25 August 2009

Feelings? Nothing More than Feelings?

I have heard a number of times from apologists like C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, Donald Keller, and those who subscribe to those authors’ works that the existence of real, god-given principles is proven by our reaction to their being violated. At the same time, they decry people making choices based on their feelings -- this they call relativism.

The aforementioned apologists are correct in that there are some principles at work. I doubt very much that deity hammered them out in its cosmic workshop and then built a world out of them, but I think they’re there. For instance, I’m very much opposed to the idea of being murdered or physically assaulted. I object strongly to the idea of my food being stolen. Am I to believe that these feelings -- and that is what they are -- are the result of my witnessing Thou Shalt Not Kill and Thou Shalt Not Steal being violated, rather than that they are my very natural, wholly biological, response to my well-being being violated? When my dog growls at someone who attempts to take his food away, is he observing religious principle or simply responding to this attack on his well-being? The same goes for an angry bear who has been shot by a hunter’s rifle.

I believe in natural morality, in not doing to others that which I would not have done to myself. That I can plan my behavior accordingly is an example of emotions being tempered by reason: I am making myself stronger, better prepared to live among my fellow creatures. Everyone, to an extent, follows this principle. Rage or power might change the extent to which they follow the “golden rule”, but they follow it all the same. The exceptions are sociopaths. Thus, just because morality may be based on emotional responses is no reason to discredit it.

At the same time, however, feelings themselves must be examined. In the case above, the feelings exist naturally: I don’t want to be hurt, you don’t want to be hurt. In many other cases, however, the feelings exist only because they have been made to be there: the people involved have been conditioned to feel a certain way. In the sect I grew in, women were expected to keep their hair uncut and their rears in dresses -- trousers were “men’s clothing”, and were not to be worn by females. The observance of these "Holiness" and "Separation" standards were very important to the Pentecostal identity, and observance of the rules resulted in smug or honest satisfaction that "God's will" was being observed. Thus, when my pastor’s eldest daughter showed to church with nicely-trimmed hair and a pair of fashionable slacks, her friends were reduced to tears. "Her glory is gone", they said. A Muslim may be driven into a dreadful rage at the idea of Islam being mocked, because for him Islam is world-definingly important and utterly personal. These are both examples of conditioned responses: the feelings are artificial, subjective to cultural background.

These two categories are not wholly mutually exclusive: take the case of a high-school teenager who is reduced to weeping when his team loses a homecoming game. This may have both biological and cultural elements: emotional investment in tribes and groups being biological and that instinct being applied toward an athletics team being cultural. The same is true, too, for xeno- and homophobia. The root may be fear of those who are different, but these feelings are interpreted and magnified by culture.

I do not consider fabricated or culturally-driven feelings to be of much use in my own life, and I doubt laws based on them will be either rational nor humane. To be of use to human beings, moral laws must be based on our natural feelings as they are tempered by reason.

10 August 2009

Playing for Change

For the past few months, I've been listening to and enjoying tremendously the international music effort Playing for Change. They bring artists from all over the world together in video to sing and play together. The effect for me is riveting and inspirational: the sound of voices and instruments from so many human cultures playing together is simply marvelous. It's sublime, really.

I would especially reccommend "Chanda Mama" and "Don't Worry". "Chanda Mama" is an Indian folk song with Hindi lyrics, but the sound is so exquisite that it's become one of my favorites. "Chanda Mama" is inserted below.

06 August 2009

God, Religion, and Me: Musings

The below are scattered thoughts I've been having on God and religion. I just wanted to try to collect them and see if they made any more sense once they were ought of my head: I also wouldn't mind constructive feedback. For those interested, I have a few essays in the works -- mostly about humanism.
I can’t say I ever identified with God or Jesus growing up as a kid. I was close to identifying with God -- the Hebrew god. He was violent and brutish, but he was reliable and he only got violent when the rules were crossed. Sure, the rules were a tad silly at times -- “Don’t boil a goat in its mother’s milk”, that sort of thing -- but they were there, and if you followed them you wouldn’t get boils and God would protect you from mean people. That sort of thing appeals to a bullied kid like myself.

Jesus I never understood. He was a bully in his own way: he stoked the fires of Hell, even as he said nice things. I didn’t appreciate that much. There’s no way to reconcile love of any kind with eternal pain. Once I got old enough to walk away from Christianity , I did. But as a humanist, I wanted to identify with people: I wanted to understand my fellows more. What about Jesus or God did they need?

When I left Christianity and realized that Humanism was what I’d wanted for my entire life, it seemed clear to me that religion was ridiculously unnecessary. It seemed to me an imposition: the priest thinks up a religion and makes people under his power swear to it, and since not everyone has the same priest, people start killing one another over their religion. I didn’t appreciate this: I hated it. It made my blood boil.

I remained mostly confused about why people tolerated religion bossing them around until I became aware of ethical philosophy -- living philosophy. I then started seeing philosophy in religion and began thinking that maybe religion was just a power structure for implementing ethical philosophy. I forget when I discovered ethical philosophy, but it was probably in 2007 when I began reading about humanist spirituality and discovered Doug Muder’s excellent “Humanist Spirituality: Oxymoron, or Authentic Path to Enlightenment?”

I began thinking about ideals. I seemed to rely on ideals, and I wondered if perhaps religious people were the safe way -- if they hadn’t just taken their ideals out of their head and put them in the cosmic ether, where they assumed a human form which they called a God. Maybe God is a projection of what people want to be or value most? When I put the ideas of God-as-ideal and religion-as-power-structure together, I thought I had some sense of what made religion tick. I knew there was more to it -- the need for community and connection -- but I was concentrating on why people thought they needed God, not just a community.

Around the same time, I was studying Stoicism and its view of God. The ancient Stoic view of God is more subtle and complicated than any I’d encountered previously: they saw God as being sort of the fabric of the universe. It wasn’t a being separate from the universe: it was the universe. It was the order in the universe: it was reason and conscience both. The Stoics believed that when we do as we ought, -- as reason dictates -- we will be happy. Although I’m still trying to find the right balance between my emotional humanism (“Dammit, Jim!”) and my more Stoic leanings “(“Control yourself, Doctor.”) -- between the need for detachment and the need for attachment -- generally speaking I think Stoicism works well even for a nontheist like myself. Someone at the Stoic Registry, now called the “New Stoa”, wrote that the difference between a theistic Stoic and an atheistic Stoic is that one sees the Order of the universe as conscious while the other doesn’t.

What this did for me was make me aware of the power of the God-as-source idea. Previously I’d thought of this as silly. People pray to God and he doles out courage or wisdom? But now I get it: Marcus Aurelius referred to a well within us that will bubble forth if only we will dig -- if only we will apply our reason to find the best course of action. I don’t know how to explain this idea properly beyond that I get why people think of God as a universal source now. I understand it. If I thought it were real, I could revere it. As it happens, though, I cannot think of the universe as being conscious based on the information I have.

At the same time, I’ve realized there are bounds to knowledge. We can’t understand the universe as it may truly be -- only as it appears to us. I think we can know a great deal about the universe for our purposes: we can destroy a disease, land a machine on Saturn’s moons, invent a farm machine that analyzes the viability of rice even as it picks it from the ground. We can do an awful lot, but I don’t think we can contemplate the walls of the petri dish we call the universe. That’s sort of how I think of us at times: one-celled creatures in an overwhelmingly vast universe who don’t have a shot at really understanding it.

This is the mystery: this is where rationality cannot go, because it has no evidence to operate from. The natural laws I understand that explain the formation of our galaxy and of Earth and the development of life and society can’t penetrate the walls of the universe, wherever or whatever they may be. I suppose this is where ideas like “faith” come in, and so help me if I haven’t gotten to the point where I can say I understand a little of what that means.

My worldview is ever-evolving, and not in ways I would have ever expected. I keep wanting to connect to religious humanity -- to come to terms with the people who I once couldn’t understand, but who now I do but cannot connect with anyway. My own sense of spirituality, and even my sense of religion if you want to go that far, are distinctly Humanist: I believe we’re all alone and should do the best we can. I don’t think life is anything to complain about.

What’s happening to me is a growing sense of not having answers, but not really needing them too much. Sometimes, though, I wonder if all my claims to understanding God and faith are just attempts by some part of me to connect to the rest of humanity. I think about this, and then I think that maybe we’re not that different to begin with, that we’re all just doing the best we can to get along and that we all try to make the universe make sense to us. Most of us do this within the bounds of our culture: some of us reject that. Maybe that’s the difference? I don’t know where all this is going, really. Only time will tell.