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Monday, May 24, 2010

Undercover spiritual leaders

(cc) Andres Rueda,
In my Humanist organization, there is at least one former Catholic priest. In his case, he chose to leave the priesthood after becoming an atheist. Another friend of mine knows a religious leader undergoing several changes of view contrary to his church's core teachings. He continues to preach but 'nudges' the congregation through choice of emphasis, without overtly violating canon. I've read of this happening in other cases; usually involving Catholics, or Anglicans, or other protestant denominations which emphasize scholarship and reason.

It seems that a faith's religious leaders, who do the most studying of their religion's texts, arguments, history, and foundations, are ironically those who can come to question it the most. When this happens they must decide how to deal with the conflict between what their church teaches and what they believe. Some have decided to stay in the hopes they will influence the congregation toward a more open view. Others make more overt ripples by loudly contradicting the church authorities, being controversial, and pushing for change. And some, of course, simply leave. I'm sure there must be others who disbelieve but continue to preach without even nudging the faith, possibly out of some view that "I'm smart and wise enough to handle the truth, but most of the rabble need these beliefs".

It's an interesting situation. My guess is that often times the religious leaders in a faith can be a primary source of its evolution and growth; sometimes openly as controversial reformers, but often as undercover subversives.

Supplemental: here's an interview at with Kate Fridkis, who is an atheist working as a lay cantor in a synagogue in New Jersey: LINK


Comment, Kat:
Some very significant changes started with a cup of coffee or in the back room of a small diner.

Comment, donobo:
In my opinion, a fine adjunct to DT Strain's article, "Undercover spiritual leaders", is a 6.5min video with Daneil Dennett speaking, with heart, to hardships that can befall the clergy that have doubts as to what they are required to preach to their congregations. Google: "daniel dennett (1) la ciudad".
Thanks, DT Strain for the time and the effort you take to communicate your perspectives. Always a learning experience.

Comment, tbrucia:
Unamuno wrote a fantastic 'nivola' about priest caught between his responsibilities to his flock and the truth of his own loss of faith: "San Miguel Bueno Martir". I can only find it on the web in Spanish (for those of you able to read Spanish)... . (It is part of Unamuno's 'Tres Novela Ejemplares)

Comment, Arthur Fay:
I think two good examples of changes within clergy are Bishop John Shelby Spong (Episcopalian) and Dan Barker, once an evangelical preacher and now an atheist. Spong is well known for his book (among others)"Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile" and Barker for "Losing Faith In Faith." Both men exemplify human beings who vigorously question the tenets of their respective religions. While one retains a belief in human divinity and the other doesn't, they both are well worth the read.

Comment, DT Strain:
Wow thanks much for the comments and references everyone! :)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On loving humanity

Palden Gyatso.
(cc) Megan Garner,
It's common to go through a period from our teens to early adulthood where we become very disenchanted with the world and with humanity. After first looking beyond the home of our young childhood to the rest of the world, the utter stupidity of our own species is so revolting to the young person that hatred inevitably ensues, in some more than others, but almost always present to some degree. I've long since left behind the intensity of that stage, but the residual remains in most everyone I think, and it's brought out at certain times of frustration with those around us.

However, after some momentary lapses in the ever-present cynicism, disgust, and shame regarding my fellow human being - after a few imperfect glimpses of true love for fellow man and its corresponding touch of liberation - I had an intense feeling recently that I'm really ready to discard hate and endeavor to love humanity more. No, not trust humanity more, but love. Love without condition or expectation, not synonymous with naivety, and not dependent upon it being returned.

I had the feeling in rush hour traffic of all things.

In his Meditations, a journal written to himself, the Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius reminded himself to love his fellow man sincerely; even those that transgress against him. He also admonished himself because, although he had endeavored to do so in deed, he knew that he had not yet fully internalized it "from the heart".

I've referenced other scenes in this film before, but one of my favorite scenes comes near the end of the 1996 John Travolta film, Phenomenon. It's the story of George Malley who, through a highly unusual turn of events, acquires the ability to do all kinds of things with his mind such as speed read, memorize, notice things, be highly creative, and some telepathy. While people are obsessed with his inventions and his 'powers' the real power was in his insights about the world, our connection to one another, and how we view life. Through an unlikely twisting of neurons George had achieved a kind of sudden enlightenment and perspective. In this scene, a lot of people had recently fallen short of the potential he had tried to inspire them to. They had disappointed him by missing the point, being hostile and suspicious, and acting against him.

Sitting under a tree later, George Malley and his lover Lace Pennamin (Kyra Sedgwick) knew something bad was going to be happening soon. She asked him if he was scared; he wasn't; and she said to him, "I wish I knew what you feel." He told her she does and always has. George asked her how she held her children when they were babies. She placed her arms in a cradling position. Then he asked, "and if they had a hard time sleeping and you had to rock them to sleep how did you do it?" She closed her eyes, made a rocking motion, and smiled silently.

In another example, the Buddhist monk Palden Gyatso was held and tortured as a political prisoner in China for 33 years. He'd been beaten, starved, burned, shocked, and put into forced labor. Released in 1992, Palden does not hate his captors. When asked what his greatest fear had been, he said that what he most feared was losing compassion for his torturers. Such strength and compassion is almost incomprehensible, but this man is of the same species as you and I.

Yet, if you were to look up the Objectivist view on "compassion" in the Ayn Rand lexicon, you would find the following:

"I regard compassion as proper only toward those who are innocent victims, but not toward those who are morally guilty. If one feels compassion for the victims of a concentration camp, one cannot feel it for the torturers. If one does feel compassion for the torturers, it is an act of moral treason toward the victims."
-- Ayn Rand, 1964 Playboy interview

As far as my experiences can tell me, this is philosophical poison. It is also technically and logically misguided on several levels. On the most cursory level, it presents a false dichotomy of either having compassion for the victim or for the torturer. Secondly, it confuses compassion with 'letting evildoers off the hook', not reacting appropriately, being naive, becoming a dupe, allowing continuation of the acts, or perhaps even condoning them.

More to the root of its error, the quote above ignores or seems unconscious of the fact that who the torturers are and what they do, like all things, are contingent upon multiple other causes and effects. And that when we do evil, for a number of subtle reasons, we inherently and inevitably harm ourselves. Thus, the evil doer is trapped in an ignorance in which he tragically harms himself as well as those around him.

If we do not acknowledge that evil is harming ourselves, we begin to think that there is some benefit to evil when we can get away with it. This mistake has two effects: (1) it makes us more tempted to 'get away' with things, and ironically, it (2) makes us hateful and consumed by wrongdoers because we falsely believe that if we falter in our responsibility to punish the wrongdoer then no other consequence will follow and chaos will ensue. Thus, by failing to understand that virtue and wisdom really are synonymous, and evil and folly likewise synonymous, we become highly retributive. If you talk on a number of issues with the Objectivists and their cousins, the Libertarians, you will detect a strong streak of retributive thinking and talk of what people allegedly "deserve". These are all misguided and unfortunate understandings of good, evil, and the healthy basis of ethical behavior.

Also ironic, Objectivism preaches against faith, supernaturalism, religion, and Christianity. Yet, with it's: (a) belief in the utility of evil for the evildoer, (b) the resulting need for active retribution, and (c) its enshrinement of a magically non-causal form of free will, it is still hopelessly imprisoned within the Abrahamic worldview - which has lead to so many seemingly inescapable cycles of hatred and violence. But in one more ironic twist, it is in Jesus' instruction to love our neighbor and enemies that we find Christianity's greatest and wisest contribution. As the story goes, even as he is hanging on the cross, Jesus is written to have cried out to God, "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

While, as a Humanist, I advocate an empirical approach to knowledge and a naturalistic worldview, the concept of a personal God is at least useful as a thought experiment which allows us to imagine how an all-loving, all-knowing father of our species might view us; with all our imperfections. Thus, through the transplanting of our nurturing and loving instincts from offspring to all mankind, we are inspired to be 'godlike'. We are inspired to try and see every human being in the world as their mothers might have seen them - to feel pride when they succeed, sad when they fail, shame and admonishment when they do wrong, to seek to protect them from one another, and through all of it, to love them. Indeed, that was the function of the George Malley character, who explained how he felt by asking Lace how she felt about her children.

These are not mere sentiments. They are strategies for living. They are truths about what kind of mindsets, priorities, and value systems are most natural and healthy for the human mind and human well being. They are proved by countless experiments over the course of human history and the course of each of our lives, and they are as literally and technically true as any conclusion of engineering, biology, or physical science. This because human beings are objective in their qualities, and the effects of their thoughts and behaviors are likewise objective.

And so it was that, somehow, in the middle of a frustratingly slow traffic jam I was inspired to remind myself that each driver is someone's lover, sibling, child, or parent. I felt the urge, like Marcus Aurelius, not to simply think it but to at last discard hatred and try to have compassion for humanity from the heart. I don't know if he ever achieved that state, and I have a long way to go, but I've felt that desire to get there. Maybe that urge was enhanced at just the right time with a song on the radio by Shawn Mullins called Shimmer:

Sharing with us what he knows
shining eyes are big and blue
and all around him water flows
this world to him is new

he's born to shimmer
he's born to radiate
he's born to live
he's born to love

but we will teach him how to hate

and this thing we call our time
I heard a brilliant women say
She said, you know it's crazy
how I want to try and capture mine

I think I love this woman's
way she shimmers
the way she shines
the way she radiates
the way she lives
the way she loves
the way she never hates

sometimes I think of all this that surrounds me
and I know it all as being mine
but she kisses me and she wraps herself around me
she gives me love
she gives me time
I feel fine

But time I cannot change
so here's to looking back
You know I'd drink a whole bottle of my pride
and I'd toast to change
to keep these demons off my back

just get these demons off my back
'cause I

want to shimmer
want to shine
want to radiate
I want to live
I want to love
I want to try and learn how not hate

we're born to shimmer
we're born to shine
we're born to radiate
we're born to live
we're born to love
we're born to never hate

Monday, May 17, 2010

Blend of cultural & spiritual music inspires at Houston multifaith chapel

Left to right: Stephanie Phillips, Jodi Roberts,
Randy Granger. Lower left: Rothko Chapel.
(c) respective artists and Rothko Chapel.
This past Saturday my wife and I had the pleasure and honor of being guests at the Rothko Chapel for a special member's concert featuring Randy Granger, accompanied by Jodi Roberts and Stephanie Phillips.
Rothko Chapel is a sanctuary in Houston, open to people of every belief. It is visited by thousands of people from every faith each year, who come to attend the chapel's many events, to meditate, contemplate, pray, worship, or for interfaith fellowship. It's sleek lines and calm environment is inspired by the late abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, whose work there I have written on before.

The intimate setting featured a small stage, table and chairs set up inside the chapel space, covered with rich tapestries and colorful rugs and cloths. Amongst those were set several instruments. Then the three musicians took the stage. Jodi Roberts began standing behind a table of Tibetan bowls. Hitting them gently as their sounds overlapped, the wonderful acoustics of the chapel allowed us to not only hear, but feel the vibrations.

Next Stephanie Phillips played the viola. As with the bowls, the sounds of the viola resonated and penetrated your body such that your eyes close and you are drawn inward, focusing solely on the music. Phillips' style seemed to me almost Romanian, in contrast to the Tibetan sounds just before. Yet at times her method produced something beyond expectations of a viola and sounded almost more like a reed flute.

After that Randy Granger played something that looked like a UFO flying saucer, or two metallic bowls turned on one another - the Hang drum. This instrument was a veritable mini-band on its own, at lease as Granger played it. By that, I mean the variety of sounds from this one object sounded as though at least three instruments would have been needed to produce them. And wonderfully rich sounds they were. Granger also played a variety of Native American flutes.

Granger's rhythms shifted directions and before long all three of these diverse musicians were playing in unison. What would seem an eclectic mix from around the world harmonized together unexpectedly and beautifully. In some of the pieces Granger would also sing.

The first pieces evoked a feeling of life in its abstract sense - a process that marches on, and on, developing and growing. Fittingly, the following pieces in which Granger brought in the flutes were like packs of wolves singing to one another at night. A following piece sounded more like monkeys. It was almost as if each piece moved along the evolutionary path of life on the planet. The chapel's announcement of the concert helps explain the link between the arts, spirituality, and social action with a quote from the Dalai Lama:

"We can never obtain peace in the world if we neglect the inner world and don't make peace with ourselves. World peace must develop out of inner peace. Without inner peace it is impossible to achieve world peace, external peace."

Although these kinds of events have been an excellent fit for the chapel, a private members event was a first for them. The chapel hosted the private concert in appreciation of its members, and intends to do so annually. Members are those who have chosen to support the chapel in its mission of both contemplation and action; in the pursuit of spirituality, human rights, and the arts. A picnic reception under a tent outside the chapel followed the concert.

Information on the Musicians (from Rothko Chapel's website)

Randy Granger is an award-winning New Mexico musician, songwriter and composer, and workshop presenter. His music fuses Native American flutes, the ethereal Hang drum, emotive vocals, and evocative songwriting. Profiled on NPR’s All Things Considered, his music is heard worldwide on radio, satellite, podcasts and Sirius Mystic Soundscapes. Randy Granger tours and performs throughout the United States as a solo artist and with musicians such as Coyote Oldman and R. Carlos Nakai.

Randy Granger's MySpace page

Stephanie Phillips is a composer, violist, and singer who conducts workshops in creative music making and improvisation for people of all ages and musical abilities. She has performed extensively with several Texas symphonies and performance ensembles. She plays diverse styles of music including European classical, jazz, salsa and sacred improvisation. Stephanie holds a B.A. from Oberlin College and a Masters in Music Composition from Texas State University.
Music Inside-Out

Jodi Roberts is a sound healer, spiritual director, and recording artist who uses the sound of Tibetan bowls, temple bells, and Chinese gongs to weave meditative, ceremonial musical experiences. She plays instruments that express the beauty and resonance of nature. She is a graduate of the University of Texas with a degree in cultural anthropology and trained in cross-cultural native ceremony and healing. She lives in Austin and tours throughout Texas.
Sacred Inspiration

I would like to thank Rothko Chapel Executive Director Emilee Whitehurst for inviting my wife and I to this wonderful concert, and encourage you to learn more about the chapel and its events at

Comment, Randy Granger:
Thank you DT. The honor and pleasure was ours.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Why this Humanist admires the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama, (c) AP.
In the course of reading ancient philosophy, it is difficult to ignore Buddhism. And in the course of reading about Buddhism, it is difficult not to become at least somewhat familiar with the Dalai Lama. In this case, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.

For those unfamiliar, there are various branches of Buddhism (what Westerners might call denominations), such as Mahayana, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism. 'Dalai Lama' is a high-priest-like position within Tibetan Buddhism, but he appears to be highly respected by all Buddhists and in the case of this man, even many non-Buddhists.

Tenzin was designated to become the next Dalai Lama in Tibet at age two. At age 15 (in 1950) the army of communist China invaded Tibet. He officially became Dalai Lama one month later, but fled into India in 1959 when it seemed the Chinese were about to kill him after a failed uprising. In India he established a government-in-exile which is now run by an elected parliament.

Tibet has yet to receive independence and the Chinese today critically dismiss descriptions as I've given here, saying it is impossible to "invade" a region that had long belonged to them, as they claim to be the case. Today China censors any information about resistance or freedom for Tibet and about the Dalai Lama which they do not control. Meanwhile Chinese government policies dilute Tibetan culture and they commonly infringe on Tibetan religious activities and try to have influence over who becomes the next Dalai Lama and other Lama placements.

Much to the Chinese government's chagrin, the Dalai Lama continues to be welcome in meetings with world leaders as he advocates for Tibetan rights. Most of the world seems to favor Tibetan independence, though China is a powerful nation with a huge economy and nuclear weaponry, so there is little that can be done to force their hand, other than change from within.

Tibetan Buddhism is among the more mystical or supernatural varieties of Buddhism in my view. I tend more toward Theravada, with a few Mahayana elements, but mainly on secular philosophic Buddhism (which appears to be the original Buddhism). For instance, the Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama is really the same entity and that all prior Dalai Lamas have been reincarnations of the first. As for the Dalai Lama himself, Tibetan rights are not his only focus. He continues to serve as a spiritual guide for people everywhere, even beyond Buddhists. He is astute to the differences of belief among different people. When he speaks or writes to Buddhists his subjects will veer into the more esoteric but when speaking to non-Buddhists, he knows how to focus on those elements of Buddhism to which everyone everyone can relate. He does not encourage people to leave their current belief systems to become Buddhists, but seeks to help people everywhere with messages that will benefit them.

I have read a few of his books (such as The Art of Happiness and The Universe in a Single Atom) and have to say, they have contained some of the wisest words I have ever read. His teachings are highly practical and aware of the realities of life and the world, and very applicable. Reading this man's writing or seeing him speak, his authenticity, honesty, integrity, compassion, and intellect are obvious.

Humanists value education and philosophic study. If you consider the upbringing of a Dalai Lama, it seems education has been intense and varied. The environment in which such a person is raised is essentially a perfectly crafted kiln in which to produce a wise person. He's obviously received a well rounded education that is multicultural and global in scope - a virtual Renaissance man. Along with that he's been raised with intense training in philosophic wisdom, empathy, and compassion. If we could manage to give every person that kind of attention and upbringing, such a society might begin to approach a humanistic utopia. In that regard, a few aspects aside, the Dalai Lama comes close to a Humanist paragon. That's not to mention the values he promotes, which are humanistic at their core.

The Dalai Lama is now 75 years old, and it will be a sad day when we must say goodbye to him. His mark will be felt a long time after his passing, but for today we are fortunate to have such a figure as a contemporary.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reclaiming meaning from the supernatural

(cc) DT Strain.
Last night at the Humanist Contemplatives Houston Meetup, we discussed the areas of overlap and similar concepts about the universe found throughout Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism, and Complex Systems Theory. I centered mostly on those aspects which would be of greatest relevance to naturalists and Humanist ethics and outlook on life.

Using a variety of terminology from each of these, I had summed up and organized the concepts according to this outline:

a) the Logos: the universe operates according to a universal set of natural laws.
b) existence & subsistence: some things physically exist, but many phenomena subsist, meaning they are categories, labels, emergent properties, or other manifestations of the existing materials. This is a sort of metaphysical but not supernatural concept.

a) polarity: complimentary opposites are fundamental throughout nature.
b) the Divine Fire: a natural creative principle which runs counter to entropy.
c) self-order: spontaneous emergence of complexity in inherent in the universe is dependent arising.

a) interdependence: mutually interdependent phenomena are what make the universe holistic and monistic.
b) cause & effect: cause and effect networks as a wave abstraction, karma, butterfly effect
c) impermanence, transformation, & underlying unity: transmutation of substances and impermanence are all related to the ever changing flux, evolution, yet spring from a universal principle, similar to the search for a unified field theory.

a) cyclical manifestations: natural fractals as an example of cyclical patterns, biological cycles, replenishment, renewal, layered strata of order in systems, relate to underlying concepts in rebirth, the stoic conflagration, etc.
b) the aggregate self: persons as aggregates of qualities are emergent properties without a singular or unchanging nature, thus emptiness and the delusion of self.
c) emergence: other examples of emergent properties beyond the soul/mind and naturalistic approach to incorporeals
d) potentiality: fate, destiny, randomness, and free will - 'statistical fatalism'

That's a lot to take in in just a few lines of text, but it was the summation of five previous sessions of discourse. I'll be elaborating more on these in the future, but the point was this:

Sometime in the distant past, we draw a line between the natural and the supernatural which hadn't existed prior. By that I mean ancient philosophies of around 2,500 years ago, East and West, often considered the universe one whole. If they had ideas about souls or spirits, those words are only incidentally identical in spelling and pronunciation of those words as we use them today. Back then, they were more like the current scientific theories of their day as to questions such as 'why is some matter animate and others not?'  It was all natural and interdependent - it was an attempt to understand the environment in which we find ourselves.

Later, after the conceptual split between the natural and the supernatural, we imagined these separate planes of existence, with the supernatural being some sort of invisible realm. Souls became more like "ghosts" than minds, for example. But the significant point is this: not only was there a split, but we then went about collecting up all of things we consider profound, sacred, meaningful, divine, and spiritual, and dumped them into the supernatural column. This basically allowed us to take a few centuries off from seriously examining or understanding the sacred because we consigned it to the invisible and empirically unapproachable.

This was not too big of an issue until we get around to modern times. Now we have a good number of people either considering the supernatural irrelevant, suspect, or outrightly rejecting it. But with that rejection, we are simply chopping off a categorization that was created by a people who accepted the supernatural as part of existence. The result of simply chopping off the supernatural as is, is that we lose all things of deepest reverence and meaning, and are left with a 'nature' that is completely bereft and stripped of ultimate meaning and value. This is why, when you explain to someone that you only believe in the natural universe, they often imagine you must have a shallow depressing life of meaninglessness.

What we naturalists must do is examine closely those ancient spiritual philosophies of life which looked at the universe as one natural whole. We must reclaim the sacred, the divine, the spiritual, the meaningful, the profound - we must heal that schism and reunite the sacred with the natural. This is not so much a matter of making unfounded claims as it is reclaiming a perspective and a value system on Nature. It is about approaching Nature with the reverence and tone of the ancients, before the great natural/supernatural divide.

How do we do this? First, by learning about what ancient philosophers (who were a fusion of priest and scientist by today's standards) said about their natural universe, what they observed and what they found profound and useful about it. In that, we see remarkable parallels to modern scientific understandings of nature, brains, and complex systems. By noting those parallels, we can begin to approach the natural universe as understood by modern science through the eyes of a people who didn't see a need to relegate phenomena outside of nature or make claims based on faith.

We can then take those concepts consistent with modern understanding, and note how they drew a connection between 'is' and 'ought'. How did their understanding of the universe create a foundation for their practices, perspectives, and value systems that lead to the good life - the flourishing life?  If their concepts of nature were on-base in many of the more significant ways (which I find they were, albeit more generalized or poetic) then we should be able to construct similar lines of logic from is to ought. We should be able to end up with similar value systems, perspectives, reverence, and practices based on a modern and natural understanding of the universe.

Through this we can begin to grasp the essential 'spiritual feel' of Nature once more and build a way forward that fills human spiritual need, is a practical guide for achieving the good and flourishing life, and has intellectual integrity with regard to modern scientific understanding.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Humanist Contemplatives to meet

Humanist Contemplative emblem.
(cc) DT Strain.
This evening I'll be hosting the Humanist Contemplative's Houston monthly discourse. We've been meeting for several months now. It's a small group that looks at the overlap between Humanism and contemplative practices, traditions, and ideas.

Over the past sessions, we've looked at complex systems theory, Heraclitus, Chuang-Tzu, Taoism, Buddhist physics, Stoic physics, and their ethics. Tonight we'll be bringing it all together to examine the shared characteristics between them, and see what we might infer as implications for the Humanist.

We rarely get around to everything there is to say on these subjects, but it's always a delightful experience. Our effort is to be more in a listening and tolerant mode than in a debating one. We meet at Te House of Tea (1927 Fairview Street) at 7pm on the second Wednesday of each month.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Extremists of Materialism

Starving Buddha, before finding the Middle Way.
Photo: (cc) John Wigham (Akuppa),
LiveScience is reporting an Indian Mystic who is claiming not to have eaten in 70 years, saying he can obtain his sustenance through breathing and meditation. We can easily assume the claim to be false, based on what is known of biology and the fact that no one has ever proven such an ability under scrutiny.

As the article mentions, this claim is a common one among Indian religious leaders. Deprivation has been a religious practice for thousands of years. The Buddha at one point is written to have tried this ascetic approach, starving himself. But he later rejected it as a path to enlightenment or happiness, saying that the answer instead rested in The Middle Way - a balance between the extremes of denial and gluttony. A lesson people today could certainly use. Almost all of us in the West today are this Indian Mystic's equally mislead opposite, believing that obtaining more and more material wealth, goods, food/drink, and entertainments are the answer to happiness. So, I prefer to reflect on that before judging this mystic too harshly.