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IEET > Rights > Life > Vision > Bioculture > Fellows > David Brin

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Pining for Feudalism as an Antidote for Modernity

David Brin
David Brin
Contrary Brin

Posted: Dec 1, 2011

There is an unbelievable essay written - in apparent sincerity - by my colleague John C. Wright (a pretty good author, by the way), in which he asserts that the long darkness called feudalism was admirable, and that - by dismal contrast - we now live in an age that is benighted by crudely materialistic modernity and a shabby shallowness of the soul.

Commenting on the specific stretch of abject misery and ignorance known as the European Dark Ages, Wright redefines it—or, as historians call it, ‘Late Antiquity’ or, as we Catholics call it, the ‘Lost, Glorious, Honorable, Ancient and Most Chivalric Golden Age of High Christendom…’”

He goes on:

No one wants to die at thirty, half a mile from where he was born, unless of course he likes his home, and any patient would prefer antibiotics to leeches, I grant you. But man does not live by bread alone, or even by jet travel and space age medicine. We paid the price to enjoy the mixed blessings of the modern day, and something beyond the price we paid was lost, something precious.

“To look at mankind, who so clearly yearns for some sort of communion or reunion with nature that the pagans people the woods with nymphs and satyrs, or the nursery tales or Aesop fables with talking animals, and conclude the only possible relation between man and elf is mutual genocide is a Darwinian rather than sacramental view of life: it is simply blind to what in man, weak though it may be, is not devout to totalitarian modernism and ideas of total war. It is the world view of François de Robespierre, who guillotined the aristocracy of France like vermin, not the view of Francis of Assisi, who saluted the verminous wolf as his brother.”

Woof. Naturally, I am torn.  I love a good contrarian!  And Wright clearly envisions himself in that role, leveling his lance to charge against the giant, clanking, soul-grinding mill called modernity…

...even though a mere glance at the last 6000 years shows which human phenomenon is standard fare - feudalism, serving the darwinian reproductive success of brutal men - and which type of society (modernity) is the brash upstart, with all odds stacked against it.

Okay, I love a contrarian. And yet, those who have read my denunciations of romantic nostalgia - (respectful denunciation, when I speak of the honest romantic Tolkien, but disdainful when it comes to the cosmic ingrate, George Lucas) - won’t be surprised to learn that another part of me has no patience for this utter, counterfactual drivel.

Man, oh man. Where to start on this sophistry?? As if the pagan forest-lovers weren’t vastly worse-off in the era Wright idolizes? Hounded and burned at the stake by medieval catholic bishops? (OMG, which era produced copious numbers of wistful, pastoral-loving fantasy novels?)

As if the aristocracy of 1790 France were prime examples of humanity, wisdom and charity, instead of monstrous persecutors who stupidly hand-crafted their own fates? Or as if 99% of the noble-born Assisi’s peers were anything other than drooling-evil horrors, who only paused in their relentless reciprocal treachery long enough to join forces in a grand overall program of oppressing the serf-masses, cauterizing every low-born child’s dreams?

Zoom in upon Wright’s claim that those who criticize nostalgist romanticism ”...conclude the only possible relation between man and elf is mutual genocide is a Darwinian rather than sacramental view of life: it is simply blind to what in man, weak though it may be, is not devout to totalitarian modernism and ideas of total war.”

Oh cripes.  Where to begin.  First.  We owe absolutely nothing to $%#! elfs or wizards who clutch secret “wisdom” (what we moderns call “useful information about the world”) to themselves for thousands of years, leaving men and women to flounder in miserable ignorance, when they might have opened a college in Lothlorien Forest, so we’d have flush toilets and palantirs on every desktop. Oh, thank God such creatures are mythological, because Tolkien himself opined that they were - in truth - the enemies of humankind.

Evidently, Wright swallows the romantic turd-wallow that things are better when knowledge is mysterious.  Or, as the wise authors of BORED OF THE RINGS put it:

                                          “Rings go better with hocus pocus.”

(All right, you have to be over 50 to get that joke.  But trust me: BORED OF THE RINGS is every bit as sagacious and insightful as the tome that it satirizes!)

Total war?  Oh man, John, you dare to lecture us about TOTAL WAR? Sorry, I do like you and you write well, but anyone who thinks we’ve gotten worse in our brutal savagery is simply a historical ignoramus.  I mean an ignoramus of historical proportions, who knows nothing of what the Assyrians did to the lost ten tribes of Israel, or the Romans to Judea, or the Mongols to Poland, or the Spanish to every native population they encountered. Or the Polynesians to each other, every year. Do you doubt that I could go on with this list? All day and all week? Can you cite counter-examples? Sure, but not many.

By comparison, ever since the heroes of the democratic enlightenment conquered Mordor… I mean toppled Hitler’s Nazi uber-romantics, who Tolkien himself diagnosed as super-examples of the nostalgic way… ever since George Marshall’s brave men of the west pounded those monsters into dust, the per capita rate of violence on planet Earth has plummeted every single decade

Don’t believe it? Watch this: Stephen Pinker on the Myth of Violence. Then ponder the most marvelous irony: that you think modernity is more violent and cruel only because modernity has succeeded in raising our standards of decent behavior, making us more self-critical about the travesties that remain.  Crimes that are so much milder than our ancestors commited routinely, without a twinge.

Oh, oh, the irony! Only… it gets richer:

But we all know, or should all know, that modern society for all its hard and metallic glories and all its cold and soaring skyscrapers, and for the miracles of moonshots and penicillin shots, and the blessings of good plumbing and the opium of twenty-four-hour television, has lost something. Anyone who does not sense or suspect that modernity is missing something, something important, has no heart and no taste for High Fantasy.”

No heart. What miserable donkey-hockey! John Wright suggests that everybody, across those dark  millennia, spent their time - while hunkering in frigid huts - thinking noble thoughts and experiencing wondrous insights of soul-expanding wisdom, instead of grunting like beasts and knifing each other for scraps.  What a reach! Based on what evidence?  Just because one priest per generation scribbled something poetical by candle light?

Good lord! Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Show us how grinding poverty and ignorance have ever elevated great numbers of human souls.  Ever.  And I mean ever. You don’t have to prove it, just show us any correlation. Any at all!

Let’s see. Who wrote - during those long, awful centuries - the fine, poetically wise things that John Wright admires?  From Augustine to Aquinas to Assisi… to Maimonides, Lao Tze and Buddha?  Aristocrats, all!  Men who had free time and plenty of food and access to every scrap of “media” available during their era.  And yes, the low-brow media too, that Aristotle and Archimedes and Socrates all enjoyed, attending every bawdy play they possibly could.  As did Shakespeare, Goethe and Voltaire.

So… because there is vastly more media crap around today, that means we should ignore how much more good stuff we also have at-hand? Every glimmer of wisdom that survived the burning of the Alexandrine Library or being hidden in wizard grimoires is now available.  And those who choose to explore it all now can.

Um, instead of proclaiming that poverty and ignorance made our ancestors wise… perhaps… might one venture to suggest an alternative, vastly more realistic hypothesis? That as we increase the percentage of humanity who have surfeited bellies and disposable incomes and free time, then perhaps we might also see a commensurate increase in the percentage who feel the stirring of God’s Second Greatest Gift? 

What gift am I talking about? One that comes in close-behind compassionate love?  The attribute that comes nearest to making us just like God....

The gift called curiosity.

Oh, sure, the fraction who engage in wonder, while trawling today’s internet, is far from a majority.  Perhaps it always will be. But to deny that the number who actually ponder and wonder and who compassionately care about the suffering of those who dwell very far away is vastly, profoundly, overwhelmingly greater than it used to be, during epochs of tooth-and-claw, is just plain pathetic.

Is there more diversity in their glimpses of the sublime? Do these millions who are liberated by modernity contemplate—and argue over—a wider range of marvelous thoughts than just the virgin birth? Sure! Does that make us lesser beings, as John Wright presumes? Or does it perhaps make us incrementally more like the God who conceives an entire cosmos, filled with marvelous contradictions? The latter, you betcha.

Lost something? John are you serious?  Trotting out the old “lost something” cliche?

John Wright beckons us with the sweet-sick smugness of the Zero Sum Game.  The notion that we cannot gain the treasures of modernity without giving away something precious in return.  A sourpuss idee fixee that was well-distilled by Walt Whitman in his despicable poem: “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” As if the man of science does not also stare skyward, in wonder. Take it from this “learn’d astronomer”: you can scrutinize the cosmos and stare at it in aesthetic joy. You can do both.

Pause. visit this brief symphony, this aria to science. 

It is this rejection of the Enlightenment’s Positive Sum Game that makes an ingrate of John Wright.  And ingratitude—toward the generations who strove so hard to lift their children, one rung at a time, to better and more sagacious lives—is the most churlish human habit. This is not reverence of our ancestors, but the most atrocious way to insult them!

In contrast, I am the one here who honors the men and women of the middle ages, along with all the brutal centuries that both preceded and followed.  I honor them because I admit and avow that, amid all of that horror, some of them built more than they tore down, That - amid terror and ignorance - they succeeded at a grand and noble project. To conceive and labor and give birth - generation by slow generation - to a marvel. To a miracle.  To us.

We are the crowning glory - so far - of their hard strivings. Moreover, the geas that this lays upon us - to raise kids who are better still - is the greatest duty and burden we could possibly take upon our backs. It’s what we owe them.

Oh, sure, I recognize this snarky grouchiness as what it is… part of today’s viciously treasonous phenomenon called “culture war.” It all fits into a tsunami of know-nothing rage expressed by the Murdochians, their anti-science, anti-progress rejection of all possibility of human improvability. Their hatred of this spectacular civilization that Ben Franklin and George Marshall and so many other heroes helped us build with our own hands. Their blatant putsch to re-establish feudalism.

But let me make plain that this is not a matter of mere politics alone. Indeed, there are anti-tech, pastoral-mystical troglodytes on the left, as well!

No, it goes far beyond mere politics. This fever is an immune response against modernity, by a portion of our genes that arose out of the harems of feudal lords. The dank, pitiable part of our human soul that yearns for hierarchy and prim order and mystically secretive gate-keepers of knowledge.  A spiteful grudge against modernity’s level playing field and wide-open frontier of opportunity.

If I might borrow and adapt a metaphor from H.G. Wells—although today’s major villains are the murdochs, there is plenty of the same sickness among our eloi friends on the other side. This isn’t left-versus-right. It is about personality.

The crime, the betrayal of hope, is identical at both extremes. It lies in their cultish mystifying and worshipping - without a scintilla’s evidence or proof - a golden past that irrefutably wasn’t, and a cruel darkness that only now is parting from before our eyes.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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Amen, amen and thank you, Brother David Brin.

Aside from that, Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?
Dave, you may be a contrarian, but you don’t mess around as so many of them do; this is a good one, because it goes right to the heart of romanticism without going on too long about it. The shortness of life is a major key. Though we today live almost 2x (say roughly 79 yrs. for women, 77 for men) longer than pre-moderns, it is of course for transhumanists merely a start; not forgetting the so-called ‘Golden’ years are woefully declining years for all but the most diligently health conscious—not to mention genetically endowed.
And such is an understatement.
So, frankly, why shouldn’t less intelligent/more sentimental people want to retreat into the past? a simpler past where God was Right, and ethics was in black and white, not shades of gray. To young ‘turks’ the axiom might be die young stay pretty; to the sentimental elderly it might be die after four score years and hang on tightly to your piety, though it goes without saying many are not nearly as pious as they pretend to be—a given.
Another given, perhaps the most salient platitude in examining progress, is ‘some factors have improved, some have not’. Well, naturally cool smile
In the late ‘60s I saw a book on a shelf in the library: ‘The Immortalist’, the author having undeservedly faded from the public’s and my memory; perhaps because he was cynical. Yet a cynic can be quite on-target, and ‘The Immortalist’ was right on the money. I was too young to understand the ramifications of immortalism, however not long after reading ‘The Immortalist’, I saw a quote form some other book, a religious book pining for the Dead Old Days when men were men and sheep were sheep, or something. A brilliant writer afflicted with the melodramatic classical style of Solzenitsyn. The author wrote,
as long as people are mortal, they will hate each other.”
Maybe I’m too sensitive, but that pronouncement sank all the way to the core and has never left my waking or sleeping consciousness.

So I won’t comment that we still live in feudalism only that is rules by corporations rather than Kings…

I agree with you that trying to go back to some fuzzy story of good times doesn’t make sense, though reactionaries have done so since a certain people spent 40 years complaining that slavery under a certain other people wasn’t all that bad.

I think we need to push past simple measurement of violence to look at positive measure of total wellbeing. Not to say that we haven’t come a ways since impalement and burning at the stake as methods of persuasion, but it is time to take the next step.

We can’t rest on our laurels just yet.

I’ve noticed that the zombie apocalypses popular now display a generally favorable view of working people. Usually the ruling elites in government, the military and business either cause the apocalypse inadvertently, say through the accidental release of a bioweapon; or else the apocalypse happens for reasons beyond their control, and they get zombified or killed in the ensuing chaos.

That leaves a vacuum where the lower status males from blue collar or rural backgrounds have to assume leadership of the survivors, especially the guys who know how to repair automobiles, hook up generators, shoot guns, live off the land and so forth - rather like the people in the Discovery Channel’s lineup of reality series, in fact. The urban white collar people, except for nurses & physicians, discover that their skills and former social positions have become useless in the zombie apocalypse; an attorney can’t exactly threaten the zombies with a restraining order, or an IRS agent with an audit, or their employer before their zombification with pink slips.

In other words, zombie apocalypses assume that we already live in a hierarchical society, with plenty of people at the bottom who feel unappreciated and not able to live to their full potential. ZA’s postulate that it requires a clean sweep of society’s dominant white collar males to give the lower status males a chance.

I tend to think that those who pine for a simpler time are themselves simple (pejoratively so). Nothing like taking the long view from the comfortable perch of a 21st century desktop. I think that this tendency to ignore progress on all fronts in favor of demonizing the present is a particularly religious foible, for the religious are those that feel we all deserve to be utterly wiped out for our criminal failure to be godlike. Akin to nuking an entire city for one rape that occurred, this diabolical refusal to admit that there is anything about modernity worth the struggles to achieve it shows a lack of compassion - dare I say morality? Religion may not poison everything, as Hitchens concludes, but it definitely taints our view of ourselves and demands a humility at odds with our achievements.

It isn’t a particular sin of religion to pine for simpler times, but it does seem to be a rallying cry of a certain segment of religiosity at this time. There is a large part of the business community that looks back on the days when they could pay slave wages and have people hanging around looking for any work at all. They are trying to bring it back through the “right to work” legislation which effectively will turn the clock back the better part of a century.

First of all, it annoys me that so many people blame religion and faith for so many things.  It’s very ignorant towards what religion and faith is supposed to be (though I admit that most of that blame results form those who horribly misrepresent it).  Secondly, I don’t see why its bad for people to aspire to simpler (more accurately easier) times.  They may desire it because everything nowadays seems so unbearably complex.  Our systems, our technology, and above all our problems.  Even if we do gain some cognitive enhancement, we’re only bound to create even more complex problems.  I don’t know about you guys but complexity can be very maddening. As for being “godlike”, I quote a line from The techno-Human Condition by Braden R. Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz: “We are as gods? No. for we have created the power but not the mind.”  And from what have learned from history and observed from the present, we probable don’t deserve such power because we are terrible at wielding it.  As for immortality, I fail to see how that would stop people from hating each other.  Besides, it would still take a bullet in the head (or a deadly computer virus or powerful E.M.P if you plan on becoming a technological being) to end your life.  Regarding the zombie Apocalypse popularity, I think its more because of what it appeals to and what it represents.  The zombies represent many of our fears and negatives (contagion, consumption, apocalypse, the mystery & horror of death, personal bodily decay, violence, home invasion, strangers, conformity, anarchy…) and the survivors appeals to the things that makes us feel brave and strong (solidarity, appreciation for living, the fragility of civilization, primal re-connectivity…).

The last part was based off a section of an informative web comic that talked about why many people are into horror (I’m personally not).  And for the record, I’m 20.

Oh, I forgot to give the link to the web-comic if any of you wanted to see it.  It’s very interesting.

I thought this was an interesting take on zombies and politics

Chris, there will always be people who prefer blaming religion as if it were the cause of the world’s ills instead of one of the casualties. It is fashionable to sneer at churches, laugh at synagogues and shudder at mosques, but no one really examines the underlying faith assumptions of neo-liberal economics. I mean really, experts wring their hands saying that austerity is diametrically the wrong thing to do, that budget cuts and abandoning the poor is going to make things worse. Real life events bear them out, but governments the world wide still make the budget cuts and dig their graves deeper. Why? Unexamined faith in the veracity of their theories. It isn’t the religions that are going to destroy our civilization it is the economists and their pet governments. It is easy to rebel against the religious, less easy to challenge the fundamental way the world doesn’t work.

what Hank wrote months ago concerning “imbeciles” still holds. Clergy, theologians, are educated, worth knowing; however imbecile Christians are not- and they are the majority, the grass roots. I personally will accept the positive determinism of religion, if the religious will accept the randomness of existence. If a breed of apes had become extinct millions of years ago, we wouldn’t be here to write endless comments speculating on religion.
IMO God does exist internally, in the mind. For the individual, God might be the superego; for the masses God may very well be the collective unconscious.
Overall, it appears religion is rightwing (or if that is harsh, ‘conservative’) socialism: houses of worship and other religious organizations can often work together more readily than businesses.

@ Mark:
“especially the guys who know how to repair automobiles”

And where do the auto parts come from? abandoned warehouses? besides, one might be too busy looking for food and medicine to do anything else.

... “It’s very ignorant towards what religion and faith is supposed to be (though I admit that most of that blame results form those who horribly misrepresent it).”

Well there you go, Chris.

“No one wants to die at thirty, half a mile from where he was born, unless of course he likes his home, and any patient would prefer antibiotics to leeches, I grant you. But man does not live by bread alone, or even by jet travel and space age medicine. We paid the price to enjoy the mixed blessings of the modern day, and something beyond the price we paid was lost, something precious.”

It is a trade-off; in fact one might say we do gain the world and lose our souls—but where do we go from there?
All he does is validly state that we lose spirituality in pursuit of modernity—scarcely an original sentiment: millions of writers wrote the same thing in the 19th century.

Intomorrow (wern’t you originally postpost?)

For the gaining the world and loses your soul, I quote C. S. Lewis’ from his book The Abolition of Man. “It is the magician’s bargain: give up our souls, have power in return.  But one our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us.  We shall in fact be puppets of that to which we have given up our souls.  It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgements of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will.”  Before any of you claim that religion and faith is a puppeteer, I must make it clear that they, particularly the Christian faith, is better described as using libertarian paternalism: giving people a choice while trying to lead them in the right direction.  As for self, there is a comment from another thread that makes very good points about it’s existence (though a bit lengthy).  credits to Peter Bishop.

“Philosophers, like scientists, need to take a reductionist approach to their inquiries. Early humans lived in a world imbued with mystery and magic, beyond understanding. Modern physics has brought us back to a world that rubs our noses in mystery whether we like it or not, but we came to curved space-time and quantum mechanical uncertainty by way of a reductionist analysis of physics, first flattening and simplifying it, and then seeing (rigorously, for the first time) the ways that it really does defy understanding.

Surely philosophy of mind is going through a similar process. There are three things areas I see in your article where it seems to me like the “Newtonians” of philosophy have yet to account for the mind’s equivalents of curved space-time and quantum uncertainty. I want to consider three things I don’t see addressed in J. Hughes’ article: (1) that “memory” is nowhere near as simple a thing as John Locke regarded it, (2) that much of our identity is unconscious, and (3) that our identities can transcend our individuality. Finally (4) I want to make an argument for the primacy of experience (which is not quite the same thing as memory) in considering identity.

1. Would I still be me if I lost my memory?

John Locke considers memory to be the basis of identity. I remember being who I was as a child, and when I am old I will remember being who I am now, so all three are the same person. Therefore, saving for retirement is rational behavior on my part. This suggests to philosophers like Kutzweil (and to numerous science fiction writers) that if I upload my memories to a computer as I am dying, and that computer remembers having lived in a human body, then that computer is still me. For me, this highlights one of the biggest oversimplifications of philosophers: they often describe memory (and all knowledge) as a narrative or a story—something that can be encoded in language in its entirety. If the computer remembers the narrative of my life, including the upload, then it is still me.

My grandmother lived with us from when she was 93 until she died at age 97. During that time, she had significant dementia and progressively lost huge amounts of her memory, yet there were underlying personality traits that persisted. My wife described this as her “basic kindness.” One can imagine a situation in which my grandmother’s memories had been uploaded to a computer, the computer would remember the process, identify with the earlier memories, and regard itself as my grandmother, and yet the underlying mental and emotional habits would be those of a computer, while my grandmother, though lost in a world she did not recognize and surrounded by loved ones she no longer knew, retained her instinctive habits of interaction with other people. Which one would be more “real”?

Parfit uses England as a metaphor for an individual person. “The self exists only insofar as an entity like England exists – it has a physical history and on top of that an evolving set of cultural groups and political institutions. Any attempt to definitely say that England began at a particular time and constitutes a specific set of people and institutions would simply be an arbitrary fiction.” Yet, like my grandmother, England has habits of being that will persist even if its recorded history and cultural institutions are erased. English schoolchildren may learn as much about China’s conquest of Tibet as they do about Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, but they live with the consequences of the latter in ways they never will of the former. The English and Irish would continue to regard one another with a certain degree of mistrust even if all the history books were burned and all the parliaments abolished. (Look at the ways that inter-ethnic hatreds resurfaced in eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.) In fact, even if England were completely depopulated and new settlers moved in, certain distinctly “English” qualities would remain. England would always be an island, close to the continent, damp and chilly but with mild winters. A major city would likely be built on the banks of the Thames even if all trace of London were eradicated, because the river makes a natural port and an island nation will necessarily be a maritime nation. The land will leave its imprint on the new people, and in some ways at least they will come to resemble the old. Parfit sees (correctly) that “England” can be seen as a fiction…but from your summary, it looks like he stops there. England is much more than its continuous history and culture. So was my grandmother.

2. Is my “self” really only to be considered the part of me that I’m aware of?

I read an article recently in which neuroscientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) to monitor the brains of test subjects, and found that they could see simple decisions being made in the brain before the subjects themselves were even aware of it. The writer asked if this meant free will is an illusion—decisions are made by mechanistic, physical processes in the brain, and afterwards the conscious mind falsely perceives itself as making the decision. This highlights two other gross oversimplifications that I see philosophers of mind making: that the “mind” consists only of the surface layer of consciousness, and that the mind is a single, unified entity.

You don’t need to have your corpus callosum severed to have the experience of being at war with yourself—of different parts of yourself driving you toward contradictory goals. Even the thinking, rational part of the mind (the only part that most philosophers seem interested in) is not a single calculating machine. If the mind were a computer, then it would be one with lots and lots of coprocessors. Human beings can think and reason, yes, but what we really excel at is pattern recognition, and there are areas of the human nervous system (both in and out of the brain) that make this easier. Reason is a notoriously poor guide in areas of emotion, intuition, and creativity. Even something as purely rational as arithmetic involves using algorithms that we’ve seen work although we may or may not understand why, and higher math is often described as a search for mathematical beauty rather than logical certainty. Discerning meaning in a sea of chaos is a function of the unconscious layers of the mind, yet many people work at becoming more intuitive, more in touch with the unconscious. We often perceive patterns long before we understand them, and we may often make decisions on an unconscious level before that thought process rises to the level of consciousness. Does this make us less free?

Yet it is the rational and self-aware layer of consciousness that philosophers keep focusing on, to the exclusion of the rest of the human psyche. When Kutzweil imagines uploading the human mind into a computer, it seems he would upload only the conscious thinking mind with its narrative of memory and be satisfied with that.

3. When I am “true to myself,” does that mean being true to more than my individuality?

If it quacks like a duck and it walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Yet another thing that ducks do is to fly in V-formations with other ducks. Is the V-formation a characteristic of an individual duck? No. A solitary duck does not fly in any formation. The individual duck has a preference for flying with another duck ahead and a little to one side. The V-formation self-assembles as a result. Does that mean the V-formation is somehow just a convenient fiction? No. No more so than a wave in the ocean is a fiction. Individual water molecules do not move in waves, they merely bob up and down in response to forces acting upon them, yet in some sense the wave is far more real than the molecules.

Consider the way that wealth moves through human society. Concentrations of wealth self-assemble among humans much the way V-formations do among ducks. This is not always even in the enlightened self-interest of the wealthy. The CEO of a large company might find the most happiness by retiring, buying a house in the country, and hosting parties to which he invites his favorite artists, writers, and performers. Yet few of them do that, preferring instead to pursue the game of acquisition for its own sake, far beyond the point where increasing wealth actually increases happiness. I see a similar dynamic with military honor among soldiers and cycles of violence that escalate out of anyone’s control. You could also describe Quakers’ corporate discernment of the will of God the same way; a Higher Power guiding us to inward serenity and enlightened action could be seen as self-assembling around the gathered body of worshippers. Even if that were the only thing happening in gathered worship (which most Quakers would dispute) it would still not be fictional. It is a lived experience, as real as a wave in the ocean.

And what does this have to do with individual identity? The soldier may say he cannot be true to himself unless he defends his honor, avenges his fallen comrades, strikes back at the enemy who has so insulted him. The Quaker feels most fully himself when he finds his way to unity with God and with the gathered body of worshippers. And the CEO feels personally injured when taxes on billionaires threaten to limit his income, even if he himself is only a multimillionaire and not directly affected. I am me. I am also one of us. My continuity is not just with my own memories; it is with the shared stories of all of those with whom I identify. Much that is unfortunate in human history stems from this fact, but also much that is worthwhile.

And also, what of mental phenomena that are passed down through evolutionary time? Memories are recorded in neurons and result from the brain’s adaptation to experiences within a single lifespan. But there is another kind of memory, one that is recorded in the genome and results from a species’ adaptation to experiences over many generations. Is this kind of continuity any less real? Granted, it is below the level of consciousness and it is spatially discontinuous. But does that make it unreal?

I once read an evolutionary biologist talking about different reproductive strategies depending on whether an organism reproduces slowly (like at oak tree) or quickly (like dandelions). He pointed out something that is not immediately obvious: In a field of dandelions, every individual may be genetically identical. Therefore, the entire field could be considered as one organism, though spatially discontinuous. Considered as such, it falls into the category of a slowly reproducing organism, and indeed its reproductive strategy (as one population of dandelions engenders another population in a new location) is observed to match those of other slow-reproducers.

The boundaries of self vs. non-self have changed profoundly over the course of evolution, first when prokaryotic cells began to live endosymbiotically, becoming organelles living together as parts of eukaryotic cells, and again when single-celled organisms joined into colonies and then became true multicellular organisms. The evolution of self-awareness is only the latest in a series of profound shifts in the definition of “self.”

I look at my dog. He has a certain way of tilting his head, a certain hypnotic stare when he looks back at me. And it is the same stare I see in border collies, which makes me think he has some border collie in him. And that also makes me wonder about the ways in which all border collies can be considered to make up, in some sense, a single mind, spatially divided and with different memories and experiences, but still sharing common thought processes, continuous with each other not through uninterrupted awareness but through evolutionary heritage. I see him play with a bone, reaching out preferentially with his right forepaw to manipulate it, and I think about my own right-handedness and I wonder how much he and I are part of the same organism—how much my mind and my thoughts are continuous with his.

4. Beam me up, Scotty!

Of the four theories of identity that you list (ego, psychological continuity, materialist, and no-self) none entirely satisfy. I suppose I am closest to the psychological continuity theory, but with a strong emphasis on the extreme, almost infinite complexity of the “pattern.” But there is something fundamental missing from all of them. None of the theories actually address the nature of consciousness.

Consciousness is not the same as memory. My pocket calculator has memory. It is smaller and simpler than the memories I store in my brain, but in general it is the same kind of thing. But there is nothing in the calculator analogous to consciousness.

Consciousness is not the same as thought, not even self-referential thought. A computer can be programmed to regard itself objectively, mapping the world around it and placing in that map a marker to represent “self.” That computer may make decisions to optimize the attainment of goals by that “self.” But that does not make the computer conscious.

Up until now I’ve been downplaying the importance of conscious awareness. I am now going to make a plug for its primacy. Consider the transporters on Star Trek. Imagine that these fictional devices operate exactly as portrayed in the TV show: matter is converted into energy, beamed across great distances, and then reassembled remotely. Obviously (though it is never mentioned on the show) energy cannot be the only thing beamed. A pattern for reassembly must also be transmitted. Imagine being the inventor of the transporter beam. You test it first on inanimate objects, and they reappear exactly as they were. Next you test it on animals. They materialize with not just the same mass and physical structures, but alive, with all the complicated processes of metabolism still in motion. Now you are ready to test it on a human subject. You step onto the transporter pad, and just as you are about to energize, someone asks you, “Is the animal that materialized really the same animal that was sent? Or is it an exact copy, and the original animal actually died?” This question may not matter to us if we are looking at the animal from the outside. Even if it is a beloved pet, the animal stepping out of the transporter still looks and acts like the original, still comes bounding up to you to nuzzle you until you scratch its ear. But now it’s you that’s about to be beamed away. And you might conclude that, don’t be silly, of course it’s still the original animal, and you will go ahead and energize. And when you step out at the other end, you have all the original’s memories, so you give me a smug look and say, “See? Still me.” But I bet you hesitated for at least a fraction of a second before energizing. Why? Does it really matter if the original you died and a new, exact copy was made in its place?

Hell yes. Because even if that new you goes on to live the rest of what would have been your life, you aren’t there to enjoy it.

One may argue that the self was only ever a fiction in the first place, but even a philosopher who believes this will acknowledge that the fiction is a very convincing one. He might argue that any identification of the present self with the future self is illusory, yet if I kick him in the shins and then move as if to do it again, he will flinch away. Who then has won the argument?

I want to suggest that the experience of having a “self” is not an illusion. Instead, the ability to have experiences is what defines a self. This ability probably can’t exist independently of a physical brain, so I do not subscribe to the ego theory of mind. We can experience the world even if we do not remember those experiences, so I can’t fully accept the psychological continuity theory. It’s not about correlation either—multiple identical copies of my may be materialized by a malfunctioning transporter, but as soon as they appear, they begin having their own experiences—so Parfit’s materialist theory doesn’t satisfy. And yet there certainly is something that I experience as myself. It will always be there when I look for it. Piaget would say it has object permanence. Theories that regard it as existing will predict the future better than theories that regard it as illusory.

The origin of consciousness seems to me to be as fundamental and as important a mystery as the origins of mass, energy, time, and space. It’s a great question to wrestle with, but we’re nowhere near an answer. “

It’s strange to hear of modernity being referred to as a ‘bargain’ we made unconsciously, giving up precious aspects of our old existence to pay for it. What is the call to rethink that bargain but sour grapes? Even the Pope has an iPad now!

one can possibly say we made and still make Faustian bargains, there are v. negative factors involved, DARPA for one, today and continuing well into the future. Everything can be produced, from baby food to WMDs. Everyone can be aided by iPads and all the rest of it: the Pope in the Vatican to a mass murderer in every drug cartel; positives are interlinked with negatives.
Am willing to accept positivism, but not gullibility—that is for Norman Vincent Peale and his,

“day by day, things are getting better and better, in every way.”

Feel-good a la mode works in church, not outside church. If those such as yourself will fully acknowledge negatives, I will acknowledge the positives… same goes with religion/spiritualism, if the religious will fully acknowledge randomness, a concordat is possible.


You make a good point.  In fact, that’s something I should have remembered for my last post (though I was just clarifying what gaining the world and losing your soul meant).  Just because someone’s religious doesn’t mean he/she should outright reject the modern world.  If fact, speaking from a Christian perspective, we should embrace it because we are able to accomplish so much more.  We reach people quicker and further, we can help them in ways that couldn’t have been done before (such as providing food and medical supplies more efficiently), and so forth.  It is only when you become obsessed with modernity that it becomes a negative thing.  You can become so glued to technology and all the negative influences (such as drugs, alcohol, sexual content, and whole bunch of other junk which is become more common place to young minds) that you end up wasting your potential as a human being.

The funny thing is that religion gets put down for the concept of original sin which is the understanding that no one is perfect. Original sin is not about sex, or about gender, or even about total obedience to God. It is about the fact that we refuse to take responsibility for our choices and prefer to let someone else pay the bill. In this context Christianity should be about helping people to claim responsibility for their lives rather than insisting that everyone stay in some kind of extended kindergarten.

The medieval concept of sin was much earthier and tended to rely on things like the ‘grand chain of being” which put Royalty and Popes etc at the top and the serfs at the bottom. The draw for lotteries is that people can imagine that they will move up the chain that still exists, though no longer explicitly.

“In this context Christianity should be about helping people to claim responsibility for their lives rather than insisting that everyone stay in some kind of extended kindergarten.”

The Bible itself is full of childish fables fit for Kindergarteners—which only makes it more charming. I accept Christianity because we are stuck with Jesus religiously for the time being, as we are stuck with Madison politically. Since religion and politics (the former gave birth to the latter) are lodged in our individual and collective subconscious it will be very long before such can be removed, thus in many ways we are all walking anachronisms—so I have reached a modus vivendi with religion in general, Christianity in particular while yet attempting to escape the clutches of its practitioners.
In other words nothing much wrong with Jesus, but His alleged representatives, power-seeking Christians, are to be avoided as much as possible. As Sir Thomas More said while unsuccessfully trying to evade the executioners ax:
“our business lies in escaping.”

.... would like to hastily add the above isn’t quite as negative as it appears in that power-seeking Christians are merely the most visible, well-known; the rest of them I have learned to deal with because:

a) of having been raised a Christian by a Methodist pastor grandfather;
b) talking to Christian women rather than men—since women don’t crave power as much.

However Sir Thomas’ dictum still holds, for now.

@ Intomorrow

In other words you would agree with Gandhi who more or less said:

I like your Christ, I just wish you Christians were more like him.

Not even that, Alex: I merely personally want to do all possible to evade power-seekers religious & political.
I don’t think we—with few exceptions*—can ever live truly moral lives—though all but sociopaths and psychopaths try to. Morals are relative to time and place, based on conventions which are continually in flux and eventually eroded. So we shouldn’t be hard on Christians. However they ought not be hard on us; for instance Christian C. shouldn’t be such a prude, it is unrealistic to expect healthy people not to have sex. Not that (as is commonly assumed) prudes are jealous, yet they assume their negative experiences are universal—which is not the case.
What we have written can be brought back on-topic. Fables may be necessary however they are still fabrications or made up out of whole cloth. David writes in part of romanticizing the past, and the past is chock-full of fables, not merely religious in nature, of course. I called up a policewoman who moonlights once a week as a radio talk show host, asking her if she felt safe off-duty. She replied her husband is a “knight in shining armor.”
Knights in shining armor are remnants of our feudal legacy. And so forth; we could go on and on. My original point is whether or not we lose our souls is a discussion which “goes nowhere”, is a nonstarter… it invariably leads to endless comments on the nature of consciousness.

*e.g. “saints”

“I think that this tendency to ignore progress on all fronts in favor of demonizing the present is a particularly religious foible, for the religious are those that feel we all deserve to be utterly wiped out for our criminal failure to be godlike.”

OK that’s a sweeping statement, but I think there’s some truth in it, in particular where Christianity is concerned.

Consider this: the doctrine of original sin is not, contrary to Alex’s claims, about taking responsibility for one’s own choices. There’s plenty in the Bible that IS about that, but original sin is basically a guilt trip, a way of saying, “God made us perfect, and then we screwed up. It’s our fault. We are bad. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Start on that track and the witch hunt begins: it’s the Jews, it’s gays, it’s women drivers. There’s something about that even in the current witch hunt against bankers. Forget about original sin. We’re imperfect because we’re descended from apes, then product of natural selection, and why should our inherited natural instincts magically correspond to our notions of morality. If they were we would have no need for morality. It’s nobody’s fault, it just is: we should accept our weakness and just try to do our best.

And then what about this Christ that Gandhi would like Christians to be more like (assuming he actually existed)? “I came to bring not peace but a sword.” How charming. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Might as well give up then. “Sell all your possessions and give to the poor.” Why the hell should I? My point: if you set the morality bar unrealistically high, then of course you will start to yearn for simpler times, and develop all kinds of neuroses. God’s stench is still with us I’m afraid.

Christians need to be honest about what their Bible actually says, just as Moslems need to be honest about what the Quran actually says. By all means go to church and draw inspiration from the good bits, but don’t try to pretend it’s something it ain’t.


Where did you get your degree in Biblical Studies?

Some people interpret Original Sin as a cosmic guilt trip, but that’s fairly passe. There is no one “right” way to read the Bible whether you are Catholic, Jew or atheist.

I can’t speak for Gandhi, but I expect he was talking about the guy who healed the sick, gave sight to the blind and fed the hungry. Jesus seemed to be a realist and saw that conflict was going to follow. As for setting the bar too high, why not? Setting it low hasn’t done us any good. The ethical standards of most people I meet seems to be “Don’t get caught.”

I don’t pretend the Bible is something it isn’t. I have been very clear in other threads about what I think it is. What I have a problem with is sweeping and uneducated statements telling me what you think it is with the underlying assumption that you must of course be right because you aren’t religious.

I don’t yearn for simpler times BTW. I don’t believe they ever existed. The problem is as soon as something is in the past we begin to cover it with gold leaf until we are sure that it was damn near perfect back then and all this new fangled stuff has done ruined it for us.

There was no perfect time. There was no time that was better than now. There was no time that was worse than now. It was just different. I happen to like the time I’m living in. My faith calls me to live in the now, not in the past or the future.

Alex, I wasn’t talking about how people interpret the Bible so much as what it actually says. I don’t have a degree in biblical studies, but I did once read it from cover to cover. Interesting experience.

As we discussed on the other thread, it is somewhat unclear whether Jesus even existed, let alone precisely what he said and did. My point is that if we judge him on the basis of the account set out in the gospels, there’s some pretty unpalatable stuff there, alongside the good stuff.

How do you read in to my comments the assumption that I must be right because I’m not religious. I’m just telling things how I see them, same as everyone else.

Nor did I claim that you, in particular, yearn for simpler times. What interested me was that an article on yearning for theist had led to another discussion about religion, and I was curious to know why. Turned out it was because of the statement quoted at the beginning of my comment, and which provoked somewhat angry responses from you and Christian C. Which I can understand, by the way. But in the process you made a claim about what original sin is “about”, which, while quite possibly being in line with modern theological doctrine within mainstream Christian denominations, doesn’t correspond very closely to what the Bible actually says on these issues. And that’s important, because a lot of people (including myself in my youth) study the Bible and look to it for inspiration, translated but uninterpreted.

Ultimately, you only need to “interpret away” the bad bits of sacred texts because you hold them to be sacred in some way. That can be an intellectual/doctrinal position (“the bible is the word of god”) or it can be more of an emotional/aesthetic attachment. Often it’s a conflation of the two. As I said on the earlier thread, part of the problem with this is that we end up paying far more attention to these texts than they deserve. Interpreting away the bad bits only exacerbates this.


You are talking about how you read the Bible. That is interpretation. Even if you read it in the original Hebrew and Greek it is interpretation. Just as it is interpretation when anybody reads something that is written by someone else. The reality is that some people are trained to interpret better than others.

You’ve read the Bible through from cover to cover. Cool, I’ve lost track of how many different versions I have read over almost thirty years of doing what I do and one and half Masters degrees on the subject.

I’m sorry, but you come across like someone who has read a little about string theory on the internet arguing with a physics professor about how it works.

As for how I get the assumption that you think you are right. The statements you are making are not “This is what I think.” which would be perfectly OK. They are “This is how it is.” Which considering your relative ignorance of the subject is not. Making broad statements disguised as facts is not being open to hearing the other side of the argument.

I have no desire to interpret away anything in the Bible. It is what it is. There are a lot of worse parts than what you point out - incest, rape, genocide, murder, and that’s just in the first few books. It is a story of how humans are. Mostly really bad, sometimes good.

Original sin is a fairly late addition to understanding of the relationship between human and God. Augustine had a lot to do with it. Before that, it was about relationship and not guilt. Of course, since you’ve read the Bible once, you must know better than I possibly could.

If you really want me to take you more seriously, I might suggest a little humility and a lot more openness to the possibility of being wrong.

Fair points Alex, to some extent. There is always a trade-off to be made between telling things how we see them and prefixing everything with, “This is what I think”. The latter certainly conveys more humility and openness to the possibility of being wrong (at least I think it does smile ) but can also be cumbersome and can lead to unnecessarily diluting one’s message.

I also take your point, to some extent, about how it is interpretation when anybody reads something that is written by someone else. For example if one reads certain bits of the Bible without any knowledge of the historical and cultural context in which the different bits of it were written,  then one is likely to interpret it badly. On the other hand, to be honest I am suspicious of the insights built up by Christian theologians over the centuries. In particular I suspect that many of them are motivated in part by a desire to shore up their own faith, and we know (at least I think we do!) that this can lead to all sorts of distortions and groupthink. Occasionally, the guy who has read a bit about string theory on the internet might come up with insights that the physics professor misses. There is groupthink in all professions, so contrarian and outsider views need to be valued and welcomed.

Another point I want to make is that certain bits of the Bible are taken more seriously and have more influence than others. This is a sociological, not a theological point, by the way. Few people use anything in the Bible to justify genocide, whereas I see all around me, including in my own family, neuroses caused in part (I suspect) by the dislocation between what people believe God expects of them and their actual, inner desires and motivations. Before Augustine there was the Garden of Eden myth, Romans 1-8, the sermon on the mount, and other oft-quoted teachings of Jesus in the gospels, such as the ones I mentioned. Once again, it is a sociological, not a theological, issue that I am discussing here: the effect that these memes have on people’s lives.

Also: the issue is not to what extent the Bible portrays evil deeds,  but to what extent it condones them.

Finally, if religion often gets put down for the concept of original sin, it is because people know the Garden of Eden story and associate it with that, not some obscure (from the standpoint of contemporary popular culture) writings of St Augustine, however influential he might have been in formalising the concept. In the mean time I still think the statement I quoted from Tim Riches’ post has some truth in it.

Alex, it’s only the visible, well known Christians I take issue with: Falwells, Robertsons, Phelps (“God hates fags”). Phelps is merely searching for publicity and donations, whereas Robertson wants power and in fact ran for POTUS. If they want to count their money, fine; however when they hear ‘Hail To the Chief’ playing in their ears they have to be watched at all times.

It’s not that you and Chris are even necessarily wrong about sin, yet just for example:
if you tell a teenager not to drink, he’ll get sloshed;
tell a teen not to smoke weed, he’ll get a medical marijuana card;
tell a teen not to have sex, he’ll boink cheerleaders.

I take issue with those people as well.

As for telling teenagers anything. You don’t wait until they are teens and suddenly try to parent them. The parenting starts before they are born with the way the parents relate to each other. It continues through modelling ethical behaviour through their childhood. By the time they are teens they know what ethical behaviour looks like and you don’t have to tell them “Don’t do this or that or the other thing.”

If you are using this as an example for the general public. The same applies. I don’t tell people how to live their lives, in spite of the reality that most people are severely ethically challenged. Actions speak much louder than words.

I haven’t responded to this thread in a while and I have a lot to say Intomorrow and Peter Wicks, though I am probable wasting my time and effort.  But I will say this, If you actually studied the bible more than once and in context of the culture at the time when it was written, you would find that it is not water down kindergarten stories (just look at Song of Songs and the old testament, several times it mentions bowels bursting and other graphic stuff) and you would understand the meaning of the verses better.  BTW Peter, you completely missed the point of the examples you gave, particularly the ones concerning selling possessions and the camel.  The Point of selling your possessions is being will to do so if God ask you too and to not let the wealth you are blessed with get in the way of your relationship with God.  As for the camel and the needle, the disciples asked a question similar to yours; “Who then can be save?” I quote Matthew 19: 26, “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  Even the most heinous of criminal can be change by the word of God.  It you want to study it more I recommend this bible study called Through the Bible with Dr. J Vernon McGee.  All I want is to have you guys have the right idea about the God (  As for the existence of Jesus, I’ve already mentioned that most critical historians agree that Jesus existed and consider events such as his baptism and crucifixion as historical.  you have the internet, the biggest source of knowledge, research him from valid sources a find out yourself.  Wikipedia is a good start as they give you sources to look up.

At the risk of overposting, there is no way, Alex, that all that much can be done in reining in teens- though naturally parents have to try. Before puberty, they can be kept from rebelling; however one has to walk a tightrope with teens: too permissive and they will harm themselves if not others; too strict and they will chafe at the bit. I’d be worried if teens did not rebel, they’d be too passive and wouldn’t be able to cope with pressures without, and inside them.

Having just finished my teen years myself, I can say that we are allowed to make our own choices but we have to remember that we are responsible for those choices.  Besides, a lot of the things we want aren’t really that good for us.  Using sex as an example, healthy sex is good and results in less social problems when within marriage, but too much of it results in the lowering of the acidic levels in the woman’s vagina and enables infection from sexually transmitted diseases that can be passed to both males and females.  Also, under-aged sex can result in premature pregnancies which can be harmful towards the mothers.  So many advisories against those things are pretty much common sense.

Also, something I forgot to mention in my last post.  We are taught that we don’t have to be helpless, but sometimes you still need to ask for help and human, technological, and scientific help won’t always cut it.

@Christian Whether you are wasting your time and effort depends on what you are trying to achieve. You say you want us to have “the right idea about God”, but who are you to say what “the right idea about God” actually is? What evidence is there that such an entity exists? (As for Jesus, I looked at the Wikipedia entries - in fact I referenced them on the earlier thread - and I’m inclined to agree that he probably did. But the truth is we don’t really know.)

I also want to respond to Alex’s comment that most people are “severely ethically challenged”. This sounds a bit supercilious to me. In a sense we are ALL ethically challenged: like I said above, if we were naturally good we wouldn’t need morality. If we are going to judge others then let’s at least be clear about the criteria on which we are judging them.

So Alex: what criteria are you using when you claim that most people are severely ethically challenged?

“Using sex as an example, healthy sex is good and results in less social problems when within marriage, but too much of it results in the lowering of the acidic levels in the woman’s vagina and enables infection from sexually transmitted diseases that can be passed to both males and females. Also, under-aged sex can result in premature pregnancies which can be harmful towards the mothers.”

Before returning on-topic at the end, Chris, though this isn’t the Dr. Ruth blog, one (not The) solution is ‘bots, that way a debutante doesn’t get pregnant and no abortion ever results from adolescent monkey business.
However it is indicative of what Hank wrote concerning Christian imbeciles who react against ‘bots: “robots aren’t Godly and natural and…”
Sob, boo hoo downer
So herpes and teen pregnancy are Godly and natural?

The possibilities opening up now are encouraging, so to Hell with the Dead Old Days.

@ Intomorrow

My point was that you don’t tell the teens anything. You teach it long before they are teens.

@ Peter

Morals are the assumptions we make about right and wrong. Most of the time we go on our gut feelings or on what is going to make us feel good. You can see this if you look at postings on news articles where posters fall into several categories. The troll who is out to cause trouble, the folks who follow the majority even if the majority shifts, the people who are posting their own opinion as fact regardless of what anyone else says. There are very few who show that they actually are thinking about the ethics of the situation.

Ethics is about thinking. It isn’t synonymous with morals though most people use it that way. Ethical thinking means that we consider as many sides of an issue as possible and think through the consequences before making a decision.

There are two basic forms of ethics, rule based and result based. The rule based ethics says that the rules are the rules and we just need to apply them correctly. The problem is when rules are in conflict and we need to decide what order to apply the rules. Most people assume that religious people are automatically rule based ethical organizations, but this isn’t necessarily true.

Results based, or utilitarian ethics, is about the final outcome. What is going to be best for the largest number of people. The conflict is between competing outcomes that are significantly different for different groups. A mining company may suggest that a new mine is ethical because it is benefiting their shareholders even though it is destroying the ecology and livelihood of those who live near it.

Practically most ethics are a bit of a blend between the two. The defining characteristic is that one has to THINK. It is a rare thing to see people actually think about both sides of an issue before they decide.

Thanks Alex. Personally I don’t draw such a stark contrast between “morals” and “ethics”, but I’m happy to work with those definitions for the purposes of this discussion.

There’s another problem with utilitarianism, namely that without rules as a shortcut you would need to do a cost-benefit analysis every time you went to the bathroom. Hence rule utilitarianism, which with suitable caveats is my preferred ethical framework. (Though as I’ve said repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere I regard this as a matter of choice rather than of truth.)

From this utilitarian standpoint I think you put a tad too much emphasis on thinking. Emphasising the need to think and see both sides of the story is great for intellectuals like us to feel better about ourselves, but it can also be a recipe for inaction, so I would be a bit less harsh on the kneejerkers. You just can’t expect everyone to be that reflective.

That being the case, what I think we need to be doing is fostering behavioural and thought patterns that are conducive, in the long run (where by in the long run, taking into account Keynes’ famous, albeit possibly false, dictum, I mean as far as we can reasonably predict the consequences of our actions) to the best outcomes, once we have agreed what they are.

So back to the topic, or at least to the statement that I quoted at the top of my first comment on this thread: the claim, which I was tentatively supporting, is that the tendency to ignore progress on all fronts in favour of demonising the present is a particularly religious foible, for the religious are those who feel we all deserve to be utterly wiped out for our criminal failure to be godlike. Obviously this is an overstatement, but I still believe, based on my experience, observation and reflection over the years, that the Christian memes I have discussed in my comments here tend to have this effect, and it is an effect I observe less in non-religious people (except perhaps deep ecologists). This is basically the point I wanted to make. It is an empirical claim, quite possibly dubious - I certainly don’t have facts and figures to back it up - but one that I felt was with making, even though it obviously annoyed you.

@ Peter

I won’t argue Christian memes with you, but you really should try to get your memes from people who don’t have a political axe to grind. The entire focus of the gospel if you leave out all the accretions of people trying to force it into a political mould is that people are loved. We succeed and we’re loved, we fail and we’re loved. Christian living should be about living out that realization which is why at the root it isn’t about rules or doctrine but relationship.

I am not suggesting that we do a cost/benefit analysis on everything we do. I am suggesting that we stop and think once in a while. There are some surprising things to learn out there. The highest part of a tomato’s carbon footprint? The drive to and from the grocery store to buy it, regardless of whether it is local or imported from the other side of the world. The choice between using a paper towel or a cloth to clean up is less important than whether we use hot or cold water and how long we leave the tap running.

It is examining these kinds of issues once in a while that strengthens our ethical muscles for the big issues when they come our way.

“My point was that you don’t tell the teens anything. You teach it long before they are teens.”

No, you attempt to teach them, but if they really want to do something, they will do so regardless of what parents/guardians want—unless the teens in question are weak-willed. The appetites within teens, plus the temptations without, are in combination too much for them to resist. It is ‘get it while you can’- whatever *it* may be. It almost appears you are a behaviorist, Alex.
All my life I have been serving two masters, the past, and also the future; but no more. One cannot serve two masters, so now the choice is the future—
and the future does not include BF Skinner or Paul of Tarsus.

“The defining characteristic is that one has to THINK. It is a rare thing to see people actually think about both sides of an issue before they decide.”

But isn’t spirituality from the ‘heart’, Alex, not the mind? perhaps the majority of people don’t think about both sides of an issue because they don’t think much to begin with. A handyman isn’t thinking about using fossil fuels to buy his tomato, because he is thinking about a Happy Meal at McDonalds at lunchtime. Most people are too busy thinking about themselves and their families to think about much else.
You say it is because we are loved? IMO we live in a world of hate, which is why spirituality is so important- at least for many. By being ‘spiritual’, we can escape the world of hate and live—in our minds—in a world of love; as long as we don’t mistake our spiritual world for the world outside.
In a house of worship, one can be in a world of love; but as soon as one walks outside the house of worship one is back in the world of hate.
At any rate, if there is a future for religion, then I accept spirituality/religion; if religion is the past, then forget it.

@ Intomorrow

You have a gift for missing the point. It isn’t about forcing our progeny into molds, or following behaviourist thought. It is about raising young adults who know how to think critically about the decisions they make. It is possible, and it is possible without making weak willed young adults. There are some teens who live as you suggest, but I would suggest that they are the weak willed who bend to the slightest amount of peer pressure.

The future will be a scary place if we can’t teach ethical and critical thought to the next generation.

Sorry Alex, but I know the gospels quite well - I studied them *a lot* in my youth - and their entire focus is not that people are loved. They are a lot more complex than that. The synoptic ones essentially tell a story, but a story with a purpose, namely the foundation of a new religion. They are essentially a hagiography, something like if someone from the Chinese Communist Party were to write the life of Chairman Mao. (Come to think of it, they probably already have. I prefer to read Jung Chang on the subject.) The author of John’s gospel is even more explicit about his intentions: he has written it so we may have eternal life. And what is the condition for eternal life? That we “believe in Jesus”, i.e. that we adhere to the new religion. This is not a meme that was invented by contemporary politicos, it is there, in black and white, in the gospel. And it is pernicious. By suggesting that the Bible is something other than it is you are misleading people, and exposing them to, while failing to innoculate them against, these dangerous memes.

Alex, for someone who values seeing both sides of the story so highly you seem extraordinarily unreceptive to seeing the other side of this one.

@ Peter

Yes, there is a lot of stuff in the Gospels, and they are all very different in the audience there are aimed at and the goals they have. Still, if you look at the kingdom parables they talk about radical inclusiveness, if you look at Luke 15 you see radical forgiveness and reconciliation. When asked what is the most important commandment, Jesus answers with “Love God, love others, love yourself” (My paraphrase). The commandment given to the disciples in the vineyard in John 15, “Love one another”.

Yes, Jesus asks his followers to believe in him, but as person who points to God. He never claims to replace God. Believe as we use it is an over simplification of a word Pistevo, in the Greek that can mean believe, but also suggests trust, clinging to, faith, reliance; all words that require a relationship.

There is a lot of stuff in the Gospels about the church, because they were written for the church and some of the information was slanted because of that audience. Jesus himself probably wasn’t thinking “New Religion”, in fact in places he explicitly aligns himself with the old religion. “I have come to fulfill the Law”.

The Bible has been used since before it was written to excuse horrible things. Christianity was co-opted and used to reinforce a crumbling Roman Empire. It became for centuries both the rod and the carrot to keep people in line. In the process committing terrible atrocities.

Religion continues to used as a meme to justify atrocities such as abuse of the LGBT community and the hatred of people who are different. The problem is that the more you push against those who use religion in this way the stronger they get. They play the “persecution” card and get more sympathy and more followers.

I have considered a world without faith because real faith isn’t certainty as much as some people would like to label it so. my faith as in any relationship there are good times, but also times when I really wonder why I bother.

I would agree that the memes you talk about are dangerous, but the best way to inoculate someone against a meme is to teach them to think critically about memes in general. While you say that you studied the Gospels in your youth, I suspect that you studied them in a particular context. That context informs the way you view them, just as context informs the way you would read Jung Chang.

@ Intomorrow

“We live in a world of hate.”

Only if we choose to do so. I don’t.

Thanks Alex, that’s constructive. Indeed I studied the gospels in a particular context (basically an evangelical Christian one), and doubtless this made emphasis certain bits more than others. We were also taught that Christianity was about love - an idea that sometimes seems extraordinarily absent from some manifestations, as you and others have pointed out - but it was clear that it was about other things as well.

One final comment on this thread - then I’ll focus on my latest Europe article smile - I do not see faith and scepticism as antagonistic, we need both. Nor am I implacably opposed to the concept of God. I guess I just think it’s more important to be ethical, in the sense(s) we’ve been discussing, than to “believe” (in God, that is. We all have to believe in something).

Before returning on-topic (David’s piece is a good one):

“The future will be a scary place if we can’t teach ethical and critical thought to the next generation.”

Here we are in agreement yet it goes without saying what and whose ethics, and what and whose criticism. As conditions change radically, ethics will also change radically; ethics will have to be revamped to reflect the changes.

“Only if we choose to do so. I don’t [choose to live in a world of hate]”

We don’t always a choice in such matters, for starters we pay taxes of which some sums are used for ‘defense’; and war and war preparation are manifestations of hatred. Youths are required to at least register for military conscription, plus in some nations youths are still drafted. Many hold investments in ‘defense’ industries. How can we actually separate ourselves from hate and its attendant warfare? not yet we can. So you & I may not consciously choose hate, albeit we are connected in some way to hate and are culpable… to their credit something Christians have always understood.
If it is guilt by association in this case such is a valid association.

David gets it that pining for the Dead Old Days can be an unmitigated negative. The medieval period might be considered practically synonymous with Christian history; the ages from Constantine’s institutionalization of Christianity up until the Enlightenment are almost the history of Christianity and the West
—at least by our Western-orientation. My question is: will present-day religion in particular, and ethics in general be ‘transferable’ to the future. IMO, no way.

As I said above, I’m not pining for some golden age that never was, I’m not even pining for the days when I had hair. What I did say is that the pining for the past age, or the preservation of the present “golden age” is not limited to religion.

The medieval European age is indeed strongly connected to Christian history. We are thankfully breaking free of the notion of a church entitlement to anything. During the same period there was plenty going on that had nothing to do with the church or Christianity. We have to be careful to remember that European history is not world history, though the schools tend to teach it like it was.

I doubt that present day religion will last much more than twenty years. People are less and less interested in being told what to believe. Religion and faith will continue in some form past that, though what it will look like I don’t know.

As for ethics, I certainly hope that ethics will carry into the future or we will be in very deep trouble. Mark Coeckelbergh’s piece in JET implies that we will continue to experience vulnerability even in non biological form. Vulnerability will mean the need for ethics to manage the interface of our vulnerability with that of others.

The implementation of ethics may change, but the foundational understanding of human interaction won’t change that much. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a bull that we know is dangerous, or a car that we know is unsafe, or a program that we know will cause disruption, we are responsible for our choices and the consequences of those choices.

I choose not to live in a world of hate in the same way I choose not to wish I were living in “simpler” times. Yes the world is broken, people hate, people die. I work to heal, to love, to resurrect possibilities.  Often it gets me into trouble, but I’m used to it. What I refuse to do is just give up and become a cynic or a misanthropist.

“As for ethics, I certainly hope that ethics will carry into the future…”

But whose ethics? Mother Theresa’s or Leona Helmsly’s?
Nancy Reagan’s or Bob Marley’s?
Joan d’ Arc’s or Larry Flynt’s?

None of them have their own set of ethics. Rather they chose or allowed the world to choose for them the rules for their lives. Ethics isn’t, or shouldn’t be, like a pair of shoes that you wear for a while then change for a different pair.

If I get to choose whose ethics get carried forward into the future I would respectfully suggest mine. It is about time we started taking our responsibilities as intelligent beings seriously.

I know I said I’d made my last comment on this thread, but…...

“Ethics isn’t, or shouldn’t be, like a pair of shoes that you wear for a while then change for a different pair.”

Fundamentally, I think it is. Like I said above, it is, or at least seems to me to be, a matter of choice rather than of truth. From my own consequentialist perspective, it basically boils down to a question: “What kind of world do we want to live in?”

“If I get to choose whose ethics get carried forward into the future I would respectfully suggest mine.”

Indeed, who wouldn’t? smile

“It is about time we started taking our responsibilities as intelligent beings seriously.”

Hmm, this is back to the “most people are severely ethically challenged” meme. I’m still sceptical Alex. It’s not that I disagree, but we really need to go beyond this, don’t we? Preferably (from my perspective) without bringing the gospels into it. We briefly discussed utilitarianism above, and I indicated that, for me, and with suitable caveats, rule utilitarianism is the way to go. “Maximising happiness for all” has its limitations, but to be honest I haven’t really come across anything better, either in the gospels or elsewhere. And I still think we need to guard against condescension towards those less naturally intellectual/reflective than ourselves.

“Ethics isn’t, or shouldn’t be, like a pair of shoes that you wear for a while then change for a different pair.”

Yes, shouldn’t.
After the sterility of the last decade, I’m losing all interest in the past, whether the year is last year or year of the Diet of Worms, or when Louis XIV expelled the Protestants… it is becoming too academic. What is interesting is the possibility of transforming from homo sapien 1.0 to 2.0 and beyond.
Alex, you are the sort of pastor who would be worth going to church for. Yet you are a rare breed, I have only ever met one priest (Catholic) who was worth even so much as chatting with- and that is because he suffered a great deal as a medic in Vietnam and had nothing to lose. He is a Berrigan brothers-type of radical priest who lays it completely on the line. He, like you, doesn’t quite understand we will never live in a moral world, and if we ever did live virtuous (however such might be defined conventionally) lives, the conditions would be so different from today’s we can’t imagine what it would be like.
You might want to go out and examine the day-to-day world a bit more; you’ll see the majority are thinking of their own lives- but not in a Kindergarten way, rather in a hardnosed self-interested adult way. Naturally, they care about their families and friends as well—but that’s it. Agape love is rarer than hen’s teeth. Forgiving one’s enemies is considered the most foolish of foolishness because they not only do not want to risk retaliation, but do not even want to risk having their pride ruffled at all, similar to sensitive adolescents.
Men are mostly controlled by their aggressive appetites, so frankly you do come off as sounding slightly pollyannish when you write how people ought to grow up and take responsibility. Probably the vast majority (say 80- 90 percent) of women want to be fully mature, however men wont let tnem, men dominate and childrenize women. Children aren’t exactly considered full people, more as accessories in some way. Loved as toys.
The great irony in your continually mentioning maturity and ‘Kindergarten’ is that Kindergarteners have the open hearts of truly ecumenical (i.e: extremely rare) Christianity.
Of course, Alex, you must do what you think to be correct, and it strongly appears you will; albeit you don’t want to tilt at windmills, dreaming the Impossible Dream, do you? if you were a conservative, you would want to conserve yourself, not enervate yourself attempting to change what cannot be changed.

@Intomorrow I’m interested in 2.0 and beyond as well, but - and I know I’ve said this before - do we really need to be this bleak. I think lots of really interesting stuff has happened in the last decade, you just need to choose where to look. From that perspective Alex has a point when he says we choose what kind is a world to live in. We’ve had this discussion before I know. I know you don’t want to sweep the bad stuff under the carpet and live in fantasy land, and you’re right.

That said I agree that the selfishness, or more correctly narrow sphere of concern, of most people is not primarily due to lack of reflectiveness, precisely the gripe I’ve had with Alex’s emphasis on this. You’re right, we don’t live in a “moral world”, we choose our own morals, or ethics (sorry Alex but to me they are synonyms).

In a way this brings us straight back to religion, doesn’t it? Notwithstanding what I’ve said above, I think it’s important to recognise the positive role religion has played in providing the memes that inspire at least some of us to expand our sphere of concern beyond friends and family. Nor do I believe that this wider altruism is entirely absent in the majority of people. But it’s fragile, even in the most reflective of us.

One of the reasons I get so annoyed when religious types overstate the virtues of their respective religions, heroes and sacred texts is precisely that it *undervalues* what is best about them, by failing to distinguish it properly from the rubbish. That’s also why I don’t bother going to church, or talk much about God because ultimately I think these are distractions from the serious business of leading an authentic life (although that depends also on your social circumstances and lifelong habits).

Fortunately, enough of the “good memes” are circulating among us that there is plenty to celebrate about the present, as well as plenty to deplore. We don’t need to demonise the present in favour of a utopic future any more than we should pine for a nonexistent, utopic past. I’m all for working towards utopic futures (they’re going to be weird enough anyway, so the might as well be utopic), but how about starting by focusing on what we LIKE abut the present?

Well, I should really go to bed now. (Except to say: here in Brussels I know plenty of empowered, non-childrenised women. Maybe I’m just lucky with my location.)

Right as usual, Pete.
I’m not as pessimistic as it appears, the below quote from you is one of the factors in what is more confusion than pessimism:

“One of the reasons I get so annoyed when religious types overstate the virtues of their respective religions, heroes and sacred texts is precisely that it *undervalues* what is best about them, by failing to distinguish it properly from the rubbish.”


I’ve always had trouble distinguishing wheat from chaff to begin with; add confusing (yet attractive—who wouldn’t want to live in a Paradise where the streets are paved with gold and no one ever ages?) religious memes, and the program is badly in need of de-bugging.

@ Intomorrow

Paradise with streets paved with gold is not meant to be read literally. It is part of trying to explain the unexplainable. The problem with the religious memes that you are complaining about is that they have very little to do with actual religion. Yes there are people who still use them as code, there are even people who take them as given fact, but those aren’t the people who matter in the evolution of religion. They are quaint, but not really important. The majority of people talk about faith and religion in a very different way than you do. They aren’t looking back, they are looking forward. They use technology, birth control and really don’t care who sleeps with who.

The value of sacred texts is exactly in how they make us feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable people are more willing to change. The point is to challenge not to reassure. It is the secular powers that co-opt religion that have made it into Marx’s “opiate for the masses”. True religion isn’t an opiate.

The most belly-aching I’ve heard about returning to the past is from the capitalist/corporate community who want to return to the days before labour unions. Probably back to the days when it was legal to buy and sell people instead of just their labour. Listen to them talk about how it will ruin business to pay a fair wage, then go back a hundred years and hear the same thing. Watch the bankers try to convince governments to continue austerity measures even while the global economy is circling the toilet and even some of the right wing think tanks are making concerned noises about it being the wrong time for austerity. Look at people who want to return to the days of not paying any significant taxes because it “isn’t fair”.

The religious people I know have no interest in returning to those “golden days”, that’s a figment of your imagination and has very little to do with what David’s essay is about. He mentions religion only tangentially. It is about a mentality that says “It was better then, so we should go back instead of trying to improve the now.”

The essay is addressed to that tendency in all of us that we need to strive against so that we can continue to evolve. It isn’t religion that is holding us back. It is the refusal to look critically at the world, see what is right, see what is wrong, and go about fixing the problems without making too much of a mess of what’s right.

David’s right. Let’s let the past go and just get on with it.


Firstly, I apologize for my tone in the last post, but I must make it clear that when I say “right idea about God” I don’t mean my own personal perception of him, with that I’ll add that I’m not self righteous.  I’m just trying to convey what I have learned about God, Jesus, and the bible to the best of my ability because this is a topic that I have had a lot of learning experience with and not just from my church.  All the negative views most of you guys have about religion and faith, I’ve heard them all before, even before I started viewing this site. It’s just irksome when you read all these negative things and knowing that most of them are incorrect (I agree that many people in Western society who claim to be religious need de-bugging though most of your perceptions of religion needs de-bugging as well).  Unfortunately being irked makes it hard for me to convey anything without a disrespectful tone.  So again, I apologize and I hope you don’t take me as being smarmy.

@Christian Again, no need to apologise: our disagreement is on substance, not on style, and I’m certainly not taking personal offence.i would just question: when you refer to what you have “learned about God, Jesus, and the bible”, what is it that gives you such certainty that what you think you have learnt is correct? You can ask the same question of me, of course, as Alex more or less has. To which my reply is,, more or less:

1. EVERYTHING that I write here may be totally wrong, and I know this. At least, I think I do.

2. I go further: as Wittgenstein has taught us, words only have meaning in the cultural and social context in which we learnt them, which may itself be a figment of our imagination. Even “I think therefore I am” doesn’t hold as much water as was previously assumed (pre-Wittgenstein).

3. The above is not a reason to give up,  and as I said to Alex it’s not a reason to prefix every statement we make with “I think”. Such would be deeply tedious.

4. I do believe, subject to the above caveats, in objective reality, although it is vastly more complex than our perceptions of it can ever be.

5. The scientific method is, according to my own experience and belief, the surest way to build reasonably accurate and unbiased, if inevitably simplified, perceptions of reality.

6. The purpose of belief is not only to know the truth, but to help us to live well.

7. Currently I don’t find the concept of God particularly helpful in either context, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise. As for Jesus, I think it’s possible, even likely, that someone on whose life the gospel stories are loosely based did exist, but I don’t think it really matters anyway.

8. I used to take a different position on this essentially based on Pascal’s wager: if John is right, and what is at stake is eternal life vs eternal damnation, then you’d better work on the assumption that it’s true. That’s probably a bit Asperger’s, but hey I studied maths. At least I don’t work on Wall Street. Anyway, eventually I figured out that I might as well believe that eternal life depends on whether I eat scrambled egg for breakfast. There’s about as much evidence for it.

9. The good Christian memes that Alex has been writing about can all be expressed non-theisticly, which is what I prefer to do these days. I find bringing God into it distracting.

“It is about a mentality that says ‘It was better then, so we should go back instead of trying to improve the now.’ “

Perhaps it was better spiritually in the days of feudalism; I only suggest it was not better materially, medically—for instance someone who needed triple-bypass in, say, the 11th century was in big trouble. It is not accurate for us to say life was worse psychologically/spiritually during the feudalist centuries. However it is valid to say that in nearly every other way life was worse a thousand or so years ago.

@ Intomorrow

No it wasn’t better spiritually in the days of feudalism. People were taught superstition as faith and were manipulated and abused in countless ways by the “church”.

The religious people I know are also the most forward thinking people, and oddly enough, not obsessed about making everything about religion.

“No it wasn’t better spiritually in the days of feudalism. People were taught superstition as faith and were manipulated and abused in countless ways by the ‘church’.”

There was more to it than that, Alex! people back then had lives, you know. It was in fact much harder physically, but to say people were more manipulated and abused than today is unprovable. There was ecstatic spirituality throughout the Medieval ages. Now, with the sanitary and other conditions of the period I wouldn’t so much as travel in a time machine for a minute to any point in the Middle Ages; however to say the time wasn’t spiritual is judging a remote time by one’s contemporary standards- and one might add idiosyncratic standards at that. Your writing that the religious people you know are also the most forward thinking people indicates all the more to me you are Canadian in orientation, my experience for 50 years has been one of commercialized and usually quite backward religion everywhere in America; just say 65 percent of religion here is so—while in Canada it might be reversed: 35 percent. Don’t know, you tell us.
America is not like Scandinavia, it isn’t kinder & gentler, which includes its religion. IMO, again, religion is necessary fiction since when you observe behavior rather than what people say you’ll see humans are generally not compatible beings. Mostly I think of religion as being rightwing socialism, yet ‘rightwing’ is overly harsh, so say “conservative” (albeit conservatives may possibly not be conserving anything at all in the 21st century). ‘Socialism’ because the spiritual/religious do undeniably possess a spiritual, however one defines spiritual, buffer between them and are able to more readily take overt hostility from those on the outside in stride; they wear the armor of God, and such a blessing can be called from God, IMO.
Don’t forget, this is all my opinion at this time; 50 years ago, BTW, I was a convinced Christian because our grandfather was a Methodist minister—at that age we were a captive audience as children everywhere are.

Two books for people who are interested in life circa 1000 years ago:

‘Medieval Lives’ by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame but he writes some thought-provoking stuff about history. The book is accompanied by a BBC TV series)

‘The year 1000: What Life was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium’ by Robert Lacey and Danny Danzinger.

The Jones book in particular goes a long way against the notion of a serf’s life being unremittingly awful.

Talking of Christian memes, here’s a lovely one I just came across on Facebook (under the title “Origins of Mysogyny”:

“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.) That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels.” ~1 Corinthians 11

Of course Paul didn’t invent mysogyny, but he did help propagate it.

We don’t stone people any more, we don’t require women to wear hair coverings and no cut their hair either. Some people make careers out of picking out this kind of thing and using it to blame Christianity for all the evil in the world. As you said Paul didn’t invent misogyny, and it is possible that he didn’t do much to propagate it either. There are a number of insertions into his letters from later writers trying to control the power of women in the early church.

Let’s put it to the test of responsible speech. Is is true? I doubt God cares whether we wear a hat or not, whether we are male or female. It seems a convoluted argument for such a small thing. It also takes the creation story in a way that was not intended. Paul makes a clear statement elsewhere that in the Gospel there is no male and female, namely that gender roles don’t apply in the Gospel. He also mentions several female church leaders. So, not true.

It is thoughtful, but in a short sighted sense. It is intended to remover power from women and keep them quiet. There are a number of such verses in Paul’s letters. Why write them if women weren’t in fact exercising power?

Does it build up the community? No. Divisiveness doesn’t build a community. Removing power from a group is counterproductive to the work of community. Power and roles need to be shared.

This is a brief outline of the way I would talk about this verse in church to make sure that the people I serve know how to think about the Bible in a helpful way. As I believe I said earlier, you will find that the progressive christians are likely to be first in line busting damaging “Christian memes” and replacing them with ones that build up both individual and community.

Alex, now I am trying to imagine what I would be thinking if I was sitting in church listening to you say these things, and how I would be feeling. Frustrated, I think. I’d want to answer back (well, you already guessed that!). I’d want to say, “No Alex, it’s not a question of whether it is “true”: it’s a moral prescription, not a truth-apt statement. Nor is it a question of “what was intended”? And who is this God, anyway, who cares or doesn’t care about these things? All this is a distraction from deciding what *we* want to care about, how we want to live,  how we want others to live. Why bring some imaginary God into it?”

And what I’d want you to be saying would be something like this.

“When considering verses such as this it is important to remember that the Bible, however much as Christians we might like to draw inspiration from it, is just a collection of imperfect human writings. It is not ‘divinely inspired’. This passage, which may or may not have been added later (it’s really not important), reflects a view of gender relations that is totally at odds with the values that we in this church espouse. Unfortunately, because many Christians see the Bible as ‘the Word of God” and thus divinely inspired, passages such as these lead some to take positions on gender issues that are retrograde. As Christians, i.e. as people who take inspiration from the life of Jesus as recorded in the Bible, and the other stories and teachings therein, have a special responsibility to make clear that it is possible to do so critically, and reject - not interpret away, simply reject - those teachings that are incompatible with the values we want to espouse.”

Now *that*, in my opinion, would be taking responsibility.

As I have said in other places, having God, however you want to name him/her/it means that we are accountable to more than just our own desires and values. Simply rejecting verses because they don’t match our own values is no better than picking out individual verses in order to support our own values. The concept of the scriptures is to challenge our values and make us think about what we really believe and what that belief means to the way we live in the world.

I don’t explain away verses. I meet them head on and let their challenge speak to me and to the people. So some of what you say I would say, but not in those terms. I like to keep my language much simpler.

Alex, I have no problem with using scripture, or any other work of literature, or for that matter anything else that life throws at us, to challenge our values, what we believe, and how we want to act. And feel free to use simpler language with your congregation if you wish.

Outside church, however, you have to deal with people for whom religion is at best a distraction from actually putting those values into practice, and at worst the source of many of the problems we face in society. Or who, like Intomorrow, are frequently irritated by people asking them if they have “found Jesus”. Such people tend to be critical of religion, perhaps sometimes unfairly so.

It’s best (in my view) to avoid being over-defensive when that happens, and I would suggest that it may be counter-productive to come up with arguments that appear to be aimed at convincing us that your scripture is better, or at least less bad, than we think it is. Most of us non-Christians really don’t care how Christian theologians like to interpret their scripture, whether Jesus existed, which bits were added later, and so on. We do care, or at least we should, what effect those memes have on the rest of society. When we are critical, it is because we believe that they are having a pernicious effect, and that liberal Christians such as yourself are somewhat in denial about the fact.

When a set of beliefs - such as belief in a certain concept of scripture - forms a basis for how you see and act in the world, you tend to see challenges to those beliefs as threats, and this can make you less willing to admit evidence that has this effect. In psychology this is called confirmation bias, and we all have it. But you could also see such evidence as an opportunity, perhaps complementing the study of scripture, as an opportunity to reconsider your values, your beliefs, and how to act in the world. What’s the worst that can happen?

I think I have mentioned in other places Peter that progressive christians work very hard at dismantling the destructive memes that permeate our society, both Christian and non-Christian.  Part of that is, as you say, a willingness to go beyond our comfort zone.  I enjoy our discussions here for that very reason. I am very aware of confirmation bias and try to set it aside. I make a habit of reading the people with whom I disagree, so that I can understand their argument better. I may get very irritated, but I inevitably learn something.

BTW while I am not fond of labels defining christian theology, I find myself much more in the progressive/emerging camp than the liberals, though I doubt that would make much difference from where you sit.

Along the lines of keeping an open mind, if you are going to quote scripture, you should be open to hearing more about it.

I’m really glad I held off adding more to this conversation! It was a real pleasure reading Alex and Peter go at it. You both sound like people it would be great to know in person!

I should acknowledge that my comment about religion banking on a future Armageddon was indeed sweeping in its scope, but as Peter agreed, there is some truth in it. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, leaving the religion and the home (related) at age 17. My entire life up to that point had been wasted viewing ‘the world’ as unredeemable, bound for destruction, a distraction from the important work of posturing for a thief in the night. That destruction is coming and it is deserved is one of the most insipid memes that this religion emphasizes. Countering it with evidence of the progress we are making on all fronts is cathartic and generally unanswerable by current JWs, who are only capable of sneering at such uplifting data. It contradicts what they have been told to expect from ‘the world,’ goes against their belief that things would be getting perceptibly worse toward ‘the end.’

For many years I paid little attention to religion, but recently I understood that most religions are working under the same delusion of impending judgment and destruction. Religion is not just a thing some do, it is a way of life that profoundly affects the very thought processes of it’s devoted adherents. This is sold as a good thing, a transformative effect that can even pacify hardened criminals. It simply must be recognized that this coercion is not all positive.

I don’t make distinctions between different apocalyptic faiths because there are none that matter to me. The important thing to me is that true believers have an illusory escape hatch the rest of us don’t see, to our credit. If things do get really bad, it will be us dealing with it. To avoid this we must recognize that no escape hatch exists, we are on our own and there is nothing to do but pitch in and help. Even the concept of the afterlife, if believed, works against this imperative!

I agree that the religious are not the only ones at fault, but to me they are the most culpable given that the very basis of their life-stance requires that they make a distinction between ‘the world’ and ‘the church,’ and expect that thief in the night (telling analogy, no?) any day now… and treat advancement as no better than moving the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Great points Tim. I would agree that apocalyptic faiths are problematic at best and downright dangerous at best. The challenge is that not all faiths are apocalyptic in nature. Not all groups within any given faith may be apocalyptic. Much of my argument with Peter and Intomorrow is that they seem to lump religious and people of the faith into one more or less homogenous group with the label “deluded”. The reality is very much more complex and worthy of some study so that one knows who one is discussing.  This isn’t an apologia for faith, but just the way it is. 

Substitute French speaking for people of faith. You can find people
who speak French all around the world, but their dialects are very different. Parisian french is different than Quebecois, which is different than the french spoken in Northern Ontario, Manitoba, New Orleans, Haiti, or the many countries in Africa that have french as an official language.

The language of faith and religion is no more unified. To treat it as such means that you are working from false premises and will be severely hampered in your efforts to bring rationality to the world—a project which I support.

To give you an example—You speak about the afterlife being counterproductive. There is a lot of truth to this. For a great many years the Church in cahoots with empire has sold the people a bill of goods on the afterlife. Suffer now, enjoy life later. (They just ignore the corollary.) Thus the masses are prevented from demanding changes in the world because it would lose them their eternal life.
Jesus doesn’t talk much about the after life. He is much more interested in this life. We are to work to bring God’s Kingdom into reality in this world. Any discussion of the afterlife is in the context of how well we did at working in this world. That work, contrary to popular belief, is not Christianizing the world. It is justice. Money, poverty and justice are the most talked about subjects in the Gospels and in the Bible as a whole.
It might be a more useful exercise to ask religious people where they stand on justice, than to just paint them all with the same brush as uncaring of this world.

Alex, even when talking to members of my close family (and they are by no means particularly extreme Christians) I often have difficulty engaging them in serious discussions about the future, in these indeed apocalyptic times, because they tend to take the view that Jesus is about to come back anyway. But I take your point: not all people who go to church and think of themselves as Christians think like that.

Indeed I’m interested in the difference between progressive/emerging and liberal, it may well be that my knowledge of these things is somewhat outdated. I said above that most of us non-Christians don’t care how Christian theologians interpret their scripture, whether Jesus existed, which bits were added later, and so on, but applied to me that would be an overstatement. I am open to hearing more about scripture, and am capable of being fascinated by questions such as whether Jesus existed. I just think it’s important to be clear about the (very limited) relevance of such matters with regard to ethics.

@Tim Nice to hear from you again! Indeed, while your experience is considerably more extreme than mine, there are close parallels.

Heh..well, I found out how much attention David gives his readings last year when we had a short personal exchange.
He completely failed to read carefully and glean what I was saying, accused me of things totally off the wall which were not actually included in what I was saying and told me to go away.
So…. since it still smarts a little I do this rant which I don’t expect to be published but I hope will be forwarded to him.
As to his essay..I can no longer have faith he’s giving his full attention to his analysis.

Disagree. David Brin is a heavy hitter; he gets it on-the-ball everytime. The one word summing up religion IMO is “default”: people cannot get along, so fairy tales are necessary.. reality can’t be taken straight- it needs chaser.
From his comments and his article here, it doesn’t appear Alex knows America v. well. America’s organized (and possibly the others) religions are commodified to saturation,“the market covers everything” is our operative slogan. Not to write such is universal, yet it is regnant, with the possible exception of N. England, a region having had more time to develop.  Speaking of which, when I visited Scandinavia it was a pleasant surprise how not only the houses of worship weren’t tasteless as so many are in America, the Scandinavians don’t push their faiths on others nearly as much.
America has been as successful as any nation ever in the economic realm; spiritually America is run in a manner similar to McDonald’s: “300 Million Served.” But though America’s arts and religions are commercialized to the max it works out well economically, because no one ever goes broke selling us bad taste. America is akin to ancient Rome: large, powerful, wealthy, creative; devoid of virtue, “fake it ‘til you make it” as the young Reaganites said a generation ago. Creative destruction is the scripture; Adam Smith is the God.

So you examine America more closely, Alex, spend more time visiting here—and then you will see the Light.

It is easy to avoid real debate by announcing “we’re different so X doesn’t apply here”.

There isn’t that much difference any more between Canada and the US. You are a little more strident than we are, but otherwise consumerism rules. Most of the books I read suggest that there is not much to choose between us. If you don’t like what I say, just don’t like it. Don’t hide behind your American citizenship as if you all really do belong in some kind of remedial class room for critical thinking. None of the other Americans who comment have suggested that I don’t know the US. I wonder if your vision of your country is as clear as you claim.

On the subject of David’s ability. I enjoy his writing whether it is an essay such as this one or his fiction. If you had an argument with him, George, that’s between you folks. Unless it has direct implications for our discussion here, I don’t really care to hear about it.

yeah alex. i didn’t really expect that to be published and they;re welcome to remove it as we are denied the most elementary editing here.
I’ve been having problems with impulse ranting since the chemotherapy.

“None of the other Americans who comment have suggested that I don’t know the US.”

Because many of them have families and naturally other responsibilities so they do not have time to study America in the obsessive-compulsive manner that I do; I’m an American sinner who is always curious as how the mechanisms of sin (the wages of sin are indeed death) work.
You yourself mention above America is more strident: well you don’t say? gee whiz, one never would have guess a nation running its politics like football matches, wherein celebrity ‘heavyweights’ (not) scrimmage meaninglessly, may be considered a strident nation. Or where someone in the ghetto will kill another for a vial of meth or a pair of tennis shoes. And don’t tell us you have such—on a smaller scale—in Canada too, everyone at IEET knows it.
You don’t think we know of the influence America has on Canada?
Of how our military umbrella covering Canada is a protection-racket?
I’ve nothing against religion, save for if the religion in question is bad religion..
unfortunately, there is plenty of bad religion in America (as for Canada, you tell us).

David Brin writes in:

Sorry guys.  I only just realized that this discussion had continued.  Forgive me please.  I am pulled in scores of directions at once and sometimes commit faults of distracted attention.

Regarding the potential utility of SCRIPTURE and other treasures of the past in a more modern context, you may find interesting… well I had a dive into that topic during October’s “Singularity Summit” in New York.  Contrarianism can lead to strange riffs!  In that context, among would be “godmakers,” I had the temerity to take them on a guided tour of the Book of Genesis!

I think you’ll find it fun:

Here’s hoping that 2012 will see a turning for the better.

Fight for an ambitious, calm, friendly, scientific and reasonable civilization. Recognize that indignation is a drug high… in ourselves and in others. And that a person’s wisdom is inversely proportional to the self-righteousness that they rage. The next generation can be better than ours. I resolve to help make that ever-more true in 2012.

All best!
david b

@ Intomorrow

I don’t think its fair, true, or rational to speak for everyone hear when you say that having families and other responsibilities prevent us from seeing America extensively (You seem to be suggesting that families are a distraction).  On top of that if you are viewing America in an obsessive-compulsive manner that you say you are you’re probably over analyzing the whole situation.  Just because you see things in a specific way doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the way it is (your views seem, to me at least, to be influenced by some kind of bitterness towards everything [no offense]).  Even if your view of America is correct, does that mean that it has to be that way?  Finally, I find it hard to believe that you don’t have any family what-so-ever (even close friends can be considered family).

Nice words indeed.

if being contrarian is good enough for Mr. Brin and others, it is good enough for me.
BTW, I do have a family- of cats; and what is wrong with that? are you biased? Will have to place a call to the NAAC hotline.

even for your age you have an open-heart; want to go into more detail: people say “tell me what you know, not what you think”, however we aren’t in this dialogue dealing with scientific issues, I can merely tell you what I think not what I know. Or take the other topic on professional juries—nothing really scientific about it. When it is said our Constitution or our legal system are the best, that isn’t saying a whole lot.
In fact it is almost damning us all with faint praise, for nonscience matters are very easy to lie and cheat with. Politicians are past and present masters of it as you will obtain proof positive of this election year! sacred institutions? what a crock.

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