Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Meaning of Life

This cartoon is meant to be a joke, but in my case it's true.  The meaning of my life is largely told in this blog and on my Facebook page, expressed in the links, opinions, photos, check-ins and events of my life as it unfolds now in the first half of 2015 (tho since I live in Thailand I should perhaps write it as 2558, since the Thai year dates from the death of the Buddha).

In other words, after too many years of looking for the meaning of life in various forms of religion, different kinds of spiritual practices from the eucharist to meditation, and books about same, in connection with formal study toward several degrees in schools, I reached the conclusion that the search (quest or journey) only leads back to my own life.  There is no salvation, wisdom or enlightenment out there.  As T.S. Eliot so beautifully put it,
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I've had a long, good life with no regrets for any of the detours, wrong turnings, and missteps in my years of exploration.  I've learned something about myself in all of the experiences I have ever had, the good ones as well as the disasters (and there have been not a few of those).  But judging by the cartoons in Google Images about the one true meaning of life, it still remains a preoccupation of many.  There are lots of meaningful activities, from stamp collecting and and drug taking to sexual addiction and political campaigning.  Whatever we choose to do defines our identity and self-image and imbues our life with purpose (even crime is purposeful).  The most common way that people seek a purpose for their life is through religion.

This post is a continuation of my last when I set out to "find my religion" but only came up empty handed.  Wherever you look these days, religion is in the news. The main topic is Islamic fundamentalism with fanatics slaughtering the innocent in Manhattan, Kenya, Nigeria, Boston, Syria and other Middle East countries.  In Israel, Jewish fundamentalists (another term for truest believers) are attacking and injuring Palestinians in order to steal their land, with the connivance of Israeli forces that have bombed Gaza back to the stone age.  Fundamentalist Christians in America may be more benign, but with the aid of right-wing state politicians they are shrinking the voting franchise to remove the poor and minorities, and legislating against sexual tolerance.  Even Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka are forming racist nationalist fronts to protect their religion from what they mistakenly see as a threat from the small minorities of  Muslims and Hindus. All of these fundamentalisms share a similar characteristic -- hatred of those who are different.  While most of the conflicts may only be about struggles over land and the state (or tribe), the result of these comparisons is to tar "religion" -- whatever that word may denote -- with the bloody brush of hatred.

Karl Marx
Despite arguments from social scientists in the last century that modernization would gradually remove the need for religion, what Marx called "the opium of the people," it has not disappeared. The fall of the Soviet Union resulted in the return of orthodox Christianity, now a conservative force. Globalization has not been a melting pot, despite Facebook, Starbucks and American films. The reason for this was recognized by Marx who identified religion as the "sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions." Religion was an antidote at the time for the horrific conditions in the satanic mills of early capitalist industry.  Wherever people lack jobs, education and opportunities, and are oppressed by outside forces, they turn to the consolations of religion.  And this religion is not necessarily the "love your neighbor" kind.  It is often a tribalistic faith, viciously insular and exclusive, and it promotes views and attitudes that demonize outsiders in an attempt to provide a security and control that can only be illusory.

Manchester U fans vs Roma
What does this tribal religion have to do with gods, dogma, rituals and institutions, the stuff of atheist and anti-religious discontent? Very little, and only as a discourse that separates the sheep from the goats.  This religion is not about beliefs and propositions that can be discussed rationally, but it is rather a form of idolatry and identity somewhat similar to that of the football hooligans who regularly run riot after European games.  A professor of mine wrote a book about National Socialism in Germany as a religious movement.  Gang membership among minorities gives them a home in a strange culture.  Even second-generation immigrants in Britain feel so out of place that they run off to join ISIS in a search for meaning in their lives.

Karen Armstrong
Historians of religion like Karen Armstrong and Robert Wright try to sketch an evolution from the religious practices of hunter-gatherer tribes to the institutionalized faith that provided social glue for empires, from Constantine's Rome to Mughal India and the Ottomans.  Like empires, however, religious unity constantly broke into pieces.  Christianity fragmented in 1000 AD and again in the 16th century.  There is so little similarity between the Anglicans, the tent evangelists in the southern U.S. and the proselytizing Mormons in Latin America (to name only three sects) that "Christianities" is a better label for the largest of the so-called "world" religions.  The split between Sunni and Shia Islam is now well known because of news events (although Bush and his advisers to their peril knew little of it before invading Iraq). And even Buddhists have trouble finding commonalities between the three major divisions (four if you count western Buddhism which is quite different from the Asian varieties).

Christians in America hate the gays, Israelis hate the Arabs, warriors of ISIS hate all westerners, Sri Lankan Buddhists hate the Tamil Muslims, Hindu nationalists hate the Sikhs, Bangladeshi Muslims hate Buddhists and Burmese Buddhists hate the Muslims of Rakhine state.  And maybe even the Protestants in Northern Ireland still hate the Catholics!  Hatred is an equal opportunity passion.  What we hate too often defines who we are.

These hatreds resemble in many ways the antagonisms between tribes more than 10,000 years ago before many of the wandering peoples settled down in place to invent agriculture.  Before the population explosion when tribes stopped moving long enough to grow crops and raise animals for food, there was enough land so that tribes could remain self-contained and avoid others.  After agriculture, there would be struggles over land, and after the rise of city states and empires, struggles over territory.  Religion was the handmaiden, holding people together in common rites and rituals and separating them from the unbelievers.  It's still performing that role.

Robert Wright, among others, thinks that despite setbacks, religion has evolved.  Wright, a cognitive psychologist who describes himself as a materialist and an agnostic, defends moral progress in his fascinating 2009 book, The Evolution of God.  Since the pre-agriculture tribal period, people have gradually learned the benefits of extending moral consideration to those outside their own tribe.  “As the scope of social organization grows, God tends to eventually catch up, drawing a larger expanse of humanity under his protection, or at least a larger expanse of humanity under his toleration.”  This progress can be seen in the sentiments of the Golden Rule, "love your neighbor as yourself," which can be found in all religions. It's also taken time for "neighbor" to be seen as everyone on the planet.

From this perspective, religion is not about gods, heaven or hell, orthodoxy, and the nation favored by the most powerful deity, but about behavior in this life that leads to peace.  Morality is mutual interest, the compassion that arises when you contemplate the suffering of others that is much the same as yours.  Each of the so-called world religions has various foundational scriptures that believers cherry pick to find rules that align with their prejudices and exclusionary views. Homosexuality and abortion have become important to fundamentalist Christians despite their absence from most texts while other prohibitions are often ignored.  If religion had no other purpose other than to guide and encourage us into getting along with each other, it would probably fulfil the aims of the different founders.  Everything else, St. Aquinas said of human additions to the divine, "are of straw."

As for the meaning of life?

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