Author Archives: Prof. Kenneth Lucey

Polygamy versus Polyandry

This column is will neither endorse nor condemn polygamy.  Most Western societies have made polygamy illegal, and a study examining arguments for such illegality could easily fill multiple books. What is of interest here are the cultures that permit polygamy, but prohibit polyandry.  Just to be clear, polygamy is the state of a male having multiple wives.  Polyandry is the state of a woman having multiple husbands.  Some religions have permitted polygamy, while having prohibited polyandry. Such dogma strikes me as inherently unjust.  The notion that women are inferior to men is surely indefensible in the contemporary world and always should have been.  For example, when Mohammed married Khadija, she was the wealthy member of that marriage, and he was the younger man marrying a affluent older woman. He subsequently had multiple wives, but she would not have been allowed to have multiple husbands.  Where is the justice in that?



The Essences of Prayer

There is not a single kind of prayer. There are at least three radically distinct forms, namely personal, meditative, and public prayer, each with its own distinctive form of effectiveness. Personal prayer is a sustained thought, silent or spoken, concerning the most intimate moral or spiritual concerns of our lives. Some such prayers take the form of a request to a deity to intercede in our lives in some manner. Effectiveness of such might be measured by the sincerity, pertinence and honesty of the propositions expressed. Meditative prayer, sometimes called mindfulness meditation, attempts to still the mind with a focus varying from individual to individual. Effective meditative prayer has quite different features because the ability to focus concentration varies individually. Public prayers are another species of speech act altogether, with the trappings of a public ritual. The effectiveness of public prayer involves rhetorical qualities absent from the first two forms.



Questioning Salvation

Salvation is a religion-specific concept, meaning  different things in different religions. In an exclusively Christian context, the doctrine maintains that the majority of humanity shall spend eternity suffering the unspeakable torments of Hell. So, for Christians, salvation is tied to escaping eternal damnation. In the gospel of John (chapter 3 verse 16) the requirement for Christian salvation is specified: believing in the divinity of Joshua ben Joseph, (Jesus of Nazareth). Within a Hindu context, salvation means something entirely different. The comparable Hindu concept would be moksha: release from the perpetual cycle of reincarnation. So there is no such thing as a best way of achieving salvation, because it means different things in different religions. The one commonality is apparently belief in a soul or an immaterial self that survives physical death. One who doesn’t accept that assumption is unlikely to have an opinion about the best method of achieving salvation.



A Minority View

The only intellectually responsible answer to the question posed is: It depends upon what you mean by ‘God’. The question assumes everyone means the same thing. This is simply not true. The answer of about 75% of professional philosophers is that “No gods exist” and the primary reason given is the failure of the free will defense to answer the problem posed by natural evil. This position is often supplemented by reflections upon what is called “the hiddenness of God”. This is the moral issue posed by the absence of God’s active involvement during the Holocaust. A philosophical response to the majority (atheist) and the minority (theist) is that of the agnostic, who differs in denying knowledge of both God’s existence and nonexistence. Excellent arguments exist for the rationality of the agnostic’s position. Of course, within humanity the positions of the philosophers are a tiny proportion of human thinking generally.



Most Assuredly a Curse

Poverty is not a blessing and is certainly a curse. People in abject poverty cannot adequately feed, clothe and shelter their children, and cannot afford the education & healthcare that they and their offspring often desperately need. No one, including an omni-benevolent deity, would inflict poverty on someone as a blessing. It is generally recognized that we are living in an era of massive income inequality. The political system that fosters this state of affairs is seriously deficient. People who grow up in poverty, and through hard work and good luck, raise themselves into improved economic conditions, may look back upon past deprivations as somehow an important formative condition to have overcome, but it is hard to imagine that anyone would consider their previous poverty a blessing. Religions that endorse the doctrine of karma may see poverty as a consequence of past actions, but generally don’t count it a blessing.



All Are Okay

The question broadly conceived regards nonstandard forms of religious activity. When one considers the multitude of religions in the world, and the wide variety of religious practices encompassed, it seems there is no standard form of religious behavior. Consider, for example, a Quaker service, where a group of worshippers gather without a designated leader. The group may sit in silence for the duration of the allotted time. The notion of attending a religious service without exiting one’s vehicle may be unusual, but that does not make it less religious. It seems like an extension of a drive in movie, which was a commonplace of my youth but more rare on the contemporary scene. In a religion like Hinduism most religious activity occurs in individual homes. Some protestant Christian services fill whole stadiums with their attendees. Between these two extremes there are a multitude of variants, all of which are okay.

 



It Depends

Most people who have a religion, have it because they were taught it as they were growing up. Like any generality, this one has numerous exceptions. Some people grow up without being taught any particular religion, but as adults adopt one on their own. The very idea of questioning one’s religion presupposes a certain mind set and array of critical thinking skills, which many people simply do not ever acquire. So the simplest answer to the question posed is just “it depends on who you are and what interests, and critical thinking skills you have”. Questioning one’s religion can be superficial or it can be deeply involving. Martin Luther made a life career out of questioning the Catholicism in which he was raised. For him, this questioning was an all-consuming life occupation. Most people have neither the interest nor the skills to seriously question their, or any other, religion.

 



Policies Should Evolve

There can be no doubt that the historical religions have evolved over the periods in which they have existed. Moral laws that previously existed have been changed or dropped entirely. The notion of sexuality policies is ambiguous for it could mean policies concerning sexual gender, or it could mean policies concerning sexual behavior. With regard to the former it seems to me that all religions should update their practices to embrace gender equality. The notion of an exclusively male priesthood is an outdated historical artifact. With regard to policies concerning sexual practices religions should also update their moral laws. Some religions originally embraced polygamy and have evolved to disavow having multiple spouses. Other religions still permit that practice. Policy concerning homosexuality is another such case. Overall which practices to change and which to retain is a moral question. Thus, the notion that divine law is eternal and unchanging is false.



Reincarnation

The only psychic I know is convinced that he has lived many previous lives, both as a male and as a female. As a teenager I read both Morey Bernstein’s The Search For Bridey Murphy, and thought it credible evidence for the possibility of reincarnation, although many skeptics disagree. As an adult I read Ian Stevenson, M.D. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (University Press of Virginia, 1966, 1974) and found it to add to the evidential base for the belief that people may have past lives. Yet I would certainly not claim to know that reincarnation occurs. The vast majority of my academic colleagues would dismiss this topic as outrageous. But upon closer investigation, I find that most have never bothered to study the relevant literature & arguments in its favor. They mostly embrace physicalism as if it were necessarily true, which I believe it most assuredly is not.



Too Much Money

Desire for wealth and material possessions characterize most of us, unless one is a monk or an ascetic. But how much money is too much money? It is generally recognized that the United States is in a state of massive income inequality. The top one percent possesses more wealth than the rest of the population combined. Such a situation ought to be recognized as immoral. Currently, Congress is considering legislation that would, by the C. B. O. estimate, cause twenty-three million additional Americans to lose their health care, to give a tax cut to those who are already the wealthiest amongst us. Such a congressional action is a moral travesty. But how much money is too much money? This writer has no answer to that. Enough to be comfortable is presumably what everyone wants, but how to put a number on that will surely vary from household to household.



Both Are Vital

What does purity of dogma mean? What does integrity of love mean? Without answering such questions, it is hard to understand whether one is more or less important than the other. A dogma is a central proposition of some conceptual scheme. A central dogma of many religions is a proposition asserting the nature and existence of God. A dogma is a belief.   What is meant by the purity of a dogma or belief? The simplest answer would be that purity means truth. A true belief is then a pure belief and a false belief is an impure belief. Love, on the contrary is an emotion, and as such can be appropriate or inappropriate, rational or irrational. Integrity means something like honesty. I suggest that purity and integrity are both equally important. Ideally, in matters religious, one hopes to believe only true propositions, and honestly love the good.



Godless Items

Theologians talk about the “hiddenness” of God, meaning God’s seeming lack of presence during various horrendous occurrences, such as the Holocaust. So, the posed question about finding all things in God is puzzling to the extent that we cannot find God himself. God is ubiquitous, i.e. everywhere. A pantheist, thinking God is identical to the totality of reality, might mistakenly think that all things can be found in God. Such an inclusive conception of God would surely be a mistake. We do have ideas of things that are mythical. Consider the idea of the unicorn, which is to say an ordinary horse, which has a narwhal horn. Presumably there are no unicorns. So, even if God were identical to the totality of reality, it is still not going to be the case that God contains any unicorns, and thus it is false that all things can be found in God.



My Heresies

My personal belief system developed as others’, namely as a product of education and life experiences. My parents were theists and there were several protestant ministers among my immediate relatives. My father would have been one as well except the Depression interrupted his college education. As a teenager I was confirmed as a member of the Methodist Church. As an undergraduate in college I studied philosophy and for the first time encountered discussions of arguments for and against God’s existence. I found the argument from evil (for God’s nonexistence) and the failure of the Free Will Defense (as an answer to natural evil) decisive. Also influential was my reading of the biography of Edgar Casey by Thomas Sugrue entitled There Is a River. That work made me question the physicalism embraced by most contemporary philosophers. In summary I remain an agnostic with an open mind about the nature of reality.



A Gift

Sexual reproduction is a fact of life not just for humans, but for most living things. For theists, who believe that God is the original creator of everything living, the answer is that the processes of sexual reproduction are His doing and an integral part of the divine plan for creation. But human sexuality is a complicated business, and also includes non-standard sorts of desires. If God is the ultimate author of sexuality, then He would also seem to be responsible for it in all of its forms. That is, He is responsible for standard and nonstandard or “deviant” sexuality. Non-theists of course disagree and believe that the processes of sexual reproduction are the product of evolutionary processes that are believed to account for all life forms. Love is clearly an intrinsic good, and love is clearly a component of human sexuality. So, whatever its source, sex is a gift.

 



The Defenseless Theist

Alan is a male, has blue eyes and believes in God. None of these are properties for which he is particularly responsible. That is, he was born a blue-eyed male and he is a theist because his parents were and raised him to be one. We lack free will with regard to our beliefs. They are developed in response to our upbringing & our experiences. Is Alan, the believer, required to defend his religion? How so? Alan is no philosopher. He couldn’t possibly produce an argument for the existence of God. So Alan is not required to defend his religion. Rather he just lives it. Theologians talk about the “hiddenness” of God, by which they mean the lack of His obvious presence in the midst of events such as the Holocaust, plagues or other natural disasters. Theists certainly wish that God would defend religion by making his presence less “hidden”.