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."