Sunday, August 12, 2007

Thoughts on Atlanta Freethought

I attended the Atlanta Freethought Society's (1) monthly social today in Roswell. This was the first time I have been to a meeting sponsored by the society.

Meeting Summary

At today's meeting, Ed Buckner (2) discussed his chapter in the book Parenting Beyond Belief (3), edited by Dale McGowan (4). Dale was also present and said a few words as well.

Ed's gave four basic premises that he said should be used as the basis for any rational approach to teaching about religions in school. I agreed with them, though I cannot recall the wording of them at this time.

Dale cited Barna Group statistics (5) as showing that evangelicals and free-thinkers are the groups growing most rapidly, while other affiliations are declining. 

My Personal Thoughts on the Value of Reading Religious Texts

I was not raised with any religious dogma given to me as "the truth". Instead, my family encouraged me in personal responsibility for my actions and the ethics of treating each person with kindness and respect. Aside from that, my family encouraged me to pursue my curiosity of the natural world. I dug for bones. I put pond water under microscopes. I looked at the stars through telescopes. Eventually, I learned how to program computer systems and have made a great career out of that, very similar to how my uncle and my grandfather had done in their lives. There's something to be said for learning from one's elders.

I credit my family showing me Carl Sagan and his COSMOS series (6) when I was probably four or five years old, and then his book  The Demon Haunted World (7) when I was 25 as having had the two most profound effects upon my critical thinking skills. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Thank you, my family. You guys rule.

There was a time a few years ago when I tried very hard to "believe" in the literal interpretation of Christianity, because I wanted to make sure I had given religion its fair shake. What I came to realize was that I enjoy reading parables, whether from the Bible or elsewhere, hence I subscribed to Parabola magazine, http://www.Parabola.org, (8) which features stories and parables from a wide range of religious traditions, not just Christianity or Judaism.

I see religious texts as man's attempt to explain existence and grapple with the question of meaning and origins. It's fascinating to read these texts, and it does not require one to change one's metaphysics or commitment to reason when doing so, at least in my opinion. I believe it actually helps a non-religious person to be familiar with and comfortable will the ideas of religious thinkers. It enriches my life to understand Christian beliefs, Buddhist beliefs, Islamic ideas. I enjoy reading about Sufi traditions and poetry from Rumi. All of this I can read in Parabola magazine and never feel as if I have to abandon reason or science. It's literature, and it makes me a better person for knowing it and reflecting upon it.

The Disconnect Between Religious and Non-Religious People

I am very concerned about the rise of extremist religious fundamentalism around the world in the form of Islamic sects and within the US in the form of Christian sects. Most reasonable people are concerned about this.

I've seen the Jesus Camp Trailer. I've seen the Tom Delay interview about the rapture. I've seen Richard Dawkins confronting Ted Haggard. I've also seen Neil deGrasse Tyson confronting Richard Dawkins.

You can watch them now.

Jesus Camp Trailer

This video shows a very troubling and fanatical indoctrination of children, including asking children, "How many of you would be willing to give up your lives for Jesus?"

Christians United for Israel Video

This features Tom Delay saying he wants the "second coming" to come as soon as possible. He literally believes that Jesus Christ is going to return to the Earth.

Richard Dawkins and Ted Haggard Exchange Fighting Words

Haggard, as is well known, later admitted to engaging in hypocritical sexual acts with a male prostitute.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Confronting Richard Dawkins at Beyond Belief 2006 (9)

In this video Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium and Carl Sagan's eulogist, expresses his concern for Dawkins' approach toward educating the public about science.

So, who is right? Is Dawkins right, or is Tyson right? I think that Tyson has a great point and that Dawkins, with all his intellectual prowess, could do more good by using an approach similar to how Tyson approaches things, which is similar to how Carl Sagan approached things. (To be fair, I believe he has done his fair share of this. Just see his wonderful and scientifically compelling video clip about "Nice Guys Finish First" (10) in which he combats misconceptions of his book The Selfish Gene (11).)

The reason I believe that is rooted in human psychology. Most human beings do not want to be accused of being totally ignorant or unthinking. Instead, most people want to be heard. They want their opinions and their ideas to have merit and to be valued by people who listen to them. There is no requirement that the hearer has to believe or accept those opinions and ideas as true.

So, is it possible for religious and non-religious people to talk to each other peacefully? Of course it is. So long as they would like to do so, they will find a way to do so with amicability. Carl Sagan was a master of this approach. Here is an essay I wrote about his approach toward people which he employed so wisely and so successfully:

http://joshuagough.blogspot.com/2007/06/eternally-curious-carl-sagan.html

Here is a key excerpt from the essay:

Respect for People Seeking Truth, Criticism for Beliefs
Sagan has a new book on shelves now, ten years after his death. The book is entitled "The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God". The book is named after William James' famous "The Varieties of Religious Experience" published after he was invited to give the Gifford Lectures. I have just completed reading Sagan's new book and enjoyed it very much.

As an author and a speaker, I can't recall Sagan ever acting as a stubborn dogmatist. Instead, he was a true scientist who kept his ideas and his mind open for revision. Along with that, what I remember most now, more than 25 years after watching his Cosmos series initially and 10 years since his death, are his kindness, elegance, unparalleled intellect, and extremely approachable personality.

Rarely did he speak explicit ill of ancient, outmoded or disproved cultural and traditional beliefs, but instead sought understanding first. Achieving that, he would attempt to extract some kind of lesson or symbolic meaning from them, all while continuing to stand tall and steadfastly on the side of patient scientific inquiry and reverent agnosticism. This respect that he had for people who sought truth did not compel him to place all claims to truth on equal footing. He was respectful to belief-holders even while disagreeing with and dismantling their stated beliefs, sometimes before their very eyes. To be able to do this consistently as he did while never intentionally belittling the belief-holder is no small accomplishment.

...

The dogmatist knows all the answers. He or she accepts no criticism and opens no ears. Merely questioning the dogmatist amounts to overt and intolerable criticism ipso facto in his or her mind. The dogmatist listens to no questions and throws all criticism to the scrap heap.

The true scientist has more questions than answers. He or she explicitly seeks criticism and opens ears to others. Strong questions about the scientist's ideas afford opportunities to confirm or deny their validity. The scientist must accept questions and readily understands that he or she may be forced to throw cherished ideas to the scrap heap.

Human Compassion and Love: The Tools for Healing The Disconnect

In today's meeting, Dale McGowan brought up the point that one thing that religious affiliation offers, at least to those willing to agree with their core beliefs, is acceptance, compassion, love, and forgiveness. In fact, forgiveness is the entire foundational underpinning of Christianity. Forgiveness is, most certainly, one of the strongest and most powerful emotional tools a human being can possess and put into practice. That the character of Jesus in the Gospels would know this and employ it should not be surprising. It should also not be surprising that this is a powerful attractor of people. After all, if the creator of the universe can forgive you, then why not want to believe in it?

Can freethought and secularist organizations offer acceptance and forgiveness in such a way that it feels as compelling as what religion can offer?

I'm not sure that it can. The reason is that religion can offer forgiveness at no cost in a way that can be entirely personal and unknown to any other human being. Accepting the forgiveness that religion offers does not require a person to actually speak to anyone else or to open him or herself up to discussion. It's solely a conversation between the person and their conception of the creator / offer bringer. This lack of the human factor, I believe, impedes maturity and leads to improper attitudes toward life and reality. Perhaps it could be said the Catholic confession is a good thing in this sense, because it brings a person in front of a real human being.

But, while free thought cannot offer unconditional forgiveness, those who practice free thought can certainly offer unconditional compassion and love to other human beings, no matter what those people believe. This means the ability to step inside someone else's shoes and envision yourself in the same situation. This requires human empathy that is gained only through experience with other human beings in real-life situations. This is the ability to, as Tyson spoke of, apply a sensitivity to a person's situation and work from that sensitivity to engage them and respect them.

My Great Grandmother: Passion, Compassion, and Love in Action

I'd like to offer one last example of a human being who brought all of these realizations up close and personal to me and to whom I will forever be indebted. She was my great-grandmother Carola Laurel Gough. She passed away in July at age 96. While I can never speak for her and classify her as a "free thinker", and she often spoke of "God or Mother Nature", that is not important to the example of her life.

Her life was an example of passion, compassion, and love wrapped up into one and will forever inspire me and countless others. She was a painter, world traveler, volunteer, and mentor. Learn all about her and her artwork on http://www.CarolaGough.com. You can see some thumbnails of her paintings on the left side of my blog, and you can listen to an essay I wrote about her in my book by click on the "I Didn't Want to Hit the Rocking Chair Just Because I'm 90" item in the podcast player.

I feel like one of the most fortunate people in world to have known her so well. Here is an excerpt from my last letter to her, which you can read or listen to at this URL: http://www.carolagough.com/Remembrance/tabid/133/Default.aspx

These are values I learned from her and my family:

Practice attention, patience, and compassion to achieve success. Here are a few words on each of these.

Attention is more than a direction of the eyes, attuning of the ears, straightening of the spine, or a steadying of the hands or feet. Each of these forms the skeleton of attention, but its muscle is the brain. There is no Cartesian division between mind and body. The two are one. Direct your eyes, attune your ears, straighten your spine, steady your hands and feet and focus your brain on the task before you and expect success. With patience and compassion, success will follow.

Patience is not the ability to sit idly by, waiting for other people to come along and show you something new, but is instead the inability to refrain from joining with others to share something that is true; Once you begin to do this, there is no limit to what you can achieve, together, for the good of yourselves and others. Notice I said "begin to do" and not "learn how to do", because you can't learn without doing. You just do it, and understanding will follow.

Compassion is first the recognition of a physical or psychological struggle in others that you have seen, and perhaps overcome, in yourself. Second it is the inclination to join with them to be then their eyes, ears, hands and feet, or voice. Finally, it is the understanding that their struggle is as much your own as it is theirs for without their success and uplifting you also are stuck at an altitude far below that which you can soar.

Success is an accumulation. But, it is not solely the accumulation of physical objects and financial assets. These things are well and good when used for a noble purpose, but success is much more than this. It is the accumulation of memories of kind words and actions extended from you toward others and from others toward you. Layer upon layer of such memorable actions builds in you an infinite cushion into which to fall when you face setbacks. Knowing always that you can brighten somebody else's day with a kind word or a smile will be your secret to success. I guarantee it or your money back.

The Carola L. Gough Foundation: Enriching Young Lives Through the Wonders of Art & Science

It is for the reasons above that we are creating a non-profit organization, The Carola L. Gough Foundation, in her name. Our goal is stated as "Enriching young lives through the wonders of art & science". I learned so much about life and being open and accepting different ideas, even while not agreeing with them, from her and about spending time with people, listening to them, mentoring to them, and helping them learn about science and health. I want to do what I can to bring other professionals together for action in inspiring young people the same way she did. Our goal is to help engage their natural curiosity and stir their desire for self-responsibility and compassion for others.

We're actively looking for partner organizations and other professionals who can help us in this goal. We want to find venues to host fun and educational parties and events that expose young people to art, science, technology, critical thinking, teamwork, etc.

Learn more about the organization at http://www.carolagough.com/Foundation/tabid/134/Default.aspx

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Related Resources

  1. http://www.atlantafreethought.org/
  2. http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_buckner/
  3. http://www.parentingbeyondbelief.com
  4. http://dalemcgowan.com/
  5. http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=Topic&TopicID=2
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmos:_A_Personal_Voyage
  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Demon-Haunted_World
  8. http://www.parabola.org
  9. http://www.beyondbelief2006.org
  10. Nice Guys Finish First, by Richard Dawkins
  11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Selfish_Gene
  12. http://www.CarolaGough.com

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