Thursday, September 19, 2013

Good Religion

In response to this.

There is no such thing as a religion of peace. Historically, all religions become religions of war when they need to. Christ brings a sword, too, just like Mohammed and the Buddha. So people who go around expecting practitioners of one religion to be uniformly peaceful will always be disappointed (or shocked, or whatever) when circumstances reveal (again!) that this expectation is not justified. Buddhists respond to this reality by saying that we live in samsara, which I suppose somebody could translate as "hell" (though the Buddhists themselves imagine hell-realms that are even worse than our world and use that word for these places).

Similarly, there is no such thing as a religion that only produces "civilization," by which the article seems to mean something like "good behavior." In my view, there is no such thing as good behavior that is not sometimes bad (and vice versa). Historically, civilization is certainly both good and bad: good when we replace pillage and piracy with a free and peaceful market; bad when we wage total war on people we don't like, for reasons that may be justified or not.  War is always bad, and really destructive war is not possible without the awesomely terrible WMDs that civilized people create.  Note that the religious orientation of civilized people has relatively little effect on their capacity for generating and deploying WMDs.  The nation with the most nukes and the most nukes deployed is definitely not Buddhist, and the Buddhist Japan that we bombed to hell in WWII was not particularly peaceful, either.

“He who does not climb the mountain of Christ does indeed fall into the abyss of Buddha.” He who does not climb the mountain of Mohammed does indeed fall into the abyss of Christ. He who does not climb the mountain of Thomas Muenzer does indeed fall into the abyss of Martin Luther. He who does not climb the mountain of Torquemada does indeed fall into the abyss of St. John of the Cross (or St. Teresa of Avila). He who does not climb the mountain of Hugh B. Brown does indeed fall into the abyss of Bruce R. McConkie. So what? Chesterton is a great wit, but I am not sure what he is trying to say here.

The modern world is not unique in being "on the verge of a mental collapse" (assuming it is): humanity is on that verge all the time, and we periodically fall over (witness the fact that history has always been about wars and rumors of wars, paranoia, obsession with our neighbor getting his clothes and sex habits right, etc.).  Life feeds you poison, all the time, in the form of phenomena that your faculties (mental and physical and everything in between or beneath or above) cannot help but respond to.

Historically, different people manifest different kinds of response. Some meditate this way. Some meditate that way. Some read and chant Sanskrit. Others read and chant Latin (or Greek, or Arabic, or Chinese, or any number of other languages). Some manage to deal with their particular demons without causing themselves or those around them undue harm. Others don't. We cannot say precisely why. We can try to make generalizations, but history falsifies these ruthlessly, revealing to the most honest and far-seeing among us (no matter what our religion might be) that the good life lies outside human ability to predict or control perfectly. Ancient people called this Fortune or Luck. Some worshipped it as a god apart from other gods (like the god responsible for justice). Others considered it an aspect of perfect deity (God contains luck the same way he contains justice, making him utterly incomprehensible to us limited humans, who cannot experience these things as commensurate). But in the end we are all flying blind. We are gambling with power(s) we cannot perceive or control (even if we can influence them in particular moments). Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose. Pick the gaming strategy that comes easiest (and most helpfully) to you. Make your own bets with Nature (or God or whatever), and stand by them (even when the consequences are bad: own that, learn from it, die for it if your life is required).

The real question that matters to me in all of this is not what religion should I practice? but how should I practice religion? How can I place bets with Nature that I am willing and able to stand by? Where can I find tools and training helpful to developing and deploying my innate ability to see and place those bets that we all must make every day? Not all people need to eat the same food to be healthy. My diet is not a universal diet. What is good for me right now may not be good for me in 10 years, and it may not ever be good for you.

I came to Buddhism not as a believer but as a skeptic, and I don't feel that I owe it any special allegiance. I have heard many horror stories of people who fled into the arms of predatory Buddhist gurus, giving their life to enlightenment (and the guru) the same way Christians are supposed to give their life up to God (and the priest or prophet). There is nothing magic about Buddhism per se. It is just another religion, another language, another tool for dealing with human reality that can easily become a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands (and we all have such hands, near to us if not attached to our own arms). I have not "taken refuge" at this point (the Buddhist analogue to Christian baptism), and I doubt I ever will--mostly because I don't like committing myself totally to an idea. My history has broken me from the habit of "finding absolute truth" and then clinging to it no matter what.  I cannot do that.  Truth in my experience is like a series of small life-rafts that come together and fall apart regularly in a swirling ocean of uncertainty. You have to be ready to ditch your truth when it breaks and starts to go under. This insight is not something I "found" in Buddhism: I found it before I found Buddhism; Buddhism just has a history of admitting it as a valuable insight, which makes it easier for me to talk about it and approach it usefully among Buddhists (who unlike Christians don't cut me off halfway through my attempts to communicate with, "Silence, thou fiend of the eternal pit! Vade retro, Satana!").

Part of my affiliation with Buddhism is accidental. In the West, Buddhism is very weak. It cannot demand the kind of total submission from me that it does demand from monks in India, Tibet, or Japan. I like that. I don't want to be dominated and subjugated and "civilized" by religion (or religious masters). If I moved to Asia, to a community where Buddhism is much more entrenched and domineering, I might easily defect to some weaker religion (even some variety of Christianity: I have nothing against Christianity per se). For me, virtue is not primarily Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish: it is primarily human, and secondarily whatever particular historical people and traditions make of it. Christian charity and Buddhist compassion are just two historical faces of the same human love. They are not opposed necessarily, or even very different from one another (I would argue that their similarity is more compelling than any difference). People who point to one historical instance of difference between them ("this Christian works in a homeless shelter while his Buddhist brother goes on a violent, homicidal rampage") ignore the importance of accident in human affairs--and the fundamental likeness between humans that appears clear to people like me: Islam is not more violent than other religions; it just wears an angry mask right now, as other religions have in the past, do now, and will in future. When Christians go on violent rampages, it will not be an indictment of Christianity, but of the rampagers (who are not bad Christians, but bad people, plain and simple).

I see myself working not for this tradition or that one, this religion or that one, but for humanity--human virtues, human integrity, human goodness (which comes in more varieties than I can usefully pretend to comprehend or define, other than to recognize that all historical religions seem capable of facilitating their expression). I am first a humanist, and only then a Buddhist or a Christian or a Mormon or a Muslim. I have no intractable hostility for Buddhism or Christianity or Mormonism or Islam as ideologies (or families of related ideologies). My conflict with religion is not about opposing this or that idea (all ideas are more or less dangerous and helpful at the same time), but with the way people practice their ideas (whatever those are). I want to avoid implementing my ideas where they are bad, saving them for the time when they are good. I want to avoid your ideas where they are bad, taking them where they are good. I don't think that moral problems can be solved by making all the world convert to the same ideology (any more than I think the problem of miscommunication should be solved by making us all learn the same language).

I want people to use ideology (religion) well. From my perspective, this happens more when life gives us multiple ideologies (religions)--different maps of the same human territory that we keep traversing but never really understanding (because it lies ultimately outside our comprehension: we can never understand it as it exists, larger and more complex than we will ever be). I want people to practice many religions (and speak many languages). Of course I want them to practice these religions well (giving more benefit than harm to themselves and the communities where they exist). I am always interested in improving myself and helping others improve (in ways that they can recognize: I don't want to make others agree with me or my ideals where these become dangerous to them). If your moral improvement requires you to become a Catholic monk with no outside affiliations (no fraternizing with degenerate Buddhists for you!), then that is fine. I am not invested in making you practice Buddhism against your will (any more than I am determined to make you learn Latin against your will).

I am not interested in forcing myself on anybody where they don't want me, unless I really have to be there: I will not come to Catholic mass and chant Tibetan prayers, but I will not tolerate Catholic monks invading my home or the local Buddhist shrine to shout me down with psalms, either--not even when these psalms are rendered in exquisite musical harmony. I do not mind if you want to wear a burkha, but I will not let you force it on me without vigorous protest (not even if you convince a majority of our fellow-citizens that my donning the burkha is essential if our community is to preserve its traditional values and avoid the wrath of Allah).

Good religion, in my mind, is about retiring from the public square--not charging out and seizing it (for God or Allah or nirvana or Zeus). The public square is like a marketplace where many different traders come to offer wares (all of them at once different and alike: different because Ali's pots are not exactly the same as Karma's; the same because they are both pots, useful for holding food or the severed heads of slain enemies). A good marketplace has many traders, many varieties of pots, and the people there get along with one another--even when you buy Ali's pots and I choose Karma's. I may think Ali's pots are shoddy merchandise (or I may not). I may try to convince you that Karma's are better. Somebody may use Karma's pots (or Ali's) to commit a terrible crime. The best solution to these problematic circumstances (we don't like the same pots, and pots can be tools of destruction) will never be violent suppression of some pot-trader we think of as evil. Ali's pots are just as good for committing crimes as Karma's. Crime is a problem of people, not pots (or ideologies, which all of us possess and use in the same way we possess pots, and knives, and cars, and bombs, and other tools). As long as I am not being coerced to do business I cannot believe in (to buy pots I don't want and cannot use), I have no problem with the marketplace (or the existence of vendors selling pots that I personally don't use or endorse for others' use). This attitude does not change even when I wind up being appointed market-controller.

As controller, my job would not be to put "bad" traders out of business. I would merely keep people from committing clear criminal damage against each other where possible (i.e. where it is clear what the damage is and that the people inflicting it are doing so without the consent of their victims). If you sell pots that nobody wants or can use without immense suffering, then the market will put you out of business much faster and more effectively than I could. If I interfere with violence (in the form of a political referendum banishing you, say), then I set a terrible precedent. I teach the market to depend on something other than peaceful negotiation for its results. I teach the traders to avoid trusting their customers (and vice versa), endorsing the formation of cartels (which aspire to become monopolies and control the violence I have let loose in the marketplace). To will the supremacy of one trader or group of traders against the will of the market, to will the supremacy of one religion (or religious cartel, e.g. Judaeo-Christian values, sharia, Catholic values, Buddhist values) against the will of hapless converts, is in my mind to destroy everything I love and cherish about human virtue (which religions should exist to protect, I think). As market-controller, my place is to encourage people to get along civilly, peacefully, and authentically: you can wear your burkha, and I can wear something else. Nobody has to die, or go to jail, or pay massive fines, or suffer otherwise for buying one brand of pots rather than another.  The pot you buy for yourself is its own punishment (or reward).  Just don't force your neighbor to buy it against his will.

Good religion is about what I as a person do in voluntary association with other people.  It is not about me forcing people to do things against their will or inclination, and it does not require everyone to have the same ideology (or the same language), thank goodness.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


Someone remarks casually that "it's hard not being the top dog," and I have a sudden torrent of thoughts to offer.

I think it is actually pretty easy not being the top dog. It can be problematic when people have radically different views of where some collaborative project is (or should be) headed, but even in the latter case I think it is easier to get things done with peer-to-peer conversation rather than command-and-control.

In my marriage, for example, nobody presides. This was true even when we were newlyweds (and were approaching our relationship even more naively than we still do). My wife and I talk about things, express opinions, come up against decisions that must be made quickly, and work things out (without making somebody "be in charge" of everything or have "the final say" in whatever we do individually or together). At some point, I suppose we could become incompatible: even if that happened and we went our separate ways (divorce), I would like to do so amicably rather than angrily. In the same way, if I am ever collaborating with other people in the workplace (or anywhere, really), I always want them to feel free to give honest input, and to walk away if at any point they are too uncomfortable with the way things are going (or some much better opportunity presents itself to them and they feel a real desire to take advantage of it).

The difficulty of leadership is that it really isn't such a good thing, when life is going well. Historically, the great leaders are the people who encounter some disaster and react against it powerfully (with some kind of communal support), unilaterally (without backing down)--and most importantly, successfully (they achieve something that the world recognizes in hindsight as success, e.g. victory in war, economic prosperity, survival in a savage wilderness). But life is not always throwing us into do-or-die situations (wherein we must all look to Napoleon and hope that this is Austerlitz and not Waterloo). We shouldn't deliberately put our backs to the wall and then look for somebody to play Julius Caesar (and "get the bad guys" at all cost by "being a great leader").

Ideally, we never have any need for leadership (the way it is commonly understood). Ideally, we never find our backs to the wall as we gamble everything on the success of some singular encounter with fortune (who giveth and taketh away without regard for persons: even "great leaders" can lose--at terrrible cost to themselves and their communities). Ideally, we don't make every decision an occasion for Caesar to throw the dice and cross the Rubicon. Never cross the Rubicon unless you really have to. If you really have to, then by all means be a leader--just as you might become a murderer to save your own life or the life of someone you love. But don't love leadership (or homicide) for its own sake. I am pretty sure it doesn't love you back; if it does, then history says that its love is really dangerous (as likely to kill you prematurely as to save you from present danger).

Ideally, instead of leadership we have peer-to-peer negotiation. Instead of noticing something bad in the world (e.g. people are dying in Syria!) and responding with leadership (e.g. bomb the crap out of Syria, stat! show the world that we mean business, that Caesar is burning his boats and preparing to take Britain at all costs!), we should respond with negotiation (e.g. how can we help refugees? is there anything we can do to encourage better behavior among enemies? maybe not all crises need to be solved with bombs and other tools of leadership). Leadership will always be with us (like death and other such things), but it need not be the only thing available when problems arise. We should actively cultivate alternatives to it (or alternative forms of it, if you like, but I mistrust the word too much at present to be interested in redeeming it).