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Monday, February 27, 2006


In what is apparently a common event every hunting season, a pair of deer bucks were found dead after their horns had become locked together. I'm supposing this happens when the bucks are bucking heads in competition for a mate.

It seems to me a vivid reminder of the principle that we are all one. Our happiness is dependent upon the happiness of others and when we seek to do harm, we cannot avoid harming ourselves as well. These locked horns might be a symbol of what's happening in Iraq, what happens when individual and society clash, or even what happens between individuals. In all cases the principle is the same. We flow together and will always either contaminate or
nourish one another, the choice is ours.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Respect: What It Means To Me

Sorry, I'm a little late in posting the weekly entry! I've been working on an essay called "Naturalistic Interpretations of Karma and Rebirth" which I had hoped to be the entry, but it needs more time in the oven.

At my local Humanist group meeting, we discussed Sam Harris' new book, The End of Faith, after watching a video of the author discussing it. I have read the opening ten pages available online and several reviews, and then later got a good overview of the content through the video and our questions and discussions (many at the meeting had read the book). Therefore, I would not consider the following a review of the book as a whole, but would like to address some ideas discussed by us.

Sam Harris points out the harmful aspects of faith-based beliefs and religions. This, of course, is nothing new except for the fact of the book referencing our current (I hate this phrase) post 9/11 world. In kind, Harris opens the book with an emotional tale of a suicide bomber carrying out the dirty deed. This emotionally-charged opening gave me some concern as to Harris' approach.

A big point Harris seems to make is that we need to stop respecting these various unproved (or sometimes even unprovable) religious views. He rightly illustrates that the nature of these beliefs are such that if a similar belief was held outside of the religious sphere, we would label such people as kooks (my phrasing). He notes that faith acts as a 'conversation stopper' preventing any sort of rational critique. Adding examples of these beliefs' harmful effects on our behavior, he suggests that it is time to remove the social stigma of outwardly questioning the faith of other people.

I can agree with the harmful effects he outlines. I can also agree with the irrationality of faith-based thinking (see my PoSPH, 1.2). I can even agree that there shouldn't be a stigma on questioning faith. But I think Harris overstates his case in many instances, and in some it is a little concerning. For instance, in his opening Harris says:

"I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance - born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God - is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss."
Consider this sentence carefully to fully grasp what he is saying here. Consider it first without the caveat between the dashes: "I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance is one of the principle forces driving us toward the abyss."

So, Harris seems to be positing a secular world in which it isn’t simply a hands-off government and community ethos that allowed freedom of belief, but actually a forced-secularism by decree or active pressure.

Now consider the portion within the dashes: "born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God". This is how he describes the "religious tolerance" that is driving us toward the abyss. By implication, assuming Harris thinks we should not go toward the "abyss", we can deduce that he must be saying the following...

'Every human being should NOT be free to believe whatever he wants about God.'
If this is the case, how are incorrect thoughts to be monitored and enforced in Harris’ ideal world? I should grant that Harris said in the video that he is not proposing legislation, but merely a shift in public social norms that would enable us to call believers out on their absurd beliefs more openly. But in many other places in both the book and the video we saw, Harris seems to imply a world where believers are shunned, find it difficult to work in high offices and positions, and are generally marginalized. Harris would seem to me to favor the French approach of 'forced secularization on the people' rather than the American approach of government neutrality toward religion which, if true, is unfortunate and misguided.

This is even more concerning when one considers his rather lengthy criticism of religious moderates. In these instances he doesn't seem to understand their position very well at all. So much so that I wonder how many conversations he's actually had with moderates.

Lastly, the entire position of his book seems to lack any sort of pragmatic reality. How is such a society where faith-based believers are shunned to exist where the vast majority are those believers? How will non-believers making outward jerks of themselves in the eyes of believers do anything other than result in their own marginalization? How are these religions to improve or find their way out of fundamentalism without the assistance of the moderates (since they too are being criticized without respect)? Harris doesn't seem to appreciate what would be the disastrous effects for both the religious and the non-religious if the minority of folks who identified with his book were to take on this approach.

The key issue here is understanding what respect is all about, especially where religious differences are concerned. After the meeting, one attendee (and a good friend) mentioned that he felt the strongest point of Harris book which moved him most was that we don't need to respect these views that are based on no evidence and are so often harmful. But what does that entail? If we take on that notion, what will we say in the presence of believers that we didn't before? What will we do that we didn't before? When I consider this I can only surmise that it would be a negative for both parties.

Harris seems to misunderstand the very notion of what respect for others' religious beliefs entails. He says:

"Many religious moderates have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths, but in doing so they neglect to notice the irredeemably sectarian truth claims of each."
What? I know of few moderates who would believe that all faiths are equally valid when it comes to their truth claims. This is not what respect for the religious beliefs of others entails and this is not a necessary feature of religious moderation.

To have respect for the religious beliefs of others doesn't mean that you must consider them to be true. It doesn't even mean that you must consider them to be a reasonable possibility. You can, in fact, be quite confident that their beliefs are absolutely false and baseless, and yet have respect. You can even openly discuss your thoughts on their beliefs and yet have respect.

This is because this sort of respect is not respect for the beliefs, but for the believer. Unless they are the minority of charlatans who have mal intent and are using religion to further their cause, most people believe what they do because they have been convinced that these beliefs are true and right. What that means is that these are fellow human beings on the same quest as we: the quest to find Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

When you think about it, all good meaning people, whether they believe in God, spirits, rationality, or the cosmos, are seeking Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, and are simply convinced they've found it. At worst, they may be misled. We might even consider some traditions to be diseases of the mind, which cripple adherents' cognitive powers of reason. But even in this case, such people are victims and deserve our compassion.

For us, instead, to think of them as deserving of disrespect would be to make the same error that conservative Christians make in thinking it is just that disbelievers be cast into hell. The error in that case is to assume that what we believe is within our control instead of simply being the result of our experiences. Let us not cast believers into our own sort of hell under the same ill-conceived logic.

This doesn't mean that when they speak of their beliefs we must simply bow our heads and be silent (another seeming misunderstanding of Harris'). But it does mean that we should recognize these people have huge amounts of their time, identity, emotions, and sense of meaning tied up in these beliefs and to simply hit them with a crude sledge hammer is often to crumble the person as well. We should also realize that doing so will only make us out to be villains in the eyes of those with different beliefs than ourselves, and thus increase the tendency toward polarization. If we happen to be in the minority in our culture, the result of this behavior is even more damaging to ourselves.

When it comes to government initiatives and defending our rights we must, of course, act. When it comes to taking a stand, being ourselves without shame, and presenting our beliefs in the open marketplace of ideas we must, of course, participate. Truth is essential and proper for us to seek and share as we will. But, to quote Parabola Editor Shanti Fader, truth without compassion is brutality.

The reason we must have respect for others' beliefs is because we want them to have respect for ours. It is because we respect their pursuit of Truth, we respect them as human beings, we respect their right to freedom of belief and expression. This is not about what we can or cannot say - it's about how we say it and what motivation we have for saying it.

For more on this, I would offer my essay The Noble Conspectus: Diversity and it's 8-point ethic proposed therein.

I should also note that, in the video, Sam Harris also mentioned the positive aspects of the Buddhist approach to science and investigation of its claims, and offered what I thought was a positive notion that non-believers need to begin addressing these issues of human spirituality and experience through rational means.

In line with that, I would offer what I heard recently suggested at a Buddhist Temple. The Venerable sister Shiou-chih said (paraphrasing as memory allows):

"If you go about saying 'Buddha say..., Buddha say...' they no listen! Just do what you do and show by example. Then soon they ask, 'You are different! What is this?'"
I would offer similar advice to my non-religious friends. Let us show by example the positive, healthy, and happy benefits of living rational lives without superstition. Let us discuss openly but compassionately the benefits of a healthy skeptical approach and finding meaning in this Natural universe. Let us work with moderates on shared values rather than shunning them as some sort of 'lukewarm' drink we might spew from our lips as Jesus is written to have suggested. And let us offer our understanding, tolerance, and yes, respect, to those of other beliefs as we do these things.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Humanism & Christianity?

My friend Ross Hamilton Henry (the Humanist Minister who married my wife and I), recently made me and other Humanist friends aware of a letter by the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong.

The letter, from Bishop Spong's daily newsletter, is in response to a question on the future of Christianity and Humanism. I thought his words were worth reading so here they are. Thanks for this Ross!

Gene Rigelon, coordinator of the Shenandoah Area Secular Humanists located in Front Royal, Virginia writes:

"While current forms of Christianity are engaged in a relentless struggle against secular humanism other forms of Christianity past and present have been less confrontational and more accommodating. Are Christianity and humanism destined to be forever at odds or is some kind of rapprochement possible?"

Bishop Spong replies:

Dear Gene Rigelon,

I do not see Christianity and secular humanism as enemies, reflecting mutually exclusive values. Indeed I believe the aim of both Christianity and humanism is to seek and to encourage the expansion of human life. The differences are found in what each believes is necessary to achieve that goal and the definition of the goal itself. In the struggle to humanize our world I think that Christianity and humanism are allies not enemies.

Secular Humanists have, however, frequently experienced Christianity as narrow, prejudiced and imperialistic. Christians have experienced secular humanism as anti-religious and anti-Christian. I believe both stereotypes are false.

I look at the 20th century, which in many ways was a secular humanist century in which organized religion declined dramatically in influence and in power. Yet in that very century, the emancipation of women occurred, the end of colonial domination of the less developed third world nations was largely ended, the civil rights movement broke the back of segregation and homosexuals began to overcome the prejudice that has prevented them from achieving full membership and justice in the social order. Each of these is a powerful achievement.

A study of the history of that century also reveals that the majority of the Christian world, expressed through the leadership of institutional Christianity, resisted each of these changes. These accomplishments were achieved, by and large, through the work of secular humanist forces. Each of them seems to me, however, to be fully in accord with Christian teaching. Jesus is quoted as saying that his purpose was to give life more abundantly, that! is exactly what the death of prejudice and negative stereotypes of minorities, women and homosexuals accomplishes. Mark and Luke quote Jesus as saying: "If you are not against me you are for me." Secular humanism is not my enemy. It is my ally in the struggle for justice. Indeed I see secular humanism as the glow of Christianity that remains when the interpreting myths of the past have been abandoned. It is the bloom of the rose that remains long after the rose is severed from its roots.

I see a bright future of cooperation - I hope you do too.

-- John Shelby Spong

Bishop Spong is also an author whose work includes, "Why Christianity Must Change or Die" which Ross tells me is a good book. His newsletter can be subscribed to by emailing

Thursday, February 9, 2006

Free Speech: What Is A Right?

The controversy over the Muhammad cartoons continues to boil, likely a mere focal point triggering many existing grievances. Now, after the withdraw of diplomats, trade restrictions, and economically impacting boycotts, the pressure is on. It is at times like this that free nations must "put up or shut up" concerning their values and their rights. It is also at times like this that the true defenders of liberty are separated from the posers.

This is why we are beginning to see various public figures expressing "yeah but..." types of statements on free speech. I recently heard such diverse public figures as President Bush, U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan, and even Pat Buchanan all defending freedom of speech from one side of their mouth with wishy-washy moderation on that right from the other.

The common point has been something along the lines of "we have a right to free speech, but we also have a responsibility". This is a very clever statement because it appears at first glance to be the traditional juxtaposition of rights and responsibilities we hear about all the time; a juxtaposition that is generally correct and reasonable. However, in this case, the logic of this position is flawed.

While it's true that we have rights and those are balanced by responsibilities, it is not up to any particular official to just declare which responsibilities are the partner to a particular right. If so, then any right can be diminished simply by countering it with added "responsibilities". There is already a commonly accepted reasoning which pairs up particular responsibilities to the right of free speech and it is this:

A person should be able to say, think, publish, and draw anything they like provided that...

1) They are not spreading lies about matters of fact concerning someone.
2) They are not attempting to defraud people.
3) They are not directly and specifically inciting illegal acts.
4) They are within reasonable age-related restrictions in certain venues.

Number 3 is perhaps the most relevant here, but the incitement should have to be direct and specific. For example, "Hear Ye Hear Ye! Let us gather today in the town square to assault the police station!" or "All people of race x should be killed!"

According to any rational or reasonable approach to this issue, there should be no requirement whatsoever that the speech not offend others, even if those offended may choose to be disruptive, and even if that disruption may be global or extreme. In other words, that requirement is simply not part of the "responsibility" that is meant to balance the right of free speech, and certainly there is no moral responsibility to refrain from commentaries of opinion or of religious commentary, or of satire. Indeed, these are the core reasons for having a right to free speech to begin with.

The problem with thinking of such behavior as being irresponsible, is that it contradicts the older (and more sane) perspective on responsibility under which these rights were dreamed of. By such reckoning, each and every human being is responsible for his or her actions. If Bob does something within his rights that makes Kim angry and Kim blows up a building, it is not appropriate to simply talk about Bob's act as though it lead to a chain of events which resulted in the building being destroyed.

This 'chain of events' reasoning can only make sense if there are no other 'decision-making entities' located along that chain. Therefore, it is not Bob's fault that the building was destroyed, it was Kim's because Kim has the power to make her own decisions and must be responsible for them.

Of course, co-conspirators can result in multiple decision-makers in the chain being held responsible simultaneously, but certainly not others who are merely responded to and who are acting within their rights.

But sometimes what happens is that the most recent decision-maker in the chain of events (who should be the one held responsible for the result) is difficult to find or reach, or difficult to hold responsible; either for political, geographic, economic, or other reasons. When this happens, officials or others who are feeling pressured to act may often seek to shift responsibility past that responsible link in the chain, back to earlier decision-makers who are easier to hold responsible.

What's worse is that it could be literally any decision-maker in the chain of events, no matter how far back and no matter how many other difficult-to-reach decision-makers are overlooked. Once you essentially absolve the direct decision-maker of responsibility by treating them like a non-sentient effect rather than an agent with free will, the choice on which decision-maker bears responsibility for the final event becomes a purely political and arbitrary one. Therefore, the political or logistical or emotional expediency of this move does not make it any less flawed and immoral.

In this particular case, it is easier for officials to blame publishers and even perhaps eventually attempt to curtail their activities through pressures or laws because they are operating under local western governments. It is certainly easier to reach them than, say, a group of protesting Muslim extremists in the Gaza strip or Afghanistan who are chanting Osama Bin Laden's name and calling for the death of cartoonists.

But there is a very real danger in taking that 'easy way out' in this case. For, if we submit to the logic that the publishers bare some responsibility to curtail their expression out of the fear that extremists may riot or attack, then we are allowing ourselves to be put under de facto Sharia Law. It would mean that any group in the world can remove our rights at any time by gaining a reputation for violence, as if it were an automatic response. At that point, people stop thinking of them as a decision-maker and the blame is shifted to the holder of that right, who is expected to 'be responsible' by not exercising it.

It is very tempting for officials to seek to appease such extremists out of fear of violence. This appeasement may take the form of suggesting an absurd and vulgar 'balance' between publisher and terrorist where the terrorist is expected not to attack if the publisher takes on the "responsibility" not to publish things that upset people too much.

But there can be no 'balance' of this sort. The right to freedom of expression, aside from libel, fraud, attempts to actively coordinate crimes, and reasonable parameters for age-sensitive material in certain venues, must be maintained. If the publisher has any responsibility, it is a responsibility to publish exactly what they wish to communicate as a private press, and without self censorship or supporting the censorship of others. On the other hand, it is the offended party who has the even more important responsibility not to cross the line from offense to acts of violence, but instead to simply respond with his/her own free speech. This is the very basis of being able to have a civilized society.

This, like all of our most sacred and basic human rights, must be maintained even in the face of violence and death. We have lost lives for the sake of liberty before and should not be deluded that we may have to again in the future. I have little doubt as to the will of individuals to fight for their own rights. Unfortunately, I also suspect that when international corporations and government leaders are looking at the possibility of lost revenues, profits, or assets - through boycotts, trade restrictions, or attacks - they will see little incentive in backing those freedom fighters. In fact, they may even work against them if they can cut a deal with the devil (however informal) to diminish our rights for a saved buck.

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Question Everything

Today my wife and I took another visit to the Jade Buddha Temple (my third visit, her second). We practiced some various forms of meditation before having Dharma talk, lead by Josten. The Sister Venerable Shiou-chih was also present and offered input.

As a Humanist who has long valued the questioning of authority, positive skepticism, and a rational scientific questioning of claims, today's discussion was amazingly familiar and surprising.

Behold my non-Buddhist friends - this is from what is called the Kalama Sutra:

• It is proper to have doubt.

• Do not be lead...
- by reports, traditions, or hearsay;
- by the authority of religious texts;
- by mere logic or inference;
- by considering appearances;
- by the delight in speculative opinions;
- by seeming possibilities;
- by the idea "this is our teacher".

• Know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome, wrong, and bad; then give them up.

• Know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good; then accept them and follow them.

• [Buddha] told the [monks] that a disciple should examine even the [fully enlightened Buddha] himself, so that the disciple might be fully convinced of the true value of the teacher whom he followed.

• Rely not on the teacher/person, but on the teaching.

• Rely not on the words of the teaching, but on the spirit of the words.

• Rely not on theory, but on experience.

• Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.

• Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.

• Do not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.

• Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books.

• Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.

• But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

These concepts were presented in the notes passed around, and attributed to

For Humanist, Skeptic, and Freethinker points of reference, I might offer these few among many:

From the Houston Church of Freethought:
"freethinker, n.: a person who forms his opinions about religion independently of tradition, authority, or established belief."

From the Humanist Manifesto III:
"Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis."

From the Council of Secular Humanism:
"[Secular Humanism is] A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith."

From Skeptic Magazine:
"Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas - no sacred cows allowed."

Friday, February 3, 2006

The Greater Offense To Islam

Click Here for today's Picture. WARNING, disturbing graphic image.

Most are probably aware of the recent controversy over some cartoons of Muhammad (pbuh) published in a Danish newspaper and several others in Europe (one of which is the pictured in the link above). The Wikipedia article on the matter covers it fairly well. Several newspapers again published the images after the first protests to make a statement in support of free speech. So today, tens of thousands of Muslims marched in protest, demanding "vengeance" for what they found offensive. Diplomats from Egypt, it seems, have even asked the Danish government to do something about it, but the Danish apparently have a free press and will not.

So many in the middle east live under governments that do not allow for freedom of the press or for freedom of speech. To many of them, the very idea of a free press is nonsensical, if not sacrilegious. Others may mistakenly believe that all press functions under the same review as their own, and so sees this as an endorsement by those nations’ government. The notion that delegates would suggest to a government that they should curtail such expression underscores the fact that even the leadership in these nations is wholly ignorant of what we consider to be a most sacred right.

So here we have a very specific clash of two ideals; each of them held sacred. To Muslims the graphic portrayal of Muhammad (pbuh) is offensive to their beliefs. To those living in free nations with a free press, the freedom of speech and the tolerance for the views of even those we dislike is a sacred right; seen as absolutely essential to a free society (which, by the way, makes Google’s assisting in the oppression of the Chinese people through political censorship all the more disturbing).

I personally would normally refrain from providing images of Muhammad (pbuh), simply out of respect for the religious beliefs of others. Nor do I plan to do something like this again for that same reason. It is senseless to inflame for its own sake. Most religion and many other philosophic pursuits are attempts to know Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, as misguided as many of them may be in their approach. As such, I have been trying to cultivate a respect for those efforts and those who undertake them, even if I may be critical of various aspects and means about them.

I wanted to write about this controversy but I wasn't sure whether I should publish the image above as a statement in support of free speech, or whether I should show restraint and respect for the beliefs of others. Normally I would choose the latter, but then I saw the reports on CNN where they themselves had digitally masked over the pictures they were reporting on.

This masking actually lead to an inability for CNN to convey the story properly. If I couldn’t see the images, I couldn’t get a sense of the artists intent. Were they just pictures or were they caricatures? How mean was the expression on Mohammed’s (pbuh) face? Were there racial elements in the caricature? All of these things were things that were important to grasp the full impression of what was going on, and they were being kept from me.

I couldn't escape the sense that this wasn't merely showing respect, but that CNN had been cowered by the threats of violence, and that is simply unacceptable. When these things prevent people from fully understanding what is happening it goes beyond mere respect and begins to interfere with our freedom of information.

Some particular Muslims choose to sacrifice themselves in airplanes and with suicide bombs for what they believe to be ideals. With free speech, we all make a sacrifice as well. We know that allowing free speech means that others will be able to say and publish things we find horrible. Those who understand the importance of free speech to a society are willing to make this sacrifice for the benefit to freedom and justice such a right provides. If these specific Muslims were more aware of the critical importance and benefit of free speech to a society, would they be as courageous in making sacrifices for this ideal?

Then today, when I saw today that such a huge number of Muslims (tens of thousands according to the article I read) were marching about these cartoons, it solidified for me which direction was justified and I decided to publish the image above. These marches made me realize that it is not simply a few deviants in the Muslim world who are misguided in their values and their sense of proportion, but a huge number of them.

I would very much like to point out that there are also a huge number of Muslims who would have nothing to do with terrorism and who would never chant Osama Bin Laden's name or call for killings. For this reason, I regret if the image above is offensive to those Muslims, but I think the overriding issues here require that I show it. For me not to show it at this point would be to cower under the will of thugs as I feel CNN has done. Furthermore, there may be many readers who haven’t seen the exact images yet, and seeing them is integral to conveying what this is about.

In fact, most of the thousands of Muslim marchers protesting these cartoons are not terrorists either. But my point here is something else. If you clicked the above link you might have noticed another curious image to the left of the cartoon above. That is the image of engineer Paul Johnson, who was beheaded by Muslim fundamentalist terrorists on June 18, 2004; only one of many. These beheadings of live civilians who were kidnapped, involve the sawing off of their heads as they scream in pain. Along with that, the attackers are often heard chanting Allah's name as they cut.

Wouldn't this be a greater offense to Islam than a cartoon? Why is it that tens of thousands of Muslims did not march in response to this?

I certainly don't think that most Muslims think the beheadings were alright. Indeed many did condemn them. But the juxtaposition of these two very different degrees of response illustrate a perverse lack of proportionality in the mindset of many Muslims. This is but one symptom of a rampant sickness within the Muslim faith. It is a sickness that has been around for a long time, and will continue to come to a boil as cultures collide around the globe.

But this sickness can also be found within other faiths, political ideologies, cultures, and individuals. It is a sickness that claims to know ultimate truth with ultimate certainty. This sickness can be found wherever people would assert their own personal philosophy or religion over those of their fellow human beings, often through political power and/or violence.

This sickness exists where gunmen kill healthcare providers at abortion clinics. It lives in those who would advocate that state employees in public schools should lead children from diverse backgrounds in the religious observances of their choosing. It exists wherever a person is beaten, fired, denied the ability to serve his country, or denied the ability to marry because of his sexual orientation. It exists where the obvious scientific understandings provided by overwhelming evidence are ignored and distorted in order to promote myth, under the mistaken impression that one cannot exist beside the other; and these delusions are forced into public classrooms masquerading as science. It exists where racist supremacists spread hate and violence, or even more subtle and insidious discrimination. The symptoms of this sickness are zealousness, close mindedness, intolerance, ignorance, and hatred.

Thanks to a lack of information about the foundational principles of personal liberty, mixed with oppresive regimes and radical factions within their midst, and international economic and social pressures from the outside, this sickness is very obvious and rampant in Muslim populations; but it is not exclusive to them. My purpose in providing these images, and in comparing the beheadings with this cartoon controversy, is not to say, "look at these hypocrites!" Nor is it to rekindle hatred in your mind at the thought of the beheadings. Such atrocities are not new in history and many religions and cultures have taken their turn with them. In addition, there are many other types of sicknesses that our western societies have in large measure, such as materialism, gluttony, and often oppressive or unfair international economic policies.

Instead we must see that the sort of sickness on display within the Muslim faith is a problem we must all address, and we must begin with traces of that sickness in ourselves. We can continue to try and teach people the central importance of a free press and the sacrifices required for the ideal of freedom of speech. We can also condemn the hypocrisy of marching over a cartoon and not gory executions of the innocent. We need not yield to evil or to oppression, but as we fight it we must do so with a degree of compassion and the humility that we too are afflicted.

Christianity teaches that we are all born with the tainted blood of sinners. Regardless of one’s belief regarding the creation myth surrounding this belief, it is clear the early writers of it recognized that we all share the same proclivities and weaknesses. Therefore we could all have been different if born in a different time, a different place, or under a different flag. The Stoics believe that all of the universe is interconnected into one whole and eastern religions also note that separation is a delusion. What affects one will affect the other. What happens to the Muslim affects us. We cannot help but be tainted by this sickness and be tempted to respond in kind.

However, understanding this truth and finding a workable solution are not as linked as we would wish. The events of the past several years are likely to be the prelude to a grand showdown between our past and our future; between mysticism and modernism; between secular ideals and theological commandments. There is no guaranty that one will prevail over the other. There have been both dark ages and enlightenments in the past, and likely will be more of each in the future.

How do we manage these conflicts when our adversaries seem so intent upon destroying and/or dominating us? How do we reach understanding when they seem to feel the same? Surely there is an alternative to outright destruction, but it takes all sides to avoid that. To be sure, working for political justice from our end can help encourage the same on the other side. But what about more profound and original approaches? What about philosophic outlooks on this sort of problem which have practical application? I think we may need to look deeper into our many sources of wisdom on these things to come up with an answer - I hope we can.


NOTE: For some reason, the comments section on my blog seems to be nonfunctional at the moment. I will therefore post comments below for now...

John Vesia:
That image of Paul Johnson is going to haunt me for some time, but your point is well taken- how some people can be offended by a cartoon, but not by the taking of an innocent life. Terrorism is the ultimate ignorance.

DT Strain:
Thanks John. Maybe I shouldn't have posted that image without some kind of click or warning. It's not merely the taking of a life that I find ironic, but the fact that it was done in the name of Allah, which one would definitely think should be a direct offense to Islam from the point of view of those Muslims who distance themselves from these attacks. That's why I think the juxtaposition of these two incidents points out the nature of the sickness I spoke about (one which lies in many places, even outside the Muslim community).

Jack Death:
Hey, DT, what's up?I just read your post over at philosophy strain. I applaud you for putting up these pictures... [Jack and I have a longer discussion, portions of which I may post at a later date with his permission]

Exploring Meditation

Throughout most of my life, my impression of meditation was colored mostly by the feeling that it was weird. A bunch of people sitting around with their eyes closed, apparently doing something 'spiritual' seemed more ludicrous than exotic. The Yogic fliers who claimed to be able to levitate when they meditated didn't help much. It made the whole thing seem all the more crazy when I saw film of these folks sitting cross-legged, hopping up and down like frogs; yeah that’s levitation. Later, once my outlook as a naturalist and Humanist had gelled, the various claims of meditation as a supernatural communion or out-of-body experience made the entire endeavor seem silly.

Later I would hear that many people were taking up meditation for stress relief purposes. This seemed more credible to me but even then I had no idea what this whole meditation stuff was about. On the outside you just see a person sitting there breathing so, without knowing what it is they're doing inside their heads, it just seemed like relaxation. The idea that simple relaxation would lead to stress relief seemed to make sense to me.

Finally I got around to actually reading more about meditation and discovered, first, that there are a wide variety of types of meditation. I then read about what I believe is formally called Samatha meditation, with breathing as its object. I discovered that this meditation wasn't just "sitting there relaxing" but it also wasn't the mumbo-jumbo variety I had taken spiritual meditation to be.

The mental goings-on that this meditation entails involve focusing on one thing (such as one's breath) for an extended period of time (see below for links on a more detailed explanation). When I first read about this it seemed more of a ritual. I didn't really think it had much effect outside the period where one is actually doing it. I thought that it was merely a means of mentally doing something to try and evoke 'religious experiences' - more placebo than anything else. I would discover later that my conception of meditation was completely uninformed.

Several years went by when I had become interested in certain philosophical aspects of Buddhism. Along the way, I learned that meditation was seen by them as a means of improving concentration and focus. This was a more pragmatic function of meditation than I had previously thought, but was it true? It sounded more like many of the alleged claims of various herbal remedies out there.

Then, very soon after, I came to read about the neurological brain scans of those involved in meditation. As it turns out, the activity in the brain of meditators really does correspond to the areas of the brain one would expect for the effects meditators claim. More importantly, according to these scans, the practice seems to have long term effects on the functioning of the brain outside of times when active meditation is being used.

Here I had come to see that meditation, as it was used and applied traditionally, was for a more pragmatic purpose than I had supposed previously (at least this particular type of meditation). At the same time, I was finding scientific backing of these claims. It seemed that because the subject matter was inherently experiential, subjective, first-person, and internal, that "direct observation" in this sense would mean first person observation was an important component in understanding meditation.

I tried it several times, following the steps as I had read them, and the results were surprising. I have always had some difficulty in focusing my concentration on things, as my mind tends to wander from topic to topic sporadically. This is a common problem for creative-types (by the Myers/Briggs personality formula, that would be an "N" type).

What was most noticeable was the effect immediately after meditation. It seemed my mind was almost perfectly quiet and still. It's a very relaxing situation, but it also makes it very easy to concentrate on whatever thing you select to think about. You almost have to try to broaden your focus after that, but you won't really want to. Over just a short time, you start to notice changes in your focus at other times as well.

Along with all this, I was still learning about some philosophic aspects of Buddhism, which relate to a long term project I have undertaken which involves comparing certain elements of Buddhism, Stoicism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and more. In these efforts I came to understand (at least partially) why the concept of concentration and focus was integral to Buddhist philosophy.

Buddhism advocates mindfulness of our thoughts and feelings (and more). This means being constantly conscious of ourselves from an existential point of view. It is in this way that we gain some detachment over our passions and knee-jerk reactions. To do this requires a lot of focus and concentration, thus the meditation.

Recently I reported my experience in visiting a Buddhist temple for the first time. In that visit I attended the Dharma talk because I was (and am) learning about Buddhist philosophy. I had skipped the first section where they were having mediation.

More recently, I attended the same temple again when they were celebrating the Chinese New Year - a very interesting experience. Before that there was a meditation session and I practiced meditation for the first time with others. It was here, from Josten, that I learned about counting techniques, walking meditation, and reifying (labeling) external distractions during meditation so as to help put them aside.

Here are some references to the things I've mentioned:
• Wikipedia article on Samatha Meditation (the type I've discussed): HERE
• Wikipedia article on Meditation (see the section called Meditation and the Brain and Meditation and EEGs): HERE
• How to Meditate (I plan to put up my own bare-bones notes on this soon, but until then here's something. Note that there are other forms of meditation on this site which I might not personally find appealing or might even strongly disagree with, but this page seems to refer to the type I discussed to some degree): HERE


NOTE: For some reason the comments section isn't working on my blog at the moment. Therefore I will post comments below for now...

John Vesia:
When I first took up meditation years ago, the first thing I noticed was how difficult it was...just sitting still and focusing on the breath is not as easy as it sounds! If nothing else, meditation shows us how to get in touch with something very important for well-being: The present moment.

DT Strain:
Very true, it is most difficult. What's amazing to me is that we can actually see that we get better at it with practice.