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Absolutism


Antlerman
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A couple days ago I heard this broadcast on the local Jazz station on a program they play each day called “The Engines of our Ingenuity”. He speaks about how the U.S. is so far behind the rest of the world in scientific knowledge, I’m sharing a transcript of it here because I like how he puts it that the problem isn’t with religion, but with Absolutism.

 

I recognize this mentality or philosophy to be the driving force that propels fundamentalism in the world, and it has nothing to do with what some prophet saying this or saying that. It transcends religion into any belief. It begins with the individual, who then seeks out some system of absolutes to suit them, whether it is religion, education, philosophies, or politics that have "The Truth".

 

Today, evolution and education. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

 

The very disturbing set of measurements has just come out. An article in Science magazine summarizes a long-term study of how well the public accepts the fact that we evolved from other species. The countries included in the study were European, with two exceptions: the US and Japan. The results were horrifying.

 

In European countries, acceptance ranged from over fifty percent of the population, up to over eighty percent (in all but one case) with Japan up among the top European countries. The two bottom countries were the United States, where only 39 percent of our population accepts evolution, and Turkey with 26 percent.

 

American education has been under attack, but this is the most stinging indictment that I've heard yet. I've spent my life teaching, and I can only ask, "Where did I go wrong?" For we clearly have become the two-out-of-three-child-left-behind country.

 

Why is this happening? Many people will blame it on religion, and that's a mistake.
Absolutism is the culprit -- the need on the part of so many of us to know The Right Answer.
The absolutists in the world will glom onto whatever vehicle suits them -- religion, politics, education, and ultimately science itself.

 

The absolutist finds the honest practice of science hateful, because science is a way of life where everything lies open to question. Some generalizations of experience reach the status of "laws". But then we write codicils on those laws. Einstein set limits on the validity of Newton's laws. Nuclear fission provided an amendment to the conservation of energy law.

 

The absolutists will correctly say there is no proof (using proof in its strictest sense) that the world is more than nine thousand years old. The age of Earth is established scientifically, not mathematically. And scientific results can't be proved in any logical or mathematical sense. They can only be verified --- over and over and over. So dialogue founders on the very basis of knowledge. How can science address someone who wants the assurance of absolute proof?

 

God had good reason for asking Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if you have understanding." He's telling Job to have patience with his own ignorance -- something any scientist had better have or find a new line of work. America meanwhile becomes a third-world backwater where we reject scientific questioning in favor of convenient answers.

 

I wanted to weep when one Kansas City school board member said, "Why all this fuss about one thing we did; what about all the other things we accomplished?" I thought of the reporter asking, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"

 

The creation meanwhile continues under our noses -- micro-organisms evolve in the laboratory, certain creatures evolve within our own lifetimes. This universe has been made more wonderfully than will ever fit in any simple human box.

 

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

 

I see exactly this same thing being behind the rejection of philosophies, world views, or rational methodologies that are "open-ended", where there are only shades of grey and not clearly defined lines of black and white. Behind this drive as I see it is the fear of having no answers, the perceived loss of being able to define what we know, how we should think, what we should value, how we should act.

 

The reality is every time we have sought to define the edges of our understanding of our world, the edges shift, and move, and fade, and overlap, and never remain consistent. This is rightly so as everything is always is a state of change, with death being the only thing static. Absolutism is a reactionary impulse to the dread of having to take responsibility for making truth ourselves. If “The Truth” exists outside us, then we can point to something which is external to us. “It’s not me saying it, it’s God; it’s not my truth, it The Truth.” We want someone else to be God.

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Michael Shermer in his book "The Science of Good and Evil" posits with quite convincing evidence that absolutism, better referred to as binary thinking, is an evolved natural trait in we pattern seeking humans. The problem is that absolutes don't really exist in the natural universe, outside of a few narrow areas. The best manner of learning to not think in absolutes is by education. Even now as an atheist, I still find myself think in a binary manner a great deal. This is because it is natural to do so and it is heavily reinforced in our (American) culture.

 

 

Bruce

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Great Thread, Antlerman:

 

Absolutely :grin: absolutes are a real problem in our culture - and in all of humanity. Not just in religion, but in all areas of life as well.

 

On one level, I do believe absolutes in religion cause absolutes in all other areas of life as well. But, then maybe people who need absolutes are attracted to religious doctrines that offer black and white answers. :shrug:

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Well said Asimov....hands you the Amy Marie Award for Cognitive Dissonance and Nonsensical Statements

I thought absolutism was holding whatever you believe to be truth to be inflexible. We don't know what if anything is absolute, so absolutism wuld be thinking certain truths are such regardless of the situation.

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I'm not an absolutist, but I do believe there are absolute truths.

 

Well said Asimov....hands you the Amy Marie Award for Cognitive Dissonance and Nonsensical Statements

 

 

Cognitive Dissonance? I'm not entirely sure how my statement qualifies as CD.

 

1. I don't believe that everything I know is absolutely true.

2. I do believe that some things I know are absolutely true.

 

If you want to label me an absolutist in that regard...then here's a spoon.

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Asimov- can you name one or two or three of those things you know that are absolutely true? I'd have a hard time naming an absolute truth. I suppose I could try math... but there are plenty of underlying assumptions there.

 

I broke with absolutism years ago, and I've been getting more ambiguous ever since. It ain't easy going through life KNOWING that you don't have THE answer to most questions or problems... but I can't honestly say anymore that MY answer is always (or even usually) the 'right' answer in a given situation.

 

I tend to believe or 'know' things according to how readily they can be confirmed and how well they 'work'. I 'know' that my truck is red- that can be confirmed easily through a spectral analysis or even an opinion poll... but the fact is, my truck isn't entirely red- it's a shade of red. Well, most of it is... some of it is gray (primer), brown(rust), black(tires), silver(chrome). So it's mostly red- or relatively red. Unless you ask somebody who doesn't speak english.

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Asimov- can you name one or two or three of those things you know that are absolutely true? I'd have a hard time naming an absolute truth. I suppose I could try math... but there are plenty of underlying assumptions there.

 

I know that something exists.

I know that consciousness exists.

And I know that identity exists.

 

A=A

 

There are no underlying assumptions with A=A.

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Well, you aren't exactly saying MUCH... but that is absolutely true.

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I guess truths which trascend religion and culture could be called absolutes.

 

For example:

- It is wrong to have sex with children.

- It is wrong to beat women.

- It is wrong to deny people education

- It is wrong to take advantage of the weak

 

If those are not absolutes, what are they? Is there a more semantically correct way to refer to those statements?

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I guess truths which trascend religion and culture could be called absolutes.

 

For example:

- It is wrong to have sex with children.

- It is wrong to beat women.

- It is wrong to deny people education

- It is wrong to take advantage of the weak

 

If those are not absolutes, what are they? Is there a more semantically correct way to refer to those statements?

 

 

1. I would say expand that definition into something a little less specific.

2. I would say expand that definition into something that isn't sexist.

3. I would say "huh?"

4. I would say "huh?" to this too.

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Asimov- can you name one or two or three of those things you know that are absolutely true? I'd have a hard time naming an absolute truth. I suppose I could try math... but there are plenty of underlying assumptions there.

 

I know that something exists.

I know that consciousness exists.

And I know that identity exists.

 

A=A

 

There are no underlying assumptions with A=A.

You cite A=A as an example of an absolute. At best it sort of is, and mostly isn’t. It can function as an absolute within a certain system that assigns a value of “A” to it, but in another system it may have a different value, or have a value of null, or be entirely non-existent and valueless within another system.

 

“A” is essentially nothing more than arbitrarily drawn lines that are standardized and adopted by a group of people to have a representative value as a character in a system of language. “A” without people is absolutely nothing. In a language that does not have that character “A”, that symbol has no relevance as anything of value whatsoever. “A” only equals A in a system that chooses for it to have that value. “A” equals “A” is only an absolute by those who made it that. It is not a universal truth. It’s an agreed upon truth.

 

You are using logic arguments to represent reality. You are starting with premises that absolute truths exist outside man. This is exactly what Western religions do, following the forms of Classical Greek logic beginning with Aristotle, seeking for those absolutes in God and the Bible. There are no absolutely true premises. Mathematics are the same as your “A=A” example. 1+1=2 has that value because WE define it as such. I always love Albert Einstein’s thoughts on this, “Insofar as mathematics is exact, it does not apply to reality; and insofar as mathematics applies to reality, it is not exact."

 

What real value are your absolutes outside your society, Asimov? Enough to conclude there are not equally as valid truths outside the ones you may adopt as absolute? Enough to close your mind to possibilities of truth outside your tribe’s borders? Enough to go to pass judgment on and go to war against those who have different gods (absolutes) than you? Maybe it doesn’t for you personally, but it sure seems to have that effect on most people. It leads to it to intolerance, IMO, and to me it is gravely flawed in its premises.

 

As far as your arguments of “I know that I exist”, as an absolute. This is just a variation of Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”. Again this was following a Western rationalist tradition by claiming that even though you could doubt or reason away all other certainties, you can’t deny the fact that you are conscious, that you are thinking. It was his way to establish that absolute in a rationalist philosophy. There are of course strong arguments against this, as in the Existentialist philosophies. This once again, takes this "absolute" and shows that it fails to be an absolute for everyone.

 

Any absolute, if it is to be considered a true Absolute (with a captal A), IMO, must be something everyone without exception can agree on as self evident. Nothing to my knowledge qualifies as this. It boils down to our truth, and their truth, and then the question of individuals within those systems as being either open minded or closed minded; being tolerant or intolerant; growing as humans or being rigid and inflexible in a closed system of absolutes. Fundamentalism is given it's indsidious life by those who see things in absolutes. Reality does not support this, and consequently invalidates those sorts of unproductive and unheathy attitudes that come as a result of absolutist thinking.

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I can't claim to know any absolute truths, but I think that they do exist. I think these truths are likely to be expressed as conditional statements or expressions about entailment. For instance, "understanding the mind entails that one understand the organism" or "if the one wishes to understand the mind then one must understand the organism."

 

As a side note: To state that "there are no absolutes" seems to me to be stating an absolute.

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You cite A=A as an example of an absolute. At best it sort of is, and mostly isn’t. It can function as an absolute within a certain system that assigns a value of “A” to it, but in another system it may have a different value, or have a value of null, or be entirely non-existent and valueless within another system.

 

Dude...sometimes your pedantry is downright silly.

 

A=A is a symbolic form of stating that something is what it is. It's the statement that everything has an identity. A circle is a circle, Asimov is Asimov. A chair is a chair. Murder is murder...etc. You can go on about the fact that A is a bunch of lines, yada yada, but the language aspect of it is irrelevant when you take into consideration that it's just an expression. "A" without people is absolutely nothing, but A is a symbol that represents something and it's used to denote an undefined variable of equality to itself. So it's not a truth by mob rule, it's an axiomatic rule. The symbols themselves are agreed upon by mob rule, not the message.

 

You are starting with premises that absolute truths exist outside man.

 

They do, the way we express them are representations of those absolute truths.

 

What real value are your absolutes outside your society, Asimov? Enough to conclude there are not equally as valid truths outside the ones you may adopt as absolute? Enough to close your mind to possibilities of truth outside your tribe’s borders? Enough to go to pass judgment on and go to war against those who have different gods (absolutes) than you? Maybe it doesn’t for you personally, but it sure seems to have that effect on most people. It leads to it to intolerance, IMO, and to me it is gravely flawed in its premises.

 

What are you talking about?

 

As far as your arguments of “I know that I exist”, as an absolute. This is just a variation of Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”. Again this was following a Western rationalist tradition by claiming that even though you could doubt or reason away all other certainties, you can’t deny the fact that you are conscious, that you are thinking. It was his way to establish that absolute in a rationalist philosophy. There are of course strong arguments against this, as in the Existentialist philosophies. This once again, takes this "absolute" and shows that it fails to be an absolute for everyone.

 

Buddy, I did not say "I know that I exist". Consciousness exists is an axiomatic statement, and anyone who denies it proves it. Consciousness is the act of cognition. Taking in information (percepts) and forming them into ideas (concepts). When someone denies that consciousness exists, they automatically prove that consciousness does exist.

 

Any absolute, if it is to be considered a true Absolute (with a captal A), IMO, must be something everyone without exception can agree on as self evident.

 

I noticed that you conveniently ignore my first axiom, that something exists. Could you please respond to that?

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Asimov,

 

I read your response and feel you have serious personality issues. This is the colleseum and your comments and vocabulary are inappropriate. Your rigid dogmatism and lack of trying to understand different points of view is why absolutism is so completely unhealthy. I've said it before and say again with all seriousness, you are a fundamentalist. I am finished speaking with you.

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Asimov,

 

I read your response and feel you have serious personality issues. This is the colleseum and your comments and vocabulary are inappropriate. Your rigid dogmatism and lack of trying to understand different points of view is why absolutism is so completely unhealthy. I've said it before and say again with all seriousness, you are a fundamentalist. I am finished speaking with you.

 

OK... then....

 

Now that a tone of reasonable discussion has been set (thank you Antlerman), I'd like to ask a question.

 

Why isn't 2+2 = 4 an absolute?

 

In every culture, whether humans comprehend it or not, 2+2 does = 4, or am I missing something?

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Asimov,

 

I read your response and feel you have serious personality issues. This is the colleseum and your comments and vocabulary are inappropriate. Your rigid dogmatism and lack of trying to understand different points of view is why absolutism is so completely unhealthy. I've said it before and say again with all seriousness, you are a fundamentalist. I am finished speaking with you.

 

Insofar as you accuse me of absolutism, your entire outlook is just as absolutist and (dare I say?) fundamentalist in your own beliefs.

 

You are so enmeshed in your fundamental idea that "there are no absolutes" that you can't even comprehend your own self-contradictory belief. And then you accuse me of "tribal mentality" and make the implications that I would kill people over it? Subtle as your comments and questions are at least I have the cojones to be up front about what I believe instead of beating around the bush in pedantic word games.

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And then you accuse me of "tribal mentality" and make the implications that I would kill people over it? Subtle as your comments and questions are at least I have the cojones to be up front about what I believe instead of beating around the bush in pedantic word games.

[/b]

For the record, I did not accuse you of wanting to go kill people, either subtly or directly. I said in my comments above that the absolutist mentality can easily lead those who think in such narrow-minded ways to seek out philosophies that align with intolerance. This point is indisputable.

 

As far as saying my views of relativism are themselves absolutes, this is as weak as trying to make an argument about someone saying "I'm intolerant of intolerance" that they themselves are intolerant. Even though you demonstrate to me poor social skills, I don't think you’re unintelligent as to not see that point, but I really no longer care.

 

I just wanted to clarify that I did not accuse you of having a bent on killing people. Not at all. I do however find your manners to be offensive, and really have no desire to continue trying to talk with you.

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Antlerman,

 

Lets discuss relativism, absolutism and provisional morality. I am not a fan of absolutism, because it is not factual, but a gross oversimplification of reality. I also am not a fan of relativism for the same reason, it too is a gross oversimplification. Relativism is defined as based upon the individual's specific perceptions. However, almost all humans live within a larger, cooperative society, so relativism in my opinion is not a good way to view things.

 

I do however tend to agree with provisional morality. For instance, murder is wrong most of the time, for most people, in most societies. However there are specific narrow circumstances when murder could be justified in terms of the above same provisions. An example would be someone murdering Hitler, as Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to do. In this instance, I would argue that murder is not a bad thing in this instance, being that the provisions surrounding the act negate the general provisional societal constraints against it.

 

It seems to be that humans have developed morality and ethics based upon a evolutionary impetus. In order to survive, almost all humans and all human societies are social, just like other primates. The problem it seems to me is two fold. (1) There are some humans who have decidedly anti-social personalities due to physiological/psychological issues and (2) The by far more normative problem is the difference between "in group" and "out group" mentalities.

 

One can see in the history of humanity and gradual shift away from narrow "in group" versus "out group" behaviors, although they are still prevalent. An example from religion would be the definition of neighbor, as in "love your neighbor" in the Jewish Tanach. 2,500 years ago this was specifically defined as the "in group", the Jewish people.

 

Bruce

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I always have trouble with this...

 

Wouldn't it be absolutely true that there was life before humans? That there would be life, if possible, after humans? Would this life still take in energy the same way as we recognize it now as we did and life before us did?

 

Isn't it absolutely true that life can exist without humans?

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I always have trouble with this...

 

Wouldn't it be absolutely true that there was life before humans? That there would be life, if possible, after humans? Would this life still take in energy the same way as we recognize it now as we did and life before us did?

 

Isn't it absolutely true that life can exist without humans?

 

Relativism, like absolutism, are both misguided philosophies.

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I always have trouble with this...

 

Wouldn't it be absolutely true that there was life before humans? That there would be life, if possible, after humans? Would this life still take in energy the same way as we recognize it now as we did and life before us did?

 

Isn't it absolutely true that life can exist without humans?

 

Relativism, like absolutism, are both misguided philosophies.

Can you expand on that a little please? Are you saying that what is relative is not what is absolute? Which would make some things absolute wouldn't it? Or, are you saying that absolutes only appear to be absolute to us by our relative views? Which would make absolutes relative wouldn't it? Okay...I'm confused. Is there a middle ground between absolutism and relativism?

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Antlerman,

 

Lets discuss relativism, absolutism and provisional morality. I am not a fan of absolutism, because it is not factual, but a gross oversimplification of reality. I also am not a fan of relativism for the same reason, it too is a gross oversimplification. Relativism is defined as based upon the individual's specific perceptions. However, almost all humans live within a larger, cooperative society, so relativism in my opinion is not a good way to view things.

 

I do however tend to agree with provisional morality. For instance, murder is wrong most of the time, for most people, in most societies. However there are specific narrow circumstances when murder could be justified in terms of the above same provisions. An example would be someone murdering Hitler, as Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to do. In this instance, I would argue that murder is not a bad thing in this instance, being that the provisions surrounding the act negate the general provisional societal constraints against it.

Bruce,

 

I think we see things the same way, it’s more a matter of terminology. Looking up other’s comments on provisional morality, I found this outlined by someone: http://www.gatago.com/talk/philosophy/humanism/22213447.html

 

(1) The sources of moral behavior can be traced scientifically to

humanity's evolutionary origins.

 

(2) Human morality likely evolved as first an individual and then a

species-wide mechanism for survival

 

(3) As society evolved, humans needed rules governing behavior-e.g.,

altruism, sympathy, reciprocity and community concern-in order to

ensure survival

 

(4) some form of the Golden Rule -"Do unto others as you would have

others do unto you" -provides the foundation of morality in human

societies

 

(5) Out of this develops the principles of a "provisional ethics" that

"is neither absolute nor relative," that applies to most people most of

the time, while allowing for "tolerance and diversity."

I have found myself explaining how I see the how morality functions within human individuals and society, in quite a number of posts previously on this site in exactly this way. I would say this accurately reflects my thoughts on this.

 

In looking up the definitions of Relativism however, I am not quite seeing where it is limited to individual morality. It almost seems a perception of it that is emphasized by its detractors. In looking up Relativism on Wiki, they cite there are many different kinds of relativism,

“Philosophers identify many different kinds of relativism depending upon what allegedly depends on something and what something depends on. The term often refers to truth relativism - the doctrine that no absolute truth exists, but that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as language or culture.

In this sense I agree, and have used the term relativism to contrast it to those who work from the premise that absolutes exist, and that from that we can define what is morally “right” and morally “wrong”. In this context I would say that right and wrong are largely contextual and consequently “relative” to this situation or culture’s values.

 

My objections to notions of absolutes are on several levels. First there is no support for it objectively. Using math equations or logic arguments to point out absolutes translate into something usable in question of human behaviors, how? It is in my opinion very arguable that math is an absolute. In all the years of math in philosophy during the Medieval times pursuing finding that elusive absolute through mathematics, it’s amazing that they themselves never found that “2+2=4” to be the Holy Grail of that discipline with philosophy. Maybe they were thinking too deeply??

 

But despite math’s precision, I fail to see how it applies to the real world very well in what we’re always talking about in matters of “moral values”. I’ve already quoted it in this thread once, but will one more time as I love it’s sound, "Insofar as mathematics is exact, it does not apply to reality; and insofar as mathematics applies to reality, it is not exact", Albert Einstein.

 

Secondly, belief in absolutes lends itself to people becoming inflexible and dogmatic in their thought. Absolutes tend to be static and unchanging. On the level of morality, thoughts and ideas, philosophies, it does not allow for anything outside what it has “deduced” to be absolute. It becomes a closed system like the Christian religion, where deviation outside what has been deemed “truth” or absolutes, is considered out of accepted truth or “heresy”. Ideas outside the truth are demonized and those who think them are vilified. Knowledge halts. The human spirit becomes imprisoned.

 

To me accepting something to be true, “conditionally”, or “contextually”, or “relatively”, allows an open-ended approach. Even though in practice things which the individual as part of his society may accept and adopt as having a positive value, or “truth” to it, and that it can serve as a touchstone, or a boundary of acceptable behavior, it is never to be taken as an absolute that ALL humans in ALL societies need to adhere to. To take the your own societies values as shaped by the conditions and needs of the time and region of that group, and to make them absolute outside the borders that society is incompatible with a global society. Gods (or absolutes) of any single tribe are unworkable in a cosmopolitan society of many tribes and many gods. The pursuit of absolutes to me seems to be driven by the desire for a common single, universal value system that is able to cross the borders of single social groups (or tribes).

 

In principle I agree with the idea, and in a seeming contradiction and irony, I think the answer is a non-answer: that “truth” must of necessity remain open-ended and non-absolute. The “truth” is what works for the benefit of the individual and of necessity to the individual - his society. That truth or value with positive benefit will vary and evolve based on the region and the time. The difficulty is in finding a common value that can both adapt to societies globally, while at the same time being allowed to evolve as the entire world evolves. So in principle we can have “an absolute”, which is non-absolute and adaptive.

 

Whatever is best to call this, whether it is relative or provisional ethics, the idea I believe is the same. I think that the complexity of reality in human society on a global scale cannot allow for narrow definitions of truth, a one size fits all formula. If we were a group of 10,000 living on a hill side with other tribes “out there”, our local gods, laws, and world views would be effective, but not once we intermingle into a greater society many of these tribes each with their own gods, let alone mixing them into one with a population of 7 billion.

 

It really has occurred to me in thinking this out, that my main reason for leaving religion has less to do with being able or not being able to incorporate the language of mythological symbols into the experience of human perception, but much, much more to do with the limits that absolutist thinking puts on both reason and emotion in the human experience. It defies reality in force-fitting the pieces of a complex puzzle into a narrow box, and divides humans from humans in the fight for whose truth is the “true” truth, or the universal absolute.

 

I love the seeming conundrum, "The truth is there is no truth". There is no contradiction to this as the premise of an abolute is as non-existent as God.

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