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patrick d
02:07 PM ET (US)

What is the value of choosing to live be a certain set of rules if those rules offend one's moral or aesthetic sensibility?

Commitment to a certain set of rules regardless of one's personal moral judgement has been has been led to acts of great evil throughout history. If one considers one's commitment to a particular belief system, religious, political or what have you, a certain party, a certain leader, a certain deity, if one considers one's commitment to an outside authority to be more important than one's own moral judgement, one's own respect for human life, human suffering, one simply continues the perpetration of great evil, suffering, harm to one's fellows.

I'm not considering people who follow no religious or moral authority and have no interest in this question for themselves, who simply do as they like when they like to whom they like. I am talking about the serious person, the person who explores these questions of morality, takes an interest in them.

If one takes a step back, if one surveys events--we don't have to go far back in human history, we can look at the world as it is now: Osama bin Laden and many of his compatriots, followers, fellow-thinkers, they believe they are right. They believe they are interpreting Islam correctly. The U.S., bombing Afghanistan, killing the innocent and the guilty alike, many people here believe this is right. Some on religious grounds, some on political grounds. The I.R.A., bombing and shooting Protestants believed they were right. The Protestants returned the favor and felt they were acting in accordance with a higher authority, whether religious or political or both. Israel and Palestine, the Soviet Union, the Red Brigade, Fascists, pro-life/anti-abortion activists, eco terrorists, on and on and on and on.

The question is, from a very basic, pragmatic, objective view: when has the appeal to a higher authority justified an action? When has obeying a leader, a deity, a cause, ever alleviated human suffering? When a higher authority outside of oneself ever altered this suffering or changed it in a significant way?

One obvious counterexample among many is, of course, someone like Mother Theresa. Surely she was a devout Catholic, surely she worked to relieve the suffering of others. But this begs the question: did she have to do so as a Catholic? Could she not have done the same work as a person unaffiliated with any movement, ideology, group? And in acting as an agent of the Catholic Church, did she therfore bring about negative consequences, repercussions, hostilities, that she could not foresee? For instance, in supporting an institution that does not allow women the same access, power, and agency as men? (to take a single example)

In other words, by proclaiming, I am on this side, I am a member of this tribe, this group, and you are not, doesn't that naturally create hostility, confrontation? To say, I have the truth and you do not because I belong to this organization and you do not, isn't that fundamentally hostile? Understand, I'm not saying that a truth cannot be distinguished from a falsehood, or that a person cannot or should not proclaim x a truth or y a falsehood. What I am saying, though, is that to do so on the basis of an appeal to a higher power, a leader, or membership in a group, an allegiance, that this creates hostility and anger, that this hostility and anger inevitably leads to conflict, that this conflict leads to suffering, harm, evil.

I'm really sorry I just have a couple more things I win the tendentious pedantic award, but--

Understand I'm not also saying that no good thing can ever come from a religious organization, a political leader, etc. Obviously good things can happen as a result of the work of a charitable organization, labor union, church group, etc. What I am trying to do is look toward the bigger picture, take the longer view. Are these external authorities necessary? Can one not do any good without them?

I'm not talking about any group, any form of cooperation. I'm not saying cooperation in any form is inherently bad. But without an individual's autonomous agency, without the freedom to think without fear of consequence, the freedom to engage the world without fear of reprisal, I don't see how true morality is possible.

Fear, after all, is what rules are about. You are afraid to break the rules. You may not necessarily be in full agreement with the rules, your are not free to think without fear, free to explore, investigate, play, because the fear of punishment is always there.

And when you get right down to brass tacks, how do you feel about someone who gets you to do what they want you to do by making you afraid?

And now I apologize for winning the windbag award as well. But I have one more question for followers of any particular religion out there:

Why did you elect to become a member of a particular religion? If you were born in a predominantly Christian area, does it bother you that you elected to become Christian, as opposed to say, Hindu? And so forth...if you were born in India, for instance, does it bother you that you declined to become Christian or Jewish? In other words, if what you are looking for is absolute truth, god, etc., does it give you pause that your membership in this or that religion is historically, geographically, sociologically determined or conditioned? That many people may never have had the chance to hear about your religion? That a particular religion seems to favor a particular ethnic, racial, cultural, or national group? Or did you elect a particular religion at odds with community standards or norms, and if so, why? I'm not asking this rhetorically either, I'm really curious on a personal level.
06:03 PM ET (US)
Nice to finally see a civilized theological discussion going on over the Net. I can't count the number of times I've seen these things get out of hand.

Patrick, I didn't think you were positing some sort of proof for/against God, I was commenting on the "confining God to one religion" bit. And Christians don't consign people to Hell on an individual basis -- it's not an active condemnation process; God sets up the rules, and whoever fails, fails.

It might seem unfair or unjust to us. I don't like every rule, but I chose to live by them. I know if I were God I'd probably do things different -- same for all of us. Personally, I'd rather Ghandi ended up in Heaven through some kind of "morality loophole". But like you said, we have no say in the matter.

I was probably unclear with the bad apples bit -- I was referring to your comment on Jimmy Swaggart, definitely one of recent Christianity's most embarassing Bad Apple. My point was that EVERY religion has a list of people that we think shouldn't get into Heaven, but they claim will; as well as a list of people who won't get in that we think should get in.

And of course, I recognize bin Laden is an extremist at odds with most of Islam. According to my studies of the Qur'an (and my Islamic roommate's studies), he has grossly misinterpreted some of the tenets of the Islamic faith. But a good number of Muslims believe the same way he does, if not his methods; he and his followers certainly think they're going to Heaven. But I really only brought him up for the "bad apples" point.

Naturally, everyone's free to think or believe as they seem fit. Though no matter what you believe, you'll always find someone who wants to change your mind.
04:14 PM ET (US)
Nothing too profound here, just a practical observation.

To god-botherers, Buddhism is spiritual kryptonite. If said with a calm and sufficiently level gaze, the phrase "I'm a Buddhist" sends them wilting away.

In the rare event that they persist, an attitude of compassionate vaugness will quickly melt them. "Do you believe in Jesus?" "Just exactly as I believe in you" It's particularly effective if you can arrange your face as if you were watching a puppy chew on a toy.

To my way of thinking, my actual spiritual beliefs are none of their business - the purpose is to quickly and calmly shut down the conversation.
patrick d
09:03 PM ET (US)
Charlie and Thanatos:

hey thanks for the responses--and sincerely, no need to apologize, thanatos.

But I had no intention of advancing a logical or even necessarily rational line of argument for or against the existence of God; better minds than mine have tried that one and failed. I was really offering more of a social argument. If Christians consign Picasso or Dogen or Socrates to Hell, they just don't impress me. And if there really is a Christian God who behaves in this way, he's got no taste, and I find that not only difficult to believe, but kind of repugnant. I mean, that would make God more like the Biggest Stalinist rather than a really impressive Deity, you know?

I mean, don't get me wrong, if there is an all powerful deity out there I guess he can go ahead and do whatever he wants, I got no say in the matter.

It's got nothing to do with bad apples. Ghandi would go to Hell for the simple fact that it seems to me--to my understanding of Christianity, such as it is anyway--that Ghandi more than likely did not accept Jesus as his personal Savior, and since there is no other way to get into Heaven, Ghandi wouldn't get in.

There's nothing illogical about that. It's just lame.

And by the way, there are a huge number of devout Muslims who would quibble with your point re: Osama, thanatos.
Charlie StrossPerson was signed in when posted
12:53 PM ET (US)
Thanatos/Patrick D: The name for this is the "many gods paradox" -- it was introduced in the 19th century as a possible answer to Pascal's Wager.
12:27 PM ET (US)
What's the appropriate etiquette for dealing with someone who seems to want to infect you with the ideological equivalent of herpes?

The Delete button. I've tried at least a dozen times to engage random hate-mail sending crazies who send an unsolicited bit of bile my way. It never works. They don't hear a word you are saying.
02:11 AM ET (US)
>>If Christians are right, then the Buddhists and the Jews are wrong. If Hindus are right, then the Muslims and the Christians are wrong. etc. etc.

So? It's a basic "either P or not P" binary system. If one belief system is right, then the others are wrong. If you have a problem with this concept, try to stay away from math/algebra/computer programming.

>>As if god, truth, whatever, could be confined to this or that sect, group, tribe, etc.

Assuming an all-powerful Divine Being (which is what most religions do), said Being can limit himself to whatever moral or social system the deity wants. The fact that you don't like His methods or His rules is rather irrelevant.

>>Another way of putting it: if Christianity is the one and only truth, then Ghandi, Nietzsche, and the Buddha all went to hell, and Jimmy Swaggart will go to heaven. So in short, I'm not impressed.

If Islam is the one and only truth, Mother Teresa, St. Augustine, and George Washington went to Hell, and Osama bin Laden is going to Heaven to meet 70 virgins.

Point being, every religion has its bad apples. And depending on which religion you hold to, you have to believe that some people you consider "good" or "moral" will end up in Hell. Christianity isn't trying to impress you with some kind of list of people you can identify with, or with claims of pefection.

If there was a perfect religion, where everyone acted piously and no one ever did anything wrong and everyone was "practically perfect in every way" -- then no one would get in.

I apologize for any offense you may derive from this message - but it's irresponsible for a person to allow something he believes in to be attacked without defending it. And since sarcasm seems to be the modus operandi of the day. . .
Edited 03-23-2002 02:13 AM
patrick d
05:41 PM ET (US)
Here's my problem:

If Christians are right, then the Buddhists and the Jews are wrong. If Hindus are right, then the Muslims and the Christians are wrong. etc. etc. As if god, truth, whatever, could be confined to this or that sect, group, tribe, etc.

Another way of putting it: if Christianity is the one and only truth, then Ghandi, Nietzsche, and the Buddha all went to hell, and Jimmy Swaggart will go to heaven. So in short, I'm not impressed.
04:17 PM ET (US)
Did the conversion to fundamentalist somehow remove this fundamentalist's ability to spel korekkly? Did they not have spelling class at his Bible school?

I think someone was yanking your chain.
Charlie StrossPerson was signed in when posted
10:24 AM ET (US)
Hmm. All food for thought.

I still really don't like any belief system that feels the need to justify acceptance by asserting that failure to abide by it is going to result in the destruction of the non-believer, though.

(Anyone got a link to that "Joe wants to be your friend" spoof that was floating around the net a year or three ago?)
Edited 03-22-2002 10:24 AM
Martin Wisse
03:47 AM ET (US)

I don't think being rude towards an obnoxious person like that is anything to be ashamed off, nor do I think you were actually all that rude.

The moment they start preaching to you, you have the right to explain how and why you think their religion is a load of old crap.

What is rude if you start preaching uninvited to them about
your (lack of) religion.
02:30 AM ET (US)
This may sound a little strange, but I find that 'science,' or the study of the natural world, pushes *my* spiritual buttons. I'm not a very religious person, but dote on this: a nifty example that there might be a 'predetermined order' to the Cosmos, or a cosmic plan, possibly created by some higher being if that's what you believe, is the periodic table. Sometimes I think it's an awfully unlikely coincidence that all the natural elements can be sorted in order of atomic mass in such a pattern, and the elements in every vertical column in the table behave in similar ways to each other, and so on. For other such musings on the intersection of philosophy, religion, and science (quantum physics to be exacty) I would recommend "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" by Gary Zukav. In a nutshell, it's a plain-English explanation of most of quantum physics (as far as I know yet, I'm just a college student), and how there is no spoon. :)
08:12 PM ET (US)
As a non-Christian, I am NOT offended. The idea that one belief system is right for everyone is insulting. What do you know about my life? Who are you to tell me what beliefs are right for me?

As for Christianity specifically: the Bible was written by human beings, just like every other holy book on the planet. There is absolutely nothing special about the Bible, except for the following: first, it's old; second, lots of people believe it's the word of God. But the same thing is true of the Vedas, or the Lotus Sutra. There is absolutely no reason I should believe that the Bible is more true than any other holy book - and thus quoting the Bible at me isn't going to convince me of anything. It's only going to piss me off. People who stick their noses into your spiritual life and try to tell you how to run your own house deserve to get smacked. Hard.
02:45 PM ET (US)
As a Christian I find the e-mail you recieved both misguided and slightly offensive. Although share the beliefs of your correspondant, he has presented his message in an unacceptable manner. I feel it's my place to clarify an odd issue or two.

(1) Anyone who claims to have absolute proof of God is lying or selling something. God is meant to be taken by faith, and (generally speaking) His existence cannot be scientifically proved. That being said, I think there's a problem with Christians using scientifically inconclusive evidence to try and convert people, who become understandably annoyed.

Example: Christians see divine design in nature, where athiests or agnostics see evolution; but neither side has scientifically unrefutable proof of their beliefs. Every argument on both sides of this debate has its counter. Unfortunately, some Christians try to "prove" Creation in their attempts to convert people to Christianity. This brings an unwinnable Religion vs. Science conflict into what is intended to be an attempt to save a person's soul (an equally unprovable concept). Whether you're a Christian or not, please keep in mind that Christianity is to be accepted by faith, which is outside the realm of Science. Trying to cross the two causes these sort of conflicts.

(2) I think you have a slightly distorted view of the Christian concept of "free will". You say it's a choice between "voluntarily enslaving yourself to him and undergoing an eternity of torment". Two points: first, becoming a Christian is not slavery, any more than abiding by all the laws and rules of the US Government is slavery. Freedom without boundaries is called anarchy, which is self-destructive and undesirable (ah, this is another post altogether); even the Internet, everyone's favorite bastion of quasi-"anarchy", could not exist without rules - try getting somewhere without URLs or IP addresses, both heavily regulated by powerful agencies.
Second, Christianity is based on the belief that God is holy and pure, and humans are impure and undeserving of His mercy (i.e., the pure God has tolerated the impurities in his universe, and loves us as His creation). Under this framework, any rejection of God is rebellion, which mandates punishment, i.e. Hell. Also, in Christianity there is an important distinction between the temporal life and the eternal after-life (again, the concept can't be scientifically proven or disproven, only taken by faith); thus, the Christians view free will as the choice between obeying God in this life, or not obeying Him. It may be fun to do what you want now, and you have the ability to choose to do so, but you pay for it after you die.
It may not seem like much of a choice to unbelievers, but to Christians, it's morally justified.

(3) Although it is a core belief of Christianity that the unsaved are going to Hell, the person who wrote you delivered the message in a horridly inept and incomplete manner. He appears to be gloating, which is DEFINITELY an un-Christian attitude to take; and he is arguing from his presupposition of Heaven and Hell, without realizing you probably come from a different belief structure. The rest of the letters are merely childish antagonizings that spring from his beliefs and gloatings.

I feel I must apologize to you for the manner of the e-mail you recieved. The sender has misrepresented the message of Christianity, and done it in a particularly infuriating manner (spam mail). I would not be surprised if your mystery correspondent was an overzealous teenager.

But please do not let it obscure the true message of Christianity. You're welcome to reject what we believe - it's your right. I simply don't want it to be for the wrong reasons.

Daniel Ramski

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