Category Archives: Atheism & Spirituality

How Many Virtues?

cardinal virtuesThe Greeks had but four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage (or fortitude). To this, many centuries later, the Catholic church (notably Aquinas) added three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (or love). These are the seven basic virtues of Western culture. But they’re not the only ones.

In 410 CE, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius listed seven ‘heavenly’ virtues in his religious poem, Psychomachia: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Writing in the New York Times recently, David Brooks said.

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

Brooks adds: “Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

In that sense we have two ‘resume’ virtue lists: the one we present to others, make an ostensible show of and tell people these are the virtues we pursue, even when we do not – and hope these become our eulogy list. And we have a private list of virtues we know we actually believe in, we actually practice in daily life.

But what are those virtues? Are they the four, the seven, or are there more?

Buddhists have two, intertwined lists of virtues. The first is the eightfold path:

  • Right view
  • Right intention
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right concentration

The second list of ten virtues comes from the Natha Sutta:

  1. Sila: good conduct; keeping moral habits;
  2. Bahusutta: great learning;
  3. Kalyana mitta: good company; association with good people;
  4. Sovacassata: amenability to correction; meekness; easy admonishability;
  5. Kingkaraniyesu Dakkhata; willingness to give a helping hand; diligence and skill in managing all the affairs of one’s fellows in the community;
  6. Dhammakamata; love of truth;
  7. Viriyarambha; energy; effort; energetic exertion; making effort; being industrious in avoiding  and abandoning evil actions, and cultivating the good;
  8. Santutthi; contentment;
  9. Sati; mindfulness; the ability to remember what one has done and spoken;
  10. Panna; wisdom; insight.

There are other sutras that list Buddhist virtues (also called perfections, or paramitas) like the Ten Perfections of the Buddhavamsa and the Six Perfections  of the Lotus Sutra, but they are essentially the same list as above.

On the virtuescience page, 119 virtues are listed, including wonder, thrift, thankfulness, respect, responsibility, sobriety, loyalty, honesty, generosity and discretion.  A similar, list can be found on virtuesforlife and similar sites (such as the wikiversity site). In the one-upmanship often found online, there are even longer lists (up to around 160) with terms like prayerfulness, resilience, health, beauty and assertiveness.

Are all of these really virtues? Or merely attributes or qualities: behavioral traits? That depends on how you define virtue.

Loyalty, for example, is relative: like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. Loyalty is only a virtue in someone else if they are on the same side or in the same party as you are. It’s a vice in others of different political, religious or cultural beliefs. History is replete with cases of blind loyalty where it was a character flaw, not a virtue. Think of the SS or the Soviet commissars in WWII, the Red Guard in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. None of the victims would consider their loyalty a virtue. Loyalty to a small cause can equally be disloyalty to the greater good.

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Atheist Spirituality?

Penguin PublishersAndre Comte-Sponville’s elegantly-written book, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, has occupied much of my thoughts and reading time these past few weeks as I try to grapple with his message. I find I need to re-read sections of it, perhaps more than once, to digest and weigh all of the ideas presented.

I’m more accustomed to the polarizing polemics of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins, and their militant atheism; French philosopher Comte-Sponville’s reasoned and gentle approach quite threw me off guard. Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins may be right (and righteous) in their arguments, but they can be caustic and grating. Comte-Sponville – who also calls himself an atheist – is more conciliatory and willing to concede points to religion that the others are not, particularly in the areas of heritage and culture.

And in death, where Comte-Sponville says religion holds the better hand in dealing with mortality, offering “not only the possibility of consolation, but also a sorely-needed ritual…” that helps us humanize and even civilize death. “The power of religion at such times,” he writes, “is neither more nor less our own powerlessness in the face of the void.”

In the wake of the death of my own mother, mortality has been on my mind somewhat more than usual. Which is one reason, I suppose, I am turning to philosophy with greater frequency to try and make sense of the world.

Calling oneself an atheist has long been a form of rebellion: to challenge three millennia of society, to storm the ramparts of conformity. But only in the last century has that declaration been made without punishment or at least ostracism. No it’s almost chic to do so, like wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

Each generation has to find its own centre anew, and each older generation has to agonize over that choice. But what happens when the rebels become the establishment, when the challenge becomes the new conformity? Do we repeat the cycle again from the other side?

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Conrad Black: Wrong on Religion, Again

QuoteAtheists renounce and abstain from religions; they don’t reform them. So said Conrad Black in a recent National Post column. Black seems to be increasingly theological in his writing; perhaps he has had some sort of epiphany in prison. If so, it seems to be pushing him towards a Pauline-style intolerance and exclusivity, religiously speaking. That attitude is not conducive to dialogue, but it certainly suits the writer.

And, as he has been in the past, he is wrong about both religion and atheism. He speaks from the position of the True Believer for whom no other perspective, let alone dissent, is tolerable. Black, a convert to Catholicism, wrote contemptuously of other religions in 2009:

… Anglicans, moreover, have never really decided whether they are Protestant or Catholic, only that they “don’t Pope,” though even that wavers from time to time. Luther, though formidable and righteous, was less appealing to me than both the worldly Romans, tinged with rascality though they were, and the leading papist zealots of the Counter-Reformation.
The serious followers of Calvin, Dr Knox and Wesley were, to me, too puritanical, but also too barricaded into ethnic and cultural fastnesses, too much the antithesis of universalism…
Islam was out of the question; too anti-western, too identified with the 13th-century decline and contemporary belligerency of the Arabs; and the Koran is alarmingly violent, even compared to the Old Testament. Judaism, though close theologically, is more tribal and philosophical than spiritual. … the 80% of the early Jews who became Christians, starting with Christ, had correctly identified the Messiah than that the proverbially “stiff-necked” rump of continuing Jewry are right still, ostensibly, to be waiting for Him.
It need hardly be said that the Jews are the chosen people of the Old Testament, that they have made a huge contribution to civilization, and that they have been horribly persecuted. But being Jewish today, apart from the orthodox, is more of an exclusive society, and a tradition of oppression and survival, than an accessible faith.*

Let’s start with a simple clarification: everyone is an atheist in that there are many gods a lot of people don’t believe in. I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts Conrad doesn’t believe in Moloch, Zeus, Baal, Ahura Mazda, Krishna, Hera,  Shiva,, Ganesh or Odin. That makes him and everyone else who doesn’t believe in them an atheist to those who do. Those whom many people normally label as atheist merely believe in one less deity than those who claim to be believers. Atheism is thus relative.

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Canadian Ambivalence Towards Religion

A new Angus Reid poll underscores the changing, ambivalent nature of Canadian attitudes towards religion, but there are many things about the poll that concern me and make me question its methodology and whether an inherent bias influenced the results.

First of all, what is “religion”? That may seem obvious, but there are conflicting definitions, and often religion is used interchangeably with the terms faith and belief,  although that is incorrect usage and they are, in fact, different.

I think it’s important to be clear when asking people about religion exactly what you mean by the word ‘religion’ – and I cannot find anywhere in the questionnaire that this was defined. It is, however defined on the analysis webpage. But was it explained to respondents?

For me, religion is generally the organizational structure and hierarchy – political, social, cultural – that creates the framework in which faith and belief operate. People sometimes reject religion – the controlling organization – without rejecting faith itself.

Wikipedia defines religion with a broad brush but it ignores the political, controlling structure:

…an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence. adds this, but again missing the hierarchical nature of religion:

…a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Google’s search produced this definition, which is far too narrow, since it excludes Buddhism and other non-theistic practices:

…the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

Search online for the definition of religion and you will quickly discover how wide-ranging the definitions are, and that many of them do not agree on basics. For example, many definitions include belief in supernatural beings, rituals, a distinction between sacred and profane objects and acts, and prayer. But these are traits of some religions, not a definition of religion itself.

Nor was the word “spiritual” defined (again it is on the analysis webpage), although question four asks people to define whether they are spiritual or religious. Yet the term spiritual is even more vague and fraught with complexities than religion, in that it can mean “…almost any kind of meaningful activity or blissful experience… a process of transformation, but in a context separate from organized religious institutions… a blend of humanistic psychology, mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions.”

Here’s what Angus Reid has chosen for its definitions as per its web page, both of which strike me as very narrow and restrictive. Their definition of religion would exclude Buddhism and Taoism, for example, since neither include supreme beings. And the soul is a contentious definition because (aside from not being defined here), it assumes a belief in one. And is spirit the same as, say, team spirit, so baseball is a spiritual activity on the same plane as meditation? To me, this is both sloppy and vague.

It remains unclear whether these definitions were presented to participants:

Spiritual: of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.

Religious: relating to or believing in a religion…forming part of someone’s thought about or worship of a divine being

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Conrad Black: Off the Rails

Conrad BlackI generally read Conrad Black‘s columns for their entertainment value, but I also read them for the language. Black is the best tosser of pithy epithets since Spiro Agnew*. And like the former US VP, he’s a pompous git who puffs up his intellectual feathers like a pigeon in heat – that puffery of sound and fury that signifies nothing more than an ego he has to bring along in its own carriage. He is very amusing that way.

Now to be clear, I have little respect for Black’s uber-right ideologies. We are at polar opposites of the political spectrum: as a self-appointed spokesperson for the entitled one percent he annoys my modest socialist and humanist values.

And because  I also value loyalty to my native Canada, I detest that he gave up his Canadian citizenship in such a cavalier fashion. (I suggest strongly that he be tossed out of the country for that and because he’s also a criminal: he was convicted of fraud in the USA and served jail time for it. Criminality is another similarity he shares with Spiro Agnew, although the circumstances differ.)

But being a criminal doesn’t mean he can’t write. Damn, but he often turns a mean phrase and, even if I disagree with his haughty self-absorbed and pretentious politics, I like to read him because he wordsmiths brilliantly. Most of the time. Sometimes, of course, he’s just that pompous, self-righteous git we all loathe.

This past week, Black outdid himself in his NatPost column and took that pomposity and git-ness to a new level.

The piece was titled “The shabby, shallow world of the militant atheist,” and in it Black railed like a frothing Irenaeus against the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Perhaps Black – who professes to having having his his prison sentence made endurable through his faith – is planning his new book; a 21st century version of Against the Heresies.

Black writes…

Nor can the atheists ever grapple plausibly with the limits of anything, or with the infinite. They rail against “creation” — but something was created somehow at some point to get us all started. They claim evolution debunks Christianity  (though all educated Christians, including Darwin, acknowledge evolution) — but evolution began somewhere. When taxed with the extent of the universe and what is beyond it, most atheists now immerse themselves in diaphanous piffle about a multiverse — but the possible existence of other universes has nothing to do with whether God exists.

I love that phrase, “diaphanous piffle…” although it exposes his ignorance. I was disappointed, because if nothing else, I always thought Black was well-educated. Clearly his education in cosmological concepts and quantum mechanics is less than that of the average scifi reader. Why must there be anything beyond this universe? Why can’t this be everything?

And as for evolution: of course it started somewhere but there is no reason to believe it is the result of divine intervention. We’ve created organic molecules in the lab; we’ve found them on comets and other moons. Life just got its start through nothing more exotic than chemical reaction. And who claims evolution debunks Christianity? The creation myths are in Genesis, not the New Testament. Such claptrap.

Richard Dawkins tweeted in response to Black’s column:

Spot the factual errors, illogicalities and failures to understand.

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Hate Crimes Against Non-believers Growing

Saved by scienceWe all know about the hate crimes religious believers commit against one another, against people of a different faith. It’s headlines news, almost daily. Protestants against Catholics. Sunnis against Shiites. Muslims against Christians. Hindus against Muslims. Buddhists against Muslims. Christians against pagans. Christians against Jews. Muslims against Jews. Cults against anyone and everyone against cults.

Pick a faith and it’s been involved in attacks, intolerance, intimidation, and killing sometime in its history. Even the normally pacifist Buddhists have been.

Religions have been fighting with one another since prehistory: their believers have been killing, burning, rampaging and raping one another since humanoids invented religion back in the Stone Age. And religion in turn invented the hate crime category. Not that all religion is about hate; many good deeds are also done in the name of religion. But it certainly spawns more intolerance and violence than anything else I can think of.

Today’s headlines are filled with the destruction religions inflict on each other and on themselves. Suicide bombers kill themselves and everyone around them for religious fantasy of an afterlife in paradise. Or maybe from sheer hatred of another sect or faith. Most of today’s terrorism is religious, not political (although often religious terrorism is linked to political reasons by conservative, ultra-nationalist and pro-theocratic ideologies).

Saved by ScienceThis week, The Independent has a story about a dark aspect of religious hate crime seldom mentioned: the organized – and increasingly violent – attacks on non-believers. Not against believers of other sects or faiths: these are hate crimes against those who simply don’t believe in any deity. Some of them are atheists. Some are simply non-believers without any particular view or opinion. All of them are increasingly targets of the virulent hatred of non-believers.

Which is ironic, since generally atheists are the least violent people; the least likely to pursue their goals through terrorism; the least of all threats to the state.

Atheists and humanists are being targeted as distinct minorities in “hate campaigns” across the globe, according to The Freedom of Thought report, published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). It reports that religious and political leaders are ratcheting up rhetoric against those who believe there is no God or gods; against those who deny or even question the leader’s preferred deity.*

Saved by ScienceAtheists have long been a target of religious believers, of course. Secularists, skeptics, free thinkers, humanists and atheists have always been at the top of the target list for religious and political repression. Thought crime – not accepting the ruling class’s or leader’s orthodoxy – has been punished – usually brutally and often fatally – since ancient times. Some periods, however, were more famous for the suppression of thought and ideas.

The Inquisition delighted in torturing people for centuries and invented some remarkably frightening and cruel devices for inflicting pain and damage on the human body in its efforts to cleanse the world of non-believers and heretics, or sometimes simply those who weren’t orthodox enough. The Spanish Inquisition started in 1478 and killed its last person in 1826. It was abolished in 1834, having put roughly 150,000 on trial and executing between 3,000 and 5,000 during its 350-year history of terror.**

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Feb. 12: Happy Darwin Day

Charles DarwinFebruary 12 is international Darwin Day, the day when we collectively celebrate science and reason. And, of course, we recognize Charles Darwin’s birthday: February 12, 1809 (the same birthdate as Abraham Lincoln, by the way).

If Collingwood made such declarations, I would propose we recognize the day in our municipality. Other Canadian municipalities have done so. Maybe we could raise a flag with Darwin’s face on it outside town hall.

Darwin Day was first celebrated in 1995 and has been growing in recognition and popularity ever since. As tells us the celebration was:

…initiated by Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Stephens and took place at Stanford University. The first EVENT sponsored by the Stanford Humanists student group and the Humanist Community, was held on April 22, 1995. The famous anthropologist Dr. Donald Johanson, who discovered the early fossil human called ‘Lucy’, gave a lecture entitled “Darwin and Human Origins” to over 600 people in the Kresge Auditorium.

In subsequent years the location and date of the celebration was changed to coincide with Darwin’s birthday and was held on, or near, February 12 each year. The success of the venture is reflected in the list of speakers which include Richard Dawkins, 1996; Paul Berg, 1997; Robert Sapolsky, 1998; Douglas Hofstadter, 1999; Michael Shermer, 2001; Robert Stephens and Arthur Jackson, 2003; Robert and Lola Stephens, 2004; and Eugenie Scott, 2005.

And, as the site also adds, “Celebrating Science and Humanity within our various cultures throughout the world is an idea that is overdue…”

I would hope, too, that people would take some time out of their busy days to read something of Darwin’s, even if only a few pages. He wrote beautifully, albeit rather obtusely at times.

Of course, I don’t expect creationists will break out of their cult mentality and celebrate science today: they haven’t in more than 150 years since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. But while we celebrate Darwin, we should give some thought to creationism on this day, not just to critical thinking, if for nothing else than to remind us that we still have a long way to go to get universal appreciation of science and reason.

Especially, it seems, in the USA, where 43 percent of Americans believe in young-earth creationism. Not entirely bad news, given that figure has dropped from 54 percent in 2009. But still very, very scary.*

On Facebook today there were a couple of links to articles about creationism worth reading on this Darwin Day.

Creationism museum displayFirst is a cutely risible piece on Buzzfeed called “45 Things I Learned At The Creation Museum.” For those who don’t know it, the Creation Museum in Kentucky is where Bill Nye recently successfully debated creationist Ken Ham. It’s probably the most strenuous effort to rationalize away science ever constructed.

If I ever get to Kentucky, I will pay a visit, but I expect I’ll get escorted out for laughing too loudly at the exhibits. And if you’re like me, you will probably enjoy the virtual tour in the Buzzfeed article more than actually being there, because you don’t risk being ejected. After all, how can you keep a straight face when confronted with a sign that claims all dinosaurs were vegetarians before Adam?

Uh, and those razor-edged, pointed, cutting, slashing teeth were for… broccoli? Okay, stop snickering or they won’t let you in the museum either.

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2014 predictions always good for a giggle

Psychic con artistI had barely finished writing my post on the failed 2013 predictions of the self-described “psychics” and “clairvoyants” who are the media darlings du jour, when the sorry lot of charlatans published their latest lot of flim-flammery and codswallop: predictions for 2014.

These will, of course, prove as wrong as the predictions for 2013. And 2012. And 2011, And 2010, And 2009. And on and on and on.

As usual, the list of “predictions” contains a lot of vague or general statements in which an unidentified “someone” is involved – you’d think that a real clairvoyant would be able to see the name of the person, and provide a location and a date.

But that would spoil the effect – afterwards they can claim they predicted the event rather than made a vague and irrelevant statement.

It’s a con game as old as history. And some of it is just plain silly.

Like this: “Garlic is in the news.” Huh? How in the “news?” In the food section of the Star? On a supermarket tabloid page? On sale in the local grocery store flyer? When will it be “in the news”? What sort of “psychic” predicts vegetables?

Remember, these are the same folks who failed to predict the former pope resigning and the election of Pope Francis. And Lou Reed’s death. Nelson Mandela’s death. James Gandolfini’s Jean Stapleton’s and Margaret Thatcher’s death. The meteor exploding over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. Typhoon Haiyan “Yolanda”, one of the strongest tropical cyclones on record.Lac Megantic train derailment. Anything about Rob Ford.

Well, some of them now claim they predicted some and even all of these, but their predictions are curiously absent in the roundup of 2013 predictions from so-called “psychics”…

But what are minor events of this stature, anyway when we had these headline-stealing predictions happen in 2013:

  • Congress will deal with gun control: Automatic weapons and high-powered rifles, semi-automatics that belong in war zones will be removed, and only used in situations where they are absolutely necessary.
  • The spirits don’t see newly engaged Kelly Clarkson living happily ever after, but they see Justin Bieber making movies.
  • Tom Cruise will leave the church of Scientology.
  • Nuclear attack on New York.
  • Cuba and Puerto Rico becoming part of the USA.
  • A weather satellite will come crashing into a building.
  • Experimental monkeys escape from a lab causing a pandemic.
  • Giant prehistoric sea monsters under the sea.
  • A possible landing of a spaceship.
  • An attack on the Vatican and Pope.
  • An earthquake of great magnitude wiping out Mexico City.
  • A new, odd, unexpected source of fuel for cars, trucks and/or machinery is announced.
  • While I truly hope this does not occur, I foresee a medical condition that sidelines Vice President Joe Biden.
  • A plague-like pandemic affects populations in Europe and to some extent in the USA. Much of it ironically occurs in hospitals.
  • Apple announces and releases a “mini iPhone” geared toward children and also under-served populations around the world. Apple finally launches a “smart TV.”
  • Meditation proves to be the gateway to contact loved ones on the other side.
  • It will be revealed that Vice President Joe Biden has been under medical care for senile dementia. I predicted his ailment back in 2012.
  • Worldwide, we will see more mysterious mass bird deaths and tens of thousands of fish washing up on shore throughout the year. Conspiracy theories will abound.
  • The next doomsday “fad” will be solar flares.
  • Fashion tragedy: I predict the return of mesh shirts for men.
  • Israel with strike Iran with a full on attack at its nuclear programme but fail to destroy some of the more heavily entrenched facilities leaving quantities of uranium available for dirty bombs.
  • In Europe I see the start of an advertising-free search engine funded by the EU on a similar model to the BBC.
  • I see a major landslide on the English Coastline. I believe that this will be at Black Gang Chine in the Isle of Wight.
  • Families will rediscover the family dinner table.

The SnarkOkay, so none of them happened. Some of which we can be thankful for: Justin Bieber in movies and mesh shirts, for two.

But solar flares as a “fad”? Like tattoos? You have your very own? or maybe get one named after you? Hey, did you hear? Solar Flare Ian just blasted towards the Earth and is gonna disrupt all telecommunications for the next 48 hours… and by the way, Mexico City is still standing. So is New York.

And Tom Cruise? Still mired in the cult.

Families are still hunting the elusive “dinner table.” Like the hunt for El Dorado… hint: look in the dining room or the kitchen for it.

And if you’ve never read the Hunting of the Snark, you really must: it describes all too well the hunt for credible “psychics” … the Snark is a boojum, just like “psychics” are charlatans.

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