Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Can't See Reality for the Spiritual

Christians sometimes pray for God to make something come about in their lives that they are completely capable of bringing about themselves (e.g., gaining muscle mass, losing weight, quitting smoking, finding a first-rank parking spot, etc. and ad naseum).

It's an attitude of neglect, I personally think. I think people speak those kinds of prayers because they have a confusion that salvation offers a special 'spiritual entitlement'; one that is removed from the normal strictures of real life. It's almost as if Christian belief in the salvation offered by Christ, once accepted, must mean we can mine God for all our desires now because why wouldn't He want to operate in a fundamentally different alignment to reality? Especially when it comes to 'me' -- whoever 'me' is, and whatever psychological parameters that go into such a histrionic mindset.

Perhaps my view is cynical. Even if it is, it also reflects a sadness I feel when in the company of Christians who think in such ways. I do have to wonder what sorts of things s/he has been taught about God, the ways He empowers us -- most specifically, and wonderfully in the imago dei -- and what our real responsibilities are as stewards of creation. Why create us in His image, give us incredible attributes, skills, and abilities just so we can pawn off our responsibility to use these gifts in the vague and unfounded hope that God will do it for us anyway? I mean, really, when you weigh the cost of having to apply yourself against all the common barriers of life, why not let God step in and veto your chances to strive? It's certainly cheaper to let an omnipotent being do something for you than to have to make an effort on your own, hey?

I do feel sad that, on this point, Christians seem to miss reality for the spiritual. The maxim "can't see the forest for the trees" comes to mind. That causes me to wonder that if reality encompasses spirituality, then why is the spiritual life of the Christian suddenly the overlapping reality? At what point can we get away with the (ill)logic that the part (spirituality) is greater than, or somehow definitionally more important than the whole (reality)? And then why do we feel somehow entitled when we need something from the whole of reality, but only go to part of reality to suss things out?

I just don't understand this particular line of (un)thinking.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Faith and Knowledge

I was just thinking about epistemology while trying to fend off the ill-formed thoughts of a grammatically challenged teenager when the following insight occured to me: all epistemology boils down to what you believe about your own experience with reality.

What does that imply for all our dramatic attempts at truth-claims? What does it say for religious systems? What does it do for the sanctity of scientific methodology? And does that mean that all of us, like I've stressed before, operate from a foundational assumption of faith; that knowledge itself assumes a faith base?

A Reflection On Morality #1

Anyone following my blog will already know of the large swath of atheist literature in the intellectual marketplace these days. I personally find that quite exciting because I don't think the Christian life can be lived out without thoughtfully considering philosophies that oppose it. A person who never encounters philosophical objections to their Christian faith does not have a blind faith so much as a blind knowledge and crippled ability to relate to those of different worldviews.

Undertaking to read as much of the New Atheist's literature as I can during the 2009 year has resulted, quite logically, in many difficult challenges to what I believe. In some cases, what I believe has been altered dramatically. For example, I used to believe that a person could not be truly moral in any ontological sense if they lacked belief in God. I don't believe that any longer for the simple reason that it is empirically demonstrable that our social inclinations as a species demands a pre-existing moral framework, belief or not. Hence there are a good many atheists who are morally upstanding individuals, and many Christians with the moral leanings of sociopaths.

If such is the case, Christians do not have an ethical high-ground whereby their religious views trump the moral efforts, reflections, inquiries, and formulations of non-believers and secularists. We're on level ground if we admit that morality is innate to the human species, whether a person believes or not. What a Christian does have is a presupposed grounds for the origins of morality: the Holy Trinity. Whereas the atheist, secularist, or anti-theist may presuppose morality in light of social Darwinism and the organising practices that necessarily come about to maintain a community, or nation; in effect, morality is an accretion of social contracts meant to ensure the survival of the species.

Despite the claims of the New Atheists that faith is a "mind-virus" (a term coined by Richard Dawkins), if we're on level ground to examine moral action, at what point is there any reason why atheists and Christians cannot work together to effect a more harmonious existence with each other? What logical reason is there then for someone like, say, Sam Harris to call for the eradication of religion, to attack it vehemently in an effort to help religion "slide into obsolescence" (The End of Faith, p. 14)? How does the eradication of one spectrum of human existence justify the continuance of another spectrum of human continuance? In other words, how does the destruction of religious worldviews justify the on-going disbelief in atheistic philosophy? What moral harmony is accomplished, what help to the surival of our species is acheived through obliterating faith, and religious hope?

*Thanks to Parenting Beyond Belief for the picture.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Dear Americans

I'm sure this is something you'd like to be aware of.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Stephy's Blog

Last night my head was addled from stress. So while I was going to write a post to keep this blog going, I lost my steam. This morning, however, some of that stress was lifted, and I felt like coming back to write an article. However, I was happily impressed by a new visitor to the blog, a young lady that goes by the name 'Stephy'.

So, I looked up her profile, visited one of her blogs, and found a wonderful site full of dry humour, excellent cultural observations, and a warm and genuine feel.

As a fellow blogger, I thought it would be appropriate to encourage my readership to visit her site. And, to demonstrate the qualities of her excellent site, here is a fantastic little article that puts the scourge to the hyper-fundamentalism so rampant in American evangelicalism.

Happy reading! And thank you, Steph.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Nathan Jacobson Speaks

You listen.

A History of Philosophy

Just this morning I woke up (well, really, I resigned to opening my eyes, actually) and realised that I've been going about some of my studies on atheism and theism quite wrong. You see, I've studied theology formally, and have pursued it as a personal interest for a number of years now. In the midst of that, I've taken up philosophy almost incidentally: in the long run, you can't really study theology without dealing with philosophy.

So, in light of my academic shortcomings (which are many), I've decided to nuance my studies with a thorough-going study of the history of philosophy. My former philosophy professor, Dr. van der Breggen would be quite happy, I'm sure.

My choice for study? A 9 volume set I've been holding on to for a number of years, and have not ever read: A History of Philosophy, by Frederick Copleston, S.J. The first of the volumes is a compilation of three books, and looks as follows:
I'm looking forward to rounding out my mind with the thoughts of the intellectual giants of history. And it should prove entirely useful in my pursuit of understanding the academic thought life of the popular atheists en vogue these days.

Interview With Terry Eagleton

The Rationalist Association recently published an excellent article detailing Terry Eagleton's philosophical differences with Ditchkins (a portmanteau of the celebrity atheists Dawkins and Hitchens).

For those who are interested in reading about religion's cultured (you know: fermented!) despisers it is a fairly heady, but excellent and worthwhile read.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Eyesore


All Roads Lead Away From Rome, Too

Well, given the abuse scandals going on in Ireland this past while, it comes as no surprise that people are banding together and rejecting Rome.

"So far more than 300 Catholics have indicated their intention formally to leave the church through the website countmeout.ie, set up last month after publication of the report. The creation of three young lapsed Catholics, the facility is designed to provide clear information and the necessary documents to help people leave the church for good."
It should also come as no surprise that a good many of the people leaving the Catholic Church on the Emerald Isle are lapsed Catholics, agnostics, and atheists.
"'There are many so-called lapsed Catholics as well as agnostics and atheists in Ireland but the church continues to count them as members,' said Dunbar. 'Formally defecting will mean the church can no longer use their large membership to justify continued involvement in the provision of education and health services.'”
So what could possibly lead the Roman communion into such rampant abuses? I'm sure there are a good many factors. There always is. However, I'm fairly certain that one thing in particular gives rise to lewd and lecherous priests preying on their parishoners: mandatory celibacy.
When people are denied follow-through on their fundamental urges to procreate, they'll find some other way of gratifying their urges. And since the Catholic Church has had a long-standing negative view of sexuality, things like masturbation are also denied the clergy. So with no reprieve or outlet allowed to these clergy members, some of them find themselves in nefarious situations hoping all-the-while that their position of power and influence will afford them anonymity on the lips of their victims.
And let's not hear any scurrilous excuses like, "well, they don't have to become priests" because it does nothing to address the issue already at hand: people who have already become priests are diddling kids, and the developmentally needy. Those priests don't have an excuse, no matter what latitudinarian attitude the Roman See feels find to adopt; e.g., shipping pedophile priests off to South America where they can continue their abuses under cover of a less fortified media, and a generally ill-provisioned social safety net. Or shuffling them off to remote Alaskan towns where they can do more damage to the Natives than has already been done.
So while the Roman pontiffs may conclude that because Christ was celibate, so too should priests be, I'm quite happily certain that Christ never suffered the children to come unto Him for a chance at carnal satisfaction. So what excuse does the Roman Church and its coterie of pervert priests have on that account? Afterall, aren't the priests supposed to represent Christ to us?

Pricks

So it seems there's going to be a vaccine for the swine flu. The flu itself is very mild and most people recover easily. Kinda like having a common cold, really. Which is why we should roll up our sleeves and let those pricks stick us with it (oh, and all of the toxins that otherwise wouldn't be in my body).

Seems a little overblown, doesn't it, to inject a vaccine that will potentially be more harmful than the thing it's supposedly vaccinating against?

"The decision to start vaccinating people against swine flu — which so far remains a mild virus in most people — will ultimately be a gamble, since there will be limited data on any vaccine. Until millions of people start receiving the shots, experts will not know about rare and potentially dangerous side effects."

By all means! Experiment on us.
Since only 429 people (of who knows what age, level of fitness, and dietary habits) have died out of the reported 95,000 people who have contracted swine flu, it seems it would be worthwhile to jump headlong into the 1976 swine flu fiasco.

"The public health community may still be scarred by the U.S.' disastrous 1976 swine flu vaccination campaign, which was abruptly stopped after hundreds of people reported developing Guillain-Barre syndrome, a paralyzing disorder, after getting the flu vaccine."

But of course we wouldn't repeat that mistake. We're much smarter now. We have more better technologies. And we won't use the same ingredients. Your cocktail will be shaken, not stirred. And we may just put stuff in it to make an extra-strength version, but don't tell anyone that we really don't know what that stuff will do to you.

"Several drugmakers are currently considering using adjuvants, ingredients used to stretch a vaccine's active ingredient, which could allow for many more vaccine doses. But little or no data exists on the safety of vaccines with adjuvants in populations including children and pregnant women. And in the U.S., there are no licensed flu vaccines that use adjuvants."

Perfect! Stick 'em all with something potentially more harmful than the flu itself, and make sure it includes a little extra bang for our buck just to make sure it maximizes possible adverse events. That'll get 'em.

I think there's a good parallel between gangsta culture and Big Pharma: one says "blap, blap" when you take a shot, the other says "ca-ching, ca-ching"; and they both pump you full of heavy metals. And make sure you don't cross either one, 'cause they both know somebody, and they're not afraid to call in favours.

Mainstream

I posted an article earlier this week and hoped that it would bring about some fruitful discussion. Instead, it degenerated and went nowhere.

One thing that did come of it, however, is the necessity to define what 'mainstream' culture is. Since being labelled 'mainstream' has brought about offense here at St. Cynic, I thought it would be fitting to attempt to clarify what I mean by 'mainstream'. Not because I want to remove any offense given, but because I find it especially important to offend with good reason.

The adjective form (and the form that is most commonly used at St. Cynic) of 'mainstream', according to Random House Dictionary, 2009 is “belonging to or characteristic of a prinicple, dominant, or widely accepted group, movement, style, etc.” Accordingly, someone being labelled 'mainstream' is being observed to be part of the most prevalent and commonly accepted idea, group, or trend within a given culture.

For example, if the majority of people in Toronto, Canada wore bell-bottom pants with bedazzler-laden pleather cowboy boots, that would be the 'mainstream' fashion choice. Rejecting such a hideous fashion choice, however, would put one outside of the 'mainstream'.

Examples abound of non-mainstream choices: anti-vaccination, family-led learning, barefooting, eco-building, co-sleeping/family beds, child-led weaning from the breast (breast milk isn't best, it's the default), ancestral traditional diets, embraced symbiosis with microbes, intact genitalia for both sexes, libertarianism, bartering, wholistic healthcare, small poly-culture family-based farming, off-grid living, large familes, squating toilets, television free, and the list goes on almost as extensively as what is deemed 'mainstream'.

To be sure, being mainstream affords many comforts: predictability, wide social acceptance, political favour, being able to make full use of government services, potential for being mostly conflict free in daily social rigours, being able to count yourself as 'normal' (that is, fitting in), having an impact within societal systems, being able to empathize with more of the general population, the virtue of blissful ignorance (not my interpretation, I've been told this one more than a few times), etc.

So while I don't participate in much of what is mainstream, and do have a disdain for much of what is touted as acceptable within mainstream, I don't necessarily consider it bad, or evil or anything quite so jejune. It simply is what it is: ever-shifting according to the zeitgeist (spirit of the times). So, if the zeitgeist is sick, so is the mainstream. If it is well, likewise.

Our current zeitgeist is clearly in need of some major reparation, and TLC.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Stenger's Failed Hypothesis P. I

Victor J. Stenger is professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii. He has also written several respected books. One of which is his treatise on the non-existence of God, God: The Failed Hypothesis (How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist).

I am not able to write on the details of scientific research, so on that account, I can confess that Stenger definitely has an edge on me. However, his intended purpose -- to show from science that God does not exist -- runs headlong into an area I can makes heads-or-tails of: theology and philosophy.

Now, to be sure, Stenger has done an excellent job laying out his case. In short, Stenger reasons from physical data that the universe looks just as one would expect if God were non-existent. By way of Karl Popper's doctrine of falsifiability (essentially, an assertion can be shown to be false via physical tests/experimentation), Stenger moves to show God as an unverifiable assertion; that is, God cannot be shown to exist through the use of modern scientific methodologies and applications. To quote Stenger:

"The thesis of this book is that the supernatural hypothesis of God is testable, verifiable, and falsifiable by the established methods of science." [1]

Falsifiability seems to be a reasonable guideline at first glance. But when one really takes a good look at falsifiability, it is a principle, or assertion, which itself cannot be falsified. For example, (from the Wikipedia link above) "all men are mortal" is an assertion which cannot be falsified because no amount of physical data can deny that statement. By contrast, however, an experiment can be rigged to show that "all men are immortal" is definitely falsifiable; visit a morgue and the falsifiability of "all men are immortal" is self-evident.

The doctrine of falsifiability on the other hand, is a notion that cannot be tested and shown false because it is a strict, or pure existential statement. That is, untestable due to being non-empirical. This agrees with Popper's original intent for falsifiability: only empirical statements are subject to falsifiablity because philosophical and metaphysical assertions are irrefutable by definition.

To boil this down a bit:

1. Statements that imply, or assert anything to do with actual existence are empirical statements, and therefore testable.

2. The statement that "God exists" asserts the actual existence of a divine superpower, therefore God must be detectable by scientific method.

3. If God cannot be detected, he does not exist. If he can be detected, then we can enjoy the knowledge of his reality.

Stenger's use of falsifiability is commonplace amongst scientists. But my problem with it is simple: why are scientists drawing from the purely existential assertion of falsifiability to justify empiricism? And what happens if we consider assertion itself a form of data? How can you test the falsifiability of the data of the nature of assertion? To put it another way, what data shows assertion to be falsifiable?

Perhaps I'm playing a linguistic game. If I am, I'm not intending to. But I think I'm concerned about Stenger's premise of falsifiability. It is a self-referrential, self-confirming methodology. On that basis, it becomes a severely biased premise that ultimately affirms itself, and automatically excludes anything that does not fit within its pre-established parameters. In effect, it does the very thing that people say they don't like about the followers of the three monotheisms: reason itself to be right above all other ways of knowing.

Given the problematic use of falsifiability, Stenger launches into atheological arguments against the existence of God. He often accuses theists of having definitional problems within their premises and, while doing so, regularly misdefines the position of theists and the premises they use to comprise their arguments.

More, Stenger seems to think that science alone is rigorous in its demands for properly supported ideas, and not just blindly accepted assertions.

"What history shows is that science is very demanding and does not blindly accept any new idea that someone can come up with. New claims must be thoroughly supported by the data, especially when they may conflict with well-established knowledge." [2]

As with science, so with theology and philosophy. Any cursory reading in church history, or the history of philosophy will reveal the same ardent striving for reliable support that science demands in modern times. Methodologies may have changed in some ways, but the demand for supported ideas and reasoned conclusions has not changed at all. So Stenger's implied accusation that other disciplines do blindly accept new ideas is defied by the historical divides between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, Platonic and Aristotelian schools, Augustinianism and Thomism, Cartesian dualism and monism, pyrrhic skepticism and fideism, etc. Stenger has concluded too hastily that science stands out in history in any way when it comes to examining data to arrive at a conclusion.

_____________________

[1] Stenger, Victor J. God: The Failed Hypothesis (How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist) Prometheus Books, NY, 2008, p. 29
[2] Ibid., p. 28

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

God Talk

"Why is it when we talk to God we're said to be praying; but when God talks to us we're schizophrenic?" Lily Tomlin

Yes. Indeed. Why is that?

Monday, July 6, 2009

E.F. Briggs: An Ignoranus (Yes, the misspelling is intentional)

Now, when it comes to horrifically ignorant signs like these (and there are many spread across the United States), I can completely understand, and sympathize with why secularists would desire the abolition of religion.



If religious people are so willing to publicly mischaracterize their fellow civilians because they may, or may not believe in God, what does that say for a) the integrity of their beliefs; and b) their desire to see an actual united civilian loyalty?

Or, as my wife pointed out to me, "God is certainly not a patriot. You don't have to believe in God to be an American." So there's really no correlation (or at least, a stupendously wide gulf) between what a person believes and how loyal they will be to their country.

More unfortunately, the sign seems to suggest that a civil war could be warranted if atheists don't repatriate by becoming believers. I wonder if these same believers would be just as quick to throw the switch, or pull the trigger as a punishment for treason, if in fact they actually believe non-belief is as much a danger as treason? Wouldn't that be an abrogation of the 5th Commandment (6th depending on your tradition)? How would they legitimize such an action? Personally, I don't think they'd do it. Which is what makes Rev. E.F. Briggs's statement the statement of an ignorant blowhard.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Reconciling Religion and Science

You can be an atheist and be a scientist. You can be religious and be a scientist. In the first case, you are a rational atheist. Oddly, in the second case -- at least according to some secularists -- you are either inconsistent about your world view (thus irrational), or disingenuous about your religious views. For how can one hold to metaphysical notions while concentrating almost wholly on the physical as a means of understanding?

What interests me about this is that it comes with the assumption that only testable, physical data is valid for justifying knowledge. Hence revelation, a great deal of philosophy, illumination, mystical experiences, personal experiences, psychic experiences, mythopathic intuitions, intuition itself, and any other form of knowledge I've missed suddenly becomes irrelevant and untrustworthy. Keep your anecdotes to yourself please; the Ministry of Evidence is open only to those with bunsen burners (mortars and pestels may be considered).

Lest I be accused of soft-selling the importance of science, I see it as an essential study. I think, however, that scientists who attempt to dissuade people from their religious views on the basis that a particular set of experiments have not been able to confirm such-and-such a dogma, doctrine, claim, etc. may just be missing the point of religious assertions. Namely, religion is not (properly speaking) an attempt at a scientific view of the world, or even a particularly detailed description of what's in the world and how it works. Instead, religion is a description -- and sometimes a prescription, too -- of peoples's responsibilities to each other in the world.

That being said, are there times when religions teach things morally retrograde and dysfunctional? In fact, yes. Claiming a holy war on a neighbouring country because they haven't stamped their politics with a certain god's name hardly seems justifiable to the people who will suffer in the wake of such a declaration. More, such an action is scientifically unjustifiable because it elevates an ideology above the natural impulse to survive the vicissitudes of our material environment.

But by saying such a thing, I automatically move from the camp of fundamentalism to being a moderate, which in today's popular parlance means that I'm not truly devout because I appreciate the existential and humanitarian rights of all peoples everywhere. So given that I believe religion and science can co-exist peacefully, and work together to effect the betterment of our environment and our human experiences, it would seem from my perspective that being 'devout' consists not in a disavowal of fundamentalism (whatever that has come to mean), nor in adopting the moniker of moderate (an equally ambiguous label), but in accepting the inherent dignity of all people everywhere, while recognizing the concomitant claim that each person's dignity is a direct reflection of divinity; the imago dei (image of God).

If by appreciating the work of science I cannot be truly religious, then I have to question a) the evidence that supports the validity of being immature enough not to understand that real people hold inconsistencies and contradictions to be true all the time, and in daily life; and b) why religion is not examining its own progress in the real world that science is attempting to understand? In both cases, I am content to know that because there are internal inconsistencies in my religious views, and because science is always learning and discovering, there is room for inconsistencies in my brain. I welcome them. I grow from them. And I do so without any 'real' conflict affecting the outcome.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Small Review And An Update On My Reading List

I posted my current reading list not too long ago, but I fear I've changed my trajectory.  I put Dostoevsky down, and G.K. Chesterton will most certainly come later.  I did, however, finish reading Michel Onfray's book "In Defense of Atheism", and I must say that it was a very good read.  

In particular, I enjoyed the fact that he didn't simply jump on the bandwagon with other popular atheists of the day: Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett.  His approach was more philosophical, and less reliant on the myopia of modern science.  In fact, Onfray goes so far as to criticize today's popular atheists for pedaling science as if it is the contemporary Oracle at Delphi.  

Now while he doesn't specifically mention the authors I've noted above, anyone who has been keeping track of the spate of atheist literature streaming forth in popular culture today would know exactly who Onfray is referring to.  So by looking past other popular atheists, Onfray has also managed to avoid the shibboleths of their particular brand of elitism: materialism, naturalism, and Darwinianism.  And while he may very well hold to these understandings/philosophies, his book is premised more forcefully on rationalism, hedonism, modern textual criticism, and a good deal of incisive logic.  The result? An incindiary read sure to explode the understandings of anyone interested in challenging their presuppositions and faith.

Now that I've finished that book, however, I'm not sure it's the right time to read Dostoevsky or Chesterton.  Call it what you will, but I go by feel when I'm on a reading splurge -- and this jump into atheist literature these past 8 months has been just that: a splurge.  Not a frivolous one, mind you.  I do have an objective: to write a reasoned response to the issues the New Atheists have been raising.  I find their perspectives refreshing, insightful, and well worth consideration.  Having said that though, there is a fair deal of obliqueness to their criticisms, and it will be a harrowing challenge to reason out a response to not only some of their more insular perspectives, but also arguments they've delineated that assume wrong-headed information about religious issues that are readily available if they'd only look past their chosen enemies: Catholicism, and Evangelicalism.

All that being said, now I turn to what my actual reading list currently is.  Here we go...

Ehrman's book is extremely challenging, and definitely not recommended for anyone unprepared to have their understandings of inerrancy, and preservation challenged.  His style is engaging for the academically-minded, but for most people he would seem quite dry.  Kind of like licking melba-toast.

Next up, however, is a challenge to Christians from a Christian.  The author is David F. Wells, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  I've only read the introduction to this book at this point, so I can't say much about it since it consists largely of anecdotes that display a regular occurrence amongst Christians: a regrettable lack of understanding in theology; and thus, in what Christians profess to believe.

This last book was recommended by my former co-author here at St. Cynic, Suneal. I'm looking forward to reading this citing Suneal's usual taste in reading material is quite challenging, and often rewarding.