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« The Ghost Pepper From Hell ... Coming To A Store Near You | Main | Congratulations Vijay Iyer (Andrew) »

August 03, 2007

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That was an amazing description of the 'birth' of a new religion. Who knows, after a few generations, even the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster could morph into a new religious meme, if the practitioners got isolated enough from the rest of the world.

A couple responses here. First, it is not always easy to make a single "right connection" between cause and effect events, and myth helps us to endure the difficulty. Think of how we treat reports of studies of diet, exercise, proximity to toxics, and so forth, and their relation to health, weight, etc. We tend to note that certain behaviors "cause" these conditions, when the right connection is far more complex and particular. But it's mythical to imagine that we can or should pristinely understand all of these phenomena in our lives, as if we were merely registrars of data programmed to process them algorithmically. Wesley Salmon--see his Causality and Explanation, for instance--has written extensively about the centrality of probability in explanation. It's all very well to understand his ideas as theory untethered from the mundane, but it's another thing to internalize them, to view one's ordinary life as fitting his terms.

Second, I think the premise that "religion derives its axioms from unquestioning faith" is wrong, or at least it doesn't tell the whole story. Religions and religious behaviors are, of course, manifestations of faith and devotion. The bulk of the OED entries note this connection, but one has a more nuanced take:

5. a. Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship; the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this belief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community; personal or general acceptance of this feeling as a standard of spiritual and practical life.

"Recogntion," "general...attitude," "general acceptance": these are terms that imply or permit a greater degree of inquisitiveness available through religion than "unquestioning faith."

Think of how we treat reports of studies of diet, exercise, proximity to toxics, and so forth, and their relation to health, weight, etc. We tend to note that certain behaviors "cause" these conditions, when the right connection is far more complex and particular.

That's exactly what I meant when I referred to the various popular myths about health, body and mind. And no, we don't necessarily "have" to know the "right" cause and effect about everything that affects our thinking. As I said, if your power supply is never interrupted and you go on believing that the switch is the only "cause" of turning the lights on or off, you will suffer no serious "effects" of that incomplete reasoning. But when we make the "wrong" connections and act upon them, we set ourselves up for disappointment at best and tangible harm at worst.

I am not going to flog the dead of horse of religion too much, futile as it always is. Whether we are "born" or "bred" to have those beliefs is a question which has not been answered conclusively. And if we are indeed born with that instinct, the paths to independent inquiry have been pretty much sealed off by what has already been set in stone. As Sujatha said, to start a "new" religion, one must be isolated from the rest of the world.

The original religions when they were formulated thousands of years ago, definitely included "inquiry" and an attempt to make "cause and effect" connections. But their recorded conclusions are not verifiable because lacking satisfactory answers in the "here and now" the practitioners went into the realm of "there and thereafter." A natural tendency of the human mind is to seek solace in myth when reality is inscrutable and too complex. So, what you say about religious enquiry was true of the ancients but for the modern day devotees of organized religions, it is indeed "unquestioning faith" that is the guiding principle. Whenever the set tenets are scrutinized and questioned, the outcome often is either their whole sale rejection by some who find "cause and effect" more satisfying in the world of reason or for the more "mythically" inclined, the advent of a new "faith" based system. The former is resisted as too arrogant and the latter rejected as superstitous and cultish by the adherents of the original superstitions and cults. Religion is the only human pursuit where "new and improved" is yet to trump "old and moldy."

I for one, see no difference whatsoever between prayers designed to guarantee "eternal life," or "nirvana" and marching for "cargo." The salubrious, narcotic effect on the mind is exactly the same and the lack of tangible, verifiable results, just as elusive.

I have to continue to disagree, Ruchira, particularly with the penultimate paragraph in your comment responding to mine, although I think the point of contention is linked to your emphasis on "organized religions." Yes, as institutions wielding considerable economic, political, and ideological influence, these entities are as backward, corrupt, and "old and moldy" as the corporate America they imitate. I'm suggesting that religion covers more territory than these organizations occupy, and that critical engagement can take place on that territory. Some religious work entails creative expression, for example, such as music, painting, poetry, and architecture. The results need not be dogmatic.

Is religion really "the only human pursuit where 'new and improved' is yet to trump 'old and moldy.'"? How about, say, democracy, as well? Perhaps we have on occasion encountered shiny brand new varieties of the democratic enterprise, but it has also been subject to the "one step forward, two steps back" phenomenon.

I meant to add to my last comment:

John Frum for President!

Ruchira,
How does your post relate to (Theravada) Buddhism? From what little I know, it doesn't derive its axioms from unquestioning faith, encourages questioning, discourages blind-faith acceptance and is supportive of people being self-reliant. It gives us practical tools to increase our self-awareness which I would think is what most religions say ("know thyself"). But when it comes to Buddhism, it's generally not considered a "religion" in the sense that Christianity and others are. Or was your post more about organized/dogmatic religions? Whatever little research has been done on the effects of Buddhist meditation, it has only come up with positives.

But when it comes to Buddhism, it's generally not considered a "religion" in the sense that Christianity and others are. Or was your post more about organized/dogmatic religions?

Exactly! I really don't care what people choose to believe in private for their personal peace and salvation as long as they don't use that belief as a bludgeon to distort the debate over science, morality, health and life choices in the public square. Or at least, as long as they don't vilify, insult and bomb each other based on their disagreement with those who adopt a different system of similarly "unverifiable" beliefs. But that is easier said than done.

I don't know much about Buddhism. But what I do know leads me to understand that some traditions within Buddhism strive to approach the "Truth and Reconciliation" variey of spiritual quest. They are more personal and far less dogmatic than other major religious systems. In its pure, distillated form Buddhism doesn't waste much time on elusive ideas like god, soul, heaven or hell. It is therefore for the most part free of the orthodoxy and orthopraxy common to other organized religions. However, that doesn't mean that Buddhists don't harbor harmful superstitions regarding life and death. They just blame it on Hinduism :-)

I can only speak about what I've experienced, and not about the other traditions in Buddhism. But, I wouldn't be surprised if there is some orthodoxy and dogma involved in some branches. Nothing is perfect. :)

In its pure, distilled form Buddhism doesn't waste much time on elusive ideas like god, soul, heaven or hell.
True to a large extent. There is a concept of heaven and hell, and different lokas, but it's not forced upon someone as a carrot or a stick to make one follow certain rules or traditions. Whether you believe in those concepts or not is not a pre-condition for being a Buddhist.

However, that doesn't mean that Buddhists don't harbor harmful superstitions regarding life and death. They just blame it on Hinduism :-)
I'm curious. Can you give one or two examples of what you mean?

From what I know, in India, Buddhism was absorbed by Hinduism in due course of time, even to the extent of assigning Buddha as a reincarnation of Vishnu, and even looking down upon Buddha's avatar. I'm sure both influenced each other and there was some exchange in traditions and beliefs. Anyway, getting OT here. :)

re: therevada buddhism, like many religions is certainly at the 'core' a highly philosophical system. but how do buddhists on the ground practice it? in theological incorrectness the anthropologist d. jason slone reports that the typical sri lankan buddhist practices the religion in a manner which is not much different from the theism of their hindu neighbors. additionally, slone argues that the buddhist revival of the 19th century continued by men such as anagarika dharmapala was strongly shaped by a need to reconstruct the religion along post-enlightenment lines so as to outflank christian missionaries by offering buddhism as a rational and philosophical system. after the tsunami in 2004 some sri lankan buddhists credited their survival to their faith in lord buddha as opposed to their muslim neighbors. you can read about it here (unfortunately you have to pay if you don't have access). the buddhist farmers didn't seem to consider that the muslim fishermen were geographically placed to receive the brunt of the catastrophe.

anyway, the point is that even the most 'rational' of religions can be easily transmuted to the lowest common denominator.

Remembering some vague distinctions from my history textbooks about the advent of Buddhism and internal schisms, I thought that perhaps the elusive term Ruchira wanted to use was Hinayana Buddhism rather than 'Theravada'. My understanding had always been that 'Hinayana' meant the 'Lesser Vehicle' and referred to a form of Buddhism which regarded Buddha as a great teacher and example to be followed, rather than glorified as a deity of sorts, as is more the case with Buddhism that spread to Thailand, China, Japan, Cambodia, etc. which was of the 'Mahayana' school or 'Greater Vehicle'.
It turns out that there is major discussion as to whether Hinayana is a pejorative description of early Buddhist doctrine that all followers are enjoined to search for their personal enlightenment and permits the achievement of personal 'Arhat'hood , while Mahayana accepts the seeds of Buddhahood in all and enjoins followers to strive for all to be liberated. One is focussed on the 'narrower' goal of self-enlightenment, while the other subsumes to overall good-i.e. it's OK to not attain self-enlightenment in this round of existence, provided that some advancement towards the goal of enlightenment for all(through universal compassion and altruism) is made. Use of deities and symbolism to that effect is considered necessary tools (or whatever 'floats their boat').
Interesting ? You bet.
Off-topic, very much so. Perhaps this should be spun off into a separate discussion.

anyway, the point is that even the most 'rational' of religions can be easily transmuted to the lowest common denominator.

No disagreement there. But isn't that along the same lines as scientists paid by corporations fudging research data or lying to carry the corporations' nefarious agenda? Every other month, there is some scientific study that extols the benefits of a certain product, conveniently funded by the very corporation selling that product. Or for that matter, scientists involved in Tuskegee experiments? Incidents like those don't take anything away from our faith in pure science. Or do they?

re: therevada buddhism, like many religions is certainly at the 'core' a highly philosophical system. but how do buddhists on the ground practice it?

Again, I can only speak of my experience, and the way to practice it is by daily meditation.

Amit,

I suppose a case could be made for the fact that Science is a religion of sorts, and the LCM in what you refer to is the Almighty Dollar superseding the power of Science.

Oops, make that LCD. (mumbling about lowest common denominator, liquid crystal displays.....I need another cup of coffee...)

Sujatha, yes you are correct, in that Hinayana is considered a disparaging term, and http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bullitt/theravada.html>Theravada is the widely accepted one.
Also, I forgot to provide a http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0762136.html>link for Tuskegee experiments as I didn't take into account all readers of this blog - some of them may not be aware of what it was.

Amit:
You pretty much answered your own questions and Razib summed it up. I have written and held forth extensively on what my problem with organized, dogmatic religion is. You are new to A.B. and therefore missed those threads. When you have some time to kill you can glance over some of the discussions here, here and particularly, here. In brief, what I believe is that all the so called tangible benefits of religion (meditation, yoga, dietary and behavioral restraints, charity and altruism) can be derived from rational contemplation and common decency. However, those are not qualities imbued with mystery or vague mysticism, therefore not sexy enough. And yes, there has been, is and will be plenty of junk science and some like the Tuskegee Experiments, do immeasurable harm. But sooner or later, fraud in science is exposed. Who can debate with god?

Sujatha, Hinayana it is - the Buddha as the teacher not a deity. But look at Tibetan Buddhism - awash with belief in ghosts, spirits and other mumbo-jumbo. If you probe, you are told that it is not what Buddhism "really" is about. But then why are they there? Also, I read in Peter Hopkirk's book and elsewhere that the dirt poor and illiterate Tibetans were led to believe that eating "pharmaceutical preparations" made from the excreta of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama would make them invincible in battle. They were asked to go out and fight the British and later,the invading Chinese army, fortified with these "pills" - they also had to pay for them! So even though Buddha may not have been "god," the two Supreme Lamas certainly were.

I reitertate what Razib said, "it matters little what the pure philosophical underpinnings are of religious faith, it is the corrupt practice by the vast majority of practitioners that I am concerned with because that is what determines mass culture."

Ruchira, I had already read two of the links before you provided them, and read the third one recently. We agree more than we disagree, and I found Shunya's messages reflecting my thinking on this issue (and written more perspicaciously than I could have), so I won't waste bytes in repeating.

Yes, organized, dogmatic religions and claiming to speak for god have brought misery over the centuries, and continues to do so today. But I can point to many positives too which are hard to ignore (civil rights movement in the US, anti-apartheid in SA, social justice movements in Central America - to name a few). I agree that it is very important to debate and oppose aspects of organized, dogmatic religions that continue to promote superstitions and blind faith at the cost of equality, justice, pragmatism and inquiry. What I'm not comfortable with is throwing the baby (spiritual/mystical*/personal) out with the bath-water (organized), or throwing all babies out. If others (in the privacy of their homes) want to believe in god/virgins/FSM/heaven/hell/whatever, or that earth was created in 7 days, I have no issue with that. If somebody wants to teach all that under science or use that to set public policies, that I have an issue with.

You wrote: I reiterate what Razib said, "it matters little what the pure philosophical underpinnings are of religious faith, it is the corrupt practice by the vast majority of practitioners that I am concerned with because that is what determines mass culture."

Maybe the scope is different, but replace "religious faith" with "science" or (as Dean pointed out earlier) "democracy" and it will hold true.

I'll end http://dlazechk.dl.funpic.org/mergedstargazers1.html>on http://dlazechk.dl.funpic.org/mergeddeath14.html>a http://dlazechk.dl.funpic.org/mergedscience.html>lighter http://dlazechk.dl.funpic.org/weekdaysecrettohappiness16.html>note. :)

* I'm referring to Sufism, or people like Kabir.

Amit:

True, you and I don't disagree much - just about as much as Namit and I did when we decided to call it a truce :-) I am not interested in foisting my own "disbelief" on others (like my late mother, who practiced a personal but not evangelizing faith) either, if having a "faith" makes them comfortable. I am just not going to agree with them nor allow them to influence my own path to morality, ethics and peace of mind.

Where I do disagree with you (as I did about yoga and other matters of mind and body) is here:

(civil rights movement in the US, anti-apartheid in SA, social justice movements in Central America - to name a few)

I do believe that all those too could have been achieved without invoking faith. That the leaders of the movements chose religious faith as their umbrella doesn't mean that they couldn't have been accomplished with the backdrop of secular morality and common decency. The fact that most people are not persuaded without the aid of superstitous elements such as god, heaven or hell, doesn't make religion valid. It just points to the limit of our own ability to function comfortably within a wholly rational milieu.

Perhaps you are saying, as Dean did by pointing to "democracy", that religion may be an imperfect system but better than everything else we have for the purpose it serves. While I agree with that in regards to democracy, I definitely do not about science or religion - for completely different reasons.

I don't worship at the altar of science either. I know that scientists, the agents of science are fallible as human beings - given to the same pressures of money, ego and fame as anybody else. It is just that the scientific process has built for itself one of the best systems of "checks and balances" - better than politics and certainly far better than religion. Which is why I have somewhat more faith in it - not because science is "gospel." That's all.

As for religion, I think unless we systematically strive to throw thousand years old superstitous beliefs out of the realm of our thinking, we are doing ourselves a disservice. It won't happen overnight - the radical communists couldn't manage it. But to not work towards it diligently is a mistake. It may feel nice to believe that all points of view on all issues should get equal time, for the sake of balance and diversity. But in some matters, there really are not many points of view that are worth the consideration and we shouldn't be afraid to say so. To do otherwise, would be to afford equal time to flat earthers, creationists, caste and gender chauvinists, slave holders and racists equal time each time you bring to the podium physicists, biologists and champions of human rights.

Thanks for the link to Calvin and Hobbes, one my all time favorite cartoons. I wrote a post more than a year ago about Bill Watterson's "disappearance."

I do believe that all those too could have been achieved without invoking faith. That the leaders of the movements chose religious faith as their umbrella doesn't mean that they couldn't have been accomplished with the backdrop of secular morality and common decency.

Ruchira, it's possible. I was simply pointing out some of the positive aspects of organized religion in our recorded history. I personally go with Theravada Buddhism (which I discovered as an adult, fwiw) because I find it rational and compatible with science.

As for the rest of your post, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal's_Wager#Atheist.27s_Wager>I'm all for it. :)

Thanks. That is interesting - I knew about Pascal's wager but hadn't seen its atheist counterpart. In my case though, there isn't even a calculation of the probabilities involved. Perhaps one can define that as "supreme indifference" to the question AND the answer, whatever it may be?

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