the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

a much needed break: on incompatibilism and insignificance

religion's first and last argument

I’m at Victor Harbour, near the beach. Yesterday morning I was walking back from the beach with four-year-old Courtney. She was sulking about something, so I distracted her by pointing out to her a large ant, of a species she’d probably never encountered before. "Oh yeah," she said, "I’ll kill it,’ and before I could say anything more, she'd crushed it with her thong.
As ants to wanton girls are we to nature, I might add.
As I've already argued, religion is about protection more than about morality or anything else. Protection from the arbitariness of a nature indifferent to our sufferings and achievements, our complexity, our striving, our pride and our humility.
It's been claimed that 99% of all the species that have ever existed on our planet are now extinct. The skeptic in me questions such a claim; it sounds too much like a figure plucked out of the air. Still, if it's anywhere near the truth, the implications of such a claim ought to be disturbing for those interested in the preservation of humanity - i.e. humans. We look destined to be snuffed out as a species as surely as we're snuffed out as individuals.
Looked at this way, it's hard not to be sympathetic to the religious view. Indeed it might seem an eminently rational view when you consider the alternative – that we''re ultimately as insignificant as the ant under Courtney's thong.
Ego is not a dirty word.
Human egotism drives religion as surely as it drives environmentalism. Environmentalists by and large like to say they're concerned for the survival of our planet, but I don't believe them, because it seems to me that our planet is very far from being in imminent danger. I expect it to outlast the human species by a long long way, though of course it will finally cease to exist, along with our familiar sun and less familiar galaxy. Global warming doesn't threaten the planet, which has experienced far worse than a slight change in temperature. Global warming merely threatens species, and mass extinctions in the past have always been followed, generally with spectacular speed, by mass speciation. Environmentalists are interested not in the preservation of the planet but in the preservation of a particular expression of the planet, its here-and-now expression, one of a myriad of expressions, but the one that contains us.
In the end it's always about us.
Humanism is a term I only really became aware of through so-called anti-humanist writings. Humanism apparently had a religious cast – with humanity rather than gods like Yahweh placed at the centre. It was depicted as arrogant, deluded, falsely rationalist, naïve. I recognized the force of the claims, but it also seemed painfully obvious just from the term itself, that for a human to seriously adopt an anti-humanist position would be self defeating. I noted that later critics of humanism avoided the anti-humanist term, thus reducing humanism to a movement rather than something so complex as a perspective on the world shared by members of the same species.
Speciesism is a term used by environmentalists and some philosophers too, but I can't take the term too seriously, though I do have sympathy with the idea of the expanding circle. My view is that, as we become more sophisticated and knowledgable, we'll tend to use our greater knowledge and understanding to enhance our environment, to promote our survival and thriving. That means preserving as many species as we can (always, of course, for their own sake), expanding our sympathy for other species as we understand them better, respecting the planet and so forth.
Religion is by its nature obscurantist to a degree. Religious thinkers often talk about spirituality and meaning in ways that obscure the human interest at the heart of religious belief. For spirituality, in essence, is about a transcendence of material, contingent existence, and meaning, too, is about seeking to provide a place for we humans beyond that of simply enriching or comforting a merely material, contingent existence. Those gods and mythologies, taboos and rituals are all about us. And I think I can understand the dissatisfaction the religious feel for the attitude of such scientific thinkers as Robert Atkins, who delight in our increasing knowledge, and increasingly sophisticated knowledge, of our increasingly insignificant place in the cosmos. I can also understand their disinterest in the attitude of such resolute secularists as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, for whom death can only be transcended through genetic continuity and cultural transmission.
Still, this obscurantism can be particularly devious in the hands of sophisticated exponents of religious thought, who are able, in their groping humility, to make the pronouncements of secularists seem smug, naïve and empty. For example, I once heard the oh-so-humbly spiritual John Carroll referring to Bernard Crick [presumably he meant Francis Crick, the geneticist], who, according to Carroll, claimed that the soul would soon be reduced to a ganglion of neurons. I don't particularly trust Carroll, who is innocent of science, on the Crick quote, but it's clear to me that the soul, as a concept, is incapable of such reduction, for the soul is a product of the human ego not of human knowledge. As long as there are such spiritual promoters as John Carroll around, we secularists will have a lean time of it.
However, as with the invention of the soul which I dealt with in an earlier post, the various religious inventions, designed largely to protect or save us from our own contingency, have to contend with scientific explanations designed less for our comfort than for the satisfaction of a larger need to comprehend and know.
I've never believed that the scientific worldview and the religious worldview are compatible. Many secularists are compatibilists, as are many believers. The official line of the catholic church is compatibilist, but I'm not sure that this line is as coherent as it is politically expedient. I hope to explore this matter further.
Meanwhile, I recognize that the greatest challenge for the secularist, recognized by Pascal centuries ago, is the matter of the insignificance, in the grand scheme of things, of the miracle of life in general, and human life in particular.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Peterson’s Paul: Romans 1 24-32. Or, Paul scrapes the bottom of the barrel

two more hellbound cuties smearing each other in filth

So God said, in effect, "If that's what you want, that's what you get." It wasn't long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out. And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them—the God we bless, the God who blesses us. Oh, yes!
Worse followed. Refusing to know God, they soon didn't know how to be human either—women didn't know how to be women, men didn't know how to be men. Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men—all lust, no love. And then they paid for it, oh, how they paid for it—emptied of God and love, godless and loveless wretches.
Since they didn't bother to acknowledge God, God quit bothering them and let them run loose. And then all hell broke loose: rampant evil, grabbing and grasping, vicious backstabbing. They made life hell on earth with their envy, wanton killing, bickering, and cheating. Look at them: mean-spirited, venomous, fork-tongued God-bashers. Bullies, swaggerers, insufferable windbags! They keep inventing new ways of wrecking lives. They ditch their parents when they get in the way. Stupid, slimy, cruel, cold-blooded. And it's not as if they don't know better. They know perfectly well they're spitting in God's face. And they don't care—worse, they hand out prizes to those who do the worst things best!

This is one of the least pleasant passages in the NT, and one that provides much comfort to many an intolerant modern commentator. Peterson goes as far as having Paul put words in yahweh’s mouth, condemning and dismissing ‘them’. As to who ‘they’ are, some commentators describe them vaguely as the pagans of his time, while others are more specific, mentioning Ephesians and other cultural groups. It doesn’t matter much, the diatribe is familiar and tedious, in Christian and many other contexts. The impurity of the other is emphasized, especially sexual impurity. The conservative obsession with the value of purity should be recalled here – ‘smeared with filth, filthy inside and out’ is a phrase designed to physically revolt the reader. This is apparently what happens to you if you worship any other god than Yahweh.

God is love of course and if you don’t know the right god you are incapable of love – Peterson promotes in his translation the idea that men going with men and women going with women is defilement and abuse and cannot contain any element of love – another triumph of bigotry over evidence. Not that Peterson goes against the spirit of Paul’s message here.

It’s an important passage in the history of Christian intolerance – the only categorical mention (and condemnation) of female homosexuality in the bible, making it pretty easy to blame Paul for the anti-gay element in conservative Christianity (though his attitudes would of course have been standard for the time). It seems to put sexual license at the forefront of a more general degradation, which Paul goes on to describe in one of his most embarrassing outbursts of hate-filled rhetoric, a passage hardly worthy of comment, except to say that it’s very human – we’ve all of us had these feelings of annihilating anger against those we’ve decided are our enemies. Maybe that’s what made the Romans burn Carthage to the ground. It’s certainly what inspired the Nazis towards their Final Solution. So many of our worst behaviours begin with rhetoric, falling in love with our own rage. The important thing is to get over it, to get outside of our ranting heads and actually observe others.

I'm having problems posting pics at the moment, the toolbar has disappeared.

Also, I'm disappointed at the lack of secular commentary on Romans. I often check to see what others have said about particularly stinky passages, but mostly I find Christian commentators either explaining away or expanding on their own intolerance.