Saturday, October 30, 2010

Prayer For Politicians, Meditation For The Mind

I can’t believe Christine O’Donnell keeps making herself a target for my articles. It hasn’t been weekly, but she can’t seem to stop herself from succumbing to what must be some genetic idiocy that was recessive beforehand. Honestly, is she just addicted to this attention? I guess that would be an excuse to get into politics and have people shower you with praise. She was formerly a witch, so now she can relate to the pagan, but doesn’t know the First Amendment so she can make herself seem teachable (she’s not, it appears). Now she thinks people praying for her campaign actually affect the popularity she’s been gaining. You couldn’t be more narcissistic if you tried; to think that people praying to God would actually have effects on your political run for Senator is incredibly na├»ve, not to mention selfish. To think God cares about whether you win or the Democrats? This is the same ridiculous tripe that’s been persisting since the 50s when people thought that teaching that the U.S. was a Christian nation would beat the “Godless Communists”. Evidently Christine O’Donnell has bought into this alteration of history and culture that communicates what is to a neutral observer a laughable proposition.

The idea that our country was founded on supposedly unique Biblical principles fails on two levels. The first one I’ve brought up at least once before: why would God care about any nation if its kingdom is not of this earth or if it is, it’s got to be way better than any worldly government could promise. But apparently people, educated or otherwise, can be swayed by patriotism and emotional bondage to feelings of guilt to believe either: God either wants our country to prosper or that the rules of Judeo Christian religion should be given favor in law. This may not be the case with all conservatives, but it leads right to my second point. Even if the majority of the founding fathers were Christian, it follows in no way that they wanted to enforce Christianity as some favored religion or place its laws in a political context. The First Amendment alone gives any sensible person a hint that the writers of the Constitution did not favor Christianity in terms of a government and did not design the country as a “Christian nation”. If anything could be noted as a Christian property of the U.S., it’s demographics. There are more self professed Christians (Protestants, Catholics and Mormons altogether) in the U.S. than any other religion, so that’s the closest you could brag about America being a Christian nation. To say we favor Christianity any more in why we develop our laws is not only mistaken in terms of how jurisprudence should work, impartial to faith, but protecting its practice nonetheless, but selectively observes the monuments and such that exist in government centered buildings, like the Supreme Court and Arlington National Cemetery. Religion and ethics are not dependent on each other; in fact, you could say we develop the latter before we even care about the former.

Most importantly, though, I’m just disappointed that someone would really have any kind of regard for prayer in relation to things that are for all intents and purposes separate from what are genuine religious concerns: famine, disease, natural disasters, adoption, anything but whether a Democrat or a Republican wins an election! The fact that you depend on pleas to some deity, singular or plural, is pitiful when you direct even a fraction of your energy in begging that someone wins an insignificant election for an insignificant country.

On a much more interesting, though still a bit questionable, note is the growing field of contemplative neuroscience. To be brief, it is an area of psychology that specifically studies brain function in the process of varying forms of meditation. I myself haven’t done any persistent meditation beyond some Tai Chi and Wado Ryu breathing exercises, which I admit do have an effect if only by basic physiological observations of how we can calm ourselves without recourse to drugs. The studies are still new from what I’ve read, not to mention the samples are both small and potentially biased so that the brain could very well be tricking the subjects. The tests have shown that different areas of the brain are activated or function at higher levels based on the particular kinds of meditation they do, which range from mindfulness to concentration to empathy. What is of especial relevance is the somewhat agreed upon notion that the brain can be trained in a similar, though distinct, sense that we train our bodies. With the brain, it’s not as if you’re exercising muscles so much as you’re channeling neuron firings in ways that begin to affect the brain’s processing. The best example coming to mind is that of a computer and enhancing it through software that cleans or defragments various areas. Similarly, if you alter various habits that the brain has built over time, you can alter how the brain takes in information, processes it and affects our behavior in general with our environment, people and non people both.

If Christine O’Donnell wants to improve anything with her campaign, maybe she could advocate people combining meditation with their faith journey with God, Jesus and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Not that she would eschew prayer, but suggest that people also look inwardly as well as outwardly. Maybe she could even try it herself and figure out how to save herself from such a grand disappointment that may be around the corner. One can only imagine the future of these polls already starting a week or so ago. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

On the (Gated) Wall Between Church and State

This story dragged me into speaking about it, however politically apathetic I am. Seriously, how many other candidates for office don’t know the basics of the Constitution, like the 1st Amendment? I don’t claim to be an expert myself, though I do have a copy. But doesn’t it seem out of character for someone who wants to represent the United States, and has even promised to follow the Constitution as a Senator, to not know the text and political thought concerning even the very 1st Amendment of that Constitution?

The only one so far seems to be Christine O’Donnell, who I spoke about only two weeks ago in a commentary on how her claim that Satanism and Witchcraft were the same reflects badly on the U.S. pagan population. She’s not making herself any more vote-worthy, though I can’t say I’d buy into a political system that has generated so many hypocrites and doesn’t even seem to be generally united under anything, not even the Constitution so many speak of as sacred scripture. But I shouldn’t blame those that misuse politics in my rejection of it as generally useful today. A Latin phrase I take to heart as much as possible is “abusus non tollit usum”. The basic translation is; “Just because something is misused doesn't mean it can't be used correctly,” This applies quite well to both the situation here with senatorial candidates who don’t seem to know much about the Constitution beyond what benefits them and a related story that has been in the news for a while now on a Christian flag being fought over as to its legality of being flown on public government property. With both of these events, there is an intersection of two contested areas; these being church/religion and state/politics.

First, we have Christine O’Donnell’s ignorance as to the proper way in which the more private religious sphere should interact with the more public political sphere. Thomas Jefferson, one of the originators of the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” has much to say on the subject. He wrote; “Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle,” which seems to suggest he believed that however genuine one’s devotion to a faith may be, it does not mean that they have a right to enforce that faith as something everyone else must follow and vice versa with the government in telling the governed how they should worship. Christine O’Donnell has personal issues with homosexuals, claiming they choose to be that way by social conditioning, opposes virtually all abortion and doesn’t see it as a violation of the Constitution to teach creationism in public schools. This exemplifies what I’ve spoken on as a persistent problem: candidates for public office don’t seem to have more than a passing knowledge of either religion or the Constitution’s stance on government sponsorship of it. This has been shown by people like Ron Ramsey and Lou Ann Zelenik saying Islam is either a cult or a political movement, not a religion, and Christine O’Donnell making an amateurish analysis of Satanism and Witchcraft, saying they’re essentially the same, without understanding it beyond what she thought was a date on a Satanic altar. If candidates had mistaken beliefs like this, but shared similar political positions to their constituency, I could forgive the masses for voting for them in spite of their willed ignorance. But I can’t imagine a sensible person voting for O’Donnell after finding out that she didn’t know the wording in the First Amendment that the government should not permit any sponsorship of religion of any kind in publicly funded areas. O’Donnell’s response to her opponent’s criticism was that teaching evolutionary theory in schools was violating that same principle that she apparently only knows enough to point fingers at the “secularists,” She confuses the scientific theory of evolution, separate from any particular religion, with secular humanism, recognized by the U.S. government as an official religion, which happen to believe in it. There are Christians that believe in evolutionary theory as well, so clearly it is held in common by both religions without it being a matter of either of their belief systems. It seems like Ms. O’Donnell feels threatened by evolution as it “forces its way into public schools” in her view. If she really wants to do something about Christianity’s supposed suppression, maybe she could advocate schools teaching about Christianity in history or as a literary tradition. It would be both beneficial to her campaign and would be quite legal on both counts.

Secondly, concerning the controversy surrounding a Christian flag, the solution seems quite simple, however much veterans are making this an issue not unlike the “Cordoba Mosque” in New York. However insulted you might feel that the government is telling you that it is not legal to raise a Christian flag on federally funded property, it doesn’t mean that they mean any disrespect towards you or Christianity. Selling the property for the flag hanging area to the veterans’ association would make it private property and fit for demonstration of any religious symbols. This misuse of the freedom to practice religion shouldn’t make one think that any demonstration of religious belief in public life is illegal. It’s just that when you start making your religious beliefs as they relate to public politics something people have to automatically respect, it’s gone too far. You have every right to believe as you will about the afterlife, deities or Deity, ethics and vote accordingly in elections, but only to the extent that you do not use that system to legislate those beliefs on others that don’t share them. I certainly don’t want veterans to feel like they can’t honor their fallen Christian allies, but there’s no reason to force the public to sponsor that when they don’t all share those beliefs about religion or patriotism. Here’s hoping this will blow over like the desert cross I spoke about a few months ago. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Identity Crisis of Faith

Albert Mohler Jr. is not my favorite person to read about in news. It’s not as if he doesn’t make good points occasionally; such as noting that people’s acceptance of divorce but opposition to gay marriage shows dissonant thinking about the public’s view of marriage. However, with his recent accusation that Christians shouldn’t practice yoga because of “spiritual dangers”, I remember why I’m fundamentally at odds with him in terms of worldview. His insistence that America needs to get back to its “Christian heritage” is already a historical revisionist idea that shows how willfully ignorant otherwise educated people can be to feel secure in their personal identity. America is hardly a Christian nation any more than it’s a democratic nation in a classical sense of either term. Demographically, America is divided and fragmented in terms of what people identify as; between religious, nondenominational or otherwise and spiritual but not religious, distancing oneself from institutionalized religion. Being Christian is becoming an empty label due to the ambivalence as to what the person believes exactly about Christian doctrine, the first question many people might ask after expressing their happiness at them being “saved”. There’s also the question as to how a believer in Jesus is supposed to connect to a government they believe is unjust, which seems to be the case for a growing minority; or a shrinking majority with people drifting apart in considering lines that have been drawn and redrawn in the proverbial sands. Mr. Mohler’s warning about yoga reflects 1) a mistaken understanding about yoga as a practice that, like Tai Chi and martial arts, can be separated from its initial religious/spiritual context and has in fact already been integrated into Christian spiritual practices and 2) insecurity about modern Christianity’s identity and definition of itself. The existence of syncretism and eclecticism both reflect Mohler’s fears that Christians are becoming less unadulterated in their Christian beliefs. Though his definition already seems at odds with how Christianity has evolved in terms of initially defining itself based on creeds and now more in its ultimate concern, to use Paul Tillich’s more accessible method to consider religiosity. If Christianity’s ultimate concern is Jesus and the salvation he supposedly brings, the differences between various believers should be the least of their worries of distinguishing themselves from other faiths. I have to wonder if Mohler is also threatened by interfaith discussions or even *gasp* ecumenical discussions between denominations within Christianity itself. Time may tell.

Alongside the difficulties Christians have in defining themselves, there is a discussion by the American Muslim community about the understanding of Islam as a “religion of peace”. It seems to be less common in America than they would imagine. This strikes me as odd since accusing Islam of being a violent imperialistic religion was hardly anything for people to get up in arms about before 9/11 happened. With any issue Americans develop with a foreign presence, it boils down primarily to a feeling of being threatened. With Japanese during World War 2, it wasn’t the rumors of spies getting secret information that was the first thought on people’s minds so much as the idea that because certain Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, all Japanese were potential traitors to America. This is troubling because there was a Japanese presence in America before the wars. And similarly, a Muslim community has existed in America for a significant amount of time, and yet because certain Muslims took an extremist position that involved crashing planes into major buildings in America, people have begun to believe in a spreading delusion that all Muslims are deceiving Americans just to invade our country and enforce Shariah law, etc. You could ask a sample of Muslims from the top 5 populated cities in America and you’d probably have a majority of American Muslims opposing this kind of violence and intertwinement with politics in the Middle East, especially with recent immigrants. With later generations, the difficulty is worse, because they were born and raised in America and existing alongside Christian and Jewish children in school and few if any parents objecting in the decades before 9/11 occurred. It always seems to strike some unseen nerve in Americans when they feel personally offended or threatened by some group. This compels them by some psychosis/neurosis to discriminate against that group. The problem does go away in time, but only after further tragedy has struck, innocent members of whatever group was deemed dangerous being hurt physically or psychologically by those who are otherwise sympathetic to the plights of people in similar positions that their own ancestors may have been in. Overall this is just more ruminating on my part about a flaw in humanity that only reinforces my misanthropy. But I remember that the same people that can behave in such a reprehensible way can also be very compassionate. It seems, therefore, that a minority of people behave in such ways by their own ambition; the majority of those that commit such atrocities are ill educated or socially pressured followers that feel they have no other choice to make a difference. If we pursued greater education and fought against such coercion and threats of ostracism, then perhaps this would happen less. And the humanist ethic would seem less threatening and more aligned with even Christian thought. Until next week, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Faithful Nation or Nation of Faiths?

With the recognition of Druidism/Druidry (?) as a religion in the UK and a generally good response from many people, one wonders how the U.S would feel in a similar situation. It has only been a little over 20 years since Dettmer v. Landon, where a Wiccan practitioner was agreed to have had his 1st Amendment rights violated. Wicca was officially recognized to be a religion and thus protected in free exercise, even in prisons, including the use of ritual objects. And it’s been only 3 years since the family of Patrick Stewart, a Wiccan soldier killed in action, was granted a Wiccan pentacle on his gravestone, since the U.S Army hadn’t recognized Wicca as a religion worthy of recognition by the Army in practically 20 years. I can’t imagine why; except that the army also discriminates against homosexuals, so why should I have been surprised at this? As I said two weeks ago, Wicca is quite possibly one of the highest growing movements in the U.S., so frankly, I am happy that the UK is making more progress, especially considering Druidry’s no doubt higher demographics across the sea. There is of course a strain of thought even in England that appears to regard giving Druidism the status of religion as a pandering to New Age thinking or other arguments suggesting that tolerance and acceptance are exactly the same in legal terms (p.s., they’re not). The critic of Druidism’s status as a religion also makes a questionable assessment of what is considered a religion by trying to say that because Druidry doesn’t have a shared set of beliefs it isn’t a religion, but a fringe cult. It’s hard to imagine that even in England there exists a similar, though not necessarily as strong, current of thought that suggests that without Christianity there would be no cause for moral behavior.

I remember reading a book for a class on New Atheism by David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox scholar, who noted that many of the claims about Christianity in the Middle Ages and prior are misrepresented. His scholarship was indeed correct from what I could determine, but his claim that we have to acknowledge Christianity’s place in history, even if we are becoming post Christian, I can only tentatively agree with. Any involvement of Christianity in culture and history should properly be viewed, even in a Christian perspective as a matter of fortune, not of providence. Any involvement of God’s will in relation to Christianity’s existence would be moreso related to its survival, not its precedence in the “fleshly kingdoms”.

The very notion of a Christian nation is something I’ve spoken of before, though it has been months no doubt. Jon Meacham’s argument still stands as a strong Christian argument against the notion that America is a Christian nation, and honestly the very idea would no doubt strike even the Protestant arbiter Luther as blasphemous. The idea that God would favor any kingdom or nation on earth is preposterous on the grounds that in the Gospels, Jesus himself called to bring together all the nations of the world, all people, Gentile or Jew, male or female, high or low class, even those regarded as heretics like the Samaritans. Not to mention he said the kingdom of heaven is not of this earth, so that’s another nail in the coffin.

If the Religious Right that persists today, even through my own generation, disappointingly, got its way, they’d probably have legislation to discriminate against virtually any religion that wasn’t derived from the Abrahamic tradition, though it’s doubtful if they’d even allow Islam to exist with the climate that surrounds anything related to Muslim activities in America, faith based or otherwise. It’s always heartening to hear Christians reflecting tolerance towards even those that in their religion’s perspective are condemned to hell unless they shift their faith towards a God that is both three and one (however that works) while ironically in many areas of Wicca, the God and Goddess are practically two in one. I’m especially curious about what will happen with the future possibility of a Wiccan Senator or even a Wiccan President/Vice President. How long will it take? Will I even be alive when it’s a possibility? Will I even be aware of it unless I’m told by someone else? And when will it be an insignificant issue about what faith the person is as opposed to whether they stand for basic democratic “American” ideals that people can admire and respect even if they both aren’t going to heaven? Hopefully, before I’m as old as my parents. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

America, Devout Yet Dumb

As someone who alternates between considering oneself an atheist, apatheist, ignostic and Buddhist, the results of the recent survey of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life make sense in hindsight. The top scorers were atheists and agnostics, with Jews and Mormons filling out the top three spots. With Jews and Mormons, I imagine the reasons for high scores are due to their emphasis on education and tradition, the Jewish and Mormon cultures both having historical precedence that would motivate believers to desire that their faith would persist through persecution that still exists today against them. With the lowest scorers appearing in the Christian faith, Catholic or Protestant making only slight difference, it makes one wonder how effective their indoctrination is. Catholics are well known for having an alleged record of strong education, which is no doubt why I was enrolled in a Catholic school for two years after kindergarten. With public school education from third grade onwards, I can at least recall how the class was structured and what we learned. With Catholic school, as seriously as they took their religious education, the secular educational aspect seemed to be lacking, since all I really took out of Catholic school was knowledge of the weekly chapel visits; the other things I could’ve learned just as well at public school without slowly numbing my mind. I don’t have a personal experience of how confirmation classes progress, but one has to wonder if that would even stick in one’s mind with the apparent subpar education I got otherwise. This isn’t to say I have any ill will towards my Catholic background anymore than I have resentment towards my Protestant roots. The deeper problem according to the survey is that people don’t genuinely have religious memory as to the texts and doctrines of their faith. The experiential aspect, as valuable as it is, seems to be overemphasized against the equally valuable religious practice of rereading and reexamining the words from which your faith is drawn. The real value of religion courses being offered in public school alongside those in private schools is that it would present religion as a social phenomenon, something that affects everyone’s lives in some way, regardless of shared beliefs.

There are such courses that already exist, as I noted, in private schools and in public schools, religion is not completely exempt in studies. English courses are permitted to teach the Bible as literature and make notes about other literary references to the Bible, such as in Shakespeare or Beowulf (Grendel’s descent from the Biblical Cain). But even a course in sociology that I took in high school was not a detailed enough study on religion, even though it was what got me interested in the phenomenon of religion, social or otherwise. With private religion courses, I only have my younger brother’s experience and such that I can glean from. It was certainly an academic study, but the difficulty is determining whether there was any bias (intentional/unintentional) towards the Christian tradition. With the use of Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions as a primary text, I imagine there was a potential emphasis within the parochial school’s standards that Christianity was still to be emphasized in some way as more “natural” to humanity or at the very least more relevant in Western history, which I could grant them (not so much on the natural part). But if this is the case, then one has to wonder how to get around the legal tape that exists for teaching religion or even involving religion in government sponsored public schools. I admit it’s perplexing, but it’s not as if there aren’t religion courses in state sponsored colleges or even graduate level education in religious studies in those same public colleges/universities.

Part of the distinction is that with primary and secondary education, it’s legally mandatory to attend, but college and beyond is voluntary and optional. Therefore, the detractors from the suggestion by Stephen Prothero for public schools to have religion courses would argue that high school or junior high level religion courses would be violating the principle of separation of church and state or at least the favoring of one religion over another by the federal government.

If anything, it’s not about whether the government would favor the religion, as opposed to purposely designing the class as such. The primary difficulty is moreso structuring it in such a way that there isn’t a leaning towards one religion or another, but a study of them as social phenomena first and foremost. A good start would be taking the example of a sociology class that isn’t completely focused on religion and then orient it in a way that you can study religion itself in a public school setting as something relevant in society and history. The first few weeks would be investigating the difficulty with defining the term religion as well as its effects on society (positive and negative), then considering the aspects and beliefs of those systems that we generally call religions, not making judgment values or normative claims about what is right and wrong. Instead we should analyze it descriptively and in terms of what is shared in common by the systems we call religion. I could imagine this actualized, albeit no idea is without potential for tweaking. Here’s hoping that America might overcome the imbalance of their devotion to religion and not forget that discernment (Christian or otherwise) is just as valuable in having faith. Until next time, Namaste and Aloha