Monday, February 15, 2010

Optimism: It's as Simple as That

I did some rather eclectic reading this weekend because I had that kind of time on my hands, we were house-sitting at the in-laws and, as usual, there was nothing to watch on cable TV.

First I read this. No surprises, of course. This is Sam Harris, after all, who can find danger in a daisy and umbrage in an umbrella. To sweepingly say that anything – the web, religion, science, evolution – is “destructive technology” is to lump all the good in with the bad and stir it all up until you’ve got a nice bubblin’ cauldron o’ crazy.

He says of the Internets:
I think it's had two diametrically opposed effects. One effect has been really good. It's created transformation and empowered people and allowed us to debunk bad ideas in a very ... decisive way. It's almost created a cognitive immune system for the planet.

It's also empowered pranks and pseudoscience and bad information because every person on the Internet can sort of find the people like them and everyone can find an audience so there are certain forms of ignorance that would more or less be unthinkable without the Internet. Global jihad has been massively empowered by the Internet. Even things like the 911 truth conspiracy. That, to my mind, is an Internet phenomenon. No one would publish those books. This is something that is born of Web sites and Internet commentary.
So has the printing press. And radio. And television. And the telegraph. And waaaaaay back when the first caveman put ink to cave wall or the first Hammurabian put stylus to unbaked clay. Yeah, there’s a lot of crap out there. But if you constantly look at the ways bad people use technology, or science, or religion, or anything else in a bad or unacceptable way and use those examples to deny the good that comes of science, religion, the internet, or evolutionary science, then, by golly, you are going to find danger in every daisy. Because if "no one would publish those books," if the Internet had not spawned conspiracy theories and like-minded people swarming together to believe what they believe and deny all others (this goes for every belief system, remember, Mr. Harris, atheists included) then how do you explain the likes of "Mein Kampf" and "The Protocols of the Elders of Israel," or the KKK? Didn't they all exist, plus many, many, others, pre-internet. Yes, evil is using the Internet, just as evil uses any technology available.

I prefer a more optimistic approach to life. This does not mean, however, putting my head in the sand, or up my rear, or into any other orifice of the choosing of Mr. Harris or his ilk. It means, to the contrary, being more aware of what is going on, who I'm associating with, what I'mr eading, who I'm listening to, and all that.

That leads me on to some of this weekend’s other reading.

Moroni Chapter 7, first of all, starting with verse 12:
Wherefore, all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil; for the devil is an enemy unto God, and fighteth against him continually, and inviteth and enticeth to sin, and to do that which is evil continually.

But behold, that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God.

Wherefore, take heed, my beloved bretheren, that ye do not judge that which is good and of God to be of the devil.

For behold, my bretheren, it is given unto you to judge, that ye may know good from evil; and the way to judge is as plain, that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the daylight is from the dark night.
We have it in us to know what is good and what is evil. I know enough how to filter out the crap in this world to avoid it. Does that mean I avoid controversial ideas, or science, or reason? No, but the Sam Harrises of the world would have you think as such. This is where many critics of religion go so very wrong: they equate religious likemindedness with blindness, or rather blindness to what they would have us believe – or not believe, since they go about telling us how foolish we are to believe in God and how much evil has been done in God’s name.

I don’t deny that bad things have been done in the name of God. But I can look at my own internal good versus bad compass, following the admonitions of Moroni, and not confuse evil which is done by men and men only in the name of God with anything that has been done at God’s behest.

This brings me to more reading, this time St. Augustine’s Confessions, which he wrote during a period of increased spirituality over worldly pleasures. He writes, in Part 8 of Book Two:
No one can tell me the truth of [his acts] except my God, who enlightens my mind and dispels its shadows.
This goes back to calling good evil and evil good. Good versus evil is black and white, daylight from the dark night.

Good is remaining optimistic in the face of the evidence. St. Augustine, in revealing his sins of youth, reveals faith and hope in God and in the role God plays in our lives. His God, as is my God, is not the God Jupiter, who “punishes the wicked with his thunderbolts and yet commits adultery himself,” as St. Augustine wrote in Book One. He, like I, agree that “the two roles are incompatible.”

I equate optimism with hope. Maybe it is the “hope without guarantees” that deeply Roman Catholic J.R.R. Tolkein interlaced throughout his novels. Maybe it's more of a pessimistic optimism, in which one hopes for the best but acknowledges that in this world, some crap will fly. But it is hope, optimistic, nonetheless.

Hope, Moroni tells us, leads to faith, which leads to charity. Thusly:
And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all thingsk, endureth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
So on the whole I choose to remain optimistic. Optimism even in the face of disaster and especially in the face of evil.

Indeed, I follow an admonition from Gordon B. Hinckley:
Of course there are times of sorrow. Of course there are hours of concern and anxiety. We all worry. But the Lord has told us to lift our hearts and rejoice. I see so many people. . .who seem never to see the sunshine, but who constantly walk with storms under cloudy skies. Cultivate an attitude of happiness. Cultivate a spirit of optimism. Walk with faith, rejoicing in the beauties of nature, in the goodness of those you love, in the testimony which you carry in your heart concerning things divine.
I will always see the sunshine. That does not mean I do not see the clouds; but it does mean I see the sun shining through them, in beautiful rays down to the green grassy earth.

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