Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Religion and Spirituality

A distinction must be made between religion and spirituality, because while religion poses some rather severe problems in the modern world, spirituality does not. The two are usually lumped together, thereby allowing generalizations about one to be applied to another. In fact, while religion and spirituality may often be found in close proximity with each other, each has certain features not necessary to the practice of the other. You can have religion without spirituality, and spirituality without religion.

Religion is primarily a system of beliefs concerning physical and metaphysical reality, delineating the sacred and the profane. These beliefs are transmitted orally or in writing; experience and practice are not essential components, and may be entirely absent in followers who nevertheless profess profound belief. Scripture and its interpretation by the clergy is the final arbiter. Correctness in religion can only be judged by comparison to external sources. Personal experience is highly suspect--due to its occult nature, it may even be delusional (religion's battle with the occult stems from the fact that it is itself a species of the occult.) The content, therefore, is cognitive and emotional, but only the cognitive content (belief) is approached in a systematic manner. It's main concern is to make truth claims about the world, even if the subject of those claims is hidden or shrouded in mystery. This is why religion may find itself in an adversarial relationship with science.

The sacred usually includes certain geographic locations, historical persons, texts, rituals, modes of dress, dietary habits, and the items used in these rituals. Although some of these may have had a practical purpose in the past (the avoidance of pork in desert religions is an example; pork spoiled quickly and dangerously in the desert heat), their continued persistence is traditional and fetishistic. This ritualistic behaviour seems eccentric or even foolish to those not of the faith. It is likely that it serves mostly to ensure a high level of commitment within the religious community and distinguish believers from non-believers. Seen in this light, the battles between various sects over minor details of conformity becomes understandable--these details exist precisely for the purpose of encouraging conformity.

There is usually an ethical system attached to the religion, but this ethical system is often simply an encouragement of adherance to the tenants of the faith: professions of faith may be granted more importance than ethical acts towards others. In a choice between adherance to articles of the faith and ethical behaviour towards others, faith may take higher priority. Ethical obligations usually follow tribal lines (towards fellow adherants.) In extreme cases, the ethical component may be dropped entirely, but this does not mean that belief system has been abandoned. Extremist sects merely alter the belief system, or may return to an earlier, more primitive version. Whatever else a religious fanatic may be, he is still slavishly devoted to his faith. Although touted as the most important aspect of the faith, the moral system is subject to intepretation, and is negotiable, and ultimately, dispensable.

Spirituality is primarily a system of practice and experience. Both cognitive and emotional elements are approached in a systematic manner. A system of beliefs may be present but the tradition can operate without them. There is no direct conflict between spirituality and science. The main goal is the attainment of happiness and well-being through an experience of communion with all of reality. The greatest obstacle to be overcome is our own obsession with self. The practice to attain this cannot be taught without considering relations with others, since the relatedness of self and other lies at the very heart of spirituality. Love and happiness require each other. An ethical system is therefore an integral part of the practice, and cannot be discarded without abandoning the practice entirely. If the ethical component is absent, claims to spirituality are a sham.

Rituals, when found in spiritual traditions, serve a practical purpose, and may be dropped if that purpose is not served, or if no purpose can be found for them. Texts may be studied, but only under the proviso that they are by nature flawed and incomplete--the spiritual experience cannot be put into words. Undue emphasis placed on any text or teaching is seen as an obstacle. The embodiment of the practice is the accomplished practitioner--but no teacher may become a target of worship and blind obedience. As Gautama Buddha said, "If you meet the buddha on the road, kill him!" External control is also an obstacle to enlightenment. Gurus and Messiahs maintain their flocks in a state of perpetual childhood. The very word flock is illustrative of the messianic attitude towards followers; they are sheep, to be herded, sheared, and slaughtered. The goal of spirituality is not to create followers, or to follow a leader, but to follow a path and help others who are willing to do the same. Proselytizing is considered somewhat vulgar and a symptom of arrogance.

The confusion between the two exists largely because many religious figures were in fact spiritual practitioners, who were later elevated to heroic or divine status in a religious pantheon. Many quotations from these figures make little sense in a religious context but perfect sense in a spiritual context. Spiritual traditions exist within religious traditions, but are kept quiet through constant censure. Mystics and monks of various religions will understand and agree with each other, but clerics and lay believers will fight tooth and nail. The truth is always and everywhere the same, but religion is obsessed with peripheral details, and the devil is in the details. Most religious believers are like sports fans who collect statistics and anecdotes, but have little idea what it is like to play the game.

The incorporation of spiritual figures into a religion is a matter of cooption and neutralization. Cooption prevents a schism from forming around the figure, and brings those who respect the spiritual figure into the fold. By elevating the spiritual figure to the level of hero or deity, the person in question is placed beyond the reach and emulation of the ordinary believer. His influence is limited to those sources controlled by the priesthood. One of the most blatant examples I found in a Catholic Bible, in a footnote for Jesus' words "Heaven is within you." At the bottom of the page was the explanation "ie., it is within your grasp, it is Jesus." The source of spirituality is externalized and removed to a distant pedestal, where the Church can charge admission. There is no greater embarrasment for a religion than a living prophet. A living prophet will contradict the clergy, and people will realize that he knows what he's talking about. Religion prefers its prophets dead, stuffed, and mounted as high as they can place them.

Religion is not spirituality. It is the dead husk of spirituality.

Saturday, August 27, 2005


I came across an article on Arts and Letters Daily about the rise of religion which I found all the more depressing because I think it may be true. Even in the most secular of societies there are a growing number of people seeking refuge in that old time religion. Something strange is happening to drive back the tide of secularism, and I think I know what it is. It has to do with utopian visions--that is, perfect worlds offered up with no viable or visible means of achieving them.

Marcus Aurelius opposed Christianity because he favoured Stoicism, but Christianity had a selling point that gave it the edge: it promised the afterlife. Christianity eventually won. Apparently virtue and self-discipline are not enough. People want a bright light at the end of the tunnel, a promised land. And this promised land can take many forms.

Christianity and Islam offer the most opulent of promised lands; a paradise beyond the vicissitudes of the world, where one is preserved for all time. According to Islam, one is preserved in a state of sensual largesse, with a ready compliment of willing sexual slaves and an endless supply of delicious foods. Apparently, all the desire that are to be denied in this world are to be fulfilled in the next. This is not materialism denied, merely materialism delayed. For the Christian the reward is more dubious, though it is argued to be more spiritual. One may look forward to an eternity of the presence and eternal praise of God. But it is never adequately explained why an eternity of membership in some sort of celestial choir, singing the praises of an apparently narcissistic diety, is the pinnacle of happiness. As the leading Heather in the movie Heathers complains, having been dead only a short while, "If I have to sing Cum By Ya one more time, I will throw up." One man's heaven is another man's hell. The primary consolation seems to be that the Christian will get to gloat over the fate of the non-Christian, content in the knowledge that the unbeliever will suffer a fate far worse. Revenge may be sweet, but this flies in the face of core of Jesus' teachings. In both of these afterlives, the highest good is the preservation of the individual ego. You may surrender, submit, and sacrifice as much as you like, but in the end, you'll get your way, and all the pleasures you've renounced. The payoff is an orgy of egotism. I suspect that the first Christians, and Jesus himself, would be appalled by this, and would likely have renounced the doctrine of the afterlife altogether if confronted with it in this form.

These utopias also fall prey to what Tolkien found evident in the immortality of his elves--an eternity spent chained to one's own personal limitations and the weight of past mistakes. I have always wondered why Tolkien did not realize that the fate of his elves would be shared by mortals as well, trapped in an afterlife that was largely a continuation of their own limited identity. Had the afterlife promised a release from one's own ego by having it merged with the consciousness of the divine, like a drop of water returned to the ocean, this objection might be overcome. But I suspect that this anihilation of self would be as terrifying to most believers as the fires of hell. They may want some sort of communion with God, but only on their own terms.

The rise of secularism came with the promise of secular utopias. The most obvious of these were the political utopias promised by Naziism and Communism; the Thousand Year Reich and the worker's paradise. Both of these had limited appeal and a limited base, and were known to be unworkeable long before their final collapse. The most popular secular utopia in the west was progress, the gleaming world of convenience and wealth promised in the middle of the 20th century. You can see this in The Jetsons, where everyone was supposed to drive hover cars and own a robot that would do all the housework, while we lived in leisure. This hit a snag in environmentalism and the energy crisis, when the bills of our increasingly profligate lifestyles came due. It became clear that there were limits to growth, that we simply did not have enough resources to sustain endless consumption. But this utopia shares a common trait with the heavenly utopias: the promise of infinite material reward. It is a materialistic answer to a spiritual question. It it like trying to assuage one's hunger by eating rocks. But the secular utopias have failed because they are subject to falsification, unlike the religious utopias, which float free in the clouds, and whose existence and limitations are beyond the reach of proper scrutiny. This goes a long way to explaining the resurgance of religious faith.

Utopias of more limited appeal have continued to appear. I suspect that Star Trek gained its popularity, not because it was a prime example of great science fiction (it wasn't,) but because it provided a promise of a utopian future without racism, sexism, proverty, or war amongst mankind, a universe in which human beings had overcome the problems of our present and soared amongst the stars like gods. The very idea that we would be alive and well five hundred years from now was reassuring. Political utopias continue to abound, now largely from the right rather than the left; the promised land will now come through the invisible hand of the market, or through the reduction of government, or through the return of traditional values. Never mind that the market is a blind machine insensitive to many real human needs, that a weak government simply opens the field to new forms of government not subject to democratic control (the ability of Wal Mart, for example, to dictate what is available for people to read and hear,) or that traditional values led us to where we are now, and were instrumental in creating many of our existing problems. Cults continue to abound, promising a glorious future if only we can convert enough people. And there is the individual utopia, where with enough money, power, or fame, one can move beyond the irritants of everyday life to a promised land of ease and luxury. This is the utopia inherent in the American Dream.

What these utopias promise is a magical way to bypass the messy business of personal responsibility in order to achieve a perfect world. Totalitarian utopias (including cults and old school political ideologies) are offered with the claim that you don't have to do anything, you only have to give your leaders the power to do it. Religious utopias leave it all to God. Libertarian utopias promise that the system will provide, if only it is not interfered with. The individual utopia requires effort, but only in serving one's own self interest; being a psychopath is not a problem as long as one is a successful psychopath. Personal success may come at a cost to others that outweighs the benefit to you, but this is not your responsibility. Pursuit of other utopias results in the damage caused by sins of omission, but the search for a personal utopia may actively cause harm.

Real progress towards a better world is a slow and arduous journey, in which small gains are made, carefully checked to see whether they really are gains, and then firmly established before going on to the next task. It requires a mastery of the real complexities involved, but this in turn require cooperation and individual competence. The last renaissance man died in the renaissance. Mastery of any domain of knowledge requires specialization, and to gain an understanding of any situation, these specialists must convey their knowledge, or lack therof, honestly and without a destructive measure of self interest. Effecting change requires efforts at all levels of society, and a genuine attempt to understand the consequences of ones own actions. And the strictly materialistic goals enshrined in nearly all utopias (including the religious ones) must be abandoned.

Perhaps the ideal of broad personal responsibility is itself utopian. But without it, nothing will improve. The result may not be a perfect world, but it may be a better world.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Reciprocity and World Making

Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, writes about an ethical dilemma. We would consider torture wrong under any circumstances. But consider this situation: a terrorist that you have captured boasts that he has placed a nuclear bomb somewhere in the a large population area. It will go off in 24 hours. Would torturing him to find out where he placed the bomb be wrong?

Against this, he compares the use of bombs used on military targets near civilian populations. We drop these bombs, and expect some collateral damage. This inflicts suffering on innocent people equal or greater than the suffering inflicted in torture. Yet we are willing to accept this outcome. Harris believes that this is because we don't directly experience the suffering we cause. He mentions a Russian soldier who said that shooting a man at point blank range was terrible, but killing en masse, in combat, was actually fun.

But in the case of the terrorist, I would offer this analysis. The terrorist has abandoned the social contract by which we limit the harm done to others by our actions--indeed, he has abondoned all social contracts. His target is nothing less than civilization itself. He intends to cut the ties that bind societies together, to wreak havoc and chaos wherever he can. He has abandoned all social contracts; or, he has entered a new one, in which there are no restrictions. And so, there should be no restrictions in dealing with him.

The answer to this would be that we should not sink to his level in dealing with him. But think about war. Do we not sink to our enemy's level in accepting the contract of war? Because it is a contract, as the Geneva Convention demonstrates. And yet, we don't flinch from this contract when faced with a military threat. Under this contract, killing is not only permitted, it is actually celebrated.

Think about something closer to home. You go to a restaurant with someone. They eat a meal, and then demand that you pay for it. Naturally, you get angry, and insist that they pay for their own meal. This anger and reaction would not be justified without the breach in ethical behaviour. It would be inappropriate to eye someone suspiciously and insist that they pay for their meal if they haven't given you cause to believe that they won't. You have accepted the modified social contract, because the normal one has been breached. This is reciprocity. This is how we learn and correct aberrant behaviour. This is everyday justice.

Beliefs and actions shape the world around us. In nearly all formulations of the Golden Rule, there is an element of contagion. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" carries the notion of reciprocity--there is an unspoken expectation (thought not a guarantee) that others will respond in kind. Kant's categorical imperative is even clearer: "Act only by that maxim whereby you could will it to be a universal maxim." Inherent in this is a form of world making, the creation of a social contract of mutual respect and fair play. If we are conscious of the effects of our actions, we attempt, through ethical action, to create the world we want to live in. This is also expressed in the idea of paying it forward--good deeds are propogated through others, and shift the world towards a better state of affairs. And by reciprocity, we are able to live, to some extent, in the world we seek to create.

Now consider what kind of world the terrorist is attempting to create: hell on earth. He is attempting to disrupt all social bonds, sow discord and mistrust at every level. He is trying to unravel the social fabric and bring about a state of universal warfare, bringing social, economic, and political ruin, with a resultant list of casualties that far outstrips the casualties he inflicts with his act of terrorism. This is the world he seeks to create, and this is the world which he has volunteered, by his actions, to live in. The terrorist has volunteered to sit in the iron throne. He has asked to be tortured. By the principle of reciprocity, we owe this to him. Or, at the very least, we have to show him the abyss he is opening under his own feet. Perhaps a glimpse of this moral black hole will achieve more than torture itself will. He will never learn unless he can see where his actions are leading. But we also owe it to him to warn him and others, in advance, of where his actions are leading.

Note that this does not excuse torture of captives suspected of terrorism. This is a preemptive breach of the social contract. Until a fairly strong proof of guilt is established, this encourages a reciprocity with the act of torture as the originating point of a negative chain of tit-for-tat. In other words, it provides a source of justification for potential terrorists. The torture of innocents as part of a war on terrorism amounts to giving aid and comfort to the enemy. In this case, the defenders of civilization are themselves breaching the wall of civility, exposing a weakness to their enemies.

In this light, it is easy to understand why terrorists are suicidal. They have no desire to live in the world that will result if they suceed. Nor, indeed, do they wish to live in the world as it is. As my wife Debbie pointed out, the terrorist is attempting to create hell on earth because he already believes that earth is hell. He believes that the Devil rules the world. As Dostoyevsky said, if there is no God, all is permitted. But if the Devil is seen to hold sway over the world, God is completely eclipsed and utterly absent. God here can simply stand for the belief that there is something good in the world worth saving, the Devil for the degree to which the world is corrupt and worthless. Substitute for God and the Devil the utopia and bane of any political or conspiracy theory, and you can see where supposedly secular terrorist groups are coming from. The configuration is the same, and the result is the same. No bounds need be respected in dealing with others, nothing is to be spared, all is to be destroyed and swept away.

The most frightening statistic about the religious right is that 65% of Americans believe in Satan. The Left Behind series clearly illustrates that Christians who read these books consider the rest of the world to be the province of the Devil, to be destroyed and swept away. If they suffer a dramatic setback, quashing their belief that God will intervene and rapture them away from all harm, what happens then? An America convinced that the world has gone to hell, armed with a nuclear arsenal, may decide to send it to hell, hoping to be raptured up in the mushroom clouds.

Believe strongly enough in the Devil, and you become him.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Egotism of Triumphalism

One of the things I've noticed about career alcoholics (people who have been drinking steadily for decades) is that, if you argue a point with them, they will refuse to see your point. Then, sometime later, they will come back and restate the idea as their own. If you mention that you had already argued for it, they will insist that they taught it to you. Apparently, Steve Jobs does the same thing. He will argue against something, and then come back and say "I have a great idea..." and then repeat your own idea back to you. If you repeat their own words back to these people, they will deny they said them. If you prove that they said otherwise, they will again reverse their position, rather than admit they were wrong.

Religions do the same thing. Organized religion always fights a rear action against the advance of civilization. Religions have sided with the aristocracy against democracy, the workshop owners against children, slave owners against the slaves, Nazis against the Jews, superstition against science, and so on. But later, all of the opposite positions are reclaimed as achievements of religion. Like any complete egotist, triumphalist religions can never admit that they are wrong, that there was something that they didn't know. They can only assimilate an idea if they believe they thought of it. But since the scriptures are written down, we have a record of what was actually claimed. This, combined with the egotism of triumphalism, is a major obstacle to learning in any devout follower.

Hindus are now claiming that their religion prefigured science from the beginning. Muslims claim the golden age of Islam as a natural outgrowth of their faith, rather than what it was--a relaxation of rigid orthodoxy and a willingness to embrace outside influences. And the proponents of Intelligent Design wish to claim that science supports creationist views, when it does nothing of the sort. The first step in learning is to admit that there is something that you don't know, or that something you believed is wrong. But if you insist that you had all the answers centuries or millenia ago, you can't do either. The real motive behind this is narcissistic egotism--pure, undiluted and unrepentant pride.