Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Per Will's request

I read the thing. Some of it was intelligible. This, in particular,
Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-o and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.

is inane, however, given his faith in (i.e. positive belief in) the non-existence of God. (It also involves assuming that 'belief' is like a finite box, which is goofy, as well as applying 'belief' very strangely--I don't think one 'believes' in any of the things in his list, except love perhaps.)

He's right, though, that there are two kinds of atheists--those that claim to refuse to believe in something that is untestable (hence are not really atheists to my mind), and those that believe positively that there is no God. Generally, I have a great deal more respect for the second position, though I would also contend that it is essentially a religious one. Unfortunately, Penn claims the second and actually adheres to the first, which is probably worst of all.

One thing that really irks me is the assumption Penn (and others) make that believers believe what he thinks they believe (note that he makes no reference to non-Christian beliefs), then castigates believers for closed-mindedness. Point of fact, the claim that religion and closed-mindedness are coextensive is just false.

Bottom line: Penn's statement is pretty much worthless. A better thinker, however, could render something similar in a perfectly respectable way.


Blogger Cary said...

I'm gonna pull a little sissy here and decline from getting into a major theological question here, but still drop a few thoughts. I will also admit that I'm not taking the time to go read the whole quote.

The two ideas I'm most interested in that you put forward here, Cameron, are that Penn doesn't take non-Christian beliefs into consideration, and that you, to some degree, don't respect, for lack of a better term, agnosto-atheism. I think these are related ideas for me.

The old testament and Jewish tradition are always talked about as fundamentally not dealing with the afterlife, or even really with the concept of an afterlife. I'm not a good enough historian of Semitist to really make a firm claim, but I will say that this idea is very powerful in contemporary, non-Orthodox Jewish culture. A Jew is ethically bound to "do the right thing" (perform mitzvot) not because of a strong goodworks/sin binarism, but because of ideas like Tikun Olam (Heal the World), which more or less state that by doing right in the world, one brings about paradise on Earth and, potentially, the messiah and all that. Of course, these things all spill over into the idea of an afterlife what with the Jewish fundamentalist idea that the dead will rise sequentially from the walls of Jerusalem, that Elijah ascended, and all the patriarchs are "walking" with or behind god.

The Tikun Olam concept, among others, creates a very strong humanist streak in Jewish culture that, I think, results in a strong valuation of being-in-the-worldness and the idea amongst secular Jews that, while Jewish law loses its gravity without God having given it to man, the secular body of law developed around those fundamental ideas (Halacha,Midrash etc.) does not. Basically, it's better to err on the side of operating on divine principles than not to, as treating people ethically (or the way they would like to be treated) is fundamentally of value and has the effect of "healing the world" in either a divine or secular context.

For most of us secular, American Jews who don't fall into the post-Holocaust absolute rejection or emrbaing of God, these ideas become a sort-of "I don't know if God exists, I can't know, and ultimately what I do on Earth in my life is a lot more important than what I think will happen after my life, so I will behave ethically regardless" mentality.

Obviously there's all sorts of subjectivisms, relativisms and half-ideas here, but I was kind of baffled by your asertion that it's somehow wishy-washy, as opposed to positive and practical, to not really take a position on an unknowable issue.

I would also contend, and I don't know if Im agreeing with you, Penn, both or neither here, that the Jewish concept of God -- as opposed to in-the-world-but-not-of-it religions or beief systems -- absolutely allows for the inclusion of all the worldly things that Penn lists as part of a definition of God, or at least The Godly. Hey, hylozoic directions!

Anyhow, what I really want to know about is:
How was Bulgaria?
What's the deal with your thesis advisor?

We missed you during Thanksgiving...

8:48 PM  
Blogger Cameron said...

It would be more correct to say that I don't respect agnosticism when it's called 'atheism'--there aren't that many positions, when talking about religion, of which one can say 'this is a hopeless muddle' but that might be one of them. Anyway, those folks tend to be awfully belligerent.

I should clarify what I might mean by wishy-washy. I suppose that I don't respect the position 'I can't know if there is a God, and screw it, doesn't matter anyway' in those words. There's nothing wrong with not having resolved the question--only with shoving it in a sack and ignoring it. To me, it is somehow basic to knowing about oneself, something one has deal with perpetually.

For Penn's list, I think you're almost agreeing with me, maybe for different reasons. I certainly would agree that all his points are aspects of God's creation; most are given a rather special status in the Christian tradition among creation; and in the case of Christianity, the precise nature of God's relationship to creation is not a matter of dogma to my knowledge, so any two believers are likely to have rather different notions. I still don't know what it means to believe in family, or believe in jell-o; I'm not convinced that my believing in God makes me believe less in jell-o.

Bulgaria was in fact awesome. Even getting punched in the mouth and called a 'dirty arab' didn't put a damper on it. I think Sofia has a much brighter future than Moscow in the short to medium term. I get back to LA ca 18Dec; details then.

Leo Harrington agreed to take me on as a student. It's a nice thing because it means (1) someone actually wants to work with me, (2) I'm not going to have to leave the program for lack of an advisor.

2:04 AM  

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