Monday, February 21, 2005

What is your source of strength?

Some people say that their faith gives them strength. For me, my twin sources of strength would have to be my work and my daughter. Being able to improve practical things and, at the same time, having the freedom to work on fascinating areas of research is the wonderful mix of pleasures to be had in my work. Then, coming home to see my tiny daughter smile, laugh and reach her hand out towards me, all while she learns the very basics of living, is truly exquisite. Someone might say that I could lose all that in a flash but the point is that, for now and hopefully for the rest of my life, these two things are staggeringly powerful. And it is just as easy to lose one’s faith as anything else, so that is no guarantor of certainty. Any way, as I have said to anyone who stopped long enough to listen – if you want extreme experiences you shouldn’t bother jumping out of airplanes; have a kid, instead.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Why do theists like to have it both ways?

I wonder if other people have noticed how theists like to play funny-buggers with how to classify the naturalist, humanist world view? When humanists claim that being a humanist is different from being religious in any sense, theists tend to claim that humanism is just another religion, just like their Christianity or some such. So, they claim, by being a humanist one isn’t giving up on religion but merely accepting one rather than another. Strangely enough, the implicit suggestion seems to be that, if one could give up on religion by being a humanist, this would be an improvement, thus necessitating that humanism be brought down to the same level.

Of course, this is all only the case if the atheist is claiming to be different. When the atheist claims that their beliefs should have the same protections and rights as those of other, theistic, people then the tune changes. No longer is humanism a religion, it becomes something like the outline left behind on a dusty mantelpiece when an ornament is taken off or, perhaps, the lighter spot on the wall where the crucifix used to hang. It becomes a nothingness that has no rights, no reality. So religious beliefs can be protected but atheist beliefs need not. In a very clear example of this, it is possible in some countries to be taken to court for offending someone else’s religious beliefs but not for offending someone’s humanist beliefs.

So, on the one hand, being a humanist means belonging to a religious sect of sorts while, on the other, having no beliefs at all.

The distinction between religion and atheism finds a curious reflection in language. My spell-checker insists that Christianity, Buddhism or even Manichaeism be spelled with a capital letter while accepting humanism, rationalism, naturalism, etc. This is, of course, because these are also the names of philosophical traditions but that does nothing to undermine the point.

Is religion superstition - pure and simple?

This is something I have been wondering about for a while now. The reason is that I find myself pulled in both directions on this question. On the one hand, it does seem to me that religion and superstition are very closely aligned and have many of the very same psychological and social well-springs. On the other hand, I happen to know a fair number of devoutly religious people who are also among the least superstitious people I know. They are, for the most part, academics at a Catholic university and are far less superstitious than the human average. Of course, the Christianity they espouse is of a particularly refined variety.

It seems to me that, compared to superstition, religion is a far more complex social phenomenon. This means that whereas superstition might have at heart the satisfaction of a narrow range of human needs, religion satisfies a much greater range of needs (both social and individual), depending upon the particular believer or society and the particular variety of religiosity. Certainly, there does seem to be overlap. When someone crosses themselves to protect them from evil spirits they are both being religious and superstitious. The idea behind christening seems to have much the same sort of warding off role, even if ‘the evil spirits’ have been abstracted away to the level of ‘original sin’.

I guess that to a significant degree, the answer is going to depend upon what ‘religious feeling’ is supposed to be, as this often seems to be the basis that relatively enlightened religious people seem to build their religiosity upon. Of course, in a sense, I do not know what that feeling is like, not having every felt anything that I have identified that way. Still, from the descriptions given, it does seem to be a feeling of wonder. As such, it does seem to be a long way away from superstition, which seems to mainly arise out of fear and the desire to feel in control. Not that, of course, those feelings do not motivate religious beliefs in some cases, such as the desire for eternal life caused by a fear of death.

Also, superstition does not seem to have much of a social role whereas religion, through its institutions, is one of the most significant social forces. So, I guess, the answer seems to be that religion and superstition do have to be treated and understood separately. And the claim that religion is just superstition is too hard and fast. This does not mean, of course, that it is rational to believe in God. That question I haven’t considered here at all.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Anything wrong with christening a baby?

The time is far approaching when what had been merely theoretical will turn into a live issue. My wife wants to christen our daughter in a couple of months time and has started the bureaucratic ball rolling. Well, I have agreed to it but with a heavy heart. The silly thing is that my wife doesn’t care half as much about it as I do. For her it is more about custom and not wanting our daughter to be different from the other kids. Not because there’s something great about being the same but because my wife thinks that children will pick on anyone who is different. Having always been different in some way I know on my own skin what that’s like. Mind you, our daughter will always be different anyhow. I guess I feel somewhat upset that my wife doesn’t appreciate that I am making a significant concession. On the other hand, how much of a concession is it given that I have never bothered to annul my being a member of the faith, so that I still figure in the percentage of my countrymen who are Christian?

So, that’s the question, I guess – what exactly is wrong with letting your child be christened? The first thing that comes to mind is that it means joining up your child to an organization at a stage when she is in no position to make a choice and when she may later not wish to be a member of that organization. Particularly, given the history of that organization – would you sign your daughter up to the Spanish Falange? This decision not only affects her but also gives succour to that organization. The amazing thing is the degree to which these kinds of decisions are handled for most people by tradition. Most people, in a sense, do not make a choice but simply repeat what everyone else is doing. If everyone is signing their children up then they sign them up too, if not then not. There appears to be very little consideration of the rightness or wrongness of the action – the qualms are handed over wholesale to the society that one lives in. I guess that this is just the thing that the existentialists rebelled against. But what if you are consciously doing something you consider wrong?

The thinking, I guess, is that my daughter will choose what she wants to be anyway so that this ceremony doesn’t matter. But if it doesn’t matter, why perform it at all? Of course, the reasons why the church invented the ceremony and made it something to be performed soon after birth are obvious. The aim was to try to lock people into the faith of their parents so as to ensure that the faith grew rather than withered. A faith which did not ensure its survival in some such way would not be around after two thousand years – the memes would have died out long ago. Again, this goes hand in hand with the way most people let their society handle most of the most significant choices in their life for them – just like churches, societies also have to be able to perpetuate themselves and a society which does not direct its members’ actions to a great degree will not be stable enough to last. But, on the individual level, performing the ceremony makes no sense. We no longer live in times when not being an official member of the faith carried with it any real threat.

The only threat that christening might be thought to protect against is the grave danger of dying without being cleansed of original sin. Of course, not just atheists but even most Christians do not take that seriously anymore. Our conception of justice has evolved to the point where the idea of being punished for something that a far distant relative might have done just seems preposterous. Not to mention that the ‘crime’ ‘committed’ was frivolous – eating an apple when one had been told not to but not given any substantive reason. Not to mention that most Christians do not think of the whole paradise story as anything more than, at best, an allegory. Certainly, my wife would laugh if someone suggested that our daughter is burdened by sin.

Still, my daughter is going to become an official member of the faith. And – without the excuse of just doing what society tells me to do – I will go along with it.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Is love all you need?

Ever heard anybody say the following – “People have the right to do whatever they want with their money”? I know I have, many times. What about – “Money is power”? Again, often heard, most likely from the very same people. Somehow, however, people do not seem to put two and two together – People have the right to do whatever they want with their power. That last seems to me to be very close to something akin to the fascistic love of strength.
The issue is significant as, to do anything, one requires power; power that in our society has become more formalised and quantified than in any other society, quantified in the form of money. However, the pursuit of power only incidentally happens to cross the path of doing the right thing. Of course, it may happen to be the case that the most effective way to ensure greater power for oneself one should do something which is to the greater good but that is either happenstance or, hopefully, due to the working of a well-instituted society. Any link between power and goodness is the one that we form, ourselves. This is what I mean by saying that we live in an immoral universal, and this is why I think that we have to be moral – to make up for that universal immorality.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

If you were all-knowing, what would you think about?

If one takes seriously the supposed traits of the Christian God – all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful and all-dancing – one has to ask a rather difficult question: Is God a reasoning being? After all, if you– with absolute certainty – know everything, not just about what happened yesterday but also about what is happening right now and, in fact, what will ever happen, that doesn’t leave much scope for head-scratching. I mean, imagine God trying to do some of the things we have problems with. Need to fill out a tax return? No need to work out the amount the tax office owes you – you already know it. Want to take your holidays somewhere nice? Ibiza is going to be great in the last week of August. Wondering where you left your keys? They’re in the left pocket of your old jacket, the one you never wear anymore. None of these questions, nor anything more difficult such as: Why is the speed of light a constant? presents him with any difficulty. There is no opportunity for him to think as he already knows everything and does not need to work it out. This means that God, if he should exist, is far less like our cognising, worrying selves than like a massive look-up table.

Given his being all-good this also leads to a further (and much more often heard) question: In what sense could God have free-will? After all, if he always knows the best thing to do and always can do it, being all-good he must do it. Of course, it might be argued that he does the best thing of his own free will, but then does he do the best thing in some sense accidentally? Could God do something that wasn’t the best course of action? I do not know the answers to these questions but it certainly makes clear to me that the idea of God is not one that hangs together very well. It seems to be cobbled from a set of idealised traits that do not actually lend themselves to idealisation. Goodness is necessarily limited. Since we exist we must act but every action has its cost, every action is the choosing of a lesser evil but an evil none-the-less. If God exists then the existence of evil shows that he faces the same limitation upon goodness. Knowledge and power are, likewise, limited. If our knowledge or power were limitless we would not be able to tell the difference between our dreams and the real world. We could not find out that we had been wrong about something, never having our presumption be brought up short by the real world nor could we find our wishes frustrated as the world would be putty in our hands. Under those conditions there would be no difference between the raving of a lunatic mind and the cold counsel of reason. Far from being a wise old man God would be more like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man – possessing amazing talents but unaware of them and less capable of coherent thought than a child.

The limitedness of goodness, power and knowledge might be seen as giving some comfort to those seeking theodicy as it goes a long way to explaining why the human condition is what it is. However, it is cold comfort as it shows that the notion of a perfect being is utterly nonsensical.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Did God turn away from that darkling place?

The other day, as I fed my daughter, I watched a news report on the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of KL Auschwitz. Seeing the documentary footage again I couldn’t help but immediately think a number of things. The first was a renewed sense of horror that something like that happened, that people did this and that, if he exists, God allowed it to happened. With my daughter lying in my arms, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like for her to go through something like that and what it would be like for me to see it happen. Finally, and not of the first time, I was struck by the fact that even after that there are Jews who believe in God fervently. I add ‘fervently’ as for many Jews going to shul is much more about being part of their community than about any real belief in a maker. The fact that the very stones in Auschwitz do not weep for those that died there is all the proof I need to know that we live in a cold and empty universe in which, paradoxically, the only kinship we might find we must look for among ourselves – the very ones who committed this atrocity.