Tag Archives: religion

Brief candles

Focusing your mind on the eternal candle flame…I am feeling giddy at the moment.

I commented in a previous post that “The only school of “alternative” thought which I have not yet found to be intellectually undermined is the Buddhist approach to re-incarnation” and Anticant obligingly provided me with an antidote. I’ve been reading “Reincarnation: A Critical Examination” by Paul Edwards on and off since it arrived.

I’ve always thought a Hereafter was at least possible, and for a lot of my adult life I’ve considered it to be probable. There’s internal coherence to the Hindu and Buddhist world views, but they fall down when you test some of their underlying assumptions using nasty practical empirical science. (The one world-view that has never made any sense to me whatsoever is paradise, judgement day, heaven and hell). So during my adult life, my position on life after death veered from the conclusion that reincarnation made absolute sense to dragging it along like a comfort blankie while I got on with my real life. I think I even put Buddhist down on the 2001 census. I certainly wasn’t going to put Jedi.

Buddha with View by Sean DugganI like Buddhism. I like its practicality. The techniques it teaches, such as meditation, produce real quantifiable changes in the people who practice them. I like the idea of the soul taking several lifetimes to explore different things. I like the idea of karma, that every action has a consequence and that you cannot escape the consequences of your acts. (This is very different from the judgement / punishment view of Christianity, where there is an external deity keeping score. Karma as consequences is more mechanistic and simpler, like a law of nature rather than the whim of a petulant despot). I look around me and I can see karma working on a small scale, and I was comforted by the idea that it worked across lifetimes too. I like the idea that I chose my own parents, that I might get a second chance with lost loves, that I might yet be a mother, that I can catch up next time with what I don’t do this time. I’ll miss Buddhism, but oddly enough I am more interested in it now, not less.

Buddhism, or a Buddhisty theory of reincarnation, provided answers to the questions that I asked, and the aforementioned comfort blankie of course.

Edwards argues simply and fairly clearly that:

  1. there is no credible evidence for reincarnation and even the best cases evaporate into delusion, wishful thinking or fraud under close examination
  2. the mind requires the brain to exist, and consciousness does not survive the death of the brain

Comfort blankies - do not forget to boil them to keep them sterile, otherwise they can harbour germsEdwards also deals with things like Near Death Experiences, (feelings of warmth, love and total understanding, culturally specific spiritual figure at the end of a tunnel of light, etc); Astral Travel (which he debunks as bunk); remembered past lives, (which never produce information not available in this one), and so on.

Ultimately, of course, it comes down to a matter of belief, but religion is essentially a ritualised version of “here be dragons” and as science maps out more and more of the unknown, the remaining dragons are left balancing on smaller and smaller islands. Edwards argues that the dragon of reincarnation no longer has a foot to stand on. Being an Oriental Dragon, it has no wings and cannot fly. Or that’s my metaphor, and I’m sticking to it.

I am trying to absorb various truths. When I die, I’ll go out like a candle. There are no second chances, if I don’t do it this time then I won’t get to do it at all. The people who I know who’ve died have stopped. And the big one: life really is a bitch and then you really do die.

The Dalai Lama and Desmond TutuAs well as the truths, I now have all sorts of other questions swirling in my mind. How can morality have merit if it is merely a human artefact? What practical meaning remains to the word “spirituality”? What merit is left in Buddhism if you take out reincarnation? Does this mean the Dalai Lama isn’t cool any more?

Oddly there is one question I am pretty clear on which is why are there no pre-20th century cultures which are entirely irreligious?

It seems clear to me:

  1. that religions provided creation myths and an explanation for why stuff happened and
  2. that religious belief provides just enough of an advantage to individuals and societies in times of crisis for there to have been a very slight selective advantage in a strong religious faith.

Dawkins is such an evangelist for atheism that I rather like the idea of religion providing an evolutionary benefit. It seems highly likely to me that dogs have gods.

At the moment I veer between two contradictory feelings. Sometimes I am shocked by how dramatically the stakes have been raised: as the the saying goes, “there ain’t no justice, just us”. We cannot rely on any external checks and balances to iron out the world’s problems. If we don’t sort it out here and now, then it won’t be sorted out, and that’s not all right. And then I veer towards nihilism: in the long run we are all dead and nothing is remembered. How can justice matter if the victims can neither know nor care?

It is this spinning around which is making me giddy.


Edwards’ book, incidentally, is irritating in a number of ways. It is printed on very odd paper and the whole thing turns into two parallel tubes when you are reading it. It is appallingly badly proof-read, which is unforgivable in a second edition. He promises to discuss various subjects such as childhood prodigies and extremes of talent, but doesn’t, and he fails to discuss Out of Body experiences at all, refering the reader in toto to Susan Blackmore. It is however also fun, witty and sarcastic. I just wish it had been better edited. Or edited at all, really.

The devil and the deep blue sea

We were discussing religion over a curry, as one does. The one I discuss religion with (and have curries with, for that matter) expressed the view that religion is incompatible with science. He is reading Dawkins at the moment. NLPer that I am, I started challenging the generalisations: “All religions?” “Entirely incompatible in every way?”

What bugs me about evangelical atheists, and I’ve drunk wine and broken bread with a few in my time (secularly of course) is that they assume that all religions are based on The Book and slag them off accordingly. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all monotheisms and in that direction – if you ask me – madness lies. The problem with monotheisms is the dualities they set up: Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, Heaven and Hell, Sheep and Goats, God and the Devil. Someone once said to Abraham Lincoln “I am so glad that God is on our side” to which he replied “I don’t set my sights that high, Ma’am. All I hope is that we are on God’s side”. Bush and Blair and Bin Laden all know god is on their side, and so they have far more in common than they have differences. I’ll stop wandering off in that direction now, before get so enraged I forget to breathe.

I know very little about Hinduism which seems polytheistic (though the one I was having curry with knows a bit about it). I know barely more about Buddhism and Taoism, which are atheistic. Isn’t that a thought to conjure with? An atheistic religion. A religion without a god. Roll it around your mind’s tongue. Taste it, savour it, find out what you think.

If you strip god out of religion you are left with a whole load of other stuff which (because it is my post and I can do what I like with it) I am going to put broadly into four categories:

Societal

Ceremonial / Rites of Passage / Social glue / Social contribution / Ritual

Explanations

Creation myth / Higher purpose / Why bad things happen / Why are we here

The supernatural

Spiritual practice / The shamanic / Good luck charms

Social control

Ethical precepts / Moral guidance / Greater cause

Jesus as ShamanThe one that interested me the most, as we were discussing it over our curry, was the Shamanic. This is all mixed up with ritual, energy, altered states of being, sexual power and the power of the personality. In the 60s and 70s Rock stars were our shamans; in the 80s there was even a band which took the name. I’m not sure who our shamans are now, but I am pretty sure that the popularity of fantasy films appeals to our need for the shamanic. Looking at that list of nouns again – ritual / energy / altered states / power – maybe terrorists view themselves as shamans. I dunno. Which reminds me. The obvious thing that that is missing off that list is Sacrifice, which is common to so many religions. I’m not sure where it fits though.

It is interesting to see what is happening now to those areas of human life.

The societal stuff (ceremony, rights of passage, social contribution) is pretty hollow without religion. Don’t get me wrong, it is all much better done with integrity by atheists than with hypocrisy by those who claim to be religious, but I am not sure how well atheists do it. I’d rate the ceremonial of a Russian Orthodox Eucharist over the Oscars any day of the week. Mind you, I prefer my schools, hospitals, orphanages and childrens’ homes to be run by the state, so maybe I am arguing myself out of that one after all.

Structures and explanations. This is the scary one. This is the one that gets Dawkins’ blood boiling. “Where is the evidence?” the atheists cry. And they are right of course. There is no evidence that the world is the result of Egyptian gods masturbating or of great cows licking the ice, and plenty that it isn’t. Sane Christians yield this ground gracefully admitting that the world is not flat and does in fact go round the sun. Insane ones promote something which is neither intelligent nor design and call it science. (Breathe, Aphra, remember to breathe). Unfortunately these follies lead evangelical atheists to throw the baby of spiritual practice out with the bathwater of creationism. Or something like that.

The supernatural. This one is trickier than it looks. It’s a mixture of stuff which has quite clearly demonstrable effects such as meditation, and other stuff which is just wishful thinking. Add in the human need to seek patterns, mix it with the human inability to estimate odds, and sprinkle with the human responsiveness to spontaneous hypnotic suggestion, and you end up with all sorts of nonsense like numerology, astrology, Bach flower remedies and (goddess help us all) spiritual channelling. Scientists can now see the parts of the brain which fire off when someone is having a spiritual experience. The question is, of course, whether the brain is responding to an external stimulus analogous to its response to sounds, or whether the sparks are flying at random or for some electro-magnetic or chemical reason. The fact that stuff like meditation works doesn’t make it spiritual any more than the fact that the world exists proves that it was hatched out of a giant egg.

Social control. This is the one where religion leaves the biggest gap behind it. Ethical precepts just aren’t the same if they aren’t backed up with violent weather, rugged mountain scenery, Charlton Heston and the threat of everlasting damnation. (This is the place where I point out that I rather like the idea of terrorists achieving martyrdom and waking in Paradise to find that their sherbet will be delivered by 70 Ann Widdicombes). We’ve lost our moral compass and don’t appear to be able to adopt irreligious ethics in the way the Greeks did. They took pantheistic shamanism to blood-thirsty extremes, but came over all rational and philosophical when considering ethics. The Norse gods couldn’t be bothered with all that Good and Evil stuff either so far as I can make out. Monotheism makes me spit.

I rather like the idea of a Schroedinger Deity; a god comprising the sum of an increasingly complex and sophisticated life force, evolving in power and sophistication in the way that the chemical richness of our world is based on elements which evolved from hydrogen and that all living things have evolved from random amino-acids losing their randomness and forming RNA. This would be a god who may or may not exist, whose existence will only become apparent at the end of the universe at which point in time (and space) it will turn out has existed all along. Or not, as the case may be.

Sorry to whitter on for so long. It was a good curry. Thank you for asking.

Calvinist Weather

I loathe and dislike the darkness and storm-lashed bad temper of winter, and I’m not too fond of the coldness of it either. I loathe them to the point, sadly, where I can’t always enjoy the summer the way I should because it will be followed by winter. ‘Ah yes’, I say to myself as the sun set fades at 10:30 on a downy summer’s evening, ‘but it’s all downhill from here; it’ll be gales and dark by 4.00 before I know it’.

How Calvinist. You’ll be punished for enjoying the good things god gave you. How much better to be miserable all of the time.

Then it struck me that the hard-line protestant religions, including Calvinism, are all either from the mountains or the north. They are from places with seasons, anyway; places where the winter is a dangerous endurance-test, rather than a mild interlude.

How much nicer to be an easy-going Catholic where it doesn’t really matter what you do, because the next day’ll be mild or warm or pleasant or wonderfully hot, and all you need to do to enjoy it is confess and get absolution. No bitter frosts, week-long gales, dead plants, damp houses, pneumonia, chilblains or frostbite for you. Just a couple of hail marys and go in peace and have a nice day.