Friday, December 23, 2011

Faith, the Spirit World, and Tolerance

Occasionally I've heard a Mormon ask, “Why is so much faith required of us?” Generally he or she means “Why isn’t there more evidence?” The usual answer is that if more evidence was given, it would diminish our free agency, because then everybody would believe and be good. I think that’s a great answer for why such little evidence is given, but not a great answer for the harder question: “Why are we judged by our faith?” Judgment by faith is comforting to those who find it easier to believe than to follow all the commandments, but seems terribly unfair to someone like me. It’s hard to see how believing something without solid evidence is even a good thing, let only why it’s a qualifier for getting into heaven. If I live my life as a good person, and try and help other people not for an eternal reward but rather out of compassion, but am honestly skeptical about the gospel, then why should I be condemned for it? My good friend Gavin Jensen recently wrote a blog post that has a potential answer: maybe faith is really belief based on evidence, rather than belief without evidence. He observes that a willingness to believe without evidence disconnects the believer from reality, and decreases the chance of having correct beliefs. That concept of faith makes a lot more sense to me.

There’s still a problem, in my opinion: I don’t think there is enough evidence given to justify belief in the church. And that’s where the Mormon belief in a spirit world comes in handy. That’s not a criticism, it’s praise. An immediate judgment based on faith right after this life would definitely be very unfair, and the idea of a spirit world makes a lot more sense. The very fact that I’d still be alive as a spirit after my death would be sufficient evidence for me to change my mind about God. I think the belief in a spirit world should make Mormons much more tolerant of skepticism and dissent. So when Mormons are overly zealous about keeping people in the church, I don’t think that’s a necessary consequence of their doctrine, I think it’s a culturally-influenced attitude. I suggest that embracing the doctrine of the spirit world and the tolerance that it enables would be a much better idea.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Economic Research on Tax Rates

In a previous post I argued that a flat tax in not intrinsically fair, and that there's no reason not to tax the rich at a higher rate if it promotes the general welfare. I said those rates should be determined through economic research. There's been a couple of interesting papers lately about the optimal top tax rate that I'm reading, and although they're kind of hard to follow, there have been some good simple reviews: I liked this one and this one. The take-home message is simple though: taxes should be much more progressive than they currently are.

Christopher Hitchens

Today Christopher Hitchens past away. I've read only one of his books, but read dozens of articles and viewed debates, interviews, and documentaries about his ideas. He showed that people who think often do not fit into a simple position on the left-right political spectrum. He was a fascinating writer and a good man. I'll miss his articles and thoughts.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion

I was skimming the headlines on The Huffington Post this morning, and happened across a rather fascinating excerpt from His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s upcoming book, Beyond Religion.

He finds that both religion and science (thus far) fail to provide for the universal morality necessary for inner peace and world peace:

“Science, for all the benefits it has brought to our external world, has not yet provided scientific grounding for the development of the foundations of personal integrity -- the basic inner human values that we appreciate in others and would do well to promote in ourselves. . . . Today, however, any religion-based answer to the problem of our neglect of inner values can never be universal, and so will be inadequate. What we need today is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without: a secular ethics.”

And what is the basis for the secular ethics? Compassion: “The essence of compassion is a desire to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being. This is the spiritual principle from which all other positive inner values emerge.” The purpose/goal is also well-stated: “For it is these inner values which are the source of both an ethically harmonious world and the individual peace of mind, confidence and happiness we all seek.”

As I’ve mentioned before, since my abandonment of religion, I’ve been searching for a secular basis of morality as well, taking Sam Harris’ suggestion of seeking a moral basis in science. The Dalai Lama and Sam Harris seem like they’re on the same page. I expect that this book will be similar to The Moral Landscape, other than one of them is targeted specifically for atheists, while the other is more inclusive for all religions.

It is incredibly refreshing to see a major religious leader try and build bridges to secular people, and be inclusive of atheists. It’s incredibly gratifying to feel that kind of outreach from a religious person in a world where atheists are about as trusted as rapists (seriously, google it). My desire to gain trust for us atheists was part of the reason why I decided to be as public as I am about my atheism. Hopefully I’m a good representative of the atheist community. My experience at Atheists of Utah meetings definitely indicates that atheists are generally good, honest people. Hopefully other religious leaders will follow the Dalai Lama’s lead in becoming more inclusive and accepting of everyone, even us godless heathens :)