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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Dialog on the Decalogue

This Belief Blog article finally allows me to focus on one topic, and it’s a firestarter. There’s always been controversy surrounding the Ten Commandments, almost always the version called the Ethical Decalogue, not the Ritual one that includes prohibiting boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk. But even the basic ten we’re moderately familiar with seem to either spread out things unnecessarily into multiple categories of the same act or add on commandments about proper worship as if it also constitutes ethics, when most people today I imagine wouldn’t agree that non believers in "God" can still be ethical even if they don’t follow the Ten Commandments.

The first 3-4 commandments, depending on versions, cover proper religious observances, such as not worshipping other gods besides the Creator, not taking the Lord’s name “in vain” and observing the Sabbath. I’m probably not going out on a limb here in saying most reasonable people would not consider these ethical, but more discipline of religious practice. For a believer in God, these could be considered ethical tenets, of course. But if you try to say something to the effect that “The United States’ Constitution was based on the Ten Commandments”, I challenge you to point out where it says we are required to observe the Sabbath or not use the name of God inappropriately. Not to mention the constitution in general was founded on the idea of proper governance of a country instead of proper religious praxis. The Declaration of Independence has more in common with advocating the less monotheistic commandments than the Constitution does, especially at face value.

The author notes that there is some supposed uniqueness and difficulty of parallel in other cultures with the Biblical commandment of honoring your parents. But I can’t imagine that the spirit of filial piety you find in Confucianism is so radically different from the Abrahamic faiths’ notions. I’m reminded of Family Guy, where the Pope noted in an early episode, “The bible says honor thy father, it never said anything about liking him,” This concisely expresses what the basic idea of the commandment is, and what is reflected in a larger way by David Hazony. He speculates that if we extended the scope of the commandments to more everyday considerations, they would become more relevant. But it’s not as if everyone can take all of these stipulations seriously. I can’t say I’m following all the Decalogue because I don’t have a day I hold holy, nor a deity (singular or plural) to worship and by association, I don’t see any reason to have laws determining whether I’ve offended their sensibilities or not.

When you consider admonishments to not murder, steal, lie or commit adultery, there are common grounds across cultures and faiths. There is still a dissonance between what one could point out as the extension of the prohibitions (since only a few are imperative instead of restrictive) into the realm of thought. Jesus teaches this philosophy by advocating that one should not speak in anger against anyone, lest you commit murder in your heart and not looking at someone with lust, otherwise you commit adultery in your heart. Oddly enough, he doesn’t seem to confront lying and stealing directly. The closest he comes to the extremities of deceit is advocating that you don’t take oaths, which is something of a controversy in jurisprudence today with some Christians, if I’m not mistaken. In that sense, he is saying that you should strive not to lie in any sense, be it in conversation with or in promises you make to people. And he doesn’t seem to confront theft at all. Some scholars have posited that the original commandment was against abduction of persons, not against stealing of property. But one can still consider these commandments in their behavior centered forms as holding ethical values that even nontheists can find agreement with theists on.

There are difficulties sometimes, particularly with translation of the commandment against murder, which is many times translated as prohibiting any killing, which, by any child’s logic would already be a problem by observation of previous events in the bible; like God killing every person on the planet except Noah’s family, not to mention the mandate to kill virtually everyone in Canaan to reclaim the promised land for the Israelites.

The extension of each of these commandments would have to be context-sensitive, especially with the first four, only relevant to those who have faith in deities. And even prohibitions against lying and stealing can be said to have been broken in the Bible, so we require nuanced understandings of prohibitions instead against false witness/oath and abduction of persons, permitting the ethical consideration of “white lies” and “virtuous piracy,” Both Immanuel Kant with the categorical imperative and Jesus in his primary focus on love as ethics both make more sense in considering ethics.

In Kant’s case, the Ten Commandments were probably at least unnecessary when considering ethics as a primarily rational discipline. The categorical imperative strategy he employs enables one to conclude necessarily that we should make certain rules, because making their inverse permissible would cause logical contradictions. His basic example is that we cannot create a law that lying is always permissible since it would render truth’s reality null and void because we would never be sure if anyone was absolutely telling the truth.

With Jesus, we have a similar basis for all ethics in considering people as ourselves and loving them accordingly. Lying, stealing and even killing could be considered permissible, albeit in very extenuating circumstances beyond normal occurrence, as long as our basic goal in mind is love for our fellow human. But this stipulation could be taken to extremes in what can be pointed out as similar ends in mind with means of genocide and eugenics to reach them. With this in mind, there is a second consideration of others as ourselves. Ethics shouldn’t simply be for love of our fellow human and advancing the greatest amount of human happiness, because a strict utilitarian perspective without qualifications or limits leads to the very thing we’d condemn on the grounds of inhumanity and lack of empathy. So both love and empathy/compassion drive ethics in a balanced and yet consistent fashion without excess or deficiency. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Human or Superhuman Happiness?

This week I have two seemingly disparate but related articles from Belief Blog. The first is what I found more compelling and could almost subsist on its own as a thought experiment on the survival of religion as a social cohesive: that is, something that enabled society to flourish, indirectly and some more directly connected to the phenomenon of an institution of sacrality. In short, the article expresses a thesis that has probably been around since Emile Durkheim in some form or another. His thesis was, and I paraphrase from rough memory, that religion was a way for people to feel accepted and part of an in-group. Of course, sociologists of religion are different from say, philosophers of religion, but the study is similar in investigating religion from an outsider’s perspective. But sociologists would study religion’s function instead of its substance, which might be more what
philosophers do in studying faith.

The study has two detailed points that show a connection of being religious with being happy. The first is the sense of community and having friends in one’s religion. This of course has a justified connection, but one can present various other examples of this kind of feeling of belonging in any activity that involve a group of people sharing a common interest. Even a group of Dungeons and Dragons players could be said to have that sense of happiness, but it wouldn’t be connected to a religious activity or community (though some would argue it is, but that’s another article). This connection seems only somewhat relevant when one can consider many other examples of communities that make people feel like they belong.

The second point is more concerned with religiosity and the identity it creates. The argument is that the particularly strong sense of distinction that religious beliefs and community give one are what make people happier. The fact that the person feels like they are part of something bigger is the first example that comes to mind, but just the ethical commandments enforced by the religion might suffice in making someone feel like they are part of something with a higher calling or makes a difference in the world. Again, one could suggest that there are equivalents, though not necessarily to the extent that religion colors more of a person’s worldview: political parties come to mind. But anything with an admirable goal behind it can be said to draw people in and create a sense of contentment and fulfillment, albeit there is always the argument that religion promises bigger rewards and brings people together in a more involved sense than simply voting and talking about the big issues of policy. The big danger, of course, with speaking about religious identity is distinguishing between a cult of personality and a cultus of worshipping the divine. The latter is permissible, even with philosophical disagreements being considered. Religious communities can be said to be the best motivation for many to actually act in charitable and compassionate ways. But it also seems disappointing that people need an institution’s approval or support to do things that others have done without any compulsion from outside themselves and their consideration of the other that suffers as they do. This leads in some sense to the other topic of interest that the second article speaks of.

Evangelical author, Philip Yancey, who was in a car wreck three years ago and nearly died because of complications from a neck injury, speaks in his new book about the relevance of belief in God in a world with such abject suffering and trepidation as exists across the globe, from famine to natural disasters to persecution of Christians in hostile countries, such as in the Middle East. The problem he points out is that there is a kind of distance religion seems to create between the believer and God. Christians in China, according to Yancey, pray not for God to take away the suffering, but to help them bear the suffering, since there isn’t as much hope in their minds for any kind of fix to the problems of persecution of Christians that exists in China. In some sense, Chinese Christians might be said to have a deeper relationship with God in affirming their dependence on God in some sense. From what I understand of the Christian faith, this is a pretty important affirmation, but is radical in consideration of what can be said to be radical individualism in Western thought. The idea of complete dependence scares us, so we have to alter our paradigm to allow for the notion of God encouraging independence in some way, even if they also believe in a doublethink way that they must be dependent on God for their salvation. With this in mind, Yancey references Alcoholics Anonymous and their more decisive claim that people have to admit they have failed in some areas of life and need the aid of others.

While I’d strongly disagree that we need God to help us with our problems of addiction and aversion, I can agree that we need to admit our failures and ask for the help of others in facing the troubles we encounter in daily life. In this way, perhaps religion has a benefit in drawing people together to aid their fellow human in their moments of suffering, to comfort them in loss, to rejoice with them in gain and to share some feeling of a similar road they’re all walking on. But one should approach religion with a mind of discernment and not a willingness to take any answer that presents itself as the solution to your problems. The idea of “faith seeking understanding” requires a complementary proverb that “discretion is the better part of valor” Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Reason and the Holiday Season

The holiday season’s coming around, and I mean every holiday. Christmas, or Xmas as prefer to call it, might be the most popular, but Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Chinese/Japanese/American New Year deserve consideration as well. I thought I’d return to blogging schedule with a billboard in New Jersey that many have taken offense to, for a variety of reasons, most of them confusing atheists with antitheists or anti-religionists. But American Atheists, as far as I can tell, even with Madalyn Murray O’Hair still leaving its reputation somewhat in tatters for especially curious people digging up dirt on atheism, is a reputable organization. They even spelled out their basic intent with the sign as threefold: “1) To address those atheists who “go along to get along”, and to encourage them to come out of their closets, 2) To attack the myth that Christianity owns the solstice season, and 3) To raise the awareness of the organization and the movement.” The third is not unlike what any group does, like Answers in Genesis told me in no certain terms by slapping their name on multiple billboards. Or the Catholic League in response to this particular billboard, asserting that Jesus is to be celebrated instead of reason.

The American Humanist Association’s ad campaign still tops American Atheists’ billboard price, mostly because the latter is centered on a highway in the Northeast United States. Not to mention this one has more direction than just comparisons of misogyny and bigotry in Christian thought with humanist notions that are ironically shared by many Christians today, particularly Episcopalians on the ordination of women, causing a whole other scandal I won’t speak on. Criticizing people going along with the ancient fabrication that Jesus was born in the winter in Jerusalem is something I imagine many Christians, particularly those that disagree with Christians celebrating Christmas on scriptural and theological grounds, would find some agreement with. The latter part of the message advocating the celebration of reason is what would make people less than comfortable.

The discomfort lies in people attempting to connect reason in any sense with their celebration of togetherness and family, which generally leans more towards the emotional and faith based aspects of life. I honestly liked the bus campaign two years ago calling to “Be good for goodness’ sake” in relation to the Santa Claus is Coming to Town carol better, but creativity can be tricky when you’re focusing on rhymes. It’s not as if people couldn’t celebrate Christmas in the sense we celebrate it now anyway; emphasizing the spirit of generosity and love, parts of this being emphasized in more religious carols I grew up with, but the overall message not really foreign to anyone. The notion that Christmas has to have an explicitly religious and faith based aspect to it seems to bring the holiday down. The warnings year after year around this time about a “war on Christmas” makes me remember the legal issues that have arisen over nativity scenes and a menorah sharing public space. There are Christmas holiday parallels around the world, such as the Festival of Lights in Hinduism, called Diwali, though technically it’s already long since finished. The Japanese celebration of Christmas is probably a better example to use, since the Japanese have such a minority Christian population, their use of “Merry Christmas” is more religiously neutral and doesn’t have any of the tone of some Christians in America who’d bite my face off if I referred to Christmas as Xmas. Even if I tried to calm them by noting that it’s an abbreviation, not a crossing out, of Jesus’ name, they’d be so incensed they’d still try to proverbially crucify me for my blasphemy. As I recall, the letter X was used historically for an abbreviation of Jesus’ name, at least the first letter of his name in Greek. It’s where we get the mnemonic device still somewhat popular today of IXOYE, using the first letters of the Greek words for “Jesus Christ God Son Savior” in that order.

I can’t say there’s a direct way to celebrate reason during Xmas, but I can see an advocacy of using reason in the context of approaching Christmas. Instead of seeing the reason for the season as a real historical event, we should focus more on Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman and such to represent the aspects of the holiday season that coexist across the religious borders we arbitrarily create in such a time when there’s little opportunity for children to really learn about these different holidays as they’re celebrated. Children at my native church, much younger than me, had some exposure to other flavors of the Abrahamic faith and even a few non Christian faiths, but I fear that their learning about it was more in the sense of the cultural practice and not seeing them as belief systems people held to. It’s that kind of sheltering of kids from inquiry and skepticism about such things like Christmas or Easter being celebrated in ways different from your parents that drives families apart as the children grow out of it or reluctantly conform so as not to confront those issues in a reasonable and respectful fashion.

I probably won’t emphasize the Christian elements of Christmas with my children, though I will tell them about it for basic education’s sake. We might even lean more towards the “pagan” Winter Solstice celebration that emphasizes the use of things like the Yule Log and other more ancient European practices. Or just incorporate practices give a similar sense of togetherness, like the practice in Japan of giving Christmas cakes. In any case, it’s not as if someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas with any real connection to supernatural events is being hateful towards the holiday. Just pointing out that Jesus was historically not born on the 25th of December is hardly cause for offense, since, when you think about it, he would’ve frozen to death and with some research, you see a correlation of dates showing that the tradition was more than likely associated with Saturnalia in Rome instead of any genuine date of birth of Yeshua. And I should emphasize again that there are Christians that share many of the sentiments of this billboard ironically. So, nearly a month still from Christmas Eve, I wish everyone happy holidays and good fortune for the New Year as well, so I don’t forget in the future. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.