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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jesus and Religion, Friends or Enemies?

A video that was shared by a few of my Facebook friends has lingered in my mind since I watched it myself to sample what was so popular. Jefferson Bethke, only a few years younger than me (right around my brother’s age actually) speaks about how he holds Jesus in high regard, believes in his death as substitution for sin, but despises what he characterizes as religion in everyday Christian practice, but has also qualified in other contexts as false religion. This brings up a few issues, one of which is that sharp critique against the word and practice of religion. The phrase that “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion” while clever in use of alliteration (which I myself am quite fond of) is also mistaken even as it remains popular with newer generations growing up as young adults in this society that some might consider post-Christian, though what is meant by that is somewhat uncertain. Christianity is still fairly strong in its existence, even if some churches are losing members to much larger fellowships elsewhere. But the type of Christian religiosity has changed drastically. Many would say they are followers of Christ rather than adherents to the religion of Christianity for the same reason that many oppose various –isms that are self descriptive labels that have fragmented in the amount of meanings they have to each individual. I can respect that practice, since this sort of diffusion of labels and inconsistency on virtually any sort of agreed upon points in any system has made many people almost Pyrrhonist in their daily philosophy, if not in their more serious discussions, since they don’t feel there is any sense of security in institutions or communities. So what do they do? They reserve all judgment on matters of truth. But there is a problem I have as a student of religion with the claim from this clearly articulate youth that all religion should be regarded as the same, though he seems to have backslid on this slightly after the fact, but let’s take the video mostly at face value for the purpose of discussion. I may be secularist, but I cannot side entirely with those that want to eliminate religion, if only because the foundations of problems that are reflected in religious intolerance are deeper than simply believing in the supernatural. For someone to think Jesus hated religion or that you should hate religion and love Jesus, as the video itself paraphrases, is just as problematic as hatred of those beliefs and practices that are abused by the manipulative and take advantage of the hopeful, but in themselves could manifest in even secular contexts. Not to mention there’s the Christian context we can interpolate for considering what religion meant to the writers of the Bible, since it’s used intermittently, so clearly it wasn’t so important as it is today, but it wasn’t a taboo word. These two things in particular are my concern: modern Christianity’s development into a sort of “spiritual but not religious” category and whether Christianity was purely spiritual and not religious itself.

Jesus definitely opposed religious legalism, adherence to the letter, but not the spirit of the law, but he also preached religion, especially in terms of reconnection as opposed to bondage in the form of rote adherence which was the common antagonist in his parables and in real adversaries he went against in public. He was an observant Jew of his time as well. Regarding the political stuff brought up early in the video, there are probably just as many Democrats and Republicans that call themselves Christians and many vote Independent parties because they follow admonitions from the bible to vote godly people into office, which commonly suggests Ron Paul these days. One can critique hypocrisy in religion and politics and still adhere to a religion, since the word in any etymology doesn’t automatically mean multifarious intentions or the stuff Jesus criticized in the Pharisees. This is where church and state separation is very pertinent to consider.  I also wonder if the critique is of all Christianity or just Protestantism as it became more prominent in terms of televangelism and fixation on the church as a business before its primary function of worship. If he’s critiquing Catholicism, it gets into another area, since Catholicism is a two pronged system, deriving authority from scripture and tradition both, not just scripture as is the case with Protestants. In any case, the problem he has is what he perceives as Christians today thinking that they have to be charitable and do all these things to qualify as Christians, but the basic notion is simply a change of your paradigm to recognize the centrality of Jesus as God and how that affects your life, if I understand it even somewhat correctly.

Much of the poem written by Jefferson Bethke is indicative of modern Christianity, trying to sever itself from the older formulations that have become very strict and rigid in their application of the Gospel. One manifestation of this sort of “neo-Christianity” is nondenominational churches, and another is creedless churches, like Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ, though these have existed in some form since the 19th century. It is not an entirely bad sentiment to want to affirm yourself as unique and not conform to a crowd that is both displeasing and dissonant with what you personally believe to be the core teachings of Christianity. But many Christians reflect that this idea of salvation preached about in the video, such as “Religion says do, Jesus says done,” misses the nuance of works proceeding from faith. Works themselves as religious practice, what’s called cult practice in academic studies (not to be confused with cult in the modern sense of a group with dangerous beliefs and practices of brainwashing), do not merit salvation, that much seems fairly clear in Christian teaching (from what I understand as a nonbeliever). But the works should not be rejected as something that is part of a Christian’s daily walk. They are said to result from your faith, not due to any expectation of reward because of the quantity or presence of those actions, but the quality that inspired them.
There are a number of uses of religion in the New Testament and at least 2 are especially relevant. The first talks about what ideal religion consists in, James 1:27; caring for orphans and widows as well as keeping oneself unstained by the world. Whatever the second part exactly means is up to some interpretation, such as being in the world, but not of it, or more strict monastic vows. The verse right before James 1:27, 1:26, speaks about something Bethke seemingly neglected in part. To paraphrase, if you consider yourself religious then mind your words or your religion is worthless. Technically, the youth in question doesn’t identify as religious, but the tone and content of his message is religious nonetheless and thus he renders his religion worthless by what I and others could conceivably interpret as superfluous polemic. If he focused his critique on Christianity itself as practiced in churches or such instead of the public behavior of a larger and more diverse group of Christians, there’d be more agreement by the educated who see the distinction between false and true religion that is enumerated implicitly or explicitly in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament’s various letters. In painting most modern forms of Christianity and its identity as a religion with such a broad brush and subsequently condemning them, he doesn’t leave much to praise except within his own generation, which is self serving and counterproductive in speaking to older audiences who no doubt share many of his sentiments, but nonetheless adhere to what he considers religion and not “spirituality”, which is even more vacuous a word than religion is these days.

The crux of this whole burst of popularity for this still growing area of Christianity is to think before you speak, and then think some more. To make rash judgments in terms of politics, doctrine or otherwise is to show your foolishness to everyone instead of admitting ignorance and seeking out an answer. If religion is man made, but Jesus was at least partly man, then you already contradict yourself in implying man made things are opposed by whatever you think is opposed to religion. Jesus and religion are only on opposite spectrums, as another part of the video goes, if you purposely structure it so that they are in no way related except by people that would disagree with you. That sort of contrarian behavior is not conducive to a discussion. If you said Jesus opposed false religion, you’d at least be clear, but you wouldn’t have nearly as good a rhythm. But you didn’t even try to make that distinction between that and true religion, which is referred to in the bible itself. Evidently, there wasn’t wholesale opposition to religion, though this isn’t to say it isn’t without some imperfections. But any system has that. Even Christianity has flaws and bad examples, but that’s why you should strive to make Christianity more in line with what it actually teaches. Of course, the specifics of that is something I don’t want to try to touch on for a while. Hypocrites exist everywhere, so don’t point them out while you yourself already have flaws. Jesus himself said this, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” You want to fix Christianity as a whole, fix your part of Christianity first. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Nirvana Is Not Nihilism

One of the more prominent ideas about Buddhism in terms of its goals of enlightenment, commonly phrased as nirvana in Sanskrit, nibbana in Pali, is that this idea of extinction or blowing out of desire, is nihilistic. This is based on a number of conceptions we have, usually from our ideas of monastics or just the general popular portrayal of Buddhists as very detached from the world. From these we get a stereotype that they deny the world exists or that it matters. That’s very much incorrect from my experience. Just because the world isn’t how we originally construct it doesn’t mean we still can’t find wonder and amazement at things and also have goals in mind to improve ourselves and others. There is virtually no reason to think Buddhism is anything like the nihilism you hear about through Friedrich Nietzsche, for instance, though there may be more in common than we think. But the nihilism that leads to depression, suicide and other negative thoughts and behavior is certainly not what Buddhism advises or teaches. Gautama even advocates against it, as I spoke about in part in “Moderate Beliefs Lead to Moderate Practice” , in the balance between eternalism and nihilism and annihilationism by association. Life is not strictly over absolutely when one dies, but that’s not to say we live forever either. There is a great variety to nihilism, so let’s start with parsing that out.

Now I could do a whole series on the types of nihilism, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll try to focus on those that work with Buddhism and those that don’t. For instance, moral and epistemological nihilism are in conflict, because Buddhism doesn’t deny that there is the distinct realization of moral and epistemological objectivity through practice and contemplation. There are things that are objectively true, but there is also flexibility. Metaphysical nihilism is another one that doesn’t sync with Buddhism, but is commonly misinterpreted to be so due to a misunderstanding of Buddhist metaphysics, the nature of existence. Just because one says things are illusory does not mean you claim they don’t exist. When we perceive any illusion, it doesn’t negate the reality of the things that actually do exist behind the illusion. Whether they be visual, auditory, or any other sensory input, it is not unreasonable to still trust that our senses are reliable in most situations. Sometimes illusions are just a matter of our minds playing tricks on us, such as when we look at a Magic Eye picture. But there are illusions that are synonymous with hallucinations in that we see or hear things that literally are not there. But if we focus on the issue of illusions, the point remains that there is still substance behind what our minds mistakenly understand in some sense and this can apply to hallucinations as well in that there’s still a world you interact with, even if you’re adding to it. When I see what I think to be a monster, but am incorrect in believing so, then this doesn’t mean that what actually existed is literally not there, but simply isn’t processed by my mind in an accurate way. This is where the idea of maya, commonly translated as illusion, has relevance, though the term vipallasa, translated as distortion, is more relevant to Theravada Buddhism, which is usually understood to be the more classical school, which I also lean more towards in my practice and thought. Both of these ideas do not suggest that Buddhists don’t believe in things, for they very much do. It’s more psychological problems that inspire the beliefs of Buddhists that Westerners commonly interpret as negative and reality denying in nature. We misperceive, we misinterpret, we are misguided by our own minds and our bodies as well. But this does not lead to cynicism or pessimism, but can actually make us more optimistic that we can see reality as it is, and that becomes our goal in life. That understanding, that ideal, is what nirvana is. But I’ll get into some more nuanced ideas that are called nihilistic that might actually work with Buddhism.

Existential nihilism and mereological nihilism are the only two that even remotely fit.  Nietzsche’s form of nihilism affirming that we must forge our own path in a godless universe as entities always in flux meshes fairly well with Buddhism even though Nietzsche himself criticizes Buddhism as he understood it to be passive nihilism. Existential nihilism affirms that we have to determine our own destiny and purpose to a great extent, though Buddhism’s claim that we all are potential buddhas doesn’t conflict with that, since it’s a naturally good thing to want to become more knowledgeable and experienced about the world. It’s just that we aren’t fated or given a purpose from outside ourselves in any sense of the word. Change comes from within, as the aphorism goes in Dharmic traditions. We walk the path, the path doesn’t walk us. Mereological nihilism is much more complex, since it gets into issues that I only briefly spoke about in “Neither Determinism Nor Destiny” . Mereology is the study of the relationship between wholes and their parts as well as parts with each other, which sparks a strong relevance of Buddhist metaphysics where those relationships are very much interdependent. The whole depends on the parts, but the parts together create a whole. But mereological nihilism takes this a step further and says objects without parts do not exist. That is, there is no such thing as an object unto itself, but always in relation to a set of parts, such as elements to molecules and so forth down to the most “basic” particles like quarks. Even they, according to this thesis, may be related to smaller parts. Or perhaps there is a simple building block of all things, but we have not strictly found it. The basic assertion of mereological nihilism is that objects that have parts do not exist, though I would suggest that we interpret this in the same way we interpret the claim that existence is illusory or distorted in our perception. This doesn’t mean that objects without parts are said to have no substance, for that would get into metaphysical nihilism. In this sense, the claim is that the objects themselves do not properly exist unto themselves, since they are related by parts, but exist as we conceptualize them. A table is not a table always, nor is even a person strictly that person always, but is constantly changing on a subatomic or psychological level respectively, amongst other considerations. So there is also a deep connection, however indirect, to the truth of impermanence, in saying nothing is absolutely substantial or remaining forever, as I spoke about in “Flux and Flow,” 

I spoke about how emptiness is not anything like nothingness in the Western sense in "Nothingness and No-thingness",  Emptiness is potential, it is not the end of all things. The void in a cup is what allows it to be filled, and the lack of heat in cold is what makes the heat able to emerge through the motion of atoms. No-thingness is like this as well. Just because the identity of things is not consistent and always changes by entropy, perspective and the like, does not mean there is not significance in the meaning we grant things in each moment, each instance, each context. Even kindling from a table has purpose and meaning. We do not just trash things, and even if we do, they still remain in one sense or another. Nihilism in the normative sense of absolute meaning and absolute existence might be applicable, however mistaken it is to claim that Buddhism believes either of them, but absolute or radical nihilism in no way coincides with Buddhism, where life has purpose because you are alive and can recognize existence in part and learn more. The potential, the emptiness we initially feel, can be filled with wisdom, with love, with all things in good moderation. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Enlightenment and the Erotic

Something I rarely talk about except specifically in relation to GLBT issues is the subject of sexuality overall and the ethical precepts people hold about it. Premarital sex is seen by many Christians as immoral, or at least taboo. Sex outside of marriage at all, even consensual, is evil, or at least wrong, for the same reason that Christians believe adultery is evil, since marriage is fundamentally believed to be the only good way to pair people off on an intimate level. Of course you also have the technicality in the Bible that, unless your partner dies or is unfaithful, you are not permitted to divorce them and remarry, since that’s cheating on them in God’s eyes. Homosexuality has been discussed many times in this blog and only a minority of Christians sees it as equal in the possibility of both good and bad use between consenting or non consenting adults. And then there’s masturbation, which is only confronted in the Bible in a nominal sense with the story of Onan, but is argued to be immoral because of the self stimulating and egocentric nature of the act instead of the unitive practice of sex between two consenting partners. Buddhism, on the other hand, has some agreement, but mostly dissonance, with Christian strictness on sexual ethics. This is not to say it condones rape, adultery, or any exploitation of humans as a means for sexual pleasure. Those would definitely be condemned for almost the same reasons: they violate another human being’s innate rights as a free agent. But homosexuality, premarital sex, masturbation and sexual desire are all seen in a different light from a Buddhist and nontheistic perspective by association. I won’t even get into the issues of gender in Buddhism, though I want to talk about it in the future, since Buddhism is often painted as very egalitarian, but is a bit ambivalent according to various texts in terms of that broad claim. Sex in Buddhism is the focus here, not gender.

Unlike Christianity, there are not commandments about sex so much as principles. Since there is not a creator in Buddhist cosmology, there is not a divine mandate about how sex should be handled. This is not to say there are not limits upon sexual behavior, but they are more implicit than explicit in that they fall under more general ethical restrictions on behavior. In Buddhism, you are expected to not be coercive, deceptive or abusive towards yourself or other human beings, and this could extend to sentient beings as well, since they feel pain in some sense as well. Sex is a mutually reciprocating act in many cases, excluding masturbation, which does not mean it is automatically deviant. Any sort of act involving sexual desire is not viewed as bad in and of itself, but instead is judged so based on the intent of the person performing the act. If I decide to have an open relationship with my future wife, we would have certain boundaries about our sexual liaisons. We use protection, we don’t coerce people into sex, and we certainly don’t rape people or have sex with people who are already involved in a monogamous relationship. And monogamous relationships are a good thing because of the similar virtue involved in all romantic pairings: fidelity. You are devoted to this person and will not betray their trust because you made a promise and commitment to that person; God isn’t necessary to make the partnership binding on both parties. And this extends to both homosexual and heterosexual couplings for reasons I’ll discuss shortly. In short, the act of sex and even desire for sex are not evil things in themselves at all. But there are differences in how we control our behavior depending on context and our own individual characters. If you are able to restrain yourself easier, then there is not so much of a bad thing in having a polyamorous sex life where you have multiple partners with no strings attached. You understand that you should not be attached to sex as an end in itself or a means to any greater end beyond pleasure unless you are willing to settle down and commit to a monogamous relationship or an open relationship with basic limits on your sexual life. Promiscuity and lust are not strictly evil, but they do tend towards excess, so there is advice in Buddhist texts to avoid such things as prostitutes or overly sexualized contexts. This is not to say laypeople cannot engage in such things as prostitutes or strip clubs, but they are expected to be responsible and prudent in their participation. I’ve brought up the Japanese monk Ikkyu Soujun before and he has a saying, “Those who keep the precepts become donkeys, those who break them become human,” Ikkyu was notorious for keeping company with ladies of the evening and wrote haiku that had very sexualized content about the male and female genitals and how they could lead one to enlightenment. It’s a paradoxical statement to claim that in embracing sex you can abandon it and no longer need it, but think of it like smoking. If you expose someone to a lot of negative reinforcement for smoking, like smoking a whole pack of cigarettes and getting horribly sick, then they will not want to smoke ever again because of the aversion they would feel at the resurfacing memories of that bad experience. Understanding the fleeting nature of sexual pleasure by directly experiencing it is the best way to start towards moderation of sexual behavior or in some people’s cases, retain their celibacy as is done in Buddhist monasteries as much as Christian ones. Sex is to be embraced, but not clung to.

There are various issues we could discuss about sexual ethics, but the most common ones include premarital sex and masturbation in terms of improper sexual acts and homosexuality as disordered sexual acts. The first two are bad for slightly different reasons than the third. Homosexuality is similar to premarital sex in the condemnation, since it is said to disrespect the marriage covenant more in not being able to bring forth children. Premarital sex is jumping the gun on marriage, homosexuality is spitting in its face, if we were to suggest a comparison and contrast. Masturbation is self directed and is considered dangerous to the development of intimacy between a couple. But Buddhists see all this in a different light and wouldn’t outright condone premarital sex, masturbation or homosexuality in all contexts, since they are not all the same.

Homosexuality has been condemned by Buddhists in particular contexts, including the Dalai Lama in certain interviews. But fundamentally, to say Buddhism believes homosexuality is disordered is missing the point of what the precept against sexual misconduct implies. It doesn’t explicitly list what acts are considered misconduct, but leaves this to discretion based on Buddhist ethics as a whole, which considers the individual as a free agent who is able to make choices with the knowledge of their karmic gravity upon themselves or others. Homosexuality as practiced in prison rape or irresponsible promiscuity are bad because they either violate a person’s consent or they risk invading into a person’s private life as they might be committed to someone else. But there are plenty of committed homosexual couples that show the value of fidelity in a romantic relationship is not something exclusive to heterosexual couples. This value of trust between two people that love each other is far more important than whether they can bring forth children or are considered normal in the eyes of a commonly heterosexual society.

Premarital sex has a similar sort of flavor that we can approach it with. Some premarital sex is bad because it is done without consideration of the risks involved, such as pregnancies that you are not able to confront as a responsible adult and future parent or STDs that are just as preventable. If you are not ready for such a result or do not wish to contract dangerous illnesses like AIDS, then using protection is a prudent practice for couples cohabitating. Marriage itself is technically a social institution, but one does not need to be married legally to act as if one is already married to the person. Making the commitment to each other in public is certainly a reflection of a communal relationship of the couple to the community as a whole, but if the couple merely makes those vows without getting a marriage license, why are they suddenly less married? I suppose there are Christians who have similar sorts of views, saying that making the commitment before God is more important than being legally bound together by civil magistrates, but if the couple behaves in such a way without even making much more than a basic announcement to friends and family that they are in a committed relationship, why should we see their eventual sexual consummation as less significant or even wrong if they behave responsibly?

Masturbation is probably the most contentious in a sense, since it is the most personal of these issues next to homosexuality. One’s personal self stimulation is not necessarily by any means wrong or misguided sexually speaking. Is it not natural to explore what makes us feel good? The difference between a hobby of reading comics and self pleasuring is that the addiction to one can be more damaging than the other. When one mindfully considers what pleasure masturbation gives one and some benefits that may result from it, such as stress relief in part and lower blood pressure by association, then the most basic boundary one can place upon oneself is self discipline about how much one does it. Excess or deficit can be damaging, but the simple act of self pleasuring oneself is not evil unless you exclude the future possibility and enjoyment of sharing the pleasure with another in an intimate partnership. In that case, it falls under the same issues of attachment to sex that I spoke about at the beginning of the article. Sex itself is not evil or wrong, it is misuse or misguided ideas about sexual behavior that are damaging.

I can’t say this article is representative of all Buddhists, especially with my secular background and general approach to Gautama’s teachings of skepticism, ethics and psychology, among other things. But even the Dalai Lama has said things to this effect, at least concerning homosexuality. The value of marriage in Buddhism may exist, but not to the exclusion of otherwise faithful relationships that don’t meet the strict requirements of marriage even by Asian standards of which I am not aware of. Sex is something we should appreciate, but neither be attached to nor take for granted as something that will always exist in a limited bubble of what we’re comfortable with. I might be more comfortable with much of this than my parents are, especially gay marriage. Interracial marriage was one hurdle, next will be this. This is not to say there aren’t instances where there is sexual behavior both Buddhists and Christians would find horrific. Rape in particular is where much agreement would exist, as well as adultery: having sex with someone who is already involved with someone else in a monogamous relationship. But since Buddhist sexual ethics are more focused on intent and the virtues of love that are connected with sex instead of the institution of marriage and childrearing as absolutely intertwined with it, there is more permissibility of things that are considered taboo or immoral to many others. But inclusiveness does not imply looseness of morality. It means flexibility with some rigidity of discipline without becoming overbearing. Sex should be a disciplined approach in some sense, but should also be open to consensual love between parties that we would otherwise not acknowledge. And even self love can be a precursor to love of others. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Profane Political Platform

I’m clearly not the most politically active person, especially when I reveal that I haven’t voted in 2 elections, once for Bush/Kerry, the other Obama/McCain. This doesn’t mean I don’t take action in more indirect ways for issues I feel strongly about, such as petitioning, writing letters to the editor and blogging about solutions to policies about gay marriage and such. But I’ve always felt slightly out of place as an atheist amongst what is a demographically Christian country, the affiliations divided between Democrat, Republican and Libertarian, amongst the other smaller parties that can field candidates.  Troy Boyle, out of Kentucky, was inspired by Richard Dawkins’ talking about why atheists weren’t more politically active in an interview. And so he created what was first called the Freethought Party on Facebook. The group wasn’t as popular, but the interest intensified when the name was changed to the National Atheist Party. The basic idea is that it stands for a secular America which does not favor even atheism, so as not to seem partial to nonbelievers. No one group gets more say than another so the government treats all groups as equally as possible. I can definitely get behind this group, especially with its platform as of now very much in line with my own political policies. They’re for gay marriage, abortion rights, stricter gun control, legalizing marijuana, reforming immigration policy and green energy development, amongst other likely issues, such as foreign policy. There are some difficulties that exist with the group, one of them being the name, which is less important, another being the group’s relative political influence in the country. But there are definitely good points to this sort of party’s existence in what has become a very theologically heavy climate for politicians and policymaking.

The name of the group is slightly problematic in the association people have with the term atheist. I suppose it’s a better choice in the long run than National Secularist Party, since secularism is touted even more by many politically motivated preachers as the ultimate enemy, so atheism is probably a lesser evil to portray in a positive light to a population that distrusts secularism even if they also ironically support it in their own ways with a selective separation of church and state. There’s also a difficulty that even if atheism becomes acceptable to the extent of other worldviews, there’s a difficulty with presenting a campaign for an atheist candidate, even at lower levels, such as mayor or governor. It’s one thing to not talk about it and use the platform previously described, but making your atheism something that compels people to vote for you would be more difficult on the grounds that people may never trust atheists enough to vote for them.  This goes back to the old stereotypes about atheists not being trustworthy and thus not even accepted as witnesses in court for a time in the U.K.  That kind of discrimination doesn’t exist, but the stigma of being an atheist in the context of politics still remains and running under the National Atheist Party ticket might seem obnoxious to some atheists, since it’s making a big deal of your position on the existence of God as opposed to your political persuasion that indirectly relates to your nonbelief. Therein lies the biggest criticism of the idea from within the atheist community, such as it is; when you make the focal point of your politics the fact that you’re an atheist, it smacks of the same issues that many Republican candidates have brought up as of late. When Bachmann, Cain or Huckabee appealed to people by using their faith, it seemed disingenuous and underhanded, so atheists appealing to other nonbelievers to vote them because they share skepticism would be a potential abuse and interpretation of their intent in campaigning. But the reasoning for most of the policies doesn’t require that you be an atheist, strictly speaking, so people can associate with it because they agree with the platform, not because they’re an atheist. The name is due to most of the people in it happening to be atheists and starting from an atheist perspective of secularism, which is not absolutely foreign to religious people, strictly speaking. So one doesn’t have to feel excluded, but I can understand if people decide to vote independent because they hold more unique political positions than the NAP does, which is admittedly a bit more left leaning than you’d expect. This might isolate more conservative atheists, but they could structure their own platform in an alternate secular party if they felt compelled to. Of course, setting up any candidate for election can’t happen until the group is permitted to do so. The best they can do now is advocate for issues and put money into that, but it’s at least a step up from not having any real representative party for atheists. There will always be those that prefer to be Independent Party instead of allying with the National Atheist Party for one reason or another, but I can see this developing some popularity on a state level, even if it never grows to the national level for a presidential candidate.

This is not to say there isn’t a silver lining to what seems a bleak issue. Atheism being represented politically in any sense is a benefit to the reputation of atheists as good, lawful, and most importantly, patriotic Americans. American Atheists did it with their 4th of July planecampaign, so why shouldn’t there be a party that advocates policy changes on the basis of secularism? It certainly doesn’t advocate atheism as a state religion, but neutrality to all positions of religion in terms of decisions that affect all people, religious or not. And the benefit of being able to put money behind big issues like green energy and gay marriage is something that atheists should want to do in and of itself, even if there is the association of atheism on a superficial level. Being able to affect political change and also spread awareness of atheism in the process is killing two birds with one stone. That’s not to say there isn’t a delicate balance here. One shouldn’t confuse advocating atheism and secularism in other venues with supporting political policy that affects believers as well as nonbelievers. We should be considerate of believers’ first amendment rights as well, but only within reason. There shouldn’t be favoritism or prejudice towards nonbelievers or believers respectively. That’s the main goal in all this, especially as advocating a fair secularism.

Atheism being represented politically, even if it’s just for policy issues instead of candidate support at the start, is a huge step forward from being subsumed into other parties or taking the radical independent step. Being part of a group of like minded individuals united by secularism as a political platform of is invigorating. The NAP may never be able to sponsor candidates, or at least not on the level of presidential or house representatives, but perhaps mayor or gubernatorial level.  Basing a party around atheism might be a bit tricky. If the party was the National Secularist Party, it would be clearer, but there may be more opposition on the grounds of a vernacular understanding of what secularism is. And there’s a potential for abuse that is probably not the case for the NAP at present in terms of discrimination against believers, but the mere possibility does not mean we should reject the party outright. The name is one thing, but the basic intent of the people involved should be the primary concern. If you agree with them more than Democrats or Republicans, then you could associate with them. If you’re a believer, they don’t care, but I can understand if you don’t feel accepted. Independent party candidates can suffice as well in their own way. What’s key is creating political diversity in an atmosphere that is feeling a bit too similar on all fronts, from Ron Paul’s more libertarian Republicanism to even Barack Obama’s use of faith as a point to rally votes. You don’t need belief in God to motivate people to care about politics, just belief in humanity. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.