Adrift in the Sea of Relativity

The Thinker by Rodin

There is lot of twittering among the denizens at DailyKOS over Republicans and their recent convention. Particularly humorous for us was not Mitt Romney, who comes across as a generally decent but vacillating and contradictory buffoon, but his vice presidential pick Paul Ryan. What makes Ryan particularly interesting to us progressives is his ability to hold two completely contradictory notions in his head and pledge fealty to both.

This is hardly news among Republicans, but in Ryan’s case the choice is so stark that it is hard for us Democrats to not feel glee at the resulting contrast. Paul Ryan is simultaneously a big believer in Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism and claims to be a devout Catholic. Anybody with even a surface knowledge of both Objectivism and Catholicism has to ask: WTF?

Long time readers of this blog may remember my little treatise on the ridiculousness of Objectivism. I too was briefly under its spell. Fortunately, I sobered up pretty quick once I realized it was both crazy and unworkable. Yet Objectivism stuck to Ryan like superglue, but of course being conservative and a Catholic he couldn’t just stop going to mass and confessing his devotion to the Catholic faith. And yet Ryan is the same person whose budget plan passed the House in 2011 and consisted chiefly of the cutting the poor off at their kneecaps (well, actually more like the waist) while lavishing tax cuts on the rich.

Wags on DailyKos wondered how a true Objectivist like Ryan could run for office in the first place: politicians are supposed to address issues for the benefit of their constituents, but a real Objectivist would only take an action if it was solely in his selfish interest. Moreover, Ayn Rand was an atheist. The Catholic bishops, hardly examples of shining virtue, quickly cut Ryan down to size, reiterating, among other things, that Catholics must care about the poor and work for social justice. Ryan, of course, remains tone deaf to the church’s criticisms and calls the controversy a mere “difference of opinion”.

Everyone seems to have pillars of truth that they anchor their lives around. In Ryan’s case they are weirdly self-contradictory. Be it Objectivism, or Catholicism, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths or secular treatises like Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, there is comfort to be had in going with an off the shelf solution. Many, many years back I opined on what it might be like if we all built our own personal philosophy, perhaps by pulling pieces from elsewhere. That appears to be Ryan’s approach. Something about Objectivism he found very appealing, but there must be some nugget of Catholicism that he found appealing as well. Apparently it wasn’t the social justice part. Maybe it was the no divorce ever part. Whatever. Glue them together and with whatever bastardized shape emerges label it “my truth”.

And why not? Because in the end, we all end up dead. So you might as well grab onto some philosophy or religion to get through life. Your life will likely be too short for your tastes anyhow, and you probably don’t want to spend most of it wallowing in an existential angst. We may be compulsively driven toward faith, for the same way we are driven to eat and sleep. We need some faith, even if it is not a religious faith like Communism, to make sense out of a life that would otherwise appear pointless, random and very chaotic.

We get occasional reminders that we keep barking up the wrong trees. Harold Camping’s revelation that the world would end on May 21, 2011 proved incorrect, but at least for a while it got him some attention. When he does pass his fallacious prediction will at least warrant him a real obituary, rather than a death notice. The world will not end this fall when the Mayan calendar resets itself either. One of the reasons I am a Unitarian Universalist is that we don’t profess to a creed and thus we never suffer the shame of looking ridiculous like Harold Camping. If we have a creed, it is that our creed is changeable depending on what science discovers. However, Unitarians are weird. We are like people who never want to get off the roller coaster. Most people prefer the solid feel of terra firma under their feet.

The evidence is overwhelming that our lives are accidental rather than a part of some grand design. In that sense, life really is like riding a roller coaster. So you might as well enjoy your random ride through life for the time that you have. If you get the opportunity to enjoy it, consider yourself fortunate. However, be aware that you probably have this chance only because your parents invested time and money in you, and shepherded you through many obstacles so that you could thrive in the jungle called life. For those of us fortunate to be in the canopy, the view is nice, but down on the jungle floor life is hell. Most people on this planet live lives that, if not in hell, are deep in purgatory. When your life is mostly hell, faith anchored in an afterlife has a lot of appeal, which probably explains why faiths have been so overwhelmingly popular. That religion is diminishing in places like Europe suggests a critical mass there has truly achieved enlightenment. So perhaps their time on earth will be decent overall, but we all share the same fate: death.

What do the faithless like me do? Do we live each day like Hugh Hefner? Do we attempt to alleviate suffering even though such efforts are microscopic in the grand suffering going on around us? Should we feel no sanctions against murder, or fleecing our neighbors, or chasing our neighbors’ wives? Is there a point to anything we do when we die and everything else dies as well, and when a thousand years from now we can infer with great confidence that our lives and times will be wholly forgotten?

For me, despite being over fifty, this reality is still pretty scary. Some part of me still longs for the certainty by which the faithful anchor, or seem to anchor their lives. There are no real guideposts for people like me, only our own confused and flawed consciences. We keep trying to do the best for ourselves and those we live with. We are adrift in a Sea of Relativity, and we know it. We also know why so many of those around us, like the Paul Ryans of the world, prefer the delusion of certainty to the uncomfortable angst of being awake.

Tips for proselytizers

The Thinker by Rodin

I am probably like most people. I do not like being proselytized to. I realize that it is a free country, which means that anyone can proselytize to anyone else. Since I react to it like someone with a peanut allergy to a nearby peanut butter sandwich, I have incorporated techniques to minimize proselytizers in my life.

For example, I almost never answer a knock on my door anymore. If I feel motivated enough, I may actually look through the little hole in my door to see whom it is. If I don’t know who they are, the door stays shut. Only once did I need to hear from some stranger knocking on my door. He let me know I left my car’s lights on. Otherwise, it has been a steady stream of people wanting to sell me stuff. Sometimes it is relatively benign, like a Girl Scout out selling cookies. Often it is someone working on some campaign. However, about twenty percent of the time, someone wants to sell me salvation.

One key way to recognize proselytizers is that they are usually dressed up. They often work in pairs as well. Jehovah’s Witnesses are particularly easy to spot because they wear dark pants, a white shirt, a dark tie and are often also on bicycles. They are clean, short haired (if a man) and well groomed, sort of like Mr. Rogers, but without the cardigan sweater. They are also usually carrying copies of The Watchtower. Mormons also tend to dress when knocking on doors. One thing is for sure: no one on my block knocks on doors dressed fancy, unless they are coming to your house for an upscale party. Dressing up in my neighborhood is like wearing a sign that says, “I am a proselytizer.” Maybe jeans and a T-shirt would be a more effective way of getting that foot in the door.

Some years back, I expressed my opinion that leaving “Are you saved?” pamphlets and related literature on car windshields was also an incredibly ineffective way to get converts. I would be amazed if one in a thousand of these little pamphlets actually brought someone into a church. Maybe spending all that money to grab one or two souls is worth it to some. To me, this approach seems a giant waste of time, money and newsprint.

Some of the devout are beginning to understand that their well-meaning tactics work poorly at best and counterproductively at worst. One of them is Jim Henderson, chronicled last year in an episode of This American Life. Henderson seems to acknowledge that traditional tactics for saving souls no longer work very well. He is taking something of a secular approach toward proselytizing. This has involved inviting atheists and people of other faiths to come to church and see what turns them on and off. He is also making friends with the unsaved without the expectation of converting them to anything. Henderson and his group take a long-term approach. After all, today it is almost impossible to find people who have not heard of Christianity or Jesus. Many of them have already have chosen faiths, or are comfortable with their lack of faith. Their prospects are often as plugged into the media and Internet as they are. They know what you believe and can anticipate your sales pitch. Apparently, salvation doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to you.

Henderson’s non-proselytizing proselytism may be the wave of the future, although the ultimate outcome may be different than he expects. While the hazy goal may be new saved souls, what is really happening is real dialog between believer and non-believer wherein the unsaved become a peer, not a candidate for salvation. In the past, proselytism succeeded in part because it was forced on the heathen. For example, Spaniards colonizing the New World had no problem slaughtering any native on the spot who was not enlightened enough to accept their faith. I guess they figured they were otherwise doomed to hell. Such tactics no longer are allowed. People, or at least the grown adults among us, choose their faith freely. Since ringing doorbells and missionary work is less effective these days, there seems to be little choice but neutral but meaningful engagement. Today, proselytizers have to live with and behave like the natives to win their respect. Through friendship, which usually cannot be faked, they have a chance of converting them. The problem with this approach is that by living with the natives, it becomes difficult not to empathize with them. You may find yourself losing your faith rather than winning any converts.

People who do embrace a faith outside of their own were probably inclined toward the faith all along, and needed a catalyst to set things into action. I turned out to be an accidental proselytizer. I am a Unitarian Universalist, and as a people with our own peculiar faith, we abhor proselytism. When my friend Renee and I started to work on social action projects, we used my Unitarian church to stage a number of community events. She attended another non-denominational but inclusive church not too far removed from Unitarian Universalism. Over time, she went there less but acquired more exposure to my church. My church turned out to be familiar territory because (and I did not know this at the time) she was raised a Unitarian Universalist. It turned out I facilitated her return to a faith where she had always felt closely aligned. I suspect she became estranged from it when her parents divorced.

I think that most proselytizing fails because people are generally comfortable with their current faith or lack thereof. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is their motto. However, during periods of great crisis, if the right person enters someone’s life, their emotional vulnerability might persuade them to make great personal leaps. This is why there are no Salvation Army churches, unless you count their local canteens. If you are a hopelessly drunk, drug addicted, or are in the midst of other wrenching personal problems, you are probably relatively friendless as well. A relative stranger might be able to offer a path toward recovery by embracing their faith.

What they are embracing though is not likely to be Jesus or the Bible, which may come later. What they will embrace instead is a caring and inclusive community of people who at least appear to care about them. Whether Jesus is or is not a path to salvation will probably matter much less to them than whether they can call you a friend, and whether your friends embrace them as well. The need to feel loved is universal. What feels meaningful is a human-to-human, not the wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount, or the promise of some hazy afterlife where they will be blissfully happy for eternity.

In short, the wise proselytizer will not proselytize at all, but will simply love generously and with an open heart. You will not have to read the Bible to them to convince them. It is likely to happen very slowly if it happens at all. However, with sincerity and perseverance, one day they may feel exceptionally close to you in their heart. Then, unprompted, they may ask to know more about your faith, or ask you to take them to a service, or simply show up for a Sunday service at your church.

Their decision will likely be based on how they feel about you as a person and your integrity, not on your faith or holy book. The faith you seek to give them will likely be an independent discovery that will occur many months or years after they start attending your church.

Speaking of faith

The Thinker by Rodin

Well, it has taken a few centuries but it looks like there is a small, tiny hairline fracture in the religious space-time continuum. When atheists and devout Christians can sit down together and learn from each other without dismissing or proselytizing to one another, this is news. Yet somehow, this momentous event was largely overlooked. Yet it is actually happening, albeit in a relatively small way.

Mehta, now an honors graduate in mathematics and biology, has not converted, but the two have become friends. Mehta has started his own blog (friendlyatheist.com) and travels to speak to churches and humanist organizations. He has written a book – “I Sold My Soul on eBay” – that explains why he is an atheist and gives churches advice on what it would take to reach nonbelievers.

This is not to suggest that interfaith dialogs never occur. They do. Even the Pope occasionally catches the ecumenical wave and is seen openly praying with Muslims, Jews and assorted Protestants. The problem with most of these dialogs is that no real understanding occurs. These dialogs serve some other purposes but mutual learning is not one of them.

Nevertheless, when atheists and devout Christians can actually hear what the other is saying and take some actions based on their learning, I begin to feel that there is hope for humanity. It makes me wonder if seemingly intractable problems like global warming can be solved too. In the case of Jim Henderson, a former evangelical pastor, he is learning from atheists what I suggested back in 2004: Christian marketing practices suck. They suck because they are based on the model of the ignorant savage. There are not many of us still running around the bushes. Evangelicals hoping to draw in new adherents had better understand where the modern unchurched are coming from.

As for the “friendly atheist” Hemant Mehta, he is getting an eye opening in contemporary Christianity. If he was inclined to believe that Christians are starry-eyed myopic zealots, his understanding is now clarified through actual experiences. It seems that Christians are not necessarily always studying their Bible on break, or spending their weekends knocking on doors bringing the good news to the unenlightened. It seems that Christianity does not necessarily wholly define the lives of all Christians. Who would have thunk?

If you ask me, both the religious and the non-religious should spend much more time listening to each other. Talking at each other is easy. Listening is hard. When you listen, you have to acknowledge the point of view that you are hearing. When you listen, some part of your mind must see the world through the eyes of the person you are hearing. When you listen, it is hard not to develop empathy with the person talking. The person you are tuned into is no longer objectified as the heathen or the unenlightened. Instead, they become a human being. They become personable and real.

Many issues needlessly divide us from one another, and one of our most polarizing differences is religion. I count here atheism as a religion too. I am sure many atheists will want to harass me on the point, but there are many similarities between the religious and the atheists. Christians and atheists have this in common: certainty. Christians are certain that Jesus is our Savior. Atheists are certain he is not and God is a fiction. Both are dogmatic. Only now, maybe they are a little less so than they used to be.

Here is one of life’s lessons that I fortunately learned quite early after I pulled away from Catholicism: what religion you do or do not practice doesn’t really matter. Religion is the window dressing. Values are the window itself. I am guessing that you think that Christians and atheists do not have many values in common. Guess again. Both likely have a reverence for life. Both likely believe in love, fidelity and family. Both share a passion for the truth and only differ in how the truth should be interpreted. Of course, they also have other values that are not in common. That is okay because we are all unique. We all arrived where we are at via different paths. Consequently, we are not all going to believe the same things. So of course, we are not always going to share the same exact perspectives. We are each like a unique mold of gelatin, but we are all made of same gelatin. Our mold just happens to be our path through life. We are different but simultaneously we are also the same. This is natural for us. This is the way it was meant to be!

We need to never forget this. Truly, far more commonalities tie us together than pulls us apart. Your religion, your lack of it or your complete indifference to it should not matter any more than your eye color. The world would be a less interesting place if we all had brown eyes. The same is true with our many faiths and spiritual practices. Why not embrace our differences, instead of feeling affront if your beliefs are different from mine? If we were all the same then this world would be deathly dull. You can see how exciting the world was when much of it lived under communism. Was it better when everyone lived in the same kind of drab block apartments? How much more interesting life becomes when we celebrate, respect and realize we draw collective strength because of our differences.

My inner theist almost thinks this meeting of minds between religious and irreligious must be divinely inspired. How wholesome it is. How intuitively right it is. Now what is needed is much more of the same. Let us bring many more of the churched and unchurched together. Let us get them talking in measured and respectful ways. We have nothing to fear from open and respectful dialog and everything to gain. We are simply who we are. Yet almost all of us want to be listened to with respect. When we are not heard in a respectful way that is meaningful to us, the extreme cases can end up wreaking their vengeance in horrifying ways.

Look, I know it is not easy to listen. It is as hard for me as it is for you. Nonetheless, we need to make active listening a conscious and regular habit, particularly with people we are most prone to disagree with. Let us listen to each other with a kind and open heart. Let us find common connections with each other. There may or may not be a heaven in the hereafter. However, we can all agree that there is plenty to do in the here and now to make our world much better, kinder and gentler place.

Genuine dialog is the means to achieve this end. So step one is simply this: to listen.

Some words on faith

The Thinker by Rodin

I receive a comment today from John O’Brien. It is attached to an old entry Unsaved that I made back in 2003. His questions deserve a fuller answer. I will not answer all his questions here, because I have put my thoughts in other blog entries where I touched on religion and faith. Readers are welcome to check out these entries:

I would like to preface my remarks by saying that I do not claim to have all “the answers to life’s persistent questions”, as the radio detective Guy Noir puts it. I simply have my thoughts, informed by my unique experience and through learning. I respect everyone’s religious beliefs or lack thereof. In some cases, I may profoundly disagree with your beliefs themselves, but I do respect your right to believe in anything you wish.

Conversations on matters of faith are always iffy. Often there is a subtext to such discussions. It is, “I want to keep discussing things with you until you come around to my point of view”. This more often translates into “I want you to become a Christian/Muslim/Jew/Atheist/Moonie/Mormon just like me.” There are many people out there who want to save my soul. While I respect your wish to save my soul, I do not want you to save my soul. I do not open my door to proselytizers. I avoid public discussions of faith altogether. One thing I have learned painfully about the devoutly religious (and it probably applies to me as well): if you have your mind made up about the correctness of your faith, argument cannot change it. Only those without a faith can have an honest discussion on the merits of faith. Otherwise, you come into the discussion with a profound bias.

John wonders if there are parts of the Bible that I consider trustworthy. Yes, there are parts of the Bible: matters of historical record that have been proven as a result of archeology. I am very skeptical about certain alleged events like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but others like the Sermon on the Mount seem quite plausible, although I suspect Jesus was paraphrased. I doubt someone was standing in the crowd taking notes.

His question on what authority can be accepted in one’s life implies an absolute and external standard of reference. Clearly if you believe in God, it is easy to posit an absolute standard of reference. Clearly, the Bible is one of many out there. For myself, I do not place faith in any absolute authority, which is why I am logically agnostic. Bertrand Russell has an answer that works fairly well for me:

I am constantly asked: What can you, with your cold rationalism, offer to the seeker after salvation that is comparable to the cozy homelike comfort of a fenced dogmatic creed? To this the answer is many-sided. In the first place, I do not say that I can offer as much happiness as is to be obtained by the abdication of reason. I do not say that I can offer as much happiness as is to be obtained from drink or drugs or amassing great wealth by swindling widows and orphans. It is not the happiness of the individual convert that concerns me; it is the happiness of mankind.

John asks if I believe there an acceptable authority, either internal or external. I think we must each answer that question ourselves. As creatures of free will, we can choose to submit to someone else’s will, or we can choose to think for ourselves. I choose the latter, but I have no problem with those who prefer the former. They seem to make up the overwhelming majority.

Is there any absolute standard of life to which I can relate? I am not very sure what John means here. For myself, I notice that our universe is ordered relatively, not absolutely. Einstein’s Theories of Relativity, for example suggest that everything made of mass or energy influences everything else. As you watch a train go by and you hear the pitch of the train’s whistle change as it passes, does the pitch actually change? It depends on the perspective of who is doing the listening. To the train’s engineer the pitch does not change. To someone watching it pass, it does change. Both are true at the same time. Einstein’s general and specific theories expand this idea to all the energy and matter in the universe. If I have a small article of faith, it is that I do not think I am really separate from anything else. I think our separateness is an illusion and we are both united and separate at the same time. For me, this renders the idea of absolutism absurd. I think the universe is an organism and we are part of it. For some this suggests that each of us is part of the mind of God. For more thoughts on this, check out my entry Our Wild, Wild Universe.

I hope this answers John’s questions though. I suspect though that it will more likely leave him confused.

Just another secular Sunday

The Thinker by Rodin

I have lost that Easter feeling.

When you grow up Christian, Easter is one of the two high holy days of the year, the other one being Christmas, of course. Our culture makes it impossible to escape Christmas. Ironically, I have forgotten all about Easter again this year. Had I not read about it in the paper today, I would have forgotten about it today too. Of the two Christian holidays, arguably Easter is the more important. After all, had Jesus been born and had not risen from the dead, as most Christians believe, well, he would have been just another anonymous brat born in a manger. (Of course, I have a different take on the meaning of Jesus’ life.)

If you grow up Catholic and attend Mass regularly, as I did, it is impossible not to anticipate Easter. As with Christmas, the many events that preceded it acted as a crescendo to the actual event itself. Just as Christmas is preceded by the season of Advent, Easter is preceded by Lent. When I was a wee lad, Lent meant forty-four days of denial. Now Lent usually means devout Catholics have to abstain from meat on Fridays. The Catholics who studied their Baltimore Catechisms might also spend more time during Lent devoted prayer and almsgiving. I suspect most American Catholics could not even tell you what almsgiving actually is.

Holy Week (the week before Easter) was of course a big deal when I was growing up. Mass on Palm Sunday included a procession into the church with palm fronds, reputedly reenacting Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Good Friday meant heading to the church to devoutly perform the Stations of the Cross. At each station, we had to ponder the horror and the sorrow that poor Jesus underwent because our nasty and pervasive sinning. Easter itself meant large crowds of lapsed Catholics at church (who would reappear on Christmas), kielbasa and eggs for breakfast (for we were a Polish Catholic family), and of course Easter eggs. In our family though, we were not talking the Cadbury kind, but actual hardboiled eggs that we painted in watercolors and placed in Easter baskets. All those eggs were very pretty to look at, except few of us liked hardboiled eggs, so they were largely left uneaten. The eggs were either gone or thrown away long before Ascension Day.

Since then of course I have spent thirty years away from Catholicism and have gone largely secular. When our daughter was a child and her grandmother was still obsessed about sending us Easter baskets, we would hold an Easter egg hunt or two. Then we simply forgot about Easter. This year was typical. As usual last week I had no idea that Easter was arriving.

Supposedly we live in a more religious and Christian country than we used to. I doubt this for we are too busy breaking Sabbath laws in the name of our real God, capitalism, to care too much anymore about holidays like Easter. I remember a time when Easter was as pervasive as Christmas. You can still find the Easter candy and Easter baskets at stores this time of year. Like Christmas presents, they tend to arrive months before the actual event.

Perhaps Easter would mean more if the date did not change every year. According to Wikipedia, Easter is calculated as follow. “The canonical rule is that Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the 14th day of the lunar month (the nominal full moon) that falls on or after 21 March (nominally the day of the vernal equinox).” Establishing Easter as, say, the first Sunday in April might help cement the date in our minds. Since it can arrive as early as March 22nd or as late as April 25th, chances are whatever Sunday you think it is during a given year is likely to be wrong.

Given its confusing arrival date, my spiritual but not religious state, and my rather harried life, Easter tends to slip by me most years. Often it is not until I see the Easter candy discounted at the local CVS do I have a clue that I missed it again.

Perhaps I have lost something precious as a result of my secular adulthood. Some part of me does miss the hoopla surrounding Easter. The smell of burning incense in the sanctuary, the solemnity with which I did the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday and the High Masses celebrated on Easter Sunday are certainly childhood memories to treasure.

Also gone is of course my naiveté. It is strange that although Jesus reputedly was raised from the dead, only his disciples saw him. It is also curious how the legend of his resurrection grew in the telling. The Gospel according to Mark, the first gospel written, has little of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, yet we get much longer and florid accounts in later gospels like Luke’s. It seems Jesus wanted to test our faith a bit. He was not the type after resurrection to go back to the temple in Jerusalem and allow himself to be inspected by the rabbis so there would be no doubt whatsoever about his resurrection. I guess he did not want to frighten little children or anything. Jesus was so thoughtful that way.

For me today is just another Sunday. Since the weather is nice though, I intend to celebrate Easter in my own way. While I shall not celebrate a resurrection that I do not believe actually happened, I shall get on my bike and peddle twenty miles or so on the W&OD trail. I shall enjoy the fresh air, the sunshine, the glorious flowering trees in Washington this time of year, and the intoxicating feeling of rebirth during spring here in the northern hemisphere. For me this is the real resurrection.