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.

2 comments:

JackieD said...

I'm slightly confused by your paragraph about souls.

"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. "

a) You don't believe we have eternal souls. Fair enough.

b) If we did have eternal souls, you cannot accept that your soul is incomplete without religion? Why not?

"It's secondary to the argument I'm going to make on this site."

c) Why is it a secondary argument? I'm fairly sure that all major world religions agree that we have souls, and any religious person is ultimately talking about eternal souls in questions of morality and faith. I'm not sure you can fairly relegate this one to the back burner without a little more explanation.

On the conscience side of things: you say that claiming conscience is imperfect until perfected by religion does not support the theory that it is given by God as a "truth compass" of sorts. You're right, but what if religion does not perfect the conscience? What if it only allows us to hear it clearly? I disagree with your statement that a person does not lose the ability to recognize truth. I think that after enough time abusing, ignoring, or overrulling one's conscience, it is not easy to turn around and listen to it clearly. (I should have said something like this in my last comment, but I'm still thinking through this stuff)

That's the real reason why we need religion--it is very, very difficult to shed the lies we've told ourselves, to remove the mufflers we place on our conscience.

I don't remember where I found this quote, but it brought tears to my eyes because I remember several instances when this has occured in my life. Maybe it'll help explain what I mean.

"Soon the child’s clear eye is clouded over by ideas and opinions, preconceptions and abstractions. Simple free being becomes encrusted with the burdensome armor of the ego. Not until years later does an instinct come that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines, and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty and strange pain, like a memory of paradise. After that day . . .we become seekers."- Peter Matthiessen


P.S. I agree with your latest comments on Paul's page--in his efforts to protect the humanity of new life, he's willing to deny humanity to his opponents. Do not want.

Myron said...

Soon the child’s clear eye is clouded over by ideas and opinions, preconceptions and abstractions. Simple free being becomes encrusted with the burdensome armor of the ego. Not until years later does an instinct come that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines, and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty and strange pain, like a memory of paradise.

Love it. I think that's exactly what Jesus would have meant by being like children. Not that I know much of the context of that passage, but...

After that day . . .we become seekers

And I think we should stay that way. One of the major reasons I haven't adopted a religion is because the religions keep saying "we have the answer!" (or at least I feel like they do). And I feel like that can re-cloud our vision, or stop us from seeking the full truth we could find if we looked.

b) If we did have eternal souls, you cannot accept that your soul is incomplete without religion? Why not?

Nope, that's not what I think. If I thought I had a soul, it would be entirely possible that it could be incomplete without religion. My point was, the choice was between "Complete soul" and "Incomplete soul", with no option for "no soul". That's all that was about - I couldn't agree with it because it implied a false dichotomy.

c) Why is it a secondary argument? ... I'm not sure you can fairly relegate this one to the back burner without a little more explanation.

Maybe not. But... I should have said "in this post" rather than "on this site". I might do discussion of the soul later, but whether or not you have a soul is a seperate question from whether or not you have/can rely on your conscience. It was confusing enough as it is, just trying to deal with the conscience. If I'd tried to also deal with whether or not we have a soul, the post would have gone on forever, and descended into complete incoherence. The reason it's a secondary argument (relative to this one post) is because I think believing in your conscience works whether or not you believe you have a soul, so it wasn't necessary to discuss it in order to make my argument for conscience.

what if religion does not perfect the conscience? What if it only allows us to hear it clearly?

I think this happens. But the problem I have is, there are people like Paul who then let their religion overshadow their conscience, or others who lean on the religion for guidance, but don't really look inward and try to set their conscience straight - some religious people think the rules will guide them, rather than letting their conscience guide them, and that I have a problem with. I've got a post written up on this, scheduled to be published this Saturday (really trying to limit myself to one a week, because I'm already spending a lot of time at this as it is).

I think that after enough time abusing, ignoring, or overrulling one's conscience, it is not easy to turn around and listen to it clearly.

That's the real reason why we need religion


I agree with you, and I agree that religion can help in this area.

But there's a difference between saying it's not easy to listen, and it's not possible and/or useful to listen (your conscience can be permanently and irrevocably damaged). If your conscience cannot be corrupted, just obscured, then you can get by without religion and still end up doing what you "truly/rightly" should be doing. But if it can be corrupted, and the religion is the guide to goodness in those cases, then there is no way to bridge the divide between people who have different religious beliefs - no common ground to appeal to when the beliefs are in conflict.