April 21st, 2005

Framed doggie

My altered state of consciousness

For some reason, lately I have been looking like a deceased, mixed-breed bitch. Look at those collie ears! It's a good thing they are on straight, because I hate when dog ears get stuck bent in the wrong direction. I just want to shout, "Fix your @#!!?#!! ear, you ridiculous mutt!"
Framed doggie

Religions as metaphors

I am still in wait-and-see mode -- has Tommy DeLay jumped the shark? will the Leader's "approval rating" dip below 40 percent? will Randi Rhodes quit calling the Bushist lookouts and getaway drivers "decent people"? is Pope Benedict hiding a barbed tail under his robes, and is it his own tail? and so on -- but that question about the pope, in particular, suggests a side issue. Actually this is extremely relevant to our current political disaster, and isn't a side issue, but part of the core, and I dwell upon it because the new pope and the other cardinals all look so ridiculous to me with their chanting and gesturing and burnt offerings and entrail readings when they are supposedly 21st-century adults.

My core "side" issue: notice how religions, when proven wrong, survive anyway by interpreting words as figures of speech.

That the Earth is a ball-shaped speck in an enormous and very, very old universe that seems to follow similar physical laws everywhere is, pretty clearly, a disproof of the Bible. The "holy" scriptures of Judaism and Christianity are proven wrong; they are shown to be mythology no more reliable than that of the ancient Greeks. So what to do? Invent a scheme by which the words of the Bible can be interpreted as "true." They don't "really" mean what they say.

Maybe it's my middle agedness, but at this point in my life I can't understand how anyone could take "figurative" interpretations seriously. Is the rainbow the signature of "Jehova" or is it an optical effect of water droplets? If you are going to take the former theory seriously, as a kind of metaphor, then who's to stop me from claiming some figurative interpretation of "Zeus's" lightning bolts or "Thor's" thundering hammer?

I don't know how the universe came to exist, and don't know a lot about how human ethical systems arise, but I don't rely on primitive mythologies as explanations. The origin of the universe I leave, for now, as a complete mystery, and the question of how human ethical systems arise I consider scientific and highly unresolved, requiring intense empirical study.

In my opinion we will remain in deep trouble for as long as it is considered "responsible" behavior to excuse away the proven falsehood of our religions. We live in a place and time where it is considered a compliment to say of a person that he or she has "faith." It is the other way around; we should praise people for their temperance of faith. Everyone must be able to believe things, but should also be able and willing to disbelieve what has been proven wrong or evades proof of correctness. This is the scientific orientation and should reign in all human affairs, not merely those we label "science."

The role of scripture in scientific orientation

The picture icon for this entry is me struggling with the contradictions of fact required by Judaism. Can you see the torment in my eyes? Not to mention an anguish, which at the time I did not recognize, of being "Jewish" and at the same time a pastor's stepdaughter's grandson. Can you not see the weight of the world upon my hunched shoulders?

If I were required now to join an organized religion (and no more than that), probably I would not resist, but would join a Unitarian Universalist congregation. There I would be free to remain atheist, and maybe even would "fit in," at least in some congregations. I might even find it easier to call myself a Unitarian Universalist than a "secular humanist," on the grounds that in modern times even good religious people, outside of a few contexts, are both secular and humanist.

I have never been associated with or witnessed a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and my opinions, based purely on meagre "book study," and having known a Unitarian Universalist or two, might prove unreliable. Somewhere, though, if I did join such a congregation, I would run into trouble. Where?

Let's read a passage from the Unitarian Universalist Association's on-line FAQ:

In most of our congregations, our children learn Bible stories as a part of their church school curricula. It is not unusual to find adult study groups in the churches, or in workshops at summer camps and conferences, focusing on the Bible. Allusions to biblical symbols and events are frequent in our sermons. In most of our congregations, the Bible is read as any other sacred text might be--from time to time, but not routinely.

We have especially cherished the prophetic books of the Bible. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and other prophets dared to speak critical words of love to the powerful, calling for justice for the oppressed. Many Unitarian and Universalist social reformers have been inspired by the biblical prophets. We hallow the names of Unitarian and Universalist prophets: Joseph Tuckerman, Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Theodore Parker, Susan B. Anthony, and many others.

We do not, however, hold the Bible--or any other account of human experience--to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. Much biblical material is mythical or legendary. Not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is. We believe that we should read the Bible as we read other books (or the newspaper)--with imagination and a critical eye.

We also respect the sacred literature of other religions. Contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary are valued as well. We hold, in the words of an old liberal formulation, that "revelation is not sealed." Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth as wide as the world--we look to find truth anywhere, universally.

Here is where I break with the Unitarian Universalist method. Probably I seek mostly the same goals for the same reasons as most Unitarian Universalists, and surely I have a feeling of "fulfillment" in my life similar to that I would get through "worship." My method, however, is different. I don't discourage anyone from reading the Bible; I like to do so myself and keep a copy of the public domain World English Bible on my hard drive. But I grew up fond of reading stories from ancient Greece and Rome, and now I classify the Bible together with those Hellenic and Roman stories; therefore, reading the Bible is to me no more important than reading Homer's "Iliad" or Ovid's "Metamorphoses." It is something you do mostly as a diversion.

I say my orientation is scientific as opposed to religious. What does this mean? I will tell you how scientific orientation affects the reading of books. I earned a master's degree in electrical engineering. In no course did we refer to the writings of Isaac Newton. Never did we refer to the publications of James Clerk Maxwell. In the well developed sciences, you seldom if ever need to study a past generation's formulations. Have electrical engineers discarded the theories of Newton and Maxwell? Hardly, but the theories of Newton and Maxwell have been so refined and improved, technically, that the original formulations are useless to an engineer. A budding engineer need never read anything but recent books and papers, and will end up anyway able to make the predictions ("prophecies"?) of a Newton or Maxwell.

Why in the world can't matters like "reverence," "ethics," etc., be treated in the same way? The need to refer at all to ancient writings is a sign of decadence. We should be able to pass our "beliefs" to the next generation in a form we have improved, simplifying and amplifying it. The Bible should have been rendered obsolete hundreds and hundreds of years ago. To me the Bible is not one "sacred" text among many; rather, it is an obstruction if taken seriously. Indeed, taking it seriously probably is the main reason we haven't even tried very hard to replace it.

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Postscript: It is embarrassing to me, as a U.S. "representative" of the European Society for General Semantics, that we still use books published in the 1920s and 1930s as our main texts. Science and Sanity, for example, has chapters employing long refuted biological theories; these chapters, not having been marked obsolete by the book's publisher, are doing more harm than good, for new readers take them seriously. Furthermore, there has been no significant advancement in technique since the 1940s, which is a sad state of affairs for a field that fancies itself a kind of engineering or applied science (seeking effective, efficient ways to produce scientific orientation in the human nervous system).