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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Divine and Human Relationships

This article might be shorter, since I was putting it off in hopes of a better story to write on. But in all fairness, this one is still compelling and stabs at the heart of most peoples’ beliefs. The gist of the article goes like so; since we are (allegedly) hardwired to believe in and have a relationship with “God”, the reason why there are people that disbelieve in “God” (such as Christopher Hitchens, his diagnosis with cancer just a way for their authors to sink their teeth into his atheism as relevant) is because their personality style is too negative, either of themselves, of others or both. This already seems too deterministic for my sense, even fatalistic on the part of the authors. If we are inevitably meant to come to “God”, then one has to ask why it is equally defensible to behave ethically towards others because it makes sense as a duty apart from religious convictions, causes the most potential and actual benefit for the greatest number of people or reflects innate virtues we can discern by reason.

One can have a positive regard for oneself and others in relationship style, but also find it less than compelling to extend that sense of relationship to a being that transcends humanity. This is especially so since “God” seems to be little more than an almighty will that either behaves indeterminately by caprice, or as it’s commonly called, grace; or by its own nature, is bound to choose things the most as the First Cause of all things that have free will and volition more than God would ever be able to. The real difficulty with this is that the conclusion of the article is already presuming that everyone already misunderstands God through institutional religion of sorts, supposedly why fewer people self identify as Christian or if they do, they stay clear of association with any church. They advocate seeing God as different from human relationships, resulting in you becoming more comfortable and willing to engage with God. This is all well and good except that it still brings up my objection of fatalism. No matter what relationship type a person might have: ranging from secure in oneself and others, overly secure in oneself and disregarding others, insecure in oneself and overly secure in others or insecure in both self and others, the authors claim that everyone can find a path to God.

This leads to what is ironically a point of contention between those that advocate religious tolerance and pluralism and those that insist that only their path has the fullest truth. This notion which is as old as Hinduism, manifests in the phrase “Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names,” Many contend that this is strong relativism, saying that every religion is equally valid. But just because I accept that Christianity has validity and compelling teachings to some people is not to say that I think that they are equally true in every aspect, especially in my personal convictions. There are no doubt personality types that are more disposed to believe in Dharmic religions that are focused on the here and now and those that are more liable to believe in what I term a teleocentric worldview.

However much Christians value creation (environment and animals) as befits being given dominion over animals and the earth with an obligation not to abuse what God gave them out of its love, their worldview still seems overly future based from my years as a religion major. I would study some form of theology in virtually any class, even in my philosophy minor, encountering Kierkegaard’s fideism alongside Aquinas’ more balanced method of rationality and revelation as complements. The prospect of a heavenly reward has never struck me as especially appealing, even assuming I had never heard of Nietzsche noting “in heaven all the interesting people are missing,” I had already thought many times about my future in the metaphysical sense. Would I want to live forever, would I want to never “suffer” in my corporeality, never need to practice and discipline myself in training in the martial arts, a pastime I enjoyed for many years and am compelled to begin anew? My answer to all these questions was a resounding no.

So maybe it is personality and relationship type that affects how one relates to God. And by association, the authors may have some tweaking to do in the relationship styles. Or at the very least, they may have to accept that those people with the Anxious or Fearful styles may not ever come to believe that they need a relationship with God to feel content and fulfilled. The “tweaking” I suggest is actually allowing for other combinations of regard towards both oneself and others. There is indeed the excessive or deficient regard for oneself as combined with similar overflow or lack of empathy towards others. That already gives us four types right there.

What about those who have something of a moderated sense towards themselves and others? What if, instead, these are improved relationship types and not the types that are the initial template for how we interact with people as we mature from youth? In this case, perhaps there is some merit to this idea, but one would have to extend it to one’s disposition towards particular forms of religiosity; Dharmic, Abrahamic, eclectic, syncretic, Right Hand, Left Hand, or any number of other possibilities. So while in one sense I can find common ground with these Christians that a magnanimous pity for Hitchens as he claims that he will most likely not convert at his deathbed, I would ask them to broaden their scope beyond just what makes their faith seem appealing to others. At the very least, they should concentrate on making religiosity in relationship seem appealing. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Where Human Ethics Begin

I don’t recall if I blogged on the America Humanist Association’s ad campaign of 2008 near Christmas/Xmas, which consisted of the phrase, “Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness’ sake,” but this is more general, which I hope will make it more accessible. When the holiday campaign came around, we had the usual suspects harping on a supposed secular “war on Christmas” that are a decided minority. Though if the opposition and criticism of this new ad campaign is any indication, the 200 grand being spent on this campaign is probably nothing compared to the amount of money Answers in Genesis spent on their own moral high horse billboards, ranging from thoughts on abortion to cosmogony. It always seems ironic to me that the same people who are so faithful in their God are worried about a minority of atheists/humanists and their attempts to make people see their side of things when they’re supposed to be focusing on more important things, like feeding the hungry, providing for widows and orphans, stuff that’s in the Bible alongside their apparently more pointed call for evangelism. And it’s not as if Christians haven’t called themselves humanists over the centuries, albeit it’s the same issue with the term liberal as it’s evolved over time and cultural immigration.

The main problem of the criticism of the ad campaign is that it relies mostly on non sequiturs to distract the reader from what are the genuine problems that exist within Christianity that take the form of literalists and such like Ken Ham, who despite the evidence to the contrary, believes that the Earth is only a little over 6000 years old. He notes the contextual problem of quoting the verse in the Bible saying that women should not teach and should be silent, saying that it’s not saying women are not equal in God’s eyes in terms of their personhood and thus should not be treated as chattel or second class citizens as they were before women’s suffrage. But he then clarifies that the verse referenced does clearly state that women should not be spiritual leaders (e.g. priests or even ministers), and should perform their proper roles, such as being housewives and other domestic duties. Honestly, the man is stuck in the 50s; around 30 years after women had been given voting rights. But blacks had not yet been given such a privilege, since they were apparently lower than white women, who up until recently had been considered less than white men in their merit for voting privileges.

And in reaction to the quotation of the prophet Hosea speaking of the eventual fate of Samaria, having abandoned the orthodoxy of that era, their women and children being threatened with brutalities, Ham points to the practice of abortion as something that humanists are somehow directly responsible for. Though one already has to point out that abortion is in many cases just a buzzword to get people’s attention and draw them away from the real issue: in this case that God would apparently stand by and watch while its creation is progressively conquered, raped, and pillaged because they supposedly lose their blessing from the Almighty if they decide not to practice particular rituals of ancient Judaism. It’s no different than the people insisting that AIDS was a punishment from God alongside hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 attacks. When you boil down even natural disasters alongside willed terrorist attacks to God’s sovereignty, you’ve reduced your alleged divine judge and creator to a bean counter that tries to equal out everything to work out in the end for those poor people who suffered the loss of children, what little they had managed to bring together in impoverished economic times and otherwise had been oppressed by people that thought that either their power or their influence gave them a right to do whatever they felt justified to do to those that were less than them or deserved their so called “help,”. All the while, the divine architect sat idly by, and seems not to care whether someone says it’s God’s judgment or that the evils of the world, natural or human, are simply a reflection of the sinful state of the world and are not things that God wills. At least with the latter explanation, you at least admit that the problem is not something that can be solved by everyone believing in the exact same thing by coercion or even voluntarily, but something that lies deeper in humanity itself.

And this is where humanist ethics can align quite squarely with Christian ethics; especially those admonitions to aid those in poverty, famine or otherwise suffering outrageous misfortune through little fault of their own beyond either being born in or living through times of difficulty, political, religious or otherwise. And then there’s issues like gender equality and abortion, which while it may seem that there is little ground for common understanding, it’s not as if all humanists insist that abortion must be the default option for women, but that it should be an option of consultants for those women in these positions, whether by accident or premeditation or anything in between. Just because humanists in the more atheistic sense might disagree on why they agree with Christians on the need to help the hungry and impoverished of the world and vice versa with Christians, does not mean that they have to be at each others’ throats as if their dissonance about whether there is a “God” was the be all and end all of their interaction with each other. This isn’t the Middle Ages, to put it somewhat bluntly, so why not find the common ground that we share instead of being fixated on the stark differences? They’re relevant to consider, but not to the exclusion of common ethical impulses we both have. So while not all humanists may have these beliefs that we should be charitable; some are even eugenicists and Social Darwinists in the strictest sense; the majority of humanists are people that love and care for their fellow humans with only the human element as their motivation. Is it that bad of a perspective to want to help people just because they’re also people? Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Religion: Comfort in Certainty or Contentment in Chaos?

Since there haven’t been huge events in the world that have had relevance to present society, I thought it better to consider religion and faith in general for once this week instead of specific incidents that connect to their study.

David Hartman, a well known Orthodox rabbi and philosopher, starts his CNN Belief Blog interview by noting what is probably the first thing most people view religion as; something to comfort them, to make them see the possibility of hope in a world that is intrinsically chaotic, unpredictable and varied in the satisfaction we gain in it. But Hartman cautions against this view, noting that religion shouldn’t be seen as a way to bind oneself to something in order to make the proverbial roller coaster of life seem more bearable. Religion may in some way have this function, as a method of therapy and catharsis, a cleansing of the mind and a reorientation of our perspective. But it shouldn’t be seen as a way to transcend life and go beyond suffering and the reality that we experience every day. Religion is not acquiring ultimate answers to give people, because otherwise, life would be perfect. If we just got a solution to the problem of people suffering loss of friends and family, life wouldn’t be in the state it is, with people in some cases becoming so fixated on the afterlife that they eschew any value to life as we know it. Not everyone is a Gnostic in that radical dualism of the spirit and flesh. But even a belief system where we think we have some ultimate revelation about how the world will end is still going a step beyond what it ought to be. Any religion that steps into the human realm and speaks to them as if they’re some messenger of God with just the right answers has turned its followers, laity and clergy alike, into puppets of self delusion. Hartman brings up the example of kids suffering with cancer. Religion doesn’t solve these problems, science does, over time. Religion heals wounds over time as well, albeit those of a more subtle nature. To Rabbi Hartman, religion is that system which enables us to persevere in the face of absurdity, of the uncertain. I would go a step further and say that this system shouldn’t be called religion, but instead something of a fusion of religion and philosophy. By this, I mean that this system, whatever one might want to call it, should involve both principles of ethics and practice following from them. Paul Kurtz, a philosopher called the “father of secular humanism” coined the term eupraxophy, which describes a system that focuses more on ethical behavior than what he called the “transcendental temptation”; what I understand to be similar to what Rabbi Hartman spoke about. We can’t live life thinking we have all the answers, no matter how much we’ve experienced in our own lives. A child could present more genuine ethics in a funeral situation or any such disaster than someone even my grandparents’ age. In a child innocently understanding that when someone is crying, they are upset, they would also consider it appropriate to console the person in a way that may involve words, but may simply involve a touch of the hand. That kind of comfort is something any person can appreciate, even if they also know that it will pass away. Knowing people will pass away is not cause for holding a belief that eventually people won’t pass away. It seems more prudent to focus on behaving well and cultivating good habits of ethics presently instead of hoping for some future where all our problems have been solved. As Hartman said, “I prefer a religion that gives me the strength to live with the unpredictable world rather than denying it,”

Continuing with the line of thought about the terms we use to describe such a system that appears in varied forms, without or with God. Some call it religion, others a relationship; some prefer to call it philosophy, discovering wisdom and fulfillment in life. There’s also belief system or worldview that express a more comprehensive idea, but are also very extensive and intimidating to people who want a basic way to express what their practice of virtue is. And of course there’s the term eupraxophy which is still very much unknown in common parlance. Even the term faith seems too limited, since not every person focuses on their faith in something in the sense that many have come to use the word. To have faith in something nowadays seems to be persisting in a conviction even when there is evidence or experience to the contrary. People who advocate this kind of faith also don’t seem to want a fellow believer to ever backslide or revert to their old ways, or distance themselves from the beliefs they were raised with. I can’t genuinely seem to name any names, not even a particular cousin who has generally harsh criticism of “liberalism” but is also quite liberal with his advice and doesn’t seem to know when to hold his tongue and listen to someone else talk, like a younger cousin of mine in college, not as concerned in his youth about his salvation so much as his education. The generation gap could be accused as the culprit in this case, but it seems like it may be something more along the lines of differences of personality. There are those that are more prone to being fixated on conservation of the past and future without realizing that in many cases, what is done in the present reflects both one’s past and future; the past in what you have learned and grown through before and the future in what you might do and how you might confront the unknown. And there are those that are potentially too invested in the present to the exclusion of considerations of the past or the future; ignoring past mistakes or not considering the consequences of their actions that will happen. A balance needs to be found or at least some moderation of either side. We admittedly need people that are more motivated by either rational or emotional considerations, and even those that contain aspects of both; like a philosopher of religion, considering religion, a discipline intertwined with people’s hopes and fears, through philosophy, more rigorous and structured, though aligned with religion nonetheless in seeking happiness through reason’s lens. Krista Tippet, host of the radio show now titled On Being reflects something of this sentiment. If we are to make a genuine pursuit of understanding what we have in common, we have to at least loosen our grip on, if not let go as reified ideas, those terms like faith and reason and consider them in a more general context before automatically reducing them to our particular contexts in life. Myself, as a child raised Christian, becoming a teen Deist and then finally concluding after college as more of a Buddhist; I am just one person of many that can be observed and approached in, and approach others with, the spirit of hospitality and tolerance. Not gullibility and naivete, mind you, but a deep trust alongside discretion honed over time and experience. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.