Monday, January 10, 2000

Community is the Key to Happiness

For my first six months in Korea, I had a really great roommate named Dave, who had a terrible sense of direction, but liked to go for long rambling walks. He was a good friend during my first year. Then Dave went back to New York to start medical school, and starting with Dave's exit, over the next three months, all of the people who had sustained me through my initial Korea culture shock, disappeared. By halfway through my second year, I had experienced a second complete turnover in my social circles. It seemed like every time I got together with friends, it was either a house-warming or a goodbye party.

Coming to another country, and being immersed in a new culture, is an overwhelming experience: Korea is different, relentlessly different, from my home country, and it will not stop being Korea just because I need a break. This can be a good thing. A lot of expats made the choice to come here because they wanted to get outside their old back-home comfort zones. The first few months of the expat experience especially are a real stretching experience for many of us, adjusting in what seems like a comfort-free zone.

Every expat develops ways to cope with the non-stop otherness. Most of us start out by leaning hard on life back home. Many fresh-off-the-plane expats I know spend a lot of time writing or phoning home, and seeking out the foods and activities they did back home. I did this, too: for my first four months, a fast-food burger set and an English movie was the echo of home I needed to get through a rough week. The problem is that people finding comfort this way may never be more than visitors here. Sure, they lived here, technically, but Korea was never their home, and they always had one foot out the door, either backward, planted in the place they left, or forward, leaning toward the next step before even finishing this one.

There is nothing wrong with being a visitor in Korea: for some expats, Korea will never mean more to them than a paycheck to send home, a way to pay down the student loan, to see the world before settling down back home, or to save up before another leg of their trip around the world. For visitors, the constant coming and going of friends might be no big deal. However, there are some people who have their reasons to make Korea their home, who invest here, and for them, the revolving door can be frustrating.

Humans are intensely communal creatures, and for many of us, making connections with like-minded people adds a vital kind of meaning to our lives. The good news for expats in Korea is that there are more people now, with more diverse interests, staying here for longer periods, than ever before. Thanks to the internet and the community pages of local papers and magazines, there are many more opportunities to find kindred spirits, and connect in meaningful ways, than there were when I first came.

In this column, I hope to highlight some of the communities that expats use to connect with each other, adding meaning and value to their experience in Korea. If you know about, or are a member of a community where expats meet, connect, support each other, drop me a line at with the word "community" in the subject line, and tell me when and where you meet, and why you think I should feature your group.

By Rob Ouwehand /Networking

See Rob Ouwehand's blog at E-mail -- Ed.

Sunday, January 02, 2000

Why Modern Religion Deserves Richard Dawkins

As you know, Richard Dawkins wrote a book called "The God Delusion," a fairly emphatic attack on organized religion and theism. I grew up in the Christian faith, so this kind of thing catches my attention. I read the book, thought about it a lot, and wrote a series of essays.

Now I'm just a guy, nobody special; there's no real reason you should listen to me, but maybe you'll read something you haven't thought of before. Here are some of my thoughts.

This is the table of contents for my series.

A prologue about Heaven and Hell (not part of the main series, but these thoughts also came out of reading Dawkins.)

Why Modern Religion Deserves Richard Dawkins
Part One: Parameters
Why I'm writing, and what I am and am not trying to do.

Part Two:
Creation/Evolution, Science and Anti-intellectualism
Background and The Essay

Part Three: The Straw Man We Gave Him
Background and The Essay

Part Four: The Crisis In Moral Authority
Background (Times Change, So Can We) and The Essay

Hope you enjoy them!

(btw: thanks to the Hominid for the kudos!)

Dawkins: Companion to Part 4: Times Change. Keep Up! or Admitting The Reality Of Memetic Natural Selection

Soundtrack time: Tom Waits: Chocolate Jesus

(an immaculate confection)

This is the companion piece to my essay here: how to regain a relevant voice.

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. The next essay.

Ever since humans started thinking, ideas have smacked up against each other, like rocks in a tumbler, or plants and animals competing for resources on the savannah; eventually, the better ideas gained consensus, while the weaker ones faded into irrelevance. Though they forced him to drink poison, Socrates' ideas have survived, and their worries that he corrupted young minds couldn't stop them from spreading. It's impossible to keep a good idea down. It's also impossible to prop up a weak idea indefinitely. The great rock-tumbler of ideas will eventually grind weaker ideas into dust, though the excision might be painful, and even bloody (those remaining despots sure kick up a fuss, even as the free world makes them less and less relevant).

Dawkins talks about this when he discusses the changing moral zeitgeist; he even has a name for these little units of information and ideas that circulate, combine with other ideas, change with the times, or fade away: he calls them memes. The idea that “All men are created equal” became an important meme in the American, and French Revolutions. Its influence grew, and led to the civil rights and suffragist movements. Like creatures in an ecosystem, memes generally follow the principles of survival of the fittest: they form symbiotic alliances with other memes (for example, the way guilt and grace make such a harmonious pair in atonement theology), and sometimes, the way a drought, or a pack of wolves culls the herd of its sickly or unfit deer, some idea comes along with the force of a wrecking ball, and forces every other meme to either adapt or perish.

Like every other institution, religious prinicples have followed the same Memetic Natural selection; what we accept as religious truth is much more fluid than we realize. For example, the idea of the rapture and tribulation actually only became widespread in the 1800s, and you can bet that while before the revolution, the French clergy demonstrated biblically that the people needed to obey the monarch God had placed above them, after the guillotine blades started dropping, they demonstrated biblically that liberty, equality and fraternity were, and had always been, precious Christian values. The way the holy texts are taught and religion is practiced has changed constantly through the ages, to suit different cultures at different times.

If you don't think religious practice has changed over the years, or that religious thought has been subject to the same memetic natural selection as the rest of human thought, ask yourself when you last saw a witch trial, or paid an indulgence to get your Grandpa out of purgatory, or heard someone say that God made whites the rightful masters of other races, as shown in the story of Noah and his three sons (Genesis 9).

In fact, two of the best examples of real boss wrecking-ball memes were Martin Luther's 95 Theses, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. It was a painful and bloody process for Luther's 95 theses, and the memes that followed from them, to trim all the fat out of the complacent, corrupt European church, but the church was much healthier in the end, and the Protestant and Catholic churches have kept each other accountable ever since. Jesus deliberately taught in the "you have heard it said. . . but I say to you" format, like a leopard-meme pointing out the fattest, laziest, sickliest deer-memes in the herd one by one, saying, "First I'm gonna get that one, then that one, then that one. . . " It was a bloody and ugly transition for the early Christians, too, before Jesus and Paul's teachings started gaining widespread consent.

All these words to establish: the world changes. Organizations and institutions and prevailing thought patterns change, constantly. Yeah, the basic human dilemmas are same in a lot of ways as they always have been, human nature remains muddled and imperfect, but generally, as time goes by, we seem to be getting closer to the mark, both in organized religions and in society at large. Whether you credit it to the Holy Spirit (or the will of Allah, or the continual karmic purification of souls, or what have you)'s guidance, or (if you aren't into that Higher/Other Power stuff) to the natural process of memetic selection, the conclusion is the same: religious practice is just as liquid as the rest of human social behaviour. It would help our case to acknowledge that, and maybe to trust that the flexing and changing of ideas is generally moving (with hiccups, snares, and the occasional rabbit trail) in a consistent direction toward increased freedom and empowerment of all people.

When a set of memes gets too rigid or inflexible (like, say, the idea of a Monarch's right to absolute power), it eventually gets discarded, like an organism that refuses to adapt to its environment: it simply can't compete with other, more supple frameworks.

Why is this a challenge for the modern religion?

As more people gain access to education and information, the speed at which prevailing ideas change increases. Every time communication speeds up, society changes faster, as ideas take less time to disseminate and gain consensus. That rock tumbler is rattling around now at a speed and ferocity that would shock scholars from the days when monks spent years copying Bible manuscripts, and it took decades or even generations for some ideas to travel from a philosopher-monk in Lisbon to a Sufi mystic in Damascus, or vice versa.

Information travels so quickly these days that religious authorities can no longer control, or spin it the way they used to when they basically controlled every aspect of the information infrastructure. Moreover, people are no longer WILLING to submit to some authoritative Source Of Wisdom: this is the completion of the movement started (in the west) with the Gutenberg Printing Press and the Protestant Reformation: the reformation was Martin Luther saying, "I don't WANT to just take it from the Pope; I'd rather read the bible myself." Now, that preference to see for ourselves has reached its logical conclusion: countries where almost everyone has the education and access to check their own references, and test what they've been taught, the same way Luther did.

Yeah, in the days when the priest was the only educated person in the village, it made perfect sense for him to be the main authority on morals and everything else that involved ideas instead of farm implements and brains instead of blacksmiths' bellows, but these days, everybody has access to the same information, and many of us have been trained to understand and interpret it. It's natural that we're a little less willing to let somebody say, "this is the meaning of all the facts," than we were back when the guy saying "I'll tell you how it is" was the only person in town who'd finished university.

Next Obvious Truth: knowledge of all kinds is decentralizing, and institutions that do not realize that will find themselves circumvented and ignored, like a boulder in a river that used to be a stream, complaining that it no longer changes the whole stream's course the way it used to.

So what does that have to do with the current attack on faith?

Well, the first step organized religions must take in finding a viable framework for interacting in a relevant way with society at large is to embrace the fact we have changed to suit the spirit of the times before, and CAN CHANGE AGAIN without losing our identity. Next, we need to recognize that we are no longer considered the main authority for truth, the way we were back before public education, science, sociology, modern democracy, and clinical psychology were invented, and added their two, four, six, or seventeen trillion bits to the discussion. We are one of many voices competing for attention, in the information age, and the sooner we come to grips with that, and start to adjust, the better off we'll be.

On to Essay 4, proper: The Crisis in Moral Authority

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. The next essay.

Dawkins Summarized: Companion to part 3

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. The next essay.

soundtrack: hit play and start reading.
jesus by so young (random youtube discovery)

Now, Dawkins goes into a series of chapters where he tries to explain how religion could have given certain tribes a darwinian advantage, or how religious explanations could have creeped in over generations, as survival innovations became ritualized and then spiritualized. He wants to dislodge morality from religiousity, arguing that there are perfectly good Darwinian reasons for humans to act moral.

(page 268) Chapter 7: "The 'Good' Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist" was an interesting one: Dawkins makes a convincing argument for what he calls the "Moral Zeitgeist" -- the idea that morals and ideas of what is right and wrong have progressed through all societies at a roughly equivalent pace, regardless of religion, or lack thereof. He points out the way the bible is littered with tribalism, genocide and ridiculously harsh punishments (c'mon, Christians: it's embarrassing when somebody starts asking about those chapters of Law where it demands death by stoning for adulterers. Admit it.)

Dawkins points out that all good Christians no longer believe we should execute adulterers, nor that we should own slaves (despite Timothy seeming to endorse slavery) -- modern morality seems to come from somewhere else, not exclusively from the Bible, or other holy texts.

He also points out how religion can cause a kind of suspension of moral conscience, by describing an experiment where they told a random group of Jewish children the story of Joshua massacring the men, women, children, and even livestock of Jericho, and 66% of the children agreed Joshua had been right to do it. They told the same story to another random group of Jewish children, replacing names and places, so that General Lin massacred everyone, even the livestock, in an ancient Chinese city, instead of Joshua laying the Godly Smack down on Jericho, and this time only 7% thought it was right.

Roboseyo here.

It occurs to me (I think he touched on this too) that religion's only competition is nationalism, as the hook on which humans most often hang their tribalism and clannishness, and by which we excuse our brutality "for a higher cause".

As to the "Moral Zeitgeist", he says, "In any society there exists a somewhat mysterious consensus, which changes over the decades, and for which it is not pretentious to use the German loan-word Zeitgeist (spirit of the times)." (300-301)--he points at changes in attitudes toward women and race in the last hundred years, which have occurred in every educated society, regardless of the religions found (or not found) in those different societies.

For examples from the last century, it's amazing how unanimously the first world supports women's equality and repudiates apartheid today, considering how recently the suffrage and civil rights movements actually gained prominence (1960s was not long ago at all). Dawkins says this shift in the zeitgeist is totally unconnected to religion: if it were religious, it would have occurred in countries with deeper religious traditions and more widespread religious practice (Arab nations or America, or maybe deeply Buddhist Southeast Asia) first, and then spread to secular countries (post-Christian Europe, for example); it didn't happen that way. "it moves in parallel, on a broad front, throughout the educated world" (306). Here's an example of how quickly the moral zeitgeist can change in a country. 1968 was not long ago.

Regarding the accusation that belief in Darwinism requires just as much faith as belief in any God, Dawkins responds, basically, that every (intellectually responsible) Darwinist knows exactly what it would take to change their minds: compelling evidence that contradicts the theory (for example, fossilized human bones with T-Rex toothmarks on them, found in the stomach of a fossilized Tyrannosaur, would conveniently blow Darwin out of the water); this evidence has not yet been found. The religious, who, no matter what one argues, will continue responding with "yes that's all well and good, but I BELIEVE. . . " have NO conditions under which they will change their mind; this is the difference between a passionate belief in something, and fundamentalism.

(Roboseyo here: this point of Dawkins' got me thinking:)

Because of the reliance on evidence (of which more can be discovered at any time), the scientific method of gaining information about reality is very robust and (to be honest) much more flexible than using a book that, even when it appears to be anachronistic or brutal or overly vague, CANNOT be changed, because it is believed to be God's word -- the scientific method proved that leeching didn't work, so doctors stopped leeching patients. Einstein reconfigured the way we understand physics, and the body of scientific knowledge (particularly Newtonian physics) changed; in contrast, the bible explicitly warns us not to take anything out -- even all that stuff about massacring babies, and stoning adulterers to death, that's a little embarrassing to read (or have thrown in our face by people like Dawkins).

Sure, some may argue that science changes constantly, so it can't be trusted as much as the Eternal Word Of God. . . but the nice thing about science is that every time it changes, it's because we've learned something concrete, demonstrable, and duplicable, and incorporated it, and thus hopefully gotten a little closer to the full truth about some phenomenon or another. . . that idea, that science is self-correcting and cumulative, can be seen as hopeful, rather than untrustworthy, if you turn your head and kind of squint your eyes; even if you disagree, you can at least understand how Dawkins finds that enough to warrant putting his hope in it.

To boot, because of that whole "we'll find out when we die (but not until then)" thing, if we want, the religious have a convenient excuse for sticking to our guns in the face of any evidence to the contrary, right on until the day of death. . . but we won't win credibility or open-minded points by doing so.

Next Dawkins weighs in on several hot-button issues that cause a lot of moral controversy. . . gays, euthanasia. . .outside the scope of this essay series, but moves on to a section titled "How 'Moderation' In Faith Fosters Fanaticism," (341-348) that is pretty crucial to what I want to say. From the horse's mouth (or should we say from Darwin's Rottweiler's mouth, as Dawkins has been called), "my point in this section is that even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes" (342)

other important quotes from this section:
"Why would anyone want to destroy the World Trade Center and everybody in it? To call bin Laden 'evil' is to evade our responsibility to give a proper answer to such an important question." (343)

Terrorists and abortion clinic bombers are motivated, "by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own lights, are rational. . . because they have been brought up, from the cradle, to have total and unquestioning faith." (344)

"Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument." (347) -- shutting one's eyes to scientific evidence and declaring "I believe the earth was created in six days" is the same subsuming of reason and sense to faith as suicide bombing, to a much lesser degree, and Dawkins argues that privileging faith over sense or reason in those small things, creates a climate of assent and tacit approval where extremists can also feel justified in subsuming their reason, sense, and humanity, in their extreme, shocking, tragic ways.


Personally, I start feeling nervous any time somebody decides an idea is more important than human life.

In Chapter 9 is one of Dawkins' big missteps. He describes the kidnapping of a baby from its Jewish parents (in the 1800s), in order that he be raised in a Catholic home, "saved" from his "heathen" parents. I'll get to that.

He also criticizes the "presumptuousness whereby religious people know, without evidence, that the faith of their birth is the one true faith, all others being abberrations or downright false." (353) which has been problematic for me, too, as I think about it more and more.

Then, he starts talking about the far right in America: he interviewed a bunch of them for a TV documentary he did called, "The Root of all Evil," and
here is where old Roboseyo picks up the baton.

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. The next essay.

Dawkins Summarized: companion to "Part 2"

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. The next essay.

Soundtrack: hit play and start reading. Dishwalla: Counting Blue Cars

Summaries of Dawkins Italicized; Direct quotes in Block Quotes.
If you're thinking of engaging in a debate on the comment board (all comers welcome), I recommend you read the Dawkins.

Now, most of the first half of Mr. Dawkins' book concerns how a godless universe could have come into being. He gets ahold of all the standbys I learned in my apologetics class to prove God's existence. Pokes'em all full of holes. For the nitty-gritty, read the book.

Then, he throws down the gauntlet in Chapter Four, with his "Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit" which basically states that positing a creator God does not solve the mystery of origin anyway, because it simply leads us to ask "Well if it's improbable that the universe could have sprung into existence on its own, isn't it even MORE improbable that, before the universe began, a being smart, powerful, and complex enough to CREATE a universe like ours would spring into existence on its own?" Essentially, he asks, "If God made the universe, then who made God?"

Dawkins then discusses "how the heck the universe got here in the first place" without any finally satisfactory theories, but argues (convincingly) that science is working on it, and that having a series of possibilities that could be proven or disproven under certain conditions (that is, a path outlined along which progress could be made) is more hopeful than simply positing a god of creation, and then shrugging our shoulders and no longer trying to learn anything about the universe's origin.

This is a very valid point against intelligent design: Dawkins cites theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who argued that there is a deep danger in Intelligent Design Theory, to jump on every gap where science is not sure of something as "the space where we can see God's hand at work," and that this fetishization of the things we don't know runs the risk of lapsing into anti-intellectualism, wherein we treasure ignorance, because the areas we don't understand, of course, are where God moves, and so, learning as little as possible would lead to the greatest possible amount of faith! As you can see, this kind of attitude will never lead Christians to feel any desire to study, much less contribute, to science.

[Roboseyo here:] Not to mention, if God only exists in the gaps where humans can't explain how we got from A to B, then we're handing science the tools to effectively kill God: just close all the gaps, and S/He's dead!

Dawkins also suggests the wonder and awe of seeing how beautifully the universe works is a deep and satisfying spiritual experience in its own right.

Here (from page 188-189 of "The God Delusion") is the summary of Mr. Dawkins' central, atheistic argument.

1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries,
has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the
universe arises.

2. The natural temptation is to attribute the
appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact
such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting
to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.

The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately
raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we
started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is
obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a
'crane', not a 'skyhook', for only a crane can do the business of working up
gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.

4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian
evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors have shown how living
creatures, with their design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple
beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living
creatures is just that -- an illusion.

5. We don't yet have an
equivalent crane for physics. Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle
do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology. This
kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version
of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck. But the anthropic
principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human
intuition is comfortable with.

6. We should not give up hope of a better
crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism for biology. But
even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one,
the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic
principle, self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of
an intelligent designer.

And now that you have the background, here's the Roboseyo part:

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. The next essay.