Sunday, January 01, 2006

My use of the G word

The year end audit of this blog turns up some damning deficits.
  • Infrequently follows its original guideline of brevity.
  • Why, oh why can't I remember to run the spell checker?
  • Seldom adheres to its claimed independence from current events and news makers.
  • Repeatedly engages in unflattering "analysis" of various aspects of "conservative" thought and personages without the benefit of engaging in much if any dialog with anyone who identifies themselves as conservative...all the while inveighing against polarized, them-us bashing.
  • Vocabulary: it means exactly what I want it to mean, no more and much less.
  • And, hardest to achieve but most damaging when bungled: consistency, semantic and otherwise, in discussing or dismembering various sacred cows.
I often talk about religion and I occasionally use the word "god". I do not, mind you, consider that word to be the name of a being exactly and use it as a shorthand for my reservations about humanism [which are few], e.g. I suspect there may exist notions of good and bad that DO have validity without relativism, without reference to a particular community or age of civilization. I better get that usage straight with everybody so I can remain in dialogue with the largest possible audience. To those who insist on being offended after all my qualifications are applied, adieu!

Also, by making a post out of this, I can just link back to it whenever the topic comes up and my usual "bull in a china store" abandon would discourage or confuse some readers.

If you are already tired of my pomposity and cluelessness about where the center of the road is, just remember this one thing about my use of the "G word" before you hit the Back button or consign me to some sulphurous imaginary barbecue pit you lug about in your heart:
The greatest good most religions bestow upon believers of powerful deity is to nudge the believer off the throne of creation: to be constantly thinking "and this too, god has given me" is at least to put oneself in a healthier relation to the universe and perhaps to fellow human beings. A very few people I know give me a sense that I am in the presence of a person who has that constant is humbling[ and I understand humility to be a high achievement of benefit to me and others]. Yet I can see an empty throne and still act with compassion toward my fellow creatures. Wonder just is and needs no source and so it is with compassion.

I wish to cast myself as the loyal opposition to the literal believers who buy myths rather than mine metaphors without concern whether it was man or god who placed the gems in those metaphors. Leaving out mystical and philosophical dubiousness which may be endlessly and pointlessly debated, I base my opposition on life-and-death practicality: religion, even in recent history, even in western democracies, has a bloody past to live down. Some how I missed all the headlines and history book chapters in which mobs of outraged athiests burned people at the stake, drowned them for witch craft or beat them senseless in a homophobic fury. Dr Biobrain has posted a usable round up of some logical weaknesses and gross inconsistencies that plague any Christian who wants to argue with you that he has "the" truth and I know inconsistencies of that sort run like deep fissures through all the Abrahamic religions.

But I don't like the tone of Dr. BioBrain's post. It represents an approach to the religious [and we really can't go on talking like Christians were the only ones posing this challenge to public discourse...belief systems are bugaboo no matter what prophets or stories they are wrapped around] in which the only thing at stake is the credibility of the stories and authorities by which they justify their values. Face it, in a pluralistic society, we live with their values and not their myths and we must share at least some of their values. This of course is why liberal and reformed flavors of the major religions are so much more palatable and productive as factions of a pluralistic society: they can engage you in a discussion of what is right and wrong for you, themselves and your communities to do and to legislate without getting into an idiotic shouting match about what authority they are quoting. I know from extensive experience that Reform Jews have such discussions within their own ranks on a steady gives them practice for interfacing their values to those of the greater community.

Of course, values are NOT always agreed upon. But why muddy [or bloody] that debate by recourse to personal and unquestionable absolute authority when the value is only up for debate because it must be lived up to by the full, here and now, community? When faithfully holding certain beliefs is itself the value, the debate freezes in a circular argument. I do not kid myself: there are a small handful of forms of religion that are not safe nor tolerable because of their own intolerance but in the end, the very sickest of those, sometimes literally, drink their own koolaid. The sect that wants no social contract except the one it conceives of with its god is, I fear, a hazard and a thorn for the broader civil society. It cannot hear its values being called wrong without succumbing to a paroxysm of umbrage: its authority is always seen within its own ranks as being questioned by a broader body politic when actually that body just doesn't care. Ironically, the salvageable good within these closed and theocratic world views is lost in the battle their faithful feel obliged to carry on with the outside world.

I should finish with a confession. I will say just a bit about my religious background but for that too, their must be a motive. It is not fair, and in the end, I think even weakens my voice to be coy, to try not to be coming from any particular place. So, unimportant as I still consider it to be, I will mention a few ingredients that have been tossed into my religion stew.
  1. Earnest but sparse christian upbringing : my siblings and I were asked if we wanted to continue Sunday school and voted it down.
  2. The only example was my dad, an man who obviously had more than a few spiritual bones in his body but who had no taste for organized religion. He had a long struggle with christian science.
  3. By the time I got my BS, I was a doubtless and convinced atheist [but I doubt I would have been a very convincing one.]
  4. I adopted Judaism rather lightly but have gained most of what little religion you may detect in my thinking from decades of discussion of all things sacred and profane with other Jews.
  5. I attempt now to broaden the party to this discussion via blogging.
  6. Recently came across poems written in my college years demonstrating misgivings about whether "I" was not a mirage, an effect of the way brain gives rise to mind...40 years later, those misgivings are only more articulated.

I may always have these logical stumbling blocks with religious leaps-of-faith:
  • Having a single word for everything that is beyond your knowing does NOT really stand in for all that missing knowledge, does not suffice for knowing. Does not justify or enable one to act as if they knew.
  • First learn by the most remorseless and unsentimental means possible all that you can objectively know, prove and share. Only after that, see what remains necessary for you to hope is true.

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