11 December 2005

16 February 2006

“Large unconscious assumptions have far more to do with belief than do
overt doctrinal teachings.” – Harold Bloom, The American Religion

“He has a mind of his own,” Boughton used to say when his son was up to something, and he meant it as praise. He really did. But the fact is that his mind came from one set of books as surely as mine has come from another set of books ... but who knows where any mind comes from. It's all a mystery. – Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

“Wherever there is an authority that, in the guise of a scientific or ecclesiastical community, imposes something as objective truth, philosophy has the obligation to proceed in the opposite direction.” – The Future of Religion, Richard Rorty, Gianni Vattimo, edited by Santiago Zabala

“Belief comes before doubt.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein | Self-portrait

Dear -------,

Sorry to be writing again -- after I signed off from this conversation twice already -- but while I don't want to change your mind about your beliefs, I want you to understand what I'm interested in. In short, you don't have to agree with what I think, say or do -- just understand it. I think that if you understand it, you'll feel better about this exchange and about what I am doing on my Web site.


The main point of this e-mail is to say: I don't think we're really interested in or talking about the same subject. We're talking about two different things! Let me give an analogy:

Suppose you noticed that a lot of people loved sports. You studied the topic and grew amazed at how much time people spend watching sports on TV and how much money they spend going to games, on memorabilia and merchandise, and you became fascinated with the question, "Why do people get so enthused about sports?"

So you made a Web site about it, and one day someone e-mailed you to ask why you never come to his house to talk about the Cleveland Browns. He is a huge Browns fan and would like to tell you all about the team, how many yards rushing the half-back has this season, how many passes have been completed and how many punts have been blocked ... he has reams of statistics to convey!

You have already talked to about 50 rabid sports fans in regards your Web site, and you have found something quite surprising: While these people are examples of the sports-love you study, they don't want to talk about sports-love in general. They just want to tell you why they love some particular team. What's worse, when you try to shift the topic of conversation away from their beloved team to the more general area of sports passion, they get very annoyed; they think you are trying to ruin sports for them, to take away their sports-love and wreck their life; things get heated!

So you are looking for a way to explain to this person why learning about Browns' statistics is not really connected to your overall topic; the irony is that while he is something of an example of what you're studying, he really has nothing to say about your topic of interest -- that's because he sees sports from a totally different angle! He's a fan; you're a student.


Which is to say that while I am interested in belief, you are interested in a particular set of scriptures, which you deem valuable, important, binding and true. I want to learn about belief. You want to tell me about the Bible. Two different things ... with some possible slight overlap.


I think devout people believe that doctrine, as perfectly expressed in some scripture, CAUSES their belief. In other words, why do they believe? "Because it's true, of course!" They think special information -- captured in a scripture -- is the source of their belief. But I think religion/scripture no more causes belief than food causes hunger. Food satisfies hunger, which is a natural human condition -- and so is spiritual hunger. Scripture satisfies spiritual hunger; but it's not the cause of it.

I totally agree with Bloom when he says: “Large unconscious assumptions have far more to do with belief than do overt doctrinal teachings.”

I am looking at causes and assumptions. And I sometimes write about ideas and practices from specific belief systems to try to get at the basics. That might make it seem like we're on the same topic or that I am writing about you -- but usually I am not.


So, for another analogy ... let's say a person studies hunger. The student of hunger would not particularly be interested in learning about French cuisine or Italian cooking because any sort of cuisine or cookbook comes after the fact of what he's interested in. Ironically, a French chef may have no interest in hunger as a topic and would have nothing to say to the student of hunger.

Two different things! Different angles of approach! Different fields of study.


Just to show I can be on the other side of the equation, look at photography. I am currently obsessed with lighting, focus, color, sharpness, softness, textures, shadows ... all the particulars of getting a good picture. I am very concerned with the specifics and would not be particularly interested in delving into the general question of why people get obsessed with photography in the first place; in short, I am too obsessed with photography to care why people get obsessed ... this shows I am on the other side of the coin where photography is concerned. I am in the Church of Photography and have no interest in converting to something else. I want to express my passion, not study its sources (not yet, anyway). So I see where you're coming from!


You may not approve of my interest in belief, but I hope you have a better idea of why I think a conversation about your particular set of beliefs would be nonproductive for both of us and might cause unnecessary hard feelings toward me. We would be talking past each other. Different topics. My approach seems like an attack ... I hope it isn't.

So, ironically, the student of scripture has nothing to say to the student of belief. That's strange, but from my experience that's usually the case. And I think it's true in our case. But I don't think this is anything to be annoyed about. I am not saying, "let's agree to disagree," because it's not even that deep or crucial: I am saying, "Let's just realize we're talking about two different things." No cause for hard feelings!


I said above that I don't want to change your mind about your beliefs.

Please remember I said that.

Remember it tomorrow. Remember it 25 years from now. And please remember, in case anyone ever asks, that I never said you were wrong in your beliefs. I never said my ideas were true and yours were false. In fact, please remember that I said, "Maybe your religion really is the true and correct belief system!" Or maybe Islam or Zoroastrianism or even Mormonism is the true belief system. I don't know which one is correct. But I don't think anyone else does either. That's the crux: I DON'T THINK ANYONE ELSE DOES EITHER!

They only THINK they do because it' all too common to confuse knowledge with belief. That's my topic!

So please remember, I am not attacking your religion; I am questioning any human being's ability to KNOW THAT HE OR SHE KNOWS the truth of the matter. So it's not a creed I am attacking, it's AN ABILITY that I am studying, the ability to know with certainty. These quotes express my orientation:

Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire.

It should be borne in mind, of course, that there is a discrepancy between the truth of the matter and what one thinks, even about himself.

The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning, to give oneself entirely over to curiosity.

AND SO ...

We both know religion and scriptures are expert at making false ideas seem true. And being sold on some particular scripture is the exact opposite of trying to learn why people believe in the first place. Totally different thing! The study of belief and the practice of religion are polar opposites.

No cause for hard feelings just because we are passionate about two different topics that hardly overlap!


PS. I am going to put this on my Web site, for my own future use ... to help explain what I am doing for those who might wonder and not understand my other explanations. No one will know I am writing to you because I will remove your name. Only you will know it's you. Is that OK?

I would be glad to post your response to this, if you'd like. Let me know.


About 8 hours after I wrote and posted this item, I started to read a book just delivered from Amazon this afternoon, "Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon," by Daniel Dennett. On page 7 he starts to give his working definition of religion. He writes:

"How do I define religion? It doesn't matter just how I define it, since I plan to examine and discuss the neighboring phenomena that probably aren't religions -- spirituality, commitment to secular organizations, fanatical devotion to ethnic groups or sports teams ..." HA! I guess my analogy wasn't so far off after all!

On pages 14-15 he says: "It is high time we subject religion as a global phenomena to the most intensive multidisciplinary research we can muster, calling on the best minds on the planet. Why? Because religion is too important for us to remain ignorant about. It affects not just our social, political and economic conflicts, but the very meanings we find in our lives. For many people, probably a majority of the people on Earth, nothing matters more than religion. For this very reason, it is imperative that we learn as much as we can about it. That, in a nutshell, is the argument of this book."

It's unfortunate that he uses the word "religion" in that passage because I think he really means "belief." And it might be better to keep focus on the actual task at hand: understanding belief and certainty. Maybe it's time I remind myself that the full title of this Web site is, "Rumors of Order: Exploring the nature of belief and the consqeuences of certainty."


In one version of the above message -- which I ultimately discarded -- I mentioned how much alike we are, using your own description of what you do in order to construct my comparison: I don't rely on a preacher for the truth, and neither do you; I don't rely on any one church for the truth, and neither do you; I don't rely on any one scripture for the truth -- so that's where we differ. So I only take things one step further by looking into all books, not just scripture. But then, we both rely on books for guidance and inspiration! So in a roundabout way, that's another similarity.

In this regard, I was reminded of Harold Bloom's wonderful but quirky book called, "The American Religion." The back jacket explains that Bloom believes America "has spawned its own particular theology, a spirituality that Bloom classifies as a form of Gnosticism," which is to say, it's all built on KNOWING! And it can be accomplished by the solitary reader using one or more texts.

Here's an expanded explanation from Amazon:

"Without knowing it, American worshipers have moved away from Christianity and now embrace pre-Christian Gnosticism, asserts Bloom. In his most controversial book to date, the Yale professor defines "the American Religion" as a Gnostic creed stressing knowledge of an inner self that leads to freedom from nature, time, history and other selves. Every American, he writes, assumes that God loves her or him in a personal, intimate way, and this trait is the bedrock of our national religion, a debased Gnosticism often tinged with selfishness. The core of this odd, ponderous book focuses on Pentecostals, Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists and especially Mormons and Southern Baptists -- the two denominations Bloom believes will dominate future American religious life. He argues that mainline Protestants, Jews, Roman Catholics and secularists are also much more Gnostic than they realize. He identifies African-American religion, mystical and emotionally immediate, as a key element in the birth of our home-grown Gnosticism around 1800. Bloom is not likely to win many converts to his viewpoint."

I don't say Bloom is exactly right, just interesting.

And I mention this book because we are doing very much what Bloom says we are when downplay the authority of preachers and churches and elevate our personal ability to get "the truth" from books -- including scripture. Our belief that we, as readers, can get real knowledge is what, I believe, Bloom points at in his use of the word "Gnosticism." Oddly enough, my attention to books has inverted my Gnosticism into an across-the-board agnosticism, which I currently call "nonknowing."

So that's an interesting observation, and one which I find congenial to my own way of thinking over the past decades: The world is divided into those who think they know (Gnostics), even though these people and their groups are at odds over what is actually known, and those who, like myself, think that the problems of knowledge and psychology disbar people from making absolute knowledge claims; these people are the nonknowers (agnostics).

I have often wondered: What's the wider conceptual gap, that between knowers who vehemently disagree (Jews and Muslims, for example) or between all the knowers on one side, and the small number of nonknowers on the other? Who do you think is more dangerous and misguided, the person who "knows" and believes the wrong thing with all his heart and mind, or the person who admits he does not know ultimate answers and tries promote creative thinking while also exploring human limits and ideological infirmities? Who is more dangerous, the unbeliever in the bookstore or the bomber on the bus?

I bring Bloom into this because in many ways he has us both pegged ... and that would seem to show we are both products of our time and not necessarily in touch with or engaged in uncovering that which is holy or eternal or true. In other words, Bloom puts the responsibility for our activities and ideas back on us, and this is humbling.

And as I always say, a little humility goes a long way. I would add that humility kills Gnosticism! A good thing, in my view.


Here's what I believe:

1. “Large unconscious assumptions have far more to do with belief than do overt doctrinal teachings.” -- Harold Bloom, The American Religion

2. "Wherever there is an authority that, in the guise of a scientific or ecclesiastical community, imposes something as objective truth, philosophy has the obligation to proceed in the opposite direction." -- The Future of Religion

3. I also stick with what I said in my previous e-mail: The believer in scripture has nothing to interest the student of belief.

4. And finally, one must be careful when writing not to say things that can be easily applied back to oneself in a derogatory manner: "I know absolutely that a mother who is an idiot hurts her children even if she denies it." Someone could say, "YOU ought to know!" And they've used your own words against you very effectively.

Moreover, this last point brings out one of the most crucial problems of absolute belief.

The mother who is an idiot does not know she's an idiot and probably thinks she's really on the ball (smart and wise), and is proud of her approach to life, as most idiots are (that's why they're idiots), and that's the person who does lots of damage because she has no DOUBT about herself or her beliefs!

See, it's DOUBT that causes people to reflect and rethink things, and that makes them a better mother, wife, daughter, friend and person because they are not going down a big list of all the things they know FOR SURE, and quite cocky and proud about it. Any person benefits from saying to themselves on a regular basis, "Maybe I am an idiot; maybe I don't really know what I am talking about," and in that way they have the chance to get better. This is one of my gripes against absolutism: it empowers people to become bigger idiots because it removes self-doubt. Absolutism empowers idiocy. Or maybe it's the other way around.

Do you see what I am saying? I am not saying that you're an idiot mother; though maybe you are, just as maybe I am an idiot brother and uncle. But you're doing exactly what, in my view, an idiot mother would do: you are proud in what you think of as absolute knowledge. You praise humility then tick off your absolute truths. Those things don't go together. I made up a joke some years ago for a clueless person at work: "When it comes to humility, I am the best!" Don't be the kind of person that could fit that joke.

5. But one good thing has come from your last set of e-mails. You have helped me concoct an impossible task and it relates back to Harold Bloom's idea that, "Large unconscious assumptions have far more to do with belief than do overt doctrinal teachings," though, of course, that's just the opposite of what any devout believer will tell you. Here's the task:

I would like to hear a Christian explain why he or she accepts the bible without any reference to god, jesus or the bible itself; I would like to hear a Muslim explain why he or she accepts the koran without any reference to allah, mohammed or the koran itself; and I would like to hear a Mormon explain why he or she accepts the book of mormon without any reference to god, jesus, the bible, joseph smith, golden tablets or the book of mormon itself.

Would any such explanation be possible for the true believer? Can someone explain their love of scripture without reference to it or any of the beings or events chronicled therein? Can they talk about belief without reference to any specific text?

Their efforts to do so would be of great interest to the student of belief. It would show that belief comes about through a response to information, which a person, for some reason, deems valid and true -- but, obviously, it doesn't need to be valid or true to inspire absolute belief! Look at the Koran, for instance. You can say it's not the word of god, but a billion Muslims live and die to disagree.

So instead of talking about scripture, we need to get at the roots of acceptance, which go back to normal, human subconscious mental processes, those "large unconscious assumptions," Bloom references, personal history and cultural influences. Then maybe we can start to grasp why some texts are accepted and others not.

In other words, most of the factors connected to why you accept the bible are not in the bible at all! Not IN the bible; not FROM the bible. They are about other things not in view, things you don't want to think about because doing so would ruin your love of scripture as something "true" and special "from god." It would break the spell, ruin the romance. Doctrinal romance, that's what interests the student of belief.

Anyway, if you can think of a way to explain your acceptance of the bible without referencing the bible itself, let me know.


OK, if there's an idiot in this discussion it must be me because I am going to make one more attempt to explain myself, even though I think that either I am incapable of making my ideas clear or you are incapable of understanding them. We'll never know. And it doesn't really matter.

While I could answer your question in a number of ways, I will say this:

I am all about free thinking. Tolstoy has a good quote on the topic.

“I divide men into two lots. They are freethinkers, or they are not freethinkers. Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking; where it is absent, discussion is apt to become worse than useless. A man may be a Catholic, a Frenchman, or a capitalist, and yet be a freethinker; but if he puts his Catholicism, his patriotism, or his interest above his reason, and will not give the latter free play where those subjects are touched, he is not a freethinker. His mind is in bondage.”

I don't want my mind in bondage! That's it. Very simple.

Moreover, since no religion teaches people HOW to think because it is too busy telling them WHAT to think, I put a low value on religion. Neither do I want some writer, philosopher, scientist or politician telling me what to think; so I not only devalue religion, I devalue absolute thinking in general and across the board. That's why my discussion with the atheist authors from Amazon was no more rewarding or productive than this one.

Since I value free thinking, I am going to take any opportunity to speak out for it and point out what I see as the shortcomings of absolutism, whether it be theological, philosophical or whatever.

So, quite simply, I am an advocate for what I value. You may not agree, but that's your choice. You're free to be an advocate for what you value. You can get up on a soap box or build a Web site or whatever. It's a free country. I am free to do whatever I want on my Web site just as you are free to comment on it or not look at it. Ain't life grand!

I happen to believe that people have a better chance at happiness if they are thinking freely than if they are trying to conform to what someone else tells them to think. Or at least they should get the chance to think freely; then if they're no good at it they can always find religion or glorify science or do something else.

Ironically, if you believe god gave people free will and free choice then even that being must value free thinking over belief ... though every religion and scripture seeks to curtail that freedom in its own way.

So that's it. That's my story. That's my passion and my project. I value free thinking and think poorly of anything or anyone that tries to take people in the other direction. That's not complicated, not hard to grasp. And you could have found it repeated, in one form or another, a couple thousand times on my Web site.

So that's it, and I don't think we need to go over it any more.



©jonfobes 2005