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

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.