Abrahamic Faiths, Allah, Belief, Business, Christ, Christianity, Cultural Traits, Culture, Deity, Education, Fundamentalism, God(s), Humanities, Ideas, Islam, Judaism, Judeo-Christian Tradition, Language, Learning, Life, Management, Memes, Mysticism, Philosophy, Professionals, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Spirituality, Taoism, Work, Yahweh

About Your “God”, Jeff…

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul discusses how the concept of “god” varies from one religion to another with the focus on Christianity, Judaism, and Taoism.

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THE CRITICS EXCLAIM! “It is absolutely certain that Paul Sunstone will someday come to a rich and full understanding of God.  That is sure to be the day Our Altogether Righteous and Just Lord mercifully condemns Paul Sunstone to being eternally chained to Justin Bieber’s buttocks in the hottest regions of hell. Until that day, his opinions and views of deity cannot possibly rise above the ignorant, thoughtless slime that is his post, ‘About Your Gods’.”  —  Merriweather Sterling, Blogs of the Day, “The Daily Burtie”, Berwick-Upon-Tweed, England, UK.

Continue reading “About Your “God”, Jeff…”

Alienation From Self, Aristotle, Authenticity, Being True To Yourself, Christianity, Cultural Traits, Culture, Ethics, Eudaimonia, Happiness, Human Nature, Ideas, Judaism, Life, Living, Memes, Morality, Morals, Pride, Purpose, Quality of Life, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Self Image, Self-Flourishing, Values, Well Being

Pride in Aristotle and Christianity

“The description of the proud or magnanimous man [in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics] is very interesting as showing the difference between pagan and Christian ethics…”.  — Bertrand Russell.

SUMMARY:  Pride to Aristotle was a virtue, and a means to happiness, but to Christians, it is a sin, and a means to unhappiness.

(About a 7 minute read)

In Judaism, pride is called the root of all evil, a valuation that seems in part to have been carried over into Christianity, for Christians regard pride as the first and foremost of the Seven Deadly Sins.

In Catholicism, the Seven Deadly Sins are not to be confused with “Mortal Sins” — they do not automatically damn you to hell if you fail to repent of them before death, but they are pretty much bad enough anyway.

In contrast to the Jewish and Christian views, pride was an actual virtue to Aristotle.  Which of course, raises the question, “Why did Aristotle think pride was a virtue?”

Continue reading “Pride in Aristotle and Christianity”

Abuse, Bad Ideas, Cultural Traits, Culture, Human Nature, Life, Living, Oppression, Parental Love, Religion, Religious Ideologies

Rising Above Human Nature

“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put in this world to rise above.” — Katherine Hepburn, African Queen.

SUMMARY:  Our cultures need to be doing more to ameliorate the effects of our negative human instincts.

(About a 4 minute read)

It’s my impression that most of us these days are at least dimly aware that human nature can be out of joint with human happiness.  That is, we can have a disposition or inclination to certain feelings and behaviors that more or less inevitably lead us into unhappy situations, and even misery.

Warfare is an example of that.  While humans apparently do not have an actual instinct to war upon each other, we do indeed have a full set of instincts that mean war is all but directly hardwired into our DNA.

Continue reading “Rising Above Human Nature”

Belief, Buddhahood, Buddhism, Christianity, Consciousness, Cultural Traits, Culture, Enlightenment, Ideas, Islam, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Knowledge, Meditation, Memes, Mysticism, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Satori, Self-Integration, Spirituality, Transformative Experience, Zen

“Help! She’s Going About It All Wrong!”

SUMMARY:  The importance of having the right beliefs in order to attain spiritual enlightenment is grossly over-emphasized both in Western and Middle Eastern cultures.

(About a 5 minute read)

I have a friend who, in my esteemed opinion (esteemed by me, at least), is going about it all wrong.  By “it”, I mean spiritual enlightenment, of course.  She’s going about it all wrong.

Not that I myself am an authority on spiritual enlightenment.  The closest I ever came to it was that time I saw Terri’s breasts in the moonlight.  My friend — who is not Terri — has never shown me her breasts despite incessant hours of begging on my part and hence, I don’t know yet if she’s a reincarnation of the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin, or not. But even if she is, she’s going about it all wrong.

Continue reading ““Help! She’s Going About It All Wrong!””

Abuse, Alienation, Alienation From Self, Emotional Abuse, Human Nature, Judgementalism, Life, Love, Lovers, Marriage, Physical Abuse, Psychological Abuse, Quality of Life, Relationships, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Romantic Love, Self Image, Sexual Abuse, Sexuality, Spiritual Alienation, Spirituality, Values, Verbal Abuse

The Cheating Wife

(About a 2 minute read)

Father, I have seen how the morals you demand of me
In the name of your God and his hell
Are like winds from two quarters
That carry the dust to my eyes
No matter which way I turn
So I can no longer see the path I’m on,
Nor which path to take from here.

Father, I have seen how the morals you demand of me
In the name of your God and his hell
Are like tungsten rods encasing me,
Confining me to inaction and encouraging resignation
To my hell, the hell my husband
Has created for me that may yet
Prove to be a death camp.

You tell me right and wrong never alter,
Never turn from one into the other,
That I must keep my vows and stay with him,
Merely praying that your God will change his heart.

I am weary now like a bison after wolves
Have chased her for miles to her last stand,
I am all but exhausted and ready to die.
Your words do not comfort me, nor encourage me,
But sound only like you want me to surrender
To the fangs of my enemy, that he might
Rip my throat and my life from me.

You say I must not cheat.
But I am ready to cheat.
I have met one who comes walking
In the grace of love for me.
One who does not merely speak of love, but loves.
One whose touching me has passed a spark
To the dry and brittle twigs of my self-esteem.

He wants me to live, and through him,
I want to live too.

Yes, I know that I’m weak,
Too weak to love myself without him.
But he ignites me, and my weakness
Will soon enough burn away in a bonfire.

Father, have you never been so beaten down
You could not stand up without someone’s help?
Have you never been so tired
You could not go on without first you slept?
Have you never been so defeated
You could not renew yourself?

Father, in your eyes I am no more than a whore,
I am no more than a law-breaker, an outlaw.
But have you considered this:
Even a whore has a right to life,
Even an outlaw has a right to live,
And how moral can your morals be
If your morals deny my life?


This poem was inspired by a poem on Sarah’s blog, “Fresh Hell”, which can be found here.

Abuse, Bad Ideas, Christianity, Ethics, Morality, Morals, News and Current Events, Politicians and Scoundrels, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Seduction, Sexual Abuse, Sexualization, Spirituality, Values

Should We Keep the Catholic Church?

(About a 3 minute read)

It seems it has been at least 20 years now since the first credible reports of wide-spread child rape and sexual abuse by Catholic priests began making the news.  Since then, the reports have spread to nearly every industrialized nation where the Church has a presence.  Even Poland, I recall, has reported victims in the thousands.

I suppose too, the documented numbers are most likely well below the actual number of victims.  Ten thousand children in all of Australia?  Seems incredible it should be so few over 50 years.

Continue reading “Should We Keep the Catholic Church?”

Bad Ideas, Belief, Creative Thinking, Culture, Fantasy Based Community, Fundamentalism, Idealism, Ideologies, Memes, Political Ideologies, Politics, Reason, Religious Ideologies, Skeptical Thinking, Thinking, Truth

Why I Always Need a Shower Whenever I Study an Ideology

(About a 4 minute read)

“Since opposed principles, or ideologies, are irreconcilable, wars fought over principle will be wars of mutual annihilation. But wars fought for simple greed will be far less destructive, because the aggressor will be careful not to destroy what he is fighting to capture. Reasonable – that is, human – men will always be capable of compromise, but men who have dehumanized themselves by becoming the blind worshipers of an idea or an ideal are fanatics whose devotion to abstractions makes them the enemies of life.” ― Alan W. Watts

 

It is a tragedy of human nature that it is more than fair to describe all ideologies — even the most accurate and most decently motivated — as inimical to the very best efforts of humans to think.

Of course, that raises the question of what it means to  “think”, and I certainly do not mean in this context to define “thinking” in any way a psychologist would recognize the term.  That’s too narrow here.

Instead, perhaps the minimum standard — in this context — for ‘thinking” is open-minded skepticism.  And perhaps the highest standard is creative, but truthful and accurate, out-of-the box thinking.  If so, it should be fully appreciated by all of us that ideologies invariably fear and fight against such thinking in the same way snakes fear and fight pigs, their natural and inevitable predators.

People who say an ideology “got them thinking” are flattering themselves in the same manner as anyone using a map would be flattering themselves if they claimed they were — not a mere map user — but a cartographer.  Ideologies are not intended to get you thinking, they are intended to get you motivated.  They are the philosophical equivalent of a sales pitch.

One thing any successful salesperson knows is, speak all you want about how much your product or service will do for the world.  Speak to both individuals and crowds. Even shout the news from a mountain that yours will save all of humanity, and lead to much whiter teeth, too.  But whatever you do, don’t forget to close the sale on narrow self-interest, because it is narrow self-interest that does the real selling — that is always and ever the real motivation for adopting an ideology.

People like to confuse themselves about that.  But while people can at least now and then do things for selfless reasons, they simply do not adopt an ideology to help their brother or sister more than themselves.  Ideologies are just as opposed to selfless motives for believing in them as they are to genuine thinking.

Although most of us don’t hang around our hammocks all day long thinking about such things,  to act without any selfish motive at all is to act spontaneously without thinking about it.   That’s because the psychological self or “ego” crucially rests for its very existence on thinking, on symbolic thought.  Hence, there is a profound sense in which it can be said that you cannot think about saving the girl without in some significant sense thinking about what saving the girl would mean to you personally.  In other words, self-interest will factor into every calculation you can make of the value of saving the girl.

But to me, the biggest objection to ideologies is that they are so full of themselves.  Basically, they are “systems of thinking that explain to their deserving adherents why they themselves are clearly right and why everyone else is clearly wrong, yet systems which are always significantly wrong about always being right., and everyone else wrong.’

Arrogance is a form of blindness to one’s blindness to nearly everything.   As opposed to true humility (which is claiming what one deserves — no more, no less),  arrogance lacks sufficient realism to either understand itself or others.  It’s like living in a fantasy world.

Beyond that, ideologies, when approached carefully and cautiously can help make sense of the word.  But damn, there are just too many ideologically-deranged people willing to do the equivalent of bomb an abortion clinic in the name of Jesus.

Bad Ideas, Culture, Family, Marriage, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Sexuality

Instant Animosity: Just Add Marriage

(About a 4 minute read)

A while back a man who did not particularly like me nevertheless took the trouble to describe to me how his religious community picked partners for marriage.

Once each year, the eligible men and women would gather in a hall and then get to know each other by sitting down with one after another of the other sex for 30 minutes apiece.  No more than that.

During those 30 minutes, they would quickly inform each other what their goals were.  Say, to become a doctor and marry someone willing to have seven children.  And of course, their values, too:  “Religion is very important to me, how about you?”

What else they discussed, I don’t recall now, but it was fascinating to me.  Like everyone, I had heard of marriages where the bride and groom are not introduced to each other until the day they wed, but I’d not heard before of arranging marriages in just 30 minutes.  Nor had the thought occurred to me any such thing could work.

However, my acquaintance assured me that his community was “family oriented” because — unlike mainstream culture — it neither allowed nor practiced either birth control nor divorce.   I wasn’t surprised by that.  After hearing the basic fact that the couples made their decisions based on 30 minutes of knowing each other, I had quickly guessed there had to be strong social sanctions in place to hold them together.

I mean, can you imagine the divorce rate that would come from that practice if divorce were allowed?  In my experience, there is no loneliness in life greater or more intense than sharing a space with someone who does not much care for you.  I would nowadays flee from such a situation almost faster than I’d leave a building on fire.  But as he saw it, the marriages “worked” because the children were almost guaranteed to be raised in stable families.

Our conversation had begun as a mistake.  He was the friend of a friend, that friend was present, and so were a handful of other people.  Someone had mentioned per-marital sex, and I had thoughtlessly responded that I believed couples who wanted to make sure they were sexually compatible should practice it before marriage unless they had strong objections to it.

That prompted him to declare there was no need whatsoever to check for compatibility because men and women were designed to be compatible, you were by nature compatible with anyone.  After all, wasn’t it obvious that penises fit vaginas?

Which seemed a silly argument to me because by then in my life I had had one or two discoveries that I and someone I cared about were nevertheless incompatible in bed.

But I didn’t tell him how silly I thought his argument.  I’m pretty sure that I didn’t give him any greater reason to take a dislike to me than the opinions I did express — and those, I certainly didn’t not express forcefully, but merely factually.   Even then, I thought I had made it clear to everyone that I didn’t think it was my place to tell couples what they ought or ought not do, just what I myself believed.

So it seemed strange to me he took such an immediate and  pronounced dislike. Of course, I knew full well people were capable of such things, but this man had not struck me as having any such prejudices.  Indeed, at first, I had mistaken him for someone who basically believed in, “you do your thing, I’ll do mine, and we’ll keep out of each other’s business.”

All of which raises a question: When someone takes offense despite that you’ve given them only slight grounds to take offense, do you in some way fight back, or do you in some way withdraw?

That day, I felt no reason nor desire to retaliate, but rather I was merely repulsed, as if I’d come across something a bit gross and wanted to step around it, and I went home soon afterwards.  Yet, I do recall a sickening feeling that I had witnessed a needless tragedy without having a chance of preventing it or making it better.

I think, however, that I would have responded much differently under different circumstances.  Suppose, for example, I’d been married, my wife was present (or not), and he’d pointedly insulted her.  Hard for me to say where I might have stopped short of in those circumstances.

I know how we can’t always tell what we ourselves would do in any given set of circumstances until we actually get into such a situation.  I learned that when I was fighting fires — you can’t imagine what you would really do until you’ve done it.  I’ve seen some pretty ordinary guys improbably rise to heroic acts.

But your turn now: Has anyone ever taken a sharp dislike to you for little or no apparent reason?  If so, what did you do?

Behavioral Genetics, Belief, Consciousness, Cultural Change, Culture, Deity, Enlightenment, Evolution, God, God(s), Human Nature, Mysticism, Neuroscience, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Thinking

Rationalism and the Immanent Death of All Religions

(About an 11 minute read)

When I was growing up, there were arguably few good fantasy novels.  Lord of the Rings was yet to become popular in my home town, but I didn’t feel I was missing anything because science fiction attracted me like no other genre.  Hardcore science fiction.

No unicorns, no dragons — and usually no gods.  Just stuff based on the science or scientific speculations of the day.  Issac Asimov and Author C.  Clark.  In fact, I believe it might have been in Clarke’s book, The Deep Range, where I for the first time came across the notion that rational science was replacing irrational religion in the hearts and minds of all the world’s peoples.

I simply assumed Clarke had a point.  After all, he surely knew more about it than me.  A few years later, I carried the idea with me to university, where I signed up for my first course in comparative religious studies at least half convince religion would be taught as part of the history department within twenty years or so.

I have since then been thoroughly disabused of that notion.  I was actually a bit surprised the other day when someone brought it up again.

Granted, there are plenty of reasons to believe that religion is on the decline in the industrialized world.  Numerous surveys seem to demonstrate that beyond doubt.  For instance,  a 2016 Norwegian study found that 39% of Norwegians “do not believe in God”,  while a 2015 Dutch Government survey found that 50.1% of the population were “non-religious”.   And even in the US, which remains the most religious industrialized nation, younger people are notably less religious than their elders.

Yet, to me these studies are very difficult to interpret for at least two reasons.  They don’t always seem to have clear enough categories, and they often seem to have too few categories.

I’m out of my league in any language but English, so I haven’t studied the non-English language studies, but  I’m suspicious of categories that get translated as “non-religious” or are based on questions that get translated as, “Do you believe in God?”

“Non-religious” can mean so many different things to different people.  I would describe myself as “non-religious” meaning not an adherent of any organized religion, but I’m also a bit of a mystic, and to some people, that’s quite religious.

Beyond that, there are usually not enough categories to these surveys to satisfy my insatiable appetite to categorize things.  Don’t believe in god?  Fine, but do you consider yourself,  an atheist, an agnostic, someone who believes in spirits, ghosts, etc, a Christian atheist (big in the Netherlands), a believer in a “transcendent reality”,  or do you perhaps feel “there just must be something out there”, etc.

But putting aside my uniformed suspicions about the studies I’ve seen, I think there are at least two compelling reasons to suppose religion will survive rational science so long as we’re Homo sapiens.  Both reasons are rooted in the origin and nature of religions.

Now, anytime you speak about the origin and nature of religions some folks are bound to bring up the traditional ideas about that.  Religions began as proto-sciences that tried to explain nature, such as thunder, in terms of supernatural beings.  Thunder becomes a thunder god, in that view.

Freud thought religions began as a desire for a father figure that turned into a god.  Feuerbach, following some ancient Greeks, thought religion began as an idealization of a great man, such as a notable leader, following his death.  Others have argued that religion was begun by people seeking a sense of purpose or meaning in life.  And so on.

I myself would not actually argue against any of those traditional notions.  For all I know, they and many other such notions at least played some role in getting religion off to a start.  But I do think there are two more influential candidates.

There is general agreement these days among cognitive scientists that religion involves the architecture of the brain.  That is, religion is based in our genes, and most likely evolved early in our history.  Beyond that, there is much debate and a handful of theories about exactly what our brain’s architecture has to do with religion.

For reasons of space,  I’ll stick to the one theory I favor.  According to its view, we evolved functional brain modules, such as modules allowing us to think of others as having beliefs, desires, and intentions (Theory of Mind), organize events into stories or narratives (Etiology), or that predispose us to respond to danger signs in ways that might save our lives if the danger is actually real (Agent Detection).  Depending upon who you consult, there are up to two dozen or so such modules.

One way these modules might come together is this:  You’re sitting around a campfire one night, partying over an antelope carcass, when you hear a rustle in the bushes and perhaps even an indistinct growl that you might only be imagining.  You startle, the hair on your neck rises, and chills run down your spine.  “Something is out there!”

That’s Agent Detection speaking.  The rustle could be from a breeze or a harmless small animal.  The growl might only be imagined.  But the key thing here is that you react with fright just as you would if it were known to be a lion.

A few minutes later, you and your buddies pick up your spears to investigate.  Can’t very well get to sleep with a possible lion that close in.  But you find nothing.

This is repeated a few times during the night.  Each time you find nothing, but then it happens the next night, and so on.  Sooner or later, your best story-teller cooks up a narrative (Etiology)  in which a malevolent spirit is “out there”,  prowling around your camp,  perhaps waiting for the moment to strike.  But your sense of Agent Detection predisposes you think there must be something there.  Being a spirit, you cannot see him, but you don’t need to — what else could explain something making noises that have no body behind them?

Last, as time goes on, you start ascribing more and more beliefs, desires, and intentions to the spirit (Theory of Mind), until one day you have perhaps a god.  Or maybe not, maybe you and your buddies are devout spiritualists without any recognizable deities.  Whatever the case, you’ve now got something “religious”, in at least some sense of the word.

If the above is true, then we now have one deep root of human religiosity.   A root so firmly grounded in our brain’s architecture that it must be genetically based.  A clear implication is that, having evolved it, we would need to evolve out of it to be entirely free of its influence on us.  Until or unless we do that, we will be born with a predisposition to some kind of religiosity.

But is there another root, as equally well grounded?  It seems curious to me that a second root of human religiosity seems so often ignored.  Even if one dismisses mystical experiences as “rare hallucinations”, that would not actually demonstrate they were of little or no influence on the world’s religions.  Indeed, they seem core to at least Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism, and a significant theme in others, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Now, there seem to be about 12-16 different kinds of experiences that are commonly called, “mystical”,  so I should take special care here to clearly distinguish what I mean by the word.  I mean only one quite specific kind of experience, which I call “the mystical experience”,  for lack of being inspired to come up with any other name for it.

The problem here is that, while it is easy to come up with words to describe the  content of that experience, it is impossible to come up with words capable of communicating that content to anyone but people who have had the experience.

Buddhists sometimes describe nirvana as a “cessation of suffering”,  and Christian mystics describe their experiences as “experiences of God”,  but neither phrase is able to communicate what those things mean to anyone other than the people who use them.  The problem is the nature of words themselves.  Words are symbols that ultimately depend on shared experiences to communicate much of anything.  If you had a barn, and I had never seen anything like it,  you would be reduced to describing your barn in terms of what I had seen.  “It’s like your mud hut, Paul, only much, much bigger.”

However, I have had some luck describing mystical experiences as involving a dissolution of subject/object perception, replaced by a perception of all things being in some sense one.  The key is to grasp that subject/object perception is perceiving the world in such a way that you divide the things you perceive into self and non-self.

That is, I not only see the tree in my yard, but I see the tree as “not me”.   That’s the normal, everyday mode of waking consciousness.  But if and when that breaks down and you perceive — if only for a moment or two — the tree and you as unified by some sense of oneness, then you’re having a mystical experience.  The sine qua non of those experiences is that breakdown into oneness.

In addition to that, there is much other content typical of a mystical experience, but it’s much harder for most us to understand how mundane joy differs from mystical bliss, than it is for us to understand we have suddenly lost or abandoned our sense of things being either “me” or “not me”.

Hence, I am only concerned with that one kind of mystical experience, but that’s not to say there are no other kinds — most of them probably more interesting than the mystical experience.

As I said, Christian mystics tend to interpret their experiences as experiences of the Christian God, but so too do most people around the world, and through-out the ages (except they aren’t usually talking about the Christian god).  Not the Buddha, of course, nor Lao Tzu, but so many others use “god” or virtual synonyms for god.  So, although there are an appreciable number of atheists and agnostics who have had mystical experiences, it’s easy to see how the experience could create a sense of deity.

Mystical experiences seem to be as deeply rooted in our genes as the other kind of experiences.  The neural sciences have revealed that they are associated with at the very least changes in the activity levels of the parietal lobe and the thalamus.   There seems to be evidence that they might also have something to do with “brain chemicals” like dopamine.  So, I think despite our understand of them is still quite limited we do now know enough to safely say they are genetically rooted in us.

Of course, the implication is that “god won’t go away anytime soon”.   But I think that can be more clearly seen when we consider that the sciences have no means for disproving the notion god might be behind, or the ultimate cause of, such experiences.

Even if we knew everything about their natural causes, we would have no means of knowing anything about whether or not there were supernatural causes to them also.

Now, if all of the above is true enough, then I think its safe to say the imminent death of all religions is not exactly “around the next corner”.  We would most likely need to evolve so far as to become a new species — with a new kind of brain — for that to happen.  So, while people may shift from one form of religiosity to another, I think most of us will retain some kind of religiosity.

I hope the future brings us ever more benign forms of religiosity.

Bad Ideas, Belief, Cultural Change, Ethics, Human Nature, Humanism, Idealism, Morality, Morals, Quality of Life, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Values, Wisdom

“The Point of Most Religions is the Betterment of Mankind”

(About a four minute read)

“The point of most religions is the betterment of mankind.”  — Posted on an internet religious forum.

A dear friend of mine is a kind, sweet lady who, with her husband, belongs to a fundamentalist church in the Midwestern county I grew up in. Her church means everything to her.

Besides that she’s retired now and spends most of her time doing one thing or another for her church community, her church community presents to her a sort of oasis of love, charity, kindness, compassion, and all around goodness in an otherwise rather disturbing larger world whose values are often alien to hers.

I suspect she would largely agree with the above quote. From where she’s at, the quote must make a lot of sense. She only needs to look at the way her church community took up a collection for the family whose breadwinners were out of work, or the way her pastor visits and comforts the sick, or how most of her church buddies believe in the ideal of treating each other with loving kindness — she only needs to look at those things to agree the point of her religion is the betterment of mankind.

Of course, her church is officially a busybody that’s intolerant of premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, and many other private things it has no real business being intolerant of. Its pastor is also a staunch supporter of neocons in general, Bush and Cheney in particular, the War in Iraq, the War on Terror, and his side in the so called “Culture Wars”. And many of the people in her church community are bigoted, narrow-minded folk who would never vote for a Black, a Muslim, or a woman to be president. So, to an outsider, her church might appear anything but an oasis of love, charity, kindness, compassion, and all around goodness — let alone dedicated to the betterment of mankind.

Yet, how is she expected to stand back from her church community — which occupies her days and means nearly everything to her — and clearly see the moral ugliness of people who reserve their best “Christian” behavior for insiders just like themselves, while damning and condemning every outsider from scientists to liberals and beyond?

She would much rather help her elderly neighbor get out and about, or bake something to raise money for a needy family, than to consider her pastor’s outrageous notion that homosexuals undermine and destroy the sanctity of her marriage.

I recall a young fundamentalist here in town a while back who I overheard blithely telling her friend that when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor”, he meant love those who belong to your church.

She was certain she was thereby realizing the highest Christian principle of universal love — because, after all, most of the people who belonged to her church were strangers to her, and hence her love for them was “altruistic”.

Yet, even the Bible says there is nothing remarkable about loving only those who are members of our own group.

Humans evolved as a social animal living in small groups. Most of us need little prompting to treat the members of our group with respect, compassion, kindness — even love. After all, we evolved to do that. It’s to a large extent instinctual. We’re almost always ready to “better mankind” so long as “mankind” is the group of people we hang out with.

On the other hand, there are very few Gandhis, very few Martin Luther Kings, very few people like Jesus — very few people who somehow realize in practice the notion the whole world should be treated with kindness, compassion, respect, and love. To most of us, such a notion is “wild”, suspect, perhaps even immoral.

Today, the world — the entire world — is involved in a grand experiment. An experiment to see whether we can all get along together in dignity, freedom, peace and sustainable prosperity. No one seems to have wanted that extraordinarily daring and risky experiment, but it’s now imposed upon all of us nonetheless.

So, what’s going to be the outcome? Will the world descend into endless wars as some think likely? Will it sink into corporate fascism as some others think likely? Will it be the birth of a new golden age for humanity — as very few seem to think likely? Or will something else happen?

More to the point, just what is going to be the role of the world’s religions in bringing about the “New World Order” — whatever that Order actually turns out to be? Are religions going to finally live up to their own professed ideals of universal compassion, kindness, charity, love, generosity, etc.? Will they ever, really, make “the betterment of mankind” their honest “point”?

Frankly, I strongly suspect that any sustained progress towards a world in which most people live in dignity, freedom, peace and sustainable prosperity will ultimately come — not from religions for the most part — but from Humanism. If such progress comes at all.


Originally published on this blog January 15, 2008.  Lightly edited May 6, 2017 to better reflect my current views.

Abuse, Agape, Alienation, Altruism, Authenticity, Being True To Yourself, Brotherly Love, Christ, Christianity, Coffee Shop Folks, Coffee Shop Stories, Compassion, Cultural Traits, Culture, Ethics, Fairness, Free Spirit, Goals, God, God(s), Happiness, Human Nature, Idealism, Joe, Learning, Life, Love, Meaning, Memes, Morality, Morals, People, Philos, Physical Abuse, Purpose, Quality of Life, Relationships, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Self, Self Identity, Self Image, Talents and Skills, Values, Yahweh

There are no Weeds

(About a 10 minute read)

Long ago, the Coffee Shop was a hang out for many mildly disaffected youths.  They were the kids who didn’t fit in too well, who weren’t always doing what was expected of them, who often had talents no one had noticed or encouraged, or who were simply marching to the beat of their own drummer.

Kyle, for instance, was the son of a wealthy father, but he wanted to make his own way in the world.  So he had enlisted in the Army to earn money for college rather than allow his father to pay for his education.  He was passionate about poetry and wanted to teach English.

Melanie was from a much poorer family than Kyle, and her only academic interests were mathematics.  She paid for the community college by working as an erotic dancer.

Catherine was another mathematician, and she worried about her social skills.  She graduated early from high school then stayed in town to mature for a year, rather than head straight to college.

Erin was 15 when she left her parent’s house to sleep on friend’s couches.  She did her homework by streetlight for a while.  Then she met Jim, a year or two older, who convinced her school was for losers, and life lay in studying the Kabbalah.

Jody was a bit older than most, and a prostitute fascinated with the Third Reich and Phoenician glassware.  She’d scored high on the aptitude tests, but drugs, along with being raised in an abusive home, were too much for her, and she left unpursued her dream of becoming an historian.

Luke was raised in North Africa and in British boarding schools before his executive father transferred to Colorado.  He planned to leave town soon to study psychology, for he wanted to heal minds.  In the meantime, he was both too well educated and too brilliant for his high school classes.  So, like many other eccentrics, he found his way to the Coffee Shop.

In the mornings, the Shop was full of business people; by midday it held all ages and walks of life; and by evening it was the kids.  One slow Tuesday night I spent a half hour or 45 minutes carefully counting the crowd.  My count was nearly 200, most of them people I’d met, most of them kids, most of them misfits.

If anyone loved them all, it was Joe. He seemed to have a knack for it.

A month or so after we met, Joe invited me to go with him and a couple to Valley View Hot Springs.  It was the way he phrased the invitation that surprised me.  “We need a chaperon”, he said, “There might be trouble.  You’ve got to say, ‘Yes’.”

I couldn’t tell at first how serious he was about trouble.  Joe was 18 that year, strong, and could handle himself. Besides, he knew Valley View was more peaceful than most any other place in Colorado.  He’d been going there with his family since he was five or six.  What kind of trouble did he anticipate?

The trouble was jealousy, Joe explained.  He’d only recently befriended the couple, and he had not caught on to the guy’s jealousy of him.  Thinking everything was cool, he decided to share with them the most spiritual place he knew of.   The girl was so enthusiastic to go to Valley View that the guy feigned agreement, and so Joe and the couple had made plans.  But in the week between making plans and their realization, Joe was shocked when the girl pointed out to him her boyfriend’s jealousy.  That’s when Joe got the notion my presence might somehow defuse the situation.

In the years I knew him, Joe almost never allowed himself to act on any jealously he himself might feel, and I think that might have been because jealousy excludes folks rather than includes them.  Joe was all about including people.  Looking back, it seems almost inevitable Joe would fail to see the boyfriend’s jealousy until it was pointed out to him.

So, the four of us took a day trip to Valley View.  The couple had brought swimsuits, but the guy strangely refused to join his girlfriend, Joe and I in the hot springs.  Instead, he said he wanted to look for elk among the pines and scrub oak, and wandered off.  I left Joe and the girl talking at one end of the pool, and spent most of the time watching dust devils swirl across the valley below.

It was by no means a bad trip, but I think it was the worse Joe and I ever managed to take to Valley View. It seemed none of us got into the spirit of the place.   We left just as divided as we’d arrived.  A few days later, Joe and I discussed it.  After noting how argumentative the guy became on the trip home, Joe said he felt the girl had spent the afternoon at the pool in some kind of bubble; unresponsive to the beauty all around her; unable to connect with nature; indifferent even to the wind through the ponderosa.  “We might as well have gone to the mall”, he grinned.

Joe had been raised a Christian, but a year or two after the trip he committed himself to it.   His inspiration was the New Testament, rather than the Old; the life of Jesus, rather than the Ten Commandments.  Consequently, his first step was to simplify his life.  He gave away his inessential possessions and moved from his parent’s house to a shack.  Mostly, though, he emulated Jesus and the Disciples in his heart and mind.  It became clear the appeal of Christianity to him was its doctrine of universal love — he was, he told me, indifferent to heaven and hell.  Instead, salvation, for Joe, was to learn how to love the world as Christ had.

His experiment with Christianity lasted a couple of years.  When I asked him why he was no longer a Christian, he told me he still believed in God, and perhaps even that Jesus was Christ, but he could not have faith in them so long as people were sent to hell.

Joe worked at a greenhouse.  One day, Joe spoke of his growing distaste for weeding.  “They may be weeds, Paul, but they didn’t ask to be born where they’re not wanted.  It feels terrible to kill them.”  Some part of me agreed with Joe — at least with his notion that all living things have value — but I still felt weeding in a greenhouse was justified by its necessity.  I thought to myself he’d soon enough see that necessity and reconcile himself to killing weeds.

A day later, however, Joe found a partial solution.  He began transplanting the weeds.  At least he began transplanting the larger ones.  He did it on his own time, after work, because he didn’t think it was fair to charge his boss for the extra time it took.  There was a large, bare mound of soil out back of the greenhouse and he was transplanting the weeds to the far side of it, where — he hoped — they would thrive.

I was a bit taken aback.  On the one hand, it ranked among the craziest things I’d heard of a friend doing in some time.  But on the other hand, looked at a little more rationally, it wasn’t self-destructive, it was harmless to others, and it preserved life.  I didn’t think Joe’s project would last — I thought he’d grow tired of it — but I rather admired him for asserting his good convictions in a world where there sometimes seemed to be too few good convictions.

Two months passed before Joe brought the subject up again.  My first reaction was surprise he was still transplanting weeds.  But then he explained his boss had found him out.  Of course, he expected to be fired.  Yet, after he’d told her everything, she’d only laughed and smiled, and told him he was a good worker, that she loved him, and that she would find other work than weeding for him to do.

Something happened one day to make me see symbolic meaning in Joe’s actions.  It began when Laura called to ask if she could come over and take a shower.  She was a homeless kid who kept a few items of clothing at my place and sometimes dropped by for a shower or a meal.  She was heavily into drugs, and I never invited her to stay too long, because I didn’t want my things to start disappearing.

That evening, I got her fed and her feet massaged, and then sent her off to the shower.  She told me she’d been partying, and that after my place, she wanted to go back and party some more.  It wasn’t long, though, before she’d fallen asleep on the couch.   I thought about her while she slept.

Laura was nineteen, and she hadn’t a regular home since she was thirteen.  She’d never met her father, a man who left before she was born.  At thirteen, she’d gotten into a fight with her mother’s boyfriend.  He swung a chair at her.  A leg caught her in the belly and ripped a seven inch wound.  She ran from the house and never returned.

The wound didn’t get sewn up, and the scar was huge.  I’d run my fingers along it once, and somehow the memory of that furrowed, lumpy scar tissue was still stuck in my fingertips.  When I thought of Laura, I always thought of that scar.  And that’s what I was thinking of when Joe’s words came back to me: “They may be weeds, but they didn’t ask to be born where they’re not wanted.”  It was somewhat like a minor epiphany: Joe would understand the tragedy of Laura better than anyone — if for no other reason than Joe had a knack for a certain kind of love.

There is more than one kind of love in this world.  The kind Joe was most interested in is inclusive.   That kind of love does not seek to jealously wall off a little private garden for itself.  It is neither possessive nor jealous, as was the guy at Valley View.  Nor does it demand to be loved in return — for a love that wants love in return must exclude some from being loved. It was the promise of that inclusive kind of love that attracted Joe to Christianity.  It was the realization that some are excluded from God’s love that caused Joe to lose his faith.

I believe it’s rare for most of us — especially when we are young — to think of love as an excellence.  That is, as a thing one might learn how to do to the best of his or her ability.  Instead, we think of love as something requiring little or no talent, practice, or skill.  We suppose it comes natural to us, and so we spend our time waiting for it without doing much to help it come about.

Every kid at the Coffee Shop had his or her own mix of talents and skills, and many of the kids had an excellence.  Kyle, for instance, was a gifted poet.  Melanie and Catherine excelled at mathematics.  And Luke was a born psychologist.  But I think Joe’s excellence was his ability to love.

Sometime ago, Joe moved up into the mountains, where he met a woman and settled in with her.  He lives up there now, in a small mountain town.


Originally posted November 27, 2008

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Wealth Inequality vs. Freedom and Liberty

(About a 10 minute read)

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible.

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones’ earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones’ earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

There is great truth in that.

Yet, the notion becomes extraordinarily problematic when we think that’s all there is to it.   For if we were to attempt to secure our freedoms and liberties by such a simple-minded principle as the notion that they can best be secured via allowing the unrestricted accumulation of wealth, we would soon enough find ourselves enslaved.

The problem is — in a nutshell — that Jones, if he gets too much wealth relative to Smith, will inevitably possess the means to subjugate Smith.

Of course, that’s not a real problem, according to some folks, because Jones is a decent old boy and would never think for a moment to use his wealth to destroy Smith’s freedoms and liberties — not even when crushing Smith and his foolish freedoms and liberties would benefit Jones.

Yes, some good folks actually believe that! And in my experience, there’s not much you can say to such folks that will convince them to change their minds once the idea has got hold of them that the only real issue here is the sacred right of Jones to earn as much money as he can, and retain nearly every last dime of it.  “Taxation is theft”, you know.

Rationality is not, on the whole, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our noble species of  poo-flinging super-sized chimpanzees.  That seems to be the case because we happily neglected to evolve our big brains in order to better discern truths.  Instead, we apparently evolved them for other reasons, which I have written about here and here, among other places.  So, I am not writing this post for those folks who are firmly convinced that the bumper-sticker insight, “taxation is theft”, is the very last and wisest word on the matter of wealth inequality.  I am writing this post for those comparatively open-minded individuals who might be looking for some thoughts about wealth inequality to mull over before arriving at any (hopefully, tentative) conclusions about it.

I believe that, to really understand wealth inequality, one needs to remember that we spent roughly 97% of our time as a species on this planet evolving to live in relatively egalitarian communities.  Communities in which there was typically (with a few exceptions) comparatively little political, social, or economic difference between folks.  Everyone was more or less equally engaged in the struggle for food to survive, whether they were hunters (mostly men) or gatherers (mostly women).

Then, about 5,500 years ago some jerk got it into their head that it would be a very good idea if most everyone else would work to support their lazy butt while they spent their hours leisurely whiling away the time ruling over them.  And thus was born the complex society.

“Complex” because there was now a relatively complex division of labor in which, instead of two basic occupations (hunter or gatherer), there were now many occupations (king, priest, lord, judge, craftsman, merchant, farmer, etc).   Moreover, the wealth, and with it, the power in those societies was now concentrated at the top.

The way in which the minority retained their positions over the majority was back then mainly three-fold, just as it still is today.  First, through ideologies justifying the power, wealth, and status of the minority.  “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”,  begins the ancient Sumerian king’s list.  Thus, from the very first, the masters were using ideologies to control the masses:  e.g. “kingship descends from  heaven”, and thus you should accept it as what the gods intend for you.

Second, through rallying the people to face a dire (usually external) threat.  It is mere human nature that we are most likely to surrender our freedoms and liberties in preference for slavishly following a leader when we feel threatened by a common enemy.  Indeed, an oppressive state — and not always just an oppressive one — needs a common enemy to unify the people under its boot.

When ideologies fail, then it is time to call upon the soldiers, of course.  Propaganda, a common enemy, and ultimately, force.  The three main pillars of government from the Sumerians to the current day.

In a way, the one major change has been that the government today is largely a front for the real masters — the wealthy corporations and individuals that so many politicians are beholden to, the economic mega-elites.

It should be noted that by “wealthy individuals”, I am not referring to the folks with a few million dollars, but to the folks with hundreds or (especially) billions of dollars.  The average millionaire, in my experience, is not much of a threat to the rights, freedoms, and liberties of others and, in fact, is often enough a defender of those rights.  Call him or her a “local elite” because they are so often focused economically, socially, and politically on the communities they live and work in.  And it seems their ties to those communities generally result in their being net benefactors to them.  But perhaps most importantly, they simply do not have the resources to compete politically with the billionaire class in order to buy the government.  That, at least, is my impression.

No, by “wealthy individuals” I mean the folks who have the resources to be genuine contenders to hold the reins of  power in this — or any — country.  In the most recent national election, the Koch brothers dumped nearly a billion dollars into buying politicians from the level of “mere” state legislators all the way up to the national Congress and Senate.  And they weren’t the only economic mega-elites in the game.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.  — Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court

The problem, of course, isn’t wealth itself, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  Over time, the concentration has a natural tendency to worsen.  That is, the wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands.  Since power follows upon riches closer than a hungry dog follows a butcher, political power, as well, tends over time to end up in fewer and fewer hands.  There seems to be a natural tendency to progress from democracy to oligarchy, and then to dictatorship.

During the same recent forty year or so period in American history when huge tax cuts  for the wealthiest individuals and corporations allowed the billionaire class to explode in size, incomes for the middle class all but became stagnant, while the poor actually lost ground.  There’s no polite way of saying this: “Trickle down economics” is an ideology of oppression used to fool people into believing that cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase job growth.

The average American today arguably works harder, struggles more financially, and has fewer back up resources for a rainy day than his or her parents and grandparents had.  As it turns out, you can’t concentrate almost all the wealth in the hands of a relatively few economic mega-elites without hurting someone.  But who would have thought that?  After all, didn’t the ideologists inform us we’d all be better off cutting taxes on the wealthy?

A comprehensive study has found that the average American now has little or no influence on their legislators, and which bills get passed into law.  Those who determine both the content and success of legislation are the economic mega-elites of America, the billionaires and the large corporations.

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.  Louis D. Brandeis

But, of course, we do not wish to believe Brandeis today because the trusty ideologists have also told us unions are a net evil.  Got to trust those boys and girls!  It’s just not true that so very many of them are employed by billionaire funded think tanks and institutions.

Now, the rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  They were also, according to him, better off economically.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living under the dictatorships of  the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some inexorable reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  Apparently, sometimes quite the opposite has been the case.

About 2000 years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”  It will be interesting to see whether America has the political will to save its republic.