Sunday, June 3, 2007

High School Program Explores "Human Side of Religion", but I'd be interested to see Hindus, Buddhists, and nonreligious people included too

I just listened to an interesting segment on WABE radio about a high school program that let students from a Catholic high school and a Muslim high school meet each other to get exposure to different faiths. They mentioned Christians, Muslims, and Jews as, presumably, people who share Abraham in their respective traditions.

To listen to the segment, click on this link:

High School Program Explores "Human Side of Religion"

from Atlanta by

High schools can seem islands. All day long, students and teachers only see each other. But at 3 Atlanta private schools, there's a program that is getting some students to see beyond the school walls.

It discussed how students in religious high schools don't often get exposure to people of different background or faith traditions. It was encouraging to hear the students remark that they found each other, in most ways that matter, very alike.

I consider myself nonreligious. I tried very hard to believe in some kind of literal interpretation of Christianity about four or five years ago, but found that it went against reason. When I say literal, I do not mean believing that the Bible is inerrant or fully dictated by a supernatural creator, I mean more simply a literal belief in the resurrection and its attendant miracle accounts. I can't really call myself an "atheist", because to me that term is meaningless from the proper perspective. You, no matter who you are, are likely an "atheist" with respect to Zeus. But, Zeus was once considered the supreme high god. In fact, the first Christians were called "atheists" because they disbelieved in the Roman gods!

After wracking my brain for a couple of years on the topic, I finally concluded that it's perfectly fine to disbelieve in miracle stories that offer no evidence. After all, disbelieving in miracle stories means I can fully enjoy my reason and own experience coupled with the past 150 years worth of photography, videography, and other media-making machines which reveal exactly zero instances of confirmatory evidence for supernatural events. There has also never been in the history of man, so far as I know, a case where someone had a limb severed that grew back through the help of prayer. I have, however, seen people who lead extraordinary lives without as many limbs as most of us. To me that is a testament to their courageous will.

While disbelieving in miracles I can still enjoy the parables of Jesus and the golden rule that Rabbi Hillel stated long before Jesus as "That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it", without believing in things like virgin birth, resurrection, or many holy saints coming back from the dead and walking around Jerusalem as stated in Matthew 27:52.

Finally, when I say I disbelieve in miracles, I am not saying that I categorically deny the possibility of such things. I am simply saying that all events in current history are far more parsimoniously credited to natural explanations than to supernatural explanations.

But, long before I resolved this question in my own mind, I had the great experience of attending a university filled with people from every possible religious tradition. Georgia State University has a rich cultural sampling of all kinds of traditions from Christian, to Muslim, to Hindu, to Buddhist, to non-religious. This taught me the very important lesson of trying to seek first the similarities that others had with me, rather than trying to distance myself due to differences.

I want to make a few more observations about the power of prayer and its utter failure to regrow limbs for people who have them severed. This topic has been explored in far greater detail on, but I can summarize my own position quickly.

People who maintain that prayer has the power to heal disease, but draw the line at severed limbs are actually denying the power of prayer. They are positing a line of demarcation between the supernatural and the natural across which we must not go. Couple this with the fact that zero cases of spontaneously regrown limbs has ever been observed, and you have evidence that further makes it more parsimonious to attribute other prayer-assisted healings to something other than prayer. It does not matter what that something other is.

To summairze this point: if you pray for something that is thought to be physically impossible and it does not happen, but you attribute that failure to its implicit physical impossibility, then you are specifying a naturalistic litmus test for the feasibility of miraculous interventions.

On the other hand, if you pray for something that is known or thought to be physically possible, and it does happen, but you then attribute it to supernatural causes, you are grossly violating Ockham's razor by introducing additional entities into the explanation. It is far more parsimonious to state that some unknown natural cause led to the fulfillment of the request than to say that an identified supernatural one did.

This post has grown rapidly from the original topic, but it's all in the same category to me. I would just like to see some of those exploratory high school programs expose students to the non-religious as well.

After all, considering that we are but one planet in a universe that contains more stars than there are grains of sand on the earth, there is a faint possibility, however slim it may be, that on some other planet there exist non-Christians, non-Muslims, non-Jews, non-Buddhists, non-Hindus, just plain non-human beings.

How incredible and humbling this universe is that each day we learn something new to correct or revise our old understanding. How amazing it is that while the ancients thought stars were simply holes in a canopy that was not too far away, we now know them to be suns unto their own, with planets orbiting them just like our own.

I am forever indebted to the work of Carl Sagan for his expansive view of life and this universe and for his skepticism which would admit of no evidence for the supernatural, no evidence for extra-terrestrials, and no evidence of a supernatural creator. Yet, he never made fun of anyone or belittled them. He understood history and understood that all of our ideologies and philosophies were our best attempts throughout our existence to explain this paradox of existence.

The following clip of him reading a passage from his Pale Blue Dot book is astonishing and humbling.  

Here is the excerpt in full, as listed on Wikipedia.

In a commencement address delivered May 11, 1996, Sagan related his thoughts on the deeper meaning of the photograph:

"We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you've ever heard of, every human being who ever was lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish this pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

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