Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Doug Versus Doug (Or: My Pantheism And What Became Of It)

At my last blog - which I discontinued and took down because my thoughts about God were evolving and I was slowly moving in a different direction - I posted as recently as 2011 an apology of sorts for my pantheistic belief.

The truth is, that stance was the result of over a quarter century of absorbing free thought and rationalistic writings. I was never able to fully transition to Atheism for one simple reason: I could never shake my deepest impression that the Cosmos needed an explanation beyond being a brute fact.

That impression would never let me go. At the same time, I perceived the atheist worldview as extremely negative and spending much time saying a lot about little. But as much as Atheism has to say, it does not offer a satisfying explanation for existence - why there is something (and at that, an orderly something) rather than nothing.

So in my post Why I Am A Pantheist, I find the statement:

Mine is a reason-driven religious philosophy, not faith driven.

I look back at that now and think, "nice try." But I had put lots of faith in my feeble ability to understand. And I put loads of faith in something else I wrote then:

For me, the scientific method is the true theology or study of God. And with the embracing of the scientific method comes the humbling confession that we don't know everything, and that all our scientific "facts" are provisional facts. The more the universe is studied, the more secrets she yields, and the possibility that certain facts may need to be revised frequently becomes a reality. Still - despite its incompleteness - the scientific method is the best handle on reality we have.

If I could live as long as the fabled Methuselah, what changes I could behold in the advance of scientific knowledge! But as for whether the scientific method is the best handle on reality I have, that could only be so if the physical universe is all there is. That is a presupposition that may or may not be true. It was more a matter of faith than reason that I settled on that proposition. I was in denial about my deeper impressions, and that closed doors for me, philosophically speaking.

At one point I touched on what is called the Hiddenness of God. I touched on the various gods that humanity has worshipped down through the centuries, writing:

That not one of these imagined deities throughout all the millennia of human history has bothered to reside among and directly communicate with all his creatures and forever set the record straight seems to me - if a not a proof, then at least - an indication that we are dealing with non-entitites.

Right I was that isn't proof. But it was a bit bold of me to suggest that because the gods did not come down to make themselves available to our senses, they were non-entities. It doesn't necessarily follow just because I thought it should.

More troubling to me is idea that the God of the monotheists might have made him/her self available to our senses - that is, if we allow for the sensus divinitatis. I do so now allow, but at the time, in keeping with my strict adherence to the scientific method, I ruled that out from the start.

I also made (or rather I should say, parroted) this bold proclamation:

If there is a creator "God" it must the laws of physics that organize the raw elements into this wonderful cosmos. This ability of the elements to self-organize and display apparent design is the divine spark or Logos. It is that from which we came and to which we must eventually return.

No wonder the Atheist spokesperson Richard Dawkins says Pantheism is "sexed-up" Atheism! I was trying to have my cake and eat it too. I wanted to hold on to "God" and at the same time let go.

Why must it be the case that God is a metaphor for the laws of physics? There I was face-to-face with another alleged brute fact. The Laws of Physics gave us the Cosmos. Period.

But didn't I arrive at that position because I ruled out the supranatural to begin with? Looking back, I think it was an article of faith of sorts that the natural is all there is. My guide wasn't so much reason as faith - faith that a finite mind could grasp the infinite.

I ended my Pantheist statement:

I am a pantheist because, as a part of nature's intelligence, I stand together with my brothers and sisters in awe of the greatest intelligence, which is the well ordered Cosmos as a whole.

Did that answer satisfy me then? I think not. It always made me uncomfortable. It was where I stood at the time, but I didn't stand steadily.

Before I embraced Pantheism I had been a Deist. I was looking for a way to reconcile my feelings about creation with the hard facts of science. A distant and detached God did not do that for me. A metaphorical God, sexed up atheism, did not do it. I am returning to my earliest belief - that there is an ultimate reality, or as C. S. Lewis put it in telling of his turning from Atheism to Theism, "I gave in, and admitted that God was God." I had been in rebellion against my deepest intuitions for many years, but now I'm returning. I'm returning to peace of mind and heart.

Monday, December 29, 2014

As Pearls Before Swine

In the famous "Sermon on the Mount" the following words are ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth:

Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces. (Matthew 7:6 - NKJV)

Lately I have been thinking more and more of that saying as I survey the debate between believers and nonbelievers in God. It is very difficult to find civil discussion among the warring factions these days. Both sides metaphorically view their opponents as something like wild dogs and pigs, vicious and unrelenting.

Believers tend to think unbelievers have hearts of stone and, thus, eyes that will not - that absolutely refuse to - see the obvious, preferring darkness to light. Dogs and pigs, all of them!

On the other hand, nonbelievers feel believers lack good sense and the ability to reason well; not only so, they dare place faith above the much-vaunted scientific method. Dogs and pigs, the whole lot!

The gravity of the God issue is one which forces a person to choose sides and embrace their chosen side deeply. Both sides hold certain tenets as sacred or at least of supreme importance, as pearls of wisdom. That seems naturally to lead to vitriol.

Perhaps the time for debate is over. Perhaps the time never was and debates about God have always been pointless. They just stir the pot and get people all worked up. They change nothing.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Peace On Earth, Good Will Toward All?

I just finished putting away my Christmas tree. I had put it up a few days before Christmas and, having a bit of a break from work, was able to enjoy its lights (it's fiber optic) for a while. I've a feeling now I should have put it up much sooner so I could have enjoyed it longer. Contrary to my fears, my cat Toonces didn't pay the tree much attention - no chewing through wires or pulling the tree off the table. Next year I'll know better. As I put it away, however, I thought about my view of the season.

Also, I just finished reading an article about One Jew's Christmas. I really enjoyed reading of the tolerance of this man toward his Christian friends. I agree with his concerns about the "extreme right" in this country, who are "unable to understand that sensitivity to all persons’ religions isn’t some kind of heresy." Click the above link and check it out.

It's a pity that this time of year has to set off such tension. On second thought, the tension is there all year long; perhaps Christmas just conveniently brings it front and center. Throw into the explosive mix our friends who don't believe in anything beyond the physical demanding the respect for their ideas which they truly deserve and you have a really ugly scene.

Religion shouldn't be that way at all. It is with profound shame that those of us who feel the pull of the religious impulse has to acknowledge the force of Mark Twain's words:

Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion—several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight.

That simply should not be, even in a non-literal sense.

If the non-religious attack us so robustly, may we not share some of the blame for our bad behavior? At the same time, dear non-believing friends, is it too much to ask that you aim your disapproval at the truly bad in religion, and not also at everyone who thinks differently about the matter? Yet again, we believers should be just as ready to call out bad behavior among ourselves.

As I see it, a firm commitment to the Golden Rule of treating others with the same respect and consideration we desire is the only hope for peace on earth. But how difficult that is for us shortsighted, self-centered humans!

Photo Credit:

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Ten Commandments For Atheists?

When I read this report about a contest that was the brainchild of Lex Bayer and John Figdor (who wrote the book Atheist Heart, Humanist Mind), I thought to myself, that is probably a bad idea.

It seems to me that the question isn't, Can atheists be moral? It is abundantly obvious they can be and often are. The question I have for atheists is this: Why was Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov wrong to suggest "If God does not exist, everything is permitted"? That seems to encapsulate the common thought of the God-believer. Without a supreme Law Giver, how can there be moral laws to break? Atheism is the denial, or at least lack of belief in, such a Supreme Law Giver.

The atheistic "commandments" in this article are obviously something more. It is really a statement of humanist ethics. Not all atheists are humanists. (But they are my favorite atheists!)

All that being said, I offer my thoughts on these "commandments."

1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.

The problem I have here is the word evidence. Evidence needs to be assessed and interpreted - lots of room for disagreement there. I think open-mindedness is a good idea. Perhaps we should begin practicing open-mindedness by recognizing that our way of looking at the evidence might not be the correct one, or only way of interpreting it.

2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.

Paraphrase: Religious faith is no damn good.

3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.

But does morality, the subject under discussion, have its grounding in physics or metaphysics?

4. Every person has the right to control of their body.


5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.

Agreed. But how does one get to ethical imperatives without God? The question I have is, Is morality something humans ought to practice?

6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.


7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.

But why should we do this? Those, for example, who go through life with a brutish attitude, oppressing those who are weaker, thinking primarily of themselves, living solely to satisfy their own desires are bad people, why? Are they bad at all or merely "dancing to the beat of a different drummer?"

8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.

Why have we that responsibility? Who says so? This is a fantastic thought, in my opinion. But it is obvious that millions take no heed to it. What is wrong about that?

9. There is no one right way to live.

That is the problem I have with atheistic morality. And it seems plain to me that it undermines the very idea of a set of commandments for atheists. If we take this "commandment" seriously, then the egoist is only practicing an alternative lifestyle. If there is no one right way to live, then why doesn't might make right? If there is no one right way to live, then number 7 above is just a quaint little thought instead of the way humans ought to conduct themselves.

10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.

But if there be no Divine Purpose and life is an accident without rhyme or reason, this is a mere platitude.

Now I add that I was critiquing the above ideas as atheist ideas. From the Humanist point of view they makes sense and have force for those who are committed to the principles of Humanism. But for those not so committed, they lack any force at all.

There is in this article a thought I found interesting. The author writes:

It's all about compassion: ... one does not need a religion to act ethically, with compassion, in the world. People, in fact, are "hardwired" to be compassionate. That is, people can be good, productive and caring citizens without a higher deity telling them to act in certain ways.

I actually find myself more or less in agreement about the "hardwiring" for being compassionate. That is what religious believers mean when they speak about a Law of God written on the heart. It's simplistic, I suppose, but I agree with Christian Philosopher C.S. Lewis when he wrote "conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world, thus pointing to a supernatural Lawgiver."

Again, I don't think it is a question of whether disbelievers in a Divine Lawgiver can behave morally. At the same time I certainly think it a misrepresentation to suggest God-believers only do good because a "higher deity" tells them to behave certain ways. No, the person who acts out of harmony with their conscience cannot be truly at peace.

I suppose I find myself in the position of being an Agnostic Theist. I'm not committed to number 3 above. I find room in my worldview for intuition, an inner light which guides us. That isn't to disparage the scientific method. It's just to leave room for a transcendent reality. And no, not solely because I wish it to be true (but confessedly, I do), but because I find evidences that to me makes more sense. Yet I am willing to concede I may be wrong. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Best Gift

I dashed off yesterday morning to do the last of my Christmas shopping. Along the way I passed a Baptist church and couldn't help but notice their sign:

Jesus is the best gift of all!

No scripture was quoted but immediately I thought of John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

I suppose I've softened towards Christians after my departure from that worldview. I'm no longer bitter. No doubt caring for my aging mother - who is quite the Christian - has had a lot to do with that. Also, the process of aging and looking back to my childhood has had some effect.

The Jesus of the canonical gospels impresses me. I only wish most of the Christians I know (the majority, I must say, only nominal Christians, even here in the U.S. Bible Belt) took their commitment more seriously. Even though they are ever ready to proclaim "Jesus is the reason for the season," it is glaringly obvious in watching their lives that they make no serious effort to emulate their "master."

Theologians down through the ages have made the story of Jesus something mostly repugnant. Some theories of the atonement are shocking and present a solid barrier for some (me included) against acceptance of the Christian religion.

The details of the birth of Jesus as related in the gospels of Luke and Matthew present contradictory details and perhaps historically inaccurate statements. And then there is that miraculous conception and virgin birth that rattle the modern mind.

My Christmas celebration is more secular in nature. I am going to put up my fiber optic Christmas tree tonight. (I haven't done it yet because I'm afraid my cat will destroy it.) I'll be taking some time off from work after Tuesday and will better be able to guard it.

And I've been working my way through my collection of Christmas specials on DVD, which includes five versions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol (the George C. Scott version being my favorite). The classic movie A Christmas Story will find its way into my celebration.

I always go with non-religious gift wrap paper and Christmas cards. It's not that I think I would offend anyone otherwise, I just don't want to present an image that isn't me.

The best gift for me is "the milk of human kindness," which is given in abundance at this time of year.

Yet still the story of Jesus has the power to tug at my heart.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

If Dogs Have A Heaven...

Man, I was watching the evening news yesterday and saw this story. It played all evening. Pope Francis comforts a little child who was grieving the death of its pet with the promise that our pets would be with us in Heaven: "Paradise is open to all creatures." Social media took to the story and suddenly it's everywhere.

One of those cutesy, make-you-feel-warm-and-fuzzy-all-over stories the media loves. Okay, so do a lot of us love them too after a steady diet of sensationalistic bad news. Alas, like a lot of things that sound to good to be true, this is a hoax. David Gibson supplies the details over at Religion News Service.

Gibson points out: "The story had so much going for it: Francis took his papal name from St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of environmentalism who famously greeted animals as brothers and sisters." Among other things.

Mitzi was the first dog I ever personally owned. She was a tan and chocolate Chihuahua, and I loved her dearly. I was eleven years old, and remember well I when I first got her (she was found by some young adults who couldn't keep her and so gave her to my mom, who promptly gave her to me) how when I cradled her in my arms (which was often), she would hide her face and eyes in the crook of my elbow.

For a year or more she was my constant companion and bestest friend. She died when I was 12, after becoming impregnated by my parent's Chihuahua. We came home one day and found her in great distress. Mom took Mitzi to the emergency animal hospital. Later that evening the veterinarian called to tell us he had cut out thirteen puppies - far more than she could handle. The next day he called to let us know she died overnight. And just like that my best friend was gone. I still have collar in my possessions today, over forty years later. I could never forget Mitzi.

She did leave me a gift, though. Before her tragic pregnancy, she had gifted me with two little female puppies (the third, a male, died soon after birth). Runt and Sweet Thang, I named them. Runt looked quite a bit like her, but was much lighter in color. These little friends stayed with me until I was well into my twenties.

I never owned another dog. Losing my little friends was just too painful. I had second thoughts about getting Toonces, my cat. I had befriend scores of neighborhood cats over the years, who left me one by one. But there was always a bit of distance between us. Toonces sleeps on my bed. Spends time in my lap. When I am home she stays in her little bed, just feet from where I sit at my computer desk. She does keep me company during the long hours I am otherwise alone. To keep me humble, she still hisses, swats, and bites me on occasion. But those occasions are rare now. She has made her way into my heart.

She also reminded me of the first cat I ever personally owned, Mittens. Solid black she was, except for white "mittens" on her paws. She was an affectionate cat who would let me hold her and carry her around endlessly (but never hissed, swatted, or bit me). I had her when I was 8. I had her for a couple of years. And then one sunny summer evening some wild teenagers drove down my street and purposely ran her down. I thought my world would end.

Now frankly, I'm not convinced that people go to Heaven when they die. I hope so, but I just don't know. My pets have been such a treasured part of my life, I can see the comfort that sharing Heaven with them could be. However, the Rainbow Bridge must remain only a comforting thought for now.

If nothing else this faux story took me on a bittersweet journey down memory lane. My life has been greatly enriched by the pets I and my family have owned down through the years.

In fact, as I'm writing this I have my front door open, just letting the sun shine in through the storm door. And there is Toonces, rolling around on her back on the carpet, just sunning herself. I think I'm going to wrap this up and get down there with her.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

We Need More Churches (Francis Pharcellus Churches, That Is)

A perennial favorite - and certainly a personal favorite of mine - is the short editorial/letter-response answering the question: Is there a Santa Claus?

The year was 1897. It was the age of Ingersoll - the Great Agnostic - who in this country at least was the chief spokesperson for rationalism. The industrial revolution was in full swing, and with it an lust towards materialism. And the move from science to scientism was also threatening to entirely chase magic from the mortal realm.

It was in this American milieu that New York Sun editor Francis Pharcellus Church was given the task of answering a little Virginia O'hanlan's question about Santa Claus. Wikisource has the entire essay here.

I see those same troubling things in full vigor today. A rationalism that is both unkind and belittling towards others. Mammon is the god of this age. And scientism still stifles faith and hope.
An antidote Church wrote (and I would second what he wrote):

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Certainly we know more today than we did at the close of the nineteenth century. Yet we are no where near saying we have it all figured out. Mystery still surrounds us, the more we probe into space, the more we delve into the past, the more scientists delve into the wonders of the animal body.

One more paragraph from Church:

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

Diminish faith, fancy and poetry and will not love and romance eventually be diminished as well? I worry about the reductionism that makes of humans mere robotic accidents of the "blind forces of nature."

As the poet Keats put it:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnom├Ęd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.

We need more Francis Churches, and some more John Keats, too.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Does Human History Need To Be Rewritten?

For some time I've entertained the idea ancient humans were much more knowledgeable than is usually given credit. So it was with great interest that I read about the 430,000 to 540,000-year-old mollusk with an etched-in zigzag pattern which has been getting attention.

Paleoanthropologist Dr. Stephen Munro bluntly suggests "it rewrites human history." Similar markings have been noted on previous artifacts, but those only date back 100,000 years. So it is being suggested that Homo erectus may have been more sophisticated than first thought.

So does the current understanding of history need a rewrite? It takes a lot for major adjustments to popular theory to be made. But I am encouraged by more and more findings that suggest the ancients were in fact very sophisticated.

For me the take away is the need to remain open-minded, and recognize that our knowledge about the distant past is fragmentary at best.

Monday, December 8, 2014

More Than Meets The Eye?

Just saw this one on the news. A Jewish lady out in California was in her local Walgreens to buy gift wrap for Hanukkah when she noticed Nazi symbols contained in the pattern of the wrap.

Cheryl Shapiro said "I really put my foot down because I was appalled by this." And after taking her grievance to the store manager, Walgreens made the decision to pull the offensive wrap.

I'm quite sure if I had seen this paper I would not have noticed the swastika. At least not without studying it for a while.

Was this an unfortunate coincidence? Is it possible someone was "in" on this and purposely tried to sneak this through in order to be offensive?

The swastika (under various names) has been in use for some three millennia. It took on its current infamy after Hitler's Germany made itself the disgrace of modernity. Before that it usually had good connotations. But we can't put the genii of the Nazi usage back into the bottle.

Some, I see, are suggesting this is an example of people looking for something to be offended over. That's way too cynical a view for me to entertain. I want to hope this was an unfortunate accident. I applaud Walgreens for taking the high road.

Symbolism can cut very deep indeed.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Trees Talk To Me

I'm no Druid or anything, but I swear I think the trees spoke to me this morning.

I've debated all day whether to post about this. After all, it's getting to where I'm writing about weird and off-the-wall things most of the time now. This is so strange I'm still in awe. Anyway, here goes...

This morning I awoke before sunrise - as is my custom - and came into my living room to start my day. But for some reason, I had this strange urge to go outside and look at the trees surrounding my home. (My neighborhood is surrounded by woods, was carved out of those woods, and so is still dotted with many trees.)

Now this wasn't something I really wanted to do because for the past week I have been battling the Mother of All Colds (okay, not really; but I've been sicker than I can remember being in many a year) and besides it was quite damp and raw.

While walking around my abode inspecting the trees I had this dread creep over me that my home was in imminent danger. Now that the leaves are all off the trees I can notice in stark detail how certain trees have grown in a slant over the back end my place and seem threatening (the above photo is of the scene). At once I determined to start calling tree services next week to get estimates on removing that danger.

After several more minutes of inspection I decided to go back inside and warm up. Immediately I sat at my desk and began reading my e-mails and watching the local news. Suddenly there was an indistinct noise from outside. I can't describe the way it sounded, but it didn't sound like what I later found it was.

It wasn't until an hour or so later when dawn was breaking that I noticed, upon opening my blinds, that an entire tree had fallen - just broke clean from the ground - about fifteen feet beside my home. The place next to me, where it fell, is empty and for sale. In fact, workers just finished Friday making final repairs on it and hanging out the sign. And won't they be surprised now?

To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I had just been standing out there. Fortunately it wasn't one of the trees that had made the greatest impression on me, but believe me, I won't procrastinate about getting someone out here to take down those trees!

The tree which fell did no damage other than making for an additional expense for the sellers. It fell two feet short of that house's back wall. It looks to me as if a tree standing just feet from the house broke the tree's fall. And in that pile of debris in front of the fallen tree is the top part of it which would surely have reached the house had that one tree not broken the fall. (That is a picture I took this afternoon.)

So is this a premonition? Was it just another of those oddball coincidences? This much I can say: there had been no storms; the wind was perfectly calm this morning, and I have no way to account for the fact that I woke up this morning with falling trees on my mind. But because I have determined to listen more closely to my instincts and inner voices, I will treat it as a premonition and pass my story along for what it may be worth to others. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Here Come Those Atheist Christmas Billboards

American Atheists is again using the power billboards to hammer home its message, just in time for Christmas. In Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis and Fort Smith, Arkansas - areas chosen because of nearness to churches and schools.

In a post at the American Atheists website it is explained:

“Even children know churches spew absurdity, which is why they don’t want to attend services. Enjoy the time with your family and friends instead,” said American Atheists President David Silverman. “Today’s adults have no obligation to pretend to believe the lies their parents believed. It’s OK to admit that your parents were wrong about God, and it’s definitely OK to tell your children the truth.”

Sure it's okay if you feel that way. But don't be surprised if a lot of us find your arrogance off-putting.
It is also okay to agree with your parents about God and to tell your children the truth about that.
The real truth is, many great minds - both down through history as well as today - have differed sharply about the God-hypothesis and are found on either side of the issue.

Sure, some atheists wish the whole matter could be sidestepped by dissing the concept as unworthy of consideration. But how convincing is that?

Isn't it time atheists come up with something better than the "believing in God is like believing in Santa Clause" meme?

It just seems to me that serious subject matter should be treated seriously and with proper respect. I think some on both sides fail miserably at this. You can read the comments on the AA post for proof of that.