An Atheist In Church

What better time to contemplate God than on the biggest shopping weekend of the year? (Even if it isn’t really.) Hector and I have been having an ongoing discussion about religion and once again, he touched on all kinds of interesting things. So here are some choice quotes and some responses.

I liked the Carlin bit. He’s right, that a certain amount of exposure to dirt and germs are required to get the immune system started. Something that bugs me (hah! bugs!) is when people who obviously have a cold insist on shaking my hand. Keep it to yourself, can’t you? At church they do this thing called “sharing the peace.” If germs and virus were big enough to see, people would realize that this is the same kind of thing as snake-handling, counting on God to protect you from danger. I think it’s asking too much of God. He made those snakes and those germs dangerous. A little respect, please! A couple of years ago, the pastor said that since the flu was so bad that year, the “sharing the peace” would be suspended for a few weeks. [Sounds like “The snakes are especially venomous this season, so we won’t be handling them for a month or so.”] That was sensible, and should have continued indefinitely, but no, here we are back again with the coughers and snifflers extending their hands and feeling snubbed if I won’t grab them. And then the backbiting starts: “He’s so full of himself, he won’t shake your hand!”

There is a process called science through which we know things. Then there’s a thing called “science” which could be described as “things portrayed as science”. (Yes, it’s confusing, since the two words look and sound exactly alike and mean almost the exact opposite.) Back in the 19th century, you could find “science” which made claims on the order of “We pretty much know everything and it’s just the details we need to work out.”

Politicized scientific groups, the media, educational groups and the government tend to perpetuate this absurd notion to the extent that most of us walk around thinking we have a clue. And our very safe environment gives us the luxury of not having the truth slapped in our faces. This leads to a lot of superstitious behavior.

Diseases are a good example of us not having a clue. Germ theory posits that microorganisms cause disease. But that leaves a lot of holes. Why are there outbreaks? Why do some people get sick while others don’t? There is a science (epidemiology) but it only works at the macro level. There are too many factors at the micro level–where we all live–to make it seem other than God playing dice.

I’m not sure about what “sharing the peace” is, exactly, but it sounds like something that is incidentally unsanitary as opposed to an attempt to test one’s faith (like snake-handling). If it’s incidental (not intrinsic), you could suggest more sanitary approaches.

But of course, you don’t win friends by breaking tradition, regardless of sanitary (or sanity) issues.

The test of faith issue is probably more interesting.

Well, that’s enough about that. Yes, I’m an atheist; yes, I go to church now and then; so what. It’s a social thing.

Heh. Well, it’s no skin off my nose. And I’ve found that religious folk don’t necessarily lump all unbelievers together. If you’re there, they might see you as a fellow traveler who’s just farther back down the road.

(Several hundred words deleted.) … I place a great deal of value on the social networking that arises from church membership. It would please me greatly if I could see somewhere else for this kind of caring to come from, that was not mediated by the State; since State-mediated caring is not really caring at all, it’s somebody’s job. The reason I love my daughter, or feel concerned about my neighbor, is not because I am paid to do so; I do those things because they are part of myself. They are not things I can give up if I get another job at the highway department or investment bank.

Secular social networking tends to be about individuals hooking up for their mutual, individual benefit. It seldom, from what I’ve seen, goes beyond fairly immediate needs and rarely does it create a group. But it does sometimes.

The American Revolution, for example. created a fairly strong secular group. Religion was involved and influential, but not the primary driver. The Revolutionary movement was primarily philosophical, though it had plenty of violence and hardship that, up until about 50 years ago, was enough to unite Ameicans as a people even when they disagreed.

Military service, especially actual battle time, unites people.

But is violence necessary? Hector goes on:

So, if I’m reading you right, this sort of binding comes from poverty and privation. I’d rather see it come from the kind of self-interest that incorporates the realization that, to use a cliché, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Can we get past the idea that what’s good for me has to be bad for you. The world is not a zero-sum process.

I don’t think privation and poverty are necessary and they’re certainly not sufficient, at the same time it occurred to me recently that without some sort of test, how do you know if someone’s going to be there when you need them?

I think a lot of religions are based on notions of fairness. There’s all this stuff we don’t have a clue about, and life is not only not fair, it seems arbitrarily cruel at time. Religions often tell us that there’s a scale that, ultimately, get balanced. Or they tell us we can achieve a state where we don’t care.

I just can’t make out where a belief in supernatural powers is required to make love work in human lives.

Value, meaning, significance–these are things that are assigned. You can say that a particular thing in the universe has a particular value: The wolf knows that the rabbit has a particular value if he’s hungry and he hasn’t eaten in a long time.

But what makes the wolf valuable? Ultimately, like cause-and-effect, one ends up with something outside the universe. From the standpoint of the strictly material, “life” is just an accident of physics.

But then: I have long thought that it should be possible to prove ethics by mathematics, i.e., that there must be some way to show that the right thing is also the rational thing. In other words, we don’t need threats from a supernatural power to tell us that, for instance, it’s wrong to [sin of your choice here, let’s use “covet” as an example] covet; a little rational thought will show us that it’s counter-productive to covet. Don’t covet your neighbor’s HDTV, and get indigestion thinking about it; it makes more sense to save your pennies and get one of your own. As simple as that.

Behaving ethically is certainly logical. We could even make a mathematical formula:

(G/E) > 1

That is, the ratio of Good (G) to Evil (E) has to be greater than one for the act to be ethical. I’m being tongue-in-cheek here, but only slightly. We could say:

G1 + G2 + G3…/E1 + E2 + E3…=Ϛ

I’m using the obsolete Greek letter “stigma” because it amuses me. We’ll say that the series of Gs represent the positive effects of doing something in various scopes, while E represents the evil.

For example, say you’re building a house: We could count as positives the shelter, the social economic activity (assuming you don’t do everything by yourself), the increase of your own assets (which might mean being worth more money, being more marriageable, etc), what the house allows you to do (raise children), if it grows a community, and we could even count the aesthetic value of the house, and the dog house and bird feeder in the back yard. We could also count tearing down a structure already on that site, if it’s run down and dangerous. (Destruction can be positive, which is why I used the terms “good” and “evil” rather than “constructive” and “destructive”.)

On the negative side we could count the loss of assets (if the market crashed), and basically consider the negatives or potential negatives of all the positives previously listed. Like, the house could be ugly, being a negative aesthetic. On top of that, we could posit habitats that are displaced by the construction, destruction of trees for lumber, etc.

Of course, it’s easy to come up with butterfly-wing-flapping effects, and much harder to weight them. How heavily do you weight the aesthetics, for example?

So, I agree that ethics can be approached mathmetically. We could even say that given two actions,

Ϛ1 > Ϛ2

we should prefer action Ϛ1. For any given set of actions, we should prefer the one with the highest Ϛ, that is, the highest ratio of Good to Evil. The Devil is in the details, of course, but in most mundane cases finding the right action, or isolating the set of more right actions.

When certain factors are hidden, of course–well, that’s when we get into trouble.

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