Practical Zen: An Approach to Secular Ethics

[This is a talk more or less as I gave it at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture on October 23, 2016. It is based on a chapter in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.]

Hello. I’m so pleased to be here today. Many years ago I lived in New Jersey. And in those days I often attended lectures hosted by the Ethical Culture Society in Teaneck. So I come here with an appreciation of what you’re about.

I have been a formal student of Zen Buddhism for nearly 30 years. Zen is my spiritual path. However, let me assure you I’m not here to sell you on Buddhism, but simply to offer a perspective adapted from Buddhism for your consideration. I’m calling it “practical Zen” because I intend to avoid the enigmatic one-hand-clapping stuff and keep this talk grounded in our common experience.

Let’s begin with a quote from a Chinese text that is not Zen, but Daoist. This is paraphrased somewhat from the Dao Dejing, verse 18 in most translations. This passage describes a series of fallback positions.

When the Dao is lost, we fall back on virtue.
When virtue is lost, we fall back on humanity.
When humanity is lost, we fall back on morality.
When morality is lost, we fall back on religion.

If I could provide an executive summary of this talk, it would be that to move toward a more ethical culture we need to climb back up this ladder, at least to virtue. And if you want to go for broke and aim for the Dao, great.

So let’s talk about how we might do this.

There’s a basic Buddhist teaching that says what we might call psychological impulses, including our emotions and thoughts, are the forerunner of all actions. One aspect of that is that the way we conceptualize the world around us conditions how we relate to the world. So the first step in considering a moral course is to look very closely at how we conceptualize morality.

I looked “morality” up in an English dictionary and found “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” Another definition says morality is “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior.”

But the fact is, we don’t agree about what’s right and wrong or good and bad behavior. Especially as our communities and nations become more diverse, we more and more often are butting heads with people who have entirely different beliefs about what right and wrong, good and evil even mean.

Where do these beliefs come from? I never heard of people putting them to a vote. Some of us are stuck in the idea that morality is about following absolute rules that are eternal and unchanging because God said so, even if those rules are making everyone miserable. And to an increasing degree, that rigidity is tearing us apart.

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Is there another way to define morality? The Sanskrit word found in early Buddhist scriptures that is translated into English as morality or ethics is sila. Sila has a connotation of harmony; it’s acting in a way that allows people to live in harmonious families and communities. Sila involves cultivating an atmosphere of trust, respect, and security. Rules can be useful to help with that cultivation, but by themselves they are not the be-all and end-all of morality.

Buddhism does have moral rules, of course. Monks and nuns have hundreds of rules. Laypeople have five. We call them Precepts. The Precepts for laypeople are very basic ― don’t take life; don’t take what is not given, don’t misuse sexuality, don’t deceive others, avoid intoxicants. Those are the five Precepts every school agrees on; Zen throws in a few more. The Precepts are something like training wheels. We practice the Precepts in order to cultivate morality, humanity, virtue, compassion, kindness, and all that stuff, which is where true morality originates.

There’s an American Zen master who is also a Unitarian Universalist minister named James Ford. James Ford wrote about the Precepts recently,

“Frankly, there are times we just need the rules. Much of our lives we’re wandering around in the thickets. Haven’t a clue. We’re lost. And the precepts can become a life line thrown out to us. Sometimes we just have to grab that line. Sometimes we just have to follow the rules. …

… But if we live only in the realm of rules we are strangled by dead letters. And not only are our own lives constrained, we become caricatures of our true potentiality.”

Some rules really are necessary. Rules about theft and homicide, for example. Without some rules, we humans would never have left the caves. We’d still be huddled around our little fires, guarding our flint arrowheads from those people in that other cave. Civilization wouldn’t be possible.

But we’re still left with a lot of rules that seem to serve no useful purpose. We’re fighting over who can use which public restrooms, for example, because of some people’s rigid ideas about morality. We’re fighting about reproductive rights, about who can get married, and who has to bake wedding cakes.

What’s the point? What does denying people the right to follow their hearts, or in the case of the restroom issue, their bladders, have to do with cultivating an atmosphere of trust, respect and security? In this case, rigid rule-following is having the opposite effect.

Another way to understand the religiosity-morality connection is explained in a book I bet some of you have read, which is The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt provides a rigorously tested argument that we feel before we judge. The moment we are confronted with a moral question, something in our subconscious or intuitive mind churns up feelings about the question that determine our position. Our rational mind then constructs a narrative that explains to us what we think and why we think it. This happens so quickly we usually aren’t aware that’s what we’re doing.

Haidt’s explanation of how we respond to moral questions is very similar to what many Buddhist philosophers have taught for centuries, so it’s good to see science catching up.

Anyway, according to Haidt’s hypothesis, as much as we all want to think we are rational and logical and think the way we do for serious reasons, the fact is that we all allow rudimentary emotions to dictate what we think, at least about some things.

When you understand that much of “morality” is about rudimentary emotions and biases, you might also understand why conservative and dogmatic religions of all persuasion tend to get hung up on sex and on keeping women under control. This tells me that the men in charge of things are channeling their own anxieties about sex and women and projecting them into their scriptures. In doing so, they sometimes wander quite a distance from what their scriptures actually say, revealing how pathologically deep those anxieties are. And because they have the authority of institutional religion behind them, these men are given great moral authority in our culture. But in truth, often what we’re seeing from religious authorities is plain old bigotry. And religion is just being used as an excuse for it.

I feel strongly that one of the many steps we need to take to restore some sanity to this fractured nation is to de-authorize religious authorities from dictating morality to all of us. As a diverse society, we require a secular basis for our common ethics.

While we’re on the subject of thought and actions, I want to talk about good and evil. The way we conceptualize good and evil has real-world consequences.

For example, on September 14, 2001, President George W. Bush said this at a prayer service at the National Cathedral:

“Just three days removed from these events, Americans do not yet have the distance of history. But our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

Rid the world of evil? That really should have set off a lot more alarm bells than it did.

Here’s another quote: In a New York Times column published February 11, 2004, David Brooks wrote, “Some liberals have trouble grasping evil, and always think that if we could take care of the handguns or the weapons of mass destruction, our problems would be ameliorated. But I know the problem lies in the souls of our enemies.”

Now, what might we infer about “evil” from these quotations? The first suggests that “evil” is something tangible, with some sort of finite mass and material substance, and if we just work hard enough we can whittle ‘er down and be done with it.

The second suggests that evil is a quality or attribute that some people possess, and others don’t. And once evil has infected “the souls of our enemies” there is nothing to be done but to eliminate them.

Of course, it’s likely “our enemies” feel exactly the same way about us.

People are seduced into evil because they don’t recognize evil as evil. They mistake it for justice, or righteousness, or even God’s Will. And the seduction begins with the thought that “I’m a good person,” and “his hatred of me is evil, but my hatred of him is justified.” As soon as we identify ourselves as “good” and the Other, whoever they are, as “evil,” we’ve well on the way to giving ourselves a cosmic permission slip to do whatever we want to be rid of them. You see the problem.

I say this seductive impulse is at the root of most of the mass atrocities humankind has inflicted on itself through the ages. That’s why the way we conceptualize good and evil has real-world consequences.

Please understand that I’m not saying people or nations shouldn’t defend themselves from those who intend to do them harm. What gets us into trouble is thinking that we’re entitled to Holy Retribution, or that we are somehow qualified to pass judgments and inflict brutality on entire populations, because we’re the good guys.

I used to run into the words good and evil in Buddhist sutras, and these words often nagged at me as being out of place. So I had something of a breakthrough when I found out that the Sanskrit or Pali words being translated as good and evil actually mean “skillful” and “unskillful.”

I’ll give you a mindfulness exercise. Very Zen. Sometime, either now or while you’re sitting in a quiet place, think the word “evil.” Don’t contemplate what it means, just hold the word in your consciousness. And as you do that, pay close attention to the subtle emotional cues within your body that are triggered by the word “evil.”

Now, think the word “unskillful.” If you are tuned in to yourself, you might notice a different reaction. It’s very subtle, but it’s real.

At the very least, maybe we’d be less likely to bomb people for being unskillful.

Zen teachers say it’s important to appreciate that “evil” really has no substance and no independent existence. It is no-thing. It does not infect people. Evil “exists” only in intentions, actions and consequences.

If we understand that neither we nor our enemies are intrinsically good or evil, does that change how we see traumatic events? Speaking as an eyewitness, as I’m sure some of you are, the collapse of the World Trade Center towers easily was the most terrible thing I ever saw, but I honestly don’t see why hanging the label “evil” on it makes any difference. It was what it was. But my perspective enrages some people who clearly think it is vitally important to label the event as “evil,” and if we don’t we’re somehow being soft or letting the terrorists win.

There’s some kind of magical thinking lurking around in there, somewhere.

I don’t agree entirely with the postmodernist view that good and evil are purely relative or matters of subjective judgment. Skillful or unskillful are not just relative. Causing harm to another is unskillful. Wasting natural resources or adding to global climate change are unskillful, even if they aren’t covered by the Ten Commandments. That’s the problem with moral rules left over from the Bronze Age; we’ve got different problems now.

And then there’s “moral clarity.” In the U.S. many religious conservatives place great value in “moral clarity,” which I define as a state of mind achieved by staking a fixed position on a presumed moral high ground and then ignoring the details of human life that fog the view.

For example, I have read many essays arguing for criminalizing abortion that go on and on about the humanity of the fetus without mentioning the pregnant woman at all. If she is mentioned, she is considered to be a kind of niggling technicality. Or worse, she is portrayed as weak-minded or otherwise unqualified to make her own moral decisions.

The “moral clarity” crowd must never admit that the woman is a valuable and intelligent human being who may be in a terribly difficult situation, because empathy and compassion for her would block their “clarity.”

In short, moral absolutism requires ignoring genuine human life experience. This makes its rigid application anti-human and oppressive.

I want to cite the late Robert Aitken Roshi, who was one of the most revered patriarchs of American Zen. In his book The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics, he said, “The absolute position, when isolated, omits human details completely. Doctrines, including Buddhism, are meant to be used. Beware of them taking life of their own, for then they use us.”

Does moral absolutism even work? There is data showing us that rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy are higher in conservative “Bible Belt” U.S. states than in more liberal ones, and this pattern seems to replicate itself worldwide.

Reasonable people may disagree about whether abortion is immoral, but note that rates of abortion in overwhelmingly Catholic Latin America, where abortion is nearly everywhere illegal and harshly punished, are higher than in the United States and a lot higher than in mostly liberal and allegedly decadent western Europe.

And what does his tell us? It appears that when absolutist morality is enforced, either by public shaming or by law, actual human behavior — heterosexual behavior included — is driven into the closet, leaving actual humans with no practical guidance in their actual circumstances.

I say the absolutist approach to morality gets everything backward. It creates too wide a gap between public righteousness and what people are really doing in their private lives, so that the moral rules are not really guiding anyone. And when we cede the presumed moral high ground to the absolutists, too often we squelch open and honest discussion of our real-world circumstances and behaviors.

Again, “The absolute position, when isolated, omits human details completely. Doctrines are meant to be used. Beware of them taking life of their own, for then they use us.”

Secular moralists sometimes propose a utilitarian or consequentialist approach to morality. Very broadly, utilitarianism is the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good. There are many variations of utilitarianism, however, mostly because people disagree on what constitutes “good.” Further, this approach often fails to provide an incentive for “being good.”

Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris has proposed that science can provide a basis for morality. Harris is a smart guy and he says many things worthy of consideration. But he’s written that science can “tell us what’s objectively true about morality” and “give us answers about right and wrong.” I think that’s right up there with thinking we can rid the world of evil.

I have a more radical proposal here. Some things people need to work out for themselves.

Human life is infinitely complicated and messy, and circumstances have a way of confounding application of one-size-fits-all solutions. Some things people need to work out for themselves. And that’s okay.

I propose that given the infinity of variables, no two human beings ever faced completely identical moral dilemmas.  When faced with questions about ending a pregnancy, or a marriage, or when to discontinue life support, or whether to intervene in a friend’s problems or let things sort themselves out — we need to be able to apply some subjectivity to matters that will change our lives and the lives of those around us, because we’re the only ones familiar with most of the variables.

We’re the only ones who have our medical history, or our parents, or our financial or physical resources, or our marriage, or our job, or our special needs child. Etc., etc. I think that in some circumstances we need the freedom to be subjective, to consider complex moral questions not just in the abstract but in the light of our particular life and situation.

The challenge to us as a society is to distinguish between those behaviors that cannot be allowed ― such as homicide ― because allowing them would damage civilization; and those problems that people need to work out for themselves, even if we don’t all personally approve of all the solutions. And then we have to persuade the absolutists to back off.

We can, as a society, draw parameters around moral questions — medical guidelines determining when life support is futile, for example. And I agree that science can help with much of that. And then we’ll continue to do what we’ve always done, which is argue among ourselves about where the parameters should be drawn. Maybe arguing with each other is the price we pay for freedom.

If all this sounds terribly ambiguous — yeah, mostly, it is. That’s because you and the world and human life generally are very complicated, and where there is complication, there is ambiguity.

I realize people often are uncomfortable with ambiguity. They want clear rules and sharply defined boundaries. They want all phenomena to be properly sorted into their socially acceptable conceptual boxes. That’s why some people prize moral absolutism. That’s a mostly workable strategy for getting through life, but it’s not real. It’s an artificial order superimposed on the messiness of reality.  And sometimes failing to accept reality causes more trouble than it solves.

One of the great humanistic philosophers of the 20th century, Erich Fromm, wrote that people often escape into authoritarian mass movements because they fear freedom. A lot of that fear of freedom is a fear of ambiguity, a lack of clear, bright lines that make your choices for you.

I think we see a lot of that fear in America today. And notice that some of the same people who talk about how they want to protect their freedom seem hell bent on destroying everybody’s freedom to do that. It’s like they’re protecting their freedom to be not free. But those clear, bright lines are not likely to come back, so this is a situation we’re going to have to deal with for a while.

Just about any psychologist will tell you that you can’t force other people to change. We can only look to ourselves. How do we find our own moral compass in the messiness of life?

And to answer this question I want to wade a little more deeply into Zen.

Here’s a question for you. “Can you identify yourself without reference to a relationship?”  This is a question I first heard in a sociology class. I’ve never heard anyone provide an answer; I don’t think it’s answerable. It’s something of a koan, because if you work with it you end up exploring the paradoxical nature of the self, which is a very Zen thing to do.

Many schools of Buddhism, including Zen, have a doctrine called the two truths. The two truths describe what seems to be a paradox. On one hand, we are all precious and unique individuals, worthy of respect and compassion.

But at the same time, we take our very uniqueness, our identities, from our relationships. From our roles in our families, from our professions, from the interests we share with others, from the arts and intellectual pursuits we enjoy, with our circle of associations. We are who we are because everyone else is who they are. We are not the entirely self-contained, stand-alone people units we think we are.

This interdependence extends to our biological existence as well. We depend on other life forms to sustain our lives and to maintain the conditions on this planet that make life possible. All beings are interdependent. All beings inter-exist. This comes directly from the teaching of the Buddha.

A metaphor used to help resolve this paradox is attributed to a Chinese master named Dushun who was born in the 6th century. This is called “Indra’s Net.”  Imagine a vast net that stretches infinitely in all directions. In each “eye” of the net is a single brilliant, perfect jewel. Each jewel also reflects every other jewel, infinite in number, and each of the reflected images of the jewels bears the image of all the other jewels — infinity to infinity. Whatever affects one jewel affects all of them.

This means every jewel matters. Every person matters. You matter. And everything you do affects everyone else. This is the most essential thing to understand. Everything you feel and think, everything you do or say affects yourself and everyone else. Most effects may be extremely subtle, but they’re still effects. And sometimes even subtle effects can have big real-world consequences.

And at its most basic, an ethical life is a life that produces beneficial effects.

Now, it may seem inconsistent to say that we need to be allowed some subjectivity in our moral choices, while at the same time everything we do impacts everyone else. So let’s take this to another level.

Twenty-five centuries ago, the Buddha emphasized purifying oneself of what he called afflictions or defilements. The chief afflictions are greed, hate and ignorance. This ignorance is ignorance of the inter-existence of all beings, because most of our problems come from thinking of ourselves as separated from everything else. We think that whatever is within our skin is “me” and what’s outside our skin is “everything else.” It’s this misperception that is the chief source of our fear, our greed, our anger, our hatred.

You can follow moral rules to the letter, but if you are harboring greed, hate, and ignorance, you are not living a beneficial life. You are not living an ethical life. You are not cultivating an atmosphere of trust, respect, and security.

The Buddha taught many practices, including meditation and mindfulness, to reduce our afflictions.

There’s nothing magical or supernatural going on here; it’s all about becoming more intimate with yourself. You become more aware of what jerks you around and pulls you out of harmony. You learn to let those things go. If you don’t have some sort of meditation or mindfulness practice already, I encourage you to look into one.

Finally he encouraged us to develop four particular virtues above all others. The first is metta, goodwill, or loving kindness to all beings. The second is compassion, which is the active desire to reduce the suffering of others. The third is called “mudita,” which means “sympathetic joy.” This is joy in the good fortune of others. It’s the opposite of envy.

And, finally, equanimity. With equanimity, we are not being constantly pulled back and forth between things we want and things we want to avoid; we accept what life brings us. We learn to remain in balance in the middle of chaos. We learn to be comfortable with ambiguity. And we learn to not be pulled into one-sided views. The Buddha gave many, many sermons about all of these virtues.

Now, developing these virtues isn’t something you can do in three easy steps, and none of us is ever perfect, and that’s okay. Just making the effort, even if you fall short, makes the whole universe a better place. And while Buddhism provides a lot of tools for cultivating these virtues, it doesn’t have a patent on them.

Every day we have opportunities to actualize goodwill and compassion, and to share the joy of others. Every day, there are opportunities to develop equanimity. I propose that these virtues harmonize well with the commitment of Ethical Culture to “always act so as to elicit the best in others, and thereby yourself.”

For several years I was the student of a Zen teacher named Jion Susan Postal, who died in 2014. She founded the Zen Center in New Rochelle. Susan taught us to be grateful for these opportunities. She said,

“For all beneficent karma ever manifested through me, I am grateful. May our gratitude be expressed in our body, speech and mind, with infinite kindness to the past, infinite service to the present, and infinite responsibility to the future.”

And to all of you, metta.

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Posted in Buddhism, Christian Right, Evil, Life, Morality, Religion in America, Religious tolerance, Taoism Tagged with: , , , ,

The Latter-Day Dimwits of Televised Religion

E.J. Dionne recently wrote,

Over the past several decades, those who view religion with respect regularly come back to the same question: What has happened to the religious intellectuals, the thinkers taken seriously by nonbelievers as well as believers?

You younger folks may be giggling at the very idea of religious intellectuals, but really, there are such people. And they used to make appearances in public, including getting on Time magazine covers back when that was a bigger deal than it is now.  In the mid 20th century, people like W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Mortimer Adler, J. H. Oldham, C. S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr were leading spokespersons for Christianity. They were published in newspapers and magazines and frequently spoke on the radio. And their commentaries often spoke to political and social issues of the time. Although these men didn’t see eye to eye in all particulars, on the whole they held a liberal view of humanity and presented a Christianity that spoke to the better angels of our nature.

This was before television, however, which makes one wonder if television is part of the problem. The people who speak for Christianity on the teevee these days are uniformly hateful and imbecilic, and chained to right-wing ideology.

God hates youIf you knew nothing at all about the Gospels except what you heard on cable television, you might assume that the ministry of Jesus was primarily about stopping abortion and homosexuality. And in fact, Jesus addressed neither topic even in passing. Further, most of the Christian voices you hear in mass media these days speak of nothing but hate, or worse, how they are entitled to discriminate against women and gays and Muslims and anyone else they don’t like because they’re Christian. How did that happen?

Writing in the current issue of Harper’s (“The Watchmen: What became of the Christian intellectuals?“), Alan Jacobs traces what happened to Christianity in public discourse from 1950 on. First, the generation of Auden, Eliot et al. either died or retired, and they were replaced by intellectuals speaking for science and technology rather than Christianity. Second, in the Cold War/Red Scare age, anti-intellectualism was on the rise. “As anti-intellectualism took a greater hold over American life in general, and over Christian life in America in particular, it came to seem almost unnatural for a congregational minister also to be a deeply learned person, an intellectual with an intellectual’s voice,” Jacobs writes.

This is not to say there were no intelligent spokespeople for Christianity after the 1950s — there was Martin Luther King, after all — but as time went on they were more and more drawn into speaking for conservatism. For example, Father Richard John Neuhaus was once a prominent Catholic spokesperson for civil rights in the 1960s, but then he got sucked into the anti-abortion movement.

Jacobs claims that Christian intellectuals somehow became persona non grata in “liberal” media in the 1960s and 1970s, but he doesn’t explain how that happened. I suspect that a reason for that was that liberal Christian intellectuals tended to be against the Vietnam War at a time when antiwar statements were considered unpatriotic and controversial, never mind that most Americans were against the war.

The bigger part of the story that Jacobs misses has to do with television, and how political operatives learned to manipulate it. Let’s go back to the school desegregation fight of the 1950s and 1960s.

One of the critics of school desegregation was a young Southern Baptist minister from Lynchburg, Virginia, named Jerry Falwell. The Rev. Falwell publicly denounced the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and worked with J. Edgar Hoover to spread FBI-manufactured propaganda against him. The Rev. Falwell’s sermon’s included lines like “The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line”; and “The true Negro does not want integration,” as if the Rev. Falwell had a clue what the “true Negro” might want.

The Rev. Falwell went on to found the Lynchburg Christian Academy, advertised as a “private school for white students,” in 1966. A few years later, the name changed to Liberty Christian Academy. Meanwhile, the Rev. Falwell’s church grew to megachurch proportions. In later years he came be associated with his opposition to legal abortion and gay rights, but it was his opposition to desegregation that grew his original following.

After the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, conservative political operative Paul Weyrich, who founded the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), tried to enlist Falwell in the anti-abortion and anti-women’s rights campaigns. At first Falwell wasn’t interested, but eventually he was won over. It has been suggested that Falwell didn’t extend his “ministry” to oppressing women and gays until he was persuaded that the cause of segregation was utterly lost, and he needed a new cause to keep his career going.

Thus began the next phase of his public career, and you might remember that for a time the Rev. Jerry Falwell was a real force in U.S. politics. Promoted and supported by the political Right, the Rev. Falwell became one of mass media’s go-to “experts” on religious and moral questions. (See “Agent of Intolerance” by Max Blumenthal.)

In other words, the so-called “liberal” media that allegedly shut out liberal Christian voices was more than happy to give the likes of Falwell a megaphone. I suspect what happened is that people like Weyrich did a bang-up job of seeing to it that Falwell and his fellow travelers were well represented in the rolodexes of television producers. By the time we got to the awful Terri Schiavo episode in 2005, Christianity was entirely represented on television by the most reactionary, politicized extremists of the so-called Christian Right. I wrote about this in my book, Rethinking Religion.

Television producers booked one right-wing religious figure after another, all taking the side of Terri Schiavo’s parents, as if “religion” spoke with one voice on this issue. As I remember it, the “debate” on MSNBC featured a grid of fundamentalist ministers — plus Pat Boone, for some reason — arranged on the screen like a tic-tac-toe board. And the talking heads were all bearing false witness against Michael Schiavo as fast as they could move their lips. It was surreal.

Yes, I’m sure Fox News was even worse, but I didn’t have the stomach to watch.

But religion does not speak with one voice on this issue. Ministers, rabbis, theologians, etc., could have argued on well-founded religious grounds that removing the feeding tube was the moral thing to do, under the circumstances. And, in fact, many members of the clergy said this publicly. But from what I saw the television producers didn’t ask not-fundamentalist religious people into the studios.

And it gets worse. More recently, some of the most prominent voices speaking for Christianity on the teevee have included Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin and that guy from Duck Dynasty. This in turn has fueled the conviction that to be religious is to be an idiot. In Gallup surveys of the 1950s, over 90 percent of Americans self-identified as Christian. Today, that’s down to 75 percent, according to Gallup. Pew has it even lower — 70 percent. If this trend continues at the same rate, Christianity will become a minority religion in America in some of our lifetimes.

Catholic and Evangelical churches in particular have felt the result of a politicized clergy. See “How Evangelicals Are Losing an Entire Generation” to see how that’s going.

I have met real-live Christian intellectuals who are articulate and thoughtful — and liberal — and ought to be perfectly presentable on television. But you never see them there, outside of an occasional appearance on PBS.

So to answer E.J. Dionne’s question about what happened to Christian intellectuals — it’s the same thing that happened to genuinely progressive and liberal voices for so long. The Right succeeded in shutting them out of mass media.

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Western Buddhism and Cultural Appropriation

Brad Warner reports getting this email from somebody:

“No please white American dude tell me again what Buddhism is. He knows white Buddhism, he’s culturally appropriation, he makes money off defining a culture that does not belong to him – which he tried due to his many failed business ventures and bands – and I have no problem with his identifying as Buddhist but with any white American defining Buddhism when that culture doesn’t belong to them.”

Never mind that Warner put in years of study in Japan with Gudo Nishijima; according to some, Buddhism doesn’t belong to white people.

As Warner points out, Buddhism itself has already been established  in many different cultures — the move from India to China, for example, required a huge cultural adjustment — and doesn’t belong to any one. I’d add that Buddhism itself transcends culture. I’d also like to point out many western Buddhists are not white; “white” and “western” shouldn’t be synonyms.

But this is an issue with many, many facets. “Western” Buddhists are a broad range of people, from those who have taken ordination vows and dedicated their lives to dharma, to those who are superficial practitioners and don’t know dharma from doughnuts. But you can find the same range in Asia. Somehow, superficial Asian Buddhism doesn’t raise anyone’s hackles.

Even so, I’ve seen enough people sneer at “western Buddhism” to know that in many circles, Buddhism isn’t taken seriously if it isn’t Asian. It is assumed that if a westerner, especially a white one, embraces Buddhism as his or her path, that person is not serious. Their spiritual path is just an affectation, something they’ll get over someday when they grow up.

I came to realize at one point that this perspective often is all about the presumed superiority of western civilization. From this perspective a westerner, especially a white one, who turns his back on the Default Religion of Christianity and turns to Asian philosophy and spirituality cannot possibly be serious. Some things are all right for Asians — until we get around to converting them, presumably — but if a westerner converts to an Asian religion, that person is an obvious flake. He’s just trying to get attention, or something.

I’ve also run into similar attitudes within western Buddhism, however. One finds people who cannot wait to stamp out all vestiges of Asian culture in western Buddhist practice right now, for example. And I’m not saying that Buddhism must somehow be stylistically Asian, or that there’s something wrong with expressing dharma in a western cultural context. But to me there’s often a strong whiff of western cultural arrogance, if not downright racism, behind these efforts.

Western Buddhism will evolve and develop its own ways of doing things, and already there are Buddhist centers and western teachers that have left off the traditional robes and non-English liturgy, and that’s fine. But right now mostly we’re like new piano students who need to master the old, standard scales and exercises before we get experimental with style.

And I also think that if an individual feels uncomfortable with traditional Asian forms, that discomfort usually is a symptom of clinging. Demanding that Buddhism change to become more “comfortable” is not addressing the real problem.

On the other hand, when more traditional Buddhism is practiced by westerners — robes, Asian liturgy and all — I’ve heard it derided as “orientalism.” Orientalism is a particular kind of cultural appropriation — the stereotyped representation of Asian culture, especially when it reflects a colonialist attitude. Orientalism becomes fashionable from time to time.

lesser-evil-buddha-bowl-himalayan-pink-popcornBut in my experience, in actual dharma centers that retain Asian liturgy, robes, art and similar forms, it’s mostly because the teacher, or the teacher’s teacher, or the founder of the center, was Asian, and the Asian accoutrements are maintained because they are what the members know.  Certainly, there’s a lot of frivolous use of Asian sacred art, but western Buddhists usually are not the perpetrators.

There are examples of appropriation that aren’t necessarily cultural; the mindfulness fad comes to mind.

There are the Buddhist “naturalists,” who want to change Buddhism so that it makes sense “within a thoroughgoing materialist worldview.” I’d say one of the functions of Buddhist practice is to help us stop clinging to a thoroughgoing materialist worldview; see this Brad Warner interview, for example.

The Buddhist idea is revolutionary, because if you take it to its logical conclusion, it really overturns all religions and makes materialism seem ridiculous.

The naturalists apparently are stuck in the notion that material is “real” and what isn’t material is not real, but even science doesn’t go there any more (talk to a quantum physicist about this). And Buddhism certainly doesn’t go there, especially Mahayana, which considers phenomena to be neither real nor not real. And don’t get me started on yogacara, which considers nothing to be “real” except vijnana — the level of consciousness that connects senses and sensory objects. The naturalists are not trying to “correct” Buddhism to remove its “superstitious” elements, as they imagine it. They are trying to gut it and turn it into a handbag for their own western-centric views.

And there are the infamous Buddhist Geeks, who have been called out many times for their apparent reluctance to invite ethnic Asian teachers to speak at their conferences.

When I was writing about Buddhism for About.com, I sometimes heard from ethnic Asians — some living in Asia, some not — who had been lectured by white western Buddhists that the Buddhism they had grown up with was not real Buddhism. This opinion often centered around the common misunderstanding that all Buddhists meditate, when in fact, most do not.

Part of the problem, too, is that many of us who practice within a particular tradition don’t get exposed to other traditions and have little appreciation of how different they can be. Or, they may assume “their” version of Buddhism is the correct one, although generally this attitude is discouraged. And then there are “book store Buddhists” — people who have read about Buddhism but who have never formally taken the Refuges or practiced with a teacher or sangha.

I’d say the longer one practices, and the more one is exposed to other schools of Buddhism, the more humble one gets about it. That’s certainly true for me, anyway.

For a lot of reasons, the merging of Buddhism into western life and culture is not happening all that smoothly. But it is happening. And some of us are very serious about it.

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New Jersey Just Poked China

And now for something completely different … New Jersey just released a list of approved religious holidays, meaning holidays that give a child a legitimate excuse for being out of school. A number of Buddhist holidays showed up, which of course is nice. But one jumped out at me —

April 25 The 11th Panchen Lama’s Birthday (Buddhist)

The Panchen Lama, a high lama of the Geluk school, is the second highest-ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism. At the moment there are two, one recognized by Tibetan Buddhism and the authority of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and one recognized by the government of China.

April 25 is the birthday of the Panchen Lama recognized by Tibetan Buddhism. The other one was born in February.

Historical background: The 10th Panchen Lama, who spent a large part of his life in Chinese prisons, died in 1989 shortly after giving a speech mildly critical of Beijing. Officially, he died of a heart attack.

In May 1995, a six-year-old boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, of Chinese-occupied Tibet, was recognized as the tulku, or rebirth, of the Panchen Lama. Two days later the child and his family were taken into Chinese custody. They have not been seen or heard from since.

Later that year, Beijing named another boy, Gyaltsen Norbu — the son of two Tibetan Communist Party officials — as the 11th Panchen Lama. Gyaltsen Norbu spent most of his childhood in seclusion in Beijing. But in recent years he has been given a number of functions, such as representing Tibetan Buddhism at official conferences and releasing statements praising Beijing for its wise governance of Tibet. (See also “The Panchen Lama of Tibetan Buddhism: A Lineage Hijacked by Politics.”)

You may ask, why is this a BFD? Because it relates to the 14th Dalai Lama and possibly to the 15th as well.

Beijing harbors an irrational and all-consuming hatred for the 14th Dalai Lama. Just as an example of how far Beijing will go to smack down His Holiness — back in 2009 the revered Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh expressed a wish on Italian television that the Dalai Lama might be allowed to return to Tibet. Later that year 400 nuns and monks who were followers of Thich Nhat Hanh were forcibly evicted from Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam.

Although Hanoi gave no sensible reason for the eviction, it was understood by everyone that Beijing had ordered it. A number of U.S. presidents have carefully not met with His Holiness in the oval office for similar reasons.

Among the traditional functions of a Panchen Lama is to recognize the rebirth of a Dalai Lama. And here we come to the crux of it. Gyaltsen Norbu has been prepared his entire life to carry out one function, which is to recognize some young boy as the 15th Dalai Lama some day. Beijing has claimed sole authority to recognize all important rebirths, in fact, through a lot of historical revisionism. (See “China’s Outrageous Reincarnation Policy.”)

Beijing has made no secret that it intends to recognize and enthrone a 15th Dalai Lama once the 14th is gone. They appear to believe this will help pacify the Tibetans. The fact that Gyaltsen Norbu is not recognized by Tibetans even in China — indeed, the young man requires a substantial guard when he makes ceremonial visits to Tibetan monasteries — ought to tell the Chinese officials this might not work. But they bought into this plan years ago, and aren’t about to let go of it. (See also “Buddhism in China and Tibet today.”)

Whether New Jersey officials realized what they were getting themselves into by recognizing Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the Panchen Lama I do not know, but bravo! Well done, somebody!

And maybe Beijing won’t notice. If they do, we could offer to let them keep Chris Christie as hostage.

A couple of other odd things about the New Jersey holiday list — It does not include the birthday of the 14th Dalai Lama himself (July 6), but it does let kids take September 7 off for His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s birthday. This lama is head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, one of four to six schools depending on who’s counting. I’ve only recently become aware that there was anything of the Sakya school in the U.S. at all; most of western Tibetan Buddhism is Geluk, Kagyu or Nyingma, from what I’ve seen. Kagyu and Nyingma are not represented on the list. However, I don’t doubt Sakya Trizin is a fine fellow whose birthday deserves a day off of school.

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Winks

You might have heard about the juvenile frat boys who were disciplined by Old Dominion University for this:

Freshman women at Old Dominion University were given a very special welcome last week when they arrived on campus: Large banners that read “Rowdy and fun/Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time,” “Freshman daughter drop off,” and “Go ahead and drop off mom too.” Photos of the helpful offers to fornicate with women across multiple generations in the university community have since gone viral.

The banners were widely condemned by the university and other students, and the fraternity has been suspended pending further investigation. Note that it’s possible the fraternity itself wasn’t behind this and that the perps were just some stupid little boys who thought they were being clever.

My first reaction was to feel vindicated in my long-standing view that most young men ought to spend a couple of years keeping silence in a monastery somewhere before they’re allowed out into the world — I’m not picky about what sort of monastery, mind you. But apparently some on the Right think we’re making a big deal about nothing.

Hit and Run — It was protected speech and not really that offensive.

Comment at Daily Caller — “Good Lord, will people please get the sticks out of their behinds and find their sense of humor again! Yes, it’s not right, yes, it’s borderline sick, but still darkly funny, and the more people who thumb their noses at the PC police, the better.”

Comment at Fox News — “When you see the way FEMALE students behave on Spring break, especially in florida, Arizona or Mexico,  to claim that one female student “even considered going back home” is the joke of the day.

PJ Tattler — Reaction is just over-the-top hysteria. “You have to be out of your mind to believe that the banner-hangers had sexual assault or dating violence in mind when they put them up.

Comment at PJ Tattler — “I am so glad our sons are out of college. Young males can’t do anything today without the ridiculous females crying they are “hurt”.

I assume that last commenter doesn’t have daughters. Also there was a lot of nostalgia for “Animal House.”

Granted, stuff like this happened when I was in college (1969-1973) and was shrugged off. Boys will be boys, you know. But here are a couple of paragraphs from Rethinking Religion

Also, as Hannah Arendt observed of Adolf Eichmann, sometimes “evil” people are those who mirror the values of their peers and culture, without self-reflection or thought of consequence. When we read about teenage boys brutalizing a girl and bragging about it on Twitter, for example, that’s what we’re seeing. And when other people try to cover up or trivialize the brutality, or blame the victim, that’s what we’re seeing. Because such acts are an expression of social and cultural values, and approved by peers, they don’t feel evil to those committing them.

And later, when the brutality has been exposed to the light of day, we want so very much to believe that the perpetrators are somehow abnormal, or monsters, or possessed of some aberrant quality that caused them to be brutal. But most of the time, in truth, there is nothing measurably abnormal about them at all. That’s why cultural values — not just the ones we pay lip service to, but the ones we wink at — have real-world consequences, also.

The fact is, whether we admit to it or not, popular culture still thinks it’s cool to objectify and sexually exploit women, and as long as that’s true there will always be soft-headed young men who will act out that behavior. And a few of those young men will end up with rape convictions, and then people will wring their hands and either wonder how he could have been such a monster, or isn’t it a shame his life is being ruined. And I’m proposing that the university is absolutely right for not winking at this stuff any more. And this is not just for the sake of the young women on campus, but also for the sake of young men — and also young women — who don’t have the sense God gave eggplant.

Whether there is or is not a rape crisis on campus, any more than there was when I was on campus, is a matter to argue over. However, it’s not outrageous or new for universities to have codes for how students should behave. Letting it be known that this behavior is not acceptable is a step in the right direction. And then maybe, eventually, as a culture we’ll stop winking.

Cross-posted at The Mahablog.

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When Righteousness Kills – The Massacre in Paris

Gunmen killed 12 people in the offices of a Paris satire magazine today. It’s widely assumed — and probably true — that the attacks were in retaliation for the magazine’s lampooning of militant Islam, although so far the “perps” have not been identified officially. In response, rightie blogs are having an insufferable self-righteousness orgy, and Richard Dawkins blames Islam. All of it.

Here is a page of cartoonists’ tributes to the magazine, Charlie Hebdo. I thought this one got closest to the truth of it.

charliehebdo

Assuming the gunmen are fanatical Islamists seeking to “punish” the magazine — Yes, they assumed their righteousness trumped other peoples’ lives. Right now a lot of not-Islamic people are going to the same place. It ain’t the religion, folks, or at least not the religion by itself — see “Religious Violence Isn’t Just Religious.”

Read more about religious violence in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

Update: See also “It Wasn’t About the Cartoons.”

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The Boxes We Live In

One of my favorite sayings, which was from my first Zen teacher, is “We all live in a box, and the walls of the box consist of who we think we are and what we think life should be.”

There are some heavy-duty spiritual implications in the quote that I’m mostly going to skip here. The important point is that the box is, in a way, a contrivance; a fantasy; a delusion. Ultimately, there is no box. Yet we live in it anyway, and stepping outside of it is unthinkable for most of us.

Civilization itself is a kind of meta-box, or net connecting all the boxes, created by our collective projections and conditionings. Civilization can be understood as an intricate net of assumptions and agreements that allow us to live together and deal with each other in complex ways. This net has been crafted from ancient times, and each generation has added a little more to it. We are conditioned from birth to accept civilization as it exists in our time, and it’s so “normal” to us we often are oblivious to what a complex and astonishing thing it has become. It’s like air to us; we take it for granted.

Remember also that we humans are social creatures, wired to form associations with other humans to survive. And I mean “wired” in a physiological sense. Infants and small children deprived of social contact have been found to have abnormal brain development. Adults isolated from other humans will develop all kinds of psychological problems. We literally need each other to be who we are.

But let’s get back to civilization. Modern civilization is elaborately integrated. The web grows tighter and tighter. Our “normal” life, maintaining the box we live in, depends increasingly on very complex interconnections with the other boxes even for basic things like food and shelter, never mind Internet connection.

As recently as 150 years ago it wasn’t uncommon for someone to build a cabin in the woods on unclaimed property and live off the land. It may have been a nasty, brutish, and short life by our standards, but it was within culturally accepted norms of the time. There may be a handful of people today who could still do that, but for the enormous majority it’s not an option. Even if they had the survival skills, which most don’t, there’s not enough wilderness left to accommodate all the disaffected people of the world. And, frankly, the box most of us live in wouldn’t allow for it, anyway.

These days, in developed nations anyway, life in the box requires connection to the power grid and clean running water brought to us from distant reservoirs. We depend on commerce to make food and clothing available. We depend on an intricate, and often capricious, legal and financial system to create shelters we can live in. We are required to find some means of adding value to the commercial and financial systems to that we can receive credits (money) to exchange for what we need and want. And we are drawn like ants to honey to new communication technologies, so that we can interconnect with each other to our heart’s content.

This is the box we live in. This is who we think we are and what we think life should be. Our dependencies on each other are not negated by money — I paid for this! Nobody gave it to me! Indeed, the paper we carry in our wallet or the numbers in our bank accounts have value only because they are integral parts of our system of inter- dependencies. Otherwise, they would be valueless. And if we were challenged to cobble our own shoes, build our own shelters, or grow our own food, most of us would make a botch of it.

This also is why Ayn Randism and the “John Galt” pledge are so ridiculous. We cannot live for ourselves alone; it is not possible, whether we like it or not. We either live for each other, or we are cut off from civilization, and we die. People who think they really are living for themselves alone are oblivious to reality. (They also tend to be assholes, but that’s another rant.)

(And, seriously, if living for yourself alone is so all-fired important to you, why bother to reach out to other people and ask them to sign a John Galt Pledge on the Web? What this tells us is that Randism is a kind of romantic fantasy, and if that’s the box you live in you want other people to buy into the fantasy and reinforce it. That’s very human, and also utterly absurd.)

So let’s look at what’s been going on with civilization in our lifetimes. Even as the net grows tighter, ancient ethnic, racial and cultural boundaries are growing blurry. We’re literally finding new ways to form tribal associations, and the old ways rapidly are losing their function and significance.

Nations still play important functions in civilization, and I don’t see the phenomenon of the nation-state dissolving anytime soon. But it may be indicative of something that nations don’t seem to declare war on each other any more. Armed conflicts are waged by extra-national movements these days. I think this indicates a significant shift in the role of the nation in human civilization, although exactly where this is taking us is hard to say.

The changes occurring to civilization, many of which are being driven by rapid technological advances, are challenging the integrity of many boxes. If the box you live in depends on clearly drawn racial divisions, for example, the blurring of racial boundaries is very distressing. And people experience challenges to the integrity of the boxes they live in as existential threats. So, while some of us embrace modernity, others of us are recoiling in horror.

And this takes us to fundamentalism. The scholar Karen Armstrong defines fundamentalism as a “militant religiosity” that is a “reaction against and a rejection of modern Western society.” I would turn that around a bit and say that religious fundamentalism is a kind of social pathology that expresses itself as religion. Although the pathology comes in a religious package, the pathology, not the religion, is the driving force. I say that because, time and time again, we see that any teachings of the religion being used as the container are ignored if they conflict with the pathology.

By the same token, I say that current “movement conservatism” is a social pathology expressing itself as political ideology. Conservatism has taken on many of the attributes scholars associate with fundamentalism, such as the view that they are engaged in a cosmic struggle between absolute good and absolute evil. They also “affirm their identity by selecting doctrines and practices from the past,” one of the markers of fundamentalism in this review of one of Armstrong’s books. They’re adopting rigid doctrines about taxes and monetary policy, often without even a glimmer of understanding how taxes and the monetary system work. They accept the doctrines of the tribe because those are the doctrines of the tribe. Oh, and freedom.

It’s getting uglier and uglier because many people are living in boxes that are utterly out of sync with the way civilization really works these days. Eventually this will fade, but not in our lifetimes. Until then, we’re going to have to put up with lots of people who are raving and fearful and irrationally thrashing about in all directions because the box they live in is threatened by modernity. So be it.

One of the things that strikes me, over and over again, about the reactionaries calling themselves conservatives these days is the degree to which they are utterly oblivious to the interconnections. You’ve got a Republican presidential ticket made up of two guys born into wealth and privilege who see themselves as self-made men, and don’t understand why everyone can’t be as successful as they are. You’ve got the baggers in Medicare-paid power scooters rallying against socialized medicine.

And then there’s the “you didn’t build that” flap. You can’t explain to the baggers that the President was talking about essential infrastructure. They deny that business needs infrastructure. Build a nail salon and they will come, I suppose. I actually ran into someone on a Web forum who refused to believe that business needs stuff like roads and utilities. They built Las Vegas in the desert, didn’t they?

This morning’s rant was touched off by a comment on this page. JETHRO212 wrote,

The ironic thing is, if you listen to the entire Obama “You didn’t build dat” thing, it gets way worse, if you listen to the whole thing he goes way off into it wouldn’t even be possible to have a business without Government.

But … it really isn’t possible to have a business, as we understand business, without government. Currency? Government. Without government, we’d resort to a barter system; we really would be taking chickens to the doctor. Contracts? Without a legal system, contracts are worthless. Legal system? Government. Someone robs your store, you call the police. Police? Government. Without government, the only people in business are mobs and pirates. Civilization itself was built on the premise that somebody is in charge and makes the rules. In recorded history there has never been a human society that didn’t have some kind of government, even if just a tribal chief who got the honor by beating up all the other chief candidates.

I have a fantasy that all the Ayn Rand enthusiasts who want to “go Galt” be given a big tract of land somewhere and allowed to take whatever power generators, tools, and means to produce food they can carry, and then they can be on their own. And as long as they stay on the “res,” and didn’t interact with the rest of society, they wouldn’t have to pay taxes. They also forfeit all government benefits, of course. But they could build whatever they wanted and be self-made men (and, trust me, most of ‘em would be men) all day long.

I’d give it two years, tops.

[Originally published on The Mahablog, September 19, 2012. To read more about the boxes we live in, see Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.]

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Rituals? Really?

RRlogo2-copy.gifShortly after I began writing the Buddhism section of About.com, a reader named “Ernie” contacted me to complain about rituals, among other things. He was interested in Buddhism, he said, but he was turned off by the rituals. When I explained that the rituals have a purpose and suggested he give them a try, he angrily replied, “Buddhism, like all other religions, has its rigid robots who know everything about their religion’s ritual and nothing about its heart.”

A person who insists that a centuries-old tradition change itself to accommodate him perhaps is not one to accuse others of rigidity. He also didn’t explain why “ritual” and “heart” are mutually exclusive. Ritual can touch the heart, in fact. if you put your heart into it.

I wrote in Rethinking Religion:

Across religious traditions, ceremonies and rituals function to create a sanctified space, and those who enter that space are dedicating themselves to fulfillment of the ultimate concern of their religion, whatever that is. The space is sanctified by the participants’ own reverence and devotion, and ritual objects such as chalices, crosses, incense and candles give physical presence to that reverence and devotion. …

…I’m not saying that rituals and ritual objects have magic power. I’m saying that rituals and ceremonies, when carried out with care and attention, can have a palpable psychological impact on the participants that really can expand awareness and change perspectives.

Modernity has become very anti-ritual, for some reason. Like my correspondent “Ernie,” the very idea of participating in ritual is unacceptable to many. This may spring from a fear of loss of autonomy or individuality; to participate in group ritual is to relinquish doing one’s own thing, even for just a little while. Or, we may shrink from ritual because we think they are superstitious; we chant some words and perfume the air with incense and perhaps unseen spirits will listen to us. But there are a lot of ways to think about ritual.

Part of the reason I wrote Rethinking Religion was to open up the definition of “religion” so that it applies to traditions other than the Big Three of monotheism — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In thinking about what all traditions considered “religions” have in common, it seemed to me that the One Constant Thing is that they are all about connecting to or realizing something beyond the individual, finite self. The something might be God, although not necessarily. The practice might involve prayer and worship, although not necessarily. And, yes, the discipline or practice probably is framed by doctrine that cannot be verified objectively but which might be personally verified in one way or another. But merely believing in the doctrine is not the point. Religion is also something that we do, and how we live and experience ourselves and our lives.

Rituals are also about making something visible or tangible that is invisible or intangible. A wedding ceremony is a tangible expression of a couple’s love and commitment, for example. Rituals can help us express and share joy and sorrow, grief and hope, in a nonverbal way. Mindfully practiced, a ritual can bring the teachings of a religious tradition “into the body,” as we say in Zen, making the religion something more than some ideas or beliefs we carry around in our heads. The physical activity of ritual brings the religious tradition into your body and life in subtle, subconscious ways.

Rituals are not necessarily religious. I was thinking about ritual after attending the recent funeral of my brother, a retired U.S. Army officer, complete with an honor guard and three-volley salute. To me, this part of the ritual spoke of continuity — that my brother was part of a tradition that extended into the past and will continue into the future. There are rituals expressing patriotism and loyalty to sports teams. Again, rituals are a way to make tangible one’s connection to something larger than oneself.

Alice_par_John_Tenniel_04In modern times much of Christianity de-ritualized worship services. In some Protestant denominations little is expected of the congregants other than to sing the hymns, hear the sermon, and occasionally  bow their heads. I saw a video of communion inside one of the big Christian megachurches and found the entire spectacle annoying, from the congregants who received the bread and grape juice on trays and consumed them as if they were party hors d’œuvres to the schmaltzy organ music that oozed over the proceedings like pancake syrup. The minister’s wife talked nonstop through a microphone, reassuring the congregants that by receiving communion they would also receive God’s blessings and various other benefits.

But the congregants just sat there. There was no expression of devotion or commitment to their religion’s ultimate concerns. There was no mindful expression of the mystery of life and death or (important to Christians) the sacrifice of Christ. It was a transaction; drink the magic potion and become one of God’s Chosen People.

At Patheos, a student of religion at Boston University named Connor Wood wrote of the importance of ritual to religion. His use of the word index is puzzling to me, but I think he’s using index in the sense of measure or indicator. He argues that while words are purely symbolic, indexes are inseparable from the thing indicated. And rituals are indexes. Modern internet culture, however, is purely symbolic and disembodied, and people of that culture are more than ever baffled by the idea of ritual.

Remember that indexes are efficient; simply showing up for temple each week conveys much more information than words realistically could. But words are also rational. Logical arguments require language, not actions. And so our culture, which highly values logic, elevates reasoning and language over bodily habits, a preference rooted in historical Protestant emphasis on Scripture over rituals. Rationalism trumps efficiency.

This Protestant anti-ritual attitude is staggeringly amplified in Internet culture, the most de-ritualized social space in history. We can’t see each other; others can’t see us. There’s no way for social conventions that involve the whole body to take root. And so the way we communicate online is almost purely abstract and discursive, and thus extremely symbolic.

Religion divorced from the body becomes something entirely abstract and symbolic, and the symbolism itself is increasingly detached from anything but ideas. Like “Ernie,” who felt attracted to Buddhism but was outraged at the idea of practicing it,  we forget the simple truth that religion is about experience, in particular our experience of living and dying. It is about trust in things we may not understand intellectually. It is about dropping away the hard shell of self and becoming vulnerable — to God, or enlightenment, or whatever your tradition calls its ultimate concern.

When religion becomes just about ideas or beliefs, is it still religion? How may intellectual theory cause us to transcend the self? Where is the commitment, the sacrifice, in mere loyalty to belief? Indeed, what seems to happen more often than not is that religion becomes fused with ego and becomes just an attribute of the self. Through ritual, religion becomes fully embodied, and we learn how to experience it, not just how to think about it.

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Posted in Buddhism, Christianity, Comparative Religion, Faith, Religion in America, Spirituality, What Is Religion For?

What’s With the War on Christmas?

The Christmas television commercials preceded Halloween this year, and I see some of my neighbors have their Christmas decorations up already.

Yes, folks, the annual War on Christmas season has begun.

At Patheos, Zen teacher and Unitarian Universalist minister James Ford writes “Why I’m Afraid of Christians: Or the Briefest Meditation on Wishing Happy Holidays to All.”

There is something hanging in the back of my mind when living in a country dominated by a group of people who have an ideology that puts me at the moment of my death firmly into the fires of hell for, well, forever. And it’s hard not to be vaguely aware of how easy a step it is from seeing someone as firewood in the future to seeing one as killable in the present tense.

Of course, it isn’t the only example of this latent threat of violence. Politicians decrying that atheists can vote comes to mind, too. Pandering to the religious majority, with just a hint of violence in the air. Just a hint. And personally I don’t see much different in the historical rhetoric of jihad and crusade.

But the constant declarations today of people in the religious majority lamenting how they’ve been put upon by having to share space with people of other religions or none is the really scary thing. Violence against religious minorities is a once, and I see no reason to think not, a future thing.

How likely is it that reactionary Christians in the U.S. might become violent? Violence linked to religion is on the rise around the world, according to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project. Is it possible religious violence might increase in the U.S. as well?

This may seem unlikely, but do see “Rumblings of Theocratic Violence” by Frederick Clarkson. Clarkson documents that there is indeed a large and well-connected subculture of extreme Christians in the U.S. who are calling for armed insurrection against the government. Some of these extremists are forging ties with the neo-confederate movement and forming paramilitary units.

As I wrote in Rethinking Religion, “religious” violence often is about something else and is just packaged as religion. What we’re seeing around the world is a lot of right-wing reactionism pushing back against cultural change and modernity generally, and for some reason right-wing reactionism these days likes to dress itself up as religion. Hence, a rise in what appears to be “religious” violence.

But there are two qualities found in most violent mass movements that need to be understood —

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both. — Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)

I propose in Rethinking Religion that fervent belief in a holy cause — which doesn’t necessarily have to be religious — by itself doesn’t usually drive people into violence. A holy cause combined with a fanatical grievance, however, will do nicely. If you look at violent groups around the world today, I believe you will see they all harbor fanatical grievances. In their minds, they have been wronged and abused and are entitled to payback.

The last couple of posts, “’Religious Violence’ Isn’t Just Religious” and “The Christian Right’s Pitiful Rearguard Action” both discuss the way the U.S. religious Right cherishes a belief in its own martyrdom, and that holding them to the same anti-discrimination laws as everyone else amounts to discrimination against them. And this is what makes them dangerous. The stronger their sense of fanatical grievance, the more dangerous they are likely to become.

I’m not saying the U.S. religious Right is going to become as extremely dangerous as ISIS. The provocations are not quite so strong — we haven’t experienced war here since 1865, and have not suffered occupying foreign powers. But I think the threat they pose is real, and it’s a big reason their increasingly hysterical screams of martyrdom have me concerned.

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“Religious Violence” Isn’t Just Religious

I recommend Sean McElwee’s article at Salon, “What we really talk about when we talk about religion.” Citing the recent Harris-Maher-Affleck “debate” on the culpability of Islam in violence, McElwee writes,

At the core of this debate is the extent to which the religion of Islam is responsible for the violence of ISIS, and other atrocities often committed in the name of god. But the problem with such debates, as I’ve argued previously, is that they mistake cause and effect. Religious belief is ultimately historically contingent: Religious beliefs, like cultural beliefs, are shaped by the material circumstances that give rise to them.

Those, such as Maher and Harris, who wish to defend “liberalism” against the tyranny of “religious fanaticism” are attempting to shift the blame from actual historical circumstances to ephemeral ideologies.  Should we blame the rise of ISIS on “religious fanaticism,” or on the failed 2003 invasion of Iraq, the de-Baathification policy, the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the disastrous regime of Nouri al-Maliki? Furthermore, there is a long history of colonial oppression, military aggression and economic hegemony. These complaints, as well as historical grievances relating back to the Crusades, inform the views of radicals like Osama bin Laden. …

… This leads to the core delusion pushed by the Maher/Harris/Dawkins “New Atheist” team: that religion exists independently of social, political and economic systems, and that religion influences these structures. In fact, the opposite is true: Religion is largely the handmaiden of economic and political power. It is fluid, able to mold to whatever needs are suited to those wielding it.

I made the same argument in Rethinking Religion. If you look closely and objectively at incidents of religious violence throughout history, you see it’s never just about religion. More often it’s really about politics, or greed, or colonialism, or some other thing, and religion is just the packaging.

Even when the violence appears primarily motivated by religious beliefs, there’s something else going on beneath the surface that is pushing people to become, shall we say, aggressively pro-active about those beliefs. Psychologically healthy people who are reasonably content with their lives and not feeling particularly aggrieved about anything cannot be incited into violence by scriptures and sermons alone. And I believe this is true even if such persons are very devout. However, people who are angry, afraid, or nursing some sort of fanatical grievance are another story.

McElwee also makes a good point at our tendency to misinterpret the causes of violence.

The criticism of “radical Islam” in fact bears resemblance to another dodge today. In the wake of usurpation, violence and plunder, white Americans look at blacks and worry about “cultural pathologies,” where only economic deprivation exists. At the core, the fallacy is the same — ascribing a negative culture to an oppressed and maligned group.

protest

Gay rights protest in front of San Fernando Cathedral, San Antonio, Texas, 2008. By Charles 210, Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

That said, there is probably no group of people more likely to become dangerous than religious fanatics — and any religion will do —  nursing a grievance. I wrote in the last post about the fanatical grievance growing among some Christian conservatives in the U.S., who interpret interference with their discrimination against others as discrimination against them.  Christian conservatives assume rights of tribal dominance and demand that government carve out for them exclusive discrimination privileges not extended to other groups. And if they don’t get what they want, they think they are the victims.

In Rethinking Religion I propose that most group violence comes about when a mass movement bears both a holy cause and a fanatical grievance. The “holy cause” doesn’t have to be religion. It could be nationalism — especially belief in a glorious national identity — or a belief in racial superiority, or a lot of other things. But a holy cause by itself usually doesn’t cause people to become violent, especially if there’s a way they can work within the system to get what they want. It’s the fanatical grievance that pushes people over the edge.

That’s why the Christian Right’s obsessive, fanatical belief in its own victimization — the myth of Christian oppression in the U.S. — is seriously dangerous. If fanatical right-wing Christians in the U.S. become more and more frustrated with the system, and feel it is no longer responding to them, some of them could very easily become violent. The elements are there.  I doubt such violence would be as extreme or widespread as has happened in Islamic countries, but not because Islam per se is more violent than Christianity per se. The difference would not be religion, but that the U.S. hasn’t been invaded by foreign armies or subjected to colonial oppression, at least not for more than a couple of centuries.  Being forced to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple is not quite in the same league as foreign occupation. But fanaticism is still fanaticism.

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