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Friday, December 30, 2011

Thirst - poem by DT Strain

(cc) Milan Boers (
Before I was
the music was
and the earth and the
moon and the stars

'twas long before
those days of yore
with the girls and the
tits and the bars

And from that thirst
I planted thus
my roots in that
safe warm place

a cool vast sea
surrounds and nurtures me
in that time of
self and play

But it was not long
in my short song
before I'd hear
those fateful words

I am thirsty

The others in the sea
made me see where
the waters run dry

and though I'd wept before
when the sea held me
only now did I see
what it was to cry

The others and I
took it all in stride
we were here to
save the world

there was no ailment
we could not prescribe
and so we set out
flag unfurled

we journeyed wide
we journeyed far
and, oh yes, the girls, and the
tits, and the bars

Yet we were thirsty

We left our homes
that cold and
dried up sea

and though our thirst
had not quenched
we knew all the
reasons that be

but through the battles
we had waged
and the dragons
we had slain

our prescriptions failed
my friends were felled
my trinkets proved
quite plain

Alone again
but far from home
I could not
save the world

And still I was thirsty

My cup run dry
no tears to cry
exhausted of
reasons why

but then I see
the earth speak to me
and the sun and the
moon and the sky

Over there
behind that flag
there seems to
be a trail

my answers gone
but if I could bring
myself along
to see

if maybe be
something for me
no not me but
perhaps the sea

It is thirsty

The path is dark
not clear to see
but well worn and
old it seems

and as I go
I gather fruits
that fill and
nourish me

Then I come
to a place I've
never been

still far to go
but waters flow!
enough for the
others in the sea

I fill my cup
what little I may
and turn toward
that place I'd spurned

For they are thirsty

Running now
with my little
cup I'm free

returning home
to share good news
to the thirsty
in the sea

A new crop has sprung
a new group has come
from that warm
safe place to cry

one by one
I go to them
to quench them
or to try

but they turn away
no time to drink
though even
they lament

We are thirsty

Yet there is no ailment
they cannot prescribe
no dragon
they cannot slay

their trinkets shine
much more than thine
and must surely
light their way

And then I see
that they nor me
could ever
fill the sea

for crying is
and will always be
it's wellspring
by necessity

But still I wonder
what lie down
the remainder of
that path?

its waters glisten
if I will listen
not blinded by
what I hath

Though each must
find their path
to extinguish that
harsh thirst

my tongue is wet
though look forward yet
to that music
I heard first

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

New article for naturalists looking beyond meditation

More and more Humanists, atheists, and other secular people discovering the usefulness of meditation. With this in mind, I have recently written an article that gives an overview of some other concepts that go beyond meditation, into a more fully contemplative practice for the naturalist. The article appears in The New Humanism, produced by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. You can read it HERE.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Happy Bodhi Day

Today, December 8th, is Bodhi Day, which is the Buddhist holiday that celebrates when Siddhartha Gautauma (the historical Buddha) reached enlightenment. The day is in remembrance of his coming to realization of the Dharma (wisdom) foundations of what would become Buddhist philosophy. Namely, a rejection of the asceticism he had been involved in, in favor of the Middle Path of moderation, and the deep understanding of suffering and how to relieve it through non-attachment. This is referred to as ‘the Great Awakening’.

Traditionally, the day was “the 8th day of the 12th lunar month” but this has been set to December 8th in Western and Western-influenced countries using the Gregorian calendar. Of course, it doesn’t really matter which day Buddha’s enlightenment actually occurred. Shocking to many of other beliefs perhaps, some monks will tell you it doesn’t really even matter if the story is even true. What matters are the teachings, and whether they work in alleviating suffering and promoting happiness. The existence of these teachings are the real thing worth celebrating for the Buddhist.

The reason you’re reading about this in an article by a Humanist is because most of the core, earliest documented teachings of the Buddha are Humanistic in nature; focused on human happiness in this life, through a series of practical practices and principles. This is why Humanist contemplatives have begun to meditate and explore mindfulness and its role in human well-being more and more.

Also, we’ll be having a traditional celebratory dish, rice pudding, tonight! Happy Bodhi Day!

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Occupy Forgiveness: Spiritual Activism

(cc) Robert Danay (Unlikely
Normally I write here about personal spirituality, which is about working on ourselves to be better people and achieving greater happiness and contentment in life. So, I tend not to talk about outward, external, and social-level issues. Recently, however, I submitted a proposal to the Occupy movement, and would like to talk about one exchange I just had with a poster on their Facebook page regarding forgiveness.

In my writing, I have frequently promoted the ancient notion that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for happiness; and when it comes to making virtuous decisions, this often involves the correct choices with respect to our outward actions. Contemplative inner spiritual cultivation ultimately gives us a greater bedrock of strength and fortitude as we move out into the world to do good things. Contemplative practices help to keep the activist from 'burning out' or becoming hopeless in the face of steep challenges.

This is because it helps us to shift the seat of our focus from external circumstance, to internal value. We are able, though proper wisdom and practice, to detach our contentment from our conditions, and instead make the source of contentment and peace come from our inner character and pure motivation. Instead of thinking, "I must make the world better" - we come to think, "I must be the kind of person who tries to make the world better". When we achieve this shift deeply into our intuitive responses, we place our happiness solely within our control. We free ourselves of circumstance, and so we have already succeeded, even before the results of our attempts are manifest; regardless of what happens. This internal shift happens slowly, in degrees over time, through the application of wise philosophy via disciplined practices.

I cannot claim to be an "Occupier" as I haven't put in physical presence time, but I do agree with the gist of their complaints and think they are worthy causes. Further, I think most of their non-violent tactics, albeit imperfect, have been justifiable (with the exception of some on the fringe who have used violence and hatred). We can't know where the movement will go from here, but recently there have been a number of negative incidents with police in several cities which have made the news (and many positive ones which have made the news to a considerably lesser extent).

What I suggested, was that the movement host a "Day of Appreciation for Our Police". I included possible wording for a proclamation to be made on that day (the full body of which can be read below). I put this to friends on my Facebook page first, and then shared it to the Facebook pages of Occupy Together and Occupy Wall Street. I also emailed it to the address given on their website.

Among the points were: appreciation for police in general, inclusion of them in the 99%, apologies for those who have been violent, an explanation of civil disobedience and why they're doing it, an expectation of minimal force in making arrests, and a call for an end to the use of violence in response to non-violent protests. It is still too soon to know what the response will be, although I have a few 'likes' and 'shares'. But the first comment I received was regarding my last point: an offer of forgiveness for those police who have behaved inappropriately. One poster on the Occupy Together Facebook page, replied:

This is an excellent idea - it's constructive, innovative, and good public relations. The only part of your suggestion that I disagree with is where you suggest the following: "To those officers who have assaulted unarmed and non-violent citizens with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, beatings, and other forms of violence, we forgive you."What?!!! Such behavior is fascistic, and intolerable, So we should no more forgive those who behave in that manner than we would forgive the Nazis for their atrocities during WWII, or Bush and Cheney for their atrocities in Iraq. We're not missionaries, so let them seek forgiveness from Jesus in the hereafter, but we must vigorously condemn and ostracize such people here on Earth.

This is a common (but unfortunately flawed) understanding of forgiveness. It views forgiveness as a benefit to the forgiven instead of the forgiver, and it imagines that forgiveness excludes condemnation of the behaviors or somehow accepts them, or calls for less vigorous action to fight them. In previous articles, I have explained how forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves. This is made easier when we recognize how harmful unvirtuous behavior is to us, as I have explained in, On Retribution: How Bad People Lose. I later describe a technique for increasing our empathy for wrongdoers in Motherhood as road map to universal compassion. In Jesus in New York, I refer to Jesus' teachings on forgiveness as I call on Christians to invite Muslims into their homes for a meal. And, in a longer essay, Freethought and Compassion, I examine that prescription to love our enemies and why it is essential that we forgive, specifically when it is not deserved.

Lastly, the poster I quoted above said, "We're not missionaries..." I beg to differ. The Occupy movement is a mission, and in its underlying values it has an ethical dimension. In my response I mentioned an anecdote I had passed along in On Loving Humanity about Buddhist monk Palden Gyatso, who 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. Forgiveness is perhaps the most important part of the following declaration, and it will be healthy medicine for those in the movement.

Suggestion submitted to Occupy movement, full text:


- We would like to thank those who work as our nation's police. We want to thank you for your service in protecting us and in enforcing just laws. We appreciate that you place yourselves in harms way every day for our security and safety.

- As middle class workers, you too are one of us, the 99%, and we support better pay, prosperity, and opportunity for you as well.

- We encourage people to vote and to exercise their Constitutionally protected free speech rights within the law. But in addition, because the extreme corruption in our system limits the effectiveness of only using means available within that system, we have chosen to additionally use the age-old practice of peaceful resistance and civil disobedience in working for our cause. While this is an illegal activity, we do not condone the use of violence against anyone, nor the unrestrained breaking of any and all laws.

- Please know that the use of civil disobedience does not equate to disrespect for all police, law, or order, or equate to hatred for you - even if individuals in our large and diverse group may have said and done things to that effect.

- We therefore want to apologize for those few individuals among us who have used violence and strayed from our non-violent resistance principles, and those who might do so without our approval in the future.

- We recognize that your duty will be to arrest us when we break the law, and expect the minimum use of force necessary to do so, as per traditional policing principles in a democracy. We do not agree with some police officers who have chosen to use assaults and violence in response to non-violent protests.

- We recognize that most of you want to do good and conduct yourselves nobly and professionally. We therefore invite you to avoid and resist these kinds of responses in the performance of your duties.

- To those officers who have assaulted unarmed and non-violent citizens with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, beatings, and other forms of violence, we forgive you. This does not mean we do not call for you to be held accountable for your actions and face disciplinary measures, and it does not mean we do not demand an end to such behavior. It also does not mean we believe all of you may be deserving of forgiveness, or be asking it of us. But we forgive you because we want to be better than those who have wronged us, and we want to express compassion even for those who have harmed us.

We hope the above statement of principles will help to facilitate understanding between the Occupy movement and police departments. Having made them, we want to emphasize in closing the purpose of this day, which is to honor you and your service to our communities, and hope that someday our actions will benefit all of us.


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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An alternative to Black Friday

Crowds on Black Friday
(photo: Wikipedia)
In my last article, I posted a letter my wife and I sent to our family and friends, telling them we'd like to stop giving and receiving store-bought merchandise as gifts, with exceptions for children and those in real need (see the letter that explains more). We asked only for their company, but recognized that giving is a valuable thing to celebrate and express too. So, we offered an alternative for those who wish to give, that gifts be something of their own creation. For those without the time or desire to make something, but wanted to give anyway, we suggested giving to a charity on our behalf.

We've gotten mostly positive feedback from friends and family, with the exception of one passive-aggressive, but still charitable, response. But our effort to simplify the holidays and return to core values brings up the question: What then of Black Friday?

Corporations have been known to create or modify holidays in the past to serve their interests. Some believe the reason fish was allowed as an exception to the no-meat rule on Fridays in Catholicism was because of the economic needs of the fish markets, and later, the reason for reducing the no-meat restriction from all Fridays to only those during Lent may have been to help an ailing meat market. Valentines Day, although associated with romantic love for ages, and sometimes accompanied by the giving of handwritten letters, has since been replaced by a day in which we are expected to buy mass-produced pre-written letters (cards), along with over-priced candies, props, and anything else comprised of cheep components which sell at much larger margins than their cost to produce.

The relatively modest and personal giving that used to go on for Christmas, has since been replaced with Consumas, whereby we buy as much as we can manage. You can still often see statuettes and paintings of the green and brown-clad "Father Christmas" in the stores; a little closer to St. Nicholas from which the figure hails. The modern image of Santa Claus began to form in the late 1800's, and by the early 20th Century companies began featuring the familiar red and white clad Santa in their advertisements - and image popularized even more by the Coca-Cola company marketing in the 1930's. Many are already forgetting that the retail chain Montgomery Ward created Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer in 1939. Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, when droves are expected to make the pilgrimage to retail shops and buy hordes of merchandise. It's name refers to the day in which retailers are "in the black", meaning a positive revenue balance. None of this is happening by accident. These are deliberate campaigns designed to shape the culture, the norms, and the traditions in directions conducive to profitability.

Now, corporations are not inherently evil or bad. They make possible countless goods and services that have helped to improve our quality of life since the industrial revolution. The ability of any person to harness their own productivity and capital in a free market is absolutely essential to personal liberty. As someone who is part owner in a business of my own, and someone with a background in marketing, I can't hold it against companies that they try to put out messaging that helps them make profit. That is what they are supposed to do. But what we are supposed to do is: be aware of what is happening, informed about where these messages are coming from, make sure that what we are doing is really what is in our best interests, not accept the social norms without question, and not being afraid to do what we know is right despite the pressures from those around us to 'go along'. There's nothing wrong with enjoying a magic show, but one of the magicians (me) is sitting next to you in the audience, reminding you that what these companies are telling you is 'just make believe'. We have our own agendas, which is to pursue the flourishing good life - something not dependent on material goods. We too want to be "in the black" but our positive balance refers to quality of life.

So, back to Black Friday...

For those taking a similar course to us this holiday season, it looks like we won't be doing a great deal of shopping compared to many others. This frees up our Friday after Thanksgiving. Here are some ideas for what we can do with that time:

1) One of the big challenges in trying to make our gifts be things of our own making, is having the time to actually do this. When you look at your pocketbook, and look at your calendar, it quickly becomes apparent that - even for those not super wealthy - our time is often a more scarce resource than our funds. This is what encourages us to just go buy something instead. But perhaps we can use Black Friday to instead stay home and make things for others? This can be as simple as custom hand-written letters, or it can be something like scrap-booking, artwork, crafts, etc. If we have a knack for cooking, it can be some kind of special dish or baked good.

2) If you lack the materials you need on that day, then you can use the time to plan what you're doing and for whom. Don't get discouraged - start with a list of people you'd like to do something for. Then for each one, think about what would be especially relevant and meaningful to them. Maybe they're facing a specific need and doing something for them or helping them with something can be a gift? Maybe you haven't given them as much of your time as you or they would like and you can organize an outing or other occasion with them. Once you figure out what you're doing, you can schedule your time in future weeks to gather supplies, work on things, and/or visit as needed.

3) If you'd like to give to a charity in their honor, you could spend time on Black Friday researching charities and picking something that would be meaningful and relevant to their interests and concerns. Even cash donations can be made far more meaningful in this way.

These are just a few examples, but the main point is that when we decide to make the season about something other than consumerism, this can give a whole new purpose to Black Friday.

How will you spend your Black Friday?

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Changing course on consumerism

It came without ribbons!... it came
without tags!... it came without
packages, boxes, or bags!
This year, with concerns about the rampant consumerism of our culture, my wife and I have decided to begin changing our tradition regarding gift giving. In doing so, we've sent the following letter to our friends and family. If you would like to join us in the first steps of changing our nation's habits, please feel free to use whatever portions of this letter you find useful in letting your friends and family know...

Dear family and friends,

Starting this year, Julie and I would like to do something different for the holidays. We have been thinking about this for several years now, and we have come to think that the ‘buying frenzy’ that goes on around Christmas time is not a good thing for any of us.

To be sure, we have many fond memories of your wonderful gifts over the years, and appreciate them all. We don’t think that you have done anything wrong, and all of our hearts have always been in the right place as we have bought gifts for one another. To our parents especially, who sacrificed to give us nice things, we are especially grateful. We know it was never about the ‘things’ but about the intent for our happiness.

But this is also why we now wonder where our society has come to, that so many people are encouraged by the culture to go out and spend large sums of money on material goods. We think this might not be so much a real tradition, as it is encouraged by the companies that would like to sell these things. Regardless of whatever religious beliefs or values we each hold about this time of year, Christmas has become more like “Consumas” and we think that is contrary to all of those values, difficult for many in hard times and facing debt, part of a larger problem of waste that harms our planet and will eventually become a bigger problem for humanity, and unfair to those around the world where there is great need.

Therefore, we will not be asking for any CDs, DVDs, gift cards, electronics, clothes, jewelry, or any other store-bought items this year. We pretty much have what we need, and if we don’t we can buy things on our own. Likewise, we will not be buying such things for others, with perhaps a few minor and occasional exceptions for young children or if someone is in real need.

What we do believe, is that it is good to have a time of year where we celebrate the brotherhood of humanity, and our love for one another. The winter is a perfect time for this. People can often become depressed in the cold and dark of the year, so the warmth of friends and family are a blessing as we look to the New Year with the hope of renewal.

With this in mind, we ask that if you’d like to give us something, give us your time and your company – this is better than anything you can buy (something we ourselves have not been the best at, and will try to be better). And, despite our aversion to purchasing and exchanging manufactured goods, we do recognize that generosity and the giving of gifts can be a special thing. Although it isn’t necessary, if you prefer to give a gift you could consider a unique gift of your own making (art, letters, crafts, baked goods, etc) rather than a store-bought gift manufactured by someone else. Another really nice gift idea is to make a donation to a worthy charity for us – preferably for those most vulnerable and in need.

Whatever you choose, we hope to be able to see you for the holidays, and send our best. We hope you will respect our wishes regarding our gifts, and will understand our choice regarding yours.

With love,
Daniel & Julie

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Does faith in God differ from dogma & morality?

You know the secrets of the universe?
Great. How does that help me love
my neighbor?
This week, Texas Faith asks:
In a conversation last week with Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer: Martyr, Prophet, Spy and now Socrates in the City: Conversations on Life, God, and Other Small Topics, he brought up the distinction between faith in God and dogma and morality.

As an example, he pointed to how dogma can become an idol of its own. People worship the tenets of their faith, not the God who is behind it.

Likewise, moralists can be pinched sourpusses. Their rigid code becomes a substitute for religious faith.

Of course, people of any faith need some guiding beliefs. Otherwise, their faith is grounded in nothing more than their subjective ideas.

So, as part of our ongoing debate about how people of any religious tradition balance faith and dogma, how would you respond to this question:

Is there a distinction between faith in God and dogma and morality? 

As a naturalist, I can answer this one of two ways. I can address the difference between faith in God and dogma and morality as naturalists see it in theists. Or, I can address what the distinction between foundational beliefs and dogma and morality are for the naturalist. But both can be answered in that this question, either way, ultimately boils down to our approach to knowledge and to ethics.

There can certainly be found many naturalists plagued by the hubris that is so hard for all human beings to avoid. Some of them say things like 'reason shows' as one would claim to know what 'God says'. The Spiritual Naturalist's aim is to have an approach to knowledge that places humility at its core. A humble approach to knowledge means that we accept our limited ability to know all things; we do not make claims for which we have no evidence. We instead attempt to discipline ourselves to recognize there are many things we simply don't know.

Dogma technically means simply the doctrines of a church, and this version of the word is fairly innocuous, or at least it could be. But dogmatism is thought of more as a rigid belief-based mindset whereby we become convinced in our own infallibility. Often we fail to recognize this because we claim that the sources to which we refer are infallible, and imagine that we can simultaneously recognize our own infallibility and therefore escape criticism of hubris. But this approach fails on two accounts: first, we can make mistakes in choosing which sources are wise to defer to. Secondly, sources are all ultimately written by some human hand, and as such, subject to imperfection as well - even if there may be a perfect 'message sender'. Rationalists meanwhile make claims about rationality, but fail to keep in mind that - although rationality itself may dictate something - they are imperfect in their ability to be perfectly rational at all times, even when they think they are. So, whether theist or atheist, if we are not guilty of personal hubris, we are guilty of hubris with respect to humanity when behaving in this manner. This is why all knowledge should be held to be provisional, subject to reconsideration upon new information.

Ethics refer to those principles on which we act. For the Humanist, these principles should be derived from the needs of human happiness and well-being. They are similarly judged by their objective effects on that objective. But to prescribe certain behaviors and principles requires we make a judgment about 'how things are'. If knowledge is provisional then, so are the ethics we derive from them.

We are all traveling on a boat that we're having to build and work on as we travel. This means we cannot wait for perfect knowledge before we establish ethical standards. We must endeavor to act ethically, but recognize that none of us are perfect in our ability to know the best ethics. We must do the best we can - not being nihilistic, not claiming to 'know nothing', and not claiming that all knowledge is hopelessly biased and subjective. But, at the same time, we must keep an open mind, be willing to reexamine our beliefs when reasonable challenges are made to them, and always be ready to correct our course - not flippantly or based on self interest, but with careful and earnest moral deliberation.

For those who believe in God, remember that while such a being would have definite qualities, your knowledge of them is subject to error. For those who have no such belief, remember that your knowledge of whatever is true is equally prone to misunderstanding. This humility is what is important for all of us. Rather than concerning ourselves so much with what our brothers and sisters believe or don't believe about the ultimate mysteries of existence, we should be considering something more within our immediate control and down to earth; namely: how compassionate and humble are we acting toward them?

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What is 'personhood' for the naturalist?

The Winchester Mystery House,
reported to be haunted
As many have heard by now, one measure on the Mississippi ballot today asks voters to decide whether to redefine 'personhood' at the moment of fertilization of a cell (see report here). This seemed like a good time to explain the naturalist position on the matter.

What does 'personhood' mean for a naturalist?

Of course, I cannot speak for all naturalists, and I'm sure some may disagree with the following. But I can give the reader a view that is consistent with naturalism, and that is my view as a naturalist. Further, I believe the following, in general, to be in agreement with most naturalist views on the issue.

When all of us of any belief look at people, as life forms, we can see skin, muscles, bones, organs, a nervous system, brains, etc. We can see tissues, and we can look at them with instruments to see they're made out of small individual cells. We can see how these cells function, and we have discovered cells are made out of atoms, and know a good deal about how and why these atoms interact the way they do. When it comes to the actions of a human being, we can see that the activity of the brain has a great deal to do with them. We can look at cases of many varieties of unfortunate brain injuries, and see their effects on human personality, abilities, and consciousness.

We do not know every detail there is to know about all things in biology, but the overall picture of a functioning organism, including thoughts, personality, memories, and emotions, seems to have pretty convincingly come into focus through these discoveries. Does this mean an immaterial and invisible entity controlling these bodies is impossible? By the very nature of the claim, we can't know such a thing, and to say it's impossible would be unjustified. But we can at least all see and agree on the physical aspects of human functions that we do see.

Yet even the naturalist recognizes, in consciousness and personhood, there is obviously something there that is greater than the sum of its parts. The ancient Stoics distinguished between that which 'exists' and that which 'subsists'. While physical bodies exist, many things subsist via the relationships between them. In modern terms, we can consider subsisting phenomena to be those things which are a result of the complex interactions of components. These things consist of form, relationships, patterns, etc.

A wave is an example. A wave on water describes a relationship of interaction between particles. When we see an ocean wave move from left to right, nothing of material existence has actually moved in that direction at that distance, yet we can describe the motion and its effects mathematically. Something like an ecology, or a democracy, or capitalism are also examples of things which no one would say are supernatural, but yet are not physical objects you can hold in your hand. They are things that result from the complex interactions and relationships between their components. In scientific terms, these are called complex systems.

In complex systems theory, there is something called an emergent property. This is when components interact in such complex ways that they produce properties that don't exist among them individually, and these properties are said to be irreducible to the simple interactions between their components (in other words, greater than the sum of their parts). What's more, these emergent properties can be causal sources of their own, even creating a 'top-down' effect on the components out of which they are made.

As described in Plato's Dialogues, when discussing the nature of the soul with Socrates, a man named Simmias used an analogy to describe how he viewed the soul. He said the soul was like an attunement as produced by an instrument - existing as a result of the instrument's behavior, and ceasing to exist when the instrument is destroyed. Meanwhile, the Buddhists have a concept often translated as 'no-self' whereby they recognize that if we peel away our capacity of memory, feeling, thought, sensation, etc. that we will find there is no one single thing we can point to and say "that is me". Instead, we are the result of many aggregates operating in unison.

If we think of persons as beings capable of thought, memories, feelings, opinions, and a number of these features, it seems that Simmias and the Buddhists describe something very close to what we can all see in our modern understanding of the brain and biology. Personhood also seems, very well, to be like the kind of emergent property described by those who study complex systems like the brain. Just as 'democracy' is real, and results from the pattern of activity between individuals, a mind or person is also just as real, and results from the activities of the brain.

Spiritual naturalists hold life to be sacred, and persons to be supremely sacred. Yet, how do we know where the boundaries lie? To help illuminate the matter regarding the beginnings of life and personhood, let's look at how we handle the ending of life...

Regardless of whether we believe the person exists elsewhere or is gone, most of us recognize that a person is no longer present once their brain stops functioning. This is why no one is out there shooting morticians for embalming and burying the deceased. But consider an example where a person's brain has been completely destroyed, yet they are being kept 'alive' on machines. Here, the heart is beating, the cells of the body are replicating and living, nutrients are being used, the lungs are breathing, and so on. Yet, almost everyone would agree that to let this body die would not be a murder. Most cases of controversy in similar situations has been because some part of the brain was still functioning and there was debate over whether or not any person was there. But to keep a headless body alive on a machine? Most people would recognize this was simply tissue, even though it is human DNA and even though it is 'life'. So, even among those who believe in immaterial souls, there is some acceptance that the soul is only present while the brain is operating - at least at the end of life.

Now, looking at the beginning of life, we see a form that is coming into being gradually. Amidst this form is a brain which eventually begins functioning (I believe at around 8 weeks). Though even its first functioning stages do not have the kind of function we have been able to associate with what we would call a 'person' in the sense of a being that can have thoughts, feelings, experiences, ideas, and so on. The first kinds of brain functions to form are the simple systems that even insects have, which regulate heart operations and so on. In an injured adult, we would not consider these to be a 'person' if deciding to keep them on life support. However, the emergence of this property called personhood is fuzzy, but we can at least compare the point before brain activity to the headless body on a ventilator, quite easily.

For those who do not assume there to be extra invisible forces present, this implies that pre-brain activity tissues are just that - tissue, with no person existing. I would therefore expect most naturalists to disagree with the notion of defining personhood as beginning with fertilization of a single cell.

This is not to say that the matter of how we treat such things should be made flippantly. Many may bring up the issue of 'potentiality'. Yet, even before fertilization there is potentiality if we do or don't perform various tasks. And, were our technology sufficient, every shed skin cell becomes a 'potential' person, so potentiality is a somewhat unconvincing measure. Rather - because potentiality exists throughout all situations, even in the thought of having children - all of the process is to be approached with reverence. This includes not only whether or not to carry a child to term, but whether or not to become pregnant in the first place, and much more. It is fitting and beautiful that mothers and fathers look on the unborn with love and caring, even at the earliest stages. But this is a different quality that does not necessarily mean that what they care for in the beginning is currently the person they hope it to become - a special and important quality nonetheless.

To the naturalist, saying there can be a 'person' without a high-functioning brain, is much like saying there can be a 'democracy' without a population of people. Again, by the very nature of the claim, an immaterial soul is not disprovable and we could never know if an immeasurable thing exists or not. But those who claim there is a person that must be protected which inhabits a single simple cell, are in the same logical boat as someone who argues before the state that houses where someone has died must be forbidden from being demolished because there is a disembrained 'person' still existing in the house. Can we prove a house is not haunted? No, and we cannot prove a cell is not haunted either.

But if some of us desire to legally protect either the house, or the cell, then the burden is upon them to show that it is inhabited by an invisible entity somehow existing apart from a physical brain. The reason the burden of proof is theirs, is because such laws impose on the free activity of other citizens. And, in a free democracy, any law which imposes restrictions on others, must be shown via publicly available means to be necessary to protect the rights of others - and the first step is showing that there is indeed an 'other' to protect in the first place.

Now, as to whether corporations are persons - that's a-whole-nother article :)

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Wisdom is justified, true happiness

The wisdom essential for
True Happiness must be
cultivated over time.
Photo: (cc) Oskar Nijs
Wisdom is justified, true happiness.

Knowledge is often described as "justified, true belief". This means, if you hold a belief, and it is true, that is not enough to call it knowledge. It must also be a justified belief. Meaning, there must be a good rational reason for the belief that is somehow causally linked to the external fact. So, a person could hold a belief for foolish reasons, that happens to turn out to be true by chance, but this is not knowledge.

On the other side of the coin, the belief being justified is also not reason enough to call it knowledge if it is not also true. Sometimes we have a good reason to believe something, but the evidence on hand simply points in a direction that isn't true. No matter how justified, if the belief isn't actually true, then it isn't really knowledge.

Now for wisdom...

Wisdom can be described as "justified, true happiness". This means that there are no distraught sages (ultimately wise folks). If a person is wise, you will know their wisdom by its fruit, which is happiness. While all sages are happy, not all happy people are sages. A person could be a 'happy fool'. In other words, they may be happy for ignorant, naive, shallow, or unrelated reasons. This is why I say that the happiness must be justified. A sage is happy because the sage understands the true way to happiness and reasons for happiness. The happiness must also be true happiness. In other words, it must be a deep enduring contentment and joy that transcends external circumstance, and not be a happiness based on shallow transitory pleasures.

So, if someone appears to be typically grouchy, mean-spirited, sad, upset, angry, bitter, or erratic in their happiness - then it is reasonable to question the wisdom of their ways. Beware the path they have chosen, unless you too wish to be similarly unhappy. True Happiness and relief from suffering is, after all, is the ultimate purpose of spiritual practice.

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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Images of God and mental health

Baylor’s Wave III religion survey, which came out in late September, takes a look at the connection between religion and mental health. Among the findings, the authors report that:
“When it comes to religion, beliefs are more important than are behavior or affiliation…Frequency of prayer has no consistent effect on the number of reported mental health issues in past month. Respondents who pray every day report statistically the same number of mental health issues as those who never pray or pray only on certain occasions.” 

Likewise, the authors report: 
“Prayer, religious attendance, and religious affiliation, three mainstay measures of religiosity in Western culture, have no effect on the number of reported mental health issues.” 

But here’s the part that makes a difference: 
“When it comes to mental health, the aspect of religion that matters the most is the nature of one’s relationship with God.” The authors concluded that “Those respondents who believe that they have a strong, loving relationship with God report fewer mental health issues, while those respondents who report more ambiguity in their relationship with God report more mental health issues.” 

With that as background, here’s the Texas Reason Blog question for this week:

How do you interpret this data about the supremacy of a strong, loving relationship with God?

In the first case, when they noted that frequency of prayer was not a factor so much as beliefs, this tells me that a person’s perspective matters. Indeed our perspective on life and our value judgments about ourselves and our world have an amazing effect on our happiness and well being. This is one thing I noticed in the power of Stoicism as it helped me to look at the world in a different way.

The second point is also unsurprising, that prayer, attendance, and affiliation have no effect on mental health. Especially in the West, religions are not typically looked at as a set of practices with direct improvement purposes, as you have in the East with meditation and so on (although in the original study there was one mention of meditation in relationship to entrepreneurship). Instead, the West tends to focus on what you believe, not what you do. Therefore the “practices” of Western religion tend to be largely ceremonial or obligatory, or even experiential rather than the kind of practice that is meant to cultivate any particular quality.

On the third item, there is a lot of presumption here. The survey has a sharp Western, even Abrahamic, bias in the way it has framed the matter at hand, and in surveys the way you frame things can greatly influence results. Here, it was assumed that all religion necessarily includes monotheism. Secondly, the above summary of the study suggests that a number of real effective practices were unaddressed because they weren’t part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This is, perhaps, understandable since the study was meant to look at the United States, of which Eastern practices are an extreme minority.

But when it comes to those who do believe in one God, it makes perfect sense that a person’s disposition toward that God would be affected by one’s mental health, and the reverse causality should also be obvious. In more broad terms, what’s likely going on is that, when one has ‘made peace’ with one’s situation as they believe it to be (God, Nature, the universe, etc) then they are mentally more healthy, and are more healthy by that disposition. This, at least, is what I have noticed among non-theists as well. Therefore, I interpret this data to be touching on something more broad than just a particular mindset about a monotheistic belief.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Beware pseudoscience in the guise of spirituality

The End of the World
John Martin, 1851-1853
Occasionally I get emails from various bloggers, authors, or others sending me press releases because they'd like me to promote their product on my website. I suppose any blog that's been out and around a bit will end up on such lists. If something is genuinely related to the topics on which I write, and I feel it would be of interest to my readers, and I really do intend to check it out myself, then I'm more than happy to pass along word about it. Most of these messages don't fit that criteria, however.

Today I got a notice about a new book claiming that 2012 will be both the end of the world and a 'new beginning'. The language describing this book was along these lines...

Drawing on meticulous research as well as personal shamanic experience, the author clarifies the 'big picture' of planetary evolution from the perspectives of ancient wisdom and modern science. He reveals an intricate interplay between phenomena (such as galactic super-waves, magnetic pole reversals, evolutionary impulses within matter, and the descent of supramental light) shaping a new species of humanity on a rapidly evolving earth.

After reading that I thought to myself, "I hope I don't sound like this in my articles". I do use the phrases like, "ancient wisdom and modern science" to describe my subjects, but - as they say - the devil is in the details. I can see how someone could easily confuse this kind of book with the sound of some of my work if they only skimmed it.

While I do try to synthesize ancient wisdom with a modern scientific understanding of the universe, there are a few things I don't do. I don't try to stretch ancient peoples' ideas into meanings they probably didn't have in mind in order to fit it to some theory today. This would imply that I'm suggesting ancient people somehow had access to discoveries only made recently. That's not impossible, but such a claim would require a lot of evidence, not merely retrofitting some vague description to something else. More importantly, it implies I'm trying to prove things about 'what exists' by using ancient philosophy - which would never be the case. On the other side of the coin, I also do not try to bend or reinterpret scientific theories of our time into some different version of themselves in order to fulfill a predetermined belief or ancient idea (such as with the common distortions and misrepresentations of quantum physics by New Age and postmodern writers).

Genuine spirituality for the modern world should not be in the business of telling people what exists or doesn't, why the cosmos came into being, what happens in some unknowable realm, or what's going to happen in the future. Claims about reality should be left to those who do the hard work of observing the natural universe through proven scientific means. Instead, genuine spirituality takes the facts of Nature as best as science can approach them, accepts them provisionally, and builds upon that. It encourages a humble approach to knowledge. Cultivating such humility means we do not make claims about things we cannot show to others that we really know. Further, such a humble approach to knowledge is an important spiritual value itself.

Instead of trying to 'nail down' all the grand secrets of the cosmos, genuine spirituality teaches us to accept that we do not know all things, including many things we really wish we knew. Instead, spirituality is about learning to live with what we do know and learning to be open to more as it becomes rational and responsible to accept it. But most of all, genuine spirituality is about focusing on making ourselves a better person, building our character, discipline, empathy, and compassion to the point where we can enjoy a deeper joy and contentment in life that is possible only through such virtues.

The truth is, we can't know what's going to happen in 2012, and it has yet to be demonstrated that anyone has any more access to that knowledge than anyone else (including the Mayans or their modern 'interpreters'). By all reasonable standards, we have little reason to suspect 2012 will be highly unusual. Instead of worrying what will happen to the world in 2012 or any other thing that's outside our control, a genuine spirituality would direct our attention to what the person in the mirror will do in 2012 to try and make life better for themselves and those around them.

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Monday, October 31, 2011

Journaling and spiritual practice

I have recently started being more attentive to keeping a journal each night. While the benefits of keeping a journal have been espoused by many sources of wisdom, my particular practice is inspired by the Stoics, and takes on a certain form for a certain purpose.

In the past I have written about how we should have a sense of 'making progress' in our spiritual walk. In this effort, Epictetus prescribes careful self observation, saying that the Stoic philosopher "keeps watch over himself as over an enemy lying in ambush". Seneca likewise recommended self observation in the form of making a daily review of ourselves. Each night as we retire for the evening we should put these questions to ourselves: What bad habit have you cured today?, What fault have you resisted?, In what respect are you better? Seneca suggests that our sleep will be more tranquil, having 'sifted' through the whole day and admonished or praised ourselves appropriately. The practice of having to answer for that day's behavior will help us stay mindful and hold up in our continuous effort to make progress[1].

I've found this kind of review is best made in writing (or even typing/tapping). Putting this review into words makes them more real, and we can refer back to them easily if we need to. The famous Meditations of Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius were, in fact, a journal he wrote to himself; never intended for publication.

By practicing thus, I've noticed a few additional things that are helpful. For one, I make sure not only to review what I've improved, but where I've failed. Noting the good and the bad is important. I then sum up with what I plan to do tomorrow to improve.

Finally, there is one other benefit to this review in journal form that has been quite striking. Make a practice of reading again your previous night's entry the next morning, perhaps just after meditation. This is surprisingly powerful. I think it must be because our frame of mind changes so vastly over a night's sleep that we need to be reminded of that person who existed the night before and what their concerns were. If needed, the previous night's entry can be read yet again later in the day if we need to stay on course.

If you would like to try this ancient Stoic practice, here is a checklist you might entertain as you proceed:

1) Put thought into what form your journal will take. I originally had a small notebook, but later moved to the notebook app on my smartphone because the convenience of it made it easier to always have nearby, and since I always have my phone, I could easily review it each day. Think about what will work best for you in the long run.

2) Ask: What were my most significant failures today in my spiritual practice?

3) Ask: Did I perform all the regular practices I planned to?

4) Ask: Did the traits I am trying to cultivate hold up under the day's events? (think specifically through the events of the day and if you performed as you'd preferred)

5) Ask: What did I do right and where did I make progress? (it is important to look for things to praise as well)

6) Ask: What do I plan to do tomorrow that will further improve my habits and my spiritual practice? (these might be disciplines, better adherence to practices, read/study more, work harder, better mindfulness or things such as being more compassionate, considerate, or being kinder in demeanor, and more)

7) The next morning, re-read your previous night's entry. You will be surprised how well it helps you reset your focus and stay on the path. If you need to, read it again later in the day too.

Feel free to comment on how journaling has helped you, or even come back later after trying this to report your experiences!

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[1] Professor Keith Seddon, "The Stoics on why we should strive to be free of the passions". [LINK]

Friday, October 28, 2011

Should the word "sin" be part of our political vocabulary?

I have contributed recently as one of the writers at the Texas Reason Blog, which is a secular response to the questions addressed by several religious leaders at the Dallas Morning News' Texas Faith Blog, which has decided not to present a Humanist viewpoint.

Today's question is:

Should the word "sin" be part of our political vocabulary?

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Humanist Charities needs help amidst cholera in Haiti

This is based on a notice, just in, from Humanist Charities...

Last year when a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, Humanist Charities donors provided water, food, medicine, and supplies for the people of Jacmel—a city that hadn’t received any relief assistance until humanist volunteer Sebastian Velez arrived. Since then, Sebastian has worked to bring contraceptives and reproductive care for the women of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and Humanist Charities has helped to establish two humanist clinics that provide medications and services to hundreds of patients every month.

But now cholera is spreading in Haiti, fueled by lack of latrines. One community of subsistence coffee farmers at the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti is especially vulnerable to a cholera outbreak. Because the community is upstream from several other villages, an outbreak could affect thousands. Sebastian is working with community members with a goal of installing 100 latrines, enough for all the houses in this small community.

To learn more or offer your support in helping these villagers' fight against cholera, please see:

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How we view Nature and control

Click to enlarge.
My wife and I were talking last night about one way someone could think about the different faiths, religions, traditions, and philosophies. Most of these, in some way, address (1) how we view the world, and (2) how we should act in light of that. In more specific terms, one could consider how a spirituality looks at Nature, and how it looks at the issue of control.

In the first case, you have a spectrum that ranges from acceptance of Nature as one all-inclusive interdependent whole. Nothing 'transcends' or is outside of Nature. If the system includes deities, those would be immanent rather than transcendent. In other words, they would exist in and throughout Nature rather than outside it. On the other end of that spectrum is rejection of Nature as a lesser kind of thing, with a superior 'transcendent' reality outside or above Nature. By this view, Nature is something to be overcome.

On the other axis you have another spectrum that deals with how we are best off approaching the world in order to achieve happiness. On one end of that spectrum you have the outlook that we must learn about the important matters of our world so that we can better manipulate them and get them to do as we need. This end focuses on externals and external conditions, and the power to control them. On the other end of that spectrum, the focus is on self control. By this view, we must understand our world and ourselves so that we may condition ourselves to be in harmony with it, thereby being happy as a result.

So, looking at the graphic pictured here, you can see that in the upper left quadrant would be systems that say all of Nature is one interconnected whole, deities (if any) are immanent, and we are made happy by aligning ourselves with Nature. This would include Stoicism, Taoism, and much of conservative (earlier) Buddhism.

In the lower left quadrant, you have those that say all of Nature is one interconnected whole, deities (if any) are immanent, and we are made happy by learning to manipulate and control Nature. This would include many practitioners of Wicca, much of Paganism (particularly those with an emphasis on casting spells or conducting other rituals to bring about desired results), and much of New Age.

In the upper right, you have those that say Nature is to be rejected for a higher truth, deities (if any) are transcendent, and we are made happy by aligning ourselves with that transcendent truth. This would include some later Buddhism, but also those parts of Christianity that emphasize self discipline and acceptance of God's will.

In the lower right would be those that say Nature is to be rejected for a higher truth, deities (if any) are transcendent, and we are made happy by learning to manipulate and control higher powers. The words "manipulate" and "control" can have negative connotations those in this quadrant would likely reject, but the gist is that, by performing certain actions or having a certain disposition, one can get the higher powers to do things desired by the practitioner. This includes much of Christianity that prays for interventions and specific outcomes, as well as 'prosperity doctrine' within Christianity. It also includes some of the other Abrahamic religions, in part. Some of New Age also falls into this quadrant.

Most spiritual traditions will mix and match a little of each of these aspects, which is why it is better to view these as gradient spectra, with the traditions occupying a space that may overlap the central lines. But, generally speaking, this can be an illuminating way to look at these issues.

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