Sunday, May 17, 2015

Something About Religion

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

John Lennon, "Imagine"

Jim, my faithful interlocutor on Facebook, rarely fails to comment when I post something about religion.  We almost never agree.  He's an accomplished writer and musician and he hates religion in any shape or form.  For the most part, he's in sympathy with the outspoken "New Atheists" (though he hates that label) -- Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris.  Though our dialogues are often frustrating, I appreciate the challenge of his persistent attempts to push over my dominoes.  I have been engaged for some time now in saving the appearances (using Owen Barfield's phrase) of religion.  For me, this means searching for value in the human questions that receive a variety of answers from the cultural traditions that are called religious.  These questions, rarely scientific, are also my own.

In Marx's well-known analysis,
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Marx believed that politics could erase the conditions that brought suffering, but that has not been the case.  The suffering of humanity, however, is real.  It is the central point of the Buddha's teaching. Religious explanations for this fact vary enormously and solutions to the problem of suffering, the "opium" offered by the numberless sects, range from "love your neighbor" to the "Last Judgment" and Holy War (jihad).

Is it possible for a materialist, who believes that the body and brain are all we have to survive in this world (and not for long), to affirm the importance of the question of suffering without accepting most of the answers that the different religions have proposed?  This is my project.

To begin at the beginning, I call into question the very term "religion."  The latest scholarship in religious studies argues that this word has come into use only in modern times.  Most languages do not distinguish religious from ordinary behavior.  The study of "world religions" arose with the discovery of non-Christian religious practices and was developed and defined by western scholars, many of them linguists in the employ of colonial enterprises.  Today, it's a classic case of reification, where an invented word becomes a thing ("unicorn" is another).  Religion, according to Jonathan Z. Smith, consists simply of the activities of human beings. In other words, it's an aspect of culture. According to anthropologist Clifford Geertz, religion is
(1) a system of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
You might say the same of dancing, or of playing sports.

Here in Thailand where I now live, there seems to be no divide between secular and sacred activities. Thais pay their respects to altar images (many of them Hindu), ancient trees, and go to the temple regularly for a blessing from a monk without calling attention to these activities as something special. Taxis and new shops are inaugurated with ritual ceremony.  People wear amulets featuring images of popular monks and are symbolically tattooed as a form of protection from unhappy ghosts.  Is this superstition or religion? Even Buddhists are unable to decide definitively.  How do you tell the difference?

These days cognitive scientists are turning to religion to understand the popularity and spread of metaphysical ideas.  They have discovered a tool-kit of mental faculties that evolved to make life easier for humans 10,000 years ago. They have verified in experiments that young children are born with perceptions and instincts enabling them to detect unseen agents and predict what they're thinking.  These new theories explain the possibility of religion (I'll use the word for human activities with particular characteristics) without predicting what particular forms it will take. God, of course, is the unseen agent writ large, and we (or the theologians) know what he's thinking.

Vocal atheists and haters of religion are reacting to real circumstances.  Christians in America campaign against abortion and homosexuality, Muslims in Syria and Iraq slaughter those who they deem threatening, Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka persecute Muslims, and Jews in Israel bomb Palestinians back to the Stone Age.  Not so long ago, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland were at each other's throats.  It seems that Holy War is the dominant conflict in the 21st century. Others look behind the religious curtain and see conflicts over land and power, the same political struggles humans have engaged in since the dawn of history.

Religious activities have historically been organized and controlled by authorities, a priestly caste. Replete with all the harmful characteristics of institutional structures, these religions have declared their followers a "chosen people," defined the dogma they must affirm, and punished heretics for blasphemy and other deviations in belief.  Their prophets have demanded obedience and promised rewards or punishment in a life after death, whether in a heaven or a hell.  Scribes who claim to take dictation from a deity have written books to be worshipped that contain stories glorifying suffering, hatred of the body, subjection of women, and practices of purification that include genital mutilation. Missionaries carrying their holy texts have accompanied armies for the forced conversion of subject peoples.  The whole sorry history of what we call religion gives the lie to any notion of human progress.

And yet...  Religious believers have given hospitality to strangers, healed the sick at a great cost to themselves, and forgiven debts from horrible crimes as well as loans.  Soup kitchens, schools and hospitals have been inspired by different religious messages. I was raised in the 1940s on a radio version of "The Greatest Story Every Told," a retelling of the life of Jesus, and the love and kindness in the parables brought me to tears.  I am still moved by the core message of the Gospels without its institutional cloak.  The Buddhists around me in Thailand, raised on a message of compassion in the Buddha's teaching, are incredibly generous to the beggars and fund raisers I see on the streets every day.  Religious art and music can lift the heart to new heights.  For me, the impetus for these activities that bring humans and communities together is at its root a response the the awareness of the suffering of the other.

So this is my dilemma.  At their best, human beings can transcend the barriers that divide them and see themselves in another who might in fact be a member of group they traditionally hate, like the Samaritan in the Gospel story.  Fear of the other is a legacy from the days when people lived in tribes and struggled for scarce resources.  Today we're locked into identities of nation and religion, but occasionally we can break out of these cages and find that we are bodies with brains and this is all we have, so we need to stick together.  Perhaps the "kingdom of God" is right here on earth, right now. Religious myths and rituals that permit and encourage such cross-cultural unity are to be treasured and encouraged.  Those institutions that promote division and intolerance are to be condemned.

Theologian Don Cupitt has proposed a religion of ordinary life in a series of books that just might coexist with a secular or even an atheistic philosophy.  For Cupitt, God is a symbolic vehicle for common cultural values, and religion gives us a shared vocabulary.  There is no heaven or hell in Cupitt's theology.  For him life is limited, transient, contingent and temporal, and also bittersweet (is this the Buddhist dukkha?).  His most radical claim is there is no stable real world and no enduring self.  All experience is mediated by language.  Cupitt's theology is life-centered.  Religion is expressive and we become ourselves only by expressing ourselves.

This sounds a lot to me like John Lennon's vision.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

O Death!

O Death
Won't you spare me over till another year
--Traditional American folk song

It's that time of life.  People are dying all around me, and way too many of them are younger. The other day it was Ben E. King, composer of the magnificent "Stand By Me," and he was only 76, a mark I'll hit in less than three months.

I'm not in any hurry.  As the knight in Ingmar Bergman's "Seventh Seal" tells his visitor, "My body is ready but I'm not" (of course it's an English translation of the Swedish).  This time I'm living now, through a fluke of chronology, is the best of my life.  I live in an exotic foreign land with a lovely woman by my side and, after many detours and side trips, I've found a vocation that satisfies, teaching English to Buddhist monks.

After many years of seeking spiritual answers to the deepest questions, I've come to the conclusion that now is all we have.  It is my answer to poet Mary Oliver's question:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life? 

This comes as no great epiphany, no enlightenment moment after an endless struggle. Words are too often only intellectual icing on a cake, and my cake is very tasty indeed.

It's not easy to see how anyone could believe in death as a stage on the way to something else, something better or worse depending on your ethical guidelines.  The body is all we are, and when it dies along with our brain then all that counts as my "I" disappears.  Science, which rules the roost on material matters, has never detected a scintilla of evidence for a mind, self or soul that exists independent of a body.

But some form of belief in life after death appears to be the default position for many people.  A form of wish fulfilment? A comforting fable?  For the various Christianities that look to the New Testament and church tradition for inspiration, there is a future after the body dies.  Even here in a Buddhist country, the faithful put their hopes in reincarnation after death.  Despite the Buddha's teaching of no-self, anatta in the Pali, a belief in rebirth grounds the tradition's explanation of kamma, what goes round comes round, the idea that good or bad deeds will receive their reward in another existence.  Is it the same me that pays the price for thoughtlessness in this life that is punished in the next?

A number of scholars and researchers in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology now propose that the human brain evolved faculties of thinking that benefited our ancestors in the savannah, including one they call "theory of mind." This "tool" enabled humans to imagine intentions and make predictions about the behavior of unseen agents who might want to harm, and even eat them, a survival skill of the first order.  Once a part of our neural anatomy, this cognitive development could not be turned off.  We see minds everywhere, even in non-living things like cars that won't start or computers that malfunction.  A corollary of this is we fabricate explanations for events and detect purpose in rootless causes to create a fantasy world of our own making. While theory of mind may have been adaptive, the numerous byproducts of it, from the belief that minds transcend death to the worship of gods in religious rituals may not be.

So goes the materialist mantra  Rather than demi-gods, humans are no more than an unholy mix of bodies and brains with no more importance to the natural scheme of things than ants or the dodo bird. What does death matter but to make room for more life?

And yet...  In addition to adaptive behavior like tool-making and cooperation within groups, the human brain has produced a cornucopia of byproducts, from consciousness and language to music, art and poetry.  I love the speculations of philosophers and the rhythmic charm of rock and roll. The edifice of human-made culture in its many forms around the world is as awesome as sunrise over the Grand Canyon ("It's just a big hole," said my unimpressed five-year-old daughter).

For years I considered myself a dualist of the body/mind and pondered the mysteries of the Perennial Philosophy. I found wisdom and beauty in the mystical writings of Thomas Merton and Simone Weil. A member in good standing of the New Age, I shared the Eucharist with parishioners in Catholic churches around the world and I chanted in Hindu temples and meditated while facing the wall with a Zen sangha.  No religious teaching was too outrageous for me to consider as a metaphor pointing toward God or being or the great void.

Is all religion a beneficial byproduct of cognitive evolution?  No.  And there's the rub.  First, how you answer this question requires a definition of "religion," and mine is as big as the sky.  For me (and for numerous scholars), religion is simply human activity, it's what people do, and it all falls under the rubric of culture that includes activities like sports, game, hobbies and so on.  It's not history and it's not cosmology, and those who treat it as "natural philosophy" as it was called before the development of the scientific methods are as doomed as the dodo bird.  But not all "religion" is good.

My standards are my own, influenced by a study of Liberation Theology in Latin American when religious activists in the late 20th century contested repressive governments with the moral armament of Biblical stories.  For me, the goal of religion is the Kingdom of God where humans get along and care for one another, and refuse to bow to worldly power.  The stories from different religious traditions are useful and inspiring, and can help motivate believers to bring religion down to earth. The thorn in the ointment is tribal religion, alive and all too well today, wherein one group of believers demonize another or try to convert them.  This form of religion is usually accompanied by a hatred of the body and it seeks control over the bodies of its own and other tribes.

Which brings us back to death.  Do brains die?  Yes.  Do human beings live on after death?  Yes, in the hearts and memories of those who loved them.  I was there for the death of my good friend Peter who died over 10 years ago from prostate cancer.  I changed his diapers in the evenings of his final week and I kissed his cold cheek less than an hour after life had left his body.  I will never forget him, nor will the memories of my parents and others close to me go away while this brain is still functioning. But even though I believe they no longer exist in some post-death realm,  I don't have a problem encouraging others on the precipice of extinction with stories from their tradition about life after that which might give them hope and consolation.

I'm at that age in my life where I could keel over lifeless at any moment.  I've lived with cancer for a dozen years but it will probably be something else that finally does me in.  Whatever.  I hope in those final moments I can say, as did Ludwig Wittgenstein: "Tell them that I've had a wonderful life."

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Who You Gonna Call?

Ghosts are a lot like gods: imaginary friends (or enemies).

In Thailand, where Buddhism is a mash up with Hinduism and animism, one of the technologies for protecting yourself from evil spirits is to wear an amulet (or two or three or...).

Although invisible agents are rarely mentioned in the literature of non-theistic western Buddhism, the cosmology of the Pali Canon does include devas and other beings who dwell in various non-earthly realms. While the Buddha disallowed a monotheistic creator god, ghosts,are a fact of life for most people in Thailand where they play featured roles in horror films and on the TV soaps. Brahma, the high Hindu god, is the most prominent icon in many shrines outside houses and businesses, and Ganesh, the Remover of All Obstacles, is not far behind. Unseen spirits can be appeased not only with protective amulets but also with elaborate sacred tattoos as well as by means of a ritual and blessing at the local temple.

Proponents of the new inter-disciplinary study of religion, under the umbrellas of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, say belief in gods and other unseen agents is the default position for a mind that evolved over 10,000 years ago to facilitate detection of dangerous predators.  For a Paleolithic hunter, the survival rate was better for guessing that any movement in the forest was a lion out to eat him than to think that it was only wind in the trees and be mistaken.   These new theorists and researchers argue that the human brain evolved a tool kit of mental facilities that permitted individuals and groups to flourish under harsh conditions so different from today's world.  In addition to the agent detection ability, early humans made sense out of their situations by telling causal narratives to explain natural events, and understood that others had minds similar to their own (what's been called an innate theory of mind).  These conjectures have been tested, for example, by observing early childhood development.  The great theoretical leap in the last 20 years was to conclude that religious beliefs are a byproduct of cognitive evolution and that the human mind is thus primed for religion, the Agent writ large.

Humans continue to personify and anthropomorphize indiscriminately.  The god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is similar to a person in that he (always a "he") listens and speaks and can be praised (or blamed) for the causation of inclement weather and success (or failure) in business.  But concepts about god as a person are counterintuitive in that he is also all-knowing and sees everything at the same time.  Theorists like Pascal Boyer argue that for a god concept to originate and spread it most be only minimally counterintuitive. Talking trees are acceptable but not an all-powerful cockroach.  Gods are not always like the monotheistic Big Guy.  The pantheon of gods on Olympus as well as the Roman deities possessed numerous frailties.  And the devas in the Buddhist heaven are far from enlightened.

I tried, Lord knows I tried, to believe in God.  My first exposure to religion that I remember was listening to the parables of Jesus dramatized for the radio on "The Great Story Every Told" when I was in the 2nd grade.  In Vacation Bible School we made pictures of the stories out of pieces of felt. While Jesus seemed like a nice man I had little thought of God.  My mother took my brother and I to various churches when we were small but my father claimed he was able to worship in his own fashion on the golf course each Sunday.  If there were moral lessons in my family, they weren't reinforced with reference to God's punishments and rewards. According to theorists, religion is a byproduct of the evolution of the human brain, and not attributing causes to unseen agents goes against the human grain.  While I didn't see gods, I do recall personifying my car and kicking a huge dent in the fender one day when it refused to start.

Some theorists believe religion is all about gods.  Even prominent atheists like Dawkins and Harris focus their ire mostly on the stupidity of believers in an omnipotent being that grants prayers and protects the worthy from the wiles of Satan.  They have a harder time criticizing the "spiritual but not religious" folks who eschew both religious institutions and dogma while holding onto some form of transcendent meaning that goes beyond the obvious.  They rarely mention the movement of Deists following the French Enlightenment Revolution that included such prominent thinkers as Voltaire in France and Thomas Jefferson in America; Jefferson edited the Gospels to his liking and read the Koran.  Even more slippery are those who define their God simply as nature or love.

Thomas Merton, monk
Years after Vacation Bible School, I found myself living in Connecticut and working in Manhattan. In the intervening years I'd run the gamut of New Age thought, from flying saucers to Theosophy, Subud to Transcendental Meditation, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky to est.  While I earnestly tried to believe in whatever metaphysical reality I was trying on for size, my religious quest was ultimately one big head trip.  Little of it stuck, beyond the feeling that life was not enough, that there must be some mystery to be revealed, some wisdom to obtained, and that I'd unfortunately missed it through my own many faults.  A Catholic friend, with whom I'd taken the atheist position in our arguments about quantum physics and science, suggested I read Thomas Merton.  I began with a biography that told me he'd died in 1968, electrocuted by an ungrounded fan in Bangkok.  Merton's down-to-earth approach to the Christian mystical tradition, and his social justice writings about Vietnam and the civil rights movement, converted me to an openness to spirituality I'd not experienced with all my false starts.  He became my guru through his writings. Later I added Simone Weil and Nicholas Berdyaev to my list of mind-changing thinkers.

What I'm trying to understand here in this blog post (and in more to come) is why I continue to find value in religious language and spiritual aspirations even though I consider myself now to be a firm anti-metaphysical materialist who is convinced that human beings are solely body-brain organisms without souls or a future beyond death.  Nevertheless, the evolution of our brains has given us such marvelous adaptions or byproducts (the jury is still out on this) as language, science, culture, and, yes, religion. Religion has a function if not an essence.  People who trust in the myths of their religion tend to live longer, happier lives and die with less stress and resistance.  Religious groups are more cohesive than groups with less passionate identities and also last longer and are more successful in inter-group conflicts.  All of this can be argued without the least belief in divine revelation or the truths of religious tradition.

Living in a Buddhist country now and teaching English to monks, I go through the motions of observance and practice respectfully without taking it all too seriously.  From what I understand of the Buddha's teachings, particularly on the mind, I consider him certainly on a par with Plato and Socrates.  In Thailand there is far less of a separation between the secular and the sacred; going to the temple, feeding monks, decorating shrines, and making merit is just what everyone does, and it's cultural all the way down.  My wife says her prayers for the well-being of all existents, and I echo that hope.  But I have no sense of the spirits everywhere here as those Thais raised in this belief, not the least in large trees that are wrapped with colored banners. And despite a brain evolved for that perception, I usually seek mechanical explanations for the hints of agency I detect in the natural world.

Don Cupitt
The religion that I support unequivocally wherever it can be found is this-worldly, not looking to an afterlife to justify the present. It promotes tolerance and compassion towards all others, human, animal, as well as natural forms.  This faith (or trust as the word was originally intend) seeks justice for all as a reasonable goal and gives aid to the poor and helpless wherever they are found.  Its stories and myths are guides for understanding rather than claims for literal truth.  My religion revels in music, dance and art as a way to ritualistically celebrate life in all its manifestations.  And that's just for starters.  I'm only climbing on the shoulders of a prophetic professor and priest, Don Cupitt, who has put together what he calls "The Religion of Ordinary Life."  You can see the tenets of this faith at his web site. Cupitt, now in his 80s, accepts the term "secular Christian" and is a good friend of my favorite secular Buddhist, Stephen Batchelor.

When I went through the catechism process to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1984, I recall that one of the teachers told us that Buddhism and Hinduism were "cults."  I kept my mouth shut then and confined his idiocies to the closet where the other beliefs I bracketed were hidden: the virgin birth, Jesus as God, the Trinity, miracles, etc.  For a number of years I felt like a schizophrenic, going through the motions at mass and trying to believe in God and the traditions of the church, while also valuing insights from other religions and assorted heretics.  Gradually I found support for my half-assed faith within the church and without.  The closed nature of religious orgaizations makes complete honesty of the contents of one's mind rather difficult to reveal.  When I finally took everything out of the closet I found many like-minded believers who understood.

I continue to unpack my closet.  If you need some help, call me!


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?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Finding My Religion

Over on Facebook I often find myself verbally butting heads with a co-worker from long ago over the topic of religion.  Even though I self-identify these days as a materialist and consider the twenty years I spent as a Catholic convert to be memories of times past, my position in our debates is always in defense of religion Whenever I link to a story that shows religion in any kind of a favorable light, I trust that my friend will soon comment on the dangers of all metaphysical world views, the superiority of science to religion, and the religious education of the young as a form of child abuse (here I'm doing a gross disservice to his more nuanced arguments).

Religion in all of its many forms has been a major curiosity of mine since I was seven and attended summer vacation Bible school at the Baptist church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  These days I usually write "religion" with scare quotes because I think no one has a comprehensive definition of the phenomenon with which I can agree.  The old "if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck" argument no longer seems valid.  It's not that there aren't any definitions but that there are way too many and most seem inadequate for describing what people do and think that might be called "religious." Those with the most rigid definitions tend to be atheists, those critics Schleiermacher called religion's "cultured despisers." In my experience, they inevitably try to dictate what the faithful must believe and then condemn it. Whenever I see this happening, I go into lawyer mode for the defense.

Now that I'm in the last quarter of my century, I live in Thailand where the religion of 97% of the population is said to be Buddhism. Christianity has never gotten much of a foothold here, and those Muslims living in the south have been trying to break away for decades. While Buddhism isn't officially the state religion, it's included in the government's purview and the current military dictatorship is trying to wrest control for prosecuting misbehaving monks from the ruling Sangha Council.  Buddhist temples here in Bangkok are almost as common as 7-11s.  They're usually crowded with Thais "making merit" (tam bun in Thai) by bringing gifts (often an orange bucket full of trivial items for a 20 baht donation) and receiving a blessing from the monk on duty.  We keep an altar of icons atop our bookshelf (photo above) and refresh the flowers and liquid offerings every Wan Phra (monk day on the four phases of the moon). My wife says her prayers each night before going to sleep, and when I ask what she prays for, she says "that everyone be happy."

My objective in this post and perhaps a few more in the future is to ponder the word "religion" and what the term might point to that both pleases and upsets so many.  I've written much about my own experiences with religious beliefs and practices here during the last nine years.  After all, it's the first topic in the title of my blog!  Now, however, I'd like to think a bit deeper about the disparate reactions to the phenomena that people generally think of as religious.  A number of my friends get absolutely venomous about any form of religion, and slam all of it as backward, stupid and possibly lethal. These days, fundamentalism, Islamic as well as Christian, is the object of their ire, but many atheists, new and old, argue that tolerance towards any religious thinking or activity is ludicrous.  Just as anti-drug campaigns declared that smoking marijuana opened the door to cocaine and heroin, anti-religion activists believe that even liberal or progressive religion is a stepping stone to fundamentalist extremism.

Maybe I'm tolerant toward religion because I never went to Catholic school and got my butt slapped by a nun with a ruler.  My mother joined the most fashionable churches in the many places where we moved as I was growing up while my father claimed he found his god on the golf course.  I learned about the different world religions from a couple of books given to me by a friend in high school.  In college another friend's outwardly respectable mother communicated telepathically with flying saucers and wrote a book called Wisdom of the Universe.  For a time I took part in her study group and fell in love with all the kookiness of New Age Thought that predates by many years the hippies and other more modern New Agers. For years I thought there must me something more to life and pursued a plethora of spiritual disciplines, from chanting, meditation and genuflecting to alcohol and psychedelics.  But I never had that AHA! moment I thought and hoped was possible at the end of the journey.

Despite the disappointment of not achieving what was after all only a creation of my imagination, I have remained compassionate toward others who continue to seek what I did not discover. It's up to each of us to find our own way, so why be angry with anyone who choses a path you would not? Of course it's easier to be tolerant of the seekers than of the true believers who think they've found the truth and urge, nay demand, that you recognize theirs and validate it by joining them.  I suspect the anti-religion activists are more angry about the finders than the seekers.  There is something obnoxious about the missionary who solicits your conversion and won't take "no" for an answer.

Atheism is not really an adequate term for despisers of religion.  It denies the existence of gods and other metaphysical entities but doesn't really get at the whole "spiritual but not religious" movement of seekers today.  What happens when you pull the rug of religion out from under their feet? Buddhism, at least the modern form of it in the west, gets a pass since many of its proponents argue that Buddha didn't propose a god.  There is ample evidence that Buddhism was re-tooled in Thailand, Tibet and Sri Lanka for western consumption, made to seem more scientific and anti-metaphysical than the early scriptures would indicate. There are passages in the Pali scripture where Buddha speaks of devas and the different realms of heaven and hell, embarrassingly close to the monotheistic cosmologies.  Visitors to Thailand are surprised to see so many icons of Hindu deities in shrines, to learn of the popular belief in spirits, both good and bad, and to hear of the many methods of protection against spirits enjoyed by Thais, from tattoos to amulets.

Despisers of religion prefer science based on evidence and reason as the best description and guide for reality.  The scientific method yields truth, or at least the best hypothesis until a better one comes along to explain the origin or the mechanics of how life works.  Any other method comes up with superstition and idolatry.  Religion is ignorance writ large.  To deny the facts of science is stupid, and dangerous.  After explicating the mechanics of evolution, Richard Dawkins has devoted his life to stamping out the disgusting vermin of religion.  Others have joined him: the late iconoclast Christopher Hitchings, philosopher Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris (who says he's a Buddhist) and the comic commentator Bill Maher who lampooned religious belief in his documentary "Religulous."  At times their activities have the air of a crusade.  The social media has allowed atheism to become more vocal and more prominent, although it remains the kiss of death of politicians.

Some pretty scary people can be found at both ends of the spectrum.  In America numerous elected officials are making pronouncements supposedly based on Christian teaching that encourage hatred and discrimination of others.  In the Middle East, fanatics claiming to be Muslims are slaughtering their opponents and anyone who gets in their way with Medieval efficiency.  Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka declare that Islam is a threat to their nationalist religion.  On the other end of the spectrum, official atheism in the Soviet Union under Stalin and Mao in China was responsible for hardship and death.  The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Viet Cong in Vietnam destroyed churches and monasteries and tried unsuccessful to stamp out religion.  Eliminating religion is about as successful as forced conversions.  After the breakup of the USSR, orthodox Christianity came back with a vengeance and now is a conservative force in Russia.

Religion is the elephant and we are the blind describing it from different perspectives with only the other senses to go by.  My current point of view is to avoid the word "religion" as much as possible. It has become reified beyond all meaning.  Atheists frequently mean by it the religious institutions, authorities and sacred texts.  It's easy to ridicule the monotheisms by pulling texts out of context from the Bible or Quran.  Religion they believe refers to dogma, to the propositions that followers must affirm according to their leaders.  If you argue that Catholics get abortions and use birth control just like everyone else, they'll argue these are not really Catholics and remove them from the equation.

In place of "religion," there are many alternate ways to describe those participating in religious activities.  Here in Thailand, Buddhism (mixed with Hinduism and animism) is an intricate part of the culture; there is no division between the sacred and the secular which occurred after the French revolution and Enlightenment era in Europe.  One's religion becomes an essential part of one's identity, not unlike the team football fans root for.  The language used by co-religionists solidifies their community and allows members to be recognized.  While fundamentalists treat religious stories as literal truth, many traditions base their meanings on universal myths and pedagogical metaphors. Anthropomorphism, rather than being error, can also be a useful technique for negotiating the dangers of reality. Struggles between religions are quite often a conflict over something else, like land and resources, and religious identity can be used to compel participation.  To see religion as only institutions, authorities and texts is to miss the way that humans have used their imagination to make sense of their reality, and to find truth and beauty in the process.

I was thinking of R.E.M.'s song, "Losing My Religion," when I titled this post, and thinking of it ironically.  But of course I haven't "found" (or "lost") anything.  I was "in the corner" and now I'm out of it.  "Religion" is only a site of contestation, a term of dispute with no pure content.  And yet people fight and die for their religious concepts.  Academics declared for a few centuries that religion was increasingly unimportant and irrelevant.  Advanced civilization and modernity had no need of such illusory thinking.  But of course they were mistaken.  Current events show this.  And yet, no one can agree on what religion is.  How strange!

If these ideas seem scattered, it's because I have been thinking about them for a lifetime and their slipperiness and changeability make it difficult to put them into an organzied form.  If anyone finds these questions and proposals intriguing, and they speak to your condition, please let me know.  If not, no matter.  It's time for me to chew over these matters, organized or not, to find out how and what I think.  I will conclude with a couple of videos on the question of religion which I found interesting. Karen Armstrong is particularly astute at arguing persuasively that the meaning of "religion" today has changed considerably.