Saturday, September 27, 2008

The line between humans and other animals

The line we draw between ourselves and other animals has always seemed a little bit artificial and arbitrary to me, kind of like the lines we used to draw between the various races and ethnic groups we now recognize to be part of the common race of Humanity.

I was listening to the BBC's Culture Shock radio program recently, and they were talking about the Great Ape Project. I hadn't heard of it, but what it aims to do is to push people to think about that line between humans and animals, and to recognize how close our kinship really is to the other great apes (chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos and gorillas). They are pushing for something similar to the declaration of human rights to apply to all great apes (humans are also classified as great apes), or what they call "the community of equals". Their declaration seeks to guarantee the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture for all great apes.

The Great Ape Project claims that:

The idea is founded upon undeniable scientific proof that non-human great apes share more than genetically similar DNA with their human counterparts. They enjoy a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and happiness. They share the intellectual capacity to create and use tools, learn and teach other languages. They remember their past and plan for their future. It is in recognition of these and other morally significant qualities that the Great Ape Project was founded.

I had heard before that great apes could teach each other language. They can learn American Sign Language, and then use it to communicate with humans, and once they have learned it they have been observed teaching it to their children. And I had heard that they grieve in the same way as we do when a member of their community is killed. I read about a center where people are providing post-traumatic counelling to great apes rescued from poachers, who have often been mistreated. There have been cases where, if a young great ape's parents are killed in front of it, it will go into what for all appearances is shock, stop eating, and die. (Can't find a link to it, unfortunately)

Christianity holds that we as human beings have a special place above all other life. But what careful investigation is showing more and more is that some forms of life at least are much more similar to us than we used to think, and it might be wrong to treat them as "others". The worst atrocities in our history involved treating other human beings as inhuman, unlike "us", not sharing our special status. But if great apes are thinking creatures, shouldn't they be treated with an equal level of respect?

I wonder, if in response to this, anyone who is religious is going to think "But we have souls, animals don't", or something similar. If anyone reading this is thinking that, I would like to ask you two questions:

1. What evidence do you have that human beings have souls?
2. If you have sufficient evidence for (1), what evidence do you have that no other form of life whatsoever has a soul? If God gave us souls, why must we be the only ones?

[UPDATE: This post was written almost two weeks ago, just scheduled to publish now because I knew I wouldn't be blogging for a couple of weeks but still wanted some content out there. After it was written, I had a conversation with Paul, where his response was "Of course everything has a soul, that's what makes it alive. It's just that humans have immortal souls.

So, revised questions for those who believe everything has a soul, but humans are the only ones that have immortal ones:

1. What evidence do you have that everything has a soul?
2. If you have sufficient evidence for this, what evidence do you have that the human soul is immortal?
3. If you have sufficient evidence for 1 and 2, what evidence do you have that we're the only ones?

Truthfully, the whole idea of the soul seems very tenuous to me, and I'm wondering why people believe it, aside from that it would be nice if it was true...].

In order to dehumanize great apes on the basis of the idea of the soul, you would have to prove both 1 and 2 [UPDATE: or 1, 2, and 3] conclusively. If you think your line of reasoning is probable, but you can't prove it conclusively, I have another question:

Do you want to risk shrugging off the killing of something that might have a soul[/immortal soul]?

On the basis of scientific evidence, the Spanish parliament has now endorsed the Great Ape Project's declaration, and the great ape project is continuing to push for it to be more widely adopted.

Questions to think about (and answer in the comments if you like):

1. How much of a distinction should we draw between humans and other animals?
2. What do you base your answer on?
3. What are the moral implications of your position?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Paul's response to "conscience comes first"

Ok, as I said in my last post, I'm no longer a big fan of Paul. But, I did say I'd discuss his response, if I could get him to give one. This post was written on Tuesday, before he started suggesting liberals should be killed, so it's less biased than it would be if I wrote it later in the week.


As I said I would, I asked Paul what he thought of the idea that conscience might guide us to what's right, rather than what feels good. His response was to tell me to read some of his more recent posts, and the comment-conversations in those posts would make his position clearer. I have started to do this, and found one which qualifies.

In a post called "It's really very simple", in May of 2008, Paul is talking about how some famous supporters of abortion have been allowed to receive communion in a mass conducted by the pope. To him, this means (I think...) that either abortion is in fact correct in the eyes of the church, or the bishops are negligent. Not that the bishops might genuinely act in a way that is wrong (impossible), but that it must be that either his understanding of "wrong" is wrong, or the bishops just didn't realize what they were doing.

His response when pressed on this by a commenter who was not familiar with how the Catholic church works was interesting. The question was:

3. If your current bishop appears to violate cannon law, are you obligated to follow that bishop? Or can you follow a bishop with a different diocese that you consider more faithful?

and Paul responded:

3. No. My bishop is my bishop. The only appeal from my bishop is to the Bishop of Rome.

But the important question is not who best conforms to what I "consider more faithful". The question is what's true. I am not competent to judge the compliance of my bishop with canon law, much less the compliance of the entire national bishops' conference. As a layman and a regular guy, I look to them, not my own conscience, to be taught the truth. And what I am taught by them is that there is no conflict between support for abortion and being in full communion with the Church.

Because if there were such a conflict, to do so would place in jeopardy the soul of the person receiving unworthily, and would give scandal to the faithful. Surely my bishop, the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago (who also happens to be President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops), nor any other bishop would not tolerate such an occurrence to be repeated every Sunday within his jurisdiction.

Therefore, since even the Holy Father tolerated the reception of communion by famous pro-abortion politicians at masses at which he was the principle celebrant, clearly there can be no conflict.

So, Paul and I have a fundamental disagreement. Paul trusts his church leaders more than his conscience. Question to anyone for whom this is true: If you can't trust your conscience, how can you know you've chosen the "true" church, and should accept the positions taken by its leaders? I don't get it, and the fact that you have no basis to question your leaders seems to create a rather large opportunity for abuse of power.

I will give him one thing, though: if he has another way of determining the truth of the church, his position that conscience is not primary would be logically consistent (not necessarily correct, but not inconsistent). Many people would waffle, and he doesn't. I just wonder what his non-conscience truth-finder is...

Short break from blogging


I'll be taking a short break from blogging (for a week or two). I've got some posts ready to auto-publish (for today and the next 2 Saturdays at 5:00 PM local time) but I may not be around to moderate comments. Re: the conversations I've been having with commenter Paladin, I think I'm going to copy some of the comments over here from Paul's site, as well as much of the conversation that I've had with user UncleE on (a great, open, non-millitant forum. Many atheists/agnostics, but also a significant minority of users are religious.) UncleE is also the creater of the blog "Inner and Outer Space", which I follow and is in the right hand sidebar.

The material from these two conversations will give Paladin and I a starting point for continued discussion, and anyone else who likes can join in. I'm not sure I'll be able to get it up before my blog-break, but I'll try.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Coolest. Site. Ever

For the past three weeks, I've been going to this thing in my local area called Cinema Politica. It's a very left-wing crowd, watching documentaries and then discussing them. I'm sympathetic to the left wing politically, but I really do wish (as a business school graduate) that more of them had a clue about economics sometimes. But the conversation is interesting nonetheless, and my differing background lets me contribute, so I guess that's OK.

Anyway, through this group, I've been pointed to possibly the coolest site ever. I really enjoys me some good documentary, and here you can watch them for free! And download, again for free. Wicked-awesome!

That's right, I'm that much of an information geek :)

The Cinema Politica this week showed one "The War on Democracy". Economic conservatives might want to jump to the conclusion it's just left-wing crap, but I think it's worth a watch. Talked about Latin American history from the 60's onward, focusing on the development of the democratic/populist movements in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia. Fourth from the top on the website.

I expect I'll be blogging about some of the films I watch, and the discussions I have at the Cinema Politica meetings, over on my other blog for non-religious things (also linked in the left-hand sidbar.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Some poeple scare me

I shouldn't be blogging at work, but this is fairly major.

Paul, the guy who provided the excellent critique of the "conscience comes first" argument, is more extreme than I thought. I knew he had a very strong opinion against abortion (if you're pro-life, it's hard not to). I tried to explain the pro choice position as calmly as I could. He called me an animal, a hypocrite and a murderer, but I let it pass, because I wanted to demonstrate that I am a fundamentally reasonable person, and that a lot of the stereotypes he seemed to hold about pro-choice people were not correct.

Here's a link to his site, but I'm removing all direct links to posts on his site, because... well, today, he posted this (I've posted the full blog entry he made, current as of 3:45 PM local time on the 18th, so I can't be accused of taking things out of context. But it is rather long, sorry...):

Liberals are bastards. Every damned one of them.

They are despicable, dishonest, hypocritical scum. They kill babies, even after birth, and by the millions before birth, and celebrate it as a right.

There are no depths to which they will not sink to gain power. They are whores and pimps, liars and thieves. They care for nothing but their own pleasure and their own power.

They care nothing for the rule of law, nor for the innocents they hurt.

People who celebrate the killing of babies will do anything. They are beneath contempt:

They'll even break into private email accounts and publicize what they find:
Sometime early this morning, between approximately 3:00am - 4:00am, members of an infamous group of hackers broke into Gov. Sarah Palin’s private Yahoo e-mail account. The incriminating discussion threads included screenshots of Palin’s e-mail and private e-mail addresses of her contacts. The threads have since been deleted.

Hacking e-mail is a federal crime. A TV anchor who broke into his colleague’s e-mail account recently pleaded guilty and faces a maximum five years in prison.

The law will catch up to the hackers, but what about the lowlifes who are now gleefully splashing the alleged contents of Palin’s private e-mail account all over the Internet?

The Gawker smear machine — see here for all the background you need — has posted private family photos of Palin’s children that were apparently stolen from the e-mail account.

They have used Bristol Palin’s illegally obtained private cell phone number from her mom’s private account, recorded her voicemail message, and posted it on their website.

They have reprinted her husband Todd’s private e-mail address and son Track’s private e-mail address.

You think this is just a harmless prank? Those of you who have had to deal with break-ins and identity theft know exactly what a burdensome process it is to recover from crimes like this.

Gawker knowingly and deliberately published illegally obtained photos of the Palin children.

Where are the privacy absolutists now?

You think Palin Derangement Syndrome is bad now? These by-any-means-necessary lunatics are just warming up.

Bastards. Bastards all.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, "silence is the truest herald of rage, I should be but little angry if I could say how much."

The culture war is a real war. Like the war against Islamic terrorism, we didn't choose this war, our enemies declared it on us, without provocation or warning, and they are implacable and merciless.

Over at DailyKos, diarists and commenters are delighted:
When Sarah Palin and McCain decided to run on a platform that splits America between the "elites" and the rest of decent America, the gauntlet was thrown down - and it looks like some techie - most likely an urban one, broke into her email account at Yahoo. The account was deleted - which could get interesting if there were emails relating to one of her numerous scandals, but there are screen shots out there to gaze upon...

I have no pity for this woman - I hope she's destroyed by the media she first disdained and then hid from. McCain is playing a nasty game, aiming to rip this nation into red and blue in an effort to get his chance at the wheel. There was a time I respected him - but that was a long time ago...

Another commenter had this to say

maybe this is the excuse they'll use to drop her. they arent smart but they are sneaky.

Athough this commenter seems to have a clue:
This isn't the gov.sarah account she used for government business, this appears to be a different account. gov.palin, and it appears it was just her personal e-mail account for private purposes, so really there's nothing to talk about, and an invasion of privacy.

It is legit, it was hacked, but it is her personal e-mail, nothing to do with politics, and is only gonna get democrats in trouble if they jump on it.

But here's another despicable hacking fan:

Exactly this hack may make a lost of pols re-think this shit. Sorry times are too tough, and Palin/Cheney's view of gov. is too extreme to play by the rules. I suspect Palin was targeted bc of how she harasses bloggers in Alaska. She's a scary vindictive, dictatorial woman.

This one is "not sure he approves", but after all, she really deserved what she got.

Hackers can do amazing things. I'm not sure if I approve of this intentional invasion of her personal email account. That being said, she did leave herself open for this by using the account for official business. Doesn't make the hacking right, but it could have been avoided

If Palin had been raped in the street, these sub-humans would have been there cheering. And joining in.

Southern Appeal comments.

Wired has more coverage. Notice the quality of the comments there, as well.

This is a war, and it has no limits. Liberals target children, they care nothing for laws, for decency, or for civilization. They lie, they undermine the institutions of our nation and our culture, and they want to indocrinate our children. They deserve nothing but contempt. Their homes should be sprayed with toxic chemicals just as we do to mosquitoes. We should make no distinction between the worst of them and those who share their political platform. They all have fleas.

This is the last straw.

UPDATE: RedState comments:
this angered me, until one of my fellow Contributors reminded me of a little, small, surely insignificant detail that apparently everyone involved with hacking the account, publishing the hack, and favorably publicizing the hack seem to have forgotten. Sarah Palin is now under the protection of the United States Secret Service, which means that they are going to very interested in this attack.

Let me put this succinctly: everybody who had a hand in this is [expletive deleted]ed.

Have a nice day!

Which might be the opposite reaction to mine. Or at least 90 degrees off from mine.

Michelle Malkin has more details on how it happened, including a confession from the guy who did it!

And The Atlantic's pride and joy, the increasingly despicable Andrew Sullivan, America's foremost sodomite, approves. He appears to think this a normal and appropriate part of the political process.

I agree that it's wrong to hack into someone's computer and steal personal records, but... What scares me is this:

They deserve nothing but contempt. Their homes should be sprayed with toxic chemicals just as we do to mosquitoes. We should make no distinction between the worst of them and those who share their political platform.

And I'm a liberal. And I've just spent several days speaking that viewpoint on a site where (the comments on the above post indicate) people agree with him that liberals should be killed. And the post immediately before this one had several paragraphs discussing me, specifically.

This is why abortion is tough to talk about. Because people are scared for their own safety. And I'm sorry to say, now I am too. So, no direct links to this guy's site (because the backlink feature will lead people to me who might do more than threaten), and no more conversation over there.

I had actually gotten into quite an in-depth conversation with the co-owner of the blog (screen name Paladin), and ending that mid-way through makes me sad. But I will not participate in a site where someone is encouraging people to kill me.

I don't know how much anyone can influence this guy, but I hope that some people (particularly pro-life Catholics, who he might listen to more) will join me in expressing to him the fact that encouraging people to kill each other is a bad idea.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Response to "When Faith Fits"

This is a continuation of this post, where I found something that poses a challenge to my "put conscience first" idea.

First, I'd like to say that I agree with most of what Paul was saying. I would 100% agree with the following revised paragraphs:

But in deciding to which faith to adhere, I believe a seeker should never succumb to the temptation of drifting towards what is comfortable. It's OK to say, "my body is fine just the way it is, and I'm going to buy a suit to fit it!" But how wise is it to assert, "[some text removed] I will choose a faith that conforms to me"?

What's the point? If I am an erring, sinning human being, I should want to find the faith that teaches what's true, no matter how much that truth challenges me, no matter how ill-suited it may be initially, and I should try to conform myself to that truth. Unless I am already a saint with no room for improvement, I should think suspect any religion whose entire teaching fit me comfortably.

In other words, I think there is a legitimate objection to just choosing whatever faith feels good. But, as the title to the previous post implies, there's a difference between when something feels good and when something feels right. More on this later. First, the small part that I don't agree with, and an explanation of why.

The part I removed from the quote above is:
my soul is fine the way it is, my conscience is properly formed, and

So, why can't I agree with that bit?

1. My soul is fine the way it is: I'm not sure we have souls. I expect when we die, we're quite dead. So I wouldn't assert my soul is fine, but I wouldn't assert it's not fine, either, and this sentence implies that my soul is not fine without the help of the true religion, so I can't agree with it. But really, if you want to assert that you have a soul and that it is/is not fine... well, OK, go ahead, I suppose. It's secondary to the argument I'm going to make on this site.

2. My conscience is properly formed: This is the core bit. The question is, where does your conscience come from? How is it formed? If it's formed by God (possibly through evolution, in my view, but others can have different ones - either way, by God, however you'd like to conceive God) then it at least starts out perfect, and can potentially (unless later corrupted in some way) act as a good guide. If it's formed by your experiences, or by some other morally neutral process, however, then there is no reason to suggest that it is a good guide.

In other words, if your conscience starts out imperfect and must be reformed by religion, then it can't have come from God for the purpose of guiding you towards truth, it must have come from somewhere else and serve some other purpose. If your conscience starts out perfect but can be corrupted to the point where it will guide you in completely the wrong direction, I would seriously question whether it came from God, and whether its purpose is to guide you to truth. At that point, your conscience is basically meaningless and ought to be ignored in favor of other guides to truth (although I am not sure what those might be).

I think that even if you spend a long time telling yourself self-justifying lies and living a life that does not conform to your conscience (and so beat it down and cause it to fall nearly silent) it is still there, and still pointing you in the right direction. Someone might say "but Hitler and Pol Pot and Stalin thought they were great people doing fundamentally good things. Surely this is evidence that their consciences were not reliable, and thus conscience can be corrupted!". I think if Hitler et. al. had sat back and deeply reflected on what they were doing, they would have realized it was wrong. The fact that we can tell ourselves lies, and ignore our conscience when it tries to tell us the truth, doesn't mean we've lost the ability to tell truth from lies. You can stop questioning what you believe, and thus think it to be true when it's not. You can choose not to think, and just go with the examples you see around you. But if you start questioning again, your conscience will still be there, and still pointing you towards the truth, if only weakly. If you tell yourself a lie, I think if you are honest with yourself later, you will see the lie you told for what it is. So my position on conscience is I think that my conscience is properly formed, and that it can be temporarily silenced, or ignored, but not corrupted.

Question to anyone who is religious and disagrees with me: Your disagreement implies you don't trust your conscience to guide you. So, what do you trust instead (that must also have existed before you adopted your religion)? What other measure of truth can you use?

Moving on. Does my foundational belief that my conscience is properly formed mean I should go with "the religion that feels good"?

My answer is no. There's a distinction between what feels good and what feels right.

To illustrate the distinction, here are some things that feel good to me, but don't feel right:
- It would feel very good to be a part of a church. The sense of community you get there feels great. But every time I go into a church, I get this feeling of wrongness and have to leave.
- It feels great when I think I'm smarter than someone else, or I've accomplished something really amazing, or someone compliments me and I think "maybe they're right!" Pride, in other words, feels great. But it doesn't feel right. There's always this sense I have that I should be humble, and that I should give the people around me credit, because they're probably just as "good" as I am, even though I'd like to put myself above them sometimes.
- Hearing someone say that I'm right about something feels good. But... perhaps this is just something I've trained myself to do, but I get this sense that I should always ask "but is that really true?". It feels good to accept the agreement of others, but I get the sense that doing so might lead me astray, there's a part of my conscience (at least I think it's my conscience) that says it's wrong to think agreement/consensus confirms truth.

So, I can agree with part of what Paul is trying to say. If your objective is to find a religion that conforms to you (lets you feel good about yourself, gives you the sense that you're in a community that agrees with you, etc.) you can easily be lead astray. But, if instead of looking for a religion that feels good, you're looking for a religion that feels right, I think that can work.

Using the suit analogy, you're ultimately looking for a suit that makes you look good. But let's say you're fat and lazy, and you have horrible posture, and no muscular development, so that if you keep on the way you are going you will end up in a wheelchair eventually. This is what Paul was getting at when he talked about things not being well formed. Maybe a suit that fits you in your current form, and makes you feel good about your current self, isn't what you should be looking for. Maybe, instead, what you should be looking for is a suit that makes you look the best you could possibly look. Maybe you should be looking at people who have exercised and worked hard to be the best looking they can possibly be, and strive to be the best you can. And choosing a suit that fits the person you want to be, rather than the person you are, is what you should be doing, and then working to fit into that suit.

But there's an underlying assumption here. The assumption is that everyone can look at themselves in the mirror and tell the difference between ugly and beautiful. That there is some objective thing called beauty that exists outside of anyone's individual opinion or pride or feeling of goodness about themselves, and the ability to recognize that cannot be corrupted, and its conclusions aren't arbitrary or a matter of personal opinion.

Whether that is true in the case of beauty is doubtful. But, logically, in order to make the case that you shouldn't choose a suit that fits your current form, you must have a reliable understanding of beauty, it can't just be subjective. And in order to make the case that you shouldn't choose the religion that fits your current form, but instead the one that conforms to the objective thing called truth, you must have the ability to recognize truth when you encounter it, somehow. In my opinion, your conscience is the how, and saying you can't choose your religion based on what your conscience says defeats the argument that you shouldn't just choose what feels good. By including "what your conscience says" in "what makes religion feel good", Paul was mixing up two definitions of "good".

Since being guided by your conscience doesn't always make you feel good about yourself, you can use it to choose a religion that doesn't fit, but is right and will be the best for you in the end. But if you assume your conscience might not be well formed, I don't see how you can choose a religion at all, aside from whichever one gives you the warmest fuzziest feeling about yourself.

I'm going to let Paul know I've written this, and see if he has a response.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The difference between what feels good and what feels right

I was reading a post by Paul, just this guy, you know? called "When faith fits". It's from a few years ago, but it brings up a point which I'm sure somebody is going to bring up about my "Conscience comes first" idea.

The basic thing he's trying to say is, you can't just choose a religion because it suits you. If there is such a thing as objective truth, then you need to be looking for the religion that represents that truth, even if you don't like it.

The paragraphs that best encapsulate this, and directly challenge the argument I have made here, are:

But in deciding to which faith to adhere, I believe a seeker should never succumb to the temptation of drifting towards what is comfortable. It's OK to say, "my body is fine just the way it is, and I'm going to buy a suit to fit it!" But how wise is it to assert, "my soul is fine the way it is, my conscience is properly formed, and I will choose a faith that conforms to me"?

What's the point? If I am an erring, sinning human being, I should want to find the faith that teaches what's true, no matter how much that truth challenges me, no matter how ill-suited it may be initially, and I should try to conform myself to that truth. Unless I am already a saint with no room for improvement, I should think suspect any religion whose entire teaching fit me comfortably.

(Emphasis mine)

Its very tricky to tell, sometimes, what is "your conscience" telling you that a particular religion is right or wrong, and what is just your past history and biases.

You might think I have an instant, pre-thought-out response to this challenge. But I have just read this post today, five minutes before I started writing this. I have a sense that when I think about it some more, I'll have an answer, but I don't know what that answer is yet. I was going to just start writing and see what came out (writing and thinking come simultaneously to me - writing things down is a technique I use to think things through) but this is an important question, and maybe I'll write in private first. I'm going to think about it, and that will be Saturday's post.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Someone else's "Spiritual quest"

I was just reading something else today that made me feel lucky.

Well, several things, really. But just now (before I started writing this), I was reading a blog post by Amy of asking, searching, knocking. She's trying to work out what she should think about God, whether she should have faith, and if so why she finds it difficult, etc. She's turned off comments on her blog, understandably, because she wants to try and tune out the outside interference for a while. So I can't comment directly on her blog itself, but after reading her last post I'd like to, so I'm going to put it here.

Here's what she said that made me want to write something in response:

Part of my struggle is, how honest do I want to be here? Some of my honesty is pretty ugly, which causes me to think, yikes, I don't really want everybody to see how petty and bitchy and just plain stupid I can be.

At the same time, I don't want to play it like this spiritual quest I'm on is all even-keel and progressing in a logical, orderly fashion when that simply isn't the case. I seem to take a baby step forward, and then twelve steps backward. Things are looking pretty positive one day, and the next it's all gone to shit. Whether I like it or not, that's the way it's going for me, and to pretend it isn't, well... if I'm just going to make stuff up, why document it in the first place?

This blog is about my stormy relationship with God. I'm not always going to be nice about it. So in the end, what I'm going for is honesty, however bad/insane/idiotic that makes me look. Because maybe someone else is going through something similar, and maybe, however far-fetched it seems, maybe something I have to say will help someone else. And maybe what I write will help those who already have faith understand what it can be like for someone who doesn't (though I don't claim to be an "everyman" of the faithless--God help them if they're all like me!).

First, about honesty. I think honesty is about the most important thing you can have when dealing with questions of faith. Any other question as well, really, but honesty is particularly important when it comes to things which have a major impact on how you should live your life. And honesty when you're unsure whether what you're saying is "right" or not, and what people are going to think of it, and maybe even what you'll think of it yourself in a few months time... well, that takes courage. So I wish I could comment and give her a word of support for being that honest.

And second, about the last line. Maybe my faith in my conscience is substantially different from the kind the religious have, but it's there. And that made me feel lucky. Because my faith in my conscience has never yet failed me.

THE universal truth

PREAMBLE: This post started out as an attempt to write a comment on a post by Jen F on conversiondiary about Truth and Religion. But it got too long and I realized it would fit better here. The comments I read there are an excellent supplement to this post - if you've got some time, read through them, and see if what I'm saying would help these people to find some common ground.

Also, as I've said before, I think there are some universal truths that can unite everyone behind a common purpose. I've been going back and forth with Uncle E now for several weeks, trying to nail down some core belief that we share. I can't be sure that I've got it yet, but I think I might be on to something. So here you go.

I've always thought that beneath all of the religions, there is some "objective truth", that they're all looking for. And they all have bits and pieces of it, but the real objective truth is so profound that it's hard to hold in your head. It's what I'd call a God-scale concept. So it gets corrupted, dumbed down, or stories get built on top of it in an effort to explain something that is very much beyond our full understanding. And cynics use people's innate desire to find the truth to gain power and influence for themselves. And the question becomes "which religion should I adopt?" or "Which religion is the most true?", which boils down to "Which truth-fairytale with power-mongering built in should I believe?"

The problem is, people feel a real need to know "the truth", so they make all kinds of justifications and rationalizations why the false stories and power-mongering are in fact a good thing, and part of the "real truth".

So what do you do? My answer has been that the truths religions are trying to tell are true for all religions, we just don't understand exactly what they are yet. So I've tried to look for things in what everyone is saying, from all of the different religions, and the atheist community, that might represent a common ground, because I think that common ground is the truth.

I've come up with something simple, that I've really known all along, I just haven't articulated in exactly the way I did with Uncle E just recently, and will do here now. The simple truth is, we all have a conscience, and we all use it to determine "real" truth.

Don't scream moral relativist yet. Because there's a little bit of faith here. The faith is that my conscience comes from wherever it is that truth comes from, and will reliably guide me to do whatever it is I should be doing with my life. With any religion, you are pressured to take on faith any of the claims of that religion that you can't prove with evidence. I've found that that one assumption, that one single leap of faith about the truth of my conscience, gives me all of the benefits I can find in any of the religions, and it has none of the mind-bending baggage that comes with trying to believe that EVERYTHING a particular religion says is true. Not only do I not have to believe everything a particular religion says, I can look at a religion's claims and decide whether I think they are true or false, without worrying about whether I will have to re-write my entire world view.

Really, I think most people who are not born and raised in a particular religion, but actively make the decision to enter it, do so because their conscience tells them something about it represents the real truth. So what they're doing is trusting their consciences, but not fully realizing that's what's guiding them, and ending up letting something else (a particular doctrine) guide them over the long term, which leads to problems.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I think that's the one thing that unites religious people. Whatever conception of God you have, you keep it because your conscience tells you it's right enough (many find it's not perfect), not because of any other logical justification you may be able to give me or anyone else.

Think I'm wrong? Think about this for a second. If your conscience told you the church you were in was not where you should be, would you think your conscience was defective and continue to follow that religion, or would you leave? Sure, you would question, and possibly wonder if you were going nuts, but in the end, what would you do?

This is a tough question for a lot of people, because their idea of conscience is so tied up with a particular religion's ideas. And when I discussed this with Uncle E, who has been Catholic for 45 years, after a day, he came back and said that conscience trumps Jesus, and if his conscience told him he had to leave the church he would do so. But he said that even though this was the case, his belief in God was the most important thing, even more than his belief in the correctness of his conscience, because without God there would be nowhere for a "true" conscience to come from. So atheism is still out, conscience in his view doesn't unify theists and atheists.

The problem is that when people say "God", they almost always mean a particular kind of God. For example, the "There is only one, worship no Gods before me" kind you get with monotheism, or the one that made us in its image you get with Christianity. But if you think about it, do we know this for sure? Do we know there is only one God? I've wondered, what if the universe was made so that there is one objective truth, and a real way to tell good from bad, but it was made by a group of gods working together as a community? Many Gods, but one Plan for the universe. Does anyone have a reason besides "My religion says no" why this couldn't be true?

I asked Uncle E. this question this morning, because he put forward a belief in God as the source of our consciences as the foundational truth he and I did not share. But the thing is, if you want to call "the source of our consciences, and the source of a real objective truth we should seek for" God, then OK, I believe in God then, because I do think my conscience means something and will guide me well. But what does this God look like? Are we sure there is only one? Are we sure God is the first cause, instead of being made by the first cause and in turn making the universe? Are we sure about anything about God, other than the fact that since we have a conscience that is such a marvelous guide to what we should do in life, God must exist as the source of that?

I think we can verify the reality of our conscience, and through that make a valid argument for the existence of God, but that doesn't allow us to argue for a particular conception of God. And since our conscience is what we use to decide what conception of God to accept, God isn't more important in our daily lives, it's our conscience that matters. Put another way, A belief that our conscience will guide us well is more important than any particular conception of God.

If, instead of "My God is the source of my conscience, so an assault on my God is an assault on the truth of the idea that my conscience could guide me reliably", people said "My conscience determines which God I accept as real", I think that might solve a lot of problems. In a few words: My conscience is the foundation of my beliefs., instead of My God is the foundation of my beliefs

It's the reverse of how Uncle E. looked at things. I wonder, now that I've pointed this out, what he'll say?

UPDATE: His response is:
I think a lot of this, like Einstein's relativity, depends on the position of the observer in relation to the observed. From my viewpoint, it might be conscience and truth first, God second, but the truth is that God came way first, and I am just a late arrival. It can be helpful noting how it looks from my viewpoint, but that is very parochial, and the non egocentric viewpoint is the more truthful one overall. But I suspect that distinction of observer may be one cause of our disagreements.

If you look at your conscience as being the source of your beliefs, it does unify you with everyone else, including most atheists I've talked to. Because, if you're an atheist, how do you choose your moral structure? Should it be utilitarianism, empathy, survival of the fittest, some other concept, or some mix of these? Your answer will often depend on looking at the effects of the various alternatives and thinking about which one your conscience likes the best. So there's an important but rarely highlighted distinction between religious people plus conscience-following atheists, and those (predominantly atheist, but also possibly extremist holy-book-thumper religious) who think it's not important to follow their conscience because it's not as reliable as some other guide to action (logic/scripture).

So, to the religious people: what do you think? Could you regard yourself as being "on the same side" with someone who had a completely different conception of God, or didn't believe in God at all, but acknowledged that following your conscience is how you should live your life? Or is God truly more important to you than following your conscience?

UPDATE, in response to Uncle E's thoughts: And, if viewing your conscience as primary (the source of any coneption of God you will accept) allows you to work with everyone else for a better world, is the parochialism of this view justified by its effects? It's an "ends justify the means" agrument, I know, but I've often wondered if I should support a religion that I'm pretty sure is not 100% true, because of the beneficial effects. This is just that same question rephrased, except instead of a religion, I'm wondering if we should support a "parochial" but in a very practical sense true, view, for the sake of working together for a better world?