A Religious Liberal Blog

This site hopefully can provide some vehicle by which I can comment, complain, and once in a while praise the state of religion in this country and around the world from a liberal protestant perspective.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Let's Talk

The blog Friendly Atheist asks the question: Is it better for atheists to pursue the we must "end all religion" bit of Sam Harris or a Christopher Hitchens(confrontational).

Or should they seek to support progressive values (in and out of religion, less confrontational). As a liberal protestant, I’m keen on the first strategy: reforming churches so as to be welcoming of gay people, women, science, religious pluralism, etc.

The problem with Harris and company is that folks like me are considered the enemy, no different than fundamentalists. I think it might get more folks to join a cause to have an either/or proposition like that. Stark choices usually comes with conversion.

But it fails to develop the necessary alliances which should already exist in support of values that we can get behind from the separation of church and state to teaching science in the classrooms. We need more folks than ever for such things.

I remember the Easter challenge from the Rational Responders. One person was so excited that they found a Methodist church to place a “The God Who Wasn’t There” video in their pews. Problem was: this church was liberal. One that fully and openly accepted glbt folks.

And the poor sod who placed the video didn’t know that. Because there aren’t many contexts in the culture wars to talk to each other. Maybe Harris and others serve a purpose but I appreciate sites where this conversation can happen.


At 3:58 PM , Blogger Drew said...

I think the problem is that Harris and others try to argue that there is no difference between this or that religious person. It is an argument made of straw. To say that Osama Bin Ladin or Pat Robertson and Gene Robinson share much at all in common other than the statement God exists is simply an absurdity.

And then to say that a religious liberal or progressive validates and perpetuates fundamentalism is to fail to look in the mirror to see that any perspective on the world that does not fit within this or that fundamentalist paradigm simply reinforces the us versus them mentality that prompted the fundamentalism in the first place!

It is not religious liberals that perpetuate the problem, it is difference that perpetuates it. By lumping all religious perspectives under the same umbrella, the argument washes out the fundamental cause of the problems of religion and that is how a given religion deals with the Other.

My reading of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitches is that they simply ignore the social aspect of religious behavior that shares itself with numerous other forms of human interaction outside of a purely religious context. The problems with religion they discuss are human problems that are catalyzed by dogma, but not created by dogma. That causal connection is something they simply do not make and when asked to make it, they simply state that their view is quite obvious and we should not have to demonstrate it.

The good thing is that they are forcing us to talk. The bad thing is that they are also forcing us to deal with so many straw men arguments which is quite counter productive when there are many Christians I know who would love to engage the serious questions of atheists in order to reform problems the church creates for itself.

At 6:39 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The argument agaist liberal religion is that it provides a base from which fundamentalism can be built on. You say "God exists and is really quite lovely and the bible is all about love and sharing, etc" and the Fundie says "The Bible is the literal word of God and it says here, here and here that we should hate, kill and burn our enemies". I agree that these are radically different viewpoints but they both have an acceptance of the divine at their core.

Worse than that I think is that the existence of fundamentalism, whether it be Christian, Muslim or militant Atheist, generates an opposing fundamentalism of it's own. Harris and Hitchens and to a lesser extent Dawkins are reacting to the rise in Christian Fundamentalism in the US. This, in turn, could be a reaction to the fundamentalism that is intertwinned with suicide bombers and the horrific events of 9/11.

You have to accept that there is no debate with fundamentalists merely argument.

I enjoy debate so I visit FriendlyAtheist.com and FriendlyChristian.com and talk. OK, sometimes it blows up but most of the time it doesn't and we actually find ourselves learning something. Bill over at FC wants to change the perception that people have of Christians just as Hemant wants to change the perception that people have of Atheists.

At 11:04 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

When we try to define and evaluate things, we look for the dissimilarities as well as the similarities. Unfortunately, what we do sometimes is to place value judgments on our observations, thereby missing the overall view. We like to think of white light as pure and good, while believing darkness is evil. Yet we know that one cannot exist without the other and that light without darkness would lack definition, just as darkness would lack definition without light. Ancient religions believed in the duality of our existence, placing a value judgment on light and darkness. They thought of light as good, while darkness was evil.

Actually things are not that well defined. Matter and energy are simply different sides of the same coin, and can replace each other at different times. Matter can become energy and energy can become matter. In the case of a star like our sun, it exists as both energy and matter. It has mass and occupies space, but at the same time radiates light which exists as both energy (wave) and matter (photon). So too does the definition of light and darkness require greater scrutiny in order to help us evaluate our existence and “reality.”

Light illuminates, and thereby can shed knowledge about a subject. However, without the shadows and grey areas, no definition could exist, and no knowledge gained. We think of light as energy and thereby having animation or life, while at the same time we see darkness as void of energy and having no animation and thereby dead. However, just because we cannot see something does not mean that it does not exist. The universe is more like tapioca pudding, with hard parts (matter) comparatively speaking, mixed in with the majority of the pudding (space). To say that space and the great distances involved is a void or vacuum, is to take a very narrow view of what space-time, energy and matter really is. Science has now come to believe that in amongst that which we can “see” with our limited senses exist dark matter and dark energy. This dark matter and energy, along with light and gravity all makes up the “pudding” of our reality.

Problems arise however, when we place value judgments on what little knowledge we have about our reality. Religion or belief was formed before science to try to explain the reason for things being the way they are. Early humanity placed value judgments on things they did not understand. We still exist in this mindset to this day, showing prejudice toward others of different color. Science, deductive reasoning, and logic, are the best way to view our universe, and our place in it.

The one question that has intrigued humanity since we were able to think has been: “What is the purpose of Life?” One of the defining features of life is animation or motion. Even plants have been shown to move with time-lapse photography. On the macro level, observations of the universe indicate that it is a very active (animated) place. On the micro level, observations indicate that atoms are in constant motion (animated), and again this is a prerequisite of life. Like the sun, life seems to be both energy and matter at the same time. Life seems to be nothing more than an extension of what exists cosmologically. It is an inevitable outcome of a very active universe both on the atomic and sub-atomic level.

We could place a value judgment on this by saying that the universe is very “violent,” with collisions taking place on the macro level as well as the atomic level. Life also feeds on life in order to exist, with one living thing feeding on the organism of another. We could place a value judgment on this by saying it is a very barbaric “creation,” and therefore must have been created by a very barbaric “God.”

This misses the point however, by focusing on the idea that the universe and life could exist any other way. There may be other “parallel” universes where life forms do not feed on other life forms in order to exist. They may draw their energy directly from other energy sources the way plants draw energy from our sun. But even a plant needs dead organic material in order to grow and flourish. The conservation laws of energy indicate that life that comes into existence must also go out of existence on a finite planet. Death is a part of life, and necessary for life to exist. It would be like having a doorway into a room, but no exit. Soon the room would become crowded, and people would be begging for a way out. Death makes room for new life, with the dead organic material becoming the bodies in which new life is animated.

Since life is both matter and energy, exactly what happens when a “life” ceases to animate? Is death the end of an entity’s existence? What defines the entity? Is the body simply all that exists? That would be like saying a pile of dead leaves defines a tree. We are constantly shedding dead cells and replacing them with new ones. Do the dead cells define who or what we are? What happens to the energy that makes up the entity? Studies have shown that as the brain cells die, energy is released from the body, and that the body in fact looses weight when it dies. So what happens to this released energy? It is either reflected, refracted, absorbed or exists as “free” energy. Matter/energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only change form. What was, is, and always will be.

The Bhagavad-Gita says that this energy (Atman) continues to animate organic matter by changing bodies as we do a new set of clothes. But what if there is nothing after death but darkness? Even so, this should not be feared. In the void or darkness lies nothingness and peace from the activity of the universe. One needs rest after a life of activity, and since opposites define our reality, perhaps it is fitting that death should be the opposite of life, and help define each other. Does that mean there is nothing on the other side? No, it simply means that whatever this life had to offer, the other side offers something different. We place a value judgment on this too however, by speaking negatively about death. Certainly the unknown can be scary, but it is inevitable and common to all life forms on this planet.

The best we as conscious entities can do is to try to live life as fully as possible without fear and prejudice. To be observers of life as well as participants, leaving as few footprints in the sand of time as possible, so that following generations can enjoy clean air and water. To relish in life’s beauty and mystery. To add no more violence to life than already exists and to treat all living things as entities worthy of their existence. To not plunder the resources of the planet by taking life for profit. To realize that no one survives, and therefore no one should take another’s life in the name of “survival.” To view death not as an end, but a new beginning.


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