Controlling for Joy

I often have the feeling that my Buddhist practice is in turmoil. Its high and low tides in response to my sorrow’s moon. Sometimes that moon is full, others new, but most often all manner of shapes in-between. This would likely bother me more if I had not read CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters when I was first working through my existential crisis of religion in my early 20s. This short book is a fascinating read, as Lewis relates an exchange of letters between two of Satan’s Tempters, Uncle Screwtape and Wormwood. Wormwood is a novice and receiving instruction from his uncle. When Wormwood expresses satisfaction that his prey’s faith is diminishing, Uncle Screwtape responds harshly, admonishing Wormwood with the law of Undulation.

So you ‘have great hopes that the patient’s religious phase is dying away’, have you? I always thought the Training College had gone to pieces since they put old Slubgob at the head of it, and now I am sure. Has no one every told you about the law of Undulation?

Humans are amphibians— half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for as to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation— the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life— his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it. (Lewis, Chapter 8)

Every one of my interests, both philosophical, spiritual, and even recreational, has always succumbed to the law of Undulation. And, again, with my Buddhist practice the peaks and troughs so often correspond to times of illness and health. This might make it seem like it is only important to practice when ill or otherwise suffering. If that were the case, it would make it even more difficult to be grateful for the hard times—for if there were no hard times, practice would not be necessary, on this view. Continue reading

Midlife Crisis: Or First Draft of a Book Preface

It seems to me that my life, like surely many people’s lives, resembles the trajectory of modernism to postmodernism (to post-postmodernism?). That is, like many people, when I was a child everything was imbued with a robust intrinsic identity and meaning, both of which could be definitively and determinedly known. One of the most obvious examples of this was the faith in the near omniscience of my parents, and once in school and out of the house, in that of other adults. In the very beginning, there is truly nothing unknown; and though I did not have firsthand knowledge of it, I knew others must. When a child like this, the pronouncements and judgments of parents and adults are absolute, unquestionable, and though sometimes terrifying, an ultimate source of security. There is the recognition of one’s own limits and simultaneously the boundlessness of the abilities of adults, not the least of which was the ability of my parents to make me feel secure and loved.

I know others had very different childhood experiences—something my wife reminds me of regularly, for which I am grateful. Perhaps I was ridiculously naïve; I’m sure plenty of other children either figured it out or at least had premonitions of their parents’ limitations much earlier, but not me. It would not be until my late teens that I really began to question not only my parents’ abilities but the soundness of social institutions more generally. For along with confidence in parents and adults, comes confidence in institutions. I mean institutions such as the church, school, government, business, history, and the unsurpassed, and unsurpassable, greatness of the United States. When young, so many of these seem to work by an intrinsic magic, only to turn later to have been “nothing but” a placebo effect. Continue reading

After the Funeral

Tragic, hard—this life.
I do not ask why.

I do ask for kindness.
I do ask for some level of

in the face of uncertainty
in the face of death.

Do not give me a
child’s reason for believing in
your “Amen.”

Tell me of how
he preached
love, charity, and non-violence
and my fleshy soul
be moved, eager

for more—

just do not
denigrate or write off

this life, so tragic
so hard.

From Faith to a Pernicious Idolatry

1. You shall have no other gods before me.

2. You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

It might seem easy to avoid idolatry, to avoid worshiping false gods. All you need to do is avoid worshiping either an image of your own god or some other religion’s god(s). However, a more pernicious idolatry is easy to fall into. It comes as a result of a certain kind of belief process, namely, faith.

“Faith” has a variety of meanings, but my understanding of the Christian perspective on it is that “faith in God” means not only trusting in God, but believing in God’s existence without evidence and come what may. As such, belief in God on the basis of faith does not provide any epistemic (truth preserving) reasons for belief; moreover, such faith is taken to require that one maintain belief in the face of controverting evidence.

So the person of faith holds certain beliefs without evidence and maintains those beliefs despite counter evidence, often rationalizing the counterevidence away. An extreme example of this would be to say that all of the fossils that suggest a very, very ancient earth are put there by God to test our faith. To question God is unthinkable. From a psychological perspective this is understandable given the weighty nature of the issues involved, e.g., the inevitable eternal stay in heaven or hell, and the existential fear they produce.

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Religious Practice and the Limits of Philosophy

In reading Siderits’s excellent Buddhism as Philosophy I have come to realize the following problem. If a religion has its base in philosophy, if its central tenets are supposed to follow from the use of reason and argument, then none of its conclusions can ever be firm enough to ground religious practice. There will always be difficult objections and questions that cannot be answered in a way sufficient to allow one to say, “I know this is true and I will base my life on it.” On the other hand, if religious practice is grounded in faith or pragmatic results independent of argument, then one has no reason to believe in the metaphysical claims made by the religion.

Consider the arguments. I take it that the arguments for God’s existence and a soul are familiar enough in their inconclusiveness. So I won’t go over them. But Buddhism is a different story. Central to Buddhism is the idea that there is no substantial self who is the subject of experience. Whatever you take the parts of a human to be, they do not form a whole that could be such a self. The self that we refer to by names and pronouns is a necessary fiction. On Siderits’s reading of Buddhism, the Buddhist view regarding ontology is mereological reductionism. Reality contains no wholes; it only contains indivisible “parts.” Siderits covers the arguments very well. But if you are at all knowledgeable about the debates concerning part-whole relations, then you will see objections right and left to the arguments and their premises. Yet, these are the considerations that are supposed to ground the Buddhist worldview and practice. Given how contentious these very abstract arguments are, how can they form the foundation for the way in which one interacts with the world? I’m claiming they cannot. Why? Because if you are properly intellectually honest, you will not be convinced by the arguments on either side. If you are convinced by the arguments on either side, then that is likely because of a bias for or against the sides in question. That is a strong claim, and one that invites resistance! It’s important to note, I think, that this latter contention doesn’t requires that all philosophical debate lead to aporia in the way it often seems to with Socrates in some of Plato’s dialogues. That is, aporia would be sufficient but not necessary for not fully affirming a theory when doing philosophy.

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A Difficult Dilemma: Deny that Humanity is Fallen or Deny Evolution?

I find Christianity (and Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.) perplexing. I suppose Kierkegaard would want me to embrace this feeling (as regards Christianity). I admit my perplexity because I do not want to come across as angry or hostile in these essays. I really want to understand religion and humankind’s possible relationship with the divine better.

One of the things that troubles me with Christianity is the claim that it is only through Christ that one can achieve salvation, which I take to mean primarily that it is only through Christ that you’ll be with God, etc. This would seem to leave A LOT of people in the lurch through no fault of their own, simply because they never heard of Christ and Christianity. And it would leave those in the lurch for whom, again through no real fault of their own, Christianity is not a live option (in William James’s sense). A student of mine kindly pointed me to one of the Catholic catechisms that seems to address this concern (Thank you Mr. Shapland). It is here and reads: Continue reading

Why are you a Christian (Muslim, Jew, etc.)?

Much of what I have to say is critical, but I do not mean any disrespect to my family and friends, or any one else of a particular faith. The purpose of this short essay is to further my project of trying to understand religious belief and to cultivate a certain kind of humility that I find lacking in many religious people. The latter may seem condescending, though I certainly do not intend it to be.

When asking for the reasons why a person believes something, e.g., that gay marriage is a good/bad idea, there are two importantly different kinds of reasons that we might appeal to (there are more than just these two, but these are the most salient). One kind is called epistemic reasons. Epistemic reasons are relevant to the truth of that for which they are reasons. That is, their truth is supposed to guarantee or make probable the truth of that which is believed. For example, Bob believes he will get over an infection because of the known efficacy of antibiotics. That known efficacy is a reason for believing, it makes it probably true, that Bob will get well; and thus it justifies his believing that he will get well.

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The Atheist’s Values and Motivations: Are the Ungodly Likely Immoral?

In a recent article, “Exceptionally Articulate: Obama’s eloquence fails to quiet charges that he does not believe in God or America,” a key issue is the relevance of Obama’s faith to his being worthy of being president. The consensus seems to be that most voters would not be happy if he were not a man of faith. I assume that this is because voters think they can judge a lot about a person from his or her beliefs about god. A person of faith would more likely than not, the thinking goes, be more ethical. For many that presumably means, for example, being pro-life (though for others it might mean being pro-choice). Nevertheless, if you are religious, then you have a set of moral standards that you feel obligated to adhere to. Whereas, if you are an ungodly atheist, you have no moral code to guide your actions. So the thinking goes.

But really, is it more likely for the ungodly to have no moral code, conscious or unconscious, than it is for the ostensibly religious? There are at least two important issues lurking here. The first concerns from whence a person’s moral compass originates. The second concerns whether it is possible to have or justify having a moral compass without their existing some sort of god in whom to ground values—the god who sets the northern pole.

Starting with the second issue, if you study even a bit of philosophy, you quickly see that philosophers have long made sense of value independently of God’s fiat. One place to look would be Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s recent book Morality without God? I have not read the book, but I have listened to a podcast interview with him on Philosophy Bites. From that interview, the book would seem to be a good bet for those wanting to know more. The main point is that we can make sense of value independently of god stipulating what is good, bad, right, wrong (And if arguments against the divine command theory are sound, then we should do so). For example, the most basic form of utilitarianism identifies the good with pleasure, the bad with pain or the absence of pleasure, and right action as that action which maximizes the good, i.e., pleasure, for the greatest number. Utilitarianism may not be the correct account of value and right action, but it at least gives an easy to understand example of how you can get ethics without god.

Going back to the first issue, where do we learn to be moral? Where does a person’s moral compass come from? I take it that there is a relatively straightforward answer to this question: your moral compass comes from your parents and teachers, those who explicitly said, “Don’t lie,” and “Don’t’ be unfair; share with your sister,” and those who set either good or bad examples by their behavior. It’s certainly true that if you had a religious upbringing, then you probably also were taught something about being moral in church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. And your parents and teachers likely were inculcated with morality in similar ways. This is no surprise, since religions do often center around morality (Though here is an interesting article that emphasizes other important roles for religion).

Nevertheless, while religion often plays a role in learning about ethics, many of the contexts in which we learn to be more or less ethical creatures do not explicitly appeal to religion or god. We learn that lying, stealing, and murder are wrong often enough without someone saying, “Because god says so,” or “Because you’ll go to hell if you do.” The point I want to emphasize is that while religion happens to often play an explicit role, it just as often doesn’t. And if god is not necessary for explaining value and we can (and often do) learn to be moral without appeal to religion, then there is no reason to think that atheists are likely to be any less moral than those who believe in god and go to church/mosque/temple/synagogue.

One possible objection to my argument concerns our motivation for acting ethically. The person of faith fears hellfire and acts accordingly; the ungodly atheist may think the right thing to do is to maximize pleasure for the greatest number, but really when it suits him/her, why not just maximize one’s own pleasure—nothing will happen if one fails intentionally or not to do the right thing. Plato considers this issue in his Republic. It is argued by Glaucon that we only act ethically if we think others are looking, this is the ring of Gyges example. And thus, without the fear of some sort of punishment, there is no real reason to act morally.

That is an important objection, one that is too complicated to adequately address here and now. So I will end with a pointed question: when people who are religious, god fearing folk act ethically, are they really only acting ethically because they fear hellfire and eternal separation from god? Or do they act ethically, not lying, stealing, or murdering their friends or even strangers, simply because they believe those things to be wrong?

Language and the Intelligibility of God

1. Introduction

In this post I want to consider a number of aspects of the question of whether and to what extent our claims about God’s nature are intelligible.  I will begin by considering the question of intelligibility on its own before applying those considerations to some of the things typically said about God in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  My conclusion will be that in regard to some things we say about God, e.g., that God is outside space and time, we are forced to choose between revising those claims, embracing irrationality, or rethinking the implications of those claims.

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The Dangers of Religious Extremism

In my last blog post, I indicated that I believed that the religious extremes that dominate public discussion of religion are dangerous. Here I will briefly give reasons for thinking that is true. To begin, I consider atheism and agnosticism to both be religious perspectives simply because they concern religion or religious issues. So one can be an atheist and still be a religious extremist. In my last post I wrote:

“On the one hand, there are those who openly, inwardly, or both, mock or simply dismiss the very ideas of God, religion, and man’s need and yearning for the two. What I call the radical atheists, e.g., Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, are typified but such dismissiveness,  though it is not just the radical atheists who mock and deride God and religion. On the other hand, there are those devotees of religion who are overly and non-critically zealous and accepting of religious dogma, while at the same time seemingly ignorant of the inherent fallibility of all humans.”

I take it that both poles, both sides, are dangerous for the same kinds of reasons. Nothing I say here is meant to apply without exception, but here they are:

1) Both sides are closed to the possibility that the other might have something important to contribute to the discussion of what it is to live well (which,  I believe, requires contemplation of, and engagement with, God and/or spiritual issues). That is, the mocking atheist identifies the religious life with the extreme forms of religion, e.g., versions of Christianity and Islam, that one finds in the news and thereby dismisses the possibility that there are more sophisticated forms of not only Christianity, Islam, and other religions, but also non-denominational theisms. The religious fundamentalist, on the other hand, is often unwilling and unable to consider the possibility that some of the tenants and dogma of his/her religion may be flawed such that they should be reexamined, possibly altered or discarded.

2) The above is due, in part, to a failure of those involved to fully acknowledge and embrace their own fallibility as humans. Each side is convinced that they have accurately apprehended the true nature of the other side and the Truth in general about religion. And each side reinforces the other: the vitriolic and, at times, unreasonable proclamations from each side cause the other to hunker down more deeply into dogma and closed-mindedness.

3) The first two points are further problematic because they remove the possibility of affirming a reflectively religious life that minimizes dogma as far as possible. I take such a life to involve an appreciation of the value of a religious/spiritual life, while acknowledging all of the difficulties of comprehending what such a life should be, and whether there even is a God or what the role of God is in a religious/spiritual life.

The mocking atheist denies the value of a religious or spiritual life, whether of the reflective kind that I am advocating or the unreflective, dogmatic kind I have mentioned. The dogmatic believer denies that the dogma that rules his/her life may be flawed and refuses to take seriously the possibility that God does not exist or does not exist in the way he/she imagines. And again, I take it that many on both sides are operating with overly simplistic ideas about God and religion.

Thus, the two religious extremes I have canvassed are dangerous because they lesson the likelihood of finding the truth, and they foster an environment hostile to the kind of reflective theology that I see as being vital to living a fully good life.  Note that a “reflective theology” need not come with a god, but requires simply an openness to, and appreciation for, the possibility and value of a spiritual/religious life in a reflectively sophisticated form.