grasping at space

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  • Wednesday, June 29, 2005

    Mistaking symbol for reality and government for God

    So once again, Congress is considering a Constitutional amendment to protect the flag, while the US Supreme Court reviews decisions regarding the appropriateness of public displays of the Ten Commandments.

    Alan Watts had the last word on flag burning in 1968:

    “Not long ago Congress voted, with much patriotic rhetoric, for the imposition of severe penalties upon anyone presuming to burn the flag of the United States. Yet the very Congressmen who passed this law are responsible, by acts of commission or omission, for burning, polluting, and plundering the territory that the flag is supposed to represent. Therein, they exemplified the peculiar and perhaps fatal fallacy of civilization: the confusion of symbol with reality.”

    That passage is from the essay “Wealth versus Money,” anthologized in Watts’ book, Does It Matter?

    As for the Decalogue, its Commandments fall into two categories. The first four relate to the individual’s relationship to God, and the final six relate to the individual’s relationship to society.

    Regarding those final six, there are some modern zealots who believe that humanity is so debased and morally stupid that it could never have figured out, without divine intervention, that lying, cheating, stealing and murdering were generally bad ideas. But that is the subject of another blog entry. The first four Commandments are the ones that interest me here.

    When any commandments such as the first four issue forth from a theocratic entity (as the Commandments originally did), the explicit message is that one should be unwaveringly dedicated to one’s God, while the implicit message is that the government is God. When a modern government endorses the public display of the Ten Commandments, it is implicitly demanding a degree of respect that no government ever can deserve.

    To the best of my knowledge, there is no statement to that effect in the dicta of any court decision.

    Thursday, June 23, 2005

    Simplicity, complexity, and Utopia

    The usefulness of a definition depends on the concept being defined. The more complex a concept, the more complex its definition must be. A circle is a simple thing. “The set of coplanar points equidistant from a given point” (if I remember my high school geometry class correctly) is its simple definition.

    Athana says, “The definition of western religion is pain & suffering.” Well, I would have thought there was more to it than that. There is a lot of pain and suffering in life – I dare say, a lot more than can be accounted for by Western religion.

    (I should mention that I recently commented on a posting on Athana’s blog: “The problem is giving God a gender in the first damned place.” That also, I must admit, is defining a complex problem in terms that are too simple. The question I should have asked, which unfortunately took me two days to formulate, is, “Which is greater: Deity’s need for a gender, or humanity’s need to give Deity a gender?”)

    One of my early exposures to Utopian thinking, though I didn’t realize it when I was immersed in it, was Christian fundamentalism, or specifically the notion that once the willing have been converted and the unwilling have been eliminated, the world will be a better place. There are other Utopians, of course. There are certain atheists who insist that the world will be a better place when all religion of whatever stripe has been wiped out. There are certain Goddess worshippers who insist that if we forsook male gods for female gods, most of our problems would go away.

    There are many different Utopian ideas floating around out there, in religion and in other categories of thought, and all of the ideas tend to boil down to the same notion: “When everyone thinks like me, the world will be perfect.” The world is such that everyone possesses a small kernel of the truth (or, if you prefer, Truth). When I mistake that kernel for the whole truth, I delude myself and demean everyone else.

    Friday, June 10, 2005

    On strait gates, narrow ways, ordinary people, and why this refugee is moving on

    I think I may have to stop calling myself a UU. I’m only a unitarian in the sense that I’m not a trinitarian and don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus. To the extent that there is some general agreement about what he said and did, I’m more comfortable calling Jesus a Buddha than a Christ. And while I like the idea of universalism, my belief in it is actually fairly lukewarm, although it is a notion I have an easier time accepting than the fundamentalists’ insistence that a decent person with a vice or two is going to hell right along with Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. But in reference to my own beliefs and my religious affiliation, I’m no longer comfortable capitalizing those U’s.

    Recently I learned about the wrestling match of ideas going on in Phillip Lund’s head. In one corner, the notion that UUism is “a faith worth working for and sacrificing for”; in the other corner, the notion that UUism is “a liberal religious panacea … that lets us be comforted and rest assured in our worldliness.” A few months ago, it would have been easy for me to dismiss this as a false dilemma, since these two notions really are not mutually exclusive. But I’ve come to the realization that Lund isn’t talking to people like me. He’s talking primarily to lifelong UUs, and I am merely a refugee from another religion.

    In any given church on any Sunday morning, I’m sure that quite a few of the attendees – perhaps not a majority, but certainly a significant proportion – don’t really know why they are there, don’t really know (or care) what their fellows or the church authorities believe, attend more out of habit than conviction, attend because it seems like the thing to do. The UUA is no exception to this, though some UUs might want it to be. But when you open your doors to everyone indiscriminately, you shouldn’t be surprised who walks in.

    I’ve never read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but I understand the implication of not wanting grace to be cheap. “Strait is the gate and narrow is the way.” That’s a perfectly sensible statement when taken to mean that sainthood isn’t easy. But when taken to mean that religion shouldn’t be easy, it loses a lot of sense. That’s a step toward shoving ordinary people out the door, toward making them feel like there’s something shameful about being ordinary, toward making them feel like they should be associated with Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. (And I do understand that Lund doesn’t intend to say these things.)

    Here’s a recent remark by Chutney at My Irony:

    I’m pretty sure we can identify the good people and the evil people. MLK is good; Tim McVeigh is evil. The problem is that most of us don’t fit into either category [emphasis mine]. Somebody once said, show someone with no vices and I’ll show you someone with no virtues. Being good and being evil both require a lot of practice. Few of us put in the sweat equity.

    Not being Francis of Assisi does not make you Hitler by default. When I discovered UUism, I knew I had found a religion that understood this principle. But UUs who worry about the alleged cheapness of their grace don’t seem to value that principle, and don’t seem to want to be the religion of ordinary people.

    Like many UUs, I have a supplemental faith or creed. Mine is Western Reform Taoism. What I lack is fellow WRTs to associate with. The UUs were a more than adequate substitute, but if my presence in their church is going to give them an identity crisis, then it’s probably time for me to go.

    Monday, June 06, 2005

    Summarizing the questions Mark raises

    Mark’s “That Old Time Religion” raises a lot of important questions – there’s material there for a few hundred good blog entries, but for now I’m going to satisfy myself with restating those questions and addressing them in depth later. (I suppose I should also thank him for giving my blog a reason to exist. When I can afford my favorite whiskey again, I’ll drink a toast to him.)

    The questions:

    1. Is it possible to hold a religious belief on a reasonable basis?
    2. Can a leap of faith be reasonable?
    3. Must one choose between science and religion, or is there room for a combination of both?
    4. Can one who draws a sharp line between the “proofs” of science and the “faith” of religion truly claim that his or her basis for belief does not include leaps of faith?
    5. To what extent is it appropriate to base one’s beliefs on direct experience?
    6. To what extent is it appropriate to base one’s beliefs on the authority of science?
    7. (Mark states, “I cast off both religious authorities AND scientific authorities insofar as either would claim that my direct, personal, repeatable, and personally verifiable experiences are non-scientific or anecdotal, or non-scriptural or Satanic, or any other label that strives to dismiss me and my experience by conveniently labeling it.” So, I find it appropriate to add another question here, related to 5 and 6 above: To what extent is it appropriate to base one’s beliefs on the authority of religion?)

    Thursday, June 02, 2005

    Human nature is nothing new

    From Mark at WitNit, on that old time religion:

    [Many scientists] look at history and point to the ignorance of religion, its superstitions, its justifications for oppression and slaughter. And these same scientists forget that the same finger can be pointed to science. That natural selection has given thousands of power brokers justification for financial, legal, and military control, manipulation and slaughter, all in the name of "survival of the fittest." That Einstein's greatest scientific discovery led to atomic weapons.

    That Science AS PROOF [emphasis his] of no external moral intelligence or design has led to thousands and millions of people who see no reason to take responsibility for being decent and good, who see no good reason not to be out for themselves at the expense of others.

    I want to focus on the second of those paragraphs.

    It is true of some people that they will use the lack of an “external moral intelligence or design” as a justification for an evil act. It’s also true that a perhaps roughly equal number of people have used the existence of such an intelligence or design to justify an evil act. And there are undoubtedly several other possible justifications for an evil act that have nothing at all to do with whether or not there is an external moral intelligence or design. Now, reread this paragraph, replacing the phrase “an evil act” with “the indulgence in a benign vice.” Now, reread this paragraph again, replacing that phrase with “a good act.”

    If the statement of the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes – that there is nothing new under the sun – is true of anything, it is certainly true of human nature. Human nature did not change upon publication of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World, or Darwin’s Origin of Species, or Einstein’s General and Special Theories of Relativity. A person will do what she wants, not because of the existence or non-existence of an external moral intelligence or design, but simply because it is what she wants to do. Other people’s ideas may influence her, but in the end, unless she truly acted under duress, her motives are her own and no one else’s. If you turn on the typical episode of Cops, you will see a lot of selfish people, but no clear line of causation from a scientific theory to a criminal act.

    Important note to readers: I’m focusing on the second quoted paragraph above because when I first read it, I heard faint echoes of the old Christian fundamentalist complaint that ever since Darwin, the world has allegedly gone down the tubes. I want to emphasize that the paragraph I’m focusing on certainly does not represent Mark’s main point. The article as a whole deals with (1) whether scientists are just as guilty of making leaps of faith about the non-existence of God as believers are of making leaps of faith about God’s existence, and (2) the validity of personal experience in deciding what is true. Read the excellent article (and the comments) for yourself.

    Wednesday, June 01, 2005

    WitNit on that old time religion

    I'm watching this great exchange of ideas with keen interest. Give me a few days to think about this, and I'll be back.