The Buddha has said: “Even the gods are subject to samsara.” But i say unto you: even our scientists and their truths are in thrall to reckless world views. (They know not how to find the truths that are best for us.)
From Godwin Samararatne, Talks on Buddhist Meditation:
I think it is difficult to be friendly to others unless you are friendly to yourself.
For one, its good practice. For another, though its a state of mind, which must be acquired and its easiest to start at home.
UPDATE 2008/1/10: Dave rightly points out in the comments that this post was VERY BAD and i apologize for that. I’ve now cut down the argument to what i had unknowingly already pointed to in my note (*), namely that tradition and a community are very good tools to effect radical moral change in a given individual. It is now patently obvious to me that the tradition and community need not be religious. Original, edited post follows.
Only religion can transform a person completely, because to do so requires both thanks to a deep tradition able to inform that transformation and also a strong community to effect and nurture it.
Religious transformation is a reshaping of someone’s moral, psychological and behavioral self that is both complete and permanent. It produces a new person, someone whose identity has been re-established and fundamentally improved.
Of course, there have been many great people who had little if anything to do with religion. But i would argue that though they were perhaps geniuses who contributed greatly to humanity, they had not been themselves transformed. To produce a Mother Theresa*, a Gandhi, or a Jesus and a Gautama Buddha requires religion and a lot of it. Furthermore, to produce those people able to help others strive towards this complete transformation also requires a strong religion tradition and community. The following text, taken from the last paragraph of Thich Nhat Hanh‘s book The Heart Of The Buddha’s Teaching, derives its power precisely because it is so thoroughly informed by a specific religious tradition and because its authors in completely immersed in a buddhist community:
The heart of the Buddha has been touched by our being wonderfully together. Please practice as an individual, a family, a city, a nation, and a worldwide community. Please take good care of the happiness of everyone around you. Enjoy your breathing, your smiling, your shining the light of mindfulness on each thing you do. Please practice transformation at the base through deep looking and deep touching. The teachings of the Buddha on transformation and healing are very deep. They are not theoretical. They can be practiced every day. Please practice them and realize them. Have courage. I am confident that you can do it.
And to successfully put such suggestions into practice also requires immersing oneself in this religious tradition and belonging to its community. Without that your good-will would quickly wane, i should think.
*I know that Mother Theresa didn’t believe in God, but my argument never refers to god, only to tradition and community.
What are some of the major defects of current religions?
Ossified metaphysics. In Christianity, for example, we have a trinity, a god-man, sin, creation ex nihilo, all of which are non-negotiable elements, which cannot be jettisoned or replaced no matter how unfit they have become to describe our current world (surprisingly enough it is perhaps only creation ex nihilo that still makes sense – in a quantum sort of way). If religions are to remain relevant and not require ever further sacrifices of the intellect, then they must regain some of their initial flexibility and start reworking from the ground up the entirety of their so-called worldviews.
Individual salvation. Be it Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism or Islam (this doesn’t apply to Judaism), all of these religions preach salvation, but they preach it first and foremost to the individual. You can be saved/save your soul without having to worry about anyone else, let alone your surrounding ecosystem. This is probably what killed the dinosaurs. And it is certainly not helping to prevent our new species’ impending doom.
Disregard for the body/world. Most major religions are “soul-religions” in the sense that what ultimately matters is not our current bodies, but some immaterial self that will survive beyond whatever happens to your body and this universe. This doesn’t mean all religious people are either too fat or overly emaciated; but it does probably contribute to a certain je-m’en-foutisme (i-don’t-careism), wether or not we go all the way to blowing our bodies, or the world, up.
Future Salvation. This is the counterpart to the “soulishness” of current religions and is just as damaging to our current health.
Exclusiveness. Though Buddhism often claims to embrace all other religions, it does so exclusively on its own terms. Christianity and Islam are notorious us-versus-them religions, with the belligerent consequences we know too well. Of course, this is in great part due to an ossified metaphysics.
Impractical. Religions just don’t seem able to help us solve our current problems. They were probably pretty good at solving whatever was wrong back when they sprung up, three to five half-centuries ago, but as far as current wars, pollutions, poverties and other bad stuff go, they have nothing to offer.
Ossified institutions. Who isn’t bored to death in church? What are monks still doing running around? Why can they still not marry? What is the deal with that big black thing in mecca?
Politically passive. Finally, the current crop of old, grey-haired, mostly decrepit religions is remarkably … inactive. Of course, telling people they need only worry about the future of their souls doesn’t help. But at least they could do a bit more than preach and set up a few orphanages. Today doesn’t need personal, but rather global, institutional salvation.
Ian McDonald’s science fiction novel River of Gods takes place in India on the Ganges in 2046. There are two interesting features of the novel pertaining to religion and ethics with which i would like to deal. The first is has to do with emotions and controlling them. In the novel a new genre of human beings appears called nutes, people who have undergone extensive plastic surgery to remake them into asexual beings of immense beauty and accordingly short lifespans. (Btw, the idea seems most appropriate for a futuristic India inasmuch as there currently are scores of males castrated at birth running around dressed like women forcing money out of people for all sorts of reasons – though they usually leave westerners alone, especially if they are pretending to sleep in a third class sleeper train.)
What is interesting about these nutes is that the emotions associated with sexuality among others have been rerouted from their now nonexistent sexual organs to a set of controls on their arm. They can thus program in whatever emotions they would like to feel at any given moment.
This reminds me of both stoicism among other greek philosophies as well as hindu and buddhist meditation techniques. Stoicism wanted us to gain control of our emotions, though in order to eventually get rid of them. This meets half of what a nute can do (control yts emotions). Meditation, however, as far as i have understood it so far, actually seeks (among many other things, of course) to do exactly what these nutes have been fixed to do: a buddhist is supposed to learn through meditation to distance him or herself from his or her thoughts and emotions, though not in order to destroy them; rather in order to gain control over them. The point of meditation is to create a self that is no longer lost in its emotions and thoughts, but can view and thus direct them from a higher vantage point.
McDonald does not portray his nutes as superior versions of a human being, but just different types of people. Nor does he ever compare a nutes relation to yts emotions to how a woman or a man relates to emotion. I cannot however but help thinking that these nutes are somehow “more adapted” humans, something that some humans at least have aspired to becoming. I still think though that the meditation route is far superior to the plastic surgery route, if only for pecuniary reasons.
Remember the joy of your non-toothache.
Of course they do! Buddhists are the standard example. But most all religions have had atheist proponents.
The main problem with the current crop of atheists is precisely that they conflate atheism with areligion, or rather a form of militant anti-religiosity. By definition atheism simply means you don’t believe that a (personal) god exists. It certainly does not imply that you reject all forms of transcendence!
Dawkins, Hitchens and associates are trying to fight religion by equating a-theism with a-religion. But their attack is profoundly flawed:
(1) they offer a specific scientistic flavor of atheism that one needn’t share: it is not because science works well without presupposing direct divine intervention that we need to abandon all forms of transcendence. Science doesn’t prove atheism, it just presupposes it.
(2) they equate religion with theistic dualism. As mentioned above, there are entire religions (buddhism, jainism) that do very well without a creator god, thank you very much. Most non-monotheistic religions are monist in the sense that they consider the gods (or whatever) as part and parcel of the world: they have, so to speak, an world-immanent idea of transcendence. This doesn’t mean that physicists are going to find Brahma within their particle colliders; but it does mean that Brahma can easily be interpreted as a “force” (or whatever) within our universe, and one that should be understandable by science – when science gets that far.
Atheism is not areligion – and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something, namely a mutilated and watered-down view of religion. There is plenty of room in atheism for mysticism, transcendence and humbly acknowledging that we don’t understand everything. In fact, a religious atheism is perhaps even more interesting than a theistic one because the Mystery of the World lies not “outside and far away” but is the very fabric of our existence. Religious atheists are per definitionem not tempted to claim that we or the world “are god”, but they most certainly are entitled to believe that religious understandings are perhaps our best and most beautiful hope.
P.S. from Religious Atheisms:
How can there be “religious” atheists?
– Consider the group called the Sea of Faith – cultural Christians living in a post-christian world, who find meaning in christian culture, but not inerrant truth in its writings nor its beliefs. The Sea of Faith people believe the Western judeo-christian God to be a human construct … but the religion and broader culture built around that god to be still meaningful in their lives and others around them.
Consider the main character in Miguel de Unamuno’s short novel, San Manuel Bueno, mártir (Madrid 1933) : Father Manuel, a Roman Catholic priest taking care of the people in a small remote spanish village, but without faith in anything but this world … a Catholic atheist.
Consider Altizer’s Radical Theology and the Death of God (1966), Bloch’s Atheism in Christianity (1968), Kolenda’s Religion without God (1976), Pérez-Esclarín’s Atheism and liberation (1978), Apostel, Pinxten et al’s Religious atheism? (1982). Add in daoism and buddhism and forms of hinduism for the eastern variety of religious atheists.
Frequently the atheistic admonition “to live without gods” is translated to mean “to live without religion” as well, given that gods are always coterminous with religions. The mental conflict in the West arises as people of the West, indoctrinated for two millenia in the identity equation “Religion = God (= State)”, believe that religions require the presence of deity and the supernatural, whereas the ancient religions of the East and the modern religions of the West have none.
Buddhism suggests an eightfold path which can be followed when trying to avoid and reduce suffering. It is:
I am not convinced that suffering should be given such a pride of place in a religious system. It’s too depressing. However, the buddhist eightfold path can easily be extracted from this metaphysical foundation and used as a tool, as a system that does not necessarily aim to solely reduce suffering but also to advance whatever other goods you might have set before yourself in life.
Of course, we can and should still try to use the eightfold path to reduce suffering, but we should always remain open to the very likely possibility that “suffering” might not be the best way of understanding the world. And as we progress, we will understand with what suffering must be replaced or supplemented by in our worldview. When religions stultify doctrinally they become much less useful. But actively keeping them flexible can turn them into powerful tools for good and well-being.
Religion is useful; we just need to learn how to use it.