Saturday, May 21, 2011

World Destruction!

Happy end of the world everyone!  Total annihilation never felt better.

I'm going to go get a drink now.  Perhaps toast Harold Camping on his next apocalyptic miscalculation.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Parsing Original Sin P. II

In part I of this essay, I concluded that I couldn't bring myself to believe the doctrine of original sin.  It is contradictory to hold that man is inherently evil, expect that he will be good by accepting the grace of God that his 'evilness' prevents him from receiving, and then consider him condemned for his inability to do the very thing he was predisposed not to be able to do.

From this it is argued that such a contradiction is resolved by God's enabling a person to receive his grace, for such is the nature of grace that it brings about what cannot be accomplished by a person's will.  To begin with then, a person is created predisposed against God's grace, but then by God's grace is favourably inclined to God again.  It should strike the reader as suspicious that God's initial activity toward his highest creation -- people -- is, as original sin shows, lowly and capricious: he sets the conditions by which to manipulate a person's will while declaring the most extreme results for the outcomes of his own manipulations.  That is if a person's original state of separation -- the one that he creates people in -- is not reconciled, that person is condemned eternally to hell.  If that same person is enabled by God's grace to reconcile to God, that person is eternally saved.

What is interesting to realise in this scenario is that despite the efforts of apologists to place a person's "eternal address" (Victor Hugo) on their own shoulders, people never had free choice to begin with.  For if it is true that people are born in original sin (that is, they have inherited an inclination to sin and evil), the their moral tendencies have already been weighted in a certain direction.  So saying, people are not so much freely choosing as they are struggling to beat the odds of a choice already made from them.  Thus the reason for Ayn Rand's words:

"A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality... Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a 'tendency' to evil.  A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice.  It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear the responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he has no power to escape.  If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, he is not free."
People are either free or they are not.  A is A, and not ~A.  If people are free-willing creatures, then original sin is a damnable doctrine because it is unapologetically damaging to a sense of human wholeness.  If people are not free-willing creatures, the original sin makes God responsible for, and accountable to humanity's depredations; God would, in effect, be a devil.

All this talk about free will, however, begs definition.  In short, free will is the capacity of a conscious creature to choose between alternatives.  In a negative sense, if there are no alternatives, then no choice exists.  Add to that , that the notion of original sin implies the alternatives are morally laden; they are between the "knowledge of good and evil" (Gen. 2:17).

Since the alternatives within the doctrine of original sin are between those things we understand or perceive as 'good' and 'evil,' we are forced to conclude that having a knowledge of good and evil (i.e., having a moral awareness) is the essential sin in original sin.  Apologists would take umbrage with that assertion, citing instead that the original sin was the choice to do what God commanded them not to do: eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17).  But this does not advance their opposition at all because it fails to recognise that by making an alternative choice available (eat from the tree vs. do not eat from the tree), God had initiated the process of knowing good from evil, of having a moral choice.  So to command a prohibition from action, God had first to initiate a knowledge of good and evil in order to prohibit a knowledge of good and evil, which apparently eating from a forbidden tree would bring about.

Such a contradictory premise is hardly worthwhile to any thinking person: bring about an awareness of good and evil in order to prohibit an awareness of good and evil.  Not put too fine a point on it, but such utter and nonsensical (un)thinking is beneath human dignity and reasonableness.

One further point should serve to finish digging the grave for original sin: though man is guilty of making a choice to become morally aware, even though God's prohibition brought about that awareness (not the forbidden tree), the questioned doctrine ascribes the full weight of man's guilt to man.  It is worth asking the question at this point, "what is the nature of man's guilt?  That is, what is man guilty of?"  For the answer to that question, I quote Ayn Rand again:

"What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin?  What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection?  Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge--he acquired a mind and became a rational being.  It was the knowledge of good and evil--he became a moral being.  He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor--he became a productive being.  He was sentenced to experience desire--he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment.  The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy--all the cardinal values of this existence."
Because man became morally aware, a rational being; because man became a creative and productive creature; because man learned of desire and sexual fulfilment, man was therefore damnable.  In other words, an understanding of the human condition and how to fulfil it is what made man worthy of hellfire.  Now, I ask you, does this doctrine sound like the inspirations of an ominpotent, omniscient, and all-good God?  Or does it sound like the evil and controlling manipulations of demented leaders who needed some way to enforce their religious headship over the masses?

Clearly the guilt man experience for his existence has nothing to do with an all-good God, and everything to do with a malicious psychological manipulation perpetrated on otherwise rational, good people in an effort to control their lives, and make them somehow obligated to a tyrranical system of bigoted piety.  To date, that doctrine has served its purpose well, but it is a doctrine that deserves a special place in the fictional hell it condemns people to.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My Apologies

Please accept my apologies for not posting for this past while.  Work, the advent of spring and all the work that entails, renovations, and an injured back have all conspired to keep me from getting any new posts up.

I will, however, in the next couple of days (hopefully tonight), have part 2 of my series on Original Sin up for you to read.

In the meanwhile, I hope you're doing well.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Masters and Slaves

Warning: This post is going to be harsh and offensive.  If you're disinterested in raw emotions coupled with stinging invectives, stop reading now.  If you can keep a dispassionate view and recognise this entry as what it is--an explosion of stressful feelings not directed at anyone in particular--then keep reading.

Who are the masters among us?

They seem to be those who manipulate and weasel their way into positions of power, thinking themselves suited for directing the lives of others.  They seem to be curdled souls tortured by unresolved psychological issues, who, in a sadistic twist, see fit to inflict their misery on others.  They seem to be the kinds of people who trip a macabre dance through the web of society, warts covering their eyes, and pestilential ideals burning the light of their days.  They seem to be the man or woman who thinks nothing of passing a regulation, bill, or expectation that indentures others to false pretenses, moral dissonance, and self-abasement.

Who are the slaves among us?

These passive souls lack the courage to block the passage of those who would purposefully dominate them.  They can't--sometimes won't-- see their own personal sovereignty as a human being, a member of the natural world.  They kowtow to the masters for fear of  being ruled too harshly; as if by cowering blindly under a self-proclaimed dominator their life will go easier for them; as if by denying the freedom inherent to their existence they will be able to gain the approval of those who seat themselves in places of authority.  They are willlingly blind, purposefully silent, self-abnegating, falsely humble, arrogantly immoral about their own self-worth, given to humourless self-deprecation, and easy to turn against their own kind.  They are sickly, weak, tepid personalities forced ever deeper into their own concentric shells by the force of their own untamed illusions and the violent machinations of those who presume the place of a master.

But the master doesn't need to be a maniacal fuckwit stamping about the earth in some sophisticated temper-tantrum; he doesn't have to be the person who gains his titular superiority by seeing how many people he can manipulate into bending over.  He can give those things up for a more reasonable, more mindful way of being.  He can change his negative self-limitations into positive self-sovereignty.

Similarly, the slave doesn't have to be a slave.  The alternative is blindingly simple: he can choose to be free.  He can shed his snake-oiled false humility, straighten his shoulders and recognise that he belongs: he belongs inherently to a class of creatures that have a unique freedom.  Why should anyone, let alone a slave, limit himself by his own preconceptions of useless servility?  Why serve something "greater" while touting the contradictory message that you are "unique"?  Doesn't that uniqueness assume the greater?  Doesn't being unique mean, definitionally, that you are greater?  What can be greater than the singular essence of your unique self?  There has never been a you before you, and there never will be another you after you: that makes you the "greatest," doesn't it?

If you fit the abject cowardliness of the modern slave, if you understand that your limitations are self-imposed (e.g., you can't do such-and-such because you haven't gone to university to get your letters), if you're the person who sneers at mainstream social impositions (e.g., getting an English degree to prove you can refer to others who write well), then bloody-well get off your ass and start doing it!  You don't need to modify your desires, your ambitions, your passions, to fit anyone else's expectations of how you should be.  Stop listening to the message of the masters, the slave-drivers.  See your uniqueness as your evidence of your sovereignty.

If the fact that no-one else is you doesn't convince you that you are, definitively, "the greatest," then you will always be the slave, the milquetoast personality that aspires to mediocrity, that lives under the bar as if it was a roof instead of raising it or removing it; if you cannot break free of the master-slave mentality that so predominates our cultural mechanisms, if you cannot declare your own personal freedom and sovereignty, then you are a slave and you will be ruled.  You will be ruled by the same self-limiting assholes that have made it profitable to thrive off of your weakness, your lack of creativity, your refusal to be a self-actuating personality.

Your uniqueness is proof of your greatness; it is the evidence of your personal sovereignty.  Stop feasting on the blandishments of mediocrity, of commonplace social expectations.  Start self-directing, self-dictating.  In essense, start being rationally selfish.  Or to put it less controversially, don't be afraid of self-referencing decisions: you are not required to sacrifice your personhood for the predeterminations of others who are no more fit to rule you than a camel is to play a guitar.  Be free.  Rule yourself.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Art of Choice P. I

What choice will you make?
It occurs to me that everybody is an anarchist. There isn't a person alive who doesn't freely exercise choice between alternatives. Even those within the most oppressive political climates make choices every day, choices that compel them toward whatever is in their best interest in the moment. And those of us who live in freer political situations have no more freedom than the oppressed: we simply have less to fear from the consequences of our choices.

Anarchy, when distilled to its most sedimentary concept, simply means "rulerless," or "leaderless." This is a way of being that all of us accept in our day-to-day, mundane lives. You don't have to go to work: you choose to go to work. You don't have to research your paper for university; you choose to. You don't have to scoop your dog's droppings from the lawn; you choose to. You rule your own life on your own terms. You, as an agent of action, choose between the alternatives available to you. Even when things are chosen for you, you compel yourself to accept or reject the choice made for you.

So why do people feel so beholden to have their choices made for them? I'm thinking specifically of churches now. The religious person, it seems, accepts the choices of her predecessors--no! she chooses the choices of her predecessors when she chooses the particular brand of Christianity she will participate in. The Catholic convert can only be accepted by her socio-ecclesial circle if, like the rest of them, she chooses to accept the doctrinal choices chosen (often) 1600+ before her existence.

She may choose trinitarianism, but quietly nod at Arianism. Yet to air her innermost, her truest choice, she would be summarily forced to decide between alternative punishments for her free-thinking assent: recant or be excommunicated. So while she thinks she may be making a choice for Catholicism, by choosing a certain expression of Christianity, her mind has been decided for her long before she arrived at confirmation class. She is anarchist essentially, and Catholic positionally.

This is the juggernaut we are all (in a bitter irony) forced to face when we consider our participation in society and social infrastructure: to get along, we must go along. In order to be, we must be ordered. But we are not to order ourselves; we are not to freely compel ourselves. In religion, as in politics, we are late on the scene; we are to content ourselves in the same pasture, not choose the pasture we know we will feel most content in. Doing so, naturally, makes one anarchistic (leaderless) and heretical (literally, "able to choose").

And since we freely choose between alternatives in mundane ways all day (every day), we must certainly be incapable of choosing in extraordinary ways on any day, yes? The logic doesn't follow, I know. But before I explore this topic any further, ask yourself this question: are you choosing the life you want, or wanting to choose a life that is you?

I'm interested in thinking through this with you, if you're willing.

Friday, March 25, 2011

38% of Americans Are Insane

What happened in Japan recently was terrible. The aftermath, and continued crisis is devastating. But is it "divine retribution," as one Japanese official put it? 38% of Americans seem to think so. So, with a well-deserved leap over the middle (the excluded one, that is), I have concluded that of those Americans polled, 38% of them are utterly insane.

What causes an earthquake is pretty basic: shifting of tectonic plates.  It is a natural occurence not needing divine prompting.  If God sees fit to dip his hand into the Sisyphean burden of pushing giant rocks, well then whatever.  Who's going to argue?  In the meanwhile, until we have some evidence of that reality, I'm content to take the operations of the planet on an evidentiary, naturalistic basis.  Because I'm not insane.

*Thank you Atheist Media Blog for this gem.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Jiddu Krishnamurti
This morning, a friend of mine inadvertently tipped-me-off to an Eastern philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti.  I had encountered his theosophical writings when I was in bible college in 1996.  In particular, I was launched into many years of socio-cultural reflection by this one quote: "It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society."

Having been reminded of this sage this morning, I sifted through some other material I could find on the net, and came across this quote.  I hope you enjoy it, and feel free to comment on it.
"Truth is a pathless land." Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, nor through any philosophical knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation, and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection. Man has built in himself images as a sense of security – religious, political, personal. These manifest as symbols, ideas, beliefs. The burden of these dominates man's thinking, relationships and his daily life. These are the causes of our problems for they divide man from man in every relationship.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Souls of Black

I ended up with a song stuck in my head for most of the day, today.  I thought I'd share it with you.  Enjoy!

An oldie, but a goodie!

Review: The Atheist's Way

Since I can't seem to stop saturating myself in books to do with religion, irreligion and philosophy, I have found myself racing through a wonderful little tome by Eric Maisel. It is called, The Atheist's Way: Living Well Without Gods (pictured left).  Maisel also has a blog -- though it seems a little inactive -- dedicated to the subject matter in the book.

Where Maisel's book differs from the spate of recent atheist literature (e.g., Hitchens, Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, et al) is in his focus: where a thick brace of literature has been dedicated to showing the poverty of the religious life, Maisel has written to draw attention to the richness, beauty, and meaningfulness of the non-religious life.  Hitchens writes to highlight the toxicity of religious thinking; Maisel writes to encourage meaning-making in the atheist's approach.  Dennett writes to convince the reader that religion is a mental spell, a collective notion that gods influence nature therefore we worship them; Maisel writes to spur the religious into letting go of their assumptions of beneficient gods and face an indifferent universe open to innumerable possibilities for self-actualisation.  Dawkins writes to dispell delusions and rationalisations about the supernatural; Maisel writes to reassure the disbelieving that making your meaning is better than adopting an already prescribed religious meaning.  Harris writes to discourage adherence to any religious systems, and to shun the moderates for their cowardly, yet inadvertant support of extremists; Maisel writes to enliven a sense of life in the irreligious, and to move on bravely toward a whole sense of selfhood--a quality he suggests cannot be had in the religious life.

I'm sure you already see that Maisel is taking a positive approach to an often overly negative subject: disbelief.  And by negative, I don't mean to say that authors like Hitchens and Dawkins are a bad influence, or inappropriately dark and cynical.  They're not.  Still, Maisel has gone in a direction the so-called New Atheists have not: rather than tearing down gods, God, and the religions that attest to gods and God, he has taken the opportunity to outline the positive side of disbelief.

So, what are the positive net gains (if I can word it that way) of disbelief?  In a nutshell, Maisel argues that the disbeliever makes his own meaning.  He does not adopt, or super-impose over his own life the meaning that religious traditions have on offer, as if fitting himself into a body-suit with the symbol for a religion splashed across his chest.

Instead, the disbeliever chooses what he values, recognises the ultimate subjectivity of participation in life, and makes his own meaning.  This bears some similarity to Ayn Rand's stance on selfishness: people always act in such a way as to keep what they value; they are therefore "selfish" or self-interested.  The man who values personal freedom acts in such a way as to keep his freedom; he develops the virtue of productivity.  He does not allow others to hand him the value of freedom because it was never anyone else's to give to him in the first place.  And the mentality that suggests meaning needs to be earned by other's approval or permissions is the very same mentality that is on display in religion: your values, your meaning, your personal actualisation is imposed on you by an already established system, and that system gives approval or not to your worth.

The evidence for this is ample.  Consider, for example, the Catholic teaching that the use of condoms is immoral.  This article suggests that the Catholic laity is in disagreement with the current pope about the immorality of condoms; but does that change anything?  It might in private practice, but in public religious life, a lot of these same Catholics who disagree with their pope will still buckle under his imposed ruling: condoms should not be used (spare, of course, if your are interested in the propositions of male prostitutes infected with AIDS).  More, those Catholics who do sheathe their swords, as it were, will struggle uselessly (and infuriatingly, if you ask me) with guilt and shame for their choice to shag in latex.  They may even go so far as to confess their wicked deed, feel better, then repeat their "sin" and be told, after multiple confessions that their values are disorderly, not in line with the teachings of the church, or that their salvation is in danger because of habitual mortal sin.

The example above illustrates rather graphically that the struggling Catholic condomite is deriving his value from the teachings and constructed meanings of his chosen church.  Maisel, if I have understood him right, would suggest that that Catholic individual is allowing some of his meaning to be chosen for him, instead of making his own meaning.  Sadly, billions of people allow themselves to be bullied by clergy that tells them they have to seek their meaning in the teachings of the church, rather than make their meaning by the act of choosing and self-actualising on their own terms, and with their own resources.

And that, it seems, is Maisel's chief point: meaning is not something you need to seek.  It is not beneficial to you simply because it is prepackaged in the guise of religion.  It is not helpful because it can be easily accessed by the ministrations of clergy who tell you what to believe and how to believe it.  That is the structure those religious people choose, and in return, because of the structure they choose, their meaning is determined for them.  They are part of the overall meaning of that religion; they do not have a self-actualised meaning of their own.

You don't have to "find" meaning.  You have to make meaning.  In other words, you have to invest yourself into your own passions, your own interests, your own wants, and then you have to do what only you can do--because you're the only one who is you--to achieve your passions, maintain your interests, and gain what you want.  You have to choose your values, not piggy-back the values of others or use stand-in values such as those enforced by religions.  Maisel, in fact, goes so far as to state that religion itself is a stand-in for meaning; that is, religion takes the rightful place of personal meaning by imposing itself as over above self-chosen meaning.

Maisel's writing is clear, gentle, and inviting.  That last qualifier, however, sometimes serves to be a detractor from his efforts, as if by writing in an inviting style he is luring or tempting the reader to try on the religionless life.  I don't think I'd mind that so much if it weren't for the fact that I appreciate much more the blunt approach of Harris or Hitchens when it comes to addressing the moral necessity for atheism.  I'm not appreciative of saccharine, or glad-handed tones regarding major life decisions.  As minor a criticism as that is, I think Maisel's book adds a much needed, and excellent view of the areligious life, and how to self-actualise even after the experience of deconversion and the confusions such a switch can make.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nicely Stated

Paul Cooijmans
"Modesty is the worst form of bragging. It is the vanity of the dishonest; the arrogance of cowards." -- Paul Cooijmans

Love it!

Shame and Catholicism: Bedmates

Denial, shame: Catholic.
First, read this (it's not long, and is quite interesting).

Second, my response to the article linked above:
I personally think that the Catholic heirarchy, were they allowed to legitimately indulge their sexual desires, would have a very different view of sexual intimacy. I really don't hear tale of the Eastern Orthodox church having sexual scandals or legalisms surrounding sexual pleasure between consenting couples. Their priests are allowed to get married, and allowed to enjoy the benefits that confers.
In Catholic quarters, their psycho-social and sexual development is stunted by the blunt force of useless prohibitions on sexual exploration between couples, masturbation, and other harmless hedonisms. Predictably, some Catholic clergy therefore have unacceptable deviances, and Catholic couples are demeaned and disempowered by imposed guilts and harmful preachments about how they should use their body (bawdy!) parts.

I find it a supremely interesting observation that Catholicism stands against legalisms in devotional life (i.e., the notion that one can effect favour with God through efforts at purity) but sets in place a massive legalistic social framework for its adherents (e.g., Canon Law). Is it any wonder that people feel horrible when they come to the instinctual understanding that their devotion to God has resulted in a shame-based identity with their church? This confusion around sexually acceptable practice is one among many, many, many crimes against sanity.
What are your thoughts about this issue?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rot and Stink

"In a criminal society, goodness is a crime. We have no moral obligation to tell the truth to the devil. To do so is likely to be actually immoral." --Dee

I was in a conversation with a well-spoken activist--at least, that's what I'll label him for the purpose of ease--and we were enjoying an exchange about the principles of anarchy (see quote above).  For example, anarchic philosophy calls for non-violence; anarchic philosophy emphasizes the sovereignty of the individual over above the collective; the responsibility of the individual is to provide for his own needs by the work of his own mind and hands, not by leeching off of the handouts of infrastructure when he is capable of doing otherwise.

However, our current socio-political climate does not allow for non-violence.  Consider our nation's involvement in wars that have nothing to do with us (e.g., Iraq).  Consider, also, that in Canada each person is in a holding pattern so far down in the lattice-work of control that considering yourself a 'sovereign' (solely over your own life, mind, and no-one else's) comes across as "eccentric" or "idiotic" or "crazy."  Or, consider that taxes are enforced: you earn your living, your country takes money from you it didn't earned, puts it towards ends you may not support, and then threatens you with fines and possibly jail-time if you don't give over a portion of your money.  This last example has the same rot and stink about it that the medieval church's enforced tithing did.

Whether or not I agree with these principles, I was given pause to think about who I am in contrast to the larger collective (society), and what the nature of our present collective is: are we living in an actual democracy?  Is democracy defined simply by being able to vote at elections?  Or is there something more to it that isn't being effected in Canadian culture?  If I were to consider myself a sovereign, how would that effect my participation in the common-place infrastructure of society?  Is it "criminal" to not give your money to a bigger group of people (the government) when they haven't earned it, and simply because they declare it criminal to not give money to them?  Should the government be re-labeled Big Vinny, and considered a sophisticated leg-breaker?

I don't know.  At the very least, I was forced to think of some very interesting alternate points of view.  And, being the curious person that I am, I appreciated the mental exercise said activist gave me.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Recommendation: A Place Called Freedom

Ken Follett, author of international best-sellers The Pillars of the Earth (also a TV mini-series) and World Without End has stormed into my mind and heart with his totally enthralling, relentlessly visceral yet beautiful story A Place Called Freedom.

It is the story of a coal-miner, Malachi McAsh--affectionately known as 'Mack'--who wants nothing more than his freedom, his definition and right as a dignified human being.  His slave-masters, the Jamisson's, however, consider him a dangerous upstart, and set themselves against Mack and his desire for freedom.  Mack is eventually sentenced to death but, by a fortuitous twist, is shipped to America.  Once there though, he continues to fight for the only thing he's ever wanted: freedom.

I cannot heap enough praise on this book.  If you have enough room in your life to fill it with 437 pages of intense and gorgeous story-telling, you will not go wrong reading this book.  It is, quite simply, one of the best fictions I have ever read.

Ken Follett gets the Saint Cynic Award of Awesomeness, and in spades!

I can't wait to read Follett's other two novels I listed!  But first, The Fountainhead.

Friday, March 4, 2011


Happy birthday to me!

37 and still rockin'!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Unending Love

Rabindranath Tagore
I came across this poem this morning while I was waiting for my van to warm up.  Apparently it was Audrey Hepburn's favourite.  I can understand why: it's beautiful.

Unending Love

I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times...
In life after life, in age after age, forever.
My spellbound heart has made and remade the necklace of songs,
That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms,
In life after life, in age after age, forever.

Whenever I hear old chronicles of love, it's age old pain,
It's ancient tale of being apart or together.
As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge,
Clad in the light of a pole-star, piercing the darkness of time.
You become an image of what is remembered forever.

You and I have floated here on the stream that brings from the fount.
At the heart of time, love of one for another.
We have played along side millions of lovers,
Shared in the same shy sweetness of meeting,
the distressful tears of farewell,
Old love but in shapes that renew and renew forever.

Today it is heaped at your feet, it has found its end in you
The love of all man's days both past and forever:
Universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life.
The memories of all loves merging with this one love of ours -
And the songs of every poet past and forever.

~Rabindranath Tagore

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

We The Living

As some of you already know, I'm on an Ayn Rand binge right now.  At first, I was a little reluctant to jump in to her fictions because the scenery is just so different from the usual English hillsides or fantasy settings I'm used to.  The stark black and white of the 1917 Revolution in modern-day Russia, the hollow cities, the sickly and oppressed peoples of Petrograd (present-day St. Petersburg), food lines and the G.P.U. -- these were all new story-settings to me.

I've read Dostoevsky before, and some of Turgnev.  I have a deep fondness for Russian authors.  But when I set-out to read Rand's works, I knew I was in for something different.  I wasn't sure if I would like her writings because there are so many bipolar opinions about her style, her philosophy, her narrative, her intentions, etc.  So from the get-go, I was hesitant.  It's quite easy to enjoy universally acclaimed authors such as Dickens, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Collins, Eliot, et al. because they are enjoyed by almost everyone.  Rand's writings, however, are generally classed to either ends of the extremes "Hate it" or "Love it."

Well, after taking the plunge with Rand's novella, Anthem, I fed my curiosity a little more with her first full-length novel, We The Living.  Published in 1936, We The Living enjoyed limited success (3000 copies).  After Rand's international sensation, Atlas Shrugged (which is presently being made into a movie), We The Living was republished and sold 3-million copies.  And after having just read We The Living, I can understand why it skyrocketed to best-seller levels.

Without giving too much away about the story, it is a vivid capture of life in Bolshevik Russia, after the October Revolution of 1917.  Kira Argounova, the story's heroine, struggles as an individual against the machinations of the Soviet state.  Her brave and iron-cast ideals give her the strength to persist in the face of a deep romance with a handsome maverick, Leo Kovalensky, and the constant dangers of being close friends with a young officer of the G.P.U., Andrei Taganov.

That is as much of the story as I'm willing to write about because I think it is a story that has to be read.  Parsing the details anymore than I already have would have the infelicitous effect of giving too much away.  And believe me, with the way the story moves and grows, it would be a pity to give it away in a mild review, such as this one.

In the end, between the extremes noted earlier, I have so far landed on "Love it."  It is my understanding that Rand's particular views on philosophy, politics, human nature, art, sex, and many other hot-button issues becomes more articulated in her later novels, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged.  For now, however, for fear of saturating my enjoyment of Rand, I have moved on to Ken Follett's classic, A Place Called Freedom.  I'm already 50+ pages into the book and absolutely enthralled!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Simply Incredible!

Gorgeous and soulful collaborative effort of the classic Ben E. King hit, Stand By Me.  This international version of the song is, simply said, incredible.

Thank you to fellow local Yukon blogger, Lindsay Dobbin of The Dreaming for such an awesome link!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gregory W. Lester: Bad Beliefs

Gregory W. Lester, Ph.D
The abovementioned (pictured left) is a Ph.D in Psychology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.  He has written an article hosted on The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) called, "Why Bad Beliefs Don't Die."  I found the excerpt quoted below at John Loftus's site, Debunking Christianity, and thought it was very thought-provoking.
Because senses and beliefs are both tools for survival and have evolved to augment one another, our brain considers them to be separate but equally important purveyors of survival information....This means that beliefs are designed to operate independent of sensory data. In fact, the whole survival value of beliefs is based on their ability to persist in the face of contradictory evidence. Beliefs are not supposed to change easily or simply in response to disconfirming evidence. If they did, they would be virtually useless as tools for survival....Skeptical thinkers must realize that because of the survival value of beliefs, disconfirming evidence will rarely, if ever, be sufficient to change beliefs, even in “otherwise intelligent” people....[S]keptics must always appreciate how hard it is for people to have their beliefs challenged. It is, quite literally, a threat to their brain’s sense of survival. It is entirely normal for people to be defensive in such situations. The brain feels it is fighting for its should be comforting to all skeptics to remember that the truly amazing part of all of this is not that so few beliefs change or that people can be so irrational, but that anyone’s beliefs ever change at all. Skeptics’ ability to alter their own beliefs in response to data is a true gift; a unique, powerful, and precious ability. It is genuinely a “higher brain function” in that it goes against some of the most natural and fundamental biological urges.
What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Questioning God

At some point in almost everyone's life, the question of the existence of God moves from a rosy sentiment to an intellectual briar patch. The shiny world of youth makes it easy to rely on the claims of one's parents that God is real, personable, and knowable. Or the equal, yet opposite simplicity that God is a quaint mythology fit for a pre-scientific world, but no more real than Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny.

Soon, however, maturity intrudes on our winsome innocence. We start asking harder questions. For example, just what kind of God is it that looks on as countless millions are slaughtered in religio-political pograms? Wouldn't God be just the right arbiter in human affairs to help us avoid senseless killings? Or, if God isn't real, how do we account for morality, conscience, or the seeming uniformity of nature? Given our moral inclinations, why haven't we come up with a solution to the horrors we perpetrate on ourselves? And what are the empirical sciences doing to advance our moral status in the alleged absence of deity?

On the other hand, it would be easy, even practical to dismiss the question of God altogether. Afterall, neither religious nor secular metanarratives can ultimately prove their claims regarding the divine. So why be bothered with something that cannot be proven conclusively, or conclusively disproven? Why pursue a subject that, given its ultimate non-conclusion, will require faith in either the propositions of the world's religions, or faith in the evolving world of the sciences?

But how practical is it to dismiss questions that help us – individually, and collectively – form a sense of our place in the universe? Is it practical to eschew religious claims when many of those claims have helped shape the cultures, and perceptions we participate in today? Is it practical to disregard the findings of the sciences? Would gravity be less binding if we were unconcerned to pay attention to its effect in our lives? Would God be less of a question if we found it practical to disregard the effects of religion around the world? Would this kind of practicality even be honest?

Parsing Original Sin P. 1

Ayn Rand rocked the literary world with her anti-altruist writings.  In particular, her epic novel Atlas Shrugged gave full berth to her philosophy, Objectivism.  In said novel, the ultimate protagonist, John Galt--a figure who is intitially so enigmatic his name becomes a byword--questions, indicts, and redefines the very nature of humanity.  Galt's soliloquy toward the end of the book drives a proverbial knife into the heart of modern Western values; he attacks their religious root, specifically located in the doctrine of original sin.

As quoted from Galt's speech, original sin is an impossible reality that "begins by damning man as evil, then demands that he practice a good which it defines as impossible for him to practice."  Original sin, as set out by the first Christians, however, suggests that human beings are deprived of their natural connection to God because Adam and Eve, humanity's representative couple, disobeyed God thereby setting all people forever at a distance from their Creator.  Thus Adam and Eve, and everyone after them, suffer the burden  of godlessness--the void between God and man--which is hopelessly incurable except by the movement of God across that void.  And, as Christians claim, God spanned that void in the person of Jesus Christ.

Everyone born into the world then, according to classic Christian formulations, inherits the burden of being simultaneously in God's image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27) and also separated from God by original sin.  Rand's vicarious observation that the Christian "code" damns man for his godlessness and then demands man be good--which is to say that man is to be godly--points at a fatal flaw in Christian conceptions of the nature of man.  Namely, if by original sin man is unable to be godly because of his godlessness, why condemn man for living in the condition he was predisposed to?

More alarmingly, the demand of the Christian believer is that he recognise how damnable he is without proof, or even a shred of evidence to firm-up the case.  Virtue is not allotted man until he confesses not only his vice, but also his utter inability to extricate himself from a condition he cannot point to but is guilty of anyway.

That man was created 'good,' even 'very good' (Gen. 1:31) is simply a nod to a time well behind him.  The post-Edenic reality is that man is "evil" (Matt. 7:11) and exists in a subordinated position; a position that does not act on his innate inclinations of being a free, noble creature but binds itself to the self-deprecating notion of being "depraved," or "distorted," or "disordered."  Man, to be 'good,' must first lie to himself that he is, in fact 'bad,' will himself to believe his lie, and then plead the pity of the Creator who would save him from himself.

From the start, man is damned, if not by his own belief that he has to lie to himself to set up the conditions for salvation, then by the inheritance of representative man's sin (through Adam and Eve) which places him at odds with God.  In essence, man is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't.

How could anyone get on with such of wave of contradiction and catch-22's?  How could anyone understand their place in reality, their identity as a human being, given such misfit logic?  Clearly,

"It does not matter, the good is not for him to understand, his duty is to crawl through years of penance, atoning for the guilt of his existence ato any stray collector of unintelligible debts, his only concept of a value is a zero: the good is that which is non-man."
According to such a "monstrous absurdity," original sin means man is not 'good,' he is evil (cf. Matt. 7:11).  Since a double-bind is placed on man--inherit a sinful condition and/or commit evil by lying to oneself and therefore make yourself evil--his whole moral condition, the opportunity for will, his very freedom is predetermined for him.  Man has been deemed guilty without his choice even before he exists.

There is no sense in that conclusion, obviously, but that is what the doctrine of original sin requires a person to believe for it to have any psychological hold.  A person cannot be bound to a creed that has no discernable impact on his psyche.  No-one is passionate about the banal.  No-one is driven to deliver themselves from ineffectual and meaningless propositions.  Such things are easily discarded  by the very act of choosing to.

For a concept to lay hold of a person fully, and to generate enough fervor that he is irrevocably compelled to seek salvation from the subjective realities of that concept it has to strike hard and deep at the core doubts, fears, and needs of a person; it must demean a person's sense of life and moral confidence.

Original sin does just that.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: Roadtrip Nation

Roadtrip Nation, 2003
Roadtrip Nation is a book about discovering who you are, what you love, what drives you, what your passions are, and how to find the "open road" to your dreams.

The book's format is simple:

1) Introduction to the authors, and defining their aims and methods of achieving them;
2) A series of interviews with some of America's most successful industry leaders;
3) Exhortation to start talking to the people you admire, find out how they got to where they're at, and then set your own goals for getting to where you want to go.

Stylistically, the book is very casual, the way you'd estimate it would be written by a couple of surfers and newly minted university graduates.  That is, written simply but well, unreserved, inviting and open, and given to the odd surf-culture-specific flourishes.  Having occupied myself with more than a few years with academic texts and more "highbrow" literature (whatever that actually means), I found the simpler style of Roadtrip Nation refreshing and alive.  In fact, it put me in mind to do some private writing that focuses on simple but effective expression.

While I was reading through Roadtrip Nation, I was caught off-guard by the overall genuineness of the authors, and the people the authors interviewed.  Everyone involved in the contents of the book showed a high degree of realistic humility (i.e., not self-deprecation masquerading as humility, but honest self-appraisal), and an unblushing recognition of their strengths and talents.  Yes, it is possible to edit out events and statements that may have given me a different impression.  But since I only have the book as evidence of the contents, and the book itself states that the interviews were verbatim (though specific things said were re-arranged to make a more consistent flow), I am willing to believe my first-blush impressions.

There is a lot to learn about yourself in this book, if you pay close attention.  It seems to me that when you come in contact with genuine people--even if vicariously through the medium of a book--you can't help but reflect on your own self, and have an impression of your own genuineness.  And if there's one thing that I can point to that affected me the most throughout the interview section, it is that all the people interviewed were leaders in their chosen fields because what they do is who they are.

All of the people interviewed had the common thread of being involved in a way of life that built on their deepest passions; they worked their way into a place they could not do without in their life not because it sustains their life, but because it is their life.  They work at the very things that bubble and froth in the centre of  who they are.  The external results--what we would blithely call "products"--are undeniably a manifestation of their inner world.  In short, the leaders interviewed work who they are.  If anything can be admirable, that certainly is.
Bill Murray said it, so it must be true.

Would I recommend this book to anyone?  Absolutely.  While the book really doesn't lend itself to an in-depth examination of any sort, I think that is on purpose: it sets up the possibility for you, the reader, to do your own in-depth examination of yourself by interviewing people who did the same, and found their "open road" to success and satisfaction.

Roadtrip Nation most definitely gets the Saint Cynic award of awesomeness (pictured left).

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What I'm Reading

I posted a reading list for 2011 back in January.  I had hoped at that point to set-out a reading track for this year.  I was taking a chance that reality would treat me with the same static indifference as I treat it.  As it turns out, I should've listened to my better instincts that more pressing issues in my life would change the coarse of my reading this year; my gawkish auto-didacticism enjoyed the pulse of my good intentions, but inevitably collided with reality.  The result is a write-off of the old list, and a new list that is smaller, unfixed, and deals more precisely with where my mind is focused right now.

Rather than list any projected books, I will simply give space to the ones I am currently reading.

Undefended Love is an exploration of the human being, and how a person can be whole.  Many people are weighed-down by the pressure of wanting and needing to give and receive love; they want to have an unguarded, vulnerable and safe relationship.  Few people understand how such a relationship can be achieved.  Psychology, anthropology, transactional analysis, real-life anecdotes, all these areas mix and mingle together to bring about a book that elegantly sets forth a manifesto for personal wholeness, and relational intimacy at the deepest levels.

Roadtrip Nation.  I picked this book up at the local Liquidation World (now re-dubbed 'LW').  Initially, the book was more of an interest to my wife; she's interested in other people's successes and how they achieved what they did.  Since I've become disaffected with my own employment and have been sussing-out creative ways to self-employ, I thought I'd have a boo at this book.  The premise is simple: drive around the country and interview successful people about how they got to where they are.  The content is inspirational.  And if you like a casual, passionate look at the qualities of successful people, this book is perfect.

We The Living was Ayn Rand's first full-length novel, and is a tragic romance that depicts the bitter struggles of the individual against the state in Soviet Russia.  Rand's later novels (Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged) more directly explore her philosophy of Objectivism, but We The Living sets a background for why Rand was so abjectly against statism, and philosophies that purposefully manipulate and oppress people's inherent dignity and autonomy.  Like the other Russian authors I've read--and thoroughly enjoyed--Rand brings a sweep of practical majesty, and uncompromising strength to her narration; I've been left shocked and raw many times throughout this novel, so far.

I will update this post in the next few days when I'm done Roadtrip Nation and We The Living.  From there, I'll be starting another Ayn Rand novel, and pushing my way into a volume on some counter-cultural understandings of child-rearing.

Until then, stay well, and play hard!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Family Guy on Religion and Violence

I normally don't care at all for Family Guy, an adult animated comedy that--I think--cheaply satirizes popular culture, and blitzes people with fast-paced one-liners and scene transitions in horribly irreverent ways.  Okay, admittedly, I do enjoy a little irreverent humour: for example, George Carlin, Ed Byrne, Keith Lowell Jensen, and Billy Connolly.  But from what I've seen of Family Guy, it's usually vapid and principally uncouth.

Enough of my assessments, however.  I just watched a 19-second clip from Family Guy that had me chuckling and chortling quite loudly.  And now I present it to you:

Obviously the video is not historically accurate.  It is an entertaining mockery of religious people's predilections to violence, though.

Thanks to Atheist Media Blog for tipping me off to this clip.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Original Sin

Ayn Rand
I cannot get away from the forcefulness of Ayn Rand's argument against the concept of original sin.  Read it and, if you're willing, tell me what you think.
"Your code begins by damning man as evil, then demands that he practice a good which it defines as impossible for him to practice. It demands, as his first proof of virtue, that he accept his own depravity without proof. It demands that he start, not with a standard of value, but with a standard of evil, which is himself, by means of which he is then to define the good: the good is that which he is not.

"It does not matter who then becomes the profiteer on his renounced glory and tormented soul, a mystic God with some incomprehensible design or any passer-by whose rotting sores are held as some inexplicable claim upon him—it does not matter, the good is not for him to understand, his duty is to crawl through years of penance, atoning for the guilt of his existence to any stray collector of unintelligible debts, his only concept of a value is a zero: the good is that which is non-man.

"The name of this monstrous absurdity is Original Sin.

"A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral. To hold, as man’s sin, a fact not open to his choice is a mockery of morality. To hold man’s nature as his sin is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of justice. To hold him guilty in a matter where no innocence exists is a mockery of reason. To destroy morality, nature, justice and reason by means of a single concept is a feat of evil hardly to be matched. Yet that is the root of your code.

"Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a “tendency” to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.

"What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge—he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil—he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor—he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire—he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy—all the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of man’s fall is designed to explain and condemn, it is not his errors that they hold as his guilt, but the essence of his nature as man. Whatever he was—that robot in the Garden of Eden, who existed without mind, without values, without labor, without love—he was not man.

"Man’s fall, according to your teachers, was that he gained the virtues required to live. These virtues, by their standard, are his Sin. His evil, they charge, is that he’s man. His guilt, they charge, is that he lives.

"They call it a morality of mercy and a doctrine of love for man."
The quote above was extracted from For the New Intellectual, "Galt's Speech", Signet Edition.

On Immorality & Atheism

Click for larger picture.
The notion that atheists are immoral because they claim godlessness is tripe. There is no reason to suggest that a person is immoral because they don't believe a certain god, or any gods exist. Such a conclusion is hopelessly illogical: where's the connective tissue between the propositions "I don't believe in God/gods" and "disbelievers are immoral"? Something has to fit between those two propositions, otherwise concluding disbelief equals immorality is a categorical confusion and a lackluster syllogism, at best.

At worst, the implication that people can only be moral if they believe in a God/gods makes believers terribly dangerous people to associate with: are they suggesting that it's only their belief that restrains them from psychopathic rampages, and all manner of hideous crimes?

And what are we to make of pre-Judaic times, before the alleged giving of the 10 Commandments? Were people just given to their impulses with no thought to consequences? Were human beings wantonly viscious with no capacity for restraint until God burned a few words in stone? The fact is: people are moral despite their beliefs, and even without beliefs, because morality is part of our organising instincts and our efforts to promote the survival of ourselves and others.

Your morality is not a cape you are given by some God; it is part of your human composition and does not depend a whit on what brand of religion you choose to adopt.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A History of God: Reflections & Review P. II

In Part 1 of this series, I provided a brief overview of the purpose behind Armstrong's book: to examine the evolution of the idea of God within the three major monotheistic religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  I also noted that Armstrong's historical scrutiny of the monotheistic conceptions of God comes by way of the documentary hypothesis, a source theory of biblical interpretation that seeks to arrange chronologically the inconsistent and independently authored texts of the earliest books of the bible.  Given the seemingly independent perspectives within the books of the Torah--and subsequent Old Testament books--the documentary hypothesis suggests that a series of redactors (editors) prepared the disparate documents into the forms we've come to know as the Pentateuch.

Citing Armstrong's interpretive tools goes a long way in helping to understand why she comes to some of the conclusions she does.  If it is true that the Pentateuch is a patchwork of originally independent narratives that have endured (who knows how many) redactions, then the traditional Christian perspective that the bible is wholly reliable can reasonably be questioned: reliable in its original, unedited form?  Reliable because of its redactions?  And how do we know that those who undertook to edit the original manuscripts were reliable people?  What constitutes 'reliability' in a religious context when dealing with scripture? At what point does having 'faith' that the scriptures are reliable cease to be an acceptable premise?  And further to those questions, if the writings of the major world religions can be questioned as to their reliability, can those religions themselves be questioned as to their reliability on the whole?  That is, if the religions of the book are questionable on a literary level, what aspects of that religion are reliable at all?

I won't be pursuing answers to those questions in this series, but suffice it to say that they are reasonably important questions, and the content of Armstrong's book certainly gives me pause to consider searching out reasonable answers.

But enough of my preamble!  On to the reflections and review.

Introduction (pp. xvii - xxiii)
I have read Armstrong's introduction to A History of God a few times before reading the actual book.  There are several instances within those (roughly) 7 pages that resonated very deeply with me.  For example, Armstrong, right out of the gates, admits to her childhood belief in God as an implicit or "unquestioned" assumption, but because of the arid pomposity of the religious definitions that surround the notion of 'God' she cannot meaningfully state she had faith in God:
"There is a distinction between belief in a set of propositions and a faith which enables us to put our trust in them.  I believed implicitly in the existence of God; I also believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the efficacy of the sacraments, the prospect of eternal damnation and the objective reality of Purgatory... God, on the other hand, was a somewhat shadowy figure, defined in intellectual abstractions rather than images."
 Like Armstrong, I had my own implicit belief in God when I was a child.  I recall demanding I be brought to church when I was eight.  At the same age, I was baptised, though I know I had no real understanding of the religious significance of that event.  A few years later, I sat in the back of my dad's car reading my bible while he and his girlfriend ran errands at a local plaza.  When they returned to the car, I plucked up my courage and asked my dad what he would think if I became a priest and taught people about God.  His response was disheartening to a child of 12: "Do what you want.  Just don't talk to me about it."  This was the same response I received from him when I was 16 and told him that I had become a "born again" Christian.

All this is to say that, like Armstrong,
"As I grew up... I began to be moved by the beauty of the liturgy and, though God remained distant, I felt that it was possible to break through to him and that the vision would transfigure the whole of created reality."
Disappointment is germane to most people's lives, however, and Armstrong did not experience that transfigured reality.  "Eventually, with regret," Armstrong writes, "I left the religious life..."  As did I, and with many, bitter, emotional struggles.  But having pursued her religious studies as much as she did, Armstrong was unwilling to put away her passion to understand religious reality:
"My interest in religion continued... and I made a number of television programs about the early history of Christianity and the nature of the religious experience."
And having scoured the depths of religious history, Armstrong came to an unoriginal, yet beautifully expressed conclusion about the nature of religious experience and activity:
"Like art, religion has been an attempt to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering that flesh is heir to.  Like any other human activity, religion can be abused, but it seems to have been something that we have always done.  It was not tacked on to a primordially secular nature by manipulative kings and priests but was natural to humanity... Throughout history, men and women have experienced a dimension of the spirit that seems to transcend the mundane world.  Indeed it is an arresting characteristic of the human mind to be able to conceive concepts that go beyond it in this way."
It must be said, however, that although religion has been, and probably will continue to be an activity integral to human participation in the world, the rise of scientific savvy is a formidable challenge to the religious-minded.  For if "meaning and value in life" can come from ancestral liturgies and ancient doctrines, then the continual increase in understanding and factual comprehension science continuously provides may overtake religious devotion.  Certainly knowing the factual details of reality does not detract from life's meaning and value, but should reinforce it if those meanings and values are true.  Certainly deriving one's meaning and value from what is actual and demonstrable will grip people's minds with at least as much fervour as the meaning and value in life that non-demonstrable, non-natural claims have traditionally held.

Whatever the case may end up being, there is no historical precedent that even remotely recommends a religionless future.
"...religion is highly pragmatic... it is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it to be logically or scientifically sound. As soon as it ceases to be effective it will be changed--sometimes for something radically different."
Thus notions of God are entirely provisional: they evolve just as much as people and their cultures do.  The success of monotheisms such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has not been in having precise knowledge of the divine so much as it has been that the monotheistic religions have been able to adapt culture to their creeds.  Previous to monotheism religious motifs were subject to the suasions of culture.  And indeed, so-called "pagan" religions continue to develop along the lines of the cultures and people-groups practicing them.  Monotheism, however, dictates culture by enforcement of creeds: you cannot be a 21st century Christian without holding dear certain creeds.  You can, however, be a raging pagan, polytheist, or religious pluralist in the 21st century even while brushing-off ancient dictates.

This, of course, makes me wonder why people prefer to be directed in their beliefs, rather than choosing what to believe.  The cafeteria Catholic (pejorative, but apt term that that is) is still beholden to certain essentials, or he isn't a Catholic.  Period.  The smorgasbord pagan is really only expected to choose what he will.  And both the Catholic monotheist and the pagan pluralist enjoy an absolutist sense of reality: they both believe that they are wonderfully right, and that others are woefully wrong.

Be that as it may, such concerns are somewhat allayed by Armstrong's right observation that

"Whatever conclusions we reach about the reality of God, the history of this idea must tell us something important about the human mind and the nature of our aspiration."
The import derived from conversations about God seems to be purely personal.  Given that, it really doesn't surprise me that somewhere along the historical line, the concomitant notion of a "personal God" was recognised in the fact that people conclude their notions of God wholly subjectively: no two people have the same experience of the same idea.  'God', the abstract, is concretized differently in each person.  Thus God-talk is strained at best, and tests credulity not only at worst, but inevitably.

As is proper, Armstrong should have the last word here:

"All talk about God staggers under impossible difficulties.  Yet monotheists have all been very positive about language at the same time as they have denied its capacity to express the transcendent reality.  The God of Jews, Christians and Muslims is a God who--in some sense--speaks.  His Word is crucial in all three faiths.  The Word of God has shaped the history of our culture.  We have to decide whether the word "God" has any meaning for us today."

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Senecca and Religion

Senecca the Younger
Seneca the Younger penned these famous and portentous words:

"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful."

Being a contemporary of Christ, it seems significant to me that he would have such a perspective.  

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Harold Camping.  False toothy prophet.
Remember Harold Camping?  Apparently he's littered the earth, and wasted donations on a campaign sounding a clarion-call for the end of the world.

May 21, 2011.  Mark it on your calendars, folks.  Make sure to love much, and have all sorts of ludicrous fun because when you wake up on May 22, 2011 and you're still alive, and the rapture hasn't happened, you will at least not have wasted your time.

Oh, and keep up the hard work at living life to the fullest, even beyond May 22, 2011 because we have another end-of-the-world to get through on December 21, 2012.

Here's another look at the same silliness, but with a tad more detail.  Enjoy!

Sometime in the future, you're going to die.  Get over it.  But if Harold Camping is right, you're going to die a whole lot sooner than you think.  Isn't Camping such a comforting messenger?  Don't you just want to invite him into your home and let him tell you all about how godless your existence is, and how you're going to burn in hell forever?  Such a nice old man.

I wonder if he'll shut-up about this nonsense when he's wrong for the second time...

Thank you to The Thinking Atheist for this video.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Omnipotence and Omniscience

Stefan Molyneux
From an essay entitled, "Against the Gods", by Stefen Molyneux we have the following quote:
...omniscience cannot coexist with omnipotence, since if a god knows what will happen tomorrow, said god will be unable to change it without invalidating its knowledge. If this god retains the power to change what will happen tomorrow, then it cannot know with exact certainty what will happen tomorrow.
What are your thoughts?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Big Words

I have been accused of using too many "big" words more than the total word-count of Marcel Proust's collected works.  That is, of course, an exaggeration.  Still, the number of times I have endured the crassness of being told "you use too many big words," or "why don't you just speak in English," or "would it hurt you to speak a little more simply" has become a source of silent irritation for me.

So now I'm going to write about it.  And I may just use sesquipedalian verbiage to spurn any familiar detractors.

To start, Ayn Rand wrote "words are a lens to focus one's mind."  If that is true, then the larger the lens the greater the focus.  Which really stands to reason since the proper use of a bigger word is not an easily accomplishable feat for the neophytic philologist.  Can I say that my use of larger words has always been clear, and well executed?  Heavens no!  I amassed an admirable storehouse of "big" words at a very young age simply by listening to the adults around me.  I didn't really know how to use those words properly, however, until I was more mature.

That's when I entered highschool.  In highschool, I was practically battered with small-worded accusations by friends and classmates alike for using words outside of their ken.  The same unthinking trend followed me through college and seminary, too. It was really quite demoralizing.

Who of us would arrange the courage in ourselves to accuse an excellent musician of being too quick at trills?  What right-minded individuals would upset themsevles for a gymnast's greater agility and balance?  It would seem to me that having a decent capacity for expression is no greater a crime than being able to run faster than others, or tickle out a frenzy of notes on the ivories with more finesse than the typical church pianist.

Now, I could go ahead and estimate the kind of distorted psychology that prompts such ill-reasoned attempts at censoring another's self-expression, but that would be too much of a meandering speculation for me to feel comfortable with.  Instead, what I've boiled things down to, in my own mind, is a more generous perspective. 

I think it's simply a matter of "jargon."  That is, people have environmentally prescribed jargon-sets that help them navigate their way through assumed common experiences.  And depending on the variety and intensity of those experiences, the amount and use of jargon changes.  But when faced with someone who can work with jargon across varied and diverse fields, communication can become a little intimidating.

So, what about jargon?

Well, everybody speaks it. Some more than others. It's especially rampant amongst chattering intellectuals, the back offices of medical centres, and the austere corridors of academia. But it happens on the street, too, where the “huddled masses” spin their cant in an ever-evolving dance of gritty descriptions and colourful metaphors.

When people speak their jargon on the streets we call it “slang.” When people pour out the lingo in cloistered meeting halls, sipping coffee and polishing their chins, we dignify it by labelling it “terminology.” And it may very well be that. But the only difference between the terminology of the person on the street, and the slang built in to certain fields of study is the environment in which they're used.

Who hasn't had the common experience of meeting-up with a co-worker at the coffee maker and spending the next several minutes listening intently to a subject that seems distant, foreign, even arcane? Who hasn't had the experience of being that person at the coffee maker percolating stories in strange terms while your co-worker squints on, earnestly attempting to relate to what you're saying?

It's something that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein described very well when he wrote, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922). The words people use give an indication of the personal world of their experiences. A person used to living in the harsh backwoods of the Yukon wilderness may very well seem like a different creature to the savvy urbanite used to a steady diet of posh trends, and fashionable mannerisms. The point remains though: however they choose to talk about their experiences, they bring their worlds to each other by the very words they use.

So to argue by accusation that another uses too many "big" words can (as it did in my case) have the effect not only of diminishing one's own world by sneering at expansion, but demeaning another's world by snidely implying it is 'wrong' or 'difficult' because it is too big.  Having given some thought to this subject, it seems obvious to me that the best course of action when dealing with someone who has a demonstrably wide grasp of the English language (or any language, for that matter), would be to ask for definitions and explanations when fronted with a word one doesn't know.  The residuals may just be that your own world is given greater scope and colour, and that the other's world is appreciated and made more enjoyable.

Not a bad trade-off, really.  Wouldn't you agree?