26 June 2008

Casting Bones

There are times I wish I could believe in oracles.

Many societies throughout history have tried to find advice in the most unlikely of places. The Babylonians, for example, read liver spots to learn the future; the Shang dynasty Chinese cracked turtle shells; the Israelites cast lots; the Azande poisoned chickens; the Greeks and Romans had their oracles at Delphi. Despite the differences in the methods, the overall plan of an oracle is always the same: you address your question to the gods, you perform an action with an uncertain outcome (what will the liver look like? how will the shell crack? will the chicken die?), and then you interpret the results and act accordingly.

Now, of course the pattern of tea leaves on a saucer isn't going to tell us anything we didn't already know. The oracles are completely random, and the interpretation thereof is completely arbitrary.

But in many ways that's the beauty of the oracle. True: you will bring whatever interpretation to the oracle that you want. Any sufficiently ambiguous sign can always be twisted to suit your purposes. But the fact that you're consulting an oracle means you must now justify your own thought processes against the supposed divine truth of the oracle.

This process, I would argue, can be a great aid to decision-making. If the oracle justifies what you already thought was the correct course of action, then you will pursue it with less temerity, believing that the gods sanction your undertaking. If the oracle shakes your resolve, then you clearly had reservations in the first place and would be wise to reconsider your plans. And if you find yourself changing the oracle's interpretation to suit your own desires, then the decision was already made long before you inquired of the gods.

In other words, oracles are in many ways like Rorschach tests. They are forms without content. Instead of having an intrinsic meaning, their interpretation comes entirely from the mind of the beholder, who by supplying his own interpretation makes transparent certain thought processes that may otherwise have remained invisible. The oracle throws a grain of sand into the indecisive mind around which the pearl of a decision can coagulate.

But of course, it doesn't work at all if you don't believe that the signs are divinely inspired. At the moment, I am personally wrestling with a difficult decision. And, over the past few days, all 'signs' have been pointing to the same answer. But because I know that those signs are coming from my own mind and my own decision-making process, they are of little use to me. Granted, the fact that my unconscious mind seems to be unanimous should be an indication of how to proceed - but I don't know whether that consensus came about because my answer is the right one, or just the answer I want to hear.

A little bit of self-delusion, in other words, can be an antidote for indecision.

19 June 2008

The Morning and the Evening Star

In the time since I last posted (--awkward silence, shuffle shuffle--), I finally sat down to read Sinclair Lewis' novel Elmer Gantry (1927). I can't recommend it highly enough - and not simply because Lewis' lambasting of Fundagelicalism is razor-sharp, which it is, but because the author is a true master at portraying truly, vitally human characters in all their tragic, hypocritical, self-deluded glory.

I also had a chance to watch the film version (1960). Although like most adaptations of great novels it differs considerably from the text, the film isn't just an incomplete, shoddy rip-off of a brilliant original. The film is an artfully, powerfully-constructed whole that is worthy in its own right. Burt Lancaster captures Gantry's infuriating ambivalence, his mercurial hypocrisy, perfectly. You never can tell how much or how often he means what he's saying, how he justifies what he does and how he preaches - and that's precisely the feeling that Lewis created in the original. And the monologue by a (much changed) Jim Lefferts will make you want to stand up and cheer - none the less because of how daring it was to make such a statement in the heart of the red scare.

But of the many things I've taken away from these works of art, I find one to be particularly upsetting. The copy of Gantry that I read was borrowed from the Div School library - and throughout the entire book, I couldn't help but imagine the internal monologues of the seminarians who came before me as they read along with Lewis. They all, I'm sure, went along similar lines. "Oh how dreadful Gantry is. Such a hypocrite. Such a disgusting misuse of the Bible. His interpretation of Christianity is so crass, so self-serving, so puerile. He's not a true Christian like I am. Well done, Sinclair Lewis, for pointing out the follies and excesses of this brand of Christianity -- but I wish he wouldn't take it so far. The author clearly doesn't understand what true Christianity is all about. The poor misguided man. I shall pray for him."

In other words, it's the classic 'no true Scotsman' argument that every liberal theist uses like a get-out-of-jail free card whenever they're confronted by someone doing ugly things with their religion. Now, I'll agree heartily that the New Atheists are not altogether unfairly criticized for focusing their efforts exclusively on the straw man of biblical literalism -- which no 'enlightened' Christian has believed for a century. When we do this, we are guilty of misrepresenting Christianity in toto. But that's not to say that liberal Christianity is blameless. Far from it! By focusing solely on the wackjobs, we've been missing out on an opportunity to hold the liberal religious accountable for their own faults, and allowing them to keep playing the Scotsman card as often as they care to. To my knowledge, none of us has seriously engaged the liberal theists in debate in their own terms, and it's high time we stopped picking on the backwoods pea-brains who most Christians even disavow and started tackling the more polite, urbane superstitions of the more modern, well-educated believers.

It's a shame I don't know any. (Strange, that - since the Div school is crawling with them. Too bad I'm such a crotchety grump.)

But it's a project to keep on the back burner until a good subject comes along.

18 June 2008

For Science!

Zach at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal never fails to disappoint:

smbc comic 8 Jun 08

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Uncommon Descent. Patrick posted the above comic this morning under the title "Darwinist Behavior in a Nutshell."

Let's see, exploiting the public's general bewilderment with, yet hard-earned respect for, science to promote your own bizarre agenda? Daahhh, yep, that's us Darwinists to a "t".

Oh, and stealing the artist's bandwidth (as opposed to hosting the image yourself) without even providing any mention whatsoever of the source of the comic, let alone a link? That's us, too. We evilutionists are just a bunch of naked thieves.

I laughed at the comic yesterday. I laugh again today!

12 June 2008

Keep Them Bloggies Rollin', Rawhide!

Apologies for the unannounced absence. There were travels and movings and difficulties getting Internet to the new apartment. But I'm back now!

Blog developments were not at a complete standstill over the past month. A link to Mojoey's Atheist Blogroll has been part of our sidebar for some time now. Well, Synapostasy is finally a part of the list! Click on the Atheist Blogroll icon to find out how you can join, or check out these recently updated blogroll members (also available in the sidebar; must have JavaScript enabled):

The Atheist Blogroll