Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A Call for Posters

First, a sincere thanks to everyone who has come by and commented! The comments are what this site is all about -- we want discussion.

But the top level posts are also important. This place is about dialogue, we really mean it. Right now, it seems that issues of faith and belief -- even the very nature of reality -- are at the heart of our politics right now. There is often a lot of common ground between liberal religious people and non-religious people, and we want to find it. We also want to be clear about what ground we do not share, and whether and why and how much that matters.

Dread Pirate Roberts and I have been carrying the posting load lately, but we need theists to make this site work the way it is supposed to. It could be you! If you are interested in posting here, please send an e-mail to DPR or me (if you've been hanging around these precincts of cyberspace, you know how to find us), or leave a comment here, and we'll take it from there.

This is a moderated board, so not quite everything goes, but we're pretty open minded. We look forward to hearing from you.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Carnival of the godless

check it out. the dread pirate roberts leads off the current Carnival of the godless #9

Friday, March 25, 2005

Moving on to the "C" Word.

actually there are two, closely related "c" words to discuss: conception and contraception. okay. one word and the same word with a negative prefix. some regard any attempt at birth control--well, conception control--as a sin, and want to deny any mention of it in sex ed., not just for our own children, but for adults all over the world. no intercourse without procreation! or at least the possibility of procreation. so no mention of condoms is allowed, let alone birth control pills. but wait. there is the venerable rhythm method, augmented by modern scientific knowledge of changes in body temperature and vaginal mucus viscosity. so if a woman avoids intercourse during her "fertile" time while carrying on during her "safe" time isn't that fudging? isn't that having sex with the direct design of avoiding procreation? i'll leave that question for individuals to wrestle with in private.

so how well is this notion of withholding information from teenagers about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and safe sex, mentioning only abstinence, working out? we recently found out from a survey of teens who took the "virginity" pledge that they get as many STDs as other teens. how can that be? they maintain their "virginity" by having unprotected oral and anal sex! which brings us to the other benefit, the first being the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, of condoms, which also protect against the transmission of STDs, including the current biggie HIV. so our government refuses to fund any HIV education program that includes the use of condoms because condoms stop sperm as well as pathogens.

are we short of humans? i don't think so. is there an epidemic of a barely treatable sexually transmitted disease? why, yes. but so what. god says go forth and multiply and our biology enables us to do so. miracles are rare and wondrous events. while we are apparently hard wired to love and protect our own offspring as well as thinking each unique, one might suppose that by now we would stop seeing birth as miraculous. how many does it take to become mundane? and what sort of perverted morality blames the people who get infected with HIV when they satisfy a wholly human impulse?

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Buddhism 101

Gosh, I'm kind of disappointed that only two people had anything to say about Buddhism. Evidently there isn't as much knowledge about it out there as I had presumed. I am not a Buddhist, by the way, in case anyone is getting the wrong idea; I take insights where I can find them. So this is the best I can do as an interested dilettante. And, as I suggested below, I am looking at Buddhism from a foreign perspective. Any real Buddhists out there who want to set me straight, please come ahead.

Buddhism has evolved, of course, since Siddharta Gautama's day. The Theravada, or southern school, which originated in Sri Lanka and spread through Southeast Asia, is closer to the original. The Mahayana school, which originated in China and spread to Japan and Korea, is more familiar in the United States, in the specific form of Zen. Many years ago I tried to tell a friend about Buddhism and she said, oh yes, she met some Buddhists and they just said that if you chant NAM-MYOHO-RENGE-KYO over and over again every day, you'll get whatever you want. Alas, there is a cult that believes this, which calls itself Buddhist. That is like calling Heaven's Gate a Christian denomination, however. These beliefs have nothing whatever to do with the teachings of Siddharta Gautama. (NAM-MYOHO-RENGE-KYO is the title of a famous sermon of Sakyamuni, which means more or less The Lotus of the True Doctrine.)

Anyway, Sakyamuni's teaching can be summarized as having four major components. These are:

  • The four truths;
  • The eight-fold way;
  • The impermanence of all created things;
  • The non-existence of self.
The four truths are:

  • Existence is suffering;
  • The cause of suffering is desire (or attachment);
  • People can achieve liberation from suffering;
  • Liberation is achieved by following the eight-fold way.

The eight-fold way is:

  • Right views
  • Right intention
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right concentration.
The first seven steps on the path translate fairly straightforwardly into English, but "concentration" refers to a state attained in meditation, not to focusing intently on your work. A Buddha means a person who is awake, or illuminated. It refers to someone who has followed the 8-fold way and become liberated from suffering and illusion.

The idea that life is suffering does not mean that we are always suffering or never happy. However, pain and disappointment are the fate of all. Whatever we can acquire of worldly wealth, it is never enough. Whatever loving relationships we form, death will always end them if nothing else does. Whatever we want for our family, our town, our people, our society, our world, most of it we will never have. Suffering, then, arises from selfish craving. There is not space here to discuss impermanence and not-self, but for now I will just say that both of these ideas help to guide us on the 8-fold way to liberation, by showing us the futility of egoism and of clinging. The Buddhist ethic is one of selflessness and compassion. Wanting things for ourselves is ultimately the cause of disappointment and pain; caring for others, without clinging or selfish desire for material or emotional rewards, is part of the way to liberation.

To a humanist or realist, Sakyamuni's arguments are particularly respectable because he insisted that no-one should take anything he said on faith. His epistemology is empirical -- try it, and see if it works. Also, there is no moral pressure on anyone to either be a Buddhist or to follow the 8-fold way. When the time comes, and one is ready, it is there. If you're busy wallowing in worldly pleasures, that's your own business.

Now, Buddhist tradition gets into all sorts of abstruse metaphysics and complex philosophical wrangling that would put western academia to shame. I'm not going there. But does this make sense to people so far? Are these ideas religious, or are they something else? If you believe in God, do they still make sense? What is the relationship between the Buddhist form of inquiry, theology, and science?

Sunday, March 20, 2005

An Interesting Person

Siddhartha Gautama was a philosopher and teacher who lived about 500 years before Jesus. Like Jesus, he left no writings of his own, and we know him only through oral tradition transcribed some decades after his death. His ethical beliefs were mostly consistent with those of Jesus, but their beliefs were radically different in many other ways.

Today Gautama is usually called Sakyamuni, or the Buddha. Sakyamuni just means a monk who comes from the Sakya clan. As I understand Mr. Gautama's ideas, however, it seems inappropriate to call him "the Buddha" because he always said he was just an ordinary person and that anybody can be a Buddha. Sakyamuni is regarded as the founder of one of the world's major religions. It's pretty hard to exceed an accomplishment like that. But in his case, it is also quite ironic.

It's not clear that his teachings have very much to do with religion as it has been generally understood in either the European Classical or Judeo-Christian worlds. He did not go out of his way to deny the various gods and mythical beliefs of his culture, but he had no interest in them. He said that first causes are unknowable. His concern was with humans.

According to the tradition, which there is no reason to doubt insofar as its non-fanciful core, he was scion of the ruling family of a region which is now in Nepal. His childhood and early youth were sheltered and luxurious. As an adolescent, as he was travelling with his family from a winter to a summer palace, he noticed along the way poor people, old people, sick people, and a funeral procession. He also saw ascetics -- holy men who had renounced worldly things for religious seeking. He became preoccupied with the problems of suffering and mortality. As what we today would consider a young man, at 29, he is said to have renounced his inheritance and gone to seek answers to these problems from established spiritual teachers.

He came to reject the asceticism they taught him -- long fasting, enduring exposure and other forms of deliberate discomfort. He sought advice from others but was not satisfied. Finally (and this does seem a bit fanciful), he is said to have sat down at the foot of a fig tree and declared that he would not rise from the spot until he had seen the truth of suffering and release from suffering. I don't know what it is about 40 days, but that's how long he was supposedly sitting under that tree. Presumably he had a buddy to empty his chamber pot.

Anyhow, he got it. Upon arising to proclaim his insights, he attracted a community of followers, at first all male. Women eventually asked to join the community, called the sangha. The tradition says he resisted at first, but then agreed. So there have always been Buddhist nuns as well as monks. Historically, men have been far more important than women in the written record of Buddhist thought and deeds, but that is because of the cultures in which Buddhism has been embedded. There is no doctrinal reason why women cannot act equally with men as teachers and writers of Buddhist-inspired thought.

Sakyamuni had learned the techniques of meditation from the Hindu tradition, but he interpreted his experiences in meditation in a radically new way. What is most striking, he said that the Self -- a central concept in Hindu metaphysics, something like the Christian Soul and said to be a manifestation of the ultimate -- is an illusion. A great irony, which I feel certain would have greatly displeased him, could he have known about it, is that popular religious traditions grew up in which Siddhartha Gautama's historical personage was elevated to the status of a God, and people prayed to him. This is antithetical to his ideas and purposes.

A notable and confusing development has been the penetration of Sakyamuni's ideas into a segment of the traditionally Judeo-Christian world. Many people, like me, are now seeing him from the perspective of the post-Enlightenment, looking directly at a complex individual embedded in a culture we know almost nothing about, jumping over two and a half millenia of historical development of Buddhist ideas and practices.

Sakyamuni's ideas have turned out to be of considerable interest to atheists, agnostics, and liberal theists. Even stripping out some basic beliefs of his time and place which his Western admirers do not share -- the most essential being reincarnation -- his system holds together and seems relevant to existence in our world, no matter how remote from his.

Before providing a precis of his ideas, or saying anything about how I respond to them, I'd love to hear from others. I'm sure many of the people who come here have learned about Buddhism and thought about Buddhist ideas. So tell us how you respond to Sakyamuni and to Buddhism.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Til Death do us Part

the folks that want to control the beginning of life also lay claim to the end. no birth control. no abortion. no sex ed. now we don't have the sense to know our own minds about death either. the supremes are cogitating on oregon's assisted suicide law. one of the supremes is brother scalia, who recently said during oral arguments about the display of the ten commandments ".... a symbol of the fact that government derives its authority from God.” apparently forgetting that the declaration of independence states that ".......Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...."

so i'm made in god's image and i have free will but my exercise of that will is subject to the official gatekeepers of god's will. it's bad enough to have them telling me what god wants. now they have roped in disability advocates who think i want to kill the disabled, and advocates for the aged who are convinced i want to kill old people, or at least trick them into dying. in both instances these advocates are claiming to know more than the disabled or the aged, as well as impugning the motives of those in favor of legal medically assisted suicide.

i do understand that people who are disabled in some way and people who are old don't want to be encouraged to die and i certainly don't encourage anyone to do so. after all, i'm getting older and aging lessens everyone's abilities in some way. i want society to grant everyone the expectation of respect, and i want that respect to extend to the careful, conscious decision that one's life is done. i don't want you to kill yourself, that's up to you. i want us all to have the right to that option, after going through all of the rigamarole that an enabling law such as oregon's requires.

in june of 1997 the supremes ruled that that there is no constitutional right to physician assisted suicide, upholding laws in new york and the state of washington banning that practice. the court implied that there was no constitutional bar to a state permitting such a practice.

Justice Rehnquist wrote:

"Throughout the nation, Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality and practicality of physician-assisted suicide. Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in an democratic society"

so the concept of state's rights is fine for banning physician assisted suicide and banning gay marriage but not for enabling either of those, or the medical use of marijuana. is there a religious view that would grant me the right to the option of assisted suicide? at the end of the day, as philosophers say, medical intervention or law may delay death, but we all have a right to die, as it comes with life. no one gets out alive.

save your meds. do the research. be prepared.

Update: from the New York times, Monday, March 21

In a 2004 Gallup survey, 65 percent agreed that a doctor should be allowed to assist a suicide "when a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in pain," up from 52 percent in 1996.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

On S/he who loves and knows us...

There was a call for a feminine concept of God. Here she is, as requested, as conceived one morning, while in prayer for a friend who was bravely facing surgery that had her life hanging in the balance. My friend was had such courage and confidence, and I felt so scared for her. Her chances of survival were minimal, but she did survive. A group of friends and acquaintances took turns through the day and night in the weeks before and after her surgery, storming heaven with our prayers. Afterward her doctors were startled by her vitality and healing.

The poem, is not like much of the heady intellectual stuff we've posted here previously. Still, perhaps it's time we try going about this from a different way of knowing, to try to feel some of the meaning beneath these arguments. To that end, I offer you this.

Bothie an Draoineach- The Weaver's Hut~
The whitewashed doorframe timbers,
A cold smooth threshold underfoot
And beyond, that great Oak.
Fragrance of box hedge
mixes with lavender, mint and thyme
crushed between flagstone slates of purple, rose and blue.
But I've arrived at the Weaver's hut
Long before my expected time.
Within I hear the moaning tune
Of Herself at the work,
Weaving in shadow and light.

Loving it all,
Blessing it as it is and soon shall be,
Conceiving more than I
With my five senses and
These three dimensions
Might ever perceive.

Does the thread follow her dreaming,
Or are her hands led by each image's longing to be made?
Maybe they twist themselves to tell the story,
Glimmering, beckoning on their bobbins,
Longing to be unwound, involved in a pattern
Which to my novice eye is all a tangle?

Dare I enter here? --To behold how
All I am is but a bit of thread wrapped round some sticks
To be blown in the wind and washed in what waters I cannot say?
I've stumbled on her dyer's garden and her doorway,
Surely I cannot come in.

Still I sit and imagine
crossing that threshold.
What welcome may there be
as I enter this first home?
The promise is for more than bones...
I'd be greeted with a meal
And allowed to stay.
An apprentice to the work.
I might carry sticks for the fire,vneeded in the making of dyes.
I’d learn the cultivation of those herbs-Madder, Marigold and Wode-
glean the intricacies of spinning such stuff,
unwinding the silk cocoons...

But surely my hands roughened from the work
Would stick like nettles to each thread.
While She who's toiled in the making of each day,
Who delights in an eternity of work as play,
Seems but to caress the silk cap,
And each strand falls aligned by its inner nature.

Aye, I could hew the wood
Or dig the garden patch,
Lay the table,
Make straight each place of rest,
But past the portal I dare not go, not yet.

It’s enough for now to know the house is here.
In a dream a Wise Woman told me long ago,
I may one day enter in, only take it slow.

So I rest on the doorstep of the Weaver's hut
Wary of the lessons I have yet to learn,
But praise Her
Who sings the aching song.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Reason to Believe

another country heard from, metaphorically speaking, as i am still in the usa, although fairly close to the border with canada. i have followed the previous discussions with great interest, and occasionally the fascination one has with a train wreck. though i am unqualified to formally debate epistemology i do have some opinions. here goes.

Reason, science, and knowledge are not synonyms. i think they have been conflated a bit, not necessarily explicitly, but inferentially. and science is not an antonym to religion. one may have faith (complete confidence) that the scientific method is the most rational approach to the study of the natural world, and one may have faith (belief in supernatural power). knowledge (wikipedia informs me) may be a posteriori (learned) or a priori (from introspection). science leans toward learned knowledge, faith towards introspection. religion, all too often i think, depends on dogma and cultural transmission of someone else's received knowledge. we would all be better off if more people were skeptical of second hand revelations.

i do not believe that there is a personal god, or rather i believe that there is not a personal god, as the only evidence of god seems to be the assurance of other humans. yes, i am discounting our very existence as evidence of a deity. i have had my own experiences of the oneness of existence and was deeply moved and consider those moments important in the development of what little maturity i have. but there was no sense of a god or anything with which i would have a relationship beyond what we mostly agree is physical reality. i do not deny the reality of others' experiences of god's existence but must assume they are misinterpreting such an experience. i do, on the basis of my own subjective experience, suspect that consciousness may be non-local, but i haven't made any decisions based on that suspicion.

so far as religion encourages people to positive virtues such as compassion, truthfulness, and respect for all and enjoins murder, theft, assault, and slander i see it as positive, and i am pleased when religious or spiritual people come to a universalist ethical stance. but the strictures around birth, death, and sex are too often an insult to humanity. i consider the attempt to make birth control unavailable to anyone, for instance, to be immoral. we don't even have to look further than today's news to see the influence of religion in war. all sides claim divine backing. so i see big R Religion as a curse on humanity. our cross to bear, if i may make light here.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Is Nothing Sacred?

I'm sorry that Philalethes has had to struggle with the limitations of Haloscan in responding to my post below. He is welcome to continue our discussion on his own board (but please link back and alert us), or to post here, as far as I'm concerned. For those who thought my previous post was intemperate, I just ask you to read Philalethes's original post, to which I linked, and decide for yourselves whether my response was proportionate and in keeping with the tone he had established.

I think that rather than continue to respond point by point, and risk an adversarial dynamic with my friends, I would like to begin at the beginning. In my last two posts, I have been striving, apparently unsuccessfully, for clarity. People are upset with me for using words like god, faith and religion in the ways they are usually used in English, to have the referrents they normally have in public discourse. When George W. Bush talks about faith, and God, he isn't talking about the kinds of personal experiences of transcendence that Speechless discusses here: he is talking about organized systems of very specific beliefs centering on an all powerful, sentient being purported to have created and to rule the universe, who demands specific forms of worship and who makes promises to the faithful and threats to the rest of us.

Before we can have a discussion, we need to agree on the meaning of our important terms. Otherwise, we will not really be communicating. I requested two posts down that before people engage in discussion about whether God exists, they define the term. If God, to you, means an entity which does not intervene in the universe, is not in the universe, does not communicate with humans, and has no describable properties, I would say that is a pretty good definition of something that does not exist. (I am reminded of the Gahan Wilson cartoon, of priests and acolytes bowing down before an empty pedestal. A passerby asks, "Is Nothing sacred?") For an entity to exist, it must be part of the observable universe. Its existence must have consequences, we must be able to detect it. We cannot say that we have detected something unless we know what its properties are so that we can distinguish it from any other entities we might detect.

So this is all I ask. We're here because we want to have dialogue. We want to learn what common ground people share, where our beliefs may differ but not in any way that seems to matter, and where we disagree in important ways. We hope to resolve the latter or at least to better understand our disagreements. Please do not call me ignorant, or denigrate my intelligence or my learning, as some have done. That does not help to make your case.

Just address the issues at hand. If you believe in God, or you wish to defend faith as a partner of reason, first define your terms. What do you mean by God? What do you mean by faith? If you do believe in this God, however defined, why do you have this belief? If in the process you wish to distance yourself from most people who call themselves religious, that's fine; but then don't be angry with me for criticizing beliefs which, as it turns out, you also criticize. Let's keep the discussion on topic. Everybody who is sincere, constructive and thoughtful is welcome here, and I at least promise to eschew ad hominem arguments.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Humanist ethics, science, and religion

Our friend Philalethes is pretty upset by my comment that "the question of whether we proceed on the basis of faith or science has great implications for the future of humanity." Phila (who I was once pleased to defend as a lover of truth, not a stamp collector) seems to have two main objections:

  1. That the idea of such a choice is implausible because people will always have faith, so it is unrealistic even to propose a path without faith;
  2. Many scientists have behaved unethically, so we need (apparently) faith to make us good.
Phila offers no evidence for the first assertion, except for proposing that people cannot reliably distinguish truth and falsehood, by which he appears to mean to imply that scientific conclusions aren't really distinguishable from faith-based beliefs. I would note that a few centuries ago, no-one at all, as far as the historical record reveals, publicly claimed that God did not exist. Of course any European who did so would have been tortured to death by the Christian authorities, so we cannot be sure what some people may have believed in private. Today, however, I am one of a growing percentage of people in the United States and Europe -- including 60% of all scientists polled, by the way -- who do not believe in God and are willing to say so publicly. So there is a historical trend away from faith, at least in the so-called West.

As for our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, it is obviously imperfect (or people would not hold such false beliefs as the existence of God!) but the whole purpose of the scientific enterprise is to improve it. Humanists, realists, free thinkers, whatever you want to call us, begin with an attitude of skepticism. We don't believe anything on faith, or simply because some authority said so. We have standards of evidence. Even the greatest authorities, the most august personages in the pantheon (irony duly noted) of reason have no claim on future belief if the evidence takes us elsewhere. Newton's picture of the universe, with a fixed frame of reference, we now know to have been mistaken. It accounted for observations within the precision available in his day, but we now know that Einstein's theory was more accurate. This in no way diminishes our respect for Newton, of course.

Here are some examples of clearly distinguishable truth and falsehood:

The earth is at the center of the universe and the sun, planets and stars revolve around the earth,


The sun is at the center of the solar system and the earth and other planets revolve around it, but the sun is just one of some 100,000,000 stars that orbit the center of our galaxy, which is one of a couple of hundred billion galaxies that we can observe.

In sexual intercourse, the man implants a tiny miniature human in the woman's womb which grows into a baby,


The man deposits thousands of sperm cells which swim toward an ovum cell that originated in the woman's body. One of them gets there first and fuses with the ovum, whereupon each cell supplies one set of chromosomes to make up a complete complement of human genes. The cell then divides, and redivides dozens of times, with various cells following disparate paths of differentiation to produce the structures and tissues of the body.

Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed all believed each of the first propositions. We now know them to have been mistaken. In other words, knowledge advances. Indeed we can distinguish between truth and falsehood, if we care to use the methods of structured observation, measurement, and testable prediction -- supported by replication and intersubjectivity. That means, when Galileo asked the church fathers to look through the telescope, they refused, because they realized that if they were to see what he had seen, they would be forced to change their beliefs. As people of faith, they could not do that. They condemned themselves to live in ignorance.

Phila says that I am in error in saying that solutions to problems must be arrived at rationally. "That assumption is objectively false. The only coherent criterion for judging problem-solving behavior is its ability to solve problems. Double-blind studies can solve problems, but so can an inspired guess. So can drawing lots or flipping a coin. So can dreams, and in the case of Kekule's 'discovery' of the benzene ring's structure." First I would ask, how can any assertion be called "objectively false" if we cannot reliably distinguish truth from falsehood, or rationality is not the only path to truth? Phila contradicts himself before he even gets started.

But let us proceed down his path anyway. An inspired guess or a dream can provide us with a hypothesis, but Kekule didn't decide that benzene consists of a 6 carbon ring because of his dream: he proclaimed the hypothesis to be correct because it accorded with observation and logic. The dream was just a way in which his brain operated on the problem. And we draw lots or flip coins not to answer questions about what is true, but to make decisions about what to do when we lack other sufficient criteria or when we wish to be surprised, as in a game. This is an irrelevancy.

Next, Philalethes proposes that scientists, such as Joseph Mengele and the perpetrators of the so-called Tuskeegee Syphillis Experiment, have proven themselves capable of atrocities. He also points out that science -- by which in this instance he seems to mean technological developments rather than simply knowledge -- "could, at this moment, be leading us over a cliff." I most certainly agree with him about this. However, I don't see how faith is of the least help here. Indeed, it is people of faith who appear to be the biggest problem. Some of them deny the reality of global warming, and of evolution, which is the source of dangerous emerging infections and drug resistant variants of already common pathogens. Many ministers today, including those with the largest individual followings such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, preach from the pulpit that Christianity exalts the individual rights of property owners over the collective interest of the community, or that God demands we invade and bomb other countries.

It is a fact that humanity's powers, as enhanced by technology, have run dangerously ahead of our ethical consensus and our social organization. But surely faith is the last place we should turn for an answer. As I have said many times, here and elsewhere, ethics are an attribute of humans. We have ethical impulses, ethical principles, feelings of right and wrong, not because God put them in us but because evolution did. Ethics are essential to our adaptation as social beings with culture. Without ethics, we could not have society and without society, we would not survive. Culture, language, the ability to construct a bewildering variety of societies, codes of law, ways of life -- these make us unique among the species of the earth. But to understand our situation, and secure our future, we must look to ourselves. God, a mythical human invention, is not going to do anything for us at all.

That does not mean that science is going to tell us what ideas or behaviors are morally right, and it certainly does not mean that scientists -- people with certain training or credentials -- have any monopoly on ethical belief or reasoning, or that scientists ought to rule the world. I believe the precise opposite, that the danger of technofascism is as alarming as the danger of theocracy. We must democratize rationality, democratize knowledge, and above all democratize social decision making. But democracy can only succeed if the great majority are equipped with critical thinking skills, and are liberated from the blinding and controlling strictures of faith.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Getting down to brass tacks

"God" is a somewhat unusual word. Most nouns have what I would call a non-problematic referrent. If I refer to a horse, a cloud, a house or a banana, very few people are going to give me an argument about what those words really mean. Of course most words can have their meaning extended by analogy or metaphor, for example we might say that a running back is a "real horse," but that doesn't mean we have any confusion about what species Corey Dillon belongs to. We might argue about whether a particular structure is good enough to serve as a house, but we aren't disagreeing about what a house is, just our standards for habitability.

God is a horse of a different color. Most people say they believe in God, but they obviously aren't all talking about the same thing. Wikipedia has a straightforward, fair and balanced entry which begins, " God is one of many terms used to describe a perfect, supreme being, generally believed to be the ruler or the creator of, and/or immanent within, the universe ." We can see immediately that this definition excludes many (imagined) entities that are called God. The Greek and Roman Gods, for example, were neither perfect, nor creators nor rulers of the universe. They were more powerful than humans, but they all had their limitations and their ethics were often questionable, at best.

The major religions nowadays however tend to believe in something that more or less fits the Wikipedia definition but let's face it, it's kind of vague. Most people who call themselves believers in God insist on a great deal more specificity. For example, they may insist that God demands that we call a guy who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago his "son," and if we don't, he will torture us for all eternity after we die. They may insist that God doesn't want us to eat pork, or he hates homosexuals, or he loves everybody even if they are sinners, or he doesn't care what we do only that we repent. He's in favor of invading Iraq or he's against it. He wrote the Bible, he gave the Koran to Mohammed, he took human form as Jesus or Krishna or Quetzalcoatl, he's actually female or has no gender, he created the universe 6,000 years ago or yeah, it really is 13.5 billion years old but it was still his idea in the first place.

Of course, no matter what out of the above you believe or repudiate, if you believe that there is a perfect, supreme being who created and rules the universe, you have a problem, because from our point of view at least, the universe sure as hell ain't perfect. It's also obvious that whatever God may want us to do or not do, and you can pick 2 from column A and 3 from column B if you want to, the good go unrewarded and the wicked go unpunished. As a matter of fact, the undisputable empirical observation is that the universe is utterly indifferent to the fate of humans, individually or collectively. Many people pray, but it is apparent that prayers are answered, or not, at random. And come to think of it, there are frequently many people praying for contradictory outcomes. If God picks favorites in these situations, it isn't evident that he has any specific criteria.

So I have a couple of questions for all the believers out there:

  1. What is your definition of God? When you say you believe in God, what do you mean?
  2. How do you know what God wants of you? How did you come to make your particular choices from the menu?
  3. How is it that some believers in God came to make the right choices about what God is and what he/she wants, and some didn't?
  4. If God talks to you and tells you what to think, how come he appears to be telling other people something else?
  5. If God doesn't talk to you, but you depend on other people to tell you what God wants of you, why do you choose to believe those people and not others?
  6. Why, if God is the supreme ruler of the universe and he has particular ideas about what's right and what's wrong, does he not enforce his will?

Actually, I can think of a whole bunch more. But those will do for starters.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

That's ethics...get used to it

Can we consider the possibility that for many, their faith is not a set of ethics, written in stone, but a living growing thriving faith informing their actions?

Here’s a great description of this sense of God’s love making all things new written by my dear old Friend, Sally Rickerman: Explaining her journey toward universalism, Sally says it was her reading of the Old Testament book of Hosea which finally clinched the Universalist point of view for her.

Hosea demonstrated the validity of new revelations concerning the nature of God. His story helped validate for me that new insights and enlarged horizons are constantly available to those who seek with open hearts and minds.
As many realize, before the coming of this prophet, Jaweh was known as a mean, patriarchal, and vengeful god, one who had little love, forgiveness, or compassion in his makeup. Hosea's experience with his wife led him to reason from the specific to the universal, from the particular to the general, from the individual to the group. Based on this, he arrived at the amazing discovery that God was a god of love, acceptance and forgiveness.
The story, as we know it, described Hosea's desertion by his wife, who first became another man's mistress. Then Hosea became aware of her traveling down the primrose path to become the woman of many men. Her next step was to become a common prostitute, and finally she dropped to the depths of society to be sold as a slave. On the slave block in the market square, Hosea found her. Then and there he bought her. Not for vengeance, but for love! Not to humiliate her and grind her under his feet, but to elevate her once again to the position of mistress of his home. Then, it appears, he reasoned from the specific to the universal and concluded (paraphrased by me), "If I, a mere mortal, am capable of this love, acceptance, and forgiveness, surely the God whom we worship is capable of this and more."
Here lies the intellectual basis for my universalist beliefs. Namely, if I a mere mortal am capable of understanding that no Divine Spirit would eliminate from true enlightenment the 98 percent of the past, present, and future world population who have never heard and will never hear of Jesus, then surely the God whom we worship is capable of revealing the Divine Nature, with validity, through many prophets, in many cultures, and in many eras.

That’s a far better description of how I know take the teachings of Jesus, and how it’s understood by most of the Christians I’m associated with. You can claim what you want about how the rules are codified, but you’ll find that for Catholics and Quakers, there is an expectation that God has not stopped speaking, that the work of creation is ongoing.

For example: in the inner city, anything that isn't nailed down gets taken and reused one way or another, and that's not a bad thing. It's the quickest way round the corner to the jubilee. Everybody gets lucky sometimes, and the closer you are to the ground, the more you need to grab what you can. From the perspefctive of the person in need, it’s no more immoral than was the thievery that went into taking the resources from the ground in the first place.

My children and I have a way of coping with stupid things that happen. There’s a Frank Sinatra song, none of us know very well, but the chorus is “That’s life, get used to it…” So we’re driving and somebody cuts us off in the passing lane, if I start sputtering, one of them will start singing “That’s driving, get used to it…” Or if their father completely forgets that we’re going to my sister’s for dinner, and I’m grumbling about needing to wait for him to get home they’ll sing “That’s Daddy, get used to it…” Seems to me that most human ethics are likely malleable based on the situation at hand—That's human ethical systems, get used to it…

The notion that there is one rule, one “dentological” set of ethical principles which should be set in stone is nothing I’m familiar with as a Christian. I’ve come to see the moral relativism of our age as exhausting, but probably not that different from what went on in ages past. The systems which require clearly drawn lines are very earth bound institutions including governments and the church. None of that has much to do with the realm of Spirit, the Kingdom of Heaven. Parse these things too fine and you end up in the same boat with the scribes and Chief Priests at the Temple who tried to catch him in blasphemy or sedition by asking him whether it was right that they pay tribute to Caesar.

To Die For..........

the supremes have spoken. no more executing humans younger than 18. while i applaud the outcome i think the majority opinion strays from the constitution in its citation of public opinion in our country and of european penal practice. why is it more "cruel and unusual" to kill kids than adults? how much better would it have been if we hadn't relied on "activist judges" to decide that killing minors is a bad thing? surely a public decision by voters and legislatures would be much more satisfactory.

i have no qualms about the death penalty in principle. Richard Speck? Jeffrey Dahmer? Give me that lever. I'll pull it. Most cases are not so easy. Judges, juries, witnesses, and detectives are not always right, as we have found out lately through the exoneration of several death row inmates with the help of DNA testing. Fingerprint "experts" have also been found to be rather subjective in their identification of suspects. Some police and prosecuting attorneys have been revealed as ethically challenged or even outright liars. Defense attorneys are not always competent or properly diligent or even sometimes even awake during trial.

In light of these very real and difficult problems of fairness and justice i think we should stop using the death penalty now for anyone of any age.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Right and Wrong

Many religious people believe that God is the only source of morality -- that only by referring to God can we know right from wrong. Therfore, non-religious people must be wicked.

The kind of ethics found in the Old Testament is what the pedants call deontological, that is, rule-based ethics -- a list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots. The Ten Commandments are among the most famous such lists in the Old Testament -- but watch out -- there is more than one version. However, there are many more rules in the Old Testament of course. One which is a source of extreme contention in society right now, referenced recently by my friends here, is the condemnation of homosexuality. Christian conservatives pluck the rule that if a man lies with a man as with a woman, it is abomination, from among many other rules which they ignore. For example, a passage in Deuteronomy commands the Hebrews to commit what we today call rape, ordering them to take possession of the women of their defeated enemies. In Leviticus, God commands that people who perform work on the sabbath should be stoned to death, and that people with certain symptoms of skin disease should be driven out into the desert to die. The Bible most certainly does not define marriage as between one man and one woman. On the contrary, men may have as many wives as they can afford, and widows are commanded to marry their brothers in law, no matter if there are already other wives. Men may also keep concubines, that is, sex slaves.

The Gospels have Jesus largely replacing the deontological ethics of the Old Testament with ethics based on what are called principles. Rather than lists of specific commands for actions in specific situations, these are goals or aspirations which should guide our decisions about what to do in general. Matthew famously has Jesus saying that there are only two rules, to love God and love thy neighbor (which presumably does not mean only the family next door but whoever happens to be within one's sphere of action).

Humanists are generally not inclined to deontological ethics. Some have attempted systems of so-called utilitarian ethics, in which we try to order affairs to as to bring about desired outcomes. These are generally considered to have fallen short, however, for two main reasons. First of all, we don't have a crystal ball: it is usually impossible to foresee all of the consequences of our actions, or to analyze complicated social situations well enough to know how to go about maximizing "utility." More fundamentally, we need a set of principles to decide which outcomes are desirable, and how to prioritize them when they come into conflict, so we can't even get to utilitarianism without passing through principles.

It turns out that principles are characteristic of human beings. There are many basic principles that the vast majority of people will readily accept, and that is because evolution made them part of our nature. The selective advantage of our principles derives from the essentiality of society to human life and reproduction. We succeed only by working together, sharing, and helping each other. If we did not do these things, our clawless extremities, dull teeth and slowness afoot would doom us.

In practical application, ethical reasoning is perhaps most advanced in the field of medicine. There, people have generally come to accept the primacy of four principles, which are called justice, beneficence, non-maleficence, and respect for persons (or autonomy). Justice means treating people fairly. That does not necessarily mean treating everyone alike, as people may have different needs, and may, according to some other principles, not be equally deserving (although in medicine, physicians are usually enjoined from making the latter judgment if at all possible). Beneficence means trying to help people. Non-maleficence means not hurting people. This may seem redundant with the second principle, but it isn't entirely so, and most important, it is sometimes helpful in resolving conflicts between the second principle and the first and fourth. Autonomy means that people control their own persons, and have the right to make decisions about what should happen to them.

A fundamental requirement for applying these principles is deciding who or what constitutes a person -- a moral agent, with the status to lay claim to the protection of the principles. That discussion, which is a source of much discomfort in the modern world, I will save for later.

For now, I will just say that these principles are perfectly satisfactory to almost everyone who learns of them, without reference to religion or God. They are also consistent with the principles expressed by Jesus in the Gospels, but they are radically inconsistent with much of the deontological content of the Old Testament. That is why Richard Dawkins, a famous evolutionary biologist and committed atheist, once suggested printing up T-shirts reading "Atheists for Jesus." Upon reflection, it is not at all absurd.