Religion and Rationality

Posted: August 4, 2009 in Politics, Threat Quality
Tags: , ,

[Threat Quality Press’s first submission under our new open submissions policy, ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for the inordinately handsome and inestimably clever MOFF! –ed]

Andrew Sullivan is arguably the king of the blogosphere at present (which puts him somewhere below Braak, who is like exiled king of the moon or some shit, but above Rod Kush, who was like Nebraska’s furniture king when I was in college there).  Anyway, I confess to visiting his blog, the Daily Dish, numerous times daily, sometimes almost compulsively, even when he annoys the fuck out of me. And sometimes I email him! Sullivan posts a lot of reader email (this makes up for his not having comments, and is probably better than comments, because I suspect many of his readers are even more obnoxious than I am, and it’s nice that he neatly sidesteps the issue of all of us screaming at each other), and has even posted a couple of mine. But as I’m pretty sure he’s not going to post this one, not because it isn’t A FANTASTIC PIECE OF WRITING (it is), but because it’s been like a week since I sent it and no dice.

Anyway, as it’s A FANTASTIC PIECE OF WRITING (although not philosophically rigorous, so argue with it, of course, but take it with a grain of salt; or better yet, just agree with it and send me pictures of boobs), I have deigned to share it with you, Threat Quality readers. Send me pictures of boobs. —Moff


Man, it trips me out a little to read all the responses from atheists concerned about religion’s corrosive effect on rational thinking. Well aware as I am of the dangers posed by fundamentalism, it’s mostly a secondhand awareness, via the news; somehow, I’ve lived as an adult in the heart of the Midwest and on both coasts and encountered many fellow believers, but very few if any who thought the planet was 6,000 years old, who hated gay people, or who advocated violence or vile behavior as a means to end abortion. (And I get out quite a bit.) Obviously, fundamentalists with those beliefs do exist, but treating them as standard-bearers for all religious people — well, that flies in the face of the evidence. It’s just not rational. (I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek — I’m equally aware that many nonbelievers know there are thoughtful, intellectually honest religious people out there, too.)

I agree with the first reader here that as a Christian, I deliberately abandon rationality at times — but I only agree to a point. Ever since I was young, I’ve thought that in the greater context, my faith is perfectly rational.

For one thing, it’s important to remember that the question of God’s existence is not settled — and never will be, in these four-plus dimensions we inhabit, since by “settled” we mean “measured empirically” and the God we talk about when we talk about God is by definition immeasurable, existing beyond the ken of space and time. Sure, a bush could start burning and a presence could appear that would destroy any who looked upon it, but that still wouldn’t be proof it was God rather than, say, alien technology. (And it’s worth noting, I think, that the inability of miracles to prove anything is a subtle but recurring theme throughout the Bible — over and over, prophets and disciples are subject to visitations and impossibilities; and over and over, a few verses later, they’re hemming and hawing and disobeying the Lord again.)

Anyway, I appreciate how frustrating the “You can’t prove it” argument is to atheists (I like this cartoon a lot), and I share their antipathy toward believers who don’t understand that unprovability is central to their beliefs — but that doesn’t change the fact that you really can’t prove it. It really does become tiresome hearing someone like Dan Savage — normally one of the more intellectually honest popular writers working today — assert that “There is no God” as if the case is closed or ever could be.

That case-is-closed mind-set is maddening to me, and I think it ought be to any rational person. There’s a current of thought that seems to pop up on the atheist side whenever the believer/nonbeliever debate starts these days, this notion that “We’re past that; religion is a silly crutch; we know so much about the world now that we should let this anachronism go.” While we certainly have learned a lot since a few millennia ago, I can’t help but notice how poorly we apply so much of it and, moreover, how little of it most of us as individuals understand, and I think, “Really? You really think we’ve reached a level where we understand the universe well enough to disregard entirely the possibility that there’s a God? (And remember, no intellectually honest person can discount the possibility, whether they choose to give it any credence or not.)” We’re not even close. It strikes me as hubris of the highest order.

So the humility my faith helps instill in me is one way it keeps me rational; and yes, there are other paths to practicing humility, but as we learn more about how subjective consciousness itself relates to the fabric of reality, I also want to learn more about useful knowledge that doesn’t come from objective, empirical measurements — not because I want to disregard or eclipse empirical knowledge, but because maybe there is more to reality than what it can show us. (Or maybe there isn’t — but just assuming that, instead of trying to find out, would be irrational.)

Too, having read the recent posts on atheist Sunday School, etc., and thinking about this stuff as I sat in church today, I realized how important it really is to me to be part of what I’ll call a moral community, for lack of a better term, though the phrase is kind of loaded. Obviously, many, many nonbelievers are good people, and some I’m sure are exceedingly so. (The ratio, I would guess, is probably the same as among believers.) But it seems to me to be of great benefit to be part of an organized group whose members encourage each other not just to do the right thing, but to do more than the right thing. Our hearts, I submit, are as much in need of exercise as our bodies; and maybe, as hard as it is for most of us to exercise our bodies, especially on our own, it’s even harder to exercise our hearts without a community’s support. Too, as I said, it’s not just about doing the right thing — it’s about doing more than that, not just doing right by others, but doing right by others who don’t deserve it at all. Bad as I am at it a lot of the time, I really believe we can only make the world better not by enacting better policies but by treating each other with ever-greater love. I don’t mean that in a hippie-dippie way — I mean it’s hard work. So it would be irrational for me not to be part of a community that tries to do that kind of work.

Finally, I’ve been a believer all my life, and although the degree of my devotion has varied wildly, I’ve found repeatedly that when I need help, God provides it. Sometimes He provides it in such a way that I sort of wish He hadn’t, but ultimately, I’m always stronger and happier for it. I’ve experienced small miracles (and, like the prophets and disciples, returned quickly to my recalcitrant ways), and as I’ve always done my level best not to let my faith carry me away into dangerous territory where I infringe on another human’s rights, and to temper it constantly with questions and doubt, it feels clear to me there’s been a net benefit. Given the repeated success I’ve experienced thanks to my faith, isn’t it rational for me to keep practicing it?

I understand that many people practice religion in a manner that hurts other people (and I also don’t think I’m some kind of exemplar of healthy religious practice; the thoughts above describe ideals I aspire to and most of the time fail at). But, y’know, Sturgeon’s law holds for religious practice as much as anything else. We don’t clamor to get rid of poetry, or TV shows, or airlines, or voting rights just because 80 percent of the time these things are realized, they’re crap. (And I think atheists would be hard-pressed to argue that crappy — i.e., uneducated or misinformed — voting hasn’t, like religion, hurt a lot of people.) We recognize the demand for these things and do our best to promote those instances of them that are healthy.

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Comments
  1. braak says:

    Hmmm. I don’t disagree principally here, but I think that one of the problems with acknowledging the possibility of a God in a public socio-political forum (which is what we’re looking at with guys like Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan) is that, by acknowledging that possibility, we have to necessarily acknowledge the possibility of the moral supremacy of Judeo-Christian testament or the moral rectitude of the Catholic Church.

    One of the things that’s important to acknowledge here is that both Sullivan and Savage have an important axe to grind: they are not permitted to be married in the United States, because of people who believe that their lifestyles are a moral violation. These aren’t religious fundamentalists that have made this decision: these are regular old voters that don’t think gays should be allowed to marry.

    I don’t know if you’re aware, but I went to a Catholic graduate school, and I met many, many people there who were vehemently opposed to gay marriage. There were people at that school who were opposed to the existence of a class on the history of homosexuality.

    Not fundamentalists, not violent Christian jihadists. Regular people who went to regular Catholic school, whose faith dictates their principal action in their society, and dictates that that action should forbid homosexuality.

    How can I make an argument against this? People should demand that their government operate according to the mores of its citizenry. That, after all, is the point of a representative government. And the Bible (Paul, in particular) does have some things to say about sodomites, so it is a valid moral interpretation that homosexuality is wrong.

    We can say, of course, “well, you should just let people alone,” but we don’t treat any other moral violations that way–if I am a strong believer in, say, the Ten Commandments as a moral guideline, then I should be opposed to theft even if there is no direct or apparent victim. It is a sin for me to dishonor my parents even if they never find out about it–the moral violation is not the harm that is caused by the sin, but by the act of the sin itself. My support, then, in favor of a law preventing murder, is not to prevent the harm caused by the sin, but to prevent the sin.

    From that perspective, banning homosexuality is cognate with banning any other sinful practice.

    So, what should I do? What argument does an atheist have? I cannot directly dispute the moral supremacy of the Bible, because that moral supremacy is derived from divine revelation, and I am stuck acknowledging the possibility that “divine revelation” might be true.

    Savage and Sullivan are strongly anti-religious because they have to be; it’s the only viable position for them to effectively dispute the laws that relegate them to second-class citizenry.

  2. Chris Taylor says:

    What we’re running into as Christians is a false choice – If you’re intelligent, you’ll give up on the notion of God, if you don’t then you’re not intelligent…You want to be considered intelligent don’t you?

    It is truly maddening.

    Chris

  3. Great essay. Humans have an inherent need for mystery (as in the unknowable, not as in Agatha Christie), and when we reject all things beyond our rational ken in favor of strict intellectualism, we’re shutting ourselves off to roughly half of the experience of being alive. Activist atheism has more in common with religious bigotry than it likes to recognize.

    Here’s the way I’m fond of putting it: We are, as far as we know, the only sentient beings on a planet where life emerged against fantastically improbable odds. More, we’re the only such beings we know of in the UNIVERSE. If we are the creation of a God, then we are miraculous. If we are not — if our Earth achieved its orbit accidentally, if the lightning hit the mud with no guiding thought behind it — then we are even MORE miraculous. Either way, we have a responsibility. We’re the eyes and mind of the world. However we go about creating our much-needed “moral communities,” as Moff calls them, we should start from there.

  4. Moff says:

    @braak: Well, Sullivan isn’t anti-religious at all — he’s famously Catholic, and has written extensively about his struggles to remain in the church even as much of it denies his worth as a person because of his sexuality. And anyway, I recognize that there are plenty of people out there who aren’t nutto fundamentalists but are still opposed to gay marriage, but nevertheless, slowly but surely they seem to be losing ground. Their arguments just don’t make sense, especially given that marriage is a government institution.

    For me, that’s crucial. I mean, I really believe in the separation of church and state for both sides’ protection. I’d take “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance without a second thought if it were up to me, and swearing on the Bible in court, and all that. I think people ought to be allowed to abide by their religious moral code where it doesn’t conflict with governmental law — i.e., a church or clergyperson refusing to perform gay marriages is fine; shooting abortion doctors is not — but that, y’know, our provisions against theft come not from the Ten Commandments but from our Lockean concepts of property rights or whatever (and the commandments just happen to overlap).

    And this comes back to the humility aspect for me. As a Christian, I might believe some choices other people make are wrong, but I have to recognize that I might be wrong about that, that I don’t live in a society where everyone agrees with me anyway (and that this is probably a good thing), and that human beings are imperfect and I have to accept that the world is never going to be full of experiences that are 100 percent agreeable to me. In practice, applying those beliefs is going to get messy sometimes, but, y’know, I factor in the messiness as a function of doing business. Life is difficult. (If it wasn’t, what the fuck would be the point?)

    As far as Savage’s comment, it just annoys me because it’s bullshit, man. He’s one of the smartest people I read on a regular basis. He doesn’t need to rely on intellectually dishonest, philosophically unprovable assertions to make his argument. Especially because it just reeks of that sense you get from some atheists that they’re like pissed-off teenagers who don’t have to listen to some God-Dad tell them what to do.

  5. Moff says:

    @Chris & Jefferson: Exactly, on all counts. And I mean, I realize religious people who really advocate for intellectual honesty are not the mainstream face of belief. But it pisses me off that there are atheists running around thinking science has disproved God’s existence because they read a Richard Dawkins book, especially because I know some of these atheists and their grasp of science in general is not so notable that they should be beating their chests as proponents of rationalism. (Although I get that that’s also kind of a straw man — the idea of the angry activist atheist, complete with Dawkins reference, is becoming kind of a trope.)

    I dunno. I just think it’s pretty clear that religion is a practice, and that the actual practice of it is built in to its effectiveness. I obviously don’t think people should be forced to do it, but I also don’t think it’s rational to look at the often admittedly unbelievable tenets and simply conclude it’s nuts. There’s no perfect analogy I can think of, but people do weird shit all the time and then later on it turns out that, hey, it was really smart of them to try that.

  6. Carl says:

    I am far too exhausted at 4:30 in the morning to wade into this debate with any efficacy (which is a pity because much of what has been raised in Braak’s reply calls for a careful response– maybe tomorrow before work) but I wanted to say how well you have expressed my thinking on this subject, Moff, and how grateful I am for it. I agree with almost every line you’ve penned here. In particular, the business about the separation of Church and State and the unrelatedness of (sometimes) irrational faith (or one might be tempted to pick at Braak’s scab and say supra-rational faith) to well-reasoned law. I think that, if pressed, very few of the faithful– certainly none of the thoughtful-faithful– actually have any interest in theocratic government. We’ve tried it, its bad all the way around. That reality leads to the necessary acceptance (on the part of the faithful) of practical conflicts between the directives of faith in theory and the demands of law in practice. Divorce is a great example. Christ is exceptionally clear about divorce: you don’t do it. Grand. That’s why the orthodox Christian faiths prohibit divorce under Church law. But I don’t think you’re going to find a lot of Christians clamoring for a prohibition on civil divorce because we understand that the State and the Church have very distinct functions overseeing differing populations, necessitating the tolerance of practical incompatibilities between the two. So the moral dictates of an individual’s faith on the question of gay-marriage has no bearing, in my mind, on the absolute necessity for equality under the civil law that gay-marriage represents, any more than Christ’s teaching on divorce bears on the legality of civil divorce. The only bearing the latter teaching has is on me as a Christian individual and in my personal belief that my wife and I are married for the duration of our lives, regardless of what transpires, because I hold my vow before my God, and the convenant made to her in light of that vow, as paramount. For the record, I’m fiercely Catholic and I think of Sullivan as an exemplary model of spiritual-rationality. His simultaneous struggles with his Catholicity and with his spiritual and rational doubts strangely affirm my faith experience. He seems to rightly understand the way in which those doubts are essential to the faith. Anyway, I hope that’s vaguely coherent. To bed, to bed, its time, its time, for Carl to go now off to bed.

  7. braak says:

    Yeah, that’s right, I forgot that Sullivan was catholic.

    But all right, like I said, I’m not completely disagreeing here; I’m happy to acknowledge that there are many instances of religion which are not only not harmful, but socially, psychologically, and morally benefiicial.

    But at the same time, I can’t fault anyone for vehemently arguing against a divinely-revealed, privileged morality. And it’s not like there aren’t real, actual people who are in favor of it–the Jehovah’s Witnesses used to come to my door every day, and they were “humble,” sure, but they knew that what they believed was right, and didn’t have to acknowledge the possibility that they might be wrong even about things that they admitted they were wrong about. Now, it helps that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t vote, but the contrary position of “all religion is socially corrosive”–that is, “all religion is inherently socially positive”–is just as dangerous a proposition. I would argue, in fact, that “religion is inherently positive” is actually a more dangerous position, because at least policy based on science can have its efficacy measured.

    Zell Miller who was both a senator in our government AND the president of a college in Georgia (meaning he was charged with the education of young Georgians) is a rabid believer that the government has a responsibility for the souls of its citizenry. But how the fuck are you supposed to measure how many souls a policy has saved?

    So, let me put it another way. You, Moff, and you, Carl, you both believe in the separation of Church and State. Why?

    Do you believe it’s right that we have a system of private property based on Locke’s philosophy (or, really, based on instinct, since the basics of “private property” haven’t changed much in twenty-five thousand years)? Why? Why do you believe that it is morally responsible to base laws on the ideas of a man who might be wrong AND who you might be misinterpreting, rather than on the laws of God–which, if you are misinterpreting them, you at least know that they were right in the first place?

  8. Moff says:

    Well, yeah. I think “religion is inherently positive” is a dangerous position. I don’t know of any absolute goods except the Krabby Patty.

    As far as separation of church and state, and Locke and all that go, I’d rather have laws based on a human’s ideas because even though we might decide those ideas were wrong, at least we can decide those ideas were wrong. And then change them. Whereas if the laws I follow stem from a divine origin, there might be some room for reinterpretation, but as we’ve already seen with the gay-marriage debate, it’s tougher.

    And I’m not really concerned, as a religious person, with ensuring that God’s laws are followed — by people other than me, I mean. And contrary to what so many of my brethren and sistren believe, I don’t think I ought to be. As a Christian, I’ve got two models to look at: the Old Testament God, Who frankly is entirely capable of ensuring that His laws are followed; and the New Testament God as incarnated in Christ, whose focus (in my opinion) is a complete disruption of the top-down hierarchical model of the “Lord God Who dispenses blessings and punishment” in favor of a model where every person is given the chance to become more God-like through the practice of willful acts of love, under the understanding that they’re going to screw up while working on that but shouldn’t beat themselves up over it too badly.

    And the reason I believe in that is just because, after much deep thought prayer and a fair amount of study, I’ve concluded that’s the only way it can work. You can’t enforce real morality from the top down. You can enforce the following of rules, but that’s not the same thing and eventually will come back to bite the enforcer in the form of revolution. We can’t revolt against God the same way we can against an oppressive government, but nevertheless, I think (in fact, I’m pretty sure) what He wants is not for us just to get in line with a bunch of rules, but to grow into our own understanding of why the rules are important, so that we follow them honestly and wholeheartedly.

    I mean, that’s just how people work. You can change others; you can only change yourself. And I have to believe that if there’s an omniscient Being Who is actually interested in our welfare (and Who, moreover, created us), He/She gets that.

  9. braak says:

    Which is a fine and good way to conduct yourself, but then it leaves the matter of god up to an issue of personal choice. I read somewhere….oooh, shit, I don’t remember where or who…it was a 19th century Bishop who argued that, even if cameras had been present at the resurrection, they would not have recorded anything. This is because the essential nature of the faith is that it must be done without proof. Believing in something that you have proof for is just regular old science. Therefore, we must accept that there is no definitive proof for the existence of god in the four walls of universe, and therefore each of us just gets to decide. You decided yes, I decided no, that’s fine.

    But let’s say that one of us is Zell Miller. Let’s say me, I’ll pretend to be Zell Miller. “RAARGH! I am a crazy douchebag! I think everyone should be Christian, because America is a Christian nation! I have access to a privileged morality that I know for a fact is correct!”

    Responding to this with “We should base laws on philosophy, because then if they turn out to be wrong we can change them” is no good–I know that my laws aren’t wrong. And responding with, “You can’t enforce morality from the top down” isn’t any good, either, because included in my laws is the compulsion that we SHOULD be enforcing morality. If I’m Zell Miller, I probably have a bible quote that supports that.

    And it’s really hard to argue against a believer with, “can’t you acknowledge the possibility that you MIGHT be wrong?” Because…well, for a lot of reasons. For one, public arguments are a kind of performance, and having a stronger position makes you look like you won. For two, the psychology of super-believers is often one that sublimates fear and uncertainty into increased fervor; so, the more thoroughly you question something, the more thoroughly the believer believes.

    What options do you have? I am personally of the belief that omnipresent calm discourse and the vast sea of information in which we live will, gradually, erode the bedrock of fundamentalist belief–it’ll take two or three hundred years, probably, but in the end it’s guys like you and Carl that will be left, and not guys like Zell Miller.

    But for some people–namely the ones who have a vested interest in government policy regarding their civil rights–an effective tactic seems to be to purposefully marginalize and demonize fundamentalist belief as being the product of idiocy, ideally causing a fracture among “religious people” along the calm and rational / rabid and fervent lines, ensuring that people like Zell Miller represent increasingly marginalized philosophical communities and thereby weakening their control over the government.

    I don’t know if this is working. I do know that a lot of changes in government and civil rights in the last couple years have been concurrent with a rise in awareness and respectability for atheism. Whether this is just a coincidence or is the direct result of the existence of fervent atheists, I have no idea, and I suppose only time will tell.

  10. braak says:

    Also, I put a twitter post up, and am now being followed by both Almighty God and Deny Religion.

    Whoah!

  11. Moff says:

    Well, life is difficult. Regarding Zell Miller, as Jesus himself put it, “The douche bags you will always have with you.”

  12. I actually had a longtime friend who — upon hearing my arguments that the Gospels were actually written long after Jesus died, by Greeks rather than Hebrews, and carefully culled by the early church to give a unified message — said, “You’re not the person I thought I knew,” and never spoke to me again. Years later, I don’t really know which of us was wrong: her for denying scholarly fact in favor of dogma, or me for challenging her dogma in the first place. We got along fine until then, from our different frames of reference, and need never have broached the topic.

    Braak: I’m guilty of RTing your tweet directly to Almighty God. We’re tight like that.

  13. Andre says:

    Just wanted to say this is a really thoughtful discussion, and I really appreciate everything being said here. In particular, I like how you (Moff) pointed out that religion is subject to Sturgeon’s Law just like everything else.

    It’s certainly foolhardy to believe that something like religion is inherently good or morally infallible, but the opposite view–that religion in any form is inherently and irredeemably bad–seems equally foolhardy. Absolutism in any form is irrational, but unfortunately it seems to get all the press, and thus moderate voices are usually lost amidst the shouting of fanatics on both sides. So, it was refreshing to find this page.

    I’ve never figured out how to properly argue with an absolutist, like this Zell Miller that Braak mentioned… I don’t really think that you can argue with people like that. All you can really do is discredit them by pointing out how comical they are, and otherwise refuse to deal with them.

    The other thing you can do is encourage people to think for themselves, and to embrace complexity. It really helps to look at those other religions and discover how they solve the same moral problems we all face. As Joseph Campbell said in The Power of Myth, if you want to understand your religion, look at someone else’s.

    (Come to think of it, the same thing applies to economics, or probably anything else: for example, private property rights aren’t necessarily universal or based on instinct–various hunter-gatherer cultures have radically different views on property. It’s just that modern economic theory likes to pretend it’s the only game in town).

    Anyway, the best solution to reducing absolutism is not really to confront it, but to erode it with as broad an education as possible. I had a prof in university who introduced me to meditation and Eastern philosophy–but he was raised a fundamentalist Christian. He said he “woke up” after reading Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, and suddenly realizing that there were other ways of viewing the world.

  14. Carl says:

    braak Says: You, Moff, and you, Carl, you both believe in the separation of Church and State. Why?
    Do you believe it’s right that we have a system of private property based on Locke’s philosophy (or, really, based on instinct, since the basics of “private property” haven’t changed much in twenty-five thousand years)? Why? Why do you believe that it is morally responsible to base laws on the ideas of a man who might be wrong AND who you might be misinterpreting, rather than on the laws of God–which, if you are misinterpreting them, you at least know that they were right in the first place?

    As far as separation of church and state, and Locke and all that go, I’d rather have laws based on a human’s ideas because even though we might decide those ideas were wrong, at least we can decide those ideas were wrong. And then change them. Whereas if the laws I follow stem from a divine origin, there might be some room for reinterpretation, but as we’ve already seen with the gay-marriage debate, it’s tougher.
    And I’m not really concerned, as a religious person, with ensuring that God’s laws are followed — by people other than me, I mean. And contrary to what so many of my brethren and sistren believe, I don’t think I ought to be. As a Christian, I’ve got two models to look at: the Old Testament God, Who frankly is entirely capable of ensuring that His laws are followed; and the New Testament God as incarnated in Christ, whose focus (in my opinion) is a complete disruption of the top-down hierarchical model of the “Lord God Who dispenses blessings and punishment” in favor of a model where every person is given the chance to become more God-like through the practice of willful acts of love, under the understanding that they’re going to screw up while working on that but shouldn’t beat themselves up over it too badly.

    I think Moff handled this superbly: it isn’t my job, or that of the State, to enforce my brand of spiritual morality on anybody— even those who agree with my brand of spiritual morality. If I’m concerned about the moral state of society, I’d be better suited to live the best possible life I can in the model of Christ and try to touch those around me personally and positively, hoping that the aggregate of my lived-Christianity (to whatever extent I can make that happen) will inspire others to give those views a look. If I want a civil society that reflects my views, it can only be achieved bottom-up, not top-down. That’s Christ’s example, right? That’s the appropriate way to advance your beliefs; “by this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” not “…if you game the system well enough to enforce rules that you think originate in my teachings.” I also think its worth noting that, historically, we’ve TRIED basing laws on rules that religion comes up with in interpreting revelation— it fails miserably. And that makes perfect sense: “my kingdom is not of this world.” Even if revelation is perfectly communicated in an unflawed way (which I am inclined to think it is not, as it is necessarily interpreted through a finite, human medium), we aren’t God and cannot judge perfectly as He can. Our law is rigid and finite, like we are. His law is supple, all-knowing, and infinite, like He is. How can you possibly expect to implement the latter through the former? It’s inadequate to the complexity of our circumstances and, ironically, brings out the worst in those charged with the task of governance. My Church learned that the hard way. And that’s why Catholic clergy in the United States and western Europe aren’t allowed to run for public office.

    Moff Says: Well, yeah. I think “religion is inherently positive” is a dangerous position. I don’t know of any absolute goods except the Krabby Patty.

    Agreed. I’m opposed to these sort of absolute statements in general. “Science is inherently positive” is an equally dubious claim. Both things, and any thing, in fact, that human beings get their hands on, is going to be a mixed bag because, well, we’re a mixed bag.

    I am going to part ways with you, Moff, on the matter of whether or not God has a role to play in civil society. For my part, I believe He has one single, narrowly-defined function as the conceptual guarantor of the rights on which the system is built. We all know how careful the founders were to employ only deist language in their writings, acknowledging the existence of a higher power but intentionally avoiding any discussion of the details of that Power, so as to prevent any slippage by the State into the universe of the Church. This placement of God as the source of the basic unalienable rights on which the system rests is absolutely essential, as far as I’m concerned. Rights conferred on man by man through reason are not, by definition, reliable and permanent. The prevailing reason of a particular moment in the history MAY lead us to the conclusion that ‘all people are created equal’, but a different moment in history may lead us to the opposite conclusion— that any group, on the basis of any feature of that group, may, due to reason, be viewed as less equal and so denied basic rights. Rights that have a scientific rather than divine origin could easily lead to the conclusion that persons, say, with Down Syndrome, or who don’t meet a certain physical or intellectual quotient don’t qualify for rights based on the drag they create on society, ala Nazism. Only an unchanging, unalterable source can confer unchanging, inalienable rights because, well, those qualities reflect His nature rather than ours. So I would probably disagree with you about the Pledge (though, I agree, we have no business swearing on Bibles. That’s far, far too specific). I’m even alright with a non-denominational blessing that asks for wisdom here and there. But if God bleeds out beyond those bounds into other realms of civil society, you’re in serious trouble.

    Moff Says: Well, yeah. I think “religion is inherently positive” is a dangerous position. I don’t know of any absolute goods except the Krabby Patty.

    Agreed. Of course, I’m opposed to these sort of absolute statements in general. “Science is inherently positive” is an equally dubious claim. Both things, and any thing, in fact, that human beings get their hands on, is going to be a mixed bag because we’re a mixed bag.

    I don’t remember where or who…it was a 19th century Bishop who argued that, even if cameras had been present at the resurrection, they would not have recorded anything. This is because the essential nature of the faith is that it must be done without proof. Believing in something that you have proof for is just regular old science. Therefore, we must accept that there is no definitive proof for the existence of god in the four walls of universe, and therefore each of us just gets to decide.

    The wisdom of unnamed 19th century Bishops notwithstanding, I am going to have to go ahead and disagree with this statement to a certain extent— at least, in an ultimate sense. If cameras had been present at the resurrection you would CERTAINLY have seen something, I suspect. Evidence for God’s existence may very well exist within the four walls of the universe— and it may not, quantifiably— we have to wait and see. This doesn’t have direct bearing on my experience of God and knowledge of His working in my life, but it’s an important theoretical point.
    If history is understood as a multiplicity of unfolding parallel narratives of information, nothing that is ‘True’ can ultimately, empirically, directly contradict anything else that is True, once all the information is made available at the conclusion of history. So if the revelation of the Truth of God is an unfolding narrative in history and the rational discovery of the nature of the physical universe as understood through science is an unfolding narrative in history, at some point the two must be shown to be, not parallel but, in fact, intersecting, otherwise one cannot be True, as I believe they are. I suspect that contradictions between divine and scientific revelation are illusory, which will be made clear when all the evidence is in at the conclusion of the human-event. If the Second Coming ever happens, I am convinced Christ will reign (to borrow, with embarrassment, from Billy Joal) in an age of Science and Poetry, not ignorant, draconian despotism. Certainly astrophysics and quantum physics seem to point towards the probability of divinity, though they PROVE nothing as of yet. Though if they could, the narratives that make up history would have run their course and this existence would be over, so let’s thank the heavens that that illusive proof hasn’t yet emerged and the great beauty that emerges from uncertainty is still possible.

    I am personally of the belief that omnipresent calm discourse and the vast sea of information in which we live will, gradually, erode the bedrock of fundamentalist belief–it’ll take two or three hundred years, probably, but in the end it’s guys like you and Carl that will be left, and not guys like Zell Miller.

    One would hope. The difficulty here is that the faithful are an enormously large group who clearly don’t encounter either life or God in a uniform way. One of the benefits of religion is that— at least in my faith tradition— it works both experientially and intellectually and, so, can answer the needs of wide variety of kinds of people who, otherwise, wouldn’t have a lot to say to one another. But it makes discourse hard and leads to stratification within the community. Thus, historically, a small, well-educated clergy steeped in the Greek and Christian intellectual traditions and self-appointed to wrestle with the most complex questions that human existence raises, and a large, poorly educated and frequently intellectually-disinterested laity for whom experiential faith is all that is needed or desired. Thank God for the reformation, which broke the dysfunction that stratification created.

    I don’t know if this is working. I do know that a lot of changes in government and civil rights in the last couple years have been concurrent with a rise in awareness and respectability for atheism. Whether this is just a coincidence or is the direct result of the existence of fervent atheists, I have no idea, and I suppose only time will tell.

    I think a very strong argument can be made that the history of the 20th Century shows the exact opposite of what you’re claiming here, my friend. But I can’t make it now. Maybe later.

  15. Carl says:

    Sorry about the duplicate stuff. There’s a lot of commotion at the house at the moment. Oh well.

  16. Moff says:

    @Carl: Yeah, I think (or have inferred, from your comments and similar ones I’d heard beforehand; I’m not so well versed in this stuff) it’s tricky to come up with a foundation for basic, inalienable human rights without God. Or at least, it’s much, much easier with God. Informally, maybe you could make a case that every human life is valuable because our environment (the situation around us, I mean; not in the Earth Day sense) is constantly in flux, and so it’s impossible to know which genetic conditions and predispositions might not prove exceptionally useful down the line?

    I definitely agree with “I suspect that contradictions between divine and scientific revelation are illusory, which will be made clear when all the evidence is in at the conclusion of the human-event.” Like I suggest in the post, I just think we know so little, and that it’s entirely possible there are thousands or millions of years of the human-event left to play out — it’s not like we have a tightly analogous situation to compare it against. The miraculous becomes ever more mundane (if not less magnificent) the longer we go on.

    (My life gets very busy from about this point on through Saturday — I’ll be road-tripping on a work assignment — so if I don’t reply to further comments, it’s not because I don’t want to! Thanks to Chris for posting my writing and everyone for the awesome discussion.)

  17. Paul says:

    Atheists – especially those familiar with the scientific principal – are forced to admit that we can’t prove there is no god. But in a practical sense, the case is closed. To me, saying “there is no god” is equivalent to saying “there is no Santa Claus” or “there is no invisible pink unicorn”.

    Believing in a god is not rational. Spirituality might be explainable in biological or genetic sense, but it is not rational. I don’t understand how intelligent people with analytical minds, can look at the mountains of evidence on one side and the zero evidence on the other, and still choose religion. In no sense does that seem rational to me.

    We have so much better explanations for the world and universe now than those our distant ancestors came up with. Science has provided us with answers that are a hundred times more interesting and awe inspring than “an inivisible man in the sky did it”.

    The reason most people are believers is undoubtedly because their parents were. They are indoctrinated into a belief system by parents who were similarly treated.

    Religion is an anachronism we no longer need. Perpetuating those superstitions retards humankind.

  18. Paul says:

    Moff wrote: “I think it’s tricky to come up with a foundation for basic, inalienable human rights without God.”

    This is nonsense. Evolutionary theory has perfectly good explanations for morality. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_of_morality

    The Bible is full of passages commanding behaviour that would be considered immoral and intolerable today. Of the ten commandments, only two are considered important enough to remain enshrined into modern law.

  19. braak says:

    Well, I’m disappointed if God has permitted direct evidence of his existence in the world. A universe that can run without his direct intervention ought to be fundamentally indistinguishable from a universe that does not require divine involvement. The very nature of the universe should preclude proving the existence of God.

    Moreover, it just doesn’t seem fair. Some people get to see miracles; the rest of us are supposed to believe all that on hearsay?

    And, Carl, I would argue that “science” is, in fact, inherently positive, provided we’re limiting the definition of “science” to “rigorous inquiry of the unknown.” As much as I love H. P. Lovecraft, I don’t really believe that there are secrets out there too terrible for the human mind to comprehend. Inquiry is always good; the results are sometimes misapplied. But this is like saying, “I’m not sure that I think ‘life’ is positive. After all, some people use their lives to kill other people. Also, what about the pacific box jellyfish? That thing is fucking horrible.”

    I’m moreover going to have to disagree, to a point, with your assertion that astrophysics and quantum mechanics are pointing to the existence of a divinity, without a much, much more specific definition of “divinity.” I try to stay current in my scientific reading, and I can’t say that I know of any discoveries suggesting the existence of a conscious influence in the super or sub-structures of the universe. Furthermore, traditional definitions of God, which include an infinite being and an infinite consciousness, preclude any kind of scientific measurement. Science has finite tools; anything science finds must, by definition, not resemble the God that is so defined.

    As to the nature of “inalienable human rights”–well, I don’t know an atheist could believe in those either, except I do. I mean, just practically speaking it seems ridiculous to build a government based on anything else–otherwise the lives and livelihoods of the citizenry would be subject to the whims of the electoral process. For a healthy, functional nation, there must be some laws, some foundational principles, that cannot be countermanded. I think you’re using a kind of illusory retroactive projection–the Jefferson et al. must have believed in an active beneficent deity because there’s no reasonable way to believe in human rights without the pre-existing belief.

    Finally: Paul: Your opinions are noted and your conversation is welcome, but we are doing our best to have a civil discourse here, so please try to avoid getting huffy.

  20. braak says:

    @carl:

    Also, wait a minute. Not the history of the entire 20th century–just the history of the first half. Up until the 60s, being an atheist was the same thing as being a Communist; there were, what five avowed atheists in the US then? And, indeed, the Civil Rights movement began in the churches, but it took hold in government at a time when the idea of “humanism” was no longer anathema–saw some setbacks in the 80s, when the Religious Right re-emerged to reclaim the government from secularists, and is returning now at a time when there are more avowed irreligious people in the US than at any point in history. I’m not saying that atheism or irreligion is the cause of civil rights, only that the philosophy permits a flexibility in government that was heretofore unprecedented.

    And, while we’re on the subject, just how did the Catholic Church fail as a governing body? You obviously know the history better than I do, but it seems to me that it was the only organizing principle in Western Europe for centuries–and, in fact, there wouldn’t even be a Western Europe without it. The Church’s major failures seem to be a product of the Church abandoning its core values–that is, by offering religious salvation for the elect instead of the masses, they ended up on the wrong side of both the French Revolution and the Protestant Reformation. That’s a failure of principle that’s not, in any way, different from any other chartered government.

    And, finally: I still think that you and Moff are making a morally-centered government. By acknowledging that the inalienable human rights come from God, you are taking a divine morality (that human life is sacred) and making laws to enforce that morality. Why draw the line there, and not somewhere else?

  21. Carl says:

    Moreover, it just doesn’t seem fair. Some people get to see miracles; the rest of us are supposed to believe all that on hearsay?

    Agreed, though I premise my belief in a benevolent God on the notion that the experience of Divinity is available to anyone who actively, persistently seeks it. You may not see the sea part or a witness a resurrection (and then again, you may), but you can certainly come to a clear, palpable awareness of the Other moving you, strangely, to thoughts and deeds that very clearly do not originate in your own psyche. If this was not the case and it turned out God was just going to play favorites, as the Hebrew God did, for all eternity, I’d have to cast my lot elsewhere.

    Braak: And, Carl, I would argue that “science” is, in fact, inherently positive, provided we’re limiting the definition of “science” to “rigorous inquiry of the unknown.”

    I am inclined to agree with this statement, taken at face-value. Of course, ‘rigorous inquiry of the unknown’ doesn’t occur in a vacuum and it’s difficult to limit ‘capital-s’ Science— the grand, new, exalted cosmology-morality-philosophy that you would have sit at core of the human experience— to that narrow definition. Inquiry of any kind is conducted by human beings immersed in a particular culture who frequently have agendas, conscious or unconscious, and who have undergone experiences that color the way in which that investigation is undertaken and how the results are analyzed. If we going to insulate the theoretical idea of science from it’s practical consequences, maybe the same should be done for religion. So the Carl version of what you just wrote reads “I would argue faith is, in fact, inherently positive, provided we’re limited the definition of ‘faith’ to ‘awareness of, and humility before, the existence of powers larger than the individual human being’.”

    The comparison to the question of Life is a strange one. Life cannot be inherently positive or negative because we have nothing with which we can compare Life to in making a judgment about how we perceive it use— it just IS. It’s the baseline and so can only really be thought of in neutral terms. But we do have competing systems of perception, experience, and analysis that produce differing results and make possible a discussion of what is positive and negative.

    I’m moreover going to have to disagree, to a point, with your assertion that astrophysics and quantum mechanics are pointing to the existence of a divinity, without a much, much more specific definition of “divinity.” I try to stay current in my scientific reading, and I can’t say that I know of any discoveries suggesting the existence of a conscious influence in the super or sub-structures of the universe. Furthermore, traditional definitions of God, which include an infinite being and an infinite consciousness, preclude any kind of scientific measurement. Science has finite tools; anything science finds must, by definition, not resemble the God that is so defined.

    This needs an extended conversation; I can’t crack this one now. (Geez, I have, like, what, five similar, pending discussions clogging up the drain here? I need more free time in my life, that’s what that means.)

    I mean, just practically speaking it seems ridiculous to build a government based on anything else–otherwise the lives and livelihoods of the citizenry would be subject to the whims of the electoral process.

    “I just do” doesn’t seem nearly good enough to me. And the entire history of humanity can be seen through the prism of governmental abuse of individual rights, so its matter not of ‘if’ but ‘when’ the sea-change comes and we undergo another madness of the masses. Go back and read what was coming out of Volkish movement and the Thune Society before Nazism blossomed. Rational humanism was the catchphrase of the day and they believed themselves deeply rooted in reason, in the best interests of the species, and back up by the best science of the day on the subject of genetics and evolutionary theory. I say again, rights conferred on men by men are not inalienable and will, over time, when they become inconvenient to those men granting the rights, be swept away. Only if the whole populous sees their common rights as flowing from a greater, unchanging source can those rights be assured.
    I admit to making a morally-centered government, with the only divine moral being the value of human life and the rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To the question of where to draw the line and why? I think it’s pretty clear. Inalienable rights cannot flow from man. But beyond the acknowledgment of God as the source of those rights, there is literally no agreement (due, as a matter of fact to lack of empirical evidence)— even within denominations— even within households— about what God is, or wants from us. Even if we could agree on those questions, we have demonstrated historically that there is no way to make rigid human law that can encompass the supple, omnipotent nature of the answers. That’s why the founding documents consciously take that deist tone. Essentially, we get what we collectively need from God to make possible co-existence and leave the discussion of religious details to the interior spaces of our houses of worship, homes, and selves.
    As far as the Church goes, re-read what I wrote. The failure is not one of principal— it’s a misunderstanding of the role of religion in human existence all-together. Religion is human institution reflecting a particular, limited community’s beliefs about revelation from a God who’s “ways are not our ways.” The origin of separation of Church and State is, comes, in fact, from Augustine and, ultimately, Christ. “Render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s, render unto God what is God’s.” The pagan (read Greek, Roman, Eastern) and Jewish systems of overlapping theological and civil authority fails to recognize that the two systems demand very different things from their respective citizenries. Augustine writes about the dual and differing responsibilities of the Christian to the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Men and the Church fucked it up when it let those two overlap and this is the very reason that Christians HAVE TO acknowledge that civil law CANNOT reflect (and must frequently conflict with) religious law— if they do otherwise, they disavow their own intellectual tradition, IMHO.

  22. braak says:

    In the first place, I don’t think that’s a very good definition of faith at all, and moreover encompasses a lot of things that aren’t particularly conducive to an analysis of faith. Elephants are powers larger than me, and certainly I have humility in the face of an elephant–I recognize that, in a fist fight, an elephant could, IN THEORY, get the better of me. And yet, it seems to me that there are some crucial differences between my faith in elephants and your faith in God. Are you positing that the term, in this case, is purely interchangeable?

    I don’t know, I think there’s a strong argument for, and a lot of support for the idea, that life is inherently positive. As a condition opposed to a simple non-condition, it seems like it’s one of the few areas of the human sphere that can be described as being inherently positive. I should think that, from a religious perspective, the idea that “being alive” is better than “not being alive” is actually an even-more-strongly grounded one: since I, as a dastardly heathen, have no conception of the sacred, I have nothing with which to invest life to elevate it as being arbitrarily distinct from everything that is not life.

    I am familiar with some of the original philosophies of the Thule Society, though I don’t think it’s fair to posit that faith and religious belief would have in any way circumvented that. Especially considering that, Nazism as it existed in Germany at the time, was pretty clearly a purposefully-constructed religion that replaced God with Hitler.

    The problem with positing inalienable rights that are granted by God is that those rights are never (or, at least haven’t been at any time in human history) actually enforced by God. God does not confer inalienable rights; human beings just say he does. The fact that the founding documents suggest that these inalienable rights come from God is largely irrelevant: it’s not as though, throughout history, the Catholic Church (and many, many other churches) have never changed their minds about who got what rights and when, and God certainly doesn’t take the dramatic steps to stop them that he purportedly used to. Politics has never not been subject to faith; nor has faith ever been immune to politics.

    I think you’re also defining religion too narrowly in this argument:

    Religion is human institution reflecting a particular, limited community’s beliefs about revelation from a God who’s “ways are not our ways.”

    I think there’s a handful of things that should rightly be called religion that aren’t part of that. And besides all that, if that definition WERE true, then doesn’t that mean that a church’s sole responsibility is to look to the discussion of that revelation? Why is it all right for the church to engage in the politics of social justice–feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, employing the jobless, spreading health and good will along with their missionary work? Why isn’t that solely the task of politics, or of individuals?

    But, if a church does have a responsibility, by virtue of itself as a body emulating the example of Christ, to engage in this kind of social activity, and it also has the authority to comment on what behaviors are moral behaviors and what are immoral behaviors, then the only difference between the church and the government is the latter’s monopoly on the use of force. And if that’s the case, then I ask again, why shouldn’t it take a monopoly on the use of force? If feeding the poor is a way of serving Christ, then why isn’t enforcing the law?

  23. braak says:

    And, in fact, my belief in inalienable human rights is a function of my faith, exactly the way that yours is. I just have removed the additional step of “God” in my reckoning.

  24. Carl says:

    I don’t think that’s a very good definition of faith at all, and moreover encompasses a lot of things that aren’t particularly conducive to an analysis of faith. Elephants are powers larger than me, and certainly I have humility in the face of an elephant–I recognize that, in a fist fight, an elephant could, IN THEORY, get the better of me. And yet, it seems to me that there are some crucial differences between my faith in elephants and your faith in God. Are you positing that the term, in this case, is purely interchangeable?

    First, I happen to think it’s a spectacular definition, thank you very much, if a touch muddied by the fact that I was consciously trying to mimic the one you provided. But here, easily clarified.

    “…provided we’re limit[ing] the definition of ‘faith’ to ‘AN EXTRASENSORY awareness of, and humility before, the existence of powers larger than the individual human being, (RESULTING IN A PROFOUND EXPERIENCE OF AWE’).”

    You might not even need that last addendum.

    No, we’re not juxtaposing Science with the basic definition of faith as Webster would have it (“the confident belief or trust in the truth or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing”) but as a synonym for spirituality— Faith(fullness in a greater power than the self). By the way, it SHOULD be much harder for me to come up with a concise, innocuous definition for Faith than it is for you to do the same with science since science can lean on easy, universally understood empiricals even in defining itself. So, yeah, seeing something, like an Elephant, and rationally processing its physical superiority alone doesn’t qualify as faith. There is a psychic component of awe involved in spirituality. That said, droves of human beings have worshipped animals of all kinds throughout spiritual history, presumably beginning with a rational awareness of the physical superiority of the thing and then leading to a kind of spiritual misidentification of the thing with the inborn psychic awareness (I believe, and the numbers suggest) we all have of a greater Spiritual Power. So, dismissive example notwithstanding, you have unintentionally hit pretty near the mark, there, Chris m’lad.

    I don’t think that, at face value, anything is lacking from my definition. Spirituality ought not be confused with religion for the purposes of this conversation. The gods that inspire Faith need not be my God— the God that I believe the unfolding revelation narrative of human existence is continually bringing into focus— but can be just about anything that triggers that awareness and awe. Many faiths revolve around corporal, petty gods, rather than omnipotent, omniscient perpetual and perpetually-generating sources of Good and Being, as we tend to think of god in the (post)Christian West. The ancients worshipped stars. Rivers and trees. Their own penises. Their dead relatives. Some people today genuinely worship the physical earth. The new-age folks worship the mind or whatever. All faith, all falling under my definition. Once you start getting into the details of gods and the kinds of faith they produce you’ve gotten beyond the analogous, very-limited definition we were after.

    I don’t know, I think there’s a strong argument for, and a lot of support for the idea, that life is inherently positive. As a condition opposed to a simple non-condition, it seems like it’s one of the few areas of the human sphere that can be described as being inherently positive. I should think that, from a religious perspective, the idea that “being alive” is better than “not being alive” is actually an even-more-strongly grounded one: since I, as a dastardly heathen, have no conception of the sacred, I have nothing with which to invest life to elevate it as being arbitrarily distinct from everything that is not life.

    Somehow, thankfully, and against all logic, we arrive at the shared conclusion to a question that we should be on opposite sides of, Chris. Of course I entirely agree that life is positive, but since I arrive at that conclusion through the very means you describe— the awareness of the Other and imbued sacredness of everything It generates— my personal feelings on the question shouldn’t really enter into a rational discussion of the inherent (empirically demonstrable) value of existence. Reasoning without that faith-based assumption, as you do, I arrive at the conclusion I gave above and which I assume you should share: life cannot be demonstrated to be either positive or negative, but only… let’s say… IS-itive. But if PRESSED to a choose one or the other, beginning with the premise that there’s no God and that the entropic universe truly exists without ‘capital-p’ Purpose, and noting that the sun is going to eat the earth in 5 billion years in advance of the whole meaningless sha-bang cooling out and stopping completely and everything which has occurred during the lifetime of existence in fact amounts to Nothing and is gone Forever, and if (as atheists frequently claim, beating theists over the head about the absence of a benevolent God) life, (nasty, broodish, and short) is in the meantime characterized largely by pain, suffering, struggle, loss and death, I might very easily conclude that life is inherently negative.

    I mean (not to go strolling into this snake-pit), isn’t that the very logic behind most abortions? That life, without a certain, vaguely-defined level of financial, physical, social or mental assets is not viewed as inherently positive, despite its quality of being…well… life, and that it is deemed in the best interest of the party in question (the fetus) to never-have-been in the first place?

    I am familiar with some of the original philosophies of the Thule Society, though I don’t think it’s fair to posit that faith and religious belief would have in any way circumvented that. Especially considering that, Nazism as it existed in Germany at the time, was pretty clearly a purposefully-constructed religion that replaced God with Hitler.

    Ah, you’ve done it again: you’re using Faith and religion interchangeably and they couldn’t be more distinct— related, certainly, but very distinct. And once again you’ve accidentally hit the nail on the head: yes, Nazism sought to replace God (aforementioned ‘powers larger than the individual human being’) with Hitler (individual human being). And THEREIN lies the very underpinnings of trampled human rights. If rights to life and liberty flow from God to Jews and Arayans alike, Hitler can’t really get at those rights because they don’t originate with him— not in principal, he can’t— not and convince the masses to go along with it. Those rights fall outside his purview and governance. But if the masses accept that God is dead and Hitler (or Man in general) is conferring rights, well, he can rationalize directing the flow of those rights to whoever he damn well pleases, can’t he? Moreover, grounded in the philosophic precepts of rationally-humanistic Nietzsche (God is dead, Man is his own god, will-to-power, Ritual remains important for providing spiritual perspective and must now be constructed around Man) and my favorite scientist Darwin (survival of the fittest, genetic superiority, less complex gives way to more complex forms of being) the Nazis built a humanist religion predicated on scientific advancement of the species. Weed out the ‘bad’ genes by slaughtering the carriers. Sterilize GERMANS with traits seen, at that moment in history, as weak or unproductive— homosexuals, say. Encourage the most attractive and physically capable to reproduce prodigiously while euthanizing GERMAN children up to the age of twelve (40,000 in Berlin alone) if they were slow, sickly, lazy, whathaveyou. From the point of view of building a better mousetrap, all very reasonable. All very scientifically sound. All horrific. And that’s not to say that Faith doesn’t lead to horrors— we all know too well that it does— but as a matter of reasoning our way through the question of the origin of rights, there is no doubt that an unchanging God as the font of unchanging rights provides you with something that erratic human beings with their passing whims and little malices never can. Famously, of course, the plans of the 1000-year Reich included the swift destruction every church in Europe that wasn’t of ‘particular historical or aesthetic’ value, and those were to be transformed into ‘temples to the Germanic religion’— the worship of Man.

    The problem with positing inalienable rights that are granted by God is that those rights are never (or, at least haven’t been at any time in human history) actually enforced by God. God does not confer inalienable rights; human beings just say he does.

    Well, that’s a matter of some debate, isn’t it? Either way, what we say clearly matters because what we say reflects how we think about what we can and cannot do.

    The fact that the founding documents suggest that these inalienable rights come from God is largely irrelevant: it’s not as though, throughout history, the Catholic Church (and many, many other churches) have never changed their minds about who got what rights and when, and God certainly doesn’t take the dramatic steps to stop them that he purportedly used to.

    No, God is not the guarantor of our rights (a term that I think I may, in error, have employed the other day)— just the source. And the source matters because the source of a thing implies the nature of the thing and the rights to the thing. Conceptually, that is EXTREMELY important. If my LIFE originates in God and your LIFE originates in God, and rights to LIFE belonging to God are given to us each in equal measure purposefully from that outside source, the rights are (conceptually) untouchable. If you randomly happen to be and I randomly happen to be in a universe where might-makes-right and I have the might, then, fuck you pretty much, with no conceptual or practical inhibitions to whatever I want to do you. Yes, yes, the Catholic Church has done lots of nasty things. We’re not talking about churches or any other human institutions that do all the nasty things that humans do. We talking about the concept of God and what that concept provides foundationally in the way we think about how to mutually coexistence.

    Politics has never not been subject to faith; nor has faith ever been immune to politics.

    Nor should it be, as Faith (again, spirituality) and politics both concern the essential doings of human beings and are invariably going to impact one another. Politics is not Government (let me tell ya) and Faith is not The Church. We pledge a separation of Church and State— the ideas expressed in human institutions, not faith and political thought, the ideas themselves.

    I think you’re also defining religion too narrowly in this argument:

    Religion is human institution reflecting a particular, limited community’s beliefs about revelation from a God who’s “ways are not our ways.”
    I think there’s a handful of things that should rightly be called religion that aren’t part of that.

    Like? (That wasn’t really intended as a full-on definition of religion anyhow, but a useful illumination of religion as a human institution with a specific and limited function outside of the idea of human government.)

    And besides all that, if that definition WERE true, then doesn’t that mean that a church’s sole responsibility is to look to the discussion of that revelation? Why is it all right for the church to engage in the politics of social justice–feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, employing the jobless, spreading health and good will along with their missionary work? Why isn’t that solely the task of politics, or of individuals?

    But, if a church does have a responsibility, by virtue of itself as a body emulating the example of Christ, to engage in this kind of social activity, and it also has the authority to comment on what behaviors are moral behaviors and what are immoral behaviors, then the only difference between the church and the government is the latter’s monopoly on the use of force. And if that’s the case, then I ask again, why shouldn’t it take a monopoly on the use of force? If feeding the poor is a way of serving Christ, then why isn’t enforcing the law?

    First, I feel like I should point out that we have segued fully now from a discussion of science and spirituality into a conversation about religion and government, which is an important shift. I understand how we got here but I am now in the position of having to defend the behavior of religions, which I am not much disposed to do.

    I think you’re sort of right. I think this is a hard question. Let me say this: churches, properly understood and in an ideal sense, SHOULD BE “individuals…engaging in social justice”, just as you write. That is to say, rather than an ‘Organization’ FORCING its membership to do something against their individual wills or PROHIBITING them from doing something they genuinely want to do, there is a way in which religion should be a grassroots, bottom-up, genuine collection of freely acting individuals, in a way that government, it seems to me, can never be (perhaps PRECISELY BECAUSE religion is predicated on an individual experience of faith and government on an absolutely universal experience of—for lack of a better word— empiricals). Because a government is in the business of material management of a wide diversity of kinds of people and resources, much of which are in conflict and have opposing needs and demands, the necessity of government enforcement through law and order is obvious. And unless you’re Thoreau, you can’t really avoid government. You’re going to have government over you, in some form, (almost) no matter what you do. It’s going to be a top-down affair— even in a small pack of wild animals. We consent to be governed and then we get GOVERNED hard— made to do this or that to keep the practical realities of human coexistence going because we can’t seem to organize ourselves altruistically on a practical, day-to-day basis.

    A religion, in theory, should be far more homogenous and less rancorous than government. (Pah!) So in the case of religion, we consent to be governed (really, ‘led’ is a better term. You could say the laity is ‘governed’ in the orthodox Christian faiths, but it’s hard to say that Quakers or non-denominational Bible churches are governed) but we peaceably consent and desire it, otherwise we opt out for another community that believes something else entirely or, as you well know, go for nothing at all— sometimes with the fervor of the religion we just opted out of. Religion SHOULD reflect a coming-together of people with shared private experiences to affirm those experiences communally— at least that’s the only kind of religion I’m interested in and believe reflects Christ. (Christ didn’t take up a sword and ride roughshod through the holy land demanding people love their neighbors and convert to Judiasm or die at the tip of His blade. He told you what you should do to honor God and enrich yourself, then He left you to your own devices to do it or not do it. A genuinely voluntary model of divinity that should be, as much as is possible in finite, inflexible human terms, reflected by the human communal institutions we assemble in trying to honor his teachings.)
    So, all of this rambling to say: yes, the people of a church, having come together with similar, non-universal, individual experiences, go out under an umbrella of something they share in common and do charity. But if they’re genuinely forced to do it against their will by Big Church, then for my money, that church has left the realm of religion and is absolutely playing at government.

    And, in fact, my belief in inalienable human rights is a function of my faith, exactly the way that yours is. I just have removed the additional step of “God” in my reckoning.

    I need to know what you mean by ‘faith’ here— we’re back to Webster? I think I’ve pretty thoroughly covered the matter of the importance of that ‘additional step in your reckoning’ and how spectacularly easy it is to conceptually alienate people from their “inalienable human rights” once is just some dude deciding what is and is not unalienable.

    I’m moreover going to have to disagree, to a point, with your assertion that astrophysics and quantum mechanics are pointing to the existence of a divinity, without a much, much more specific definition of “divinity.” I try to stay current in my scientific reading, and I can’t say that I know of any discoveries suggesting the existence of a conscious influence in the super or sub-structures of the universe. Furthermore, traditional definitions of God, which include an infinite being and an infinite consciousness, preclude any kind of scientific measurement. Science has finite tools; anything science finds must, by definition, not resemble the God that is so defined.

    Dammit, why did I leave this one for the end? 4am? I have to go to bed again. Tabled.

  25. braak says:

    I remain unsatisfied with this definition for a variety of reasons. In the first place, you’ve clarified it by introducing several new terms that, themselves, require additional clarification: “extrasensory,” for example, “awe,” “profound,” “psychic awareness.” All of these appellations are predicated on the fact that the experience of faith is not psychological or physiological in the first place. The numbers, as you point out, do suggest something, but there are hardly any tests that show conclusively that human beings have an “inborn psychic awareness” of a greater spiritual power. They show that human beings attribute consciousness to unpredictable activity (the way we do with our cars or computers), they show that human beings associate similarity with likeness, nearness with connection, and correlation with causation–the summation of which could just as plausibly lead to a belief in a God as the “psychic awareness” of an actual God.

    Moreover, “extrasensory”? How can it be extrasensory if we can sense it? Why isn’t there just a human sense that provides data on the experience in question? But if you mean “extrasensory” in that it is beyond the traditionally-understood five senses (a categorization method that actually loses a lot of traction once you get into cognitive psychology), then that does, indeed, mean that I can only have faith in things that I can’t directly perceive–an elephant is within the compass of my senses, and therefore any sense of awe or humility I experience in its presence is not faith. The same is true with a mountain, or a volcano, or George Clooney. To follow your example, primitive peoples who worshiped elephants did not actually have faith in elephants until the point at which their understanding of elephants exceeded their direct experience of, or the reasonable inferences from, the existence of elephants.

    These are NOT dismissive examples. Everyone always thinks they are when I try and use this line of reasoning, but they are not–the element of immateriality or immeasurability is actually crucial to most people’s understanding of faith, and it is generally ignored or overlooked, primarily (I think) to suggest that it is somehow commensurate with scientific reasoning.

    But, moreover, the original question was whether or not faith was inherently positive, and I’m not satisfied that without the caveat of the immeasurability of the object of that faith it is inherently positive–that attributing power or majesty to elements within the compass of the human sensorium is not a potentially dangerous delusion, isolating the self from the experience of the world.

    As to why you want “faith” to be synonymous with “spirituality,” I have no idea, considering that “spirituality” is a perfectly decent word that includes in its etymology the implicit idea of a non-material world, and “faith” was already a fully-functional word under the auspices of Webster’s definition. But, sure, if this is what you mean by “Faith,” then okay, we can run with this.

    But, if we are going to use this definition, then I don’t think that you can fairly criticize my approach to discussing Nazi Germany. Faith, as you posit it, is an inborn trait; religion is a human-made organization (about revelation or not, I’ll get to that in a minute). The Nazi party was a human organization created to exploit the natural faith of the German people, to move it from an immaterial god to a material Fuhrer, and to confer upon that Fuhrer the immeasurable power of that god. To talk about the 1000-year Reich as though it were a real thing is to imbue with reality something that is well beyond the compass of the human sensorium. To discuss the destiny of the German people, the powers of the German army, the almost-supernatural might of Hitler as Germany’s greatest leader is to take the faith in the immeasurable and to apply it to the measurable. Faith, as you pointed out early, exists distinct from the object of that faith–faith in Man is no less faith than faith in God, and the organization that directs the faith in man is no less religious than the organization that directs that faith in God.

    And, for the record, the idea that the Nazis created a secular humanist religion based on science is not precisely correct. The Nazis created a secular religion, yes, and it was based on certain scientific theories–theories which were not, by the way, at the cutting edge of the era’s science, but had actually been discarded in the United States twenty years earlier (that’s, peculiarly enough, how they ended up in German–in fact, Darwin himself rejected the idea of eugenics, as his early theories support; not “survival of the fittest,” but survival of that which is best adapted to its environment). But to say that Nazism was based on science is flatly incorrect–“science” is a process of a re-evaluating theory in the face of data, and the Nazis didn’t do that at all. They did, in fact, what every religion and true believer has ever done with science–they started with their conclusions (the Jews are destroying Germany, homosexuality is unnatural) and then they cherry-picked data to support it.

    Science was involved only at the very outskirts of Nazi theology, and abandoned as soon as it no longer confirmed that theology–it shouldn’t have taken them that long, either, as the realization that trying to eliminate the Jews had seriously crippled, for example, German superiority in theoretical physics. Faith, on the other hand–hundreds of thousands of Germans were not mobilized and motivated because Adolf Hitler gave them a reasonable argument. They did it because they believed in the power and majesty of something larger than themselves.

    And, to clarify, I don’t think that a religion necessarily requires revealed knowledge, nor that its discussions are limited to things that are beyond the ken of human understanding. Zen Buddhism, for example, doesn’t rely on revelation. Mormonism, for example, doesn’t posit that the ways of God are not the ways of man–they’re just the product of a perspective that human beings don’t have (yet). But I mean here that there is no mystery: all aspects of the immaterial world are fully explained and explicable.

    The problem that I have is not God as the source of human rights, but your theory that God is inherently unchanging. God may, in your conception, be so, but your experience of God is finite. That experience is, therefore, subject to the changing nature of your own consciousness, the interpretations that are the product of your society, history, family, & al. The “Unchanging God” is not within the compass of the universe, and all governments, politics, and rights are.

    Though, frankly, I’m not sure why “Nature and Nature’s God” makes the idea of inalienable human rights more palatable to you than just “Nature.” I suppose then I should clarify myself about my faith in “life,” which is more accurately a faith in “humanity.” I’m willing to compromise “life” all the time, after all–cutting down trees, eating animals, removing tumors. It’s not the complexity of the living thing to which I have attributed an immeasurable awe, but the peculiar complexity of consciousness.

    In any case, though, I believe that the experience of life does not require a meaner to having meaning. It has meaning by virtue of the fact that it is life. For an atheist, this is one of only two reasonable conclusions: that everything is equally meaningful. The other–that everything is equally meaningless–leads to nihilism. And, quite frankly, I’ve never met any nihilists that weren’t deeply miserable. From that perspective, it’s a fairly easy choice.

    In any case, all of this started because I think the statement that, “we aren’t interested in a theocracy because we tried that and it didn’t work” is disingenuous. Catholic theocracy didn’t fail any more thoroughly than any other government–indeed, with a few changes, it could easily avoid those failures again. And there are a number of people, Americans included, who really do want a theocracy–so any argument against it, or any reassurances that the religious make to the irreligious about how they don’t want it, needs to be more thorough than “it just doesn’t work that well.”

  26. V.I.P. Referee says:

    I just wanted to add that I appreciated this posting. The above comments cover any reflection on this more thoroughly and gracefully than anything I could add, but it was nice to read work from Moff’s perspective. Plus, being assured that the author is very handsome and clever, made it all the more fascinating a read. Thanks, Moff!

  27. Moff says:

    @V.I.P.: Aw, shucks. Thank you, my dear.

  28. Carl says:

    Alright, apologies for not having any downtime for a few days. I rejoin the fray with an eye towards wrapping up because I’m sure that your fine readers are more than ready to move on.

    I remain unsatisfied with this definition for a variety of reasons. In the first place, you’ve clarified it by introducing several new terms that, themselves, require additional clarification: “extrasensory,” for example, “awe,” “profound,” “psychic awareness.” … Moreover, “extrasensory”? How can it be extrasensory if we can sense it? Why isn’t there just a human sense that provides data on the experience in question? But if you mean “extrasensory” in that it is beyond the traditionally-understood five senses (a categorization method that actually loses a lot of traction once you get into cognitive psychology), then that does, indeed, mean that I can only have faith in things that I can’t directly perceive

    No, it means that faith can only relate to aspects of things that you perceive but cannot quantify, which may just as well owe to the nature of thing in question as it might to a material deficiency on the part of the perceiver, as you seem to imply is the case.

    I think, with respect, this whole line of objection is disingenuous. You don’t like the definition because you don’t like the nature of thing we’re trying to define or the way it naturally demands definition. ‘Extrasensory’ doesn’t require any practical clarification— you knew exactly what I meant by it— ‘outside of the bounds the recognized five senses and the measurable experiences they individually account for.’ It’s just that that fluidity of language moves us away from the kind of discussion you prefer in making your case for how you think we should think about our experiences. You may be less comfortable defining terms non-scientifically but you are certainly very capable of it: you have a MA in theatre for goodness’ sake, not an MS in engineering. It’s obviously possible to have meaningful and rational discussion about experiences that cannot or need not be quantified to be mutually understood. The lexicon of spirituality is like the language of art in this regard. Both, by virtue of the nature of the subject, necessitate a degree of fluidity in the communicated meanings used in their consideration. Language that demands absolute quantification is incapable of giving satisfactory descriptions to how these things work.

    How do we talk about how the heavy red lighting works on the audience at a particular moment of a particular piece of theatre? We talk about it imprecisely, in terms of our vague sense of the complexity of what is occurring between all the human and material elements involved. Do we conclude there is nothing to sense because we can’t quite nail it down? No. Nor do we talk about it scientific terms of clear measurability. Stanislavski certain employs that kind of language in talking about the actor’s process of ‘becoming someone else’. He employs plenty of definitions in trying to clarify shared meaning about one aspect or another of the experience, despite the fact that there is almost nothing we can quantify about the event. A discussion of faith is going to have these same features and we can’t stop trying to define what is on the periphery of our sensory experiences in spirituality any more than we do in talking about how art works. We set definitions as best we can, given the nebulous quality of the thing under consideration.

    You began this discussion by saying how frustrating it can be as an atheist to try to carry on a rational debate with the irrational faithful (which, by the way, is the reason the term “faith” was being employed instead my preference, “spirituality”, and why I needed to clarify my terms) and part of my purpose here has been to try to alleviate some of that frustration. You may disagree with my conclusions (i.e., revelation-based principals of faith embodied in religion have been historically demonstrated to be unsuitable for direct governmental application) but I hope that I’ve shown that the Reasoning-Faithful can engage in a rational dialogue about complex subjects without appealing to principles derived from revelation. If I can return the favor for a second, I’d like to say how difficult it can be from my perspective to have a rational discussion on matters of faith with atheists. I frequently feel like I am engaged in a debate with my blind roommate over what color we should paint our flat. The atheist keeps telling me that it doesn’t matter what the room “looks like” and that this problematic business of “sight” is getting in the way of how the place smells or how the walls feel to the touch. He insists that until and unless I can conclusively demonstrate this “seeing” to him, illuminating all of its properties in terms of the four senses he acknowledges, he doesn’t think the fact that I “see” should enter into the discussion anymore.

    I’m doing my best to talk about what I see in terms of how it smells and it isn’t surprising that, as with no experience of the sense in question, you have a hard time knowing what the hell I mean. Even if you reject my take on the way we go about defining unquantifiable things, a little latitude in the matter of definitions might be in order under the circumstances.

    The numbers, as you point out, do suggest something, but there are hardly any tests that show conclusively that human beings have an “inborn psychic awareness” of a greater spiritual power. They show that human beings attribute consciousness to unpredictable activity (the way we do with our cars or computers), they show that human beings associate similarity with likeness, nearness with connection, and correlation with causation– the summation of which could just as plausibly lead to a belief in a God as the “psychic awareness” of an actual God.

    I’ll concede that there have been no scientific tests conclusively demonstrating whether a belief in God is the result of an “inborn psychic awareness” of the divine or the cumulative result of the psychophysical phenomena you describe. Certainly the majority of the people living on the planet currently (and of those who have peopled human history) have an almost universal interpretation of the experience in question. It’s quite possible, as you claim, that analysts of the test data to which you refer surmise that the latter is the case… in the exact same way that some analysts of astrophysical data infer existential causation from the implications of the big-bang or how the delicate material balance between the forces of the universe that make continuing existence possible may, rightly or wrongly, lead one towards belief in design. None of these prove anything. Without concrete proof to the contrary, I am inclined to accept the common experience as described by the vast majority of people who have existed in the history of the planet, over the admittedly unproven conclusions suggesting nearly universal, species-wide, identical hallucinations, drawn by a very small group of people who claim not to share the experience in question. I think that’s a rational conclusion. Not a scientific demonstration but a reasonable inference. And you’re not so disposed. And that’s all well and good.

    …the element of immateriality or immeasurability is actually crucial to most people’s understanding of faith, and it is generally ignored or overlooked, primarily (I think) to suggest that it is somehow commensurate with scientific reasoning.

    I certainly do not overlook the importance of immateriality and immeasurability to the experience of faith. I just argue that material, measurable things can have, as a part of their complete being, aspects of their being that are immaterial.

    To say that scientific reasoning and spirituality are commensurate in practical application is clearly absurd (and that’s the very point of my discourse on the proper spheres of government and religion). To say that they are commensurate in being equally valid realms of human experience from which we draw meaning about our lives is entirely appropriate.

    …the original question was whether or not faith was inherently positive, and I’m not satisfied that without the caveat of the immeasurability of the object of that faith it is inherently positive– that attributing power or majesty to elements within the compass of the human sensorium is not a potentially dangerous delusion, isolating the self from the experience of the world.

    I understand and deeply sympathize with this concern from your point of view. I see very clearly how this impulse can lead to a host of problematic behaviors, dangerous conclusions, and misunderstandings about the material world. But attribution of immaterial qualities to the material universe is a reflection of that inborn sense we’ve been talking about. Speaking on behalf of the very many for whom this sense is integral to our experience of life, the world that is subject to the five senses is clearly perceived as deeply imbued with elements of immeasurability. I think some people give far too much credence to those aspects of being and fail to give any attention and awareness to the scientifically measurable aspects of existence and the logical conclusions those measurements direct us towards. But to insist on denial of the concurrent immateriality of being is to deny oneself at least half the experience of being, IMHO.

    Does the above quote mean that, WITH the caveat of immeasurability, you ARE willing to grant that faith is inherently positive? Huh. So you’re real problem with my proposal (science and spirituality can both be called innocuously, inherently positive, so long as they are taken out of context of their real-life consequences, which essentially renders the discussion of inherent positivity meaningless) is that I defined faith as including the humility before, and awe of, material things?

    Faith, as you posit it, is an inborn trait; religion is a human-made organization (about revelation or not, I’ll get to that in a minute). The Nazi party was a human organization created to exploit the natural faith of the German people, to move it from an immaterial god to a material Fuhrer, and to confer upon that Fuhrer the immeasurable power of that god. … Faith, as you pointed out early, exists distinct from the object of that faith– faith in Man is no less faith than faith in God, and the organization that directs the faith in man is no less religious than the organization that directs that faith in God.

    I agree with almost all of this. I think, though, Webster is getting the way again. I object to your use of the term ‘religion’ to describe an organization that can direct faith equally to man or God. Capital-f Faith— lets just say spirituality from here out and avoid this confusion— by definition cannot be in man. Because if (as you say) you’ll accept a definition of religion as a human institution constructed to reflect our inborn, individual predisposition to spirituality and that spirituality is “awareness of, and humility before, the existence of powers larger than the individual human being”, then an institution dedicated to moving faith from the immaterial God to the material Fuhrer, who WAS an individual human being, must, by definition, be antireligious.

    And, for the record, the idea that the Nazis created a secular humanist religion based on science is not precisely correct. The Nazis created a secular religion, yes, and it was based on certain scientific theories–theories which were not, by the way, at the cutting edge of the era’s science, but had actually been discarded in the United States twenty years earlier. But to say that Nazism was based on science is flatly incorrect.

    You are right about this.

    I do maintain, though, that Nazism, as a philosophic-governmental model, could not exist without the atheistic humanism of Nietzsche and the notion of using science as the primary means of advancing human existence (whether that meant building a better tank, a designing a more efficient volkswagon, or breeding a stronger human animal— all through observing measurable data and making adjustments). And in large part, this approach worked. They came within a hairs-breadth of conquering the entire globe. Remember, much of what was accomplished in medical sciences during the 20th century drew on data recovered from the journals left behind by doctors engaged in horrific Nazi medical experiments. The point was not ‘did the Nazis manage to build that better mousetrap’ but ‘was the cost in terms of human rights when rights emanate from a human font.

    But, yes, Nazism was a problematic example because it blended the worst aspects of atheistic humanism, (pseudo)science, occult-mysticism, and (pseudo)religious fervor into a spectacularly toxic and destructive sociopolitical model. If I wanted to more clearly make the argument here, I COULD segue into the better Communist examples of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, who were, of course, all leaders of atheist regimes dedicated to the humanism and the advancement of human condition through the application of Marxist historical analysis and scientific principals in the realm of social policy. [Between them, they have more blood on their hands (and trampled human rights under their boots) than most of their dictatorial predecessors in history combined. Certainly, if we limit our discussion to the competing models of the 20th century (the only period in which all of the ideas that we’re knocking around here were already present and actively percolating), the eastern political world (rooted in explicitly-atheist notions of the source of human rights) engaged in FAR MORE, well-documented, blatant disregard for the ‘inalienable’ rights of its citizenry than did the western political world (not rooted in explicitly-atheist notions of the source of human rights and frequently rooted in explicitly-theist notions of the source of human rights).] But I won’t do that.

    Faith, on the other hand–hundreds of thousands of Germans were not mobilized and motivated because Adolf Hitler gave them a reasonable argument. They did it because they believed in the power and majesty of something larger than themselves.

    Faith as Webster put it, yes— belief in any person, thing, or idea. But not humility before, the existence of powers larger than the human being. On the contrary it was the exaltation of the human being that was the goal of the entire project.

    The problem that I have is not God as the source of human rights, but your theory that God is inherently unchanging. God may, in your conception, be so, but your experience of God is finite. That experience is, therefore, subject to the changing nature of your own consciousness, the interpretations that are the product of your society, history, family, & al. The “Unchanging God” is not within the compass of the universe, and all governments, politics, and rights are.

    Point absolutely taken. However, since the overwhelming majority of theist thought (from which the deist model of an unchanging God granting unchanging rights derives) draws unchanging, transcendent deities (adherents to faiths dedicated to Jehovah-Allah, the Unified-Existential Deity, and the Hindu pantheon account for 76% of all faiths of all people on earth. Buddhism is debatable, depending on how you understand its teachings. If we leave it out of these numbers, we’re still left with 69% of the people on the planet perceiving divinity as eternal, unchanging powers. Non-religious— including but not limited to atheist— account for about 16%), this can be understood as less a reflection of my personal take on God than a fair statement about how the race collectively perceives divinity at this moment in the history of the unfolding narrative of spirituality.

    Though, frankly, I’m not sure why “Nature and Nature’s God” makes the idea of inalienable human rights more palatable to you than just “Nature.”

    Because nature cannot confer rights— certainly not inalienable ones— certainly not to liberty. Unless you want to say that Nature is sentient somehow, which is essentially to rename ‘God’ Nature— in which case we agree and are only arguing labels for the thing. But to leave the matter of inalienable rights to the state of nature is literally to abandon them to that chaotic condition that we form societies to try to circumvent in the first place. It is to conceptually affirm the individual right to ‘whatever means necessary’ as goes on everyday, all over the planet, in the competition for resources among individual animals.

    I suppose then I should clarify myself about my faith in “life,” which is more accurately a faith in “humanity.” I’m willing to compromise “life” all the time, after all–cutting down trees, eating animals, removing tumors. It’s not the complexity of the living thing to which I have attributed an immeasurable awe, but the peculiar complexity of consciousness.

    A cool and interesting thought. Can we, at this moment in scientific history, demonstrate conclusively that human consciousness is substantively different from animal consciousness, any more than we can demonstrate conclusively God’s existence or lack-thereof? Also, are all consciounesses equal? And can we prove conclusively that things with fundamentally different beings from our own— trees say— don’t have consciousness? If they might, does that mean that everything is entitled to inalienable rights? And would everything having rights mean the inverse is true: that we, as human beings, do not have special, inalienable rights any more than anything else does? And does that lead us potentially back to where we started?

  29. Carl says:

    Oh and this:

    In any case, all of this started because I think the statement that, “we aren’t interested in a theocracy because we tried that and it didn’t work” is disingenuous. Catholic theocracy didn’t fail any more thoroughly than any other government–indeed, with a few changes, it could easily avoid those failures again. And there are a number of people, Americans included, who really do want a theocracy–so any argument against it, or any reassurances that the religious make to the irreligious about how they don’t want it, needs to be more thorough than “it just doesn’t work that well.”

    It isn’t disingenuous on my part. I absolutely, utterly disagree that ‘with tweaking, Catholic theocracy could avoid what went wrong during the middle-ages and work effectively.’ Two things: first, I don’t know if you’ve taken a look at the workings of my Church lately but we’re BARELY COMPETANT to govern OURSELVES. We have clergy and laypeople of every stripe, political disposition, and philosophic perspective running around half-cocked claiming to speak for the Church. From Bill Donohue to Peter Donohue, from Oscar Romero to Ratzinger, and everything in between. Most Catholics aren’t even well-educated enough to walk you through the basic tenants of ‘what they believe’ or how the Mass works, for instance. We’re a bureaucratic mess. We can’t get a coherent policy together on how a couple gets an annulment. The Church teaches things that half its membership disagrees with and just pretends doesn’t exist. Now I don’t get a kick out of publicly flogging my religion, but I want to make clear that history shows, at a basic organizational level, we couldn’t run a train along its tracks into the station without somehow ditching the thing in a trench.
    Second and more importantly: religious law, right or wrong, simply doesn’t work as civil law because the laws of spiritual faith— particularly the large faiths with great longevity— tend to ask the impossible of its adherents by design. Religious law, interpreting revelation, is set up against instinct with the full-knowledge that what it asks of its adherents cannot be achieved. As an adherent of religious law, you WILL FAIL. You will break the law. It’s a given. The value, of course, tangibly and eternally, is in the struggle to maintain that law in despite of the fact that you know you cannot— that juxtaposition of essential nature and conscious will. As a Jew, you’re going to covet you’re neighbors goods. As a Christian, you’re going to fail to turn the other cheek, etc. etc. etc. To a degree, the value of the legal model depends on this understanding. This is an EXTREMELY BAD model on which to build civil law which, by contrast, is expected to be honored— must be honored to be of any use. Some will break it, of course in trying to game the system, but the model assumes the vast, vast majority will honor it. It’s constrictive, rigid, clear and as simple as possible. Religious law, by contrast, takes into account a whole host of intangibles and un-measurables in assessing well its principles are observed.
    Think about what that means from my perspective— that the behavioral Code set down as an attempt to interpret God’s revelation to Man, which I believe emanates from the ultimate Causal source of existence, has been demonstrated (through what we might call the historical-scientific method of trial and error) to be directly inapplicable to the institutions of government used to keep society going. THAT’S NO LITTLE ADMISSION— that’s no toss off. We HAVE tried it— it HAS failed miserably. We’re on to other things. That some hangers-on still have an interest in it shouldn’t shock us any more than the fact that there are still sincere monarchists among the English— a curiosity, yes, but hardly a reason for panic. The vast majority of the Faithful have no interest in going back to the days of a crippled, dysfunctional civil law that is burdened by the weight of religion’s impossible obligations. Nor is anyone I know vaguely interested in (further) corrupting religious institutions with the temptations and distractions that political power have historically represented.

  30. Moff says:

    My second-favorite thing ever is to say something kind of smart and then let some much smarter people talk about it. So, thank you, guys.

    (My first-favorite thing ever is a couple of coeds reclining on giant piles of cocaine and feeding me Taco Bell off of their bodies. Not that it’s happened to me more than once.)

  31. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Supporting arguments about religious faith, devotion and mystical experience might not always “gel” when filtered through the rote world of logic but, boy, they’re pretty. They distract—like prisms in sunlight—and paint the world in sparkly colors. Humans are beautiful creatures.

  32. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Plus: Totally profound reflection, Moff. Clearly, the “mystical” experience is subject to relativity.

  33. braak says:

    Hup! I will answer these contentions, eventually. My business keeps me from my work, sometimes.

    Also, I am kind of sorry about how I tend to monopolize other people’s conversations. I get excited about the arguments, and then sometimes forget bout some basic human conditions.

    Blargh! I don’t know what I’m doing! Even as an irreligious man, I cannot help but appreciate Lost Abbey’s Judgment Day quad dark beer. Belgian monks know their business.

  34. braak says:

    But let me take a second and answer Carl’s last point first. It may not be disingenuous from your perspective–I will acknowledge all as valid points everything that you raise here (though i maintain that the Church’s larger problems are the consequence of actually small bureaucratic problems–a situation of small bad rules leading to large bad consequence), except for one, and that is this: that you, Carl, as a member of the Catholic Church, are qualified to speak on behalf of The Faithful. I agree on your distinctions between religious and civil law–and even embrace them under the alternate distinction of moral law.

    But, if I may remind you: we (the United States) are presently engaged in a war with a nation precisely because its legitimate government was unseated by a theocracy. Our most significant enemy in the middle east is a theocratic government, and our most significant ally against them is also a theocratic government.

    The US suffers no shortage of people that think that Rick Warren should be president, that Barack Obama’s presidency should be revoked by virtue of his being a Muslim, or that the Constitution is based on the Ten Commandments.

    These theocratists are not a sociological oddity; they defined American policy for the previous eight years (and, in fact, contributed to the elections of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the first Bush, and so have defined American policy for close to thirty years). They are substantial portions of political parties, they are states, they are nations.

    Tell me that it is morally reprehensible to build a civil law based on religious principle, and I’ll believe you. Tell me that the only practical functional society is one that offers religious freedom, and is secular in function, and I’ll believe you.

    But I will not accept that the majority of the faithful are simply disinterested in a theocracy because of its failures. You know that religious law is practically insufficient as a civil law determinant; but somebody voted to prohibit gay marriage in California.

  35. Carl says:

    How do you like that? We are, after a fashion, back to Moff’s original post regarding how many of the Faithful are fundamentalists. Huzzah!

    I’ll readily accept that objection, Chris. I’m not qualified to speak for anyone but myself and I honestly wasn’t trying to offer myself as a spokesperson for the Faithful (and, frankly, they’d be crazy to take me). Just speaking on my own behalf, then, from my own observations, I don’t think the majority of Believers have any interest in theocratic government. And I’ve moved in those circles quite a bit.

    There is no shortage of misguided religious folks in America, I agree. Taking the examples you gave one by one: there is nothing explicitly theocratic about believing Rick Warren should be president. I don’t have any time for Rick Warren, but his unlikely ascendancy to the office alone wouldn’t mean that we’d substituted religious law for civil law. The same is true of the remarkable delusion that BO is a Muslim. The notion that the Constitution is based on the Ten Commandments, on the other hand, is clearly a hard move towards theocratic thought, and you’re right, some people do believe that— the political sect that Andrew Sullivan calls ‘Christianists’. Are they THE MAJORITY of the FAITHFUL, though? That’s hard to swallow. I’ve never met a person that believed that. I’ve been going to Catholic school since kindergarten and to weekly Mass my entire life. If 80% of Americans identify as Christian, and a majority are theocratic-Christianist, how did Barak Obama get elected? And let me remind those of you who know (and confess to those of you who don’t) that I made my living working as a political consultant for five years before I came home to theatre. During that time, I whored myself out to all kinds of folks on both sides of the aisle. I met a lot of very politically engaged crazies. In 2005, I worked directly under a man who was the regional director for Christian Coalition— a former marine— not one to be fucked with— probably the least Jesus-y man I’ve ever met. In short, he was a scary fellow. And I kept company with his friends and family occasionally during those six months as part of my work, and it was an education about how people who REALLY aren’t you process the world (as was most of my time spent in that business.) This guy HAS to fall within the category of people that give you pause, Chris. He gave me pause all the damn time. And even HE wasn’t interested in theocratic government. I know this because I put it directly to him one night over drinks. I remember his consternation that I would consider such a thing and being chastised for the “disrespect you show for the sacredness of the Constitution’s
    separation of Church and State clause.”

    You can be misguided without being committed to theocratic government. You can genuinely be committed to secular democracy while wanting that democracy to reflect your views through the normal workings of the process without seeking direct application of religious law to the State. The test is this: ask the person you suspect of theocratic machinations if they’d rather live under the Dutch or Saudi Arabian governments. I bet very few prefer the Saudis. While Christianity and Islam are diametrically opposed on a host of key theological and social points, you imagine that life under a despotic-theocratic regime is going to have a lot of the same features, regardless of the religious disposition of the regime. If they’re Christian, ask your mark if they think divorce should be illegal. If they’re Jewish, ask them if they really think an eye-for-an-eye should be instituted at all levels of the justice system. No one— very, very few— really believes in these principals should be reflected in civil law.

    Okay, we went to war against a theocratic regime and our primary adversary is currently a theocratic regime and our greatest ally in the Middle-east is a theocratic regime. The Middle-east isn’t really the sociopolitical envy of the world, though. To borrow with embarrassment from Tenacious D— it’s a hornet’s nest. No-one’s really looking to the Arabian Peninsula to provide an example for the future of human civilization. I think there’s good evidence that the Middle-eastern world is cracking under the very same pressures we’ve been talking about that brought theocratic rule down in the West centuries ago. It won’t happen over night but it’ll happen. The Middle-east is an asterisk in the world, not an example of what’s commonplace.

    As to the claim that theocratic thought has “defined American policy for close to thirty years”, I get what you’re saying, but feel like the conversation is getting a little hyperbolic here. The 2nd Bush presidency was a VERY scary time, absolutely. This business of faith-based initiatives rubbed me very much the wrong way, and I think that no-one here will disagree that the Bush years embodied a dangerous and disastrous consolidation of executive power under a man whose primary self-identification was as a vocal member of the Faithful. All of this raises theocratic red-flags. Still, was abortion outlawed? Did the DOMA pass? Was a state-mandated tithe to your church instituted? Then theocracy didn’t really come to town after all. And to say that the Bush I, Reagan and Nixon eras were defined by “theocratic thought” is just flat wrong. Which religious law was instituted under whom exactly in what piece of legislation? It isn’t even correct to say that those guys were elected by religiously-conservative majorities. The Reagan coalition was incredibly complicated. Like Clinton and Obama, he couldn’t have won without a broad plurality. That plurality included huge swaths of moderates and some liberals, many of whom self-identify as religious. For Pete’s sake, he won every state in the union but one in 1984. Obama wouldn’t shut the hell up about religion for almost a year!— certainly he’s not a theocratist. Bush II is a different story, of course. The reason Rove was such a rockstar (or evil genius mastermind) was that he managed to get a man elected president without having to moderate his image or program AT ALL. He got a man elected president by wedging the electorate and driving out the far end of a base. Hadn’t happened that way in living memory.

    Lastly, yes, somebody voted to prohibit gay marriage in California. Lots of somebodys. More than half the voting somebodys. In the same state where Barbara Boxer is easily reelected to the US Senate. Many were driven out into the democratic process by their personal beliefs, which they are entitled to do, even if they’re wrong, and some perhaps, by more narrow theocratist beliefs that the law— all law— should always and at all times reflect their particular religious morality. But these two things shouldn’t be conflated and the passage of Prop 8 isn’t necessarily evidence of theocratic drift. The civil rights that were denied to blacks really had no theological foundations and yet they were denied to them. Lots of parallels exist between these two civil rights movements. Those injustices were predicated on different emotional prejudices than these are and they ironed themselves out over time as these will. It’s wise to keep your ear to the ground and anticipate potential eruptions of fanaticism that could threaten democracy but let’s not panic unnecessarily.

    Also, I want to follow Chris’ cue here and apologize if I have been helping to hijack this thread.

  36. Moff says:

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that anyone was jacking the thread. (Nor do I typically mind if and when threads are jacked.) I for one really am having a great time reading you guys! And my own lack of active contribution is purely a function of all the work I have to finish before I go on vacation next week.

  37. braak says:

    Now, wait. I am not saying that the majority of the faithful are theocratists. I am saying that they are not a sociological oddity. Nor did I say that Nixon, Reagan, and Bush represented an actual theocratic government–rather, the issue that I have is that the moralistic leanings of the fundamentalists–their desire for a theocracy–influenced political action. (And it did; take Reagan’s, for example, inaction towards the AIDS epidemic in the 80s.)

    The point here is not that every Christian is a theocrat, just that the theocratists are not irrelevant.

    And, all right, I’ll admit that your experience on the subject is probably broader than mine, but I’ve got no shortage of examples of arguments that began with my saying, “Kids shouldn’t have to say ‘Under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance,” and my opponent finally ending with “It says freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion.” (Grievously) misinformed or not, that’s a theocratic argument.

    My problem is the implicit assumption that the aggregate body of the Faithful, by virtue of their faith and history, has discarded the idea of a (Christian/Islamic/Hindu) controlled government, when actually that body is diverse, and there is a not inconsiderate segment of that body that is composed of theocrats, and that has and continues to have influence on governmental policy. You can say that it’s intellectually dishonest of them, or that they’re misinformed, or even just stupid, and that’s fine, but they’re still doing that.

    Though I don’t know why we’re continuing this particular whorl, as the rest of you arguments–about the difference between moral and civil law, about the need for religious and civil separation–are fine by me.

  38. Tiffi says:

    I would have to agree with everything you stated except trying to get people to think outside of the box to that degree would only make people think you were trying to throw away everythingthing they ever were taught to believe therefore, everything that they felt their whole lives. It is not so easy to do that… thus no one will listen. If there were only a way to get people to take your theory while still believing in their God… as we know from our own self-doubts about religion (and don’t say you never doubted, cause you wouldn’t be reading this), that we all do not believe in the same God, we were not all raised the same! People should take all words, once they realize that God is considered faith of the mind to start, with a grain of salt because there is no way that the majority of the population will ever sway unless we take PHYSICAL FACTS from history and visually put the pieces together in front of their eyes.

    I like the way you think but coming from the religious angle is definately not the way to sway the vote. The only way to really get anyone to see is with a nice model sized visualization of exactly how things turned so evil in the world today.

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