jump to navigation

Quotes from Bizarro World September 10, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , , ,
comments closed

This is the first in a series of quotations, and very likely commentary, from my reading of John Frame’s book, Salvation Belongs to the Lord, which I am reading for a class about faith in Christian life.  I will be under-cover, so shhhhh…..

Secularists usually try to argue that the personal reduces to the impersonal…[they] are ultimately just matter, motion, space, time, and chance.  But the Bible teaches the opposite; the impersonal reduces to the personal.  Matter, motion, space, time, and chance are, ultimately, tools used by one great Person to organize and run the universe he has made.

(page 7)

This is the first glimpse within this screed that we are not dealing with someone that is going to justify any argument in any other way than the Bible says so.  In fact, it is clear, as I read on, that we are dealing with a person that believes that the Bible is as authoritative as the words directly from God’s mouth.  In fact, he says pretty much just that in chapter 5.

The Bible, argues Frame, is infallible (even if it is not always precise), especially in regards to salvation.

So, when we see Frame addressing secularists, we should not expect a rational response.  After all, the intellect (along with will and emotions) are part of our sinful nature.  We must trust God’s word completely, especially over our own senses, judgments, and reason because these things are fallen.  Rather than tell us why the impersonal reduces to the personal, we are told that Scripture says so, and the authority of Scripture is absolute.

No room for argument.

How stifling!  How backwards!  How sickening!  And, granted, this form of Christian faith is not the only one out there, but it is a pervasive one among many churches.  This type of Reformed theology, Calvinist in perspective and literalist in interpretation, is quite common.  Even if most church-goers don’t take it so seriously as to actually live their life completely according to the implications of this worldview, it acts as a backdrop to our views about education, sexuality, and so on.

It can’t make the anti-intellectual culture we live in any better, because intellect is sinful.  And I, my dear reader, am merely lost.  But God created me to be lost, so I guess he won’t complain or punish me or anything….

I need a shower…

Advertisements

Science; the horse to theology’s cart of progress January 13, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , ,
comments closed

Progress.  The word implies a goal, teleology, or purpose.  Some, such as Alfred North Whitehead, preferred to think about process.  And while my views differ significantly from Whitehead, I agree that process might be the better term for the improvement, over time, of our understanding of the world around us.  Purpose implies a purposer, which is what theology is all about.  Science does not carry this assumption with it into the lab (nor does it discount its possibility).

There are a multiple processes we use in our lives, and they have led to increased and subtle understanding of ourselves and of the universe that surrounds us.  But not all processes are equal, playing different parts in our lives.

Our thinking is complex, largely hidden from our conscious awareness, and often incoherent.  It is often attracted to processes which have lesser pragmatic efficacy, but which nonetheless have psychological gravitation.

The scientific method is a late addition to our intellectual toolbox.  It starts with observation, but it’s life-blood is experimentation.  It seeks to eliminate bias–to lesser and greater degrees depending upon how an experiment is structured–and thus to attempt objectivity.  I prefer the term ‘intersubjectivity,’ at the risk of encroaching on some possibly semantic hair-splitting.

Theology is the study of god(s).  More generally, it is the study of the divine, the supernatural, etc.  It is an attempt to apply logical and rational thinking to the propositions of revelational thinking which is largely primitive and based open pattern-recognition gone-awry.  It, strictly, is not science.

Now, this is not to say that theology is completely separate from science.  It is not not even a different epistemological realm of science, despite what Stephen Jay Gould thought (I am not a fan of NOMA).  We live in the same universe, under the same laws, whether we are doing theology or science.   And some theologians use science in addition to their logical approach to religious or spiritual insights.

The question is which one is pulling the other along or whether they take turns doing the work.

Well, that may depend on your point of view.  If you are working with the Templeton Foundation, for example, you may see some give and take going both ways.  Such people tend to see that science and religion influence one-another, and an attempt to not only bridge these processes but to find ways that they intersect is a good thing.

In a larger cultural sense this is true, but perhaps only to the limited extent that they both exist simultaneously and people carry both of them in the same minds and thus they communicate.  There is certainly a sense where the ideas of religion influence how scientists think as well as the discoveries of science influencing theology (unless, of course, you are these guys).  And as time marches on, the cultural influence will continue, most undoubtedly.

But there is a difference between science and religion in another sense; one that transcends mere cohabitation.  While the language, stories, and flavor of religion has helped carve much of our culture, and thus those that live in it, our pragmatic understanding has been dominantly influenced by science rather than theology.  There is a difference between the methodologies of science and religion which results in a dramatic personality difference between them.  Neither one is misidentified as the other, except in very superficial ways.

Charlatans and shysters from various theological backgrounds have been trying to sell snake oil, utopias, and personal redemption of various kinds to people for ages.  From new age self-help, evolving messages of redemption from Christian evangelicals, and religions created by science fiction writers, there are multiple ways that theology has tried to advertise itself as a product that will help you either in this world or the next.  But it is rather interesting that with the advent of the scientific method theology has been hanging off the coattails of science, feeding off the droppings left behind in almost unnoticeably slow changes to their beliefs and attitudes.

With new age philosophies and religions loving every moment of quantum mechanics (all while getting it wrong), Christianity getting slowly more and more progressive, and with the invention of religions that even try to call themselves something that sounds scientific, it is clear that the primitive human mind is trying to adapt the “metaphysical need” (as Nietszsche called it) to the realities of scientific processes.

Just imagine what a progressive theologian of several centuries ago would say to Rick Warren now.  Imagine what a pre-Christian pagan would say to Deepak Chopra.  Imagine how Scientology would be greeted by L. Ron Hubbard ten years before he thought of the idea.  The progress of theology has made much of it more modern, tolerant, and informed (even if it only sounds this way), but this was not because of their own efforts.

All good intelligent and open-minded people of today taking the progress of the times into their lives and incorporating them into their modern theologies is quantifiable improvement on society and their religion.  The problem is that it is the wrong kind of improvement because it overlooks a more robust update to the theological software (theology 2.0 anyone?) of many religious traditions.

It has been said that Christianity (for example) has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into modernity by other cultural forces.  And with it came a new theology that was able to incorporate what science has brought to us via the blood and sweat of those that the once-great Catholic Church once considered heretical.  And now the Church accepts evolution, heliocentricism, and perhaps eventually female church leaders as other denominations of Christianity have.

But this is not progressive revelation, it is a reluctant acceptance of overwhelming facts, cultural pressure, and economic interest.  These are means to adjust theology to survive in the real world, based upon facts and theories from another method which theology does not fully understand or accept.  And even when it does understand this method, it does not employ it to the points of their theology because they believe that the two are different realms.  This is not theology growing up, it is theology listening to its better educated, more worldly, and successful little brother named science.

And while there are certainly exceptions, theology of most faiths has neither grown up to understand nor to use the methodologies that science employs.  Rather, it accepts the conclusions of those methodologies after they become overwhelmingly true–or at least overwhelmingly accepted among people that either are adherents or potential tithers.

Much of the world’s religious communities have learned to recognize the power of science, but has not quite recognized the methods that science uses as applicable to the theology they continue to adjust.  Theology does not discuss things that science cannot deal with because theology makes claims about the world, even if indirectly.  If the supernatural influences the real world, then the effects should be open to empirical study at very least.

The proclamations of theology are subject to the same scrutiny as stars, brains, or particles.  And while facts about the physical world don’t directly lead to ideas about morality, meaning, or beauty, they certainly can tell us a lot about how these things are increasingly becoming part of science’s domain.

The hard problem of consciousness, the question of what really caused the universe to exist (if such a question is meaningful), and the nature of the quantum world are still beyond our reach scientifically, but theology provides no methodology for answering these questions which is better than science.  Theology provides some answers, sure, but what reason do we have to accept them?

Science is tugging theologians along the path of history and theology is redefining itself based upon what is sees science doing.  Theology dons the apparel of the strange places that science ventures, but in a sense this garb is little more than a souvenir which will make it look stylish and trendy.  Those who follow in religion’s wake in these trends will think they are modern but they miss that they are only following fashion.  Theology wears scientific-colored robes in order to maintain its own goal which is more about maintaining itself rather than pulling the cart of culture along.

Thus, by re-writing theology in order to put science in a reverential but secondary place behind these divine speculationss, one is surely putting their cart before the horse.

Truthiness of religion December 9, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
comments closed

New atheists.  That is what we are called by some.  I find the label somewhat misguided, but I understand why it is applied.

Many people are not used to hearing about atheism, challenges to faith, etc. It is new to them.  They may know atheists, and likely do not know that those people are atheists, but they may know that they don’t attend a church or participate in any faith.  Many people, atheists included (but don’t call them that!) prefer a reverential approach to their believing neighbors.  They don’t bring it up because they don’t really care or they find it distasteful.

And so when they see us, the “new atheists,”TM they view our criticism and challenges as overly aggressive in our tone and approach.  They view these aggressive tactics as hurting our cause in society by pushing people away rather than trying to be their friends.  I don’t see evidence for this harm.  I see theists becoming defensive because they are not used to the criticism.  I see their coddled status being taken away, and they don’t like it.

Too bad.

Why shouldn’t we be critical? Religion does cause harm.  Faith, belief without or in spite of evidence to the contrary, is largely responsible for the anti-intellectual and anti-scientific fervor that exists in various cultures, particularly our own American culture.

But those faitheists and accomodationists will continue to claim that religion is good in many ways and that we are being too harsh in denouncing religion wholesale.  I agree.  I think that there are aspects of religion and religious culture that are good.  Religion can be good; it helps people in need, supplies hope, and it provides a basis for teaching morality. Or at least one kind of morality or another.

Yes, religion can do these things, but I see no reason why only religion of faith can do these things.  A religion of faith? Why add that qualifier, you may ask.  Well, first of all not all religious people necessarily have faith, depending on your definition of faith.  Further, not all people that have faith necessarily have a religion.  Religion is…well, religion is complicated.  I will not try to define this term here, but I want to address it in a tangential way.

The Religious Instinct

There are sets of emotions, behaviors, and dispositions that tend towards ‘religious’ behavior.  It can include rituals, music, states of mind, etc.  But this is an expression of a more general psychological disposition that we all, or at least the vast majority of us, share.  It is expressed through music, poetry, the fine arts, and perhaps even philosophy.  It is an expression of those experiences internal to each of us that feels like it is coming from somewhere…else.

It is sublime, beautiful, and it has its own subtle rules and constraints that we can apprehend in rarer states of mind.  When one is enthralled in an ecstatic moment, there is a kind of flowing of emotion, meaning, and beauty that seems to transcend us.  It doesn’t actually transcend us, but it gives the sensation of transcendence.

As a writer, I know this well.  There are time when, in writing, I find myself almost transported and feel as if the words are coming through me, as if I were but a conduit for some ideas.  I understand the concept of inspiration.  I know why people think that God works through them because I feel that experience myself.

So, why am I an atheist then?

What I look like while inspired

Well, because when I’m in that state of mind, I’m being creative.  I’m using natural tools of my brain to create, understand, and communicate.  I am not being methodical, careful, nor remotely scientific.  That is, I am not concerned with what is true in these moments, even if at some of these moments I may get the delusional idea that there is more truth there than in cold, rational, analysis.

Beauty is truth, and truth beauty?

There is a sense where the moments of beauty and poetry that overcome me seem to reveal a kind of truth.  It feels as if the universe has opened up to me and given me a slice of something that my rational mind was unable to find.  And sometimes, upon further reflection, I find that it may have found a bit of truth before unseen.  But that is the important part of that; upon further reflection.

Because how many times have ideas or thoughts from inspiration turned out to be duds? Most of the time, some if the time? Always? I suppose it depends.  But it is upon sober, rational reflection that we will find whether or not the moment of inspiration has given us gold.  The reason is that there is a difference in approach.  The moments of beauty, sublimity, and transcendence are the result of our brain doing what it does, not as it can be trained to do.

And I’m glad that this part of our minds exist because it is from these ecstasies and sublimities that we create.  Not discover, elucidate, or comprehend, but create.

The aspects of our minds that find revelation,  communicate with the spirits, or attain a slice of heaven are the same parts that write novels, create sculpture, and write poetry.  In this mode of thought there is a freedom of form, expression, and a lack of criticism.  Yes, that’s it; a lack of criticism!

Not that we can’t look at two creations and judge one or the other more or less beautiful (or at least argue about why we think one is more beautiful), but that one looked on its own not criticized in relation to the world, generally.  It is not pointed at and said that the thing does not appear to be like anything else that is real.  A sculpture of a dragon is not looked at and scolded for not representing a real animal.  A poet is not criticized for not representing a real conversation or speech.  A theologian is not criticized for not representing the universe as it really is.  That’s not the point, right?

Well, if you talk to Karen Armstrong, you may get such a response.  But the fact is that theologians, most of them anyway, do claim that they are describing reality. They are not merely creating, they claim.  They are talking about not only truth, but Truth.

But where do these truths come from? Revelation, communion with a deity, book (which ultimately go back to revelation or some claimed historical event), etc.  They come from the mind, and many of them from ancient minds not trained in the meticulous rational skills which would be necessary to analyze these experiences.

When theologians tackle these issues, whether today or the ancient theologians that dealt with these religious beliefs, they only apply rational thinking to keep the stories internally consistent while forgetting that the person who first experienced the idea was as fallible as you or I in determining truth from these internal experiences of ecstacy and transcendence.

Method

If we want to discover what is real, we need to be meticulous.  We need to check assumptions, use empirical methods, and try to devise a way to prove our idea wrong.  And so long as we cannot prove it wrong and the evidence supports the idea, then we provisionally hold our hypothesis as true.  The longer it withstands scrutiny, the more it becomes a theory.  Not just some guess or inspiration, but an idea that stands up against attempts to knock it down.  In other words, we need to use the scientific method.

Does this sound like what poets do? How about novelists? How about theologians? ‘Well, of course not,’ they will say.  ‘These things are not subject to empirical study.’  Really? Why not? ‘Well, it takes away from the beauty; science cannot explain beauty.’

Perhaps not.  Or perhaps it can.  That is not what is at issue.  What is at issue is that our minds are capable of different kinds of thought.  Some of our mental capabilities provide for us this ‘religious instinct’ that we are all familiar with to some extent.  But this instinct is part of our creativity, and is only tangentially helpful in a pursuit of truth. Our creative powers may, occasionally, provide us with insights into a new way of thinking about a problem, but once we have the idea we must switch to using our learned critical skills on to test the idea.   We cannot just dream and create answers to real world problems, we have to criticize them.

Our creative powers which provide us with the transcendent experiences, sublime emotions, and inspiring ideas are a great tool for the creative process, but not for attaining truth.  If we want to know what is real, we need to be critical, meticulous. and scientific.

Religion claims to have truth; it claims it knows something about what is real.  By being critical of those claims and the methods by which those claims are attained, atheists (‘new’ or not) are not being disrespectful.  Anyone who claims to have the truth and who subsequently calls criticism of their methods or conclusions disrespectful is either insecure about their position or does not understand how to think critically.

In many cases, it is both.

So yes, the parts of our mind that religion uses; the creative, transcendent, and sublime aspects of us that supply us with beauty, love, and all of those wonderful things are great.  So, if that is all that religion is, then there is not much of an argument.  That is, if the vague and meaningless God of theologians like Karen Armstrong is all that religion provides–a thing that need not even exist to be important–then religion is simply a nice story with which I can have little quarrel.

But if religion also deals with what is true, at least in the same use of ‘true’ as we mean when we say something is real, then criticism is warranted.  I may find many aspects of religious practices to be beautiful, but I don’t think they are true.  And that is what is at issue.  If those artistic expressions that come from creative people–mythology, morality stories, and the like–are not intended to be literally true, then they are just stories we can enjoy on their own merit.  But this is not the case.  Christianity, Islam, etc are believed to be actually true and real, not just stories.

Anything that is proposed as the truth in society of culture is open for criticism.  To actually step forward and do so is the responsibility of a citizen who cares about the truth, reality, etc.  To postulate a story about the universe as true and then remove it from the realm of critical analysis, or to not at least try to validate it oneself while having faith in it is not strength nor reverent behavior, but weakness.

Allowing ourselves to be swallowed up by stories birthed in the ecstatic moments of artistic creativity and then to claim it to be true is not clear thinking.  We need to train ourselves to be better thinkers and to accept criticism or to get used to feeling disrespected.

Respect is not warranted when art is presented as truth.  The truth, as the Vorlons say, points to itself.  It does not need us to create it.

What is a god? July 2, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , , ,
comments closed

I was having a conversation yesterday while out at The Devil’s Alley on Chestnut St. with some friends.  As I sat down, I discovered a conversation about “higher powers,” and my ears perked up.  What is a god? That was the question.

A good question it is.  As a general rule, I don’t define what a god is.  I believe that I should listen to what someone tells me they think their god is and answer whether I think such a being exists.  In general, the answer is no.  But sometimes, someone’s definition of god is more than a little different than the general concept of an omnimax being (omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, etc).  In this context, someone presented a definition of ‘god’ as something that has power over him.  I thought that this was a bit vague, so I asked if an alien being were to visit that had great power (technology that would seem like magic to us, for example) would that being be considered a god?  He said yes.

This led me to thinking.  Has the concept of god become so pushed back to a logical construct or vague power in discussions of theology so much that when I run into more primitive concepts of god they don’t even seem god-like? Take for example the ancient Greek gods.  Zeus, the ruler of Olympus, was not an all powerful being responsible for the creation of the universe or even omniscient.  He was a powerful being that could kick your ass, perhaps, but he was nothing like the God of modern theology. Would Zeus be considered a god in the theological discussions of today?

My immediate response to this claim that powerful aliens would be considered gods was to say that this definition was too vague and inclusive to be legitimate.  This is largely because my atheism, admittedly a reaction to people’s theological ideas, is a lack of belief in a concept of god that transcends mere power over me or greater than me.  It is a rejection of a being of ultimate power, presence, and knowledge as is defined by most religious traditions.  I do not reject belief in powers greater than me (although I don’t believe in aliens, due to the lack of evidence for them so far) but in the concept of a being that created everything, is all powerful, etc.

There is nothing automatically metaphysically problematic with the idea of powerful beings that exist.  Granted, we don’t have the means to replicate this power now, but we may in the future.  Being a bit of a sci-fi fan, I could refer to Q (Star Trek), The Ancients (Stargate), The Protectorate (Power; ahem…**shameless plug**) and other such beings that look god-like from a certain point of view.  But are these things gods?

If we were to develop technology that would give us these types of powers, would we become gods?  Now, Mormons and Scientologists possibly aside, I don’t think that such things are the same type of question as we talk about in the question of whether a god exists or not.  If some people are using the term ‘god’ in a non-traditional fashion then I think that there might be room for some discussion, but a different one than what I typically have.

The problem with having a definition of god that can include things like aliens is that where is the line drawn? I don’t want to evoke a fallacy here, but there should be some line where above it is a god and below is something else.  I don’t know where that line is, but I think that some baseline attributes need to be considered. What those attributes are…that’s a discussion for another day, perhaps.

Here’s an extreme example.  If someone were to define their coffee cup as god, and then show me this coffee cup, then I cannot be an atheist rationally concerning that person’s god because I have good empirical evidence that it exists.  But is this legitimate? Is this definition of ‘god’ (the coffee cup) too much of a redefinition of the concept of ‘god’ to be considered to make me me no longer an atheist?

What about a powerful alien, like in Star Trek V where the crew is hijacked and taken to the center of the galaxy where they meet a powerful being that claims to be the God of various traditions, including Judaism and Christianity.  But the being ends up just being some powerful alien and ‘Bones’ calls him on this facade and they manage to escape.  So, was this being a god (even if it wasn’t the specific god it claimed to be)?

I think that maybe the concept of what a god is has changed somewhat over the centuries.  I think that this is because the more we understand how nature works, the smaller the domain of the supernatural becomes.  Where Zeus was once a god, the role of Zeus is now no-longer supernatural.  Thus, the gods of today are transcendent and invisible.  Perhaps as they always were, at least since the days of the pre-Socratic philosophers, but even today we push back the supernatural with every advance in cosmology, biology, and neurology (among other fields).

The “God of the gaps” gets smaller and smaller.

Thus I will leave it as a general rule to allow those I meet to define their god, and I will leave it to them to largely be unable to do so.  In fact, this is one of the reasons I am an atheist; theists almost never have a solid definition of what god is (and not just it’s name and what it had done, but what it is).  And they want me to believe in it?

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

–Stephen F. Roberts