Secret Mojo Dumbs It Down for You

October 25, 2006

The Eight Year “Agenda” of Michael J. Fox

Filed under: health,Politics,religion,science — secretmojo @ 3:52 am

Boy, I so wanted to launch into a rant at this.

Instead, I offer these videos of a man thirty times my better — not because of his disease, but because of what he’s done for the past eight years. The entirity of my life won’t add up to what this man has accomplished in such a brief time. He deserves the respect of a man who took a very personal situation (7 years in hiding), owned his destiny, and chose to help the world in response.

There really is no criticism that can be thrown on Fox, because he’s done so much generous work already. But that’s the point, isn’t it? He’s not like the usual easy targets, and that’s soooo unfair!

So criticism is flung at him, of the most noble snickering and catty kind. But if critics were honest, they would remember whilst drawing mustaches on his pictures and cackling: nineteen times out of twenty, Michael J. Fox (“The toughest part about acting is to act like I don’t have parkinsons”) is a better man than you.

August 18, 2006

Morality precedes religion? Salman Rushdie on Faith & Reason

Filed under: Atheism,books,Fiction,Literature,Politics,Reading,religion,television,writing — secretmojo @ 11:55 pm

Wooohooo! All the author interviews at Bill Moyers’ Faith & Reason are up. I’m saving Margaret Atwood, with her darling little “happy witch” pose, for my own personal finale.

For a week, I denied myself free speech hero Salman Rushdie’s interview (click on “watch the interview online”) because I wanted to savor the anticipation while I enjoyed the others. I finally broke down, though, and clicked the link.

Rushdie, as the President of the PEN American Center, helped initiate the Faith and Reason event; his interview is longer and addresses far more topics in the political, religious, philosophical, and imaginative realms than the others.

The man is brilliant.

But he’s so smooth about it, humble and precise, that the complexity of his mind goes unnoticed. He talked about everything. Far more than I could encapsulate in one post. The Danish cartoons, the transformative power of the artist’s imagination, 9/11 as a hinge moment, how cultures are becoming increasingly incomprehensible to one another, his new-found joy of ordinary life, and much more.

Most interesting was his idea that human morality precedes religion. Religion, he posits, grows from an attempt to codify the moral instinct already built into our DNA. He points out that all art began as sacred art, and from this, implies that art and religion go hand in hand, and that the need for religion may be like language: a natural inclination of the human species, which gets fouled up, revised, politicized, and abused over time.

He also complained that there’s not much secular lingo to describe transcendent experience, and implies that this may contribute to atheists gaining the stigma as men with no moral guidance.

I found the part about morality as antecedent to religion so fascinating, I had to pause the video and mull it over.

It’s hard to argue with Rushdie, but let me try: I agree that religion is the language of morality we’ve developed. It’s rough and simplistic, but one must learn to grunt first, then write in iambic pentameter. One only needs to inspect all the religions out there to realize that, despite what any believer might believe inside his own faith, all religions are at their base, secular. Or at least humanistic. Only the biases of the mind entice one religion to claim absolute arbitration of morality, truth, and behavior.

That is essentially what Rushdie says, but I add this tidbit: we need only recognize that religion is an adopted moral language and lifestyle to get over all our hang-ups about it. Einstein used the word “God” differently than anyone else; he recognized that it was an unfortunate part of the vernacular needed to describe unprovable, yet still worthy, concepts.

And this is where I think many atheists and believers alike fail. The former asserts that fantasy is not real, therefore precariously dangerous; while the latter contends that truth is divine, and must never be challenged.

But I say that religion is a chosen, not given, symbolic language of morality that, in response to uncertainty, fills the gaps where we aren’t bright enough to devise ways of acting ethically.

“Chosen” changes everything. Not only does it implicitly recognize the sheer power (and worth) of imagination, it puts the responsibility square upon the believer to answer for his behavior. He cannot claim “God said so” to win an argument because, in the end, it is he who bought into the belief for one reason or the other, so it is he who must justify it. Therefore, a believer’s ideas of restricting or oppressing other people can be criticized as ideas embraced firstly by him and only subsequently strengthened by his religion.

With religious diversity in mind, Rushdie also warned against moral relativism, faintly echoing Sam Harris’ contempt of religious moderates.

In a nutshell, moral relativism is “live and let live” applied to morality. “They believe in cannibalism, and hey, that’s their religious prerogative.” But Rushdie admits that there is a paucity of language to describe absolute morality within the secular world. We’re just not experienced at it. One must always bring God into it. “Atheists are obsessed with God,” he laughed.

I agree with him here. Relativism is a dangerously slippery slope of self-justified apathy, and I believe people are not philosophical enough nor bright enough to discover the bullshit and oppression hidden within the ideology of “don’t rock the boat.” There needs to be a new lingo to describe what is right and what is wrong without bringing religion into it; too many religions on earth, and certainly too many political abuses of them, make the current religiously tainted moral vernacular (“Infinite Justice”) unacceptable.

Rushie suggested that Democracy was one of the ways to manifest our innate moral sense. With Democracy we can, unlike archaic religions dependent on absolute verity, adjust and improve our morality as we go along — without destroying the idea of Democracy. Slavery might have been wonderful 150 years ago, but is appalling now. We argued about it, killed each other over it, changed it, yet still retain our democracy.

Religions change, too, of course. Rushdie mentioned this, but didn’t give it the time I expected. Christians don’t stone women for adultery today, for example, nor do they beat their wives with a stick no thicker than the thumb.

In my view, these subconscious revisions of religion’s authority are done on the sly, and dysfunctionally ignore their own divine text. Such “adjustments” are entirely subtextual, never become explicit law, as in a Democracy — in other words, there’s no chance to say “Whoops. Sorry.” and move to a higher level. Eventually, divine books will internally contradict, show their age, and yet are kept that way — believers would never countenance an edit by anyone other than God himself.

I’m convinced that today we are on a threshold here, where many minds, like Rushdie’s, have advanced to a state able to articulate and obey a moral code without adopting the entirety of a religious system.

But many minds haven’t. Most people recognize the golden rule as the best piece of moral advice ever given. But with all the evidence of others getting ahead through shrewdness, a person tends to reconsider the value of such an ideal. Some folk still need supernatural help to become less selfish; and I’m okay with that.

But: I say religion as authority figure will fade. Must fade. Because if it grows, it may kill us all.

Like political parties, where a person can both believe in conservation and remain a Republican, religions may adopt a welcoming flexibility. They’ll evolve more explicitly. They won’t lose social influence, just their absolute authority. That’s what my brochure says, anyways.

I doubt this could happen in my lifetime, of course. I need only look at Lebanon — or hell, most of the Middle East — to see how far we have yet to go.

The whole interview is worth a gander. Beats the hell out of American Idol, for sure.


I have two other posts on this series, if you’re interested: The Burden of Belief, and Bill Moyers Delivers again: “Faith & Reason”.

July 28, 2006

Question your religion, or roll your own

Filed under: religion — secretmojo @ 1:45 am

Continuing on in my own personal “why religion/why not religion” fetish:

The famous Dr. Laura letter.

Provocative quotes on religion.

Ted Williams? Really?

Someone who refrains from calling you an idiot.

Very succinct summary of atheistic principles.

Question the violence.

Question the kind of influence.

Belivers beware: DON’T CLICK HERE.

Seeking a religion that’s not so obey-me-or-burn? Try here, here, here, here, here (for geeks), the Holy Kurt Vonnegut’s Divine Revelation, or roll your own here.

Think you selected the best one? Compare.

July 27, 2006

Fantasy has worth

Filed under: religion — secretmojo @ 10:42 am

When I read the two comments submitted to my post on the debunking of prayer, I wanted to respond, but decided that it’s rather rude to be overbearing on your own blog, and will therefore let the comments go in their own direction.

However, I’d like to make my opinions clear on this subject. I am not a religious person in any traditional sense, but I do take it personally when anybody tells me I am idiotic when I indulge in fantasy. I believe that many things in our lives, money and government being great examples, depend upon common imagination and faith in the value of something.

I don’t want this to sound like “fantasy doesn’t kill people, people do,” because, unlike guns, there are good fantasies and bad fantasies: not all of them are designed for destruction.

And this is my main complaint of angry atheist arguments that denounce anything remotely related to religions that, admittedly, have a poor human rights record. I do not include Sam Harris in this category, for those of you who know him (even though he might call me one of those moderates that need prompt elimination).

Fantasy is useful, and sometimes critical, to a functioning society. Religion isn’t the whole of it, but it can be a part of it. There are religions out there that are not filled with hatred or stupidity or “Flat Earth” arguments which deny scientific advances. There are some that, despite an ideology of love and pacifism, get overtaken by hate mongers. The complaints filed against a disdainful, harmful religion are valid. Denouncing bigotry-wielding religious folk is valid as well. But complaints filed against fantasy itself are not.

Many societal objectives can be achieved without religion (or fantasy), it is true. I can also tell a story without words, without moving pictures, by sound only, or as a series of stick figures. Yet, I have enough humility not to denounce radio drama because it cannot accommodate action sequences, but to judge it on its own merits, case by case. People get at what they need through different means, and prayer is a medium, not an ideology.

That is why I reject comparing prayer to pure chance, and am offended when “idiot” and patronizing “normal, intelligent” verbiage is used to make me feel silly for choosing a way of giving my own life meaning. If I do not hurt anyone, and furthermore rail against hurting people, then my acts or non-acts of praying, casting spells, wishing on a horseshoe, or rubbing a rabbit’s foot should make as much difference to an atheist as my watching American Idol or picking my toenails in the bathtub, and he oversteps his bounds by instructing me where my shame must lie. It reminds of jerks in high school who tease others because they don’t wear the “proper” clothes; perhaps this is another reason why it makes me angry.

Finally, it should be said that taking the website seriously was my problem. I recognize I could dismiss these arguments internally. But, publishing my resistance hopefully allows a few more people to retain the beliefs that give them meaning, without succumbing to the “isolated logic, sweeping conclusion”-type arguments put forth on sites like those.

July 26, 2006

If you are a normal, intelligent person, why debunk prayer?

Filed under: religion — secretmojo @ 11:20 am

My friend Jack, who is an atheist, pointed me to this site that debunks prayer, amongst other things. What I want to dispute here is this video. I think anybody should watch at least 3/4 of the way through to become familiar with this kind of argument. The point gets beleaguered after a while, but please, deal with it if you can.

If you don’t watch it, let me summarize: the hypothesis, which is proven, is that prayer has the same effect as a lucky horseshoe. A lucky horseshoe has the same effect as pure chance. Therefore, prayer is a superstition, and we must “accept reality” as rational people, and realize its uselessness.

However, a conclusion that the video fails to come to, which can also be deduced from the exact same evidence, is that the horseshoe, pure chance, and prayer harm the target in precisely the same amount: not at all.

In other words, it is just as safe to pray for someone as it is to touch them with a horseshoe as it is to do nothing at all.

So why, exactly, should I not pray for someone? Because of some weeny who doesn’t like me doing it?

Leaving the supercilious tone of the whole video aside (“idiot!” he explained), it’s clear that the assumption is that holding superstitious beliefs is silly and fraudulent, because they have no external effects.

But what’s conveniently eliminated from the discussion is my own internal experience, and what I do in society because of this internal experience. Surely it’s safe to say that pure chance is pure apathy, requiring nobody to give a flying crap about anybody in the first place to achieve the same result.

However, prayer is an act of compassion. It is compassion in practice, intimately, seriously, and honestly. It gives a person the opportunity, in the sanctuary of his own mind, to care about other people, on a level greater than he is capable of. It is a rehearsal for the real world, so when someone is in need, or in dire straits, he has privately strengthened his kindness, and can act like a bigger man than he thought was possible.

It can be argued that a person can do this without prayer, but what difference does method make, when prayer is such a non-threat, as concluded so “brilliantly” in this video?

Instead of addressing hatred, indifference, manipulation, and hands-off hope, which are real issues of religion and prayer (and other things), these authors instead attack prayer itself, which, by their own proof, is less dangerous than a cup of coffee. Why attack it so, when it is so weak?

In addition, one aggravating nitpick I must make is about the comparison of soldiers praying to God to invoking the horseshoe. This is a fraud, not on the imaginary soldiers’ part, but on the contention of the video maker. Morale has a significant effect on the success in battle (as it does in disease recovery), and while a horseshoe may not do the trick, prayer certainly can. So they can bite me with their arrogant “logic” on this point, which depends entirely on dismissing the soldiers’ own convictions, and replacing them with their own.

Too many times “reality” is meant, as it is here, not as a definition of the world and what’s in it, but as a world-view conclusion you must adopt, because, well, “we say so.” If you are a “rational” person—“normal, intelligent” indignantly repeats the video—you should give prayer the same irreverence as pure chance, and feel idiotic doing it.

This is not my conclusion at all. My conclusion is: if pure chance and prayer have no differences, then unless you think pure chance is dangerous, you must admit that prayer is risk-free, and stop giving it so much of your arrogant concern.

Somehow, I don’t think that was their point, but they’ve proved it quite well anyway.

July 23, 2006

Civil Discussion Spotted on a Blog

Filed under: blogging,Politics,religion — secretmojo @ 5:09 pm

Over at Empty Rhetoric, we’re having an uncommonly civil discussion about gay marriage. Check it out.

July 21, 2006

The burden of belief

Filed under: Literature,navel gazing,religion,television,writing — secretmojo @ 12:48 pm

Continuing in my rabid consumption of Bill Moyers’ Faith & Reason, I watched three interviews that were so packed with chocolately goodness that I could feel my own thoughts converging toward a realization that none of the three addressed explicitly, but which somehow arrived through the subtle nudging of the subtexts swimming underneath these three interviews. Is this not exactly what television should be doing for everyone?

(more…)

July 12, 2006

Bill Moyers delivers again: “Faith & Reason”

Filed under: religion,television,terrorism — secretmojo @ 5:07 am

Bill Moyers does it again with a provocative series on Faith & Reason, lending a fresh breeze to the currently stale “debate” by giving those capable of rational thought a shot at it.

He interviews the religious and the atheistic. Agnostics and religious critics. Addresses myth, the psychological importance (and pitfalls) of belief, and a treasure chest of other issues that seem to get kicked in the pants in favor of bias manipulation techniques in today’s discourse.

One fascinating episode was this one. (click on the “full hour interview” link) Both interviewees, philosopher Colin McGinn and writer Mary Gordon, briefly addressed the phenomena of fundamentalism, or more specifically, the kind of person who will die and kill others in service of their beliefs.

Gordon attested that a fundamentalist martyrs himself because he becomes disgusted with the way the world is turning out. I agree with her.

McGinn asserted that fundamentalism arises from the drudgery of life and the need to avoid it. I agree with him, too.

However, after some thought, I determined what bothered me about these explanations. Gordon and McGinn gave the fundamentalist a human texture. Drudgery, disgust. This revealed their hope, as humanists, that everyone functions under the momentum of passion.

But I believe that a fundamentalist, convinced of the worthlessness of the life he’s currently experiencing (for whatever reason), annihilates himself, his own fallibility, and the painful experience of humanness in exchange for becoming a venerated instrument of God.

It’s a significant upgrade.

I have many thoughts on the emergence (and inadvertent creation) of fundamentalism, radical patriotism, and terrorism, all of which I’ve drafted, but have yet to flesh out. Maybe sometime in the future I’ll have finished that essay I’ve been harboring in the back of my mind for so long. But for now, I’ll watch a little more of Faith & Reason; perhaps someone else has already said it better than I ever could.

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