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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Religion, philosophy and me (pt 4)

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I've been putting this off. I don't quite know why, as it's been the subject of much of my life's work. Maybe that is the reason.

  It's also because the words get in the way. I know, I've said that sort of thing in several different ways in previous blog postings. I tried to lay the groundwork for this entire ramble in many of them. I forgive you if you've forgotten them (I have!) or didn't get round to reading them.

  When I was teaching Asian cultural history, or Comparative Religions, I sometimes got asked, right before I started to lecture on these things, 'What's your religion? Do you have one? Do you believe in God? Are you an atheist or agnostic?'

  I didn't object at all to being questioned on such matters, especially in classes where religions play a huge role in understanding. But all those questions are full of assumptions. The most disconcerting one is that we think we are on common ground using terms like 'religion' and 'god', but we're usually not. Far from it.

  So I used to say, 'Ask me that question again after we've had some discussions about what these terms mean. I'm happy to answer once we know what we understand by the words we're using.'

  That sounds like weaselling out, but it's not.  It's trying to avoid embedding a mistaken impression at the start.

  Humans seem divided into three categories:

      1. Believers in some form of deity
      2. Atheists
      3. Agnostics

  Note I used the word 'seem'. That's because I'm going to add another one:

      4. Non-theists

  Aren't non-theists the same as atheists?

  No, but let's not go into that now. It's a very important category, and once understood, would save a lot of useless arguments and name-calling about who slot into the other three.

  Looking at Category 1, there's a very wide range of worship, from animism and shamanism through to the highly institutionalised forms of religion we're used to.

  Two familiar conceptions of godhead within Category 1 are these:

      a) Polytheism
      b) Monotheism

  I could add a stack of other 'theisms' but I'll keep it as simple as possible, bearing in mind that keeping it simple can end up making it simplistic. If something's simplistic, then it's also confusing, at best. It may be partly or completely false at worst.

  Polytheism is a belief in more than one god, perhaps many. Monotheism is the belief that there is only one God.

  Clear? No. At least, far from as clear as it looks. Even using 'god' and 'God' makes a difference.

  So here we get stuck again, because polytheistic worship may accept that the many gods are just manifestations of one ultimate Godhead, as in Hinduism; while in monotheism, there may be one God but manifested in separate forms, like the Trinity in Christianity.

  So a) and b) may not be quite as different as it might seem. The devil is in the detail. Or in those deceptive, seductive, misleading things called words.

  And... I want to add another -ism to a) and b) above.

      c) Monism

  I'll come back to it too.

  To return to No 2 in the 1,2,3 above.

  2. Atheists. Let's take them at their word. They don't believe in any form of God or afterlife. There's this world, and once you die, that's it. You, in any sense of that word, no longer exist.

  3. Agnostics. They can't make up their mind, by a simplistic definition of the term. The answer to the God question is in the too-hard basket.

  These 'definitions' are open to dispute, some of it fierce, most of it pointless. But, we may return to it where alternative definitions of those terms are relevant.

  Some of the main world's religions just grew, like Topsy. Others had a distinct founder. But that's enough for now. Brain fuzz has set in.


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  1. When I was little, I was told that God is everywhere. Then when I grew up I was told that to believe that God is everywhere is pantheism and that's a heresy. You just can't win in this god game, can you?

    When I was little, I prayed to God at night, kneeling beside my bed. Often my mother would find me there in the morning, having fallen asleep (me, not my mother).

    When I grew up, I looked out the window one day and saw that the world was real and said to myself, "How can an abstract concept such as 'God' be real?" So I became an atheist.

    Now, sometimes when life gets hard I find my atheist self kneeling beside my bed, praying to a god I don't believe in.

    I guess old habits die hard.

  2. Joan, depends what you mean by 'real', doesn't it? As Denis says at the beginning here,we need to define terms to be on common ground in the discussion. I think his use of 'non-theist' is one that holds much promise for the next thread of this subject!

  3. I think I was 13 years old when I made that distinction between what is real and what is conceptual. I wouldn't hold to that now, but I still think, that to a large extent, we make it all up. But for good reasons.

    Oddly, those heretical prayers to a god I don't believe in are most often answered by a little inner voice that seems to have a lot more wisdom than my conscious mind.

    Yes, let's move on to non-theism.

  4. I wonder if the books reviewed here:
    would interest you.

  5. Geez. I'd be lucky to get through the review!! Whew!

    For anyone teaching Studies in Religion, those would be two books to read. God and other non-provables such as the afterlife make for lively debate, which can sometimes get out of control. That makes them even more interesting.

    Denis, were you going to say something about non-theism?

  6. Yes, they do, Zoe - but you know, only up to a point, as does the review, which I did get through.

    Sometimes I despair when I see the style of the review even. It's chock full of the urbanity of prose style and the thought processes behind the assumption that this is about western intellectuals talking to western intellectuals. It's like reading Dryden or Pope. If you don't know the classical allusions then you're drowning – in that Pierian spring?)

    It's littered with the allusions of the scholar of western philosophy and theology. It contains dozens of references to literary figures and theologians that my daughters won't know. There were at least twenty words in the review that I'm certain my daughters won't have the foggiest about, and both of them have university degrees. If neither of them understand me, then it's not worth the time and effort for me. A lot of what I read was fencing with rapiers, and you don't get into the comp if you don't know the rules.

    Asian philosophies avoid many of these rules because they refuse to play the Western theologians' and philosophers' games.

    I suppose I wonder just how many people these days would get right through the review (totalling 4500 words at least). A select group will, because it's written in their language and style. If the books take a similar view of discussion, then I don't have the time to plough through them, time being a precious commodity to me.

    So yes indeed, Joan, I am going to have a go at non-theism. But even responding to this in the messy way I have makes the challenge daunting. I'm afraid I'm going to try to Keep It Simple.

    Forgive me, Zoe, for a rambling and pretty incoherent answer to your excellent question! I know I should leave it for a day and I'd make changes, but as I said, I just won't make that time any more. I'll throw my hat in the ring and see how they jump on it.

    Classical allusions, hey? Whacko chook!

  7. Good point about that voice within, Joan. What atheist hasn't invoked some sort of god at one time or another?

    When Gandhi was shot, his last words were, 'Oh Ram' which we'd say is 'Oh God....' He was far from an atheist, of course, though his religious views are still a fascinating conglomeration of sources, not all Indian. But when a poor chap accidentally slipped over the edge into the gorge at Dangar's Falls here thirty years ago, his last words were definitely, 'Oh shit!!!'

    Makes you wonder, doesn't it? And Julie, you know exactly where I'm coming from.

  8. Denis, I think I should investigate more about these Asian philosophies; I have what I now suspect may be a thoroughly Western sense that I haven't absorbed or read enough and that it's my fault I can't keep up with Pope, rather than his for failing to include me.

  9. Denis, you are very correct in that the review is a good example of the cut and thrust of the intellectual jousting game that Western scholarship and debate has become. However, am I wrong to say that much the same has gone on for thousands of years in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, and that they have still not settled on whether there is or is not a self, whether everthing is united in advaita or divided in dvaita; whether the body is real or not; whether the universe is real or not; whether the gods exist or are constructs of maya and the human mind; and whether anything at all can be said to exist or is simply a mirage. Is not the Bhagavad Gita a dialetical response to a number of contemporaneous positions and issues?

    Whacko the chook, indeed :).

  10. Zoe: there are so many books on Asian philosophies that I truly believe someone would do humanity a great service by burning most of them. Thus I fear for what you might pick up if you decided to explore the really big half of the world's philosophies. Don't worry about keeping up with Pope - he's dead - but still worthy of reading for whatever we can squeeze out if we decide to do so. I confess I haven't for a long time.

    I sometimes have this thought running through my head that if people saw you dancing down the street, they'd think you were crazy if they weren't able to hear the music. (Or miss seeing the iPod buds.)

    Philosophy's a bit like that.

  11. No, Joan, Indian philosophies have gone through that process and it hasn't stopped either, and has started again with scarily renewed vigour once discovered by western intellectuals in the last 200 years.

    What I hope to be saying, if I manage to survive the writing of it, is that some have gone beyond the cut and thrust (dancing to their own music!) whereas western philosophy's love affair with words won't allow it to let go. Or so it seems. I'm hoping I'm slandering some philosophers by saying that.

    Your mammoth question needs dissection. My temptation is simply to say yes, but that leaves only more questions. I have a problem with the use of 'real' in it, and that's the core of what I'm coming to, much too slowly I know. Writing 500 words on it saps everything from my brain, however simplistic it looks, so I do it when the time's right. Much easier to write about cracker night.

    I'm sure Zen would approve of that, and tell me just to keep my hands off it. The keyboard, i.e. Probably....

  12. Keep those brain synapses firing :).

    I use the word "real" for lack of a better word. I think everyone knows what is meant by it. If you can think of a better word, I'd gladly use it.

    For a post-modern while, you didn't dare use the words "fact" or "objective". The quagmire that resulted forced us to remove the absolute quality from those terms, allowing us to use them again with impunity.

    Yes, the Western Intellectual tradition has it's own methodology -- largely, you say black and I'll say white :). When I first started applying critical thinking, I thought I was supposed to tear everything to shreds. The problem lay in my understanding of the word "critical". I assumed it meant what my mother use to do to correct my behaviour and attitude. Once I substituted the word "analytical", the negativity disappeared. I could agree with something and still use my brain to tease it apart and perhaps contribute something. This resulted from a revelation I had in the UNE carpark, and I think many scholars would do well to visit that carpark and revelate.

  13. Joan - again, I'm not ignoring you - it's just a matter of timing answers here with what I'm going to talk about in the segments, and you're right into things to come, so I hope it will fall into place.

    Thus when you say everyone knows what is 'real', even in your context, I'm not sure that's true, and it's the crux of it all, as I'm certain the different understandings of it lead to total confusion. This is especially true between the Abrahamic faiths and the Indian philosophies. (Faith? Philosophy? Ideology? Where are the boundaries? Consider that rhetorical for the moment!)

    Your example using 'critical' is apt. Remember all those university exam questions that began "Critically analyse...."? We had to teach our students what we meant by such terms, even though we thought we had a handle on them always.

    It was a shaky handle.

    Like MacArthur, I shall return.... (but not with his attitude, I hope. So glad Roosevelt and Truman put that upstart in his place now and again!)

  14. I didn't expect a response, so no need to worry.

    To clarify what I meant, I could add that most of us have a sense of what is real until we start thinking about it. Then it gets very murky. John Wren-Lewis once said, "Why is the brain necessarily more real than a thought?" He was responding to Susan Blackmore (the neuroscientist) whose position, of course, was positivistic. I could only deduce that he was implying that everything is "real" in its own way, on its own terms. Thoughts are real, although the content might not be true.

    These days, I hear many people (neo-Advaitists) arguing that nothing is real, that nothing exists. I get very tired of these people, and then of course, the broken leg metaphor gets brought up to counteract their position. In your case, that would be the brain tumour metaphor. You know what is "real" when it is happening to you.

    So if you can come up with a less murky word than "real" to describe our subjective sense of reality, then I shall use it instead. I don't expect any term to have an absolute connotation, as in the case of "fact" and "objective" these days.

    Also, I wasn't asking massive questions, merely listing some of the unanswered and debated questions in Indian philosophy. I wasn't expecting you to answer them ! but if you want to have a go, I'll listen.

  15. But I expect me to 'answer' them! I couldn't agree more about the nonsense that 'nothing is real'. That's what I'm coming to, in my own painfully slow way. Basically people are mixing up 'unreality' with 'illusion' as you know. This is what I want to tease out. That's where they tie discussions up in knots of their own making.

    All in good time.... ☺


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