Thursday, July 30, 2015

Do You Ever Wish You Believed?

            Here’s a question that atheists occasionally get: “Do you ever wish you believed?”

            This is a question that is likely to provoke a wide variety of responses from different atheists. I’ve heard some atheists admit they wish they could believe in a god, and others brush the question aside with such dismissive responses as “I have no desire to become irrational.” There are others who give more complicated or nuanced answers that lie somewhere between those two extremes. And for me, personally, the answer would have to be a “no.”

            That’s not to say that I don’t ever feel awkward about my nonbelief in ways that I know would be alleviated if I did believe. But those situations are more about how I interact with other people than about my atheism. For example, when people experience a tragedy, it is very common for others to reach out to them with expressions of consolation that are couched in religious terms; especially if the recipient is known to be religious. That’s something I can’t do, and it occasionally makes me feel a bit hobbled in attempting to console believing friends. The things I find comforting, they wouldn’t, and so it feels like both an intrusion and an exercise in futility at such times to try and put that perspective forward. At the same time, I just can’t bring myself to offer words that both of us would know to be insincere (or perhaps worse, might be perceived as sincere). And so I find myself offering only the most vague and empty-sounding of platitudes to people I dearly wish to comfort.

            If only I believed, I think that I could speak to people in these situations in ways that might be more meaningfully supportive to them. Although, it should be said, I have known people who, despite being religious, have said they find the religious expressions often offered at these times to be empty platitudes as well. So maybe the idea that a shared religious belief would grant a comforting connection is wrong anyway (or at least not universally true).

            But that’s the only thing about religious belief that ever tempts me. And I hope that you can see why it’s not a reason to actually believe. After all, it has no bearing whatsoever on whether the belief would be true.

            In any other perspective, I think the question, “Do you wish you believed?’ is kind of silly. It seems odd to me that it’s treated as serious and important pretty much every time I’ve heard it asked, as if the desire to believe something is true ought to be separated from the desire for something to actually be true. I mean, why would anyone want to believe there’s a god, independently of wanting there to actually be a god?

            Let me see if I can clarify that with an example. I do not, at present, believe that faster-than-light travel is possible. I really, really want it to be possible. I love the idea of people being able to travel to distant solar systems and explore them within our lifetimes. I want that to be true. But I don’t want to believe that it’s true if it’s not. I don’t want to believe that it’s true if I don’t have a reason to think that it is. The idea just seems absurd to me, that I could want to believe something is true that isn’t (or at least that I don’t have good reason to believe). That’s like actively desiring to be delusional.

            So no, I don’t wish I believed in a god. I can’t even say that I wish that there actually is a god. After all, whether or not I would wish for a god to exist would depend a whole lot on what the nature of that god is, and I have yet to be presented with one that I would want. And of course, the actual existence of any god(s) and/or the form that it (or they) takes is independent of my desires anyway. So I will continue not to wish to believe. If I somehow come across a good reason to believe in one, then I will. And so long as I don’t, then I won’t. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Have You Thought About Your Karma?

            This is my fiftieth post. When putting up my last few posts on the social media sites I frequent, I accompanied them with requests for my readers to suggest topics for this post as kind of a way to mark the milestone. I got a few suggestions, and the one I decided to go with was the suggestion that I write about predestination and karma. I figured this would make in interesting change to my usual fare, which so far has focused very heavily on Western monotheisms. Besides, it gives me an excuse to do a little research on a subject to which I haven’t had much exposure. We use phrases related to karma all the time in everyday speech, but I never really looked into what it actually means in a religious sense.

            As it turns out, it’s not that easy to nail down. Karma is a concept that is used in various forms, occurring in many Eastern religions (including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism) as well as a lot of New Age religions. And each of these religions, to say nothing of various schools within each, seems to have a slightly different idea about what karma is and how it behaves, particularly in regards to ideas like predestination and reincarnation.

            At its most basic level, karma is about consequences. The idea being that eventually you will reap what you sow. If you do “bad” things, you accumulate “bad karma,” and if you do “good” things, you accumulate “good karma.” In some versions intentionality plays a role, such that bad actions accompanied by bad intent incur a worse karma load than ones where no harm was intended. Somehow, the universe arranges circumstances so that an accumulation of bad karma results in some kind of later punishment or lesson that is supposed to discourage repetition of bad behaviors, and an accumulation of good karma results in some kind of reward or pleasant outcome.

            Basically, it reads like an effort to tie morality to the phenomenon of cause and effect. And in some ways, it makes sense. After all, it does seem that, in general, good and pleasant people get more enjoyment out of life compared to bad and unpleasant people (who also seem more likely to come to bad ends). Even if that doesn’t appear to always be the case, there is this human desire for justice that certainly makes us want that to be the case. And, of course, we also want to encourage people to behave in a good and just manner, and discourage them from cruel and unjust behavior. These desires are a running theme through a great number of religious and philosophical systems, and one of the many objections to atheism is outrage at the idea that people who led horrific lives (either giving or receiving said horror) might never get a measure of justice. That can be a tough pill to swallow. People just don’t like the idea that Joseph Stalin could kill tens of millions of people and sentence millions of others to lives of painful toil and torment, only to get off Scott free by dying instantly of a heart attack at the height of his power and influence. Or that a kindly family could live a life of drudgery, poverty, and disease only to be wiped out by a random tsunami. The concept of karma, particularly when combined with ideas of reincarnation, would seem to reassure us that even if we can’t see the results ourselves, somehow the balance will get redressed.

            The problem, though, is that it just doesn’t appear to be true. And that can have some real and problematic consequences.

            You see, even though the action of karma is frequently referred to as “the law of cause and effect,” there actually is not an observable link between causes and effects inherent in the idea. A person can “receive their bad karma,” years, or in some cases literal lifetimes, after the supposedly precipitating actions, with no way to know what the cause was supposed to be. We just have to accept that there was a cause for which they somehow deserved their fate, even if we can never see it. Or, as I’ve seen it described, the universe “knows” what people have done and why, and then somehow arranges events so that they will receive their lesson in just the right time and place to ensure that it is learned. But how have we demonstrated that the universe “knows,” anything at all? By what mechanisms does it arrange lessons? Where has anyone ever seen a conscious intervention by “the universe” in the lives of anyone that is demonstrably directed at teaching a specific lesson? For that matter, by what criteria has “the universe” decided which actions were good and which were bad, and why should we accept its judgments on these matters? Would we have a choice if we didn’t? What can be the actual, demonstrable link between an action performed in one lifetime and the consequence reaped in another, when one can’t even demonstrate that people live multiple lifetimes?

            The karma thing also poses some interesting questions regarding predestination, morality, and free will. For example, if you rob someone, did you behave immorally, or were you just an agent of karma punishing them for a past transgression? Did you really have any choice in the matter? If you feed a starving person, have you chosen to do something good or are you simply an agent of karma rewarding their past good behavior? Could you have chosen to do otherwise? If you choose to go rock climbing, fall, and break your leg, is that a result of your own free choice, or did your karma impose that choice upon you?

            It seems many schools have settled on the explanation that your free will and your karma interact and influence each other; your choices affect your karma, which in turn affects your future choices. But that seems a little too pat, and not free of further questions. After all, aren’t your current choices affected by your karma from your past choices as well? In what way is it then appropriate for you to be punished or rewarded for them later? Is it only the choices you made completely free of karma’s influence for which you will be held accountable? How on earth would you even know which choices those were? And if you can’t know, how do you figure out what lessons you’re supposed to be learning?

            The other day, I was listening to Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God,” (highly recommend), and she described a period in her life when she was looking into Buddhism. She travelled in the East trying to learn about it, and in one story describes encountering a woman who was caring for a child crippled from birth. When she complimented the woman for caring for “that poor child,” the response she received was “Don’t call this ‘a poor child.’ He must have done something truly terrible in a past life to be born like this.” Which raises another problem of the idea of karma: victim blaming. It’s the flip side of the belief that your actions now will be rewarded or punished by the universe in the future. That necessarily implies that your present condition is the reward or punishment for your past actions. It gives rise to the idea that however awful and/or apparently undeserved a seemingly good person’s current suffering may be, somehow, for some unknown and unknowable sin, they actually do deserve it (e.g., babies who get cancer deserve to have cancer). Or that no matter how wonderful the life of a seemingly awful person may be, somehow they were saintly enough in the past to deserve their current great fortune. There are caste systems based on this very idea.

            And that last bit raises another question. Doesn’t the existence of people who seemingly gain every reward in life, yet behave awfully, suggest that karma is kind of a failure as a teaching tool? If they were good people before, which earned them this reward, and are now awful people, that would seem to represent regression.

            There are a lot of questions opened up by the idea of karma, and I doubt that I’ve come up with anywhere close to all of them on my own in this short space. There are a lot of proposed answers to these questions as well, and I don’t pretend to have those either. The problem I see is that karma as described is a largely unobservable mechanism. So many schools of thought propose many different possible answers, and people can be quite satisfied with whichever one seems to agree best with their own outlook on how the universe should operate. But because karma’s action is an unobservable mystery, there’s no way to know which (if any) of them represent the way the universe actually does operate. That holds true right up to including whether karma really is a thing.

            I guess this article has been mostly a series of questions. They represent the perspective of someone who has not really delved all that deeply into the topic, and I’m sure many of them have been asked and answered many times over by others in the past. Probably, this article has told you more about how my mind operates than about any seriously developed philosophies that hold karma as a central concept. My own research thus far has been top-level at best, and of course I didn’t grow up with constant exposure to any philosophies that treat karma with seriousness. I just hope it represents something worth thinking about.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Who Decides What Symbols Mean?

            This may be a slight departure from my usual subject matter of atheist and religious topics, but it’s something that I really can’t let pass without some commentary. And anyway, there are plenty of religious tie-ins for both the specific and general cases under discussion, so I don’t feel like this topic is wholly out of place here.

            So to jump right in, following the murder of nine African American people at the Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina, there has been quite a storm of controversy over the symbolism of a Confederate flag flying over a war memorial on the grounds of the South Carolina State House.

            Symbols, at their heart, are like language in that they are an abstract medium intended to convey ideas between people. Like language, any given configuration is essentially arbitrary, and has communication value only to the extent that people share an agreement on what they mean. For example, the word “river” only means “a natural stream of water of fairly large size flowing in a defined channel,” because we collectively agree that it means that. For that matter, all the words I used in that definition only mean what they mean because we agree that they mean it. A language – whether visual or auditory – is an emergence of agreed meaning for otherwise arbitrary symbols through usage and collective acceptance. Without that agreement, the ability to convey ideas through language is utterly lost.

            I think this is a helpful way to look at the argument over the meaning of the Confederate flag; as language. Imagine the following conversation between two people:

            Person A: I support racism.

            Person B: That’s awful!

            Person A: What do you mean?

            Person B: You can’t justify the claim that one race is superior to another, or that anyone is defined by their race.

            Person A: I’m not saying that.

            Person B: But you just said you support racism. That’s what racism is.

            Person A: Not at all! Where I come from, the word “racism” means “respect for our history and traditions.” In fact, most people back home have “I support racism” banners all over the place, and we even fly one from our courthouse.

            Person B: You know that nobody else uses it that way, right? And I’ve met people from your hometown – a lot of the people who fly that banner are, in fact, racist as the rest of us define it. And your court does have a history of selectively enforcing the laws to the benefit of your race and detriment of others.

            Person A: That’s true, but they’re misusing the word. Or, while they may be racist the way you mean it, that has nothing to do with their public display of the “I support racism,” banner, because that’s just not what it means around here.  I’m not racist in the sense you’re talking about. I just love my history, and we have a proud tradition of using the phrase “I support racism,” to signify that. That’s why I say it.

            Person B: That’s absurd! You realize that everyone you meet is going to assume you’re a racist because your keep saying you support racism, right? And even if you’re not racist yourself, your insistence on using the phrase this way only serves to give cover to the people who are!

            Person A: So what? You have no right to tell me what words mean, and it’s unfair of you to assume I’m a racist as you define it just because I say I support racism. That’s ridiculous!


            Obviously, these two people are having a serious difficulty communicating. And it’s because they refuse to come to agreement on what the words mean (or, possibly, because one is trying to obscure the meaning in order to hide their true sentiments). I’m using this example, though, for a couple of reasons. The first is that we have a pretty reasonable agreement on what the word “racism” means, and how people who explicitly express support for it are going to be perceived by the general public. Even many groups that are outright racist will try to avoid the label because they recognize that it’s perceived as a bad thing. So it helps to point out the barrier that insisting on trying to redefine it can create. The second reason is because I believe the phrase “I support racism,” is an adequate stand-in for the Confederate flag.

            “But Brian!” you may say, “What right do you have to tell us what the Confederate flag should mean?”

            To which I would say: I don’t have a right, any more than I have a right to tell you what words mean. The meaning is a collective agreement. But I do have an argument. It’s really pretty simple.


Premise 1: The Confederate flag represents the Confederacy.

Premise 2: The Confederacy was, officially, racist as all get-out.

Conclusion: The Confederate flag represents racism.


            So, in support of Premise 1. The flag we think of as the “Confederate flag,” wasn’t actually the official flag of the nation called the Confederacy. It was the flag of their armed forces, adopted because the actual flag of the Confederacy was similar enough to the US flag that it could create confusion in the chaos of battle. So it would probably be more properly termed the “Confederate battle flag.” But really, that’s a distinction without a difference. It was the flag that represented the military that protected and enforced of the ideals of the Confederacy. Premise 2 has to do with what those ideals were.

            So what were the ideals of the Confederacy? Not to put too fine a point on it, the defining ideal of the Confederacy was white supremacy and race-based slavery.

            Don’t believe me? Well here's a good resource. These are the official reasons the Southern states gave for their choice to secede from the United States. In other words, these represent the raison d’etre for the Confederacy. In case you didn’t read the link, here are some pertinent excerpts:

Georgia: While the subordination and the political and social inequality of the African race was fully conceded by all, it was plainly apparent that slavery would soon disappear from what are now the non-slave-holding States of the original thirteen.”

Mississippi: Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world.”

Texas: We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”

            South Carolina’s declaration avoids many of these overtly racist statements, but virtually every complaint it levies against the federal government and the Northern States is in regards to their movement towards the abolition of slavery. Virginia barely makes any complaints at all, citing only “oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.” Several of the secession documents go to the effort of pointing out that, if the original US Constitution hadn’t had protections for slavery (yes, it did, lest we forget), they never would have joined in the first place. And then there’s Article 1, Section 9, Paragraph 4 of the Confederate Constitution, which reads “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed,” thereby expressly enshrining the racial nature of the slavery they practiced as a protected right of Confederate citizens. It is simply not possible to give an honest reading to these documents and not come to the conclusion that the major reason the Southern States seceded was their insistence that they must, under any circumstances, be permitted to keep owning black people.

            But please don’t just take my word for it. Follow the link. Read the documents. They are instructive on more than just this issue.

            So yes, I maintain that the Confederacy was founded on slavery and white supremacy. It was the central ideal behind the formation of the short-lived nation, as documented by their state and federal legislatures themselves. They loudly and proudly proclaimed this fact. That is why their flag stands for those ideas today, and that is why it has been adopted by so many white supremacist groups – they didn’t pick some random neutral symbol that they could corrupt, but rather adopted one already associated with the hateful ideals they wished to promote.

            It is, therefore, wholly appropriate for government institutions like state houses to refrain from flying the Confederate battle flag (or to take it down if they haven’t already). And not merely because it’s offensive, as much as its supporters like to claim that mere offense is all we’re talking about here. By flying the flag, by giving it a place of honor, they suggest to white supremacists that the state government really does support their position. It implies that discrimination, and even outright criminal acts, will be met with support (or at least indifference) from the legal establishment. It suggests to members of minority communities in that state that their participation in that government is discouraged, that they are officially unwelcome, and that without the federal government holding the state in check it would have them rounded up and re-enslaved if it could. It is, simply, corrosive to society for state governments to endorse the Confederacy by flying its flag.

            None of this is to suggest that I would ever endorse robbing individuals of their right to display the flag however they want. And I certainly wouldn’t be in favor of shutting down conversations around what it may mean to individuals. But I do think such conversations are equivalent to arguing over whether “I support racism” banners would be about racial oppression or respect for history; the association of the first meaning to the larger mass of society is too strong to be overcome by arguing for the second. No matter how strenuously you argue, you’ll still end up carrying the baggage for flying it whether you want to or not. I guess it’s just up to every individual to make that choice for themselves.