Monday, December 10, 2007

religion as a biological organ . . .

Man is always concerned about his destiny—that is to say, his position and rôle in the universe, and how he is to maintain that position and fulfill that rôle. All societies of man developed some sort of organs for coping with this problem—organs for orientating their ideas and emotions and for constructing attitudes of mind and patterns of belief and behavior in relation to their conception of their destiny. All of the social organs concerned with destiny can, I think, properly he included under the head of religions. Even if some of them are exceedingly primitive and consist of little but magic rituals, while others are highly developed and claimed to be entirely rational, they are all, from Haitian voodoo to Roman Catholicism, from neolithic fertility religions to Marxist Communism, concerned with the same general function. In the same sort of way, the tube-feet of a starfish, the legs of a horse, the pseudopods of an amoeba, and the wings of a bird, though profoundly different organs from each other, are all animal organs concerned with the same general function of locomotion.

Julian Huxley
Religion Without Revelation


I that saw where ye trod
     The dim paths of the night,
Set the shadow called God
     In your sky to give light;
But the morning of manhood is risen, and the
     shadowless soul is in sight.

The tree many-rooted
     That swells to the sky,
With frondage red-fruited
     The life-tree am I;
In the buds of your lives is the sap of my leaves; ye
     shall live and not die.

But the Gods of your fashion
     That take and that give,
In their pity and passion
     That scourge and forgive,
They are worms that are bred in the bark that falls off;
     they shall die and not live.

—Algernon Charles Swinburne


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

on idolatrous foolishness ...

" ... the inadequacy of the explanation does not invalidate the reality of the experience. Paul, like anyone who dares to speak of God, discovered that there is no such thing as a god language with which to process a God experience. The language we use is human, culturally conditioned, and incapable of doing more than pointing to that which it can never fully embrace. To attribute ultimate reality to the constructs of our language, to make religious claims for the human explanations for the God experience is to become idolatrous, and foolish. ...[...] ... The church must recognize that its first-century biblical explanations, its fourth and fifth-century creedal explanations and its later developing system of doctrines and dogmas are human creations, not divine revelations and none of them is either finally true or eternally valid ... [...] ... The ultimate heresy of Christianity lies not in its inability to explain adequately the Christ experience. It lies in the claim uttered through the ages that human words could not only define for all time something called orthodoxy, but that the ultimate and saving truth of the God experience could actually reside in the theological explanations."

J.S. Spong
"A Christianity for Tomorrow"
The Once and Future Faith

Friday, November 02, 2007

watch that first step (it's a doozy)

The Meaning of "God"

Knowing what one is talking about is of inestimable value in any dialogue, so the theist, before he sets out to explain why we should believe in god, must first explain what he means by the word "god". What is the theist attempting to establish the existence of? What is the nature of god? How are we to identify him (or it)? At least some of the attributes of this supposed creature must be known before anything can be considered relevant to establishing his existence. As one theist puts it, "With no description or definition to work from, we will literally fail to know what we are talking about." For example, consider the following dialogue:

Mr Jones: "A unie exists."
Mr White: "Prove it."
Mr Jones: "It has rained for three consecutive days—that is my proof."

If this exchange is less than satisfactory, much of the blame rests with Mr. White: his demand for proof is immature. Mr. Jones has not specified what an "unie" is; until and unless he does so, "unie" is nothing but a meaningless sound, and Mr. Jones is uttering nonsense. Without some description of an "unie," the alleged proof for its existence is incoherent.

When confronted with a claim that a god exists, the person who immediately demands proof commits the same error as does Mr. White. His first response should be, "What is it for which you are claiming existence?" The theist must present an intelligible description of god. Until he does so, "god" makes no more sense than "unie"; both are cognitively empty, and any attempt at proof is logically absurd. Nothing can qualify as evidence for the existence of a god unless we have some idea of what we are searching for. Even if it is demanded that the existence of god be accepted on faith, we still must know what it is that we are required to have faith in. As W.T. Blackstone puts it,

Until the content of a belief is made clear, the appeal to accept the belief is beside the point, for one would not know what one has accepted. The request for the meaning of a religious belief is logically prior to the question of accepting that belief on faith or to the question of whether that belief constitutes knowledge.

from Atheism: The Case Against God
by George H. Smith

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Einstein's world . . .

The Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.

Of Wealth

I am absolutely convinced that no wealth in the world can help humanity forward, even in the hands of the most devoted worker in this cause. The example of great and pure characters is the only thing that can produce fine ideas and noble deeds. Money only appeals to selfishness and always tempts its owners irresistibly to abuse it.

Can anyone imagine Moses, Jesus, or Ghandi armed with the money-bags of Carnagie?

Christianity and Judaism

If one purges the Judaism of the Prophets and Christianity as Jesus Christ taught it of all subsequent additions, especially those of the priests, one is left with a teaching that is capable of curing all the social ills of humanity.

It is the duty of every man of good will to strive steadfastly in his own little world to make this teaching of pure humanity a living force, so far as he can. If he makes an honest attempt in this direction without being crushed and trampled under foot by his contemporaries, he may consider himself and the community to which he belongs lucky.

Education and Educators

Dear Miss —

I have read about sixteen pages of your manuscript and it made me—smile. It is clever, well observed, honest, it stands on its own feet up to a point, and yet it is so typically feminine, by which I mean derrivative and vitiated by personal rancour. I suffered exactly the same treatment at the hands of my teachers, who disliked me for my independence and passed me over when they wanted assistants (I must admit that I was somewhat less of a model student than you). But it would not have been worth my while to write anything about my school life, still less would I have liked to be responsible for anyone's printing or actually reading it. Besides, one always cuts a poor figure if one complains about others who are struggling for their place in the sun too after their own fashion.

Therefore, pocket your temperament and keep your manuscript for your sons and daughters, in order that they might derive consolation from it and—not give a damn for what their teachers tell them or think about them.

Incidentally I am only coming to Princeton to research, not to teach. There is too much education altogether, especially in American schools. The only rational way of educating is to be an example—of what to avoid, if one can't be the other sort.

from The World As I See It.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

This I Believe

In every one of the higher religions there is a strain of infinite optimism on the one hand, and on the other, of a profound pessimism. In the depths of our being, they all teach, there is an inner light, but an inner light which our egotism keeps for most of the time in a state of more or less complete eclipse. If, however, it so desires, the ego can get out of the way, so to speak, can dis-eclipse the light and become identified with its divine source, hence the traditional optimism of the traditional religions. Their pessimism springs from the observed fact that, though all are called, few are chosen for the sufficient reason that few choose to be chosen. To me this older conception of man's nature and destiny seems more realistic, more nearly in accord with the given facts than any form of modern utopianism. In the lord's prayer we are taught to ask for the blessing which consists in not being led into temptation. The reason is only too obvious. When temptations are very great or unduly prolonged, most persons succumb to them. To devise a perfect social order is probably beyond our powers, but I believe that it is perfectly possible for us to reduce the number of dangerous temptations to a level far below that which is tolerated at the present time. A society so arranged that there should be a minimum of dangerous temptations, this is the end towards which as a citizen I have to strive. In my efforts to achieve that end, I can make use of a great variety of means. Do good ends justify the use of intrinsically bad means? On the level of theory, the point can be argued indefinitely. In practice, meanwhile, I find that the means employed invariably determine the nature of the end achieved. Indeed, as Mahatma Ghandi was never tired of insisting, the means ARE the end in its preliminary stages. Men have put forth enormous efforts to make their world a better place to live in, but except in regard to gadgets, plumbing and hygiene, their success has been pathetically small. Hell, as the proverb has it, is paved with good intentions, and so long as we go on trying to realize our ideals by bad or merely inappropriate means, our good intentions will come to the same bad ends. In this consists the tragedy and irony of history. Can I as an individual do anything to make future history a little less tragic and less ironic than history past and present? I believe I can. As as citizen, I can use all my intelligence and all my good will to develop political means that shall be of the same kind and quality as the ideal aims which I am trying to achieve. And as a person, as a psycho-physical organism, I can learn how to get out of the way, so that the divine source of my life and consciousness can come out of eclipse and shine through me.

Aldous Huxley
from original 1950s series, "This I Believe"

Friday, September 14, 2007

the unitary executive in the 1930s . . .

Vive le Roi!

this is deliciously tongue-in-cheek

The abdication of Congress is certainly not as overt and abject as that of the German Reichstag or the Italian Parliamento; nevertheless, it has gone so far that the constitutional potency of the legislative arm is reduced to what the lawyers call a nuisance value. The two Houses can still make faces at Dr. Roosevelt, and when a strong body of public opinion happens to stand behind them they can even force him, in this detail or that, into a kind of accounting, but it must be manifest that if they tried to impose their will upon him in any major matter he could beat them easily. The only will left in the national government is his will. To all intents and purposes he is the state.

We have thus come to a sort of antithesis of the English system, under which Parliament is omnipotent and the King is only a falseface. It would be rather absurd to call the charge revolutionary, for it has been under way for more than a hundred years. Since Jackson's first election, in fact, Congress has always knuckled down to the President in times of national emergency. After 1863 Lincoln ruled like an Oriental despot, and after 1917, Wilson set himself up, not only as Emperor, but also as Pope. In 1864, as antiquaries familiar with Ex parte Merryman will recall, the Supreme Court undertook to bring old Abe to book, but as the same antiquaries know, it had to confess in the end that it could do nothing.

There is no likelihood that it will intervene in the present situation. For one thing, there seems to be no public demand that it do so. For another thing, judges as a class are naturally sympathetic toward arbitrary power, for their own authority rests upon it. Thus there seems to be every probability that Dr. Roosevelt will continue to operate as an absolute monarch, at least for some time to come. If the schemes of salvation concocted by his Brain Trust, i.e., by the King In Council, appear to be working, then no one save a few touchy senators will want to depose him. And if we continue wandering in the wilderness, with our shirttails out and the hot sun scorching our necks, then most Americans will probably hold that it is better to go on following one leader, however bad, than to start scrambling after a couple of hundred of them, each with a different compass.

My gifts as a constructive critic are of low visibility, but the state of affairs thus confronting the country prompts me to make a simple suggestion. It is that a convention be called under Article V of the Constitution, and that it consider the desirability of making Dr. Roosevelt King in name as well as in fact. There is no Constitutional impediment to such a change, and it would thus not amount to a revolution. The people of the United States are quite as free, under Article V, to establish a monarchy as they were to give the vote to women. Even if they held, as some argue, that the Bill of Rights is inviolable and cannot be changed by constitutional amendment, it may be answered that there is nothing in the Bill of Rights requiring that the national government shall be republican in form.

The advantages that lie in making Dr. Roosevelt King must be plain to everyone. His great difficulty today is that he is a candidate for reëlection in 1936, and must shape all his acts with that embarrassing fact in mind. Even with a docile Congress awaiting his orders he cannot carry on with a really free hand, for there remains a moniroty in that Congress which may, son or late, by the arts of the demagogue, convince the public, or a large part of it, that wahat he is doing is dangerous, and so his reëlection may be imperiled. To meet and circumvent this peril he must play the demagogue himself, which is to say, he must only too often subordinate what he believes to be wise to what he believes to be popular.

It is a cruel burden to lay upon a man facing a multitude of appaling problems, some of them probably next door to insoluble. No other man of genuine responsibility under our system of government is called upon to bear it. It lies, to be sure, upon Congressmen, but Congressmen, after all, are minor functuaries, and no one has expected them, these hundred years past, to be wise. We try to lighten it for Senators, who are a cut higher, by giving them six-year terms and so postponing their ordeal by ballot, and we remove it altogether for Federal judges by letting them sit during good behavior. But the President has to go on the auction block every four years, and the fact fills his mind and limits his freedom of action from the moment he takes the oath of office.

I am not a Roosevelt fanatic, certainly, though I voted for the right hon. gentleman last November, and even printed a few discreet pieces arguing that he might be worse. But it must be manifest that, in any situation as full of dynamite as the present one, it is a great advantage to have a leader who can devote his whole time and thought to the problems before him, without any consideration of extraneous matters. Yet that is precisely what, under our present system, a president cannot do. He is forced, at every moment of his first term, to remember that he may be thrown out at the end of it, and it is thus no wonder that his concern often wobbles him, and makes him a too-easy mark for the political blackmailers who constantly threaten him

If his term were unlimited, or limited only by his good behavior—in brief, if he were in the position of an elected King—he would get rid of all this nuisance, and be free to apply himself to his business. I believe that any man, under such circumstances, would do immensely better than he could possibly do under the present system. And I believe that Dr. Roosevelt, in particular, would be worth at least ten times what he is worth now, for he is a good enough politician to know that his current high and feverish popularity cannot last, democracy being what it is, and that the only way he can save himself in 1936 is by forgetting the Depression once or twice a day, and applying himself to very practical politics.

What this division of aim and interest amounts to is shown brilliantly by some of his appointments. He has made a plain effort to surround himself with men in whose competence and good faith he can put his trust, but he has been forced by the exigencies of his uncomfortable situation to give a number of important posts to political plugs of the most depressing sort. These plugs were too powerful to be flouted, and now that they are in office they are even more powerful than before. If they remain, they will disgrace the administration soon or late, and if they are turned out, they will imperil it in 1936. An elected King could rid himself of them at once, and they could do him no damage, now or hereafter.

The objections to monarchy are mainly sentimental, and do not bear well under inspection. I shall rehearse some of them at length in a future article, and try to show how hollow they are. Suffice it for the moment to glance at a few of them. One is the objection that a King, once in office, can't be got rid of. The answer is that Kings are got rid of very often, and usually very easily, and that the same constitutional convention which provided one for the United States might also provide for his ready impeachment and removal, and even for his lawful and Christian execution.

Another objection is that the problem of the succession is hard to solve, and that any King that we set up would probably want his son to succeed him, and would root for that son exactly as President in his first term now roots for himself, and in his second term for some favorite in his entourage. Well, why not? I believe that a Crown Price, brought up in his father's office, is likely to make at least as good a King as any other fellow. Moreover, is it so soon forgotten that Dr. Roosevelt himself came in as a sort of Crown Prince?—though I should add that he was challenged by a Legitimist party led de jure by the Young Pretender, Prince Theodore Minor, and de facto by Princess Alice. If His Excellency's name were Kelly, or Kraus or Kaminsky would he be in the White House today? To ask the question is to answer it. Despite the theory that Americans fear and abhor the hereditary principle they have elected one President's son to the Presidency, one President's grandson and one President's cousin, and in at least two other instances they have made motions in the same direction. This is five times in thirty-one times at the bat, or nearly one in six.

But the succession is really a minor matter. I see no objection to letting the sitting King nominate three candidates, and then choosing between them, by plebiscite, at his death. His nominations, at worst, would be far better than any that professional politicians could or would make, and three nominees would give the voters sufficient choice. There remains the problem of starting the ball rolling. But that problem, as I have sought to show, is already solved. We have a King in the White House at this minute, and he is quite as much of the Blood Royal as George V. All that remains is to call a constitutional convention, and, as it were, make an honest woman of him.

H.L. Mencken
Baltimore Evening Sun
1 May 1933