Reflection

It’s still unseasonably cold here.  Honestly.  What do we have to do to get some Indian Summer thrown our way?  And since I’m nearly as cold in the city as I was at the cottage (okay, that’s hyperbolic- it was DAMN cold at the cottage) I’ve been wishing I was back there more than a little bit.

I got to thinking today about one of the kitchen chats I joined after walking in on it in the middle- because that’s what we do- talk, interject, offer opinions/advice/whatever.  The things friends do when interested in each others’ ideas, opinions and perspectives.  They were discussing atheism vs. agnosticism and asked me to define both terms.  I offered my definition- and some of the reasoning behind my non-belief, which led to the same argument which our host and I have been having for well over two decades.

Theism is defined by the belief that at least one deity exists- somewhere- and the term is commonly used to describe the belief in a deity that is personal, present and active in the world/universe and who is gainfully employed in providing its governance.  Therefore, an a-theist is someone who does not believe that any such a deity exists.

Going back to the original Greek roots of the term, I am literally ‘without gods’.

And I’m good with that.

Agnosticism is a bit more complicated- and varied- in its definition- and that was a source of a bit of contention.  Also from the Greek, agnostic literally means ‘without knowledge’ and generally is applied to those who neither believe nor disbelieve in the existence of a god- or many gods- as they have been imagined and described by people.

Agnostics admit to ‘not knowing’.  They‘re good with that.

Some will apply more of a philosophical meaning to the term, asserting that human reason and rationality are not capable of justifying whether- or not- deities do- or do not- exist.  Essentially those philosophers among us would claim that there is no way of knowing one way or the other.  Some suggest that you ‘can’t prove a negative’ and this ‘evidence of absence’ argument is one that is often tossed around when believers and non-believers (or those who allow for uncertainty) ‘discuss’ such things.

I concede that proving the non-existence of something is pretty tough to do, but I also suggest (as have others before me) that the flip side of that little tautology is that those who maintain the existence of something are likewise required to offer proof- that is acceptable to my particular worldview– that that same thing DOES exist.

Otherwise, I’m not likely to buy what you’re selling.

And since no one has, as of yet anyway, offered me anything remotely resembling definitive proof that the gods are anything other than the creations of us human beings, I’m very comfortable with my non-belief and I will thank you to not attempt to sway me to your perspective.

By all means- believe as you wish.  We are fortunate to live in a society that allows us the freedom of our beliefs- and their expression (at least at the moment and in Provinces other than Quebec…) so I will likewise not attempt to disabuse you of any privately held views on religion and gods.

Do I have time for proselytising?  Can’t say as I do.  Sometimes my Canadian politesse comes into conflict with this reality, but as willing as I am to hear you out in your argumentation, if it includes anything about me being condemned to eternal hellfire or cursed for my non-belief, I’ll likely cut you off pretty quickly.

Name-calling has no place in rational discourse, and telling me that I’m ‘damned’ isn’t nice at all.

And attacks launched from the defensive?  Also not attractive.  Nor something that will incline me to listen all that sincerely to what you have to say.

Clear example of this tension- but also the way in which it is consistently overcome- is the ongoing discussion about this subject that takes place repeatedly.  We will never agree on the divinity/non-divinity of Jesus (although ‘never’ is a word I hesitate to use.  Too restricting- he might yet change his mind…  Joking.  Seriously- just joking.  He knows I’m joking- and that I’m not looking to change his mind on the subject).

As an historian of religion. I believe in the existence of Jesus as an historical figure who sought change within his religious framework and social milieu, and that the guy had great ideas and inclinations toward inclusion, love and peace.  He was a radical dude, seeking religious and cultural change for the better.

A prime example of the heights of humanity to which we should all aspire?

Zero argument there.

Son of a deity?  One third of a triumvirate god that became incarnate in human form?  Immortal and supernatural?

None of the above.

The thing with this ongoing discussion is that we always take the time to listen to what the other person has to say, and we both are secure enough in our belief(s) that we can maintain a sense of humour about the arguments.  We happily agree to disagree.

When I touched upon this subject previously, I offered up an meme I’ve seen circulating that demonstrates the worst of the ‘New Atheist’ propensity toward labeling those with opposing views as ‘stupid’ or the like.

Not productive.

On the other side of the fence… I happened upon this little gem (that would be sarcasm) last night:

Also not remotely cool.

Although I’d think that Dawkins (and Hitchens before he died) would likely have found it quite amusing to be described as one of the harbingers of the Apocalypse.

A mythological story about the ending of all things and the return of a deity in which they do not believe.

Productive.

Such rhetoric is demonstrative of this insidious propensity toward the externalization of ‘evil’ and making people monstrous because of a differing worldview- that I keep harping on about.  Not good.

Definitely not good.

The more we vilify each other and create and perpetuate dichotomies of right/wrong, good/evil, black/white, the farther away we continue to stray from the message and the mission of teachers like Jesus of Nazareth.

One of the reasons I love and respect my friends and family (and the peeps I have had the opportunity to meet through this forum) is because we can continue to engage in dialogue without in any way dismissing or diminishing the beliefs of those around us.

Last night, while out for dinner in one of our local little restaurants (Focaccia near Yonge and Bloor.  Try it if you get the chance.  The staff is FANTASTIC), I overheard the conversation of the couple who had been at the next table, just as they were leaving.  They were discussing their full-fledged support of the nonsense in Quebec– while loudly proclaiming their total ignorance of the beliefs and traditions of those they were demonizing.

Respect for our beleaguered waiter- who had been dealing with such commentary for the duration of their meal- was the only thing that kept me from speaking out as they exited.  That, and the awareness (after years of experience) that minds cannot be forced open, and that, sadly, some people are just unwilling to even attempt to see a perspective outside of their own.

So instead I wrote this post.

In frustration that there are still so many who will not offer dignity and respect to those whose ideas differ from their own.

In exasperation that there are too many among us who still seek to divide rather than to bring together.

But also in remembrance of the fact that there are all kinds of people out there who are honestly willing to listen to one another and, as required, agree to disagree.

Lots and lots of people who realize that all humans are reflections of one another- regardless of place of origin, cultural context or belief or non-belief.

And that I am privileged to have a whole bunch of people like that in my life.

P.S. Speaking of the Four Horsemen and such things… I watched the series premiere of ‘Sleepy Hollow’ earlier this week.  Seems the Headless Horseman is really Death- that Rider on a Pale Horse who seems to have been called up by a demon-type thing in the woods around town.  Potentially interesting amalgam of a classic American story and apocalyptic mythology all thrown into the 21st century Hudson River Valley.  Will have to check it out for a while and see.  Told you apocalypses seem to be everywhere lately…

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19 comments on “Reflection

  1. Cole, I truly do appreciate the respect, courtesy and dignity with which you present your views. And I agree that, “minds cannot be forced open,” and name calling on both sides has done a remarkable job of turning away minds to thinking and exchanging thought and learning.

    We can only hope that minds remain open so light can enter, and thus we can exchange ideas and, hopefully, learn from each other along the way.

    I’d love to add the discourse…maybe this isn’t the forum, but I’d be curious to know if you’ve read, “The Case For Christ,” by Lee Strobel. If you have, thoughts???? If this isn’t the forum, email???

    Thanks again for your willingness to discuss your worldview and openness to hear mine.

    • colemining says:

      Susan- I think part of my response to fojap was actually part of my response to you. My thoughts sometimes become rather connective- it’s the way my mind works ;P
      From our exchanges I have come to appreciate the thoughtful reflection that is behind your belief, and would certainly be open to any contributions you are comfortable with sharing.
      I haven’t read ‘The Case for Christ’, but I am familiar with Lee Strobel from a purely academic perspective. I tend not to spend much time with apologists- especially those who assert the historicity of the bible (OT or NT) without any actual background in the study of the historical or larger social/religious/cultural context. Apologists are, by definition, defensive– which, as I’ve said, is not a remotely acceptable place to begin a rational examination of ideas.
      My experience- as a researcher and as a teacher- has certainly shown me that there are myriad reasons/ways/paths through which people come to embrace their ideological beliefs (religious or secular), and I am completely open to- and interested in- hearing about those paths and the experiences that led to such personal decisions.
      I have far less patience with those who attempt to ‘convert’ me due to an unexamined belief that I need to be ‘saved’.
      Thanks for reading and for your comment!

      • Taking into consideration that Strobel is an apologist, his Case For books are interviews with other people – experts in their own field – to determine outcomes. If you’re willing to take the time, I truly would be interested in your opinion/input. I think you know I’m not attempting to convert you…just would enjoy the discussion due to your own education/background.

      • colemining says:

        Susan- We will certainly discuss this more thoroughly through email, but, briefly, to your point about him interviewing experts from other fields… One of my significant issues with apologists is that they begin with a conclusion (e.g. that Jesus of Nazareth was both historical AND divine) and then seek out support for that conclusion- which often leads to random and out of context quotations taken from the works/words of others. I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily the case with Stroebel (since I not familiar enough with his work to make that assessment) but it is the modus operandi of apologists in general. We will chat more via email.

  2. fojap says:

    I understand where you’re coming from and I, too, sometimes cringe when I see some of the pro-atheist stuff. However, perhaps I’m project meaning onto your words that you didn’t intend, but you seem to think that there’s some virtue in “honestly listening to one another.” Perhaps you’re younger than I am, but I’ve grown tired of listening. I wouldn’t go so far as to say, “I’ve heard it all,” but the vast majority of the time I have. The argument just seems to go in circles. It just seems like a waste of my time now. Then again, I’m not a religious studies Ph.D., so it really is a distraction from things I do care about.

    • colemining says:

      Fojap- I understand your frustration with those who refuse to do anything other than argue in circles. Those are the ‘closed minds’ that I referenced in the post. Some people will truly never have anything of value to say- since they are completely unwilling to listen. That’s not ‘communication- that’s ‘dictation’ and of no value in rational discourse. Like the couple in the restaurant. No point in wasting breath on them. Totally agree there.
      While I am not about to be swayed in my well-examined, well-reasoned and experiential beliefs and closely-held truths, it does still interest me to listen to those who hold beliefs different from my own- not so much because of the content of the belief, but because there is often an underlying reason behind why they came to those beliefs that speaks to our shared humanity. THAT’s what I’m concerned about. The things we share. The irrelevant details on which we differ (name of god, one god or many, day of rest/reflection on a Friday or a Saturday or a Sunday and etc.) need to be made not to matter if we are going to continue moving forward as a HUMAN race.
      I am sincerely of the opinion that belief HAS to be something that is examined, evaluated and subscribed to with EYES WIDE OPEN, which is why the indoctrination of children is one of my personal problems with organized religions. Dawkins has equated it with child abuse- which is one of the reasons why I deem his rhetoric as extreme and inflammatory- but I agree with the substance of what he is getting at. We need to think critically about what we are taught rather than accepting anything blindly- so I am all for continuing, reciprocal conversation about all this stuff.
      Thanks for reading!

  3. You have a blog full of meaty ideas here! Reading your posts got me revisiting some of my own ideas. I’ve never called myself an atheist, but for a long time I’ve been pretty sure God (or whatever one might call the ultimate force behind everything) is not a pal of us humans. Is probably totally indifferent to us. But maybe that’s just me. Don’t forget, I’m a misanthrope. 😉 I’ll have to read Robinson Jeffers’s The Inhumanist again.

    • colemining says:

      Audrey- ah, the “Inhumanist” perspective. Can’t say that it jibes too closely with mine, although I do agree that humans do have a terrible tendency toward self-centredness, which is fed by the media, our politicians and the (pop)cultural realities of the West that are madly and constantly pushing consumerism as a virtue regardless of the harm it does us and the environment. I would argue that this self-centredness is a side effect of belief systems that place US at the centre of all things-primary among creatures and with dominion over all other creatures- (which, since the belief systems are human creations, makes total sense) and that it is one of the fundamentals that voices in the scientific- and ‘atheist’- communities are working hard to overcome. There are times when I can certainly fall victim to a certain amount of misanthropy- people often DO suck, no argument there. But I also am very fortunate in my community of friends and family, and I chose to believe that my microcosm is indicative of similar potentials in the macrocosm.
      Thanks for reading and for your comment.

      • You may be right; I certainly don’t know the truth about these matters. That’s what keeps life interesting and discussions like this one alive. BTW, I cited incorrectly: The poem with the character called the “inhumanist” is Robinson Jeffers’s The Double Axe.

      • colemining says:

        Jeffers used language beautifully, his philosophy is thought provoking and he was such an incredible early voice for environmentalism. I thought of him, actually, when I was writing my post about the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’ album- and ‘The Last Resort’ in particular reminds me of Jeffers sensibility and message.
        Spirited discussions are certainly one of the best things in life. Thanks for participating!

  4. Sometimes I think discussion isn’t even necessary. You don’t believe in God. I do. Big deal. No skin off of either of our backs. Now let’s talk about The Monkees instead 🙂 That is worth discussion. I would also argue that whether they admit it or not, everyone is an Agnostic. Because, like you mentioned, none of us an ever really KNOW beyond a shadow of a doubt in the existence of God. We can BELIEVE beyond the shadow of a doubt, but that’s a different thing. So I maintain you’re either a believing Agnostic or a non-believing Agnostic. Or something like that.

    • colemining says:

      While I agree with you that in many instances the discussion is irrelevant (I don’t actually walk around wearing my non-belief on my sleeve), there are a great many people who MAKE it relevant when they try to impact the lives of others in this society we share. As I suggest in the post, if we could all agree to disagree about this stuff, them there wouldn’t NEED to be anymore discussion about the whole god/no god thing.
      When someone cites their particular belief as a reason to remove any one of the freedoms that I am fortunate enough to command… THEN I have a big problem with it. Unfortunately there will always be those- on both sides of the spectrum- who will continue to push their ideology/ies into the rights of others, and THAT is what we need to be talking about. But the voices need to remain measured and rational to be of any use.
      I very much feel that I DO have proof that the gods (and the religions that spring up around them) are human constructs. My proofs lie in the tracing of historical and literary traditions that demonstrate the development of these creations. That might not be ‘proof’ of a kind that you recognize, but it is based in empirical evidence and in keeping with how I- and others- see the world. You are free to accept or reject those proofs as you will. Because we live in a free society that is supposed to retain the distinction between church and state.
      And I’m ALWAYS up to talk about the Monkees (did you ever check out my post ‘Woolhat’, btw? If anyone might appreciate it, I’m sure it’ll be you! I have to admit that I may have assigned some of the characteristics of godhood to Mr. Nesmith…)
      Thanks for the comment- and for reading!

  5. […] I mentioned, I’m cautiously interested in Sleepy Hollow- mainly because they’ve linked Washington […]

  6. I went through a similar dance with these. A nice breakdown and thanks for sharing. 🙂

  7. […] posted about self-reflection before. It’s something I try to do often- with positive intent, rather than as an impulse to […]

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