Thursday, 23 May 2013

Attending Church

These days, the reputation of religion in general seems to be suffering. Some of the damage is self-inflicted (whether by Christians, Muslims, or even Buddhists) and some comes from outside. For example, there is a strain of thought called the New Atheism. It is a ridiculous name that irresistibly reminds me of a clip from the film L.A. Story.

I suppose the reason that I don't support the stance of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, which is to confront and nullify the influence of religion wherever they find it, is my firm belief that they don't have a logical, consistent philosophy themselves. Because no one does. The best we can do is an approximation that helps us live as we believe that we should.

For example, the most congenial philosophy that I've found is Utilitarianism. It states that the moral value of an act depends on the net happiness it generates. By "net happiness" I mean the amount that's left after subtracting any unhappiness that the action causes. I'm quite willing to believe this, though no-one has found a way to measure happiness. That is enough to rob this promising philosophy of any claim to being logical and consistent, even before the Germans got started on it. (Nietzsche: "Humanity does not strive after happiness; only the English do.")

At other times, Stoicism provides advice as to how I should behave. It tells me that I should resist wrong actions and beliefs, whatever the result. It is not a very utilitarian attitude!

I switch from one philosophy to another depending on which seems "right" for the situation that I am in. Certain philosophies just seem appropriate for certain sets of circumstance. In other words, I am, as Robert Heinlein said that all men are, "not a rational animal" but "a rationalizing animal."

This brings me to my recent decision to attend church. I was raised as a Lutheran and considered myself a member in good standing of a culture and tradition that is Christian, even though I was not a Christian. For example, I remember a high school student who came to me for tutoring in English. He decided that he wanted to read Milton's Paradise Lost, but had no understanding of Christian belief. Our classes were as much about prophecy, original sin, salvation, demonology, the relation of Judaism and Christianity, and of the Old and New Testaments as they were about Puritans, blank verse, and the epic tradition. I relished the irony that I was teaching Christianity and, since our classes were on Sunday mornings, I referred to them as my "Sunday School" classes.

Similarly, when I wrote my book on poetry (The Complete Poetry Guide and Workbook), I had to include poems that are explicitly Christian and discuss their meaning. I knew that we cannot understand Western Culture or its expression in art without understanding its religious tradition, whether or not we share it.

Nevertheless, as a teenager, I resented my family's pressure to attend church. From the time I left home until this year, I have not attended, nor seriously considered attending.

What changed was that, two years ago, my wife became a Christian. It filled a hole in her life, gave her membership in a strong community, and made her much happier. As a good Utilitarian, how could I disapprove? As a supportive husband, how could I help? I could not, at the time, make a habit of attending with her because the services were conducted in Korean, which I do not speak. However, when she asked me to help her find a closer church to attend, I found a Lutheran church that seemed like a good group and have attended it with her since.

I don't think I am being hypocritical by going to church, even though I can't treat the Apostle's Creed as a checklist of my own beliefs. I see no harm in taking time in the week to participate in rituals that empty my mind of current concerns. I see no harm in thinking about community, forgiveness, and right behaviour. I appreciate that each service ends with "Remember the poor." Nor do I feel set apart by my disbelief since I share that with many who are better believers than I am; see Mark 9:24 for proof.

To conclude, I now think of my attendance at our local church much as Scrooge's nephew thought of Christmas in Dickens' Christmas Carol.
"But I am sure I have always thought of [it] a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"


  1. Hello.
    My coming to your post today has a fushigi element to it, that being a kind of synchronicity-petite. Specifically your observation that the problem with our religion of science in its effort to debunk religion is that like religion it isn't consistent. (And it may actually be less consistent than religions' various credos.) I am reading a book that perhaps highlights that in a way I've not come across, and that wasn't its author's intention. I will blog my review of it when done, but you may find The Cult of Personality a worth while read. It exams various recent attempts by scientists to pin-point and categorize human beings.

    It has inspired me to come up with my own 'scientific' based human typology theorem. It is going to be derived from some of the consequences of quantum mechanics as applied to human beings. And maybe I can use that to make millions! LoL.


  2. I'm glad that I'm (somehow) tying into your thought processes again, Guy. This post was more personal than those I usually write. But why not. Surely the denizens of the Internet are all friends? And if some are not, those are the ones least likely to bump into me in the real world.


  3. Speaking of the inconsistencies of science, The Cult of Personality is proof of the religious nature of our science. Especially as it applies to psychology.

    Have you heard of any of the following psychological profiling tests: TAT, MBTI, MMPI, 16PI? These are all popular in the American corporate board room.

    The book is inspiring me to come up with a typology profiling test of my own. I think it might be fun. Oh! And the one's I've listed, were created with and followed by a religious like fervor that is quite remarkable. The guy who developed the TAT even formed his own religion, called 'Beyondism'. (Nope, I hadn't heard of it before.)

    Be well,


    1. I've taken two psychological typing tests before. One was a multiple skills evaluation that I took in high school to focus my thinking on the jobs I'd do best in life. The result was a bar graph that showed that several skills related to language were above the 90th percentile of the tested population, my spatial perception (e.g. the ability to "fold" a flattened object in my head) was about at the 80th percentile, and my "Clerical Speed and Accuracy" was below the 50th. I found that interesting and potentially useful. Later in life, while attending a job-hunting club, I took the Meyers-Briggs test. I found the process of thinking about my answers to questions more interesting than the result of the test, a four-letter acronym. I think of these tests as safe and well-travelled, though superficial, routes to self exploration, just as the game of Scruples is a route to finding out what your friends think of you, and the game of Diplomacy is full of small revelations about your friends. On the other hand, I've been in the position of hiring and firing and have never considered using one of the psychological tests as a criterion for either.

      I have just a little reading on "Beyondism." Thanks for the reference. The ultimate criticism of enforced eugenics is the film "Gattaca," which is one of the best science-fiction films ever made. I highly recommend, also, Robert Heinlein's unjustly overlooked book "Beyond this Horizon." The story takes place in a world that accepts eugenic counselling as the norm, but the book as a whole criticizes attempts to artificially determine what traits are "fit." For example, the genetic counsellors have located a gene that they are anxious to conserve and study. It makes the holder a little more "civilized" and "reasonable" than the human norm!

      I'm worried about the social effects of eugenics more than I am about its effect on the human genome. It would be nice to see the human genetic load (the collection of deleterious genes, whether expressed or unexpressed, in the population) reduced. It would be nicer if so many people didn't need glasses, or have wisdom teeth extracted as a matter of course, or have preventive mastectomies. On the other hand, if genetic engineering gets to the point that we can make progress on these problems, we're going to use it as a tool for the fashionable redesign of our kids. ("Oh, blue eyes with an epicanthic fold are very popular now. Are you sure that you don't want me to put that in?"). Compare surgery with plastic surgery for something analogous.