Monday, August 31, 2009

Is everything permitted?

Those on all sides of the religion debate are familiar with Dostoyevsky's line, "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted." This is another expression of the argument from morality; i.e., the existence of morality implies the existence of God. "Morality implies God" and "No God implies no morality" are logically equivalent statements. If you don't understand why this is so, type the word "contrapositive" into your search engine of choice.

Many people have attacked the argument from morality with various logical devices, but that's not what I want to get into here. I'm more interested in approaching an accurate understanding of reality than in scoring imaginary debate points. Let's look at the parts of this argument. Is there such a thing as absolute, unchanging morality? I'm not sure there is. I think what people are really saying with statements like Dostoyevsky's is, "Without religion and its underlying fear of punishment in a life beyond this one, society would descend into chaos."

I think most of what we call morality entails rules of the road that have been deemed useful to society at some point. Since humans are social animals, we prefer to live in groups. This means that something like random killing is a survival threat to the group, and other members of the group are therefore motivated to stop it. So there are perfectly natural explanations for why we have rules of order in society.

Even those who claim morality is fixed and can be found in, say, the Bible are on shaky ground. If this were true, then people's understanding of the Bible wouldn't change over time. But it obviously has. In the past, the Bible has been used to justify slavery and poor treatment of women and gays, just to name a few. Now you don't hear pro-slavery preachers, and things have at least gotten better regarding treatment of women and gays in many religious groups. Is this because there's been a new revelation from the heavens where God says, "Maybe you shouldn't use me as an excuse to be such a dick to people?" To my knowledge, they're not selling Bibles with new bonus books added or anything, so I'm going to say no. What's changed over time, then? Human understanding, that's what.

This doesn't mean I can say, "No morality implies no God." The rules of formal logic don't work that way. But I can say that morality can't be used as an argument for God's existence because it hasn't really been established. You can't use an unproven idea to prove something else. Perhaps it would be nice to live in a world of absolute certainty, but there's no evidence that that's how the world operates.

Some Hindu traditions emphasize the phrase "Neti, neti" regarding the Divine. This can be translated as "neither this nor that" or simply "not this, not this." In other words, if you think you understand what the Divine is, you're probably wrong. This concept can also be useful in observing earthly matters. Anytime you see certainty, it probably wouldn't hurt to step back and say, "Well, maybe not."

Friday, August 28, 2009

The religion that got away, Part 2

Just as I discovered the Buddha's teachings in Germany, I began to pursue my study of Judaism in an equally unlikely place--Hawaii. My husband at the time was stationed at Pearl Harbor, so I had many occasions to visit the base. I'd noticed that near the main clinic was something called the Aloha Jewish Chapel. On most military installations, the Jewish community has to be content with taking its turn at the regular base chapel for its services like everybody else. But AJC was a dedicated synagogue.

I attended a Friday night service on what happened to be the first night of Chanukah. My initial welcome consisted of this very sweet old lady who insisted I fill up a plate with various goodies from the potluck they were having for the occasion. Despite not knowing a word of Hebrew, the service leader and the congregation made great efforts to make me feel welcome and help me keep up with what was going on in the service.

Within a few weeks I was attending Hebrew lessons before the services and conversion classes during the week. Since there was no rabbi at AJC, my conversion classes were with a nearby Reform congregation. I mentioned in Part 1 how Judaism struck me as practical (in the sense that behavior is emphasized more than theology), and the things I learned in conversion class seemed to confirm this. While Kabbalah has been big in some circles, note that many of these circles tend not to have many Jewish people in them, not entirely unlike Buddhist groups with no Asians. ;) Hashing out the details of regular Jewish living is enough to keep most people occupied! You may have heard that some traditions refer to Jews as "People of the Book." After just a few weeks of study, I began to think "People of the Library" was more accurate! That was something I loved about Judaism--that you could dedicate your life to studying it and still not know all there is to know.

I also liked the emphasis on debate and discussion. For example, if you look at an untranslated page from the Talmud, you'll notice right away that you can't read it like a typical book. The core concept under discussion is in the center of the page, and the various commentaries (which don't always agree with each other!) surround it, often going into the margins of the page.

The support I felt from the military community motivated me in ritual observance, too. I lit Shabbat candles every week, attended a Passover Seder, and even fasted for Yom Kippur. I really felt like I was meant to be Jewish. Unfortunately, the Reform rabbi had to step down due to health problems before I could make my conversion final.

And truth be told, there were other issues. I encountered a lot of resistance at home, and in retrospect, I can't blame my husband for his reaction. I'd shown no signs of this interest before we got married. But that acceptance was so important to me that I stuck with it. Eventually, he learned to sort of tolerate it and even managed to acquire a taste for matzo ball soup. But once we came back to Texas, we never could settle on a congregation. And by the time we divorced, I'd pretty much had it with organized religion.

However, I'll always be grateful to that community in Hawaii for supporting me through some very tough times in my life. If I had to pick a religion for some reason, Judaism would probably be it. Although my actual beliefs may line up more with various Eastern religions, I never felt the sense of community with them that I did in the synagogue.

As you've probably guessed, the community issue is really important to me. But I think that deserves its own post, so the details on that subject will have to wait for another time. I've rambled enough for now.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Skepticism for school

This doesn't have anything to do with religion per se, but I wanted to address something that is often repeated as an article of faith without any real evidence to back it up. School either will start soon or has already started for some people, and I wanted to discuss this matter.

Liberal arts colleges (like my alma mater!) love to tout their undergraduate focus in their brochures. They're chock full of statements like, "Since we have no graduate programs, we can guarantee that all your classes will be taught by actual professors." Implicit in this statement is something akin to, "Those poor, downtrodden students at the big scary state schools have to take some of their classes from the great unwashed--I mean, graduate students." (Cue the horror movie music of your choice at this point.)

After a couple of years at a big scary state school and indeed having some classes taught by grad students, I think I can safely say that there is no correlation whatsoever between people's teaching abilities and their relative positions on the tenure track. I've had excellent teachers who were grad students, and terrible teachers with doctorates from prestigious schools.

If there's any factor that could be said to make a difference, it's probably just a personal commitment to decent teaching. It may seem odd that a large number of college professors don't put much thought into their teaching skills, but in many cases, evaluations of their job performance rest on other factors, like publishing research. Published research also accounts for a lot of weight in things like university rankings in various publications. You can argue how wrong this is if you like, but don't expect to get very far.

If you really need your hand held through a class, even big scary state schools have assistance available. When I was struggling in a technical writing class, I went to the writing lab and got help. College is not like high school. Success is not handed to you on a plate. It's OK not to be a natural whiz at everything (it took me a while to make peace with that!). And generally, unless the question is over something specific that the instructor wants, the help from fellow students in the labs is just as good as what you'll get from an instructor during office hours.

Just think of it as practice with taking responsibility for your own success. That's how life is.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The religion that got away, Part 1

I've mentioned previously how I had to take two theology classes at Texas Lutheran. The first one pretty much made me into what most people would call agnostic, although I didn't yet think of myself as one. That experience did not put me in a great hurry to take that second class, and I wanted to be as far away from Christian teachings as I could get. Being at a Lutheran college and all, that wasn't very far, but they did offer a course on Judaism that was taught by a rabbi. I figured that was my best bet.

I learned that in many cases, Jewish and Christian interpretations of the same scriptures are often radically different. This is due in part to some differences in translation. The commandment cited by Christians as, "Thou shalt not kill," is cited by Jews as, "Thou shalt not murder." The verse in Isaiah that talks about a "virgin" conceiving is translated in Jewish Bibles as a "young girl" conceiving.

Sometimes the disagreements are over interpretation. The biblical story where Abraham is told to sacrifice Isaac is viewed by many Christians as God's way of testing Abraham's faith. But a common Jewish interpretation of that passage is that it was God's way of telling Abraham that there would be no human sacrifice in this new religion Abraham was founding.

As you may have guessed, these experiences tore away whatever shreds of Christian faith I might have had left. I didn't leap right into Judaism, but after I decided Buddhism wasn't for me, it was something I decided to give a shot. The religion I learned about in class struck me as practical (I'll expand on this in Part 2), and I liked the idea of a religion that was more focused on action than belief.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Some good things from my Buddhist experience

Despite my issues with institutional Buddhism, I did pick up some very useful tools in my studies. One of the big things I remember from reading What the Buddha Taught is that Buddhism takes a different approach to its teachings than Western religions do, at least in theory. In a recent post, I paraphrased Michael Shermer in saying how if you don't believe in Jesus's literal existence, death, and resurrection, you can't really consider yourself a Christian.

However, if it were possible to scientifically disprove that Siddharta Gautama (the man who became the Buddha) ever existed, most Buddhists probably wouldn't stop practicing their religion. In What the Buddha Taught, Rahula says that Gautama's literal existence is completely beside the point. The point is that the teachings are there for us to follow.

Or not to follow. Buddha actually told his disciples not to believe what he was saying just because he said it. He encouraged his followers to test his teachings against their own experience. Rahula uses the illustration of claiming you have an object hidden in your hand. As long as I can't see for myself, I can choose to believe or doubt you. In other words, it's a matter of faith. But if you open your hand and show me the object, it's not a matter of faith because I can see for myself. For someone raised in an evangelical Christian background, the idea of a religion that allowed for and even encouraged a healthy level of skepticism was huge. Even though my skepticism turned out to extend to a lot of Buddhist teachings, I still admire and use that approach.

The other big idea I took from Buddhism was that of being in the present moment. I know that's not unique to Buddhism, but that's where I first encountered the idea. Like anybody else, I'm prone to get stuck reminiscing about the past or speculating about the future. And I wouldn't say that people should never do those things, but probably that most people do too much. Focusing on the present moment via meditation or other means helps pull me out of the whirlwinds of over-speculation.

For those of you who have left a religion, are there certain principles you still find valuable, despite rejecting the religion as a whole? What are they?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Why I'm Not a Buddhist, Part 2

Part 1 of this story can be found here.

Shortly after I got back from Germany, I landed a job in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and moved up there. Most of the Buddhist literature I'd read talked about the benefits of regularly meditating with a group and studying under a teacher. So I decided that once I was settled in my new environment, I would try to do that.

Like the denominations in Christianity, there are different schools of thought of Buddhism. The big ones are:
  • Theravada (the oldest current school)
  • Mahayana (includes Zen and most of the groups Westerners think of when they hear "Buddhism")
  • Vajrayana (includes Tibetan Buddhism)
The book I'd read was written by a Theravadin monk, but at that time, the bulk of the information I found on local groups was in the Zen tradition, so I began to focus in that direction. I read some of the standard books on Zen and attended some introductory classes at a zendo (a Zen meditation hall) that were followed by zazen (the actual sitting meditation).

The meditation was beneficial enough, but I found the group experience unsatisfying for three reasons:
  • The actual teacher in charge of the group was very inaccessible. In fact, I never met the guy, even after months of sitting with the group.
  • Conversations seemed to revolve around showing off one's "Zen cred" rather than actually working through any meaningful issues, or even just chit-chatting about each other's families and jobs.
  • People talked about things like chakras and thousand-armed goddesses, assuming they needed no explanation or evidence. A bit odd when you consider that most of these people had probably come to Buddhism from Christianity or Judaism.
Several years later and in a completely different part of the country, I had essentially the same experience in another zendo. So I don't think it's just me.

It seems that any time a group of people tries to get together to practice Buddhism, it tends to get fused with whatever the local folk religion is. This is even somewhat true in the US, where you can find places advertising a sort of Christian/Zen synthesis. Also, if you consider New Age hippie crap a religion, you can definitely find your share of Buddhist groups fused with that in this country.

Or maybe the moral of the story is just, beware the Asian spirituality group with no Asians in it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why I Chose the Title I Chose

It's the story of my life, and yes, the story of my "spiritual" life in particular. Every time I think I can unreservedly embrace a particular religion or philosophy, something always seems to whisper in my ear, "Well, maybe not."

First, I'll talk about the one that started it all for me: the Southern Baptists. They tend to take a beating from just about everyone who isn't of some kind of evangelical persuasion, and from many who are. In many cases these beatings are justified. For one thing, they tend to dole out a fair number of their own beatings against pretty much anyone who doesn't adhere to the official vision of what a good Southern Baptist should be like. Before you ask, no, it doesn't matter if you're Jewish. That's what Jews for Jesus are for, silly! ;) And don't even get me started on their teachings regarding women. Even Jimmy Carter can't take it anymore.

But I guess like someone who comes from a run-down area, there will always be some comfortable familiarity between myself and the Southern Baptists. When I was Christian, I liked not having to follow a set service structure every time. I liked the lack of bureaucracy between ordinary churchgoers and church leadership. And this will probably sound crazy, but give me the old school gospel hymns over that contemporary Christian pap any day of the freakin' week. I'd much rather hear "Victory in Jesus" played in four parts on a slightly out-of-tune upright piano by a 75-year-old retired kindergarten teacher than contemporary "Jesus is my boyfriend" music (sorry, Dad).

Of course, there's the whole issue of my disagreement with the vast majority of their teachings, which is why I left in the first place. And it always seems like every time I think I've found a religion I can live with, I always reach what I call a "How could you?" moment. Don't get me wrong, I know that there's no group, religious or otherwise, that I can agree with everything they do or say. But it would seem dishonest to identify with a group if you don't agree with at least their core teachings.

To me, this raises an interesting question: what is the threshold of belief or nonbelief with regard to a particular religion? Obviously, the answer depends in part on the religion. Since I've talked mostly about Christianity in this post, that's what I'll stick with. Famous skeptic Michael Shermer said on a Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode on the Bible that if you don't believe Jesus rose from the dead for people's sins, then there's no way you can honestly call yourself a Christian.

So, what do you think about that? Do you agree with Shermer's assessment? If you disagree, how would you draw the line between belief and nonbelief differently? What about other religions?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why I'm Not a Buddhist, Part 1

I've talked before about how studying theology basically made it impossible for me to keep professing to be Christian. By the time I graduated from Texas Lutheran, I considered myself a rabid atheist. At the same time I came face-to-face with another widely-held belief that turned out to be false: that a college degree guarantees at least some kind of decent employment.

With no spiritual ideas to comfort me and no real job prospects ahead, I spiraled into a depression. I was able to buy a little time, having been accepted to an exchange program that allowed me to spend 4 weeks in Germany. Sadly, because of my personal issues at the time, I didn't enjoy it as much as I probably could have, but the trip was far from a complete waste.

My host family would leave English-language books in my room for me. Usually, they were just standard popular novels, but one of the books was What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk. If you're looking for an explanation of the core tenets of Buddhism, this book is an excellent source. It doesn't talk a whole lot about practice, but it doesn't claim to, either.

The philosophy outlined in the book seemed refreshingly simple. It talked of liberation from suffering and only believing things you could confirm with your own experience. I also liked that the Buddha never claimed any sort of divine ancestry or connection. In fact, Buddhism as explained in this book did not require belief in any gods at all. Could this be what I needed?

Truth be told, I was really unhappy being an atheist. In retrospect this probably had more to do with other circumstances of the time, but there it is. Not only was I bummed out, but those close to me were really freaked out by the idea of my being an atheist, especially my mother. All these combined to make me think that maybe I could find a home in Buddhism.

In part 2, I'll talk about what happened when I tried to put the ideas I'd discovered into practice.

Monday, August 3, 2009

My 15 Minutes of Freethought Fame

The Denny's caper story also got picked up by the Friendly Atheist. To anyone who comes by from there, thanks! Let me know what you think.

I'm glad to be able to contribute a small piece to this curious story. I feel like I should thank him by proving why the square root of 2 is irrational or something. Not that he doesn't know that (being a math teacher and all), or even that it's an amazingly difficult proof (it isn't), but I can vouch for the fact that math teachers love that stuff.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

We're on a Mission From...Ourselves

Previously, I'd discussed this promotion that a Denny's in Euless, TX was doing. The promotion said that if you came in with your church bulletin, you would get 10% off your meal, and the restaurant would donate the same amount to the church named in the bulletin.

When I told Jenny about this promotion, she was completely behind the idea of taking a bulletin from the North Texas Church of Freethought, and seeing if we could get the discount and the donation. So we decided we would go to the next available monthly service, which was held this morning.

Jenny had never been to one of their services. I'd been once before, and it was all right. I came in expecting not to be offended, but not to be wowed, either. Fortunately, I had a much better time at this one than at the previous one. The theme for this service was "Good and Evil," and one of the musical selections was the theme from Underdog! How cool is that? Definitely beats "The Old Rugged Cross" in my book!

Perhaps next time we'll join them at the usual after-services location for lunch, but today we had a mission to accomplish. I looked at the bulletin, and it had the required information for the promotion, which was the full name of the organization and its mailing address. Off we went!

We walked into the restaurant and didn't see any signs advertising the promotion, so they might be trying to phase it out. We did see a woman sitting at a booth with her hair in curlers, though. That was pretty funny.

When we got to our table, we asked our server about the promotion, and after asking the manager, she told us that the deal was still good. Sure enough, when it came time to pay, they did honor the deal. Although the manager who rang us up did do a bit of a double take when she saw the bulletin, which featured, among other things, the subtitle, "A Rational Approach to Religion," and a large boldfaced headline about how God is not necessary to have morality. So if NTCOF gets a check from Denny's for somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.50, um, you're welcome.

Who wants to bet the promotion ends not too long after the owners realize they're donating to a secular organization?