Quotation

He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Monday, May 14, 2018

Fair Questions: How do religious doctrines confer an evolutionary advantage?

One of the questions that came up during the podcast that Sam Harris did with Bret Weinstein surprised me, although it shouldn't have. Bret's answer to that question also surprised me (and seemed fairly surprising to Sam Harris as well), but not in the sense that it cut against my intuitions about what the correct answer would be.

I was just surprised that he generally agreed with my answer, because other left-libertarian evolutionary biologists don't strike me as the sorts of individuals who ever would agree with me on this topic.





When Bret mentioned that he believed that specific religious doctrines had evolutionary value, I thought, "Well, of course."  It seems very obvious that they do, given how pervasive religion is, and how evolutionary processes work.

The more interesting question is how that plays out with regard to certain doctrines, and that's what Sam Harris brought up very effectively with his example about the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

I can understand why Harris chose transubstantiation as his example.  It's not obvious how that might confer an advantage in evolutionary terms.

One the other hand, the moral doctrine of the Catholic Church which states that it is wrong to use artificial contraceptives for selfish ends is much easier to understand as a doctrine that lends to evolutionary fitness.  It's a doctrine that provides an incentive for those who are Catholic to be open to having more children, and that's generally going to improve evolutionary success for those Catholics, ceteris paribus.

But it isn't just the one doctrine.  Bret's point that the structure of the religion has to be doing a lot of the work is a useful one, I think, for understanding the value of religion in evolutionary terms.  Most people who are opposed to religion will admit that the communities formed under the banner of religion are strong and people find it difficult to leave those support systems.

This robust social support system as a function of religion has fairly obvious evolutionary value as well.  But what is less obvious is how the intellectual structures of a religion confer an evolutionary advantage.  Here is where I have some ideas to offer, although I'm afraid that I'm offering them in an overly simplistic formulation.

Let's take Buddhism as an example.  Buddhism, when it is practiced (either to a greater or lesser degree) tends to reduce an individual's attachment to seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.  And this allows individuals to act both more rationally and more compassionately, because the huge barrier we have to being more rational and compassionate is our inordinate focus on short-term interests that tends to lead to shorter and/or less healthy lives and thus fewer offspring in many cases.

So Buddhism's focus on reducing our attachments to seeking pleasure and avoiding pain for their own sake helps us mitigate behaviors that will reduce our evolutionary success, because it improves our ability to make rational decisions about resource utilization and fosters more pro-social behaviors.

But even within that general framework, we still can't easily explain how something specific and more spiritualized like the Mahayana Buddhist teaching on the transference of merit or the Roman Catholic teaching about indulgences fits into this picture.  Nonetheless, I actually think it is explicable, albeit in a more subtle way and with some difficulty.

Both of these practices function to help us become less selfish the more we practice them.  They may seem like mere pie-in-the-sky magical thinking to those who don't share their respective cosmologies, but what they are doing to us is gradually making us less likely to engage in the sort of immature short-term pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance behaviors that ultimately make us less successful from an evolutionary standpoint.

They do this in a couple of ways.  First, because these practices are prompting us to keep our focus on something other than ourselves, they are training the mind to be less self-centered in how it deals with the world.  Second, because these practices take up the time that we might otherwise be inclined to worry about pleasure and pain, we are less likely to enter a downward spiral of anxious thinking and go back to our less valuable behaviors (from an evolutionary standpoint) in those moments.

These practices are just a small sample of the myriad religious practices that serve the same basic functions, and both ancient Buddhist and ancient Christian religious traditions have huge collections of such practices that together are a fairly comprehensive training program for reducing the ill effects of egotistical thinking and behavior.  (Click here for more examples of this in the Catholic Church)

So most of the doctrines of religions are a part of the intellectual framework that help promote pro-social behaviors, reduce our reliance on transient pleasures that drives much of our egregiously irrational behaviors, and provides a motivating narrative for us as we navigate a difficult life.

The Roman Catholic teaching on transubstantiation or the Mahayana Buddhist teaching on the Buddha-nature may seem very far away from being valuable in terms of evolutionary success, but they are highly important as motivators.  If you believe that God has given Himself to you for your salvation, and that He has gone so far as to give you His very body, that's a strong motivation to keep going in the face of struggles that might otherwise cause you to fall into fatalism.

In a similar way, if you believe that your Buddha-nature means that you have an opportunity to transcend all the suffering of this world, that's highly motivating and may keep you going through rough times so that you can have more offspring and be more successful from an evolutionary standpoint.

It may be that there are specific religious doctrines that, individually, are almost impossible to understand as useful in light of evolutionary processes, but I suspect that taken as a whole body of beliefs, most religions have pretty obvious evolutionary value.

Unless, of course, you're already committed to the view that they couldn't possibly improve human fitness from an evolutionary standpoint.  And then it would be very difficult to think of those reasons.

Related: Fair Questions:  How did religion help us survive?

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Fair Questions: What did I learn from visiting an Eastern Orthodox parish regularly?

For a couple of years, I attended the Divine Liturgy at the local Eastern Orthodox parish on average at least once a month, sometimes more.  It was and still is an Antiochian parish, whose Patriarch is currently John X.  I met many very kind people there over those two years, and I recently attended the elevation of one of them to the rank of Proto-deacon.

It was a beautiful liturgy presided over by the current bishop of the diocese, whose name is Anthony.  One of the things I learned from attending the parish was an appreciation for the ancient liturgies, whether it was the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom that was the standard at the parish, or the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great which was used for Great Lent.

It spurred my interest in learning more about the Divine Liturgy of St. Gregory the Great (which most people know as the Roman Catholic Mass) and the Divine Liturgy of St. Mark (an ancient liturgy used by our Coptic brothers and sisters).  I really enjoyed the opportunity to study the ancient liturgies of the Church, and also the opportunity to remedy some of my ignorance of Eastern Christianity in general.

I began having a pronounced interest in iconography after being exposed to the wonderful icons at the parish, and that has lead to a wonderful deepening of my knowledge of both Byzantine iconography in particular and Christian art in general.  I have been giving a plethora of icons as gifts since then, spreading the faith through beauty.

I'm very grateful for these opportunities to learn more about Eastern Christianity, and it was of great value for me as someone who was really only viscerally familiar with Western Christianity prior to this point.  I was raised in Protestant denominations (initially Church of Christ and then Pentecostal) and entered the Catholic Church by way of the Roman rite.

One of the important things I learned is that the virus of modernity is beginning to infect the Eastern Orthodox communities in the U.S. as well.  I had thought that they were resisting it, but as I've become more connected to them both in-person and on the Internet, it's become obvious that they are facing much the same struggles the Catholic Church has been facing, albeit on a delayed timeline.

The push for a greater role for women in the liturgy is alive and well, and this is especially focused on the role of deaconesses much as it is in the West currently.  Laxity is a problem for many, as it generally is in the convenience-oriented and consumerist American culture.  In both cases, it's not clear how things will play out over the long term.  I certainly hope for the best.

I also learned that Byzantine chant is rather different in important ways from Gregorian chant.  I've been learning to chant the propers for Mass for the last couple years, and I notice that while Western chant and Eastern chant share a common heritage, they have become somewhat distinct musical traditions over the past two millennia.

I've also learned about the similarities and differences among the monastic traditions of East and West, and the theological and ecclesiological disagreements that help cement the schism between the Eastern Orthodox intercommunion and Catholic communion.  I've seen the efforts at bridging the schism and reaching toward a re-unification, and of course I pray that we may all be one.

Perhaps most importantly, I've learned that restoring the unity of the Church is not primarily a matter of policy or theology.  It's the local integration of the communities, and the love between them, that most needs to be cultivated in order to re-unify what is now only partially in communion.

And it's us as individual members of our respective parishes that have the power to bridge the divide between the East and West, bringing full communion a little bit closer in our lifetimes by recognizing that we aren't one yet, and that we need to humble ourselves in order to become truly one body.

Related:  Why am I not Eastern Orthodox?


The above picture is one I took of an icon of St. George, the patron saint of the parish I attended.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Fair Questions: Why Mixed-Attraction Marriage?

To put it mildly, the relationships depicted in the video segment below will generate considerable moral outrage in some social circles, puzzlement in many others, and applause in a few circles.



It will generate moral outrage in some circles because it depicts men who are physically attracted to other men (at least most of the time) setting aside their attraction to do what they believe is objectively morally right: marrying within their religious tradition and raising children.

Why the outrage?  Because those folks believe that the basic moral duty of a person is to fulfill their strong attractions, particularly their sexual attractions, by acting on them throughout life.  Their view is that personal fulfillment happens as a result of consistently realizing our sexual desires (as long as it is between consenting parties).

Also, they believe that a person acting against their strong sexual attractions consistently throughout life is doomed to either fail in remaining chaste or doomed to a host of mental health issues due to sexual repression if they do in fact succeed in remaining chaste.

They genuinely believe that it is fundamentally harmful to people to practice a radical self-denial with regard to our sexual attractions.  Their outrage is at least understandable, whether one agrees with their worldview or not.

Others who are more tolerant live-and-let-live types will simply be puzzled by the mixed-attraction marriages depicted in the video.  They themselves don't see any sense in getting married to a woman unless you're exclusively attracted to women, but they figure...if it makes the couples happy and works for them, why not?

These folks have different feelings and conclusions about mixed-attraction marriages, but one thing they generally agree on is that the purpose of sex is to have fun and to act on our attractions.  It's a hedonistic view of the human person and our moral imperatives.  (I'm using the term hedonistic here not as a pejorative, but rather as a clinical description.)

Those who applaud mixed-attraction marriages, on the other hand, may or may not be hedonistic in their own approach toward marriage.  Some who applaud mixed-attraction marriages are doing so either solely or primarily because the Bible prohibits homosexual acts and promotes opposite-sex marriage as God's plan for human beings.

Out of this group, some are pretty hedonistic themselves.  They too believe that the purpose of sex is to have fun and act on our attractions, although if you have children too, that's Biblical as well.  For this segment of the Bible-believing folks, marriage is the prerequisite for sexual license.  After marriage, you can do pretty much what you like with your spouse as far as sex acts are concerned.

Others, however, do not have a hedonistic view of marriage at all.  Mostly these folks are either Mormons, members of the Catholic Church or part of the Evangelical movement in post-Reformation Christian groups.  They believe in things like NFP (Natural Family Planning) to help regulate the number of children a family has. 

This method requires periodic abstinence and strong self-control, unlike the condoms and pills used by most of their co-religionists.  They propose something antithetical to hedonism: human beings ought to control their transient urges by regular self-denial, and especially with those that are the strongest urges like those related to sex and food.

For them, our lives are a constant sacrifice, an ongoing self-emptying which denies our transient desires for the sake of achieving objective moral goods.  For them, all of us are called to turn everything we desire over to God and follow the divine commands, no matter how hard those cut against our strongest instincts.

It is in this view that mixed-attraction marriages make the most sense.  On this view, those who experience strong same-sex attractions are called to take up the cross of their desires just like everyone else, subordinating those desires to the way of life which God commands for us.

And they have to exercise a radical control over those desires just as everyone else does, in order to turn their lives completely over to God.

What many people will ask at this point is: How healthy is it to deny such powerful desires for so long?  Should we really be recommending this approach of mixed-attraction marriages for everyone?

I don't recommend this approach, myself.  The divorce rates are higher than average for mixed-attraction marriages (which is especially harmful for any children from the marriage), and that seems an important point when deciding whether or not to take the risk of entering into such a marriage.

That said, I'm not sure how much of the higher divorce rate is caused by the mixed-attraction challenge and how much is caused by our culture teaching people that marriage is for their pleasure (which inevitably leads to disappointment and often resentment).  It seems likely that mixed-attraction marriages have been going on for several hundred years in the United States, and it would be useful to know whether the divorce rates for those marriages shot up right after the Sexual Revolution.

If the rates did go up a lot at that time in our history, it would suggest that a more hedonistic view of marriage had a lot to do with causing high divorce rates among mixed-attraction marriages too.  Perhaps more study on this issue would be enlightening.

As far as the question of whether it's healthy or not to deny such powerful desires for so long, my observation is that celibate priests, most of whom keep to their vows and are not sexually active, are generally no more unhealthy from a physical or psychological standpoint than most other folks after taking into account that they have an extremely stressful job.

The existence of a small percentage of priests who find it unbearable to remain in the state of sexual inactivity doesn't provide much evidence for the claim that it's intrinsically unhealthy or impossible to live that way for long. 

Claiming that it does is rather like proposing that the small percentage of the Jain monastic population that commits violent crimes means that radical non-violence is unhealthy or impossible to live out for very long.  And who would propose that?

In the end, the reasons provided by the folks in the video segment for entering into mixed-attraction marriages aren't going to make sense except in the context of a vow that requires us to radically transform our lives in order to reach a transcendent purpose.

Anything less will not be sufficient to provide us with the kind of extraordinary motivation we need to live with profound suffering as we take up our crosses and follow Him.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Living on the Mountain: Getting My Own Switch

Living in Appalachia has its benefits.

At the old house on the hillside where I lived for the first few years of my life, I made many good memories.  Playing in the dirt underneath the porch and sliding down the hillside on a flattened cardboard box still brings a smile to my face. 

But not everything does.  My punishments, for instance.

I can remember being told to go outside and get my own switch.  I also remember dreading it. 

If I picked a switch that's not going to give me a painful switching, then my mother might just pick a worse one.  If I picked a switch that would give me a painful switching, then...well, I get a painful switching.

I'm sure I deserved it, in retrospect.  I was probably doing something that my mother needed to correct me for, or she just needed to set a crucial boundary for my behavior.

I'm grateful for that.  But in hindsight, the most valuable lesson I've learned from getting my own switch is more basic.

I've learned over the years that one thing I do a lot is make my own problems worse, not by changing the outcome of a situation, but by agonizing over the outcome.  My attachment to not enduring the inevitable painful consequences of my decisions simply adds more suffering to the experience.

In a delightful twist, it is precisely my attachment to not enduring painful consequences that adds unnecessary suffering to them.

For example, I have on many occasions at my job gotten angry about things that happened that had painful consequences for me, my team, and those we serve.  Did my getting angry at those things help in any way to create a better situation?

No.  It was the constructive things I did afterwards to make the situations better that reduced suffering for all involved.  My anger just created additional suffering for me and those around me.

I was getting my own switch, agonizing over exactly how I was to be caused pain by the consequences of something that was for my own good (and the good of others), were I just willing to learn from it.  And when I did learn from it, I did benefit, and so did those I served once I learned the lesson of the situation.

It's often the case in life that we get our own switches, that we bring more suffering upon ourselves by the addictions we choose, by the attitudes we adopt, and by the company we keep.  In our feeble efforts to avoid suffering by diving into our addictions, or adopting a cynical attitude, or seeking the company of people who are pleasant to be around but are not leading us to healthier behaviors.

Let us instead begin to follow the example of Christ, who embraced suffering so that others might benefit.  And I will be trying to follow my grandfather's example, living humbly on the mountain with the Lord instead of worrying about many things.  No more getting my own switch.

I pray that we all learn to stop getting our own switches, and instead focus our energy on learning the lessons life is teaching us so that we can be good and faithful servants of Him who made the mountains and valleys both.




The above is a picture I took of the mountainous skyline in Kentucky while traveling for my maternal grandfather's funeral.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Fair Questions: Is the Mormon faith a Christian religion?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is famous in the United States, and probably in many other places.

There are many religious groups in the United States which claim to be rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ, and so it is not this claim that makes the faith of the nice young men and women who evangelize on college campuses so controversial or even an object of scorn for some folks.

Nor is it the practices that mainline Protestant or post-Reformation Christian groups in the United States find to be very weird (such as temple garments or baptism for the dead) that make it so controversial among Christians, though some do unfairly scorn the folks generally called Mormons for these practices.

What makes the friendly purveyors of the Book of Mormon (you can access it for free at the LDS website) significantly different from the typical Christian evangelist is precisely that they are offering "another Testament of Jesus Christ" to a majority-Christian public that has often believed that the New Testament was also the last testament.

When I was younger, I believed that this fact did not bear on the question of whether or not the Mormon faith was a Christian religion.  My understanding at the time was that anyone who believed in Jesus Christ was a member of a Christian religion.  And so, Mormons were one of the many religious groups I counted as a Christian religious group.

It wasn't until I researched the LDS website to learn more about their doctrines, and had studied more Christian history, and had become concerned about applying consistent standards to help mitigate my confirmation bias, that I realized that it was time to re-examine my view on this question.

To make sure that I was using a consistent standard, I asked myself:  What makes Christianity a new religion rather than just another Jewish religion?  What makes Islam a new religion rather than another Christian religion?

At the time, I thought that what made it pretty clear that Christianity was a new religion was that it had a revelation compiled in a text that was viewed as superseding the Tanakh.  Once you have a new revelation and a new authoritative text that supersedes the previous text, you have a new religion.

In the same way, Islam is clearly a new religion because it has a new revelation compiled in a text that was viewed as superseding the Tanakh and the Gospels (in this case because the Prophet Mohammed claimed that they had become corrupted).  While Jesus features in the Qur'an, it's abundantly clear that he is not the same figure described in the New Testament.

The implication of this standard is pretty clear for the Mormon faith: The new revelations handed down to us by Joseph Smith results in the Book of Mormon, which is viewed as superseding the Tanakh and the New Testament writings of Christianity.

The fact that Christianity and Judaism strongly influenced the Mormon faith doesn't really make a difference in this case.  Christianity was very strongly influenced by Judaism, but we know that Christianity is its own religion.  Islam was strongly influenced by both Judaism and Christianity (as well as Gnostic beliefs), but we know that Islam is not merely a different version of Christianity or Judaism.

The same applies with Buddhism: we know that Buddhism was heavily influenced by earlier Indian spiritual traditions, but we also know that Buddhism has its own distinctive revelation compiled in the Pāli Canon that supersedes the Vedas.  The same thing is true of the Jains and their sutras and their founder Mahāvīra.

In light of this, I was left with the uncomfortable conclusion that the Mormon faith isn't a Christian religion, that it's something new and distinct.  I changed my mind on the matter.

What I have not changed my mind about is the profound wrongness of anti-Mormon bigotry.  The way many Americans look down on or make fun of Mormons because of their uncommon beliefs or missionary activities or even sometimes because they think they're not true Christians is still wrong in my view.

Even if it's true that Mormons aren't Christians, we should still treat them with love.




By Joseph Smith, Jr. - Joseph Smith, Jr.. Image from The Library of Congress, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4280840


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Praying with Icons: Diadochos of Photiki

Pray for us, St. Diadochos, that we might be
given the gift of the discernment of spiritual
influences, so that we may know the Godly
promptings from the promptings of the evil
spirits, and follow those of the Holy Spirit.

Pray for us, ancient holy bishop of Photiki,
that we would be given the strength to hold
fast to the catholic and apostolic faith, free
of the heresies which tempt us to either add
to or subtract from the deposit of the faith.

Lord, we ask you, the dear Father whom we
truly worship unto ages of ages, that the truth
which you revealed to us in Your only Son be
preserved in our hearts, that our final breath
would speak of the Word, of Love Himself.




The above is a picture I took of an icon of Saint Diadochos of Photiki ordered from Teshin Iconographics.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Waking Up Half-Asleep: Scientific Racism and Sam Harris

The latest controversy surrounding Sam Harris has been generated by his willingness to admit that he was wrong about Charles Murray, who earned great notoriety for his book The Bell Curve.  Others disagree, and continue to claim that racism is either Murray's motivation for the research and the policies he supports or something he conveniently ignores.

I think the question of Murray's views on race have been beaten to death, re-animated, and beaten to death again so many times that it's largely a futile effort to address it again.

What interested me more was the subject of scientific racism, and Harris' response to Ezra Klein's points about it.  You can see the transcript here at Vox if you prefer not to listen to the podcast version.



I want to look at a portion of the conversation and quote the transcript to address the issue of scientific racism:

Ezra Klein: Something you brought up a couple times is something I wrote in my piece, and I am actually very happy to talk about this. I say that the belief that African-Americans are genetically less intelligent than whites, and then also inferior in other ways, which I’m not saying you guys said, is our oldest, most ancient justification for racial inequality and bigotry. Do you disagree with that? When you look at American history, when you look at what we said at the dawn of this country and all the way through the 1950, the 60s, when I say that, am I wrong?
Sam Harris: In a sense you’re wrong. I agree with the spirit of it. I think you could say the Bible is just as much of a justification, the notion that the race of Ham came under a curse and that these races have a separate theological stature. You had Bible-thumping racist maniacs defending slavery and without any reference to science. That’s a great American tradition.
I think tribalism is at the bottom of it and perceiving other people who look different and sound different from yourself as ineradicably different. I think that is a problem we must outgrow, and I fully agree with the social concerns that follow from noticing how far we have to go in outgrowing that.
Ezra Klein: One of the things I detect in this conversation, this maybe gets to something we discussed that we would talk about later and maybe we’ve hit that point. Something I detect here is the idea that, and I want to think about how to phrase this carefully, because I want to do it without making you defensive, is that ideas can only fit into this lineage if they are being said with racial animus, if they are being said by someone who doesn’t like the people they’re talking about.
I think an important thing when we study the history of racism in this country is that it has always had a scientific wrapper. It has always been not something people thought they were doing because they were hateful, it was something they thought they were doing, because it was true.

This is the area where I think Sam Harris' tribalism (which Ezra Klein accused him of ignoring) is actually a factor.  Sam Harris has a fundamental commitment to science and scientific values.  He's a neuroscientist himself.  He's part of the tribe of scientists and pro-science public intellectuals.  He's gone so far as to claim that morality can be grounded in a scientific framework.

My sense is that Harris's self-perception is that he's taken his tendencies toward tribalism into account and mitigated those already.  Also, he doesn't pretend that no one has ever used science to support racist ideas.  He acknowledges this, albeit briefly.

I don't think the tribalism is a problem for him here in a straightforward and obvious way.  It's more roundabout, and by way of his views on religion.

Even very rigorous philosophers who regularly take into account their own biases, when they happen to be religious, can easily tilt the way they interpret the strength of the arguments against their religious views to avoid dealing with the full strength of those arguments.  I'm sure Harris is familiar with this process from long experience.

What I would suggest is that the same tilting of the way the strength of the arguments is interpreted is happening here.  The strength of the arguments regarding the extent to which the Bible was used to rationalize slavery in the U.S. is given a bit greater weight because Harris is committed to opposing religions generally and for that reason the various religious tribes (who generally oppose him).

At the same time, he is unlikely to weight the strength of the arguments regarding the extent to which scientific research was used to rationalize slavery and eugenics and so on in the U.S. so heavily because his view of science is that it is helping us leave those ideas behind rather than keeping us in those ideas as he believes religion does.

My view of the issue is that religious views rather than scientific views played a larger role in maintaining slavery, and that religious views rather than scientific views played a larger role in ending slavery (and the Jim Crow laws and segregation which followed) in the U.S.

It was much more the American moral sense formed by Christianity that motivated the change in views on the issue of slavery and the issues of Jim Crow laws and segregation.  The scientific evidence we have now does indeed support the view that traditional racial categories are not very accurate as a description of intra-species differences in humans, but this evidence was not yet well-established and popularized during the colonial era or the Civil War era.

What was well-established at that point were the Christian moral arguments for slavery and the Christian moral arguments against slavery.  And it was those religiously-motivated moral arguments that carried the day, and still inoculate us against a return to slavery.

Scientific research doesn't, by itself, produce moral progress in a society.  It's typically used in a self-serving way by both sides of any given controversial moral issue, but it's not what motivates societies to change.  And that's for a very simple reason: science is generally not what motivates people to change (religion is much more motivating), and it's the people who need to do the changing for societies to change.

Now, I would feel safe betting that Sam Harris would agree with me that people ought to be more motivated by scientific findings.  He and I would likely reach an accord quickly on that point. 

Certainly more quickly than an accord could be reached by Harris and Klein on the question of whether or not Klein's publishing of articles contra Murray and Harris poisons the space for debate on important issues.

I think it's probably true that Klein's behavior has contributed to poisoning the space for public debate on the policy implications of IQ score differentials, but only ever so slightly.  It was a poisonous space for debate long before Klein was involved, and I don't see his contribution being a very large one.

I would also say that Klein is dead wrong about the most ancient justification for racial inequality and bigotry being the belief that folks with dark skin are less intelligent than those with light skin.  The roots are deeper than that.  Bigotry based on physical characteristics is much older than any of the recorded history for the colonial era (or even the medieval era), and likely much older than any recorded history...period.

We need to look deeper for the roots of bigotry, and even slavery, which is older than any of the religious traditions or scientific findings that have recently been used to rationalize its continuance.  We can and should do this while still guarding against future uses of moral reasoning grounded in those religious traditions and scientific findings to bring slavery back or to continue other kinds of ongoing injustices.

I think Klein is exactly right, however, that racism in the United States has consistently had a scientific wrapper.  And that we ought to be skeptical of our ability to claim today that we can be reasonably sure that the scientific data showing differences in average IQ scores among populations represents a real innate difference in IQ due to heritable traits.

I can acknowledge that the data exists while remaining agnostic as to the exact causes and their implications (which I do).  This curious agnosticism with regard to the question would probably have been a better approach for many people who used scientific research to prop up their racism in the past or the people who continue to use it that way today.

I think we need to make sure that we are not waking up to the problem of racism, still half-asleep and stumbling around while unable to see that the same old pitfalls are still there.

It is probably better to give ourselves a chance to wake up fully before we attempt to leave our resting place too boldly, and then we can make our way more safely while avoiding those old pitfalls.

Sadly, I'm not sure any of us are fully awake at this point.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Praying with Icons: The New Martyrs of Libya

The waves of the ancient sea move steadily
to and fro upon the ancient shore readily
soaking up the blood spilled on the grains
of sand which have seen many bloody reigns.

The lips of the martyrs refuse to deny Him,
the Son of God who died crucified for them
and rose again that they might have a life
beyond the cold stroke of the deadly knife.

The crowns of those who died for the Son
rain down around the glassy sea, all won
by those who remained faithful to Love's
command, so wise to be gentle as doves.

Those who die with Him arise with Him
into the heavenly life prepared for them
by the gentle Father with whom the Son
and the Holy Spirit are dwelling as One.




The above is a picture I took of an icon of the New Martyrs of Libya which I ordered from legacyicons.com.

Below is a list of the names of those martyrs whom you can ask for intercession.


Unfair Questions: Was Jesus a Buddhist monk named Issa?

Recently, an article which claims that "Jesus Was a Buddhist Monk Named Issa Who Spent Time in India and Tibet" was brought to my attention.

Given that I've studied both Buddhism and Christianity in an unusual amount of depth for a layperson, and that I've seen some interesting parallels between them, you might think that this is something I would leap to believe.  But even when I was first introduced to it, I didn't buy in.  I just thought it was an interesting possibility.

When I went to college for my first degree, I encountered this idea that perhaps Jesus traveled to India and became a Buddhist monk for a number of years before returning to his homeland.  At the time, I thought it was an interesting and exciting idea (partially because this was shortly before I seriously considered converting to Buddhism).

Why does this theory remain so popular?  For several reasons.  The first being its explanatory power.

The explanatory power of this theory is that it explains where Jesus was between the Presentation at the Temple and the period of time shortly before his public ministry began at the Wedding at Cana.  It fills a big narrative gap in the story of Jesus' life, which we like because we are not comfortable with narrative gaps once we notice them.

There's not inherently anything wrong with wanting to fill in gaps in our knowledge.  That kind of desire is generally good.  At the same time, we ought to be careful about how we find the missing pieces of knowledge.  We need a way to assess which explanation is more likely to be accurate before using it to complete the narrative.

This helps us avoid getting conned.  One common way of persuading people to believe falsehoods is to call their attention to a gap in their narrative, and then propose a way of filling that gap which pulls on their heartstrings and their confirmation bias leads them to believe without properly checking the evidence.  (You can see this tactic being used in the BBC documentary displayed at the end of the article.)

The other appeal of the theory is that it fits the intuitions of many people who believe instinctively that for a religious figure to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he must be a cross-cultural figure with universal appeal.  And because there is a high degree of fascination with Buddhism in the West along with high levels of residual belief in Christ, it's natural to gravitate to a theory that connects them and (from their perspective) lends legitimacy to both religious traditions.

It also pokes those stodgy close-minded establishment Christian groups in the eye and subverts their beliefs, which is another advantage for many who are cynical about the religious groups in their home countries in the West.  These are the parts where the confirmation bias is coming in.

The trick here is validate folks' residual attachment to Jesus as a great religious figure and/or personal savior while also feeding their dislike of traditional Christian religious perspectives.  Everyone involved gets to feel like they are subverting the oppressive traditional and institutional religious groups while at the same time confirming their own more enlightened views.

This isn't a new technique, and it's used quite regularly today, but if we're not aware of it, it's easy to fall for it, whatever your religious views might be.

All that said, what do we use to fill in the narrative gap?

The simple answer is that we examine competing theories and see which theory is supported by the available evidence.

Is the story told by Nicolas Notovitch, the theory that Jesus traveled to India and studied as a Buddhist, supported by the evidence?

No.  Actually, a well-known scholar of Eastern religions (he prepared the English translations of the Jain works in my personal library), found out pretty quickly that Notovitch fabricated his claims.

Even Bart Ehrman, a secular scholar of the history of religions who is happy to prod traditional Christian believers using historical evidence, admits that this theory was just started as a hoax.

It takes only a short time to check this information, and does not require extensive research.

So why would people continue to peddle his theory?

I will leave it to my readers to fill in the gap in the narrative as to their motives.

Related: How similar are the births of the world's major religious figures?


Monday, April 2, 2018

Fair Questions: Why charismatic worship?

In Catholic circles, charismatic worship styles are not always approved of, either by laypeople or clergy.  Of course, the Catholic Church as an institution has approved of it in some fashion, and indeed has even encouraged it as part of the life of the Church.

We can see this in the video below:




How did you react to the charismatic worship in the video?

There are at least a couple of obvious dangers when watching charismatic worship. It is easy, if your intuitions about how worship ought to be done are that this is a wrong way of worshiping, to write it off and assume bad faith or spiritual or emotional immaturity on the part of both participants and leaders.

It is also easy, if your intuitions about how worship ought to be done is that this is a great way of worshiping, to ignore the concerns of those who think it is not and go on about how wonderful and energizing it is without asking whether or not it's spiritually healthy.

As a former Pentecostal, I am aware of both the value and the risks of charismatic styles of worship. We ought to be able to loudly and with deep emotion express our longing for God. Charismatic worship is a way to do that., a way to fulfill this potent emotional need for freely expressing our joy to our Creator and Savior.

The big danger is that a reliance on this emotionally powerful form of worship can unbalance us spiritually. We can begin to rely on the swell of feelings as a way of buoying up our faith life, and that's a real problem, because then our faith begins to fail once the big swell of feelings is gone and the hard work of ordinary spiritual growth through suffering sets in.

Each type of worship is prone to become unhealthy for us in different ways.  Liturgical prayer, for example, can easily become a ritualistic practice disconnected from the heart, a purely mechanical process in which we simply repeat the words without integrating their spiritual significance into our lives through the heart, the intellect, the will, and ultimately the soul.

This must be vigilantly guarded against, of course.  And fortunately, the beauty of the ancient Christian liturgies tends to draw us out of purely rote and mechanical recitation anyway.  This helps to keep us from falling into the pitfall of empty worship.  Similarly, we need something to keep us from falling into the pit of mere emotional exuberance for its own sake, an emotional high that has the same basic function as a chemical high and is primarily selfish.

My advice to any Catholic community engaging in charismatic worship is to make sure that it doesn't begin to take the place of the solemn Mass or change the way we celebrate Mass (via ignoring or flouting the rubrics by adding things to the Mass), and that it remains a supplement to the spiritual life of the community rather than becoming its daily bread.

There's real value in charismatic worship.  As with all things of real value, the key is to keep it in right order with the other valuable parts of our spiritual lives.

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Arms of Our Lady

Editor's/Translator's Note:  I composed this poem in both Spanish and English at various points.  Sometimes I was inspired in Spanish and at other times in English.  I took some liberties with both the Spanish and English grammar for poetic reasons, to more effectively convey the image I wished to present to the reader.  I actually think a lot of poetic devices are easier to use in Spanish, and I really like the Spanish version of this poem.

"The Arms of Our Lady"

At the Nativity of Our Lord
it was the arms of Our Lady
that cradled Him in the moments
of his first breaths.

At the Epiphany of Our Lord
it was the arms of Our Lady
that held Him up in the air
for the Magi to adore Him.

In the temple of Our Lord
it was the arms of Our Lady
that carried him to the priests
after forty days.

In the household of Our Lord
it was the arms of Our Lady
that carried the daily bread
for his morning's broken fast.

At the death of Our Lord
it was the wood of the Cross
that held Him up in the air
for all to mourn Him.

At the death of Our Lord
it was the veil of the Temple
that was torn into two pieces
for all to know Him.

At the death of Our Lord
it was the flesh and blood
that was broken and poured
for all who sinned against Him.

At the death of Our Lord
it was the arms of Our Lady
that cradled Him in the moments
after His last breath.


"Los Brazos de Nuestra Señora"

En la Navidad de Nuestro Señor
fue los brazos de Nuestra Señora
que lo acunó en los momentos
de sus primeras respiraciones.

En la Epifanía de Nuestro Señor
fue los brazos de Nuestra Señora
que lo levantó en el aire
para los Reyes Magos adorar a Él.

En el templo de Nuestro Señor
fue los brazos de Nuestra Señora
que lo llevó a los sacerdotes
después de cuarenta días.

En el hogar de Nuestro Señor
fue los brazos de Nuestra Señora
que llevó el pan de cada día
para Su ayuno roto de la mañana.

A la muerte de Nuestro Señor
era la madera de la Cruz
que lo levantó en el aire
para toda la gente llorar a Él.

A la muerte de Nuestro Señor
era el velo del Templo
que se rasgó en dos pedazos
para toda la gente conocer a Él.

A la muerte de Nuestro Señor
fue la carne y la sangre
que se rompió y se derramó
para todas las que pecaron contra Él.

A la muerte de Nuestro Señor
fue los brazos de Nuestra Señora
que lo acunó en los momentos
después de Su última respiración.




By Unknown Georgian artist - Goldschmiedekunst und Toreutik in den Museen Georgiens Aurora Leningrad 1986Source of the first version: Guram Abramishvili (1977), Treasury of the Georgian Museum of Arts. Tbilisi: Khelovneba, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4180332

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

At Year's End: The Dynamics of Prayer

At the beginning of 2016, I wrote about how a life-permeating discipline had allowed me to grow in ways that made me more loving, and how I wanted to love more, and keep my focus on love.

One of those disciplines was, of course, regular prayer.  And I was already praying regularly, both petitions and contemplative prayer.  I may have smiled as I said it, but I was not joking when I told my boss that my job had been great for my prayer life in the sense that it had given me many reasons to pray frequently.

During the first part of 2016, I was becoming very enamored of the Rosary, and I was even more impressed with it by the end of the year, as you can see:


In the first part of 2017, I took up the scapular as a means of cultivating a deeper commitment to prayer and penance.  I had a strong sense that to love God more fully, I would need practical ways of motivating myself to engage in more sacrificial devotions that further divested me of my selfishness, driving the ego out of more parts of my life in order to make more room for Love Himself.

Shortly thereafter, I decided to pray an hour a day.  At first, I used a prayer book I happened to have that was for Eastern Catholics or Eastern Orthodox laypeople to participate in liturgical-style prayer during the day.  I really enjoyed doing that for a couple months, but as a Roman Catholic I felt the need to align my personal prayer with my regular liturgical prayer tradition, and so I found a nice traditional Catholic prayer book and began using that instead.

Later, the Central Province of the Dominican Order in the U.S. released a mobile app to assist with praying Compline in the Dominican fashion, and I started utilizing it as my night prayer before bed.  That was my first consistent praying of any part of the Liturgy of the Hours.  I had prayed a bit of it before, but it had never become a habit.

This past Fall, I took a trip to Washington, DC.  I visited the Dominican House of Studies, and saw how great it really is to pray the Liturgy of the Hours in community.  Ever since, I've used the Laudate mobile app to pray as much of the Liturgy of the Hours as possible.  It has genuinely changed my life because it has changed my focus from finding moments in which to be productive (and avoid sin) to finding moments in which to be prayerful.

It has also improved my singing, because I am spending about an hour a day in prayer on average, and generally at least half of that is sung prayer.  And that's before I practice any of the chants for Sunday, which adds even more time spent in prayer while reading Scripture.

I still pray my petitions for my family and friends and others I've agreed to pray for (though some days I forget).  I still offer prayers for the conversion of individuals, and pray spontaneously on occasion.  I still pray rosaries while on road trips and on flights.  I still write poetic prayers.

What changed over the past year is not just my habits of prayer, but my heart.  Prayer in its mature form is fundamentally an act of setting aside the ego, whether we ask for what is good for another person, or we praise the Lord, or we ask God to help us grow in virtue so that we can better serve Him.

Doing this habitually re-shapes our character over time so that we become less selfish through a gradual process of stepping more and more often outside of our own attachments to the things of this world.  And instead, keeping our focus more and more often on how we can serve the Lord and His least brothers and sisters.

Prayer is dynamic: it changes us, it motivates us, it grows our relationship with God.  May all of us who pray find the dynamic peace of Christ growing in our hearts, the peace the world cannot give and that same peace which the world cannot take away.

Related:  Love it to Death: Praying from the Heart



The above is a picture of the 4-book Liturgy of the Hours set that I was given for Christmas.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Love it to Death: The Vestments of Love

Our clothing, as Americans today, is primarily a representation of who we are as individuals.  We might have a uniform we wear to work or in the military as a secondary matter, but the first and most fundamental way we have of understanding clothing is as a matter of personal expression.

In the scope of human history, personal expression has probably always been a factor in clothing choices.  But it was probably very much a secondary factor much of the time.  For the ancients, clothing was much more likely to be primarily a representation of that to which they owed some allegiance, whether it be their tribe, their king, or their family.

When the ancients wore clothing which was a representation of that to which they owed allegiance, it was an act of self-effacement.  Even the messenger of a wealthy king, who would have been dressed quite richly, wasn't dressed richly because he himself was the king, but because he was acting as the representative of the king, and therefore needed to show quite obviously whom it was that he was representing.

That said, it was also understood that how one treats the king's messenger is indicative of how much one respects the king.  If you treat the king's messenger well, and send him back to the king with gifts and provisions, then the king knows that you are communicating your high respect for him, or at least for his position.

On the other hand, if you snub the king's messenger by refusing to feast with him, and then send the messenger back home with harsh words, the king will notice that you do not have much respect for him.  In short, it was generally wise to treat the messenger dressed in the king's colors almost as well as you would treat the king himself.

The Founders of the United States probably understood all this at least somewhat.  Many of them had some close ties to the countries of their forebears in which kings and their messengers were well-known.  We who live in these United States 250 years later, however, are unlikely to ever have known a king, or even lived for long in a country whose king had exercised any immediate authority over us.

I consciously realized today (Palm Sunday) at Mass, that our parish priest was dressed in very fine vestments.  I recognized that these must be fairly expensive garments, and that they were extraordinarily beautiful.  These vestments wouldn't make sense in any other context than representing a king.

Here in the U.S. we have no earthly king.  Perhaps this is why we Americans can find rich vestments on our clergy a bit off-putting.  Having no king, we no longer have an easy cultural touchstone to function as a way to arrive at the understanding that ornate priestly vestments are less a matter of personal expression and more a matter of representation.

It is easy for us to imagine that the priest thinks that he's all high and mighty because of his fine robes as he celebrates the liturgy, and difficult for us to imagine that he dresses in these vestments because he is representing the King of kings and Lord of lords when he celebrates the memorial feast of the King of Heaven.

It's easy for us to imagine that the priest simply has a personal preference for frilly, fanciful garments.  And based on what I've seen of gossip in these sexuality-obsessed days, it's even easier to suggest with a wink to others that the priest likes such things because he's secretly attracted to other men.

It's more difficult for us to imagine that the priest finds them difficult to wear because of the heat and the weight of them, and to sympathize with him.  And it's more difficult to imagine that he actually finds those fancy vestments difficult to wear because he knows how the gossip will play out, but he wears them out of obedience to the Church anyway.

This is an act of the obedience of Love.  To turn over our choice of clothing to the King as an act of representing our King is, in a small way, to show our love for Him by obedience, and thus to love to death a part of our ego.

The childish ego we carry with us wants to keep the focus on our clothing as a matter of personal expression, so that we can get compliments from the people we prefer them from, and perhaps so that those we prefer to offend will be bothered by our clothing.

Christ the King asks us to turn everything over to Him, and to live every part of our lives representing Him who is eternal Love rather than the transient desires of our egos.  This naturally includes how we clothe ourselves, and in a special way it includes those who are designated to act as the King's messenger before the community.

And so the priest wears the vestments of Love, the rich kingly garments that show us vibrantly that it is the King of Kings for whom he delivers a message.




The above is a picture I took of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com, and it is one part of a diptych depicting both Mary and Christ.  It shows Christ in liturgical vestments, crowned and enthroned in glory with the symbols of the four Evangelists surrounding Him.




Saturday, February 24, 2018

Praying with Icons: Sophia the Martyr

Pray for us, Saint Sophia, that we might be granted
the holy courage which before the emperor showed
forth from the example of thy daughters who bore
faithfully the bloody burden of a martyr's death for
the sake of Christ our God who loved us unto death.

Pray for us, Holy Martyr, that just as you suffered
from a broken heart after burying those you loved
in this life, we might allow our hearts to be broken
and humbled so that we will receive God's spoken
words and be drawn into the eternal life of Love.

O Lord, we ask you, the Father of Life whom we
freely worship unto ages of ages, that our death,
like Saint Sophia's, will be a witness of fidelity
to Your holy Son, the Lamb of God, each breath
sending forth prayers to You who are our Hope.




Note: The above is a picture I took of an icon of Sophia the Martyr and her 3 daughters who were also martyred for their faith.  You can get this icon from the Holy Transfiguration Monastery via their website bostonmonks.com.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Praying with Icons: Saint Mary of Egypt

Pray for us, St. Mary of Egypt, that we would,
after leaping into the abyss of our sinfulness,
be granted by God the source of all that's good
an opportunity to find a worthy life of holiness
which is truly humble and pleasing to the Lord.

Pray for us, holy ascetic, that we might be free
of sinful passions as we follow your holy path,
fasting and praying to conquer those greedy
lusts of the flesh which will bring down wrath
from Heaven unless God's mercy be upon us.

Pray for us, model of repentance, that we who
also have need of the Cross of Christ will find
our way to make the long pilgrimage through
this life and be protected by Our Lord's kind
and loving Hand from the attacks of demons.

Lord, we ask you, the Father of life whom we
truly worship unto ages of ages, that our death
will be the holy end to our lives by which we
emulate blessed Mary of Egypt, every breath
sending forth prayers to You who are our Hope.




Note:  The above picture is one I took of an icon purchased from the Holy Transfiguration Monastery at bostonmonks.com.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Fair Questions: Why doesn't science show that Buddhist monks are less afraid of death?

Recently, I was pointed to an article in Newsweek which described a study that was done to test the hypothesis that the Buddhist belief that the self (as we generally think of it, a persisting reality) is an illusion would result in Buddhist monks having less fear of death compared to lay Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians.

This hypothesis was thoroughly falsified.  The Tibetan Buddhist monks actually reported more fear of self-annihilation upon dying than any of the other groups.  And in the test of selflessness (which should be a result of practicing the Buddhist focus on impermanence), they were actually less selfless than others.  This was an interesting day for science, and it's always nice to see a hypothesis falsified, because that's scientific progress.

The researcher quoted in the Newsweek article seemed quite surprised by the results.  I worry that this is largely because the researcher doesn't understand Buddhism very well, though I could be very wrong about that.  My own grasp of Buddhism is better than the average Westerner (as you can see from my extensive writings on it), but is certainly not complete.

At the very least, you can read in the paper they wrote after the study that the researchers relied on knowledgeable Tibetan Buddhist scholar-monks to calibrate their survey questions and understand the degree to which the answers conformed to standard Tibetan Buddhist teaching.  That's good methodology.

I do have some suspicions about the possible causes of the research results with regard to the Tibetan Buddhist monks being less selfless than the lay Buddhists in Tibet and Bhutan.  I also have some suspicions with regard to the fact that they appeared to be more afraid of self-annihilation.  Regarding the fear of self-annihilation, I think they need to do a comparable study with other Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists (both lay and monastic).

The reason I suggest that they should do more research with other Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists is that the Mahayana tradition generally and the Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism specifically has some beliefs that are different from Theravada Buddhism which are relevant to how one would view death.

In Mahayana teachings, there's a strong emphasis on buddha-nature and Buddhahood, and actualizing Buddhahood would cause one to essentially live forever as a bodhisattva. Monks are traditionally considered to be the ones most likely to reach that state (as you can read here), and they would have the most to lose by self-annihilation upon death.  On the other hand, lay Buddhists have to be resigned to the high probability of suffering a long time (perhaps millions or billions of years) on another plane of existence, so self-annihilation might not look so bad from their perspective.

Theravada teaching tends to more emphasize the cessation of existence within the cycle of saṃsāra (being reborn over and over again and suffering for all or most of eternity).  From that perspective too, self-annihilation could look pretty good.

Another important point with regard to the selfishness of the monks when presented with the life-extending medicine is that traditional Buddhist teaching places monks and care for the basic material needs of monks very high on the moral priorities list because they are the most likely to become enlightened and escape saṃsāra.  Therefore, one might have less incentive to extend the lifespan of someone who is very likely to die and be reborn in a naraka and suffer for millions or billions of years before getting another chance to be a monk and gain the opportunity to escape saṃsāra.

That said, there may be a deeper and simpler reason that serious Buddhist practitioners who meditate often would be more attached to their own continued existence.  During deep meditation, one can find a tranquility or a bliss which far surpasses the banality of daily life in the quality of experience.

One can also notice that while there is no self in the way that we typically think of it as a persisting psychological reality, there is something which is aware of the contents of the psyche, and that something is what remains with us even after a deep meditation which changes us so dramatically that we can no longer pretend that there is a persisting psychological reality which is the ground of our being.

It is this something which is aware that presumably persists through the endless cycles of death and rebirth known as saṃsāra, through both the terrifying and torturous narakas and the highest heavenly planes.  One would guess that Buddhist monastics would be highly cognizant of the fact that this something which persists through life after life, if it were to cease, would mean the cessation of their own being, and their chance at living on as an enlightened bodhisattva.

While none of them would believe that a simple lack of a persisting psychological reality (known popularly as the self) is anything to fear because meditation would make it obvious to them that it is not anything to fear, they might be quite fearful of the final cessation of that something which is aware.

After all, they've developed a closeness with it through meditation that most people never develop.  They may have become attached to this something through long familiarity, and it may be wrenching to consider losing it forever, this truly persisting thing without which we would not experience bliss or tranquility (so far as we know).

I'm not saying that any of these beliefs or experiences are necessarily causally related to the greater fear of death or the selfish behavior of the Buddhist monks.

I don't know with certainty why Tibetan Buddhist monks would have a greater fear of death than lay Buddhists or members of other religions in the same geographical area.

But I do think the researchers need to consider the complexity of Buddhist beliefs when thinking about these experiments and what they measure.

Related: What is the role of the Sangha in Buddhism?



By Stephen Shephard - Own workCC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1130661

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Fair Questions: Should Christians take yoga classes?

It's been a while since I've read any articles from Matt Walsh, but this one was shared with me recently, and it has created quite a controversy, as much of his writing does.  In this one, he makes the argument that Christians should not, generally speaking, participate in yoga.

I'll be very candid about my own situation with yoga:  I have never taken a yoga class, and don't see much point in starting now.  I have a very nice stretching routine of my own that leaves me loose and limber and strengthens the muscles.  That said, I have studied it from a religious perspective and have a basic understanding of its spiritual implications and its relationship to Hinduism.

See Related Podcast and Post: The Yoga of Krishna

Based on my familiarity with the religious side of yoga and my traditionally-minded Catholic faith (which I share with Matt Walsh), you might understandably assume that I agree with him that Christians should avoid yoga in general.

But I don't.  That said, I do think he makes a better argument than most Christians who take an anti-yoga stance, and that Christians should take this argument seriously.  Also, he correctly points out the poor reasoning for participating in yoga that is commonly utilized by Christians to justify their choice, and that's worthwhile.

First, let's examine some of the bad arguments made by Christians against yoga.

1.  Performing yoga poses is inherently a Hindu spiritual practice regardless of your intentions, and regardless of your spiritual state it will draw you into contact with demonic activity and/or cause you to be worshiping pagan gods.
2.  Yoga is a practice of a pagan religion and participating in it is risky because it could lead you to explore pagan religions and eventually convert to one of them.

Argument #1 is, to put it mildly, patently absurd.  If that were true, any child playing around performing odd animal poses after being inspired by visiting a zoo would accidentally fall into the worship of pagan gods/exposure to demonic activity when they happened to be in a pose used in yoga classes.  This is not an argument that, on its face, has any real merit to it.

Argument #2 has some merit to it, but within limits.  It's certainly true that exposure to Indian religions, whether via yoga classes that emphasize Indian spirituality or visiting a Buddhist temple, can lead people to grow interested in those religions and move away from Christianity.  That is a good point to make.  On the other hand, many yoga classes are so secularized and stripped of traditional Indian spiritual meaning that this risk becomes very, very low.  A devout Christian attending these highly secularized kinds of yoga classes probably has basically zero risk of converting to an ancient Indian yogic tradition.

Matt Walsh makes a slightly different argument.  He asks us to consider that, if it's the case that there are other forms of exercise that give us the same benefits and aren't embedded with or drawn from Indian yogic traditions, why not just do those forms of exercise instead?

My guess is that most Christians who do yoga do so for a couple of reasons.  For one, it's very popular right now and classes are widely available.  Pilates classes are just not offered as often as yoga these days.  Exercise classes that are widely available will get more people attending, so if Matt Walsh wants Christians to do other exercises, probably one of the most useful things he can do is take concrete steps to make alternatives to yoga classes widely available.

For two, many people seem to find it genuinely therapeutic and physically healthy once they try it, or they do "hot yoga" because it's a fitness challenge.

For three, some people do it because they are interested in exploring other religious traditions.  These folks are probably the ones that Matt Walsh and other Christians who speak out against yoga are most worried about, and that's completely fair.  Those are the folks they should be most worried about.

But he and others are not just worried about the folks who are interested in exploring other religious traditions.  He makes an additional argument to support the claim that performing yoga poses is inherently a Hindu spiritual practice regardless of your intentions.

It's a pretty good prima facie argument, and I want to address it.  Walsh claims that:

"The whole point of yoga is that you can't sever its physicality from its spirituality. That's literally the definition of yoga. It would seem that a "non-spiritual yoga" is a contradiction in terms. It's like trying to make G-rated porn. Either its G-rated or its porn. It can't really be both. Either it's yoga or its non-spiritual. It can't really be both."

To his credit, this was true at one point.  In fact, for most of recorded human history, it was true.  That's because for most of human history, what people meant by the word "yoga" is the general category of the kind of spiritual practice Walsh is describing (albeit somewhat overly simplistically).

But in comes our consumeristic American culture with its ability to de-sacralize and de-spiritualize almost anything to make it palatable to as many people as will pay for it.

Does anyone really imagine that people who wear rosaries as a fashion statement are participating in a Roman Catholic contemplative spiritual practice whether they intend to or not?  Does anyone really imagine that people who have Byzantine icons of Our Lady (solely because they think it's a nice painting to hang on the wall that matches the decor) are necessarily participating in Eastern Christian veneration of icons?

Does anyone take seriously the idea that Western atheists who practice forms of Buddhist meditation strictly for its therapeutic benefits are actually attaining enlightenment via non-clinging as the Buddha instructed?

I certainly hope not.  The challenge here is understanding that there are multiple meanings of these words.  What a practicing Buddhist monk in the Theravada tradition means by "meditation" and what a Western atheist means by "meditation" are two different things.

When someone who wears rosary beads as a fashion statement says the word, "rosary" what they're referring to is a bunch of beads and a cross or crucifix in a particular configuration.  When devout Catholics say the word, "Rosary" what they're referring to is a contemplative form of prayer that they practice regularly in which they use beads to help count the prayers.

In the same way, when people who are focused on yoga as a spiritual exercise use the term "yoga" what they mean is not all the same thing as those who only know of "yoga" as extra-challenging stretching techniques.

So when Matt Walsh claims that the definition of "yoga" is such that it's an inherently spiritual practice, that's true for the traditional definition of yoga, but not for the new consumeristic American definition of yoga.  And so his argument there really doesn't apply to the latter.

All that said, I would not encourage Christians to take yoga classes.  I would, however, encourage Christians who do take yoga classes to consider Walsh's question about why we don't just use alternative exercises.

If it's just because the yoga classes are all that's available and you value the group exercise, then that's fair enough.  If you as a Christian have an attachment to Eastern religious traditions and want to do it for that reason, then it's probably best to do some soul-searching and prayer to discern God's will.




The above is a depiction of Krishna dancing.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Protestant Intuition: Other Religions & Obvious Assumptions

In this follow-up to a previous post on some basic intuitions of Protestant thought, I will be examining some additional intuitions with which I was brought up and have now rejected.

One of the intuitions which those of us who were/are heirs of the Reformation have inherited from our Protestant forebears is that other religions are obviously wrong.  We inherited the intuition that Islam is obviously wrong, that Buddhism and various older Indian religious traditions are obviously wrong, that the religions of ancient Greece and Rome and Egypt are obviously wrong.

These religions are generally not what William James would call "live options" for the average American Christian who is formed in a culture shaped by Protestant assumptions.  And in much the same way, it's equally obvious that the Catholic Church is obviously wrong.  The only question to be answered is, "Why are they wrong?"  These background assumptions were just part of the environment I was initially raised.

I am not offended, even now that I'm a devout Catholic, when folks who come from that same environment assume that the Catholic Church is the wrong religion.  They typically know about as much about the Catholic Church as they do about Theravada Buddhism, which is to say, close to nothing and probably more misconceptions than anything.  The best they generally have is an oversimplification or two.

I've read a fair amount of Truth Magazine over the years, because it's the magazine of the Churches of Christ, the loosely affiliated set of congregations that much of my mother's side of the family belongs to.  The best article they have available on Buddhism is very much in the vein of oversimplifications, and of imposing a modern American way of understanding things upon ancient Buddhism.

For example, the Theravada tradition is described as the "conservative" group and the Mahayana tradition as the more "liberal" group.  That's sort of like calling Mussolini "conservative" and Hitler "liberal" in their views.  Sure, you could find a way to justify that somehow, but it's really not a good framework to use in order to understand the important differences between them.  In order to understand their differences, you need a deeper understanding of what they agreed on and how they understood their own views on political economy.

And that's the same way one would need to get a better understanding of Buddhism as well.  You would need a deeper understanding of the kernel of the Dharma in order to understand the flowering of the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. 

I've written quite a bit about Buddhism and Catholicism, and I can say from experience that understanding both (and this is probably true for any religion) requires an ability to set aside the frameworks through which we typically evaluate everything we encounter and take on for a time the mindset of those who practice the religion seriously, who study it deeply, and who see the world through the lens of that religion's teachings.

For example, the average American Christian will struggle to understand why ancient Christians viewed Mary as the Queen of Heaven, because they have not yet taken on the mindset of those for whom the Davidic monarchy of Judaism or the many monarchies of Christendom were the normal way of relating to their societies.

Anyone steeped in the assumptions of an egalitarian, democratic society is going to have a hard time understanding the ancient perspective, which is that the human and angelic worlds were composed of a multiplicity of ranks and hierarchies.  Those egalitarian assumptions which seem obvious truths to us as normal American Christians would have seemed outlandish, perhaps even heretical, to early Christians who were awaiting the return of Christ the King and believed in the ranks of angelic beings and lived in societies rich with multi-layered hierarchies.

We American Christians won't be able to understand other religions, or even the history of our own religion, unless we relinquish some of our obvious assumptions long enough to appreciate the obvious assumptions of those Christians who came before us and the obvious assumptions of other religions that are held close to our neighbors' hearts.


Related: The Protestant Intuition: Divine Gifts & Human Works



Note:  Above is a picture of Martin Luther's edited Bible translated into German.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Fair Questions: What can we learn by living with different assumptions?

I had a discussion related to my previous post about the Slow Death of God (the story of former pastor Ryan Bell's year without believing in God).  One of my friends asked a good question pursuant to that discussion, and I want to address it more fully than I did in my brief response to him.





The question as posed is in two parts:

"Do you think that living for a year without God is a reasonable way to go about discovering the truth? One of your responses to your friends indicates that living out a certain way of life is a good way to confirm what one already thinks is true. However, is it a good or reliable method of discovering the truth?"

The first part of this question is asking whether Bell's experiment was a reasonable way of discovering the truth about whether God exists or not.  My short answer to that question is: No.

The second part of this question is asking whether it's a reliable way of discovering truth.  My short answer to that is:  Maybe.  It depends on what kind of truth you want to discover.

But why?

1.  Not all truths are falsifiable by experience.

For example, if I were to live for a year under the assumption that our Vice President, Mike Pence, is my best buddy who goes for beers with me at the local bar every weekend. That is something that could (and would) be falsified by my experience of life.  I've never met the man before, didn't vote for him, am not a member of his political party or a donor to it, don't have any friends who can introduce me to him, and I doubt he'll respond to my messages asking to have a beer with him now that he's busy with performing the role of the Vice President of the United States.  It would become very quickly obvious that my assumption was incorrect.

On the other hand, a proposition like "the contents of scientific theories describe reality as it truly is rather than reality as filtered through our perceptual mechanisms" isn't really susceptible to that sort of falsification because it's not a proposition we could falsify by living as if it's true for a year.  Similarly, a proposition like "there is a ground of being from which all that exists gained its existence and sustains its existence and we call this God" isn't susceptible to being falsified by living a year as if it were true.

So if people want to do "a year with ________"  or "a year without ________" experiments to discover a truth, it's important that they actually choose a truth that can be falsified (or at least made significantly more or less probable in light of a Bayesian analysis) by means of doing that experiment.  Ryan Bell didn't really consider experimental design effectively when deciding to live for a year without God, obviously.

2.  Cognitive biases always tilt us toward thinking we've confirmed what we assume.

When we live as if something is true for a significant period of time, it gives our confirmation bias lots of opportunities to work its magic. One of the byproducts of that is that we find all sorts of new reasons to believe whatever proposition it is.

And because of the familiarity principle, the more we expose ourselves to the phenomenon of living this way, the more we appreciate it and enjoy it, as long as there aren't direct and obvious negative consequences to doing so that we can't explain away by way of confirmation bias. Add into the mix that in this process, we will generally seek and find a community of people who believe it as well, and then normal emotional attachments, groupthink, and the in-group bias we all suffer from will tend to keep us on that path.

Atheists often (correctly) point out that tendency to rationalize whatever it is you already believe when looking at how many people share the religion of their parents.  Rationalizing what we already believe or how we already behave is a perfectly natural consequence of how our brains work.  And that remains true once we change those beliefs.  Our brain picks right up and rationalizes our new belief in the same way.

I've often noticed that new believers (whether a new skeptic or new Christian) don't have good reasons that they can articulate for their new belief.  Those good reasons and good arguments tend to accumulate over a number of years of thought and dialogue rather than actually being the primary driver of the change in belief.

Of course, another byproduct of living as if something were true is that we understand better the position of those who hold what we commit to living out as true. And that's quite valuable. I've found it to be valuable, at any rate.  That seems to me to be the better reason for living for a time as an atheist, or a Buddhist, or a Christian, or a Muslim, and so on.  It would be a valuable way to understand those with whom you disagree.  That said...

In the end, it's not reasonable to live a year without God as a means of deciding whether God exists or not because it's not the kind of proposition that can be tested that way.  And it's not reliable because of the outsized impact of our normal human tendency to rationalize whatever it is we are currently doing on our conclusions about what's true.