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I’ve reported on Aifric Campbell’s “The Semantics of Murder” in a previous post. But in the past couple months I’ve also read three philosophical books.

1. “The Case for God” by Karen Armstrong
2. “The Beginning of All Things: Science and Religion” by Hans Küng
3. “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: a work of fiction” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Armstrong’s book is in big print (I mistakenly ordered that format from Amazon) and her case for God is far from conventional. In fact her concept of God is close to that of an atheist, I think. She joined a convent at an early age and rebelled strongly becoming an out and out atheist. But now she apparently believes in God in the sense that action alone is an expression of what God is. Her big project is The Charter for Compassion based on the golden rule. I’ve subscribed to this.

Hans Küng’s book is challenging in part perhaps because it’s a translation from scientific German. He’s actually still a Catholic although I’d say it’s by quite a stretch. To him the miracles are metaphors and God is somehow wrapped up in the incomprehensibility of an origin of the universe. Mankind’s reason meets its limit in its inability to fathom a “first cause”, and also an ending. He discusses the question, “Why not Nothing?” a great deal, something I have mentioned in this blog as my favorite question, i.e., why is there something rather than nothing?

Rebecca Goldstein’s book, basically an exciting novel which captures the kinds of feelings associated with the Why not Nothing? feeling, demolishes all the arguments for God (36 of them in the Appendix) and replaces these with a defense of morality based on the feeling of “ontological wonder”. So, if you wanted to call this “ontological wonder” a replacement for God, you could I suppose, although Goldstein herself claims to be an atheist intellectually. She seems a little worried, in the interviews of her I’ve found online, that some of her academic friends might think she’s NOT an atheist. She’s obviously a fascinating and brilliant woman and graduated summa-cum-laude from Barnard College.

So what do these three books all add up to in my mind? Not sure, to be honest. However, I am thinking of getting Goldstein’s book on Spinoza who she thinks has it all. From what I’ve gathered by listening to her, she thinks Spinoza has successfully used reason to explain, or account for, the “it’s turtles all the way down” problem. I’d like to see that one explained!

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Let us introspect a bit. The purpose of this blog is? Answer in 25 words or less. OK, it’s to say whatever I please AND preserve it for posterity. I’ll provide slices out of time and thought. OK, why don’t I start doing that? Here goes.

We got some fairly substantial snow on Wednesday with a prediction of high winds which didn’t materialize until yesterday, Friday. When I went out Thursday morning to start the snow thrower, the electric start conked out on me. Panic! Kate was out on the road when it happened. She may have told Don. But I called him anyway and also called Carol Rhodes. Had a good talk with her and she said she’d get Jeff. So, a little while later there was Don, and then Jeff. Don managed to start the thing by rope pulls and Jeff with his scooper tractor cleared out the front of the driveway. So, it wasn’t much longer before our driveway was nice and clear….. Over and out. Good.

What else?

I’ll need to sing “The Christmas Song” at our Dec. 20th choir concert. I have the words memorized but there are a couple places where I’m having difficulties with the tune. Not too serious, but still. Also, the song is a bit on the high side for me, so, I’ll need lots of good breath. I should be practicing the thing here at home but it tends to bother Cynthia, or I think it does. Today I really should sing it out a few times in any case.

The world?

Was reading Charles Blow’s Op-Ed in the NYT this morning. Here’s the first sentence:

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report on Wednesday that is bound to stir conversation about the increasingly complicated cacophony of spirituality in America — a mash-up of traditional faiths, fantasy and mythology.

Yup, the New Agers are on a tear. Here’s his last sentence:

Cue the harps, and the sitars, and the tablas, and the whale music.

Pretty good, huh? I hope I’m not leaving the impression that I approve of this New Age crap because I don’t. I think the New Agers are nuts.

And here I am reading Karen Armstrong’s “The Case for God”, and listening to her being interviewed by Bill Moyers and Terry Gross. I even put a comment into somebody’s comment on her book in Amazon. Why don’t I reproduce that thing I wrote here? OK.

I haven’t finished the book but have been listening to Armstrong being interviewed by Bil Moyers and Terry Gross. But what I have gathered so far is that God is not a “thing” at all but a wonderment, a mystery, and a need. Ha Ha Ha How stupid, huh? Well, of course, I’m stupid and naive, but I believe it gets back to the Why are we here? question in the sense that nothing might have been here. Get that? The connection between this and the mere “Golden Rule” which she espouses as the most important thing anyone of us can practice is what I’m interested in understanding. I do favor the empathy and the attempt to put oneself in the others’ place, i.e., the “Golden Rule”, and I’ve affirmed her Charter of Compassion. But I’m further intrigued by her concepts of the ultimate mysteries. God?

I probably shouldn’t have included Ha Ha Ha How stupid, huh? Well, of course, I’m stupid and naive, but oh well, it’s there now.


More later on him. That’s it for now.

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Just finished reading Robert Wright’s afterword to his book The Evolution of God. Took me 3/4 of an hour. For those atheists out there as well as for those believers I think this is the most sensible discussion of the idea of God that I’ve yet come across, and I’ve been searching for one for a long time. After all, I’m over eighty freaking years old!

Here’s Robert Wright talking about his book:

Here’s the link to the afterword, By the Way, What Is God? which I just read.

UPDATE: Wright has a four page Op-Ed in the Sunday, Aug. 23, NYT, A Grand Bargain Over Evolution.

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MadPriest is deep into religion as science and science as religion. Out of this he concludes for the nonce that he’s a Sexy Pantheist. Fascinating speculation, I call it. Check it out.

I’d better correct this. It’s not MadPriest who says he’s a Sexy Pantheist. It’s John Shuck! See the first comment here for MadPriest’s correction of my statement.

Also, you might check Zaius Nation (linked to in MadPriest’s post) to find out what Easter is really about.

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This says it all, folks, this is it, the true voices from yon twelve-winded sky, from every quarter of humanity, this is Unitarian Universalism! Here’s a great ten minute video on our UU faith:


For more exciting UU information and videos go to Peter Bowden’s UU PLANET TV!

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Here’s a poem by Ralph Helverson, minister emeritus of the First Parish UU in Cambridge, MA, which he served as minister from 1959 to 1977. The Rev. Dr. Ralph Norman Helverson died April 25, 2007, at Carleton-Willard Village, Bedford, MA, at the age of ninety-five.

Impassioned Clay
by Ralph N. Helverson

Deep in ourselves resides the religious impulse.
Out of the passions of our clay it rises.
We have religion when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient, self-sustaining or self-derived.

We have religion when we hold some hope beyond the present,
some self-respect beyond our failures.
We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty,
when our nerves are edged by some dream in our heart.
We have religion when we have an abiding gratitude for all
that we have received.

We have religion when we look upon people with all their
failings and still find in them good;
when we look beyond people to the grandeur in nature and to the purpose in our own heart.

We have religion when we have done all that we can,
and then in confidence entrust ourselves to the life that is
larger than ourselves.

Not bad.

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In his God Talk, Part 2 today in the Times, Fish begins with some statistics: between 79 and 92 percent of Americans believe in God, and 95 percent of readers of his original God Talk don’t. Wow!

The learned professor goes on to say that those unbelieving 95 percent “believe, apparently, that religion is a fairy tale, hogwash, balderdash, nonsense and a device for rationalizing horrible deeds.”

In this part 2 article he provides what may be reasonable answers to these 95 percent by in fact using reason to show that reason has its limitations, limitations because it must operate within a context based on starting assumptions. There’s a lot of heavy epistemology here.

He goes on to say that “talking God” is not about giving proofs of God’s existence but about some kind of conversion experience, and he seems to be accepting that there are many kinds of such experiences. One which particularly resonates with me as a UU is from reader Shannon:

But the kind of religion that moves me and other religious people I know is the STORY of hope and love and sticking to your beliefs in the face of disaster etc., not the idea that any particular story describes concrete, historical “truth.”

To me the key here is “hope and love” and this may be consistent with the thinking of the avowed atheist, Ian McEwan, who has said that there is an important moral center to believing that this is it, that this is all we’ve got, this life; we are instinctively moral beings and have this gift of empathy. Of course to accept this as an abstract principle is not the same as acting on it, which might become a real conversion experience or at least take courage, like for example Dr. Rieux in Camus’ The Plague.

See how difficult it is to deal with this stuff? Whew…. Over and out.
😆 🙄

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Here I am back to Terry Eagleton again with his first Yale lecture series talk, “Christianity Fair and Foul”, in the middle of which he invokes the “mind-blowing contingency” of the cosmos, the fact it might just as well never have happened, and captures for me again my one feeling of mystery, namely, the Why is there something rather than nothing? feeling. He’s totally brilliant and amusing throughout this talk and sums up Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as Ditchkins. I was led here this morning from another old flame of mine, James P. Carse, to whom I was led by the remarkable Rebecca Parker, UU “theologian” of the Starr King school in Berkeley, Calif., after having heard her beautiful North Conway Friday evening talk about earth being our only paradise, as proclaimed by among others, Jesus H Christ, and the early Christians. How I found James P. Carse from this comes from a UU World interview of Parker and co-author Rita Nakashima Brock, under Recent Articles in the sidebar. Parker’s latest book, again with Brock, is titled, “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire”. OK, there’s enough material here in these links to last a lifetime, certainly my lifetime.
ps. I forgot what really set me off on this track this morning, Stanley Fish’s recent article in the NYT, God Talk. It’s a review of Terry Eagleton’s latest book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.
Happy reading! 😆

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Hey! I think it’s time I talked religion! Has anyone heard of Unitarian Universalism? UU for short? You can even be an atheist and still be a UU. Some religion, huh? Well, some would say, and I include myself in that, that religion isn’t about belief but about questions. I think I put a post in here a while back by a weird philosopher by the name of James P. Carse who wrote a book called The Religious Case Against Belief, and another book with the interesting title, Finite and Infinite Games. Yes, it’s the infinite games that are what we’re in, or should be in, the never ending questions, and the uncanny, shivers down your back, feelings down there somewhere in your body and soul.

Soul?? Did I mention soul? Well, of course, there’s no soul, only this mysterious feeling or being that is us? But I’m starting to ramble now. Let’s get back on track. How about checking out the UUA website? And here’s the UU news agregator: UU Updates. Oh, and here’s the link to the UU church I go to: Norway UU. And here’s our sister church: West Paris UU. By the way, Norway and West Paris are towns in the great state of Maine, not a country in Scandinavia and the west end of Paris, France. HAHA! UUs have a sense of humor.

Another thing I ought to mention is that these two churches started out as Universalist churches. Only recently, since 1960 if that’s recent, has the Unitarian label been slapped on in front of the Universalist handle. But that’s another story for another time.

Cheers, and happy infinite religiosity to everyone!

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In looking up again Terry Eagleton’s blast against Richard Dawkins’, The God Delusion, I came across a vigorous debate between what might be called hard-nosed atheists and soft-nosed atheists on the Club Troppo blog. My nose runs toward the soft-nosed camp, and as I grabbed for my hanky I found this comment by a Richard Phillipps which cleared my nose, leaving it still soft at the core:

What a ripper of an article! As I recall, Eagleton was a Marxist literary and cultural critic, and no doubt under the new syllabus his works will be banned and burned in the main street.

There are, I suspect, three things about religion that no one can really deny.

The first is that even for us unbelievers the Judeo-Christian value set provided a guide to life and to relationships (social, personal, business) that was good in the sense that it emphasized care, humility, honesty, and respect for others. As that value set evaporates, we have little to replace it with.

Second, in a time when some of us wonder about a Grand Unified Theory, about a time before time, about what preceded the big bang and why, there is a whole lot of mystery out there, and it is hard not to have a feeling akin to religiosity about it.

Third, one of the worst developments of the c20 was the removal of mystery from religion. Priests riding motor scooters and playing guitars, the abolition of Latin, the idea that religion was just really a form of smiling, unctuous, rubbery social work, and that religion had to be relevant (why? why on earth should a god’s ideas be “relevant” to us? Are my ideas relevant to the frittata I made yesterday?) all of these have gutted and filleted religion, and have thrown out with the bathwater the essence of standing before a mystery – which is a sense of humility.

btw: I am not to be understood as arguing for, or accepting, Christianity.

But this soft-nosed argument is ripped to shreds later on by a James Farrell in this comment:

I can’t agree with you on this one, Nicholas. Dawkins is a brilliant expositor of science, and his criticisms of religion are spot on. So what if he isn’t an expert on theology? Here’s a challenge: if you read a scathing and hilarious critique of astrology written by an author who wasn’t himself steeped in astrological wisdom, would you really be cross and indignant about all the simplifications and strawman demolitions in the book?

The only people who are going to get upset about this book are ones who have an emotional loyalty to religion and can’t stand seeing it rubbished. This obviously applies to Eagleton, and I can’t for the life me understand why you say ‘it’s not done on behalf of religion’. A bit of googling on Eagleton tells me he is or was religious.

Nor do I agree, being as objective as I can (as an admirer of Dawkins) that it’s a particularly clever or persuasive review – far less with Richard Phillipps conclusion that it’s a ‘ripper’. It’s bad tempered and unreasonable, and quite incoherent in key places where it’s pretending to clinch the argument. What on earth does this mean, for example:

He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms.

And this doesn’t seem to make any sense at all:

Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain.

Is he really saying that Dawkins’ faith that, say, his wife is not really is biological sister, is on a par with religious faith simply because neither is ‘unimpeachable?’

And where does Eagleton stand, anyway? Does he think that belief in the God of Moses is any more reasonable than in Baal or Zeus? If so, on what grounds? If not, would he take exception to an uninformed attack on any of these beliefs?

And this comment is followed up by a comment from a Gaby:

Emphatically what James said. Beat me to the punch.

First, I haven’t read Dawkins’s book. But Eagleton’s review wouldn’t dissuade me from doing so.

I thought generally a poor review as a book review. One example from his own “molehill” is that he doesn’t tell us what Dawkins’s intentions are. Perhaps it is a piece of agitprop aimed at refuting and ridiculing the more common, in both senses of the word, religious falsities prevalent. The “pinhead” differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus may not just be relevant to this task.

Further Eagleton’s positive views don’t really illuminate. Why is belief in God not like belief in the tooth fairy? Asserting God’s “transcendence” doesn’t help nor saying that it is a “condition of possibility” and that it sustains all things “by love”. More or less these are things attributed to the old guy in the sky with the white beard, so I’m happy to lose that image.

El Tel, however, does give a good description of my favored view of Jesus as basically an “A.D.” hippie preachin’ peace’n’love Baby. Was he a vegun as well? Probably not given the “loaves and fishes” supposed prestidigitation.

But still a little later in the discussion a soft-nosed comment by an Ingolf appears:

Gaby, I think Nicholas was alluding to the meaninglessness of being dogmatic when dealing with “ultimate” questions. It’s all very well to flay the more literal religious or spiritual responses that merely paste a poster called “God” over the void, but in doing so one is no nearer to answering the questions for which these various belief systems have through the ages sought to be an answer. The simple truth, at least as I see it, is that not only do we not know the right answers, we don’t even know the right questions and are unlikely to ever do so. As Nicholas says, the very least this realization ought to engender is some sense of humility.

On my reading, the more sophisticated forms of all the major spiritual traditions have throughout the ages been only too aware of the absurdities and dangers lurking in any and all attempts to define God. Indeed, many of them prefer to avoid doing so altogether. The awe we properly feel before the sheer immensity of our ignorance can at times combine with a sense of transcendence, a pull towards the divine that lies at the core of all spirituality. (Both these concepts are of course equally difficult to define but not perhaps always so hard to feel).

Any determined atheist is in my experience at least as much in the grip of a belief system as the most fervent believer. For the scientist who feels no sense of the divine — which is obviously just fine — agnosticism seems to me the only honest stance. It is Dawkins’ fanaticism that many, including me, find so disagreeable, that and the way he arrogates to himself the cloak of reason, not aware, it would seem, of the inherent absurdity of his own position.

Well, needless to say this soft-nosed comment is taken to task later on by the hard-nosed group. If you’ve waded through this far, why not just read the whole thing? There are 52 comments in all and the whole discussion took place and ended in 2006.

Certain products of modern physics that I did not find mentioned at all by these posters are the baffling, one might say a-rational, findings of quantum theory; i.e. the duality of particles and waves, the inability to define a quantum state until it is measured, the phenomena of non-locality, and other such paradoxes. Considering these things, one wonders how we can know anything at all. Yes, the mathematics works, but not the underlying reality. Makes one question what reality is after all. And we haven’t even gotten to questions such as what came before the big bang, and how come we have an Anthropic principle which states that even the slightest deviation in physical constants from their present values would make life as we know it on earth impossible. OK, enough for now. I’m stumped.

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