Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Remembering Reason

I think I've paraphrased the title of an old post by either Dr. Don or maybe My Boring Best, so I apologize if that's the case. But I'm hoping that they'll forgive me when they read that finally, finally, I picked up Sam Harris' End of Faith in earnest and finally am getting at Harris' side of the case against religion.

Fresh off the popular Eckart Tolle title, "A New Earth," I wanted something to continue my questing mood. I've had The End of Faith for a while and even started it once or twice but for whatever reason yesterday was the day that picking it up would stick.

The night before, Sunday, I caught -- well, couldn't turn my eyes away from -- the tail end of some terrible, possibly Australian (not that the two are related) movie which I interpreted to be about some act of nuclear warfare resulting essentially in the bitter and painful slow end of the cast of characters I encountered, which included a young couple and their toddler, a Navy captain and his crew, and, as the sister of the young father, that chick who played in the Thornbirds. There was lots of vomiting shown dramatically as the dreaded onset of the radiation sickness that ultimately would kill everybody. (There was also a dramatic high-speed racing-car suicide by another actor that I believe had been in every Australian and most English-made films I've ever seen.) Despite this drama, I was, I'm embarrassed to admit, riveted. The reason is that in the back of my mind, I knew that this was plausible -- except that those lucky folks all had these little blue pills that would put them to sleep permanently so that they didn't have to suffer the inevitable microwaved-from-the-inside-out process of dying from just enough radiation not to kill them instantly. (The couple, cradling their now also has-been vomiting daughter, gave her an injection before they took their pills with a good Cabernet.) I'm not sure how I managed to get to sleep that night, but I did, and the next evening when it was time to go pay homage to my still-working, non-irradiated musculature I grabbed Harris and

headed for the exercise bike.

What I learned was so simple, in just the first few pages.

Nuclear annihilation is possible, even inevitable, because most people believe in God and Heaven and all those nice things that make it appear that the afterlife is even better than this one. By devaluing the present and putting all our eggs in St. Peter's basket, we disengage ourselves from moral responsibility and genuine respect for "life", and proceed to treat each other like crap, from every day bullying right down to strapping ourselves with bombs and getting on crowded buses just to get to heaven.

Ok, I haven't personally done that -- I mean, blown anyone up; I have regrettably treated many people like crap over my lifetime -- but, people, some people with really strong religious convictions, do it every day in other parts of the world. No telling what's stopping them from doing it here more often. It sure isn't the great access to behavioral health services.

I've written a lot about how much I do like a lot of Gospel music even though I have a hard time anymore identifying with most of it. The thing is, I do think a lot of the old time and bluegrass gospel tunes really are lovely, and to a lot of folks they're really meaningful. And at the beginning of my bluegrass journey which overlapped with the end of another era of my life, they were meaningful to me, very comforting. But I never once decided that it was all about getting to Heaven. It was about understanding that everything is temporal and that, one way or another, there would be an end to my pain. I never confused my grinding daily uphill journey with some time in the future when I'd see my mother and father again along with all the relatives I never met and a bunch of dead presidents -- though the idea is tempting. While, unlike Doc and Boring, I have zero interest in spending eternity under the spell of a bunch of virgins, I wouldn't mind a few hours with some notable Virginians.

I finished Tolle right on top of finishing The Amber Spyglass, Phillip Pullman's last in the series about a contemporary young Eve named Lyra who led the effort to kabosh doctrine and restore intuition. It was a frank and intoxicating illustration of the battle against religious authority in an effort to protect our rich, delicious human nature, complete with its beautiful, complex, powerful hidden side, Psyche. Even Sam Harris writes, "There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life." But we're not going to come to terms with anything by delegating our capacity for reason to large, organized institutions, dogma, folklore, the Monroe Doctrine, tarot cards, Emily Post, sudoku, Rachel Ray, the iPhone, Barack Obama, John McCain, seven more highly effective habits of allegedly effective people, or anything or anyone else that has attracted a "following." The only path forward, the only way out of this downward spiral, is to retire some of these illusions and resort to thoughtful action -- or as may be required, inaction.

I'm trying to think of a good bluegrass or Gospel tune that speaks to this. I've just posted this one recently, but I do think that Wondrous Love comes close. (So beautifully performed in this vid by Blue Highway.) It's so basic, bare, but still uplifting, and comes from a very basic time and very bare place in American hymnody. I frankly can't help but sing along (as I had posted earlier, this shape-note tune is a part of my childhood). If people got their act together and started treating each other with humanity, there might come a time where there was sort of a universal "wondrous love" rather than this insufferable divisiveness that abounds in personal, professional, political, and global relationships.

There is something to be said for turning the other cheek, in a way. When we stop defending our beliefs with such ferocity, maybe their importance will diminish to a level more conducive to peace, within families, between foes, among nations.


At August 27, 2008 8:06 AM, Blogger Shameless Agitator said...

The need to stridently defend our beliefs is linked to the need to be right, which is all ego. The need to make sure that everyone is as unhappy and in as much pain as we are is all pain-body. You know what Tolle says about ego and pain-body.

When we become aware of these things in ourselves, we can let go of both and let conscious presence take over.

My own personal release came this year when I realized I didn't have to be the agent of vengeance for those who have acted wrongly. If I step back, karma whips around and slaps them in the face for what they have done, and I don't have to do anything!

Being able to let go of the one-up-man-ship, the endless competition for everything, gives me the ability to step back and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

Sometimes it feels so difficult, then I have to remind myself that yes, it really is that easy.


At August 27, 2008 12:25 PM, Blogger DrDon said...

Mando - Congrats on getting back to the book. Like a lot of these authors, Harris can be a bit long-winded but I think he makes a lot of valid and important points.

I agree with Shameless that a lot of this is ego. Even silently hoping that karma will mete out justice. I don't believe in that. It would be nice but the fact is that sometimes bad people get to have really great lives. Fair? I suppose not but once you give up the idea of a cosmic puppeteer, you have to give up the concept of fairness as well. There are no cosmic scales of justice. We can only hope that humans hold each other accountable.

All that being said, I think a lot of this stuff is paleobiologic. Humans often have to make decisions quickly. Threat vs. non-threat for example. The brain doesn't have time, nor would it be efficient, to look at every possible variable so we take shortcuts. One way of taking a shortcut is to categorize. Skin color, language, and later religious affiliation, all serve as categories we can use to make decisions about others. I suspect that if religion went away tomorrow, we'd find some other way to oppress people and for the powerful to remain powerful. That being said, I still wish it would go away.

At August 27, 2008 8:21 PM, Blogger Blueberry said...

We were watching that movie too. It was "On the Beach" and my husband highly recommends the book it's based on:

At August 27, 2008 8:22 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Howdy y'all,

Shameless, it may not be so much Karma as it may be that over time, someone who behaves badly will eventually encounter someone who does not appreciate it and who has the means or the confidence to say so. Some call it karma, I call it, "inevitable." So in some sense here, I tend to agree with Don. Take the case of one of the egos you've encountered in the last year... let's call her "Shiny". Shiny is a person who is so unaware of the mistakes she is making, she is doomed to make them at a critical juncture and wreck a career that hasn't even gotten off the ground. She is the textbook example of the classic saying, "a legend in her own mind." The best thing you can contribute is to keep your focus and that of those remaining in their right minds on the work that you do and hopefully you'll be successful despite that one renegade Ego.

Don, I am so enjoying this book. I laughed out loud a couple times this evening. It's very eye opening. Excellent point about shortcuts. As you have often pointed out, people are lazy. They also allow fear to rule their lives, especially the fear of losing control over something. Like the fear of heights is actually the fear of jumping, the fear of losing control is probably partly the realization that control didn't exist in the first place. The more someone like Shiny loses control or respect, the harder they cling, the more dramatic and seemingly desperate the behavior becomes, until the person has made a total ass of himself or herself, destroyed her career, or ruined her relationships. At that point it is much easier to shift responsibility/blame and say "it's in God's hands" than it is to admit, "Well, it's really in my hands and I sure messed it up."

To Don's point, I was thinking last night as I listened to the Convention, that even the words "power" and "powerful" and "powerless" are kind of moot in describing people. There are people who have more influence and resources and privilege, and therefore people who are subject to that influence. I may have a lot less influence than the POTUS, but he or she will not have the power to make my life better, as we have said many times. He or she might have the power to influence conditions that may work in my favor, but I still have to get off my ass and do something. The worst legacy of religion to me is that it's taught us always to vest the power in someone other than ourselves, and as a result there will always be someone happy to accept that power over us.

When one reads about how 14 teenage girls were trapped in a burning building and allowed to die because none of them was wearing the appropriate Allah-approved head dress, it really makes you wonder how an otherwise modern world can allow anyone to get away with that. But it kind of happened back here in the spring, when children of a Mormon sect that not only approves of but insists on young girls becoming mothers before they are even old enough to drive returned them to their parents. It was decided that the court held no jurisdiction over these families. So when in the rest of the waking modern world sex between an adult and a 13 year old female would be called "rape", in this little corner of Texas, it's a religiously-sanctioned act of sustainability that somehow even outwitted the courts. But more and more our country submits to religious influence in legal matters. Otherwise, I could go to Target and pick up cat litter and get an abortion in the same trip.

At August 27, 2008 8:31 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Blueberry! You're kidding! You were watching that, too? Oh man, it was really depressing. At least you can kind of laugh at the Terminator. Of course, in the real world, we Americans would be about as likely to receive government-sanctioned suicide pills as to grow beanstalks out of our asses so that we could climb above the nuclear dust clouds. Our government will never be rational enough, or benevolent enough, for such an act of grace.


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