Thursday, April 30, 2009

It's Only a Flu

The way the media and much of the public is reacting, you'd think the Black Plague was churning throughout the world. The CDC reports that, during a typical flu season, 36,000 Americans die. At this juncture, there are only about 100 confirmed cases in a country of 304 million people. Consequently, the percentage of Americans who've contracted the swine flue is mathematically insignificant.

More importantly, the cases here seem far less virulent than those in Mexico. Few folks here have required going to the doctor and the symptoms are like most of the flu outbreaks that sweep the country each year. Yet, despite all this, swine flu is on almost everybody's lips.

It almost makes this skeptic wonder what the media and the government are trying to divert our attention from.

A Quaint Bible Story

One of the great things about blogging is the links provided by people commenting. Over at Right To Think there has been a lot of humorous and colorful commentary about the post, "Of Ammonites and Moabites…". One of the links provided in the comments section is to a site and book entitled "Illustrated Stories from the Bible".

For the believer, the book borders on blasphemous. However, to the non-believer, it's downright hysterical! One of these days -- when we've got some extra money -- I'm going to have to purchase this book!!

Here's one of the stories (without the wonderful illustrations):
Stoned Out of his Mind
(from Numbers 15:32-36)
by Paul Farrell

This happened while the Israelites were camped in the wilderness. One morning a young Israelite man woke up after a good, restful sleep. He stretched and looked outside. It seemed like a pretty nice day, warm but with a light breeze. His family was going to make a special meal that evening, so he knew they would need wood for the fire. They hadn’t planned ahead very well and had run out the previous night. “Oh well,” he thought, “May as well get started right away." He dressed hurriedly and headed outside. Unfortunately, though, the young man had picked the wrong day to run out of wood.

He walked along whistling to himself trying to enjoy the work, thinking how much fun it would be getting together with the family that night. His brother was always teasing him but he knew it was all in good fun. “Oh there’s a good one,” he thought bending down to pick up a thin stick that would be good for kindling.

After a couple of hours he decided he’d gathered a good bundle, so he headed back to the camp. But he hadn’t realized that several people had been watching him. As he neared them, he could see they were all scowling in a very condescending manner. He ignored them and walked straight passed, but suddenly one of them pointed to him and yelled, "stop!"

“What do you think you’re doing?” he said sternly.

“I was just picking up sticks to keep us warm tonight and so we can cook a special meal,” the young man replied.

“But this is the Sabbath,” one of the other men said indignantly.

The young man broke down sobbing. “I know but we ran out last night,” he pleaded. “It was my fault. I forgot to save enough for today. Please don’t be angry with me?”

“Too late,” the leader of the group said. Then, in a very angry tone he yelled, “seize him!”

They grabbed the man roughly and took him back to the camp to see Moses. When they got there, they told Moses what had happened, but Moses wasn't sure what to do with the man. He said he would have to ask God about it.

So Moses went before Yahweh and asked him what kind of punishment would be appropriate for the man who had picked up sticks. And Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, “You must take this man outside of the camp and have him stoned to death.”

“Righto!” said Moses obediently. “Will do.”

The young man hadn't quite heard Yahweh so he turned to his captors and whispered, “What did God say? Restore his new desk?”

“No." One of his captors whispered back, enunciating more clearly. "He said, stone him to death."

“WHAT!!??” the man yelped. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“No, I’m not kidding you. Now get moving,” said the man holding his arm.

So his accusers dragged the man outside the camp. He was a bit of a handful because by now he was screaming and trying frantically to get away. He kept yelling things like, “There must be some mistake!” and, “This is insane!” but to no avail. God had spoken and the people weren’t about to go against the word of Yahweh. So they stripped him to the waist and tied his hands to a pole.

The news spread quickly throughout the camp and soon word reached his own family.

They were devastated and his mother ran frantically to see what had happened to her son. When she reached the edge of the camp, she could see the lonely figure tied up to the poll. As she approached, he turned towards her. He could see how sad she was and that her mouth was trembling. "How could this have happened?" she said, wiping her tears as they ran down her cheek. They both looked into each other's eyes. "I'm so sorry, Mom" he whispered. "Remember, I love you."

But things were moving rapidly and the man who had picked up sticks could hear the sound of people gathering round him. He pulled hard against the chains trying to see if there was any way of getting free, but they were very solid. He squirmed and winced as he saw people scouring the ground for the right size stones.

They couldn’t be too big because he would die too quickly. But then again, they had to be big enough to cause cuts, abrasions, and contusions all over the face and head. Soon the people who had come, had gathered enough stones and the signal was given.

There was the sound of whizzing as a couple of stones passed his head narrowly missing, and then bang! A stone hit him on the temple. He could feel the blood trickling down his face as another hit him on the cheek. In a split second he was being pummeled from all angles.

He could feel his face and head swelling tremendously and felt intense pressure inside. The pain was excruciating and he was becoming slowly more and more disorientated. The blood was now pouring from his head. His whole upper body was red and the clothes around his waist were soaking soaked in warm blood. The pain was incredible and he just wanted it to be over, but he could still feel the rocks banging away at his raw, mangled face.

The pounding continued for what seemed like an eternity but eventually the man's body started to give out and he slipped into unconsciousness. He fell back against the poll and his limp body slid down to the ground in a mangled heap.

One of the men who had initially accused him of picking up the sticks came over to examine him. He grabbed him by the hair and pulled his head back to see if there was any flicker of life left in him. He could barely recognize his face anymore. As he looked closer he could see the man was certainly dead. It was over. The camp was safe from anyone who thought he might pick up sticks on the wrong day.

160 Billion Reasons Why

Because of their special status in society, it's very difficult to get a handle on the financial wealth of various religious bodies. In the US, for example, religious organizations are tax-exempt and their financial records are not required to be released to the public. So, the best available information must be obtained by making educated guesses.

One source estimates that the total income for Christian churches alone is $160 billion with another $250 billion from parachurch and institutional income. Altogether that's over $400 billion! More than the GDP for many countries.

So, why do religions hold on so tightly to their place in our world? Economics is a major reason. Religion is big business.

This is not to suggest that religious institutions and organizations don't contribute to society. Many religious bodies help out the poor, work on social justice issues and educate folks. At the same time though, like any big business, it enriches many people too. Their fortunes are tied to selling salvation to ordinary folks so they can fund their lavish lifestyles!

For me, this is one of the reasons why belief systems such as Taoism pose such a threat to western society. Philosophical Taoism doesn't have churches or clergy. There is no hierarchy. It doesn't require tithes or donations. In essence, it's anti-capital and our world is built on capital.

The "God" Problem

While doing some research for previous posts, I ran across an online magazine, Synthesis, the Journal of Independent Philosophy. There are some very interesting articles, but it's unclear if the site is ongoing or not as the last articles posted are from September 2008. Still, I'd urge those of you of a philosophical bent to check it out.

Below is an excerpt from the article, "Some Philosophical Problems With Christianity, And A Proposed Solution" by Laird Shaw.
The glaring and most commented-on philosophical problem with Christianity is the problem of suffering. The nature of the problem is this: how could Jehovah, being omnipotent and omnibenevolent - two of the characteristics that Christianity traditionally ascribes to Him - permit all of the suffering that occurs on this planet? I will express it in a slightly different way: why, given virtually unlimited choice, did Jehovah bother to create the material universe and a hell realm...when He could have left it at an eternally blissful heaven? He is, after all, capable of doing anything which is logically possible. Assuming that such things are logically possible, then "anything" includes "the elimination of all suffering from existence" and "the instantiation of a blissful heaven as the sole mode of existence".

Such a glaring problem must of course be addressed by Christianity if it is to have any hope of maintaining any credibility whatsoever, and the typical answer that it provides is that Jehovah created humans (and angels) with free will, and that suffering is the result of an abuse of free will - in other words, that we suffer because we sin. There is a serious problem with this answer, however. Notice the implicit claim that it makes: that free will implies the existence of sin. Is this really true though? In answering "no", let me explain why by examining the nature of free will. Firstly, how free is our will anyway? Can we will ourselves to fly up into the air against gravity? Can we will our bodies to morph into animal shapes? We cannot: clearly then our wills - despite some freedom - are in a sense also constrained. There is another and more important sense in which our wills are constrained: we have preferences and biases. We prefer certain flavours over others; we prefer the company of certain people over other people. Clearly, then, our wills are generally biased in some ways, and a bias is a form of constraint. Finally, consider that our wills operate within a context: the outside world. Our choices in the world are constrained by circumstances, so this is another way in which our wills are not totally free.

What does all of this mean? The key realisation is that it is not that human beings are wholly responsible for their sins: equally (or even more so - He supposedly being omnipotent) it is that Jehovah bears responsibility for man's sin. As sole creator of the universe - according to Christian teaching - Jehovah was free to constrain our wills such that the choice to sin never entered into our minds: He has already constrained it in other ways. Think about it like this: Jehovah has constrained our will such that we cannot oppose gravity; what was stopping Him from constraining our will such that we cannot oppose righteousness? If He is omnipotent, then the answer is plainly that nothing was stopping Him. The implication of this is that if Jehovah is omnipotent, then He is responsible for any suffering that results from sin. Furthermore, as the architect of the universe, it is Jehovah who determined that the consequence of sin is suffering, but He need not have made that the case: He could have chosen instead to ignore or to forgive sin and to not impose any consequences. Again, responsibility for suffering remains with (the omnipotent) Jehovah.

It is apparent then that the typical Christian answer to the question of suffering is inadequate: human "free" will does not really remove responsibility for suffering from Jehovah. The problem remains: a supposedly all-loving and all-powerful deity is responsible for the horrors of war, disease, starvation, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, fires, tortures and rapes, to mention but a few of the forms of suffering endured by many on this planet without any intervention from Jehovah. The problem is not solved through recourse to the supposed acts of the Devil either, because like everything else in the universe, the Devil is - according to Christian teaching - a creation of Jehovah, and therefore - as for human beings - Jehovah remains responsible for the extent to which He permits the "free" will of the Devil to choose evil.

To really ram the point home, consider that even if Jehovah were not the source of this evil (which - being the source of everything - He plainly must be), He still refrains from intervening to prevent it. Christians like to present Jehovah as a person's best friend. Does your best friend sit idly by and watch as you are brutally beaten, or raped, or does he jump in and defend you? Why is it that Jehovah does not even measure up to these human standards of friendship? The very existence of even a single assault or rape is proof that Jehovah (as He is believed to be) is not truly man's (or woman's) best friend.
So, what do you think about Shaw's suppositions? Agree? Disagree? Indifferent?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

So Many Peas in One Pod

Of all the various religions, Christianity has the most adherents. Yet, this fact is a bit deceiving as there are literally thousands of branches of Christian churches and denominations. Since they each originate from the same seed, it seems almost crazy that there are so many separate organizations. While they all tend to agree on a rather loose set of perspectives, there seems to be more points that they disagree on.

I live in a small rural county of approximately 20,000 people, yet there are scads of Christian churches here of every stripe and hue. Here's a list: Assemblies of God, Baptist, Baptist-Conservative, Southern Baptist, Bible Church, Catholic, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Episcopal, Jehovah Witness, Lutheran, Methodist, Nazarene, Pentecostal, Pentecostal-Church of God, Presbyterian, Seventh-Day Adventist, United Church of Christ, and Wesleyan. There are also several non-denominational churches plus several independent ones too. (Of course, this is a VERY abbreviated list.)

I'm sure the pastor of each church in the above list and many of the members of each congregation believe in their heart of hearts that their brand of the holy writ is the right one. If one of them is indeed correct, then it looks like all the rest of them are wrong.

Of course, I think each one of them is barking up the wrong tree in the wrong field. :-)

Pan, I See Ya

Pantheism I've heard of, but not panentheism. As the sources below indicate, the two pan -isms are closely related, but different. So, we'll start with the one I'm unfamiliar with before getting to the one I know.
“Panentheism” is a constructed word composed of the English equivalents of the Greek terms “pan”, meaning all, “en”, meaning in, and “theism”, meaning God. Panentheism understands God and the world to be inter-related with the world being in God and God being in the world. It offers an increasingly popular alternative to traditional theism and pantheism. Panentheism seeks to avoid both isolating God from the world as traditional theism often does and identifying God with the world as pantheism does. Traditional theistic systems emphasize the difference between God and the world while panentheism stresses God's active presence in the world. Pantheism emphasizes God's presence in the world but panentheism maintains the identity and significance of the non-divine. Anticipations of panentheistic understandings of God have occurred in both philosophical and theological writings throughout history (Hartshorne and Reese 1953; Cooper, 2006). However, a rich diversity of panentheistic understandings has developed in the past two centuries primarily in Christian traditions responding to scientific thought (Clayton and Peacocke 2004).
~ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ~

Panentheism (from Greek πᾶν (pân) "all"; ἐν (en) "in"; and θεός (theós) "God"; "all-in-God") is a belief system which posits that God exists and interpenetrates every part of nature, and timelessly extends beyond as well. Panentheism is distinguished from pantheism, which holds that God is synonymous with the material universe.[1]

Briefly put, in pantheism, "God is in the whole"; in panentheism, "The whole is in God." This means that the Universe in the first formulation is practically the Whole itself, but in the second the universe and God are not ontologically equivalent. In panentheism, God is not exactly viewed as the creator or demiurge, but the eternal animating force behind the universe, with the universe as nothing more than the manifest part of God. The cosmos exists within God, who in turn "pervades" or is "in" the cosmos. While pantheism asserts that God and the universe are coextensive, panentheism claims that God is greater than the universe and that the universe is contained within God.
~ Wikipedia ~

Pantheism is a metaphysical and religious position. Broadly defined it is the view that (1) "God is everything and everything is God … the world is either identical with God or in some way a self-expression of his nature" (Owen 1971: 74). Similarly, it is the view that (2) everything that exists constitutes a "unity" and this all-inclusive unity is in some sense divine (MacIntyre 1967: 34). A slightly more specific definition is given by Owen (1971: 65) who says (3) "‘Pantheism’ … signifies the belief that every existing entity is, only one Being; and that all other forms of reality are either modes (or appearances) of it or identical with it." Even with these definitions there is dispute as to just how pantheism is to be understood and who is and is not a pantheist. Aside from Spinoza, other possible pantheists include some of the Presocratics; Plato; Lao Tzu; Plotinus; Schelling; Hegel; Bruno, Eriugena and Tillich. Possible pantheists among literary figures include Emerson, Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, and Robinson Jeffers. Beethoven (Crabbe 1982) and Martha Graham (Kisselgoff 1987) have also been thought to be pantheistic in some of their work — if not pantheists.
~ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ~

Pantheism (from Greek: pan = all, and theos = God) refers to the religious and philosophical view that everything in existence is of an all-encompassing immanent God, or that the universe, or nature, and God are equivalent (i.e., that "all is God"). There are two types of pantheism: "classical" and "naturalistic" pantheism. In equating the universe with God, classical pantheism does not strongly redefine or minimize either term, still believing in a personal God, while naturalistic pantheism redefines them, treating God as rather impersonal, as in the philosophy of Spinoza. In any case, what is stressed is the idea that all existence in the universe (the sum total of all that is, was, and shall be) is of the same essence as the divine. Pantheists, then, typically deny God's transcendence. The problem of evil, which is a problem for theism, is not a problem for pantheism in the same way, since pantheism rejects the theistic notion of God as omnipotent and perfectly good.
~ New World Encyclopedia ~
Of the two, my thinking is more in line with pantheism. What's your opinion re the two pans?

What's the Deal, Mon?

As I continue to look at the various isms pertaining to belief/nonbelief in deities, I come upon monism. Here is what a few sources have to say about this philosophical position.
There are many monisms. What they have in common is that they attribute oneness. Where they differ is in what they target and how they count.

This entry focuses on two of the more historically important monisms: existence monism and priority monism. Existence monism targets concrete objects and counts by tokens. This is the doctrine that exactly one concrete object exists. Priority monism also targets concrete objects, but counts by basic tokens. This is the doctrine that exactly one concrete object is basic, which will turn out to be the classical doctrine that the whole is prior to its parts.

Neither existence nor priority monism is accorded much respect in contemporary metaphysics, nor are they always properly distinguished. Indeed, the entire monistic tradition is often dismissed as being somewhere between obscure and ridiculous. But there are serious arguments for monism. In particular, priority monism may be especially worthy of serious reconsideration.
~ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ~

Monism is any philosophical view which holds that there is unity in a given field of inquiry, where this is not to be expected. Thus, some philosophers may hold that the Universe is really just one thing, despite its many appearances and diversities; or theology may support the view that there is one God, with many manifestations in different religions.
~ Wikipedia ~

Monism (Greek monos,"single"), in philosophy, is a doctrine that ultimate reality is entirely of one substance. Monism is thus opposed to both dualism and pluralism. Three basic types of monism are recognized: materialistic monism, idealistic monism, and the mind-stuff theory. According to the first doctrine, everything in the universe, including mental phenomena, is reduced to the one category of matter. In the second doctrine, matter is regarded as a form of manifestation of mind; and in the third doctrine, matter and mind are considered merely aspects of each other. Although monistic philosophies date from ancient Greece, the term monism is comparatively recent. It was first used by the 18th-century German philosopher Christian von Wolff to designate types of philosophical thought in which the attempt was made to eliminate the dichotomy of body and mind.

Although he was not known by the term, the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza was one of the most influential monists. He taught that both material and spiritual phenomena are attributes of one underlying substance. His doctrine strongly anticipated the mind-stuff theory.
~ BELIEVE Religious Information Source ~

"Dialectical monism" is a synthesis of Eastern and Western metaphysical concepts. Like other ontological systems, it attempts to describe the world at a fundamental level. It is based on the idea that duality and unity are identical - unity always appears as duality, and duality is always reducible to unity.
~ Dialectical Monism ~
I have mixed feelings about this ism. On one hand, I sort of agree with the main thesis that existence may be one substance, but, then again, I might not. :)

What about you?

Postcards From...?

There are several aspects of deism that I could halfway accept -- the emphasis on rationality, observable laws of nature, and the fact that beings are responsible for their own salvation. According to the World Union of Deists, deism is defined as:
Deism is the recognition of a universal creative force greater than that demonstrated by mankind, supported by personal observation of laws and designs in nature and the universe, perpetuated and validated by the innate ability of human reason coupled with the rejection of claims made by individuals and organized religions of having received special divine revelation.
In its discussion of God, Wikipedia reports:
Deism holds that God is wholly transcendent: God exists, but does not intervene in the world beyond what was necessary to create it. In this view, God is not anthropomorphic, and does not literally answer prayers or cause miracles to occur. Common in Deism is a belief that God has no interest in humanity and may not even be aware of humanity.
This is all well and good, but it leads me to one particular question: What is "God" up to now? If this entity created the world and then left it to its own devices, where did it go and what is it doing? Is it off creating other realms of reality? Is it hobnobbing with other supreme entities? Like a salmon, did it create our existence as a final act before dying?


What Art Thou Not?

In my last post, I featured a number of ways a person could define themselves in relation to a belief in a deity. While I listed a number of different concepts, there is one which I submit defines all of us -- agnosticism. It doesn't matter what any of us choose to call ourselves or label our beliefs. In the end, all beliefs are approximations of that which we cannot know for certain.

For example, a person who believes in one or more Gods does so on faith and faith contains an element of doubt. We can't know that a God exists because we can't use any of our 5 senses to detect it and any contact of a spiritual nature must filter through our emotional self which, by its very nature, distorts what is experienced. All this means is that there is no way to prove or disprove that one or more Gods exist.

Likewise, an atheist cannot disprove that one or more Gods exist.

What we're left with is uncertainty which is what agnosticism represents. Taoism too since, we Taoist, don't claim to know anything for certain anyway!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What Art Thou?

One of the topics I discuss quite frequently on TRT is...religion. It can be a difficult subject to broach and discuss because different individuals and groups employ different words and concepts to describe, sometimes, similar ideas. So, to attempt to get many of us on the same page, copied below are a variety of the terms used to define/describe how different people approach the concept of deity. This information is from the interesting site Religious Tolerance.
Beliefs about deity cover a wide range, including:
  • Agnosticism: having reached no conclusion whether God exists.
  • Animism: The belief that all entities have life force, a soul or mind. For example, rocks, trees and mountains have an awareness of their surroundings: (e.g. Native aboriginal religions).
  • Atheism: According to most dictionary definitions and general usage, Atheists totally reject the possibility that God exists. This would include many Atheists, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists, etc. -- However, American Atheists, the largest group of Atheists in the U.S. define Atheism as having no belief in God. A newborn would not be considered an Atheist within the dictionary definition, but would be an Atheist according to the American Atheists.
  • Deism: The belief that God exists, but is remote, unknowable and uninvolved. They believe that God created the universe, set it going, left, but has not taken an active interest in it since. This was a popular belief among intellectuals during and after the American revolution. It shows up in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and its references to to "Nature's God," and "Creator." It is a rapidly growing believe today.
  • Duotheism (a.k.a. Bitheism): belief in a dual divinity: (e.g. Wicca and Zoroastrianism). In the case of Wicca, one deity is female, the other male; in Zoroastrianism one is all good while the other is all evil.
  • Henotheism. belief in many deities of which only one is the supreme deity. This may involve: A) One chief God and multiple gods and goddesses of lesser power and importance. Ancient Greek and Roman religions were of this type. B) One supreme God, and multiple gods and goddesses who are all simply manifestations or aspects of the supreme God. Hinduism is one example; they recognize Brahman as the single deity. Some Wiccans believe in a single deity about which they know little. They call the deity "The One" or "The All." They recognize the God and Goddess as the male and female aspects of that supreme deity. C) One supreme God who rules over a country, and many other gods and goddesses who have similar jurisdiction over other territories. Liberal theologians believe that the ancient Israelites in the early years of the Hebrew nation were henotheists. They worshipped Jehovah as the supreme God over Israel, but recognized the existence of Baal and other deities who ruled over other tribes. The monotheistic concept of "Yahweh only" came later.
  • Monism: The belief that what people perceive as deity, humanity and the rest of the universe is in fact all of one substance - that divisions among the body, mind, flesh, spirit, material, physical are not real. All are simply aspects of one being.
  • Monotheism: The belief in a single God. (Examples include Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism). Within Christianity, most denominations consider themselves to be monotheistic, even though they teach the existence of three separate persons in the Trinity. Some believe that religiously inspired violence is often found among monotheists.
  • Panentheism: The belief that the entire universe -- substances, forces and laws -- is God; the universe is God's body. God transcends the universe as well. (e.g. some components of New Age belief).
  • Pantheism: The belief that every existing entity (humans, animals, etc.) together, is a part of God. They do not see God as having a personality, the ability to make decisions, etc. Rather, God is the very spiritual essence of the entire universe.
  • Polytheism: belief in many Gods and Goddesses: (e.g. various Neopagan religions. Hinduism is often looked upon in the west as a polytheistic religion).
  • Trinity: belief in a single deity who has three aspects (e.g. historical Christianity, whose members generally believe in Trinity formed by a Father, Son and Holy Spirit who they view as being a single entity). Christians often look upon God as being omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibeneficient (all knowing, all powerful, all present and all good.) Some liberal Christians believe that such a list of attributes is logically contradictory.
Many specific denominations and faith groups are difficult to categorize. For example, a religion might teach the belief in a single God, and a large number of minor deities, heroes, or saints who have some powers normally restricted to deities. It might be considered a monotheistic religion in theory or a polytheistic/henotheistic religion in practice.
Where do you fit along this spectrum?

Personally, I don't fit under any of the terms listed above. Like atheists, I don't believe in God, but I do believe there is something. Like deists, I believe the something is "remote, unknowable and uninvolved", but I don't call this thing God. In essence, my beliefs represent an eclectic conglomeration of animism, atheism, deism, monism, panentheism, and pantheism.

So, rather than refer to myself as anathdemopanenpantheist -- try saying that three times really fast -- I use a much shorter label, Taoist.

An Interesting Tidbit

I've discovered that, for Spinoza, "God" is not a being per se but logic itself. This is congruent with the Taoist view that Tao is a process or, put another way, Tao is. I've ordered The Ethics and, once I start reading it, The Rambling Taoist may become The Rambling Spinozaist for awhile. :D)

A Hopeful Sign?

More Americans have given up their faith or changed religions because of a gradual spiritual drift than switched because of a disillusionment over their churches’ policies, according to a study released Monday that illustrates how personal spiritual attitudes are taking precedence over denominational traditions.

The survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is the first large-scale study of the reasons behind Americans switching their religious faith and found that more than half of people have done so at least once during their lifetime.

Almost three-quarters of Roman Catholics and Protestants who are now unaffiliated with a religion said they had “just gradually drifted away” from their faith. And more than three-quarters of Catholics and half of Protestants currently not associated with a faith said that, over time, they stopped believing in their religion’s teachings...
~ from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ~

When your beliefs don't match up with the world around you, it's not surprising at all that you will abandon those outmoded beliefs!

The only negative in this report is that many state they are still open to religion with "about three in 10 [saying] they had just not yet found the right" one. I suppose they will continue to look, but it's kind of hard to find the right mythology.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Pain of it All

Being an individual afflicted with a web of physical issues (degenerative arthritis, fibromyalgia and Klinefelter's Syndrome) in combination with two psychological ones (Asperger's Syndrome and Schizotypal Personality Disorder), my most constant companion is pain! Nary a day goes by when some part of the 'ol body isn't a tad bit under the weather.

I do not state this because I want your sympathy. Each human must deal with their own foibles and frailties. Mine are only worse than yours because they are mine. My pain is the only one can I feel within this thing I call the self. I can sometimes experience yours vicariously -- though certainly not as often nor as well as the average person -- but I can't know your pain as well as I do mine.

Fibromyalgia is characterised by flare-ups and periods of pseudo-remission. During the flare-ups, it's hard for me to visualize what it's like when I don't feel this crappy. During the periods between flare-ups, I sometimes forget how utterly miserable I feel during one. Of course, right now I'm in the middle of nasty flare-up. My routine for the past week has been to sleep, write a little on this blog, read a few of your entries, sleep, read a book, sleep, eat and sleep. Though sleep is mentioned quite frequently, it's certainly NOT a restful sleep.

When I was a believer in the faith, I often asked God why this particular cup had been chosen for me. Like most anyone else, I would prefer to lead an active life and be relatively pain free. God always seemed to be taking care of more important business as he never responded to my pleas for help or understanding.

Of course, I now know that God wasn't ignoring me; he simply doesn't exist. There is no being that inflicted me with my infirmities. There is no being -- other than myself, I suppose -- who can rescue me. I am who and what I am because of a multitude of variables in the cosmic stream of cause and effect.

These days I don't question why my body seems to be betray me over and over again. I realize there is a reason, but it's far too complicated for my limited human brain to comprehend. While this realization doesn't lessen the physical or psychological pain, my inner most consciousness is at peace. It's not wracked by guilt and it doesn't ask "Why me?"

I am who I am and I've learned to accept it. It's not always milk and cookies, but whose life is?

Belonging is Half the Fun

We belong to the light
We belong to the thunder
We belong to the sound of the words
We've both fallen under
Whatever we deny or embrace
For worse or for better
We belong, we belong
We belong together
~ We Belong - performed by Pat Benatar ~

Part of the purpose of the religious experience is to solidify this feeling of belonging. As social creatures, humans need some sort of group to belong to. Without any type of social connection, our self-identity becomes fragile and lost.

However, for many people, it's not enough to belong simply to a human group. Such folks crave the feeling of belonging to an extra special group -- a group that goes beyond mortality. So, to bolster their own egos, they create a straw man in the sky and proclaim that each is a member of the most select group possible -- God's group.

While the institution of religion does not hang its hat on this one variable, it certainly can be seen as one of the important elements -- to belong with the light, the thunder and the one who supposedly created them.

Not to be alone. Not to be lost. To belong.

Kill the Vegetarians!

As I've continued to read the book, "Betraying Spinoza", I recently finished a section which details the trials and tribulations of Spanish (and later Portuguese) Jews during the infamous Inquisition. Thousands were burned at the stake and tens of thousands more were forced to convert to Christianity to avoid being burned alive. All this in the name of the most hallowed Jesus and the holy God!

While many will look back at this period aghast in horror and will call it an aberration, the history of Christendom is filled with such examples. Even today, we can see remnants of the Inquisition at work, albeit in a more modernized form. Val over at Matters of Integrity reminded of me of this when she posted a parody of "The Gathering Storm" video which claims that gay marriage is a direct assault on fundamentalist Christian values.

While today's fundamentalists are not attempting to fleece gay and lesbians of their riches and property (after burning them at the stake), the underlying mentality remains the same -- that the beliefs and behavior of some group weakens their own commitment to their ideals and beliefs.

It got me to thinking about a good analogy. Since most Christians are meat eaters -- God granted them dominion over the animal kingdom -- they could well feel threatened by vegetarians like me. Despite the fact that deciding to eat or not to eat other flesh is a personal decision, I could see how conservative Christians might take my personal decision as a threat to their Christian beliefs.

Many vegetarians -- me included -- are very forthwith in our views. We have lobbied and succeeded in getting vegetarian options made available in school cafeterias and public eating establishments. We have converted many former meat eaters to join our ranks by appealing to their sense of humanity as well as pointing out the environmental costs of raising meat to eat.

So, just like supporters of gay marriage, our views and beliefs are making inroads in public consciousness. I wouldn't be surprised if a segment of the conservative Christian church one day decides that we are force to be stopped at all costs. Their arguments would go like this:

Jesus ate meat and God himself has pre-ordained that humans eat meat. These vegetarians are undermining our faith by advocating against God's holy message. They are affecting the hallowed sanctuary of our homes by teaching our children that not eating meat is a viable option. If we don't stop them now, it will forever tarnish our legacy as carnivores.

Kill the vegetarians! Kill the vegetarians! (While we're at it, can we take possession of their belongings and property?)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Perfect as Perfect Can't Be

It seems that anytime a Christian and a non-Christian get into a debate about the veracity of a God, both utilize the same argument -- Look around you. To the Christian, the world presents an obvious design and this means there must be a designer. To the non-Christian, the world presents itself as is and, thus, there is no need for a designer.

I was thinking about this general topic just now and something popped into me little noggin. In Judeo-Christian theology, the supreme being is said to be perfect, an entity without blemish. How can this be proved?

We can't look to humankind because we're all imperfect -- at least, according to Christians! I don't think we can look to the animal or plant world either because mutations pop up all the time. We can't reference the weather because it's far from perfect!! In fact, there is nothing that we can directly experience that IS perfect.

Now, I realize the Christian will counter that Jesus and/or God is perfect, but neither entity can be DIRECTLY experienced. What little we know about the authentic Jesus -- if we actually know anything -- comes from the pages of a book. A person's experience with the spirit of Jesus or "God" is a metaphysical experience, at best. It's not something that can be experienced with any of our senses or our brains.

All this indicates is that perfection is a human-constructed concept and we all know that what the human mind is capable of constructing is inherently imperfect.

In the end, there is no way to prove or show perfection in the world in which we live. As far as we're concerned, perfection is implausible and has never existed at all.

Working Out the Math

The Washington Legislature will soon put the finishing touches on legislation that will pare about $4 billion from the state budget -- another $4 billion in savings will come through other measures. With a deficit this large, almost every program in the state will be affected. It doesn't matter what side of the aisle you hail from, some near and dear programs and services will feel the budget's wrath.

I don't know about you, but once we get beyond talking about hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, my eyes begin to glaze over. What exactly does a billion of anything look like? A billion is so large and expansive that it's really difficult for me to wrap my head around it.

So, I started doing some simple calculations to bring this gaudy number down to size. For example, if the legislature decided that you alone were responsible for the deficit and you were expected to pay the money back, how long would it take? If you earn $40,000 per year, it would only take a measly 100,000 years to pay every penny back! (Conversely, if you bring home $400,000, you could pare that number back to an easy 10,000 years!)

OK, I can already here your complaint, "Hey there Rambling Taoist, I really hadn't planned on working past 70." Hey, don't worry, we've got you covered. If your future progeny earn about the same as you and they work for 50 years each, you can have the bill paid off in ONLY 2000 generations.

Of course, all this is factored on you being able to find and keep a $40K per year job and every penny you earn going to the state coffers. If you earn less or lose a job or spend any of your salary on silly things like food, shelter, education, transportation or going to the movie theater once every decade (don't buy any popcorn), your indentured enslavement will increase accordingly!

If, on the other hand, your name happens to be Bill Gates or Paul Allen, you could probably pay the whole thing off by cracking open a piggy bank. :-)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

In Defense of the Gods

Anyone who spends even a brief amount of time here at TRT realizes that, while I cover a wide swath of topics from a general left radical perspective, one topic that I return to again and again is my distaste for the foundations of religion. In the long run, I believe that religion does far more harm than good and is at the root of many of today's most vexing problems.

Yet, for all the invective I hurl at religion and religious institutions, I genuinely understand its appeal to so many. We live in a realm of incomparable beauty and the most grotesque ugliness. It's a world both of complex reason and logic, but also of apparent randomness. The reality we have come to know seems always beyond our ability to comprehend it and so many of us feel like a piece of driftwood being buffeted about a swollen stream -- out of control and unsure of where we're going.

Amidst this whirlpool of life, we desperately want a rock to grab onto, something that we can use to steady our vision and catch our breath. Religion fills the bill for many a person.

The problem though, from my perspective, is that the rock is nothing more than a mirage. We reach out to grab a hold of it, but it doesn't bring us the steadying foundation we crave. Instead of seeing things more clearly, a veil is dropped over our eyes and so we simply try to ignore the whirlwind about us as if pretending that it's not there will protect us from its force.

Modern theistic religion is built upon the backs of the ancient Hebrew people. Three religions sprang forth from this wellspring: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Hebrews developed their religious ideas over many generations as they survived captivity and enslavement at the hands of strong nation-states and their own religions.

When a person's life is defined by slavery, brutality and oppression, people need a glimmer of hope to survive. It was out of this oppressive existence that the idea of an afterlife of peace and contentment arose. Yes, our lives may be total misery now, but, if we persevere in our suffering, a grand reward awaits us on the other side.

If faced with a similar bleak existence, who among us would not want to reach out to claim this dream for our own? It may well have been the only thing that kept the average Hebrew slave sane.

There have certainly been other societies who have come along since the Hebrews who have suffered the same kinds of abuse and deprivations. Is it any wonder that most of them have utilized religious ideas and symbols to provide their people with the sustenance to persevere against horrific odds?

So, from this vantage point, I can certainly understand and accept the primal utility of religion and the belief in a creator who loves and cares for each of us. However, the reason this perspective does not hold sway with me for long is that the institution of religion plays a major role in the subjugation that such people are trying to escape in the first place.

If we look back through the annals of history, religion and religious perspectives are one of the chief causes of war, nationalism, imperialism, enslavement and national thievery. People tend to oppress others who hold differing religious beliefs.

Look at our world today. Were it not for religion, the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan (to identify but two examples) would most likely not be occurring. Were it not for the specter of religion, I dare say there would be no suicide bombers or fanatics flying commercial aircraft into tall buildings. There also wouldn't be a rabid response to bomb them all back into the Stone Age.

So, in my estimation, the benefits religion confers -- comfort for today's suffering and a future reward in the afterlife -- is canceled out by the ruthless and murderous machinations that religion instills in its adherents. In the end, the bad trumps the good and everyone -- even those of us who eschew religion altogether -- get to suffer the bloody consequences.

Film as a Rorschach Test

One of the great things about art is that meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Regardless of what the author, producer, actor, artist or director intended, the messages we glean from their work are the result of our own unique experiences, personality and world view. Just as one person staring at an ink blot can see a butterfly, another person can be just as certain it's a waterfall.

Last night I watched the latter portion of a movie I have seen before, The Truman Show (1998). With the advent of the Internet Movie Database (IMBd), I have developed a routine in which, after viewing a film, I go on the web to IMBd to read about the film just watched. Sometimes, as in this case, I also do a more general web search to learn what others thought of the movie.

In case you're unfamiliar with The Truman Show, here's a brief synopsis from IMBd:
The film is set mostly in a town wholly dedicated to a continually running television show. All of the people present in the town are actors or film crew except protagonist Truman Burbank, who is unaware that he lives in a constructed reality filmed for the entertainment of those outside. Central characters simulate friendship or familial relations to Truman.

Truman was chosen out of five unwanted babies to be a TV star, whereupon film producer Christof ordered built a gigantic studio to encapsulate Seahaven, the artificial town in which Truman lives, believing himself to be part of a genuine neighborhood. The enclosed studio allowed the producers, directors and crew to control every aspect of Truman's environment, including the weather.

To prevent Truman from trying to escape and discover the truth underlying his artificial world, his father is "killed" in a staged boating incident so as to make Truman afraid of water. Because Seahaven appears to be an island, this fear removes Truman's every chance of escape. Despite Truman's staged relationship with his wife Meryl, he desires to meet and court the scene-extra called Sylvia, who is removed from the cast by the producers while trying to explain to Truman the true nature of his life. In the thirtieth year of his life, Truman begins to realize the unrealistic routine of his world and tries to escape Seahaven.

Along his path to truth and escape, Truman encounters obstacles placed in his way, including choreographed traffic jams, the inability to arrange any trips, sudden breakdowns of transport, a non-existent nuclear meltdown, and an artificially created hurricane on the "ocean". He finally reaches the edge of the constructed reality and exits via a door in the wall, cheered on by an audience of millions (including Sylvia). Christof finally talks to Truman from the clouds. He tries to convince Truman to stay. Truman, however, says "In case I don't see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night." He bows to his audience and steps into the real world through the door.
I was astonished to find out that many Christians found this film to be an allegory for Jesus and the cross with Truman playing the role of the Jewish carpenter. Needless to say, I came away from the movie with quite a different analysis!

For me, the message of the film was quite the opposite. This false facade of a world represented religion which Truman tries desperately to break free of. The institution of religion always tries to instill a particular worldview on each of us and each and every moment -- whether it genuinely fits or not -- must be viewed through a small lens external to ourselves.

In one scene during Truman's school years, he announces to his class that he wants to be an explorer -- to explore the world. His teacher immediately pulls down a world map and says something like, "You're too late. Everything has already been explored!"

That reminded me of the questioning religious believer. Queries generally are not welcomed and ready-made stock answers are thrust forward to discourage any manner of exploration. You have everything you need right here, we're told. Why look anywhere else?

At the end of the film (a YouTube montage is below), Truman discovers the boundaries of his "fake world". Though frightened and confused, Truman is determined to find a way to go beyond the facade and out into the unknown. He triumphantly leaves behind a world that has been defined for him by others to experience the real world with a new consciousness.

When each of us leaves behind the vestiges of artifical beliefs -- religion -- we too encounter the world with a new consciousness. We move beyond made up descriptions to the vital essence of being.

Top 10

If you're ever interested in exploring the many fallacies, inconsistencies and contradictions of the Christian bible, I recommend that you check out EvilBible. com. Though it appears the site hasn't been updated in some time, the information and opinions offered are really eye opening, even for those who have already decided that the Christian religion is bunk.

Some of the features on the aforementioned site include:
To possibly whet your appetite, here are the Top Ten Signs You're a Fundamentalist Christian:

10 - You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.

9 - You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.

8 - You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.

7 - Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!

6 - You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.

5 - You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.

4 - You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs -- though excluding those in all rival sects - will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."

3 - While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.

2 - You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.

1 - You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history - but still call yourself a Christian.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Pay No Attention...

Like so many people of the past 7o years, I'm a huge fan of the 1939 classic, "The Wizard of Oz". I'm sure I've watched the film nearly 100 times. The beauty of the story is that it appeals to folks of all ages. There are the elements of pageantry and fantasy that appeal to the younger ones as well as many mature themes that appeal to us old geezers.

As I've aged, I have even begun to acknowledge some sinister themes in the movie. For me, one of the most sinister parts concerns the fake Oz and how this is such a clear metaphor for the institution of religion in our world.

As the clip below this post illustrates in living color, the projected visage of the great Oz is a mean-spirited, foul-mouthed, cranky bastard! Our heroine and her cast of merry men are instilled with such terror that they can't bring themselves to look sideways while in the presence of Oz. They are only drawn to notice the feeble man behind the curtain by a little cairn terrier, Toto. Had it not been for the inquisitiveness of the little pooch, their eyes would have been fixated on the gaseous tyrannt and the promise of better days in the far off nondescript future.

Religious leaders follow this same script over and over again. The clergy or holy men (sorry, very few women need apply) alternate between terrorizing their followers with visions of an angry deity ready to cast them into a fiery furnace or worse juxtaposed against promises of a milk and honey paradise for the chosen few.

Of the two, I believe the latter is far more dangerous than the former. It goes directly to the heart of Karl Marx's famous remark that "religion is the opiate of the masses."

By fixating people's focus on the hereafter, far too many of them will allow all sorts of injustices to transpire before their very eyes without raising as much as a peep in protest. Why get all upset when I have an exclusive invitation to the heavenly country club waiting for me? Hey, suffering is good and it will guarantee me a better seat at the ball!

With this delectable carrot constantly dangled in front of their hearts and eyes, herding the docile lambs any direction one desires becomes much easier for the religious authorities. What we end up with are scores of people who will readily accept being oppressed, repressed, subjugated and dominated or legions of others who are ready and willing to go off to die to further the agenda of the rich and powerful.

And make no mistake about it, the elite within any religious order have very worldly political, economic and militaristic agendas! Some seek world political domination. Others just want to become silly rich which buys a lifetime of influence. Still others crave the intoxication of unmitigated power.

So, just like the Kansas showman, they create an apparatus to wow and terrify the believers they gather around them. These adherents are so fixated on the fiery deity that they never take the time to investigate nor discover the little cadre of scared and timid men -- each a humbug, in his own right -- hiding behind the curtains.

Follow the Moolah

For all its talk about salvation, redemption and God/Jesus, Christianity -- like almost every other religion -- boils down to two very earthly elements: money and power. Throughout recorded history, the religious institutions in most communities hoard the most resources (wealth) and exert a tremendous amount of power (economic, political and military). It doesn't matter if we're talking about ancient Egypt, Sumeria, China or South America all the way up to modern times. Religion is a major player in the political and nationalistic machinations of society.

This fact is even more true for the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Each now commands billions of dollars worldwide and this money is utilized to impact all facets of life. Our environment has suffered greatly because of religion. Nations are brought together or torn apart based on religious meddling. Rulers and/or elected representatives are created or destroyed by the power held by religious authorities.

It is this underbelly of worldly pursuits that belies all the pontificating done in the name of Yahweh, Allah and God. While each religion works feverishly to direct their adherent's focus on the magnificent promises of a glorious afterlife (more on this in a later post), the religious leaders have THEIR attention affixed squarely on material gain and power in THIS life.

If you look at the bottom lines of the most popular religions of our day, they are each doing a damn good job! Some Christian denominations own more wealth than many nations!

So, if you really want to know what the religion biz is all about, follow the money. That's where their heaven actually lies.

Points of No Return

On Wednesday, in the post "I Really Tried", I wrote about my long road of deconverting from Christianity. As I mentioned, it didn't come about all at once. It was a gradual, but steady, process. What started off with some gentle questioning evolved into deep questioning and, wherever I looked, I couldn't find anyone who could provide meaningful answers.

In this post, I will try to explain some of the turning points that allowed me to cast off the shackles of religion.

Probably the very first thing that set me on edge was the Christian church opposition to rational thought. I grew up in a home with a lawyer (father) and teacher/social worker (mother). My brother and I were encouraged to think for ourselves and, when in doubt, to ask pertinent questions.

Yet, when I left the confines of my home and ventured into the world of Christendom, too many people became irritated by probing questions! "Why are there two radically different creation stories in the Book of Genesis?" In all my years of Sunday School, not one of my teachers had an adequate answer. More often than not, they would simply sidestep the issue and try to direct my attention elsewhere.

As I read the bible in my teen years, I became acutely aware that the Old Testament read like a tawdry soap opera. God's supposed chosen ones committed about every "sin" a person could imagine and, many times, God was the one egging them on! Within those "hallowed" pages, I was reading about debauchery, rape, incest, murder, and wholesale wanton slaughter. How could a divine being -- one that is said to be perfect in all ways -- condone such egregious behavior?

Not only was this God urging his chosen people to commit all sorts of atrocities, but he seemed bedeviled by the very same petty emotions we humans struggle with. At any given moment, God could be tempestuous, jealous, preoccupied, apathetic, egotistical or completely bewildered.

I was particularly bothered by the story of God needing to send two angels to earth to see if the people in Sodom and Gomorrah (hope my geographic memory is correct) were truly screwing up as much as he thought they were. How is it that God didn't know? He's supposed to know all things, even before they happen. So why does he appear just as clueless as the rest of us?

Because of the above questions and more, I came to realize that the inerrant word of God argument had some very serious flaws. If God indeed provided the words for this holiest of books, then he was a madman. If the bible had instead been written by men, then they obviously weren't getting the story right at all and we had no idea what God wanted of us.

The final straw, however, came when I started contemplating deeply the Jesus story. When you get right down to it, it's a story of a ritualistic human sacrifice not that much different than the Aztecs or numerous other civilizations. The last supper was an example of symbolic cannibalism. How can we criticize supposed primitive societies for engaging in nearly the same kind of practices we exalt?

At some point in my late 30s, I realized I'd been had. This religious faith I had moored my boat to was a dilapidated structure that was falling apart under its own weight. I had grown very weary of non-answers like "We must trust in God".

Why must we? Why must I? It was at that juncture that I realized that I didn't need to allow myself to be duped anymore into believing this nonsense. And so, I untied my boat and set sail for the horizon.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Simple Thought, Huge Meaning

Casey, over at Personal Tao Musings, posted an entry today on prayer from a Taoist perspective. While I thought the entire post was simply beautiful, I think he captured the essence in the following words,

life itself is the prayer.

Dealing with Terrible Angst

When I was a young man, I dealt with a lot of terrible angst (a great deal of my emotional state had to do with undiagnosed Klinefelter's Syndrome). At times, I contemplated suicide and/or thought I would end up in the loony bin. When my emotions got to the point that I thought they would consume me, the only thing I could do to relieve the stress and tension was to write!

I wrote all sorts of things: poetry, screenplays, sermons, commentaries, one entire movie script and, most importantly, song lyrics (sometimes I even crafted a workable tune to go with it!). Once I was diagnosed with KS and began testosterone replacement therapy, the vast majority of my angst melted away instantaneously.

For the most part, this was stupendous! I felt like a new and more confident person. But for all the positives, I lost something I cherished -- my poetic voice. Where I used to write poems and song lyrics like a dervish, I ceased writing them altogether. I no longer suffered from the angst and misery that I used as the subliminal fuel to siphon off my woe in a positive and creative manner.

Anyhow, as I was typing the post, "I Really Tried", it got me to thinking about my life as a young adult. One of the songs I wrote during this period, "What Will You Decide?" just popped into my head. Here are the lyrics from memory (some 25 - 30 years after the fact):
What Will You Decide?

I've walked these streets in silence for far too long a time
I've been waiting for a moment for the light to shine
But the darkness still continues; it's there both night and day
Only you can manage to take it all away.

Darling, what will you decide?
Do you dream about me too?
Have you ever really tried
to say the words, "I love you?"

My life hangs in the balance, I don't know where to turn
Sometimes I am amazed at the lessons never learned
I haven't been the friend I had always aimed to be
Only you can salvage this dream inside of me.

Darling, what will you decide?
Do you dream about me too?
Have you ever really tried
to say the words, "I love you?"

The lives we lead won't last us forever
One day the leaves will fall,
the songbird will not call
and we'll have missed our chance to be together.

I've walked these streets in silence for far too long a time
I've been waiting for a moment for the light to shine
But the darkness still continues; it's there both day and night
Only you can end it with your radiant light.

Darling, what will you decide?
Do you dream about me too?
Have you ever really tried
to say the words, "I love you?"

Darling, what will you decide?
Do you long to hold me too?
If you'd dig down deep inside
you'd know our love is true.
[Note: Lucky for me, I didn't get the girl! If I had, I wouldn't be so overjoyed married to my darling Della.)

In Defense of Trolls

I like to web surf, particularly blogs. Often, I will chose a particular word or phrase (e.g., God, atheism, climate change, Taoism, etc.) and perform a search on Google, Technorati or some other search engine. When I read a post that speaks to me yea or nay, depending on my mood, I often post a response.

Sometimes, if no response has been left and I agree with the poster, I simply leave a comment to let the person know someone out there has taken the time to read and contemplate what they have written. At other times, I'll find a blog with a post that greatly annoys or irritates me. In such cases, the purpose of my comment is to offer a different perspective.

I've recently noticed on more and more conservative blogs that a) so many of them are moderated and b) there are explicit warnings against trolls and trolling. Why are people so worried about trolls? If someone visits your blog simply to stir up trouble, the easiest solution simply is to ignore them! If they continually try to rile you up but you refuse to take the bait, the vast majority of them will move on.

Beyond that, I don't view trolls and trolling as necessarily bad things. Almost anyone who has a blog desires to have their words and thoughts read by others. Unless you have an invitation-only blog, how do you suppose new folks will find yours? Often, they will arrive by trolling.

The term itself is built upon the edifice of fishing. To troll means to "fish for by trailing a baited line from behind a slowly moving boat." So, if someone happens by TRT in a slow moving boat, I'm certainly not going to chase them away.

While it doesn't happen frequently, there have been times when folks have come here solely to harangue me and have ended up being welcome guests who end up offering cogent comments. Said comments tend to represent a different perspective, but a free flow of thought is something I encourage! Tye, for one example, has offered many comments from a Christian perspective -- a view that I don't share -- but his comments generally are very respectful and on topic. (Note: This is not to suggest that I consider Tye a troll -- far from it!)

So, if you're a troll, I say WELCOME. Take your shoes off and look around the place. It may not be to your liking, but you're welcome to stay as long as you like, nonetheless. When you grow weary of my hospitality, you are free to go on your merry way.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I Really Tried

From time to time, devout Christians drop by TRT to engage in dialog or just to harangue me and other frequent readers. In a recent comment, one young man (Tye) stated that he drops by here simply because he wants people to think about Christianity. As I stated in my comment response, "thinking" is what led me away from Christianity.

As a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder (as part of my Asperger's Syndrome), when I believe or practice something, I do it to the hilt. In other words, nothing is half-ass with me. If I believe something, I believe it all the way to an extreme.

I grew up in a Christian home. My parents were Presbyterians. For many years, we attended Wednesday night classes as well as church and Sunday School. By mid adolescence, I had read the bible cover to cover and back again. In Junior High School, I was a member of Youth for Christ.

During my college years, I was very involved in the life of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. With my parents divorced, the senior pastor, Dr. James W. Mosely, became like a second father to me. We talked for many hours about Jesus, God and the life of the church. It was because of my relationship with him that I seriously considered going into the ministry.

In fact, I applied to and was accepted into seminary. Because of my church involvement, I had glowing references. Everything was lined up for me to make the Christian Church my home for the rest of my life...

...but something held me back. For years I didn't know what it was, but it was there nonetheless. One early hint, that I simply didn't accept most of the tried and true doctrine, came during my senior year in college. I was chosen to deliver the Sunday sermon at our church. Eschewing the usual Christian message, my sermon focused on thinking of God as a force, a la the recently released movie, Star Wars (shades of Taoism).

I spent hours hiking in the mountains around Hot Springs, Arkansas and my bible was always with me. I read, prayed and contemplated many a passage. I fervantly tried to open my heart to talk directly to my savior and his father, but I kept thinking to myself, "This is nothing more than fabricated conversations, my id conversing with my super ego." When these ideas bubbled up to the surface, I pushed them back down.

Instead of becoming a minister, I became a social worker. I continued to participate with local churches in the communities I worked in. In fact, I was the high School Sunday School teacher at the Methodist Church in Monticello, Arkansas. I got in trouble with the deacons though because I encouraged the members of my class not to accept the religion of their parents outright and to attend different churches in the area to see which one, if any, spoke to them personally. This idea didn't go over well at all.

Throughout my 20s and early 30s, little by little, I began to move away from the idea of God, Jesus and church. Too much of Christian dogma bothered me. So much of the belief system of Christianity was irrational and, if God made us rational beings, wouldn't he want us to exercise our rationality in coming to him?

The more I contemplated notions of this sort, the more I realized that a personified "God" was silly. The God of Christianity is beset with all the petty emotions of we humans and this defied the belief that he could be ominpotent and omnipresent.

Despite these misgivings, I still wasn't ready to announce to the world that I was no longer a Christian -- it represented too much of my self-identity. So, I went looking for a different church tradition to try to solve my problem. For a while, I gave serious consideration toward becoming a Quaker. (I even investigated other religions.)

One day during my Quaker experimentation, I was walking by The Book Bin in downtown Salem, OR. In the window, I saw a book "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Taoism". Up until that moment, I'm not even sure I'd ever heard the word, Taoism. For reasons I can't explain, I went in and purchased the book.

As I read the book, I kept exclaiming, "Yes" and "That's it!" I began to realize that my Sunday sermon way back in college was the beginning of my turn toward a Taoist way of viewing the world -- I just didn't know it at the time. After finishing that book, I bought and read "The Tao of Pooh" by Benjamin Hoff.

That sealed the deal!! The moment I finished reading Pooh, I was ready to be a non-Christian and I have happily been non-Christian ever since.

In fact, looking back, I often wonder why I held on to those untenable Christian beliefs for so long. Even in my most devout times, there was always an inkling that things just didn't add up the way the Church said it did. There were too many contradictions and inconsistencies. There were way too many aspects that didn't make any rational sense.

The time simply came when I had to release the fetters that bound me. I had to have the courage to set myself free. It took me a while, but I finally cut the chord and I have no regrets at all.

Double Vision

One new phase of my life commenced today -- I received my first pair of bifocals. Unlike many people, I really don't care how old they make me look; I'm more of a utilitarian than that. The issue for me is trying to get used to them! The world looks far different through a split screen.

My dad refuses to wear bifocals because he can't seem to adapt to a split screen world. Negotiating steps and curves takes conscious effort to tilt one's head in a precise way, lest you look through the wrong lens and go tumbling down.

But I refuse to allow my dad's opinion to predispose me to my own view. I'm going to wear my new specs a little each day until I get the hang of them. I won't drive with them on -- I'll use my old pair instead -- until I get things down pat.

If anyone reading this has experience with bifocals, I would appreciate some tips.

Just Teasing

For the last four days, South Bend has joined the vast majority of the nation in the celebration of Spring. We've experienced above average temperatures reaching all the way into the mid to upper 60s. The sun has been out too. It's been an excellent time to tend to the garden and yard.

Beginning today, however, things will get back to normal. Temperatures will struggle to break 50 and a hint of rain will hang in the air. I don't mind the rain at all; I'm simply ready for the warmer temperatures of spring and summer.

Though Della & I have lived in this part of the country (Salem, OR, Aberdeen & South Bend, WA) for 15 years, I'm still not completely acclimated to the weather. Having grown up in the Midwest and mid-south regions, springtime means much warmer temperatures during the day AND night. Of course, it also means soaring humidity levels. I don't miss that part at all!

Spring in South Bend comes on very gradually. Our average high at the end of May is only 64 degrees. We won't see consistent 70 degree readings until late in July. It's not uncommon for our high temperature in the spring or summer to be lower than the low temperature for many places in the country.

I'm not complaining because our climate is what it is. If a person chooses to live here -- as we have -- you get what is advertised. My point is that, when you spent your first 4 decades or so in one clime and then you change climes, your internal barometer gets to feeling a bit off-track.

Playing with Dirt

The prototypical American home is one with a lush green lawn and the proverbial white picket fence. We're told that this is what everyone strives for. So, I can certainly understand why our neighbors think we've gone off our nut more than usual. While my neighbors water and weed to keep their yards as green as possible, I sit in my yard day after day digging up the grass!

I know that my job would be made easier if a) I used poison to kill the grass or b) rented a machine that mechanically digs it up. But I have chosen neither method; I use a shovel and my bare hands instead.

Using the shovel, I dig down below the main root level to loosen the root structure. I kind of square off small sections, then I pull the sod up with my hands. It comes out in big chunks of fused grass, roots, soil and rocks. I next do something that must perplex the neighbors -- I sit on my little stool and gently break the soil away from the clump. And I do this slowly clump after clump.

It's a slow and solitary process, but I like slow and solitary pursuits! I like feeling the soil in my hands and under my fingernails. I figure it's the most respectful way to honor the grass I'm ripping up.

At this juncture, about 1/3 of our front yard has been turned into a big pit of dirt. Since we're entering the less rainy period, it will mostly remain dirt and not be transformed into a giant mud pie farm. :) As we reclaim more and more of the area from the non-native grass, we've begun the process of planting native species.

To date, we've planted the following: blue-eyed grass, columbine, camas, a variety of ferns, kinnikinnick, salal, salmonberry, and wild strawberries. It doesn't look like much right now, but by summer's end we hope that many of these plants are firmly established and will have spread through rhizones. As money is available, we will add some more native species.

Next spring we'll remove the tarp from the next section of grass and begin the process all over again. It looks like I'll be playing with the dirt for years and years to come.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Surviving Death

Immortality, for Spinoza, is impersonal; I survive my necessary death to the extent that I have ceased identifying with that mere thing that I am, and identify with the whole intricate web I have assimilated in the knowing. The first-person point of view that I am is relinquished for the View from Nowhere, which is the same for all of us.
~ from Betraying Spinoza by Rebecca Goldstein, p.69 ~
Sounds very Taoist to me! I think it just goes to show that many of the underlying themes in Taoism aren't strictly far eastern. The currents can be found in the thought of westerners too.

We each struggle to comprehend what we can't possibly comprehend.

I think I'm going to like reading Spinoza!

If At First You Don't Succeed

You cannot experience great success if you are afraid of failure. The sage understands that failure occurs when you give up, not with each attempt at getting it right.
~ a Daily Quote from the TaoWoods Center ~
I have found the idea expressed above to be sooo true in my life. How about you?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Who Needs Whom?

If you listen to most Christians, humanity needs God. We're the ones lost in the wilderness. We're the ones who can't live a "holy" life because of our animal lusts and desires. We're the ones who tarnished the blissful Garden of Eden. We're the ones who can't know right from wrong without a divine guide. We're the ones who are imperfect and sinful.

God, on the other hand, is perfect. He doesn't need us to define what or who he is.

To this I say, BULL! This God actually needs us far more than we need him.

If he really didn't need humanity fawning all over him, then there would have been no purpose in the bible. According to most fundamentalist Christians, the bible is the inerrant word of God. In other words, he whispered in the ears of the human authors precisely what he wanted written down. And what he had them write down has EGOISM written all over it!

He purportedly tells us that a) He is the Lord God almighty; b) Salvation can only come through him; c) There can be no other Gods before him; d) People aren't allowed to make graven images of him; and e) He doesn't want you to take his name in vain.

All of these things and more are a way of saying, "Look at me. Look at me." It's the mentality of an exhibitionist -- someone who needs and craves attention. Beings that tend to want the focus on them and them alone usually have low self-esteem and define their own identities by what others think of them.

A perfect being wouldn't care one wit if people acknowledged it or not. It wouldn't need to draw attention to itself. It wouldn't necessarily alternate between threatening people with sanctions or rewarding them with goodies.

A perfect being would just be.

Sort of like Tao.

Don't Confuse Me

Before heading off to bed tonight, I went downstairs to eat a bagel. I flipped on the TV and there -- smack dab in the middle of the screen -- was a TV evangelist. This fellow's name is Kevin Gerald and he hails from Tacoma. I suppose it's nice to know we have a few shepherds for the lambs of the northwest. ;-)

Normally, I would immediately change the channel because I would prefer not to hear even a few seconds of this dribble. But Kevin Gerald said something that caught my attention, so I decided to grit my teeth and listen.

He was talking about poverty. He was ranting about how any form of welfare was a bad thing because it encourages people to be lazy. This perspective is nothing new; conservatives rant about it all the time. It's what he said next that caused me to write this entry before going off to slumber land.

He said that God doesn't like lazy people and said people are less likely to merit God's grace.

Whoa! In numerous discussions with fundamentalist Christians, the one message I hear over and over again is that a person's works do not earn grace; it is dispensed due to God's mercy. So, why should God care if you hold a full-time job or not?

What if there was a man or a woman who upheld all the ten commandments, but, for whatever reason, decided he/she didn't want to hold a job? Wouldn't that be preferable to a man or woman who held a job, but only held a few of the commandments or held them when it is convenient?

But this Gerald character wasn't done. He next stated that people who are confident and prosperous will receive more of God's grace. So, it seems that works DO matter after all. Those that have will receive more and those who have not will receive less or nothing -- God must really like capitalists!!

Of course, this fellow would promote such a message because his web site is all about selling you needless books and videos for a hefty price tag!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Head Butting Jesus

On Saturday mornings, back in my youth, my best buddy and I always looked forward to watching All-Star Wrestling on TV. It was our region's version of "professional" wrestling. I can still remember the names of some of these colorful personalities: Handsome Harley Race, "Nature Boy" Kirby, Danny Little Bear, Bob Geigel, "Bulldog" Bob Brown and, our favorite, Rufus R. Jones.

When we were very young lads, we accepted professional wrestling as authentic. However, by about the age 10, we began to realize that this wasn't like professional boxing -- it was strictly show biz. A person simply cannot be struck savagely in the head four or five times with a metal folding chair and, five minutes later, be prancing around the ring victorious as if he had done nothing more than take his dog for a run in the park!

Once we figured out that what we had been watching was a fraud, we still watched it. However, it became a comedy show and we all took great pains to point out all the pseudo hits, moves and falls. It could really be hilarious, at times.

One would think that, if 10 year old lads could determine this was all stagecraft, adults would understand this fact too. While MOST adults certainly fit into this category, it was shocking to discover that many did not. In fact, during my youth, I uncovered a shocking correlation between fundamentalist Christian males and those believing professional wrestling was on the up and up.

Later in life, while Della & I were dating, I ran into this same correlation in regards to her foster grandfather. The man was a very conservative Baptist. One day she and I stopped by so Della could visit with her foster grandmother. As I waited, Mr. Fundamentalist was rabidly cheering on a particular wrestler on the TV screen. He tried to encourage me to come join him, but I made the fatal mistake of saying I no longer found any joy in watching the fake theatrics.

By his reaction, one might have thought I had announced that God was dead! He flew into a rage arguing that professional wrestling was the real deal and how could I even doubt it. When I tried to point out that these wrestlers defied physical and biological credulity, he behaved like a little child who places his hands over his ears, "I'm not listening."

As I was thinking about this topic tonight, I realized their is a lot of congruency between believing in All-Star Wrestling and religion. Despite the fact that rational minds can easily see that both involve complex stagecraft, believers in either don't want to be confused with facts. They believe that what they believe is true and nothing will dissuade them for said beliefs.