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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Humanist agrees with Billy Graham on atheism

Billy Graham
The well known Christian evangelist Billy Graham recently wrote an article in response to a question about atheism with the following:
“…atheism has no satisfying answer to the basic questions of life — questions like “Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? How do I know what’s right and wrong? What happens when I die?” Atheism says we are here by chance, and life has no meaning or destiny. Taken to its conclusion, atheism ends in despair.”
As a Humanist minister I couldn’t agree more. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in a deity. This, alone, isn’t the problem, but atheism if it is meant as a ‘worldview’ on its own is, as Graham says, bereft of any answers about who we are, the meaning of life, or how we should live it. I once saw an article that mentioned ‘atheist values’ yet there is no such thing. When an atheist has values, they have taken on something additional to “the lack of theism”. And, without such a guide, most people will indeed find themselves in despair at some point.

That isn’t to say that all atheists are purely and only atheists – even if that is the primary label by which some choose to identify themselves. Humanism is a life philosophy that, like Buddhism, does not include gods. Humanism also has a naturalistic view of reality, but that is not so important as its other features. These include a caring and compassion for others and the realization that making the world a better place and living ethically is intimately connected with achieving happiness in life. Such naturalistic moral philosophies predate the Christian model by centuries and have provided a meaningful basis for millions of lives throughout.

Today, as more and more people leave the ranks of the religious, many of them giving up their supernatural beliefs, I – like Graham - am concerned that many of them will end up in despair. Having a religious background, many may be largely ignorant of the basics of secular ethics or a sense of meaning within a naturalistic framework. But Graham has a different solution to the despair of nothingness. He goes on to say:
“But our hearts cry out for something more — something better and more lasting. Down inside we sense that we aren’t here by chance, nor were we made for this world alone. The reason we feel this way, the Bible says, is because God has put this conviction within us.”
The problem with this approach is that it ignores something else we cry out for by our nature, which is for things to make logical sense to us. I believe one reason for the sharp rise in atheism and agnosticism has been due to the advent of the internet. As people become more aware of the rational and logical issues facing faith-based beliefs, it is more difficult to maintain an unshakable belief in something for which there is no evidence, even if it is attractive to us. Humanism also has within it a humble approach to knowledge and claims, limiting them to what can be rationally validated and shared with others.

Through this methodology Humanism, unlike mere atheism, does tell us how we got here, by accepting the current consensus of those who have put in the hard work of studying the evidence. And, as I’ve recently reviewed in Grayling’s Humanist Bible (book of Genesis), this scientifically informed narrative can be a very beautiful and moving one. Carl Sagan has also exemplified this, with his eloquent and marvelous descriptions of nature. This natural explanation of our origins also illuminates why it is that we feel so attracted to the prospect of a permanent, unchanging, and eternal existence – as a simple manifestation of a strong instinctive urge to survive.

But as I’ve explained before, there are ways to come to terms with the impermanent and uncertain nature of our existence, rather than having to convince ourselves of something which – although it might be true if we are very lucky – we have no real solid basis to claim. Some of these methods hearken back to Buddhism again, some types of which could be considered an Eastern form of Humanism, aside from the cultural colorings and supernatural elements that may have become layered upon it in various regions. It teaches mindfulness, compassion, and learning to love and appreciate the experience of life for what it is in the moment – as an end unto itself – rather than as a means to some other end. Other methods that inspire naturalists include the rational Western ancient philosophies such as the balanced life of Epicureanism and the virtuous equanimity of Stoicism. And, of course, modern philosophy, sociology, and psychology add to the wealth of wisdom on happiness and leading a good life. In more general terms, Spiritual Naturalism (which includes some varieties of Humanism) can provide many approaches along these lines.

Thus, while mere atheism may include all kinds of lifestyles, a healthy Humanism or other variety of Spiritual Naturalism can provide a meaningful and happy life of flourishing. My hope is that both theists and atheists will more greatly appreciate the difference between Humanism and atheism.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Motherhood as roadmap to universal compassion

(cc) Doug Fisher,
Practicing compassion for our worst enemies is advanced contemplative practice, and not something one should expect most people to be capable of without careful education. Without such teachings, many may even misinterpret such a thing as immoral, unwise, or ridiculous.

An article by Kate Shellnut recently made me think about how difficult it is to have compassion for wrongdoers. She quoted Zen blogger noting of Osama bin Laden (OBL): "It’s really hard, even for this Buddhist writing these lines and who is committed to the Bodhisattva vows, to feel much compassion for the man."

Of course, the following in no way suggests any portion of the 'share' of our compassion be diverted from victims to the likes of OBL. However, I wanted to share one method I've noticed as effective for imagining how one could have compassion even for the worst of us. This is by imagining how an otherwise normal loving mother might feel toward her child after having learned they did something horrible, or that they are, in fact, a horrible person who has done many inhuman acts.

In many ways the disgust over their behavior is even greater and sadder for the mother than for others. Even a mother, if a good person, will feel sad for victims - perhaps even more so than those who are not related to the perpetrator (even if she fully accepts that their child is responsible for their own choices). Further, that mother will still see that their child needs to be stopped to protect others, and may even see that they need to be punished or even executed. But this will be separate from their love. Thus, we see that love is distinct from its common outward symptoms (actions such as assisting, defending, protecting, etc). It is an inward disposition, and in contemplative practice we recognize the critical importance of inward disposition as a means of cultivating a character with potential to experience a flourishing life.

What heartbreak such a mother will experience, remembering their child in youth, with all the potential of the world before them, having seen their budding love and laughter. How heartbroken would they be to realize that potential had been extinguished, and how crushing would it be to know that - whatever thoughts and feelings their child had - that their experience in life was so dark that it could lead them to think such horrible actions were acceptable.

In fact, it is through our appreciation that OBL is a part of our human family that, like the mother of a murderer, we are drawn to feel even more for his victims - because we see the darkness in OBL is potentially within us, and came out of a world that we all helped to parent. Another reason the 'mother thought experiment' helps is because it is important to know how tragic is the life of evil doers, so that we might understand how incrementally poorer are our own lives when we dip into harmful behaviors.

There is a reason God is often painted in a similar family-type relationship as our father. This is how those who believe in a loving God read of his attitudes toward human beings when we are bad. Whether one believes literally in such a being or not, the description provides a road map to how we might begin to experience compassion for all beings without exception.

Once I told my own late mother that I thought our goal should be to think of all people like their mothers think of them. She, knowing better than I the power of a mother's love, said, "That seems like a pretty difficult thing to do!" Agreed, but it is the endeavor that counts, and while we might be imperfect in reaching our goal, the degree to which we achieve it yields incrementally beneficial results.

Through careful consideration of the points of view of mothers and fathers (earthly or heavenly) we might begin to see that one can be heartbroken for the tragedy that was the life of OBL, and yet how this does not imply even the slightest refraining from pursuing and punishing the wrongdoer or condoning his actions. Nor does this kind of attempt diminish one bit from the compassion we feel for the victims, and may even help to enhance it. 

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden & our humanity

President Obama announces the
death of Osama bin Laden the
night of May 1, 2011.
After hearing of the death of Osama bin Laden last night, I felt I would be remiss not to say something of the occasion here. This, given that the subject of my writing is so often on ethical and philosophic matters that certainly intersect with the issues surrounding this whole event.

Since my central theme at The Humanist Contemplative is generally about personal life practices, the most relevant point here concerns the notion of taking glee in the death of another human being. At first, we might be tempted to say that Osama bin Laden excluded himself from humanity by his actions, but that logic only works within the paradigm of ethics to which I do not subscribe. If I were to see ethics as a top-down rule system whereby we must behave a certain way in order to be part of a social contract with others who also behave, then that logic might make sense - but that view of ethics is mistaken.

Rather, the reason we should be concerned about taking glee in the death of another has nothing to do with any external matter, and has nothing to do with whether or not Osama bin Laden deserves it. The reason we seek to cultivate a virtuous character, including compassion for all beings, is because it is healthy for us and suitable to our best nature. The result of such habits is greater capacity for equanimity and true happiness in life. It's not about him, it's about us.

It should be obvious to everyone that fighting will go on, and there will be many more Osama bin Ladens to come; such people are nothing new in history, and have never been uncommon. It should be even more obvious that none of the deaths caused by this person, or which happened in the long hunt for him, will be reversed. But justice is also a virtue, as is defending the innocent, and we can be thankful that he will not be leading any more acts of terrorism. We can be thankful for the bravery, commitment, and ability of those who fight and sacrifice to protect us and civilization. We can also take solace in whatever degree of consolation this event may have for the families of his victims, even if there are varied degrees to which that consolation is based upon sound philosophy.

At the very least, however, let us not slip into the temptation to revel in the death itself, hoping that he suffered just before passing, or treating the matter flippantly or humorously, or with gloating. Regardless of what our foe deserved, our revelry in such base things harms ourselves - harms our own humanity and empathy, and that will have wider effects on ourselves and our community than intended. This is why we no longer drag murderers through the streets or hang them in public exhibitions - because of the kind of people that makes us.

Let us consider the cost of this act and remember that, in war, there are no winners; always, peace is preferable. Even the most victorious wars are failures to have prevented the conditions that led to them. War always has costs that leave none of us coming out ahead. They cost us lives, fortunes, and perhaps most importantly, they cost us that version of ourselves and our lives that could have been. I've heard it claimed that Osama bin Laden caused the war in Afghanistan, but the war was our choice. We should remember that no one has the power to make our country go to war but ourselves. If that was a proper choice, and if the killing or capture of bin Laden was proper, then let us own it because it is important to remember and reflect upon what is in our control and what is not.

We can take this time to be thankful and solemn; regretful that we found ourselves killers in order to do what we believe was necessary. Times such as these are always sacred, even if the subject of them is not. If we simply refrain from wallowing in vengeful revelry then we will have done much to help ourselves, as individuals and as a people. If we want to take even more advanced steps, we can take this time to reflect on clever things we can do to make more profound changes to the world that effect the underlying conditions for terrorism and war. And, in the most challenging of empathic tasks, we can even think of the tragedy that a person wasted their gifts of leadership, status, and charisma on such harmful ends. To have orchestrated such an act as 9/11 and his other attacks, and then evaded the world for almost a decade required great skill. How much fortunate we would have been had he chosen to apply that skill toward noble causes? It is for this reason, among others, that even if his death were rightful the entire matter is a tragedy worthy of solemnity.

Here we stand over the corpse of yet another human being. Although it required brave and noble sacrifice, and although our responses may have been the best we could muster, this recurring result can be neither our best, nor the summit of our hope. We must bow our heads, return to humility and compassion, and commit ourselves again to wider solutions - we can do even better.

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Humanist Bible review series: Parables (4/15)

(c) Walker Publishing Co. Inc.
This is part of a series of reviews on each 'book' within the new book, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, by A.C. Grayling. Click HERE to go to the beginning of this series for more explanation.
"The good man replied, 'For every ten words of abuse I hear from you, I will not retort one.'" --Par 1:9

While Genesis gives us a sense of awe and wonder before nature, and Wisdom provides many worthy insights, it was in the book of Parables that I first began to realize that Grayling's bible is a work I could fall in love with. The structure of this book is a tapestry of stories, many of them nestled within one another. Were I not taking notes for a review, it might be easy to have gotten lost in its layers. However, that journey is made pleasant by the charming nature of the tales.

Some of the stories are inspiring, touching, or moving; others funny - and all of them interesting and full of wisdom. The funny ones, with their anthropomorphic animal characters, are almost like watching the Looney Tunes; as when Daffy Duck gets his comeuppance thanks to his own moral shortcomings. Both cases have their roots in the likes of Aesop's Fables. Other stories have their inspiration from other works, or again showing Christian biblical reflections at times. The book's first tale of King Plousios and the beggar Penicros gives us a collection of wise precepts, but as the stories compound we move beyond mere euphemism to show through the power of myth the intimate connection between knowledge, wisdom, love, and happiness.
"The stranger said, 'In ancient Athens the philosophers thought out their best ideas walking up and down their groves; nature sobers us, and instructs us.'" --Par 13:3

Throughout Parables is a strong expression of a joy for learning, exploration, and for sharing knowledge with our fellow human beings in a fellowship of discovery. Throughout the course of several tales, these intellectual fellowships provide layers of depth to platonic friendships as well romantic, and eventually to the societal relationship. In such manner, we "carry" one another, as the stranger puts it to Charicles. But, as the timeless motto suggested, that exploration must extend to an intimate knowledge of self:
"It is well said that at the farthest point of our journeyings what we meet is ourselves..." -- Par 16:7

Along with praise of learning is another call to humility, such as Aristotle's lesson that he who says, "I do not know" has attained the half of all knowledge (Chapter 11). Other important tangents to knowledge are highlighted as well, such as the value of sincerity and patience (Ch 19, Ancient of the fig tree). Justice and charity are advised, such as in the examples of the wisdom of Judge Adasnes (Ch 8-10), the two beggars (Ch 20), and in the parable of the Chamberlain and the Goatherd (Ch 21). Integrity is also brought forth in chapter 12:
"What is the worth of mere words, if their true meanings make no difference to what a man does?" --Par 12:7

Even as we are warned about the trickery of politicians through the story of the monkey and the crocodile (Ch 17), Parables ultimately expresses a vision of seeing in our own society its best potential and daring to dream that it could be so (Ch 18).

Throughout these many stories, we come across anecdotes, allegories, and themes that are familiar to us, either in their surface form, or in important issues to which they address. Slavery is mentioned once (Par 10:18), but only as an incidental mention. One might have wished the opportunity to be used to be put it in more clear moral terms, given the common criticism of the Christian Bible on the matter. Chapter 10 is an extremely close approximation to the story of the judgment of King Solomon (Kings 3:16-28, Christian Bible). Although monarchies play central roles in many of the stories, due to the time periods that inspired them, it is clear in other stories that they exist for those in a time of democracies.

Parables' treatment of women is especially praiseworthy; advising husbands to listen to their wives (Ch 5) and in presenting women as equal participants in learning (Ch 14), travel, discovery, wisdom, and instruction (Ch 23) as well as in making their own decision in selecting their mates (Ch 7). Although homosexuality is not referenced specifically, Par 7:22 expresses that love cannot be a crime. Lastly, some familiar iconography surfaces for new purposes once again, such as in the reference of the "city on the hill" as an expression for what our society could be, and the final chapter recalling the Bodhi in which two learned sisters make a school 'under a tree'.
"...tales of wisdom, along with tales of courage and kindness, are among our best guides in life." --Par 9:1

The next part in this series will look at the next book of Grayling's bible, Concord.


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