2011年8月30日 星期二

Moving Away From God?

To a Christian, there is nothing more frightening than the idea that he has been abandoned by God. Equally bad and no less stressful is the idea that he is beginning to show serious signs of falling away from his faith. The prospects of being burned for all eternity in hell is not one to be taken lightly! Yet, the evidence is that this is now what is happening to an increasing number of thinking people, in Europe and even in America, traditionally one of the most Christian countries in the "West". This is a point made by Ronald Aronson, in his book, Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided (2008) (LWG)

Aronson is the author or editor of 9 books, including Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy in the World (1981), The Dialectics of Disaster: A Preface to Hope (1982), After Marxism (1995), Camus and Sartre (2005) and is distinguished professor of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University. Peter Steinfels of the New York Times has this to say about the book: "If the label 'new atheists' has been accorded to a fistful of polemicists who set out to counter in-your-face religion with in-your-face atheism, then Ronald Aronson must qualify as something different: a new new atheists, perhaps...For Mr. Aronson, [Living Without God] is not the ideal of an autonomous individual striding confidently into the dawning future but the drama of an interdependent humankind...knit into networks of natural environment, historical legacies, social institutions and personal relations." His book is also praised by Cornel West, Professor of Religion and African American Studies, Princeton University: "As a Christian, I applaud my brother Ronald Aronson for his powerful defense of a courageous and compassionate secular world view. He is a religiously musical atheist I admire."

To Aronson, who prefers to call "secularists" all atheists (those who affirm that God does not exist), agnostics, skeptics (disbelieving but less certain), humanists, unbelievers and freethinkers, such secularists have been "living under the spell cast by resurgent, aggressive, fundamentalist-tinged religion" for the past generation and been "a timid minority, voiceless, on the defensive, routinely derided).(LWG 3-4) until 5 authors broke the spell and the taboo, "Don't speak ill of Religion": Sam Harris (End of Faith 2004 & Letter to a Christian Nation 2006), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell 2007). Richard Dawkins (God Delusion 2007), Victor Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis 2007)  and Christopher Hitchins (God is Not Great 2007). To him, Harris "excoriates religious moderates" for providing cover for fundamentalists at home and abroad by refusing to contest the extremists' premises which they share; Dennett places religion into a "natural" context which then enables it to be critically examined, just like any other natural phenomenon; Dawkins "bulldozes his way through every major argument and a great many minor ones for religious beliefs", whilst Hitchins "wittily and relentlessly catalogs religion's crimes and absurdities," showing that American secularists have become tired of "becoming a quiet, apologetic, invisible minority" (LWG 5). It wasn't always like this. In the 1920's and 1930s, people flocked to hear Clarence Darrow, which Variety described as America's No. 1 attraction, someone who'd proudly announce "I don't believe in God because I don't believe in Mother Goose".

Aronson says that since the 1960s, "the personal and wonder-working Judeo-Christian God grew less and less plausible to modern and sophisticated people"  because religion has been undermined by "urbanization, science, higher education, individualism and materialism of consumer society" and become increasingly "irrelevant.". (LWG 6). God suffered an "eclipse" and became an almost "anonymous God" and in the April, 1966 edition of Time magazine, there was a cover story' "Is God Dead?"  at about which time John Lennon's song "Imagine" climbed to the top of the pops chart, expressing the common longing for "no countries to kill or die for" and for "no religion, a world without heaven or hell, nothing above us but the sky" . However, according to sociologist Alan Wolfe, religion has made a remarkable come-back in the last two decades so that roughly "as many Americans accept the Bible's creation as they do evolution" (LWG 8). "Despite repeated defeats in the courts, efforts are continuing to permit teaching creationism--now recast as 'intelligent design'--in public school biology classes. The barrier between church and state has been growing more porous and church-driven campaigns have narrowed abortion rights and confirmed discrimination against homosexuals as public policy." (LWG 9). The Republicans has harnessed this political energy and made evangelicals its core supporters by opposing stem-cell research, gay marriage, abortion rights and asking for government funding for religious schools or faith-based social programs and appointing conservative judges.(LWG 9).

Americans were told the fib that "virtuously all" of them are "religious"  ie. 90% of the population. Aronson asks how that can square with the 30 million adults ( or 14-16% of the population) who describe themselves in a recent poll as "without religion" or one in six Americans who say that religion is "not important" or the one in four Americans who declare themselves as "spiritual but not religious" or the same number who declare themselves "atheists, agnostics or "would prefer not to say" from different surveys? (LWG 10). This is how, Aronson explains: The Baylor Religion Survey (American Piety in the 21st Century) which bills itself as "the most extensive and sensitive study of religion ever conducted" adjusted the 30 million without religion downward by excluding those who do not belong to any religion but "believe in a God with some doubt" or "I sometimes believe in God" and "I believe in a higher power or cosmic force" as "believers". Only those who say "I don't believe in anything beyond the physical world" are NOT treated as "believers". Thus agnostics, skeptics, secularists or humanists are all treated as if they were "believers"! According to Aronson, the number of doubters and disbelievers rose from 73% to 85% amongst members of the National Academy of Scientists between 1914 to 1933 and as of 1998, 93% disbelieved in or doubted God's existence (LWG 214) According to the 2008 Pew U S Religious Landscape Survey, 16% describe themselves as atheists, agnostics and those whose "religion" is nothing in particular and of this, about 6% say they are "religious" but is unaffiliated to any religious institutions and that 56% say religion is "very important", 26% "somewhat important", 9%. "not too important" and 7% "not at all important". Aronson criticizes the figures as not having taking into account the "social desirability effect" i.e. the social psychological tendency that respondents may be reluctant to give an unpopular answer because they may appear to be "insufficiently religious.".  Thus Newsweek/Beliefnet found that 24% describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious", 9% "religious but not spiritual" 55% religious and spiritual" 8% "not spiritual/religious or don't know". ie. 1 in 4 describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious". (LWG 11) According the the results of the Financial Times/Harris Interactive Survey of Europeans and Americans, which allowed respondent to describe themselves as follows" "Believer in any form of God or any type of supreme being", "agnostic (one who is skeptical about the existence of God but not an atheist)", "Atheist (one who denies the existence of God), "Would prefer not to say and "Not sure", 4% of the Americans were atheists, 14% agnostic, 6% prefer not to answer, 3% are unsure. In other words, 1 in 4 are secularists.

According to Aronson, one in six even amongst the formally "religious" regard religion as unimportant or not very important including the irreligious and we may perhaps add to their ranks those who "formally" belong to a religion but who effectively live without any active relationship either to it or to God and those who attend religious service only occasionally but who in practice live day in and day out with only token reference to God and those who are "too damn busy" to think about God. Even according to the Baylor survey, one in four Americans who "believe in God", do not believe in a "personal God", only a "distant God" that is "not active in the world and not especially angry either". They tend to think of God as a cosmic force who merely set the laws of nature in motion and as such God does not "do" anything nor does he hold any clear opinion about our activities or world events (LWG 13). He sounds like the God of the spiritualist or the deist God of "unbelievers" like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. He concludes, that tens of millions of American secularists and the secular-minded thus help to explain the Pew Religion & Politics survey results that depending on the survey question, "15% to 49% of Americans are either secular on issues of church and state, religious but scientific minded, or troubled by the current expansion of religion in American life". (LWG 13). According to this survey, only 17% Americans want to see less religious influence on American life but a full 32% want less religious influence on American government. In 2006, 28% say that Bush talked too much about his religious faith and prayer and the same number denied that America was a Christian nation but 49% believed that Christian conservatives have "gone too far in trying to impose their religious values on the country" Thus these two "unnoticed" and "unreported" secrets underlay American society: a sizable minority of  of Americans live their lives without a traditionally or organizationally defined God or religion and a significant proportions of religious and secular Americans are fed up with the politics of the American Christian fundamentalists.

In Aronson's view, both unbelievers and secular-minded believers felt themselves, despite their relative "invisibility" a coherent, essential but "beleaguered" part of American political life because they had to confront the increasingly dominant anti-scientific and anti-intellectual trend in American politics due to the influence of religious fundamentalists. But ironically, instead of advocating for more separation between church and politics, even the Democrats are wooing the electorate with their display of religious faith whilst on the other hand, the religious left are opposing the conservative Christian complicity with war and environmental damage. The increasing marginalization of the secularists is due, according to Aronson, not just to the strong religious revival empirically found but also to the weakness within the ranks of the atheists themselves because many secularists seem to have lost confidence and are unclear what exactly it is they want. Alistair McGrath, the Anglican theologian (The Death of Atheism 2004 & The Dawkins Delusion 2007) thinks that the atheists are on the defensive because they have aged, stopped adapting to the new situation and are thus becoming irrelevant. In McGrath's view, the atheists are now living the "twilight" of the great modern era of disbelief because "the religion of the autonomous and rational human being, who believes that reason is able to uncover and express the deepest truths of the universe, from the mechanics of the rising sun to the nature and final destiny of humanity, " has become less and less relevant to people's needs today. Personally, he converted because he discovered that his own earlier atheism and Marxism were "an imaginatively impoverished and emotionally deficient substitute for a dimension of life that I [he] had hitherto suppressed." and history no longer seems as "inevitable" as predicted by Marxism.  Aronson thinks that the atheist's timidity and uncertainty today may be linked historically to the perceived failure of the Enlightenment idea of progress through the systematic application of human reason to materialize.To live comfortably today without God, Aronson thinks that we will have to "rethink the secular world view after the eclipse of modern optimism" (LWG 16). This is what he intends to do in the book.

Aronson asks an important question: compared to the religious enthusiasts' firm "belief in the coherence of the universe and the world, their deep sense of belonging to it and to a human community, their refusal to be stymied by the limits of their knowledge, their confidence in dealing with life's mysteries and uncertainties, their willingness to take complete responsibility for the small things while leaving forces beyond themselves in charge of the larger ones, their security in knowing right from wrong and above all, their sense of hope about the future, what has the atheists to offer? Whilst Harris may demonstrate admirable intellectual clarity in his thought by relying only on the evidence and Dawkins may speak eloquently for science and rationality against irrationality and self-delusion and both may deserve praise by their courage and tenacity in shattering the spell of religion, they have little to offer in substitution. To Aronson, "Religion is not really the issue". What is in issue is "the incompleteness or tentativeness, the thinness and the emptiness of today's atheism, agnosticism and secularism." (LWG 18) "To flourish, we need coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life's vital questions."(LWG 18)

Whilst Aronson agrees that what we need is not "any substitute for religion" nor to "replace institutionalized religion with substitutes as the various forms of Belief in Progress", he thinks that "it is no less of a mistake to replace it with the belief that life's important questions cannot be answered or with a reflexive prejudice for individualistic ethics and against seeing ourselves socially."  He believes that whilst we are not "part of a dominant wave of human betterment that is ineluctably transforming the world,", neither "are we adrift and alone in an absurd universe." and that "we are deeply embedded in nature, history and society in ways that give our lives meaning and impose demands on us." (LWG 19) and that "death, loss, suffering, and inhumanity forms an essential frame within which our lives take place.".

Aronson thinks that despite our efforts to transform nature and turn the earth into a habitable place, we are ruining our environment; despite dazzling accomplishment in medicine and public health, most are insecure about having adequate healthcare; despite a global economy that places the rest of the world in our own lives, our ancestor's dependence on nature has been replaced by our own economic vulnerability; despite generations of struggles for dignity and equality, the global distribution of wealth and power are fundamentally unequal and unfair etc. (LWG 19) To him, "[R]eligion consoles and offers hope and provide answers to life's most perplexing problems: It gives meaning and promises justice."  His view coincides with what I have always been thinking. The roots of religion lies "not only in our deep past, our ignorance, or even in our refusal to live without myth', it lies also "in the stresses of our experience" at present.

Whilst young Marx called religion "the heart of a heartless world," Aronson thinks that we might think of religion as offering "meaning" in a "meaningless world." and "order" in an "absurd world". (LWG 19-20). He thinks that the following are the type of questions all atheists must adequately deal with: "Why is life so harsh? Where does human destructiveness come from? Why does our organized and rationalized world seem so irrational? Why, despite movement after movement on behalf of justice, is life still so unfair? Is there any reason to hope that any of this can be improved? What is the meaning and direction of human life, without God and after Progress? What are our prospects for understanding the world today? How can we act morally? How can we come to terms with the specter of our own death?" He hopes that his book will be "a kind of twenty-first century guide for the perplexed". (LWG 20) without resort to ideas like "soul", "transcendent", "spirit" and "spiritual" , saying that in so doing, he merely following the philosophic tradition that stretches back to Socrates, Plato, the Enlightenment, Marx, Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre and his teacher Herbert Marcuse.

What type of readers does he wish to attract?  He says he intends his book for the "unaffiliated secularists,secular humanists, skeptics, freethinkers, agnostics and atheists--and even 'spiritualists'--who are trying to find their way through today's life issues and negotiate today's world on their own, without religion. They may also include religious people who are questioning their own direction." (LWG 22). He believes that sooner or later, people will have to develop worldviews that are coherent and consistent with their lives. He offers the ideas in his book as one amongst many possible secular worldviews.

I shall continue reading and share what I find in a later blog (s)

2011年8月29日 星期一

Another Stroll about Town

The Central District can be a frustrating, enervating and daunting place to be in. If you wish your
muscles to tense up, your lips to pucker up and eye-brows to knit together, the corners of your
eyes to grow fresh folds or if you wish to push up your blood pressure, then there is no better place
to go. However when you do that, you must never complain that perhaps another world will
be lost to you. It's the world of lines and surfaces, the world of light and shadows, the world of
even.... colors. You'd  never have thought it could ever have been there.

White orchids inside the IFC shopping mall.

Pink orchids at the same place.  And a little outside...

peoples, taxis, boats, signs, trees, shrubs, roads and sea all cut up into convenient bite size

Curves, ovals, rounded-off roof amidst the tiny tremors on the surface of a fountain?

There are even patches of red and oranges upon the shimmering surface of the water!

People standing waiting, sitting relaxing, coming and going down escalators
amidst smooth reflected chrome surfaces.

More people coming and going, newspaper in hand, looking around or simply sitting.

Triangles, rectangles, parallelograms, circles and simple straight lines, even trees and shrubs!

People eating. Oh yes, I need to eat too!

Before the fast food restaurant, circles of light and shade, helping not a little to break the
monotony of the otherwise dull and dark interior.

Even flowers in yellow and white! They were tightly squeezed together in their allotted spaces
beneath tiny gray squares. Perhaps, they're no worse than those who placed them there. At least
they got an occasional spray of water before they fade and their withered looks are removed
forever from passing gazes, sharing their final resting place with other trash at some dirty plastic
bins at an obscure corner of the narrow sunless lane at the side of the plush chrome and glass
structure. How they shine and brighten up the otherwise empty and impersonal hall in the
meantime before their predetermined demise, craning their necks for a bit of sun and attention!

But once I sat down, I discovered the eyes of a number of "snake ladies" staring at me.
They were firmly escounced upon the necks of a row of green "Perrier" bottles. I wonder if they
felt comfortable exposing their thighs to the marauding gazes of strange oriental men.

After lunch I strolled to my favourite haunt, the harbor front...

And found myself amongst leaves and flowers.

Some sturdy ferns.

Tree leaves, some yellowing already and others with edges all curled up. Not very auspicious.

I looked up. The sky was overcast. Will it rain? Fortunately, I found some flowers to cheer me up.

Some tiny red flowers.

Some tiny yellow flowers.

More tiny red and pink flowers.

Even chains of green beads. But it was beginning to rain.

A bright yellow flower in the tiny drizzle which had begun in the meantime.

A string of water beads gravitating to the underside of a steel bar. How long will the surface
tension keep them there? Who knows? In the meantime, leaves were falling everywhere.

A huge worm-eaten fallen leaf supported by other still vigorously growing new leaves below.

A fallen leaf, a number of pulpae firmly stuck to its yellow surface.

Another of its brethren but with tiny holes already eaten up by the developing larvae..

And falling flowers too.

One of its brothers and sisters, not so lucky. No bench to hold it up!

Another fellow victim from a different or the same species which fell even earlier. But all equally
casualties of the merciless march of time's one-directional arrow.

A humble and mute servant of our endless construction industry standing guard at the water front.
But building for what?

Ah, a wire-mesh fence!

And locked too! Am I locked in? Am I locked out? Does it matter?

There may be hope yet. Perhaps just a little across the other side of the Pearl River Delta. Don't
you see the golden rays of the dying sun upon the burnished sides of these carriers of the "dreams"
of a "quick kill" for millions who daily toil at our construction sites, our fast food shops, our municipal
garbage or street cleaning trucks, toilet cleaners, with black plastic gloves and their power water jets
or brooms in their hands or else slogging behind numberless sales counters for cosmetic, garment
(oh sorry, "fashion"), cameras, computers. mobile phones or other domestic electronic gadgets,
jewellery, "authentic" Chinese herbs or dried seafood or in front of computer screens behind office

2011年8月28日 星期日

Delight in Light

Since taking up photography in late April, I seem to have had an opthalmological operation. It felt as if I had my optic nerve replaced or completely rewired. The cones and rods at the back of my irises seemed suddenly to have become more sensitive to light and shade and to contrasts in colors and forms.  Sometimes I felt that I had never been to this world before. Suddenly, everything which enters the lens of my camera  becomes an object of ceaseless wonder. I began to notice things which I might have seen perhaps hundreds of time before as if I had never previously laid eyes on them.  Somehow the world seems to have changed magically right in front of my eyes! I'm so glad that it has become a much more interesting world. Now I'm never out without a camera and an extra battery in my shoulder bag.

Three of the things which now fascinate me are the form, the color and the texture of leaves. I don't mean any "special" leaves, anything "fancy". Just perfectly "plain",  "ordinary", "simple" and otherwise unremarakble leaves. They may be the leaves of trees and shrubs that we see around Hong Kong every day. Under the right conditions, they would take on a beauty which you'd never suspect could be there.  Is that not amazing? And of course the proverbial beauty of flowers too!

Like the contrast between the roughness and toughness of  the branches as they cling for
support against the wooden frame to the right and the different shades of green from left to right.

Unexpected patterns formed on two leaves by the shadows of others closer to the sun than they.

Multiple shadows of leaves on the surfaces of their brethren.

More shadows of leaves upon others broken by tougher dark browns of the horizontal lines of
the thicker or thinner creeper branches.

Different shades of brown and greens of the branches, contrasting with the variegated greens of
the networks of green veins of the leaves.

Like the network of veins, the slightly "sunburnt" edges  of the leaves and the translucence of
the leaves.

Different shades of green and shadows of leaves and branches.

Branches cutting unceremoniously across the sea of greens.

A close-up of the above. Like the kaleidoscopic shapes and colors.

An even closer close-up! I like the greens and yellows.

So many brothers and sisters. I suppose I must be content to be just one of them!

The vines clinging to the side and twisting around each other for better support.

Life fighting to express itself  through its chlorophyll despite the "casualties" caused by worms?

I may be a little burnt around my periphery and may have sustained two attacks from those
hateful worms but I'm so glad I've survived!

See how healthy and strong I am?

A "natural" casualty from age?

Fighting for attention from bees and butterflies with its purples and whites.

Like the whites embroidering the edges of the blue/purple petals.

Little white flowers silently telling the bigger purple flowers: we want attention too!

The little flowers saying quietly: we may like the sun but we don't want to get sunburnt!

A symphony of colors and forms.

Peaceful co-existence?

We're not ashamed of who or what we are!