The Dude, the Tao and the Dharma

The DudeI suppose it all began with Benjamin Hoff. Hoff was one of the first contemporary writers to attempt to distill Taoism in a lighthearted form for Westerners when he wrote The Tao of Pooh in 1981, a very successful book still in print. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 49 weeks. A decade later, he followed with The Te of Piglet, less successful (its message somewhat diluted by Hoff’s extraneous political and social commentary) but also still in print.

Not that Hoff was the first Westerner to attempt to explain Asian philosophy and religion. That goes back to Marco Polo. However, it really got a head of steam in the late 19th century when there was a flurry of translations of almost all of the Asian classics, from the Vedas to Zen stories. A lot of these translations are still in print, although newer, better ones are available. And in the 1950s and 60s came a second wave, first as the beatniks, then the hippies adopted some of these beliefs. Sometimes even seriously and sincerely.

But not everyone was Jack Kerouac. Most of these books were serious stuff: the work of scholars and translators determined to open the intellectual doors for Western minds. Similar efforts were undertaken to Anglicize Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Sumerian and other classics. It was an intellectual exercise, which often only confounded the average worker.

In 1971, Be Here Now, a seminal work by Baba Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert) presented the ideas of Asian philosophy in a graphically entertaining manner (it’s still in print). It did a remarkably good job of clarifying and distilling a lot of ideas and practices. However, it was still stuffier than Hoff in its presentation of those ideas.

Hoff made it fun, made it easy to read. He disarmed readers by explaining everything in comments and discussions by the lovable A. A. Milne characters, and who can’t love a cuddly teddy bear discussing the meaning of life with a stuffed toy pig? The dialogues went like this:

Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “That that’s why he never understands anything.”

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Ghostly claptrap

Ghosts are fakeDoes the Large Hadron Collider Actually Disprove Ghosts? That’s the question asked in a recent article posted on Gizmodo. Well, of course it doesn’t. The LHC doesn’t disprove invisible pink unicorns, either. It can’t disprove what doesn’t exist.

No matter how many wingnut websites promise to reunite you with your long lost loved ones (for a fee, of course), ghosts are all in your imagination. Along with goblins,orcs, vampires, werewolves, dragons, angels, fairies, demons, and, yes, invisible pink unicorns. Nothing the LHC does will change that.

Sure, ghosts make for great stories and allegories, add spice to religion and make charlatans rich. As literary figures go, they’re indispensable for whole genres of fiction and generally entertaining in the movies. But in the real world they join Harry Potter and chemtrails as imaginary creatures.

To be fair, the author of the article is using the words of someone else to extend his own thoughts on the stuff of the universe (as I am doing with his words as my own springboard). The actual source goes back to comments made by physicist Brian Cox, speaking on the BBC’s show, The Infinite Monkey Cage (listen here)

What Cox actually said was,

“If we want some sort of pattern that carries information about our living cells to persist then we must specify precisely what medium carries that pattern and how it interacts with the matter particles out of which our bodies are made. We must, in other words, invent an extension to the Standard Model of Particle Physics that has escaped detection at the Large Hadron Collider. That’s almost inconceivable at the energy scales typical of the particle interactions in our bodies.”

Cox’s point seems to be that if anything persists after death it would leave an energy trail and the LHC – its sensors being so good at identifying energy signatures – would have spotted it.

But no one is really looking for ghosts with the LHC. Nor should it be used for such frivolous purposes. It wasn’t designed to be used in some fake-reality TV show episode about the afterlife, one of those egregiously silly “ghost hunter” episodes. But if it were, and something was there that had any measurable energy, the LHC would very likely find it.

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Empathy and The Dog Allusion

Coming to empathyEmpathy, writes Martin Rowson, is one of the things that make us human, make us civilized, allows us to interact without tearing one another’s throats out. Without it, we’d have no civilization; we’d be like the beasts of the fields. And we’d have no dogs or gods, either. Empathy is what makes us own pets and be religious.

That’s one of the thought-provoking ideas Rowson tosses around in his book, The Dog Allusion (Vintage Books, London, 2008). The title, as I’m sure you are aware, is a pun on Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion.

Rowson has a lot to say about religion – and not much of it flattering, but generally he’s not as acerbic as Dawkins or Hitchens. Religion, however central to his arguments, is not the book’s sole focus. It isn’t a comprehensive screed against religion or even a paen to atheism; rather it’s a series of essays on various topics into which religion often is cast. The book hasn’t received a lot of attention or garnered many reviews from what I can find, but that may be because most of his readers are likely already on his side of the philosophical fence. It may also be that he meanders. A lot. Still, he offers up a good set of arguments worth pondering, even for the converted.

I am not here to wade into his comments on religion quite yet, however, but rather to comment on his notions about empathy – about which I agree, at least somewhat. I have often felt that the single most important attribute in a politician is empathy. Without it, the political road leads to all sorts of tyrannies and egocentric self-entitlement. Without empathy, politicians raise taxes, utility rates, user fees without consideration of their actual impact. Just like they do here in Collingwood.

Having dealt with numerous politicians in my day (and been among their ranks, municipally, for more than a decade), I sometimes think having intelligence would be a better place to start listing desirable attributes. After all, the first thing every politician should have is the wit to understand the consequences of their actions. Yet so many don’t have it. SO many act as if they were the centre of the universe and their actions have no impact on others. But let’s not talk about The Block right now. That’s just depressing. Let’s talk in general terms, first.

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TEOTWAWKI, New Year’s Eve

The angry hand of god. Or is it the hand of angry god?Some religious wingnuts aren’t planning to celebrate the ringing in of the New Year, 2017. Nope: they’re going to await the arrival of their zombie deity who, one can only suppose, will be bringing the champagne to his own party when he returns from the dead. The end of the world party, of course. And another day that, for the rest of us, will pass by with nothing happening, end-of-the-world-deity-arising-wise.

According to a story in Christian Today (which judging by the click-bait ad content and non-stop video ads is not all that serious about its religion but sure likes the income from less reputable sponsors…), a so-called “computer programmer” (no evidence of this claim is given) named Nora Roth predicts,

…the second coming of Christ will happen on New Year’s Eve, The Gospel Herald reported. Her findings, written on her blog “The Mark of the Beast,” are based on her calculations and analysis of the 70 “sevens” prophecy mentioned in the book of Daniel.

This date is apparently the result of some fancy but opaque numerology she conducted on biblical verses, maybe with the help of a ouija board, after which she decided,

In the fall of 2016 the 6,000 years of sin on earth will come to an end, everlasting righteousness will be brought in, and Jesus will come again.

Beats me how she gets the 6,000 year thing, but then I was never into magic numbers. 2016 minus 6000… that gives us a date of 3984 BCE, smack dab in the Chalcolithic or copper Age, that murky, pre-literate period between the Stone and Bronze Ages and the origins of many civilizations. This is a couple of millennia even before the earliest Egyptian pyramids and Abraham and the early Hebrew patriarchs (Abraham is sometimes dated somewhere between 1900 and 1600 BCE), but we have lots of archeological evidence of life back then in the 40th century BCE – and, of course, much earlier, too. Six thousand years is a mere hair on the world’s timeline, and even our human timeline is much, much longer than that (2.8 million years, give or take a few).

3984 BCE is about 3,400 years before the first books of the Old Testament were compiled. Long, long, long before the Hebrew god even shows up on stage. Some wingnutty biblical literalists have 3984 BCE pegged as the date for the creation of Adam, that mythical first man from Genesis, which may explain it.

Christian Today also has a story titled, “Is Donald Trump the Messiah or His Forerunner?” so you can judge its credibility by that headline alone. The site references the same story on another click-bait site, Gospelherald.com and it’s been shared online by numerous conspiracy-prone sites, plus the Daily Mail (which at least had the sense to call her idea “bizarre”).
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Godless – The Truth Beyond Belief

Religious tolerance?“Godless – The Truth Beyond Belief” investigates one of the last frontiers in civil liberties and human rights: Atheism. So reads the opening sentence on the website of a new film about atheism and society. It asks, “can you be good without god?”

Well, yes, you can. That’s the whole point of secular humanism, philosophy and the entire Buddhist faith. Morality is a choice we make, not a divine command.

It also hides another question within its folds: can you be good and still have free will? If you need a god to be good, that suggests you don’t have free will. You’re simply some deity’s meat puppet. If you have free will to be evil, then morality is clearly a choice, a human construct, not divine.

Despite what the religious right say, being good is not necessarily a part of being pious. I briefly mentioned this in the footnotes of my previous post on Horace’s Ode 2.14. The two attributes may be complementary (in some people), but history is equally replete with examples of pious people who were predatory, con artists, killers, torturers, rapists, thugs and murderers. They call their evils “doing God’s will.” Atheists never have that hypocritical motivation.

The two attributes of goodness and piety don’t always coincide, and as noted above, religious belief can even make it worse. Just think of the Spanish Inquisition and the witch hunts of the Reformation or anything ISIS does. As Blaise Pascal, said, “Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions.”
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Electing atheists

Anti-atheists billboard
trust meterA recent story on Religion News discusses the DNC’s concerns about former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ religion. Not that he was Jewish, but that he might be a closet atheist. And that send the DNC-crats over the roof. Scary, eh?

You can’t elect an atheist in America. You can elect liars, cheats, adulterers, misogynists and creationists (and sometimes all in the same person…). But not atheists.

Even Donald Trump, whose murky religious beliefs remain cause for much speculation, overshadowed by his overt worship of power and money, hasn’t strayed into atheism, at least publicly.

And it’s been that way since the late 1960s-early ’70s. American religion and politics somehow became entwined around then, and today they are inseparable, Constitution notwithstanding. The right paints anyone who isn’t Bible-thumping along with them as atheist, leftist, socialist or liberal (or all four…). The recent Republican presidential-candidate race often seemed more like a series of fundamentalist, revivalist prayer meetings than political debates.

Not that America is unique in this. Despite a growing percentage of the population claiming no religious affiliation running as an atheist in politics taints any candidate. As the article continues:

Raising a candidate’s religion or questioning his or her faith is beyond the pale. One reason the email is so damning (pun intended) is that atheists are among the least-liked groups in America. There is a wide gap between public opinion toward Jews and feelings for atheists.
How much are they disliked? The average American feels warmer toward Congress than toward atheists. That’s as low as you get in public opinion.

Statistics show that roughly 20% of Americans claim no religious affiliation, but that doesn’t mean they’re atheists. In fact, the large majority of them believe in a deity or have some spiritual belief. A Pew Research poll suggests only 3.1% of Americans are actually atheists and 4% are agnostics.

Although 23.9% of Canadians claim to be ‘irreligious’, the list of openly atheist politicians in Canada is pitifully small (and all of them are from Quebec…).

An Angus-Reid poll also indicates the troubling notion that a lot of Canadians who consider themselves non-religious or ambivalent about religion also believe in superstitious claptrap like astrology, reincarnation and psychic powers.

Overall, though we don’t much care for prayer in public meetings, regardless of what we believe. And that’s a good thing.

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