Saturday, December 29, 2018

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual 5

The reason for the season

Previous                 First                                Next

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual 4

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

Previous                    First                       Next

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for golden rule poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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