Posts Tagged ‘religion’

God, Biology and Choice: Perhaps I Simply Had to Write This

In No Particular Path on November 13, 2018 at 12:04 pm

It is possible that every choice we make is freely made at the moment we make it. This isn’t to say that our choices aren’t influenced by our biological make-up and our present physical conditions, our past experiences and knowledge, our perceptions, our psychological and emotional states, our beliefs and our relationships with others who are involved in the choice; but all those things are simply data we use in making a determination about our choices, not the choices themselves. And the degree of influence any one factor may exert at any moment will certainly vary. In the end, though, we choose, and the choice is ours to make.
Another possibility is that our choices aren’t choices at all, but are predetermined by the path set for us by a deity or deities. In that case, we are simply puppets of the divine, who is working out some plan beyond our influence or understanding. All the influences that may affect a free will choice would be part of the overall experience, but wouldn’t change the choice itself. We may ask ourselves why we chose as we did and what plan the divine is using us for, or why the divine has directed others to behave as they do; but the responsibility for the choice itself isn’t ours or anyone else’s. We also have to consider whether everything is predetermined: every triumph, every tragedy, every disaster and every celebration.
The third possibility is that our choices are biologically predetermined; we are genetically pre-programmed to behave in certain ways. In this case, there may be a certain randomness in the universe itself; the movements of the cosmos, for example, are events which may affect us, as are all the influences under free will, but our specific response to those influences at any one moment is predetermined by our biology and the biology of all our evolutionary and ancestral history. As with divine predestination, we have no personal responsibility for our choices, nor does anyone else; we are simply leaves tossed on the wind, vulnerable to the forces of nature, but unable to make a deliberate choice about what is happening to us. We can, if our biological make-up predisposes us to it, question how those forces led us to this place, but the questions and any answers we arrive at would simply be an extension of our biological predetermination.
It is also possible that we have some free choice, but it is limited. Either the divine or our biological nature gives us the ability to make choices, but only with regard to the details of the trajectory, not the trajectory itself. We have freedom to choose, but only within predetermined limits set for us according to our biological make-up or our assigned place in god’s plan.
In any event, the larger question, for me anyway, is “so what?” Does it really matter whether all this is “real” or not? If I walk out the door and decide to turn left rather than right, does it really matter in any practical way whether that choice was an event in the moment or a predestined action. I will, in any case, experience the action according to what I believe to be the reality. If I believe I am making the choice I will experience the process of consideration, weighing the relevant influences, thinking about the possible consequences, deciding on my course of action and acting. And while the discussion of the possibilities makes for a wonderful philosophical exercise, and is certainly useful as a way to try to understand what it means to be human, unless I am able to separate myself from my perceptions, it makes no difference.
In other words, there is really no practical sense in which the reality of free will or predestination changes my responsibility in this life for my actions.
Suppose I believe that everything I choose is predetermined. Then that belief would also be predetermined. If I then use that belief as a reason to leave my life to whatever happens, without trying to deliberately choose a course of action, telling myself that nothing I do is in my control, then I have a dilemma. The rest of the world may still assign credit or blame to me for my actions, and generate consequences based on that. I may not like the consequences, but really have no complaint, because all of this would have to be part of the same predetermined reality that I claim to believe in. If I believe that I have a choice, on the other hand, then I can certainly examine my choices to see if they fit some standard of ethics, morals, or logic; and use that to argue for their rightness.
In the same way, debate about god’s existence can make for an interesting exercise in trying to understand the nature of the universe and the place of humans in that universe, but my beliefs will be part of what creates my experience, and they will help to shape my choices, the consequences of those choices, and the direction of my path. I cannot, of course, no matter how devoutly I might wish it, impose my belief wholly onto anyone else and make them see the world as I see it, or expect them to act in the world according to my perceptions.
In other words, either god exists or does not. There are no other possibilities. The differences between beliefs are only in how we define god. Our beliefs are in our definitions and vice-versa. There are a great many ideas of god in which I do not believe; and I suspect that a great many people would not believe in my ideas of god. So what? We are all human beings, limited by our humanness to flawed perceptions of any god that might exist. And since our definitions and perceptions are limited and flawed, so are the choices we might make based on those perceptions. We can use our idea of god to explain our actions, but we cannot expect others to see things our way just because our beliefs are sincere.
If my actions lead to consequences that are harmful to others, it is unreasonable to assume that my religious beliefs and convictions are exculpatory. I am still responsible for my own actions in any practical interpretation of what that responsibility is. To come to any other conclusion would be to treat my religious beliefs as a form of mental illness (a conclusion to which far too many evangelical atheists are willing to leap), in which I would claim that I am not responsible for my actions because my god made it impossible for me to understand them, to make rational choices about them, to understand their consequences, and to choose to act any differently.
A belief in free will, the ability of humans to make choices as independent individuals, is necessary for any sense of morality, personal responsibility, ethics, and judgment. It is also, of course, the foundation of guilt, blame, shame, and regret. But it can be used, as well, for conscious change, for correction, for discipline, for redemption. Absent free will apology is just a mindless exercise, an illusion. Without free will, punishment is simply cruel and pointless. Without free will, we do not affect our existence, it affects us.
It doesn’t matter at all whether all of this is an illusion. It is within the illusion that we must live, by the very nature of the illusion itself and our limited ability as humans to perceive it (as opposed to theorize about it) or to act outside of it.

God with a Lowercase “g”

In A God of Infinite Possibility on October 14, 2017 at 8:18 am

In our grammar and composition classes we are told that “god” is supposed to be written with a capital “g.” When I type on my phone, autocorrect tries to do that for me. If, however, we write “a god” then the lowercase “g” is acceptable.
In English, we capitalize proper names, the major words in titles, the letters in acronyms, and the pronoun “I.” The only one of these that would apply to the word “God” would be the first. It is a proper name.
So, when one is referring to the god named “God” one should definitely capitalize the word; just as one would capitalize the name Allah, or Hera, or Krishna, or Diana, or any of several other names for one god or another. I mostly try to do that.
There are two reasons that I mostly, however, do not capitalize the word “god” when I am writing about matters of belief, particularly my own beliefs, or about religion.
The first is that I am usually not talking about the specific god named God. That is, more specifically, recognized as the name used by the Judeo/Christian religious traditions for the god they worship, the God of Abraham. So, when a Christian or a Jew refers to God, they are using the formal name, and it is, therefore, proper to capitalize it. They also, of course, capitalize every use of a pronoun or any alternative word such as Almighty that refers to this same God. This has less to do with grammar, however, and more to do with the particular rules and customs of their faith.
Second, I’m a Deist. I believe that there is, at the core of everything, god. In my personal creed I state that I believe that “Everything that is, is god.” Since that is a significantly different concept and definition of god than the Judeo/Christian God, and since I don’t consider god to be a being, I don’t capitalize the word. I also avoid pronouns for god as much as possible, since I believe that god transcends gender (and other human-like characteristics). I could use “it,” I suppose, but that sounds awkward in the writing and the speaking.
Of course, an accurate reading of the Bible will reveal that “God” is not actually God’s name. His name, using the masculine pronoun most common in Christianity, is also not Yahweh, or Jehovah. Those last two names (which are actually the same name) come from the story of the burning bush. When Moses encounters the burning bush, he asks the name of the god who is speaking from it. The voice replies, “Yahweh,” which seems to mean, “I am.” Note that it isn’t “I am ‘called,’ or My name is ‘I Am.’” Some Biblical scholars take this to mean that God was deliberately not giving Moses a name. This would be consistent with a general belief at the time that if a god told you its name, it gave you control over it.
The only purpose and consequence of having to capitalize “god” every time we use it is to perpetuate two flawed ideas: first, that we are always talking about god as defined and worshipped by those who follow the God of Abraham; and second that use of the word is always intended as a formal name.
Cultures and cultural norms are established by how we communicate about ourselves and the world around us. They change when people begin to consciously reject the cultural messages and challenge the culturally prescribed norms. And when it comes to culture, even small things matter. The “Christian Right” in this country continues to insist that the United States is a Christian nation. The insistence that every reference to god is a reference to “God” reinforces that inaccurate belief.
When, for instance, we argue that the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, or the phrase “so help me God” in a public oath are neutral expressions and not religious, we are reinforcing the idea that “god” and “God” are the same thing. They aren’t. (This leaves aside, for the moment, the obvious point that neither “god” nor “God” is a neutral term for an atheist. Constant use of the term also reinforces the idea that belief in any god at all can be assumed.)
Those who would promote this idea that “God” can be a neutral concept should also, perhaps, consider the consequence of that claim for their God. Overuse of any word or set of words weakens their power. Push God into public life as a neutral term, throw it up everywhere, and it becomes less and less meaningful. You may think that everyone knows what you mean when you use it, but you would be mistaken. Eventually, it becomes background noise, just another word that is part of the common lexicon, with a meaning that seems quaint and anachronistic, but whose purpose is more connotative than denotative. It comes to mean “sincerely,” perhaps, or “good fortune,” or any of a thousand different ways of indicating a kind of general importance. Notice how often people already say “for God’s sake” or “God damn” or “oh my God” without any sense that they are actually talking about God at all.
If you want to preserve the specialness, the particular divinity, you want your God to have, the best thing you could do would be to get it out of the secular realm. Stop insisting that every use of the word needs to be capitalized. Stop telling people that its meaning is neutral. Start insisting that every time someone refers to “God” that they must mean specifically the god you believe in. Copyright the name. Make it your brand. Make people pay a royalty if they wish to use it anywhere except in the context of your churches, your prayers, your sacred texts. Insist that it should only be used in respectful and reverent ways. If someone writes the word “God” in any publication and capitalizes the word they must be ready to certify that it references the God of your faith and no others.
Sometimes I will use the lowercase even when it seems clear that the discussion does, in fact, have something to do with Christian beliefs or dogma. When I do that it may be because I am trying to expand the discussion to include all such beliefs, rather than saying that the issue is only about Christians. It may also signal that I do not agree that the issue accurately depicts what Christian tradition teaches, and I don’t want to dignify these flawed claims by reinforcing the idea that they represent “God.” (I have read the Bible and other Christian texts, and was raised in a Christian church.)
So, if you read something I have written and notice that I have not used the capital “g.” there is no need for you to correct me. You may assume that the usage was deliberate and purposeful.

Normalization and the Norm

In PeaceAble, Politics on December 14, 2016 at 10:28 am

There seems to be some confusion out there about what we mean when we use the word “normalize,” and how that is related to the word “normal.” Allow me to clarify.

When we talk about normalizing a particular behavior or idea, we are not saying that the person exhibiting that behavior or expressing that idea is not “normal” in the common sense of that word. We aren’t, for example, saying that the person is deranged, or intellectually deficient, or pathological. Some might actually think those things, but that is a different discussion and I would appreciate it if you did not engage in that here.

We are, rather, using the word “normal” as the adjective form of the word “norm.” A norm is a behavior or idea that our culture or society tells us, in both subtle and more obvious ways, we should expect from each other. We are trained from early on to regard these things as “the way it is.” Now norms are not necessarily the most common or most acceptable or most likely behaviors or ideas, which is what the word normal usually suggests. For instance, American culture has, for its entire history, been dominated by the behaviors and ideas of straight (at least openly), male, Puritan/Christian (at least publicly), powerful warrior men. In other words, the straight, white, Puritan/Christian, powerful male warrior is the norm. And we are socialized to view the world from that perspective.

Now, there are, in fact, more women than men in the population; there are far more people among us more who have no more than modest power, and we are quickly discovering that LGBTQ+ people are much more numerous than we have been told and the non-white population may soon outnumber the white population. And any one time, the number of people who are veterans or serving in the armed forces is less than 15% of the population.  But that only states the demographics, not the norm. The norm remains primarily straight, white, Puritan/Christian, warrior men of power (especially economic). And that means, that despite our attempts to change things, the perspectives arising from that norm continue to pervade the society.

Distrust, bigotry, discrimination and disenfranchisement of people who do not represent that norm is “normal.” Misogyny, racism, homophobia, and the Christianization of society are “normal.” The dis-education and miseducation of those not part of the norm is “normal.” Using the very genuine fears of the working class, minorities, and women to divide the masses of people and thus more easily rule over them is “normal.” The idea that success is to be defined in terms of wealth is “normal.” The idea that everyone has the same opportunities to achieve that mythological thing we call the “American Dream” is “normal.” The idea that problems can be best resolved through force is “normal.”

Now we have tried over the years to change some of those things, but progress is always slow and still fragile, as the recent election demonstrates. The things we do to create greater equality for all, to promote justice and protect the rights of those who have less power to protect them for themselves,  and to seek more peaceable solutions to our problems, are called “normalization,” or “normative behaviors.” That is, they are things we do to create new norms that better reflect our diversity, our stated American ideals, our rights, privileges and responsibilities as members of society. But our social behaviors, our laws, our public images of ourselves in the media and our demographics all change more quickly than our norms do.

So electing a non-white President did not change the norm of whiteness as the perspective through which we see things. The Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, Roe-v-Wade, and the striking down of laws that would require the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in public school science classes, for a few examples, did not usher in a new secular norm. Women still have less access to power, non-whites and non-Christians are still marginalized, and it is still “normal” to proclaim one’s patriotism while waving the flag of a nation that went to war against the United States, and lost. We still think that the more firepower we have, the safer we are.

When we try to normalize something, we are trying to create it as a norm. We are saying that this behavior or this idea is to be expected, that it defines us as a society and a culture, that this is now the perspective from which we will evaluate and express our public and official actions.

So, what we are really seeing around us now is not the normalization of bigotry, of white supremacy, of male dominance and privilege in the affairs of the nation; we are seeing an attempt by that “normal” perspective to roll back the normalization of those things that threaten it. It is not the normalization of racism that threatens us, it is the de-normalization of diversity. It is not the normalization of misogyny, it is the de-normalization of the idea that the feminine is in all ways the equal of the masculine. It is not the normalization of xenophobia or homophobia or religious prejudice, it is the de-normalization of acceptance, tolerance, and cooperation. It is an attempt to say that who we are becomig is not who we are; an attempt to say that who we are is embodied in the worst of who we have been all along.


In PeaceAble, Politics on November 22, 2016 at 10:08 am

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign did not validate or normalize racism, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, white supremacy or the violence, both verbal and physical, that so many people are afflicted with. What the campaign did was to show us just how normal and validated those things are and how little progress we’ve made in changing that.

Norms are a function of the dominant culture, and the culture always changes a lot more slowly than any era’s current attitudes might suggest. We have been riding the pendulum swings of cultural attitudes for a very long time without actually changing that much of the culture itself. There is one simple reason for this: the dominant cultural group, the normative identity of the culture, has not changed. We have tried to bring change from outside that group rather than from within. We tend to see social change as something that has to be done to or in spite of the dominant group, rather than something they have to do.

In America, the dominant cultural group, the normative identity, and therefore what has to change, is straight, white, Christian, capitalist, warrior men.

How does our culture genuinely work for peace, genuinely counter the argument that the way to deal with our enemies is to destroy them utterly when our language is full of the metaphors of war and violence, when so many of sports and games are microcosmic wars, when our entertainments are so predominantly about superheroes defeating supervillains in dark Gothams full of despicable characters?

How do we become a less violent society when men with guns who take over and trash public property are treated as heroes, while peaceful Native Americans protesting the actions of a private corporation are maced and beaten and arrested? The mythological westerner embodied by fictional characters such as Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger and John Wayne and (in anti-hero guise) the vigilante loners portrayed by Clint Eastwood is alive and well as a cultural norm.

How do we work toward economic and social equity when our culture portrays desirability, success and power as the unfettered accumulation of individual wealth beyond what any one person actually needs; and calls those who have less than that losers, weaklings, and takers? How can we make the best use of our resources when everyone hates to pay taxes because they focus only on what they don’t want to spend “their” taxes on rather than working for the things they do want; without recognizing that they aren’t paying nearly enough in taxes to cover any of it all by themselves. How do we learn to share the resources in a culture that teaches us that whatever someone else gets is stolen from us?

How do we overcome racism, sexism, homophobia and all kinds of bigotry and become a truly vibrant diverse society as long as there are so many accomplishments that have to be identified by hyphenated qualifiers because they are the accomplishments of the “others:” the first woman this, the first African-American that, the first Hindu-American other thing, the first openly gay American whatever?

The veneration of the Confederate battle flag and the Confederacy it represents has been normalized and validated since the Civil War ended, and we have only just recently begun the task of trying to remove it from the norm.

The truth is that all those things that the Trump campaign brought out of the woodwork are us. They are the norm.

We have tried for more than a hundred and fifty years to overcome the abomination of slavery, to create cultural and social equality for women; and yet our first non-white President greeted with an unending onslaught of racism, hatred and obstruction; and a female Presidential candidate was vilified for things that were never questioned when the candidates were male, and her opponent was elected despite his appalling treatment of women.

Hatred, fear and distrust of immigrants is as normal as apple pie.

Despite the enormous gains that our LGBTQ+ citizens have made with respect to public acceptance and specific issues such as marriage equality, we can see just how fragile those gains might still be. Heterosexuality is not just the norm, it’s a virulent, defensive, self-righteous norm.

Despite the fact that the U.S. Constitution expressly forbids the establishment of a national religion, the broad and very diverse Christian religion is seen as normative. We often find it necessary, even in situations where it can have no relevance whatsoever, to announce that someone is Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu; or worse yet, a “self-described” something, like Deist or Atheist, or Agnostic, or the new category of “Non-Affiliated.”

So how do we change this? We either have to convince white, heterosexual, Christian, capitalist, warrior men to change because it is in their interest to do so; or we have to take the power of cultural normalizing away from them. We do that by changing our participation in the things that are keeping the norms in place. What are you buying for Christmas ane what is your holiday greeting? What movies are you watching, what TV shows? Do you forgive them their violent or sexist content because they are “well-written” or have “outstanding acting?” When you are watching sports, do you hope for the brawl, the injury; do you want to see the star quarterback on the other team not just sacked, but knocked completely out of the game? Do you think that professional wrestling is family entertainment that you want to bring your 9-year-old to? Do you still laugh at jokes about dumb blondes, do you think the recent rash of memes featuring a grotesque Mexican caricature are great fun? Do you talk about “the war on” things you want to defend, and do you celebrate warriors as heroes but don’t think very often of the heroism of peacemakers?

Keep in mind that something can be the norm of a culture long past the time that it actually represents anything more than a minority of a society’s citizens. A norm is not the reality of things, it is the yardstick by which we measure what is different and who is the other. As long as we say to ourselves at any level “that’s just the way it is,” or fail to recognize that our own otherness is the result of our seeing some norm that is not us or some different other that does not share some norm of ours, then we will tinker at the edges of the culture.

Now I should note that the culture is never going to change to suit all of us or any one of us completely. There will always be norms and there will always be exceptions to those norms. That may be the most important normative idea of all.

The Zero Sum Politics of Scarcity Consciousness

In PeaceAble, Politics on November 9, 2016 at 10:27 am

As I reflect on the reasons People are giving for electing Donald trump to the Presidency, a single theme emerges.

They mention foreign workers taking our jobs; they make reference to variations on the drugged-up, slut of a lazy welfare mother having kids and asking us to support her with our taxes; the unemployed and homeless who want us to take care of them instead of getting a job; the immigrants who are coming here with their customs and religions that they want to force on us; the foreign terrorists disguised as refugees who won’t agree to keep their wars in their own countries instead of coming here to harm us.

Now, all of these things have long been shown by hard evidence to be false, but I it’s not my intention here to argue about them. Instead I want to point out something they have in common that is not often talked about.

They are each a variation on a theme of personal ownership and public scarcity; the idea that any acquisition or benefit or bit of power someone else gets takes something away from me. And if I can strongly identify with a group of people like myself we can declare ourselves collectively robbed.

“If a “foreign” worker comes here and gets a job, that job actually belongs to me or someone like me and has been stolen.” The same thing holds true for someone of a previously disadvantaged group; “Black people are taking white people’s jobs.” “Women in the workforce are taking jobs away from men.”

“If gay people are allowed to marry, then my marriage is less special, less uniquely blessed; so I have been robbed of that blessing.” And, corollary to that is the idea that if same-sex relationships are normal and acceptable, then the natural normality and specialness of my heterosexual relationship are diminished.

“If God can be worshipped in a multitude of ways and all those ways express valid and meaningful understandings of and relationships with God; then I am being robbed of the special righteousness of my relationship with God.” This is the “if everyone is right then no one is right” argument.

And the next step in this reasoning process is that if someone is taking something away from me then that is an attack on me.

“When people say ‘Happy Holidays” it diminishes the specialness of my “Merry Christmas,” so that’s an attack on Christianity itself.”

Now the problems with these arguments should be obvious, but let me state them as clearly as I can.

First, your sense of ownership and entitlement is based on a myth grounded in unacknowledged privilege. Put simply, you don’t own what you think you own. They are what Thom Hartmann calls the “commons.” This isn’t your country any more or less than it is mine and everyone else’s, and I want things for it that are different from what you want, but my desires are no less valid or important than yours.

They aren’t your taxes, they’re mine, too; and some of the things you don’t want to spend them on are things that I do want, and vice-versa.

You don’t own any job; and the fact that you now have to compete for it with people you used to be able to exclude from the pool takes nothing from you except a privilege that is not yours to claim in the first place.

You don’t own marriage or any other social or legal contract between people that does not include you.

And you certainly don’t own God; to think that your truth is the only possible one is arrogance and self-righteousness that is especially ironic in a religion that supposedly teaches you to be humble and leave the righteousness to that God.

Secondly, there is actually no scarcity of most of these things. There is more than enough of being an American for all of us and a great many more.

There is a limited number of jobs, but that’s not the fault of the people who have them. Economists argue that a certain percentage of people need to be unemployed at all times or the economy will suffer. (A side note here: The wealthy don’t invest or start businesses in order to create jobs. They do it to create more wealth for themselves and jobs are seen as a cost of business, not a reason for it.)

There is plenty of love and marriage and sex to go around, and each marriage is equally special for its participants. My marriage does not diminish yours any more than yours diminishes mine. And any of the benefits I may get from my marriage, such as health insurance, clear inheritance of property, lower taxes and so forth, do not reduce the availability of those benefits for you.

And if you can’t allow that there is plenty of God to go around, then the god you believe in is not as great as you claim. Why does it not make sense that a truly universal and all-powerful deity would speak to different groups of people in the ways that they will best understand? Isn’t that part of why you now accept religious texts that are written in English rather than learning to read them in Aramaic or Greek?

America has become a culture filled with people who don’t want to share, don’t play well with others, and act out, throwing a tantrum whenever they don’t get their way.

And that is really what the rise of Donald Trump has given voice to.

And it is a cultural trait that affects us all, because virtually all of our most important cultural traditions reinforce it. Ask yourself if, in fact, you have to actively decide, against your instincts, to reach out to people you’ve been taught to fear, to show compassion to people who make you uncomfortable, perhaps even disgust you. Ask yourself if, in fact, you have an inventory of things that you are protective of and hesitate to share. Be honest. And if you are the normative group of the culture, by which I mean white Christian heterosexual men, then do you not find yourself having to think about the things you do that challenge the norms and privileges associated with that?

This is why we all need allies. The truth is that we are all in this together. And we will either make it work together or destroy it together.

‘Tis the Season

In PeaceAble on November 27, 2015 at 12:12 pm

Yesterday I went out for a Thanksgiving dinner to a very nice restaurant (there were a great many open, but this was the only one that said a cancelled reservation would allow them to seat our party of three), where every table was filled with happy patrons, and an excellent chef and kitchen staff prepared some wonderful food, a delightful waitstaff brought out our meals quickly and pleasantly, the service staff kept tables cleared and dishes clean, and the managers oversaw everything with efficiency, good humor, and a warm and welcoming attitude.

On our way, we stopped to fill up the gas tank; and passed doughnut shops where we might have gotten coffee, and convenience stores where we might have picked up a few things for later.  In an emergency, we knew that we could count on emergency services, hospitals, police, or firefighters to be available.  We briefly considered whether we might forego the big dinner and just get a pizza; but were a bit disappointed to find no pizza places open.

We also passed places where some people less selfish than ourselves were providing Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless or impoverished, or for those who would otherwise be alone and without family or friends to share a meal.

And I wondered why there is always so much controversy about which big box stores would be open that afternoon to start their Christmas season sales. Why do so many people care if WalMart is open, but simply expect to be able to find places to get gasoline or some last minute items for their own celebrations? Why do they worry that some people might have to work, but simply expect that others will? How do they sit down to all the things they say they are grateful for, but not understand that having a day off may mean for others that they don’t get a day’s wages or a bit of overtime pay, and that may make the difference in whether they make the bills this month; and others may want to work so that they don’t sit home alone wondering what to do with themselves? Why do they not see that such complaints are privileged, first world problems; that forcing big box stores to close would not do very much to solve the real problems that other people face? Why do we all take so much for granted on a day when we are proclaiming our gratitude?

Is it simply because if we don’t need or want something then we assume that it is unnecessary for everyone? Is it because we assume that if we don’t desire something, or dislike it, then that feeling must be universal, or at least the norm? Do we assume that if we have something, like a loving family and plenty of food, and we value those things, that we can speak from our position of privilege for the needs of everyone else? Or is it even more selfish than that? Are we afraid, perhaps, that we will miss out on something? Someone else will get the really big deal, save some money on something we might have to spend more for later if they go to the stores and we don’t. Someone else will beat us to the punch somehow. Are we afraid that if the stores are open we might somehow be unable to resist their siren song?

Like so many things we argue about, the arguments about shopping on Thanksgiving are really about choices: what choices are available to us and to others; who decides; who’s in control; and what difference does it all make? Is my Thanksgiving made less enjoyable, less festive, less meaningful because someone else chooses to keep a store open or go shopping; but not affected at all by the knowledge that I am consuming in excess of what I need while others starve, holding court in a warm and comforting home while others struggle to survive, enjoying the pleasant company of family and friends while others huddle close to keep fear and violence and despair at bay?

There is nothing wrong with celebrating our gratitude for what we have. We have no need to feel guilty about that. For all the things we have that we know are not guaranteed us, we should be thankful; and setting aside a day to make that thankfulness manifest is a good and honest and even honorable thing. So do that. Make it real. Make it your own. Choose to spend the day however you wish. And let the rest go. In your gratitude for what you have, why inject unnecessary outrage about things that really aren’t about you? Maybe spend at least a few moments contemplating what you might do to make things better for those who do not have nearly as much to be grateful for.

All through the long fall and winter holiday season, we see all kinds of pointless complaints and imagined controversies erupting. Halloween celebrates the Devil. People might have to work on Thanksgiving. There’s a war on Christmas. People are saying “Happy holidays.” Everything is so commercialized (When is it not in our capitalist economy?). When is Hanukkah, anyway; and what the heck is Kwanzaa? Why can’t we put a cross or a crèche anywhere and everywhere we want? And once we’ve spent weeks in anger and outrage and spewing violent rhetoric, we will all proclaim our desire for peace on earth.

Maybe instead of looking for things to get in a twist about, we could begin to celebrate the season by actually doing things that promote that peace we say we so fervently hope for.

An Essay About God — In Questions.

In A God of Infinite Possibility on November 19, 2015 at 11:31 am

So you believe that telling people they can’t force others to participate in a prayer to a god they don’t believe in or in the words of a faith to which they don’t belong means that your god has been kicked out of our public places? You believe that your god has sent natural disasters and acts of terrorism and violence to punish people because they don’t express sufficient worship and obeisance to your god? You believe that your god encourages you and will reward you for killing those whose beliefs are different from yours, or who look different, live differently, or love one another in ways you don’t approve of? You believe in a god with male genitalia?

Is this not a weak, petty, vengeful, angry, violent, vain, jealous and frightened god that you believe in.? Is not such a god almost human?

You say you believe in a god that is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient? Can such a god not be wherever god wants to be? Is such a god subject to the restrictions of human laws? But why would god go where god is not wanted? Why not believe in a god that goes where god is not wanted precisely because that is where god might most need to be?

You say you believe in a compassionate, loving god who weeps for every sparrow that falls from the tree? Why would such a god rain death on the innocent as punishment for the wicked? Would such a god not protect the weak against the powerful, rather than simply comfort the survivors afterwards? Would not a forgiving god seek to heal the wicked rather than to destroy them; for surely they are sick in their souls?

You say that we are all the children of god? Why does your god require the worship of god’s children? Do you require the worship of your children? Do you require that everyone else’s children should worship you, also? Why would your god require that all god’s children worship identically, rather than to worship as they will? What makes your worship superior? Do you think that you worship god for god? Why do you not worship god because your worship and your prayers connect you to all god’s children?

Do you believe there is only one god? Or do you believe that there is only one “true” god? If there are other gods besides yours, is your god afraid of them? Does your god require you to go to war against those who believe in other gods? Why does your god not want you, instead, to show them the compassion, the love, the forgiveness, and the healing power of your god; so that they will see that your god is a god worthy of admiration and respect? If you believe that there is only one god, then what is it to you if others do not believe? Will your god not love you if others do not love your god?

Do you believe that your god knows all and is all powerful? Then why does your god not know the truth that is in every person’s heart? And knowing, is your god powerless to heal, to change, to make right what is wrong? Are you more powerful than your god? Are you able to do what your god cannot? If your god has created the universe and all that is in it, who are you to question what has been created? Is your god an irrational god who has created an irrational universe? Is your god a trickster god who has given god’s human children the intelligence to see what god has created and seek to understand it, but made all that we observe an illusion? If we study god’s creation as it is, as god has presented it to us, if we seek to understand that god’s creation by making rational sense of the clues god has left for us, is that not the best way to understand our relationship to god?

Why do you give human form to your god? Do you really want your god to be human? Are we humans not flawed and limited? Can we not aspire to a god who transcends the human, who may have the power to lift us up to the very best that we can be; rather than envision a god who is less than god might be? Is it not true that definitions don’t just tell us what something is, they tell us also what it is not? If your god is a man, then is to be a woman to be not god?

Are you reading this and thinking that I am insulting your god? Do you think that it is your god I mean here? If so, then are you not confirming that the questions themselves are valid? And if you believe that I am not describing the god you believe in, then why are you insulted for your god? If you are nodding your head and thinking that I am absolutely right about someone else’s god, are you simultaneously congratulating yourself on not believing in such a god? How, exactly, are you acting in the world to serve that god who is not the god I have described? Are you congratulating yourself that you don’t believe in any god at all? Do you see that this, like everything I have described above is simply human?

Whether we believe in a god, or not, isn’t it foolish of us to use what we believe to separate us, to hurt each other and to destroy this impossibly vast and wonderful creation regardless of how it was created or what it means? Is that what you believe your god, or your science, requires?

We Are All God-stuff

In A God of Infinite Possibility on September 25, 2015 at 10:30 am

One of the core questions of religion has to do with what happens to us when we die. “Us” in this question isn’t our physical bodies. We know what happens to them. They decay. “Us” refers to what most religions call our soul, and science might call our consciousness.

Because we are sentient creatures with the ability for abstract thought and abstract language, because we are conscious of the “I” of our existence, then we have to wonder what happens to the “I” after death. Various religions contemplate the passage of our conscious self, the thing that identifies us uniquely as a human being, our soul, into some sort of heaven, or afterlife of continued experience; others suggest a kind of recycling of the soul; rebirth into a new life, a new form, a new physical human or otherwise, a new “I” that continues the old “I” but is different from it. Certain atheists would argue that it simply ceases to exist, that the I is a product of our biological brain and when the brain ceases to function, so does the “I.”

As a deist, a person who believes in a god, but seeks to discover how that god operates by looking at the world as it is, I believe that there may be a mid-point where the scientific and the spiritual may connect.

Let us imagine for a moment that the soul exists as distinct from the physical self; that human consciousness is a function of the soul; and that the soul survives the physical form.

I realize that I have already lost the atheists, but bear with me. Even if you do not believe in god, it is useful to understand how belief can co-exist with science, aside from the old argument that science explains how god created the world, but does not preclude god.

Philosophically, we can begin with the question of what existed before the universe. If there was a big bang, what exactly went bang? The simple science I learned in high school said that matter and energy are essentially the same thing, and the smallest pieces of physical reality that have been discovered seem to exist as both matter and energy almost simultaneously. So we might speculate that the universe was created out of that fundamental energy/matter.

For the sake of argument, let’s call that energy/matter god. We don’t really know what god is made of, after all. Is god spirit or consciousness or divine energy? Okay, but what, exactly are those things? Certainly most people, theists and atheists alike, would not try to argue that god is physically the same as human beings, made of flesh and bone; subject as we are to all our physical ills and limitations. In the same way, we would not argue that the mind or consciousness of god is the same as the mind and consciousness of humans. So let us call the primary energy/matter – or consciousness, if you will, or spirit – of the universe, god.

If what existed before the universe was this energy/matter called god, and that energy/matter is the stuff of which the universe is made, and that god was responsible for the creation of the universe, then we can get to the religious idea that god created the universe out of the only materials available at the time. To put it another way, god created the universe out of god.

If that’s the case, then all that is, is god. We are all made of god-stuff; we are all made of god. God is in every bit of the universe, in every bit of us.

It is also reasonable to guess that god did not use all of the energy/matter of god in creating the universe. Some was left over. And as specific physical systems age and die and disintegrate, they are recycled by the universe. They return to god-stuff.

We know that matter and energy recycle in the physical world. We can see it every time we eat a meal, or light a fire, or start a compost pile, or watch a firefly. We know it every time we dig up a pile of bone fragments that were once a body. And we try in vain to prevent it or at least slow it down every time we embalm a body and encase it in a concrete tomb to protect it from the natural elements of decay.

We know both scientifically and theologically that the body returns to god-stuff, returns to god, when we die. But what about US? What about our consciousness, our soul, and more importantly our identity? Who we are seems inextricably interconnected with our physical existence. When we lose that connection to physical reality what do we become? Are we nothing more than a memory in those who remain in the physical?

But if god is the primary energy/matter of the universe, and if god is conscious energy/matter, and if we are all made of god-stuff and return to god-stuff when we die, then it is reasonable to believe that our consciousness, our soul, our personality returns to god/consciousness. Different belief systems will speculate differently about how that return manifests. Some will see the human soul as distinct and individual, retaining that individuality and distinctness after death. Others will see the individual soul returning to the one soul, becoming part of the god/matter/energy of all things, becoming indistinguishable from it. Still others will believe that the distinct energy/matter of individuals will continue to have individual experience, continue to learn and grow, will go to distinct places in the whole of the god/energy/matter and feel joy or suffering or something else. The differences in these beliefs have, of course, more to do with our human needs, and with who we are in this life, with our hopes and fears and desires, than with anything we can objectively demonstrate about what actually happens.

I believe that the universe is a rational universe. It can be observed by humans, and humans can use those observations to build understanding about how it all works. But I also believe that human understanding is limited by the simple reality of being human. I don’t believe that we have come anywhere even close to exhausting the possible limits of human intellect or human experience or human understanding, knowledge or spirit. So I have to wonder what possibilities open up for us when we are freed of the limits of our physical human existence. As a deist, I seek answers to that wonder in both science and belief and do not see them as incompatible. I certainly do not see them as exclusive or in conflict. It isn’t necessary to reject science to find god or reject god to understand science.

I believe in a universe that is of god and is god; a god of infinite possibility and endless variety. I believe that we are all made of god-stuff and that we return to god-stuff when we die. I believe that it is equally possible that we retain our individual identity and that we surrender it to the larger identity of god.

On the other hand, however we return to the energy/matter of the universe, the idea that we are all made of the same god-stuff that has built the universe might help us to begin to see our relationships with each other and with the world we live in in more loving ways, regardless of what we choose to believe about what happens afterwards. The more important piece is an understanding that, whether you see it as scientific or religious, we are here now, in this time and place; we are part of it and it is part of us. Taking care of any part of the whole takes care of some part of us. We don’t have to die to return to god. All we have to do is turn to each other and to the world; and see them as they really are – energy/matter/god.

The Question of Evil — Part 2

In A God of Infinite Possibility on October 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm

If everything that is, is God, then what is evil?  Is it part of God?  Did God create it?  What is the purpose of evil?

What if there were no “evil” in the world?  What if everything was equally “good?”  No matter what you chose, the consequences would be equally happy, equally beneficial.  How would you choose?  Even simple choices would have no meaning, no significance, no basis for evaluation.  Should I have coffee or tea?  Should I wear the blue shirt or the red?  Should I turn left or right?  What do I prefer?  And on what basis do I prefer it?  When all is good, judgment becomes impossible.  Now the same would be true if there were only evil, of course.  If we could not perceive both good and evil, then choice would be arbitrary and meaningless.

It is interesting to note that the thing that is forbidden in the Garden of Eden is knowledge; specifically, the knowledge of good and evil.  This makes sense only if Adam and Eve are ignorant of both.  They cannot know evil without knowing good, or good without evil, because one is necessary to the other.  Something is good to the extent that it is not evil and vice-versa.  Something is better to the extent that it is less evil and more good; it is worse to the extent that it is less good and more evil.  Now, if it seems I am using evil almost synonymously with “bad,” it’s because I am.  If we believe that there are degrees of evil , or if we simply believe that an evil thing is extremely bad, then we can talk about good and evil as directions rather than places.  And we can see that our ability to understand great good requires us to imagine great evil to compare it with.  Our ability to believe in the Devil as perfect evil requires us to believe in God as perfect good.  Otherwise, what does any of it mean?

As an analogy, consider the idea that if everyone were rich, then no one would be.  An understanding of great wealth requires a contrasting understanding of great poverty.  But when does one become perfectly wealthy?  We have no agreement as to when someone would be so wealthy that no more wealth would be possible or necessary, because we have no contrasting image of someone so poor that greater poverty would be impossible.  Would ownership of literally everything make someone perfectly wealthy?  What if he owned everything and was owed an equal amount? Or twice as much?  Would that make everyone else perfectly poor?  Or would some owe more than others?  Would we have to adjust our understanding of wealth to mean “less in debt?”  At that point would it make any difference?  Perhaps we could even argue that at some point being even more in debt might be a form of wealth, because those who owed the most would be worth the most.  But what if we were to consider wealth and poverty not as places, but as directions?  We would be wealthy to the extent that our choices around wealth moved in a “wealthy” direction; poor to the extent that our wealth choices moved in the direction of “poverty.”

Consider also a bar magnet.  One end is “north,” and the other is “south.”  Or we might call one end “positive” and the other “negative.”  But these distinctions are arbitrary.  If the ends aren’t labeled, how do we know which is which?  And the “positive” and “negative” qualities are not just at the ends.  If we cut the magnet in half, we get two new magnets, each of which has the same qualities of positive and negative.  Cut the two magnets into four, or eight, or sixteen, or however many you want, and you will never reach a point where any piece is all one or the other.

This is the nature of good and evil in our choices.  All choices are actions, and all actions contain the possibility of both good and evil.  Large choices have greater possibilities for good or evil, smaller choices have smaller possibility, but no matter how you slice it, every choice has the potential for either.  In choosing, as in magnets, positive and negative aren’t ends, they are directions.  We can determine the “north” and “south” ends of the magnet if we can make it into a compass, which would allow us to position the magnet according to known, fixed points – one north and one south.  In the same way, we can know the directions our choices might lead us in if we can make magnets of them, orient them to some sort of fixed moral points labeled good and evil.

Morality is our compass.  Our particular standards of morality are the fixed points against which we can orient the positive and negative directions of our actions.  Morality is a set of judgments based on our perceptions of good and evil, of benefit or harm.  Something is evil to the extent that it causes harm, good to the extent that it creates benefit.  But these are arbitrary and human determinations.  That which benefits me might harm you, for instance.  That which I think is good, you might find to be evil.  Each of us has her or his own compass, and they do not all point to the same fixed pole.  And so we gather into communities of various kinds, both spiritual and secular, where we can be with others who have similar compasses to our own.  This doesn’t make the compasses any less arbitrary or human, but it does give us support for our moral judgments.

The Eden Dilemma and the Question of Evil — Part 1

In A God of Infinite Possibility on October 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm


                If we try to imagine life in the Biblical Garden of Eden, we run into a major problem.  Adam and Eve are depicted as living in a paradise of Godly perfection.  Until the appearance of the serpent, there is no evil: no violence, no corruption, neither illness nor death.  The inhabitants can look forward to an eternity of constant goodness.  But they are also both ignorant and naïve, and purposeless.  Adam is apparently given the task of naming everything in the garden, but why?  Is it just busy-work?  He is incapable of failing at the task, because there are no standards against which to judge his efforts.  Making a mistake is impossible, because a mistake would suggest that there are ”better” or “worse” choices; but this is Eden where there is only good.  But what does “good” mean without anything else to compare it to?  And what of Eve?  Except to provide companionship for Adam, she has no purpose at all.  And what sort of companionship can she provide?  What will they talk about?  There is no point in discussing the names Adam is giving the animals, because there is no basis for discussing them.  After Adam says that this animal is a “sheep,” for instance, and Eve acknowledges the name, what more is there to discuss?  It is impossible to ask whether it is a good name, because it must be.  She can’t even ask “why,” because there is no particular reason for any of it.  And if there were reasons they would all be good reasons.  It is an endless, eternal cycle of unrelenting “goodness.”

Except for three important details.  There is forbidden fruit, there is the ability to make a choice, and there is a possibility of desire.

Without knowledge of good and evil, choice becomes meaningless; and without choice there is no point in knowing about good and evil.  So Adam and Eve must have been given the ability to choose.  They must have had free will.  Otherwise, there would have been no reason for God to deny them access to the Tree of Knowledge, because they could not have chosen to eat from it anyway.  But the ability to choose requires that there be a choice to make.  What choices did Adam and Eve actually have?  They could choose to go to this place or that within Eden, but all places were equally perfect.  They could choose to eat any of the fruit from any tree in the garden, but all fruits were equally perfect.  They could interact with any of the animals in the garden, but all animals and all interactions were equally perfect.  Without the forbidden fruit, without a choice, free will had no meaning.  So how could they choose?

In the absence of reason as a basis for choice, we have to have desire.  If it is equally good to eat a peach or a fig, then perhaps we simply need to desire one or the other.  “I think I would like a peach today,” doesn’t require us to denigrate the choice of a fig, only to recognize a momentary preference.  If we do not think about our preferences, but simply respond to them, act on them, then knowledge of good and evil is only necessary if there is the possibility of evil in a choice we might desire.  This is the real meaning of the serpent.  The serpent doesn’t make Eve aware of the choice – she already knows that the fruit is forbidden – the serpent’s role is to convince Eve that she desires the fruit, so that she has a reason to choose it.  And the fact that the fruit is forbidden is an argument in favor of desire, because unless the thing is desirable, there is no reason to choose it, and consequently no reason to forbid the choice.

But there is still a problem.  The forbidden fruit gives Adam and Eve the knowledge that there is both good and evil in the world, but it doesn’t give them clear knowledge of which is which.  This they have to figure out as they go along.  They quickly understand that things have changed; but they have no solid basis for judging those changes.  They find that they are naked, and become ashamed by the knowledge.  Why?  They have been naked all along in Eden, and Eden is perfect, so why should nakedness be shameful?  Apparently, it is the knowledge of their nakedness that is shameful, not the nakedness itself.  Things get topsy-turvy pretty quickly after that.  In Eden, there is no death.  The lion and the lamb lie down together and both eat grass.  Adam and Eve eat only fruit.  But after they eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and know that they are naked, Got clothes them in animal skins.  They learn that not only are the animals now killing each other for survival, but that they must also kill in order to survive.  Before the fall, God had created a world in which killing was not possible; after the fall, the descendants of Adam and Eve kill each other – beginning with Adam and Eve’s first born sons – in order to have the things they need and desire;  and even more than that, they kill other animals, make sacrifices, to honor God.  So is killing evil, or good?

Before the fall, Adam and Eve are ignorant of sex.  There is no need for sex, because there is no need for procreation.  In fact, procreation would be a problem, because there is no death.  There is no desire for sex, because there is no knowledge of sex.  Knowledge of sex would be a problem in Eden unless procreation was impossible, because if sexual activity is a choice, then desire may lead us to choose it, and in the absence of pregnancy prevention, choosing it would inevitably lead to procreation.  But is sex, therefore, evil?  Is procreation?  Is everything that did not exist in Eden before the fall evil by definition?  Note that eating the forbidden fruit doesn’t creategood and evil, it simply allows Adam and Eve to know that they exist.  It allows them to see the possibilities for good and evil in the choices they might make, and to consider those possibilities as they choose.

Thus, the lesson of the Garden of Eden becomes not the emergence of evil, or original sin, but the attainment of knowledge, and with it full humanity.  It is, after all, our ability to choose and to give meaning to our choices that makes us human.  Why would God set it up that way?  Perhaps because if good is the direction of God, then maybe God wants us to choose it; to go toward God consciously; to know what it is we are doing.  And we cannot always know which choice is the “good” one because life is more complex than that, and because the experience of life is, itself, essential to understanding the choices.  If it were easier, it wouldn’t mean so much.

An old folk song praises the day that Eve got Adam to eat the apple, because without that we wouldn’t be here at all.  The fruit of the tree of knowledge, in Eden, was the only fruit (other than eternal life) that was not to be eaten.  Now it is the only fruit we must eat.  We must not go ignorantly or accidently toward God (except of course in the case of children or other innocents), but must eat daily of the fruit of knowledge and then choose.

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