Friday, February 18, 2011

Traditions Today #1: Adam and Eve

How does our understandings of the stories/traditions of  our faith color the way we view, and act in, the world today?

I’m not going to approach this series too systematically but I will likely focus most on what I know best - Christian traditions and biblical stories. I want to include other religions and other traditions and will as I learn more about them, but for now why don’t we start with the beginning, at least the beginning of the most commonly held religious beliefs, the creation story, from the Old Testament. This is a story shared by Muslims, Jews and Christians – who together make up over 51% of the religious traditions in the world and about 85% of those in America.

According to a 2010 Gallup poll 40% of Americans believe that man was created in his present form, by God no more than 10,000 years ago. This is down from 55% in 2006 (according to a CBS poll)
This is more than a theological discussion. It’s a very hot political one as well. There are still stickers in text books across the country, warning that evolution is ‘just a theory’. There is a renewed push in several states to legislate that evolution be taught with more than the usual disclaimers. 60% of biology teachers are afraid to teach the theory and spend little time on it, if at all. 13 percent of the teachers said they "explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design…”

So here some questions to consider. I would really like to hear people’s answers to some of these however, if they don’t interest you but the topic does, forget them, just share your thoughts. Please and thank you!
1)      Some consider the Bible to be the inerrant word of God. Others consider it divinely inspired but not inerrant. Do you think a refutation of the literal creation story threatens the idea that the Bible is the word of God?
2)      What are the moral, spiritual lessons we learn from Adam and Eve? How can we apply them today?
3)      Do you believe in the concept of “Original Sin”. If so, can you share your thoughts on this and its impact on how you view the world?
4)      What, if anything, do feel it says about the character of God, or morality in general? 
5)      If you believe the story to be a literal, historical account – what are your thoughts on the evidence/science that counters this understanding?
6)      If you believe the story has some truth, if not literal, what do you consider it to be? An allegory – if so, of what?
7)      If you think the story has no historical validity, how would you describe its role/impact in our society? Would you like to see that role changed? How?

I want this to be a real discussion and for that to happen, everyone needs to feel they will be respected as individuals should they participate. I will not ridicule the assertions of anyone here. I may debate against them, even vigorously, but I will respect anyone that is willing to genuinely engage in the process. All serious attempts to contribute will be appreciated.

In the interest of fairness I will share my viewpoints with you as well here. If you have something to say about them, that would be great but I would rather hear about and discuss your thoughts on the story.My views will be part of any subsequent conversation anyway.

My viewpoint: I think there is no empirical evidence for the literal truthfulness of the creation story of the Old Testament. I consider it a creation myth on par with those of other faiths. I think there is some questionable morality on the part of God in this story as well. I don't think that it should be a curriculum topic in science classes, either as young earth creation theory or as intelligent design. The only place I think I has a place it schools would be in a literature or comparative religion class, the latter being one I wish we had as standard curriculum in the US, like they do in the UK.  

Thank you for reading and please leave a comment.

Teaching the controversy:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Traditions today: A discussion on how people’s cultural stories, traditions and their faith color their thoughts and how they live their lives

I want to try to start a new series of discussions here. We’ll see if anyone’s interested in it. I want to have an open, honest and serious exploration about specific foundations, tenets, dogmas of different religious traditions and faiths. I hope to specifically explore how/if they present themselves in our current culture collectively or our lives as individuals.  

I have opinions and answers of my own to the questions, as you may well have guessed, but I am more interested in hearing what you have to contribute a discussion on the topics. If enough people are participating perhaps I could simply facilitate without participating at all. – wouldn’t that be nice for you? This is a little tricky for me, actually. It’s not really fair for me to ask for YOUR viewpoints without being willing to share mine up front but I’m worried if I do that, then the conversation might be more about discussion my viewpoints and less about a general exploration of the topic. So I will share my viewpoints but first I will ask some general conversation starters. I’m quite interested in the answers to these specific questions but more so in a free-flowing discussion. So if you have something to say that doesn’t have anything to do with the questions, forget them!

I want this to be a real discussion and for that to be the case everyone needs to feel they will be respected as individuals should they participate. I will not ridicule the assertions of anyone here. I may debate against them, even vigorously, but I will respect anyone that is willing to genuinely engage in the process. All serious attempts to contribute will be appreciated.

I hope I can find topics that will inspire comments from a large variety of worldviews and belief systems. Please, if you have opinions on these take just a moment to put them together and share them with us. 

Thank you,

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing

Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years? O that he were here to write me down an ass! But masters, remember that I am an ass. Though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass. No, thou villain, thou art full of piety, as shall be proved upon thee by good witness. I am a wise fellow, and which is more, an officer, and which is more, a householder, and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law, go to . . . and one that hath two gowns, and everything handsome about him. Bring him away. O that I had been writ down an ass!  
Dogberry; Much Ado about Nothing (IV.ii.67–78)
Luckily, in my case, it has been written down....
Apparently, I sometimes come across differently than I intend. Who knew, right? How this is such a surprise speaks to my overconfidence in my writing ability. Though I must also realize that sometimes people hear what they expect to hear. I’m not absolving myself of responsibility for what I say but neither am I going to take on responsibility for the inferences of others.
I am not immune to concerns that I might have a terribly screwed impression of the situation. I’m am often second guessing myself, my perspective, my ability to see the situation clearly and by extension my position altogether. I think that’s a good thing, but it’s a hard thing - especially right now. This change in my worldview has already cost me friends. It has played a large (not exclusive, or even primary) role in the disintegration of my marriage and I hate that. (not blaming anyone - just to be clear) So to think: “What if I’m just wrong?” That’s real panic, I mean blinding fear - the kind of horror that sends the mind fleeing.  
When it comes back (my mind), I think about my position. I try to look at it as clearly and without bias as I can, and here I am again, in no time flat. There is no going back to the faith for me - at least not in any way I can see to now. No amount of fear, or wanting things to be different, is going to be able to change what is. I have wanted to believe again. It’s just not possible anymore. Like Julia Sweeney, once I tried on the glasses of “what if” there was no going back. 
I have spent at least 2 years struggling with this. Trying to decide how important it really is for me to invest in this disbelief. I could just say it’s not true for me and be done right? Do I have to recoil when I hear stories about dogmatically inspired misinformation and bigotry? Can’t I just leave well enough alone? No. I’ve already talked about why and probably will have to again, but not now.
So here we are again.
You will probably not see a big change in the way that I am writing. I don’t do this out of arrogance (at least I hope not). I am already trying like blazes to avoid miscommunication as it is, so until I get better at it, this is as good as it gets. I will still probably have to spend lots of time clarifying. I will hopefully get better at how I present my viewpoints, but I will never be able to prevent people from reading what they will into what I am saying.
Let me say one more thing. I have often chafed at my tone being called angry. The truth is that I am angry about some things. I would be lying if I said different, but I do think that some people take my anger as being directed at them when it isn’t. I hope to be as clear as I can be on this and I will try to be careful. In the meantime, if you feel at any time that I am attacking you, please just do me a favor and double check, make sure before you take offense.
Thanks for your time and attention

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

It's Offical

Making a distinction:

There is a difference between institutions and individuals.

There is a difference between Ray Comfort and CS Lewis.

There is a difference between Dr. Francis Collins and the leader of his church.

There is a difference between me and Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

There is a difference between Fred Phelps and Osama Bin Laden.

I’m sure you know this and now you know that I know it too, even if I haven't explicitly said it before. 

When I criticize ALL religions, or justifications for dogmatic beliefs than yes, I’m criticizing ALL religions. When I criticize a certain aspect of faith or dogma, I’m criticizing only those institutions or people that exhibit those aspects.

If I say Answers in Genesis* tries to teach people (primarily children) very poor science, even deliberately mislead them, then I’m talking about Answers in Genesis. If I say that institutions that teach creation science are teaching bad science then I’m talking about any institution, including Answers in Genesis*, including Living Waters**, including any other institution that teaches it, including publicly funded ‘private’ schools*** I am NOT talking about a mother telling her children that she believes in God and she doesn’t worry about reconciling the story in Genesis with carbon dating. I am NOT talking about a teacher that suggests that science doesn’t answer every important question, or points out the scientific knowledge is forever growing and changing. (Should that same teacher, representing the institution of public education, try to suggest that these things invalidate or call into question all scientific assertions, and their students should look to God instead, well now we have a problem)

So please, understand that I understand this. Please know that if I say that I disagree with a church’s stance on the issue of gay rights I am NOT leveling that criticism against every member of that church. How could I? I don’t know what their stance is. I don’t know what every person is thinking or why they choose what they do. Nor do I assume that I have it all figured out any more than anyone else. Now, does that mean that I have to give the same respect to all points of view? Certainly not. I don’t think that anyone will assert that I should. I should respect all people, as people - absolutely. But that’s not the same thing.

Do I give my mom’s opinion on string theory the same weight as say, Edward Whitten, Steven Hawking, or Sheldon Cooper - if she makes some strong points, I just might. If she says “I just know it has to be true”, then I am not as likely to respect her assertion as much as someone who can back it up with evidence and reasoned logic. There is such thing as an area of expertise. There is something of value in a carefully examined and well established position. There is a difference between “I believe this to be the case for reasons 1, 2 and 3 with these objective facts to support it” as opposed to “I believe it to be true, because of how it makes me feel to do so.” 

Does that mean every person has to defend their beliefs to me before I will respect them, no. Does that mean that I think everyone that is religious can’t make a reasoned argument for their faith? No. Do I think they should have to? No. Does someone have every right to think what they think, for whatever reason they want to think it? Of course! Do I respect them any less for doing so, No! BUT, neither do I have to respect the general mindset that faith should not be questioned or critically examined. Nor do I have to give equal weight to their assertions as well supported ones. AND when a group of similarly minded people try to influence public policy with those beliefs it’s not a private matter anymore. It’s affecting me and my family and you darn well better be able to defend it, logically and objectively without calling on a faith I don’t share.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Quotes on Religion #1: Blaise Pascal

 “Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions” - Blaise Pascal, 17th century mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic philosopher.

Point one: Before anyone of faith reads that and takes personal offense. I am NOT saying that everyone who believes commits evil. I know the temptation will be to comment with something like “I’m not evil, you shouldn’t accuse me of that.” Or “Don’t paint us all with a broad brush” I’m not. This is a criticism of the influence of religion not an examination of the morality of its adherents – they are NOT inexorably linked. I hope that is obvious but I’m finding that there is a strong persecution complex at work here. If it isn’t obvious let me know. I will devote more time to the topic.

Point two: I disagree with Pascal, somewhat. It isn’t religion alone that allows human beings to justify atrocities. I think it takes two things neither of which is exclusive to religion.
                    (1) A worldview that allows one group to identify with one community to the exclusion of another. (us and them)
                    (2) A justification for atrocities that can trump their own sense of morality.

These things are abundantly available in religious dogma, but not exclusively. It is the ready acceptance of these conditions that allowed for the horrific and secular regimes of Mao, and Pol Pot, and Stalin. It is this kind of faithful dogmatism that sustains the government of North Korea. It is this dependence on dogma, divorced from reason, which motivates skeptics to point to these political examples as being so much like religion.

A while ago I was commenting on an online article about the source for secular altruism, and the possible evolutionary roots for it. The basic premise was that there are evolutionary advantages to altruism. That self-sacrifice for the betterment of the community is probably one of the evolutionary traits that were key to our species survival when we were at a considerable physical disadvantage. It’s isn’t unprecedented, it’s common. Placing the benefit of the herd or the species above the benefit of self is a regular occurrence and well documented.* An argument against this theory was presented in the examples of altruism for those outside one’s community such as Hutu’s protecting Tutsi’s in the madness of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994**. This would seem to offer no benefit to the community/individual at all; in fact it could be to the aid of a competitor. My response was this: It was those individuals’ ability to see the Tutsi as part of their community, their human community in spite of the dogmas of ethnicity and religion (both contributed) that motivated them to altruism. As it will always be the case when people are willing to dismiss the current social/political ideals and stand up for the rights of others. This is what you saw when you saw whites march with blacks in Alabama. It is what you saw when you saw Mormons speaking out against Prop 8 and 102, something I regrettably failed to do. We need to identify, first and foremost, with our global community not a religious or political one if we are to overcome the divisive forces in our society, religious or otherwise.  

There are some that would argue that their religion actually allows us to see all of humanity as part of the same community, as “Sons and Daughters of God”. This can be true, for some it is the very reason to dedicate time and resources to combat suffering all over the world. I fully acknowledge this but with two detractions.
1.       This is a fairly new trait in any religion. Historically, religion has been extremely divisive and in most contemporary examples it still is.
2.       The cases where it is divisive, its power to divide is unparalleled. There can be no dogmatic belief that can match the urgency and imperatives of eternity and divine will. If you think your religion is an exception to this, I would suggest you look closer at the history of your church. If you are a person of faith that identifies with no religion in particular, then look deeper into your holy books. If it is a Koran, a Holy Bible, or almost any other major religious text you will see that your God is indeed a God of violent exclusivity. 

On the issue of trumping an individual’s sense of morality with the dogma they adhere to, once again religion is not alone but it is the dominant player. It is a system that defines morality that can twist it. If God is the source of morality than who are we to say any of the following were wrong?
-          The worldwide flood at the time of Noah as described in Genesis, chapters 6 to 8. From the description, it almost completely wiped out the human race including innocent children, with the exception of Noah, his wife and sons and their wives.
-          The Passover incident described in Exodus chapters 11 and 12, in which all of the firstborn of all Egypt were slaughtered. This included newborns, children, youths, adults, the elderly -- both human and animal.
-          The conquest of Canaan, in which God ordered the Hebrews to completely exterminate the Canaanite people -- again from the elderly to newborns and fetuses. This is described throughout the book of Joshua as occurring in Jericho and other Caananite cities.
-          The near extermination of the entire tribe of Benjamin by the remaining 11 tribes, triggered by the serial rape and murder of a priest's concubine by a few Benjamites. See Judges, chapter 20.
-          The slaughter of 3000+ Israelites at the hands of their Israeli brothers and neighbors by the direct order of God, when Moses found them being disloyal.
-          And many, many other examples.

If we MUST submit our will to that of the divine then, our moral compasses are of no use to us. It is “His” will that must be done.

So while I agree with Pascal in the principle of his statement I might rephrase it thusly: “People never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious or religious-like convictions” It loses some of the punch but that’s what happens, and why the more ‘careful’ statements often don’t make quotation collections.  

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Why do you need to talk about it?

Recently I’ve been asked by several people the following question:

            “Why can’t you just have your opinion and leave it at that? Why do you need to be so vocal and public about it?”

Okay that’s two questions, noted.

So why is it important? I’ve had a long time to think about that. It has been a point of deep contention for a long time and I’ve had to really examine my motivations on this. In all the time I’ve spent thinking about it I’m not sure I really know the answer but here’s what I’ve come up with so far. It’s layered…

Firstly,  It’s a HUGE part of who I am, my world view and my self-identity. I don’t know very many people (one) in my local sphere who see’s things even close to the way I do. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE else are strong, active members of their church. This blog is a way to engage in conversation on this topic with a broader base of people. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not affirmation that I’m after. I’m not here seeking out like-minds, specifically. I welcome the counter points but I don’t necessarily want them from people I have to live with, and work with, everyday. It can make things… tense. So I want to share my thoughts here and seek feedback and discussion and constructive debate. I know that it would make some people more comfortable if I wouldn’t but I won’t censor who I am anymore, for anyone. Trying to only makes things much, much worse. I know. I tried. So that’s a personal reason to write, but what about all the other outspoken anti-dogmatists? If  I had a strong vibrant local community to share these ideas with would I stop writing? No.

Which brings me to layer number 2. It’s an important thing to talk about. I think there are very real threats to not only our quality of life but our very survival embedded in dogmatic faith. I’m not just talking about terrorism, and violent “extremists.” Climate change, stem cell research, women’s heath, women’s empowerment, true charity (not church expansions), good education – these are all topics that have very real, very urgent consequences. They are also topics where dogmatic, faith-based assertions and prophets (religious or secular) distort the discussion and hinder, even retard, progress. How can we hope to develop the next generation of biologists who might find the cure for cancer if the majority of science teachers don’t agree with, or avoid teaching the foundational theory of evolution? (1) How can we affect the drastic social changes we need to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change if the end of the world is something most Americans look forward to with words like “rapture”?(2)

Let me take a quick moment here to indulge a small amount of disgruntlement. I find it a little insulting that I am asked to justify why I should speak out against religion. How do Christian’s justify sharing their “good news”? It’s something that makes them happy and they want to share it. (Same for me, folks!) Christians think that there is nothing wrong with proselytizing, in part because they see it as a service to the individuals they are witnessing to and frankly to all of humanity. Again, I feel the same way BUT I don’t knock on anyone’s door. I don’t street preach. I just make my disorganized thoughts available for the poor saps unlucky enough to stumble across them here.   

Thirdly, I think that there many people who are like I was for a long time - experiencing cognitive dissonance and all the self-doubt and self-loathing that comes with it. Worse, there are those who are fully conscious that they don’t believe but feel trapped in their religious closet by social, family, and political pressures. I hope that when more people speak out about their disbelief, the more these people will feel comfortable being open about what they really think and feel and the less they will have to live with that internal contradiction.
Finally, I think the truth should be explored, as Bertrand Russell said, with vigor. I think that this requires us to be fearless and dedicated to free inquiry. I think that religion turns off more minds then it turns on. I think that you, whoever you are, whatever you believe, would agree that knowing the truth is more important than believing a falsehood, even if that falsehood can be comforting sometimes. You eventually tell your kids that Santa isn’t real, why? It’s because it’s the truth. It’s because they shouldn’t grow up thinking that they can ask Santa (pray?) for something and count on their good manners earning it for them. If you find this comparison insulting to your faith it isn’t meant to be. It’s just meant to make the point that knowing the truth is important. 

You may not think that I have the truth, but you shouldn’t question my desire to explore it, openly and publicly or my desire to encourage those that are interested in doing the same.  


Here are some youtube folks saying why THEY are outspoken, I agree with almost don't agree with everything here but some of it makes this point much better than I can…


Laci Green. Ex-Mormon, smart cookie and sex-educator.  (Warning - small bit of language)
FSAthe1st  - not one of my favorites but this video makes the point well (warning - f-bomb right in the beginning)

Bionicdance: Makes some interesting points if you can get past the voice (warning - language)

These are longer:
Two by Sam Harris, the first is the first of a series of five that shows the whole of the talk I posted an excerpt of on my FB page. The second is not really to the point of this post but an interesting introduction to the foundation of his new book.

Richard Dawkins on militant atheism, I would like it a lot more if there was less ridicule. The points are still sound.

A little about my motivation: These are not even extremists. Fundamentalist, yes but not extremists.