Monthly Archives: July 2009

Agnostic or Free Thinker?

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis,”–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. To my great satisfaction the term took.

Thomas Henry Huxley

Haha, the bolded part definitely seems to be the case for me lately.

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The ‘Scales of Doubt’ Quiz

The ‘Scales of Doubt’ Quiz

*this is rather old but I like it. Taken from NPR article about Doubt the book.*

Answer “Yes,” “No,” or “Not Sure” to the following:

1. Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life?

2. Do you believe that some thinking being consciously made the universe?

3. Is there an identifiable force coursing through the universe, holding it together, or uniting all life-forms?

4. Could prayer be in any way effective, that is, do you believe that such a being or force (as posited above) could ever be responsive to your thoughts or words?

5. Do you believe this being or force can think or speak?

6. Do you believe this being has a memory or can make plans?

7. Does this force sometimes take a human form?

8. Do you believe that the thinking part or animating force of a human being continues to exist after the body has died?

9. Do you believe that any part of a human being survives death, elsewhere or here on earth?

10. Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?

11. Do you believe that love and inner feelings of morality suggest that there is a world beyond that of biology, social patterns, and accident — i.e., a realm of higher meaning?

12. Do you believe that the world is not completely knowable by science?

13. If someone were to say “The universe is nothing but an accidental pile of stuff, jostling around with no rhyme nor reason, and all life on earth is but a tiny, utterly inconsequential speck of nothing, in a corner of space, existing in the blink of an eye never to be judged, noticed, or remembered,” would you say, “Now that’s going a bit far, that’s a bit wrongheaded?”

If you answered No to all these questions, you’re a hard-core atheist and of a certain variety: a rational materialist. If you said No to the first seven, but then had a few Yes answers, you’re still an atheist, but you may have what I will call a pious relationship to the universe. If your answers to the first seven questions contained at least two Not Sure answers, you’re an agnostic. If you answered Yes to some of the questions you may still be an atheist or agnostic, though not of the materialist variety. If you answered Yes to nine or more, you are a believer.

From Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht. (Harper, 2003)

As always I’m somewhere floating in the middle. Sometimes I had a yes AND no answer to questions… its not that I’m not sure but I don’t think thinking and speaking are in the same category. What do you mean by speaking? Communicating? Speaking aloud? What if by just thinking the Super Mega Great Universe Powah sent out waves of thought to the minds of the inhabitants of the universe? Also why is memory and plans in the same section. What if the Awesome Extreme Existence Being is the great record keeper of all, remembering eternally all that has taken place but does not try to control the future?

Anyways an interesting quiz nonetheless.

Symbolic Immortality

From: Carlo Strenger’s article You’d better believe it: Daniel Dennett argues that many religious people don’t truly believe. But though I sympathise, it’s a case of wishful thinking Hopefully enough of a clipping to understand where I’m going with my thoughts.

What is Dennett’s problem, then? Why can’t he accept the facts, even though he professes to be guided by science? The reason for Dennett’s disbelief in belief is that, like Dawkins, he does not want to give up on the Enlightenment narrative that says that humanity inevitably evolves towards higher rationality. He can simply not let go of the idea that if humans have access to education and knowledge, they will inevitably move towards being secular atheists like himself – and like me, for that matter.

I identify with Dennett in that I’m also struck by the recalcitrance of religious belief to the enormous advances of science. I wonder how people who are brilliant and have access to as much information as I have, have beliefs that seem utterly irrational to me. And, like Dennett, I cannot let go of the Enlightenment narrative, in spite of evidence to the contrary. In fact, I don’t want to let go of it for two reasons: first, because it gives me some hope for humanity (and I live in an area of the world where hope is a pretty scarce commodity these days). Second, because fighting for Enlightenment values is a form of life that I’m deeply engaged in and gives my life meaning.

The findings of existential psychology show that humans need a cultural framework that provides them with symbolic immortality, or what is generally called meaning. This is the feeling that we are part of a larger whole, a religion, culture or movement that will survive our personal death. By contributing to this larger whole, we feel that we will not disappear without a trace. This is one of the major functions of cultural belief systems, and humans will often defend these belief systems with their lives; meaning and symbolic immortality, paradoxically, matter more to us than our individual lives.

Full article here.

My thoughts on belief in belief have been so PC lately I almost make myself sick. Anyways its still interesting to me. While this general idea that we need religion or any belief system so we can feel part of something is just a wee bit over simplfied for my tastes. The thought is also in this other article about Dorothy Rowe’s book. (another book for my ever growing reading list….)

At the launch of her new book, psychologist Dorothy Rowe said she intended it to act as a sequel to The God Delusion. Dawkins, she said, had posed the question: “Why do intelligent people believe this garbage?” In What Should I Believe?, Rowe gives an answer, though with less of a blanket judgment as to the rubbishness or otherwise of the religious outlook. In fact, her explanation could be used to understand any form of belief, Dawkins’ included.

She starts from the premise that our greatest fear is annihilation, not physical death, necessarily, but annihilation as a person. It is the desire to avoid this that motivates us throughout our lives. For some, religion is the answer, because it tends to suggest quite straightforwardly that life carries on after death.

To me this is not why I pursue the thought of God, or the creation of the universe. For me it is to understand my existence, and the world around me. I am open to all ideas in science and religion. Even if an idea is immediately discarded by me, I still feel I am closer to understanding something just by trying to understand someone else’s point of view.

The second article goes on to how its possible for bad things to happen even if there wasn’t religion. While religion seems to be the biggest excuse train these days, there are other excuse trains in the station.

Comments and arguments welcome.

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Good for Him! Jimmy Carter stands up for women’s rights!

I think its hard for someone who is part of a religious community to make a stand on one point. Organized religions are not just the beliefs but they also consist of a community. It seems like sometimes you have to accept ALL the aspects of a religion or quit/be kicked out.

It looks like Jimmy Carter decided to quit and over a very worthwhile cause! Good for him. I couldn’t agree more.

Losing my religion for equality

I HAVE been a practising Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

Full article here.

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The God Delusion – first thoughts

So with all the talk and thoughts about atheism this last week, I thought I should actually read the God Delusion. While I’m only a little ways in, I thought I should make some comments.

Dawkins brings up some very good points about organized religion and how it seems to get a free pass in the excuse lane. I agree that hate speech should not be allowed just because its “part” of their religion.

I also think terrible, horrible things have been done in the name of religion… but what about places that lack a major religion? Doesn’t the offending party just find some other excuse to take the place of religion? Though maybe Dawkins addresses this some place further in the book.

Either way I feel like I’m still at a middle ground. It’s not that I think people are justified to do whatever they want, but I don’t feel like its my place to tell them what to believe. I think people, over time, will generally move away from religion. While it would be nice to think this is something that will happen soon… its almost just as silly as religion itself to think it will.

Major social change takes time. How long have women been waiting for equal treatment? (And in some places still waiting) How long did it take (is it taking) for African Americans to have equal rights in America? Living in the northeast I still know older people that are generally racist. Of course they would be very ashamed to admit it. As younger generations grow up in a more accepting world, they in turn are more accepting.

When I was growing up in environmentalism was taught in schools a bit, so I am more aware of these things. In turn my kids are really saturated with it at home and at school, so now they are very aware of conserving water, electricity and waste. I’m amazed at how often they remined me to turn off my laptop or the faucet!

So while I think Dawkins points are very valid I think they are not as dire as he makes them sound. Change takes time. Focusing on educating children all the way through college is probably the best way to insure logically thinking future generations.

Either way I’m looking forward to reading the rest of his points, and I’m glad that it is a best seller. While some points might be exaggerated, it is definitely something that needed to be said. Though I still disagree with the title.

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Truth

Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it. -Andre Gide

Belief in Belief: Interesting Discussion

I’ve been reading and writing a lot on religion/philosophy/existence etc over the last couple days, and as a result of such, my brain is just bouncing around with arguments and thoughts. In the moments before I’m fully awake or asleep my brain auto pilots strange explanations for a God. This morning I woke up to my brain arguing atheism. I think this has to do with my inability to grasp exactly what I believe, so that when I come across a strong atheist post, I feel offended. I feel like they are calling me silly because I may or may not believe in a God.Which is odd because for the most part I think I side with atheists much more than theists. Anyways this is long and ramble-ly because I’m in the mood to write/think that way.

Anyways an question series in the Guardian on “Should we Believe in Belief?” has stirred up some interesting discussion. Highlights and comments follow:

From Karen Armstrong’s reply-  Metaphysical mistake: Confusion by Christians between belief and reason has created bad science and inept religion

“In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of attaining truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were crucial and each had its particular sphere of competence. Logos (“reason; science”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to control our environment and function in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external realities. But logos could not assuage human grief or give people intimations that their lives had meaning. For that they turned to mythos, an early form of psychology, which dealt with the more elusive aspects of human experience.”

Karen Armstrong’s reply talks a bit about logos and mythos and how dangerous it can be to confuse the two. To me its not that science and religion have to be separated, but that they are two ways of looking at the world. One with the mind, logically figuring out what makes sense, and one with the heart, emotionally navigating this strange existence. Nor should we always separate them. But you can’t always take emotional reactions and feelings and apply a logical structure to them.

“We often assume “modern” means “superior”, and while this is true of science and technology, our religious thinking is often undeveloped. In the past, people understood it was unwise to confuse mythos with logos, but today we read the mythoi of scripture with an unparalleled literalism, and in “creation science” we have bad science and inept religion.”

This is a big beef… taking the bible as absolutely literally is just about the silliest thing ever. I’m on board 100% with atheists on this one. Not only do most people pick and choose which parts to take absolutely literally, its 2000 year old ideas. While this is a wonderful base for idea and inquiry, stagnation of thought is dangerous and silly. You wouldn’t stop the development of medicine 2000 years ago and call it good.

So this is where I’m in the middle roads. I think telling people there is NO God is rude and presumptuous. Telling them to think outside the box (or book in this case) is a good cause. But we need to be careful how we tell them. Telling them God is a delusion or not great, is not a place to start the dialogue. This sensationalizes the debate and leads to hurt feelings and closed ears. It sells books, but to the wrong people.

From Daniel Dennett’s article – The folly of pretence: We must not preserve the myth of God – it was a useful crutch, but we’ve outgrown it

“Today one of the most insistent forces arrayed in opposition to us vocal atheists is the “I’m an atheist but” crowd, who publicly deplore our “hostility”, our “rudeness” (which is actually just candour), while privately admitting that we’re right. They don’t themselves believe in God, but they certainly do believe in belief in God.”

This is funny, because just above I talked about the rudeness of telling people there is no God. I am almost exactly the person he is talking about here. And honestly its not so much what Dennett, Dawkins, Harris or even Hitchens say about God that bother’s me its the crusade of followers. While the four horsemen usually debate these things perfectly reasonably, the general public, especially on the internet, can argue these things less than diplomatically. This is also very true of the other side of the debate.

Which is why I feel the debate should be moved away from the word God. God is a very personal thing. Even within the major religions, each person’s mental idea of God different.This is a sacred space. A place to retreat to when things are shitty, and a place to rejoice in when things are good. When you call this idea space a crutch, delusional or less than great, feelings get hurt.

From Baber’s reply – The philosopher’s God: There is no cabal seeking to pull the wool over peoples’ eyes. Many philosophers believe in God, and many more think the issue is not easily solved

“Most people I know are atheists. But they’re atheists of the old kind who have no particular interest in proselytising because they do not believe that anything of importance hangs on whether or not people believe in God and because they recognise that theological claims are controversial. Unlike the New Atheists they don’t think they have discovered, or invented, something new and interesting.”

I think this is interesting for the use of calling anyone that attacks God as a New Atheist. While it stirs up thoughts, I also think it is untrue. I somewhat agree with her article in general, because she seems to be calling for atheists to not attack God as an idea. Though her article is a little all over the place.

Yes the belief in God can be a dangerous vehicle for other ideas, but its not the major problem. Chip away at the ideas themselves and leave the center of the tootsie pop for another day.

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Falling in love…

with Killing the Buddha.

From Christian, for All Intents and Purposes:

I believe in reading sacred texts the way rabbinic father Ben Bagbag taught his students to read Torah: “Turn it over and over…And reflect upon it and grow old and worn in it.” I believe in poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s search for “the words under the words” of her Palestinian grandmother’s prayers. I believe there’s something sacred about bali to, a Papa New Guinean idiom for “turned over words,” as anthropologist Steven Feld interprets it (in Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli expression).  What Jeff Sharlet likens to turning a stone over and over in your hands.  “Those with eyes to see discover that the other side of the rock reveals new meanings; turn it again, and there’s another.”

Can God Be Perfect if We Exist?

An interesting post at A Philosopher’s Blog: Can God Be Perfect if We Exist?

Currently, we are discussing Spinoza in class. Spinoza presents a rather interesting view of God in that he, Spinoza, is a pantheist. On his view, everything is God. This view contrasts sharply with the usual monotheistic view in which God exists apart from His creation (and, of course, us). For Spinoza, there is no such distinction-there is but one substance and this is God.

My current feelings about God seem to be similar to Spinoza, of course I am a lay person with limited understanding of other thinkers.

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