Archive for February, 2009

Jack Chick

Posted in Faith Experience on February 22, 2009 by RWZero

It was 10th grade history class.

“Hey,” said one of my classmates. “Do you want to see a site that’s funny that isn’t supposed to be funny?”

It was the website for Jack Chick publications, a breed of gospel tract that has been around for a long time. Unbeknownst to my classmate, I’d known of these tracts since childhood. The author—Jack Chick himself—is a recluse, and there are no official photos of him. His evangelical tracts are drawn in black and white, and often feature the subject of hell.

Jack Chick is very fundamentalist. He believes in the secret workings of the Illuminati, Roman Catholic manipulation of world events, New Age conspiracies, and the evils of Dungeons and Dragons. It’s no surprise that his tracts strongly impressed themselves upon my memory when I first read them. But let us rewind a bit.

When you’re a child you do not need to see something to believe it is real. Perhaps I should rephrase that: you do not need to see something to feel it is real. There are many things that I know to be real today, but have never seen, such as Brazil, or the inside of the consulting engineering firm that I most want to work for. At the same time, I do not feel an acute awareness that those things exist, and exist even at this very moment.

As a child, I found the idea of life after death very real and vivid, even more so than other things that were described to me. This is only natural, as I had existed for only a short time, but I am now quite used to being alive (indeed, I have difficulty imagining it any other way). I thought upon the subject very often.

When I was told about heaven and hell as a child, my mind produced a picture that I cannot wipe from my memory. It is the image of two roads, one leading to heaven, and the other to hell, or to destruction. The road to heaven is narrow, while the road to destruction is wide. These two roads were suspended in pitch-black space, leading off into the cold depths of eternity. There shone the whitest, brightest light from the narrow door to heaven, but it was pale and lacking in warmth. It had no quality to it other than the brightness, and it was difficult to see anything once you became engulfed by it. The way to hell was dark, with traces of crimson red.

The path to destruction branched off from the narrow, such that one would always need to keep balance while walking towards life.

the-narrow-road

It is not that I believed this image was accurate, or that such roads existed. It was the way I first imagined something that had been described in metaphorical terms. It represented an idea that was visceral for me. Although I have become quite settled into everyday life at this point, I reflect on these thoughts with some fear and existential dread.

I did not get this idea (or this image) from Jack Chick, but it reminds me of him. This image makes me feel the same way as his comic-book gospel tracts did—with black and white depictions of heaven and hell, black and white concepts of how they would be, and the words God would say when you departed to either. It is the feeling of mystery having been replaced with something much colder, and finalities having been stripped of their purpose.

* * *

As we grow older, it seems we are increasingly willing to abandon particular thoughts that make our lives uncomfortable. We exchange dissonance for things that can be rationalized through experience, or lie comfortably beyond our capacity to understand. What we “know” is heavily influenced by how we feel about our experience, and it may be only later that the reasons—however sound they are—follow.

I can trace many concepts that have followed this route in my life. The reality of suffering in the third world, for instance, now diminishes quickly if I do not forcefully engage it. As a child, it seemed clear to me, and I often felt that I could accurately imagine myself living the lives of the desolate.

I have learned a great deal in my lifetime, but is there anything I have lost? Perhaps there is something to be gleaned from the way I once imagined the world, before my experience taught me how to regard what I have still never seen. I might even find something of worth in my ghostly image of the narrow road.

How to Watch an Argument

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on February 14, 2009 by RWZero

Researching Issues of Contention

What everyone should learn to admit, at some point in their life, is the extremely biased environment in which they were brought up. There is no escaping the truth of this—you were raised in particular circumstances, which eventually led to your having particular views. It does not matter what these views are, only that they have arisen from your experience.

Without an explicit effort on your part to expose yourself to experiences and information that contradict these views, your natural circumstances (and your concomitant desires) can be said to have directly produced the mindset that you have. Although this mindset cannot be called worthless, it has limited value.

The natural question arises: “what of the experiences that have been forced upon me by people who stand in opposition to my mindset? Surely these have contributed to my broader understanding.” It is certainly possible to have our opinions improved by accident, but in many cases it doesn’t happen. The experiences that are forced on us often tend to reinforce our perspectives, as these are the experiences that created them in the first place! The things most likely to improve our perspectives are those which do not come to us naturally. I cannot recall any occasions on which I have changed my mind about a serious issue without making an honest effort to understand it better. I think most people would admit to having a similar experience.

All this jargon, of course, is just another plea for objective reasoning. But there are some ways to do this that I’ve found better than others. I believe that the best way to understand the perspectives of both sides in an issue is to properly watch the argument for a time. Do not participate; do not stigmatize one of the sides. Simply observe what the two sides are saying to one another, and it will soon become clear why they do not agree.

Here are some things I have learned:

1. Read what everyone says.

The biggest obstacle in understanding a contentious issue is the unwillingness to read what everyone else is saying. There isn’t much to elaborate on here—read responses to common arguments, and read responses to those responses.

There are exceptions, however. Sometimes good responses are not available, and the person who gets the last word often sounds right. Only read what everyone says if you feel that it will end with fair representation.

2. Use the Internet. Apply caution when doing so.

Reading books is considered a higher and nobler method of acquiring information, and in many cases I agree with this. None of us can deny, however, that a great deal of what we know has also been read on the Internet. The problem with the Internet is not that it has no legitimate information, but that it contains a great deal of both legitimate and illegitimate information. The good information is there, it simply must be found, and it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference.

Fortunately, there are a few hallmarks of bad information, such as bad spelling and grammar, rotating .gif animations, and facts that nobody else seems to have heard before. Despite this, extensive cross-referencing is necessary when reading on the Internet. Look for things that appear consistently, or that have no adequate rebuttals.

3. Do not make inferences from Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is useful for facts. It is not useful for making inferences. These articles are edited by a relatively small collection of nerds who have congregated around a particular topic. While individual facts are mostly true, the legitimacy of a position cannot be ascertained by the way these articles are written. [1]

4. Extract good points.

Good arguments are like ore. They do not come in solid bricks, but must be carefully refined from lesser ideas that their originator may also have come up with. I often wince when I read a good point by someone who is universally hated, or in the middle of saying a whole bunch of things that nobody agrees with. Who’s going to dig that gem out of there and have the courage to defend it?

Discredit arguments one at a time. Do not discredit people.

5. Extract points… period.

One of the reasons I do not read opinions on the Internet very often is that the arguments are often very low in content. Having read many lengthy rants by people on controversial topics, I have come to the conclusion that insults and pompous statements of confidence make up the vast majority of what is said.

If you must read the writings of highly opinionated people (and numerous learned people do write this way, so it cannot be discounted), do the following:

– Paste the text into a document

– Delete everything that is not either a fact, or a conclusion drawn directly from those facts

– Match the real facts and conclusions with the responses from someone on the other side of the issue, after similarly stripping down their response.

Leaving the rant intact will only obscure your ability to find a good argument, or make you mad enough to write something equally useless. You will also notice that carrying out step 2 sometimes requires deleting everything.

6. Learn to recognize a lost argument.

Have you ever noticed that nobody ever really “loses” an argument? It’s rare for one side to simply collapse and concede defeat. A lost argument is not identified by blood and guts, but by emptiness.

The death of an argument is often contemporaneous with a switch to guerrilla warfare, picking on small pieces of evidence that support it rather than addressing the whole picture. In the extreme, there are statements asserting that the position “cannot really be proven wrong.” Is that so? Proof is an almost impossible burden. The important question is: why do you believe this in the first place?

The converse of the above is also a red flag: “you cannot really prove your position.” The “really” in this sentence usually means “mathematically,” or something equally extreme. [2]

Remember that, in and of itself, a lost argument does not mean a lost cause. It means that someone did not have a good argument, not that good arguments don’t exist.

7. If the issue is important to you, use appropriate timing.

Discovering that you have been living a lie may be necessary, but it should probably wait until after exams.

8. Keep focus

The second biggest obstacle to understanding, in my opinion, is the willingness of people to skim the surface of ideas without ever getting to the bottom of any of them. This ensures that everyone will leave with exactly the same views that they started with.

In some of the most difficult dialogues I’ve had, the other person would immediately change the subject as soon as a more “fresh” idea came to mind, seemingly reinforcing all the other opinions that never had a chance of being overturned. It creates a very misleading situation:

I have an opinion about X.

You have a contrary opinion about X

Clearly we disagree mightily on X

This reminds me of Y, which you are also wrong about

Hearing your defense of Y reminds me of Z

With X, Y and Z working in my favour, how can you keep on arguing?

This is, of course, different from investigating topics alone. It is, however, more dangerous, because there is nobody to point out that you are doing this.

Carefully investigating each facet of an issue is time-consuming, but it is the only way to accomplish anything. Skimming the surface of many issues will only reduce the chances that you will ever return to complete what you have started, for you may feel that you have done it already. It is fair to point out that many important ideas are highly interconnected, requiring input from each other. But in order to solve this problem, we have invented a wonderful mechanism, and it goes like this:

“For the sake of the argument, assume that…”

9. Freely Acknowledge Bias

You have a bias. You prefer that things come out one way more than another. No matter how many times you use the word “rational” or “scientific,” you are ultimately a human being with hopes, fears, and vast ignorance of the information you would truly need to make a completely objective decision about most issues. What you can hope (in most issues lending themselves to objective analysis) is that your bias is not strong enough to overpower the conclusion implied by the evidence.

————————————————————————–

[1] If you have built up great confidence in Wikipedia and the experts who write it, you have probably never clicked on the “Discussion” page and read what the authors of your articles are saying to each other.

[2] You may have noticed that in the special case of the existence of God, some theists use the former while some atheists use the latter. Neither mean much of anything. [3] This essay has little application to such questions.

[3] I just learned that it’s not well agreed-upon as to whether you use “neither” in the singular or the plural in that case. MS Word tried to correct me, but I defied it and stuck with my usage.

One Very Small Reason…

Posted in Humour etc. on February 14, 2009 by RWZero

That I am Neither Atheist Nor Agnostic:

I’d rather be wrong about something than right about nothing.

Right, Left, Right, Wrong

Posted in The Narrow Path on February 11, 2009 by RWZero

Politics as a Coat of Sugar

The interplay between politics and religion is much more interesting to watch in the United States than it is in Canada. In Canada, it seems that the political leanings of evangelicals—as well as Christians as a whole—are more moderated and diverse than those in the U.S., where there is a distinct religious right. What are we to make of the divisions of religious views along political lines?

I have a few ideas as to why there is a political bias to the right among evangelicals, at least in some milieus. Suppose we accept that the spectrum is adequately described by the Nolan Chart, which looks like this:

left_right2

Strictly speaking, religious people are actually not that concerned with economic freedom. My own personal views on economic freedom have nothing to do with religion; they are entirely a function of my personal experience, and beliefs about how the government should use money collected from citizens. The concern lies with personal freedom.

What does it mean to increase or reduce personal freedom? This is not nearly as straightforward as it might seem. I have been surprised, at times, to discover which side of the political spectrum supports certain issues, [1] because the issues depend highly on the individual whose freedom is perceived to be in question.

I believe that the increase in personal freedom, as advocated by the left, actually appears as a decrease in personal freedom for many religious conservatives. There is, after all, only so much room on the spectrum. For each additional (public) action that is permitted, the “freedom” to avoid being exposed to this is removed.

People of all sorts believe that certain things should not be publicly permitted. I would suggest, however, that there are proportionally more things that religious people (or evangelical Christians) wish not to be exposed to.

There is more to the story than this, and the topic could be discussed at length. But I believe there are also better things to analyze. Perhaps a more salient question is: what are we to make of the division of truth along political lines?

The following analysis is especially germane for religious people, but I believe that anyone who believes in truth, or a concept of morality that our society (generally) shares, can draw from it:

I would suggest that there is a serious flaw (I will call it a danger, if I may) in the common view of politics and truth. We believe they are related, but we are more likely to argue over the former than the latter. Worse, we regard politics as an objectively legitimate spectrum of viewpoints, even though we would never regard the truth that light. In other words, we are able to accept things that are terribly wrong, so long as they are strategically fed to us in the right political framework.

The examples of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia appear so frequently in armchair logic that I’m loath to mention them, [2] but they are far too appropriate here. While these two regimes demonstrated clearly that political extremity in either direction has disastrous results, they also demonstrated something else—that people whose sense of right and wrong sways with the motion of politics make such disasters possible. The freedom inherent in democracy is not a catchall solution to nationally sanctioned atrocities, because the general population is vulnerable to rhetoric. [3]

I cannot escape the conclusion that politics dangerously normalizes our perception of serious issues, and matters of right and wrong. This seems counter-intuitive, as politics makes us feel even more fervent about how correct we are about things. It may seem that politics has increased the attention we pay to right and wrong, since they are related, and we pay attention to politics. What we must remember, however, is that these are two very different issues, with very different standards. The consequence is this: our ability to discern right from wrong is damped if we believe that we are only discussing politics.

“Of course they don’t support the right side of the argument; they’re the devil’s own raving liberals!”

“It’s only natural that they’re wrong; they’re a bunch of theocratic fascists!”

If people are more open-minded, the problem only changes shape. When a spectrum is created on which people are assumed to have natural, acceptable, varying beliefs, the possibility for right and wrong is eliminated. If certain ideas are associated with the political right, it might be assumed that they cannot be wrong (per se), because there is a legitimate left.

I regularly encourage people to select their political leanings based on principles that have no relationship to party lines, and to renew their perspective as the issues change over time.

For the Christians, I have stronger words. If we use political ideology as our point of reference, we cannot describe ourselves as standing for much of anything. I have beliefs about right and wrong, but I do not care which side of the political spectrum supports them. This is not to say that we should be apolitical, or that one particular side of the political spectrum is not (sometimes) heavier with moral shortcomings. It is to say that voting solely for the imposition your values is to invest in a future where your values may be outlawed. It is to say that if you choose to identify with one-sided politics as a result of your beliefs, you will not be taken seriously when it matters.

We must make our case for right and wrong much more forcefully than our case for right and left. If we allow these to become confused, we shall be treated as everyday political opponents when the chips are down. There is no reason why our conception of morality should belong to either political perspective, and we must interpret the occasional coincidence of these as mere… coincidence.

It follows logically that sometimes the right (or left) will be completely and utterly wrong. It is a myth that the political spectrum will always contain legitimate diversities of opinion. It is for this reason that we must not use it as a point of reference.

In reflecting on this post, I have removed “political views” from my Facebook profile.

——————————————————————————-

[1] It seems strange to me that the left tends to support abortion, and it seems odd that many evangelicals support right-wing policies that ostensibly snub the poor and disenfranchised. I think the reasons for this become clear upon closer inspection, but I see no value in writing an essay about it.

[2] I learned while writing this essay that the word “loath,” as in “loath to,” is a completely different word from “loathe,” having thought all this time that they were the same.

[3] There is a quote that I read, likely in a recent book, but I cannot remember where I saw it. In any case, it involves a Nazi official who explains (during the Nuremberg trials, I believe) that it is a small thing for the government to manipulate people, with or without democracy.

Homosexuality

Posted in The Narrow Path on February 3, 2009 by RWZero

The Simple Treatments of Complex Issues

There are a variety of issues that have a propensity to divide the Christian church, or at the very least, throw its adherents into frenzy. In order to comment on the treatment of such issues as a whole, I have arbitrarily selected one of the most controversial and sensitive of these issues to write about.

In the years that I’ve lived on this planet, the leanings of protestant denominations on social issues have been fairly well defined. Evangelical churches have traditionally condemned homosexual acts, along with the social acceptance thereof. Mainline churches have tended to accept them, though sometimes causing schism.

I offer no answers to questions that you can only ask yourself.

Tolerance

The lore of Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church is widespread, but this has little to do with reality. While many religious conservatives may take exception to homosexuality, I cannot personally recall meeting people who have professed the ill will towards homosexuals that is projected upon them.

The Bible

Overt, unambiguous condemnations of homosexual behaviour occur twice in the Bible: in the Levitical code (Leviticus 18:22, essentially identical to 20:13), and as written by Paul in Romans 1:26-27.

In an attempt create harmony, some have invented alternate interpretations of these verses. Unfortunately, this approach to reading the text is intellectually bankrupt. This same mindset underlies errors across the entire spectrum of social and political views among Christians, and it must be avoided.

We may ask ourselves whether the text applies to the present situation. We may ask whether there is an essential principle in these passages that must be imported, over and above the cultural context in which it appears. We may ask every relevant hermeneutical question, but we must not engage in silly semantics.

Emphasis

The amount of attention the church has paid to homosexuality—as measured by books, articles, and Internet-based writings—drastically exceeds that given to (for example) divorce, which is addressed by Jesus. [1]

Understanding

Some Christians have simply not had meaningful interactions with homosexual people. Their attitude is harsh and narrow-minded at times, but this is expected, just as the abrasive commentary from politically charged activists may indicate a lack of meaningful interactions with these same Christians.

Marriage

The issue of gay marriage cannot be branded as an issue of human rights. It is a simple democratic question as to whether society wishes to apply a particular title to a certain group of people. No essential rights of gay couples are affected by the use of this title, as its only effect is to require the other members of society to acknowledge its use in this way. I would suggest that if the majority of people in a population elect to recognize these couples as “married,” the title should be applied. If they do not, it should not.

Thus, I believe that activists for gay marriage are obligated to convince detractors, rather than overrule them.

Instinct

Many in mainstream culture are appalled by the idea of rejecting homosexual behaviour on moral or religious grounds. It seems, however, that the greatest portion of this revulsion has not built its foundation in logic, but in cultural conditioning—we believe that we are morally obligated to fulfill the desires that we possess.

It is fair for a person, upon examining the qualities of his or her desires, to feel that God should (or would) not condemn the indulgence of these desires. The reasonable believer, however, cannot come to a conclusion solely based upon this. We are all gripped by desires that we struggle against. When we distinguish between them, we do not rely on instinct alone, but our entire worldview.

This is to say nothing of the conclusions that one ought to reach. It follows, however, that if there were gay Christians who believed that their faith precluded acting upon their urges (and there are), there would be no merit in criticizing them.

Symmetry

An oft-overlooked fact is that homosexuality is not homogeneous.

There are those who have never felt differently. There are those who are uncertain. There are those who had confusing experiences in their childhood, and there are even those who seem to have become bored with being straight and begun to experiment.

As an aside, I distinctly recall opening NOW Magazine and reading Dan Savage’s column one afternoon—I used to regularly read this column to add some spice to my day—and discovering that he had at one point “switched” to men, in small part due to something that happened when he was with a particular woman. This, more so than any of the reader questions I had read, was surprising.

Morality, as seen by religious people, is inherently linked to the context of the behaviour. It is based on principle. For religious or secular parties to indiscriminately refer to “homosexuality” in a moral context is an oversimplification. It does not reflect the way that religious morality deals with issues, and it does not reflect the diverse situations that it interacts with.

Change

In part due to the above, it is criminal to chastise a homosexual person who has tried (with or without success) to change their orientation, for reasons religious or otherwise. The very idea that one might seek to change his or her orientation is so upsetting to mainstream culture that it is buried in rhetoric on any occasion that it threatens to surface. Despite this, there are some who wish to change, and there are some who have changed.

This should not be perceived as a threat to those who cannot, should not, or do not wish to, change.

Science

It seems clear from the data that homosexuality is influenced by genetics, but contains a developmental aspect. [2] On one hand, it is slightly misleading to suggest that the orientation is indisputably written into one’s genes. For this reason, I personally do not believe in conflating sexual orientation and race too heavily. On the other hand, it is grossly inaccurate to say that “being gay is a choice,”—an idea widespread among Christians who have not truly engaged the issue. This thoroughly aggravating belief seems consistent with a common evangelical coping mechanism, by which complexity is easily resolved: that all disagreements with the standard evangelical worldview arise from free acts of rebellion against God. [3]

Truth

I imagine that some who feel conflicted upon this issue may flirt with the following reasoning:

A) I know that gay behaviour is morally acceptable

B) Christianity states that gay behaviour is morally unacceptable

C) Therefore Christianity is false

This is a dangerous way to think, however. All support for premise (A) is subjective, and if one is willing to act subjectively, there are enough people on both sides of premise (B) to simply choose the side that one likes best. Any serious reflection will reveal that the conclusion (C) must be reached independently of (A) and (B).

I can say only this—that our answers to life’s ultimate questions should not be chosen according to their implications, or the complexity they may entail. I do not mean to say that this is simple.

Action

For those who are both gay and Christian, no combination of the above statements makes it easy.

I haven’t seen the evangelical church as a whole extend much love and kindness to gay people. The spectrum of opinions on homosexuality within the church is irrelevant—evangelicals have shown compassion and empathy for people from all walks of life, with or without acceptance of their lifestyle. Perhaps we simply find it easier to welcome those whose behaviour stems from desires that we, ourselves, have.

I have written most of this from experience over time. And for the things that I may have said, to the people that I may have met, I am sorry.

—————————————————————–

[1] I have recalled this statistic from a session at the annual American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) meeting.

[2] The studies that most heavily imply this conclusion were carried out on identical twins. They are widely known, and are described here.

[3] This will be the topic of a separate essay.