The path to genuine enlightenment

The Thinker by Rodin

Religious violence is hardly news. Religious violence, such as what is currently going on between Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq, should drive millions of people to atheism. No God worth worshipping could possibly approve of any violence in its name, let alone require us humans to use force and murder as a means of spreading the faith.

Religions though really aren’t so much about God as they are about people. Supposedly the purpose of religion is to draw us closer to God. What’s its real purpose? As best I can tell, its real purpose is the largely futile attempt to calm our restless and flawed human souls, something it does imperfectly at best. Sometimes it does succeed in bring some of us to a higher spiritual or moral plain, but overall its track record is pretty poor and its lessons don’t tend to stick permanently. If I had to pick a number, I’d say it works perhaps ten percent of the time, at least in inculcating permanent behavioral changes for the better. What typically happens is we may get better for a while, but then we revert to doing what we do best: being flawed human beings.

It’s worse than that because we all have certain imperfections and angsts, which means that we will be drawn toward religions that accentuate these issues within us. What a lot of us really crave is absolute certainty in an uncertain world, and most religions offer that. You just have to find the religion that most closely aligns with your imperfections and predispositions. But mostly, as I first pointed out a long time ago, we tend to be drawn to the religions we were born into, if any. If we are going to stay with a religion, it will be with one that has the comfort of familiarity and the sanction of our parents.

If you live in Iraq, it’s almost certain that you are a Muslim, but alas what kind of Muslim is what is far more important. Both Shi’ite and Sunni believe there is only one God: Allah. Great, you would think that would make religious life pretty simple. But instead they are arguing, and have been arguing and killing each other for more than a millennium and about something that really doesn’t matter. This is: when Mohammad died, did he intend for the religion to be dynastic (what the Shi’ites believe) or not (what the Sunnis believe). ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is busy killing Shi’ites in areas it has conquered, but really anyone, including Sunnis, that don’t or won’t tow the line on their extreme and puritanical version of Islam.

I’d accuse them of channeling George W. “You are either with us, or against us” Bush except of course both sects have been doing this far longer than our last president has been alive. It’s a cycle of violence that shows no sign of ever being extinguished. Neither side will ultimately prevail. As best I can tell, the only way to really kill this cycle of violence is for everyone Muslim to simply abandon the faith. That doesn’t seem likely.

Of course it’s not just the Muslims that can’t get along with each other. Protestants and Catholics have been murdering each other for centuries. Even before Protestantism emerged, Christianity was rife with religious persecution. My particular religion is Unitarian Universalism. Early in Christian history, the Trinitarians ruthlessly persecuted the Unitarians. The Unitarians (very sensibly I believe) concluded that the notion of God in three parts (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) made no sense whatsoever, so they were killed or persecuted for their heresy. They eventually sought refuge in what is now Romania and Hungary. Within Protestantism, various denominations persecuted minority denominations. The Pilgrims that helped form the United States was but one of them.

The general problem is that humans don’t deal well with people that don’t conform to their beliefs. Of course it’s not just religious beliefs, but all sorts of arguably weird stuff like whether gays should get married or the limits of government that foment our intolerance. It seems we are born to factionalize, and leaders of our factions assume leadership because they have learned the art of persuading followers that their beliefs are the only correct ones.

Given all of this, why wouldn’t you want to be an atheist? Why wouldn’t an atheist go out and evangelize? Curiously, die-hard atheists imitate the tactics of die-hard theists. Mostly what you hear is, “God is total bunk, a fairy tale, just Santa Claus for adults” and they will argue endlessly why this is so with their scorn clear in their voices. They tend to lampoon the religious as intellectually flawed sheep.

Atheism has always struck me as just proselytizing of a different sort. What is the track record of atheism? Does it make for a better world? While the jury is out, we do have the example of the Soviet Union, which was basically an atheist state, not to mention communist China. Its leaders did a wretched job of managing the country or even making socialism work. So I am skeptical that if we were all atheists and that they were in charge that we would end religious violence. For atheism has all the hallmarks of a religion, including its dogmatic certainty, just without God at its center. I am convinced that if we were all atheists, we would find reasons to beat the heads of other atheists. We haven’t seen much of this yet probably because they have not evolved into a large enough force. I can see splits between dogma-driven atheists, who might forbid the teaching of religion, from humanistic atheists.

So the larger problem is not religion per se, but the dogmatic nature of our species in general. We find comfort in being with people like us, be it culturally, racially or spiritually, but it seems best to us when it is all of the above. And all this is because to make sense of our world we have to discern clear patterns, even where they don’t exist clearly and even where the differences really don’t mean anything. We actually worship the necessity of patterns that we can slavishly follow, not God. I contend that the crux of the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite are trivial. And yet century after century they keep killing each other because of their need for certainty and comfort. They seem ill equipped to expand their thoughts to the larger notion that we are all brothers.

So, to channel Bill Maher, I propose a New Rule: put kindness toward all ahead of your religious faith or lack thereof. Realize that our various faiths and beliefs, while often helpful and insightful to those who practice those faiths and beliefs, are not the most important aspect of their lives or of our lives. Our most critical virtues need to be kindness, openness and an understanding that we really all are one.

It’s hard to practice and obviously I am not a saint in this matter. It’s hard for even me to see that the divide between Democrats and Republicans is not as wide as I think. However, if I can practice open listening and tolerance, I am likely to be heard and acknowledged by the other side. And open hearts should open doors of communications and facilitate enlightenment in general. So I too must practice looking and emphasizing for those things that I have in common with people unlike me. I need to practice dialog with people like this, dialog that is respectful and healing.

This, I think, is the path to real enlightenment.

The Cost of Indoctrination

The Thinker by Rodin

I went to public school in Florida in the early 1970s. As part of a requirement for graduation all students were required by the state to take a course called “Americanism vs. Communism”. As I recall it lasted a quarter and was part of what would otherwise pass for a history credit.

The course purported to clearly distinguish between the American way of life and the totalitarian/fascist nature of communist governments. In it I learned more than I ever expected to about communist theories and leaders. Our class even had a guest speaker who had lived behind the Iron Curtain. She provided a first hand account of what it was like to live in a totalitarian state. I confess after completing the “course” I had no desire to become a communist. But I had none before the course either.

Yet the course has bothered me to this day. And this was because it was not really learning. It was indoctrination, courtesy of the Florida state legislature. While it certainly had its educational aspects, it was neither fair nor balanced. No communists were invited to counterpoint. No mention was made that Communism was a direct result of the brutal oppression of the Russian people. Nor was the very real exploitation of the workers at the time (both in Europe and here in the United States) and the fact that laborers lived lives in poverty with no hope of a better future given any mention as the conditions that bred communism. The course was really about the evils of communism as perceived through the lenses of a nation twenty years or so into The Cold War. It did not provide a genuine understanding of communism. It did not provide context. It was not really education.

At the time this was an isolated example. Today though students have to pass more and more “courses” that are really just indoctrination. In some cases the courses are worse than indoctrination. Why? Because they present themselves as unbiased when they clearly are not.

The best example that I can think of is the modern sex education course taught in our public schools. In many school districts abstinence is openly preferred. Indeed this is Bush Administration policy. Any suggestion that sexual curiosity between boys and girls of that age might be natural is rebuffed. Homosexuality is often not discussed, and when discussed is discussed in a tightly scripted way so that the size and scope of homosexuality is difficult for the student to understand. In many school districts masturbation is not discussed. Even discussing birth control is off limits for many students. Instead of discussing sexuality in context, sex education has become a discussion of the potential horrors of premarital sex. It does little to give a student any idea how to actually cope with their feelings. Sex education has become indoctrination. It usually fails to present the balanced set of information needed by students to make informed choices.

In Cobb County, Georgia school officials require a sticker on biology textbooks indicating that the Theory of Evolution is simply a theory, and not a fact. The educators in that school district are apparently not sufficiently advanced to understand there are multiple definitions for theory. The first definition is “A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena” not “An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture”, which is the least used definition. Nor apparently could they be bothered to find out from scientists which definition applies to the Theory of Evolution. Hint: it’s not the second. Another school district in Pennsylvania wants to require students to also learn about so-called “Intelligent Design Theory”. And you can be certain that if this theory is discussed no mention that it falls into the “assumption” category of theories will be made. It’s much easier to talk about theories in general and let every crackpot theory in than to limit discussion to theories with actual merit.

Let’s be clear what is going on here. Increasingly we are sending this message to our children: we don’t want you to have the best-known information. We will tell you what the truth is. But our version of the truth is based on our faith and prejudices, not on an impartial assessment of the facts. We think it is better to ignore certain facts, present facts selectively, and provide alternative viewpoints with no basis in reasoned analysis than to present the modern understanding of the current world put together by academics with no axe to grind. The message is pretty much this: it’s okay for us to lie to you. It’s for your own good.

So what is the purpose of education then? How does a student handle the real world without a clear understanding of it? Increasingly our children cannot. Perhaps this is why although global warming is as much a theory as is the Theory of Evolution we’d rather live in denial. Those pesky, abstract, non-biased scientists can be really annoying telling us things we don’t want to hear.

Imagine if driver’s education course included no mention of what to do if you see a stop sign. Most of us would be appalled to put our children in the driver’s seat without this basic understanding. But for many of us parents we would rather pamper our prejudices than do what is best for our kids: just give them the best-known facts. Life will be complicated enough for them in the 21st century. Why make it needlessly difficult?

Where is our sort of brave new world thinking also happening? I bet you can find it resurgent throughout the Muslim world. It’s been going on in the Vatican for millennium. Spanish bishops are still scared to admit that condoms prevent sexually transmitted diseases. I bet you won’t find this sort of wishy washy learning happening in most of today’s emerging high tech economies. I bet in India “Intelligent Design” is not taught along with the Theory of Evolution. Guess which society is going to be better prepared to move and adapt to the future?

There is a cost to ignorance. There is a cost to selectively presenting the facts. There is a cost to lying. For a country that claims to worship freedom, it’s odd that we won’t give our children the freedom to learn free from our own petty biases. Let’s give our students the freedom to see the clearest picture of the universe, as we know it. We do them no favor by placing them in a world where they must always engage with one arm tied behind their backs.