Why is it not OK to kill people in the name of a religion, but it is OK to kill people in the name of a nation?
via Ian Welsh.
Why is it not OK to kill people in the name of a religion, but it is OK to kill people in the name of a nation?
via Ian Welsh.
The late Carl Sagan used to say that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
What makes something an “extraordinary claim”? For Sagan, a humanist and freethinker, the reality of the supernatural, of supernatural religion or of anything outside the scientific consensus was an extraordinary claim.
I think this is perfectly reasonable. I, too, have made up my mind about certain things, and it would take extraordinary evidence to shake my conviction.
But for a great many people, it is atheism that makes the extraordinary claim and must assume the burden of proof. They include:
Socrates had it wrong; it is not the unexamined life but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living. Descartes too was mistaken, “Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am?” Nonsense, Amo, ergo sum sum – I love therefore I am. Or, with the unconscious eloquence St Paul wrote. “Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” I believe that. I believe that it is better not to live than not to love.
The following passages are from DEBT: the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber.
We owe our existence above all:
- To the universe, cosmic forces, as we would put it now, to Nature. The ground of our existence. To be repaid through ritual: ritual becoming an act of respect and recognition to all that beside we are small.
- To those who have created the knowledge and cultural accomplishments that we value most; that give our existence its form, its meaning, but also its shape. Here we would include not only the philosophers and scientists who created our intellectual tradition but everyone from William Shakespeare to that long-since-forgotten woman, somewhere in the Middle East, who created leavened bread. We repay them by becoming learned ourselves and contributing to human knowledge and human culture.
- To our parents, and their parents—our ancestors. We repay them by becoming ancestors.
- To humanity as a whole. We repay them by generosity to strangers, by maintaining that basic communistic ground of sociality that makes human relations, and hence human life, possible.
… … These are nothing like commercial debts. After all, one might repay one’s parents by having children, but one is not generally thought to have repaid one’s creditors if one lends the cash to someone else.
Myself, I wonder: Couldn’t that really be the point? Perhaps what the authors of the Brahamanas were really demonstrating was that, in the final analysis, our relation with the cosmos is ultimately nothing like a commercial transaction, nor could it be. That is because commercial transactions imply both equality and separation. These examples are all about overcoming separation: you are free from your debt to your ancestors when you become an ancestor; you are free from your debt to the sages when you become a sage; you are free from your debt to humanity when you act with humanity.
All the more so if one is speaking of the universe. If you cannot bargain with the gods because the gods already have everything, then you certainly cannot bargain with the universe because the universe already is everything—and that everything necessarily includes yourself.
One could interpret this list as a subtle way of saying that the only way of “freeing oneself” from the debt was not literally repaying debts, but rather showing that these debts do not exist because one is not in fact separate to begin with, and hence the very notion of canceling the debt, and achieving a separate, autonomous existence, was ridiculous from the start.
Solitary pleasures will always exist, but for most human beings, the most pleasurable activities always involve sharing something: music, food, liquor, drugs, gossip, drama, beds. There is a certain communism of the senses at the root of most things we consider fun.
… the Church had been … uncompromising in its attitude toward usury. It was not just a philosophical question; it was a matter of moral rivalry.
Money always has the potential to become a moral imperative unto itself. Allow it to expand, and it can quickly become a morality so imperative that all others seem frivolous in comparison. For the debtor, the world is reduced to a collection of potential dangers, potential tools, and potential merchandise. Even human relations become a matter of cost-benefit calculation.
Reason has its martyrs, just as faith does.
Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, a brave rationalist who devoted his life to exposing fake faith healers and miracle workers in India, was murdered Tuesday.
His organization, the Maharashtra Blind Faith Eradication Association, offered a prize of 500,000 rupees to any diviner who could prove he or she could summon spirits.
At the time of his death, he was pushing for a law in Maharashtra state outlawing the practice of black magic. My own belief is that rationalists should restrict themselves to the rational method, and not try to enforce their beliefs through government power. There is a subtle but important difference between outlawing fraud and outlawing beliefs and practices which can be a mask for fraud.
Dabholkar didn’t see it that way. He said his proposed law never mentioned God or religion, and did not touch the doctrines of Hinduism or any other religion. Whatever the merits of that argument, it can be said that he never went outside the law or threatened his opponents with death.
And it also is true that religious believers in India have used the law to suppress rationalist criticism. Sanal Edamaruku, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association, fled India to escape arrest for blasphemy because he investigated a weeping statue of Jesus in a Catholic church in Mumbai and concluded it was the result of a plumbing problem.
Dabholkar’s proposed anti-magic law, which was opposed by conservative Hindus, was in fact enacted a few days after his death, but needs approval of Parliament before it can become law.
Some psychologists at the University of Rochester did a review of surveys of religion and intelligence, mainly involving North American individuals, and concluded that religious people are less intelligent on average than non-religious people. As these maps show, there is some evidence that the same variation exists among the world’s nations.
To assess the significance of these maps, you have to have an idea of just what it is that is measured on IQ tests (besides the ability to take IQ tests).
The great sociologist Peter Berger wrote that IQ is a measure of “modern consciousness,” which consists of the intellectual skills needed to function in a modern technological society. That would explain why immigrants (including Jewish immigrants) to the 19th century United States on average had lower IQs than the natives, but the U.S.-born children of the immigrants were equal to or better than the natives. It would explain why, during World War Two, Southern rural white men on average did worse on Army intelligence tests than Northern urban black men. It would explain the Flynn Effect of rising IQ in each generation.
If Berger was right, it is non-modern forms of religion, not religion as such, that are correlated with lower IQ. If he was right, IQ is not a measure of innate ability, but rather a measure of generational progress toward modernity.
A recent study by a team of psychologists at the University of Rochester concludes that atheists are more intelligent than religious people.
This is based on a review of 63 studies conducted between 1928 and 2012. In 53 of the studies, religious people were found to be less intelligent than atheists and, in 35 of the studies, significantly less intelligent. In 10 of the studies, religious people were found to be more intelligent, and, in only two, significantly more intelligent.
The three psychologists carrying out the review defined intelligence as the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience”.
Religiosity is defined by the psychologists as involvement in some (or all) facets of religion.
According to the review, other factors – such as gender or education – did not make any difference to the correlation between intelligence and religious belief.
The level of belief, or otherwise, did however vary dependent upon age with the correlation found to be weakest among the pre-college population.
The paper concludes that: “Most extant explanations (of a negative relation) share one central theme —the premise that religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who ‘know better’.”
via The Independent.
I have the same kinds of misgivings about this kind of study as I do about studies purporting to show IQ differences among whites, blacks and Asians or between rich and poor people. My first misgiving is the uncertainty about what intelligent tests measure, given that they change across the generations. My second misgiving is that, whatever they measure, the results are distributed along a Bell curve, with most of the populations overlapping. You really can’t tell anything for sure about the intelligence of an individual based on race or religion.
The UR study is behind a pay wall, but I did a little Internet research, and the range of differences seems relatively small. That is what I take away from the results of the study summarized in the chart above.
I have a good friend who is both much more intelligent and much more religious than I am. She has an understanding of thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, which is far deeper than anything of which I am capable. At the same time she is a much more spiritual person than I am. She engages in meditation and other spiritual practices and gets a lot out of it. I don’t do any of these things on a systematic basis.
I’m not sure which of us the UR researchers would consider the more religious person, because she is not a member of any religious group while I am a faithful attender of First Universalist Church of Rochester.
John Scalzi is a science fiction writer who has a web log. Some time back he posted these wise reflections about what he teaches his daughter about religion.
The reason I encourage her to learn about religion, and Christian faiths in particular, is because the large majority of people on this planet follow a religion of some sort, and here in the United States, the large majority of those who are religious are Christians of one sort or another.
I’m an agnostic of the non-wishy-washy sort (i.e., I don’t believe in a god nor believe one is required to explain the universe, but I acknowledge I can’t prove one doesn’t or never did exist) and always have been for as long as I can remember thinking about these things.
I don’t see being an agnostic meaning one has to be willfully ignorant about religion, nor do I see my role as an agnostic parent being one where I shield my daughter from the reality that she lives in a religious society.
Where my daughter is on her own journey of discovery regarding faith is not for me to discuss publicly, but I can say that I believe more information is almost always better.
So when she wants to know about a particular religion or explore some aspect of faith, I encourage her to do so; when she comes to me with questions about religion, I either answer her questions (being that I know a fair amount about most major religions) or help her find answers.
Athena is well aware that I am an agnostic, and what that means, and we’ve explored that aspect of faith (or lack thereof) as well. I won’t tell you what questions she asks about religion, faith, agnosticism and all of that, but I will tell you that she asks good questions, and for my part I answer them as truthfully and as fairly as I can.
There are a number of people who have come to agnosticism or atheism because of conflicts with or disillusionment about religion, and in particular a religion they were born into and grew up in, and others who are agnostic or atheist who feel that religion and the religious impulse must be challenged wherever they find it.
For these reasons among others I think people assume those people who aren’t religious are naturally antagonistic, to a greater or lesser degree, to those who are.
But speaking personally, I don’t feel that sort of antagonism; I don’t look at those who believe as defective or damaged or somehow lacking. Faith can be a comfort and a place of strength and an impetus for justice in this world, and I’m not sure why in those cases I, as a person without faith, would need to piss all over that.
Is the revolt in Syria part of an age-old conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims? Iran and Iraq have Shiite majorities, Hezbollah represents the Shiites in Lebanon and Syria’s government has long cultivated the Shiites. The rebels in Syria are Salafi Sunni Muslims supported by the Sunni Muslims of Saudia Arabia, the Gulf oil sheikdoms and the Muslim Brotherhood.
But if it is part of an age-old conflict, why does this conflict lie dormant for generations and then suddenly flare up? Pepe Escobar of Asia Times has an explanation. He wrote that the religious conflict is being instigated to block plans by the governments Iran, Iraq and Syria to build a pipeline from the Mediterranean to the rich Persian Gulf natural gas field lying between Iran and Qatar.
The Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline is an economic threat to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms, who are the main financiers of the Syrian revolt. It would enable Iran to export oil even if the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf were closed.
The proposed pipeline also is contrary to the economic interests of Turkey, whose government supports the Syrian revolt. Turkey has access to the natural gas of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. The Turkish government’s goal is to extend a pipeline to the heart of Europe and offer an alternative to Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas. The Nabucco pipeline could serve Iran, but the Turkish government for now has decided to deny access for now.
What is the national interest of the United States in this? An Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline would not necessarily compete with U.S. companies engaged in hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. The gas would only be available to customers that could be reached by the pipeline. But there would be no detriment that I could see to U.S. consumers.
The U.S. objection is that it would hamper the U.S. not-so-cold war against Iran, which is being waged largely in support of Israel and Saudi Arabia and partly in revenge for the U.S. national humiliation in the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. I don’t think economic warfare against Iran is in the interest of the American people. I think the policy of the United States should be to wind down that war rather than extend it.
One of the things I decided at a young age was that although I would take moral responsibility for my actions, I would never let anybody make me feel guilty about what I am.
This was partly a reaction against my early religious upbringing. I learned many good values in my church, such as respect for the dignity and worth of all persons and the duty to stand up for what is right when everybody else disagreed. But I also took away a belief that guilt holds positive value.
At age 13 and 14, I believed, because I failed to love other people as myself and failed to love God with all by heart, soul and mind, I was a sinner and that it was because of sinners such as me that Jesus had to suffer and die on the cross. I noticed that in the Gospels Jesus was forgiving of repentant sinners, but condemned people who took satisfaction in following religious rules. I concluded that the best thing I could hope to be is a repentant sinner, but repentance was of no value if I took satisfaction in being repentant.
I do not claim this is an accurate account of Christian teachings. But it is what I believed at age 13 and 14, and I do not think I was unique in these beliefs.
Guilt has a positive function. If you feel bad about doing bad things, and good about doing good things, you are motivated to do fewer bad things and more good things. But if your sense of guilt is so highly developed that you feel bad about feeling good, you are trapped in a Catch-22 vicious circle.
Guilt, like many other things, is badly distributed. Some people have much more than is good for them, but those who need it the most have none at all.
I knew a woman, a person of no explicit religious beliefs, who came as close as anybody I know to being a saint. She spent decades of her life as a volunteer teacher in New York state prisons, ministering to society’s outcasts just as Jesus did. From time to time she would talk about how rewarding she found her work and the relationships with the inmates. Then she would bring herself up short. She thought that if she found pleasure and satisfaction in her volunteer work, her reason volunteering was selfish and had no moral merit. Neither she nor anybody else benefited from this kind of reasoning.
I am highly suspicious of anybody to tries to persuade me to do or believe something based on the guilt I supposedly should feel for being white or middle-class or American. This approach leads me to believe that the persuader has no valid argument.
I think that white guilt—the feeling of guilt for being a member of the white race—is a subconscious version of Christian original sin. It is based not on what you do, but what you are.
I have listened to liberal white people in workshops confessing that they are all a bunch of racists. I think such conversations reflect the subconscious notion that feeling guilty has moral value in and of itself, regardless of whether the feeling leads to constructive action. If you are concerned about civil rights, it should be because you want everyone’s basic rights respected, not because you are trying to get rid of negative feelings about yourself.
The Rev. George Tyger was my minister at First Universalist Church here in Rochester, NY, before he enlisted as a U.S. Army chaplain. He has written War Zone Faith, a book of reflections based on his two tours of duty in Afghanistan.
War Zone Faith is not a book that glorifies war and killing, but neither is it a book that depicts American troops as victims. It is about courage, comradeship and loss. Tyger depicts combat as an extreme form of the human condition, of having to do your best under circumstances not of your choosing.
Unlike him, I have come to think that U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan was a terrible mistake, but like him, I have a high regard for people who serve in the U.S. military. There are those who enlist in the military out of economic necessity, but there are those, some overlapping with the first group, who want to do something for the good of their country. There are military families, who generation after generation.
And if willingness to serve is used for unworthy purposes, that is not the fault of those who serve. They do not send themselves into war zones overseas. They are sent by the President and Congress, who cannot act without the consent of we, the people. If our policy is a mistake, the responsibility lies with the citizenry, not the troops.
We Unitarian Universalists like to say that we respect human diversity, but the U.S. military has greater diversity than any other American institution I can think of. American troops are of all races, all ethnicities, all religions, all social and economic classes, all kinds of family backgrounds.
In recent years United States military chaplains have come to be disproportionately from fundamentalist Protestant backgrounds. Andrew Bachevich, in The New American Militarism, said this dates from the 1970s when many of the mainstream American denominations turned away from the U.S. military because of their opposition to intervention in Vietnam. The religious conservatives were the main ones that still honored the military. At the same time, Bachevich noted, the strict, fundamentalist type of Christianity was well-suited to counteract the drug abuse and all the other military discipline problems of that era.
At the same time, conservative Christianity has certain limitations. Chaplains are supposed to represent their own faiths, but serve everyone. But if a chaplain thinks that someone of my religious belief is going to hell, I don’t see how I can confide in that chaplain. That is why a chaplain of the eclectic Unitarian Universalist faith, which looks for the good in all religions, might be able to serve men and women of any and all religions.
I originally was in favor of the invasion of Afghanistan. I thought the United States was justified in invading a nation whose government harbored the terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. And I thought the result of the invasion would be to liberate Afghanistan from the rule of cruel religious fanatics. George Tyger still thinks that, and I don’t, but I thinks his choice is an honorable one. George Tyger, thank you for your service.
Click on UU minister joins Army as a chaplain for a 2008 article in UU World about George Tyger’s enlistment.
Click on Meaning in the Midst of War for an excerpt from Tyger’s book.
Click on Things That Go Boom in the Night for Tyger’s reflections on returning home from Afghanistan.
Click on Homeless man’s A/B test of generosity based on faith for the result.
Not that this proves anything.
Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.
The newest addition to my Blogroll page is Chris and Luke Explore the Burned Over District. It is by a couple of young men who go around visiting places of worship and other religious sites in and around Rochester, N.Y., and reporting on what they see and hear. Their blog is well worth following if you’re interested in the diversity of religion. They visited my church, First Universalist Church of Rochester, some weeks ago.
Western and central New York came to be called the Burned Over District after a series of powerful religious revivals in the early 19th century. Revival preachers said the area was burned over because there was no more fuel (unsaved souls) to feed the fire of religious fervor. But that was just the beginning of religious movements in this part of New York state. At least two religions, Mormonism and Spiritualism, have roots here.
Joseph Smith Jr. lived in Palmyra, N.Y., just to the east of Rochester, and stated he was led by the Angel Moroni to the golden plates, whose inscriptions he translated into the Book of Mormon. Each year the events of the Book of Mormon are enacted in the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant on the original site. It is as if the events of the Book of Exodus were annually reenacted in a pageant at the real Mount Sinai.
The Fox sisters of Hydesville, N.Y., conducted their first table-rapping seánces in the area to communicate with the dead, leading to the Spiritualist movement, whose centers include the Lily Dale retreat center in Chautauqua County, NY, and Plymouth Spiritualist Church here in Rochester.
The Oneida Society was a successful communal utopian society in central New York, led by the prophet John Humphrey Noyes who said it is possible to live without sin in this world. His most striking teaching was “complex marriage,” which included no unique partners, adolescent boys and girls being initiated into sex by older women and men and distinctive practices on birth control and eugenics. After Noyes abdicated leadership in old age, the society reorganized as the Oneida silverware company. The <Shakers were also an important part of upstate New York’s 19th century religious ferment.
People of diverse religions are good neighbors here. In 1874, Unitarians, Universalists and Jews began a Union Thanksgiving Service which has been held annually since then, and now includes Catholics, Protestants and Muslims.
Roshi Philip Kapleau started his Zen Center, one of the first American Buddhist communities, in Rochester in 1966. He had never before visited the city, but his reading led him to believe the area had spiritual significance. Chris and Luke haven’t visited the Zen Center as yet, but they have visited three other Buddhist places of worship as well as the local Hindu temple and the Islamic Center
As for myself, I do not believe in the doctrines of any one religion, and I think some religions at some periods of history have fostered hatred and oppression, but I think the teachings of most religions contain valuable wisdom, and I think all religions express the yearnings and creativity of the human spirit.
Hat tip for this to Hank Stone.
Click on Bors Blog | comics, politics and ridicule for more from cartoonist Matt Bors.
Hat tip to Jack Clontz.
Reading this post by Sean D. Sorrentino on An NC Gun Blog made me feel proud and grateful to be an American.
I sat down to lunch with some of my fellow Americans today [August 12].
In case you can’t tell, I’m the one in the middle.
I went to the Sikh temple in Durham, NC. I showed up at about 11:30 and went inside. The rules are that you must take off your shoes and wear something on your head. They were kind enough to loan me a hat that looks like a surgical cap.
What I heard wouldn’t have been out of place at any random Christian church in the nation. Peace, love, equality, goodwill towards all men, that sort of thing. They made good use of technology too. They had a computer set up to display running translations of the songs they were singing. I’ve not been in church in a long time, so I don’t know if that’s done in any Christian churches to display the particular hymns being sung or for the readings, but it was really helpful for me to follow along.After about 45 minutes of singing and playing (it was more of a performance than a sing along) we had some speakers. There were Sikhs as well as guest speakers. *** ****** *** The sight of the flag makes me happy. I believe in America and in Americans. I take second place to no one in love for my country. The Sikh speakers, especially the President of the temple, exceeded me in patriotism by a long shot. America is not blood, and it’s not soil. America is ideas, and the people who believe them. These were Americans. They might have been born here or far away. But once they started talking about America, the “best” and “safest country in the world,” you could tell that they were Americans. These are not scare quotes, these are direct quotes from the speakers. Thomas Jefferson might have had a problem understanding the accents, but not the sentiments.And now for the funny part. There must be some sort of gun enthusiast radar. I don’t know if they found me or I found them, but we found each other. The guys I was sitting next to were both Sikh and gun owners. We talked about guns, and we’ll be getting together sometime soon to go shooting. *** *** I was … treated to a discussion of how banning guns would not change anything. I was told that criminals would get guns no matter what the laws, and that taking guns from the honest people would only make things worse. In short, it was a discussion pretty much like any that you would read on any pro-gun blog.Then we had a tasty lunch.
via An NC Gun Blog.
My brother and sister-in-law live in a part of California’s agricultural region, which is said to resemble the Punjab in climate and where there is a well-respected Sikh community. My sister-in-law teaches school, and years ago there was a conflict over whether little Sikh boys could come to school with daggers in scabbards, which was a violation of the school’s no-weapons policy. They worked out a pragmatic compromise whereby the boys would wear their daggers, but they would be welded into the scabbard so the boys couldn’t stab anybody. A few of the more strict Sikh families sent the boys to school with empty scabbards and then gave them their daggers when they came home. I always liked this story, because it showed how Americans of differing heritage can, with good will, work out their differences.
Sean D. Sorrentino and I probably would disagree on many things, but not about how American patriotism as loyalty not to a race or ethnic group, but to the Constitution and to American freedom and democracy.
Click on I had lunch with my fellow Americans today to read the whole post.
Theodore Roosevelt. a regular churchgoer and Sunday school teacher, made the statement above in a speech at Carnegie Hall in 1915 on “Americanism” to the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization. Click on Theodore Roosevelt on Americanism for the text of the entire speech.
When the government issued a new $20 gold coin in 1907, Theodore Roosevelt as President ordered the “In God We Trust” motto omitted on the grounds that putting such a motto on money trivialized religion. Congress overrode his decision. Click on When Roosevelt Dropped “In God We Trust” in 1907 for the full story.
I wonder what kind of acceptance TR would get in today’s Republican Party.
Hat tip for the graphic to Bill Elwell.
A.J. Jacobs’ book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally As Possible, describing the author’s efforts to live by the Old Testament code, became a best-seller. A sequel, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on the Roof, Covering Her Head and Calling Her Husband Master, by Rachel Held Evans, is due to be published in October.
A Christian blogger named Peter Enns got to wondering what it would be like to spend a year living like a follower of Jesus. This is what he said it would entail.
Serve God without drawing attention to yourself;
Give your possessions to those who need them, even if you do, too;
Bless people who flat out hate you and want to destroy you;
Don’t defend yourself at the drop of a hat;
Don’t stand in judgment over others at the drop of a hat;
Respond to cruelty with kindness;
Truly believe that people who absolutely creep you out are of infinite worth, and then act like it;
Don’t worry—about anything;
Control your anger and make peace with others wherever you go rather than perpetuate conflict.
If you read the Gospels straight through, there is no doubt that he is right.
Enns doubted he could live like this for a single day. I doubt if I could, either, nor do I think that very many who claim to speak in the name of Jesus could do so, either. As we Unitarian Universalists used to say, there is a difference between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus. Or that the most important part of the Apostles’ Creed is a commo, the one that comes between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” which stands for his whole life and teaching.
I have great respect for many of the moral and social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, but this is too funny to pass up and also very much to the point. Hat tip for the link to Echidne of the Snakes.
Originally posted on christian feminism:
(one of our commenters posted this and it’s too funny not to share with all of you. thanks chris. :)
10. A man’s place is in the army.
9. For men who have children, their duties might distract them from the responsibilities of being a parent.
8. Their physical build indicates that men are more suited to tasks such as chopping down trees and wrestling mountain lions. It would be “unnatural” for them to do other forms of work.
7. Man was created before woman. It is therefore obvious that man was a prototype. Thus, they represent an experiment, rather than the crowning achievement of creation.
6. Men are too emotional to be priests or pastors. This is easily demonstrated by their conduct at football games and watching basketball tournaments.
5. Some men are handsome; they will distract women worshipers.
4. To be ordained pastor is to nurture the congregation…
View original 173 more words
A friend of mine who practices Zen Buddhist meditation spent Saturday at a workshop studying a Buddhist sutra (teaching) that all is illusion. On a superficial level, I don’t take this seriously. I don’t believe I am living in the world of The Matrix, and quantum theory doesn’t have anything to do with my life.
But on a practical level, this teaching is profoundly wise. People make themselves unhappy for all sorts of reasons that wouldn’t matter unless they thought they mattered. I’m speaking now of healthy, well-fed people whose loved ones are healthy and well-fed, and not about Buddhist teaching about accepting pain and loss. I know in my own case that I feel frustrated, insulted, disappointed, resentful, envious and angry about things that, in the cosmic scheme of things, do not matter in the least.
I can’t help these feelings. But I can refrain from dwelling on them. I can refrain from thinking up rationalizations as to why my disappointment or resentment is justified. I can disconnect my ego from my negative feelings. If they come into my mind unbidden, they aren’t what I think of as me. If I didn’t do this, I can easily imagine myself dwelling on petty insults and jealousies to the point where they poisoned my whole existence.
Christians teach this too. Martin Luther once said (if I recall something I once read correctly) that you can’t stop the birds of anger from flying overhead, but you can stop them from building nests in your hair.
Guilt is a signal, not a value. Guilt can be a good thing. Guilt can serve a purpose. If you feel guilty about doing something, that’s a reason not to do it in the future. If you feel proud doing something, that’s a reason to continue doing it in the future. The problem is when guilt and price become moral values in themselves. Guilt becomes a substitute for doing better. Pride becomes an excuse for not doing better.
I never completely understood the parable of the Pharisee and the publican in the Gospel of Luke. The Pharisee, as you probably recall, was a honest man, who was faithful to his wife, gave 10 percent of his income to charity and obeyed the letter and the spirit of the law. The publican was a corrupt government official. The publican asked for forgiveness for him, a sinner. The Pharisee gave thanks to God that He had made him a virtuous man–unlike, for example, the publican.
Jesus condemned the Pharisee’s prayer and praised the publican’s. I can see why He condemned the Pharisee’s prayer. Being self-satisfied as he was, he saw no need for improvement–for example, if he was distant and unloving to his wife and children. But it seems to me that the publican’s wallowing in guilt did not lead to improvement, either. He asked God to forgive his sins, but he did not ask God to help him get rid of his sins–for example, by following a more honest calling.
My friends sometimes tell me I am overly hard on myself. I don’t think I am–quite the opposite, in fact. What they call being hard on myself is simply my attempt to face the truth about myself and express it in plain language. (That is also what my friends call my cynical sense of humor, but that’s another story.) Guilt is not good in itself, but guilt can lead to something good. It is good to strive to be better than you are, and you can’t do that unless you understand the truth about what you are. That means facing the things about yourself that you don’t want to admit.
Guilt should always be about what you do, because that opens the possibility of doing better in the future. You should never be ashamed of what you are, and you should never define what you are in terms of your worst actions. As Tolstoy said somewhere, there are no good people or bad people as such. There are only people who have done relatively more good things than bad things, and vice versa.