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This evening I spent a couple of hours in Dudley’s bookstore/coffee-shop here in Bend, Oregon. Ten of us met and discussed many different things, but two common themes kept running though our banter – evolution and capitalism. I don’t know everyone’s occupational history, but we had one Professor of English Literature, a practicing criminal defense lawyer, a self declared tramp, a professional musician, a grad teacher of mathematics. The discussion was lively with an effort to get at the basic issues, but it was a bit superficial because most of the participants hadn’t studied enough of the basic theories of what we were discussing to make progress beyond educated common knowledge. My Saturday morning Atheists of Central Oregon group has several people who are closer to cutting edge thinking, and my Third-Sunday UU group is more numerous and older, mostly in their sixties and above, so those people speak more from personal thoughts, experiments and experience and not so much theorizing. I have a fourth group I have attended only once – The Socrates Cafe – so I won’t include them in my analysis, but they are intelligent and reasonably well informed.

At first pass it might seem like all of these groups of people are seeking a path forward in our modern world and are willing to explore any topic, but they are doing so in remarkably different ways about similar subjects. The coffee-shop people were more into generalized concepts of how nature and humans interacted and how, in general, humans had become so successful. There was a quest for underlying problems, but the one which seemed to be at the root of it was overpopulation, and at the root of that was capitalism’s negative side, the need to increase the population to increase sales of the products of production.

My atheist group is actually a doubters-of-God group, and actually the people I talk to the most are high-level problem solvers associated with Cambridge and MIT. These people talk mostly about specific problems and specific solutions to those problems, usually mentioning some general theory but only as a guide to moving forward with a specific solution. The coffee-shop folks on the other hand seemed to lean toward a theory as an answer, in itself, to a problem. That was making the theory into a god surrogate for those people. It was some sort of higher abstraction which was giving meaning to life’s problems. The atheists’ use of theory was quite different. It was using an abstraction only as a guide to a specific problem and then not applying that particular theory to other problems, which the coffee-shop people seemed more willing to do. Incidentally, these two conversations I am using for this comparison took place at exactly the same table, but four days apart.

The Unitarian-Universalists (UU) third Sunday meetings are more structured, because the group attending these discussions usually numbers in the thirties, but they are similar to these other events. They explore a subject in considerable depth, which has been announced weeks in advance and usually has some reading material to study. For example, the loss of faith in God’s presence by the Nobel Laureate Sister Teresa the Saint of Bombay. It is surprising what develops with such a large group because there are more divergent views than one might expect as the number of people speaking up increases. I suspect that if there were people from very different cultures there would be vastly different ideas percolate up than we had, but even with thirty there were obvious valid departures from the norm. It seems we humans lock into our personal idea as soon as we have formulated them clearly in our minds, and when we express it the idea becomes much more fixed.

To gain a reasonable view of problems and how to solve them in a most reasonable way it becomes necessary to hear quite a few divergent ideas and then after some deliberation narrow the potential action down to a this or that decision. This is opposed to the idea of do it or don’t do it, rather it is a balance of which behavior is going be most productive. And perhaps before a final decision is made on the action it is a good idea to project one’s self some time into the future when the action has reached maturity and try and discern the problems which will have devolved. That gives us the opportunity to modify slightly the action about to be performed in such a way as to limit the future problems.

Back to my social groups, I would ask what it is we are trying to accomplish. It would seem the coffee-shop people didn’t actually want to accomplish anything, but just discuss general theories of social realities. The atheists were seeking specific actions which they could implement to improve their own lives and the health of society. The UU’s were seeking in a broad way what actions other people had done and how we should be responding, but the responses were left to the individual, but we could form an action group. There is so very much to be learned from being with different groups of people, discussing the same general problems because different groups don’t come to the same suggestions for personal action.

Join and participate in different groups before you decide on your actions.