Space and Spirit

Stories, Essays, Epic Poems, Rippin' Yarns

Moderator: Moderators

User avatar
sanscardinality
Posts: 69
Joined: Wed Jan 24, 2007 7:10 pm
Location: West By God Virginny
Contact:

Postby sanscardinality » Mon Apr 16, 2007 9:16 pm

Caliban,

I respect your sentiments entirely and you won't get flamed from me! They surprised me because I made assumptions about you. Your post was excellent. For my part, I was a tonsured reader on the way to the deaconate in the Russian Orthodox Church and still have most of my books and like a lot of what they say. I have no agenda to convert anyone to my way of seeing things, and my arguments were positioned to relate to atheists - I assumed you were one. Sorry if I offended in any way.

I'm an agnostic on the issue of God, though I do suspect an ordering of things has happened somewhere and somehow. I certainly don't shudder when you describe the material you've been studying. If you've not run into him, Gregory of Nyssa was pretty amazing in ways - dated, but amazing.

SC
Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Oscar Wilde

User avatar
caliban
Site Admin
Posts: 155
Joined: Wed Feb 28, 2007 12:32 pm
Contact:

Postby caliban » Mon Apr 16, 2007 10:04 pm

I wasn't offended. All that offends me are mean-spiritedness and sloppy thinking. I myself was raised in a fairly healthy religious environment, where I was allowed to question, where women were treated as equals, and where charity mattered. After hearing many people's stories and reading history I understand how damaging Christianity has been to many people and to many cultures, and so I respect people for rejecting religion. But I get annoyed by simplistic taxonomies of religion, of the kind that Dawkins peddles.

I don't know if there is a God or not, or a heaven, or souls. Everything science has taught me is that the answers are usually even more surprising than we suspect. As I admitted, I am a bit of a theology geek, but I am bored by debates about "true" beliefs. I only care about debates that really challenge us to be fully human:

"It is true that in a world of high consumption, where anything an everything is possible, nothing is so humanizing as love, and a conscious interest in the life of others, particularly in the life of the oppressed. For love leaves us open to wounding and disappointment. It makes us ready to suffer. It leads us out of isolation into a fellowship with others, with people different from ourselves, and this fellowship is always associated with suffering. It changes the world...and overcomes the death urge which turns everything into a possession or an instrument of power." -- Juergen Moltmann.

PS -- I didn't mean to derail this thread. I'm not offended by irreligious ideas--I find the idea of, for example, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster highly amusing, and I've written poems that many people have found blasphemous. I've been known, when reading the Bible aloud, to do so in the voices of characters from the Lemony Snicket novels.
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

User avatar
caliban
Site Admin
Posts: 155
Joined: Wed Feb 28, 2007 12:32 pm
Contact:

Postby caliban » Tue Apr 17, 2007 1:10 am

sanscardinality wrote:To my mind, a religion is the dogmatism of a set of ideas that were intended for another purpose. This doesn't diminish the goodness of the ideas, but it cannot elevate them. Key to this process is the unrepeatability of the foundational experiences.

Going back, I like and agree with SC's analysis. One point when I teach science and science fiction is the difference beween reproducible and irreproducible discourses. Cookbooks and science are the former: in principle, any scientific result can be reproduced by anyone else, given enough time and funding. Religion is often founded upon irreproducible discourse--revelation of some sort. Unfortunately, because science is hard and time-consuming, because non-scientists can be lazy and scientists impatient, science often gets mistaken for irreproducible discourse.

History is full of examples of exactly the sort of religion we need right now - one that teaches compassion and progress, and is ravenous for new information and transformation as a system. We need to use the historical symbols, because if you stick modern phrases in their place, they are reduced to less than what they can mean and you end up with a self-help seminar instead of a legitimate religion. Also, since the symbols were generally created by the progressives in the various religions, they can be explained more fully, discrediting the conservative interpretations on their own ground.


I want to agree, although I recognize that for so many people the historical symbols are so loaded with negative baggage as to overwhelm the positives. This is where churches like the Unitarians come in, for people who on one hand want semi-mainstream religion, but who are damaged/offended/suspicious of (often with good reason) of typical American Christianity. In Baton Rouge, for example, a large number of the faculty at LSU attended the local Unitarian church (the others were pretty scary). Donna had a similar experience in Yakima.

I myself am comfortable with the traditional symbols in Christianity because, first I was raised in a relatively healthy environment, second, I was allowed to question without being squelched, and finally, as a theoretical physicist I am comfortable with "symbolic spaces:" whose connection to "reality" is difficult to pin down. Do electrons really exist? I don't know, but it sure works for me. I am also comfortable because I don't think the point of religion is cosmology (anymore). To assert that Genesis be taken literally is silly. On the other hand, to assert that we ought to treat every human being, indeed every creature, as if it were a beloved divine creation--well that works for me. (Training in math and poetry does wonders for the subjunctive.) It may not work for everyone, and I will not assert that everyone need to work in the same symbolic space as me. There are many other symbolic spaces that work just as well. And there are many that are poisonous--much if not most of fundamentalism, "The Secret," and so on.

How do we balance that out? I don't know. Frankly, I don't think we can. People will always try to "game" the system, any system, will always exploit and distort whatever symbolic system we work with--just like there is no political or economic system that cannot be gamed. That's the genius of science, in many respects: where skepticism is a virtue, it is relatively more difficult to game the system of science. Science also has an advantage of having an external referee--the natural world. I don't know how one can import those qualities to religion, or if they even can be imported.

On the other hand, SC has a point: much of the material is already there. Jesus was executed because he pointed out the emptiness of the religious and political authorities of his day. Unfortunately, the Pat Robertsons and George Bushes forget that Jesus' critique applies to the emptiness of all religious and political authorities throughout time. How they fail to see this is beyond me--except man's astounding ability for self-deception.

Sorry, a bit rambling there. I wanted to show I wasn't blowing off the entire discussion above. Most of it was really perceptive.
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

User avatar
sanscardinality
Posts: 69
Joined: Wed Jan 24, 2007 7:10 pm
Location: West By God Virginny
Contact:

Postby sanscardinality » Tue Apr 17, 2007 11:27 am

caliban wrote:I wasn't offended. All that offends me are mean-spiritedness and sloppy thinking. I myself was raised in a fairly healthy religious environment, where I was allowed to question, where women were treated as equals, and where charity mattered. After hearing many people's stories and reading history I understand how damaging Christianity has been to many people and to many cultures, and so I respect people for rejecting religion. But I get annoyed by simplistic taxonomies of religion, of the kind that Dawkins peddles.


Good deal. Dawkins drives me nuts for the same reason. I think there is a line between being a strong critic and just being a prig. Dawkins has crossed the prig event horizon, the only thing escaping being two jets of very high energy hubris. If a planet with intelligent life happened to cross one of those jets full-on, it would be an extinction level event for meaningful discourse.

...but I am bored by debates about "true" beliefs. I only care about debates that really challenge us to be fully human...


Well put.

I want to agree, although I recognize that for so many people the historical symbols are so loaded with negative baggage as to overwhelm the positives.


This gets into the purpose of symbols and ritual. I am inclined towards a Jungian view of these things, and so to me one cannot decide on new symbols, nor replace them with language. The same for rituals. Some of the most profound experiences of my life have been during events like the Paschal Vigil or Chenrezig meditations in a formal setting. I can relate to the descriptions of the transformative effects of the ritual dramas the various mystery cults used. I don't attribute this so much to the specific dogmatic meaning of symbols (which of course reduces them to signs) but to the technology of ritual and art and its effect on the human psyche. There is a big difference in my experience between sitting in a white room with fold out chairs discussing religion and chanting Psalms in a darkened sanctuary for 12 hours in front of the funeral bier. The one is perhaps interesting, but the latter is a real experience.

I would go so far as to say that if religion has a single purpose, it is to maintain these techniques for the psyche to operate within. The dogma is generally harmful, and the social work beneficial, but I see both as side effects of the fundamental work of transformational psychology. Just my $.02...

SC
Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.



Oscar Wilde

User avatar
caliban
Site Admin
Posts: 155
Joined: Wed Feb 28, 2007 12:32 pm
Contact:

So it goes

Postby caliban » Tue Apr 17, 2007 12:17 pm

After the news of Kurt Vonnegut's passing, I revisited "Breakfast of Champions." One of the conceits of the novel is that humans have no immunity against bad ideas. I would modify this: each person is immune to some bad ideas, but not all, and that different people have different immunities. So, while some people can reject ugly notions in religion--or politics, or even "hey, if we can build a nuclear weapon, let's go for it!"--others may not be equipped to do so. Some people have violent reactions to ingesting peanuts; others imbibe the ideas of religion--or, again, religion, or politics, or economics--and then go on and do enormous damage.

You'd think that Dawkins, of all people, might realize this: that some memes confer immunity against others, and that this explains different responses to the same input, and even inconsistencies within people (for example, Mother Teresa with tremendous compassionate towards the ill, and yet apparently some quite medieval ideas in other arenas). Unfortunately, Dawkins appears to have no resistance against the meme "I'm a scientist so every idea I have must be logical." Many scientists share this lack of resistance, I have to say.
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

User avatar
Windwalker
Site Admin
Posts: 427
Joined: Fri Dec 08, 2006 12:47 pm
Location: The Shore of Waking Dreams
Contact:

Postby Windwalker » Tue Apr 17, 2007 12:43 pm

sanscardinality wrote:I would go so far as to say that if religion has a single purpose, it is to maintain these techniques for the psyche to operate within. The dogma is generally harmful, and the social work beneficial, but I see both as side effects of the fundamental work of transformational psychology.

I think this is a valid point in the biological domain as well, which might explain many aspects of religion. The kind of experience you describe is what people pursue during vision quests, and it can be evoked by stimulus extremes. Such an epiphany can also happen when a scientist "sees" a new pattern (I describe it in my Double Helix essay). It also happens at the moment of orgasm. There is a reason why Teresa of Avila looks the way she does in Bernini's famous sculpture, and this may be yet another reason why real (rather than ideal) love is often treated as a competitor by arbiters of morality.

The experience of epiphany seems to be located in our cortex (epileptics have many more visions, which may be caused by misfiring and overloading of neurons). This in no way detracts from its incandescent effect and from its importance in shaping us individually and collectively. However, as cult leaders know, there is another side to this ecstatic dissolution of self, which brings me to something that Calvin said.

caliban wrote:Unfortunately, Dawkins appears to have no resistance against the meme "I'm a scientist so every idea I have must be logical." Many scientists share this lack of resistance, I have to say.

I have no quarrel with your evaluation of Dawkins. You know this from being one of the pre-readers of my book. You also know my views of the crucial role of emotion in making moral choices, and the centrality of love in encouraging humane conduct. However, I want to quote a paragraph from Susan Sontag's essay "Fascinating Fascism", which may cast a slightly different light on Dawkins' excessive embrace of reason:

"Fascism also stands for an ideal or rather ideals that are persistent today under other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders). These ideals are vivid and moving to many people."

This brings us full circle to the dualities of inspiration versus comfort, the ideal versus the real. I suggested fusion as the answer -- not necessarily achievable, but perhaps worth striving for.
For I come from an ardent race
That has subsisted on defiance and visions.

User avatar
caliban
Site Admin
Posts: 155
Joined: Wed Feb 28, 2007 12:32 pm
Contact:

Postby caliban » Tue Apr 17, 2007 2:20 pm

Windwalker wrote:However, I want to quote a paragraph from Susan Sontag's essay "Fascinating Fascism", which may cast a slightly different light on Dawkins' excessive embrace of reason:

"Fascism also stands for an ideal or rather ideals that are persistent today under other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders). These ideals are vivid and moving to many people."

I certainly understand and agree with concerns about religious fascism. I can--and plan to write about in my SF--a not too implausible future where in the US we have Christian madrassas and suicide bombers at Planned Parenthood and other places. (Oklahoma City, and Eric Rudolph, are obvious precursors.) And it is a question worth asking: is religious so inherently unstable, and humans so succeptible to bad ideas (and actions) from religion, that we must throw the whole thing out? Sometimes even I am tempted to that idea.

My quarrel with Dawkins is his monochromatic vision. He sees only irredeemable flaws in religion, and sees almost exclusively the positive in science. He indulges in sophstry of the worst sort, setting up straw men. His biggest sin, so to speak, is that he fails to act like a biologist, but more like a mathematical physics. His arguments against religion tend towards the axiomatic. He does not appear to have done much fieldwork. If he had tackled the problem like a good field biologist--imagine a Jane Goodall of religion--I think he would have much more compelling arguments.

Dawkins: "However, the moderate, sensible religious people you've cited make the world safe for the extremists by bringing up children -- sometimes even indoctrinating children -- to believe that faith trumps everything and by influencing society to respect faith."
( http://www.salon.com/books/int/2006/10/ ... ndex1.html).

Faith trumps everything? That's not the universal message in churches. He's cherry picking the data. It's sophistry. It's sloppy rhetoric, the kind that concludes that if a woman weighs the same as duck, she must be a witch. Dawkins sets himself up at the champion of rationalism--too bad he evinces so little of it himself. I'd be much more sympathetic to his arguments if he would. Consider this minor rewrite of Dawkins:

"However, the moderate, sensible liberals you've cited make the world safe for Stalinists by bringing up children -- sometimes even indoctrinating children -- to believe that inequality trumps everything and by influencing society to respect socialism."

I am all in favor of reasoned, informed critiques of religion. They are needed. It's the sloppy, dogmatic ones that earn my ire.
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

User avatar
Windwalker
Site Admin
Posts: 427
Joined: Fri Dec 08, 2006 12:47 pm
Location: The Shore of Waking Dreams
Contact:

Postby Windwalker » Tue Apr 17, 2007 3:16 pm

caliban wrote:And it is a question worth asking: is religion so inherently unstable, and humans so susceptible to bad ideas (and actions) from religion, that we must throw the whole thing out? Sometimes even I am tempted to that idea.

I would say that humans, as inherently social animals, are indeed susceptible to bad ideas -- hence groupthink and lynch mobs. The core bad idea in all absolutisms is: believe tenets posited as immutable and unquestionable, and the more arbitrary, the better. Corollary: if you question, you are evil and must die, preferably gruesomely.

caliban wrote:My quarrel with Dawkins is his monochromatic vision. // His biggest sin, so to speak, is that he fails to act like a biologist, but more like a mathematical physicist. His arguments against religion tend towards the axiomatic. He does not appear to have done much fieldwork. If he had tackled the problem like a good field biologist--imagine a Jane Goodall of religion--I think he would have much more compelling arguments.

I had to smile at this, given our respective disciplines. I will now make a couple of jocular statements and I hope this nuance-poor medium manages to convey my light-hearted intent. Are you indignant that a lowly biologist took upon himself the august mantle of a physicist? Penrose and Weinberg (to name only two) pronounce on biology all the time, in far more absolute terms.

Seriously, though: Dawkins does indeed act like a physicist, in trying to come up with a few, simple, inclusive paradigms -- perhaps an unattainable goal in biology, especially as long as we extrapolate from a single sample. He did it with the gene, he did it with the meme. As a biologist, I'd say that both these paradigms are far more wrong than Newtonian mechanics vis-à-vis their Einsteinian equivalent. The research you propose would be a tremendous undertaking, but its chances of being funded are zero, especially in today's climate. Which brings me to another possible reason for Dawkins' extreme position.

I suspect that Dawkins' stance also arises from a sense of being besieged, which I certainly can understand because I feel it myself. The line between religion and government is blurring in the West, despite the proven intractable problems of such a configuration. In particular, we see people who take full advantage of citizen privileges in democracies, but also expect the right to have their religion trump their duties (from Hassidim in Israel claiming exemption from taxes and army service to Muslims in Europe practicing female infibulation and issuing death fatwas to Christians in the US banning the teaching of evolution and dictating the direction of NIH research). The conciliatory gestures of such luminaries as Sagan and Gould seem not to have been effective -- the divisions now are much harder and harsher. Dawkins is famous, so he has appointed himself a champion of sorts and is responding to the savagery with savagery of his own.

Speaking of funding, I have a grant and experiments to attend to. I may soon be burned as a witch myself. But until they arrive with torches, I will be toiling away in my lab.
For I come from an ardent race
That has subsisted on defiance and visions.

User avatar
sanscardinality
Posts: 69
Joined: Wed Jan 24, 2007 7:10 pm
Location: West By God Virginny
Contact:

Postby sanscardinality » Tue Apr 17, 2007 4:24 pm

Windwalker wrote:I would say that humans, as inherently social animals, are indeed susceptible to bad ideas -- hence groupthink and lynch mobs. The core bad idea in all absolutisms is: believe tenets posited as immutable and unquestionable, and the more arbitrary, the better. Corollary: if you question, you are evil and must die, preferably gruesomely.


I've been researching the last few days of Giordano Bruno's life. It is absolutely shocking, even to me (I'm pretty jaded), how gruesomely he died. All forms of Holy Law, whether it is infallibility or sharia are codified instances of exactly what you've described.

Windwalker wrote:I suspect that Dawkins' stance also arises from a sense of being besieged, which I certainly can understand because I feel it myself. The line between religion and government is blurring in the West, despite the proven intractable problems of such a configuration. In particular, we see people who take full advantage of citizen privileges in democracies, but also expect the right to have their religion trump their duties (from Hassidim in Israel claiming exemption from taxes and army service to Muslims in Europe practicing female infibulation and issuing death fatwas to Christians in the US banning the teaching of evolution and dictating the direction of NIH research). The conciliatory gestures of such luminaries as Sagan and Gould seem not to have been effective -- the divisions now are much harder and harsher. Dawkins is famous, so he has appointed himself a champion of sorts and is responding to the savagery with savagery of his own.


Dawkins and others who want to savage their adversaries should give old Sun Tzu a glance from time to time. He's got a whole grab bag of better ways to defeat one's foes. I think Dawkins harms the basic positions he tries to defend. I basically agree with him on some issues, but he makes me cringe in his presentation and attitude. He's like the "W" of science to me - smug and full of bravado, but basically a privileged snob who's likely never had a real fight in all his life. People accuse Sagan of trying to be a rock star, but I always had the sense that he was really inspired by the material and the wonder of science and discovery. Dawkins has all the same self-aggrandizing aspects, but comes off as someone who just wants to be the smartest guy in the room and to snobbishly tell everyone who disagrees how stupid they are.

Speaking of funding, I have a grant and experiments to attend to. I may soon be burned as a witch myself. But until they arrive with torches, I will be toiling away in my lab.


Good luck on the experiments and grant work!

SC
Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.



Oscar Wilde

User avatar
caliban
Site Admin
Posts: 155
Joined: Wed Feb 28, 2007 12:32 pm
Contact:

Postby caliban » Tue Apr 17, 2007 4:50 pm

Windwalker wrote:
caliban wrote: His biggest sin, so to speak, is that he fails to act like a biologist, but more like a mathematical physicist. His arguments against religion tend towards the axiomatic. He does not appear to have done much fieldwork. If he had tackled the problem like a good field biologist--imagine a Jane Goodall of religion--I think he would have much more compelling arguments.

I had to smile at this, given our respective disciplines. I will now make a couple of jocular statements and I hope this nuance-poor medium manages to convey my light-hearted intent. Are you indignant that a lowly biologist took upon himself the august mantle of a physicist? Penrose and Weinberg (to name only two) pronounce on biology all the time, in far more absolute terms.

Alas, perhaps this nuance-poor medium failed me as well. I meant exactly the irony: that Dawkins' axiomatic approach is as misguided and narrow-visioned as those of Penrose and Weinberg on biology. I would claim that religion is like a rich ecosystem, with a diversity of niches, which Dawkins caricatures beyond recognition. Physics is a wonderful tool for systems amenable to strong reductionism--but is a poor tool for ecosystems and complex social structures. If anything, I meant to comment on the limitations of my discipline. Sorry if I appear to have slighted biology. Quite the contrary.

I suspect that Dawkins' stance also arises from a sense of being besieged, which I certainly can understand because I feel it myself. The line between religion and government is blurring in the West, despite the proven intractable problems of such a configuration.

Believe me, I am alarmed by this as well. As viewed by the fundamentalists I'm worse: I'm an apostate. I am extremely uncomfortable with phony God-talk and Jesus-talk.

But Dawkins' irrational syllogisms, like the one highlighted above, are scarcely better. Fundamentalism in religion arises out of a sense of alienation from modernity--indeed, fundamentalists feel besieged, and have an emotional, visceral response. Dawkins, understandably, feels besieged, and also has an emotional, visceral response. I can respect that. It's his pseudo-rational argumentation, whereby he sweeps together and equates whole phyla of religion, that irritates me. It's sloppy rhetoric, and it's lousy analysis.
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

User avatar
Windwalker
Site Admin
Posts: 427
Joined: Fri Dec 08, 2006 12:47 pm
Location: The Shore of Waking Dreams
Contact:

Postby Windwalker » Tue Apr 17, 2007 5:09 pm

No, I got your joke and appreciated it. We three are really in agreement, and our diffences can be ascribed primarily to ecosystem details! (*laughs*) So let's try to write and publish works that represent science and scientists better than Dawkins does, dammit!
For I come from an ardent race
That has subsisted on defiance and visions.

User avatar
Windwalker
Site Admin
Posts: 427
Joined: Fri Dec 08, 2006 12:47 pm
Location: The Shore of Waking Dreams
Contact:

Postby Windwalker » Tue May 01, 2007 2:42 pm

Related to our discussions here, Christopher Hitchens just brought out a book on these issues. Three excerpts are published in Slate, starting here: http://www.slate.com/id/2165033/entry/2165035/
For I come from an ardent race
That has subsisted on defiance and visions.

User avatar
caliban
Site Admin
Posts: 155
Joined: Wed Feb 28, 2007 12:32 pm
Contact:

Postby caliban » Wed May 02, 2007 7:54 am

Windwalker wrote:Related to our discussions here, Christopher Hitchens just brought out a book on these issues.

Hitchens, as a professional provocateur, is a more entertaining critic than the lumbering self-righteousness of Dawkins. But Hitchens indulges in essentially the same sloppy sophistry as Dawkins, namely that the erroneous concept that religion is primarily about believing silly things. Hitchens, like Dawkins, feels he can argue entirely by worst-case examples, and then misquotes counter-examples. Hitchens says,
Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them.

Bonhoeffer, nebulous humanism? Clearly Hitchens has not read Bonhoeffer, or has decided that actually addressing Bonhoeffer's writings and motives would derail Hitchen's line of argument.

This, sadly, reminds me of the equally illogical arguments found among creationists, who nearly universally subscribe to the following syllogism:

If you believe in evolution, you "cannot" believe in God.

If you do not believe in God, you "cannot" have any morality.

Both statements are absurd.

For a much more nuanced view, read the interview with Karen Armstrong in Salon:

http://www.salon.com/books/int/2006/05/ ... index.html

Armstrong takes issues both with infantile religious fundamentalism, but also skewers the narrow arguments of Dawkins and his ilk.

And look--I actually can agree with a lot of what Hitchens says. He is correct that one can be highly moral without religion, and that people who claim to be religious are often horribly immoral. And so on. But, as I said before, when he deliberately chooses the worst cases and simultaneously refuses to examine in detail any counter-example--as in Bonhoeffer--well, this is sloppy argumentation. I have my own deep concerns and questions about religion, and do not have and do not expect to have slick answers, ever. Sadly, for many people religion is primarily about believing silly things--but this is laziness, and I see equal laziness in people's attitudes towards science and politics. (People simply don't want to do the hard work of thinking.) I share alarm over rising fundamentalism here and throughout the world. But bad rhetoric is not the answer.
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

User avatar
Windwalker
Site Admin
Posts: 427
Joined: Fri Dec 08, 2006 12:47 pm
Location: The Shore of Waking Dreams
Contact:

Postby Windwalker » Wed May 02, 2007 9:40 am

I put up the Slate link just as a follow up. I read Karen Armstrong's book Holy War, in which she discusses the Crusades in an even-handed way. I found her interview in Salon interesting, as idiosyncratic as Hitchens' excerpts. To me, it brings up two matters.

There is no question that people pick and choose quotes to support their theses. A point that both Armstrong and Hitchens make is that a single text can be used to support widely divergent positions, which negates infallibility. Armstrong bypasses this by viewing religious texts as myth and poetry, a conclusion I agree with. Which brings me to the second point.

If your definition of god and religion becomes wide enough, it goes past the point where it can mean the same thing as the traditional definition. Armstrong's view is a contemporary version of syncretic Spinozism. To some extent, Armstrong and Hitchens (and you and me) think that the crucial distinction is how you treat others. If this is the definition of religion, the maps would have to be radically redrawn.

caliban wrote:I share alarm over rising fundamentalism here and throughout the world. But bad rhetoric is not the answer.

And sadly, it seems that nobody knows what the answer is.
For I come from an ardent race
That has subsisted on defiance and visions.

User avatar
caliban
Site Admin
Posts: 155
Joined: Wed Feb 28, 2007 12:32 pm
Contact:

Postby caliban » Wed May 02, 2007 10:29 am

The Hitchens piece is certainly germane to this thread.
Windwalker wrote:If your definition of god and religion becomes wide enough, it goes past the point where it can mean the same thing as the traditional definition. Armstrong's view is a contemporary version of syncretic Spinozism. To some extent, Armstrong and Hitchens (and you and me) think that the crucial distinction is how you treat others. If this is the definition of religion, the maps would have to be radically redrawn.

I agree and yet I fundamentally disagree. My disagreement is that the redrawn maps are already there, have long been there. In fact they have long been lying on top of each other, which is where the problem lies.

The theologian Marcus Borg makes a useful distinction of two approaches to religion, two "maps" if you like. There is the religion based on purity--purity of belief, thought, action--and there is religion based on radical compassion. There has always, always, always been a tension between these two maps, but one is not more "traditional" than the other.
Jesus, in parable after parable after parable, points out that how you treat others trumps outward piety and the class you belong to; and that's why he was killed. The Old Testament itself is arguably two different texts or maps co-mingled: one, the purity map of silly beliefs and quirky cultural practices alongside justification of genocide--and the other, which is really just as "traditional," saying that being good lies in how you treat those less fortunate than yourself, the widows and orphans and so on.

The "purity" map of religion is the one that causes trouble and is the one that Dawkins, Hitchens, and others object to. I object to it as well, and so does Armstrong, Borg, John Shelby Spong ("Why Christianity Must Change or Die"), and countless others. But I do not accept the implication that the purity map is THE traditional definition of religion. That's just handing the whole thing over to Wahhabists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

This is why I roll my eyes at Dawkins and Hitchens. I much prefer authors such as Borg, Spong, and Armstrong, who recognize and grapple with the tension between the two maps. One could fairly come to the conclusion that the horrors of the "purity" map of religion have tainted even the "compassion" map and so reject religion on those grounds. That's a reasonable conclusion. But it is not reasonable for Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, to pretend that the compassion map doesn't exist, or that it is such a minority viewpoint as to be dismissed as trivia. Furthermore, Dawkins and Hitchens are also arguing for their own purity map--just a secular purity of thought and (non) belief. I find all purity maps repulsive in the end.

I think the answer is to reclaim and to foreground compassion maps--whether through pre-existing, traditional compassion maps found in religion, or in (not so) new secular maps. I think the compassion-mappers of all stripes ought to recognize their commonality and to join in rejecting purity maps.
Last edited by caliban on Wed May 02, 2007 11:59 am, edited 1 time in total.
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison


Return to “The Poetry and Prose of Science and Science Fiction”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest