Sunday, February 27, 2011

Meaningful Dialogue Impossible with Religion?

I have been going back and forth on my opinion of religion lately.  Fundamentalism bothers me, but I am a big fan of free speech, so I guess the religious should have their say as well.  Cencorship, even of falsehood, seems criminal to me. 
I think I just hit upon one of the major problems with religion in the public square.

To make the right decision as a group, a good way to go is to spend time discussing options and weighing outcomes.  Open discussion is huge: even if I have a great idea, you might point out a flaw in this idea and we'll have to further plan before we proceed.  Once we've discussed thouroughly, we can put it to a vote.  If the vote is divisive enough, we can discuss and vote on compromise.
This is supposed to be the idea behind democracy, right?  And I think sometimes it actually happens this way.

But when you put stubborn dogmatism into the mix, everything breaks down.  Dialogue is impossible with fundamentalists, because they will not even listen to the opposing viewpoint:

"Hey, don't you think we should let same-sex couples marry?"
"No!  Person X, who I believe speaks for god, says that that is wrong and evil and terrible and an attack on the institution of marriage, which GOD INVENTED."
"I understand your point of view.  But consider-"
"Well I thought if we could discuss-"
"Perhaps then, if we can never agree on this matter, we could compro-"
"No! NO! NO! NO!"

This is not dialogue.
I am aware that there are many things that destroy dialogue in this way.  Even stubborn atheism might.  Opinions are okay, and values are okay, and worldviews are okay, but in a society which is populated by a variety of people, we can't afford not to have meaningful dialogue and open, honest exchange of ideas.

Still, it seems like religion really does this a lot.  Like when a church leader says that atheists are only rabidly fighting the level-headed Christians because they are sinning and can't face their own indecency.
A.  I'm behaving quite well, even by your standards. 
B.  That is ad hominem, and has absolutely no relevance to the discussion at hand.
C.  I'm willing to discuss things calmly with you, but you keep shouting me down.

So I guess I can't, through this line of reasoning, condemn open-minded religion, if there is such a thing.

I'd like to discuss my philosophical questions with people around me, but they're all LDS, and after a certain point discussion breaks down.  Usually it ends up with them saying "I feel sorry for you."
I hate that line.  I said something similar to a friend once in high school, and he angrily called it "unwarranted pity."  That has stuck with me.
The thing is, "I feel sorry for you" means "you obviously don't understand, are too pigheaded to understand, and I pity you for not being as humble and enlightened as I am."
Discussion over.  It's like playing tic-tac-toe, but the fundamentalist gets to place as many Xs as she wants, and I only get to place one O.  I can't win, not because of my strategy, not because of my mental capacities, but because the outcome is already decided by the other party's unwillingness to play by any rules that make the game a game at all.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Demoniac Madness

Life is absurd, is it not?  If there is purpose to existence, we can't ever really know it, can we?  Since rational value judgments are ultimately impossible, there would be no way to persuade an individual that such a value judgment is correct.

Kierkegaard wrote about the absurd, all the while defending religious faith.  He called acceptance of the absurd "demoniac madness,"  and said that a person who refuses to accept unfounded beliefs "rages most of all at the thought that eternity might get it into its head to take his misery from him!"

Kierkegaard defends the "leap of faith," the acceptance of something that is not necessarily true.  He admits that there can be no rational purpose to life; even if life's purpose is determined by god, what is the purpose of god?  So the absurdity of human existence is not in anyway assuaged by the concept of god, because god's existence is equally absurd, if not more so.

I, as a human being, am doomed to die.  Likely, this will be the end of my awareness, something to which I feel a strangely powerful attachment.  So, I experience fear, though I know nothing of what it will be like to die, and can hardly expect that existence following death will be in any way unpleasant... or in any way anything!
Yet, as a "sane" person, I go about my daily life, working, resting, talking, engaging in a repetitive life that seems as if it's always been, and will always be.
This is absurd.  Would I really be doing the dishes if the shear, animal terror of death were truly in my mind?  Looming at the end of my short life, with the seconds flying by and completely out of my control, lies my end. My decease.  The black pit that I hurtle toward every moment.
All that I do to "improve" myself will be gone in that instant.  All that I am will be forgotten not long after.  This flourishing planet, covered in life, is just in a transient state, but will eventually reach the steady-state: lifeless, cold, silence.

And we take ourselves so seriously!  It's hilarious, really.  We think we matter.  We think that anything matters!

And when we can't ignore death, we turn to the wild realm of fantasy.  Religion, superstition, spiritualism, pantheism... all coping mechanisms evolved by a bunch of primates who have been the victims of runaway brain evolution.  We are too smart, and so our nature is to cling to denial.

What separates man from the animal?  Not a whole lot, genetically.  Tool use, abstraction, language... these can all be found in the animal kingdom.  But no other species does much of what we do... why?
Maybe it's because no other species has stumbled upon the ability to clearly and systematically describe their own existence.  Human beings are the one species that we know can gaze into the abyss and realize that all we have, all we are, and all we do is for naught.
In response, we become nature's masters of self-distraction.  We fight, we pray, we pretend the dead are still around somewhere.  We build, we make up words like "destiny," and we try to force a place for ourselves on the uncaring universe.

As someone willing to distract myself by undertaking pursuits that will allow me to further distract myself in the future, I am called "sane" or "well-adjusted."
And when a person talks about the absurdity of life and existence, others dismiss her.  They smile knowingly, having perhaps experienced a tiny hint of existential crisis in the past.  But they are beyond such things.  They have managed to not believe in death.

The ultimate human triumph is denial, for without it, the human race might see themselves clearly.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

In the Way of the Spirit

There seems to be some sort of concensus that depression is capable of completely blocking the spirit of god.

I have pretty bad depression, especially for the past year.  I'm on several medications and still not doing great.  And I understand where people get this idea that valid religious experiences are impeded by depression; I have trouble feeling joy or even interest in anything.

I'm pretty sure my parents, who have stopped trying to convince me to cling to my former faith (for the moment), expect that I'll be somehow spiritually viable again once my depression is under better control.  I know some other people think this of me.  My father-in-law has severe depression and left the church years ago, and I know people think the same of him.

I don't know what to think about this... It's certainly better than having people say that I'm either sinning or offended, I guess.

The thing is, I'm pretty convinced in my atheist ways.  I don't know if I could ever go back to the doublethink of my former self, holding conflicting ideas in my mind simultaneously.  I'm addicted to thinking clearly and completely, now.  So if I'm ever in better shape at some point, I don't know that I'll be returning to my previously pious self.

The other thing is, my mom always assures me that the way I see things is tainted by my depression, and I could see things more accurately if I weren't depressed.
I'm skeptical.  The fact that depressed individuals are unhappy is unrelated to the question of whether or not they have an accurate view of the world.
In fact, it's been shown that most people have a "personal fable," a view of themselves that is better than the reality of the situation.  Nearly everyone will list themselves as "above-average" in categories that they value.  Guess who doesn't do this?
You got it, people with depression.  They tend to pretty accurately assess themselves, turns out.

The world around us is a terrible place.  The human race is on the fast-track toward its own destruction, people are killing each other brutally all over the world, and the human condition is based on the concept of living in hope of whatever comes next, ending finally in death and probably-false hopes of an afterlife.
I mean, damn, we live in hell!  So is it the happy people who are really accurately viewing the world, or is it the unhappy?

I actually really enjoy entertaining the concept that the most "well-adjusted" and happy are actually victims of some kind of insanity that is built into human beings to keep us from dying of despair as a species.
So your religion makes you happy.  So what?  Yeah, me losing my faith coincided with the worst depression of my life so far, but what of it?
Does you being happy about something make it true?  If so, how exactly does that make any sense?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Waitin' fer Jeezus

How long have we been waiting for Christ to come back?  I mean, it has been a while.  What's he doing?

Well, let's see how long the Mormons have been waiting:

Dec. 25, 1835  -  D&C 87:8  "..until the day of the Lord come; for behold, it cometh quickly, saith the Lord."
Time elapsed:   175 years, 1 month, 14 days.

Feb. 4, 1831   - D&C 41:4  "And I will be your ruler when I come; and behold, I come quickly..."
Time elapsed:   180 years, 4 days.

So, our latest update was 180-ish years ago?  What, exactly, is the lord's definition of "quickly?"  180 years is easily 6-7 generations.  So... "I'll show up quickly, as in about when your great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren read this."  Someone needs to let god know that his use of 'quickly' is really confusing us.

Okay, so let's go back to the later New Testament books:

Traditionally 95 C.E.   - Revelation 22:20  "He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus."
Time elapsed:  ~1916 years.

So... now I'm really concerned about this whole 'quickly' thing.  Okay, so maybe 200 years is nothing to god, but 2000?!  Isn't that, like, 1/3 of the age of everything or something?  And he makes very clear that it's Jesus we're talking about in this passage.  And, if we want to put this in generations, we can probably say that here, the lord meant "quickly as in when your great^74 grandchildren read this."

Okay, let's see if Jesus himself was a little more clear and accurate:

Around 30 C.E.  -   Luke 21:27-32  "And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory   ... Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled."
Time elapsed:  ~1981 years.

And no, this is not taken out of context, go read it.  Well, Jesus was way more specific, right?  Same generation, so anywhere from 20-50 years, depending on how you define generation.  Oops!  That's somewhere around 5500% error.  Remind me again why we listen to this guy?

So... Jesus seems to be taking his sweet time.  Everyone is so sure that the second coming is right around the corner because of the state of the world...  just like people were during WWII... and WWI... AND the Civil War!
And that's just a few examples from the U.S.  All over the world, people have been feverishly declaring the coming of the lord since... well, just after 0 C.E.

I mean, jeez guys, how long do we have to wait?  Ten thousand years?  A millions years?  A billion freaking years?
Seriously, once the sun goes out, I think we can be pretty sure he completely blew off the whole party.

'Of course, if I were Jesus, I probably wouldn't be too excited to come back either:
"So I went to my people and told them I was god, and then asked to be nice to each other for a change and to stop being such big jerks.  They nailed me to a freaking tree!  
So I went back for a bit to tie up some loose ends and figured I'd show up in a generation or so, but it turns out.. my followers suck!  They don't love each other, for one thing, and anyone who isn't one of them, they kill!  
I mean, the idiots fought for centuries over the hometown of all the jerk-offs who killed me in the first place!  And they burned anyone who even had a clue at the stake for thousands of years! 
Anyway, no matter how enlightened they get, they are total jerks everybody, including each other.  I'm not going back until my 'followers' are at least mildly pleasant to be around."

Friday, February 4, 2011

Superstitious Apes and the Utility of Religion

A number of conversations, as well as a few snatches of back-to-reality moments, have given me some thoughts about religion lately.

I have stated before that I don't believe religion will be gone anytime soon.  In fact, I think the majority of the world will always be religious.
From what I know about human beings, religion is built into us.  Every culture in the world has religious beliefs that developed with it.  We are very superstitious apes.

You can argue for the spread of atheism and agnosticism in modern, educated society, but it's still not that much.  The nation in Europe with the highest fraction of its population admitting no belief in god or a higher power is France, at 33%.  And only 4 nations of the 32 studied are above 25%.  That means that at least 2/3 of the populations even the most godless nations in the most godless continent believe in a higher power beyond the reaches of rigorous human science.
 You could argue for China, but studies vary from 20% to 70% of the population being religious.  It is hard to measure behavior in places where a specific belief system is forcibly imposed on the people, because those who believe differently are better off not to admit it openly.

And imagine what would happen if something disastrous seriously upset the global economy, throwing the former first-world nations into poverty, famine, disorder, and misery.  There is no doubt that at some time this will happen, disasters are too common to expect otherwise.  Will people turn away from god?  Some perhaps.  But the world is full of people who have lost so many of their friends and family, whose lives have gone from opulent to desperate, and most importantly, whose modern society with all its science and technology has failed them.  In times like this, people turn to whatever they think or hope or even just wish could help them.
 I don't think these facts will change unless the human race makes some biological (not just sociological) shift.

But what if we could abolish religion, right now?  Gone, somehow, in a day, or a year, or something.
My wife asked me a potent question about this scenario: Would drug abuse and suicide rates go up or down?
I had to admit that they may well go up.  People take a lot of comfort in religion, and not everyone can handle the idea of no higher power, afterlife, etc.  Sometimes I don't think I can handle it.

So though I still don't believe in a higher power, I would not advocate the abolition of religion.
I would, of course, limit the political power of religion.  I would love to quell the more violent and bigoted aspects of certain religions.
But if the whole world moved steadily toward a new-age feel-good "god loves everybody" kind of religion, would it be so bad?  Tolerant religion without political agendas.  It can exist, I think.  Strong adherents of religions with strict doctrines scorn these religions, but I think I like them.

So, my policy now is that I don't want to actively persuade people not to believe in god, but rather I'd like to point out the arguments against the hell and damnation and strict Victorian morality aspects of religion.
Seems more realistic, in any case.