Tag Archives: philosophy

Thomas Paine on God and Religion

Thomas Paine was perhaps the most important “call to action” author to have ever existed. His pamphlets are almost single-handedly credited for sparking the American and French revolution. A great writer, politician, and philosopher Paine, above all, was concerned for the rights of his fellow man, their liberty, and freedom.

It is in this context that we look to Paine for his thoughts on Religion and God as written in “Age of Reason”.

1. Was Thomas Paine an Atheist or a Christian?

First, I believe it is fair to immediately present, as Paine himself did in “Age of Reason”, his beliefs on God. Paine made it very clear that he was neither an Atheist nor a Christian, but rather a Deist.

“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist of doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy….I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.”

2. Thomas Paine on the Bible

Overall, Thomas Paine argued that the idea that God would communicate to mankind in the form of speech or writing is highly unlikely. Especially due to verbal and written communication’s tendency to change over time, vary widely between humans, and subject to alterations.

“…the idea or belief of a word of God existing in print, or in writing, or in speech, is inconsistent in itself for the reasons already assigned. These reasons, among many others, are the want of an universal language; the mutability of language, the errors to which translations are subject; the possibility of totally suppressing such a word; the probability of altering it, or of fabrication the whole, and imposing it upon the world.”

2a. The problem with Miracles

The problem with miracles, even if they are witnessed personally, is that we cannot conclude with certainty that we have not witnessed something that we just do not understand. For example, for ages people of the world found the Sun and stars to be miraculous. Today we understand them as Science. In 1794 Thomas Paine recognized the facts of human ignorance as well:

“Mankind have conceived to themselves certain laws by which they call nature is supposed to act; and that a miracle is something contrary to the operation and effect of those laws. But unless we know the whole extent of those laws, and of what are commonly called, the powers of nature, we are not able to judge whether any thing that may appear to us wonderful or miraculous, be within, or beyond, or be contrary to, her natural power of acting.”

Furthermore, if we do not witness the miracle ourselves and are told of it second-hand is it more likely a fabrication, an error, or a true miracle?

“[if a person says they saw a miracle] it raises the question in the mind very easily decided, which is, is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.”

2b. Prophecy’s weakness

Prophecy, even if it were real, would not be sufficient evidence of God due to the very nature of prophecy. If it has not happened yet then it is to come in the future. If something like the prophecy happens than it cannot be proven that it was not a coincidence. Therefore, prophecy by its very nature lacks the ingredients necessary to convince a skeptic of a Christian God. Thomas Pain put it this way:

“[Prophecy] could not answer the purpose [of proving a Christian God] even if it were real. Those to whom a prophecy should be told could not tell whether the man a prophesied or lied, or whether it had been revealed to him or whether he conceited it; and if the thing that he prophesied, or pretended to prophesy, should happen, or something like it, among the multitude of things that are daily happening, nobody could again know whether he foreknew it, or guessed at it, or whether it was accidental.”

2c. The Problem with Revelation

The problem with revelation, Thomas Paine argues, is that revelation is only revealed to the person who hears it. To everyone else revelation becomes hearsay.

“No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth , and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is hearsay to every other, and consequently, they are not obliged to believe it.”

3. Examining the timing and length of “Age of Reason”

The timing and length of “Age of Reason”, I believe, is important. For one, Paine was careful to publish “Age of Reason” toward the end of his political and writing career. He was no doubt aware that his rejection of Christianity would hinder his ability to broadcast political ideas that were, by themselves, controversial.

“Age of Reason” (1794) was published almost two decades after his call for American revolution in the pamphlet “Common Sense” (1776) and French Revolution in “Rights of Man” (1791). Paine even admits in the opening paragraph that he waited “several years” before publishing his thoughts on Religion. It seems that Paine had his priorities in line when it came to religion versus that of human rights.

Secondly, I believe the length of “Age of Reason” – which is roughly 1/3rd or less the length of this other famous works – demonstrate the importance (or lack there of) religion had in his life compared to the other important issues of his time (i.e., rights of mankind, liberty). That is to say about 1/3rd as important as everything else.

I think that it is in this context we should evaluate the overall importance of religion in our own life.  Philosophically, perhaps it is important to put first things first (improving life for our fellow man) and worry about mythology  and religion a little less.

Religious Fallacy: The absurdity Hell

For years in the pews of a Southern Baptist church in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA I listened carefully to the preacher who proclaimed wildly that “all those who don’t accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior” are doomed to an eternity in the lake of fire.  Sweat beading down his forehead and the occasional “HayMEN” from the congregation confirmed that everything he said was true.

Even as a young and devout believer I struggled with the concept of Hell. Why did an all knowing and loving God create such a place? Could the same God that walked the Earth as Jesus also create a place where people go to suffer forever? The contradictions go on and on.

An All Knowing God and Hell

God, by its very nature is all knowing, all encompassing, and perfect. So where does Hell fit in?

The logic doesn’t follow:

1. An all knowing and perfect God created humans.
2. God, being the all knowing and all powerful creator, knows that some humans will not meet his standards. Furthermore he created us that way. We had nothing to do with it.
3. God sets the punishment for not meeting his standards as Hell. An eternity of suffering.
4. Thus, a “perfect” God created humans purposely flawed and already knowing that most of us will go to hell.

Does that make sense to anyone?

The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

Another problem I have with the concept of Hell is that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. How can even an entire lifetime of evil constitute and eternity of constant suffering?

Crime: Man eats too much food and lusts after women for 100 years. He finds religion harmful to society and rejects it.
Punishment: Burning in fire forever. That’s more than 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 years. FOREVER!

Am I missing something?

Do I hate religion? Should you?

I do not hate religion. I do not look down upon those people who are religious, I do not believe they are inferior intellectually, and I have no illusion that because I am not religious that I am better.

religion

The way I view religion is the way I try to understand most anything. I recognize it exist naturally and for a reason, that religion has good parts, and that it has bad parts. The intellectually challenging part is to examine all of these elements.

But in general I think religion is another  tool that humans carry in their psychological tool-bag. They use it to solve problems, to overcome obstacles, and to survive. And like all tools religion can be both positive and negative.

Sometimes people seek religion for comfort and passion, for community, to overcome addictions and problems, or maybe for the security of having something to believe in unconditionally. When religion is used as a positive tool I fully recognizes its value.

Religion can be used to justify murder, to declare on culture inferior to another, to manipulate, for greed, for tyranny, and worse. When religion is used in these ways we must closely scrutinized and criticize it.

Zooming Out: The big picture

When I discuss religion sometimes I have to remind myself to take a step back – to see the big picture. One way I do this is to remind myself of life. I remember that we all die, that our life is short, nearly meaningless in the grand scheme or cosmic reality (not valueless) and that religion is not worth hating or dwelling over. If religion helps a person achieve happiness then it has done it’s job.

It is perfectly healthy to debate with someone over the accuracy and truth in one religion or another, but in the end it’s important to remember that we are all fellow humans trying to find our way. Trying to find truth, meaning, and purpose. So attacking the thing that has given someone purpose is counterproductive and ineffective.

Finding (and revealing) truth is a slow process. The best one can do is reveal small bits of truth and meaning at a time. To ourselves and to others.

Borders: Humanity in Exile

Earlier this year Holden and I ventured across the U.S. and Mexico border from San Diego to Tijuana. We took a 45 minute trolley ride to the Mexican border and crossed on foot. The juxtaposing skylines served as a depressing metaphor for what humanity has become. The richest people to have ever existing segregating themselves from the third world by a concrete barrier. All to protect our jobs, our border, our country. Nationality over humanity.

Immediately crossing the border there is a bridge to Tijuana that hovers over a filthy canal. In the canal are dozens of dirt and shit covered Mexicans.  Men, women, and children dressed in rags, teeth rotten, begging those Americans brave enough to cross for change. Cultural degradation as result of poverty, corruption, greed, and mal-education.

A few military guys crossing the board at the same time as Holden and I crack jokes about how they are going to “fuck some hookers” as they spit over the bridge down to where those “crazy fucks” are in the canal.

Years of conditioning has trained us to dehumanize the “other”. They are not one of us. Not human beings. We spit on them. We fuck them for pennies and brag about how cheap it was later. We separate ourselves from them by a few feet of concrete and steel. Dissociation -and the whole world is doing it.

More Borders: More Human Division

Then today I read a first hand account about another border. The border of Isreal and Palestine.

“I went to Israel. Saw a city much like any city in Europe. Clean streets. Beautiful big store fronts. Sidewalks. Nice signs telling you where to go. Little stands and shops everywhere. Great food from around the world. Pastries, pizza. It was Europe, basically. I loved it. It was very clean! It was great…

…You exit and on the other side [of the border]is a tall wire fence covered with barbed wire. There is graffiti all over the wall. The buildings are crumbling. No nice food, streets made of dirt, everyone is poor…”

It all sounds so familiar. Those fortunate enough to be rich create barriers to separate ourselves from those who are poor. Sometime we even call those people enemy. Subhuman. Terrorist. Barbarians. Backward.

Then we wonder why the have-nots are willing to die, to kill, and to terrorize. We wonder why these same people can be converted to extremism. Meanwhile we maintain a foreign policy of separatism, elitism, and turning a blind eye to exploitation. How can you call yourself a Christian, a Jew, a man of integrity, and moral atheist, a human being – and be okay with any of this?

Morality, Purpose, and Conscious Self-Evaluation

Purpose, I believe, is what makes us tick. It is what keeps each and every human alive, engaged, and ultimately happy.

Upon self-assessment some individuals may come to the conclusion that family, career, or hobbies are what define happiness, but ultimately each of these things are a subset of a higher need – Purpose. If a particular element of our life does not fulfill our need to satisfy purpose (and give us cause to exist) each of these things become just another mundane part of our life. So, by its very nature, it is purpose that defines what is important to us – everything else is secondary.

The trouble with purpose, however, is that it always runs the risk of being misguided, one sided, or blinding.

Religion comes to mind when I think about purpose. For some people religion serves as a moral compass. It operates as a self-check to enhance ones character and actions. There are even cases of violent criminals who become mentors and community activist. When religion is used in this way it is a blessing.

On the other end of the spectrum religion blinds or even radicalizes. I have had discussion with intelligent individuals who have no ability to think logically when it comes to religious subject matter.  It becomes impossible for them to see past their own religious presuppositions. Religion, for these people, has become a blind passion.

Self-Evaluate: Does the thing that gives you purpose add value to your life?

The only mechanism available to each of us to balance the natural need for purpose and the somewhat unnatural necessity of clear thinking is constant and conscious self-evaluation. We must ask ourselves if our purpose in life in which we draw meaning is ultimately a hinderance.

For example, a person who is passionate about conservative politics may ask him/herself:

“Have I given the more liberal opinion a fair and unbiased examination? What can I do to better understand the opposing opinion? What points of their argument make sense? Do I have enough information to make an educated decision? How do I feel emotionally about this topic and is that hindering my ability examine the facts without bias?”

In this way it becomes possible to avoid letting our natural inclination for purpose and meaning become a mechanism for ignorance. Purpose is only valuable to the extent it drives one to become a better person.

The Human Condition: On killing

The nature of man is interesting. Ultimately, I think we are, by instinct, selfish. The only thing that keeps us from our natural inclinations of selfishness is our humanity – our unique ability to recognize morality and consciously apply “goodness”.

But all of our instincts aren’t bad. For example, in “On Killing” Lt. Col. Dave Grossman argues that, even in war, it is against man’s natural instinct to kill his fellow human. In fact, throughout history men have desperately avoided killing each other – even at the potential expense of their own lives.

“Note the nature of such a ‘conspiracy to miss’. Without a word being spoken, every soldier who was obliged and trained to fire reverted…even more remarkable…is the fact that a significant number of soldiers in combat elect not even to fire over then enemy’s head, but instead do not fire at all…”

Grossman recounts incidents of non-fighters in the civil war:

“…after the Battle of Gettysburg, 27,574 muskets were recovered…of these nearly 90% (24,000) were loaded. Twelve thousand of these loaded muskets were found to be loaded more than once and six thousand had from three to ten rounds loaded in the barrel. One weapon had been loaded twenty-three times…The obvious answer is that most soldiers were not trying to kill the enemy.”

Of course, as humans, we have the unique ability to overcome our natural instincts. Sometimes for good, but also for bad. One such example is the military’s training techniques to “condition” soldiers to kill.

“The history of warfare can be seen as a history of increasingly more effective mechanism for enabling conditioned men to overcome their innate resistance to killing their fellow human being…The [military’s] training methods increased the firing rate from 15% to 90% [and] are referred to as ‘programming’ or ‘conditioning’ [the soldiers]”

Maybe life is a constant struggle between good and bad. A battle to avoid our natural inclinations for evil and to embrace our predispositions to do good. As such, even the most conditioned soldier reveals his humanity:

“I can remember whispering foolishly, ‘I’m sorry’ and then just throwing up…I threw up all over myself. [Killing] was a betrayal of what I’d been taught since a child.”

The conscious application of Good

I really want to be a good man.  I’m not sure if other people feel that way consciously, but I have the feeling that not everyone does. I think about integrity and standards a lot. I even catch myself readjusting my behavior to align with my expectations. Sometimes its natural, sometimes it takes conscious effort.

Even when I’m reading the news or having a conversation I do this. Sometimes I’ll be reading a news article about the economy or politics and find myself slipping into an unconscious habit of judgement or negativity and I’ll become aware of that – I force myself to evaluate my natural feelings and self-assess their value. Sometimes I find that my thoughts were valid and sometimes not.

For example, one of my shortcomings is empathy. Empathy for strangers and even for people like my wife. I’m too quick and unconcerned. My natural self says “you are making this too big a deal”, “stop whining”, or “it’s because they are lazy”. The stream of disinterest goes on.

What takes real effort is to step outside your own presuppositions and personal experience. If you can do this you can begin to see the world through different prisms, to solve problems you couldn’t within your own framework, and at a minimum – become more empathetic and understanding. I try to do this – consciously – and usually fail, but sometimes succeed too.

I often worry that not enough people consciously, of their own accord, want to be good. I don’t even  know if people care about being good. And I don’t think people who are forced to be good by religious ideas or peer pressure are in the same boat either. They think someone is watching – that their is a reward or punishment – and that modifies their behavior. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not what I’m talking about.

The thing I wonder about are people who make an effort to be good for the sake of nothing, but maybe humanity. Maybe some arbitrary and undefined goodness. Good for the sake of good. I don’t know what that is and I don’t know if that makes sense, but it drives me. I don’t even really know what good is – I guess it’s subjective.

If I had to define “good” or a “good person” I guess I would say it’s anyone who is working through it. Anyone who consciously tries to do right – and follows through with actions of goodness as result. A person working through their own shortcomings to do better by their fellow man – I think that’s good.

Of course a person who tries to do good, but ends up committing evil anyways is not good. So good by it’s very nature has to emerge first in the consciousness and result in action. I guess that’s where I’m at – somewhere at the intersection of the consciousness and application of good.

Lessons in Fatherhood: Part 3

When I was a kid we struggled to pay the bills, but my Dad was a crafty guy. He refused “real” work, but was king when it came to unorthodox ways to come by a buck. One of those unorthodox ways involved 1000 cassette tapes.

Derek gave my Dad two boxes of cassette tapes – Hip-hop albums. I have no idea why my Dad accepted such a gift, but he has never been one to refuse free stuff. No matter how strange or possibly stolen that “free” stuff might be. So in our damp garage set 1000 cassette tapes for what must have been years.

Then came the day. Sitting in the kitchen one evening our lights went to dark. My Dad peaked out of the window and waited for the technician to leave. Our power bill hadn’t been paid for months, but my Dad was just smart enough to know how to turn our meter back on. This time was different – the power company placed a tamper-proof lock over our power meter. With a note: “Please pay your overdue balance.”

After a day or two without power we had enough. The food in our refrigerator had become sour – and made the house smell like death, the Georgia heat was becoming too much to bear, and showers without hot water was the last straw. My Dad decided to pay. He devised a scheme.

The Scheme

My Mother and I sat in front of local retailers and asked for donations, any donation, in exchange for a cassette tape. Myself, an 8 year old kid and my Mother, a cripple in a wheel chair. We even had t-shirts from an old church youth group we had attended years before. The fact that the cassette tapes were riddled with vulgarities like “The Bitch is Back” written in bold letters on the front – didn’t seem to bother anyone. The donations flowed and our pockets filled.

Sometime people would give $1, sometimes $10. Sometimes the store manager would get suspicious and kick us out of their parking lot for soliciting. No one ever called the cops on a kid and a lady in a wheel chair though. The plan was perfect.

I even got my cut of the cash. Even though I was embarrassed – the thought of helping my parents pay the bills and earning $20 seemed too good to pass up. In reality what my Father had us doing was immoral, sad, and fucked up – but in a lot of ways that was my childhood. Lessons learned in the strangest ways – lessons that will stick with me forever.

My Daughter

Now that I’m having a little girl of my own I wonder how she will learn these same lessons? I wonder how she will learn what it feels like to truly contribute to the family and feel proud of that? I wonder how she will learn to appreciate electricity, paid bills, and hot showers? I wonder if she will ever really appreciate what it feels like to humble yourself, to give up your pride, to help your family. I wish I could grant her that knowledge without that experience – but I don’t think I can.

Read Lessons in Fatherhood: Part 2.

We are drones. Good slaves. Obedient.

A co-worker, Angie, and I had dinner tonight. A meal and a drink.  She chose a fine glass of wine I had never heard of. I was immediately drawn to the dark beer they had on draft, locally brewed, of course.

Angie grew up in a well established suburb of north Atlanta – her neighbors included a few famous Braves baseball players from the mid-90’s you’ve probably heard of and she went to a top private school. Her father is the proud owner of a PHD in religion from Yale. He even did a short stint on a conservative late night radio show some years back.

Angie spent a few months in Europe and was a member of a popular sorority. She and her father are both recent converts to Catholicism. Her mother refuses to call herself anything but Southern Baptist.

To be honest most guys would probably enjoy the company of Angie, but to me she is almost as uninteresting a person I can imagine.

She’s traveled around Europe, but had almost nothing to say about really being there. She spoke fondly of Catholicism, but wrinkled her forehead in disapproval at the mention of Islam.  Privilege and opportunity without an ounce of character or depth.

Angie is an A+ student. Money, fashion, cars, diplomas, education, job titles, religion, and an SUV all mixed together in a carefully blended milkshake of American-made mental incarceration. Life is blurred by lens of perspective that can almost certainly never be undone.  It’s a phenomena I can barely explain.

Angie is a person, but not one.  She’s there, but I can’t have a conversation with her. It doesn’t work – there’s a part missing. The spark that makes us human – the part that allows us to have the basic interaction that proves to one human to another that you are alive – that you are thinking – is missing.

That thing that used to make us human – thought, love, discussion, disagreement, depth. That connection you can only sense from instinct that draws you to an individual, and says, we’re on the same team, we get each other, we’re both human!  It has been replaced with smart screens and anti-social networks. We are drones. Good slaves. Obedient.

I finished my dark beer. A milky head, slightly sweet.

Atheists and Heaven: “But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Pope Francis gave a homily recently that changed things. It forced the world to have a conversation: to think about what it means to be a good person and the value of doing good.

“They complain,” Francis said, “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” He explained that Jesus corrected them, “Do not hinder him, he says, let him do good.”

The disciples, Pope Francis explained, “were a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea of possessing the truth, convinced that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” “This was wrong… Jesus broadens the horizon.” Pope Francis said, “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation.”

“Even them, everyone, we all have the duty to do good, Pope Francis said on Vatican Radio.

“Just do good” was his challenge, “and we’ll find a meeting point.”

Francis explained himself, “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart, do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

The impact of this homily is less about “who get’s into heaven” and more about the necessity of ALL PEOPLE doing good, the value of compassion, and humanity. That is an example all people, all religions, and all dogmas can respect and learn from.

Since then the catholic church has slightly redacted that statement, but it’s none-the-less interesting.