Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Religion Ain't a Dirty Word

by Tom King (c) 2011

"Religion is about controlling behavior. Spirituality is about development and liberation of consciousness — becoming consciousness itself."

Excuse me? A friend posted this on facebook. It took me by surprise a bit because he usually makes at least some sense when he posts.

Webster's defines religion as (1) The service and worship of God or the supernatural and (2) A cause, principle or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith. These are the two definitions that I use when I talk about religion. There are other more pejorative definitions of religion in Webster's that use words like 'institutionalized' and 'conformity' that refer to religion in general. The problem when we talk about religion is that often the two sides are using two different definitions. One is using religion meaning “belief system” and the other is using it to mean “church denomination” or “religious institution”.

Very often those who talk knowingly about the evils of “religion” are people who have never cracked open a Bible and read it with anything remotely like an open mind. A good share of them just remember a Sunday School teacher they didn't like or they dislike wearing ties and having their Sunday morning disrupted or they didn't like the penance some priest handed them or the knuckle rapping they got from some nun in Catholic school and so, they find it in their interest to look down on and discount all religious practice that occurs within a formal church.

This shotgun approach damns all expressions of religion within an organized church, embracing the term “spiritual” in place of “religious”. “Spiritual” is most often a term meaning “I like to think about peace, love and stuff without actually having to get up out of bed and go to services.” Spiritual is sufficiently vague a term that it can have little impact on your behavior and certainly won't interfere with your boozing. In fact, as in the quote above, most “spiritual” people object to religion because they see it as an attempt to control their behavior.

Is religion about behavior control? YES. I want to control my behavior. I'm sick and tired of doing bad things that I don't want to do. I want to be a consistently good bloke, so I am actively pursuing a relationship with God because he promises to help me with that. I joined up with a church because the people in that church want the same things for themselves that I do, so we help each other, encourage each other and work together to help others who need our help. I love my church. It helps me practice my religion more effectively. I am a spiritual person too and because I am, it drives me to incorporate that spirituality into my daily life. My religion, on the other hand, serves as a paradigm against which I make sense of the world.

The process of constructing such mental frameworks is like figure/ground perception in human visual processing in the brain. The brain's ability to discriminate figures against a background is whhat makes those “Magic” 3D pictures work. It is a process whereby the brain identifies what is background and screens it out so it can perceive what is happening in the foreground of its field of view. Without the ability to screen out the background, the world would be completely confusing. Religion is an attempt to select one's mental background deliberately. The proponents of “spirituality” seem to be attempting to passively allow that background to form. Some call it a search for truth and argue that a passive “natural” data collection process like that is the only way to discover truth.

The problem with such a passive search for truth is that, in adopting passivitity, you become the passive receiver of whatever crap happens to comes along in your life. You become the slave to your experiences that B.F. Skinner claims we all are, with no real will of our own, only a collection of responses programmed into us by random chance. I prefer a more deliberate approach that incorporates the power of free will and a pro-active search for truth.

Religion allows us to cooperatively create shared rituals, music, institutions and places of worship that inform and support each adherent's personal search for truth. It's why there are so many different denominations or “flavors” of Christianity. People start where they are. They choose churches that best match what they believe so far and all their lives they try to move toward the greater truth. Many will leave churches they started out with because those churches no longer fit their beliefs and don't support their ongoing search for truth. Their religion has not changed one whit – only the immediate company of believers with whom they choose to share the journey.

To draw on the Magic 3D pictures metaphor, religion is very much like learning to deliberate focus your eyes on a point beyond the surface of the paper in order to make the picture appears. Spirituality is like staring at the page hoping something will jump out at you eventually. My eye focusing trick is not conformity by any means. It is simply using a tool that works to achieve the result I want.

Religion is, therefore, not such a bad word after all – rightly understood and applied. I've certainly found it an imminently useful thing.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Is Religion the Same Thing As Philosophy?

By Tom King © 2011

19th Century Philosopher
Karl Marx
 I knew when I saw the title to the piece that somehow or other religion wasn't going to come out well. The writer started off well enough, talking about definitions and linguistic ambiguity and even suggested that the terms might be somewhat interchangeable according to some unnamed lesser philosophers. Then about halfway in, he seems to have lost the thread he was spinning and descended into a case for the superiority of pure philosophy over mere religion. When he started name-dropping famous philosophers like Nietzsche, Hegel, Kant, Russel and William James, I knew it wasn't going to go well for persons of faith. There's a lot of this sort of thing going around these days.

Let me touch on his main points one by one. Don't read anything into the numbering. I'm not engaging in aggravated didacticism here, I just like to number things to keep them straight in my head. The words in blue are my friend's comments.

1. To begin with, of the two (philosophy and religion) only religions have rituals.
  • It's not true that philosophers do not establish rituals, holidays or observances. Pure philosophers observe all sorts of holidays because humans seem to need them. Like a religion, a philosophy-based organization does create holidays. Birthdays, anniversaries, president's days, independence days. All sorts of special days get celebrated by philosophers and instituted by philosophy-based organizations. I don't see holidays as material to the question of whether philosophy and religion are the same thing. Rituals are not exclusive to religions. People have all sorts of rituals that have nothing to do with religion. Baseball players have things they do to prepare for a game. Soldiers, sailors and pilots carry “lucky” keepsake objects that may have no basis in religion whatever. The objects just make them feel better. Adopters of Marxist philosophy, for instance, constantly held parades, holidays and celebrations complete with attendant rituals.
2. Another difference is the fact that philosophy tends to emphasize just the use of reason and critical thinking, whereas religions may make use of reason, but at the very least they also rely on faith, or even use faith to the exclusion of reason.
  • Only atheist philosophers do not incorporate a God or gods into their reasoning and logic. Reasoning and logic are impossible to separate from faith. Philosophers who believe in God or some supernatural power or process are no less philosophers for basing their philosophy on a 'best guess" about what is true. After all, faith IS a best guess in the end. All philosophy for that matter is a best guess based on evidence at hand. My problem with so many who get bent out of shape with religious people, is that they seem to be basing their own philosophy on a lack of evidence. You cannot prove a thing does not exist simply because you cannot prove it does exist. Black holes existed long before we even thought of them and to this day we can only see second-hand evidence of their existence. Faith in the unseen or unproved is elemental to our very ability to reason. Without faith, we would never be able to construct the very mental paradigms that make possible the conceptual leaps that philosophers, scientists and prophets make one after another in our herky-jerky trip toward enlightenment.
3. You won’t find Hegel, Kant or Russell saying that their philosophies are revelations from a god or that their work should be taken on faith. Instead, they base their philosophies on rational arguments — those arguments may not also prove valid or successful, but it is the effort which differentiates their work from religion.
  • Next you're going to quote Rousseau who said "The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers.” It could be argued that philosophers like Karl Marx, Sir Francis Galton and H.G. Wells were responsible for more than half a billion deaths in the 20th century since disciples of their philosophies like Hitler, Stalin and Mao murdered quite a few people and a whole lot of them WERE priests.
4.  A separation between the sacred and the profane is something else lacking in philosophy. Many religions teach adherents to revere sacred scriptures, but no one teaches students to revere the collected notes of William James.
  • That's not true either. Marxism is a philosophy. Marx is a highly respected philosopher. His philosophy led to all kinds of revering. Mao's little red book and Mein Kampf were revered. The statue of Iron Felix in Red Square stood in for statues and paintings of saints. The fear of the Gestapo, the KGB and the Chinese secret police was as real a consequence of philosophy as fear of any wrathful Old Testament deity, the Inquisition or Reverend Billy Bob's hell-fire and damnation sermons. And if you argue that Marx is not responsible for the misuse of his philosophy by politicians and opportunists, please apply the same principle to religion.
5.Finally, most religions tend to include some sort of belief in what can only be described as the “miraculous” — events which either defy normal explanation or which are, in principal, outside the boundaries of what should occur in our universe.
  • Big bang, black holes, relativity. We've described these mathematically, but never witnessed any of these events directly. Miracles are events for which we do not have any explanation. Just because we don't understand how these events happen does not mean they haven't happened or couldn't happen. Just because we didn't understand that black holes, relativity or the big bang, didn't mean they weren't real things a hundred years ago or that they didn't exist or couldn't have happened simply because we couldn't explain them.
6.  It is important to keep their distinctness (religion and philosophy) in mind when considering them.
  • I don't see why, unless you are trying to make the point that philosophy is superior to religion or that faith in your own religious studies and experience is somehow inferior to reliance on science or philosophy. Both science and philosophy have a habit of periodically becoming rigid, and hidebound. Then, when new data shows them to be demonstrably wrong, these systems of thoughts make a big paradigm shift (about every century or so). Faith is in no way separate from philosophy. Even atheists operate from a foundation of faith. Evolutionary philosophers base their ideas upon faith in the principles of gradual geologic and biological change and may also reject any possibility of outside intervention in the course of human evolution. They haven't lived long enough to directly witness the billions of years of evolution that they believe has happened in just the way science currently understands it. Scientific theories are based on data collected by scientists endeavoring to prove hypotheses (usually their own). While their theories may be supported by evidence, there is hardly a theory more than a few hundred years old that has not been challenged by later evidence. New scientific theories rely heavily on previously "proved" theories, but unless you have have witnessed the collection of all of the data directly, you must have faith in whoever collected the evidence that supports the older theory upon which you are building. Even if you can reproduce the old experiment and get the same result, you still have to trust that both yours and their interpretation of the data is correct. Science is a discipline built heavily on faith.
Religion is not church management, politics or even dogma. One definition of religion is a system of personal belief, which basically means - a philosophy. The word is also used as "a religion" to designate an organization of believers who share a similar, though not always identical system of personal philosophy. Religion is philosophy. A religion is nothing more than a philosophy organized. And before you deny the existence of organized philosophy, think again. You could legitimately say the United States is an organization based on the philosophy of John Locke and his colleagues.  You could argue that the Soviet Union was based on the philosophy of Karl Marx.

It's apples to oranges when you compare philosophy as a system of belief to "a religion" which is an organization based on a belief. In the same way, you can't compare a philosphy-based organization to religion as a system of personal belief. It's a fine distinction, but an important one.

Just one man's philosophy...


Friday, June 24, 2011

Liberal Word Play

Anu Garg - Founder
 I subscribed to a service called "Word-A-Day". As a writer, words are my tools and so I figured it might be helpful to receive a word, it's pronumciation and meaning in my e-mail every day. It seemed like a nice little addition to my morning e-mail.

Monday I got the word "Golgotha", a term, apparently used used to mean "a place or occasion of great suffering".  The commentary on the word also stated that most people don't know their Bible well and gave a link to test your Bible knowledge. As one who spends time with his Bible daily, I thought I'd give it a whirl.

The so-called Bible quiz that's Anu Garg linked to could be better called an anti-Bible quiz. The "correct" answers mine the worst possible incidents recorded in scripture and assume that the Bible and by extension, God, condones a lot of heinous behavior. It ignores context and ignores the fact that the Bible was not written by the finger of God, but by fallable humans and often ones with incomplete understanding of God's will. It completely ignores the role of judges who are not required to execute maximum sentences for minor infractions as we see time after time in the Biblical record.  It ignores the fact that God repeatedly adjures us to do justice and to love mercy and walk humbly. It ignores the fact that where God states flatly that he is angry at someone, it's usually directed at pretty heinous behavior like the mass murder of children and the systematic prostitution of little girls to pagan temples.

The Bible is remarkable among ancient writings in that it does not gloss over the failings of those it writes about as does virtually every other ancient text from the same era. The stories show mankind (and its leaders) warts and all. It shows man ascending by fits and starts from the brutality and barbarism into which he descended after the fall. It doesn't happen all at once as scripture makes clear. God gets a lot of blame for things that He doesn't approve of. Even Saint Paul admits he might have been wrong about some of the advice he gives.

The upshot is that some ideas like the golden rule and the ten commandment code of coduct were absorbed into Judeo-Christian culture and many old culturally driven behaviors (like stoning) are left behind.  Much of the progress toward a more decent society that we've seen over the centuries was driven by core values and beliefs instilled steadily into Christian culture. Christianity is often charged with crimes that were actually committed by individuals who put on the garb of Christianity in order to acquire political power, but who are in no way truly Christian.

Jesus said, those who do this will stand before God in the judgement and claim to have done what they did in His name, but that God will say, "I never knew you." They will be cast away as they well deserve to be.

The so-called "Bible Quiz" is a very thinly disguised rant about how stupid anyone is who believes in the Bible. The link takes you to the "The Freedom from Religion" website, not an unbiased source of Biblical information.  It gleefully comments that the word "liberal" is found in the Bible and "conservative" is not.

Word-A-Day should find another quiz that isn't an anti-Christian hit piece - at least if they want to keep subscribers like me who also happen to be Christian.

Counting coup on your customers, especially customers who have, on average, a much higher interest in writing, language and grammar than their political opposites isn't wise.

I asked Anu to withdraw the link and the anti-conservative, anti-Christian sentiment that infuses their commentary on the derivation of words.  Of course, that is entirely up to him. The United States is a free country and all that (a concept that also came out of Christian philosophy, often in opposition to the very people who wanted to use scripture to justify a permanent "nobility" and rule by the elite).

The truth is, I'll likely cancel my subscription to their service. I can find word definitions elsewhere. I don't expect Word-A-Day to let go of its leftist attitude and its opportunity to influence language with a little leftist snarkiness. After all, altering the language to suit it's own purposes is very leftist. George Orwell described it in 1984. You gradually redefine language until there are certain thoughts you can no longer think because the words no longer exist for it. Thanks, but no thanks. I'll go with the conservative approach to linguistics and take my words as they are and let them develop naturally.

I, personally, think it's pretty arrogant to decide you're smart enough to tell everyone, not only how they should think, but also how they should speak.  I don't trust people like that to describe the language honestly to me. I checked Anu Garg's home website and found a list of his favorite links. They include:

American Civil Liberties Union

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Natural Resources Defense Council
Amnesty International
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Vegan Outreach
Nature Institute
The Humane Society of the United States
Freedom from Religion Foundation

Not really a surprise given his rhetoric. I've subscribed for less than a week and already picked up on his political leanings.  And, I don't have a problem with someone being a leftist and being open about his politics. I do have a problem with his disdain for my opinions, my faith and my intelligence. I actually have sympathy for some of his causes. I believe in the separation of church and state, but NOT the elemination of church by the state. I think Vegan and vegetarian diets are quite healthy and my own church practices it (we live, on average, ten years longer than other Americans as a result).  I'm all with the humane society's work to rescue mistreated animals. There are places where someone like Anu Garg and I can join forces and do some good.

Unfortunately, when someone like Anu treats my own beliefs with contempt, I lose all interest in hearing his opinion on other subjects.

UPDATE: I canceled my subscription to Word-A-Day. Fortunately, in capitalist America there is always competiton.  I just signed up for Merriam Webster's Word of the Day.  Today's word from Webster:  DECRY.  Decry means to desparage, belittle or express a low opinion of, which is, ironically, why Word-A-Day lost me as a subscriber. They belittled my faith and while Anu Garg has every right to do so, I also have every right not to support his doing so by viewing his advertising.

I just love free market capitalism.

Tom King

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Conservatives MUST Support Goshen College Decision

We've gotta stop shooting at our own people!
by Tom King (c) 2011

The board of directors of tiny Goshen College in northern Indiana just stepped in it and I don't mean the stuff that litters the area's many cow pastures. A small private Mennonite school, the school board recently voted to ask college President James E. Brenneman to find an alternative to playing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ at school sporting events. Being Mennonites means accepting a strong pacifist tradition and there isn't much of a way for the announcement not to sound like another hippie leftist dissing of the national anthem. What's next? Is the school going to haul down the flag?

Not likely.  Mennonites have long been a pacifist, separatist religion but not an unpatriotic one. Similar in belief to their spiritual brethren, the Amish, though without the funny hats and rejection of electricity, the Mennonites came out of war-torn Europe to settle here, hoping to live in peace. They are hard-working, keep neat, well-ordered farms, live lives of service to their fellow man and they are good neighbors wherever they settle. They are total conscientious objectors and have a traditional cultural abhorence of violence and war, which is understandable given the violent persecution they experienced at the hands of their Christian brothers in Catholic and Protestant Europe. They are good Americans and contribute much to their communities.

While their beliefs sound like those of the socialist left, even to the point of sharing terminology like "social justice" and "peace-making", the Mennonites don't believe in sitting on their duffs and letting the government do all the work for them. They believe in full-bodied Christian giving and service - the way Christian charity ought to be done.

The school has not played the Star-Spangled banner since 1957, until recently when, for a time, it has been allowed as an instrumental piece to be played at some sporting events.  The move was likely a response by some Mennonites to the polarism in this country and to a desire in the midst of all of this to demonstrate publicly that they are, despite their pacifism, deeply patriotic Americans. The imagery of the Star Spangled Banner, however, likley proved too much for the old line Mennonite culture and some of the more left-leaning on campus. It is very Mennonite to avoid causing controversy within the faith or the school over the issue. The school, therefore, has asked staff and students to choose other patriotic songs with less war-like imagery to express their patriotism. At any rate, the school will work out the issue among its own people and perhaps some of those who wish to play the anthem will challenge the ruling.

But none of Goshen's internal dialogue on whether they should play the national anthem or not should have garnered the anger and outrage we've seen coming out of the conservative right in the past few days.

While we may disagree with the Goshen board's views on the national anthem (and I do) or on the need for a strong military, one thing we absolutely must do is defend the right of a Mennonite school to choose for itself how it will express its patriotism. Mennonites are good people. They follow the Golden Rule as well as anybody does. They are good Americans by the evidence of their day to day lives. They value honesty, loyalty, fidelity, charity, peace, love and duty as most conservatives do.

If we do not grant the right to speak, worship and express patriotism in their own manner, unmolested to a people who worship God carefully and reverently (as they do), then we become no better than the socialists who would bring everyone's conscience under the iron thumb of government and shout down anyone who objects. If we feel we must shout down, ridicule and threaten those who act according to their conscience and disagree with us a little, maybe we've been spending too much time among the liberal/progressives.  We may just be picking up their bad habits. 

I spoke to a friend today who lives in Germany. He has had a long career in the US Army and now works for the Corps of Engineers. He describes US Army communities over there as virtual "prisons", not with just razor wire, but with walls and bars and elaborate intrusive security. He says we are incrementally giving up our freedom in exchange for a false sense of security.  And as that government intrusion is allowed to grow and expand its power and to become more and more invasive, the whole system becomes more and more corrupt, with legions of fat bureaucrats making themselves fat draining the lifeblood of American taxpayers to support their lavish lifestyles. My friend says the level of waste and corruption is truly appalling.

If we pile on the Mennonites, who mean us no harm and whose fundamental beliefs support values far closer to those of the right than the left, then we succeed only in driving away more allies in the war on tyranny. Me I'd rather stand and fight to defend the right of a peaceful people like the Mennonites to live peaceably, worship peacably and sing whatever songs they want to sing. I don't care that they never pick up a gun. God bless 'em for it.  We've got no business criticizing good people for refusing to kill their fellow man. If I am called to fight upon the wall to protect such people, I will call it my privilege and honor as King David did, knowing full well that there is a price that soldiers pay for taking up arms. David, himself, was a great defender of the people, but God would not allow him to build the temple because he was a "man of war". David suffered great personal losses in his wars - even to losing sons, but he did it all for his people and accepted the cost of doing that in order to protect his family and his people from the consequences of being a warrior.  For their sacrifice, we bless the warriors, but at the same time we must NEVER curse those whom they protect!  To do so would be to disparage and minimize the warrior's sacrifice for his brothers at home.

Let's save our righteous indignation for the ones that are really out to do us harm. God bless the Mennonites for trying to find a way to express their patriotism while remaining true to their deeply held beliefs.  And shame on us for criticizing them for it.

Just telling you what I think.

Tom King

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Goldwater -- A "Lesson" Mislearned

The Republican Party has been plagued for almost 50 years by the "lesson" they learned in Barry Goldwater's defeat. 

What They "Learned: 
Republican strategerists (as Rush Limbaugh calls them), learned a powerful lesson from the Goldwater debacle of 1964.  Since Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry in the election, just one year after the assassination of the charismatic John Kennedy, Republicans came to believe that "extremist" candidates were a bad idea. They decided that the trick to winning an election was, to attract moderates, the vast so-called silent majority.  Surely that must be what they did wrong when they ran Barry Goldwater.

What They Missed:
In 1964, the nation was polarized. Democrats were playing with social engineering. Republicans were reacting strongly to what they saw as creeping communism. The nation had been stunned by the murder of a popular young president. The Republicans could have run Jesus and still would have lost that election.  The sides were clearly defined. The lines clearly drawn. The election came down to which way the moderates would swing. With the Kennedy assassination, the middle mass of the voting public swung powerfully to the Democrats.  To draw any conclusions about how to win (or lose) presidential elections from the 1964 election is a mistake. The only thing you can say for sure is that the party in power should have its current president assassinated just before the election if you want to win for sure. Look how fast Lyndon Johnson fell from grace once the impact of his policies began to be felt out in the real world.

What Else They Missed:
The Goldwater campaign had one bright spot. It launched the political career of arguably the most influential Republican of the the past century. Ronald Reagan's famous "Last Stand on Earth" speech was the high point of the 1964 convention. It kind of annoyed Goldwater because up beside Ronald Reagan, Barry looked kind of lame. Listen to this brilliant speech again. Consider it a political recharge:

This speech is the lesson they SHOULD have learned.  God bless Ronald Reagan.

Tom King

Friday, June 3, 2011

Stubborn Ideology

Why Evidence Doesn't Work With Liberals
 by Tom King (c) 2011
Paul Gleiser points out in his "You Tell Me" blog this week, that Texas is a living breathing example of conservative principles like smaller, unintrusive government, low taxes and minimal union influence. There is clear evidence that these principles have given Texas a healthier state economy that has held strong despite a massive national recession. Gleiser ends by asking why liberals find it so hard to understand something so simple.

I think the reason so many on the left are so obtuse is that ideology is such a powerful thing. People get awfully attached to their belief systems, particularly if they believe that that ideology makes them somehow superior to others. Ideologies have always held great power and those who subscribe to them find it hard to change opinions, especially if the evidence flies in the face of the tenants of their belief system.


Ideology was the reason it was so hard for the South to let go of racism. The racist ideology says I am innately better than someone else because of the color of my skin. The Southern racists clung to the idea of white supremacy for more than a hundred years after the Civil War, despite abundant evidence that black people could perform every bit as well as whites given the proper education and opportunity. To acknowledge the evidence, meant giving up their "natural" rights to power and supremacy in their communities and to acknowledge that there was no longer anyone they could safely look down on.


The ideology of blood superiority goes back to ancient times in which "noble blood" entitled you to rule. The nobility clung to the idea of their genetic superiority despite the ravages of in-breeding, hemophilia and insanity among the noble classes. To give it up, meant to give up their power, despite the fact that it could be a bloody dangerous business to hold onto that power. To give up the belief in the divine right of kings was to become merely ordinary. You think the nobles were going to willingly give up their hereditary place on top of society simply because the evidence showed they really weren't all that superior after all?


The liberal/progressive ideology accepts as fact that liberals are smarter than conservatives. If you accept this as true, it makes the liberal/progressive the new nobility and entitles them to a secure position as the ruling class by right of their high levels of (supposedly inherited) intelligence. For the intelligentsia, Darwin was a Godsend. Darwin's theories were enlisted to support the idea that smartness is innate and passed from generation to generation. And just in time too! It followed, then, that these hereditary smart people should be the ones to rule in place of the old fading aristocracy.   Liberal Progressives have the same problem as racists and the nobility with altering their ideology.  In the face of evidence that their ideology doesn't work, they simply reject the evidence.  It's not in their social or financial interest to accept that conservative ideas work. It would cost them their perceived right to power if they accepted the evidence of their eyes.

That's why evidence is so slow in convincing idealogues of anything. Despite the hope and change rhetoric, liberals actually are hoping nothing changes. If it does, they might find themselves out of the halls of power and back home trying to find consulting jobs in the defense industry.

I'm just sayin'

Tom King - Tyler, TX