Sunday, September 10, 2006

Philosophy, Life, Religion

A few years ago a nephew asked me to write of my views on life, religion, and society. I felt the best place to start wass religion, the beliefs about the world and the universe that tend to shape all other beliefs.

I grew up a traditional Methodist, and a part of my life, like that of my family, was the church and all its activities. I defined myself, at least in part, as a member of the Methodist community.

I think I believed the things we all believed in the Methodist church, but I remember vividly a chronic sense of frustration and disappointment because I never experienced that sudden, profound sense of enlightenment that “being born again” was said to cause. Even at revivals I never felt that deep call that Methodists relished as having Jesus enter one’s life.

At college (16 years old) I began to read the great philosophers – Kant, Spinosa, Nietzsche, Freud – with excitement, thinking here I would find the grand answers that somehow my Methodist upbringing had not provided. I also read avidly about the world’s religions, hoping they afforded answers that I hadn’t found in Christianity.

By 18 I had become a conscious doubter. Somehow Methodism in specific and Christianity in general had left me basically a skeptic. I still continued to attend church, more from hhabit and family pressure, but it meant little to me. By 20 I had accepted the fact that I was somewhere between agnostic and atheist.

It is difficult to put into words the vast number of questions that no religion had answered for me. But I settled into a lifetime of conscious acceptance of the fact that humans do not have the intellectual capacity to answer the fundamental questions all humans ponder. Is there a creator? What are the limits of the universe? What lies beyond those limits? Ditto for time: what lies before he beginning and after the end?

While my agnosticism became a lifelong part of my nature, my philosophical journey has continued. It think I was attracted to sociology and anthropology in the hope they would help me understand life by understanding the nature of being human. And that hope was, over a period of many decades, answered. I developed a philosophy of life and being that gives me a sense of serenity, of knowing why we are here, how the universe operates – insofar as any human can know these things.

So here are the key elements.

I believe there must be a supreme intelligence who created everything, even though the evidence is only circumstantial. The incredible, wondrous complexity of all life forms, and of the universe, seems to me to argue that creation is more than an accident.

But I cannot believe that this supreme intelligence has a specific plan for the individual, nor that it has any concern for day to day events or human actions. Ergo, I believe that prayer is futile, and that Christian beliefs in salvation and individual responsibility are meaningless.

Consequently, I believe humans do not have the capacity to “know” why we are here. But at the same time I believe that we were created with an intelligence greater than that of any other life form in order to seek answers to the fundamental questions of life and the nature of good and evil.

Humans were created with powers of thought and feeling that set us apart from all other life, even though we are rooted in and part of that life. That gives us responsibility, something no other creatures have been given, for stewardship of the earth and all other life.

To put this in conventional language, God created man and gave us the power – and the responsibility – to be good or evil. I do not know why (and I believe humans are incapable of knowing) God created the universe and all in it, but I believe that humans were given intelligence to allow us to improve ourselves and conditions in the universe.

Thus every human being has some measure of responsibility for bettering the condition of mankind and all other life. There is no Hell for those who fail to do so, nor Heaven for those who succeed, but we each have a conscience that gives us guidance as to whether we are doing good of evil.

Many times a day I ask myself whether specific actions of mine will help or hinder, and of course I believe I have an obligation to help. Most of the time the answer is that I am lazy, or tired, or otherwise occupied. But the number of times I answer “good” clearly outweighs the “bad”.

As I study human history I see an overall evolution of human culture toward an increasingly “civilized” state of existence. This civilized state of mankind includes gradual reduction of crime and brutality, and increasingly more care for the less fortunate. This gives me a sense of optimism about life: we may never achieve perfection, but over a period of thousands of years we get better.

I became a Quaker in the early 1990's because I felt that Quakers represented the closest form of religion to my beliefs. Quakers don’t pray in the conventional sense: they “seek the Light”.

They accept the basic postulate that every individual has a touch of the divine (“that of God in everyone”), and they believe that each individual has the ability and the responsibility to seek the Light. Thus we use no ministers; we are truly an “equal opportunity” faith!

Very importantly, to me, Quakers believe each individual has a responsibility for living rightly and helping the condition of others.

Quakers also respect the fact that each individual is on a solitary journey, seeking the Light, to understand God and the meaning of life. This means that no one can claim that his or her “truth” is the only one, superior to all others. This inculcates in Quakers a gentleness, a diminution of argumentativeness and dogmatism.

Quakers differ in how they regard the Bible, but most believe it is a “work in progress”, subject to change as new generations strive diligently to seek the Light. All believe it is a compendium of great truths as perceived by those seekers who wrote it, but few Quakers regard it as a literal, infallible codification of truth.

RELIGION AND POLITICS

I have to confess that I feel anger toward Christianity as a force in human history. For every benign outcome there seems to have been one or more evils: brutal wars in the name of the faith, inquisitions with horrible tortures, witch burnings, smug support of evil social and political systems, interference in the affairs of others, and refusing to confront great wrongs.

In contemporary America I feel this same anger toward Christian fundamentalists who are seeking political power in order to establish a fundamentalist Christian orthodoxy over the millions of Americans who are not Christian. The rise of George W. Bush and his extremist Christian
supporters is to me the greatest calamity in my lifetime.

Our country was founded as a place of religious freedom, and the American constitution and political system have generally supported both freedom of religion and separation ofr church and state. The founders were vividly aware of the abuse of religious freedom by state power in Europe, the persecution of those who sought now forms of religious expression.

Now we have fundamentalist Christian forces unwittingly violating the basic principles on which we were founded. Christians have no right, simply because they are in the majority, to force government institutions to reflect Christian beliefs in a society which has millions of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and non believers.

MORALITY AND POLITICS

I used to call myself a liberal, and indeed I am liberal, but my distaste for the equivocations of political liberals led me to refer to myself as a progressive. I was a Democrat most of my life, but now am sometimes an independent, sometimes a Green. Democrats compromise too much for my taste.

My progressivism gives me strong views on the major issues of our society.

I believe firmly in abortion. I think each woman has a right to choose whether or not to give birth, and if she feels it necessary. Because abortion is a serious action I have no problem with requiring consultation with physicians, or a brief waiting period, but in the end I believe the woman must make the choice. It is her body and her life.

I believe in the sanctity of life, but I don’t see life as an either/or thing. A fertilized egg may be life in an incipient sense, but it is not life in the sense of being conscious and thinking.

There are far too many people on earth, and preventing exponential population growth is essential. Opponents of abortion and birth control are helping to aggravate a serious problem facing the human species.

I strongly oppose the death penalty, no matter what the offense. Taking the life of a mature, conscious human is evil, whether it is the state or an individual murderer who does it. The fact that convicts on death row are frequently found innocent with DNA or other exculpatory evidence proves, to my satisfaction, that the death penalty should never be carried out.

The United States, in my opinion, is primitive on this question. Every other so-called civilized nation on earth has abolished the death penalty, while we continue to act like savages.

I just as strongly favor the right of every person to choose to end his or her life. If I reach the point where I feel death is preferable to life, it is my sacred right to take that action. It is a monstrous action for the state to deny me that right.

On the same point, I feel it wrong to criminalize a physician’s seeking to aid an individual in choosing to die. I regard Jack Kevorkian as a trail-blazing hero.

On marriage and divorce. I believe any two individuals ought to have the right to live together and, if they profess legally their commitment, to share resources and fates. This means I have no objection to same sex couples being married, even though my own heterosexuality does not permit me to understand fully the nature of their physical attraction to each other.

It seems to me the state ought to have little to do with getting married. Freddie and I lived together for more than 14 years before we got legally married. That was our business and no one else’s, and our commitment to each other was just as strong before marriage as since.

I feel a little different about divorce, because it is all too common for one partner (usually the husband) to take advantage of the other. But no-fault mutually agreeable divorces ought to be allowed simply and expeditiously.

Because I believe in maximum freedom for the individual I am opposed generally to state interference in private affairs except where other individuals might be harmed. There are many personal things I don’t want to do: pornography, self-mutilation, gambling, heavy drinking, nudity, etc. But the less the state gets involved in regulating these things, the better. In the area of personal freedom I come close to being a libertarian.

One of my greatest concerns is the tolerance of society to the inequitable distribution of wealth. I believe in rewarding individuals well for success, but society, especially ours, allows conspicuous consumption to become morally offensive.

Because of the nature of our capitalist system our laws see no wrong in allowing a CEO to receive a hundred times more income than workers, in paying professional athletes and actors millions of dollars a year, in allowing a tiny fraction of our people to hold the lion’s share of our national wealth.

But when this exists alongside massive poverty, something is badly wrong with our system. It is flatly immoral for one person to own several mansions with gold faucets and doorknobs, while millions are homeless or without medical insurance and adequate food. Thus I believe devoutly in the welfare state, a state where government accepts responsibility for all its citizens and taxes those who can afford it to provide care for those who cannot.

America is a society where great values have been allowed to suppress inequity and misery. We rightly believe that our free enterprise system, with its emphasis on individual initiative, has made the nation wealthy and powerful. Yet we are convinced that we must strongly resist limiting free enterprise – to the point of ignoring the excesses it also produces.

Take health care. We have pioneered in medical science, and are looked to by the world as the center of medical advance. Yet we have also allowed medicine to be a commercial venture, where massive profits by physicians, drug companies, and medical insurance companies is accepted as a good - - while inadequate medical care for millions is shrugged off as unavoidable.

Every other capitalist country has recognized that some limits must be set in order to provide decent health care for all. The result is single payer health systems controlled by government, per capita costs half or less than those in the US, and considerably better medical statistics for the population as a whole.

Thus we Americans spend more than twice as much (per person) on health care, and we live shorter lives, with more infant mortality, more disease, more illness than Europe, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and other developed countries.

If a politician in the US has the temerity to express interest in a single payer health system, he is immediately shot down by his opposition – and the public – as an advocate of “socialized medicine”. I would like to say that we deserve the shoddy health care we get. But it is the poor, those who participate least in our political system, who suffer the most. Richer Americans pay through the nose for their medical services, but they mostly get good service.

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