Friday, May 29, 2015

Things I like about the Catholic faith

When I was in boarding school, I went to World Youth Day in Toronto.  It was strange riding the subway with all these "normal" people, just going to work and completely ignoring the GIANT BIG DEAL that I felt WYD was.  Often we got curious questions, or commentary on the Pope from the commuters.  I remember a friend of mine responding to one of these people by saying, "I love being Catholic, it's the best!  Of course, I'm biased."

I was annoyed ... being Catholic is objectively better, of course!  It has nothing to do with being biased!

Now I admit ... of course I'm biased.  I'm biased the way you are biased in liking your mother better than other mothers.  The fact that you love her most doesn't preclude her also being objectively better.  But it would be silly to pretend that your profound emotional attachment isn't part of the reason you think she's the best.

Which is one of the reasons why, in all my searching, I'm not considering other religions.  I have heard the argument, "What makes you so sure, out of all the possible contradictory religions, yours is the right one?"  Well, in the case of Catholicism, pretty good -- 1/3 of the world's population is Christian and Catholicism is far and away the largest denomination.  But apart from that, if I didn't have the strong emotional attachment to Catholicism that I have, I don't know why I'd bother with religion.  Just like, if my mother died, I would not go find a new one.

Anyway, I was thinking in Mass yesterday, what are all the things I love about being Catholic?  Why is it such a great religion, which seems to work well for so many people?

First on the list would have to be respect for human life.  Its position is uncompromising and involves a positive duty to do what you can to defend the innocent.  The theory of self-defense (including capital punishment and just war) is a rigorous, careful way to make sure that we do not justify atrocities out of fear or aggression.  (I mean, two thousand years of serious ethical thinking is bound to turn up some good stuff.)

Its views on property are balanced and rational too.  Yes, property is a right, because we need it to live and because it best serves human ends when it's stewarded by individuals.  But no, it is not an absolute right -- charity is not some optional extra but a positive duty.  I've contrasted it with everything from communism to radical anarchism and it still seems the most sensible way to look at it.

Yeah, and even the sexual morality.  To some it seems excessive, especially in a world where contraceptives exist.  But considering what a massively important thing sex is -- how it is the way we create new people, and has lots of emotional baggage attached to it for that very reason -- I think sacralizing it a bit can be helpful.

With regard to general morality, it has an objective and a subjective morality, so that it can steer clear of those two pitfalls of relativism ("it would be wrong for me to murder, but if you don't feel that's bad, it's okay for you to do it") and legalism ("it doesn't matter if you killed him while you were having a psychotic break and thought he was Satan, you're still going to swing for it").  Instead something can be objectively wrong, and yet you might not be culpable.  (And this is why I have little patience for people demanding this or that church teaching should be changed because they can't follow it, or because there is a situation where someone would not be capable of following it.  If you really can't follow it, you're not culpable for not following it!)

When it comes to the interior life, it provides you with clear maps and vocabulary for navigating all the different things your soul can be up to.  Everything from Introduction to the Devout Life to The Interior Castle -- so much that you can use to work out what is going on inside.  It's funny reading Protestant stuff and thinking "Don't they even know what scrupulosity is?"  That sort of thing.  We've been around the block a few times; we know the pitfalls.

Ritual.  Like I said, I love ritual.  The Catholic Church knows how to do it right.  Things repeat daily, weekly, and yearly and give life such a beautiful pattern.  There's a sense of rightness when you come into a church and cross yourself with holy water, exactly the way you have thousands of times since before you can remember.  And when you are aware of your union with the people who have been doing the same thing for generations, and are doing the same all over the world at this moment, it's that much deeper.  There's a reason there are traditionalists.  Tradition speaks to something very deep inside people.

Along with that, there's the involvement of the senses and emotions.  Reason is enough for some people, but others really want smells and bells, choirs and tears.  The Catholic Church knows how to put on a good show.  And because of that, of course, it's responsible for scads of beautiful art, architecture, and music.  (Palestrina, need I say more?)

It has something for everyone: Catholic theology appears to have no bottom, so smart people who are into that sort of thing can keep delving in there forever.  But there's also room for popular piety.  There's a reason Catholic missionaries are a huge hit while Protestant missionaries get massacred by angry natives -- Catholics (at their best) do not attempt to take from people their popular piety.  They just roll the sky god into our God, the goddess into Mary, and make new meanings of old holidays.  It's all good.  Some people can work out how many angels are on the head of a pin, others can splash holy water on their family members and decorate their living rooms with icons.  There's even a neat system for working out which miracles to believe in and which not to -- because people are always going to troop around after amazing things, and it's nice to be able to sort out the ones that might be harmful.  (Not that anyone listens, cough cough, Medjugorje.)

In that vein, there are a lot of subcategories under Catholic.  If you're an introvert, you can be a hermit.  If you care a lot about the poor, there are orders for that too.  Unlike some evangelical denominations, there's no assumption that everyone's going to be married -- you should discern if you're called to it, and if you aren't, there are other options.

It isn't literalist about the Bible.  And thank goodness, seeing all the crazy stuff that's in there.  99% of arguments on atheist websites do not apply to the Catholic Church, and one reason for this is that a lot of it is just finding contradictions in the bible.  That is no news to any of us.  We KNOW the bible is full of weird stuff!

In the same vein, there's a longstanding attitude that knowledge about the created world is good, and that we should work on finding out more.  Sure, when an apparent conflict arises, there's some fuss about it for awhile, but eventually the Church does come around.  And the general pro-science view of faith and reason being both essential has led to some good philosophy and also to quite a few Catholics becoming scientists.  (A personal favorite is Father Gregor Mendel.)  And the Church is also open to psychology -- if a spiritual practice isn't good for people psychologically, that isn't taken as a reason to condemn the field, it's taken as a reason to condemn the practice.

It changes in response to evidence, unlike fundamentalist religion, but it has some hard points that aren't capable of change, unlike progressive religion.  That protects it from a lot of pitfalls the others suffer.  When Noah's Ark failed to be dug up, eventually an understanding arose that the Flood may have been in some sense symbolic or mythical.  It didn't bother people, and most people didn't fixate on the Ark still being out there somewhere.  When evolution became the consensus opinion of scientists, the magisterium was right there out there to say, "Here is what you can believe about evolution that doesn't interfere with any of our dogmas."  That's the sort of thing you can only do if you have a magisterium.

It has the guts to make falsifiable claims.  "Our religion has taught the same exact things for 2000 years of history" is the sort of thing you can look up.  Of course 2000 years is a lot to get through, and even if you find a conflict, someone is going to tell you it doesn't mean what you thought, but the boldness of a statement like that is pretty impressive.  Another falsifiable claim is the way it takes on the concept of faith in the first place.  You do not have to have faith that God exists; you should be able to demonstrate it.  That was pronounced at Vatican I.  It's only once you've seen the proofs for Catholicism that you can make a leap of faith for whatever parts you can't demonstrate.

Surely there are more, but these are the things I think of when I sit in church wishing to be a part of it all.  There's no end of good reasons why, as religions go, Catholicism is the one to pick.  Can you think of any I missed?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Talking to kids about consent

I don't really want to talk about the Duggar scandal on here, but the fact that it's arisen means that it's probably a good time to talk about how to keep our kids safe.

Of course I've taught my kids not to touch each other's private parts ... when the house is kind of pants-optional, it comes up.  And we don't expose them to age-inappropriate sexual material.  I try to listen to them if they feel uncomfortable or upset about something, so that they know they can tell me anything.

But even before they've reached the age where they know where babies come from, we talk about consent.  Because I think this is one of the most important things for a kid to know, not just related to sex, but related to everything.

It comes up all the time, in simple ways, and we discuss it without making an enormous deal of it.  Stuff like this:

"Do you want to be tickled?  Yes?  Okay!  Oh, you said no, okay, I will stop.  No, I won't tickle you any more unless you ask me to.  Oh you do want more?  Okay!"

"She doesn't look like she wants a hug right now.  See how she is frowning and pushing away from you?  Next time ASK if she wants a hug before giving her one."  (Though more often, my kids are the ones who don't want hugs from random kids on the playground.  So I say this to the kids who are trying to hug them, if their parents aren't intervening.)

"He does not have to play Weeping Angels with you.  It's not good to play a game with someone if they don't want to play with you.  If you really really want to play, you have to find someone who wants to, or play by yourself."

"Grandma would really like a hug from you.  It would make her very happy.  But it is always your choice to hug or not."

"I see that little girl is trying to hug you.  Do you want her to?  If you don't, say 'no thank you.'  Here, I will stand in front of you so that she understands you meant no."  (I want my kids to know that I always will back them up when they say no.)

"Sweetheart, I know you very much want to be on my lap right now.  But I have held you for a long time and I am ready to stop.  You have to respect that because it is my choice to hold you or not."

"Does it look like the baby likes you tickling her toes?  Is she smiling or frowning?  Is she laughing or crying?  If she doesn't like it, you have to stop."

"May I have a kiss?  Okay, if you don't want to, that's fine, I'll just wave."  (I make a point not to try to make them feel bad for not kissing me.)

I think consent is a concept that never stops being important.  It helps kids be socially appropriate (randomly hugging strangers stops being cute at about two years old) and considerate of others.  When I hear the excuses of people who have raped or otherwise taken advantage of someone, I always wonder .... didn't their mother tell them you don't do to people things they might not like and haven't given permission for?  Or have they been living their lives assuming that everyone else's wishes are less important than their own?

I don't think that these conversations are a surefire preventative of abuse, or of my kids growing up to be either rapists or victims.  But they are one thing that I can do, and something that I think I would be remiss as a parent if I did not address.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The dark side of religion

I've wanted to write this post for a long time, talking about the sneaky little tactics of cults, the way they get into your head and cause you to be more attached to their teachings than would be reasonable.  But the trouble is that many of these tactics are done by legitimate religions too.

Does every religion do all of these, all the time?  No, but most will do them at least sometimes.  Certainly the answer to many of these would be, "But Catholics aren't supposed to do things like this," but, of course, some of them do.  In some cases it's just the nature of trying to teach something religious; in others, people know it's less than rational but figure, because it's so important to win souls for God, it's justified.

So here are a few common things religions do which encourage people to stay in them even when this is not a reasoned decision:

*A teaching that authority is extremely important.  Members are told that they should readily doubt their own reason and instincts but trust their leaders absolutely.  Failure to do so is labeled as pride and disobedience, and so sincere members who see a serious problem with the teachings will stay silent out of obedience.  The cultier the group, the greater the emphasis on instant, unquestioning obedience.

*Doubt is considered potentially sinful, and belief is mandated.  Fundamentalist Protestants have a very serious problem with this, because they think salvation is from faith alone and so obviously if you have any doubt at all, your salvation is jeopardized.  But even the Catholic Church teaches that voluntarily harboring doubt, after you know that the Church teaches something, is sinful.  Either way, members feel the need to shut down lines of questioning, avoid reading things that criticize their religion, and constantly try to force themselves to believe.  No one will reach the point of reasoning their way out of a religion if they avoid even entertaining doubts.

*Beliefs about hell terrify members into staying.  Belief in hell has been shown to make people less happy, but reduce immoral behavior, just as you'd expect.  It also appears that religions with a belief in hell are better at retaining members.  And that's pretty natural -- if you believe in hell, you will continue trying to force yourself to believe long after you have a good reason to do so.  If you are 99% sure your religion is a sham, but there's the tiniest chance it could be true, fear of hell will keep you conforming.  That's the idea behind Pascal's wager -- you should always, always give religion the benefit of the doubt.  In short, religion is not required to meet the same standards as other sorts of belief.

*Former members are often shunned, and the way members talk about them is very negative: "She left because of sin in her life," "He abandoned Jesus."  When you constantly think of former members as bad people, you realize that if you left, you would be a bad person in your own eyes and the eyes of others.  You would feel guilt and shame, even if rationally you thought it wasn't justified, and you would also find friends distancing themselves from you, or even (among, say, Orthodox Jews or Amish) cutting you off altogether.

*Forcing complete commitment.  I first noticed this in boarding school, where we were constantly given the message, "If you aren't going to give this 100%, why even bother?  You're not going to get anything out of it if you are holding back anything."  Which was rather unfair because when I was first thinking of going, it was more "come and see, you don't have to commit."  They wait till you really don't want to leave, till you're attached to some parts of the group, whether beliefs, people, or practices, and then they up the ante: commit entirely, or leave.  Once I was aware of it, I caught St. Paul at it, saying "Unless Christ has been raised, your faith is in vain."  He is trying to force a decision with the doubters -- agree to believe the whole thing, as he gave it to them, or else leave.

Catholics do something similar when they say, "If you think the Church could be wrong on anything, why stay?  It's lost all credibility, so you should leave."  But when you consider doing so, they say, "If there's any truth to it at all, you should stay."  The first statement isn't actually a suggestion that anyone leave, it's just a way of using your attachment to other parts of the Catholic faith for you to buy-in to the rest.

(And yes, it makes perfect sense according to Church teaching -- either it's infallible or it's not -- but the thing is, it works to silence doubts.)

*Guilt.  In Regnum Christi, the "Jesus gave his life for you, how could you hold anything at all back from him" sermon is ubiquitous.  I thought it was just an RC thing, but our parish priest does it too.  Reflections on Jesus' passion are often all about wringing the people's emotions and getting them to agree to greater levels of commitment than they may have been willing to otherwise.  That's why they rank up there with sermons about hell as the most persuasive and effective sermons -- as well as the most emotionally manipulative ones, the most likely to get people to ignore their own boundaries.

*Separation from outsiders.  In some cases, people will be told in so many words not to associate with unbelievers, or else only to do so to evangelize them -- which amounts to the same thing, since most people don't want to be evangelized.  In others, subtle differences in the lifestyle of insiders and outsiders (not drinking alcohol, having lots of kids, etc.) may naturally guide insiders to primarily associate with other believers.  This has two effects: first, it keeps members from being exposed to other viewpoints, and second, it means that a person feels that they would lose all their friends if they fell away from their religion.

*Judgment of outsiders.  "The world" is full of people who are terrible sinners.  These nonbelievers are described as immoral, sleeping around, killing babies, whatever will provoke a reaction among believers.  In boarding school I was told that kids at regular high schools were all doing drugs and hooking up.  Of course exposure to real-life outsiders can come as a surprise, and with repeated exposure you find members of your own religion aren't always better than outsiders.

*Fear.  This ties in with many others.  The assumption is that you'd better watch out for irreligious books, movies, friends, ideas, and so forth because they will cause you to lose your faith (or, in Regnum Christi, your vocation).  This seems to contradict the idea that the religion itself is rational and provable -- because if it were, further exposure to outside ideas would only strengthen the obvious conclusion that the religion is true.  However, it's a simple fact that when a child is brought up with one religious and one nonreligious parent, they are likely to grow up nonreligious, and that a few nonreligious influences seem to have a large effect on people. 

In fairness, though, I've heard atheists say that if you surround yourself with religious people, you run the risk of adopting their ideas.  It's just that humans really are influenced by each other, more than you might think.  But it seems to me one is most likely to discover the truth (if that's a goal) by exposing oneself to a variety of opinions and trying to compare and contrast them.  Fear makes it impossible to do this; you cede the field immediately, as if assuming from the outset that your beliefs could not compete rationally with others.

*Seemingly meaningless rules.  Religions with lots of rules suffer less attrition than those with fewer.  But it's not so simple as "people like a challenge."  Instead, it seems to me that abiding by rules like "no alcohol," "cover your head," or "don't eat meat on Fridays" have a number of results.  They bind you more closely to others doing the same thing, while causing you to seem a little weird and set apart from outsiders.

In addition, every time you reaffirm your beliefs by abiding to one of these rules -- rules no one outside your religion follows -- you strengthen your commitment.  You'll be less likely to leave because of the sunk-cost fallacy -- you don't want all that effort you put in to be wasted.

*There are levels of commitment, from those who are only nominally members to those who are extremely committed.  Even if the inner circle displays some problems, you can always point to the outer circle and say, "See, it can't be so bad because these people aren't having problems."  The trouble is, there is a pressure inside the group to move from the outside in, because why be a little bit committed if it's better to be all committed?  Easygoing personalities may live quite happily on the margins their whole lives, while intenser people (like me!) find themselves thinking, "If it's good to pray five minutes a day, it's better to pray an hour a day.  If it's good to go to confession once a month, it's better to go twice a week.  Jesus said I should hate everything for him, so I should give away all my money and join a monastery."

Responsible religious leaders will constantly have to remind about balance -- but it does raise the question, if this is so good, why do we need constant vigilance about not doing it too much?  There's a slogan, "If your religion has a problem with fundamentalists, maybe there's a problem with its fundamentals."  When a religion has verses or doctrines which would be problematic if you seriously tried to follow them, that still matters even if most people don't seriously try to follow them.

 There are surely many more, but these are the ones I notice most often.

So what am I saying?  That religion is bad because it does these things?  Not at all; I think religions have to do them in order to bind people together as they mean to do.  You don't get all the things on last post's list if you don't have the things on this list.

However, it does give the lie to the idea that believers remain in their religions because they are true.  Clearly a maximum of one religion can be true; billions of people remain their entire lives in religions which are false.  Why would they do that?  Well, because religion doesn't rely on rational proofs entirely; it relies on tactics like those listed above.

A religion could be true despite these, but if it does them, it can't claim to be true on the basis of "x number of believers can't be wrong."  With tactics like these, they certainly could; and in fact, most believers must be, given the multiplicity of religions.  Yes, this is my "theory of error," just as I described a few posts ago -- people who believe in false religions are neither stupid nor evil, but in the thrall of a system which makes rational consideration difficult.  If you don't like it, obviously you can stop going along with it.  Some religious people do, although my own experience suggests that shortly after they do, they leave their religion or at least reduce their commitment to it.  The choice is entirely up to you.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Good things religion does

The comments suddenly dried up on the thread where we were discussing morality in the Bible; I hope I didn't offend anyone or something.  If I have done anything to upset anybody, I think my email is posted somewhere around here and you can drop me a line to tell me so.  I'd rather know than not know!

Today I want to talk about the good things religion provides.  Like I have said before, religion is not a single thing, like a list of propositions, it's a huge combination of things.

1.  For one thing, it's a community.  And because it's based on the most important beliefs and practices that people have, it's not a superficial community like book club.  People feel the closest bond to people who share their dearest beliefs, and so it's no surprise that it's the people at church who are most willing to bring a casserole for a sick parishioner, watch your kids for you or trust you with theirs, or make friends with a new person in town.

2.  It's a place of moral encouragement.  Not only does it have a nice clear moral code, but you can surround yourself with people who share the same one.  It can be hard abiding to a higher standard of morals than the people around you -- with your religious friends, you know you are all on the same level.  This is really easily seen on NFP forums -- it's very painful to be the only person you know who doesn't use birth control, but when you're surrounded by others making the same choices, you feel much better.

3.  It's an honor group.  I've written about honor groups before -- the point is that it is a group wherein you get respect, both from members and nonmembers, for abiding to a stricter moral code than average.  When you tell someone you are seriously religious, even if they don't approve of your specific religion, you earn a bit of respect just for being willing to follow the rules.  People think of you as a moral person -- which is why there is so much scandal when a seriously religious person does something immoral.

4.  It's an answer to serious philosophical questions: life, higher meaning, moral questions, death.  Everyone has to face these questions in their life, but most people don't have the time to dedicate to answering them all personally.  It's like having to reinvent the wheel.  With religion, all you have to do is find one decent proof, and then the rest all follows from that.  If you think the Catholic Church is true, and you're worried about death, simple -- just believe what the Catholic Church teaches about death.  Crisis averted, and you don't have to spend hours or weeks doing philosophy.

5.  It provides us with a useful vocabulary for discussing our interior life: words like sin, temptation, discernment, all describe real things we experience but which can be hard to explain otherwise.  It also gives us a whole mythic landscape to use for imagining things we can't clearly define -- as I talked about earlier.

6.  It is a program of self-improvement.  Most people who are not seriously religious don't spend time every day considering their actions of the past day and trying to see how they could do better.  Religions encourage people to do so, which is a definite advantage.

7.  It gives serious weight to all our actions.  Sometimes, especially in an age where we know so much about the universe, our whole lives seem insignificant, to say nothing of our individual actions from day to day.  It's nice to think of your choice to be kind to a stranger, for instance, as part of a larger plan, which could at the very least cultivate grace in your soul, and at most might save theirs.

8.  Of course it brings you into a relationship with God, which many people find fully as rewarding, if not more so, than their earthly relationships.  Even from the outside, you have to see that people are getting something they value out of this, despite not experiencing it yourself.  They have someone to share their sorrows, talk over their problems with, and thank for their blessings.

9.  Ritual -- times to mark the passage of time, to see the seasons pass, to remind you to take certain times for reflection.  I love ritual, whether it's a daily cup of tea, a yearly holiday, or a once-in-a-lifetime rite of passage like confirmation.  Most people find their most important rituals in their religion.

10.  Most religions include an afterlife, and that is a great comfort.  Death is one of what I call the great mysteries (along with love, sex, and birth) and it's nice to have a simple answer.  The answer usually includes the idea that good people (oneself, for instance) can be rewarded after death and bad people can be punished.  That gives people a sense of satisfaction, plus it may curb any desire for vengeance or encourage people to do things that otherwise wouldn't be rewarded.

Some of these can be obtained without religion.  Others can't, and unfortunately it's just those which can't be enjoyed by someone like me.  They are hidden, in Leah Libresco's phrase, behind the paywall of faith -- if you don't believe, you don't benefit.

However, for those who do, it's pretty easy to see what draws people to religion and makes them stay even in the face of occasional doubts.  It has actual benefits.

On the other hand, the benefits aren't the only reason anyone stays -- and I want to write about that next time.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Conflicting moral codes

There is a theory, which makes sense to me, that humanity has been evolving morally throughout its history.  Tribal units require one sort of ethics, national units another, and a global society needs something else entirely.  But each stage helps prepare things for the next.

I saw this, at first, as a proof of God.  He must be leading us slowly toward better virtue; away from "an eye for an eye" and toward forgiveness, away from hierarchies and toward equality.  That's why the Old Testament is full of things that are morally problematic for me, but slowly things like "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" come in, and eventually Jesus shows up with a much better moral code.

However, I didn't realize at the time that humanity doesn't seem to move from one stage to another entirely because of God's leading.  Rather, when trade becomes a more important source of wealth than warfare (for instance), tolerance toward outgroups naturally increases. First, because one is in more contact with outgroups and therefore will be more likely to see them as people worthy of empathy, and second, because peace promotes more opportunities for trade and so aggression should be minimized.  So, as in so many things initially taken as proofs of God (like the creation of different species of animals), once one finds natural causes, its value as a proof vanishes.  Natural causes don't show God can't have been involved, but they show he doesn't have to have been.

I have strong moral objections to Old Testament life.  I don't like patriarchy, I don't like the death penalty, I don't like total war, and so forth.  I think it's horrible that a woman could be married to a man against her will and then divorced against her will.  Circumcision is (to my mind) nothing more than inflicting pain on babies.  Stoning adulterers, gays, idol-worshippers, and so forth is a horrible thing to do.  No, I am not interested in that.

Jesus brought everything to a whole new level . . . or so it seems.  Some people attribute a lot of his moral innovations to others -- similar ideas are found in Philo of Alexandria, Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, etc.  Was the Golden Rule just an idea whose time had come -- were people finally ready to love their enemies?  Either way, the Christian way was definitely an improvement.

Still, life was sub-optimal in the Middle Ages, and one of the reasons it wasn't as great as it could have been was that people's morals had some flaws.  Just war theory had been described, for instance, but it wasn't followed much.  And gender equality, prohibition of slavery, self-government, and human rights weren't even really theorized.  I'd like to say that God was slowly leading people to develop these things -- that they are there in seed form in the New Testament and it just took time to "unpack" them -- but in reality the Church did not lead the charge here.  All four of the things I listed, which I think of as Good Things, are Enlightenment values which the Church later got on board with because they were so obviously good.  But still, there's a strong Catholic argument from tradition against each of those things -- hang around traditionalists long enough, you'll hear it.

It bothers me that some of the moral laws I consider most emphatically true -- the ban on the death penalty and slavery, consent required before and even within marriage, the equality of all human beings, religious freedom -- are recent innovations within the Church.  You would think that God would have made sure we got those.  It's not like he couldn't have quite easily mentioned somewhere in the Bible that slavery was bad, instead of telling slaves to submit to their masters or suggesting that beating slaves was helpful.  If he had wanted us to know women were equal in dignity to men, why didn't he ever say so?  Instead he set up a church where only men can be priests and included some helpful verses about how women were created last and were responsible for sin, so we should wear veils.  I'm not complaining at the moment -- I'm saying, if women are in fact equal in dignity, and if this was something morally important for us to know, you would have expected he'd slip it in there someplace.

I worried about all this for a long time, because after all morals do vary according to time and place, and perhaps my own conscience can't be trusted because it too is a product of a time and place.  There are certainly people around today who think that women aren't equal, that slavery might be part of a natural order, that the death penalty is required by retributive justice, and that religious freedom should never be granted because error has no rights.  There are even people who go straight back to the Old Testament and pull verses out of there to prove we should still be stoning gays to death.  On what grounds, without appealing to God (because God is notoriously hard to understand) can I say that my moral sense is right and theirs is wrong?

Well, the answer is sort of obvious, but I didn't see it until it was pointed out in a book called The Moral Landscape which I read recently.  (I can't actually recommend it; it had almost nothing noteworthy in it except the part I'm going to tell you here.)  Taken on a group level, the moral standards of a group of people are either good for them or bad for them.  Obviously on an individual level this doesn't work; doing what is good for me personally might be bad for others and would be an immoral thing to do.  But on a group level, a good moral standard is one that has good results for everyone.  Everyone is better off -- happier, healthier, living longer -- when everyone acts morally.  If murder is off the table, we all get to not be murdered, so everyone wins.

Some moral laws might not be obvious in the way they help everyone.  For instance, the Celts had a law that a woman couldn't be married until she was twenty.  That was surely inconvenient, because 18-year-old girls are both pretty and prone to falling in love, but it had a hidden benefit, because getting pregnant too young is very bad for a woman's body.  They believed, correctly as it happened, that the children would be healthier if a couple waited till the woman was twenty.  It was a good moral law for them to do that.

So I could take any moral law there is and ask, is it good for people to do that, or is it harmful?  Does it result in happiness for a few and misery and anguish for the rest?  Does it result in happiness for ingroup members and conquest and death for the rest?  What we want is a moral code that results in more happiness, health, and life for everybody.  In Catholic language, the moral law will serve the common good.  What is moral is good for us.  Even if you assume it is revealed by God, what God reveals to be good is not arbitrary, but based on what he in his omniscience knows is good for us.

Taking this as the standard, it becomes much easier to say that some moral laws are objectively better than others.  While it's true that it may not always be possible to say if a specific action is harmful until long after the fact -- I mean, just watch the debate about whether or not gay marriage will destroy society -- it's pretty easy to tell, with the perspective of history, that some moral laws are deficient and others are better.

Does circumcision have a benefit that outweighs the harm it does?  Science can tell us the answer.  I've done a lot of study and I think the only way to return a "yes" here is to assume that it must because God commanded it.  Ditto the death penalty.  Slavery and the oppression of women may have had a slight benefit for slave owners and men, but it had a huge cost for slaves and women, so I think we can fairly say it was bad too.

So here's what I'm getting here: there are two ways of coming to a moral code, revelation and human consideration of the common good.  Catholic teaching, of course, comes from both -- things we've learned from Scripture, plus things patristic, medieval, and modern philosophers and theologians have worked out.  The latter category is a bit of a tossup because the credit for just-war theory, self-defense, women's rights, best forms of government, and so forth has to be shared between God and humans.  These Catholic moralists might cite Scripture or tradition as a support for their views, but they also consider science (according to what they had at the time) and common sense.  Even you think Catholic moral teaching is excellent, as I generally do, you have to acknowledge that it is in part a human creation.

And when I try to develop a moral sense based on reason and the common good, and then try to hold God's actions to a similar standard -- asking if his commands are really good for humans, if his actions seem to advance the common good, if his actions specifically are what leads us to better moral development -- honestly, I find myself disappointed.  The good stuff all seems to be derivable from human reason, and the bad stuff is hard to explain away.

Christianity is morally very impressive when people focus on stuff that even secular people agree with -- love, kindness, nonaggression, concern for the poor.  But it also has an ugly side, that appears when fundamentalists take the Old Testament or certain bits of the New as a moral guide.  It's like having a big smorgasbord of good and bad stuff, and if you eat from the wrong side of the buffet, you wind up with a moral disaster.  Are you really going to get something much better, morally, from this smorgasbord than you get from unaided human reason?

If God is really guiding us, the answer should be obvious.  Instead it is much less obvious than I would expect.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Theories of error

This is inspired by something Seeking Omniscience said.

Both religious and nonreligious people seem to have a rather nasty habit of imputing negative motivations to people who disagree with them.

For instance, someone said to me a few months ago, "I find that everyone who leaves the Catholic Church, no matter what excuse they give, are just trying to find a rationale for doing something they want to do."  In other words, the Church's moral teaching is hard to live up to, so naturally people try to weasel out of it and thus claim the grounds for it are false when they aren't.

Meanwhile atheists say that religious people are just playing make-believe -- believing in God simply because they are scared of reality and want to hide behind the idea that a loving God will protect them.

In both cases, it actually makes a good deal of sense.  When you are really convinced that something is true, you have to figure out an explanation for why not everyone sees it the way you do.  It goes like this:

1.  My opinion is so well-supported that it is obvious.
2.  Yet people who otherwise seem intelligent don't agree with me.
3.  Therefore they must not be approaching the question with the objectivity that I am.

Every person I know who has ever left the Church, has been explained by mutual acquaintances like this.  Sometimes, because they try to be charitable, they come up with more creative ideas -- "X left the Church because he was hurt by something a priest did," "Y left the Church because her boyfriend dumped her to be a priest," "You can hardly blame Z for leaving, her Catholic parents were a terrible example of the faith."

Certainly every Catholic who reads my blog probably has a theory for why I have so many doubts.  If you're uncharitable, it's intellectual pride because I won't believe what I don't understand.  If you're charitable, you probably assume it's because I was traumatized by Regnum Christi.

But if you do this, you have to acknowledge as well that someone might look at your own life story and say, "You are only Catholic because you want to fit in with a group of people you respect," or "Your conversion happened at a time when you were going through a tough time and you looked to religion to make sense of it."  Whatever.  Only you can know that isn't true, because you know what your faith is founded on, and you know you're not lying when you say it's something real.

On the other hand, none of us is objective anyway.  We all have preferences.  I've stated my preference is for being Catholic, but on the other hand I have deep moral objections to certain teachings, so that does blur my objectivity as well. Every conversion experience is influenced by how much you like the Catholics you know, your emotional state at the time, your barely-remembered past influences, and so forth.  It is possible (as Enbrethiliel likes to point out) for two people to look at the exact same argument for the faith, and one of them to see it as obviously true and the other as obviously false.

I think what would help this situation is for us to have a bit more humility about what "obvious" means.  Any time there is a huge disagreement in a field -- whether it's climate change, or whether fat is good for you, or how many dimensions there are -- it's usually because the information isn't really quite as clear as all that.  Sure, it may strongly lean one way, but there must be a decent argument for the opposition or there wouldn't be an opposition.  They'd all just accept they were wrong!

Which is why it bugs me a little bit when arguments against the faith are considered "debunked" just because there is a counterargument.  Of course there is a counterargument!  It's been 2000 years; there are no new arguments.  A Protestant says, "The Bible says we should call no man father."  A Catholic replies, "Aha!  But Paul refers to himself as a father!"  That doesn't actually prove anything.  All it shows is that Catholics have addressed this before and have come up with an explanation--that the Protestant's verse is not so convincing as to wipe out all possible disagreement.  It's still (in this case) more convincing than the counterargument.

When I look at the Faith, I see a vastly complex quilt of ideas, some of which are easily credible and some of which are the opposite.  It's complicated enough that people can sit quite comfortably with the doctrines that make sense to them, and not be much troubled by the doctrines that don't.  It's in that fuzzy region between "obviously true" and "obviously false," where anyone who honestly wants to know which it is has to dedicate some serious time and energy to finding out.  And even if they do that, the answer they come up with is going to be affected by their biases.

I don't think my own disbelief comes from my biases, because it seems to go counter to most of what I want.  But you can't tell for sure, to look at me, can you?  And I suppose that's a good part of why I still act like a good Catholic despite not believing, because I want to prove I wasn't trying to get away with anything.  I am not trying to free up an hour every Sunday or looking for an excuse to go on the Pill.

And yet, no matter what I do, that's how it's going to look.  Because here I am not convinced by the arguments you all think are obvious.  I must be dumb, bad, or hopelessly traumatized, or else I would believe!  Certainly God wouldn't let the truth be so hidden that a person who honestly wanted to believe would not be able to.  So another explanation is necessary, no matter how little I like what you think of me.

This morning I woke up to see that a comment of mine, where I confessed to not believing despite wanting to, had earned me this reply: "We are mere creatures whom He fashioned from the mud of the earth. He who fashioned us out of the mud with His hands put Himself into the hands of the mud. And the mud was ungrateful."

Ungrateful mud, because I don't see as obvious what others do.  I guess I'd better get used to this attitude, because I don't see how it can possibly go away.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


Funny how some topics seem to follow you around.  The past couple of weeks I keep hearing about meditation -- specifically, a sort of secular/Buddhist variety.

My first exposure to meditation was when I was maybe six years old on a long car trip with my family.  My brother told me that when he got bored on car trips, he would meditate.  I asked what that was, and he said, "Well, you just think of nothing."

"You can't ever think of nothing," I said.

"I guess I just imagine blackness," he said.

Because the driving force of my life at the time was to be the yin to my brother's yang, I tried imagining whiteness.  That turned into puffy clouds, which brought to mind birds, planes, angels, Care Bears, and so forth.  It was a fun way to kill time on a long car ride, but I guess it was probably not meditating.

Of course in boarding school I meditated lots, though Catholic meditation is something different.  You're trying to reflect on a specific topic.  But it does have this in common with all forms of meditation -- it requires mental discipline, where you consciously try to control your train of thought and pull it back from all the places it wants to wander to.  That is apparently the point of meditation -- it builds your brain power and focus.

The past few weeks, I've read two books about meditation, just out of curiosity: the first one Waking Up, by Sam Harris, and the other 10% Happier, by Dan Harris (no relation).

Waking Up was a book I was prepared to hate, and sure enough I did.  I had read the first chapter online and found no answer to the question, "But why would I want to do that?"  Checked out the book from the library, and the answer is in fact not in the book anywhere.

The point of the book is that the self is an illusion and therefore through meditation, enlightenment, and perhaps mind-altering drugs, you can become aware of this.  There was quite a bit of fascinating stuff about the structure of the brain in there, which I think is extremely cool, but it didn't convince me that the self is an illusion.  And even if it were one, I don't see why I would want to be conscious of that.  I like being myself.  Why would it make me happier to experience some other variety of consciousness that doesn't include a notion of myself?  Heck, I already feel I'm losing myself sometimes, and it's not a good feeling, it's a bad feeling.  So I don't get it.

I also think that Buddhism can oversell itself in a culty way just as badly as any other religion, and even when it's secularized like Harris is trying to do.  It lures you in with a bit of harmless meditation, but to attain real enlightenment you're going to have to find a teacher.  The teacher has absolutely no way to prove to you he knows what he's doing, so you just have to guess.  (In fairness, this problem is addressed in the book.)  Sam Harris is not "enlightened," himself, though he claims to have experienced moments of enlightenment.  But it just makes me wonder, is anyone actually enlightened?  Or do they just pretend to be because it gets them legions of adoring fans?  And if true enlightenment makes you content to live in squalor the rest of your days, is that really something we should be seeking after?  I'd like a form of enlightenment that would cause me to love my neighbor so much that any sacrifice for others would be easy.  I could be the next Mother Teresa and enjoy it too.  And can I get that to-go, please?

The other problem is that no mention at all is made of the dark sides of this process.  I would love to see scientists explore these.  (I guess they are starting to?) In Catholic thought, we talk about the dark night of the soul, and Buddhist thought has similar dark stages.  Certainly in boarding school, I found that when we went on our first silent retreat, everyone was raving about it.  It had been blissful, wonderful, they felt so close to God.  And after the second one, everyone shared that they had felt empty, lonely, dark.  That this was the time when God was showing them that you don't need big sparkly feelings with him all the time.  And the more I read about the spiritual life, the more I find that this is universal -- new converts have lots of bliss, while old practitioners find that consoling experiences happen less and less often.

Both in Buddhism and in Catholicism, we are reassured that this dark stage will pass and we will experience further bliss.  But how are we to know this is true?  You can't find out if it's true without passing through the dark stages, and furthermore you need a guide to help you through those.  It sounds to me almost as though neophytes are hooked with early blissful experiences, those fade, and they keep on trying and trying to get them back.  Soon they are worse off than when they started, but their teachers promise them it will get better, IF they stick around and follow the teacher.  And there is no way to tell if your teacher knows what they're doing.

Yep.  Recipe for a cult, and perhaps a psychological illness over the top of that.  It reminds me of health gurus who give you a tonic which is supposed to make you feel better, but it makes you feel worse.  Then they tell you, "Oh, that's just detoxing, keep taking it and you'll feel better eventually."  How long are you supposed to wait?  And how much do you trust the guru?

So, that's why I'm scared of meditation and not at all interested in "enlightenment," whether a Buddhist understanding of it or some secularized version.  I'd rather just be good old unenlightened me.

Which is why 10% Happier was a very good choice for my next read.  Dan Harris tells his life story, all about how stressed and anxious he was, how he went through depression and PTSD, but lacked self-awareness to the point that he was unaware of even being ill.  Meditation definitely helped him, not to experience nirvana, but to become in his words just ten percent happier.  He learned to detach himself a bit from the emotions he was feeling by learning to observe them instead of just experiencing them and trying to smother them.  He learned to listen to his inner monologue and eventually shut it up a little bit.  From his perspective, meditation was just great.  It's just a way to teach himself to be more mindful and slow down.

He spends a lot of time addressing his initial fears of meditation -- that it would make him lose his edge, that he would stop caring about the things that were important to him, that he would be so "zen" he wouldn't succeed anymore at his competitive job (he is a television anchor).  And he found that for the most part it actually made him more successful, because he stopped reacting without thinking and started to reflect more.  What pitfalls there were, he managed to fix by striving for balance.

His book made me actually think of trying it.  A little.  I mean, science has found it builds gray matter in the brain, lightens depression, decreases impulsivity, all sorts of great things! 

On the other hand, Harris's description of himself post-meditation is roughly how I am now.  I am very mindful, in general, of my environment, my emotions, and my inner voice.  When something bad happens to me, I already remind myself that I will eventually feel better, that I shouldn't make it worse by worrying about the future, that I can make it better or worse by the way I describe the situation to myself.  I thought that was basic.  Are there many people walking around these days as completely oblivious to their inner life as the pre-meditation Dan Harris?

So I'm not really sure what meditation would do for me anyway.  I guess what appeals to me is the thought of having some time in my life that was extra peaceful and quiet.  And heck, wouldn't it be nice if I too could be ten percent happier?  Life's pretty good, but I think we'd all like to be slightly happier.

Both authors give the same description of how to meditate.  You sit someplace, close your eyes, and pay attention to your breathing.  Thoughts pop into your head, like they always do, and you notice them but bring your attention back to your breathing.  The same goes for sensory stimuli, sounds or whatever.  You just notice them but put your attention back on your breathing.

That's all.  Pretty simple.  None of the stuff I have heard of as being "bad" -- trying to empty your mind entirely, or saying mantras over and over.  You can do five minutes a day and it's supposed to be a really healthy thing for your brain.  They're getting military recruits to do it now, to help them be less impulsive, teaching it to businesspeople to improve their focus, even training kids to meditate.

I'm not entirely sold.  I mean, what if it really is just the first hit of a drug that turns out to be really dangerous?  Most people don't have the discipline to do it a lot, so they'll be fine, but what if once in awhile someone tries to go hardcore and damages their brain?  Can that happen?  How can we be sure it won't?

If this sounds like paranoia, yes it is.  I am conscious of my mental state right now and labeling it "paranoia."  I am paranoid of religion, clubs, therapy, and meditation, so sue me.

But I have started doing one simple thing that I think is helpful and hopefully is harmless.  When I am stressed and anxious, I try to spend maybe thirty seconds or a minute being mindful.  Not meditating, exactly, because I keep my eyes open and I don't try all that hard to focus.  I just try to stop thinking about the past or future and just enjoy the moment I'm in.  I realized some time ago, when I was in the middle of some crisis, that all of my sadness was coming from either things that had happened before, or that I was afraid of happening in the future.  Right now, I realized, nothing bad was actually happening.  I could take a break from being unhappy and just enjoy the beautiful day that was going on.  It wasn't hiding my head in the sand, because I knew I'd be taking my troubles back up in a minute, but just taking a moment to be happy (at least a little bit happy) because the present itself did not actually stink.

And when I think of my life now, how much of my time I spend worrying about what I need to get done, whether I'm ruining my kids, how much I'd love an hour for something I plan to accomplish, complaining about things I can't change .... it's a perfect scenario for trying to turn down the volume of that mental chatter and be more present in the present.  Right now, the kids are playing nicely; right now, I am sitting comfortably; right now, it's a beautiful day in the spring.  I would hate to let this go by, not noticing it because I am waiting for summer or wishing for the weekend or wondering what I can serve for dinner, and then tomorrow think, "Today is terrible, I wish it were yesterday again!"

So, mindfulness, YES.  Meditation .... still no.

Do you meditate?
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