Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Expanding on "drop by and lie"

In a previous post, I mentioned Jennifer Michael Hecht's phrase "drop by and lie" to refer to nonbelievers who participate in religious practices for whatever reason. I also raised the issue of whether I was doing this with the Vedanta Society. Here's my follow-up.

It boils down to how you define your terms. That probably sounds like I'm trying to weasel my way into or out of something, so let me illustrate my point with some examples.

If I were interested in converting to Catholicism and wanted to know what they believed, the Nicene Creed would be a pretty good summary. More importantly, not believing those statements is a deal breaker (this is also true of Orthodox and many Protestant denominations). If I wanted to become a Muslim, I would be expected to pray five times a day in the prescribed manner and regularly recite the Shahada. So if I didn't believe that Muhammad was a divine messenger, that would be a deal breaker between me and Islam.

So what does the Vedanta Society expect of me? Well, there isn't a creed or list of commandments. There are some ethical guidelines, but they are just that--guidelines, not rigid absolutes. Besides, the ideas in those guidelines are hardly extreme. I think most people would agree that honesty and refraining from stealing are good things! Regarding the philosophy, this page provides a starting point. A lot of the terms they use may be familiar, but in many cases those terms are defined differently than in the Abrahamic religions.

For instance, a lot of the Vedantic literature, especially Advaita (nondualistic) Vedanta, talks about unity with Brahman. Some try to equate Brahman with God, but that's not necessarily accurate. As you may have guessed, there are varying schools of thought on just what Brahman is. One way to look at it is as a sort of Uncaused First Cause, but without the personal attributes that Abrahamic religions typically give to such an idea. Another perspective would be in terms of Albert Einstein's description of "the orderly harmony of what exists" or Stephen Hawking's "embodiment of the laws of the universe." (Sources: the Einstein quote is mentioned in The God Delusion, and the Hawking quote is mentioned here.) I won't say that Advaita Vedanta is inherently pantheistic, but it certainly seems to allow for that interpretation.

A related question is how to define theism in the first place. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins defines theism as belief in a supernatural being who created the universe and intervenes in its events. If you define theism in that way, you could end up calling a lot of religiously observant people atheists. In fact, my favorite Pew Forum survey indicates that at least in the US, majorities of Hindus, Buddhists, and even Jews do not believe in a personal God. Some people use the term nontheists to include atheists and people who reject the idea of a personal God but are still religious in some form.

Applying nontheistic ideas to the Abrahamic religions is often considered blasphemy, although some have tried. But in Eastern religions, these ideas are at least considered valid interpretations, if not necessarily universal ones. The Resident Minister at my local Vedanta Society told me, "When you pray, you're having a dialogue with your Higher Self." Of course, even nondualistic Hindus perform rituals involving various deities, but the deities are generally considered to be useful metaphors. So while it may seem slippery to Westerners to conceive of God as Einstein and Hawking described, these ideas are well within the mainstream of Hindu thought. There are certainly Hindus who disagree with nondualism, but in the arguments I've seen, nobody has claimed their opponent is not Hindu for disagreeing with them (for an entertaining study in contrast, type "you're no Buddhist" with the quotes into your search engine of choice).

In summary, at no point in my interactions with the Vedanta Society have I been asked to profess anything I don't believe. In fact, I have discussed specific doubts with the Resident Minister as they've come up, and she always tells me I don't have to believe those things (because I'm slow on the uptake, I keep asking). And there's precedence for her answer in the tradition.

So, if I don't believe in anything supernatural or that there's an immortal soul within us that survives death, why do I bother? So far, I've found that the philosophy and practices I've learned about in the Vedanta Society help me detach from the ego. I'm fully aware that many do not consider detachment from the ego to be desirable, or that religious language is useful in any case. But those are personal preferences, not empirical truths.

I know this arrangement may be untenable in the long term. It's entirely possible that as I learn more, I'll find something that I can't support or cast aside. If that happens, I'll walk. Either way, I'll keep telling you all about it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Confessions of a Christmas hater

When Bill O'Reilly first started foaming at the mouth a few years ago about the so-called "war on Christmas," my first thought was, "Sweet! Where can I enlist?" I envisioned Jon Stewart and me wearing t-shirts that said "Soldier in the War on Christmas." One of the nice things about my Jewish phase is that I had a ready-made excuse not to go too crazy with the whole Christmas thing.

Christmas has almost always been tied up with disappointment for me. Not because I didn't get the toys I wanted as a kid, but because I could sense that my relatives, other than parents and siblings, were disappointed in me. And I think they still are, even though I served my country in the military for 8 years and will probably be the first person in my family to finish a graduate degree. They'll probably remain disappointed in me for as long as they live, even if I become a professor at a prestigious school or help with some research breakthrough in industry. Why? Because they have this very clear idea of what a woman should be and do, and I don't fit it. If you're wondering who would, Victoria Osteen would probably be a decent reference point (I was going to say Sarah Palin, but she's clearly more accomplished than her husband, and some of my relatives might consider that to be upstaging).

As a kid, it was clear that my behavior wasn't feminine enough for them. I was told I'd never catch a man the way I was, which, truth be told, was just fine with me. The idea of marriage or even long-term commitment seemed to be a kind of slavery (my stance on this has mellowed with age, at least in theory). But to them, my not catching a man was a terrible outcome. In fact, until I got married, some relatives asked my sister if I was a lesbian (I don't know if this idea has resurfaced since my divorce).

Fortunately, as an adult, I don't exactly lose sleep over this disfavor. In fact, I see who does have their favor, and I certainly don't wish to trade places with any of those people! But spending every holiday season in my formative years being confronted with my own perceived inadequacies is enough to make me annually consider booking a vacation over the holidays in a country that doesn't celebrate Christmas. If said country has a relatively clean beach, so much the better. ;-)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Disaster narrowly averted

I think I've mentioned before how religious my extended family is. Over the weekend, my grandmother was in the hospital awaiting surgery (it went well, and she's doing much better!). A bunch of us went to visit her, so it was almost like a family gathering. Normally at family gatherings, I just tune out the conversation and pretend to be fascinated by something on my phone, so despite the gulf between our opinions on things, we don't get into a lot of entanglements. But a hospital room provides much closer quarters, so I had to engage in more active lip-biting than I typically do.

During the afternoon, one of my aunts started singing the praises of Joel Osteen. Fine. Normally, this is where I start to tune out and find another conversation, but no such luck this time. Apparently, he had recently preached this sermon about how you should shout praises to God when you're feeling worried. Again, fine. I could see how that might have some psychological benefit. But what bothered me is how she kept talking about "the Christians" in Old Testament events like the battle of Jericho (Hint: there were no Christians in the Old Testament). It took all my self-restraint not to say, "Don't you mean the Jews?"

Later on, my stepmom wondered aloud why we have certain organs, even though we can live without them. This was relevant to the issue at hand, as Granny was having her gallbladder removed. Without even thinking about the implications of my statements, I rattled off the standard Biology 101 answer: "Well, these things were probably more useful at a previous stage in our development. I mean, look at the tailbone..."

We've never discussed the issue, but the look on my stepmom's face indicated I'd hit a nerve. Granny chimed in, "Well, nobody really knows about that stuff." I took that as my cue to bow out. It's things like this that make me think that even if it were a worthwhile goal to rid the world of religion (I'm not saying it is, or that it isn't), it would be impossible to achieve. We've still got flat-earthers, for dog's sake.

I did at least get in one positive point. We were discussing contentment and how important it was, and I said, "Every major religion teaches that in some form." That seemed to please everyone. Those who know me personally know how conflicted my relationship is with my extended family. Like all people, I'd prefer to get along with them. But it seems that to get along, I have to pretend to be someone I'm not.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What hasn't changed

I figured I should clarify some things since my search seems to be taking on a new direction. It might seem that I've done some sort of theological 180, but I haven't. I'm no more likely to believe supernatural explanations for events in India than I would believe someone claiming that Jesus appeared in a grilled cheese sandwich.

Here are some of my beliefs that haven't changed:
  • Separation of church and state FTW!!!! (Duh.)
  • Science is the best tool for determining the facts of the world around us.
  • I have a serious problem with people who do harm in the name of religion.
  • I highly doubt that there's some sort of omnipotent being in the cosmos that worries about the minutae of our sex lives.
Here's a really interesting talk given by author Jennifer Michael Hecht on what she calls Poetic Atheism. She talks about the need for ritual and having some outlet for feelings of transcendence. She also mentions the need to remember death and that life is not fair. I'm glad that there are groups out there trying to meet those needs, but I just don't see them in the freethought groups in my area, unfortunately.

Hecht uses the phrase "drop by and lie" to refer to people who use religion for various social benefits. That phrase may sound like she has contempt for such people, but that's not the case. She's fully aware of the needs that this behavior serves. Naturally, I wonder on a regular basis if that's what I'm doing with Vedanta. But those thoughts are voluminous and complicated enough to require their own post, so I'll save them for later.

Friday, December 4, 2009

We've reached a milestone

Apparently this blog is now officially spam-worthy. Not only that, it was spammed in a foreign language (Chinese characters, I think). Since this blog is not a democracy, I have already deleted the offending comment. If you want to advertise here, pay Google like everyone else.

I'm not going to post a long, impassioned plea for spam-free comments, since I imagine there is almost no overlap between the people likely to spam this blog and the people who actually read it. I'll just say I hope it doesn't get to the point where I have to start moderating the comments.

Actually, I'm more amused than anything. I can't imagine that this site gets enough traffic to drive a lot of revenue for the offending sites. Also, I assume that all you readers are far too intelligent to click on that sort of thing, yes? ;-)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Your concern is appreciated

Can I start a backlash against a backlash?

I should probably begin with the disclaimer that I haven't read any of the Twilight books or seen any of the movies. My commentary doesn't have anything to do with the actual content of these books and movies, just the discussion about them.

An acquaintance of mine keeps posting stuff on his Facebook page about how Bella and Edward are in an abusive relationship, vampires are creepy and therefore not proper objects of lust, etc. This stuff may be completely true, but I can't help but wonder about a couple of things:
  • Since when did we look to literature for role models on how to conduct relationships? In fact, there was a point after my divorce where I distinctly remember thinking, "Wow, I'm glad I'm not a 19th-century literary heroine, because this is probably the point in the story where I'd kill myself." For the record, I had no desire to do that; I was simply remarking on the all-too-common fate of such women after failed romances.
  • The Twilight series is obviously the first time a bunch of teenagers have obsessed about something. Ever. We didn't see the same thing when Titanic came out or anything. Leif freakin' Garrett, for dog's sake.
So maybe Edward is mean and nasty to Bella, who still hangs on him like a lapdog. A big part of most people's teenage and young adult years is working out their unrealistic expectations of other people, romantically and otherwise. Hopefully these people have models of healthier relationships around them, but if not, I don't think that's Stephenie Meyer's fault. Give people some credit. I don't know anyone who reads, say, Harlequin romances who actually expects to be swept off their feet by some drop-dead gorgeous billionaire.

If the whole thing bothers you that much, save your concern for the fictional characters and redirect it toward actual people in your life. The flesh-and-blood humans might actually appreciate it.