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Saturday, October 29, 2011

WDAD: What Do Atheists Do About Science?

Science is something all people share some experience with, regardless of beliefs about God. But atheists are typically associated more often with it, if only because of a somewhat natural association between the methodology of the discipline and the skepticism of the nonbeliever. While this is the case from what I know about statistics of scientists across the U.S., it may also reflect a tendency amongst people with progressively higher education, though, as I’ve observed before, there is at least one study that suggested some educated people tend to become more religious, though seemingly for social reasons as opposed to compelling evidence. There are scientists who believe in God and, remarkably enough, see little to no conflict between their belief in God and a deceptively selective idea of naturalism and appreciation of the natural processes they study. Many may think scientists are more likely to be atheists because of science education itself, though the very fact that there are God believers in their ranks suggests that it isn’t wholly the result of the education itself, but the practice of applying scientific rigor to other things in life, such as religion. Believers would object that this is comparing apples and oranges, but when you think about it, science is rooted in a particular philosophy, which would therefore be able to be considered in relation to beliefs of all sorts with some extension from our normal association of the term science with the natural/hard sciences, like biology, chemistry and physics, as well as the similar idea of the social/soft sciences, which include sociology, anthropology and economics. There are two things that I feel are most important with relation to atheism and science and these are the preconceptions people have about scientific practice and the famous scientists who are somewhat ambivalent in God belief, like Albert Einstein or vehemently not God believers, such as Richard Dawkins, and what they represent about scientists’ varying views on God.

One of the most telling issues of the connection, or lack thereof, between science and atheism, is people’s varying ideas of what science is. If one automatically thinks that every scientist must be an atheist or they are contradicting science, you’re as mistaken as those who would claim that all scientists must be theists and that atheists are hypocrites. The incidental statistics that lean one way or another about affirmations of God’s existence or the reverse amongst scientists don’t speak to whether science itself is innately atheistic or theistic. Its history has included both in varying numbers and there are probably more factors than merely your association with a particular discipline or even whether you’re in the hard or soft sciences, for instance. Some might say that you have more likelihood to be atheist in hard sciences, and some potential for theism in soft sciences, but the general numbers seem to be 50/50. When we say “believe in God,” there may be more vague deists, for instance, or even pantheists, which theologians tend to think is only a step away from atheism, like deism is two steps. In any case, the methods of science ultimately don’t preclude being theist or atheist, since the more difficult factor for many to discern is whether the scientist is actually being consistently scientific in their thinking. If you are a theist willing to accept the possibility that atheistic hypotheses and theories which don’t include God are true or can at least accept that evolutionary theory and such are true while weaseling God into the background, you are being more scientific than creationists or intelligent design advocates, for instance. To interpret the evidence towards your belief instead of accepting what science has found and take what many call the “God of the gaps” position, then you’re being only slightly more honest than those who believe in God on the basis of supposed scientific evidence that explicitly proves God (therefore removing the faith element technically). The real issue comes about when you are theist merely because you don’t think there are scientific explanations for certain things in other fields and either ignore or dismiss those arguments from experts. This sort of approach to things amounts to a nuanced form of argument from ignorance where you believe one position because the other position has no evidence for it or you can’t accept the present position because it is somewhat uncertain. The uncertainty of science shouldn’t be a reason to believe in God to have something to fill in the spaces of our knowledge, but to seek out the answers while holding God tentatively as a sort of philosophical hypothesis itself, which I myself am not unwilling to accept, albeit many may be insulted for me to liken their God to a hypothesis instead of a belief. Perhaps I work better in a technical sort of way as opposed to merely holding a belief tentatively, since that is more tenuous a position than simply saying that you accept that people posit something they call God and believe in it. Ultimately so much of this debate can be solved by just showing that being scientific doesn’t mean you have to abandon your beliefs, but that you also have to be scientific in every area to an extent. Not doing this can result in cognitive dissonance and doublethink that many people could see a mile away. It’s mostly willful ignorance about science that keeps this virus of suspicion about it around. Education is key to the whole project of maintaining that science and atheism are both beneficial, but in different aspects and for different reasons.

There are two scientists that come up in terms of the discussion of whether science is atheistic or theistic. On the side of atheism is Richard Dawkins, though another one that has passed on is Carl Sagan, famous for his TV series “Cosmos: A Personal Journey” and the novel “Contact” later adapted into a 1997 film of the same name. Dawkins and Sagan were similar at least in advocating science, though Dawkins has gotten much more fame for his accessibility and publishing of many books, including his recent one for children entitled “The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True” Not to mention Carl Sagan might be accused of being less atheistic in the strictest sense since he believed there was life on other planets (not to mention preferred the term agnostic) though it is more likely that aliens exist than that any supernatural concept of God reflects reality. Dawkins is commonly invoked as one of the so called “saints” of atheism as people perceive it to be a religion, which I ought to confront in future detail in this series. He’s very much the face of atheism and science intertwined as compared with the other famous scientist who is invoked more often than not for theism and science intertwined, Albert Einstein. The prominence of Dawkins is not only because of his many writings about atheism, but his generally good natured, but hard-nosed attitude. In that sense, he is one of the most honest scientists about his atheism in that he will not tolerate unscientific propositions that even implicate the scientific perspective as the source of one’s personal belief in God. For theists, Albert Einstein is one who has long since died, but is held up often by theists, though not uncommonly by atheists at times either. Francis Collins, a parallel to Richard Dawkins in that he’s alive, is a scientist and evangelical Christian who nonetheless holds that evolution is true and rejects the intelligent design movement. With Einstein there is more ambivalence, but the general consensus is that Einstein would agree with theists in saying that there is an intelligence behind the universe, but he would not agree that it is personal. This is where the impasse appears. Einstein has been quoted in a letter as saying that belief in a personal God is, to paraphrase, a fairy tale. In this sense, he is very much the nominal representative for theists and not in any way a method for Christians to make defense for their own theology, but merely use an example of a prominent scientist in history who believed in a creator in some form. This in no way validates that science is theistic in its foundation any more than throwing hundreds of quotes by believers that studying the natural world makes them see the likelihood of a creator would convince anyone with a rational mind. We all come with our own presuppositions and scientists we admire. I respect Albert Einstein and disagree with his notion that we need to have some intelligence behind the universe for it to be both consistent and awe inspiring to even atheists. And Richard Dawkins, along with Carl Sagan and many others have contributed a great deal of their own insights and study to the discipline that many theists, such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle have brought to the table as well. Theism and atheism are two parts of a similar whole in science, the only difference being where each of them starts in the equation.

There is much more I could speak on, such as the philosophy of science and whether atheism is aligned completely with it as some theists would contend, but my overall point is to establish that atheism and science are apples and oranges in one sense, but they are interconnected in some ways, so they share a basic quality, like the two fruits mentioned. Skepticism is the fundamental impulse behind both of these endeavors, along with an obvious amount of curiosity without being satisfied by one answer as the penultimate. Theism could be argued to contradict this with the idea of God as the creator and answer to any “What if?” that may come up. That aside, establishing that you can be atheist or theist and still be a scientist only starts us up the rung of a much more extensive discussion about whether there is a true scientist in the sense of being detached from the world or if scientists all have a similar sense of awe about the universe that many would compare to religious ecstasy. If this be the case, then we have to establish what separates science from the sacred. I’d venture that it’s skepticism; not regarding the supernatural answers as sufficient or even sensible by a law of parsimony. So if you’re an agnostic theist, you’re on the right track to being a scientist in my book, layperson as I am. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Prayer and Politics

I’ve already talked about President Obama a bit in relation to religion, let alone the racism that still persists in small amounts. This time, it’s not so specific. Instead of claiming Barack Obama is a Muslim or questioning his Christian credentials, now people have started praying for him, though I dunno what exactly they’re praying for, since at least a few groups advocate it in the vein of Psalm 109:8. When they say you should pray for Obama, maybe they should reconsider the one based in Psalm 109: 8. It says in context of the Psalm as a whole that the leader they speak who should not rule long and be replaced by another is a servant of Satan and that they wish death upon him implicitly. Is this a Christian thing to do, even if this is derived from Jewish tradition of ketuvim (writings of wisdom, etc)? There are verses in Christian thought that allow compassionate prayer for an official in power, such as 1st Timothy 2:1-2. Since many people seem to think Obama is ungodly, Christian or not, do they advocate something bad happening to him, God opening his eyes, or, if they agree with him, that God protect him? It all gets a bit complex, though I imagine a lot of it gets into the nature of what Christians believe in regards to people in government and God putting them there allegedly, basing it on Romans 13:1. Pastor Jeffress apparently recanted in part about his own issues I mentioned last week with telling people to vote for a Christian by saying “it is much better to vote for a non-Christian who embraces biblical values than to vote for a professing Christian like Barack Obama who embraces un-biblical values.” This is one of the fundamental things about Christian voters I observe: they focus entirely on values instead of even remotely on policies unrelated to those values or consider them without moralizing fixation on whether abortion should be illegalized or just limited, for example. This isn’t the case for all, but it doesn’t help when the loudest voice speaking is also the most divisive in Christian involvement with politics.

Understanding even a bit about the general practices of Christians in terms of their prayers for candidates is especially germane. Christians have the notion that the candidates are put in place by God, but for a few reasons. Probably one of the most common is to motivate the faithful to campaign in some way, shape or form against the leader’s immoral/non Christian policies and such. This is especially the case with those that believe the end times are upon us and that corruption will spread across the world. But nonetheless, Christians are told not to hold ill will against the leaders ultimately, which, if taking the Psalm 109 prayer for Obama into account, isn’t applied so consistently. Many Christians forget that God is the ultimate judge in their system and start making rash claims like “Obama is the Anti Christ,” even though there have been many presidents before him no doubt predicted and speculated to be the most derided person in the Bible next to Satan/Diabolos. Heck, the term is used outside the Revelation context, like 1 John, to suggest that anyone who isn’t Christian is against Jesus. That mentality of “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” remains fairly popular with the masses and isn’t dissuaded by well meaning and somewhat more understanding pastors, ministers and theologians who say that we can disagree and remain civil. The worst part of this is that the masses are likely to believe prayer has power and thus their prayers, even if they don’t work, reflect a bad tendency that I hope isn’t the case with the Psalm 109 bumper sticker mentioned earlier.

With prayer, there are a few things they wish upon the president, none of which is ultimately secure, though I suppose that’s part of praying to something that might as well not be there (to outsiders). They pray for wisdom, for protection, and for advancement of values they believe are held by non Christians as well. At least they’re being somewhat fair minded about that subject. On the Presidential Prayer Team website, which is the most prominent examples of people praying for presidents as far back as George W. Bush, it seems, they admit openly that there are values held by even “liberals” that “conservatives” like themselves advocate, though I can imagine you could polarize the issue a lot in terms of hot button issues like abortion rights, gay marriage and freedom of/from religion for just three among many others. Nonetheless, there is at least some bridging of the gap, so this isn’t so much the “us” and “them” mentality that the congregations manifest from time to time.

Fundamentally the problem lies with something much deeper. Like Rick Perry and his call to pray for help instead of trying to fix problems without pleading to entities that may not exist or care about humanity if they do, this praying for the government is a waste of time that, while they have a right to do it, I don’t think benefits anyone in the long run, but only instills a sense of delusion that prayer is your first solution to problems instead of action. One can pray when you have downtime, perhaps, but to pray in any time of crisis instead of initially acting with survival as your prime concern is a mistaken order of priority. No one’s stopping you from praying, contrary to the sensationalizing of protests by the FFRF against school sponsored prayer in the news. But praying for the president is the least of your concerns as opposed to praying for the country as a whole, right? But even if you think praying for the country will do you any good, wouldn’t it be better to devote time and energy to actually trying to change the country instead of sitting around getting encouragement from a sense of piety along with patriotism. The two don’t need each other and even Jesus says so; “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s” Matthew 22:21. Or a more pertinent one for rapture eager believers, which didn’t happen October 21st (surprise!): “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But now (or 'as it is') my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Neither Determinism Nor Destiny

If I claim I am dependent on things, there is an initial judgment that I am not being assertive enough, that I am doing the very thing I warn against many times, clinging. But this is a fundamental, yet nuanced, understanding of dependence that connects to more commonly Western concepts of determinism and destiny, one of which we avoid often, since it is perceived as mechanistic and inorganic, the other is embraced many times because of, ironically, a desire to shirk responsibility and let something higher than us take over so we don’t have to put in so much work, if any. But dependence, more specifically dependent origination, is neither determinism nor destiny, but a simple discernment of the processes that penetrate deep into our psychology and philosophical beliefs and behaviors. I may have to speed through the latter part, but the most important points to make here are both the universal applicability of dependent arising to the world as a whole and the web of 12 causes enumerated by the Buddha to describe dependent origination’s progress within our psychology that binds us to samsara and, when regressed, can lead us into nirvana.

When we think of things being dependent, or more specifically, contingent, on other things, it usually brings up metaphysics or, to be specific, theology. It’s said that there has to be some necessary being in order for all other contingent things to exist, but this only muddies the waters with an entity that is asserted to be so without any reason beyond solving the problem of infinite regress. While that problem might be eliminated by the positing of such a being, it only brings up questions about whether “God” actually has free will, since it is compelled by its nature according to most theologians, to do certain things and not do other things. That aside, dependent origination gives a sufficient and reasonable answer to questions of origins and other such problems of scientific and philosophical import. Many would say it doesn’t fully answer it, but people’s notions of completion vary depending on how far they want to go in order to know everything. In Buddhism, a parable is used to demonstrate the problem of this kind of discursive thinking. A man asks Buddha to answer his various questions about the world and Gautama compares it to a man struck by a poison arrow. Before the arrow is removed by a doctor, he wants to know everything about the person who shot him. In the time it would take to learn all this, the man would’ve died. Similarly, if someone wants all their questions answered by Buddhism, they’re barking up the wrong tree, since Buddhism only posits to answer those questions that allow beings to achieve clarity and enlightenment. If you want questions regarding creators, creation or other such answers, you will not find it, since Buddhism is by general nature atheistic or even apatheistic. Belief or disbelief in God is not pertinent to one’s seeking enlightenment, since it doesn’t in itself make a difference to whether you will find the truth or not. This isn’t to say it doesn’t matter, but that in the long run you will not concern yourself with extraneous issues like that.

Another problem asserted by detractors is that Buddhism is fatalistic in saying that we are ruled by previous trains of cause and effect back into eternity and may not be said to actually even have free will. It’s a similar contention based on the idea of karma and vipaka as affecting a self even though Buddhism denies a self in one sense. But pratiyasamyutpada (the Sanskrit term for conditioned genesis, another translation) doesn’t focus purely on the cause/effect web without regard to circumstances and conditions that progress the web’s weaving. If I do a good deed only wanting to satisfy myself as opposed to aiding others, it may appear to be a good deed worthy of merit in some sense, but the selfish habit is self destructive in not being generous for generosity’s sake, but to gain influence over others. Ultimately we are told to change our circumstances and condition ourselves differently in order to alter the causes and thus alter effects in a predictive pattern. It is not that we are ultimately free, but our freedom is internal first and foremost before any sort of external freedom that we might want. To change the outside, one must first change the inside.

The last and yet most profound explanation of interdependence of phenomena is that nothing is truly independent in and of itself. This means, of course, that you reject the existence of God, of the soul and of anything completely self sufficient unto itself.  Humans, animals, plants, everything is interrelated with something else. This is not to say that we don’t have volition, but merely that we should recognize and discern how our volitional actions, resulting from habits, beliefs, etc, affect other things around us, including events that seem to be out of our control, like rewards or punishment. Of course, there are many things out of our control, but the important thing to recognize in all of this is that we can control ourselves and practice from the inside to enhance our relationship with the outside in its various manifestations. This is possibly the simplest idea to recognize in one way and yet ignore various implications that would inconvenience us otherwise. Therein lies its universal application to everything else.

The second and more personal idea which results from dependent origination is that of the 12 links. They are, in initial order: ignorance, mental formations, consciousness, name/form, six senses, contact, feeling, craving, clinging, becoming, birth, and aging/death. One could enumerate all of these in some detail, but I’ll be as brief as I can without skipping the important things to consider about each. Ignorance is our basic state when not being mindful. In Western thought, whenever you call someone ignorant, it’s taken as an insult, but a general definition of it is not the same as insulting someone’s intellect. We are all in a state of ignorance about many things no matter how enlightened we might become. But ignorance about the key things in Buddhist teaching is most damaging. If you don’t realize the truth of the three marks of existence, for example, then you could know many things, but they are essentially irrelevant and immaterial to your realization that they will not give you fulfillment in any enduring fashion, unlike philosophy, something Buddhism implicitly condones as beneficial to your mind, meditation to your body. From ignorance mental formations come, usually explained as our habits and beliefs about things. Beliefs lead to and influence actions, so this second step is one of the most crucial to concentrate on, though it isn’t as important as recognizing when your beliefs are rooted in ignorance. The changing nature of one’s beliefs does not mean you have no foundations, as some might claim. I have roots in my human experience and inquiry about ethics, metaphysics, logic, aesthetics and epistemology among others. If you change your beliefs to something more based in reality, does it mean that you are betraying some group that holds those beliefs dear and sacred? Perhaps, but is it better to conform to a tradition based notion of truth or an experiential one that is not unwilling to admit when it was mistaken? Each further cause leads to another effect, such as one’s contact with things through the six senses leading to the sensations and experiences that tend towards our craving and clinging. Our attachment to things leads to a figurative birth of ourselves in each moment as we change our focus towards something new to satisfy us. And subsequently we age and die with each new life, which reinforces the ignorance that returns us to the beginning of the cycle. In this way, it is our own lack of mindfulness that binds us into the metaphorical wheel of samsara that is turned by our grasping and wanting permanence and certainty in everything. If we start to let go of those ideas, we lose ignorance. And as you lose one link, the others lose their influence and you can slowly break the proverbial chain of bondage that keep us in a cycle of rebirth that we don’t explicitly realize since it’s not metaphysical in nature, it’s psychological. If our minds are freed, our bodies don’t matter except as they continue to aid us in interaction with others for teaching purposes, which is why even enlightened beings might be said to return as bodhisattvas in traditional teachings, though again, this doesn’t have to be seen as some mystical idea, but merely people born with a particularly piercing disposition to see into things in a way most people do not. Admittedly I’m detracting from the main thrust of the article by defending the notion of Buddhism from a secular perspective, but I think it’s important to qualify this as I continue to do this series. Me believing in things like rebirth would be less suspicious if I simply renamed them, but perhaps just enumerating in time what I mean by each of these in some brief summary would suffice for my readers?

There are said to be two kinds of truth in Buddhism, which I’ll probably speak on next week. The first is conventional, those ideas we understand innately, the second is ultimate, those we don’t understand without realization. As much as I could explain interdependence technically to anyone, there is a point where it becomes more confusing than clear and in that sense, parables and metaphors can sometimes progress the understanding more than mere rational direct explanations that work very well in other areas of thought. For the truth of interdependence, I leave you with the image of an oil lamp. It burns only if the oil and wick are there. If either the oil or wick is not there, the flame will not be as we expect it or it will not last for long. We either burn ourselves with flaming oil or we get a fizzling wick with no support. There are more examples one could use, but this only shows how prominent this teaching is in Buddhism throughout one’s learning about it. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

WDAD: What Do Atheists Do About Meaning of Life

“Why is there something rather than nothing?” This is said to be the fundamental question at the base of all philosophy, though perhaps a question just as key to us and related to this is “What is the meaning of life?” When someone asks me this, my instinctive response is to distinguish between meaning OF life and meaning IN life. It’s changing just one word, but like Christianity’s distinction between believing IN God and believing ON God, one merely believing with intellect, the other believing with faith, it communicates a difference that many Christians fail to recognize. Meaning OF life is external and imposed by some agent outside of the universe. This phrasing almost necessarily implies one’s belief in God. Meaning IN life is internal and varies depending on each person’s search for it. There are other synonyms besides purpose that are useful to consider as well, such as value, significance and function, albeit the last suggests something more along the lines of our biological nature and what that compels us to do, spread our genetic material to the next generation. These are the three points I’d like to consider most about atheism as it relates to meaning and value as a result of being human: why theistic meaning is flawed, why atheistic meaning is superior and why one should be clear about the multiple understandings of meaning that can be applied to life as experienced by humans.

The idea that life has a meaning irrespective of humanity’s search for it as existential beings, yearning for purpose and value in their actions and beliefs, is troubling for a few reasons. Theists may accuse atheists of being nihilists on the grounds that since they most likely don’t believe in an afterlife, there is no purpose to their life since they will just disappear after they die and they will have ultimately made no effect or change to human society and history. But this presumes that meaning is only certain and/or important if it lasts forever. If the value of anything hinges on its permanence, then why do we appreciate flowers so much, or our pets or any physical things? They all pass away, some quicker than others and some by human efforts. Meaning should not be determined by something outside us, nor should it in any way relate to the amount of time it lasts. The best ideas survive because of their merit, not because the people behind them live on forever themselves. If there is some meaning of life outside of any human’s discovery of meaning as an individual, then it seems to render any particular purpose they found worthless. While we may have certain functions or purposes as biological and psychological beings that we cannot avoid, this doesn’t mean that the meaning and value in life must be determined by others or by any source outside ourselves. We each find meaning first internally as we value people and ideas. Many times, those meanings are shared with others even if we don’t realize it. Atheists and theists alike would probably agree that we need both freedom of and freedom from religion in that we can practice any or no religion and that we do not need the government to endorse any religion or utilize it as the basis of legislation. Other so called inalienable rights could be agreed upon by believers and nonbelievers alike, such as freedom of speech. So I don’t see why anyone feels the need to have meaning or value imbued from outside when they naturally would determine what is right without the declaration of any deity.

When you determine meaning by your own experience and discernment of value, it doesn’t mean that you condone or advocate postmodern relativism; that everyone’s value and meaning are always equally valid. If someone finds meaning in murder or the like, then there is a demonstrable problem, since they find value in violating other people’s rights and ignoring their search for meaning to advance their own, which constitutes egocentrism. But most people would find value in the same things: family, friends, love, music, art, etc. While we may not all share exactly the same things that give us meaning: some especially find meaning in science’s search for answers, while others find fulfillment through performance in theater. And all of these pursuits are justified and meaningful as a whole, since they are not infringing on other people’s rights and can be appreciated by others even if they don’t find the same degree of significance as other people do. As you find meaning from within yourself and what you appreciate, you can also understand implicitly or explicitly that other people are seeking value in life, finding purpose through some activity or community. In this way, you recognize the individual and shared nature of meaning as an existential phenomenon and don’t automatically resort to applying a stock meaning to everyone as if we’re mechanical in nature. The dynamic and organic process of discovery over a lifetime is not only more effective, but would create more vivid and persistent meaning for a person than just being told something and believing it, which is the tendency of theism in that you’re created for a purpose. That is not only demeaning, but dehumanizing in believing that you yourself don’t primarily find meaning as a human, but are instead just handed a purpose and if you rebel, you are not pleasing to your maker.

It should be said that there are at least a few meanings in life that we consider as humans, not the least of which is the values we find. But alongside that is the significance of life as well as the functions we serve, both societal and biological. Value, as I’ve mentioned already, is probably the biggest thing to consider, right alongside significance in life. Once we have values, those suffice as significant in itself, since we are able to discern things that are useful and beneficial to us in the same instance. Laws might feel restrictive, but they also protect rights that we have in terms of actions, so there is a sort of balance established. The distinction of positive and negative liberty might be a good example of this. While there are restrictions on freedom of speech, they pale in comparison to the scale of things one is permitted to do, however offensive they may be. Significance of life is important only in the general valuation of life, so it’s admittedly subsumed in a way by our more basic human tendency to appreciate things and then find purpose through acting on those values and spreading their goodness to others through education and action. Our functions are another way we find meaning in life, albeit not always, since we can be compelled to do things that are otherwise unfulfilling. The various functions we serve in society: familial, friendship, employee/employer, etc, all give us a sense not only of shared interpersonal relations, but also an understanding that we are not bound by these roles in such a way that we cannot hold seemingly contradictory states and still be consistent. A role one takes in a particular situation and context is not negated or rendered less important by our taking on an unrelated duty that has its own value. A father does not cease to be such when he shifts to his responsibilities as an employer or employee, but takes one as more primary at that moment in time. The biological function all humans possess in one sense or another can be more frustrating, particularly if one is infertile either by accident or birth. But I would contend that we are not purely ruled by biology, since we have the capacity to place value and worth on ideals and people irrespective of their relation or lack thereof to us. I would be willing to help someone in danger, particularly that of being beaten because they are GLBT, even if I had never met them before that time. The fact that there may be things we cannot fix or eliminate that are biologically determined to a great extent is no reason to become a nihilist or say there is no point to your life. If you want to raise a child, a natural impulse for any human being, you can adopt. If you feel you want to have a child of your own, but are unable to have children with your spouse, surrogacy is a promising option. And there are plenty of other fulfilling things we can do as humans in place of something we may not be able to do regardless of medical science or because we can’t afford it. Giving aid to animals and fellow humans are both good venues. Many might contend that because atheists believe humans are nothing more than evolved animals, that we cannot be consistent in saying we have purpose in life, since we are accidentally in the state we are in now. Not only does this misunderstand evolutionary theory, but it ignores the very fact that we are sufficiently evolved animals that have developed society, culture and amassed a wealth of knowledge through language. I may be an animal, but I also possess characteristics that distinguish me from other animals that have brains either underdeveloped or too small to have the capacity of complex thought. But I cannot deny that I have similarities to animals which are both impulsive and natural, such as the urge for sexual pleasure and seeking out patterns where there are none. These don’t render me meaningless, especially if I can recognize that.

Meaning, value, purpose, function, significance: all these words have their own usefulness in our lives as we seek out answers to those burning philosophical questions. But we shouldn’t simply stop searching when we think we’ve found one satisfactory purpose that we can apply forthwith to all humans. Perhaps you find fulfillment in Jesus Christ, in the teachings of Mohammed, or other charismatic human beings. But what about your purpose, what about your needs, your wants, your experience? Our meaning should neither deny the input others can bring nor the output we ourselves contribute to the journey. The destination is always unknown, but that makes our travels that much more interesting. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Vote Christian or Vote Conscience

Surprisingly, Rick Perry’s still campaigning and a close preacher friend of his, Robert Jeffress (conveniently preaching from Dallas, Texas) is telling members of the GOP to not vote for relatively popular candidate Mitt Romney simply because he’s Mormon. He qualified this so as not to see bigoted by saying he believed Romney was a moral man, but he thought that Christian citizens would prefer a competent Christian. At least he qualified that patently biased perspective; that you should only vote for someone if they share your religion; by saying they should be competent. I wonder how he expects the everyday Christian who is only moderately politically active to discern whether someone is competent. And what does he mean by this term? Does he mean someone who knows what they believe in terms of Christianity or in terms of sound policies for fiscal and social purposes in their campaign? If it’s the latter, then it could make sense, as long as they’re not expecting this person to try to legislate unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity. But if it’s the former, we have an issue that I’ve visited before in “Mormon Candidate Discrimination”. It shouldn’t matter whether the person you vote for agrees with you on everything, but only if the candidate holds a majority of the policies that you would advocate as well. If Rick Perry is incompetent, but a Christian, would you vote for him solely on the basis of his religious affiliation as opposed to whether he’s actually capable of running the country? If Mitt Romney is more effective as a president than Perry, then don’t you have a responsibility to vote for someone who will try to improve America as opposed to voting based on the status quo? So much of this depends on where GOP voters’ priorities are and I hope more of them reflect the tendencies of other nominees, like Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain, who apparently think it’s a non-issue, however crazy they are for thinking God told them to run.

It’s astonishing that we still insist on making such a big deal about what are first and foremost personal convictions that people happen to hold. There has commonly been a difficulty in America of choosing between loyalty to a faith and loyalty to a country. Christians have been able to resolve this problem pretty well throughout history, commonly citing Romans 13:1, which states that believers should respect the authorities, since any authority is supposedly established by God. This is an idea that persisted in spite of the Protestant Revolution with some qualifications. Protestants would argue that they can respect authorities without conforming to them ultimately when they feel they conflict with God’s law. Ultimately what can result is antinomianism, which technically is formulated as the belief that moral law by religious authorities is not in any way pertinent to salvation, which is solely through faith. But one can observe a different form of “antinomianism” (literally being against laws; in this context, civil/secular law) which suggests that a theocracy should be established, where the citizens are governed by Christian based laws, not secular laws of the land. This explicitly manifests most commonly in Dominionism, but many Christians might overlap with that unknowingly with desiring that we apply the Ten Commandments in legislation or claiming the country was founded on the Ten Commandments, both of which are either dangerous or inaccurate. Fundamentally, it shouldn’t matter whether a person is Christian, Jewish or any religion one could describe as long as they conform to the Constitution consistently. Many Christians speak so highly of the Constitution and claim it is based on Judeo Christian jurisprudence and the like, but they neglect to consider that all the Christian scriptures were written in a fundamentally different time with city states in Greece and Rome in one form or another and going further back in Jewish law, more tribal ideas that don’t really conform in any significant sense to modern representative democracy. An elite group of people made decisions about policy as if they thought they always knew what was best for the people. But that wasn’t always the case. With the form of government we have enumerated in the Constitution, there is a greater potential for people actually getting their voice heard and getting their desires fulfilled in terms of legislation, as long as it doesn’t conflict with other laws. If you want the people as a whole represented, you don’t need to vote based purely on yours or a candidate’s religiosity or religious affiliation, but on whether they will treat everyone fairly according to basic principles of American law.

Christians have never needed the government’s endorsement of their faith or the church in order to exist. They take people in for various reasons and maintain themselves through tithing and donations of other sorts and have never needed federal support, primarily because they’re tax exempt and thus are prevented by law from intervening in political affairs as a church and non-profit organization under tax law. There’s also the general theme in Christian scripture that the Church will be supported by God itself through all the tribulations, so I don’t see why any Christian makes a big deal of government endorsement of them as essential. The fact that anyone thinks Christians need prayers sponsored by government entities or any representations of their religious history in a religiously neutral context, the governance of the whole United States or any individual state, suggests a strong insecurity that is ironic considering the privileged status Christians have. You are not automatically judged to lack morals by people, like atheists are, nor are you associated automatically with negative stereotypes that have no obvious counter example people can bring up. If someone alleges Christians are bad, people can find an equal amount of good Christians to counter that claim. As much as there are good atheists, people refuse to see them and the stigma remains in spite of more education and more prominence of atheists in church/state issues. This is a dangerous problem of popular opinion that exists with many, but not all, Christian voters and it stands to reason that they should not be seen as harmless by any stretch of the imagination. If they ally together to do something, you should keep your eyes on them for the simple matter that their perspective is commonly opposed in one way or another to fundamental rights and principles found within the Bill of Rights. They disbelieve people have a freedom from religion along with freedom of religion, they seem to insist as if it’s obvious that the majority rules and the minority shouldn’t have any influence over them and other ideas propagate through candidates like Rick Perry in particular regarding the constitution as it relates to their personal and communal religious beliefs.

If you want to vote in legislation based on your beliefs, at least consider the rights other people have of non interference in the practice of their religion or general ethical behavior without religious backing. If you think it’s unethical to abort a child, try educating children about birth control and responsibility in the same breath. Teaching children about safe sex is not an automatic condoning of pre marital sex anymore than giving a child a bb gun is asking them to shoot cats for fun. If you have problems with gay marriage, perhaps you could establish better standards for straight people marrying in the first place or keep divorce rates much lower by association of taking Jesus seriously when he commands you not to get divorced unless your spouse is unfaithful and trying to get the no-fault divorce law repealed for an explicit example. If you made that commitment, then stick to it, since you hold yourself to faithfulness before God except in the extenuating circumstance mentioned prior. Any issue of policy can be solved and campaigned for by people of faith without resort to legislating religious morality of a particular worldview upon everyone else who doesn’t necessarily share it. The difference is between voting your convictions and voting your conscience. If you want to change things, vote for action that is not oppressive to others, in the thought that people will give you the same courtesy and not vote for things that suppress your rights.

When you start advocating that a Christian only vote for a Christian, what’s to stop you from discriminating based on specific doctrinal differences of your politicians as a logical progression? The only thing stopping you is the rationalization in your head that you’re all the same, but that’s not the case. Christians can disagree fundamentally on a great many things, let alone the differences between Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox groups throughout history. Just because Mormons are the newest group of people with historically Christian overtones doesn’t mean they ought to be discriminated against because they don’t share particular mainstream Christian beliefs any more than Protestants would call Catholics “whores of the Pope” or such obscenities and call that fair. That sort of bigoted and ignorant idea has hopefully died away since the controversy with J.F.K. running for president decades ago, so this issue will eventually become less contentious with time and education. Bottom line, you should vote based on practical concerns, not superfluous issues that ought not to matter in the 21st century in as religiously diverse a country as ours. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Shifting Sea of Satisfaction

Buddhism as a belief system evokes a few common images in our head, not the most obvious of which is the 14th Dalai Lama, along with various depictions of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama and monastics in Southeast Asia. When you study Buddha’s teachings, you’ll find that the first of the Four Noble Truths, a central starting point, is that life is dukkha. The word is most often translated as suffering, though better translations are stress or dissatisfaction, though I prefer unsatisfactory as a slight nuance. The basic Western translation creates an automatic revulsion in the minds of many people, since we naturally think of the world as a good thing, many times because of theistic upbringing, establishing that God made the world good, but we humans screwed it up in one way or another. But Buddha didn’t say life was strictly suffering, since it’s also documented that he said life was full of great pleasures of our senses and the mind (sometimes referred to in Buddhist thought as the sixth sense). No Buddhist you could ever conceivably speak to would ever believe that their philosophy taught that life was purely suffering and death. This not only doesn’t synch up with the other marks of existence, particular anicca (impermanence), but paints Buddhism as teaching something antithetical to virtually any human mindset. The world is full of both bad and good and, to paraphrase, we have to roll with it to a certain extent. We can make efforts to change things for the better, but ultimately all good, and bad, things come to an end in one sense or another. Life succumbs to death, pleasure is replaced by pain or vice versa, and both physically and mentally conditioned things decay over time either through nature’s progress or our mind’s taking in of new information. But none of this is cause for despair, but a sort of resignation which I’ll explain about after a bit of enumeration of types of dukkha and their origins.

The first type of suffering is that which we feel physically and mentally in terms of such things as pain, mental illness or emotional suffering in excess or deficit. This is the type most people would agree exists in that we experience terrible anguish and other such unpleasant things in life. Illness, the sometimes unexpected loss of friends or family, the dangers that threaten our lives every day, all of these are part of dukkha. In a sense, our very ability to think on these things is a suffering itself, since we are able to realize that these things, like old age, death, and associated suffering this causes ourselves and others, are inevitable and can only be delayed so much before we either succumb or get to a point where we might be said to lose our humanity entirely
The second is that of changing states, going further than merely our imperfections. Happiness and sadness are both dukkha in that they are temporary. As long as they may appear to last, they will inevitably pass away. I can share a weekend with friends, but eventually we must all go our separate ways, to work, to home, etc. A relationship can seem good, but its passing can be beneficial for both partners. And we mourn the loss of people and pets, but eventually we become happy with something else. In a sense, this reflects a problem of the human condition in that we flit and fly to one good thing or another as if it will ultimately satisfy us. It’s this habit we develop as a coping mechanism in our psyche to adjust to the loss of one thing or another that makes us suffer so. We would not suffer in the change of things from one state to another if we understood that while they are bad or good in their own sense, they are not ultimately so. This connects back to anatta in that the goodness or badness of any situation is not persistent in and of itself, but is dependent ultimately on our perception and regard towards it. If I want things to stay forever happy, I will be disappointed in seeing that it is clearly not the case by experience and observation.

An obvious related suffering is the third, dependence on other things. In a sense, this is again something non Buddhists might agree upon in part, but they would possibly not see how it is suffering. It is actually both good and bad in that our interrelatedness with other things is both our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. We require food and water to survive, but the fact that we experience hunger and thirst are not bad things, since they let us know we require food and water. We enjoy the company of friends, but those friends can also cause us problems if we don’t behave in a civil manner when we disagree. Being dependent on those things is part of nature, not some curse from a deity for our arrogance. With anatta as well there is a strong reflection on the suffering by conditioned existence. Our minds, our beliefs, our bodies, all of them are insubstantial in that they will not remain beyond their dissipation and thus, we suffer because we can realize our mortality, unlike many other animals. Perhaps they can feel pain, but they cannot contemplate their own existence as humans can and realize the transient quality it possesses, changing from one state to the next, a product of other things that are further products themselves in a seemingly infinite web of birth and death. This might drive a person to nihilism, but this is due to their focus on trying to find an enduring answer outside themselves for how to solve this problem. But ultimately, there is no such answer to be found. It is only through a sort of resigned acceptance that I spoke of before that you can persevere in spite of the world being so unpredictable and unsatisfactory to one who desires permanence. I am not advocating nihilism at all, but an existential, or maybe better termed as absurdist, approach. The world is bad and good, ambivalent in virtually every way as a continuum of events.  But this doesn’t mean we should solve the mysteries of the world with another mystery, but should seek to find knowledge and wisdom through our own efforts. This is the essence of what I think Buddhism advocates for human goals.

Buddhism in no way wants people to think life is all bad, but it doesn’t want people to forget that since thing are temporary and without a persistent substance of their own, that we should let go of our delusions and seek wisdom about the world in such a way that we become more liberated physically and mentally from what is, at its root, a problem of both our corporeal and incorporeal aspects, the body and mind as an intertwined and conditioned whole. To be truly free, we also have to recognize our dependence, but not let it overwhelm us. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

WDAD: What Do Atheists Do About Church/State Separation?

Atheists are commonly, but not solely, at the forefront of issues of church/state separation and the legality of school sponsored prayer or endorsement of a particular religion. But, many religious people object; why do atheists care so much about the presence of something they don’t believe in? Shouldn’t they just let the religious believe as they will and allow the presence of what they claim is a civil religion shared by America? First off, just because someone doesn’t believe in something doesn’t mean they can’t have an interest in its public existence. Religious studies does not preclude being a nonbeliever in all religious creeds and, one might argue, actually aids one in being more reasonable towards whether they hold so called “absolute” truth in them. But the second issue lies with this sanctimonious idea that religious people of a majority faith can have some established tradition of a school prayer, such as in Cranston, Rhode Island, without consideration of any other groups, believers or otherwise. Not to mention civil religion is another issue entirely of something becoming secularized by long historical exposure, which I’d strongly disagree with and might confront another time. Even Jesus himself says that praying in public and making a big show of your piety is hypocritical and doesn’t show proper reverence to a God you come to as an individual, in privacy. No one’s saying that religious people can’t pray to themselves or read a bible in extracurricular activities or the like and anyone thinking that religion has to be completely removed from public life reflects the insecurity many religious people think atheists have, but usually don’t. As long as public religious behavior is not obnoxious and obstructing the basic freedom from religion that complements freedom of practice in the first amendment it is permissible. Religious people have no reason to be opposed to atheists’ activism of separating church and state, not only because by any stretch of theology church should be separate from state by their natures, but because by establishing religious neutrality of the government, all religions can flourish better in not being favored or disfavored by civil authorities.

A common claim is that by separating church and state, atheists want to put themselves in power. First off, that wouldn’t follow because we’d still remain a representative republic, where officials are voted in by majority, which means that atheism would have to become popular in the people’s minds. By no means is church/state separation trying to keep religious people out of government, as long as they maintain their beliefs privately and don’t try to foist them on the populace that doesn’t necessarily agree, nor should it be their business to legislate such things in the first place. Atheism is not favored by church and state separation anyway, primarily because atheism is neither a political ideology or a religion, so in a sense, atheism is simply given fair treatment only in that it has a position about religion that would be problematic in a system where theism in any form is favored. A blank wall, contrary to what many advocates of the prayer banner in Cranston West, does not advocate atheism anymore than a bald man’s head suggests he’s favoring anti-hair rights. When religion is privatized, religious people may still evangelize, but only within their own power, and not under the protection of the state in any sense. Christian prayers, along with any other divisive type of devotion, will not be allowed by the very principle that school is a place for secular education first and foremost. A moment of silence will suffice, and anyone thinking otherwise neglects the point I’ve visited already in this article on praying in public. If your God only hears you when you pray out loud in a group, then it’s a pretty pitiable deity for promoting conformity over individuals in their own walks.

People might question why atheists advocate something that isn’t explicitly stated in the Constitution. While the phrase “separation of church and state” isn’t in the constitution, neither is “minority protection”, “separation of powers” or other things we take for granted as implied, but not outright stated, by the principles set forth in the constitution. When it says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” we have two spheres of consideration. The first is the government’s relation to religion. This isn’t just a matter of the government not establishing a state religion, as many would say, but not favoring any religion at all. The government is inevitably full of religious people, yes, but the government itself is not founded on any explicitly religious ideas, contrary to popular myths. Laws against murder, theft and the like are not derived from the Ten Commandments, thankfully. This relates well to the second clause of free exercise, since if the Ten Commandments were applied as laws across the board, it would be illegal for non theistic religions to even be practiced, such as Buddhism or Jainism, which would directly contradict the free exercise clause that so many Christians throw around. So that whole line of argument is defeated on the grounds that you wouldn’t want other religions to not be practiced, since that would contradict the equality of that clause for all citizens, not just Christians. Yes, you have a freedom to practice your religion, but you have no reason to ask the government to stroke your proverbial ego. You have a demographic majority in this country; that should suffice. And whatever your practice of religion may be, it necessarily stops at government legislation and involvement in any form, for the same reason that the government doesn’t go to your churches and tell you what to preach. As much as many states still have discriminatory religious tests, which goes against article six of the constitution, the argument that the first amendment only applies to the federal government is directly contradicted by this “no religious test” article which applies to employees of the government at all levels implicitly.

People think atheists are being anti Christian in their advocacy of church and state separation, but this is incidental. If there were Muslims or Jews trying to enforce unconstitutional school prayers of their religion or use government money to aid their particular groups, then the ACLU and FFRF would be up in arms as well, though it’d be unlikely. It’s primarily Christians that have a complex about their established traditions being removed because people actually know the law and how it applies to the relation between religion and government as a whole. And when people’s religious freedoms are infringed upon, I also have a problem with that, such as the building of a mosque and community center in my home state being stopped on groundless claims by primarily Christian people. Many Christians don’t understand where their religious freedoms stop, thinking that any restriction on their religious practice in public is discriminatory, mostly because they buy into a myth that the founding fathers actually wanted religion to be the basis of government, which is patently false. Similar limitations apply to freedom of speech as freedom of religious practice; you cannot abuse what is partly a privilege along with being a right. You have all the freedom in the world to practice Christianity of various flavors, along with any other faith across the globe. But that stops when you are in primarily secular contexts and should be privatized, not completely suppressed as alarmists might hastily conclude. There is much more freedom in the vast sphere of public religious practice than the tiny amount of freedom you surrender in terms of being supported or endorsed by any government extension. Why people don’t see this is best attributed to the false sense of entitlement they get by being in the privileged majority. If you were in a position where you felt like you couldn’t even talk about your beliefs or disbelief in some alternate American religious culture, perhaps you might understand why atheists and Christians alike can agree that religion shouldn’t be endorsed in any sense by the government. When the government is neutral to religion, the behavior of religions can flourish in a public and private setting without feelings of trying to invade every aspect of life as some would have it in schools and government.

I admittedly already spoke about this in part in “WDAD About Religious Norms Part 2” but this extended take on questions theists and Christians would probably ask of me and other nonbelievers is important for many reasons I could linger on. Bottom line; no religious freedoms are being taken away by removing explicit religious displays and behavior from a particular area of life, such as with the case involving Jessica Ahlquist in Rhode Island. Certain Christian denominations were persecuted by other sects in America’s early past for not being Christian enough or not believing the right things. That’s why the founding fathers saw fit to keep it out of government, on the federal and state level, entirely. Perhaps we’ll always vote Christians in, but those Christians can divide their loyalty to their country and to God in separate but overlapping spheres. Pray in private, but not as a representative for people of faith and no faith alike. That way, your devotion is that much more sincere because you don’t feel any need to justify it to others. If the primary nature of religion is a communion between human individuals and the sacred, then you shouldn’t care whether the government gives you any spotlight about your fellowship with God. Keep church and state within their respective boundaries and they’ll both function that much better. You can vote your conscience as a Christian, but don’t vote as if Christianity has any special place in the government’s eyes, because even if it does, it shouldn’t. It’s not looking to please any humans, is it? Pleasing your God suffices. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Gods and Superhumans

When we use the word superhuman, we usually have ideas of mythological humans, such as Heracles from Greek legend, one of the most prominent heroes in our archetypal array. And there is an almost literal namesake in Superman, who was originally written and drawn by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster respectively in 1932 and remains a popular comic book hero today. Heracles is less the superhuman alien that Kal-El is under his alias of mild mannered Clark Kent than a demigod, a bridging of the human and divine. This relates to something important about the various gods people believe in; they have always had some human element to them, but eventually behave in what many regard as bizarre or inhuman. Believers trying to defend the unexpected actions of founders of various religions, such as Jesus, say they don’t think like regular humans. A more pertinent example of this is directly related to Jesus in his alleged claim that he was God in the flesh. Any defender of God’s genocide and other atrocities it commanded the Israelites to perform says that any human judgment of the ethics of those commands is missing the point. To paraphrase a piece of scripture, “God’s ways are not our ways,” And the devout are expected to buy this completely without further question because, not only is God mysterious, but powerful. It’s that worship of power that motivates me to ask whether god is simply a puffed up word for a superhuman.

Religious people, particular those of the theist variety, vehemently deny that God is in any way a projection of their own desire for power and dominance over the world that they possess in a small way over nature. They insist that God is the basis of our own dominion over those things below us, but this is circular reasoning, since you presume God’s existence without considering the basic explanation as to why we have the power we do, which is technological advances. The idea of us having such power over the primal elements that surround us is justified in religion by our being created by God and given power by its decree, so as not to contradict God’s sovereignty as the creator of the entire cosmos. We get a mere piece of it and are to be satisfied with that. But isn’t it ironic that we humans are created in God’s image and are therefore special in the eyes of our creator? This only seems to reinforce that notion of all the gods we’ve believed in through countless ages being either exaggerated explanations of exceptional humans or the dual psychological compulsion to make ourselves feel secure and to see agency in otherwise chaotic aspects of the world around us, such as the weather. As much as we like to think of ourselves as standing over other things, we also submit ourselves to something above all human authority and simultaneously assert we have great power ourselves because of it. One is said to be free because they are a slave to God, for instance. I’d agree that you’re a slave to God, but I don’t see you gaining freedom because of that. We make declarations of war all the time in order to preserve our own culture for as long as we can, but time will inevitably show us up and eliminate it in a conflagration of our own hubris turning on us. Nuclear weapons may raze our cities to the ground in mutually assured destruction of our enemies. Humans seem so advanced, yet literally behave no better than animals in taking each other down in order to feel more justified that we survived longer, that we were the final aggressor.

The graphic novel, Supergod by Warren Ellis and Garrie Gastonny, investigates an interesting alternative history where humans seek to create something likened to their various gods to protect them from enemies. America, Britain, China, Iran and other countries across the world have either already succeeded or are working feverishly in competition with their global siblings to make symbols of religious or national significance. They’re not always named after gods, but still stand as super-soldiers to fight on a level much like a sentient weapon of mass destruction. Jerry Craven is an astronaut that was altered with technology much better than even the Six Million Dollar Man. Morrigan Lugus is a conglomeration of three astronauts from the UK affected by extraterrestrial mushrooms that have taken over their bodies. I could go on describing each of the gods that stand out in the story, but suffice to say, the vast majority are directly related to or indirectly reference divinity in their construction. Iran designs Malak al-Maut, an alias of Azrael, the angel of death in Islam, with the idea of connecting it directly to God’s mind. India creates an android AI with self replicating machinery called Krishna, famous character of the Bhagavad Gita, and Russia actually has two over the course of the novel, one a robotic cosmonaut and the other a reconstruction of its brain in a similar vein to Krishna. Virtually every one of these anthropomorphized weapons turns on their creators in one way or another, reflecting the idea that superhumans, like gods, don’t think like humans do and thus their solutions of protecting a country don’t always go as expected. Krishna vaporizes 90% of India’s population and utilizes their matter to construct machinery to clean the Ganges’s pollution and solve the crisis of excessive numbers in the same instance. Maitreya of China, a technological marvel able to manipulate people on a subatomic level, doesn’t kill the political prisoners it was supposed to use to demonstrate its powers, but uses the guards, officers and scientists for his own ends of gaining information for Chinese supremacy. And Malak (ironically a word for angel in Arabic) is anything but a guardian seraph, destroying the facility it was created in and leaving a trail of destruction wherever it walks. Dajjal, made in Iraq and named after the Islamic Antichrist, doesn’t serve a huge purpose in the story, but brings up another intriguing idea about what the perspective of a god might be. He is said to see in terms of future possibilities, like tunnels leading to futures where he is more or less likely to exist. His lack of sanity is emphasized because, as a veritable god, he doesn’t need to exist alongside others, but stands apart as a being with a perspective that might drive normal humans insane.

What I ultimately drew from the premise and plot of this story is that governments, human groups on a scale likened to religions, deceive themselves and everyone around them into thinking that they create greater weapons for the sake of arms race advantage, to protect their national ideals, or other such delusions that seem altruistic. But in the end, every sort of search for power boils down in one way or another to the human desire for ultimacy, particularly power, and embodying it by their own will. We’ve worshipped idols throughout history and as Christians commonly say, they don’t even have to be concrete, but for the most part they are. Money is a means to influence and dominance in the economic world and is advanced through modern advocacy to amass gold and silver in the event of a currency crisis. Military spending is justified on the grounds of fear of future terrorist attacks and invasive wars in other countries by the mere suspicion of possession of dangerous weaponry are done under a similar pretense of eliminating future violence preemptively. This isn’t even about criticizing people’s hypocrisy, but it is an indirect result of the bigger question I’d pose. Is there any real distinction between superhumans and gods when the use of the super- prefix can be applied merely to the claim that gods are greater than humans, but still possess particular human traits? God is said to be the origin of humanity and we are said to reflect it with our ability to reason and choose between good and evil. If God reflects human characteristics, but has such immense power that with a mere thought could eliminate everything in the universe, then the problem arises as to whether God resembles anything like our humanity in scale. Not to mention God is able to justify itself without even using its power, but with the mere holding of that influence over our puny heads, a-la Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” sermon. And since God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, one might defend God’s actions, whatever they might be, as part of a greater plan we don’t understand through our limited perspective.

Christians claim they don’t worship God out of fear in terms of aversion, but fear in terms of reverence to its holiness. I ask where the big difference is when many openly relish in the idea that God will make everyone bow to it in the end times and condemn unrepentant sinners to hell. That sort of sycophantic worship reveals what God’s real form seems to be: a tyrannical despot who wages a war between itself and its creations which it could have prevented, but chose not to in order to give the illusion of free will to  beings who have no capacity to actually resist in any ultimate sense.  I know it seems hypocritical to be ranting against a deity that I don’t believe in nor believe has any relevance to humanity, but I believe in God as a concept that others believe in, if nothing else, and I cannot deny that God is relevant to other humans. This is why I write, this is why I read, and this is why I study religion. It continually demonstrates both the best and worst in humanity, but in no way has convinced me of its truths that I cannot see in more secular philosophies. There may not be gods in this world, but we often see ourselves as bearers of their legacy, and that’s dangerous enough to me. I can only hope we realize our human limitations and stop ourselves before we inevitably collapse under our own excessive expectations. Until next time, Namaste and aloha. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

No Self But Skandhas

The second mark of existence is commonly the most easily mischaracterized. While the final of the three is also used as a detriment of Buddhism, this one easily mystifies people in how it approaches what we take for granted over time, our self. Another way to phrase it might be our experience of existence, studied in the philosophical discipline called phenomenology, which relates to Buddhist teaching on getting closer to reality. The most simple translation of anatta, sometimes phrased as anatman, is “no-self”, but another more specific meaning is “non-self”. The nuance between the two is that Buddhism doesn’t disbelieve in a self by empirical standards. Even as I type this, I have a sense of individual personality. My hands type, my eyes look across the screen, my memory is scanned for facts to consider and relationships between them. But the dual-pronged importance of this easily skimmed over tenet of Buddhism cannot be overstated. The first message is that our self is compound by nature and thus affected by impermanence, which I spoke about in “Flux and Flow” The second is that with the impermanent and aggregate quality of our self, we cannot say that anything is owned by us. Both of these are intertwined with other aspects of Buddhism and I’ll explain that shortly.

The best way to explain the self’s nature is through the analogy from Vajira, a Buddhist nun who confronted a personification of temptation, Mara (also well known for having tempted the Buddha in a way similar to Jesus in the wilderness meeting the Devil). Mara asks Vajira to explain her “being” and where it came from, where it will end and what it consists of. She responds that he is conceiving of an idea that has parts to it, explaining that the idea of the self comes and goes from one’s own thoughts and then compares the self to a chariot, both composed of pieces. Wheels, axels, the seat and other parts are all constructed together to make what we call a chariot, but we can also break it down into those parts and they can serve other functions elsewhere and can be understood on their own. In the same way, the skandhas, the five constituents of our self, can be understood separately, but also are inseparable from each other. The first is form, followed by sense, thought, habits and consciousness. Each of these has a basis in the first, but then becomes more and more immaterial as we get to the point of our own individual experiences of everyday events. Each of these things, like the parts of a chariot, is affected by other conditions outside themselves. Wheels become uneven by wear and tear, axels can break, and other ravages of time affect these physical things. Similarly, our brain as the basis of our senses, thoughts, habits and awareness (another way to think of consciousness) is affected by our ingestion of alcohol or drugs as well as blows to the head or chemical imbalances which can affect what we perceive. One of the more common demonstrations of this is brain scanning related to patients who claimed to have had NDEs (Near Death Experiences). The brain is said to function in a way remarkably similar to when we dream, stimulating chemicals that simulate a variety of initially inexplicable sensations, like floating above your body. But we have evidence to suggest that it is not anything immaterial that stimulates our trance like state that commonly happens when the brain is in an adverse situation such as temporary heart failure. Our brain affects virtually every part of our body in some way or another. It is the foundation, in a sense, of the other skandhas (aggregates) but even it is subject to change, the impermanence I spoke of at length last week. With this in mind, it stands to reason that our experiences through our sensory organs and our contemplation of abstract ideas also change over time as we mature and gain new information. Our senses become sharper, but inevitably dull in part and we approach ideas like good and evil from different perspectives and our initially simple concepts evolve.

With anything we understand in a monolithic sense, like our discovery of what makes us unique as a person and the resultant idea that our mind is more like a large whole instead of interconnected parts, there is a tendency to dismiss other ideas as denying the soul’s existence. While Buddhism may deny that there is an immaterial substance that survives past our deaths, it neither denies that we have a mental experience of something we call a self, nor does it claim we do not in a sense survive our deaths, albeit it is through others, not in and of ourselves, which I talked about in “Funerals AreFor Both the Living and the Dead,” We do experience a continuum of ourselves, somewhat recognizing that we change quite drastically over every year, if not every moment. In that sense, we do at least perceive something like a self through our minds. But this doesn’t mean it reflects reality that this mind will go on like a ghost after our body expires. The compound and bundled nature of our self makes it something complex enough to speak for a whole article itself, but to transition to the other issue, it is pertinent to say that while we have many everyday experiences we take as factual, we should not take them at face value to be so, which is a virtue of skepticism Buddhism emphasizes in practice many times.

Something very much related to my discussion in “Desire and Delusion” is the realization that results from understanding that the self is temporary and transient by nature. Nothing you originally thought was yours is ultimately so and couldn’t be even if you had a soul. Even your very identity is not yours finally, because your identity will only remain perceived as long as your body remains. Perhaps other people will remember you, but that reflects on the interrelation of people’s own ideas about you with the identity you constructed in those relationships. Since the very self you experience day by day is not yours, you can progressively relinquish your attachments to other things, connecting right back to the distinction between desire and craving. It’s normal to want things in the same way that it’s normal to develop a personality as you grow up, an individual identity that sets you apart from other people. But like your friends, your attachment to yourself or them existing forever in some way can be said to bind you to existence and necessitates that you let go of that preconception that you living forever is preferable to your eventual nonexistence that was the case before you were born and after you die. Once we divest ourselves of the idea that our self is so magnificent that it must be independent of other things, we can then recognize our dependence on other things while also not letting ourselves become either attached or detached, but let them come and go as they will, in a sort of Greek Stoic sense.

In Buddhism, the self does not exist except as a perception, which, along with many other things, doesn’t reflect reality as it is, but only as we approach it. The skandhas are those perceptions and bases for those perceptions the further down you go into physical matter. But all of these in some sense can be boiled down, albeit with some complex neurology and physics, to physical matter and energy. Buddhists don’t need to believe we have a self in order to believe in karma, nor do they need to believe in a self in order to believe in some form of reincarnation that’s more like reconstitution of elements into another form. Your elements become one with other things and thus you have a sense of interdependence with other things and thus the idea of a self becomes less likely. I’ll eventually get to dependent origination, also called pratiyasamutpada, which is another very important belief of Buddhists, but look forward to possibly the most easily twisted idea in Buddhism from Christian apologists and critics of Buddhism anywhere, dukkha, or “suffering”, or, as I prefer to call it, unsatisfactoriness. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.