and heat into his brain to force his high spirituality to reveal itself.  The other one may try the same now and then–to present his cause sonorously, vehemently, and to sweep his audience off their feet with the help of passion–but usually with little success.  Soon he speaks obscurely and confusedly; he exaggerates; he omits things; and he arouses mistrust about the rationality of his cause.  Actually he himself comes to feel mistrust, and that explains sudden leaps into the coldest and most repugnant tones that lead his audience to doubt whether his passion was genuine.  In his case, passion always inundates the spirit, perhaps because it is stronger than in the first speaker.  But he is at the height of his powers when he resists the flood of his emotions and virtually derides it; only then does his spirit emerge fully from its hiding place–a logical, mocking, playful, and yet awesome spirit.

This spoke to me in a powerful way.

I have read this particular book a few times already.  But the last time I read it was a few years ago.  Books like this one reveal how we grow, sort of like how when you read Catcher in the Rye every few years to see how you react to the protagonist.  This little paperback is marked up, annotated (I have a system), and is now starting to fall apart a little.  Yet this section was not marked much.  It had slipped past me the first few times I read it, but not this time.  I have sections so inked up, noted, etc that you can barely read the text, but this one was hardly marked at all.  But today when I read it is jumped out at me.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the relationship between argumentation and emotion.  For many years, my writing, perspective, etc was tied up in powerful and partially irrational emotions.  A few years ago, after a pretty awful part of my life, I was told by a therapist that I should read about Borderline Personality Disorder.  Upon doing research, I discovered that there was a name for the particular brain crap that I had been battling for as long as I can remember.  And reading this section of Nietzsche, it makes me wonder it, perhaps, Nietzsche understood something about what it’s like to be me.  I generally think that Nietzsche had insights into humanity that the vast majority of people do not (and perhaps cannot); the fact that I read this book a few times and missed this one makes me wonder what other aphorisms he wrote, which have so far left me cold, have to offer.

There is a part of me that wants to reach out more, emotionally, to people.  But the fact is that when I allow my emotions to lead, more likely than not I will speak poorly, get caught up in anxieties, or simply lose my place in the conversation.  Arguments, especially in person, make me lose my rationality to some degree because I become enveloped in a shroud of emotions; fear, uncertainty, sadness, etc.  I enjoy conversations, but I have come to accept that there are certain types of tones of voice, body language, etc which trigger feelings that I cannot control.  I can guide them, but I cannot harness them.*

I have this ideal view of me becoming a person who iss patient, kind, and attentive person in discussion.  I listen, understand, and respond without emotion clouding my judgment, or without becoming paralyzed by uncertainty.  I desire to be able to listen dispassionately and allow my intellect to efficiently solve the problem, or at least to understand it.  The problem is that I cannot maintain that calm in actual conversation most of the time.  I may appear calm and collected (and you likely have NO idea how much effort it requires just to maintain that appearance), but the fact is that I’m not.  I’m filled with potential outbursts which are inappropriate, destructive, and (for me as well) terrifying.

So, when I read the section quoted above, I felt like I had at least one person who understood.  There is a strength in me, an intelligence and a perspective  capable of awesomeness, that is hard for me to maintain.  But it is there.  Those emotions which rise up when I become anxious are indeed tempting; it’s much easier to allow those emotions to control my behavior than to remain rational and calm, but I cannot simply remain calm.  I cannot allow my passion to step forward because it’s too much for me (or most others) to handle.  That, and what it causes me to say and do have little to do with what my intellect would say.

Others, who have passion but are not overwhelmed by it, can allow the full force of that passion to flow freely.  It comes across as authentic and meaningful, because they don’t have to restrain it.  That is their privilege.  In my case, since I cannot simply let my passions to freely compel my words and actions, the act of restraining it makes it appear forced–ironically because I am not forcing it out, but forcing some of it in.

So, I cannot allow my passion to flow freely, most of the time.**  There is too much of it, most of the time.  So I will continue to practice resisting the flood, perhaps even to deride it.

But no, I shall not speak ill of emotions and passion.  They are both beautiful and powerful, and wonderful tools for those who can wield them well.  But for me they are often too dangerous and destructive to myself and those near to me, and so I will keep striving to develop the ability to speak with passion put aside, knowing that even in doing this it is passion which is the cause of my speaking, ultimately.  The idea, I think, is to allow passion to fuel my words, not to compose them.

[BTW, I was very tempted to title this piece The Passion of the Anti-Christ, but was not sure how many people would appreciate that reference, even though I’ve already mentions Nietzsche here.]

*If you are thinking, right now, that this is something that I can learn to do, then you are in a place of neuro-typical privilege.   This is one of the key parts of my disorder, and the danger is that I think I can control it, but I cannot.  The best I can do to explain is taht the very process of attempting to control the overwhelming emotion simply feeds it, and before I know it it has taken over.

**There are times when I can.  Those times are sometimes late at night, either by myself (struggling to remain sane, rational, and calm while battling some fear or another) or with Ginny or Gina who try to do anything to help me not hurt so much.

The Blindness of Christian Privilege February 19, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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“Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides.[d] If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” [Matthew 15:13-14]

So, I’ve been reading Nietzsche again.

See, I went and got myself a Kindle.  And I was getting free copies of all these books I already have (and will be donating many books at some point in the future to make shelf space for…something).  And I downloaded a copy of The Antichrist which I have not read in many years.  It is a fascinating book that makes many points that would be familiar to many gnu atheists.  I have thought more than once of sending a passage to Jerry Coyne, Eric MacDonald, or even PZ Myers because they all have reminds me of things Nietzsche has said in this little book.

So, then the other day, on the way home from work, I read section 32 of said book.  Before quoting and commenting, I want to point out that Nietzche does not identify as an atheist*, although his views seem pretty consistent with how the term is used today.  I think it is fair to consider him an atheist for the purposes of simple categorization (as if Nietzsche could be easily categorized!) but recognize that he didn’t self-identify with the term.

As an introduction to today’s thought, allow me to make an observation.  Many atheist writers, especially ones I read, talk about how Christianity, or theism generally—perhaps merely the concept of faith itself!—is philosophically and even methodologically opposed to basic critical thinking, skepticism, and secularism.  There is a real worldview difference between the very religious and the essentially secular culture which surrounds it.  Some call it a culture war, and this label is as good as any I suppose, but it is at bottom (one is tempted to say de Bottom) it is a difference of perspectives, whether those at odds see the underlying methodological distinctions or not.

I think part of Nietzsche’s point in section 32 of The Antichrist to point out that the faith of the Christian is incapable of seeing this perspective for what it is—a privileged perspective.  But before he can make any such observations, he has a few necessary bushes to beat around.  He starts the section with the following:

I can only repeat that I set myself against all efforts to intrude the fanatic into the figure of the Saviour: the very word impérieux, used by Renan, is alone enough to annul the type. What the “glad tidings” tell us is simply that there are no more contradictions; the kingdom of heaven belongs to children; the faith that is voiced here is no more an embattled faith—it is at hand, it has been from the beginning, it is a sort of recrudescent childishness of the spirit. [links obviously not in the original]

Nothing surprising yet.  Nietzsche several times observes the child-like attribute of Christian faith, not that this observation should be surprising at all given that this idea is native to the New Testament.  For example, in the book of Luke, chapter 18:15-17 (NIV):

15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” [emphasis mine]

But Nietzsche seems to see a significance to this childishness which I think many gnu atheists either miss, or is no longer largely true.  Nietzsche continues:

The physiologists, at all events, are familiar with such a delayed and incomplete puberty in the living organism, the result of degeneration. A faith of this sort is not furious, it does not de nounce, it does not defend itself: it does not come with “the sword”—it does not realize how it will one day set man against man. It does not manifest itself either by miracles, or by rewards and promises, or by “scriptures”: it is itself, first and last, its own miracle, its own reward, its own promise, its own “kingdom of God.” This faith does not formulate itself—it simply lives, and so guards itself against formulae.

Now, in light of the history of Christianity, the evangelical nature of Christians throughout their history (and no sign of it slowing!), and the various formulas by which sects argue (with atheists and with each other), one might think that Nietzsche is being either naive or ignorant here.  But Nietzsche is quite aware of the history and character of Christianity, and seems to be saying such to raise your eyebrows here, in order to set you up.

So, given that he is certainly aware of the objections rising in your mind, let us follow his bread-crumb trail to see where it is leading:

To be sure, the accident of environment, of educational background gives prominence to concepts of a certain sort: in primitive Christianity one finds only concepts of a Judaeo-Semitic character (—that of eating and drinking at the last supper belongs to this category—an idea which, like everything else Jewish, has been badly mauled by the church). But let us be careful not to see in all this anything more than symbolical language, semantics[6] an opportunity to speak in parables. It is only on the theory that no work is to be taken literally that this anti-realist is able to speak at all. Set down among Hindus he would have made use of the concepts of Sankhya,[7] and among Chinese he would have employed those of Lao-tse[8]—and in neither case would it have made any difference to him.—With a little freedom in the use of words, one might actually call Jesus a “free spirit”[9]—he cares nothing for what is established: the word killeth,[10] whatever is established killeth. The idea of “life” as an experience, as he alone conceives it, stands opposed to his mind to every sort of word, formula, law, belief and dogma. He speaks only of inner things: “life” or “truth” or “light” is his word for the innermost—in his sight everything else, the whole of reality, all nature, even language, has significance only as sign, as allegory.—

In writing this, Nietzsche is pulling you in, especially if you are prone to seeing an ecumenical nature to religion.  He seems to want to sketch the humanity of Jesus in order to create a larger picture, a larger historical and ideological contrast, of Christianity.  Nietzsche here seems to be addressing the character of the ‘Saviour’ as a foil for the church which he sees as degraded and stagnant (“Oh how repulsive is this falsified light, this stake air!”).  He is seeing the humanity hidden under ecclesiastical religion, a humanity too-well hidden by the finery of its tattered garb.

Here, Nietzsche the philologist comes through clearly.  He is seeing the Gospels as a picture into a life lived by a man who stands prior to the dogmas of the church as they would become.  It is here that the liberal believer, the ecumenicalist, and in general the respectable atheist can step up and try to claim Nietzsche as their own, as a representative of those for whom standing up and proclaiming that religion is a part of our humanity (even if it is not true), and we gnu atheists who despise and degrade it (as if it needed our help for that) ought to be ashamed of ourselves.  But it’s not quite that simple.

Nietzsche continues:

Here it is of paramount importance to be led into no error by the temptations lying in Christian, or rather ecclesiastical prejudices: such a symbolism par excellence stands outside all religion, all notions of worship, all history, all natural science, all worldly experience, all knowledge, all politics, all psychology, all books, all art—his “wisdom” is precisely a pure  ignorance[11] of all such things.

Hermann Hendrich's 'Parsifal'

And it is here we see the first strong glimpse of what Nietzsche is enlightening us to.  From a purely formal point of view, Nietzsche’s cloaked criticism of Wagner here (the phrase “pure ignorance” is from Wagner’s Parsifal, which was largely responsible for Nietzsche’s turning into the greatest critic of his former friend) is perhaps an analogy of his criticism that lies beneath it.  That is, this cloaked criticism is itself a clue that Nietzsche is not here cuddling up with the Gospels, but is rather creating a caricature, again a foil, of both the Gospel and its subject in contrast to the Christianity which we find ourselves faced with in modernity.

Nietzsche continues:

He has never heard of culture; he doesn’t have to make war on it—he doesn’t even deny it…. The same thing may be said of the state, of the whole bourgeoise social order, of labour, of war—he has no ground for denying “the world,” for he knows nothing of the ecclesiastical concept of “the world”…. Denial is precisely the thing that is impossible to him.—In the same way he lacks argumentative capacity, and has no belief that an article of faith, a “truth,” may be established by proofs (—his proofs are inner “lights,” subjective sensations of happiness and self-approval, simple “proofs of power”—). Such a doctrine cannot contradict: it doesn’t know that other doctrines exist, or can exist, and is wholly incapable of imagining anything opposed to it…. If anything of the sort is ever encountered, it laments the “blindness” with sincere sympathy—for it alone has “light”—but it does not offer objections….

This observation lies in stark contrast to one of the sharpest criticisms of religion by many new/gnu atheists today; that religion and faith are anti-life, anti-science, and ultimately anti-reality.  And while it is true that religion is all of these things, what I think Nietzsche is pointing out here is that this is a perspective that can only be seen from the outside, from one who looks at faith from the outside, and not from the inside of Christian faith.

(Remember, one does not need to have faith to look at it as if from the inside.  This is the essence of accomodationism)

The Christian worldview, insofar as it is child-like, is not against the world or its various useful methodologies, technologies, or philosophies; it is unaware of them.  A young child does not misbehave because it is against the rules of behavior and social interaction, the child cannot conceive of them yet.  The child is just being child-like, yet to become aware of the society in which it is swimming, just like the proverbial fish.  In much the same way, one whose entire world is lived within the simplicity of faith, worship, and promised salvation cannot see the conflict inherent with those who do not live with them in that world.

They see the world outside as rejecting this simplicity, and cannot comprehend why those outside would reject it.  They see us secularists as the source of the conflict, and whine about persecution and oppression of simply living their lives according to the values (not their values, because that would require awareness of another possible value).  They cannot see that their own worldview (if they are even aware that theirs s a worldview!) is in conflict with reality—they have no concept of “reality” as those who are methodologically aligned with science are!

In the end, it is just another privilege.  In this case it is a religious privilege which blinds them to their own ignorance—they are ignorant that they are ignorant.  As Christopher Hitchens pointed out many times, they are in chains and glad of it.  They do not see their imprisonment for what it is, and they act in ways that look like whining children to the rest of us.  They demand special privilege, undue respect, and don’t understand why we don’t give it to them.

It’s for the same reason you don’t allow a small child to do whatever it wants.  That child has not yet learned to be an adult, and so we protect it and sometimes find it adorable, but we don’t allow it free reign lest it destroy itself and the things we value.

*Consider the following:

“God”, “immortality of the soul”, “redemption”, “beyond” — Without exception, concepts to which I have never devoted any attention, or time; not even as a child. Perhaps I have never been childlike enough for them? I do not by any means know atheism as a result; even less as an event: It is a matter of course with me, from instinct. I am too inquisitive, too questionable, too exuberant to stand for any gross answer. God is a gross answer, an indelicacy against us thinkers — at bottom merely a gross prohibition for us: you shall not think!

(Ecce Homo)

Atheism over humanism: why we must philosophize with a hammer July 20, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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[EDIT: I want to add a quick note to this article because of some confusion that became obvious to me in conversation.  I am not creating a dichotomy between atheists and humanists; I am commenting on the differences between people who prefer one title over the other.  In my experience, which term a person primarily identifies with tells you something about how they view the issue of how to deal with religion.  Do we take an oppositional stance or do we focus on our positive values which may overlap with religious values?]

Today, on facebook, I ran into this:

The ‘humanist’ label is a fine alternative to one of the hundreds of religious affiliations. It is certainly finer than ‘agnostic’ or ‘athiest’, as they define thenselves against something rather than for something….

Now, many people in the greater community of reason, of which I and the other atheists are a part, prefer the term humanist to atheist.  Others prefer freethinker, rationalist, or….Bright (I dislike that last one very much, as do many others I know).  I prefer atheist for a number of reasons.  Now, this does not mean that I’m not a freethinker, a rationalist, or that I’m not bright (Oh, please stab me with a spoon!), but it means I prefer the term over others such as humanist.

Hammer of the Gods?

But the technical fact is I am a humanist in many ways.  The humanist ideals and values are things I generally agree with.  The Humanist Manifesto, for example, demonstrates ideas that are largely similar to my own ideas, and where I might quibble or disagree it does not lead to a drastic difference of opinion.  For the most part, I find the manifesto to be pretty bland and uncontroversial; its liberal and progressive Christianity without the Jesus, Reform Judaism without YHWH, unitarians without…well, it’s sort of like them, actually.  My disuse of the term humanist is caused by the same basic reason that I don’t attend unitarian services; I simply have no need for it and I often feel like its just a little too much like theistic religion.  As Nietzche put it, it is really a matter of taste–to much stale air!

Therefore, I don’t think that the quote at the top of this post is sufficiently convincing to change my attitude towards the primacy of atheism over humanism in my self-reference.  The reason has everything to do with the quote above; I define myself as being against theism primarily.  It is a value of mine to be against this idea of supernaturalism, not as a mere rebellion, but as a matter of recognition that it has more reach than humanists give it credit for.  It has worked its tendrils into just about every concept, value, and sector of our culture in ways that make our attempts to be “for something” a difficult task if we value truly escaping the clutches of theistic thinking.

While I am not opposed to, and often support, the creation of new values and ways of life other than that created by our largely religion-infused western culture, the fact is that the predominance of that culture necessitates a defensive position in many cases.  That is, the ubiquity of religious ideas, even where there is no actual supernatural belief present, is so suffocating that new values become unwitting atavisms.  Humanist values, often thought of as being new or at least different, are usually mere secularized religious ideas, mostly due to the fact that religion usurped them millennia ago. But religion did not merely adopt these values in those ancient days, it changed them by infusing them with the anti-life message of sin, depravity, and shame.  The stain is old and hard to remove even by those humanists who seek to become reborn out of religion–an image surely evocative of something.

Wait, not THAT Hammer….

Even among atheists, the acculturation of a religious ideas has infected the minds of people to such a degree that even when they reject the theology, they often still hold onto much of the structure of the morality and behavior.  Atheists may not believe that we were created by god to live such a way, yet they still often hold onto archaic sexual norms, conventions of respect for people’s personal beliefs, and cultural definitions of relationships (such as marriage as being between two people of opposite gender).   I have heard atheists who still suffer from discomfort with their own sexuality, try to shame me into not criticizing religion openly, or who actually argue against gay marriage or polyamory.  Only the stain of religious thinking can be responsible for this (at least I’ve heard no good arguments which are not based upon religious ideas, ultimately).  Thus, when people leave religion and create new ways to think, like secular humanists do, often their actual lives are not in any way truly new or revolutionary in any way.  They just drop the problematic metaphysics and declare that the rest of their values are their own.  I am somewhat cynical of this claim; I think their new values are often still pretty traditional and even conservative.  But at least its an improvement over pure theistic religion, in any case.

I don’t think enough people in our culture are prepared for new values yet.  I think too many people are incapable of conceiving of new values, and simply replace their old ones with new personas, while still the same deep down.  Many pagans, wiccans, and other alternative new age religions are guilty of this.  They hate or at least dislike their old religion, and so they replace the mythology with another, while keeping the scars of their religious foundations intact and very influential; they often don’t actually grow, they just change clothes.  And many people still value the words, and what they see as the personality, of Jesus Christ.  They don’t believe he is god, but they see his message as good.  This is the essential problem; Jesus’ words were often insane, non-pragmatic, and dangerous.  He is not the highest of moral teachers, he is a character of his time who idealizes for us bronze-age morality which we should have out-grown by now.  The whole and central moral message of Christianity is perverse and vile, and it is holding us as people, as a society, and as an influential culture, back from truly growing and transcending ourselves.  And while humanism is not trying to accomplish this atavism–or at least the slowing down–of our growth, it often achieves it anyway.

To truly create new values, we must do philosophy with a hammer (as Nietzsche suggests in his Twilight of the Idols).  We must utterly destroy the values which we have before us.  And if we find, after everything has been

Hmm, not really what I had in mind either…

smashed, that we create new values that look a little like those smashed idols, then so be it.  But we, the atheist community, are still trying to teach new people how to wield their own hammers.  And until all is questioned and all corners of our culture analyzed with the skeptical tools of science and logic and we are able to think more clearly about our history as a world of freethinkers, humanism will be a premature step for many people.

Don’t get me wrong.  I want the humanists to keep up their program.  I want those who have trashed their own cultural houses to keep building, but I want them to remember that there are many other people still smashing, as well as many more protecting their idols from those of us who want to hand them hammers.  So, humanists, while you are attempting to build values for yourselves and for others to adopt when they are ready, remember that you still may have missed an idol or two, probably in the attic, basement, or perhaps you didn’t notice that you were clutching it.  Also, remember that we new atheists are with you (in spirit), but someone needs to keep handing out hammers.  And the title for such a person must still be “atheist.”

Happy smashing!

The pseudo-depth of religion October 17, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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We, unfortunately, live in a largely anti-intellectual and unsophisticated culture.  There is not ample interest in things philosophical or subtle.  I will not lament this here for its own sake, but I will mention this as a pretext to address another issue.

We are pattern seeking beings that desire meaning and purpose in life, but we are rarely exposed to the various approaches to finding these things.  The depth of that search is often too terrifying to traverse, and so we try to find other ways to fulfill this need.  And, lucky for us, culture and its complex structure has supplied our history with just such a function.  The vast majority of people are usually exposed to one source of meaning and purpose; am ancient cultural tradition that still holds sway for many people.

I want to call it religion, but that is too simplistic in the end.  It is my view that religion is a natural expression of our desire to explore the world for meaning. It is a way to look inward and in many cases to project outward what we desire to find there, and to latch onto narratives, myths, and the illusion of ‘something more’ in order to add color, depth, and importance to a world that seems meaningless.

It is a kind of metaphysical or ‘spiritual’ impulse to explain the universe in terms of intent, intelligence, and often in love.  And the result of this impulse that we share are the many religions an spiritual pursuits of the world.  These are the vehicles of providing meaning, purpose, and intent into an otherwise meaningless existence.  And because we sense this meaninglessness often enough, we seek shelter from those cold winds of loneliness and purposelessness.

That is, people seek the part of our psychology that is responsible for the religious cultural impulse to find meaning.  The easiest way to do this is to take an atavistic glance back to the introduction to such feelings; the religion of our childhood.  And if not our childhood, the religion of our early attempts to look for meaning in the world.  For many, groups such as Campus Crusade for Christ (or some similar group) seek to fill the insecure holes that creep into our lives in a time of emotional upheaval and change of the early tastes of freedom that college provides.

In general, whenever the insecurities and fears of life emerge, the desire to see meaning and purpose weaved into the fabric of life and reality act as a sort of blanket against the coldness of the world.

But before I continue I must hark to the whisper of a ghost which has come my way.  A strange and somewhat lively sprite—lively for a dead man, anyway!  A moving of thoughts tussles its way to my mind’s ear and words resolve into a thought:

Mystical explanations are considered deep.  The truth is that they are not even superficial

And with such a deep strike into the heart the thought evaporates and the spirit haunts another.  Or perhaps it has sunk so deep into me that I can no longer distinguish between it and myself.  The difference—it is indifferent!  But the whisper of the name of “Nietzsche” reverberates throughout and my mind returns to the task at hand.

But this spiritual visit has had a purpose, I fathom.  Because in a largely unsophisticated world, the early reaching for meaning and purpose are mitigated by religion; they are softened for us by a pseudo-depth of assertions of truths that are always bolstered by nothing but faith—in other words by sheer preferential desire for them to be true.

It is common for people to scuttle through there youth while largely unconcerned with the ramblings of religious ideologies.  Yes, if pressed they parrot the memories of their early exposure, but they live secularly and leave to Sundays (or some other bequeathed holy day) the quandaries of any depth.  It is only to these holy days that purpose and the insecurities of meaning emerge into the sunlight of our thoughts.

We have not yet allowed the scab to form over such insecurities in order to have our fears heal.  And so we protect our raw minds from the exposure to the dangerous world and we often miss the sophistication and depth which lives there while distracted by this protective preoccupation.  Because we spend so much energy nursing our fears in public, we miss the true depth of the world.

And so what of true depth and subtlety?  What of philosophy? Why, upon the hardship of emotional turmoil, of loss, or of dissatisfaction do people turn to their lord, to the false depth of dogma and myth rather than to do the real, hard, and growth-inspiring work of looking deep within without the lenses of faith and childhood brainwashing?

We avoid the difficult in life and revert to looking at it through Christianity or some other absurd softening of our mortality and ultimate meaninglessness.  And in doing so we miss that it is our responsibility to lend meaning to our lives.  We must take responsibility for how we face death, loneliness, and dissatisfaction.

So often churches will remind us that in the pursuit of money, power, or otherwise transient things, happiness can only be temporary.  They cannot supply real meaning for us, which we crave.  But then they assert that a real happiness, a real and eternal answer may be found.  But this is only an assertion.  It is a promise that cannot be kept.  It is another distraction from the truth that mature and aware adults have to face.  It is a fantasy to cover a scary world.

The thing is that the churches who remind us of the ultimate meaninglessness of our earthly desires are correct.  They just fail to acknowledge that they are not offering anything different.  Their mystical explanations are only deep in an illusory way.  Their façade is not even willing to dip its little toe into the waters of the universe out of fear that the water is too cold.  And it is cold.

Warmth can only be found with one-another.  And so churches, in gathering communities, are creating a mirage; it is not the message of eternal life that provides meaning and purpose, it is the company that sits upon this superficial message that supplies the meaning.  It is the illusion of having eternal companions, covered by real but temporary ones, that perpetuates the illusion.

When we find meaning and purpose in shallow promises of eternity, we find not even a shallow pool in which to swim.  The universe is deeper than we can comprehend.  Its true beauty lies beyond the fear that is manipulated by religion which only thinks itself deep.  Come and join the universe and dive into fathoms unfathomable.  Rather than transcend this world, transcend your fears of it and come swim with us in oceans of reality.  And when you do, you will find true warmth in the company of the disillusioned and the free.

Perspectives on Nietzsche, Part I May 6, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Man, rising to Titanic stature, gains culture by his own efforts and forces the gods to enter into an alliance with him because in his very own wisdom he holds their existence and their limitations in his hands.

Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Birth of Tragedy

I love reading Nietzsche. I think he is one of the most influential and yet misunderstood thinkers in recent philosophical history. This is just a bit of his earlier work that I find interesting. In the near future, I wold like to share some of my favorite quotes of Nietzsche and talk about them.

Today, however, I am trying to finish the rough draft of my manuscript for my book I’m writing, so I just wanted to give you a morsel to chew on. So, until later, I’ll leave you with another small chunk.

“What thinking person still needs the hypothesis of a God?”

(Human, all to Human, #28)