Beyond Good and Evil

Dr. Ronnie J. Hastings

Archive for the tag “theology”

I Believe!

I must count myself in that school of thought which has asserted that everyone has to believe in many things, but the “trick” is to believe in things that are true. Yet, it seems obvious to me that one can believe in anything.  And, since not just anything can be true, it must be equally obvious that mere belief is no reliable means to finding out the truth.  Curiously, the ability to believe seems basic to the human mind. In my opinion, the pervasiveness of belief among the species Homo sapiens indicates that belief was at the origin of our species necessary for survival, just like our propensity to be religious, or to be ethical, or to be evil.  The evolution of these last three propensities, based upon both physical and cultural anthropology, was a major vehicle in the development of the ideas, themes, and conclusions of 1) my series on the origin of Christianity (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]; Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015]; Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015]; At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]; Jesus — A Keeper, [Sept., 2015]) and of 2) the first of my series on Perception Theory (Perception is Everything, [Jan., 2016]; Perception Theory (Perception is Everything) — Three Applications, [Feb., 2016]; Perception Theory: Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016]).  The discussion of human belief seems a good addition to 2) above, given the very broad applicability of the theory.

For every human mind there seems a hierarchy of importance of beliefs.  Whether or not one believes their sports team is going to win an upcoming contest seems pretty trivial compared to whether or not one believes their partner in life truly loves them; whether or not one believes they can accomplish a challenging task seems pretty trivial compared to whether or not one believes in God.  Moreover, human belief seems intimately entwined with human faith and trust.  Belief in an expected event, in the words of someone else, in the truth of ideas and/or assertions of all sorts, in anticipated future states of the world, and in the truth of past events all involve faith that the object of the belief is worthy of one’s trust.  In other words, I have faith that the resources leading me to believe in X, whatever X may be, are worthy of my trust to the extent I tell myself that X must be true; X is true to me because I have faith in the trustworthiness of believing in X.  Admittedly, this epistemological dissection of belief sounds esoteric, convoluted, and nuanced.  We do not normally think about either the hierarchy or the underlying philosophical assumptions of belief; we just believe, because we come into the world “wired” in our brain to do just that.  What I propose to do is to make thinking about belief less esoteric, convoluted, and nuanced — to make serious consideration of what it is we do when we believe more normal in day-to-day thinking.

In the context of expounding upon freedom of the press in the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (The Folio Society, London, 2002) said that a majority of US citizens reflecting upon freedom of the press “…will always stop in one of these two states:  they will believe without knowing why, or not know precisely what one must believe.” (p 179)  It seems to me any area of reflection, not just freedom of the press, could have this quote applied to it, given how muddled together “thinking” and “believing” have seemingly always been in common rational mentation.  So basic is our habit of believing without intellectual meditation and discrimination, being caught between the dilemma of the two states quoted above becomes seemingly all-to-often inevitable.  The hierarchy of importance among beliefs as well as consideration of the roles faith and trust play in belief become lost in an intellectually lazy resignation to the dilemma, in my opinion.

I think we can know why we believe.  I think we can know precisely what we must believe.  Note I did not use “I believe” to start the first two sentences of this paragraph; instead, I used “I think.”  So many thinking people tend to use “I believe” in sentences the same or similar to these and thereby fall into a trap of circular reasoning; they mean “I think,” but utter “I believe.”  I think Perception Theory can help to sort out any nuances associated with belief and point the way to how believing in things that are true is no trick at all, but, rather, a sensible mode of using our mind.  And the first two sentences of this paragraph contain strong clues as to how to relieve “I believe…” and even “I think…” statements from ambiguity.   We just simply give them reliability with the beginning words “I know…,” instead of “I believe…” or “I think…”  Herein I hope to lay out the epistemological process by which statements become reliable and thereafter merit the beginning words “I know…”  At the same time I hope to show that in the name of truth, “I believe” and “I think” should not be necessarily be thrown away, but, rather, used with reticence, care, and candor.

 

I submit that the statement “I believe the sun will appear to rise in the east tomorrow morning.” is fundamentally different from the statement “I believe in the existence of God.”  Neither is irrefutable as, presumably, the speaker cannot deliver an image of a future event, nor is anything remotely resembling a deity alongside the speaker.  According to Perception Theory, any belief statement, certainly including these two, is non-veridical (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]; Perception is Everything, [Jan., 2016]), as a belief is a descriptive statement of some result of the mind, imagination, and other epiphenomenal processes operating within the brain.  As shown in Perception Theory: Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016], such statements can resonate strongly, weakly, or not at all with the real or veridical world from which comes all empirical input into the brain through the senses.  The sun rising tomorrow resonates strongly or weakly with the veridical real world (depending upon how skeptical and/or cynical the speaker is), based upon previously experienced (directly or indirectly) sunrises; in terms of Perception Theory: Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016], it is resonating non-veridically based.  God existing is, conversely, looped non-veridically based, as defined in Perception Theory: Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016].  The second statement is purely epiphenomenal, while the first hearkens to a real empirical world; the second is a naked product of the mind, while the first links an epiphenomenal product to a presumed reality (phenomena) outside the brain.  Belief is in both cases epiphenomenal; the first is based upon empirical, veridical, phenomenal past perceptions; the second is based upon imaginative, non-veridical, epiphenomenal intra-brain biochemical activity.  In other words, sunrises are non-veridical images based upon empirical data, while God is non-veridical imagery based upon other non-veridical imagery.

At the risk of being redundant, it bears repeating that why we have the ability to believe in the two manners illustrated by the two belief statements of the previous paragraph is easily understood.  When our brains evolved the complexity making self-consciousness possible, assuring our survival as a small group of especially big-brained members of the genus Homo, applying our new ability to imagine ourselves in situations other than the present was not practically possible at all times; we still had to react instinctively in threatening situations, without pausing to think about the situation, else we might not survive the situation.  With, say, leopards attacking our little hunter-gatherer group during the night, to question or think about alternatives to proactively defend ourselves potentially would have made the situation more dangerous, not safer; in other words, often whoever hesitated by thinking about the situation got eaten.  Those who came up with or listened to a plan of defense without argument or disagreement tended to assure the success of the plan, as the group agreed to act quickly to avoid future nights of terror; or, often acting unquestionably directly led to successfully solving the leopard problem.  To justify ourselves individually joining the plan, we used our newly complex, self-conscious minds to suspend judgement and believe that the originators of the plan of defense, whether we ourselves, the leaders of the group, the shaman of the group, or just some unspecified member of the group, had some seemingly good idea to deal with the leopard problem; without rationalization of any sort, we believed the plan would work.  Without hesitation, we often believed out of such desperation; we had no choice but to believe in some plan, to believe in something, else we might die.  Hence, those who developed the ability to unthinkingly believe tended to be those who survived in the long run.

I submit that as human beings began civilizations and culture over the last several thousand years, the need for “knee-jerk,” unthinking belief has overall diminished.  Outside of modern totalitarian political, sectarian, or secular regimes, our brains can safely be used to question, scrutinize, vet, and adjudicate ideas, plans, positions, conclusions, etc. as never before.  As knowledge continues to increase, we can without desperation hesitate and “think it over;” immediate belief is not necessary any longer in most situations.  Belief continues to be an option we all use at one time or another, but on important issues we no longer have to suspend judgement and “just believe.”  Don’t get me wrong — spouting beliefs “right and left” on issues of little or no importance, such as what I believe will be the outcome of upcoming sporting events or of the next pull on a slot machine in Las Vegas, can be fun.  What I am saying is that we do not have to agonize over what we believe, as long as the consequences of that belief portends little or nothing at all.  What this means is that we must train ourselves to start serious, important, and substantive declarations with “I think” rather than “I believe,” as I did above, which indicates some rational thought has gone into formulating those declarations.  Moreover, it portends that “I know” is even better than “I think” in that the rational thought going into “I know” statements is so substantive and evidence-based, the statement is reliable and feels close to the “truth.”   It also means we can suspend belief indefinitely, if we choose, or we never need think belief is necessary.

Admittedly, belief does have use in motivational rhetoric, which may not be so trivial in many different individual minds.  Often consensus of agreement for group action relies upon conjuring in individual minds belief that the action is in the group’s collective best interest.  Halftime speeches in the locker room by coaches to their teams is one example that comes to mind; such locker rooms rely upon words and signs exhorting belief; evidence and reflection need not be evoked.  This common use of belief hearkens back to our evolutionary need to believe, as discussed above, but today compelling emotionally-charged adrenaline in a group is more a matter of avoiding losing a game or avoiding falling short of a group goal than it is avoiding being eaten by leopards.  The outcome of the game or striving for the goal determines if the belief was fun and justified, or disappointing and misleading.  Neither outcome might seem trivial to many, but neither outcome would justify the belief conjured to be “true” or “false.”  Locker room belief shown justified or not justified by subsequent events is merely coincidence.

We can now list some characteristics about human belief:

1)  Belief is a non-veridical activity, existing in our minds as either a) resonant non-veridically based  or b) looped non-veridically based.

2)  Belief involves a denial, suspension, or avoidance of judgment, bypassing all forms of adjudication involved in rational scrutiny; it is lazy mentation.

3)  Belief has decreased in importance as culture and knowledge has increased in importance.

4)  Belief is bereft of epistemological value; just because one believes X is true does not necessarily make X true; just because one believes X is false does not necessarily make X false.

5)  Belief is an epiphenomenal, evolutionary vestige of the human mind; it has value today only as an amusing tool in trivial matters or as a rhetorical tool in matters many consider not so trivial.

6)  Beginning with “I think” rather than “I believe” is stronger, and can indicate a closer proximity to the truth, but “I think” does not evoke the confidence and reliability of “I know;” “I think” leaves room for reasonable doubt.

7)  On statements and issues of portent, they can be consistently begun with “I know” rather than “I believe” or “I think.”  Just how this is possible is to follow:

 

Knowing why we believe, we now turn to what we should believe.  Clearly, merely believing in non-trivial matters carries little weight, and is hardly worthy of consideration in epistemological discussions.  Important ideas, plans, and systems of thought do not need belief — they need rational adjudication; we no longer need say “…we need to believe in or think upon what is true;” rather, we need to say “…I know X is true beyond reasonable doubt, independent of what I may believe or think.”  So, we actually now turn to what is worthy of our thought, trusting that in future we will say, instead of “what we should believe” or “what we should think” say “what we know is true.”

Let’s say I want to unequivocally state my conviction that my wife loves me.  To say “I believe my wife loves me.” belies the fact I have lived with the same woman for 48 years and counting, as of this writing.  To say “I believe” in this case sounds like we have just fallen in love (I fell in love with her when we were sophomores in high school together.).  It sounds as if there has not been time to accumulate evidence she loves me transcendent to what I believe.  The truth of the matter is beyond belief, given the 48 years.

If I say “I think my wife loves me.” it can sound as if I may have some doubt and/or there is some evidence that I should doubt, which are/is definitely not the case.  Clearly, in my view, to say “I believe” or “I think” my wife loves me does not do the truth of the matter justice; neither is strongly reliable enough to accurately describe the case from my perspective.

So, it is the case “I know my wife loves me.”  How do I know that?  Evidence, evidence, evidence.  And I’m not talking about saying to each other everyday “I love you,” which we do, by the way.  I am talking evidence transcendent of words.  For 48 years we have never been apart more than a few days, and at night we sleep in the same bed.  For 48 years she daily does so many little things for me over and beyond what she “has” to do.  She is consistently attendant, patient, gentle, caring, and comforting; she is true to her marriage vows daily.  I’ve joked for many years that either she loves me, or she is collecting data for writing a novel about living decades with an impossible man.  Truly, love is blind.

This example illustrates the 3-step process that has come to work for me at arriving at personally satisfying truth.  I’ve even personalized the steps, naming Step 1 for my younger son Chad when he was an elementary school student; Step 2 is named for my younger granddaughter Madison, Chad’s daughter, when she was in the 3rd grade; Step 3 is named for my older granddaughter Gabriella, my older son Dan’s daughter, when she was about 3 or 4 years old.  Hence, I call the process the Chad/Madison/Gabriella Method.  The Chad/Madison/Gabriella Method, or CMGM, bypasses “I believe” and “I think” to “I know.”  Transcendent of belief or speculation, CMGM allows me to arrive at the truth; I can confidently achieve reliability, conclusions I can count on; I can and have arrived at decisions, conclusions, and positions upon which I can not only stake my reputation, I can, if necessary, stake my life.

Yet, CMGM does not provide absolute truth, the corner into which so many thinkers paint themselves.  The results of CMGM are highly probable truths, worthy of ultimate risks, as indicated above, but never can my mortal mind declare 100% certainty.  There is always the finite probability the 3-step process CMGM will yield results shown to be false with unknown and/or forthcoming evidence in the future.  The foundation of CMGM is based upon the philosophical premise of the universal fallibility of human knowledge.

How do we arrive, then, at what we know is true, realizing it really has nothing to do with our careless believing or casual thinking?  What are the “nuts and bolts” of the 3-step process CMGM?

Step 1:  When my son Chad was in elementary school, he discovered he had certain teachers to whom he could direct the question “How do you know?” when information was presented to him; for some outstanding teachers he could ask that question without the teacher becoming upset or angry.  He also discovered you could not ask that of certain family members, Sunday School teachers, or other acquaintances without upsetting them.  It is a courageous question, one conjuring in me, his father, great pride. “C,” Step 1, of the method is a universal skepticism declaring literally everything in questionable, including this very sentence.  From the simple to the profound, whenever any declaration is stated, ask “How do you know?

If no evidence is given when answering the question in Step 1, it is the same as if it was not answered at all.  Answers like “Just because…,” “I just believe…,” “I just think….,” “They say that….,” or similar vacuous retorts are no answers at all.  Or, it is possible that some evidence might be cited.  If that evidence is presented as if it should be accepted and be beyond doubt and question because of the authority or reputation of the source of the evidence, that outcome would be taken to Step 2 just like no answer at all is taken to Step 2.  Therefore, after Step 1, one either has 1) no answer or a vacuous answer or 2) cited evidence for the answer.

Step 2:  When my younger granddaughter was in the 3rd grade and I was the subject of a family conversation, she, Madison, said “Papa Doc is big on knowledge.” (Instead of being called “Granddad, Grandfather, or Grandpa, my granddaughters call me “Papa Doc.”)  In other words, gather your own evidence in response to the results of Step 1; “get your ducks in a row” or “get your shit together” or “get your facts straight.”  If you received nothing in response to executing Step 1, then decide if you want to accumulate evidence for or against the original declaration.  If you don’t, dismiss or disregard the reliability of those who made the original declaration; “reset” for the next declaration.  If you decide to accumulate evidence, it is just as if you received evidence cited in support of the original declaration.  Evidence given in Step 1 needs a search for other relevant evidence and, if you decide to respond to no evidence given in Step 1, the same search is needed.  The ability and quality of getting your “ducks/shit/facts” in a row/together/straight is directly proportional to your education (formal or not) and to the amount of personal experience you have.  “M,” Step 2, of the method is identifying reliable information as evidence for or against the declaration in Step 1; it requires not so much courage as it does effort.  Intellectually lazy persons seldom venture as far as Step 2; it requires work, time, and personal research skills whose quantity, price, and outcome are often unknown, so some courage in the form of confidence is needed to accomplish Step 2.  It is the personal challenge of every successful scholar on any level from pre-K through days on Medicare.  On some questions, such as “Should women be given equal rights as men?” or “Who were the United States’ founding fathers?” it takes but moments for me to identify the reliable information, given my long experiences reading US history.  On other questions, such as “How did Christianity originate?” or “Why did the American and French Revolutions proceed on such different paths when both were based upon similar ideals?”, it has taken me years of off-and-on reading to identify the reliable information allowing me, in my own estimation, to proceed to Step 3.

Step 3:  Way before she started school, my older granddaughter Gabriella, listening carefully to family plans casually mentioned for the next day, voluntarily said, “Actually,…..” such-and-such is going to happen.  And, she was correct, despite her extreme inexperience.  “G,” Step 3, is boldly and confidently stating the results indicated by the evidence from Step 2 applied to the original declaration in Step 1.  If the original declaration in C, Step 1, is “X,” and if the evidence from M in Step 2 is “a,b,c,d,…..,” then Step 3 is “Actually, it is not X, but, rather Y, because of a,b,c,d,…..”  Step 3 takes both confidence and courage.  In Step 3 you are “running it up a flag pole to see who salutes it;” you are taking a chance that of those who listen, no one will agree or only a few will agree, and it is almost infinitesimal that all will agree.  Step 3 exposes you to both justified and unjustified criticism.  Step 3 “thickens your skin” and, if critical feedback to your Step 3 is justified and makes sense to you, that feedback can be used to tweak, modify, or redefine Y.  Justified critical feedback possibly can change Y so that the new version is closer to the truth than the old.

Hence, the way to reliable knowledge I’m suggesting , the way to truth, is essentially an internal, personal, mental adjudication; your head is your own judge, jury, prosecution, and defense.  CMGM is suggested as a possible “instruction list” for this adjudication; CMGM works for me, but others might well find another “formula” that works better for them.  CMGM, Steps 1,2,& 3, conjure(s) X and usually change(s) X to Y, based upon a,b,c,d,…..  Y is usually closer to the truth than X, but it is possible X “passes muster” (Step 2) relatively unchanged into Step 3.  It is not unlike how reliable knowledge is accumulated mentally in all areas of science, math, and engineering.  The advantage these three areas have over CMGM is that Y MUST be successfully tested by nature, by the real world, including the “real world” of logic in our heads, and independent investigators/testers also dealing with Y must corroborate with the same independently derived results; some Y’s from CMGM might not be as easily tested, such as “Men and women can never completely understand each other.” or “A different set of universal physical laws were required to create the present set of universal physical laws.” or “At least one other universe exists along with our own.”

 

If I want to make a truth statement, I need to begin it with “I know.”  I need to have “I know” statements backed up with evidence accumulated by personal adjudication produced by mental steps similar to CMGM.  If reliable knowledge and/or truth are not germane to my statements, then I can use “I believe” or “I think,” depending on how close to being important to me these statements are; “I believe” and “I think” have little or no epistemological content.

How do I know X is true?  Chad-as-a-child makes me ask that very question.  I can say “I believe X is true,” as a knee-jerk, off-the-top-of-my-head statement, just to add to the conversational mix; I feel no need to justify it.  Challenged to justify X, Madison-as-a-child reminds me I’ve got to do some scholarly work.  With some brief, cursory thought I might say “I think X is true,” maybe with a piece of evidence ‘a,’ but neither I nor my fellow conversationalists would think such a statement has much epistemological clout worthy of truth seekers.  With Madison’s work and Gabriella’s courage and confidence I sooner or later can say “I know Y is true, to the best of my ability;”  Gabriella-as-a-child tests my intellectual acumen; I must at some time bravely state Y publically, regardless of the consequences.  In all probability X has morphed into Y thanks to the accumulated evidence ‘a,b,c,d,…..’  Y has “epistemological meat” on its “bones.”  Y has brought me closer to the truth; it is a stepping stone with which to draw even closer.

Yes, I do believe all the time in lots of things.  But I think about certain things in whose reliability I’m more confident.  However, I can know a few things in whose reliability and truth I have as much intellectual and emotional confidence as I can muster.  For me, it is better to know than to just believe or to just think.  I am drawn to what you know, not necessarily to what you believe or what you think.

RJH

 

Jesus — A Keeper

My “long and winding road” through three sortings (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012],  Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015], and Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015]) has led to what I personally think is a reliable biography of Jesus (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]).  This suggestive biography was made possible by the application of historical and biblical criticism developed for over a century and in continued development; Jesus’ life emerges as the outcome of a considered application of history as a tool of forensic science.  This critical application functioned as an expose and was expressed by the metaphor of stripping off varnish- or paint-like layers applied over time to an original table top representing the end of Jesus’ life, an end agreed-upon by both believers and non-believers alike.  Among that exposed was the epistemological bankruptcy of faith-based theology that presumably can be found in all religions, not just Christianity.  Jesus’ teachings were dual-themed, a theological half based upon the messianic Son of Man and an ethical half based upon one of many versions of the Golden Rule (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]).  I suggest from the biographical content that “survived” the table top stripping, that Jesus’ theological teaching was as the theology that was layered upon the table top to exalt Jesus eventually as part of the Divine Trinity — bankrupt, historically speaking.

The great evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins suggests religious belief in bankrupt theology is akin to a form of mental illness that spreads like a cultural virus.  My position is a little different, although I do understand Professor Dawkins’ point.  The reason religious theology is bankrupt of historical reliability is because theology is a flawed product of the imagination, and, therefore necessarily nonveridical (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]). (In fact, a veridical theology just might be oxymoronic.)  Not all products of the imagination are similarly bankrupt, of course; it is just that the imagination generating theology is similar to that generating fantasy, with little or no correlation with the veridical data bombarding the brain from the “real world.”  There is no accountability for theology, just like there is no accountability for fantasies; if one imagines a conclusion in science (including the forensic science of history), it must correlate veridically, correlate with the real world; not so with theology and fantasy.  What makes the nonveridical theology of Christianity (and all the other major world religions) not only bankrupt, but also absurd in a scary sort-of-way, is that a.) it claims truth solely on the basis of faith and b.) that it originates in minds burdened by chronic stress (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]); there is no way truth can be veridically demonstrated in faith-based theology.  That faith is usually based upon some form of supernatural god or deity, which is by definition beyond veridical verification.  What makes the theology scary and toxic is there are in the theology veridical or, at least, veridically-sounding punishments that are concurrently conjured for not accepting the “truths” prescribed by the faith.  (Those who don’t believe are going to Hell.)  If those punishments were just expulsion into the group of “them” away from “us” (the “us-them” syndrome discussed in At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]), nonveridical theology might not be of such concern, but history has paraded before us example after example of religious wars, purges, pogroms, executions, persecutions, pillaging, and incarcerations (just to list a few) that existed and exist solely upon the basis of nonveridical, absurd, and toxic theology; in Christianity the nonveridical absurdity of Jesus being part of the Godhead has spawned very veridical atrocities (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Thirty Years War, etc. etc.). [Voltaire needs to be re-quoted here:  “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”]

[Nonveridical theology need not be toxic, to be fair.  My good friend and retired Presbyterian minister Dr. Jim Burns (He has the same degree as I — Ph.D. in nuclear physics; I call him “Rev. Dr.”) and I have periodically a fun and intellectually stimulating discussion on whether the rewards of Heaven are individualized or not.  We do not try to convert each other, we agree to agree or agree to disagree, and nobody gets killed or maimed.]

Blind faith is a virtue in theology, a conclusion of pure fantasy.  If positive feedback is concurrent with blind faith, that is pure coincidence, pure luck.

I apologize to the reader for the above because it might make for the reader the “long and winding road” a little too redundant, a little too long, and a little too winding.  But I want to be sure my position is clearly understood and wanted to briefly summarize how we have come to this posting, which is to claim that Jesus’ ethical teaching, unlike his attendant theology, is more than worthy of keeping.

Jesus’ ethical teaching is centered around the so-called Golden Rule, or, the Ethic of Reciprocity, though it is made up of far more, such as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, Chapters 5, 6, 7) and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-22; Luke 6:24-26; Luke 11:37-54).  The Golden Rule is an idea that has been around since the beginnings of history among theologians and philosophers.  It is an idea, however, that appears transcendent of theology itself, in that it does not have anything to do with a god or gods.  It is based upon the idea it is better to treat one’s fellow human being, whether family, friend, neighbor, or stranger, in the manner you yourself would like to be treated.  It is solidly built upon an individual’s self-interest, for it implies that your kind action will receive an equally-kind reaction, making your life easier, better, and, therefore, happier.  Evil treatment among individuals tends to be weeded out with repeated application of the Golden Rule, as it is in the best interest of both parties, unless one or both is a masochist, to be nice to one another.  I particularly like it because it contains its own intellectual and practical motivation — treating someone kindly, respectfully, and courteously is its own reward.  A deity or deities is/are not needed to command you to be good; the East realized this unnecessary need-for-the-gods centuries before the West; the East separated religion and ethics way, way before the West, which waited until Enlightenment philosophy (18th century CE) to resurrect the ancient Greek separation of the two.  Ethics requires no blind faith; blind faith, because of its susceptibility to toxicity of the mind, is not a virtue in ethics; often, it is to be avoided like a vice.  Positive feedback is not only real in Golden-Rule-based ethics, it often is not long in forthcoming, as in the gratitude of a stranger to whom you have just done a simple act of kindness/courtesy.

[Note the Synoptic Gospel references in the above paragraph leave out quotations from Mark — the earliest, and, perhaps, the most “historically honest” Gospel of them all.  Near-absence of humanitarian parables as vehicles of ethical teachings in Mark does not bode well for my ethics-over-theology case, admittedly, but careful scrutiny of Mark reveals that benefactors of Jesus’ humane treatment (healings, etc.) needed to be receptive to have their needs met; they needed to have “faith” that Jesus could meet their needs.  (People needed to have the faith of a child, for instance.)  Though cynics might claim that Jesus merely took advantage of the credulous through the power of suggestion, it could also just as well be the case that Jesus was by example teaching the importance of “faith in the physician” or “bedside manner” — that following the Golden Rule reaps rewards only when the benefactor is humble enough to appreciate what is being freely given him/her.  This “receptiveness to kindness” might well be the best interpretation of the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9; Matthew 13:1-9; Luke 8:4-8).  It was certainly important to Jesus that this parable be understood, as all three of these passages end with Jesus’ exhortation: “Listen, then, if you have ears!”

The “faith” in Mark is faith in one another to do good to each other, perhaps.  Mark, then, is just as ethical as the other Synoptic Gospels.]

Listed below is a litany of religious or religious-like recognition of the Golden Rule, which over time has apparently always been in our religious and ethical thinking.  Jesus was but one of many who saw the Ethic of Reciprocity as being necessary and fundamental to an ethical and fulfilling existence.  Listed in chronological order when the time is available, each quote’s setting is given; if a specific work is cited, the time of that work’s origin is given (if known); if not, then the approximate date of the religion’s or belief system’s origin is given.  Note how Jesus’ ethical Golden Rule center was also taught both before and following Christianity in history.  The “first” to record the Golden Rule may never be known; as shown in the most recent on the list, it is still being recorded, claimed, and cited:

* “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.” The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, 109 – 110  [Ancient Egypt, 1800 BCE]

* “A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated. ” Sutrakritanga 1.11.33 [Jainism, 9th-7th centuries BCE]

“Let no man to do another that which would be repugnant to himself; this is the sum of righteousness. A man obtains the proper rule by regarding another’s case as like his own.” [Upanishads, Hinduism, circa 700 BCE]

“…thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”, Leviticus 19:18 [Judaism, 7th century BCE]

“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Udana-Varga 5:18 [Buddhism, 6th-4th centuries BCE]

“To those who are good to me, I am good; to those who are not good to me, I am also good. Thus all get to be good.” [Taoism, 6th-5th centuries BCE]

“That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself.” Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5 [Zoroastrianism, 5th century BCE]

“Tse-kung asked, ‘Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?’ Confucius replied, ‘It is the word ‘shu’ — reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'” Doctrine of the Mean 13.3 [Confucianism, 5th-4th centuries BCE]

“If you see a jackal in your neighbor’s garden, drive it out. One might get into yours one day, and you would like the same done for you.” [Bakongo people of the Congo and Angola]

The law imprinted on the hearts of all men is to love the members of society as themselves [Roman Paganism, BCE-CE]

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12 [Christianity, 1st century CE]

“None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Number 13 of Imam Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths [Islam,  7th century CE]

The heart of the person before you is a mirror. See there your own form.” Munetada Kurozumi [Shintoism, 7th century CE]

Do not wrong or hate your neighbor. For it is not he who you wrong, but yourself.” Pima proverb [Native American Spirituality]

No one is my enemy, none a stranger and everyone is my friend.” Guru Arjan Dev : AG 1299 [Sikhism, 1699 CE]

“Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not.” “Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.” Baha’u’llah [Baha’i Faith, 1844 CE]

“Don’t do things you wouldn’t want to have done to you.” [British Humanist Society]

“Try to treat others as you would want them to treat you.” [L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology]

Here are some versions of the Golden Rule or Ethic of Reciprocity from some famous Western philosophers in chronological order, along with their settings.  These can be considered secular sources, clearly free of a theological context, in contrast to the above list:

                       Socrates:Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you.” [Greece; 5thcentury BCE]

                       Plato:May I do to others as I would that they should do unto me.” [Greece; 4th century BCE]

                       Aristotle:We should behave towards friends, as we would wish friends to behave towards us.” (This is a restricted version of the golden rule limited only towards friends.)            [Greece; 4thcentury BCE]

                       Seneca:Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors,” Epistle 47:11 [Rome; 1st century CE]

                       Epictetus: What you would avoid suffering yourself, seek not to impose on others.” [Turkey; circa 100 CE]

                      Kant: Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.” [Germany; 18th century CE]

                      John Stuart Mill: “To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.” [Britain; 19th century CE]

Jesus-stripped-of-theology must be what Thomas Jefferson in his The Jefferson Bible was trying to achieve; I like to think, thanks to my long and winding road, I now know why he was striving so.  (Perhaps, too, Jefferson’s friend Thomas Paine was similarly motivated in writing Age of Reason [Prometheus,1964, ISBN 0-87975-273-4, pbk].)  Jesus-with-just-ethics is worth keeping; it is a blueprint of stress-free, confident, and happy living for both Christian and non-Christian alike; as shown above, it is transcendent of theology, and, therefore, free from absurdity, and, hence, non-toxic.  Anyone can follow the Golden Rule or Ethic of Reciprocity, regardless of what they believe, or don’t believe.  You don’t need a god or gods; you don’t need a guru or teacher to follow.  If one must have someone to tell them what to do, then pick out one the quotes above by a religious leader or secular philosopher and try to live by that quote.

Though the following reference may well be another long and winding road (Don’t worry, I’m not taking it, just noting its “entrance gate.”), the words from John Lennon’s song “Imagine” also seem to “fit in” here:  “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too, Imagine all the people, Living life in peace.”  The absurdities and toxicity of political ideology clearly parallel the absurdities and toxicity of theological ideology, thanks to history’s lessons, but to talk about political ideology as has been done here with theological ideology is, as I said, another long and winding road not taken just now.

Theology, compared with secular ethics, has the tremendous disadvantage of apparently needing a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque.  Time and wealth has to be invested in some kind of edifice of worship and veneration. (However, atheism, which I consider a nihilistic theology, at least does not require an edifice.)  Another disadvantage is the need for a clergy to “run” the edifice.  (Quakerism, of all the sects of Christianity, may be the only group to “get it right” when it comes to a clergy; it requires none, but does need a meeting place.  Atheism also requires no clergy.)  Imagine if all the effort and money that goes into building an edifice and supporting a clergy went instead into meeting human need when encountered, as Jesus taught in his ethics!  Modern organizations such as the Red Cross, UNICEF, (I like to think also the Red Crescent), Live Aid, and the Carter Center work to meet human needs with no “theological strings” attached; imagine liquidating all sacred wealth and channeling it into secular causes such as these (I’m sure the reader could name other worthy secular organizations in addition to these.).  Theologically-based organizations cannot possibly do as well serving mankind as the secular ones, until the costs of the “theological strings” are eliminated.  Sound too fanciful, like theology?  I don’t think so, as these organizations have obtained tangible, veridical results; none of these existed until the late 19th and the 20th century came along; how many more will emerge in the 21st?

Do not think this is uplifting atheism in the place of Christian theology, or, for that matter, theology in general.  As I said above, atheism seems to me to be a nihilistic theology of some sort; atheism seems itself to be too “churchy;” I’ve met atheists who seem as evangelical as Christian evangelists.  One can have a theology or not have a theology, but theology is a personal commitment or belief, not transferable to anyone else.  Dawkins may have a point:  to have someone agree with your personal theology willingly or unwillingly necessarily fosters the toxic “us-them” syndrome (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]), which is a “slippery slope” to human misery, according to history.  The toxicity of theology spreads from human mind to human mind, like a disease.

I have a personal theology, but feel no need for anyone else to feel and think the same.  In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I am a sect of one.”  I often express elements of my theology, but never with the purpose of “converting” anyone.  Any agreements or disagreements with my personal theology are purely coincidental and carry with them no necessary consequences; my theology has no “baggage” and no “strings attached.”  I would never “condemn” anyone to a theological heaven, purgatory, or hell; I think the paraphrases of Jesus’ words “Judge not, that ye be not judged…” (Mark 4:24; Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37) are ethical, not theological.

But in this personal theology, I am intellectually hamstrung.  I have no way of knowing whether or not my nonveridical creations of my mind correspond to the reality providing me in all my waking hours veridical persuasion that something is “out there.”  I cannot “check out” my theological impressions; I can believe in a religious way, but I cannot know if I am believing in something true, something independent of my mind.  In 1763 Voltaire said, “The interest I have in believing in something is not a proof that the something exists.”  This is the “subjective trap.”  It is impossible to  verify in a scientific sense any nonveridical, faith-based theology.  In fact, I have to assume that others are in the same subjective trap, but I can never demonstrate that is the case beyond doubt.  On the other hand, behaving ethically yields veridical feedback, usually from the benefactor(s) of my kind and courteous acts — feedback so empirical it seems part of the natural world “out there,”  a world so “real” that doubt of that world existing outside my skull common sense reason refuses to allow.  In the same way the “hardest” of the sciences, along with all the other sciences, like forensic history, do not doubt the existence of the natural world.  All personal theologies, like all knowledge, are fallible.

Therefore, the destinations of my long and winding road here, my conclusions, may be wrong.  For instance, my position of the fate of Jesus after the crucifixion in At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015] may be shown to be erroneous if the ossuaries found in the Talpiot Tomb in Jerusalem mentioned near the end of Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012] are studied and turn out to be the actual remains of Mary’s and Joseph’s family, including their son Jesus.  But, just as in the sciences, I can live with the possibility of being wrong, of being content with tentative, temporary answers.  The journey never ends; “it’s not the kill, it’s the thrill of the chase.”  I trust that as new historical evidence is revealed, I will draw closer to the truth about Christianity and theology in general than at the time of this writing.  The great physicist Richard Feynman in a BBC interview stated, “I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing.  I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”  Revealed religion, with its nonveridical theology based upon the quicksand of faith-based epistemology (as opposed to evidence-based epistemology) declares it is true and demands of believers unquestioning belief in that declaration; I say revealed religion offers no reason for either the declaration or the demand.

 

Evolutionary psychology suggests that anything that marks definitively human existence must have some time in our evolutionary past been beneficial to our survival as a species.  Perhaps this explains why we as a species are so “religious.”  The origins of human religion have, relatively speaking, just started as a serious study to be discovered.  Given the potential of lethal religious theology spawned by our minds, progress in this study seems not only needed, but imminently vital.

We must “own up” to the possibility in cultural anthropology that without the development of some form of theology that went unquestioned by the “believers,” preservation of “us” from the attacks of “them” on the other side of the hill, human or beast, would not have been possible; the “us-them” syndrome may have played a vital role in our survival.  “Don’t ask why, just have faith, praise god or the gods, and grab a spear or knife!” “Us” needed to have a vision beyond our visible, tangible leaders to conjure sufficient communal courage to meet the challenges of our hunter/gatherer past; we needed gods and “god stories.”  Communal bonding and identity developed around some local form of religion.

All who survived to the dawn of civilization, then, were probably predisposed to be religious.  Not that we had “religious genes,” but, rather, our genes worked in concert to make us tend to be religious.  As civilization grew from city states into nations and into empires, religion grew and consolidated into state or world religions.  Lethally, religions never lost their “us-them” syndrome.  Because Voltaire’s words above are so true (both quotes), we have molded our once-upon-a-time survival tool into potentially murderous madness.  We have met the enemy and it is us, or, rather, our gods and god stories. (Not to mention our nationalism, patriotism, and politics.)

But we who survived to the dawn of civilization were also probably predisposed to be ethical — to love one another and to treat each other with kindness and courtesy.  Ethics was at least as responsible for our survival as religion.  The Golden Rule never lost its value, and someone, somewhere, always recognizes that it and its implications can, if we will, trump the gods and god stories, if for no other reason than ethics is not potentially toxic like religious theology.  Ethics fosters no “us-them syndrome.”

Whether Jesus separated in his head theology and ethics as exemplified in the two preceding paragraphs may be never known.  What is known about Jesus is that there was a duality about his message.  The theological part of his message has not turned out so well in the modern world, just like the theologies of other world religions.  But the ethical part of his message resonates with the best that human beings can be in the modern world.

For almost three hundred years, enlightened rationality in lots of free, courageous minds has boldly separated the sheep from the goats, the theology from the ethics, the sacred from the secular.  Civilization’s philosophy may well need to redefine a “Great Commission.”  Instead of going out and teaching or conquering all nations, we need to go out and just be decent to each other — to live, in Lennon’s words, “life in peace.”

RJH

 

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