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Friday, March 31, 2006

Point of Inquiry

The Center for Inquiry is a Secular Humanist group who, among other things, are associated with Prometheus Books and Free Inquiry Magazine; both high in quality and interesting content.

I have recently discovered that they now have a very well polished podcast, which they also call a radio show, so I'm assuming it's on the radio in some places. It's called Point of Inquiry and the page of their free episodes can be found HERE. I am only now listening to my first one, but so far it's very interesting stuff.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Faith & Reason for Christians & Stoics

Today's post is authored by Steve Marquis, who posted this on the International Stoic Forum. I thought it was so full of interesting notions that I asked him if I could quote him here on my blog. Thanks Steve!


Setting ‘faith’ mutually exclusive to reason is part of our modern paradigm. A large part of this may be due to the nature of Christian faith (Muslim and Jewish as well). Christianity is the primary religion of our culture. Our personal working opinion of what faith is cannot help but be influenced by the culture we grew up in.

The Christian God is transcendental. God is forever above and beyond in a way that transcends both time and space. God, in His perfection, stands outside and separate from the mundane world. There is a distinct dichotomy here between Creator and created. Much of the Christian religion is based on how to bridge this gap. Since reason and empirical evidence apply only to the mundane created world, reason and evidence simply cannot bridge that gap. This is a difference in kind, not degree. And that is where faith comes in. Seen in this way faith is not just leading the way and reason following, faith is going where reason can never go. Faith may seek understanding, but because of this inherent unbreachable gulf that search for understanding the nature of God through reason and evidence is bound to be continually frustrated.

Now (Classical) Stoicism is also theistic. But the Stoic Logos is immanent, not transcendental. The Logos is in everything everywhere all the time. There is an intimacy between Creator and created that is separable only in description (ie, our attempt to describe with language and concepts). God is not separate from nature, God IS Nature. So, the type of faith familiar from a Christian belief system is never needed in Stoicism. Rather than abstain from investigation for fear of finding some sacred doctrine in error, the marching orders for a Stoic seems to me to be continual ongoing inquiry, and especially self inquiry (in the Socratic tradition). And the tools used for this inquiry are going to be; you guessed it, evidence and reason.

The Stoics were empiricists in the sense that experience is primary rather than some intuitive perfection like the Platonic forms. From sense experience comes knowledge. It is assumed the Cosmos is intelligible and that Nature would equip Her creatures with the necessary tools for survival and a robust life, each to its kind. This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective as well.

In the case of human beings and rationality we are gifted with the potential of virtue due to our self-aware nature. And, we come equipped with the tools to fulfill that promise. We are each sharing in the highest nature of God, rationality, each of us is a spark of the divine fire. Following are some quotes from AA Long’s ‘Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life’, which I recommend to you:

(Chap 6 ‘Natures: Divine, Human, Animal’, pages 146-147)

‘Because the Stoic God is immanent and identical with perfect rationality, Epictetus follows his tradition in taking the general character of God and his works to be fully accessible to human understanding.’

‘Physical nature, not a sacred text or revelation or inspired prophecy, is the Stoic’s guide to the divine. The Stoic outlook on God is this-worldly [as opposed to other-worldly, SM] …’

‘The life that we have now is what requires all of our attention; the only punishment for those who neglect the principles of Stoicism, Epictetus says, is to stay ‘just as they are’, emotionally disturbed and discontented.’

‘Far from being tainted by sin at birth, human beings are innately equipped by God to perfect themselves BY THERE OWN EFFORT. There is no need, then, for a divine act of grace or sacrifice.’
I changed the emphasis above from italics to all caps. If our ‘salvation’ is in our own hands, so to speak, this puts quite a different twist on faith than the Christian tradition wouldn’t you say? This sounds more like humanism.

Now, this may seem hubristic and self-centered. But, to maintain the self-honesty required to make continuous progress is anything but hubristic. Too much self-pride will stop progress cold.

The immanent vs transcendental nature of Stoic theism plus the conviction that knowledge is acquired by experience and reason has some interesting repercussions for us moderns. In a nut shell, we can choose either to follow a more theistic path in the tradition of Socrates, Cleanthes, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, or we can choose to maintain a more conservative non-theistic approach along the lines of scientific pantheism. Both seem compatible with Stoicism as far as I can tell. Certainly there is no conflict whatsoever between scientific inquiry and Stoicism. Others have disagreed with me in that to be a traditional Stoic one has to be theistic.

If we step outside the bounds of what faith means in a Christian context faith can simply be a sufficient belief for motivation sans certain knowledge. And, we don’t have certain knowledge about much, including whether the sun will come up tomorrow. Empirical facts are not certain knowledge, only highly probable knowledge. Obviously, it is not necessary to have certain knowledge to make choices or we wouldn’t do anything at all. So faith is a necessary part of living. And, every decision we make will involve reason in one way or another. We cannot do otherwise. So, in practical day-to-day living faith and reason go hand-in-hand on a continuous inseparable basis, much like Logos and unstructured matter.

The Stoics did believe certain knowledge was possible, and that it derived from experience like all other knowledge. This was the infamous ‘cognitive impression’, which forms the basis of wisdom (Stoic ‘scientific’ knowledge) for the Sage. The state of the Sage is the culmination of human potential described by the process of oikeiosis, or ‘appropriation’. What is of interest is the next step down from certain knowledge, something we might call ‘well considered opinion’. A student making progress strives to hold only well-considered opinion, not unexamined dogma. As the student lives his or her life experience and reason are utilized to replace the less well considered habitual ways of thinking (our pre-judgments, or prejudices) with more accurate factual reflections of reality. This is an unending task both personally and culturally, and seems to be what a creature whose primary survial tool is reason would natrually do.

All that said I still ‘believe’ that intuitive flashes of insight are quite possible. This would mean the Stoic cognitive impression is more or less restricted to the person with the experience alone, as our descriptive means of communicating such an experience is always bound to fall short of the experience itself, and thus loose that certainty. So, there may very well be Sages among us, IMO, and some of those may have started movements that later become major philosophical or religious systems. After all, a cognitive impression would indeed be ‘waking up’.

Monday, March 20, 2006

To Act or Not?

Recently on the International Stoic Forum a new member Matt asked this question of Stoicism. My response follows:

The basis for this philosophy seems to beliving in "agreement with nature" seeing all that happens as necessary. From what I gathered from Eptictetus, it's important to watch what we assent to, or simply assent to what happens, then we will never be foiled in our actions. What guide/impetus to action does this leave, more than indifferently accepting what we now have?
This seems to be a common question, and its an understandable one on first glance. If you'll allow me a somewhat silly caveat I think it might help a little...

I was recently having a discussion with someone about the Jedi notion of violence in Star Wars, and how this jives (or doesn't) with their otherwise Buddhist/Stoic/Taoist/respect-for-life inspired views as portrayed in the films.

I said that, according to what I've read, their take on violence is that it is neither good nor bad. To them, all that matters is that some things are "the will of the Force" and some aren't (this is much like "in accordance with Nature" in Stoicism). If a Jedi senses that it is the will of the Force that person x be killed, then they will do so. But the important thing is that the action is not taken out with aggression or ill feelings. Rather, the goal is to carry out the action (violent or not) without passion.

Strangely, I attended a Buddhist Temple celebration just this week where someone reported asking a monk if there was a problem with rampant fire ants across a region, would it be ok to exterminate them (keeping in mind the Buddhist ideal of not taking any life of any sort)? The monk said that it would be ok as long as it was done without negative feelings.

What I'm getting at here, in Stoic terms, is that many things are in accordance with Nature, and it is important to accept all of them "as they are" without the passion that arises from believing them to be truly good or evil. But these things also often include facts about the virtuous course of action (the preferred indifferent) and furthering this will often require action on our part. If this is the case then so be it. If virtue dictates that a Stoic do (or not do) x, then it must be done (or not done) without passion.

This is how the notions of "accepting what is" and "moving to action" are consistent with one another in Stoicism, I believe.

Matt was referring to this summary of Stoicism by Jan Garrett HERE.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Chef Thetans

Isaac Hayes, who does the voice of the character "Chef" on South Park has recently quit in a huff, allegedly over the show's treatment of religion (article here). Thing is, the show has been on for about nine years now and has satired religion quite extremely all along.

But recently South Park did a show on Scientology, and quite a funny one at that. As it happens, Hayes is a Scientologist. Now, suddenly, he is saying things like, "There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins."

The show's creators say that Hayes never had any problems with the show making fun of Christians but that this is "100 percent" about the recent episode and his being a Scientologist. It seems to me the track record is proof of Hayes' hypocrisy.

I think we should generally have respect for one another's right to believe in things they hold sacred, even if we don't agree. At the same time, I think satire has an important role to play in many ways and is, of course, within our rights - that includes satire of all religions, including Scientology.

But even though I'm okay with religious satire, I would have had a lot more respect for Hayes if he had consistently taken his stance with all religions. But to be for dishing it out and suddenly claim "respect for religion" when it comes time to take it, shows a lack of integrity.

Another interesting aspect of this:

In the episode in question, "Trapped in the Closet", there is an unusual segment where they go into what Scientologists believe. Unlike the rest of the episode (or other episodes criticizing religion), this segment carries a caption at the bottom of the screen which says something like, "This is what Scientologists really believe". During that segment, although the graphics accompanying the narration are humorous, the rendition seems to be accurate and unexaggerated based on what I've heard and read. It goes into all the business about the Thetans, the aliens, Xenu the galactic tyrant, spaceships, and so on. This is all the really freaky stuff you don't get to find out about until you've been in the religion a long time and have paid a lot of money. It's also the material that the Church of Scientology sued to keep under wraps.

Strange that Hayes never criticized the episode for being inaccurate in its claims.

UPDATE: March 18, 2006:
Apparently there is some accusation about Tom Cruise pulling his celebrity weight to get the latest scheduled rerun of the Scientology episode of South Park pulled. Whether it is true or not I can't say, but here's a link to an article on it...

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Christian Missouri

As you may have heard, Missouri legislators have recently introduced a house resolution that proclaims a recognition of the "Christian God" among other things. Some are calling this a declaration of Christianity as Missouri's official state religion. But that's not really fair.

Two things about this resolution: (1) It's just a resolution, a statement, with no force of law, and (2) Nowhere in it does it proclaim Christianity as an 'official religion'.

Having said that, the resolution is still a horrible monstrosity that neglects history, facts, reason, and the basics of decent modern government. It also exhibits an extreme ignorance and/or willful political deviousness on the part of those who supported it. Fortunately, many religious folks understand the dangers of the government defining their religion and are speaking out, as can be read in this article.

Some supporters have said that the resolution really isn't that bad if people were to actually read what it says; so I will do so. The following is the exact wording of the proposed resolution as found here, with my comments...

House Concurrent Resolution No. 13

Whereas, our forefathers of this great nation of the United States recognized a Christian God and used the principles afforded to us by Him as the founding principles of our nation; and
Well there's no doubt, of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, the 39 signers of the Constitution, the 16 non-signing delegates to the Constitutional convention, and others, that many of them were indeed Christians.

But when we look at the major figures, especially those who penned the bill of rights, we see a lot of non-Christians. Even, as in the case of Thomas Jefferson for example, explicitly stating that Jesus is not divine. This would preclude Jefferson's Jesus from being a part of the Trinity, and therefore preclude Jefferson from recognizing a Christian God - and Jefferson's not the only one.
I tend to agree with the Christians at the Quartz Hill School of Theology, who have an excellent outline showing why the Founders were not Christians, and of the importance of separation between church and state on this webpage. Their home page is here and you can click the middle top tab "doctrinal statement" if you doubt their Christianhood. Back to the resolution...

Whereas, as citizens of this great nation, we the majority also wish to exercise our constitutional right to acknowledge our Creator and give thanks for the many gifts provided by Him; and
There is already a right for both the majority and the minority to acknowledge creators and giver thanks to them. However, the impropriety arises when it comes to attempts to do that 'officially' through the political machinations of the state. One key problem of the writers of this is their inability or unwillingness to understand that in a diverse society with equal rights for all, the "majority" is not the definer of things when it comes to protected freedoms. In those cases, who is in the majority and who is in the minority is (or should be) mere happenstance.

Whereas, as elected officials we should protect the majority's right to express their religious beliefs while showing respect for those who object; and
How is this resolution 'protecting' anything that isn't already legally protected? Expression of religious belief is already protected for all, and there certainly is no need to protect a "majority's right". This is nothing more than an imposition by the majority, so the hollow phrase "while showing respect for those who object" is meaningless and oxymoronic. The very notion of this proclamation is a slap in the face to those of minority beliefs - an implication that they are less than full and equal citizens. Rather than a "protection", the above statement is designed to shift the perspective of "who is right" so as to prepare the social arena for future, more solid, legislative efforts.

Whereas, we wish to continue the wisdom imparted in the Constitution of the United States of America by the founding fathers; and
And what is that wisdom? Is it the wisdom that nowhere in the Constitution is God mentioned (and that this exclusion was both conscious, intentional, and hotly debated)? Or perhaps the wisdom that in two places the separation of church and state is explicitly prescribed. In Article IV no religious tests for office are allowed and in the First Amendment the Congress is barred from making laws which support or oppress any religion. Yes, I'd say that is wise, and the above certainly is not 'continuing the wisdom' imparted in the Constitution.

Whereas, we as elected officials recognize that a Greater Power exists above and beyond the institutions of mankind:
It's fine to recognize that as individuals, but not as "elected officials". What's more dangerous is that proclamations such as these are usually followed with attempts to define what it is this 'greater power' wishes or demands, thus making the speakers the stand-in mouthpiece for the alleged greater power. The legislators who supported this seem grossly unaware of these dangers.

Now, therefore, be it resolved by the members of the House of Representatives of the Ninety-third General Assembly, Second Regular Session, the Senate concurring therein, that we stand with the majority of our constituents and exercise the common sense that voluntary prayer in public schools and religious displays on public property are not a coalition of church and state, but rather the justified recognition of the positive role that Christianity has played in this great nation of ours, the United States of America.
And then we finally come to the "therefore" only to see something which already exists? Voluntary prayer is already allowed in every public school in the United States, and has never been abridged or threatened. Religious displays on public property are also allowed by Supreme Court rulings, provided that those of other religions are allowed to place theirs in the same area.

So, this grotesque violation of church/state separation has been created only to proclaim a right which has been consistently upheld and already enjoyed to this day? Again, I would submit that this proposed resolution is merely a preparatory document, designed to alter social assumptions so that future enforceable legislation is more likely to pass. This underhanded tactic is enough to be against such a proclamation, if it weren't for the fact that the thing itself is already a violation of the principles of political decency.

As you can read in the stltoday article I linked to above, not all religious people or Christians are filling their time with relentless attempts to have their religion take control of the political power in this country. Several more reasonable and educated Christians have spoken out against these attacks on Church/State separation because they understand the dangers that government involvement can have on a religious faith. The wall protects both entities, and its a shame that more don't understand this.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State
STLToday Article on Missouri proposed resolution
Government page with the proposed resolution
Quartz Hill School of Theology
Wikipedia article on Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Non-Religious Buddhism?

This follows up on my previous post about respect, in which I mention Sam Harris. I've recently come across an interesting article Sam Harris has written in the March issue of a Buddhist magazine called The Shambhala Sun.

I'll quote a little of the article. The title and subtitle are as follows...

"Kill the Buddha," says the old koan. "Kill Buddhism," says SAM HARRIS, author of The End of Faith, who argues that Buddhism's philosophy, insight, and practices would benefit more people if they were not presented as a religion.
Sam Harris notes that there are "some ideas in Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison." He notes the example of some believing the notion that Guru Rinpoche was born from a lotus.

To add in my own commentary here: he seems to take little notice of the differences between the various schools of Buddhism (which vary in their degree of these things) with the phrase "ideas in Buddhism". He also doesn't seem to appreciate the degree to which the native ignorance, culture, and beliefs in which Buddhism has sprung has sometimes integrated with the practice of Buddhism. But then again, perhaps he does. He goes on to say...

For the fact is that a person can embrace the Buddha's teaching, and even become a genuine Buddhist contemplative (and, one must presume, a buddha) without believing anything on insufficient evidence. The same cannot be said of the teachings for faith-based religion. In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science. One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being). The spirit of empiricism animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.

In response, I would say that as a Humanist, I too am attracted to the core of Buddhism which doesn't require irrational beliefs. But it seems to me that Harris falls into a convenient trap constructed by history and language. By that, I mean an overattention, and perhaps a misplaced application of the word "religion".

In his book, Christianity without God, Lloyd Geering points out that it wasn't until the sixteenth century that the west began to use terms like "Christianity" and "religion". He says:

"Up until the sixteenth century 'religion' was synonymous with 'devotion' and referred to the feelings of awe and wonder, which along with the attitudes of trust and love, constitute the religious life. 'Religion' was an abstract term which could not be used in the plural."
The same goes for the names of religions. For instance, of 'Christianity' he says:

"This is why it is really only from the sixteenth century that people began to talk about an entity they called Christianity. Before that time people in Christendom talked about the church or about faith (by which they meant Christian faith) or about religion (by which they meant devotion), but never about something known as Christianity."
And this makes perfect sense. For example, we don't make up words for things like, "those who believe that humans have two legs". It is such an obvious fact of life to us that there is no reason for us to make up a term for it. That is, until a substantial number of people start believing that we have three.

Just as there was no term for 'Christianity' among Christians, I assume there was likely no word for 'Buddhism' or 'religion' among ancient Buddhists. Reifying 'religion' and calling Buddhism a religion comes from a decidedly European post-16th-Century practice in which all things were being reified to discuss them objectively.

Of course, it's a good idea to discuss things objectively and comparatively, and for that you need terms for things. But in this process, the tradition we call Buddhism was lumped under the label "religion" apparently under the assumption that it had a parallel structure to western religions.

But when we are discussing ancient traditions and practices, we must remember that we are imposing deliniations that did not exist then. There was no separation between what was 'religion' and what was simply the facts of the world they lived in. When one considers the layering of many other concepts that followed the core of Buddhist practice over history, it becomes even more difficult.

So, it's up to us to decide what is part of a religion and what is not. More important to Sam Harris' point, it is up to us to decide which elements are part of the Buddhist religion and which are parts of various Eastern culture which are mixed into the teachings.

I picked up a small booklet called The Buddhist Path at a local Buddhist temple recently. It outlines methods of meditation, and the eightfold path. Nowhere in it did it mention karma, rebirth, or being born out of a lotus.

As the various teachings within Buddhism are studied objectively and practice of them spreads, it is up to those people where it spreads to see for themselves what they find useful and question them, as the Kalama Sutra encourages. In the end, I myself will tend to delight in philosophies and practices I find true, rational, and useful from a variety of sources, religious or not.

Some people are using the term "secular Buddhist" or "philosophic Buddhist" to denote their practice of the teachings which are divorced from certain cultural beliefs, which is fine with me if it suites them. As for myself, I might fall under the category of Buddhist by the definition of some and not by the definition of others. In either case, to be sure, I fall under the category of Humanist, naturalist, skeptic, and Freethinker. But rather than focusing first on which flag I'm going to fly, I prefer to pick up good ideas and practices where they are. If others do or don't consider me this or that - or consider x to be a religion and y not to be - well that's up to them.