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Foreword by Stephen Fry 
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Post Foreword by Stephen Fry
Stephen Fry presents a typically witty Foreword, comparing the four horsemen to the four musketeers. I was prompted to buy the Kindle version of The Four Horsemen after finding the publisher has arranged for the youtube video to be removed for reasons of copyright, so this gives the added benefit of this Foreword and also the Introduction by Richard Dawkins.

Fry’s essential rapier thrust is “the suspicion that the worst aspects of religion could not be separated from the essential nature of religion itself.” Fry seems to suggest here that no hypothetical true religion could possibly separate itself from the manifest reality of false religion, casting the entire social method of religion under an intense besmirchment. Having already dusted off the No True Scotsman fallacy as a trusty standby of religious debate, it seems surprising that he should allude to such a flagrant breach of that logical principle.

He goes on to imply an answer to his question of whether religion could possibly be redeemed with his observation that we live by metaphor, so it could be possible to accept a mythological story irrespective of its truth. My thought on this point is that it offers a rational path to find the meaning concealed beneath the rubble of religious traditions.

It is difficult to see the scale of corruption and depravity that have pervaded human life. The psychological and political implication of this problem of depravity is that only a crudely simplified version of enlightened religiosity can penetrate the repressive carapace of public culture, and this simplification then strongly influences all discussion.

My view is that God is a metaphor for the orderly complexity of the universe as it relates to human existence. That means we are likely to find numerous parables in religious history that give voice to this perception. The violence of public religion means however that such metaphorical language is reserved for initiates and is largely absent from public discussion.

This problem of metaphor in religion reminds me of a discussion I had yesterday about a wonderful recent sermon - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPEWfhz ... ture=share - by Dr Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University. Dr Pagels is the author of The Gnostic Gospels, her study of the 1945 Nag Hammadi cache of rediscovered ancient religious texts. She preaches on the suppressed heretical document Gnostic known as the Gospel of Truth, explaining how it shows the early church saw God as male and female, but this teaching was suppressed by orthodoxy. She compares the cross to the tree of life, with Jesus as the fruit. She notes the key idea from the Gospel of Thomas that we must express what is within us in order to be saved.

My thought on this material is that hierarchical patriarchal monotheism was an adaptive theology in the context of extreme conflict of the ancient world, given its power to enforce social uniformity and conscription for purposes of military security. However, if humanity evolves into conditions of sustained abundant peace (hopefully), the conditions will gradually change to allow local autonomy in spiritual practice, with extensive dialogue to share wisdom. This is the world that the Gnostics looked forward to, where human dignity and self-realization for all will become core human values.

The point reminding me of Dr Pagels was her interpretation of Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 3 as saying that the "milk" given to infants equates to the popular slogan "Christ Crucified", a crude public simplification, while the "solid food" Paul mentions equates to teaching the mysteries of the kingdom reserved for initiates.

The ironic metaphor in the title of this book, The Four Horsemen, is that this apocalyptic reference is among the most vivid and yet absurd images from the Bible. Revelation 6 presents these riders as plainly metaphorical, citing war, death, famine and plague as their results. So it is simple to see a symbolic meaning for this biblical text. It does not mean there will be four actual magical wraiths rampaging around the planet at the end of the age like Nazgul from The Lord of the Rings, but rather that war, death, famine and plague are predicted as the prime characteristics of apocalyptic collapse of civilization. Debate about whether the Four Horsemen actually exist misses the point as badly as debate about whether God exists.


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Post Re: Foreword by Stephen Fry
It makes little sense to me to write "against religion," so I would be critical of each of them to the extent that they've done that. I have read books by all but Dennett (just a little of him). I admire the cogency of the works, even the elegance of some of some parts of them. What I think each writer has difficulty with, though, is comprehending the depth of religious engagement, and its complexity. I'm not speaking from any personal experience, but I'm confident that what I hear from some people and what I read from people like David Brooks in his recent The Second Mountain is genuine spiritual experience that has little to do with belief in miracles, though belief in the supernatural is probably unavoidable in any very religious person, in my opinion. What the problem is, exactly, with supernatural belief, is unclear to me. It can lead to harmful effects?--so can any other variety of thought.

We lack a really good word or term for the badness that often stems from religion, but is not exclusive to that social category. I'm thinking about when people act in the name of as the trouble zone. Whether they're acting in the name of a god or a political ideology, they've relinquished their duty to exercise some independence of thought, have become automatons, and are dangerous. To eliminate religion probably wouldn't extinguish these outbreaks of zombie zealotry.



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Mon Jun 03, 2019 10:25 pm
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Post Re: Foreword by Stephen Fry
Robert Tulip wrote:
Fry’s essential rapier thrust is “the suspicion that the worst aspects of religion could not be separated from the essential nature of religion itself.” Fry seems to suggest here that no hypothetical true religion could possibly separate itself from the manifest reality of false religion, casting the entire social method of religion under an intense besmirchment. Having already dusted off the No True Scotsman fallacy as a trusty standby of religious debate, it seems surprising that he should allude to such a flagrant breach of that logical principle.

Religion has progressed, more or less along sociological lines that track the evolution of humanity. Initially it was just expression of emotional depth concerning events that do not feel they can be expressed easily in prosaic, analytical terms. Marriage, death, continued relationship after death, sexuality, birth, "possession" by emotional forces that feel like they are from outside the choice process, and a number of other experiences, transcend the analytical process by which we calculate advantage and manipulate life's forces. That's the stuff of folk religion and shamanism.

When larger collective units began to organize, the gods began to express hierarchy and to give sacred sanction to specific organizing principles. My favorite example is the way Hammurabi's code distinguishes between nobility and commoners. Israel's adopted version loses that distinction, but quickly acquired a distinction between slaves (servants, but in a caste system) and free people. After the Axial Age religion began to put principle above social status, so that, pretty much literally, no one is above the law.

These developments are undoubtedly progress, in the sense that they brought in more conscious, deliberate, reflective elements than the lower level they replace. These days, with incredible rates of change in social relations, it is pretty much up for grabs whether the next evolution will be most concerned with scientific realism or be more concerned with spiritual depth. One could make an argument that both have played a role in past religious evolution, but it looks to me like scientific realism is more a factor to be negotiated around (a barrier to mythic language, effectively) than a determinant of the direction of change. I see no other factors, with the possible exception of reaction against globalism and market erosion of human ties, that are likely to have much influence.

In my opinion the process of further progressing in religious understanding is already well underway. The clergy are trained in the dual vision that is modernity, recognizing the ways that symbolism maps the emotional landscape and how to enmesh practicing community within that map, using the symbolisms (but relationally, not manipulatively). It is, if you like, practicing literature: using the representation of emotional depth in a context that builds community by giving people a communal experience of emotional depth.

The critical voice of reason is an essential part of that process. The Four Horsemen never give any thought to how to incorporate emotional depth into communal experience, but they do examine the encounters between praxis, such as when Pat Buchanan goes on TV to declare that Haiti is punished by God with an enormously destructive earthquake because God is displeased by voodoo, and humanity's legitimate quest for an honest account of our lives. They are the negative side of integrating reason, emotional depth and communal praxis (if you think of those three as the Trinity, you are not far off from understanding Trinitarian theology). They tell us important things about what we should not think because it is too stupid, the same process that freed us from burning witches and from declaring menstruating women unclean.

Robert Tulip wrote:
He goes on to imply an answer to his question of whether religion could possibly be redeemed with his observation that we live by metaphor, so it could be possible to accept a mythological story irrespective of its truth. My thought on this point is that it offers a rational path to find the meaning concealed beneath the rubble of religious traditions.
Since he is an active participant in that other "religious" tradition of modern life, the theater, I would expect Fry to have some sense that we live by metaphor. The theater has the advantage of weaving metaphor consciously, so that there is never a temptation to claim authority for its literal accuracy. The Christian religion has had, for almost 100 years, a vocabulary for recognizing that we can work with the narrative in ways that accept its symbolic values without insisting on its literal accuracy and authority.

Its difference from theater in practice is worth exploring. Theater-goers have an experience, they recognize some insight from it, and they then bear the burden of integrating it (or not) with their lives. The experiences can be fragmented and it will still carry on in its own terms. In religion, by contrast, the sense of "one truth" demands that an integrated version be constructed by reason and instinct working together, to fashion a social framework. In practice we do not insist on one truth, and that turns out to fit well with symbolic rather than literal understanding of the nature of the one truth, but the urge to create common understanding of life lived in real time (as opposed to analyzed scientifically) still impels the religious enterprise to create an integrated version of our understanding of life.

This urge to create an integrated account of life and to embed it in community practice practically requires that religion have the potential for abuse that the participants worry about. It has been observed many times by David Brooks and others that simply setting aside the supernatural elements does not end the process of people telling other people what they should think and what they should value. Modern religion, though, builds tolerance of the views of others into this integration process as a fundamental building block. That makes it more difficult, and perhaps less compelling, for those who want simple guidance, by comparison with fundamentalist religion insisting on authority.

I would say Fry's question is whether we can elevate common understanding to the point where we more or less share a conceptual framework that solves the emotional problems addressed by religion without creating (serious) added emotional problems in the process. If you ask me whether that can be done with family life, I would say of course it can. And I don't understand why it can't be just as much within our grasp to do the same for recognition of what is meaningful.

Robert Tulip wrote:
It is difficult to see the scale of corruption and depravity that have pervaded human life. The psychological and political implication of this problem of depravity is that only a crudely simplified version of enlightened religiosity can penetrate the repressive carapace of public culture, and this simplification then strongly influences all discussion.
Well, there is the depravity of ignorance and the depravity of conflict. The former can, unquestionably, be overcome. The latter is more problematic. It seems that our biology has left us a legacy of a wide dispersion in the extent to which people see society in conflictual terms. People who are more convinced that life is a struggle against others are more likely to evolve predatory practices which they then pass on to others who are similarly inclined. Modeling suggests the more that ordinary society practices trust, the easier it becomes to succeed with predation strategies. I think it is fair to say that the faith which Christians believe saves us is a faith that practices of inner transformation can offset this predator/prey balance, or roughly speaking, that the barbarians can be civilized.

Robert Tulip wrote:
This problem of metaphor in religion reminds me of a discussion I had yesterday about a wonderful recent sermon by Dr Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University. Dr Pagels is the author of The Gnostic Gospels, her study of the 1945 Nag Hammadi cache of rediscovered ancient religious texts. She preaches on the suppressed heretical document Gnostic known as the Gospel of Truth, explaining how it shows the early church saw God as male and female, but this teaching was suppressed by orthodoxy. She compares the cross to the tree of life, with Jesus as the fruit. She notes the key idea from the Gospel of Thomas that we must express what is within us in order to be saved.
It is too easy to see this as Expressive Individualism. We post-Enlightenment moderns tend to interpret "what is within us" as "my individuality". But an impulse to order is also within us, and an impulse to share common understanding, and the marvelous ability to "catch fire" from the excitement of others.

Robert Tulip wrote:
My thought on this material is that hierarchical patriarchal monotheism was an adaptive theology in the context of extreme conflict of the ancient world, given its power to enforce social uniformity and conscription for purposes of military security. However, if humanity evolves into conditions of sustained abundant peace (hopefully), the conditions will gradually change to allow local autonomy in spiritual practice, with extensive dialogue to share wisdom. This is the world that the Gnostics looked forward to, where human dignity and self-realization for all will become core human values.
I think that's pretty insightful. I expect that local autonomy in religion is compatible with mutual toleration, and that a process of developing rich interplay between practice and beliefs can cross-fertilize, more or less in the way that music and dance develop within a cultural framework and then cross-fertilize across cultures.



Tue Jun 11, 2019 3:38 pm
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Post Re: Foreword by Stephen Fry
DWill wrote:
genuine spiritual experience that has little to do with belief in miracles, though belief in the supernatural is probably unavoidable in any very religious person, in my opinion.
Tomorrow morning I start a 230 km walk in Central Australia, the Larapinta Trail, so will have no internet or phone contact until 4 July. I am preparing for a conference of the Australian Student Christian Movement on my return, where I will speak on Christianity and Climate Change, and moderate a conversation about God.
This point about belief in the supernatural is interesting. My view is that God is a metaphor for the complex order of the cosmos as it connects to human life. That necessarily involves deep mystery, with forces and processes we cannot understand, including apparent meaningful coincidences produced by the synchronous principle that all events occurring at one moment share in the causal character of that moment. Yet I bridle at the view that such intuition involves the supernatural, since that term posits the existence of intentional entities, where it may be that divinity is more a structure that is a construction of the human mind as a way to channel the deep energies of the universe.
DWill wrote:
What the problem is, exactly, with supernatural belief, is unclear to me. It can lead to harmful effects?--so can any other variety of thought.
The problem is that supernatural belief is corrupt and obsolete, making absolute claims that wildly conflict with scientific evidence. If we take evidence and logic as the highest values, then we will protect ourselves against harmful effects. All supernatural language should be approached as metaphor, as a rich fount of meaning concealed beneath a surface story that is not intended to be taken literally. Looking again at the example of the Four Horsemen, as I mentioned in the opening post, this seemingly supernatural Bible story is harmful when taken literally but profoundly insightful when taken as metaphor for the forces of collapse besetting our world.
DWill wrote:

We lack a really good word or term for the badness that often stems from religion, but is not exclusive to that social category. I'm thinking about when people act in the name of as the trouble zone. Whether they're acting in the name of a god or a political ideology, they've relinquished their duty to exercise some independence of thought, have become automatons, and are dangerous. To eliminate religion probably wouldn't extinguish these outbreaks of zombie zealotry.
Perhaps the word you are looking for is bigotry? Despite such corrupted practices, it is clear that abolishing faith would be deeply harmful, as social organisation through faith could only be replaced by organisation through the state, which has shown itself incapable of promoting human freedom. The ideological danger of religion arises from blinkered dogma, grounded in social purposes of control and traditional authority, whereas the benefit of religion comes from treating stories as moral lessons, as parables able to teach how to live.

My favourite such parable is the tree of life, bookending the Bible at the start of Genesis and the end of Revelation. The Apocalypse of John tells us that the tree of life has twelve fruits, one for each month, and grows on both sides of the river of life. This is a direct coded description of simple visual observation of the night sky, where the stars of the zodiac form twelve groups, one per month, and are seen on both sides of the Milky Way, the cosmic river of life. The tree of life in this parable is unlike any real tree, which only ever grows on one side of a river. The meaning of this parable is that divinity arises in the complex order of the cosmos, but humanity has lost sight of this simple point of connection, having fallen from grace into depravity, being unable to see the presence of God in the world.


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Post Re: Foreword by Stephen Fry
DWill wrote:
What I think each writer has difficulty with, though, is comprehending the depth of religious engagement, and its complexity.

One of the things we know both introspectively and by fitting to social experience is that engaging in complex mental processes is rewarding in itself. You can think of it as "solving problems". Much of religious mental processes amounts to re-orienting attitudes to reconcile ideas about the outside world, such as "God is in control" with feelings about experience, such as "being oppressed is frustrating". We reconcile "I am attracted to that woman" with "adultery is a betrayal." Religion benefits from the fact that such reconciliations get easier with repetition, but the repetition also decreases the pleasure of solving a complex problem. Brooks looks at "thick" social arrangements as a rewarding way to do life, and I think a lot of the reason for that is that the complexity is restored when we combine religious problem solving inside oneself with the problems of explaining, commenting, encouraging, etc. with others. Not to mention the pleasures (encompassing the frustrations, if they are not too severe) of solving problems (e.g. how to feed 150 homeless people) together with others.

DWill wrote:
I'm not speaking from any personal experience, but I'm confident that what I hear from some people and what I read from people like David Brooks in his recent The Second Mountain is genuine spiritual experience that has little to do with belief in miracles, though belief in the supernatural is probably unavoidable in any very religious person, in my opinion. What the problem is, exactly, with supernatural belief, is unclear to me. It can lead to harmful effects?--so can any other variety of thought.
Well, I would argue that it involves an unhealthy degree of pretending, in the modern world, which means there is cognitive dissonance. Evidently much of Evangelical religion deals with the cognitive dissonance by doubling down on it, interpreting those who emphasize different values, such as scientific accuracy, as idolaters, apologists for sinful impulses, or some such social condemnation. This is, to put it bluntly, contrary to my religion, (and I suspect to Brooks' as well). We are meant to discern the value in others, not see them as threats. (I recognize that I spend a lot of time spelling out what threat is coming from this or that group. For me, this raises a kind of responsibility to try to see the world from their point of view, as much as possible, in order to diffuse the sense of threat and increase the chances for reconciliation).

DWill wrote:
We lack a really good word or term for the badness that often stems from religion, but is not exclusive to that social category. I'm thinking about when people act in the name of as the trouble zone. Whether they're acting in the name of a god or a political ideology, they've relinquished their duty to exercise some independence of thought, have become automatons, and are dangerous. To eliminate religion probably wouldn't extinguish these outbreaks of zombie zealotry.
Is this Harari's connective fictions? I think there is a difference between accepting of fictions because we can perceive the connective value vs. insisting on fictions in the face of evidence (which does not apply to theism per se - since evidence is not exactly abundant one way or another). In the latter case, it is incumbent on leaders to think through a way to reconcile the facts with the need for the connective value.



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Post Re: Foreword by Stephen Fry
Robert Tulip wrote:
Tomorrow morning I start a 230 km walk in Central Australia, the Larapinta Trail, so will have no internet or phone contact until 4 July. I am preparing for a conference of the Australian Student Christian Movement on my return, where I will speak on Christianity and Climate Change, and moderate a conversation about God.

I hope the walk and the talk go really well. Go with God, as people used to say.



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Tue Jun 11, 2019 6:57 pm
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Post Re: Foreword by Stephen Fry
Harry Marks wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
Tomorrow morning I start a 230 km walk in Central Australia, the Larapinta Trail, so will have no internet or phone contact until 4 July. I am preparing for a conference of the Australian Student Christian Movement on my return, where I will speak on Christianity and Climate Change, and moderate a conversation about God.

I hope the walk and the talk go really well. Go with God, as people used to say.


Thanks Harry. I meant to mention, I am also taking Modern Man In Search of a Soul, a 1933 collection of essays by Carl Jung, on the walk. I will give a talk on it at the Canberra Jung Society in August. I valued our discussion last year on Answer to Job, and will share some thoughts on Jung and the soul when I get back from Larapinta in July.

On this theme of going with God that you mention, I mentioned to one of the conference speakers that my dad used to say God is a metaphor, and to me that means God is a way of describing how humanity connects to the complex order of the cosmos. While supernatural beliefs can be comforting, the profound meaning seems to arise when we consider those beliefs as symbolic rather than as literal, viewing mythology as the stories that give meaning to life.


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Post Re: Foreword by Stephen Fry
Harry Marks wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
Tomorrow morning I start a 230 km walk in Central Australia, the Larapinta Trail, so will have no internet or phone contact until 4 July. I am preparing for a conference of the Australian Student Christian Movement on my return, where I will speak on Christianity and Climate Change, and moderate a conversation about God.

I hope the walk and the talk go really well. Go with God, as people used to say.

Yes, I looked at images of the Larapinta Trail and read just a bit about it. Beautiful country. I wonder whether, given the respect paid to the land's "traditional owners," the people walking the trail have a sense of being engaged in something beyond an athletic feat. I'm familiar with long-distance hiking on the Appalachian Trail. The ethos seems to be weighted toward how many miles you can reel off in a day.

But I don't mean to hijack the thread. Maybe you can tell us about the walk afterwards.



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 Re: Foreword by Stephen Fry
.
.
We've been remodeling. To make room I've rented a 5'x5'x4' storage space and moved most of my books into it. I did sign up to comment on The Last Unicorn and Winter is Coming so I'll say a couple of things though they'll be negative.

I suggested The Last Unicorn because I was impressed by Peter S. Beagle's introduction to The Lord of the Rings. If you haven't read it I recommend it — it's only a few paragraphs long.

[url]https://medium.com/@michalpekarik/introduction-to-the-lord-of-the-rings-by-peter-s-beagle-680b45711613
[/url]

You need to scroll down below the version in an Eastern European language I can't identify to the English version.
As far as The Last Unicorn goes I read half and got sidetracked. Never picked it up again. Someday I'll finish it because I am interested but right now I don't even know where it is. I'll find it when I reclaim my library from storage. I am very curious about the bull. Never got to that part.


As for Winter is Coming I read over half the book and will not read anymore. A news junkie when the events (or horrors) Kasparov writes about occurred, I have no need nor desire to revisit them. Also, the way Kasparov incessantly blames U.S. foreign policy gets annoying. I know we screwed up. I was paying attention. I do not need to read Kasparov's whining to understand the events he describes. The one part of the book I enjoyed is where he stated he was wrong about something; I forget exactly what, my point is he made a big a deal of admitting his error as though his making a mistake was rare and notable occurrence. That made laugh. The man's a rare and notable Azerbaijani peacock.


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