Friday, February 29, 2008

Wet and wildness

Titmuss Regained, John Mortimer's 1990 sequel to Paradise Postpone [1985], begins with the concluding lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, "Inversnaid":
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
And in her way, Lady Grace Fanner had been a wet and wild thing in her younger days [see the prequel], but in Chapter 2 of Titmuss Regained she's
a woman of eighty, her legs and arms shrunk as though from enforced starvation [and she] lay waiting, with growing impatience, for death. Grace Fanner was unaccustomed to being kept waiting for anything...She lay now, an unpaid-for and half-drunk bottle of champagne beside her, her diminutive body scarcely swelling the coverlet on the bed in which her husband Nicholas, over a decade before, had met death with the polite but puzzled smile with which he had greeted all his visitors.
    "I've been reading the Bible."
    The Rector of Rapstone, Kevin Bulstrode, known to many of his parishioners as Kev the Rev., looked at her as though this activity were a sign of mental weakness, like astrology or studying the measurements of the Great Pyramid.
    "Not the Old Testament?" he asked nervously.
    "Particularly the Old Testament. What a swine God was, most of the time." Lady Fanner said this with a tight smile of admiration. "Smiting people in a way I've hardly ever done. Right, left, and center...I read the Book of Job." She lifted the great weight of a half-filled glass to her lips and pecked at it in the manner of a blue tit at a bird-bath. "God certainly gave that poor bugger a hard time. Boils!"
    "I think you'll find that He has grown a little more civilized down the centuries. As, perhaps, we all have." Kevin Bulstrode did his best to sound reassuring. "I don't think the Old Testament God should be taken as a model of behaviour."
    "Oh, I do. I quite definitely do. I'd love to see my son-in-law afflicted with boils. That is, if the Right Honourable Leslie Titmuss hasn't got plenty of them already...." [pp. 9-11]

Thursday, February 28, 2008

"The heathen followers of the god Baal"

When I referred in Tuesday's post to "the heathen followers of the god Baal," I didn't put "god" in quotation marks. I usually don't, even though I try to remember to put capitalized "God" in quotes. I think I've established well enough that I never mean to use either "god" or "God" to suggest that I believe there are gods or a God. (Nor, I think, did Tom Sheepandgoats mean to imply, when he said in his post "Elijah Crashes..." that the priests of Baal attempted "to persuade their god to consume the offering," that he believed Baal actually existed, for Tom is very much a monotheist.)

In the phrase "the heathen followers of the god Baal," "god" is clearly understood to refer to an entity (called "Baal") whom the said followers believed to exist (and to affect their lives in various ways, and even to deserve, if not demand—on some pain or other, to be worshiped)—even though we all agree now that such an entity did not exist (except in the imaginations of said followers). As Richard Dawkins reminds us,
We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in.
But many still believe in the monotheistic god of the Abramaic religions, variously labeled "Yahweh," "Jehovah," "Allah," or simply "God." And non-denominational (or New Age) labels like "Creator" seem to have the same reference, but without most of the Talmudic, Biblical, and Koranic baggage. They're atheists too about some of the theological attributes, but theists about the imagined deity's active concern for the planet.

I guess there are still polytheists on the planet, but both notheists (atheists) and monotheists have in common that they are both atheists about Baal and other "heathen gods."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Moristotle and Sheepandgoats: A friendly set-to

Tom Sheepandgoats's February 4 post, "Elijah Crashes the Atheist Hall of Fame!," sparked an extended dialogue between him and Moristotle—all conducted in comments on that post and concluded yesterday by mutual consent.

The gist of "Elijah Crashes" is Tom's friendly contention that in the debate between atheists and theists, it's no contest, the theists (ably represented by Tom himself) will always win. The post wittily likens their debate to some ancients' pissing contests over whose god was the better. Tom rhetorically identifies the Biblical Elijah with the atheists in mocking the heathen followers of the god Baal. You might start by reading Tom's entertaining post. You can follow the debate either through the comments there or in what follows here:

[Posted by: Moristotle | February 5]:
Dear Readers of Sheep and Goats, if its author will permit me to address you over his head:

I hope that you will take Tom's talk of scoring points with some sea salt, as I really don't think he and I are engaged in some sort of sporting contest. (If that's what we're doing, I'll have to reassess whether I should participate, because, as you can see from my own post of February 4, I disdain fanatical spectator sports.)

Also note, when you go (if you go) to my post that Tom provides a link for, that one of my comments there (following his first essay at trashing Diagoras and Critias) informed Tom that I had provided some additional information on ancient atheists in my post of February 2 ("A little ancient history of atheism and evolution," and Tom had read it but not seen fit to include the estimable Anaxagoras in his today's post.

Of course, I suppose that any mention he might have made of Anaxagoras would have been deftly taped to a ball that he proceeded to stuff with sleight of hand into the basket behind me. Ah, yes, Sheepandgoaticus is a sly Sophist indeed! But I have to acknowledge the truth that his performance IS more entertaining than football!

Thanks, Tom, very sporting of you to let me address your readers.
[Posted by: Sheepandgoats | February 5]:
Hey.....wait a minute!! How did Moristotle get in here, addressing my readers [possibly just him and me] over my head??!! Who's blog is this anyway?

Pay no attention to this "Anaxagoras" character M refers to. Or, if you do pay attention, consider also the current [2-5-08] Wikipedia entry about him, which tempers his conclusion. The final two sentences are:
By the theory of minute constituents of things, and his emphasis on mechanical processes in the formation of order, he paved the way for the atomic theory. However, his enunciation of the order that comes from an intelligent mind suggested the theory that nature is the work of design.
Was he an atheist? If so, I suspect he was not "hard-core." More likely agnostic. But as M points out on his blog, it's a little hard to track these obscure Greeks. Little of their writings survived, and most of what is known about them comes from the comments of more well-known ancients.

He didn't attend meetings at the Kingdom Hall, though. That much I'll concede.
[Posted by: Moristotle | February 6]:
Thank you, good and gracious Tom! I hadn't read the Wikipedia entry about Anaxagoras. Your readers might be interested in the entire section (on "Cosmological theory") which concludes with the sentence you quoted. The Wikipedia entry includes this statement:
It is noteworthy that Aristotle accuses Anaxagoras of failing to differentiate between nous and psyche, while Socrates (Plato, Phaedo, 98 B) objects that his nous is merely a deus ex machina to which he refuses to attribute design and knowledge.
Socrates seemed to foreshadow Sheepandgoaticus when he says literally that Anaxagoras had introduced a god to "provide a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty" (to quote Webster's appropriate definition of deus ex machina).
[Posted by: Sheepandgoats | February 6]:

Th[e entire Wikepedia entry]'s all very nice, but what does it MEAN?

That writing is such a muddled mess (with the exception of your interjection, of course) that I thought it fitting just to use the last two sentences, which apparently represent the author's conclusions about the man.

Look, I haven't the foggiest what he believed. But to present him unequivocally as an atheist is a bit of a stretch.

I'm grateful that the religious outlooks of Newton, Galileo, Kepler and so forth are well documented. Were they not, I've no doubt that atheists would endeavor to count them as blood brothers. They'd like us to believe that all scientists through the years have leaned atheistic, and it isn't so. Until relatively recently, outright atheism (in contrast with agnosticism) seems to have been an aberration.

As I've tried to illustrate here and here.
[Posted by: Moristotle | February 7]:
Tom, I agree that Anaxagoras's attempt at cosmological thinking was a bit of a muddle. I'm sorry to have burdened your blog with the whole passage. I should, I suppose, just have quoted "It is noteworthy...while Socrates (Plato, Phaedo, 98 B) objects that his nous is merely a deus ex machina...," so that I could make my point about positing "God" to explain things as being "a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty."

Which is more or less where I'm coming from (on my own blog) when I ask you:

"How does positing a 'first cause' to explain the existence of apparently designed things actually explain anything? More fairly (and intelligently) a person trying to explain such things might say, 'Hmm, something or some process brought this about; now, what could that be?' [Anaximander] (along, later, with Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace) came up with an idea. And it wasn't 'God.'"

Also, I don't understand why you put so much store in acknowledging that a person was more likely an agnostic than an atheist. Is an agnostic some kind of believer? I thought you're on record that it "isn't possible" to disbelieve in "God" without an alternative explanation for evolution.

Of course, agnosticism is a safer, more defensible position than either atheism or theism. (Another question of mine you've not answered is how you know? Of course, I've alleged that you simply don't.) The agnostic only has to admit he doesn't know (and won't believe one way or the other); he doesn't have to prove anything but can take potshots at both sides if it amuses him.

For the record, I too admit that I don't really know that there is no god. In my post, "All in or All out," of September 9, I went into why I nevertheless decided to give up "Kierkegaard's noble position" [of hanging from the two ledges of faith and disbelief] and grab firmly onto the one of disbelief.

It strikes me now that the "noble position," proximately described as a state of continual doubt, is perhaps essentially the agnostic's position. I guess this safe, unpresupposing position is too tame for the likes of thee and me!

That was somewhat of a joke. I explained on September 9 what my initial motivation was: I really didn't like living in continual doubt over a question that was important to me, however noble such a state might be. I needed to decide the question, and I used the best understanding available to me.
[Posted by: Sheepandgoats | February 7]:
Do you mean that your crossing over from agnosticsm to atheism was only because you tired of "fence sitting?" That's all? Is that really a supportable reason?

I've no problem with people who concede they do not KNOW something. I think more people should do that. A lot of historical wreckage can be laid at the feet of those who knew things.

Agnosticism, admittedly a fence-sitting position, is nonetheless a safe refuge for those who can't quite muster up the presumption to sever ties with God completely, yet who also can't get a satisfying answer on ....why suffering?....why injustice?.....why evil?.....the very matters Diagoras wrestled with and lost.

Jehovah's Witnesses presented me with an understanding clearing up those concerns of Diagoras. Otherwise, I too would likely have found myself an agnostic. This understanding is entirely unattainable through churches, as they deny too many underlying premises.

I've written of this understanding in various posts. Unfortunately, you vomited upon reading one of them. But I'll assume it was my quirky way of presenting it, and not the understanding itself.

I've written about it from other angles, such as here, here and even here.

Of course, all of it is written with my peculiar style, which some find obnoxious. For a clear explanation without my baggage, one might go to the book What Does the Bible Really Teach, which JWs are likely to have on them when they visit. The correct chapters will be obvious from the table of contents.

So perhaps I have answered your question about how I KNOW what I know. I found the answer to what stymied Diagoras. Of course, I'll readily concede that I don't KNOW it, in the sense of being scientifically proven. It presents to me a framework that appeals to reason, but also involves what might be termed "heart," appreciation, and so forth.

In the final analysis, I think many aspects of life (like heart and appreciation) are not scientifically provable. We're not built that way. Life isn't built that way.
[Posted by: Moristotle | February 11]:
Tom, Thanks for providing an answer to my question about how you know—that you don't really. Since you wrote an earlier draft of your comment (and me an earlier draft of this response), I've made a few "advances" in my thinking about this. I've already "moved on," for example, from my only somewhat facetious statement that Carl Jung might have been the ONLY person who KNEW that god exists.

I remembered over the weekend that there are surely many, many people who feel the same way Jung did. For example, Maliha, who listed for me a number of "ways of knowing" that god exists. These included (for her; I don't endorse the list) intuition, insight, and imagination (but she actually listed four or five more, which I don't remember, except that I vaguely recall her mentioning Einstein's "knowing with his body"). And my distant cousin Vera finds god's existence "obvious," presumably availing herself too of some privileged sixth sense. (The fact that she thinks it is obvious makes her utterly amazed that I deny god's existence; she comforts herself by assuming it's because I'm a man, and women are better able to know such things!) I suspect that there are literally millions of Muslims and millions of Christians who feel that they KNOW god exists. (I suppose there are such Jews as well.) We can only accept that, I think, and classify them as "knowing" theists, despite whatever epistemological reservations you and I might have about their claim. (I toyed with the term "gnostic theist," but "gnostic" has a very special meaning, even a historical one, referring to the early Christians who lost out in the struggle to define what Christianity would become. I'm not an expert on that, obviously; I'll have to re-read Pagels's book on the subject.)

By the way, do you know of any Jehovah's Witnesses (some you've met down at Kingdom Hall perhaps) who think that they too know?

My deciding for atheism was of course not motivated primarily to avoid having to sit any longer on an uncomfortable fence, although I can't deny that that had something to do with it (since I said as much in my post of September 9). The point was, though, that I wasn't so much sitting on the fence as hanging precariously toward one side of it. I was far from evenly divided in my inclinations to the two alternatives, belief and unbelief. And I realized (as I think I tried to express in that post) that I had been sort of "carrying" a belief in god, in the sense of supporting a cause that I really felt, way, way down inside, was lost. What happened in the months preceding September 9 was that I got in touch with that deep-down feeling and, with the help of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens (and Thomas Paine and Bertrand Russell, and probably even with Richard Dawkins as summarized by yourself—isn't that ironic?), was able at last to release myself from the burden of empty faith.

In my Saturday's post, "Agnostic = theistically neutral," I indicated that I will address the reasons I believe that there is no god. But another "advance" in my thinking about this (I did a lot of thinking this weekend as I raked leaves, cut oat grass, took down an ailing magnolia tree, and made two trips to the landfill) was that I realized that I first have to define what it is I say doesn't exist. At the moment, I envision that as a post unto itself.
[Posted by: Sheepandgoats | February 12]:
"Thanks for providing an answer to my question about how you know—that you don't really."

I don't accept your premise that the only way to know something is to know it because science declares it proven. It's not as if science has never let us down. I would expand the definition more Maliha-like, though I agree, this causes problems of "standardization" do I know what you know?

"Do you know of any Jehovah's Witnesses (some you've met down at Kingdom Hall perhaps) who think that they too know?"

Since we are all on the same team, we don't really challenge each other's beliefs as an atheist might so I can't really answer your question. I suspect relationships with God fall as a bell curve. It may even be that, as we are all different, God presents himself to each one differently, "adjusting" himself to our makeup. But that is pure guesswork on my part.
[Posted by: Moristotle | February 13]:
Tom, just a couple of small adjustments, if I might:

Your assumption that my test of knowledge is that "science declares it proven" is of course too limited. We ordinary people all know a lot of things that science isn't involved in at all.

It was in that ordinary sense that I thought you had agreed you didn't know that god exists any more than I know it.

And when I asked about your friends down at Kingdom Hall, I certainly didn't have in mind that you "challenge each other's beliefs." Don't you ever just discuss it in a neutral way, for the sake of understanding and appreciating each other? Apparently not, if I may take your response as an answer.

Of course, your idea that "God presents himself to each one differently, 'adjusting' himself to our makeup" is mighty convenient for you! Smacks a bit of some Creationists' position that god put all of those bones in the ground just to give the ILLUSION that the Earth is older than 6,000 years (or whatever the exact number is).
[Posted by: Sheepandgoats | February 13]:
No, we have a misunderstanding. I took your "know" to mean scientifically provable. Apparently that's not how you intended it.

Thinking of some of the analogies our people (and I) might use, we "know" in the sense that you know that the sun will rise tomorrow. Of course, you don't "really" know it until it happens.

Or you know in the same way that you know you love a certain person.

You "know" because there's several paths of knowing, for example the logical, the intuitive, the appreciative & some of the others Maliha would throw in, and you've gotten them to all agree.

Many atheists, perhaps not yourself, present science as the end-all and know-all, the only true way of "knowing." This is especially true with the new-fangled field of "evolutionary psychology," in which intangibles such as love and appreciation are thought to be qualities explainable by science.

I do not agree that all things are reducible to science. Many atheists do.
[Posted by: Moristotle | February 13]:
Tom, I meant "know" as being objective, in the sense that other people "in their right mind" (we need some test to exclude the incompetent) can know it too and we can all agree on it. Knowledge that god exists or doesn't exist doesn't seem to be objective in that way; in fact, I think that that statement itself is an example of something objectively known: people generally agree that it is so (that "knowledge" of god is not objective knowledge) and acknowledge that Tom and Moristotle can have a fine time discussing whether god exists and what the myth of the Garden of Eden means, if they want to, but, unless they agree on a standard of knowledge, they'll likely never agree on those matters. And what I just said about the Garden of Eden is a case in point. You believe there really were two "first people," Adam and Eve, and Eve really conversed with a snake, etc. I think it's a myth and can bear numerous interpretations, including a way of understanding the birth of consciousness in the human species.

Science, of course, is sort of the "queen of knowing" when it comes to objective knowledge. The principle of repeatable experiments, for example.

I'm not sure what you meant when you said that some people believe that "all things are reducible to science." Do you mean, for example, that they believe that, in principle, there's a materialistic explanation for consciousness, so that "reducible to science" suggests that science is a way (if not the way) to discover the materialistic explanation?
[Posted by: Sheepandgoats | February 14]:
When I first encountered Jehovah’s Witnesses 30+ years ago, I was astounded to think I had found people who actually believed in Adam and Eve. I had always thought that only the dumbest of the rednecks believed that way. The only reason I did not reject their message out of hand was that it sounded so good, there was no monetary and only minimal time cost in investigating, and the people themselves struck me as so decent that I suppose I was curious as to what made them that way.

Religious teachings had never made any sense to me, so when I encountered a group offered some answers, it seemed worth my time to investigate. I found a body of teaching that fit together seamlessly and explained the human condition as it is now, how it got to be that way, what prospects the future holds, how did death originate, why is there evil and suffering, and how to live now with a sense of fulfillment, and so forth. Moreover, there didn’t seem to be anything in modern thinking that made impossible the Adam & Eve story. It merely seemed unlikely. I assure you, I too would have thought of it as myth (as I previously had) if going along with it had not made possible the understanding of so many things.

I expressed some of this is a previous post. If memory serves, you didn’t like it.

Precisely where this falls on the spectrum of “knowing” I will leave to you to decide, but perhaps you will agree it is more objective than subjective. Now, upon becoming witnesses of Jehovah, people look for God’s direction in their lives, and they generally cultivate praying, and this adds to their “knowing,” to greater or lesser degree. But these latter things are highly subjective. Moreover, other explanations exist from, say, psychology, so that I wouldn’t be able or indeed be inclined to argue much with whatever you might point out on these matters.

Does that answer your question? I guess, at root, our knowledge is “objective,” I believe in contrast to most other faiths. But most individuals supplement it with subjective factors.
[Posted by: Moristotle | February 14]:
Tom, I re-read the post your comment links to. Indeed, I had read it before. It still reads like the slickest, smoothest con I've practically ever seen. No reflection on you, for I accept that you (and your JW cohorts) really believe what you're saying.

Of course, on my view, it doesn't make any real difference, I mean to what happens after death. Of course, it affects how you all spend your time (for example, attending meetings at the Kingdom Hall).

But what I believe affects how I spend MY time too. Works the same for everybody.

So, good on you, my friend, despite all!
[Posted by: Moristotle | February 15]:
Tom, I've gone to two or three times lately to try to "get inside the JW mind," but I haven't been able to crack an opening, so to speak. Because I respect you, your morals, your intelligence, your evaluation of things, I of course want (and need) to understand how you can believe what you believe about God and Adam and Eve, etc. (Reminds me of what Russell said about how to "read philosophy": attempt to understand how the philosopher who propounded it could understand it, which involves getting inside the philosopher's head in some, necessarily imaginative, way.)

Unfortunately, I'm finding the "armor" in which JW clothes itself to be (for me, at any rate) virtually impenetrable. I mean, it's like a closed system in which you sort of have to accept the whole cloth, I can't find a cuff or a button that reasonably appeals to me and with which I might start to explore other parts of the fabric. (I just now invented that analogy, so I don't know how well it holds up.)

Well, one aspect does seem at least somewhat reasonable, however. I get the impression, not only from your example, but also from the website, that the JW "ethic" for "the good life" is wholesome and certainly not to be dismissed out of hand. (I say, for the most part. I'm by no means endorsing it altogether—and don't even comprehend it altogether in order to do so competently.) But since I draw a very sharp distinction between ethics (or morality) and religion, judging that religion (and "God") are not essential for morality (you yourself acknowledge that atheists can be good people), JW's laudatory ethic says nothing to me about the truth or falsehood of its metaphysic. To paraphrase (I'm sure all three of) the authors Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins (not to mention Russell and no doubt many others): The beneficial effects claimed to flow from various religious beliefs are no evidence at all for the truth of those beliefs (except possibly in some William Jamesean pragmatic sense, but even there, I would argue, the same benefits can be derived "extra-religiously").

I've often thought that a very similar thing could be said about LDS (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). I've observed Mormon families, and their children are models of good and respectful behavior. While this speaks well, certainly, of the Mormon ethic, its proves nothing about the truth of its metaphysical claims about "God," the afterlife, or whatever.

I record these observation simply as thoughts along the way toward trying to understand JW's appeal to people whom I respect. I hope I will have further thoughts (that is, make some actual progress toward understanding it).
[Posted by: Sheepandgoats | February 16]:

Since you like the JW ethics and since you are critical of religion, a possible "cuff" might be found in a combination of the two.

Jesus, whatever else people may attach to him, is widely regarded as a moral person.

He also said things about the religion of his time very analagous to what the Dawkins-Harris-Hitchings trinity says about that of ours.

For example:
Not everyone saying to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the one doing the will of my Father who is in the heavens will. Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and expel demons in your name, and perform many powerful works in your name?’ And yet then I will confess to them: I never knew you! Get away from me, you workers of lawlessness. [Matt 7:21-23]
The scribes and the Pharisees [religious leaders of the day] have seated themselves in the seat of Moses. Therefore all the things they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds, for they say but do not perform. They bind up heavy loads and put them upon the shoulders of men, but they themselves are not willing to budge them with their finger. All the works they do they do to be viewed by men; for they broaden the [scripture-containing] cases that they wear as safeguards, and enlarge the fringes [of their garments]. They like the most prominent place at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues, and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by men. [Matt 23:2-7]
or other excerpts from chapter 23, which you should read it their entirety if this interests you:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness. [Vs 23] resemble whitewashed graves, which outwardly indeed appear beautiful but inside are full of dead men’s bones and of every sort of uncleanness. In that way you also, outwardly indeed, appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. [Vs 27]
Might that be an acceptable "button" (yes, I do like the analogy) to make an investigation?

And, don't worry. I don't for one moment mistake your investigative nature for evidence that I have "reeled in a big one." :)
[Posted by: Moristotle | February 18]:
Ha, even if you did "reel me in," you would by no means have gotten a big one. I'm very small fry.

I agree that Jesus is indeed widely regarded as a moral person, but I'm afraid that would be more accurately described as "uncritically regarded" as such. Even in the quotations you supply, I object to his "doing the will of my Father who is in the heavens." This assumes that men need divine guidance to know what is good. And, of course, I believe there is neither Father nor heaven to provide it anyway.

The good, recent atheist authors I've studied were not uncritical. The only point of theirs that I'm remembering at the moment was Jesus's ill treatment of his own biological family and his advice for his followers to do likewise.

While Garry Wills attempted (in his book What Jesus Meant) to "apologize" for this and other questionable moral stances of Jesus (apologize in the sense of rationalize them and overcome objections), his apology wasn't convincing.

It occurs to me that Thomas Jefferson did find in the example of Jesus a button or cuff to hold onto. The Jefferson Bible is what's left after Jefferson excised the parts of the New Testament he found morally and theologically repugnant. But I believe that some of the things that he excised included various of Jesus's own teachings.
[Posted by: Moristotle | February 20]:
My contemporary Stephen Mitchell (that is, he was also born in 1943), has translated many works, including Gilgamesh, The Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, selected stories from Genesis, The Book of Job, selections from The Book of Psalms, and selected poetry and prose of Rainer Maria Rilke. In fact, I prefer his translation of Rilke to all others with which I'm familiar.

Mitchell, too, cobbled together his own selection of The Gospel According to Jesus (Harper Perennial 1993). He accomplished this not only because he knows many languages and can write well, but also because he has the moral wherewithal to see what of Jesus should be recommended and what should not.

In general, our ability to evaluate injunctions recommended by holy books (and alleged to have come down from on high) rests on our own prior moral sense, developed by means of natural selection through the process of evolution.

I'm reminded of the conundrum proposed by Plato in The Republic: In order for the governed to assent to the rule of a philosopher king, they must be able to evaluate the king as to his fitness as a philosopher.
[Posted by: Sheepandgoats | February 20]:
"...Even in the quotations you supply, I object to his 'doing the will of my Father who is in the heavens.' This assumes that men need divine guidance to know what is good....."

You must think collectively. Most people are good in their own eyes. And yet collectively the planet is a disaster. Do you think “good” includes getting along with each other? Or resolving conflicts amicably? Do you think we need guidance in those areas? If not, what do you think we do need?

It seems reasonable to me that if you peruse atheist works critical of Jesus and likewise works from guys like Wills defending him, and draw conclusions from those works that you should as a prerequisite read the gospel accounts themselves…the four histories of Jesus’ words and deeds. It’s a rather modest endeavor when compared to the studying of Plato or Aristotle. I continue to think that , if you are still looking for a “hook” to get into the thinking of JWs, that Jesus life course is a good place to start, since we claim to base everything on that life. One of the books JWs have takes every word and deed of his from any of the four gospels and puts them into one chronological account. Perhaps more importantly, it reviews only what is in the four gospels, and not modern day context, in reconstructing the man and his deeds.

I wrote the above comment before reading your most recent. [Mitchell]'s work sounds intriguing. I'd be curious to compare the two.
[Posted by: Moristotle | February 21]:
Tom, you surely know (haven't I told you?) that I have indeed read the four gospels, a number of times more than once. Been there, done that, same old same old.

"You must think collectively"?...Ah, you think the solution is a totalitarian regime? Everyone down to the Kingdom Hall on a rigid schedule? Well, if that's what "God" intends, and "He" is great, then I suppose that's what will happen by and by. I hope you enjoy it as much as you imagine you will. By the way, isn't one of the tenets of the Jehovah's Witnesses that only a few tens of thousands of your elect will actually enjoy this regime, with the rest serving as some sort of serfs or zoological entertainment? Nice system, for the appropriately believing.
[Posted by: Sheepandgoats | February 21]:
Oh, come now. you said totalitarian regime, not I. you said everyone on a rigid schedule, not I.

The trouble with being right in your own eyes and bristling at the mere thought of being corrected, is that the ones you disagree with don't acquiesce. Surely you've noticed that. They just don't roll over and die. They bristle just as forcefully in favor of their own point of view. Why do you think global warming is not resolved by now, or racism, or poverty, or arms control? You don't think some or all of these things will someday be our undoing if we don't learn to deal with them more effectively than we do now?

So although you were incensed at my question, you did not answer it.

"Do you think “good” includes getting along with each other? Or resolving conflicts amicably? Do you think we need guidance in those areas? If not, what do you think we do need?"
[Posted by: Moristotle | February 21]:
Tom, sorry that my previous comment got you to bristling. I thought the comment was rather mild and factual.

I may have used the word "totalitarian," but it fits. Maybe the schedule for worship wouldn't be terribly rigid, depending on the extent to which "God" is "Jehovah" rather than "Allah." I frankly don't know how punctual Jehovah's Witnesses are when it comes to congregating at Kingdom Hall, but the Mohamedans seem pretty regular in prostrating themselves to pray toward Mecca.

Yes, of course it would be good if we got along with one another, good if we resolved our conflicts amicably. And of course some of us need guidance, but there's no god to provide it. We're going to have to guide one another. I think it will not be easy to guide those who insist on taking their guidance from an ancient text, especially when the texts are diverse and their various adherents are similarly insistent.

The social, cultural, and other problems you mention may very well be our undoing; there is no god to save us from them.
[Posted by: Sheepandgoats | February 22]:
Totalitarian does not fit, at least not as the word it used today. It implies a stifling of personality and scuttling of our identity.

All of us in this country have learned to conform to traffic laws: stop, yield, merge, speed zone, and so forth. We don't carry on about how "totalitarian" it all is. We don't worry that we are compromising our identity in complying. We just do it without fuss, for we realize the practical benefit.

Similar point with regard to punctuality. Sure, it has it's place. Yet every responsible person today has learned to be punctual in their work life, family life, social life. What's one more thing? It's not that big of a deal.
[Posted by: Moristotle | February 22]:
From Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1977):

"totalitarian ... of or relating to centralized control by an autocratic leader or hierarchy: AUTHORITARIAN, DICTATORIAL ... subordination of the individual ... strict control of all aspects of life...."

The autocratic leader in your global vision would I assume be the jealous, often petty, sometimes exceedingly cruel god of the Bible. (I know you have your own sanitized version of god; I'm just going by the text and reading it without tinted glasses.)

Good point about most people's conforming to practically beneficial regulations (and being punctual about it; I'll ignore the fact that every system has cheaters). But counterpoint is that congregating at Kingdom Hall or throwing oneself down to pray toward Mecca appeals to few as having any benefit, practical or otherwise.

Of course, I believe it makes no difference outside our diverting discourse. By whatever definition, there is no X that corresponds to the deity of theocratic totalitarianism. The theocracies favored by Islamists, for example, wouldn't be ruled by non-existent "Allah" but by the imams and ayatollahs who wield power over the lesser Mohamedans.

Hmm, Jehovah's Witnesses' being such nice, non-political guys, who among them would wield the actual power in the world state you envision?
[Posted by: Sheepandgoats | February 22]:
As defined by the Webster's Dictionary, "totalitarianism" does not fit Jehovah's Witnesses at all. "Strict control of all aspects of life"....are you kidding me? In many ways, your workplace "controls" more aspects of your life. And your marriage. The self-limiting belief that this life is all there is likewise "controls" people to a great extent.

"I'm just going by the text and reading it without tinted glasses".....What you are reading, IMO, is too much Dawkins, for you to have swallowed such rubbish.

"The autocratic leader in your global vision would I assume be the jealous, often petty, sometimes exceedingly cruel god of the Bible"...You know what they say about assuming things.

You acknowledged 2 comments ago: "The social, cultural, and other problems you mention may very well be our undoing" How's that for "cruel?" It's certainly not much of a gift to pass on to the children and grandchildren. No wonder the younger generation has so little regard for the old!

Is there anything so terrible about reaching for a solution? If it involves focusing more on our responsibilities than our rights, is that really the end of the world? Especially, when not doing so may well result in "the end of the world," as you acknowledged.

"But counterpoint is that congregating at Kingdom Hall ....appeals to few as having any benefit, practical or otherwise"....That's why we don't require it of them. If we do it ourselves, it is because we have discerned that "benefit, practical or otherwise" does lie in that direction.
[Posted by: Moristotle | February 23]:
Good morning, Tom. I'm glad it's the weekend. Good on you to overflowing cup.

I seemed more correct than I realized about the limited appeal of congregating at Kingdom Hall: you indicate that even some Jehovah's Witnesses choose not to do so.

You switch from the indictment of "God" as cruel to indicting those (apparently not Jehovah's Witnesses) who pass bad things "on to the children and grandchildren." This refrain that man is also cruel seems to concede the point that "God" indeed is cruel (so what's so bad about that?).

But maybe you don't concede it, for you swat an arrow at Dawkins as though to kill the messenger of such insight. Of course, even if you succeeded in killing all such messengers, the message would survive. I've been assuming that you know the Bible thoroughly (since you quote it often and extensively), but perhaps (given what "they" say about assuming things) you don't know the passages that depict "God" as jealous, petty, cruel, etc. It might do you good to become familiar with them. If you have trouble finding them, you might consult Paine's Age of Reason, Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian, or the recent books of Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins that we've talked about occasionally. (Of course, you'll need to remove your tinted glasses as you peruse the passages.)

Tom, there is nothing "terrible about reaching for a solution." Do you really (and willfully) think that I'm against seeking solutions? As for "focusing more on our responsibilities than our rights," I hope that my life speaks eloquently enough about that to deserve mentioning on my tombstone. You seem to imagine that I consider such a focus as "the end of the world." I am quite at a loss to understand how you have come to see me in that light. (I suspect that you don't see me that way at all but simply got your rhetoric jumbled and tripped yourself up.)

I characterized the global state of your apocalyptic vision as "totalitarian." You say the term doesn't fit Jehovah's Witnesses, seeming to imply that indeed the apocalyptic state will be modeled on Jehovah's Witnesses (and, therefore, it would not be totalitarian). Is that your reasoning? I'd thought that the model for your visionary regime would be that of the Garden of Eden, with "God" in charge and all humans dutifully refraining from eating of the fruit or hobnobbing with snakes.

Maybe the key here is that the phrase "all humans" doesn't actually include everybody but, for a start, excludes all non-believers? I did mention a comment or two back that the humans who chose not to go along with "God" might serve as serfs or zoological entertainment for those who did go along, but you didn't acknowledge or answer it. (I also asked in that comment whether it's true that Jehovah's Witnesses believe that there will be a precise number of individuals "saved," or is that just another of those urban legends?)

To end as I began: Tom, good on you.
[Posted by: Sheepandgoats | February 23]:
"I did mention a comment or two back that the humans who chose not to go along with 'God' might serve as serfs or zoological entertainment for those who did go along, but you didn't acknowledge or answer it."

The way it was phrased, Moristotle, I didn't realize it was a serious question. It seemed that you were just lobbing an insult. I may address it in a future post.

If society does indeed self-destruct from one of the ills we spoke of, that will surely be a powerful indictment of its individuals. They will have been guilty of focusing, not on their responsibilities to co-exist and resolve problems, but on their rights to not let anyone tell them what to do. And the kids and grandkids who suffer the consequences of "my way or the highway" thinking will have ample reason to curse their elders.

That's what I meant by "rights and responsibilities." I didn't mean it as a "personal" indictment. You know that by now.
[Posted by: Moristotle | February 25]:
Dear Tom, I surely meant no insult. I was just following your argument (as I understand it). The world order of your vision seems to be modeled on the Garden of Eden, where "God" is in charge. That god appears to be autocratic. And, because non-believers and others who "don't go along" seem to be unwelcome there, I just wondered what happens to them. In Soviet Russia such dissidents were often consigned to psychiatric wards (thinly disguised political prisons). I suggested "serfs" as a sort of stand-in for that; I admit that "zoological entertainment" was a bit whimsical, but only a little bit; such an alternative is easily imaginable in the mythical world of Genesis. The bottom line seems to be that the regime of the Garden is uniformity of thought, children ruled by a parent. In a word (in this necessarily political context), totalitarian.

"God" also appears (from a number of depictions of "him" in the Bible) to be jealous, petty, cruel, etc. My earlier references to that god as "sicko" (a word I adopted from your own reference to a human being) was no insult either, although you seem to have taken it that way, for you have not replied either to my pointing out that the Bible does so depict this god. (I believe that you did say, though, that you might reply someday.)

As I said, I didn't think that you could really be indicting me personally on the subject of irresponsible behavior, but your reference to responsibility immediately followed the sentence, "Is there anything so terrible about reaching for a solution?" which I could only read as implying that I had something against reaching for a solution, and strongly implied that the rest of the paragraph applied to me as well.

I can't agree with what you say in the sentences, "If society does indeed self-destruct from one of the ills we spoke of, that will surely be a powerful indictment of its individuals. They will have been guilty of focusing, not on their responsibilities to co-exist and resolve problems, but on their rights to not let anyone tell them what to do." While it is natural for adults not to want to be "told what to do" and some people will go to extremes not to work with others, failure to successfully resolve the problems we alluded to can come even to the people who work together in good faith (and work hard) to try to resolve them.

My statement a few comments back that efforts might fail was intended as an acknowledgment that the problems are serious and difficult. Just the over-population problem (perhaps the most significant single problem of all) is catastrophic.

How do we get from here (having these serious problems) to there (having solutions) by means of adopting the Jehovah's Witnesses view that we should (apparently) all believe that "God" exists, see ourselves as no more than children, and submit to "God's" telling us (by some means or other) what to do, and that we should undeviatingly do what we are told?

The application of this "solution" can't go anywhere in practice. Are Mohamedans going to give up Allah and follow Jehovah? Are the mainstream Christian denominations that consider Mormons not even Christian (and I don't know how they regard Jehovah's Witnesses) going to change what they're doing? Are scientists (the majority of whom don't even believe that god exists) going to stop trying to understand the world and how things work (in order that they might make an adult contribution to solving problems) going to start spending their evenings down at Kingdom Hall?
[Posted by: Sheepandgoats | February 25]:

Intriguing viewpoints and questions, to be sure, but I just can't keep up with it. I'm moving on to my next post (re Plato), which may be my last for awhile about the Greeks. It does address a few of the points you raise, and perhaps, if you wish, we can attach any new observations or some of the old to that post.

Interesting that you should mention dissidents in Soviet Russia. That figures in to my present post, in a way that may surprise you.

As always, you keep me jumping. (smile)

[Posted by: Moristotle | February 25]:
Fair enough, my friend. I'm not sure I'd want to continue this conversation either, if I were you [smile].

Much of the day yesterday I had a warm current of sympathetic feeling for you flowing through my spirit. While our earnest and generally respectful interchange itself might account for this, I think it might have been prompted YESTERDAY because my wife and I the night before had watched a movie adaptation of a novel we both read five or six years ago, When Nietzsche Wept (by the Palo Alto psychiatrist, Irvin D. Yalom). Its major characters--Nietzsche, Dr. Josef Breuer, Mrs. Breuer, Sigmund Freud (Breuer's protege), Bertha Pappenheim (a hysteric patient of Breuer referred to as "Anna O."), and Lou Andreas-Salomé--are real persons from 1880's Vienna. Lou Salomé prevails on Breuer to take Nietzsche on as a patient to treat his severe migraine headaches and try to slip in some psychiatric therapy at the same time (through "the talking cure"). In order to do the latter, Breuer has to resort to an arrangement whereby Nietzsche treats Breuer's despair in the same way, quid pro quo. (Breuer is having his sort of mid-life crisis: where has my life gone? have I ever really gained my freedom?) It's a beautiful, humane story, and when the men take their leave (portrayed touchingly on film with Armand Assante as Nietzsche and Ben Cross as Breuer), they embrace in love and mutual regard. Anyway, in the bonus material Assante answers the interviewer's question, "Why did Nietzsche weep?" by saying that Nietzsche had come to realize that everything was an illusion. (The follow-up question was how did Assante relate to that, and he said, well, he'd always known it was illusion.)

I think the current that flowed through me was warmed by my own sense of this illusion. In not many years we'll both be dead....

Friday, February 22, 2008

Jesus Kitsch

A relative of my wife's who recently learned of my "loss of faith" (as I suppose he would term it) has sent me by attachment this Owings Mills image of Jesus. (Note the NEW ART annotation in the upper left-hand corner.)

I assume that my cousin-in-law hopes thereby to restore my "lost faith"—the faith that I finally found unsupportable by reason, evidence, or expectation. His e-mail includes the chain-mail text:

He arrived this morning, we had prayer, spent some time just talking, and then he was on his way to your house.

When he gets to your PC, escort him to the next stop. Please don't allow him to sleep on your PC. [Could I keep Jesus from sleeping if he wanted to sleep?] The message he is carrying is very important and needs to go round. May God bless you as you do this—Amen.

This image of Jesus is a piece of sentimental "art" in the class of other Owings Mills pieces, such as "Sunset Grandeur," "Evening's Promise," "A Little Piece of Heaven," and "Home of Plenty" (which I quickly found on the web):

Even their titles express the sentiment, as does "Softly Knocking Jesus," which might well be the title of the religious kitsch.

Such popular sentiment doesn't claim me. I can't muster the requisite faithful response.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"It's a life's work..."

From lawman Ed Tom Bell's monologue in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men:
It's a life's work to see yourself for what you really are and even then you might be wrong. [p. 416]
Reading this reminds me that for a long while this blog was billed as a "Journal of Self-Discovery." It reminds me even more that I abandoned that because I figured that in some way I had finally come to see myself for what I really am. And I thought I was moving on.

But mostly of course the statement reminds me that even now I might be wrong. Sobering thought, and at the moment not a stimulating one.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Celebrating evolved life and learning on Earth

Once again I've changed the billing on my masthead, which was for a few weeks "Celebrating our constitutional freedom from religion (while we still have it)." While I of course continue to celebrate that freedom, I celebrate many more things as well. This isn't an "atheist website." It was just that, when I wrote the previous billing, I was excited about that particular celebration and wanted to make a deal about it. Now that I've settled in, I can mellow out a little bit. (I notice that I've been using California—i.e., hippie—lingo after watching those documentaries on rock festivals.)

Of course, my inclusion of the word "evolved" does signal that I go along with Charles Darwin and the vast (or however large) majority of educated people on the planet. Planet Earth is over four billion years old, not the six or so thousand years some God-fearing, Bible-reading folks believe, even imagining that "God" just planted all the evidence to the contrary to fool our intelligence. I will from time to time of course be unable to contain myself from commenting on religion and various other extraordinary popular delusions1.

But mainly (and even in that) I'll be celebrating life and learning on Earth.
  1. From Wikipedia:
    Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds is a popular history of popular folly by Charles Mackay, first published in 1841. The book chronicles and vilifies its targets in three parts: "National Delusions," "Peculiar Follies," and "Philosophical Delusions.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Carl Jung wasn't the only one

In my February 9 post, "'Agnostic' = theistically neutral," I said that "'everybody' is agnostic in the root meaning of that term, not knowing whether or not god exists—notwithstanding Carl Jung's statement that he knew." The quotation marks around "everybody" and my facetious reference to Jung of course let you know that I realize there are people who claim to know that god exists.

In fact, there are likely millions who think that they know. I think of Maliha (of the blog "Lightness of Being"1). In an e-mail last year, Maliha listed eight or ten "ways of knowing" that god exists—even of knowing god, including intuition, insight, and imagination. (If I can find the e-mail, I'll add the others.)

And my cousin Vera finds god's existence "obvious," although she hasn't told me by what privileged sixth sense she knows this, except that she hinted it might be female intuition. (She had told me that though my unbelief troubled her, she had noticed that many of the men in our family have had trouble "believing in god," whereas the women haven't.)

I suspect that there are literally millions of Muslims like Maliha and millions of Christians like my cousin who feel they know that god exists. (I suppose there are even a few such Jews as well.) I'm willing to accept that and classify them as "'knowing' theists," but with the quotation marks around "knowing" to express my skepticism.
  1. Maliha shut her blog down three days ago, explaining that "I need to discipline and allow myself to mature in some ways. I also hope that this move will quiet down the chatter within."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Faith-based support groups

In my Monday's post on "The miracle," I wrote that I think:
there's less of a possibility of Tom [Sheepandgoat]'s becoming an atheist than of my again becoming a theist. He has his Jehovah's Witness support group, people he sees (I think he indicated) three days a week down at Kingdom Hall, whereas I can't be said to have such a support group—unless a few authors I read can be counted as such.
And Tom supportively commented:
Many atheists find support groups within the blogging community. You could do that...I hope you don’t go that way, and I don’t foresee that you will. So far, you are a blogger who happens to be atheist rather than an atheist blogger. Even as I try to be a blogger who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses rather than a JW blogger.
Right on, my friend!

No, as I commented back to Tom:
I don't feel the need for such a support group. I have the necessary life support of my wife, my dog, and my many friends (including yourself in your non-religious-affiliated moments).
In thinking about the concept of a support group, I realized that one of the practical uses of a church (or a temple or a mosque or a synagogue or a Kingdom Hall or, for Wiccans, I guess a wattle hut?) is to serve as a support group for its members. Perhaps that's the main reason for many of them. A place to go to have their faith and their faithful practice reinforced and perhaps reinvigorated.

But what about those " groups within the blogging community"? What are they doing? They don't have any faith to enforce or invigorate. Maybe they're getting together to celebrate communally what I too celebrate (individually) of our constitutional freedom from religion? Or maybe they're political groups banding together to fight further encroachments on that freedom? After all, we only have it "while we still have it." And if we can take Harris and Hitchens and Dawkins at their words that religion is lethal and needs to be overcome, then I suppose some atheist groups might be plotting ways to achieve that....

And the religious houses of course serve other purposes than that of a support group. Some congregations have political agendas too. Support Bush! Don't pull the plug on Terry Schiavo! Down with gays and lesbians! Keep your women covered! Death to infidels! Some support charitable causes. Money for the starving people of Africa! Money for good Jack Abramoff's projects! Money for Jihad!

And of course they proselytize, which I guess is what the "plotting atheists" referred to above might be doing—in reverse!

By the way, by "life support" I was not referring to extraordinary measures' being taken should I become vegetative. No, my living will states that I'm strictly DNR. (And that might as well stand for Do Not Resurrect.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"Don't ever marry a man with bishop potential...."

I've just read another John Mortimer. You know, the creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, the author of the 2003 memoir, Where's There's A Will, in which he acknowledges his atheistic tendencies. In Quite Honestly, his 2005 "comic novel of middle-class do-gooding gone awry" (as the dust jacket has it), Lucy Purefoy is assigned by Social Carers, Reformers, and Praeceptors (SCRAP) to reform Terry Keegan, a career burglar recently released from prison. Lucy's father (Robert) is a bishop of the Church of England and her mother (Sylvia) an addict to G&T's (gin and tonics).

Lucy and Terry tell the story in alternating chapters. I won't spoil the story for you by saying why Lucy herself is in prison in the following scene, but I will share this snippet of conversation from when her mother comes to visit Lucy there:
"You know I met your father in Ronnie Scott's?"
    "Yes, Mum. I did know."
    Whenever Dad was writing a sermon the palace [the bishop's residence] still echoed to Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Sidney Bechet and Muddy Waters. I knew he'd met Mum at a jazz club.
    "When I took him home my parents were so pleased because they'd found out he was a vicar with bishop potential. I only liked him because I found him sexually attractive."
    This was wonderful. The prison atmosphere was clearly bringing out the best in my mother. I had never thought that we would have this conversation.
    "So you had a great sex life, did you, Mum?" This question, which I wouldn't have dreamed of asking my mother before this prison visit, didn't seem to worry her at all.
    "Oh yes. Two or three times a night. Even more some Sundays! When he was a vicar. That was when you were conceived and all that sort of thing. It was when he was a bishop that the trouble started. I suppose I shouldn't be telling you all this."
    "What was the trouble then, Mum?" She really didn't seem to mind telling me.
    I looked round the room. Children were bored, eating sweets from the prison shop. Couples could no longer think of anything to say to each other. The screws were looking on and Mum was unexpectedly pouring out her heart.
    "How did God come into it?"
    "Well, he didn't really. Not when Robert was a vicar. In those days he seemed to take God for granted. But as soon as he became a bishop—I don't know, I suppose because it was a step up and Robert felt responsible for God and treated him more as an equal. Anyway, he began to find fault with him or question anything he did. Of course, it's got a lot worse since President Bush. He can't understand how God would have anything to do with the man."
    "But how did this affect you?" I knew a lot about Robert's troubles, but now my mum was opening her heart to me.
    "Well, he seemed to think much more about God than he did about me. And then he got so keen on gay and lesbian marriages."
    "You think that was a bad thing?"
    "Not in itself. I mean, I don't give tuppence for what they do among themselves. It's their world and they're welcome to it. But Robert seemed so interested in their sex lives that he forgot all about ours."
    "I'm sorry."
    "So am I. And I'm afraid there's even worse news ahead. Will London's about to retire. He's got something wrong with his brain. Robert's been strongly recommended as his successor."
    "Bishop of London?"
    "Of course the idea's ridiculous, but Robert's enormously excited about it. It'll be very controversial and there are already letters about him in the Daily Telegraph. Robert likes that, having letters against him in the Daily Telegraph."
    "Well, who's for him then?"
    "The Prime Minister apparently thinks he's a 'modernizer' who's prepared to draw a line under the old conservative Church of England. Oh, I do so hope it never happens."
    "Why, exactly?"
    "I've got used to the palace at Aldershot. I know the stairs. I love the peculiar little scullery. I don't want to go to London, Lucy. I prayed to God it doesn't happen."
    "Well then..."
    "But I'm not sure he was listening. I'm not sure he listens to people's prayers any more. Perhaps he's had enough of it by now. All the same, Lucy, what I can say to you is, don't ever marry a man with bishop potential." [pp. 184-185]
A number of things about this passage appeal to me, not least the reference to Bush. For I've been thinking about just what it is I don't believe when it comes to god and religion. And one of the things I don't believe in is whatever god whose advice George W. Bush has been taking.

But more on that anon.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ardent images

The Ardenza Trio in concert, January 2008

To hear snippets of Ardenza Trio performances, visit their "Repertoire" page.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The miracle

In Saturday's post, I joked that "the twain shall never meet" between theist Tom and atheist me, unless a miracle occurs and one of us persuades the other to turn. Romulus Crowe read it in the standard way and reported:
I wasn't going to comment but I laughed out loud at the line; surely if a "miracle" occurs, the only winner can be Tom? [first comment on the post]
That is, the joke is on me.

But there's also the modernist (or post-modernist—I can never keep the terms straight), ironic reading that Tom's god performs the more difficult miracle1 of turning Tom to become an atheist. In that case, the joke is surely on both of us!
  1. I really do think that there's less of a possibility of Tom's becoming an atheist than of my again becoming a theist. He has his Jehovah's Witness support group, people he sees (I think he indicated) three days a week down at Kingdom Hall, whereas I can't be said to have such a support group—unless a few authors I read can be counted as such.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

38 years ago (when I was 27)

If you've looked lately at my list of recently viewed movies, you may have noticed the two items:
  • Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival [1970 rock concert] (1997: Murray Lerner) [VG]
  • Festival Express [1970 rock concert by train across Canada] (2003: Bob Smeaton & Frank Cvitanovich) [G]1
What a nostalgia trip for someone of my generation! In 1970 my son was two and my daughter was in her first year. The decade of flower children was more background noise than reality for me as I embarked on marriage and family and <shudder to think of it> employment at the International Business Machines Corporation. But even without attending rock concerts I heard the music of Janis Joplin, The Band, Joni Mitchell, The Who, Grateful Dead...and a number of the other musicians represented in these two documentaries.

I watched "Festival Express" a few days ago and at the time rated it VG. But after watching "Message to Love" last night and seeing that it was a lot better produced, filmed, and edited, I lowered that to G and [initially2] rated the Wight festival E to emphasize the difference between the two documentaries. Besides, there are many more interesting British voices to be heard from Wight than from the country lying alongside my own country [an aside to Romulus Crowe and Tom Sheepandgoats].

Perhaps my favorite song from the two recordings was Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi." Her ecstatic performance of it on Wight affected me greatly, and I delighted in her apparently spontaneous drop to a lower register to deliver the final "And put up a parking lot," which caused her to chuckle at herself. A delightful child she was at that moment.
  1. From, a partial list of performers represented:
    • "Message to Love":
      Jethro Tull, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Miles Davis, Donovan, Jim Morrison, The Doors, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Jimi Hendrix, Kris Kristofferson, Joni Mitchell, The Moody Blues, Tiny Tim, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, The Who, Ten Years After
    • "Festival Express":
      Jerry Garcia, Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy Blues Band, Ian & Sylvia & The Great Speckled Bird, Janis Joplin & The Full Tilt Boogie Band, Mashmakhan, Sha Na Na, Robbie Robertson, The Band, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends
  2. But after again watching Martin Scorsese's movie about The Band's final road concert, "The Last Waltz" (1978), I had to demote "Message to Love's" E to VG, to make room for Scorsese's yet better film. A partial list of IMDb's list of performers in "The Last Waltz" [members of The Band in italics]:
    Robbie Robertson (Lead Guitar & Vocal), Rick Danko (Bass & Violin & Vocal), Richard Manuel (Piano / Keyboards / Drums / Vocal), Levon Helm (Drums / Mandolin / Vocal), Garth Hudson (Organ / Accordion / Saxophone / Synthesizers), Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Ronnie Hawkins, Mavis Staples, Roebuck 'Pops' Staples, Muddy Waters, Ron Wood, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (poet)

Saturday, February 9, 2008

"Agnostic" = theistically neutral

The pleasure has passed that I felt on Thursday at discovering that Mr. Sheepandgoats and I are both agnostics. It isn't that I mind having this in common with Tom, it's just that I realized today that "everybody" is agnostic in the root meaning of that term, not knowing [whether or not god exists]—notwithstanding Carl Jung's statement that he knew. (So far as I know, he never said how he knew, and—again, so far as I know—no one ever even asked him to.)

No, it just isn't helpful or particularly enlightening to say that we're both (or all of us) agnostic in that way. The main thing, theistically speaking, about Tom and me is that I don't believe in god, and he does. In fact, even if I don't know that god doesn't exists, I believe (for reasons I will address, but not today) that it does not exist (and I employ "it" to get away from associations with the masculine deity of the Abramaic religions). And the same, mutatis mutandis, for Tom: he believes, for his reasons, that "God" (capitalized and masculine) does exist.

Another thing I realized today is that when Tom says (and he does say this on occasion), "Agnostics are a dime a dozen," he doesn't use the word in the root sense. If he used that [inflated] sense (where everyone except Carl Jung is an agnostic), he'd say they're a dime a hundred or a thousand!

I propose that, theistically speaking, agnostic be used to mean neutral. Acceptable synonyms might include "undecided," "undeclared," or "indifferent" (or still others). These particular alternatives seem inferior to "neutral," however.

"Undecided" implies that the agnostic can't have decided to be neutral, but he can. Or if he or she hasn't decided, that a decision has to be made at some point, and I don't think it does (although sometimes it is on the deathbed).

"Undeclared" overlooks the fact that theists and atheists may be undeclared too; they don't have to tell anyone their position (it can just be between themselves and their "God"...or their no-god).

I would like "indifferent" (and most agnostics may, in fact, be indifferent to whether someone else is an atheist or a theist) except that agnostics need not be indifferent—may, in fact, object to what theists get up to "in the name of God." They may also object to people like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins (or me) getting in people's faces with anti-religious books or blogs.

So, in the theistically neutral sense of agnostic that I recommend, I am atheist and Tom Sheepandgoats is theist, and never the twain shall meet (unless a miracle occurs and one of us persuades the other to turn). And agnostics are neither theist nor atheist, although they may or may not have decided to be, may or may not have declared it, and may or may not be indifferent to what anyone else is or does because of it.
February 16. Note:I have written a sort of footnote to this, published as "Carl Jung wasn't the only one."

Friday, February 8, 2008

"Apocalypto" demands viewing

Mel Gibson's 2006 movie, "Apocalypto," filmed in Mayan with subtitles and on location in Mexico, is an extraordinary, stunning movie. If, like me, you may have refrained from watching it because of what you'd heard about its being "dark" or "gorey," ignore all that and do as I did last night: overcome your reservations and watch the movie! My wife and I enjoyed it immensely.

On one level, it's the story of a nuclear family's being separated and reunited after a grueling ordeal for both the husband and the wife and their young son (and their child born during the ordeal). That may be a fairly common storyline, but we rarely or never see it set in a stone-age culture. This highly dramatic story is utterly compelling. I often nod off while watching a movie, but there wasn't a single moment when I drifted in that direction last night. The jungle setting (in Catemaco) is beautifully photographed. The costumes are awesome, their archaeological basis (claimed in the bonus material on the DVD to be) as authentic as possible. Ditto for the Mayan ways of living, hunting, playing, fighting, worshipping, and...yes, sacrificing to their god(s). (I have to admit I'm not sure whether they believed in one or many gods. It's tends to be pretty much all the same to me.)

No computer graphic imaging was used (the bonus material says) to achieve effects. All of those Mayans in the city scenes were actual human extras. (These scenes were not set in the same part of Mexico as the jungle scenes, however, but in Veracruz. It would have been very difficult to work in Catemaco with the huge crew of costumers, make-up artists, and others. Every extra required to be costumed and made-up, and both costumes and make-up were elaborate for the warriors and members of the upper classes.)

And the gore wasn't nearly so gorey as I had somehow gotten the idea it was. (The scourging of Christ in "The Passion of Christ" was much, much more "graphic" than anything that goes on in this movie, in my opinion.)

I wonder whether much of the criticism of the movie when it came out wasn't driven by the desire to put Gibson down; I sort of recall that he was going through one of his periods of being out of favor in Hollywood. Of course, when has he not been out of favor lately? Gibson's favor is completely irrelevant. This is a wonderful movie and you must see it!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

On "agnostic theism"

In last Saturday's post," I wrote of a friend who "holds the view that it wasn't possible to be an atheist before [Darwin's discovery of evolution]." Before Darwin, he seemed to contend, "God" was unavoidable in order to explain the existence of seemingly designed creatures [and we cannot avoid giving some explanation or other]. He has denied that at least two of my examples of ancient atheists (Diagoras and Anaxagoras) were really atheists. They were more likely agnostics, he countered. (He didn't say this about Critias, but relied on the historical evidence that Critias was such a bad guy that I should have been embarrassed to offer him in evidence in the first place.)

It occurred to me this morning that my friend's counter move might not help him. After all, I was thinking, agnostics don't believe in god either. So, how was saying that Diagoras and Anaxagoras were agnostics going to help his case? (In fact, he's more than once said that "agnostics are a dime a dozen.") Was he now going to say that, before Darwin, they couldn't have been agnostics either?

Unfortunately, it isn't that simple. Agnosticism is a position on knowing ("gnosis"), not on believing. Just because someone holds that it isn't possible to know either that god exists or doesn't, he can still believe either way. In fact, believing in the former (that god exists) is formally known as agnostic theism. An agnostic theist is someone who (to quote the handy Wikipedia), "views that the truth value of certain claims, in particular the existence of god(s), is unknown or inherently unknowable but chooses to believe in God(s) in spite of this." [emphasis mine]

And, you're likely thinking, isn't agnostic atheism also possible? Indeed it is. Back to Wikipedia for a handy, fairly respectable-looking discussion:
One of the earliest explanations of agnostic atheism is that of Robert Flint, in his Croall Lecture of 1887-1888 (published in 1903 under the title "Agnosticism"):
The atheist may, however, be, and not unfrequently is, an agnostic. There is an agnostic atheism or atheistic agnosticism, and the combination of atheism with agnosticism which may be so named is not an uncommon one....

If a man has failed to find any good reason for believing that there is a God, it is perfectly natural and rational that he should not believe that there is a God; and if so, he is an atheist...if he goes farther, and, after an investigation into the nature and reach of human knowledge, ending in the conclusion that the existence of God is incapable of proof, cease to believe in it on the ground that he cannot know it to be true, he is an agnostic and also an atheist—an agnostic-atheist—an atheist because an agnostic...while, then, it is erroneous to identify agnosticism and atheism, it is equally erroneous so to separate them as if the one were exclusive of the other....
This discovery on my part might be as good an example as I could quickly find of the possibility that my friend and I, in discussing religion without any real expectation of changing the other's mind, might nevertheless gain a better understanding of each other's and our own positions. For I'm now inclined to think that I may more accurately label myself an agnostic atheist than an out-and-out atheist, for I have never claimed that I know there is no god, even though I think that there isn't and am comfortable in saying so. The Wikipedia article just quoted concludes: "Individuals may identify as agnostic atheists based on their knowledge of the philosophical concepts of epistemology, theory of justification, and Occam's razor." Those considerations do indeed play a crucial role in my disbelieving in god.

At this point, I'd like to express my gratitude to Tom Sheepandgoats (aka "Sheepandgoaticus") for engaging me in this discussion, whatever his reply on the merits of my objection to his argument.

As to his reply, he is free, of course, to try to argue that, before Darwin, only "knowing" theism1 and agnostic theism were possible; that is, that "knowing" atheism2 and agnostic atheism were not. (It could be quite interesting to see how he would try to justify that!)

Tom, of course, might find in Flint's clause, "If a man has failed to find any good reason for believing that there is a God," just the loophole through which to insert the supposed need to explain apparent design as the reason to believe that there is a god. But if he does so, he'll do it realizing that I'll come back once again with my question how deus ex machina is any more than "a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty"3 (to once again quote Webster's appropriate definition of the term).

I trust that we'll hear from Tom on this, and that he'll include an answer to the deus ex machina objection as well....
  1. By which I mean theism that thinks it knows that god exits. Carl Jung, for example, said, "I don't believe God exists; I know it."
  2. Ditto, mutatis mutandis.
  3. The way turtles were once suggested. One version of the story is given in Stephen Hawking's 1988 book A Brief History of Time, which I read during the summer of 1989:
    A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Making an argument appear the better

The pre-eminent Sophist, Protagoras (circa 490-420 BCE), was up-front about the fact that the Sophist curriculum included instruction in making the "worse (or weaker) argument appear the better (or stronger)."1 Their clientele included people who needed to bring or defend a suit in court (as reported in my post of January 11). We're quite familiar with that agenda, which is demonstrated every weekday in American courts, where the prosecutor argues that the defendant is guilty, and the defense attorney argues that he isn't, and each attempts to make his own argument appear the better without respect to the actual guilt or innocence of the defendant.

One of the informal charges against Socrates was, as he phrased it himself in answering the charge at trial (399 BCE), that he "makes the weaker argument the stronger, and teaches others to follow his example." Socrates of course countered that that wasn't what he had been doing. He said that he couldn't possibly be mistaken for a Sophist because they were wise and highly paid, and he was poor and knew absolutely nothing. Whether Socrates was ingenuous in saying this or slyly being sophistical, I leave to you to ponder.

We're also familiar with bloggers' trying to make their arguments appear stronger and their adversaries' weaker. We can see this demonstrated not only every weekday (but every weekend too), if we have the time and interest. Bloggers tend to be a contentious lot, even when they attempt to represent themselves as being engaged in a dispassionate search for the truth. I'm not above using "debating tactics" myself, insofar as I have the skill to do so. I believe that I have reason on my side when I say that god doesn't exist, and that a theist doesn't when he says the opposite. And the same theist is sure that "He" does exist and that I'm a fool. Each of us sets himself up to try to defeat the other. Because each knows he's right, each knows that the other cannot possibly demonstrate his position successfully.

And yet.

And yet, engaging in the somewhat (psychologically necessarily?) disingenuous activity of "discussing religion" on a blog can be fun, and not only fun but also instructive. I develop a better understanding of my own position by stating and defending it, and with effort I can learn a thing or two about an opposing position. By far my most dependable interlocuter is Sheepandgoaticus, with whom I have developed a genuinely respectful friendship. I look forward to his comments on my blog and (I think) he looks forward to mine on his. Though we may not really listen to what each other says, we seem to have learned how to pretend to do so with enough civility to continue the discussion.

I hope that I never think of him as my adversary, or of our interchanges as opportunities to defeat him. I also hope that I am open enough to the truth, however strongly I feel that I already have it, to be able to change my mind when a truly stronger case has been made for a different view.
  1. From a Wikipedia article on Plato's dialogue, "Apology," which portrays the trial of Socrates.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The roar of the crowd

While my wife was waiting for me to finish brewing coffee so we could watch an old psychological drama we had taped, she turned the TV on to a football game. From the kitchen I could hear its white-noise babble. I'd never realized before how desperate is the sound a huge football mob makes, a numbing cacaphony of insignificant tones, like the sound of the distant interstate, or the rumble of lemmings hurling themselves toward the sea, or the mindless chatter of atonishment bouncing about the ductwork of the insane asylum.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

A little ancient history of atheism and evolution

A friend of mind (on the right, the taller one; yes, he purports to be a llama, albeit one that blogs) holds the view that it wasn't possible to be an atheist before Darwin discovered how species evolved by natural selection of the fittest. His reason seems to be simply that before Darwin the only explanation for the apparently designed creatures constituting nature was that a god had designed and created them. Humans had to account for that design and the only way to do it before the discovery of the law of evolution was to suppose a designer god. Quod erat demonstrandum. ("Designer god," by the way, is apt, seeing as how we've got the Yahweh brand, the Jehovah brand, the God brand, the Allah brand....)

However, there were some known atheists more than two thousand years before Darwin, and very likely others unknown, the survival rate of written documentation from those times being what it is. And of course there were those "fools" referred to at least once in the Bible and many, many times ad nauseum in the Qur'an. You know, the ones who said, "There is no god." Unfortunately, since they were fools and therefore of no account, the Bible writers and The Prophet Muhummad didn't provide their names. Mentioning them at all seemed to serve the purpose of putting the stick about to warn people away from immitating them.

Anyway, to get back to some known atheists, one, according to Bertrand Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy, was the Greek Anaxagoras [circa 500-428 BCE]:
Whenever he can, he gives a mechanical explanation. He rejected necessity and chance as giving the origins of things; nevertheless, there was no "Providence" in his cosmology. He does not seem to have thought much about ethics or religion; probably he was an atheist, as his prosecutors maintained. [p. 63]
I acknowledge the "probably."

Another possibility is Socrates [469-399], although I myself doubt it:
The indictment [Socrates was, remember, tried for impiety, convicted, and executed] had said that Socrates not only denied the gods of the State, but introduced other gods of his own; Meletus, however, says that Socrates is a complete atheist, and adds: "He says that the sun is stone and the moon earth." Socrates replies that Meletus seems to think he is prosecuting Anaxagoras, whose views may be heard in the theatre for one drachma (presumably in the plays of Euripides). Socrates of course points out that this new accusation of complete atheism contradicts the indictment, and then passes on to more general considerations. [p. 87]
Whether or not Socrates "believed in god," he didn't (from my readings of Plato's depiction of him in his dialogues) do so as an explanation of apparently designed nature.

Another is Diagoras, a Greek poet and Sophist "active in Athens in the last decades of the 5th century BCE" (that is, his life somewhat overlapped those of Anaxagoras and Socrates). (I found the photo of "The statue of Diagoras in Rhodes in the sunset light" on the web.) To quote the nearest source to hand (Wikipedia), "He became an atheist after an incident that happened against him went unpunished by the gods." What a refreshingly common, down-to-earth reason! So many people have doubts and some eventually lose their faith altogether out of considerations of all the injustice and cruelty in the world allegedly "created by god." Diagoras's story (at least as told by Wikipedia) is pretty interesting:
He once threw a wooden image of a god into a fire, remarking that the deity should perform another miracle and save itself....[Note the pronoun "it."]

The Roman philosopher Cicero, writing in the 1st century BCE, tells of how a friend of Diagoras tried to convince him of the existence of the gods, by pointing out how many votive pictures tell about people being saved from storms at sea by "dint of vows to the gods," to which Diagoras replied that "there are nowhere any pictures of those who have been shipwrecked and drowned at sea." And Cicero goes on to give another example, where Diagoras was on a ship in hard weather, and the crew thought that they had brought it on themselves by taking this ungodly man onboard. He then wondered if the other boats out in the same storm also had a Diagoras onboard.
Like Socrates, "Diagoras was condemned to death at Athens and a price was put on his head." Unlike Socrates, however, "He fled to Corinth...."
....with reason did the Athenians adjudge Diagoras guilty of atheism, in that he not only divulged the Orphic doctrine, and published the mysteries of Eleusis and of the Cabiri, and chopped up the wooden statue of Hercules to boil his turnips, but openly declared that there was no God at all. [emphasis mine]
Though the evidence is sparse, it doesn't appear that either Anaxagoras or Diagoras had discovered the law of evolution. Perhaps they'd read or heard about the Greek astronomer and philosopher Anaximander of Miletus [circa 611 to circa 547]. Russell again:
[Anaximander taught that] there was an eternal motion, in the course of which was brought about the origin of the worlds. The worlds were not created, as in Jewish or Christian theology, but evolved. There was evolution also in the animal kingdom. Living creatures arose from the moist element as it evaporated by the sun. Man, like every other animal, was descended from fishes. He must be derived from animals of a different sort, because, owing to his long infancy, he could not have survived, originally, as he is now. [p. 272]
So, my friend might be right!
  1. Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1996
  2. Russell also says that "Anaximander was full of scientific curiosity. He is said to have been the first man who made a map...."