Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Jefferson and Madison's push for Religious Liberty

 Kenneth C. Davis, Smithsonian magazine:

In newly independent America, there was a crazy quilt of state laws regarding religion. In Massachusetts, only Christians were allowed to hold public office, and Catholics were allowed to do so only after renouncing papal authority. In 1777, New York State’s constitution banned Catholics from public office (and would do so until 1806). In Maryland, Catholics had full civil rights, but Jews did not. Delaware required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Several states, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official, state-supported churches.

In 1779, as Virginia’s governor, Thomas Jefferson had drafted a bill that guaranteed legal equality for citizens of all religions—including those of no religion—in the state. It was around then that Jefferson famously wrote, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But Jefferson’s plan did not advance—until after Patrick (“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”) Henry introduced a bill in 1784 calling for state support for “teachers of the Christian religion.”

Future President James Madison stepped into the breach. In a carefully argued essay titled “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” the soon-to-be father of the Constitution eloquently laid out reasons why the state had no business supporting Christian instruction. Signed by some 2,000 Virginians, Madison’s argument became a fundamental piece of American political philosophy, a ringing endorsement of the secular state that “should be as familiar to students of American history as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution,” as Susan Jacoby has written in Freethinkers, her excellent history of American secularism.

Among Madison’s 15 points was his declaration that “the Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an inalienable right.”

Madison also made a point that any believer of any religion should understand: that the government sanction of a religion was, in essence, a threat to religion. “Who does not see,” he wrote, “that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?” Madison was writing from his memory of Baptist ministers being arrested in his native Virginia.

...the Virginia legislature took up Jefferson’s plan for the separation of church and state. In 1786, the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, modified somewhat from Jefferson’s original draft, became law. The act is one of three accomplishments Jefferson included on his tombstone, along with writing the Declaration and founding the University of Virginia. (He omitted his presidency of the United States.) After the bill was passed, Jefferson proudly wrote that the law “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”
Madison wanted Jefferson’s view to become the law of the land when he went to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. And as framed in Philadelphia that year, the U.S. Constitution clearly stated in Article VI that federal elective and appointed officials “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution, but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

 Late in his life, James Madison wrote a letter summarizing his views: “And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

Monday, December 16, 2013

All is Fragile (Examination of the Axiom "All is Well")

2003 Iran Bam Earthquake: 26,271 casualties
2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami: 230,000 casualties

2005 Pakistan Kashmir Earthquake: 75,000 casualties
2008 China Sichuan Earthquake: 69,195 casualties

2010 Haiti Earthquake: 159,000 casualties
2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami: 15,883 casualties

2013 Typhoon Haiyan death toll 6,000 in the Philippines

Voltaire was right to attack the axiom all is well and that this is the best of all possible worlds. You philosophers who say "All is well." How could a human know enough to conclude such a statement. Hubris or faith.

In today's world it is at least within our grasp to get a hold of more information on what is happening around the world. But even with the information age we do not even begin to touch the total elemental drama that goes on. Each day there is a new tragedy or horrific event that underlines the ever present danger and fragility for a primate species living on a rock in space going around a nuclear fire ball we call the Sun. Viral infections, flesh eating bacteria, children with cancer, tsunamis and earthquakes that kill thousands upon thousands, genocide, suicide, and accidents that take us out in ridiculous fashion from choking on food or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Death may tarry for you but it will not wait forever.

People who point to this are sometimes maligned as debbie downers or overly pessimistic thinkers but the most pessimistic thinker cannot even grasp or come close to absorbing the day to day drama that goes on Planet Earth.
Give me the most pessimistic Schopenhauer and the most stoic Epictetus and have them face the total elemental drama each day on earth and like Medusa it would turn them to stone and the shock would break them into a thousand pieces. And that is just a journey through today's drama on Earth. Human beings are not made to absorb it all and must partialize the world to operate in it. Imagine trying to cover the history of human civilization and then try to absorb the natural history of hundreds of millions of years of that type of activity on this Planet! This is beyond human brain capability especially in our day to day lives. If we try to imagine the natural history and the human drama on Earth I think of the quote "belief in the supernatural is a failure of imagination" because when you start to go down that path of imagination you come to a realization that it would be a rather large leap of faith to make any final conclusions and presumptions on this existence especially conclusions about the gods or providence.

We can only grasp it in moments and even then it does not come close to encompassing the reality on the Blue rock. On my website I have the statement "See the world in its fullness" to promote an ideal to strive for because I do think it is possible to increase our awareness of reality and become more magnanimous to each other. Even with this ideal I know it is an uphill climb with our mental limitations and evolutionary baggage.
People have a hard time with the imagination for their own reality much less the immense variety of life and deep history of life. You can see this list and go over some of the natural disasters and the numbers of victims in your head but it is hard to really grasp it for each individual caught in the way of nature's force. As the infamous saying goes, "One life is a tragedy, one million a statistic." The sad truth is that we can touch the numbers but can never grasp it. Sade exclaimed "What is all the worlds suffering to just one of my desires." We condemn Sade but sadly his solipsism is more common than we would like to admit. One could add to the solipsistic Sade "What is all the worlds suffering to just one of our ideologies?"

We protect our sacred ideologies by ignoring the reality in front of our nose. We make light of the real victims of cruel fate and their suffering to protect our imaginary gods. The Earth could swallow a million children today and the dogmatic will still state "All is well." To paraphrase Becker we stand over a grotesque amount of corpses and suffering and declare life good. Stephen Colbert in one of his ironic comic bits wagged his finger at Death for not respecting the sanctity of life. As Camus stated that which exalts life adds to its absurdity. You can deny death by exclaiming you are immortal but I can take you to the local hospital or nursing home and you will see patients in some cases where their brain, personality, or soul if you will is no longer in tact and is no longer there...why would it survive the complete death of the body if it cannot even survive it while the heart and blood still pumps? Aristotle was correct to think that for solipsistic humans "luck is when the other person gets hit with an arrow." I think for humans to even begin to reach our full potential on empathy and compassion we need to start with the axiom "it could have been me, I am not special or superior by any deity or merit" instead of the unprovable claim "all is well." A better axiom in the context of life history on Earth would be "All is fragile."


Come, ye philosophers, who cry, “All’s well,”

And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,
This child and mother heaped in common wreck,
These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts--
A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,
Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,
Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,
In racking torment end their stricken lives.
To those expiring murmurs of distress,
To that appalling spectacle of woe,

Will ye reply: “You do but illustrate
The iron laws that chain the will of God”?
Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:

“God is avenged: the wage of sin is death”?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?

Thus the whole world in every member groans:
All born for torment and for mutual death.
And o’er this ghastly chaos you would say
The ills of each make up the good of all!
What blessedness! And as, with quaking voice,
Mortal and pitiful, ye cry, “All ’s well,”
The universe belies you, and your heart
Refutes a hundred times your mind’s conceit.

Man crawls and dies: all is but born to die:
The world ’s the empire of destructiveness.
This frail construction of quick nerves and bones
Cannot sustain the shock of elements;
This temporary blend of blood and dust
Was put together only to dissolve;
This prompt and vivid sentiment of nerve
Was made for pain, the minister of death:
Thus in my ear does nature’s message run.

  • Voltaire, Examination of the Axiom "All is well"

  • Psychoanalyzing God

    Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She completed her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Iowa and postdoctoral studies at the University of Washington. She subsequently joined the staff of Seattle Children’s Hospital and ran Children’s Behavior and Learning Clinic in Bellevue, Washington, before moving to a private clinic. Eventually it became clear that social and political trends were undermining what she was trying to accomplish as a mental health practitioner: to have there be a little less pain and a little more delight in the world. She closed her practice to take on some of those bigger issues.

    The ancient God of Judaism by Edward Platt
    "Here, as elsewhere, one gets the impression that the God of Genesis has infinite patience for the domestic affairs of matriarchs and patriarchs. He is not a remote divinity or a sky-dwelling immortal: He is as directly involved in the lives of His people as the Greek gods were in theirs. He is a God of the household squabble and the family row. A God you can consult about your marriage, and a God who gets involved in questions of real estate."

    Friday, December 13, 2013

    Photography in East Africa - Nick Brandt

    Nick Brandt: The completion of Nick Brandt’s trilogy: “On This Earth, A Shadow Falls, Across
    the Ravaged Land.” Release date, September 3, 2013 (Abrams Books, 2013), documents the disappearing natural world and animals of East Africa. This is the third and final volume of Nick Brandt's work which reveals the darker side of his vision of East Africa’s animal kingdom and the juxtaposition of mankind. The trilogy marks the last decade of a stunning world of the beauty of East Africa’s Serengeti, Maasai Mara, Amboseli, and ends with a dark and well-known unhappy ending.


    Friday, December 6, 2013

    A Hell of a Claim continued

    1. The unjust God problem:


      2. Hell fulfills a powerful wish to punish those who disagree with you or are different than you:

     3. Free Will and Determinism:

     4. The Fragile Brain:

    5. The Laughing Lions:

    A Hell of a Claim

    Since I am one of the few skeptics that I know of in my family and death may not tarry too long for me I might as well put down my thoughts concerning this man-made idea of hell. I want my family to know I have good and honorable reasons to oppose this malicious concept.
    I think there are many philosophical problems with the concept of Hell and many natural explanations for its existence within the human mind.

    1. The unjust God problem:
     To punish someone for a crime they did not commit would be unjust and the Adam and Eve story even if true would be a problem of justice because it condemns all of mankind that follows for the sin of one. It also presupposes that the Adam and Eve story is true to some degree and that story is at best a metaphor and has no scientific basis or connection to the natural history of the human species. To condemn humans based on a metaphor or myth would be unjust even if it were true.

    Also the punishment must fit the crime. Disbelieving in things that have little evidence besides the claims of other primates does not seem like a crime that deserves eternal hell.   You could even use the ontological argument to dethrone the Christian God. No great being would allow a Hell to exist and no great being would punish people when there is not sufficient evidence for its existence. The ontological could bring a person to a belief in God but like Thomas Paine or Benjamin Franklin you could postulate because that God is perfect and great it would not be the God of Abraham because as Thomas Paine opined he felt the God of the Bible was neither just, great, or perfect. For Thomas Paine that God was unjust, anthropomorphic, inconsistent, and provincial.  Thomas Paine was a Deist and defended God by stating that the religions had it all wrong and that God was blasphemed in his mind to be associated with the prior religions.
    If I came to you and said person x was born of a virgin and walked on water it would not then mean that the person was necessarily great or perfect. They may be unique or miraculous but great and perfect? They may actually be doing these things by some other power than a god. According to the Old Testament Pharaoh's magicians in contrast to Moses performed miracles so miracles do not make one a God or what one is claiming correct. Does might make right? Because you are the most powerful and great being you are therefor a good and perfect being? Does might make morality? Is God moral because he is God or because there is something separate from God that is moral? A being could be great and powerful but wrong and evil. Or a being could be perfect and just but not all powerful and great. What if Satan was good and just and God was evil and all powerful? Non Serviam would be a badge of honor. That makes me think of an interesting subject whether souls in heaven have free will which means rebellion is possible in the future and eternal recurrence of this narrative of rebellion and redemption could go on forever.
      One can imagine God or a being in many ways. What if Jesus was born of a man and a woman and never rose from the dead and Adam and Eve never existed literally or even theologically. It would not mean that God does not exist it would just mean Christian theology was wrong about the God that does exist. The God that exists may want to test peoples reason and skepticism. I can imagine a God that would say "Well done my good and faithful skeptic. You did not just believe the stories humans told you about me but decided to conceive me greater than their stories." That could still fall within the ontological for me.
      Is it really a virtue to believe things without evidence and then use eternal violence or horror on people for not believing in miraculous fantastic stories that go against your conscience and reason? Seems like the punishment does not fit the crime in fact there should be no crime in disbelieving things that are not believable to your reason and conscience. Only an insecure and unjust God would do so. Or a God made up by the superstitious and spiteful minds of human beings. In short Hell is a sophomoric idea to raise one tribal ideology over the other and give the comfortable thought that in the end our tribal ideology will triumph over all others.
    No great God would do so, therefore the Judeo-Christian God cannot be God by the ontological argument because if there is a God it would be the greatest being not an insecure tyrant made in the image of a common human dictator.
    The Judeo-Christian God committed a type of genocide based on belief according to the Noah myth and even after that act of mass murder it did not solve the future problem. In the story it is said God regretted that he made mankind which would put the responsibility on God for starting this narrative of creation and destruction and then eternal torture. The Judeo-Christian God would be the ultimate source of evil and responsible for this evil. To then punish your impotent creation for your mistake would be unjust.
     The Judeo-Christian God would be unjust and the moral act (might make right?) would be to stand against a tyrant worse than Hitler and Stalin or the Judeo-Christian God is not the greatest being which means it is not God and most likely does not exist. Is something moral and just simply because a more powerful being says so?

     2. Hell fulfills a powerful wish to punish those who disagree with you or are different than you:
    Some believers will say people deny Hell because it is so scary but again this would be like claiming that people are denying ghosts and goblins or any fantasy creature because they are scary. You don't believe in the gremlins because they are scary? Could it be possible that the evidence for this idea is lacking and it would be superstitious and credulous to believe in an idea just because it is scary?? Would a great God reward people for believing things out of fear and ignorance?
    Hell is a claim without evidence and it cannot be proved.  Many can play the psychological denial game. One can say you are a Christian because you are in denial of oblivion or you are afraid of the Muslim Hell or some other after life claim. Also you will find that the people who believe in Hell do not really believe it for themselves or people inside their group identification. It is always for the other. It fulfills two great wishes of human primates that the ego is exalted and your particular group is exalted while those who are strangers to your group and are not like you are condemned to punishment. This very concept fulfills basic primitive desires of revenge and tribalism at its base level. The concept of Hell encourages servility, credulity, cowardice and tribalism. All the things that I believe are vices. A great God would  reward courage, curiosity, fairness, and compassion. A great God would reward courage not fear. It would reward truth not illusion.

    3. Free Will and Determinism:
      At best free will is determinism's prisoner.  Hume said reason is the slave of the passions one could say free will is the slave of determinism. Free Will is not free from the strings of causal events outside the paradigm of the ego. Even if you believe in inner free will and agency it is still impacted  and caged in by outside deterministic forces. The people you meet, the family you came from, the country of origin, your genetics, and a thousand other outside deterministic forces. Now with the march of Neuroscience the question of even inner control of will is questionable. But that aside the obvious outside forces that the ancient Greeks and Romans understood as Fortuna is enough to question the justice and fairness of condemning the human being to eternal damnation for such a fragile creature knocked around by Fortuna. Other questions about the after life are troublesome with the doctrine of free will. Is there free will in heaven? If so there could be an eternal threat of rebellion in heaven and the need for redemption where this movie is played over and over again. If Satan and the angels can rebel it seems other creatures of heaven can rebel with this free will card. No one is safe not even in heaven with free will ready to kick humans out of paradise once again. And if you could rebel in heaven can you not repent in hell? Since faith pleases God is there the ability to even have faith in heaven? What happens to Neanderthals? Or is free will just a passing fad for this time period. Noah's God regretted creating mankind maybe that is the case again and God will just zero it out completely in the future and be done with these troublesome problems. 

    4. The Fragile Brain: 
      In short it is being proved over and over again that parts of  our person or soul die while we are still alive.  The brain is altered and fragile and so is the "soul".  Something that is fundamental to this existence, to this Universe, is that everything falls apart, is fragile, finite, vulnerable, and passing away. The fragility of this "glass existence" is something known to humans but it is at the same time a vague fog in our consciousness. Awareness of this comes and goes. The model of the "Bundle Theory" points to the fact that our ego our "self" is made up of a variety of connected parts in our neurology and physiology. There is no fixed you. It is an assembly of parts and connections that are in this moment coming together to be what you think you are but it is balanced on a precarious bundle of strings that can unravel by too much force, drugs, or disease. The self is a sand castle that will not last the incoming tide of time and entropy. The sand will be carried away to the sea and continue but the sand castle no longer exists as it was bundled together.

    Michael Graziano
    Professor of Neuroscience and Novelist, Princeton University
    "Nobody who spends appreciable time with brain-damaged patients can avoid the obvious conclusion. The brain is the source of the mind. Descartes' idea, aside from being wrong in the particulars, has a deeper problem. There is no part of the brain that, when damaged, takes away the Cartesian soul. Instead damage to different structures takes away different chunks of the mind. The ability to formulate a sentence? Lost in damage to Broca's area. The ability to understand language? Lost in damage to Wernicke's area. The ability to see, imagine, or comprehend color? Lost in damage to specific regions of the visual system. The ability to think about the space around the body? Lost in damage to another set of brain areas. The ability to intuit the feelings and intentions of others? Impaired after a stroke to a specific network of brain regions. And so on. The mind is a collective and bits of it die when parts of the machinery are mucked up. Even awareness itself, as I wrote about last time, can be splintered apart and compromised by brain damage."