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February 23, 2008

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Brian,

I have only one problem with you. You are lumping things. Just as not all human beings are the same, not all religions are the same. You can't compare Einstein to a retard. There are highly evolved religions and outright idiotic ones. Then there are average religions. There are cults, sects et al. Don't see things in black and white. Check out the shades.

What "ultimate reality"? What "absolute truth"?

What reality is there?

You say "It isn't like anything humans have been able to cognize"?

But why would it be so elusive, as if somehow hiding?

I tend to think "it" has been right here, right up under our noses all along. Right here in plain sight.

It's already right here, so it doesn't need to "make an appearance".

In fact, it's so totally glaringly quietly obvious, that it goes relatively unnoticed by the multitudes for millenia.

It's just that the "real thing", isn't a "thing" at all.

And there wasn't ever any "nothing" to begin with either.

...That is until that sly old chameleon "nothing" came dancing out of the Mad Hatter's leopard-skin pill-box hat while he was sipping a cup of Instant-Presence tea.

So excuse me as I kiss the mecurial sky while hang-gliding from the 90th floor of the Tower of Babel.


Deepak, how do we know which are the evolved religions? What distinguishes the better from the worse?

My answer: reality. And that's the point of this post. Some religions do indeed conform more closely to the reality known to science. But then why be content with a conformity? Why not embrace science rather than religion?

When religious belief can't be proven, it's blind faith. That's what comes tumbling down when reality blows through. I don't see any shades in blind faith. It's all pure darkness, blind.

I appreciate your fondness for certain forms of spirituality, such as Hinduism. I have my own favorites -- Taoism, particularly. But if I was asked to defend my preference, I'd have to point to objective, observable things.

For example, how polarity (such as positive and negative charges) are fundamental to the universe. How change is everpresent. How Tai Chi works to improve physical balance and flow.

I'd be hard pressed to say that the religious aspects of Taoism are any more true than any other faith. Lots in Taoism strikes me as highly unlikely and unprovable. The same is true of every religion.

So I come back to the standard by which religions can be divided into better and worse. Again, reality is the only standard I can think of. And that gets out of the arena of religion and into the domain of science.

Brian,
I in the past year would have wholeheartedly agreed with you, but recently I began changing my mind.

Now I think the most important aspect of religion is the vibe one puts out and relates to it with. While in general I am against Christianity, especially as it is linked to power, when reviewing the history of more oppressed peoples and their relationship to christianity, my opinion becomes less clear. Look at Martin Luther King, and how African-Americans during his time related to christianity, as opposed to how rich white evangelicals do today. The first, generally, seems to be hope based, the second, fear based.

I wonder if MLK, who was a reverend, could have done what he did socially without his perceived connection to a force greater than himself, and also greater than his oppressors.

Is this force real?

Who knows...but in this case do you really care?

To me the question is, what energy or stance does the belief serve. After all, we are stuck interpreting reality with concepts most of the time, and if beliefs can support love and community and growth, than who cares what conceptual packaging they come in?

Brian,

Your post about Meera Nanda and this particular one forced me to write two articles on my blogspot for my forthcoming book on Hindu nationalism. I am thankful to you for provoking my thoughts.

This is the link. http://saffronthinktank.blogspot.com/2008/02/spirituality-is-indias-only-politics.html

My contention is that Religion, spirituality, politics and science are different and they should be viewed differently, even though there are some vague meeting points.

I rather love your blog Deepak. It is rational, accurate, and quite articulate. I am impressed. In fact, you may have inspired me to finally get around to putting up my own blog, instead of wasting my valuable time and energy quibbling with the witless and fatuous defenders of dreary dogma who wander, now and then, into this forum beating their drums of the hapless chimera of misbegotten pseudo-mysticism.


Tao, thanks for the compliment.

I only needed space to dump my articles for the new book that I am writing. It has now taken the shape of a socio-politico-religious blog. Only the introduction is done with, the real work on Hindu nationalists is yet to begin. Anyway, watch the space.

Kopmoser says:

*I wonder if MLK, who was a reverend, could have done what he did socially without his perceived connection to a force greater than himself, and also greater than his oppressors.*

MLK's courage came from the Declaration of Independance which contains the extraordinary statement that "all men are created equal". This statement has it's roots in atheist political philosophy, not from a religion. I doubt very much that MLK needed his religion to know that the oppression he and his people sufferd from was wrong: he just needed to be a human being to know it. Similarly, he didn't need his religion to overcome it: he needed the political clout to make sure that the declaration meant what it said, and he got that clout by gathering his people together.

*Is this force real?
Who knows...but in this case do you really care?*

Yes, because religious fanatics are trying to blow up my planet for the sake of unprovable beliefs.

*if beliefs can support love and community and growth, than who cares what conceptual packaging they come in?*

But this is only part of the the social aspect of religion and it all sounds like fluffy kittens. But what about when "caring" for someone leads men in their thousands to impose burquas or purdah on "their" women? What about when "caring" for someone's life leads to blowing up doctors and nurses because they work in an abortion clinic? What about setting a pyre alight to cure someone of their heresy?

Also, if one needs a religion in order to care in the fluffy kitten way about their family, friends and humanity in general, then ther morality is on very shaky ground because relgious belief is always subject to doubt. Does one lose one's capacity to be humane just because one loses faith?

Religions, all of them, are fundamentally about the filth of the human condition and the steps one needs to take in order to become pure and acceptable: which is in itself the prelude to transcending the human condition. This is what truly exists at the heart of them all, a kind of self-loathing that assumes life is a disease that can be cured. But not cured here and now, but at the ressurection, or in one's next life.

Helen,
you write:

But what about when "caring" for someone leads men in their thousands to impose burquas or purdah on "their" women? What about when "caring" for someone's life leads to blowing up doctors and nurses because they work in an abortion clinic? What about setting a pyre alight to cure someone of their heresy?

I don't mean "caring" in quotations, I mean a definition of "caring" that is self-evident to me, not a falsely justified notion of opression.

Look, I am in complete agreement with you about religious fanaticism, and in general I do think religion does more harm than good. But I don't want to completely throw the baby out with the bath water. I have two friends, one Muslim, one Mormon, whose beliefs I find incredible, but who happen to be two of the best human beings I have encountered.

About MLK, I am not sure I agree with you. you write:
I doubt very much that MLK needed his religion to know that the oppression he and his people suffered from was wrong

Yes, he would have known that oppression was wrong with or without religion. But that wasn't my point. I asserted that he wouldn't have been able to accomplish what he did socially, in a practical way, without the institutional and organizational hub his church provided.

I have a lot of sympathy for Dawkins and co., but I would be careful not to be too dogmatic either from this point of view. After all, "reality" is as flimsy a concept as "god" (I know some of you are recoiling at this statement) and could lead also to dogmatism.

*I asserted that he wouldn't have been able to accomplish what he did socially, in a practical way, without the institutional and organizational hub his church provided.*

I know you did and I disagreed with you, primarily because he also appealed to black people from other religous groups, mainly muslim, and christian denominations other than his own. And that is because his appeal was based on commonality of race, not on commonality of religion or religious networks.

* have a lot of sympathy for Dawkins and co., but I would be careful not to be too dogmatic either from this point of view. After all, "reality" is as flimsy a concept as "god" (I know some of you are recoiling at this statement) and could lead also to dogmatism.*

Can you provide an example of this for me.


*I have two friends, one Muslim, one Mormon, whose beliefs I find incredible, but who happen to be two of the best human beings I have encountered.*

One more question komposer: are your friends the best because of their religious beliefs or in spite of them?

Hi Helen,
you ask
"Can you provide an example of this for me."
referring to an example of a concept of reality leading towards dogmatism.
The dogmatism I refer to results when people think "reality" can be substituted with the observable. The observable is just that, the observable, even it one is observing with a state of the art microscope. This leads to a reification and privileging of certain concepts. Musical analysis beautifully brings this to the surface, because what is observable in a score (like certain relationships between notes and chords) may not at all be salient when we are only listening. How do we decide what's real in this case? The fact that the observed relationships exist is hard to dispute, but the unspoken implication, that these relationships tell us something important about the piece, is very questionable.

It's not that I am against "reality". I am for it! But, I also want to be conscious of the interests that may be behind promoting it as if it comes from the voice of, well, god, or at least the voiceless third person of the academy. It is a matter of where we focus. If we say we believe in reality and are scientifically inclined, we may be most likely to observe, and therefore value "hardy and durable" phenomena. So "reality," as a concept (which it is unless one can somehow transcend concepts, at which point I would imagine neither "reality" nor "god" to have much value) only points to a way of seeing the world, not necessarily a more truthful way.

To answer your question about my two friends, the honest answer is that I don't know for sure. My opinion is that it is a mixed bag. My mormon friend, in practice, is extremely mindful, often noticing when he can assist others in ways I don't even see (as in giving up his seat for on older person on a bus, etc.). I feel this is a good (empathetic) thing. I would imagine this type of selfless action is the result of an inner process of imagining for himself, what would Jesus do. At the same time, I think his belief that families go to heaven together is rediculous and irrational.

It seems komposer that you are advocating an agnostic view. I understand what you mean about how no one can truly know about reality, god, all that stuff. But these are all concepts, worldviews, and as such agnosticism does apply.

But we are capable of gathering empirical evidence, we as a species have developed the scientific method of gathering empirical evidence. As such, certain things become quantifiable, evidence-based, provable.

"Reality" may not be provable. So we can then turn to our nearest criteria of judgement, which is probabilty.

It is probable that we evolved rather than were created: the evidence is in our genetic similarity to other non-human life forms. The scientific category of species is based on sexual selection: if two species do not mate, they are seperate species.

So how can we share genes if species do not mate? If you look at grey herring gulls and black-back herring gulls, they do not interbreed with each other: but their habitat surrounds the north pole, and grey herring gulls interbreed with their nearest neighbours who display evidence of interbreeding, whose offsprong interbreed with their nearest neighbours, and so on until they get to black-back gulls. So imagine the gene pool as a circle with a tiny gap at the bottom: on one side of the gap is a seperate species of gull and at the other is the other distinct species of gull and they do not interbreed with each other. But nonetheless, they share genetic information.

The above is provable data: distinct species share genetic information. I find evolution a more probable theory than creationism. And because I find that there is a probable, natural, evidence-based explanation for my existence here on earth, I will tend to believe that we evolved and were not created by a god.

I forgot to add: it is the scientific method that allows for agnosticism to exist in the first place. The proof of life has been tackled by religion, philosphy and now by science. Of all these methods, science is the one most likely to answer the questions of life, which is precisely why religions fear it so much. Science carries no dogma, inculcates no worship: we are left to our own conciences, are the judges of our own behaviour, are entirely resposible for what we do. Religion finds it scary to have total freedom, because total freedom is total responsibilty.

It's so much easier to blame it all on god.

Helen,

Agnosticism and atheism has existed in Hinduism long before the dawn of modern science.

Helen, even scientists and science is not free of the dogmatic crap. Read the Evolution Theory and Big Bang theory. Both are equal to religious dogma clothed in scientific garments.

Real religion (Hinduism) makes way for total freedom. It is only the pseudo religion that dominates and curtails freedom. You know what I mean.

*Agnosticism and atheism has existed in Hinduism long before the dawn of modern science.*

It certinly did Deepak. If they used the scientific method, ie, the method of reasoning, then that is why they were atheists or agnostics.

*Helen, even scientists and science is not free of the dogmatic crap.*

Scientific process allows for change of opinion due to verifiable data: ergo, the big bang theory and evolution theory would change if the evidence is produced to change it. Religion however does not change to suit verifiable data because it requires belief, not fact: in this sense, religion is dogma whereas science is free thought.

*It is only the pseudo religion that dominates and curtails freedom. You know what I mean.*

No I don't know what you mean. Perhaps you would be kind enough to explain?

Helen,
A couple of thoughts.
First, you are right that I lean towards agnosticism, but perhaps contradictorily, I am sort of an optimistic agnostic. This means that I assume that the underlying logic of everything, the way things are, is fine, perfect, no problem, but that my limited perspective brings in, at times, frustration, fear, and anxiety.

About probability, I get your point, and am in agreement. This is the problem with the story surrounding Jesus' birth. It is just so damn improbable that Mary was a virgin...sounds more like a story made up to create sexual oppression/repression.

In my mind, though, here's the problem with the Dawkin's vs. religion debate. Dawkin's is frustrated because the evidence is on his side, and trying to banish ignorance with evidence is a tedious and frustrating task. The thing is, though, is that the religious impulse is not evidence-based, so, why should evidence matter at all? While a scientific-minded outlook is focused on the observable, a religious-minded person believes that the observable is only a fraction of the truth of reality (which science agrees with) and is focused on the invisible, believeing the invisible to be a great force playing some role in our lives (which is hard to argue with, whether the force is gravity or god). If the differences were to stop here, there would be very little conflict, I believe. But religions then erect all these stupid stories to explain the invisible, while science commits itself to waiting for all the data to come in before making up its mind. Both can become dogmatic and stupid. The fact for me, is that if you only relate to what's visible and known, you limit the possibility of experience for yourself. On the other hand, if you start making up stories about the invisible, then whatever emotional/experiences you have are self-induced and not very meaningful.

My main point is that Dawkins won't get across to religious folk (or very many of them) because the needs of each are so different. A religious person basically is looking for a feeling of connection, love, while a scientist wants to know "Truth," because anything else is untrustworthy.

This is of course why meditation is a satisfying alternative for people like me, who have both needs. Simply trying to look into one's own consciousness and seeing what's there seems to be relatively dogma free, scientific, and a way to connect to something larger than oneself, since consciousness seems to be abundant.

Tear it all down? Wire up the charges and implode the Grand Temple of Speculation (i.e., the home of ‘religion-as-social-tradition’), just like the old Sands in Las Vegas?

Problem is, there are still a lot of people in there. For all the dysfunction, the tower of religion still serves a lot of human needs; not so much due to its own inherent goodness, but more because so many people need some form of spirituality, some “possibility of transcendence”, some affirmation “there’s gotta be something more to it all”.

Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens can scream and write books about how irrational that need is until their faces and fingers turn blue. This need has been around since the start of the human race, and it shows few signs of abating, despite the Enlightenment and despite the great experiment in secular paradise that Marx and Lenins’ disciples offered across a wide swath of Europe and Asia throughout the 20th Century. (Arguably, the sons and daughters of southern and eastern Asia have for many centuries been quite content without Middle Eastern-cum-Western notions of a caring-yet-transcendent God; but most of them don’t go as far as the Buddha urged, they hold on to their celestial ancestors and reincarnation metaphysics and hungry ghosts and Bodhistivas, etc.)

Personally, I’ve been living outside of that tower for about a decade now, and I enjoy the fresh air. But I still feel the longings. They haven’t gone away despite doses of Freud, Hume, Jung, Einstein, Bohr, Russell, Camus, etc. Nonetheless, I know better than to give back the fire of rational skepticism for the false warmth of salvational assurances.

So what would I do with the tower, if I had my druthers? I would build communities of low-rise but highly-networked townhouses around that tower, where people could admit their transcendental longings while holding on to their critical faculties. Once the tower were successfully evacuated, it would be turned into a museum and college, a place where all of the old ideas could be studied and compared side-by-side. Where bits of gold could be sifted from the dross. Where notions of charity and loving kindness would eventually emerge for all to see as the universal mandate, the great commonality, the bottom line, the truest reason and manifestation of all those transcendent urges.

Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

Hello komposer, how you doing?

*The thing is, though, is that the religious impulse is not evidence-based, so, why should evidence matter at all?*

Because people try to run the world according to their religious impulses rather than rational or reasonable criteria. If I am to take social laws seriously then I need a greater reason than *god told me such-and-such is wrong behaviour and the people who indulge in it need killing*.

*The fact for me, is that if you only relate to what's visible and known, you limit the possibility of experience for yourself*

Have you stopped to consider how you are standing on a giantic, cooling, block of molten rock, whizzing at a phenomenal speed around a globe of fire in the depths of infinate space lately? Ever noticed the changing of the seasons, counted the increase of daylight hours and watched plants rsponding to the change? Watched a catepillar weave a chrysalis and seen the butterfly emerge? All these things need our senses and our minds to experience these things: but the same is true for those who claim the presence of god. The aesthetic ppeal of the natural world is far more moving than supernatural invisible deities, because it's really there.

*A religious person basically is looking for a feeling of connection, love,*

So do atheists, even Dawkins is married, and so am I. I even love my cats. But then atheists tend to turn to living people than constructions of invisible deities.

The point you make about meditation is, however, different to a belief in god. I read a book by the dalai lama on buddhist practice, about meditating on all things being composed of causes, parts and thoughts and is therefore empty of inherent being. After meditating, I started sweeping my lounge floor contemplating how my t.v. is made up of causes, parts and thoughts, empty of inherent being and therefore temporary phenomena. To my amazement, my imagination took over: in my mind's eye, I saw all the molecules of my t.v. assembling and disassembling themselves around a ghostly t.v.form. Which revealed precisely what I hadn't yet grasped about the teaching: there are no molecules that can assemble into a t.v. and disassemble after the t.v. ceases to exist because there is no ghostly form of my t.v. because it has no inherent being. "Existence" was the thought: I thought the t.v. existed as a unit. But the form of the t.v. is empty: empty of form is my t.v. It was quite an epiphany I can tell you.

Hi Helen,
When I wrote:

*The thing is, though, is that the religious impulse is not evidence-based, so, why should evidence matter at all?*

I wasn't clear enough. What I meant to say was rather, why should evidence matter to religious people? I am only trying to stress why I think the conversation between the Dawkins folks and other more religious people is not creating that much friction (as far as I see it). I think Dawkins is giving voice to a great number of "compassionate atheists" and giving them an outlet for their (very justified) righteous anger.... I am in agreement with your point about people making policy based on scripture being about the most infuriating thing that happens, period.

Jim G's post above articulates my point well about why the conversation is like two ships passing in the night...

Now about god. For me, I am not really an agnostic. I am sort of nothing. I don't really care about the word god. I think that the typical, stereotyped images of god are rubbish, but in terms of my own relationship to existence, i don't care about terminology very much at all.

What is important to me, is the fact that something very real (seems to) exists, and we are part of it. Like acknowledging we are on a planet hurtling through outer space right now. Your appeal to aesthetics is of course important to me (since I am a composer), and I in fact think that aesthetic appreciation is a spiritual practice of a sort of lower order. This is because when we really look (listen touch, etc) closely at something, our concentration increases and we are more focused in the now, just experiencing without analysis. This brings us a real relationship with our surroundings that can be very moving. Meditation (at least some techniques) could almost be considered the same thing...aesthetic appreciation of our own energy self, which connects us to all the energy around us. This connection is of course always there--we literally share and exchange molecules with our environment--but taking our awareness to this experience can change our lenses.

The way I see it, scientific hopefully can deepen this relationship. One of the most moving thoughts for me is contemplating on how everything around us, all the seemingly solid objects, people, identities, even our television!, are all transitory. Even our self! Since everything is transitory, could we say there IS even anything? I think the answer is yes, and that answer is what feels more like spirituality or religion than saying there is or is not a god. There really IS something that we are a part of. Holy SHIT!

Swami Vivekanadna sid: To devote your life to the good of all and to the happiness of all is religion. Whatever you do for your own sake is not religion.

This is religion, my dear. Not your Abrahmic religions.

Hinduism rejects anything which is inconsistent with growth. For instance, it has rejected untouchability and Manusmrithies. Howeer, a Muslim or Christian can never dare to reject Bible or Koran. That is why I say don't lump religions. Abrahmic faiths are killers. Hindu faith is noble. In Hinduism therre is absolute democracy. That is why Hindu civilization is the oldest surving civilization in the world.

Jim G, nicely said. I like the image of low-rise townhouses circling the Grand Temple of Speculation.

Yes, people have a need for transcendence and ultimate answers. As you noted, this need should be fulfilled without throwing out science and rationality -- because these bind us together and put a brake on dangerous religious fundamentalism.

Raising children and religon, how I managed /mismanaged. Oldest daughter attended a religious school, therefore I had to reteach her science. When asked what religion we were I said that "religion was personal,". She wanted to become part of a religion. I thought that was great, we reviewed all major world religions, their value systems, gods, and the size and scope.She was surprised that christianity was not the largest and was one of the most violent. We spoke of the bible as literature, and a positive guide to lead life. After several evenings, she chose buddism. I found her choice suit her ideals and mindset. She is still a Buddist.

Second child, told me she was going for brownies at the neighbors. Came back a fundamentalist. Being who I considered my brightest child, I was surprised, but she also had a fierce sweettooth. This "church school brownie fest" continued. When she asked me about her new found, born again beliefs, I told her she was just recently born, I was there. She was much too serious for joking. I explained that I did not agree with our neighbors belief system, but would not stop her from attending and learning herself, reminding her not to let her brains fall out. She became concerned about the future home of my soul. That she would leave the sinners, such as myself, during the rapture. This worried her, I said I would be fine with the sinners because they were my Friends and Family. I would miss her, but reminded her that there were many other ways to think. That when she was ready I would be happy to explore these with her. She nagged me about cussing, drinking all my favorite sinning pasttimes This got her into trouble. I did not take kindly to being judged by a nine year old, and still having status, plus being bigger than her. She was duley imformed that continued comments would result in a swift slap in the pants. Sinner I was, why consider eternal consequenses when administering a buttwhipping to a mini zealot.

Well my little christian soilder got caught sinning. My opportunity to relate was perfect. We discussed consequences, in the way of Mom,the baptist ministry and her now ,gonna hang with me soul, position during rapture. This gave her time to list 1. What kind of person she was and wanted to be? (leader, smart) 2.Why would a religon condemn babies and others to a scary place for them to be physically hurt forever. She figured out that the idea of scaring people to be good did not work,(hadn't with her)and I taught her how to make brownies at home. She is still actively listening to people of different backgrounds but not being critical or sold, but working it out for herself. She is really amazing. I can't wait for her world to emerge. In the meantime, no bugs are killed, just in case.

Holly, terrific story. You handled both of your children excellently. Giving them semi-free rein was smart. Along with telling your dogmatic daughter that she shouldn't preach to her mother. It'll be interesting to see how they end up, philosophically. Just fine, I bet.

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