12/19/14

No-Filter Living

Nearly once a day I experience a sort of emotional flood that is constituted by the absolute immensity of the world’s problems and my utter inadequacy at even beginning to deal with them. When I experience these feelings, which might be brought on by climate change, cruelty to animals, blind consumerism, discrimination against the homeless, etc., I invariably also reflect on the consistency or inconsistency of these feelings. Have I always been like this?

The short answer is no, because in the past I had a life filter. This filter made it much easier to pursue day-to-day existence because I could justify my place in the world. I was a lowly and insignificant sinner that nonetheless God found valuable enough to preserve for eternity. I never thought much about the practical implications of this scenario; I was too focused on the supernatural ones. But the practical ones are much more important.

This filter drastically limited my concern in a few ways. By focusing my primary concern on my own insignificance and God’s paradoxical fascination with my individuality, my beliefs implicitly assured me that everyone was as self-focused as I was and that this was the way it was. It was not desirable by any means, but it kept shaping the sense of personal guilt that necessitated the existence of a divine being to solve.

It also shaped everything else in the world that wasn’t “me.” First, it told me that these things weren’t fundamentally my problem. Disasters, pollution, deforestation, and factory farming among others were not things in my power to change, and God had them in control anyway, so why duplicate the worry? Any problem in the world was up for negotiation based on this paradigm, but the anthropocentrism of Christian belief removed most non-human concerns from the picture.

The problems of humanity were indeed problems, but as I’ve mentioned before the problems were not poverty or hunger or preventable disease but unaccounted sin. Therefore the Christian diagnoses only one primary problem, sin, with myriad different faces. Once it has diagnosed, it prescribes, and the prescription is as uniform as the diagnosis: salvation.

Here’s the interesting thing, though. I’m come to believe that it’s not the sense of guilt that is wrong. That guilt really isn’t imposed by religion; religion just capitalizes on it, controls it and then promises to dull the pain. That guilt, that primordial “sin” is a constitutive part of being alive.

On this view, institutional religion has the problem fundamentally backwards. In its efficient manner, the institution notes that it is much more practical, effective, and satisfying (to the individual) to treat the symptoms than to perform the endless labor of searching for causes and addressing root economic, political, and social problems. But alleviating the pain of “sin” through the tantalizing promise of eternal existence removes the consistent invariable link we have to the world, that sense of guilt, of accountability for the injustice we face.

We are cowards in that regard, and often justifiably so. But we have an addiction that justifies our cowardice. One cannot expect the religious adherent to behave according to the interests of broader secular society. Why? Because the believer faces the constant concern of their drug being diluted. Follow this process. The individual experiences feelings of helplessness, aloneness, inadequacy, fear, inability, etc., and seeks a remedy. The religious tradition diagnoses these as problems that can and should be remedied and provides a “pill” for it. This pill, however, comes with a long list of instructions and counter indications, one of which is that the accommodation of other treatment frameworks, or even less alternative understandings of the nature of the problem, will lessen the effect of the pill, or perhaps prevent it from working entirely. Fear of withdrawals from addiction are strong, usually strong enough to override external concerns or alternate ways of thinking. If one drug solves all your problems, then it should solve everyone else’s as well.

It is an uncomfortable thing to recognize the extent to which you are not only inextricable from the world in which you live, but accountable for its ills. When I teach ethics, I find that student beliefs about the world are not really motivated by a sense of right and wrong, even though they will profess maxims and truths as if they are the source of their ethical behavior. Rather, their views are often shaped by their perceived ability to do something about the issue. The more distant they feel from an issue, the less able to grasp it, the more students are likely to utter phrases such as, “That’s just the way it is,” or, “It’s our nature.”

When dealing with poverty and the question of social supports like welfare, the concern invariably arises that there are those who take advantage of the system. It is difficult for us to imagine how those, when provided with some modicum of financial and/or social support, don’t immediately throw away their addictions and coping strategies and throw themselves wholeheartedly into becoming productive citizens like the rest of us know we are. Yet we are abusers too. We abuse in a much more socially acceptable way. Comparatively we may do no great harm, but few do, on their own. The system does not brook dissent or difference well. The difference between the lower and the upper echelons of society is that the latter have elaborate and well-established institutional means to mask their exploitation of societal norms, and the former do not.

We are intolerant of substance abuse in impoverished communities because it has no veil to hide behind. You earn the right to alter your consciousness only to the extent that you can lie to yourself about what it is and convince society to go along with the ruse. Which is a more powerful drug, the one that allows you to escape your problems for a day, or the one that rearranges the entire world in your image and eliminates your concern for things beyond yourself? Perhaps in the end, they all perform the same function.

I note this all because if we hadn’t the institutional support of a conflation of symptom and cause, more would be able, in the rawness of pain and obligation, to encounter contemporary issues and work toward effective solutions. Not only would we understand symptoms and causes appropriately, we would not be side-tracked with protecting our own addictions, and mistaking them for the solutions.

08/23/14

Removing the “New” from Religion and Atheism

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 11.38.41 AMDuring the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Lawrence Krauss, who is a physicist and relative newcomer to the New Atheism camp, debated Peter Rollins, who has become known as a leading thinker in Emerging or postmodern Christianity. Their debate was billed as “New Atheism” versus “New Religion,” although neither man sat well with the title his side had been given.

I have seen Krauss in other debates, particularly in Unbelieversthe recently released movie featuring him and Richard Dawkins arguing with a host of religious conservatives, primarily Christian and Muslim. What I found amusing in this particular debate, however, is that Krauss didn’t quite know what to do with Rollins. They had too much common ground. Rollins argued three things about New Atheism. First, he claimed that it can and has become for many an identity source just like religion, meaning that it is not functionally different from the religious traditions it decries. Second, he suggested that the direct attacks against fundamentalism serve to strengthen rather than weaken it. Lastly, he proposed that atheism does not have the “capital” to serve as a viable alternative to religion.

In terms of its function, it is undeniably true that atheism can become as much of an unthinking identity as religious tradition, but it should be unpacked a little bit. Rollins argues his case by suggesting that fundamentalism is not the problem, but the solution to a problem. It is this deeper problem that can be seen in fundamentalism and atheism alike, although I would add that the historical and fantastical accretions of religion make it a more hospitable location for dogmatism than atheism. In any case, while Rollins doesn’t specify what the deeper problem is, it can obviously take many forms in economic or social deprivation (or a defense for economic and social privilege), but almost always in a skewed sense of identity that needs reconciliation. I have spoken with people for whom atheism is clearly an identity, having shifted from a negation of religious belief to a positive affirmation of an absence of religion as a dogmatic stance.

In this case, it would be difficult not to agree with those Christians and Muslims who argue that New Atheism, or simply atheism, has developed into a position akin in many ways to religious tradition, which means that it can become unthinking. Krauss is much less able to recognize this position than is Rollins, because Krauss appears to be a clear and logical thinker. He doesn’t and doesn’t need to bank on an atheist identity. Consequently, while he acknowledged that atheism for some can become a positive identity, something more than “not-skiing” as a sport, he doesn’t understand it as a common, albeit illogical, approach. It is ridiculous to Krauss that an intellectual stance or what amounts to subjecting religious wisdom to scientific scrutiny could become a dogmatic stance, because it is clear that it shouldn’t. Indeed, it violates the principles of a scientific approach to form a dogmatic stance about it. In fact, it’s logically impossible to establish a dogma around a fundamental openness to new evidence. However, it is entirely possible to rest on such a stance based on what recent scientific thinkers have said about religion, namely that it is patently false. Without possessing the ability or will to question the truth of particular situations, one can easily and freely adopt the stance that all religion is false and religious folks are imbeciles, just as many religious folk are convinced that atheists are willfully ignoring God or are influenced by the devil.

Rollins, on the other hand, understands the paradox that even a belief in nothing, or the negation of belief in something, can become itself something. In a slightly different form, this has been one of the primary points of his critique of Christianity. According to Rollins, most Christians already know that the claims they make are untrue on some level. Consequently, when they are criticized from the outside for the ridiculousness of their claims about prayer or God’s will, etc., Rollins recognizes that, contrary to curing them of their illogic, it will often drive folks further into their irreconcilable positions. As a recent example, the Friendly Atheist was incredulous that the missionary doctor who received treatment for Ebola from an experimental drug spent most of his time in his first speech on release giving thanks to God for saving him rather than the drug and the doctors who nursed him back to health. However, the doctor no doubt didn’t refuse the experimental drug when offered so that God could do the work of healing. He simply holds two contradictory positions: one, that God healed him; and two, that modern medicine saved him. The first position makes no sense unless God likes the two white missionaries more than all those who have died from Ebola in the most recent outbreak. The second position makes enormously more sense: the missionaries received proper medical care and lived, others did not and died. Paul Farmer talks about this from a practical perspective in a recent interview on Democracy Now.

To put it another way, religious believers cannot fully accept the world scientifically until they address its incompatibility with their belief, but the only way to address the fallacy of their belief would be to fully adopt an open and questioning stance, a scientific stance. What many atheists are unwilling to admit is that this is much more than an intellectual shift. It carries tremendous social and psychological baggage, and it is predicated on sufficient cultural capital, on social, political, and/or economic stability. Rollins thus realizes, I believe, that directly exposing the contradictions of particularly conservative religion is inefficient at best, which was revealed by his third point against New Atheism, that it lacks the cultural capital to provide religious folks with an alternative. This point, too, is fundamentally inconceivable to Krauss and the like, who cannot grasp that the lies we tell ourselves rival the power of truths about the universe, even when the latter are demonstrably true and the former are not.

In terms of a paradigm shift, then, Rollins’ position is perhaps more viable. It is true that he has an economic interest in maintaining ambiguous ties with Christianity because liberal or postmodern Christians are primarily the folks that come to hear him. To the outsider, of which Krauss provided a quintessential example in this debate, Rollins’ circumlocutions seem unintelligible. His is the language of the existentialist, the language of deconstruction, but it is also storytelling, narratives that Christians are familiar with. If he could succeed in recasting Christianity not around dogmatic principles about the world and the afterlife, but around breaking down those principles and questioning our dogmatic assumptions about the world, the fundamental and unthinking ways that religion allows folks to operate in would be shifted. Religion would not provide a safe haven for rigid belief and unthinking behavior. It is certainly not to say that it would eliminate it. The very fact that atheism can provide that same haven for unthinking should be an indication that institutionalization, not the content of an institution, is all that suffices to become dogmatic.

04/7/14

“Getting Things Done”

In the last few months, I’ve read more “life organizing” literature than I ever have before. I read and reread Getting Things Done, a book my wife read years ago and had on-hand. At the time, I probably poked fun at her, but I’ve been surprised to see how typical (and ineffective) my task management is. I’ve always been resistant to having a book or a method tell me how I should organize things. What I typically tell myself is that I really know best how to do everything, from planning my daily activities to knowing what my long-term goals are and what progress I’m making toward them. What I’m consistently finding, however, are that the things I think are important to me are not the things I spend the majority of my time on.

When I was in my late-twenties, I hosted a college-age small group at our house. As a Christian group, we would usually be reading through some text such as The Purpose-Driven Life or Wild at Heart. Of course, we also read frequently from the Bible, trying to discern what life lessons we could learn from the reorganization of the temple under Hezekiah for our contemporary existence.

We held the group for a couple years, and the most recurring theme in our discussions was the question of what we were all going to do—what we should do—with our lives. I was in my late-twenties, working at a good job that I was nonetheless unsatisfied with. We owned our house, we had just had a child, we had a dog, etc. We had followed the American dream formula, and it had seemed to work out well. Yet I, like many others, found myself constantly asking, “Is this it?”

The other group members in their early twenties were at the beginning of that same spectrum. The future was open; they could do anything they wanted. But what should they do? Depending on which paradigm one followed, there were ready-made answers. If the middle-class response was go to college, the evangelical response was “Go on a mission.” Most of us there were to trying to reassure ourselves that it was okay that we didn’t want to abandon everything and move to Africa for six months.

The great conceit of the small group was that if we came together and talked about and to God, we would get that clear vision of our lives’ goals and purposes. Or at least we would get the next step. Yet we kept returning to the same questions. On reflection, the group wasn’t large enough or fervent enough for any of us to convince ourselves that we could get a revelation from God about our lives. Instead, we fumbled around with the questions but supported each other along the way with the more practical aspects of life. When I needed to build a fence around the yard, for example, several of them (who knew more than I ever will about construction) came over and helped out. When someone moved, we all showed up to help. But we never got any bigger answers. We just lived life and moved on.

When faced with the innumerable choices and directions our lives can go, we are overwhelmed. Religious traditions fill a definite need in that respect, providing a simulation of knowing what you do not know. That is not to say faith cannot provide psychological/existential relief for people; it can. It does so, however, only to the extent that you ignore the very tenuous connection it has to the way we actually live our lives. If a divine being is ultimately in control, then I am relieved of the burden of ultimate concern about the environment or the consequences of my consumption.

For my part, I exited one system, thinking myself much more authentic for having gotten rid of it. However, at the same time I was being inculcated into the system of higher education, which provides a rival structure for goals and purpose. For six years, I had the goal of earning a degree. It was only near the finish that I began to experience the openness that accompanies life with no tradition, no trajectory, to tell you what to do and where to go. I can’t yet speak to what comes next.

It is, in these cases, easy to allow yourself to go on auto-pilot, so to speak, and let the roles you are in dictate my day-to-day existence. That seems to be what many of us do. While on the outside it looks like an organized life, it is only a coordinated backdrop that overlays an uncertainty that never really goes away. Why? Because there really is no certainty other than that which we construct.

The key, then, seems to be to construct purpose for life or for the day’s affairs that has as little collateral damage as possible, either for your own life or the lives of others. There will be collateral damage, and it must actively be minimized. Anxiety will remain, and it is managed with the systems you set up arbitrarily for yourself. There is more Nietzsche than Sartre here. We establish roles for ourselves, all the while knowing that it is just a play. And yet we must play.

There were several years where, when I realized that I was merely playing a role, I resisted playing it because it was not “real.” But not all roles are the same, not all require the same depth of self-deception about oneself and the world. I have always relied on the top level to dictate the actions for everything underneath, but this doesn’t create a life. If followed unthinkingly, it extinguishes life. We often know this, but we prefer the familiarity of traditions, with all their contradictions, to uncertainty. Uncertainty, however, is a level playing field. We will make mistakes, but they are conscientious ones, and not the unthinking destruction of traditional institutions. In the end, we must actually get things done.

06/26/13

Anti-Christian Bias in Academia is Responsible for Religious Bigotry. Part Two…

I posted recently about Rebecca Hamilton’s blog commentary on George Yancey’s research about anti-Christian bias among the well-educated. Hamilton’s concluded that anti-Christianity is widespread in the higher education system and that this is responsible for increasing religious bigotry. Although her reaction is inflammatory, her sentiment that there is a connection between higher education and loss of religious belief seems accurate. I disagree, however, with her suggestion that the higher education system is responsible for religious bigotry.

Speaking anecdotally, I would most likely still be a practicing Christian had I not gone back to school to earn a graduate degree. I don’t think that I once experienced any sort of unjustified intolerance toward Christianity from any professor. My experience of deconversion, insofar as education was a part of it, came largely from wrestling with texts that challenged the historical and ideological viability of the Christian tradition. Since I studied religion directly, it would be difficult for me to comment on how much anti-Christian bias a student in the sciences, for example, might absorb. There is a fine line for some between being challenged and being unfairly discriminated against. One of my main goals as a teacher is to encourage students to question their long-held world views and expose inconsistencies in thought and practice. Usually just exposing students to a variety of other world views and teaching them to think critically is sufficient to provoke crises. For a Christian (as well as most other students), college can thus be a complex existential experience. Many make it through relatively unscathed, but a sufficient enough number do not that it is a common practice to go a Christian school to avoid the conflict.

But why would there be, or seem to be, anti-Christian bias in the academy? For the same reason that there would seem to be an anti-educational bias in Christianity. The ideals of Christianity conflict with the ideals of humanistic or scientific inquiry. Christianity gives an answer to the question of life and living—God—that other forms of inquiry cannot neither accept or ignore. To be certain there are many individuals who live out their lives maintaining a balance between sometimes contradictory world views, but they do so by compromising in one or more areas. The extent to which these institutions—Christianity and (public) higher education—mix is the extent to which one or the other cedes ground. And that is not a bad thing. But its effect is negated if one or both parties must pretend that either position is neutral or irrelevant. In other words, discrimination and self-bias are inbuilt in both higher education and Christianity. These self-protective aspects cannot be removed without compromising the integrity of their structures.

What this means to me is that we should not lament that these systems conflict or attempt to neutralize their clashes. Rather, if we are searching for answers, the best way forward, a better society, etc., we should highlight points of conflict as points of leverage toward common truths. I realize that sounds platitudinous, but it is surely a better step forward than the wary pluralism of much liberal doctrine.

We must make a distinction between the ethical treatment of those who espouse world views different from our own and challenging those world views. They are not the same thing, yet very few can resist eliding one into the other. In our rush toward fixity, toward systematization, we deny the instances to better understand ourselves and our world. These instances will necessarily involve giving and receiving offense, but their rewards, I have decided, exceed the discomfort they cause.

02/12/13

What’s the Point?

I’ve had several conversations around religion and a sense of “purpose.” I talked about this last week, but it was mostly in terms of the obligations that come with Christian affiliation; namely, the obligation to evangelize. Affiliation with an all-encompassing institution, as most religions are, provides a complete system, within which one is given explicit or implicit purpose for living. But what does purpose mean in this context? And, perhaps more importantly, do we really “need” purpose anyway?

What do people mean when they talk about purpose? In terms of religion giving purpose to the individual, purpose entails a task or set of duties, usually ones protracted over the person’s lifetime. These could include evangelization, sanctification (becoming more godlike), striving to eliminate self, charity, and many others. But when we say we need purpose, we don’t really mean we need something to do to keep us occupied for a lifetime. What we are usually talking about is not the purpose itself, but the feeling that comes from it, the “sense” of purpose that comes with certainty.

Not having a sense of purpose might be like playing a game of basketball without knowing the rules. You are told to put the basket through the hoop, but aren’t given any parameters for doing so. That might be fine, but you keep getting the whistle blown on you and the ball taken away without knowing why. Over time you figure out some of the basic mistakes and avoid them, but you always question whether you’re doing it right, and if something doesn’t work, you wonder if it’s your fault or someone else’s, or both. If you expand this to the game of life, it gets much more complicated. You usually aren’t sure if you made a mistake, or if someone else is breaking the rules. Unless you can put together a system that a group can agree on. You impose your own rules to define the game.

So what does this give you? Satisfaction, or happiness, at least in theory. The conflict comes when it doesn’t. Let’s say you have a group of people who decide on a set of rules to interact with each other, and it works very well, and as a result the people in the group are happy. Then a few years or decades past and outsiders join the group and younger generations are added to the mix. Some of these are not happy with the group’s interaction, or the way the game is set up, or they’re just not satisfied in general. Since the system worked in the past, however, fault is laid not on the rules themselves, or even usually on the game, but on those who are unsatisfied with it for somehow doing it wrong. “You have no reason to be unhappy,” these people are told. “You must not be doing it correctly.” Some will accept this blame, taking it on themselves and trying to follow the rules; others will blame the rules and set up a group of their own or switch groups. The cycle, over time, repeats itself.

There’s a gray area between the benefits of the system and a sense of purpose or meaning they purport to provide. They work very well…until they don’t. I think that many, or maybe most, people are unsatisfied with the systems they participate in, be they spiritual, political, or social, but they (mostly) keep quiet. However, there are also many that are, for all intents and purposes, happy with their institutional relationships. So how does one go from being satisfied to unsatisfied, or vice versa? We like to express it in terms of truth: “That turned out not to be true,” etc. But in this case truth is measured only by alliance to your current values looming large in your mind, and not any set standard.

Those who have excelled, those who seem to have had great purpose, have clashed, rather than harmonized, with institutional norms. These are the ones we celebrate. Be they thinkers, artists, scientists, politicians, they stand out for their distinction from the norm, not their adherence to it. Interestingly enough, if and when we try to standardize their successes, they fail to live up to the original. We rightly blame ourselves and not the original for the failure, but is our failure because of insufficient adherence to the system, or is it that we sought greatness in imitation or reproduction? In other words, was their purpose a formula we can plug in and get the same result?

I am not saying that the correct answer is endless rebellion against systems for its own sake; we all imitate before we can create, and our creations are always in some way reliant on what has come before. However, if we seek purpose in molding ourselves completely to the institution, we gain a “sense” of purpose only by deadening our senses until they are imperceptible.

This all leads up to the question that goes something like this: “Without God, what’s the point?” The amplified version is as follows: “God is the reason I have meaning, purpose, and happiness in my life. If you don’t believe in God, how can your life be meaningful?” This can be a sincere question, but it can also be a defense mechanism. I wonder what I would have said if someone had asked me the opposite version when I was a Christian:

“You believe in God? You’re a Christian? Then what’s the point of living? All you do is follow other peoples’ rules so that you can die and live forever sitting on a cloud listening to angels play harps and stuff?”

“Uh, it’s not about harps. It’s gonna be awesome. We’ll be hanging out with Jesus all the time.”

“All the time? Won’t that get kind of boring?

“No. Besides, we’re also going to be walking on streets of gold and living in our own mansions.”

“Okay. But if that’s what its all about, why aren’t you enjoying yourself right now? What’s the point if you have to give up your life to get it?”

“I am enjoying myself. I just don’t like things that don’t last. I want things that last forever, things you can’t get here on earth.”

“So you don’t want money, or a good job, or happiness, or love, or a fun time, or any of that?

“Oh no, I want that stuff too, I just know that it’s not important compared to the real stuff I get later.”

“Well, good luck with that…I’ll enjoy myself now. See ya!”

“Yeah, bye.”

“That guy doesn’t get it. Hopefully he gets his priorities in line, or else…”

Maybe it wouldn’t have gone quite like that, but the point is that the logic of systems is coherent from the inside, not necessarily the outside. Members of religious traditions often can’t understand how people could live any other way and so construct scenarios in which people aren’t really living with purpose.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in your sense of purpose and want to share it with other people, especially if you enjoy it or think it will help someone. But when your motivation is dependent on someone else’s belief in it, it becomes problematic because you will go to great lengths to convince or demonize those who don’t agree. If the Christian system is true, it is true regardless of the number of adherents it has, right? The fact that it has a great number of adherents, and that those adherents tend to group together, is beneficial, but can also produce a collective refusal to acknowledge the innumerable ways of living beyond their worldview.

Thoughts?

There is also the possibility that we don’t “need” any purpose at all…I’ll get back to that.