Sunday, July 10, 2011

Religion and Reason

I blogged about Dave Dickerson's House of Cards already in a very critical way. But there's a reason I bought and read this book. The reason is because I heard Dickerson on "This American Life" read from his book the following passage I found beautiful and profound.

Toward the end of the book, Dickerson took a vacation back to Tucson to visit his Dad. During the trip he wanted to actually deconvert him from his charismatic Christian ways armed with a lot of logical reasons why the Bible was flawed, armed with historical and doctrinal contradictions. He wanted to save his dad from all of the restrictions that he felt were inhibiting his life. He waited for the opportunity:
"I waited all night for Dad to slip, and when we walked into a twenty-four-hour diner on Grant and Swan, we sat at a cold little two-person booth, ordered a pair of omelets, and while we were waiting he took off his cowboy hat, frowned at the sparse tables around us, cleared his throat, and said, 'You know, I've been thinking about doing a little missionary work now that I'm basically retired. There are opportunities in Spain --'

And I lunged. 'Dad-why to go Spain? That's such an evangelical thing to do. 'Those poor benighted Catholics need to learn Christianity!' It's not only arrogant, it's unbiblical. Did you know that the sinner's-prayer model of salvation you sectarian Christians are so obsessed with doesn't even emerge in Christian history until --'

'David', said Dad sharply, and when I stopped, he sighed.

'David, I'm really proud of you. I'm really glad that you've got your master's degree and that you're so interested in this topic. But before you say another word, you should know why it's not going to work.'

He paused and looked sad. He was remembering. 'Before I became a Christian, I was miserable. I wanted to kill myself. I hated my life, I hated my marriage, I just wanted to end everything.'

I remembered this. He hadn't talked about it very often, but once when I was in high school he'd told me about how he'd had a nervous breakdown, and how when he was driving on the highway, he'd actually been tempted to steer his car into oncoming traffic. He was so disturbed by this that he pulled over to the side of the road, found a phone book, and checked himself into a mental hospital. For a year after that, he couldn't read a single thing except the Bible, and even that in a sort of skeptical, clinical way. Every other form of reading reminded him of academia, and the department that had driven him mad.

I didn't know what he was about to say, but it was pretty clear that by choosing academia now, I had all but confessed to rejecting not just his religion, but his entire view of the world.

'So when I was looking around for some kind of hope,' Dad continued, 'I found Grace Chapel.' Grace Chapel was the big charismatic church in Tucson, with the raising of hands, the speaking in tongues, the anointing with oil, and occasional miracle healings. 'I remember walking in there and being so overwhelmed by the love I saw there, the way these people cared for one another. Then I found out what they believed and I said, 'Are you serious? Magic and spirits and all this stuff?' But I kept comping back. And finally one night I prayed and I said 'God, if I have to take my own head off to be happy, that's what I'm willing to do.'

'So you can believe what you want,' he said. 'But I also know what I've felt. Jesus turned me into a better man. He have me a life, he gave me a family, and I look forward to every new day. I never did that before, and all your arguments aren't going to convince me to go back.'"
The version he read on This American Life was better than this, but the idea is there. The reason religion and faith is so powerful is because it changes our lives, it makes us better. It's a feeling more powerful than logic - of peace and love. It's something we need at a deep level.

David Brooks touches on this a bit in his book The Social Animal. In this section about Alcoholics Anonymous:
"Harold had grown quite secular over the years, but a vague religiosity pervaded this group. The people there didn't just tell him to stop drinking. It wasn't a discrete and logical attempt to solve this one problem. They called on him to purify his soul, to rewire the deepest recesses of his heart and being. If he changed his whole life, abstinence from alcohol would be a happy byproduct."

"Alcoholics Anonymous doesn't work for most people. Researchers have not been able to predict who will benefit from AA and who will not. They can't even agree on whether the program works better than the other programs that are out there, or at all.

That's because the fellowship of each group cannot be reduced to a formula, compared across groups, or captured in a social science experiment, and the quality of fellowship is what really matters."
Ok, I'm throwing some unrelated bits of information out there. The point is that the spiritual journey each of us takes is so hard to understand or quantify. The rationale part of our brain is different and less important than the spiritual part of ourselves.

It's how you can be both religious and academic by being able to understand this relationship and come to terms when the two come in conflict.

This dynamic is what The Book of Mormon teaches here:

2 Nephi 28:28. O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.

29. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.
This passage does not disparage academia or knowledge or rationale thought. You can even be an academic agnostic or an evolutionist at your day job. All this passage is saying is to put academic knowledge in it's proper place. The fact is that we're all utterly foolish. The smartest person in the world really doesn't know much. The problem comes when we think we know more than God.

That's one problem I have with Mormon Stories. I don't have a big problem with it I guess, some people they interview I think get this dynamic between thought and faith, but most seem to struggle. This is a podcast for feminists, academics, or liberal Mormons who treat the church, at times, like one views a political party. You can be a feminist, an academic, or a liberal Mormon quite easily and many on this podcast explain how they've gotten there, but many struggle and I think they struggle because they don't understand what church is supposed to be about.

Doing what they are doing on this podcast is all well and good. The problem is not that they are using their minds, the problems come when they fail to put what they know in a proper context. I'm going to use a thought I heard that I can no longer source, so just know this is not original with me. This stuff is scaffolding. It's good to think, to grow, to question, to speculate, but at the end of the day you're building scaffolding. It's not anything to build a house on.

What you do build a house on is a foundation of faith, love, peace, fellowship, relationships. It's a foundation of feelings over logic, of faith over academia. It's why Dickerson was helpless in this argument. How can you argue with someone who says their faith changed their life and made them a better person? This is a statement of fact based on the truths discovered in the innermost parts of one's soul. It's not something that is easily communicated without the help of divine. It's personal, poignant, and powerful.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Another Gay Marriage Post

I haven't blogged in a while, but I have been busy facebooking all about the debt ceiling. However with what just happened in New York on gay marriage, I stumbled upon Ross Douthat's latest on the subject.

I already blogged pretty heavily on Douthat's thoughts on gay marriage. But time has passed and New York has made gay marriage legal, and Douthat writes about it again, so I have to blog about it once more.

Here's Douthat's latest.

There's nothing too new here, but I think it's worth pointed out nonetheless. I hit this topic pretty hard because I think the religious argument against gay marriage has been given short shift, for two reasons. First, the argument is legitimately hard to express succinctly. But just because an argument is difficult to express does not mean it's wrong, it's just makes it difficult to express. Douthat describes in his earlier posts, how the intermingling of marriage, procreation, and sexuality is complex or "thick", his word, to describe this. And to express this thickness is challenging, but Douthat's arguments are the most well thought out from the opposition side of this debate and definitely worth considering.

Also because this argument has been so poorly made by the conservative side, I think it's also been too easily dismissed, and those who believe in this view have been labeled as bigots and compared to the racists of our nation's earlier years. This is fundamentally unfair.

In Douthat's latest, he laments:
"Critics of gay marriage see this as one of the great dangers in severing the link between marriage and the two realities — gender difference and procreation — that it originally evolved to address. A successful marital culture depends not only on a general ideal of love and commitment, but on specific promises, exclusions and taboos. And the less specific and more inclusive an institution becomes, the more likely people are to approach it casually, if they enter it at all."
He follows this article up here specifically addressing Dan Savage's point of view.
"The ideal of monogamy is a fragile achievement of civilized life, not something that’s written in our glands and genes." Meaning that it's hard to be monogomous especially if you extend that to pre-marriage. It goes against our nature, but just because it's difficult doesn't mean it's not an ideal worth aspiring toward, and it doesn't mean it's something that society shouldn't enforce, especially considering what's at stake.
This is at the core of all of Douthat's argument and it's written better in his original article I'll quote here again:
"This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.
The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support."
That, in a nutshell is the ideal: that "organic connection between human generations". That my biological kids are mine and my wife's and we are there's. To preserve this unique entity as an ideal is important, to recognize that it's extremely difficult to maintain and thus worthy of extra sociatal support is what Douthat argues.

While Douthat continues to cling to his views, another moderate conservative I admire, David Frum dithers. But his logic as to why?... is just dumb:
It's true that marriage, among the educated middle class, has actually strengthened recently which weakens the argument that gay marriage destroys traditional families. But that's only true if you believe gay marriage is the only and the strongest factor that will destroy families. I believe there are a multitude of societal factors at play and changing gay marriage laws is just one of many and not near the most important. I'm not sure how you can separate these out in way to come to the conclusion Frum comes to.
I meant to blog about this article earlier but I'm getting to it now, and it's too long and difficult to quote from it directly, so you really need to read it because there are a lot of really good points here that goes beyond the argument of gay marriage.

Here's her thoughts on the consequence of loosening divorce laws and how that affected the marriage institution that resonates:
"A couple in 1940 (and even more so in 1910) could go to a minister's parlor, or a justice of the peace, and in five minutes totally change their lives. Unless you are a member of certain highly religious subcultures, this is simply no longer true. That is, of course, partly because of the sexual revolution and the emancipation of women; but it is also because you aren't really making a lifetime commitment; you're making a lifetime commitment unless you find something better to do. There is no way, psychologically, to make the latter as big an event as the former, and when you lost that commitment, you lose, on the margin, some willingness to make the marriage work. Again, this doesn't mean I think divorce law should be toughened up; only that changes in law that affect marriage affect the cultural institution, not just the legal practice."
And her final piece of advice.
"My only request is that people try to be a leeetle more humble about their ability to imagine the subtle results of big policy changes. The argument that gay marriage will not change the institution of marriage because you can't imagine it changing yours personal reaction is pretty arrogant."
The point here is that what matters is what happens on the margins. When you make significant changes to laws it affects both the legal and the cultural identity of that institution with all of the unexpected consequences that go along with that. There are simply no institutions that matter as much as marriage does. The institutional changes matter because at the margin some people will make different choices because of those institutional changes. Their decisions will influence others in unexpected ways. Eventually, marriage in the 21st century will be fundamentally different than what it was in the 20th.

Expanding marriage to include same gender is a significant change. Douthat argues that this change will weaken it. Many, including me, believe it has already been weakened so this affect may be minimal, but I think it's affects may be bigger than any of us realize.