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Posts Tagged ‘Reason’

Christians increasingly live on a spiritual island; new and rival ways of life surround it in all directions and their tides come further up the beach every time. None of these new ways is yet so filthy or cruel as some Semitic Paganism. But many of them ignore all individual rights and are already cruel enough. Some give morality a wholly new meaning which we cannot accept, some deny its possibility. Perhaps we shall all learn, sharply enough, to value the clean air and ‘sweet reasonableness’ of the Christian ethics which in a more Christian age we might have taken for granted.

C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

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Kate Douglas has written an article for the New Scientist on what the “ideal religion” would look like:

What form would the ideal religion take? Some might argue that instead of redesigning religion, we should get rid of it. But it is good for some things: religious people are happier and healthier, and religion offers community. Besides, secularism has passed its zenith, according to Jon Lanman, who studies atheism at the University of Oxford. In a globalised world, he says, migrations and economic instability breed fear, and when people’s values feel under threat, religion thrives.

Jacobs lists off four categories or basic functions of religion (sacred party, therapy, mystical quest, and school) and describes how most of the existing world religions do one of these very well and ignore or fail to excel at the others. Jacobs’s ideal religion would excel at all four:

While each appeals to a different sort of person, they all tap into basic human needs and desires, so a new world religion would have a harmonious blend of them all: the euphoria and sensual trappings of a sacred party, the sympathy and soothing balms of therapy, the mysteries and revelations of an eternal journey and the nurturing, didactic atmosphere of a school.

Numerous festivals, holidays and rituals would keep followers hooked. “Rites of terror” such as body mutilation are out – although they bind people together very intensely, they are not usually compatible with world religions (New Scientist, 19 December 2009, p 62). Still, highly rousing, traumatic rituals might still feature as initiation ceremonies, because people tend to be more committed to a religion and tolerant of its failings after paying a high price for entry.

The everyday rituals will focus on rhythmic dancing and chanting to stimulate the release of endorphins, which Robin Dunbar, also at Oxford, says are key to social cohesion. To keep people coming back, he also prescribes “some myths that break the laws of physics, but not too much”, and no extreme mysticism, as it tends to lead to schisms.

With many gods and great tolerance of idiosyncratic local practices, the new religion will be highly adaptable to the needs of different congregations without losing its unifying identity. The religion will also emphasise worldly affairs – it would promote the use of contraceptives and small families and be big on environmental issues, philanthropy, pacifism and cooperation.

I’m not sure about downplaying the value of mysticism or the necessity of pacifism, but the interesting thing (as pointed out by Sannion over at the House of Vines) is that Jacobs has basically described ancient Greco-Roman pagan religion.

As Apuleius Platonicus pointed out, Jacobs’s description is lacking in a few other areas as well. Such an ideal religion ought to honor human sexuality and celebrate reason and learning.

But these are honestly quibbles that could be worked out in the long run, or better yet, there would just be room within this kind of big-tent religion for different viewpoints. Most importantly, however, as pointed out by paosirdjhutmosu is that this kind of article and this kind of thinking undermines the notion of religions progress that people like Rodney Stark sell so hard, and that so many people seem to accept as a given, the idea that the course of human religious history has somehow been a linear progression from a darker mirror to a clearer one, and that therefore modern religions are necessarily better than older ones. Like all notions of progress, this is an extremely suspect assumption, with very little to back it up other than plain-old-fashioned massive bias in favor of the current status quo. Now must be better because it’s now. That’s nonsense. Social and cultural change happen for a host of reasons, and there’s nothing in the process that makes sure that the end-product is more functional or healthier for human beings.

I don’t think articles like this are going to turn people towards the old gods in massive numbers or anything, but I like that we see this kind of thinking more and more.

I also definitely want to point out that while this “ideal religion” describes ancient Greco-Roman polytheism fairly well, it wound not specifically have to be Greco-Roman polytheism. I for one would gladly welcome an open, mystical, transcendental, green Christianity with room to give proper honor to saints, angels, ancestors and local kindred spirits of the earth.

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1. Are you a Christian?

In the sense that most people probably mean when they ask that question, my answer has to be no. I like Jesus just fine, but I do not believe that Jesus is the only-begotten son of the One True God, or the One True God uniquely made flesh. I believe in good and evil but I don’t believe that I am guilty of sinning against the One True God, and I don’t believe that I am in need of salvation that only God can provide. I don’t believe that a contemporarily obscure greco-Jewish messianic figure was the central pivot point in the spiritual history of the cosmos (not that there’s a specific reason he couldn’t be; just that I don’t believe he is). I don’t believe that the Jews are the chosen people of the One True God. There are many parts of the Bible that I do not believe are scriptural or inspired writing. I am not personally committed to the person of Jesus in any way.

2. Why not?

I’m just not. I don’t think it makes sense for me to have to affirmatively have a reason to disbelieve Christianity. Quite the opposite: I am not Christian because I don’t have enough sufficiently compelling reasons to be Christian. The burden of persuastion is squarely on the religion, and in my case, the burden just has not been met. I am unpersuaded. I find Jesus compelling, but not necessarily uniquely compelling. I find Christianity compelling, but not necessarily uniquely compelling.

I find value in culture and tradition, and I recognize that Christianity has played a pivotal role in my culture’s history, but it’s not the only spiritual tradition in the mix (look at our great art and literature and see for yourself: classical mythology may be out of favor on Sunday mornings, but it has stayed the course pretty fucking powerfully in our cultural consciousness). And given my own personal religious background–born and raised Mormon but gone apostate–it’s hard for me to claim “Christianity, generally” as my own personal cultural tradition, especially given the pluralism of the society I live in now. As great as I think it would be to identify with a particular tradition and to feel like my spirituality was connected to firm cultural roots, I just don’t, and I never really have.

3. Have you read the Bible?

Yes. I’ve read the Old Testament all the way through once, and different parts of it a number of other times. I’ve read the New Testament at least twice all the way through, and individual parts of it many times. I’m not a Bible scholar, but I know my way around the book really well. I have mixed feelings about the Bible, as indicated above, partly because I think it’s sometimes a mistake to think of the Bible as one work. It’s not one work; it’s an anthology of works by different people at different times and in widely different cultural circumstances. Parts of the Bible have the character of scripture to me: they resonate mythologically (Genesis, 1 & 2 Samuel) or they are profoundly mystical (the Psalms, the gospel of John, Revelations, many of the Prophets). Other parts just don’t feel holy to me. The epistles may be complex, masterful and fundamental works of theological wordsmithy, but that doesn’t make them have spiritual weight. I’m basically familiar with the process of selecting what went into the canon, and I conclude that the canoneers were simply evaluating the books with different criteria in mind from what I am using. I’m comfortable with that.

I think there’s wisdom and relevance in the Bible. Maybe not uniquely so in an inherent sense, but certainly given the Bible’s place in western civilization for the last 2,000 years, it has a preeminent or at least prominent place in our cultural, philosophical, and spiritual history. The Bible is beautiful, resonant, and generally has a lot to offer, and I don’t think that being a non-Christian changes that. It may change the way I approach the text, but it doesn’t dissuade me from approaching it in the first place.

4. Do You Go To Church?

Absolutely. I like going to Church. I like going to Church with my wife, and I intend to keep on going for the rest of my life. And though I’m not much of a believer, I find value in community, and I intend to be active and involved. I don’t feel the need to attract attention and be the center of attention because I’m a non-Christian going to a Christian church. I’m happier to just be quietly heretical. But like I said, I like Jesus, I like the Bible, I like Church. I don’t agree with everything that gets said, but nobody should, about anything, ever. So I’m comfortable with that.

We don’t have a church we go to right now, but that’s a temporary state of affairs. When we find a church we like, we’ll go to it. And it will most definitely be a Christian church.

My kids will be raised Christian. I’m comfortable with that. They’ll know I’m not, and they’ll know that not being a Christian–or that being various shades of Christian–is a live option for reasonable people. I want them to be able to make up their own minds, but I’d also like to give them a decent tradition to be raised in and to be able to fall back on when they need to without feeling that they are forced to conform to it. And I’d like them to grow up seeing that vast differences in approaches to faith are ultimately reconcilable and mutually compatible.

I don’t really attend any other kind of non-Christian spiritual gathering, either. I’m tangentially affiliated with a group of revival Druids in Chicagoland, but I have never actually met with them in person. And revival Druidry isn’t necessarily incompatible with Christianity anyway.

5. What do you think about Christians?

I like ’em just fine. I’m married to one. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be Christian. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to commit to a faith or a tradition. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to take a stand and decide what you do and don’t believe. I understand completely that someone could find Jesus uniquely and supremely compelling, even though I don’t necessarily. I understand completely that someone could believe in One True God: sometimes I kind of do, too.

What I think is arrogant, though, is to pretend that you can be absolutely certain about any of it. There’s just no way. There is no way to know something without the possibility that you are wrong. We’re nervous systems floating in a dark jar, and we put a lot of faith in the data our senses feed us and the way our brains process that data. We could be wrong. We could be misled. We could be in the Matrix, and we would not know it or have any way of knowing it. The whole world could be a convincing illusion (some Hindus certainly think it is). Not only is it a possibility, but its a possibility that we can’t even judge how likely it is, because we have no frame of reference.

I’m not saying you have to waver or be wishy-washy. Practical existence means that, despite the possibility that it’s all an illusion, you have to act like it’s not. There’s virtue in taking a stand, and value in making sacrifices for what you believe. But at the same time you have to keep in mind that it’s possible you’re wrong, and find a way to weigh that against your convictions. In my mind, that’s faith. Unwavering certainty is just foolishness and self-deception. Going forward despite the possibility of being wrong is faith. What’s more, unwavering certainty makes people make bad decisions. The possibility of error allows us to act in faith but temper our actions with the consequences of error. It doesn’t mean paralysis. It just means our decisions, even the ones made on the basis of faith, are better decisions, because they are decisions we have weighed and considered properly.

6. Will you ever change your mind?

Maybe. Who’s to say? I change my mind about a lot of things, all the time. I try to live an authentic life, and sometimes that means backtracking and taking things back. I can live with that.

7. What would it take to make you change your mind?

Anything that would make Christianity and/or Jesus somehow uniquely or superlatively compelling. I don’t think it’s possible for Christianity to be objectively proven, and even if it’s theoretically possible, I think that Christianity has managed not to do it for two millennia, and I’m not optimistic about it’s chances of being objectively proven anytime soon.

So it would take something personal and subjective to make me into a Christian. A powerful mystical experience? A spiritual need uniquely filled? Something to make Christianity stand out and above everything else that I find just as compelling or more compelling. It’s a kind of spiritual economics. The value of being exclusively Christian would have to outweigh the costs, including the opportunity costs of the rich extra-Christian spiritual landscape that I would have to forego.

8. Haven’t you already had powerful spiritual experiences confirming the unique truth of Christianity?

Yes but no. At one point in my life I said I did, because it was important in my faith tradition to be able to say that, to be able to testify publicly that you had received a personal spiritual witness of the truth of Jesus Christ. So I went looking for this witness I was supposed to have, and the first powerful emotional experience I had that was Jesus-related, I labeled personal revelation. It was not intentionally dishonest. The cornerstone experience I had was an emotional breakdown in a set of circumstances effectively designed to be a lab for spiritual/emotional breakdowns. It is suspect because of the setting, and because of the effort and desire I put into getting a specific result that I believed I would get.

The point is, no emotional experience is objective proof of anything. At best, it’s proof that you’re having an emotional experience, that’s all. Spiritually emotional experiences are relevant, but how we weigh them, the creedence we give them, and the conclusions we draw from them are not necessarily straightforward. An experience that was compelling to me under one set of circumstances may simply no longer be compelling to me, for any reason.

I had an emotional experience, but I no longer find it sufficiently compelling to believe in the unique truth and exclusive divinity of Jesus.

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Only if you believe centuries of propaganda. For nearly two thousand years, the belief in only one god—monotheism—has had a monopoly on western civilization. That means that monotheists have been teaching about religion from a monotheist perspective, which is naturally biased in favor of monotheism. Monotheism’s triumph in the west was not due to its inherent superiority, its fundamental reasonable-ness, or its unique appeal to human beings. Monotheism triumphed over polytheism because of economics, war and politics. To modern western people, monotheism seems like the only reasonable option because monotheists have been saying it is for ages. It seems like the only reasonable option because for most people it has been the only practical option. But none of this has anything to do with whether it is actually a better option. If you say “polytheism is ridiculous” over and over again, people will believe it is true because they have heard it, they are used to hearing it, and more importantly, because nobody has been able to present the opposing viewpoint. There have been basically no polytheists around to counter monotheism’s distorted caricature of polytheism, so people have naturally accepted the only point of view that they have heard. Eventually, it has become something we all just assume to be true. But it is not.

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I’m a little bit angry with a particular aspect of Mormonism today. Mostly, I find myself just caring less about the Mormon Church all the time, but when something directly affects me or my relationships, it’s hard to just grin and bear it.  even if it means coming out of blogging semi-retirement.

Mormonism teaches that if you pray to ask with a sincere heart, that God will tell you that the Church is True. It’s a guarantee- you do x and God will do y. That seems innocuous enough, until you apply it to the real world, to real people, and discover that actually plenty of people have prayed about the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and Mormonism in general, and have not gotten a satisfactory answer. This is difficult to reconcile. God has supposedly made a promise, right? So either God breaks his promises, or the people who aren’t getting an answer are the problem. And Mormonism teaches that God is a God of truth and cannot lie. Therefore, people like me must be lying. It’s the only logical conclusion- or something like it. Either we’re being dishonest with ourselves, we’re blinded by our pride, we’re too far in sin or too caught up in the world to recognize the Spirit, or something like that. But any way you want to fold it, the result is offensive and insulting. This line of logic means that everyone who doesn’t join (or stay in) the Church is either lying or has allowed themselves to be in the bondage of Satan.

There are two ways out of this for Mormons. One is the fairly common idea that God answers prayers in his own time, and you’ve just got to have faith. That is total crap. Why should I have faith that God is eventually going to give me a satisfactory answer? How long do I wait? Forever? Why? Why would I do that? There’s a point where it just becomes more likely that the reason why God’s not telling you Mormonism is true is because it isn’t. If I don;t know the Church is true, what possible reason would I have to keep asking and persevering for my entire life until I find out that it is? If I want it that bad, I’ll wind up manufacturing it myself.

Plus, by that same logic, I should be just as persevering with any other Church or religion, if my only assurance is the testimony of others. What makes the people testifying the truth of Mormonism any more trustworthy or reliable than the people testifying the truth of Catholicism, Islam, Quakerism, or Atheism?

Furthermore, what good is a promise that will for all intents and purposes never be fulfilled, or fulfilled in a way that is completely unlike what you expect or is completely unlike what the plain meaning of the promise is, the reasonable interpretation of the promise. If God does that, then he’s wiggling out of his promises on technicalities, and that isn’t really being a God of Truth. Promising something that reasonably sounds like x when you really mean y isn’t honest, even if y is technically one possible interpretation of the promise. That’s not honesty and Truth, that’s deception, which is the opposite.

There’s one other way Mormons can escape the insulting reconciliation that forces them to brand everyone else a liar, and that is the ability to live with paradox. This is the best way, the most productive way- reconciling God’s promises with people who don’t get answers to their prayers by not reconciling it at all. By chalking it up to something they just don’t understand. This allows the Mormon to be a believer without assigning dishonest or evil motives to everyone else. It allows the believer to take people like me at face value, to not have to assume that I have a hidden motive or agenda when I say I just don’t believe the Church is true and I just don’t believe that the Holy Ghost has told me it is.

Unfortunately, not everyone can do this. Living with paradox means maintaining a kind of cognitive dissonance, and cognitive dissonance makes people uncomfortable.

So instead of just accepting the paradox, most Mormons reconcile a (God’s promises) and b (people who don’t get answers) by assigning ulterior motives, by questioning peoples’ integrity, and by assuming that there’s some hidden but grievous sin. In short, reconciling Mormon doctrine with reality requires Mormons to pass exactly the kind judgment that Christ commanded us not to pass.

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I think I may have provisionally decided to be a Christian.  It boils down to this: I don’t prefer any of the other choices.  I’m certainly not going to choose a different religion over Christianity.  I’m also not satisfied with being nonreligious, irreligious, or just throwing up my hands and saying “I don’t know!”  I don’t want to be an atheist, so I don’t have to be one.

This realization might not be an entirely logical one, but I am not Mister Spock.  I am simply not governed entirely by logic, and I am not willing to govern myself entirely by logic, because I am not happy, satisfied, or fulfilled by so doing.  Nor do I believe that anyone is driven entirely by logic and reason.  I’m not saying that logic and reason are unimportant or irrelevant, just that they’re not the only factor that comes into the calculus.

Given all of that, the simple fact is that I like Christianity best.  Given the choice, I pick Jesus.  I am comfortable with Christianity, I find it culturally relevant, and I find it good.  Christianity is the standard by which I judge other religions… and so I shouldn’t be surprised when I pick Christianity.  At least I’m recognizing that the game was rigged from the start and acknowledging the answer I was ultimately going to come to anyway.

It’s like Wolverine, you see.  Of all Marvel superheroes, I like Wolvering best.  Whenever I play a Marvel Universe RPG, or HeroClix, or X-Men Legends on my GameCube, I pretty much always play Wolverine.  If I don’t, I’m sad because I’m playing the wrong character.  I like all of the other superheroes, too, but I’ve liked Wolverine the best since I was eleven years old.  I’m always going to like Wolverine best, and admitting that was a big step for me.  I know that he’s kind of a caricature, and he’s in every Marvel comic now, even Avengers, and it borders on ridiculous, and everyone likes Wolverine so it’s not cool to like Wolverine, but all of that doesn’t seem to matter much.  The fact is, picking a different superhero to play means not-picking Wolverine, and that’s not going to happen.

Christianity’s like that.  Other religions, belief systems, etc. are fine and good, and there’s a lot of genuine truth out there that’s worth finding, studying, and grabbing hold of (and not just paying lip service to, “truth everywhere, blah blah”).  But I’m not going to not-pick Christianity, so the sooner I face that and get on with things, the better.

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