A Step in the Right Direction

July 3, 2009

I usually find Tibetan Buddhism to be filled with mystic woo-woo (like the idea of directed reincarnation — i.e. some kid ends up being proclaimed a new lama)

However, it’s encouraging to read reports like this one in the New York Times about a college physics class for Tibetan Buddhist monks.

And while I’m not sure he practices what he’s preaching, the Dalai Lama said, of the program:

Yet the Tibetan spiritual leader views science and Buddhism as complementary “investigative approaches with the same greater goal, of seeking the truth,” he wrote in “The Universe in a Single Atom,” his book on “how science and spirituality can serve our world.” He stresses that science is especially important for monastics who study the nature of the mind and the relationship between mind and brain.

While it’s encouraging to see a major world religious leader promote a scientific worldview, I can’t help but wonder how he can scientifically explain his belief that the soul or energy of a previous lama inhabited him as an infant. How does one test such a thing?  However, I agree the study of meditations potential benefits to  brain functions is a valuable mixture of science and Buddhism.


Another reason to move to North Carolina…

July 2, 2009

OK, so maybe we in North Carolina have our own problems — textile industry meltdown, political corruption and an unavoidable obsession with college basketball. But, in my meaner (but lighthearted) moments, I can always reflect on a stressful day with the mantra “At least I don’t live in South Carolina.” OK, I’m only half kidding (I truly don’t like the climate in S.C. but other than that don’t hold much against the Palmetto State). But a blogger at Rant and Reason did a great job of beating up his or her home state so I wouldn’t have to lift a cyber-finger. Among the blogger’s complaints:

  • Once again, my state is in the national spot light because of our governor’s Argentinian escapade. Sanford, in all his hypocrisy, has added yet another stain on the edifice of our already tainted reputation as a state. It makes me wonder just how much worse it could possibly get for South Carolina when a supposed family man with “good Christian values,” a powerful spot as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, and a shot at the 2012 Republican nomination can stoop so low.
  • Only in South Carolina can a state legislative body unanimously pass a measure creating a state-sponsored “I Believe” license plate with a superimposed cross on it to the exclusion of other options and faiths
  • In the movie Borat, featuring Sacha Baron Cohen, the racist and misogynistic students in the RV came straight from a frat house at the University of South Carolina (the school I currently attend).

Take heart, my neighbor to the south, you still have Stephen Colbert, a funny collegiate mascot name (Gamecocks) and Charleston (I won’t mention Hootie and the Blowfish but they did record a few songs I liked — there, I said it and I’m not taking it back).

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.


King Mark the Lusty?

July 2, 2009


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


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.

Quote of the Day: Keep Renewed

July 1, 2009

“Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day,
something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would
be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of
Christopher Morley

Burkha Brouhaha

July 1, 2009

Several European leaders are apparently looking to fight oppression with oppression.

Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the wearing of burkhas — headgear worn (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not) by Muslim women.  He said burkhas “will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic” and members of France’s parliament are considering whether or not a ban would be appropriate.

In Great Britain, a member of parliament echoed Sarkozy’s sentiment saying of burkha wearing,  “it does not belong in 21st century Britain.” but seemed to stop short of calling for a ban.

It’s obvious that thousands of women the world over are forced to wear head coverings in the name of Islam and, yes, the practice is seen as ridiculous for those of us who don’t believe there is a sky god running a heavenly version of “What Not to Wear.” But secular prohibitions are no better than religious dogma in this case and this seems like a clear attack on the freedom of those women who wish to wear burkhas as a religious expression.  Our focus as a society ought to be on ostracizing those governments that force religious practice into the secular arena like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and, yes, sometimes the United States.  How about putting Le Fashion Gendarmes on the back-burner and go after the source of the problem — religious zealots who violate their fellow humans’ rights.