Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

William Sloane Coffin on Socrates’ mistake

December 8, 2013
W.S. Coffin

Rev. William Sloane Coffin

Socrates had it wrong; it is not the unexamined life but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living.   Descartes too was mistaken, “Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am?”  Nonsense,  Amo, ergo sum sum – I love therefore I am.  Or, with the unconscious eloquence St Paul wrote. “Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  I believe that.  I believe that it is better not to live than not to love. 

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What do we owe the world?

September 9, 2013

The following passages are from DEBT: the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber.  

We owe our existence above all:

  • To the universe, cosmic forces, as we would put it now, to Nature.  The ground of our existence.  To be repaid through ritual: ritual becoming an act of respect and recognition to all that beside we are small.
  • To those who have created the knowledge and cultural accomplishments that we value most; that give our existence its form, its meaning, but also its shape.  Here we would include not only the philosophers and scientists who created our intellectual tradition but everyone from William Shakespeare to that long-since-forgotten woman, somewhere in the Middle East, who created leavened bread.  We repay them by becoming learned ourselves and contributing to human knowledge and human culture.
  • To our parents, and their parents—our ancestors.  We repay them by becoming ancestors.
  • To humanity as a whole.  We repay them by generosity to strangers, by maintaining that basic communistic ground of sociality that makes human relations, and hence human life, possible.

… … These are nothing like commercial debts.  After all, one might repay one’s parents by having children, but one is not generally thought to have repaid one’s creditors if one lends the cash to someone else.

Myself, I wonder:  Couldn’t that really be the point?  Perhaps what the authors of the Brahamanas were really demonstrating was that, in the final analysis, our relation with the cosmos is ultimately nothing like a commercial transaction, nor could it be.  That is because commercial transactions imply both equality and separation.  These examples are all about overcoming separation: you are free from your debt to your ancestors when you become an ancestor; you are free from your debt to the sages when you become a sage; you are free from your debt to humanity when you act with humanity.

All the more so if one is speaking of the universe.  If you cannot bargain with the gods because the gods already have everything, then you certainly cannot bargain with the universe because the universe already is everything—and that everything necessarily includes yourself. 

One could interpret this list as a subtle way of saying that the only way of “freeing oneself” from the debt was not literally repaying debts, but rather showing that these debts do not exist because one is not in fact separate to begin with, and hence the very notion of canceling the debt, and achieving a separate, autonomous existence, was ridiculous from the start.

§§§

Solitary pleasures will always exist, but for most human beings, the most pleasurable activities always involve sharing something: music, food, liquor, drugs, gossip, drama, beds.  There is a certain communism of the senses at the root of most things we consider fun.

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… the Church had been … uncompromising in its attitude toward usury.  It was not just a philosophical question; it was a matter of moral rivalry.  

Money always has the potential to become a moral imperative unto itself.  Allow it to expand, and it can quickly become a morality so imperative that all others seem frivolous in comparison.  For the debtor, the world is reduced to a collection of potential dangers, potential tools, and potential merchandise.  Even human relations become a matter of cost-benefit calculation.

Exactly so!

Goodness cannot come from fear

August 25, 2013

roused

Hat tip to The Superstitious Naked Ape.

A rationalist martyr in India

August 23, 2013

Reason has its martyrs, just as faith does.

Narendra Dabholkar

Narendra Dabholkar

Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, a brave rationalist who devoted his life to exposing fake faith healers and miracle workers in India, was murdered Tuesday.

His organization, the Maharashtra Blind Faith Eradication Association, offered a prize of 500,000 rupees to any diviner who could prove he or she could summon spirits.

At the time of his death, he was pushing for a law in Maharashtra state outlawing the practice of black magic.  My own belief is that rationalists should restrict themselves to the rational method, and not try to enforce their beliefs through government power.  There is a subtle but important difference between outlawing fraud and outlawing beliefs and practices which can be a mask for fraud.

Dabholkar didn’t see it that way.  He said his proposed law never mentioned God or religion, and did not touch the doctrines of Hinduism or any other religion.  Whatever the merits of that argument, it can be said that he never went outside the law or threatened his opponents with death.

And it also is true that religious believers in India have used the law to suppress rationalist criticism.  Sanal Edamaruku, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association, fled India to escape arrest for blasphemy because he investigated a weeping statue of Jesus in a Catholic church in Mumbai and concluded it was the result of a plumbing problem.

Dabholkar’s proposed anti-magic law, which was opposed by conservative Hindus, was in fact enacted a few days after his death, but needs approval of Parliament before it can become law.

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A hard saying of Jesus

August 18, 2013

love thy neighbor red oak road

Source: Ha! Tea ‘n’ Danger.

Hat tip to red oak road.

Religion and IQ: country comparisons

August 13, 2013
619

Double click to enlarge.

Some psychologists at the University of Rochester did a review of surveys of religion and intelligence, mainly involving North American individuals, and concluded that religious people are less intelligent on average than non-religious people.  As these maps show, there is some evidence that the same variation exists among the world’s nations.

atheism-map

Click to enlarge.

iq-map-of-the-world

Click to enlarge.

BHXCqza

Click to enlarge.

To assess the significance of these maps, you have to have an idea of just what it is that is measured on IQ tests (besides the ability to take IQ tests).

The great sociologist Peter Berger wrote that IQ is a measure of “modern consciousness,” which consists of the intellectual skills needed to function in a modern technological society.   That would explain why immigrants (including Jewish immigrants) to the 19th century United States on average had lower IQs than the natives, but the U.S.-born children of the immigrants were equal to or better than the natives.  It would explain why, during World War Two, Southern rural white men on average did worse on Army intelligence tests than Northern urban black men.  It would explain the Flynn Effect of rising IQ in each generation.

If Berger was right, it is non-modern forms of religion, not religion as such, that are correlated with lower IQ.  If he was right, IQ is not a measure of innate ability, but rather a measure of generational progress toward modernity.

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Are religious people less intelligent than atheists?

August 13, 2013

IQbyreligionA recent study by a team of psychologists at the University of Rochester concludes that atheists are more intelligent than religious people.

This is based on a review of 63 studies conducted between 1928 and 2012.  In 53 of the studies, religious people were found to be less intelligent than atheists and, in 35 of the studies, significantly less intelligent.  In 10 of the studies, religious people were found to be more intelligent, and, in only two, significantly more intelligent.

The three psychologists carrying out the review defined intelligence as the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience”.

Religiosity is defined by the psychologists as involvement in some (or all) facets of religion.

According to the review, other factors – such as gender or education – did not make any difference to the correlation between intelligence and religious belief.

The level of belief, or otherwise, did however vary dependent upon age with the correlation found to be weakest among the pre-college population.

The paper concludes that: “Most extant explanations (of a negative relation) share one central theme —the premise that religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who ‘know better’.”

via The Independent.

I have the same kinds of misgivings about this kind of study as I do about studies purporting to show IQ differences among whites, blacks and Asians or between rich and poor people.  My first misgiving is the uncertainty about what intelligent tests measure, given that they change across the generations.  My second misgiving is that, whatever they measure, the results are distributed along a Bell curve, with most of the populations overlapping.  You really can’t tell anything for sure about the intelligence of an individual based on race or religion.

The UR study is behind a pay wall, but I did a little Internet research, and the range of differences seems relatively small.  That is what I take away from the results of the study summarized in the chart above.

I have a good friend who is both much more intelligent and much more religious than I am.  She has an understanding of thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, which is far deeper than anything of which I am capable.  At the same time she is a much more spiritual person than I am.  She engages in meditation and other spiritual practices and gets a lot out of it.   I don’t do any of these things on a systematic basis.

I’m not sure which of us the UR researchers would consider the more religious person, because she is not a member of any religious group while I am a faithful attender of First Universalist Church of Rochester.

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An agnostic teaches his daughter about religion

July 28, 2013

John Scalzi is a science fiction writer who has a web log.  Some time back he posted these wise reflections about what he teaches his daughter about religion.

The reason I encourage her to learn about religion, and Christian faiths in particular, is because the large majority of people on this planet follow a religion of some sort, and here in the United States, the large majority of those who are religious are Christians of one sort or another.

I’m an agnostic of the non-wishy-washy sort (i.e., I don’t believe in a god nor believe one is required to explain the universe, but I acknowledge I can’t prove one doesn’t or never did exist) and always have been for as long as I can remember thinking about these things.

John Scalzi

John Scalzi

I don’t see being an agnostic meaning one has to be willfully ignorant about religion, nor do I see my role as an agnostic parent being one where I shield my daughter from the reality that she lives in a religious society.

Where my daughter is on her own journey of discovery regarding faith is not for me to discuss publicly, but I can say that I believe more information is almost always better. 

So when she wants to know about a particular religion or explore some aspect of faith, I encourage her to do so; when she comes to me with questions about religion, I either answer her questions (being that I know a fair amount about most major religions) or help her find answers.

Athena is well aware that I am an agnostic, and what that means, and we’ve explored that aspect of faith (or lack thereof) as well.  I won’t tell you what questions she asks about religion, faith, agnosticism and all of that, but I will tell you that she asks good questions, and for my part I answer them as truthfully and as fairly as I can.

There are a number of people who have come to agnosticism or atheism because of conflicts with or disillusionment about religion, and in particular a religion they were born into and grew up in, and others who are agnostic or atheist who feel that religion and the religious impulse must be challenged wherever they find it.

For these reasons among others I think people assume those people who aren’t religious are naturally antagonistic, to a greater or lesser degree, to those who are.

But speaking personally, I don’t feel that sort of antagonism; I don’t look at those who believe as defective or damaged or somehow lacking. Faith can be a comfort and a place of strength and an impetus for justice in this world, and I’m not sure why in those cases I, as a person without faith, would need to piss all over that.

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The Syrian conflict and gas pipeline routes

July 26, 2013

crescent

Is the revolt in Syria part of an age-old conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims?  Iran and Iraq have Shiite majorities, Hezbollah represents the Shiites in Lebanon and Syria’s government has long cultivated the Shiites.  The rebels in Syria are Salafi Sunni Muslims supported by the Sunni Muslims of Saudia Arabia, the Gulf oil sheikdoms and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But if it is part of an age-old conflict, why does this conflict lie dormant for generations and then suddenly flare up?  Pepe Escobar of Asia Times has an explanation.  He wrote that the religious conflict is being instigated to block plans by the governments Iran, Iraq and Syria to build a pipeline from the Mediterranean to the rich Persian Gulf natural gas field lying between Iran and Qatar.

Yellow lines show proposed pipeline route.

Yellow lines show proposed pipeline routes.  Dark lines are existing pipelines.

The Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline is an economic threat to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms, who are the main financiers of the Syrian revolt.  It would enable Iran to export oil even if the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf were closed.

The proposed pipeline also is contrary to the economic interests of Turkey, whose government supports the Syrian revolt.  Turkey has access to the natural gas of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.  The Turkish government’s goal is to extend a pipeline to the heart of Europe and offer an alternative to Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas.  The Nabucco pipeline could serve Iran, but the Turkish government for now has decided to deny access for now.

nabucco

What is the national interest of the United States in this?  An Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline would not necessarily compete with U.S. companies engaged in hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.  The gas would only be available to customers that could be reached by the pipeline.  But there would be no detriment that I could see to U.S. consumers.

The U.S. objection is that it would hamper the U.S. not-so-cold war against Iran, which is being waged largely in support of Israel and Saudi Arabia and partly in revenge for the U.S. national humiliation in the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979.  I don’t think economic warfare against Iran is in the interest of the American people.  I think the policy of the United States should be to wind down that war rather than extend it.

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The maldistribution of guilt

July 21, 2013

One of the things I decided at a young age was that although I would take moral responsibility for my actions, I would never let anybody make me feel guilty about what I am.

This was partly a reaction against my early religious upbringing.  I learned many good values in my church, such as respect for the dignity and worth of all persons and the duty to stand up for what is right when everybody else disagreed.  But I also took away a belief that guilt holds positive value.

At age 13 and 14, I believed, because I failed to love other people as myself and failed to love God with all by heart, soul and mind, I was a sinner and that it was because of sinners such as me that Jesus had to suffer and die on the cross.  I noticed that in the Gospels Jesus was forgiving of repentant sinners, but condemned people who took satisfaction in following religious rules.   I concluded that the best thing I could hope to be is a repentant sinner, but repentance was of no value if I took satisfaction in being repentant.

I do not claim this is an accurate account of Christian teachings.  But it is what I believed at age 13 and 14, and I do not think I was unique in these beliefs.

guilt2Guilt has a positive function.  If you feel bad about doing bad things, and good about doing good things, you are motivated to do fewer bad things and more good things.  But if your sense of guilt is so highly developed that you feel bad about feeling good, you are trapped in a Catch-22 vicious circle.

Guilt, like many other things, is badly distributed.   Some people have much more than is good for them, but those who need it the most have none at all.

I knew a woman, a person of no explicit religious beliefs, who came as close as anybody I know to being a saint.  She spent decades of her life as a volunteer teacher in New York state prisons, ministering to society’s outcasts just as Jesus did.  From time to time she would talk about how rewarding she found her work and the relationships with the inmates.  Then she would bring herself up short.  She thought that if she found pleasure and satisfaction in her volunteer work, her reason volunteering was selfish and had no moral merit.   Neither she nor anybody else benefited from this kind of reasoning.

I am highly suspicious of anybody to tries to persuade me to do or believe something based on the guilt I supposedly should feel for being white or middle-class or American.  This approach leads me to believe that the persuader has no valid argument.

I think that white guilt—the feeling of guilt for being a member of the white race—is a subconscious version of Christian original sin.  It is based not on what you do, but what you are.

I have listened to liberal white people in workshops confessing that they are all a bunch of racists.  I think such conversations reflect the subconscious notion that feeling guilty has moral value in and of itself, regardless of whether the feeling leads to constructive action.   If you are concerned about civil rights, it should be because you want everyone’s basic rights respected, not because you are trying to get rid of negative feelings about yourself.


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