Saturday, October 11, 2014

I've read the generalization that all religions can be misused to support violence, and the sweeping accusation that all religions have in fact been used to support atrocities and violence.  I think, however, that this is not technically correct.  My understanding is that there are several religions for which nonviolence and anti-warfare principles are central to the core belief system, and I am unaware that these religions or sects have perpetuated any atrocities, violent persecutions, wars, or generally supported aggressive warfare or communal violence.  I would include in this list:

Jehovah's Witnesses

I think it's also important to recognize that when religions have become militant, or supported nationalistic or imperialistic wars, there have been heroic persons who stood up for a vision of peace and humanistic spirituality that rejected warfare and nationalism.

Let's start with Buddhism, which has recently been in the news because of Buddhist anti-Muslim and anti-Christian violence in Myanmar and Thailand (plus anti-Hindu violence in Sri Lanka). When anti-religious zealots claim all religious are violent, people sometimes suggest that Buddhism isn't so violent, and the example to contradict this claim is the fact that Japanese Buddhist leaders generally supported the nationalist militaristic agenda of Imperial Japan during World War II. However, a few Buddhists disagreed with the nationalism and militarism, and suffered for their thought crimes; people should know about figures such as Makiguchi Tsunesaburo (1871-1944) and Toda Josei (1900-58), or other Japanese who opposed militarism and nationalism.  Within Buddhism, there have been peace-oriented benevolent societies trying to improve people's lives (e.g., Soka Gakkai International; Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu-Chi Foundation), although like any large human institutions, these groups are plagued by internal politics and intrigues, the corrupting influence of power, authoritarianism, and the inevitable problem of human personalities importing their own mental and cultural issues into their religious organizations.  This is not a problem unique to religious groups or religion: it is a problem of human nature and any large organization using hierarchical structures and bureaucratic control systems (which seem necessary in all large human institutions).  Some Buddhist activists for peace include members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Thích Nhất Hạnh, (of Vietnam, now in France) and Daewon Ki (of Korea, now in Hawaii).

Lately, some people have claimed that Islam is especially violent. In the Islamic world, there have been a number of famous champions of peace, including Shaykh Aḥmadu Bàmba Mbàkke (1853–1927) in Senegal, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988) in British India, and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) also in British India (although Ahmad's movement in Islam, the Ahmadiyya Community, may or may not be an independent non-Islamic religion, depending upon your premises of how religions and religious movements should be defined and distinguished). Currently there are many significant Muslims working for peace and non-violence, including such distinguished persons as the scholars Farid Esack (South Africa) and Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah (originally from Mauritania), as well as the Palestinian activist Mubarak Awad; and there are many non-violent movements in the Muslim world, including supporters of the Green Movement in Iran, The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers,  La'Onf in Iraq, and so forth.

There are groups like the World Council of Religions for Peace as well.

The Christian tradition of non-violence is probably well-known (Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy, etc.), as is the Hindu tradition (Mahatma Gandhi).

People who have supported violence, warfare, and oppression of other human beings have often justified their murderous aggression and heartless cruelty by appealing to religious traditions or values, but there are some religious that have not been used for violence, because their core teachings are for peace and against war. Likewise, religious have inspired leaders who worked for peace and human dignity.  Secularists and atheists have also worked for peace, and have also used non-religious secular ideologies to justify cruelty, violence, and warfare. I'm very skeptical of arguments that religions are especially bad ideologies, or that secular non-religious values are inherently superior or less likely to be used to justify oppression, cruelty, and warfare.  It seems to me that religions offer an important alternative view to whatever ideology or value system is supported by the state, the ruling elites, or political leaderships.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Thoughts on UFOs and aliens.

What are UFOs?  I don’t know what they are, but people continue to see objects in the sky (and rarely, on the ground, or on water, or under water) that they can’t identify.  The objects are usually stars, planets, planes, human satellites, balloons, experimental aircraft, drones, meteors, bolids, strange weather phenomena, hallucinations, or other things that have no supernatural or extraterrestrial origins.  There are also many reports that are hoaxes, or honest witnesses who have been deceived by hoaxes. But, I’m convinced there is a residue of sightings that are still unexplainable, and even among the hallucinations, I think there are cases that defy logical explanations (as some hallucinations may not conform to typical patterns of hallucinations, or multiple persons share a nearly identical subjective experience of the hallucination).   

I have always been intrigued by the similarities between alien and UFO encounters and folklore concerning faeries and supernatural creatures.  There also seem to be parallels between the entities encountered by persons who go into dissociative trances brought on through rituals or use of hallucinogens and the UFO experiences and encounters with faeries or elves in folklore.  I’ve often wondered if there might be some connection, where some sort of an objective experience of a different sort of reality is distorted through subjectivity and the psychological states of witnesses during their encounters.  

There are also photographs and films of some UFOs, and while most of these are hoaxes (especially now that people know how to create computer graphics and merge these into film using Adobe products) or simply prosaic objects (e.g., insects flying across the field of vision), some of the images may be authentic and may show objects that fall into the unexplainable category. And, if so, this further suggests an objective reality basis for the subjective “UFO encounter” experiences. 

There are some emotional reasons pulling me toward openness to the idea that at least some of the UFOs represent technologies of advanced non-human civilisations.  In the first place, the Fermi’s Paradox problem of why we have not detected intelligent alien life yet suggests a few frightening possibilities: 1) we are the first species to evolve to our level of civilisation in this region of the galaxy; 2) we are the only species or the first species to evolve to a stage of technological civilisation; 3) there is some sort of a barrier that makes it impossible or nearly impossible for a species at our level of civilisation to advance to becoming an interstellar colonial civilisation (perhaps civilisations such as ours always destroy themselves, or always fail to establish enduring interstellar civilisations, or always are destroyed by something before they can establish interstellar colonies).  The idea that some UFOs represent alien civilisations helps us get rid of the problem of Fermi’s paradox, and reassures us that we are not alone in this part of the universe. Otherwise, we may face a frightening destiny almost certain to wipe out our species or limit our ability to get off this planet and out of this solar system. Another emotional reason for believing that some UFOs represent advanced non-human civilisations is that it increases our sense of possibilities and unexpected knowledge. If some UFOs are from advanced non-human civilisations, their behaviours and technologies are quite different from what we expect. And, if there is a connection between entities encountered while in altered states of consciousness and folklore entities and UFO aliens, it seems reality is quite different from what we so far have understood through our use of the scientific method. That seems like an exciting possibility to me, so I’m emotionally attracted to that possibility.

Another reason to think that non-human civilisations are responsible for some of the UFO phenomena is that this helps resolve unexplained mysteries.  Many people are uncomfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.  Currently, if you share my opinion that some small fraction (representing hundreds of cases around the planet each year) of UFO events defy explanation, you are left with perplexing mysteries.  I have no answer or explanation that satisfies. Simply leaving the matter at that becomes deeply dissatisfying, so introducing the hypothesis, and then the belief, that some of these encounters represent contact with non-human civilisations offers a resolution and some sort of answer to the problem.  It is far more satisfying (for most people, I suppose) to “know” that UFOs represent aliens or else always represent hoaxes, natural phenomena, hallucinations, and so forth.  Allowing that some cases may not fit into either category, or may possibly represent non-human civilisations, creates a tension of having no answer to a question.  That tension is too uncomfortable for many people.

There are good reasons for thinking UFOs are not evidence of alien non-human technologies.  It currently seems that the resources necessary for interstellar travel would be immense. For a civilisation to send a craft across dozens of light years, or hundreds of light years, and then have that craft controlled by a biological entity rather than advanced computers and artificial intelligence, and then have that biological entity behave as most unexplained UFOs are reported to behave, defies all common sense. But then, if any of these things are representatives of non-human civilisations and technologies, that is perhaps exactly what we should expect: they are not human, and human common sense may be utterly unable to grasp their non-human motives.

So, here is where I stand on the UFO phenomena: I think some of the unexplainable encounters with UFOs may represent non-human technology.  I have no idea what sort of non-human civilisation might be behind the UFOs: are they time-travellers from this planet, or visitors from other dimensions, or visitors from other solar systems light years away from ours?  I suspect there is a connection between encounters with UFOs, deities (such as bodhisattvas, Mary, various other saints, local or traditional gods), and folkloric magical humanoid entities (elves and faeries).  I would not be surprised if encounters with ghosts are also somehow connected. For the present, the connection I make is that it seems to me that the unconscious mind of the persons who encounters these things is playing a large role in shaping the experience, and the collective ideas of the culture (archetypes) also seem to shape the experience and its interpretation. 

I think some aspects of consciousness and memory exist outside the brain.  That is, I believe consciousness plays a role in shaping brains and physical reality as we experience it, and I believe that brains “receive” the mind as well as generate mental phenomena.  I believe this because I think there have been sufficient cases of out-of-body perceptual experiences, near-death experiences, reincarnation phenomena, and some forms of telepathy to give me a reasonable empirical grounding for suspecting that consciousness is not entirely depending on brain functioning.  The fact that I am a religious believer and my religion also teaches me that reality includes things that are not usually available for scientific testing and that some aspect of personal identity survives death also informs my opinion that consciousness is not entirely dependent on the brain (although manifestation of consciousness in the material world does seem to generally require brain activity). Because I believe consciousness exists in some form outside the material processes of the brain, I’m open to the possibility that UFO and alien encounters represent interesting “consciousness” phenomena or technology, rather than advanced spaceship technologies.

Since I already believe in consciousness existing outside the brain, I’m open to the possibility that UFO and alien encounters have more to do with human consciousness than interstellar travel. I recognise that some of the unexplained UFO phenomena involve physical objects, or at least physical evidence that multiple witnesses see or things that can be captured with photographs and movies. That suggests interstellar travel rather than some sort of supernatural paranormal encounter involving altered states of human consciousness, but it doesn’t rule out the possibility that technologies involving consciousness might be able to create physical phenomena such as “spacecraft” or whatever. If there are non-human alien civilisations, they may have had hundreds of thousands, or tens of millions, or even billions of years to develop their science and technology so that what they do appears indistinguishable from magic to us.

At a personal level, saying I wouldn’t be surprised if some UFOs represent non-human alien technology is quite different from making a scientific claim that this is indeed true. I am not convinced at a level where I would “reject the null hypothesis” and claim I have high confidence that aliens are visiting humans. That is, I’m guessing there is a greater than 5% chance that all UFO phenomena have accurate explanations involving no alien non-human technology or entities. But, I guess there is a 85% or 90% possibility that some UFO phenomena do represent alien entities or technologies, which means I generally think non-human entities are sometimes observed or experienced by humans. Unlike many true believers in UFO phenomena, I don’t think encounters with aliens are extremely important. I’m unimpressed by the claims of people who say aliens are giving them guidance or using them as mouthpieces to send messages to humanity; these people always seem to be self-deluded or actively lying. If aliens are contacting some humans or allowing humans to observe them, but they are not landing craft at the UN headquarters, I assume they prefer to remain observers and unobtrusive and not influential.  I also assume if aliens visit Earth they represent civilisations that are tens of thousands of years older than ours, or perhaps millions of years more advanced than ours, and so I assume they are wiser and more far-sighted than we are. If they want to remain a mystery, and do not seek to reveal themselves in some unambiguous way, I trust they have their reasons. 

I am comfortable with ambiguity, unanswered questions, and lack of definite final resolution of mysteries. So, I like the mystery of UFO phenomena. I like the way UFO and paranormal fields create a sort of counter-culture that questions the dominant mainstream, because I am generally suspicious of dominant mainstream hegemonic discourse and world views. The UFO and paranormal scenes are too full of crackpots and charlatans to attract much of my time or attention, but I admire people who try to do quality investigative work and theorising related to these mysteries. I respect people who are more certain than I am in their conclusions about non-human civilisations visiting Earth. And, I admire some of the skeptics that help expose the hoaxes and charlatans and crackpots. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

We have lasted some 400 years.

I've been thinking of how spectacle distracts and numbs people so they won't take time to live authentic lives and make meaningful connections with others and that sort of thing.  Today I happened to see a headline that distracted me: "Dem Congresswoman Says the Constitution is 400 Years Old" and I wondered if an elected representative had actually been so ignorant, but when I read what the woman (Sheila Jackson Lee) had said, I realized the article and headline were very, very misleading.  She had not claimed the Constitution was 400 years old, she had said, with reasonable accuracy, but rather awkward phrasing:

. . . Frankly, maybe I should offer a good thanks to the distinguished members of the majority, the Republicans, my chairman, and others for giving us an opportunity to have a deliberative constitutional discussion that reinforces the sanctity of this nation and how well it is that we have lasted some 400 years, operating under a Constitution that clearly defines what is constitutional and what is not. . . 

She simply left out (but implied) the phrase "more recently" or "since 1787" or "later" or something like that.  The "nation" (as opposed to the state or the country) can reasonably be said to begin around the time Europeans started establishing permanent colonies and settlements in North America, which would indeed be about 400 years ago, when initial Spanish, French, Dutch, and English colonial settlements began in New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, and Maine.

 Sheila Jackson Lee could have meant ". . . sanctity of this nation and well it is that we have lasted some 400 years, operating since 1787 under our Constitution. . ."  and anyway, I think it was understood by the Continental Congress that as Englishmen they were protected by the [unwritten] Constitution of England, or at least that would have been the common understanding, and it was the failure of Parliament and the British Monarch to abide by the American [correct] understanding of the unwritten English Constitution and the inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation that led to our constitution.

The more egregious and disturbing error in Sheila Jackson Lee's poorly phrased statement is the silly claim that the Constitution "clearly defines what is constitutional and what is not."   That is her serious mistake, and the headline should read, "Dem Congresswoman Says the Constitution Clearly Defines What is Constitutional, Implies No Need for Supreme Court to Interpret Its Meaning."

Meaningless news anyway, the inarticulate ramblings of persons in the House of Representatives don't really matter.  Bills that are introduced and have some chance of passing (or should have some chance of passing) are newsworthy, and I wish media outlets would give more information about those.

Recently discovered a wonderful Pro Publica investigative piece on what images have been censored from Sina Weibo, and I highly recommend taking a look.  By the way, Blogger sites, including this one, are also blocked (censored) in China.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Musings on why I believe in life after death.

Last night I was having a conversation with some friends, and one of them asked me whether I believed in life after death.  I hesitated, and then answered, "yes" because I do.  I had hesitated because I suspect the existence we experience after death is so different from what we imagine, and our "identity" or "self" is so different in that existence, that it might not really be accurate to consider it the same life we have here continued into another place.  That is, I don't expect to find us in a heaven such as is conventionally imagined or reported in some of the near-death-experiences. 

The person I was speaking with asked me why I believed in life after death.  I guess there are five reasons.

First is that I take some truths on authority, and the Authority I happen to trust is Mirza Husayn-Ali Nuri Baha'u'llah (1817-1892).  Whatever signal is available to humanity from the Creator is usually somewhat garbled with noise, and so while I think some mystics and holy persons and spiritually enlightened figures have got the big picture right, I think they have lots of the details wrong. As a Baha'i, it seems to me that there was something extremely special about Baha'u'llah's perceptions and the Revelation that He gave humanity. His narrative (it's for the most part a standard Islamic narrative) about God communicating to people through a few special Messengers of God who receive Revelations makes sense to me, and He Himself (Baha'u'llah) fits into this narrative as a Messenger of God (whatever that means). I think the ratio of signal to noise in what Baha'u'llah gave us was very, very high.

 Baha'u'llah did assure humanity that there was some sort of eternal nature in our individual human existence that would continue after death, although you have to look pretty hard through the English translations to find anything specific or anything that would justify a conventional belief in the sort of heaven that most folk religions promise their believers. As I understand the Baha'i Revelation, the emphasis stays on creating a heaven on earth in the present through practice of spiritual discipline (prayer, service, meditation, selflessness, kindness, love, etc.)  I've considered the possibility that Baha'u'llah (and God) were essentially misleading us with a half-truth (the truth might be something like: God is all-knowing, so God knows all your thoughts, experiences, memories, feelings, and social connections, and since those things are essentially you, you are eternal in God's memory, and God is the only pure reality anyway, as what we experience is dependent upon God; however, your consciousness as an individual will cease at your death and your independent identity as a soul merges into a spiritual reality much as your body's atoms dissipate into the physical reality), but I now tend to discount that.  It would be utilitarian gesture to spare us the misery and terror of death by letting is go on believing in a comforting afterlife or the eventual justice of the universe in post-death judgment, and as I look at this universe, I get the distinct impression God's morality is not utilitarian, and our comfort is not God's objective in this universe.

That said, religion as a human institution seems essential to keeping society in good order and helping us stay cohesive.  Belief in a supernatural observer who can punish or reward us in this life and afterwards seems to do a lot of good in terms of helping convince people they shouldn't "cheat" and engage in unfair exchanges or take more than they give. I am sort of excited about the hypothesis that much of our recent evolutionary brain development was encouraged by cultural environments in which human groups that were able to engage in story-telling and organized religion were able to gain many advantages in fitness through enhanced cohesion and trust among their in-group.  Organized religion requires an understanding of five levels of intentionality to get transmitted, and that requires significant brain work: I want (1) you to believe (2) in a supernatural being who hears our prayers and understands our desires (3) and therefore wants (4) to help us so long as we understand and obey (5) this supernatural being. The story-telling that goes along with religion also requires significant brain size. Our huge heads and large brains demand significant nutrition and complicate our pregnancies and births, so the pay-off must be pretty extreme.

Anyway, that's the first reason I believe in life-after-death.  Baha'u'llah says such a thing is so.

The second reason I believe in life after death is reincarnation phenomena.  I don't think we come back again as different people as standard reincarnation belief holds.  Maybe that does happen, sometimes, or always, but I don't think so.  It doesn't make sense to me.  But, I have read Ian Stevenson's 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation and I'm aware of some more recent cases that are even more convincing than anything in those 20 case studies.  I don't know what is going on with memories of dead people getting transferred to children, but whatever it is, it seems to indicate to me that some forms of consciousness (such as memory) survive death, although I have no theory as to how some of these memories get "caught" by other people, or why there is a fairly low signal-to-noise ratio in the memories (children with the memories of other people who have died tend to remember many things with spectacular accuracy, even trivial details, but they also have lots of significant things they get wrong, or miss; the ratio of hits to misses is high enough to come out way ahead of any probability, but the misses are significant. I am actually open to the possibility that some forms of memory and consciousness exist independently of observable physical matter as we know it (not in our brains), as these would help explain shared hallucinations, telepathic entity encounters (seeing your friend in your room and then later learning the friend had been killed moments before you hallucinated seeing them). Reincarnation phenomena don't prove life after death, but they are a source of empirical evidence that some sort of continuation after death (at least of some of our memories and some of our feelings for other people) may be able to continue outside our bodies after death, at least for a while, and that is certainly suggestive.

The third reason I believe in life after death is the phenomena of living people having communication with dead people, most often through hallucinations (ghost encounters or spirit encounters). It's not just having hallucinations that suggest to me that there is some communication between living and the dead, it's the fact that in some exceptional cases this communication seems to offer information that doesn't seem to be available by any normal method to the person having the hallucination. This is probably only evidence for some sort of telepathy where information is transferred by means we don't understand and senses we don't know about, and then the recipient's brain invents the hallucination of the dead person as a bringer of this information in order to make sense of it. Yet, it might also be evidence for the survival of a will or conscious individuality of a person after death.  Medium encounters with the dead also go in this category, although the ratio of signal to noise with mediums is very, very low (usually), and in fact most mediums are frauds. Yet, I think there have been some people who on some occasions seem to have received information in a supernatural way, and they claim it comes through the intercession of dead people.  I'm also including encounters with saints, angels, and Mary the Mother of Jesus in this category of encounters with the dead.  I understand that in some cultures the living and dead have regular communications, and it's hardly considered supernatural.  Rather, it's considered normal.  If we apply Occam's Razor I know this should all be taken as telepathy and positive hallucinations created by the unconscious, but I still take it as suggestive of life after death.

The fourth reason I believe in life after death is the phenomena of near-death-experiences. Yes, I know some people have been able to reproduce near-death-experiences in laboratories using drugs and electro-magnetic waves, and the correspondence of the experience to processes of death in the brain is also something I understand (e.g., life review as a result of the brain's ability to keep memories from flooding the consciousness being removed).  Yet I don't ever see that finding physical correlates to spiritual or supernatural activities is an explanation for those spiritual or supernatural experiences, especially when the supernatural or spiritual experiences involve sensory perceptions and experiences that can be remembered later for which there is no explanation given our present understanding of physical reality. If something spiritual or supernatural happens to us, and we experience it physically (as we must), then there will be physical correlates of that experience.  For example, if in meditation we "merge with the universe" I will of course expect the brain to show some sort of corresponding manifestation of shut-down in areas related to the sense of our body's position in space or the sense of self.

This raises the question of whether all "supernatural" experiences ought to have physical manifestations that can be studied scientifically. My expectation is that this universe is complete, and eventually after millions of years, or even billions of years, of science, there will be no "gaps" to fill with supernatural explanations. But I'm open to the possibility that some things in our reality are not ever going to be available for satisfactory study by the scientific method.  I'm also open to the possibility that our ability to reason and use logic and math is also limited, or perhaps logic and math are themselves too limited, and so humans as we exist now are inherently incapable of understanding some aspects of the universe, just as an early hominid with a much smaller brain than ours might have been unable to understand third-order-intentionality (I know that you know that I know) or story-telling.

The fifth reason I believe in life after death relates to my intuition.  I suspect we continue to exist because this answer feels right to me.  I seem to perceive in some intuitive way that existence does not conclude at death.  It seems likely to me that we do eventually cease to exist as individuals, and I suppose we may eventually merge into something better and transcendent to a point where our individuality is entirely lost, but I don't think that happens at death in the very literal way that our atoms disperse and go back into the earth and air, eventually to be consumed by the sun and then sent out into the vastness of space so that we physically merge with the universe.

One thing I dislike is when people who have no belief in life-after-death say that there is "no evidence" for it.  I also dislike it when people who have religious beliefs say "it's something we take on faith" as if that was all there was to it.  I think all human decision-making and belief comes to us through a mix of intuition and rational thought based on empirical observation.  Of my five reasons for believing in life after death, three are empirical (reincarnation phenomena, communication with the dead / encounters with entities purporting to be the dead phenomena, and near-death-experience phenomena).  My trusting in an authoritative source (my religious beliefs in Baha'u'llah and what He tells us) is not entirely based on faith; there is considerable empirical information about Baha'u'llah, and my understanding of this information informs my faith in Him and His message.

Everyone who believes with faith has at least some historical account of events that are supposedly actual events on which they base their faith.  That is what makes a difference between belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster from belief in God (at least the believe in God most modern education religious believers now have). Modern religious people understand very well that previous generations had different understandings of God, and yes, people "make" the Deity into forms they can relate to in their communal myth-making about God. The pre-modern tribal gods and the God of the Hebrew People of 2500 years ago is in some ways quite different from the God of Martin Buber or Hans Kung or Werner Heizenberg or Robert Bellah or Reinhold Neibuhr. I do not perceive that people keep worshiping different gods and inventing different gods. I think, rather, that Divinity has been understood or approached in different ways, according to the cultures and places and times. Human sophistication of understanding Divinity has been enhanced over time, especially recently, but the basic essentials of ethical and moral principles have always been a core of religion.

   The best empirical evidence for atheism is the lack of scientific evidence for God, not the lack of empirical evidence for God. Empirical evidence (physical reality, history, personal experiences, the reports of others' experiences) informs our willingness to believe or disbelieve anything.  Modern educated people face atheism and consider it.  Certainly every modern educated person must know the basics of Ludwig Feuerbach's argument, or must consider, understand, and then reject the atheism of David Hume,  Friedrich Nietzche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Peter Singer and so forth.  The obnoxious and pugnacious internet trolls advocating atheism and the proselytizers for the alternative religion of empirical materialism and Scientism also present challenges to believers. Many educated people who retain their faith do so not simply because they have faith, but also because the evidence and argument presented by such atheists remains for them unconvincing. Among the most brilliant people with the most training and the strongest minds, a great many continue to believe in God and life after death.

This probably presents me with a sixth reason for believing in life-after-death, and that is the power of the desire to conform and meet social expectations.  Yet in my circle of friends there are very many non-religious persons and even several atheists, and among the believers there are very few who share my Baha'i Faith. One thing I like about the Baha'i Faith community (and also Unitarians, New Age believers, and that sort of thing) is the seemingly high rate of eccentric people. Eccentric people tend to be less susceptible to conformity bias, and I like to think that people believe in a religion because they really believe it, and not because social pressures to conform have subtly shaped their thinking so they came to believe in order to go along with what others were doing.

Friday, September 13, 2013

What is the Catholic Church For?

I mainly use Facebook as a source for referrals to interesting web content, as I have many friends who post links to articles or videos they found worth sharing, and quite often I follow these links.  This is far more fruitful than random web surfing, if I'm looking for stimulating or inspiring content.

Today one of my friends posted a link to a 30-second excerpt of Stephen Fry complaining about the Catholic Church.  The source was Upworthy, which has lately become a source for quite a bit of content my friends share on Facebook; Upworthy has a pretty good record of hosting/aggregating interesting or inspiring content, so I'm more likely to follow links to stuff at Upworthy.

Anyway, this is a response to what Stephen Fry said during those 30 seconds, and my interpretation of what he intended by it.

"...the Church is very loose on moral evils..."
[this means: I claim that the Catholic Church has a poor record as a source for authoritative positions on morality or ethics, and we should therefore look elsewhere for standards of morality and evil.]

"...they try to accuse people like me who believe in empiricism and The Enlightenment of what they call, "moral relativism" as if it is some appalling sin, when what it actually means is thought."
[this means: I claim that the Catholic Church has a record of opposing the values of The Enlightenment, and one of those opposed values is the value of using open-minded inquiry based in objectivity, scientific methods, human reason, peer review, and open discussion. The Catholic Church has shunned the value of empiricism and the consequential practice of examining morality and ethics using principles from The Enlightenment. The Catholic Church claims that such approaches to morality lead to a form of moral relativism that will allow sinful behaviors, because people will find a way to justify wicked acts using reason and empiricism. And thus, the Catholic Church has accused persons like me, who support the values of empiricism and The Enlightenment of being dangerous or morally suspect.]

"...they thought that slavery was fine...and then they didn't. And what is the point of the Catholic Church if they say, 'well, we couldn't know better because nobody else did'?"
[this means: The church did not condemn historical evils, and in some cases it perpetrated those moral evils or condoned them.
The church excuses its error of supporting or tolerating evil based on an argument that it was influenced by historical and cultural conventions of the social environment in which it existed.
A good source of ethical and moral principle should be able to determine what is good and advocate for the good with something like immunity to the historical and cultural context in which it exists.
Since the Catholic Church has succumbed to conventional thinking about good and evil shaped by historical and cultural contexts, and has therefore failed to establish a good record of opposing wickedness, it is doubtful that it is a useful source of good ethical or moral guidance.]

I think it's useful to consider what Fry really intended as an argument beneath his words, rather than looking superficially at the content of his words literally.  For example, "the Church is really loose on moral evils" is, if we just look at the literal meaning of those words, a difficult argument to make. Also, the literal case that the Catholic Church condemns people who believe in The Enlightenment and empiricism for their moral relativism is also difficult to justify (many of those whose thought is the foundation of the Enlightenment—including many of the Renaissance humanists—were believing Catholics).

I think there are several propositions we could make if we follow his argument. Although these are not necessarily positions Fry would make, they are propositions I guess he would expect even an religious audience sympathetic to the Catholic Church to understand when hearing his argument.  I'll try to articulate a few of them here:

  1. The church should have used ethics based on revelation to determine that moral evils (such as slavery) were in fact evil, and then condemned and opposed them.
  2. The church should also have used empiricism and enlightenment to deduce that those moral evils were evil, and then condemned them and opposed them.  (Just because we use revelation as a guide to right and wrong doesn't mean we need to put aside our reasoning ability.)
  3. The church was influenced by the conventional thinking of its historical and cultural contexts.  This influence seems to have overwhelmed the tendencies for the Catholic Church to follow accurate Revelation or empiricism and enlightenment. 
  4. Accurate Revelation is a better source of ethics than historical and cultural contexts, because accurate Revelation comes from the Source of Reality, the Creator of good and evil. Social conventions, cultures, and historical contexts are far more distant from that source of correct understanding, because social conventions, cultures, and historical contexts are shaped mostly by human striving to meet various wants and needs, and such human striving is often in opposition to what Revelation seems to suggest would be good.
  5. We have a problem with the question of whether religious people get Accurate Revelation right, or whether instead they are more likely to get false revelation by adopting ideas or values that are not from God and inflicting them into their religious belief system. 
  6. Empiricism and enlightenment (the application of human reason and objectivity, sometimes through the scientific method) is a better source of ethics than historical and cultural contexts, because empiricism and enlightenment are manifestations of our higher nature (e.g., detachment from the world, seeking for truth with pure motives, use of the intellect— God’s supreme gift to humanity, etc.)
  7.  Empiricism and enlightenment are also a good approach in finding moral direction because they have a good record as a reasonably useful source of finding "ideas that work" (allegories for reality that work pretty well), and if we apply reason and enlightenment toward the objective of creating a society that is ethical and achieves happiness and high moral standards, we can expect from experience that reason and empirical thought probably has a better chance of success than most other methods, especially since we seem to have trouble distinguishing between false revelation and accurate revelation.

Steven Fry is upset with the Catholic Church as a human institution because it has inadequately applied accurate Revelation (using false revelation instead). He is also upset because the Catholic Church inadequately applied empiricism and enlightenment to finding and advocating ethical and moral positions (in fact, he claims it rejects these methods).  It has instead conformed to conventional thinking set in human cultural and historical contexts.  In that respect, it is difficult for Fry to distinguish between the Catholic church as a source for ethical positions and any other person, government, group, or whatever.  Since the Catholic Church has not distinguished itself from other groups as being particularly successful in finding and advocating or abiding by strong ethical principles, he questions the value of the Catholic Church.

Let me offer a few observations of my own:
  1. It is difficult to discuss anything so large and complex as "The Catholic Church" as having done particular things or advocated particular things, since the Catholic Church contains (and has contained) millions of persons with billions of opinions and activities.  The same is true of the American government.  Even my own tiny Baha'i Faith has millions of believers and multitudes involved in creating its culture and guiding its direction as an institution and a human organization.  For the Catholic Church, for every Miguel de Morillo, Octavius John XII, or Pierre Cauchon, there is a Bartolomé de las Casas, a Desiderius Erasmus, a Dorothy Day, and so forth.  There are many Catholic scientists, including several who have been recognized by the Nobel Prize Committee for their scientific contributions. In criticizing such entities as the Catholic Church, the American Government, or whatever, I am never certain whether we mean to criticize a small cadre of leaders at the top who try to set the agenda, or whether we mean to criticize the whole complex organization and those who participate in it. If we are aiming our critique at those near the top who try to lead and control the organization, then we are not addressing the real substance of what the organization is.  If we are criticizing the whole organization, we are complaining about an institution that has many parts or elements that share in our complaint or are entirely undeserving of our complaint.  
  2. Don't we run up against a problem of human nature when we complain about moral positions taken by organizations such as specific Christian denominations or churches?  I mean that our complaint seems to be about human nature, which tends to flavor all the human institutions, and the imperfections in any church could be attributable to the human weakness and failing inherent in those who participate the institution.  When an organization or institution or society like the Catholic Church (or the Communist Party, or the American Government) gets large enough, it is going to become an institution that attracts some power-mad psychopaths, some liars and deceivers, some ignorant obsessive people with power trips and ego trips.  That's the nature of the human experience. Why would the Catholic Church be exempt from this tendency? Science as an institution certainly isn't.
  3. For every fault in the Catholic Church, haven't there been voices from within the Catholic Church condemning those faults?  The Inquisition was an appalling evil, but didn't the Catholic Church put a stop to it?  Don't the Catholics admit that many of their popes were horrible murderers who poisoned their church? Weren't Catholics involved in correcting the lies and cruelty of  Pierre Cauchon?
  4. Is the reliance on rational thought, empiricism, and The Enlightenment really more inspiring in terms of finding good moral direction than the Catholic Church? Rousseau's ideas about the Will of the People contributed to the excesses of the French Revolution, didn't it? Empiricism tends toward quantification and measurement, and if we start to quantify and measure people, don't we start to get generalizations like racism or sexism, and don't we start to de-value those who are elderly, or sick, or afflicted with intellectual disabilities or mental illness? I'd rather take a Revelation-based ethic that tells me all humans are equally valuable than rely on empirically-based ethics, which I fear will lead us away from egalitarianism and toward the sort of ethics that made scientists and doctors in Nazi Germany "serve humanity" by trying to exterminate "defective" people. 
  5. It seems to me our best hope for a satisfying sort of ethics is to embrace some sort of revelation-based ethics (Religions) and incorporate a rational and reason-based approach to ethics as well (using our intellects without being mentally enslaved to our understandings of our religions). When our reason dictates that something is good but a revelation we accept as accurate says it isn't good, we will have to struggle or live with ambiguity and uncertainty. Are there really so many fundamental questions where a revelation claims something is evil or good and rational intellect and empirical study contradicts our understanding of the revelation?  I hold that our understanding of revelation is imperfect, and our rational and intellectual abilities are flawed and imperfect as well.  In fact, this seems obvious to me, and I'm aware people have been making this sort of point about finding moral truths for many years (for example, Michael Servetus and Sebastian Castellio in the early-to-mid 16th century, for example).
  6. Human institutions of organized religion such as the Catholic Church do not exist only to help people find the best moral positions and distinguish between good and evil.  They perform many, many other functions as human institutions. One could easily answer his literal question of "what is it for?" by suggesting the Catholic Church has performed pretty well in providing social stability, experiences of human value, community cohesion, a context for self-understanding, models of admirable human behavior, social welfare services, educational services, and so forth.