Monday, July 25, 2011

Incident in Norway

By now, many of you will have heard this quote from the shooter in Norway,

"One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.­"
It is from John Stuart Mill, although I’m not sure he got it exactly right, and he didn’t reference him, which really annoys me. The shooter may not know of John Stuart Mill, other than the things that support his viewpoint, or he doesn’t want you to know. Fortunately, we all have computers now, so people like this can’t start civil wars.

John Stuart Mill was against slavery and for women’s rights. He felt if you wanted to do just about anything that didn’t harm others, you should be free to do it. He used scientific analysis to consider the problems that arise from people who can’t make good choices in a free society. The Norway shooter does not appear to be capable of such detailed analysis.

Now let’s take a look at a similar quote, the type that can be found all over the web,
“It is due to the Power of Belief (or non-belief) which causes ANY ‘thing’ – condition, event, or circumstance, that you experience in your life to manifest, and it’s outcome is only dependent on whether you believe that the thing can or whether you think it can’t manifest.”
This if from “The Entrepreneur Super Star”, some sort of Life Coach. She is referring to an interview from Oprah’s early career. Oprah has done an amazing job of capitalizing on this idea of belief in your self. In my experience, the people who believe these statements most thoroughly are those who are making money by convincing others that the statements are true.

There is a fine line here, but people like the Entrepreneur Super Star are way past that line. There is value in believing in yourself. There is value in looking at the circumstances, realizing that your vision is beyond those circumstances and taking a leap of faith. There are millions of stories of people overcoming the odds and doing extraordinary things. The value lies in their perseverance and hard work. Those are values that make things happen. Faith is not a value. In and of itself, if creates nothing.

Note in the quote above, the trick that allows this belief in belief to continue. It comes at the end. If you fail, if you don’t overcome the circumstances, it was because you didn’t believe hard enough. No need to reassess the data, no need to seek out a mentor, no need to go back to school and take a class, don’t bother even reading a book that is available for free online. Just blame yourself. Take another course in the power of belief, get your ego pumped up and try again.

The trouble begins when that system fails. Most people will just go back to working for a living. Some will make less healthy lifestyles choices and maybe take down a few friends and family members with them. Some will take more drastic actions.

Friday, July 15, 2011

To Pagans and Heretics

"The unexamined life is not worth living."

This is a quote by Socrates from his trial for heresy. He was on trial for encouraging his students to challenge the accepted beliefs of the time and think for themselves.

With that in mind, I will be attempting another mini-series over the next few months. Keep in mind it is summer, so this may be slow in developing. I hope to fill a niche. It is difficult to fill niches on the Internet, but I feel this is one that exists. In my quest for information on religion, I have noticed a lack of information on liberals and moderates. Among the anti-religious, there is sometimes a complete lack of realization that there is such a thing. More often, it is simply dismissed.

This is unfortunate for two reasons. One, the anti-religious could benefit from a discussion with these more reasonable individuals. Even if they don’t agree, a better understanding of the rationale for religion could be gained. Religion has evolved just like other ideas and we can be active partners in that. A good example of this is religious and secularists working together in the “Secular Coalition for America” to educate about and promote the separation of church and state. Two, since liberal believers are dismissed, they in turn dismiss the atheists, further isolating them.

This series will address the second of those two, hopefully in a way that won’t be dismissed.

One of my inspirations for this series is a YouTube series geared for the more traditional church going believer. He recognizes that belief is a network of patterns and traditions that is not knocked out with a single blow. The system of belief must be recognized and respected. In this well produced and calmly presented series, he covers:

Logical Arguments – perceived authority, friends, family and books.

Creation – Complexity and beauty are a testament to a creator.

Bible – It contains wisdom, it must be divine and inspired by God.

Other Christians – Examples of good people and just the sheer number.

Prayer – Perception of answered prayers.

Personal Relationship with God – If he spoke to you, how could you not believe?

Morality – God is the source. If not, what else is there?

If you already are forming responses to some or all of these, then that series is probably not for you. Logical arguments are well covered on the Internet, so I don’t need to cover them again. You might use many sources other than the Bible for wisdom, you meditate instead of praying, you may not have spoke with Jesus but had some other sort of numinous experience of oneness with universe. The network of ideas I am working on looks something like this:

How do we know what we know?

Ancient Texts – How well do you know them?

Numinous Experiences – What are they?

Ethics – What is their source?

Myth – The value of stories.

Community – The power of relationships.

Before and after our lives – Creation and death are major spiritual themes.

Awe and Wonder – The universe is amazing enough without the supernatural.

Before continuing to read these posts, you might ask yourself, how far do want to go into this exploration? You could start by considering what questions you would like to ask your spiritual leaders. I am most familiar with the responses from Christian leaders, so I’ll suggest a few here, but they may map onto whatever tradition you are currently following. People have questioned their leaders about the consistency or accuracy of their teachings throughout history, so although you could hear any one of these answers today, I will place them in a historical timeline.

Prior to the 17th century, you would most likely be told that questions like that will land you in hell. Into the 19th century the more nuanced response would be that questions are good, but ultimately you need faith. In the latter part of the 20th century, leaders began to encourage people to bring their questions to Adult Bible class, or start a book group. With books such as Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, or the titles from the Jesus Seminar, there are many choices.

A much more rare response would be an offer to work together to change the doctrine. Most organizations have some way for grass roots ideas to be raised up to the highest levels. As Margaret Mead famously said, this is how change happens. Anything beyond this response would be at the level of historic. It also might be career threatening, or for you, the end of your membership. I’m speaking of actions such as Thomas Beckett refusing to recognize the young King Henry in 1170 or Martin Luther challenging the corrupt Catholic leadership or Teilhard de Chardin a Jesuit priest and paleontologist speaking about evolution in 1920’s or Carlton Pearson a successful minister for Oral Roberts who said hell does not exist. More recently the heroic individuals such as Gene Robinson, Terry Brown, Jim Swiley, Mary Albing, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, high ranking clergy who came out as homosexual.

Without these people we might still be living under the rule of kings who claim to speak to God directly and could kill you if you disagreed. Some of the people named above paid dearly for speaking up. I hope that is not discouraging. Everyone has to decide when and where it is appropriate to speak their mind. What you talk about when you visit your grandmother is probably different from what you say to your close friends. If you were invited to a Wiccan wedding, it would not be the best time to engage in a heated discussion about magic. At some point, that politeness crosses into the same type of double-think that a dissident under an oppressed government uses. How much you are willing to speak up is solely your decision.

Part II

Monday, July 4, 2011

Imagine No Malaria

At the end of the movie “Letting Go of God”, a one woman show by Julia Sweeney, she muses over the idea of what it would be like if the Pope came to the realization that he had been misguided all his life. In a soft but mocking tone that only Julia can do, she has the Pope apologizing and promising to spend the rest of his life working in a women’s health clinic in Central America. I have had similar visions myself, although more along the line of Catholics returning the art as well as the gold that they have plundered from what are now 3rd world countries.

Whatever you think of religion, you can’t deny that they have a lot of power. Angry atheists claim that accumulating power has been the only thing they accomplished. Those who are more accommodating acknowledge there have been some really bad Popes, but churches were the caregivers and educators in the Dark Ages. They were the first to build hospitals and develop programs to feed the poor. Finding cause and affect in history can be difficult so I will leave that aside for now and take a look at one particular history and a possible future.

In the history of the Methodist church, real estate was accumulated due to their policy of how to grow their church. When a congregation grew to a certain size, they split off some of the membership, went down the road a bit and built a new church. Acquiring real estate was not the goal, but spreading God’s word had the same affect. In the United States, this has become a liability to an organization that is declining in membership. In Africa, it has become an asset for one of the biggest goals for human health in recent history.

You may have heard of Bill Gates. He is not a member of the United Methodist church, or any church for that matter. He does know how to get things done. When he got done playing with computers and finally decided to use his wealth to do something worthwhile, he got interested in the problem of malaria in Africa. Defeating malaria will be on par with defeating polio. And, like Jonas Salk, no one is going to get rich by doing it.

The solution is fairly simple, an insecticide treated net, some education, some preventative health care. Simple if you were in the United States with roads and communication infrastructure. In the language of business, seeing a problem as an opportunity, Gates went searching for an organization that had people spread out across the continent. He was looking for people that were part of the communities, so they could explain these strange white nets in the plastic bags. People who weren’t there to sell anything, but to care for their brothers and sisters. He found two potential organizations, Lutheran World Services, and United Methodists Committee On Relief. He picked UMCOR.

Anticipating your next question, please click here:

This partnership of a secular organization and a church to eliminate a disease from a continent is without precedent. I hope it is precedent setting. First, I hope it is successful, then I hope it sets an example that others follow.

In 136 blogs I have never asked for money, and I don’t plan to start now. I would be remiss if I did not at least direct you to where you can participate. One net, including all costs of manufacturing, delivery and follow-up costs only $10. That usually benefits an entire family. The goal is to reduce malaria by 80% by 2015. That will take a concerted, coordinated effort. Toward that goal, a suggested level of giving is $1 per month over the next three years. The success of the program has already been proven in some countries.

Is this the future role of churches? Will UMCOR be here long after the UM part is gone?

For further reading: