Monday, October 04, 2004

The ascent of knowledge?

In many respects, I am a very fortunate person. Quite apart from my existence and the circumstances of my life, I have some abilities that others have in lesser degree, in exactly the same way that others have many abilities and talents in which I am woefully lacking.

If I happen to step into a tennis court, I know that irrespective of who stands at the other end from me that - unless they are totally blind, or incapable of movement - it is almost certain that I will lose. Why? Because one of the talents I lack in abundance is hand-eye coordination.

But if I sit quietly, I do have the ability to “watch” what happens as a tennis ball hits a racquet. In very slow motion. It is not a case of replaying a movie from recollection. It is something that I find fairly simple given knowledge of the physics and the properties of the materials involved.

Imagine, for a moment, watching an event where the mind sees what has happened but is quite unable to find an explanation for it. A simple example, one which still strikes awe in the soul despite its simple scientific explanation, is that of a solar eclipse.

Most of us can replay the scientific explanation of orbits, comparative apparent sizes of objects, and results, in our minds. We can “see” that event because we know and understand what is happening. We know that the cause is the shadow from the moon passing in front of the sun.

But now I want to take that science and knowledge out of the event. I want the reader to imagine his or her reaction to a total solar eclipse as an event with no conceivable explanation.

Adding to that incomprehension is the fact that an eclipse is an infrequent interruption to a daily event. The passage of the sun each day is “normal”; a literal everyday occurrence. In an area the size of Australia there are some 19 eclipses – total and annular – predicted for the 100 years to 2100. If you look to the State of Victoria, there is a “500 year drought” between the early 1900s and 2400s with no total/annular eclipses. Partial eclipses are far more common. In the Northern Territories and Queensland there would be a partial to total eclipse every 10 years or so. So, there is a chance that an individual living in that area might see in his lifetime perhaps three or four partial, and one total/annular eclipse.

From this I deduce that people living in the Northern Territories for example would have a fairly strong tradition centred on solar eclipses. By contrast, it would seem logical that people in Victoria would not have the same “knowledge” or tradition.

Such a “tradition”, a “knowledge”, would logically give rise to two consequences:
• The first is the question “Why does the sun …”
• The second is the response to the event (not the question).

The first of these – the question – is the beginning of scientific enquiry; it is the need to find an explanation for an “unnatural” event.

The second, the fear of that unknown and unexplained event (and such a fear can be quite rational as we all should know) is the beginning of superstition.

The common ground between these two factors is where I believe theistic religion is formed. It develops in both forms; as the explanation of the event, and as the personal protection from the event and its consequences. One can choose either mono- or pan-theistic systems, or any combination in between. From my knowledge, only one fundamental religious system does not fall into this realm and that is Bhuddism and its various derivatives. In that instance though, I believe that we would find the existence of other religions and superstitions in co-existence with Bhuddism as well as regional “blends” of Bhuddism with local beliefs.

The expression of the explanation, the answer to the question, the response to the event also takes many forms.

To the Greeks, there were many gods involved in “natural processes”. There were many myths that tied those gods together and with their respective “responsibilities”. In many ways it was a very simplistic religion; in others it was very complex. It gives me the impression of having developed out of an even more ancient system of beliefs, most probably pan-theistic. I actually like the Greek gods, they have an element of humanity about them, as do the Norse gods. They were a bunch of warring, drinking, womanizing (and “manizing”), loving, squabbling, really ordinary kind of people.

The stories of their gods, the myths that connect them, are in total something of a mirror to the society and at the same time provide the framework for the explanation of events. So, for example, Poseidon and his hatred of the land “explains” all manner of events surrounding the sea, lakes and rivers. A goddess such as Venus/Aphrodite has her place in the society of Olympia and also can “explain” the powerful attraction of a beautiful woman, and the mysteries of reproduction.

How pale and wan is the Judeo/Christian mono-theism by comparison, but also how much more powerful, compelling and lasting. It is also a very “concise” religion. It begins (Genesis) with a creation myth that is not only very short (what, a matter of 500 words at most covers everything?), but is also profoundly crafted so that no further “explanation” is required. The answer to any question becomes “Because God made it so…” and the matter is closed.

As an example, compare three different stories of the rainbow. In the Judeo/Christian version it is God’s symbol of His regret for the great flood, and his promise that he would not take such action again. To the Greeks the rainbow is Iris, a messenger of the gods. She travels on the wind, with the storm ahead of her and the sun behind. It is little surprise that she is the daughter of Thaumus (Wonder). As a total contrast is the Maori legend of Uenuku and Hinepukoherangi the mist maiden of the dawn. Uenuku was a warrior who met Hinepukoherangi one morning and they fell deeply in love. After courting and marrying her, Uenuku tried to force her to stay during the day by trickery and as a result killed her. Ranginui (the sky) took pity on the mourning Uenuku and put him in the sky during the day. When mist and rainbow meet at dawn Uenuku and Hine are together again, if only for just that brief moment.

It can be seen that even an event as everyday as a rainbow can give rise to explanations that are at the same time beautiful and profound.

I drew the pen over the idea earlier, the thought, that the same “question” that gave rise in part to religion was also connected to the genesis of scientific enquiry. It would be very satisfying to be able to point to specific instances and say “There you are. There is the question. There is the myth. There is the scientific answer.”

There is also in this idea, the conflict between religion and science. In Christian civilisation it has broken into open “warfare” on occasions. If one recollects as a case in point, the expulsion of Galileo from the Church of Rome for his scientifically based propositions against the “geo-centric” Church view of the universe. Well, it was actually Galileo’s refusal to recant his ideas that led to the Church’s retaliation.

This conflict of religion vs science I believe stems from the derivation of the one from “not knowing”, the other from “knowing”. To “know”, immediately implies that there is no longer any mystery to be explained. Without that mystery it would seem that religion could no longer exist.

That many of the leading scientists “see the hand of God” in the results of their work does not contradict my view. The “structure” of nature has been found; the reason “why it is so” is still the mystery.

We are fortunate indeed, those of us who live in the “brand” of civilization that allows humankind to explore and follow their curiosity. It is the cumulative knowledge that has been gathered which has led to our ability to see our planet from afar. It is the tree that has fruited in the ability to converse instantaneously from one side of the world to the other. It is the chariot that carries mankind into the future.

For it has not always been so. Indeed there have been times in history when the very “civilizations” that gave birth to ours, and our civilization itself, have strenuously resisted the expansion of knowledge and the curiosity of man. It is not coincidence in my view that this repression of knowledge and enquiry has come from religion, and most particularly from men of religion whose authority would not survive close inspection by widespread literacy and education.

The great miracle of our civilization is not, as one might expect, any one individual discovery.

It is that the persistent effort of many individuals has succeeded in throwing aside the oppression of ignorance. It is of no small significance that the power of the Christian Church over the lives of ordinary men has declined with the level of ignorance.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

On being subject to law...

My son studied and passed Philosophy 101 as part of his engineering degree some years back. There were some mild parental protests at this “waste of time and energy”. The point was not pressed too hard as I also saw considerable benefit in him taking the unit. As a result, he has a good understanding of personal ethic and value. I think that he is unaware that I have quietly purloined the few texts that he purchased…the usual Ancient Greeks.

I made reference in my “summary post” to the idea of the “religious legal framework”.

The connection between these two thoughts is the principle of “virtue” as debated at length by Plato and the others, and the theistically imposed “laws”. I do not pretend to have any more than a passing glimpse of either of these two formal fundamentals. The ideas behind them chime with me at a personal level. I am not going to repeat the debates on whether “virtue” can be learned or is a “natural quality”. As far as I am concerned both sides have equal validity.

My only formal training in “ethics” came as part of my professional studies for my accountancy qualifications. It was not until then that “ethics” as something to be considered and applied came to the fore in my mind. Up to then, there had been the fundamentals of the Judeo/Christian religion and my (perhaps rather naïve) knowledge of the laws of New Zealand.

So with that very shaky foundation, the probligo sets forth to expound upon the relationship between himself, his culture, his ethic and “the law”.

My “personal ethics” are nothing out of the ordinary, at least not for a Judeo/Christian nation. The strongest disciplines I place upon myself would be;
Kindness and consideration to others

When I see this written down it all seems too simplistic, too easy. I guess that is a clear reflection of me. I am a simple person. I like to keep my life free of complication. The occasions when I fail, generally I get into trouble; with other people, and with myself.

Is it necessary to debate the “meaning” of honesty, of respect, or of loyalty? I do not believe so. In the interests of simplicity again, if you are unsure of the meaning of a word get out Oxford Concise (preferably) or Collins and take the dictionary meaning of the word. So simple.

Is it necessary to make an exhaustive study and analysis of all the major cultural systems to determine if these disciplines are universals? I think not. I do not think that a society and high level culture without any or all of these very simple values at its core could survive for any great length of time. Take any one out of a society and it is weakened – at both the level of the individual and of the many. Take out any one or more and the culture starts reverting back to its origins. Take out honesty for example and the principles of commerce and justice become nothings. Remove the principle of Respect and the rights of the individual disappear.

Despite that simplicity, I still face moments of “choice”. There are times when personal feelings or wishes, or the application of one “ethic”, conflicts with the pure application of one or more of the fundamentals that I have listed. Is that choice not experienced by any other person? To me it is part of my personal “self awareness”.

To argue that a person never faces choices or dilemmas of conscience because of the “certainties” of their religious beliefs is in fact to ignore the validity of the choices involved. This is a point that I will return to later from a different aspect.

Can I argue that the humble probligo’s ethics are totally removed from religion? No, I do not believe I can, nor is that my intention. What I have in mind is quite the opposite in fact. The idea that my ethic has been influenced and created around a religious framework is inescapable. They are the “rules” by which my parents lived and guided me. They in their turn were using rules from their parents. There has to be an element of evolution for the advancement of every society. That evolution is only controlled, and only permitted, by the collective agreement of the society.

As an example of how this evolution occurs, and the rate at which it happens, consider the changes in attitude (generally) to courtship and marriage .

I need only go back to the 1920’s for a start point to illustrate the speed of this evolution.

My paternal grandparents would have met through social introduction in common circles; families with similar beliefs, attitudes and outlook. Their courtship (if the stories of my great-grandfather are true) would have been very strictly controlled and monitored. Their relationship would have developed in accordance with strict moral expectations and control.

My parents met at Training College (seat of learning for all prospective teachers). Only some 25 years after my grandparents married, and just following the Second World War, and already there is a major change. Rather than meeting through the social circles of their parents, their personal circles have assumed a far greater influence. Instead of being a private and controlled social activity, the more public social meeting of individuals has become acceptable.

Come forward a further 22 years and my wife and I met at a public dance. Our parents were nowhere in sight (mine over 200 miles away). Two months after we had met, we announced our engagement. Twelve months and a half after we met, we wed.

Come forward another 30 years and consider our children. It is now morally and socially acceptable for both to be living away from home (my daughter in Wellington 400 miles off). It is now acceptable for both to “be living in sin”, i.e. in permanent relationships though unmarried, in the same house, same bed, as their respective partners. It is now acceptable for my son’s partner to be expecting their first child despite the fact that the banns have never been read, they have announced their engagement, but a date has never been proposed for a formal marriage. In fact, there is no real objection, nor condemnation, from society at large if the relationships are of fairly short tenure rather than long.

Where some 80 or 90 years back, I would have been filled with moral outrage at the actions of my children, I can instead have a pleasant measure of pride and acceptance. Where I would have banned both from my house for eternity, I now can invite (no, the invitation is permanent and standing) all for dinner and an enjoyable evening together.

If I use this evolution as an example, what does it say about the changes in morals, in personal ethics, from the time of my grandparent’s marriage to the present day. At the same time, what influences might there be along that path that has led to the evolution. Just before I run that line, I want to point out that at the time of my Grandparents – just after World War One, on into the 1920’s – there had been a similar change apparent in social mores between their time and 90 years earlier at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign.

I have read of many different influences on social mores during the 70 or so years of Queen Victoria. The most frequent, if I recollect were centred on;
Scientific and Technological advances
Better and more universal education
Social improvements including political rights, and legal controls on labour, commerce and finance.

It does not stretch the imagination any further than the end of this line to realize that similar changes in the past 90 years have led to an increasing, an accelerating, change in the public mores of the western world.

Now I need to say three things at this point.

The first is that I am looking (at the moment at least) solely at what is loosely defined as “the western world”. I have to do this simply because it is the world, the culture in which I live. At the same time there are broad and loose parallels which come to mind from other cultures, the validity of which depend upon the impressions I have collected from the news media rather than direct observation.

The second is that I am not judgmental of the nature of or direction that moral change is taking. There are changes that I understand and can accept, there are some that I understand but can not accept, and there are the final “double negative” changes. I do not need to go into microscopic definition or debate of any or all of these. That would defeat the purpose of trying to keep some brevity to this writing.

Thirdly, some might have noted a change in emphasis from “virtue” to “morality”. I need to say that this was an unavoidable shift. As a matter of explanation, I am looking at morality and the having of moral value to be an integral part of virtue. At the same time, I can not separate the two. There are subtle shifts of meaning involved which might upset some. I acknowledge that is so. For the sake of simplicity, please accept my contention and rationale that one is part of the other, and neither can exist without the other.

This also implies a wider definition of “morality” from the context of applying solely to matters of gender, sex and reproduction, to the wider field of the relationships between individuals, and from there to the total interaction between any individual and the society around him. This latter then also begins to equate with the “virtues” as debated by the ancient Greeks – the ability of a person to live within the proscriptions of society.

The greatest single change that has taken place in “western civilization” over the past two hundred years is one which I have not yet mentioned, but one which in many respects ties back to the “belief system”, the ethic, the attitude and the personal culture of the probligo.

That change has been the decline, the withdrawal, of the Christian Church, and religion generally and its influence within western society. It might be arguable that that process began with Henry VIII, and Luther in Europe, I will not contest that nor include it here.

What is certain in my mind is that at the time this little nation of New Zealand was a “new colony”, people were too darned busy surviving to be overly concerned by matters religious. The daily observances may have been there but in many cases abbreviated, the weekly attendance at church might have to take second place to the farm, the annual festivals and commemorations lost none of their importance. What did disappear, was lost in the struggle of creating “home”, was the direct influence of the Church over everyday life. It has been suggested that many of the early pioneers in this country came seeking a more equal, proletarian society. Achieving that ideal would require far more reliance on individual responsibility. That of itself would result in other “controlling influences” having less impact upon the conduct of those individuals.

At the same time as this was occurring, the influence of another very strong culture was having an impact upon the European settlers – that of the Maori. Do not discount the Maori or their culture on the basis of their being “uncivilized”, “primitive” or “backward”. As a people and a culture they were far from that. It is difficult, if not impossible, to point at any one part of New Zealand morals and say with certainty “This is where I can see the influence of the Maori” It is better, I believe, to accept that the Maori had a far greater influence in attitude rather than form to or on morality.

I have taken this small diversion because when I look at the world of today I see even within this Judeo/Christian civilization that there are quite striking differences in form, rate of change, and evolutionary direction of the social morality of different countries.

The support for my statement comes not from formal study or fact, but from the “symptoms” that are reported in the media from time to time.

As an isolated example, Europe seems to be heading for a social morality that accepts without censure law changes that permit activities that are illegal or at least censured in other countries. As an example the Netherlands with cannabis available for public sale flies in the face of the debate over legalization of the same drug in NZ, the US, or Britain. The fact that prostitution is (traditionally? It is not a recent change I think) legal in many European countries has only just been matched (on a limited basis presently) by the passing of law in NZ. As far as I am aware, only some of the States in the US have legal prostitution. Again I believe that it is illegal in Britain.

All of these factors that impact upon morality, virtue, ethics, I believe go hand in hand with the change promoters that I discussed earlier.

I must say at this point, I believe that the reverse is also true; the change, the rate of change, in social and religious morality, culture and attitude is a direct promoter of the development of science, technology, knowledge, research and enquiry.

Where religion per se has had a very major part to play in the development first of that relationship, then later in the acceleration of the “western scientific civilization”, was the discipline that was created initially in the Church itself, then in the traditional seats of learning and finally over a long period of time (I started in the pre 1000 period) to the scientific disciplines of the current era.

That sense of the discipline is also largely responsible for society’s ability to accept the rights and role of the individual. For so long as an individual conducts himself with the discipline that society requires or demands then his actions will not be censured by the society. And suddenly I find that I have invented “justice”, and “laws”.

And so, more by luck and chance I have arrived where I start – my right, my ability, my responsibility, to stand apart from any formal religion and say “This is what I believe, this is what I am.” For as long as I observe the behavioural requirements of this society, then I will be permitted to continue on this path.

As long as I have this path, this right, this responsibility, I will face choices.

If those choices are removed, replaced by certainties, then those certainties will come either from the state (as in communism) or from the church (as in theocracies).

T.H. White showed this very succinctly in “The Once and Future King” when the young Arthur was magic-ed to an ants nest. The first time the sign over the entrance read “Everything Not Compulsory is Forbidden”. On his later visit, it read “Everything Not Forbidden is Compulsory”. As mirror images of the same problem of government it is a very apt illustration. There is no choice. There is no uncertainty.

Yet there are societies all around the world which still attempt to give their people the personal security ( I mean here in the sense of being safe within themselves rather than safety from attack and war) by compulsion, by removing the danger of the choice, by imposing the pillar of religion.

Instead of allowing the development of society, of personal freedoms, of total freedom of thought, all the things I might take for granted, to take place from the bottom up, these societies tend (I can not say it is universal) to impose these “freedoms” from the top down.

The effect is that the range of thought, ideas, changes etc. is then limited to the imagination of the few rather than being the product of the many.

Now I have to try and tie all of this together. I started with the premise that I have my own “virtues” that I use to guide myself through life. I use those virtues and ethics to conduct myself within my society. Those are the essential freedoms that I have by right. No, those are the essential freedoms that society permits me.

Where I am fortunate is that my society has successfully separated itself from its religion - become secular if you want - to the extent that I am sufficiently educated, brainwashed, indoctrinated, and compliant that I can be entrusted with the dangerous idea of being an individual in charge of my own life.

I can even take that dangerous idea to the extent of believing in my personal responsibility to society, and excluding the ideas of religion and divine retribution as a necessary part of life.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

The spiritual probligo – I think?

I made reference in the last entry to the principle of spiritual continuance, “The Path to Eternal Life” and subtitled it “Who is afraid of dying”.

That may have been a little on the glib side, a rather off-hand almost too simplistic comment. The relationships between individual and religion are as complex and subtle as are my own beliefs.

Once again I stress that my non-belief in the principles of organized theistic religion is in no way intended to belittle or denigrate them. Should I so do, then I leave myself open to similar criticism and treatment of my beliefs.

It is not surprising perhaps that the primary major thrust of every religion is the process of death and what happens after. The viewpoint may differ from one religion to another, but essentially the message is the same…

• When you die, you don’t REALLY die, you just go “somewhere else”, you
become part of the tribe totem, or maybe you are born “to try again”.
• The “somewhere else” depends upon your ability to comply with the strictures of your beliefs; “good people” will be better off when they die, “bad people” will be
worse off; in some cases, people are provided with a “get out of jail free” pass
such as the souls collected from the battlefield by the Valkyrie in Norse
mythology and who are taken straight to the Elysian Fields.

It is interesting if we start at this point, because from here we can track quite a number of “consequences”…

• The first is the idea of “punishment and reward” for the living. Who in their
right minds would steal a neighbour’s bullock if the consequences were instant
death and a vengeful god “on the other side” making sure that you suffered for
your crime for an extremely unimaginably long time.
• The second consequence is the comfort and solace of the living. The family of a good man “know” that when their time comes to die, the recently departed will be there waiting to greet them, show them around, introduce the ancestors, and they can all have a grand reunion; but once again it is predicated by the ability to comply as a “good person”. Obviously it works the other way as well. The survivors of a very bad person would not be at all keen to end up in the same place. Hence the reward system again encouraging compliance with the religious expectations.
• Next is the obvious construct of social law and mores which I listed as
the second principle of religion. It is simplistic, but the laws of every nation I believe will track back to the culturally acceptable and religious expectation.
• Less obvious perhaps is the place that religious expectations have in maintaining a social structure. It is immaterial whether it is the foundation for a caste system such as that practiced in India, or the fatalistic acceptance of one’s place in life as is commonplace in Bhuddism particularly or any of the other practices that create hierarchies in society.

So, how much is this “gift” of eternal life worth to me? Well, to be blunt it is not worth a great deal. Why might that be? Well there are a number of reasons;
• First is the fact that I recognize my mortality.
• I also recognize the mortality of others.

To flick on these first and illustrate. If my wife were to die before me, I would have far less trouble handling that, than would my wife if I should predecease her. This is nothing to do with our relationship, who loves who most, or anything like that. It is a simple fact that my wife has far greater emotional impact from a death (even our cat’s demise) than do I. If one of our children were to die, say to be killed in a car accident, I don’t know that I would stay the same – I do not know how I would react in that situation. It is one of those imponderables which are unanswered until it actually happens.

• My “reward” in living my life in as virtuous manner as I am able, is in
knowing that I have succeeded. More particularly, it is knowing that in some
small way the world is a better place because of my life.
• When I die, I will be happy to go if for no reason other than I am unable to live any longer in this world. I hope that my family will be able to understand that to be the case when the time comes.
• Finally, and I hope that this is a thread that will wind through all of these posts, dying is no more than the final natural step - the last act in life. In that way it does not differ from being born, growing, being a parent, and seeing your own offspring grow to independence.

To those reading this, I have no desire that my time should come today, tomorrow or even next year. It is far more important to me that I recognize and accept the right time when it arrives.

How can I have such an attitude to life, and more particularly to death? By simple co-incidence one reason was brought home to me just in the past few days. Our Saturday paper featured the start of “Epilepsy Week” with an article on well known Aucklanders who have this condition. It is an article which I read with particular interest, and I was surprised to find (was I?) a reflection by at least two others of the same idea.

In my teens, I had gran mal seizures over the period from puberty through to about age 19. The point in common from those people in the article I mention, to my own experience is the sudden, in my case immediate, shift from “being” to “not being”.

There is no half way house. There is no “tunnel of light”. There is “being”, then there is “nothing”. There is no consciousness of the “nothing”. The only “memory” of the “nothing” comes with the return to consciousness. That, I regret, is about as plainly as I can express it. It is not “imaginable”. To give an idea of how hard this is;

Think of sitting in a very dark room. Now, turn on the light. Can you describe “no light”? Remember that you have experienced “no light”. If you had not had that direct conscious experience, how much more difficult would it have been to describe “no light”. That momentary confusion when the light is turned on; the contrast between “light” and “no light”; holds a key to the experience of waking from a gran mal seizure.

As a more direct parallel, see if you can describe “what it was like before you were born”? Certainly I know that I can not, without direct reference to this idea of “being” and “not being”, and without the benefit of conscious knowledge. I have read of one or two people who purport to describe “pre-birth experience”. There was a whole witch-doctor industry in the 1970’s which was based upon “discovering” the person that experienced and remember that pre-birth experience. I suspect that in fact much of this psycho-babble industry was more in the nature of very vividly imagined “knowledge” than “direct memory”.

There is also similarity in suddenly waking from very deep and dreamless sleep (not the pleasant dozy semi-consciousness after a good night) to full consciousness. There is a point at which the mind (is this the soul?) becomes “aware” of waking. In my case, it is generally about fifteen minutes before the alarm clock goes off. In my wife’s case it is usually about five seconds after the alarm starts up.

For this reason also I have some sympathy with people who try and describe “near death” experiences. They, I suspect, have visited the point between full consciousness and “not being”. In that respect it would seem somewhat similar to the “half waking” or “half sleeping” states. How much of their “memory” of that state, the “long white tunnel” and “the man in the flowing white robe”, is the product of cultural and religious conditioning I am not qualified to judge. I can say with certainty that it is not a state one visits at the onset of a gran mal seizure.

There are also the experiences of death that every person alive has – one’s grand-parents, parents, extended family, and partner’s family member’s deaths all impact in one way and another in “conditioning” to one’s own mortality.

As a child, as a teenager as well, there is generally no thought of death. The exceptions of children with terminal diseases would be otherwise. They seem to have that “special knowledge” of their mortality and often are amazingly accepting of this final step in their lives.

As one gets older, the loss of people of the same generation increases rapidly. It soon becomes a matter of simple statistics as to how many more are bid farewell before your turn comes.

The important thing here is that in my mind at least, I hold every life as dear as does a religious person, perhaps in some respects more so. There are elements of fatalism in there – “when my time comes”. There are the virtues and the responsibility for living a “good life”.

It follows, in my mind, that the only “wasted” life is one that has not already achieved or fulfilled its potential. The teenager killed in a car accident, the loss of a child from leukemia or starvation, or the death of a young adult from meningitis are all tragic and especially so for their families. It must also be recognized that some of these can also include people who have led very full lives, and who have left their small mark upon the world.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Religious fundamentals...the probligo view

From my somewhat distant (and short-sighted) viewpoint I think of religion (and we are speaking the most general case possible here) as consisting of four basic elements;

• The definition of the spiritual objective – at its simplest “The path to eternal life”, sub-titled “Don’t be afraid to die”.
• A pseudo-legal framework – The Ten Commandments as an example – for the guidance and control of behaviour within society.
• A pseudo-scientific framework – a creation myth is almost obligatory but the idea is not limiting - to help elders answer all those annoying questions that people ask like “Where do I come from” and “Why are we here”, and “Who lit the stars?”.
• A mixture of history and myth.

As I have both stated and implied, I am not qualified to “analyse” the validity of these four headings in relation to any particular religion. It seems to me that there are many very worthy people who have undertaken that task and many more will follow.

So, as this “personal pilgrim’s progress” develops I am going to delve into MY relationship with, and view of, each of these headings. That way, I can see myself as being “safe” from the criticism of error and falsehood because I can plead “This is me”. Where I draw what I see as parallels, then I have already stated my willingness to stand corrected or to debate the validity of the criticism.

For those with greater learning than I, I trust that you can accept the simplicity of my view. It is an idea that grew out of (was certainly not the conclusions drawn by) Huxley’s ”The Perennial Philosophy”.

The other thing to understand is that most if not all that I say has been said before. Perhaps not in the same form or words but certainly in principle. Where I am certain of an idea’s source (such as The Ten Commandments I used as illustration above) I will give credit. Where a reader can see a parallel, please draw my attention to it (kindly of course) as this will expand my knowledge.

The converse is true also. I have not gone out dredging texts to find learned confirmation and support for my statements. Primarily this manner of quotation out of context is aggravating in the extreme for those who know the source. I do not want that to happen.

For each of these principles then, I am setting myself the objective of showing that;
• each can exist outside the framework of an organised religion.
• each can exist without the need for a deity to confirm or justify them.

Because I am expressing a personal and unique view rather than trying to formulate universals, the validity of my argument hangs by a thread. It is always going to be broken by the objection that “There are very few people (is that a good or bad thing) who can adopt the approach that you have taken.” Take that one step further and I will admit here and now that there are often times when I can not keep to the rules and ethics I have set for myself.
The final qualification is to recognise the connection between religion and culture. As I am the product of a nation, a culture, and a family of predominantly Christian outlook that is undoubtedly the base of my belief. It is inescapable. It is something that I hold in common with most other New Zealanders. Where I want to draw the distinction is where I see myself not complying with that culture.

That comes with the conclusion that because I live in NZ, my life, my culture, my being, is largely compliant with the Judeo/Christian model in exactly the same way that it would be Muslim were I born and raised in Saudi Arabia of Saudi parents, or Bhuddist if I were Thai and so on. Therefore when I model my beliefs, my ethics, upon the Judeo/Christian pattern it is a consequence rather than a conscious choice.

However, I do not believe that conclusion in any way invalidates my idea that being a-religious (as in a-theist, or a-political) is possible and sustainable.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

The starting point...

You will have to forgive me, and in particular the fairly anonymous "Chad" who started the blog called atheism and humanism , for me even thinking about this.

As I have said in the header, this is as much about me "finding myself" as anything. It concentrates on "religion", and my total lack of it.

What I do not want to have happen is for anyone reading these pages coming away thinking that I am trying to make them think in the way that I believe.

That perhaps is the place to start. My first precept.

This is a totally personal statement.
It is a voyage of self-exploration.
It has no validity outside of MY brain.
It is absolutely NOT debateable.

Note - errors of fact, omission and commission are fair game. I am always ready to learn.

Any comment that passes from "correction" to proselytising, from truth to criticism, will be harshly dealt to. I might even get personal about the author in public.

A personal message to "Chad" should he ever pass this way -

Chad, your name and post might crop up here more than you might like. If it does then it is not intended to be personal. I thank you for the idea of this blog. In some ways, yours could well be a mirror to this because already as I write I know that I can not agree with where your "Atheism and Humanism" is headed. Not at the moment anyway.

Rather than trying to begin with definitions and then seeing which might apply; rather than getting into the depths of the conscious reasoning for my present beliefs; and certainly not to try and critique any of the religions; I intend to start with myself, where I have been, and where I am now.

My father's family was Anglican. My grandparents "strict" Anglican, though I never once was aware of them attending church except on high family days - weddings, christenings and funerals.

My mother's family was Methodist. My maternal grandmother referred occasionally in letters to attending church.

So, my first recollection of "church" is not until I was about 8 years old. We were living at that time in a very remote milling village 50 odd miles on unsealed roads from anywhere - the nearest anywhere was either Wairoa on the East Coast or Rotorua. The school where my parents were teaching was right next door to the Methodist (and only local) church. The rationale behind all three of us (me, my two younger brothers) was to get us out of the house for a couple of hours on a Sunday morning and into something that might do us some good as well as being a free baby sitting service. With thirty years of marriage and two kids of my own behind me I can think of far more fundamental reasons...not for debate.

"Sunday School" was bearable. It had enough interest for the first six months until the learning of catechisms and verses from the Bible began. At that point taking, and getting lost in, the short cut through the swamp between the school and the church began to take on far greater attractions.

Flash forward two years and the family has moved from the remote inland village to "seaside resort". My parents were owners/managers of a motel and teaching part time. Sundays were spent working in one form or another except during the six months late October to late April. Over those summer months, Sunday was yachting. Down the hill from us, was a Baptist Childrens' Camp. The seniors from the camp over the Christmas New Year period would hold "open classes" for kids on the beach. It was quite a good idea in some respects. Nail the kids down there, get them involved and then mum and dad have some time to themselves. Someone, my mother I think, thought it a good idea of we spent some of our summer holidays at the week long live in course that they held. That was where I had my first experience of serious proselytising - in the form of three boys trying their best to "convert" me. My major puzzlement was "...Into what? A toad?" After two late night sessions I think that I was given up as a hopeless case obviously on a fast track to hell.

Flash forward another two or three years. From somewhere came a paperback copy of Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy. Now that did have an impact. I read it until the binding collapsed. The proposition that Huxley was threading was the commonality of principles between the major religions. That led me into totally new realms of thought, belief and ideas. If you had asked at that time what religion I followed I would probably have said "Bhuddist". Looking back I know that answer would be given solely for impact. In substance I was no more Bhuddist than Christian.

So, there we have me at the age of thirteen or fourteen; what the "missionaries" would probably call "a rudderless ship".

I was (still am when I get the chance) also a voracious reader. Anything and everything in print that came my way. Included in that bunch was the Britannica "The Great Ideas" books. Everything from the ancient Greeks who I found understandable to Freud and Jung who were unintelligible.

Out of that melange was the formative stages of where I am now. Foremost in my mind the principles of honesty, virtue, and selflessness. Score me two out of three on those. Well, make it one and two halfs if you must. It was also based upon the security of living at home, caring parents, and a lifestyle that city kids would kill for.

That was destroyed with the death of my mother when I was 16. That was the first point in the "learning curve of life" to be put in place by my father. "Be sad, it is right. Remember, that is right too. But there is a point where you have to return to your life." After one last year at school, I was dispatched to Auckland to live my own life. My 17th birthday presents were a very large suitacase, a one way bus ticket, and a loan of $20, equivalent to $200 present day.

Thus was a very naive and really quite shy person let loose on this world. I very quickly learned that honesty, virtue and selflessness does not get you very far unless mixed with equal amounts of cynicism and reality. Learning that took me perhaps another two years.