Thursday, July 31, 2008

Religion and Declining Birthrates

Michael Medved talked recently about the declining birthrates in western Europe and how this trend threatened to seriously harm economies as fewer and fewer working people would be around to support more and more elderly and ailing retirees. He proceeded to argue that this declining birthrate was largely the result of western Europe's growing apathy toward monotheistic religions which teach that human life is a "gift" and that we should fill the Earth with as much of it as we can.

Medved may be right about how a population's declining interest in religion causes its birthrate to decline. Or he may be wrong or, at least, he may be overestimating the importance of religion's and underestimating the importance of other factors' contribution to this decline. But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that he's thoroughly right. Does this mean that we should cling to dubious if not ridiculous religions in order to boost our populations? I don't think so.

Does it mean that we should be as fruitful and multiply as much as possible in order to keep our economies strong? Again, I don't think so. For I suspect that I speak for the subconscious if not conscious convictions of many that life is more of a curse or, at least, an unpleasant struggle than a blessing that we, nevertheless, cling to not because we love it so much but because, partly as a result of religious teachings, we fear dying and death more than we love life and because we feel nagging responsibility to hang in there for our loved ones.

If I'm right about this, we should celebrate declining birthrates in western Europe and fervently hope to see this same trend take place the world over so that the human population will shrink to a much more sustainable and environmentally friendly level.

Now I'll grant that the economic impact of a declining birthrate could be harmful to many, making life in an economy top-heavy with elderly retirees even more of an unpleasant struggle for everyone than it is already. But I don't believe that this justifies raising the birthrate. To me, it is the height (or should I say "depths"?) of selfishness to bring more children into this harsh and chaotic world to struggle and suffer so that they can take care of the rest of us. And if life is really as unpleasant for most of us as I've said, we're not doing the unborn any disfavors by not giving them the so-called "gift" of life. And if some might have had wonderful lives if only they'd been conceived and brought into this world, I say that if these potential persons will never know what they missed by not becoming actual persons, and the world will never know what it missed by not bringing them into it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Living In Limbo

I'm watching a devastating documentary on HBO about people who have suffered severe brain injury and are either comatose or have come out of a coma but are greatly impaired, temporarily or, most likely, permanently. It's heartbreaking to see doctors telling a patient's loved ones that there appears to be no chance for recovery and that they might want to consider removing life support and letting nature take its course.

Yet, if it does and these patients die, they and their loved ones might be the lucky ones compared to the patients who linger in a persistent vegetative state or who recover enough to consciously struggle terribly with profoundly compromised capabilities for the rest of their lives, and to their loved ones who are left with dashed hopes and broken dreams and, especially in the case of parents and spouses, saddled with the prospect of overwhelming debt and of having to devote essentially the rest of their lives to providing constant care for the all-but helpless person in their charge.

And when I see things like this, I wonder how there can be, as some religions teach, a spirit or divine Self underlying and animating our consciousness and being. For if there really were such a thing, why can it not overcome the ravages of brain trauma and break out of the coma and shine through the deficits and debilities that follow?

Can't Find My Way Home

And I ain't done nothing wrong,
But I can't find my way home.
--Steve Winwood

When I got off work Wednesday night, I saw that the route I always take home was blocked off by the police and fire department. I later learned that there had been a series of underground electrical explosions up the street knocking out power to some of the buildings in the vicinity and blowing a manhole cover into the air, causing injury to the occupant of a pickup truck driving by at the time. I'm glad I wasn't in the same place at the same time in my little car as that pickup was when that manhole cover went flying. I'm also glad that my wife answered the phone when I called to ask for alternate directions home.

I've written pretty extensively in this blog about my learning disabilities. One of them is that I'm profoundly navigationally impaired, and even more so in the darkness of night. Had my wife not been able to direct me, I don't know how I would have made it home. I would have probably driven around aimlessly until my desperation overcame my reluctance and I stopped somewhere to ask for directions. But it's not so easy to get directions after midnight, and, besides, I hate asking for directions. Not just because I'm a man, but also because I have inordinate difficulty understanding and following directions of all kinds.

So. like I said, I'm glad my wife was home and that she doesn't have the same problem I do. Next time I can't find my way home or wherever else I need to go, I intend to have my electronic navigator with me, just in case my spousal navigator isn't available.

Blind Faith--Can't Find My Way Home--1969

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Why I Ask Why

My wife learned recently that her cousin's former boyfriend and father of their child was in a Bangkok jail for theft or some such charge. This news comes as no surprise to any of us, for this young man has been nothing but trouble for my wife's cousin and her family for a long time, and it seemed to be only a matter of time before he got in real trouble. No place is a good place to get in legal trouble, but Thailand is probably less of a good place than many to spend time in jail or prison.

I don't know what's going to happen to this young man, but I hope that, whatever it is, it serves as a wake-up call that motivates him to change his life for the better. That is, I hope he's hit bottom and now has nowhere to go but up.

My wife doesn't care what happens to him. She seems to feel nothing but contempt for him. She says he's now getting what he deserves or reaping his karma.

I asked her why she supposes he's acted the way he has, and she answered, "Because he's lazy. He doesn't want to work." I asked her why he's lazy, and she replied, "Because he wants to live the good life and enjoy expensive things, but he won't do the work necessary to earn them himself. He expects people to give them to him." I asked why he expects people to give them to him, and she replied, "Because his mom and dad spoiled him. He got everything he wanted when he was growing up just by asking for it, and now he expects the people around him to keep giving him what he wants." "So, he's the way he is because of the way his parents raised him?" I ask. "No," my wife replied. "He could still have turned out like his brother and worked hard and treated people decently. He didn't have to act the way he has." "Well," I ask, "if he could have acted differently but didn't, why do you suppose he didn't?" "Because, like I said before, he's lazy." "Yes, but why is he lazy?" "Don't keep asking me these questions!" she said in exasperation.

Of course, the purpose of these questions is not to exasperate, but to get others thinking about why people do the things they do. That is, what causes them to do what they do. Yet, people don't seem to want to do this. They seem to want to stick with simplistic answers like, "He did it because he wanted to," or "She did it because she's a bad person." If you ask, "Why did he want to do it?" or "Why is she a bad person?"people want you to shut up or change the subject. They want to stick with their finger-pointing blame games and to find any excuse they can for scorning not only misbehavior but also those who misbehave.

But what's the alternative? If one looks for the causes of bad behavior or bad character, does one do as my wife suggested I do and not hold people accountable for what they do? Should the young man I mentioned earlier face no consequences for his acts? If he doesn't, won't he go on exploiting people for his own selfish ends?

I think we can draw a distinction between who people are, superficially and deeply, and what they do. I think we can find certain acts wrong and do what we reasonably can to discourage them and still feel compassion and unconditional regard for those who commit them. Gagdad says this is madness and that people must be subject to the masculine principle of conditional love lest they become foolish and narcissistic "liberals."

But it seems to me that those who do wrong are more likely to do right if they believe that they have it within them to be good and do good, and that we convey this to them when, even though we condemn their wrongful actions and punish them appropriately for them, we go on caring about them and loving them as persons and as manifestations of God no matter what they do.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


The more one becomes whole, the more powers one has at one's disposal, for wholeness counters the dissipation and fragmentation of profane living. A Whole Person is always a powerful person, both as a cause and an effect. A Whole Person is also "charismatic," in that his words and actions will have an existential "heft," since they are not alienated from the fullness of Being.
--Gagdad Bob

I disagree with much of what Gagdad says. But he sure seems right in the quote above. I want to be whole in the way he describes. I'm not sure how to get there, and it doesn't help that I have so little faith in my power to accomplish worthwhile goals, but I believe that he's right when he says: "I think it comes down to making a commitment on every level of one's being to make it so."

But after you've made that commitment, what specific path should you embrace with that commitment, and how do you know which one? Or is the nature of the path less important than the commitment? Will almost any path to wholeness, or, at least, a great many paths get you there if you pursue one of them with "all your heart, mind, and soul"?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Being Hard on People

Some people ask why I am so hard on certain unnamed bloggers, and that is why: because they assault the very foundation of conservatism, even if their intentions are good.
--Gagdad Bob

I don't know if I'm one of the "unnamed bloggers" to whom Bob was referring, but I do know that my conscious "intentions are good" when I criticize some aspects of political conservatism, just as I believe, or would like to believe, that Gagdad's conscious intentions are good when he criticizes those he perceives as "assaulting the very foundation of conservatism."

Yet, Bob and I differ on how we think people with good intentions that we perceive as wrong or misguided should be treated. Bob seems to think that he knows the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and that it's perfectly okay to "be hard on"--i.e., mock and disparage-- those who see things differently from how he does. On the other hand, I believe that we should not only strive to regard and treat everyone with respect as a fellow human being and as an instantiation of the divine, no matter how much we may disagree with his opinions and actions, but also that our best chance of helping everyone to find the whole and full truth is to treat everyone respectfully, no matter how much we disagree with him. This may help to open his heart and ours to dialog rather than keep us ensnared in oneupmanship put-downs and debate, and dialog is a pathway to the whole and complete truth.

I believe that there is truth in political conservatism, an example of which is that values are more important than liberals acknowledge in determining people's behaviors and economic, emotional, and spiritual "prosperity." But I also believe that there is truth in political liberalism, an example of which is that government can and should play a larger role than conservatives acknowledge in creating optimal conditions for the broadest spectrum and greatest number of people to develop values and find the other means necessary to achieve the aforementioned prosperity.

But if conservatives keep being "hard on"--i.e., keep insulting and vilifying--liberals or "leftists," and liberals keep being hard on conservatives instead of each affording the other enough kindness and respect to open-mindedly and open-heartedly communicate with each other, then each side is going to miss out on important truth and to needlessly ensure that rancorous if not destructive disagreement and conflict never ceases.

I believe that if someone has bad intentions, we can criticize or oppose his beliefs or actions without vilifying him as a person, even if it would be pointless to try to dialog with him. But if someone has good intentions but believes or does things we regard as wrong, not only should we treat him respectfully and kindly as a person even if we oppose what he says and does, but it may also be constructive to engage him in dialog.

Yet, how can we do this if we're caught up in "being hard" on him?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Listening to Michael Medved

I often listen to some of the Michael Medved radio program as I drive to work on weekday afternoons. I disagree with almost everything he says, but I respect his intelligence, articulateness, and the respectful way he treats callers who disagree with him, and I feel challenged to examine my "liberal" views more closely.

Yesterday, I heard him say that it's "ridiculous" for government to provide meals for public schoolchildren below the poverty line. But is it "ridiculous" for impoverished children to be guaranteed a wholesome meal or two every weekday? I don't think so? Do you? And if government won't guarantee it, WHO will?

Later, in the same program, Medved argued that homosexual marriage shouldn't be allowed, because the "core of marriage" is "sexual intercourse between a man and a woman" leading to the procreation and raising of children. Yet, does this mean that people can't marry for other reasons? Maybe they don't want children. Maybe they can't have them. Maybe they marry because they love each other and want to honor that love with a formal lifelong commitment to be there for one another "in sickness and in health." Isn't this the real "core" of marriage? If so, why can't it extend to homosexual as well as heterosexual couples?

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Loving God?

Gagdad Bob quotes and agrees with someone named Spengler who writes:
"The empty and arbitrary world of atheism is far closer to the Muslim universe than the Biblical world, in which God orders the world out of love for humankind, so that we may in freedom return the love that our creator bears for us. Atheism is an alternative to Islam closer to Muslim habits of mind than the love-centered world of Judaism and Christianity."

Yet, I seriously wonder how any thoughtful person can see the Christian God as loving or the Christian world as "love-centered." For why would a perfect God create anything at all, since his perfection would have him needing nothing in order to be perfectly fulfilled? And why would a loving God create a universe or, at least, a world filled with so much inescapable human and animal suffering? What's more, if human souls are immortal and capable of suffering everlasting torment in hell, how could one even begin to believe that a God who designed the universe with this possibility could in any way be considered anything other than monstrously cruel and hateful?

The Spengler quote, like conventional Christianity itself, paints God as the supreme and supremely sadistic egotist: "I give you life so that you may love me, even though I don't even deign to prove to you that I exist, but if you don't love me, I let you be tortured for eternity in a dungeon set aside just for the likes of you, and I let you and countless other people and creatures suffer unspeakable injustice in this life as well."

What kind of "loving" God is that? About as "loving" as the Reverend Fred Phelps.

As for God giving us the "freedom" to "return the love that our creator bears for us," this would be laughable if not so pathetic! How are we "free" to love a God that most of us don't even know exists and have outstanding reason to believe doesn't exist? And of those who believe that God does exist and that they will go to heaven for embracing him and to hell for rejecting him, do they have even as much "freedom" to reject him as does someone confronted by an armed robber who says, "Give me all your money or I'll blow your brains out"?

Finally, when one looks at the vast majority of self-professed Christians, does one see them as "love-centered"? Even if they don't spew the twisted hatred of Fred Phelps, they seem no more loving than most other people of other religions or no religion.

It continues to amaze me how human beings can use their intelligence to rationalize belief in a "loving God" that is neither loving nor the least bit plausible.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The History and Point of Enlightenment

Here is a marvelously clear and concise summary from Integral Spiritual Center of the nature and evolution of enlightened consciousness and of why we should seek enlightenment and to help other suffering beings.

In this week’s featured audio, Gabriel Nossovitch asks: if who we are is empty, formless ground, why should we do anything about the world of form? Why should we care about the evolution of consciousness or awareness? Why should we pay attention to the impulse to awaken others? After enlightenment, what’s the point?

Ken Wilber points out that this is actually a very old paradox, a sort of koan through the ages, which usually goes something like this: “There are no others to save; therefore I vow to save them all.” Gabriel’s question comes after ten years of deep practice; most people who’ve had a taste of satori eventually come to the same question.

Taking an Integral view of the evolution of enlightenment can be very helpful here. As has been often noted, spiritual practice seems to have the universal purpose of fostering states of consciousness. While the practices vary by tradition, the states themselves are remarkably similar, East and West. Both Vedanta and Vajrayana, for instance, posit five distinct states. The first three states are gross, subtle, and causal, all associated with the world of form. The fourth state, turiya (literally, Sanskrit for “fourth”) is the Witness of all form. Whereas the first three states (all experienced in the Upper-Left quadrant) all have corresponding energetic bodies (in the Upper-Right quadrant), the fourth state is associated with the space in which everything arises. The traditions birthed during the great Axial age (800-200 BCE) tended to have this state as their endpoint. Their practices usually involved witnessing all objects until attachment itself was exhausted, and grasping and identification dehydrated. And at that endpoint, radical, infinite, intelligent darkness, subtle bliss, Nirvana….

Of course, consciousness—and with it, enlightenment—continued to evolve. Led by Plotinus in the West and Nagarjuna in the East, the growing tip of consciousness pushed through turiya to a fifth state, turiyatita (literally, “beyond fourth”). This is the classic nondual state, in which the Witness merges with everything witnessed. The Heart Sutra says it beautifully:

    That which is form is not other than Emptiness;
    That which is Emptiness is not other than form;

Or, from Vedanta:

    The world is illusory
    Brahman alone is real
    The world is Brahman

In these paths, what arises is seen not as a distraction, but rather, as an ornament, and not as deficiency, but as abundance. As Gabriel puts it, “let form be forming.” And that is precisely the reason to come back. If enlightenment is indeed the nondual union of the Absolute and the relative, then of course, in an Absolute sense, nothing needs to be done. But in a relative sense (and the nondual transcends and includes the relative!), there are countless sentient beings living in a nightmare. We are given this precious human birth, and there is more to be done than we possibly can do in this precious human lifetime. Or, as Jack Kornfield memorably put it, “after the ecstasy, the laundry….”

Thursday, July 03, 2008

How to Stop Doping in Sports

I've just watched a sports program on HBO that, in one of its segments, addressed blood doping in cycling competitions. One professional team pledges to keep its members "clean" by subjecting them to very rigorous testing. That is, they are subjected to random testing approximately every two weeks, and their blood and urine are examined not for the presence of specific illegal drugs or hormones, which might be difficult or impossible to detect in savvy users, but for evidence of changes in blood or body chemistry that would evidence the use of improper drugs or hormones. In other words, when one uses agents designed to enhance athletic performance, they produce detectable changes that couldn't occur unless these agents were used.

This cycling team is employing these tactics to rescue professional cycling from the brink of demise from all the doping scandals that have plagued it. It sounds to me like a great idea with applicability to a broad range of sports that now have severe credibility problems.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Laziness or Overwork?

Yesterday, I quoted Christian physicist Karl Giberson about biblical literalism. I lifted the quote from an interview Giberson did with Salon in reference to his new book about how to reconcile Christianity and evolutionary theory. I haven't read the book, but the interview makes clear that Giberson doesn't believe in interpreting all of the bible literally but believes, instead, that if one interprets creation accounts as revelations through myth of or about God and God's relation to the universe, one can be Christian and still embrace evolutionary theory.

Giberson may well be correct, although I continue to wonder how one can be Christian in any meaningful sense and not accept equally dubious literal interpretations of other biblical accounts--such as the Gospel accounts of Jesus' unique divinity and resurrection--as fact.

But what I want to briefly address today is Giberson's explanation of why people, especially here in America, are attracted to biblical literalism. He attributes this attraction largely to sheer "intellectual laziness." Interestingly, this same laziness is commonly blamed for Americans reputedly knowing so little about science, politics, economics, history, international affairs, and so forth.

I agree with those, including Giberson, who say that we Americans are stunningly ignorant of important things. But I'm not sure I buy their explanation for this ignorance. For it seems to me that it may not be so much a matter of laziness as it is of overwork. That is, we Americans are so busy and frazzled working forty or more hours a week, commuting an hour or more to and from work, raising families, doing innumerable domestic chores, and trying to salvage a decent night's sleep that there is almost no time or energy left over for theological or any other kinds of studies.

Of course, I don't claim to know for sure that if most Americans had more time to devote to these studies, they'd do it, but I can darn sure say that if I had more such time, I'd use it this way, and I'd like to think that many others would do the same.

Would you?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Biblical Literalism

Biblical literalism is very simple. You read the Bible in English and you say to yourself that these are the things God wrote down through a secretary a long time ago, and all I need to do is read this in English and that's all the work I have to do to understand it. Who wouldn't want that to be the case? If you try to tell these people that they need some egghead scholar from Harvard, who can read Hebrew, to come in and help them with it, that seems offensive and alienating, and people aren't attracted to that.
--Karl Giberson