Thursday, November 20, 2008

God's Will?

C Michael Patton blogs at Parchment & Pen. I don't agree with his positions vis-a-vis the existence of God, the source of morality or theology but I really appreciate his reflective nature and his willingness to ask questions. His is not the only theological blog that I visit. As a rule I avoid making snipey comments on these blogs. I consider myself a guest and believe that it would be highly inappropriate for me to pick an Atheism-vs-Believe fight on every blog post. I try to limit my comments to constructive observations (wry, at times) and questions that might move the discussion along. Others must judge if I am true to my code.

In Michael's November 20 post, he defends Calvinism in a seemingly novel way, by arguing that it is less rational than Armenianism. He opines that Armenians claim to have a logically consistent view of salvation while Calivinists leave certain "tensions" unresolved. The reason that this works for Michael is that he believes that Calvinism is truer to the Bible and therefore superior. By insisting on rational explanations, he concludes, the Armenians miss God's truth while Calvinists recognize that the truth found in the Bible transcends human understanding. In Michael's view, his, sub-rational, position is the superior. I guess Armenian's roast in hell :O

As I said, I don't have a dog in this fight and stay out of the thick of theological smack downs. However, this blatant appeal to authority over rationality points up a pattern. In my cruise through skeptical and atheist literature I have been exposed to the claims that religion teaches magical thinking and destroys the ability to reason properly. I have always considered these to be screeds of overly vocal neo-atheists. I mean, how many people really turn their think down to the level of believing in demonic possession. Well, as it turns out ...

In recent posts, C Michael Patton has addressed the top 10 apologetic arguments for the existence of God, miracles as signs of Gods will, bad marriages as signs of God's will, and demonic nocturnal visitation. It is not just that Michael has felt the need to post on these topics but it is the response he gets in the comments. For instance, on the topic of bad marriages, one poster shared the view that her enrolling in seminary after her husband died proved that years of bad marriage were God's will. Similar stories were forth coming. By this definition, just about anything can be viewed as God's will. In fact, Michael himself claims that Barak Obama's election was God's will which would seem to place every McCain voter in an awkward place!

Now, I guess I am not too surprised that people take the First Cause argument seriously. Superficially William Paley's watchmaker analogy is convincing. On the subject of sleep paralysis and waking dreams being mistaken for demonic visitation, I grant that the experience would be quite frightening. I myself have suffered waking dreams. Spooky. But this is where the slippery slope begins. Sleep paralysis has been studied and solid physiological mechanisms have been discovered. The trouble seems to be that some people expect the supernatural and thus never reach for the rational.

This last, tragic, case really struck me. It seems that Michael's sister developed a severe case of depression and became suicidal. Through strenuous efforts on the family's part, she was saved from a potentially fatal overdose. Michael reasoned, correctly, that an overdose was not quick enough to evade the close supervision that he was providing and that if his sister were going to be successful she would need to use a gun. One day, after determining that his sister was not at home, Michael saw her drive by the her house, see him in her yard and then drive off. He tried to follow but lost her before he reached the main road. Here is where the rational kicks in. Not knowing which way to turn, Michael decides to turn back toward home in Arkansas (he is in Texas). Eventually deciding that his efforts are futile, he turns his car around. Driving home, he spots a motel and, seemingly for no reason, pulls in, spots his sister's car and stops her from shooting herself. This would seem miraculous. In fact, Michael decides that is, indeed, a miracle and tells his sister that it is obviously not God's will that she commit suicide. The heart breaking ending is that, later, she manages to kill herself with a gun in a different motel. Michael of course is shattered and wonders how he could have misjudged God's will in this matter.

My response, which I did not post to his blog out of sympathy, was that Michael has it exactly backwards. What saved his sister the first time was he and his mother's determination that she needed to be checked on. This saved her from overdose. The prevention of her first attempt at shooting herself was likewise no miracle. This was Michael, having known his sister so long, following his intuition as to which direction she would turn (explicitly stated by Michael as "homeward") and the fact that she would seek out a certain kind of motel. No God here, just Michael using his wits and trusting himself - even if he didn't realize in whom his trust was placed. I can only assume that his vigilance did not waver once he came to the conclusion that his sister was enjoying God's protection. Unfortunately, his sister succumbed to her depression when she played on Michael's knowledge of her and went to a part of Texas he wouldn't have guessed.

I don't think Michael would feel better in the knowledge that his reason failed to save his sister than in the belief that he misunderstood God's will. That's not really the point. The problem here is that billions of people are being encouraged to favor fantasy over reality. You can say that Christians or whatever are generally rational and I guess they are when they are buying a car (although I know a couple who bought a car because they thought God had made it drive past them). Belief in the supernatural, in a Being who determines what is going to happen, in the futility of thinking about things and trying to act on our own best intuition erodes the ability to think rationally. It becomes a habit or worse. It is their fall back position and often their starting place. I have been amazed at how far some people take their Faith. It sometimes reaches the point of the ridiculous.

New cars, parking places, bad marriages, nothing happens by chance or human will. I don't blame religion for every bad thing that ever happened in the world but what is the future of a society that encourages such a disconnect from the Real World? Are these people mentally insulated from a universe over which they have no meaningful control? Are they holding us back? Does acceptance of "you will always have the poor" mean that effective efforts to address hunger and education will languish from lack of support?

As you can tell, I am pretty riled up by this. Coming face to face with such irrationality in everyday Americans has made me reevaluate my view on human nature and acceptance of religion's place in our society. Do I fight it or accept it as God's will?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Shadow of a Fortune Cookie

"Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see."
From a fortune cookie as cited in The Invisible Constitution by Laurence Tribe.
Not that I think that Plato was right or that reality is completely hidden to us. However, this strikes me as saying that the things we see and know are caused and influenced to other things that we do not see and do not know. Those things, in turn, are interconnected to yet other things and eventually back to our perceived entities themselves.

This sentence leaves me feeling connected to the Universe in a way I only occasionally perceive. Of course my perception of this connection is actually the shadow of many unseen connections ...

The One That Started It All

Steven Carr, in a comment to Exploring The Matrix, brings back to me the scripture that made me what I am today - an atheist.
Matthew 18:17 - If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
I was about 20 years old and attending an Episcopal church when the minister gave a sermon on a passage including this verse. In his sermon he explained that Jesus could not have said this because at the time there was no "church" for someone to listen to. Jesus followers were not that organized. This saying would have to have been added by the early church.

Now, there are those who might make arguments that the priest's analysis was flawed but 25 years ago this comment set off a train of thought. I said to myself, "If you can't trust the Gospels what possible basis do you have to be a Christian?" Of course this is horribly simplistic. My wife once accused me of being a fundamentalist atheist and I suppose she is right. However, I no longer base my lack of belief on this passage or this line of reasoning. The important thing was that it forced me to step back and look at Christianity, and theism in general, with a critical eye. I started reading. I reflected on things that I had read previously. By the time I recognized the complex reasons people have for being Christians I had trained myself in skepticism to the point where there was no turning back. There is too much fishy about the origins of Christianity and the foundations of the belief in God for me to go there again.

Now, what would happen if I suddenly became "convicted"? Would I be true to my fundamentalist nature? Or would I retain my skeptical outlook concerning the absolute accuracy of the Bible become a "liberal", perhaps mystical, Believer? Interesting question.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Self Made Men

"What made me who I am now is the sum of all the humiliations suffered during childhood."
Nicolas Sarkozy

"I need my pain"
Captain James Tiberius Kirk

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The War on Christmas

Have we become so self-regarding that giving gifts to others at Christmas is justification for buying ourselves a "gift"? I have seen advertisements that suggest you "reward yourself". Now American Express is offering to give you two of anything, one to give away as a gift and one to keep as a gift to yourself.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tolkien Question...

Did J. R. R. Tolkien envision a Fifth Age?

[Note to self: Always check Wikipedia first]

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Future of The Palin

Now that Sarah Palin is back in Wasilla pondering her future, so too do we take a look at her prospects for future, national office.

Perhaps the best thing that could happen to her is for Ted Stevens to lose his Senate seat to his Democratic challenger. This would give her the opportunity to take back the seat in 6 years and continue her journey on the national stage, starting to think seriously about issues beyond distributing Alaska's wealth-spreading oil checks.

If, however, her popularity has been significantly driven by her sex appeal then she could have a problem. I may get in trouble here but politics and image are by their nature crass. In 2012, Sarah Palin will be four years older. Will she still have the same sexual charisma? Will she still be a "hot"? What about 2016 when she is over 50 years old? She may retain her "beauty" (never got it, myself) She may still be "handsome" and that may be enough. Maybe she can transform herself into a compelling mother-figure. She can always cling to her folksiness schtick.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

That Strange Feeling ...

From the Oxford English Dictionary
Déjà Loué:

The phenomenon of sitting down in your new sub-compact, breathing in that new car smell and suddenly having the strange feeling that you are driving a rental car.