I’m rather excited. Friendship with Star recently ambushed us both—so I have begun writing on here. Star tells me they’ll have me launched today. I like the idea that many people, not just my friends, will be able to read what I write. However, that idea feels like a big responsibility as well, because I will be writing a lot about religion. Religion is a universally important topic, about which the vast majority of people have unfortunately always been taught almost nothing but pernicious nonsense.
Once, long ago, a man would write an epistle. Later on, an essay. More recently, a column. But a blog? The word has all the onomatopoeia of a rock dropping into mud.
For a writer, there is a huge difference between how one writes in a diary and how one writes in a letter to a friend or to a stranger or in a political speech. To whom am I writing here? (And even knowing how and when to use “whom” verges on obsolete technology.) I choose to believe that I am writing a letter to an intelligent, compassionate friend—because it is worthwhile to explain important matters to such a friend.
The marvels of modern technology, in the form of POD and digital books, have recently enabled me to share my writing with many people—without having to try to convince clueless agents and editors that I do know what I’m doing. One of the rules of this game is that it is fair for me to mention the existence and availability of my books, in the hopes that a few more people might buy them, thus helping me feed, clothe, and educate Evan (17), Chloe (12), and Bella (will be 10 on the 28th), who are truly my raison d’etre.
I sincerely believe that I do have a moral obligation to share what I have learned and deduced and extrapolated and speculated about during the last (um, 2012 – 1954 =) 58 years. Why do I feel obliged? The explanation is part of the story about myself that I will need to tell in order for you to see why I hold such a belief, and quite a few other beliefs, but hold them at arm’s length.
I do not intend to write my autobiography on here, but I cannot completely avoid talking about myself, because the truly important philosophical and theological issues are personal, not abstract. There is no reason why I should consider some concept or field or theory to be of any importance at all, no matter how elegant or complex or profound it may seem to be, if it does not in some way connect with my ordinary life, with my struggles and decisions and small triumphs and excruciating disappointments, as I do my best to take care of my wife and children and, oh yeah, me too. In order to be of any use to me, that’s what a genuine religion must be able to do.
I am not going to claim that I will be setting forth 100% Guaranteed Unvarnished Truths about religion in these essays—because I don’t believe any human being knows all of them—but I will be sticking to the facts (there really are some) and to reasoning logically about them. Oh, I will be speculating some—that’s fun—but I will always label speculation as such.
I will not be writing only about religion, because religion is not a topic separate from everything else. Religion is related to everything. Religion is the reason why anything is important. Religion is a realm of values, not primarily of facts. Religion provides the values by which a person makes important decisions. But if those values, provided by a particular religion, are pernicious nonsense, then the person is going to make very bad decisions.I know my Humanist friends are already objecting, “But I don’t believe in any religion at all!” This is an issue of giving “religion” a broad enough definition. Every human being needs to have a system of values that enables him or her to answer important questions, the ones that are not merely about facts, that is, not “What can I build with this hammer?” but instead, “What should I build with this hammer?” Such a system of values is equivalent to a religion, because it enables those decisions.
In doing scientific research, one hopes to deal with facts without imposing values on them, but being “value free” is not an option for daily life. A person without values, for whom nothing has meaning, for whom nothing is important, is in a state of anomie, a late and usually lethal stage of clinical depression. Since one cannot be free of values, it is wiser to be fully aware of what one’s values are, to own up to them, and to allow for the bias they will create. That does require questioning one’s assumptions. It does require living what Socrates called the examined life. Obviously, most people are reluctant to do any such thing. I do hope to provide some people with some motivation for getting on with that task.
The dilemma my Humanist friends create for themselves is therefore strictly an issue of definition. If you define “religion” as “false” and work hard to ensure that what you believe is true, then, by definition, your beliefs are not “religious.” But you do not need to equate “religion” with any specific belief of any specific religion. You can instead understand “religion” as including any foundational system of beliefs that enables decisionmaking. Besides, aside from serving that very practical function, there is not a single trait that all religions have in common.
In addition to writing, I have been teaching ethics courses off and on for years. I have therefore had to deal with questions about where we get our values from in the first place. My current tentative hypothesis is that they are built in. How they could have gotten built in I don’t know, and I’m not going to speculate about that right now, but they are there. Our Prime Directive seems to be, “The human race must survive.” That does not mean individual humans, even though the next directive is apparently, “Human life is sacred.” It’s about our entire species of higher primates who think, laugh, have sex, and, if they are normal, take care of one another. Its no accident that one of our oldest systems of ethics is based firmly on an instruction to be fertile and multiply. I will look at that fact many times in essays to come.
The preceding constitutes some of the ground rules for what I will be doing in these essays. I suspect I will need to repost it every so often so that latecomers will understand what in the world is going on here. I also am very sure that what I am doing here will not be universally popular. Most people do not enjoy having their beliefs be diagnosed as being both pernicious and nonsense. But the ground must be cleared, the wreckage of the past be hauled away, before anything new and healthy can be built.