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Posts Tagged ‘religion

That time of the year when we think and talk about religious matters

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Belly dance, by Brazilian dancers
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Last night, Xmas night, I was in a Chinese restaurant in Ganjingzi, a new and expanding neighborhood near the Dalian International Airport. I was the guest of Sherry Cai and Bin Qui, her husband. It seemed  like a normal Chinese dinner in an average to good area, lots of fresh seafood.

And then there was a sort of night club show with pretty girls doing a sort of belly dance routine, an MC who recognized the only Laowai in the restaurant, yours truly. I guess this was more evidence in these good times in China, that the Chinese enjoy parties and celebrations as much if not more than many other places I have lived.

So I am in an Xmas mood this morning and couldn’t help feeling touched by these thoughts written by Alan Wolfe in a review of an interesting book about the connection between religion and culture. Here is a telling excerpt from that review:

We are, in addition, witnessing the severing of religion from the cultures within which it was once embedded. Religion and culture have long existed in an uneasy embrace. Catholicism is presumably a universal faith, yet long before the reforms of Vatican II allowed Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular, Brazilian Catholicism owed as much to its South American roots as Polish Catholicism did to its Eastern European ones. Islam sought to conquer the world, or as much of it as it could, yet it was intimately connected to the Arab culture in which it was born. The only reason we do not find the term “secular Jew” puzzling is because we appreciate that Judaism is both an ethnic and a religious category. Much the same can be said for many of the other world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.

If religion is in decline in the modern world, Roy argues, so is culture. On the one hand, we have multiculturalism, celebrations of diversity that somehow wind up making all cultures look and feel alike. More important, we face globalization, today’s true universal faith, which subjects all local customs to the laws of the market. Under the influence of both, religion loses whatever affinities it may once have had with the cultures that sustained it. Jakarta, the capital of the world’s largest Muslim country, lies some 5,000 miles from the holy city of Mecca, and even Mecca, Roy argues, has lost much of its specifically Arab character.

I am a declared Agnostic about all  religion and especially about the intersection of religion and North American politics. Here the reviewer and the writer point out that religion begins in a cultural context but it tends to cool as its original cultural connection wanes and withers. Is that what happened to me? Did my cultural unrootedness lead to my Agnosticism? I think that could be the case.

In Dalian I am a Laowai but I don’t feel a strong cultural attachment to that connection, since most Laowai here seem to share a very shallow and uninteresting cultural view, at least here in Dalian. Oh, I can’t pretend to be Chinafied but I do enjoy my cultural connection with them better than I do the connection with Westerners. Maybe I just prefer to seem different because that’s what I have always felt in whatever city/community that I lived or worked in.

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The NY Times reporter opines about the God Gene

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Modification of Image:Huxley - Mans Place in N...
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Here is how he ends his essay:

Religion was also harnessed to vital practical tasks such as agriculture, which in the first societies to practice it required quite unaccustomed forms of labor and organization. Many religions bear traces of the spring and autumn festivals that helped get crops planted and harvested at the right time. Passover once marked the beginning of the barley festival; Easter, linked to the date of Passover, is a spring festival.

Could the evolutionary perspective on religion become the basis for some kind of detente between religion and science? Biologists and many atheists have a lot of respect for evolution and its workings, and if they regarded religious behavior as an evolved instinct they might see religion more favorably, or at least recognize its constructive roles. Religion is often blamed for its spectacular excesses, whether in promoting persecution or warfare, but gets less credit for its staple function of patching up the moral fabric of society. But perhaps it doesn’t deserve either blame or credit. If religion is seen as a means of generating social cohesion, it is a society and its leaders that put that cohesion to good or bad ends.

Nicholas Wade, a science reporter for The New York Times, is the author of “The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures.”

Like EO Wilson I tend to accept these explanations. But they do not increase my personal inclination to believe or not. I can understand how my ancestors were moved to religious belief and practice, but I dont believe that must apply to me in this 21st Century.

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2009/11/15 at 05:13

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

The Gospels or Good News?

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The New Yorker
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The more I read about critical and historical analysis of Christian Scriptures I can’t but wonder why so many people, sane or not, accept the relevance and validity of them.

Also it seems to me very odd that the National Geographic, a middle class symbol of conservative cultural values, financed and hyped the publication of the Judas Gospel.

Joan Acocella writes in the New Yorker, a pretty agnostic source, about the whys and wherefores of “our hate” for Judas Iscariot, the symbol of hideous Jewishness and double dealing. I especially like what she writes in the last paragraph:

All this, I believe, is a reaction to the rise of fundamentalism—the idea, Christian and otherwise, that every word of a religion’s founding document should be taken literally. This is a childish notion, and so is the belief that we can combat it by correcting our holy books. Those books, to begin with, are so old that we barely understand what their authors meant. Furthermore, because of their multiple authorship, they are always internally inconsistent. Finally, even the fundamentalists don’t really take them literally. People interpret, and cheat. The answer is not to fix the Bible but to fix ourselves.

Gee, I think she tells us pretty well what is wrong with the Bible and Christian fundamentalism. I guess Maury Berman gives a pretty effective answer to the hold that the Bible has over middle class culture. It’s all about our tribal consciousness! We tend to follow “our tribes” values like dumb sheep!

Judas returns the silver coins to the priests.
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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2009/08/03 at 10:00

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

Can atheists be as “nice” as evangelicals?

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American Atheists

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Paul Bloom in Slate ends his essay on this note:

The sorry state of American atheists, then, may have nothing to do with their lack of religious belief. It may instead be the result of their outsider status within a highly religious country where many of their fellow citizens, including very vocal ones like Schlessinger, find them immoral and unpatriotic. Religion may not poison everything, but it deserves part of the blame for this one.

It’s some of the religious who are the real nasties!

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Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser on why you should read the Bible

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St. Peter's Basilica from the River Tiber. The...Image via Wikipedia

Marx famously wrote that all criticism begins with the criticism of religion. I agree. I would only want to add that religion started it, that the criticism of religion was first of all a religious business. Criticism began as self-criticism; not as a philosophical exercise, but as a struggle over meaning. As the Rabbis and early Christian scholars pored over their manuscripts and argued with each other as to what was going on, the European mind was in the process of being created. Even those who now come to draw a conclusion against religion are themselves heirs to this long search for truth.

I especially like the last sentence. It would feel good to hold that clearly in my mind and gut!

Karen Armstrong mentioned in her short version of Bible: A Biography that High Criticism, especially by German Biblical scholars did more to undermine religion and provoke a sharp reaction from Christian Fundamentalists which led to a radical literalist treatment of the Bible as the absolute inerrant Word of God. This started happening at the end of the 19th century and quickened in the early 20th especially in the US of America.

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2008/07/26 at 13:37

Reason vs. religion

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Deep inside I feel that what the explanations that my reason accepts or prefers are the whole and only answer I need. Here is an excerpt from a T. Dalrymple essay that begs the question:

we continue to long for a transcendent purpose immanent in existence itself, independent of our own wills. To tell us that we should not feel this longing is a bit like telling someone in the first flush of love that the object of his affections is not worthy of them. The heart hath its reasons that reason knows not of.

Of course, men—that is to say, some men—have denied this truth ever since the Enlightenment, and have sought to find a way of life based entirely on reason. Far as I am from decrying reason, the attempt leads at best to Gradgrind and at worst to Stalin. Reason can never be the absolute dictator of man’s mental or moral economy.

The search for the pure guiding light of reason, uncontaminated by human passion or metaphysical principles that go beyond all possible evidence, continues, however; and recently, an epidemic rash of books has declared success, at least if success consists of having slain the inveterate enemy of reason, namely religion.

Dalrymple goes on to quote liberally from the writings of an Anglican Bishop of Victorian vintage to illustrate the kind of sonorous prose that apparently gives him more inner or soul comfort than any of Dennett et al.


When, as yet, he had not so much as the comfort of a child to succeed him, thy prophet is sent to him, with the heavy message of his death: “Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live.” It is no small mercy of God, that he gives us warning of our end. . . . No soul can want important affairs, to be ordered for a final dissolution.

This is the language not of rights and entitlements, but of something much deeper—a universal respect for the condition of being human.
For Hall, life is instinct with meaning: a meaning capable of controlling man’s pride at his good fortune and consoling him for his ill fortune.

I often feel the need for consolation in facing the inevitability of infirmities in my old age and then  my death.

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2007/10/29 at 07:24

Does religion work as well as science is claimed to?

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Seed is the new standard in popular science writing. It seems to be attracting scientists who are web aware and visible on the web, or blogosphere. The excerpt below is taken from Seed and provides one of the reference points for the question posed in my title above.

As psychologist Daniel Gilbert puts it in his book Stumbling on Happiness, “Each of us is trapped in a place, a time, and a circumstance, and our attempts to use our minds to transcend those boundaries are, more often than not, ineffective.” The reason science does manage to be astonishingly effective is not because large groups are automatically wiser or less prone to self-deception than individuals. History adequately demonstrates that, if anything, the opposite is more nearly the case. Science works because its core dynamics—not its methods or techniques per se—are rooted in pitting intellects against one another. Science eventually yields impressive answers because it compels smart people to incessantly try to disprove the ideas generated by other smart people.

Yes there are some smart people who try to disprove religious ideas generated by other smart people. People like John Haught, Charles Taylor, John Polkinghorne to mention a few of the more prominent. But the popular image of smart religious people was interviewed on Larry King tonight. His name is Joel Osteen and he seems to be smart and very popular since he preaches to tens of thousands of people who describe themselves as Christians.

Joel Scott Hayley Osteen (born March 5, 1963[1] in Houston, Texas) is the senior pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, North America’s largest[2] and 2006’s fastest growing church,[3] averaging more than 47,000 attendees at weekly services.[2] He is married to Victoria Osteen, who serves as co-pastor. The Lakewood was formerly then arena of the Houston Rockets and the nearby Interstate has ramps designed especially to bring people to this facility. Joe credits that design to the act-of-God.

Joel Osteen was featured as one of Barbara Walters‘ “10 Most Fascinating People of 2006”[4] and was named “Most Influential Christian in America” in 2006 by[5] He is also the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, Your Best Life Now. It reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and has sold more than four million copies since its release in October 2004. The book is available in 19 languages. His television ministry is the most watched inspirational program in the United States.

Lots of preachers in the Christian America and some of them are very smart and very rich. But for me they don’t conform very well to the image of scientists who are bent on disproving ideas proposed by their scientific colleagues, or by religionists who dabble in the arena of public discourse about scientific values vs. religious values.

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2007/10/22 at 00:04