Tag Archives: religion

From the Ground Up

I was recently reading a Buddhist book about mindfulness when I began pondering why people flock to religion. Of course, there are several reasons. It comforts people to believe that someone (God) is looking out for them. It gives people structure; those who flourish when guided by rules and regulations enjoy following laws regarding morality. Simply, it makes people feel good; the spiritual aspect of religion is what, in my opinion, keeps it thriving in the modern world. 

The book, titled Mindfulness, by Joseph Goldstein, is filled with tidbits on how to live a life full of peace and happiness for not only oneself but also for other people. Just reading it put me at ease. Although Goldstein does reference the Buddha and other Buddhist adepts and their teachings, dogma is almost completely absent. The threats of eternal damnation are not there. The commands to worship are not there. The demand to believe in something beyond one’s five senses is not there. It is merely a guide to how to live a fulfilling life, and an insightful one at that. 

Everyone can use such advice. We all seek better ways to live. But usually, the advice we follow has strings attached; namely, faith. In Christianity, you must believe that Jesus is literally the Son of God in order to make it to Heaven. You could live a life filled with good deeds and still spend eternity in Hell simply because you did not believe the alleged words of a man who supposedly lived 2 millennia ago. 

But what purpose does faith serve? Why can’t one live a spiritually enriching life while helping others to do the same without a belief in the divinity of an ancient rabbi? 

It seems that adding a godly figure to the equation tends to qualify one’s moral code or spiritual life as legitimate. People think they need one in order to have the other. Some go to extreme lengths to justify or prove the existence of God. I have spent most of my time on this blog trying to argue that there is no good reason to believe in God. But in the past few months, I have become rather disenchanted with trying to do so. And it has finally occurred to me why: because there’s no reason to.

We have many reasons to try and live a rich and fulfilling life and we have many ways in which we can do so. We have one reason to have faith in an unprovable god: fear. More specifically, fear of death. We have created God in order to explain that which cannot be known because we naturally fear what we can’t understand. But I am arguing that we do not need to search for a god who is impossible to prove. We can – and in my opinion, should – share ideas about how to live a good life openly and without the restrictive boundaries of a dogma or religion. Religion presents a picture of justice and morality that is immutable. Wouldn’t we be better off having open, healthy discussions about morality and spirituality rather than fighting over the legitimacy of a holy book that claims absolute superiority? Ask yourself: what is the point of this?

 Consider a math problem. Are you going to settle your uncertainty about the problem by establishing an answer before you’ve worked through the process of solving it? Or are you going to approach the problem openly using the tools that you have at your disposal? If you establish an answer that you cannot possibly know, without trying to solve the problem rationally to the best of your ability, you will not experience any of the rewards of the natural learning process. Similarly, if we assume the existence of a god who we simply cannot prove, we are going to miss out on the important lessons that come with honest moral and spiritual growth, and in the end, we’re simply being dishonest with ourselves.

This is precisely where I disagree with people who say that religion and science do not overlap. According to Christianity, God is the ultimate answer to the ultimate question. There is no reason to wonder why or how any of this happened because we already know that the answer is God. Science can highlight God’s brilliance, but there is no questioning who is responsible. To science, nothing is set in stone. Nothing is certain. The whys and hows are constantly being sought after and we are constantly being rewarded with new truths and discoveries. The ultimate answer remains open-ended. We continue to discover, to learn, and to experience, but with the mystifying realization that the answer to existence will probably never be solved. And trust me, there is something deeply awe-inspiring about accepting one’s ignorance and understanding that our knowledge and wisdom can grow beyond the ceiling that religion has built. 

One might argue that healthy discussion is good, but there is no reason religion should not be part of the discussion. I agree that any wisdom or truth that can be gleaned from religion is wonderful. But consider the real motive of religion. Consider why we think we need God in order to lead a good life. Consider what purpose it actually serves. And then ask yourself if you could make the lives of yourself and others better if you abandoned dogma, religion and God and used good sense and open conversation in order to live happily and peacefully. I’ll finish with a humble word of advice: live not from the top down; that is, by placing your faith in something beyond the current life and living by pre-determined rules and regulations established from on high. Rather, live from the ground up; by looking for the truth and meaning around you and allowing yourself to grow naturally and learn freely based on your own personal experiences. I contend that you will find much more truth and fulfillment that way. 

Religion Does Not Equal Compassion

Religion Does Not Equal Compassion

I have long found it interesting that religion attests so strongly to being compassionate, but needs a supernatural overseer to motivate its followers to do so. The more sensical path to generosity seems to be raw compassion and concern for one’s fellow human creatures, independent of the impression one will make on a supernatural god. Not only does this seem more practical, but also more honorable and truthful. 

So I was excited to find a study in which researchers at UC Berkeley conducted a series of experiments over a period of several years, and found that unreligious people tend to derive their compassion more from actual emotion and concern for someone who is suffering than do religious people, whose generosity is rooted more in “doctrine, communal identity, or reputational concerns.” 

In other words, nonreligious people tend to adhere to the suffering of others based on the very simple emotion of compassion and the concept of altruism. In contrast, the religious tend to to help their brothers and sisters more to impress the overlooking father figure that hovers invisibly in Heaven. 

It’s up to you to decide which is the more dignified, honorable source of generosity, but to me, the answer is clear. Why must our kindness and unselfishness be polluted with doctrine that demands obedience to an omnipotent dictator? It doesn’t. And while it is true that religion has inspired many good deeds, imagine if we stripped those deeds of the name of God and left them to stand on their own. Perhaps – no, not perhaps – undoubtedly, a staggering amount of violence would have been prevented. 

Christopher Hitchens said, “Either our convictions are enough in themselves, or they are not.” No supernatural attachment to these convictions is needed. And as this study from UC Berkeley reveals, true compassion is in fact more prevalent when we are free to connect with our fellow human beings, independent of the burden of pleasing an onlooking Big Brother. 

The Illusion of Conscious Will

The Illusion of Conscious Will

In The Illusion of Conscious Will, Daniel Wegner attempts to explain the relationship between thoughts and actions. He says that it is sheer human nature to feel in control of one’s personal behavior. Human beings tend to think of themselves as the conscious agents of their actions, and given certain experiments done on subjects, it can be suggested that people feel more capable and comfortable performing a task when they possess a sense of self-mastery, or personal liberty in choosing one thing or another. However, Wegner argues that if scientists were to compile all of the environmental influences in a person’s life, they would be able to accurately predict the person’s actions before he does them. Fairly recently, there have been actual experiments in which neuroscientists found that they are even capable of tracking a person’s thought seconds before it reaches his consciousness, through various brain-monitoring devices. Such evidence would seem to indicate that free will is in fact some sort of illusion of the brain.

In his book, Wegner emphasizes that although a person feels like he is consciously acting, the feeling of conscious action itself is produced in the brain by stimuli that the person has virtually no control over. This supports his notion that people are quite literally products of their environment. If the sheer feeling that one is in control of one’s behavior is chemically produced in the brain, then how can we realistically claim responsibility for our own actions? In other words, free will is merely one of many different conscious experiences that one undergoes. The notion that it, in itself, is in experience, however, indicates that something external is manipulating it – something other than ourselves. He provides a helpful example of conscious will being manipulated through hypnosis. In the act of hypnosis, the actions are, in a sense, controlling the subject, rather than the subject controlling the actions. This, he claims, is evidence that one’s actions, even when he believes them to be authentic, are inherently involuntary on an intricate physiological level. 

This issue is deeply Humanistic, as it relates strongly to Humanism’s stance of rationality and humbleness in the face of humanity’s limitations. Therefore, Humanism is very well fit to accept the concept of free will as an illusion; morality is equally important regardless of whether or not people hold the capacity to make choices, because it pertains to the overall well being of humanity and not the condition of one’s individual soul. Its rival philosophies, mainly being various religions, have a much more difficult time making their ideologies compatible with this discovery. Most sects of Christianity, with the exception of Calvanism, highlight the significance of free will; it explains the presence of evil in the world and it is the means by which God can hold people accountable. Given that the scientific evidence on conscious will appears to contradict most theologies, Humanism’s rivals don’t seem to be able to stand against it on a logical level. 

Naturally Magnificent

Imprisoned within our own meager brains, it is difficult at times not to feel trapped within our thoughts, disconnected from our wider, incomprehensibly large surroundings.

At some point during the rather brief time period that the human race has existed (200,000 years, tentatively), it developed religion, likely as an evolutionary mechanism to temper the fear of death. But easing the unimaginable realization that, one day, one was to no longer exist, has not been the only role of this centuries-long social construction. For many, religion assumes a role possibly even larger than fueling the illusion of immortality. An inescapable problem we all face is the perpetual sense of isolation within our own minds. To truly believe one is part of a grander scheme orchestrated by a divine dictator can be the comforting remedy for this unfortunate human condition.

But I have argued in this blog that religion is outdated and unnecessary for modern people. But is it the best source of this feeling of losing oneself in a cause far greater than any individual?

I think certainly not. Aside from the dangerous dogma that religion espouses, it has quite the effect of limiting one’s sense of magnificence and awe that is more than evident when one explores the humbling wonders that are teeming throughout every corner of the ever-growing field of science. How can one be appropriately shocked at the marvels of Nature if he believes that humankind was the highest and most precious creation of an omniscient god, and that the nature of this god should be glorious enough as to not need the stunning nature of the universe? How can one open his mind to the boundless, unknowable mystique of Nature and human experience, while embracing the beautifully mysterious sense of his own smallness and insignificance, when he believes that he is the centerpiece of God’s creation, a god that deserves all of “the power and the glory forever,” leaving little adoration for the achievements of Nature itself? It is far more wonderful and inspiring to embrace the pursuit of natural truths that present themselves ever so subtly and magnificently and stunningly thorough the endeavors of science. In other words, the truth, beauty, and wisdom we all seek is found in the comprehension of one’s minuteness among an unknowable universe and in the gradual but consistent revelation of the details of that universe.

I would not do justice to the wonders of science if I attempted to explain any of them in any detail – I have not the credentials nor knowledge to do so with any elegance or authenticity. But I am confident that if one embarks on his own personal attempt at understanding the world around him, he will find himself basking in a uniquely comforting mysteriousness that gently exudes itself in each step of the journey.

The mentally claustrophobic sensation that one is prone to get as a human being is something that we have been trying to cope with for centuries and will continue to be a challenge for centuries to come. But I believe that a simple acceptance of one’s natural ignorance and insignificance, as contradictory as that may initially seem, can help one attain an enduring and ever-growing sense of freedom from the mind’s detainment. Is there a need for an almighty, attention-seeking creator, who is continuously forced to modify his image in the face of the consistent progression of science, in the scheme of our lives? At witnessing countless people, finding, and experiencing myself, extraordinary beauties and wisdoms and truths without him, I think the obvious answer is no.

The Danger of Submission

Completely normal, healthy people are liable to believe completely abnormal, unhealthy things. So it was in Nazi Germany, in which a nation was psychologically manipulated to persecute specific factions of people on the basis of pseudo-science and national loyalty. In fact, approximately 90% of German workers at the concentration camps which systematically murdered thousands of Jews at a time, were, according to psychiatrists from the camps, psychiatrically normal people with no mental deficiencies. How could this be? How could people who committed such unspeakable atrocities be considered normal?

Well, the truth that comes out of this startling fact is that all humans are vulnerable to such mind paralysis. If the conditions of the psyche are right, people are bound to fall into traps such as these. For example, Germany’s culture encouraged a unique dichotomy between the public and private spheres. Privately, Germans were supposed to be passionate, sentimental, and emotional, as demonstrated in the German art and literature prevalent at the time. However, publicly, Germans were trained to devote their loyalty entirely to the state and taught that unmindful obedience to authority was the appropriate way to behave. In doing this, their public sense of self was sacrificed to the greater whole of Germany, and they viewed themselves as mere subjects to the German state, while harboring a dangerously passionate emotional side, left to grow unmonitored in hidden mental compartments.

While most religious people would never condone such conduct, they demonstrate a similar trend within the human psyche. It is natural for humans to possess the desire to submit themselves to a greater whole. The loss of sense of self can be an ecstatic feeling worth striving for. This, in my view, is a major reason why people are so attracted to religion and why being religious persists to be the norm in American society.

In fact, submission of self can be seen across the entire spectrum of world society. Members of a sports team are encouraged to sacrifice personal accolades for the greater good of the team. Any job in which people are required to work as a team promotes this same sacrificial concept. And certainly, this evidently natural human tendency does not always have the detrimental behavioral outputs as seen in Nazi Germany. The key is to channel this tendency into a productive manner that heightens the human experience, without losing one’s sense of independent thought and reason. I have been extremely critical of Christianity and religion in general, but many people seem to use religion merely as a guide, while ensuring that their mental and intellectual independence is not endangered by their submission to a god. However, history has demonstrated that one’s complete submission to religion is one of – if not the – most destructive and murderous impulses. When people believe wholeheartedly in something, they are liable to commit extreme atrocities in the name of whatever greater good they’re immersed in – atrocities that their natural sense of reason would normally object to, but is trumped by the powerful, binding force of eliminating the self.

Therefore, when SS officers in concentration camps were asked how they were able to allow the mass killings to proceed, many of them responded that they were merely taking orders. The command came from the authority that they had invested their heart into and committed their minds to. Obeying the will of the greater good was their main priority – even if that meant murder.

Here, we see the flaw in religious teachings. Complete submission and thoughtless obedience stand at the forefront, and people accept these ideals because it makes them feel as though they are a part of something greater than themselves. This is a good feeling. And sometimes, it can result in spectacular achievements – religious organizations are often first in line to contribute to disaster relief efforts. But other times, it results in the reckless killing of others on the grounds that they are merely “taking orders,” just as the rigidly loyal SS officers claimed. Whether that authority is Nazi Germany or God, though, does not make a difference. The danger is the same, and the suppression of rationality exists equally in both cases. Furthermore, religion can pose no reasonable criticism of the actions of these SS officers, because they are bound to the same philosophy. The only difference is the authority giving orders. And merely claiming that one’s model of authority is true, or would never demand such atrocities, only produces further intellectual stagnation and differences between people that are immune to change, given both sides view their authoritarian figure as immutably correct and perfect.

Therefore, we must find more productive ways to channel our sacrificial tendencies without abandoning our faculties of independent thought. This is something that religion in its purest form fails to do, because it constructs a fixed entity with limitless power who demands complete submission and obedience. And while many would argue that humans merely misinterpret this entity’s will, the danger remains the same; those who commit loyalty to an all-knowing, all-powerful figure are immune to criticism and opposing arguments because the forces of reason and rationality are superseded by the godlike figure. With this religious mentality, intellectual and moral improvement  are impossible. But by procuring an independent mind, we are able to grow intellectually because we are not attaching ourselves to any sort of fixed truth. Open inquiry and rational questioning are at the heart of this ideal – an ideal that neither Nazi Germany nor religion can honestly lay any claim to.

The Illusion of Free Will

Does Christianity hold its value without the presumption of free will? Does God have any right to reward or punish us on the quality of our soul if we hold no control over our actions? Does the appeal to Christianity ring true without one of its most essential precepts? Well, I think the most reasonable answer would be, no. According to Christianity, we as humans are judged by our actions (well, actually only one action, that being our belief, or lack there of, of Jesus, but this is beside the point) under God and subsequently placed in either Heaven or Hell, depending on God’s judgment. Yet if our brains have somehow tricked us, and each and every thought and deed we supposedly author is actually determined by the likes of nature, does Christianity and religion at large hold any value? I think not. And undoubtedly, this notion of free will – or more accurately, the lack there of – is appearing to become a scientific truth.

This proposition is probably not the most pleasant to most people, particularly to Christians. Additionally, it seems rather preposterous, let alone unpleasant, at first glance. No free will? We don’t control our behavior? Absurd! However, science has a way of continuously astonishing us with new developments – a trait religion can lay no claim to.

Studies have shown that through certain neurological testing, scientists can accurately predict a person’s actions before he does them, or even decides to do them. For example, participants in a study were hooked up to a brain scanner and asked to press a button whenever they felt the urge to do so. Remarkably, scientists were able to track their decisions even before they reached consciousness, by noting brain activity indicating that a certain action would be made. The observation of such activity came 7 seconds before the person actually decided to execute the decision. What this study as well as others conclude, is that each and every thought that arises in our consciousness is determined by our brains even prior to us having any knowledge of it at all.

Once one considers the actual lack of freedom he possesses over his behavior, several commonplace practices come into question. Two distinct aspects of society that warrant particular scrutiny, given this knowledge, are religion and the justice system. Our whole perspective on justice changes when one considers that each person is merely a victim of his biological assets. In short, consequences for lawbreakers become focused more on the actual threat that the criminal poses to society – not the retribution we naturally think he deserves, out of the pervasive human impulse of revenge. Even more so than the justice system, however, religion – one of society’s oldest and most prominent cultural constructs – seems to be flipped on its head with the recognition of this concept. Given that the theory about humans’ lack of free will is true (which cannot be stated with 100% certainty at this point), Christians must believe that God bestowed evildoers with a faulty brain, rather than the mainstream idea that each person has a choice between good and evil. If this choice does not exist, however, then God, I would contend, has no right to punish us for our bad deeds. Of course, I am of the opinion that only a wicked god could send a person to Hell for merely doubting his existence anyway, but this is beside the point. What punishment is one truly worthy of if he has no control over his actions? I would suggest that the debunking of free will completely undermines the entire foundation of Christianity, given that its primary component is the CHOICE to accept Jesus Christ as savior.

To conclude, I will delve a bit further into this notion of no free will, which initially appears preposterous, given the choices humans appear to face daily. The theory is based on the idea that self-control is an illusion. Yes, we have consciousness, and yes, we seem to use it to make choices, but in reality, each thought that arises into consciousness is determined by prior neural activity – activity that we hold no control over. Therefore, say I would like to buy a cup of coffee. I have no idea where this desire came from – all I know is that it is there. This may seem uncontentious. However, once I recognize the desire for coffee, don’t I have the choice to either succumb to this desire or resist it? Isn’t this where the human faculty of reasoning is in full force? It would certainly seem this way. However, unbeknownst to our conscious selves, even these thoughts of self-reasoning are determined by conditions that are in no way in our capacity to control. I may end up deciding to buy the cup of coffee. I may end up resisting. However, regardless of the decision that is made, it is not my conscious self that has the power to choose. My conscious self is merely a medium between the natural functioning of my brain and my behavior.

Ostensibly, many will argue that the realization that humans have no actual power to choose will give rise to a frightening and destructive outbreak of nihilism. If there are no consequences, what is the motivation for one to resist any sort of temptation? What reason is there to do good? While it is certainly possible that this theory could be used as an excuse to bypass morality and live in senseless self-indulgence, it does not supersede the importance of morality and the ideas and feelings that make for a happy, functioning society. Just because we do not necessarily have the choice to do good does not detract from the fact that morality is critical to a healthy, enjoyable life. History has demonstrated that it undoubtedly is. And despite the knowledge of our powerlessness, the feeling that we are making choices will likely never cease. Therefore, the rejection of free will has somewhat limited, but certainly necessary, outcomes. Accepting that people do wrong because of conditions that our beyond their control can help us maximize the feeling of compassion, particularly for our enemies – a central precept of Jesus’ teachings. Furthermore, through this knowledge, we may learn to maximize the things that contribute to the happiness of our lives and those around us, and minimize the needless elements that only corrode our lives. Additionally, we are able to more rationally analyze what is best for society, rather than coming to conclusions based on the fixed, immutable principles of religion. When one abandons the rigid adherence to past principles, he can more effectively judge what will maximize human happiness in the long-term. I contend that no one would agree that recklessly harming others or blindly pursuing one’s self-interests is the best route for a healthy, happy individual or society. The notion that we lack far more control than we originally thought does not detract in any way from the benefits of being moral and compassionate. In fact, I believe that accepting this concept can only help humanity develop, as we grow in social and self understanding, and leave behind the concrete standards that we stick to only out of fear that abandoning them would coax the world into anarchy.

For a closer look at an actual study on free will, visit this url: http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/04/mind_decision

The Opiate of the People

Never in history has a group of people been united and manipulated so congruently and effectively as Hitler’s Nazi Germany. As I briefly outlined in a previous post, Hitler used a national grudge and a vulnerable political state in order to enliven his people with a fierce sense of German superiority. At the center of his message was the elimination of social class within Germany – the idea that Germany was to have one body, one soul, and was to act as one nation under their mighty Fuhrer. All Germans were to surrender their selves for the greater whole of Germany, even if that sacrifice meant death; if one committed himself to such a sentiment, he would be eternally exulted as a German hero and live forever in the German spirit. By passionately promoting the purity of his people, Hitler united them under an appealing umbrella of equality, socialism, and a return to German relevance in Europe. He blinded his people into accepting corrupt ideology by giving them a sense of unity, comfort, and purpose. In the process, he nearly revolutionized and ruined western civilization. 

Purpose. Comfort. Linked to a cause far greater than oneself. All people united under the guidance of one powerful ruler. No wonder Hitler was so successful. The discourse used by Hitler and his supporters to reel in the obedience of the German people eerily correlates with the terminology one might use when describing the role of religion in the world. Karl Marx said, “religion is the opiate of the people.” Was Nazi dogma not the opiate of Hitler’s people? Were they not convinced to believe in something greater than themselves? So convinced they were, in fact, that they committed their lives to their country, determined to defend the body which rendered their existences purposeful and worthwhile, in hopes that their lives would transcend their years on earth. Similarly convinced were Christian crusaders who fought blindly and ruthlessly to protect the sanctity of their religion, motivated by the promise of eternal paradise if they fought in God’s name. Similarly convinced were the Islamic extremest suicide bombers when they flew their planes into the Twin Towers, fooled into believing that 72 virgins were awaiting them in the next life. And similarly convinced, though not to the detrimental extent of the previous examples, are the American people who openly accept religion as a means of reasoning for public policy.

Hitler used the tactics of religious faith in order to unite and take control of his people. His purification of race can be corresponded to the Christian idea of eliminating pollution from the Church in medieval times, justifying the murder of Muslims by claiming it was God’s will. Clearly, history has demonstrated that people are willing to commit heinous crimes under the justification of God’s will. Similarly, Hitler justified his extermination of Jews, homosexuals, etc. by using the racist ideology of Nazism which claimed that the ideal Aryan race was being polluted by Jews and other minorities. 

We know that Hitler’s holocaust was morally wrong in the same way that we know the Crusades were morally wrong. Common sense. Reason. Clearly, these events were not conducive to the preservation and happiness of human life. But we cannot assert their wrongness through religious means. After all, the Old Testament reveals a God who commanded the stoning of homosexuals – that god must have thought Hitler was right on the mark. Hitler’s manipulation of the German population represents something characteristic of humanity – our tendency to not think; our tendency to seek an umbrella by which we can all unite, and abandon common sense in favor of the ideas of that umbrella. It is reason, and only reason, that has caused social progress relating to human rights. Religion has stood in the way of such progress by allowing people to revert to the application of ancient doctrine to our own lives, thousands of years later. It creates a blatant obstacle to social progression, in that people are free to oppose certain essential liberties and equalities through the justification of religion. Though human rights has improved vastly over time, religion has stayed the same. People have not merely discovered a deeper truth to religion that they didn’t see before; rather, they have adapted their religions to the advancements that force humanity to alter its ways of thinking. Reason is how we have progressed and it is reason we can use in order to debauch the reign of Hitler. And what does religion give us? Nothing, but another reason to unite blindly under a manmade entity and to stunt the growth of humanity by providing reasons to do things that clearly contradict our common sense.

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