Abrahamic Faiths, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Religion, Taoism

Pure Religion

As I see it, none of the world’s major religions are pure.  That is, everyone of them in one way or another serves in practice to obscure the truth as much as to reveal it.  None are unadulterated.

This is especially true on “the village level”.  That’s the level of the religion as it is manifested in practice.  But even their holiest or most sacred writings strike me as at least a bit misleading at times.

I think a large part of it is because large religions serve many purposes.  They are not just about seeking out and living according to the way of things — however that way is conceived.  For instance, almost all of them concern themselves in one way or another with propping up the existing social order.  Or — especially in the case of Middle Eastern religions — meddling with human sexuality.

On the whole, the major religions strike me as ores.  They are varying degrees rich or poor ores, but they are ores.  You have to learn how to refine them into something purer than their natural state if you want “pure religion”.

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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…”

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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”

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If I Were a Theist, I’d Still be a Madman

(About a 3 minute read)

If I were a theist and believed in gods, I would be an insufferable theist.

Indeed, my opinions might be a tad insufferable already.  At least, I think that could be a reasonable conclusion based on the number of encouraging emails I get from my loyal readers that include a pic of someone’s buttocks, along with the usually brief message, “Thinking of you, Paul!”.

Continue reading “If I Were a Theist, I’d Still be a Madman”

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Why Fools Point at the Moon

(About a 7 minute read)

It is a charming, ancient conceit that fools are secretly the wisest among us.  Everyone has heard that somewhere or another.  It is pervasive not merely in Europe — home to the court fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear — but worldwide.

Every culture seems to recognize the truth of it.  In Europe, fools are fixtures at the court of kings.  In the far East, they are sages.  In Africa, they are sometimes deities who wear multi-colored hats.  And among the Native American nations, they are Raven and Coyote. Jung would recognize the fool as an archetype of what he believed was the “collective human subconscious”.

But why do humans so often think wisdom is a property of fools?  It is easy to see why we ascribe it to wise men and women, but why specifically to fools?  What does the fool actually represent to us?

Continue reading “Why Fools Point at the Moon”

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Late Night Thoughts: Socialism, Theresa and Carlos, Kindness and Tragedy, Poems, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

Thunder has been rolling off the mountains since the afternoon.  The breeze has carried the scent of rain for hours, but there’s been no rain.  It’s once again warm enough to leave the doors and windows open to the night air.

◊◊◊

Someone was telling me that judgmental people are always jealous people.  If that’s so, I haven’t noticed it.  But it sounds like something that could be true.  And if it is true, I wonder if the converse is also true: Are jealous people always judgmental people?

◊◊◊

Waking Up in a Coffee Shop

The sun slants geometric on the floor,
Van Morrison drags the air,
Serbian troops surge forward,
And two old women sit and tell
The lives of relatives —
Their jobs, their marriages,
Births and deaths
Recounted at a trot
With shoes kicked off —
Statistics on estrogen.

The cup of Kenyan is just enough
To provoke the thought Don and Becky
Like the smell of leather better than most religions
And a good walk better than the rest:

Then it’s time to do the laundry.

◊◊◊

I might have been 14 or 15 the first time I heard that socialism fails because people are not equal in their abilities.  Of course, the truth of the statement, “people are not equal in their abilities”, is indisputable.  But does any prominent socialist assert that people are equal?  Not that I know of.  The argument seems to be a straw man.

So far as I know, socialists only assert that people should have equal economic, social, and political rights and liberties — not merely in theory (as under capitalism), but in practice.

Nor do socialists typically hold that everyone should receive the same compensation for their work as everyone else.  Rather, compensation typically varies according to the principle, “To each according to their contribution”:

The term means simply that each worker in a socialist society receives compensation and benefits according to the quantity and value of the labor that he or she contributed. This translates into workers of high productivity receiving more wages and benefits than workers of average productivity, and substantially more than workers of low productivity. An extension of this principle could also be made so that the more difficult one’s job is—whether this difficulty is derived from greater training requirements, job intensity, safety hazards, etc.—the more one is rewarded for the labor contributed. [source]

◊◊◊

Surely, a sense of humor has prevented more murders than a sense of morality.

◊◊◊

As I understand it, there are four major religions that contain within them some kind of a fundamentalist movement: Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  According to one scholar at least, the four fundamentalisms are united in that each is a reaction against modernity.

That would seem to make sense to me.  But I would go a bit beyond that to speculate that the fundamentalisms are also rooted in the same psychology as political conservatism.  Over the past several years, a growing body of psychological research has demonstrated that liberals and conservatives tend to have differences that run deeper than mere politics.  That is, their differences tend to be rooted in their psychologies.

For instance, studies have shown that conservatives, when compared to liberals, are among other things:

  • More orderly
  • More anxious
  • More attuned to threats
  • More self-disciplined
  • Less open
  • Less novelty seeking

One seems to find the same pattern in the four fundamentalisms.

◊◊◊

Some years ago a friend of mine, Theresa, saved enough money while working as a $1000/night erotic dancer in Los Angeles to start her own small import/export business.  For a reason I no longer recall, she specialized in trade between the US and Costa Rico.   It was in Costa Rico that she met her husband.

Theresa is athletic and is in the habit of running every day, regardless of where she is in the world.  Consequently, when she was getting her business up and running in Costa Rico, she would run each day, taking the same route, at about the same time in the morning.  As it happened, her route took her by a bank.

Working at the bank was a young man who I’ll call Carlos here because I’ve forgotten his real name  (Sorry, Carlos! But I’m bad with names — even though I recall how handsome you are!).  One day Carlos noticed a beautiful blond woman running past the bank’s windows.  But it wasn’t just her beauty that stopped him in his tracks.

Carlos, you see, had had a dream in which he’d seen a beautiful blond woman running past the bank’s windows.  In fact, it seemed to him that the woman he was watching run past the windows that day was the very woman of his dreams.

He soon became aware of Theresa’s routine and began watching for her around the same time each day.   A month went by.   Then one day, Theresa was not there!

Carlos looked for her the next day, and the day after, but she no longer passed the bank each morning.  What Carlos didn’t know is that Theresa had found a local partner, and had consequently returned to the US.

Seven very long years went by for Carlos.  His friends and family worried he would never get married.  They — especially his mother — put pressure on him to find a woman.  But Carlos resisted.  It was not that he was waiting for the blond woman, though.  Carlos had given up all hope of seeing her ever again.

Instead, the blond woman had made such an impression on him that he didn’t feel any other woman he met during those seven years quite measured up to her in beauty or physical grace — and for Carlos, those were deal breakers.  He wondered if he would every feel differently, but he was adamant not to marry a woman he didn’t want at least as much as he had wanted the blond woman.  That would not be fair to any woman, he thought.

Meanwhile, back in the US, Theresa had long ago cashed out her share of the import/export business and was now a partner in an L.A. restaurant.  One year, though, she decided to take a vacation, and what better place to take it than the lovely country of Costa Rico?  She arranged a month long lease on a house there.

Carlos looked up from his desk one day to see the blond woman running past his bank’s windows!  He was so sure it was her that he didn’t hesitate even a second. Instead, he dashed out the door after her.

Theresa realized someone was calling after her to wait up, but when she looked, it was a stranger, so she kept running.  He couldn’t possibly have any real business with her.  Nevertheless, the man caught up with her.  As they ran side by side, he begged her to stop.

She didn’t stop.

So he sputtered out his story as he ran beside her.  She was the most beautiful girl in the world!  Theresa rolled her eyes.  He just had to meet her!  Theresa picked up her pace.  She was the girl of his dreams!  Theresa pushed herself even faster.  She must stop for he could not bear to lose her for another seven years! Theresa suddenly thought he must have known her from years ago — and remembered her!  Curiosity brought her to a jogging standstill.  She turned to face him.   “Who are you? Have we met?”

The two were married within a year or so.

◊◊◊

Kindness is our most powerful rebellion against tragedy.  – George Wiman

◊◊◊

The Hands Remember

The hands remember
More than the mind your skin

They think of their own will,
“This was the shape of her”,

When they find themselves cupped
Or curled in a certain loose way

Around the curves
Of you no longer here:

The left hand
Especially so.

Yes, I know
now
My left hand
Knew you one way,

While my right hand
Knew you another.

Was either best?

◊◊◊

Once upon a time, a god wanted something to laugh at, while a goddess wanted something to weep for.  The two created humans, and both were satisfied.

◊◊◊

“Hullo?”

“Hi Don!  It’s Paul!  I’m calling to see if you want to go to lunch today?”

“Sure.”

“Great!  Can I come along?

“Don?  Are you still there, Don?”

“Yes, Paul, but now I wish I wasn’t.”

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Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

Second-Hand Truths

“My point is, an enlightened person will overcome suffering because suffering is just a state of mind”, Henry told me.

“How do you know that?”, I asked.

Henry and I go back awhile.  He was one of the first people I met when I came to Colorado some years ago.  And his real name is so distinctive that I am calling him “Henry” here to preserve his privacy.

Although raised a Christian, Henry is today religiously eclectic.  He borrows things from several religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, and Buddhism.   Yesterday, I managed to mildly irritate him during a phone conversation by asking him how he knew somethings to be true.

“The Buddha himself said suffering is just a state of mind, and he said that an enlightened person will overcome it”,  Henry said.  “And don’t ask me how the Buddha knew — he certainly knew more than you do.”

“The Buddha also said you should look for yourself”, I reminded Henry, “and to not rely upon his or anyone else’s words for the truth.”

Rightly or wrongly, I suspected Henry was missing the point.  And I further suspected that he might be missing the point because he was stuck in taking the Buddhist scriptures he was reading on faith.

East and West

It seems to me there is a sense in which the West and the Middle East expect you to take important religious truths on faith, while the East expects you to test such things for yourself.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that in practice.  There are different attitudes towards teachers, for instance.  Westerners often challenge their teachers to defend their views.  Easterners tend to take it for granted their teachers are right.  But even with those qualifications and others, the West seems more prone to taking religious truths on faith than the East.

Why is that?

It seems the most important religious truths of the West are truths that you have no choice but to accept on faith — if you are going to accept them at all.   For instance: There is no conclusive evidence for the notion that Jesus was Christ, nor any conclusive evidence for the notion that Mohammed was the last of the prophets.  These are not truths that can be established by observation.

In contrast, it seems the most important Eastern truths can be established by experimentation and observation.  Henry’s notion that an enlightened person will overcome suffering can be tested.  That is, in theory at least, Henry could become enlightened, then observe whether or not he suffers.

Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

Many Westerners seem to bring to Eastern scriptures the faith they were taught to have in Western scriptures.   Perhaps they never heard the Zen expression, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

So far as I can guess, there might be at least three reasons why the East often insists on killing the Buddha — that is, on not blindly following anyone, even the Buddha.

First, what works for the Buddha might not work for you.  Humans are a diverse species.  While humans do have a lot in common, there are enough differences between individuals that it’s pretty safe to say what works for some of us might not work for all of us.  You see that principle in such mundane things as the various shapes of the human nose.  There are no two humans, other than identical twins, with exactly the same shape of nose.  Yet, almost all human noses are recognizably human.   The psychology upon which our spirituality is based is probably just as diverse as our noses.  Why else are there no “Sixteen Sure Steps to Enlightenment” that can be successfully repeated by everyone who is interested?

Second, you are not really looking unless you are looking for yourself.  At the very best, scriptures and the sayings of your teachers are guides or maps.  Even when they are accurate, if you look no further than the scriptures and sayings, you are not really looking.  You have not really looked at Paris if all you have looked at are maps of Paris.  You are not really looking at, say, suffering if you do not look beyond what is said about suffering.

Third, scriptures and teachings can remove the urgency to change.  Basically, scriptures and teachings label things.  And what we label loses some of its vitality.  Often enough, once you have labeled a headache a “headache”, you no longer feel quite the same urgency to deal with it as before.

Fourth, we become attached to scriptures and teachings.  It is quite easy to become attached to scriptures and teachings.  But all attachments — very much including our attachments to ideas — seem to be impediments to realization.  If that’s the case, then attachments to scriptures and teachings are no less impediments to realization than are attachments to cars or houses.

 ◄A Good Habit

I’m no expert on East and West, so it’s just my impression that the East is more likely than the West to encourage you to test for yourself the truth or falsity of any scripture or teaching.  But whether or not the East insists on testing them for yourself, it strikes me as a good habit to be in.  “Killing the Buddha” is not just good advice.  It is probably necessary if you are really going to get anywhere in these matters.

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Why Was Sodom Destroyed?

Your elder sister is Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daughters. You not only followed their ways, and acted according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways. As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

Ezekiel 16:46-50

The strongest argument for the existence of Yahweh just might be that He is necessary to explain why America is on the cusp of destruction today.  It was only a dozen years ago, folks were talking about the New American Century — as if it were inevitable.  But it seems that it sorely pisses off Yahweh when a rich, prideful nation refuses to aid the poor and needy.

“Therefore I removed them when I saw it.”

Quick! Hide the underclass!  Ah, too late!

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“They Find in Religion an Aggressor”

Please Note: This is a post by guest author, S.W. Atwell.  The views and opinions expressed in her post are entirely her own.  If you would like to post as a guest author on this blog, please contact me at the email address posted on my contact page.

— Paul Sunstone

I’m writing this blog piece in response to some of Paul Sunstone’s musings about people who blog about leaving the religion in which they grew up.  According to Sunstone, some people lose their childhood religion because of an intellectual disagreement with doctrine.  “Typically, their doubts began to mount until one day some point in particular became the straw that broke the back of their faith.”  Others found their religion personally repressing, even destructive to the development of their selves.  “They find in religion an Aggressor.

I cannot resist blogging about my loss of faith, not the least because Sunstone feels that loss-of-religion blog pieces usually “outclass” religious blogs.  How can I resist an invitation to be “classy.”  Oh, yes, and Sunstone finds it especially “moving” when the reason for leaving one’s religion was the discovery that it was working against them personally.  So, now I simply have to blog about my little faith crash.  I want to move my readers and do so with at least a little class.

When I was seven, my moderately observant Jewish parents placed me in a school for Hasidic girls.  Hasids are the “old style” European Orthodox Jews, easily identified by their clothes.  The men wore dark suits, long beards, sidelocks and black fedoras.  The women dressed in long, dark-colored skirts and never rolled their sleeves higher than the elbow.  Once they married, my classmates covered their heads with wigs or kerchiefs.

I liked the school well enough at first.  I did not even mind learning that I was not observing Jewish ritual “correctly.”  Learning to follow the customs better did not seem all that different to me from learning to read better in the second grade than I had in the first.  Where I got stuck, however, was on this God (usually referred to as “Ha-shem” or “the name”, because Orthodox Jews avoid saying God’s name) who knew everything that was going to happen and could do anything about it that he chose.  As a child getting crunched under a heavy load of disapproval from parents and teachers, I could not understand why he did not intercede on my behalf before I screwed up.  How about making it easier for me to learn to spell?  Or putting a thought in my mind that would stop my big mouth before I insulted my big sister?  Or even prompting the adults to be a little bit kinder when I made mistakes?  How could an all-powerful God make it so easy to sin even when you didn’t really mean to.  The story of Lot’s wife was simply terrifying.  What small child has never peeked through her fingers when told to cover her eyes?  Unkind adults and an uncaring God make for a bad psychic combination in the minds of the young.  I still remember one little girl who was scolded by her teacher for making mistakes at math.  She waited until recess to whisper her greatest fear to her best friend, “Ha-shem must really hate me,” she wept, “and I don’t know why.”

There is not much of a line between god and parent in the mind of a small child.  The parent can get the child to believe in god, or not.  The parent can get the child to believe anything, or not.  Sometimes, there is not much of a line between god and the parent in the mind of the parent.  My own mother was a religious fanatic.  She was sure she knew what god was thinking.  It was, of course, whatever she was thinking.  God’s desires were her own.  One of her desires was to quelch my growth into any sort of person who thought for herself.  She had this right, because it was what God wanted.  While I did not grasp all this until I was in my thirties, I certainly felt unable to live in some sense by the time I was twelve.  My breath would nearly stop at times against her unyielding wall.

This was also the point in my life when I became really aware of the most faith-testing circumstance faced by modern Jews, the Holocaust.  I asked my mother why God had not prevented it.  She responded, smugly, that God always had a reason for allowing bad things to happen and that the Holocaust had paved the way for the modern State of Israel.  In that moment, I decided not to believe in God.  Either he did not exist, because such bumbling could hardly be credited to the Omnipotent One, or he was not all-powerful.  If he couldn’t prevent babies from being gassed, he did not deserve to have people believe in him.

That last was a primitive reaction, but there was something even more primitive going on.  There were three people in the room that day, my mother, God and me.  My mother wanted to tell me the most terrible things so I would know I was never safe with anyone other than her.  God was her weapon.  If I accepted what she was saying, I would somehow no longer exist.  In short, one of us in that room had to die.  I was too stubborn to be the one, and I was too frightened of my mother to make her be the one.  Only God could die that day.

It would make quite a headline, wouldn’t it?  “Jew Kills God.” Now, where have I heard that before?

© S.W. Atwell (2011)

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Can Men and Women be Just Good Friends?

I had a drinking game I liked to play when I was in school.  The goal was to guess someone’s religion based on their answers to a short series of questions.  The catch?  The questions couldn’t be about religion.  Instead, the questions had to be about love and sex.

The game fascinated me.  I got so into it, I would keep a running tally of hits and misses from which to work out a “career average” for correct guesses.  I couldn’t get over how often you could match someone to the religion they grew up in with no more than the answers they had given you to three or four questions about love and sex.

To be sure, I did not try for the denomination.  The categories were Catholic, Liberal Protestant, Conservative Protestant, Jewish, or Mormon.  In other words, I wasn’t dealing with a lot of religious diversity.  Back then, most everyone fit into one or another of those categories.

I can only recall one of the core questions now, but it was my favorite because I felt it did more work than the other questions in allowing me to figure out someone’s religious background.   If I was asking a woman, for example, I would phrase the question this way, “Do you feel men and women can be just good friends, without having sex?”  Followed by, “Why or why not?”

I read a blog post tonight that reminded me of that game.  Specifically, the woman claimed it was all but impossible for a man and woman to be platonic friends.  She said she’d only in her life had one boyfriend she wanted to be real friends with.   And making friends with him had taken 20 years from the time the two of them broke up to the time they were “just good friends”.

Twenty years to make a friend?  After reading that, I figured maybe he and she didn’t bring to the problem the world’s best people skills.  But I also took a look at her “About Me” page, and noticed that her religion fit her attitude that men and women cannot be just good friends.

Religion isn’t everything, of course.  Lots of other things influence how easy it is for men and women to be just good friends.  For instance, the older you are, the easier it gets.  And the biggest influences of all are arguably the individual people involved.  But religion does seem to have an influence on what we tell drunks in college bars about our attitudes towards sex and love.  Of that, I’m reasonably certain.

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Do Religions Teach Morals?

Suppose you had a therapy that was supposed to cure people of depression. Further, suppose your therapy was full of sharp insights into human nature.

But let’s say you did a study and discovered that your therapy cured only 15 people out of every 100 people who underwent it.  In other words, it failed to cure 85 out of every 100 people who tried it.

Worse, your 15% cure rate was no better than your control group.  Your control group consisted of people who got no therapy at all.  But your therapy, despite it’s noble goal and its sharp insights, couldn’t cure people any better than no therapy at all could cure people.

If all of the above were true, would you call your therapy “effective”, “powerful”, “life changing”?   Would you say: “The goal of my therapy — to cure depression — is far too fine of a goal for anything to be wrong with my therapy.  The sharp insights of my therapy into human nature are far too truthful for anything to be wrong with my therapy.  Since nothing can be wrong with my therapy, it is the fault of the patients themselves that more of them don’t get better.  Give me more dedicated patients! Give me more enthusiastic patients!  And I will show you then that my therapy works just fine!”  Would that be your approach?  Blame the patient?

One of the main problems I have with most strains of Christianity, Islam, and several other religions, is that — so far as we have any science on the matter — they are no better than no religion at all in helping people lead moral lives.  And sometimes they are worse than no religion at all.

Of course, one can argue that the evidence is inconclusive, that we are not really sure most strains of those religions are weak moral teachers, and so forth.  But at the same time, even Christians, Muslims, Bahá’ís, Jews, and others routinely recognize the fact their religions fall far short of being wholly effective moral teachers.  For while they habitually claim their religions are powerful, effective, life changing, and so forth, they actually spend an astonishing amount of time and energy accusing the members of their own congregations (and other congregations) of backsliding, lacking better morals, or  being religious in name only.

Yet, they don’t blame themselves for that.  They blame everyone but themselves, often in rather sophisticated ways.  “Men and women are simply too wicked to follow our True Religion”.  “Materialism has corrupted everyone.”  “Hollywood liberals are undermining our morals.” “Western secularism is attacking our religion and corrupting our youth.”  “There is a cultural assault on our values.” “It’s the anti-Semites.”  “We are born sinful.” “Homosexuals are undermining us.” “Atheists!  It’s the atheists!”   And on and on and on ad nauseum.

No one says, “Our religion has some good ideals and goals, and some sharp insights into human nature, but we don’t know how to make use of them.  We don’t know how to translate our goals and insights into genuinely changed lives.”  No one says that, because everyone is too busy claiming out of one side of their mouth that their religion is life changing, while stating out of the other side of their mouth, that not enough Muslims are true Muslims, not enough Christians are true Christians, and so forth.

I am only going to mention in passing in this post the world’s many fundamentalists — who are always the biggest fools in any religion, and always the loudest hypocrites in any religion, and always the most violent — and whose goals are seldom enough honorable, and whose insights into human nature are seldom enough sharp and accurate.  Fundamentalists make for the world’s worse religious folks, whether they are Hindu, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish fundamentalists.

Yet,  there is a problem with lumping them into the mainstream, alongside the average Christian, Muslim, etc.  Namely, fundamentalists probably represent a psychological disorder,  more than a religious failure.   They are authoritarians, and authoritarianism can be thought of as a personality disorder.  And while they have significant influence on religions, expecting fundamentalists to live up to ideals like compassion, justice, and love  is like expecting a slow child to tackle the mathematics of nuclear physics during his or her third year in the fifth grade.  It is not fundamentalists that concern us here, but the average, mainstream member of a religion — why isn’t he or she morally sane?

Anyone who thinks the average, mainstream American Christian is morally sane, should ask where that Christian stood the day America invaded Iraq.  Or — let’s be honest — where he or she stood  on any number of other issues.   Some moral issues are genuinely ambiguous, but most apparent moral ambiguity is just dust stirred up by the sides to confuse people.

Insofar as morality is — as Sam Harris suggests — a matter of promoting human well being, then most moral issues are not as ambiguous as we might think.  Raping choir boys does not promote human well being.  Neither does rioting in the streets to protest a Danish cartoon.  Invading another country that has neither attacked you nor genuinely threatened you is unambiguously bad morality.  And so is stealing someone else’s land and water while imprisoning them in their remaining territory.

There are several strains of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and so forth, that claim — as if they have any right to claim it — they are life changing teachers of superior morals.  That’s fine, but if we are going to make such claims, we had better have the science to back them up.  Otherwise, how are we any different from a braggart, or perhaps even con artist?   Merely because those strains have a few high ideals and some genuine insights into human nature does not mean they know jack about helping people to become morally sane.  Instead, they are like Freudian psychoanalysis:  A lot of lofty intentions followed by a 15% cure rate.

Perhaps it is time to shit or get off the can.  That is, religions should either drop their claims to being effective moral teachers, or they should devote serious resources into figuring out exactly how to become effective moral teachers.  One or the other.

By the way, I do realize that for most religions, salvation or saving people — and not necessarily improving their morality — is the religion’s real reason for being.  I got that.  But that point is irrelevant here.   I am not addressing the claim of many religions that they offer us salvation.  I am only addressing the claims that they are effective moral teachers.

Last, there is not a religion on earth whose ideals and insights are entirely good or reliable.  Religions have a lot of junk mixed in with their treasures: Far and away more junk than treasure.  But, again, that is not the issue here.

Here, I am only addressing whether religions are effective moral teachers. And, in fact, there does not seem to be a great deal of evidence — scientific, anecdotal, and otherwise — to suggest that several religions are.  Instead, we are only given excuses as to why they are not effective moral teachers.   But there is no widespread, realistic or systematic effort on their part to actually improve their effectiveness.

You know, if you do not think this blog post is the absolute best blog post of the day on any of the world’s 72 million blogs, then it is your fault.  You are too materialistic to appreciate it.  You lacked enthusiasm when reading it.  You failed to study it enough.  You did not grasp the core concepts.  Shame on you.  The post was perfect.  Look what you have done with it!

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The Two Most Important Causes of Human Religiosity?

Thirty-five years ago, I signed up for a college course in comparative religion because, as a hopelessly idealistic 18 year old freshman, I figured religion in general would last for 10 more years, then die out, and I wanted to see what the hullabaloo was all about before it was gone forever.

Of course, I could not have been more wrong about something. Looking back, I had made — not just one — but at least two cognitive mistakes.  First, I was thinking of religion as mostly a primitive attempt to explain things — a proto-science.  That is, I had bought into the ancient and outdated notion that folks had invented the gods  in order to explain what caused thunderstorms, diseases, love, and other such catastrophes (however much outdated, that notion is still around, though).

That first mistake led directly to my second cognitive mistake: I believed science could and would replace religion because it seemed natural and inevitable to me that truth would replace falsehood.

In other words, I thought (1) religion largely offered us little more than false explanations for things, and (2) true explanations would inevitably displace false ones.

Nowadays, I think I have a somewhat more accurate view of how we humans came to be religious animals.  In fact, I think there is more than one cause of our religiosity.  But one of the things I do not think played much of a role in the evolutionary origins of our religiosity was any need to explain things.

It might be true humans are an animal that feels some need to explain things, but I do not believe that need gave rise to human religiosity.   For one thing, religions in general seem to place much more emphasis on the antiquity of their beliefs than they place on their explanatory power.   But if religiosity arose as an explanation of things, then wouldn’t that be turned around?  Wouldn’t people be much more inclined than they apparently are to demand that their religious beliefs accurately explain something?

Today, I think there might be as many as a dozen reasons humans are a religious animal.  But I think, of those dozen reasons, two are by far the most important.

First, I think  Theory of Mind offers us a powerful explanation for how religiosity originated in our species.  “Theory of Mind” is a name for the human tendency to assume that other people, besides we ourselves, have minds.  The polar opposite of  Theory of Mind would be the notion that we (i.e. you yourself) are the only thing in the universe with a mind.  If one wants to know how we humans evolved religious behaviors, then I think one could do much worse than to study how we humans evolved our Theory of Mind.

The second most important cause of human religiosity, so far as I am concerned, is the mystical experience.  The mystical experience occurs when subject/object perception comes to an end while awareness yet continues.  If you are passionate enough about mysticism to be interested, I have written about that mystical experience on this blog, including in my post on the vital topic of How to Marry a Beautiful Woman by Discussing Mysticism“.  I firmly believe the post should be required reading in all kindergarten level courses in comparative religion.

Near as I can figure out, a large proportion of mystical experiences involve what can be described as “an experience of god”.  But even those that do not involve “an experience of god” tend to have a wee little inspirational effect on people.  I, for one, can easily imagine any and all mystical experiences as likely to inspire religious behaviors.

Those are my best guesses these days for how human religiosity came about.   Perhaps oddly enough, if either one of those guesses is true — let alone if both of them are true — then human religiosity is not going to die out of our species any time soon.  In fact, if those guesses are true, a strong case can be made for the notion that humans will be religious so long as humans are Homo sapiens.