Author Archives: Ray Woodcock

Lying for the Lord: The Fundamentalist Christian Minister as B.S. Artist

Contents

Background: Lying For, or In, One’s Religion
Focus: Pathological Christian Lying
Case in Point: Debates with a Fundamentalist Preacher
The Core Epistemological Issue
Conclusion

.

Background: Lying For, or In, One’s Religion

In a previous post (How I Came to Be an Ex-Christian), I mentioned a term I had heard from some Mormons: “lying for the Lord.” I had experienced something similar as a fundamentalist Christian. The concept was that we wanted and were expected to present our Christian faith in the most positive light, so as to persuade others to join us and be saved. We would lie about what we were actually experiencing, so as to make our lives and beliefs sound superior and desirable.

As described in another post (Bible Study: John 1:1. The Bible Is Not the Word of God), we were similarly untruthful in our interpretation of scripture: we would ignore what it actually said, time after time; we would invent bizarre readings that would give us some excuse to claim that the Bible was what we wanted it to be. We were not at all honest about the scriptural difficulties arising from our mode of interpretation, choosing instead to force-fit biblical texts to our preconceived notions.

This urge to twist the religion in one’s preferred direction is not limited to fundamentalist Christianity. For example, Loren Franck discusses “Ten Lies I Told as a Mormon Missionary.” Further afield, in a New York Times editorial, Mustafa Akyol states that Islam traditionally considers it blasphemous to mock Mohammed, and treats such blasphemy as a capital crime — and yet such views are not based on the actual words of the Quran (Koran), but were rather invented and added to the Islamic religion by later scholars to serve political purposes. As another example, scholars (e.g., Obekesekere, 2004, pp. 253-254; Seshadri, 1992) have indicated that so-called Hindu fundamentalism is another modern concept invented for political reasons, and is supported by neither the texts nor the traditions of Hinduism.

This post focuses on Christian falsehood simply because that is where I have personal experience. In the posts cited above, I described my own growing awareness that we Christians were lying to ourselves and to others. I was not alone in becoming aware of Christian untruthfulness. For example:

  • Brother Ken at Burning Bush Christian Crusades suggests that professing Christians lie because they have ceased to fear eternal damnation and because they have lost their reverence and respect for God.
  • Jaimee at CloseYourEyesDream.com says that Christians embellish their stories and tell white lies, in mundane day-to-day interactions, for reasons such as immaturity, lack of devotion to God, rebelliousness, and desire to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.
  • Peter Davids concludes that Christians lie about sex in order to maintain a hypocritical denial of their own sexuality.
  • Jon Acuff proposes that Chrstians — especially pastors — lie “To hide what they’ve done or hide the fact they’re still not the person they wanted to be by now.”

The problem of lying has been acknowledged by Christian ministers, writers, and scholars. For instance:

  • In an article in Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer wonders, “Why do Christians lie about each other so much?” Stetzer points out that such behavior violates the Ninth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness [or “give false testimony”] against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). That particular form of deception is distinct from the more general command of Leviticus 19:11: “Do not lie to one another.” Stetzer says, “We often give one another a pass when someone bears false witness because [we believe] they were being passionate for truth.” Stetzer seems to be correctly recognizing that Christians do not necessarily see God’s truth as forming a cohesive whole: they may decide that God would want them to defend a seemingly big truth by telling a seemingly small lie.
  • On the question of “Why Christians lie,” Jenny Rae Armstrong says, “I’ve had one too many friends leave the church because [their sincere questions were met] with a horrified gasp, followed by impassioned arguments that . . . came across as either ignorant or disingenuous.” Armstrong offers the example of political debate, where “we can get pretty worked up about those issues, defending our side at all costs, even when it compromises our character.” She suggests that such behavior, inconsistent with “the gentle humility with which Christians are supposed to express their faith,” arises partly from fear that the nonbeliever’s question is a good one to which the believer does not have an answer.
  • In an article in Relevant magazine, John Piper reviews a number of Bible passages and concludes that “lying may be acceptable in rare situations” but also that “the Bible never commends lying.” To the contrary, he says, “The mind has to be filled with falsehood-fighting truth”; the believer’s faith can conquer “the deceitful craving for esteem and safety and possessions that causes us to distort the truth.”

Google searches (1 and 2) led me, not only to the foregoing examples, but also to other writers who describe their own problems with and/or reasons for leaving fundamentalist Christianity. For instance, the unnamed author of the Path of the Beagle blog says he had been a creationist for 20 years; but when it came time to decide whether to send his kids to a Christian college, he ran into difficulties. The most upsetting discovery, he reports, was that “the people I had trusted the most — the conservative, Christian leaders at the top of the young-earth creationist movement — had been lying to me.” For him, this creation issue was “a real wake-up call.” Similarly, in an article on ExChristian.net, Michael Runyan reports difficulties with creationism among numerous other problems in Christian belief. On the subject of truth, he observes that Christianity has “overvalued the exercise of faith, or believing in things without supporting evidence” that “allows for unscrupulous people to dupe others into accepting on faith a false promise or assertion.” Such remarks suggest that believers as well as nonbelievers may be best served by a determined orientation toward honest truthseeking.

Focus: Pathological Christian Lying

People are often tempted to lie to protect or to advance themselves. With some frequency, they also encounter opportunities to lie on behalf of friends and family members. In addition, it is quite common to lie, and to be expected to lie, in service of one’s employer, customer, or client. A person who has no employer, no friends, no surviving family members, and few personal interests or ambitions, will tend to have fewer opportunities and motives for lying. Another way to think of it: juggling more balls at once will tend to increase their likelihood of interfering or colliding with one another.

So it seems that, if you consider it highly important not to lie, you would be well advised not to acquire many obligations, connections, and interests. Conversely, as you acquire more obligations, connections, and interests, it seems you may find it helpful, indeed necessary, to lie more frequently, on behalf of yourself and others. Failure to lie on cue — that is, being honest with people — may tend to result in the loss of various acquaintances and opportunities. Despite rare pockets of deep (but not absolutely reliable) integrity, deception (including failure to disclose information that a fully honest person would disclose) tends to pervade interpersonal interactions.

The sources cited above, and my own experience, suggest that Christian faith is an important interest. Adding it to one’s life greatly increases the number of things to lie about. That increase is especially likely if one’s chosen form of Christian faith entails — as fundamentalism does — conflict or incompatibility with a vast number of people, ideas, and experiences arising in daily life. It can feel as if everything, everywhere, is set against the Christian fundamentalist. There is a fundamentalist response — that this conspiracy of nontruth stems from Satan — but such a dramatic explanation is not necessary, nor does it address the command’s expectation: regardless of satanic influence, do not lie. Period.

No doubt the situation becomes less difficult when one does not know, or seriously care, what one’s religious texts or leaders may say. Countless people have attended Sunday morning church services, year after year, with little interest in theology, philosophy, science, or other intellectual areas in which their professed faith raises major issues. That is, even within Christian fundamentalism — even within a specific congregation — people may vary widely in the extent to which they see any need to distort facts or avoid the truth. It is no doubt possible to avoid some lies by avoiding certain kinds of discussion or lines of thought. Not that such evasion would make one more truthful; it may be merely a means of simplification.

There are also, no doubt, many people whose limited mental capacity leaves them unable to engage in deliberate falsehood on matters of religious belief. People can have brain damage; they can be severely short of logical capacity; they may operate under pervasive misconceptions that somehow leave them unable to grasp seemingly elementary conclusions. In the terms used by Jenny Rae Armstrong (above), there may be a distinction between those who are ignorant and those who are disingenuous, although determined ignorance probably amounts to deliberate deception.

Much the same could be said about fear. Fear plays a great role in the deceptions practiced by many Christian believers. People can be so afraid of eternal damnation that they hesitate to question their faith or otherwise step out of line. For social reasons, likewise, people may have simply concluded that a dedicated pursuit of truth often entails serious risks to personal survival in this world.

A concern with pathological lying begins to emerge, then, among certain subsets of Christian fundamentalists. Those subsets may include people who would commit any evil in order to save themselves, and those (e.g., ministers) who have a demonstrated commitment to or investment in the assumed truth of their beliefs. Such people could be honest about difficulties with Christian faith, but choose instead to cross the line, using falsehood and even absurdity to deceive people. When you see such behavior continuing for years on end, you might fairly ask whether this person is thriving in Christian fundamentalism precisely because s/he has no serious problem with the level of falsehood required to persist in that kind of belief.

Sarah Sumner examines such thoughts in a Christianity Today article titled “The Seven Levels of Lying.” Drawing on work by Budziszewski (2011), Sumner suggests that the most objectionable forms of lying are No. 6, “You develop your technique” and No. 7, “You see it as your duty to lie.” Within Sumner’s analysis, even these worst forms of lying are understandable when they seem to be required to survive and thrive within a dysfunctional family or bureaucracy. And that, in the view of many nonbelievers, is precisely the nature of fundamentalist Christianity: a dysfunctional entity compelling and/or encouraging falsehood. Consistent with that view, Dromedary Hump offers these quotes from famous historical Christian leaders:

Often it is necessary to deceive, and to do the greatest benefits by means of this device, whereas he who has gone by a straight course has done great mischief to the person whom he has not deceived. [John Chrysostom]

We should always be disposed to believe that which appears to us to be white is really black, if the hierarchy of the church so decides. [Ignatius Loyola]

What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church … a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them. [Martin Luther]

But one need not revert to historical texts for illustrations. A search leads readily to the continuing stream of scandals in which priests, preachers, and evangelists deceive their congregations and the public about assorted financial, sexual, and psychological abuses. It does not appear that people of this nature would be good guides in the matter of how to live one’s life, much less the truth about one’s eternal salvation.

One often hears such people called “pathological liars.” But that does not seem like the right term. In an article in Psychiatric Times, Charles C. Dike (2008) notes that pathological lying (PL) is not a settled psychiatric diagnosis within the psychiatric profession’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). (See also Mark D. Griffiths in Psychology Today, 2013.) Dike suggests there is nonetheless some consensus as to the core elements of PL: “excessive lying, easily verifiable to be untrue, mostly unhelpful to the liar in any apparent way, and even possibly harmful to the liar, yet told repeatedly over time.”

Note, then, that — at least by that sense of the term — a good liar and a pathological liar are two very different things. The person who obtains success, wealth, and/or power by deceiving and manipulating people may have some other kind of mental health issue, but s/he would not be a pathological liar — would not be, that is, telling falsehoods that are “easily verifiably to be untrue” or “mostly unhelpful to the liar in any apparent way.” His/her success comes precisely because s/he is good at misleading people.

Pathological lying (PL) — like psychopath and sociopath — is a popular assessment, used in assorted and sometimes conflicting ways, sometimes based on knowledge and experience but often abused by people with poor training or no training in mental health. A search leads to any number of people who claim expertise on the matter. For example,

  • WikiHow defines a pathological liar as “someone who tells lies habitually, chronically and compulsively. It has simply become a way of life for this person, to make up things for a variety of reasons and eventually, the truth becomes uncomfortable while weaving whoppers feels right to them. This kind of lying tends to develop early on in life, often as a response to difficult home or school situations that seemed to resolve better if the child lied. It’s a bad habit, not a manipulative trait — this is how to differentiate a pathological liar from a sociopath who does seek to manipulate.”
  • LoveToKnow says, “Pathological liars are people who tells lies when there is no clear benefit for them to do so. An individual who is not a pathological liar may lie to avoid punishment or ridicule. He or she may be less-than-truthful to avoid hurting someone else. When the problem of lying is at the point where the person is unable to control it, that person is considered to be a pathological liar. Even though pathological lying isn’t listed in the [DSM], it is considered a disease by some experts.”
  • New Health Guide says, in somewhat similar terms, that “A pathological liar lies compulsively and impulsively, almost without thinking about the consequences of his action. He lies regularly on a spontaneous basis even if he gains no benefit from it, or even if he traps himself into it. A pathological liar cannot control his impulse to lie and it is usually a self-defeating trait.”

Those materials suggest several observations. First, it may be true that — as I was informed by a source that I have cited in another post — the ministry is one of the ten professions most likely to attract psychopaths. Especially when one enters the arena of wildly unrealistic and dishonest claims about Christian faith and practice, It may take a remarkably cold and clever manipulator to keep on preaching, week after week, without any concern for the kinds of problems that I have discussed in the posts cited above. It is certainly interesting to read the suggestion, by Pater Familias, that “many fundamentalist Christians become atheists in college or seminary.”

Of course, not every minister is a televangelist with a congregation of thousands. As I know from observing the work of the Lutheran minister for whom I was an office assistant during high school, many work for a pittance, struggling to keep their congregations going despite congregational politics and negative and sometimes abusive parishioners. Ministers of this ilk — and many of the confused congregants who spend their week ping-ponging among dissonant theories of what God wants and what they have been doing right and wrong — may come closer to the concept of pathological lying. They are not seriously attempting to manipulate anyone, and would rarely be able to do so. They are just trying to string together a chaotic pack of random ideas in a bid to say something that, to them, sounds good at the moment — even if it does strike the casual listener as grotesque self-deception. This behavior often entails great costs, in terms of time and money wasted and opportunities foregone, including other careers that the minister might have pursued, and more truthful (and, probably, more rewarding) ways of pursuing his/her religious calling.

Dike distinguishes pathological lies from other kinds of disorders (e.g., Borderline Personality Disorder) by their “elaborate, fantastic, or complicated nature.” That description does seem applicable to the tangled webs of doctrine, and the incredible supernatural entities and events, with which fundamentalists weave together their ideas about themselves and their world. Dike also distinguishes “the blurring of fact and fiction that occurs in PL” from “the absolute conviction” experienced by delusional persons — which is interesting, in light of the contrast between the extraordinary claims that contemporary Christians make about miracles and other supernatural events, and the limited extent to which they demonstrate real belief in such phenomena.

In several ways, then, it seems that pathological lying may serve as a relatively understandable (albeit informal and sometimes confused) diagnosis of the behavior practiced — indeed, encouraged — in fundamentalist Christianity. That impression would seem to apply especially to ministers and Bible students who waste enormous amounts of time trying to rephrase and repackage their beliefs in superficially credible terms.

This tentative impression should be cushioned, again, with the warnings that pathological lying is not an established psychiatric diagnosis and that, if it is to be used, one might consider it a call for compassion, not a charge of willful manipulation. Without denying the harm done by such beliefs, nor for that matter the positive aspects of religious belief and community, in these specific ways these people are confused and, for the most part, cannot be helped, but are rather left to help themselves, often by growing more relaxed and less serious about the most problematic aspects of their faith.

Case in Point:
Debates with a Fundamentalist Preacher

I had been vaguely curious about lying by Christian preachers ever since hearing about Marjoe Gortner, an evangelist who exposed fraud within the world of fundamentalist ministry, in a production that won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. I lost touch with that sort of thing, later in the 1970s, when I rejected fundamentalism as a route to spiritual truth — although I did hear, with the rest of America, about fraudulent and abusive priests and evangelists throughout the years to come.

Despite my rejection of fundamentalism, I remained in loose contact with several fundamentalists, including a few with religious training and/or positions in the ministry. I was moved to write this post after repeated Facebook encounters with one of them. I was not deeply acquainted with that preacher (referred to here as “Jack”) and his wife (“Jill”); but within my face-to-face experience they were generous, nonjudgmental, and basically kind people. As often happens, however, our online interactions tended to highlight differences in our viewpoints. It was harder to think of the person as a whole, and to disregard various absurd or offensive things that s/he might say, when written expression became our primary means of interaction.

I decided to write this post for several reasons. First, as detailed below, I wanted to wrap up that series of Facebook encounters with Jack. Over a period of months, I had concluded that Jack was wasting my time with insincere and sometimes ridiculous remarks. It seemed best to unfriend him, so as to eliminate that source of fruitless distraction, and to direct him to this post if he was interested in an explanation.

Unfriending Jack on Facebook did not necessarily imply ceasing to be friends in fact; that would depend on future developments. Indeed, it seemed that removing Facebook from the equation might actually be beneficial to the friendship. At this point, it could hardly hurt. So it seemed appropriate to compose this explanation, and to leave it to him to see if he could understand and respond appropriately to it.

Second, I decided to write this post because, as in other posts in this blog, I had prior personal experience that I thought might be useful to others. As noted above, I, myself, had been a lying inventor of bogus “explanations” for the problems that arise when one takes a fundamentalist approach to the Bible. In that role, I may well have contributed to the confusion and pain experienced by fellow believers. I certainly was not contributing to any real solutions. As I observed various things that Jack and Jill posted on Facebook, I became concerned at the damage that they, and others like them, might be doing. I had been hearing, for some years, about what might have happened if people had not looked the other way when they found priests and ministers misbehaving. It seemed appropriate, indeed obligatory, to speak up.

So, as I say, I found myself engaged in repeated disagreements with Jack and Jill on Facebook. In the early months, these were limited to the occasional expression of dissent on some random item. Once, for example, Jill posted something like this:

2015-01-07-VaccineTrumptweetborder

I don’t believe that was the actual item; it is just an illustration of the type of thing she posted. In this case, it was something about vaccines for children. She added a remark; as I recall, it was, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid!”

I was aware that some parents were afraid that vaccines were more dangerous than the diseases they were supposed to prevent. But as far as I knew (and as still appears to be true), adverse reactions were rare and generally less harmful than the diseases in question. Indeed, it appeared that those who refused to vaccinate their children could pose an unreasonable threat to others. So I posted a reply, saying something like, “Polio, measles, tuberculosis — who would want to go back to that?”

There were several similar exchanges. At some point, reviewing my Facebook history, I noticed that Jill seemed to have deleted some of the posts to which I had objected, including the one about vaccines. It occurred to me that perhaps I had sensitized her to the existence of alternate viewpoints of which she had been unaware — that maybe I had helped her to recognize the foolishness of some of the things that others had been telling her. It was gratifying to imagine that I might have introduced some caution into her sharing of potentially harmful advice with members of her congregation.

Meanwhile, it appeared, for a time, that Jack enjoyed online debate. That was not the impression he had given in person. When talking in person, he had sometimes dominated the conversation, going on and on about his beliefs. I understood his viewpoint — as I say, I had been a fundamentalist and a pre-ministry student myself — but he had not seemed reciprocally inclined to understand and explore my views. Since then, online, he had described himself as not being open-minded. At some point I concluded that he was, ultimately, the typical preacher, primarily interested in telling you what to think, and not very interested in learning whether his way might be imperfect or just plain wrong.

So, to continue with the example of vaccines, eventually I did come to realize that Jill had not in fact learned anything from my remarks about vaccines. She was still agreeing with Jack, months later, when he posted this on that subject:

I have been accused of being crazy because I do not use vaccinations for my kids or myself as a general rule. If I suggest other listen to why I feel this way, then words like medieval, barbarian, cave man, etc. are thrown around. The only argument for being totally for vaccination that I have heard is the elimination of polio, or smallpox.

This seems like a pretty good argument, though, right? Let us explore this argument for a minute. The argument, as I understand it, goes like this: If by vaccinations we can eliminate the deadly disease polio, then all vaccines are good and acceptable to be used on every child starting with the day they are born. . . .

Who oversees the production of Vaccines? Government. Did you just shudder? I know I did! . . .

So, really, am I really that crazy? You do what you want. I will not call you crazy, even if I know better. I will walk the path I have chosen, regardless of your choices and demonizing of my choice.

To me, it seemed that anyone who had looked into vaccines at all would know that they were tested individually. There was no simpleminded acceptance of any and all vaccines, across the board, merely because the polio vaccine worked many years ago.

It was also obvious that the government of the U.S. had achieved remarkable successes, in projects that nobody else was inclined to tackle. Examples over the previous two centuries had included the fighting of the Civil and World wars, developing a reliable post office, breaking up monopolies, building an interstate highway system, and landing people on the moon. The presidents pursuing such projects, Democrat and Republican alike, had enjoyed wide public support for such initiatives. Certainly there were major mistakes in those and other projects. But it made no sense to speak as though governmental involvement, in itself, would automatically imply poor quality in a specific vaccination project.

In that area of vaccines, and elsewhere, Jack did not seem motivated to look into the facts of the matter before telling others what to think. Instead, he was content to hold forth with an uninformed opinion, notwithstanding its potential to cause serious harm to less educated or less capable people, including his own children, who might be depending on him or looking to him for guidance. In the case of vaccines, he and Jill persisted in this approach despite his report (above) that numerous others had challenged it. He received those challenges, not as evidence that he might be mistaken, but rather as “demonization,” as though others had behaved inappropriately in pointing out real dangers in his words and acts.

Over the months, Jack challenged a number of items that I had posted on Facebook. He was not the only person to express disagreement with such items. In his case, unfortunately, the challenges did not entail reasonable give and take, where one would strive to understand the opposing viewpoint before trying to rebut it, much less acknowledge credible aspects of that opposing viewpoint. Here, again, Jack admitted that he was not interested in an openminded pursuit of truth. He demonstrated no willingness to seek truths that might be painful or inconsistent with his preferred beliefs. Nor did he demonstrate anything resembling Armstrong’s gentle Christian humility (above). He did not even make a serious attempt at logical argument. The situation seemed to be that he knew himself to be right, on a given issue; he accepted that others were too blind to perceive their wrongness; and he was not very motivated to demonstrate his rightness and their wrongness in much detail. He just contented himself with tossing out a few hints pointing toward his personal wisdom, and leaving others to find their own way toward him and his Truth.

I don’t intend those remarks sarcastically. In all seriousness, that did appear to be how he saw things. Moreover, his propensity to insulate himself from reality was not limited to people like me, or to venues like Facebook. He was also insulating himself from the patent facts of his own scriptures. Jesus was not known for his love of guns and his insistence on a right to carry weapons, to cite another of Jack’s predictable areas of interest. (Jack would go on to start a sporting goods store, so that he could sell guns for the Lord.) Jesus was also not famous for his views for or against particular politicians.

Indeed, a casual reader of the New Testament might conclude that Jesus’s tendencies often ran somewhat opposite to Jack’s. What Jack knew was not really Jesus; it was just the culture into which he, Jack, had been born, and the ways in which that culture had distorted Christ’s life and words for its own purposes. Jack seemed to be the kind of person who, born in Iraq instead of the U.S., would have defended his family’s version of Shiite or Sunni Islam with the same narrowminded indifference to truth, selectively adopting or ignoring facts and arguments as needed to arrive at his preferred conclusions.

A few examples may help to illustrate the situation. Consider Jack’s responses to a cartoon I posted on Facebook:

10931295_10152514116931408_439443050043691658_n

The cartoon could have said more — about the European wars of religion, for instance, and about the Spanish Inquisition, and about the behavior of conquering Christians in the New World, indeed about the history of Christian slaughter and torture going back to the time of Gregory of Tours, never mind the attitudes of people like Jack toward American behavior in the Islamic world over the past two decades — but the basic point was clear enough. Christianity has been secularized and restricted by relatively unsympathetic governments and societies in the West, and has thus become less of a threat in recent centuries; but its history presents grounds for serious concern that, if such controls were removed, people would once again be committing enormous atrocities in the name of Christ.

Jack did not want those things to be true of his religion. Like most fundamentalists, he was not very interested in the long and horrible record of violence committed by so-called Christians. He preferred to assume, as Christians have doubtless assumed for centuries, that his generation would be different. So in response to that cartoon, Jack posted several long tirades filled with tangential and in some cases nonsensical remarks. Each time, I replied with relatively brief rebuttals. I can illustrate the tenor of those exchanges with this excerpt from one of my rebuttals:

Jack, your remarks seem incoherent. I did clearly distinguish the fundamentalist branch of Christianity. See previous comment. It is self-contradictory to refer to the liberals as a mere “fringe” and then say they are responsible for causing wars: fringes do not have that power. Such a claim is also historically ignorant: there were virtually no Christian liberals at the time of the Crusades and the European wars of religion. Do present-day fundamentalists submit to secular government? Only by force. For decades, they have been seeking to make it less secular and more theocratic: Ten Commandments in public places, for example. Finally, I don’t know whom you’re accusing of defending Radical Islam; that’s certainly not me.

Of course, it would be easier to interpret that excerpt if I were to provide the words, from Jack, to which I was responding. Unfortunately, I can’t. That’s because, after several lengthy discourses, Jack decided to go back and delete all of his comments. I think that may have been the only time, in my several years of using Facebook, when anyone has done that. It seemed odd. Eventually, however, he did offer a bit of an explanation for this behavior, in a concluding post that ran to 419 words (i.e., the equivalent of nearly two double-spaced typed pages). Here is an excerpt:

If you feel I was calling you disingenuous, then that was not my intention. I said it seems disingenuous to hold all of Christianity accountable for the past actions of a few, then excuse a few Islamic groups using the past actions of that same “few” of Christianity. . . . I have not wish to further argue with you on the subject. If I would have wished to continue in the argument then I would have not erased the comments I have made. From any outside observer stumbling across this thread, It will appear you are the king of the hill on your Facebook page. If your goal is to stand uncontested in your opinions, then you have achieved it. You win. If you want to convince me that you have the right-headed thinking, then you will probably never win. I am as set in my ways as, I hope, you are in yours. . . . If you were offended by me calling you disingenuous, then I do sincerely apologize. . . . I am sorry I cannot do more for your complaints than this. God Bless you.

So, to paraphrase, Jack admitted calling me disingenuous, but also said he did not intend to call me disingenuous. What was disingenuous, he said, was to hold all Christians accountable for the past actions of “a few” — where Jack’s concept of a “few” can include a good chunk of the population of Europe. He did not clearly explain why he would remove his comments, but it sounds like he wanted to make it appear that I was arguing with myself. He started the debate, but then characterized my replies as “complaints” with which he was trying to offer assistance.

This did not seem to be the behavior of a sincere debater of belief. Frankly, given his repeated indications that he was set in his ways and intended to remain so, it seemed to be the behavior of a troll — of, that is, someone who had no genuine interest in shared pursuit of the truth of a matter, but who simply liked to provoke disagreements. It appeared that, when someone took the bait, he would treat their response as an invitation to share his own views at length — not for the purpose of genuine engagement or learning, but merely to preach.

That impression probably would have been too hasty, despite the absurdities in Jack’s argument, if we had just gone back and forth once or twice about that cartoon. It seemed less hasty, however, as the matter dragged out over the course of a week, each day bringing a new tirade. Some skepticism toward Jack also seemed appropriate in light of his reactions to a number of my other Facebook posts. Here is an example of a photo, to which Jack responded and I replied as follows:

Fracking

JACK: Oh no! the poor fish! (as I am filling up on gas that is cheaper than it has been in years)

ME: Unbelievable.

ME: Jack, maybe I’m misunderstanding your comment. It sounds supremely ignorant. Do you not go fishing multiple times per week?

JACK: I do not go fishing several times a week, right now. I have been fishing several times a week, though. What about any of you guys? Do you people like to fish?

Nobody replied to Jack’s question. I admit: as my reply indicates, he was becoming tiresome.

On multiple occasions, as in that example, Jack started by questioning or ridiculing what I had posted — but then, when I challenged his remarks, he would try to change the subject, or would claim that it was all just a matter of opinion or belief, and there was no point debating it. But it was not a matter of belief: it was a matter of real-world actions and their consequences.

Such exchanges seemed to support the widespread perception that Christian fundamentalists use the Bible as an excuse for sociopolitical views that do not always make much sense — and that, if they were in power, they would behave as fools who (in the foregoing examples) would help to see the environment wrecked and the country ravaged by preventable disease. I would like to say that Jack was unusual — that other Christian fundamentalists, in other private and public communications, have displayed far more responsibility and common sense. Unfortunately, too often, that has not been the case.

The Core Epistemological Issue

This post has looked at the topic of pathological lying, and at the problem of lying among Christians; it has looked in more detail at a few exchanges I had with a fundamentalist minister on Facebook. Ideas presented here could, perhaps, be developed into an argument that fundamentalist Christians, or a subset of such Christians, or at least some fundamentalist ministers are pathological liars, or psychopaths, or sociopaths. There might be some truth to such an argument.

That, however, is not the point here. Fundamentalists like Jack do not need to be psychologically screwed up in order to become bullshit artists. As developed more fully in the posts cited at the start of this piece, the real problem is not that a subset of such fundamentalists have mental health issues. It is that fundamentalism, by its very nature, is opposed to the search for truth. To the fundamentalist, truth comes from the scriptures, and from what one’s preacher or other accepted commentator says about the scriptures. The result is a mishmash of views, ranging from the reasonable through the murky to the absurd. People are so determined to have a religion, or to defend the one they were born with, that they will accept an enormous amount of nonsense rather than be honest with themselves, and with others, about the real world and about what their own scriptures actually say.

Epistemology is, in essence, the study of what we can know, and how we can know it. The epistemological question posed by fundamentalist Christianity is whether one can reliably obtain factual knowledge, as distinct from mere opinion, from the Bible, from Bible commentators, and from preachers like Jack. Even if there were no scientists for them to disagree with, it would appear that the answer to that question must be no, else there would not be such a plethora of divergent Christian denominations and cults, each insisting that it alone has arrived at the correct interpretation of scripture.

In that light, the primary issue of pathology arises at the level of the culture, not of the individual. In other words, the real question is not whether there is something wrong with this or that believer; it is whether the culture of Christian fundamentalism is itself sick. Such a question could draw upon the reasoning of Erich Fromm (1955, p. 15). Fromm, reacting to Nazi Germany, pointed out that “the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

Needless to say, not everything that Christian fundamentalists do is automatically stupid or evil. Taking a cue from Fromm, one must recognize that even Nazi Germany achieved notable advances — in medical and public health research and practice, for instance (Proctor, 1999). The issue is not one of pure good and evil. It is, rather, that regardless of the outcomes achieved, the means employed are simply not acceptable. The point is not that one should prohibit Naziism, fundamentalist Christianity, or other forms of belief per se. The more appropriate response is surely to demonstrate, and to keep on demonstrating, with rationality and human kindness, that fundamentalists are relying upon a flawed and often destructive worldview, and that there are better ways.

The example of Jack highlights a consequence of fundamentalist Christian epistemology. If you already know what you believe, and if nothing is going to shake you from it, then much of what the world cares about is just a joke. A person like Jack can post silly remarks about fracking and fish because he is more interested in taunting and ridiculing intelligent people than in thinking seriously and speaking responsibly on sociopolitical and economic issues. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, about many things in our world, because his religion taught him that all he needs to know and care about is contained within the Bible (with, of course, certain homemade additions about guns and politicians).

Jesus seems neither to have written down his own words, nor to have solicited anyone else to do so. But apparently that is not important to those who claim to be Christlike. In the behavior of the fundamentalist, who wants to support his/her preexisting culture by highlighting preferred Biblical texts and by interpreting those texts in preferred ways, the actual person of the historical Jesus can be surprisingly unimportant — which is just what Kazantzakis indicated, near the end of a film that fundamentalist Christians abhor.

Philosophers and scientists do not appear to be very surprised that Christian fundamentalism, epistemologically and fanatically rooted in an ancient book, has produced substantial amounts of folly and evil. That is because philosophers and scientists spend whole careers struggling to achieve small advances in the very difficult project of figuring out what one can really know, and how one can be sure that one really knows it. People doing that kind of work tend to realize that there are no shortcuts. It takes work. Lacking any commitment to that sort of project, Christian fundamentalists are left to fire cheap shots at things beyond their understanding, and to demand that their schools, their states — if possible, their country and their world — be managed in ways consistent with their ignorance.

Conclusion

This post has observed that Christian fundamentalism has a problem in the area of truthfulness. The post began with a look at individual experiences and concerns having to do with lying. There was a glance at concepts of pathological, psychopathic, or sociopathic falsification. But the primary concern was that the problem of truthfulness is endemic to the faith — that Christian fundamentalism is built upon, and glorifies, the rejection of the human search for truth. The false hope, and claim, is that the Bible (as construed by one’s preferred scholars) gives the believer a pass, an easy out, a way of avoiding epistemological engagement with the things that concern mere mortals. Private and public concerns about honesty, science, life, and other people are all subordinated to the words of the biblical text.

And people live that way, year after year, century after century, proud of their imagined superiority or perhaps fearful for their salvation, but in any event never admitting that they are simply wrong. So I wind up with a clown like Jack, and many Christian believers wind up in private hells of falsehood and confusion, because their culture prohibits open, honest, and humble engagement down here with the rest of us, on the level of reality. The world is cursed with a horde of bullshit artists, some quite solemn and sincere (within the severe limits of what they are willing to contemplate), because that is precisely what their faith respects.

Advertisements

An Inquiry into Open Source Religion

I was thinking about some things I had written on the subject of religion, and about other things I might write. I realized, of course, that much of what I would write had probably already been said by someone somewhere. As always, however, there was the problem of finding that material and, perhaps, of recognizing it when I did find it — because people sometimes conceptualize and express ideas in terms that other people find odd, until they come to understand the writer’s starting point.

Somewhere in this reverie, I thought of the phrase “open-source religion.” I wasn’t sure exactly what that would be about, or even if anyone had used the term. I think my general idea was that there might be something like a wiki, somewhere, where people would pitch in and contribute bits of information to build up a sort of religion-by-consensus. That seemed to be how open-source work had progressed in other areas, notably the development of software.

Some Open-Source Religion Websites

A search led to an impression that, in fact, people had divergent ideas of what open-source religion might be. First, a brief Wikipedia article seemed to indicate that there had been open-source efforts within specific religious traditions (e.g., Judaism, Wicca). Even within those relatively narrow boundaries, there appeared to be some divergence. For example, within the Jewish religion, the Open Siddur Project seemed to be oriented toward building a database of Jewish religious materials, while the Open Source Judaism initiative seemed to emphasize an open-ended approach to the questions of what Judaism was and what people might want to do with it, or how they might develop it.

Judging from that Wikipedia article, other open-source religious efforts were not necessarily based upon any pre-existing tradition, but sought instead to develop religious materials and views through group participation and consensus. One such effort, calling itself Yoism, welcomed me to “the way of yo.” The name seemed like a bit of a joke — which, as I thought about it, would not necessarily be bad, except if it turned off people who wanted or needed something with some weight to it. The Yo webpages had an annoying habit of loading audio files that I didn’t want to hear, as I clicked around on my way to Yo’s “ten sacred principles” and “7 main beliefs” and “5 pillars.” What I saw, in these travels, was not an obviously open-source, wiki-style project: I just saw someone’s recitation of their ideas, with space to add comments but, on most pages, few comments actually added.

The other main open-source project identified in that Wikipedia article was OpenSourceReligion.net. The Community page within OpenSourceReligion’s website boasted over 1,200 members. The Forums page identified over 1,300 discussions, but these appeared to be aging with very little traffic.

There was another initiative on the well-known Wikia website called YouReligionWiki, stating that its contents included “476 articles about religions formed by our contributors.” In their Religions page, it appeared that some had posted materials on existing religions (e.g., Hinduism) while others had invented new religions. As an example of the latter, The Cult of the Mighty R! (selected more or less at random) was described as being focused on “the basic ideas of rebellion and revolution.” It seemed to be a somewhat frivolous enterprise; one of its “basic rules to live by” was “Thou shalt not judgeth another, unlesseth thy wisheth to be bitch-slappethed.” The prevailing concept of “open-source” applied in this website seemed to be, not that people were working together to develop religious beliefs or principles, but just that a workspace was being provided within which people could post whatever they liked and call it a religion.

Another effort, using another well-known website (in this case, Wikibooks), offered a start on an Open Religion book. It appeared to be the work of just one person, offering a skeletal introduction. It appeared to me, at this point, that a wikibook might be the sort of thing I was looking for. On closer examination, however, I had second thoughts. At the very early stages, with as few as one contributor, a wikibook would not enjoy the structured protections available in, for example, a Wikipedia article. There could be vandalism; there could be shoddy work; there could be arguments that the absence of a user base would leave unresolved. It tentatively seemed that a better approach would be to work up at least a skeleton text in a more controlled environment, and move it to a wikibook if a user base did form.

Hinduism and Open-Source Religion

I had noticed a blog post titled “Hinduism: An Open Source Religion.” That was an interesting concept. As I read the writer’s explanation, I wondered whether his/her interpretation of Hinduism conformed with established understandings. Wikipedia quoted the Supreme Court of India:

Unlike other religions in the World, the Hindu religion does not claim any one Prophet, it does not worship any one God, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one act of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a religion or creed. It is a way of life and nothing more.

Elaborating somewhat on this, an About.com article said,

There is no “one Hinduism”, and so it lacks any unified system of beliefs and ideas. Hinduism is a conglomerate of diverse beliefs and traditions, in which the prominent themes include:

  • Dharma (ethics and duties)
  • Samsara (rebirth)
  • Karma (right action)
  • Moksha (liberation from the cycle of Samsara)

It also believes in truth, honesty, non-violence, celibacy, cleanliness, contentment, prayers, austerity, perseverance, penance, and pious company.

Now, as a reader of the daily news, I was of the opinion that India, and many of its Hindus, were not in fact very good at nonviolence and such. I appreciated that Hinduism might have potential as an illustration of how an open-source religion could develop over time, and I suspected that a Hindu upbringing could facilitate flexibility toward diverse religious beliefs. But I also felt that nobody is holy — that everybody, whatever their background, would be capable of bringing some benefits and also some detriments to the development of an open-source religion.

Moreover, as an American ex-Protestant trained in law and somewhat exposed to Jewish culture, I was inclined to think that an attempt at open-source religion would want to remain open to discussion, debate, and refinement of one’s positions in light of new ideas. In this sense, I thought, the “open” within “open-source” could have a double meaning. Not only would one’s source code be open to inspection and revision, but also one would want to practice an attitude of openness.

In that spirit, I appreciated that Hinduism could indeed be viewed as in some ways an open-source sort of religion. It occurred to me in passing that Christianity could too, if one took account of the great variety of beliefs expressed by Christians of various conservative and liberal persuasions. Possibly spreading and internally inconsistent claims would be a tendency within any sufficiently large and old religion.

Structuring an Open-Source Religion

I recalled, from my childhood, that religions might condense their core beliefs into a catechism, defined as a book presenting a summary of a religion’s fundamental principles or beliefs, often in question-and-answer form. A bit of searching led, quickly enough, to catechisms of various religions, including Luther’s Small Catechism, versions (1 and 2, possibly identical in content) of the Catholic catechism, versions (1 and 2) for Hinduism, and versions (1 and 2) for Islam. These examples would barely scratch the surface of the world’s assortment of catechisms, but they seemed adequate for starting purposes.

Needless to say, such catechisms would differ radically on various points. But I suspected they, or other comparably brief summaries of various religions, would also agree on numerous points. For example, one Hindu catechism defined sin as “any action which intentionally causes suffering and pain to another being directly or indirectly,” and the Lutheran catechism indicated that sin included violation of the Ten Commandments, which could have the same effect.

It appeared that a catechism of an open-source religion (OSR) could present a primary or consensus view on a particular issue, and could offer supplementary elaborations to capture nuances of interest to various subgroups of followers. In the case of sin, for example, one might begin with references to harmful actions, offer a few examples, and then leave it to various people to add footnotes as they saw fit.

A search, and further browsing, led to many sources claiming to identify the key elements of a religion. It seemed that these authorities would not overrule Hinduism, for example: it would continue to be a religion even if its catechism lacked something that some expert considered essential. But it did seem reasonable to consult experts on what a religion should include. For present purposes, I decided to draw upon the descriptions of religion offered by Wikipedia, the Free Dictionary, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, an apparently influential law review article on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which promised freedom of “religion”) by Choper (1982), and the practical current interpretation of First Amendment law offered by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in Internal Revenue Manual 4.76.6 & 7.25.3 and IRS Publication 557. (No doubt there would be many other documents to consider for purposes of actually creating a religious organization.)

Beginning at perhaps the most abstract level, the Stanford encyclopedia identified a number of topics in the philosophy of religion, involving especially the existence and nature of God but also including Hick’s effort to synthesize religions. Unfortunately, I did not find this material particularly useful for present purposes. The Free Dictionary was closer to the mark, in a bare-bones way, with its indications that religion was variously defined as including belief in, reverence for, worship of, and/or obedience to a supernatural power or powers, or involving the cause, nature, or purpose of the universe; a way of life (in e.g., a religious order); observation of sacred rites and ceremonies; a set of beliefs based on the teachings of a spiritual leader; a moral code; and/or a formal or institutionalized expression of, or the set of people involved in, such beliefs or behaviors.

The Wikipedia article noted that religion had many definitions. It offered Buddhism as an example that might illustrate the reference, in the previous paragraph, to the nature of the universe, without requiring any deity; it added the topic of life after death; it mentioned the role of religion as a pervasive shaper of societies, and offered a further definition of religion as the full cultural reality emerging from behaviors mentioned above; it cited William James for a more individual and psychological concept of religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men” in relation to their concept of the divine. Wikipedia suggested that, perhaps because of religion’s role as a sphere of so-called intensive valuing or ultimate concern within the life of the believer, its adherents were typically not very swayed by scientific and philosophical arguments.

Choper’s law review article attempted, not to define religion per se, but only to try to account for the approaches that American courts have taken, or might take, toward the interpretation of laws that could affect freedom of religion. Choper said that, with relatively few exceptions (primarily for compelling public interests), the Amendment prohibited governmental impositions on or discrimination in favor of or against religious belief, conduct, or speech, including the nonverbal symbolic speech of religious ritual. Choper offered the example of a case protecting a worker from losing state unemployment compensation benefits after being fired for disobeying an employer’s order to work on the worker’s sabbath. For religions not postulating anything like the Christian God, Choper cited Supreme Court language focusing on “whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.” Choper argued, however, that the foregoing idea of issues of “ultimate concern” was too broad to support constitutional protection — that people consider all sorts of patently nonreligious matters to be issues of ultimate personal concern — and thus a better measure would have to do with whether the government is trying to impose upon religious behavior in ways that are believed to have “extratemporal” (i.e., post-death, e.g., eternal) consequences.

Finally, I came to the concepts of religion indulged by the IRS. The IRS cared about religion because of the tax-exempt status accorded to religious organizations. Publication 557 (2013, p. 29) stated that the IRS used two guidelines to determine whether an organization was religious. First, its religious beliefs had to be “truly and sincerely held.” Second, its religious practices and rituals could not be illegal or contrary to public policy. Without researching the question in detail, I guessed that a religious organization indulging homicidal doctrines would fail the “public policy” test. Internal Revenue Manual 4.76.6 indicated that the organization would have to be organized and operated exclusively for religious purposes. These would apparently exclude commercial or business purposes and political activities. (See also IRS Publication 1828. For religious (e.g., monastic) orders, see Revenue Procedure 91-20.) Consistent with Choper’s remarks (above), Internal Revenue Manual 7.25.3 adopted this definition of religion: “A sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualifying for the [tax] exemption.” The document further noted that a belief in a supreme being was not necessary for this purpose. In a somewhat unclear reference to a Supreme Court decision involving a conscientious objector to military service, the Manual said that religious beliefs could be found “If an individual deeply and sincerely holds beliefs that are purely ethical or moral in source and content but that nevertheless impose upon him a duty of conscience to refrain from participating in any war at any time.”

Conclusion

This post briefly explores the concept of open-source religion, as it appears in various websites. The post observes that Hinduism has been described as, or analogized to, open-source religion, insofar as Hinduism apparently incorporates a rangy and potentially incompatible panoply of materials and beliefs.

It did not appear that general-purpose attempts to form open-source religions had achieved critical mass. I wondered what sorts of principles an open-source religion (indeed, any religion) might have to develop, in order to gain general acceptability as a religion. It seemed that catechisms from various faiths, supplemented by other ideas of what constitutes a religion, might help to answer that question. A brief look into various materials produced a collection of topics that one might take into account, for purposes of formulating the outline of a religion.

Armed with those materials, I decided to develop such an outline. The result will appear in a separate post.

When It’s My Turn to Take a Bow (Feb. 20, 1995)

According to Benjamin Franklin, “In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes.” I don’t think I need to show you my I.R.S. filings for the past dozen years to convince you that I’ve done a much better job of planning for the taxes than I have for the death.

It’s not that I’m ignoring death. Not at all. Death is ignoring me; and for this small favor, I am thankful. No, I started out thinking about death at a very early age. I grew up next to a cemetery. I would mow the grass there, and sometimes, if I was lucky, I’d get paid to fill in a grave after a funeral. To me, death had great significance: it was worth $25.

That cemetery still matters to me. It contains my great­-grandfather’s grave. He was probably the only relative I’ll ever have whom they’ll allow to be buried there. When I was younger, I would go down and look at his tombstone. Then I would be off for a game of hide-and-seek with my friends, using the graveyard as a playground.

I went back and visited that cemetery a couple of weeks ago. It was pretty much the same, except that, like everything else back home, it seemed to have shrunk. The big trees weren’t so big anymore. I don’t know. Maybe they had cut down the really big ones and these other, smaller trees had grown up in their place.

Oh, and this time around, I recognized more of the names on the gravestones. Art Mertz was there, and so was one of the Kammerers. There was a tombstone for Don and Shirley Williams, too. They weren’t buried there yet — they’re still living in town — but I guess maybe they’ve been thinking ahead, about where they’re going to go when they leave that retirement home. I recognized some other names on those headstones, and I said to myself, You know, there are some damn good people buried here. They’re dead, and that’s a hard thought.

Ben Franklin was right: death is certain. But more than that: it’s inexorable. It doesn’t quit. It’s like the forces of nature, constantly eroding the earth: sometimes it’s a hurricane, and sometimes it’s just a gentle current in a quiet stream. You might read that famous poem by Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

but you know that the old guy he was singing to, his dad, was probably in a cancer ward somewhere.

Rage? Oh, yeah. Right. As though death weren’t a lot more cunning than that. You think about those lines from the Bible — O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?–) and you know that the writer was talking about salvation or something. He sure wasn’t talking about how the mourners feel. You attend a Christian funeral, or any other, and you watch the people there, and you know: it stings, all right.

I am not an old man, but I’m probably old enough to reach a few basic conclusions about death. The main thing, I think, is that death is bigger and smarter than me. It will be around a hundred years from now, and I won’t. A head-on confrontation, me versus death, would be like that movie, Bambi Meets Godzilla: it was a good flick, but terribly brief and one-sided.

By the time I was eleven years old, screwing around in that cemetery, I had already realized that the better strategy, for me personally, was to negotiate. So I made a deal with death. The deal was this: I will live until I die, and then I will die and shut up. Some people may say that I could have gotten more, but it was not a bad deal, and I was comfortable with it.

I did overlook an important point, though. I didn’t realize how much it could hurt to lose someone else. At a certain age, you begin to suspect — no matter what they say in the movies — that death is not the ultimate sacrifice. The ultimate sacrifice is loss. It doesn’t go away, and it can’t be filled. It’s a hole, an emptiness.

And yet, I don’t think that’s the end of the story. I know that, at my own funeral, I am going to want my friends to cry, make noise, and then get over it. Like I say, I’m not in a rush to die, but when I do, I believe I will make the adjustment successfully. Why should anyone else make more out of my death than I do?

The obvious answer is that I’m just a loveable guy, and they don’t want to lose me. But the other obvious answer is that they are all control freaks. They have some rosy memory of who I am and what I stand for, and now they think I should be playing that role for the rest of eternity. I mean, I would do this for them, but I suspect that if we actually talked about that magical moment in their lives, the one they’re remembering so fondly, we would find that they and I do not remember it the same, and we’d probably wind up arguing about it.

Better, I think, for me to make a big splash, do what I’m going to do, and then exit. My friends should come to the cemetery, let their kids play hide-and-seek on my grave, and count their blessings that they, too, have not yet experienced this unique way of taking a break. That is the way I feel about my death. I can’t help it. It just makes sense to me. And so, unless someone notifies me otherwise, this is how I’m going to think of them too.

And it seems right. I like to believe that if my great-grandfather and Art Mertz and those other dead folks down at the cemetery are watching me, or if they sent me off with any final thoughts, it was this: Relax. Live your life and prosper, and then, when your time comes, come lie in the dust with your fathers. That, too, is a Biblical perspective — and it sure beats the image of them running around in some poorly lit afterlife, yelling “I’m dead? Oh, no! This wasn’t supposed to happen to me!

So at the funerals we’ll be scheduling in the next 50 or 100 years, I hope we will all have the courage to be ourselves and to tell good, happy stories about each other. I know, I know: in America, the tradition is to let the person in front of the audience set the tone for the entire group. I’m just trying to say that the corpse at a funeral should be one exception to this tradition. The grey, stiff look has been out of fashion for years.

There will come a point with each and every one of you, my friends, when I will not see you any more. I don’t know whether that point will come because we die, or because we get mad and stop speaking to each other, or maybe just because we drift apart. It’s all the same. What I want is to do the best I can: to make sure that the time I spend with you now is good time, and to do you justice in my memory. That is, after all, what I hope for in return.

You’re Wrong

You may think you’re right, but you’re wrong about that too.

But what was I wrong about in the first place? you might ask. That’s a good question, but not important. The point here is just that you’re wrong.

This may seem like a ridiculous claim. A person can’t just be wrong; s/he has to be wrong about something in particular. You’d be right about that, except for just one problem: you’re wrong.

But I’m not wrong, you might say, and I can prove it. I say you can’t. You say, Well, how about 2 + 2 = 4? I’m not wrong about that, am I?

And the reply is, yes, obviously. Because 2 + 2 can only really equal 2 + 2. You can define 2 + 2 to be equal to 4, but that’s where you start to go off the tracks. Because defining 2 + 2 = 4 leads, pretty quickly, to strange creatures like division by zero (which cannot be defined in this number system), and irrational numbers, and numbers that cannot exist, like the square root of minus one. You can define yourself as being right, by defining 2 + 2 = 4, but that’s like defining yourself as Bill Gates and then living as if you were rich. It doesn’t add up.

Try again, if you’d like. The sky is blue? Which part of the sky? Where? Does the person blind from birth agree? Would you care to compare it against a color chip from the paint store, to make sure it’s not actually aqua or periwinkle?

The point here is not that everyone is always wrong about everything. It’s that it is hard to be right, and even harder to stay that way. When I say you’re wrong, I’m just generalizing, because you usually are.

Well, how about me, you might ask – am I not wrong too? Good question. If you think it’s important, I encourage you to get your own blog and write about it. But you’d be wrong – it’s really not important.

So, to clarify: yes, you can define 4 to be 2 + 2. You can define blue to be what a certain part of the sky is, at a certain place and time, as if it were possible to preserve that lost moment. You can carve out bits of being right, from a larger world in which you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

The reason you’re wrong is that being right tends to be a matter of contingencies and particulars, the tentative and usually temporary result of concerted effort in the face of a general reality of being wrong. On 3 + 9, you nailed it, but only because you had already given yourself that trophy, starting with your definition of things like 2 + 2. On that little spot of blue, congratulations, and big deal.

But surely you know things more important than that. Or do you? Example: you think your kids love you. Do they? Maybe. Janie, down the street, loved Jimmy, and that’s why she shot him. Do your kids love you like that? No, of course not. So you see. You have to define the word the way you want, and keep tweaking it until it doesn’t fit any of the situations that you don’t want to include. Your knowledge isn’t an apple that just falls off the tree into your hand. It isn’t an apple at all. It is a creaky little gizmo that you invented out of bits and pieces, and then tried to glue together. It takes work, the result looks awful, and it wants to fall apart.

Well, but doesn’t being right about lots of little things add up to being right on the big level, about some pretty impressive problems? Good question: does it? You’re right, in some ways, about things like hemoglobin, and viruses, and the body’s immune system, and somehow it all adds up to a polio vaccine. But (a) you, yourself, weren’t right about those things; invariably your path required reliance on other people, sometimes finding truths contrary to what you might have expected, and (b) what you were right about is still not keeping up with what you were wrong about. Among other things, polio is back. Again, congrats.

Collectively, the things you are right about are like the time when my brother’s wife got a job in a department store. They were always having sales. She would come home with new merchandise, telling him how much money they had saved. He said to me, Ray, I saved money yesterday on a new microwave. Last week I saved money on new drapes for the windows. I’m saving so much money, I’m going broke.

You are so right, these days, about so many important things, that humanity is at the point of jeopardizing its own existence, in a world that is on its way to becoming unliveable. If you were any more right, we would all be dead already. So keep it up – you’re doing a heckuva job.

* * * * *

See also this Kathryn Schulz excerpt and my own later post on the arrogance of experts.

Drives Within the Life Force: Striving vs. Resting

Previous posts in this blog have portrayed life as a restless, aggressive force that is forever striving to grow and become more powerful. Alongside that orientation, however, there is the reality that nothing has as much strength or control over its environment as it might desire. There are times when living things are growing, and there are also times when they choose, or find themselves compelled, to rest and regroup.

Indeed, that understates the case. If the drive to grow is a clear-eyed focus on not resting until the job is done, the drive to relax is an intoxicating compulsion to take a break and enjoy life. Some forms of entertainment do function as extensions of the workplace. Even there, however, there tends to be a real difference between genuine enjoyment and the mere use of recreational activities in a disciplined manner for preconceived ends.

Hence, when previous posts evoke the relentless striving of the life force, they might be refined to acknowledge that the striving actually does relent sometimes. Beyond the essentials of sleep, food, and other rest and refreshment to which virtually everyone must submit periodically, there is an endless smorgasbord of diversions. People vary greatly in their choices and indulgences among those offerings, ranging from solo reflections and private physical pleasures to highly social engagements. But everyone indulges at least some of them, at least some of the time, and their indulgence can take place even while they are working.

This refinement clarifies the role of death as life’s antagonist. Death terminates life, not only by confronting and defeating the drive to grow, but also by capitalizing on openings provided by the drive to rest. The strong can be killed while they sleep; the healthy can be undone by indulgence of unhealthy entertainment; the hardworking can be defeated by losing sight of the big picture. Vigilance may be key to survival; but as with many other virtues, vigilance is a word easier to say than to practice consistently.

Previous posts have talked about life and death, and also about the social force. Like death, the social force interacts with both of life’s core drives. This interaction is complex. Different social groups (e.g., religions, corporations, families) variously favor and oppose different kinds of striving and resting behaviors, disagreeing with and contradicting one another and sometimes themselves. Acts of working or avoiding work, eating or not eating, enjoying oneself or not, and so forth are approved or rejected in assorted ways, according to rules that can be very convoluted, precise, and even petty.

Unlike life, we do not know much about death. From life’s perspective, death is simply the absence of life, and life’s perspective is essentially all we have. It is thus not feasible to speak meaningfully about divergent drives within death. Things are different with the social force: to the extent that it reflects the life force, it incorporates its own combinations of striving and resting.

The gist of these remarks is simply that, as noted in prior posts, life can be summarized as a striving and restless force, and in the aggregate it is indeed that: there is always someone or something, somewhere, that is interested in eating your lunch. At the same time, life’s striving has the potential to undermine itself, insofar as the most aggressive striving often comes closest to triggering potentially self-destructive physical and social errors and countermeasures. Experience with life often teaches people to leaven the striving compulsion with personal and social relaxation, achieving some measure of reconciliation between one’s personal objectives and one’s personal and social limits.

Dominant Religions in the Best and Worst States in the U.S.

I was interested in differences between the best and worst American states. This post reports on one dimension of those differences, having to do with religion. (A companion post reports on race and ethnicity.)

First, to identify the states in question, I ran searches for best-run states, best governed or administered states, and simply best states. For 2013, these and related searches led me toward two widely cited rankings. One was the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Its findings were based solely on self-reports by interviewed individuals. The other was the 24/7 Wall St. Index, which added survey and observational data going beyond the well-being focus of the Gallup-Healthways research.

The general drift of the Gallup-Healthways study is illustrated visually in this map, which depicts the results of another study, in which the Commonwealth Fund examined state healthcare systems:

Screen_Shot_2014-05-05_at_3.52.21_PM

Given the financial orientation of the 24/7 Wall St. Index, and divergent opinions on the importance of money, it seemed best to try to draw upon both the 24/7 Wall St. and the Gallup-Healthways state rankings. To do that, I listed the state-by-state rank numbers reported by each of these two sources, and then calculated the difference between them. Thus, as shown in the last column of the following table, 24/7 Wall St. and Gallup-Healthways did not differ at all regarding the relative rank of North Dakota, but they differed greatly in the case of California.

State 24/7 Wall St. Rank Gallup-Healthways Rank Difference
ND 1 1 0
VT 6 6 0
NE 4 3 1
MI 35 37 2
MN 7 4 3
WA 12 9 3
NC 29 32 3
LA 44 41 3
NY 39 35 4
SC 42 38 4
MA 18 13 5
MD 24 18 6
IA 3 10 7
UT 5 12 7
SD 9 2 7
WI 21 14 7
GA 34 27 7
FL 37 30 7
AL 40 47 7
AK 8 16 8
OR 17 25 8
RI 47 39 8
KS 11 20 9
ID 20 29 9
PA 27 36 9
OK 33 42 9
VA 14 24 10
MT 15 5 10
CT 41 31 10
TX 10 21 11
KY 38 49 11
MS 36 48 12
AR 32 45 13
HI 22 8 14
NH 25 11 14
DE 13 28 15
MO 28 43 15
ME 30 15 15
NM 49 33 16
OH 26 46 20
NJ 43 23 20
NV 46 26 20
IN 19 40 21
CO 31 7 24
AZ 45 19 26
IL 48 22 26
WV 23 50 27
TN 16 44 28
WY 2 34 32
CA 50 17 33

That is, the Gallup-Healthways and 24/7 Wall St. research took very different views of the states at the bottom of that list. I was not going to research those states in detail, so as to arbitrate between these two sources. Instead, I decided to focus on the states where those two sources were in less extreme disagreement.

In the interests of getting a good representation of states that appeared at the high and low ends of both scales, and in various regions of the U.S., I went down the preceding list and drew the line at Nevada. That gave me a set of 42 states, rather than the original 50. For those 42 states, I calculated the average of the Gallup-Healthways and 24/7 Wall St. scores. Then I ranked those 42 states by that average score:

State 24/7 Wall St. Rank Gallup-Healthways Rank Average Rank
ND 1 1 1 1
NE 4 3 3.5 2
MN 7 4 5.5 3
SD 9 2 5.5 3
VT 6 6 6 5
IA 3 10 6.5 6
UT 5 12 8.5 7
MT 15 5 10 8
WA 12 9 10.5 9
AK 8 16 12 10
HI 22 8 15 11
MA 18 13 15.5 12
KS 11 20 15.5 12
TX 10 21 15.5 12
WI 21 14 17.5 15
NH 25 11 18 16
VA 14 24 19 17
DE 13 28 20.5 18
MD 24 18 21 19
OR 17 25 21 19
ME 30 15 22.5 21
ID 20 29 24.5 22
NC 29 32 30.5 23
GA 34 27 30.5 23
PA 27 36 31.5 25
NJ 43 23 33 26
FL 37 30 33.5 27
MO 28 43 35.5 28
MI 35 37 36 29
CT 41 31 36 29
OH 26 46 36 29
NV 46 26 36 29
NY 39 35 37 33
OK 33 42 37.5 34
AR 32 45 38.5 35
SC 42 38 40 36
NM 49 33 41 37
MS 36 48 42 38
LA 44 41 42.5 39
RI 47 39 43 40
AL 40 47 43.5 41
KY 38 49 43.5 41

Next, I compared this composite state ranking against dominant religion. From the immediately preceding table, I took the top 10 and the bottom 10 states and wrote their rank numbers onto this map from the 2010 U.S. Religion Census:

2010 U.S. Religion Census

For instance, there is a 41 on Alabama and a 41 on Kentucky because, of the 42 states shown on the immediately preceding table, they tied for last (i.e., 41st/42nd) place.

That enumerated map provoked several thoughts. First, it appeared that Mormonism had been good for Utah. This was not entirely clear: there was great disagreement, between those two data sources, as to the desirability of Wyoming, another heavily Mormon state, and the sources agreed that Idaho was in the middle of the pack. It was difficult to say more, because my sources were also in great disagreement as to California, Nevada, Colorado, and Arizona.

It also appeared that Catholicism was not necessarily a good predictor, given the good showings of Montana and Washington and the bad showings of much of the Northeast. Location may have been a confounding factor there: except for three small states in New England, no state on the East Coast achieved the top 40% of the composite ranking.

Probably the most visible aspect of the religion map (above) is the contrast between the Lutheran states of the upper Midwest and the Southern Baptist states. Every state in which the Evangelical Lutheran Church maintains a substantial presence falls into the top ten in the composite ranking, whereas not one of the states in which the Southern Baptist Convention maintains a substantial presence made it into the top ten. Indeed, except for Texas and Virginia — both of which display substantial non-Baptist influence — every Southern Baptist state landed in the bottom half of the list.

But perhaps that is merely coincidental. How important is religion, for inhabitants of these various states: what kind of influence do these denominations exert? A PewResearch study in 2008 indicated that, except for Utah, Southern Baptist states accounted for every state in which at least 50% of residents said they attended church at least once a week. By contrast, in the top-ranked north-central states, claimed attendance rates ranged from 47% in Nebraska down to 38% in Minnesota. The Pew study further found that, in most Southern Baptist states, between 66% and 82% of residents said that religion was very important in their lives, and that they prayed every day, whereas in the Lutheran states the percentages saying similar things ranged between 51% and 58%.

These findings suggested that the two different denominations might play different roles in believers’ lives. For one thing, there is the contradiction between New Testament passages emphasizing the continued importance of the Mosaic law and those indicating that believers are freed from that law. On that issue, Southern Baptists come down in favor of the law. Thus the South seems to be forever generating controversies involving the erection of Ten Commandment sculptures in public places. In other ways as well, Southern Baptist beliefs seem to emphasize control over individuals by authority figures: women are subordinate to men, and may not be ministers; God prohibits abortion, some forms of birth control, and many forms of sexual behavior; there is a need for an infallible written guidebook to life, and the Bible is it. By contrast, Evangelical Lutherans, like most mainstream Protestant denominations, take less simplistic and generally less condemnatory stances on a variety of issues.

There is also a potential difference between the Evangelical Lutherans and the Southern Baptists on the nature of piety. As suggested by personal experience and by the foregoing PewResearch findings, Southern Baptist belief tends to emphasize the constant immediacy of God’s presence and activity in the believer’s life. Given life’s persistent and recurrent reminders that, in fact, God does not seem to be doing very much along these lines, either for the individual believer or for the state in which s/he resides, this tends to be magical thinking. As an occasional lottery player, I sympathize with the never-say-die, hope-springs-eternal mindset in which God is always just around the corner, almost ready to play his hand. But the net result is debilitating. It substitutes a massive, unknowable divine plan for the personal believer’s disciplined focus and persistent effort to achieve desired outcomes. Leaving it in God’s hands, as Baptist-style fundamentalists often proclaim they are doing, can amount to mere laziness or defeatism. In other words, a claimed devotion to God in one’s daily life may not be that at all.

Those remarks raise, in turn, the problem of accountability. Magical thinking seems to entail the endless generation of excuses for the palpable contrast between a religion’s claims and its realities. In particular, as a search readily indicates, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been plagued by hypocritical contrasts between the denomination’s rule-oriented claims and its rule-breaking behaviors. It is not just the high-profile cases, such as the supposedly taboo divorces among leading SBC preachers and the alleged frequency of sex abuse by SBC clergy; it is also the fact of bad behaviors among SBC believers — worse, sometimes, than among the supposedly ungodly general public — in such areas as divorce and premarital sex. It would be an understatement to observe that this denomination has been more driven by wishful thinking than by data — except in one area: membership. Confronted by the reality of a shrinking membership, in 1995 the SBC finally decided it was time to admit its historical role as a supporter of slavery, and to welcome blacks into the church.

This brief look suggests, in short, that perhaps it is not so much the fact of religion, as it is the form of religion, that influences whether a particular state will be among those going forward or backward. Some might suggest that this look at the matter is flawed by its reliance upon secular values prioritized by researchers, but it is not clear that the views of believers and researchers are terribly different, in such matters as life expectancy and criminal behavior; nor can one easily discount research based on participants’ own assessments of their personal well-being.

Social Existence in Life’s Territory

Earlier posts in this series had sketched out a sporting metaphor, where life and death are like two teams trying to gain control of parts of the playing field, or like two sides in a tug-of-war contest. But then, in something of a departure, the immediately preceding post identified three key forces in human experience, not two: in addition to life and death, there was also a social propensity in various living things, notably humans.

The sporting metaphors are useful for visualizing interactions between life and death, but they don’t leave much room for the social force. Accordingly, the present post develops a different metaphor, that of the battlefield.

As noted in the preceding post, life and death are the consummate forces in human experience, but our encounters with those forces tend to be socially mediated. In other words, the attempt to enjoy life’s opportunities for growth and strength tends to be facilitated in some ways, and restricted in other ways, by our group memberships (by e.g., one’s family, job, community, and local government). Likewise for the risk of death, and of derivative conditions threatening death: a given group can provide safety from mental and physical deterioration and injury, but that same group can also ridicule, ostracize, expel, or otherwise attack, punish, and harm a disfavored member.

On the battlefield of life and death, we observe the front lines, where opposing forces struggle back and forth, variously seizing and surrendering bits of desperately defended turf. Medical treatments and other ways of improving and prolonging life seize territory formerly held by death; then again, plagues and other catastrophes occasionally send the force of death raging across spaces previously considered safe.

We do not see beyond the frontier: we have no firm knowledge of what, if anything, might be happening on death’s side. But on life’s side, within our years of existence, we find that civilians – humans and other living things – tend to take up residence, settle down, and develop their various cultures. Or instead of the battlefield, one could think of the process of building a house: once you get the walls up and the roof on, you can begin to bring in the furniture and decorate the place; but you know that cold or hot air, mold, earthquakes, and thieves will forever exploit ways, bold or subtle, to intrude.

Not to overdo the impression of a barrier: in fact, houses have windows and doors, intended to admit some of what lies outside, and battlefields have their moments of confusion and fraternization, their traitors, their generals who unwittingly help the enemy by clinging to mistaken impressions. What serves us can also serve our adversary, be it death or the merest mold spore.

And so it is with the social force. Just as a belligerent nation’s merchants may secretly aspire to do business on both sides of the battlefield, the social force that serves life simultaneously maintains communications with death. We experience the social force as a life-based phenomenon; and yet, as noted above, the social force is also prepared to indulge hostility, treachery, and other threats to growth and strength. Indeed, the social force is useful, for purposes of steering life’s energies, precisely because it brings death into life – because, that is, it threatens and, if necessary, delivers death and its derivative aspects (e.g., privation, exclusion, injury) to those who violate a group’s expectations.

Basically, if you want to steer and shape the life force, you use the death force; and since the people whose life force you want to control tend to be persons other than yourself, this sort of thing typically takes place, not in solitary existence, but in the social space that accounts for most of human life experience. The social force unfolds within life, and yet it reaches out beyond life. Like a parasite, it thrives within its host, and yet pursues its own agenda: the social force would not benefit from an end to life, but it is certainly willing to countenance an end to some lives, for the benefit of others.  Like a merchant or emissary that has carved out latitude to deal on both sides in wartime, the social force is tolerated for the benefits it brings, which is not the same as saying that its results are always lovely.

The force of life, like a great army, is as dangerous as an earlier post suggested: it will do anything to secure survival and growth. War is too important to be left to the generals, and life too is a raw drive that we generally prefer to see channeled in socially determined directions.  Hence the social force, despite its downsides, has become a refinement without which human existence would be virtually unbearable.

The social force exists, not as a fundamental reality like life and death, but as an experience-based invention that has come to permeate our thoughts, words, and actions.  By this point, when people talk about life, what they invariably mean is life as shaped by the social force.  This terminological confusion can lead them to look askance on, for instance, that earlier post that was so critical of life:  what people typically mean by “life” is a highly social matter, polished with the judicious use of death and destruction, to convert the bare-bones life force into a kind of social existence.

Life, Death, and the Social Propensity

Previous posts in this blog have characterized life as a sort of bully, one that compels people to follow its lead and do things in its preferred way. Life’s preferred way involves striving to grow and become stronger, usually at the expense of other living things, often including members of one’s own species. As described in a previous post, the struggle between life and death can thus be viewed as a kind of tug-of-war, where everyone starts out on life’s side but ends up on death’s side, as life dismisses those who do not continue to meet the elite standards necessary for a place on its team.

As also noted in that previous post, most people find themselves somewhere between life’s most powerful winners and those who, from life’s perspective, have wound up in death’s collection of losers. For most of us, life is a mix of comfort and struggle. The constant risk of injury or other harm, potentially putting us on a downward slide toward death, motivates us to protect ourselves and seek ways of becoming stronger and more comfortable.

That previous post also observed that those who become most powerful in life often do so by enlisting the support of others. People commonly join and seek advancement in the service of various individuals and organizations, so as to protect themselves against threats and take advantage of opportunities unavailable to the lone wolf.

This grouping tendency is quite powerful. When nearby populations permit, people tend to become affiliated with multiple groups, organizations, and institutions. Some such affiliations are voluntary (e.g., a parent-teacher organization; a political party); others are involuntary (e.g., one’s childhood family; society as a whole). Some are perhaps theoretically voluntary but practically involuntary (e.g., the market). Of course, people vary in how much they put into such memberships, and how much they get out of them. The point here is just that, for the enjoyment of life and/or for protection against death, groupings tend to form, with various costs and benefits for their members.

The tendency to join or belong to organizations and other groups – the propensity to be social – necessitates a significant refinement of the picture sketched out in the previous posts. Those posts have emphasized the binary opposition of life and death. Life and death do continue to vie for control, in myriad ways large and small. Life and death remain the consummate forces of human experience. But most of us are neither at life’s pinnacle nor at immediate risk of dying, whereas we are almost always interacting, thinking about interacting, or preparing for interaction with others. Hence, for purposes of the human beings with whom these posts are primarily concerned (and also, no doubt, for other species), the social propensity often appears more immediately compelling than either life or death.

It seems, in other words, that the social propensity would be optional or dispensable, without the struggle between life and death outlined above; but because we are torn by that struggle, the social propensity tends to play an important role. It has the capacity to make an enormous difference in how much we will grow and become stronger, and also in how vulnerable we are to become weaker and die. In both such regards, the social force plays both sides of the table — sometimes assisting in our growth, and at other times retarding it; sometimes sheltering us against a fall, and sometimes pushing us over the edge.

The social force may not be the peer of life and death, in the starkest times of our lives; but for practical purposes, on the day-to-day level, the social force has everything to do with what life and death mean to us. For the most part, in human existence, the social force operates as a peer of life and death. The well-known statement that something is a matter of life and death underlines the consummate importance of those two forces, but it also implies that, normally, we tend to be preoccupied with things other than life and death.

From the perspective of life and death, the social force is a tremendous modifier. Within outer parameters contested by life and death, questions such as who will be born, who will thrive, and who will die, and how quickly, tend to be decided by arrangements among groups of humans.

It certainly is possible that the nature and functioning of life, death, and the social force are due to the workings of some kind of supernatural source. This discussion leaves out the possible interventions of a deity, not because such a being would be incompatible with the scenario developing here, but because it is not necessary to add that layer of speculation. Attributing these matters to a divine being does carry the risk of blaming him/her/it for things that are ultimately caused by humans or perhaps by other beings. In that sense, divine attribution is worth avoiding, not only because it potentially invents an additional, unnecessary complication, but also because it risks blasphemy.

It may be wiser, and it certainly seems more reasonable, to credit or blame a divine being for our human conditions when (a) the divinity has made a clear and credible claim of responsibility or (b) to the extent that divine intervention is necessary to explain aspects of human existence. In short, at this point, it tentatively appears that the elemental forces of life and death, and the derivative social propensity, account reasonably well for basic realities of the human situation — regardless of whether any divinity has set those forces in play.

Thumbnail Sketch of Parody Religions

This post offers a counterpoint to my criticism of fundamentalist Christianity.  Here, we have brief introductions to certain parody religions listed in Wikipedia. (See also hyper-real religions.)

This post excludes entries in that Wikipedia list that do not claim to be religions, but instead merely hail from some medium, or otherwise didn’t seem to have much to offer.  Those excluded entries include Eventualism (appeared in the movie Schizopolis), Invisible Pink Unicorn (a symbol), Kibology (used to be a funny faux religion usenet group), Last Thursdayism, Bokononism (scriptures solely from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle), and Iglesia Maradoniana (website defunct).

The selected parody religions, and representative quotes and icons, are as follows:

.

Dudeism

Come join the slowest-growing religion in the world – Dudeism. An ancient philosophy that preaches non-preachiness, practices as little as possible, and above all, uh…lost my train of thought there.

Anyway, if you’d like to find peace on earth and goodwill, man, we’ll help you get started. Right after a little nap.

 x
Church of Euthanasia

Save the planet – kill yourself

 x
Landover Baptist Church

Where the worthwhile worship.

All Jesus, all the time.

Guaranteeing salvation since 1620!

 x
Matrixism

Matrixism aims to encourage people to think about the possibility that the reality they live in might be simulated, both literally and metaphorically.

x

Do we really exist?

Pastafarianism

When asked why he wore a colander on his head, Schaeffer said he was a minister of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.This may be the first openly Pastafarian sworn into office.

 x
Tarvuism

Tarvu – creator of Universe A and Universe B (we live in Universe B) – came to Earth over 3,000 years ago as a tiny baby boy.

 x
First Church of the Last Laugh

Sayings of St. Stupid:

The closer you get, the nearer you are.

I know, I know, but you know, you never know.

For the time being, always.

 x
Church of the SubGenius

“They believe in something called Slack. I dont quite understand it.”

 x
Discordianism

The PENTABARF was discovered by the hermit Apostle Zarathud in the Fifth Year of The Caterpillar.

 x
Jediism

Jedi believe in the Force, and in the inherent worth of all life within it.  In the sanctity of the human person. . . .  In a society governed by laws grounded in reason and compassion.

 x
Kopimism

When we look at the evolutionary history . . . we can identify four basic principles worth highlighting:  Creativity, Copying, Collaboration and Quality.

 x

The Struggle Between Life and Death

An earlier post in this blog suggests that we can talk about life and death as large abstractions; but for personal purposes, one tends to experience life and death, not as gigantic monoliths staring at each other across a no-man’s-land, but rather as wrestlers or sporting teams, forever grappling and struggling for a slightly stronger hold or another inch of turf.  (Of course, the intention here is not that life and death are gods or other beings, nor do they necessarily reflect the workings of any divinity or supernatural force.  It is simply convenient to speak as though they had personalities and objectives of their own.)

Our experience of this conflict between life and death comes down to countless day-to-day confrontations among people, animals, other living things, and inanimate forces and objects.  This post offers a few observations about those confrontations.

There is a saying:  “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”  The idea seems to be that losing a fight tends to make a person faster, more powerful, more motivated, or otherwise better prepared to win next time.  There is some truth to this notion.  But often it is simply false:  you may come away intimidated or crippled.  Being a loser often brings real impairments.  In other words, losses in the struggle between life and death can have real and permanent consequences.

There is another saying:  “Pick your battles.”  The concept here is that you conserve your strength, plan your strategy, and then strike when you are positioned to win.  It is a nice idea in theory, but it tends not to work out in practice.  For one thing, the people who adopt this approach tend to be cautious.  The battles they pick are not the ones where they have a 51% chance, or even a 60% chance, of winning.  They tend to hold out for the ones where they have a 95%-plus likelihood of coming out on top.  This means they all flock together on the bandwagon when they manage to find a cause that has been officially approved as a matter of the Good Guys vs. the Bad Guys – they all want to get their turn to land a few blows on the target of their collective ire, without much actual personal risk.  The rest of the time, unfortunately, they tend to facilitate evil rather than confront it.

Among those who say, “Pick your battles,” what we usually see is not usually a matter of courageous individuals carefully building their strength in preparation for a masterful strike that will effect significant change.  The people with courage tend to be taking action when the time is ripe.  What we see, among those who claim to pick their battles, tends to be individuals who are simply hiding behind the excuse that they are waiting for the right time to make their move.  For the most part, the only move they will be making is a promotion, once they have convinced the big shots that they are reliably similar to the person they are replacing.

Often, conflict operates as follows:  You are walking down the road.  Here comes the bully, walking toward you.  The bully says, Join me or I’ll thrash you.  You were not particularly interested in fighting at that moment.  You do not stand to gain much from fighting the bully.  It is easier to join him and look for a better moment to free yourself.  So you turn around and follow the bully.  What the bully knows – what you do not realize – is that, once you surrender to him, you will probably continue to defer to him, especially if he continues to offer a tolerable situation.  So the bully continues down the road, and confronts another individual, and another, and another.  Altogether, the bully encounters a hundred people, one at a time.  Each of them is just like you.  Each time the person looks at the bully – and, as his followers grow, at the collection of people behind him – and concludes that fighting makes no sense.  So each person follows the bully.  And now he is the leader of a force, and anyone who dares to oppose him gets mauled by a pack.  It may seem that many of these individuals, following him, would be prepared to flake off and turn against him in the event of misfortune.  Sometimes that does happen.  But what often happens is that some particularly weak individuals take shelter in his strength.  These people are motivated to root out dissension among his followers, so as to preserve the bully’s organization and to enhance their own standing within it.  Others, who initially would have been able to stand against him, or at least to flee when the opportunity arises, instead become preoccupied with their position within his operation.  He has a private army, or something like it, and it develops an internal structure and logic.

That is how conflict operates in general.  There is a version of it to be found within the behavior of life itself.  Life is a kind of bully.  As the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success.  In pursuit of its own project, life rewards those who prove most adept at converting opportunities and resources into personal advantage.  The path of least resistance tends to entail going along with life, focusing on growing and becoming stronger.  As you progress from youth to maturity, you are steadily less likely to question this.  It becomes second nature.

Life in general (and the organizations of various bullies and tyrants) tends toward hierarchical arrangements.  Like the mountain of success, the list of successful climbers is pyramid-shaped because those who reach its higher levels tend to offer other climbers a stark choice:  support my climb, or I will shove you over a cliff.  At the higher levels, not many climbers are left, and those who do survive tend to be the most ruthless in garnering ever more power to themselves – for their own enjoyment, and also to prevent any competitors from getting it.  This is very different from death, where there is room for everyone.

The analogy of sports teams might thus be narrowed to the tug of war, where one team grabs one end of a rope, and another team grabs the other end, and they try to pull each other across a dividing line.  But in the case of life vs. death, it is an odd kind of tug-of-war, where everyone starts out on life’s side, but ultimately everyone ends up on death’s side.  There is only so much space on life’s end of the rope, so life is forever throwing people off the team.  Life runs an elite organization, ruthlessly picking and choosing, discarding the weak ones as soon as a stronger one comes along.  Even if you made the cut this year, perhaps next year you won’t.

The struggle between life and death tends to leave people in a difficult position.  There are the strong and, on the opposite extreme, there are the dead.  Between those extremes lies the vast bulk of humanity, neither supreme nor expired.  For most people, the conflict between life and death entails an ongoing struggle – sometimes strenuous, sometimes not – to stay alive and to try to make things a bit better for oneself, without attracting hostile attention from dominant individuals.  This state of affairs leads people to engage in certain protective behaviors, discussed in a separate post.

%d bloggers like this: