Sunday, May 12, 2019

Atheism for Religious and/or Spiritual 9

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Before I go on, I promised back in the 2nd of this series that I’d talk about the problems of the early Catholic Church. I hope I have spent enough time discussing the Enlightenment era and the flaws in Western philosophy in general. But there are good reasons why I still choose them over Christianity. There are a few things that started gnawing at me about Christianity and the more I looked into them, the more I realized they were foundational problems that could not be solved. That is, they weren’t just cracks in the foundation of Christianity; they were demonstrations that there is no foundation.

The first is the consensus on the existence of Jesus. That’s it really. That is, the entire extent of the scholarly consensus on Jesus is that he existed, and maybe that he was crucified. The dates of his life are disputed, his name is in dispute, everything he said is debatable, let alone what he meant, his family life, if he was a spirit or a man who was inhabited by spirit or if he was born God. All of these questions are played out in the scriptures and some of them have led to wars and schisms (John 14). Holy wars are not cool as they used to be. Claims about what someone did in the past are expected to come with data that can be confirmed and facts that are agreed upon by a number of experts. Part of the statement of the consensus on Jesus is that we can’t recreate any of these details from the documents we have, not the four gospels or with the help of the apocryphal documents.

They spent centuries trying to work back to some original theme and what they discovered was there isn’t one. Instead, we get Peter arguing with Paul (Acts 10), Thomas painted as an unbeliever who repents (John 20), and a fourth gospel that is out of sync with the other three. This was expected and normal at the time the scriptures were written. Authors added to and reworked the stories to bring their new insights to them. But now we have modern history which is expected to be accurate and to let us know when something is uncertain. This leads to a confusing mixing of these two different genres. A historical fact like “Jesus existed” is used to claim that everything written using the name “Jesus” is also historically true. It may be true that Jesus died at the hands of the Romans but that says nothing about how that death washed away sins or the details of how he rose or who found him or who saw him later. The truth of one historical fact has very little effect on the truth of most of what is found in the New Testament.

This leads to the second thing, the order of the New Testament. If that collection of books was simply reordered to the order in which they were written, I think we would all have a very different view of the meaning they are attempting to convey. The first book in the New Testament, Matthew, begins with a birth narrative, connecting Jesus back to King David. That makes sense if you are attempting to tell a story that you think is real. But many believe the story of the virgin birth was concocted later to sell people of that time on the idea of Jesus being God. Gods of that time were born of virgins, so Jesus should be too, so you need a story.

If you want to follow how the stories began and were copied and embellished, start with the Book of Mark. It was written first. It has no birth story. It doesn’t have a resurrection story either. Maybe I should say it didn’t have a resurrection story. Many Bibles have footnotes telling you that the last verses of Mark were added on later, to harmonize it with the other gospels. Matthew and then Luke were written after Mark, sometimes copying, sometimes changing stories slightly, sometimes adding a new story. The gospel of John was written decades later.

To further correct the chronological order, all of the works of Paul need to be shuffled to the beginning. All of them were written and its author died before the first gospel was even heard of. Acts talks about Paul, but it was most likely written by the same author as the Book of Luke. Making sense of the different stories and contradictions is hard enough, but if you were to be presented first with a story of a man who only met Jesus in a vision and mentioned virtually nothing of a family or any earthly travels, it would be disconcerting indeed to then find out about Kings hearing of a virgin birth, to read of encounters with priests, of a man having meals, and telling parables. Was Paul unaware of all of this? For me, it’s led me to consider that this is a legend that developed, not a history that was poorly documented.

This project of ordering the books chronologically is complicated by the difficulty of assigning dates to the writings. That is an inexact science, and the authors sometimes attempted to mask who they were and when they were writing. The complete reordering might begin with the “undisputed Pualines”, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. These would be followed by Mark, Matthew, Luke/Acts then John. The job would get more difficult after that as we would need to sort out the psuedepigrpaha (like 2 Thessalonians), the works that were falsely attributed to Paul or other figures of the time. These were either assigned authorship in error by people who didn’t know any better, or deliberately claimed to be an author other than the actual one as a way to legitimize the message.

This is not just a New Testament problem either. Deuteronomy is the fifth book in the Old Testament, but is now known to have been written much later. Maybe most significant is the story of Eve tempting Adam with the apple. Besides simple facts like no apple appearing in the Bible, the story itself might not be a creation story. It may have been written earlier but it was given its place in the Bible by the people who assembled it, not some original author attempting to write a coherent narrative. It’s a folk tale, probably not intended to be an account of the first man and woman. So the entire reason for Jesus, to save us from the sin that got us kicked out of the Garden of Eden, is a mistake of some scholars in the centuries around the Fall of Rome who received a text and did not question its authorship or authenticity. They were told Moses wrote it and that was good enough for them.

With all of these competing narratives and a lack of scholarship, we arrive in 381 AD at the third thing. In that year, soon after Theodosius became emperor of Rome, he declared that he knew the correct version of all of this. Rather than honor other ancient traditions and allow for freedom of expression of a plurality of religions, it was time to get everyone under one system. To do that would require enforcement of these Catholic ideas using his military power and in many cases, the burning of anything and anyone who didn’t agree. This included not just pagan or Jewish places of worship, but Christian churches that didn’t preach the correct doctrine.

The page Theodosius gets at Catholic.com calls him a “just and mighty emperor” and puts it this way,

“In January, 381, the prefect had orders to close all Arian chapels in the city and to expel those who served them. The same severe measures were ordered throughout Theodosius’s dominion, not only against Arians, but also in the case of Manichaeans and all other heretics.”

It tries to soften exactly what these “severe measures” were but that’s why you shouldn’t get history from only one source, and especially from a source that is biased. By the way, “Arians” here have nothing to do with Nazis. The big problem with them was they were not Trinitarians. They said Jesus was subordinate to God, not part of him. My problem is no one can explain what the Trinity is. Instead of discussing it that though, Theodosius just said he was bored with all the talk and started killing people.

This wasn’t just an establishment of a strong military rule or just a wedding of religion with government it was a closing of minds that had been developing philosophies of democracy and science for centuries. In his book, Confessions, from around 397 AD Augustine wrote, “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.” Granted I’m taking this out of context in this short piece. He was confessing his thoughts as a young man and how they led him away from a more pious life. However, from archaeology we can see that technology stopped advancing around this time and we see less works of literature over the next few hundred years. I’m not blaming the Fall of Rome on Christians, but they didn’t prevent it and didn’t even seem troubled by it.

You should check all of my facts here and draw your own conclusions. Nothing I said here necessarily cancels out everything the Church has ever done. It shouldn’t change your relationship to your favorite parable or the community you consider your spiritual home. For me, it led to questions and it was the reaction to those questions from church leaders that eventually led to my lack of a belief in the divinity of Jesus and ultimately anything supernatural.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual 8

I didn't do anything special for the occasion, but it's been 10 years (plus a week) since I started this blog. Okay, move along.

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Theologians throughout the ages have attempted to straddle the worlds of belief and non-belief, of faith and reason. Thomas Aquinas was banned by the Catholic Church for his writings on this and then given sainthood not long after his death. In the last century, Catholic monk Teilhard de Chardin was told not to publish his thoughts on bridging these two worlds, but not long after he died, a friend published his works, (according to Teilhard’s wishes) and some gave him credit for contributing to the liberal ideas expressed at Vatican II. I find these philosophical thought experiments interesting, and although many do not, and even though I can show they ultimately don’t lead to a conclusion, I also hope to show that having the discussion has brought the people who hold those opposing beliefs closer together so we can work on the common goals.

Chardin became a Catholic monk not long after the turn of the 20th century and then began writing about his thoughts about spirituality. He was rewarded by being sent to a remote monastery in China. That’s sarcasm in case you didn’t catch it. He was also a paleontologist and his work with hominid fossils brought him a degree of fame. Evolution was a big challenge to the church at the time, and here was one of their own making strides in that area. As a contemplative and peaceful man, outwardly it appeared he was at peace with this. We can only speculate how it felt to him to have to choose between expressing his most important thoughts openly and keeping his job and position in the Church that he loved.

Teilhard tried to harmonize evolution and creation by saying that God does the creation thing while evolution builds the physical world. The two are not separate, but happening together all the time. God created and continues to create the world, and evolution is the mechanism that moves that creation forward. Our conscious is part of that evolution, so we have become co-creators with God. There isn’t one without the other, just as exhaling and inhaling are needed for there to be breath.

For him, this helped to solve the problem of evil in the world. The existence of evil is used as an argument that an all loving and all knowing God does not exist, because if one did, it would not allow such pain and suffering. Teilhard said that God does not will that suffering occurs. God is not intervening in the world on a regular basis to cause people pain because of something they did. Rather, God sets the world in motion toward the end, which is a world without suffering, but it is not possible to create that world without going through the suffering. We are part of the creation as it is occurring so we are experiencing what is required for it to happen. Since we are part of it, it becomes our job to prevent or at least reduce suffering, and we evolve skills and strategies to do just that.

I think it’s pretty clear why his ideas were not accepted by the Church. He disrupts the prescribed need to get you to go to confession every week. Less clear is why he decided to remain a monk his entire life and accept their condemnations of his writings. He obviously wanted his ideas shared even knowing we would never be able to ask a follow up question.

To the scientifically minded, it should also be clear that none of his work comes close to qualifying as a scientific hypothesis. Although there is a certain logical flow to it, he makes assumptions about a need for a creator and endows that creator with attributes that are pulled straight from his theology classes, not his paleontology.

His posthumous following is thus peopled mostly by those who don’t accept the controls of religions, but still desire some sense of a supernatural to give meaning to our existence as well as those who are not too concerned with the rigors of scientific proofs. Many of these followers would consider themselves pantheists, but Teilhard often stated that a Christian sojourner is not a pantheist. He was firmly a Christian and being in the world didn’t mean his life in the world was divorced from his life in Christ. The Christian symbolism of the cross signified this connection and that was meaningful to him.

On pg 116 of the Divine Milieu, he says, “Pantheism seduces us by its vistas of perfect universal union.” But the Divine Milieu is about God and the world, not one or the other, so Teilhard is always working to keep that aspect in his writing, even while acknowledging that evolution is obviously happening and can be observed by us every day and confirmed using our powers of reason and logic. We evolved with animal traits, but we find individual fulfillment in the divine. I would have loved to ask him why he did not find fulfillment in participating in the discovery that we are connected to nature in ways that we have not been aware of before.

He says, “Christianity alone therefore saves, with the rights of thoughts, the essential aspiration of all mysticisim: to be united (that is, to become the other) while remaining one's self.” All punctuation is from the original. This axiom is sometimes expressed by him as “union differentiates”. That is, the essential aspiration of all mysticism to be in union with others, with God, with the world, and yet to be able to be one's self. Teilhard stresses that diving into Christian theology will not cause you to lose yourself, whereas other forms of mysticism or modernism will, “If you suppress the historical reality of Christ, the divine omnipresence which intoxicates us becomes, like all the other dreams of metaphysics, uncertain, vague, conventional—lacking the decisive experimental verification by which to impose itself on our minds, and without the moral authority to assimilate our lives into it.”

None of this works for me. On the contrary, I do find “decisive experimental verification” in metaphysics. They are not vague at all. I can only wonder if Teilhard and I sat down, if we might find we were talking about something different or of the same thing in different terms. But he didn’t leave behind experiments for me to repeat, so I can not verify his findings. Instead, we have physics, which can describe how I came from stars and stars came from hydrogen which was left over after an expansion from a compressed amount of energy. When those explanations fail to explain what came before them, I can still use the same methods to define the boundaries of what I know and what might be true. This “omnipresence” “intoxicates” me. Although there is much left unknown, there is certainty in the mathematical proofs of what we do know so I can “assimilate” that into my life. When combined with biology, we can begin to understand the basis for our morality.

But I didn’t go to the trouble of summarizing his work here just so I could shoot it down. I don’t need to accept his entire thesis to see that he made a contribution, he moved forward the conversation about how we relate to a vast cosmos full of unanswered questions. Teilhard de Chardin was an accomplished scientist and a devout Catholic monk. Many on either side see this as irreconcilable. He could be dismissed as a scientist troubled with cognitive dissonance who came up with some new age answers to explain his faith, or as a man of faith who felt the need to explain his discoveries of the origins of humans in terms of that faith. But as Yuval Harari said in his book Sapiens, it’s in our cognitive dissonance where we find understanding about our cultures.

The question of whether or not Teilhard accomplished his goal of reconciling science and faith, is perhaps the wrong question. What can be shown is that he lived through two World Wars, a time when the future of civilization was very much in doubt, and during a time when churches were struggling with the new theory of who we are and where we came from that began with Darwin, then, not long after he died and his writings began to be absorbed by the culture, the Catholic Church convened a Council, where they said this:

159. Faith and science: "... methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are." (Vatican II GS 36:1)

You can enter the reference at the end into any search engine and bring up the full text. Granted it still is hanging on to the idea that God made it all, but this from 1965 and it is written by the Church. You change one word in that first sentence and make it valid from a scientific point of view, “…the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same place.”  I changed “God” to “place”. The feeling of faith grew out of culture, which grew out of our biology which is a result of the physical laws of the universe. Whether a faith statement is true or not, it’s true that faith is a human experience.

This statement from the Vatican was a big step from 1859 and they have made greater strides since. Not everyone is coming along on those steps, but that is true of any discipline or culture. The question itself has not changed. That is, the question of how we reconcile the feelings we have of connectedness, of mystery, with the answers that we are getting from research and data, knowing that the data leaves much still unanswered. The amount and complexity of the data has changed, but the question remains.

Having sent probes above the clouds, where gods used to dwell and not finding them, having peered as far into space as the limitations of the speed of light will allow us, and finding nothing, the answer that there is a god out there that made all this is becoming increasingly less likely. Having gone beyond the Newtonian physics of cause and effect, into the quantum world, and still being unable to find how the electronic pulses in our brains translate into complex concepts, we are starting to wonder if there is a limit to how much we can know about ourselves. We’ve managed pretty well without answering either of these questions. Countless gods have been fought over until no one was left to believe in them. Science moves at its own pace, providing us with information, while civilizations move as they need to in order to survive.

All of this has involved a lot of pain and suffering. One of the most important things I take away from Teilhard is that God is not going to do all of the work of alleviating that suffering. A purely scientific approach to these questions would say there is no god at all and it is completely up to us to address the suffering in the world. No matter where you stand on that question, I think we can all see that it’s time to put the question of faith vs science somewhere off to the side and find more ways to work together on alleviating the suffering and less time arguing about where it all comes from.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual 7

The gatekeepers

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I realized I was not a Christian the day that I no longer accepted Christ as my savior.

There are a few people out there that would argue with that statement. That is, there are a few who would define what it means to be a Christian in a different way. Some would argue that it was when I stopped believing in hell, or miracles, or prayer or anything else in the Apostle's Creed. There are a few who would say I was never a "real" Christian". Ultimately, people's opinion about what a Christian really is, doesn't really matter since there is no way to reconcile all of them. And yes, I realize it matters very much to the individual who holds the definition. What is important, is that I can enter the doors of many churches and be welcomed just as I am.

At some point, someone inside that door will start asking me about my beliefs. The difference between mainline and fundamentalist churches is how quickly that happens, and how much it matters what I say. Currently, I'm a member at a church that knows exactly what I don't believe, and still welcomes me. They aren't expecting me to be "on a path" or worried about my soul. They actually welcome me. This is not as rare as you might think.

I wish I could say more about great conversations I have at this church about spirituality or quantum physics or other relevant matters of the day, but honestly, I hardly ever go anymore and even when I did, those conversations were sometimes great but not often and almost always brief. I'm sure if I went there regularly and spoke about the latest evil Bible verse I found, they might not welcome me quite as much as they do now. That's fine. Let's not get carried away.

The pastor there made a social media post of this quote from Barbara Brown Taylor. I'm sure it's sincere, that it is what he wants, but I understand why it's difficult to build a church that really does this. It's not what church traditionally is. We're not to the point where I can say, "traditionally was". They have to offer what people expect when they walk in that door. It's also very hard to advance in the hierarchy of an organization if your mission is to constantly question that organization and its hierarchy. I don't expect any of this to change soon. There will likely be continuing splits, scandals and bankruptcies as we move in that direction.

But as Ryan Bell said to Gretta Vosper, "A church can't call itself progressive if it doesn't keep progressing." That is a challenge for a large organization. I suppose there will have to be a conversation at some point about how to make that progress while keeping tradition somewhere or somehow. But that's not my conversation for now.

What I did, at some point, instead of walking through those doors and waiting to see how long before they asked me some theological test question, I started asking the questions as soon as I got there. Are you LGBTQ affirming? Do you have open communion? Do you preach a literal hell? Does membership require a faith statement? What kind of books do you use in your adult studies? As yet, no one has passed my test.

Acts explains some of the tests for Christianity
Peter talks in credal language
Galatians discusses judging people on their fruits, a better system than most in the Bible

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual 6

This is the first time I missed a February for this blog. The Ides of March have already been upon us. No excuses. I even had an idea brewing. I have a few favorite podcasts and I want to relate a couple recent episodes from one of them. It’s Bart Campolo, and he includes something from another favorite, On Being. In fact, I’ll go ahead and start with the poem, rather than try to lead up to it. 

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Everything Is Waiting for You

David Whyte
After Derek Mahon

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.


The podcast is called Humanize Me. If you follow the link you’ll see a story of a conversation with Conan O’Brien and Albert Brooks. 

The story doesn’t quite complete the answer to the question posed, can insignificance be liberating? Bart spends about a half hour filling in the blanks. It’s not some simple folksy wisdom. We’re all at different places with regards to how well known we are and how others judge our significance, but our approach to the idea of significance can have an effect on our happiness and maybe significantly more than that. He mentions the Tiger Mom who drives her kids to succeed. Whatever you think about that, it will most likely lead them to more success than if she had not done what she did. What her philosophy doesn’t talk about is that at some point in their lives, those kids will be able to make their own decisions, based on that success, and they will no longer need to be driven to succeed strictly for the goal of succeeding. They will be able to enjoy the journey they find themselves on.

With memes and commercials and self-help books and helicopter parents and just everything that is available to us at any moment, we receive a lot of wisdom in small bites, and a lot of it is not for us at this moment in our lives. Like, stopping to smell the roses is a good idea, but if you are on your way to your final exam, better not stop for too long. People will tell you all sorts of reasons for working hard and others will tell you to spend more time with your family. Others will tell you that you can have it all. What I love about Bart’s podcast is that he’s spent some time thinking about what “all” actually is.

In the story that starts this podcast, Conan O’Brien uses the example of President Calvin Coolidge and Bart has referred to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, people who have changed the world in significant ways. We don’t know much about Roosevelt’s private life, and very few people visit Coolidge’s grave. While they were alive perhaps only a hundred people knew them intimately, maybe less. When Albert Brooks tells Conan, “none of it matters”, he’s talking about his movies and his legacy and even the lives he touched because even those will pass and be forgotten. But of course, something matters. It’s true that all of us will be forgotten, so if we despair our individual inevitable end and dwell on the comparison of our accomplishments to those of great Presidents, we have miscalculated where we should be spending our emotional energy, because in the end, we all end up in that same place.

If you are focused on survival then you probably aren’t reading this. If you need to focus on survival, then do that. Hopefully you aren’t creating a sense of panic where there is no need for it. But if needed, you can find help and get to a place of comfort. There are tribes that have room for more and there are ways to find help, so do that first. If you’re already there, reflect on how that happened, what did your tribe do for you, what do you have to be thankful for? Bart tells the story of a chess mentor who teaches a young man not just to play well, but to love the game. Unfortunately, we don’t all get coaches like that, but we can hear about a story of someone who did. It comes around the middle of the podcast. I won’t spoil the story for you.

In February, this theme continued with a call in question from a 15 year old talking about her science class. It was great just to hear something so well thought out and articulated from someone her age. Bart wasn’t quite as happy with this his own answers as he usually is, so he followed up with a redo of it about a month later. I liked both episodes, but you could skip the first one and not miss much. Her question was about how to cope with the dire warnings of the future based on the climate science she is learning about.

In the first one, Bart tried to come up with some analogies, like riding a wave. You don’t control the wave, but you can control the surf board and make it to the end of the ride without getting dunked. He gets a bit dark at times and he apologies for that. He tries to end on a positive note about love. No matter when the end times occur or how, it’s still important to love your kids and appreciate the world we have now. The difficulty of this type of question is a matter of focus. The wave analogy breaks down when you start thinking about where our “waves of life” come from, the things that push us along, some of them are man-made and have levers behind them that we can get control of, and maybe we should try to grab them, instead of just going along for the ride. Or, I’d like to spend time appreciating the world, but there’s a lot of crap going on, and I’d like to fix some of it while I’m here. Bart posits that if the choices we make as individuals lead to a life well lived, then those same values should also apply to what we do as a species, as a whole.

After doing some research and giving it more thought, Bart comes up with some more solid answers to the question in episode 409. One of those is; we just aren’t wired for thinking about the future. Throughout history we’ve survived many disasters, of our own making or not, either by luck or ingenuity and that survival is both due to and feeds back into our optimism bias. I’m not even sure that’s a bad thing. You can check out the optimism bias Wikipedia page and TED talks about it.

Josey, the one called in the question, is a student, so she is just learning about this looming disaster and wondering why everyone is not acting like it’s coming and like it’s the highest priority for all of humanity. Her teacher is not wired to act that way and he has other things to teach. We could get hit by a meteor, our economic system could collapse or we could create nanotechnology that gets out of control and destroys everything. He has to teach all of those things knowing that his students understanding of any one of them could cause a lot of worry. He has also known about them for a long time and has continued to keep his job and feed his family throughout, so he might not see them as worrying. I don’t know what he is thinking, but it’s poor reasoning to equate all doomsday scenarios and conclude they are all wrong because we are still here, but that is part of how our brains work.

This is a problem for anyone trying to get others to adjust their actions to actual threats. Some people will respond to fear but many will get fatigued with constant warnings that don’t appear to be near or present. If you can show that people are trying to solve this problem, even if they are failing, you’ve just shown that someone is working on it, and we can hope they succeed. There are other problems, many more immediate, that also need attention. A constant drum beat becomes background noise. Bart didn’t defend this way of thinking, he just pointed out that we do it.

This isn’t just some psychology problem to deal with when you are talking to your friends either. It is built in to our political structure. To solve the problem of despotic kings a few centuries back, we created a democratic system where leaders can be voted out every couple years. This works great for slowing the accumulation of power but it is not designed for a change in climate that is occurring over many decades. We didn’t plan for this because it is only recently that we can predict such events. It’s only the last couple hundred years that we knew the earth was more than a few million years old. It’s even more recently since we have been able to predict the weather, let alone long term climate trends. We survived a long time without thinking on these scales.

It may be that the action we need is not the technological solution, although we’ll need that too, but we won't get to that if we don’t adjust our thinking first. We need to figure out how to accept and understand the science, understand our place in a vast universe and deep time, see our part as cooperative social creatures including future generations, and learn to discuss all of this with a diverse set of people and cultures knowing our survival depends on all of us getting along in ways we have never seen in human history. That’s a pretty tall order.

At the end of this episode, Bart says the answer to the question is to listen to all his other episodes. That might sound like a cop out or a marketing ploy, but I have listened to a lot of them, so I know it’s not. Bart’s theme of building community attempts to address all of these concerns at different times and in different ways. It takes hours of discussion to even begin to chip away at this and Humanize Me is one effort to do that. They answer it from the perspective of providing comfort to each other in difficult times, even up to and including the end of the world and how to be in a world of difficult choices so we can get together and solve all the world’s problems. The bottom line answer to all those is to care and nourish those close to you and do it in a way that helps to expand that caring and nourishing out into whatever surrounds you.

The summer of Year B covers some problematic behavior of Kings in the book of Samuel
Ecclesiastes really speaks for itself
Solomon upgrades the relationship to God in Kings
There are many ways to interpret Job. One could fit with this story.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Something to consider for 2019

3 words, we were wrong

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I usually do a New Year’s post, and here it is the 2nd already, so, here’s an article that fits in with my current series.

I’ve been thinking about “intellectually honest” ways to approach religion. This is something my fellow atheists balk at, sometimes vehemently. It shuts down any possibility of discussion when you simply call someone’s point of view stupid. It also gives the theist the opportunity to call them stupid, or maybe stupider, because they can’t see that maybe something that has been part of humanity for a few thousand years has some sort of basis and maybe even some value.

The question to engage then is, how do you determine what is intellectually honest? In this article, he recounts a conversation where he wants someone to reconsider a dogmatic position and they answer with how they “can’t do that”. This is definitely intellectually dishonest. Further, their reasoning is, if they reconsider that Biblically based position, and find their grandparents were wrong, they will have to reconsider every other position.

Sadly, their grandparents probably did reconsider some position, so applying new perspectives to traditions is actually traditional. For example, most people in the United States who have slave owning ancestors now hold a different position on that. We all are free to choose whose ancestors we want to agree with. Biblical non-literalists can be found throughout Christian history, even in the Bible.

Atheist or theist, admitting you were wrong is a great way to open a conversation.


The series

Jesus tells us he teaches in allegory, Book of Mark
Allegory of burning cities
"For the kingdom is like..."

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual 5

The reason for the season

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I don’t have a link to this one unfortunately. I heard this story while driving years ago. It’s one of those stories from listeners on NPR. They set up some theme and people call in and tell a personal vignette. The theme for this one was something about introducing kids to religion when you are not a regular church-goer.

This particular dad picks out some mainstream Protestant churches and takes his daughter to a couple of them. They go to a Christmas service, which is about a baby arriving, so the kid relates to that. If I remember right, it was questions about the meaning of Christmas that got her started. That is a message of hope and the coming of something that will bring peace and joy, so everything was going pretty well.

After Christmas, we get Martin Luther King day. While all this learning about Jesus is going on she’s learning about that in school. They didn’t choose a home church so she was getting accustomed to noticing churches while they were driving around and considering if it looked like one they might like it. Dad doesn’t really have a curriculum in mind and has not thought about any potential pitfalls of this whole endeavor until one day they drive by a Catholic church. There’s Jesus on a cross. Suddenly all the questions and the innocence of discovery take a deeper and darker turn. He hadn’t covered the bloodiness of the crucifixion yet.

He has to quickly update her on the story of how that message of love and hope was not received so well by everyone. Some people don’t want everyone to love everyone else. Some people don’t think everyone is equal and don’t want to afford them equal respect and equal opportunity. When Jesus showed up and started suggesting they all should do that, they wanted him to be quiet, so they killed him. Oh, the little girl said, you mean like Martin Luther King Jr.? He ended his story there. There was really nothing left to add.

Sam Harris has a thought experiment that actually plays out every time a new person is born and goes through the experience of something like this. The experiment is to imagine that you wake up tomorrow and you and everyone else can remember how to do your jobs and the basics of survival, but you’ve lost all cultural memory. There are books on your shelf, but you don’t understand their significance or how one relates to the others. You know you live in a country, but you don’t know why there are boundaries or why we need police. At what point in our attempts to rediscover our own past would we prioritize a story about people in a desert and voices they heard and their choice of clothing or food? How would we choose from all the other stories about beings that we can’t see and can’t find anywhere except in these books? Would we believe in their promises and expect results from the actions they tell us to take?

My answer to those questions is probably obvious, so I don’t need to explain myself further. I wonder how someone who feels compelled to bring the message of Jesus to every remote culture would answer that. An Inuit Eskimo was once given an introduction to Christianity and afterwards he clarified that now that he knew of Jesus, he had to either choose to believe in him, or suffer an eternity in hell. He was also told that if he had never heard of Jesus, he wouldn’t have this problem. So he rather angrily asked why then did they tell him about Jesus at all.

Most of us don’t live at these extremes, but most of the people reading this probably grew up in a culture that had some version of Santa. Even those who didn’t include that story in their traditions saw Santa at every store and at some corner ringing a bell and suffered the music along with the rest of us. I’m noticing this year more than ever, people talking about a meaning of Christmas that transcends the trappings. The “war on Christmas” has become cliché and it seems most agree about over commercialization. The problems of the crazy uncle in the family are juxtaposed with the happiness of being with family.

I even read an article where old Scrooge was defended. Poor guy, everybody keeps using his name as if it means being cranky and unloving, even though, in the end, he becomes “better than his word” and helps the little boy heal and keeps Christmas in his heart throughout the year.

Christmas Lectionary, Year C
Christmas Lectionary, Year A
Christmas Lectionary, Year B

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual 4

It might seem like this would be a good time to summarize the previous entries and start to converge toward a philosophy that I believe in or that is expressed in some sort of non-believer terms. That’s not where I’m headed. Atheism is not a philosophy. There is no atheist creed. At its simplest, it means a lack of belief. People love to complicate it and add qualifiers like “strong” or “hard”*. Some like to say that agnosticism is the only correct choice. Those are all points worth considering, but also not where I’m headed.

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Where I’m headed is better expressed by someone like Karl Popper. If you don’t know who that it is, you will be surprised to find out how much of how you see the world today was shaped by him or at least expressed by him. He wrote “The Open Society and Its Enemies” as the world was embroiled in its Second World War, a time when it was uncertain if decent democratic societies would survive. He wanted to preserve as much of the accumulated wisdom of our cultures as he could. He got it so right that his ideas are pretty much taken for granted so it just doesn’t seem necessary to quote him.

One thing you might hear Popper’s named attached to is the scientific concept of “falsifiability”. For something to be considered scientifically true, you must be able to state it in a way that you could create an experiment and prove it false. If repeated experiments provide data demonstrating evidence in support of the facts, then it’s a pretty good chance it is true. There are plenty of philosophical discussions about this, and it is being questioned more and more lately, but it has been a guiding principle of science since 1963.

Popper also wrote on government, ethics, and much more, including this statement about the Golden Rule,

“The emancipation of the individual was indeed the great spiritual revolution which had led to the breakdown of tribalism and to the rise of democracy.” 

He says this in a discussion about Plato and how he attacked individualism. Plato was an advocate for a caste system. But I don’t think we need a complete history of Western thought to get the point about loving our neighbors. As Popper says,

“This individualism, united with the altruism, has become the basis of our western civilization. It is the central doctrine of Christianity (‘love your neighbor’, say the Scriptures, not ‘love your tribe’); and it is the core of all ethical doctrines which have grown from our civilization and stimulated it.”

He goes on to say how even Kant, who believed morality is derived from reason, not the divine, said, ‘always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as mere means to your ends’.  Nor is this limited to Western culture. I would go so far as to say there are no cultures that survived or have left behind any kind of legacy that did not have some version of this idea in their core guiding principles.

I have found endless versions of this rule, sometimes referred to as the Platinum rule or Universal Rule. You can find slightly grainy pictures like this one (because they want you to actually buy the nice clear one) depicting some of those guiding principles of other cultures.

Image result for golden rule poster

You could spend hours discussing which one is better or which fits you better. Whatever you do don’t start fighting about it or you have completely missed the point.

To avoid that kind of fight about Popper’s quote, I need to go back to it because it contains a few key words that were adequate to what he was saying at the time, but now that we have rebuilt Europe, taken down the Berlin Wall, found our way to a world beyond two super powers bent on destroying each other and entered a world where empires can fall without the inevitable grab for power involving death and destruction on a massive scale, we need to develop a new language that acknowledges how all of our cultures share common bonds.

One of those words is “spiritual”. This word gets bandied about quite often in phrases like “spiritual but not religious”. I let people use whatever terms they want to define themselves, then, if I’m interested, I ask them to describe what they mean. So I don’t need to come to a consensus on what this word means. For my purposes here, and I think adequately for Karl Popper, spiritual things are not material things. They are the hard to measure things like feelings, the value of health over wealth, and knowledge as an end itself instead of a means to something else.

In the quote, Popper is putting the “tribe”, the ones who defend a bordered territory, a set of traditions and ties of birth and history up against an idea of listening to as many voices as possible and synthesizing and harmonizing them for the good of all. Democracy in this quote is not just majority rule or an ideology tied to an economic policy and a particular constitution, it is the ideal of maximum inclusivity and plurality. At least that’s how I see it. That he says “rise of democracy” indicates to me that he still saw much work to be done.

I’ve already addressed that the idea of individual over tribe is not solely a Western idea, but Popper also makes the claim that it is the central doctrine of Christianity. This is a Western-centric statement. It even ignores the very Eastern roots of Christianity. It’s something we have to deal with when evaluating any wisdom coming out of thinkers in the mid 20th century and even more so from those before that. Popper knew his ancient philosophers. I don’t know how well he knew religions. Regardless, I’m not going to devalue him or his sentiment because he choose this particular symbol of neighborly love to express it.

The Old Testament and the New as well as commentaries surrounding them have versions of their greatest prophets being asked how to summarize their teachings. They all say something like loving God and loving your neighbor. Trouble is we also have a wide variety of scholars who spend their days trying to understand words that have been translated through a few languages and through many cultures. Even today, the word neighbor can mean the person next door, or an adjoining country. In Biblical times, it may have meant only Jews or only certain Jews. By the time the gospel of Luke was written, it appears it was starting to mean more than just that. Later letters though, like 1 John, appear to be returning to more tribal thoughts.

The rise of democracy and broadening sense of morality include the idea that we care about a wider and wider circle of people and places. If we agree on that, then it doesn’t matter so much that Christianity has it as a core tenant. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, it means they are on board with the arc of human history, but it doesn’t say anything special about that particular part of history. I suspect if I was alive in Popper’s time, I could have easily been happy knowing I was a Christian and that my traditions included loving those around me in the way I would hope to be loved. I’m glad I’m alive now in a time when I know that sentiment has a much wider reach and is derived from a wider base. I know it’s something even my enemies have some sense of.


Mark on the Golden Rule and its link to Old Testament
Luke and the Golden Rule and it’s alternatives
Leviticus early version of the Golden Rule, Matthew too, what is a neighbor
1 John


* Strong atheism involves the denial of all, or at least one god in particular. Usually it’s saying they know gods do not or cannot exist. “Hard” or “Explicit” atheism also state gods don’t exist with some degree of certainty.