Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Meaning of Life

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the search for meaning is that it exists at all. Meaning as a requirement for existence is absent in nature. Animals seem satisfied with the never ending quest for food and pleasure; human beings are unique in their search for the “why” of it all. Why is it so hard for us to find satisfaction in the knowledge that we exist? Perhaps we have sought so fervently because we know just enough to allow for the possibility of more; so our intelligence has proven to be a hurdle as much as it is beneficial. I suspect this is the concept that the author of the Adam and Eve story was attempting to capture when he caused his characters to eat from a tree that imparted the knowledge of good and evil to them. It's our intellect that's caused us, uniquely among life on earth, to distinguish between animalistic tendencies and a higher calling; but if there's no higher being calling us, could it be our own understanding of our potential at a primal, unconscious level that drives us to ask the question, “Why?”

No longer does mere procreation and food gathering serve to satisfy our desire for meaning. That would be like using a supercomputer as a piece of furniture. We expect more from ourselves and society, and with no god to provide artificial significance and no afterlife to assure us more will arrive, we are suddenly forced to create more. What that creation looks like depends entirely on the individual, but from the writings of wise men throughout history, the testimonies of others alive today, and my own experiences, I can write of three primary categories of existential meaning: social activity, personal fulfillment, and discovery.

Social activity includes any interaction between human beings. We find happiness in helping others, because we understand at a deep level that the true potential of the human race has never rested on the shoulders of any one man or woman; it is the accomplishments we make as a whole that are catapulting us to a celestial status when compared to other species on this planet. So, we find meaning by encouraging society to progress, either by helping others or performing our vocations well. The latter might be more difficult for someone whose job seems trivial, but in a free and democratic society, which all societies should strive to be, there is nothing preventing anyone from planning and reaching towards a more fulfilling vocation. Of course, the most stable source of fulfillment is found in the very act of contributing to society using a skill set that takes advantage of an individual’s strengths - not in the type of contribution; but I must confess to being far from such a state of Zen.

Personal fulfillment is fairly self-explanatory. If we seek out that which pleases us without debilitating ourselves in the process, we will find our time on earth to be more enjoyable, and therefore the sweet pang of existence will be more manageable. This isn’t a requirement for meaning; rather, it is a helpful tool for leading a fulfilled life. Rarely does one need to convince another to seek happiness in this way. More often that not, the challenge is in understanding that it is only a limited source of meaning.

Another vast source of social meaning is procreation. On a purely sexual level, this falls under the category of personal fulfillment, but in relation to family, it can be fulfilling beyond measure. In fact, there are those who seem to live only to create more life, and they appear to be content on a deeper level than those with money and power. I believe this is in part due to the natural provision of an existential Other through mutual respect, trust, and love - perhaps the one force of nature that transcends reason and science - inherent in healthy lifelong partnerships.

Love often results in offspring. Children permit humans to project themselves into the future through genetics, as well as the passing on of valuable information and skills - perhaps even cheating death on some small level. These tendencies are biologically hardwired into us as a way of ensuring our survival as a species, but given the intricacies of our brains, it's no wonder our familial functions have evolved to bewildering complexity. As with personal fulfillment, the biggest danger in regards to procreation is the tendency for those to forget that we must find meaning outside of it in order to live a balanced, healthy life. In short, social fulfillment allows us to find meaning in you, me, and the space between.

One of the most profound moments in the journey of life is the realization that there is no destination. Typically, there is no career, significant other, or cause that will provide true, lasting happiness. Fulfillment is subjective, but I and many others have found that it thrives in balance and harmony. A life spent carousing will fail to provide substantive long-term relationships or profundity. A life spent at home studying or at work being productive will be lonely. An impoverished life will often be full of strife. A life in exorbitant wealth will often be characterized by arrogance and a lack of discipline. However, a life lived in the center of all these will provide fulfillment. This, of course, is a matter of opinion, but one that is shared by many of the wisest people in the world’s most accepted worldviews, regardless of their reasoning. It's also frequently tested and found to be true, as it's difficult to base one’s entire life on the observation of others, however consistent the results appear to be from the outside. The important thing to remember is that these kinds of truths are not absolute. They will vary on an individual basis, and because there's no higher power providing us with a manual for existence, we're free to explore morality and determine from experience or the examples of others what thoughts and behaviors are beneficial, distinguishing them from those that are not.

Meaning is found to be more urgent and poignant without an omnipotent, omniscient dictator - even without an afterlife. Suddenly, it is up to us to seek it out, to give our lives context, to fulfill our own desires. The possibilities are limitless, and we are free to explore them. This is exhilarating, and can allow people to experience an enhanced version of life, in contrast to one held back by religious dogma plucked out of thin air by well-meaning theologians over thousands of years. With no afterlife, a sense of urgency arrives; coupled with the understanding that meaning is waiting to be discovered, the result is a desire to immediately get off the couch and make life happen!

On a societal level, discovery is the proverbial carrot in front of our noses, convincing us to move onward, much like the concept of the afterlife, but tangible and real. The unknown beyond the reach of our watchtowers, submarines, and satellites gives us motivation to continue seeking, because we do not know what we might find. The final answers we seek may be waiting for us to discover them on the outer edge of the universe, at the center of the earth, or possibly even in our own minds. If we do not take up this tremendous task, who will?

As far as we know, we are the only beings in the universe who have the capacity to explore it. The same holds true for technology; there are untold possibilities in front of us in the technological field. Discoveries that add dimensions to our existence we never could have imagined may lie in wait just around the corner. Consider how social media has transformed our lives, making it possible for humanity to instantly communicate to one another from opposite ends of the earth, bringing us closer together and enabling us to exchange ideas globally on a worldwide marketplace. The Egyptian revolution was the result of such progression; in fact, it may never have occurred or even been successful without networks such as Facebook and Twitter, neither of which existed just a decade ago; that’s 10 years in the light of thousands of years! If we refuse to accept the calling of discovery, and there are no others who are capable of doing so, that could be the greatest tragedy the universe has ever known. While not everyone can be on the forefront, we can all take comfort in the knowledge that we are part of the most magnificent organism in the known universe: humanity. Every seemingly insignificant action is part of the whole, and the whole is possibly the greatest meaning there is. Perhaps we are the mechanism through which the universe will discover itself, and to be a part of that in any way is to experience profound, everlasting meaning.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Humanistic Perspective on Politics

As our lens zooms out to focus on increasingly broader concepts, each built upon the structure of the other, we find politics to be among the outermost layers, because it directly applies to social order. There’s no need to groan, here. The importance of politics will rarely be discovered over cigars and whisky, with stuffy people in suits clashing intellects as rams butt horns. It is found in much more energizing and interesting environments, like streets filled with citizens in arms against tyranny. It can also be found in tragic, disheartening contexts, like slums filled with tens of thousands of people who have been beaten down by a ruling class, so that they no longer have the strength to hope for a brighter future. Those who politely discuss politics while surrounded by decadence have rarely been in need of political action. I think everyone’s worldview should include some measure of political opinion, because politics determines the degree to which individuals can function freely and society can progress; therefore, it affects every facet of our lives.

Power and wealth are the two primary, interdependent aspects of politics. A successful modern government serves as a solid foundation for the pursuit of happiness and equal opportunity for all in accordance with the Golden Rule, denying anyone the ability to interfere with the rights of another. For this to be the case, freedom must reign supreme, which is why a democratic government that gives voice to its citizens through a voting process is necessary; people tend to vote for their own good when given the opportunity. While Marx observed that culture can be used as a way of controlling the thoughts of citizens, this hegemony can be counteracted through education and the proliferation of postmodern philosophy.

A government should protect the rights of its people against internal and external threats, including those which exist within the government itself, while maximizing productivity for the purpose of human progression. Money plays a vital role in this delicate, intricate dance, because it represents freedom of choice. I may want to travel to another country once every few years, but unless I have the monetary means to back that decision, I am not free to make that choice. I may want to eat healthy food, have dinner out with my significant other, or take piano lessons, but none of these are even options to me unless I have money. So, quality of life relies heavily on income level. This shouldn’t be a problem, since there is plenty of money to go around. However, history has shown that people tend to want to acquire more money, including those who already have more than their fair share. This isn’t necessarily a negative aspect of humanity, as it gives us incentive to perform well at our jobs and rewards entrepreneurship.

The problem is, because wealthy people can afford to buy more resources, they tend to succeed in the acquisition of even more money and resources, which of course must come from somewhere, so every time a wealthy person gains some, another person loses some. This is why the gap between rich and poor tends to widen without the use of government regulation, and it explains how the very wealthy actually gained money despite massive job loss during the Great Recession of 2007. In a modern system with entitlement programs that ensure basic care is provided even for those in difficult financial positions, this means that for every person lost to poverty, the burden on those with money increases, at times creating resentment among the ruling class. Poverty also breeds hopelessness, addiction to substances that provide temporary escape from misery, and often ignorance as a result of these hurdles and a lack of educational funds, all of which contribute to crime.

Marx’s solution to the problem of unequal distribution of wealth and power was communism, which we now know to be deeply flawed, as it fails to take into account the need for incentive in the workforce. Of course, he had no way of knowing it would fail, because he wasn’t around to witness the fall of the Soviet Union. However, whether it works is beside the point. The forcible redistribution of wealth, goods, and human resources conflicts with the Golden Rule by removing freedom of choice from individuals. It is for this same reason that Socialism and Fascism are unacceptable.

Capitalism, championed on nearly a fanatic level in the United States, is an attempt to remove the government from economics entirely, while passively distributing wealth to those who are willing to work for it. Unfortunately, starting a business or making an investment requires money, or capital, thereby placing power and advantage firmly in the hands of the wealthy. It also blatantly ignores the tendency of the gap between the wealthy and poor to widen, relying instead on “the Invisible Hand” of the free market to guide us to economic success. However, our own history reveals the need for government regulation. Child labor laws, the police force, minimum wage, and the Civil Rights Act are all examples of government regulation that came about due to the tendency of those with excessive amounts of money and power to abuse those without. If pure capitalism were truly the answer, those laws would never have come into being, because the free market would not have allowed them to exist in the first place; yet, there are still those who seem to believe that the free market should not be tampered with.

The answer, as with almost everything, is balance: a democratic government whose economic system is a hybrid of capitalism and socialism, in that it contains a free market that is regulated. In the words of Eliot Spitzer, “I’m for a government that ensures the competition works […] markets have to work, which means competition, which means – to be technical – competition law, or anti-trust law.” This system must refuse to ignore the needs of the vast majority or pander to the desires of the wealthy.

The current system in the United States provides loopholes and tax cuts for the richest members of society, who are in fact the only members who do not need them, all in the name of the trickle down effect. There is, of course, some small truth to this theory, but it has been used as a way of ensuring that those with excessive amounts of money receive even more excess. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “poor people don’t provide jobs,” as a way of justifying the special treatment of the wealthy. How many yachts do these people need? And how does a CEO’s purchase of yet another yacht help the hard workers underneath her? Here, of course, I’m using yachts as symbols for luxury in general. If the benefits given to the extremely wealthy were invested back into their businesses to ensure higher wages for their employees, the argument might stand, but that is simply not the case.

Any business owner competent enough to acquire large amounts of money will hire and maintain the amount of employees necessary to operate the business and meet demand; usually no more, and certainly no less if he can help it. This remains true during a recession. If there are sales to be made and the sales team needs more staff members to keep up with the volume, the business owner will naturally hire more sales people, because every sale that is lost due to insufficient staffing is a loss to the owner of the business. Not to mention, that profit might be picked up by the competition. So, the burden is on the demand end of the economy, not on the generosity of business owners or the amount of incentives and tax breaks we give them. They have all the incentive they need already: the better their business performs, the more money they make.

For solid evidence that high tax rates for the wealthy do not have a negative effect on the economy, and in fact may have a positive effect, one can simply take a look at the state of the economy in America as compared to the rate of taxes on the wealthy for the last century; American quality of life is commonly thought to have been at its highest during the 50s and 60s, when tax rates were upwards of 80% for those with massive amounts of wealth. This all changed in the 1980s, when they were gradually dropped to a mere 28%. The rest, quite literally, is history. It may be difficult to make a direct correlation due to a myriad of other factors, but this information does show that high tax rates for the wealthy do not have the catastrophic effects that so many today claim they do. Keep in mind, GDP, while important for global competition, is not the ultimate judge of the economy, because GDP and quality of life are not directly linked, either.

Some capitalist purists will point out that wealthy businesses simply outsource jobs overseas if we do not submit to their demands; after all, there are plenty of impoverished areas of the world with human resources to be tapped who are willing to work for a fraction of the average American salary with no benefits. By their reasoning, we should stand by and watch thieves as they steal from cash registers rather than trying to stop them. CEOs who outsource to increase their own salaries or gain bonuses for saving their companies money may not be stealing from a physical cash register, but they contribute directly to the diminishment of our middle class; therefore, they are working against the interests of our nation, the very nation that allowed them to become wealthy in the first place - all so they can make more money and purchase more yachts while other Americans continue to suffer.

Many outsourced jobs are fueled by demand originating from our nation, only to see that money handed over to another nation by employing foreigners at significantly lower wages. So, our consumption ceases to benefit our own economy. There are those who suggest that this is charitable to those countries. I would remind them that we do not have the resources right now to give more charity than we already do to the international community simply to appease some wealthy individuals. If our middle class continues to decline, we will become like those nations who are in dire need of help, and we will no longer have the resources to keep up our charitable contributions. Enter China. I have nothing against China, but I do feel that their government’s emphasis on the good of the nation as a whole is not balanced by a healthy respect for individual freedom and civil rights, so I am uncomfortable with the thought that they might take our place as the world’s greatest superpower. This is not racism; it is simply acknowledgement of the facts.

Another problem with the idea that outsourcing is good for other nations is that it encourages the policies of those governments that do not protect the rights of their citizens. Businesses that outsource to nations that allow them to pay substandard wages to its citizens are rewarding politicians who stand up for the top one percent of their population, while ignoring the needs of the majority. In this way, outsourcing works against core democratic values. Of course, not every example of outsourcing is fueled by cold-hearted greed and apathy toward the common good of Americans, but it is a significant source of motivation for this bizarre modern trend.

Here, I must once again suggest that faith has shown itself to be detrimental to society, because those who would do harm to the population to benefit themselves have found that they can purchase the votes of the religiously devout by siding with them on issues such as abortion, prayer in schools, media censorship, gay marriage, etc. Some might argue that these are cultural issues, but religion is not only a driving force within society, it is an aspect of culture. If many religious values are based on irrational premises, then irrational thought begins to seep into politics through the voting system. Suddenly, the entire population is living under an unreasonable set of rules that work against the primary goal of government: to protect the rights of all, regardless of individual beliefs.

It doesn’t help that the structures of most religious institutions involve some amount of faith in and submission to spiritual authority figures, such as priests, pastors, and caliphs, so the politicians who stand up for religious values can be easily connected with spiritual leaders on an unconscious level. This makes it possible for fundamentalists who are told to believe what a pastor says in church based on faith to swallow the lies of a shrewd politician without doubt. They then take office and vote in favor of large corporations who recruit them via lobbyists. This takes place in the open - after all, voting records are public - with little attempt to be secretive, which shows how effective hegemony can be. All one has to do is look up the voting records of politicians to see what they stand for, and if they are in the pockets of others.

Here in America, we have a free society where government censorship is close to nil, and yet the majority of the population simply looks the other way while the system that protects our freedom and quality of life deteriorates in front of us. In fact, these practices are so widely accepted that “corporate lobbyist” is a career field in and of itself; yet, no one seems to mind. In other words, everyone knows that politicians are being influenced to vote in a biased manner, but few seem to care. To the contrary, a significant portion of the population actually votes directly against their own interests. I submit that this behavior is irrational and is made possible in part because the masses have become so comfortable with cognitive dissonance as a result of religious faith that it has become the norm, seeping into every aspect of society, making it vulnerable to attack by selfish, greedy, power hungry individuals.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Good and Evil, True or False

 "What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others."


In the words of Jesus Christ of the Christian Bible, "In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you." Of course, that particular line of reasoning came about hundreds of years before Christ in China and Greece without the help of Christianity. This powerful realization applies today, just as it did in ancient times: I am like you; you are like me; therefore, I should treat you how I expect you to treat me. All of morality, in my opinion, stems from that one phrase, from avoiding theft to being faithful (if you are in a relationship where that is the mutual understanding) and raising your children responsibly. This is a simple concept that can be used as a reliable compass while attempting to navigate one’s own moral positions, no matter the complexity of the topic. It also serves as the foundation for social order.

Beyond the Golden Rule, individual morality is entirely up for grabs. And why not? As long as no one is being physically or psychologically harmed, there is no reason to limit behavior if there is no outside influence demanding compliance to an arbitrary set of rules. Good and evil become true or false, true being good, because it provides meaning to individuals, creates a stable society, and allows us to further our understanding of reality and technology; false being similar to society's perception of evil, because it works against those goals.

After stripping the spirituality that has clung to the words good and evil with a deathly grip for far too long, we're free to create a set of universal moral values that can apply to all human beings, purely for the sake of maintaining social order. These are neither right nor wrong; they are necessary for a functional, productive society. They might also be referred to as ethical standards. If certain people prefer not to abide by them, they are free to live outside of society, but they can't expect to benefit from the environment created by those who live according to the rules unless they submit themselves to the conditions necessary for social order. To what end, though? Other than the obvious, which is a society wherein people can experience freedom of choice and quality of life at its peak, there is overall human accomplishment to be considered.

I think the Tower of Babel is one of the most fascinating stories the Christian Bible contains. At the beginning, all of humanity is united with one language and, presumably, one culture. They are building a tower that will reach toward the heavens, and their success in this endeavor is imminent. At this point, God expresses concern. He says, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6). His solution is to cause them to speak in different languages. The first important thing to note, here, is that God attributes mankind with infinite power. The second thing is that this is deemed to be a problem rather than a positive attribute. Of course, it would be a problem to anyone who desired to control humanity rather than encourage its success. In fact, the Christian God’s behavior is consistent with that of a totalitarian dictator, especially in the Old Testament. Finally, God’s solution is of particular significance. Dividing humanity by inventing new languages may seem like a roundabout way of dealing with the problem, but given the basic principles of Structuralism, it would actually be the most effective method short of global mass murder, an act God has already promised never to commit - again (remember the flood?). Language deeply influences thought, and is the foundation of culture, which regulates the behavior of the masses; therefore, if one controls language, one can manipulate the thoughts and actions of humanity.

It is apparent that the author of this powerful story was thousands of years ahead of his time. Humanity’s ability to reason, pass on increasingly complex information from one generation to the next, and then build upon the previous generation’s foundation of knowledge, is unique among all life on our planet. It has allowed us to create, foster, and develop technologies that have been used to cure diseases, harness the energy of the atom, examine the relationship between space and time - even explore beyond the very heavens. These abilities afford us superhuman potential, and if there were a god or superior being, it would be no surprise that our as yet unrealized self-actualization as a species might make it uneasy; but no one man is capable of any of this. It is only humanity as a whole that can deliver the future, as one massive organism, unified and cohesive, working towards common goals. This is why the cultural and religious barriers built by mass indoctrination must be exposed for what they are: nonexistent, fabricated mental projections that serve only to divide us and impede our progress, progress that can only be achieved in a socially responsible society.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Religious Indoctrination

I’ve attempted to establish that there's no real proof behind religion or spirituality; but if these concepts are just made up fantasies, why do so many believe in them? How can one convince billions of people, a significant percentage of whom are fairly well educated, to believe in unicorns? For the answer to that question, we can turn to some of the world’s least popular individuals and their use of brainwashing techniques. Hitler’s administration created “Hitler’s Youth,” Mao Tse Tung developed retraining camps for political prisoners (of course, the term political prisoner, in this case, refers to anyone who disagrees with the current administration), and Kim Jong Il has maintained control of half a nation using brainwashing techniques, some of which are based on principles relied upon heavily by those who practice religious indoctrination.

The documentary entitled “Inside North Korea” follows the journey of a medical team permitted to enter North Korea in order to provide care for victims of the ocular disease, glaucoma. At one point, the team finds themselves in the home of a family. A blind elderly woman is asked what she misses most about being able to see. Her son says, “The most difficult thing for my mother-in-law is not seeing Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader.” When asked why, she chokes out through tears, “My Children and I live happily due to the honor of our Great Leader, so I want to see him, even a glimpse of him, so I can thank him.” This goes far beyond admiration and crosses into fanaticism. It is irrational that she should have such passionate love for a man she has likely never met, who has stolen her rights and freedom of choice, who has isolated her, her family, her community, her very nation, controlling not only their actions, but how they are permitted to think. Yet, the devotion on her face seems genuine, just as it does on the faces of her family when they join her in tears.

How is this possible? I’m no expert, but I've been exposed not only to the theory behind indoctrination and brainwashing, but also to its overt practice during my time in Basic Training. Here, let me state that I do not condemn the methods I witnessed during my four years in the military, because they're a means to a very important end, which is to defend a nation against those who would do it harm, and at this time, participants are volunteers; but it was fascinating to observe the techniques used and their effects on my mind and the minds of those around me. I witnessed individuals transformed in a matter of weeks, some of whom confessed later that they had led a life of crime prior to their military service. That transformation carried on into the rest of their careers. These were people who actively fought against authority figures in their lives, only to willingly, at times even gratefully submit themselves to their superiors by the end of their training. As a result of my experience, I feel that I can identify these three attributes of a successful, drug free religious indoctrination: fear, isolation, and repetition.

Fear is necessary, because individuals usually will not willingly participate in the process if there is no fear of reprisal should they choose to rebel. Obedience is paramount, as the most effective forms of indoctrination require participants to take an active role by listening, absorbing, reiterating, and often physically carrying out symbolic behavior. Fear also keeps the mind under constant stress, which tires it and promises relief if the participant can show his or her captors that the process has been completed.
Religion employs fear using baseless threats about the afterlife, as well as the subtle promise of social excommunication. In more extreme cases, parents might use the threat of physical pain on their children as a way of enforcing behaviors and thought processes that are based only on their religion. Don't get me wrong; fear of natural consequences is essential to a child's development. Unfortunately, many devout parents simply aren’t satisfied until their children are behaving in accordance with their rulebook. This is often encouraged by spiritual manuals such as the Bible and Quran, as well as religious leaders.

The idea of the afterlife, specifically in regards to heaven and hell, has been used to instill belief by using fear as a motivator for millennia. Without consequences in the afterlife, people would be left looking to real world consequences, which would leave religious institutions powerless, no matter how large their congregations became or how many people swallowed their messages. However, an afterlife not only offers comfort to those who have lost loved ones, as well as hope to those struggling with their own mortality; it provides an opportunity to motivate using a system based on reward and punishment. Most religions do very well capitalizing on the punishment side of the equation. Even those that endorse reincarnation assure followers that they will be reincarnated in undesirable forms if they stray from certain standards.

The sister religions of Christianity and Islam take the punishment further. Much like the “infinity plus one” argument, they invented a punishment so horrible that it is truly mind bending: hell. Throughout history, hell has evolved into a place where people burn eternally with a fire that can’t be put out. Since the sensation of burning is possibly the most painful one imaginable, this can create an intense level of fear in believers. Some religious sects and denominations try to combat this reliance on fear by suggesting that belief alone is necessary for salvation. However, these interpretations usually claim that actions are determined by belief, and therefore people still need to behave a certain way in order to avoid hell.

One of the most extreme cases of fear being used for the purpose of religious indoctrination can be found in Sharia, or Islamic state law, wherein all individuals within a nation’s borders are under constant threat of harsh abuse if they choose to live in a way unbecoming to Islam. It appears as if the more intrusive a worldview becomes, the more intense the fear tactics must be to keep people in a state of subservience.

Isolation removes participants from the influence of truth. It's interesting to note that every totalitarian government relies on censorship to some degree. China and North Korea are modern examples of this, although China seems to have loosened its grip over the years, perhaps because the current administration has found it impossible to compete economically without exposing citizens to modern thought through education and limited access to the internet. North Korea, however, still refuses to give its citizens internet access, and its borders remain closed to any and all outside influences. This gives the controllers of the brainwashing process exclusive sway over the thoughts of participants. Even the simplest idea that originates from an external source can form into a dangerous question, such as, “If we’re supposed to be the greatest nation on earth, why are so many people without enough food, and why is disease so rampant?” Questions then tend to germinate and develop into full blown theories that inspire action if left unchecked.

Finally, repetition is key. Truth is much easier to believe than a lie, because our brains are naturally programmed to value reason, so indoctrination usually requires some amount of upkeep. In religion, we note that people gather together, usually at least once a week, to affirm one another’s beliefs. They often take part in ritualistic behavior, such as prayer and worship, which can be manifested physically through such vehicles as song, raised hands, and kneeling. Of course, the behavior itself is meaningless, but the process of indoctrination benefits from its symbolic nature. The act of kneeling, which means nothing when someone is merely attempting to get a better vantage point to, say, fix a tire, represents something beyond itself when it takes place in religious ceremony, such as submission to a god. Singing songs that affirm church doctrine is another form of repetition. Those whose beliefs are rational and natural need not be constantly reminded of them to continue believing in them, but those whose beliefs are irrational, unnatural, and have been absorbed into the mind by indoctrination must constantly be maintained through Sunday school, Bible study, church, Youth Group, Bible classes in private schools, prayer meetings, and the like (all of which I was subjected to during my developmental years, and even throughout my college experience), lest the repressed conflict created by continuous cognitive dissonance rise from the unconscious to the surface.

In the military, I recall having to stop whatever I was doing outside and stand at attention, saluting the base flag every time the national anthem played over the loud speakers. Service members who were not in uniform stood at parade rest while they, too, faced the flag. This would often create a base-wide living statue effect for people who were on their way to their vehicles, coming and going from the grocery store, or simply out for a stroll. While I stood there, willingly participating in patriotic indoctrination, I couldn’t help but note the similarity between our behavior and the citizens of Islamic Sharia nations, while their prayers were pumped through their own loud speakers.

These same methods of repetition are not just used for maintaining indoctrinated beliefs, but also for creating them. As a river becomes polluted over time when waste is pumped into it, so the mind tends to slowly conform to the beliefs surrounding it when kept in fear and isolation. For children, who are already eager to imitate their parents and absorb new material far more readily than adults, this process is swifter and more deeply impactful, as newly indoctrinated values need not struggle against preconceived notions. A child who is taught religious principles with the same level of certainty as a school subject is likely to build an entire worldview based on them, just as the extraordinarily complex worlds of math and science are built on basic principles. Furthermore, children become accustomed to the cognitive dissonance created by conflicting truths, such as the scientific process and carbon dating, as opposed to faith and the seven day creation myth. Why shouldn’t they? If they have known nothing else, they have no way of knowing what clarity feels like.

The combination of faith and indoctrination in some form or another is found in all major world religions that have stood the test of time, including, but not limited to, Evangelical Christianity, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This shouldn’t be surprising, as these are the most effective methods for controlling large groups of people, having been implemented by dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Kim Jong-Il. It's simply a question of survival of the fittest; any religion that didn't indoctrinate its followers couldn't have outlasted the advent of modern science and philosophy. The shrewdness of successful religions is, once begun, they're self-sustaining. They contain all of the elements necessary to maintain control over their own populations, so even without a malicious dictator or oligarchy, they continue to thrive. There's no one to blame, as those in power truly believe what they teach. It's the system itself that enslaves.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What is Faith?

"The worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves."

--Richard Bach

Everyone, even atheists, should consider the possibility that a spiritual world exists. However, we shouldn’t assume it exists until we find evidence that it does. I've heard people respond to this argument by suggesting that the burden of proof lies on those attempting to disprove religion, simply because religion has ruled unquestioned for thousands of years. Let me point out that the reason I take issue with religion, spirituality, and god, is lack of evidence, not because I want to go against the flow. The burden of proof isn't a matter of chronology. For example, I can’t assert that there's a monster under my bed and then deny you proof simply because I presented my position first. That would be childish.

Right now, the planet contains upwards of 6 billion people. With the widespread use of social media, a kitten can’t make a cute noise without being recorded and posted online for the entertainment of others. There are TV shows with large budgets that have the express purpose of investigating paranormal activity. Digital technology has made every computer with an Internet connection a portal to a monumental documentary on humanity and nature as the story unfolds before us. Tsunamis, tornados, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, deforestation, revolutions - all of these are now available to view, often as they occur in real time.

Yet, with these millions of videos, there hasn’t been one that’s been proven to be undeniable evidence of a spiritual occurrence. I know I’ve never experienced any allegedly spiritual happenings that couldn’t be explained in a much simpler, more natural way. Ask yourself when you last witnessed a miracle rather than hearing about it secondhand. In religious books, however, miraculous incidents seem to be the norm. Oddly, those occurrences become more frequent and fantastical as the clock rewinds. So, the question becomes, is it coincidence that well-documented, large-scale spiritual occurrences have diminished as science has progressed; or has it become easier to verify facts, causing demand to sharply decline for stories claiming to be true but offering no evidence to back them up? I’m going with option number 2.

Really, that should be the end of the discussion. If you tell me a unicorn exists, and I ask you to show it to me - or at least a picture of it, tuft of hair, or possibly a horn that was shed - and you refuse, I’d be a fool to trust you; yet a significant portion of the population believes wholeheartedly in the concept of faith. This is likely due to a denial of faith's true role in religion. It's the theological trump card played by spiritual leaders on questioning members of the flock in order to maintain control. I’ve experienced this many times in the Christian church.

Boiled down, faith requires that we believe the word of god, period. However, more complex versions do exist, such as the Calvinistic notion that people can only obtain faith if it is bestowed upon them by god. As a result of this theological loophole, I've already been asked several times whether or not I ever really believed in Christianity. The reason for the question is all too obvious: if faith is a gift, or calling, then those who change their minds were never really given the gift. This copout is one of the few things a Christian can say to me in a debate that will actually make me angry. I recall times in my life when I would pray to god every evening and ask for forgiveness for my inability to be selfless in all my actions throughout the day. So, yes, I believed – to a fault. Where did I get such an unhealthy, self-deprecating mindset, you ask? Answer: from the Bible.

Christianity holds that we are deeply flawed and worthless outside of Christ’s sacrifice, which makes us perfect, as we are meant to be. However, the fact remains that the Bible tells us we are reprehensible as we are, so much so that god won’t allow us in his presence until we’ve been cleansed. Because we exist in this world as we are, and not as we should be according to divine standards, the message is the same: you are unacceptable. Note the similarity in this type of relationship with god when compared to an abusive marriage, wherein a husband might beat his wife knowing she will not leave him, because he has convinced her she is worthless and will never find someone better. This technique is also used by pimps to keep prostitutes working for them.

 Theological nuances aside, the end result of faith is the same: believe without proof - belief for the sake of believing. By that reasoning, we should all believe in unicorns. However, the general consensus is that unicorns don’t exist, because we haven’t found evidence of their existence. Strangely, religious people bypass this logic using the concept of faith, but only on matters associated with their own religions. This exercise in mental gymnastics when presented with one’s own cognitive dissonance is disconcertingly similar to the concept of “doublethink,” as George Orwell described it in his political thriller, 1984. In the novel, a totalitarian government maintains control over its population by training people from an early age to rely entirely on the government, not only for information, but also for thought processes.

One common argument used in religious circles to placate the need for proof is that life is evidence of god’s existence, because it’s just too complex to occur without a guiding hand. This concept has been dubbed, “general revelation,” in many theological circles, and really there’s nothing wrong with, it except for the conclusion that almost always follows. It’s true that an “intelligent designer” (as Michael Behe refers to his alleged creator in his book, Darwin’s Black Box) may be an explanation for life; but that is as far as the argument can take you.

Even if there is a creator, we know nothing of its nature. It could be kind or cruel; it might have a limited source of knowledge or be all-knowing; it could be male, female, or asexual; it could be alive or dead; it may expect certain behaviors from us, or it might not care at all, choosing simply to observe and take notes in a bizarre, cosmic experiment. A Christian pastor might tell you that god’s nature has been revealed in the Bible, while an Islamic caliph would point to the Quran as god’s revelation to mankind. They can’t both be correct, as they both claim god endorses only their version of the truth, and those who disagree with them will be punished in the afterlife. But if you listen to their reasoning, they sound eerily similar; it all comes down to faith. This is to say nothing of the fact that science has provided us with a perfectly viable theory that uses reason to explain our existence instead of magic or imaginary friends.

So, what is faith? Faith is humanity's attempt to selectively ignore the inconvenience of reason in favor of the emotional comfort derived from familiar ideologies, institutions, and power structures.