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?