Splashing around in theology.

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Location: Ottawa, Canada

I read lots. I have a cat. I drink coffee. Therefore, I am.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Wise Words

The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of the truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the truth. It is not possession of truth but rather the pursuit of truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, and proud. If God were to hold all truth concealed in his right hand and in his left hand only the steady and diligent drive for truth, albeit with the proviso that I will always and forever error in the process, and to offer me the choice, I will in all humility take the left hand and say, “Father, I will take this. The pure truth is for you alone.”
-- Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) --

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The God Delusion

So far, two friends of mine [I only have four, so this constitutes a full 50% of my entire social network…] have asked me, on separate occassions, about the shiny new Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion.
Basically, I’ve been asked, “Should we, [the Believers in Exile], read this thing?”
And both times my answer has been, “I have no idea.”
I’ve never read anything by Richard Dawkins, and I know next to nothing of him. There are so many authors writing nowadays about the ideological war between Science and Religion that it is impossible for me to keep up to what is being set out on the bookstore shelves.
However, I am at a bookstore right now, as I write this. So I am taking a look at the book.
It is very shiny. Wonderfully matches my Mac Powerbook G4!

Just leafing through the thing, and reading here and there, I guess I will take the jacket blurb’s description of Dawkins at face value. It claims that he is “the world’s most prominent atheist.”
And a scientist. This book seems to be quite forcefully arguing that a belief in God is not just wrong but potentially deadly. Dawkins argues for the abolition of religion as the only hope for the healthy maintenance of mankind. In the preface, we read, “Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no Gunpowder Plot…” etc.
As readers of this blog will know, I am no stranger to this argument, because it is similar to the writings and ideas of Sam Harris, an author I have come to greatly appreciate. I think it must be admitted by all rational-thinking people that religious zeal can cause a multitude of “sins.” At one point, Dawkins even quotes Blaise Pascal [yes, he of the wager] as saying, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Yes, yes, assuredly, and verily verily…. yes.
So I am paging through the book, browsing, as it were.

Then, a neat thing happened as I walked over to the Starbucks section of the store, to get another coffee. I glanced down at a table where someone had left a copy of New Scientist, the magazine. Picking it up, I opened directly to a review of The God Delusion, written by moral philosopher and author, Mary Midgley.
Fascinating stuff.
The general tone is a bit critical [of Dawkins] and I will get to that part, soon.
But first, Midgley points out that in the three evilist [← my word] regimes of the 20th Century [Nazi Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Stalinist Russia], the removal of religion had not helped at all. She says, “The roots of great crimes plainly lie far deeper than the doctrines people use to justify them.”

I keep reading…. walk back to my own table with a new coffee, and this magazine….

I will greatly summarize here by saying that she…. hmmm, how can I say it…. she points out that Dawkins has a very difficult time with the type of “believer” who may say they do not care much for the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels. ← I myself am this type of mysterious quasi-believer, so my antennae go up here…! Dawkins declares flatly that people like me [who would say the above, and much more] cannot possibly mean what they say. We cannot be “believers”. As scientists, we must be atheists. Midgley says, “It seems not to have struck Dawkins that academic science is only a small, specialised, dependent part of what anybody knows.”
See, she goes on to point out that when we use the term “fundamentalist” to describe the sold-out, nutso-believer/fanatic out there, we ought to realize that there is also another type of “fundamentalist” running amok! This would be the atheistic “fundamentalist.” [By the way, Midgley does not use this terminology, I am wildly paraphrasing at this point, utilizing a combination of rabid eisegesis and possibly illegal bloggistic license!]
In other words, we [including Dawkins himself] can err just as badly on the opposite end of whatever spectrum we are dealing with here.
The spectrum of “belief ← → non-belief” I will call it.
And to elucidate her reasons for saying this, please allow me to quote directly from the latter part of her review itself. It is, in my opinion, such good stuff that it merits regurgitation in its fullness, here:

“Most human knowledge is tacit knowledge – habitual assumptions, constantly updated and checked by experience, but far too general and informal ever to be fully tested. We assume, for instance, that nature will go on being regular, that other people are conscious and that their testimony can generally be trusted. Without such assumptions neither science nor any other study could ever get off the ground, and nor could everyday life.
When we build on these foundations we necessarily use imaginative structures – powerful ideas which can be called myths, which are not lies, but graphic thought-patterns that shape and guide our thinking. This is not irrational: the process of using these structures is a necessary preparation for reasoning. Thus the selfish gene is a powerful idea, so are the Science-Religion war, Gaia, natural selection, progress, and the hidden hand of the market.
With the largest, most puzzling questions, we have no choice but to proceed in mythical language which cannot be explained in detail at all, but which serves to indicate what sort of spiritual universe we percieve ourselves to be living in. This is the province of religion. Adding God is not, as Dawkins thinks, adding an illicit extra item to the cosmos, it is perceiving the whole thing differently.
For a long time, this kind of language was reasonably well understood. Since the mid-19th century, however, there has been a disastrous attempt to get rid of it, keeping only literal statements of fact. This is, of course, the root of religious fundamentalism, which tries, absurdly, to treat the whole of that strange compilation, the Bible, as literal fact. Yet in so doing it is only responding to a less obvious fundamentalism on the scientistic side, which claims that our knowledge reduces to one fundamental form – the literal statements of science. Both extremes show a similarly crass refusal to admit the complexity of life.
Dawkins is, of course, quite right to express horror at Biblical fundamentalism, especially in the neocon form that centres on the book of Revelation. But it is not possible to attack this target properly while also conducting a wider, cluster-bomb onslaught on everything that can be called religion. Since this particular bad form of religion is spreading rapidly in the world, we urgently need to understand it: not just to denounce it but to grasp much better than we do now why people find it attractive. It is not enough to say, as Dawkins does, that they are being childish.
We also need to ask why they have found the other attitudes that are open to them inadequate. As I have suggested, this means becoming more aware of the inadequacies of our own way of life, which are obvious to them and which put them off the opinions that we profess. What we need, in fact, is a bit more self-knowledge.” **

Amen to that!

Having said all this, and having read all of this… does it make me, as a reader, want to read the Dawkins book MORE, or LESS?
Like a cat, I am drawn to shiny things.

** From Imagine There’s No Heaven, by Mary Midgley. -- A review of Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. New Scientist Magazine, Oct.7-13, 2006. pp.50-51.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

On Certainty

“Of coffee I am certain. Of tea? Not so.”
-- Cipriano

Been thinking about certainty, as of late. The reasons are many, but they would include a “certain” confluence of ideas being bandied about by fellow bloggers, along with the haunting relevance of a statement made in the first chapter of the book I am currently reading.
The book is John Shelby Spong’s (1996), Liberating The Gospels: Reading The Bible With Jewish Eyes.
In setting out his objectives for the book, Spong states, on page 20-21, “…I offer you something that I have come to believe is better than the religious security system of the past. I offer the exhilarating insecurity of a journey without boundaries or goals. I offer the radical nature of honesty and the intense humanity that is found in seeking truth freely apart from the authoritative pronouncements of yesterday.”
When I read that, I was reminded of why I like his books and his ideas.
“The exhilarating insecurity of a journey without boundaries or goals.”
That is exactly the kind of journey I want to be on [and believe that I am on] in my process of never-ending idea displacement.
By “idea displacement” I mean that [in the formation of one’s spiritual map or ideological structure] one never arrives at a place where the journey is over. One never closes up shop and believes that they are “done lookin’!”
Along with this, [and it is evident in what Spong is suggesting, above] one does not attach oneself to a limiting ideology [“religious security system”] that will restrict the reception and/or rejection of ideas that are either surfacing or becoming obsolete. And in all of this, it must be emphasized that we are, at all times, talking about the individual. True spiritual enlightenment has nothing to do with groupspeak. Neither has it anything to do with the maintenance of harmony within the phalanx. Idea displacement [and subsequent spiritual enlightenment] only occurs in the individual.
Whether we are aware of it or not, idea displacement is the most individual act any of us perform, or should.
Simply put, it is an attitude of willingness, whereby less tenable ideas are exchanged for better ones.

Anything less, is certainty.

And what is certainty?
Well, I like the way Ambrose Bierce defines it, way back in the 1800’s, in The Devil’s Dictionary. → “Mistaken at the top of one’s voice.”
And who can deny the truth contained in this following statement, spoken by Bertrand Russell: “Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false.”
Now I turn to my fellow bloggers, who are acknowledging similar things, to prove that it is not only geniuses like the above-mentioned notables, but also just everyday absolute yahoos like myself and these other guys here, that are catching a whiff of the stench of certainty, and choosing to turn toward the fresher air of knowing that there is some junk we just can’t know.
Like the following statement, found on the most recent [excellent] blog from a place called Prospecting God. The “prospector” said:
“One of the things that is clearer to me today than ever before is that too much certainty can be misleading.”
And I love the way he said the following:
“I like the analogy of masks – God can be seen through different masks, one of which is Jesus. For Christians, the decisive mask for us is Jesus. He is our decisive revelation of God. And note that this does not require affirming that Jesus is the only adequate revelation of God. But Jesus shows us, as Christians, what a life full of God is like, and is our ultimate sacrament of God. Through Jesus, we see the heart of God.”
A reader may disagree with the personal conclusion of the author, but it is virtually impossible to criticize the WAY IN WHICH IT IS SAID!
This is the author’s [the individual’s] current journey.
And because he is not shoving his opinions down the throat of anyone else, nor claiming that anyone else need to accept them, it would be the critic that errs on the side of certainty, if he/she dismissed this author’s opinion as being invalid!

Here is something from The Age of Reason Café:
“I was thinking more about certainty over the past 24 hrs. One point I would like to make is that I believe that certainty goes hand-in-hand with credibility. Those who say they are certain about their religion or belief system have no credibility when you think about it.”
Yes….. “when you think about it.”
That is the problem though. So many people are simply not “thinking about it.”
So I am encouraged by my fellow bloggers.
They are doing it.
Thinking about it.

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