Friday, March 28, 2014

Hey, SCOTUS: faith ain't internally consistent

From Slate's coverage of the Hobby Lobby trial:
Kagan questions [the] claim that one tenet of the Green family’s faith requires that they provide all their employees with health care while another tenet requires that they deny contraception.
What's to question? I am unaware of any reason from epistemology or philosophy of religion to assume, prima facie, that the tenets we commit to when we adopt a worldview to our purposes won't be mutually exclusive. It is fruitless to look for a hidden consistency in any ethics, be it supernaturalistic or not.

Yeats recognized early on that the challenge in life was to hammer his thoughts into unity; we all face the same difficulty. Sure, a person who wishes to live  "rationally"* is going to pursue self-consistency in their ethical and epistemic commitments. But the trick is in realizing that epistemic unity is only ever imperfectly obtained. With that insight, one realizes the needful thing for humans to learn is how to be comfortable and ethical even  with that limitation.

This paradox at the heart of a self-aware life reminds me of a line from David Milch's wonderful television series Deadwood: "I believe in God's purpose, not knowing it." I'm content, atheist that I am, to let the word "God" suffice here for the illusion of a predetermined course of a events in the universe. I believe: in not knowing the point of my life. I believe: I'm free to determine a purpose for myself, in that absence of a higher plan. I believe: there's no reason to think my purpose-driven commitments will be, on first or second or further consideration, consistent among themselves. I believe: a good person embraces this state of affairs, and learns to muddle through, seeking their purpose, despite their self-contradictions.

* and we mean by this, pace Clifford, to live according to a system of beliefs each of which was acquired in a sufficiently informed fashion.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What is the Inferno of peace?

On NPR this morning I heard another report about Christian militia reprisals against the Muslim minority that took control of the Central African Republic last year in a coup. About French peacekeepers looking on while a body is mutilated by a mob, cut into pieces. About Rwandan peacekeepers there under the auspices of the African Union, haunted by the knowledge of what happened in the marshes and village of their nation 20 years ago, in '94. The speaker is Emergency Director for Human Rights Watch, calling from the nation's capital, Bangui. He describes the situation as being out of Dante's Inferno.

*

This makes me think: we have ready literary models -- we might call them myths, or memes, with equal accuracy -- to describe horrific violence. Why don't we have models of justice, or of conditions so intolerable to the human spirit that justice and peace is brought about immediately, that are as ready to be called upon? We need to make people of vision and ethical motive have touchstones they can use to communicate an an urgent and cogent way about situations in need of immediate remedy. It says something about the level of our global civilization that Dante's Inferno would be a universally recognizable symbol for horror, but that we don't have a universally recognizable shorthand code for conditions of peace and civil harmony.

A Roman Catholic priest in CAR brought the entire Muslim population of his community, numbering in the hundreds, into the church, and declared that they are under the protection of God. This presumably stopped whatever revenge attacks might have been planned against them by their Christian neighbors.

What empowers the Rwanda soldiers -- what explains their capacity to bring about a more positive outcome? Memory of atrocity; a sense of obligation to prevent the recurrence of evitable history. Civic authority. What empowers the peacemakers? Cultural references that are universally accessible and uniquely motivating; a vision of peace that can be readily understood and shared among new stakeholders. Cultural authority. What empowers the priest? The respect afforded to, consolidated in, his special role as mediator between the mundane and the everlasting (which may be defined as contingently as one likes...). Moral authority.

I think about these matters as I try to imagine a society without theistic religion; as I endeavor to think through and look past the enormous privilege of my fortunate birth in a more or less intellectually and religiously free society, to think of the civic needs and human nature of societies where such freedom is reduced or absent entirely. There are different levels of freedom in different parts of the world, and the freedom of a society may change from year to year, as regimes and generations change and seasons pass and technology disrupts and transactional patterns evolve.

To skip a good deal of analysis and admit simply to what is on my mind: I see the need for, the potential usefulness of, a secular Bible. A tool that can be held up, tangible, in all its undeniable here-it-is-ness. A reference that can be returned to; a blueprint and a checklist that can be consulted time and again. A foundation plan for inhering civic, cultural, and moral authority in whomever wishes to act in accordance with the account of peace laid out therein.

We need stories other than Dante's beautiful awful intricate catholic Inferno. A civic humanistic canon, as widely accessible as possible without losing the haecceity peculiar to the material of myth. A textbook of emotional engineering. The Good Book compiled by Grayling is a gesture in the right direction, but we need more experimentation along these lines. Josiah, what do you think?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On religious monuments in government buildings

Continuing the conversation started by the proposal to place a statue of Satan at Oklahoma's state capitol, the Facebook team at CBS Boston has asked a question:
Should commissioners approve the monument, or should religious monuments not be allowed at a government building?
Well, no.

The civic space should be equally accessible to all members of the community, since it is owned collectively by that community.

Philosophy and ethics are determinedly private matters, and cannot be readily translated into public language that we can all partake in. It isn't about removing contentious symbols that might offend some people; it is about making sure our government does its work in a language we can all speak. (See John Rawls for more about the distinction between private and public language.)

Here's an interesting thought: Why don't we think of the concrete absence in the public space of symbols that are religious or similarly "private" in nature, as a monument in itself? A monument that says something in its silence about our solemn shared commitment to a form of government in which persons of all and any creed can all participate equally.

(cross-posted to the Boston Atheists blog)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Is UU missing the "new" New Atheist boat?



One of the Sunday Assembly Boston committee members shared the October 2013 sermon above, with the advice that we keep in mind we are not just another group, but a new congregation that other leaders of other congregations are still trying to make sense of.

My thoughts.

Kendrick points to institutional insularity as a reason why UU is not connecting effectively with the population of religiously unaffiliated freethinkers coming out of the woodwork in groups like Sunday Assembly and Humanism; I wonder if there isn't another important factor: the language gap.

In his sermon, he uses terms like "transcendental", "faith", and "spiritual hunger". Now, I know what he means, but the register of this vocabulary seems to be a world removed from the science-infatuated, skeptically-inflected, irony-wrought idiolect of the new freethinkers. I can map his meaning onto my own ethical outlook, sure, but I fear I am not the typical case. For many more people among those he would be seeking to tell about UU, the ecclesiastical and vaguely supernaturalistic vocabulary of the UU tradition is likely to evoke a powerful response of suspicion and even disdain.

In my conversations with UU and HUU leaders and parishioners, I've encountered confusion, wariness, and even dismissal in regard to Sunday Assembly (and to the older project of re-orienting the Boston Atheists as a congregational group). These are folks who have good reason for wondering if we aren't a bunch of johhny-come-latelys, here to co-opt their place as *the* obvious destination for liberal-minded freethinkers in search of community as a connection to "something greater". I share this opinion because I think it is important that we keep in mind that our work in organizing SA isn't taking place in a vacuum; there are allies out there, that we can work with and learn from, and establish relationships of mutual aid, as long as we know that they are there, and are alert to the potential sensitivities. And I share it with full confidence that Kendrick is a certainly a potential ally.

Relatedly: After taking a few months off while occupied with wedding planning, I'll be restarting the Boston Interpath Workgroup with monthly meetings for discussion and position paper publication, in March 2014. If anyone here on the distro is interested in joining, please let me know.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Joking about atheist church

A joke from a friend that came up in an email exchange in which we were discussing the meaning of Sunday Assembly Boston. She writes that she across it during the Bosnian War; she thinks it was told by a Sarajevan
Q: What's the difference between a Sarajevan Muslim, a Sarajevan Jew, and a Sarajevan Christian?  
A: A Sarajevan Muslim is someone who skips mosque, a Sarajevan Jew is someone who skips temple, and a Sarajevan Christian is someone who skips church.
The extension to our context is, of course:
Q. So just what exactly is Sunday Assembly? 
A. A place for atheists not to go on Sundays.
*

Historical lagniappe: About a certain king of the Caucasus, 10th-century Persian explorer and geographer Ibn Rustah writes:
He prayed on Fridays with the Muslims, on Saturdays with the Jews, and on Sundays with the Christians. 'Since each religion claims that it is the only true one and that the others are invalid', the king explained, 'I have decided to hedge my bets.'
Ha.

Monday, November 11, 2013

What we can learn from Scientology

According to Patheos: "There is no personal deity in Scientology, so private rituals of worship and devotion are practically non-existent, replaced with diligence in spiritual practice and striving for moral uprightness."

In the spirit of learning from other traditions, I'd like to say: I'm totally stealing that emphasis on diligence and striving. (Albeit with the caveats that 1. "spiritual practice" can really only be meaningful when used to refer to introspective and cognitive methods of cultivating desirable knowledge and emotional states, and 2. "moral uprightness" is an ad hoc and utilitarian thing, to be invented and modified by the end user as needed, and doesn't exist 'out there' in some perfect Platonic form waiting to be uncovered by the truly diligent and spiritually pure.)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Quote: "Religion not the crying need of India"

"Christians must always be ready for good criticism, and I hardly think that you will mind if I make a little criticism. You Christians, who are so fond of sending out missionaries to save the soul of the heathen — why do you not try to save their bodies from starvation? In India, during the terrible famines, thousands died from hunger, yet you Christians did nothing. You erect churches all through India, but the crying evil in the East is not religion — they have religion enough — but it is bread that the suffering millions of burning India cry out for with parched throats. They ask us for bread, but we give them stones. It is an insult to a starving people to offer them religion; it is an insult to a starving man to teach him metaphysics. In India a priest that preached for money would lose caste and be spat upon by the people. I came here to seek aid for my impoverished people, and I fully realised how difficult it was to get help for heathens from Christians in a Christian land."

(from a lecture delivered by Indian Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda on 20 September 1893 at the Parliament of the World's Religions, Chicago, criticizing Christian missionaries for ignoring the needs of starving millions in India.)