Cutting Through The Crap

Thursday, November 20, 2008

On Religion (Three)


It's neither my expectation nor intent to change minds. But since some things simply make no sense to me, I feel like saying why. If it were possible, at minimum, to encourage a person or two who didn't already, to recognize the right of people to believe differently and, therefore, to pull pack a click from trying to politicize their beliefs, I'd be more than happy. Not counting on it.

Today's topic: miracles.

For all I know each religion has its own clear definition. Mine is an event that indicates the hand of god, or gods, at work: something the occurrence of which can't be explained except as such. Which, if I understand omniscience and omnipotence and perfection, ought to include everything, all the time.

When you think about it, that there can be no middle ground: If God is all knowing and all powerful, either he is in control of every single thing that occurs, everywhere, to everyone, or he's checked out entirely and no longer has his finger in the pie. Theologicians, ministers, believers can argue but there's no logical basis for concluding otherwise. In the universe of an omniperfect god, we're marionettes with minimal if any free will, or we're entirely on our own. To believe in miracles as an extraordinary event -- and in the power of prayer, for that matter -- you must reject the idea of a perfect god who is omniscient and omnipotent.

School bus drives off a cliff, carrying eighty kids. One lives. It's a miracle, say his parents, the press, and everyone who hears the story. God was watching over him. A woman is diagnosed with incurable cancer, "given" (as a doctor I always hated that term/concept) six months to live. Five years later, she's still alive. Miraculous.

But think about it: how can you call the survival of that child an act of god, without also saying the death of the seventy-nine was god's idea as well? If he chose to save the one, mustn't he also -- in his perfection -- have chosen to kill the others? Because, after all, he could have saved them; or what the heck -- not pushed the bus off the cliff in the first place.

We can't know the mind of God, people will say. He has his reasons; a plan for us all. Okay, fine. But since we know he arranged the death of the seventy-nine, and since we consider miracles an event that shows the hand of God, why don't we rejoice over the dead ones, and call them a miracle as well? Or is it that since we know God is at work in all these things, the miracle is when he does something nice? What does that say?

God is at work, or he isn't. If he chooses to (fill in the blank) and if he has (by accepted doctrine) the power and knowledge to do it, then when (fill in the blank) doesn't happen, it's also his choice. Right? How can it be otherwise? Unless sometimes he's not paying attention. In which case he's not perfect; certainly not omniattentive. Oops, he says. Didn't see that cliff. Well, there's still time to grab the one kid...

The death of the other kids is no less the work of God -- no less a miracle, therefore -- than the saving of the one. There are no miracles, or everything is a miracle, which sort of dilutes the significance. If God can choose to intervene sometimes, then he's also choosing NOT to intervene in the others, unless he's not fully engaged. But by the doctrine of perfection, power, knowledge, he must be. So there it is: he's doing it all, or he's doing nothing. Made us, intelligently designed us, then left us completely alone, like a terrarium in a sixth-grade science project, to see what would happen. Stayed overnight at a friend's house.

.

10 comments:

Ellen Kimball said...

Thanks for your post, Sid. Hope you had a good overnight.

My 10-year-old granddaughter is being given the old Conservative Jewish education, despite my efforts to dampen her mother's enthusiasm for that kind of religious experience.

She didn't even know what Christmas was about -- or who Santa Claus was -- until she was about five years old. She was going to a parochial day care and kindergarten which was run by the Chabad group here in Portland.

One weekend, we took her out in the evening to enjoy the home decorations. My husband patiently tried to explain the Christian belief system to her.

What she said was exactly what you have observed --

"Grandpa, God doesn't DO anything!" she exclaimed with great wisdom of a child.

Who said "out of the mouths of babes oft times come gems"?

Baysage said...

OK, now I've finished the 3rd installment. Thanks, Sid, for this arresting discussion of your deeply held convictions. I'm a theist who finds himself in hearty agreement of much of what you write.

But I also happen to believe there's just as much faith (blind or otherwise) involved in denying God's existence as in affirming it. There's no proof either way. There's just argument, the appeal to human logic. Are we really willing, on either side of this divide, to put our faith in =that= weak reed? Human beings have been carrying on this debate about god-no god since they discovered the other guy disagreed with them. I really see little difference between the my-god-is-better-than-your-god tussle and the my-nonexistant-god-is-better-than-your-existing-god tussle. Death will provide the definitive answer, of course. Unfortunately, although there have been many unsubstantiated reports, no emissary from over there has brought back the conclusive documentation.

Fact is, nobody--N-O-B-O-D-Y--knows what happens to you when you leave this realm of existence. And of course death, the great curtain, is what it's all about--nobody =knows=, but there's a multitude who will argue that what they =believe= happens on the other side of that curtain is what actually happens.

If my 65 years of life have taught me anything, it's that beyond a few special motor skills and some basic cognitive processes, human beings are pretty limited creatures. And nowhere are they more limited than in their ability to deal with the "other" anything--the other race, other religion, other country, other viewpoint, the other explanation. Those things always provide human beings with more than enough reason to slaughter each other. And it's been this way for millennia. I'm supposed to put my faith in the logical processes of this creature? Sorry.

I'll settle simply for less killing, more kindness. If religion or no-religion inches humankind towards improvement in this area, I say, "Praise the Great Spirit, whoever or whatever, it is."

In the meantime, I'm still trying to figure out how human consciousness got here from those bits of cosmic dust that were always there.

Anonymous said...

Life Magazine just released an enormous photo archive to Google. There was a country doctor set.

Tanya said...

I think you're trying to apply logic to the belief in miracles and it won't work. That's why religious people fall back on faith to support their beliefs. Faith means believing something is true without factual proof. You have to have faith that God is omnipotent and meddles in our lives sometimes, other times, not so much. It's the only way you can explain the survival of one child as a miracle and the death of 79 other children in the same incident as a terrible accident.

The Barefoot Bum said...

We can't know the mind of God, people will say. He has his reasons; a plan for us all.

In Dialogues concerning Natural Religion Hume makes the point that the "mystical" theist (i.e. one who says we can't know the mind of God) is indistinguishable from the atheist.

mibsphil said...

Your three (so far) posts on religion are truly magnificent. You've managed to articulate beautifully all my long-held reservations about religion and its attendant lack of logic, inconsistencies, tunnel vision, etc. Thank you. I feel better knowing I'm not the only one!

Sid Schwab said...

baysage: I don't disagree, really, with anything you said. Nor did I mean to imply any certainty. I simply find the idea of god nonsensical. To me. Most especially, the Christian idea, as I understand it, because it's so internally inconsistent. The truth is, I'd love to believe there's life after death (although I read an amusing book several years ago about a guy who died and after a few millennia, when he'd mastered a perfect golf game, learned everything Einstein could tell him, etc, etc, he got so bored he asked for a finite end...) And the ultimate question, as I've written, is the ultimate brick wall: who created God?

I do disagree a bit with your "blind faith" contention, in that it's clearly blind faith to believe in a god and whatever rules he has. Non-belief is less blind, in that it is a matter of thinking it through and coming to a conclusion based on what evidence, or lack thereof, there is. I agree no one can "know." I don't "know" there are electrons, either, but I'm pretty convinced by the math and physics (assuming for the sake of argument that I understood them worth a sh*t.) Belief, in my view, is inarguably a leap; non-belief, from an evidentiary point of view, is sort of the default position, from which one ought to move based on facts.... Or so I'd argue.

In any case, the only reason I'm writing this stuff is because (phony claims of wars on Christmas, bogus Christian claims of oppression in the US to the contrary) of the way we are more and more threatened in this country by those who wish -- overtly!! -- to impose Christian theocracy on us all. Aware I'm pissing in the wind, I nevertheless feel like pointing out what, in my view, are the inconsistencies in the approach to life that that implies. As if it would convince people to keep their religion to themselves, where it belongs....

Baysage said...

Actually, Sid, I don't think we're very far apart at all. We have more in common than not. My problem is not with God, per se, but with religions. It's very interesting: the people who have caused the most bloodshed in the name of God are the monotheists, especially the Christians. As I stated, I don't disagree with most of what you said. And if we're specifically considering Christian theology, you're right there too: it is inconsistent. It is certainly inconsistent with the actions of its founder. The whole redemption scheme--and we have Paul to thank for that--makes not a whit of sense to me either.

I think, and correct me if I am wrong, it's mainly the practice of Christianity that is uppermost in your mind when you talk about rules imposed by God. (The same God, purportedly, who imposes all the rules on Jews and Muslims also.) I don't think it's impossible to believe in God and to also believe he's not imposed any rules on us. The Buddhists and Hindus have come a lot closer in their approach to the question than have all the others, They perceive deity (if at all, in the case of Buddhists, it's quite complicated) as something impersonal, of its nature impenetrable mystery, but nonetheless something that penetrates our lives.

Who created God is indeed an excellent question. I have no answer for you. But that's the end of the trail for all lines of inquiry, is it not? That's as far as our human reason can take us. After that, it's interpretation of evidence. And as I've indicated, the evidence, especially light of the behavior of so-called believers, is spotty at best.

I have precisely the same loathing you do for the so-called "Christians" who are the poster children for intolerance and violence. C. K. Chesterton once observed that Christianity has not failed, it has just never been tried. Gandhi made a similar observation. Just so. Progressive Christian thinkers, such as Marcus J. Borg and others, would agree with you. What Borg calls the new paradigm for Christianity puts questions the centrality of faith, belief in afterlife, and the whole rewards and punishment scheme. The precise opposite to what drives these so-called "Christians" you find so repulsive, and, to my way of thinking, the precise opposite to what Jesus was all about. But that's another discussion.

Baysage said...

Actually, Sid, I don't think we're very far apart at all. We have more in common than not. My problem is not with God, per se, but with religions. It's very interesting: the people who have caused the most bloodshed in the name of God are the monotheists, especially the Christians. As I stated, I have no great problem with most of what you said. And if we're specifically considering Christian theology, you're right there too: it is inconsistent. It is certainly inconsistent with the actions of its founder. The whole redemption scheme--and we have Paul to thank for that--makes not a whit of sense to me either.

I think, and correct me if I am wrong, it's mainly Christianity and its practice that is uppermost in your mind when you talk about rules imposed by God. I don't think it's impossible to believe in God and to also believe he's not imposed any rules on us. The Buddhists and Hindus have come a lot closer in their approach to the question than have all the others, They perceive deity (if at all, in the case of Buddhists, it's quite complicated) as something impersonal, of its nature impenetrable mystery, but nonetheless something that penetrates our lives.

Who created God is indeed an excellent question. I have no answer for you. But that's the end of the trail for all lines of inquiry, is it not? That's as far as our human reason can take us. After that, it's interpretation of evidence. And as I've indicated, the evidence, especially light of the behavior of so-called believers, is spotty at best.

I have precisely the same loathing you do for the so-called "Christians" who are the poster children for intolerance and violence. C. K. Chesterton once observed that Christianity has not failed, it has just never been tried. Gandhi made a similar observation. Just so. Progressive Christian thinkers, such as Marcus J. Borg and others, would agree with you. What Borg calls the new paradigm for Christianity puts questions the centrality of faith, belief in afterlife, and the whole rewards and punishment scheme. The precise opposite to what drives these so-called "Christians" you find so repulsive, and, to my way of thinking, the precise opposite to what Jesus was all about. But that's another discussion.

Maybe I'm one of those "mystical theists" Hume was talking about.

Sid Schwab said...

baysage: I like that Chesterton quote: fair enough. And it's been my impression of Buddhism that it's less about deity than about a way of living with grace. I can get behind that.

And I agree that it's the purveyors, rather than the quiet practitioners that are the problem. It's the concept of organized religion, especially in the context of the need to aggregate with fellow believers, that I find curious, at best.