Friday, June 10, 2011

Morality sans faith

QuickAs usual, not-so-quick context: for my capstone class, I had to write a paper about my career choices and such, and being at a Christian University, many of the questions I was supposed to answer revolved around God, God's "calling" for my life, and such things. I decided, as I have as of late, that I don't want to pretend that I have an active faith or even know what God is all about, because there's no reason to, and it's counterproductive anyway. So I began to answer the pertinent questions thus:

The question of how God fits into all of this is a very complicated one for me, personally. Or, conversely, it could be framed as a very simple one, depending on how you ask it. As far as I am certain, and as far as my conscious decisions are concerned, God has not really had any effect on my decisions or career choices thus far.

I haven't posted here in forever, mostly because I've been really busy with school and just life in general (and because I have a Tumblr now to fire of shorter thoughts before they're gathered into a long-winded post here). Since this essay turned out to be a good thinking/writing out of my current position (or lack of position) on God, faith, and the surrounding matters, I thought I'd post the relevant parts here. The contents also partially explains my lack of writing here. A significant reason is that I've been busy, and my mind has been very full dealing with other things in my life, pushing less critical things like this to the back burner. But part of the reason it's not so critical at this point, and another reason that I haven't been dealing with such things, is because I've kind of reached an end of sorts. I've more or less been here for a while now, and I talked about it in my last post. But I've reached somewhere that I am pretty comfortable in, personally, at least, and it's a place that doesn't involve God, except peripherally, because of those around me. I'm not opposed to the idea of God, or Christianity (although I'm very opposed to many expressions of Christianity I've witnessed), or theism in general, and I'm open to faith if that's where I end up. But right now, I just don't have any reason to go there, I don't have any need for a divine being or any reason to go seeking after one. It's an interesting place to be, especially when I'm surrounded by Christians and people who are varying degrees of concerned with my eternal destiny, and what they see as a revocation of my faith. In reality, I have simply acknowledged that as far as I'm aware, I have at no point in my life had any more than a fa├žade of a faith, designed to fulfill expectations and act like I was supposed to. When I went looking for something beyond that, the only things I found that made sense and resonated with me personally had no need for God to get involved. So that's where I ended up.

Anyway, as tends to happen when I sit down and write, that was a longer digression than I was intending. And I'll digress just a little more before getting to my essay, by way of introduction to what I actually wrote about: many (probably most) Christians rely on their faith and God as the source of their morality, and to a great degree, meaning, ambitions and motivations. As a result, many assume that non-theists, with this source of all morality and meaning ripped out of their lives, have no moral structure and no meaning in their life. I've heard this kind of rhetoric repeatedly from Christians who just don't understand that God and faith are not the only valid source of morality and meaning. There has recently been an effort by atheists to counter this notion, including billboards asserting that you can be "good without God." I'm a huge fan of this effort, but it has ruffled a lot of Christians' feathers, to the point that many of the billboards have been vandalized in various ways. I sort of understand (but disagree with) the opposition, and am severely disappointed by (but unfortunately not surprised by) the vandalism. But anyway, that's another topic, I have an essay to excerpt from. Maybe more on that later. What now follows is an excerpt of my career essay that does a decent job of detailing what my morals, ambitions, motivations, and goals are in the absence of faith. Because I do, in fact, have a decent moral framework that is not dependent on God any kind of faith. Anyway, slightly-edited-excerpt time:

To answer whether or not I see God's direction in my career path, what talents God has given me, and how I see myself serving God in my career, my answers are, simplistically, "no", "none", and "not", respectively.

Of course, it is a little bit more complex than that. My parents, for one, would certainly argue that God has given me these talents, whether I acknowledge it or not, and that God has been guiding my career path, and indeed life, regardless of whether I acknowledge God or not. And if God does indeed exist, and is something similar to the Christian God, that would be true. Additionally, I don't pretend to know for sure whether or not there is a God, and whether or not he or she has done these things in my life. But none of my conscious motivation or decisions have really taken that into account. What has affected my decisions significantly is my personal beliefs and morals, which are certainly influenced by my Christian upbringing, and still bear significant resemblance to generic Judeo-Christian morality. But prior to coming to college, and processing through significant discussion and 40,000 words of blogging, my motivations for such morals were solely out of conformance to my upbringing. That base has now shifted to a vague moral humanist kind of foundation, built on a basic belief in common human dignity and human rights, and some sense of the ubiquitous Golden Rule – things that are hardly exclusive to Christianity, or even theology. But that is from whence my motivations stem.

As for God's role in my life? As far as I can tell, and as far as I'm concerned, my talents and aptitudes are a result of genetics, upbringing, opportunity, and generally, the great cosmic dice of stochasticity. I realize that I am insanely privileged to have drawn the metaphorical lot that I have – a heterosexual, cisgendered, white, middle-class American male attending a private university with talents and skills that I was given the opportunity to build, take advantage of, and expand upon, and ones that, with the aforementioned education, usually result in a solidly upper-middle-class starting wage. My consciousness of this privilege, along with my other beliefs, motivate my desire to use those skills and resources, within and beyond my career, to advocate for minorities, support those fighting for human equality whenever I can, and work to end oppression, discrimination, and economic disparity where I can. This can include something as simple as contributing monetarily to organizations and efforts that do this work, as well as things like using my skills for things like building a website for Haven, working for organizations like Agros International, and getting directly involved myself in advocacy and assistance.

So these are the things that influence my day-to-day and long-term choices, rather than morals and mandates stemming from God or a Christian worldview. And these are the things that will continue to motivate my life, regardless of where my faith, or lack thereof, ends up landing. Any faith I ultimately embrace will necessarily be very concerned with these kinds of priorities, and the root motivation will likely be bolstered by whatever theology I may end up with. My career path decisions thus far have largely been motivated by opportunity and alignment with my skill and talents. As I mentioned above, I am very fortunate that those things line up with a career that is in demand and well-compensated. These motivations are influenced by my moral framework and beliefs – working for Agros, for instance, was an excellent pairing of my passions and skills with my beliefs. And beyond that, my greater vocation – what I do with my time and other resources outside of my job – will be greatly influenced by that as well.

So briefly, I see myself not so much serving a God that I don't understand or believe in as much as I see myself serving a humanity that I see very clearly all around me – working, as best I can, to make the world a better place for everyone, especially those less privileged than myself. I am in a good position to do so largely because of the talents, skills, and aptitudes that I ended up with through a combination of nature, nurture, and luck, and I intend to use that position to work for the bettering of the world in general. That is my service, my motivation, and my career plan.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Some responses to my update

As often happens when I say things (especially since these cross-post to Facebook), people responded. My last post generated intriguing and particularly wide-ranging responses, so as often happens, I'm writing a response post, because any response comment would just be an endless, impossibly thin column, and it separates original responses from any responses to the response, so it's better for everyone.

So! First of all, a few specific responses, moving into some more general response, with specificity sprinkled liberally throughout.

Tyler surmised that I don't like Dawkins and Falwell because they are "confrontational." That isn't quite right. I don't dislike Dawkins and Falwell simply because they are confrontational. I dislike them because they are dismissive, angry, and publicly and shamelessly place people who don't think like them almost at some lower level of humanity. Both of them horribly distort and misuse their belief systems, or at least how I believe their belief systems should treat other people. Central to my belief, regardless of whether I believe in God, is the humanity of humanity - that we are all people, all worthy of equal respect and dignity, and should be treated as such, with respect and deference. It's moral humanism on one side, a more social justice Christianity on the other, and the Golden Rule no matter where you come from.

And I'm not really irritated by people trying to convert me - mostly just amused, actually. Because I've been there, done that, heard all the reasons and arguments, hell, advocated most of them. I highly doubt anyone trying to convert me is going to tell me anything new, and no one thus far has. That doesn't mean I know everything - I certainly don't. But anyone who is trying to convert me isn't likely to tell me anything I don't. And it is true that the people who have been most influential in me not just throwing the baby out with the (pretty damn brackish) bathwater are mainly those around me who are confident in their faith and make no attempt to convert me - only understand me better, if I ask them about things. These are people who have years of experience on me, people who I know think hard and critically about their faith, and admittedly many of whom share the same periphery that I do. Many of these are professors at SPU, and are a large reason I am thankful for my experience here.

And as for Danny's (intentional or not) pointing at the historic witness of Jesus. That is something I need to look at more, which is an interesting challenge. There is, of course, the Bible, and books like Case for Christ (which I read back in the day), but those are, for very good reasons, pretty one-sided. We did base our calendar around the guy and swear by him, but that's because we're Western culture, which is increasingly becoming Global culture. The Arab world had their own calendar and swears, before the world became standardized on Western culture. Christianity did spread, but much of that spread (Constantine, the Holy Roman Empire) were not reasons that I can exactly get behind. So there's that. But I do need to have a good idea of what to do with Jesus existing historically regardless of where I end up, which I don't really right now.

Which kind of brings me to the central issue - whether or not an "intellectual conversion" is at all possible, at least for me. Danny separated "faith" from "relationship with God", and I don't think that's a meaningful distinction for me. I spent the first twenty or so years of my life doing Christianity just fine, purportedly even believing in it, whatever that means absent a relationship. I certainly adhered to all the principles, argued for them, and was ready to tell others why what they thought was wrong if it didn't match my perspective. But that all fell apart when that faith's foundations crumbled. That faith was based on things like opposition to evolution, the evils of the world, fear and avoidance of Hell, conservatism, and a whole lot of really terrible analogies. My faith was defined by what it was not - it was not tainted by liberalism, it was not doing bad things, it was not going to Hell, and significantly, it was not really questionable, because it was not wrong. Obviously, things kind of fell apart when I realized that evolution was science, liberalism wasn't all hell and brimstone and really at the core is being more concerned about people, Christianity isn't primarily about getting a ticket to heaven, and the world isn't going to corrupt me if I don't shut it out. I suppose it did corrupt my conservative evangelical Christianity pretty thoroughly, but that's not nearly a bad thing.

So I've done a faith about knowing, about arguments, about being convinced. They ended up being really bad arguments. And maybe there are good arguments out there, but I still am repulsed by the idea of someone having to convince me that there is a God. Especially when so many have failed, and have presented pretty poor excuses for arguments. And Christians seems predisposed to arguments that include "Christianity is right" as an assumption somewhere, even though they don't realize it. But even if there were good arguments - if "faith" is separate from (or at least not a result of) "relationship with God" - I don't think it's a faith that I want. It feels like a very empty faith, a meaningless faith, and if this faith is going to have a significant effect in my life, be reason for doing things, that's not what I'm looking for.

I'm not sure what I am looking for. If anyone else is involved, I think it is more of someone introducing me to God than convincing me of God - but that's complicated because God isn't corporeal, and it sounds annoying to boot. I'm not trying to make God into anything specific, or put God in a box, or really require anything of God - except that God shows up in some recognizable fashion. Not in the fact that my life has been pretty good thus far, or that something unlikely (but still feasibly possible) thing happened. Nothing that proves to me that God is there. Matt, I agree that any experience used to prove God's existence is pretty questionable. And experience isn't reliable, but it's all we've got, really. If the only time I experience God is while I'm getting a root canal, it's unlikely that I'm going to do much with that. But even if I initially experience God while getting a root canal, but then continue to be able to communicate and experience going forward? That may be something different. I'm not sure. I think I agree with your and Danny's consensus though.

The point being, if I'm going to have faith, I want it to be based on knowing that God is there. That can only come through first-person experience, like Kristen's that I mentioned in my previous post. And whenever I talk to someone and we're past any proving or arguments or such, it always comes down to that. It was a similar situation whenever Becky and I really talked about it. They just know that God exists, and have some kind of relationship with God. They don't have any arguments or reasons that convinced them. They have supportive evidence, but none that makes any sense without the experience of God existing.

And I don't really have anything that I want God to be. I have a lot of ideas of what I don't want God to be that mostly boil down to "hypocritical". And I suppose, with that, some basic parameters - just and loving for starters. And pride is certainly a factor. It's always a factor. I'm human, perhaps more prideful than most. But I also don't want "pride" to be an excuse to dismiss my ability to know anything, or be confident in anything. Because I don't think it's prideful to think that modern science, for instance, knows a lot about how the world works. Not everything, not enough to rule out God (which is probably impossible anyway), but a lot. Certainly a lot more than 2000 years ago. "Pride" is too often used to just dismiss anything the dismisser doesn't like. I'm not in any way accusing you of doing so, Evan - I actually very much appreciated your thought. I just don't really know how to not be prideful, but at the same time have a faith that is rational and reasonable and has intellectual integrity. I suppose maybe I don't trust God enough to be that - I spent too long believing that God hates science and evolution and thinks reason is dangerous, primarily a tool of humanity to explain God away. I'll have to think about that one. Thanks.

And Nicki, you just posted, but your post lines up nicely with what I was going to wrap up with anyway, so here goes! One of the big problems with most reasons I'm given to believe is that I'm perfectly content, right now at least, to live without God. I don't need a God to explain how I got here, why the world works. I don't need a God to motivate me to be good to my fellow human beings, to follow the Golden Rule. To take the relationship analogy perhaps a bit far, I'm happily single as far as God goes. I wouldn't mind a relationship. It might well make my life better and fuller. But I don't need that for anything. Perhaps that's the wrong attitude to take - but if I were to pursue God as if I wanted God more than anything, I would have to do a lot of playacting, and I've done quite enough of that in my life already.

And for the record, I do go to church. Not really for any terribly spiritual reasons, and certainly because of a certain amount of momentum, and a touch of expectations. But primarily, at my home church, there are good people who care about me, and many of whom are some of those good examples above, who are confident and thoughtful in their faith, but don't try to push that on me. Sometimes I go to other churches, many of which remind me that not everyone is doing things horribly wrong. Some (Quest, for example) are doing very good things. Yet others remind me that, yes, some people still are using Christianity in ways that I find repulsive. I limit my visits to such places, but even at some places, there are kernels of right.

I'm not sure how to actively put myself out there without presuming things that I don't believe. I'm open, I'm even willing to do a little investigation, if from a noncommittal perspective - reading the Bible not as a book of my faith, but as the book of Christianity. But much beyond that - actively seeking - ends up requiring too much pretension and acting. Again with the likely inappropriate extension of the relationship analogy: actively seeking out a relationship, as if you desperately need one, is a bad idea. I'd much rather run into someone, at the Teacup, downtown, at a bookstore, on the bus, and have things go from there. That's a little harder with God, since God has no corporeal presence, but if I continue on through life, open to the idea of a relationship with God, and God is around and interested, I'm betting I'll run into God sometime along the way.

I get annoyed very quickly with Jesus-is-My-Boyfriend-type things, and painting God as a romantic relationship, but I think the analogy works okay here. It's true of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. If I'm not interested, closed off to new relationships, it's unlikely I'll start any. But if I'm open, but not actively looking, I'll probably run across some. Some friendships and/or relationships I run into will greatly interest me, and I'll pursue them. But looking for relationship for the sake of being in relationship isn't what I want to do - in personal relationships or God ones.

So, to exit the relationship analogy, which has been stretched quite enough. I'm quite content right now to be a moral humanist. I don't need God to fill any holes in my life, which I don't think should be God's function anyway. I have a basis for morality (common human dignity, basically), an explanation (enough, anyway) for how the world got here and how we work (science), and meaning in life (making the world a better place for those who surround and will follow me, and enjoying the time I have). I'm not opposed to God showing up, or having a relationship with God. But it's not really something I need to sustain me. If God exists and is a relational God, I'd be quite interested in getting to know him, her, or it. But I have no reason to assume that is the case, so I'm going to have to run into God somehow - in a way that I recognize - to get that started. Which, I suppose, is what I'm waiting around for.

Thanks, all, for your input - it's got me thinking, and I probably didn't address everyone's points in here, but rest assured I read them and will mull them over, because they are all great thoughts. And I would be glad to talk with any of you about such things - I always love fleshing things out in person.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A brief update on faith, theism, God, and me

It's been far too long since I've posted here, I've been busy with all kinds of life things, and have been spending more time over on Tumblr as well. But I just posted over there something that would make just as much sense here, that kind of explains why I haven't been posting as much here. So here goes.

I have been reading a thus-far intriguing book called Cloud Atlas, but I left it in the library yesterday and it hasn't showed up in their lost and found yet.  So I resorted to reading the other book that has been langushing in my laptop bag for far too long, ever since my father read it and gave it to me.  Said book is There Is A God by Anthony Flew, supposedly "the world's most notorious atheist," who I had never heard of.  After reading, evidently he was a lot bigger among philosophers in the 60's, 70's, and 80's than he is these days, which would explain my ignorance of him, but I still think the claim is a bit reaching.  In 2004, he apparently came out as believing in God, and some atheists got pissed, and religious people all over got really excited.

Now I'm a little underwhelmed by all of this, because he's only a deist, and doesn't even believe in the afterlife, which makes it a rather Pyhrric victory for Christians, I would think.  And some of the endorsement quotes were less than heartening.  Francis Collins crows that "Flew's colleagues in the church of fundamentalist atheism will be scandalized," the Denver Post calls it an "Intellectual conversion of great significance," and I've been highly disappointed and extremely skeptical of "intellectual conversions."  But I've nonetheless made it through half of the preface and the introduction and two and a half chapters thus far.

I gave up halfway through the introduction, because I decided that its author, Roy Abraham Varghese, is, or at least comes across as, a pompous ass who gleefully delights in pointing out the apparently hilarious failures of atheism.  Of what I read, he spent about a third of it quoting the likes of Richard Dawkins and another promoting Flew to almost godlike status in his philosophical brilliance (without, of course, mentioning that he's a deist at best).  It's full of gleeful dismissal, and absolutely maddening to read.  And I've long held that if someone gets to hold out Dawkins as an example of reasoned, respectful atheism, I get to pull out people like the late Jerry Falwell and James Dobson as examples of reasoned, respectful Christianity.  From what I know of him, Dawkins is as bitter and gleefully dismissive as Varghese, and I want nothing do do with him.

So I gave up on the preface, hoping that Flew himself, having been an atheist for fifty years, would have some semblance of respect for the position.  I haven't been disappointed - he hasn't made me want to throw the book across the bus yet, for instance, and has been very respectful of both sides thus far.  But he also has spent three chapters talking very dryly about the various philosophical papers and debates he's been involved in, how he chummed with C.S. Lewis, and his various schoolings and romantic endeavors.  I suppose this is kind of an autobiography, but it's been a dull, frustrating, mildly but not egregiously self-important one.  Certainly not raising himself nearly to the importance that Varghese did in the preface, or I would no longer be reading this book.

The first chapter was interesting, in that he discussed his upbringing, which was rather similar to mine - a preacher's kid who did all the right things mainly to fulfill expectations but never had any heart or real interest in it, faced questions that he was in no way equipped to handle, and gave up.  I haven't been quite as conclusive as he was, but the similar background will hopefully be beneficial.  But after that, as I said, a bunch of paper titles and summaries, and name dropping, and not much substance.  There was a brief dismissal of determinism that I found altogether dissatisfying (because I have thought about these things) and he called the basic "first cause" argument "formidable," (I don't think throwing God in as yet another proximate cause really helps anything, no matter how much you pretend God magically gets to be not proximate), but that's about it.

But he promises to actually get to the challenging and arguments for God in the next seven chapters, so hopefully there will be things of substance in there.  But I admit that I highly doubt Flew will be successful in doing anything but frustrating me with mischaracterizations or improper dismissals, because so-called "intellectual conversions" have always left me wholly wanting and completely unconvinced.  

In fact, I don't think anything is going to happen on the faith front until God decides to show up.  That might sound a little defeatist or apathetic, but I don't really have any good reasons to have faith, and I don't understand reasons for faith other than "God exists, so we should get to know him/her/it."  Trying to argue God into existence or threaten me with consequences if I don't believe isn't going to cut it.  And really, I'm jealous of those who have experienced God, and I don't think it's fair that I haven't.  I'm not opposed to the idea at all, and I'm not opposed to theism.  But I just don't have any good reasons - making my family comfortable is not sufficient reason to lie about my motivations for everything in life and basic beliefs.

Earlier, Kristen posted a section of her admissions essay, which contained this brief excerpt:

It was at this retreat that everything changed. While my friends raised their hands fervently in praise during worship and knelt piously in the aisles for the altar call, I sat in the back, scornful and skeptical. And God, with a gentle persistence I would learn to recognize and appreciate in coming years, showed up. It is difficult to describe this experience fully, as I suspect words could never do it justice; however, in that time, God was there. God was real. We sat together for the remainder of the service, at which point God obligingly moved on and I was left joyously pondering my newfound revelation.  I still lacked understanding, but this experience provided me with a basic foundation of faith from which I could begin to seek.

And I was jealous.  Because at this point, I'm not even that scornful or skeptical.  Just a little cynical, but that's mostly at Mars Hill and the like.  Why doesn't God bother to just show up?  If God exists, why does ze insist on sitting back on the sidelines, watching me flail around, being offered pathetic, circular, and in general unsatisfying arguments for zer existence, witnessing all kinds of miscarriage of Christianity and Jesus' stated goals?

And it's that, really, that has been why I haven't really posted here. I haven't really gone anywhere spiritually recently. I've cut out all of the parts of Christianity that I found unnecessary, hurtful, and problematic, I have a fairly coherent Christian theology, at least for all the peripheral stuff, that I would be willing to adopt. But I don't have any good reason to embrace theism, much less Christianity. And I don't think that's something that can be argued or reasoned, I think it's something that can be experienced. Because all of this God-talk, all of theology, doesn't really make sense if you don't have a relationship with God. And I don't, and I don't know how to. And as the omnipotent, invisible, imperceptible being, I think it's kind of God's job to reveal Godself to me, because I can't hop over into whatever ethereal realm God resides in, and all attempts to pray or read the Bible just end up with me talking to myself and getting mad at how the church has misused Scripture.

So until that revelation happens, I doubt I'll be convinced.  I'll read the book, I'll continue discussions with my father and others who care about me, I'll keep my options open, but I can't think of anything that would convince me.  It's not for lack of trying, it's not because I just haven't heard your awesome argument.  It's because arguments aren't what I'm looking for.