Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Craft Soda is a thing


I thought it would be fun to start talking about the great micro-sodas I’m discovering lately. It appears this is a thing.

I mentioned the “Craft” root beer on facebook, but I didn’t think to get a picture of it. It was fantastic, but hard to google for it, given the name. They don’t seem to have a website either, I’ve only found other bloggers talking about it. It’s made in Illinois and has a person’s face on the label. This root beer brought back memories of A&W when they made it on site with real sugar. I would swear it was actually better but that was a long time ago, so that’s not really a blind taste test.

I also came across one that had the flavor of a mojito when I was in the Florida Keys recently. Again, no picture since I hadn’t thought of starting this soda blog yet.  There probably aren’t too many like that, so if you see it, and you like mojitos, grab it. No rum of course, but a hint of mint and a smooth creamy texture. A nice thirst quencher on a sunny day at the beach.

Today, I had a Squamscot Cherry Cola. It was a disappointment. I found it at a mall Liqour store in Cloquet, which maybe should have been a clue. It didn’t go fizt when I popped the top and it’s possible it hadn’t been bottled correctly, it was definitely a bit flat. Even if the fizz had been better, I don’t think that would have made it worth $1.95. The cherry and cola flavors were there, but they were not impressive. It was the real cola flavor, but there just wasn’t enough of it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

How to end any argument

Unfortunately not all arguments end well. I’ll get to ending them well by end of this, but I need to go over how they usually end first.

Children figure out how to derail a discussion pretty quickly. They just keep asking why. Some people never get over this, they become philosophers. “Why” is one of the most important questions in philosophy. They delve into the “ultimate why”. Most people don’t concern themselves with this on a daily basis. Some people find it annoying.

There are adult ways of presenting that why question without sounding like you are pontificating or being childish. Some people will suggest we’re in the matrix, or we are brains in a vat, or everyone else is a zombie. This is more of a sophomoric version, one you might hear in a dorm room. But it comes from a slightly more sophisticated tradition. Descartes’ first meditation, sometimes called “the evil demon”, suggests if we doubt all of our perceptions, we don’t know who we really are and could be under the control of an evil demon.

There are even more modern versions of this, maybe you’ve heard a few;

you’re completely misinformed, you’re mind has been controlled by advertising and bad schooling, you are privileged, you’ve been tricked (there is a facebook page for this, they call you sheeple), you are trying to trick me, you are a shill for a corporation, you were home schooled, you were born in Flint, MI.

That last one really happened. I was talking about Michael Moore and I told someone I was born there. You should have seen the look. It was as if being born in the same town as Michael Moore was as bad as being a child of Osama bin Laden.

All of these are nothing but prejudice. You might as well be using ethnic slurs. Granted each one has facts that lead to them being used in the first place. Our schools do have problems, we are products of our environment. That’s why racial slurs hurt. Regardless of those facts of social science, these are almost always distortions.

If, “you had bad schooling” is not followed by some legitimate help in educating the person, in providing them with the information they need to make an informed decision, then it is just an insult. It is usually a judgment made before gathering facts, before even inquiring into just what schooling the person had. This leads to the argument ending with, “You don’t even know me.”

There are also more positive sounding versions, such as;

there is a higher purpose that you are unaware of, it’s in the interest of national security, it’s nature’s way, it’s part of our great leaders vision, it’s just the way things are.

These aren’t necessarily aimed at anyone, but they are equally useless. They propose that no more facts are available, that further discussion is pointless.

All of these come from artifacts left over from the philosophers of the Middle Ages. Descartes, in his second meditation said, “I think therefore I am” and profoundly changed how we see ourselves. Too bad he was wrong. Rather than explain that last sentence, I’d rather stick to why it’s a problem today. The problem is we don’t talk about the context of how he came to it or the improvements that have been made on it since.

Descartes third meditation is sometimes called “the existence of God”. He posits that what we can conceive must exist so if we can conceive of perfection it must exist. It’s more complicated than that, but I’m not going to analyze it. I only point it out because it is probably the reason why Descartes is not covered in any detail in public school. Meditations 4 and 5 are about God too. They are his solution to the problem he created by doubting his senses in the 1st meditation.

So we’re stuck here, on an island as Simon Blackburn calls it, where we verify our own existence based on our own experience. Even if we are in the matrix we can still have the thought that we are in the matrix, so the machines controlling us have not taken that last piece of our self away. If we are so deluded that even that is not our self thinking, then none of this matters anyway. We can’t know ourselves and we can’t know that we can’t know ourselves.

But why do we need this hyperbolic doubt in the first place that then requires a solution? As I’ve shown above, it is used to confuse, to bring a logical discussion of valid choices down in to a spiraling pit of meaningless. To end an argument by destroying the other persons confidence in their argument. I say we don’t need it. The way to interrupt it is by saying, “I exist and I have value”, or if the argument is not about you, say you are arguing for feeding starving children, “they exist and they have value.”

David Hume later stated the problem of understanding ourselves is a problem of matching what we sense to reality. If we doubt everything our senses tell us, then anything could be true. We know our senses can fail us but we also know they serve us pretty well. We can look at other animals and see that those with better senses do better. But all that still relies on our self to make that judgment.

So you can still bring any argument to a halt without any evil demons, simply by pointing out the flawed nature of our senses. Usually this is done by someone questioning only the other persons senses or the superiority of their own. As in claiming to have a degree or having read a book or seen a documentary, something that mere senses can’t trump. This is still a complete foul. Unless you are willing to actually explain the facts you have, it’s just mean. Even if it is true.

A non-mean, fair way of employing this simple truth is agreeing that no one really knows anything. That we are perceiving any degree of reality is an act of faith. Whether you call that pure skepticism or pure belief in powers we can’t perceive, you arrive at it with similar logic.

For me, this is where all arguments should begin, that nobody knows for sure. From there we can only build towards greater probability of being accurate, of matching our perception to reality. We can share our perceptions with each other. We can create languages that describe things we can’t perceive directly. We can predict and test our predictions. We can challenge each other to be more accurate in our descriptions, more honest. We can be aware of our limitations and we can grow beyond them by working together.

We know there is a coherent consistent world that is available to us when we are awake and clear. We have built on that foundation for so long that it is now impossible for one person to obtain all the knowledge available. That knowledge is being refined every day. If everyone in a some field of knowledge said one person knew everything they knew, that could still change the next day with a new discovery. So everyone knows that they don’t know everything.

The criteria for certification of having the higher levels of knowledge are constantly reviewed and updated. Having that certification doesn’t mean you know everything in that field, and very few people are certified in more than one field.  Certification is still important, I have very few other tools for evaluating if my doctor knows what he is doing. But the idea of “authority” has limits. That’s a foundational principle of the modern world where we say we value the opinions of everyone, not just the King and the royal family.

The only adult, fair, sane way to end an argument is to not approach differences as arguments in the first place. You can have convictions, you can stand up for what you believe, you could also be wrong. As I have ended more than one of my blogs, all we really have is each other.



Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Year Without Atheism


Ryan Bell just completed an amazing year “trying” to live without God. No small challenge for a pastor. Inspired by that, I thought I’d try a year without atheism. It should be a lot easier since I’m not really giving up anything or trying anything on. To be a non-atheist is not a simple matter of applying math like logic and cancelling the double negative to end up with theist. It means not identifying myself as not being something else. In other words, it’s like being most other people.

I know some atheists can get pretty touchy about the definition of that word, and you either have some degree of belief in god or you don’t, or you’re still thinking about it, but anyway, the key word here is “identify”. I think if you ask most people to say who they are, they’ll start with a familial relation like “mother” or maybe with a career, next might be geographical like their hometown or country, then a few might start mentioning religion. Of course if you ask them about religion they might go on all night, but the key here is identity. For me, I’ve been saying I’m an atheist because I want it to be clear that there is no theology out there that is believable. For this year, I’m saying I just don’t care.

I heard a story that when rabbis were asked “what is the Torah” they answered that “it is the interpretation of Torah”. In other words, the stories are there to be told and also to be discussed. They are not flat or literal or unchanging or prescriptive. Their meaning should be discovered by each generation. That’s nice. Unfortunately it’s not how many people approach scripture, but for me, what it really misses, is that Torah is one of many books exploring how human beings have come to know who they are and why they’re here. For me, the answer to “what is the Torah” is “it is reading and listening to how others experience life”. Scripture is often a rare glimpse into the thoughts of regular people dealing with larger world events . 

I’m not “spiritual but not religious”, I’m not non-spiritual either. I don’t know what the word “spiritual” means and I’m a little burnt out by people using the word even though they don’t know what it means either. I’m looking forward to year of not thinking about it, not attempting to better construct or defend a worldview.

Ryan started out his year reading up on philosophy. I won’t be starting by reading up on theology. I won’t be looking for ways to challenge myself or my thought process any more than anyone normally should. I’ve been doing that for 4 years. I’m sure some will be relieved to know that I won’t be pointing out to others how some political action or world event is related to theism.

That doesn’t mean I won’t be listening for hidden agendas in the words of elected officials. That doesn’t mean I won’t be celebrating as the rest of the United States and who knows who else embraces same-sex marriage. It doesn’t mean my ideas about the cause of terrorism will change. Those are normal things that we all should do. Atheism never informed my values so my values won’t change. Atheism didn’t tell me to use the scientific method, I’ll still use it.

It will be more like the answer to this joke: How many atheists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Just one, they just unscrew the old one and put in a new one.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Good cops



When I was little, somewhere around 4, because I barely remember it, I followed a neighbor girl as her mother walked with her to the grocery store. They were way ahead and didn’t notice me. I stopped when they crossed a busy street. I don’t know how long I wandered around, but a policeman came by and picked me up and drove until I recognized my house.

It all seemed perfectly natural to me. Including that my mother was not happy I’d walked off but at the same time happy I was home. At the time I lived in the bubble where all policemen are good. They are selected by a magical process that sees the goodness in their heart and knows they will do the right thing with a little boy wandering around aimlessly.

Later, I was taught that authorities sanctioned, directed, or sometimes looked the other way as people who were acting peacefully and exercising their right to free speech were beaten, gassed, bloodied and even killed. The magic bubble shrank a bit, but those were just the “bad police”, the ones from the south, from decades ago.

No one tells you when the bubble is gone. You look in the rear view mirror one day and you wonder which kind of officer that is. You realize the badge tells you nothing about the person. Where you are and what you are doing there have much more to do with how things will go than any uniform.

“Good” and “bad” are completely independent of “police officer”, “American” , “clean”, “White”, “Christian”, “educated”. Statistically, you can say a lot about a group of people and be accurate. Most cops are good. Education leads to a healthier society. Americans are leaders in many fields. Christians have contributed to a better world. But individually, that means nothing. There are more than a few clean, white, educated, Christian American police officers in jail.

You can replace any one of those words with anything you like and it changes nothing about this post. Substitute “police officer” with “protestor”, “Christian” with “Muslim”, “white” with “yellow”. None of that tells you anything about good and bad. Comments from Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki and Bill Bratton show an intense misunderstanding of this.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

I was a Moderate Christian


On Nov 5, 2009, Karen Armstrong was the guest on Speaking ofFaith, a public radio show about life’s big questions. Karen was a nun in the 1960’s, but she realized it was not for her. She has remained interested in the theologies of the world and in 2008 won the annual TED prize which she used to launch the Charter for Compassion, an examination and promotion of the idea that there are good ideas shared across all religions.

 
In this interview on Speaking of Faith, she told a story of an earlier conference she had been in called “God 2000”. It was an interfaith conference examining those shared good ideas. Near the end of it, a man appeared at the back of the room, yelling somewhat incoherently about how everyone there was a sinner and they would never accomplish anything because they did not believe in the right god in the right way. They attempted to engage him but couldn’t and to the time of the Speaking of Faith interview, Karen still did not know how it was possible to engage such people at all.

 A Great Question

I think it is a great question, how do we as modern people, attempting to live in a pluralistic world, remain in dialogue with those who want their ways, the ways codified in centuries old scripture, to be the ways that the rest of the world adopts? Sometimes called “fundamentalists”, they pose a problem not just for the secular world which has set up boundaries against them, but for what are sometimes called “moderate” religious people whose boundaries are not quite as clear.

 At the time, I was a moderate Christian, I would say a liberal Christian. I had joined a liberal church partly in reaction to the political world being infiltrated by conservative Christians. I had discovered Liberation Theology and The Jesus Seminar and Reconciling Congregations, but I still had not figured out how the core concepts of Christianity differed from the fundamentalists. I knew my politics differed and my fellow liberal Christians were saying their politics stemmed from their faith. But I couldn’t see how. I wondered what I was doing wrong.

To understand how to approach this, I first had to understand what fundamentalism meant. I had heard it was a recent phenomenon, that they had hijacked the true faith or even that Jesus’ message had been corrupted as far back as Constantine. But those were claims, not explanations. I had to start looking for answers on my own.

The Fundamentals

The “recent phenomenon” part is more about the use of the word itself. Between 1910 and 1916, a series of pamphlets were written anddistributed for free titled “The Fundamentals”. They contained guidelines about believing in Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, the truth of prophecies and miracles, salvation, the Second Coming and other such standard dogma. They were a reaction to centuries of critiques of the Bible as literature, known as Higher Criticism, to Darwin’s new theory of evolution and to the rise of science as a new source of truth and understanding of the universe.

The beliefs they thought were important should sound pretty familiar. Jesus was born of a virgin. He suffered on the cross and rose again to provide salvation for our sins. Jesus performed miracles and fulfilled prophecies. Heaven is real, hell is real. Jesus will come again and reign over his kingdom. Creation happened as described in Genesis. God is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Although the pamphlets are recent, there is nothing new in the above list of beliefs. Some other beliefs commonly associated with Christian fundamentalists are actually recent, so I’ll take a minute to run through those before getting back to what I think the heart of the problem is.

Recent Phenomenon

Intelligent Design: This was a theory that began a little before Darwin to try to integrate scientific discoveries such as dinosaur bones and plate tectonics with a God created world. It had other names and ebbed and flowed in popularity. It could not have come about except as a reaction to scientific discoveries. Before that it was just assumed God created the universe, so in a way this is nothing new.

Dispensationalism: This is definitely new. It is an odd analysis of the Bible saying it is divided into phases or dispensations, and that we are currently in the final one. In some ways it is just a new look at the old idea of an end of times.

Bible Inerrancy: The first explicit statement that the Bible is the inerrant word of God was not written into a church doctrine until the 16th century by a Baptist church. I don’t wish to argue theology, but I think the case could be made from statements and writings throughout history that it was a common belief, a belief so obvious, it didn’t need to be written down.

Existence of an actual hell: The Old Testament definitely does not have a hell and some say the New Testament doesn’t either. The word “hell” as used by Jesus was translated from “Gihenna” which was a really bad neighborhood in Jerusalem filled with burning garbage. It also appears to be a Greek myth that entered the Jewish community in the 1st century. The modern reference to “fire and brimstone” began in 1670. So, this one is a gray area.

Government should be based on Christian principles: It was the French and American revolutions that codified religion out of government, at least in terms of a declared faith for its leaders or a faith requirement. So saying that is “recent” would only mean its return since then. Before that, Kings were anointed by Popes and before that, in antiquity, religion was part of daily life, so separating the two was not even in the vocabulary.

Subjugation of women: Although not usually stated that way by fundamentalists, they do say things about Jesus being the head of the church and the man being the head of the house. The New Testament has specific statements about women not speaking in church and although Jesus welcomed women into his circle, churches traditionally have not. Definitely not new in principle although new in how it is applied. There is some evidence that the early Christian communities were much more egalitarian but that ended in the 4th century. More about that later.

But, who is right?

So putting those few actually recent ideologies aside, the question remains; did the men who wrote The Fundamentalist pamphlets get it right? This is a much easier question than you might think. What makes it seem difficult is that there are 30,000 versions of Christianity, so how can we sort out what it is right if they can’t? The answer is, that is what Christianity has always been. There were competing sects from the beginning. That’s why we have 4 gospels. Peter and Paul argue about how to obtain salvation in their letters and they don’t settle it. The Book of Revelations was controversial in the early centuries and some denominations still don’t have it in their Bible and many don’t read from it. Religion, like philosophy, is defined as a discussion that is never really settled.

It is not necessary for all us to become theologians and enter into the fray of arguing about whether or not fundamentalists are right or not. In fact, it is better to keep some mystery. That is, if you want to keep people coming back every Sunday. When questions about why God does not heal amputees can’t be answered, the answer is that God works in mysterious ways and we can’t know his ways. The most liberal “spiritual but not religious” person uses some version of that. Most religious traditions have something about people not being able to know the mind of God, we are supposed to always only be on a path toward something that we don’t completely understand.

The answer to what is a Christian is very broad. I would put a minimum requirement of accepting that Jesus did something for humanity. After that, any argument should only be between Christians themselves. Leave the rest of us out of it and leave it out of public schools and government. If anyone brings up that they have a special friend who knows everything, therefore that friend is right and can’t be argued with, then the argument is over. That type of absolutism does not belong in the public square and is simply not reasonable. Unfortunately, for most people who get elected in the US government, and for many people just getting along in their community, they have to pick the right special friend.

God is the God beyond God

Karen Armstrong tells the story that the rabbis, when asked “what is Torah” answered, “it is the interpretation of Torah”. She thinks that means something about it being good to always be working through these ideas. She also thinks “God is the God beyond God” means something. She is no more capable of getting out of the trap of religion than a person who was raised in a fundamentalist church, home schooled and not allowed to use the internet. If anything, a fundamentalist has made a deal with God and may at some point realize that bargain was not made fairly. Their break from religion may be painful, but it will be clean. A liberal Christian has no such deal and can continue to find comfort in religion simply by altering their relationship to it.

I’m thankful that I live in a modern world where there are Christians who use scripture to support ideals of feeding the poor and being in fellowship with homosexuals. And it’s great that the government is not arresting them. But that’s my government. With these modern advances also comes dealing with other governments and convincing them that it is better to treat their citizens with the same respect. We’ve tried leaving them to their own devices and that has not gone well.

When we get to the discussion of human rights, the usefulness of the religious argument breaks down. The basis of the religious argument is that God is right. The argument then shifts to who is right about God or sometimes it is which god. That argument has never been settled and it can be demonstrated why it never will be. Even if I accept that some god is sending some people messages, those messages are no more decipherable than the combined wisdom from all of human history. In my opinion, they are considerably less decipherable and less useful. We are not going to figure out which religion is right, we are going to have to figure out how to get along by talking to each other.

Back to Basics

Getting back to where this came from, the first thing that made me really question the liberal view of fundamentalists was the Nicean Creed. Very few churches are so liberal as to avoid ever reciting it. It contains most of what I listed in the above summary of the pamphlets. It goes all the way back to the 4th century, when Constantine got tired of those early sects arguing all the time. There are many myths and legends about what happened at the Council of Nicea, but that motivation for it, to get them to agree so violence in the kingdom would be reduced, is pretty well agreed upon.

Often forgotten, is that before bringing the Christians together to settle their differences in 325, Constantine wrote an edict of religious tolerance in 313. This allowed Christianity to be practiced without prosecution from the Roman authorities. Constantine did not make Christianity the law of the land. That came later. In fact, he at first embraced the Nicean Creed, but later regretted that. His famous baptism near his death was done by an Arian bishop. Again, we don’t all need to be theologians and know the difference between the Arian and Nicean versions of the Trinity, we just need to know that they were different and that they fought about it.

Depending on who you ask, the fighting either ended or was taken to a new level in 381 AD. That year, Theodosius, who had come from the Nicean western half of the Roman Empire to be emperor in the Arian eastern half, passed an edict declaring Christianity the only legal religion in the empire. This was fundamentalism on steroids. If you look up Theodosius in theCatholic encyclopedia online, it says he “expelled” Arians from the empire. Sounds like a nice word, but “ethnic cleansing”  would be more accurate.

This was not just a law to support Christianity, it was for a certain type of Christianity. The details of which involved something about the Trinity, whether the son comes from the father and/or the Holy Spirit or some such nonsense (See the link to the Nicene Creed above). Because it was no clearer then than it is now, enforcing it had its challenges. To do so, the Roman army was authorized to burn books and the people who attempted to hide them. Soldiers were not trained in theology and did not spend much effort sorting out what they destroyed. The next couple centuries were the worst for Catholics destroying pagan temples and works of philosophy and science.

These are also the centuries when Christianity increased its following many fold. No wonder, if the empire is not only supporting it and building churches, but also eliminating your competition. There was descent at the time that has survived, men such as John Chrysotom, and there are many today who label this as the time when church was hijacked by “corporate rule”. It may be true that Augustine used Platonic philosophy to harmonize the gospels with Roman law and make them acceptable to the elite. But what exactly was hijacked?

Saint Augustine’s work in creating the final form of the Nicean Creed has survived all forms of Protestantism. Peter and Paul had debated circumcision, dietary laws and how to obtain salvation. The more egalitarian, philosophical days inspired by St. Peter were replaced with the harsher rules of St. Paul (Note some may argue that the Paul was not harsh. I’m referring the Pauline writings in the Bible). After a few centuries of enforcing that theology, common wisdom would be that the Church fathers had worked out the difficult questions of Jesus’ message for us. A thousand years later, when more Bibles were printed and in a language more people could read, that would be questioned.

What you do to the least of these, you do to me

Military force alone was probably not the only factor in changing Christianity from several small sects meeting in homes, helping their neighbors and tending to community needs into an integral part of an evil empire. I think it had to be a flaw in the philosophy itself. There is nothing wrong with loving your neighbor, a common belief of many successful civilizations. And the more unique ideas of caring for “the least of these” is no doubt a reason for Christianity’s longevity. The flaw I believe is that they kept the idea from Judaism that these moral imperatives were imparted to us from an absolute authority that could not be questioned.

Worshipping Jesus and praying to the Lord most likely did not entail working out the details of how to distribute resources to both help the needy and maintain infrastructure to promote commerce. I doubt those early Christian communities spent any more time discussing exactly what it means to turn the other cheek than Christians do today. You would think that someone would have noticed that the Sermon on the Mount says both to “let your light shine before men” and “do not sound a trumpet before thee”. I know of no famous theologian who has ever mentioned it. It was pointed out to me by a famous atheist. For those early communities to grow, they would have had to work out these details. I know of no record of them attempting to do so.

Absolutely right

When all of your loyalty is put into a small set of rules, whether it be certain scriptures or certain charismatic leaders, there is a danger. If those rules fail, you are left with no system to come up with new ones. It is particularly dangerous when those ideas survive a generation or two so the loyalty is passed on to people who no longer need to prove the power of the ideas, they only need to claim knowledge of the earlier generations and point to the past successes. Claiming things were better in the past is always easier than dealing with the real problems of today. Once the miracles of Jesus were believed by enough people to create a culture, and some good could be seen coming out of that culture, the leaders were legitimized. Once it became a sin to question them, anything they did could be considered legitimate.

In the ancient world there was no difference between religious and secular life. How you prepared your food, how you dressed, and who you married was all tied into what you worshipped. Questioning what you wore meant questioning God. The Greco-Roman world was starting to come out of that when Theodosius and his might reversed it. He did not do this single handedly. I am only highlighting one of the many major turning points in the fall of Rome. For Christian history, it was a significant one.  

In AD 409, a Roman law states “If perchance any person should be convicted of having hidden any of these books under any pretext or fraud whatever and of having failed to deliver them (for burning), he shall know that he himself shall suffer capital punishment, as a retainer of noxious books and writings and as guilty of the crime of maleficium.” It only takes a few hundred years or so of laws like that to destroy intellectualism. It would be harder today with mass communication. But people are still trying. The 2012 Texas Republican Party platform states:

“We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
 
But that’s not my Christianity

I have covered the origins of Christianity and shown how current Christians are still influenced by those early scholars. But most people don't relate to a 5th century Roman emperor and many don't relate to the Texas Republicans. Some details of how those are connected can be found in my links at the end. I also think most people don't want to think about these early influences any more than they want to think about their founding fathers owning slaves. They say they are different, but don't explain how.

The affect that moderate have on all of this as a whole is, in short, very little. Moderates may be in the majority, but that is a reflection of how religion has been changed from the outside. When the Peace at Westphalia in 1648 took away power from the Vatican the Pope was not happy about it. Since that time the ideas supported by religions have had to compete on an increasingly level playing field with ideas coming from the whole of the human experience. That playing field is still not very level, but it is trending that way for now.

When the power of religion to organize is used to fight for something like civil rights, the source of the ideas is secondary to the power of the ideas. An ideal like equality couldn’t’ be claimed to be from a single cultural source, or by definition you would not be talking about equality at all. You be emulating the pigs in George Orwell’s 1984, saying you were more equal than those others.

When religion is used to organize and fight for political gains that include religious intolerance they are opposed primarily by the ideals of equality, fairness, freedom and the rule of law. If the opposition state their claims in ethnic terms, it will probably be considered a civil war and building a multi-cultural coalition will be difficult. The rest of the world is much more likely to come to your aid if you show you support egalitarian governance rather than simple military might.

When it comes to important social issues, there is no distinction between a moderate Christian who accepts homosexuality and a LGBTQ person who wants to marry a have children and has never been to church. When it comes to how you treat your neighbor, there is no difference between a moderate Muslim and the guy next door who was born in Turkey and doesn’t practice the faith, but he does shovel your part of the sidewalk. And here’s the key point, the moderates are different from the fundamentalist in the same way the non-religious are different from the fundamentalists.

To the fundamentalist of course, there is a big difference between themselves and moderates. Moderates are doing it wrong as far as they are concerned. To some that’s worse than doing nothing. The fundamentalist standing outside the abortion clinic doesn’t care if you are a moderate anything. And, the reasons for me wanting that fundamentalist to stop harassing people going into that clinic are exactly the same as a moderately religious person. You can attempt to engage them in a theological debate, but ultimately the discussion needs to be based on moral principles common to all cultures. Attempting to have the theological debate just legitimates the idea that proper interpretation of scripture matters to the unique situations of all the individuals involved.

But that was then, this is now

Rather than descend further into the darkness of how these ideas were past on for 2,000 years, I’d rather shift to some thoughts about what can be done about it. I have written about that if you want to explore more.

I’ve already mentioned that you can bring your special friend to the public square and claim him or her as your source of inspiration, but understand that is not a logical argument. If when you say, “love your enemies” or “house the homeless” you want to give credit to where you heard that, that’s great, I reference quotes all the time. But the idea still has to be weighed by the merits of the idea. If you say, “follow these rules and be rewarded in heaven, open your heart to the spirit of this one man and you will find understanding and guidance”, I’ll ask you to explain how that works and to give some evidence for it.
 
End on a high note

We can see examples of combining inspirational voices from the past with practical steps in the present by paying attention to our leaders. One of the great speech makers of the 20th century was Martin Luther King. In one of his last at Gross Point High he said “No lie can live forever” and he referenced it saying “as Carlisle said”. He wanted us to know who his inspiration was and wanted us to look that person up. As we all know, he also referenced the Bible frequently. But that was a speech, intended to inspire and rally to action. If we left it at that, it would not be much different than scripture.

If he were in a more intimate setting, he might agree that lies can in fact live for quite a long time. Oppressing the truth is a time tested tradition. It’s also true that oppressing truth takes resources, it takes constant pressure. And King did not just make speeches to get people to protest, he negotiated legislation, he gathered data and made a case to governments to change policies, he exposed the oppression using evidence and data and helped developed plans to end it. There was much more to Martin Luther King than great speeches.

I think people who look to the 1st century for answers are missing 20 other centuries, also full of answers. It’s easy to say that empires have failed and philosophies have failed and it’s a lot harder to figure out why. Martin Luther King is not here to tell us if he thought the answers were in the Bible, but his words and actions indicate he was looking to other sources of wisdom in addition to that one.

I’m not so sure looking for answers is the right approach anyway. It may be we just need to get the question right. Perhaps the question is, how do we build a caring community that seeks justice and lives in peace? Perhaps the question is not where is God, the question is where are we?

  

For further reading:

A.D. 381

God Laughs and Plays

Sense and Goodness Without God

Constantine’s Sword

 



Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Myth that there is a myth that religion causes violence

Last night I had the privilege to be at a dinner with a speaker who had come to St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN for a talk titled, “The Myth of Religious Violence”. He admits early on that there have been and still are people who abuse religion to promote violence. His thesis is a much more complex historical analysis of how we view religion today and how we justify violence. It has some very simple errors too.

When I had a chance to ask Mr. Cavanaugh a question after the talk, I found that he is very interested in reducing violence in the world and believes that one way to do that is to examine empirically (he used that word), what it is about religions that promotes violence and what in religion helps to build community and promote peace. Also, to be fair, and “level the playing field” as he says, we should apply those same standards and same questions to things like nationalism, something else that we know can be used to promote a strong secular society or can be used to get people to kill.

I thanked him for his time and said I think we are heading for the same goal, just along different tracks. I wanted him to have the experience of a respectful interaction with a non-theist, and I wanted to give others a chance to ask questions. Because, here’s the thing, I could have spent the rest of the night ripping his childish arguments apart. He may want to examine religion empirically, he may even believe he is doing it, I have to take him at his word, but once he starts doing that examination he does a horse shit job of it. He appears as a scholar who says “level the playing field”, but right underneath that is a big baby screaming that life is not fair.

He discussed Hinduism and Native American spirituality, two “religions” that before the modern definition of “religion” were just ways of life. For these indigenous people, their spiritual life was their life. Everything from how to plant their fields and build their homes to what caused the rain was tied into beliefs about how the world works. Beliefs that were arrived at through definitively non-empirical methods. He thinks it is funny that modern Europeans at first recognized this, but then proceeded to define which parts of their life were the religion and which were not. He also thinks it was a way to exert power over them by saying the things we, the colonizers, say are religion can only be done in your private life. We, your new government, will say what you can do in public life.

What he never addresses is, isn’t that what governments do? Whether they be theocracies or Kings anointed by Popes or spiritual circles or democracies, leaders decide when they will punish you for public behavior that is anathema to what they consider civil and right. What is different and new in our modern world is that citizens expect to have some say about those rules. He kept using the phrase “imposing our western liberal values” on the rest of the world. Those values are freedom of speech, equal pay for equal work and respect for the dignity of all. They are not strictly western, liberal or even modern.

When he talks about how the modern world defined certain aspects of social life that used to be normal, that were used to guide ancient people in decision making, but now we now call religion, what I hear is that people realized, through empirical means, that they were allowing their lives to be guided by superstition. In the past people saw no distinction between how we decided what to eat, who we slept with, how we choose our leaders and their superstitious beliefs in what was above the clouds because that’s all they knew, that’s what they were taught.

It is difficult to go back into history and determine what the Pope or King or Priest or peasant believed. It is just as difficult to know what Mr. Cavanaugh believes, because I have yet to here him say anything specific about his religious beliefs. In the end it is less important what those individual beliefs are, and more important what is actually true.

When Galileo looked to the heavens and realized his spiritual leaders were wrong, he knew he had a problem. Before that, we can hope that people who believed the earth was the center of all things were not lying, it was just what they knew. The concept of their being a religious belief different from a scientific belief would not have occurred to them. After that, if  they were intelligent enough to examine the evidence but insisted on teaching what they thought their God had told them, then they were teaching a lie. It doesn’t matter what kind of belief you call it, it matters that you can demonstrate the truth.

We know some people did lie. We know because we have a Pope who outwardly said he was an atheist. In Cavanaugh’s world, people like that can’t exist. He talks about the Roman word “religio” which covered many daily habits, habits we would call “secular” today. He talks about the Medieval world, where being part of a “religious order” referred to certain types of Orders. If you weren’t in one of those you were “secular”, you could still be a monk, you just weren’t in one of those orders. He leaves no room and no place for non-believers. And, if you look for atheists in Medieval Europe, you’ll find their words in the notes made by the inquisitors who were deciding if they should be burned at the stake. They weren’t published, they didn’t have public meetings, they didn’t have a YouTube channel.

I hate to be in a position of defending violence, but under the right circumstances, if my country, the one that states all men are created equal in its founding documents and has since improved on that statement to include women and non-white people who don’t own land and is still debating this and hopefully will continue to openly discuss these issues of human rights and human dignity, if that country was really threatened by a theocracy or a charismatic dictator, I would kill to defend it. I would kill, and risk dying for Mr. Cavanaugh’s right to worship whatever the hell he wants because we are living in a country where he has agreed to allow me to not worship at all.

I hold that right as sacred, it defines who I am and I find it completely reasonable to defend it. Freedom isn’t free. I have considered the path of the complete pacifist and I admire those who would hold that ground while a tank rolls over them, but every legal system has a provision for self defense, even the laws of Moses. If Cavanaugh and I were to sit down and examine every war throughout history I expect we would agree 99% of them were unjust. If we were to discuss why they were unjust or what justice means, we’d probably end up poking each other in the eye because we couldn’t agree at all.

Cavanaugh never says what he would like the world to look like because I think if he tried, his entire thesis would fall apart. It is easy to say the word “religion” has a modern meaning. Most words mean something different from what they meant 500 years ago. It’s easy to say we have privatized religion, because we have. I can think of many great reasons for doing that. Cavanaugh never addresses them, he just quote mines Harris and Hitchens and scoffs at their worst arguments, arguments that many atheists distance themselves from. He says nationalism is just as bad or worse than religion at promoting violence, but he never delineates when nationalism goes wrong or acknowledges the value of the modern nation state that gives us clean drinking water and defined borders so we can negotiate peace and so we can live under a rule of law.

When he talks of what I guess he thinks is a better time, when we all lived a spiritual life, I wonder how he thinks this could be applied to the modern world. Does he imagine Barack Obama addressing the nation on national television saying, “Ladies and gentleman, our friends and allies in the Mideast face a grave threat, but last night I had a dream. I dreamt that a beam of white light shown upon the White House and a pure energy of love and forgiveness flowed through that light. Then a dark cloud appeared over northern Iraq and I knew it was our bombers and our aircraft carriers that must carry that light to them.” They would be swearing in Joe Biden before he finished the next sentence.

I have no problem using myth and story to express an idea. What I have a problem with is abusing that language to promote violence. It is too easy to do. If our president spoke that way, we would have the additional burden of first interpreting his vision and his symbolism to understand what he was justifying then we could start the reasonable conversation about dealing with innocent people being caught in the middle of a conflict partly caused by ancient beliefs in who is destined to control the land and partly caused by recent actions by us to control the resources just below that land. Fortunately, we live in a world where language like “God told me we must smite the enemy” can be questioned without the act of questioning first being considered godless, which 500 years ago meant evil. It was something that you could only express in private and even then, there were no laws protecting your right to express that thought. Your friends or family might call you out and label you a heretic which had much worse consequences than being unfriended on Facebook.

In the last question of the night in front of the audience, a friend of mine asked about how he figured we could allow for the irrational and superstitious beliefs of religious people to be tolerated and even incorporated into daily life. My friend acknowledged that not all religious beliefs are irrational, but when they are, they are the end of rational conversations. Examples could be given about allowing foreigners to cross our borders for work, or allowing same-sex couples equal rights, or a woman having control over her body, or the right to make an end of life decision. Cavanaugh responded that what stops conversation is when one person decides that the other person is irrational. If two people come into a conversation and one concludes the other is irrational based strictly on the knowledge that they are religious, then the conversation is over, it never gets started. He says we can open conversations and prevent violence by entertaining others' beliefs.

My friend recognizes the difference between rational and irrational and happens to find a lot of irrational beliefs in religion. Cavanaugh also apparently recognizes the difference between rational and irrational, but gives a lot more leeway to belief systems. I don’t know what he considers rational because he doesn’t discuss it. He also doesn’t discuss how one can have a rational conversation with an irrational person. The only thing left to discuss is specific beliefs and how those beliefs inform actions. The world has been moving ahead with that for 500 years. Mr. Cavanaugh apparently wants to reverse that. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Liberating Theology


I recently got into a bizarre Facebook foray with a local theologian. He welcomes many viewpoints into his circle so someone posted a list of problems with Christianity. Knowing him, I know several of the items in the list are ones that he agrees with. He has promoted Liberation Theology throughout his life, a philosophy which has no problem speaking out against the authority of the church that has provided him with a job. 

So when he dismissed the list as “reductio ad absurdum” and a bludgeon, I was surprised. When I pointed this out using equally strong language, he doubled down and asked for permission to simply defend his faith. I didn’t give him that permission. I’ve been trying to figure out why he thinks he deserves it.

This is probably hard for him to see because people in his position have enjoyed this special privilege for thousands of years and they’ve taught that anyone who has this faith should expect the same special consideration. That expectation is based on a few special actions by a few people a long time ago.  

Jesus was a rebel who opposed the Roman power structure. He and/or his followers started a movement based on strong moral values. Jesus and his followers had a degree of claim to the moral high ground because they were protesting a corrupt, depraved system in the midst of political and moral decay. They had good reason to rebel against it, and they did it with a high degree of respect for the people caught up in that system. They did a better of job of it than our more recent peace movement against Vietnam. They hated the oppression but loved and forgave the soldier.

Paul overstepped his bounds when he wrote about women not speaking in church and what is shameful in bedrooms. Once he had decided he had found a divine and absolute authority, he felt he could interpret it however he wanted. That is the error of all religions and it amazes me that it continues to be repeated. The Bible is contradictory because any  attempt to reconcile justice and mercy, authority with compassion, is going to be difficult and fraught with contradiction. We have a history of people trying to find absolute truth, but we treat it as if they had found it.

There may be an absolute right way to handle criminals and ignorance and blind hate, but we are all only ever on a journey to discover that. If Jesus had it or found it, he did a lousy job of passing it on. Praying to him or singing songs about him is not going to recover it. It’s more likely that he didn’t have anything that hadn’t been discovered before, he just had some good writers around him at the right moments.

I admit it is amazing that he could respond to such cruelty and violence with reason and compassion, and I’ll even give that he created some new pieces of a worldview that we are just beginning to experience on the worldwide scale. But I only give him that based on the quality of the writings that are his legacy. Those writings don’t depend on him actually existing, let alone him having risen or any expectation that he will return. Anything written that uses his name but lacks quality should be judged as such. 

It is a twist of history that those who opposed the authority of the Catholic Church were viewed not just as disruptive to the corrupt power structure, but also to the moral structure. Somehow an institution that was corrupted by power managed to maintain its authority as a keeper of morality. It doesn’t matter any more how that happened. That power has been tamed and should only be granted based on the same standards we bestow any authority. That is, by reason and demonstrated truth.