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Saturday, December 24, 2011

An Ethics For Everyone




With Christmas on the horizon, I thought I’d talk about something else humanity shares besides holidays celebrating the winter solstice or otherwise occurring around that time. It’s not our religious impulse (which I’ll admit we have in part) so much as our ethical impulse. Of course there are those that are unethical in their behavior by psychological compulsion and mental illness, but many times, these people realize the damage that their actions do to others. The rarest group of people do not realize even somewhat that they affect others in any way and focus only on their own advancement. But no person with any relative mental capacity needs religious devotions, rituals or belief in any supernatural agent to conceptualize and hold ethical and moral principles. A secular ethics, based purely in the everyday experiences and apart from any feelings of the sacred or holy, should be something that even deeply religious people can understand, however much they regard ethical merit as unimportant, as is the case with Christianity at its core, even if it also advocates many of the same things you would find with nontheistic traditions, the eupraxophy that Paul Kurtz spoke of in relation to Confucianism, for example.

The first key point that we can agree on to one degree or another is concern for the other, better expressed as compassion. Even etymologically, it has similar ideas to words like sympathy and empathy in the roots of the word we partly derive passion from, the Greek “pathos,” meaning experience or suffering in the emotional and existential sort of sense. A starting definition I’d propose is “willingness to understand the suffering of others and take it into account in your own life”. The Dalai Lama in his new book, Beyond Religion, defines it in a very altruistic sense as “a desire to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being,” People arguing that ethics and morals are rooted in religion would say this is too idealistic and presumes people will all behave this way naturally. I don’t think that’s what’s implied here. Both ethics and morals are nuances of the same study of good/bad or right/wrong behavior with our fellow humans. Ethics is understood from its Greek root “ethos” as a principle for people as a whole to live by, while morals, derived from Latin “mores,” is more social and cultural in its construction, though it could be reversed just as easily with particular interpretations of the terms’ uses. Ethics and morals are both products of education, but not necessarily from the same source. Ethics come from experience and reasoned philosophical consideration, while morals are usually indoctrinated, strictly or otherwise, from a particular community you’re raised in. I, being raised Christian, had certain norms instilled in my mind that I still retain, but probably would’ve gotten elsewhere, such as an ethic of reciprocity and virtue ethics in some form, emphasizing that I should act based on principles instead of purely based on perceived benefits or losses.  I would probably prefer to call myself ethical as opposed to moral, since morals suggest your behavior is not determined by principles that have experience behind them, but are conformed to because of submission to an authority. Ethics could be formulated as changing principles for behavior, but this does not mean they are purely relative to cultures. Ethics can be understood pragmatically as something that you put into practice and adjust by recognizing that different situations demand different actions. But one can incorporate both virtue ethics and situational ethics into this as well by valuing compassion above all else as the basis for your principles. But as I said in “Heart and Mind, Love andWisdom”  this should not be purely about helping others. Neglecting a principle of egoism, contrasted with egotism that only values the self; would only hurt your ability to help others. To balance ethical conduct and the core values it represents is as important as understand what the values are and should be, descriptively and normatively respectively.

Another especially important thing to recognize in terms of our ethical behavior is the implementation on a larger scale. It’s one thing to govern your own behavior consistently, but when contexts increase in scope and vary much more, then there is need for collaboration and boiling ethics down to basics that can be agreed upon in a secular context without recourse to revelation of any sort. If we fail to consider that our own ethics may not be so different from each other, but also that there will be particular prohibitions with morals that come out of various cultures and faiths, then we cannot advance the discussion that much more. Compassion as a virtue applies very well here as well, emphasizing its primacy in considering ethics. Another formulation in more technical terms may be reciprocity, which is the idea behind the rule commonly formulated by Jesus as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” but existed in earlier forms as far back as Confucius, Buddha and Hindu writings. While opponents of the idea of what I insist on calling relative or situational ethics would claim that this creates potential for abuse in the form of claims that “might makes right”, this is primarily the case when you do not implement compassion or you implement compassion superficially to benefit yourself instead of others. When you try to benefit others, but cause them harm that is excessive and/or unnecessary, even practical concerns would not be justification. If the economy has to take a small dip or shock to adjust prices, for instance, in a more free market economy than we have today with corporations controlling prices and inflation in some form or fashion, then the suffering is permissible. But when you do such things as the state communist regimes in China or Russia did, instilling the power in a small group of people and impoverishing the vast majority, then this is neither economically feasible nor ethically acceptable. The very concept of business ethics reflects this concern and in a much more secular area of life than, say, abortion ethics, which becomes more religiously charged in talking about what constitutes a person. Secular ethics can still apply there as well if we apply the principles similarly While abortion is questionable after the point Roe v. Wade decided, 25 weeks of gestation, there are extenuating, but rare, circumstances, where it is a necessity to perform an abortion to save the life of the mother, who could conceivably bring forth more children in the future if there are no serious complications with the partial birth abortion procedure. As painful as it may be for people to admit such a thing in the context of abortion, those same people may ironically permit such “acceptable losses” in a military situation where even more lives are at stake, many of them as innocent in their involvement with the war as a fetus is in terms of its alleged right to live or be treated humanely when considering developmental stages of said fetus.  Applying principles consistently but also considering when those codes are inflexible and should be less rigid and considerate of situations outside of our control is yet another reflection of the benefits of utilizing the Buddhist middle path in ethics.

Shared ethics, like shared holidays (Xmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, etc), are things we can all find in secular life and observe to be true even if we disagree on why we should behave in those ways. Ethics can be agreed upon with basic principles, such as the golden rule, compassion for others, being mindful of extenuating circumstances, etc. By no means am I saying that these are unquestionable absolutes. One can look at these issues from various circumstances and perspectives and get radically opposed positions. Understanding where we come from in developing our personal ethics, many times from morals acquired by cultural or religious education, is, like many things, a seemingly tedious, but necessary step in improving relationships with our fellow humans, whether we agree on the source of morals. What’s more important is behaving well towards others without neglect of self or others entirely in the process. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Moderate Beliefs Lead To Moderate Practice




In Buddhism, one of the teachings most important to the praxis aspect of the system, the Latin word we get the term practice from, from meditation to mindfulness, is the Middle Path/Way. One’s initial instinct is to interpret it as total neutrality, which then leads to monastic isolation. But this isn’t the case, even if such practices still flourish in Buddhist countries and can be an edifying event even for laypeople to occasionally engage with devotees in. The middle path is most often characterized as Buddha’s advice to steer between asceticism’s self mortification of the body and hedonism’s disregard for self control in favor of pure sensual pleasure. But a better, more practical, way to explain it is the principle of balance and harmony between extremes. One shouldn’t be absolutely nonresistant pacifist, for instance, since it leads to unnecessary pain and suffering as well as death in some cases; but one shouldn’t be a strong martialist either, for this can lead to unnecessary violence and habits resulting from it in non combat situations. A mediation between the two is possible with the commonly associated training in martial arts, but only for the means of self defense or defense of others without excessive force. I’ll enumerate some examples in detail and then explain how it relates to the topic I’ll delve into in the next few weeks, the Eightfold Path.

Another important median the Middle Path advises is that intersecting nihilism and eternalism. Nihilism in this case refers to metaphysics, saying that everything is annihilated at its end. Eternalism, by its very name, gives us the contrasting idea that things are eternal in nature and persist on after death. Neither of these is technically true, though they have kernels of truth within each of them. Things are never permanent, that much is true, but there is always a sort of persistence in spite of the changing nature. Energy remains energy in one form or another, and matter remains matter, so to speak. A median point is the teaching of dependent origination, which I spoke about in “Neither Determinism Nor Destiny”. To summarize again, it is the idea that all things are dependent on other preceding or antecedent causes. While this could cause a philosophical issue of infinite regress, it is of practical benefit to focus on those things that can be observed and considered with reason as opposed to things that serve to stifle or stop thought entirely for servitude of the mind, e.g. a creator or afterlife. With belief in dependent origination, there is no need to reject evolution, for example. It is also complimentary to philosophical and scientific thought in general. Gautama advocated critical thinking, as evidenced by this quote attributed to him; “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it,” The middle path conforms with Aristotle’s Golden Mean, which said that the best state of virtue was between excess and deficiency. Confucius also taught something similar as well in his Analects, but was only hinted at and was interpreted later.

Another important dichotomy I’ve talked about is the wavering between wisdom and compassion, in “Heart and Mind, Loveand Wisdom”. If you focus entirely on love, you neglect the use of your reason and rational faculties. But if you only care about wisdom in an intellectual or knowledge based sense, you miss out on the fulfilling relationships with people that not only enrich your life, but give you understanding of others that can improve your wisdom in its own way. They are intertwined, in a sense, so this is both a matter of balance and synthesis, which Hegel advocated in his philosophy of dialectics. Albeit there are technical differences between the modern understanding and Hegel’s own writings on it, the similarities are intriguing. You have internal contradictions of any concept, in the same way that there is a sort of absurdity of our existence leading to our nonexistence. These are the thesis and antithesis aspects of the formula.  So to solve the absurdity, we posit that, instead of being or nothing, we are becoming. Herein lies the synthesis of the two previous counteracting forces. With love and wisdom, both of them in excess or deficiency is defective to our humanity, so we must moderate them and meld them together instead of concentrating entirely on one while neglecting the other.

A few pairs that I can’t elaborate on as much, since I’d run out of space quickly, are the conventional and absolute truths, which I discussed in “Two Truths, One Path” as well as the religious and secular, detailed in no small part by “A Synthesis of Sacredand Secular”. There are so many more of these relationships I could talk about, like sophia and phronesis, the physical and mental, leisure and business, the list goes on for a mile. The point remains that the middle path is central to Buddhism in a way that the Eightfold Path is as well, but for different reasons. The 8 different areas of life it confronts are divided further into three areas of wisdom, ethics and concentration. But they all affect one another in different manners, not unlike the dual sided perspective we commonly take every day. Think of the Eightfold Path topic as going into the triangular perspective we also utilize.

Fundamentally, the middle path is a balance between extreme views and seeking to be as objective as possible, acknowledging the relative nature of things, but also absolute qualities within the transient universe. To practice the middle way is something done over a lifetime and is only maintained through disciplined practice without being overly strict. It is a paradox, not a contradiction. It appears to collapse upon itself, but can be reconciled by a particular approach that takes things as they come, but also understands things in a past and future sense. It’s definitely not an easy thing to achieve, but an ideal that is workable in a gradient sense as opposed to simply having it or not having it entirely. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Keeping Both Wonder and Curiosity




I don’t have children, nor do I feel like I understand them as well as I should, but something I think about seriously from time to time is how to raise my future offspring. Many would say there should be a base tradition to raise a child from, but I’d strongly disagree with that. Being raised strictly Christian with little to no exposure to Judaism and Islam, let alone the other religions in the Dharmic traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, for instance, stunted my religious education in general. It wasn’t until high school that I had an opportunity to look deeper into various religions and perspectives on faith, including Deism and atheism. If children are allowed to make their own decision about religion without proper education on all religions, then the inevitable choice is biased because of the limitations and social pressures that have been commonly instilled. In my case, my social isolation and help from my parents to be an individual, eventually creating deep friendships, actually strengthened me to eventually sever the bonds from my church pretty conclusively. I don’t think I’ve been there in at least two to three years now. Any time I went before was for Easter, since even Xmas was basically tossed out the window. Though now that I’ve graduated from college, I think my family is even less insistent about me going, since they realize I’m an adult and am making my own decisions. Educating children about religion isn’t all though. There’s a key mistake that many parents probably make and that is not educating their children in skepticism and philosophy as well. If you don’t have that as a contrasting influence, your beliefs aren’t well thought out most of the time even if you know a great deal about various faiths of the world. There has to be a balance between inspiring a child’s wonder at things and maintaining the child’s curiosity that makes them the best kinds of philosophers, according to Gareth Matthews’ text, Philosophy and the Young Child from the early 80s. That message still holds true today in terms of educating children about both sides of the issue of belief and nonbelief.

Education about religion is important since it’s prominent across the entire world and colors a great deal of cultural practices, literary references and philosophical arguments. Even if you yourself don’t believe any of the metaphysical, epistemological or various other unfalsifiable and irrational claims, you can still expose your child to it as a source of knowledge people draw on. Taking children to church could be done for a time. But you shouldn’t just visit churches. Any parent can give the illusion of saying they’re giving their children a varied education about religion by saying they’ve had their children visit a synagogue or a mosque or the multitude of “heretic/false teaching” churches once in their lives. My own home church did something like this, having the young members learn about Mormonism, Judaism and other “Christian” churches. However, this doesn’t constitute sufficient exposure. In the limited scope of maybe 50 miles from where the church is, you could conceivably have had these kids learn about Unitarian Universalism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and other much more foreign religions. But in the limited span of time they had at Vacation Bible School, they probably only wanted to stick with theistic religions. The very idea of multiple gods or no god/gods at all would’ve apparently been too confusing for children ranging from as young as 3 to as old as mid adolescent. We seem to do this not only with philosophy for children, but very much so with religious topics. They’re presented in such a simplistic way that when they find out there’s much more diversity out there, it throws them off and the strategy relies on a likelihood that children will retreat into the only thing they feel remotely secure in. So with a crafty psychological tactic, children could conceivably learn about such things if they go onto college in an introductory religion course, but wouldn’t stray from their native faith. If you’re going to educate children about religion, do it as comprehensively as you can with basic limits on how it progresses. You don’t want to leap into complexities of theology from the start, of course, but that should be something you’re willing to explore eventually if the child is curious or has even had actual experience that they want to tell you about. Being even remotely knowledgeable about these sorts of subjects can also smooth over potentially rough relations between yourself as an atheist parent and a child who converts at some point or another, usually post college graduation. Knowing the arguments and terminology, but also bringing up counter arguments and criticism without appearing to be an outsider can make the situation easier to pacify and adjust to a state of relative coexistence. It therefore benefits both you and your child in different ways throughout your lives to learn about religions even if you both eventually conclude that they’re nonsense.

Teaching children to be skeptical of religion, pseudoscience and the like is equally, if not slightly more, substantial because of how it enables the child to grow up and not simply believe in things by authority or faulty reasoning. Even if the child converts and believes things vastly opposed to your own, you can fall back on what you taught them, if only to moderate those beliefs by the very education you instilled in them. The child may not be able to get over the mental block that was initiated by some near death experience or other mystical encounter with the “sacred,” You may be able to make them reexamine their beliefs more critically and possibly reject them in favor of less ridiculous ones. Or if nothing else, you’ll make them realize the need to maintain  equanimity with you in terms of discussing a subject you’re not only familiar with in terms of the basic tenets of that faith, even if it’s an eclectic one pieced together, but also able to objectively examine and see whether it holds up to reason and evidence. They won’t be able to convert you so easily, if at all, since you educated them and hopefully haven’t softened in terms of practice. But you can also be much more civil than a parent who would otherwise be too harsh in criticizing the child for believing in something for reasons that you thought you communicated were illogical without showing them this directly from those faiths in question. If you realize that the child was bound to consider religion at least partially, it’s better than being excessively secularist to the sound of antitheism, opposing the very existence of religious belief even at the cost of human liberty which you also value. To teach children about science, philosophy, and other subjects of worth can be done by the educational system, but encouraging them to think critically about those subjects and engage with religious people and a religious culture such as America is something a parent is responsible for much more than any school is. It can be difficult to strike a balance here as well. Being staunchly anti religious would be counter-productive, but simply encouraging philosophy can be too weak, since a certain segment of religious believers have significant philosophical training and can twist the principles around with theological sophistry to make a person reject their disbelief rather quickly, not only because of their authority as an instructor, but because they genuinely know philosophy better than the student. A person who has cultivated understanding of both belief and nonbelief in the supernatural is better prepared for not only the world of philosophy in general, but also interpersonal relationships with people you may fundamentally disagree with in many ways, but can be friends with regardless. Most of my own friends, for instance, online or otherwise, are supernaturalists of one form or another. But our shared interests have trumped what could otherwise be a contentious subject that we rarely, if ever, bring up. A disciplined secularism is far better than one run amok with emotional baggage.

Simply educating children about religion without the counterbalance of secularism and philosophy is just as potentially bad as just teaching secularism and philosophy itself. The child could become an arrogant intellectual who regards religious people as beyond and below them, not even being polite or courteous to them in any sense because of their unjustified sense of entitlement as one who doesn’t believe whatever believers affirm as true. It would also reinforce the negative stereotype of atheists all the more if you bring up an adolescent being as fundamentalist and rigid in their beliefs as the religious people they criticize. The irony would be palpable, yet painful. You also don’t want a child to simply speak about religion as if they know about it without also being able to criticize religion for the nonsense it more often than not claims as truth. Belief in the resurrection of the dead, miraculous healings, attributing ethics and metaphysics to the divine instead of to humanity where they originated, and so many other inanities that would make most people grind their teeth in frustration. But if you comprehend where the believer comes from in their perspective about the world and how they think it came to be and its inner workings, then you’re better equipped to show them how it’s not only unnecessary to believe many of these things, but unreasonable on its face. Better conversation from both sides of this battle of worldviews starts with good education. Neither lackadaisical teaching about world religions nor rigid adherence to logical positivism will make for a well adjusted individual. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Breaking Buddhist Stereotypes




This time, I thought I’d return to a more general topic with multiple areas to consider. There are many stereotypes surrounding Buddhism, mainly because of popular representations being propagated in Western culture. Movies like Little Buddha, Kundun, and Bulletproof Monk, as well as the TV series Kung Fu, give only a selective and idealized portrayal of what Buddhism entails. There are more accurate ideas portrayed of Buddhism, such as in 2012 with Tibetan monks, from what I recall, but most portrayals of Buddhism in media seem to focus on Tibetan Buddhism instead of the other forms. Even Japan is notorious for characterizing all major Buddhist characters with the robes, shaved heads and/or prayer beads in their animation and comics, but that’s at least more rooted in their culture. There are four misconceptions and generalizations that still exist among many non Buddhists even today, so we’ll dive right into them.

Probably one of the more implicit ideas surrounding Buddhism is that it is fundamentally against all forms of violence or force. This is to go beyond merely saying they’re pacifists, which composes a spectrum of beliefs, but that they are nonresistant and would rather die than defend themselves against an attacker. The middle path principle of Buddhism, which I will talk about next week, necessitates that killing is part of a Buddhist’s practice, albeit resignedly instead of willfully as sport or malicious intent.  This dispels a related falsehood that Buddhists are required to be vegetarians. While you can be healthy and be a vegetarian, some people’s digestive systems are unsuited for it, from what I’ve heard. It has something to do with processing certain foods, but I could be wrong. Fundamentally, Buddhism advocates that you should strive to not do harm, but in a sense it is very much unavoidable that we kill animals humanely in order to feed on them as livestock, as well as maintain healthy populations. But it is the humaneness of the killing that makes it less ethically problematic. There is a story about one of Gautama’s past lives where he was a captain of ship and there was a murderer on board who Gautama realized intended to kill everyone. So instead of telling everyone this and causing them to panic and kill the bandit, he mercifully killed the person himself, saving the other people from becoming murderous and stopping the negative karmic fruits the criminal would’ve brought upon themselves. Admittedly, this is an isolated example, but we can find other historical examples of Buddhists justifying war, albeit it isn’t always reasonable, such as with Japan’s nationalism that incorporated Buddhism as well as Shinto, the native belief system. Much like stereotypes of other beliefs in regards to violence and war, there are exceptions and there are mistaken ideas as well. Buddhists can be martial artists and defend themselves against attackers, demonstrated by Shaolin monks in China for an explicit example of resolving the alleged contradiction. That is what I consider myself as well, a martial pacifist; that is, one who seeks to make peace through nonviolent methods, but will utilize force when circumstances demand it in order to calm the situation. It may not always work, but I would rather not do violence to people unless I can find no other option. It requires great discipline and training to not become overtaken by the human desire for power and inflict violence upon others, but that is what I strive for as a Buddhist.

This next one is prominent enough, but connects more to our mistaken idea of what a Buddhist should appear to be, rather than just what a Buddhist believes and being wrong about. Buddhism is commonly represented through figures like Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (D.T. Suzuki) and Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. They are monks who have taken vows and live a simpler life than many laypeople of Buddhism. But to say that you must be a monk to become enlightened unquestionably doesn’t hold according to Buddhist teaching, since everyone is considered a potential Buddha, a universal affirmation of the possibilities within all of us. There is a school that developed later in Buddhism called Vajrayana which suggests that in order to become enlightened in one lifetime you must become a monk. But beyond that, like other Buddhist schools, you only make progress towards liberation with sincere practice, not simply ascetic discipline, shaving your head and meditating for hours. This is admittedly a simple myth, but is not so easy to get rid of in our mindset, since we don’t have a decidedly secular idea of Buddhism in the same way Christians have propagated laypeople as being just as devout as monks. This would require a movement amongst Buddhists that would advance a similar notion that you can be in the world, but not be attached to it, just as Christians are to be in the world, but not of it. An explanation for why some people become monks is because they feel they are too easily tempted. And the same logic can apply to Christianity. There is a calling, but also a realization that you need more discipline than others. And that’s okay. We all have our own limits and understanding them is a step towards progress.

Another fairly popular myth is propagated through fundamentalist Christian critiques of Buddhism, but regardless of the meme’s prominence, it is untrue. Buddhists have never worshipped Siddhartha Gautama as if he will grant you salvation. The closest you come to this is in Pure Land Buddhism or such where you can say a mantra and your karma will be wiped clean, or so I recall. The statues of Buddha do not constitute idol worship anymore than a bust of Beethoven on your piano means you think he is deserving of piano devotionals. I’m being a bit crass, but it still stands to reason: a mere representation of something in a place does not mean one regards that as something sacred. There is a story I recall from somewhere, though I cannot seem to source it well. It goes like this: a Catholic missionary is in China and enters a Buddhist temple. He sees the monks prostrated before a Buddha statue and accuses the elder of idolatry. His observation about the monks bowing to the image seems to make sense at first. But the head monk walks up to the statue and throws it onto the ground, smashing it into pieces. The other monks continue on as normal. The story may be completely made up in terms of historical occurrence, but it establishes an idea you see enough in Zen; the trappings of piety in Buddhism are simply superficial and mean nothing in terms of whether you are really practicing the beliefs. At the most, the statue serves as a memory of a beloved mentor and teacher, in a way similar to large portraits in peoples’ homes of loved ones and relatives. It serves to make one remember all the good the person did in their life and with that memory, one seeks to emulate that person in their own lives as well. That is what monks would no doubt explain to you in their having a depiction of Gautama in their temple. Christians don’t worship the cross, they worship what died on it and the symbol the item represents to them. Likewise, Buddhists don’t worship the founder of their religion, but hold him in high regard as an exemplar of what they should strive to be like.

An image many of us encounter at some point or another in an Asian restaurant is that of an obese monk, jovial as they come. It’s also an easy leap to say that this is a depiction of the historical Buddha Gautama. The legend goes that he ate to excess and then starved himself to skin and bones in his quest for enlightenment, but I don’t think that’s quite how it goes, albeit the difference between history and folklore of Gautama’s life is very fine. The monk is indeed a Buddhist figure, though it’s also used in Chinese folk religion and Daoism. He goes by a few names, including Hotei in Japan, one of the Seven Lucky Gods, and Budai in China, called the Laughing Buddha. His connection to Buddhism is fair, since he is Buddhist in the sense of practice. A Chan monk, the Chinese equivalent of Zen, he was quite eccentric, but always very happy and joyful at life, entertaining children most often in his depictions. The notion of rubbing his belly for good luck is more folkloric in nature, most likely and the confusion of him with Gautama is mostly due to ignorance of cultural depictions in India, China and Japan, where he is tall and slender, whereas Hotei is always short and chubby. It’s not like you can’t draw Buddhist lessons from him, but to say he is the historical Buddha likely irks many Asians who have to deal with that mistake to correct, similar to myself as a person who appreciates Buddhist culture and philosophy. It will take more education through various mediums to distinguish the truth from the falsehood of this mistaken cultural gap.

On the one hand, there are many overly positive stereotypes of Buddhism on the one hand, such as it being completely passive and nonresistant, vegetarian and has an amiable, but heavyset founder. But the more troubling misconceptions of Buddhism are based in not understanding what Buddhist practice actually is: neither monasticism as the only path to enlightenment nor idol worship of the founder is part of the philosophy in the slightest. There are other stereotypes I could get into, such as the oft spoken idea that Buddhism is pessimistic and nihilistic, but that would require a whole other article to speak on. It is only through proper education and understanding of people’s initial paradigms that will advance a better perception and cognizance of what Buddhists are, what Buddhism is and what Buddhism is not. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Synthesis of Sacred and Secular




This topic is rife with contending sides and positions, so I’ll try to give as balanced a perspective on the two main views on an issue I’ve confronted slightly  in “Religion and Secularism’s Questions and Answers. This time, I’ll give a short exposition on the two subjects and then detail the two prominent perspectives on their interaction. Religion and secularism’s relationship has been lukewarm at best, though it isn’t necessarily always combative by nature either. There are lay theologians in Christianity, not to mention the “secular” monks who did more worldly things as part of their duties, like the monastics in convents and monasteries who gardened, wrote, etc, as opposed to primarily contemplative behavior. But these days, we seem to have a very contentious environment of the profane and the sacred, the nonbelievers and believers of various stripes. This is especially the case in the U.S., but it isn’t necessarily resolved perfectly in any sense around the world. Japan maintains an interesting blend of secular and sacred, though the more immanent and pantheistic form of religion makes this easier. The transcendent nature of religions more prominent in America makes the separation into spheres much more common and thus the resolution of any conflict becomes either a truce or a retreat of one into its own area in surrender. So, my question is twofold: what are religion and secularism (in the basics) and what is the nature of their relationship?

Religion is much more complex in definition than secularism, since it has existed for longer in history and language, but admittedly has two formulations, one more Western, the other more Eastern, though there is always an overlap, such as Wicca or Sikhism for two examples. As I explained somewhat in “Looking At Eastern Religion From the West”,  Western religion tends to be much more based in sacred scriptures and belief in God or gods. There’s more ambiguity in Western religious studies about nontheistic religions and whether they actually are religions or philosophies. Buddhism, Confucianism and even Daoism in some sense are either pantheistic or nontheistic in some sense regarding the existence of gods and whether they matter. There’s a term formulated by Paul Kurtz, sometimes called the father of secular humanism, made up of three Greek words. The prefix eu, meaning good, the word praxis, meaning practice and Sophia, meaning wisdom. Eupraxophy refers to worldviews and philosophies that are secular in nature and don’t rely on the supernatural in order to advocate being a good person. The three religions enumerated beforehand fit in this classification with some possible qualifications. Religion at its heart could be specified to be that which regards the supernatural as relevant to human life and makes a system of tenets that people are expected to follow. This is, of course, very simplistic, but for the purposes of this discussion I think it suffices to distinguish it from secularism.

There are two kinds of secularism we could discuss when confronting this topic: the first is more political in maintaining a strict separation of some form between church authority and state power, but not always completely keeping it out of the public square. Turkey and France based their form more on laicite, one form of the second very strict and philosophical position on religion in the public and political square. This contrasts a great deal with America’s which is more permissive in a sense of religious expression by private citizens within the public forum without favoring any single religion. Secularism is not a religion, contrary to rumors and accusations from theists, though secular humanism might be considered one. But most secularists are not secular humanists, though all secular humanists are secularists technically. Fundamentally, secularism is some position about religion that desires to keep it at least separate for the most part from policy making and a much more religiously diverse society or is fundamentally opposed to religion’s claims and wishes it to be put in the spotlight and actively criticized for its falsehoods and also reserved to the private sphere it originated in.

Secularism and modernity have done two things for religion in my estimation. First is that religion and beliefs about it have become more private. Believer or not, you are very individualist about it. Secondly, religion has still kept a certain place in the public square in the face of separation on the grounds that as a part of the history of the country, religious expression in public is very much part of the culture and may stay that way for quite a while longer, particularly for political gain as we see with virtually every Republican candidate to one degree or another, as I mentioned in “Conservatives Clamor For Christianity” . Altar calls and other such identifications to a larger group are what make Western people religious, as opposed to in the East, where it’s very much an eclectic and syncretic approach of the culture at large and not so much a matter of affirming particular creeds or such. With the Western method of voluntaristic religious affiliation, there is a strong element of competition between religions and thus they have to constantly change tactics and also allow the existence of their opponents, even if they disagree with them, so as to have opportunities for conversion. There is both a freedom of individual conscience and also communal association with any religion or lack thereof, but still holding what tend to be religious beliefs. The concept of civil religion further complicates the issue of religion’s presence in what is supposed to be a more secular country in the sense of not favoring any religion in its decisions. It is commonly understood to be the sorts of things that have become intrinsic to the American identity, which includes the unconstitutional and divisive motto of the country, “In God We Trust” Religion in America, shared or esoteric, reflects a unique and compelling approach to how it overlaps with secularism as a whole.

The U.S. Constitution almost seems to necessitate that there be a conflict between religious and secular interests by the notion of separation of powers given within it. Not to mention the first amendment creates a sort of ambivalent interaction of the exercise of religion on the one hand and the neutrality of the government towards it on the other. With the historical nature of the U.S. being a country with economic demands of a free market comprising radically diverse people with varying beliefs, there was a necessary development of religious pluralism as well as the secularism that creates a barrier against any one religion or any religion becoming influential for policy making. Christianity, the dominant religion of America, surprisingly has theology within it that allows for more advocacy of separation of church and state than you would think. There’s a basic relationship between the religious and secular communicated through the idea of two kingdoms, one of the world and one of God. Jesus’ saying “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” comes to mind as well as Augustine’s treatise called City of God where he elaborates the differences between the two spheres in the Christian understanding: the profane and the sacred. Of course, there will be flux in the exact nature of this exchange of religious neutrality and religious tolerance, but it actually seems more compelling than what has become the other popular position, especially with the mistakenly titled “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Antitheists in particular claim it is questionable as to whether actual tolerance exists in religions, since they are commonly very prescriptive and absolutist in those normative claims about how the world ought to be. Not everyone is this way, but fundamentally, religion takes time to get away from that sort of mindset and there is a likelihood that people cannot completely get away from the tendency to convert people, to influence people in their way of thinking, indignant that others would believe heresies and false spiritual teachings. Thus, true coexistence of the religious and secular, in a sense of non overlapping magisteria similar to science and religion, demands that religion change very sharply and drastically. The kind of tolerance religion in America necessitates is generalized and not anything beyond a bare acceptance of the existence of various competing systems that most believers in any of the exclusivist religions would say are wrong at heart. Religion would have to become much more inclusivist or pluralist in nature. The only other alternative would be to retreat into the churches and make religion a much more private matter, like it was allegedly back in the times of America’s founding fathers. But history may not take that turn any time soon.

Any sort of religious/secular fusion in society will necessitate that religions be propagated more, of course. We should promote a free market of ideas, even those that are delusional. But we should also spread critical thinking about religion and the criticism of it, rejecting the notion in popular culture that religion is sacrosanct and not able to be held to the same standards we hold every other belief to. Once you do this, there is a balancing out of what can be negative traits of religion with the agreement of many religious people that we need to carefully examine out beliefs to hold them consistently and reasonably, even if we disagree. Religion must be willing to not only be in the public square, but also be subject to rigorous criticism which we give to anything else, such as science and politics, and not given a special place. The religious questions should be taken seriously, but they shouldn’t be said to be purely one way or the other. One can accept religion’s existence as a phenomenon without assenting to any beliefs that they have. Atheists can appreciate religious as part of American culture and history, literature, etc, but nevertheless not hold religious views, but more philosophical ones based in reason. The irreverent and the pious may always be at each others’ throats to an extent, but one can hope there could be a better truce arranged in the future between them. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Heart and Mind, Love and Wisdom





The human condition is a delicate balance between the emotional and rational. Some people strive too much towards the passionate and interpersonal, as if to please others instead of considering one’s own needs as well. Others lean only on rationality and the scientific, thinking they will be fulfilled purely by the mechanical and formulaic. But the middle path between these two is what Buddhism strives for (not exclusively, of course. There are other beliefs that value both of these in their own way as well, for instance). There are many ways to phrase the bifurcation of human experience, but I like the distinction of wisdom and compassion, wisdom being our reasoning and observant sector and compassion our sympathetic and relationship area. The two often seem to clash and this necessitates that we find a center between them, which is what I’ll try to elaborate on as we examine each of them separately and then begin to blend them together.

Wisdom might be better phrased as perception, since in our everyday vernacular wisdom is understood less as a matter of rationality and more something associated with religious virtues. While this is true to an extent, I would contend that wisdom, even in its older term, sophia in Greek, is not purely a matter of our mood or feelings, but does overlap with it in the form of intuition or instinct. There are things we experience day by day, knowledge we amass and nuances of rules that we discern through failure and discipline. All of this coalesces into a pool of information we possess: experiential, theoretical, etc. And in this way, as you begin to understand things in various ways, from differing perspectives and unify them, your actions start to be less deliberate and more a matter of impulse. This is not to say that you don’t think about things if you are unfamiliar with them, but the sort of familiarity you acquire with much experience is what gives you the capacity to act quicker and yet also more accurately without as much suffering for yourself or others. This is not to say this is always the case. If you are especially discerning, you may realize that regardless of what you do, the person you help or interact with will still suffer in some way now or in the future. But instead you will plant a seed that blooms in the person’s mind as they are faced with hopelessness in their life. Wisdom is fudnamentally multifaceted and doesn’t just focus on the theoretical, but the practical. Much like sophia and phronesis, which I spoke about partly in last week’s article “Eternal Knot and Essential Questions”,  you can’t have one without the other or you are imbalanced even just in the pursuit of further knowledge without considering both benefits and risks. If you only focus on face value information, you fail to see how it affects everything related to it as you utilize it in various situations.  But this is only one side of the issue. Even if you are able to find the medium between these two extremes, there is still another side to consider in the human psyche.

Something many friends of mine are much more adept at than myself as an Aspie, who has difficulty when it comes to matters of the heart, is compassion for other humans. This is the other half that is needed to be fully human. One can be incredibly wise or have the sympathy of a saint, but unless these are balanced each by the other, you are still incomplete. To have compassion is to be understanding of others, but not to the extent that you aren’t willing to advise them when they are in error or consider your own desires. But to discipline others harshly and not reflect a balance of both passive and active love, that of patience and correction respectively, is to lean towards love simply as a practical extension of wisdom instead of meeting it halfway. Love comes from a part of humanity that is both practical and puzzling. If we followed practicality strictly by benefits, love would not have the immediate results we would associate with pragmatic thought. Love has its own particular benefits one could perceive, but it should result first and foremost from the connection we have to fellow humans, an almost ineffable sort of realization. When you realize your own suffering matters, you see why you should be concerned also with the suffering of others. But to focus on others before yourself is the most stark example of compassion without wisdom. Wisdom dictates that a compassionate person should first work on themselves and become loving internally before trying to love externally. Any person jumping into a marriage should realize that they must be capable of both accepting and giving love genuinely instead of superficially. Love has a two sided aspect of experience both rationally and emotionally, just as wisdom has the dichotomy of theoretical and practical applications. To be compassionate is to understand the times when you must not give into emotional impulses, but is also to see when you should be a shoulder to cry on and the midway points of dialogue as well.

As with wisdom’s excess and deficit, intellectualism and tradition, there is an excess and deficit for compassion: sentimentality and duty. The fine edge we walk on both of these is such that we can cut to either side day by day, moment by moment, without even realizing it. One experience could make us think we shouldn’t be so focused on knowledge, or the inverse, thinking we are too focused on people. There is such a thing as these, but you should not abandon either entirely to focus on one. Some people have a talent for people, some have dispositions for knowledge. But both of these exemplars are not exempt from working on their weaknesses just as they naturally improve their natural skills. Neither wisdom nor compassion alone or great skill in one or the other will bring fulfillment or allows you to benefit your fellow human as much as the blend of them balanced together in your quest to aid yourself and others as much as possible. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Aversion To Atheism




I’ve spoken many times on the prejudice against atheists, even if that might be considered too strong a word. After all, defenders of this bigotry say, no one is doing violence against atheists. I’m skeptical of that claim in the larger scale of the world instead of the U.S., which probably still wouldn’t treat violence against atheists as a hate crime if it happened. The stigma against atheists has existed for a while, though it is due in no small part to the association many people still have of atheism with Communism in Russia and other totalitarian regimes that, people claim mistakenly, had atheism as their state religion. Not only is this not true on its face, since atheism itself is no more a religion than theism, but the stance of these dictators was antitheism, active hostility against religion and belief, willing to suppress it in order to maintain their own power. I imagine that the unofficial motto of the U.S., “In God We Trust,” held sway amongst many in America since the period in the 19th century when it started to be printed on coins and then in the 50s when it was printed on paper money. This divisive credo, along with the paranoia of secret Communist agents lurking behind you and trying to turn everyone to atheism, an indirect result of McCarthyism in post WW2 America, only reinforced the idea that atheists are not to be trusted. A study from the University of British Columbia shows that this prevalent distrust of atheists in American religious thought is the primary reason for the intolerance against them that remains even today.

We should distinguish between dislike in the general sense that can manifest specifically in distrust and dislike which escalates to disgust in its extreme form. The former is what the study is referring to and the latter is what I hope is a minority position amongst modern Americans. To outright hate atheists would be missing the point of what Christianity teaches in the still somewhat trite expression to “love the sinner, hate the sin”. To hate atheism would be fine to me as long as you don’t project your hatred for that disbelief onto those that disbelieve. Distrust of atheism has been prominent at various points, even when the term didn’t strictly mean one who rejected all God claims, but specific God claims, such as pagans calling Christians “atheos” and vice versa for Christian/pagan relations in the early church. Eventually the vocabulary expanded for what to call pagans, such as polytheists and, of course, heathen. Not to mention the general ideas about atheism became more precise and sophisticated as time went on, though for many hundreds of years, no one claimed to be an atheist without putting themselves at great risk of persecution from the theist majority, uneducated as many of them were. But today, people can be out about their atheism with little threats to their lives. At the most we will get claims that we have no absolute basis for morals or other things I’ve spoken about at length in my “What Do Atheists Do?” series you can find through the tag “wdad” But in today’s mostly civil society, there can be discussion about how atheists can affirm an absolute moral basis without recourse to an inflexible and cryptic religious scripture. If we affirm something is absolutely wrong, it is not so rigid that we cannot see that there are nuances to any action and the intent behind them. The mistrust of atheists manifested a century or two ago with them not being trusted in legal cases, from what I understand. Not to mention the presence of blasphemy laws putting atheists in jail, like George Holyoake, or making them retreat into agnosticism or deism, both obvious facades that were acceptable in the days when people were more prone to ignoring basic human decency and succumbing to a basic human ill, xenophobia, fear of the stranger.

It’s not necessarily the case that people are afraid of atheists, but the term distrust could imply, even apart from its definition, a sort of anxiety or vigilance that people would have when they are aware of someone’s atheism. My own family on the whole may not be aware that I’m an atheist and chalks up my sitting in the back pews at family reunion church services to something else (mid life crisis?) But if they were, I wonder if they would still strive to be friendly and loving to someone of their own flesh and blood even if they didn’t believe in God? Or would there be a tension in the air as they reflect what I think the study concluded from the sample they took? People have a general sort of prejudice, a prior judgment, about atheists, that they are untrustworthy because they don’t believe them to be faithful in their narrow idea of what it means. It’s not so much that they don’t think atheists can be moral people, it’s that they don’t think atheists are as reliable on moral issues as religious people. The study theorized that part of this may be due to our social associations of trustworthiness with affirming a belief in a higher power, connecting back to the oft held notion people argue for today about any moral law requiring a moral law giver, e.g. God. So apparently if you don’t believe in God, you don’t think you’re accountable to people; which is patently wrong if I’m even a single example of that.

A problem with this mindset about atheists is its implication that there is some sort of organization in atheism, when this isn’t really the case except in communities of people, like American Atheists, which shares the single unifying factor of atheism, disbelief in God to one degree or another. There can be disagreements about ethics, about politics, and many other things, just as Christians in groups are prone to. As I said before, there is also the fallacious association between atheism and communism, which is a confusion of the nuance of atheism as something of an umbrella term that can apply to many different labels reflecting distinctions between one’s regard towards God. Not to mention atheism says nothing automatically about your political positions, including communism. Antitheism, for instance, is the strongest form of atheism in affirming that God belief is dangerous and should be opposed. This is what manifested in communism as it existed in Russia and China (and still does to an extent in China today, from what little I understand of the subject). This should not be confused with atheism, which doesn’t explicitly claim that religion should be opposed violently, but with words, with peaceful and civil actions.

With all these issues I bring up about distinguishing atheism, I should also say that this applies just as much to atheists in their sweeping claims about Christians. There are pro gay Christians, pro choice Christians and many other seemingly unlikely believers, such as those who think that even nonbelievers like us will be reconciled to God even in our defiant denial of Jesus’ divinity. If you don’t dialogue with believers, you can’t know about their beliefs except in the most general sense of their belief in some God without adequate evidence. The same way Christians lump all atheists into the category of raving God haters, such as their caricature of Dawkins and Hitchens, atheists can be guilty of suggesting all Christians are like Pat Robertson or Newt Gingrich. There’s diversity on both sides and when we start recognizing that, we’ll start being able to build bridges, however rickety they might be. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.