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Posts Tagged ‘Humanism’

Hat tip to Gundek.

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Mary Lefkowitz wrote an excellent article for the LA Times a little more than a year ago about the Greek gods that’s well worth reading.

Bring back the Greek gods

Mere mortals had a better life when more than one ruler presided from on high.

By Mary Lefkowitz
October 23, 2007 in print edition A-27

Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion “poisons” human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn’t religion; it’s monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.

There is much we still can learn from these ancient notions of divinity, even if we can agree that the practices of animal sacrifice, deification of leaders and divining the future through animal entrails and bird flights are well lost.

My Hindu students could always see something many scholars miss: The Greek gods weren’t mere representations of forces in nature but independent beings with transcendent powers who controlled the world and everything in it. Some of the gods were strictly local, such as the deities of rivers and forests. Others were universal, such as Zeus, his siblings and his children.

Zeus did not communicate directly with humankind. But his children — Athena, Apollo and Dionysus — played active roles in human life. Athena was the closest to Zeus of all the gods; without her aid, none of the great heroes could accomplish anything extraordinary. Apollo could tell mortals what the future had in store for them. Dionysus could alter human perception to make people see what’s not really there. He was worshiped in antiquity as the god of the theater and of wine. Today, he would be the god of psychology.

Zeus, the ruler of the gods, retained his power by using his intelligence along with superior force. Unlike his father (whom he deposed), he did not keep all the power for himself but granted rights and privileges to other gods. He was not an autocratic ruler but listened to, and was often persuaded by, the other gods.

Openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system of government the Athenians called democracy.

Unlike the monotheistic traditions, Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural. The Greeks and Romans did not share the narrow view of the ancient Hebrews that a divinity could only be masculine. Like many other ancient peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks recognized female divinities, and they attributed to goddesses almost all of the powers held by the male gods.

The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of the nature of divinity allowed the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people’s gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation, they gave the foreign gods names of their own gods: the Egyptian goddess Isis was Demeter, Horus was Apollo, and so on. Thus they incorporated other people’s gods into their pantheon.

What they did not approve of was atheism, by which they meant refusal to believe in the existence of any gods at all. One reason many Athenians resented Socrates was that he claimed a divinity spoke with him privately, but he could not name it. Similarly, when Christians denied the existence of any gods other than their own, the Romans suspected political or seditious motives and persecuted them as enemies of the state.

The existence of many different gods also offers a more plausible account than monotheism of the presence of evil and confusion in the world. A mortal may have had the support of one god but incur the enmity of another, who could attack when the patron god was away. The goddess Hera hated the hero Heracles and sent the goddess Madness to make him kill his wife and children. Heracles’ father, Zeus, did nothing to stop her, although he did in the end make Heracles immortal.

But in the monotheistic traditions, in which God is omnipresent and always good, mortals must take the blame for whatever goes wrong, even though God permits evil to exist in the world he created. In the Old Testament, God takes away Job’s family and his wealth but restores him to prosperity after Job acknowledges God’s power.

The god of the Hebrews created the Earth for the benefit of humankind. But as the Greeks saw it, the gods made life hard for humans, didn’t seek to improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement was memorialized. There was no hope of redemption, no promise of a happy life or rewards after death. If things did go wrong, as they inevitably did, humans had to seek comfort not from the gods but from other humans.

The separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans to complain to the gods without the guilt or fear of reprisal the deity of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the possible causes of events. Philosophy — that characteristically Greek invention — had its roots in such theological inquiry. As did science.

Paradoxically, the main advantage of ancient Greek religion lies in this ability to recognize and accept human fallibility. Mortals cannot suppose that they have all the answers. The people most likely to know what to do are prophets directly inspired by a god. Yet prophets inevitably meet resistance, because people hear only what they wish to hear, whether or not it is true. Mortals are particularly prone to error at the moments when they think they know what they are doing. The gods are fully aware of this human weakness. If they choose to communicate with mortals, they tend to do so only indirectly, by signs and portents, which mortals often misinterpret.

Ancient Greek religion gives an account of the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today.

I’m not going to claim that the article is flawless: a quick Google search for “Hindu nationalist violence” will demonstrate pretty easily that polytheists are just as capable of violence in the name of their gods as monotheists are. However, I think you can make the case that Hindu religious violence is a primarily cultural rather than specifically religious affair–they’re not lashing out because people refuse to accept the truth of Vishnu, but because they perceive their culture as one that is under siege by a long history of encroachment by Muslims and Christians into India.

At the same time, I think editorials like Lefkowitz’s are important, if for nothing else than to make us think about the plausibility and, well, the utility of polytheism. In modern civilization, polytheism gets a bad rap, honestly. Most people would discard it as completely implausible, even ridiculous, but the only reason they think that is because monotheistic religions–religions that have had a privileged place in western culture and society for over a thousand years–ridicule them.

Even atheists who discard polytheism out of hand do so not because they have dealt with polytheism on its own terms. Instead they’re rejecting a monotheist caricature of polytheism. Polytheism is frankly not treated fairly.

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We went to church today, as usual.  Pastor Matthew talked about living in community, authentic community to be precise.  The subtext was definitely that the most important community for us was community with God, i.e., a relationship with the divine.

I’m still not sure what that means.  How do you have a relationship with someone you can’t see?  With someone you can talk at, but they never seem to respond?  I mean, I can read about Jesus, but that doesn’t put me in a relationship with him any more than reading about Alexander Hamilton puts me in a relationship.  Even if I’m this obsessive Hamiltonian scholar, I may feel like I know Hamilton, and I may know his life backwards and forwards, but it’s still a fairly one-sided affair.  Alexander Hamilton doesn’t really reciprocate.

A lot of people who I respect talk about having a relationship with the divine,  so I don’t dismiss it out of hand.  But when I pray, I don’t get answers, and I don’t believe I ever really have.  I don’t get that, either.  I mean, God is God, right?  If he wants to have a relationship, why doesn’t he engage a little bit.  Actually say something, you know?  And I don’t mean this subtle stuff, like a vague feeling of divine presence or “he spoke to me… through the Bible!”  I mean spoke.  If I can talk to god the same way that I can talk on the phone to my brother Racticas, why doesn’t God talk back the way my brother does?  Does he not have the ability?

I just don’t understand what people mean by having a relationship with God.  Don’t get me wrong- I think it sounds really nice.  I just am at a loss to what it actually means.

If God isn’t able to relate to me, or I am not able to relate to God, then we’re really talking about Deism.  And I don’t see the point to Deism.  Why believe, based on no affirmative evidence whatsoever, in a God that isn’t really interested in interacting with you?  You may as well be an open-minded humanist atheist, willing to accept that “there are more things in heaven and earth…” but assuming in general that there’s not such a thing as God, at least not in a way that’s particularly relevant to your day-to-day life.

To untangle that sentence, what difference would it make in my life, between Deism and atheism?  If there’s no functional difference, I may as well go with the preponderance of the evidence and assume atheism.

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Apparently I think. At least, I think I think. Also, Kay of Songs Of Unforgetting thinks I think, and so does Brendan of Off The Beaten Path. I am, of course, flattered. Since my natural tendency is to be an arrogant sonofabitch, I’m trying to not let it go to my head. The flattery, that is, not the thinking. Thinking belongs in the head. For the most part.

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As a thinking blogger, it is now my duty to tag five other thinking bloggers. My geas, if you will. My onus. Kay and Brendan are of course thinking bloggers, but in honor of playground rules, I observe the ironclad law of “no tagbacks.”

Thus, I chose the following five:

First, my favorite thinker is my beautiful and sexy wife, Katyjane. Is that rank favoritism and perhaps nepotism? Sure it is. I make no excuses. Also, my wife is brilliant, and her opinion means more to me than anyone else’s. I sometimes get frustrated when she doesn’t think exactly like me (did I mention the arrogant sonofabitch part?), but she definitely thinks. I hold her in the highest esteem.  Her blog is funny, offbeat, and thought-provoking.

Second, is my friend Bryant over at Make Me A Commentator!!! It’s a liberal blog where he mostly just pokes holes in conservative columnists’ arguments. But he’s dang good at what he does.

Third, I tag Halcyon over at Halcyonedays. She doesn’t post as often as I do, but I admire her for being willing to think through some scary, imposing, difficult stuff. She’s got guts. Regardless of what conclusions she ultimately comes to, the fact that she’s really, honestly trying to work through life, the universe, and everything instead of just going with the flow and taking the easy pill impresses the heck out of me. It must be her good genetics.

Fourth, I tag Adam over at Daylight Atheism. His analysis is incredibly incisive, and it makes me sit up, take notice, and seriously think things through. He is both reasoned and reasonable, in a way that would make any honest reader take serious stock in what they think and believe- and he tackles tough issues while remaining sensible and nonconfrontational. I would be lying if I did not admit that his essays at Ebon Musings had an incredibly profound effect on me.

Fifth is tough. There are probably a half-dozen other bloggers I would like to tag (and part of me is tempted to give the fifth award to all of them simultaneously as joint tenants, but that’s just the part of me that is taking a Property exam right now). But instead, I’ll give the fifth to Dando at Mormon and Evangelical Conversations, for his even-handed and thoughtful religious dialogue.

In the meantime, I shall give a general shout (and very honorable mention) out to the very worthy Peter at For Peter’s Sake (for always having a thoughtful point of view, and having good taste in women), WhoreChurch at Whore Church (for boldly tackling the ugliest bits of religion while maintaining a close relationship with God and a love for Jesus Christ), Jonathan Blake at Green Oasis (for generally being good at what he does, and always being interesting) Bored in Vernal at Hieing to Kolob (for being feminist and Mormon, and brilliant), and Random Goblin at The Goblin’s Lair (for being one of the most intelligent human beings on earth, as well as a cruel, arbitrary, arrogant sonofabitch- of course these days he writes abject nonsense instead of politics). There are probably plenty of others that I am seriously offending by not mentioning. Oh well. I am cruel and arbitrary (much like many people’s conception of God). Really, though, everyone in my Blogroll and/or Links is worth reading. But if somehow getting two thinking blogger awards justifies me in handing out two sets of awards, then they get them. You may decide for yourself. Blogging Law is not one of the classes I have taken at law school.

Normally, I try to keep away from this kind of thing on my blog and stick to the substantive stuff. But hey, like I said- I’m cruel and arbitrary. I do what suits me at the moment. What can I say?

(oh, also- don’t forget Jeff over at Druid Journal. He’s good enough to have gotte nmy third thinking blogger award twice! But I think he’s gotten one before).

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Just because I have decided that I am an atheist doesn’t mean I believe in nothing.  It doesn’t mean I am a fanatical devotee of the temple of Science, or that I am some kind of Nihilist.

Atheism isn’t a set of beliefs.  It’s not a positive affirmation of anything. All “atheism” says is that I don’t believe in God.  But I do believe in other things.

I believe in a fundamental unity of the universe, that separateness is an illusion.  Physically, we’re all made of the same stuff anyway, and there’s a cycle as we rotate mater into, through, and ultimately out of our bodies.  Our atoms don’t have our names written on them.  The illusion of separateness may have its advantages, but in the end it is an illusion.  Furthermore, if mind and body are really the same thing, then our consciousness is really just a part of everything else the same way our body is.  And if there really is some kind of mind-body dualism, then mind is still part of everything else either by virtue of being connected to body in some way, or in the sense that the mind/soul is all the same as all other mind/soul the same way body is.

I believe in dicsovery, in learning, and true progress.  I believe in the importance of figuring out as much as we can about the world and about ourselves, through all of the fantastic means we have at our hands.

I believe that there is a lot more out there than we can even imagine, that our models of the universe, useful though they may be, don’t come near to explaining everything in an exhausive sense.  I believe in mystery, and in the unknown.  I believe that “there are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy.”

I believe in treating other people the way I would like to be treated.  I believe in empathy and compassion.  Even without God, these are the things that make us human and give value to the human experience.  I believe that human beings are important, not because some arbitrary supreme being says so on a whim, but because we have incredible potential.

I believe in being happy, both on an individual and a collective level.  I believe that the pursuit of happiness, again balancing the individual’s happiness against humanity’s happiness, will take us great places.

I believe in making the world better- I believe in taking care of each other and taking care of the world we live in and leaving the place better for the next generation than it was left for us.   Because humanity is wonderful, and the earth is our home.

I believe that love is the most wonderful thing that there is.

That’s all I can think of right now.  I’m sure there is more.

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