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Posts Tagged ‘God

Lewis Lapham is an authentic intellectual treasure

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Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1882; One of ...
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His comments on religion are so evocative for me in my present agnostic state of mind:

I brought the same qualities into the apostate lecture halls where it was announced that God was dead. The time and cause of death were variously given in sophomore and senior surveys of western civilization—disemboweled by Machiavelli in sixteenth-century Florence, assassinated in eighteenth-century Paris by agents of the French Enlightenment, lost at sea in 1835 while on a voyage with Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands, garroted by Friedrich Nietzsche on a Swiss Alp in the autumn of 1882, disappeared into the nuclear cloud ascending from Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The assisting coroners attached to one or another of the history faculties submitted densely footnoted autopsy reports, but none of the lab work brought forth a thumbprint of the deceased.

The one thing I rue about living in China is that it seems problematic to get copies of Lapham’s Quarterly and other collections of serious writing.

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Is there a “right way” to pray?

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A picture of Pisgah Baptist Church in Four Oak...
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My first inclination is that “the right way” is what the right wingers are all about and Pew Research surveys continue to offer us metrics about the pervasiveness of belief in a personal God and the practice of prayer in the US. I’m sure if they did their survey in Canada that the numbers for BC, Alberta, Sask and Manitoba would look the same as those in the US.

But the NY Times has this way of “printing “news” that is fit to print” do they have a magazine essay about learning how to pray in Brooklyn NY. Here’s an excerpt from that essay:

But I am in a small minority, at least in the United States. According to a recent study by the Pew Forum, 75 percent of Americans report that they pray at least once a week. Interestingly, only 39 percent attend a worship service once a week or more frequently. Steven Waldman, the editor in chief of, says he thinks this gap means prayer in America is becoming detached from traditional denominations. “In a way, prayer has become its own religion in this society,” he told me. “People pick and choose. They want to be their own spiritual contractors.” This tendency toward do-it-yourself spirituality affects every denomination. According to Waldman, there is a widespread phenomenon of Protestants burying plastic St. Josephs to help them sell their homes. Some Orthodox Jewish rabbis recommend the Lord’s Prayer as a pathway to spirituality. Jesuit retreats routinely incorporate Hindu and Buddhist techniques of meditation. And for those who can’t find what they want among the traditional brands, there are personal trainers known as spiritual directors.

Let me be clear about my own beliefs. I think prayer is childish and but it could have a significant Placebo Effect and that could be good, even for me! But let’s face it all this God talk is indulging in wide spread fantasies about “underlying truths”. So I’m willing to consider the benefit of the Placebo Effect, but fantasy is 99% bunkum and cant!

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Robert Wright suggests how science vs. religion wars could be ended

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Robert Wright (journalist)
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I have a lot of time for Robert W and his thoughts about the meaning and purpose of life. His thesis, Non-Zero sum game or how to win-win all the time, is persuasive. His newest book “The Evolution of God” is an application of Non-Zero summing to religion and science.

This past weekend he posted a piece in NY Times with these final paragraphs:

Clearly, this evolutionary narrative could fit into a theology with some classic elements: a divinely imparted purpose that involves a struggle toward the good, a struggle that even leads to a kind of climax of history. Such a theology could actually abet the good, increase the chances of a happy ending. A more evolved religion could do what religion has often done in the past: use an awe-inspiring story to foster social cohesion — except this time on a global scale.

Of course, religion doesn’t have a monopoly on awe and inspiration. The story that science tells, the story of nature, is awesome, and some people get plenty of inspiration from it, without needing the religious kind. What’s more, science has its own role to play in knitting the world together. The scientific enterprise has long been on the frontiers of international community, fostering an inclusive, cosmopolitan ethic — the kind of ethic that any religion worthy of this moment in history must also foster.

William James said that religious belief is “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” Science has its own version of the unseen order, the laws of nature. In principle, the two kinds of order can themselves be put into harmony — and in that adjustment, too, may lie a supreme good.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author, most recently, of “The Evolution of God.”

This shows the way for me to cut the shouting chatter between science (a la Richard Dawkins) and religion by any evangelical!

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2009/08/25 at 10:42

A persuasive analysis of Robert Wright’s “Evolution of God”

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Robert Wright (journalist)
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I have said before that I have a lot of time for Robert Wright‘s views about religion, evolution, gaming and politics. So I naturally took the time to read this review of his latest book. Since the reviewer is a professor of philosophy it is not surprising that he has distilled an essence of Wright’s approach to explaining our attachment to the God principle.

For me the last three paragraphs of this review evoke that wise distillation of Wright’s thinking and my own:

If every amazing explanation needs to be explained, and God is sufficiently amazing to explain natural selection (which is amazing) — then what explains God? Clearly something has gone wrong: Indeed, this whole approach to thinking about explanation is completely wrongheaded. A successful explanation banishes one’s bewilderment by dissolving what was previously inexplicable. There is, in the case of a successful explanation, no residual bewilderment, nothing remaining to be explained. If an explanation has failed then one is justified in seeking a further or more complete explanation. But it makes no sense for one, having been offered a successful explanation, to shake his head and say: “How incredible! What an amazingly successful explanation! How could there even be such an amazingly successful explanation? What could possibly explain that?”The point of evolution via natural selection is that it needs very little to get going — even though it can have amazing results, and produces things that appear to have been deliberately designed, the nature of the process is that it does not involve conscious design, nor does it itself need to have been designed or deliberately set in motion. That is why it is a successful and powerful explanation. So to treat its amazing success as evidence for some sort of designer is exactly the wrong conclusion to draw from it. Ironically, what it shows is that one did not really grasp what made the explanation so amazingly successful in the first place.

Though they are profoundly philosophically confused (I resist the cynical impulse to write “Because they are profoundly philosophically confused …”), reconciliationist positions like Wright’s are increasingly popular these days. Perhaps this is, in part, a mark of progress: Even in so religious a country as the United States, fewer people now find it possible simply to write off science so as to preserve their religious views, and so more and more are perhaps searching for some kind of livable compromise. Moreover, supporters of reconciliation are correct, in a sense, to say that there is no in principle conflict between science and religion. The early modern scientists were, for the most part, religious men; they expected the results of their researches to help solidify and confirm their faith. As it turned out, though, they were wrong about what science would tell them, and us, about the world. It is not, then — as religious opponents of science sometimes claim — that an anti-religious bias is built into the very methods of science, and thus presupposed (as, it is often put with a sneer, a kind of faith). The anti-religious bias, rather, is built into the world itself; all that science has done is to discover and reveal it. Even assuming that it is worth achieving, the reconciliation of religion and science will not easily be achieved.

So my own sense of a personal anti-religion bias is the result of it being “built into the world itself”. Somehow that notion makes me feel more comfortable with my own views about religion and science.

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2009/07/15 at 09:06

Religion, the key to “good self-control!

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A sadhu performing namaste in Madurai, India.
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I guess that I’m like John Tierney, who writes in the Science section of NY Times, a heathen.

I certainly believe that I am an agnostic about belief in religion, the personal God and about the power of faith. I think that those human values can be destructive and lead to all kinds mayhem and unhappiness in living.

So how do I deal with this kind of thinking:

So what’s a heathen to do in 2009? Dr. McCullough’s advice is to try replicating some of the religious mechanisms that seem to improve self-control, like private meditation or public involvement with an organization that has strong ideals.

Religious people, he said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy.

“People can have sacred values that aren’t religious values,” he said. “Self-reliance might be a sacred value to you that’s relevant to saving money. Concern for others might be a sacred value that’s relevant to taking time to do volunteer work. You can spend time thinking about what values are sacred to you and making New Year’s resolutions that are consistent with them.”

Of course, it requires some self-control to carry out that exercise — and maybe more effort than it takes to go to church.

“Sacred values come prefabricated for religious believers,” Dr. McCullough said. “The belief that God has preferences for how you behave and the goals you set for yourself has to be the granddaddy of all psychological devices for encouraging people to follow through with their goals. That may help to explain why belief in God has been so persistent through the ages.”

Certainly sounds good and useful to me. But how to do it in my own case!

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2008/12/30 at 07:16

Another perspective from about what to be thankful for

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This is Bob Wright and Joel Achenbach discussing “why is God so interested in …”

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2008/11/29 at 10:26

Is there a God for the rich and smug?

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The NY Times claims to be the newspaper of record. This morning, Good Friday, it published an article about luxurious residences on Biscayne Bay, Fla. Here is a quote from that piece:

Temptation got the better of him, and in February, Mr. Benisty, who is 39, snapped up the first house he saw, paying $3,150,000 for a 3,500-square-foot, four-bedroom weekend retreat on Di Lido, one of the Venetian Islands. The house retains many of its prized original features, including travertine floors, a generous patio and coral-stone exterior wall.

To say nothing of the view. Gazing beatifically across his private stretch of palm-fringed bay, Mr. Benisty said, “The thing that I like is that here, there is only you and God.”

After reading about this fatuous reference to God, I couldn’t help feeling curious about the notion that there must be a God for those who live in such places and indulge in self-reflecting thoughts and other gods for many other sets of people, rich, not so rich, poor and downright miserable.

Meanwhile The Economist published a longer article about God, religion and current scientific research titled:

The science of religion

Where angels no longer fear to tread

Can a science of religion help me satisfy my curiousity about why smug too rich people say such obviously dumb things about God and humans!

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2008/03/21 at 11:34

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Another view of the cause of the Universe

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The Templeton Prize 2008 has been awarded to Prof Michael Heller. Here is an excerpt from his writings about life, the Universe, Mathematics et al:

“Various processes in the universe can be displayed as a succession of states in such a way that the preceding state is a cause of the succeeding one. If we look deeper at such processes, we see that there is always a dynamical law prescribing how one state should generate another state. But dynamical laws are expressed in the form of mathematical equations, and if we ask about the cause of the universe we should ask about a cause of mathematical laws. By doing so we are back in the Great Blueprint of God’s thinking the universe. The question on ultimate causality is translated into another of Leibniz’s questions: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (from his Principles of Nature and Grace). When asking this question, we are not asking about a cause like all other causes. We are asking about the root of all possible causes.”

-Professor Michael Heller

Michael Heller, 2008 Templeton Prize Laureate, speaks to this question in his book “Creative Tension” (Templeton Foundation Press, 2003)

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2008/03/13 at 08:31