Wednesday, June 6, 2018

How to argue on the Internet

I’m thinking of making a sarcastic website about how to argue on facebook and other internet sites. Sarcastic, in that it would teach you how to do all the bad arguing I see people doing. Here is a good example. In arguments about gun control, someone inevitably brings up the problem that “you don’t know what AR stands for”. This is actually a non-issue with regards to sensible gun legislation and it doesn’t  illuminate just what an assault weapon is.  Worse though, it’s just wrong.


How to argue about gun control: 

Lesson #1: Present some facts that have nothing to do with gun control. Hopefully no one will notice how irrelevant they are.

Someone I don’t know added this link, with no other comment, to a thread on gun control. It’s just a non-argument to begin with, but the point of doing it is lots of people think it is an argument. It’s a timeline that starts in 1989, when they began producing AR-15’s for the consumer market. This is should be immediately suspicious, since it says “for the consumer market”, telling you there was a different reason the weapons were first manufactured.

As it turns out, the term “assault rifle” is a direct translation of the first such rifle created by the Germans during WWII for military purposes, the Sturmgewehr. This is easy to look up once you know that name, but more trouble than most people will go to if you are just searching for “history of the term assault rifle” or something like that. This anonymous poster was trying to take advantage of people not having a lot of free time.

Lesson #2: Exclude actual history and facts that might hurt your argument.

I don’t doubt that the post was made to educate me that the term “assault” is a liberal invention, intended to make the guns sound worse than they are. The introduction tells you what AR does not stand for, but says nothing about where the term “assault” came from.  If you read the comments below the time line, you’ll see many people believe it was an invention of liberals to serve the anti-gun agenda. What’s unfortunate for them is, comments are open to anyone. What’s unfortunate for intelligent sensible people is, you have to wade through a lot of garbage to find the factual comments.

Lesson #3: Be technically correct. Sometimes called partially correct.

People who say an AR-15 is not an assault rifle are partially correct. It’s like saying a Canon copier is not a Xerox copier, or Puffs is not Kleenex, or an instant photo is not a Polaroid. But when something gets invented, the brand name sometimes becomes what we call it. There is no technical definition for what an assault rifle is, so they can never really lose this argument. No matter how you try to define it, you are never correct, technically. This was one of the problems with enforcing the assault weapons ban. They created a legal definition, but laws can be skirted on technicalities.

Normally, we frown on this. From Perry Mason to Law and Order, the prosecutors are always lamenting people who get off on a technicality. I’m sure the makers of the ban were hoping that people would want to comply with this law and would work to improve on it so safe and legal gun owners who had no intention of killing anyone could have the guns they want, and easy to use death machines would stay out of the hands of criminals and disaffected youths. That’s not how it turned out, and the law expired.

Instead of having these bad arguments that lead to nothing, we could be discussing the practical issues and how we can create a safer world by examining the features associated with this type of weaponry and gun ownership in general and, as with anything dangerous, like dynamite or cars or pseudoephedrine, we could make regulations that we could all live with. Such as:

Large, detachable magazines
Automatic and semi-automatic fire
Proper storage and trigger locks
Caliber, range  and velocity of the bullets as well as the design that causes them to tumble.
Background checks
Loopholes to background checks such as private sales
Education about gun safety
Counseling and services for people who are thinking about misusing weapons

Lesson #4: Now that you have made definitions meaningless, use your own.

What definitely was a deliberate creation of a marketing term is MSR, Modern Sporting Rifle. I know a few hunters and none of them use an AR or AK or anything like it for sport. It takes away the sport of carefully siting and killing a deer or other large animal and would leave you with no meat for small game. I’ve heard they are good for coyotes, but who hunts those? The firearms industry first adopted the term “assault” as a new and exciting sounding product line, but with mass shootings making the news, decided to change that. See 2009 on the timeline.

By careful use of the above lessons, one can take something that their side of the argument is doing; making up terms that provide an emotional appeal, and make it sound like the other side is doing it. Congratulations, you’re ready to join the exciting world of arguing on the internet.

Friday, May 11, 2018

String Asymmetry


I’ve had one blog about TV, and that was Star Trek. The Big Bang Theory is a show about some sci-fi nerds who also happen to know a lot about actual science. But really, it’s a show about relationships and they tied it all together brilliantly in the season 11 finale with Sheldon and Amy’s wedding.

It takes a few scenes for it to be laid out. It starts with, well, it starts with years of developing the characters, but if you don’t know them, I think it still works. It starts with Sheldon attempting to tie his bow tie perfectly. His fiancĂ©, Amy asks what he’s doing. She says maybe it’s not supposed to be perfect. Maybe it’s supposed to be a little uneven. No one can ever tell Sheldon he’s not doing something right, but he seems to relent a little this time.

Later he is getting dressed for the wedding with his best man and they have their moment, then Sheldon’s mother comes in and asks for privacy. They talk about his late father and the subject of the uneven tie comes up again. His mother waxes philosophic about how sometimes it’s the imperfect things that happen that cause a moment to be perfect. Sheldon notes that Amy said something similar, then gets that look on his face he sometimes does, the far off look towards a corner of the room that is focused somewhere further off into a distant galaxy. He says, “I gotta go.” His mother is left standing there alone, a perfect demonstration of something imperfect happening, and she says out loud to no one, “like that.”

Where he goes is to his bride’s dressing room. She is standing alone in her gown looking at a mirror. His first reaction is to be stunned by her beauty. This is unusual for Sheldon. Normally if he has something important on his mind, other people don’t matter. He does do what he normally does when he rambles and stumbles and goes on tangents as he explains why he’s there. Amy is one of the few people who can pull him back into focus and when she does he explains that the bow tie discussion has led him to a breakthrough in his ideas on String Theory. Instead of super-symmetry, it could be super-A-symmetry. The two begin writing out equations on the mirror, using lipstick. In an abnormal moment for Sheldon, he does not mention that he wants credit for this discovery. He says they will publish it together.

The show has science advisers who helped them come up with the super-asymmetry idea. They checked, and as mentioned in the show, no one has published something like this yet. The brilliance of the moment to me is that string theory is an attempt to find equations that unify all of our knowledge of the universe, to find symmetry in everything. Sheldon has believed he could do this since he was a little boy. He makes rules for everything, including relationships, and stresses the importance of sticking to them. The show has traced a long slow realization on his part that people don’t always function as a set of rules. To demonstrate that he is really finally getting this he is taking these lessons for life from his wife and his mother and applying them to his lifelong goal of understanding how the universe works through mathematical formulas. He is seeing the language of love in the language of the universe.

The equations of course are a metaphor. They are not suggesting that you can write a formula for the meaning of life. The science advisers make sure that the math that appears on the show is accurate in some sense, but accuracy is not the point. They know people will freeze the frames and scrutinize them. Sometimes they put math jokes on the white boards. I wouldn’t know. The metaphor is the search for meaning. Sheldon’s very Christian mother thinks she knows the answers and that it’s cute that her son is so smart. She also sees all the problems that it has caused for him. Sheldon sees nothing but problems coming out of his caricatured Texan family. The others on the show have their own approaches and philosophies that all get their time and place. What we saw at the wedding was that all of them are reaching for the same thing, and together, sometimes finding it.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Cold November

Yes, I know it's April and just warming up after a long winter. The title of this post is the title of a movie. Click here for the website. You'll need to keep an eye for screenings, but it will eventually be available for $4.99. Here's my brief review and synopsis. It's advertised as a movie where a young girl gets her first deer, so there are no spoilers.

Got to see this for a one night only showing. And they had the writer/director on Skype for questions. He’s a Minnesotan and used Minnesotan actors to portray stories that grew out his own experience. His hunting skills were passed down from women, which is a bit unusual, so the movie is a mother, grandmother and a couple sisters, one husband, with a third dead sister appearing in a dream sequence. The main character is the 12 year old and her coming of age experience of getting her first deer. Guns obviously appear in the movie, but when the heirloom gun is given to her, there is no ominous music or foreshadowing of trouble.

The tensions of the movie are family issues; a teenage daughter lost, apparently a car accident, although details are not given; the mother needs to work, but the missing men in these lives are not discussed or explained. The 12 year old is dealing with becoming an adult, so you get cute scenes like she says “shit” and the mother says, hey, “you said shit”, so the daughter says, “and so did you”. These are conversations you get to have at the hunting shack. More poignant, we hear about the difficult days when grandma had to poach deer to feed the family. Another story that stays at the shack.

But these aren’t hidden evil, these are normal things that you just aren’t normally talked about in polite company, but you do when you are with family for days in a row, supporting each other in the day to day mundane rituals, and the more significant ritual of getting meat from the land. I asked the director if he was thinking about gun legislation when he made the movie and he said he didn’t want to make an “issue” movie. To him, the appearance of guns and the handling of guns is normal. He talked about how this is something he has to explain when he shows the movie in Los Angeles.

He is going to continue making movies along these lines, about Northern Minnesota culture. I would love to be in a room full of people who have never even been “up north” for a weekend and see their reactions.






Saturday, March 17, 2018

Beauty In the Art of Being Human


Everyone's Agnostic podcast

Cass Midgley often does great in depth research with his podcasts. In this episode, something called the theodicy of divine silence comes up. He explains what that is at the beginning of the podcast and in the text, but I want to add how it relates to secular versions of worldviews. These include people who believe organic farming is better, that our election systems are rigged, that the CIA is in charge of our government, that aliens are working with that secret government, that the earth is flat or any other number of ideologies that have some basis, some facts that can be demonstrated, but have become belief systems to many.

This podcast is about religion and questioning its precepts and tends to focus on the more extreme, evangelical end of the spectrum, but the psychology of belief is the same no matter where you look. Just as evangelicals point to Billy Graham in the White House and cathedrals as evidence they are right, people point to Whole Foods Grocery and the popularity of documentaries as proof they are on the right side. It gets nearly impossible to have a conversation when it becomes tribal. When you can’t point out that chemicals are used in organic farming without being considered a shill for a corporation, discourse has broken down.

Cass comes from a strong religious background, so he sees how this occurred in that environment. My background began with the counter culture and coming together as community to create something we couldn’t do alone and a little Taoist spirituality. The language however, is exactly the same. I heard “you have to believe it to see it” and “fake it ‘til you make it” from people in sandals communing with the trees. The more subtle version would be something like, “well, I just see things differently” or “you can’t look at this from an intellectual point of view”. Whatever way, it is putting blame for not seeing something on to the seer. It’s not a matter of missing evidence. It’s a matter of accepting something a priori.

For those who are open to it, it creates guilt and distrust of self. Once that is created, the readymade answer is there to fix it, the welcoming tribe is there, ready to embrace you with more reassurances, week after week, YouTube after YouTube, bad science after bad science. In the podcast, they discuss ways of deconstructing the narratives that people have. Personally, I would be happy just getting to a point where people would agree with me on ground rules for conversation.

I do want people to see the reality that I think is real, but I don’t think I have a lock on what that is. If I had not questioned my own assumptions from 20 years ago, I wouldn’t see things that I do now. That leaves the possibility that 20 years from now, I will see things differently. Knowing that, all of us should be interested in finding methods and tools for figuring out if we got it right or not. All of these belief systems, dogmatic or not, say they are seeking truth, desiring truth. I’m not convinced of that if they can’t first demonstrate their methods are sound.


I know these podcasts are longer than many of you care for, so here are some highlights.

Cass does his intro, which is also mostly in the description provided. They discuss Ryan’s history for a bit and then after a half hour or so get into how he talked to people on the street as part of his gospel mission. He explains how he would get people to answer questions about things they had done wrong in their life. This is how he would “give you the disease” then offer you the cure. At 34 minutes, he talks about once getting punched in the face for doing this. The story is interesting because it leads to him being proud of being a martyr for that happening. Cass points out that this is a helpless situation that the church is in, because if they get feedback about doing something wrong, or have used logic poorly, it becomes a blessing, that they are “persecuted for my namesake” (referring to Jesus). The world is lost, so you can’t get your truth from there, they say. It’s a very difficult line to engage.

Cass then does a little demonstration of using guided imagination to do a little of this “prophesying”. The theodicy of silence comes up after that, around 40 minutes. The text in the description of the podcast goes into more detail. Ryan uses the analogy of saying that God is like a radio, that you have to tune into. If you aren’t, it’s your fault. Cass’s experience is that he was told he had to be humble for God to show himself.

About 45:30 Cass looks at this idea of looking for the truth. He says he believes Ryan’s intentions were pure. He asks if this pursuit took him “past Jesus”. Ryan agrees. He doesn’t like it when people say he walked away from faith, he went “through it”. If you are searching for a perfect or even just superior being or spirit, you shouldn’t be afraid of where you look or what you might find. That knowledge, supernatural or not, should be findable. Any flaws in the knowledge should be explainable.

Cass and Ryan agree that the pursuit can lead you past the human traditions that led to the pursuit in the first place. Bible study supports this, as Moses found YHWH and David challenged Saul and Amos spoke against the king and Jesus spoke against the Pharisees. Ryan talks about the evolution of Christianity, from something more static to something that is allowed to grow wild and see where it takes you. Ryan covers his own journey from the narrow theology he had to thinking it was either that or nothing. He moved on to seeing there are many variations of Christianity then to the possibility of there being something else that is a better expression of his feelings on the cosmology of the world and what it is to be a human being.

This leads to a great summary from Ryan in the 50th minute. They use the analogy of gardening then he says, “There is something compelling about it, about religion in general, why different cultures throughout all human history keep finding ways to reach beyond themselves. That’s interesting to me, even if what they are reaching for doesn’t exist. There’s something inviting and warm and comforting to me about the reaching itself.” (umms and other connecting words were removed from this quote)

They talk about mental illness and it leads to the path to free thinking. It’s no less interesting than the rest of the podcast. It starts to wrap up around 1:03. Cass talks about someone who went back after becoming an unbeliever and read the Psalms and saw them as a search for meaning. Unfortunately he doesn’t remember who it was. I find this type of appreciation for different viewpoints so rare. We are a very large species, spread out over the world, yet we have so much in common. As Cass says, “there’s a beauty in the art of what it means to be human.” Ryan adds a little to that about interpreting the Bible from a humanist perspective.

Cass always ends with questions about his guest’s hobbies and for this episode, plays some music.

Ryan’s blog http://www.theholyapostate.com/

Monday, March 12, 2018

Trust is earned

History of the last 100 years. Who are the baby boomers?

1918 – WWI. A horrific experience following a massive build of arms due to the industrialization of the world. It brought family monarchies and isolated tribes all into one giant playing field. They now saw how small actions on one side of the world affected others  far away. And the President was a racist.

1928 – Things were looking pretty good. People were partying. A technological boom was occurring. If you don’t know why 1929 was famous, look it up.

1938 – Hitler and Mussolini are in power. People saw it coming but did little.

1948 – Hitler was defeated. Soldiers had to find their own way home, many died in that journey. Parts of Europe were flattened. The Mideast was carved up by the 3 superpowers. China was having a civil war that would end with Mao. Baby boomers were just being born, not yet affecting anything except causing people to buy washing machines and convenience foods. 

1958 – Starvation was rampant throughout Central America, India and Africa but technological solutions were solving many of the problems. America invested in its veterans, had brought electricity to rural areas, grew its suburbs, but argued about what to do about communism. Baby Boomer children were shown images of their cities being obliterated by nuclear explosions.

1968 – Moon landing, Robert Kennedy shot, MLK shot, riots in major cities, corruption exposed in politics. The baby boomers were starting to get a voice since the universities were well funded and well attended. They supported civil rights, they protested war, they wanted workers to be treated fairly, unions were strengthened.

1978 – After being shot at and arrested, the baby boomers retreated and tried more traditional ways of influencing policies. Meanwhile evangelicals in America and other traditions were also discovering political power. Some baby boomers had helped end the Vietnam war, so now they were divided:Veterans who thought they should have bombed more and those who had avoided the draft or who were talking about how they were given orders to fight an unjust war. The superpower’s dominance was also in retreat.  Secret operations were getting exposed, colonies were getting independence, or they were fighting back in low level wars.

1988 – Reagan (not a baby boomer) is fighting new secret wars while also turning us from the largest loaner nation to the largest debtor nation mostly through the buildup of nuclear weapons. Many Baby Boomers return to protesting, along with a new younger generation. Starvation is seen as a world problem, but some of the solutions are just causing more problems. All over the world leaders point to other nations as the cause of problems, old tribal differences turn into modern wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central America and elsewhere.

1998 – The first baby boomer President reduces the deficit, wants abortion to be “safe and legal”, tried to reform health care and started SCHIP, signed a gun control bill, loosened restrictions on gays in the military. He also signed the Defense of Marriage Act and reduced the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country. He also used cruise missiles in the Mid-East in his fight against terrorism. He modernizes the military, but spending is still high.

2008 – This year saw the near collapse of the world’s financial system as a Republican President and divided Congress had weakened banking regulations. Bankers had abused their lending power and gambled with one of the foundations of the system, home ownership by private citizens. Youth again took a leadership position in protesting these massive organizations and the people who once marched with MLK and against Vietnam are now in positions of power to help them. Another baby boomer President comes to power this year and again has to right the economy, reduce the deficit and bring the long awaited and desperately needed reforms to health care.

2018 –  Millenials now equal to Baby Boomers as a share of the electorate.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes of the 1960’s was when young people said “don’t trust anyone over 30”. I was still too young to even know what they meant, but it took me a long time to understand the contribution of the generations before me. The ones who fought fascism and built the schools that I attended. We can’t afford that long learning curve this time. Boomers have the traditionally strong voting block of older people and we might be seeing a long needed increase in the youth vote. Let’s work together.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Work for Peace

This is a continuation from last week.

Quitting religion for me was somewhat like quitting smoking, I did it several times. I probably could have gone on having positive moments with that community and just accumulating the good memories, but I kept thinking something about it wasn’t good for me. I could have focused on observing people going to church around me and then acting in the world in positive ways. In a slightly different world, that could have been enough to allay the doubts and just dismiss them as the normal human condition of not knowing the answers to the ultimate questions.

Church is very good at handling these doubts. They love to bring the lost sheep back into the fold. They have a wide of variety of books and techniques to deal with loss and pain. Not quite as well advertised, they are also willing to cut you loose if you don’t respond the way you are supposed to. I’ve heard more than a few stories of kids getting kicked out of Sunday School for asking too many questions. Adults need to figure it out for themselves and for some it can be quite painful. Some people leave behind their whole system of community support when they leave a church.

I was lucky. I was able to observe all of this safely and find an alternate community just by asking around. It took effort and time, but it was something I could afford to do. Some people are isolated and only have one version of religion presented to them. You can be isolated even in a densely populated urban environment, especially when you are young and still need the support of the people who raised you.

If you find yourself in that situation, the only advice I have is that of Charles Eastman’s father. Eastman, also known as Ohiyesa, was a Lakota, born in 1858 when the US government was forcing his tribe to relinquish their ancestral knowledge. His father, who had almost been killed as part of the largest mass hanging in US history, told him to not fight it, to learn as much as he could about the ways of the people who had conquered them. Eastman became a doctor and wrote about Sioux ethnohistory and even got invited to the White House as a sort of ambassador to the tribes.

Anyway, that wasn’t my experience, but in 2009, a book came out, 50 Voices of Disbelief. It told stories of people who had experienced that isolation and indoctrination. Many of them had gut wrenching experiences making the transition from their isolated worlds to the real one. Those stories really hit me and were difficult to not think about. I’ve since talked to many people who were raised in what we might consider a normal Middle American fashion that included religion and didn’t find the transition quite so hard.  They were given resources like a college education and understood they had choices, even if those choices caused a little disappointment with their parents.

I think we dismiss these stories a little too easy. There is a spectrum. There are certainly abusive churches out there and I don’t have a problem focusing on them, but I have heard the same fundamentalist half-truths and apologetics in the most liberal of churches. In one of my Bible study classes, back when I was still Christian, someone came to class having just read an article about the Leviticus 21 passage about slavery. She was concerned that the Bible clearly supported slavery. The pastor smoothed it over by talking about how slavery then was more like indentured servitude from a few centuries ago. We didn’t open the Bible and examine the verses in question or address the problem at all. She didn’t even get a chance to talk about them, so at the time I didn’t know the verse I just linked. I just filed the concern in the back of my head as a minor problem. Years later I had to have Matt Dillahunty, an atheist podcaster, shove those verses in my face before I understood my mis-education. 

I’m sure that pastor was just repeating what he’d been told. He probably avoided looking at those passages and that is exactly what he wanted us to. Any similar or more direct questions I have asked of religious people of all calibers since have been met with similar dismissal or, my favorite, “that’s not our church”. The story of the pastor above is someone I care about very much. I have other stories of churches that I have and still consider wonderful communities that are doing great things. That’s how I tell these stories. The entire point of the stories is that they are doing great things, and, and, they can’t reconcile that with the fundamental founding documents of their organization. But it doesn’t matter how well I paint those communities, when I tell the part about the slavery apologetics, or the kid who had to be excused from Sunday School, the response is, “that’s not our church”.

They might even have some evidence. They might say they learned from the pulpit that the book of Timothy was not really written by Paul and the anti-feminist stuff in there does not apply. They might just consider it obvious that slavery is bad and not understand why they even need to address it. If I point out that good Christians of the not too distant past supported slavery and patriarchy they still say it’s not them, that it’s in the past. When I point to Christians today not accepting homosexuality, they are at a bit of a loss for words.

What’s missing in these aborted attempts at a conversation is that these changes in morality were not guided by or sourced from any religious authority. It may have been Christians who led the abolitionist movement but they had to draw on secular philosophy and modern data to make their case. If people claim “their church” is modern and open to new data, it is data that is coming from outside the teachings of 1st century Judaism. For that matter, the gospels include the teachings from people outside of 1st century Judaism. This is the one of the paradoxes of modern religion. To be modern you acknowledge that change has happened throughout the history of the church, but when I try to get one religious person to address a particular needed change today, suddenly they don’t act so modern.

People who try to tell me that their church is different and wouldn’t act the way I describe people in my experience are, most likely, not asking the questions I asked or reading the books I’ve read or accumulating the doubts like I did. To remain in a church, or possibly any organization, you have to allow for some parts of it that you don’t like. It’s a matter of degree of how much is tolerable and explainable. For example, I have on occasion considered leaving my country due to some of its policies and actions, but overall, I like it here and prefer to follow the advice of Carl Schurz, an immigrant who fought in the civil war. In 1872 he said, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

There is no particular wrong that caused me to leave church. It was the inability of it to address what was wrong. Religion is uniquely designed to avoid change. It holds up the ideal at the highest levels of decision making that if you sit quietly in a darkened room with your eyes closed and just ask for answers, they will come to you. Change comes through claims of revelation and requires that you connect your revelation to an earlier figure in the tradition, an earlier figure that might not have even existed. This is the opposite of using reason and evidence and observation and worse, the opposite of listening to the voices of those around you.

Being frustrated with an organization you are member of, or your country or your family or anything in between is not that unusual. We all settle on family having done the best they could, well, most of us, I realize some families are really messed up. We accept that we get something for the taxes we pay and we hope that next time we’ll have better candidates to vote for. No matter what, we look for underlying principles of fairness and some sort of logical progression from biological needs of love and support up to the day to day fulfillment of those desires. The Bible fails at that. Sure, Jesus said to “love thy neighbor as thyself”, but a lot of traditions said that before. And that was his second commandment, the first was to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul and with all they mind.” That part is not very well explained and has some serious problems.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Seeking Caring Community

I laid out the highlights of my not religious journey a few weeks ago, and it got me thinking about details along the way.

Some people have specific events that made them quit religion, but I’m not one of those. If anything, there were a few things I can remember that kept me hoping that I could get continued value from that community. One of those was meeting Rabbi Michael Lerner. He had written some books on applying his Jewish traditions to liberal politics and for a few years had been an advisor to the Clintons who were Methodists, just like me. Ideas like the Jubilee year where debts are forgiven or the Sabbath where you unplug all your electronic devices for a weekend. This was before smart phones. A lot a people talk about this as a good idea now.


https://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/images/header_lernerpage.png
A community formed around these and other ideas and that work continues. It’s good stuff, but the Biblical connections were not that direct. His work is a good response to fundamentalism. It shows you can go to church or synagogue or mosque and be inspired to work for justice and peace and equality. But if you’re looking to make a case that the Biblical narrative leans more to the left, I didn’t find that there.

For more detailed Bible study that does look for modern messages in the text, there was the Jesus Seminar. This group of authors was active the 1990’s. Dominic Crossan is still writing and speaking. Marcus Borg died recently. Robert Price has since become atheist, but he still studies the Bible. In the first book I read from that group, they put the gospels side by side and showed how they are irreconcilable. I have since come to see these things like this more cynically. They are things you can learn, but really not apply. It’s an anti-fundamentalist statement, but doesn’t tell you much about what the gospel authors were trying to say.

They are a way a church can show it is progressive and opening up to new scholarship, but they don’t integrate the study into the full mission. I read that book as part of an adult study class. That’s where this kind of study usually ends up, relegated to the basement with a small group. They are a spoon full of progressivism for those who are asking for it, but they are still feeding the same old buckets of liturgy every Sunday.

So, that’s my cynical view, but I have to admit that some of this education included the political messages of the narratives. These are stories of an oppressed people under the rule of a conquering empire that had co-opted their religious leaders by sharing some of their riches with them in exchange for keeping the populous in line. That’s a universal story that repeats itself throughout history up to this day. What the Bible offers are stories about how they dealt with it.

For example, when Jesus says, “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. He doesn’t mean, pay your taxes and shut up. Before he says that, he gets a Pharisee to pull a Roman coin out of his pocket. That coin has Caesar’s face on it, and he is considered a god. This is idle worship, and without saying it directly, Jesus just pointed out how the leaders of his religion are corrupted. We do this today by calling out Joel Osteen for not helping people during Hurricane Harvey.

So going down to the basement was one way to find deeper discussion about interpreting scripture, the other direction is up the leadership chain. There are a variety of seminars available to help potential leaders grow, and although you are again meeting in smaller groups, at least there is a sense this is the direction of the national organization, not just some pastor who found a book he liked. One of those classes I attended talked about something called the “Rule of Christ”. If you Google that you will get a ton of hits about Christ being the ruler of the kingdom. That’s not the one I mean.

The one I’m talking about is found in Matthew 18:15-20. It’s about how you handle a member of your group who is not on board with the mission. You speak to him privately then bring in more people if more understanding of the situation is needed. Then if needed go to whatever decision making body you have. If the situation still can’t be worked out, it may be the person has to go.  Now, there’s some danger of this being used to enforce “group think”, so 5 verses isn’t enough to cover that, but it’s a good start. It’s better than letting rumors fly or of letting one disruptive person poison every meeting.

That kind of study was going well for a few years then I thought it would be a great idea to become a lay speaker. A lay speaker can fill in for a pastor on Sunday and usually has some other leadership duties. I went to an all day event where we talked about what it was about and what the United Methodist Church was up to. One of their programs was called “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”. Sounds pretty self descriptive, and from the diverse group of people attending the class, it seemed like openness was the direction we were all headed. The church that was hosting the event had an entire set displaying the idea with doors and banners.

Then one of the speakers gets up and a few minutes into his talk, picks up one of the brochures for that “open” program and says, “we don’t need to worry about open doors, we need to get back to the miracles in the Old Testament.” A little later at lunch, he floated this idea again, asking rhetorically, “what would happen if we all got up in front of our churches and started saying that miracles were real.” No one said a word, probably a pretty common response to someone saying something like that. He tried answering it himself, saying it would cause miracles to happen or something.

I wrote the district Bishop about it and received no response. I talked to a couple pastors and got sympathy, but not much else. One of the other leaders at the event said she wasn’t happy about it either, but there wasn’t much she could do. What I saw was, the church leaders believe they need to keep as much of the old ways as possible even as they try to move forward. This is obviously about keeping butts in pews but it is also simply a lack of vision.

There are people like me who want to be part of an organization that is serving those who want to work for a better world. We can, if we want, find groups that address specific topics and volunteer our time doing something we consider worthwhile. It’s harder to find a place that addresses our need for community, our need for places where we celebrate our accomplishments and counsel each other on our failures, where we discuss the foundations of our values. You can see the numbers by looking at the declining church going population. There are polls showing many of those people left because the church is not open to new ideas. But churches are not good at addressing that population. They are experts at welcoming the fallen back into the fold, but when someone is going through serious doubts, they are almost silent.

When I tell stories like this, I often hear the response, “that’s not my church. We’re not like that.” I’ll address that next time.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Humanize Me

Two former pastors talk about how to reach understandings with people who are different from us.

If you are unfamiliar with Bart or uninterested in his whole story, you can skip to about minute 15 for the part I’m highlighting here. The movie he is talking about is about him and his dad and their religious differences. Bart left his dad’s ministry work and became an atheist. He was a Humanist Chaplain at USC up until recently and is interviewing Ryan Bell who just took over that job. Ryan is also a former pastor. 

The story Bart wants to tell is how people seeing the movie were not so interested in the reasons for choosing or not choosing religion, rather they enjoyed how a father and son worked to understand each other and discussed their shared values. He maps this on to the work they both do with young people.

In the secular groups they work with, people with different foundations come together and they aren’t interested in taking away their foundations, instead they want to know how that foundation generates their values. He lists three layers; the values, then the worldviews that generates them, then the reasons you adopt that worldview. The lowest of these is the reasons. It’s the least interesting and we often aren’t aware of why we believe what we believe, yet we spend a lot of time there.

Ryan points out it’s interesting to explore the reasons if you have the time and interest in philosophy and psychology, but that’s not essential to living a good a life. “You don’t need a master’s degree in philosophy to be a good person, thankfully, otherwise we’d all be a bunch of jerks.”

For many people, beliefs and identity are wrapped up, hard to separate.If you question why they believe something, they react as if you are attacking them, as if you are attacking who they see themselves as. This comes up when a value comes up, like how we treat children or should teens have sex or who should own what kind of gun.If instead of asking how they came to hold that opinion or why they hold it, ask, “how does your belief generate your value?” Like, what does Christianity make you want to do? Or, how does belief in some principle inform your political decisions? People can talk about that. They want to say how their beliefs function, not their validity or some logical explanation for them.
As Ryan says, we want people to explain their reasons when we are critical of their beliefs or actions. But when someone criticizes us, we find it hard to separate the reasons from our identity.
It may not be satisfying to hear their story, and by definition, not logical, but it’s more likely you will find common ground with the values. When we meet someone we don’t know much about we find more success if we don’t go looking for foundational differences. We talk about kids and grand-kids and how we want to see them grow up healthy with an honest view of the world and to be able to explore choices and to apply their talents to maintaining and improving an open society so they can pass it along to another generation. You will eventually bump into those differences and some people can’t get past them, but this approach Bart and Ryan discussed seems more likely to lead to continued relationships with a wider range of people.

Ryan sums it up by thinking about his goal for life, how he will look back and judge himself. His goal isn’t to get people to have his same philosophical underpinnings. He’s not going to judge his accomplishments based on getting 87 people to adopt his beliefs. But he will think about the lives he’s touched and how that expanded into the world. He hopes his being alive will make some small improvement on the overall well-being of others.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

My not religious journey

I haven’t done a “spiritual journey” post in a long time, not since I was a church-goer, so it’s about time.

My early years are not that significant, other than to point out that I was not indoctrinated into any particular tradition. My mother left a very religious family when she married my father and my father’s family was more about business than church. My Dad’s brother did get involved with church after he had kids, so most of my church going and church family experiences happened when we visited relatives. I grew up in Mid-West America, so obviously I know about church, but more as an observer.

It was when I was 33 and bought a house that I really started to think about community and church was a natural extension of that. I had some Unitarian and Buddhist friends and a nice young pastor knocked on my door one day and gave me a video tape about the book of Luke. I eventually found a liberal United Methodist church populated by people who had grown up in the 60’s and who were now involved in their inner city neighborhood. We talked about and acted on the social justice aspects of the New Testament.

That was great, until I moved to a small town and found it a lot harder to find that type of community. There were a few people like that but you have to mix with a lot of other personalities if you want to have any kind of social life when there are so few people. This is really more typical of how churches work. Sermons have to appeal to range of politics and personalities. It was happening in my church in the city, but I just didn’t notice it as much since I was in the majority. Now it was very clear, they preach to what the people want to hear.

The church I found was so small, there was no children’s program, until one day a couple kids showed up, and something came over me and I volunteered to be the Sunday School teacher. It turned out to be quite a challenge to find a curriculum that wasn’t all about preparing little souls for the afterlife. 10 year old boys are also the best for asking the tough questions of why they need to go to church. This led me to the internet where I thought I might find some good arguments for the existence of God but instead I found these YouTubes of what began as a cable call-in TV show in Austin TX, The Austin Atheist experience. In my attempt to formulate an argument to call in, I talked myself out of belief.

There were other things going on. I was considering becoming a lay speaker and I found that the education they wanted me to have for that was very different than what those old hippies at the inner city church were talking about. I was also discovering liberal former Bishops like John Shebly Spong and reading their books. And there was this movie Zeitgeist. It had a strange logic against religion that I couldn’t quite refute, so I had to develop my own ability to research and think critically to decide if it was valid or not. In that process, I realized that movie was wrong, but the Christian narrative was also seriously flawed. All my bad reasoning dominoes fell.

So now I found myself in an almost alien world. I needed to figure out how it got that way and where I fit in. I had always lived a little less than a straight and narrow existence, but now I’d let go of the moral system I’d been living with for 17 years. I knew science and the philosophical enlightenment had led to the democratic system I lived in but I knew that system had some major problems. Studying the history of how those things came about has turned out to be much more valuable than reading the Bible and listening to sermons.

Also interesting though is how the two worlds of science and religion have evolved together. I never had the simple anti-evolution thinking of the fundamentalist, but when I started hanging out with atheists, I wasn’t too comfortable with the simplistic notions that Christianity was a barrier to science either. Questions like, why do people still believe in supernatural powers, are much more interesting than simple answers like, religion is all about power. Narrow minded thinking does not require religion. I felt that instead of shutting ourselves off from each other, we need to be asking how to promote open dialog and encourage the generation of new ideas.

So that brings me up to where we are now. I’ve learned from people like Bart Ehrmann that the seminaries are teaching the accurate history of the Bible; that it was written by men, often for political reasons, and it was compiled by fairly random decisions made by just a few people. Also, it is full of misinterpretations, some by accident and some deliberately inserted centuries after the original texts; in other words outright forgeries. Meanwhile, at those seminaries, they are teaching how to preach as if the ancient narratives are still true. There are some updated variations, but basically the same ideas.

You can find some of this out you go to the mid-week adult Bible studies but most of it I’ve learned from non-believers or Jewish if scholars or retired theologians. The sad thing, and believers and non-believers are both missing out on this; the real stories are much more interesting. The Bible is a rare collection of historical documents written by the slaves instead of the masters. How they dealt with being conquered and oppressed as well as their own internal struggles provides us with insight into us.

That pastors aren’t preaching this is all pretty well known if you just pull the curtain back slightly. Pastors I’ve known have tried to keep me at their church by agreeing with me and handing me books but then telling me that the rest of the church was not ready for it. What the rest of the church thinks is a lot harder to tell. They can’t have an opinion on what they don’t know, and I can’t make them read and listen to everything I do. It’s hard enough to get them to read along with the Lectionary on Sunday morning. You can find people who left their parent’s church for a more modern alternative, but they still enjoy the same hymns about the blood of Christ.

Still, I believe a lot of people sitting in pews are closer to what you would call a humanist than they are to being a Christian. They are there because they want to spend at least a couple hours a week talking about something that matters, something that might contribute to a better world. Most of them aren’t keeping track of the questions they have like I did and pursuing them when they can, rather they are having their doubts then just letting them go. Some will probably have the experience that Ryan Bell describes, of trying to fit his modern view of the world into the box he had created for God, until the box had expanded so much that he realized it was his whole view of the world and he didn’t need to call it God anymore.

Meanwhile, I’ll be looking for ways to bring the history and insights to light and hopefully keep some of them moving in that direction.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Discipleship plan

I recently happened upon a plan for discipleship from the United Methodist church in the US. It perfectly demonstrates a big problem with church in the US today. I’m not talking about the bad arguments for god or fundamentalist handbooks telling you to watch out for your children turning gay. I’m talking about churches that want to be active in their communities, working for peace and justice and helping people who need food, shelter and clothing. The kind of things we want non-profit community organizations to be doing. The kind of things that reflect universal human values.

You may already know where things like this go. You could skip to the end. I try to bridge the gap between humanist values and expressions of faith like this. But if you’re not familiar with what goes on in church planning meetings, read on.

The workbook attempted to help leaders find new members and new ways to motivate the congregation to do good things. Like most workbooks of this nature, it wasted a lot of words, but that’s not what was really wrong with it. The problem was, when it finally got to saying what the underlying motivation should be, it didn’t say anything. It addressed this as a potential problem then solved it with Bible verses. It said you can’t just tell people “because god said so”, then it said, “because god said so”. Like this:

 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.  (Matthew 28 NIV)

This is known as The Great Commission. Not really a difficult choice for a passage in a pamphlet about mission statements. And, just to be sure you know the leadership is on board, he cuts and pastes from the 2016 Book of Discipline (the book the Methodists vote on to restate their theology in modern terms) "The mission of the UMC is: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

He focuses here was on the word “go”, saying “Methodists are a going church”. There is some tradition to that, some historical evidence. There are Methodist hospitals. There are community support groups. Their international aid arm functions more like a non-profit than a missionary group. They do actually help people build infrastructure and become self-supported. They were chosen by the Gates Foundation for one of the largest secular/church collaborations ever.So, I’m not saying they don’t do things, but I think it has more to do with them having the resources, not some magic that has roots in the 1st century.

He suggests the “Why, How, What” approach. I was first introduced to this by my sales training from Apple computers. You’re supposed to start with the “why”, but he goes straight to “what”. A couple pages later, he shows the outward growing circle from Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why”. You would be better off just reading that book.

I can see why he thought this workbook needed to be made. He sees the problem. He shows the numbers. 80% of the people who are Methodists were born into a family of Methodists and raised in the church. It’s hard to get members any other way. The early church offered something new and once it had established a base it helped that a person could travel from Jerusalem to Rome and find that community. But what the church offers can be found in so many other ways now, that is no longer an advantage.

He continues with quotes, this time from the founder of the denomination, John Wesley. It is from his sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation” that is just as vacuous, but it is responded to by the pamphlet writer as if it is the way the truth the light. I’ll spare you that one.

I can see how he gets the problem he is up against. After a half page about children asking “why” and parent’s responding “because”, he says, “So why is it that when we ask, Why do we make disciples? we often respond, Because Jesus said so? … ultimately it is not a good “why.” But this is exactly what he has been doing, giving you “not good whys”. When he gets to suggestions for how to write your own mission statement, he comes up with an example like this, “A disciple is one who knows Christ, is growing in Christ, serving Christ, and sharing Christ.”

What I can’t tell by reading it is; what did the author of this think? As he was compiling it, I can see how he was motivated. He knows what experiences he has had, but it can be a challenge to translate that motivation into a workbook. At some point, he needed to find Bible verses that describe the feelings of joy in fellowship that he experienced and express them in a way that inspires others. I can relate, because I tried to do that.

When I did, I found there just wasn’t anything there, unless I believed it was there. The feelings I had of community were more due to the people I was in relationship with than my relationship with a text or a worldwide organization or with a holy spirit. This is why you will often hear people talk of their local church when they are defending the idea of church. You might begin by asking them what motivates them, and asking if they believe in what the Pope says or whomever their leaders are. When they realize they are not completely in line with their own denomination’s theology, they will switch to saying that you need to come to their church and experience their community, and then you will see. That’s fine. I understand the sentiment, but it’s true of any organization that is accomplishing anything worthwhile. You don’t need a god to get that.

When I look at things like this, I often wonder what doubts are arising in the people writing it. Are they, as I once did, realizing that it is a struggle to find just what Jesus was talking about? Are they even further along, seeing that he was talking about blood sacrifices and ultimate battles of good vs evil that have not survived modern rational thought and scientific inquiry? Or, do they believe that if 3 wise men followed a star to a virgin birth, then there must be something to all this and it’s not for them to question?

Do they at least believe that a man who spoke of peace, and then acted peacefully, even when given the death penalty, actually caused a significant shift in the history of the world? Do they believe the thoughts of this one man are more important than the few people who wrote them down as well as the thoughts of everyone who has read them and thought about them and built on them and expanded on them and interpreted them? Do they believe that the changes in theology over the ages are explained by God slowly revealing his truth, or is it us discovering the truths of nature and adjusting theology to fit them?

In a sense, the answers to these questions don’t matter, because we can arrive at the same place without answering them. We can all agree that we should educate our children in the history of thought and culture as well as the amazing details of how things work. We all need food and air and water and there is just this one planet where we can get those. We can be in constant battle over those resources or figure out how to cooperate and make them available to more of us. You can address all those questions with universal ideas like “love your neighbor” and a maybe a few more technical details.

In another sense, the answer to whether or not Jesus caused anything matters very much. It changes our focus. If Jesus can affect our lives directly, we should know that. If the fate of our eternal soul is in jeopardy, we should know that. If not, it’s a distraction. It might be a good inspiring story that helps us remember to reach out and touch the sick and bring them into the community, but reading those same stories over and over again takes time away from doing the work.

If, to get people motivated to work with us, we need to frighten them with hell or convince them there is something unseen that has consequences, or promise there are supernatural forces available to them, then maybe the problem is with the work we are asking them to do, not the motivation for doing it. If the work is good, but they are not inspired by the child who’s teeth are straightened or eyes are corrected or who learns a trade and goes on to help another village somewhere, then maybe we need to help them understand how helping others helps all of us.

After 30 pages, he finally gets to a list of actual things to do. Most of them are lifted straight from Matthew 25; feed the hungry, visit the sick. He also lists “works of Piety”, like public worship and fasting and reading God’s word. Brief phrases like this are all the Bible has to offer as far as I can tell.

There isn’t a passage that spells it out in simple terms, but I think the message from the early gospels is that we only have each other. It is a story of people who want to get rid of the temple culture that required constant sacrifices. They were written at a time when leadership was partnering with the ones who had conquered them and were oppressing them. In Mark 2:23-28 Jesus says the Sabbath is made for man, and in Romans 13:8-10 Paul says the new law is the law of love. That’s inspiration enough for me.

New Year 2018

I know some of you might find this surprising coming from me, but looking back over this last year, the world is actually pretty awesome. I know about the bad things, you know I do. I argue for change all the time. I want things to be better. That’s why I speak up. I considered moving to a cabin in the woods a long time ago, but I decided it’s better to stay engaged with the world.

I fight because I can. I have accumulated advantages from previous generations and I paid my dues to show that I return value for what I have. Life isn’t fair so that formula doesn’t work for everyone. As we found out this year, a lot of women didn’t have that choice. If they had spoken up, their careers would have been over and we would have never heard of them. Some of them lived long enough to see justice. They are preceded by many who did not.

I know the word “divided” has come up a lot this year. As if generations were always on the same page before, or North/South and East/West are some never before known demographics that have been discovered. But we don’t fight the same kind of wars over these like we use to. We respect boundaries and cultures. We don’t pillage. We vote. We don’t conquer. Not everywhere in the world of course, but a least in the US that means no matter where you are, you’re going to bump into someone who didn’t vote the way you did. You can argue with them if you want, or you could celebrate that our children are healthy and are getting an education despite those differences. Maybe we should make sure that happens first, then get back to arguing about a policy that only affects people who have more than 10 million dollars in the bank.

This idea that people with slightly different values than us are tearing apart the fabric of society is very old. It used to be that you were sacrificing the wrong things on the wrong altar. More recently it’s about how wealth is distributed and how ownership is claimed. It has become less of an academic exercise and more of a spectacle. As it becomes more of a farce, the easier it is for the looters to walk off with whatever they want. It’s not a secret conspiracy, they do it right out in the open.

Meanwhile, we keep making progress. We see farther into space which means seeing back in time. We understand our bodies and minds better. We can read things from thousands of years ago that very few people, even those from the time they were written, have ever read. We see connections between keeping our hair in place and ripping a hole in the protective layer on the edge of space. We take corrective actions before we kill ourselves. Hopefully.

In case you didn’t get the reference:https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/06/antarctic-ozone-hole-healing-fingerprints/