Posts Tagged 'spirituality'

Religion’s Social Reinforcement


Once culture or set of behaviors becomes intertwined with our lives for a period of time its distinctiveness fades. In the United States, religion is a part of our way of life. While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith, and others that church and synagogue celebrate only the generalized religion of “the American Way of Life,” only recently have many realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.

We celebrate some religiously based holidays in an official (governmental) capacity. Many of us share some fundamental beliefs and values in terms of how our society is organized and operated. They are based on, parallel to, but independent of the the theological tenets of each specific denomination or religious belief. This dates back to the early notions of the nation as religiously diverse by design (free from religious tyranny), but while not being too overtly biased in any one tradition, it clearly was based primarily on the Protestant ethos and set of values.

So here we are, a religious country that while presumably based on freedom of religion, doesn’t necessarily subscribe to freedom from religion, and certainly doesn’t appear to honor its own tenet of separation of church and state. (All of which varies somewhat according to your geographic location in the country.) This produces a bias worth briefly pointing out.

  1. Religious Bias – If your chosen set of beliefs happen to align well with the Protestant framework the country and society was built upon, you have it easy. Things invisibly make sense to you, and you probably don’t even see how biased and gamed it all is. Of course, if you happen to be of some other religion, lots of things stick out and seem to fall somewhere on the continuum from weird to downright unfair or discriminatory.
  2. Anti Religious Bias – In recent decades the pendulum has swung more towards an increasingly forceful resistance to all things in our culture that reek of being driven from a religious notion. The divide has widened. It has at times appeared to reach a point of near irrationality. Unfortunately, the baby sometimes gets thrown out with the bathwater here. There is a history of statesmen who happen to fit well within this parallel civil religious state, but who are great and effective leaders first and foremost. They can get tossed aside, which seems to leave even more room for the more dogmatic to get their voices heard and rise into a consciousness of a generation that otherwise would have recognized them as extreme.

Certainly the chasm between the different religious groups, not to mention those who do not believe in anything religious being part of our government, stands in stark relief these days, largely due to our ability to consume the media that paints these pictures. Often people on or near the fence are pushed away in the crossfire.

Perhaps we would be better off it it wasn’t so blatant. Things would be a little less cozy and comfortable for those who’s values align with the prevailing values of the society we have now, but if the overall populace were more validated and respected, the chasm could close. I argue that if we’re smart, in a rising tide lifting all boats way, the WASP’s would proactively give up the bias to help produce an environment of better dialog and growth. This is one where meeting half way may not be enough. Things have been too skewed for too long, and aside from arguably not being right, it’s obviously just not going to work effectively anymore.

Civil religion (“civility” being the operative concept) can be a great way to build a society, but in order to work it must walk a well thought-out line between being too biased towards one group versus being too watered down to be meaningful. That’s a big challenge for some capable leadership. Without it, things will continue to degrade.




Atheism: Instrumental versus Intrinsic


I have taken a number of shots at religion, and specifically Christianity over the years, partly because I think there is often an underlying agenda, but mostly because a lot of it seems off-base to some degree: flawed or maybe false, or maybe just incomplete – man’s attempt to make sense out of something we don’t, or can’t, understand – it’s hard to say. But to say I believe nothing is going on is too extreme. Remember, perception is the only reality we have.

Let’s face it – most atheists, theists, agnostics act as though the truth is a good thing. As if it’s intrinsically good (not just instrumentally good). Most people feel morally obligated to spread what is true. However, on atheism (or naturalism), truth only has instrumental value; for one to believe that truth exists intrinsically somewhere out there would make one a Platonist, which would be a position held on faith. (Can you prove that truth exists intrinsically?) I’ve spoken with atheists, and their first reaction has often been that they did not want to believe truth is instrumental only to the person on atheism. After I explained this to them, they usually agreed that truth only has instrumental value (since evolution is about ‘the survival of the fittest’, which would only place instrumental value on things, and intrinsic value would not line up with evolution; and they did not want to hold anything ‘on faith’). The paradox is that nearly all atheists, act as though truth is intrinsically good.

Where do agnostics fall? If you don’t know if God exists, then you would be agnostic that truth is intrinsically or instrumentally good, though you may act as though truth is intrinsically good. Now you have the knowledge that on atheism (naturalism), nothing has intrinsic value, and now you know that truth would only be instrumental to each individual person (how persuasive can someone be trying to persuade others of the truth with that kind of position?), and under atheism (or naturalism), no one is morally obligated to spread the truth.


Three Paradoxes of Atheism

Historically, one of the most attractive features of atheism has been its claim to stark realism. No matter how unappealing a godless universe may turn out to be, atheists claim to be committed to adhering to the truth at all costs. However, at the very heart of atheism there are several extremely unexpected paradoxes; areas in which atheism is shown to be in tension with a commitment to realism and a life consistent with truth. The three big ones are: truth-seeking, moral reflection, and moral motivation. Hard to apply any kind of “morality” to atheism, but in this context you will see that it makes sense. Comparisons are drawn against Christianity because it provides a tangible contrast, but they work reasonably well for most religions.

1. Truth-seeking

One of the most interesting paradoxes inherent to atheism involves the intrinsic value of truth-seeking. All of us seem naturally inclined as human beings to seek the truth for its own sake (intrinsic), not merely for what benefits the truth can provide (instrumental). For instance, if someone told us, “Believe this religion not because it is true, but because it will improve your marriage and help your career,” most of us would be unimpressed to say the least. But herein lies the first problem: it is very hard for atheists to explain why seeking the truth is intrinsically good or why we are obligated to seek it.

Most atheistic theories of morality appeal to human flourishing as the ultimate good. On this view, what is good is whatever leads to human flourishing. And while that definition does solve some problems, it leads to the very difficult conclusion that truth and truth-seeking are not ultimate goods. Indeed, if seeking the truth on any given subject would diminish human flourishing, then seeking that truth would be evil; we would be morally obligated to avoid or suppress knowledge of that truth. A simple example is an elderly Christian woman on her deathbed who faces death joyfully because she believes she is going to be with God and her dead loved ones. Assuming for the sake of argument that atheism is true, is it good for her to seek to know the truth of atheism? It would seem that the answer is no. Learning that atheism is true would only make her miserable without providing tangible good (i.e. flourishing) to anyone else. Moreover, it seems that if she were to accost a passing atheist with the question,”Is atheism true after all?”, that atheist would be morally obligated either to lie to her or at least to steer her away from the truth of atheism, lest he lead her into misery.

Examples can be easily multiplied, but the essence of the problem is that it would be impossible for an atheist to claim that truth-seeking is an intrinsic good or a moral obligation. A Christian can affirm that truth is good and morally obligatory because God loves the truth and commands us to seek it (though there are numerous exceptions and paradoxes within). But if an atheist were to urge one to throw off religious delusions and embrace the truth of atheism, one could respond, “Why? I am happy as a Christian and Christianity has made me into a more loving, compassionate, and generous person. If Christianity is true, then I understand why I am obligated to seek the truth. But if atheism is true, why am I obligated to find out?”

2. Moral reflection

A trickier paradox has to do with deliberate, sustained moral reflection on injustice and evil in the world. All of us recognize that the world is suffused with human misery. But many of us give relatively little thought to suffering until it forces itself into our consciousness. Why is this? I hope it is more than just a lack of compassion. Self-protection? On some level we may fear that if our hearts were truly moved by every hurt, every loss, and every tragedy that we witnessed, they would break. Although we all recognize that empathy is one of the greatest moral virtues, we recoil at any level of empathy that threatens our own happiness and emotional stability. That is one reason why we vacation in luxury resorts well away from the slums, prefer romantic comedies to documentaries, or inure ourselves to violence until we can shrug off images of the maimed and weeping on television.

The paradox of atheism is that the atheist, while usually committed to living a life consistent with reality, struggles to bear reality as he believes it actually is. If all of the suffering and horror of this world is truly random and pointless, if there will be no redemption, no justice, no healing, and no restoration, then it is emotionally almost impossible to truly stare reality in the face on a daily basis. One possible outcome is to live a life of hopeless, existential despair. But it is far more likely that we will simply build a thick, protective wall of fantasy around us, constructed of hobbies, games, sports, fashion, or romance as a barrier against truths we would rather not face. The atheist will sometimes assert that he lives in that reality and accepts it, but I believe that’s only an academic and dismissive acceptance. It’s not true, deliberate and sustained moral reflection that presumably should accompany a decision about which set of beliefs one buys into.

I am not implying that avoidance of the hard realities of suffering and evil are characteristic only of atheists. Christians face precisely the same temptations. The difference is that Christianity offers resources to face the worst parts of reality with assured hope (discounting that it can manifest as a moral-feeling means to ignore them). Yes, it could be a fantasy, and a way to conveniently avoid things, but if Christianity is true, then even the most devastating horrors of this existence will be redeemed, which, I must be fair to point out, doesn’t justify or explain why some of them were necessary in the first place (one of Christianity’s nasty paradoxes). In fact, Christianity claims that the greatest tragedy ever to occur in human history -the torture and murder of God’s Son- was the very means which God used to save the world. Since I’ve made my take on this clear before, I will not venture down that rabbit hole today.

The point is that while the atheist can instrumentally preserve his emotional stability by either hiding from reality as he believes it actually is or by hardening himself to it, the Christian can gain emotional stability, empathy and hope as he exposes himself to and embraces reality as he believes it actually is. Indeed, Christian spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible study can be seen in this light: reminding themselves of reality as they see it and then seeking to conform their thoughts and behavior to it.

3. Moral motivation

Another paradox has to do with moral motivation: what are the effects of atheistic belief on our desire to behave morally? Most atheists adamantly affirm that they do not need God to do good. In this I agree: we do not need to believe that God exists in order to recognize that love, justice, and compassion are good or to behave morally. These values can be important to virtually anyone. So here, I am not asking whether atheists can do good. Rather, I am focusing only on the impact that atheism has on one’s moral motivation.

If atheism is true, then the universe is one without ultimate moral meaning, significance, and accountability. When you die, your body rots. When everyone you love dies, they rot. Two hundred years hence, no one – not even your own descendants – will remember you. And a few hundred trillion years from now, when the universe undergoes heat death and all the stars burn out, none of your choices will have made even the slightest difference.

Let us imagine that we spent one hour each day reminding ourselves of this reality. Now let’s imagine we face a moral choice. The opportunity to cheat on a test. The chance to make a little extra money in a slightly dishonest way, or worse. Or, given the last section, let’s imagine making major life decisions. Which career to choose: one that is lucrative or satisfying, or one that will benefit others at our own expense? Which house to buy: one that is large and expensive, or a modest one that would allow us to give generously? If we have spent the previous month reminding ourselves that our choices have no eternal moral consequences, are we more or less likely to resist our temptations? Are we more or less likely to make what society and our programming have deemed the morally right choice?

Let me again emphasize that I am not asking whether the atheist can still value morality or engage in moral behavior. I am taking atheists at their word when they insist that these things are important to them. I am instead asking a purely psychological question: would reflection on the ultimate meaninglessness, transience, and unimportance of your moral actions in a godless universe make you more likely to resist what you believe to be temptation? I think the answer is no, unless perhaps your stance is so pure that you don’t even believe in the concept of temptation, which is not what atheists profess. Hence we have a third paradox. To the atheist who really does value moral behavior, it seems he is obligated to avoid thinking about the implications of his atheism, lest it weaken his moral resolve. The atheist gains moral motivation only by hiding from reality as he actually believes it is. In contrast, the Christian worldview emphasizes that every one of our moral decisions have eternal implications, that every one of our actions can bring joy or grief to the creator, and that we will one day be held accountable for our lives. So the Christian gains moral motivation by reflecting on reality as he believes it actually is.


In conclusion, I’ll summarize the three paradoxes into a more bite-sized form.

  1. Truth-seeking. If a truth-loving God doesn’t exist, then truth-seeking is neither intrinsically good nor morally obligatory. Therefore, paradoxically, the Christian has grounds to urge all people to seek the truth and to claim it is their moral obligation to seek the truth whereas the atheist has no grounds to urge others to seek the truth or to claim it is their moral obligation to do so.
  2. Moral reflection. Suffering and evil in the world is so prolific and horrendous that we instinctively avoid thinking about it to preserve our happiness. If Christianity is true, then all suffering and evil will one day be destroyed and healed. If atheism is true, suffering and evil are pointless and will never be rectified. So, paradoxically, a Christian gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering by reflecting on reality as he perceives it, while an atheist gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering only by ignoring reality as he perceives it.
  3. Moral motivation. If Christianity is true, then all of our moral choices have tremendous, eternal significance. If atheism is true, then none of our moral choices have any eternal significance. So, paradoxically, the Christian gains the motivation to act morally by reflecting on reality as he perceives it, while the atheist gains the motivation to act morally by ignoring reality as he perceives it.

None of these observations imply that atheism is false or that Christianity is true. But I hope that they do cause some serious reflection. At least in these three areas, there is a conflict between the general perception that atheists live a life of realism, facing the truth about reality squarely, and the philosophical and psychological reality of atheism itself. In contrast, Christianity not only provides a basis for the idea that truth is of intrinsic value (though possibly unattainable), but provides resources to enable the Christian to conform his beliefs and behavior to that version of truth. I suggest that those who value truth-seeking and realism should consider whether atheism can justify or support either of these ideals, while I also recognize that the truth of the Christian’s perception may in practice only be of instrumental value.

Though it does take more rigorous work to call out the fallacies of atheism (as opposed to Christianity being a relatively easy target), both concepts are riddled with problems and don’t/can’t hold up well to scrutiny. Unfortunately (if you’re with me so far), that leaves a vast middle ground. The unknown, and unknowable. What to do about that, I am not sure. Beyond some value in always questioning, being immobilized isn’t much better. Most of the same human fallacies and tranquilizing artifacts plague this ground as well.

We’re all in this together. What it is, we do not know.

Religion is More than Belief


Religion, spirituality, and belief have often been lumped together over the years, even though they have some inherent incongruities.

I recently made a comparison between religion and spirituality. As a quick follow up, it’s worth mentioning that my declaration about religion being based on belief in a supreme being was necessarily narrow in order for the very valid contrasts to be simple to understand.

I stand by the statement. That is the basis of it, at least with respect to the spiritual kind of religion (as opposed to one who has a religion about some secular thing like exercising). But that’s not all there is to it. Its main value may not be in its propositional content. Religion (in loosest terms) is not necessarily a set of scientific, objective claims about the universe. It’s not just beliefs. It’s a set of practices and rituals that have stood the test of time.

Things that have endured for a long time are, by probability, likely to endure – otherwise they would have died out already. It is hard to see The OdysseyThe BibleThe Iliad and similar works being forgotten, whereas last year’s bestseller is unlikely to be remembered in 100 years, let alone 1000. Time may refine things by getting rid of the bad parts & keeping the parts that humans have found valuable. Because religion has stood the test of time, we must acknowledge that with respect to probability, it must be valuable to humans in some essential way. In other words, it’s probable that if there were no human value, it would not have withstood the test of time.

Taken further, we could assume that when there is something in nature we don’t understand, odds are it makes sense in some deeper way that is beyond our understanding. So there is a logic to natural things that is superior to our own. What Mother Nature does is rigorous until proven otherwise; what humans and science do is flawed until proven otherwise.

Religion is more about trust, or faith than about the objective, predictive claims that science deals in. The belief in religion is ‘epiphenomenal’, i.e. follows from practice, not the other way around. It’s about practice such as going to church, fasting, celebrating holidays such as Easter, various dietary restrictions, collective prayer, and so on.

If something like religion (or wine, or cities, or biological organisms, etc.) has been around for a long time, you may think of it as antifragile – otherwise it would have died out. If religion has endured for this long, it probably encodes a bunch of practices that – even if we can’t see the point of some of them – are likely to be right for humanity in some way. At least instrumentally, and maybe more.




Sometimes the cards are truly stacked against us. Events conspire in ways that cannot be overcome.

Are these signs, or just bad luck? That’s a religious debate.

Cruelty and the Benefactor

A policeman pulls over a speeder, and now all of the other speeders slow down. Have you ever had anything bad happen to you where, upon thinking about it, it seemed like others derived the only benefit from it? It’s almost as if your role was to suffer so someone else could be better off. Usually dots can be connected to lead to some possible, hypothetical benefit to yourself, but it can be pretty far-fetched at times. That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Those are the easy ones.

People are  sometimes put into heart breaking situations. Why? One side of the religious debate says it’s chance. Just the way the cards were dealt. The other says there is a purpose to it.

Usually the circumstance does leave room for the sufferer to have some upside, but on occasion that’s not the case. We don’t talk about those much, but we have to look all the way to the worst cases to try to see the truth of it, which then can be applied to the rest. A child is born and knows only suffering (I’m referring to the really bad ones), and there is a purpose to this? Who is the purpose for? Is it for the onlookers? Maybe they will appreciate what they have more? Is it for the parents? I have seen parents rise to the occasion in truly inspiring ways.

I will not pretend that no good comes of the awful situations that can happen in life. But to think how others benefit as any sort of rationalization for these circumstances is disquieting to say the least. If they are just chance occurrences, random, more or less…then it’s easy to accept as part of the general messiness of life. If they are by design…Yikes. I know, we’re not supposed to understand. “Mysterious ways,” and all that.

A designer chooses to make someone miserable so another can gain some benefit, or some appreciation, or some other mysterious, and possibly forever unknown upside. And this supreme designer has no other valid means to accomplish the desired outcome? Hmmm…

I know this is not a new argument. I wish there were some semi-rational explanation beyond cruelty for the designer theory. It’s one more leap of faith…

You believe what you believe. Perhaps it’s just what makes you feel good, and that’s okay.

Either way when it’s our turn in the barrel all we can do is control our attitude. We take the beating, learn what we can, and hope to move on.

On a Personal Note

Life is full of highs and lows. Sometimes you try to do everything right and it just doesn’t work out. Sometimes you stumble and someone is there to pick you up. Sometimes not. It all seems so random. Is it?

Religion tells us it is not random. Those things are signs or tests. People without religion say that’s just a fantasy people cling to for comfort.

How is anyone supposed to figure it out when the whole thing is based on a leap of faith? All our lives we’re hoping we’re doing the right thing so that the aftermath can be what we want. Or we’re doing the right thing just because it’s inherently right. What makes it right though? Isn’t that just another interpretation? How do we know we picked (or our parents picked for us) the right religion? Or the right interpretation of the religion? How much room is there for interpretation?

Tough questions. Here is what I do know. There are varying degrees of good and bad people everywhere — with religion and without. Regardless of what you believe, when you encounter a good person whose basis for that comes from religion, support it. Do not condescend to them. Your lack of religion is just a belief too. Don’t try to take what works for that person away. You truly have no guarantee you are more right. If that belief works for a person, and she finds harmony and fulfillment in that, how can you think it is wrong?

That’s the beauty of life. None of us truly knows what the heck we are doing here. The pursuit should be the seeking of truth and to live a good life as a good person. There are many people in the world who are helped to that end by their religions. That is a great thing. And maybe there is something to it…

(Dedicated to a good friend — I am listening.)


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