Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Marilynne Robinson vs. Scientism

posted by Rod Dreher

Here’s the best five minutes you’re likely to spend today: Jon Stewart’s interview with novelist Marilynne Robinson, discussing science and religion and her new book “Absence of Mind.” Robinson’s basic view is that scientistic reductionists claim too much for science, and offer a cartoonish, straw-man version of religion for the sake of dismissing it. “At this point in time, we need the best insights from science and the best insights from religion,” she says in this interview, and argues that the “gladiators” from both partisan camps are “inferior representatives” of their sides.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Marilynne Robinson
www.thedailyshow.com
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(Via Andrew Sullivan)



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Turmarion

posted July 12, 2010 at 9:23 am


Really good interview, making good points. I doubt it’ll change the minds of any of the “gladiators” on either side, but I think she’s pretty much right.



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jaybird

posted July 12, 2010 at 9:56 am


So what would be some examples of “the best insights from religion” that don’t also entail the sort of mushy, middle-of-the-road, “moralistic therapeutic deism” that Rod is always complaining about?



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Cultural conservative?

posted July 12, 2010 at 11:03 am


jaybird:
One of MTD’s key failings is that it finds it hard to articulate an understanding of the tragic aspect of human life; the limitations of our human nature, and the persistence of sin and failure, and the consequent need for reconciliation.
One of the most serious faults of modern liberal ethics lies in its impoverished understanding of freedom, its failure to see that it is not only external constraints on our action which limit our human flourishing. Whether or not you are happy calling it original sin, there is clearly some deep disorder within our human nature, that encourages us to be selfish, thoughtless, cowardly, violent, cruel and unfaithful. To put it another way, human wickedness appears to be a feature, rather than a bug. As St Paul has it, “I do not understand my own behaviour; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate”. Plato was very, very wrong when he argued that the key to right conduct was right knowledge (incidentally, this is one reason why both abstinence-only and “condoms and consent” sex ed will never work; they both rely on knowledge resulting in right conduct, when right conduct is really a problem of volition).
MTD, with its emphasis on feeling good about oneself, and its superficial understanding of the (somewhat over-rated) Golden Rule, finds it hard to get to grips with this.



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Fr. J

posted July 12, 2010 at 11:07 am


You’re absolutely right, Rod. This is spot on. I’m definitely going to have to read her book.



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jaybird

posted July 12, 2010 at 11:19 am


CC:
Good answer. But I’d also note that the idea that “there is clearly some deep disorder within our human nature, that encourages us to be selfish, thoughtless, cowardly, violent, cruel and unfaithful” is a typical insight of evolutionary psychology.



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Cultural conservative?

posted July 12, 2010 at 11:30 am


jaybird:
That is perhaps true. But if I was feeling mischievous I would note (in a spirit of friendly debate) that evolutionary psychology cannot explain *why* it is wrong to be selfish, cowardly, unfaithful etc. “Damaging to my genes’ prospect of reproduction” or “not helpful to the group” are not the same as “morally wrong”, just as “helpful for my genes’ prospect of reproduction” or “helpful to my group” are not the same as “morally correct”.



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Turmarion

posted July 12, 2010 at 11:41 am


Good posts, Cultural Conservative, and I’d add that in some circumstances one could argue that being selfish, cowardly, or unfaithful could improve the chances of passing on one’s genes; thus evolutionary biology fails doubly in that respect. It comes down once more to the old dictum that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”.
Interestingly, the great Socrates made a version of the MTD mistake when he argued that if one truly understood right and wrong, one would ipso facto always do what’s right. In short, he equated knowledge and morality. Anyone who’s ever done something he knows to be wrong gets how totally mistaken the great philosopher was on this count. St. Paul, in the verse you quote, has a much more profound and accurate understanding of human nature!
CAPTCHA: It moans Very interesting…..



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jaybird

posted July 12, 2010 at 11:46 am


CC; To which I’d good-natured-ly reply that religion doesn’t have much better in the way of explanation other than “God says so.” But if there is a “true” objective morality, it doesn’t depend on God and either way there’s plenty of examples of God/religions behaving in immoral ways, and there we are back at square one.
;)



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Cultural conservative?

posted July 12, 2010 at 11:52 am


jaybird:
Good point. I am a religious believer, but I do absolutely see the force of the Euthyphro dilemma, and am still thinking through how it affects my conception of morality and God.



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jaybird

posted July 12, 2010 at 11:55 am


CC: I’m not much of a believer – more agnostic than atheist, I guess – but I do think religion is largely a positive force in society, and it is worth taking religious claims seriously, even when I don’t agree with them.



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Your Name

posted July 12, 2010 at 12:25 pm


Robinson is wonderful and one of America’s finest writers. I have long struggled against a knee-jerk hatred for Christians (as a child I was trapped in a Pentecostal church, so I come by my animosity honestly), and Robinson has helped me much with that. That said, I wish the better representatives of religion (like Robinson) were more present in society. The religious people I meet on a daily basis, primarily Christians, are hardly worth shedding all of my contempt for.



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Turmarion

posted July 12, 2010 at 12:28 pm


To be super-quick and broad, I’d argue that the solution to the Euthyphro dilemma is in how one views God. If one is a polytheist (as were Socrates’ interlocutors), or if one sees a monotheistic god naively as a “big guy up in the sky”, then the dilemma holds. However, if one views God as the ground and origin of all being, then one could say that there is no absolute morality apart from God, since human nature, the cosmos, and everything that factors into morality originate from Him. In short, the “God-beloved” is not something external to or superior to God. On the other hand, since God is eternal and changeless, He’s not suddenly going to decide the murder, theft, and lying are OK some day.
I think one could derive this solution not only from the perspective of the Abrahamic faiths, but also from Stoic thought and Neo-Platonism, but that’s something for another day.
CAPTCHA: bravely reach OK, it’s getting really creepy….



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Cannoneo

posted July 12, 2010 at 12:32 pm


Okay, MTD has been defeated in these threads once again, but what about the better thought-out, philosophic strains of Christianity that are similarly embarrassed by orthodox literalism? I suspect Robinson practices one of these (if anyone has read her nonfiction they might enlighten me).
When she pointed out how religious truth is often about what lies at the limitations of human language, I recognize a kindred spirit. What I hear her saying is that religion is how we describe those uncertain regions in ways that express our highest ideals.
I.e., if you are going to concede to science what properly belongs to it, then the Virgin Birth, Jesus’s divinity, the miracles, his rising, are stories, not historical facts. By my lights they are stories that deliver truths so profound, and so largely unapplied in human life, that their application constitutes salvation and all the mystical experience that goes along with it.
I’m reminded of the main character in *Gilead,* a Protestant pastor, who speaks of being put in an unfair position by those who ask him whether he believes in predestination. What I take it he means, is that his questioners are misconstruing the way his religious mind works, and trying to glean worldly certainty, instead of a Christlike orientation toward human experience. In the novel, the pastor keeps trying to love the most wicked, useless person in his life, until finally that person is revealed to have sought a deep vein of goodness, not only despite, but in part because, of his terrible flaws. It’s all very therapeutic, but much more, too.



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jaybird

posted July 12, 2010 at 12:59 pm


Turmarion: On the other hand, since God is eternal and changeless, He’s not suddenly going to decide the murder, theft, and lying are OK some day.
Well, as I alluded upthread, I think there are plenty of examples in the bible one could point to where God does in fact decide murder and theft are okay, and he explicitly commands the Israelites to kill, rape and pillage the surrounding tribes. The typical reply to this is that, “well yes, but the ancient Near East was brutal and violent, and the surrounding Pagan tribes were among the most brutal and violent, so they had it coming, and God was within his rights to do this sort of thing.” But I don’t see how passages like Numbers 31:17-18 (“Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man”) can be possibly be defended as an example of God’s perfect, eternal and unchanging morality. In fact, it sounds almost exactly like God is recommending an evolutionary directive in this passage – if you’ve ever watched wildlife documentaries on NatGeo, think of what happens when a male lion takes over a new pride… So this all just seems like so much question-begging to me.



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jaybird

posted July 12, 2010 at 1:11 pm


EDIT: Before any of the Biblical exegetes here jump down my throat, I’ll pre-emptorily concede that Number 31:17-18 is actually Moses speaking, not God, but the larger point stands – God wasn’t shy about directing Moses and the Israelites to commit atrocities in the Old Testament, so I don’t see how the sort of thing that would put modern military commanders in the dock at the Hague today would stand as an example of God’s perfect, unchanging morality.



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Cultural conservative?

posted July 12, 2010 at 1:34 pm


jaybird:
God’s brutality in the Old Testament is a serious challenge to our understanding of the Bible, and surely blows strict Biblical literalism out of the water. As a Christian who focused on ancient history at college (but who hasn’t done a lot of serious reading around the subject), my best answer is that those parts of the OT where God seems to act in a fashion that contradicts his own self-revelation as a God of love, should be read as an attempt by the Israelites to impose some kind of self-justifying grand divine narrative on their history, trying to reconcile the fact that they have committed terrible crimes with the belief (correct, in my view) that they were God’s chosen people. They are similar in style to other ancient writings that serve a similar end.
To put it bluntly: if it’s a choice between accepting that God is an arbitrary genocidal bastard (contrary to most of Scripture and his ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus), or accepting that we need to take a nuanced and critical view of the historicity and inspiration of the Old Testament history books, then put me down for the latter every time.
Captcha: “and mugabe”. Seriously?



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Franklin Evans

posted July 12, 2010 at 1:40 pm


My hat off and a bow to all the posts so far. Gosh, what a nice remedy to a Monday. :-)
I love this quote: …the “gladiators” from both partisan camps are “inferior representatives” of their sides.
I might charitably replace “inferior” with “inadequate”, but I’d rather let my inner curmudgeon chew on it for a while. No, wait, he’s ready:
People with the need to fight for their intellectual positions are by definition inferior to the task, because their initial jump to open hostility usually means they recognize valid points within the opposition, deserving of examination. Nothing galls a booster more than to go in less than 100% convinced of victory.
Ideas are for discussion, debate and making new pub friends. Actions and their consequences may be well worth fighting for or over, but since they are capable of being motivated by emotions — the final trump of all ideas — mere survival might dictate our responses, which might include pre-emption.



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jaybird

posted July 12, 2010 at 1:48 pm


CC: I certainly agree that we should “take a nuanced and critical view of the historicity and inspiration of the Old Testament history books” … but that seems to me to be the sort of concession that ultimately undermines religion as a source of transcendent, eternal values and objective morality. Of course the thought of killing the male children of enemy tribes and raping their virgin sisters is abhorrent to all good 21st century liberals (in the larger historical sense of the term) like ourselves. But it wasn’t always thus, and in many parts of the world, it’s still a distressingly common feature of life. So how do we know that we aren’t just reading our own biases and pre-conceptions about morality back into the Biblical text when we say the O.T. is brutal and violent, and that the kinder, gentler picture of God in the New Testament is somehow more “true”? Seems like just as relativistic and pat an answer as supposedly secular/atheistic attempts to provide ground for objective morality.
“aeons time”



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Dan O.

posted July 12, 2010 at 2:29 pm


“However, if one views God as the ground and origin of all being, then one could say that there is no absolute morality apart from God, since human nature, the cosmos, and everything that factors into morality originate from Him. In short, the “God-beloved” is not something external to or superior to God. On the other hand, since God is eternal and changeless, He’s not suddenly going to decide the murder, theft, and lying are OK some day.”
That’s true if you’re thinking of decisions in terms of time. Your solution still runs against the problem of alternative possibilities. God might have decided facts about morality differently atemporally – in terms of which possible world to actualize, and it becomes an inexplicable fact about God’s will that the facts are as they are.
Alternatively, you could believe that the actual world (and actual morality) is the only way it might have been. The trouble with that is the distinction between necessary and contingent truth collapses. It’s a derivative dilemma. Leibniz took the first horn, Spinoza took the second.
What’s really interesting is that a similarly structured problem comes up with respect to the relation between intrinsic physical properties (e.g. shape, mass, density) and the effects that objects are likely to have, called dispositions (e.g. fragility, weight, etc). It doesn’t seem that facts about intrinsic properties entail anything about dispositions, except in the sense that within the models of scientific theories dispositions and grounds are so related that what counts as an intrinsic property and what counts as a disposition is conventional (e.g. the relationship between mass and inertia). Hilary Putnam, my favorite contemporary philosopher, made this point.
It may turn out that the relationship between dispositions and grounds is an extra layer in the world. Think of it like this – God has a list of things to do to create the world. 1. Determine what’s in it. 2. Determine how what’s in it relates. A lot of people would like to think that there is no step 2 – that it’s determined by 1. BTW, I don’t mean to say this list is exhaustive. I just think this is interesting because it fosters a kind of scientific humility that parallels moral humility. If one discovers objects only while discovering laws, it isn’t clear that one discovers anything about the deep structure of the world (it also isn’t clear that there is any deep structure to discover).
Also, a brief defense of Plato and Kant, who both make moral motivation part of the cognition of what is good or right. I don’t think their sense of cognition is quite like ours. I think for us, believing what is right is not the same as universalizing a maxim, or being acquainted with The Good. Belief is cheap. I’m not a historian, I’m just mimicking arguments I’ve heard and read about this.



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Neil D

posted July 12, 2010 at 6:24 pm


One of my biggest problems with people of faith is their assertion that child-like faith is required and even desirable. They assert that the “uneducated” are more able to grasp faith than intellectuals. We are told that the college educated are less likely to be religious than others. It’s insulting and a bit of a cop out to explain religion this way.



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Cultural conservative?

posted July 12, 2010 at 6:57 pm


Neil D:
As the atheist British journalist Ben Goldacre is fond of saying:
“I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that”.
Yes there is an annoying anti-intellectual streak in many religious folk. But given the fact that a great many Western intellectuals have enthusiastically endorsed, and given ideological covering fire to, some of the worst and bloodiest ideas of the twentieth century – eugenics, Fascism and Communism spring to mind – then perhaps there is something to be said a simple, humble adherence to the truths of faith.
A great deal of modern philosophy consists of logic-chopping, endless navel-gazing recursive epistemic scepticism, elegant rationalisations of individual desire and sin – and not much else.
If it’s a choice between the simple farmer who takes “Thou Shalt Not Kill” literally and cherishes all human life, and the slippery intellectual who justifies killing because the victims aren’t “persons”, then I know where I’m putting my cross.



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Turmarion

posted July 12, 2010 at 7:05 pm


Dan O: God might have decided facts about morality differently atemporally….
Well, maybe, but that’s pretty complex. If, say, it is intrinsically a part of God’s nature that He abhors the murder of one sapient being by another, for example, then it may be that murder would be wrong in all possible worlds, whether inhabited by humans, sapient octopi (such as Paul…), energy beings, etc. Or to put it another way, it may be that God’s nature is such that there are some types of possible worlds (e.g. worlds in which sapient beings always suffer and are never redeemed, worlds of pure evil, etc.) that He would never actualize. It seems to me that though when we say “God is good,” the term “good” is not used univocally of us and God, that nevertheless, if it is to be meaningful, it must mean on some level that God actualizes only certain types of worlds.
Alvin Plantinga’s concept of “transworld depravity” (with which I don’t necessarily agree) gives one argument as to why God could not even in principle create a perfect world in which no beings ever sinned. Like I said, I don’t necessarily buy that argument, but I mention it to indicate that one can seriously argue that even from an atemporal perspective, there may be limitations on the kinds of worlds God can (or desires to) actualize.
As to whether our world is the only possible world, I’m agnostic on that. I’m inclined to doubt that it is, but there are strong arguments on both sides, and I don’t think we really know enough to say.
I’d say you’re probably right in postulating the relationship between dispositions and grounds as another item on God’s “to-do list”. Everything in a given cosmos is inter-related, or to put it another way, everything is relational. If there were only one thing in the cosmos, it would be impossible to say what it was, since there’d be nothing to relate it to. I think one could make a similar argument for dispositions and grounds, since they’re probably relational, too, and thus not completely separable.
BTW that’s an argument I’d also use to make for the Trinity. If God were truly, purely unitary, it’s hard to see how He could have a relationship with His creatures; or how he could make a cosmos, since He couldn’t really understand what He was or have any sense of “self”. In short, there must be some kind of plurality in the unity of God for Him to have any self-awareness or any desire to extend that plurality by the act of creation. Sort of like (to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, using a comic book metaphor that’s still, I think, valid) the way the Beyonder in the Secret Wars arc in Marvel two and a half decades ago didn’t even have awareness of himself until someone from an adjacent cosmos accidentally broke through. As the great philosopher Stan Lee would put it, ’nuff said! ;)



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Franklin Evans

posted July 12, 2010 at 9:33 pm


Cultural conservative,
I enjoy your writing, and your clarity of expression. I wonder if you might join me in a new effort, an alternative to how we approach the general topic of faith and the common sub-topic of the behaviors of those whom we choose, for the sake of argument, to epitomize some label or grouping.
Here’s the thing, and yes my tone can be taken as whining: If I were to be the first person in a thread like this one to cite the many atrocities in history explicitly committed “in the name of Jesus Christ”, however cogent or relevant to the context at hand, I’d be shouted out of the thread and quite possibly banned from it by Rod… and, btw, I’d agree with both reactions. The primary objection: They were not really Christians. While I would argue that point, I do recognize that it has merit.
Yet, here we have your rationally constructed post doing precisely what I just described, with the part of “in the name of Jesus Christ” played by “intellectuals”. And, to top it all off, making anything close to a response I describe above I’d be playing the tu quoque card — called locally Manning’s Corollary after our fellow reader Erin Manning, referencing thread killers like Godwin’s Law — and very likely stopping the thread in its tracks.
So, I ask you, the latest person to post in that vein, to consider using a different approach next time to emphasize your point, your support for a point, etc. I confess that I don’t know what the alternatives might be, but I’ve found them myself on the other side of this coin, and used them without undue circumlocutions. If nothing else, if you insist on making certain attributions, show the evidence for it. Merely taking a label, and the actions committed under it, is no more valid than my Christian atrocity tu quoque, or at the least is just as flawed in its construction.
From my POV, one likely no less biased than yours, what you said about “[a] great deal of modern philosophy” could also be said, with only minor editing, about modern religion. Indeed, speaking of bias, it is that very POV that confirms me a devout Pagan, and very well content in both my spiritual path and the rejection of knee-jerk disapprobations from some sources. ;-)



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MMH

posted July 12, 2010 at 11:35 pm


Turmarion at 11:41 A.M. writes that Socrates mistakenly “equated knowledge and morality.” In one sense, this is obviously correct, but I’ve always thought that in a more profound sense, Socrates is correct. I think it depends on what we mean by “know”. If we truly knew something, we would know it fully, “in the round,” as it were, and not only two dimensionally. And as such, we would respond appropriately. If we truly knew God, we would love Him. The reason our love is lacking is that we don’t fully know Him (and yes, I can see that the fall of Lucifer offers a counter-example). I think this is borne out in our own experience. There are some faults and vices we see so very clearly that they are no longer attractive to us, they can no longer tempt us. It’s an interesting question.



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Cultural conservative?

posted July 13, 2010 at 6:19 am


Franklin:
I see your point, but I wasn’t intending to make a partisan pro-Christian point in that post. It was a defence of moral simplicity and humility (of whatever creed) against the pride, arrogance and self-deception that can come with intellectual talent or achievement.
Plenty of Christian intellectuals penned elegant rationalisations of eugenics and Fascism, or even co-operated in their associated barbarities. I could equally have included the justification of torture and murder by Christians who supported the Inquisition, or who continue to write post-facto rationalisations of medieval Christian violence.
It wasn’t a culture war point. Sorry if it came across that way.



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Auntiegrav

posted July 13, 2010 at 8:14 am


I agree with the writer: Both sides have failed to field their best horses. Perhaps because all of the King’s horses and all of the president’s men went to the same school that teaches them to let horses try to put eggs together.
Bottom line for a species to survive is whether its activities are Net Useful in the future. Religion and Community building can be synonymous, but usually become the opposite. Science and Understanding can be synonymous, but end up competitive instead of cooperative. I am an atheist, but I see the value of religion in a world populated with humans that need to Believe. Belief in things (whether imagined or not) is what actually defines homo sapiens. It is not “intelligence”. Intelligence is what my Border Collie has. Imagination and belief in Capitalism, Free Choice, Democracy (ha!) all are predicated on things humans collect in their memories and project to the world. It is how humans get away with not having very good senses. In order to be viable without decent claws or noses, we developed community and the ability to believe that there MIGHT be a threat to watch out for. God is a focal point of Net Future Usefulness: the One that created everything from Nothing: we have yet to even create cooperative living arrangements with all the resources He gave us. A long way to go, and these debates between Science (joke) and Religion (marketing) do not help us understand our basic need to be useful to our offspring without consuming their resources.



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Dan O.

posted July 13, 2010 at 8:31 am


“If, say, it is intrinsically a part of God’s nature that He abhors the murder of one sapient being by another, for example, then it may be that murder would be wrong in all possible worlds, whether inhabited by humans, sapient octopi (such as Paul…), energy beings, etc.”
Tumarion – I understand this, and if I were a theist, that would be my view. But I would have that view, because I would believe that God is worthy of worship because, by his very nature, he prefers right to wrong. I would not be concerned about the metaphysical primacy of moral facts.
My point about humility is really epistemological. Knowledge of scientific theories and entities does not yield the ability to isolate individual objects within nature and project their properties in novel environments. Similarly, I do not believe that knowledge of God’s nature yields the ability to isolate moral truths and apply them to messy human scenarios.
What we’re learning now is not, in my view, that religion ought to be less humble in it’s moral claims. It’s rather that science has to be more humble. It’s not a zero-sum game.



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Franklin Evans

posted July 13, 2010 at 12:48 pm


Cultural conservative, thank you for that. To be fair, and hopefully soften any aggressive implications in my previous post, I’m always ready to trot out my personal view, which includes (re)telling the story of my mother and her Jewish family, saved from certain death by the northern Italian (and quite Catholic) peasants at the risk of their own lives.
My larger point, not so stated up to now, is that people commit atrocities, and it’s people who either go along or fight back. The rest is commentary. :-)



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Auntiegrav

posted July 13, 2010 at 6:12 pm


Franklin,
Yes. It is the actions which people take which matter. Any action taken based on Blind Faith is Evil, whether that Blind Faith is in Gods, Gurus, or Governments. The words don’t really matter so much as how the action affects the future. Rules are only there for practice: to exercise our minds in control of our actions. No exercise, and the mind’s ability to say “no” to the body’s primal instincts becomes compromised. “People do stuff. They have reasons for doing stuff. In that order.” By questioning both religion and science, then perhaps the people who actually take action will work to reverse that trend just enough for the species to survive its mindless consumption of the resources we need in the future. Those resources include Cooperation, Consciousness, and Diversity, as well as Food, Soil, and climate and political stability. Usufruct, frugality, simplicity and sensible actions are not taught(by factory schools) or marketed because there is no profit in them.



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