What seems to be the final newsletter that I'll be getting from my old "church," Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), came in the mail yesterday.
RSSB no longer is going to mail the newsletters. You'll have to go to meetings (satsangs) to get the information – some of which is about upcoming meetings, so go figure.
I'll miss getting this publication, which comes from the Western Regional Office headed up by Vince Savarese. I read it mostly to gauge my reaction to reading it.
Like lots of other people who have become more churchless over the years, I used to find the RSSB literature inspiring. It made my psyche soar. Now, it doesn't. The sermons haven't changed. My attitude toward them has.
I'm not claiming that now I know the truth about God, the cosmos, life, and the hereafter. I just look upon those who do make just a claim with considerably more open-minded skepticism.
In Christopher Hitchens' new book, "The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever," he says in the introduction:
I have met some highly intelligent believers, but history has no record of any human being who was remotely qualified to say that he knew or understood the mind of god. Yet this is precisely the qualification which the godly must claim – so modestly and so humbly – to possess.
It is time to withdraw our "respect" from such fantastic claims, all of them aimed at the exertion of power over other humans in the real and material world.
In the Fall 2007 RSSB newsletter, Vince quotes from a book by Sawan Singh, "Philosophy of the Masters, Vol. III." Sawan Singh supposedly knew the "mind of God." Even more, he is considered by RSSB devotees to be God, as are all satgurus (true gurus).
Gurus describe the real austerities through which the cycle of birth and death is ended and the soul reaches the door of the Master. The greatest of the austerities is the Master's service, through which the Lord dwells in the heart.
…He who withdraws his mind and senses from the pleasures of the senses and puts them in the service of the Master is a real ascetic.
Even when I was a RSSB true believer, all this talk about reaching the door (or feet) of the Master struck me as strange. What about God? Isn't the supreme being our goal, not a human being? It's similar to how Jesus dominates Christianity, while God fades into the background.
Further, given my scientific approach toward spirituality I'd get frustrated with the circular reasoning found in the RSSB literature. In the newsletter Vince quotes from another RSSB book, "Call of the Great Master."
Someone has asked the guru, Sawan Singh, how one can recognize a perfect Master and know that the Path he teaches is the true one. Here's the guru's answer:
There are one hundred and one kinds of Gurus in the world, and a seeker certainly finds it difficult to choose the right one from amongst them. Saints have mentioned in their writings signs and marks by which one can recognize a perfect Master and the true "Word" with which He baptizes.
Hmmmm. So you're supposed to read the writings of a perfect Master to learn what the signs are of a perfect Master. Not surprisingly, the perfect Master who wrote those writings describes someone exactly like himself.
In the same fashion, whenever I read a brochure from, say, Toyota, I learn that the best cars in the world are made by – no big surprise – Toyota. Now, this may indeed be the case. But there has to be an independent source of truth for claims like that, whether they be for the best guru or the best car.
It's like when Christians say, "The Bible is the word of God because it says in the Bible, This is the word of God." That's how con artists operate, asking people to believe them because they're so believable.
Another newsletter-inspired thought: I've done a lot of "seva" (volunteering) for RSSB. An awful lot. Years and years of it. So I understand the attraction of performing selfless service for the guru and a spiritual community in general. It feels good to give of yourself.
But Hitchens makes an excellent point:
Nine times out of ten, in debate with a cleric, one will be told not of some dogma of religious certitude but of some instance of charitable or humanitarian work undertaken by a religious person…My own response has been to issue a challenge: name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.
As yet, I have had no takers. (Whereas, oddly enough, if you ask an audience to name a wicked statement or action directly attributable to religious faith, nobody has any difficulty in finding an example.)
The RSSB teachings put a big emphasis on serving the Master. The newsletter contains a call for volunteers to construct bathrooms at the RSSB center in Petaluma. Design/Construction seva (service) also is available at other centers around the world.
There's nothing wrong, and a lot right, with volunteering. But there are plenty of "seva" opportunities close to home for anybody, religious or not. Charitable organizations always are looking for warm bodies willing to lend a hand.
What bothers me now, and even concerned me in the days when I did a lot of volunteer work for RSSB, is that members of religious groups often come to feel that volunteering done under the auspices of their group somehow is more worthy than other sorts of service.
It isn't very selfless to consider that the service you're providing is going to result in your getting spiritual goodies, up to and including salvation. Yet this is how the RSSB faithful look upon seva for the guru.
If we stay with animal analogies for a moment, owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are god.
(Cats may sometimes share the cold entrails of a kill with you, but this is just what a god might do if he was in a good mood.) Religion, then, partakes of equal elements of the canine and the feline. It exacts maximum servility and abjection, requiring you to regard yourself as conceived and born in sin and owing a duty to a stern creator.
But in return, it places you at the center of the universe and assures you that you are the personal object of a heavenly plan. Indeed, if you make the right propitiations you may even find that death has no sting, and that an exception to the rules of physical annihilation may be made in your own case.
It cannot be said enough that this preachment is immoral as well as irrational.