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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Finding Faith In Fickle Fortune

I thought it’d be appropriate to wait a few weeks before talking on the events that rival the tsunami that hit India a few years back, which I only vaguely remember. The death toll and destruction are unprecedented, especially considering the historical destruction America wreaked on Japan in the final struggles of World War 2. While those attacks had military targets in mind, the earthquake and resulting tsunami had no such intentions as they progressed in a pattern that has no doubt gone on long before Japan was even widely populated. The earthquake was around a 9 on the Richter scale, one of the top 5 strongest earthquakes since that technology has existed. There are those that suggested this was a message from God, either explicitly or implicitly in terms of supposed end times prophecies or simply the proverbial Demiurge exacting its wrath upon impenitent unbelievers, even though Japan does have some Christian population. But that never stopped God before, did it? People have either blamed or even given credit to God for many disasters through history, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of Louisiana.

Before I rant on that touchy subject, I think it’s pertinent to contemplate how Japan in particular has been persisting in spite of the tens of thousands of lives lost and the wiping away of some villages off the prefectures. This is very much related to two major religious cultures in Japan: the native Shinto religion and Buddhism, transmitted from China. The Shinto tradition can be said to reinforce a communal mindset of the Japanese people as a country of individuals that are also a group. Also, there is an affirmation in Shinto of respecting nature, so in a sense, the Japanese aren’t completely bewildered by the earthquake or the tsunami, since Japan has been a historic site of earthquakes and tsunami. Buddhism is especially relevant to the mourning process still going on for many. Buddhism is said to be the funeral religion in Japan, while Shinto is involved with ritual festivals that occur at various points in life, such as births of children, New Years and cherry blossom viewings. Buddhist shrines will be visited in high numbers as people pay their respects to their family members. There is a strong sense of reverence for one’s ancestors and family, reinforced not only by Buddhism to an extent, but Shinto in another affirmation of the importance of family and the Confucian tradition as it spread to Japan, emphasizing the importance of relationships. One could say that Japan doesn’t consider the ontology of the catastrophes as important, since they are more than willing to admit that it is a purely natural phenomena, plate tectonics and subsequent effects on tides. There is not the concern of why God would do this, or even why the kami, natural spirits of Shinto, would cause this, since the kami are part of nature and so they are not so much inflicting any judgment so much as simply doing what is natural to them, causing great upheavals in nature as nature flows in its flux of increase and decrease, such as with the tectonic plates in the earth’s crust or the shifting of the tides of the ocean. The important thing for the Japanese is one’s response to the catastrophe. With Buddhism in particular there is an emphasis on the impermanence of all things, however constant they may be in the general sense. The acceptance in some sense that the people we love might not be here tomorrow, that we might lose our house, our belongings, are all part of a Buddhist perspective. And the Japanese have reportedly not even had instances of rioting, attesting to this strong influence of Buddhist teaching on transience in the face of great tragedy and suffering from natural disasters such as Japan has had on and off for years (in fact, at least one earthquake every year since 2004 by one record). While Americans might see this general mindset as somehow missing the point, it logically resonates with us, regardless of if we share the Japanese Buddhist faith in any sense or not. People were naturally compelled to send aid to Japan in one form or another, not because they were Buddhist or Christian, but because they were humans seeing fellow human beings suffering from something they had no control over. In this way, the last part of this article will confront the other positions on this, including one from a minority Japanese perspective.

The governor of Tokyo was reported to have said that the tsunami was punishment for Japan’s egoism, but quickly retracted and apologized for that statement. I, for one, don’t see how Japan has been egoistic in the last 60+ years since they suffered great defeat in the end of the 2nd World War at the hands of America’s atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For the most part, they’ve been relatively tame, from at least my perspective. China, North Korea and the like have been more aggressive towards their neighbors, particularly Taiwan and South Korea respectively. But enough about international politics; a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found that about a third of Americans believe that God punishes people for the sins of their country, relevant of course to the recent natural calamity in Japan. The survey found that most people did not believe that natural disasters were either a sign from God or punishment/judgment from God of the sins of countries. Almost 40% believed that catastrophes were signs from God, while 29% believed that God sometimes punished countries with natural disasters. And this is a survey of America. Concerning white evangelicals, the poll found that over half of them believed both that God uses natural disasters for signs and for punishment, which is only reflective of a general problem many Christians find in that position, explaining why there is some drift from this extreme position in its varied forms. The poll found people were more than willing to believe God was in control of all things, but they were less than certain about ascribing responsibility to God for everything, such as floods, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes or even something more human in nature, like terrorist attacks. At best, most Christians would either ascribe these to the sinful nature of the world we live in or Satan respectively (since Muslims could be demon possessed according to some Christians, I imagine). This kind of theodicy, explaining the suffering and evil in the world as it relates to an all powerful and benevolent God, is at least better in comparison to believing God actually consciously judges Japan as undeserving of its protection, as if Japan and many Asian countries haven’t been suffering earthquakes and tsunamis for decades and it’s less likely people gave God credit for those. When you start saying God is both in control of and responsible for every event, you start contradicting what I’ve understood to be a crucial part of Christian belief: that every human has freewill to choose good or evil. If you start saying, like the Westboro Baptist Church for the most heinous example, that God is just mad all the time at people for not doing everything the way it wants, then it may very well be affecting your general regard towards people as little more than pawns in a cosmic game of chess, to use a cliché trope. As much as people might be doing charity in the name of God, I would prefer if we started emphasizing that we do charity because we are humans, because we’d like people to do the same for us in return, as Jesus even spoke of in the Gospels. Until next time, Namaste, aloha and Ganbare (Don’t give up!) Japan.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Paradox of God Belief and God Hatred

This topic was an intriguing, but somewhat incomplete, idea to me since I found the first article through Belief Blog, confronting the reasons behind and the preponderance of anger towards God. The complement to this is the second more recent article concerning a scholar’s investigation about hatred of God. The first might be said to have just as much irrelevance to atheism, for instance, as the second. You can’t have anger or hatred in any genuine sense towards something that you don’t believe has any actual existence, except in the conceptual forms people have in their psyche. But even more bizarre is the form of theism coined as misotheism, taking the form of those who believe in God, but cannot bring themselves to believe that God is benevolent, unable to take the system of eutheism as their default. Instead, God is seen as cruel or even malevolent in its nature to some degree and thus is the source of deep hatred. Either being angry at God or hating God might be said to be just part of belief in general, since either of them can exist and probably do exist more commonly with believers in God than disbelievers. Any anger at God by atheists is towards a hypothetical image, so the outrage is more incredulity at how people could believe in such an entity rather than being angry at something and also saying it doesn’t exist to one degree or another. This actually relates in a way to my Atheist Alignments theory in that those that are angry or even hate God as atheists would probably fall under the Chaotic alignment in that God is seen as something that should be opposed even if it doesn’t exist for the simple fact that even its conceptual existence poses a problem since people behave under believing that this concept of God exists in their minds.

On anger at God, the investigation led by Julie Exline suggests that anger at God is prominent in two groups in particular; atheists/agnostics and the bereaved. The first doesn’t seem to make much sense in calling them atheists or agnostics, since they would probably be better translated as misotheists or dystheists, believing that God is by nature malevolent. Simply hating God doesn’t mean you believe the entity in question is necessarily evil, but that it is incompetent or otherwise incapable of doing things in an organized or coherent fashion. The idea that God has a reason for everything, for example, could inspire anger in a person, perhaps even hatred, in that one would say that there is some conscious entity that is arranging events in such a way that good will come out of people being raped, pillaged, and otherwise violated. It’s not so much of a problem when you just have people learning from suffering at the hands of fickle Fortune, even in the personified sense, because either way, it is in the nature of Fortune to be something unpredictable, random, chaotic. My experience of losing a beloved cat, our tabby called Tiger, to an unprecedented blood clot that paralyzed his hind legs and tail is that I learned to appreciate the other tabby we’ve affectionately called Whiney (guess why) all the more and pay attention to him more so that he doesn’t suffer the same fate or feel less loved by me. Similar things might be said for the bereaved in some sense, especially with those that have lost loved ones in the recent earthquake and tsunami in eastern Japan. But the anger there is temporary in some sense. People who genuinely believe in God and have strong convictions can override their frustration and say that it’s all part of God’s mysterious plan. But people who are otherwise not convinced by this theodicy, explaining the problem of evil by such examples as saying God plans it or that God willingly lets people go free in the world to do what they will and thus frees itself of responsibility, would go into the subsequent category of misotheism, almost a kind of rebellious theism.

The grouping of people who actively hate God while simultaneously believing in its existence are those that defy classification and logic, even if we admittedly have a term for them as noted above, misotheism. The logical difficulty is more compelling an area of study, since one would ask, why would you hate something that you believe created you, or is at least commonly believed to be a benevolent entity that loves its creations? The answer might be in a similar vein to the answer an atheist might give as to why they do not believe in God at all and are more frustrated than hateful towards those that believe in God and then try to justify a world which this supposedly all powerful AND benevolent entity created. The response that lines up with the atheist’s, except in rejection of God-belief, is that the existence of such a God is an ethical affront of sorts. An entity that creates people with freewill and immortal souls and then sets them free upon the world for some test of choosing between loving God or loving “the world” could be accused of egregious and irreprehensible sadism and cruelty in its will towards bringing such a world into existence.

Of course, the response from eutheists, those believing God is by nature good, would be that misotheists misunderstand God or they have simply had a bad experience with God. But this only speaks to a presupposition that people who believe in God have to believe it is naturally good. Of course there are those in between that believe God is neither good nor evil, since those are human categories that God supersedes in some way, but this might be where the moral outrage and agony originates from a misotheist’s position. If you believe in such a being that is beyond any kind of accountability or responsibility; which can flood the earth, strike people dead for touching a holy object, and decree that people will go to hell for not believing in a particular type of theism (which supersedes what was an already primitive and barbaric system of animal sacrifices to appease said God) then a misotheist might very well just be in disbelief that such an entity is worshipped at all. The being in question would be still called evil, but admittedly from a human perspective. For one to try to see things from a God perspective seems absurd on its face, but it isn’t by necessity less compelling to view things from what is our default position, the human perspective.

With this in mind, the primary difficulty remains not so much in the common ethical impulse people have that such a God is problematic in any general formulation where it has consciousness and personality, but that misotheists feel compelled to still believe in the God as reality as opposed to merely accepting that people believe in such a concept as reality, which atheists more accurately have some kind of anger or hatred towards in any sense of the word. This makes one wonder how habitual belief in God is to people, either having been raised in it or having an experience that makes them unable to completely disbelieve in God’s existence, but admittedly that’s another topic entirely that I may confront in the future. In a sense, misotheists and dystheists do have interesting overlap with atheist and agnostic positions in that there is a common ethical outrage that makes them either think that God is only worthy of disgust or is not worthy of belief or consideration at all. A larger problem presents itself in that however much there might be common ground in ethical reaction to the idea of God, there will no doubt be disagreement nonetheless that misotheists and dystheists persist in believing in God, even if they share the belief with atheists and agnostics that God is on its face, to be frank and crude, an asshole, or more prudently, a sociopath. The bridge framework exists, so to speak, but there’s always some degree of difficulty in structural considerations of linking two otherwise disparate systems. But that’s where the real work starts. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Witches (And Wiccans) Are Still Hunted

This struck me on a personal level, though I myself am not a Wiccan. Having at least two friends, probably more, that are self identified adherents of Wicca makes me concerned that they may be approached with this guide issued by the Catholic Church’s publishers in the U.K called Wicca and Witchcraft: Understanding the Dangers. However unlikely it seems, since by what we know, it would be propagated more in Europe than America, I think it’s important that Wiccans are aware of this and the relevant points of this issue.

The author, allegedly a former Wiccan, now converted to Catholicism, insists that 70% of Wiccans are just women searching for some kind of spirituality. This already seems to paint every Wiccan with a broad sexual brush. Not to mention this is from her own perspective as a former female Wiccan, so it already smacks of selective bias on her part. Her intent is supposedly to help parents and friends of Wiccans to evangelize them at public places, but her target is women like herself that she thinks are just starved for real spiritual experiences. I can’t speak for my Wiccan friends, they can do that well enough themselves; but to say that they are searching for spirituality in the wrong place seems a bit ironic with all the renewed interest in Catholic exorcism practices with movies like The Rite and a remake of The Exorcist. Catholicism has not been exactly friendly towards mysticism in its general sense. The only permissible forms seem to be isolated people, many who were accused of heresy, such as Meister Eckhart and Origen. For any Catholic to start pointing fingers at Wicca as the problem seems to forget that Catholic churches are, by my memory, losing adherents to Pentecostal and non denominational churches, as well as the obviously familiar but more inclusive Episcopal Church. Inner conflicts within the Christian tradition should be your prime concern for why people are leaving for Wicca and the like, not the other religions which you think you understand but may not.

There is some attempt to alter what might be seen as unseemly phrasing of the text’s mission of a modern day, less violent, equivalent of the Malleus Maleficarum; Hammer of the Wicked or more commonly translated as the Witch’s Hammer, a guide published in the 15th century by Heinrich Kramer, a Catholic inquisitor. The author suggests that since Wiccans are on what she believes to be a genuine spiritual quest, that journey should be viewed as common ground to make a Wiccan think about conversion. I don’t see how this former Wiccan gets the idea that Wicca is somehow so flexible as to make a person just flip flop between being a Christian and pagan because of persuasive anecdotes or spiritual experiences. A lot of this boils down to the individual’s disposition. If they think Jesus Christ is explicitly talking to them in some spiritual vision, that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily decide to surrender their life to him. In fact one could argue that simply having a vision of Jesus, recognizing his divinity, or seeing the value in his teachings does not make for persuading a Wiccan to exclusively worship the God that Jesus supposedly claimed to be. In fact, they could be said to just as easily use the very inclusive nature of Wicca to incorporate Jesus into the general pantheon as a wise and powerful deity, but one among many.

Part of the reason people find Wicca a genuine threat to Christianity is a concern that Wicca has been predicted multiple times to be one of the highest growing faiths in America, though this guide seems to extend that prediction to many religiously diverse areas, such as Britain to some extent. The main prognosis is something to the effect that Wicca will become the 3rd largest religion in America by 2012, but even one of my Wiccan friends seems not to care from what I discerned (which might not be much). This seems to have a connection in that there is some concern that people are growing further from the church as times get worse and worse. Though I wonder why they’d even bother if all they may end up doing is making Jesus part of a Wiccan’s pantheon and not by any logical necessity convincing them that they should become strict monotheists instead.

The book can be purchased for a bit over $3 at the second link listed, but that only shows how tiny it probably is or how little the writer was concerned for any manner of profit from the work she put into it. Though if it’s really as small as the price indicates, she could’ve done this over a week at her lunch break in her real job, assuming it’s anything relatively taxing on her time. All in all, this is more amusing than a genuine concern of mine, since people have been warning about the dangers of the occult and witchcraft, Wicca conflated and equated with the former two, for decades since the 50s at the earliest, though possibly around the earliest times when immigrants with very eclectic faiths came to America. If someone engages you, at the very least listen, but don’t take them so seriously as to be sucked into something that only seems to push more people into these faiths than pull them away. Until next week, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Atheist Alignments: Neutral Atheism

Neutral Atheism (Hypothetical Definition): Atheism that is either neutral to theism on the grounds of language: either the semantical difficulties or coherence of God concepts; ignosticism/igtheism and theological noncognitivism respectively, or ontological neutrality in some way to theism and/or atheism, either seeing the concept of God as obsolete to society, as in post-theism; or finding the dichotomy pointless/meaningless, in the form of apatheism.

Now we’re at the concluding sphere of this fairly exhaustive, though by no means complete, three-part analysis on atheism in all its diversity. Starting at the most accessible and progressing to the more difficult is a good practice overall, don’t you think? One can appreciate that atheists in some form are respectful and civil. And like any belief or lack thereof, there will always be those that are more driven to distinguish themselves, even if they’re also more obnoxious. But now we come to a less clear area of atheism which many might accuse of being skeptics or agnostics, withholding judgment or asking questions that pierce into the nature of the position itself in contrast to whether it is true or not. I was actually going backwards with my issues when I first introduced them. The third issue applied to lawful, “organized” atheism, the second to chaotic “individualist” atheism, and the first was relevant to the neutral “ambivalent” atheists, common difficulties with defining the term “God”. Since it is not clear whether there is a definition of “God” that can apply to every concept of divinity, perhaps Neutral Atheists are right to critique theism as an incoherent belief as opposed to saying that there is a lack of evidence or reason for believing it as Chaotic or Lawful would. The two pronged system of Neutral Atheism inquires two things: whether God is an adequately defined and whether God is relevant.

The first subset sees a difficulty with theological language. When someone asks this type of atheist, usually called an ignostic/igtheist or theological noncognitivist, if they believe in God, there are two answers that reflect a split within this area. The ignostic/igtheist would answer “What do you mean by ‘God’?”, while the theological noncognitivist would say “The word ‘God’ is meaningless/incoherent,” With the first response, this is a question that any particularly inquisitive thinker would present with even the initial monotheistic conceptions of “God”. The Christian concept of God in Trinitarianism differs from the Nontrinitarian form, which also differs from Jewish, Muslim and Sikh concepts of God, however similar in some ways they might be. Not to mention the concept of “God” in a different sense in Hinduism, alongside the ideas of multiple “gods” in polytheistic religions, such as Wicca, Asatru (Norse deities) and Reconstructionist Paganism (attempts to revive historically dead faith practices, such as ancient Egyptian or Babylonian polytheistic religions). With all this in mind, an ignostic/igtheist’s concern that we don’t have an overall idea of what constitutes divinity should be taken seriously. There are scholars that have attempted to unify the idea in some way, such as a philosophical approach to the question that reduces “God” to an entity with particular qualities. However, this only seems to answer the inquiry about the monotheistic and anthropomorphic “God”, whereas the “God” that is in some way synonymous with the universe in at least popular Hinduism and pantheism as well as the “gods” from polytheistic religions seem to be excluded because they don’t fit the original standard. In this way, the critique from an ignostic/igtheist is that there is an unjustified standard of semantic orthodoxy in many people’s minds about what “God” means. The fact that people choose not to consider whether their concept of God includes other people’s differing concepts is a problem that turns many people to the alternative of this form of Linguistic Atheism, as I’ve coined it.

The second type is that of theological noncognitivism, which says that any language concerning the divine, such as “God”, is meaningless, usually because it is not verifiable. If one cannot demonstrate any real reflection in reality or coherence of the concept termed “God”, then the term is able to be applied loosely to anything and would appear to not logically correspond to anything at all. The escalation is intriguing in that the initial ignostic/igtheist skepticism towards “God” language could be reconciled and then they would have a choice between the general typologies of Chaotic or Lawful in the two variations within each. But once you start going to the level of saying all “God” language is meaningless, it becomes nearly impossible to be anything but Neutral in the overall sense that this sphere of atheism implies. Neutrality can either be on the grounds of not having sufficient evidence to judge something; such as lack of a consistent standard for “God” or a lack of motivation or relevance of the thing in question. We’ll confront the latter next.

There are also at least two kinds of what I’ve termed Ontological Atheism. I chose this because one can say that their disbelief is concerned with the ontology, the study of causality, of their disbelief or belief in God. It isn’t that you find the term without some general and particular definitions and/or evidence, but that you either find the term irrelevant/obsolete or you find its existence and nonexistence are irrelevant. This is again a gradated system, where the first can potentially lead to the other. First we have post-theism, which admittedly has manifestations in what is called liberal Christian theology, but I find it more closely resembles Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead”. When people think of this, they usually take it literally, as if Nietzsche is somehow mocking the notion of God’s death in the Christian narrative and saying that any resurrection makes no difference, because the original God is dead. While this might have manifestations in another school of thought (Death of God theology, maybe?), Nietzsche is speaking about what the term means to society. It used to be that God was regarded with reverence. But modernization is potentially what Nietzsche sees as partly what has made us more secularized in focusing on the world at large instead of any future world or afterlife, or even the spiritual dimensions, if you will. Without going into more details than necessary, post-theism says that we have in some way outgrown God as a reality or a part of our lives in a traditional sense. Instead we have relegated God to a tradition, something ancient and archaic, but somehow still casting a long proverbial shadow in that we still definitely have the strong presence of monotheistic religion, particularly in the U.S., but also according to sociologists of religion, across the world in general. Post-theism is more difficult to justify in that it is less a personal judgment than a sweeping claim about society as a whole. To defend the claim that God is meaningless for all of us is to fly in the face of the convictions of many believers that claim that their religion is undergoing a new revival of sorts, even in the face of what they also believe are the supposed End Times, persecution of Christians allegedly high (though this is nothing new).

So one may instead go along with the other side of the coin, cleverly coined apatheism. It doesn’t say that the concept of God is meaningless, though it might be implied. An apatheist is one who doesn’t believe the question of God’s existence or nonexistence matters: whether God exists or not, an apatheist doesn’t care. To claim this means complete apathy about God is disingenuous. I consider myself an apatheist, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely detached from discussions about God. There is, at best, an assumption I hold; that God’s metaphysical existence is not nearly as important as the psychological and conceptual reality, since that is what primarily motivates people’s behavior. A person will behave differently because their psychology is fundamentally adjusted by a religious/spiritual experience, such as those popularized in Pentecostalism. It doesn’t mean that any deity actually exists when a person radically changes personality or ethics. In their minds, the concept of God is real and relevant. Of course, they are concerned with whether God exists or not and will defend it staunchly to the affirmative, but the existence/nonexistence of God to an apatheist is about physical reality per se, but experiential reality. That is, people experience the world as if God is part of it through events or miracles, etc. In this way, there is a potential overlap of a theological noncognitivist and an apatheist in that they both regard some aspect of “God” as meaningless. The connection is ironically still about some kind of ontology, either linguistic for the noncognitivist; since God doesn’t fit with language objectively, it’s pointless to use it as a term; or motivational for the apatheist; since God isn’t something that compels one by necessity to act, it does not need to be concerned with.

All in all, this topic could be extended more as one has exchanges with theists and skeptics about what categories and qualities distinguish between those who reserve judgment, who judge something to be so and who judge it to not be so, all in regards just to the question of the existence/reality of “God”. Whether one believes, disbelieves or doesn’t care either way, these areas could apply in some way to theists and skeptics in that they reflect both approaches and degrees of convictions. So there’s probably some overlap of all three spheres in that we all tend towards some of each of these qualities. I’m Lawful in that I appreciate the philosophical defense of a position. I’m Chaotic in that I make an existential choice a part of my worldview as an atheist, in the umbrella sense I’ve been referring to. And I’m Neutral on two counts, one being the linguistic/semantic difficulties I’ve found with theological language, courtesy of Antony Flew’s article, “Theology and Falsification” (short read, highly recommended), the other being that the idea of “God” doesn’t seem relevant to me in a philosophical, existential, or experiential/conceptual sense, relating again to the previous two spheres. So, these categories I’ve tentatively generated could be a way to consider our beliefs on a larger spectrum beyond the umbrella terms that join us together in incidental ways, theists, as atheists or skeptics. So, until next week, when I’ll be starting again on current events hopefully, Namaste and aloha.