Sunday, April 28, 2013

Musings of a Philosophical Bear: This I Believe... For Now

I stepped into some controversy a few weeks back when I wrote about the black church and its obsession with homosexuality. I offended a few people, as one is likely to do when you say anything negative about The Bible or religion. What I didn't expect was the end of dialogue. When I said, "I don't believe in your God," I had one person completely unwilling to listen to anything else I had to say. I believed in many things they might have agreed with, but instead he said he'd pray for me and I thought I'd find some comfort in knowing that he was trying to save my soul from an afterlife of endless suffering and damnation.

I Made a Mistake

My error in the article was forgetting that the Bible is a collection of different books compiled by a committee of church elders. Parts of any such collection of books and letters will be considered more important than others, especially when they conflict. We already consider parts of the Bible to be crazy. Pointing them out was completely missing the point. Most Christians already ignore huge chunks of the Bible and for good reason; they are morally reprehensible or they don't make sense. The only reason it made me mad was because they quoted from rules in the Bible that are ignored and talked about as one part of a longer, more insane passage. No one thinks lobsters are an abomination. Why do right wingers still use that word to describe homosexuality when they are both in the same section of rules?

The fact that you can't sell your daughter for three goats and a cow is evidence enough that parts of the Bible are already being ignored. We redefined the definition of marriage the moment women stopped being property. Rules against homosexuality are bigoted and should be ignored as well. Liberating the message of Christian faith from its cultural limitations means taking the good and leaving the rest behind. The fact that people are already doing this shouldn't surprise anyone. Those who condem homosexuality because it says so in the Bible know that they already ignore a lot of things. They don't believe homosexuality is wrong just because it's in the Bible or else they'd also still believe that there's a glass dome that separates the sky from a flat earth. They believe in the immorality of homosexuality because that's what they want to believe.

I still want to try to find some common ground. If people are already ignoring the profoundly immoral aspects of their faith tradition, it's possible that progress can be made. If we can keep talking to each other, the growing fact-based community will be able to learn some of the values that faith traditions got right. Even though I have many atheistic tendencies, I'm not an atheist. I find myself open, waiting to be convinced by evidence and a reasonable argument that God is real, or at least may be. There are some good reasons to believe that our religious traditions stumbled upon some profound ideas, and I agree that they are worth examining.

What Some May Call God

I believe that experience is the point of existence. It may seem like a circular argument, but existence isn't the same as experience. Consciousness is the presence which is aware of our existence. We can exist without being aware, distracted by immediate needs and unable to appreciate the miracle of simply being. Consciousness is not the same as the mind, though they are related. The mind focuses our consciousness into thoughts, but the essence of who you are is the awareness of the thoughts, not the thoughts themselves.

Long ago when our genes were evolving, the energy that flowed through us created a machine, better known as an organism, to focus that consciousness that is in all things. In many ways we're slaves to that machine. In order for us to live we have to feed and maintain that machine and be controlled by its desires, but the mistake is to confuse our body and mind with the thing that powers the machine, the energy that fuels consciousness. The energy that flows through us from the world around us is what keeps us alive. We're simply a manifestation of that energy trying to have the experience of living.

Some might call that energy God, but this is simply a thought. It's a way of trying to understand something so much larger than us that it's impossible to fully grasp. There's nothing wrong with trying to get in touch with that energy through church, if that's what works for you, but when those beliefs infringe upon other's human rights, I will be justifiably angry.  

Our Attempts To Grasp The Unknowable

The thing about God is that he's pretty much impossible to understand completely. It makes sense that we'd have contradictions in the stories that we tell in our faith traditions. We told stories about the creator and about heaven, earth, and our imortal soul being tortured in hell, but we didn't have to read more than five pages in the Bible to find its first internal contradiction. There are two creation myths. One that takes three days and one that takes seven. Both of which are ridiculous considering our knowledge of matter and energy today, but even internally there's not consistency in the order or in how much time things were created.

There are four gospels that contradict one another at various points. This should not be unexpected of stories that are only metaphors pointing at deeper psychological and philosophical ideas. We grasp at an early point in our understanding of our existence that we are not simply machines created by genes to perpetuate themselves. The stories are all grasping at the unknowable. God is simply a concept in our mind that points to a truth that is too big for any of us to fully understand. The problem comes when the metaphor points us in the wrong direction and no amount of facts can change our position.

One of the things that bothers me the most about Christianity is its lack of respect for science and nature. The stories that our ancestors told were the best they had at the time. Knowing what they knew, they were the most powerful ways to understand the unknowable. When we stick to traditions that come from a lack of knowledge, we're bound to express behaviors that reflect that lack of knowledge. If we didn't know about germs we'd get sick. We might conclude that this has to do to sin or evil spirits, but now that we know about bacteria and viruses, our understanding of religious causes of illness should change with the growing pool of knowledge of the observable world.

If we didn't know about DNA we may not fully understand our relationship to all other living things. If we didn't have research from all fields of science, we'd be understandably ignorant of the wealth of information from our collective observations. No matter how profound or deep the spiritual truths of our myths, we still live in an observable reality, bound by an network of interconnecting facts. Without our awareness of them, our lives would be shorter, harder, more brutal and painful. Imagine undergoing a surgery in a culture that doesn't believe in morphine or being awake to feel every cut of the surgeon's blade because our faith didn't allow anesthesia. Even though deeper truths are to be found within faith, we're bound to am observable reality. Our spiritual beliefs shouldn't hold us back from learning about the world; it should expand our consciousness and help us to form deeper and more profound concepts of the metaphysical world.

Cultural Relativism

There's also the mistake that if a person believes that something is true then it is true for them. This is obviously wrong and a sign of the pendulum swinging too far. The fact that people don't fall off the edge of the earth is proof that belief in the edge of the world is flat doesn't makes it real. Just because you believe you can fly doesn't mean you should jump off buildings. Those people who believe in prayer and God still go to the hospital when they get sick. We consider it a crime for a parent to deny their child medical treatment because of their religious beliefs, but if a grown man does it, we accept his right to choose for himself. Still, at no time do we think that belief reasonable.

Radical skepticism can go as far as believing in no objective reality other than the existence of our own consciousness. This is a valid philosophical viewpoint, but we still behave as though it were real. If we accept certain things to be true only because they're the only way to make an argument of any kind certain assumptions must be made. We can still accept that there is a non-zero probability of anything being true, some facts will still be more likely to be true than others.

If I were to ask how many men had an orgasm in the past hour, there would be no answer to that question in practice, but there is no reasonable argument that a simple numerical answer exists, even if that answer exists only in principle. If, in practical terms, it would be impossible to find out what that number is, but in principle we know there are a certain number of men busting a nut right now. If one person were to say four men came in the past hour and another said forty thousand, one answer would be closer to the truth than the other, even if we couldn't know for sure.

Borrowing Ideas

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking is one of those books, after which I read, where I came to realize that no one man could have written. He had to have the minds of many scientists and philosophers before him to develop the concepts he discussed. I struggled to comprehend infinite space-time. If you travel in one direction in the universe, you would eventually end up where you began. Relativity and quantum mechanics are two of those ideas that generations of thinkers have had to develop and pass on to others after them. Hawking would be nowhere without Einstein; Einstein wouldn't have gone far without Newton; Newton without Aristotle and so on down the line.

Hawking has a great way of explaining these concepts to laymen, but the theories that he speaks of are so complex that only by studying the research and experiments of other scientist and physicists has he been able to comprehend them. But that number is growing. As we learn from each other, our collective ability to understand The Universe will grow with it. We share our ideas with each other and the pool of knowledge grows. We borrow those ideas for a little while, make some improvements on them, and then pass them along to the next generation in hopes that they can improve on them further.

Not everyone is interested in a unified theory of physics, but this knowledge exists in the world and should be available to those who want to understand it. Our beliefs shouldn't cut us off from what we've learned as a species because of an ancient tradition. Those traditions would be different if they had string theory to play around with. No matter how much we learn from older traditions there will always be more to understand. Eventually, what we know now will be considered primitive, but let's go with the best and tested knowledge we have.

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