Archive for June, 2012

The Road To Atheism Part XI: How Many People Constitute a Famous Genocide?

June 27, 2012 1 comment

It’s field trip day in grade school, and like many kids in grade school it didn’t matter so much where we were going but that we were going somewhere else. In medical ethics we teach about the dangers of testing on prison inmates, who will basically consent to anything just to break up the monotony of their daily lives, grade school is no different (in that respect at least, they also can’t give legal consent and can be bullied into doing anything). To us, filing into the bus that would take us to something else, all that mattered was that most of the day was going to be spent doing something other than living in fear of math class. This trip, was to travel to a Buffalo area high school, “Bishop TImon,” to watch a Christmas play regarding the birth of Jesus. Pretty standard stuff. For the most part the play was rather routine, from what I remember, very little stands out. The only distinct memory I have is that of Herod.

What made this version different was that after Herod orders the death of the children of the Jews during the Augustinian census, he stood up to address the audience yelling about how he was the great evil; the original Hitler, the original Saddam Hussein, etc. He was Satan incarnate…you get the idea. It was memorable for two reasons: the first was because it broke the usual story up adding something new. By 13 years old, you’ve heard the Christmas story so many times that this distinct change was novel, thus sort of better. The second was that it fit with the current events of the time, Operation Desert Shield/Storm had ended and the good guys had clearly won. Saddam was the new bogey man, and here was someone who fit the evil bill screaming about how a bunch of children needed to die.This was a person that was trying to do what Kronos could not–kill his prophesized usurper. According to the bible the actual order is for the soldiers to murder every child under the age of two, based on what apparently must have been the most tedious and thorough census in history. Almost every dramatization of the birth story includes this event, it has to, as it is surely an incredible event.

What’s more terrible is the age of his victims. I never really considered it for a long time, but Herod in the bible is really a bastard. Think about the evil men in history, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Hirohito, and yes, even Hussein, perhaps Assad, Ghadafi; they all committed great crimes against humanity. However have any of them every specifically ordered attacks against children, not even children, babies? They have their share of that blood on their hands but it was never specific. Hitler’s campaign surely killed many children, but he got the adults as well. Somehow what Herod did was worse because he only attacked kids. Yet…Herod isn’t as famous as the rest of them. He’s famous among Christians, but among Jews he’s famous for a diffferent reason.

Years later, I was out of grad school working for a cable company and watching HBO’s Rome. This was during the contermporary rise of the Christian fundamentalist movement as they supported Bush in just about everything he did, even the stuff that was anti-Christian, and in one of the episodes up popped the Jewish king Herod. The troubling fact for me as religious zealotry certainly did more to push me against religion than anything else, was that I still bought the story. Here, was Herod, only this Herod had a nickname…he was called Herod “The Great.” I thought that odd, how could someone called the great be responsible for mass infanticide later? I did some digging and what I found was a uniquely coincidental with all of the bible literalism that I was seeing around me socially.

First off, the Herod of the bible ought to be called “Herod II” as he is “The Great’s” son. The first Herod is famous because he expanded the holy temple. That explained one thing, but it raised a new problem. One that I still find strange and point out to literalists. By trade, I’m not a historian, I’m a philosopher, but there’s a lot of history in philosophy and while I know very little of Jewish history outside of biblical stories, I do know a bit about Roman history. This is because my favorite philosopher, the correct one, is the Italian Niccolo Machiavelli and he borrows a good deal of his examples from historians of antiquity, which I then read. So I’ve read people like Livy, Herodotus (I know he’s Greek but I read that damn book cover to cover so I’m going to brag about it when I get the chance), and the Roman Jewish chronicler Josephus. In the Roman historians guess how many times the massacre of the infants is mentioned?…I’ll give you a second.

Times up. The answer: 0. How about the Roman census that required everyone in the Roman Empire to travel back to the lands of their fathers? That would also be mentioned zero times. Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about the conducting of a census, the ancient world had that. I’m talking about the ridiculous requirement that Joseph would have to travel to his ancestral home in order to be counted. Think about the logisitics of that for a second, then think about how pointless it is, even for…as is claimed by Josephus that this census was being done for tax purposes. If Joseph lived in Galilee would good would it be to have him counted in Bethlehem? That’s just a practical concern, there are more important concerns for that story. The omission of the existence of Jesus by the ancient histories isn’t noteworthy, if you think about it they would have to be fans of him already to mention it, otherwise he’s just another guy claiming divine origin…like a whole lot of other people. But the omission of these two events is conspicuous.

Let’s just deal with the census for right now. I worked for the US census in 2010, and most people didn’t like that I just wanted the number of people in their house (which was the bare minimum of information the Constitution mandates that they give), If we had required that people travelled to the land of their ancestor’s birth, there would have been an uprising. Plus the further trouble is that if you take the geneaology of Joseph (either of the two different ones, Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38) at what point is Joseph supposed to stop? Let’s say instead of going back to the city of David, he goes back to the city of Boaz. It’s a case of changing facts to fit a prophecy, otherwise there wouldn’t be two genealogies and four stories.

Anyways, let’s assume the contrary. Augustus makes the requirement and Joseph travels with his pregnant wife to Bethlehem alone, because Joseph apparently had no siblings. All of the inns are taken, and they have to stay in a barn (although “manger” is such a nicer word for it). Ok, let’s accept that. Obviously this is how they survived the slaughter of the innocents, because none of Herod’s soldiers decided to question where people were staying as obviously Joseph and Mary were the only two people who couldn’t find a place to stay. This is all–at least possible.

This isn’t like when I ask bible literalists to explain how there are still koala’s and kangaroos in existence when surely the flood ought to have killed them. This whole Bethlehem story is a big deal, it’s central to the religion but it doesn’t make sense. Central also is the escape from danger, every myth has the danger story (refer to: all of them). The reason that they escape is not divine providence it’s because the massacre never happened. There is no way that a historian would miss the event where a king orders the death of every two year old and younger person in an entire town. It’s even more odd when you figure that historians weren’t afraid to label him a paranoid maniac who had no qualms about killing potential rivals–they just failed to point out that one time that he killed a bunch of children to do the same thing. I suppose that’s what happens before the era of peer review. This is the deed that should have made his name an eponym for mass murder, instead we had to come up with one to describe what the nazis did during the Nuremberg trials.

So no non-Christian historians mention it. Surely there is universal acknowledgement of the even in the bible right? Wrong. Thomas Paine mentions this in “The Age of Enlightenment,” the only gospel to bring up such an atrocious event is that of Matthew. The others either weren’t aware of it, or didn’t think it to be that important. Which of those two is likely? Let’s apply that great weapon against spiritualism–Ockham’s Razor, to the case. The Razor states that if given a dilemma the one that is the simplest example (i.e. that one that doesn’t create more than it explains) is the more likely explanation. So is it more likely that there was a massacre of infants, and only one person decided that it was important enough to record or that it didn’t happen and was created to add drama to an otherwise unremarkable occurrance? Again, this isn’t one of those inane inconsistencies that you hear about from idiots that give “atheist” a bad name. This isn’t like wondering where Job’s second wife came from, this is an essential part of the corner stone story of the Christian religion. Modern interpretations state that it isn’t meant to be taken literally, it’s about meaning. Unfortunately I can derive no meaning from this story aside from the apparent lesson that if the king orders your two year old’s death, run your ass off!

I was never a bible literalist, but there were stories that had to be taken as, well, gospel; and this was one. The more I looked at it the more it seemed to be a fictional account to fulfill Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea 11:1 which allegedly refers to Herod’s seeking to destroy the child even though it plainly reads as a historical text. Matthew seems to have his own agenda regarding prophecy, since again he’s twisting the story to fit the prophecy. Or in some cases just making the prophecy fit the event he wants to talk about since Jer31:15 makes no mention of a messiah at all. It’s more important than just a couple contradictions as the entire religion is predicated on the existence of a prophecy. Yet, all prophecies are vague and ambiguous for precisely this reason.

Categories: philosophy, religion

The Road to Atheism Part X: Encounters

June 15, 2012 Leave a comment

The first person I ever met that was of an entirely different religion than I was my pediatrician: Dr. Patel. During the winter holidays I was corrected when I wished him a “merry Christmas.” I didn’t feel bad about it, because it was the thought that counted correct? It just seemed odd to me that I could somehow be in error when wishing someone to have a happy time…although you get this now if you tell the wrong person “happy holidays,” and have to sit there and listen to a ten minute non-sensical rant about how I ought to be saying Merry Christmas, as if two words said out of social obligation could somehow destroy a two thousand year old religion. I digress though…

He seemed ok, despite being a heathen. It’s the exposure that I talked about last post. You meet people that are different than you, and you realize that they aren’t really that different after all. I would like to have thrown the whole superiority of Christianity and its “one true way” at my religion teachers by using him as an example, but I couldn’t have put that argument together then, he was, after all my pediatrician.

Exposure: again, as I said last post; there’s a reason that there’s such a push against multi-culturalism. It’s simple fear of education, people may get the insane idea that others can hold different view points and still be decent people. One might be forced to reconcile the idea that the nice guy you talk to in class still has to go to hell because he doesn’t believe in Jesus despite all of his volunteer work. The realization that maybe lack of fulfillment of arbitrary religious rule X doesn’t equal eternal damnation. Radical stuff.That’s just the lesson of the outside world. If you don’t think that the alternative is that you see people as being different but only different in that they don’t possess the one thing that makes you special. It also lends to disbelief, as though what the different person is saying isn’t something he really means. He’s just kidding. Like when I tell a person that I don’t watch or care about football and they respond with, “but you watch the superbowl right?”

Actually no, I don’t. Why would I, if I don’t care about the sport why should I care about its championship?

If the person can actually move past disbelief they are confronted with something else: the assumptions about how the other person lives. They must suppose that my Sundays are pretty boring without football to eat up most of the afternoon, but in this silly example they can resort to their Sundays off season. With religion it’s different, because the religious person is supposed to be living everyday under a system of rules of behavior and when people discover or accept that I am an atheist, they ask two questions. The second most common is the after life question which I tackled in an earlier post, the most common though is about life and what I permit myself to do and don’t permit myself to do. It’s usually framed like this, “if you don’t believe in god then how come you don’t just steal/murder/sex whatever/whoever you want?” Any combination of those will do, I’ve heard them all.

I used to try and answer the question, but now I don’t. It doesn’t matter really, because that person usually doesn’t want to know. They just want to assert the moral superiority of religion as well as the need for some sort of control over society–as if the law wasn’t enough. Now if someone asks me that question I just reply, “I’m the first atheist you’ve ever met then?” The reason I ask this is because the first atheist I ever met, asked me that question, and it made sense then, as it makes sense now. I then stare for a second and offer he follow up question that was asked to me, “Why would you ask that? Is that what you would do?”

I met her in college, and she was the first person that told me that she didn’t believe there was a god. She wasn’t a bet hedging, pascal wager type, who smugly walks around proud of being “not religious but spiritual.” She wasn’t a yes god, no religion person. Nor was she a non-practicing member of a religion, to me, this was a new type of person–an actual atheist. One who thought that religious people were products of social constraints not divine command. At the time, I was a non-practicing Catholic. Church was something that happened on holidays, but played no major role in my day to day. The college didn’t have a chapel or anything like that; the closest thing it had was a campus crusader thing, and all they did was plan anti-abortion rallies and protests.

She made me think about it, what kind of person makes that assumption? That assumption presumes immorality. That we are all immoral unless we have a giant hand ready to smack us if we don’t behave. The kind of person who believes that is how people like me live, is the kind of person that wishes they could live like that. I was a moral person wasn’t I…no, actually that’s not necessarily the case. You don’t call a dog good because it hasn’t bitten you due to the shortness of its chain. A good god is the one that doesn’t bite you regardless of the chain’s existence. A moral person is one that refrains from immoral action regardless of whether or not they could get punished, regardless of whether or not they could get caught. Regarding stealing, I’m a moral person because I don’t steal because I know that it is wrong, it breaks the social contract, it creates more harm than good, and its maxim of action is not universalizable (that’s three moral theories that have no divine as its basis).

I’m expanding on her argument a little bit, armed with the knowledge I have today it’s easier to fill in the gaps. Atheism doesn’t turn people into murdering-stealing-sex machines. Some people may be like that, but that isn’t unique to atheism–in fact those people are just the type that would do it anyway and are looking for some sort of justification, any sort of justification. And across the entire range of theological adherence we can find people who do it as well, only those people have god on their side. It’s part of the human condition that these people will exist, not part of a belief structure. Aristotle once commented (not sure where, but probably Nichomachean Ethics) that he had gained from philosophy to act without being commanded what others do only from fear of the law. I amend that with morality, that i have learned to act when necessary and refrain from action when necessary by virtue of the action itself, and not out of fear of the punishment that may come. If you believe in god, or are faithful to a religion because you fear the consequences you aren’t a believer you are a hostage.

This woman in front of me, was not an immoral monster, nor a hedonist. She was just like everyone else and this was not what I was taught to expect. She wasn’t anti-Christian seeking to destroy my faith in god, or in America (or whatever Glen Beck thinks they want); we had that brief discussion and then that was it. I want to be clear that it wasn’t this person that turned me, or that I began to entertain thoughts of denial in order to get laid. It just wasn’t a big deal, she could tolerate my belief as much as I could her denial. We’re just people afterall, and no one really knows the answer. You can be good without religion, it’s not hard, being tolerant of people with differing beliefs…that is what is hard. Which is why the home-schoolers and those attendess of Liberty University are so terrified of the outside world and instead insulate themselves with like minded individuals. Otherwise they might meet me, and be forced into doing one of two things: admit that their way of life may not work or be fit for everyone or just be smug with the idea that I am going to hell. Unfortunately, there are those who are much more comfortable with the latter.

Categories: Uncategorized

25th Anniversary : Edwards vs. Aguillard

June 11, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s been 25 years since the Supreme Court rules in Edwards vs. Aguillard that a state run school cannot teach creationism as a valid scientific theory as to the origin of life on the grounds that it specifically promotes a particular religion which is in violation of the first Amendment. The case was something of a victory but also something of a defeat.

As a victory, the effect is obvious: you stop teaching mythology as fact. Plus, you get to cover dinosaurs, and everyone likes dinosaurs. No more having to teach the contradiction between the existence of dinosaurs millions of years ago and that Creation took place around 6000 years ago. Naysayers might on me already trying to explain that Intelligent Design (aka creationism without “creationism”) doesn’t state the age of the Earth; we aren’t talking about that though, we are talking about a law which mandated the teaching of Genesis Creation as being scientifically valid, as if it were somehow testable or recreatable.

Oddly enough it’s a defeat because it forced proponents of bible literalism underground. This is where the very concept of ID comes in to play. Removing the omnipotent, omniscient creator god and replacing it with a tinkerer who just can’t seem to get it right. No longer could these religious fundamentalists openly try and ruin the scientific education of the young, now they had to get clever or give up the fight. This is why the new text books that openly try and push their agenda don’t mention who the designer is. It’s not a matter of being open for them, it’s a matter of legality. They can’t claim its god because of this court decision. So they have to call it something else.

Which is, of course, semantic word play. If it’s an intelligence, and it designed the universe; what else could it be? When it was Creation it was at least honest about forcing people to learn a religion that they may or may not subscribe to. Now, it’s the same thing only they can’t some out and say it.

The Louisianna bill that caused this case to come to the court mandated that their be equal treatment given to “evolution-science” and “creation-science.” Given that there is no science in the creation account, but is instead a collection of events ex nihilo I’m curious as to what kind of science was being taught. Instead the courses being offered were supposed to explain that creation was a theory that had the same equal footing as evolution. Which is an odd assertion to make because whenever creationists tell me that Evolution is just a theory, they use it pejoratively; but when applied to their idea it’s supposed to be complimentary. When the court looked at the text books being used in compliance with the act, it was revealed that all of the texts were published by one of two groups: the CRS (Creation Research Society) or the ICR (Institute for Creation Research), both groups are explicitly Christian organizations—which in and of itself is not necessarily a detriment, but both groups require a dogmatic adherence to very specific, and very literal beliefs.

Ultimately, it would be impossible to think that this law was entirely independent of any sort of religious agenda. There are only two religions with subsets that believe a literal interpretation of the Creationist account: the Christian bible literalists and Islamic Creation literalists (famously Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). Whereas everyone else in the world seems to be able to accept science as science and religion as religion. Now if someone wants to believe that there was a kick starter god, the first causer, I’m willing to accept that as being a valid hypothesis. I don’t agree with it nor do I feel that it has been proven, but its more reasonable than the constant tinkerer.

Fundamentally what IDers and Creationists always mistake is what the term “theory” stands for. Evolution is a theory because it seeks to explain a body of facts. A fact of evolution is not that animals adapt to their environment in successive generations, rather it’s a specific case of an animal giving rise to a variation. A collection of these facts builds a theory, just as every instance of an object falling to the ground is a fact for the theory of gravity. Facts cannot explain other facts, that’s what the theory is for. What Lousiana’s law did was mandate that everything else in the science class be considered proven scientific fact, while evolution was merely a theory. It gets it wrong on several different levels but the effect was to make sure that Christianity survived. Because it wasn’t going to if not for this bill, which when the bill was struck down is why we only read about this religion in history books as a curious belief like that of the Norsemen or the Egyptians.

The other problem is that the law, and others like it, propose that somehow academic freedom is inhibited when you can’t teach religion in a science class. This is like saying I’m not free because I can’t fly like a bird, it’s two different things. We don’t teach American history in math classes, so why ought we teach religion in biology? Even worse is wondering how you protect religious freedom by forcing teachers to teach something they may not believe in? If it’s about academic freedom then why limit the discussion to just Creationism?

25 years ago, I feel that this country made a good decision. We decided that science ought to be taught in science class. However, it’s depressing that it had to come to that in the first place.

Categories: science

The Road to Atheism Part IX: Journey into the East

June 4, 2012 1 comment

This is a story that I think may be typical of some Atheists, it as at least typical in my experience as two that I have known have gone on the exact same path. It deals with seeing a new culture, realizing that it is new, and then realizing that it isn’t so new. I’ll have to explain that a bit.

One concept that I hear as being the most dreaded of the Conservative set, is that of multi-culturalism. I don’t undertand this dread, it’s as if having knowledge about people that are different than you is somehow bad. This isn’t unique to the United States either, I want to be clear on that, France is particularly bad on the acceptance of cultures that aren’t French. Still anyone that opposes the introduction of a new culture to an already existing one, is just fighting a losing battle. The tide of history tends toward this interaction. I have also yet to have anyone make an explanation toward why multi-culturalism is bad. Why? Because I might learn something? Oh no, knowledge. (This is different than what is known as multi-cultural education, which I find to be bad because it tends to not focus on the education part, and more on how everyone is special…they are not the same)

If I had to guess, I would think it was because one group doesn’t like to have their ideas challenged. That’s the only guess I can make with some reasonable confidence. That’s obviously work for a sociologist. In school, prior to college, there wasn’t a great deal of discussion of other religions. As a Catholic, we were taught about Judaism for obvious reasons, and a tiny bit about Islam. Given that the three religions are all Abrahamic it would be academically irresponsible not to at least mention them and how they are different. As far as the Eastern religions were concerned there was only the mention that they existed. There wasn’t even a casual remark about whether they were wrong, they just were a thing that happened in far off places. It was up the person to pursue knowledge about them if they wanted to.

There’s a curious debate on the internet about the Eastern religions and whether they ought to be considered “atheistic religions.” If you google up “Atheism” and “Buddhism” for instance you’ll find message boards with posts discussing how perfectly consistent it is to be both an Atheist and a Buddhist, the most common claim is that Buddhism isn’t a religion it’s a philosophy. This is unmitigated bullshit. Buddhism, Taoism (I use the “T” some people use the “D”), Hinduism, are all religions. Perhaps, you can consider Confucianism to not be a religion along the lines that it is more a system of laws than anything else, but even that’s a stretch. I think it was Hitchens that once wrote that everyone is an Atheist, it’s just that religious people deny one less religion.

If Agnosticism is Atheism for those unwilling to committ either way, then “going-Eastern” is for those people who want religion but don’t want the discipline of Abrahamic traditions. That’s probably going to be a controversial statement, but a person going from Christianity to Buddhism is rarely committing to the robes, the diet, and the constant meditation. More than likely, they are going to be dilletantes. It’s also unlikely that they had a “Saul on his way to Damascus” moment and instead had a “this sounds cool and whatever they are all the same anyway” moment.

In the Baghavad Gita, the god Krishna states, “no matter which of the false gods a person worships in the end he worships me.” All of the religions in the world, all of the major ones anyway, have essentially the same moral code. The prohibitions against murder, theft, lying, being a general asshole are all there. So if a doubting Catholic picks up the “Seven Pillars of Zen” they can find that while they have to behave in roughly the same manner they don’t have to go to church every Sunday, instead having to meditate which you can skip if you feel like it. Furthermore since Zen doesn’t require you to deny other religious figures, you can still keep the belief in Jesus and hedge that bet. The change isn’t that drastic. It’s more like chanigng teams than changing sports.

The primary differences between the world religions are texts and practices. The text issue isn’t that major, especially now when they are all available on the internet. After all, openeness is what separates religion from cult (i.e. you shouldn’t have to pay to learn about a religion). It’s really just a matter of sitting down and reading the texts themselves. Some of the texts, like the aforementioned Baghavad Gita are much shorter than the Abrahamic Bible, in fact most of the Eastern religious texts are shorter (with the exception of the Hindu Upanashads).

My Eastern experience was with Taoism. A religion with no god to speak of, although there are some gods in a cultural aspect. I was first introduced to the religion through the classic “Art of War” by Sun Tzu. In this book Sun (“Tzu” means “teacher” or “master”) outlines strategems by which a general could win wars. One of his estimations is to determine which general posesses “the way.” He is referring to having the blessing of the divine. Looking back now, I realize that he means which ruler has the blessings of fortune, but this constant referral to the “Way” made me wonder what it was. The word for “way” is “Tao” in Chinese and its referent is host of many things. Without getting into Chinese language etymology, I can say that my inquiry led me to Lao Tzu’s book the “Tao Te Ching” (The Way and its Virtue). A book of proverbs with some morality, cosmology, and life lessons all told in little poems. It runs maybe a hundred pages, it’s a quick book to read and possesses some decent wisdom for life. For instance instead of pushing forward in a task the sage, “instead of advancing an inch retreats a foot.” In other words, maybe take a step back, breath, and then proceed forward. The Tao itself is rather enigmatic, it cannot be conceptualized or defined but it exists permeating through all things and underwriting the existence of the universe. Fans of Greek Philosophy will find a resemblance in Heraclitus’ “Logos.” If that’s too obscure think of Yoda’s description of the Force in Empire Strikes Back. George Lucas didn’t invent it out of whole cloth. From the Tao Te Ching, I proceeded to the book of Chuang Tzu, called simply, the Way of Chuang Tzu. This is a book more of parables to drive home the proverbs in the previous book. It’s a simple religion that requires almost nothing of the adept. It’s de-centralized, there’s no real authority figure and it has the built in martial art of Tai-Chi Chuan. What more could you want?

Admittedly now, it was the uniqueness of the religion that appealed to me…well that and no church. I have yet to meet another person who can claim that they are/were a Taoist. Not even the pretend kind that I have met in droves considering themselves Buddhists. Which is one of the problems with the Eastern religions. While I am sure that there are people that have truly converted into Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, or Hinduism; most of the people that I have met that claim to have converted, are doing just that–making a claim because it sounds cool and makes them unique. It allows them to make an assertion that makes me shudder whenever I hear it, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” They seem to think that these religions are not religions but ways of life, as if being religions doesn’t contain the word “being” in it. Religion is a way of life, and if you are a Buddhist you are not an Atheist. Which is a huge problem I have with the relationship Westerners have with the Eastern religions.

For some reason they get the pass that the Western religions do not. I hear it quite frequently, and not just on the internet either. At a non-academic philosophy club I used to attend but for reasons of annoyance I very infrequently go to anymore, we were discussing religion. And, as can be expected, there were a lot of people bashing religion. Criticism of Judaism tends to be muffled because no one wants to be considered an anti-semite as if it’s impossible to criticize the religion without attacking the people. Christianity, as to be expected, took the brunt of the criticism. When I began to attack Hinduism and Buddhism I was met with a surprising amount of resistance. Especially from a person who apparently wanted to spend the entire meeting bragging about how much Zen-Buddhism made him special. The irony is that if I attacked that same person only he was talking about how he found peace through submission to Allah, or through Jesus; I wouldn’t have encountered the same push back. Why does this Buddhist get the pass? Because it’s not native. That’s it, and there’s some romanticizing of the person who gives up their belongings to attain peace with the divine; despite the fact that Jesus literally says the exact same thing.

My disillusionment with the Eastern religions came about because I kept meeting the same type of person that I mentioned above. It was one of those mirror moments, where you see a person acting like a smug idiot and you wonder if that’s how you appear to everyone else. I realized that being different for differences sake didn’t really help you attain enlightenment or whatever it was that you were after. The wisdom of the Taoists wasn’t anything different you could get in any other religion, in fact, all it really was was dressed up common sense. Getting angry at things you can’t change is foolish says the sage (although that’s not a quote). That’s not unique to Taoism, in fact Roman Emperor Marcus Aurellius says the same thing in his Meditations. The advice is good, but it’s not taken from the divine it’s just made up by people who educated themselves and reflected on their life. Of course, my observations of this kind were met with resistance from reverse cultural superiority types (I don’t know if that’s the correct term but these are the people that automatically assume that if its from a different culture its better).

These people were infuriating. Buddhism isn’t better because it’s not Catholicism, it has to be better on something more than just its accidental differences. There must be something essentially better because accidental qualities are just that, accidental qualities. Buddhism is more than just inter-connectedness of life and karma (especially considering that Karma is Hinduism). I was on the defensive with this guy and he didn’t know what he was talking about. I knew the type, and just like how fundamentalist types like Falwell and Phelps give decent Christians a bad name, here it is the least fundamentalist that ruin it for the Eastern religions. Mainly because they possess a different type of ignorance. They like the shine of the foreign religion, but have no understanding of the meat. Just like a guy in the cafe conspicuously reading Proust, they can’t tell you one thing in it other than what everyone knows. Why is it “Free-Tibet” and not “Free-Taiwan,” or even better, “Free-China?”

Here’s a religious paradox you can meditate on: how is it that I am supposed to reject all desire and all sense of self, and yet still want to achieve Moksha or Nirvana? That’s a contradiction, I can’t want to not want. It’s like purposefully forgetting something, it can’t be done. And while Hinduism has a great epic poem, it has all the problems that organized religion has in the West. Not any of these have anything philosophically over the Western religions.

“But,” our goateed, sandal, ponytail, Proust reader will reply, “If they’re all the same shouldn’t we pick the one that hasn’t committed the atrocities that the Abrahamic religions have? There is no Buddhist version of the Crusades or the inquisition. Taoism doesn’t have the corruption, so isn’t it better at least morally?”

No it’s not. For the simple reason that backward thinking, and religious wars aren’t unique to the Western hemisphere. Ignorance to history doesn’t mean that history didn’t happen. Islam has its wars but then so did Taoism throughout the history of China. There were schisms, book burnings, forced codification. None of these things bear the catchy title of “Crusade” but they did happen. Prejudice against other people? Sure, Hinduism has got that, the caste system which renders an entire group of people as being unworthy of assistance–literally untouchable is justified through the doctrine of reincarnation. In a past life they did something to deserve their present station. They are literally at fault for being born, just as the Jewish notion of inherited sin.

“But c’mon,” the bespectacled teenager with a worn out Beastie Boys tee shirt replies, “that’s not me. I’m a Zen Buddhist, surely there’s nothing in its past that comes close to the inquisition.”

Oh, so its genocide you like? How about the tragedies inflicted upon China and the Pacific by Imperial Japan in the 30s? The emperor, who was considered a literal god through the combination of native Japanese ancestor worship religion of Shinto and their version of Zen, wasn’t just giving orders to the Japanese people he was giving commandments. When you are the chosen people, and god is literally speaking to you, its much easier to commit the crimes the Japanese did in Nanking than otherwise.

“But,” our horn-rimmed glasses, hemp skirt, alternative medicine woman will retort, “that wasn’t real Buddhism.”

Not it wasn’t, that’s a good point. However the Crusades weren’t real Christianity either. The problem is that without the historical knowledge the Eastern religions come off as being morally cleaner than their Western counterparts. It however only seems that way. Sex-scandal in the Catholic church? The same thing happens in the Hindu temples, there’s even sexual slavery among the women of the lower castes. Religion standing in the way of progress like that of Galileo’s trial, how about Ghandi’s belief that India ought to scrap the industrialization that had begun and return to simple village farming? It sounds good until you get the rampant starvation. For all the good that he did, his religiously motivated non-violence wouldn’t even allow him to approve of the fighting against the Nazis.

Despite the misuse and historical travesties the edicts of these religions all appeal to the same wishful thinking wrapped in local mythology. If you think that Buddhism isn’t a religion then please explain the virgin birth and the prophecies surrounding the Buddha himself. Ultimately all of these do the same thing, they consider this life to be the least important only a test for the next life. Whether its reincarnation into a rich man through Karma, or the eventual dissolution of the ego into Nirvana, it’s all the same. Maybe they don’t possess hell (eh, the Chinese mythologies have a lot of hells), no Sunday services, but in the end they aren’t any different. You can’t be an Atheist and a Buddhist/Taoist.

I finally faltered from Taoism when I realized that, as I said earlier, it was just common sense wrapped in translated words that sounded more profound. Like my Catholic experience, I don’t lament my delving into it, wisdom is wisdom no matter how it’s cloaked. However, I don’t need the force to tell me it. If anything pretending they are different is just self-deception, and Plato has told us how well that works.


hint: it doesn’t

Categories: philosophy, religion