To Boldly Go…Away from Religion

July 3, 2009

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I realize the Friendly Atheist has already posted this but I found this article by Nick Farrantello in The Humanist magazine so compelling I have to include it (especially so close to Independence Day since it’s about personal freedom). feel free to call me a copy-cat, FA fans.

Oddly but accurately titled “Star Trek Made Me an Atheist,” Farrantello shows how the original series (TOS to Trekkie Geeks) made him compare the worldview of the USS Enterprise crew with what he saw around him in religious institutions.

He writes: [A]s a boy I found it increasingly hard to understand why Christians weren’t acting the way Kirk and Spock were. If there was a God, some being causing earthquakes and hurling hurricanes, why wouldn’t Christians (or Jews or Muslims for that matter) fight against such a being? What I was learning on Star Trek seemed more moral to me than what I was learning in church.

I really have no other commentary to add. Well said.

For me, the pinnacle of the article is Farrantello’s inclusion of this classic Kirk monologue from the episode “Who Mourns for Adonis?”

[Remember] who and what you are: a bit of flesh and blood afloat in a universe without end. And the only thing that’s truly yours is the rest of humanity. That’s where our duty lies!

Such a profound statement from such an often-campy space opera reminds us all why the show was so far ahead of its time (and maybe our time).

Live long and prosper…




Quote of the Night

July 3, 2009

scan0061As midnight passes, as the wine glass is slowly emptied, as the cat snores on the sofa’s spine, the quote of night is inspired by tonight’s Zen-heavy themes. Here’s 1960s Asian philosophy maven Alan Watts on Zen:

“Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”


The Wheels on the Karma Go Round and Round

July 3, 2009

Although I don’t see the need for the ancient rituals, robes and other traditions, I have found the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun to offer a more secularized version of Zen (or Chan) Buddhist practice that really provides me with real-world, practical insights.

One of the order’s best online articles is an essay about the Buddhist/Hindu concept of reincarnation or rebirth. The concept seems to take on a mostly supernatural flavor in most Buddhist and Hindu traditions but I found myself agreeing with the more practical explanation offered by ZBOHY teacher Chaun Zhi Shakya.

He writes:

[I]n Zen, questions about reincarnation just don’t arise… we have no use for a system that teaches us that we will be reborn as another creature. That system won’t help us attain our freedom now. Zen encourages us to awaken to ourselves through our own efforts, to understand our true nature as human beings, and to live our lives in that nature.

While many Zen Buddhists will likely say “that’s not the Zen I learned,” I find his explanation compelling and that’s one reason why I consider Zen an effective practice to help me bring about happiness in my life and the lives of others. It’s not a magic formula but the techniques seem to help me better understand the true nature of reality — to the limited degree my “meat computer” can comprehend such a concept.



The Human Brain: A Fertile Place for Prayer?

July 2, 2009

Writing in a Scottish humanist magazine, blogger Friendly Humanist recounts an experience with Mormon missionaries seeking to convert him. FH gave them a fair hearing and even allowed them to conduct an “experiment they asked us to try after our first meeting.”

They asked us to pray.

I found myself facing a dilemma. On the one hand, praying feels like a betrayal of my values as a humanist. How could I sincerely ask for an answer from a god whose existence I believe to be improbable, undiscoverable, and irrelevant to living a good life? On the other hand, free thinking is at the heart of humanism. Prayer is an experience I had never tried before

FH tried the prayer. It’s a common Mormon tactic to ask people to pray until they feel the “stirrings of the Holy Spirit” or “God’s Voice” which is supposed to affirm whatever the missionary has explained about their faith (in short, Mormonism is divinely inspired by a known charlatan who “saw” ancient writings on a golden plate hidden in his hat).

FH recounts: “Nothing that could be interpreted as a message from a god – not even a little thrill of what-if. Later, I related this experience to the Mormons. They were undeterred. They encouraged me to keep trying: “God is not always heard the first time.”

As they are trained to do, the missionaries kept pushing, unperturbed:

[O]ne of the Mormons promised, “If you keep trying, eventually you will get an answer.”

FH countered with this:

Well, I have tried the experiment. I have set aside my reservations and sought the truth, true to my humanist values. And I have an answer. There probably is no personal god.

The reason the Mormons use this technique (pray until you feel something) is based on the idea (and my brain science is a little fuzzy here but I think I have the general idea) that the human brain will fill in the blanks if given an “assignment” absent any other stimulus (like “Brain, locate the voice of God”).

We have evolved as creatures who use our intricate brains to fill in any gaps in our understanding almost automatically. When we were hunter-gatherers and competing with other predators, it was to our advantage that our minds looked for patterns in the wilderness and could quickly interpret a blurry image as a possible killer and experiences often confirmed these patterns. It’s no surprised that, if we asked to not think of the pink elephant or asked to look for a divine presence, our pattern-seeking apparatus immediately goes into hunt-and-seek mode — elephants appear unbidden and divine flashes spark across our synapses.

Someone who is not as philosophically aware as the Friendly Humanist is bound to eventually feel a presence of hear a voice given all the positive reinforcements by the missionaries. From a technical standpoint, the Mormons have developed a pretty smooth tactic.

The reason the Mormons use this technique is based on the idea (and my brain science is a little fuzzy here but I think I have the general idea) that the human brain will fill in the blanks if given an “assignment” absent any other stimulus (like “Brain, locate the voice of God”).

We have evolved as creatures who use our intricate brains to fill in any gaps in our understanding almost automatically. Traditional Easter philosophers have called this the “monkey mind” functioning of the brain.

I found it fascinating that Friendly Humanist used an almost Zen technique during his prayer experiment —not actively seeking, just keeping his rational mind and his monkey mind still.

I sat in a comfortable posture in a quiet room, closed my eyes, and asked aloud, “God, do you exist?” I quieted my thoughts to make room for even the softest suggestion from an external deity.

Although I’m not a skilled meditator, I have found that, when I take time to keep my mind still, I’m much less tempted to behave in an irrational manner. For those who pray without some skepticism, it seems as if they already, Fox-Mulder-like, want to believe.
Someone who is not as philosophically aware as Friendly Humanist is bound to eventually feel a presence or hear a voice given all the positive reinforcement offered by the missionaries. From a technical standpoint, the Mormons have developed a pretty smooth tactic.

For a copy of a Mormon missionary handout revealed by an ex-Mormon, click here.

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King Mark the Lusty?

July 2, 2009

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According to The New York Times Opinion blog, self-admitted adulterer S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford thinks his current marital difficulties dovetail nicely with the likely mythical story of King David and Bathsheeba.

In the post, the editors write:

In his unending comments about his extramarital affair with a woman he met at a dance in Uruguay, Gov. Mark Sanford often includes spiritual references and talks of God’s will. Last week, for example, he compared himself to King David, and this week he said that God wants him to stay in office. Jon Stewart and others have ridiculed him for these statements.

It’s interesting that Sanford has stated he believes societies should follow God’s “absolute laws.”

One wonders if he believes the biblical injunction to stone adulterers?


Healthcare in a Pocket

July 2, 2009

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Ethicist Alonzo Fyfe injects a simple, yet often overlooked fact, of American life amid our growing health-care debate: Many of our costly and deadly health-care woes are 100-percent avoidable.

Fyfe writes: “A great many of our health-care costs are due to lifestyle choices. Overeating, smoking, drinking, the use of drugs, and unhealthy sexual activities. If people would reduce their involvement in these activities, he medical community would be able to devote more of its resources to caring for those who really need the help – those whose illnesses and injuries are of a type that afflict people regardless of the choices they make.”

Huzzah! Well said, sir. And I say that as someone who does not have a regular exercise regiment and who regularly eats trashy food (I actually had a pepperoni Hot Pocket the other day — I should be flogged in the public square). I have seen the enemy and it is filled with disgusting meat product and cheese-like substance.

How should we respond to Fyfe’s wake-up call? How have you struggled to keep fit and svelte? For many of my friends, the will to exercise daily seems almost effortless while I hem and haw and eventually find ways to avoid exertion. Let’s leave the realm of philosophy and religion for a moment and explore. Or maybe not. Perhaps we can discuss the connection (or lack thereof) between religious belief and views on wellness. How many of us remember the overweight preachers of our childhoods railing against every perceived “sin” except gluttony only to follow the service with a fried-chicken potluck?

Although I have yet to take his advice, I enjoy the user-friendly tips offered at ZenHabits.


Russell Redux

June 18, 2009

Frankly, however, the aspects of Russell’s thought that I consider most relevant still to people today concern his politics and his writings on morality. Unlike many progressives during his lifetime, Russell recognized early on that the communist regime of the Soviet Union was a disaster for its citizens and for humanity at large, and was accordingly publicly very critical of it. In a typical fashion, here is how he managed to attack the Soviet revolution and the Catholic Church in one paragraph:


“One who believes as I do, that free intellect is the chief engine of human progress, cannot but be fundamentally opposed to Bolshevism as much as to the Church of Rome. The hopes which inspire communism are, in the main, as admirable as those instilled by the Sermon on the Mount, but they are held as fanatically and are as likely to do as much harm.”

I have never had the chance to read much of Russell except for a multi-pound volume titled “History of Western Philosophy and Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day,” which I still have not finished but hope to by year’s end (I think I’m up to the Renaissance). However, anyone with the philosophical gust to write a book titled “Why I Am Not a Christian,” in 1927, deserves to be saluted for his willingness to offer up an unpopular world-view when blasphemy was still a crime in some parts of the Western world (an unfortunately re-emerging trend).

Thanks to Dr. Pigliucci for pointing our Russell’s contributions.