Look where the finger points… not at the finger

March 30, 2010 at 9:33 pm (myth and metaphor, science, Unitarian)

I read this interesting article on theological diversity within UU. I am gradually beginning to see past the shallow, literal meaning that I’ve always understood religion to have, and this article helped.

The author makes a comparison between religion and scientific modelling similar to the one I made once:

The human response to experience is to make a conceptual model, to construct a model of the universe that gives the relevant human experience a plausible and familiar context. But the experience is primary, not the model. And the experience is already experienced in metaphor and image. We, therefore, talk about all of this already at two levels of remove from the primary experience. This can be useful, if done in full awareness of what we are working with. But finally, it is almost inevitably wrong!

Theology, or religious language, is not only about the description of human experience. Its use and purpose is also to evoke particular human experiences. The first we have called religion. The second – the evocation of religious experience – we have lately been calling spirituality. But in neither case is it appropriate to get hung up debating the truth or falsehood of the conceptual models and metaphors. … Look where the finger points. Not at the finger.

The whole article is interesting but here are some selections that I particularly liked:

Theological language speaks about human experience, there being nothing else humans can speak about. That human experience is mappable in (theoretically) an infinite number of ways. And, as the semanticists are fond of reminding us, the map is not the territory. No single map of human experience can catch all the nuances. All language is an abstraction from experience. Every abstraction leaves something out. Each is in-and-of-itself wrong, at least to the degree of being incomplete. The only complete mapping would be recapitulation.

Theological languages, images and symbols are metaphors, or at least – participate in the limits of metaphors. We humans have a tendency to draw inferences from our metaphors without bothering to check the inference against the experience back of the metaphor. Multiple metaphors tend to lead us into fewer inappropriate inferences.

Among the purposes of a religious community is to keep its members spiritually alive and growing. At least in our tradition, we do not assume that there is some “it” you can get and quit. Due to the limits of human knowing, it is always incomplete. Tomorrow’s experience may prompt change. The community most likely to keep us alive and growing is not one in which we all agree; but rather one that tolerates, affirms, even cherishes the broadest, richest diversity. Not because there is no final truth, but because there may be and our own incompleteness suggests we may not have it yet. Not because it does not matter what you believe, but because it does and the only way to keep belief alive and growing is to be free to actually believe what you do believe. And even someone who is quite wrong may have something to teach me.

This does not mean that religious language is above critique. Only that no particular language is given privileged status merely because it is that particular language. We should, indeed, debate the adequacy of our language. Clear thinking will give us better description, more likely to be heard well and rightly, and better evocation of the intended experience.

Religious surrender is not to a language or belief system, nor it is mere credulity… [It] is to put my attention on that in my life where transcendence – the more-than-me and what pushes me to become more than me – is experienced as breaking in.

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The ineffable

March 5, 2010 at 12:17 pm (God, philosophy, religious experiences, science)

I said

…my experience of goodness is something I fear will disappear if it is eventually “explained away”

But really – learning to read music, learning the technicalities of intervals and harmonies, learning the mathematics of music, does not take away the magic of the musical experience. If anything, it only enhances it.

There will always be the ineffable. And no amount of science is ever going to make it anything other than ineffable. We do experience reality through the lens of our own consciousness, and science does not change that. Art and the ineffable have their own language, and it is not the language of knowledge or fact, but the language of experience.

If I abandon irrational certainty for the glorious state of knowing that I do not know… then I believe I will only be better off.

My values will drive my world view, and my world view will support and shape my values. And above all, I believe honesty with myself will pave the way to reason and empathy.

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Delusions: good, bad and ugly?

January 30, 2010 at 5:45 pm (absolute goodness, God, is religion good or bad for you?, philosophy, science)

There is nothing else in life that can be compared to religion in terms of how deeply people get into it and also how subjective it is. People can’t change their minds about religion overnight. Belief is very robust. And different people can be equally deeply convinced about very different things. It’s very interesting.

In that sense, religion also seems to be very divisive. When you are so deeply into a religion that you are utterly convinced by it (and I think it is that way round), everyone else looks completely misguided, if not stupid. I can look at the Hindus in the village where little Lakshmi was born with a parasitic twin – giving her the appearance of 4 arms and 4 legs – who believe in all seriousness that she is a goddess… and I can easily think, how daft. But such is the power of our religious beliefs. They think the doctors who carried out the surgery to save her life were in the wrong. It’s all a matter of perspective. I am trying really hard not to conclude that the best or only real perspective is the materialistic one. But sometimes I feel like I’m losing at that.

One big factor in Ghazali’s religious angst was fear of hell. He was worried that he would face hell if he couldn’t recover his faith. This is something that has plagued me at times, too. But now, I really feel that I’ve liberated myself from it and that is probably why I don’t fear losing all faith any more. The idea of eternal torment as punishment for finite sins is completely unjust, and the idea that correct beliefs are required to avoid this means that life is a lottery – you will be saved if the influences on your life allow you to arrive at those beliefs. Either it is a lottery, or “God guides whom He wills” – i.e. God has favourites.

Even if our condition in the afterlife depends only on our actions in this life and not on our beliefs, it seems to me that we don’t all have the same propensity to sin or to do good. Either from birth or by conditioning, some people have an inclination to be psychopathic, or abuse children, while other people would never do those things. Maybe we could say God takes all these differences into account when judging people. But there is still the question of whether eternal punishment is ever just.

Maybe it’s true… maybe God isn’t just, or fair. Why should I assume that we can project human values onto God? But if that is the case then it would seem there’s nothing I can do to be sure I’ve secured my afterlife, since any notions I might naturally have about what I deserve can be thrown out the window. Given how man-made all religions seem to be, and how subjective the process of arriving at belief is, I can’t take it seriously any more. It seems like just another tale told to frighten children into obedience. And while I can’t rule out that it is true, I also can’t rule out that I am going to spontaneously combust in the next five minutes. Neither of these are at all rational to worry about.

There are alternative ideas within Christianity: the idea that punishment is temporary and redeeming; the idea that punishment is simply destruction and ceasing to exist. The former is actually the one I like the most because I like happy endings and I also like the idea of people getting what they deserve. But who knows? NO-ONE DOES.

I wrote this elsewhere and wanted to record it here too: At this point I am less certain about God than I have ever been. But life itself has shown me goodness, and that goodness is what I still call “God”. Learning to love goodness is what I call “redemption”. And uncertainty has paradoxically brought more clarity. What I see more than anything is that religion can tie me in knots, and make me lose sight of the fact that goodness pervades everything and that all I need to do is look for it.

I have no idea if I will continue to believe in a reality called God in a literal way. And I’m pretty sure believing in a mythological way is impossible (although I will read Aslan’s book before I decide, as I really don’t understand the concept yet). But my experience of goodness is something I fear will disappear if it is eventually “explained away”. I fear life could not be meaningful or truly good without belief in God. I will have to think about that.

I think it’s being able to reflect on the experience of consciousness that gives rise to all this existential angst. Asking these questions is wired into us. I don’t think it’s just over-active imagination, although that is part of it. This doesn’t mean any of our ideas about God are true… but it might mean we can’t live fulfilling lives without them. I worry that we are too intelligent for our own good; that we have the ability to see our delusions for what they are, even though that insight causes us to malfunction. I don’t know that any of that is the case, but it worries me that it might be.

It might just be that it is neither rational nor irrational to believe in a deeper reality. Any ultimate explanation of reality is probably inherently subjective because we can only see reality through the lens of our own consciousness.

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Prayer times

November 24, 2009 at 8:51 pm (Islam, Ramadan, religious practices, science)

The calculation of prayer and fasting times based on the movement of the sun does not work universally. Even where I am in the UK, based on using an angle of depression of 15 degrees, Fajr and Isha disappear in the middle of summer. I don’t know how they calculate the times in those periods. It’s a mystery. I have tried to discover how it’s done and I have failed.

Right now, the prayer times are so close together that it’s quite difficult to get them all done on time, especially if you have appointments in the afternoon.

The prayer times are not made explicit in the Quran but they are alluded to in terms of the sun’s position. And of course it’s expressed in those terms. It could not have said “pray at 6 o’clock in the morning” because there was no such thing. There weren’t clocks! There was the sun.

That method works in that region. In extending the practice to other regions, there are two intuitive ways to go. You can keep the method the same, or you can keep the clock times calculated using the method the same (with a simple translation based on longitude). The former doesn’t work universally. I think the latter is a better way to go. It results in using the same prayer times, fasting durations etc. that the prophet and his followers used. Tried, tested and approved.

But who am I, right? I mean, I could choose to use Saudi Arabia’s times for prayer and fasting all year round, but I’d be considered a heretic. And Muslim unity would certainly be compromised if everyone just followed what they thought was best. It’s a shame though. Fasting doesn’t even feel like fasting at this time of year. And I go weak at the knees at the thought of Ramadan falling in the summer.

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Prayer times and latitude

June 18, 2009 at 7:09 pm (Islam, Ramadan, religious practices, science)

I’ve been doing a little research to try and understand how the Islamic prayer times are defined. It’s been surprisingly hard to find this information, but I think I’ve basically got it now. Here is what I’ve understood.

The five prayers are, in order, Fajr, Dhuhr, Asr, Maghrib and Isha. Dhuhr (just after noon has passed) and maghrib (just after the sun has set) are straightforward to calculate astronomically – by which I mean, using mathematical equations. Asr is between these two, and seems to be also straightforward, except that its time depends on the school of thought; the two I’ve come across are that it occurs when an object’s shadow is equal to one or two times the object’s length plus the length of its shadow at noon. Fajr and Isha occur before and after sunrise and sunset, respectively, and their starting is determined by the time of appearance or disappearance of refracted sunlight (twilight). These are the two that are not straightforward.

The reason they are not straightforward seems to be that there is no universal algorithm that predicts the appearance or disappearance of twilight based on astronomical conditions such as the depression of the sun beneath the horizon. It seems that the timing of this occurrence varies with geographical location in a non-trivial way. There are methods in place that use a depression angle, and methods that add or subtract a fixed time period after/before sunset/sunrise. These methods are each restricted to particular geographical zones, and have presumably been verified against observations for at least some locations within their respective zones.

As we all know, some latitudes do not ever get really dark during summer, and in some places the sun doesn’t even set. Even where darkness does occur, there can be an extremely short interval between isha and the next fajr. Clearly this poses a juristic challenge, because the early Muslims did not travel to such latitudes and so there is no traditional guidance. This also has implications for fasting during Ramadan, which is performed between fajr and maghrib. Should there be an upper limit to the length of a fasting day, and if so, how should it be defined?

My own feeling, not based on any scholarly opinion, is that when prayer times are too widely or closely spaced, they do not punctuate the day the way I understand they should. If the point of having prayer times is to remember God throughout the day, having enormous intervals between some of the prayers (which is the case during both winter and summer far from the equator) would not seem to achieve this.

I read somewhere that one ruling had suggested that prayer times for latitudes above 45 degrees should be the same as those calculated for a location directly south at 45 degrees latitude – they should follow that timetable all year round, as I understood it. This makes some sense to me because the prayers are then not too widely spaced during summer and not too close during winter. Also, admittedly, it makes the prospect of Ramadan less completely terrifying! Around the time of the longest day, where I am, fajr is around 2:30-3:30am depending on the calculation method, and maghrib after 10pm!

But this rule seems not to be in widespread use judging by prayer timetables I’ve seen. Understandably no-one wants to introduce or endorse a new rule unless they have to; hence, the norm is to calculate the times in the standard way where possible, and the prayers that disappear using this method at high latitude are added in using additional rules, rather than changing all the timings for that location. I can understand it, but I don’t really like it.

Any thoughts? or information? 😛

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Ritual cleanliness

June 17, 2009 at 1:25 pm (Islam, religious practices, science)

There is a psychological link between physical cleanliness and moral purity, apparent in the common vocabulary we use to describe these two (clean, pure, washing away of sins, etc). Whether this is inherent in humans, or the result on our shared consciousness of a long tradition of spiritual cleanliness rituals, I don’t know. But I am happy with the idea of a cleanliness ritual on this basis.

In Islam, the rituals of prayer – presumably including cleanliness – are a continuation of a pre-existing tradition. I was fascinated to learn this a few months back. This tradition includes Aramaic Christians as well as Arabs, and like the ritual of pilgrimage to the Kaaba, may extend back to Abraham. The Qur’an-only Muslims explain the absence from the Qur’an of instructions for prayer and pilgrimage in terms of the pre-existence and widespread practice of these traditions.

Western Christianity is unique among the monotheistic traditions in not having a concept of ritual cleanliness. This is probably because – as recorded in the book of Acts – the decision was made, when the early Jewish Christians took Christianity outside of Judaism, to impose only a limited few of the Jewish rules onto new converts. This perhaps anomalous absence of ritual in my own tradition makes the idea of ritual cleanliness a little challenging.

I know more about Islamic cleanliness rituals now than I do about Jewish ones, and so it’s these that I’ll focus on as I state the things that I don’t understand, bearing in mind that these issues are not limited to Islam. Firstly, why is a pure state broken by the expulsion of waste from the body? Secondly, why is it broken by lawful sexual activity? Thirdly, if periods come under the bracket of expulsion of waste from the body and so a pure state is impossible during them, doesn’t it take away from a woman’s spiritual nourishment if she is unable to pray for say one week out of every four?

My first two questions arise from the possible misunderstanding that ablution is to “wash away sin”, i.e. improve one’s moral state. Perhaps it’s about a clean body being conducive to a clean, relaxed, focused mind?

Your thoughts, feelings, insights welcome!

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Religion and confidence

March 17, 2009 at 11:48 pm (personal, science)

Here is an article which shows that people with firm religious convictions have less activity in a part of the brain associated with anxiety when getting questions wrong in a test.

On a monitor, subjects see a colour spelled out in letters that either correspond to or contradict the meaning of the word – for example, red spelled out in red letters or blue spelled out in yellow letters, for instance. Volunteers must press a button to indicate the colour of the letters.

The students with strong religious beliefs, as measured by their agreement with statements such as “My religion is better than others” or “I would support a war if my religion supported it”, exhibited less ACC activation than students with less fervent beliefs.

Having read the article it seems to me that it’s simply a case of, people who are generally less anxious and less worried about getting things wrong, are less likely to have doubts about their faith too. I don’t see any reason to think that one causes the other but rather that they are probably just both aspects of the same confident personality.

As an anxious, neurotic person, I kinda envy people like that. I’ve met plenty of them. I suppose at one time I might have thought they were more mature, had a stronger faith, and so on, and aspired to be more like them. Now I think it’s probably just a basic personality difference. Many people – believers and non-believers alike – may look down on me for my religious ambiguity, but I don’t look down on myself, and I’d like to hope God wouldn’t. It’s the way I’m wired.

We just have to take what we can get. I enjoy pondering and if it’s prompted by underlying existential anxiety that is only abated by deep reflection and searching, it doesn’t feel like much of a burden to bear. The worst of my anxiety is when I deny myself this opportunity. Mainstream religion tends to have that effect.

I wouldn’t rule out being religious again, but I’d probably be non-denominational. I admire people that march to their own drum and I hope one day I will have the courage of my convictions to do that, in work, as well as in spiritual practice.

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Diversity of belief and finding out the truth

January 31, 2009 at 7:42 pm (philosophy, science)

I have recently become aware of just how vast the breadth of human spiritual beliefs are. There is a fascinating series on BBC 2 at the moment called “Around the World in 80 Faiths” with Peter Owen-Jones, an unconventional (and I think slightly eccentric in a nice way) Anglican minister. This and loads of reading on the internet have combined with my new emphasis on objectivity to give me insight I never had before. One usually thinks of major world religions versus local or pagan traditions, but it’s not as simple as that. Even the history of Judaism may not be as monolithic or even monotheistic as we are accustomed to think. Perhaps the distribution of religious group sizes is scale-free, just as many things in the natural world are (including earthquakes)… and the major world religions are the rare extreme events – like the earthquakes that span a large fault. But it puzzles me how a religion can develop into a major one. Is it just chance? Or do the ones that last do so because they are especially equipped to last?

So many people have claimed to hear from God – from the famous prophets, to ordinary individuals, to cult leaders who conveniently hear things that allow them to commit atrocities. They cannot all be completely right. Unless, of course, in some strange way there are many truths. But are any of them real? How do we judge, other than by (1) assuming our inner sense of morality is God-given and (2) engaging it in the evaluation – or, by hearing from God ourselves.

Miracles are often used as evidence of truth. I’m not particularly impressed by miracles per se*. I’m more intrigued by the idea that these phenomena occur in such a way as to communicate something, or that they offer insight into a divine personality. Or things like prophecies that are later fulfilled, or pre-scientific explanations for things that are later proved to be scientifically correct. I don’t know how you would evaluate the significance of these, but they are at least superficially quite compelling.

But if you do become convinced that, say, a scripture reflects a divine interaction with a person, does that mean you have to accept the whole scripture as truth? Shouldn’t we remain critical; doesn’t the diversity of religious belief in the world indicate how easy it is for a person to be wrong? Why should anyone be completely right? Muslims generally maintain Muhammad was without error, yet I find this an impossible position to take, not just based on the above argument, but because there are verses in the Qur’an that actually admonish him for things he did. There are also, of course, sources of error in preservation and interpretation of scripture that many refuse to acknowledge. Why is it that people are so uncomfortable with shades of grey and insist on the black or white, the all or nothing, the heaven or hell view?

It frightens me, if I’m honest. Religions tend to insist on unfaltering belief as a condition for salvation, and I cannot find a way to justify that right now. It’s not that I don’t want to believe in anything and am looking for excuses. It’s more like the other way round. My ruminating over this issue has almost reached OCD levels. (Classic me…)

What makes me curious is that I do see some broad similarity across even very different and culturally separated traditions. What I think is common is a sense that humanity is less than it could be (we take “no-one’s perfect” for granted) and a multitude of solutions are proposed.

* I’ve always maintained that the God who wrote and sustains the laws of physics, shouldn’t need to break those laws to be believed in. Besides, science is just a description of those laws, which is updated as new discoveries are made, and when surprising phenomena are observed, it adapts to encompass these. Science is man-made and approximate and discrepancies between it and reality certainly aren’t proof of direct divine intervention. I am of the view that science describes the physical universe, while the question of why things are the way they are is outside its remit. I like the idea of spiritual meaning within what is natural, not necessarily outside it.

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