Posts Tagged 'theology'

Religion’s Social Reinforcement

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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.

Ominous.

 

Atheism: Instrumental versus Intrinsic

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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.

Conclusion

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

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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.

 

 

Faith

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Faith is complete trust or confidence. It is absolute. True religious faith is a gift from God. Therefor you have it or you don’t. You can’t will it. While we may all have the capacity, some seem to be chosen to actually have faith. Perhaps it is blind. Perhaps misguided. Perhaps real. But it’s clear that some at least appear to have it, while others do not.

Some might say we are able to choose to have faith. However, and here we go with the linguistic distinctions again, “having faith” in that type of context isn’t always used to convey that it’s something one possesses. Often what we really mean is, trying to make that leap of faith. Or to act with faith. If we are choosing it, then we don’t inherently have it.

When we refer to faith, often what we really mean is that we have a strong belief. We choose that. It’s what we want to be true, or have decided for ourselves is true. True faith would not be a choice.

Belief clings, while faith lets go. Faith can be great for those who have it…although, could it be a type of neuroses? For those who don’t…all of the trying in the world is futile. The best you can do is choose to believe, which can look a lot like faith. It’s a fine line.

 

Black & White

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What issues or concerns are truly black and white? Of those, which ones do we actually treat as such? Some people tell me many things are cut and dried, and we humans mess it up by introducing our own gray areas through weakness and a lack of morality, not to mention basic subjectivity. That may be true, but I am hard pressed to find anything so cut and dried that upon careful examination doesn’t need some room for a medium shade according to context and circumstances. Commonly the black and white crowd (at least the ones I know) are conservative Christians, or at least look to that set of beliefs as their guidance in life. Let’s look at an example.

  • Conservative Christian doctrine posits that marriage is the requirement for ethical sex.
  • Progressives tend to believe that consent is a required element. But they don’t hold that it is always sufficient.

When pushed on the issue, conservatives struggle with the stance that consent is vital and is considered required by progressives. They feel it ignores or at least de-emphasizes the marriage aspect they feel is so important. This highlights one of the faults of the black and white thinking, as much of the world ends up being viewed through that type of binary prism. To conservatives marriage is the key component, and because of the black/white, right/wrong mindset it is often considered sufficient when pushed in the context of doctrine.

Many others struggle with the conservative Christian views in part because they don’t necessarily treat consent as a vital component. Conservatives don’t always recognize a major difference between any type of sexual act that falls outside of the basic criteria of marriage. All those acts are deemed wrong, and to some they are equally so. Adultery is in some ways not different from raping a child. If the issue is black and white then there is by definition no room for any moderation or qualification.

But it’s more than just that. Conservatives often do not agree with the progressive’s consent criteria because the default understanding through doctrine is that there is only the one simple black and white choice. Since conservative doctrine bases it all on marriage then they incorrectly may assume that the consent camp bases it all on consent. The black and white thinking produces a lack of understanding of the nuance that there are multiple criteria, each of which is important, but maybe not equally important, which means there can be a range of how bad of an offense it is to falter. Progressives may hold consent AND marriage as important, but with the greater focus on consent the misunderstandings are exacerbated.

The notion that things are black and white stems in part from the pressure that the text mustn’t be questioned. The rules are laid out, if unclearly at times, and faith promotes a semi-blind following of them that contributes to the fundamental chasm of mindsets and ways to interpret things.

Now at most practical levels I’m aware of in the conservative Christian community (people I know) something like child molestation isn’t seriously considered to be the same as adultery (although a sin is a sin, no?). They seem willing to allow some room for interpretation. Adultery between consenting adults being wrong because it is outside of marriage. Raping a child being wrong because…(of something more?).

So Christians take a black and white doctrine and then apply certain interpretations to it, with the result being to make it less than absolutely black and white. And in some cases making it or allowing it to be uniquely personal. Is it up to the individual to believe in his/her interpretation of the bible, or should he/she follow the letter of the law? How much grace or deviation is allowable? How much comfort and forgiveness permissible? This gives rise to so many subtly different and potentially incongruent beliefs based on all of the interpretations that it seems almost laughable to me that one would cling tightly to any absolute bad/good, right/wrong view of the world. And yet a black and white attitude is often taken after having applied the very judgement, context, and often some personal perceptions to it that render it no longer absolute, if it ever was.

This is just one of the ways religion, as it is commonly practiced in our culture, fails us.

Definitely not saying anything goes here (that would be another kind of black and white). Best to acknowledge that it’s all shades of gray, and you’re just trying to figure out which shades you want to believe and live by. Don’t expect others to see it the same way, considering they weren’t part of the same programming you experienced.

Finally…because of the potentially volatile nature of a post like this I feel I should make it clear to any conservative Christian acquaintances of mine that I am not poo-pooing their beliefs or way of life, or even their thinking. I grew up in church and know the story. I have written about things like this before. I advocate tolerance and open mindedness, allowing room that we’re all flawed, and none of us lives in a house so rigid we can’t be wrong. Feel free to read back through this blog and you will see that there are other views presented from time to time. Because I don’t have it all figured out either.

The Universe as a Top

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[…continued from prior entry]

Reason and faith are in some respects incongruous with one another, but in a deep look there are points where they converge, especially if one is willing to put hubris aside.

A fundamental question we struggle with is, were we created or did we evolve? There are holes in both theories to be sure. But if each side allows for the assumptions that are less concretely known to in some ways be wrong then the two points of view can largely be reconciled.

In fact, all of existence we know of can be explained by both. Evolution depends on the from. For something to evolve it had to come from something else. What is the ultimate source of all this? It could be that God, or some force, set the universe in motion eons ago and we’re currently at some point on what may ultimately prove to be a finite timeline. Or, maybe we are just cells of awareness in a larger organism of some kind. Is the universe deterministic or random? We do not know enough to know.

Dare I say, it is not knowable. We may never know enough to figure it out.

All of these points of view have at their roots unprovable assumptions, so one can simply choose to buy in or not as she sees fit. And thus, in the ultimate irony, a significant bias toward either perspective actually requires faith. The reasoned conclusion is to acknowledge ignorance and humbly remain open.

Galaxie

If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him   — Voltaire

Double Standard

A group of Mormons recently quit the church in a mass resignation ceremony. One of the sited reasons is doctrinal teachings that conflict with scientific findings. I understand what they are getting at. Many religions seem to ask members to ignore certain widely accepted scientific concepts.

The problem with this is…much of the basis of religion flies in the face of our scientific understandings in the first place. The origins of the LDS Church are no exception.  To call out certain doctrines in particular, when the whole religion in and of itself doesn’t hold up to scientific process is a subjective assessment people can make, however illogical it may appear to be.

If you’re going with faith as a way to decide what to believe and how to live your life then how does one decide which religion is worthy of that leap? Most of them have fantastic stories that ignore at least a few commonly agreed upon scientific understandings. Ultimately our chosen religion is a reflection of ourselves, and this is especially true in the way we practice it. Certain doctrines are conveniently ignored or modified to fit with our interpretation of how we want to live. When those doctrines fly in the face of what we “feel” is really right it produces a very real conflict that can be ignored or reconciled.

One way to reconcile it is to leave the church. But then what?


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