Monday, May 31, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Evil

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 157 Gregory Benford “Evil and Me”

Gregory was raised Christian and in a military family immediately following World War II. He saw some rather gruesome scenes in Japan and Germany at an early age. So, as like many of the essayists, he confronted the problem of evil. He covers it quickly and succinctly.

In this century, he lost his wife and his father in a matter of months. When he took no comfort with them being in a heaven he couldn’t believe in, it was the “emotional conclusion” of his loss of faith.

He concludes with a paragraph on the possible genetic origins of religion, ideas that are covered in more depth in other essays. And that he now does not believe evil is a problem to be solved, “It’s just a feature of our world.”

The machinations that people go through to solve the problem of evil can get rather out of hand. It seems we might have better things to do. The only solutions are choices of faith; that is accept that there is a plan you don’t understand or is beyond human conception. Sin and free will get used to create some logic, but get complicated when concepts of heaven, hell, redemption and End Times get thrown into the mix. The Bible can be most unhelpful in sorting all this out.

Gregory has pondered these ideas and concluded his experience of the universe makes more sense without God. I don’t think that is a necessary conclusion, but we could put aside the arguing about it for a while.


Sunday, May 30, 2010

In The Beginning

Around 500 years ago, some people encouraged everyone to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. There is more to it than that, but for my purpose today, that is good enough. Today, fewer people get a complete Bible education when they are young, so if they attempt a read of the Bible on their own, they probably start at the book of Genesis, which is a very odd story.

It may not seem quite as odd, if you did not approach it with the baggage of your culture. This baggage informs us that this is one of the oldest stories in history and that it is part of a larger narrative of perfect creation, the fall, sin and salvation. Even if that narrative is true, the people who originally told and heard the story could not have known it. They would however have been very aware of events that were happening in their time. Those events were temporarily lost to history.

The Perfection/Fall/Sin/Salvation narrative was completed sometime after 200 AD by people who had very little awareness of the Sumerians or of the early cultures that broke away from Egypt some 1,200 years earlier. For them, the Bible was history. We now know that there was quite a bit of history before that book.

We have the story of Gilgamesh for example. It is an ancient document that actually fits the Hollywood picture of ancient documents that cause a shift in everyone’s’ understanding when they are discovered. The story goes that as the translator realized that he was uncovering a story of a flood and a boat and animals being carried two by two that predated the writing of the Noah story, he got very excited and started running around the lab, taking off his clothes.

We also now know something about the creation stories that came before the Genesis tale. In those stories, there was usually chaos, or some other monstrous creatures inhabiting the universe, then the gods come along and defeated them, or at least were able to control them. They then create humans to serve them. Kings and Queens were keepers of these stories, and the voice for these gods.

Now think about Genesis. The god of that story creates everything out of a void. He doesn’t have to defeat the great creatures of the sea, he created them. After he has created this paradise, he creates a man, who is asked to take care of it, and then a woman for a companion. The second creation story gets into rules and I think we still have some digging into history and psychology to do before we really understand it. But it is clear to me that this story was not just claiming to be different or better, but directly commenting on the stories that supported the existing power structures, saying they really had nothing.

If you want some more detail on that, I found a lecture at The Faraday Institute website by Ernest Lucas, “God and Origins: Interpreting the Early Chapters of Genesis”. You have to search a little once you go to this link.

So what is different about the people that put this story together? I started listening to a history class on the Mediterranean recently using iTunes U. When the professor gets to 1200 BCE, she talks about an area called the Levant, basically where Palestine and Israel are today. At that time, it was under the control of Egypt, a very bureaucratic, King/slave system that had lasted for 1000’s of years. Within a couple hundred years the Levant was populated by a few small states, ruling themselves with systems based on justice and a moral order.

What happened? There are a few theories, none of which is completely supported by the archaeological evidence. My favorite is that there was a social revolutionary movement, and they threw off the chains of their oppressors. Unfortunately, no one stopped and documented how it happened. I’m sure the Egyptians were not too happy about it, so they would have kept quiet. As the professor says, one of the communities reflected back and wrote stories about it, unfortunately in an extremely difficult form for us to use for an historical source. That source would be the Torah.

I don’t know how to link to iTunes University, but if you go there and search for UC Berkeley, History4A The Ancient Mediterranean World with Isabel Pafford, you should find it.

I think there is more to the world’s fascination with this story than just a mystery to be solved. I think the struggle of people against their governments continues and we want to hear a story of someone who succeeded. We would like a solution that involves something other than just a cycle of violent revolutions. I would anyway.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Prayers

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 118 Christine Overall “Unanswered Prayers”

This one was unusual in how personal it was. It recounted some fears she experienced as a 9 year old at Bible camp, afraid of the dark. She covers some of the positive aspects of prayer that don’t require the existence of a deity; it gives one the feeling that they are doing something to help themselves and that you have someone to talk to. She also points out that in the case of opposing sports teams, only one will have their wish granted.

So, this early experience started her pondering about the “favoritism” of God. As an adult she sees this as part of the “argument from evil”, or the “problem of evil”. In this case, the problem is not just that there is evil in the world, but that God only does good things sometimes. It seems to expose some weakness of God. It gradually led her to believe that the Christian God has no sense of justice. She concludes she might as well believe there is no God “of the sort to whom I thought I was praying when I was a lonely and frightened little girl.”

I think I have spoke to this line of logic enough to not have to repeat it here. I don’t worry about Christine or her soul or have any desire to attempt to convince her that some other sort of God is worth praying to. I do hope that religious leaders will read this book or similar essays and give some consideration to what they are saying to 9 year old girls who are afraid of the dark.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - 3 Stages

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 168 Julian Savulescu “Three Stages of Disbelief”

Nothing terribly new in this essay, but it is beautifully written, a testimony to the frightening yet exciting experience of life. I won’t try to recreate any of that, just cover the three stages.

Before the disbelief, came belief, at an early age. He was a good Bible student and even made up his own prayers. Religion was a welcome comfort against the fear of death. By age 16, he started seeing the whole project as an invention, a way to exercise control. I think this is inevitable for many in the modern world who become believers when they are young because it is comfortable and reassuring. That was the first stage, he calls physical implausibility.

The second stage lasted quite a while, through different concepts of God including ideas from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Then came medical school and internship, and direct experiences of suffering and death. He calls this the existential senselessness stage. Through this stage he “continued to want to believe”. He spoke to philosophers and other “received sensible, reasoned lines of advice which conflicted.”

The final stage doesn’t have a label, but he presents some interesting questions about how we decide what is morally right and how do we face our eventual demise while enjoying the beauty and fulfillment of our time alive. He has what seems to be an appreciation for tradition, but now finds God irrelevant. I find the questions he asks and the discussion he opens up much more interesting than arguments about existence.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Welcome Back

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p.200 Kelly O’Connor “Welcome Me Back to the World of the Thinking”

This was an interesting mix, some of it I could relate to, and some was disappointing. She refers to an experience of finding religion later in life, but does not provide details. She was in Japan with no Internet access for a few years and missed the exponential growth of technology during that time. On her return to the U.S. she stumbled in to a chat room and “had the experience of arguing against people who knew the subject matter better than” her. She does not go into detail, but it seems she was taking the side of creationism or intelligent design against evolution.

The parts of the essay that I could relate to are some simple facts that unfortunately are rarely stated, for instance that our tenth-grade biology leaves us with an obfuscated and inadequate view of evolution. The Internet however has forced us to realize that we are not constrained by this. It does contain a wealth of inaccurate information, but there is no excuse for not looking things up.

This is the point when the essay became disappointing. When she realized she was in over her head in this online argument, she did the obligatory looking up and was hit like a tidal wave by what she found. This was mixed with some relief that the questions she was having about her faith were now essentially moot. Although there seems to be more study behind it, she mentions spending 3 days clicking through links hoping to defend her argument, but then eventually having to admit she was wrong. She includes the entire post of that admission she wrote in that discussion forum. This is the modern equivalent of what occurred for Margaret Downey over several years in the book’s third essay.

In that post she notes that she found a complete lack of historical evidence for Jesus and uncanny similarities between Jesus and earlier pagan gods. This sounds like the conclusions a believer in creationism might come to after 3 days of research. I have had enough of these “tidal wave” experiences in my life to realize that when I have one, it is best to keep my mouth shut for a few months and read some more and contemplate the ideas. If you have ever seen the zealotry of an ex-smoker, you know what I mean.

On the “historical evidence” for Jesus, relative to other documents from that time period, one written within 20 years of the events is pretty good, which is what we have in the gospel of Mark. We have many other copies of similar documents. Unfortunately they were all kept within small communities, a huge mark against their historical accuracy. But a more accurate statement would be to say there is no historical evidence of Jesus outside of the gospels, including those not found in the Bible, from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hamadi.

As for the similarities to earlier pagan gods, if you ever come across some of this in movies like Religulous or Zeitgeist or websites by David Icke or Archarya, please do the obligatory research. Even Skeptic magazine debunks these ideas and finds them contrary to their cause. Here is a very good article by Tim Callahan, who has published in Skeptic.

Yes, many earlier gods claimed a virgin birth, but disbelief in the virgin birth of Jesus will not get you excommunicated from most mainline churches, not even Catholic ones. And let me be clear, I do not claim that eye witness accounts reported in the gospels are on par with something reported in the New York Times. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so I do not consider the reports of the resurrection adequate proof.

In case there is any doubt, she goes on to use words like “delusional” and “insanity” and “tyranny of religion” in describing belief. I can only guess what beliefs she was previously sold, but I imagine her and I would agree those words fit for them. We disagree on some other things she said, but I’m going to skip that and end with agreeing with her that

“… I would like to live in a world where people actually utilize that three pounds of grey matter between their ears…”


Thursday, May 6, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Born Again

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 172 Greg Egan “Born Again, Briefly”

This one bypasses all the technical arguments with a very interesting story of a young person’s encounter with the Charismatic movement in America in the 1970’s. Like many of the other author’s, he had a strong intellectual curiosity but in this case that led him to rather than away from religion. Unlike most of the other authors, his parents did not push him in that direction, it was his older brother.

He was 12 and his brother was in his in teens. They would read and talk in their bedroom, even after being told to be quiet and turn out the lights. This was around the time of the musical Godspell. His brother’s Catholic community was more like a group of drug-free hippies, something new and interesting, not something old and musty to be questioned. Most unusual was that when he did ask his brothers those typical belief questions he admitted any answer would be inadequate; “you could not, he said, reason your way to God.”

Instead his big brother convinced him to kneel down and pray. Although not instantly convinced, he felt a great sense of contentment and continued to have strong upswells of emotion when he would pray. Invoking the name of Jesus gave him a sense of happiness, safety and love. Questioning this now seemed absurd.

As he went through High School, some rebelliousness kicked in and he had questions about heaven and hell and the silliness of official Christian teaching, but the “messenger living inside” him continued to convince him that God would save humanity. Even his interest in science did not trump his belief. Science also had unanswered questions. He saw no incompatibility.

There was no single insight or argument but sometime around age 20, his time as a believer ended. He posits that it may have been this question:

“Which was the most likely: that I had been born into a culture that, out of all the many religions on Earth, happened to worship the true creator of the universe, or that I had put my own spin on an emotional Rorschach blot that could easily be explained without invoking anything supernatural at all.”

He now suspects that neurologists will eventually be able to explain what he felt. He had accepted the whole package; that the universe has a purpose and the promise that it will be put right in the end. As he says,
“This is a powerful and appealing notion; once you have it in your grasp, it’s hard to let go, and some of us will go to very great lengths to rationalize holding on to it.”

I don’t think my comments could add much to this one.


Monday, May 3, 2010

Silence of Mountains

It is time for another departure from Christianity. One of the more spiritual experiences I have sometimes that does not involve Christianity is the Annual Men’s Conference, created by Robert Bly. I happen to live very near to where it is held. Robert has kept alive the practice of story telling and its application. The application part is much more complicated and beyond the scope of one blog post.

Through this conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Malidoma Some. Malidoma was born in Africa some 50 or so years ago in a tribe that practices the indigenous spirituality of that part of the world. He was also educated at the prestigious Sorbonne University in France. It is a great joy to hear him speak and play his drum. When he is holding a cigar he reminds of Bill Cosby, but with a French accent and in African native dress.

Exactly what happens at a Men’s conference is also beyond this scope and not something that is simply told like any story. It unfolds differently for each gathering and for each man. You can get some sense of it from “A Gathering of Men” with Bill Moyers. The Men’s Conference is welcoming to many spiritual traditions and in some ways is an alternative to the modern America religious culture. Malidoma is one of the best I know of at bridging the modern and the traditional.

In one talk he gave, he said something to the affect of “all religion is evil”. He may have been referring not only to the evil that has been perpetrated by such institutions as the Inquisition, but also to harsh lessons his tribal leaders taught him, sometimes taking advantage of their positions of power. I can’t say for sure. I did notice that statement won applause from the men (not that Malidoma said it for the applause). I took it to mean that religion is always an imperfect expression of the source that it claims to represent.

A few minutes later he was speaking of what each of us individually can and should be doing to accept, acknowledge and connect to that source. He spoke of rituals such as drumming, attitudes of mindfulness, and he spoke of prayer. This did not rate so high on the applause meter. Such is the nature of a talk like that, there are the emotional hot points and the parts about discipline and practice.

The question of just what prayer is has been one that I have been asking for many years. If you use Google to get that answer, you will find many answers with Christian God language in them. That may not be what you are looking for, but I think much can be teased out of those lessons from Saints, and philosophers of old.

Plato said, “Thinking is the talking of the soul with itself”

just what he meant by soul, we can’t know, but we don’t need anything more than a secular definition to continue thinking about this.

St John Vianney said, “Prayer is the inner bath of love into which the soul plunges itself.”

and Fulton J. Sheen, “Prayer begins by talking to God, but it ends by listening to Him. In the face of Absolute Truth, silence is the soul’s language.”

and what is meant by capitalizing all of those words? What I get from Fulton is that there are things that are beyond our ability to express in words.

Malidoma Patrice Some, puts it this way, “Peace is letting go - returning to the silence that cannot enter the realm of words because it is too pure to be contained in words. This is why the tree, the stone, the river, and the mountain are quiet.”

and when Google doesn’t give you the solution to whatever you are looking for,

“You always carry within yourself the very thing that you need for the fulfillment of your life purpose.” – Malidoma Some

If you want to know about Malidoma, here is a good introduction:
Video of an interview with Malidoma, "How to Be a Man"