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!


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