Monday, January 4, 2016

Judging Cultures and Belief Systems To Improve My Own: Part 1

I've gone through three stages in my life of judging culture and spiritual belief systems.

Judging other cultures 1: Non-Judgement

The first stage of judging you might call 'non-judgement': without deep reflection, I accepted the Methodist Christianity my parents brought me up on, going to church each Sunday when they decided to go, secretly grateful to have my Sunday morning back when they chose to stay home. I had a deeply spiritual, euphoric experience reading about God's love in “The World's Religions” by Huston Smith while on a 3 week-long Boy Scout canoeing trip in 8th grade, and this kept my faith for a while longer.


Judging other cultures 2: Accuracy of Beliefs

In my junior year of college, I asked a question with which I couldn't square my faith: if I'd been born into another family, wouldn't I believe just as firmly in what those parents taught me as I do in Methodism? And so what evidence was there that my parents happened to be the right ones in judging religious truth?

Within a year, by the fall of my senior year, I finally identified as atheist, and felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. I could finally square all my beliefs about the world with a) my actual observations and b) my understanding of how religion has been used to manipulate masses of people for the benefit of the manipulators. I no longer had to avoid considering certain questions, or feel uncomfortable considering them – I had felt cognitive dissonance, and ending it felt so empowering! What a breath of fresh air.

So I had my new judgement of religions and cultures: I supported cultures and belief systems to the extent that their beliefs matched observations of reality. I never claimed to have any sort of objective perception of reality, or that anyone could, but I felt that a culture which demands believing in things for which there was no evidence at all (that I could identify) should surely discredit a belief system and lead to people abandoning it. These beliefs included life and justice after death, an all-powerful all-knowing supernatural being who occasionally stirs things up down here, the universe being born 6,000 years ago, etc.

I felt pretty good about this position. But now I feel differently.

Judging cultures 3: What are the effects of your beliefs?

I've settled on a new framework for judging and learning from cultures and spiritual belief systems: does your culture encourage and empower you to a) understand your needs and b) express yourself to others and listen to them in order to c) meet your needs effectively?

About 5 years ago, I started seriously trying to understand power, politics, economics, fraud – the large-scale human world around me. I saw a supposedly science-based, rational society making incredibly foolish, short-term, corrupt decisions, lying and bribing and numbing and drugging and bludgeoning and educating itself into submission – in short, not acting very rationally despite priding itself on scientific, rational understanding and decision-making.

About 2 years ago, I moved to Earthaven Ecovillage and met a girl who verbally, lovingly warns and calms down flowers before she transplants them – and I met a lot of other people like her. I shared the story of observing an otherwise sane-seeming person talk to a plant here.

Within a few months, I identified as pagan, and eventually as animist. Animism, to me, is the belief that everything in the universe is alive, at all scales, and I do not really distinguish between living things and non-living things in my spiritual relationship with every thing, but acknowledge my connection to the whole and all its various parts at all scales.

This actually seems rational enough: is rain alive? Maybe not, by some definitions, but I'd sure better not do anything that would scare the rain off, leading to drought! How about snow? Same thing! How about rivers? If I poison them, or dam them, or fill them, surely I harm myself and other more-obviously-alive beings to a great degree. Same with ocean currents or global or regional carbon or oxygen cycles: alive or not, an environment hospitable to human life requires them in something like their current state, so I would seem wise to treat them with the same respect as I treat more obviously living beings upon which I depend.

The difference between some large molecules and certain viruses and other semi-alive particles is minute, and the question of 'is it alive or not?' seems irrelevant: all is part of the web of life we find ourselves in upon this planet, in this universe, and the balance of life, including climate, in which humanity evolved to be most happy ought to be preserved for our long-term happiness and prosperity. Life depends on non-life, such as the sun, so why distinguish? Let us acknowledge a profound dependence and interrelationship with all of everything and seek to preserve the balance humanity evolved into.

Along with this 'rational' explanation of my feelings, I've begun to feel an emotional/spiritual attachment to life, to the world, a deep love for its beauty and complexity and especially the vision of developing a mutually beneficial relationship with it. Sometimes I talk to plants, and yes, sometimes I still feel sheepish doing it. But I also feel joyful as I learn to accept their gifts and care for them in turn. This desire for a loving, joyful, mutually beneficial relationship extends to fungi and animals, including other people as well.

Here's a key element to animism though: whether a person arrives at the belief system through 'rational' means or a spiritual or emotional love, the person will develop a deep respect for the soil, for animals, plants, weather, humans in their own and other cultures – everything, including the things and processes upon which that person depends for their health and happiness.

But! With this deep respect, does that animist come to feel the need to defend these things? Does this person defend the trees from loggers, the rivers and forests and unlucky communities from miners or frackers and their toxins, and attempt to stop industrial warfare and the radiation, poisons, and mass-suffering that results?

I recognize my own well-being is tied in closely with the trees' and the animals', the cleanliness and availability of river water and air, and so I understand the need to defend these in order to defend myself and friends and family. This love compels me to act in a meaningful way. I identify with the land; preventing pollution benefits both of us. I empathize with people who are suffering, exploited by others, similarly.

And so I've discovered a new question for judging cultures and spiritual belief systems: does your culture encourage and empower you to a) understand your needs, b) express yourself to others and listen to them in order to c) meet your needs effectively?

I can finally stop caring whether Jesus really existed

It's not the belief that matters, it's the attitude compelled by the beliefs and all the conditioning the culture provides.

Do you believe in Jesus? If so, let's imagine two possibilities:

1)  You believe you're helpless to stop the evil in the world; you can only believe strongly in Jesus and believe that he'll return someday to make things right. He'll also, in the meantime, bring justice to the present evildoers after their deaths, and after you die he'll reward you for your belief.

2)  You recognize that Jesus/God work through you to do good in the world, and thus it is incumbent upon you to act to bring about profoundly positive change.

Clearly one perspective preaches helplessness, the other empowerment. Two months ago in California, I attended a methodist Christian sermon that preached the disempowering version exactly. I almost stood up to interrupt the sermon and preach the opposite!

Another Jesus comparison. Here are two perspectives a church might teach:

1) You are sinful. It is in your nature as a  human being; we all tend towards evil and require the church to save us. Morality is black and white and context is irrelevant, meaning there's no room for your personal judgement in determining right or wrong. For example, alcohol is bad in any quantity under any circumstances. Belief in Jesus and following the dictates of the Church are your only hope for escaping God's punishment after death for your sinful nature. Yes, some bad people are causing evil in the world, but never forget how sinful you are when you reflect on others.

2) Jesus taught that we should work to end unnecessary suffering.  It's not always clear how to do this effectively, but your responsibility to yourself, your community, and God is to work with compassion to seek effective ways of ending this suffering. There is no perfection, as every action comes with costs, including opportunity costs. Mistakes and occasional failure will be the inevitable consequence of a process of intense personal growth. Rather than feel shame at failures, celebrate and reflect on them, as they are opportunities to learn and thus channel Jesus' love more effectively in the future. Recognize that Jesus was only a model, and cannot give clear-cut directions for every situation, so learn to judge for yourself how to bring about positive change based on the principles and values you hold dear.  Serve God through working personally to achieve the same goals as His Son.

I met a missionary in Peru who firmly espoused perspective [1] above, making him one of the most disempowering people I've ever met. And Peru and Ecuador were full of disempowering perspectives!

One last Jesus comparison, about the prime goal of His followers:

1)  You believe in Jesus, and your primary duty is to grow the number of people in your belief system and live by the Biblical strictures you've learned. You donate much time and money to proselytizing.

2)  You believe in Jesus, and you recognize the most profound way to serve God is to preserve and celebrate what He has created. If God ordered Noah to place a pair of every animal on the ark to preserve them, who are we to cause them to go extinct, each species' extinction a creation of God dead for all eternity? You take responsibility as a Christian made in the Image of God to defend God's creation, and you fight for clean air, clean water, river and forest preservation, clean, non-toxic (including non-GMO) food, etc.

I've had fun engaging with proselytizing Mormons who approach with the attitude (1) above, only interested in increasing their number of followers. It feels gratifying watching the wheels in their brains spin rapidly when I offer the second attitude.

Do you identify as atheist? Let's imagine two possibilities:

1)  You take the cynical, if defensible, view that we're toast. The environment's toast, no group of well-intended citizens will stop state violence and surveillance, any large-scale social change will only make things worse, resource limits and environmental degradation ensure mass death is in our future, etc. This could lead you to hunker down, solely insuring the safety and comfort of you and yours, or perhaps it leads to a “get while the getting's good” attitude.

2)  You study the history of exploitative human systems and study why some societies are exploitative and others not. You recognize that even if you do not immediately see a way to 'win' and end the exploitative social systems currently dominating, you see that the only way to find a solution is dive in with others and seek out a solution with the attitude that we can live better than this, and we must if we wish to pass a happy, healthy life on a  healthy planet on to our children. You accept the wisdom that the opportunity for making things better often does not exist until we create it, and you decide to work with other caring people in order to create that opportunity for meaningful change and then seize it.

So I have learned that I really really don't care if Jesus lived, or whether you're Protestant or Catholic or Islamist or Jew or Scientist or atheist or consumer.

What I care about is: do you understand your and your community's needs, and do you have the wisdom, strength, compassion, and open mind to work effectively with others to meet those needs?

In your culture, is Jesus presented as disempowering: the only source of salvation, the only source of ultimate justice, the only possible savior? Or is he a model for us to follow in our own lives, an example of someone who risked and eventually, painfully, gave his life to fight exploitation, including attacking the financiers of his day, to rid his culture of unnecessary suffering?

Same with Allah. Same with Buddha or Yahwey or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Does your culture encourage selfishness, disconnected or short-term thinking, baseless hope, unthinking obedience, numbing of feelings of compassion, self-hate, isolation from others, inability to know your own feelings or needs, inability to compassionately listen to the feelings and needs of others? Or does it encourage active awareness of yourself and the social and ecological world around you, and encourage you to work productively with others to make meaningful change?

Prelude to Part 2

So... what exactly are our needs? And how can I judge others' needs, especially if I don't know them intimately? How can I know what needs people actually have in common and ensure I'm not just projecting my own feelings or needs onto others? How do I distinguish between different sorts of needs, such as the need for a big house vs the need for shelter? What insights can I safely draw from observations, and what practical lessons can I apply to my own life and community?

I'll share my reflections on these questions in part 2.