April 25, 2011

Introduction to Religion for 21st Century

In this book I attempt to provide a fresh perspective on world religions. I describe some of the more obvious religious traditions on the planet and notes similarities and differences, as if I were a tour guide introducing a stranger to the history, real and imagined, of five of the more obvious religions. My wish is that even people who live in the cognitive box created by one group will take a vacation, fly outside of your container and enjoy an overview of humans – past, present, and future. If you can go beyond beliefs, claims, arguments and the narcissism that afflicts all of us, then you can ask: does membership in any religious group bring us closer to living in a peaceful, constructive, sustainable society?

From the Preface

Any discussion of religion invites misunderstanding and conflict. Humans have convened in small groups for thousands of years to celebrate, to appease evil spirits and to encourage good spirits to offer more privileges and benefits. Humans continue to dress up in costumes, beat drums, chant, sing, and dance and make offerings to innumerable gods. These celebrations help to maintain group unity and often induce euphoric feelings in the participants. While there has always been an archetypal form to these group activities, each local group develops its own version of myths, rituals and celebrations.

The belief in spirits is the universal form. The names, number and idiosyncratic expressions of the spirits is the local content. If you consider “religious” expressions around the world and throughout, history, you would notice that there a number of basic themes with thousands of imaginative variations. You also notice that in every tribe, village or city, people believe they have special relationships with gods and spirits not enjoyed elsewhere.

No discussion of religion will make sense until the importance of group identity is understood. Humans may sometimes look like individuals, but the truth is that all humans are members of local groups that determine what they know, how they communicate and how they treat other humans. Each local group develops stories, beliefs and rules. Collections of local groups with special beliefs into larger organizations are often described as  “religion.” Members of local groups are described as “religious” if they recite group slogans, attend meetings and celebrations. Religions often claim special privileges for their members so that the term “religious” is also used to claim advantages and superior moral authority where none actually exists.

The tendency for selective, even exclusive, group membership is deeply embedded in the human mind and shows up everywhere and at all times. The key elements of group identity are recognizable appearance enhanced by costumes, common language, common beliefs and common behaviors, especially ritualistic behaviors.

Religious beliefs are collected in a cognitive container that resists change. Inside a religious container, you are consumed by the specific language and beliefs of the religion, its symbols, assumptions and claims. Inside, you have costumes, rituals and celebrations that can be enjoyable and reassuring; however, fixed beliefs and beliefs systems are cognitive cocoons.

The concept of a large cognitive container such as “Christianity” is not realistic; Christianity has a thousand sub containers and each of these has a thousand more. The final sub containers are individual minds, each with its own cognitive box. If you examine the subdivisions of a ‘world religion” with a zoom lens, as you zoom into local areas, you see more and more differences, arguments, and disputes. You never find consensus.

If you zoom down to individuals who belong to local groups you see them competing with each other, arguing, and failing to reach agreements on important issues. The big divisions are well known and big disagreements are stable over centuries. The smaller disagreements are in flux; some subside others proliferate. There are infinite possibilities for arguments and finite possibilities for consensus.

Sometimes the larva trapped inside a religious cocoon enjoys a metamorphosis and emerges as a butterfly that can fly far away and enjoy a new life with new friends, and new freedom. True freedom is to live without beliefs and to invent your own community. In the ecstatic religions, the whole point of spiritual exercise is to fly away.

The 21st century philosopher's task is to update our descriptions of ourselves to accommodate burgeoning scientific knowledge and an increasingly sophisticated understanding of human behavior, the brain and complex systems in general. We have new and revolutionary knowledge about human beings, their languages, arts and culture; about information gathering, storage and retrieval; about computation, communication; about the transformation of energy and materials; about molecular biology, genetics and the evolution of life on earth.

We have to re-examine what we care about and advance new vocabularies that allow us to proceed into new domains of thought and understanding. There seems a critical lag in the assimilation of new knowledge into the culture and a rapidly widening schism separates the few who know how things work and the majority who do not.

Available from Alpha Online

April 16, 2011

Conflict, The Main Human Activity

History records the tedious and repetitious details of human competition, conflict, destruction and killing. Students of world affairs will have little difficulty identifying recurrent disputes and conflicts as inevitable features of business and governments and the interaction of countries.

You could argue that human history is the history of war with brief interludes of peace. Wars have a few instigators and many victims. If you combine hierarchy, territorial competition with weapon manufacture, you create war. The human fascination with weapons and the strategies of fighting have created a complex of militaristic activities and preparations for fighting that are incentives to fight and have provided reasons to fight. The challenge for 21st century idealists is to find new, more effective ways to neutralize human belligerence.

Humans are critically disputatious, opportunistic and aggressively territorial. Human groups fight at regular intervals, often because of planned and strategic attacks on neighboring groups. The tendency and the skills required for fighting are innate. Fighting is one of the four prime movers of human behavior, sometimes referred to as the “four F’s.” In the primordial animal world, you have four options when you met another animal. You could feed by eating the stranger; you could fight with the stranger or you could flee. If certain prerequisites were met, you could have sex with the stranger. The four F’s interact in interesting ways.

The motives and movements involved in fighting emerge in children’s play and continue in speech gestures even among the most pacific people. Fighting often begins with vocalizations, and continues with gestures, shouts and threats. The idea of the fight display is to avoid physical injury by reaching a settlement or by fleeing.

Nice people who live relatively peaceful lives will avoid fighting but retain the tendency. Fights among family members are inevitable and, in the best case, are limited to shouting, grabbing, pushing, shaking, punching and kicking. It is natural for humans to pick up objects and use them to hit at close range or to throw them to injure at a distance.

The tendency to fight merges with tool making. Human ancestors become more formidable fighters when they deliberately selected objects such as sticks and stones to fight with. Fighting on an interpersonal or tribal scale involved deliberately fashioning and carrying tools that were used primarily as weapons. Early weapons combined sharpened stones, attached to wood handles and shafts with leather thongs.

Warriors are humans who have well developed fighting skills. Their goal is to kill other humans. Good hunters tend to make good warriors, but not always. Both hunting and fighting were required for the success of human groups and warriors have always been regarded with fear and high esteem. A natural warrior had to be brave and strong, cunning, determined and tolerant of deprivation and adversity. Warriors fought each other, face to face, with hand-held weapons, strategy and skill. To specialize in fighting, warriors have to be physically fit and trained daily in the skills of combat. Without advanced training, even an unusually large and fierce warrior could be defeated by a smaller, weaker foe with well-practiced skills and superior weapons.

As local groups grew, nation states emerged and warriors were replaced by large groups of anonymous soldiers who participated in combat with hand held weapons and machines designed to destroy property and kill other humans.

The Second World War was a festival of atrocities, murder and mayhem, dominated by increasing horrors inflicted by large numbers of more elaborate machines designed and deployed to kill humans on an enlarging scale. The distinction between civilians and soldiers diminished and often disappeared. The industrial basis for war continued to develop in many countries after the Second World War. The 21st century began with local wars erupting in many parts of the globe. The United States dominated the world by having well-funded industries dedicated to making weapon-machines. The US and Russia competed to build the most formidable stockpiles of nuclear weapons and delivery systems on alert, ready to destroy any and all nations on the planet.

In addition to good guys and bad guys, some humans are hawks who advocate and enjoy the idea of war and others are doves who abhor war and make conspicuous efforts to promote peaceful solutions for disagreements. Some readers might link the hawks with the bad guys. Without a doubt, doves are challenged by belligerent neighbors and friends and need to arrive at more effective ways of expressing their point of view, not as pacifists but as activists who seek to restrain their belligerent neighbors with tools such as persuasion, vaccination, social policy, and the pragmatic enforcement of laws.

Perhaps the planet could be divided into two halves with the doves enjoying a peaceful existence on their half and the hawks enjoying battle on their side. The trick would be to invent an impermeable membrane that could keep the groups separate.

Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason