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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What Youth Yearn For



http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christian-piatt/why-young-christians-leave-the-church_b_961087.html
http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/09/20/a-rough-decade-for-american-congregations/

I’ve already talked partly about why I personally left the church in a guest article on Spritzophrenia, but this time, I want to expand the issue to other closet apostates of one form or another. Many congregations have been losing members, many of them probably around my age or younger. College activities are usually accepted by many members of churches as an explanation for why the youth are busy for at least 4 years of their life apart from church. My own church was like that, though I think I just didn’t have the heart to say outright that I didn’t believe anything about their religion anymore. But after a time, the problem becomes more evident: the youth aren’t busy with other things that keep them away from religion; they just don’t see any reason to associate with a church. Perhaps they still have religious beliefs in some sense, but they merely have disaffiliated themselves from their original community where they learned about religion and our search for meaning. Many youth may very well be questioning the authority of the church in general, not just the value of the community. I myself pretty quickly was discouraged by research and investigation to believe that anything in the Bible in terms of supernatural claims was to be taken seriously at all, especially thanks to Deism. I think I believed a lot of these stories were real as myths; that is, stories that have importance to a group. But I’m not sure if I really ever believed that someone could part the waters or that there were only two people in the world at one point. Sunday school teachers aren’t even entirely the problem, since many of them have other jobs and aren’t equipped with the skills to really teach kids about Christianity in any sense. It’s preachers that seem to not realize what the newer generations actually want in terms of communicating Jesus and God. According to a ten year study by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, only the churches that changed their practices to be more modern and creative managed to retain more congregants over time. My own church, among many in the South probably, are reluctant or resistant to changing their long established ways of using revivals and bare bones methods of communicating concepts and beliefs that seemed normal 50 years ago, but have quickly become archaic in their relevance to the newer generations. If people want to keep church or religion or the supernatural even moderately meaningful to people, they have to stop focusing on what people believe and concentrate on the pursuit of truth in general, which can be done without recourse to a conviction about someone resurrecting from the dead or whether the world was created or came about naturally.

There are any number of factors that can drive young adults from the church, not the most obvious of which is the political and ideological entanglements so many churches get involved with. My own church wasn’t really political as far as I could tell. The other issues vary depending on the person’s beliefs. If you’re more skeptical of the metaphysics and such from the religion’s teachings, then the practice of teaching the Bible as more inspirational than realistic in most circumstances by itself pushes away many kids. Not to mention the other end of the spectrum of strict literalism and young earth creationism that makes those same types of people distrust the church all the more. For those who have some tendency towards spirituality and supernatural experiences, many times the tendency to not instill consistent experiences in the person, through emphasis on contemplating God, can detract from their desire to improve their relationship with the divine. Admittedly this could also happen with very by the book Christianity, when the person being taught sees God in more abstract ways. The political and ideological involvements can also make kids who genuinely see some value in Christianity start to search elsewhere for the message they’ve heard in other contexts, like Young Life or Cru. In this way, those churches who modernize or focus more on the gospel as a call to ministry and worship instead of internal church politics and maintenance of the status quo get more attendance and members, while those that stay rooted in the past without any sense of innovation or change are left to slowly rot away while their remaining membership gets closer to dementia or death.

With many churches, it appears the focus isn’t about the message of Jesus so much as maintaining a business, which is what any such institution tends to be first and foremost, with the ideals a close tie for people’s attention. Either you attempt to maintain donations and thus maintain the influence you have or you focus on trying to teach certain ideals in order to guilt trip so many people into tithing out of obligation instead of generosity of some amount of disposable income they have amassed. Many young people, myself included, want either spiritual fulfillment without the need to feel like they have to conform to a narrow idea of what being religious entails or fulfillment that doesn’t make appeals to psychologically desperate ideas of comfort from a higher power. Both types want fulfillment, but they can find neither in a church that either teaches almost Pharisaic adherence to fundamentalist tenets or teaches ideals and ethics one can find far from the hallowed halls of the sanctuary. That common existential factor is ignored or forgotten by so many adults or seniors who were raised in a different age where Christianity was still very much the dominant tradition and infused in the culture to an extent that people eventually felt the need to change what had stood sufficient for over two centuries to many Christians. When a child thinks that Buddhism or Islam, amongst the various other traditions and worldviews that offer satisfaction in one way or another, could have some kernel of truth in it, many parents would either dismiss it or casually accept it only in part. Dismissal sets a precedent for the adolescent that the tradition they are raised in is xenophobic in nature and acceptance makes for future dissonance when understanding that Christianity makes exclusive claims about salvation. People are said to be saved only through Jesus and more specifically, only through a Trinitarian Jesus. With this in mind, the teen becomes incredulous to the notion that Christianity is actually able to be lived consistently if their own parents don’t demonstrate some sense of conformity to their own convictions they supposedly hold in such high regard. The alienation a skeptical teen feels can make them lash out in resentment that so many of their alleged peers believe things for which they have no proof and only adhere to for social convenience or because they think they couldn’t find such joy in anything else. And so it is through these kinds of practices in many antiquated but barely surviving churches that congregants are pushed away as they go off to college or even before that with inquiring adolescent minds unwilling to accept something merely because it has some dogma attached to it.

What’s more important is that we all seek out answers, even if we don’t agree on what they are. We shouldn’t focus on correct teachings over correct practice, but ideally balance them or focus on behavior instead of nitpicking what everyone believes or doesn’t. Any number of Christian adults strong in their faith can associate and even discuss beliefs with those who disagree with them in many ways. But it shouldn’t just be the common ground they find, but the search for truth and wisdom that unites even very disparate groups, such as evangelicals and atheists. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Desire and Delusion




One of the most common misconceptions about Buddhism is that it’s as sexually repressive as certain brands of Christianity. But like Christianity in a more classical sense, Buddhism doesn’t have a problem with desire when properly channeled, albeit it doesn’t go so far as to say that you sin when not doing sex within the right context. Christianity limits proper sexual behavior to the sacrament of marriage; Buddhism focuses more on proper relationships. Buddhism’s ethics on sex aside, this idea about Buddhism being about suppressing your desires entirely and becoming like a monk, unaffected by any pleasure or temptation, is a half truth, but misses a significant amount of Buddhist nuance on language. The word for desire usually used in Buddhism and Hinduism is kama and is one of three kinds of tanha, or addiction in Buddhist thought. Kama tanha is a craving for sensual pleasure or general stimulation of your senses. The next is bhava tanha, or a thirst for existence and becoming. The last is vibhava tanha or an attachment to non existence, a nihilistic urge, so to speak. The next things to discuss are distinctions in Buddhism between desires, which are natural and permissible things and addictions/cravings/thirsts, the excess or deficit of desires.

Desire in Buddhism is something understood by many to be a natural impulse we have. Hunger, thirst and other biological needs and wants we have, such as sexual pleasure, are inborn in us, but are not meant to be left to their own means, nor are they meant to be completely shut off. If we ignore our hunger, then we starve; if we indulge our hunger, we suffer backlash of heart disease or obesity. If we hold back our need for sexual desire, it can rebound in more dangerous mental illnesses; if we indulge our libido, then it can become a craving sated in more and more risky behaviors. Simply wanting food is not evil, but even Christians would agree with this, the same with wanting sexual pleasure. The sin of gluttony, excess of desire for sating your hunger, or that of lust, taking sexual desire to be an end in itself instead of a means, can both be likened to one of many forms of tanha, literally translated as thirst, though not like our need for hydration. A better translation I’ve found is similar to the word upadana, also translated as grasping or the like. These two terms are almost intertwined, though they are separate in that upadana might be argued to be the base cause of our various tanha. Because we always grasp for various things, it creates a habit of attachment in one form or another. Upadana is literally translated as fuel, so there is a sort of logical progression since greed, and the other two of the three poisons that bind us the most into rebirth, are also likened to fire. Our grasping is the fuel, the world is a spark and our greed, delusion and hatred are the fires that spur on the resultant thirsts of tanha.

What makes this difficult to qualify is the nature of upadana, lobha (greed) and tanha together in the relationship I’ve enumerated. Upadana is the foundational delusion that keeps us in the cycle of self destructive behavior. Even the notion of a soul can be argued to be a manifestation of a tanha, particularly the one for existence, bhava. Wanting to exist forever in some way is neither realistic nor comforting in the larger scale of immortality. Getting something you want is one thing, but getting it eternally makes it hollow and worthless. Our desire of things is normal and can be something we appreciate on a moment to moment basis. I love things all the more because I recognize their transient nature. Without the delusion of attachment, there is only the natural mourning of separation, but not a clinging to that thing’s memory in its loss. Our memory is a way to remember it, yes, but it should not be an enshrinement to maintain it evermore. Our greed, aversion and ignorance of things are based in the fundamental advocacy that wanting things to always remain in any sense is a good thing. Buddhism argues the opposite, due to one of the key tenets being that things are fundamentally empty of any permanence, as I noted in “Nothingness andNo-thingness” , but also because of something I’ll speak about next week, impermanence and its reflection across all facets of our lives, not just the physical things we attach ourselves to in order to feel fulfilled. It is not only our desire for material/physical things that binds us in samsara (rebirth/circle of life), but also those mental constructs such as the belief in a soul or deities, which older Buddhism especially advised against believing in. Admittedly many Buddhists would not see a problem with believing in gods as something that is part of the world, but as a more atheistic and secular Buddhist, my belief, along with Theravadan Buddhists to an extent, is that gods, even if they do exist (which I see little reason or relevance to believe), have no relevance to our enlightenment, since we accomplish that through our own efforts.

To reiterate; Buddhism is not anti desire and doesn’t want you to become insensitive to your feelings and physical wants, but it also doesn’t advocate complete hedonism or anhedonia (loss of feelings of pleasure). Fulfillment and happiness in Buddhism don’t come from without, they come from within. Once you’re able to accept that things pass away, you become more happy and able to remain that way in spite of the bad things that might thwart your desires for happiness otherwise. Most important is the distinction between natural desire on the one hand and cravings, attachments or addictions, desire taken to excess on the other. Involved with that is the mindset of grasping for something permanent, upadana, and the greed, aversion and ignorance that bind us to those habits of addiction in one form or another. There is also the message through the Buddha’s teachings that we shouldn’t try to completely eliminate desire, since it would create more unnecessary suffering in and of itself, not to mention it presumes a mistaken idea that we should seek complete lack of desire, when desire is a natural thing, and even factors into the want to be enlightened in the path. The middle path of Buddhism accommodates the average person’s desire and yet also prescribes a medicine that allows us to neither stray too far into either extreme of more Epicurean or hedonistic focus on pleasure as the only good, and asceticism or nihilism, where pleasure is somehow seen as an evil or temptation in and of itself entirely. Desire is natural when directed towards wholesome and moderated goals, as any natural good is in a median. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.



Saturday, September 24, 2011

WDAD: What Do Atheists Do About Religious Family?




Atheists already deal with people’s mistaken ideas about them spread by apologists and other “well-meaning” believers in God on an almost daily basis, but how does this factor in with one’s family? My own family isn’t terribly pushy about their Christianity for the most part, and this is mostly due to me being, for the most part to extended family, a closet atheist. I haven’t even told many people outside of those that could figure out through Facebook and look at my profile to see I identify with Zen. In that case, family wise, I would estimate only about 20-25 people at most would know that I’m not Christian, which is pretty much the default faith of most people raised in Tennessee anyway. I don’t see many people having a problem with it at all and I’ve only lost one Facebook friend through their unwillingness to engage in civil debates with me without exploding. I can’t speak for those who have come out, which comprises more of the difficulties and questions that are raised in regards to atheist’s relations with their religious family, excessive or otherwise. But I think I can provide some advice nonetheless as one who engages with the religious commonly.

Atheists who have already come out to their families encounter proselytizing and general skepticism that someone could actually stop believing in God and Jesus. Accusations are flung ranging from the person being possessed by Satan, affected by the secular humanist agenda or doing it out of rebellion. There’s also worry that they’ll go to hell or that they don’t have any basis for doing good, both of which are either irrelevant or unjustified. The insistence that they’ll change their mind with time, when they “grow up” makes me chuckle, since those believers have only grown up physically at most, but mentally, they haven’t truly matured, since they refuse to accept even the doubts that arise as to whether God actually exists or cares about them, pushing them aside. If they are unwilling to face the anxiety and emotional distress that might arise from adopting a perspective where there is no God and only humans in a world which they have the power to improve or destroy, then perhaps they haven’t really grown up in any real sense, except perhaps taking on some responsibilities that any human being is expected to as they reach a certain age. We all leave the nest of our parents, but this doesn’t mean that we sever those connections and dispositions that sometimes persist in spite of the separation we experience by paying our own rent, getting our own groceries and working a day to day job to support ourselves. Many people, since they have lost that direct connection to their initial providers, instead take on the belief that there is a spiritual/supernatural parent always watching over them which comforts them in some way. I don’t deny people’s right to believe this, but even as a pluralist, I cannot completely allow people to hold these beliefs in spite of evidence and arguments to the contrary. Plenty of people live a life full of happiness in spite of losses and don’t make any pleas to a deity to protect them or help them through it, but persist in spite of the existential despair. That humanist tenacity, particularly the secular variety, is admirable to me, though I suppose this goes without saying when in the position of being an outsider to a religion that offers not only the community of similar groups, but spiritual and existential solace in hearing someone preach that there is someone watching out for them and that loves them unconditionally (but only until they die, after which they separate the child from their love eternally if they haven’t loved them back).

I could understand in part when a family member feels defensive or disappointed when you have a family member that believes very differently than you about the supernatural. It’s one thing to have someone who converts to Judaism in a Christian family, or even Islam (popular in the 21st century as the new target that previously ranged from Judaism to Catholicism 50 years or more in the past). But even someone converting to Buddhism, which I have in part, let alone becoming an atheist (reverting back to a state they were already in before) poses a bigger issue to parents who might feel that the child is rebelling against them, or if the child is otherwise obedient, that they have somehow failed God in not raising their offspring to be good Christians. But I’d respond to all those parents: if your child is an otherwise good citizen and is respectful to you in spite of disagreeing with you about whether Jesus saves or God exists, then you’ve done a better job than many parents do in letting the school or the media serve as the babysitter for their spawn, regarding them as little more than a nuisance or free labor. If you genuinely love your child, I don’t see why you should become hostile in any sense just because they have changed from the religion you thought they ought to adhere to. Accept them as they are, like God accepts people. And before you respond that God expects change, don’t compare yourself to something that’s supposed to be all knowing and all powerful. You are neither and thus you don’t have any basis to do anything but pray to that God; not that it will necessarily have any effect on your child’s beliefs. If your child hasn’t become a criminal, they are in no imminent danger.

In terms of preconceived ideas of what atheists are, the best way to dispel those myths is to behave as you normally would and let your behavior speak for itself in terms of your atheism. You haven’t ceased to love your family, you haven’t become less moral, and you aren’t trying to convert them to atheism. But you must establish that you won’t change your beliefs just to make them feel better. You chose your beliefs and you will stick with them even if your family doesn’t agree. In the worst case scenario, your family would disown you and if you’re an adult, this is fine, however troubling it is at first. If they are not willing to accept you in choosing atheism, then perhaps they aren’t truly family in the sense of a group of people who persist in unconditional love in spite of the occasional ups and downs. If you’re not an adult, this can pose a problem in that you have to tolerate such intolerance that it borders on criminal behavior. In this way, being an atheist in a situation where you are dependent on religious family is actually a motivation to become independent sooner than if you don’t have this problem. My own immediate family isn’t so religious that they don’t permit that I have my own beliefs, so there is in a sense not as much motivation to become independent, though I definitely desire it a great deal if only to avoid more religious infighting that might occur in the future as I further mature.

So in my experience, atheists do have problems sometimes with religious family, but as they have become atheists, they seem to have become at least more understanding, though there are many atheists closeted to even their immediate family for fear of ostracism. And I say to them, do not be afraid. You have support in other atheists and even other theists who may disagree with you, but nonetheless grant you that freedom to choose your beliefs as an individual instead of thinking you must conform to satisfy their selfish wishes. Atheists and tolerant theists are your friends, even your family in a sense. Don’t let the so called “support and love” through your family members’ religious evangelism become a barrier to openness about your atheism. That’s the first step to making atheism more accepted and more well known in the world at large. Once your family begins to understand that atheism is only part of you and doesn’t determine other things about you, then they can start telling non family members about how you’re still the same person, you just don’t believe in God like many others might. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why Moral Language Matters




I don’t speak enough about being confronted with conflicting opinions and resolving those differences in detail, as much as I try to smooth them over. I consider myself a pluralist and not anything of a multiculturalist or hard relativist, especially in an epistemological or metaphysical sense. Some things are true whether we believe they are or not and things exist independently of our minds. But I can’t deny that there is some interaction and relation between what our mind perceives and those things as they are in themselves. And in terms of right and wrong, I don’t deny there should be some flexibility, but not to the detriment of having basic principles that we’d abandon for convenience’s sake or some twisted notion of progress that focuses on creativity over any sense of rationality. Both truth and morality should be high on our list of priorities in life, even if it’s a slow progress.

In order to make the world a better place, even one person at a time, we should go beyond multiculturalism and relative tolerance on the one hand and also beyond sectarian and divisive views of the world on the other and affirm a real pluralism. We can respectfully disagree and also affirm that people can have well thought out belief systems and find common ground even with dissonant foundations elsewhere. People’s beliefs should be taken seriously as to whether they are true or not, since many times, it appears we don’t believe in things because they have credulity, but because of peer pressure, need for social conformity, or even just to make ourselves feel secure. If we actually investigate with a discerning eye and some degree of objectivity, maybe we would gain deeper conviction or perhaps we’d change our beliefs in favor of more convincing ones. I’m not going into a rant about why religious beliefs should be completely dropped, since that’s highly unlikely to happen anyway. I can respect people who believe in God and other supernatural things, but there is a point where I cannot simply let people go their own way. We shouldn’t just accept people’s beliefs when they put others in danger, either through neglect or through excessive interference. If someone thinks they can heal disease by prayer and completely ignores medical treatment, that’s dangerous. If someone thinks they can change someone to be straight through invasive psychotherapy, I can’t accept that as either scientific or moral. This is based on the understanding of liberty that says people’s rights of non interference stop at the point they begin to interfere with other people’s inalienable rights. If you cease to treat people as equal because they don’t share your beliefs or behave in a way you think is immoral, then your religious beliefs don’t deserve automatic respect or serve as justification for otherwise irreprehensible actions. If you happen to believe in God or such and are not intrusive or obnoxious about it, you at least deserve some modicum of tolerance from other people. But at the same time, I don’t think we should give religion any more favor merely because it’s rooted in tradition or socially accepted practices. But we should at least give people liberty to choose within reason amongst the various religious beliefs that generally do not cause excessive harm. One can allow belief systems you don’t agree with to exist if those who believe in them are willing to let them be criticized on the same level as other systems. And the same allowance on your end will create a more peaceful coexistence than before.

It’s ironic when some people say all things are ultimately relative and without any basis for judgment of right or wrong and also judge certain things (slavery, gay rights, genocide) as right or wrong as if it is self evident, which contradicts their claim that all things are relative for ethical judgment. If we qualify that things are epistemologically relative or ontologically relative, there might be a better case for consistency. Things being “epistemologically relative” means we each approach questions with a limited knowledge base. And things being “ontologically relative” means we all classify things in particular ways, though perhaps there are certain things that are more unified in how they are categorized. Not all things are relative in terms of the laws of physics, for example, except perhaps on the quantum level. Regular everyday events and actions are only relative ethically in terms of perspective, similarly to our knowledge; if we don’t consider something’s rightness or wrongness, we don’t respond in that vein to claims of that action being right or wrong. If we argue there are certain things that are objectively and more conclusively true than other things, the difficulty is distinguishing why this is so. Pluralism is a good impetus to this form of soft relativism, as opposed to hard relativism. According to a study by Notre Dame professor Christian Smith, many young adults do not have the vocabulary or even motivation to speak about moral issues. It’s one thing to try to argue that all morals are relative, which is at least some conclusion about the issue, however mistaken it is, but it’s another thing to be apathetic about morals and ethics, which seems to be the case here. The importance of moral language cannot be overstated, since without even some cursory ideas about what right and wrong are in various systems, we can’t even start to consider the basis of those ideas and our own beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of something like Troy Davis’ recent execution even though there was supposedly little conclusive evidence to prove his guilt. If you don’t care about whether an innocent person is killed by the state, or whether an innocent person is killed to begin with, you have your priorities terribly out of shape.

People’s interests only seem to focus on any kind of ultimate truth or being correct when it personally affects them in some way, which usually leads to a misguided sense of moral indignation, or when it affects a group they identify with. Christians who take their religious identity very seriously get up in arms about upholding morals, but many of them seem to use that notion of being Christian as an excuse for doing all sorts of unethical things otherwise and then begging for forgiveness after the fact. The biggest problem that exists in terms of either whether one worldview is the only correct one or whether the death penalty or abortion are ethical/unethical is that people tend to focus too much on a smaller picture of things and miss how their own moralizing and overly zealous attitude is a problem in and of itself or they try to polarize the issue as a whole and paint every person who disagrees in any way as an opponent, even if they unknowingly agree with people on those issues in part. I had a co-worker who was staunchly pro life and listened to conservative radio, but I didn’t have a problem with working alongside them, especially since they only made that a specific part of their life and avocation of “protecting the unborn”. I could understand part of their position, as they’re a parent and possibly find it incredulous that anyone could “destroy a child” for mere “convenience” or “selfishness” As you grow older, you tend to become a bit more set in your ways, since it gives you a sense of stability in an otherwise chaotic world. But the existential nature of life; searching for meaning and building foundations upon insights or institutions; is a shared feature that we all engage with in one way or another. I might not agree with many friends or acquaintances who are strong Christians, but I can nonetheless respect their right to believe it. But, remember, this is only to the extent that they do not give themselves a mistaken sense of entitlement, similarly as I hope people would grant me if I became misguided in what I felt I deserved in life in the future. So, until next time, Namaste, aloha, and let’s all try to get along.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Mindfulness and Mu





One of the things about Buddhism many people criticize is the lack of rationality present in its thought, particularly with Zen koans and the nondualism present across much of Buddhism as it spread to the east of India. The idea that things only appear distinct, as well as the idea of meditation involving letting go of all thought can perplex Westerners and even did myself for a while before I looked at it from a different angle. Buddhist meditation and mindfulness are neither making yourself insensitive to the world around you or becoming hyper vigilant of everything in your surroundings, but finding a healthy medium between those two positions of non intervention and excessive intervention.

A way to understand mindfulness is through the character Mu, depicted above. It is used as an answer to certain koans (riddles for meditative purposes). In the context of the riddle it answers, a student asks the elder whether a dog has Buddha nature or not. The monk simply answers with this single syllable. What is the significance, one might ask? Many interpret it to mean that asking whether one specific thing has Buddha nature is pointless, since all things are Buddha nature in that they can lead to enlightenment. This has pertinence to Buddhists, but to non Buddhists, it seems irrelevant, since they may not believe in enlightenment or Buddha nature as some potentiality of all beings. The answer isn’t saying that a dog doesn’t have Buddha nature ultimately, since it is part of samsara and the cycle of rebirth, even if it doesn’t have the consciousness to work towards enlightenment or nirvana as a human does. Another interpretation related to this is that the polarizing nature of answering yes or no misses the point that in varying perspectives, right and wrong also vary. This reflects that such analytical thinking can sometimes miss the bigger point in trying to find a specific answer. The use of the mu character here, therefore, is not a “no” to the question at hand, but the question as a whole. A more Western response might be “The question is irrelevant”. I think an alternative interpretation here might be that the elder didn’t say anything, but answered with silence, which does occur with other koans, from what I recall. In that sense, there is an indirect answer to the question with an indirect solution of saying that there is no conclusive answer to this. Even if the answer was ultimately true, a person of a conventional mindset may nonetheless not understand it because their mind is not oriented in the proper sense of Buddhist thinking. Mindfulness relates to mu as an answer in that sometimes you shouldn’t try to analyze things, but just experience them as they are.

A related use of the mu character that is more relevant to mindfulness explicitly is munen musou, translated as “no thought, no mind,” It’s not literally clearing the mind of all thought, but concentrating the mind and eliminating distractions and thoughts that draw you away from stillness and being mindful of things. In that sense, having no thought and no mind is the essence of mindfulness in that you must attain this amount of focus and yet do it freely instead of through deliberate effort. If you try, like the monk previously with understanding Buddha nature, to analyze or scrutinize a concept, you can find out certain answers, but then cloud your mind further with complexities of the answer you discovered. Perhaps you conclude that a dog doesn’t have Buddha nature, which may lead to you treating animals less than humanely because you don’t regard them as possessing the potential to become enlightened in their own sense. Figuring out such an answer may actually hinder your progress instead of advance it. People may object that this seems to claim, at face value, that we should stop thinking entirely and cleanse our mind fully to reach enlightenment. This is the same problem of interpretation regarding Buddhist positions on desire (which I’ll visit next week, hopefully) in that it mistakenly sees Buddhism as anti-desire and anti-thought fundamentally. This is not the case in either. You accept your thoughts and desires, but not let them run wild, but tame them with a sharp and focused mind.

A two pronged example is the intertwined terms of mushotoku and muichimotsu. They are translated as “no goal” and “holding nothing” respectively. The idea of mushotoku is to let events progress as they will and not be attached to them in terms of your fulfillment and practice. It would initially seem to imply that you aren’t supposed to have goals at all, but again, this jumps to an exaggerated conclusion. One can have goals in mind, but you should not view them as ultimate ends, but tentative in that they can be adjusted to circumstances commonly out of your control. If I thought going to grad school was the only way to get a good job, for example, I’d be missing out on other opportunities to build up my resume; for example, this blog. Muichimotsu is almost more complicated than even mushotoku in the implications from a Western perspective. It certainly isn’t claiming we shouldn’t have any possessions whatsoever. The distinction would be between complete poverty and not being attached to things as ends in themselves. Both of these ideas imply that we don’t have to absolutely abandon all our goals or possessions in order to be happy and fulfilled; we merely have to let go of our myopic expectations of how things ought to go and be satisfied and content with how things actually go as well as understanding that the impermanence of things does not mean we can’t possess things and appreciate them nonetheless.

Mindfulness as a Buddhist ideal is also misunderstood at times. When we normally think of the term, it gives an impression of unflinching focus on something or a sort of heightened sense that we must maintain at all times. But neither of these is fully the case. There is a notion of focus on things, but not so much that we ignore everything else related to something we focus on. Enlightenment as a goal, or moral virtue, for example, can be good goals to have, but we cannot neglect being compassionate to other people. Being a monastic doesn’t suggest you should completely shut yourself off from society, it merely means you take vows that place a limit on yourself so that you can practice with less distractions than if you were a layperson in the world that can often mislead people with less than moderate dispositions. And the heightened sense of awareness is a goal, albeit it’s not something you gain all at once, but through practice, particularly meditation, either through a focus on some physical practice, such as zazen (sitting meditation) or through a mental construct, such as the koan riddles, amongst other possibilities. I wish I could talk in detail about these varied forms of meditation or even just those found in Zen, my favorite form of Buddhism, but I thought it would help to give more relatable ideas from Zen that could inspire people to contemplate mindfulness and cultivate it as well through meditation of one form or another. Even just reminding yourself daily in some sense is a form of meditation. Mindfulness can be found as you walk to work, as you do your job throughout the day, as you eat dinner. That is the ease with which one can find insight, and yet the difficulty in the same context. Until next time, Namaste and aloha. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

WDAD: What Do Atheists Do About Ethics?




If atheists aren’t accused of trying to take over America (along with Jews?), they are most likely being told they are immoral, amoral or otherwise without any moral basis for their actions. While there may be atheists that behave and believe this way, I’m willing to wager most atheists are more than capable of discerning between right and wrong and good and evil in a variety of situations. Hesitating because of particularly ambivalent issues or general moral gray areas does not make you amoral, it makes you that much more moral for actually considering whether the action is justified. And just because you lack a belief in a creator, the so called arbiter of morality, hardly suggests that you think all morality is completely arbitrary. There’s diversity amongst theists about morality and ethics on issues like abortion or capital punishment, so that already gives me an indication that morality is flexible but not haphazard. Atheists might not have stringent and unbending orthodoxy on what’s right and wrong, but I guarantee we have less likelihood of leaping to unsound ethical judgments based on tradition or authority.

The biggest stumbling block I’ve found for theists even acknowledging the possibility of atheists being moral in any sense is the idea that they have no accountability to God. But as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m fairly accountable already to my fellow humans, especially because they can directly confront me and punish me if necessary for correction. Not having my actions monitored by some entity that doesn’t appear to intervene except when it chooses to (so called miracles or other “acts of God”) doesn’t mean that I think I can get away with anything. Justice system aside, we have a conscience built into us that has nothing to do with a soul or the afterlife, but simply a recognition that we have done wrong in the immediate sense.  The notion that humanist ethics are completely relativist is mistaken on its face, since there is, if nothing else, a persistent factor that remains for consideration at all times: humanity and its capacity for suffering. When I deliberate an action, part of my motivation should be to harm the least amount of people possible and to help the most people possible. I’m not a strict utilitarian, but the notion that I should strive to help people instead of harm them does cross my mind. There are times, however, when making people suffer in some sense can be a benefit to them in the future. All in all, though, to say my ethics are in any way claiming that I can do anything I want without consequences ignores the crucial parallel aspect of many atheists to theists: we both take the suffering of a fellow human seriously. I do good things to advance human flourishing, I avoid bad things to lower human suffering; simple and yet complex in the flexibility of situations that come about.

The insistence that atheists might have morals compelling them to behave in a certain way is countered by saying they have no absolute to base those morals around. They are, even if not relative normatively, they are relative descriptively. Morals to an atheist, theists claim commonly, are not consistent across generations or in general because of the multitude of perspectives and lack of an ultimate source. There is also the claim that atheists follow experimental ethics; what works is good. As if this is a completely bad thing: if I find something is beneficial in a particular situation, but not in others, it behooves me to be particular and not general. Focusing on practicality in ethics should not be the absolute focus, but it shouldn’t be thrown out either. Ethics don’t require absolutes, but consistent principles that govern behavior. It shouldn’t focus on conformity with the letter of the law, but the intent behind it (or the spirit if you’re of a Christian or Jewish flavor). Lack of a God as foundational to one’s ethics does not automatically render one a relativist.

Christians usually admit atheists can be ethical, even if they can’t be righteous before God. Even if I am not following your God’s law completely, many would argue I might actually be following the law better than Christians, albeit they would also insist I’m a legalist because I’m following the law for fear of punishment instead of doing it out of genuine goodness in my heart.  That notion has always disgusted me since I heard of it. Atheists can be virtuous people for the sake of virtue just as much as Christians. In fact, I’d argue all the more for atheists, since they don’t pretend to have some reward for them or any sort of holiness surrounding their actions.

And in terms of considering the pain non humans suffer, atheists are not by any means so anthropocentric (centered on only humans) that they cannot concede that animals deserve to be treated humanely, even if they don’t deserve treatment as human equals, since they couldn’t understand that concept. I treat my cats with respect, occasionally play-fighting with them, and do not consider it permissible to let animals become feral just because you don’t want to take care of them. Treating animals humanely also involves the decision of euthanasia that is equally controversial for humans. But in both cases, there are factors outside the individual that apply. With humans, there is the relation of that human to other people and so they must consider that in their decisions. With animals, the humans that own them have to make the decision for them in a reversal of the choice a human makes for assisted suicide. To think atheists don’t contemplate these sorts of things is to give us too little credit merely because we don’t believe in something that is either unverifiable or generally useless.

Atheist ethics only differ significantly and originally from theist ethics in how they relate to the supernatural. Atheists don’t derive any ethical obligations from the supernatural, so there are no moral duties to respect the gods or rest on a Sabbath or any such thing. The focus is instead on humanity and duties to it as a community and on interpersonal levels as well. In that sense, even if atheists don’t have absolute ethics, I’d say they have far better ethical priorities. If your focus is only on pleasing God and following all of its commandments and looking for its approval, humans are at best a secondary concern, since you don’t have to please humans to be good in God’s eyes. With that thought, I honestly tend to think that theist ethics are not only indefensible from a humanist perspective, but anti humanist in nature, since the goal is not flourishing for humanity, but flourishing for individual humans or particular groups of humans in heaven, whatever that specifically entails. The question remains; which would you rather trust: an atheist who has well thought out but not absolute ethics or a theist who has absolute adherence to ethics they haven’t thought out? Until next time, Namaste and aloha.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Capital Punishment and Conservative Politics




I didn’t watch much of the GOP debate a week ago (I stumbled onto Rick Santorum castigating the welfare state and quickly ducked out), but I don’t know if I would’ve had the patience to listen to a group of people that focus more on getting votes and less on American values that are shared across party lines. Rick Perry in particular, got troubling applause during the question, and following his answer, about the death penalty in Texas. It was noted that in his now 5 terms as governor in Texas, over 200 people have been executed. I don’t know if that’s ever something to be proud of, but even more appalling is that people associated with the GOP applauded at this (twice) while simultaneously supporting anti abortion rights practices, calling that murder. Do any of those people try to be consistent in this idea that people who commit that crime should be executed and extend that to abortion recipients or practitioners? I doubt it and that reflects a discontinuity that exists with many modern members of the Republican Party.

The GOP touts itself as a very pro life party, though closer observation reveals they are only pro life in the colloquial expression that actually is phrased much better as anti abortion rights. Illegalizing abortion, sometimes a goal of anti abortion advocates, is ironically a point to bridge the debate into support by Republicans of the death penalty. Capital or corporal punishment, call it what you will, but it amounts to a state spending a great deal more money to kill someone than to incarcerate them for life or rehabilitate them. I’m not absolutely certain of the economics involved, but the argument has some basis allegedly with the costs of lethal injection, one of the more common methods. In fact, there are only 6 states, including Tennessee, that even allow the electric chair to be used at the prisoner’s request. If nothing else, Texas apparently realized that lethal injection was more humane.
A question is brought up with illegalizing abortion: “Do you advocate the death penalty for people found guilty of the crime of abortion, since, according to most anti abortion activists, it is murder? Or do you claim there is some significant difference between someone killing an unborn child and a person already born? Where does infanticide fit into this? Are these people deserving of the death penalty or do you have some other punishment in mind for people who kill the unborn and/or recently born?” As you can see, the question branches out pretty quickly, but if we focus on the issue of consistent justice, many Republicans fail to consider or speak about what would happen in their ideal world if abortion was made criminal again. There may be a sector amongst them that would actually support lumping abortionists alongside serial killers, though I wonder what they would do to people who merely had the abortion performed on them; would they consider them just as culpable as the doctor; or less so because they were directly connected to the person (fetus/etc) that was killed? Maybe just manslaughter charges?

The very idea of trying to discuss jurisprudence as related to killing what only moderately possesses personhood at the 5th month of gestation is mind boggling, but it only gets worse when you consider that people will cheer about this sort of thing when they likely have no connection to any execution by fewer than 4 degrees of separation. The idea of being so proudly pro life and yet mobilizing to kill people that killed others as some twisted deterrent to future criminals is beyond counterintuitive, it’s borderline contradictory. If you were consistently pro life, you wouldn’t advocate protecting life at one stage and then, for every other situation, push death as a solution: soldiers for wars that rarely seem to be just or have the state play God and dispense so called “ultimate justice” (Rick Perry’s words, not mine)
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Even if this position of selective pro life politics wasn’t completely backwards and could be defended logically, there is no reason to applaud for the death of any human being, no matter how terrible they may be. Death is a part of life and should not be further encouraged by a faulty system of justice that thinks it’s doing God a favor when God is said even in the Bible to be the final and ultimate judge, not humans. Not to mention the idea of taking revenge or returning death with more death is also not something the Bible advocates by human hands, especially in New Testament thought. Jesus said to forgive your enemies, pray for those who persecute you and such, correct? So why, like so many Republicans these days, do you only use faith in Jesus to draw people in with heartfelt prayers and then ignore his sayings when faced with ethical issues of life and death caliber? Sure, you can say you’re protecting all the unborn, but when it comes to flawed people already born, you don’t ever think to advocate the love and forgiveness Jesus spoke of. As much as he spoke of proper judgment in the Gospels, he also emphasized that the use of violence should not be your impulse, but a last resort. He noted at one point, those who live by the sword die by the sword, indicating in part that we shouldn’t use lex talionis (eye for an eye styled) justice when we can just as easily practice forgiveness, however more difficult that is. When a person takes another person’s life, they have indeed committed a crime, but that crime; no crime of any magnitude; demands that we eliminate that person from the face of the earth as if it will reduce crime. In fact it might just encourage more killing by the precedent you set that it solves problems. And it won’t deter truly evil people, since they wouldn’t be swayed by threats of violence when they use those same threats to get what they want.

I would also imagine there is a generational gap here based on a tradition that execution is just a part of life and shouldn’t be done away with. Though for people in older generations who go through a process of hatred against a person who murdered a loved one and then realize that forgiveness is the first step to real healing, I think we could see eye to eye. I can’t be certain that I wouldn’t initially react with some amount of negativity towards someone who took any number of people I find important to me. If it was an accident, it’d be another thing, but willful actions might provoke even me to initially think I should avenge that person. I can only hope that would be tempered and held back by my studies in Christianity and Buddhism both that have taught me that hatred feeds a proverbial fire that can burn you with enough fuel. Forgiveness and love, tools of peace and not war, will not only change you, but may even change the murderer if they are so disposed.
Bottom line, if conservatives want to be taken seriously by educated people who can see between the lines drawn in the political sands, they need to change their tone to be more consistent overall and oppose the death penalty and excessive military spending that both clash with their alleged pro life stance; actually appearing more pro fear, as I’ve noted elsewhere in “Pro Life and Politics” Or they could be consistent in being pro fear and apply the death penalty equally in prosecuting abortion crimes, assuming they have the goal of illegalizing abortion, which isn’t always the case with GOP, but can stop short and instead seek to obstruct abortion rights as a whole. Either way, it would suggest a vast change in the party that would nonetheless create a chasm that would eventually be filled by some party. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.



Monday, September 12, 2011

Nothingness and No-thingness





Buddhist philosophy is an uncommon topic for me, but I always find myself looking into it. I’ll probably get to more detailed writings on the three marks of existence, for example (dukkha, anicca and anatta, look them up if curious), but for now, I thought I’d confront what is a deal-breaker of sorts for many looking into Buddhism or something they hear from many people’s initial judgments. What I refer to is the claim that Buddhism is nihilistic or pessimistic in its outlook on life, since it claims life is suffering and more explicitly, empty. I won’t get into much detail on the claim that Buddhists believe all life is suffering, since the translation of that first of three basic truths is not as accurate as unsatisfactoriness, for instance.  But emptiness is another example of the difficulty that exists for translating Buddhist ideas into the more Western oriented English language. The word translated is sunyata, which speaks not to nonexistence or negation, but more like the Daoist notion of void; like an empty glass full of potential or any empty space that can be filled with something. Even an alternative translation of voidness has problems of people’s initial interpretations. Void seems to a Western mind illustrative of a black hole or something that is utterly destructive. But void in an Eastern context doesn’t suggest something being eliminated, but instead things having potential to be added onto. When you think about the number 0, it isn’t necessarily an indicator of lack of things, though in Buddhism that has relevance with things not being permanent and thus empty of a certain kind of persistence we desire. 0 can also mean the start of something, 1 and beyond. And similarly, with emptiness, it is not saying life is meaningless or without tangibility, but merely that is must be recognized to be transient in nature, always in flux, always in motion, changing forms sometimes before our naked eyes.

A pertinent way to clarify how sunyata is not any sort of nihilism or negative view of the world would be to say that Buddhism doesn’t believe so much in nothingness; that everything is without any existence whatsoever, purely illusory; but instead believes in no-thingness; that everything exists, but it is not completely self sufficient or permanent, but dependent on people appropriating a meaning upon it and will eventually pass away as such.

Nothingness is a term I’d assert strongly doesn’t reflect anything in Buddhism except as people misunderstand teachings from it. The notion of impermanence, for example, doesn’t imply Buddhists don’t believe anything exists, nor does the teaching that the world has the quality of illusion, translated from “maya” mean that Buddhists don’t believe things actually exist. Buddhists don’t believe things have complete and self sufficient existence apart from our minds. True, trees and other physical objects will still exist even if we don’t think about them. But their identity as trees or animals is relative to each human identifying them as such. There is a sort of dependence and interdependence of all things upon each other in one sense. Trees need water and sunlight, while water and sunlight are also dependent on things to subsist, particular situations or other physical elements such as an atmosphere. If things didn’t actually exist, Buddhists would encounter more problems than they could solve, since the idea of mindfulness is not just internal, but external. Things are recognized to pass away, but also bring forth other things in their wake, so that things never truly disappear, but subsume into more basic constituents, such as a desk becoming wood and kindling. The desk only ceases to exist because it has become unusable, but the identity of desk can be appropriated to another similar object without losing the function it serves of categorizing objects relative to human use.

There is a strong difference of opinion between Buddhists and theists on metaphysics, since the notion of an absolute creator completely separate from the creation in an ontological sense, not able to be classified in any way except unto itself, being so ultimately unique, clashes starkly with the Buddhist idea that everything originates from something else that permeates things on every level of life. Even our very beliefs about the world are based on prior beliefs we take for granted, such as the dependability of our senses and the tangible existence of objects outside our perception of them. The no-thingness of objects as well as our own experiential selves only means that they will naturally change over time and not maintain any sort of essence that can be pinpointed without reference to other equally “essential” qualities. I am not just me because of my family, but also my friends. I am shaped by culture, by education, by various relationships as mentioned before and all of these things constitute me as a whole of parts instead of a whole lumped together without individual considerations. The problem people may see is that the lack of a persistent essence of even our selves means that there is no soul that many religions believe in. When we die, the belief that our consciousness and identity will survive beyond our ceasing to live physically is not something Buddhism believes in, and this understandably perturbs people. Of course, there is also the mischaracterization of karma in relation to Buddhism for an example I will visit in the future that claims Buddhism is somehow dehumanizing to people. But I feel like I can further affirm my humanity as a Buddhist, since I am unique and yet also recognize that I am not so unique to lord it over other humans, equally unique as they are.

The fact that things will eventually end in one way or another is not the same as annihilation of all things in some ultimate sense. If we take scientific perspectives on the state of matter and energy, even billions of years from now, matter and energy’s sum total will still exist, but more spread out as they equalize over time. The cessation of one thing leads to the beginning of another thing, in a sort of circle of life, or more realistically, a web of life. Me dying does not mean I absolutely disappear, nor does it mean I absolutely must survive somehow as a soul. I will survive through memories in virtual immortality, but not in actual immortality as a consciousness still perceiving things. My dependence on physical senses means that when I no longer have a functioning body, I do not exist as a conscious entity, but only as memories of my friends and family.

It should be emphasized again that me believing that things are transient and impermanent, not possessing any sort of thingness or essence to them does not make me a nihilist. In fact, I can further appreciate things because I know they will not persist in some form after they pass, especially people. When things are gone I can adjust without having to mourn. As heartless as that may sound, it’s a development towards accepting things as they are and not how we expect them to happen. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

WDAD: What Do Atheists Do To Find Peace?





While in times of crisis, atheists focus on the immediate and present dangers to humanity instead of even using part of their time to gain comfort from prayer to a higher power, the flipside of the question may pose a larger quandary: what do atheists do to find peace in those times of crisis discussed previously or in general? What ought to be qualified from the start are two kinds of peace. The first is that of personal, inner or introspective peace. This refers to a calm, or at least rational and level headed, approach to the various trials and difficulties life throws at you. The second is resultant from the first. When you find peace within yourself, you have more likelihood of finding peace with others. The nature of that peace will be discussed forthwith, but the interpersonal or external peace can also reflect how you resolve conflicts or approach international politics, such as recent wars in the Middle East and U.S. intervention which I find at the very least invasive and at the most stretching our resources thinner than necessary. My non-interventionist position aside, this extrospective peace can also reflect the state of a society: crime rates, quality of living, etc.  This dual approach to peace 
might be a bit simplistic, but it confronts two important facets of this question to atheists.

Inner peace; more precisely peace of mind; is something argued to be a benefit of believing in God and praying to it, as noted in part last week in “WDAD: What Do Atheists Do In Times Of Crisis?”  However, this sort of comfort is as fleeting as any sort one gains from without. Family is something both atheists and theists can find happiness and peace in through shared love. But even family will pass away. This is not to be pessimistic, but realistic. Any peace of mind should not be gained by clinging to things as if they are what give us contentment or satisfaction. A peace worth anything comes from contemplation, introspection and realization thereof. I’m not saying everyone should become mystics, but just practicing some form of mindfulness or contemplation for even just an hour of one’s time could lead you to greater peace.  I imagine people would respond that they can do that and center themselves through God, but I would respond, as I would to anyone who prays to any higher power for guidance or security of any form, that this persists only as you continue to either exclude any contrary evidence/thoughts or until you experience something harrowing enough to break you and reshape you as a more self sufficient human being. I went through troubles, but I never found solace in an invisible, inscrutable entity. My parents, my friends, and people in general helped me. Human healing and improvement comes through human efforts and human will, not through the interventions or appearances thereof from supernatural beings.  Any sort of appeals to gods or spirits will not avail you and that harsh reality is something I cannot prove to you, but only advise you to consider the likelihood. I’ve considered whether the world would seem better through believing in a protective deity, but I cannot concede that anything becomes better. The basic conclusion would be that things would be too safe and we would cease to have any real awareness of things around us except as they benefit us and us alone as humans instead of as part of a larger world we share with other beings, both smaller and larger than us.

The issue of peace between others is much more contentious than even the previous debate on the psychological benefits of religious belief. Many theists respond with examples of cruel dictators, such as Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot and Adolf Hitler to claim that atheism as any sort of basis for society only leads to chaos and evil. First off, the example of Hitler could be pointed out by anyone reading his own writings to be mistaken on its face, since he clearly believed in God, even if his God was an Aryan Nazi. Any other example one can present is not a reflection of atheism as a whole, but atheism when intermingled with politics and humanity’s natural lust for power. The maxim that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” applies the same with atheists as with theists. Any sort of atheist without some basic ethical framework or consideration of other humans is bound to be just as dangerous as a theist believing they are doing God’s work on earth. The argument commonly goes that atheists don’t have any basis for ethics (which I’ll confront in more detail eventually), so they are more dangerous than theists in what they would do with political clout. But I contend that humans conceive of equally horrendous things whether they believe in God or don’t. The only difference is that atheists are more easily accountable to humans than theists are; pledging their loyalty first and foremost not to humanity, but to God, faithful to humanity only vicariously as a duty to the Creator. A theist in control and following the commands of God without question can commit atrocities likened to an atheist who regards science as their primary master in that there is the same human tendency to be inflexible and resistant to change.

Evidence seems to suggest, in part, that nations with more atheists are more peaceful, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, Japan and Canada are just a few nations that are more peaceful in that they have less crime and overall violence. That’s not to say they are crime free, but the occurrences are more spread out statistically. Japan is notorious for some murders in its history, but they occur more sporadically, since guns and swords are all but illegal in Japan; even the Self Defense Force doesn’t use guns, but instead utilizes non lethal weapons and force to pacify people. That word pacify is not commonly related to its root meaning of peace. Many would regard pacifists as weak, but just because you want to restrain someone or solve a problem without killing people does not make you weak. When you restrain yourself so as not to take a life, it takes more courage than lashing out in violence that kills anyone near you. Similarly, both theists and atheists who are pacifist in this sense have far more willpower and bravery than either an atheist or theist who advocates the use of violence to solve problems that could be solved without bloodshed or unnecessary death.

Overall, I hope I’ve given some perspective on how atheists, or at least myself as an atheist, can find personal peace and interpersonal peace, not pressured by some natural urge as a nonbeliever to kill people or commit crimes. I maintain peace for the sake of others as much as for myself. We share this world, so I see no reason to create harsh waves without a rational or practical reason for doing so. Until next time, Namaste, aloha and as-salaam-alaikum (Peace be unto you).

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Faith on Facebook




Both Justin Bieber and Jesus are both (ironically) popular on Facebook. But what does this say about religion and popular culture, particularly with the social networking site in question? By far, Jesus Daily, a page run by a dietician from North Carolina, has gotten more likes and more overall interaction than even celebrity pages ranging from Justin Bieber to Lady Gaga. This level of interaction demonstrates a few things: one, there are many Christians on Facebook who take religious interaction just as seriously, if not more so, than their interpersonal relationships at an actual church. Prayer requests and inspirational scripture quotes are commonplace on the page and many people speak as if it is a strong source of faith for them. And the amount of activity on the page suggests that many people look to it as a source of religious devotion.

Many Christian leaders would no doubt warn, and have been doing so for years, that the use of online churches and devotionals affects how people approach religion as a whole. It doesn’t just apply to Christians, however. There are online sources for virtually any religion you could think of, even such as the folk religion of Japan, Shinto. I remember a website for a shrine that was modernized and drew in people with animated mascots and such. Christianity doesn’t strive to do that, but that speaks to a difference of religiosity in Japan as opposed to America. People don’t make Jesus into a mascot, unless you count Buddy Christ in Dogma, so the way Christians use the internet is more for networking and reaching out to people who are otherwise unwilling to go to church or unable to because of some illness or disability. In this sense, there is a benefit that naysayer Christians are missing. Even if there is a potential problem of people becoming more detached, one can say there’s an equal possibility of people maintaining sociability, but also increasing their spirituality. If it takes the internet to inspire people, then shouldn’t it be seen as at least partly a blessing from God? The internet was something of a factor in me being more social, albeit I’ll admit there is that strong influence of personal detachment, though it varies with each person. I’m a more private individual and generally socially reserved as well, so perhaps it’s my own fault for that outcome.

The Internet as a whole is fraught with so called “spiritual dangers”, such as pornography, covered in another Belief Blog article, so any critiques of the Internet in terms of Facebook and religious behavior seem to miss the point. There’s potential danger anywhere in terms of Christian morality; it’s a matter of believers being aware and vigilant, something of a theme in the New Testament, from what I understand.

There’re other reasons why people choose to engage in religion through Facebook or other social media. Many want to keep themselves separate from churches that have political/inter-congregational squabbles. They still affirm the need for a community and they aren’t unwilling to go to churches and such gatherings, but for more genuine spirituality and devotion, they insist that an online community can help them be more centered. Is this a problem? As noted above, it can be when it makes the person become fixated and obsessed with the online aspect without giving credence and consideration to the real life interaction and contact that occurs in an actual sanctuary.

Many people who are religious lean one way or the other in this, but perhaps there are people that take a middle path. Friends of mine have noted that they’ve searched for years for a church and found it. But some people may jump from church to church, not only to sample variations in theology, but also because they feel like God and Jesus aren’t found in a building, but simply in any group. Jesus himself says in Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them,” In that sense, people can still gather in small groups for devotional purposes and have the same amount of sincerity, if not more because of the lack of explicit social group pressure present in larger communities. It’s done at my alma mater in the form of Catechumenate; it’s done in other forms across the country, such as Cru or Young Life. The nondenominational aspect is one thing; the higher engagement with the secular world in one way or another is what makes it more effective. The internet is also commonly used for evangelistic purposes, so this phenomenon of online religious communities and churches shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, especially with more people becoming technologically capable and wanting something besides petty disputes that break churches apart sometimes. I would caution people to have restraint and not use this method as their only means to be religious, since common sense doesn’t always prevail. Otherwise, it remains a personal search for the sacred that everyone discovers as time goes by. Good luck to all. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.