Saturday, June 21, 2008

A life philosophy

I was wondering earlier today (in the shower, which is where I usually come up with these blog topics) about how different folks arrive at their philosophy of life. Some grow up in a religious household (actually,most do, at least in America), and retain those same beliefs when they leave home and start their own life. Some grow up in secular households (a sad minority) and retain their secularity into adulthood. And of course there are those who grow up in one or the other types of home environments, who turn away from their inherited beliefs by looking to the opposite, atheist turns religious, religious turns atheist. I will concede the varying degrees of either system as being considered autonomous, but will also point out that an equal claim can be made that all variations (Pantheist, Deist, Agnostic, etc...) are simply that, variations on one of two themes. Isn't it interesting that there is no neutral ground in which a child, living in America (or anywhere in the world for that matter) can grow up. Either a child is reared as someone without religious beliefs, or they are raised with some form of religious belief. It is not possible for someone to come to either side of the table from a neutral place. Isn't it also interesting that to come to atheism or religiosity from a place of complete neutrality, would be the most valid route, not being polluted by any particular view, towards possession of a belief (whatever it may be). There is either belief or unbelief, there is no middle ground. Again, I willingly concede that agnosticism, buddhism, taosim, skepticism and all the other unmentioned forms could lay claim to the phantom middle ground; but, if you get down to brass tacks, they are only "types" of one or the other. Skepticism is a degree of atheism, so is agnotiscism. Buddhism is a form of religiosity, so are the milieu of native american belief systems. Either you believe in a higher power, or you do not.
But isn't there a different way of looking at this? Knowing there is only belief or unbelief, perhaps unbelief is a more neutral satnce than belief. Atheism means unbelief. Religiosity means belief in something bigger than us, that is not us, but has or has had a measure of control over us. So unbelief in such a thing would, semantically, satisfy the criteria of "in opposition". Are atheism and religiosity diamteric opposites? Maybe not. Maybe atheism is the neutral ground we are looking for. If so, then what would be the opposite of religiosity? Perhaps anti-religiosity? Christianity vs Satanism? No that can't be, because satanism is a form of religion. We are all born as atheists, aren't we? I, for one have never heard tell of, nor witnessed a newborn infant proselytising about the evils of unbelief and/or the wonders of religious belief. As infants, our lack of language capability is an understandable impediment to our being immediate prophets. From this argument, we can see that from birth until some unknown age, which differs for each child born, we are atheists. It is the natural state of birth. We aren't born into sin, we are born into atheism. God is small potatoes compared to the mammary glands of a hungry, newborn's mother (or the other assorted methods of nourishment available to mothers today). How could an infant give a rip about an invisible god, when Mom (or Dad) is around to comfort them, to make them feel safe and happy? Ironically, these attributes are exactly what god is supposed to be the (non-physical) embodiment of. He is a father-figure, there to comfort us when we need it. Funny how, as parents, we provide these services to our children through our physical presence, but god supposedly provides these services to us , while being conspicuously, physically absent. How does he do this? Atheistic belief is what we all begin life with. Religious belief is a choice we all are confronted with in our later lives. For sure, many parents, teachers, or preachers, hijack that choice from us at our most impressionable ages, stealing, what can be a valuable lesson in choice and consequence to our young selves, but regardless, the decision to live a religious life is a voluntary one. Afterall, god "gave" us freewill, with which he expected we would "choose" the life he wanted us to, didn't he? So, assuming the mantle of atheist for a moment, how would the choice made by someone to live unreligiously, be a change from the life already being lived by the chooser? Answer, it would be no different. People come to religion, for many varying reasons, but they always come to it from atheism, whether they realize it or not and regardless of whether they would like it.
What about those, who walk away from religion? Aren't they "coming" to atheism just as those who receive religion do? Perhaps secondarily, but at the beginning of our lives, we all (including those who eventually walk away from religion) approach religion from atheism. Whatever happens subsequent to the initial drawing of religion, is just that, subsequent action on our parts.
Atheism, as it turns out, is more neutral than we initially thought.
It's interesting, that the decision to be religious, is made by those from a religious home, most often prior to the time that they become conscious of themselves, others, and how their actions effect everything and everyone around them. It seems cognitive maturity is not all that important to the process of coming to religion. If left alone, the atheistically-born child, will grow into cognitive maturity, and at that point, having been left alone, they will be able to decide on a path for their spiritual lives, one way or the other. The key point is the decision can be made after cognitive maturity is reached, not before.
Sometimes, people will be allowed to come to their own decision regarding religiosity, after they have reached a level of cognitive maturity, but other factors, sentimentality, familial ties, tradition, etc... will interject a strong influence over the "decision" and the individual may not come to the chosen path with complete intellectual honesty. This decision usually comes back to haunt those who make it, either by instigating severe guilt, shame and regret, or by pulling the individual away from the false path. Those who never choose to be religious, having examined the tenets from a cognitively mature vantage and having purposely rejected those tenets, are perhaps the most fortunate of all of us. For everyone else, we must decide on our own at the correct time, overcoming or succumbing to the intellectually dishonest advice and direction offered by those we have been surrounded with our entire lives, i.e. family and friends. To return to our atheistic roots is, from my view, the best course to take, but only if we supplant religiosity with concern for humanity and our place in the sphere of earth life. If this doesn't take place, and atheism allows us to contribute nothing to the betterment of anyone (even if it is only ourselves), but religion does allow us to contribute positively to human life, then it might seem religion would be an accepatable platform to standupon, but that platform is built on ground which covers more problems than we might know. Religious belief may help some, but it does not help all. It cannot, for there are many differing beliefs, and only one can be right. They can not all be correct, many are contradictory by their very natures. Similarly, atheism may not help everyone, but unlike the world's religions, there is really only one type of unbelief, UNBELIEF. Therefore, since it is the natural state we are all born in, and there are no contradictorial variations of it, atheism offers humanity the best option for bettering our lives while we are here. And remember, we are only here for 100 years, give or take. Is it really worth it to sacrifice those years, for something no one on the earth has any concrete reason to believe in? Wouldn't it be better to live life as we were born to live it? Giving credit only where it is due, and not relegating our worth to something other than ourselves? We are atheists, let us celebrate that and live that life.


zac johnson said...

i would add that buddhism exists as a guide to living and, though some buddhist scripture speaks about gods, these are merely the product of the cosmology of the society in which the moral code, or guidebook for living you might say, that is buddhism, was created. these gods have nothing to do with the teachings and simply appear being used as literary devices. this fact has even been acknowledged by devout atheists such as Sam Harris.

also, not all mention of "god" or "God" in religious writing is speaking of a supernatural father-figure, so there may be more of a middle ground already in existence than you suggest. "belief" need only be applied in situations where existence is questionable, (as in the case of the supernatural father-figure), so with some uses of "God" where only observable, experiential things are being described, "belief" is not necessary, and the two criteria of belief and non-belief are no longer sufficient.

Dan Spencer said...

Not being my intention to begin a back and forth dialogue right here, but nonetheless feeling a need to pitch in again, I'd like to point out that, although you are correct in decrying buddhism's portrayal of god in a non-paternal sense, the idea that buddhism harbors little supernaturality is a false impression. The ideas of Karma and Reincarnation are purely supernatural, and while they may not necessarily be anthropomorphic, they still behave in a parental format to us, in that they exert external control over our behaviors much the same way parents will (a supernatural parent). It may not constitute the most agregious example of religious danger, but religions (and I hesitate to even call buddhism a religion) that look to any supernatural component are behaving unecessarily, and inadvertently in a dangerous way, for toleration of unsubstantiated "belief", which is indeed required in buddhism, just not in a particualr "godhead", but certainly in the existence of the supernatural (transcendency of the natural world) is a slippery slope towards toleration of more immediately dangerous (to mankind's very survival) forms of dogmatic and fundamental religions, as such "devout" non-plumbers as Sam Harris have pointed out.

zac johnson said...

you make a good point about the supernatural aspects of karma and reincarnation, however, while this may be the case among some who have been raised buddhist (mainly in Asia), virtually every buddhist teacher who i have read has emphasized that karma is NOT a supernatural parent-force, but rather simply describing the laws of cause and effect.

as for reincarnation, many buddhist teachers, especially those addressing western audiences who often times have christian rather than buddhist backgrounds, prefer the term "rebirth". this idea deals not with the supernatural, but rather with the simple observation of the interconnectedness of all things -- the observation that, after death, we decompose and our physical bodies return to the cycles of rebirth found naturally in the world.

and lastly, it is my experience that discussion of "transcending the natural world" is meant to described a shift in view, rather than an actual shift into a supernatural realm. that is, seeing the world as a whole made up of the same "stuff" rather than a collection of individual beings and things.

of course, all of these could easily be ignored (as i imagine they are by lay people raised on buddhism) in favor of the supernatural views. in this case, i think we would be back to our first debate of whether the good of religion outweighs the bad.

Dan Spencer said...

The idea of Karma may not be emphasized by some as being a supernatural Parent-force, but the "laws of cause and effect" that it does describe are found in the , traditionally thought of as, non-physical realm, whatever you'd like to call that. If you step on a bug with malicious intent, and you are visited with some catastrophe unrelated to bugs or their world, there is no element of the natural laws of cause and effect in play. it is not the same as swinging a bat at an approaching baseball, making contact with said baseball and as a result, the baseball flying away in the opposite direction. There is an inherent non-physical discussion taking place, even if it may not be the most widely accepted type of conversation.
As far as reincarnation or rebirth, I would say that the Dalai Lama himself has pronounced his own personal belief in Reincarnation (not rebirth, or reentry into the circle of life). He has said he believes if you live in a bad manner, you will return to life as an animal (which reveals the perceived superiority of humanity hidden within even the most benign religions).
And finally, while it may be your experience up to this point that transcendency is a difference in focal point, it nonetheless is not the definition that most people take. Transcendentalism itself is a form of religion(supernaturality) it has been said. I think we might have two distinct definitions of the word transcendent, but as steve pinker illustratesin his books, semantics has a way of defining us in many ways. Perhaps we should both research the word a bit more. By the way, I am really enjoying this back and forth, I hope you are as well.

Landon Williams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Landon Williams said...

Dan, I have two basic and elementary problems with your assessment of belief/unbelief. First, a child cannot express the neutrality of his belief and as such cannot be catagorized as an atheist. As humans, our life and learning is a series of faith assumptions. For instance, consider a child that cannot read. At bed time he wants to have a bedtime story read to him, so he finds a book and asks: "Will you read me this?" This child is trusting that you are capable of reading. This is an act of faith, because his inability to read prevents him from knowing whether what he has heard is true or not. He simply trusts. As he grows older and learns to read, he believes the people who tell him a "b" sounds like a "b" and a "r" like and "r." The best he can do is find that many people believe these things. As such, he takes hold of the tools that allow him to know if what one reads to him is true or not. At this point, his faith is realized truth. A child's life is a series of these steps of faith. Atheism, or unbelief, as you define it, if it were an infant's original state, would never allow for development. Thus, even religious views--belief or unbelief--are influenced by a progression of faith steps. Ultimately, I would argue that unbelief doesn't truly exist. Unbelief can only exist in comparison with a belief. For example, so called "unbelief" in the supernatural is merely a form of saying "I choose to believe that the supernatural doesn't exist." Lastly, I would simply point out that you make several statements as to what you consider to be the most desirable situations concerning religious beliefs or social action. These statements can be no different from a religious conviction, in that there is no universal authority by which one can claim their validity. These are simply statments of "belief." Quite ironic for a person of "unbelief."

Dan Spencer said...

In response to the last comment, I in turn have a few rebuttal fundamental or elementary problems with your assessment and they are thus. First, A child's neutrality towards belief may absolutely be named as such, just not by the child. Children don't know they are atheists, they don't need to. Although Voltaire did say that if there were no god, humanity would need to invent him, don't misinterpret him, he was being for sure tongue in cheek. Children will invariably ask questions as they grow older, you are correct that this is how we learn; however, curiosity and faith are not the same things, despite your staements to the contrary. faith is thinking something is true before you have any reason to, while the child in your example had every reason to "believe" that reading is something that can be done. The child will see his immediate surrounding people doing this strange act, which they call reading, if he's lucky, his parent or parents will have been reading to him since he was an infant. he will have seen books, and the squiggly black lines written on the pages (as my son has done since he was three weeks old). Incidentally, my son is almost four and has never once even mentioned a whisper of a question about who or what god may be. He is without a doubt an oblivious atheist. It would be my sincerest hope that as he grows older his oblivion would dissipate and be replaced by thorough conviction arrived at by intense scrutiny of himself and what he has grown up with, anything less would represent a collossal failure on my part to have reared him responsibly, but I digress. The child in your example does nothave faith that reading will turn out to be true, he can see the evidence of it's truth around him. Your example would be more apt, if it were of a child who were to believe that reading is a true thing to do having never seen anyone do it, nor seen a book, or even a printed word. The child trusts that his parents aren't lying to him about reading,but he can do so not because of blind faith, but because he can see that they are practicing what they are preaching, and it is not destroying them (no danger to them, and consequently to him). Secondly, I agree that unbelief doesn't exist without belief, for those of us who can recognize the existence of either, but to apply such esoterics to children is fallacy, children are not capable of believing in the manner in which you and I are, they are automatons, repeaters and imitators, which is why questioning is the secret ingredient, not blind faith. Blind faith will lead you no further towards a more complete base of data and knowledge. it might seem to you like you know things, but outside of your heterophenomenological world (to the eyes of an outsider) your "knowledge" is simply not based in empiricism and therefore cannot be called as such. thank you so much for your comment. i would much rather parley back and forth wioth someone such as yourself than my friends who really don't care about such topics much, and only let me talk because they are nice. please keep them coming.

Mule Breath... said...

most interesting discussion. May I ask, do you feel there is a difference in definition for unbelief as opposed to non-belief? Between atheist and non-theist?