can’t see the forest

Well-adjusted Atheism and the Dialog with Theism Reconsidered

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Richard Dawkins (BBC)Prof. Richard Dawkins is a biologist, science popularizer, and advocate of atheism whose positions I tend to support and whose passion I deeply admire. His books, such as The God Delusion, sell quite well, and he can be seen in auditoriums and television studios the world over, patiently and persistently explaining—with more than a touch of righteousness, one feels—the truth of evolutionary theory and the perils of religious belief. I happen to share the Professor’s point of view that religious dogmas and mentalities have in practice been at least as aggregately destructive and divisive as benevolently useful, but there are some things about Dawkins’ approach, or at least what I take to be the most common interpretations of it, that I have always found troublesome. These points, I should stress, are not specific to Dawkins’ thought only, and are not meant as personal criticism. I bring them up because I think they are critical to understanding the nature of atheism and its relationships to science and religion, and I don’t believe they’re adequately developed in the work of Dr. Dawkins and others like him. My goals here are to help clear things up and for us all to get along peacefully, and that takes work. :-)

I know it hurts in a punch-to-the-gut way for some of us to subject ourselves to the voice of Bill O’Reilly for any reason, but take a look at this 5-minute interview with Richard Dawkins that happened on the O’Reilly Factor a couple of years ago. I’d like to use it as a starting point:

Notice Dawkins’ statement near the beginning of the interview that science keeps “piling on the understanding.” The implication here is that an individual adopts an atheist worldview as a result of scientific enlightenment leading to metaphysical revelation—almost invoking the idea of scientist as evangelist.

Now, it is certainly true that a systematic and rigorous understanding of nature, and of ourselves as part of it, does not support theism as fact and indeed presents copious factual evidence against a lot of the basic tenets of theist, creationist systems of metaphysics. But it does not follow that all the scientific knowledge in the world could necessarily compel a person to abandon his or her faith. Many prominent religious figures from various traditions, as Dawkins is always quick to point out, accept the theory of evolution in one version or another, even though it might speak unambiguously against certain aspects of the dogmas they represent.

The Tortoise and AchillesFor me, Dawkins is tilting at windmills in his quest to deconvert the faithful through an overwhelming preponderance of scientific data, and potentially alienating those who might benefit most from his message. First of all, you can’t confront real obstinacy with logic and language. Language just isn’t that powerful. Consider Lewis Carroll’s familiar dialog, ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,’ in which he demonstrates the futility of using reason to truly force a conclusion. If C is logically supposed to follow from A and B, a person who accepts both A and B as true can find, literally, infinitely many ways of casting into doubt the logical necessity of C. You can lead the mind to logic, but you can’t make it think, if you’ll excuse the poor humor.

The same point is delightfully demonstrated in this anecdote from atheistwiki:

Many years ago, when I was a Psychology student, we had a lecturer who told stories of his own early life as a young clinical psychologist. One story he told was of a psychotic patient who was under his care. This man was quite normal in other ways, but he believed that he (the patient) was dead. So one day my lecturer decided to try some cognitive therapy on him:

Lecturer: You think you’re dead, yes? Well, do dead people bleed?
Patient: No, of course not. How could they?
Lecturer: (Sticking a pin in him) Well, how about that?
Patient: Good God! That’s amazing! I was totally wrong! Dead people do bleed!

In the television interview above, O’Reilly doesn’t really “throw in with Jesus” because he is uncomfortable with the lack of the extent to which science has “figured it all out.” That is pretense, an attempt to take away Dawkins’ intellectual leverage, leverage which I think is probably misplaced to begin with. O’Reilly chooses the Cross at Calvary over the Hubble Space Telescope, so to speak, because of the former’s symbolic power and its central nature to the cognitive guidelines along which so many of his neurons are so steadfastly organized, regardless of the intellectual paradoxes and contradictions endemic to his faith. This subtext no doubt resonated powerfully among his viewership. Expressed in modified terms, it would have resonated powerfully among aboriginal Australians, whirling dervishes, or the tribes of the Amazon, and for much the same reasons.

People aren’t religious because they’re uneducated, inherently illogical, or don’t know anything about astrophysics. Isaac Newton was, after all, a deeply Christian man, and J.S. Bach is only one titanic example among numerous composers and artists whose emotionally compelling and intellectually formidable works were dedicated to the glory of God. No, people are religious because religious belief fills certain psychological—some would even say biological—needs, and serves social purposes deeply entrenched in human interactions with one another and the environment on a pan-cultural basis. This is why, even though I enthusiastically agree with Dawkins in many respects, I take issue with his pointed portrayal of religion as an illness or delusion which must be scientifically educated into oblivion.  I think such a goal is neither clearly profitable nor definitively wholesome. If anything, it seems only to fuel misconceptions, ill will, and defensiveness among believers.

As Joseph Campbell eloquently observes at the outset of Primitive Mythology, the first volume of his epic essay The Masks of God:

Every people has received its own seal and sign of supernatural designation, communicated to its heroes and daily proved in the lives and experience of its folk. And though many who bow with closed eyes in the sanctuaries of their own tradition rationally scrutinize and disqualify the sacraments of others, an honest comparison immediately reveals that all have been built from one fund of mythological motifs—variously selected, organized, interpreted, and ritualized, according to local need, but revered by every people on earth.

A fascinating psychological, as well as historical, problem is thus presented. Man, apparently, cannot maintain himself in the universe without belief in some arrangement of the general inheritance of myth. In fact, the fullness of his life would even seem to stand in a direct ratio to the depth and range not of his rational thought but of his local mythology.

NGC 6543 - Hubble imageAnother of my intellectual heroes, the astronomer and author Carl Sagan, once wrote hopefully of a coming time in which the joy of using science and reason to approach the wonders of nature might someday unify nations and cultures in contrast to the various ways in which myth-based approaches have helped to divide them throughout history. This is a noble aspiration, and one full of possibility—for science is at least as capable of building partnerships and enriching humanity as it is of constructing atomic bombs. But science cannot merely take the place of religion any more than one could suddenly impose the Qur’an on heartland America, and, in fact, the latter might be the more feasible possibility. This is because there is something about religious symbolism, ritual, and mystery that is fundamental to the human psyche, and this is, I believe, the main reason that well-meaning free thinkers such as Dawkins and Sagan have sometimes missed the mark in an important sense. As marvelously productive and existentially liberating as the Enlightenment might have been, European philosophers would be ill at ease in a primitive environment where the mystic wisdom of the shaman holds the keys to survival. It was probably not in search of a more rigorous understanding of the cosmos that the Great Pyramids were built, or the Mass in B minor composed.

Ernest Becker, the late anthropologist and psychologist whose writings continue to gain prominence in academia, wrote in The Birth and Death of Meaning an accurate and insightful account of the psycho-social machinery, some of it quite dark, served by religious belief. For example:

No religion gives any easy resolution to its central myth, by which I mean that ideal religion is not for compulsive believers. As psychoanalysis has taught us, religion, like any human aspiration, can also be automatic, reflexive, obsessive. … To believe that one has a higher reason to take human life, to feel that torture and murder are in the service of a divine cause is the kind of mandate that has always given sadists everywhere the purest fulfillment: they are free to remain on the level of the body, to pillage real flesh and blood creatures, to transact in lives in the service of the highest power. What a delight. … Genuine heroism for man is still the power to support contradictions …

Intellectual duality and contradiction lie at the heart of religion, and this has been understood since long before Galileo or Darwin. In Christian apologetics, the problem of theodicy—the existence of evil in the universe of a benevolent and omnipotent creator—has been a central problem for almost as long as Christianity has existed, and there were direct precedents and indirect analogs even before that. This fundamental basis in contradiction and resistance to an objective, rational reality is the crucial strength of religion, not its weakness, as many atheist proselytizers seem to believe. Through the embrace of contradiction, man lives an existence which is defined by his own terms and values, and is able to resolutely justify his actions amid the bloody, pulsating chaos of life, Tennyson’s “Nature red in tooth and claw,” according to an immutable and permanent scheme, which he can conveniently take to be the mandate of the highest and most perfect possible authority. If such a modus operandi is delusional in nature, it is also so deeply central to human cognition that even well-seasoned atheists can be caught invoking the name of God Almighty in moments of real trial or terror.

Celtic tree of lifeThe paradigm of learning via evidence-based thought is immensely powerful and has been astoundingly productive. Like Sagan and many others, I think there is real hope that it can transform humanity and bring people together to solve problems in which we all have a stake. In fact, it already has: consider the ways in which modern medicine is creating new possibilities in spite of the greed of corporations, and how the Internet is creating intercultural exchange on an unprecedented scale despite its role in porncasting. There is, I must profess, no sense in waiting on Jehovah to end hunger, disease, and divinely foster the sense of interconnectedness and interdependence that humankind needs in order to make good on its present situation, and viewing all the ills of the world as divine will to be bravely and humbly accepted is not an attractive solution to the miseries of real organisms, human or otherwise.

But well-adjusted atheists cannot expect to share their viewpoints as long as the strategy is to supplant religion and to bash ages-old and psychologically central beliefs with a club made of scientific theory, because religious belief is not a question of insufficient evidence to the contrary, and is far from a symptom of a faulty mind. Atheism is arrived at not through an understanding of facts, figures, and logical constructions. It arises from one’s consideration that religion may be a cultural phenomenon, the most basic kind of literature, one whose purpose is not entertainment or even instruction so much as the definition of who people are as individuals and as groups in ways that are fundamental to conscious organisms. The historical record combined with the illuminating discoveries of comparative mythology and psychoanalysis provide, for most, ample support of this conception.

For me, being an atheist is a profoundly empowering experience: it represents the ability to construct one’s worldview in the most pure, honest, vulnerable, and nobly independent sense, and the realization that man has always created his gods, by the hundreds and thousands, in man’s own image. It is empowering precisely because I arrived at it through my own volition. People can be either receptive or hostile to the suggestion, but in no case can they be won over to it. To subscribe to atheism is, I maintain, a process of exchanging one manmade contradiction—that of a perfect, divinely ordained order rife with brutality and strife—for another more constructive and intellectually challenging contradiction, that of rational, organizing man amid such beautiful probabilistic chaos. Such an exchange is the result of volition, not of compulsion, and should be treated accordingly. If atheists expect theists to listen with well-adjusted, open minds, we had better lead by a better example.

Perhaps Sir Francis Bacon said it best when he wrote: “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” Scientific thought and achievement certainly conflict with the dogmatic nature of myth-based belief and ritual, but science is not a cure for religion and should not be treated as such. The two are sides of the same coin. Given sufficient time and room and even decently favorable conditions, man’s notion of spirituality will develop in its own way according to his experience of the world around him, just as it always has. And so, atheists and theists alike should move forward in conversation and not in aggravated opposition—a tall order to which we must rise if we are to survive long enough to see our development through.

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High hopes

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In keeping with the holiday spirit of reflection and renewal, I wanted to share with you a few of my hopes for humanity. Some will cry “unabashed idealism.” Others will recognize real solutions that, combined with real attention, just might achieve real results.

  • I hope that people will realize that consumerism is making a tiny percentage of the world’s population wealthy, a slightly less tiny percentage comfortable, and most of the world miserable—while wrecking all that is decent and wholesome in human values and destroying the planet in a blaze of absolutely needless waste.
  • I hope that people will strive to respect and learn from one another by understanding this: the power of myth is necessarily stronger than and prerequisite to the power of divinity.
  • I hope individuals and society will realize that a hungry, active, open mind is the best defense against being manipulated by unseen forces, to quote a popular term from economics—and that those forces are operating in new quarters and new ways all the time, with the singular goal of making money to the exclusion of all other concerns.
  • I hope that people will come to grips with the fact that, if one views our planet as a functioning organic entity and not merely a collection of resources to be exploited, then one must realize that free market capitalism indeed promotes growth—in exactly the same way as does cancer.
  • I hope that people will consider that a society in which obesity is a more pressing problem than hunger is not necessarily on the right track.
  • I hope that the citizens of privileged nations will first realize how privileged they in fact are, and next realize that dissent against establishment corruption and misdirection is the highest form of patriotism and the world’s best shot at peace and harmony.
  • I hope people will realize that science is only as trustworthy and as productive as the values of the society that guide it.
  • I hope people will realize that religion is only as trustworthy and as productive as the values of the society that guide it.
  • I hope that individuals will come to understand that their relationships with nature define, more than anything else, who they are.
  • I hope that people will spread the message that institutions of authority must be directly challenged if they are to remain responsible.
  • I hope more of us will choose love over fear more of the time.
  • I hope it will become more apparent to more people that, if each of us does a little, together we achieve a lot.

earth-in-hand

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

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From the Nidana-Katha, as recounted in Buddhist Birth-Stories (Jataka Tales) translated and compiled by Mr. and Mrs. T. W. Rhys-Davids (Routledge & Sons Ltd, London). It is one of the most beautiful stories I know. I’d be interested to see if it sounds to you rather like any other tales you know:

Now the Bodisat had seen that night five dreams, and on considering their purport he had drawn the conclusion: “Verily this day I shall become a Buddha. And at the end of the night he washed and dressed himself, and waiting till the time should come to go round for his food, he went early, and sat at the foot of that tree, lighting it all up with his glory.

And Punna the slave girl of Sujata, coming there, saw the Bodisat sitting at the foot of the tree and lighting up all the region of the East; and she saw the whole tree in colour like gold from the rays issuing from his body. And she thought: “Today our deva, descending from the tree, is seated to receive our offering in his own hand.” And excited with joy, she returned quickly, and announced this to Sujata. Sujata, delighted at the news, gave her all the ornaments befitting a daughter, saying: “Today, from this time forth, be thou to me in the place of an elder daughter!”

buddha-with-sujataAnd since, on the day of attaining Buddhahood, it is proper to receive a golden vessel worth a hundred thousand, she conceived the idea: “We will put the milk-rice into a vessel of gold.” And sending for a vessel of gold worth a hundred thousand, she poured out the well-cooked food to put it therein. All the rice-milk flowed into the vessel, like water from a lotus leaf, and filled the vessel full. Taking it she covered it with a golden platter, and wrapped it in a cloth. And adorning herself in all her splendour, she put the vessel on her head, and went with great dignity to the Nigrodha-tree. Seeing the Bodisat, she was filled with exceeding joy, taking him for the tree-deva; and advanced bowing from the spot whence she saw him. Taking the vessel from her head, she uncovered it; and fetching sweet-scented water in a golden vase, she approached the Bodisat, and stood by.

The earthenware pot given to him by the deva Ghatikara, which had never till then left him, disappeared at that moment. Not seeing his pot, the Bodisat stretched out his right hand, and took the water. Sujata placed the vessel, with the milk-rice in it, in the hand of the great man. The great man looked at her. Pointing to the food, she said: “O sir! Accept what I have offered thee, and depart whithersoever seemeth to thee good.” And adding: “May there arise to thee as much joy as has come to me!” she went away, valuing her golden vessel, worth a hundred thousand, no more than a dried leaf.

But the Bodisat rising from his seat, and leaving the tree on the right hand, took the vessel and went to the bank of the Neranjara river, down into which on the day of their complete Enlightenment so many thousands Bodisats had gone. The name of that bathing place is the Supatitthita ferry. Putting the vessel on the bank, he descended into the river and bathed.

And having dressed himself again in the manner of the Arahants worn by so many thousand Buddhas, he sat down with his face to the East: and dividing the rice into forty-nine balls of the size of so many single-seeded palmyra fruits, he ate all that sweet milk-rice without any water. Now that was the only food he had for forty-nine days, during the seven times seven days he spent, after he became a Buddha, at the foot of the Tree of Enlightenment. During all that time he had no other food; he did not bathe; nor wash his teeth; nor feel the cravings of nature. He lived on Jhana-joy, on Path-joy, on Fruition-joy.

But when he had finished eating that milk-rice, he took the golden vessel, and said: “If I shall be able today to become a Buddha, let this pot go up the stream: if not, let it go down the stream!” and he threw it into the water. And it went, in spite of the stream, eighty cubits up the river in the middle of the stream, all the way as quickly as a fleet horse. And diving into a whirlpool it went to the palace of Kala Nagaraja (the Black Snake King); and striking against the bowls from which the three previous Buddhas had eaten, it made them sound “killi-killi!” and stopped as the lowest of them. Kala, the snake king, hearing the noise, exclaimed: “Yesterday a Buddha arose, now today another has arisen;” and he stood praising him in many hundred stanzas.

bo-tree1But the Bodisat spent the heat of the day in a grove of sal-trees in full bloom on the bank of the river. And in the evening, when the flowers droop from their stems, he proceeded, like a lion when it is roused, towards the Tree of Enlightenment, along a path five or six hundred yards wide, decked by devas. The Snakes, and Genii, and Winged Creatures, and other superhuman beings, offered him sweet-smelling flowers from heaven, and sang heavenly songs. The ten thousand world-systems became filled with perfumes and garlands and shouts of approval.

At that time there came from the opposite direction a grass-cutter named Sotthiya, carrying grass; and recognizing the great man, he gave him eight bundles of grass. The Bodisat took the grass : and ascending the rising ground round the Bo-tree, he stood at the South of it, looking towards the North. At that moment the Southern horizon seemed to descend below the level of the lowest hell, and the Northern horizon mounting up seemed to reach above the highest heaven.

The Bodisat, saying : “This cannot, methinks, be the right place for attaining Buddhahood,” turned round it, keeping it on the right hand, and went to the Western side, and stood facing the East. Then the Western horizon seemed to descend below the lowest hell, and the Eastern horizon to ascend above the highest heaven; and to him, where he was standing, the earth seemed to bend up and down like a great cart wheel lying on its axis when its circumference is trodden on.

The Bodisat, saying : “This cannot, I think, be the right place for attaining Buddhahood,” turned round it, keeping it on the right hand; and went to the Northern side, and stood facing the South. Then the Northern horizon seemed to descend beneath the deepest hell, and the Southern horizon to ascend above the highest heaven.

The Bodisat, saying: “This cannot, I think, be the right place for attaining Buddhahood,” turned round it, keeping it on the right hand; and went to the Western side, and stood facing towards the East. Now in the East is the place where all the Buddhas have sat cross-legged; and that place neither trembles nor shakes.

brass-buddhaThe great being, perceiving : “This is the steadfast spot chosen by all the Buddhas, the spot for the throwing down of the cage of sin,” took hold of the grass by one end, and scattered it there. And immediately there was a seat fourteen cubits long. For those blades of grass arranged themselves in such a form as would be beyond the power of even the ablest painter or carver to design.

The Bodisat turning his back upon the trunk of the Bo-tree, and with his face towards the East, made the firm resolve: “May skin, indeed, and sinews, and bones wilt away, may flesh and blood in my body dry up, but till I attain to complete enlightenment this seat I will not leave!” And he sat himself down in a cross-legged position, firm and immovable, as if welded with a hundred thunderbolts.

At that time the deva Mara, thinking: “Prince Siddhartha wants to free himself from my dominion. I will not let him go free yet!” went to the hosts of his Maras, and told the news. And sounding the drum called Mara-Cry, he led forth the hosts of Mara.

That army of Mara stretched twelve leagues before him, twelve leagues to the right and left of him, behind him it reaches to the rocky limits of the world, above him it is nine leagues in height; and the sound of its war-cry is heard, twelve leagues away, even as the sound of an earthquake.

Then Mara deva mounted his elephant, two hundred and fifty leagues high, named “Girded with Mountains.” And he created for himself a thousand arms, and seized all kinds of weapons. And of the remainder, too, of the company of Mara, no two took the same weapon; but, assuming various colors and various forms, they went on to overwhelm the great being.

But the devas of the ten thousand world-systems continued speaking the praises of the great being. Sakka, the deva-king, stood there blowing his trumpet Vijayuttara. Now that trumpet is a hundred and twenty cubits long, and can itself cause the wind to enter, and thus itself give forth a sound which will resound for four months, when it becomes still. The Great Black One, the king of the Nagas, stood there uttering his praises for many hundred stanzas. The Maha Brahma stood there, holding over him the white canopy of state. But as the army approached and surrounded the seat under the Bo-tree, not one of the hosts of Mara was able to stay, and they fled each one from the spot where the army met them. The Black One, king of the Nagas, dived into the earth, and went to Manjerika, the palace of the Nagas, five hundred leagues in length, and lay down, covering his face with his hands. Maha Brahma, putting the white canopy of state on to the summit of the rocks at the end of the earth, went to the world of Brahma. Not a single deity was able to keep his place. The great man sat there alone.

But Mara said to his company: “Sirs! there is no other man like Siddhartha, the sun of Suddhodana. We cannot give him battle face to face. Let us attack him from behind!” The great man looked round on three sides, and saw that all the devas had fled, and their place was empty. Then beholding the hosts of Mara coming thick upon him from the North, he thought: “Against me this alone this mighty host is putting forth all its energy and strength. No father is here, nor mother, nor brother, nor any other relative to help me. But those Ten Perfections have long been to me as retainers fed from my store. So, making the perfections like a shield, I must strike this host with the sword of perfection, and thus overwhelm it!” And so he sat meditating on the Ten Perfections.

the-armies-of-mara

Then Mara deva, saying: “Thus I will drive away Siddhartha,” caused a whirlwind to blow. And immediately such winds gathered together from the four corners of the earth as could have torn down the peaks of mountains half a league, two leagues, three leagues high—could have rooted up the shrubs and trees of the forest—and could have made of the towns and villages around one heap of ruins. But through the glow of the merit of the great man, they reached him with their power gone, and even the hem of his robe they were unable to shake.

Then saying: “I will overwhelm him with water and so slay him,” he caused a mighty rain to fall. And the clouds gathered, overspreading one another by hundreds and thousands, and poured forth rain; and by the violence of the torrents the earth was saturated; and a great flood, overtopping the trees of the forest, approached the Bodisat. But it was not able to wet on his robe even the space where a dew-drop might fall.

Then he caused a storm of rocks to fall. And mighty, mighty mountain peaks came through the air, spitting forth fire and smoke. But as they reached the Bodisat, they changed into divine garlands.

bodhisattva-flowersThen he raised a storm of deadly weapons. And they came—one-edged and two-edged swords, and spears, and arrows—smoking and flaming through the sky. But as they reached the Bodisat, they became divine flowers.

Then he raised a storm of charcoal. But the embers, though they came through the sky like red kimsuka flowers, were scattered at the future Buddha as divine flowers.

Then he raised a storm of embers; and the embers came through the air exceeding hot, and in colour like fire; but they fell at the feet of the future Buddha as sandalwood powder.

Then he raised a storm of sand; and the sand, exceeding fine, came smoking and flaming through the sky; but it fell at the feet of the future Buddha as divine flowers.

Then he raised a storm of mud. And the mud came smoking and flaming through the air; but it fell at the feet of the future Buddha as a divine unguent.

Then saying: “By this I will terrify Siddhartha, and drive him away!” he brought on a thick darkness. And the darkness became fourfold; but when it reached the future Buddha, it disappeared as darkness does before the brightness of the sun.

buddha-mara1Thus was Mara unable by these nine—the wind, and the rain, and the rocks, and the weapons, and the charcoal, and the embers, and the sand, and the mud, and the darkness—to drive away the future Buddha. So he called on his host and said, “Say, why stand you still? Seize, or slay, or drive away this prince!” And he himself mounted the Mountain-girded, and seated on his back, he approached the future Buddha, and cried out: “Get up, Siddhartha, from that seat! It does not belong to thee! It belongs to me!”

The great being listened to his words, and said: “Mara! it is not by you that the Ten Perfections have been perfected, neither the lesser perfections, nor the higher perfections. It is not you who have sacrificed yourself in the five great acts of renunciation, who have perfected the way of knowledge nor the way of good for the world nor the way of understanding. This seat does not belong to thee, it is to me that it belongs.”

Then the enraged Mara, unable to endure the vehemence of his anger, cast at the great man that Sceptre-javelin of his, the barb of which was in shape as a wheel. But it became a wreath of flowers, and remained as a canopy over him, whose mind was bent upon the Ten Perfections.

Now at other times, when that Wicked One throws his Sceptre-javelin, it cleaves asunder a pillar of solid rock as if it were a shoot of bamboo. When, however, it was turned into a wreath-canopy, the entire company of Mara shouted, “Now he will rise from his seat and flee!” and they hurled at him huge masses of rock. But these too fell on the ground as garlands at the feet of him whose mind was bent upon the Ten Perfections.

And the devas stood on the edge of the rocks that encircle the world; and stretching forward in amazement, they looked on, saying: “Lost! lost is the life of Siddhartha the Prince, supremely beautiful! What shall he do?”

Then the great man said, “To me belongs the seat on which sit the Buddhas-to-be when they have fulfilled perfection on the day of their Enlightenment.”

And he said to Mara, standing there before him: “Mara, who is witness that thou hast given alms?”

And Mara stretched forth his hands to the host of his followers, and said: “So many are my witnesses.”

And that moment there arose a shout as the sound of an earthquake from the company of Mara, saying: “I am his witness! I am his witness!”

Then the Tempter addressed the great man, and said: “Siddhartha! who is witness that thou hast given alms?”

And the great man answered: “Thou hast living witnesses that thou hast given alms : and I have in this place no living witnesses at all. But not counting the alms I have given in other births, let this great and solid earth, unconscious though it be, be witness of the seven hundredfold great alms I gave when I was born as Vessantara!”

bodhisattva-touches-earthAnd withdrawing his right hand from beneath his robe, he stretched it forth towards the earth and said: “Art thou, or art thou not witness of the seven hundredfold great gift I gave in my birth as Vessantara?”

And the great Earth uttered a voice, saying: “I am witness to thee of that!” overwhelming as it were the hosts of Mara as with the shout of hundreds of thousands of foes.

Then the mighty elephant “Mount-girded” as he realized what the generosity of Vessantara had been, said: “The great gift, the uttermost gift was given by thee, Siddhartha!” And he fell down on his knees before the great man. And the company of Mara fled this way and that way, so that not even two were left together : throwing off their clothes and their turbans, they fled, each one straight on before him.

But the company of devas, when they saw that the hosts of Mara had fled, cried out: “Mara is overcome! Siddhartha the Prince has prevailed! Come, let us honor the victor!” And the Nagas, and the Winged Creatures, and the Devas, and the Brahmas, each urging his comrades on, went up to the great man at the Bo-tree’s foot, and as they came, the other devas, too, in the ten thousand world-systems, offered garlands and perfumes and uttered his praises aloud.

It was while the sun was still above the horizon, that the great man thus put to flight the great hosts of Mara. Then, whilst the Bo-tree paid him homage, as it were, by its shoots like sprigs of red coral falling over his robe, he acquired in the first watch of the night the knowledge of the past, in the middle watch the clairvoyant eye, and in the third watch the knowledge of the chain of causation.

enlightenmentNow on his thus revolving this way and that way, and tracing backwards and forwards, and thoroughly realizing the twelvefold chain of causation, the ten thousand world-systems quaked twelve times even to their ocean boundaries. And again, when the great man, making the ten thousand world-systems to shout for joy, attained at break of day to complete Enlightenment, the whole ten thousand world-systems became glorious as on a festive day. The streamers of the flags and banners raised on the edge of the rocky boundary to the East of the world reached to the very West; and so those on the West and North, and South, reached to the East and South, and North; while in like manner those flags and banners on the surface of the earth reached to the Brahma-world, and those flags and banners in that world swept down upon the earth. Throughout the universe flowering trees put forth their blossoms, and fruit-bearing trees were loaded with clusters of fruit; the trunks and branches of trees, and even the creepers, were covered with bloom; lotus wreaths hung from the sky; and lilies by sevens sprang, one above another, even from the very rocks. The ten thousand world-systems as they revolved seemed like a mass of loosened wreaths, or like a nosegay tastefully arranged : and the world-voids between them, the hells whose darkness the rays of seven suns had never been able to disperse, became filled with light. The sea became sweet water down to its profoundest depths; and the rivers were stayed in their course. The blind from birth received sight; the deaf from birth heard sound; the lame from birth could use their feet; and chains and bonds were loosed, and fell away.

It was thus in surpassing glory and honour, and with many wonders happening around, that he attained all-knowledge, and gave vent to his emotion in the hymn of triumph uttered by all the Buddhas.

This wonderful story of human resolve and endurance teaches, with great extravagance, a relatively simple moral which was famously expressed by Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is only through inner knowledge and steadfastness that we can ever hope to make a difference in this place.

Did the story ring any bells to you? Try this one. Or even this one. It goes to show in a grand manner that, in the most relevant possible sense, we all share the same story.

The Chutzpah of Intelligent Design

Posted in evolution, faith, intelligent design, Propaganda, Religion, Science by Curtis on 11/22/07

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From the lively Jewcy comes mathematics professor Jason Rosenhouse’s response to an exchange between writer Neal Pollak and Discovery Institute senior fellow David Klinghoffer:

I do not know what you do for a living, but I suspect you are pretty good at it. You probably trained for years to learn the basic elements of your craft, and then honed those skills through more years of on-the-job experience. Now imagine that someone without that training and experience presumes to discourse on your profession. Worse, they make assertions and arguments that are obvious nonsense to anyone versed in the subject. Not an altogether uncommon experience for you, I suspect, but one that is no less annoying for that. . .

. . .

Creationists of all stripes, be they the old-school Bible thumpers or the slightly more sophisticated ID proponents, do very well in public debates and scripted presentations. Any venue, in fact, in which flash and performance art are the main features. But place them in an environment where evidence and logic reign, such as a scientific conference or a courtroom trial, and suddenly they are far less impressive. Why do you suppose that is?

Let us be blunt. The specific scientific claims of ID proponents have been decisively refuted over and over again. Their sleazy use of rhetoric and propaganda has shown they have little interest in open and honest debate. They take quotations out of context, distort evidence, misrepresent whole scientific disciplines, oversimplify difficult ideas, and impugn the integrity of scientists. All the while they claim God’s blessing for their project and invoke conspiracy theories against those who disagree. And when they are done with all that, then they turn around and accuse scientists of being arrogant.

Where I come from we call that chutzpah.

Yes, that certainly just about sums it up.

Norway Flourishes as a Secular Nation

Posted in Education, humanism, Norway, Politics, Religion, Science, secularism, USA by Curtis on 10/5/07

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I could not believe my eyes when I came across this piece from the Montgomery Advertiser here in my home state of Alabama, USA. It’s a letter to the editor from David Miles in Orange Beach, Alabama (a beautiful vacation spot if you’ve never been there, by the way):

Flag of NorwayRev. Rick Mason notes that atheism is on the rise. He blames Christian fundamentalism. Certainly the ineptness, dishonesty and lack of ethics of the overtly God-fearing Bush administration may be turning people off on God.

A case study shows what this could mean for America. Norway has embraced secularism at the expense of its Christian roots. A 2005 survey conducted by Gallup International rated Norway the least religious country in Western Europe.

In Norway, 82.9 percent of the population are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (they are automatically registered at birth and few bother to be unregistered). However, only approximately 10 percent regularly attend church services and identify themselves as being personally Christian.

A 2006 survey found: 29 percent believe in a god or deity; 23 percent believe in a higher power without being certain of what; 26 percent don’t believe in God or higher powers; 22 percent have doubts.

Depending on the definition of atheism, Norway thus has between 26 percent and 71 percent atheists. The Norwegian Humanist Association is the world’s largest humanist association per capita.

And what has secularism done to Norway? The Global Peace Index rates Norway the most peaceful country in the world. The Human Development Index, a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standard of living, has ranked Norway No. 1 every year for the last five years.

Norway has the second highest GDP per capita in the world, an unemployment rate below 2 percent, and average hourly wages among the world’s highest.

David N. Miles
Orange Beach


Considering that this was published in a Montgomery, Alabama newspaper, you can bet your blue booties that there’ll be an editorial outlash against such blasphemy. I’ll keep my eyes peeled and report back on anything of particular interest.

I would caution against extrapolating overmuch from this, in terms of projecting the political climate of Norway upon the United States. But the figures are startling and, while the implications are debatable, their existence, at least, is hardly deniable.

Also interesting was a chart I Stumbled upon yesterday, forgot to bookmark, and now cannot locate again. So, I’ll just have to tell you about it. It was a public survey conducted among sample populations from the U.S., the E.U., Russia, South Korea, China, and possibly another demographic area I’m forgetting. The researchers posed a series of science-related true/false questions to the participants and then charted the percentages of correct responses by country/region.

South Korea generally dominated, as I recall, with the U.S. and the E.U. following close behind. But there were two questions on which the participants from the U.S. responded with far more incorrect answers than the rest of the world.

The first was: True or False – The Universe began with a huge explosion. The researchers considered this to be ‘true,’ and, while I recognize that this is debatable to a certain extent, that’s not the point. The point is that the majority of people elsewhere in the world answered ‘true.’

The second was: True or False – Humans developed from earlier species. Again, the researchers said this was ‘true,’ and it is a far less scientifically controversial proposition than the previous example. Most Americans answered ‘false,’ in contrast with the correct responses given by the majority of people from the other national samples.

What this demonstrates to me is—well, never mind that. What does it demonstrate to you, if anything?

UK Government Takes Stance on Creationism in Schools

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From The Guardian‘s science blog by James Randerson:

The UK government has issued new guidelines to teachers on what to teach about creationism and intelligent design in science classes. They are pretty explicit that creationism and ID do not belong.

The move seems to be a response to efforts by the ironically named campaign group “Truth in Science“. Last year it sent DVDs promoting ID to every school in the land in the hope that they would be used to teach the creationist idea alongisde evolution in science lessons.

The new guidelines could not be clearer:

Creationism and intelligent design are not part of the science National Curriculum programmes of study and should not be taught as science.

That doesn’t mean it cannot be mentioned of course, but the guidelines state that it should only feature as part of discussions about what does and does not make a scientific theory.

To which we at CStF sigh: “Ex-aaaaaact-ly.” Creationism is an important part of history, certainly. And, apart from illustrating to children what does and does not a scientific theory make—in other words, the difference between scientific research and politically motivated intellectual sophistry—that is where it belongs.

You Learn Your Bible and You Learn It Good. This is America.

Posted in free speech, Fundamentalism, News, Politics, Religion, USA by Curtis on 9/25/07

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The New Humanist blog reports that Steve Bitterman, a history instructor at an Iowa community college, was fired after encouraging his students not to take the Biblical fable of Adam and Eve too literally and after referring to the story, in passing, as a ‘fairy tale’ during a conversation with a student:

Steve Bitterman, a teacher at Southwestern Community College, Red Oak, Iowa, was fired after he urged his pupils not to take the story of Adam and Eve literally. Bitterman was teaching a western civilisation course and often used extracts from the Old Testament as part of his lessons, but urged students to look beyond a literal interpretation of what he views as an “extremely meaningful story”, believing such a reading would miss much of the poetic, metaphoric and symbolic content. After class, he also made the mistake of referring to the story as a “fairy tale” during a conversation with a student. . .

. . .Bitterman said: “I’m just a little bit shocked myself that a college in good standing would back up students who insist that people who have been through college and have a master’s degree, a couple actually, have to teach that there were such things as talking snakes or lose their job. . .From my point of view, what they’re doing is essentially teaching their students very well to function in the eighth century.”

The teacher acknowledged that the story is rich in cultural, metaphorical, and symbolic value, and insists that he did not want his students to miss that value due to über-literal interpretation.

But a group from Bitterman’s class filed a complaint that the teacher was “denigrating their religion,” and the college administration was reluctant to comment on the matter.

Project -ism

Posted in knowledge, philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, writing by Curtis on 9/23/07

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Blank Book

There’s grand shenanigans in the works here at Can’t See the Forest, see. I’ve collected my notes, dragged out about a dozen intimidatingly dense nonfiction volumes, opened at least two million Firefox tabs, made a couple of drafts, and am just about ready to begin publishing Project -ism.

What is this nonsense? First, let me lay on you the ToC:

  1. Dualism and Monism (ontology)
  2. Rationalism and Empiricism (epistemology)
  3. Theism and Atheism (cosmology) {in progress}
  4. Nationalism and Globalism (sociology) {belayed, but coming}
  5. Capitalism and Socialism (economy) {belayed, but coming}

Well, you say. There’s a perfectly fine list of false dichotomies if ever I’ve seen one. Not exactly, though—hear me out.

-Isms can be any of numerous things. A wittic -ism is a cheeky remark; nepot -ism is plugging one’s friends and family into positions of power. I’m not talking about those kinds of -isms.

The -isms I’m talking about are, essentially, types of Weltanschauung (Ger., “world view”). I am going to discuss opposing sets of viewpoints on each of five issues which can shape an individual’s or a society’s world view within the applicable domain of thought.

It’s important to realize that, inasmuch as these viewpoints can be interpreted as opposite to one another, there are also certain aspects in which they are complementary. That being said, I have a definite preference in each of these five categories (generally the latter position, as they are listed above), and I intend to make very strong arguments in each case.

This survey of human thought will be cumulative—that is, by my design, each discussion will be critical to the later ones in at least some respects. I’ll be drawing from the works and ideas of notable historical masters, from Pythagoras and Anaximander to Dewey and Chomsky, but a big part of my modus operandi in putting this thing together has been to keep the thought process as clear and as free of presuppositions and undue influences as possible.

So, in the coming weeks, you’ll find these five essays posted here—probably among miscellaneous course-of-the-day posts—and I hope you’ll be able to make time to read and discuss any of these issues which are interesting to you. They are separate quandaries, but there exist important relationships between them, and the vista we’ll be looking down upon from the top of this philosophical mountain-climb might surprise you!

Lonely at the Top

Posted in Atheism, cartoons, faith, government, philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science by Curtis on 9/21/07

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From the excellent webcomic XCKD, this elegant commentary on science, the church, and the state:

The “Great Ideological Struggle of the Twenty-first Century” Deconstructed

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From Islamica magazine (April 2007) comes this interview of Noam Chomsky by Amina Chaudary. The subject is the interplay between religion and politics in the U.S. and in the Middle East, and the dialog is most illuminating. Not only is Professor Chomsky in exceptional form—the discourse touches on the sociopolitical and cultural dynamics that are at the heart of the shaping of U.S. public opinion on the Middle East. . .the spoon, if you will, with which the murky brew of U.S. foreign policy in that region is constantly stirred.

I’ve extracted some highlights below, but you may want to check out the article in its entirety.

Chaudary: Do you think religion is exerting a greater influence on foreign policy today, both here in the U.S. and abroad? Would you also address what happens when religion merges with politics – and how this is any different than other forms of identity merging with politics, such as ethnicity?

Chomsky: Well, the major problems of the world are those that appear in the most powerful states almost by definition, because whatever affects them affects everyone. And the most powerful state in the world by orders of magnitude is the U.S., and it also happens to be one of the most extreme fundamentalist countries in the world. Extremist fundamentalist religion may well have a greater hold in the U.S. on the public than say in Iran, though I’ve never seen a poll in Iran. But I doubt 50 percent of the population thinks the world was created 6,000 years ago exactly the way it is now. . .

. . .The contents of the Gospels are mostly suppressed (in the U.S.); they are a radical pacifist collection of documents. It was turned into the religion of the rich by the Emperor Constantine, who eviscerated its content. If anyone dares to go back to the Gospels, they become the enemy, which is what liberation theology was doing. So it’s a mixed story. However in the U.S., the more extremist, by comparative standards, religious movements did become mobilized into a political force for the first time in history really and that’s pretty much less than 25 years. It’s striking that this is one of the worst periods of economic history for the majority of the population, for whom real wages and incomes have stagnated while work hours increased and benefits declined, and inequality grew to staggering proportions, a dramatic difference from the previous 25 years of very high and egalitarian economic growth and improvement in other measures of human development. There is a correlation, common in other parts of the world as well. When life is not offering expected benefits, people commonly turn to some means of support from religion. Furthermore, there is a lot of cynicism. It was recognized by party managers of both parties (Republicans and Democrats) that if they can throw some red meat to religious fundamentalist constituencies, like say we are against gay rights, they can pick up votes. In fact, maybe a third of the electorate – if you cater to elements of the religious right in ways that the business world, the real constituency, doesn’t care that much about.

Chaudary: Why is there more tension among the three monotheistic faiths than other major religions?

Chomsky: Christianity happens to be the religion of the major imperial powers. By far the greatest power and means of violence in the world happen to be in the Christian states. With regards to Judaism, most of its history has been that of repression, leading finally to maybe the worst crime in human history – the Holocaust. Since 1967 in particular, there has been a close link between Israel and the United States, but that is for secular reasons. Of course they make a cover of religion, but it has nothing to do with religion. With respect to Islam, it varies all over the map. The most extreme fundamentalist Islamic state is the oldest and most valued ally of the United States – Saudi Arabia. Take Saddam Hussein, who was secular, not Islamist. For a time he was Washington’s great ally. In the 1980s, when he was carrying out his worst atrocities – the Anfal massacre of the Kurds, gassing of Halabja – U.S. aid was being poured into Iraq including military aid. (Former Defense Secretary Donald H.) Rumsfeld famously went there to firm up the relationship. And the U.S. actually joined the Iraqi war against Iran, in fact entering it so completely that when Iran capitulated, it was because the U.S. had entered the war. Well it was one Islamic state against another Islamic state – the U.S. ally happened to be a secular Islamic state. Later it shifted for other reasons. In fact if you look, the power systems are pretty ecumenical. They all attack and destroy and aid and support. The relationship with the Catholic Church that I mentioned is one clear example. The decisions depend on the perceived interests of the privileged and powerful sectors who dominate policy.

Chaudary: Why is “Islam” seen as the problem coming from the U.S. perspective?

Chomsky: The world’s major energy resources happen to be located in Muslim areas, right around the Gulf, so that has always been of extreme interest to the U.S. as it was to Britain. If the oil wasn’t there, they wouldn’t care if they were animists. That is the main problem and it is mixed. That’s why the U.S. supports radical Islamist tyrannies like Saudi Arabia. That’s why the U.S. sought the most radical Islamist killers it could find anywhere in the world and brought them to Afghanistan, ending up with al-Qaeda on their hands. Take Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim population. Is Indonesia a friend or enemy? Look at the history. Up until 1965, it was an enemy because it was independent nationalist. (President) Sukarno was a nationalist and was part of the non-aligned movement, wasn’t following orders. In September 1965, Suharto came along, carried out one of the major massacres of the 20th century. The CIA compared it to the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. The West was euphoric because he massacred hundreds of thousands of landless peasants and eliminated the only mass-based political party, a party of the poor as it is described by scholarship, and opened the country up to Western robbery and extortion. So he was the greatest friend ever, practically to the end. The Clinton administration described him as “our kind of guy,” and meanwhile, apart from compiling a horrendous human rights record at home, he invaded East Timor and carried out the atrocities that probably come as close to genocide as anything in the postwar period, always with strong U.S. support. He was loved. If Indonesia moves more towards independence, it’ll be an enemy again. Religious comments are not the fault lines.