thread: 2006-08-31 : I think my expectations are screwed

On 2006-09-07, Sydney Freedberg wrote:

1. Darwin? Verifiability?

Vincent: You're invoking "Darwinian logic" without reflection; please stop.

I plead guilty to using shorthand, but I protest my innocence about being lacking in reflection. In brief, when I say "Darwinian logic" in a sociological context, I mean, "just as Darwin's theory of natural selection states that maladapted species will go extinct without descendants, my study of human history suggests that profoundly disfunctional social behaviors will either be abandoned or lead to the extinction of their parent culture, and that even morally repugnant practices, if they persist over multiple generations, usually have or originally had some survival value." If you really want to get into this, we can, but I think it'll drag this discussion even further from any kind of coherence.

Clinton: We regard tradition in many fields, like science or our local IT department, well because it's proven. ...Neither you, nor I, nor anyone else, will ever have a verifiable religious experience. Religion is personal.

Clinton, do you see that there are the aspects of religious experience that I do have cause to consider verifiable and thus more than merely "personal," namely the impact of religious beliefs (or any belief) on individual and group behavior? Judging whether a behavior of this kind is functional or not is obviously subjective, but not much more so than a paleontologist trying to figure out why an organism went extinct based on a few fossilized bones.

Vincent again: My personal experience and an informal mental survey of my friends and acquaintances strongly suggests that traditional religion will screw you up way worse than either nontraditional religion or nonreligion.

Your friends and acquaintances are by definition a self-selected sample who have a greater than average tendency to share your own outlook and experiences, so if we're talking about verifiable aspects of religious experience, that's not an adequate population to draw conclusions from.

Likewise, as you'd expect, my friends and acquaintances include a lot of people who not only benefit from traditional, organized religion but came to Episcopalianism in adulthood as a conscious choice: roughly half of these people defected from another denomination they were unhappy with (usually Catholicism) and roughly half were nonreligious and profoundly dissatisfied with it. Interestingly, conversion or return to the church seems to correlate strongly with having young children. But I attend an Episcopal church that has its own parish school, so my anecdotal experience means jack, just like yours.

That's why I keep talking in the sweeping, impersonal sociological and historical terms you find "hollow" and "heartless."

Finally, Vincent, I'm just not worried about you in the same way I'm worried about the "bathtub chemists" with their homebrewed theologies. Yes, I'd personally be very happy if you came to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior (again, since you were Mormon), but ??? besides having no expectation that'll happen ??? your own writings about your break with Mormonism show me that you have what Meg's ritual essay called "intentionality": You really know what you're rejecting, and you've seriously thought about it. Ironically, you're far better grounded in religious tradition that somebody who goes to church a lot and wears a "WWJD" bracelet but couldn't recite the Lord's Prayer from memory or retell a parable from the Gospel.

2. Yes, I do drive a car; yes, I do celebrate Christmas.

Charles: The culture you live in would be bizarre and alien to someone from 100 years ago, so the idea that only traditions with hundreds of years of backing are okay is pretty strange. You presumably drive a car... the traditions you need to make living in this culture make sense need to be judged carefully and on case by case basis.

Raven: hey, I think it is great you're advocating the cultural/social benefits of tradition, because tradition is kind of sneered at sometimes without good reason! I also think you are overstating your case by rejecting change out of hand???

Raven, thank you. As with Vincent, I think the context of this discussion has magnified our differences and obscured our common ground.

Raven and Charles, both of you surely realize, when you're not being rhetorical, that I'm not "rejecting change out of hand" or "trying to claim that you predominantly live by traditions that are hundreds of years old"? Remember what I said in my first post (#45) that pissed people off: "scripture, tradition, and reason???.It's critical to return to the sources of one's faith and culture; it's critical to respect the tradition of all the generations that have gone before you trying to figure out the same problems; it's critical to apply your own power to think things out from scratch. Drop any one of these three and you're in trouble."

The shift towards equality for women is arguably the most important advance in human freedom in history. I probably would have been awfully nervous about it in 1960, but as I was born in 1973 I'm spared that. The rector of my (Episcopal) parish is a woman, and I love her, trust her, and have confessed to her things I have told few other people. Her two assistants are both women, the Presiding Bishop-elect (yes, she was elected) of the Episcopal Church is a woman, and I admire them all.

I would also stand with them in supporting the ordination of homosexuals as bishops, which is an issue over which the US Episcopal Church has suffered threats of secession from its own congregations and threats of expulsion from our sister Anglican churches abroad ??? but I also value the institution of the world Anglican communion, and the tradition of our unity, enough to be willing to compromise on that principle, for now.

To make it clear: I do not claim to be an idealist; and while revolutions are sometimes necessary, I'm probably not the man to make them.

Vincent: Sydney, you're treating your own tradition as the only tradition; please stop???. Your own tradition is a product of massive picking and choosing. Every single holiday you celebrate was a pagan holiday first, picky-chosen into Christianity by some human beings who liked some ideas and didn't like others. Your entire theology came piecemeal from other sources.

I'm with you up to "piecemeal": Christian theology is a pretty straight derivative of Judaism with a strong infusion of Hellenism ??? and the Hellenic stuff is often what we moderns find problematic, e.g. the tendency to disparage the physical world. The holidays and symbolism grab from all over, yes, but much of that was done on purpose by fervently Christian clergy as a conscious way of reaching out to new converts; almost all of it was ultimately processed through the institutions of the church and, over time, forged into a reasonably coherent whole.

And let me clear up a common misperception ??? that being Christian somehow means you have to think every pagan myth is a big lie, and that any pagan motifs incorporated into Christian practice constitute corruption. Absolutely not!

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis (and now I've just labelled exactly where I stand in the politics of the Anglican communion, at least for certain readers), it's the atheists who are compelled to believe that the 99-plus percent of human beings throughout history who believed in gods of some kind were simply deluding themselves. Christians are able to look at myths like the death and rebirth of the fertility-god or the sun-god, or the cosmic compassion of the mother-goddess, and say, "Yes! That's the right track! Just keep going further ??? you'll see that this road leads to Christ, and these gods turn out to be echoes of one God!" (Not all pagan myths, and not all pagan gods: Some are horrific, which is why I'd prefer people be Biblically literate Christians, or Jews or Muslims, and then read and appreciate the pagan myths from that perspective, rather than try to reinvent pagan traditions by themselves and out of context).

C.S. Lewis called some of the pagan stories "happy dreams," and many of the Church Fathers of the first few centuries A.D. actively argued to the Greek-influenced world that their mythology and philosophy prefigured Christianity and found their logical conclusion in Jesus of Nazareth. There is an active tradition in the Church of translating pagan deities into (obviously, fictional) saints, and of appropriating pagan holidays and symbolism for Christian ritual. What Christianity has to offer over classical paganism, which was often morally ambiguous and severely fragmented into local subcults, is its emphatic emphasis on a universal morality ??? of which the institution of the universal Church, and its codified traditions (there I go again!), are the admittedly flawed instrument on earth.

Which brings me to???

3. Yes, my people are bullies.

Vincent: Meg's religion has an older and more distinguished tradition than yours does, with a stronger history of doing good in the world. Mainline Christians burned Unitarians at the stake 500 years ago. (And I'd rather follow the burned than the burners, I'd a thousand times rather. Your people are bullies and have always been.)

It's absolutely true that Christians have committed horrific atrocities, and not just the cynical ones, but the sincere believers. It's absolutely true that my denomination in particular, Anglicanism aka Episcopalianism, was founded as part of a fairly cynical political power ploy by the English monarchy, starting with Henry VIII's divorces and seizure of monastic property. (I'm not familiar enough to say whether it's older or younger than Unitarianism). It's absolutely true that my church has frequently been the self-satisfied, spiritually hollow instrument of the powerful and propertied in both England and America. I'd also argue that the Episcopal Church of the USA today is liberal and afflicting-the-comfortable to a fault, in that the harm its principled stands do to the church as a community outweigh the good they do for society as a whole, but at least we're trying now.

But "mainline Christians" have done tremendous good for the world, too, like keeping some scraps of literacy and Greco-Roman civilization alive through the Dark Ages, and trying to enforce some kind of ethical standards on the warlords of the time (the "Truce of God," the code of chivalry). Our brothers in the Muslim community of scholars preserved vast amounts of Greco-Roman knowledge until we European Christians finally got ready to rediscover it in the Renaissance. I can go on, of course.

You want to try to tabulate good and evil, to weigh every crusade and jihad against every sermon for peace and every cleric counselling the local baron to show restraint? To balance those burned at the stake against those healed or fed, often by the same Dominican friars? To weigh the books burned against those lovingly copied and preserved? To deduct the indulgences and donations wrenched from the poor against the alms given to them in God's name? To decide when a priest's support for the king was supporting oppression, and when it was supporting the only bastion of security for the common people against perpetually warring feudal lords? Well, you can try. Based on my own studies, and my own obvious biases, I personally think that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have done more good in the world than evil. I may be wrong.

But the net profit or loss to date is not as important as what we can learn from the past, both to avoid and to embrace. Remember, "scripture, tradition, and reason": without the past as a starting point we're lost, endlessly reinventing wheels as we spin in place, but we have to move on ??? and make what will become tradition for the next generation to refine.

Jim Zoetewey, whom I don't even know, said something wise way back in post #33: the more power the religious group has in society as a whole, the more messed up things can get inside the group. I'd refine that to "the more unchecked power any sub-group has within a group, the more that sub-group is prone to abuse that power." Tiny institutions, like the Heaven's Gate cult or, yes, a polygamous family, can have an utter monopoly of power over the lives of their few members in a way that leads to terrible human suffering; this isn't just a problem of big institutions, by any means.

So, Vincent, I suspect that the reason Unitarians have never burned anyone at the stake is that they've never been the official religion of a government: They've never had unchecked power, they've never had power to execute anyone, they've never had political power intertwined with their religious beliefs so tightly that anyone who dissented in religion seemed a threat to the stability of the government. The best thing that ever happened to the Anglican/Episcopal Church in America was disestablishment, after the Revolution, when the new "United States" decided they wouldn't have an official religion the way the British Crown did.

4. Christ died to save me. I'm not quite sure how that works; I just know it does.

Remember, "scripture, tradition, and reason" again: I don't have to explain everything by reason alone.

"Wundergeek" (and I'd rather call you by your real name): The idea that Christ had to die to save us from sin is based on feudalistic notions that the severity of a crime is based on the dignity of the person offended???.

That's one theological explanation of why Christ's death is important. There are also theologians who talk about Christ, being both human and God, dying and rising again to blaze a trail through death to the other side in a way we humans could not do for ourselves. There are theologians who talk about God hallowing death, and making it sacred, by experiencing it Himself. There are Eastern Orthodox Christians, as you said, and others beside, who see God's death on the cross for us as the ultimate expression of how much He loves us and values us. There are probably still other explanations I'm forgetting about at the moment.

Don't confuse one explanation for the belief itself. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis again, I know that I need to sleep to survive; there are lots of scientific theories why sleep is biologically essential, but if all of them were proven definitively wrong tomorrow morning, I'd still go to bed tomorrow night. And if it's really true that God thought so highly of humanity that He became human, suffered death like a human, and then overcame death on our behalf, that is literally the best good news ("gospel") in human history.

5.  A question for Vincent.

Vincent: Personally, I don't find "so precious that God was willing to die" or "destined for eternal life" compelling, but "profoundly holy" and "of infinite worth" and "worthy of forgiveness" totally work for me.

Sincere question, not rhetorical: How does an atheist assign "infinite worth" to a human being? If you assume no soul, no God, and the heat death of the universe, humans are awfully finite.

I'm not using the word "infinity" figuratively here, but literally. As a human being, my capacity for goodness (and everything about me) and my worth ??? say, in terms of the happiness I can provide others ??? is limited too. The only way I get to infinite worth is if I, or something substantively derived from me (e.g. my soul), endures forever. Thus:

(finite but non-negative goodness of an individual human) * (eternal life) = infinite worth

I'm not saying that atheism can't provide an equally plausible equation with the same result, just that I can't see how. If you meant "infinite worth" figurativelly, that's fine; if you mean "infinite" literally, that's great, I just need to see the steps you use to get there from your premises.

Or maybe you meant what human beings are worth is inherently subjective, like whether vanilla is better than chocolate, and you personally and subjectively choose to assign infinite worth to an individual human being. That's okay, I guess, but I fundamentally disagree. If "Christ died for me" doesn't work for you, try this version:

"Good" is not an arbitrary or subjective designation, but an objective reality.

Good is not merely a reality, but the underlying force that created and sustains all reality.

Good is not merely a blind force, but sentient and capable of caring.

Good doesn't only care, it cares about you, Vincent, specifically. (And you, Meg, and you, Raven, and me, and each of us, as individuals).

Good cares about you so much that it would sacrifice anything and everything for you.

In fact, it already did.

It's a lot less elegant as a formulation, but maybe it's clearer in this particular context.


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