Monday, November 28, 2005

World Lecture Hall

As a teacher I often have to run around the internet looking for resources. A few years ago I found the World Lecture Hall. This excellent resource has a listing of online college courses. Most courses are fairly complete. There are a few religion courses up there that I haven't gone through. If one is looking to get a bit more out of one's studies, picking up a text, and following through a course timeline and assignment schedule is not a bad idea.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Fundamentalists - just like us

From the Oct 8 2005 New Scientist:

The conclusion they came to was that there was no real difference between fundamentalists and everybody else. "The fundamentalist mentality is part of human nature." writes Stuart Sim, a cultural theorist at the University of Sunderland in the UK. "All of us are capable of exhibiting this kind of behaviour".

Attention has now turned away from individual psychology to focus on the power of the group. "We evolved to have close and intimate group contacts: we cooperate to compete, "says Atran. The psychology of fundamentalism is, literally, more than the sum of its parts; taken individually, fundamentalists are rather unremarkable. "The notion that you might be able to find something in a fundamentalist's brain scan is a non-starter," says John Brooke, a professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford.

My thought on this issue are probably best summed up by my rather incomprehensible essay on zealotry. To avoid the difficulty associated with making it through that post, I suspect that what we normally consider cultish zealotism is just an intersection between the high points on a couple of bell curves: one representing how easily people zone into to something, one representing how much an institution encourages such zoning, and the last being how uncommon chosen behaviours or interests are.

From a religious standpoint though, I think it is important to recognize that zealotry and fundamentalism, in whatever area most likely represent the easy road to escapism. Sure one can argue that biblical injunctions to extreme devotion are divinely mandated, but I don't believe imbalance and unsustainable actions designed to make or break us into relying on Jesus are necessarily the best way for long term progression. Continually laying down a gauntlet of fundamentalism, hoping that God will always be there to properly direct seems rather manic. Plus it seems to force an overly taxing solution on God when it would be much simpler for us just to move out of this rather selfish externalism.

New Scienctist Humility

From the October 8-14th New Scientist article "Meeting of the Minds" on fundamentalism we get the following, hopefully humility inspiring quote:

But how does the conflict [the compartmentalization of religious and scientific thought] translate into a social war, like that being waged over the role of science? part of the answer lies in fundamentalist's need to bolster group identity by reframing their belief in the terms of the dominant culture. In a secular, scientific culture, Savage points out, a certain level of evidence is generally required in order for knowledge to count and for individuals to act on it. Fundamentalists respond by attempting to "prove" their core beliefs: the "science-up" their faith, framing it in a way that they think ought to make sense to a scientific culture. Their claims then become, in their eyes at least, as valid as science's claims. No wonder scientists find fundamentalist's claims so infuriating: they are operating on patently false credentials.

I think in todays society, we are often too quick to self justify. While I think the minority movements of the 80's and 90's certainly actualized this human tendency, I suspect unless we are willing to look for the good that critical thought can offer, we are setting ourselves up for a compartmentalization of belief. While this may be a fine way to deal with abstract potentials, it may not be the wisest choice on the market. I fail to see why dealing with, and accepting day to day reality at face value is limiting. If religion doesn't match up with our current existence, it can only ever be applicable in an abstract world. While certain utopias may exist, limiting the conditions wherein beliefs may be correct certainly seems to severely limit the sphere of power over which one is able to operate. If I can't deal with this life, I may be missing out on a substantial fraction of the next.

Monday, November 21, 2005


Browsing throught the Jesus Creed today, there was an interesting article in the on the Emergent Movement. The problem, as I see it, is centered around the non-denominational aspect of some brances of protestantism. Hence the importance that Mormonism doesn't have on defining belief.

What do we really need? Is not a doctrinal statement a locally-defined statement in order to delineate one church from another (”we believe this, but the other denominations believe this — come join us as the true church”)? Do we need more than Creeds and Confessions when it comes to “what we believe”?

So, let me define “doctrinal statement” as a local-church phenomenon, “confessions” as larger denominational level articulations, and “creeds” as the ancient, orthodox articulation.

It is interesting to see the tension faced in this post between legalism, philosophical rationalism, and small c catholocism (ie inclusion). One can certainly see where creeds come into play as a nice way to balance these issues. This is mentioned down in comment #7

In terms of function I find Luke Timothy Johnson’s (The Creed) description of the role of creeds to be helpful – profession of faith (personal & communal commitment), rule of faith (measure of Christian identity), definition of faith (boundaries), and symbol of faith (community’s shared story).

To me, one of the fundamental problems inherrent in religion is its lack of non-overt direction. Schisms seem innevitable. The Catholic fear of the leavening involved in protestantism was, perhaps, justified. To combat dispertion, one has to either tighten the boundaries of acceptance, or rally around specific take on the gospel - like the Jesus Creed for example, or modern revelation to be equitable. From my point of view, the difference lies in the level of ambiguity each direction can function within.

Each specific take on the Gospel requires a certain amount of expansion. For example, an apocalypic view of religion requires a different take on Old Testament scripture than does a redeemer paradigm. The problem, as I see it, with this is that it expands religion according to one's own ideas. In effect as it becomes more specific, probability dictates it becomes less certain. This depsite the fact that perceived certainlty seems to increase with extra information.

So the challenge of religion seems to be keeping a direction in a "catholic" environment. I think the Spirit is the only thing that could ever do that. Since this is functionally invisible on a group scale, one gets left in a situation where one has to resist the organizational and directional benefits of fundamentalism by functioning in a soup of Rayleigh Taylor hydrodynamic instability (small instabilites increase very rapidly before breaking off - think water drops on the ceilings, or the coalescence of planets)

New Scientist Fundamentalism

The October issue of New Scientist has quite a few good articles on religion. Unfortunately the articles aren't available online without a subscription. However, I thought some of the letters were interesting. The one point I found interesting was how some evangelicals, as evidenced by a forum sample size of one, are rather miffed at evangelism being equated with fundamentalism. It seems quite analagous to the annoyance many Mormons have at the perjoritive cult label.

I was reading the first article on fundamentalism with some interest until I reached the suggestion that the terms evangelical and fundamentalist are synonymous. This is semantically inaccurate and, given the negative connotations of the term fundamentalist, most unfair. - From Robert Cailliau, CERN

From the evangelical perspective I would hazard that the non-Christian, cult label is given to Mormons, and other religions precisely because of the perjoritive connotations. It helps steer people aways from the perceived perniciousness of said institutions. From this perspective it is clear that many scientists view evangelism as something warranting similar treatment. More generally, I can imagine some scientists reacting to ID, and the Marshall Institute's supposed attack on science as something now annoying enough to be confronted. In effect some may be realizing that letting religous fundamentalists frame PR arguments is damaging. By not presenting a case, one is doing diservice to society. One can easily imagine lines being drawn in attempts to prevent "innocents" from falling into the wrong camp.

So why is there such an empowering of fundamentalism? I would be tempted to argue that in the West, the empowering of minority views is coming to fruition. Such empowerment doesn't just work for the opressed groups we like to see helped out. However this doesn't explain the rise of fundamentalism in non-western societies. In the New Scientists articles some mention was given to the idea of compartmentalization. The faith based world, and the modern world are separate. Some discongruity is fine, but as it widens one must choose one path or the other. Thus the world is getting framed in secular vs. religious terms.

While I don't agree with this argument, I can certainly see how one could create these conditions if one wanted. I think a big question is whether or not we really want to draw a line for the imagined help it would offer those on the balancing edge? To me, doing this seems tantamount to faith based paradigm choice. Each side presents their evidence, and those on the middle really choose their side based on what evidence feels good to them. Certainly some things in one paradigm have more potential than those in another, but this seems to assume that those making the choice will actually take advantage of these potentials. As society removes more and more consequences from individual and even group and national choices, the advantage to choosing one road or the other is diminished. It is like Hutterites who reject most science, yet still get to have their trucks and computerized dairy farms. I can choose fundamentalism knowing I can get the next generation of laptops and RPG's, created by those values I reject.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


I stumbled across a number of good posts on this subject over at Jesus Creed. I don't really like the blog title (mormons use Christ, evangelicals Jesus, but the posts are nicely balanced and mature. Return of the Pharisees 3 seems like the best post.

From this post it seems as if the pharisees were acting like prophets without a divine mandate. By focusing in on prophetic tradition they validated themselves and their reasoning more than they should have. One could almost say they felt it was their job to guide the people in the little things in life, after all prophets are supposed to provide modern day guidance, aren't they? From a mormon perspective one would say things went wrong when pharisees starting taking prophetic roles upon themselves, instead of responding to divine direction. The problem with this mimics the problems many of the Church of LDS have with Christian creeds and non-denominational preachers - there is no control, and hence no way pragmatic way to limit self appointed abuse.

Of course Christian creeds had the voice of majority, tradition and reason to temper their decisions. Also hundreds of years of acceptance makes it easy to view their decisions as divinely inspired. "Calls to the ministry", which can turn into pseudo prophethood (a seemingly well intentioned priestcraft), have little in the way of limits. Hence a possible explanation for biblical authoritarianism. In essence, they seem to follow the phariseutical role, authority is via tradition, the tradition we have is right, I am right because I feel I have been authorized by God. God authorizes by the Spirit.

Ignoring the circularity issues, the problem with this approach is, it didn't pan out. It lead to direct conflict with God (Christ). Indeed, one could say that the more a self selected group uses context and history as justifications of their position, the more out of whack they are. Prophets usually don't try to gently guide people in this sense. Things come across much more stark and confrontational (at least when versed against tradition).

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Formalized theology

There is a sense in which metaphysics is unavoidable if we are to reflect on anything. So, for me, the question isn’t one of entirely avoiding metaphysics or going beyond it. The supposition of such a possibility is itself a metaphysical supposition. Rather, the point is to find ways of reflecting that are more likely to disrupt the metaphysics that reflection unavoidably creates.

-Jim Faulconer at T&S

One of the scriptures LDS shun away from is Joseph Smith History 1:19

all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof."

Aside from this being one of the very few instances where God is quoted directly instead of paraphrased, or interpreted via revelation, it is interesting, not in the way it attacks other religions, but in the way it attacks formalized theology.

From this context, formalized theology, as represented by creedal tendencies, is problematic because it invariable supplants reflection and change for inferred accuracy. While it certainly acknowledge and promotes the divine, according to the quote of God, power must not lie in the ability to be specific, awe inspiring, or complete, but rather, in something else.

But this begs the question, where does the power of godliness that was mentioned lie? Moses 1 gives some ideas related to worship. One can also search the scriptures, pulling things out of context. Usually one assumes that the power mentioned refers to the ability of divine knowledge to accomplish good ends. I wonder though, if part of the problem is a belief that things need to be very precise in order to be workable. It seems like this is one of the things that creeds and their inherent leavening of the scriptures do. They assume that blanks must be filled in, and precise details known before they can be used as tools in divine discovery.

Obviously this approach is biased towards philosophical enquiry, the type mentioned that facilitates an idolatrous worship of the idea of god over god himself. Perhaps though, power is able to lie in the world of ambiguity. In this sense, the power of god doesn't need to lie in specifics. It may partially lie in humble reformulation and adaptation - repentance. It may partially lie in belief that doing good can build a heaven -faith, and it may lie in the admission that our preferred learning style may need to get changed to fit with the way things are done - baptism.

Depth of meaning

We are most happy when the depth of meaning we are able to create with something matches the amount of reality it is able to provide.

Naomi Klein's book "No Logo", while often times frustrating to read due to the naivete about implications of her idealistic view had some interesting tangential implications.

In one section she complains of how, as children, she and her brothers would run around the house of her hippie parents shouting commercial slogans like "cukoo for Cocoa Puffs". Reading between the lines, it seems like the complaint is the obvious superficiality of these ideas. They have no depth and hence little meaning. However this raises an interesting question. Shouldn't the amount of meaning one is able to get from something determine it's appropriateness? It seems like too often people, like perhaps Klein, assume that we base our judgments on collective ideas of appropriate depth and usefullness. Unfortunately for Klein, she assumes that the minority progressive counter culture elite should get to tell the majority what they should like. But doesn't this fail to take into account the amount of meaning an individual may actually be able to get from something. For kids, "cukoo for cocoa puffs" may actually mean more than any anti-burgeouse rallying cry. While it may not lead to much, isn't is naive to force people into things that are not understandable or meaningful for their reality? In this sense, always planning for the future may mean you have no base on which to progress.

In terms of the gospel, it is interesting that lack of a systematic theology seems to imply that relative value may be more important that absolute value. If not, wouldn't we have more focus on the incomprehensible (abstract doctrine) than on the applicable (faith repentance baptism)? What we do with things may be more important that what we could do with things. Of course this may just be my empirical leanings coming through.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Modern Religion

Over at my favorite blog, Belmont Club there is a really good post on True Believers. In it Paul Berman wonders why much of the left doesn't vilify radical Islam the way it vilifies Nazism and other tolitalitarian, or oppressive regimes. Wretchard, as usual, has a very insightful comment.

At Auschwitz the SS said, "Here there is no why." That grimly hilarious punchline was not exclusive to Auschwitz. Piers Brendon recalls in Dark Valley, his history of the 1930s, that the most common scrawl left by doomed Old Bolsheviks at Lubyanka prison were the words "What For?" But more poignant yet was the refusal of some Party members, exiled to Magadan, the worst camp of the Gulag, to smuggle news to their comrades of their fate. One said,  'at least now they still have hope in Communism. If I let them know the truth then they will have nothing'. Even in Magadan the Left's deepest need was to believe. Having abolished the God of their forefathers and finding themselves prostrate before the false god they fashioned for themselves, as between extinction and despair they chose extinction

One of the annoying hypocrisies as I see it, is a radical leftist's religious like attack of organized religion. While certainly not all of the consequences of organized religion have been benign, the thing that is interesting to me is not whether organized religion has on the whole had a positive or negative influence on society, but how religious tendencies seem to creep into collective ideologies.

So how do groups that tends to abhor organized religion, denounce war, tolitalitarianism, racism, bigotry etc. mimic organized religion?

1. Universalists - most organized religions are essentially universalist in nature. They believe the have access to special knowledge of correct, progressive behaviours. In much the same way the PC Left believes that what are now considered human rights are fundamentally good. Many believe rational individuals could not think otherwise. After all who could consider racism, equality of the sexes, etc as not being good and something that every human should seek after? In this way the PC Left are universalists. They believe there is a set cannon of correct morals that are universally applicable. Anyone who doesn't agree is repressed or repressive.

2. Faith - The humanistic PC Left seems to need an idealizing belief. To me the belief around which they organize is that there is an ideal solution to the world's problems. Education will elucidate this ideal, resulting in the unification necessary for any such utopia. More than this though progressive ideals are often valued for the spin off good that they foster. This seems similar to a Christian belief that through faith, good works become manifest.

3. Morality - Most idealizing organizations push a set morality, whether they admit it or not. For example, support for gender equality and sexual preference, is as much a moral stance as biblical injunctions of chastity. The method by which these morals are pushed also seem similar. Peer pressure is usually the strongest factor. Religions will use church courts to force the issue, the PC Left uses state courts.

Other parallels will take some time to figure out.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Starting a secret culture of combinations

Reading through Ether the other night, I found the comments about secret combinations interesting. Perhaps part of the reason was the transparent grab for power reflected in anti-establishment books like "No Logo". To me it always seems apparent that some people consider anything a majority does or chooses oppressive. Whether it is Walmart not carrying graphic magazines, or the loss of diversity caused by big stores serving the wants of the majority, someone always seems to feel trampled.

In the last few decades numerous groups have sprung up to fight the rolling monopoly of the majority. In No Logo, what struck me as odd, and revealing was how Naomi Klein mentioned that while identity politics certainly gave individuals more freedom, the tools that empowered this change were misuse and corrupted as corporations exploited the new dynamic balance. To me the main complaint seemed to be "We found a tool that could change things to suit our desires, we don't want any other group to use it. Once the majority get hold of it, someone will always get oppressed". Really this is just a transparent power grab. One group is asserting their right to control others due to a sense of entitlement.

Now couple this idea with the rising view that many far left (and far right) movements act in a pseudo religious fashion. They tend to have a set group of dogmatic beliefs giving them a unique world view. They believe people fundamentally want to accept their values, and fail to do so because they are either oppressed, or prefer to remain hegemonic oppressors. They evangelize their position by demonizing opposition and selling themselves as a light. And perhaps most importantly, there is a noticeable demarcation whether you are in communion with the group or not.

A third point that brings everything together revolves around the way civilizations collapse. As Wrethcard mentions this week at Belmont Club, civilizations run into problems when they can no longer identify "we". Once unification is lost, competition for power creates destabilization. In fact destabilization is what any group who wants power must achieve. Usually what is wanted is just enough destabilization to let them in, but not enough to let any one else in.

When one looks at scriptural references to secret combinations one usually assumes, quite correctly, that these groups are after profit and gain. However I wonder what conditions lead to a flooding of society with secret combinations? Is it a sense of entitlement combined with a false sense of justification? If it is, are activist groups setting up society for a culture of secret combinations? Or is it possible to view some of the more power hungry versions of these groups as embryonic secret combinations?

One of the defining characteristic of secret combinations in the difficulty in distinguishing them. Sure signs and tokens are used, but can social clues like rainbow necklaces, tatoos, nike=evil t-shirts, etc be thought of as signs of identification? Can professed attitudes and assumptions be thought of as tokens of participation? Certainly we find it easy to categorize people into social groups. Demographers are remarkably good at predicting the clustering of your habits. But to be a secret combination a group needs a clear agenda. Not all social groups have this. However most reform oriented ones do. This doesn't mean reformation is bad, however it may mean that once society is replete with quasi formal groups who organize around power grabs, we are set up for the type of coup that the Book of Mormon frequently encountered. We have created a culture of secret combinations.