Monday, January 20, 2014

Religion

A topic that has interested me for many years is religion.  I could write a book about it, but instead I'll probably just make a few posts.  If you are a religious person, this may be hard for you to read, so you may want to skip it.  I don't pull any punches.

First I'll give you a little background.  I was raised in the Episcopal Church and confirmed at age 12.  At the time I didn't really understand what it was that I was supposed to know, though I tended to like stories from the Bible.  Then when I took science classes in junior high school I realized that physical reality does not correspond to Christian conceptions of it, and I began a very long process of observing and analyzing how people adopt religious views, why they persist in holding them, and what the consequences are.  From about age 14 onward I have been an atheist, though I must qualify this somewhat.  Technically I would have to be an agnostic, since it is simply not possible to know with certainty that no god of any kind exists.  However, my position is that none of the gods postulated in Judaism, Christianity or Islam exist, and since these are the significant ones in Western culture, I am an atheist in at least that sense.

During my sophomore year in college, my roommate was a pretty bright guy who was a little confused.  This was the time of sex, drugs and rock and roll. He dropped out of college and tried to be a writer. When that didn't work, he joined an ashram.  I'm not sure about the teachings, but I think they were loosely based on Hinduism, with an emphasis on Kundalini yoga.  The ashram was in a large university town and had many young people living in it.  I was skeptical of the swami leading it, because he used the ashram members for free labor, with which he set up several profitable businesses.  Later he was run out of town and moved to the Boston area, and finally he settled in Portland, OR.  He has been accused of having multiple sexual relationships with female members and of pressuring members to turn over their assets to him.

The ashram was a sham, but it served a purpose for those who entered it.  My friend later became a lawyer and seems to have had a successful career.  It drove a wedge between us, though, and I have had almost no contact with him ever since he joined.  A friend of my friend, an acquaintance of mine, joined the same ashram and later became an M.D.  He is now on the faculty of a medical school.

In this vein, I had another college friend who was a talented painter. After college he moved to the same town as the ashram and attempted to live as an artist. However, he had no marketing skills and eventually became homeless, living in an abandoned bus. He was the son in a family that owned a major office equipment company, which he had been expected to take over.  It seemed he had failed both in fulfilling his family's wishes and in achieving his artistic aspirations.  I have wondered about this, and suspect some kind of mental illness.  I used to think it may have been adult-onset schizophrenia, but it is probably less severe. Anyway, while he was homeless he took an interest in Hinduism, and the last time I saw him he was a monk living in a Hindu monastery in Ganges, MI.  He still paints, but only to Hindu themes, and I don't think he's made much progress.

Religion has never been of any personal interest to me, and the above history is included simply to inform the reader of some of my early observations.  I have read books out of curiosity by authors such as D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Ram Das, and the much lesser-known Swami Rudrananda, but more for informational purposes than for religious purposes.  Of these, as I recall, Watts is the only one worth reading, because, if nothing else, he writes very well.

I now think that religion is an invention that fills various needs for individuals.  It is so obvious to me that God is a made-up entity that I don't think it even merits discussion.  The same goes for miracles.  The major world religions have historically been effective at organizing large populations.  On the individual level, religion fills many needs that are difficult to meet otherwise.  It is sort of like software that provides orientation and purpose when none is there.  Being conscious can be a great burden, and few can face it without adopting something that resembles a religion.  Religion also adds a social structure that encourages behavior that benefits everyone.  In this sense it is a meme that indirectly has a positive evolutionary effect on humans.

One thing that often amuses me is how the beliefs within a religion evolve over time.  Often what the founder said becomes distorted or is completely ignored by later followers.  My favorite examples are from Christianity. According to Jesus, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  The U.S. is purported to be one of the most Christian nations on earth, yet there is almost no evidence of this being a popular belief here.  Quite the contrary, the basic premise, held almost universally in the U.S., is that we are here to become prosperous and achieve eternal economic growth.

Ordinarily I would not concern myself with religion, but it increasingly seems to play a major role in serious armed conflicts both between different religious groups and between sects within religions.  I think that the problems far exceed religion alone, but religion is the ideology placed at the forefront of many of the conflicts.  Among the underlying problems is overpopulation, which forces previously isolated groups into contact with other groups and creates conditions of scarce resources.  Then there is the remembered history of American and European imperialism throughout the globe.  If the world became more secular, that would certainly help, but that is not in the cards. Having one world religion would also be an improvement, but that is even less plausible.  Greater prosperity worldwide could be a short-term solution, but I think it would be temporary at best and would soon create new problems such as more overpopulation and more pollution.  From an American standpoint, I am inclined to support much more international restraint, perhaps to the point of isolationism. When America acts abroad, it usually advances its own economic agenda, which is a vestige of imperialism and is often resented with good reason.  Furthermore, the U.S. still unofficially goes by the Christian brand, which is an ongoing disaster in the Middle East and elsewhere.

More on this at a later date.

4 comments:

  1. Hi Paul I don't mean to spam you am just reading several posts this afternoon. I am struggling with my belief system. I am 53 raised a good Catholic and still attend however I only mention this to give context. For an atheist your opening line seems oxymoronic but I liked it. I was good naturally arguing with my septuagenarian dear friend last night about religion. He is a scientist PhD Cornell and is atheist and believes religion is root of all evil. I ask why all the charity and good deeds of churches are never credited when we talk of religion only the age old clashes of tribes/cultures/fools. He had no response and I find it common that my anti-religion friends often diminish or entirely ignore all the good points. I readily accept and acknowledge that religion has caused untold misery.

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  2. I find scientific people a little obtuse about religion, because in many respects science is a religion to them. As far as your friend is concerned, he must at least acknowledge that science has been behind the development of many weapons, including the most devastating ones in human history. If he's in his 70's chances are he isn't very mentally flexible at this point. Don't waste your time.

    The effects of Christianity run very deep in Western society. The medieval church was the only place where one could become educated and is directly or indirectly responsible for all of the modern universities.

    As an atheist and a Darwinian, I think Christianity has served many good purposes for mankind. It recognizes that we must care about and help each other, which I think has a strong biological basis. However, in practice, all religions become corrupted and are used by the individuals who control them for their personal benefits. And the beliefs evolve over time to the point that they are unrecognizable in terms of how they were originally stated. As I have mentioned, Christ would be appalled if he came back.

    There is probably no satisfying answer to what you're looking for. The God described in the Bible simply does not exist. The Pope has no divine authority. The only thing I can say is that our impulses for empathy and for helping others are real - they are in our genes and we wouldn't be here without them. For what it's worth, Christ, in his way, recognized this. But he was not the son of God.

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  3. Re-reading this post I noticed mention of Ram Das which reminded me of my current new 'phase' and it sort of ties in w religion. Awhile back I did hot yoga and enjoyed it but then sort of fell out of it for 5 or so years. In the last 2-3 mos. I have returned to hot yoga with a vengeance. The passion I felt for it surprised me but I did not want to look to close as it has been a long time since I have been this energized about something. In the last few days it has occurred to me that it is only a structured stretching class albeit lots of other benefits. I have run (outdoors/treadmills whatever) for over 20 years and I see now that it replicates the feeling of a good run, i.e. sweaty, mellow feeling when done without the hard, soul crushing, air sucking, heavy feeling of running. So then I further got thinking that it seems like it is a religion to some ppl. The internet holds endless yoga sites, inspirational quotes, mediations and all manner of tips and tricks to lead a more enlightened life. At the risk of asking an unfair question I wondered if you have noticed any of this?

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    1. As you can tell from my post, religion doesn't interest me much personally. I do observe people though and can talk about that. First, I think you have to distinguish how you feel at any given moment from religion. Feelings and belief systems are different things. Moderate exercise definitely changes my mood, and it does for most people, because various chemicals get released in your brain. I could use a little of that now myself since I'm stuck inside with cabin fever.

      One of my brother-in-laws is a yoga teacher, and I think it does him good physically. He needs it because he does demanding construction work and he's in his late 50's. My daughter is married to an actual (i.e. not an American) Tibetan Buddhist who meets with the Dalai Lama when he has a chance. I think he gets something out of Buddhist teachings, but finds it difficult to reconcile them with American lifestyles. My daughter just took a Vipassana meditation course in which she did not speak to anyone for 10 days, and she found it beneficial.

      My route to the enlightened life involves observation and reflection. I don't think any special techniques are needed with my personality and background, but then I'm sure some people would consider me completely unenlightened.

      I would advise you to be cautious and skeptical about anything that costs money. Most of what you see is an income for someone else. My daughter had a good experience with Vipassana, and that was free. The Eastern religions do have techniques for you to calm yourself, but I don't think it's easy to adopt Eastern religions if you have a Western background. I would also warn you about fads and prestige among yuppies and others. Eastern religions have been "cool" for as long as I can remember, and a lot of what goes on has more to do with social status than anything else.

      I'm probably not the best source of advice on this, because I just am what I am and never had a teacher. I wasn't impressed by Ram Das. He's just a nutty college professor pal of Timothy Leary. If I had to have a religion, it would probably be Buddhism.

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