During the Festival of Lights that Ali and I attended this February, one of the big issues discussed during many of the presentations and workshops was the very definition of paganism. Pretty much everyone there, if you asked them, would agree that they were pagan, and not a cabbage or something. But it turns out it that if it had been a Festival of Cabbages, things might have been simpler.
This is the final post in the series of six arguments against religion, and it is subtle and very counterintuitive to most people. I’m going to use a couple of analogies to introduce it, which I hope will help me explain it.
When people lose their sense of awe, they turn to organized religion. When they no longer trust themselves, they turn to authority. — Tao Te Ching 72 (Stephen Mitchell’s modern Zen-influenced translation)
Like any laws, the rules of religion tell you how to behave, and specify punishment for lawbreakers.
Sir, we caught you red-handedly not loving your neighbor as yourself. Uh-oh! You’re headed downtown, buddy. The sentence: eternal damnation. No bail.
But regulating virtue is nonsense. If I tell you to be virtuous — not just act virtuously, but be virtuous — and threaten you with punishment if you fail, and then you act virtuously, have you magically become virtuous? Even Jesus said that adultery committed in the heart is still adultery. The whole point of virtue is that it’s something you choose to be, of your own free will. Otherwise you’re play-acting. And omniscient Gods can tell the difference.
Suppose you belong to a religion that says you’re either in or you’re out — like (to pick an example at random on Easter Sunday) Christianity. Suppose you believe that if you don’t accept Jesus as your Personal Savior (TM), you’re going to hell. And you’ve got your badge, so you’re all set. And then you walk around town, and you see someone wearing a different badge.
This may well bother you. It might be something like seeing someone with a horrible disease — one which you happen to be carrying the antidote to. Or — if this person is proud of their badge — like seeing someone carrying a Nazi flag or something.
I’ve never been in this situation (except as someone not wearing such a badge), so I’m not sure how it feels; and obviously it will bother some people more than others.
But the point is that it can be socially awkward. Being around people who don’t share your fundamental belief system can be stressful. It is difficult to be reminded again and again that your friends don’t share your religion. (Alternatively, maybe it wouldn’t bother you at all — but in that case, how strong is your own personal belief, really?)
When I was growing up Zen in the Bible belt, some people would react with disbelief when they found out I wasn’t Christian. Don’t you go to church? They seemed to think I was literally insane. And you can pity an insane person, but you can’t build a strong personal connection with them.
The Master is content to serve as an example, not impose her will. Sharp but not cutting, pointed but not piercing, straightforward but flexible, brilliant but not blinding. Tao Te Ching 58
In the previous two parts of this series, I’ve tackled two arguments against religion — that it gives a poor return on investment, and that it encourages hypocrisy. In this part I look at another argument: that religion encourages too much reliance on doctrine, rather than experimentation or thinking for yourself.
If you’re depending on clergy, or any Wisdom Handed Down From On High, to save your soul, I have to agree: this is actually a huge, huge problem. Too many people simply believe what they’re told — by people who have a vested interest in controlling them, in maintaining positions of power, in keeping people ignorant of the real facts and subservient. They want mindless obedience; they deliberately sow confusion; they undermine your belief in your ability to think independently. They don’t want you to question the beliefs you grew up with, or the decisions of those in power, the marching orders you’re given.
Wait, are we still just talking about religion?
Last week, I laid out the first of six arguments about religion — arguments that I have found interesting and worth exploring in depth. The first argument was that if you chose the wrong religion, you’d waste years of your life. The second argument is that religious beliefs are frequently inconsistent.
Christianity, for example, has a huge body of scripture written over the course of 3,000 years, and things don’t always square up. The Old Testament says “An eye for an eye,” and the New Testament says “turn the other cheek”; Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers” and “I bring not peace but a sword” (is the Son of God himself not blessed? Or can some warmakers be blessed too? Or did Jesus mean something else entirely?); etc. There are various ways in which these conflicts can be resolved, but sometimes the logic gets quite pretzeled.
One of the nastiest puzzles of this sort in Christianity is the problem of evil. How can evil exist when God is omnipotent and good? Why doesn’t God just wipe out the evil? [Continue Reading…]
After my “Evil Christianity” post a few weeks back, I’ve continued to think about issues of religion and belief. While my own ideas haven’t changed much, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss matters online and offline with a number of friends, both pro- and anti-religion. These six arguments against religion are ones I’ve personally found the most intriguing and compelling.
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.” — Jesus (Matthew 10:34)
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.” — The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe, 1861
This weekend I was at the Feast of Lights, and heard a wonderful presentation by Andras Arthan on the last remnants of indigenous religions in Europe. As Arthan pointed out, European indigenous cultures were wiped out or absorbed by the Christian cross, starting with the Romans and carried forward by the various kingdoms that were born of the empire’s collapse. The European indigenous cultures were the first to succumb to the worldwide scourge of Western imperialism and corporitism that continues today. Arthan was unambiguous in his indictment: Christianity is to blame for these atrocities. And it was clear that many in his audience agreed with him.
There is a famous Taoist painting called “The Vinegar Tasters”, showing together the three greatest prophets of Chinese philosophy: Confucius, the Buddha, and Lao Tzu (the founder of Taoism). Each of them is taking a taste from a great pot of vinegar. Confucius tastes the vinegar and scowls; the Buddha tastes the vinegar and has no expression; Lao Tzu tastes the vinegar and smiles.
The painting is perhaps unfair to the Buddhists, for while Buddhism is sometimes characterized as cultivating a Spock-like lack of emotion, it actually encourages a lack of wrong attachments, i.e. attachments to inappropriate things and feelings; and once these attachments are dropped, what remains is not emotionlessness, but Nirvana, i.e. endless rapture. This is why statues of the Buddha often show him smiling. (The painting may be unfair to the Confucists, too, but I know very little about Confucianism.)
Nevertheless the Vinegar Tasters is a powerful painting, and it strongly makes the Taoist point that unpleasant experiences need not be avoided or expunged, but can be enjoyed as an integral part of the flow of the world.
What Would Jesus Taste?
I have often wondered what Jesus would be doing in this painting. [Continue Reading…]
Back at the beginning of April, I wrote a blog post ostensibly about global warming, but also in part about the various forms that our own complicity in and justification of violence can often take. I was amazed, and pleased, when this theme of violence was picked up by readers in the comments. After all, warriorship is a common topic of conversation in modern Paganism, especially among those practicing traditions with a particularly Norse or Celtic flavor. Given the sometimes less than subtle militaristic overtones of our modern Western culture, it can be all too easy to assume a simplistic warrior archetype that conflates nobility, honor and courage with the use of violence or the
imposition of brute force. Rarely do we hear of the “peaceful warrior,” or the ways in which responsibility and strength inform the goals of practical pacifism and enable modern Pagans to prevent, circumvent and withstand violence. By focusing too exclusively on our pre-Christian historical roots and the role of the warrior in ancient sociocultural structures, we miss an opportunity to integrate into the warrior ethic a uniquely modern emphasis shaped by our more recent social history of feminism, civil rights and environmentalism.
This last (r)evolution, in particular, exemplifies the changing conversation about the efficacy of violence when working towards mutual protection and prosperity. More and more, we see the image of the valiant, spiritually-grounded eco-warrior fighting, through political activism and conscientious conservation rather than through bullying and threats, to protect the earth and its diverse environments and ecosystems from the violence of exploitation and pollution. Such an inspiring, living archetype is a powerful example of practical pacifism in action.[Continue Reading…]
Like a silent thunderclap
The sun strikes a blade of grass,
— A sharp thrusting blade it is, a defiant green punch
Out of the soil at the sky —
Now struck and smelted with gold leaf,
Humming with new life and power,
Slow and ruminous the photosynthesis.
The Long Hand of Lugh
Has painted it alive.
— Jan 2009
The path to divorce began before I even met my wife; I’d placed my feet on it inevitably, irrevocably, following the stars of my deepest desires and fears. I wanted to be loved; was this wrong? I wanted acceptance, approval, completion; was this wrong? I wanted to care for, and to give affection to, and to love; was this wrong? I sought these, and found these, in her. I loved her, and desired her, and cared for her, and was completed by her, utterly, as I understood love and desire and care and completion. And we loved furiously and ecstatically and laid the beautiful plans that lovers do.
Well, first, of course, Obama was elected, and he grew up in Hawaii.
And then my friend Slade (of sladeroberson.com) went to Hawaii for angelic training and, as it turned out, met essential people for his life path.
And then I stumbled onto a fascinating podcast called “Jedi trainer” (hunatrainer.com), which is really a tutorial on Huna, a (the?) Hawaiian shamanistic tradition. The podcaster is on a very good wavelength for me, and with a couple of his techniques, I was able to ramp up my manifesting energy enormously.
And then I saw my very first Hawaiian quarter — absolutely gorgeous, too.
And then, it turned out that one of the people in my work group was getting an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii as a thank-you from the company for basically being an awesome guy.
What on earth was all this Hawaii stuff about?
The Coligny calendar was discovered in Coligny, France (near Lyon) as little more than a pile of bronze fragments in 1897 – most likely smashed by Roman authorities during the suppression of druidic practice – and painstakingly restored piece by piece. It was originally the size of a rather cramped doorway. Less than half of the calendar remains, but there is enough to clearly see a beautiful time-keeping system that aligned the sun and moon into a single calendar, and listed dozens of holidays, rituals, celebrations, and the like.
There are lots of disagreements about the calendar. For example, although everyone agrees that it effectively tracks both the sun and the moon, it’s uncertain whether months began at the new moon, the full moon, or perhaps the first quarter. In this article, I’m going to state as fact many things that are in contention, because filling the article with equivocations would turn it into a scholarly work, not a philosophical one. For example: I’m going to say that the months begin on the new moon, because in my opinion, that squares best with the evidence.
[Disclaimer: while I am a linguist, I am not an expert on Celtic languages (ancient or modern), and I cannot vouch for the translations offered below. Most of the information in this article comes from the book The Lost Zodiac of the Druids by Gregory Clouter, and it should be noted that the views in the book are not those entertained by most scholars.]
That the ancient druids practiced astronomy and astrology is beyond doubt. It would be amazing if they did not, since practically all ancient cultures did. But beyond that, their astronomical knowledge is specifically cited by many of the Roman, Greek and Irish authors that describe them; and there are even a few archaeological finds that suggest it.
Primary among these is the Coligny calendar, discovered as little more than a pile of bronze fragments in 1897 — most likely smashed by Roman authorities during the suppression of druidic practice — and painstakingly restored piece by piece. Less than half of the calendar remains, but there is enough to clearly see a beautiful time-keeping system that aligned the sun and moon into a single calendar, and listed dozens of holidays, rituals, celebrations, and the like.
But if Gregory Clouter (The Lost Zodiac of the Druids, 2003) is right, the Gundestrup Cauldron puts the Coligny calendar to shame.