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Susan B. Anthony once said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”

Science has confirmed that she’s spot on.

Nicholas Epley and University of Chicago colleagues published a study where they found that people are good at predicting the opinions of public figures such as the president of the United States. But when asked what God thinks, people usually repeat their own opinions. The researchers even had people publicly argue for a position that they actually opposed, resulting in some moderation. And then they proceeded to say God has moderated His position too.cat-sees-lion-mirror

Tufts University professor and atheist author Daniel Dennett has argued that religion encourages irresponsibility because this egocentricity enables people to say, in effect, “God made me do it.” And history is littered with the results: the Crusades, 9/11, and female genital mutilation were all God’s will according to the perpetrators.

I don’t think anyone can honestly say that they know God does or doesn’t exist. That’s agnosticism. Whether you believe or not is faith, which is why agnostic is an inadequate answer to the question of belief. But even if one claims certainty about God’s existence, it’s a full leap into narcissism to claim that God’s thoughts so neatly coincide with one’s own.

But this is not to point a finger. We are all narcissists. And we all claim otherwise at least some of the time. Well, most of the time. Psychologists call this the self-serving bias.

Buddhism teaches that the ego is an illusion. As I explained in a previous post, our bodies constantly interact with the environment, and physical states and mental perceptions are in never-ending motion. Thus, there’s no fixed, enduring core that is the self. But even Buddhism back-peddles and teaches rebirth, which gives the ego a way to endure. As I wrote a while back, however, I don’t think rebirth is a tenable belief.

It’s hard to be humble; that is, to put the ego in check. Not because I’m perfect in every way (to rip off a country music tune), but because unjustified egotism is human nature.

20130701_400That Buddhism is a religion of peace is an unchallenged assumption. So how do we respond to Buddhist violence? One way is to say that the violence is political or nationalistic, and the actors being Buddhist has nothing to do with it. But this is disingenuous because for religion to have value it must have a real effect on the everyday lives of its practitioners.

Myanmar (also known as Burma) is a country bordering India and Bangladesh to the west, and Thailand to the east. About 89% of the population is Buddhist while Muslims and Christians are 4% each. Many of the Muslims live near the Bangladesh border. Ongoing ethnic violence in that region is largely by nationalists who are Buddhist against predominantly Muslim groups.

Myanmar has a complex history.  In a nutshell, British colonization of the region ended state support for Buddhism because the British supported Christian missionaries. Myanmar gained its independence in 1948 and has no explicitly government sponsored religion, though there’s a bias in favour of Buddhism. But Islam is growing in Asia much faster than Buddhism, and many Buddhists are afraid of losing their dominance. Groups such as the 969 Movement and other Buddhists believe Muslims want to take over Myanmar, so these Buddhists have gone on the offensive, murdering Muslims in mob violence.

This is not an isolated situation. Some Buddhist monks in Thailand in the 1970s claimed it was okay to kill communists, and violence again flared just a few years ago. In 1995 a Buddhist terrorist group, Aum Shinrikyo, killed thirteen people and injured fifty others with Sarin gas on the Tokyo subway. And not all Tibetans agree with the Dali Lama’s nonviolent approach.

We can, of course, make similar lists of violence by Muslims, Christians, and others. Violence is all too human. And it’s simplistic to say that violence is caused by religion, or politics, or ethnicity, or economics, etc. because it’s all these things combined. Human beings are a tribal species, and we have to make an effort to resist the impulse to place people into categories of us and them.

So my intent here is not to say that Buddhists are uniquely violent, but neither do I want to claim that Buddhists are uniquely peaceful just because nonviolence is part of Buddhist ideology. In the end, what we really believe is shown by our actions and not by our words.

A common criticism – and misunderstanding – of Buddhism is that it promotes disengagement. If striving is bad then why do anything? But then we’d still be living in caves.

But obviously Buddhists haven’t been disengaged. They’ve built temples, written books, and promoted loving kindness and nonviolence.

There’s a difference between non-attachment and detachment. The latter is apathy and indifference – being comfortably numb, to steal a phrase from Pink Floyd. But non-attachment is about knowing when to let go.

Part of the problem has to do with translating Pali words into English and inadvertently tripping on English connotations not present in Pali. Nekkhamma can be translated various ways, and non-attachment is one. Renunciation is another, but that word too has connotations that can create a false impression.

Nekkhamma has to do with right intention, that aspect of the Eightfold Path associated with wisdom. Doing something that seems good can still have harmful results if you’re doing it for the wrong reason. That’s why awareness and honesty about what really motivates us, instead of the lies we tell ourselves, is so important.

Someone who lies to others begins by lying to herself or himself. And the lies we tell ourselves are based on illusions we cling to. Buddhism is about letting go of our illusions, but this is hard because we all have strong attachments to our narratives about ourselves and others.

Buddhism also teaches that all things are impermanent, so while it’s good to enjoy something in the moment we must also be willing to let go of it when the time comes. This includes even our own lives because no one can escape death.

This sounds nice, but it’s really hard to actually live like that. I cling to all sorts of things: my money, my job, my health, past relationships that have failed and which I wish I could go back in time and change, and so on. Each one has a story attached to it, a story I’ve constructed in my head where ultimately I’m the good guy.

Clinging as the cause of suffering is what it’s all about. That’s why many Buddhists talk about non-clinginess rather than non-attachment. The English connotations of non-clinginess convey the concept of nekkhamma much better.

The Buddha focused on four big things we cling to: material possessions, experiences, beliefs, and egotism.

One of my favourite movies is The Big Lebowski. At the end, the lead character says the famous line, “The Dude abides,” and the film’s narrator, a cowboy called the Stranger, says that “It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin ‘er easy for all us sinners.”

But the movie is about the Dude not takin ‘er easy. wasn't listening

The Big Lebowski is about an aging hippy named Jeffrey Lebowski, known as the Dude, who likes to go bowling and does Tai Chi while drinking white Russians. He’s mistaken for a millionaire with the same name. Everyone is after the Big Lebowski’s money, including Lebowski himself because it turns out that he inherited his fortune, which is tied up in a charitable trust.

At the start of the film a couple of thugs rough up the Dude, and then realizing they have the wrong man they pee on his area rug. The Dude complains about it to his bowling buddies but doesn’t plan to do anything about it. He’s the Dude, man, and once he’s done venting he’s going to forget about the rug.

But his friend Walter stirs him up with a narrative about the injustice of it all, and how he should confront the millionaire Lebowski and demand a replacement rug. The Big Lebowski realizes that he can manipulate the Dude’s attachment to his rug and even expand upon it: Mr. Lebowski offers the Dude a large sum of money for delivering a ransom for the millionaire’s kidnapped trophy wife. The Dude goes for it even though he suspects that Mr. Lebowski’s wife kidnapped herself and plans to take off with the ransom. That is, the Dude knows he’s being set up (Mr. Lebowski plans to keep the money and claim the Dude stole it), but Walter convinces the Dude that they can outwit Lebowski.

Needless to say, nothing goes as planned. In the end the Big Lebowski’s scheme is revealed, and not only does the Dude get no money, he doesn’t even get a new rug. But when all is said and done the Dude is happy because he’s forgotten about the rug. Still, he could have avoided the hassle by forgetting about the rug from the get go.

I think the Dude’s rug is a great parable for the difference between non-attachment and detachment. The Dude wasn’t detached – he enjoyed his rug and missed it when it was gone. But eventually he moved on. He realized that he would have lost the rug at some point anyway – the years would have made it threadbare. But the Dude’s clinginess – his failure to abide – caused every bit of suffering he experienced.

So perhaps abiding is another translation of nekkhamma we can add to the list. And abiding has the advantage that it’s a positive word, unlike non-attachment or non-clinginess. Just go with the flow, man.

Buddhism & Science

I disappeared from WordPress for about nine months. Fading in and out is something I tend to do. I don’t know why.

Anyway, I recently watched a YouTube video about Buddhism and science. This vlogger doesn’t seem to cross the line of claiming that science proves Buddhist beliefs. But even so, a more modest claim such as religion and science not being in conflict can also be problematic.

UntitledPhysicists tell us that quantum weirdness is observed only a the subatomic level, not macroscopically. The Uncertainty Principle – the more accurately we know the position of a subatomic particle the less accurately we know its velocity – doesn’t mean anything goes.

When it comes to beliefs about reality, I start with science and adjust Buddhism accordingly. That’s why I’m an Agnostic Buddhist. And modern science tells us that the material world is real and would exist even if no conscious being were around to perceive it. Consciousness itself is the result of brain activity, so consciousness is grounded in material reality. Consciousness is what the brain does just like walking is what the legs do, so there is no independently existing consciousness just as there is no walking without legs.

Certainly this conflicts with traditional Buddhist beliefs. The scientific view of consciousness makes rebirth and reincarnation unlikely. I agree with the Dali Lama, however, that “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”[1] Where I disagree is my willingness to accept that science has effectively settled the question of consciousness, while the Dali Lama does not.

What do Buddhists mean when they say all is mind? Is this similar to Bishop Berkeley’s philosophy of idealism, which claims that only mind exists? Some do, but not all. The Buddha’s perspective is less abstract. Here’s the Dvedhavitakka Sutta, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

“Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking & pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with sensuality, abandoning thinking imbued with renunciation, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with sensuality. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with ill will, abandoning thinking imbued with non-ill will, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with ill will. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with harmfulness, abandoning thinking imbued with harmlessness, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with harmfulness.”

So an important philosophical point Buddhism makes is that our thoughts and perceptions colour our view of reality.

Here, science can also be helpful. Our perceptions are filtered through our eyes, ears, skin, etc. and then interpreted by our brains. So you can’t really look at a chair. Instead, your eyes can receive photons bouncing off the chair, and your brain then conceptualizes it as a chair. But the concept of a chair is a mental construction. Your dog sees the chair too, but she doesn’t have the same concept of it that you do.

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (in the Grand Design) came up with the notion of Model-Dependent Realism to describe how we can talk about reality even though we can never arrive at true reality. We come up with different models, or ideas of reality. No idea is reality itself, but any model can be tested and those models that more consistently make accurate predictions more accurately reflect reality. For example, Ptolemy’s solar system model with Earth at the centre made somewhat accurate predictions about planetary motions, but it failed in other ways. Copernicus’s model with the sun at the centre made more accurate predictions, so scientists discarded one for the other. But even so, Copernicus’s model of the solar system is not the actual solar system itself, just as an architect’s miniature model of a house isn’t the actual house you’ll be living in.

So it’s in that sense that I believe reality is all in our minds – not that objective, external reality isn’t real; but rather that our interpretations of reality are not reality itself.


[1] The Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality: New York, Morgan Road Books, 2005, p. 3.

untitledWhat is human nature?  It’s a loaded question, so I think I can only describe what I see as an important part of human nature (though not the totality of it).

In my subjective experience I feel a dissonance between my ideals and reality.  And I see this in everyone else too, though many don’t see it in themselves.  It’s easy to deceive oneself into thinking that one’s ideal is reality, thus becoming blind to reality.  The most extreme examples are the monsters of human history.

The ideal consists of higher principles, always for the benefit of others.  And when selflessness is too unbelievable there’s the superficial admission of selfish motivation (usually not the real motivation, though) framed as something that also benefits others (the classic win-win situation).

Reality is that I’m selfish and usually not concerned about others except when our selfishness is allied, or when I need someone to get what I want.  Emotions are frequently not expressed and more often are muted; but inside my emotions are intense, irrational, and insatiable.

I want to think I’m the ideal, but then I’ll do something or say something I’m not proud of, and sometimes they’re whoppers.  Some things really bring this out, like alcohol, so I really think I should quit drinking.  This gap, this dissonance between what I am and what I want to be is distressing.

And what happens with this dissonance?  My first reaction is to project it on to others.  But blame can become targeting, and God forbid that this targeting should ever become persecution.  The companion of projection is moral arrogance, contrasting myself with the target by holding myself up as an example of the ideals.  We see this in politics and religion all the time.  This arrogance is a means of justifying my actions to diminish the dissonance, but it only leads to more actions that fail to conform to the ideal, and the vicious cycle begins again.

So, what should I do about it?  I think it takes effort to remind myself of reality, and that my ideal is not reality.  Still, ideals are useful to orient myself toward what is less destructive, much like a compass won’t get me to true north but can get me started in the general direction.

I need to learn to acknowledge my emotions when they happen, and try to observe them without reacting immediately.

I have to learn to recognize projection as it’s happening to stop myself from blaming others.  Or, when I see myself blaming others (especially in a general way, or when the blame is directed toward a group rather than an individual), and holding myself up as an example of the ideal, I need to remind myself that I’m full of shit.

I have to be honest with myself about what my true selfish motivations are (not the superficial selfish reasons that serve as a convenient lie), and be willing to step back if it will harm others.  Or, if there really is a win-win solution then pursue that without pretending I’m doing it only for the benefit of others.

Though I blog as an agnostic Buddhist, I was raised Catholic.  And I wonder what Agnostic Christianity wouldrosary-image look like.

I should repeat that agnosticism is about what you know, but belief is a separate issue.  We all believe things we can’t know for a fact.  Even atheists – you believe your wife loves you, but you can’t prove it scientifically.

A huge problem I have with Christianity is its absolute certainty.  The Catholic Church is infallible and the Bible is inerrant – and you can’t be mostly inerrant or probably infallible.  Yet, I know many people (some Christians included) who admit they don’t know if God exists, but they believe.

Is that really so bad?  Frankly, I think they’re more honest than most folks.

As I mentioned in previous blogs, there are a lot of unanswerable questions: What is existence?  Why is existence?  Why is there suffering?  Why would God create a world knowing the pain we would all endure?  And so on.  But it’s about exploring the questions rather than insisting that we have all the answers.

If such a thing as Agnostic Christianity exists, I’d envision it as something that:

  • Values doubt as complementary to faith, and which engages instead of suppressing doubt.  Faith and doubt are not antagonistic, as many think, but are complimentary.  They coexist in tension, but without one there would not be the other, and so there is much to be learned from engaging this tension.
  • May not have a concrete answer to the problem of evil and suffering, but puts the problem in the context of faith – believing good will win in the end, and that we all have a role to play in this.
  • Leaves specific beliefs open to the individual, such as whether the resurrection was literal or metaphorical, or whether Jesus is God (Trinitarian) or simply a reflection of God (Unitarian).
  • Is open to understanding the crucifixion not as a death demanded by an angry God, but rather as a sacrifice in terms of the risk Christ was willing to take knowing that prophets are often put to death.
  • Believes that the moral life of a Christian is best expressed by living the Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, and love of God and neighbor.
  • Is open to those who don’t believe the Bible is inerrant or dictated by God, but rather is a collection of books written over a 1,000-year timeframe that represents a conversation with and about God. The focus is on the dynamics of the conversations happening within the Bible.  But the people who wrote the Bible were working within the cultures and worldviews of their day, and human culture has advanced over the past 2,000 years.
  • Worries less about the afterlife (let the dead bury the dead), instead focusing on the Kingdom of God being within us (Luke 17:21).

Washington Post opinion writer Michael Gerson recently began a series on America’s growing secularism.  He notes that in the 1950s two percent of Americans identified as non-religious, but today it’s closer to twenty percent.  But only a third of the “nones” say they’re atheist or agnostic.  The rest believe in some higher power, so much of this is about a loss of faith in religious institutions rather than a loss of faith in God.  There’s a corresponding loss of trust in institutions such as government and corporations. Gerson_Michael

Gerson notes that this “has major social and political implications,” and then asks, “Since the nones are disproportionately liberal and Democratic, what does their rise mean for American politics?”  In his next column, Gerson states that Americans are still overwhelmingly religious – slightly more so than Iran, in fact – but the now significant block of non-religious voters, especially “militant skeptics,” could cause a rift between the Democratic party’s secularists and black Christians, thus leading to a religious party (Republicans) and an anti-religious party (Democrats).

As an aside, I take issue with describing skeptics and atheists as militant.  Can you name one American atheist or skeptic who has committed violence against a religious person for anti-religious reasons?  Didn’t think so.  Unless you consider boring people to death with lectures about logic to be violent, but that’s a stretch.

Neither am I afraid of political polarization based on religion.  If two-thirds of the nones hold religious beliefs then they’re not likely to find conflict with the Democratic party’s black Christians unless these Christians push a theocratic agenda – but historically they have not (white evangelical Republicans are a separate issue).

But Gerson’s second concern is that “individualism can easily become atomization.”  He worries that that growing individualism underlying this rejection of religious, corporate, and governmental authority could lead to a serious decline in community.  For example, the non-religious volunteer less and donate less to charity.

Here, both the Democratic and the Republican parties play a role.  Liberals don’t trust religious and corporate institutions, and conservatives don’t trust government.  Libertarians don’t trust any of them.

While I don’t see the American government becoming authoritarian any time soon (despite the rhetoric), I am concerned about the symbiosis of government and corporations (that is, corporatism or crony capitalism).  And, I don’t trust religions with a hierarchical structure or which demand strict adherence (which often leads to fundamentalism).  Maybe that’s why as an agnostic I choose to follow Buddhism since it is not hierarchical and easily accommodates a more relaxed practice.

But Gerson’s concern of atomization remains.  I don’t want to live in a society where everyone is disconnected, and I do believe that the shocking stats on teenage suicide reflect a misery in our young people caused to a large extent by this disconnection.

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