Tag Archives: Spirituality

On Being Forgiven

Being forgiven by others and forgiving one’s self can be incredibly crucial for health and happiness. Religions do well to offer their believers freedom from unnecessary guilt.  In a previous post I wrote about the power of forgiving others.  This post is about the power of being forgiven.  I will tell both a Buddhist story and some Christian examples to illustrate that the wisdom of forgiveness is deeper than any particular religion.

A Buddhist Nun Story

Gautama Siddhartha (the Buddha) taught his “Middle Path” for 40 years before dying. We have many texts purporting his teachings. In one such text, the Anguttara Sutra, we read of a Buddhist nun who is seeking learning from one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, Ananda.

This text explains the subtle ironic principle that to overcome a limiting and clenched desire, sometimes indulging the desire can be useful. He tells, for example, how paradoxically food can be used to actually overcome gluttony (inappropriate desire of food).   Here, shunning food (extreme dieting) only amplifies the desire for food but moderate eating, over time, is the best way to loose the control food has over your mind.

Ananda then declares that among the desires that need to be calmed in order to obtain deep peace is the driving need for sexual intercourse.  On hearing this, the nun confesses how her own regrets of her sexual indiscretions have left her ill. Ananda gives the nuns confession a light response, suggesting to the woman that she just get over it and move on. Everybody makes mistakes. Live and learn. The nun was hugely relieved and returns to heath.

Christian Stories

Christianity markets itself largely on the forgiveness effect.  Here are only a few examples.

  • John 7:53-8:11 , a later addition to the Bible, tells of Jesus forgiving a woman about to be stoned for adultery. (my post)
  • Mark 2:1-12 tells the story of a paralyzed man who Jesus forgives and then the man is also healed.
  • “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” — 1 John 1:9

Concluding, however, let me offer an obvious caveat before they appear in comments: of course horrendous things or even very dangerous acts need to be held tightly in our minds so that we don’t repeat them.  Casually forgiving ourselves can just lead to repeated errors or crimes.  Christians use the concept of “repentance” (“turning about”) as a needed companion to “forgiveness” to avoid this mistake.  Buddhists have similar checks to avoid this obvious loop-hole.  Forgiveness can be looked at as one of the minds many heuristics — one that often needs nurturing.

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Notes:  HT to great a Buddhist site for the pic: Buddhanet

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Non-Exclusive Christians

Over the last 2 years of blogging, I have learned much more about the variety of Christians that exist.  Due to this learning, I have a post which considers “My Favorite Kind of Christian” which I constantly update.  I am fortunate to have several personal Christian friends and on-line Christian friends who hold almost all the qualities I list on “my favorites” list.

But I must say that my MOST IMPORTANT favorite Christian trait is Non-Exclusivity — a Christian who does not feel that non-believers are going to necessarily have a different fate than themselves after death.  In theology, this position is called one’s “soteriology”.

There are two qualities that I feel natural flow from a non-exclusive soteriology:

  1. an open view of others (women, homosexuals, other races).
  2. a missionology where the believer seeks to serve others well before they even contemplate converting others.

Following in second place of favorite Christian traits behind Open Soteriology (along with its tolerance and kindness) is a strong value for science.  I would hold these traits as my favorite for all religions.  All other theological issues (unless I have missed something) fall far behind in the theological pack.  For I care not what a person calls themselves, but how they live and how they use their thoughts and beliefs to anchor and connect their lives.

Question to Atheists:  What are your favorite types of Christians?
Question to Theists:  What are your favorite type of Atheists?

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Prayer Methods

Praying MonkPrayer is not prayer is not prayer.  When someone says they are praying, we really have no idea what that person is doing in their heads.  In Christianity, there are many forms of prayer — as I listed below.  Let me know if you can think of others.

These prayer categories are not mutually exclusive. A person’s prayers may contain mixes of these:

  • Supplication

    • Miracle Prayer:  Supplicating God for healing, protection, success and miracles for self or others
    • Guidance & Self-Corrective Prayer: requesting insight into difficulties or changes in temperament or perspectives.  Prayers for understanding of others or self
    • Endurance Prayer: requesting strength
  • Confessional Prayer: Penitence and repentance.  Telling God the wrongs you have done and asking for forgiveness and intercession
  • Worship & Praise:  Admiration, praise, adoration
  • Thanksgiving Prayer: thankfulness and appreciation
  • Social Prayer:  Prayer directed ostensibly at the deity but meant to bond the group in action or attitude.
  • Meditative or Mystical Prayer
    • Contemplative Prayer:  contemplating on some spiritual topic or emotion
    • Absorptive Prayer:  simply abiding in the presence of God

Even if there is no god listening to these many sorts of prayer (yet alone responding to them), nonetheless, spending time in these mental activities will have an effect on a person.  In this sense, prayer “works” — it changes the mind of the person praying.

One cannot underestimate this brain-on-brain affect.  That is, even if there is no god-on-world, or god-on-brain affect, our activities affect us.  Just as you are what you eat, your are what you think.  Prayer is a way of thinking.  But since all prayer is not the same, these effects differ.  Each different type of prayer will have a different effect on a believer’s mind.  And using the wrong type of prayer for the wrong type of person may have unwanted consequences.  Prayer styles should be chosen carefully.

When I speak of prayer, I am not speaking of causal polite meal prayers and perfunctory church prayers, but those of Christians who make prayer a significant, conscious part of their lives.  Chapter 5 of Oliver Sacks book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” is entitles Brainworms, Sticky Music, and Catchy Tunes.  It explores how certain music can haunt us — pleasantly and unpleasantly.  One of my brain worms is the game WeiQi — when I speak with people, I can sometimes see pattern emerging in my mind that try to distract me from conversation.  But I also have a pleasant meditation mindworm — a reminder to breath, pay attention and relax.  It comes to remind me often — it is a pleasant uninvited guest.  Prayer mindworms would would the same for diligent prayer practitioners — coming into their mind during the normal day’s activities to remind the believer of what they have chosen to value.  So if these practice are going to flavor our days, it is wise to choose a practice carefully.

In some contemplative Christian traditions, a mentor will guide a novice to practice sacred contemplative practices on subject matters that suit their personality type.  For example, you don’t want a depressed person contemplating God’s wrath, nor, perhaps, a manic person focusing on miracles.   Instead you want a prayer to strengthen a person’s deficient mental areas and/or weaken their undesirable mental patterns.  So when helping a friend within their own tradition, it may be useful to guide them to prayer styles useful within their own faith that best match their minds.

In the Buddhist tradition, especially in Tibetan Mahayana practice, meditation techniques are likewise geared to match to temperament of the practitioner in a prescriptive, curative manner.  Students, thus, are encouraged to be most careful in choosing their meditation teacher to guide one’s spiritual development.

Questions for readers:

  • In your Christian days (past or present), do feel prayer affected your mind?  What styles do/did you use?
  • If you are an Atheist, can you see the benefit of encouraging a Christian to pursuing one type of prayer over another?  Or is it all bunk to you and all thus a total waste of time?

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Autistic Souls

Autism SpectrumAdam” is an excellent movie about the emotional life of a young man with Asperger syndrome (an Autism variant).  The movie blessed me with a warm, joyful smile for almost an hour and a half.  The ending is not what I expected.  If you saw the movie, tell me what you thought in the comments.  If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read the comments (just make them). 🙂

I have a good buddy who I hesitantly approached 3 years ago suggesting his child may possibly have Aspberger’s Syndrome.  I thought it was important to discuss.  But I failed.  I think it angered my friend and I think he avoided me for a long time after that.  But a year later, over a beer while re-cementing our relationship he wondered out-loud if indeed his son did fall close to the Aspberger classification.  That is one of my reasons for watching the movie.  The previews looked hopeful and I wanted to feel hopeful about my friend and his son.  He reads here occasionally, so this is an indirect recommendation — I don’t want to piss him off again.  For like Asperger adults, sometimes I can be a bit dull about how my words affect others.

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin

But psychiatric classifications have an obvious artificial, limiting, medicalizing and social/political huge tainting to them that requires us to question them at all times. My friend was right to question them and to try a see his child as unique, well before viewing him as a simple “syndrome”.  I understand.

I am also reading “Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism” by Temple Grandin which is excellent to help me understand more of this variant of a mental life.  Her writing is refreshingly blunt — much like “Adam” was in the movie.  These help people see that we should not take for granted the inner life of others.  A deeply valuable lesson.  The bravery of these two people is amazing and inspiring.  Yes, yes, Temple Grandin is real and Adam is fictional — but then this site is about religion where fictional lives can still be inspiring! 😉

Cold SoulsLastly, I also just watched “Cold Souls” which is about a company which extracts peoples’ souls (leaving them, oddly enough, largely intact but different).  The company then markets these souls.  I thoroughly enjoyed the film.  First, the main character, Paul Giamatti, was superb.  He was in the mini-series John Adams where he was also excellent.  I am a Thomas Jefferson fan and never really liked John Adams, but the mini-series made John Adams fascinatingly alive — I felt his soul.  And “Adam” tells us that Jefferson was possibly an Aspie (a term Adam uses to describe fellow Aspergers as opposed to NTs [neurotypicals].

Cold Soul is reviewed as a comedy but oddly enough I did not laugh once.  It didn’t feel like a comedy to me but like a philosophical movie — I loved how it made me think.  I do not recommend this film for natural atheists but for those of us with active religious defects (said affectionately), you may enjoy the explorations of this film like I did.  I don’t think it is profound, but it left a residual healthy hum in my mind — as if I had borrowed a soul for a while.  (The movie will make this last sentence make sense)

Souls are viewed in many ways in religious traditions. Eternal vs. Transient; Existent vs. Non-Existent; Pre-birth vs. Post-birth creations;  Self-made vs. Other-made; Personality-equivalent vs. Beyond-personality;  and more.

I still use the word “Soul” no matter what religious connotations it has.  I like reclaiming religious words from the religious.  My version of “soul” has lots of thought-out qualifiers, of course.  Do any of my non-believer readers use the word?  What does it mean to you?

Hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you can see how all these movies and books tie together.  They did for me.  But then over-estimating connectedness is a classic symptom for the religiously-inclined.  That aside, for me, we are all different creatures — some of us are raccoons (an allusion to the film “Adam”) and some of us are cows (an allusion to Grandin’s book).  The word “person” or “human” disguises the uniqueness of our souls by making us often assume we have more in common with each other than we should.  Perhaps it is a good exercise to visualize each others as weird animals more than as people.  Ooops, there goes my delusional religious mind again ! 😉

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My Atheist Buddhism

The Buddhist Dharma Wheel

The Dharma Wheel

Speaking to a friend recently I said, “My Buddhist side would say …” when my friend interrupted me saying, “Are you Buddhist?!!”

I answered saying, “Well, in many senses I am Buddhist because:

  1. I strongly believe and value some central Buddhist teachings which I feel are counter to much “common sense”.
  2. I have sought out and read lots of Buddhist literature, including: philosophical works, mythical works, life of saints.  They have inspired me more than any other religious tradition.
  3. I meditate and practice other Buddhist disciplines (albeit feebly) even though I am not a member of a Buddhist group.

My friend looked at me and said, “Yeah, I guess that counts as ‘Buddhist'”.

Since blogging, I have dialogued with liberal/progressive Christians who, back in my Christian days, I would not have considered “real” Christians because of their unorthodox view.  Yet these folks still persist on calling themselves “Christian”.  I have even learned about “Atheist Christians” — those who value what they feel are Jesus’ authentic teachings [what ever those are?] but don’t believe he was a god and yet still feel culturally Christian.  So since blogging I have learned that the world contains of a broader spectrum of self-proclaimed Christians than I ever imagined.

So I thought to myself, “Well, hell, if they can be Christians, maybe I can be a Buddhist?”  🙂

So would that make me a progressive or liberal Buddhist?  No, I don’t like the connotations of those words.  Am I an “Atheist” Buddhist?  Well, Buddhists aren’t theists though many of them hold theist-like beliefs and so “Atheist Buddhist” would help differentiate me from them.  Up to now,  I have often described myself as a “lazy unorthodox Buddhist” which, though accurate, may be a bit too pejorative. So “Atheist Buddhist” may do for now occasionally.  But in many other ways, I am not Buddhist at all.  See my other posts on Buddhism.

I was raised nominal Christian but became Atheist at 14 years-old only to re-converted to Born-Again Evangelical Christianity at 17 years-old when my best friend died.  I remained a fervent Christian for several years.  But prior to that, between 14 and 17 years-old I read a bit of Buddhism.  I returned to explore Buddhism after leaving Christianity in my graduate school days and practiced at some Zen centers.  When I lived in India, Nepal, Japan and China I engaged Buddhism a bit more.  And though I am critical of much of what many Buddhists believe and practice, nonetheless some versions of Buddhism continues to inspired me in ways no other religion does.  And I am not sure why.   It is almost like I have some strange Yuan for Buddhism.

When I want to recommend books to folks to show them the aspects of Buddhism I find exciting, I can’t think of any because all the Buddhist books I know are very …. well, Buddhist.  Hmmmm.  In future posts I will explore Buddhism a bit.

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Do Christians need to be cured?

From my series:
How to Cure a Christian

Before beginning this series, I want to repeat some of the basic positions which I have written before.

My starting points:

  • No one is perfectly healthy.  We all need curing.
  • There is no theist god.  So Christian Theology, in pure propositional form, is wrong though it may serve adaptive purposes.

No need to De-Convert

I use to be a fervent Christian, and now, from a Christian perspective, I am certainly an Atheist.  But I happen to think that, just like other religions, Christianity can offer a great deal of benefit to believers and others.  I feel many people are actually better off being a believer than being an Atheist.  So I am a pragmatist who understands that even false beliefs can serve us well.  So often I feel there is no need for a Christian to de-convert.

However, I also believe that though a given faith may benefit a believer, on the other hand, it may be harmful to those around them.  Likewise, some beliefs benefit the believer in the short run but often hurt them in the long run.  For this reason, we all need to watch our beliefs and see how to improve them.  Likewise, we can sometimes help others by moving them toward healthier beliefs.

Learning from a Christian

No one is perfectly healthy and we can all stand to learn from each other.  Our first reflex should be to understand.  That understanding may benefit us far more than anything we think we can offer the other person.  The discipline to truly listen, reflect and act kindly is far undervalued.

De-Converting a Christian

There are a huge varieties of Christianity and I feel some are more healthy than others.  In my post “My Favorite Type of Christian“, I have a table which lists some of the categories of Christian doctrines and state which forms of these doctrines (even though mistaken) are healthier than others.  By “healthier” I mean positions which I feel are offer better long term benefits to BOTH the believer and others — a sort of utilitarian view.

So, I think challenging a Christian to move toward these other positions can often be more important than trying to convert a believer into an atheist.

Cocky Atheist

Yes, to Christians, all the above is still offensively paternalistic.  But in my model, a believer can lead a healthy, wonderful, full, meaningful life but in the eyes of many Christians, my live and the lives of other Atheists, are worthless unless we accept Jesus in our hearts or we will all burn forever in hell.  So tell me, which view is more paternalistic?

But arguing dogma, doctrine, beliefs and the like are often not the only effective ways to change.  In my next posts, I hope to illustrate the complexity of changing our ourselves and others.

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How to Cure a Christian

This is an index post for an up-coming series.  Medicine is my profession and so the “cure” metaphor comes easily to me.  I realize that such a title is naturally offensive to Christians, but what can I say — this is an Atheist site.  At least I am being honest.  Many years ago when I deconverted from my Christianity, I started writing essays which I entitled “Debunking Christianity”, but now there is a website by that name.  And besides, as I gained distance from Christianity (which was easy since I lived in Asia), I realized that it was person-by-person that we affect each other.  And I realized that cures are complicated because a person’s beliefs are intimately tied into their lives and are not simply composed of a list of propositions.  So rather than debunking an abstract thing called “Christianity”, these essays will focus on the individual Christian.

Well, this is suppose to be an index post, so let’s just start the list.  I will link up titles as I post.  But here are some titles I am imagining:

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Japanese Atheist prays in Crashing Planes

I once had a Japanese girlfriend whose family, in her youth, went through some hard financial times.  Her parents had broken ties with their own parents by eloping in their youths and leaving the island of their birth (Shikoku) so there was no local support for them during those days.  At that time, my girlfriend’s mother found and clung onto a very evangelical Buddhism called Soka Gakkai as her anchor in reality and cure for her anxieties.  The sect she belonged to promised material wealth and happiness to believers.  To obtain these blessings, believers merely needed to chant a simple chant daily in front of a special shrine.  My girlfriend can remember her parents fighting over finances and then she’d hear her mother chanting for hours in front of their household shrine asking for divine help.  Eventually the family became more prosperous and her mother attributed to her faith.

The mother upon meeting me tried to convert me to become a Soka Gakkai member for a few years.  Many Americans actually belong to the sect here in America.  Because I was curious and to appease her I read several Soka Gakkai Buddhist books and debated with her a bit.  She soon gave up on me.  To her I was just like her husband: stubborn and close-minded.

When my girlfriend was growing up, her father hated the mother’s new found religion and it drove them further apart.  My girlfriend said she use to hide under her bed when her parents fought and she could hear dishes being thrown at times.  She’d even fall asleep under the bed to the sound of her mother’s chants after the fights.  Like her father, my girlfriend hated her mother’s hyper-emotional religion.  She felt religion (her mother’s being the only one she knew) was silly, superstitious and manipulative.  But she always understood how it offered hope and security for her anxious mother who she still loved so she would not argue with her mother.

Years later, that girlfriend and I were flying over China (returning from a vacation) when our jet had severe trouble losing altitude abruptly, shaking and diving.  People who were not belted down hitting the cabin roof, but soon they leveled out the plane though it was still shaking. My girlfriend had closed her eyes, grabbed the seat and started chanting “Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō” (Praise to the sublime Lotus Sutra) — the chant of her mother’s religion.

We flew very low for the rest of the trip but arrived safely.  My girlfriend laughed at herself for chanting and never chanted again.  As for me, after that horrible experience I had severe flight anxiety that would last for 5 years.  Interestingly it some flight simulator training I had which cured the anxiety.

Epiphenom did a fantastic article today listing the many research articles that address how religion comforts anxiety.  Here is a quote from the article that inspired me to write this post: “when you remind people about death, they tend to grab onto their traditional, cultural values.”

Questions for atheist readers:

  • Have you ever had scary experiences where you became suddenly religious?
  • How do you reduce anxiety in your life?

Questions for religious readers:

  • Do these type of comparative religious articles help you see that your religious reflexes may tell you more about your humanity and less about the divine?
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Atheist in Drug Rehab

Bottle of NarcoticsI was startled to learn that a close friend, also an Atheist, just entered drug rehab. He lives in another state and I only see him occasionally so it was easier for him to hide his addiction from me than from all those with whom lives and works.  But I was surprised when he sent me an e-mail telling me he was caught stealing and abusing narcotics for two years. I would have never guessed.

My friend was a successful professional, and is happily married with two young kids. His wife is an evangelical Christian.  He has always been very vocal about his Atheism and she married him understanding their differences.  They live near the wife’s very supportive Christian family in the heart of the Bible Belt. The wife takes the two kids to church but my buddy does not go and her church is aware that he is an atheist — her pastor has visited my friend and spoken politely to him a few times without obvious intent to convert.

My drug-addict buddy just started the 3-month rehab program — isolated from family and friends. He can only e-mail 20 minutes per day. He wrote me that his program uses a 12-step AA model.  Part of the program is that the addict is suppose to acknowledge and depend on a Higher Power.

As readers know, I am a sympathetic Atheist who feels that religion can offer many positive functions. To me, when I hear “Higher Power”, I often generously translate it to mean “Less of SELF” — which, in my Buddhist way, I can support. I also feel my buddy’s anti-social characteristics are counter productive for him.

So, when my friend wrote me from the rehab center and wondered what an atheist like him was to do with this “higher power” issue, I wrote him a reply which I consider consistent with the Buddhist notion of “skillful means“.   I essentially suggested he get religion.  Below is my letter suggesting one way to do it.   I’d love to hear your opinions.  BTW, my friend gave his excited permission for me to post his story and this e-mail.  Click “more” to read the e-mail (mildly edited):
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Your Modular God

My previous post, “Spackle God“, was in preparation for this post.  There I rhetorically wondered out-loud how science-friendly Christians were able to keep their “God” intact while their “Spackle god” shrinks.  In that post I showed how a simple model did not seem to explain the phenomena.  Above is the expanded model I was hinting at.  It is the model I use to explain not only the persistence of “God” in science-friendly believers but also the nature of “God”.   I call this model “The Modular God”.

Theistic believers of all faiths use some word like “God” to capture these helpful functions or purposes in their lives.  The Spackle god is just one of the modules.  And as this improved model shows, there are many more purposes served by the concept of “God” for the believer than just the Spackle god.   In fact, it is all these other god modules that are ready to take up the slack when their Spackle god shrinks.  For as the Spackle god shrinks, these Christians re-interpret new parts of their Bible metaphorically in order to accommodate scientific findings.  But additionally, to avoid shrinkage of “God”, their other god modules are strengthened or arranged differently to allow for the absence of the Spackle god.  So that though their Spackle god is weaker, their Tribal god or their Morality god (for instance) may be strengthened or repositioned to bear the weight of the gray octagon as it tries to collapse in the absence of the Spackle god’s previous support.  In each believer the sizes and specific functions of the compensating modular gods vary depending on how the believer uses the concept of “God” in their lives.

To keep this post short, I will end by briefly describing each of the modular functions inside the believers term “God”:

  • Wishing god: offers hope for answered prayers: requests for health, prosperity, safety, happiness and more
  • Morality god: offers guidelines/rules of behavior, deters immoral behavior, motivates virtues, offers reasons for morality
  • Tribal god: offers identity, group unity to cooperate and compete, patriotism, denomination unity, meaning, stories, specialness, common enemies
  • Afterlife god: offers comfort for dead loved ones and a measure of security from the fear of their own death
  • Companion god: offers someone to talk to, acceptance, forgiveness, support and relief from loneliness
  • Spackle god:  offers supernatural explanations for the unknown gaps of their knowledge

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Related Posts:

  • How to Make a Christian: How the normal mind is transformed into a religious mind
  • The Tribal Mind:  The mind module regulating how we treat others
  • Many-Selves, No-Self :  Readers may recognize that the above model uses the modular theory of mind
  • Your Inner Theist:  Even Atheists can have a Theist side.  An example of the complexity of the modular mind.
  • Religion: A syndrome definition.  This model uses similar ideas.

Possible future posts using this model:

  • How religious people de-convert
  • Why de-converted atheists have diverse viewpoints
  • How atheists can also have a religious flavor
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