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As I have discussed in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization and Do Deities Defecate? (among other essays), what people conceptualize as “god” may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “infinity,” “eternity,” and “love.” It may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “consciousness,” which, indeed, it is closely related to.

As humans, we know that we subjectively experience the existence of human “consciousness.” We have minds, which, by and large, are the expression of the functioning of our physical brains, in interaction with one another and our environment. We normally conceptualize this consciousness to be an individual-level phenomenon, each of us having our own, the connection among them being tendrils of communication among separate nodes of consciousness.

But this individual-level conceptualization becomes suspect on closer examination. We think in languages, using concepts, drawing on stories and narratives and sciences and philosophies that we did not individually invent. We wield metaphors and analogies and a wealth of material that preceded our own individual consciousness, with only a very slight individuation of that cognitive material on the margins identifying our own consciousness as unique, as differentiated from the collective consciousness from which it was born and in which it is embedded. (See, for instance, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, for a vivid description of this collective consciousness.)

So human consciousness, in a sense, is not so much individual as collective, a shared process in which our individual participation provides the robustness and creativity, but in which our collective participation defines the scope and substance. But it is still strictly “human,” right?

Few who have ever had a beloved pet would be in complete agreement with that assessment. Our family dog Buttercup is clearly somewhat “conscious,” aware of our love for her and of hers for us, communicating her desire to play, to go out, to be petted, with ease and determination. She is excited at the prospect of walking to school with my daughter, where she knows she will get to run in the park on the way, and receive affection from the other children upon arrival. She has both human and dog friends that she recognizes and greets and communicates with on a rudimentary level. She clearly possesses some degree of what humans call “consciousness.”

To explore that “lesser degree” of consciousness so clearly evident in large mammals, it’s useful to switch from the cultural (consciousness as a function of language and symbolic communication) to the biological (consciousness as an expression of genetic codes). The human mind, as an artifact of the human brain –which is an anatomical product of an evolutionary process of genetic reproduction, mutation, and competition for reproductive success– is clearly not absolutely unique. Like the individual in a society on the cognitive level, the human mind is the individuation of a biological and genetic theme. We see similarities to it among other large mammals, and even among very different animals, in some ways: when an insect scurries away from danger, the scurrying LOOKS a whole lot like fear, even if it isn’t. But maybe the resemblance isn’t completely irrelevant after all.

What distinguishes humans from all other creatures on Earth (with the possible exception of some large sea mammals) is cognitively complex symbolic communication (i.e., “language,” though the qualifier “cognitively complex” is necessary, due to the complex languages of many other creatures, such as bees, whose intricate dances indicate where the nectar is to be found). And, indeed, it is that cognitively complex language which has created the echo of genetic evolution particular to the anthrosphere: Human History (and the cultural/political/economic/cognitive evolution that defines it).

But that cognitively complex language is the product of a very slight genetic variation. We are genetically barely distinguishable from other large apes, more closely related to Chimpanzees than Chimpanzees are to Gorillas or Orangutans. So while language gives our biologically-based consciousness a particularly robust expression, it does not remove it in essence very far from our nearest biological relatives. They, too, have a nearly equal quantity of the individual-level stuff of consciousness, but merely lack the complex tendrils of communication that launch that consciousness into the societal level of development and expression.

What we see by looking at consciousness both through the lens of a cultural and human historical context, and the lens of a genetic and natural historical context, is that it is neither a particularly individual level phenomenon, nor an exclusively human phenomenon. It is, rather, something that is “out there” in the fabric of nature, finding different degrees and forms of expression in different contexts.

Neither is it any coincidence that these two lenses are both “evolutionary” lenses, one the lens of biological/genetic evolution and its products, and the other cultural/memetic evolution and its products. “Consciousness” as we know it, both in terms of the expression of the functioning of the human brain (a product of biological evolution), and in terms of the expression of the cognitive material accumulated and refined through communication among human brains (a product of cultural evolution), is an expression of evolutionary processes.

What is the exact nature of the connection between “evolution” and “consciousness”? Here’s one surprising suggestion: Both can be defined as the purposeful refinement of behavior and form in response to experience. Evolution is a process driven by the lathe of trial and error, in which the forms and behaviors (those genes in general) of living organisms are refined over time in response to relative reproductive success, preserving those that are most reproductively successful. Human consciousness is a process driven by the lathe of human experience and communication, in which those forms and behaviors (those cognitions in general) that are most copied by others are the ones that are preserved.

In fact, biologists routinely use the language and mathematics of economics to describe evolutionary and ecological phenomena. They refer to “strategies,” and employ the microeconomic tool of analysis known as “game theory” to analyze the evolution of competing biological strategies. Biologists are quick to emphasize that this is a metaphor, that there was no conscious intent behind the evolution of competing reproductive strategies, that they just “resemble” intentional human strategic action, that they just resemble “consciousness.”

But might this not be a bit anthrocentric of us? I am not disputing the recognition that biological evolution is not the intentional product of a centralized mind in the same way that human strategic behavior is (though, as I indicated above, even human strategic behavior, when involving any organization of human beings, has a decentralized element to it as well). But I am bringing into question the sharp conceptual differentiation between a process that we recognize as consciousness because we subjectively experience it, and the process that produced it that appears to be remarkably similar in form.

Might it not make more sense to conceptualize human consciousness, which is the product of evolutionary processes that envelope it and preceded it, as similar to those processes, rather than conceptualizing those preceding and enveloping processes as being similar to human consciousness? If it were not for the fact that we are human beings, subjectively aware of our own consciousness, wouldn’t it be more rational to give priority to the biological and historical progenitor of our consciousness than to its by-product (i.e., human consciousness)?

This conceptual journey began with the human individual, and panned out to identify consciousness as a function of the human collective, and then panned out futher to identify consciousness as a function of the evolutionary ecology of the planet Earth. Can we continue panning out, to see these all as nested levels of a coherent aspect of nature, that is woven into the fabric of the cosmos, and that finds different kinds of expression at different levels of manifestation?

Fritjov Capra, UC-Berkeley Physicist and author of The Tao of Physics, wrote more recently in The Web of Life, that a biological paradigm was replacing a physical one as the fundamental paradigm of Nature. The reason for this, posits Capra, is that the emerging science of complex dynamical systems (best known as “Chaos Theory”) is discovering that the kinds of processes most commonly associated with organic processes, with life, are far more widespread, far more fundamental, far more woven into the fabric of Nature, than we had previously realized. The universe and its subsystems are, in many ways, more like a vast living thing with living things nested within it, than like a dead mechanical device comprised of nested levels of mechanical components.

Even physics itself, moving toward String Theory, a mathematical model of “The Cosmic Symphony,” seems to be increasingly compatible with this view.

If it is more an organic than mechanical universe; if human consciousness can be recognized as a direct “echo” of preceding and enveloping natural processes; and if we step back in yet another way and recognize that the mere existence of human consciousness demonstrates that Nature is somehow inherently capable of producing such a phenomenon, that matter and energy can be arranged in such a way as to become “conscious,” and if we contemplate the mind-bogglingly subtle and complex coherence of the universe and its myriad subsystems, is it such a leap to conceptualize the universe itself as a conscious entity, the fabric of Nature being, in a sense, “consciousness”?

Isn’t it that primal wisdom, that neolithic recognition, that has found expression in the form of God and gods? The error is not in the conceptualization, in the use of the metaphor and the exploration of reality that it facilitates, but rather in our conceptualization of conceptualization itself. We can’t seem to make the move from recognizing that what we hold in our minds and what those thoughts refer to are never identical, that we are always reducing, simplifying reality into forms we can grasp and work with, that reality itself is always more subtle and complex than our conceptualizations of it.

We seem to have fallen into two distinct patterns of error: The religious one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as intentionally ruled by an anthropomorphic God that thinks and acts suspiciously similar to how a human being thinks and acts; and the atheistic one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as a dead machine in which random chance produced the otherwise unremarkable isolated phenomenon of human consciousness.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the ancient civilization that was most remarkable for the florescence of rational thought and subtle and insightful natural philosophies was also most remarkable for the incomparably robust and rich mythology that it produced. The ancient Greeks demonstrated that when we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of the human imagination, we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of human reason as well. The two are more intimately related than we sometimes realize.

So, while I believe that literary gods serve us better than literal ones, I also believe that investing in the processes of consciousness serves us better than entrenching ourselves in its ephemeral products (see, e.g., Scholarship v. Ideology, Ideology v. Methodology and An Argument for Reason and Humility). The error is not that our literal gods need to be replaced with an equally off-the-mark recognition of their literal absence, but rather that we need to refine our entire relationship to reality, understanding that our conceptualizations are just that: Conceptualizations. Our own consciousness best articulates with the consciousness of which we are a part when it does so most flexibly, most humbly, and most imaginatively. The gods beckon us to know them better by knowing less and contemplating more.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

One of the great paradoxes of American history and society is that we are simultaneously a country founded by religious zealots committed to the promotion of religious zealotry, and a country established on Enlightenment principles committed to the creation and preservation of a secular Constitutional Republic. In an honest debate over which direction best serves current and future generations of Americans and humanity, I personally believe that there is no contest: Religious fanaticism and Theocracy are the authors of untold horrors in the world, and it is not a model to be emulated.

It’s true, of course, that some secular “religions” have produced the same horrible outcomes (Bolshevism is the iconic example), which leads to the wise conclusion that it is not the presence or absence of some conceptualization of the divine that renders an ideology destructive to human welfare, but rather merely an aura of absolutism, a belief that the complex and subtle reality of the world has been perfectly distilled into an easily grasped human ideology, and that no further discussion is required. It is not religion that is at fault, but rather blind dogma, absolute faith in some reductionist representation of how the world works and how we should interface with it.

Identifying this problem is easier than solving it. Humans have no choice but to conceptualize the complex and subtle reality of which we are a part in manageable ways, to reduce it to images and forms and packages that we can understand and work with. Our most sublime intellectual achievements do this as surely as our most shallow superstitions. But what distinguishes our most sublime intellectual achievements is that they are products of a process through which our imaginations and our intellects are disciplined and evolve, whereas our most shallow superstitions are ossified products of ancient imaginations entrenched in our consciousness and as insulated as possible from the continuing lathe of reason and imagination. One modality is based on skepticism, on critical thinking, and the other on Faith, on blind acceptance of given “truths.”

(The same holds true for modern dogmas, sometimes intellectual and frequently political ideological, as for archaic superstitions: The greater the extent to which adherents dogmatically believe substantive tenets, the more in the mode of “religious fanaticism” they are; the more they commit to on-going procedures –facilitated by wise uncertainty– which favor reason and humanity, the more they are contributing to the progress of both human consciousness and the social institutional and technological landscape that emanates from it.)

The dilemma in America is not that we are in a debate over these two modalities of thought, but rather that one of these two modalities precludes such a debate. It is not possible to engage in a debate with blind dogma insulated from reason and information. But worse yet, not only is such a debate precluded, but those who preclude it play a shell game with these two very different modalities of thought, turning the U.S. Constitution, which is so much in the tradition of reasoned engagement with the complex and subtle world we live in, into a quasi-sacred document, stripped of its actual subtlety and wisdom, and selectively understood and interpreted in service to the blind dogma that they favor.

They claim to be champions of the Constitution, while in reality being its most virulent enemies. What the Constitution represents first and foremost is rule of law, and what rule of law is first and foremost is a procedural discipline, a commitment to making decisions about legality through processes established by both the Constitution and by the challenge of implementing it in a real world more complex than any such document can fully anticipate.

But rather than accept that we have a real Constitution, written by mere human beings in a language full of ambiguities and imprecisions and in a time which framed their understandings and emphases, a document that Constitutional Scholars debate and study and spend dedicated lifetimes trying to fully understand, in the context of an ever-changing world, these would-be theocrats insist that only their superficial and frequently poorly informed interpretations, sometimes completely at odds with any literal interpretation of the document itself, must prevail.

If one points out to them, as I have sometimes done, that Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes…to pay for the general welfare,” and that that is a rather broad power that, if literally interpreted, means that there is no limitation on what Congress can tax and spend in service to, as long as Congress can make a case that it serves the general welfare, they answer that there must be limits on it, because, after all, isn’t such a limitation what their dogma insists upon? They love the Constitution until it blatantly contradicts their ideology, at which point it is, in their view, the Constitution rather than their ideology which must yield. That is the very essence of anti-Constitutionalism.

(The limitation on the tax-and-spend power of that clause is, of course, that if voters don’t like the way Congress is exercising it, voters can fire them and hire representatives who do so more in accord with their wishes. The Constitution, drafted to strengthen rather than weaken the federal government, was designed, as explicitly elaborated on in The Federalist Papers, to overcome the collective action problems rampant under the Articles of Confederation that preceded it. It’s no accident that the Founding Fathers included this ample power to tax and spend in service to the general welfare.)

Of course, as many point out, well-reasoned and well-informed arguments fall on deaf ears, because people in general, and religious and quasi-religious fanatics in particular, do not form their opinions according to the dictates of reason applied to evidence –or in service to humanity rather than to their own national, racial, class, ethnic, etc., in-groups– but rather on the basis of emotional appeals to the frames and narratives which form our consciousness and our identities. When I argue that we should all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill (toward all humanity), and others respond that that won’t work because there are those who lack reason and lack such goodwill, I reply that the irrationality and belligerence (toward humanity) of others does not imply that we must be irrational and belligerent (toward humanity) as well.

I emphasize “toward humanity” because the misconception is common, among both those who tend to agree with me on substantive positions and those who tend to disagree, that goodwill toward humanity precludes hurting the feelings of those who preach ideologies or behave in ways which are antagonistic to humanity. It doesn’t. (Those on the right embrace this fallacy to discredit those challenging the substance of their ideology, by claiming that anyone who criticizes their ideology is not acting with goodwill toward humanity; those on the left embrace this fallacy to discredit the challenge to their preference for righteous rage over effective advocacy, arguing that since goodwill toward belligerent fanatics is ineffective the ideal of goodwill toward humanity is irrelevant to political discourse.)

Goodwill toward humanity does not mean that you cannot intervene militarily to stop a genocide, even though shooting at people (in a military action to stop a genocide) is not really the best expression of goodwill toward them personally. Nor does goodwill toward humanity preclude one from hurting the feelings of someone preaching some hateful ideology by sharply criticizing their ideology, and doing so in terms which are logically and emotionally compelling and thus, to them, offensive. To the contrary, goodwill toward humanity requires it, not gratuitously, and not in service to one’s own emotional gratification, but rather in service to moving the zeitgeist gradually in a desired direction.

For those who believe that moving the zeitgeist in a desired direction is impossible, all I can say is: Glance back across the sweep of human history, and you will see that it has been done before, and is done constantly. Scientific methodology didn’t exist half a millennium ago, but has grown in prominence over that span of time, in large part due to human effort, and frequently against human resistance. That thread of history, in fact, is the archetype of what I’m advocating. We have, historically, increased the salience of reason and goodwill in human affairs, by developing scientific methodology and legal procedures, and by developing humanistic philosophies which identify the rights of individuals and the value of various forms of egalitarianism. Extending these historical processes is what Progressives should be most committed to. And, by that definition, all reasonable people of goodwill should be Progressives.

(I’m tempted to dump the word “Progressives,” though, because, of course, the ideology that goes by that name is not precisely the ideal ideology I have described. True “progressivism” would involve reducing the emphasis on precipitous substantive certainties, and increase the emphasis on ever-evolving procedural disciplines developed for the purpose of realizing an ever-evolving humanism.)

It’s true, of course, that merely making well-reasoned and well-evidenced arguments is not the primary way in which the zeitgeist changes. We think in frames and narratives, and it is through those frames and narratives that change occurs. But one frame which almost all modern Americans embrace is that they are reasonable people, that their beliefs are what are supported by reason and evidence, that in any debate between equally competent debaters, their point of view inevitably wins. Another frame common to almost all modern Americans is that each believes themself to be a person of goodwill, a person whose ideology is the ideology which best serves others. Few Americans explicitly applaud Scrooge before the transformation and condemn Scrooge after the transformation; almost all define themselves as being a reasonable person of goodwill.

One way to challenge these frames is to ply the lever of cognitive dissonance, to make the discrepancy between the narratives that people are subjectively applying to themselves and the narratives that they are “objectively” living as inescapable as possible. And that means not only throwing well-reasoned arguments in their face, but rather throwing in their face well-reasoned arguments that challenge not particular policy positions but, more importantly, their own fundamental identity.

The way in which I habitually do this is, in every conversation in which a blind and belligerent dogma is being favored, to ask the person favoring it if they would be willing to set aside for a moment our substantive disagreements and agree with me only that we should all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill working together in a complex and subtle world to do the best we can in service to humanity. Some leap to agree; many do not. But almost all recognize, on some level or another, that they can either agree with this premise or suffer the cognitive dissonance of realizing that they are unwilling to.

I strongly recommend that this one, simple commitment become our core ideological identity and the platform that we most consistently and relentlessly advocate. It is a position which most find difficult to denounce, and to which many who do not consider themselves “progressives” would gladly gravitate. It is the basis for all well-conceived progressive policies, the standard by which they should be measured, such that it is this ideal rather than anything else we currently believe that should hold sway. And it is a shared foundation to which we want to attract as many people as possible (from all across the ideological spectrum).

The catalyst for this essay was an exchange on Colorado Confluence’s Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence). The exchange captures much of what I’m talking about, and expands upon some of the ideas I’ve presented here, so I am reproducing it below. It started with my posting a link to this Economist article on the relationship between religion and politics in America (http://www.economist.com/node/21548964) accompanied by this comment from me:

A nice summary of the disingenuity of Santorum’s remark about people of faith being banished from the public square (which is both the opposite of the current reality, and not advocated by any mainstream public official past or present), and the complex relationship between faith and politics in America.

One thing the article doesn’t note is the tension between the “Free Exercise” and “Establishment” clauses of the First Amendment: Government can neither inhibit nor promote any particular religion, which leaves a very narrow band between the two in which to operate.

Many religious zealots in America, for instance, don’t realize that, while it is unconstitutional for a school to promote or sponsor prayer on school grounds, it is also unconstitutional for schools to prohibit prayer on school grounds, as long as it is done in a manner which does not disrupt the normal functioning of the school and does not appear to carry the “imprimatur” of the school (e.g., does not use the school PA system, or occur as a part of a school event). It is, of course, the right balance…, except for theocrats who don’t want freedom of religion but rather a tyranny of their own religion.

For more on religion, see “Is Religion a Force for Good?” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=742), “A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=2452), “Do Deities Defecate?” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=2504), and “Discourse, Diderot, and Deity” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=1081).

A woman named Dina then commented “wow, drink the cool aid (sic) much?” This was my response:
Okay, I’ll bite. What Kool-Aid are we talking about? If we’re invoking cult leader Jim Jones and the mass suicide he orchestrated (which is where the term comes from), then it would make more sense to use it to refer to those who are defending dogmatic beliefs (particularly religious beliefs) against a commitment to a more open and moderate secularism. But such reversals of meaning, though ironic in the extreme, are also remarkably common.
She then replied, “”‘socialism,’ ‘secularism,’ let’s call the whole thing off!” To which I responded:
“Secularism” and “Socialism” are not the same thing. Our Constitution essentially guarantees a secular form of government by not only guaranteeing to each the freedom to practice their own religion (“The Free Exercise Clause” of the First Amendment) but also prohibiting government from favoring any one religion over others (“The Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment). For an ideological faction whose adherents generally fancy themselves the defenders of the Constitution, it’s remarkable how eager some members of that faction are to disregard and undermine that very same Constitution in both letter and spirit.

The word “socialism” has been applied very broadly, especially in service to a particular ideological agenda, to societies that are widely divergent in form. At one extreme are a group of societies that are characterized by autocratic, oligarchical governments that completely dismantle market economies and replace them with command economies. These have all been horrible failures. At the other extreme (in normal usage) are the “democratic socialist” countries such as some Scandinavian countries have at times been, and these have been by and large quite successful (robust economies, excellent quality of life, extensive individual rights, and far more equitable than average).

More generally, all modern developed nations are, in reality, a hybrid of robust market economies, popular sovereignty, large administrative states, a strong commitment to rule of law, and a thoroughly secular (non-religious) and civil (non-military) government. All nations that participated in the post-WWII economic boon were characterized by this combination of institutional qualities, bar none. To call them “socialism” would mean that the word “socialism” must be understood to encompass both a certain category of failed states, and the unique category of the most successful states in world history (i.e., all successful, fundamentally capitalist countries).

The point of using the word “socialism” to describe both is to obfuscate the fact that some of the states being so labelled comprise the entire set of modern prosperous, free nations on Earth, and to imply instead that all states so labelled actually belong to the set of failed states known by that label. In other words, it is an attempt to relabel all modern, prosperous, free nations as something other than what they are, and to pretend that a proposed extremist form that has never described any actual successful nation on Earth is what defines that category instead! It is a triumph of meaningless, cultish rhetoric over anything even vaguely resembling reality.

There are legitimate debates to be had about the issues that divide us, about the right balance between public investment in human and material infrastructure and laissez-faire market dynamics, about the degree to which we should be committed to maximizing equality of opportunity and how to go about it, about to what extent we should try to consider possible future consequences of current policies and to what extent we should focus exclusively on present outcomes, about, in general, what works and what doesn’t work, what best serves our liberty and prosperity and well-being and what doesn’t. My fondest hope and highest aspiration is that we become a nation that has those debates, as reasonable people of goodwill, wise enough to know that none of has all of the answers, working together in a complex and subtle world to do the best we can; to be, in other words, a nation of people who decline to drink various flavors of “the Kool-Aid,” and choose to be thoughtful, open-minded, and constructive citizens instead.

The purpose of my blog, Colorado Confluence, and this Facebook page that links to it is to promote the application of reason and imagination to evidence and accumulated knowledge and understanding in service to humanity. All points of view, all arguments, are welcome. If you have an actual argument to make, please feel welcome to make it: Understanding and insight are served by robust debate (the opposite of “drinking of the Kool-aid” of insulated dogmas blindly adhered to). The informationless, unreasoning, and generally meaningless one-liners about “drinking the Kool-aid” of secularism (ironically completely inverting the meaning of the phrase), and equating “secularism” and “socialism” in a catchy cliche about “calling the whole thing off,” are modalities best suited to other kinds of forums, offered for other purposes.

That got her goat! Here’s how she replied:
well, I guess you told me, huh? I will leave the rest to your ‘enlightened’ state of mind! My point being that your insulting comments regarding the disingenuousness of Santorum feed into the rhetoric we hear everyday in the main stream media. There has been a war against Christianity in this country for decades..actually, around the entire world! Mr. Bloomberg in NYC should heed your words about the ‘imprematur-lessness (sic) of churches who have used public buildings for worship when school is not in session….Other public entities would be smart to heed these same words when they are insistent on shoving other religious tenets down our throats by installing foot washes and prayer rooms in their institutions! IMO, secularism and socialism go hand in hand and both ideas are ruining this great country…Our Forefathers must be turning in their graves! God Help the USA! Goodbye….
And, finally, my response to that:
The NYC law prohibiting the use of public schools for religious purposes is currently in the courts, where that balance between Free Exercise and non-Establishment will be struck. The main problem is that the congruency of non-school use days to some religious holy days and not others (Jewish and Christian, but not Islamic) may be construed as an implicit favoring of those religions that [have] their sabaths on the weekend. It’s a subtle question; my guess is that the courts will find that the NYC law is unconstitutional, and I would agree with that decision.

Your comments about the allowance of Islamic practices as well as Christian and Jewish, on an equal footing, merely goes to demonstrate your theocratic rather than constitutional orientation. Islam, according to our Constitution, is neither to be privileged nor discriminated against, and, if we fall short at all as a nation, it is in the latter rather than former error, one which you are determined to increase rather than decrease. You are of a mindset that Christianity should be privileged, and that the failure to do so is a failure of our national conviction. But that simply is not how our nation is Constituted. We are not a theocracy; we are a Constitutional Republic.

What’s most remarkable to me about her last comment was the equation of adhering to the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, permitting and accommodating the free exercise of non-Judeo-Christian religions, with “shoving (those religions) down (the) throats” of those who don’t adhere to them! The notion that Christians in America are more discriminated against than Muslims, that Islam is “shoved down the throats” of Christians but that Christianity is just one religion among many, in no way privileged and in no way seeking to be, is so incredibly ludicrous, it simply boggles the imagination that anyone could argue such a position.

Our national debates aren’t over whether to permit Islamic and Christian religious imagery to co-exist, but rather whether to continue to privilege Christianity in the ways that it has been historically privileged, to use exclusively Christian imagery and language in official displays and communications relating to holidays and other religious events. It is not that these would-be theocrats want no religion shoved down anyone’s throat, but rather that they want their religion exclusively shoved down everyone’s throat!

This isn’t just an issue of religious zealotry and hypocricy and anti-constitutionalism pretending to be the opposite; it’s one example of the more fundamental divide in American politics, one which tracks the left-right divide to some extent but not exactly, one which is where our focus should be as we work on both ourselves as individuals and the nation and world to which we belong. That divide is between ideologies which favor irrationality over reason, and belligerent tribalism/sectarianism over a commitment to humanity. The solution is not to remain entrenched in the struggle to ensure that our own substantive certainties prevail over opposing substantive certainties, but rather to promote a greater and more widespread commitment to procedures and attitudes which systematically favor reason over irrationality, and humanity over various forms of bigotry and belligerence.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

I’ve decided to coin a new term, “sharianity,” which is defined as the state of mind implicated in the citing of examples of sharia law being enforced somewhere in the world (or imagined instances of it being enforced somewhere in the United States) to stoke up anti-Muslim hysteria here at home (by arguing, arbitrarily, that sharia law is taking over America, and that, therefore, we must discriminate against all Muslims living in the United States). In two threads (so far) on Facebook, I have taken on this particular hysteria, part of the larger anti-Muslim hysteria sweeping across some factions of this country.

It’s important to emphasize that opposing the exploitation of horrendous acts of violence abroad under the guise of sharia law as a pretext for advocating prejudice and discrimination here at home is in no way a defense of or tolerance of or acceptance of those acts of violence. Just as the opposition to rationalizing any other form of racism by pointing to some crime committed by some members of a given race as a pretext for that racism is not an expression of approval for the crimes committed, so too opposing rationalizing this form of racism by pointing to some crime committed by some members of the given race (or, in this case, religious community) does not in any way imply approval of the crimes committed.

While it may be true that a significant portion of world Muslims support aspects of Sharia law repugnant to Americans, it’s also true that those who exploit that fact most vigorously to condemn all Muslims en masse are precisely those Americans who are most similar to those who endorse and enforce sharia (close-minded, bigoted religious fanatics). Jihad, meet Crusades, brought into the Modern era by remarkably similar throw-backs of two different stripes….

One commenter captured the cornerstone of that fanaticism with the assertion that, since both Islam and Christianity can’t both be right at the same time, to be tolerant of Islam is not enlightened but rather confused. I’ve addressed this error of false absolutism many times (see the essays linked to in the fifth box at Catalogue of Selected Posts, plus A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization and An Argument for Reason and Humility). To summarize:

1) The world is comprised of groups of people, each defined to a large extent by some set of shared beliefs. Many or most of these hold beliefs that are considered “exclusive absolute truths.” In other words, they hold some ideological conviction (often, though not always, in the form of a religion) that they consider the absolute and indisputable truth, such that they know that their dogmatic certainty is the one correct one, and all others are wrong.

2) Of those that share this characteristic, at most one can be correct (though not necessarily any are).

3) By adhering to these exclusive ideological certainties, all such ideologues guarantee a perpetuation of a world divided by such mutually exclusive ideological absolutisms, often violently so, and, as we see in this case, even when not violently so, at least hatefully so.

4) Exercising the wisdom of humility, knowing that none of us are in possession of the one, final, absolute truth, but rather are mere human beings striving to understand a complex and subtle world and universe, is not the error of “relativism,” as such adherents insist, but rather the recognition that, while there is a single, coherent objective reality, our ability to ascertain it in its entirety is so limited that our various attempts yield these mutually exclusive absolutists ideologies instead.

5) This habit of thought is also the basis of the most robust system of gaining deeper and broader understandings of nature ever yet invented: Scientific methodology, which is based on skepticism rather than faith.

6) Faith may be a virtue, when it is pure enough not to conflict with humility, and takes the form not of words and beliefs, but rather of a sensation of being part of a wondrous and awe-inspiring reality. In this form, our religions become wonderful windows onto something that transcends them, and become languages that cease to divide us in violent and hateful ways.

Several commenters on both threads insisted that “they” (i.e., Muslims) have brought this on “themselves” by committing acts of terrorism and violence. This is, not surprisingly, a very popular meme. It’s also a very irrational one. I don’t recall a sudden outcry that white Americans had brought such prejudice on themselves when Timothy McVeigh, acting in the context of a large organized anti-government movement (that is even larger and more vocal today, and has even more paramilitary groups running around in grease paint firing semi-automatic weapons), bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (killing hundreds, many of which were children in the daycare center in the building). We use that concept of “they” very selectively, to vilify those out-groups we are predisposed to vilify, but to individualize acts of violence committed by members of groups (generally in-groups) we are not predisposed to vilify.

One commenter asked “Where is your compassion for the young lady (who, according to the story, was executed under sharia law for participating in a beauty pageant) ??????” Again, condemning the hateful bigotry rationalized by means of exploiting that tragic event does not equate to indifference to the tragedy of the event itself. Americans commit crimes all the time, and their victims deserve nothing but compassion, but I doubt that many Americans would find that a convincing argument why generalized hatred toward Americans overseas, rationalized as a reaction to the crimes some Americans commit here (or there), can’t be criticized.

Or perhaps a better analogy is that America is one of the last developed countries to retain the death penalty, considered utterly barbaric by the citizens of most developed countries, and yet these same folks who are indignant over the lack of compassion shown by my criticism of their bigotry would be the quickest to take offense at any similar bigotry directed toward Americans in general by virtue of our continued execution of occasionally innocent convicts.

The trick of finding an atrocity committed by the group toward which you are eager to direct your bigotry is an old one. It was used frequently by people very much like the “sharianists” (those who invoke sharia as a pretext for anti-Muslim bigotry) to rationalize their own racism in the past, just as it is being used now to rationalize the popular prejudice of the present. If there had been an internet fifty or sixty years ago, Southern racists would have posted news stories of African Americans committing crimes, using those stories to condemn African Americans in general, just as some are now doing to Muslims.

The problem, of course, is that bigots are always perfectly insulated against any information that might expose to themselves the ignorance and hatefulness of their own bigotry. That’s the beauty of ignorance: Those who suffer it are able by virtue of it to ignore all information and reason that might inconveniently challenge their bigotry. And so the disease of racism, of bigotry, of hatred, “wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross” (as the very prescient and insightful author Sinclair Lewis said of how Fascism would come to America), marches on, unstoppable. And these new bigots are its foot soldiers.

The concept of “tolerance” popped up, of course, both rejecting and co-opting it at the same time (“those animals don’t deserve to be tolerated, but, if you’re so committed to tolerance, what about tolerating us bigots?”) But tolerance does not mean tolerating specific crimes by specific people; it means tolerating diversity that is not violent or predatory in nature. Being Muslim is not violent or predatory in nature; hating Muslims is.

But there is a degree of tolerance required, even of those  who express such bigotries. I believe in the degree of tolerance that recognizes their speech to be protected, and to be opposed not with physical force, or any suggestion of any call to physical force, or any suggestion of any call to the passage of laws prohibiting such positions, but rather just with reason and knowledge and the power of competing speech. But it should not be tolerated in the sense of being disregarded and left unopposed by better reasoned, better informed, and more life affirming ideas and arguments.

Several commenters typically, tried to “rubber-and-glue” me in various ways, suggesting, for instance, that by criticizing them I was committing the same error they were supposedly committing by criticizing Muslims (unsurprisingly unable to distinguish between criticizing specific people for their own specific behaviors and criticizing whole categories of people for behaviors committed by some members of those categories). Two on two different threads bizarrely invoked the “glass house” proverb, suggesting that it was wrong of me to “throw stones” at them for the sin of throwing stones at Muslims in general.

One commenter implied that I must be an anti-Christian “bigot” since I was criticizing these good Christians for hating Muslims, to which I replied that no, I didn’t hold Christians in general responsibility for the viciousness of some. I also referred them to my arguments in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization, in which I argued vehemently against such anti-Christian or anti-religion presumptions.

I pointed out to another the questionability of insisting that “Christianity” stands in opposition to “liberalism.” Many great liberals have been Christians. Many liberal civil rights leaders have been men of the cloth, and a whole movement called “liberation theology” was prominent for decades, particularly in Latin America. I pointed out that one of the great ironies cited by many on the left is that the words attributed to Jesus sound much more like words that could be spoken by American liberals today than by American conservatives, with a focus on social justice and compassion and “tolerance” and a commitment to humanity. I pointed out that the commenter did not represent Christianity in its entirety, any more than those murderers in the article represent Islam in its entirety.

Several commenters tried to justify their reporting of the incident as unassailable in and of itself, though it was clear that the purpose was to advocate for discrimination against Muslims here in America. I pointed out that of all the destructive ideologies that exist in the world, when a group of people repeatedly seek out and publish examples of one in particular, plucked from the far side of the planet, to make a specific point about a specific culture that, coincidentally, they have been striving to vilify in general, here at home, for the past decade, that is no longer simply the condemnation of a particular set of violent acts motivated by a particular belligerent ideology. It becomes clearly identifiable as a pretext for an antagonism focused on a particular race or ethnicity.

Present in all of this was another example of one of the great ironies of modern American right-wing ideology: While its adherents claim, on the one hand, to believe in individual responsibility, they also think in very collectivist terms. The incident they cite is not about individuals committing an act of violence, but rather a cause to indict an entire culture, not all of the members of which subscribe to sharia law (and of those that do, not necessarily this more repugnant variety of sharia law).

There are some other great ironies embedded in this ideology. The habitual dismissive disregard for the Constitution espoused by the ideological camp that claims most loudly to be the great champion of the Constitution, for instance, is discussed below.

But a less well-known right-wing hypocricy is the convenient blend of relativism and absolutism. A subjective relativism is invoked to insulate arbitrary opinions, such that no opinion can ever be deemed better informed or reasoned than any other. This is combined with a conveniently invoked absolutism that declares that the set of arbitrary opinions, each of which can’t be challenged because all opinions are equal, comprise together the One Exclusive Truth by virtue of the fact that anything else would imply the error of relativistic thinking!

So, it is possible to condemn Muslims for being Muslims and insist that they must be excluded from American society as violators of absolute truth, and condemn those who say that this is bigoted for failing to accept just one more equally valid opinion! Reminiscent of John Calhoun insisting that the liberty of slave owners was threatened by emancipation of slaves (and that the rights of minorities had to be protected by ensuring that the rights of African Americans weren’t), these specimens insist that their right to be different by advocating for the discrimination of others is the one difference that should be respected!

This deftly convenient blend of relativism and absolutism came up repeatedly in the assertion that the commenter’s personal experience and personal perceptions were inviolate, and that therefore any suggestion that any of it might be empirically false or irrational or offensive was just someone else’s opinion, and therefore inadmissible as a response to the commenter’s condemnation of others for their (the others’) beliefs or identity.

There is clearly a convenient inconsistency, as well, in the way in which the selection of what to be indignant about and what not to be indignant about occurs, serving a blind ideology rather than a rational and humane philosophy. There’s no indignation over one of the richest nations on Earth being obstructed (by them) in its efforts to address poverty, homelessness, hunger, and other forms of needless and curable destitution within its own borders, a travesty that is actually within their political power to confront, but there is boundless indignation over the sins of a distant culture operating in a distant land, because that travesty is committed by a foreign enemy that they are eager to vilify.

We are talking about a political and cultural movement in America which blends the worst of all ideological worlds, mixing a form of individualism only invoked as a justification for belligerence and indifference to the neediest in our own society with a form of collectivism only invoked as a justification for belligerence toward all those outside our own society. It is a particular blend of individualism and collectivism selected not to serve humanity, but rather to attack humanity, to hate rather than to help. (See The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism for a more in-depth discussion of this issue.)

Here is one telling comment, that was applauded by others on the thread:

Americans were traumatized by 9/11. And, because of that they will be develop a certain dislike or mistrust of the culture that perpetrated it. That’s understandable. The fact that moderate muslims do not denounce the radical muslims looks like tacit approval of 9/11. The fact that when muslims emigrate to the US and other countries, they remain insular also doesn’t help. Western culture is so different to theirs makes it difficult for them to do so. Having American citizens of muslim descent become terrorists doesn’t help. So I suspect those are probably reasons why we are seeing the intolerance.

While my experience is anecdotal, female friends of mine have had problems with muslim men at work. The men feel strongly that they should not have to work with women and that women should not work at all. Well, this is America and women work outside the home. Furthermore, A muslim man just about knocked me to the curb when I was in London in May. I was in his way. I guess as an infidel and a woman, he felt he could do that. I made it clear that it would be assault if he even touched me. There were muslim-only cafes in London and women were not permitted in some. Wonder if this is what we will see in America if we’re not vigilant? Will we tolerate that sort of discrimination? I never thought I’d see it in London. Should we tolerate that here?

I’m also concerned at the apparent acceptance of sharia law and the apparent small inroads it’s making in the US. IMHO, islam needs a reformation–it’s like it’s operating in a bygone era. Educating the people would help. Once they’re educated, they’re not as dependant on one person’s interpretation of the koran as we see now in some muslim countries.

I’m glad I’m of a certain age. Our children and grandchildren will have quite the challenge on their hands.

Another commenter responded to this by asserting that she is not a bigot for agreeing with it, but rather “a realist” who “see(s) Islam for what it is.” Ironically, both emphasized that Islam is stuck is Middle Ages, apparently not having a mirror handy to notice the Inquisition and Crusades standing at each of their shoulders.

I responded to the latter’s assertion that these were “very good examples” by pointing out that they are very good examples of how to rationalize xenophobia, by combining false (and empirically refutable) assumptions with an assumption of being completely justified in an anti-Muslim agenda. I pointed out that a huge number of moderate Muslims have denounced the 9/11 attacks; that their denouncements have been all over the media for the past decade (and I provided some links to inventories of such denouncements by Muslims), and that her twice repeated insistence that no such denouncements occurred was an example of “confirmation bias,” by which one perceives what is most ideologically convenient for them to perceive.

This all, of course, boils down to defining the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups, and then conveniently looking for all of the reasons to condemn all of those who belong to the out-groups, while blithely disregarding all of the often very similar (and sometimes more egregious) transgressions being committed by those who belong to the in-group. (See Inclusivity & Exclusivity.)

The main argument is that, since there are threats confronting America, any degree of xenophobia is justified. There are real threats and challenges in the world that impact the United States, both within and without its borders. But, while we have laws governing people’s actions within our borders, their freedom of belief, speech, association, and religion are all constitutionally protected. (There are fairly well-defined exceptions to freedom of speech of course: You can’t incite violence, commit slander, etc. Also, freedom of religion stops when a practice claimed to be a religious one violates a law whose purpose is other than to infringe on the religious belief itself.) If someone violates our laws, we prosecute them for doing so. If they don’t violate our laws, then there is no issue.

What we don’t do, what we have learned is the wrong thing to do, is to identify people according to their religion, ethnicity, race, or political ideology, and in some way or another, target them for those things in and of themselves. Being Muslim in America isn’t a crime, must not be perceived to be a crime, and those who treat it as a crime are the ones in error. Gross, horrible, shameful error.

The commenters were adamant that we are not doing enough to nip this threat in the bud, to confront and obstruct the intrusion of Muslim culture into our society. But we have a little thing called the US Constitution, which guarantees all Americans, and all legal residents, freedom of belief, of religion, of assembly, as long as they do not break any Constitutionally permissible laws in the process.

Ironically, once again, the same ideological camp that crows about being the true defenders of the Constitution turns out to be the principal threat to the Constitution, trying to whip up a predisposition to target a particular religious community living within the United States that, to the extent that it is translated into the kinds of policies consistent with that predisposition, would be a frontal assault on both our Constitution and our decency as human beings.

Among the comments were comments about how all of this bigotry is justified by the clash of cultures, somehow exhibiting a complete historical amnesia concerning how discredited that justification is. One of those commenters then insisted that all of these fine people posting on that thread would undoubtedly treat Muslims they encounter with love and respect, to which I pointed out that some of the posts included: “Those Jackasses Muslims (sic)…,” “AND THE GOVERNMENT LEADERS IN AMERICA STILL SAY WE CAN CO-EXIST WITH THESE ANIMALS ?? WAKE UP, PEOPLE !!” I mentioned that maybe that was a form of “love and respect” I just wasn’t familiar with.

There was then an endless going round in circles over the insistence that calling people “jackasses” isn’t bigotry, conveniently disregarding that feeling the need to impugn their entire religious community while doing so is. And no amount of pointing this out had any effect whatsoever.

There was the suggestion that I should be criticizing those Muslims who enforce sharia law overseas rather rather than those criticizing them here, to which I responded that 1) they are not mutually exclusive, and when I enter into conversations with Muslims in which they take positions that I find offensive, I have no hesitation to take them to task for it; and 2) having said that, there is a difference between criticizing remote others with whom I am not engaged in any process of shared self-governance and over whom I have little or no influence, and criticizing fellow citizens advocating an attitude and a policy for our nation that I find offensive and reprehensible.

There were comments about “birds of a feather,” and invoking the name of Danny Pearl as justification for the bigotry. I responded to these with:

….

2) The existence of categorical identities is certainly a staple of human history. Whether we will always have them or not is not something my crystal ball can tell me, but they have always existed and do exist today. But what we do with them has certainly been variable, ranging from genocide to amicable co-existence. The question isn’t whether those identities exist, but rather when the focus upon them serves no purpose other than as a vehicle for inter-racial or inter-sectarian hatreds. The former may be inevitable; the latter is not.

….

4) To use individual acts of violence as an excuse for sectarian hatred may seem rational and defensible to you, but it is the same thing you are condemning; it is what killed Danny Pearl, not what will save the Danny Pearls of the future; it is the problem, not the solution. It is bigotry.

To assertions that the anti-Muslim hysteria is justified by terrorism, I responded:

….

5) Since a significant portion of Muslims do not support sharia law, and do not condone the 9/11 attacks, Muslims in general cannot be held responsible for either; only those Muslims who support sharia law or condone the 9/11 attacks can be held responsible, among Muslims, for supporting sharia law or condoning the 9/11 attacks.

6) This is especially true since there is no centralized decision-making authority embracing all of Islam, and certainly no pan-Islamic democratic mechanisms by which Muslims in general can be held responsible for particular factional “policies” of Islam.

7) The criticism isn’t directed at any one who object to sharia, or object to terrorism, or discuss either in the context of Islam, but rather precisely and specifically at those who exploit the existence of sharia, and of the terrorist attacks, to foment hostility toward members of a particular religious community IN GENERAL.

8) Cultivating antagonism toward such an ethnic community, en masse, rationalized by factually less-than-accurate assertions that Muslims have a monopoly or near-monopoly on terrorism, by means of the absurd assertion that America is under threat of being overtaken by sharia law as evidenced by its patchwork existence in distant lands, is, indeed, an expression of xenophobia, not of a well reasoned and defensible reaction to real circumstances.

9) Terrorism comes in many forms. We normally use it to refer to the weapons of the weak, fighting against stronger powers by the only means they have, which is to attack the most vulnerable. And I am 100% in agreement that such attacks are reprehensible, but I am not in agreement that they are significantly less reprehensible than killing or being responsible for the killing of tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of “collateral damage” inflicted by larger military powers just as eager to exert their influence forcefully in the world, but able to do so without targeting civilians specifically. The point is that many things escalate reactionary cycles of violence, and it is very common for those culpable in one way to only perceive the culpability of those who have inflicted violence on them, rather than include awareness of the violence they’ve inflicted on others.

10) Even terrorism more narrowly defined is hardly limited to Islam. It has been exhibited in the Balkans, in the former Soviet Union, in sub-Saharan Africa, and even by right-wing anti-government fanatics in the United States (remember Oklahoma City?).

11) There are always ready rationalizations for stoking the fires of tribalistic and religious hatred, such as those you’ve cited. Those you condemn for their violence committed their acts of violence in the heat of a very similar mania, and the repetition of it here and now is likely to feed, directly and indirectly, into acts of violence committed in its name. The anti-government extremists who stoked up that rhetoric in the years leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing I’m sure feel no responsibility for that act of violence either, but without them, it would never have occurred.

12) The fact that violence exists, that some of it is perpetrated by Muslim extremists, and that people have suffered horribly at its hands, does not justify or legitimate stoking a frenzy of anti-Muslim sentiment directed toward peaceful and law-abiding Muslim citizens and residents of our own country.

….

14) If the concern is over terrorist attacks, then stoking those fires of reactionary tribalistic hatreds is not a very wise strategy for reducing the frequency or risk. In fact, the bigotry I am addressing increases rather than decreases our vulnerability in a multitude of ways, by cultivating more hatred directed toward us in reaction to it, by reducing cooperation of those best positioned to provide information that would help avert such attacks, by, in general, pushing people deeper into antagonistic camps, including people who never would have been antagonistic to us otherwise. You don’t address the threat of terrorism by starting with rationalizations for racial or religious hatred, but rather by asking yourself first and foremost “what set of policies would best and most effectively reduce this risk?” The answer to that latter question is complex and multifaceted, but included within its matrix is “the reduction of anti-Muslim hysteria in the United States today.”

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One would think that such a title could only be given to an attempt at humor, for how could such a question ever be taken seriously? But, though humor may well be the highest form of human discourse, I’m not attempting it today. Today, I am using the following absurd line of reasoning as a springboard into a steam of thought: If “man is made in God’s image,” and that image (i.e., form) is one that defecates, then why wouldn’t God defecate as well?

The perhaps tasteless title of this essay is meant as a portal into a labyrinth of questions and contemplations about the nature of the divine and its relationship to both the physical universe and to human beings. Given that one large swathe of humanity has anthropomorphized our gods since at least the days of Homer and Hesiod, it seems reasonable to ask: Just exactly how anthropomorphic are they? The Greek (and other Indo-European) gods, for instance, were not so transcendent that they didn’t squabble and feud, engage in petty jealousies and vendettas, and in general act very much as ordinary humans do, albeit with a bit more bite to their bark. Yahweh, the direct prototype of our own Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, was prone to fits of anger and, certainly in the case of Job, enjoyed playing cruel mind-games to test the loyalty of his followers.

If we are “made in God’s image,” and that image includes some traits that go beyond the mere superficial appearance, then where, exactly, is the line drawn? And if at some place that someone would be willing to point to, why there?

This isn’t meant, as it may appear at first glance, to denigrate religious beliefs, or trivialize the concept that forms the core of this particular inquiry (i.e., the posited self-similarity of deity and human being). I have indeed argued so robustly against dogmatic atheism (see A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization) that the person arguing the opposite point of view became quite upset with me, and, prior to that, made a similar argument in “Is Religion A Force For Good?”. I have also previously posited my own theory about the human “resemblance” to god in terms of a particular conceptualization of “consciousness,” which may be in part (in one of its forms) understandable as mutating and proliferating packets of information competing for reproductive success (see The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). (More broadly, this particular conceptualization of consciousness identifies it as the underlying fabric of the almost infinitely complex and subtle systemicness of nature.)

To be clear, I neither praise nor condemn religion per se. I praise imaginative, disciplined, compassionate wonder, and condemn dogmatic, divisive, destructive false certainty. It doesn’t matter to me whether the former takes the form of religion, nor whether the latter takes the form of secular ideology (or atheism itself). We see the defects of dogma in realms far removed from religion, and too often too close to home. Not only do we see it in a nationalistic American ideology which can justify any degree of violence toward any number or type of “other,” but also among those who claim to oppose this error. There are too many on the Left as well as the Right who have turned their ideology into just another blind dogma, and rally to it as just one more incarnation of the tribalistic impulse against which progressivism should most staunchly stand.

Returning to the title question, if god and humans share a form, why wouldn’t gods defecate? And if gods don’t defecate, what does it mean that “man is made in (their) image”? Isn’t it a bit bizarre to think that God merely has some human-like form or appearance, without anything beneath the image? One would think that God would be more, rather than less, “substantial” than a human being, more than an empty image, more than a mere shell of the organic replica, more than a facade encasing nothing.

Ironically, it is less the facade which is similar, than the processes which that facade encompasses. Humans are less the physical image of God than the functional image of God, an echo of an echo of the fabric of “consciousness” that forms the coherent universe, creating new echos of its own (see The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). By embracing this step away from the literal and toward the literary, we open up the beautiful imagery and insight of all the world’s religions, reaping their allegorical wisdom without becoming entangled in their thorny vines of blind dogma and irrational reductionism.

Before I answer the title question, I must be explicit about what I mean by “deities.” In this context, deities are our representations of the natural superordinate systemic layers of manifested consciousness that comprise our universe. The god or gods imagined to be the creator of life on Earth is our representation of the process of evolution, a process which preceded, produced, and is the prototype of our own human consciousness. Our imagery representing the complex dynamical systems of which the universe is comprised, always more complex and subtler than our minds can grasp, are the deities that populate that universe, that we fruitfully imagine and conceptualize not just in terms of our reductionist sciences, but also in our metaphors and stories and awe-inspired incarnations, allowing our minds to grasp aspects of that wonderful sublime systemic complexity in ways that elude mathematical models and cause-and-effect paradigms. For the purpose of this conversation, let’s focus not on the imagery we use, but on the systems it represents.

With this definition of “deity” in mind, and for no good reason other than to let the question continue to act as an enzyme on our mind, we can answer the title question. On one level, deities both do and don’t “defecate,” because deities both are and aren’t like human beings. Lacking a literal human body with a literal human digestive system, they do not engage in an identical process of waste discharge that humans do. But, being systems in the fractal organization of nature, of which we are a self-similar set of sub-strata, they engage in analogs of our process of defecation. Natural systems are open systems, parts of larger systems, a tangle of overlapping and encompassing processes in which the outputs of one form the in-puts for another. Just as human (more generally, animal) feces provides food and fertilizer for other organisms, so too does the Earth itself take in enormous meals of energy from the Sun, and emit into space that which passed through its systemic processes.

On another level, it might be argued that the universe is by definition a closed system, and that therefore it can emit no waste that is taken up by larger or external systems. So, while deities may defecate, one might argue that the deity, the monotheistic God, doesn’t.

Of course, these “answers” to the title question aren’t really what matter (nor are they particularly meaningful; any “answer” that followed similar thought processes would be just as accurate and useful); the attitude and habit of looking at the world and universe from a variety of different and novel angles are. Asking the question is what matters, even though the question itself is superficially trivial and ridiculous, because we pry open our understandings not by staying locked into the familiar and normal, but by finding unfamiliar and uncharted mental paths down which to wander and wonder.

At core, the title question is a whimsical version of a more basic and familiar question: Where is the line between the spiritual and material, the sacred and mundane? I think that the highest forms of spirituality erase that line, and instead see everything as divine, nothing as mundane. All lives are a glorious story, all of nature an expression of that ubiquitous consciousness that we cast as God or gods or animistic spirits or the Tao…. All of our tools for exploring it, including both our robust and far-reaching imaginations and our more anchored, disciplined processes of applying reason to evidence, can and should articulate into one single enterprise.

The more we, as individuals and in groups, can gravitate toward this realization, toward a disciplined commitment to reason and imagination and compassion and humility all in service to human welfare, and, even if only by extension, therefore to the welfare of this wonderful planet on which we live, the more surely we will move forward into the far brighter future we are capable of creating together.

The obstacles to this are enormous and ubiquitous, within each of us and throughout our national and regional societies. Here in America, a political and cultural force that has long festered has taken one of its most concentrated forms in opposition to this vision of who we are and who and what we can be, clinging instead to a divisive and regressive set of dogmatic convictions, and, by doing so, struggling to drag us all down against those of us struggling to lift us all up. It is an old story with a new veneer, humanity being humanity’s own worst enemy, inflicting on ourselves a tragedy born only of small minds, hardened hearts, and shriveled imaginations.

But there is another force among us more insidious than this movement of organized ignorance and belligerence which inflicts such suffering on us, that is an unwitting partner to it, more similar than different when examined closely: It is non-engagement, indifference, a recoiling from the challenge of confronting the obstacles to our collective welfare, whether in terror or despair or just due to a lack of will. Those who simply live their own lives and let the currents of human history sweep them along are complicit in the suffering and injustice inflicted by those more explicitly motivated by ultra-individualistic and ultra-nationalistic (and anti-intellectual, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and just generally hateful and destructive) ideologies, because in both cases it is a case of people rejecting our shared purpose, our shared humanity, our interdependence and shared responsibility to one another.

So, just as “all roads lead to Rome,” all questions (even “Do Deities Defecate?”) lead to one answer: We are challenged, individually and collectively, to exercise our imaginations, our reason, our compassion, our humility, and our will in disciplined and dedicated service to humanity, in service to this wonderful Consciousness of which we are a part, living with minds and hearts and hands reaching ever farther into the essence of what is in order to cultivate in that fertile soil the endlessly wonderful garden of human existence.

And may the deities continue to defecate on it….

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(The following is an exchange that took place on another blog. I have omitted some other interjections by other participants.) IP: If you can give me demonstrable proof that can be duplicated in a lab that there is a god, I will concede the point; until then you are talking about an imaginary invisible sky fairy. Key point being something imaginary. I can imagine unicorns pooping rainbows while being ridden by mermaids and leprechauns, that doesn’t make it real.

SH: The real problem here is that people think “reality” in general is something hard and fast, when it is something more complex and fluid than what we hold in our mind, where it is reduced to conceptualizations with which we can work. The more abstract the concept, the more tenuous its representation of reality, but that doesn’t make the concept useless or meaningless. Those who reject it because it seems literally preposterous are making a mistake very similar to those who accept it as literal truth.

IP: Then for you the concept of schizophrenia doesn’t work, because schizophrenia is based on the idea that their reality doesn’t match our reality.

SH: You’re sort of right. We live in a shared reality, intersubjectively produced over the ages, with an imperfect but real connection to “objective” reality. Those whose individual realities diverge too dramatically from that intersubjective reality are considered insane, a condition that can be the result of anything from an unusually creative and insightful mind, to an internal cognitive landscape that has trouble articulating with our shared cognitive landscape. The latter condition leads to real problems, both for the individual and for society, but the reduction of it to a simple pathology, one pole in a dichotomy defined by the absence or presence of a mental illness, is one of those concepts of ours that tracks reality very imperfectly, and in many ways dysfunctionally. Our current overreliance on psychotropic drugs, based on a largely fabricated history of “rebalancing chemical imbalances in the brain,” is one consequence of that divergence between our popular (and professionally dominant) conceptualization, and the ever-elusive reality.

IP: Actually I think that the outdated need to rely on a concept from the Neolithic Era, ie god, is a mental illness. People needed a god to explain things like how the sun rose and set. Science has explained how that has happened. The need, then, for a god is outdated and simplistic. If I do x, then my imaginary god will give me y. It seems silly to me.

SH: Let’s look at some of the factors that generated that “outdated” concept that has existed throughout human history, all around the world, in virtually every culture in every time and place.

1) We live in a world and universe that is mindbogglingly complex, and are gradually realizing that a biological rather than physical paradigm best captures that complexity. The science of chaos, of complexity, is the science of non-linear living systems, and applies to many systems that we have normally conceptualized as non-living.

2) Consciousness is one of the elements of that universe. In the modern tradition of human exceptionalism, we atheists have come to see human consciousness as just a happenstance product of random forces, and yet, we see echoes of it all around us, in evolution (which looks remarkably like a conscious and purposeful progression, the one which, coincidentally, produced something that resembled it: Human consciousness). There’s nothing stupid or absurd about conceptualizing the universe in terms of consciousness (not human consciousness, but something more diffuse and fundamental) rather than in terms of mechanics. In fact, that seems to be the direction in which logic and evidence lead.

3) Our minds are fundamentally metaphorical in nature. Even mathematics, that least poetic of conceptual languages, is essentially a set of metaphors disciplined into a complex system of logical thought. To metaphorically conceptualize this living universe, this complexity and subtlety of which we are a part, this coherence which transcends our capacity for comprehension, in the forms of gods and spirits and supernatural forces, is no less “off the mark” than to claim that we live in a dead, mechanical universe. Both are imperfect conceptualizations of an almost infinitely complex and subtle reality.

4) The real problem, on both sides of this equation, is not understanding the nature of our conceptualizations, and of our relationship to reality. We never hold within our minds an exact representation of a precise and unambiguous reality, but rather reduce a complex and incomprehensible reality to dimensions and forms we can grasp. World mythology has produced marvelous packages of complex and subtle thought with which to track that complex and subtle reality. Understanding that our error is in taking our conceptualizations literally rather than in embracing this or that imperfect conceptualization would be the cure to the problem you perceive.

5) In my opinion, someone who only understands a river in terms of hydrodynamics and the hydrological cycle and not at all in terms of singing spirits dancing their way from mountain springs to frothing seas, has a less complete understanding than someone who triangulates a bit more, and understands a river in various ways, through various modalities.

6) Concepts of god and gods and supernatural forces can enrich our understanding of our world, of nature, of ourselves, or they can form reified false idols that divide us and blind us to the complexities and subtleties of the world around us and within us. It is not the concepts that are at fault when the latter occurs, but rather how we use them and how we relate to them.

IP: In all of your 6 points you didn’t address the simple premise that the concept of god was started in our Neolithic past. All people had a Neolithic past so the fact that people came up with a god to explain natural phenomena is not unusual. People also lived in caves in the Neolithic era. Why should we hold on to a concept that doesn’t work and is divisive. Religion has killed more people than any other force on this planet, no god, no religion. The world would be much safer and peaceful without god.

SH: Lots of concepts began in our Neolithic past, including the concepts of red, orange, yellow, blue, green, etc., and the concepts of up and down, forward and backward, probably love and hatred, right and wrong, joy and sorrow, and many others of enduring value. Whether such concepts retain their utility has nothing to do with when they originated.

Personally, I do agree that we could do better than to cling to Neolithic conceptualizations of god, and even to the very non-Neolithic developments of those original conceptualizations, that have led through the Mesopotamian religions, to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheisms with all of their trappings (and through other cultural pathways to Buddhism, Taoism, various polytheisms, and a variety of tribal religions).

But it is not some conceptualization of god that is divisive; rather it is the illusion of exhaustive absolutes that the world and universe can be reduced to, such as whether there is or isn’t a god, and, if so, which particular version is the one true one.

Some things are relatively amenable to such reductionism, and those things tend to fall within the mathematical and observable ranges of phenomena. Not all phenomena, nor all subjects of human contemplation, fall within those ranges, and so not all are so reducible.

There are two ways of formulating your final statement, taking into account the reality of differing perspectives and conceptualizations: 1) “The world would be much safer and more peaceful if everyone accepted my one absolute truth as THE one absolute truth,” and 2) “The world would be much safer and more peaceful if everyone accepted the variable reducibility of reality, and accepted complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity as fundamental aspects of reality beyond which we may not be capable of further reduction.”

“Everyone should just accept the absolute truth that there is no god” belongs to the first category, and is essentially the same as “everyone should just accept the absolute truth that there is only one god, and it is the one described by my religion.”

Clearly, there is no easy cure to our divisiveness, because even the suggestion that we adhere to less literal, more flexible, more subtle and accommodating conceptualizations of reality is divisive, in that all of those who strongly adhere to some absolute dogma or another will fight tooth and nail against any such suggestion!

Or, to put it more simply, the world would be a much safer and more peaceful place without dogmatic certainty, particularly dogmatic certainty regarding what are essentially metaphorical conceptualizations of reality, including the dogmatic certainty of atheism.

You think that it is an absolute and irrefutable fact that there is no god. My dad was a devout atheist, who shared your perspective completely. But his religion was as divisive as anyone else’s.

The irony is, of course, that even my own devout epistemological (rather than ontological) relativism is divisive, in much the same way, because any position vigorously held implies and inevitably generates (if one doesn’t already exist) an antithesis which is also vigorously held.

But, just to be clear, I think that your certainty that there is no god is as arbitrary as anyone else’s that there is a god. We atheists think of our consciousness as unique in the universe, or as some kind of anomaly in an otherwise unconscious mechanical universe.

But observation throws this into doubt: Clearly, what we experience as human consciousness is on a continuum with what other forms of life experience. When we see a spider scurry away to save itself, it looks a lot like a small, scared little creature acting like a miniature version of a human being. We know that it isn’t, but this resemblance isn’t quite completely arbitrary either; it is a product of the same dynamic which produced human beings (the one in which genes in competition with one another cluster together and produce vehicles for their relative reproductive success), and the resemblance is due to being a product of that process following a logic inherent to being such a product.

And what is so fundamentally different between an individual organism and an ecosystem, or a human society? The latter is a diffuse version of the former, with packets of information transmitted across generations forming into systemic, coherent, enduring wholes. Just because we subjectively experience our own consciousness doesn’t mean that something similar in essence isn’t a basic part of the fabric of reality. And the more we explore the underlying nature of that reality, the more support we discover for that conceptualization, scientifically and mathematically.

So why wouldn’t we conceptualize that wondrous, sublime, infinitely complex global, universal “consciousness,” that is the coherence and systemicness of the universe, in ways that are accessible to our imaginations? I disagree with you about the net value of religion: The world would have been greatly impoverished without world mythology, its brilliant stories, its framings of reality in rich and colorful ways.

It’s no coincidence that the ancient society that had the richest mythology also had the richest natural philosophy: Both are aspects of the same human imagination, working with the same materials, in much the same ways. We would not very likely have our wonderful florescence of scientific knowledge without a concomitant florescence of religious wonder.

Not only ancient Greece, but also modern Europe, were characterized by these two working in tandem. The modern European era was born with the Renaissance, which was an aesthetic rediscovery of classical forms, and the Reformation, which was a reinvigoration of religious energy. The Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment followed on their heels.

Religion isn’t the enemy: Dogma is. Believing in god isn’t the enemy; believing in a rigid reality which neatly reduces to our conceptualizations of it on all dimensions is. What would “save” us isn’t an end to religious thought, but a beginning to a deeper and more subtle and more open sense of wonder that takes that thought a step further, and synthesizes it with our scientific and philosophical and mathematical thought. Our future hope isn’t in contracting our minds and imaginations to fit within one preferred package, but expanding them to flow among ultimately compatible channels, exploring the wonder of a world far beyond our wildest imagination, and the potential of human consciousness more fully liberated and mobilized.

IP: I am more comfortable with confucianism and buddhism because there is no god, it is a philosophy more than a dogmatic set of beliefs.

On [this blog] there is someone who believes that the earth is 6k years old, because that is what his preacher told him. The enforced and celebrated ignorance of modern religion and dogmas are antithetical to intelligent and rational discussions….

SH: Beliefs range from more to less subtle, more or less well tracking an almost infinitely complex reality. You scoff at monotheists who scoff at polytheists who scoff at animists. Science was largely born from monotheism (just as monotheism was from polytheism, and polytheism was from animism), the latter having reduced the arbitrariness of Creation from a chaos of competing gods and spirits to a coherent single systemic whole and thus making it more amenable to systematic investigation.

Some aspects of some religions are incompatible with science, asserting as matters of faith (ie, beliefs insulated from evidence and skepticism) issues of causation and systemic dynamics that are, in fact, better understood through scientific methodology than religious narratives. Some aspects of religions occupy completely separate realms, going where science can’t really go because science doesn’t address all questions (particularly questions of value or judgment). And then there are realms to which both apply, but in different ways (such as the celebration of wonder and awe at the incredible complexity and subtlety of the world and universe we live in).

It’s fine to advocate for more rather than less subtlety, and to critique those who fail to continue to strive to do so. It’s folly to believe that you have found the end point of that journey, and to scoff at others for having failed to find the one absolute truth of which you are aware and they are not.

IP: Does your god care what food you eat?

SH: Psycholinguist Stephen Pinker, in How The Mind Works, posited that religious dietary restrictions evolved as a means of preventing members of more economically marginal societies from defecting to richer neighboring societies by making their food less attractive. So, for instance, in the case of Jewish dietary restrictions, shell fish would be found in neighboring coastal societies but not among the Hebrew desert nomads themselves, and pork would be found among (wealthier) sedentary populations rather than (poorer) nomadic ones.

The point isn’t that many religious ideas and proscriptions can’t be better understood as products of human history and psychology than as products of a divine mandate, but rather that different modalities of thought can coexist, and, where they reinforce rather than obstruct their respective competencies, can be useful and productive rather than dysfunctional and destructive.

Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu were all highly religious men, who used their religious convictions in service to their charismatic leadership and their missions of social justice and universal goodwill. The Civil Rights Movement in America benefited enormously from the social organizational capital of the southern black church infrastructure, without which that movement might never have happened, and certainly would have had to have happened with far less capacity for grass roots organizing than it in fact had at its disposal.

The goal of peace and human welfare is not best served by insisting that one’s own conceptual tyranny prevail over all others, whether it is the conceptual tyranny of a dogma that contains literal gods or one that does not (e.g., Marxism, Libertarianism, Dogmatic Atheism, etc.). Conceptual false idols don’t have to be supernatural to be socially destructive.

The goal of peace and human welfare is best served by recognizing that we have a plethora of conceptual modalities at our disposal, and that those modalities have varying uses and competencies, that they can be articulated in ways which reinforce rather than undermine one another, and that doing so provides us with more rather than less insight.

The fact that the opposite also occurs, that the incompetencies of each modality assert themselves at the expense of the competencies of the others, is something to strive to transcend, whether it is religious assertions about how faith is more reliable for ascertaining the validity of factual and causal information than is scientific methodology, or pseudo-scientific assertions that science “disproves” something which is a conceptual rather than factual matter.

One of the big obstacles to making this leap is the misconception that the products of our imagination are distinct from “reality,” and that reality is understood by some means other than our imagination. In truth, our imagination is our portal onto reality, our means of tracking it with our minds. Some of the modalities we use are good for some purposes, and may be more attractive to some people; while others are good for other purposes and may be more attractive to other people. But the notion that some of these modalities of human imagination are “right” and some are “wrong” is an unfortunately unimaginative position to take!

SH: (In response to another poster insisting that the burden is on IP to prove that God doesn’t exist, since no one in the conversation asserted that he/she/it does.) It’s a meaningless question. This is what people don’t get about the whole “do you believe in god” thing: It’s like asking “do you believe in charpadarka, a color that humans can’t perceive that occupies the spectrum of light frequencies from about 900-920 THz.”

Well, if you choose to call that range of the spectrum of light not visible to the human eye a “color,” and then name the color “charpadarka,” then you believe in it. If you choose not to call that range of the spectrum of light not visible to the human eye a “color,” and refuse to name it, then you don’t believe in “charpadarka.”

The objective reality is what it is. It can be conceptualized in multiple ways. It makes no sense to argue about whether one or another conceptualization is “true” or not.

(No one can) prove that “God” doesn’t exist, and no one . . . can prove that “God” does exist, because “God” is a concept, just like everything else we hold in our minds to represent reality. It is not an argument over an empirically verifiable or refutable assertion, or about an empirically and analytically more or less supportable theory or paradigm; it is an argument over semantics and conceptualization, and therefore a meaningless and absurd argument to have.

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Christmas is a shining growth in the social institutional landscape, a holiday rich in various heritages, colorful, good-humored, and devoted, for most, to a sentiment of universal goodwill. As a Jew with religious beliefs somewhere between pantheism and atheism, the Christianity of this ostensibly Christian holiday is as relevant to me as Halloween’s Celtic connection, which is to say, relevant, but not in the expected way.

Christmas is a cultural snowball rolling down a seemingly endless slope, growing as it goes. Its journey began long before the birth of Christ (which certainly did not occur on the 25th of December, which just happened to be the date of the biggest Roman holiday beforehand, the Saturnalia, chosen to make the early Christian celebration inconspicuous), and has traveled through diverse cultures and religions ever since, accumulating their material along the way.

We all know that Christianity began as a Jewish sect, building on the preceding Old Testament of the Jews. But Judaism as well had built on pre-existing near eastern religions and mythologies, incorporating the story of the flood, for instance, which had existed long before the Habiru (“desert wanderers”) began to promote Yahweh beyond his original status as a local tribal god. And the Romans, in the period preceding and during the early rise of Christianity, were in the market for new religions, accumulating around several “mystery cults” that were popular in the Roman Empire (of which Christianity was one), born in one or another of its provinces (e.g., the Dionysian and Orphean Cults of Greece, the Cult of Isis and Osiris of Egypt, Mithraism of Persia). Some of the materials of these other cults sloshed together and entered into early Christianity (transforming the Hebrew concept of “messiah” –translated into Greek as “Christ”– for instance, which was of a human prophet, into an incarnation of God; and the imagery of death and resurrection).

The Roman Empire itself, once Christianity became the state religion (thanks to Constantine’s perhaps politically motivated conversion), changed Christianity from a religion devoted to the poor and humble, into an instrument of state power. When Rome fell, that instrument was all that was left of the empire in the West, and became the overarching political force of Medieval Europe. In this way, Catholicism (one of the two major branches of pre-Reformation Christianity, the other being Greek Orthodoxy, residing in the surviving half of the Roman -now “Byzantine”- Empire in the East) adapted to and absorbed the indigenous cultural and religious material of Western Europe. Catholicism also became the improbable repository of classical scholarship, protecting it from the ravages of the Middle Ages, to be rediscovered and revived centuries later, only to transform itself into the most powerful of all countervailing forces: Applied Reason (further invigorated by the umbrella of monotheism itself, for monotheism reduces the caprice of multiple gods with multiple wills, and implies that there is a coherent order to Nature to be discerned).

The Christmas tree, for instance, is a blend of several traditions and innovations, none of them related to the religion itself, except for the possibility that Martin Luther introduced this custom into Christianity as part of the differentiation of Protestantism from Catholicism (see http://www.christmas-time.com/ct-ctree.htm). The decorated tree itself began in Rome, during the Saturnalia (the Pagan Roman holiday on December 25 historically antecedent to Christmas). The star on top appears to be derivative of the Roman custom of placing an image of Apollo, the sun god, on top of their decorated trees. The Teutonic tribes of northern Europe also decorated trees, in honor of Odin, and the Druids brought evergreens inside during the winter solstice to celebrate the renewal of life, a custom co-opted by Christianity as a celebration of Christ as “the bringer of new life into the world.”

Santa Claus, originally a 4th century bishop from Asia Minor known for his generosity and fondness of children (hopefully not in the modern sense too often associated with Christian priests!), blended into an anglo-saxon “Father Christmas” who wore garb associated with the gods Thor and Saturn (http://www.christmas-time.com/cp-santa.html). (See http://www.christmas-time.com/ct-trad.htm for similar discussions of other Christmas traditions).

Others have added to the imagery since, such as Charles Dickens, adding a repentant ghost of an avaricious businessman trying to convince his surviving and equally avaricious partner of the value of kindness and generosity, with the aid of three spirits (Christmas Past, Present, and Future); and Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart giving us a somewhat opposite image, of someone who had spent his life sacrificing his own dreams to the welfare of others, and in his own time of tribulation, being shown by an angel how much he had meant to the world by doing so. (See my political versions of these tales: A Political Christmas Carol and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Political Edition (Parts I-V).)

Every generation adds to the repertoire of songs and stories, reworking old ones, inventing new ones. An inspired answer by a hardened newspaperman to a little girl’s innocent question; a movie that plays on our desire to believe and the confluence of convenience and (an ironically anachronistic) trust in our governmental institutions; songs that cover the gamut of genres and styles, and throw in a fair amount of humor from time to time; all of these are the stuff of Christmas.

Now thoroughly secularized for many, with a jolly white-bearded magical entity of various pagan roots, assisted by quintessential European magical pagan creatures (elves) and flying reindeer, bringing joy to children everywhere on a snowy winter solstice (ironically, imagined as snowy even in tropical Mazatlan, where I was staying at the time of this writing, among a people very conscious that they are celebrating a desert birth), Christmas has become a shining multicultural gem, evoking feelings of mirth and goodwill in any and all who surrender to its magic. Full of music and rituals, feasts and games, gifts and giddiness, Christmas is the matured Saturnalia, a timeless celebration that belongs to many generations and places, rich with the influence of many cultures.

The compassionate, generous, joyful celebration of life has always been an ideal too beleaguered and too much in need of cultural reinforcements (see Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives). Christmas, for all the legitimate complaints about its commercialization, remains perhaps the grandest and most powerful national and international celebration of joy and kindness. And so, with that, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas! May the winter solstice be as magical for you as it has been for so many who have celebrated it before, in all their myriad ways.

The issue of improved public discourse is, ultimately, the most important of all political issues, for it is in the final analysis the means by which reason and justice prevail over irrationality and bigotry, within each of us as well as throughout society. Discourse is challenged along many dimensions: civility, robustness, depth, subtlety, inclusiveness, rationality, factual accuracy, scope, precision, and quantity of information mobilized and assimilated. How kind is it? How productive is it? How well-informed is it? All of these are relevant dimensions to be constantly improved upon.

Discourse takes many forms. As I wrote recently, perhaps one of its most useful and probing forms is satire (Tragically Comical American Political Discourse). Humor can be revealing, as well as enjoyable, and is often most provocative of deep insights of all discursive forms. From Gulliver’s Travels (in which Jonathan Swift gave us the term “yahoos”) to Slaughterhouse Five and Catch 22, and beyond, satire often hits the nail right on the head, and leaves us with a smile on our faces while doing so. That’s as good as it gets.

But discourse fights against many dysfunctional structural inhibitors and disinhibitors. Those with the largest audiences are often either incentivized to censor themselves or to inflame uninformed passions. Those who depend on endearing the many and offending as few as possible must avoid taboo topics and controversial positions as much as they are able to, while those who depend on appealing to and cultivating a loyal following must do just the opposite, and pander to their target market (whether sincerely or insincerely), reinforcing and helping to insulate prejudices and unreasoning passions. This bifurcates the most loudly broadcast voices into those that are sterilized by political and strategic considerations, and those that are contaminated by demagoguery.

Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff argued in his book The Political Mind that we need a new Enlightenment, one which does not try to advance the cause of Reason simply by recourse to rational arguments, but one which embraces new insights into how our minds work, and seeks to advance the cause of Reason along the avenues carved out by those insights (recognizing the roles of frames and narratives, of primary and complex metaphors, and working with them in advocacy of Reason and Empathy). But the old Enlightenment still holds its lessons, some of which we should continue to learn from.

The Economist recently published a review of Philipp Blom’s book (to be released in March): “Wicked Company: Freethinkers and Friendship in Pre-Revolutionary Paris” (http://www.economist.com/node/17358838). The theme of the book is those Enlightenment philosophes who convened in salons to discuss all matters, some of whom refuted the existence of God, despite the dangers of doing so. It was not, overall, a more courageous time than our own, and it was not a time when more people were willing to question the existence of God (Biologist Richard Dawkins, for instance, is one of many famous modern atheists, while Blom critiques some famous philosophes for their own failures to publicly entertain non-religious perspectives). But it is instructive that those committed to reason were discussing over two hundred years ago a reasonable but historically persecuted point of view that is little more tolerated today than it was then.

For the record, I am not saying that I consider atheism to be the final word on the subject (I don’t; I consider the truth to be far subtler, and far less dismissive of the sublime aspects of reality that concepts of divinity address). I am saying that atheism’s continued absence from most spheres of public discourse, along with the absence of subtler but equally unconventional views (e.g., pantheism, Taoist/Buddhist non-anthropomorphic mysticism, etc.), and the continued hold over public discourse and public cognition that the generally reductionist, absolutist, and somewhat superstitious bias of insitutionalized religions continues to command, are evidence of a public discourse unhealthily constrained by cognitive, social, and institutional forces that hinder rather than facilitate a robust and comprehensive public dialogue.

In other words, we continue to put informal “Inquisitions” between ourselves and the pursuit of truth. Galileo, who was basically accurate on every topic he addressed, and certainly more accurate than the Church, was subjected to torture by the Inquisition until he recanted his assertion that Copernicus was right, and the Earth revolved around the sun, rather than vice versa. And my own career as a teacher ended when I faced my own Inquisition for having compared cultural to genetic diffusion and innovation in a World Geography class (though I remain convinced that it was one of the best lesson plans my students had ever been exposed to).

Religion isn’t the only topic around which informal barriers to discourse are thrown up, nor do such barriers need to be society-wide to contribute to the constriction and impoverishment of public discourse. Some current trends in political discourse are contributing to further constriction, though in a more balkanized manner. Those with strong ideological views listen to and talk with those of similar views, and avoid those of conflicting views, sometimes quite explicitly (one left-wing ideologue, in a post on SquareState, said he was interested in reasonable criticisms, defined as things unlike what I say, which are too incompatible with his worldview to count as “reasonable”). The “confirmation bias” already making cross-fertilization of differing views difficult, is reinforced by the ability now to get news from, and engage in discourse with, those who already agree with us, making it that much easier to filter out contradictory evidence and analysis. Instead of a society-wide constriction of public discourse, we have a balkanized constriction, in which occasional debates across ideological borders quickly degenerate into angry mutual denouncements and insults.

A sociologist named Mark Granovetter wrote a paper in the 1970’s or 1980’s called “The Strength of Weak Ties,” in which he discussed the value of those network connections that form bridges between social (and ideological) islands. He was writing in a different era (strange as it may seem that so much has changed in so short a time), but captured a truth that transcends the form that our social coalescences take. We still need “weak ties,” bridges across social, cultural, and ideological chasms. We still need some threads of authentic social interaction, authentic dialogue, among as well as within our ideological enclaves.

There should be no taboos, particularly no taboos regarding modes of thought that do not preach hatred or antagonism of any kind. There should be no privileging of fixed ideologies. We need to work as a people toward promoting a society-wide public discourse that does not presuppose the conclusions, neither on the left nor the right nor in any other location of our complex ideological space. We need to continue to cultivate a commitment to reason, to analysis, to reliance on carefully acquired and verifiable information. No political challenge is more important, no advance more beneficial to our long-term collective welfare than advances in our ability to participate in a robust and unconstrained public discourse, with reason, humility, and goodwill as our guiding lights.

Democracy is a system which works best when people, informed of the issues, vote their conscience. Without a doubt, it has become polluted with money and marketing strategies, a battle of psychological manipulation and the amassing of the funds to propagate it. But if we fail to draw the line at outright intentional deception, at blatant misrepresentation designed to deceive voters into voting for something that they have been led to believe is something else entirely, then we should at least invoke the moral condemnation that should be triggered by such acts, followed by the punishment of it at the ballot box.

Amendment 62, of course, is a ballot measure which defines life as beginning at conception, in a probably unconstitutional assault on Roe v. Wade and women’s reproductive rights, and is a little gremlin of legal mischief, tying in knots a legal system almost entirely predicated on legal rights that vest at birth. Even that minority of Democrats who lean in the pro-life direction would (or should) tend not to support this measure, because it’s poorly drafted and poorly conceived, and far more draconian in its implications than simply the repeal of Roe v. Wade would be. The majority of Democrats, who, in the final analysis, simply can’t conceive of reducing women to legal incubators, would oppose this ballot initiative both for its anti-reproductive-rights implications, and for its general costly dysfunctionality (if it became law, it would wreak havok through a plethora of unintended consequences, while simultaneously tying up the courts by the need to rule it unconstitutional, the inevitable ultimate outcome).

Which is why its advocates decided to try to trick Democrats into voting for it, by means of a robocall by “a fellow democrat” which makes no reference to “abortion” or “fetuses” or “unborn children” or any other word or phrase which would indicate what the amendment is actually about, but instead refers only to thousands of Coloradans being killed due to a lack of civil rights protections (as reported by Colorado Pols: http://coloradopols.com/diary/14149/now-thats-one-misleading-robocall).

Yes, you can argue that from the perspective of whoever paid for the call (but who also violated Colorado election law by not stating who they were), the description in the robocall is entirely accurate (if also intentionally selective). But there is no doubt that it was designed to invoke false images in the mind of the listener, to deceive them into believing that Amendment 62 is a measure to protect some group of fellow Coloradans (as currently legally and conventionally defined) whose lives have been put in jeopardy by a failure to provide adequate civil rights protections.

It is left to the imagination of the listener who the members of this group may be. Illegal immigrants being denied life-saving services? Residents exposed to toxic substances in their drinking water? Inmates being subjected to dangerous involuntary drug testing? There is no doubt that the ambiguity was exploited in order to trick some population of not terribly well informed or dilligent Democratic voters into voting against their conscience, by misleading them about the meaning of the measure on which they would be voting.

This is a case of a fanatical minority, knowing that they are in the minority, but wanting both to impose their moral tyranny on the majority that disagrees with them, and to circumvent the Constitution which protects the rights of some from the tyranny of others, trying to undermine both popular will and constitutional protections by means of outright deception.

Since they are so transparent in their contempt of both democracy and constitutionalism, I recommend that we take pains to ensure that democracy and constitutionalism return the favor.

Glenn Beck, still twirling his baton in the vanguard of the wing-nut parade, while busily calling all people who disagree with his, ah, “imaginative” interpretations of U.S. History and the U.S. Constitution (which includes, I would wager, somewhere north of 99.99% of all American Historians and Constitutional Law scholars) “idiots,” demonstrated for us what a non-idiot such as himself understands: That slavery was fine until the federal government stepped in to regulate it (http://www.examiner.com/political-buzz-in-national/glenn-beck-claims-slavery-was-not-really-bad-until-government-got-involved). It’s difficult to select which aspects of this absurdity to comment on, but I’ll choose one that is not completely obvious, but is most relevant to the ideology that Beck represents: Defense of the institution of slavery (and, after abolition, of systematic institutionalized discrimination) was tightly intertwined with states rights advocacy throughout the history of this nation until at least the 1960s, when the federal government, in the culmination of a national-history-spanning evolution prioritizing the protection of individual civil liberties over states’ and private rights to violate them, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Beck got it exactly backwards: It was federal government intervention that had always both threatened to end, and eventually, against the most violent opposition yet against it, actually succeeded in ending, slavery, and ending government sponsored discrimination against African Americans. And it was this precise role of the federal government, regarding this precise topic, that always was at the heart of states’ rights advocacy, and anti-federal government fervor. Whether the Tea Party is a predominantly or implicitly racist movement today (a hotly debated topic), it is certainly heir to the anti-federal government ideology that racists depended on throughout our history to protect and perpetuate their right to institute and enforce their racism in law. Defining themselves by reference to slavery (which their ideological forebears defended and perpetuated) is just not a smart move.

Susan Greene of the Denver Post, with whom I generally agree, was, I think, slightly off mark today in her overzealous definition of how broad a range of speech is, or should be, protected by the First Amendment (http://www.denverpost.com/greene). The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether Kansas pastor Fred Phelps has the right to mar the funerals of fallen soldiers by holding demonstrations within sight of them holding placards with such endearing phrases as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Without trying to decide the case on the legal merits, I will definitively state that I think it would be good public policy to outlaw such speech in such a context, nor would doing so be a clear violation of the First Amendment (the Supreme Court will decide whether it is a violation at all, by exploring the nuances of the issue).

Free Speech protections have always been limited in certain ways to protect other rights or public interests that might be violated by speech (e.g., laws against libel and inciting violence, and diminished protection of student speech in public schools). Time, place, and manner restrictions have always applied (you can’t disrupt any event or meeting in any way you please); the kind of “forum” involved, even when a government forum, affects how much freedom of speech others have. Private forums are that much more protected. Obviously, if the funeral were in an enclosed private space, Phelps would have no right whatsoever to violate that space. The lack of walls blocking the view from a cemetery is hardly a major legal distinction. Given the ways in which we have delimited freedom of speech in the past, I think that protecting mourners from the harassment of such speech at the time and place of mourning is well within the range of a reasonable exception to free speech protections.

Research suggests that people who believe in God tend to conceptualize God in one of four ways: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical, or Distant (http://abcnews.go.com/WN/book-religion-examines-ways-americans-perceive-god/story?id=11825319). Unsurprisingly, which view of God we adhere to correlates to gender, race, socio-economic status, and educational-level, and to particular social and political orientations. The irony, of course, is that right-wingers, who claim to be the defenders of liberty, tend to believe in an authoritative God who, by divine right, sharply circumscribes what liberty we should allow ourselves and others to enjoy, whereas progressives tend to believe in a more remote God, who leaves us with the responsibility of creating our own destiny.

Freedom, once again, has less to do with how free we are from our own democratically elected government than with how free we are from our own lack of imagination (or surplus of self-shackling imagination). Freedom is not a function of crippling the primary vehicle we have developed for exercising our wills in cooperative and coordinated ways (i.e., government, at all levels, including federal), but rather a function of how able we are to imagine that we are indeed free, charged with the responsibility of wisely and compassionately confronting the challenges and opportunities that we face here on Earth.

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I take the title question from The Economist (http://www.economist.com/debate/days/view/592), but think it implies a false dichotomy, that religion either is, or is not, a force for good. The truth, fairly obviously, is that in some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. Making some assessment of net value (whether religion is on balance a force for good) is fraught with difficulties. But exploring the issue reveals valuable insights into which elements of religion, found both within religion and without, contribute to or obstruct the greater human enterprise.

The title question, furthermore, begs the questions of what constitutes “good”, and what constitutes “religion”, issues trickier and more elusive than they might appear to be at first glance, issues whose on-going clarification is among the universe of “good” to be produced or obstructed by better or worse cognitive tools. And it brushes by the issue of whether it makes sense to discuss “religion” as some monolithic institution that can be, or not be, evaluated en masse in any meaningful way. But, despite these complexities, it raises a fundamental question, with broader implications than are immediately obvious.

In reality, religion is at some times and in some ways, on balance, a force for “good”, and at some times and in some ways, on balance, a force for “evil”, assuming some intuitive definition of these two terms. As a generator of, and focal point for, the “emotional energy” (to use sociologist Randall Collins’ phrase) around which societies coalesce, it may be a fundamental form of the cohesive social force which binds us into functioning collectivities. Just as attendees at rock concerts and sporting events, by sharing an intense emotional experience, feel bonded into something larger than themselves, so too (and to a much greater extent) belonging to a religious order creates a constant undercurrent of that same socially binding emotional energy. This is most evident in religious ceremonies that are designed to excite that emotional energy, sometimes ostentatiously, sometimes in a more subdued form.

One can argue, conversely, that while that was religion’s historical role, essential to the primative formation of both tribal socieities and larger civilizations (almost always defined by a shared religion), it is one which is no longer needed in our modern, decentralized, organically coherent social institutional order. After all, there’s no reason to believe that our modern governments, markets, and plethora of functioning secular social institutions would simply evaporate if religion were suddenly removed from the mix. Religion, arguably, is an archaic remnant of an ancient past, persisting due both to its hold over human imaginations and the vested interests that actively perpetuate it, but no longer either a functional necessity or the most useful of available social institutional tools.

But some religions clearly do some things which most would say contribute to the public good. Leaving aside the question of religion’s value in the lives of individual adherents, there is no denying the “good works” that are performed by religious orders. Soup kitchens, charitable activities, and even community social functions all must be tallied on the positive side of the ledger.

These activities are not always unambiguously good, however. Radical Islamic groups in the Middle East, particularly in the occupied Palestinian territories, at least to some extent definable as religious or religion-based orders, do good works in part in order to gain popular support and recruit people to their cause, a cause steeped in violence. Similarly, Israeli right-wing extremists are often also religious extremists, believing that, since the land was given to them by God, they owe the non-Jewish people who were and are living on it no respect or accommodation. Undoubtedly, their good works among themselves reinforce their solidarity in opposition to others.

This is a fundamental paradox about socially consolidating forces: They increase solidarity within a group, which is beneficial for that group, but also increase the emotional strength of the boundaries between groups, which is detrimental to the ability of those groups to cooperate in order to confront intergroup challenges and opportunities. Like tribalism, nationalism, and even racism, religious solidarity tends to foster interreligious antagonism.

We are served best by vertically (and horizontally) non-exclusive, mutually reinforcing social solidarities, in which belonging at one level facilitates rather than obstructs belonging at superordinate and subordinate levels. While some (far from all) modern religious orders make some (far from comprehensive) effort to move in this more functional direction, it is an effort that swims against the historical current of, at least, the three monotheistic world religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). 

This mutual exclusivity has implications for how “good” is defined. To some, “a force for good” is a force which ensures that their own dogma prevails. In such a belief system, it would be the implacable missionary and jihadist zeal that would be considered a force for good, and the move toward tolerance and mutual accommodation a force for evil. In far too many debates with right-wingers, I am quickly cast as a moral and ontological relativist for not accepting that their moral and ontological assumptions are absolute and irrefutable truths.

Those doing so confuse recognition of fallability for relativism, and ethnocentric chauvinism for mere recognition of a an objectively discernible reality. The more subtle and useful perspective is to recognize that there may be moral and ontological absolutes, but that our ability to discern what they are is imperfect. Therefore, we should not confuse failure of others to adhere to our own convictions with a failure to acknowledge the existence of objective reality.

But even leaving aside this war of competing dogmas (with, for instance, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists being remarkably similar and yet completely incapable of peacefully coexisting), discerning what is “good” is somewhat similar to discerning what “quality” means, a topic which Robert Pirsig intriguingly explored in his cult classic novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a theme I discussed, in reference to moral absolutism, in The Elusive Truth ). Is it better, for instance, to maximize aggregate wealth, or to minimize “the gini coefficient” (the statistical measure of the inequality in the distribution of wealth)? Most (though certainly not all) would probably agree that the maximum good lies in some balance of these two values, though the range of belief of what that balance should be fill the spectrum, with extremists happily ensconced at either pole.

Or, more apropos of religion: Is a greater good served by protecting zygotes from destruction or by helping to expedite the discovery of effective treatments for crippling diseases through embryonic stem cell research? Is a greater good served by preserving the rights of women over their own bodies, or by protecting fetuses from elective abortions? Is a greater good served by ending the discrimination against gay and lesbian couples, or by “preserving the sanctity” of heterosexual marriage? We each may strongly believe we know the answers to these questions, but there is no consensus, and there is no final arbiter to which to turn for the answers as a matter of ontological and moral certainty (though there may be to find the legal resolutions of these disagreements).

Not only is the object (“a force for good”) ambiguous and elusive, so too is the subject. What is “religion”? Most people would say that the defining characteristic is some reference to the divine, by which definition Buddhism is not technically a religion (and Taoism may not be either). But aren’t all-encompassing world views members of some shared category, one which is dominated by religions? Wouldn’t that definition, rather than the reference to the divine, be at least as reasonable a definition? And might that not include most comprehensive political ideologies, including, perhaps, whatever political ideologies you or I consider to be the best and worst, respectively? In which case, some religions, broadly defined, are forces for good, and some for bad, but we’re stuck duking out which is which, not unlike fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.

Furthermore, how broad is “the divine” (if we choose to cling to that more traditional definition)? Does it include all that is supernatural or mystical in nature, such as a belief in ghosts, or in ouija boards, or in New Age fads such as the cosmic-energy-focusing power of tin-foil pyramids on one’s head? If not, why not?

As with many things, our traditional categories are less useful for addressing fundamental, underlying questions than we at first assume them to be. We need to break the world down into more essential conceptual elements, ones that do not have such unstable boundaries. And we need to understand those elemental concepts in terms of continua of variation rather than as dichotomous or mutually exclusive categories. So, for instance, beliefs can be more or less dogmatic, or more or less analytical. It does not really matter whether they are religious or not; it matters whether they serve more to liberate our individual and collective genius, or serve more to imprison it.

While there are similarities that are too often overlooked (such as in their shared foundation in a sense of awe), religious and scientific thought in some ways embody this distinction, in that the former is based on “Faith” (the unquestioning and unquestionable certainty of a proposition) and the latter on “scepticism” (the assumption that nothing should be taken to be the truth until it has been demonstrated to be the truth, and even then, only tentatively so, always subject to new evidence and argumentation). And scientific thought has clearly been a very robust generator of useful knowledge. But the distinction can be exaggerated, and the similarities ignored.

Science, like religion, has immutable precepts at its base, such as the belief in an objectively discernible reality, in our ability to discern it, in the validity of the scientific method as a means of doing so, and in the culturally and subjectively independent validity of its products. Or the belief that reality can be reduced to its constituent parts, without biasing the worldview thus created.

And science, like religion, is based in awe, which may be the real essence of Faith. I have faith that there is some coherent, enormous, systemic reality of which I am a part, far beyond my powers of comprehension, but overwhelmingly compelling in its beauty and complexity and subtlety. That is what I call “pure Faith,” a faith that has no object, no icon, no reductionism on which to hang it, though a recognition that, as in science, various reductionisms can be useful tools in examining it. What we call “religions” are to me part of the huge and gorgeous corpus of world mythology, brilliant, subtle, complex metaphors reaching into the heart of that wondrous suchness and rendering it into stories and forms and rituals that make it accessible.

A scientific understanding of the world divorced from that ecstatic, imaginative “faith-based” one would be dry and incomplete. One can analyze a river, its constituent elements and molecules, the dynamics of flow, but still be missing some appreciation of its essence that is captured in seeing that river as mischievous nymphs singing and dancing their way to the sea. Poetry and fiction are not science, but they are a part of our appreciation and celebration of the world in which we live. Religion is the original context of poetry and stories, one whose essence, at least, should certainly be retained in order to continue to generate such expressions of our passion and wonder.

My dad was a devout atheist, and I saw in him the very same error that had so passionately led him to the absolute rejection of the validity of religious belief: Implacable dogmatic certainty. The problem with such certainty isn’t that it sometimes embraces a good idea, and sometimes a bad one, but rather that it always reduces an infinitely complex reality to some oversimplification or another which then becomes impervious to refinement. We can’t help but to reduce reality to manageable conceptualizations, but we can avoid fortifying those conceptualizations against the lathe of new information and insight.

And that is the crux of the matter. The more strongly one adheres to dogmatic substantive certainties, the more their belief system, whether religious or secular, is a force for bad, by crippling our ability to use our most vital resource, our human mind. And the more one subjugates substantive understandings to a combination of an essentially religious humility with procedural methodologies designed to best allow reason to prevail, to best allow the lathe of new information and new insight to continue to carve our substantive understandings, the more that conceptual framework is a force for good.

Even the substantive beliefs about the procedural methodology have to be subjected to that methodology, so that the methodology itself can evolve. In short, we need to be systematically and imaginatively uncertain, in a way which does not increase certainty, but rather increases understanding.

It is not religion, but rather dogma which is the counterproductive force we must seek to transcend. Secular dogmas are as dangerous and destructive as religious ones, and religious channeling of our wonder and compassion is as productive and useful as any other channeling of such qualities.

The Tea Party, though strongly overlapping with Right-wing Christian fundamentalism, is based on a secular dogma of its own, one which includes what has aptly been called “Constitutional Idolatry”, signalling its quasi-religious nature. But what makes it quasi-religious is its dogmatic reductionism, its reliance on oversimplistic platitudes, not some aspect that is overtly religious.

Even dogma in science is counterproductive, and not in short supply. The premature closing of the mind, the embrace of certainties that are not certain, and are not subtle enough to encompass the complexity they claim to definitively capture, is what we must avoid and oppose, in all contexts.

The best force for good is the best blend of the most useful cognitive material from all sectors of thought and action. Religious recognition of the sublime nature of the universe, our imagination and sometimes ecstatic artistic perceptions, our emotional connection to other people and other creatures, our recognition that in a world of competing factual and theoretical claims all of them must be subjected to an impartial procedures for separating the arbitrary from the well-founded and selecting among competing views, are all components of that cognitive concoction which most effectively liberates the genius within us, and thus best serves our long-term collective welfare.

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