Sunday, May 27, 2007

First Posted Sunday, July 09, 2006; With Further Comment on May 28, 2007

Believers and Non-believers on the Left Must Unite For the Common Good Part One: in which I come clean

It would suit me if this blog didn't have to deal with the divisive, complex and extremely personal topic of religion but the fact is most Americans believe in a God and belief has a profound impact on our politics. Religion can't be ignored or dismissed. The participation of both non-believers and believers is essential for the left to succeed politically in the United States.

I don't think that the left would come out the loser in an honest religious fight. Make that an HONEST fight, not one assuming that the imperial religion the Republican right promotes is the alpha and omega of "faith". It's not even the alpha, they, themselves, don't believe most of it but that's for later. Before going on I'm going to let you know where I'm coming from on the issue.

About religion, nothing can be objectively known. Science deals with the physical world as observable and measurable phenomena. No measurements, no science. Science is plainly the most successful way of knowing about the universe. Religion doesn't deal with what is knowable in an objective way. Religion is belief of something beside what can be physically known. Real religious belief can't be objectively passed on by reason or repeatable observations, it has to be experienced personally. Remember, I'm talking about authentic religious beliefs, not about fundamentalism or organized, dogmatic religion. This isn't an encyclopedic survey of asserted beliefs.

I believe in God. I can't tell you what that means. Again, religious belief is an experience not a logical argument that can be transferred. The experience didn't really happen to me until I'd studied non-theistic Buddhism and saw that not surviving death held no terrors. If you are gone after death then there will be no suffering and all you need to worry about is what happened while you were alive. A single life contains as much of the universe and eternity as you can experience. What is outside that life effectively doesn't exist for you. I felt very comfortable with that idea, it gave me a profound sense of peace. The Buddhist doctrine of the end of pain put me at peace with the fate of all those I knew and loved and I expected that to be the end of the search.

But something unexpected happened on the way to where this would lead. I suddenly believed in God, not the God of my youth but an indefinable though deeply felt experience. I also believed in universal salvation, of continued conscious existence, eventually beyond pain, for every sentient being.

If you want to challenge me to account for this belief I fully admit that I can't prove any of it. Anyone who pretends that they can prove it is lying. You are entirely within your rights to reject it. You are within your rights to suspect that it's a psychological aberration, an odd ball quirk of personality or some weakness. Though I hope that you couldn't find anything in my actions to support those accusations.

I don't think the worse of you if you don't believe and don't think that disbelief is a sign of moral failing. Several of the people I have respected and loved most were complete and aggressive atheists who I refuse to believe are suffering in any way due to their honest disbelief. I don't believe that honest atheists enjoy less divine favor than I do, in fact, I seriously suspect that my belief might indicate that the deity doesn't trust me to be a decent person without it. I fully accept on the basis of observable actions that complete non-believers are sometimes fully as moral or even more moral than some religious believers.

I will, however, object if you are rude or rudely dismissive while you are being skeptical of someone's belief on the bases of discourteousness and impracticality.

The practical implications of religion and the left are the subjects of this uncharted and irregular series. The belief is personal and so prone to being entirely wrong, the actions resulting from the political agenda of the left are real. As the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki might say, they are real in every sense of the word. Their reality makes them morally imperative in a way that personal belief cannot be. Religion like political philosophy and economic theory should be judged on the actions and results that arise from it, not from the idealized descriptions and assertions of it.

There, that's about all of that and you shouldn't have to put up with much more first person in this series.

Update: May 28, 2007
How naive I was. It is impossible to talk about these things, even with rigorous attempts to avoid becoming the focus of the discussion, even with this kind of pre-emptive explanation and assurance and to avoid people looking for motives beneath what was said. In what was to become the second of this series, posted here to huge controversy before the fall elections, I tried again.

I am bringing this up because I suspect there is an effort to stir up these questions just now. Articles in MSNBC-Newsweek and elsewhere might indicate an attempt to kick up a religious fight before the fall election. My interest in this is entirely in its effect on practical politics, I want the left to win this election, winning is the most important thing for the next two months. We can live with a certain level of atheist-religionist animosity, we cannot win an election with leftists falling for the bait the Republican right puts out for it. Leftists can be counted on to come to the defense of atheists who are targeted for discrimination. If atheists are in danger of life and limb, we must do that. But this all too timely row has nothing to do with life and limb. It is not pressing.

That piece was attacked by a prominent, anti-religious blogger. Her distortion of it at times resonates within the atheist blogosphere today. It has affected my efforts. I still mean everything I wrote in that post and believe that subsequent events, involving some of those who attacked me before the last election, prove some of it to have been accurate.

These issues are important in politics, that is the reason I bring them up. The subsequently dealt with auxiliary issues in the behavioral sciences and scientism are also important because they have an effect “on practical politics”.

There is a mind set in some materialists that reflexively rejects all ideas that could conceivably imply the existence of a God or anything supernatural, leading, sometimes, to quite tortured effects*. The remarkable and at times uncharacteristically emotional content of many of those rejections leads me to believe that it is more a matter of personality than it is of following scientific evidence. There are some things I don’t care if they reject, organized religion among them. There are things they can reject personally in the most derisive and bigoted language which won’t have any negative impact on the world, those also aren’t worth bothering with.

But I have to confess that there are also ideas that, likewise, cause me to become quite emotional, perhaps for personal reasons. I’m not alone in that. On one occasion Barbara Jordan shocked people by saying that she would be willing to “shed blood” to preserve the right of The People to cast a vote. Barbara Jordan didn’t say so without good reason. She wasn’t prone to empty histrionics on important issues. I will do more than just defend the basic assumption of individual rights, inherently possessed by people simply because they are people. The exercise and extension of those rights were bought at too high a price by people throughout history.

I will not ignore an intellectual attack on personal rights, freedom of thought, freedom of belief and absolute equality before the laws. Not even attacks dressed up as science. If science is incompetent to find these freedoms, history and human experience demonstrate them to be there and fully worthy of cultivation and protection. If you doubt that those are valid mechanisms to find the truth you should consider that science is also based in human experience treated in a very specialized manner to establish a specific type of reliability. Science doesn’t answer all questions. Those freedoms, unless they impinge on the freedoms of others, are absolute. They extend from the most rigorous and brilliant thinker with the greatest of hearts to the most humble of us too caught up in the struggle for sustenance to enjoy an education or a life of the mind. Absent actions that harm other peoples’ exercise of their freedoms, those ideas and the expression of them are theirs.

I will not ignore attacks on those freedoms and allow them to go unanswered. I will not follow any fashion that would lead to their endangerment or that might lead to their necessary precursors being hollowed out or undermined. That kind of fashion will get as rigorous a critique as I have it in my abilities to make.

* This excerpt from “The Atheist Ethicist” might be illustrative:

What we are looking at reasons for action that exist for and against a prohibition on pornography. Yesterday, I ruled out reasons for action that do not exist. Intrinsic value and divine rights are reasons for action that some people bring into this debate. However, these reasons for action do not exist. Desires are the only reason for action that exist.

I also ruled out desires that cannot be fulfilled. A “desire that P” (for some proposition P) is a reason for action for bringing about a state of affairs in which P is true. If P can never be true, then the desire that P cannot be fulfilled in any state of affairs, and does not serve as a reason for any action. Even if P can be true in some states of affairs, but action A will not help bring about that state of affairs, the desire that P is not a reason for action A.

I used this to throw out desires to do God’s will and desires to realize something of intrinsic value (since these desires cannot be fulfilled under any real-world states of affairs).....

Also illustrative of the wider point.

Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University known for his staunch opposition to teaching creationism, found himself in the unfamiliar role of playing the moderate. “I think we need to respect people’s philosophical notions unless those notions are wrong,” he said.

“The Earth isn’t 6,000 years old,” he said. “The Kennewick man was not a Umatilla Indian.” But whether there really is some kind of supernatural being - Dr. Krauss said he was a nonbeliever* - is a question unanswerable by theology, philosophy or even science. “Science does not make it impossible to believe in God,” Dr. Krauss insisted. “We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.”

That was just the kind of accommodating attitude that drove Dr. Dawkins up the wall. “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we - all of us, including the secular among us - are brainwashed into bestowing on religion,” he said.

There are many people who would utterly reject what Krauss, quite reasonably, said if he had been a religious believer but who might not since it says he doesn’t believe. What he said would have not been different, his “personal preference” would be used as proof that the reasoning and honesty of what he said was tainted. They don’t subject the rantings of Dawkins et al to the same rule of evidence.

Science cannot disprove the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful being. How can you design an experiment to detect the presence of a being with the power change the results of your experiment without any possibility of detection?

To put it another way: an all-knowing, all powerful God could have created the universe and everything in it -NOW! All the fossils, stars, galaxies, light that appears to have been generated by supernovaes that exploded thousands of years ago, animals, buildings, museums, churchs, Bibles, Korans, people, memories, your "permanent record", blog entries, the things I just typed... all created NOW!

Design an experiment to disprove this hypothesis.

Design one to prove it.

Neither can be done.

That makes it irrelevant to science.

That doesn't mean one or the other or something in between didn't (or did) happen.

But demonstrating it's truthness or falsity is of no interest to science because it's outside its purview.

It's a matter of faith. Which is fine. Which is where it belongs. And in which different people will have different beliefs about the whole matter.

Crucially, there are two different kinds of people in this matter: those that are willing to let others believe what they will and those who wish to force others to believe in the same way.

Oddly enough, one may find such people on either end of the belief spectrum.
I have Siamese Fighting Fish. Or more properly, I have a Siamese Fighting Fish; two of them will quickly become one of them.

They're very unusual among aquarium fish in that they know you exist. I doubt I could prove that in a reductionist sense, but they do seem to develop a relationship with a person, over and above the "it's food time" kind of thing you see with other piscines.

And they don't live very long. In fact, I may not keep them much longer, because it's just too damn sad to develop a relationship, and see them fade and die before your eyes, a senescent fish, kind of like living with a dog on fast forward.

What do you suppose such a fish thinks of me, if he (yes, he) thinks of me at all, as he seems to. I live in an entirely alien element from him. He cannot get to where I am, save by heroic leaps, and he has no real reason to believe that his leaps into air are leaps into the same element I inhabit. The top of the tank does not obviously connect to the far side of the glass if you are inside the tank.

He ages. His life passes, in his own relative time frame, the way it does. Occasionally ... and it may seem like years to him ... I appear, interact, feed or do not feed as the time (in my frame of reference) dictates, and disappear again.

I never age. He ages. For him I do not change. My clothing is probably invisible to him. My face probably a blur or an eye.

If such a one had language, what would he call me?


When we talk of Deity, why do we so quickly assume that the elusive ones who appear and disappear in our lives with such powerful effect are the ultimate ones of this universe?

Perhaps they see us so seldom because it is too sad. We age and die so quickly, and one grows attached.
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